2023 EVO Indie Showcase Experience & Thoughts
It's been about two months since I wrote and posted this on my Patreon. I was going to publish publicly a few weeks later, but there was some discourse over the future of offline events, so I decided to reread and wait a bit. Unfortunately, that wait turned into forgetting; so with a few revisions from that Patreon post, here are my thoughts on how showcasing a game at EVO went back in early August of 2023.
Besides Battle High and MerFight, I've worked on a several other indie fighting games. Probably the biggest and most ambitious is Drag Her, a 2D game focused primarily on real-life drag queens and kings. It's camp, it's stupid, and it's aiming to just be silly and fun. It's still a fighting game though, and this year, the team was invited to showcase the game at EVO, the biggest fighting game tournament in the US -- possibly the world. Overall, I think it went well, but I have some thoughts on EVO, its indie showcase, and more.
The Trip & Setup
The Thursday before the event, three of my teammates -- Ian, Jess, and Jay -- were able to drive to Las Vegas, Nevada. I, on the other hand, had to fly from Pittsburgh. My flights were pretty uneventful, but not having flown for three years, I decided to splurge a little and fly first class, and honestly, I don't see the hype. There are perks -- a meal (sometimes), free alcohol, boarding early, and extra space -- which are nice, but I don't think it really justifies the several hundred dollars extra I had to pay.
Once arriving, I took a taxi to Mandalay Bay. Fortunately, this was very straightforward; in fact, destinations were defined by zones, so besides tip, I already knew how much I was going to owe and not have to worry about the driver taking an extra long route as I had heard they used to do.
While fighting a massive headache from lack of sleep and food, I began helping my team set up our booth. My main job was to make sure the laptop and Steam Deck ran our game properly. Quick note, the Steam Deck and Steam Dock work great for shows. They're easy to build to -- just upload a build through Steam -- and transport easily. I definitely recommend them to indie devs who plan on showcasing and need multiple setups.
|Note, Steam Deck & Steam Dock are useful, not just the Deck.
My first impression when entering the EVO space was "This feels a lot like GDC (the Game Developers Conference)," and what I meant by that is it felt very commercial. A lot of the space we were in was taken up by giant booth for larger brands such as Crunchyroll and Mortal Kombat. I had only been to EVO one time prior to this in 2014, and though there was definitely some of that presence then, it felt much more palpable.
Drag Her was one of 11 other indie games (apologies for any typos or mistakes).
- Drag Her
- Auto Fighter (I may be getting the title for this one incorrect)
- Head 2 Head
- Five Force Fighters
- Tough Love Arena
- Heavenly Parasites
- Arcus Chroma
- Pocket Bravery
- Checkmate Showdown
5 games, including ours, were sort of facing the Crunchyroll booth and the other 6 were facing away. It had decent foot traffic near the artist alley, but I am curious if the devs facing away had a harder time getting decent traction.
Similar to MagFest, we were given some chairs and a table. We were also given some monitors, which was nice since those can be a pain to travel with. Overall, initial registration and setup went relatively smoothly, and though my purple exhibitor badge didn't have my gamertag on it, I was sort of happy I didn't have to wait in the massive registration line that had grown over the course of the evening.
Day 1 and The "Roundtable"
Day one started off very smoothly. The games ran well, people seemed to really like it, and the lip balms we provided as swag went over well. I think the biggest flaw we had is that we didn't have a nice "How to Play" image that players could quickly glance at to know the controls when starting and lacked similar text in-game, players often pressing cancel instead of confirm for example. I was later told we had one planned, but the version we got printed looked very poor, but Drag Her's control scheme is rather easy, so explaining to players how to play wasn't a huge deal. It was a bummer no one could hear the game though; we had rushed to get KimChi's voice over work in the game, but even with speakers, the nearby Crunchyroll booth was so loud, no one would have heard it.
I was also surprised by the crowd we were getting. I was definitely expecting drag fans, for sure, but I was expecting a lot more fighting game experts who were going to critique and rip the game apart, and -- for better or for worse -- we didn't get a lot of this, It reminded more of MagFest's crowd. Some people were huge into the genre and really loving it, but some people had similar struggles to those who have little experience with the genre, but those players still seemed to enjoy the game, which was great. I think, over my time at the booth, there was one pair of players who didn't like the guard button and simple inputs referring to it as "Oh, one of those games." I had originally feared everyone was going to feel this way.
Unfortunately, things went a little downhill in the afternoon. Prior to the event, I was told about an indie roundtable being held, and my team wanted me to represent our game at said table. Drag Her is a team effort, but I think it's safe to say I have the most experience with both fighting games and its community on our team, so it made sense. However, there was some weird and poor communication that essentially had me feeling rejected. Now, originally, I was expecting this to be like the indie roundtable I went to in 2014: all the game's devs on a table, speaking about their games, the struggles of indie gamedev, and more. What it ended up turning into was just two of the ten games having representatives speak to Mark Julio for a short period of time. It took my taxi more time to go from Mandalay Bay to Caesar's. I think had I known this earlier, I would have been disappointed, but it wouldn't have triggered the same sense of anhedonia. Admittedly, I tweeted some things that weren't the most professional -- honestly they weren't that bad either -- and I ultimately deleted them. Overall, it felt like a dream of mine had been crushed, and I was very upset with no clear explanation. Did someone dislike me? Did I do something wrong? It had my mind racing in many, probably incorrect, directions. I think dealing with disappointment is something I need to handle better, but this is something that could have been prevented had there been better and more direct communication from those in charge of EVO's indie showcase.
My night did improve a bit after getting to meet Kekon, a fan of MerFight. We talked about development, streaming, computer hardware, vtubers, and more. It was nice to talk to finally meet someone in person that I had only known from Twitter and my discord, and helped brighten up a rather sour night, so I'm very thankful they took the time to hangout.
Day 2 and The Tournament
The next morning, I setup the laptop and Steam Deck once more, but my depressive episode was still pretty bad. Everything just annoyed me; nothing from the artist alley to the arcade section interested me. I even contemplated trying to get a flight out Sunday instead of Monday, but later in the day, Drag Her had its tournament.
We wanted to do a simple tournament at the event and give away a fun souvenir -- a homemade scepter and crown. Originally I tried to setup a start,gg, but that was a mess and kudos to any tournament organizer who uses that bloated mess of a website; then I setup a challonge for the tournament, but reception at EVO's venue was so bad, that it was unpredictable if I was going to get on the internet or not, and after many warnings not to use any public wifi that weekend due to the presence of a hacking or computer security conference happening at the same hotel, we just had players sign-up on paper. On Friday, we ended the day with 4 entrants, and I wasn't expecting many more.
When the time came to start the tournament, we had over 30 entrants signed-up! After check-in, we had 24 players (apologies to those who missed out, but Jess and I called every name, we know it!) It was still a lot more than the original 8 I was expecting. It was a fun tournament to see what the "daily" meta was going to turn into. Similar to some games at EVO, our tournament ended with an Alaska mirror match. Regardless, seeing people enjoying our game in a competitive environment was really cool and improved my mood a lot.
I got to meet some other devs and network, which I really appreciated as well. I sadly wish I could have done more, and sort of regret letting Friday's disappointment get to me like it did.
EVO is an interesting event for an indie showcase. Unlike MagFest, which requires devs to be present for 4 days, EVO really only required us to be there for 2 days. The third day is the finals and in the arena, which though I had tickets to, I sold to a friend who definitely wanted them more than I did. After a nice -- but slightly chaotic -- brunch at House of Blues with some of the other indie developers, I spent the remainder of Day 3 mostly walking around the Vegas hotels connected to Mandalay Bay. It was way too hot to venture to the strip, and I didn't feel like taking another taxi.
I also got to meet DacidBro, a very skilled player with experience in a variety of games including MerFight. We chatted a bit about game development and some design concepts that I hadn't really thought about, particularly around balance patches and DLC characters. For example, after the Drag Her tournament, I was a bit concerned that Alaska was broken, but DacidBro argued that it's pretty common in short-term mystery or one-day style tournaments like ours for players to find a useful, 1 day meta and exploit that, and that I shouldn't immediately knee jerk and plan fixes over one tournament.
Would I Do It Again?
Drag Her's main goals, at least to my knowledge, were to advertise the game, grow our Steam wishlists, and get feedback, which I believe we did successfully. I do think more fighter-specific gameplay feedback would have been nice, but you can only get so much in a convention setting, especially at once where the indie showcase is a small, small, SMALL part of the overall convention.
Similar to our goals, you have to think of what the goal of the average attendee is. A lot are entering a tournament or spectating to support friends who entered tournaments. Maybe they are traveling to meet friends from their game's community in person. I think that's sort of the toughest thing to juggle with an indie showcase at an event like EVO cause at the end of the day, though a lot of people say it's a celebration of the genre, it felt more like a celebration of the communities and its players, so the larger that community, the bigger that focus. The issue with indie games is that many of them are trying to BUILD a community, and when you're in a venue that has so many established communities already, it felt rather difficult to achieve that growth unless you already had a small community. This is compounded by the fact you're in one of the most entertainment-centric cities in the US. Originally, we were thinking, "Oh, we'll get a bigger crowd as more players are eliminated from their respective games," but I don't think this really happened -- at least not how I had imagined. Those players had many different options -- salty suites, playing with friends at the bring your own console area, leaving the convention altogether and drinking foot long tubes of overly sweet, frozen alcohol -- and I doubt playing random indie fighters was on many of their radars.
Now, I can't speak for Drag Her, but as a solo dev and in the unlikely event I would ever be asked to showcase a game at EVO, I don't know if I would. Firstly, travel is a huge part of it. If I could drive a few hours to Vegas, it'd be an easier decision as opposed to having to fly out not only myself but gear as well. Also, again, having a small community, and being only a small focus of the event, I feel there are other events near me that do a better job showcasing indies such as MagFest. MagFest is not only closer, but it has a huge indie showcase, and it's not competing with the same entertainment elements as Las Vegas. The biggest difference is that MagFest has a focus on indies as a whole, not just fighting games, so some indie fighting games, though very good, are not offering anything really unique in the overall, experiment indie realm that some people and judges expect.
What EVO Could Do Better?
There is a feeling that being critical of the event can make one look ungrateful. With such huge sponsors and so many players, EVO does not have to do an indie showcase. Crunchyroll could have had a larger, louder booth if our tables weren't there, but I believe you can be grateful -- which I know me and the rest of the Drag Her team are -- and constructively critical. With that being said, I think EVO's indie showcases biggest issues were poor communication and transparency. Again, had there been better communication over the roundtable, my short-lived angst wouldn't have happened. We had two point people, one of which we never met, and the other barely and seemed to only talk to one person on our team. It definitely had a feeling of "Here's your space to setup your game, bye." Unlike MagFest, which has very clear guidelines on how long you're supposed to be on the show floor, it never felt enforced or acknowledged at EVO. Now, I know EVO is a very busy event with thousands of entrants and multiple games, so it's very possible that there was poor delegation and those in charge of the indie showcase had four or five other responsibilities, which, as a dev at the event, doesn't feel great. It sort of comes back to the idea of "EVO is a celebration of the genre -- if you have a huge community and/or money," again something many indie devs don't when starting out.
Prior to the EVO's change in management, I believe The MIX handled the indie showcase at EVO, and I had actually applied to have Battle High shown in 2015, and I was rejected. Though that rejection felt bad, I was at least given a reason, that my game wasn't offering anything new or interesting to the genre; they wanted titles doing more experimental things. I don't know how EVO chooses games to be in the showcase now though; there's a lack of transparency. Some games were there last year, some were not. Some games I think knew months in advance, some less than 4 weeks. I don't believe there was an application process, something that I think is very helpful to have. I know there was for trailers and that communication was clearer. An application process for presenting would allow some devs who many not know whose in charge or in the right discord to have a chance to showcase something none of us are aware of. At the same time, the games can be judged and feedback can be given to those applying. Even if rejected, compliments and words of advice help a lot -- if those judging and selecting the games are willing to do so. Like I said though, this is a lot of work. MIVS -- the MagFest Indie showcase -- has applications due months before their event with a half-dozen or so judges playing games and giving feedback. This lack of transparency and communication also extends to the "roundtable." Why where Five Force Fighters and Drag Her chosen? Were the other teams planning on being on said roundtable and then told that "Oh, it's just going to be these two games, sorry." Again, things that better communication could have helped with.
Speaking of goals, I am curious to what the goal of the indie showcase at EVO is for EVO. No one -- besides the developers -- is flying to Vegas to see an indie showcase of 11 games specifically. I could that due to Sony's ties to the event, maybe they are trying to help indies make networking connections to potential publishers. I'm not sure how much of this was achieved though. If EVO is a celebration of the genre, the indie showcase didn't feel like a celebration of the work small developers like ourselves are doing. EVO is a celebration -- of player and communities -- and that's great and EVO does that amazingly well. But in the case of the indie showcase, it felt a bit like an example of actions speak louder than words, that the actions, size, and more of the showcase didn't felt more like it was an after thought than part of EVO's celebration of the genre, and though this criticism sounds harsh, I think my challenge to EVO, when it comes to the indie showcase, would be: do better or don't bother. Improve the transparency and communication and celebrate the games and developers that are taking money and time our their development cycles and schedules to present at your show or don't waste their time and get their hopes up.
EVO left me curious how other fighting game events such as ComboBreaker deal with indie developers -- yes I'm aware its similar management -- and there are some that feel that smaller events are better at showcasing indie games than EVO, which makes sense in a way. EVO feels more appropriate for larger games and larger communities, and if you're an indie with a big enough presence, would you be in the indie showcase or part of a different avenue of EVO such as the Vortex Gallery?
Overall, indie fighting game developers have a lot of challenges, building communities and a dedicated player bases being one of the most challenging, and ultimately, no ONE event is going to automatically make your community exponentially grow overnight, and that one event, in its current state, is certainly not EVO. That one event simply doesn't exist; growing and marketing an indie game is a continual effort, and it's rare that one event will flip the switch to overnight success for many.
Of course, given the recent news over offline events and their shaky future, there is the question of, how useful are offline events for developers to go to? With the costs of everything going up, maybe this is an outdated or out of reach approach to market indie games for many, that marketing should be focused on digital avenues such as streamers instead? Or maybe the type of offline event games are shown off at needs to change? I'm just not sure. As much as I'd love there to be an indie and/or obscure fighting game centric event, the logistics, especially as someone who's never even looked into planning an offline event, seem almost insurmountable. Who's going to travel for an event like this? Pay tickets? Fly out? Is there are big enough market for it? It sort of makes sense that bigger events can survive because they can offer a variety, but even some bigger events report operating at a loss or barely breaking even. It's a tough to know and to navigate. My final closing though is simply that, if you're an indie developer and get the chance to show off at EVO and can afford to travel there comfortably, do it. Despite my criticisms, it's still a fun event, but don't get your hopes up thinking that because you showed your game off there, that you're suddenly going to get a $5,000,000 publishing deal or millions of new players. You're still going to have to work to get your game out there successfully.