The disappointment of gaming exhibitions

I do love games and it is always fun to try out new games. In particular I love getting to try weird and whacky games, plus relive old ones.

Games exhibitions are always a great opportunity to learn about new games and events like Gamescom and PAX can show us the big hits for the next few years, although I won’t be discussing them – I’ve not been as a gamer, only a game dev. What interests me more are the events not for just gamers, where kids and their parents can learn about games. Also where you get to see some of the more innovative and interesting games out there, rather than Call of Duty 17.

My first experience of Journey was at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh’s “Games Masters” exhibit. I picked up control whilst stood on a hill in a blizzard with my character staring at the ground. Quick look around and I saw what looked to be a gate. Took a few minutes to walk through the snow, which was very nicely done, only to find what seemed to be a dead end. Looked behind me and at the top of the hill I’d just come down I saw something flying and a castle so I headed back up. After a few minutes I couldn’t walk any more so I let the next person waiting for a go take over.

And that was my experience of Journey.

Obviously I didn’t do a great deal here and maybe I missed something, however it does highlight the flaw in these events where you have a quick shot of several games. Unless you’re a selfish git hogging a game for ages, there’s a very limited window to really get into a game, which has two major drawbacks. The obvious one is that learning a game when starting at a random point is not easy – bordering on impossible. I’ve played a couple of games where I know that I can do loads of cool stuff, but no idea how. That lack of a tutorial phase really hinders initial impressions as it isn’t fun to suck.

Secondly you don’t really get an opportunity to get immersed. You tend to lack context as to where you are and what you are meant to be doing. You are unfamiliar with the story and don’t have an opportunity to really get involved so it is irrelevant. Kind of missing the point for some games! You are missing a lot of the real “experience”, whether that is the atmosphere or the core gameplay as you are wandering around aimlessly when I was meant to be either in an intense fight or emotionally involved.

Arcade style games however do work very well as these events, as do platformers and many mobile games. These are games designed to be easily picked up so within 30 seconds, you have a decent idea of what you are doing. Blast the enemy spaceships? Got it. Press A to jump and X to attack? Got it. Match three colours and try to do it in a chain? Got it. These are games that work great.

I’ve exhibited at games events before, both for small indie games and also larger big budget titles. The larger title was quite complex to get to grips with so we were just demonstrating it. This worked pretty well as we could show players what the game would be like to play, rather than them struggling whilst getting shot over and over (it was a multiplayer). We actually partially staged a lot of the fights with the team at the office helping ensure that we just won the fights. Videos were also used a lot at shows by us, and a lot of other developers.

Smaller exhibitions often have more hands on
Smaller exhibitions often have more hands on

When demonstrating my indie games, taking my pick up and play titles was easy enough – brief overview of the controls and everyone was away. To minimize the issue for the more complicated game, I brought a demo which had a basic tutorial and selection of good levels to show. This can work for a lot of games that are being exhibited. It is about controlling the player’s experience. If you have no control over where the player starts and their experience then, like with my hands on with Journey, they could walk away having not enjoyed or really appreciated a wonderful game.

Of course it isn’t a trivial ask, but providing a pre-defined save file with special functionality to lock the player to a selection of levels – or a stripped down build – is definitely what you need. I guess the issue is that you probably don’t get all that many sales from smaller events geared towards the general public. Compared to the likes of

To me, having a special build is the “hands on” equivalent of the rigged gameplay that you get in videos and live demonstrations. Developers are ensuring the game is shown in a favourable manner and in a way that will help players best appreciate the game design and what makes it interesting. For gamers it means when they pick up a game they aren’t completely clueless and don’t walk away describing a wonderful and innovative game as “a load of shite” simply because they didn’t “get it”. Perhaps equally important, it also means those attending exhibitions enjoy the day more because they’ve been able to enjoy so many games, rather than try several until they find one they can pick up and enjoy.

So yeah, I’ve been to a few games events and they often suffer from having a limited time to really play and get to grips with a game. Some types of games suit these events but others really don’t, which is a shame really as these are often the games that can help show the wider world how wonderful and varied games can be – not just shooting and Mario.

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