The 20 Month Expo Journey
Published 2 years ago
Presenting Desolus at PAX East 2016
My name is Mark Mayers, I’m a solo developer based in Boston. I’ve been developing Desolus since late August 2014, with the help of the talented Kyle Landry creating the game’s soundtrack. Desolus is a first person puzzle and exploration game where you control a black hole to absorb and redirect energy from stars. If you would like to read more about development so far, read my previous Made With Unity article, "The Evolving Design of Desolus."
This year's PAX East was the culmination of almost 20 months of effort. I've presented at many conventions in the past, such as the Boston Festival of Indie Games, IndieCade, and MAGFest. However, PAX East is by far the largest event I've ever shown at.
Desolus is still in Alpha and I'm at least a year away from release. I still have quite a bit of development left to do. However, after presenting at many prior events I felt ready to handle a convention with 60,000 people.
The PAX East demo was the result of a great deal of playtesting over the last year and a half. I move through development rapidly with Desolus, changing various aspects of the game based on player feedback. The game has organically evolved over time because of this iterative refinement. As a result of this process and past showings, Desolus has become very convention-friendly and good at holding people's attention. A few key things I’ve learned regarding creating the demo itself are detailed below.
Perhaps the most important aspect of showing your game, is getting people to actually play the game! There are thousands of interesting sights to see at major conventions such as PAX East. Why would someone spend time paying attention to a tiny indie game when there’s a massive AAA title down the hall? I can’t afford a massive flashy booth, but there are creative solutions around this issue.
I initially created the Desolus title screen to capture the game’s emotions in a single scene. However, it’s done a great job at drawing attention at conventions to an otherwise invisible indie title. If someone isn’t playing I loop the title screen, and within a minute or two someone comes by.
You have about ten seconds from the first time the player picks up the controller to capture his or her interest.
Your first level is perhaps the most critical element in the entire game, both when demoing and when the game goes to market. How can you convey the core mechanic as succinctly as possible? In Desolus the mechanics are based around transferring energy between stars using a black hole. The first level of Desolus is simply the player absorbing energy from an active star (to the left) and transferring this energy to an inactive star (to the right). When all stars are active, the puzzle is solved. Although puzzles become considerably more complex, the core concept is established immediately through this simple level.
Minimizing tutorials is essential because you want the player to quickly grasp the core aspects of your game. There are only four words of tutorial text in Desolus: “MOVE, LOOK, ABSORB, and SHOOT.” These words are ‘spoken’ via a particle eye which encompases the screen and establishes narrative. Tutorials for Desolus are implicit and built into the level design itself. This design has been successful at conventions, because players feel like they are playing the game itself rather than the tutorial.  
Demos should be an abbreviated look at the best content of your game so far.  Although it’s very important to playtest, large events such as PAX East should be reserved for displaying polished content only. Keep playtesting events to local game developer meetups, or smaller conventions.
The Desolus demo for PAX East consists of three early worlds in the game, displaying a variety of mechanics. In the beginning sections of Desolus I try to introduce as many new concepts as possible to give players an understanding of what the game will be like in later stages.
Overall, these factors have played a critical role in creating demos for conventions, leaving the player a positive impression of the game.
So how did PAX East actually go? The following is a retrospective that I wrote for my DevLog, with a few revisions and additions. You can find the original here.
I was fortunate enough this year to be part of the Indie MEGABOOTH, “a showcase of independent game developers working together to bring indie games to the forefront of not only conference goers’ minds, but the gaming community as a whole.” I’ve been to PAX East many times as an attendee, and have been fond of this massive collection of independent games since first discovering it. This was my first time presenting as part of the booth, however.
I opted for the MINIBOOTH for PAX East, which is a subsection of the MEGABOOTH. The MINIBOOTH is a set of small booths that consists of curated upcoming indie titles with new or smaller developers, such as myself. It's about 60% as expensive as the larger MEGABOOTH, and is probably the best option for a solo developer or small team with nominal funding.
What's great about the MINIBOOTH is that all setup is done for you. All you have to do is show up. However, I opted to bring my own hardware to the event and recommend any other developers do the same. My game needs pretty powerful hardware to run, and I wanted to do thorough testing beforehand.
I was fortunate enough to have exceptional booth placing, as you don't get to choose your exact booth location in the MINIBOOTH. My booth was near the center of the show floor facing towards constant streams of people. If you have the option of choosing your booth placement, I would highly recommend snagging a corner booth.
I chose PAX East as my 'big event expense' for the year since I already live in Boston. It's important as an indie developer to do a cost/benefit analysis of each convention before you attend. For example, MAGFest was only $250 for me, as detailed in my retrospective from February of this year.
In total, my cost for showing at the MINIBOOTH was $1740, despite being told to allocate upwards of $3000. I'm estimating this to be on the cheaper side of PAX showings for the MEGABOOTH, but I did a few things to minimize my expenses. The primary cost was the MEGABOOTH itself. I opted for three days at the MINIBOOTH. If you got into the MINIBOOTH and have the funds, you might as well show for all three days!
Hotel expenses were nonexistent, as I commuted to the Boston Convention and Expo Center from my apartment.  My transportation expenses were due to Uber, which I took instead of the MBTA (Boston public transportation) due to wanting to save time.
I would recommend bringing healthy food with you to any convention you attend, as well as other small snacks to keep your brain moving. Remember to drink water! Buy or bring lots of water. You won't regret it, trust me.
The MINIBOOTH handles some promotional material related to your booth and the booth setup itself. However, it's important to have handouts. I bought my business cards from Vistaprint and they turned out very well.
Although I have a relatively non-existent budget, I consider this experience well worth it as the event was everything I could have hoped for.
I met many exceptionally talented developers at the booth.  One of the best things about indie development is the community. Even though I'm a solo developer, I couldn't imagine making the game truly alone.
At a convention, networking with fellow developers is critical. PAX East has several developer events you can attend, including events with Valve, Microsoft, Sony, or mixers specific to groups such as the MEGABOOTH. Most conventions have developer events, make sure you take every opportunity you can to meet people.  
Desolus is still pretty unknown, but PAX was great for exposure. Since I’m still far away from release, my main goal was to establish connections with journalists.  I was told by other developers at PAX that they sent over a hundred emails about a month before the convention.  In contrast, I only sent out a few press emails about a week before the convention. These were targeted at people who I thought would enjoy the game.
If you’re showing at PAX or any major event for the first time, it’s important to keep these things in mind.  You should probably write your emails around 3 weeks in advance. Most press members book up pretty quickly with meetings. If you're relatively unknown as a developer, you might get better response rates with targeted emails rather than mass emails. Practice your 'one line pitch' and prepare for interview questions that you might get asked. Most importantly, be authentic, and be genuine.
I feel several years led up to PAX East 2016. PAX East in 2011 was my first real exposure to indie games and part of why I started developing independent games.
Ever since the MEGABOOTH began in 2012, I wanted to be a part of it. Over the past year and a half I've put over 2000 hours into this game's development. So much emotional and mental energy went into this year's PAX East demo for Desolus, but I feel it was all worth it. Although I have so much further to go, I can at least take a moment to appreciate that I've come this far.
If you would like to follow development of Desolus I post updates to my Development Log, Twitter, and Facebook. Like most indie titles, expect Desolus to be released ‘when it’s done.’ An estimated release date is sometime in 2017 for PC, with support for Virtual Reality.
Mark Mayers