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When we were selected for the PAX 10 in 2012 with our game Cannon Brawl it was really exciting, but also scary. It was the first conference where we had ever showed the game and the first time we would get to see random people react to the game. I was really nervous, had no idea what I was doing, and wasn’t quite sure how to make the most of the experience. Now that we’ve shown at PAX a second time, Minecon, and other smaller events, I thought I’d pass on what we’ve learned to you indie developers gearing up for your first trade show.
Below on the left was our first showing at PAX 2012. Just a white table and the game. On the right was our full set from Minecon 2013, including the tablecloth, banner, pins, and special edition tins:
- Pick a good booth position if possible. Think about foot traffic. Try to get a booth that faces out towards a lane of foot traffic, corner booths are often good for this. Or if you’re part of a group, arrange your tables so that your games all face outward. At our first PAX, the tables were set up in rows, which meant games on the inside tables would get terrible foot traffic. We rearranged all the tables into a big U shape. All our backpacks and personal stuff could go in the center, all our games faced out to the crowds.
- Always bring tape, scissors, and a surge protector. There has never been a show where I didn’t need those for something. Also bring bottled water and snacks!
- Get some friends to help your demo your game. Pitching your game to people eight hours a day is exhausting and your voice will go out having to shout over the noise (also, bring throat lozenges). Having friends to help will allow you to take breaks to eat, rest, and check out the show.
- Practice standing. You’ll be on your feet for hours a day. I’m a programmer so this was something I wasn’t used to doing. My legs were killing me after the first day. I now use a standing desk at work which has improved my endurance for trade shows.
You have a lot of freedom to dress up your booth. I had never been to a trade show at all before our first PAX, so we just brought our laptops and the game, some business cards and almost nothing else. Here’s some additional ideas:
- Colored table cloth, we made ours out of a party table cloth (very low cost) and yellow tape. You can use this instead of the standard black table cloth you’ll get at every show.
- Cloth banner and stand. This isn’t as expensive as I thought and helps people passing by identify your game quickly.
- Sign up sheet for your email newsletter (set this up if you don’t have it) to help build your fan base. People will sign up!
- Make flyers with the game name, facebook page, twitter, website, and your email on it. People will take these and if they like your game, it’ll remind them how to follow it’s progress or buy it. At our first PAX we made about 500 flyers and we ran out on the third day.
- Set up a bowl of candy. It gives people and excuse to wander over and say “hi.” You’ll also get people who just grab some and leave without a word, but it’s still worth it for the overall increased foot traffic.
- If possible, try and get your monitor elevated above the heads of the people playing. Small crowds will can form around a game and block visibility of other passers-by. At the last show we went to we just put the monitor on a box covered in a black table cloth.
- If you have a way of selling your game, do it! We sell steam keys and a special edition version that comes in a small tin with some cannon brawl themed magnets (all handcrafted by Cannon Brawl’s artist Theresa Duringer). It feels more meaningful if you can tie something physical to the game key.
- Make it clear what platform your game is on and when/if it is released and make this signage big and obvious. Cannon Brawl is a PC game, but we demo it with game controllers. Often people mistake it for a console game, and generally have no idea if it’s released yet (it’s been on Steam’s Early Access for months).
Here's a close up of the special edition tins and the pins the amazing Theresa made:
During the Show
- Get a notebook to take feedback notes. Trade shows are great way to see a lot of different people try to learn and play your game. You’ll find lots of changes you’ll want to make and a notebook is essential for remembering them. For trade shows that go on multiple days I always end up updating the build in the evenings with player feedback.
- There can be a catch-22 where if no one is playing your game (and it’s sitting at the main menu) people are less likely to come up and try it out, thus it stays at the main menu and no one plays it. You can solve this by playing it yourself, and keeping an eye out for people who stop to watch. Ask them if they want to try and get them playing. You can also try to set up an ‘Attract Mode’ where the game will play itself (like arcade games do). We tried both approaches and in our experience the most powerful attractor is for people to see other people having fun.
- When playing your game, players should get to do all the fun/engaging features themselves, which sounds obvious but applies in a special way to a multiplayer game. Cannon Brawl is a 1v1 competitive game, so we typically teach people to play by having them fight against us in a local multiplayer match. We let whoever we’re playing against always win and set up situations so that they can do something cool. For example I’ll place a building on a cliff, which gives them the opportunity to knock it off, showing the coolness of our destructible terrain. At my first PAX a developer demoed their game with me and showed me their game’s cool features by using them to defeat me. As someone totally unfamiliar with the game, it felt unfair to get crushed by the developer. Even when they catch on that you’re going easy, they’ll still appreciate not being destroyed at a game they’ve just started learning.
- Engage with people who paused to look. Straight up ask them if they want to try the game or if they have any questions. If you don’t, they will just walk on by and you’ll miss out on potential fans and feedback. It’s very common for people to say “oh no, I don’t have any questions, just watching” and then immediately ask a question and then want to play. This goes double for press folks, watch out for their special badges and make sure to engage them if they come by.
- Introduce yourself to the other developers showing around you. Have lunch and dinner together!
- You may have to pitch your game live to press people who want to do on-site video interviews. I was totally unprepared for this, and I’m still bad at it today (you can see my first lackluster performance here at 11:56. They will all generally ask you to “Tell us about your game” and you must sell it to the camera. I’m not sure the optimal strategy here, but my friends say to imagine that you are describing the game to an interested friend. I’m going to try this if I ever end up on camera again. Stay excited, smiley, and keep the conversation going.
Hopefully this will help you make the most of your conferences and trade shows! If you have any tips leave them in the comments!