Monday, October 14, 2013

The 2013 Captivate Conference

The 2013 Captivate Conference took place in Austin from October 4 to October 6, and Chess Heroes was one of ten finalists for their indie game competition. Since I also have a lot of family in that area, I flew down from Oregon for a taste of that Texas heat (which I adore) before digging in for a northwest winter chock full of game development.

Dylan, my brother-in-law, is a film producer. He kindly stepped up with the expo assist, which was awesome. 

Everything worked out in the end, and it was a good trip, but it was a pretty rocky start!

During a flight stop in Oakland, I discovered that the Steam Greenlight page I had set up was "live," not "waiting to go live." It had no screenshots and a bare minimum of descriptive text. Whoops! (and make no mistake, there were several other assorted expletives) Why was this a big deal? Well…

When you launch a game on Greenlight, it gets immediate exposure on Steam, and then the results determine how long it continues to get that exposure (measured in hits). The page needs to sell the idea to its maximum potential in order to build up enough… uh… steam to get to the top. And I had no screenshots and a video that started out with story instead of action (a common mistake I should have avoided). Only 33% of visitors were voting "yes," while the page helpfully informed me that games in the top 50 averaged 50% or more. And the early comments were 100% pure troll, e.g. "lol nope." I was not a happy camper!

The flight was boarding as I rapidly took screenshots from the latest build, uploaded them to the page, and apologized for a sloppy start. Then I spent the next couple of hours in the air, unaware of what was happening on the internet and unable to make changes. When I touched down, I was distracted and irritable: I couldn't alter the video (because my PC was in Oregon), my jump start on Greenlight was a dead fall, and the next day would be filled with family time, preventing me from sitting down and trying to hammer out a solution.

To be fair, the scenery was wonderful.

The conference started with a keynote by Warren Spector. It was odd to hear him say "I don't know anyone who is doing the art, the design, the programming, and sound effects by themselves these days, not since Richard Garriott" while Chess Heroes -- a direct counter to his statement -- was on display only 100 feet away. Ah well!

Thus began three days of standing on my feet and talking to people non-stop. Sure, it was tiring, but there is no better antidote to online trolls than seeing people sit down in front of the game -- sometimes skeptically -- and then stand up minutes later with a glowing smile and exuberant words. Another benefit is being forced to work the pitch over and over again until it was polished and smooth.

"Chess Heroes is a modern take on chess that draws a lot of inspiration from video games," became my opening line. If people said, "I don't know how to play chess," I'd respond: "Great! This is the game for you!" And if they said, "Ooh, I love chess," I'd reply… wait for it… "Great! This is the game for you!" Of course, the pitch would diverge after that point, but you get the idea: I was looking for feedback, and it was almost universally positive.

Chess with Friends. I wonder if Zynga is already doing that?

By the second day, I realized that recording some of their reactions would be a good idea. Here's what they had to say, straight from the show floor!

After the first conference day, I fixed the few bugs I found, caught up on business e-mails, and checked the Greenlight page. Lo and behold, it was 15% of the way to the top 100, in only a few days, after a disastrous start. It was way behind the pace of other popular games, but then again, Greenlight is over-populated with traditional video game material: shooters, platformers, strategy games, and the like, Given enough production value, they are probably (I'm guessing) guaranteed a decent "yes" rate. Chess Heroes is not only visually divergent (in a lo-fi relaxing way), but sits in a crowd of "traditional games with a twist" titles that are easy to dismiss.

It's been almost a week since the Greenlight page launched -- with no advertising and only a handful of links on community forums -- and it's sitting at 21% of the way to the top 100. I'd prefer to skate to success, of course, but I'm prepped for a marathon, and I know that when people play the game, they like it. Validation and marketing plan, all in one!

I've uploaded a shorter video to the Greenlight page, and I have a task list nearly three pages long. There's plenty to do until I show the game at iFest in Seattle on November 9. If you're in the area, you should come by: it's a free show!

Now then: back to work! Woo hoo!

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