Crowd Control: Tips for establishing & running effective games conferences

Running a games conference provides invaluable opportunities to your surrounding community to network, share knowledge and promote their work. So, what are some crucial ways in which you can assure success for your event?

After traipsing the world running events both online and physical; in Europe, in Oceania; big, small and eclectic, the learnings that I've accrued through these experiences could be valuable to anyone interested in creating a new event or even reassessing their current one. Running games events and conferences is inarguably stressful but just like game development itself, with the right 'pre-production' it doesn't have to be as painful as last minute planning often makes it. Running games events is also incredibly rewarding, and to those community organisers and event managers that create these opportunities for interested parties to play, network and share - you're fantastic and incredibly important to our communities. Please know that.

This blog post will discuss some easy ways to create a more effective or engaging event, as well as some common problems that you can easily overcome by contingency planning or thinking ahead. Where appropriate, these will be punctuated by learnings (or war stories) from projects I've been involved with in the past.

#1 - Power in numbers (and delegation).

While you don't want to go the complete opposite 'too many cooks spoil the soup' way, having a core team of more than yourself - perhaps 3-4 people has proved incredibly valuable. Unless you have a very small event - perhaps 30-40 people or less, having a small team of trustworthy, reliable people that you can delegate different sections of organisation to is something I cannot recommend enough. We ran the first iteration of Play by Play earlier this year - New Zealand's first international games festival - and despite the relatively small nature of the first event, it took three of us directors around 7 months of work to see it to fruition.

Make sure each person has a defined purpose and something they're responsible for sorting out. For us, it worked something like this:

Director 1: email duties, liason between submitees/judges and the festival, website development
Director 2: accounting, legal, venue negotiations and liason
Director 3: social media/branding, event/activity planning, sponsorship

Imagine doing all those tasks yourself! Phew. We had very little overlap, and for all of us doing this on top of full-time work, this was the most effecient use of our time - and helped us get the most out of the festival, even the first time around. For reference, Play by Play was a triple threat - a public exhibition, a day-long developer conference and an awards night ceremony. In total, we saw around 1,000 public and professional attendees.

#2 - Branding is worth the money.

Having distinctive and attractive branding for your event is super important. It provides you with a recognisable identity, helps promote the atmosphere of the event, and just generally draws people in to begin with. We dropped a good amount of money on Play by Play's branding despite having a tight budget and being in the first year of the event - and it paid off. We got a lot of compliments about it, people found the branding welcoming and effective, and what's more?

It futureproofs your event. Once you've paid for a good, solid logo, that's not something you're going to have to worry about a great deal for the next few years. You've got a base to go off for promotional material, a theme to work around and all the components you need to make your event seem 'together'.

branding by Blake Wood

If you're running a conference and planning to have awards, audio-visual elements or record your talks, I'd recommend looking into getting a short animation done as well. It adds a layer of cohesion and professionalism, apart from just looking fab.

If you're deciding on an event name, check the following:

  • Is the domain (or a variant) vacant?
  • Is the potential hashtag used by something else? (esp. Twitter)
  • Does the name reflect the mission statement of my event?

#3 - Event photographers are really worth it.

Investing in a fairly decent event photographer is a huge asset to events, and again falls under the futureproofing banner. Photos of people enjoying themselves and taking part in your activities are not only good for promotional and PR material, but they're extremely useful for sponsorship prospectuses and convicing people to support you. If you're on a budget, perhaps there's a developer-slash-hobbyist photographer in your community that would be keen to take some photos in return for a comped ticket (with expenses paid) to the conference. These assets are really valuable.

Event photography by Saf Davidson

In that vein, if you can also get either your talks recorded or a video record of your event as well, that's great for the reasons mentioned above too. We had the pleasure of having an almost full-time videographer on site, who managed to make an edit of the week's summary in an hour before the awards ceremony. She also did developer interviews with nominees, which was extra promo for both the festival and the devs themselves.

#4 - Give your participants, attendees and speakers as much notice as humanly possible.

This goes without saying, but people are only getting busier and the more notice you can give anyone that has to attend, present or exhibit at your event, the more people can plan around and actually turn up. This turns into an even more critical point if you're running an event with an international contingent. International travel - or even sometimes national travel - requires planning, and the longer you leave it = the more expensive travel and accomodation gets = the less people interested in investing in coming.

In that vein, if something awful comes up and you need to reschedule completely, move the event back and not forward. More time is better than less time.

  • #4B: Give judges a reasonable amount of time to judge entries if you're running an awards component.
    We ended up having 5 judges to preside over around 70 game entries, which is a gargantuan job. To offset this, we made sure they had sufficient time to judge and weren't rushed to complete their assessments (around 2 months).

#5 - Always have a contingency plan.

This is hard to define, but depending on what kind of event you're running where, you may need an emergency or contingency plan if nothing goes as expected. A good example is RhineDev, a one-day conference I ran in Köln, Germany in 2014 with 130+ conference attendees from all over Nordrhein-Westfalia, the province where Köln is located. A week out from the conference, it was revealed that almost all (if not all) trains were striking on the day the event was being held, and the trains being an important and arterial travel method in Germany, this meant the majority of our attendees couldn't attend. Except, we had a contingency plan, as train strikes had become relatively common.

Within a day, we had a ridesharing website set up for the conference, as well as options for the event to rent vehicles and carpool. Everyone made it. Success, and thank you to contingency plan!

#6 - Diversity & safe space policies make your events more comfortable.

Safe space policies are not hard to construct and go a long way to making people feel comfortable at your event, as well as aware what to do if an issue arises. Having a diverse line-up varies the perspectives in your content, and overall makes your information more interesting. A good resource towards constructing your own safe space policy can be found here, and a really fantastic set of tips on how to make your conference more diverse has been written here by Ashe Dryden.

#7 - The quirky 'little details' will be remembered.

There's a ton of things you can do to augment your festival that either don't cost a great deal or require a little bit of creative thinking - and it's usually these little things that people remember and discuss later on. For instance, with Play by Play a few of these wee things we did were well received:

  • setting up our conference like a big lounge, with the option of cushy sofas or beanbags and cuddly blankets - this made people feel comfy and at ease
  • handing out free 'cheatsheets' about getting into game development to the public from our open exhibition - they got a tangible takeaway at a low cost to us from our free exhibition, and at the same time we're promoting our industry to the public (I have made these sheets available here)
  • the custom-made trophies for the Play by Play Awards - these were unique, laser-cut, light-up trophies that had an 'oooo' factor (all handmade by one of our directors), and were really well received by the nominees

  • the fact our exhibition plinths were actually sustainable cardboard standing desks - this was a cheap, green way to solve a stupid event problem (computer plinths are really damn expensive to hire), and we got to support a local New Zealand start-up at the same time!
  • our post-it walls that posed open questions to visitors in our public exhibition - this gave the public something personal to be involved in and 'leave their mark' on the festival

'What was the first game you ever played?'

Separately, these things were not hard to organise and not only got people talking, but remembering the events fondly.

#8 - Lock in sponsorship as far in advance as possible & have a great prospectus.

Nailing your budget down a great deal in advance is a common sense headache-saver, but negotiating sponsorships often takes a great deal of back and forth so should be tackled ASAP. Make a great first impression with a well put-together sponsorship prospectus in your house style/branding that clearly outlines:

  • the event's aims and goals
  • the event's target demographic(s)
  • who is running the event (directors or event coordinators) and a brief description of their background(s)
  • why the sponsor should invest in your event
  • sponsorship packages/tiers with benefits clearly stated AND totals both GST inc. and exc. (YMMV if you're not in NZ, but whatever taxes you need to add - make sure the figures are clear both with and without)
  • clear contact details

#9 - Where possible, keep in mind the means of your attendees.

Students don't have a ton of money, especially if you're running your event in a city with high living costs. Indies may also not have a load of disposable cash. Consider that these attendees must weigh up return on investment if they drop a bunch of money on your event, and that prices may get prohibitive for people trying to make ends meet. Some things to think about:

  • What is a reasonable price for a student to afford in this city? Can I offer a discounted ticket price to students, or build up a parternship with their institution(s)?
  • Can I offer a low-income scholarship and/or discount? (GDC does this, which is a solid idea)
  • If I want to encourage more diverse attendees, could I interface with local diversity groups to provide a scholarship and/or discount?

I say 'where possible' because you do need to budget and discounts generally don't come from nowhere. However, getting more people in who normally wouldn't be able to attend does equal more revenue, and having a full conference is better than a half-empty one.

Of course, there are a lot more factors in running a successful event, but these are some crucial tips that may help you with your own. If you have any further questions, you can find me on Twitter at @lucyamorris!

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