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  • Writer's pictureBeatka Wójciak

Indie game developer goes to a gaming festival

Last week I took my puzzle game Squarelets and a few of my friends to Insomnia Gaming Festival #i71.

Photo of the Squarelets stand at Indieverse during Insomnia #i71: we had stickers pins, totes and a few phones to play on
Photo of the Squarelets stand at Indieverse during Insomnia #i71: we had stickers pins, totes and a few phones to play on

We were exhibiting in the centre of the Indieverse and it was an amazing experience.

It was my second time exhibiting ever, and I relied heavily on what I’ve learned from the first time (which was during the Develop: Brighton 2023 showcase and I wrote down my lessons on the blog). To my relief, it turns out that it does indeed get easier the second time.

Insomnia is a festival for gamers, rather than the gaming industry which means that the audience is primarily people who want to play your game, rather than work with you on it. This is very important and it means that your goal should be providing the best experience for the players.

Keep the demo short and sweet

The star of the show is a good demo of the game. It should have a good overview of the basic features and mechanics of the game. For example in Squarelets, this is allowing people to play the basic game, without necessarily introducing powerups, but also allowing players to try different difficulty levels to see how the game can challenge them.

One thing we learned already from Develop was that in-game tutorial with text and feature explanation doesn’t work in a live demo environment. Things are just too busy and people don’t actually want to read things that you can explain to them in 30 seconds.

I think this is key to a successful demo: explain people what to do to play, don’t just leave them to go through tutorials. This is boring if someone is playing 10 games during one day of a festival: they end up reading the intros more than playing - not fun.

We spent some time the day before explaining the game to each other and looking for the perfect introduction - we got to a good state where things seem clear and simple enough. It still evolved over time as we showed it to people and got their confused looks.

The game introduction is a tricky thing to get right as a developer because being so close to it, you forget what it’s like to never having seen it before - that’s where explaining it to friends really helped. It’s a well known phenomenon known as the curse of knowledge.

Be memorable

People play a lot of games during conferences and festivals and it’s hard to remember them all. Leaflets with basic information about the game can go a long way, especially if they’re themed with the game. A QR code on a leaflet is also a must, as there’s not enough space on paper to talk about everything, and it’s also less friction for people if they don’t have to type any links.

Deciding what information to put on a leaflet is difficult, I think I’ve been through at least 40 different versions of Squarelets leaflets and I’m still not sure I got the message right. At the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I did the best I could, saw how it went and I’ll improve things next time.

Another important part is giving out freebies. Stickers are always a good idea - who doesn’t like stickers? They’re versatile, and bring value even after the festival is over. People who liked your game and your art will put them on their laptops and water bottles, turning them into little displays.

Your artwork then becomes a reminder of the fun people had when playing your game, and they’ll be happy to share it with their friends. It’s always really heartwarming for me to think that there are people out there that like what I do enough to put in on their possessions.

Forget competitions

As fun as it might sound, I don’t think that competitions of raffles are that great of an idea, unless you’re a big studio with amazing merch and a well-known brand.

Big events tend to be busy and chaotic, with a lot to see and do (there was a zombie shooting range next to us at Insomnia). It’s easy to forget that you need to come back to a stand at the other side of the venue to claim your reward - and do it at a specific time.

We tried doing that at Develop and gave up about an hour into the showcase, when we realised how much there is to do and that people probably won’t have time to come back to us again.

Things look a bit different when running a competition at the stand directly, e.g. challenging people to reach a certain score or complete something in a limited time - it also encourages people around to watch and cheer for the player.

Be like Santa

Make a list and check it twice. Checklists are a simple and proven technique to getting things correct every time. When you have 10.000 things to think about, it’s all too easy to forget something.

Anecdotally, when packing for Insomnia, we left all our freshly delivered leaflets in London and one of us had to come back from Birmingham to get them. It was quite stressful at the moment, also because I ordered them late (I really couldn’t decide what to put on them!) and I wasn’t even sure if they would arrive in time.

We got lucky this time, but I immediately made a checklist for things to take with us so that we don’t forget stuff next time. It includes such important things as phone chargers, snacks and water.

All in all, showcasing Squarelets has been amazing on both times I did it. I got a lot of great feedback (both positive and constructive), I watched people play the game and saw it through the lens of the user.

I watched them smile and make happy squeals as they played and it was the most rewarding and encouraging response I could ask for. It showed me that what I’m doing adds a little joy to their lives and it motivates me to keep going 💜

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