If you've followed the recent surge in the popularity of indie game development, you've certainly noticed the increasingly frequent festivals and competitions like the Independent Games Festival and IndieCade, the number of blogs and amount of press devoted to indie games, and the rise of what we are calling "AAA Indie Games" -- games like Braid, Castle Crashers, World of Goo, and more recently Limbo, Trials HD, and others that share the same combination of polish, attention to detail, and design focus, not to mention significant critical and commercial success.
You also may have noticed a related trend: indie game developers are purchasing booths at consumer-facing conventions, like San Diego Comic-Con and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX).
These booths cost thousands of dollars, even before factoring in travel and outfitting the booth with furniture, HDTVs, and computers, so how do indies justify the expense?
Well, to be honest, we're not actually sure yet, but we're going to find out in two weeks, and in the meantime we're going to discuss -- from a development perspective -- how and why we decided to take the risk and what we hope to achieve.
We are Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, the Excellence in Design and Seamus McNally Grand Prize winner of the 2010 Independent Games Festival, and Chris Hecker, creator of SpyParty, and together we bought a 10 by 20-foot booth at PAX next month in Seattle.
Given that neither of us has been to PAX, and this is our first time running a booth at a trade show, we basically have no idea what's going to happen.
PR and Marketing
Both Monaco and SpyParty are shooting for the aforementioned AAA Indie Game stratum, and as a developer trying to make AAA Indie games, you could do worse than to crib the marketing and PR plans of The Behemoth, creators of Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers.
Regardless of what you think of their games, it is inarguable that they are the masters of indie game PR, marketing, and "customer relationship management". One could write volumes analyzing how The Behemoth does marketing and PR for their games and company, but for the purposes of this article, one thing they have done since 2002 is get a booth at Comic-Con, and then later at PAX.
Unlike the GDC and E3, Comic-Con and PAX are open to the public, and are primarily for consumers to interact with game companies directly. These shows do absolutely huge numbers, with 70,000 attendees at PAX, and over 100,000 at Comic-Con. They're both dwarfed by GamesCom in Germany (going on this week, in fact), which has something like 250,000 gamers descend on it.
The idea of building a direct face-to-face connection with gamers is very appealing for indie developers. Most indie game fans who visit your blog or Facebook page or follow you on Twitter will be able to read about your game online, both on your sites and in any press coverage you get, and they can talk to other fans about it in forums, but it's rare that fans can get hands-on play time with a game before it's released.
With the more traditional establishment model of game development and sales, giving fans this early access is less important than it is for indies, because the marketing spending is heavily weighted towards the end of the development cycle. You make the game, and then you spend a lot of money marketing the game right before and during the game release, so that someone who is made aware of your game by this marketing expense can actually give you money immediately.
With indie games, often there is no marketing budget at all, and so you can't buy wide awareness of your game in a short period of time. Word-of-mouth and grassroots marketing become incredibly important, and these types of marketing take nurturing and need time to grow, and it seems that every little bit helps.
Naturally, it's great to have a journalist play your game and like it, and then post on his or her site. Press coverage is highly leveraged. But having a gamer come play your game, fall in love, and then tell anyone who will listen about "this awesome game I played" is a different flavor of coverage, and it's hard to quantify how valuable it is. Study after study shows word-of-mouth as the top influencer in purchasing decisions, so it seems likely to be quite valuable.
Another important aspect of having real live gamers touch your game is it gives you a reality check against your assumptions about how your game is perceived. It's one thing to hold a playtest with your friends or colleagues. It's another to have thousands of gamers stream through your booth, pick up the controller, and in a few seconds decide to play or go to the next shiny thing 10 feet on. We expect to learn a lot from watching people play, and will probably be coding furiously each night fixing issues discovered during the day.
The PAX Decision
After GDC this year, we began talking over email about various game design and aesthetic similarities between SpyParty and Monaco. Comic-Con was approaching fast, and PAX was on the horizon, and the topic of sharing a booth came up.
To be honest, we did not do a careful analysis of whether Comic-Con or PAX would be better for our games; we talked to the Comic-Con people and they said they had a four-year, 600-deep waiting list, while PAX had space available immediately.
The PAX folks were really cool about letting us share the booth and helping us through the available options. We got the expo floor map and chose a booth near some other cool indie game developers, like TwistedPixel, Klei, and The Behemoth (you can see a map of our local area here).
We asked them to hold booth #3004 for us while we deliberated on whether to spend the two grand for a 10' by 20'.
The first thing we did was gather information from other indies who had been to PAX before. In our experience, game developers are almost always open with information, and this was no exception.
People sent us their budgets from previous years, gave advice on what they'd do differently, and gave pointers to other resources. Gamasutra also ran an article by Nathan Fouts about his experience with PAX East that is packed with detailed information and advice.
Once we had a rough understanding of what our costs would be, we decided to go for it and put the deposit down on the booth. We did not do a detailed budget breakdown at this point because there were still way too many variables, but from talking to other more experienced indies and the PAX folks, it seemed like we could keep the costs to the low thousands if we were careful.
At this point, we're going to break things down in the logistics preparation, the game preparations, and our goals for the show.
Covering all of the various logistics decisions for the booth would require more than just this article, so I'll just go over the highlights. We'll have to check back in after PAX to see how it all worked out in the end, but hopefully this will help others considering getting a booth. This is going to be a grab bag of information.
Exhibitor Guide. After you sign your booth, they send you the Exhibitor Guide, which is an utterly terrifying 73 page PDF chock-full of sentences like, "Off-target freight and equipment may be refused and/or rescheduled and will be subject to an additional charge of 25 percent." What the heck is "Off-target freight"?
It turns out you can ignore most of this document, since it's for the bigger booths with real setup and hanging trusses and whatnot, but it took a phone call to the helpful PAX folks to figure this out. The other scary thing about this document is the prices... renting anything from the show contractors is incredibly expensive. Luckily, there are alternatives.
Moving Your Stuff. A lot of trade shows have very strict regulations about what you can and cannot carry and install yourself, and when you have to pay for the expensive labor from the show contractor. It turns out PAX is very flexible on this front, which is great for indies. They have specific times during which you can carry your own material in, and even allow you to pull up any vehicle smaller than a full-size van for loading and unloading. This alone can save thousands of dollars over more strict trade shows.
Monitors and Stands. We got a great piece of advice early on from Eitan Glinert at Fire Hose Games: "At PAX East we had the TVs on tables and no one could see them because of the crowd. By lifting them up to six or seven feet, I think a crowd will be able to watch."
We knew we wanted a couple of 50+ inch HDTVs for displaying the games to the people who were observing, and Eitan's comment led us to looking into monitor stands. The show AV contractor will rent 7' monitor stands that will support giant HDTVs, but they're twice as expensive if you're not renting the HDTVs from them, and as I said above, the prices in the Guide are incredibly high.
However, it turns out the answer is often to call people, and after talking to the AV contractor, it was revealed that the higher price is because they have to ship all the different mounting brackets if they don't know which kind of HDTV you have, but if you can tell them early enough, they'll give you the cheaper price. This is just one example out of many of how the trade show business is still a "get somebody on the horn and negotiate" type of thing. There is no substitute for interacting with live people, and they've all been reasonable in our experience.
The combination of the ability to move our own materials in and having the stands available at the lower price made it possible for us to use Rent-a-Center for the HDTVs, which are one quarter the price of the show contractor, and we can pick them up early to test them out.
Booth Layout. Early on, we decided how we would split up the booth. We would have two stations for SpyParty, which requires two computers and two screens back-to-back, so the players can't see each other's views, and one station for Monaco with a comfy couch from Ikea so four people could play co-op.
Originally, Chris thought he would have a third SpyParty machine running in a spectator mode (which would require implementing a spectator mode!) that would display on a large 50+ inch HDTV behind the two players, but he eventually realized he could use both display outputs from one machine to power the big monitor, as long as the other player couldn't see it. Hopefully no one from the crowd will yell out spoilers.
Because the Monaco players on the couch are going to need the TV low down, there will be a second HDTV on one of the 7' stands behind, also running dual monitor from the playing machine. We are printing two pop-up banners, one for each game, at about $200 each, and we figure we can move these in response to crowd flow on site.
Computers. We knew we were going to need three or four fast computers. Again, renting them is prohibitively expensive, but so is buying them. We decided to pitch Intel on loaning us some machines in exchange for some sponsorship materials in the booth and the association with two high-profile indie games.
They said yes and sent us four killer PCs. Not only was not having to pay for the machines great, but they sent them to us early enough to debug the inevitable problems, and so we won't have any surprises when we set up on the show floor (knock on wood).
Electrical. You don't really have any choice about where to get your electrical connections, so the only decision is "how much power?" We consulted with a bunch of other people, and talked to the contractor.
The contractor recommended three 2000W/20A drops for our setup, which seemed excessive, and the other indies were all over the map, including this from one very experienced indie, "Dunno. We just show up and plug shit in." (PAX supplies a single 500W power drop by default) So, we did a little research ourselves, using sites like this and this, and decided two 20A drops should be more than enough. If we're wrong, we'll pay a surcharge of 50 percent onsite!
Internet. Net access is so expensive that we're just not bothering. We aren't selling anything, and so don't need credit card handling, and our games can work locally, so we're just saving the money. Some folks try to share net access with neighbors.
Schwag and Merch. We decided not to sell anything this year. A lot of the more established indies sell a lot of T-shirts and whatnot, but from talking to people, it looks like it's a break-even proposition unless you have a seriously well-oiled operation, it's a large up-front cost, and it seemed like we needed to eliminate variables. Also, SpyParty does not yet have an established aesthetic, and so it seemed unwise to print up a bunch of T-shirts with temporary art on them.
Travel. We're very lucky, because we both have friends and family in Seattle, and we're both on the West Coast, and so Southwest Airlines makes it really cheap to get to and from Seattle. This is saving us a lot of money. We originally thought we were going to drive a rented minivan up from Oakland to Seattle, but at the last minute we reevaluated and it was cheaper (and more sanity-preserving) to fly, so we shipped some stuff to friends and we're hoping it's not damaged in transit.
This is only part of the logistics we have to deal with. There are just a lot of moving parts in getting a booth, and we're really glad we're sharing the load instead of having to do it alone.
Game-wise, we've made different decisions about what to work on in the run up to PAX. The games are at different stages of development, so we're emphasizing different aspects of them. We both consider ourselves very lucky that we have games that are fun for people to play so early in development, so we can sit people down and not babysit them and they'll still have a great time. We're pretty sure PAX would not be worth it for an indie with a game that wasn't ready for gamers to playtest on the show floor and come away with a good impression without hand-holding.
Monaco. Andy's focus for Monaco has been taking it from the 15 week prototype that won the IGF, to a real production quality game. The engine is totally rebuilt, and it's got a mix of the abstract roguelike tile-based aesthetic updated with a more modern vector look. He's got the core game loops figured out and playtested, so it's all about polish and making the game richer for players.
He's got eight playable characters now, which is double the number at GDC, and each has different skills. There are more ways of navigating the levels, including air ducts, and even blowing up walls. There are more baddies, including dogs that catch your scent, and tracking lasers. It's basically a game in full production mode now.
SpyParty. Chris is still exploring the SpyParty gameplay, so his efforts have all been towards making the game a deeper player skill experience.
He's following the Blizzard Depth-first, Accessibilty-later development philosophy, and so while SpyParty is highly player-skill oriented already, it is also basically impossible to play without someone explaining the game.
Chris is going to print up and photocopy a one-sheet with directions on how to play, and hope that people read it so he doesn't lose his voice in the first hour of the first day.
He's still exploring the possibility space of the spy's missions, and adding new missions to that end. However, he's finding it hard to analytically break things down effectively to methodically explore the design space since there are so many variables in play (for example, the Bug Ambassador mission is tied to a known character, has a visible animation tell, has no way for the sniper to know it's completed -- which of these is most important?), so he's trying a mix of analysis- and intuition-based design.
Goals for PAX
We have a variety of goals for PAX. Of course we'd like as many gamers as possible to play our games and (hopefully) love them, and then tell all their friends. It would be awesome to get some great press out of the experience as well. We're also really looking forward to the playtest aspect of the show. Chris added a simple form of journaling to SpyParty, so the game will save all of the playthroughs at PAX, and he's hoping to mine that data for interesting stuff.
We've debated the most effective ways to keep new fans we make updated on the games. The Dejobaan Games guys used fan club signups at PAX East and said it was effective, gaining over a thousand fans. Facebook is becoming a very effective way of communicating with fans, and both Monaco and SpyParty have Facebook fan pages. It would be great if there was some way to allow people to become Facebook fans at the booth, but we definitely won't have that working this year.
Chris has been emphasizing the SpyParty blog, but Andy has switched his emphasis to Facebook, after having run a blog for five years. Andy says Facebook makes it much easier for him to keep players involved, since his posts automatically appear in their newsfeeds, and way more people are on Facebook than use RSS readers. Miegakure, Marc ten Bosch's indie four-dimensional platform game, gained thousands of Facebook followers after Randall Munroe played the game at PAX East and did an xkcd comic about it.
We'll leave you with a few quotes from a few other indie game developers who are either new to PAX, or returning, and if you're going to the show yourself, stop by booth #3004 and see how it all turns out!
Matt Gilgenbach from 24 Caret Games - "We thought it would be a great opportunity to give many gamers and press the chance to play Retro/Grade. However, it has been far more work than I anticipated in terms of planning."
Eitan Glinert from Fire Hose Games - "I really hope it winds up being worthwhile. I suspect it will; PAX East was HUGE for us and I'm guessing that even the little bit of exposure we'll get from this will be worthwhile."
James Silva from Ska Studios - "This will be our second PAX. All in all it was a blast, and as far as I can tell, totally worth it for the exposure we got. It's all about that gamer love!" and also, "It was also extremely physically exhausting! I had zero voice left at the end of every day."