Preparing For & Surviving Gaming Expos As An Indie Dev — Part One: Before
My name is Meredith. I’m the Producer at Ultimerse, a virtual reality company in Melbourne, Australia. We exhibited at PAX AUS for the very first time, and there are a million things I wish I’d known — hopefully this will help you next time you need to plan for a con.
Yes, this is absolutely giant. You might only need one section, so feel free to skip around. I really struggled to find information pre-PAX, so I wanted to collate as much as I could. If you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing (like I did) this could be a good starting point.
This is my general advice — if you have specific questions, PLEASE get in touch at @merryh on Twitter — I’d love to help.
This is a repost of an article posted back in December 2017.
Get As Much Information As You Can From The Coordinator
Exhibitors are busy. Those running the exhibition are busier. Make sure you get together with your team and put together a big list of questions that cover absolutely anything you might need to know, and continue to do so throughout the planning process. The last thing you want to be doing a week before is trying to get in touch with someone who has four thousand emails in their inbox.
You might feel bad sending a bunch of questions, but don’t! This is your booth and your baby and a lot of money is going into it — your account manager will understand, and it’ll benefit you both in the long run when you know you already have your answers. Try and find out your location early on — we were lucky enough to be directly inside Door 4, so we could coordinate our external booth decor to hit high traffic areas with the best images.
If you’re coordinating the booth for your team, remember that you need to communicate pertinent information to them. I used a booth bible which ended up being about 52 pages long, but contained everything important so they could read it before the event and flick through (I’ve included a blank template version for you at the end of this.) Filter through what they don’t need to know, but don’t leave them in the dark.
You’ll be busy on the day as well, so don’t put them in a position where they have to find you every time something goes wrong. I should have gone through more training on Square, done some demos on how to use it, and explained where everything was being stored ON THE DAY. That’s on me, not them — they can’t be expected to just know things that have only been communicated to me or organized by me.
Pick The Space That’s Right For You
You don’t always need the biggest booth to make the biggest impact. Remember, people mostly know what the AAA’s are about. They’re usually here to find what they haven’t heard about, so you don’t need to have wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-men to get their attention (unless you’re Inflatality and sticking super on brand, anyway).
Make sure you have a consistent aesthetic in the space across your artwork, merchandise, and decor so you’re recognisable, but don’t worry about going for more than you need. All you’ll end up doing is struggling to fill the space, potentially making it look cluttered, or boxing yourself in when you don’t need to. People like to see people playing games, so an open space can be a good thing!
Think about how long people might linger at your space and the sort of vibe you want to create. If you have a game that’s heavily narrative focused and quite sombre, you might want a small space that’s slightly enclosed so people have more space to be vulnerable. If you have a really fun co-op or competitive game, you probably want room for spectators and to be open and visible.
Ask yourself about the booth you’d want to approach, and try and think about the peripherals that will encourage that more than the space. Stick to your budget. You’ll have a lot more expenses than just the booth, so don’t be tempted to go big for the sake of it.
Set A Budget — And Some Goals.
We are very lucky that our investors and backers are willing to put their money where their mouth is and invest in expos like PAX, but if you’re a smaller studio, this is going to be a huge toll on your finances — not to mention if you need to travel domestically or internationally.
This doesn’t mean it won’t pay off, but it means you need to be mindful of how much you want to spend and where. Is your goal to sell merch? Perfect, that’s where you put your money — the purchase, selling and display of your merchandise alongside your game. Do you just want eyes on your game? Then you need to invest in the decor and feeling of your booth.
Try and portion out your finances against these goals, then add an extra grand at least for the myriad of things that you won’t have considered — urgent purchases during the event, food and drink during the event, lollies for playtesters, the list goes on.
We did not set super clear budgets or super clear goals and it was frankly, our biggest mistake. We had a general idea of what we wanted to spend and what we wanted to achieve, but I wish we’d taken the time to write it all down as SMART goals.
How Long Is Your Demo?
Depending on what you’re demoing, you probably need to allocate at least one to ten minutes to speak to the person about it before or afterwards. If it’s just you and one other person manning your booth, you’re going to be hardpressed to do this if your demo is only five minutes long, so you’re probably better giving people more (or unlimited) time to play and get an understanding of the game.
You then have to ask how this will impact on people waiting to play. Are you comfortable kicking people off? If not, you probably want at least two stations. Do people know about your game? Double how busy you think you’ll be. Ask yourself how many stations you’ll have — can one person play? Two? Is it co-op? If so, will you have the space to have more than one demo station for people to crowd around?
For us, we knew we were going to have a lot of people to get through. VR is notoriously popular at expos, both for the novelty factor and because it’s a newer medium. It also takes about two to three minutes to get each person in a headset, comfortable, explain the controls if they don’t know them, and make sure they’re facing the right way. We decided to settle on a five minute demo, giving individuals time to either beat the boss or run out of time. These felt like the most satisfying conclusions to us, while still letting people feel like they had a chance.
We had a line for all three days, but I don’t think anyone waited more than 20 minutes to play, thanks to the fact that we had two stations, both running at between 7–10 minutes to get one person through. We also knew that we wanted the demo to be family friendly, even if the full game is going to be slightly cruder as we know kids love VR.
Balance the wait against the experience and just ask yourself — how long would you be happy to wait for what you’re showcasing? 5 minutes? 10? 20? Find the cut-off and balance accordingly.
Merchandise! Selling & Displaying:
Think about what you can afford to sell, what people will want to buy, and what you’re allowed to sell. Do people already know about your game? Do they know about a previous game? If so, they’re much more likely to invest in your merchandise if they have connected with your game or brand. Things that almost always do well are high quality pins and plushies. Things that are more high risk/high reward could be tees (if you’re a new studio), soundtracks, or more outside the box merchandise.
For example, Samurai Punk sold Skateboards at PAX AUS and they looked freaking awesome. This is an example of merch that is interesting to people even if they aren’t looking to buy it — think about your conversion rate when you’re taking these risks. If someone comes to your booth because the merch is cute and asks about the game and ends up buying it, this can be worth more than what the merch sale would have been.
Try and have at least one thing you can give away for free to play-testers — badges (or stickers, if your expo allows it — most don’t) are perfect for this.
Anything you want to sell you need to order at least four to six weeks early. Remember, depending on the time of year, some merchandising places will be hit harder than others and you may be looking at even longer times. Make a conscious list of merchandise, what it’s purpose is, what you’ll price it for, what the potential return might be and sit down with your leaders to discuss what they’re happy to invest in and what they’re not. Everything should have a purpose.
Look At Surrounding Events:
You might think you’re prepared for your event, or in our case PAX. I can guarantee you’re already forgetting that it’s not just your event that’s on — you’re not just preparing to survive one or three days, but a week or more.
Almost every large scale games event means a few things — one, that a lot of people who aren’t normally in town, are — two, there is likely at least one related event on that week, if not more.
Networking (a kind of gross term, but there isn’t really a better word for it) is so important, so you need to be at those events saying hi. This means an extra potentially three days where you’ll be meeting people, and talking. You have to eat, so you’ll probably get dinner and drinks with them, and knowing how great the community is you might talk till four in the morning.
Don’t gear up for one, or two, or four days of busy-ness, sleep deprivation, and hard work. Gear up for a week at least — not to mention the week or months you’ll spend preparing, or days of travel. You will have GCAP, or GDC, or parties — something that will mean you’re worn out. However prepared you think you need to be, triple it.
Drink all the water in the world, have at least one night to rest, fully accept that you will probably lose your voice even before you get to the main event. If you’re a solo dev — how will you deal with that if you can’t communicate about your game to the crowd? Your hard work deserves to be seen, so don’t let it go to waste. On that note…
If you are a solo dev or a small team, get in touch far in advance to ask for volunteers. If you can supply someone an exhibitor pass, they’ll often be super happy to help out at your booth for a day. This lets you take a break, see the show (or at least part of it), can save on travel expenses if it’s international and often gives an opportunity to students or aspiring devs to make some really cool connections.
You can ask on Twitter or Facebook for recommendations, contact people directly, or contact local universities. This is usually the best way to make sure you’re getting someone vetted, who cares about the industry and ideally, the success of your game.
This also doesn’t just apply to who is manning your booth. Speak to some of the companies attending and see if they’ll sponsor some peripherals for you. We were lucky enough to have MWave provide us custom PC builds, with all our programs pre-loaded, gorgeous keyboards mice and mousepads. This was the biggest lifesaver, gave us the chance to form a great relationship and saved us from lugging our personal machines around. More on that later!
Speak To The Exhibitor About Opportunities:
For PAXAUS, we sold Pinny Arcade Pins — they’re a notable collectable, look great, and have a decent return for investment. More so than this, they lend credibility to your brand, encourage people to visit your booth that otherwise wouldn’t, and allowed us to be present on a bunch of marketing material.
Most big expos will have opportunities like this, so if you can only afford one merch item, make it one like this that gives you a big return on visibility and encourages purchasing.
(Sidenote: We also sponsored GCAP because we firmly believe in the power of education in the community, but also because it’s just a smart thing to do — it puts your brand in the spotlight for a moment, and you get to know you’re helping your wider community succeed. Win win!)
Look Into Funding:
You’d be surprised how many people are willing to help — Creative Victoria has a grant that is specifically for PAX Aus. I can almost guarantee there is some funding available from someone, somewhere — but it can be hard to know where to start!
Speak to people who attended the event the year before, or even the event managers. They might be able to put you in touch with someone who can provide some funding. It may not be a million dollars (remember, they have limited funding to draw from and it needs to support a number of businesses!) but it makes a big difference in the long run, and allows you to foster a really awesome connection that can be useful long term that even if you don’t get funding this time round, could mean you’re in with a better shot next time for different funding.
We were lucky enough to receive a PAX Rising Grant from Creative Victoria and all we had to do was display some Creative VIC/Games Week graphic elements that genuinely looked super cool. It was so satisfying to look out at the floor at bright pink everywhere showing how much support the community had from the state government.
Select Your Booth & Floor Plan:
So you picked a booth — nice! Let’s say it’s 3m by 3m. How are you going to fill it? We were initially hoping to tape out the size but it really doesn’t give you a lot visually to play around with.
The easiest way to do this is to use a floor planning website. I know, not exactly their intended purpose. I used a website called https://planner.roomsketcher.com/.
This is especially useful if you’re hiring furniture, because you can actually set it to it’s size and space out your internals. If you’ve got a small space, you probably don’t need to worry about this so much. Here’s some WIP’s of our booth, from initial plan to scale through to final designs.
This was SO useful. Not only because I could see exactly where furniture would fit, how much storage we would have, how much space — but especially because we were VR, it allowed us to map out exactly how many stations we could have. It almost meant I could then make 3D mock ups using the floor planning apps overall view (with Photoshop to lay the graphics over the top) of what the booth was going to look like, which helped us plan our decor and designs. We made a few on the day changes, but it was quick and easy thanks to having a general idea of what we wanted the booth to look like.
Hire or Buy?
It is almost always better to buy than hire when it comes to technology for these events. It’s cheaper, you can use it for future events, you don’t have to worry about damages/forms/freight and a bunch of emails and confirmations and not having any idea how it will actually look.
However, if you’re travelling or are otherwise busy/stressed, the last thing you want to do is lug around a bunch of monitors, storage cases, and other peripherals. We ended up hiring almost all of our showcasing materials — cases, storage and a number of TVs. It was super expensive and we definitely could have done it in a more cost effective way, but it looked great and felt great to just get there and set up. Again, YMMV depending on your budget and your intentions.
Like I mentioned above, speak to companies attending! You never know who may be able to provide you materials in exchange for some promotion.
Prepare For The Worst (But Expect The Best):
What are you going to do if the build breaks? What if the power goes out? Could you still show media your game if your demos stopped working? How?
I know these things happening are unlikely. I also know that if the power went out, we had giant glow sticks to break out and keep our booth being a party. It might seem like a waste of money but I consider it like insurance — you need to be prepared for any scenario. Have printed out screenshots so people see what your in game looks like and hang them as decor! Have a plan for if a build breaks and you need someone to come back later. You’ll feel better for it and you’ll know you can handle the small things if you’re prepared for the big ones.
Start Building Relationships:
There’s a lot of media that goes on around these big events, so try and find a contact who can either organise a press release for you (if you’re too busy), or can help you form some relationships ahead of time. If you can afford it, hire a consultant like Lumi or Double Jump to make this process easier, especially if you don’t have a dedicated marketer who can send out email blasts.
It’s much easier to chat to media if you know them personally (because, surprise surprise, they’re people) so get to know them on your personal account! You might feel a bit skeevy but if they’re in your industry, the likelihood is they love the same things you do, and you already have more in common than you know. Don’t leave it until you’re emailing people to come and see your booth two weeks out from the event to form these relationships. The press owes you nothing. There are a million great games out there from a million different indies. You have to have a story that’s worth telling, so take an objective look at your business and find it — Make their life easier. Be nice, engage with them, get to know them as people — then when you get in touch, you’re already old friends. If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.
These expos aren’t just about press though — you’re likely to be surrounded by other indies, so make friends! You never know how you might be able to help them or vice versa. A few months before PAX, I emailed my account manager asking who directly backed onto us and I’m SO glad I did. It let me email Reuben from No Moss Studios to say hi and introduce ourselves a bit.
It made introductions so much easier when we arrived for set up and was so comforting knowing that it was also their first PAX and we were all in the same boat. We got to trade pins, war stories, snacks, buttons, and know we have a great friendship for next time.
We also had Loveshack and Samurai Punk directly near us, and the same thing happened over the course of the four days total. I already have plans to catch up with a bunch of them and slowly but surely will convince everyone else to move to Melbourne.
It was nice knowing we had people around us who had our back, to say hi to, to catch up with, and to occasionally sneak off to and play the games of without being too far from our booth.
Stop Touching The Build:
Seriously. Your deadline is not the day before PAX. It is not the morning of PAX. We set ourselves a deadline for the Friday before PAX. I tested it at home on the Saturday and the narration didn’t work.
That was stressful enough with a full week to fix it. Just don’t do it to yourself. You will be so busy that trying to fix a build (and potentially introducing a bunch of new bugs) will be a giant nightmare. If you can, have the build done two weeks before. Test it, over and over, in a variety of different environments, with different tech. Iron out every possible bug.
I firmly believe it was this deadline that let us not encounter any major bugs on the floor. We had to restart the build maybe twice, but otherwise, everything went super smoothly with the actual demo. We didn’t have to make people wait. Also, build in a restart system if you have a timed demo! Shift and enter reset ours to the start and worked really well to keep things moving.
Decor — Not Just A Pretty Face:
You need decor. Depending on your game, its aesthetic, its themes, the space you have — this could be super simple. You might just use your merch as decor. But regardless, you need something that says “this is our booth.”
Graphics are so important. A good clean style will say wonders about your game and your brand. Make sure you at least have something highly visible with your games logo and text that’s big enough to be seen from a distance. You’re competing with a lot of other pretty games — don’t write on a banner the day before and call it done and dusted.
Try and have an itemised list of what you need, how many, what sizes to provide to the printer as well — a lot of our stuff ended up missing/incorrectly sized. It wasn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it also wasn’t ideal and meant a lot more running around, and a lot more expenses on Ubers to get to places and back quickly.
Make sure you have a small takeaway for people to remind them of the game when they get home. Fliers get crumpled and lost — a strong business card can work wonders.
You can continue and read Part 2: DURING here.