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What I’ve Learned in Two Years of Exhibiting at Events
Hi, I'm J. Kyle Pittman, indie game developer and co-founder of Minor Key Games (Eldritch, You Have to Win the Game). I've been making indie games for several years now, and last summer I began taking builds to local and regional gaming events for the first time. I've had some trouble in the past finding good resources for first-time exhibitors, so after wrapping up a second year of con seasons, I thought it might be useful to write up some of my own initial impressions.
Every event is going to be a little different. This blog is based on my experiences showing Super Win the Game at a number of conventions and expos this year and last. Some of this may be useful to other developers, some is just my own personal observations and anecdotes. I recommend researching any event you plan to attend to avoid any unexpected surprises.
Part 1 of 3: Planning
Costs are going to vary greatly depending on the event. Some are free. Some are multiple thousands of dollars. This usually correlates to the number of expected attendees and the demand for booth space, but there are no guarantees. I would generally expect to pay about $100-$300 for a 10’x10′ booth at a moderately sized event. I’m not talking PAX or GDC here, but mid-size local and regional events. In my experience, for the sorts of games I’m making, anything above that just isn’t worth the cost. The one caveat might be that the very large events like PAX and GDC offer a higher chance of visibility and coverage. My goals are usually to meet players and promote the game to potential customers. Press coverage is nice if it happens, but I don’t count on it.
Booth size and provided equipment will vary as well, but a 10’x10′ booth with a 6-foot draped table and two chairs is common. Sometimes you’ll get a pipe and drape backdrop, sometimes you won’t. Electricity is occasionally included for gaming-specific events, but most of the time you’ll have to pay for your own, and sometimes you’ll have to order it yourself from the venue rather than the event host. Again, do your research.
Load in as early as possible
Many events allow vendors and exhibitors to load in the day before the doors open to the public. I recommend taking advantage of this opportunity whenever possible. You’ll have more time to react to any unexpected circumstances, and you can arrive rested and ready to promote your game the next day.
Wear comfortable shoes
You’re going to be on your feet all day, every day. Make sure your shoes are up to the task!
I usually estimate one bottle of water per hour. (I drink a lot of water, so that might be on the high side.) Since you’ll probably be speaking at an increased volume throughout much of the day, you may find it helpful to bring some throat drops as well.
Bring your own food
A lot of convention centers have concession stands, but I’m usually not that brave. Pack something quick and easy that won’t make a mess or keep you away from your booth for too long. I usually go for a chicken salad sandwich. Kind of boring, kind of bland, but whatever, it’s safe. Probably a good idea to keep some chewing gum on hand for after meals as well.
Swag, merch, and freebies
Flyers are awesome. They’re cheap and compact. They’re cheap enough that you can buy way more of them than you’ll ever need. They’re also heavy. Don’t bring more than you need unless you just really like lugging leaden boxes to and from your booth when loading in and out. I recommend ordering as far in advance as you reasonably can to save on shipping costs.
Buttons are also awesome. They’re fairly cheap and everyone loves them. I’d estimate I’ve given away about 200-250 per day on average, but this will really depend on traffic and visibility. Bright, colorful designs tend to be popular, as do those with characters on them. Less popular: game or company title and logos, anything with a lot of text, etc. Think iconic and eye-catching.
I can’t really speak to t-shirts. I have yet to do a large enough order of t-shirts to warrant giving them away or selling them. (And other than as prizes, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d give these away, as much as they cost.) I’ve done a small number for ourselves and our family. They’re awesome, and I’d love to be able to sell them someday, but there’s a pretty significant upfront cost there.
More on swag
Last year, I had slap bracelets and lanyards printed up for events. I wouldn’t do this again, for a few reasons. For one, they were a little more expensive then flyers and buttons, although still cheaper than shirts. (The difference being I was giving these away, not selling them.) But more importantly, they are a hassle to get made because I couldn’t find any online services with automated ordering that could print a design from a PNG file. Instead, I had to convert my designs to vector art and go through a whole back-and-forth exchange with an actual human (the horror) to get the design reviewed and set up for manufacturing, get proofs ordered and approved, and finally get the entire run manufactured.
Banners go a long way toward improving the visibility of your booth and your Brand™ or whatever. Also they’re just cool?
Horizontal signs are great for events that provide a draped backdrop or for hanging off the front of a table. (I’ve used a 8′ sign for backdrops and a 6′ sign for tables in the past.) I’ve seen a lot of booths using vertical signs recently, and I’ll definitely be going that route in the future; the portability and reduced footprint are too good to pass up.
Be smart about security
Most events have security during off hours, but there’s no harm in being extra safe. I usually leave my screens and boxes of random equipment. Laptops and cash stay with me. I’ve yet to have any problems leaving anything overnight, but why take the risk?
Use what you have
This is only my second year doing these events. There’s still a lot of room to grow. My booth looks pretty makeshift compared to some of the big ones with lots of signs and TV stands and booming sound systems. And that’s fine. Use what you have and don’t worry about what you don’t. Just keep it clean, professional, and presentable.
Part 2 of 3: Presentation
Identify the goals of your booth presence
Are you promoting your game to increase awareness? Are you selling it? Meeting fans? Making connections with press and internet folks? More than likely, your goals will be a combination of all of these, but identifying this can help you tailor your booth and your game demo to suit your needs. You’ll want to make sure that the elements that are most critical to your goals are highly visible and immediately apparent.
Highlight critical information
If you have fancy-schmancy TV stands, use those! If you’re winging it with a TV on a table as I always have, remember that players will be standing when they approach your booth, so you’ll want to get your screen closer to eye level. I have some IKEA risers that were part of a standing desk solution I once put together; these worked perfectly for getting my TV a good distance off the table. Another option is to put a chair out in front of your table, but be aware you may need to back up your table to make room and not disrupt the flow of traffic in this case.
Your screen or screens will be the first thing people see, so make sure they communicate their purpose effectively. If you’re showing a playable demo, make sure the title screen (or whatever screen your game idles on) is clearly labeled as ready for play. The Super Win title screen reads “Press Start to Begin,” and I keep the controller as close as possible so the intent is clear.
Plastic sign holders that fit 8.5″x11″ sheets are super useful for whatever other information you might want to provide up front that doesn’t belong in the game itself. In my case, I use these for displaying the prices of items I’m selling and a “buttons and flyers are free, please take one!” message.
Pack extra everything
Extra cables, extra power strips, extra pens and markers, extra notebook paper, extra phone chargers, extra everything. You don’t want to have to run to the store at the last minute because you forgot an HDMI cable, and it’s always nice to have spares on hand in case another exhibitor needs to borrow something. I’ll also note that having a super long power strip has come in handy many times, as you never know where power drops will be located.
Keep a notebook
Don’t count on wi-fi or cellular service. Some venues do provide wi-fi, but in my experience, it’s a rarity, and the volume of devices often degrades cellular reception. Keep a notebook on hand instead to jot down any bugs you observe or improvements you could make. I filled many, many pages with Super Win bugs and polish items last year, and the game is immeasurably better for it.
Lock down your builds in advance
Yes, you could work on the game right up until the last minute just to make sure you get each and every new feature in there, but it’s not worth the risk if you destabilize the build. By and large, no one’s going to miss absent features, but they will notice broken ones.
Use discretion with regard to bugs
Bugs are embarrassing, and your first instinct may be to try to fix them on the fly, or to go back home and prepare a new build before the next day. And sometimes this might be the right choice. But keep in mind that any change may affect stability. If you don’t have time to thoroughly test your changes, it may be preferable to continue demoing with known bugs.
Events are loud, and there’s little to be gained by making them louder. I’ve found myself having to shout to be heard over my games before, and that’s not really an ideal situation for either party. So here’s my take: unless audio is 100% critical to your game (e.g., it’s a music or rhythm game), keep the volume low. Headphones are an increasingly popular option as well, although this necessarily precludes speaking to your players, so you’d better make sure your game is foolproof if you’re gonna go that route.
Tutorial or not tutorial
All right, here’s an interesting one. Last year, the “demo” build of Super Win the Game that I brought to events was essentially the whole game as it existed at the time. The game started with a tutorial, so the demo started with a tutorial. It covered movement, jumping, the works. It was optional, but most players chose to play through it, and some got bored and quit and walked away before finishing it.
This year, I brought a build with no tutorial. It drops players right into the action with a few abilities that would normally be acquired an hour or two into the game. Most players picked it up right away. Some didn’t. So it seems that both options have their drawbacks.
I think in future games, I’ll try to find a nice middle ground by introducing mechanics naturally and teachably in a setting that doesn’t feel like an outright tutorial.
Hey, you know how arcade games always had attract modes where they’d play a short demo after sitting idle for a little while? Turns out that’s a really smart idea! I’ve observed time and time again that Super Win attracts a crowd while someone’s actively playing it. When it’s sitting idle on the title screen, most folks just pass it by. This was one of my primary motivations for implementation input recording, an optional fixed timestep path, and determinate randomization in Gunmetal Arcadia, as these will allow me to record and play back game events for an attract mode.
You don’t want to have to manually reset your demo each time someone finishes playing. I’ve automated this process for Super Win by adding a demo mode setting that will automatically reset the game after it’s been idle for a specified length of time (45 seconds during normal gameplay or 15 seconds if the game has been left on the pause menu).
Demo builds should also disallow exiting the game, and I’ve even gone a step further and disallowed saving and loading, access to the options menu, and anything else that would alter the play experience from the sort of default, prescribed vanilla one that I want to show.
Super Win demo builds also force all control bindings to be displayed using the Xbox 360 glyphs, as that’s typically the controller that I demo with. This is sort of specific to my needs in that it prevents the game from showing mouse or keyboard bindings if I accidentally bump my laptop’s touchpad or whatever. Your needs may vary, but in general, your goal should be to minimize anything that could possibly change based on player input.
A final thought on demo scope: the build that I took to events in 2014 was the entire game as it existed at the time. This was honestly just too much content. Unless your goal is to encourage players to camp out at your booth, potentially for hours on end, your demo should have a finite length and a clear ending. If you’re worried that a truncated, stripped-down demo might do your game a disservice, you can look for opportunities to showcase additional features in passing, but remember the adage about leaving audiences wanting more. In my 2015 demo of Super Win, the overworld map is only seen briefly and cannot be explored beyond a small walled-off region, but it’s enough to imply a larger scope than what’s available in the demo.
Put your best foot forward
Some might disagree with this, but I say if something will make your game look better for the demo alone, do it! It doesn’t have to be 100% representative of the shipping game. This is especially true if you’re demoing an unreleased game. As an example, I always demo Super Win with an unsupported, undocumented anti-aliasing mode enabled. Is your game especially difficult? Tune it a little bit easier for the demo so your players feel good about their skills. (I wish I’d done that sooner for Super Win. Or at all.) Treat the demo as a separate thing from the full game, and give it the attention it needs to be the best possible demo it can be. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to lock it down.
Part 3 of 3: People
Rehearse and improvise
It’s a good idea to practice the elevator pitch for your game, but if you find yourself doggedly reciting a monologue to someone who’s politely waiting for you to stop talking so they can actually play the game you’re pitching, maybe reel that back in. Try different things. See which phrases stick and which don’t. Which ideas provoke a reaction or raise talking points? You’ll be interacting with a large and diverse array of gamers; this is a terrific opportunity to test the waters and home in on the parts of your pitch that click.
Keep it simple
Remember that conventions tend to be loud and crowded, and attendees are going to be experiencing information overload. Keep your booth simple to navigate. I’ve been at fault here before, covering my table in buttons and flyers and lanyards and slap bracelets and oh yeah actually a game too, and I’ve seen a fair number of people walk up, stare blankly at the table, maybe grab a flyer, glance at it for a second, then put it back and walk away. Too much information. Keep it simple. The game is the centerpiece. Everything else is supplementary.
You don’t have to engage everyone
Some may disagree with this, but one of my biggest pet peeves when I’m attending events is when developers are too eager to push a controller into my hands and oblige me to play their games. Sometimes — most of the time, even — I just want to sit back and watch others play. So I try not to be that dev.
My metric tends to be, if someone makes eye contact, I’ll engage them. (And by “engage,” I mean verbally greeting, pitching the game, offering freebie swag and a live controller, and so on.) This filters out everyone who just want to window shop and keep on moving.
You’re gonna get the same questions over and over
And that’s fine! That’s totally normal. Just be ready to answer these and probably more like them:
“Are these free?”
“What was this made in?”
“Have you thought about consoles?”
“Did you have to go through Greenlight?”
Elaborate on your answers. Maybe console development isn’t in the cards right now, but maybe Mac or Linux releases are just around the corner. Every interaction can be an opportunity to upsell some aspect of your game. It’s easy to miss these, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you do, but with practice, you can begin to anticipate them.
I haven’t actually noticed any trends here. In the absence of any data, I would have expected that my brand of retro pixel art games would mostly appeal to gamers from my own generation, but I’ve seen everyone from younger kids to older adults react positively to Super Win. (And to be fair, I’ve had a number of cynical reactions from players of all ages as well.) But across any metric, whether it’s age, race, gender, or whatever, some players like the game and some don’t. So I don’t worry too much about it. The one effort I’ve made is to target conventions aimed at a retro gaming crowd because that’s the sort of game I’m selling. Obviously, these opportunities will vary greatly by location and the nature of your product, but keep your eyes open for any potential matches.
This is a weird one. By the last day of an event, after you’ve greeted and demoed the game for dozens if not hundreds of people, faces all start looking the same. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun pitching Super Win to someone only to find myself wondering, “Were they just here a few hours ago?” I’m not really sure what you can do about this if you’re affected by it, but if nothing else, be aware that this phenomenon exists.
If you’re showing a game at an event, you’ll probably get some requests for interviews. Interviews can be fun. I like doing them. Not everyone does. You don’t have to do them if you don’t want to. The important thing is to balance your bandwidth. If you’re exhibiting alone, as I frequently do, you may have to step away from your booth for a short time to record an interview. If you don’t have time during the event, you can always offer to follow up with a Skype interview sometime in the future.
Interviews can be another good opportunity to test your elevator pitch. Make sure you exchange information so you can follow up whenever the interview goes live. Watch your own interviews. Be critical of yourself. Practice!
This is worth mentioning since many of my experience running a booth have been by myself. I don’t really recommend it. Loading in and out is strenuous work, and running a booth is physically and mentally taxing. If you have a team, cool. If not, see if you can get some help from friends and family (or event enforcers, or exhibitors from adjacent tables, or whoever is available). It’s nice to be able to take a breather and wander the floor for a bit. Not so much fun when you have to rush to the restroom and back as few times as possible throughout the day to avoid leaving the booth unattended.
Bring business cards. You’ll want plenty of these on hand in case you meet press, YouTubers, or other developers, and I usually keep a stack next to my flyers in case any players want to grab one as well. Make sure your business cards contain whatever form of contact you prefer. I’m all about Twitter, so I put my Twitter handle on my cards. In hindsight, I don’t really think there’s any good reason for me to have put my phone number on my cards, since I generally ignore calls from numbers I don’t know.
Some events will have built-in networking opportunities in the form of afterparties. I’m usually too exhausted from being on my feet all day to attend, so just be aware you may need to conserve your energy if you want to make it to these.
I’m bad about this one. I collect cards and then forget to email anyone I met until weeks after the fact. Don’t be like me. Reserve a day on your schedule if you have to, but make sure you have a chance to go over everything once the event has wrapped up.
Lost and found
I don’t think I’ve ever worked a convention where someone didn’t leave something at my booth. Usually it’ll be something innocuous like a flyer or a bottle of water. Sometimes it’ll be a rare game or a wallet. Keep an eye on your table at all times, and be proactive in finding out where and whether the convention has a lost and found to deliver any stray items.
This can be tough if you’re exhibiting alone, but I’ve found it’s important to take breaks not only to stretch my legs but also to go check my appearance in the mirror. I want to look presentable, of course, but this also helps me reassure myself that the smile I’ve been holding all afternoon can still look genuine.
Anxiety and criticism
This one isn’t going to apply to everyone, but in the space of game developers, there’s probably a higher incidence of social anxiety than many other professions. I can only speak to my own experiences here, but as someone who has suffered from social anxiety all his life, I feel like this is worth addressing.
I’ve never really gotten that sort of doomy dread panicked looking-for-any-possible-means-of-escape sensation from doing shows that I would when I had to, say, recite a paper I’d written for the class. I tend to think this is because the scope of exhibitions is entirely within my wheelhouse. It’s my game. I know everything there is to know about it. I’m completely in my element. But if you do have that feeling, be aware it’ll probably fade in favor of a sort of restless impatience once the doors open and you have to be switched on and ready for anything.
It’s easy to feel put on the spot or attacked when players ask even the most barely critical questions. The natural reaction is to want to get defensive. Don’t do that. Try thinking about your role at events not as a developer demoing their own game, but as someone promoting an anonymous third party’s product. Pretend you don’t know anything about the underlying implementation. All you’re seeing is what the player’s seeing. So when a player asks, “Why can’t I kill enemies by jumping on them?” you could either get defensive and explain all the reasons you choose to make a non-violent exploration platformer, or you could instead deflect and spin your answer to promote the features of the game that do exist. “Well, there’s no combat in this game, but you can find power-ups that will give you new abilities like double-jumping or wall-jumping.”
Conventions are weird and hectic and draining and all inexplicably piled up right in the middle of the hottest weeks of the year, but you know what? Every time I finish one, I find myself looking forward to the next one. It’s a total shift from the sort of day-to-day game development routine that I’m most familiar and comfortable with, but it can be a lot of fun, too. Don’t get burned out and don’t stress over mistakes. Be flexible and look for ways to improve. Most importantly, have fun.