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6 Game Events in 6 Months: a Post-Mortem

Thoughts and learnings on showing your game at game events, based on experiences from various game expos in the last 6 months, from a one-man studio's perspective. Topics: Should you even go?; Preparation; Booth Design; During the Show; Aftermath;

This was originally posted on my personal blog.

Over the course of the last 6 months, I've had the opportunity to show off my current game project MODSORK at 6 events in 4 different countries. This included 3 consumer events (Fantasy Basel, EGX Birmingham, Madrid Games Week), a developer conference (gamelab Barcelona) and 2 pitching events (Respawn Conference's Treasure Trove in Cologne and Pocket Gamer's Big Indie Pitch in Brighton).

I have compiled a loosely structured list of thoughts, observations and learnings from those experiences (there's pictures, too, a bit further down ;) ). Some of it is speculative as I try to find plausible explanations of what appears to be working (or not). None of it is rocket science, but game shows can be stressful events where it's easy to forget even about the simple things. I'll probably make a game-specific blog post with learnings from these events soon, too. The following are more general:

 

Wait, should you even go in the first place?

a) Pros

Beyond the obvious benefit of exposure to a rather targeted group of potential players and press, game expos offer a lot of opportunities:

  • Great for user testing and getting lots of player feedback
  • Real-world events make your game seem more "real" and look nice on the game's website (e.g. "featured in the EGX 2015 Leftfield Collection")
  • It's very motivating to see people smile as they play your game. Gives you milestones to work towards. You get to see awesome, inspiring games.
  • Great practice for your pitching skills.
  • Community building: how often do you get to talk with your players face-to-face?
  • freebies, business; Just two recent personal examples: the offer of a free day of QA testing, as well as an opportunity to get on an android-based micro-console. There's usually also freelancers looking for work.
  • Meeting other devs: they're usually a lovely bunch and you can get a different kind of feedback, learn a lot and network. At gamelab, Rami Ismail was checking out the indie game section and giving feedback; at EGX, Mike Bithell played my game for a bit. Though that kind of established dev might not have much time because they typically have some conference talk to give, or meetings, it's still cool to meet them and get their reactions to your game.
  • Chances are your game looks a lot more interesting to a journalist or youtuber if there's a bunch of people playing it than if it's just another email in their inbox.

b) Cons

  • Events cost money. The amount can vary extremely, however. (check out indiecouch.org for an initiative to keep accomodation costs down)
  • They cost time far beyond just their duration; there's travelling, preparation, post-event work that can take a lot longer than you might initially think. For instance, you might find yourself hacking stuff together to get it into the demo build and you'll have to redo it properly afterwards.

c) Things to consider

  • Is your game the kind of game that works well at a show? An arcade game probably works great. A text adventure or a super-complex strategy game might have a slightly harder time both attracting people in that kind of environment and providing an enjoyable experience in the very limited amount of time players tend to have. You'll want to prepare accordingly (more on that later).
  • Is your game far along enough? My personal experience has been encouraging: the first time MODSORK was publicly playable, it consisted of the core game loop and really not much more; there was no sound at all, for instance. I was worried about negative reactions, but  people totally understood the concept of "early prototype by an indie developer". If you can afford it and there's already something engaging about the game, I'd say go for it!

 

I. Preparation

Chances are you won't have time for all of the following, but having a comprehensive list can still help you prioritize.

a) What's your game all about, really?

If you haven't yet, figure it out and plan your booth, your demo and your materials accordingly so you can showcase that and attract your target audience (More on that under II. Booth Design). Prepare your pitch so you know what to say if somebody takes interest in your game.

b) Marketing Materials

It's good to have something that players can take home with them from your stand. They see so many games in one day, they'll have forgotten about half of them by the time they're home; remind them of yours when they empty their pockets or wallet. You also give them a chance to follow up on your game online. Personally, I've opted for business cards of the game so far because if somebody hands me a flyer, it usually just ends up crumpled in my pocket, and then in the trash bin very quickly. I'm much more likely to keep a card in my wallet for a while longer, myself. Either way, make sure you prepare images for print properly (converting to CMYK etc.) to avoid nasty surprises (been there, had those).

Posters, flyers etc. also make your game look more professional and "real", rather than the product of a game jam. Of course, opting for all-out hand-made indie charm can also be a valid strategy.

At my first show, I had no poster and had to...improvise. Reactions where surprisingly positive.

e) Online Presence, "Stickiness"

Make sure there's a way to create a lasting connection with people who liked the game. You want them to be able to like and follow you on facebook, twitter, instagram, sign up for a newsletter etc. A website or a trailer on youtube aren't enough. Not sure what the marketing term is for that, I call it "stickiness". Even though I don't think Steam Greenlight Concepts gets many organic views, I created a page there just so I could direct people at game shows towards it. When it's time for the proper Greenlight campaign and later buying the game, they won't have far to go.

d) Create a Demo (not just your most current build)

  • Balance the game so it works in the context of a game show ( in the case of MODSORK that involved both making it easier and making sure players have a good chance of seeing many different enemy types)
  • Make it juicy! Screenshake, rumble, particle effects etc.; that kind of stuff provides instant stimuli to your players and makes it more likely for them to engage with your game.
  • Make the game easy to understand with tooltips, explained controls, clear objectives and feedback etc. You'll be glad you did later when you don't have to verbally explain to every single player how to play the game. (I really wish I had done this)
  • Create an enticing start screen (more below under II. c) ).
  • Consider implementing some sort of tracking of gameplay data. It will be hard to get as many different, fresh players to play your game in any other context and you don't even have to deal with somehow sending the collected data via internet, you can just store it locally. Back up that data (I didn't and 4 days' woth of data from EGX died with the USB stick that didn't survive the journey back home...)
  • Multiplayer: Game shows are social events, most folks will be there with friends or family. Being able to play together is a lot more fun than taking turns or watching your friend play. So if your game has multiplayer, it may make sense to prioritize it for game shows. Personally, I'm super glad I brought the completely untested co-op mode of MODSORK to EGX and MGW.
Sharing the experience: I loved how two of them would play and the third participated by getting the headphones. then they'd take turns.
Sharing the experience: I loved how two of them would play and the third participated by getting the headphones. then they'd take turns.
 

e) Gather Information

  • What's the booth's layout, exactly? If you don't know, the prettiest part of your poster might just end up occluded by the screen, for instance.
  • What exactly is available and what do you have to provide? What are the specs of devices provided by others?
  • Who else will be there? Not a big deal, but it's still nice when you've already checked out a trailer for your booth neighbour's game or know their last game and can bring it up in conversation.

f) Press, Website, Smartphone

  • Let the local (games) press know you'll be there. There's usually so many games on display, yours could be easily missed. If they've read about it before the show, seen the logo, you increase the chances they'll actually take the time to check it out.
  • Make sure your website and social media are updated with the newest gameplay, trailers and screenshots.
  • Put your latest gameplay video on your mobile device. You never know when you might meet someone interesting at the show or a related event and if that happens, you don't want to have to rely on a wonky mobile internet connection to be able to show them a video of your game on youtube.
  • If you're working alone like I am, It's hard to produce regular content for your dev blog, social media channels etc. An upcoming show makes for a nice little bit of news that reminds people your game exists.

g) Other Things to Bring

  • This should go without saying: duct tape, all sorts of adapters and power extensions (the kind that increase the number of sockets). Even if you don't need them yourself, it's likely some other indie dev will and you'll be able to help out, which is always nice.
  • Even if hardware is being provided by somebody else, it can't hurt to bring an extra gamepad and some headphones. Stuff can break, the provided headphones' cable can be uncomfortably short etc.
  • Speaking of headphones: Game shows are usually rather noisy environments; I recommend using headphones that fully enclose the ear, rarther than just on-ear ones to help your players be able to focus on your audio without having to turn it up to painful levels. If your game is about experiencing audio together (like the hilarious Man or Goat, or singing games), by all means, bring your speakers. If it's not, please don't.... ;)

 

II. Booth Design and Maintenance

a) Making it Stand Out

Game show visitors are bombarded with all sorts of stimuli so getting a standard poster noticed can be hard. Ideally, your game will have some feature that can inform the design of your booth in a way that makes it stand out from the rest as well as attract what you think is your target audience. Even if there isn't anything about your game that can translate to a unique booth feature, it's probably worth it to try to go beyond just having a nice poster. Some examples:

MODSORK booth with public leaderboard at Madrid Games Week

 MODSORK is a challenging arcade game: Having a publicly visible leaderboard has proven quite effective in attracting competitive players and even sparked a friendly rivalry or two. People would get on it, then walk past later and see their score had been surpassed, which motivated them to have another go. It also provided a photo/selfie opportunity for folks who had just beaten the highscore. While it sure isn't a particularly original idea, I don't think super-originality is a requirement: As long as what you do fits the game you're making and is a bit different from the rest, that already goes a long way. Another reason why I tried to come up with alternative ideas to "pretty poster" is of course that I simply don't have any eye-catching in-game art assets to work with... ;) The tongue-in-cheek tagline ellicited some positive reactions, as well.                                                            A cool custom cabinet is always an eye-catcher, even if they can be a challenge to transport if you're travelling by airplane.
A cool custom cabinet is always an eye-catcher, even if they can be a challenge to transport if you're travelling by airplane.
 Despite harsh space constraints, these devs manage to draw your attention with their neat monsters based on in-game pixel art. People could win them if they beat a score in the game.
 
Despite harsh space constraints, these devs manage to draw your attention with their neat monsters based on in-game pixel art. People could win them if they beat a score in the game.
 

Here's a cool blog post about designing your own expo stand.

b) The Screen (Hardware)

In most cases, the monitor will be the main channel through which show visitors will experience your game. Don't make compromises here: usually it's the bigger, the better. It is also maybe the part of your booth that can attract the most people, especially if it's big enough for passers-by to watch other people play.

You want this:Plenty of space for other people to see what's happening in the game.

Plenty of space for other people to see what's happening in the game.

Not this:

 ...though at least here the tiny screen didn't occlude the logo on center of the poster behind it ;) (bigger screen would still have been preferable)
...though at least here the tiny screen didn't occlude the logo in the center of the poster behind it... ;)
 
The screen should at least match the other input/output devices in quality, unless you're making a game that's really about something else (like the audio-only Papa Sangre).Having these cool racing seats and steering wheels and then pairing them with underwhelmingly small screens seemed like a wasted opportunity to me.
Having these cool racing seats and steering wheels that increase immersion and then pairing them with underwhelmingly small screens seems like a wasted opportunity.
 
One more thing: Beware of glossy screens! You never know what kind of lighting situation you'll be in and you really want to maximize the angle of view from which people can see what's going on. Glossy screens also make it harder to get a good picture with a camera and that tv crew or youtuber might just walk by if all they get are reflections.

a glossy screen with reflecting lots of the environment

this is not ideal...

c) The Screen (The Game)
Is there anything you can do to make whatever your game displays when nobody is playing it more enticing? In the case of MODSORK, I found the initial screen to be somewhat of a double-edged sword. It is a rather, empty, static affair with a single button prompt that didn't exactly make heads turn:
What people would see if nobody was currently playing.

What people would see if nobody was currently playing.

 It does not convey what you do in the game. I had hoped putting a question mark after "Ready" might communicate it was also possible to not be ready yet and do something other than press the A-button. That didn't quite work out, though and most people missed the opportunity to get used to the controls without the pressure of hostile game objects spawning (triggered by pressing A). I need to rephrase that prompt.

On the other hand, the screen has a certain minimalist quality that I think motivated some people to give it a try and see what it's about. It also doesn't look hard (which it soon turns out to be), and that discrepancy can be intriguing for those that don't get immediately discouraged after dying 5 seconds into the game the first time. The contrast between "I should be able to do this" and "arrgh, I just failed again, let's try once more" is one of the key elements of the game.

On the whole, however, I think I will add some animated elements and more clues towards the actual gameplay as a sort of "screensaver mode". Movement is better suited to catch people's attention.

d) Marketing Materials and Info Placement

Flyers and cards should be easily reachable so people can pick it up as they walk past, even if somebody is already playing. Really try to convey all the relevant info through the game itself, because people seem to filter out anything that's not on the screen, no matter how obvious you think it is. It's just a natural reaction to the overabundance of visual stimuli at such events.                                                                                   At EGX, after 2 days, I wrote the controls to the wall in the hopes it would help and reduce the number of times I'd have to explain the game. Most people ignored it even if they were struggling, though.

At EGX, after 2 days, I wrote the controls to the wall in the hopes it would help and reduce the number of times I'd have to explain the game. Most people ignored it even if they were struggling, though.

 e) Keep it Clean

I like to bring disinfecting cleaning wipes for the input devices. Nobody enjoys holding a grimey controller. One time, observing a kid joyfully picking his nose right before picking up the controller for MODSORK made me feel weirdly triumphant about having brought those cleaning wipes along. It's also not just about the benefit of your stuff being clean, but people seeing you clean it, which tells them that you care about their experience. Also, people will "forget" their trash and unwanted flyers at your booth. Some particularly cheeky folks like to go all guerilla marketing and leave cards for their own game at your booth. Get rid of that stuff. Dust off your screen.

 

III. During the Show

a) Related Events and Energy Management

There are often related events such as parties or just a beer at the pub with your fellow devs after the show. Even if you're tired after a long day and maybe aren't exactly a social butterfly ( I know I'm not ), I'd recommend going to those. Apart from usually being a good time, they can bring further opportunities. When I was in Cologne, I actually got the best feedback and the most interest for my game at a party for mobile games that I went to instead of just having a nice dinner and waiting for the train home after a long day of gamescom. And my game's very clearly not even a mobile game right now (though I'd love to make a Vita version, eventually)...

However, pace yourself: You want to be able to use your voice the last day of the show, so even if your game requires a lot of explaining, it's ok to occasionally leave folks alone even if they don't get it. Invest in those that seem genuinely interested.

Also, make sure you get enough sleep. I like to think if I'd gotten more sleep, I wouldn't have accidentally addressed Mike Bithell as Tom Bithell (sorry Mike...I knew the real name, just mixed them up after a long day of EGX) and might have taken a picture of him playing my game, or asked for a blurb. You shouldn't of course treat other people as mere marketing opportunities, but if they like your game and they say something catchy during the conversation, I'm sure many well-known folks wouldn't mind being quoted. Basically, you want to be able to make the most of any opportunity that presents itself (e.g. journalists playing your game) and that can be a bit difficult if you're still hung-over from the night before.

b) Guiding Players through the Experience

As mentioned before, my default starting screen wasn't the most attractive proposition for everyone. So if nobody was playing, I ended up playing myself a lot to show off what the game is about and that it involves moving things, lasers and explosions. Everybody loves those. If somebody's playing, that increases chances others will stop for a moment to watch, which will in turn draw the attention of other people and so on. Get that feedback loop going! (in a Gamasutra article comment somebody even mentioned the neat trick of developers taking turns gathering around their particular games and acting as an enthusiastic crowd to draw the visitors' attention :) )

Often, people will stand there, undecided, as they study your poster and your screeen. A simple "hi, would you like to try out the game?" or something similar will usually nudge them to give it a go. If they started playing by themselves, I ended up using the following standard routine a lot:

  1. let them try for themselves, observe if they can figure out the controls and objectives.
  2. Invariably, because I'd failed at having the game explain those well, I'd approach them and offer assistance.
  3. After a couple of rounds, or if they seemed about to leave, tell them about the beat-synced stuff in the game and invite them to try once more with headphones (which most hadn't bothered putting on. The rest usually took them off when they needed the controls explained...). This was like a second chance for the undecided to get into the game and for the ones that liked it to enjoy it even more.
  4. When they were done, mention the possibility to check out the game online if they liked it and handing them a card. Thank them for playing and if they said something nice about it, telling them I was glad they had a good time. That's not going to sway somebody who didn't like your game. But for the others, using positive phrasings and repeating the fact that they enjoyed it might just reinforce the positive impression a little.

All in all, I was rather hands-on about it until they had figured out how the game worked and I felt confident they could experience it properly. It just felt like the right approach for my game's build and my goals. Of course not everybody enjoys dev commentary and they'd rather be left alone with the game; They will let you know with their body language and the way they completely ignore you ;) . Same goes for playing the game with headphones: While I felt the audio is an important part of the experience and it pained me when people wouldn't hear it, some folks just prefer to play without sound or don't like the idea of putting on headphones that a hundred people have already worn that day and that should be respected.

In general, be prepared to let go of your assumptions: You may have a specific way in mind about how your game should be played but, most of all, you want people to have a good time and remember your game fondly. So if they're "playing it wrong" and still having fun, more power to them! MODSORK is very clearly about ambidexterity, yet the first time it was publicly playable, some players found it easier to circumvent that challenge and kill off one of their avatars right at the start. Then they'd play the game more like a twin-stick shooter. It was a very succesful strategy. I changed the game after the show to limit this strategy, but during the show, I actually encouraged those players to play whichever way they liked and I think I will include they way they played as a separate game mode.

The same goes for assupmtions about your target audience: Even if you had a clear type of gamer in mind, be sure you're just as welcoming to other people. In my case, I was surprised how many self-identifying casual gamers had a good time with the game, as well as little kids who struggled with the complexity of the controls, yet still had lots of fun just trying to evade the harmful objects in the game without ever scoring. It was also amazing how quickly some of the little ones learned, when initially it looked like they'd never stand a chance: through sheer perseverance, 20 minutes later they'd suddenly pull of nice moves and hold their own.

Here's another dev's interesting experience with drawing attention to a text-heavy, action-less game at an expo.

 

IV. The Aftermath

You're probably tired and all you want to do is catch up on sleep and enjoy the quiet after days of the noisy cacophony of a game expo. But it's still worth it to follow up with all the people you met, whether it's press, freelancers, other devs or particularly interested players. The chances that they'll remember you and you'll end up leaving a lasting impression are better if you do this soon. It also makes people feel appreciated if you're the first one to contact them, and not the other way around. Don't forget to thank the organizers and give feedback, as well (e.g. if you were part of a collective such as the indie mega booth).

What I also do is keep an excel sheet of contacts, including info on what they do, when/where I met them, comments etc. Now's the time to update that list, before I lose their business cards or forget the details.

At every show I've been so far, there's at least one person who really liked the game and got very good at it. These kinds of players are great because they can give you feedback that the average player who just played 10 minutes can't. Show them you appreciate them and try to stay in touch. Apart from the advanced feedback and beta-testing, they can be very helpful when it comes to building a community, getting reviews on Steam etc.

Finally take the time to structure all the experiences you made and the ideas, suggestions and feedback that you got for your game, as well as analyze any gameplay data you tracked. You could even use it to make a blog post... ;)

 

V. Final thoughts

It was cool to see how many people by now understand indie games work under different constraints than AAA and are ok with simple, functional graphics if the gameplay works fine.

All in all, while they're a lot of work, I've really enjoyed attending the various game shows and believe it's not just a sunk-cost fallacy when I say they were worth it. It was also amazing to see how diverse the audience was and how nice they were, pretty much without exception. In a time when headlines are dominated by online harrassment, sexism and stereotyping gamers based on clichées and the insane excesses of radicals, that was a genuinely encouraging experience.

What have your experiences been? Do you have any more useful tips for game expos? Don't hesitate to drop me a line or a comment if you have any questions, e.g. regarding specific game expos or pitching events.

 

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