Thursday, April 28, 2016

[IndieDev] How Three Strangers Won PAX East 2016

PAX East 2016 was a total blast. I could talk about how so many people told us Eon Altar was unique, or I could talk about how busy we were, or I could talk about the hiccups we ran into during setup and after.
Eon Altar @ PAX East 2016
Instead, I want to tell a story. A story of three totally disparate strangers, who all showed up at our booth around the same time and forged what will probably be a lifelong bond, but also showed us as developers what our game is really capable of.

Excitement in the Air

After the slow start we had on Friday, Saturday was full of promise. We had gotten all of our technical difficulties solved, and some of us finally had a decent night's sleep. We were rarin' to go and meet the crowds.

As the day progressed, we had plenty of folks in and out of our booth. Most people who sat down for a combat arena session would get to about Wave 7 before falling apart, but they all left the booth with smiles on their faces. To me that was probably the biggest compliment of all: seeing folks legitimately enjoy the game we put together over the past couple of years. It was invigorating.

About halfway through the day, just after lunch, we had someone stop by the booth. He was so stoked to try out Eon Altar; it looked unique and pretty cool. But of course, as is wont to happen on the show floor, there was a line to play the game. But he was willing to wait. Shortly thereafter, a couple more guys stopped by, and they were pretty interested too.

Soon a demo station opened up, and Haydn--our executive producer--sat them down on the grey and teal beanbags, handing them each a cell phone. Once the combat arena had booted up, the game was afoot. Or a game. The game was on, in either case.

The Intrepid Trio discussing strategy
They didn't plan ahead really. They just grabbed characters that appealed to them at first glance. Baryson the Paladin, Muran the Battlemage, and Shasek the Sellsword. The first few waves whetted their appetites for the blood of their enemies--well, really it just allowed them to get a handle on the unique controls--but quickly they realized that there was more value in working together.

Cooperation Isn't Just For Sesame Street

The thing about PAX is that you often hear of stories of people making friends for life. In lines, in random games, at panels, whatever. At PAX Aus, I made a number of friends who're such an amazing amount of fun that I went back again two years later. While PAX Aus was a draw unto itself, meeting my Aussie friends a second time was honestly the better part of it. But I don't think I've ever had the chance to watch the process happen.

A different group of three players strategizing. They already knew each other going in.
Our intrepid trio, having never met before in their lives, began to talk about their characters' capabilities. Other groups had kept to themselves, often not chatting up the strangers playing with them. Not these guys. And very quickly they realized that they were a fighting force to be reckoned with.

Thanks to some pointers from Hadyn on how some of the more in-depth systems worked, such as ability, weapon, and armor advancement, and equippable/craftable consumables, the group fell into a cautious, tactical pattern as they chewed their way through wave after wave of enemies.

A few groups had managed to get past Wave 10, the second boss wave. Nearly none had managed beyond that point. Outnumbered three to one (or more!), and outgunned by Arbolek Spine Tyrants and Hound Masters, without cooperation those groups were doomed to die.

Arbolek Spine Tyrant
But these gentlemen managed to not only slay those waves, but did so with nearly full health and energy by the end of each wave. By Wave 15, they were stopping every turn to discuss their options, and combine their powers in ways we--the developers--hadn't thought of. Baryson keeping the party healed, buffed, and protected while the mage and sellsword cleared the way.

Amicis, Rei Militaris

I'll be honest. I never expected them to get as far as they did. I also didn't expect them to take five minutes a turn--or longer--as they leaned in and discussed all of their options. I knew we had worked hard to design a game that had an interesting combat system. We had good bones so to speak in the original design by Christoph Sapinsky, and Scott Penner took the reins on combat with further iterations, with some input by yours truly. But I admit I took it all for granted a little. I thought our game wasn't actually that difficult or complex combat-wise.

These newfound friends proved me wrong.

By the time they had completed Wave 25--the furthest nearly any of us had ever been excepting Luke Reynolds, our finance guy, playing solo--over two hours had passed. Two hours at a demo station! On one hand, I was concerned that we were preventing others from taking a shot at it. On the other hand, we had three people who were now all heatedly cooperating and friends for life showing us things about our game that I don't know we knew or believed. I didn't want to stop them.

Alas, some UI confusion did them in on Wave 26, and one of the trio died permanently. Shortly after the other two folded like the beanbags they were sitting on. But they had set records, and they were absolutely pumped. They had basically won PAX East 2016, as far as any of us were concerned.

These guys won so hard, it's true.

Aftermath and Emotion

We had others come through our booths attempting to replicate that feat, many of them having watched part of the epic run, but none came close. One group managed Wave 16 on their second attempt, but we had to boot them in favour of bringing more people through eventually.

Two of our heroes came back on Sunday to talk with us about our plans for the future. I'd like to say we had everything they ever wanted covered, but everyone knows indie dev can't work like that. It hurts to have to tell people, well, perhaps not "no" but "we'd like to but we can't afford it right now."

But seeing their excited faces and hearing their super intense tactical talk was absolutely like nothing else I've experienced. I enjoyed working for Microsoft, but no offense, spreadsheets can't compare to seeing people viscerally love what you've built. It's the most amazing feeling in the world. That moment alone made all the difficulties of PAX East 2016 worthwhile to me.

So thank you, strangers, for coming to play our indie game at our indie booth, and showing us how to play.
#IndieDev, #GameDevelopment, #PAX

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