You’ve got a convention booth and a game you’ve spent far too many sleepless nights working on… now what?
Throughout my years of attending PAX, whether it be to cover games for various media outlets or working PR for Developers and friends, I’ve always walked away from the convention with a list of do’s and don’t for next year. This year, since I focused largely on game development and increasing chances of discovery, I thought it would be useful to share a few things I’ve in an effort to help developers get the most out of their time, and game, at such conventions (notably the various PAX events).
1. Mass Email Press Weeks Before Convention
As an exhibitor at PAX, you’ll have access to a list of emails for all those media types who will be in attendance. Combined with tools such as MailChimp and Streak, this easily becomes your best way of blasting out gameplay sessions, interview invites, and bringing attention around your game. It’s highly recommended that you send invites around 2-3 weeks out, as schedules tend to quickly fill up. Also, follow-up the week prior to seeing if there are any more takers, it doesn’t hurt, and it’s a good reminder for some Writers to follow-up on the previous request if it was forwarded to their Editor.
In recent years, PAX East and Prime have occurred around the same time as other conventions such as GDC and Gamescom, so if you’re targeting large media outlets, be sure to time it so you’re not lost in the noise.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a reply, and don’t cherry pick outlets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve not been able to schedule an interview and still stopped by a booth because I recognized the name. Chances are, if your name lands in their inbox, it’ll ring a bell when they pass by on the floor.
Also, in previous years I created an interview availability schedule for the IndieHangover crew prior to PAX and simply allowed Developers to pick a time that worked best. This cut down on the crazy amount of back and forth “what about this time, does it work for you?” emails that have occurred in recent years, and really allowed us to optimize our time at the expo. Do the same for your booth and let the media outlets pick a time, it’s probably the best idea I’ve ever had when it comes to pre-convention organization…. you’ll thank me later.
2. Have Press Assets Available
Maybe it’s due to years of having their senses bombarded on the expo floor, but Media types tend to be a disorganized, forgetful, or overwhelmed lot, so it’s best you help them out. Where do I give you ask? While some sort of charity drive may seem like the answer, a small amount of organization on the Developer’s end can make a world of difference: have a press kit.
Whether it a link to a zip file download or page on your website, having all your information in one handy place will make life easier for someone to do a write-up or reference your game. Rami Ismail’s “Do Presskit” provides an excellent outline and starting point for gathering all the goodies Journalists rely on when conjuring up articles for their insatiable Editors. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s a must.
3. Show Up During Press Hour
In the last few years I’ve come across indie developers who sadly believe the media refuse to give attention to small developers during early access, thus, it’s not worth showing up for press hour.
This is false; every year I watch developers blow opportunities as several journalists mill around empty booths devoid of presenters or anyone to simply turn a monitor on. Fun fact: one year I spent half my media hour demoing a game for another journalist because the developer, whom I knew, was late to the show and I didn’t want them to miss an opportunity.
Furthermore, while queuing for the PAX East media line, I overheard several outlets mention, “I’m heading straight to the Indie Megabooth to see (insert game here)”, and immediately bolt towards the section as soon as doors open. If you’re in the PAX 10 (or whatever politically correct name it’s assigned each con), you better show, as nearly every gaming outlet does an article on the selected Indies.
Oh, and this year’s placement of the Indie Megabooth pretty much required all media types and con attendees to walk through it on their way to the big AAA titles. So yeah, plenty of opportunities to snag an underpaid, over-caffeinated, games journalist. (Props to the Megabooth for placement; much respect)
It’s apparent now, especially since the console war hype is dying down, that finding that diamond in the rough, that “indie darling” could easily be a traffic-driving scoop for a lot of outlets. They’re looking on it. They’re looking for that 400% to goal Kickstarter or Cinderella story, so why not be available for it?
Of course, there’s the simple logic that you’ve already spent hours upon hours working on your game, perhaps haven’t even slept for the previous week due to prepping a playable demo, so what’s one more hour? One hour that could easily provide the media attention you need to get more Greenlight votes, backers, or buyers.
Worst-case scenario, you spent an hour nursing that rookie hangover and downing coffee by yourself.
4. Hit Up The Media / Press Room (aka the Secret Lair)
Fun Fact: I’ve purchased titles and/or visited booths every year because they dropped flyers off at the Media/Press room.
Sad Fact: Nobody did that this year at PAX East. My money went towards a cheap, and quite regrettable, taco salad.
It’s true that the Media / Press room often gets shoveled off into the dark recesses of the convention center, but for the most part, it’s loosely in the exact same spot every year. (PAX East: Room 211. PAX Prime: Grand Hyatt Lower Level, PAX South: River Level ) Take 10 mins and swing by with a stack of flyers or Steam codes and speak with “Mom” (she’s the Enforcer Overlord of the Media Room and runs a tight ship). Let her know you’re a Developer and you would like to leave some flyers for the Media people she babysits all weekend. BAM! Secret area unlocked.
It may seem like the equivalent of walking into the lion’s den, but it’s almost too easy and too often overlooked.
5. Have Personality
Being personable, funny, or just plain social will go a long way when it comes to inviting convention goers into your booth and more importantly, playing your game. I know it may be somewhat startling to know that not every developer has the personal skills, or desire to interact with large groups of strangers, but generally, they know someone who does. That’s the person you convince with free lunch and beers to come and demo for a few days.
For example, the crew at Action Button Entertainment (VIDEOBALL) did a terrific job of putting on a show and turning themselves into a pair of self-deprecating, 80’s inspired coaches that spouted absurdities at both the team they were coaching and onlookers in an effort to get them to play their game. As entertaining as the game was to play, the personality of the Devs made it an experience and a spectacle to behold. I never saw them without a line of players.
Every year I see someone do an incredible job of pulling in players, and every year I see another Dev, sulking behind their booth, jealous of the attention others receive. Step out from behind the booth and be inviting, it’ll go a long way. Interact with people and pull them in, don’t wait for them to come to you.
6. A Little Friendly Competition Does A Developer Good.
There’s also ways to create challenges or gamify the playing of your game demo, in a way that’s not Inception, and gets others playing against each other. Keep a leaderboard for fastest times completing the demo, highest score, tournaments, most bugs found… convention-goers tend to flock towards what others are playing, and more so when it gets competitive. There’s a reason why people crowd around booths like Die Gute Fabrik (Sportsfriends) or The Men Who Wear Many Hats (MaxGentleman), friendly and fun competitions put forth by the game’s presenters (and it helps that the games are entertaining).
7. Keep It Clean.
Since I’m not your mother, we’ll keep this short. Chances are, if your booth looks like the desk you spend hours tethered to writing code, or the Starbucks table you’ve made a home out of, people will not be eager to check out your game. Who wants to sit for a demo and only to push aside food, drinks, and other trash just for a chance to play?
It’s a sad but true fact that I’ve skipped booths because their demo space looked like a post-party college dorm room.
Keep it clean and keep it professional, probably the easiest tip you’ll read.
8. Cut Out The Middle Man.
Already have a game available for purchase?
Used to telling people to buy it on Steam or any other store?
It doesn’t take much time or effort to export a list of keys and print them on stickers to attach to your business card, or go a step further and contact a printer like Jakprints and have that CSV file printed right on a card.
Save yourself the cost of paying stores a cut of things and have codes on hand to sell (and don’t be afraid to ask if your visitor would like to purchase it). This also gives you the flexibility to price your game anything you choose, as well as wheel and deal a bit on the show floor (gamers love swag bundles).
Last year I ran across a Developer who had an excellent idea around how to gain additional sales: generate Steam keys for a discounted version of the game, have them printed on flyers as mentioned above, and hand them out to everyone who visited the booth. He found that a considerable amount of people would redeem the code on Steam to at least have the item in their inventory.
This allowed for a couple of things:
- Increased sales long-term as his game in the inventory was a constant advertisement or reminder.
- Those who wished to purchase the game could do so when they saw fit (cons tend to overwhelm people with a ton of stuff to play)
- Some gamers would use the code as a bartering tool for trades in the Steam community.
Sure beats having your flyer tossed out with all the others after the convention.
9. Be Wary Of Hidden Merchandise Costs.
Merchandise can totally be a hit or miss investment when it comes to conventions. Keep in mind when you print 100 shirts, those 100 shirts need to be shipped to the expo… and back if you fail to send on them. I’ve encountered far too many Developers who have lost money on merchandise through unexpected costs or low sales.
If you do plan on going the merchandising route, there are a few things to consider, and a several ways to cut costs.
- The easiest: have the items shipped to your hotel or a friend near the convention, or better yet, find a local shop near the expo that allows for pickup.
- Partner with another Indie and combine printing, shipping, etc to get better volume pricing discounts.
- Be realistic.
- Have you spent enough time promoting your company that someone would wear (or recognize) your logo?
- Does your swag help promote your game in any way?
- Would you wear it?
- Bundle with your game. I repeat: gamers love swag bundles.
- Don’t be afraid to slash prices your last day as it’s often cheaper (and less of a hassle) to break even than to ship home.
When it comes down to it, merchandise can be a great way to offset costs or make money if done correctly. If you already have a hit title, great buzz or word of mouth, or perhaps you’re already a recognized Developer, then you’re likely in the clear. If not, be wary and more important; be smart about your investments.
10. Other Ways To Save (aka Part 4 DLC)
There’s also a few other ways you can save money on booths when it comes to conventions, the key is to make sure that what you’re attempting to do doesn’t involve a fee from the venue, as most labor used in Expo setup is union based and often levy fees on items if you choose to use yours versus theirs.
A good rule of thumb: if you can’t carry it in by hand, it’s going to cost you money to have someone bring it to your booth. Generally, they don’t allow you to borrow equipment, carts, etc… and if it’s on a pallet or skid, it will most definitely require someone employed by the venue to bring it into the building.
Here are a few ways to save ramen money I’ve encountered over the years, and again it’s best to double-check with your event organizer before you assume.
- Buy gear (displays, keyboards, etc) and return it, but be wary of restocking fees.
- Supply your own (additional) tables and chairs.
- Purchase foam tiles instead of carpet padding… especially if you plan on reusing it.
- You’d be surprised at just how much it costs to rent padding for your booth. If you’re going to be on your feet a very long time… weigh the costs of purchasing tiles versus padding, your feet will thank you.
- Stock up on waters/snacks purchased outside the expo.
- Con food is a notorious killer of both the wallet and the gut.
- Don’t be a rookie and drink too much the night before opening day.
- The slow (and not hungover) tortoise wins the race. Besides, nothing sucks more than having to nurse a hangover for 8 hours in a loud public setting.
11. Create A Feedback Loop
Nothing beats free QA when it comes to game development… as long as it’s good QA I guess. Take advantage of your time at the convention and utilize each visitor’s play through as if it was a playtest session. Keep a pen and paper handy to take notes, observations, bottleneck points, or write down bugs; this is equivalent to your game being played in the wild, so let them explore and try not to drive the experience too much. Be sure to ask for feedback, I’ve found that gamers love to give feedback face to face to developers at conventions, and it’s far more helpful than Mr. Anonymous’ web forum posts of “Broke game is broke.”
Another useful thing… invite other Developers to play your game and ask for complete, honest feedback. Not only is this helpful from a design standpoint, but they may even know the intricacies of how to fix or better your game. Honesty can sometimes hurt, but it’s better to catch something early on than let it fall flat or blow up in your face post launch.
12. Have A Way To Follow Up.
So far, you’ve followed every tip given and you’re getting all sorts of player interactions and feedback right? Whether it is a simple pad of paper with a pen handy for them to write down emails, a computer or device connected to a mailing list on your site, or even a Launchrock portal (more on this in a bit), play it smart and have a system for following up with visitors. Give them some incentive, maybe provide them an early access demo copy, discounts for when your game goes live, bonus in game content… whatever it may be,
As for the Launchrock site mentioned above, it’s a quick and simple sign-up portal that not only provides a way for those signing up in the booth to share it with their friends, but also provides analytics and the ability to export your subscribers in a CSV file for other applications (remember MailChimp?) It takes less than 30 minutes and is worth every second spent on it.
When it comes time to make a push for a Kickstarter, having a sale, or navigating the bizarre landscape that is Steam’s Greenlight, you’ll be happy you spent a few minutes early on building a base set of subscribers to assist in spreading the word.
We hope this helps when planning your next foray into the world of expos, conventions, and booth madness. If you happen to have any more tips or experiences you’d like to add, feel free to leave them in the comment section below, and we’ll add them to our next guide compilation.