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A postmortem about taking Breaker Blocks, a tabletop game, to the 2016 SXSW Gaming Awards.
Jake Vander Ende
March 29, 2016
21 Min Read
I’m Jake, I run a solo studio called Spriteborne, and with the help of a laser I design, manufacture, and distribute original tabletop games from start to finish under one roof. This year one of my games, Breaker Blocks, was nominated in the 2016 SXSW Gaming Awards. Earlier this month I made the drive from the Philadelphia suburbs to Austin, TX, showing off my game at the show and vying for a community choice award.
This is a postmortem breakdown of my experience, including what went right, what went wrong, and what I think could be improved upon in the future.
My first game, Yomi's Gate, was nominated in last year's SXSW Gaming Awards. If you want to read about that experience, that article is here. I'm going to draw a few comparisons to last year's event, so it might be worth checking out.
SXSW is a city-devouring cultural event that takes over Austin, TX for about two weeks every March. It has multi-day events covering Film, Music, and Interactive, including movie premieres, live concerts, panels, comedy shows, meetups, and more. It truly encompasses the whole city, with the Austin Convention Center at its epicenter and various other events scattered all over Austin.
Gaming is a relatively new track at SXSW, having started just a few years ago while SXSW itself has been around for 30 years now. It's so new that "Gaming" isn't even on the signs strewn about the city, but more on that later. Right now, Gaming includes scattered talks throughout Interactive, with an exhibition show floor that's free to the public running for three days, capped off with the Gaming Awards ceremony at the end. My experience is with the show floor and Gaming Awards, so that's what I'm going to be talking about.
What Went Right
1. Gameplay to Sales Conversions
Breaker Blocks is one of those games where, for whatever reason, you have to play it to make sense of it. I think that’s probably going to be the case with any abstract strategy game, so at least I have the hook of, “I made literally everything you see here,” and the appealing “made with lasers” tag line.
The result, however, is that conventions and other in-person events become the way to make sales, and by extension pay the bills, so SXSW has been the biggest opportunity by far for me to make this happen. There are thousands of people at the show and at least several hundred came by the booth, with many of those sitting down to play the game. From there, the rate of conversion from seeing the game to playing the game to buying the game wasn’t as good as, say, a dedicated tabletop convention, but it was still far, far better than anything I can do online.
Between the short learning time, the $25 price point, and the bright colors to draw people in, I’m reasonably happy with the overall results of sales conversions at SXSW. I realize that’s a mundane point to make, but devs gotta eat and it's important that I remember and others know that there are people attending SXSW who do want to buy games.
2. Diverse Audience
I talked about this last year, too, and it’s one of the mixed blessings of SXSW still, but the audience at the event is a fairly broad one. Since the event is free to attend and concurrent with other aspects of SXSW, there are lots of people who are just passively into games. One of the things I say to people casually looking at my table/games is, “Do you like tabletop games?” and this is an event where many of those people are going to say something along the lines of, “Oh, not really” or “No, I don’t really play board games.”
With Yomi’s Gate, this created a sometimes insurmountable barrier to talking further, since that game is designed for people who like intense war games but don’t have time to play them. With Breaker Blocks, that was more frequently a great selling point for me, because the game is designed to be easy to learn and hard to master and shares some similarities with well-known games like Chess and Dominoes. Those design choices and marketing choices paid off consistently at this year’s event. As a result, appealing to the diverse crowd at SXSW cleanly falls into the “What Went Right” section this year. Depending on the kind of game you want to show, your mileage may vary wildly.
3. Layout and Planning
Compared to last year, the layout and planning for the show floor were drastically improved. Tabletop games were grouped together, multiplayer games were grouped together, single player games were grouped together, and there was an obvious spatial division between the loud bombast of one half of the show floor and the quieter Indie Corner.
Each Gamer’s Voice nominee got stage time this year, all planned and scheduled in advance, and there was minimal confusion about when to pack up and leave for the VIP party and Gaming Awards show on Saturday. All of these are major improvements from last year.
It would be hard to lay out the show floor better than it was this year. I think there are improvements to be made differentiating tabletop from digital, but more on that later in this post. I may have a positive bias here, having a terrible physical spot last year and an excellent one this year, but all in all the venue change and rearranging of this year's show floor felt like a major improvement.
The view from across the show floor.
This a fairly common thread with gaming conventions, but I feel like one of the most convincing reasons to do events like SXSW is the camaraderie you get from spending time with other developers and people involved with the industry in some form or another. I had the opportunity to meet people from other continents and that’s an opportunity only major events can create. You’re always going to bond with people at events, but SXSW continues to play a role in bringing people together from far, far away.
For my part in it, Austin made it easy to get developers together and effortlessly walk somewhere to food and drinks together.
5. Staff Responsiveness
I want to take an entire bullet point just to talk about how much I appreciate the responsiveness of the SXSW Gaming staff. Sydney, Estevan, and Justin are among the best people you could possibly hope to work with when you’re exhibiting at an event. I’ve gone to plenty of shows now and the default seems to be that as long as things aren’t literally on fire, organizers don’t have to be particularly involved one way or another. With SXSW, I feel like just about everything I talked about wanting to improve from last year was addressed in some form or another and that is spectacular. In terms of the overall trajectory of improvement, SXSW Gaming is absolutely going in the right direction under their leadership.
What Went Wrong
1. Experience Disparity
SXSW Gaming is still a weird place to bring your game because there are so many different things happening in one space. This year, even with ideal general layout, I still had a contemplative tabletop game next to the screaming, rabid fans enjoying Gang Beasts right next door. It was a great opportunity to provide a change of pace for people going from either of our tables to the other, but at the same time it was strange to reconcile two very different kinds of games in the same general area.
More importantly, it felt bizarre to be vying for the same award. “Multiplayer” is such a vague descriptor and doesn’t do a lot to convey the difference between sitting around a table to play games with your friends, sitting on a couch to play games with your friends, and playing online. There is absolutely some overlap, but I feel like there needs to be further delineation between digital and analog games, especially when digital games can offer game codes and giveaways that cost nothing to incentivize voting for the Gamer’s Voice community choice award and physical games don’t have such an option available to them.
When people watching Gang Beasts would stand in my booth space to do so, my approach was simply to ask them if they liked tabletop games.
This is a term borrowed from the fast food industry, but I feel like it applies here as well. The idea is that given a certain amount of time, how many people can you get to experience your product? It's stuffy and sterile, but I'm learning more and more that it's so very important at events like this.
I feel like in order to do well at busy, crowded conventions like SXSW, I need to work harder on getting more people to experience my game in the same amount of time. With a game this year that’s faster to learn and faster to play than the game I brought last year, I thought I was poised to do well both in terms of sales and in terms of getting more people to experience the game for the sake of voting in the community choice award I was nominated for.
Then I saw Gang Beasts, which did so many things right it made me realize my own process leaves a lot to be desired. With that game, there were often eight players playing at once and a giant crowd behind them watching the game and understanding exactly what it was all about just by looking at it. Compare that to Breaker Blocks, which up to four people could experience at once (two tables for two players each) and which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to onlookers who haven’t had the game explained to them.
As a numbers game, looking at number of players who experienced or understood my game and then funneling that into people who liked the game and then continuing to funnel that into people who experienced the game, liked the game, and were also likely voters in the awards, I truly didn’t stand much of a chance. I’m not complaining about Gang Beasts; I just have a lot to improve about my own game presentation. Maybe that means making a digital version of the game so people can play through automated tutorials. Maybe that means making better signage to show off how the game works. I'm really not sure. This is something I struggle with more than most aspects of game development.
3. Bizarre Awards
The Gaming Awards show last year was bizarre and it was just as bizarre this year. Highlights include a pre-show by an incredibly loud screamo DJ with a surreal shooter game on the main screen at the same time, a multiple-song intermission by an oddly dressed band that included a cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and a mid-show advertisement that was entirely composed of hip-thrusting. It was somehow even weirder than it sounds; I don’t have words to adequately describe the awards show. Given that the Gaming Awards are the reason that many of the exhibitors were at SXSW Gaming, the award show itself felt dissonant and at times incoherent.
It's not that ToughCoded and Starbomb were bad, it's that they were out of place given the context.
4. Poor Scheduling
This year SXSW Gaming rolled a 1 when it came to scheduling the event. It was scheduled during GDC, it wasn’t scheduled concurrently with SXSW Interactive, and it occupied a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday instead of the far more desirable Friday, Saturday, Sunday slot. As a result, most of the Austin game development community was out of town for the entire event, people who were in town for Interactive weren’t around anymore for Gaming, groups like Geek & Sundry left before Gaming even happened, and the high traffic of a Sunday was replaced with the much lower traffic of a Thursday.
I realize this is entirely out of my hands and mostly out of the hands of the organizers, working with a complicated and already crowded schedule alongside semi-associated Interactive, Film, and Music conferences happening around the same time, but that only makes the situation more understandable, not any better.
5. No Press
SXSW Gaming continues to have nearly zero press coverage. Nobody I talked to was interviewed by press, no SXSW Gaming press list exists (there is such a list for Interactive, Film, and Music), and I didn’t meet a single gaming writer myself.
Again, SXSW Gaming is a gold mine for members of the press, but right now it’s essentially 100% consumer contact for exhibitors. That makes it tough to make SXSW a financially sustainable event for people like me, since you either make back your expenses by selling games or you lose money going to the event; there’s no investment in future press coverage that could lead to indirect sales when the dust settles or attention outside of attendees themselves.
This void is partially filled by the presence of YouTube personalities and Twitch streamers, but it feels like those relationships are still in their nascence. I met a few people at after-hours bar time, but that had little to do with the event itself and more to do with individual efforts to hang out with people met at the show.
Perhaps that's symptomatic of the larger trends in gaming coverage as a whole, moving away from media conglomerates and towards individuals who all have a voice they want to broadcast. Even so, getting in touch with anyone at SXSW Gaming who might have interest in your game is incredibly scattered and almost impossible at the moment.
What to Improve
My chief request for improvement on the organizer side of SXSW is scheduling. Being scheduled during GDC made it incredibly difficult to pull attention away from that event. Not being scheduled during Interactive made it difficult to get the attention of anyone who did travel into Austin for such reasons, given that they were likely to leave town between the time Interactive ended and Gaming began. Not including Sunday on the schedule was a significant hit in foot traffic. Changing these things for next year should be the top priority.
Somewhat related to scheduling, I think there’s room for improvement in fostering the development and industry community during SXSW Gaming. One suggestion that comes to mind is taking the live performers from the Gaming Awards event and simply moving them to a pre-SXSW Gaming party. Invite developers, set up a space, and make a party out of it where people can meet each other, make connections, and bond before the event even starts. It doesn’t make sense to have a live band play a set in the middle of, or even immediately after, an award show, but moving those bands to a different time and venue and turning it into a party/mixer seems like it would be a much better use of that time.
Beyond scheduling, clear communication about what is at the event seems to be another obvious fix. For starters, there are SXSW signs all over Austin during the event, but they all say “SXSW Interactive Film Music” on them. Why isn’t “Gaming” on those signs? There are laptops set up to vote in the Gaming Awards during the show and they’re all in a perfect place, but none of them have signs on them and it’s not clear what they’re for; a simple “Gamer’s Voice Award : VOTE HERE” sign above every laptop or vertical banners in the general vicinity would make a huge difference in attendee participation.
Further, there was a big stage for Gamer’s Voice nominees to talk about their game, scheduled in 30 minute intervals throughout the entire event, but somehow the chairs were mostly empty the whole time. I don’t know how better to tell attendees that the stage exists and to let them know what was happening on it, but it largely seemed like people were only watching because the chairs were somewhere to sit for a while, not because any of the content was of interest to them.
Taken immediately before my time on stage.
Finally, better signage throughout would help immensely. I went most of the weekend not even knowing there was a tabletop room, for instance, because if there were signs for such a thing I definitely didn’t see them anywhere.
When you’re nominated in the SXSW Gaming Awards you get your choice of a Gold badge that gets you into Interactive and Film or a Music badge that just gets you into Music events. I would trade such a badge in a heartbeat for a parking pass. I spent $70 in parking to get to and from the event, since I stayed with a friend in the suburbs to avoid expensive hotels. It was the lesser of two evils, but allowing access to Music, Film, or Interactive while you’re already busy working at Gaming either means leaving Gaming or adding extra travel expenses to get into town before or after the Gaming part of the event; It would make so much more sense to help with parking, just to give one clear example that immediately comes to mind. I can’t say that I know of conventions that actually do this, but it doesn’t hurt to point out that it would definitely help.
Convention food was also overpriced and under-available, as it seems to be with any convention. On the first day I tried to get a $14 “meat plate” of southern BBQ, but they had entirely run out of food by 4pm, which seems bizarre for an event that runs from noon to 8pm. I went for my second choice of a hot sandwich at a different stand, but they too had run out of food. I settled on a pre-packaged chicken caesar salad and a 16oz soda, paying $12.25 for my trouble, and surreptitiously ate other food on day two and day three. This contrasts pretty strongly with the most recent major event I did, where the Smithsonian American Art Museum provided water, pastries, and sandwiches in a developer-only lounge. Even a quiet space, an empty room with tables and chairs, to eat away from the bustling crowd of the show floor would be a welcome improvement.
Last year SXSW Gaming had one “Gamer’s Voice Award” that encompassed all nominated indie games, including tabletop, single player, digital, VR, or whatever other descriptors you want to add. It made it very difficult for single- or two-player games to compete with four+ player party games, such as Speedrunners which won the award.
This year the award was split into Singleplayer and Multiplayer categories, which is very much a step in the right direction. Justin spoke at the award show about wanting to diversify their award categories, such as including Most Promising New Intellectual Property and the Matthew Crump Cultural Innovation Award, and I think that could go even further. I would suggest a Gamer’s Voice Tabletop category, given how different it is to make, play, and promote tabletop games compared to digital single player games and digital multiplayer games. It might also make sense to add a VR category, as the VR scene is currently blossoming and there have already been promising VR nominees like Soundself and Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes that similarly are in weird competition with other types of games.
The acceptance speech for Pandemic Legacy’s win of “Best Tabletop Game” said it best, which paraphrases to, “In a loud show floor of explosions and shooting things, thanks for noticing that our paper and cardboard bits and pieces also exist.”
The near-total absence of press at SXSW Gaming continues to strike me as bizarre and it seems like an area where dramatic improvements could be made. I don’t know if press simply don’t attend SXSW Gaming or if they do attend but aren’t part of any sort of database, but reaching out to the people who write or talk about games is something that deserves attention for future shows.
While officially gathering such a list would be ideal, I think this is something I individually need to do in the future as well. It’s far more difficult to do cold-call emails when you have no idea who’s going to be attending, but perhaps there’s still some mileage to be gotten from efforts there.
Conveyance and Throughput
My last point for improvement is about making my games even easier to understand to more people can play, and hopefully enjoy, them. Even a great game is destined for failure if it can’t be experienced and understood quickly and easily by new players. Perhaps this means doing digital ports of my games, giving some ground from the physicality of my games to allow for pre-programmed tutorials to teach the rules and an easier means of distribution. Perhaps it means making games that are easier to understand at a glance instead of leaning on abstract, minimalist strategy and intentionally murky war games with numerous, semi-related win conditions. It's hard to parse what makes my games good from what makes my games inaccessible, especially since sometimes that's the same thing.
I don’t think I could have done much better given the setup I had for this show, so this is largely a point about future game design and development.
All in all, SXSW Gaming 2016 was a positive experience for me. I showed Breaker Blocks to tons of new people, I got to talk to some people who actually already knew who I was through my work on Yomi’s Gate, I made new friends in the development community, and I had a lot of fun doing all of that. I was busy almost non-stop from the moment I got to Austin, but the rewarding experience of seeing new people play and enjoy my work is what makes game development worthwhile for me.
I want to thank a whole bunch of people. While my games are something I make start to finish on my own, such a thing wouldn’t even be possible without the wonderful people in my life. I’d like to thank, in no particular order:
Jeannette, for generously dedicating her time and energy to helping me prepare for and run my booth at SXSW, as well as her family for hosting me in their home while I was in town.
My parents, for their ongoing encouragement and support in doing this ridiculous game development thing.
Nadja, for her endless enthusiasm for Breaker Blocks and bottomless well of support.
Lex, for turning my words and pictures into an excellent instruction manual.
My GoFundMe backers, who helped make this trip possible.
Sydney, Estevan, and Justin for being an incredible team running SXSW Gaming.
Everyone who played my game at SXSW, especially those who loved Breaker Blocks enough to vote for it.
All of you who've bought my games, allowing me to trade my ridiculous ideas for your hard-earned money and time.
You, for reading this.
Jake is an independent game developer, using lasers to design, produce, and manufacture tabletop games under one roof. His most popular games are Breaker Blocks and Yomi’s Gate, both of which are available at Spriteborne.com. He can be found on Twitter as @jakeninja
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