Box Macabre at GDC 2009
By Brit Baker – Lead Game Designer
In 1776, Spanish missionaries established a small settlement and fort on a bay in western North America which would eventually come to be known in modern times as the city of San Francisco. This is fairly well known to historians, but what is not as widely known is that these early settlers came to this area seeking video games. Finding none, the stubborn Spaniards decided that if they stuck around long enough, surely video games would eventually appear if they maintained proper faith.
233 years later, Perfect Dork Studios made their way to the 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to show the new demo of their upcoming game Box Macabre. A hearty “gracias!” is owed to the missionaries of long ago who made it all possible.
Day One – Another mission in the making
The 2009 Game Developers Conference was held from March 23rd to March 27th. Perfect Dork Studios flew out on Tuesday the 24th to get settled in to our hotel and prepare for our presence at the Garage Games booth during the 3 day exposition at GDC that ran Wednesday through Friday. I know I was very excited, and I’m pretty sure all of us were.
(left) Me, Alan and Billy on Day 1- looking forward to the show.
(right) A box of boxes! This was only a fraction of the total we brought.
Our luggage was packed with nifty foam pieces with cutouts that could be assembled into a little Box Macabre. This was a marked improvement over the paper cutouts that we brought to Austin GDC (although those still proved memorable and really got people interested in our game). These were sturdier and easy to assemble. We had a thousand of these, which took up a lot of room, so we brought our largest suitcases to accommodate them. If we look a little rough in some of these pictures, my only defense is that the foam giveaways took up enough space to prevent us from bringing our usual supply of beautification products.
In addition, we had some awesome T-shirts to bring along, some to act as our show “uniform” and some to give away as additional swag. One T-shirt had the Perfect Dork Studios logo on the front, and the other had the face of Box himself.
(left) The Garage Games booth under construction – unaware of the impending chaos. We were between the booths for America’s Army and Scottish Development International, which in the site map was abbreviated SDI and prompted me to ask “The Strategic Defense Initiative makes video games????”
(right) Charles could have sworn that was working correctly just minutes ago!
We arrived in San Francisco and checked into our hotel. After a lunch of Thai food it was time to get the lay of the land and do last minute coding and testing back at the room. Billy held the exhibitor pass, so he took a quick excursion to Moscone South Hall to find the Garage Games booth and learn where we would be setting up our demo. Thankfully the booth was very close to the restrooms, just in case our excitement reached bladder-threatening proportions.
Our demo for this show was entirely different from the demo we had brought to Austin GDC where we met the Garage Games people, learned how terrific they were, and established the relationship with them that led to their invitation to be part of their GDC booth this time around. We put together a different sequence of rooms to show off all of Box’s abilities (including some new ones) as well as an example of a boss battle that also showcased our intention to include some much larger, more open areas for Box to explore. We felt we had something special, so I’m not sure any of us slept very soundly due to anticipation of getting to put it in front of people and let them play it.
Day Two – The Expo begins
(left) The booth early on Day 1 of the Expo – already packed with party people. A pile of foam Box Macabres is on the table up front.
(right) Box Macabre being played on the show floor – we had two machines dedicated to it; I’m watching a second person play it on the other side.
I really can’t say enough about Garage Games and the job they did in making their booth one of the busiest at the show. They absolutely nailed it down it terms of working with developers to make sure their booth was about the games that were being created with their engines. In hard economic times when many large developers had pulled out of the show to avoid costs, Garage Games was there as a presence that illustrated the smaller indie developers were taking the stage. I had so many discussions with people who expressed interest in TorqueX 3D – the engine we were using, but there was interest in the other Torque engines in equal amounts. Nearly every engine had a polished and working example of a game created with it, and live demo slots set aside for each one. During the rare moments when I wasn’t showing or talking about Box Macabre, I got to see the impressive amount of people checking out the other games.
From my standpoint as a designer, it was such a rush to stand and watch people play Box Macabre, especially when they reacted to a specific moment with a smile or an involuntary noise of satisfaction. I also got to see where some people experienced frustration when we expected them to accomplish something a little too complex for just starting out. This too was very educational – even though the demo was simply intended to show a lot of things in a short play time, I still learned some important things about flow of difficulty that is already helping me in the design process for the full product. This was made possible through the generosity and hospitality of Garage Games.
(left) Billy G. doing the live developer interview with Michael Perry of Garage Games.
(right) The same interview as people at home (possibly in their underwear) would see it, via webcast.
Another feather in the Garage Games cap is their strong dedication to their community. Nearly the entire show at the booth was transmitted via live webcast for their customers and users to view if they couldn’t make the trip to be there in person. This included live interviews with many Torque developers, including our own fearless leader of Perfect Dork Studios, Billy G! I assume he’s fearless at least – I have never asked him how he feels about spiders. If you missed the webcast and would like to revel in his rich baritone voice, click the link here:
Billy appears at around the 6:30 mark, but all the live interviews from all 3 expo days are worth a look.
The first day on the show floor was so much fun that I really never wanted to tear myself away from the booth to check out any of the other exhibitors. As fun as it was, the next day would be the day of our live demo of Box Macabre, presented on the big screen. Another sleepless night lay ahead – which if you must know included some partying at karaoke bars. But who needs sleep really? As the saying goes “I’ll sleep when I’m dead unless my soul is trapped in a box.”
(left) The escalators leading down to the expo hall in Moscone South – I like to imagine this speeded up with Phillip Glass music in the background.
(right) This was the stack of foam boxes we had left after day one. It looks like a lot, but at this point we already could tell we would easily run out before the conference was through.
Day Three – Live Demo Day!
(left) Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The live demo is about to begin.
(right) Here we see our composer Andrew Sigler sharing his views on music, and NOT the white spandex clad women working the N-Gage booth.
Day three was the second full day of the GDC Expo, and in many ways went a lot like the first. The booth was every bit as crowded, if not more so, and we got to meet and talk to a lot more great people and share our game. The main difference was having the opportunity to present the demo live on the big screen to an audience. We had been making sure to tell people to come back to see the live demo, even if they’d stopped by and played it themselves already. This is not merely because the live demo represented, in my opinion, the “official” unveiling of Box Macabre. There was another reason we wanted people to be there.
The one element missing from the demo as it ran at our designated stations was audio. Even if speakers had been provided, the show floor is a very noisy bustling place and the audio of the demo would get lost in the shuffle. We have been blessed to have the services of Andrew Sigler as our composer, and the experience of Box Macabre is not complete unless you can hear the music he has added to it. At Austin GDC, Billy and I attended a seminar that stressed the value of adding audio to the development process as early as possible, and not treat the music as an afterthought. We took this to heart and have not regretted it at all. As a designer, Andy’s music has fed my design decisions as much as he has used our design to inform his musical choices. I met several composers at GDC, and when I told them that we embraced this philosophy of sound as integral to early design, their eyes always lit up from having their value reinforced in this way.
Billy handled the demo brilliantly, as I knew he would. Billy is very passionate about Perfect Dork Studios, and the games we want to make, and it shows in the way he talks about what we do. When you are in a discussion with him, you will be swept along by this passion and clarity of intention. But as much as he enjoys talking about Box Macabre, he knew that the best live demo would involve letting the game speak for itself. There was time to talk about the Torque engine (a duty he shared with our main engine programmer Alan), but the entire last part of the demo was devoted to a complete playthrough, audio and all. This is where all our hard work came together.
You can see the entire presentation (with our gameplay programmer Charles manning the controller) here:
During the demo, I was moving around the booth, taking pictures of the assembled crowd and feeling the high. To see our game on that big screen, with the music turned up loud, was indescribable. When the bird boss made his entrance, I could not stop the grin from stretching my face. Our animator Tony Salvaggio was responsible for all the bird’s animations, and they looked fantastic on the screen. Every move of the bird contributed to a real feeling of battle taking place with our little boxy hero fighting for his soul. When the final credits screen came on, if you’d been standing near me I probably would have tried to kiss you. Strictly platonic, you understand. All that was left to do was hand out the T-shirts (which were already in high demand) to the crowd.
As Billy said at the end – it was only a taste of things to come. As enjoyable as it was, the feeling of accomplishment was fleeting. Now it was time to deliver on the promise of the demo and roll up our sleeves and start the real work.
Day Four – Bumbling through to the end.
(left) Aaron Murray of Tandem Games and Alan. I believe this is called “giddiness”.
(right) Bumble Tales, a collaboration of Tandem Games and Perfect Dork Studios, coming out May 2009. Shout out to Aaron, Troupe, Drew and Fernando!
The final expo day is nearly lost in sleep deprived fog, much like the fog that rolls in off San Francisco Bay, except this fog forces you to use clichéd metaphors a month or so later. However, at noon that day there was another live demo of note for the Perfect Dorks. Tandem Games showed their addictive match 3 game “Bumble Tales”, made with the Torque Game Builder (TGB). Billy and I met Aaron, the founder of Tandem, at the Austin Independent Gaming Conference back in November. That meeting led to Perfect Dork’s involvement in the project, contributing the art to this fun and colorful game. We spent a lot of time with the Tandem guys in San Francisco, and it was thrilling to see the reception Bumble Tales got. This game is a standout, with a great whimsical style. It is impossible to play it and not smile. Keep an eye out for it – as you read this, it may already be available at a digital distribution portal near you!
It was a shorter day than the others, with a definite sense of winding down. All our foam boxes had been given away; our luggage would be considerably lighter, as well as certain wallets. Before we knew it, the show was coming to an end. We made our last rounds of the expo, collecting freebies and saying goodbyes. If you would like to get the authentic feeling of the very final moments of the GDC 2009 Expo, have someone begin tearing the carpeting up from your floor while you read these closing paragraphs.
I hope everyone will keep following this space for updates on Box Macabre. I would love to tell you some of the interested parties we talked to about possible release portals and platforms, but I’m afraid that will just have to stay under wraps for now. I can tell you some of the minor “celebrities” in the gaming world we spotted during our time there – Industry Analyst Michael Pachter, IGN’s Jessica Chobot, Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann (who is not only a personal hero of mine, but apparently a ninja), and coolest of all Cliff Bleszinski and Mike Capps of Epic Games, who actually took a little time out of their busy day to see Box Macabre in action.
Many thanks and best wishes to all the people we met, and another extra special thanks to Garage Games for making it all possible. Let’s do it all again in 2010!
Brit Baker, Lead Designer –Perfect Dork Studios
(left) Garage Games’ Deborah Marshall says “Peace, out!”
(right) And so do we at Perfect Dork– Charles Speer, Brit Baker, Alan Uthoff and Billy Garretsen.