I’m Scott Brodie, Founder & Creative Director at Heart Shaped Games. Our team recently returned from running its first PAX East booth, and since we benefited from the advice of other indies, I thought I’d share our experience too. This was our first booth at a major convention despite being in business for 8 years, so it was a big step and investment for the studio to make. If that wasn’t daunting enough, we decided to also surprise announce our new game, We Are the Caretakers, on the first day of the show! So was it a good decision? This article captures everything we did in preparation, how much it cost, and how we feel it went.
Getting In The Door
The first hurdle we faced was figuring out how to get booth space at all. We submitted to the Indie MEGABOOTH and various showcases but were not selected. We reached out to the major platforms and indie collectives, but were a bit early for those opportunities to work out in time. We eventually got traction by contacting the conference directly through their online form and buying our own 10 x 10 space. This was a pleasant surprise, as we had contacted PAX in the past for our previous game Hero Generations, but did not receive a reply. It was early validation that perhaps We Are The Caretakers was a more immediately appealing game.
The booth location we were assigned turned out to be great spot. We were also lucky to be located near a few larger booths (Team 17, Nintendo, Larian Studios) and positioned at the end of a long “T” intersection. The location gave us great visibility and foot traffic for all four days.
We designed the booth to meet three goals:
1. Generate as much awareness as possible that our new game exists
2. Get feedback on our demo to validate our unique game loop is fun and working
3. Connect with a core audience of early adopters and kickstart our community
Some things we also explored but ultimately deprioritized were selling merch and selling game keys for our back catalog of games. Both may have helped us offset some of the booth costs, but focusing the booth on WATC ultimately was the right call. (note: one thing we did do was add a small “from the creators of Hero Generations” sign. This helped us meet some Heart Shaped Games fans and let everyone else know this isn’t our first game)
To support the awareness goal, we focused on building attractive key art, and having our game title be visible from every angle. We created a large back banner and 3 smaller pull-up banners, with text logos at the very top (for visibility above the crowds in front of the booth). We splurged on a more expensive stand for the larger banner, instead of a cheaper hanging one. The other larger expense we made was a TV stand so we could show our trailer above the crowd as well.
I’m happy to say this design ended up working exactly as planned. Not everyone could stop by to play, but everyone that passed by had an easy view of our key art, trailer, and logo as they walked by.
This is the end result:
Travel, Costs, and Booth Setup
Most of our team works remotely. Kate and I are based in Michigan, so we opted to drive the 13 hours to Boston to save on the costs of flights and shipping. We also opted to setup and teardown the booth ourselves. Driving lead to some additional savings, as we could bring a few big items we already owned (TV, 2 computers, tools, etc).
The convention center pricing was unsurprisingly expensive, so we strongly advise doing as much as you can by yourself as possible. Some specific things to keep in mind if you go this route:
- Bring tools! We brought a power drill and every other tool we could fit in a small tool bag. We ended up loaning them out to a lot of our booth neighbors who forgot.
- Think about loading/unloading. We DID NOT bring a pull cart, and when we asked the convention for one, they quoted us $125 per load! We made it work and carried in a few heavy items, but setup could have gone a lot faster had we thought ahead. Thankfully, our booth neighbor let us borrow theirs for teardown, and we learned our lesson for next time.
- Buy a car power inverter: This one is a little specific, but I was able to stay productive and manage some of the announcement tasks on our drive by having power in our car. Best $30 I ever spent :)
- Look into hardware sponsorship. We tried and failed to get PCs sponsored for our booth, but saw a few others that did. We ended up bringing two of our work machines and then returned two purchased laptops after the show. Everything worked out, but I would have preferred avoiding the risk our own machines getting damaged or stolen.
Below is our full cost breakdown of everything that went into traveling to Boston and running the booth:
PAX East 2019 Total Costs
The total cost ended up at $5,834.67. There are a lot of ways this could be optimized to be cheaper, but I think budgeting 5–6k for your own 10x10 booth at PAX East is a good range to expect.
We knew announcing alongside running the booth was going to be hard, so we spent a lot of time preparing as a team. We started creating our announcement trailer about 5 months ahead of the show. We created our website, steam landing page, press kit, and game discord 2 months before, and went through rounds of feedback. We sent embargoed emails to major press outlets 3 weeks in advance, and a reminder 3 days before. We attended GDC the week prior and let people know we were announcing something new at PAX East.
The result of the announcement was nothing short of amazing. Our launch tweet went viral, our trailer has 11k views in 2 weeks time, and a few major press outlets such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun have already done preview coverage.
As we found over the course of the weekend, a lot of that online hype we created fed into more in-person visits for demos from fans, streamers, and press we hadn’t contacted directly. We Are The Caretakers was one of the few truly new games at the show, and it lead to a lot of knock-on interest. We can’t prove it, but given we are a small studio without a large built-in audience to lean on, we feel all in all combining our announcement with a major convention booth ended up helping our awareness.
The obvious major downside is of course that we were just a biiiiit exhausted by the end of the show. Having to run the booth stations, greet new visitors, keep up with social media, press inquiries, and all the announcement activities online from our booth was like drinking from a firehose. We prepared and had a great reception, but we likely missed a few opportunities on the first day by being so stretched. Having more than 2 people at the booth, and a dedicated PR/Marketing person to help book appointments and manage social media would have made things less stressful. We’re hoping to find help with that as move along in development (and contact us if you’d like to help!).
We weren’t completely alone though. I want to give a quick shout out to BostonFIG and the 2 amazing people that helped with demos and spelled us for breaks. We couldn’t have done it without your help.
Running The Booth
There are 4 big considerations for running your booth effectively:
1. Attraction & “walk by” appeal
2. Pitching and greeting visitors
3. Running demos
4. Highlighting your call-to-action
Here’s how I think we did on each.
Attraction: this one is pretty straight forward. Our artist Anthony Jones killed it. Our key art, characters, and trailer brought people to our booth wondering what our game was all about.
The Pitch: Explaining your game for 4 days to 100s of people sure does help you refine your elevator pitch. The most effective short pitch for getting visitors to play the demo ended up being “A sci-fi squad management RPG much like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, where you lead a force called the Caretakers to protect endangered animals.” There is enough there to give a sense of what the game is about, what makes it unique, but without overwhelming with details. Conventions are a great way to discover the heart of what’s interesting about your game to a game-playing audience, and what motivates people to want to play.
Demo: We included 4 playable PC stations because we knew our demo ran long and people needed time to learn our strategy mechanics. Each station had a monitor on a monitor stand, and we bought 4 comfortable padded chairs and 2 additional stools. We were advised by a lot of other indies to set things up this way because the stations had to be useful not only for individuals, but the groups they might be traveling with. Our demo stations were full all weekend and I think making them comfortable played a non-insignificant part.
A few specific things we learned about running demos at PAX EAST:
- Create help cards with info on controls and basic game goals. We did this but our text was a little too dense to be useful. But these somewhat helped us not have to repeat ourselves over and over throughout the weekend.
- Make the demo easy to reset. We were so early that we had to close the game down and reset it for each visitor. It added an extra thing to manage that we could have avoided.
- Be ready to iterate and have coding help away from the booth. We noticed some common points of confusion and need for tutorials that we hadn’t implemented yet. We didn’t get fixes for those until day 3 due to everything else we were juggling, but it helped us learn additional things about our game.
- Make it clear what state your demo is in. We had a pretty unanimous positive response to our alpha demo, but the few bad experiences seemed to come from players that had the wrong expectations about how finished the game was. We added “this demo is very early, so let us know if you have any feedback” to our pitch, and most demos went smoothly thereafter.
- Consider controller support in addition to keyboard for PC games. There is a group of players at PAX East that are simply against touching a keyboard. If we could do it over again, we’d add some baseline controller support to get even more people to check out the game.
Call-to-Action: We wanted to get people to Wishlist the game on Steam, join our Discord, join our mailing list, share our announcement, and look at our merch. We quickly realized this was too much to ask for folks seeing our game for the first time. We ended up focusing on just Wishlists and the Discord after the first day.
One thing that saved us here was making small business card-sized cards that had our key art, website, and “wishlist on steam” printed on them. We had purchased 500, and handed out 450 on the first day! We scrambled to get 1000 more printed, and handed nearly all of them out by Sunday.
We see a lot of ways to improve for next time, but by being flexible we were able to get a lot of people to check out the game and follow us after the show.
Was It Worth It?
While we won’t know for sure if all of the awareness we generated will translate into sales later, we feel confident announcing from PAX East for our game was completely worth it. We know we’ll need people to see our game multiple times before they are ready to buy, and our booth gave us the chance to make A LOT of good first impressions. Additionally, a big part of the benefit of attending conventions is about the chance to make personal connections. Connections with those first followers that will help you grow, and hopefully that small group of streamers, journalists, platform representatives that can help kickstart your word of mouth. We think we made enough of those connections that easily justify the time and cost.
I hope this postmortem helps you make a decision about showing at a major convention. If you found this helpful, consider wishlishting We Are The Caretakers on Steam and joining us on Discord. If you liked this article and want to learn more, I’ll be posting a follow-up article on how we put together our animated announcement trailer.