GDEX 2017 – Amazingly Creative Community and the Rise of Indie Developers

Indie devs at GDEX

The event I’d been looking forward to for weeks finally came along at the end of September 2017 – GDEX 2017. GDEX (The Game Developer Expo) is a major game developer expo in Columbus, Ohio of all places. I’m so lucky to have this event in what is pretty much my backyard. This is my third time attending this event and its fifth year running.

What makes GDEX so special? It’s mostly made up of super-passionate game developers, artists, musicians and people doing related stuff all coming together to show off the work they have poured their hearts and souls into. This year they had 100 exhibitors on the show floor.

The people exhibiting range anywhere from college kids making their first game to industry veterans going off and founding their own studios and sharing their new creations. On top of this, there are almost always sessions going on where you can hear inspiring talks and learn new things about making games.

FRIDAY – SEPTEMBER 29

Friday was GDEX’s Dev Day – a full day of learning workshops to attend while the actual show-floor is set up. They have an absolutely packed schedule with amazing speakers.

Session 1: Mars Ashton – A Four Step Process for Justified Game Design Essentially this session was about thinking through your game design so you end up designing what you want and don’t end up with a good or bad game on accident. Included in this talk were points on balancing time, scope and cost – which is a challenge with any kind of development. Games have the extra challenge of deciding what gameplay elements you want to include, what story you want to tell, and what style to tell it in.

During this session we got a nice little surprise in the form of live music being played right outside the conference room. There was a trio called Phoenix Down RPG that played woodwind instruments and either do classic video game or movie music and they started playing Star Wars while the speaker was showing example gameplay from Skyrim.

Session 2 – DB Cooper – Developing Voices This session was supposed to be Ashley Hawkins with Hey Listen! Why Sound is Important in Game Design but due to some issues the schedule got flipped around. We ended up with DB Cooper and Developing Voices which was a overview how how to get voice acting into your game. It wasn’t a talk I normally would have chose to go to, but since I was already in that room at the right time I checked it out and it was a pretty cool experience knowing what goes into that part of a game.

Session 3: Susan Shapiro of GravityDrive.com – Essential Game Testing Techniques Every Game Designer Should Know Susan has a ton of experience with usability testing in software and has chosen to focus on that brining psychology and understanding some things about how the human mind works to help make sure what you’re building is enjoyable for the users. Some key take-aways from this were asking the questions of “What’s the main idea of the game along with when, why, how, and where will it be played?”

For a game to be playable, it also has to be consistent, learnable, start easy and build difficulty gradually, and balance reward and punishment. The best way to find out if your game is good is just let people play it and just watch. This will turn up issues and problems in the game much faster than offering advice and information to play-testers before they play your game. After watching people play your game, then you can interview and do surveys to get more information.

SATURDAY – SEPTEMBER 30

Session 1: Novel Uses of Technology – this session was a overview of some ways that VSP – the vision insurance company many are familiar with from their employer’s insurance – have used new technology to enhance people’s lives. Among them: a VR “empathy” app that shows what it’s like to have certain eyesight problems, sunglasses made for Olympic athletes (they are light-weight, don’t fog up and won’t fall off), and health tracking hardware (similar to Fitbit) built into eyeglasses.

Sesson 2: [@Starlightskyes]( – Myths of the Game Industry This was the talk I was most looking forward to. Jillian is a friend I’ve known for a couple years now and a Twitch streamer I follow. She went through myths and misconceptions some people have about getting into the games industry. Most of them seem to come from questions she gets over and over and over again on Twitch or Twitter or real life at conferences. Her talk in a nutshell: game development is hard but if you’re curious, passionate, and it’s what you want to do, go do it. Jillian did not disappoint. Her talk has made me realize I’ve been kicking around the idea of developing games without giving it a real shot, so I should fix that shortcoming as soon as possible.

Sesson 3: Howard Tsao – The Apprenticeship of Pimm – The Journey to Shape a Kung Fu Fighting Hamster I missed a good chunk of this talk due but what I did see looked like a ton of fun. Howard’s team created Guns Icarus – a cooperative team vs. team game where you have each team piloting an airship and trying to blow each other up. What I heard was they did a game jam and came up with the idea of a Kung Fu Hamster and decided to go forward to make it a game worth selling.

With a fast action game, they had to constantly prototype, tweak and evolve the game. In this type of game, if you just react people hesitate and then they just wait for the next move to react to. On the flip side, if it’s just random button mashing people get bored so the trick is finding the balance there.

I did get to hear Howard talk about two lessons:

  1. “Fail fast and fail faster” by doing rapid prototypes, weekly builds and be self critical enough to discard anything that isn’t working.
  2. Think before you act – work from a spec through to a concept and reuse existing assets to try out new ideas before you put in the resources to build it for real.

Session 4 – Jeff Spoonhower – From AAA to Indie – 15 Years in the Game Industry – Jeff was a lead artist with some well known games like Bioshock 2 and decided to find someone equally talented and experienced in programming and go off and build his own games. The one in the works is “Anew: The Distant Light” and it looks amazing.

He talked about how making games is both stressful and joyful and how to get into the industry mainly from an artist’s perspective.

The big take away I took from this talk was “Never stop never stopping.” You have to have something that makes you unique and be willing to work a ton. One of the resources he mentioned I have not had a chance to check out was “The Twelve Principles of Animation.”

SUNDAY – OCTOBER 1

During Friday the expo floor was not set up and most of the day Saturday I was attending talks or catching up with people I’d met at previous conferences, hackathons, and game jams.

It was amazing the variety and number of games on display. The show-floor spread the entire width of one of the exhibit halls in the Columbus Convention Center and reached probably about 80 – 90% the length of the exhibit hall. This is on top of the breakout sessions in the smaller conference rooms.

There were at least two colleges and four game development groups represented there and I later found out that one of the booths had multiple developers sharing the cost so every couple hours there would be a different developer showing off their game.

On top of all this, they had an “Artist’s Alley” which was a smaller section where artists of all types could sell game related artwork such as prints, fabrics, and sculptures.

Due to the time I spent in the expo, I was only able to catch two sessions on Sunday.

Session 1: Amanda Warner – Designing Your Game for Real World Impact – I met Amanda in the game testing workshop on Friday and also ran into her at a the kickoff party Friday evening. She seemed to have an interesting story and great things to share, so I checked this session out.

Amanda had previously created a game called “Fake it to Make It” which was basically a Tycoon game in the vein of Game Dev Tycoon where it simulates running a small business creating fake news. This game attempts to teach the motives behind people creating fake news, how it works, how people make money off it, and probably most importantly, how to recognize fake news.

Part of Amanda’s talk was what makes a game (spoiler: trying to reach a goal by following rules) and ways games can have an impact on people. This can either be by sharing a skill or a message embedded within a game. One tool she uses to make sure to accomplish this is outcome maps. Decide what you’re trying to achieve with your game before you build it.

Session 2: SwankyBox – Creating Online – SwankyBox is a YouTuber that shares some fairly deep thoughts about video games, usually ones he grew up with. His talk focused on figuring out what you love to do deep in your soul and stay true to yourself by doing more of that. One of my favorite quotes from his talk “Become your life’s cartographer by drawing your own map.” Many creatives take non-traditional paths and must find their own way.

He also emphasized to not just chase money and not compare where you’re at to someone wildly successfully. This is comparing your in progress work to someone else’s endgame.

After his talk, I stayed to talk to him along with a few other people. I missed the GDEX closing awards ceremony so only know who won what due to GDEX’s Twitter & Facebook accounts. The other people who stayed to talk were people just starting out wanting to get into the games industry. As I stated before, this was my third GDEX. Also Stephanie aka @abitfrank was there in this discussion – she was on my Cleveland Give Camp 2015 team when we made a game about worms and compost for VeggieU. I said something about just starting to get into game development and realized that I’ve been pretty much saying that for the last three years. I need to either give it a real shot or just say I’ll do it later. This in-between poking it with a stick every few months has got to stop.

GAMES AND PEOPLE THAT STOOD OUT

There were too many games and people at GDEX to mention them all, so I am just going to list the most creative, generous, and unique ones.

Jen Linville – Jen was a music composer I met that had the most unique and generous “business card” I’ve ever seen. When I was talking about how much I love games with a good soundtrack, she mentioned she was out of business cards but had an MP3 player all loaded up with a few of her songs. A business card with a Soundcloud, Bandcamp, or similar link may have just ended up in a pile to be forgotten, but having a hardware device with charging cable and headphones pretty much guaranteed I’d at least give a song or two a listen. I ended up listening to it three times over the weekend because the music sounded like what would show up in the games I love.

Jarryd Huntley – Jarryd was the sound guy on our Cleveland Give Camp 2015 project and has a book out called Game Programming for Artists that I am seriously considering picking that up for my wife. I would love to work with her on building games and my graphics abilities are about as close to zero as I can be without having skipped elementary art classes in school. Jarryd also has a game called Art Club Challenge about creating art that I have tried out before.

Zac “Fierce” PierceBombfest – Popular Vote award – I’ve run into Zac at a few events and have been following the game’s development. It’s been improving by leaps and bounds. He also outdid himself by bringing an actual couch and TV and controllers to the conference so people could have the best experience possible trying out his game.

Mage Quit – This game looked like a blast! Every time I stopped by there was a full ten player game going, except the one time I stopped by and the people running GDEX were kicking people out because they were closing down. I ended up buying it.

Rogues Like Us – Another repeat visitor to GDEX that I really enjoyed playing in the past. They have got their game onto Steam Early Access and wanted more feedback on it. Their solution: give everyone at GDEX a Steam code to get a free copy of their game!

Collapsus by Wraith Games – Yet another repeat visitor. This one has been in development since at least 2012 going by their YouTube channel. It looks like a mostly done game but they keep adding polish to it, more game modes, more special pieces. Their generous way of getting feedback is put the HTML5 version of their weekly builds up on Itch.io so anyone with a desktop browser capable of running WebGL (should be any computer made this decade) can give the game a whirl.

Ultra Button Masher – this was more of an installation art project that happens to be a game. This was a 100-button controller hooked up to a game that reminded me of Street Fighter II. The left 50 buttons controlled player one and the right 50 buttons controlled player two. Every round, the game randomizes what each button does. One round the button may do a super uppercut, the next round it may kick and the next round it may turn your character orange with purple polka-dots and make bits of the screen go fuzzy. The lady who built the game said the this is just the initial prototype and the final will be 1,000 buttons!

Gravity Pong – probably the most fun I had at GDEX was the 2 on 2 game of Gravity Pong. It was awesome chaos. Unfortunately the game will be coming out with a different name. Pong is trademarked.

Math Miner VR – this game was an educational children’s VR game that runs on iOS and Android created by one of my teammates from Global Game Jam 2017. He gave out free download codes for his game in a vending machine made for toys in those little clear plastic balls. Each ball also included a Math Miner VR pin.

WaveCrash!!! – This was a head-to-head battle game where you matched three or more colored blocks to send an attack at the other player. It was loads of fun.

CONCLUSION

GDEX was one of the best weekends of this year for me. It was totally worth taking the day off on Friday and trying to get to everything. I think next year I will take the following Monday off work, this was exhausting.

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