Planning a booth for a large convention such as PAX can be intimidating. It is, after all, the moment many strangers see your game for the first time, and you want to capitalize on that opportunity. How can you stand out from all of the other booths around? How can you make the booth work in your favor? These are important questions to ask ahead of time.
Of course, the most important factor remains to bring a great game to the show. That's a no-brainer. But a booth is a marketing tool, not just a physical location. Do it well, and you'll attract more potential fans than you'd otherwise have, and they'll be in a more favorable state of mind when they try your game.
At Clever-Plays, we've done four large conventions, including two PAX, a ComicCon and a TwitchCon. We've learned a thing or two we'd like to share with other indie game studios. This article assumes you don't have budget for a large ornamental booth, you don't have pre-existing hype or a fantastic booth location, and you're looking for DIY type of ideas.
Here are some tricks, in no particular order.
Mount your screens as high as possible
You should make your booth discoverable from down the hall. Try placing one large monitor above human height, for example a 55-inch TV mounted atop a 7-foot stand, so that the view cannot be obstructed by people standing in front. You can either play your trailer in loops on it, or it can simply display the screen of one of your game stations. Same goes for a banner, although if given the choice you should give priority to a screen, as of course movement attracts the eye more than a static image.
Similarly, make sure your game stations can be viewed by people standing in line to play. At our first PAX, when showing Leap of Fate for the first time, our PC monitors were small and directly on the table (it's a PC game, so players had to sit to play). The result was that by-passers could not see much of the screens and just kept walking. Nowadays, we bring two 32-inch monitors and we place them on 10-inch blocks, so that they're higher up. It works much better. If you have a console game with controllers, consider mounting your screen at head level for maximum visibility by the crowd.
Maintain a crowd at your booth
In general, when you see a crowd, you instantly assume something interesting is occurring, and you go check it out. So it's a valuable goal to try and maintain a constant crowd in front of your booth to attract more people. This may not be an issue if you have a hyped up game in the Indie Megabooth, but it is a real issue for unknown games in suboptimal floor locations. At PAX Prime, we brought a cosplayer dressed up as a cyberpunk fortune teller (in-theme for the game). The cosplayer offered an actual fortune telling to anyone interested, using a deck of cards that we made using the game's art. This was a huge success as it caught attention, entertained people waiting in line, and made them positively curious about the game.
Make it more than just playing a demo
Leap of Fate being a skill-based game, setting up a leaderboard made a lot of sense. We brought a router and a laptop, and created an app that managed a leaderboard combining both gaming stations, and displayed that on a small monitor placed on the side of the booth. After seeing their score, many gamers felt either proud or compelled to go back in line to try again, sometimes several times. And they often came back with friends later, which was great.
Make sure to support this by celebrating the players and making them feel like stars. In our case, we had small prizes to give out to the best scorers every 2 hours, as well as a grand prize at the end of each day. We also made sure to take pictures with the winners, basically trying to make them feel good about having spent time at our booth. People are much more likely to remember your game if they had a meaningful moment at your booth.
Find a way to get people's emails
Building a pool of emails for your newsletter is a worthy investment, and one which can be leveraged for a long time, considering your future releases. To accomplish this, we added a feature to our demo: when the player ends his session, a special screen appears, asking for an email address to enter the leaderboard as well as a raffle (we were offering a gaming keyboard graciously provided by Corsair). Asking for an email at the end of a game session is surprisingly frictionless, especially when the players feel they are gaining something from it. We also had a tablet with the same home-made app, which allowed us to collect the email of those only wanting to enter the raffle without waiting in line to play.
Have something to sell, and make it a good deal
At our first PAX, the game was not out yet. Many gamers tried the demo, found it interesting and wanted to support us, but we just could not capitalize on that. This felt like such a wasted opportunity. For the second PAX however, Leap of Fate was already out on Steam's Early Access, and we printed Steam keys for direct sale. We offered a 66%-off promotion for on-site purchases, which was displayed conspicuously in the booth. This made a huge difference, as players that liked the game could buy it right on the spot. The instantaneity of the process plus the good feeling that comes from taking advantage of an exclusive discount made people eager to purchase the game.
For some reason, it is quite standard for studios to print post-card-sized flyers, but I don't think that's the best idea because they get thrown away a lot; they're too big. Instead, I'd recommend printing business cards. They are less likely to be thrown away immediately since they nicely fit in a pocket or wallet. As an added bonus, they cost less to print.
Also, consider printing small buttons or pins, and giving them away. I find they are the most sought-after swag at a con, and are not that expensive to make. Go for a simple and flashy image or logo if you can, as darker or more detailed images will not come out nicely.
2-4 days of convention can be extremely tiring, so make sure you bring enough people to staff your booth, or you'll end up in bad shape fast. In our experience, one dedicated person per two gaming stations is a good ratio (this may depend on the nature of your game). Ideally, also make sure one person's job is simply to be available to chat with players. Some gamers love to speak with devs, and that can be memorable for them.
If possible, try to have another person whose job is to look around for press or youtubers (they usually have a distinct badge) and funnel them in. A good trick is to spot other booths that showcase a similar type of game, and use your best pick up line on any influencer that comes out of there. Needless to say, influencers are the name of the game for creating hype.
During downtime, I'd suggest leaving just one person in the booth for the time being. Nobody likes venturing into an empty booth to be jumped on by three hungry "sales rep".
If you can afford it, consider hiring a PR firm for major events. It will cost you a few thousand dollars, but you gain access to their press/youtubers data base. Given the right fit, this can be invaluable. They will get influencers excited about your game, set up appointments for you ahead of time, staff the booth if you need it, and offer advice. If the firm is well known, it will also lend you credibility. Treat PR firms as catalysts. They will not make you successful, but they will make it easier for you to become successful.
There are countless other strategies to experiment with, and different solutions to the above-mentioned points, but these are the ones we have tried and improved over a few shows. See what works best for you, and never stop experimenting.
I'll finish by reiterating that you should treat your booth not just as a physical location, but rather as a user-experience designed to help convention goers discover your game and remember it among the hundred they'll see that day.
So get started thinking about your booth.