Tease. Announce. Trailer. Demo. Rinse. Repeat.
After sixteen years of professionally working cons and adhering diligently to the Convention Commandments, I guess I got a bit bored and decided to take a chance on something different at this year’s PAX East. And I thought I’d report to you how it all went down. But first, a bit of history and background…
At some point in the 70s, Al Alcorn came down from the mountain and read the commandments. They weren’t very well documented, so here’s a paraphrase:
Thou shalt have an elaborately constructed and decorated booth.
Thou shalt have a wicked exciting trailer.
Thou shalt have something playable (even if it’s totally haxored).
And for decades, games have been shown in exactly the same way. The booths have become slightly more exotic and the promises much more absurd, but for the most part, nothing has changed. This is particularly weird when you think about it because a) we make essentially digital theme parks and b) Disney has changed the way their theme parks function an infinite number of times in the past 40 years.
So what gives? Why is every booth at pretty much every convention practically identical experiences? Don’t get me wrong, I love riding 40 foot tall dinos and snapping pics with Songbird, but why is no one, as far as I know, creating experiences at booths beyond taking a picture next to something, or waiting in line and play a demo?
First off, full disclosure, my tastes are a bit on the weird side. Plenty of devs enjoy the works of Lynch and Kubrick et al for the weirdness and the unsettled characters. I do too, but I especially like the strange pregnant pauses more than anything else. I love it when creators aren’t afraid to hold moments for uncomfortable lengths and let the viewer’s minds start to wander and maybe even risk losing some people on account of short attention spans or inactive imaginations. I also like the challenge of trying to build something out of very little. You could call it minimalism, but that usually starts from a place of limitless options, painfully whittled down to the most essential components. Instead, I like to start from very little and see what I can do with it. Case in point: The Deep End’s booth at PAX East. I build my games out of my basement and try to hit out of my weight class.
My goal was to tease our next game, “Dark Web.” Not gonna get into the whole shameless self-promotion thing, but for context, it’s a horror anthology along the lines of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror (of which I’ve seen one episode about Prime Ministers and… pigs). Anyhow, in the game, you’ll be able to vote which episode comes next. And it’s early in development. BUT, because I was tired of trailers AND I wanted to let the audience pick the first episode, it felt like the perfect time to try something different. For inspiration, we drew upon such interactive experiences as Sleep No More and a local haunted farm our friend Alexis runs.
I knew we were going to be showing our debut game, Perception, in VR for the first time, so I thought we could draw people in with that. Then, because lines happen, we could offer them an interactive tease of our next game. It would usually go down somewhat like this: “Hey thanks for coming by. It looks like the line for the Perception VR demo will be about 30 minutes or so. While you’re waiting, have you had the chance to check out ‘Dark Web?’”
“Ummm…” (awkward confusion) “No…what- ummm…what is the Dark Web?”
“Well, it’s an interactive tease of our next game. We trying something a bit different and weird where you get to vote on the first episode of the game.” We’d then gesture to the back of the booth, where we had a curtained off hall with a few…surprises inside.
Most everyone would be apprehensive. Awkward smiles often followed as they wondered how much they could trust us. Sure enough, they’d see the person ahead of them head into the hall and watch as they rounded the corner and kind of froze at the sight of the person staring them down.
If they were with friends, they’d often remain at the threshold and look back, laughing.
But the watcher at the end of the hall would gesture them in and explain the rules, our own booth commandments if you will. Then they’d escort their guest to a screen where the “voting” begins.
We wanted to really curate a tight tease for the three proposed Dark Web chapters – The Harvest, Frostbite, and The Forsaken. For each, we chose a logo, a line of text, and a very juicy cut of audio prepared by our favorite sound genius, Jim Bonney (yes, the BAFTA winner, that Jim Bonney). We asked Jim to create a 1 minute soundscape for each chapter that told a story just with ambient sounds.
Since we’d never really seen a booth that had a hall of curtains in the back, we knew it was absolutely critical that we got all the necessary approvals, crossed every “T” and took every safety pre-caution necessary. Safety first, right? We were footing the bill for the booth in its entirety, so while we were maximizing the use of our footprint, we needed to make sure everything was up to code. That started with contacting Freeman, the folks who set up booths at PAX. We sent them (admittedly awful) Illustrator sketchups of the layout, along with a few references.
Our first draft was met with a bit of apprehension and required some clarity and further reference.
A few concerns were raised:
Even though the hall was small, it was going to be dark inside, and we wanted to do all we could to assuage fears of the union workers. We proactively offered in advance to have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers handy at all times. Our booth from a few years ago was directly across from a rather large intricate interior buildout where they were allowing users to play their demo, so I was confident we’d be able to get the appropriate permissions. After talking to everyone we could as preventative measure, we were eventually connected with the foreman who would oversee the construction. He agreed it was simple, but definitely appreciated the heads up. Frankly, I’m not sure how he would have reacted had we not provided a series of sketches and spoke with him directly.
When people came out of the booths, they were either grinning ear-to-ear or stunned. Most said they’d never experienced a booth like ours. Needless to say we felt like that was a big win. The biggest measurable win, however, were how many people came back to our booth with friends. Or, even better, the folks who showed up saying “we heard about the Dark Web experience and had to try it out”. Can I get a squee?
We handed out hundreds of Dark Web’s signature mask, and got equal amount of email addresses for people to keep in touch with the project. We’ll be announcing the winner – our next game! – soon, so hopefully we can continue to build buzz in this nontraditional way.
And people really ran with it. Some worked the masks into their cosplays, which was exactly what we were hoping for.
With very relatively little cost, we were able to build a strong rapport with hundreds of potential new fans. We were able to start some great conversations with streamers and a number of business partners who heard whispers of the weird things we were doing.
It should go without saying that none of this would have been possible without all the overwhelmingly enthusiastic help of friends we had pitching in. We made sure to over-recruit people to pitch in, but Amanda and I were ecstatic not only at how eager folks were to perform as Watchers, but also how far people took the roles. The plan was originally to have a watcher standing there at the end of the hall with a tablet. They would communicate entirely through the screen and mime-like gestures. As the show went on, and batteries ran low faster than expected, Neal and Chelsea, two of our amazing helpers started performing without the screens. While I was apprehensive about this at first, Neal showed me how he was creepily miming things like “no photography” and I was sold. I think perhaps Amanda might have been a bit sad panda about some of her flavor-writing being cast aside, but in the end, we all agreed it created an experience that was memorable in its own way. We decided to give performers the choice to go screen-less.
Along with the performers, we had tons of help running the front of the booth. Turns out demoing VR is more hands-on than I anticipated. Further, leading up to the event, I contacted some friends who helped build booths at various companies and help coordinate swag like the masks and pins. I think the moral of the story here is that networking goes well beyond just finding your next gig.
What Needed Improvements...
While day one was a resounding success, we were not able to get enough people through the experience. After the showfloor closed, we immediately set to work transforming the hall by splitting it into two. The space was originally designed with a primary entrance, a primary exit, and an emergency exit. By cutting the hall right down the middle, we could double our impressions.
Because the entire concept seemed a bit shady to begin with, and frankly, I never really found a way to lure people in without sounding like a complete weirdo, we definitely had issues shepherding people. We always had at least a few people waiting, and with two entrances on opposite sides of the booth, we definitely did our fair share of walking. But I think the rawness worked nicely with both the nature of the game and how we’re building it.
On that note, our intent was to attempt something very grass roots in our own backyard. I adore PAX East, and despite the mystery and the indie feel, I think people got genuine authenticity from the encounter.
Were we able to make as big a footprint as we wanted? No. The logistics of time and the size of the booth didn’t get in the amount of people we’d hoped. Did it have the impact we wanted? Yes, definitely. To have people tweeting, sharing pics of what they did with their weird masks, and having people come and cosplay as our Watcher character in the span of four days was positively rad.
We did some weird things. Did they pay off? That remains to be seen. The response so far has been fantastic, but how that translate to broader awareness is completely open. I just look at how much noise there is and how much we’re leaving on the playing field and knew that we had to take a shot at something different to build a new type of connection. So here’s to breaking the rules.