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Exhibiting Prismata: How we got screwed by PAX, blew $6500 showing our game off, and then lost our entire mailing list

When our indie studio began planning a public debut of our game at PAX Prime, we could never have anticipated what would follow. Read this post-mortem to learn about how we got brutally rejected by PAX, spent over $6500, then lost our whole mailing list.

This is the complete story of the first public appearance of Prismata, our new Starcraft-meets-Hearthstone turn-based strategy game. As you may know, PAX Prime—one of the world’s largest video game festivals—happened about a week ago in Seattle, Washington. Tens of thousands of fans were treated to exciting previews, live announcements, and playable demos in the massive Washington State Convention Center. It’s always been a dream of mine to show off Prismata at PAX, and we’d been planning to have our own booth there since early spring of this year. It was going to be great! Except, we didn’t go. In a move that left us all extremely disappointed, PAX's sales team left us hanging for weeks without returning our emails, and ultimately denied us the opportunity to even submit an application for floor space at the event, giving preferred treatment to AAA developers and other established exhibitors. We ended up relocating our PAX booth to Fan Expo Canada—another large convention that happened to fall on the same weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite requiring a ton of planning, effort, and upfront costs, the Fan Expo booth went really well. Thousands of people played the game, and many of them came back multiple times, often bringing their friends, or waiting in line to play a fourth, fifth, or sixth time. There was nothing more satisfying than watching newbies turn into veteran Prismata players, after which most of them happily signed up to our mailing list to receive a beta key. Everything was going great! That is, until we returned to the office and realized (to our horror) that the entire list of hundreds of emails we had collected was wiped out by a bug in Google spreadsheets. More on that later.


This article is our exhibitor post-mortem. Here, you’ll find a full description of what happened with PAX, info on how we planned and ran the booth at Fan Expo, a full listing of our expenses, and a complete description of everything that we wished we'd done differently. If you’ve ever considered presenting a game at a convention, this is a must-read!

Why go to a convention at all?

There are at least four benefits to presenting a game like Prismata at a convention like Fan Expo or PAX. Our key goals were (not necessarily in order):

  1. Get feedback on the game. By having hundreds of people try out Prismata, we learned a great deal about what people like and dislike in the product, and what types of tutorial information helped people learn the game the fastest and make the fewest mistakes. That said, this is probably the least important reason, because we could conduct our own focus testing for much less than the cost of exhibiting at PAX.
  2. Promote interest in the game. Having a presence at a convention like PAX exposes a lot of really hardcore gamers to our product. These are precisely the types of people who we most want playing our game during the early stages, as they can be highly influential in spreading the game to a larger audience.
  3. Collect emails and beta sign-ups. This goes hand-in-hand with point number 2, but there’s an extra benefit to having expo booth visitors sign up as beta testers: they’ve already been taught how to play. This makes them more likely to stick around through the beta and become highly involved as the game progresses.
  4. Meet journalists. PAX is the type of place where hundreds of bloggers, youtubers, and gaming press can be found. A mention in an article by a key publication can lead to a huge spike in interest in the game, and simply exchanging business cards with the right person can lead to a huge increase in your chances of eventually receiving press attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the goals listed above, PAX would have been a much better location to exhibit our game than Fan Expo. Though it has a larger audience, Fan Expo is a general-purpose “geek convention” featuring a lot of comics, anime, television and film content, in addition to gaming-related content. Many people who walked by the booth weren’t interested in gaming at all, and PAX certainly has far more attendees who I’d consider to be hardcore gamers. Most importantly, aside from a few small blogs, there was very little gaming journalism present at Fan Expo.
 

That said, Fan Expo certainly had some advantages. Located in Toronto, it was only an hour drive away, so we could transport ourselves (and our gear) to the booth easily and avoid paying for airfare. Moreover, many of us had friends or family living near the convention centre, so we ended up paying far less for hotel rooms than we would have at PAX. Saving money is good, but we really wanted to go to PAX. So why didn't we?  

The PAX fiasco

In this part of the article, I’m going to hate on the PAX event organizers—not only for their poor customer service, but for policies that I feel have a strongly negative effect on the gaming industry as a whole. I should preface this by saying that I don't mean to call out @cwgabriel or any other specific person at Penny Arcade, Showclix (the ticketing company), or ReedPOP (the producer). But I do believe that events like PAX Prime, which are hugely influential in the industry, have a responsibility to be stewards of the gaming community, balancing the interests of fans, big gaming companies, and small indies alike. The current PAX event policies DO NOT achieve such a balance; instead, they have created an unequal playing field that heavily favours established gaming corporations over small indies like us. Allow me to explain. We initially inquired about exhibiting at PAX prime in late April. We received the following response from PAX sales on May 1, 2014:


Thanks for the inquiry, we are currently setting up PAX Prime now and will be sending info for new exhibitors at the end of the month. Sit tight for now and I’ll shoot you over the info.

PAX's customer service in a nutshell: we sat tight, and no info was ever shot over. But that's only the beginning of it. We wanted to send quite a few company members over to PAX; probably about 6-8 people. The booth itself would only come with 2-4 exhibitor badges, so this meant that we’d need to purchase additional PAX Prime badges for the rest of our team. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, except for the fact that four-day passes for the event typically sell out in under 10 minutes. We had read many horror stories of people closely following the PAX twitter feed for days in anticipation of the sale, only to be unable to actually order tickets as the ticketing site slowed to a crawl on the sale date. Many attendees lost a great deal of money by being forced to buy four 1-day tickets instead of the cheaper 4-day tickets. Worse still, the 1-day tickets sold out in less than an hour anyway, leaving plenty of people empty-handed.

A lot of people saw this.

This was much to the bewilderment of several of the folks on our team. Here’s a sample conversation (an actual IM convo from my logs):

Shalev: Wtf? Why don't they just increase the price?

Me: They do every year, it seems they constantly underestimate how much they need to increase it by. I honestly think the equilibrium price is probably 2.5x the current price.

Shalev: Lol. Who are these people anyway?

Me: Penny Arcade. They're very much committed to making events that "anybody can go to" and so on, so I think it's unlikely that they want to increase the price a lot because it would piss a ton of people off.

Shalev: Okay, but this is still a terrible strategy for them. They could increase the price, then have "sales" for a few tickets that sell out in an hour, or they could have lotteries. Obviously, if the capacity is X and 100X people want to attend the event, then it can't be true that "anybody can go to" it, no matter how the tickets are priced.

In any case, this is NOT what I’m upset at the PAX organizers about. As far as I’m concerned, they have a right to charge whatever they damn well please for admission to their event. I do believe that the ticketing system could be vastly improved by lotteries or other similar systems, but for us, it wound up being a moot point.  

Getting PAX passes

Based on the information from the PAX organizers and previous years’ PAX Prime ticket sale dates, we assumed (correctly) that we wouldn’t receive any information about our booth until several weeks after the PAX Prime ticket sale, which meant that we’d need to buy the extra passes before even knowing how many exhibitor passes we’d been offered. We’d read several other reports of first-time indie exhibitors at PAX. None of them mentioned having any problems getting a booth, though they did recommend registering early to optimize the chance of getting a better location. We were totally on top of that, or so we thought. Our primary concern became snagging extra PAX Prime passes so that the rest of the team could attend. We all set up SMS notifications for twitter, installed a twitter notifier chrome app, and religiously watched the PAX site, preparing for the insane rush to grab passes the moment they were available. 

Later, we changed our mind and opted to purchase four PAX Dev tickets instead, granting us access to a 2-day developer conference immediately prior to PAX Prime. These were much more expensive ($1550 for 4 tickets), but several folks at the company wanted to attend PAX Dev anyway, and the PAX Dev passes included a 4-day PAX Prime pass, allowing us to entirely skip the PAX Prime general admission ticketing shitshow. Moreover, 4 tickets plus 2 to 4 exhibitor passes would be more than enough manpower to staff the booth, talk to the media, and so on.

Getting our PAX Booth… or not

With our tickets in hand and our hotel reserved, we sat back and waited for the new exhibitor info that was promised for the end of May. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. After I contacted their sales executive again, I was told the following:


Thanks for the follow up and sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, we didn’t get a chance to let any new exhibitors into the show this year as space draw for the returning exhibitors took up all of our space.

(Emphasis is mine.) Let's get this straight then: faced with excess demand, PAX’s organizers prioritized the established companies who have had booths at PAX before. Activision, Ubisoft, and Microsoft got a huge booth, just like last year, with no questions asked. Meanwhile, Prismata was turned away without even being given an opportunity to bid on a spot. Zero floor space was reserved for new exhibitors whatsoever. Entrenched AAA developers got as much space as they needed, young indie companies be damned!

Needless to say, this came as a huge disappointment to me, not only because we were denied the opportunity to apply for a booth, but because of what it means for the future of PAX. PAX has traditionally been one of the most friendly conventions for small developers to exhibit at. It doesn't cost too much to get a booth there there ($1050 or $1300 for a 10x10 booth instead of the $1860 we paid at Fan Expo) and the media there is very indie-friendly. Personally, I’ve always thought of the Penny Arcade Expo as the one true video game con for the fans, and champion of the little guys, where small independent developers like us could stand tall and receive equal visibility next to all the big names. Apparently not. 

 

Now, the standard business practice when faced with excess demand is to raise prices. The PAX sales rep told me that they didn’t want to raise booth prices because they feared it might price out some of the smaller companies already exhibiting at PAX—an understandable concern. Yet it would be miles better than what they did to us, which was to dismiss us without even giving us a chance to make an offer. Why should established developers get higher priority? Why should Ubisoft get 4000 square feet when all we want is 100, and we’re perfectly willing to pay the same price per square foot?

Fan Expo to the Rescue

Defeated, with our dreams of presenting Prismata at PAX crushed, we examined Fan Expo as an alternative. Unfortunately, by the time the PAX sales folks responded to my emails, it was already past the deadline to apply for space at Fan Expo. Nevertheless, we called them, explained our situation, and they managed to find room for us. (THANK YOU, FAN EXPO!)

Our plans immediately shifted. Since pretty much everyone in the company wanted to be at the booth in Toronto, none of us ended up going to PAX. We cancelled our hotel reservation in Seattle (thankfully, we hadn’t booked flights yet), and prepared to exhibit our game at Fan Expo instead. Unfortunately, we couldn’t recover the $1550 spent on PAX Dev and PAX Prime passes, as the passes were non-transferable and the entire transaction was non-refundable. PAX's sales team's response to my complaining was simply to stop responding to my emails.

thankspax

To be fair, the $1550 lost was, in some sense, our own fault. However, we were heavily motivated by the fear of not being able to snag enough tickets for everyone to come to PAX, and we estimated that the risk of being unable to exhibit as quite low. Indeed, even the PAX sales folks told me that they were caught off guard by the amount of space demanded by returning exhibitors (though, in my mind, that still doesn't justify saying "yes" to all of their demands). Two things I would do differently, knowing what I know now are:

  1. Buy the PAX Dev passes later. As far as I know, PAX Dev passes were still available weeks after the main event ticketing sale. There was no rush to get them at all.
  2. Get the PAX Prime passes mailed out to us, which would have allowed us to resell them, recouping some of the cost if we decided not to go (selling our will-call pickup passes is both not allowed, and not feasible given how fearful people are of fraud).

And as a final note to the PAX organizers and sales team: Honestly, you’ve made us all very sad. Maybe you have good relationships with all the AAA developers, and maybe their huge booths make PAX more appealing. But to leave us on the hook for weeks and then dismiss all new exhibitors without giving any of us a chance to apply for space? I have few words for how disappointed I am. Hopefully you'll be able to catch Prismata next year at PAX East. If getting our own booth continues not to be an option, perhaps we'll join the Indie Mega Booth. In the mean time, the next place you'll be able to catch us at is the Boston Festival of Indie Games next weekend.

Fan Expo Preparation

Fan Expo for us practically began after the first week of August, when we finally got confirmation that we’d have a booth. It was exciting, especially after the disappointing news from PAX, but there was a lot to be done and we didn’t have much time. Most important of all was figuring out the booth. We provided our own tables, seats, and computers, so we had to determine the exact dimensions of the space to ensure that our equipment would fit in the booth. Acquiring this information was more difficult than expected; Will had to make a huge number of phone calls to receive an answer, since the plans weren’t terribly well-organized and no one was completely sure how much booth space we actually would be getting.

Mock Prismata booth

We borrowed a page from Bitflip’s guide and made a mock setup of the booth in the office. The game ran on our own work laptops, which were hooked up to monitors brought from the office (they were easier to transport, and it’s not like we would be needing them.) We spent under $250 on four cheap height-adjustable tables and 6 of the tiniest chairs we could find. There were many variables in our set-up, so we tried tons of different configurations in an effort to optimize how many people could play the game, how visible the monitors would be, and how much art we could show off. We also had to determine whether or not we wanted standing desks (we decided on a mix of sitting and standing ones), if we wanted any sound (we decided to have no sound at all, though this may have been suboptimal in hindsight), and how many laptops we would need (we went with 6 running the game, plus one collecting emails). There were also many logistical details, decisions, and expenses:

  • Transportation: We carpooled; about $150 was spent on gas and parking
  • Lodging: 9 of us went in total, but most of us found people to stay with. Thankfully we only needed one hotel room! $553
  • Electricity and Internet for the booth: Power was $43/day and desperately needed; internet was $700/day so we decided to make do without it (which ended up costing us dearly, see the section below on losing our mailing list…) Total cost: $172.
  • Theft insurance: Skipped out on it. We just took the laptops with us every night when we packed up and left. Nothing else was particularly valuable. Nothing was lost.
  • Online advertising: We put $44 into promoting our Fan Expo hype post on facebook to encourage people to show up. It’s hard to measure if this was a good decision, but at less than 1% of the budget, we hit 24000 people.
  • Last-minute hardware shopping: $148 on some extra mice, keyboards, mouse pads, and monitor cables.
  • Other random supplies: Duct tape, fabric tape, binder clips to mount posters, etc.

We also made modifications to the Prismata software for Fan Expo. These only took a day or so in total:

  • Airplane mode: Prismata is an online game, and it’s designed to stream sound and images from our server to reduce load times. Since we decided not to pay for internet access in our booth, we had to embed all the sound and images into the game itself.
  • LAN mode: Prismata connects to an online matchmaking server to pair users together when they want to play games. We had to add a simpler LAN mode so that we could just connect two laptops with a single ethernet cable and have them play against each other.
  • Expo build: We made a special version of the game that had some unique challenges for new players, and provided us with an easy method of resetting the game for the next user.

We also spent a lot of time generally polishing the software and fixing a few lingering bugs. We would have done this stuff anyway, so I don't count these hours in our total man-hours spent on Fan Expo. However, some polishing work got done sooner than it otherwise would have (at the cost of other, less Fan Expo-dependent, development work).  

Printing stuff

We’d always wanted Prismata T-shirts, and we needed them at the booth anyway, so we got 100 printed. They came to about $20 each: more expensive than I’d have liked, but worth it. They were great quality with really nice full-colour screen printing on the front and the back, and very comfortable. Everyone at the booth enjoyed them, plus we also gave some away to a few of the people we met at Fan Expo who couldn’t get enough of the game.

Prismata T-shirts

We ordered 100 of these shirts. They're awesome. Total cost: $1935.26. Full-colour screen-printing on black is expensive because an additional white later is printed first to ensure the finished product looks good..

Posters were a must-have to show off some of the game art, so we printed a bunch of laminated ones. We also printed a huge vinyl Prismata banner that ended up looking pretty crappy, unfortunately, because the “black” is more of a medium grey. One thing we’ll do next time is to reprint the banner as a laminated poster, and possibly add “turn-based strategy game” under the Prismata logo. A lot of people had no clue what Prismata was, and the show was busy enough that our team couldn’t always stop to explain the concept to everyone who looked interested.

Prismata posters

7 small background posters, 2 medium unit art posters, 3 huge character posters, and one massive ugly Prismata banner (not visible here). Total cost to print: $651.20

We also made some 2-sided how-to-play cards that featured the rules of Prismata. Since Prismata is a hybrid of a real-time strategy game and a card game, it was very important to highlight the rules that make Prismata different from what new players are typically used to.

How-to-play cards. We printed 12 of these for $68.

The last thing we did was print 1000 beta key cards. These were designed to be simple giveaways that we could hand out to people who didn’t have time to sit down and try the game, or didn’t want to wait in line if the booth was busy. Each card came with a unique beta signup code. Alex generated the codes with a Python script, and we printed them on sticker sheets, dozens at a time. The most annoying task was manually affixing the stickers to all 1000 cards. Our solution was an example of Fordism at its best.

Beta key cards

This mangled card is the sole survivor from all 1000. The lower right corner is where we stuck a unique sticker code to each card.

In total we gave out all 1000 cards, and we ran out 2 hours before Fan Expo ended. Of those 1000 cards distributed to Fan Expo attendees, about 170 were actually entered in as beta sign-up codes, which seems like an excellent ratio. We didn't actually need to have unique codes on each card, but we thought that making them seem a bit more scarce and precious would encourage people to sign up.  


Author’s note: If anyone didn’t get a chance to sign up using a Fan Expo code, you can still sign up for the beta at prismata.net. Fan Expo code entries get first dibs on beta keys, but we plan on growing the beta by a LOT really soon, so you shouldn’t have to wait long.

At The Booth

The key takeaway from our experience at Fan Expo was that you can never be too prepared. The floor plan for our booth showed two curtained walls abutting a10-foot square of concrete flooring. When we arrived, we discovered that one of the curtains—which were crucial for us to be able to mount our posters—was missing. The Fan Expo staff couldn’t do much to help us, so Alex ended up bribing a janitor $20 to acquire another wall for us.


Intern’s note: when I first arrived at the convention, Alex asked me if I had change for $100, and I wondered why. What a noob! Bribing with $100 is just overkill.

Fan Expo was scheduled to open to the public at 4pm on Thursday, August 28. We skipped the exhibitor set-up day on the preceding Wednesday, thinking we’d have enough time to set up on Thursday morning and afternoon. We really should have gone on Wednesday instead. Aside from meeting janitors and other members of the underground Fan Expo economy, we would have had more time to comfortably set up our booth and check everything over. Instead, we found ourselves sticking our last poster up on the curtains at the exact moment that the loudspeaker announced the show beginning. That poster fell down within a couple of hours. Fabric tape, it turns out, is a vastly underperforming craft tool. Never sit underneath a heavy piece of paper taped to a curtain!

 

The location of Prismata’s booth was in a mecca of children’s entertainment, nestled between Teletoon, Potted Potter and Entertainment One. Our location meant tons of booth traffic but many hit-and-miss conversations. The question, “Do you like strategy games?” would either be met with a “heck yeah!” or a blank stare. Or, in the case of a particular gentleman responding to our marketing intern Rachel, “Nah. I’m a console guy, I like to hold the thing in my hand. What can I say? I’m a man,” followed by a wink. Unfortunately for console guy, Prismata won’t be coming to him anytime soon.

Will and Whinnie at Just Dance

Our location also meant that when Teletoon was spinning their wheel of chance, or the Potter people brought in live owls and arachnids, their line-ups ended up snaking in front of us, cutting off our own booth traffic. What we learned, though, was that tradeshow people are almost always willing to cooperate and relocate their queues of visitors. In some cases, favourable outcomes could be achieved by bribing other vendors with valuable, scarce commodities like AC power and duct tape.

 

Pitching and Demoing Prismata

Over the four days, I had a lot of experience refining the sales pitch I used to get people to try the game. Prismata has an interesting user interface and nice art, so it catches people’s eyes. However, it isn’t a game that people instantly ‘get’ when they stare at the screen. They need to be told what’s going on. What I found worked best was to figure out what types of strategy games a person liked, and then describe Prismata via analogy. I would often say things like:

  • Prismata is the turn-based StarCraft that everyone’s been waiting for.
  • It’s different than a card game like Magic or Hearthstone. Instead of building a deck and playing cards you draw, you get a bunch of workers that make resources, and you can spend those resources on attackers, defenders, tech, or more workers.
  • In a game like Civilization, there’s a huge map and it can take an hour to play a turn. In Prismata, there’s no map and you can play a turn in 10 seconds.

In my experience, the best way to get a person to sit down and try Prismata is to find out which games that person really likes, and then pitch Prismata as a fresh new take on a similar idea.

Rachel and Will with Iron Man

For the demos themselves, we had prepared two distinct experiences for new players:

  1. An exciting single-player battle against a boss controlled by the AI
  2. A 1v1 match against another human

We found that option 2 yielded a much better average result for new players, and we quickly retired option 1 altogether, reserving it only for players who came back multiple times and wanted a new challenge. Most people arrived at the booth in groups, so it was usually pretty easy to get people to play against their friends. Our staff stepped in to play against people when necessary. As for the results of our demo, they were phenomenal. The positive feedback we received completely blew my expectations away. Prior to Fan Expo, we had done lots of focus testing of Prismata beforehand (mostly with university students who were pretty strategy-game savvy), so we roughly knew what to expect. At Fan Expo, strategy gamers immediately understood the appeal of a card game without randomness, and the mechanics were familiar enough for those people to grasp basic strategy quickly, while also being unique enough to intrigue them, even while playing with only a tiny subset of the hundred or so units in the game.

Elyot teaching Prismata 

What really took me by surprise was how addictive Prismata was to people who weren’t typical strategy gamers. Often people would drag their friends or girl/boyfriends along to play, and the less experienced gamers found Prismata equally enthralling. Kids as young as 8 years old were also really into it (some of them came back 5 or more times to play). Of the hundreds of people who sat down to play a game, almost nobody left without completing at least one match. Nothing was as gratifying as seeing players come back to try the game day after day at the Expo, especially when they brought new friends to play with them. One kid got to know us so well that he returned to our booth after losing his Dad (Whinnie successfully reunited him with his family). As expected with a large scale user test, the demos also allowed us to get tons of great feedback on the game. Observing all the new players, we learned a lot about what beginners find fun, and which things people were still having difficulty learning. However, Fan Expo provided some opportunities that a regular focus test wouldn’t have given us; for example, we met a user interface designer who meticulously analyzed our game’s look and feel, spending over an hour with us offering suggestions on how to enhance its presentation.
 

Will and Whinnie at the booth

Results

Regrettably, there was little media presence at Fan Expo, and press members that did show up were mostly focused on photographing cosplayers. However, we did swap business cards with a few authors from small gaming blogs, and several of them tried Prismata and were excited about writing future articles about it. We also got plenty of networking done with local gaming groups, artists, and the head of a voice actor’s association. I wish we had brought more business cards! Some general stats:

  • Beta key cards handed out: 999
  • Beta key cards redeemed: 171
  • Number of laptops running Prismata: 6
  • Total number of hours of Prismata computer playtime: 180
  • Total number of Prismata matches played: ~400
  • Number of people who played at least one game: ~500
  • Number of T-shirts given out: 10
  • Email addresses collected: We’ll never know… :(

Disaster: Losing our mailing list

Fan Expo concluded right before the Labour Day holiday Monday, which I happily spent relaxing. The following Tuesday, we were all back at work. I was having a great day until I heard the following coming from Will’s office:


Will: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!

At Fan Expo, we’d collected email addresses from everyone who was interested in signing up for our mailing list and beta. These ~300 emails were kept in a Google Docs spreadsheet on a Chromebook in offline mode. When Will checked the spreadsheet on Tuesday, they were all gone. Apparently there is a known issue with offline mode in Google Docs, where in some cases, syncing can mess up and cause data to be lost. This is exactly what happened to us.

We talked to Google's tech support (it exists, for real!) They were very nice to us, but said that there was absolutely nothing they could do for us, as the data had never been synced on their servers. We even tried contacting some of our friends who work for Google. Their replies were all something like this:


What happened? Oh fuck. That. :(

What boggles my mind is that this software bug was first reported over two years ago (see the link above), so it seems completely bizarre that Google still hasn't gotten around to fixing it, especially since it led to catastrophic data loss in one of Google’s core products. For fuck's sake Google, get it together! Our company keeps hundreds of documents on Google Drive, some of which are incredibly important. A lot of my trust in Google’s software has been lost. I won’t ever use Docs in offline mode again. To our Fan Expo guests: I'm incredibly sorry. We tried literally everything we could to recover those emails. If you think that your email was lost, you can do one of the following two things:

  1. Go sign up at http://prismata.net/expo/ with the code EPICFAIL and I'll add everyone who does this to the mailing list and beta
  2. Email me personally and I'll add you manually: [email protected]

Also, spread the word if you know anyone else who might have been affected.  

Complete Cost Breakdown

Here it is! All dollar figures are in Canadian dollars, where 1 CAD = 0.91 USD

Tables and chairs $242.84 Four height-adjustable tables and 6 really tiny chairs
Booth supplies $38.49 Tape and binder clips
Hardware $148.01 Four keyboards and mice, six mousepads, two HDMI-DVI cables
'How-to-play' cards $68.55 12 slides: $45.96 to print them and $22.49 to get them laminated
Posters and banners $651.20 7 small background posters, 2 medium unit art posters, 3 huge character posters, and one massive Prismata banner
T-shirts $2098.52 USD $1,689.24 + import fees. Taxes not included in our total because we can get reimbursed for them.
Total durable goods... $3247.61 (Excluding 10 t-shirts that were given away, these are all costs that we would NOT have to pay again next time)
     
Fan Expo booth cost $1,689.24 4-day booth 10' by 10' booth rental at Fan Expo Canada 2014
Power for the Fan Expo booth $171.76 4-day power outlet for the booth
Janitor bribe $20.00 Janitor bribed to get us the second wall curtain that the Fan Expo organizers originally promised us
Exhibitor badges $285.00 Five 4-day exhibitor passes to Fan Expo
Additional badges $280.00 Four additional Saturday Fan Expo passes and two additional Sunday Fan Expo passes
Total paid to Fan Expo... $2,446.00  
     
Facebook advertising $44.00 Promoting our Fan Expo hype post
Cards $124.30 1000 beta key cards
Stickers $10.00 Stickers that we printed out and stuck to each card by hand, each containing a unique beta signup code
Total advertising and giveaways... $178.30  
     
Gas $60.68 Three cars from Waterloo to Toronto and back
Parking $72.50 Fan Expo parking plus some downtown Toronto parking
Bus tickets $16.95 One Toronto-to-Waterloo bus ticket for
Hotel $553.35 Three nights at the Doubletree downtown Toronto hotel for two people
Food $319.95 Random meals and other food, plus a group dinner on Saturday
Total transport, food, board... $1023.43  
     
Fan Expo Grand Total Costs: $6,895.34 (or roughly $6300 in US dollars)
     
Plus, money wasted on PAX: $1687.91 $1536 US dollars spent on PAX Dev and PAX Prime passes that we never used
The Grandest of Grand Totals: $8583.25 (about $7800 in US dollars)

I also estimate that we spent roughly 340 man-hours of labour on activities exclusively aimed at Fan Expo (not counting general bug-fixing or polishing of the game). Some of these, like the preparation of the posters and planning of the booth, could be done much faster next time.

  • 185 hours presenting at Fan Expo
  • 55 hours of setup/takedown/driving
  • 40 hours of Will planning the booth, calling Fan Expo, preparing everything
  • 10 hours writing custom code for Prismata so we could run it at Fan Expo
  • 50 hours getting all the cards, flyers, t-shirts, posters, and other stuff printed

This is really an incredible amount of work: roughly 8.5 full work weeks.  

Conclusion

Between our complete disappointment when PAX turned us away, the utter elation upon witnessing hundreds of people become addicted to our game, and subsequent devastation upon losing all of their emails, this whole experience was a roller coaster, to say the least!

We know, we know. Too much QQ

Did we achieve anything? Let’s revisit our initial goals for going to PAX Fan Expo:

  1. Get feedback on the game: Our success in this regard was undeniable, but I suspect we could have made similar progress with far less effort by just doing extensive focus testing. Still, we might not have met some incredible people, like the UI designer who spent over an hour at our booth pouring over the game.
  2. Promote interest in the game: This deserves a small check mark. A good chunk of the Fan Expo attendees got to try Prismata. We're on the map.
  3. Collect emails and beta sign-ups: *sigh*... at least we still got 171 people who took our cards, went home, and actually entered the codes. Those 171 users are hopefully highly motivated and dedicated, given that they went to all the effort of doing so.
  4. Meet journalists: There weren't too many at Fan Expo, unfortunately. At PAX, the opportunities would have been 100-fold greater. However, the few that we did meet seemed very enthused; one blogger told us excitedly that he had been keeping a list of all the units he’d seen in the game so far, and was going to do an analysis on them.

In any case, by the goals listed above, it doesn't seem like we got a great return on our 340 man-hour and $8600 investment (which is really more like $6500 if you don't count the T-shirts). However, I think there is an additional benefit not listed above: experience. When we do go to PAX (and we will, trust me!), we'll have a better booth, be better at demoing the game, and be better at knowing our audience. That may be well worth the cost, as just one key journalist introduction could be worth the entire $8600. You just never know.


Finally, if you're an aspiring indie dev interested in exhibiting at a convention, feel free to email me if you have any questions about our experience. And of course, check out Prismata if you're interested a turn-based StarCraft/deck-free Hearthstone type of hybrid strategy game.

Interested in Prismata? Sign up for the beta at prismata.net

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