Lacuna Passage - Devlog #47 - PAX East 2015 Indie MEGABOOTH Post-mortem

Background

For those of you visiting our blog from an outside source, here’s a little background about Random Seed Games and Lacuna Passage.

We are a small indie company working on a Mars exploration and survival game for PC, Mac, and Linux called Lacuna Passage. We had a successful Kickstarter and Greenlight campaign back in Summer of 2013. Unfortunately we’ve overshot our goal completion date, but we’ve made some amazing progress and development is still going strong.

We have released a small alpha demo for our backers, but earlier this year we decided that it was time to try and get out and gather some feedback from new players with a brand new demo. We submitted Lacuna Passage to the Indie MEGABOOTH for PAX East and were accepted with just over a month before the big show.

Preparation

The problem was that we didn’t really expect to get in. We had shifted a majority of our development time to a smaller side project that we knew we could get to market sooner than Lacuna Passage. When we were accepted into the MEGABOOTH we had not even begun working on the new demo for Lacuna Passage. So, while other MEGABOOTH developers were focusing a majority of their time preparing their marketing materials, we had to produce 15-20 minutes of brand new content in less than a month while working on marketing and promotional materials at the same time.

Amazingly, we pulled it all off. Spencer (my brother and lead artist on the project) and I worked 70 hour weeks until just before we had to leave for Boston. We emailed over 250 press contacts. We designed and printed banners and flyers. We planned travel and hotel arrangements. It was a wild few weeks.

We also didn’t do a great job of anticipating the costs that such a trip would incur. Below you will see a total breakdown (some estimates) of all our costs.

Total expenses were $4,339

This is a lot of money for us. The total cost was roughly 10% of our original Kickstarter funds. We knew that this was a big risk for us to take, but we think it was a good investment.

What we did right...

Contacting the press was a big deal for us. With our communication prior to and during the show we managed to get 9 interviews. Keeping Lacuna Passage relevant throughout development is very important to us and we think the coverage we received at PAX was invaluable.

We also think we succeeded in spreading the word to new potential players. Almost every person we talked to at the show seemed to light up at the mention of using real Mars satellite data for forming our terrain. Our demo was nearly 25 minutes long and if I had to guess I would say roughly 25% of players played through the entire thing. Probably another 50% played for at least 10-15 minutes. Seeing people engrossed in the game and invested in following the story was incredibly rewarding. In all we had over 200 people play the demo on two different machines at our booth and countless more who were watching on a big screen TV we had on a high stand. By the end of the first day we had several people come up to us and say that Lacuna Passage was the coolest thing they had seen there. Those kind of comments kept our energy up for the long, tiring weekend.

Full video playthrough of the PAX demo

The demo worked great as a marketing tool, but it was also an invaluable playtesting session for us. The feedback we got from watching people play the game was extremely helpful in identifying what aspects we should focus on improving or adjusting in the future. We never had any horrible, game-breaking bugs, but there are plenty of things that could be changed to match player expectations.

What we did wrong...

This was our first big conference, and there are a few areas where we could have done a better job.

The first thing we kind of already mentioned. Don’t try to make a brand new demo a month before the show… We got very lucky. We didn’t have any major problems, but we did sort of burn ourselves out before the show even started. Going to PAX or any other conference should be exciting, not stressful. We should have gone in with the attitude that we were going to be accepted from the start and we would have had much more time to prepare.

We also should have anticipated our costs a little better. It didn’t break the bank, but it was a heavy blow to us and we will need to be much more conservative with our remaining budget. That means we might not get to another conference anytime soon. But we are okay with that. We think that the result we got out of PAX was equal to what we put in. We are excited to dive back in and finish out the rest of development over the next several months.

Conclusion

If nothing else, we wish we had more time. More time to contact press. More time to commit to decorating the booth. More demo stations for booth visitors. More handouts and swag. More everything. Next time around we will know exactly where we should be dedicating our limited time and funds. This was a huge learning experience for Random Seed Games and we are glad we did it.

Lacuna Passage - Devlog #13 - The mundane side of game development

I really struggled to come up with a topic for a devlog this week. I feared that I might have to skip a week for the first time since I started writing devlogs for Lacuna Passage. Despite lots of game-related work that I had been doing I didn’t think that any of it was interesting enough to show off. A few people suggested, “Why not write a post explaining the mundane stuff?”. So you can thank those people for this devlog... hopefully it gives you some insight into the less-than-glamorous aspects of developing Lacuna Passage.

Managing a Team

The sad fact of team development is that someone inevitably has to spend time “managing” the team which detracts from the amount of time they can spend actually developing the game. This means finding reference images for concept artists and modelers, critiquing finished work, assigning new work, and documenting art pipeline specifics. Believe it or not, team management requires more than just poking your head into a room and telling someone to “tighten up the graphics on level 3”.

Google Drive is a lifesaver when it comes to communicating with your team. There is no better way that I have found to share and collaborate on important documents. All of our story and art pipeline documentation is shared via Google Drive.

06Trello.png

Another great tool for team management is Trello. If you haven’t heard of it I highly suggest you check it out. It is essentially an advanced to-do list. You can assign team members to tasks, set due dates, attach files and screenshots, and leave comments and feedback. It’s seriously great. Even if you work alone it is perfect for keeping yourself on task.

Managing Assets

When I tell people I make video games in my free time I highly doubt they picture me spending 4 hours on a Saturday night converting image formats and adding new filename prefixes. But that’s exactly what happens more often than many developers would care to admit.

The allure of quickly throwing assets into your game “just to see how they look” can be strong, but you must resist the urge. Haphazardly importing BigAwesomeRock_07, MoreBigAwesomeRock_07_new, and SeriouslyThisIsTheFinalBigAwesomeRock_07_morenew will turn your folder structure into a wasteland of assets that have you scratching your head. Sometimes I wonder what the ratio of asset production to asset management is, but I know it’s much higher than most people think (or at least it should be). I spend a lot of time ensuring that there are backups of all our files and that all those files are properly labeled according to our naming conventions (which are conveniently available for reference in a Google doc).

When an asset is finally imported into the game I make sure that it has been properly checked for quality and conforms to our import settings for scale, etc. On the (hopefully rare) occasion that an in-game asset needs to be replaced it’s a good idea to make sure that both the old and new versions are backed up in a separate folder. Once the new version of the asset is imported into your game’s working project folder you want to be sure and delete the old file so that you never use the incorrect version by mistake. It will always be in your backup files if you need to return to it.

This process of keeping your game assets properly organized can be tedious and extremely repetitive, but in the end you will be glad you had the forethought. You might have a firm mental grasp on your folder structure when your game only has a few dozen assets, but before you know it you will be swimming in hundreds of messy files.

system-failure-matrix-code-wallpaper.jpg

Bug-hunting

I’m not sure if I can even conceive of a more annoying aspect of game development. If someone asked me how I spent last Friday evening this would be how the conversation would go:

“Hey Tyler, so you’re still working on that game of yours huh? What did you accomplish recently?”

“Oh, well just the other day I was trying to get the image loading code for the in-game digital camera working and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. After hours of pouring over my code I realized I forgot to capitalize a letter. If there was a baby nearby at the time I would have punched it.”

Absolutely infuriating. Though I suppose I should mention that I am not a trained programmer and everything I do in code is extremely amatuer (I mostly work in Playmaker), but the stories I hear from close friends who have been programming for years are fairly similar. Bugs and code errors are the bane of the game developer’s existence.

reddit.png

Promotion

Email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Screenshot Saturdays, press kits, Indie DB, and yes - Devlogs. I actually really enjoy promoting Lacuna Passage. It’s great to see people’s reactions to all your hard work, but it really takes a lot of time and effort to do it right. After all, even if you have the greatest game in the world it doesn’t really matter if no one knows it exists.

Just last week I spent nearly three days putting together a press kit for the game so that we have an easy place for journalists to find the latest info. That’s three days that I would love to have back for improving the game, but it’s just another necessary part of the process.

After a full day of work at my 9-5 job I come home to manage team assignments, manage new assets, hunt through the previous day’s progress for bugs, do some quick rounds of promotion, and maybe - just maybe - I will have time to get some real development done. All of this I do without the promise of any pay or reward, because there isn’t anything I would rather be doing. I make games and this is what it takes.

Screenshot_2013-05-14-14-35-54.png