Currently being developed by social gaming start-up FreshPlanet, Dreamland is a new Facebook RPG with a stunning, Tim Burton inspired art style. The original concept and foundation were created by Eric Zimmerman and Naomi Clark, and it’s since been my pleasure to take on the game’s design as one of my primary projects. Extremely proud of all the great work the development team is doing, I submitted Dreamland as a candidate for the game demos shown at the monthly NY Gaming Meetup, and within the hour we were confirmed a spot. The pressure was on to come up with a brief but engaging overview of the game for nearly 100 attendees.
After an introduction by Mathieu Nouzareth, Co-Founder of FreshPlanet, I demoed the tutorial level. There were positive audience reactions to the game’s music, art style, and combat animations: none of which I can take any sort of credit for. The presentation wrapped up with a quick look at the game’s Bedroom Customization feature. After fielding some audience questions with help from Mathieu, I returned to my seat to knock back a beer and watch the rest of the demos.
Since then, like a designer of any sort, I’ve been trying to categorize the experience. What had been the most difficult part? What was left unsaid? What could have been better? Most of all: what other types of experiences did it feel like?
The conclusion I came to? The first time demoing was a lot like the first time being a dungeon master.
LESSONS IN DEMOING & DUNGEON-MASTERING
1. You will prepare too much content. Make it “chunky.”
Running over your cut-off time (in our case, 5-7 minutes) is a common mistake in presentations. While wanting to show off every neat aspect of your topic can be one motivation, for me the strongest force at work is the fear of running out of things to say. Just the thought of stalling out in front of a bunch of strangers is enough to make many people queasy. Combined with a distorted sense time-flow when you’re actually presenting, it’s easy to get into a situation where you suddenly realize that you’re only half-finished — and that there’s about twenty seconds before you start looking unprofessional and inconsiderate for running over.
In my demo of Dreamland, I only covered some 30% of the material I had outlined. When looking at my scribbled notes after the presentation, I was reminded of the first time I’d ever designed a Dungeons & Dragons session. When some friends expressed interest in setting up a campaign, I was elected dungeon master since most of them hadn’t played before. While I hadn’t ever been a DM, I’d played plenty 2nd Edition D&D throughout late highschool and college.
Even after an hours-long first play session, the campaign had only moved through a small portion of the total content I had planned up to. Though the stakes are different — it’s not exactly hard to get people to play for another 15 minutes so you can finish a scene — there was a particular DM tactic that was extremely helpful when I planned the demo’s pacing.
Make a presentation chunky by breaking out the different sections of content, like a DM might set out different encounters or game events. With this portioned out backbone of your topic, it becomes much easier to find a stopping point that feels natural even if you’re nowhere near finished by your own count. This works even better if you have a planned, very short “closer” portion that you can add to any part of the presentation as a quick, satisfying ending. In D&D this is something like introducing an NPC that will happen upon your players to give them a quest; in a game demo it’s pulling out an interesting feature that’s easy to understand without needing the context of the full presentation (which you, expectedly, didn’t get to finish).
2. Don’t lose forward momentum.
A good demo moves at a pace just a touch above what everyone in the audience would be most comfortable with. You don’t want to leave people in the dust, but you do want to create a sense of excitement. Your game has a lot to offer, and if people don’t pay attention, they might miss something really cool. Invariably some will “get it” faster than others, and as far as I’m concerned, demos for industry professionals should be skewed to towards this subset. These are smart folks who are knowledgeable about games; err on the side of playing up to their experience.
There’s one tripping point in particular, however, that tends to crop up in both D&D and tech demos in general. You’ve seen it, joked about it, probably been a part of it: arguing Marvel vs DC Universe, debating a dozen subtly different StarCraft build orders, or describing the intricate details of the API for a lesser-known Google feature. There are probably better terms for the phenomena, but for now let’s just call it nerd-loop.
Nerd-loop happens whenever you get a nerd talking about something they’re passionate about, and they just can’t help themselves but expound, expound, expound. In D&D you can have sessions that stop dead in their tracks as people discuss how and why certain items should be used or get sidetracked talking about their favorite Game of Thrones character. Many times these discussions will be well-traveled territory: everyone already knows everyone elses’ opinions, several times over, but they’re all bound up in the nerd-loop and can’t escape the topic. While not exactly terrible for a group of friends playing a tabletop game, you can’t afford to go off on this kind of tangent while giving a presentation to strangers.
Chances are, if you’ve been a college student or gone to tech demos, you’ve witnessed a presenter start to drone on and on about something that was interesting to them but bored the hell out of the rest of the audience. The best way to avoid this is to recognize when you’re falling into it. Have you been explaining a relatively small feature for a disproportionately excessive amount of time? If so, you’re probably heading straight for nerd-loop, and you better avert your course if you don’t want people to completely tune you out. Move on to the next topic in your line-up, post-haste.
3. When something goes wrong, pretend you planned it.
Any DM will tell you that preparation is necessary for a good session, but you can never prepare for everything. You might spend hours planning the layout of a maze-like fortress, only to have your players roll an incredibly rare random drop after an encounter. Suddenly they have a cloak that grants interplanar travel and they can opt to walk through all your stony 10-ft thick walls. Depending on the type of DM you are, you might decide to just swap the item for something else on principle. If you’re up for the challenge and want to sharpen your skills, though, you’ll roll (pun intended) with the punches. Adding monsters that stalk other planes, for example, is a quick fix: players can try out their new toy, but there’s a trade-off between ease of travel and party safety. When presenting, you generally don’t have such a god-like amount of control over the situation. You can, however, fake it.
As I mentioned earlier, during the demo I played through the tutorial level in Dreamland. A little secret: the first two rolls you make in this level are hardcoded. The player will always roll a 3 first (to move 3 spaces), and then a 4 next. The reason behind this is pretty simple: we put a beneficial item inside of a crate on the first spot, and a key on the second, to introduce people to “landing” on items to pick them up. So I was a little surprised, and more than a little nervous, when I saw something different — a shop where players can buy items, to be exact — on the 3rd tile in this level instead.
Immediately, all the things that could go wrong flashed in my brain. Would the key be in the right spot for the next roll? Would it be on the map at all? Keys are necessary to complete any level in the game, and I really didn’t want to have to explain to the audience that I was, ironically enough, using a test version of the game for greater control. So I allowed myself a heartbeat’s worth of anxious dread, resolved to scold the (totally awesome) lead programmer, and then pretended that nothing was at all amiss. From what I’m told, even some of Dreamland game dev team hadn’t realized that anything unexpected had happened.
Swallowing your nerves and acting like everything is a-okay will work for most minor problems, and probably help a lot of moderate ones too. Of course, if the projection screen had burst into flames, I doubt any amount of hand-waving and improv would have saved the presentation. What’s important is to resist the urge to over-explain something that seems odd to you, but might look perfectly normal (or at least not attention-worthy) to your audience.
My favorite part of the night, though, came after all the presentations ended. While standing around with the team, I got to admonish the lead programmer for altering the version of the game I was using to demo: “I was so scared that the map was going to be broken, you jerk!”