In the last few weeks, three huge North American gaming conventions have come and gone: GDC (March 2-6 in San Francisco), PAX East (March 6-8 in Boston) and SXSW Gaming (March 13-15 in Austin, Texas).
Prismata—our upcoming designer strategy game—was represented at all three conferences, so I felt like a good post-mortem post was in order.
However, after seeing so many other wonderful post-mortem articles go up (like Jotun’s and Juicy Beast’s), and having done one ourselves last year for our trip to FanExpo, I felt like doing something a little different. So instead, I’m going to highlight five small things that made a huge difference in the overall value we got out of our exhibitions, either by saving us cash, preserving our sanity, or by increasing the awesomeness of our booth.
Call them “life hacks for indie game exhibitors”.
Exhibitor hack #1: These foldable stools
Holy shit. This stool right here… two words: F$%&ING AMAZING. Once you experience it in the flesh, you’ll never understand how you could have survived without it before. Let’s take a look at its features:
- Virtually indestructible
- Folds up into a completely flat 1-inch thick slab-shape that easily fits in a suitcase
- Holds up to 350 lbs
- Costs only $15.99 at Canadian Tire (that’s about $12.50 in US dollars)
- Has no arms or back, making it very easy for people to sit on in cramped spaces
Our booth at PAX East was pretty small—only 10 feet by 10 feet—and we wanted to have a ton of playable stations available so that we could teach Prismata to as many people as possible. We ended up having 3 pairs of machines set up to play against one another, plus an additional machine constantly running our AI vs AI demo, for a total of seven computers running in a single 10×10 booth. Most other booths were only running between one and four machines, but these stools made it possible to use our space a lot more efficiently.
The default chairs available at PAX (Herman Miller Limericks, depicted above) are convenient for the convention center because they’re lightweight and extremely stackable, but they’re also quite wide and need to be spaced fairly far apart so that players can get in and out of their seats. Fitting 3 of these in front of a 6 foot table leaves no room for people to sit down without leap-frogging over the chair backs. On the other hand, the foldable stools completely alleviate this problem because they’re small and have no backs. Folks can just walk to them and sit down.
They’re also an insane bargain. The cost to rent a pair of Limerick chairs at PAX was about 80 bucks for the three days. The stools cost less than a third of that, and you get to KEEP THEM (which is easy, since you can just throw them in your luggage!)
10/10 would stool again.
Exhibitor hack #2: Bulk-order online printing
Prismata is fundamentally a multiplayer game, and one of our greatest strengths is our awesome online community. A constant goal of ours is to build on that community, and events like PAX are great sources of new players, because the attendees tend to be among the most hardcore and influential gamers out there. Not everyone who walks by the booth gets a chance to sit down and try the game, so we printed postcards containing codes for Prismata alpha access, and handed them out to anyone who was interested.
Last year at FanExpo, we printed 1000 cards similar to these. We paid over $100 for them at a local print shop, and only printed them at a 2.5×3.75 size (only slightly larger than a business card). We found that 1000 wasn’t nearly enough cards for a multi-day expo, and we wanted them to be much larger and nicer this time. However, the local shop we used before was a relatively tiny operation focusing mainly on small-scale academic poster and note printing, so they weren’t able to offer us much of a volume discount. The major brands (Staples and FedEx Office) didn’t offer good deals either, so we looked online.
After some searching, we found that jakprints.com offered a really awesome price for a bulk order of postcards on good quality card stock. You can order full-colour, double-sided postcards for a very reasonable price. The sizes go up to 4.25 x 6 before you start seeing any serious increases in price.
Here’s their pricing chart:
See the prices circled in red? Study them for a moment. There is a clear knee in the price/quantity curve, right at 5000 cards. For us, that was perfect! The cards were less than 4 cents each, and jakprints shipped them straight to Boston for us to give away at PAX (some of our friends in town took care of the cards until we arrived). We ended up giving away almost 80% of them at PAX (we could have given them all way if we really tried!), and the rest at SXSW.
If you’re really pinching pennies, you can save a few bucks by getting cheaper flyers printed on paper instead. But you’re going to want the card stock (see hack #5 for why).
Exhibitor hack #3: Binder clips
Binder clips, to the indie game convention exhibitor, are like rolls of duct tape to a handyman: an incredibly useful and versatile secret weapon that you’ll find yourself using over and over for unexpected reasons. In a sea of lousy office supplies that break, fail, and ruin things, binder clips are (for lack of a better descriptor), a F#^$ING GODSEND.
Here are just a few of the things we ended up using the binder clips for:
- Attaching posters to the curtains behind our booth (adhesives are a big no-no, as they can cost you big money in fines if they damage the draperies or leave a residue behind.)
- Mounting art above the computer monitors on our tables (we did this during our setup at SXSW, and by the end of the day, other folks were asking to borrow our binder clips so they could do it too!)
- Tidying cables by securing them to table legs or drapery.
- Fixing keyboards with broken keyboard feet.
- Holding together the FAT STACKS of business cards we acquired from all the press and industry folks we met with.
Exhibitor hack #4: A ridiculous demo with maxed brightness and colour temperature
First impressions are important. There are a hundred other games competing for the eyeballs of the crowd on the exhibition floor. You’re going to want to have a big screen displaying something that people can’t help but stare at. For us, this meant a loop of our Prismata AI demo, in which the bot plays an endless series of games against itself. It looks a bit like the individual screens in the video below (except with a ton more flashy visual effects):
In our demo, we got our game client to run an endless loop of single AI vs AI matches at full screen with the game speed set to the absolute maximum. In addition to this, we employed the following tricks to make the demo even more attention-grabbing:
- We turned on all the in-game visual effects and maxed out the particle effects.
- We used a fast computer, so the demo ran at a buttery smooth 60 fps, even with the visual effects completely maxed.
- We maxed the brightness and contrast of the monitor so that it would be as attention-grabbing as possible.
- We elevated the screen above the surface of the table, so it would be more visible to passers-by.
We also increased the screen’s colour temperature as much as we could, which is an old trick commonly employed in TV showrooms.
It worked brilliantly; a lot of people would show up and simply stare at the screen, which provided a perfect opportunity for us to explain the game to them, hand out flyers, or bring them in for a demo. This brings me to…
Exhibitor hack #5: Flyering like a boss
I could write a whole article on this one topic. If you do a bit of googling, you’ll actually find a variety of existing articles written on how to hand a flyer to somebody. Don’t read any of them. They’re crap. Approaching a passing stranger at PAX is completely different than handing out flyers on the street or at a mall, and our method employs SCIENCE.
Here’s my technique, which I used to hand out 5000 flyers. It takes a bit of practice, but once mastered, you can hand a flyer to somebody 10 feet away with an astonishing success rate. There are 4 key steps:
- Create movement with the flyer in the subject’s peripheral vision.
- Create sound as the flyer moves, ensuring that it dominates the noise floor of the venue.
- Physically engage with the subject using body language that demands a response.
- Once your subject takes the flyer, follow up to add value.
Step 1: Creating movement with the flyer
If you master this, you’ll feel like you can control the necks of passers-by, telepathically forcing each person to look toward your hands. I’m not kidding. It’s a pretty easy psychological trick, but the key is to exploit the movement-detection functionality of your subject’s peripheral vision. The rod cells located around the edges of the human retina are highly sensitive to movement, and movement in the peripheral areas often creates a head-turning response. The following diagram makes it easy to understand:
In practice, I simply held the flyers in a stack in my left hand, with a single card tucked between the index finger and thumb of my right hand. If a subject was passing down the aisle next to our booth, I would wait until he or she had almost passed by the point where I was standing, and then I would rapidly extend my right arm, moving the flyer out toward my right.
Step 2: Creating sound
When I first started flyering, I had a hard time understanding why some folks’ heads would instantly turn when I presented the flyer, while others failed to even notice my presence. I soon realized that movement was only half of the equation, and sound was vitally important (which is a huge reason why you don’t want to cheap out and get paper flyers: they don’t make enough noise!)
When sliding one of the post cards off of the top of the stack to present it to a subject, there are two main components to the sound produced: a “SWISH” as one postcard rubs across another, and a “POP” as it slides off the stack and the tension of one card against another is released. The “POP” turned out to be nearly imperceptible above the din of the PAX convention hall, but the “SWISH” was what really turned heads. I actually practiced quite a bit with the stack of postcards until I could reliably make a loud scratchy noise every single time that I presented one to a passer-by. It dramatically increased the likelihood that the subject would turn his or her to look toward the source of the movement.
Step 3: Engaging the subject
Once the subject looks toward your hand, you’ve pretty much got them. All you need to do is be a little forceful in your body language to encourage them to grab the card from you. Look at the subject, smile, make eye contact, and reach toward the empty space that they’re walking into (not enough to block their way, but enough to make it a little awkward to say no). They’ll take it from you almost every time.
Exception: old people. Anybody who looks over 50 is a jerk and will never take your flyers. Don’t even bother trying.
Step 4: Following up
Your job isn’t done once the subject takes the flyer. Presumably, it contains some kind of call to action—a website to visit, a QR code to scan, or a secret code to enter. You want to maximize the probability that the subject follows through. I positioned myself conveniently so that as soon as a subject grabbed the flyer, I could hijack their attention toward the demo of our game, and explain that it contained a code for a free alpha key. This is important! You want your subject to treat their flyer not as a piece of spam to be tossed away, but as a valuable coupon that can later be redeemed for something.
A final word…
For us, Prismata isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. We’re a one-product company. Our business model, like those of games like League of Legends and Path of Exile, demands that we cultivate and nurture a strong online community for years to come as we develop and expand the game. As we proceed through our pre-release alpha, events like PAX are important for enlarging our network and exposing our product to influential gamers, who may later become our fans. With a limited budget, it’s critical to be as efficient as possible during these events, and small edges really add up. Those foldable stools, cheap flyers, and binder clips likely made hundreds of real dollars of difference in the effectiveness of our booth.
Of course, the big things also matter. We developed a killer playable demo, built a flashy new website, and put in a ton of work to promote Prismata to the press in the weeks leading up to the event. There’s a truckload of literature on those topics on sites like pixelprospector, and I encourage you to check them out, as well as read about some of the trials and tribulations of other indie exhibitors.
If you do choose to show off your game at a convention like PAX, I wish you the best of luck!