Adam here! Holy smokes, PAX East 2016 was incredible! It was a great opportunity for us to have Astroneer played by hundreds of people at the Indie MEGABOOTH while the game is still being developed.
WHAT IS PAX AND THE INDIE MEGABOOTH?
For those unfamiliar, PAX is the Penny Arcade Expo and happens a few times a year. It’s a massive convention for gamers, developers, and anyone who enjoys a good video game or tabletop game (or two). Indie MEGABOOTH is a large area of the convention that rivals the size of AAA booths found at such an event, packed full of great games from independent developers. It was originally founded when 16 studios pooled their resources together to show their games at PAX East 2012, on the same floor as larger AAA studios. Since then it has grown to work with over 70 developers across 5 showcases a year. For your game to be apart of the IMB, you need to submit your game where it will be played and reviewed by the IMB to ensure it reaches their criteria of what games can be apart of the event. Lucky for us, Astroneer was chosen and we were able to attend our first PAX as a team.
WHY DID WE ATTEND?
Simply put: Feedback. Attending PAX East was really important to us – just as important as working on the game itself. The more people who we can have play the game with 1-on-1 time with someone from the team means we can get direct, honest feedback about the experiences people are having with the game. Gamers, content-creators, and other developers came by to play for as long as they wanted and sat to talk with us during and after having just played. We’ve come back with pages of positive and constructive feedback for us to review as we work on building the game for a release on Steam Early Access later this year. Some common feedback we heard at the event was:
- The game’s visuals are very striking and resonate well with a lot of people. From a far distance to just inches away from the screen the look of the game held up to a lot of people. We heard a lot of exciting comments about the art style.
- The terrain deformation is new and exciting to a lot of people. “I haven’t seen anything like this before” was a common comment. When they were able to use it for practical gameplay they seemed to really light up. For our PAX East demo, for instance, you can use terrain deformation to protect you or your base from sandstorms.
- The diegetic “3D” interface of the game both excited people while also offering a small learning curve to fully grasp. This is a really important feature to the game that we’ll be further ironing out as we lead up to launch. Astroneer has no (to very limited) 2D UI that you might see in other games, so it’s important that we get this tested often and honestly. PAX was a great opportunity for that and we definitely walked away with some very useful feedback.
- Like us, a lot of people are excited about space exploration as a theme, as it pertains to our lives now. Everyone on the team is very interested in space travel – the Mission to Mars, for instance – and working on a game like Astroneer lets us really explore those themes. And it seems a lot of people who played it feel the same way we do. And since we’re not aiming to make Astroneer a simulation experience, that means the topic is accessible and fun for a lot of people.
- The base building really excited people. We have a great tutorial space that happens on a moon that is orbiting a very large planet in the PAX build. That tutorial space has a small mining base set up, with rails and a power infrastructure that automates some of the steps it would take to find ice, refine it to hydrogen, and use that hydrogen to fuel your shuttle back to the planet. That set up and design will ultimately fall on the individual Astroneer’s to set up and that had a lot of people really excited. (For the sake of time in the demo we pre-built that layout so people could experience what a functioning base might look and feel like.)
HOW DID WE GET TO PAX EAST?
Easy! We packed our hardware into our luggage and showed up at the front door of the Boston Convention Center, begging until someone let us in.
It was a lot more involved than that. After we had submitted our game to the Indie MEGABOOTH, the folks at Epic found out that we were hoping to showcase our game and, along with 3 other games using Unreal Engine 4, sponsored us at the event. Their sponsorship helped us out with TV rentals, some banners, and fees. Epic has been a huge supporter of Astroneer and this is just one example of that.
WHAT WAS THE PAX EAST BUILD LIKE?
Once we knew would be attending PAX East as a part of the Indie MEGABOOTH, we spent a couple of weeks after the Games Developers Conference (GDC) where we stripped the GDC build down and rebuilt a new one. For example, the GDC build happened on a single planet and offered very little by way of experiencing a functioning base. For PAX, we start you on the moon of a planet where you experienced not one base, but two. The moon acted as tutorial space while the planet opened up to show off some of the game’s sandbox.
The PAX build let players experience a number of exciting features of the game:
- Interplanetary travel
- Terrain deformation
- Resource discovery and 3D printing
- Power management
- World discoveries (Wreckages, large crystal extraction)
- Cave spelunking
- Natural risks (sandstorms, hazardous plants, difficult terrain challenges)
- Functioning base systems
- Rovers, Cranes, and transport shuttles
WHAT WAS IT LIKE SHOWING THE GAME?
At first it was really nerve racking, actually. This is the first time that gamers and press would be getting their hands on Astroneer and seeing that for the first time certainly can be stressful. Over time it got a lot easier, and really fun, as more and more people were having positive experiences with the game.
I mentioned it earlier in this blog post, but having 1-on-1 time with people new to the game was incredibly important to us. And while the event is so loud to the point that we’re almost yelling to one another at times, those conversations we had will make the game better in the long run.
We found that a good mix of people would come by the booth, too: Some folks had been following us on Twitter and were excited to finally play, others had no idea about the game and just saw our 7×4’ vinyl poster while walking. Some young, some old, and everyone in between seemingly have an interest in interplanetary exploration and feeling like an Astronaut with a mission.
One of my favourite moments is when I got to show a young brother and sister our game. They were 7 and 4 and all they wanted to do was play our game. Their eldest broke down crying when he saw he was too short to reach the controls. Seeing that, I dumped all our stuff off a chair we had so that he could stand on it and play. As a father myself and someone playing games since I was their kids’ age it really got to me. Astroneer is already something special to me, in my life, but getting moments like that really makes it remarkable. I’ll never forget it.
PAX East was also a great opportunity for our team to talk about the game with press: Something we weren’t that familiar with when we were working in the AAA space of game development. Journalist and content creators from the likes of PC Gamer and Kotaku came by, to EquityArcade and Blakcman & Robin to give us on-floor interviews. That kind of exposure of the game to their audiences is a great thing for us and the game. We are always happy to do them.
Something that we hadn’t anticipated but is good to remember for our next event is that there is time before and after the exhibitions are open to the public for other exhibitors to come by and play your game. Since this is a video game themed event, that meant that a lot of other developers had a chance to stop by and play. Showing our game to gamers is important, but having 1-on-1 time with other developers is a great learning opportunity, as well. The questions we get asked by other developers tend to be about launch strategies, development challenges, gameplay R&D, and so on.
Gamers, journalists, and developers all had a chance to play our game, ask questions, and give their two cents on the experience they had. That alone makes a trip to something like PAX East well worth the time and energy spent to get there.
There’s a lot of people I’d like to say thank you to for helping with such an awesome event.
The System Era team: You guys are the best. The build came together real nice and the next few months leading up to our release will be a lot of fun.
Maggie and Dave! We had 2 friends come with us to Boston to help at the booth and both Maggie and Dave did such a great job. Whether it was explaining the game to people as if you’ve been playing it for 2 years or helping us with coffee and tools runs you guys were great help.
Epic has been an incredible help to us over the past few months and PAX East is a fine example of that. Their sponsorship meant we were able to come to Boston to show the game and the feedback we’ve received will be priceless.
The IndieMEGABOOTH team: Thank you so much for having us. It was not only our first IMB experience but also the first PAX experience for a lot of us on the team. We’re incredible grateful for the oppotunity of showing the game in your booth.
Astorneer will be a better game for having attending PAX East 2016 and we have everyone who came by to play it, ask us questions about the game, and give their feedback on what they experienced to thank for that. On behalf of the System Era team thank you so much for giving us your time and doing that.
May 2016 onward
With PAX East 2016 over our involvement with events will likely be small to non-existent up until we’re ready to launch. We need the following months to put our heads down and get to work, to ensure the game is the best it can be when we launch to Steam Early Access later this year.
In a couple of weeks we’re also going to start to look at doing live streams of the games’ development on our Twitch page. We’d love to expose to you our development process and answer any questions about its development or the game itself that we can.
As usual we’ll be participating in #screenshotsaturday on our Twitter and Facebook, as well as continue to write on our blog and offer media on the game whenever possible. We’ll also be talking soon about private testing of the game so if you’d love to help us make the launch of Astroneer be a great one, be on the look out for that. (And as a reminder, our Newsletter is the best place to sign-up to so you can get the news on that immediately as it happens.)
Astroneer will be available on Steam Early Access this year for Windows and Mac OS.
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