Wulverblade’s PAX East Experience

Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Wulverblog. It has been a very exciting and exhausting time these past few weeks here at the Wulver team. For those who don’t know, we had the privilege of showcasing Wulverblade once again at PAX East with the IndieMEGABOOTH!

First and foremost I would like to thank everyone who took the time to stop by the booth to play, watch, or just chat with us. There are a lot of very cool things to see at PAX, and I’m honored you chose to spend your time with us. We also ran into some familiar faces from last year when we were part of the MINIBOOTH. You guys are all fantastic. Any chance we get to interact with gamers is both exciting and nerve racking. Putting ourselves and our work out into the public to be judged by (often harsh) critics is not always easy, but the payoff of a positive response is always worth the trouble.

The icing on the cake was, that after more than 3 long years, we finally met THE British Mike in person! Fully Illustrated and Darkwind Media have been working together since long before Wulverblade had begun. In all that time, we had never met Mike outside of Skype calls. Until now. With the chance to be part of a show like PAX, Mike decided to make the flight out to Boston to join us. The small British voice coming from a computer speaker was suddenly flesh and blood in the same room. It felt all too natural and oh so wrong at the same time. We asked him to make the Skype call noise before speaking to help ease the transition. He did not.

The Demo

One of the more important aspects of this show’s demo was our desire to get players into the campaign. In the past, we have restricted demos to the Arena Mode. With the arenas we could introduce the players to combat as quickly as possible, to experience the core mechanic of the game. Wulverblade is, however, not just combat. So we set out create a demo that could do the following:

  • Introduce players to game and controls without holding hands: There are many moves and combos in the game, some more complex than others. We want to provide tutorials without them being forced on the player. We want to introduce enemies gradually so most players can make it through the demo or at least to the boss. It is supposed to be hard. This is true for the final game as well as the demo.
  • Provide good representation of the game as a whole: There are many aspects of Wulverblade we want the players to experience. This includes voice over work, comic book cinematics, a variety of beautiful environments, historical story elements, weapon pick ups, in-game cinematics, facial animations, visceral combat, and more. We wanted to create a demo in which players get to sample everything Wulverblade has to offer in a clean, concise experience.
  • Don’t overstay our welcome, but don’t short change players: A patron’s time at a convention is valuable. They are often there to see as much as possible while battling crowds and waiting in lines. We wanted to create a substantial demo for people to feel justified if they had to wait, and satisfied after playing. On the flip side, we didn’t want the demo to feel so long that people would want to walk away before finishing because it was wasting their time. People don’t line up at 8am to get into the Expo hall and play Indies, they want that sweet sweet AAA title.
  • Create a clean, arcade-like demo flow: The demo should be able to run on its own. We didn’t want to have to continuously step in and explain what was happening to players. It should also return neatly to the menu screen so the next group could hop on without any downtime, just like the arcade cabinets of old.

The build ultimately consisted of two campaign levels, Level 1 and Level 3, as well as the Arenas we have shown in the past. Level 1 was chosen because it was already setup to introduce the players to combat and story with its beautiful cinematic. Players are given a chance to move and feel out the character they just spent way too long deciding on. They’re gradually taught controls as they progress, and the enemies are introduced at slower pace to allow for acclimation. It is also a sharp looking level with a good introductory boss. Level 3 was chosen to contrast level 1. It is harder, shows some Romans, and tosses players into combat right off the bat. We recommended Level 3 for players who love beat ‘em ups or to those who already conquered Level 1 and were coming back for more.

Both levels were reduced in size for the purpose of the demo. By reducing the number of enemies and omitting sections where the player naturally transitions, we were able to cut down on level duration. Where a normal level will take 20-30 minutes in the full game, this simply does not work on the show floor. We wanted players to have the full Wulver experience in roughly 10 minutes.

The arenas were also adjusted for this build. In the past, we gave Players 3 lives and let them play until they died. What we had not expected was how good some gamers would be right away. When Wulverblade was at the MINIBOOTH last year, some people were able to survive for upwards of 30 minutes. As impressive as that is, it becomes a problem when we only had 1 machine and wanted to get the game into as many hands as possible. To prevent players from overstaying their welcome, we added an endgame scenario. After 10 minutes is up, allied player characters will spawn and then a boss wave will follow. If that is completed the arena is “conquered.”

All 3 levels, if complete, would show a score screen, let players enter their initials (like the classic arcades), and return to the main menu. A nice clean loop.

The Booth

When we were accepted to the MEGABOOTH this year, we were granted a 10 foot by 10 foot booth space. Having experience, both as a visitor and an exhibitor, I was hoping for a corner booth. Corners are able to pull in additional visibility, space, and walkway traffic by removing one of the enclosing barriers. We were not so fortunate.

With the limitations of of the space in mind, I tried to figure out the best way to get the most out of our opportunity. I had a few goals in mind with the booth set up:

  • Have as many game stations as possible: We wanted as many stations as possible running the game so we could get as many players as we could to experience the demo. This also decreases wait time and incentivizes people to stop and play.
  • Don’t overcrowd players: We didn’t want people to feel cramped in the play space. We also wanted room for us to breath, sit, and rest our weary bones when we could.
  • Focus on visibility: We love what Mike has done with the art direction of the game. It’s vibrant and eye catching. If we are able to catch a person’s eye as they walk by, they might stop. If they stop, we can talk to them about the game and encourage them to play.
  • Keep it clean: In an attempt to seem professional (however unlikely), I wanted to do my best to keep the booth looking clean and sharp. This would mean hiding cables and computers with table cloths and having a place for everything, controller stands and hooks for headphones.
  • Minimize unknown variables: With some audio and adapter troubles the previous years, I wanted to minimize the chance of something going wrong with hardware. It was important to be in control of all the assets we would have in the booth. Weeks before the show, we set up and tested everything at the office to ensure things went smoothly prior to the main event.
  • Minimize Costs: This goes along with reducing unknown variables. We have several TVs around the office and a lot of computers we could bring. We bought a uniquely sized table that was long, thin, and tall that would occupy the least amount of space and have the TVs at an ideal person-standing-and-playing height. We bought an adjustable height TV stand for the front of the booth. Surprisingly our most expensive purchases were custom buttons and custom shirts, but what’s PAX without swag?

With some help from the Darkwind crew and a quick 3D mock-up, we were able to determine that the most TVs we could comfortably fit in a 10x10ft booth would be 3 or 4. We were unsure how the conference would feel about us having objects outside of the booth space. Large, highly regulated places like a conference center can be extra harsh about what could be considered a tripping or fire hazard. Regardless, we bought two cheap stools to place in front of the third TV at the front of the booth, and would move them if anyone asked. The stools were important to draw people in (who would pass up a chance to rest their feet?) and allow others to see over the heads of those playing. We ultimately moved the TV stand to one side to open up the space, but otherwise the booth matched the diagram above closely.

The Troubles

Even with all the planning, all the testing, and all the extra preparations in the world, something will always go wrong at an expo. Though we did have some troubles, thankfully, they were almost all minor and manageable.

There were only 3 rare demo bugs:

  • The Details Menu Bug: This bug would appear at the beginning of Level 1. After a quick tutorial sequence, the player could press the pause button for more details. If a barrel was broken at the same time and a heavy weapon picked up, the historic details of that weapon would try to open at the same time. These menus would somehow conflict and one would get locked open. There was no quick fix for this bug, but because it was so early in the and very rare, we would just apologize and reboot the game.
  • Stuck at Arthal: This was a particularly unfortunate, though easily avoided bug. I occasionally move the characters to specific locations during in-game sequences by setting them to follow another object. We also allow people to skip some of our longer sequences. If the boss sequence of Level 3 was skipped at a very specific time, this “Set follow” was not disabled and the players would be stuck in one spot where they would be heartbreakingly murdered by Arthal. There was no way to release the characters through our in-game developer console, and because it happened at the end of the demo, most players didn’t feel like restarting the level. The easiest solution at the time was to warn anyone we saw playing level 3 not to skip the sequence. This eliminated the problem.
  • Knocked out of the World: This was another rare occurrence. Physics objects, if pushed too hard or consistently can clip through each other. Mesh colliders have the problem more often than basic box or sphere colliders. If a player was hit very hard against a wall by a boss, they had a chance to be pushed out the world. Thankfully we could use our debug console to select the fallen player and move them back to the player still in the fighting space. In the long run we will have to improve our colliders, but at the show players were very understanding and even enjoyed watching us debug this problem for them.

In terms of hardware, all of our trouble came from keeping the controllers connected. We decided to use 6 XBox One controllers. They are great, comfortable controllers that we already had enough of at the office. When connected via USB, these controllers don’t need batteries in them at all. However, it seemed that if the batteries they do have in them start to die, they may become confused and start trying to switch between battery power and USB power. Once we realized this we pulled the batteries from all of them.

The other connection problem came from relatively cheap micro USB cables. Sadly I only brought 2 spare which lead to us hunting down a 10 foot USB cable mid show. Don’t buy cheap cables.

What Would I do differently?

Overall the show went great, the demo played well, and the reception of the campaign was overwhelmingly positive. There isn’t much I would change about the experience. If I had the chance, I would adjust the booth to include a large raised television to mirror one of the screens being played. It’s not easy to get a TV high enough for everyone to see, but once the crowd started to form our set up became blocked. Booths with large, high screens allow more people to enjoy the action.

The Takeaway

Doing shows like PAX can be time consuming, expensive, and exhausting. At the same time they also manage to be fun, exciting, validating, and re-energizing to a project. Getting to interact with the players is awesome. You guys are awesome. Getting to see and talk about all the games being developed is great. Getting to spend some time with Mike in person was fantastic. He is just as weird and British in real life.

Special thanks to the IndieMEGABOOTH organization who made this possible for us. Special thanks to the Darkwind guys who helped us setup and run the booth. Special thanks to the players who came by, and to those who returned from the year before!

Until next time,

Evan Doody