PAX East on a Shoestring

Found out about PAX East a few days ago, so I grabbed a bus ticket from Utica and headed to Boston for the weekend. Crashed at my brother’s place, snagged a 3-day badge off Craigslist (thanks Peter!), and walked to the conference. This had quickly become our first real investment in marketing at $155. (Side note: On the way to the conference, 6 different print shops failed hard to make up some business cards. Pop Copy truths?)

Once in the door, I spent 30 minutes being overwhelmed by Halloween in an airplane hanger being broadcast on a thousand screens.

Indie Area @ PAX East 2013

Eventually I realized that marketing needed to be done, so I started sitting around high-traffic areas just playing the game, thinking that the movement would attract attention. That worked okay: A couple people asked me what I was doing. A fair number of people just stopped, stared, and walked away. And most people just ignored me.

It later occurred to me that many people thought I was just trying to take a picture of myself. That’s when I decided to make some signs. So I setup shop below a pair of escalators, right near the indie booths (the closest to my target audience, I figured), with a couple of the crudest signs possible.

Pig Hunt @ PAX

For 3 hours on Saturday, and another 2 hours on Sunday, that worked pretty well. I talked to about 30 people – kids, students, indie supporters, casual gamers, & developers – and got a lot of great feedback. I got really lucky that it also attracted Jess at Joystiq’s attention, who posted about me turning tricks Sunday morning (something I found out about from some conference goers, actually). Thanks again to everyone who stopped by.

Eventually, the PAX enforcers asked me to leave the expo hall around 1:30PM Sunday, so I shifted out to the entrance hall for a few more hours, which didn’t attract anymore than a couple stares.

Without even seeing the download count, I walked away from the conference saying that the effort was worth it for the people I got to meet, their feedback, the nice bit of publicity, and the experience of trying to physically grab eyeballs. And did I mention that I got my photo taken with the legend of Spaceteam, Henry? Jealousy starts… now:

Spaceteam's Henry Smith

Takeaways:

  • There are a lot of people who like games, and PAX is a great place to find them.
  • No statistics, but I saw a lot more Android phones and talked to a lot more Android gamers than iOS gamers.
  • Only the really curious will ask you what you’re doing. You need to provide as many reasons for a person to stop and talk to you as possible.
  • Basic marketing: keep the friction as low as possible for people to look you up. Handouts like business cards are great, or just encourage people to take photos of a web address or something.
  • We could have made life a lot easier by setting this thing up on Kickstarter a couple months ago. Marketing, feedback, and money in advance while the game’s being made is a no-brainer. (If I decide to move this onto Android, we’d almost definitely go that route.)

The Build Up

Some quick notes on the development of our first iPhone game. Before we started this project we had limited coding experience in C with microprocessors, some minor web development work, and a little bit of playing around in Adobe CS. We’re also just two (fully-employed) people – one that focused heavy on the coding, one that focused mostly on the graphics.

Summary

Total man-hours 690 hrs
Start date 07/20/2012
Release date 03/09/2013
Duration 232 days (7 months & 7 days)
Avg man-hours/day 3.0 hrs/day
App Store Approval 7 days / 5 days (2 tries)

Breakdown

First demo game running: 12 hrs
From downloading Xcode, taking a couple of Apple’s standard tutorials and then running with some Ray Wenderlich tutorials.

Setup backend that recognizes a thumb drop: 168 hrs
We named the algorithm thumbShot. 12 hrs to setup the OpenCV framework on iOS;  12 hrs to setup a face tracking tutorial; 36 hrs of unsuccessfully trying a skin mask;  60 hrs of unsuccessfully building Haar filters; 48 hrs of revisiting the skin mask and getting it working. Lots of OpenCV learning.

Building game frontend: 148 hrs
Making cocos2d work for us: figuring out sprites, layers, setting up animations, etc. Getting the gyroscope to work. It couldn’t have been done without the geniuses writing at Ray Wenderlich.

Fusing frontend & backend: 24 hrs
Lots of tweaking and optimizing.

Graphics that shine: 188 hrs
Only about 30 graphics (background, flying ducks in 9 positions, dog in 4 positions, 6 instruction images, title, splash screen, HUD graphics, homescreen icon, screenshots). Includes 36 hr last minute rework to mitigate copyright concerns in the approval process.

Instructions that worked: 126 hrs
The gameplay is not what people are used to, and it’s hard to communicate. We started with static instructions, moved to simple interactive instructions (game waits for you to mimic the gesture), then bagged it and went with a video and detailed set of instructions for those who really wanted to know.

Marketing setup: 24 hrs
Setting up this blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Gmail account, developing a list of people to spam to review it, writing “meaningful” blog posts for posterity (& publicity).

Takeaways

We were surprised by:

  • How difficult it was to build simple and meaningful instructions for this game. Computer vision is especially tough to deal with on a mobile device because (1) it doesn’t work in all the conditions where a touch-based game does, and (2) it’s relatively new and different for most users. There’s definitely still room for our instructions to improve
  • How important graphics were to users. Without changing any of the thumbShot algorithm, putting some elbow grease into the graphics made people think that we’d significantly improved on the gesture control. Human perception is sometimes nowhere close to rational.
  • The little time it took us to build a reasonable gesture control algorithm. Going from zero knowledge to working algorithm in 180 hrs (about a week), is a testament to the amount of readily accesible platforms & information out there. God bless the Internet.

Now for the hardest part: distribution.

The Closest You’ll Ever Come to Really Shoot Flying Pigs

“Pig Hunt Space with thumbShot” is out in the App Store. In Drucker fashion, we’ll use this blog to highlight two things:

(1) The trials and tribulations of the marketing effort

(2) The inner workings of thumbShot, the gesture control technology in the game

But for now, go try out the app, and then tell your friends. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to really shoot flying pigs.