GDC 2017: lessons learned, and the state of visual novel development

Last week, we attended GDC to meet with press, publishers, platform holders, and generally represent Necrobarista.  Of course, when you get a bunch of game developers in the same city together, a lot of shenanigans ensue, sometimes fun, sometimes useful, and oftentimes both.

It was a packed and productive week, and as a relatively young studio, one of the most important things we did at GDC was learn from the experience, so here’s a recap of some of the most important lessons we took away.

Keep your eyes open.  You might just run into someone you recognize.

In fact, there are so many famous people wandering around GDC that it’s hard not to stumble into one of them before the end of the event.  Sometimes, they’re even gracious enough to pose for a selfie with you if you ask nicely.

Our artist, Ngoc Vu, posing for a grainy selfie with Christine Love at GDC 2016

It’s a good time to call yourself a VN dev

Christine Love’s Ladykiller in a Bind won the IGF award for Excellence in Narrative on Wednesday night.  Oh, and Lucy Blundell’s One Night Stand was also a nominee for the same category.  So if you’re a visual novel developer, you’re in good company.

Over the past few years working on this project, I’ve gotten used to explaining what VNs are, whether it be in the context of pitching to investors, or conversation at a dinner party.  I didn’t have to do it at GDC.  I could tell people, “I’m working on a visual novel,” and they’d nod in acknowledgement. Granted, the folks you find at GDC aren’t a representative sample of the general population, but people in the gamedev community still seem to have a general awareness of what VNs are despite their “niche” nature.

This “niche” is not so small, but it still feels intimate

The VN devs meetup that we hosted on Wednesday also got surprising turnout.  Around thirty people RSVP’d, and even more showed up.

I got there an hour late, but still in time to catch the buzz

It was great to meet the people who turned out, many of whom I’ve corresponded with or followed online for years.  The EVN community has always had a special place in my heart for its almost relentless positivity, and it was wonderful to meet some of you in real life.

This is actually our second time hosting the event (last year, Ngoc was the sole member of our team representing Route 59 at GDC), and this thing is already big enough that we’re looking into moving into a more substantial venue for next year.

It’s a tiny freaking world (and it makes me feel big sometimes)

After we checked in at the indie hostel, Kevin and I got to chat a bit with our new roommates, giving us a chance to practice standard ice-breakers like “what game are you working on.”  When we mentioned that we were working at Necrobarista, one of our roommates remarked that he was actually familiar with the title, having heard its announcement at Visual;Conference.

I didn’t expect there to be much overlap in the venn diagram of “people who watched my talk at Visual;conference” (an audience of around 80 people) and “random strangers I roomed with at the indie hostel” (two people), but there you go.

Meetings with press and other cool people

Press meetings are fun!  At least, I had fun.  After spending years away toiling away behind closed doors, it was almost a relief to finally have the chance to talk about our game and show our press build to folks including GamespotGame Informer,  and Kotaku, where we got included in write-ups and articles.

Perhaps even more encouraging than the mentions we got in press outlets are the conversations we got to had with the people behind them.  There’s something very gratifying about seeing someone else get excited and interested by the project you’re working on, and those small human moments can be a great reminder for the reasons we started working in gamedev in the first place.

All of the above also applies to meetings with other parties, like publishers and platform holders, with the added point that their remarks often tend to come with useful and actionable advice from the business side of things.  (There’s a bit of a difference between “I personally think this looks really cool” (oftentimes the press’s role), and “this looks commercially viable and I can see a real audience for it” (which is usually the evaluation you get from someone representing a publisher).

Actual GDC Talks

Along with “Who do you work for” and “what are you working on,” my go-to ice-breaker throughout the week was “Been to any interesting talks today?”  Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the single most common answer I got to this question throughout the week was, “Actually, I haven’t been to any talks today.  Or prior to today.”  Another common sentiment was, “Oh yeah, there’s a bunch of talks on the schedule that look interesting, I’ll have to check them out when they appear in the vault (online).” Turns out that a good way to measure your productivity at GDC is by counting the number of talks you have (not) been to; if you didn’t have any time to go to talks, it’s probably because you were too busy with business meetings or press appointments.

How busy were we at GDC?  I went to one talk the entire week.  Kevin went to one.  Ngoc went to zero.

No rest for the weary

The number of indie devs we met who attended GDC last week and are now at PAX East this weekend?  Shockingly high.  However, I think the award for busiest March goes to KG Tan, who did Train Jam, GDC proper, PAX East, and is also working on a visual novel for NaNoRenO.  Dude, when do you find time to sleep?

That Party

aka Wild Rumpus, for those who didn’t find the Mild Rumpus to be sufficiently lively.

for those that prefer that their rumpus be less wild

Pro tip: the real party is outside.  It masquerades as a “smoking area,” but it’s really a “wow I can actually hear what the person next to me is saying, fancy that” area.  (But I guess “smoking area” is more succinct.)

Parents make good playtesters

My parents are lovely people, they live in California a few hours’ drive from SF, and I haven’t seen them since Christmas, so after GDC, we paid them a visit and let them take a spin on the press demo that we’d been showing off for the past week.

My dad is not a toupee kind of guy

Though the job of the “gaming press” is often to represent the consumer, people who play lots of game (ourselves included) tend to take certain things for granted—there are some parts of gaming syntax that are just generally understood, whether it’s WASD to move in an FPS, right click to move units in an RTS, or left-click to advance through text boxes in a visual novel.

When watching people playtest a game, I always try to mentally catalog their reaction to the things they’re seeing, but I also try to track my own reactions as I’m watching them play, and I caught myself having to stop myself from saying “just click to advance” more than once.  (I managed to restrain myself, and they managed to figure it out on their own after a few seconds of hesitation.)

The veggie bowl at Chipotle already contains guacamole.  You do not need to order extra.

Otherwise, you end up with this:

Ngoc could not handle the guac

Overall, it was an overwhelmingly wonderful experience.  We had lots of fun, met some awesome people, had some very productive business meetings, learned lots, and walked away with a renewed enthusiasm for the game we’re working on.  Hope to see you guys next year!

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