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Newbies Exhibiting at GDC Play! Our Costs and Lessons.

Each industry has a unique landscape that takes time to observe and understand. Coming into the game industry for the first time, we knew nothing. As a team, we've seen other industries. Was Exhibiting at GDC Play for $3250 USD worth the price of tuition?

This is the fourth post in our multi-part adventure blog. We made "Nameless: the Hackers RPG", a one-handed, touchscreen, no virtual-pad, turn-based, non-fantasy, 12+ hour JRPG, built for mobile bite-sized gameplay on iOS. *phew!*

Check out our previous posts on Gamasutra Blog:

The core of BoxCat is composed of Steve and myself, James. We're not trained as Game Developers and have only recently dropped everything to follow our dreams.

We are coming in with prior business experience from other industries, so the most we can do is cross-reference similarities of how B2B (Business-to-Business) and B2C (Business-to-Consumer) interact during a show. We recognize that attending a single game industry convention won't give us a gambit of knowledge. We're simply hoping to share what we've observed.

Nameless: the Hackers RPG for iOS Kiosk at GDC

Nameless GDC Play Kiosk San Francisco
iTunes Link:
Free Lite Version:
Reviews & Mentions:

Exhibiting at conventions may not be for everyone. It's very expensive and requires a lot of preparation. 

Deciding to go to GDC 2013 was a difficult decision, especially when mobile profits are blade thin. It’s not our place to say if it’s a definite do-or-don’t for anyone else, we’ll leave it to each team to decide for themselves. We can only talk about why we decided to go as BoxCat for our first game, Nameless. 

About the Nameless Project 
We're a small working team of 2.6 full-time people over nine months. We actually have a team of four: two full-time, one part-time, and a friend that helped out for a few weeks.

James Liu (@JamesBoxCat)
Project Coordinator, Game Design/Developer, Coffee Addict

Stephen Ip (@Poor_Musician)
Music Coordinator, Game Design/Scripter, Homeless Guy

Yuichi Haga
Art Coordinator, Game Design/Scripter, Family Man

Tony Chang
Game Developer, Ninja

Here are our project expenses for Nameless the Hackers RPG:

iOS Mobile App Game Project Cost
Nameless Project Cost iOS App

We are not including the cost of food, shelter, and lifestyle. Living costs will vary from place-to-place. We consider this "Sweat-Equity" within our team; it's separate from expenses. You can estimate our costs by calculating 2.6 people times 9 months times the cost of living. We live in Los Angeles, California, USA.

We'll go into detail about how we managed our budget and how we ran the project in a future post. There are no absolute correct way to run a project, everything has pros and cons.

For now, it's only important to highlight the cost of attending GDC verses the rest of the budget.

Our Considerations
It was December 2012 when we made the decision. We knew that exhibiting at a conference would be very expensive, possibly $5000-6000+ USD. 

The base cost of the Kiosk was $3250 with no WIFI access. We knew there would be additional costs for hotel, printing, giveaways, business cards, TO-site travel, and ON-site travel.

In December, we also knew we would be selling Nameless in March on promotion for $1.99. After Apple's cut of $0.59 we would be left with profits of $1.40 per copy. We figured we would have to sell 4000-5000 copies of our game in-order to make back GDC costs. 

We did our homework before hand, we knew this was risky for a mobile game. Ultimately we made the decision for a couple of reasons:

  • Our game was a premium game, so we thought traditional marketing might work.
  • We are completely unknown in the industry. This would be a way to meet Journalists.
  • GDC is an industry (B2B) conference, which meant we could meet other developers.
  • We plan to make 2-3 more games. This was not an all-or-nothing gamble.
  • We need to better understand the “pulse” of the game industry.
  • The education was something we could take with us into the next project.

Our GDC Adventure
GDC gave us a better understanding for the industry. We were able to meet many talented developers, publishers, students, speakers, media, advertising companies, development companies, art, music, and the list goes on! Our sales? Not so much.

We'll try to break down our experience as much as possible. We also feel that we know why our sales didn't reach it's full potiential.

GDC Effects on Our Sales
We should emphasize that the commercial impact of GDC on Nameless was small because we did not take full advantage of pre-attendance.

Here’s our download graph with GDC week highlighted:

Effect of GDC Sales on our iOS Game

There was definitely an indirect effect on our sales for being at GDC, we do agree it's a bit hard to tell from the graph alone. We were able to connect with various Journalists and each "bump" on the graph can be linked to a post about Nameless.

You can see our collected posts here:

It's important to mention that the indirect effect was not simply because we were exhibiting. There were many factors involved which required us to engage socially.

Launch Timing
In our other post, we mentioned that we didn't do much in-terms of marketing and only did what we could as a bootstrapped dev group. Most of our efforts were giveaways which reached out to consumers. GDC is an industry (B2B) conference, so our efforts didn't do much to reach industry Journalists.

Before GDC and before launch, we felt that Journalists may have a high chance of overlooking us. In our minds, this is especially true because we had never published a game before, no one knows who we are, and the iOS AppStore is significantly flooded. 

We had two ways of thinking about this:

  1. "We have a published game! We're definitely here to stay!"
  2. "You've never heard of us! Please check out our demo!"
What we couldn't do was figure out a way to say:

    3.  "We have a limited following! Please check out our demo!" 

For better or worse, we decided to launch our game a week before GDC. If we had a previous game, we probably would have gone with option #3. Regardless, we're pretty satisfied with our decision.

Pocket Gamer Party
This was an intense mobile gaming meet-up that happened during GDC. We got wind of this while following 148Apps:

The moment we saw this we added ourselves to the Eventbrite page. Here’s a quick list of the type of people we met here:

  • Publishers already in the mobile market
  • Major console publishers looking to get into the mobile market
  • Major online gaming publishers looking to get into the mobile market
  • Translation services
  • Audio services
  • Art services
  • Established development studios
  • Marketing advertizing businesses
  • Journalists
  • Indie Developers, Artists, Muscians
  • Students
  • SDK companies

We met a ton of people, made many new friends. This was important to us because we could talk to them and ask them about their view of the industry. Many people were willing to tell us about their experiences and what made them jump in. 

Meeting the people that have been there and done it before, is easily the biggest justification for us to attend GDC. It's important to note that exhibiting made no impact on our ability to attend. It was open to everyone.

Indie Mobile Speed Pitch
We also attended the Indie Mobile Speed Pitch, it’s kind of like Speed dating but you pitch your apps to media Journalists. were the ones to set it up. Each group had to get a limited ticket from EventBrite. When the event started each group had 5 minutes to present themselves to the Journalists before leaving for the next table.

These media journalists were in attendance:

This led to much needed awareness for Nameless:

Press Lists from GDC
As an exhibiting member of GDC, you not only get the kiosk, but you also get a press list for all press that have registered themselves for GDC and opted in to be contacted. We were emailed by GDC early March and we immediately started milling out emails.

Again though, this may have been too late to have a strong impact on pre-awareness. All of these emails were effectively “cold-emails” during a time when everyone else was probably already bombarding them.

Many of them were not focused on mobile or were not Apple iOS related. Even so, a good number of them emailed back. We attribute our cold-email response rate to a video we found by Ben Kuchera from Nov 2011 on RunJumpDev:

We followed this advice while aggregating other things we learned online.

GDC Play Kiosk Mailing List Image

This led to more visibility for Nameless before and during GDC:

The press list also led to an interview with “Action” (that’s his name) from IndieGamePod. His site is titled “Experimental Game Dev Podcast Show”. Here's our interview with Action:

Effects on Sales: That's it? Lessons Learned
It's important to note that Nameless is a paid premium game in a niche JRPG segment that isn't highly sought after on the iOS store. We feel that if we had a freemium game, each of these media posts would have resulted in many more downloads.

Also, if we had the ability to do so, it would have been better to hold our game while giving exclusives to Journalists for one big push. We found out later these are called "Media holds". We didn't ask for this because we had already launched our game.

We imagine, if we better understood the Journalism landscape we could have given them a slow drip that may have built up a fan/hype base. If we could have compounded our original downloads from our silent launch with the power of multiple media sites on the same day, we would have been in a better position.

At our highest rank under All Games, we reached 120th. We wonder if we had better coordinated and planned our launch if we may have broken the 100th rank barrier.

Events and Networking
Similar to other industries, we recognized that simply exhibiting will not work. You must attend all the other events. You need to schedule meetings. This takes time and planning. Here's an additional list of everything we did as well:

Our Thoughts on GDC

  • We accomplished most of our original goals:
    • We're unknown, meet Journalists. Check.
    • Meet other developers. Check.
    • Be able to build 2-3 games with confidence. Check.
    • Better understand industy. Check
    • Build knowledge for our next game. Check
    • Could have planned our launch different. Next Game.
  • Worth the cost of exhibiting? For us, yes. We now have a pretty strong understanding of what we should try next. It's not guarenteed to work, but it's much more informed.
  • Everyone that walked to our Kiosk talked to us about the awesome talks happening upstairs. Part of us wish we weren't boothing and were in full attendance instead.
  • Next time, hope we don't need to count our expenses in # of apps we need to sell.
Next Upcoming Topics
We have the following topics we'll be also touching on in a few days. It takes a while to make these, we'll be posting until we're done.

We're adding a few more to the list since everyone seems to be enjoying this.
Check out our website: BoxCat Games

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Feel free to ask us anything in the comments. =) 

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