Last week we attended GDC and we had the opportunity to show Wulverblade to the public for the first time. We were not originally going to use GDC as a showcase for the game, but felt that we should not let the chance slip us by so we polished up a demo and brought it out to San Francisco and put it in front of some gamers, developers, and press. Given that this was the first time we had shown the game publicly and that we didn’t have a lot of experience with such PR events and activities it seems a good idea to reflect on what went well and what did not.
We had originally planned for PAX East to be a big showcase for Wulverblade. We submitted the game to the Indie Megabooth hoping we’d have that as a major platform for releasing information about the game’s development and timeline as well as giving the public a chance to actually play early versions. Unfortunately we did not get accepted and so suddenly we weren’t really sure how we should proceed. We could still bring Wulverblade to PAX but we wouldn’t have any space to show it and we wouldn’t have the automatic attention from being part of a major showcase.
A few weeks before GDC we were contacted by Microsoft. At that point we had already been accepted into the ID@Xbox program but neither we nor Microsoft had made it public. They mentioned that they were going to publicly announce us as being a part of the program at GDC and that we – along with a few other developers – could participate in a private press event they would be running as part of the announcement. We immediately saw this as an opportunity to show the game for the first time instead of at PAX since Microsoft was handing us a showcase event. It did mean that we would have to crunch on development of a demo since showing at GDC instead of PAX meant even less time to prepare.
We decided to show a shortened version of the first level which included a restricted combat move set and only a couple of enemy varieties. We only showed the elements that we felt confident we could polish in the time we had. Despite some issues with travel we managed to get to the event space in time to set up the game and make sure it was working properly. After the event, during GDC, Unity decided they wanted to show our demo at their booth and so it was running for the 3 days of the expo on the main floor.
1. Running on the Xbox
After being accepted into the ID@Xbox program we worked to get the game running on the development kits that Microsoft sent us. The process was fairly smooth and the game ran great without any further modifications. It is completely 2D so we didn’t expect there to be any major performance problems and so we were glad to hit 1080p/60FPS right away.
At the Microsoft event we ended up being one of a few games that was running on the Xbox. It was very cool to see and I think it helped to have the game running on the device while showing it to the press. A lot of this good fortune has to be attributed to Unity and their efforts to quickly support the Xbox One and to help us get the game running.
The first thing everyone said when they walked up to the TV was “Wow, this game looks great.” The art style was the first thing that sold the game to new people. Mike has done an amazing job on the presentation and capturing the feeling of northern Britain. Mike works very hard to paint and animate each character and paint all the elements in each environment and it was clear that the effort was worth it.
The progress of creating these assets has been slow and that is one area that we need to address if we are going to get the game finished in the time that we want. However, this event really reinforced that the art style is one of the game’s strongest elements.
3. Simple Classic Gameplay
When Mike approached us to develop the game with him he presented a clear vision of classic gameplay from old-school brawlers. When showing the game at GDC this was clearly an easy genre for people to pick up and play. Very little explanation was needed and there were many instances where we could tell the gameplay made some people nostalgic for these old-school games.
At the same time there is a certain type of game which is more experimental that does get a lot of press attention. I will admit that Wulverblade is not going very far out into the experimental gameplay elements. We are attempting to capture and perfectly execute on a classic, proven formula and give people an amazing experience.
4. Press Attention
The purpose of the event with Microsoft was to showcase new games to the press so this gave us a lot of access to journalists looking to write about new projects. We presented the game as best we could, even though this was the first time we had participated in an event like this. It was very exciting and rewarding to tell people about the game and to watch them as they played it.
Since the event we have had continued interest in the game which has been really heartening to see. We now realize that we should do everything we can to continue to grow that interest and keep the attention going. This is why we will still be going to PAX East with a playable demo even though we didn’t get accepted into the Indie Megabooth. There will be players and press there and we will have more to show about the game.
5. New Features and Bugs
So far the developers are the only ones who have been playing Wulverblade. Once we put it into players’ hands we started to see new ideas and features that we could implement. There were also good ideas that players came up with just from us talking to them while they played. We encouraged them to ask questions and make comments about the game.
It has been said many times but we had to learn this lesson ourselves: test early and test often. This isn’t just about the quality and finding bugs, it is also about testing your gameplay mechanics and assumptions about the players themselves. There are plenty of good ideas that players can contribute if you give them the opportunity to participate in the design process. Put the game in front of people who don’t work on the game and you’ll be surprised how many useful ideas can come about.
1. Our Presentation
I mentioned that Colin and I had never done an event like this before or talked to press about games. We have done various public events to talk about our company but this was something different. This was our project, ours and Mike’s, that we were now showing off to everyone. I don’t think we presented it in the best way we could. I don’t feel that we were terrible but we could have been much much better.
The first thing that comes to mind is we were not strong enough in presenting the vision that this game is a clear callback to the classics. We were asked many times whether the game would have upgrades because that is just the current game design climate we are living in. We answered that “no, there are no current plans to add in upgrades” which is technically the correct answer but it just feels weak looking back on it. The really correct answer is that we are purposely trying to evoke classic brawlers like Streets of Rage and Final Fight which were all about player progression not character progression. You have all your moves from the beginning and you, the player, will grow and learn how to use them better as the game goes on. This is idea that we should recognize the classic brawler niche we are going to be in and own it. Don’t shy away from it which was our first instinct.
It was also obvious to us that Mike is the game’s best advocate. It isn’t that Colin and I aren’t excited about the game – we are ecstatic to be working on it. Instead it is that Mike’s enthusiasm is so intense and infectious that we look completely mild in comparison. We will do what we can in the future to copy that enthusiasm but also to get Mike in front of the press more.
2. Short Demo
We had very little time to polish something that could be shown publicly. We decided to take what we currently had from level 1 and make a shortened version to play. In the end it was very shortened. We were worried that because there were still a lot of gameplay mechanics missing a lot of gameplay would end up feeling monotonous. In the end the amount of gameplay available was far too short. We only had about 2-3 minutes of actual combat. Very often the result was an end screen with the player asking “Is that it?”
What we should be focusing on is allowing players to feel the classic, fun combat. We know the mechanics are good and though there are still a lot more mechanics to put in we should be giving players more than we did. For future demos we’ll be looking to focus on gameplay demos with more length to them.
3. Not Enough Time Spent with Players
Besides the Microsoft event we also had a big opportunity with Unity showing the game at their booth. At their large space in the main expo hall they had one station set up with an Xbox One and Wulverblade running on it. This means that anyone walking around the floor could walk up to it and play our game. We spend some time loitering around that station watching and talking to players. However, we feel that we could have spent much more time there.
When you get a chance to have a lot of strangers play your game and give you feedback you should definitely try to take advantage of it. We kept feeling slightly awkward just standing around looking over people’s shoulders but we should have stayed much longer than we did. There was a lot to be learned by watching and talking to players who were playing our game.
4. Weak Storyline
Wulverblade has a great, engaging story, but the demo we showed did not. Even worse, the little bit of exposition that was there was presented in a very poor way for a public showing environment. We have the privilege of working with a great actor providing Caradoc’s voice and inner monologue but those lines were placed into the demo with no context. Worse still, those voice overs were the only way any part of the story or setting were presented to the user. Now, throw the demo into a loud environment with no headphones and you can see that it is all completely wasted.
The reality is that there are still many story mechanics yet to put into the game. Cutscenes, graphic novel-style panels, and subtitles for the voices would be able to present the storyline much better and would be more resistant to the kind of loud environment we had at GDC. What ended up happening was players would sit through sections of exposition with no subtitles, confused whether the game was even working. It’s an area that we definitely will be working very hard on for the future.
The whole GDC experience was great and we learned a ton about our game and how to show a game at these types of events. We will be carrying this forward and we’re working hard for future events. We want to keep developing this game in an open way, which means letting players play it as often as we can. We will be going to PAX East and we will be bringing the game with us.