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[Non-gaming] Conventions are your friend!

Need game testing and feedback for your next title? Forget exhibiting at GDC or PAX. Try exhibiting at less costly non-gaming conventions (toy, comic, anime) to reach a whole different audience that can offer game testing and feedback on a budget.

This month will mark the sixth year of demoing my games as Scary Robot Productions at the one and only, legendary San Diego Comic-Con (Aisle 700, Booth E6. Attending? Come by and say hi). I'll be demoing my upcoming game, "Volley Village" After lots of trial and error I've learned that non-gaming conventions can truly be your friend if you have the right expectations. I'm offering this brief crash-course to help you get the most out of the unorthodox approach of exhibiting at conventions not aimed at gamers.

What you should NOT expect:

A significant boost in sales/downloads - you might see a slight bounce but generally speaking you'll never manage to even cover your convention costs much less make an actual profit. You'll have a lot of people trying out your games and taking your promo postcards but only a small fraction will ever follow up and actually download your games. That's just the natural law of conversion rates.

Networking – don't expect to meet lots of fellow developers like you would at PAX or GDC. You won't be visited by distributors or VC guys that can't wait to back your next big game. What's much more likely is a Mom or Dad telling you that their kid has a million dollar idea and how much would you be willing to pay for it. They mean well but they have no understanding that ideas are a dime a dozen.

Press and exposure – once again, we're not talking PAX or GDC so there will be a complete absence of gamer press that's looking for the next “Fez” or “Narbacular Drop” and who'd be offering you tons of exposure and turning you into the next overnight sensation. You may have the occasional Vlogger offer to feature you in an interview but don't count on PewDiePie stopping by. But you can meet some interesting people and get exposed to a non-gaming crowd that could be possibly be converted into gamers.

You're now asking yourself “If I'm not getting exposure or a sales bump then why would I even bother?”

What you SHOULD expect:

Big fish in a small pond – when you exhibit at GDC or PAX, you could have the most amazing game but guess what, so do the dozens of booths surrounding you. It's incredibly easy to get completely lost in a convention filled with dozens or even hundreds of other games. When you're surrounded by super hero t-shirts and art prints you suddenly stick out like a desert oasis.

Premiere game testing – the first two years I exhibited at SDCC I mistakenly devoted my time to simply promoting my newest games. On my third trip I decided to show a game that was still in development. It was then that I had the eureka moment. Trying to boost sales at these conventions is a Fool's errand. But using your time to test out games that are still in development is the most affordable and most rewarding game testing you could ever ask for. Building off the idea of the previous point, you are bound to have a lot of foot traffic simply because in a massive room of toys, comics and t-shirts you are truly unique. And the added bonus is that many of the people that stop by are NOT gamers. My favorite words a visitor can say to me are “Oh, I'm not a gamer.” Bingo! The reason I cherish non gamers trying out my games is that they will get confused, constantly do the wrong thing and probably get occasionally frustrated. This is pure gold because you will quickly build up a laundry list of areas in which your game needs refining and adjustments. Conversely, average gamers may manage to overcome your game's shortcomings and glitches causing you to overlook glaring issues that may trip up most casual gamers. A frequent scenario is when a younger attendee runs up to the game and is anxious to jump in. The parent is happy to have a breather but I do my best to cajole them into joining in the gameplay. I can then get a perfect cross section of gamer and non-gamer engaging together. The results are exponentially better than any game testing service you could ever use and, most likely, much cheaper.

Okay, now that I've hopefully made a compelling argument on why you should use these conventions for game testing, here's my suggestions on how to get the most out of them.

What you should NOT do:

Don't pounce – as soon as someone strolls by and makes any kind of eye contact with your games the instinct is to jump up and shout “Hey! Play my game!” That might work at gaming conventions where every booth is shouting the same thing but someone at the average comic convention that is just trying to figure out what you're selling is bound to flee like you're Wile E Coyote and they're the road runner. Just let them look and linger. If they hang for a moment then causally greet them with a simple “How's it going” before you go into your pitchman mode.

No coaching – it will take every fiber of your being not to step up and shout “No! Just tap here and then move over there!” But as soon as you've done that you've destroyed the whole reason you're there. When you're testing your games you have 3 jobs: observe, observe and observe. Take copious notes over what's happening. Are people getting stuck in the same place? Is there a play mechanic too difficult? If players do manage to overcome their confusion then how long did it take? Are players confused by your UI? Is a collider box not properly scaled and leading to player frustrations? And on and on. There is so much you can learn from just keeping your mouth shut.

Don't overreact to bad responses – some people will just not “get” your game and they may be vocal in telling you how crappy it is. If everyone that tries your game has a similar reaction then you may have to accept that you've indeed made a crappy game. Otherwise, let it slide. Understand that everyone... EVERYONE has an opinion. It's likely that a majority of the suggestions will completely miss the mark for any number of reasons: changes the gameplay, not feasible to implement, it'll hurtle your game into the crappy category. But listen to all of them because you are bound to get gems. Sometimes the suggestions are minor but sometimes the suggestions can bring about face palm reactions when you wonder why you hadn't thought of it yourself. Once again, the majority of testers will probably be non-gamers so the suggestions are bound to be way off the map but in some cases that makes them all the better.

What you SHOULD do:

Have a rock-solid setup – I make mobile games so at my earlier conventions I littered my table with numerous tablets and iPods so I could get more people to try out my games without waiting.

Two problems with that approach: if a couple of people are playing your games then there's no way for others to play the remaining devices. Second - no one can see what the game is until they're right above it. Not much of an attract mode. I now have two 20” touch screens that are connected to two mini PCs. Since they're only playing mobile games, they are up to the task and easier to transport than full desktop computers. I also invested in a bartop arcade cabinet which one of the touch screens resides in. The cabinet is visible from a great distance and does a great job of piquing people's interest. I create a postcard that advertises my upcoming title as well as a postcard that advertises my full catalog of games. Online postcard services are dirt cheap but can make you look very professional.

Know your elevator pitch – when someone stares at your setup like a dog staring at a ceiling fan and then asks you incredulously, “What's this?” Be ready with a response. A QUICK RESPONSE. Otherwise known as the elevator pitch. A brief description that can be delivered before the elevator reaches the destination. For example, with my latest title, “Volley Village” I'll say “imagine 'Angry Birds' meets 'Battleship.' But you can play multiplayer, online with any device.” Boom. Even the most ardent non-gamer knows what those two thing are and can start formulating what the game is about before they've even started playing. It's crucial that you keep it simple. Dump a long winded narrative on them and they're back in road runner mode and they're off to the next booth.

Be attentive – you have to be ready to answer any questions and offer help if they request it (but not before!). You want to make sure that they're fully up to speed and comfortable playing your game before you move on to the next person.

Don't badger – you have to make sure that the gamer is fully briefed on how to play which may include a gameplay introduction if you don't have a tutorial in place yet. But once that's done... SHUT UP! You'll feel compelled to talk more about the features of the game and what systems it'll be coming to while they're playing. Don't. I've found that a lot of the people get the feeling that “oh, that sounds like they're trying to get me to finish. I guess my time's up.” And then they'll thank you and walk off. Let it happen naturally. If they decide to stop playing on their own or complete a round of play then you can start filling them in on some of the additional details.

Document everything – there's nothing worse than getting the perfect suggestion on day one but not writing it down and then spending endless hours after the convention is over trying to remember what that gem was. Write it all down. Include all the suggestions, all the issues and all the ancillary data you can get but clearly document it so you can decipher it a week or two later when you jump back in to developer mode.

The final perk is that you'll find exhibiting costs at most non-gaming conventions are much cheaper than the average high profile gamer conventions. That's about it for the crash-course. Check online to find what non-gaming conventions might be near you (comics, anime, toys, etc). If there's nothing close by then think about pairing up with a fellow developer that you could split the costs with and turn it into a road trip.

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