IF Demo Fair: Lessons Learned

Several people have suggested to me that we should do more demo fairs in the future. I’m not done wrapping up the last tasks for this one — I’m still finishing the SPAG coverage, and I owe mail to some authors — so the prospect of running one again myself is vaguely daunting. But in case it’s useful in the future, here are some postmortem thoughts.

Things that worked:

Number of entrants and quality of work. We got a lot of interest, much more than I anticipated. (That itself is a lesson. Don’t count on there being just six or seven items.) People brought awesome things. Yay! Since I can claim no credit for that, I also have no idea how to encourage it to happen again, but hey.

Outreach beyond the IF community. The Demo Fair included a couple of graphical adventure games, a one-button platformer, and some entries from academic/new media creators, thanks (maybe) to mentions of the Demo Fair on the TIGSource forums and Play This Thing!, and some direct outreach to academic groups I thought might be interested. Worth doing this again, more systematically next time, and ideally starting from more than six weeks ahead.

Program. Thanks to my friendly local graphic designer, we had a printed booklet with titles, descriptions, and author contact information for the demos. We put a stack of these in the IF suite in advance of the fair proper, so people could check out the program and see whether they wanted to come. I saw people using their programs as an aid to navigating the fair, and they may have been a useful advertisement as well. Would do this again.

Self-organization. The entrants who were there did a fantastic job of setting themselves up, being on the ball, and presenting their work. I was half-expecting to have to do a bunch of fire-fighting — helping people find extension cords, turning up paper and writing implements for folks with last minute sign-making needs, discovering that there wasn’t quite enough table space really, etc. But people were pretty much on this. We also benefitted from the general good planning that led the PR-IF folk to furnish the IF meeting room with lots of cords and tape and useful things.

Signage, sort of. I made signs with the name of each author and work so that people could stand these on their tables and make their stuff identifiable from a distance. That was okay, but could have been better: printing these on card stock would have made them easier to fold into stands; printing them on brighter paper would have made them stand out more from a distance. I had intended to do both of those things, but the business center options I wound up with only included plain white copier paper, so that’s what we used. Next time, make the signs more in advance.

Things I wish I’d done/been able to do:

Ask people whether their games use sound. This didn’t occur to me as a primary concern, and consequently I didn’t worry about having enough headphones among the equipment provided. We had some, but not enough for every game that would have benefited thereby.

Remind entrants that their work will be getting at best 5 minutes of attention at a time. The demo fair floor was moderately noisy and chaotic, and people were milling around a lot; and sometimes there might be other people waiting to have a try with the same project. So the most successful demos were those that revealed whatever-it-is they were demonstrating within the first thirty seconds or so of interaction. Games with a non-standard UI were at an advantage here. Games with a long, relaxed intro, not so much, even if that intro would be awesome in another context.

Provide proper feedback forms. I had paper and pens available for people to write responses to work by absent authors, and some did write. Many didn’t, though. I imagine it’s impossible to make everyone do this, but it might have helped had I (a) more loudly reminded everyone about the importance of said feedback at the beginning of demo fair; and (b) offered some scale-of-1-to-10-type form questions that were easy for people to fill out quickly, with room for longhand comment below. I had in fact intended to put something like that together, but the intention was wiped out by illness. I think it would have helped, at least some. (Having said that, of course, I have to admit that I don’t know what would be a useful set of feedback questions, given how completely dissimilar the entries were. Maybe I should also have asked authors to give me a couple of questions they were hoping to get answered by people looking at their work.)

Require (not just permit) artist’s statements from anyone who wasn’t going to be presenting in person. It’s not always easy to understand the intent behind a given demonstration is, especially when you only have a few minutes to interact with it. Pieces that had the context of a written explanation from the artist were easier to grok — and because of the limited time people had to engage with things, they were less likely to write any feedback at all about works they didn’t understand the point of.

Have enough computers for every individual game to have its own. We didn’t, quite: there were a few games submitted by not-present people that had to share space, even despite the generous laptop-sharing by PR-IF members. I did investigate renting extra laptops for the occasion, but it was looking like that would cost a couple hundred dollars each for three or four machines, so I balked. But the games that weren’t able to be presented on their own dedicated machines suffered somewhat in the amount of attention they got. I did try to mitigate this by supervising those machines a bit, swapping which game was presented foremost at any given time, etc. But it was still a barrier for those games that didn’t exist for the others. Not sure how to guarantee this unless by using a venue (like a university) that has a full-scale computer lab. But most computer labs would be uncomfortable to mill around in, because that’s not what they’re made for. Hm.

Plan how the fair will close a little more carefully. I’d been so focused on set-up that I didn’t give as much thought to a graceful closing, so what happened is that I got people’s attention and asked at the top of my voice (which is to say, a hoarse whisper-shout) for people to start cleaning up and putting things away. Then I remembered belatedly to get their attention again and (a) thank the entrants (who really deserved a round of applause) and (b) remind people to give feedback. This would have been better done in the right order, and ideally by someone with a functional speaking voice.

Skip the themes. I announced themes for the fair because, in my experience, having some concept guidance is a big help when you’re working on a short deadline and need to winnow your ideas quickly. What I didn’t realize (and this was the reason I underestimated how many entries we’d get, too) is that this format attracts a lot of people who have partly finished projects, rather than people who are going to spend six weeks throwing something together from scratch. So what happened was that a few people followed the themes, a lot didn’t, and in the end, it didn’t turn out to matter very much. The riotous diversity was one of the cool things about the fair, and I think it would not have been a net gain had more of the entries focused on the same issues. So if I do this again, there will probably be no explicit themes called out.

General thoughts:

Most of the problems listed above would be non-issues if we’d refused entries from people who weren’t going to be around in person and presenting their projects on their own hardware.

That might still be a valid way to go for future demo fairs, possibly, but I think we would have been substantially poorer for that choice: about half of our content came from people who weren’t around. Besides, there were times in my life when I was profoundly grateful that IF was a hobby I could pursue while having basically no money, and to the extent possible, I’d like not to shut people out of sharing work they want to share just because they can’t afford a plane ticket at the moment. Mostly I feel bad that I wasn’t able to do as thorough a job of feedback collection as I’d like on behalf of those authors.

For some kinds of project, it might be conceivable to automate that feedback collection: e.g., if we’d been running demonstrations with Parchment and automatic transcript submissions, the authors at least of those projects would have gotten a lot of transcripts back. But it’s hard to know how to do this consistently with a range of different project types, and “different project types” is exactly the point here.

I do feel a little wistful about one other thing. In my original imagination of this fair — the one where there were 6 or so entries and we played them together on a projector — I imagined that there might be a chance at some focused discussion about what we liked best. And while I got a chance to talk about many individual entries with many individual people, there wasn’t anything quite like a collective discussion.

Possibly there couldn’t have been, considering how many people there were and how many things to talk about.

10 thoughts on “IF Demo Fair: Lessons Learned”

  1. I don’t think it’s too harsh to require that a presenter attend a demo fair in person. Although there was definitely value in browsing through all the exhibits, what stuck in my mind afterwards were the conversations I had with presenters and fellow attendees about those exhibits. The rest of the experience was more-or-less possible to duplicate online. (And maybe should be, in a separate event.) I don’t mean that in a derogatory way — just that I feel if you’re having a real-life meetup, then play to those strengths.

  2. Hrm. As one of the authors who couldn’t make it in person, I’d hope that if you made it in-person only that you’d keep up some kind of online event too — preferably not at the same time, so its thunder wasn’t stolen. Having an online event would also address a lot of the things you mentioned, though it would probably be harder to get beyond the IF community.

    Anyway, I think Chris has a good point, but I (selfishly) agree that it’d be bad to completely freeze out people who can’t be there. Pour out a little painstakingly-simulated liquid for us!

  3. Perhaps an online event could be held using video conferencing where each author would present their work by webcam and sharing their desktop. Attendees could participate using text chat or their own webcams.

  4. I think it would have been good to have a projector presentation (I’m still a bit disappointed the speed-IF games weren’t shown this way), and I think that it’s not necessarily that one presentation mode precludes another.

    I had a great time poking at the different demos and I would definitely have loved to hear what other people thought of them. Putting a few up on a projector would have been really helpful to me, at least, and I’m guessing I’m not alone.

    Perhaps having a dual-round thing? The first round is the way it was at PAX: all the demos are there to be played with. But we add in a vote or something along those lines, and the n highest get the final hour of the session to be played (or demonstrated) en masse on the projector.

    1. We talked about doing something like that, but the more I thought about it the more tricky it seemed. Set-up and take-down for exhibits ate 10-15 minutes each, so having to stop mid fair, take everything down and hook up to the projector would have been a noticeable pause. Then, too, voting would have been really hard to manage — how to be remotely fair about this when not everyone would have had time to see everything? And doing the vote count would have added to the time we spent fiddling around.

      Also: if you pick out some things to highlight, other people will feel naturally that they lost out in some way; and while that is not always a bad thing, in this particular case I’d advertised this at the outset as Not A Contest. I thought that was important, because I didn’t want people to be fretting about what would get judge approval; I wanted them to present what they thought intrinsically interesting, even if it was something pretty strange.

      Looking at the entries we actually got, I still think that was probably the right call. Not everything would have been compatible with the projector (how do you project a typewriter?). Some works might have been very difficult to drive collectively (I’m thinking of the platformer Talkpack, or the 3D-maneuvering of Desiring Flights, where you can’t exactly ask the audience to call out suggestions). Some might have been rather socially uncomfortable to play in that form (Aaron’s piece comes to mind).

      All that said, yes, it would be interesting to have some way to call out and discuss the things people most wanted to call out and discuss. So I don’t know.

  5. Being forced to be present may be great for peope with social skills, but for people like me it would be a major reason not to participate. Not that I did, but there may be others like me.

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