Getting out to a game show is a pain in the butt. Your build doesn’t work. It runs slow on your target platform. Even if it worked you’re not ready for the public to see it. Even if you were ready for the public to see it, you need to book a flight, coordinate with the people running the show, find local help to staff the booth (unless you’re planning on never going to the bathroom), schedule time away from the actual development. You need a trailer to maximise the PR boost you get - and that’s weeks of work right there. For a game like Vane, best enjoyed in a relaxed setting with enough time to savor it, a show floor is possibly the worst possible venue - it’s noisy, crowded, busy, and there’s a good chance your atmospheric, contemplative game might be right next to a multi-story murder city. But it’s crucial to go despite the difficulties.
A cornerstone of any creative effort is getting outside opinions, and at PSX we got to show our game to a wide group of people. Some of them had seen our trailer in the PSX Showcase (thanks Sony!) and were curious from that; but many hadn’t even heard of Vane. We saw their expressions as they played, heard their impressions when they were finished with the (buggy, problematic) demo. In those impressions was a lot of direct feedback to our systems - how well our control systems met our expectations, how obtuse our open world section is. We logged a ton of bugs and slapped our foreheads at the ones we didn’t fix before going.
But just as important, there’s implicit information you get from watching fresh hands work your game. What they don’t do is as revealing as what they do. Too much aimless wandering in our opening desert is obviously not what we want; but a direct path from the beginning to the end undercuts any sense of exploration. If players don’t notice the signposts we used to mark an exploratory section, maybe it’s time to up the contrast and make those elements more visible, but if something stands out too much it can send the wrong signal and cause frustration as players try to interact with what's just a piece of scenery.
More crucially though - the people who played Vane got it. Almost everyone who tried the demo turned to us afterwards said the game felt different, intriguing, and (whew) that they’d like to buy it when it was done. For us, toiling away in relative isolation, hearing this kind of affirmation was a huge, sorely needed, boost to confidence.
We made a choice at the start of this project to do something unusual, and for us that meant throwing away a lot of key tricks in the game developer’s arsenal, and trying to take a fresh look at the ones we kept. The mood we came up with didn’t feel like a traditional game and we didn’t want to do it a disservice by sticking it in a fetch-quest structure. But going down this path it was easy to second-guess ourselves, and we have - many times. At some point working on a game you get inured to its magic, since you’ve seen it’s treasures so many times that they’ve become routine. While some players sought us out from our trailer, some players knew us from before PSX, many players came to our booth just for the nifty trading cards that Sony was kind enough to provide. The feeling of an uncommitted player, playing your game from a desire for swag, but walking away with a smile on their face - that feeling justified the stress. The road we’re on is the right one.
And on top of that - coming away from PSX, we got a very clear picture of what our game does well (mood, visuals, sound, mystery), and where it falls flat (mechanics, guidance, being bug-free). So making the trip to PSX let us show the world how far we’ve come, but also helped clarify where we’re going, and gave us a little kick in the pants to start this next stage of the journey. Absolutely worth the trouble.
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