Winter's Wake will be at PAX Australia 2017
Previously, I mentioned that I'd be exhibiting an Icicle game at PAX Australia, and I think it's time to talk about what that game is, what work is ahead of me and what my plans are so that I we can all look back on them in a month's time and laugh.

First up, I have no delusions that Winter's Wake is going to be a good fit for PAX. The noisy expo floor is not the best setting for a quiet game that relies heavily on audio to communicate a sense of presence, watching other people play Icicle games is infinitely less interesting than playing first hand, and it seems safe to assume that the majority of attendees are unlikely to be interested in a single player game that more or less has no graphics.

While I probably will find some people with whom the game resonates, I still think it's healthiest for me to keep my expectations low and focus on getting the most value out of the experience along axes that don't require a huge response (and if I'm pleasantly surprised, then that's great!).

Assuming things don't get shuffled around, my stand will be situated on the outer edge of the Indie Pavilion and pretty close to the Indie Cafe. My position means that I'll probably get more exposure to the foot traffic moving through other parts of the expo hall. While this might help visibility without cutting me off from too many people (I'm going to guess that most who are moving through the Indie Pavilion will be wandering through in a way that lets them at least feel like they've seen everything), it also means I'm likely to be copping most of the noise that comes off some of the big exhibitors, who all seem to compete with each other for auditory obnoxiousness across the event in the form of loud music, louder commentating and even louder game audio.

Using some fancy ear devices to mitigate the noise feels like a good way to go. To help make the game more accessible, I've been checking out some different types of headphones. I picked up a pair of noise cancelling headphones that did a great job of blocking out lower frequencies, but didn't really do anything useful for stuff within the boiling kettle/neighbour's lawnmower/human vocal range. I have some studio grade noise reducing headphones on order that are meant to block out somewhere around 35dB of audio which I think are probably going to give the best results I can afford.

I also want to do what I can to make the game interesting to people who will appreciate it without them necessarily having to get close, and what better way to do that than with text? I've ordered up some Winter's Wake T-shirts with the game name/mountain on the front, and plan to get descriptive text on the back a little like this:

Mimicking the game's style of descriptive text has gotten a good response so far, and feels like the right angle to continue pushing at for now.

The signage space provided with my "pod" is divided into two 970mm x 1930mm panels. I decided to dedicate one to the game's name/imagery and the other to a big old chunk of in-game style descriptive text in the same vein as the current version of the website and the cool cool business cards I have made up.

The general plan is for the first paragraph to catch people's eyes. For anybody who finds that amusing, the second paragraph introduces the game. For anybody who finds that interesting, the last paragraph is something to do while waiting to grab my attention. My hope is that this will help me make sure that the people who end up approaching me/my stand are people who're not put off by a bit of reading and who have legitimate curiosity. This will either guarantee that I'm giving people who'll like my game the greatest amount of time or that I'll be spending most of my time with nobody to talk to.

The blank space below the platform list on the left panel might look a bit empty, but I've got a plan for that. While thinking about interesting ways to gather feedback that go beyond whatever falls out of people's mouths after they play, Mim (who was looking over my signage designs) suggested I could ask people to write stuff on the blank space. The Indie Pavilion pods are situated in pairs, with the backboard signage for each sitting back-to-back. There'd be no way to let people write on them without potentially wobbling stand 11's panels, and that feels like a poor way to treat your neighbours.

I recalled that a happy accident had lead Chris and Chris to solicit single word feedback on stickynotes for Expand and began to feel that this would be a good fit for Winter's Wake. Inviting people to distil their thoughts into one or two words is one way to get feedback that a little more reflective and speaks to the character of the experience players have had. I'm toying with the idea of maybe getting dark green stickynotes done up in the shape of the mountain design I'm using (which I think would look great with a white marker or gel pen), but when it comes time assess my budget, custom stickynotes feels like it'll be the first expense to fall.

Badges seem to be a big favourite at PAX. In addition to the super slick looking Pinny Arcade badges, people seem to get a kick out of collecting the more run-of-the-mill badges that developers often have available. I already own a badge press, so this one feels like a no brainer. I'm looking into buying a punch so that I don't have to cut them out by hand, which will dramatically increase the number that I can make. I'm feeling like I should aim for at least 200. Here's a peek at the designs I'm considering.

I ordered a big stack of the Winter's Wake business cards I got made up a couple of years ago with the intention of sending some of the leftovers to Anton and Jasmine. After they arrived, I realised that I'd written "in-development" on them, so they'll be less useful once the game's out. They're still pretty striking though. Hopefully they'll disappear quickly :D

For demo machines, I'm planning to take two or three old laptops. I still need to do testing, but I don't think I have anything old enough the not be able to run at a solid 60fps at 1920x1080 - one of the advantages of having a light weight engine!

I'll likely stick them inside the pod's cabinet and provide external keyboards and mice (which I have plenty of) and gamepads as an alternative (which I'll need to buy another of). After pricing monitors, it looks like it's going to be cheaper for me to buy some when I hit Melbourne than it would be to ship some up or rent some. I have some Melbourne friends who might be interested in acquiring new monitors, so if I'm lucky, I won't have to work out how to get them home either.

I'm currently undecided whether or not I'll be bringing along VR gear or not. On the upside, VR support is still a novelty, and I feel like it could pique the interest of some who might otherwise overlook the game. Since the entire concept for Winter's Wake came out of me considering what a VR-friendly text adventure might look like, it's integral to the game's identity in my mind, but I've also been wary of focusing on that too much when talking to others about the game because it tends to invite judgement calls based on whether or not people think VR markets are sustainable, or whether VR tech is capable of providing experiences that aren't relevant to my game.

There's a little bit of engine work involved in making things behave nicely. The version of OpenHMD I build against doesn't support the HTC Vive or the consumer Rift, so I'd need to upgrade that. I also need to tweak how some of the automatic font size calculation stuff works and ensure that there's enough margin around the text to keep it within an area where it doesn't suffer too much distortion. The engine is also missing VR helper controls for re-centring/ignoring headtracking input.

Beyond the engine work, there are definitely bits of content that are too long to be comfortably read in VR. Some of this is placeholder stuff that I'll trim down (which is still work that will eat up time), but some of it is also stuff that I'd rather make accessible through pagination - a planned feature that the engine doesn't yet support.

There's other development work that the game needs too. The engine changes I made during Icicle Jam Zero messed up a lot of the game content I'd written by hand due to changes that I'd made in the way that multiple object/scene states are loaded and saved. I think I've fixed all of that now, but I still need to do a bunch of playtesting to make sure that it's as solid as it needs to be.

The game is playable from start to finish, but there's a lot of placeholder content that I need to rewrite and I think I need to do a few editing revisions to make things as tight as they deserve to be for the PAX build. The other thing is that while I'm generally happy with the object density of most of the early scenes in the game, there's still a huge amount of general scene filler content missing from the rest of the game. Popping a tree here, a rock there, a flower over here or a bird in the air helps not only provide a more interesting environment to explore, but also provide orientation cues and can be used to guide players towards real points of interest in a scene. 50% of the game is scenes that consist of only the objects relevant to puzzles and the exits necessary to continue through the game.

There's also audio content to get in. Jasmine has given me a big stack of recordings that I need to work through, process and implement. I think it's important that every scene that I show off at PAX has something close to the final level of sound density and fidelity that I'm aiming to have in the shipped game. Anton has also done a couple more pieces of music that aren't yet in the game that I'm looking forward to implementing. I deeply wish that I had the resources to bring both of them over to share in this with me.

My plan at the moment is to focus on getting the demo content plus the rest of the first act (and maybe a little beyond? There are a couple of viable stopping points) up and happening. That'd mean somewhere between twenty and forty minutes of playtime. With two machines, that's an assumed average of ten to twenty minutes wait for a machine to become free if both are in use at once. That feels like a long time, but I'm also expecting that I won't have queues. I want to be sure that if a player is into it that they get a chance to feel like they've sunk their teeth in a little bit. The pacing and extents of the current demo's content is great, I think. It works well as an appetiser and doesn't really let the player into the actual narrative, but I think that for PAX, I want to give players the opportunity to feel like they've started to discover the story.

From a features perspective, my current PAX wish-list includes finishing the refactoring of the file handling systems, improving gamepad controls, adding more features to the music handling code to better allow music to carry across scenes where needed, giving scene entry prompts the scene background colour regardless of what the player is facing, being able to smoothly transition from one background colour to another, and maybe refactoring the "raycasting" system. If I didn't have any content work to do, I'd probably feel comfortable hammering away at that within a month, but I think that I need to be conservative with my estimates here and expect that some of this will fall by the wayside.

After Full Throttle shipped, I felt like I needed to push hard at getting bits and pieces done so that I could know I was in a position to exhibit before I applied. By the time I realised, it was mid September and I still hadn't done it. Assuming that it'd be too late, I filled out the form on the PAX website and hit send. A week or so went by and I figured that I'd missed the boat, then I got a call. Apparently there'd been some trouble with getting the applications to the right people and they'd all been found at once. I was told there was one slot left and it'd go to the first person who said they wanted it, so I grabbed it.

After getting a log to the exhibitor back end, I found that almost everything was past the due date, but I was able to whiz through most of the required forms pretty quickly. There were two that ended up being time sinks though: classification and signage.

I knew I'd have to design some signage and had already been putting thought into that. Classification on the other hand was something that had completely slipped my mind. I haven't submitted Winter's Wake to the Australian Classification Board for rating, and if I do, I think that's something I should hold off on until the game is much closer to completion. The PAX Australia expo floor is meant to be accessible to under aged attendees, so they prefer everything to be classified. Unclassified games need extra approval before they can be exhibited, and for that, I needed to submit details and summaries of the game's content, and the instances of violence, mature themes, etc. within.

It was an interesting process to try to boil down my game into a straight description of what happens. To use an example that doesn't spoil anything meaningful, the demo content covers the portion of the game where players are expected to move around, explore and experience their surroundings without having much narrative context. My hope is that when returning to these spaces later in the game, they'll have different perspectives on them. The storyteller in me likes to linger on moments and create resonance over blunt exposition, so this was a challenge.

I was also asked to provide screenshots of the most impactful examples of violence within the game (if you're happy to have a spoiler for one of three possible solutions for a mid-game puzzle, you can see the screenshot here).

I tried to be thorough and treat all of this stuff with seriousness, but I can't help but think that whomever ends up reading it all will have to wonder if it's a joke. Compared to most other games being rated these days, I think it would be next to impossible for me to provide something from Winter's Wake that could be problematic.

Putting the signage together took a few revisions, and I ended up bringing my friend Kednar (who did The Farrier's lovely art) onbaord to help upres the Winter's Wake mountain design. I have a broad skillset, but many of my skills don't go particularly deep.

Faithfully reproducing the mountain at a higher res is something that I think I could do, but it would probably have taken me a week to get something I was happy with. Working with Kednar meant that I could explain to him what I needed and then get to work on other bits and pieces with a degree of confidence that things were moving in the right direction. We did a couple of iterations across it, and the final result is a touch different from the original, but I think all in all, it's an improvement and I'm looking forward to updating the game's "branding" to make use of it.

So there you have it. That's where I'm at with PAX stuff. Fingers crossed for smooth sailing for the next month!