Games For Change 2018

Hi everyone!

Guillaume back with a second conference post-mortem! 😉 As you might recall, our last outing was to GDC, a huge big-money games-industry conference where the best we could do was focus on finding a few like-minded folks.

By contrast, Games For Change (G4C) was entirely people who were passionate about games using new technology and covering meaningful subject matters, like we’re trying to do, so we were pretty excited about it. This time we had a booth, and we could not wait to see other people play the game! The stars were aligned for everything to go right, but then bad luck came along, launching us to a rocky start before we turned it around and pulled off a smooth and exciting landing at the end of the show.

Scare #1: Brain Jam Fever

G4C has an affiliated neuroscience game jam which takes place before it – the XR Brain Jam – and we’d signed up to participate when we bought our plane tickets. We were excited to arrive early in NYC and get to meet many of the G4C attendees at the game jam before the actual conference started later in the week.

XR Brain Jam

Except, as it turns out, the jam was already full. So now with a couple of extra days of free time in NYC, we signed up for the jam as volunteers and decided to infiltrate the premises that way. It wasn’t quite the same privileged position as being part of the jam itself, but it wasn’t all that bad either: we got to meet everyone still, except now instead of contributing with our expertise on game development, we’d have to contribute with our expertise on carrying things.

We didn’t really look like the high-schoolers who were working alongside us to carry boxes and set up VR kits, which probably explains why we were sent on all the alcohol-pickup missions. When we had downtime, we’d watch the proceedings at the jam, and learn about the people participating, to see who we’d want to meet at the event proper. Plus, we worked on Tablecraft, in a spot where we could help people find the bathroom, which was the G4C edition of our classic conference hack, Working by the OutletsOn Day 2 of the 3-day jam, we were the only ones to arrive on time at 8 am! After we set up breakfast for everyone, we sat at a table, working on getting Tablecraft’s AI assistant to move around when she talks to you.

XR Brain Jam

The Working by the Outlets hack paid off that very morning. One of the organizers of the jam, Sabrina Culyba – designer of Schell Games’ Hololab Champions – invited us to work in the jam space, and asked to play our demo! At this point, the conference was going great, and we were making a positive name for ourselves. Then, I suddenly fell very sick.

At around 10 am, I developed a sudden fever, and asked to sleep in the volunteer office for an hour or so. Then, I tried to get back to work – we wanted to polish up a couple last details on our demo before we showed it to Sabrina! I was still shaking, though, and the volunteer organizers soon grew concerned that I would get others sick. I tried my best to stay upright and work out of the way, so as not to make anyone uncomfortable, but in the end we were kicked right out to the NYC streets, where Rafa and I walked 45 minutes back to our AirBnB. We were feeling pretty sad, since our first opportunity seemed to be drifting away, but there was nothing to do but go home and get rest.

Streets of NYC

Scare #2: The Case of the Exploded Ear

On the 3rd day of the game jam, my fever was gone, which was strange. We took it as reason enough to get back to work, and put in some time with the volunteers to make up for the previous day. Then, we found Sabrina and offered her a demo. Her husband Dave, of Carnegie-Mellon, also played the game, and she gave us a huge amount of information on how she had tackled problems in her own VR chemistry game, some of which we had in common. She could have treated us as competition, but instead we had a big group conversation about making chemistry work in VR. To me that was a highlight of the conference, and indicative of the unified passion of its attendees. Over the course of the conference, Rafael and I saw Sabrina and Dave many times, and they became our preferred familiar faces to search for in a given crowd, because we had so much in common.

HoloLab Champions by Schell Games

HoloLab Champions by Schell Games, available on Steam

From a business side, we had come to the conference to try to fund the remainder of Tablecraft’s development. Because of Rafa’s Fulbright VISA status, we needed either a partner, who could apply with us for a government grant called the SBIR, or a publisher, who could pay us in advance of Tablecraft’s release, and then support distributing it. I think our strategy for finding this stuff worked pretty well: we let other people bring it up. Instead, we focused on just showing people the game! On the 3rd and last day of the jam, Sabrina mentioned that we should show Tablecraft to Jesse, the CEO of Schell Games, and so that became our new quest.

Rafael at G4C

Rafa setting up Tablecraft’s booth at G4C, the night before it opened

The night of the end of the game jam, I developed a terrible headache, which then centered on my right ear. The next morning, my eardrum had ruptured. I went to an urgent care center, and it turned out my odd 1-day fever had been caused by a middle ear infection. I got antibiotics and pain medication, and was told it would heal over time. I also couldn’t hear a thing with my right ear. Enthusiastic group design sessions like the one we’d had with Dave and Sabrina were going to be a thing of the past for this conference. At best, I’d have to engage with whoever was to my direct left. But the next day, things started to look up!

Hype #1: Bill Sabram’s World

On the first day of the actual conference, we were immediately the most popular kids in school. It was glorious. We’d lugged 2 Oculus Rifts to New York City, and scrambled to improve our booth with a large monitor for each. At the day’s start, with our laptops on the table and our monitors on the wall, we had 4 colorful videos of Tablecraft bouncing around on 4 displays, with a sleek black tablecloth holding the waiting headsets. The whole thing was facing the main entry to the convention hall — it reminded me of a bank of arcade attract screens.

G4C players

Sharing the space with us were our good friends James Gaiser and Sound Wright, showcasing their sleek augmented-reality app Boo Boo Snap! James was kind enough to help us out with a place to stay in NYC after our AirBnB expired, and both him and Sound were a constant source of positive energy at the booth!

Rafa taking a selfie of James taking a selfie

Rafa taking a selfie of James taking a selfie

Pretty soon we had a constant flow of interested parties, with at least 1 demo active at all times in the day. I tried to give the demo on the screen to the right, since I could stand with the player to my left and hear what was going on. In general, we were pretty hands-on with the demos too, guiding players toward each machine as needed, since the game doesn’t quite explain itself entirely just yet.

Tablecraft at G4C

It was a long day, reintroducing the various parts of the game in rapid succession, but it was extremely rewarding, because so many people with different levels of experience and areas of interest gave it a real go. Many were game designers or educators, and gave us useful, clear feedback. And most of all, the game REALLY hooked a few people.

Bill Sabram was our Tablecraft prodigy. He started his design career on electronic toys, and like many of the other game designers who tried it, he was bursting with ideas. Bill had a secret strategy for winning our hearts, though: he just could not stop playing!

Bill Sabram playing Tablecraft

Bill Sabram, the man, the myth, the legend

At one point, a media crew bristling with cameras and microphones swung into the booth, as they made the rounds through the whole conference. Bill was completely unphased as they interviewed the projects next to ours, and at one point he got the whole camera crew laughing by sticking his nose unknowingly in the reporter’s back. Bill had been playing for more than an hour, and he’d forgotten what we looked like when the reporter put a microphone to his mouth and asked him about the game. Then and there he gave a better pitch than we’d ever delivered ourselves, focused on how he was so engaged with what set each element apart.

Without ever taking off his headset, Bill was an outsize presence in our booth for the hour and a half in which he unlocked over 75% of the entire periodic table. You can get a taste of it by watching his impromptu interview here:

 

Hype #2: The Major Leagues

On the last day of G4C things started to really pop off. The momentum we’d built talking to individuals meant the project was relatively known, and a few of the conference heavyweights were out and about. Jesse Schell and Harley Baldwin of Schell games came over to the booth to play Tablecraft, with Jesse inquiring us about our business strategy and Harley offering valuable input on the game’s design. But on that day, in New York City, the friendliest, majorest leaguer of all was Edward Metz, Director of the Institute of Education Sciences’ SBIR grant program.

We first got to meet Ed at an event called Meet the Funders, where he gave a short talk about all the requirements of the SBIR grant, and answered questions. Ours was a popular one — how does Rafael’s visa status affect our chance at the grant? It turned out at least 4 people in the event were foreign citizens interested in the grant as well! The thing that stood out to me at the talk was how Ed thought everyone in the field was making something worth making, and all they needed help with was making it real. To me, it headed off any hint of competitiveness or rancor in the room. Apparently the guy helps over 300 different people per year with navigating the bureaucratic maze, and it’s clearly because he genuinely wants more education technology to exist.

Edward Metz explaining the SBIR

Edward Metz explaining the SBIR requirements

Speaking of genuine enthusiasm, here’s the haymaker moment for Tablecraft at Games For Change: Ed Metz, director of the IES’ grant program, played Tablecraft, and loved it! Rafa directed the demo in a very player-oriented way, focusing on what fun things there were to do rather than what kids would be expected to learn, and Ed seemed to really get the direction of the game. He invited us to the IES’ Principal Investigators conference in January, so we could show off Tablecraft. He said, “I’m trying to keep the number of external presenters low this year, but for powerful experiences…”

And that was how the conference came to an end. We’re gonna try to find a way to apply for that grant in spite of Rafa’s Fulbright constraints, so look forward to updates on the reams of paperwork and other fun blob foods we’ll be producing every day! If we make it, Tablecraft will have the resources for an order of magnitude more features, so cheer us on on Discord, or call your congresswoman or something. I don’t really know how grants work yet but my grant-o-meter is off the charts. 🚀

GDC18 Post-mortem

Hi! This is Guillaume, for once 😉

GDC 2018 was my and Rafa’s first, and it was a really cool experience, though it took me some practice to get there!

GDC, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the world’s largest yearly conference of game developers. 28,000 people went this year apparently, and just walking around San Francisco was an unusual experience thanks to the visible badges of the attendees. It was like adventuring to an MMO city where every inhabitant is also an adventurer, complete with the feeling of belonging to a huge community of like-minded people and the feeling of being not-very-special-at-all.

Game Developers Conference 2018 - San Francisco

When I showed up, I wanted to meet as many developers as I could, so I could start having career acquaintances! There are people who build so many relationships over the course of jobs and conferences that attending the conference is like going to a high school reunion. I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing old friends, so I wanted to get that process started. But, there were a few things I didn’t consider going in:

  1. GDC does not abide by typical social rules. Strangers are eager to talk to you?
  2. A shared interest in video games, while useful for bonding in middle school, is less useful when bonding at a game development conference…

Game Developers Conference 2018 - Main Hall

In other words, I was pretty confused my first day in the crowd. I was trying to meet people with shared interests, who I might stay in touch with. In normal life, talking to the nearest person will make both parties happier (on average, at least), but requires overcoming social barriers. By contrast, at GDC, it was easy to have pleasant talk with the people around me, but not necessarily to have a lasting, memorable conversation. I had lots of business cards, but few with which I could associate a topic on which I’d want to follow up. I resolved that this was my first GDC, and rather than worrying about making long-term connections now, I’d focus on enjoying and learning about the event.

Then, Rafa and I made a few surprise discoveries. In fact, I believe we found a world-class conference hack! But I’ll save the best for last.

Discovery A:

The first thing I learned was that GDC is actually full of little subconferences. There are meet-ups based on genre of interest, meet-ups based on technology and platform, etc. And, these events are often quite small, which means every attendee has a sort of shared secret: the titular niche of the event! And that kind of shared secret is what a friendship is founded in. Meeting people who shared my knowledge of ascii roguelikes was very rewarding, not because I’m not interested in video games at large, but because those conversations felt special!

The most relevant example of this was the Science Games meetup. Rafa and I went there equipped with Tablecraft business cards, but came away discussing what we’d learned about antibodies from a game on someone’s laptop, and how many years citizen science initiatives would be cost-effective before AI becomes too strong. It was a pleasure to be carried away by my own enthusiasm. One of the positive outcomes of the conference was the inspiration it gave us, and a hefty chunk of those moments came from discovering people’s projects at the Science Games meetup.

Game Developers Conference 2018 - View from Google Headquarters

Discovery B:

Cool friends beget other cool friends, which is something I already knew. What I did not realize, going into GDC, was how many cool friends I already had, from working on Liminal and Tablecraft, to as far back as John Oliver, the first person with whom I ever worked on a computer game. Here are a few people Rafa and I got to meet, thanks to introductions from surprisingly well-connected peers:

Round 1 Tablecraft contributor (and Liminal team member) Quinn Griffin introduced us to VP of Oculus Max Cohen, who, having already seen our project, told us in a brief meeting to come talk again when we had something really polished. It was funny, if disappointing, but it seemed like the only reason someone would do that was if we had a chance to make something really good, so we took it as a success (especially considering Tablecraft was very young). Plus, we had an NDA’d chance to see REDACTED. 😉

Game Developers Conference 2018 - Oculus

The founder of publisher PopAgenda, Genevieve St.-Onge (@gankstrr), offered to work with us promoting our other project Liminal, which is ramping up to a free steam release. A lot of the Liminal team got to be there, and it was really cool to have someone think so highly of the project that they’d ask to be involved in that way. Plus, Gen said she was impressed with Raf’s and my co-founder dynamic. I get to be the straight man most of the time, so I’m fortunate to have little responsibility on that front. I still felt very proud.

Liminal

Liminal, a game by a team of 16 people, on which Rafa acts as Development Director and I as Lead Designer

John Oliver currently works for indie developer Funomena, and he introduced me to a friend who used their coworking space named Hanford. This was arguably the biggest GDC outcome for Liminal, since Hanford is the developer of a first-person puzzle game. And, at the event, so were several of Hanford’s friends, including Scale developer Steve Swink. We’ve been swapping feedback with him and his community of first-person-puzzle-makers for months now. It’s been like having access to old-company tribal knowledge, except in the context of a project which can turn on a dime. Steve helped us completely redefine our art and level dressing style to be more helpful to players of our otherwise very disorienting first-person puzzle game, Liminal.

Liminal

Liminal, coming out for free on Steam later this Summer

Discovery C:

The moment you’ve all been waiting for! What follows is the official Raf and Guillaume Conference Hack of the Year:

Working next to the outlets.

Let me explain. After meeting with Gen, we were EXTREMELY pumped. Someone who knew what they were doing was singling out one of our projects just to be involved! She’d only seen footage of our game, but we thought our design was good too, and we wanted to keep her interest, so we resolved to put together a brief for her ASAP! We had nothing scheduled for the last day of the conference, so we set up at a table in the Moscone Center, plugged in our computers, and started writing. It was a well-lit, social work environment, so there was a lot to recommend it – we ended up working for 7 hours. But first, something unexpected happened. We were only using 2 of the 6 outlets at our table, but not every table had an outlet.

Experienced, knowledgeable developers need to charge their phones just as much as anyone else, and every 30 minutes or so they would stop at the corner, ask us if they could use an outlet, and sit in a chair, bored and waiting. Meanwhile, we would carry on discussing our project, and how best to present it to Gen. In other words, people with nothing better to do were hearing us talk in detail about the work we were doing that we were passionate about, in an environment where strangers are happy to talk to each other. We met a dozen completely different, experienced developers, who actually knew about our project because they’d been hearing us talk about it! We got tons of feedback. It was glorious.

Game Developers Conference 2018

In summary, GDC started out pretty overwhelmingly huge, but by the end happenstance had happened enough to trace the pattern that so many developers report at these kinds of conferences. Both Liminal and Tablecraft were unknown to the outside world at this point, and it was extremely rewarding to see so much interest in both ideas. The moment we flew back we got working. And it was easy, since we’d been so inspired, we’d started our momentum at the conference itself!