This is my first blog in my journey to take my indie game from alpha to final release. I am currently developing "Life Odyssey", an augmented reality RPG letting players find crafting items and loot by walking around town, discover monsters lurking on their streets, and gain power with every step taken.
A brief introduction: my indie dev handle / company name is Corgi Punk, I've been in the game industry for most of my professional career as a programmer, and occasionally technical artist. I've worked on console, web, and mobile at both AAA's and a start-up. I also did some time in the CG animation industry, working on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. With that out of the way, let's get into the good stuff.
I'm going to break down my experience exhibiting at GDC Play 2017 as a solo indie dev for a game that is not yet released or announced. I'll do my best to break down the following:
- Cost Breakdown
- The Plan
- The Reality
- Was It Worth it?
Ready? Here we go! Oh, and here's a picture of my GDC Play 2017 booth (and booth swag):
For the past 4 years I've made it a point to attend GDC, as a result I've had the chance to get fairly familiar with the flow of the convention. Really, my only goal for exhibiting was to announce my game formally to the world. In my mind, the possible outcomes were:
- Optimistic - lots of press exposure (6+ articles), thousands of followers for the game, and maybe some publisher interest.
- Average - one press article, 100 or so followers.
- Pessimistic - no press articles, 50 followers all from convention traffic.
(Spoilers: My end result was somewhere in between Average and Optimistic.)
I was more or less okay with all of these outcomes (though obviously I preferred Average outcome or above), and ultimately that's what helped me pull the trigger:
I would have regretted NOT exhibiting, more than I would resent the pessimistic outcome.
Above, you can see my estimate cost vs. the actual final cost; $4,685 vs. $4,529. I'm actually surprised that my estimated cost ended up being lower than my final cost. Some of this came from a mild overestimation of the actual cost of renting booth. Another factor was the decision to sell the 5 Expo Passes that were included in the package. I'm a team of one, so really I only needed the booth staff passes. This helped me subsidize the cost by about $500, or to avoid getting in trouble you could say that I "sponsored" 5 individuals to attend as a part of my team (at their own cost).
My goal was to stay under $5000 total expenses for the event. Disclaimer: this was likely only possible because I live in San Francisco. Due to that fact, I was able to avoid all travel expenses (e.g. plane tickets, hotel booking, ground transportation, shipping costs for booth gear, etc.). I have also left out things like food/beverage, I think these items tend to vary wildly from person to person, but I think I got by on ~$100 / day for breakfast & lunch expenses for my booth staff.
The big surprise expense was the Retractable Standing Banner. I had only planned on getting a large horizontal banner to hang at the top of my booth, but that turned out to be inadequate. More on that later!
WHO WAS THE BOOTH TEAM?
From left to right:
- Sandy, my fiancée + amigurumi master + chief of moral support
- Eric, part-time collaborator + full-time friend
WHAT WAS THE STRATEGY?
Hustle as hard as humanly possible. Pitch fast, pitch hard, and take no prisoners.
I knew coming into GDC that I was coming in at a disadvantage. I had no publisher to advertise my presence. I had no sponsorship from a company or association (there are many Nationality affiliated multi-booth sections; e.g. Canada, Nordic, etc.). Nobody knew about my game. I had kept it a bit of a secret thus far, which was very likely a mistake, but exhibiting at GDC was my way of trying to correct that.
Thankfully I had been collaborating on/off with my good friend, Eric, who was kind enough to help me out with the booth (dude even took days off from work for me!). We were already somewhat practiced at pitching the game, we just needed to warm up and get in the rhythm. In terms of the pitch strategy itself, I think it's best to demo 1 full gameplay loop of your game. Why? Because I just made it up, but it feels like common sense to me. A booth demo is almost a living trailer, it should take less than 90 seconds and convey the big picture of your game. In the case of Life Odyssey that looks something like this:
There's a few problems with this when confined to a 6' x 8' booth:
- How do you visit physical locations? Fake it, hardcode location rewards into the demo build so they never run out and you always have one ready to be collected. I feel like real data isn't important until the user gets to freely play on their own time.
- How do you walk around to take steps? I felt like this was a big opportunity to do something special. We could just hardcode this too, or run in place - both options felt lackluster. Instead I chose to bring along a portable treadmill. It added memorability to the pitch, helped with our visibility on the expo floor, and demonstrated the fact that step tracking in Life Odyssey doesn't rely on GPS - you can do it on a treadmill.
Honestly, things went like 80% according to plan. Sorry to disappoint - not nearly as much disaster as I was expecting. There was however one big unplanned expense ($491 worth) that did put me in a mild panic, so let's start there. Because bad news is more exciting than good news...right?
THE BAD NEWS
Nobody could see my booth. I happened to get something that you might consider the worst spot in the entire Expo Hall: last row, last booth, and facing a wall. For context, I was so tucked away, I felt the need to tweet a map to my location.
I was also literally invisible. Remember how I mentioned I only printed a horizontal hanging banner? Well that only works if you get foot traffic walking by your booth. When you're in a corner with a dead-end, you need people to see you from all the way down the aisle. The most obvious solution? Standing banner. But I needed it printed in under 5 hours. I found a local print shop and paid a $250 rush order fee. The print quality was surprisingly good, it even looked a little better than my hanging banner. Here's a picture of the final result up close and then at a distance from the end of my aisle. Note: pictures were taken before they put up a wall at the end of the aisle. By the next day, there was no visibility from the other direction.
TL;DR = Buy a standing banner, it's worth it.
THE GOOD NEWS
It worked! Not only did the booth get good foot traffic, I actually got compliments on the banner and people who said they explicitly came over because of it. Who knew my rushed 10 minute photoshop design would work out so well? The portable treadmill also worked amazingly well. Not only did people get it, they were also entertained. Some wanted to try it themselves, 90% of the time we would demo the pedometer counting feature ourselves and hand over the phone when it was time to do AR monster hunting.
Our booth swag also worked very well. I printed Life Odyssey branded travel phone chargers, which most people found to be an unexpectedly useful item to receive. Sandy handcrafted and custom designed an amigurumi (yarn crocheted plushie) to give away in exchange for a tweeted picture and sign up for the beta, and they were a huge hit. We decided to even hide them to save stock for the truly enthused.
Was It Worth It?
Yes. That's my short answer. So if you skipped to the end, there you go. Keep reading for details.
I tend to think in metrics and numbers when evaluating things. It can be hard to quantify, but I think it helps give perspective to your budget. One way of looking at it is the same way you think of advertising/user acquisition, let's use CPI (Cost Per Install) and CPC (Cost Per Click).
CPI (Cost Per Install)
For the stage of development that I was/am in, alpha game build announcing and generating interest for a closed beta, I consider any person who signed up for my beta as an "install". Likewise, any sign ups the game received as a byproduct of press articles would also count. I was lucky enough to speak with @Joel_Couture, from Siliconera, who ended up writing an article on my game. (Thank you Joel! Next time I see, I'm buying you a beer.)
- 200 sign ups - in person @ GDC Expo
- 355 sign ups - via Siliconera driven traffic + organic traffic to date
- $4,529 total budget / 555 total sign ups = $8.16 CPI
CPC (Cost Per Click)
Things get a little more tricky here, but I defined this as any hit on the Life Odyssey website or view of my GDC YouTube trailer. Technically these actions required inputting my URL or clicking a link to show up in my analytics trackers, so it's as good of a hard metric as I have. These data points are limited to the first day of GDC until the date of this article.
- 3,059 views (from all Life Odyssey related videos on my YouTube channel)
- 1,994 website pageviews
- $4,529 total budget / 5,053 total "clicks" = $0.90 CPC
ROI (Return on Investment)
$8.16 CPI and $0.90 CPC. These are actually not bad numbers, in the ballpark of an ad campaign on a social media platform like Facebook. However if you calculate my growth, things get a little more perspective. I started with an audience of size 1, me.
- Starting Audience -> Current Audience: 1 -> 555
- Starting Awareness -> Current Awareness: 1 -> 5,053
- Audience Growth: 555%
- Awareness Growth: 5,053%
I have no real point of reference, but 555% and 5,053% growth feel like great numbers to hit in under 2 months. Other intangible benefits included:
- Business Matchmaking: Met with over 50 publishers / composers / localization studios / artists / etc.
- Morale Boost: Actually seeing real human beings in-person get excited about my game was surprisingly encouraging to me.
- Life Experience: I've always wanted to exhibit a game that was my own creation, and I got to do that. This may not be a factor for some, but it was for me.
- GDC After Parties: This is a really big perk of GDC that I can't stress hard enough for attendees. This one isn't even limited to exhibitors. Go to the parties/mixers! Bring business cards! Talk to people!
Was everything perfect? No. (But is anything?)
Could it have been better? Maybe, but it certainly wasn't bad.
Could I have gotten more out of $4,529? I don't think so.
Would I recommend it to other indie devs? Yes, but go in with a plan and know what you want out of it.
Assuming this blog gets published, I'll try my best to continue to post about my development of Life Odyssey and my experiences taking it to release. My next topic may be something less focused around marketing / biz dev and more into the creative direction of the game. If anyone is interested in specific topics, I'm more than happy to try and write about them, let me know in the comments!
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