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The ups and downs of attending PAX South as an indie

Attending a big event is a tough decision for an Indie developer. If you are unsure if you should attend PAX South or how much it could cost you, maybe our experience can be helpful to you.

It was Thursday at 10pm, after driving all day to San Antonio, everybody was in a rush making sure the booth was up and running. We were tired from the trip, but most of all, we were anxious. What if people didn't dig into REalM: Walk of Soul? What if the media didn't like it? This game, this dream in which we've put all of our hearts into, what if only WE cared... We were happy to be at PAX South, but overwhelmed by those what if's. In the end, we are indies, if those what if’s do end up being true, that means all the money we spent will end up as a lost investment. Yet, as indies, we also know that some of the info we learned at PAX South can be highly valuable to our fellow devs that still can’t completely decide if the trip and money is actually worth it, so in here we’d like to share our experience at PAX South.

The Cost of attending PAX South

So, let's start with how much it actually cost us to be at PAX South.

Expenses

Cost

Booth

$1,200

Necessary items for the booth

$40

Game merchandising and cosplay

$1,200

Transportation

$200

Hotel

$620

Food

$200

Total

$3,460

 

Ok, first of all, the base cost to have presence at the venue. The smallest booth (the floor space itself) had a cost of $1,050, nevertheless, we were on an even smaller booth because we were selected to be part of the PAX Rising area. The event organizers told us PAX Rising hosted some of the most promising indie games at the event (which made us feel awesome :D). All the three games published by Games Starter had the chance to get our booths right next to each other: Flat Kingdom, Lobo with Shotguns, and REalM: Walk of Soul (we also met the developers behind Invisigun Heroes, they are awesome!). So the cost of the actual booth/half-pod was $1,200, including the space and the banners for the game. It was slightly more expensive than a 10x10 feet (3x3m) booth, but it already included its “embellishment!” remember, floor space it’s not going to look awesome by itself, it will have a cost, that cost for us was $150, so to speak.

 

Left: Our booth/half pod at PAX South. Right: Part of the PAX Rising Area.

Next we have the costs for the booth itself, or rather the cost to have the game played. We showcased REalM: Walk of Soul on two computers (the pods are small, so you can’t fit that much into them) and used a screen that rolled the trailer over and over so that people passing by could get a quick glimpse of the game. Now, we wanted players to not only experience Walk of Soul, but to immerse themselves into it, and for this we needed the game to run perfectly and look as beautiful as possible. To do so, we brought 2 iMacs we have back at the office (in Monterrey, Mexico) in order to cut expenses. Now, before you think we have lots and lots of money because of the iMacs, let me tell you that we actually paid $300 for each of those 2 years ago, thanks to a government financial aid program to support local startups. We believe, the best way to play REalM: Walk of Soul is with a PS4 controller, in part because we like it and also because the game is coming out for PS4/Vita, it features button prompts related to the DualShock 4. We used our own controllers so we didn’t have to buy new ones, and yes, we were driving ourselves crazy thinking about what if they got stolen, after all, there was going to be a lot of people and someone could take them while we weren’t watching, I mean, I use those controllers to play in my house, of course I was paranoid. Nevertheless, nothing happened. Next we have the sound related experience. We knew there would be lots and lots of noise, so it would be next to impossible to hear Walk of Soul while you were playing and even if you could hear, the trailer would take central stage in there, in order to steal people’s sight and ear. To solve this issue, we bought two pairs of headphones. We opted to buy new ones instead of using the ones we had for 2 reasons:

1) to have both look the same (well similar, since they were different colors)

2) because we knew people wouldn’t just use some old and dirty headphones

So, all in all, we ended up spending only $40 on the headphones, but we had to bring our computers from Mexico. By doing so, we had to travel by car, there was no other way, but we’ll talk more about that later.

Next comes the merch stuff. I know you will say, don’t use swag, use your game to impress people, and you are totally right, I’m with you, but I’m encompassing all extra stuff into this section and trust me, there is some swag you definitely want to have around. Presentation cards, flyers, some stickers, the t-shirts I used during the event and a cosplayer as Iris (REalM: Walk of Soul’s main character), everything had its price and you shouldn’t go to a PAX without a minimum amount of that stuff (well, you don’t need a cosplayer, but that is a living and breathing person, not stuff ¬¬, just had to clarify before someone said something about it). So, about a thousand presentation cards, around 5k flyers, add some stickers to the mix, 4 polo shirts (trust me, polo shirts look way better than simple shirts and please don’t try to save some bucks by using the same shirt all 3 days of the event). Add the travel expenses and hotel for an extra person (the cosplayer), and without disclosing how much our now great friend Ryuu Lavitz charged us, the game merchandising rises to around $1,200.

So, the event is covered, next is, how do we actually get there? Or as you might call it, transportation. Since we are relatively close to San Antonio, we could travel by car. Luggage, computers and people crammed up in two cars, taking into account the gas cost to get to and back from San Antonio, we get to around $60. Add up around $25 per day of parking, around $40 of border expenses (travel permit, border fee, etc) and we get $200 of travel expenses. That amount was actually pretty small compared to what we would have spent should we’d traveled by plane, and it allowed us to take our own hardware to PAX South from our studio in Monterrey.

As to how would we survive those nights at San Antonio? Well, the hotel was around $580 for the four days. I don’t think I can say a lot about this section besides trying to stay in a place that is near the convention center, but not like in front of it since the rate can double that amount. Instead we opted to be a little bit further and take a cab from the hotel and back there (some members of our team opted to run every morning), which made the other $40 of the $620. Just one advice, don’t think that because you have a car, you can save the cab fare, it was actually cheaper for us to take one. The parking was a per day toll, so we had to pay that even if we took the car away and there was literally nowhere near the convention center to park, we would have to pay a second per day basis parking, soooo, please just take a cab or use public transport.

As for food, well, if I recall correctly, I ended up spending around $40 per day. I know I could have spent less, but in here we end up with a cost-benefit problem, let me elaborate. You are going to be standing three days straight, from 9am to 6pm, 9 hours almost in a row, standing. My feet are still hurting to this day… But back to the point. After 6pm, you will most likely go with other devs to talk, drink, or to one of the PAX parties for exhibitors, and it’s very important to attend those, because networking is key in this industry. So, you are going to want to sleep as much as you possibly can, given all those limitations. So, you won’t want to, no, let me rephrase that, you do not want to get up a little early to go find someplace to have breakfast, just take it in the nearest place to your hotel (or at your hotel, if you can). Remember, you need to be at a 100% in the expo floor so you can greet people and media with enough energies and without feeling like your feet are literally going to explode at that precise moment. Next we have the food at the expo, you could get a decent meal for $10, but add an extra bottle of water and coffee along the day and you’ll be spending around $16 in food for each day. If we put an extra $8 for dinner, we are at a total of $40 per day per person.

So, all in all, we are standing at a whopping $3,460. To an indie, that’s a lot of money. To a Mexican indie, that’s a huge lot of money. If you are from the US, so you can have an idea of how much that quantity is over here in Mexico, let me just tell you that the minimum wage is ten times higher in the US. So for us that was it, just remember that we reduced lots of costs by bringing our own hardware and by traveling by car.

How we made it to PAX South

Ok, so how did we save up even more money to get to PAX South? Well, in our case, we are working alongside the Mexican folks at Games Starter (GS), an indie game publisher and incubator (awesome guys by the way) and I have to say, if it wasn’t for them, it would have been next to impossible to get there, but that’s not how we saved more money. GS is also working with another Mexican indie studio, Fat Panda Games, who are working on the 2.5D platformer Flat Kingdom (which has an awesome soundtrack by Manami Matsumae) and heavy grindhouse culture inspired beat’em up called Lobo With Shotguns. It happens to be that both of their games were chosen to be exhibited at PAX Rising too. Which meant: Road Trip!!! (or sort of). So, we all traveled in two cars (people from Walk of Soul, Flat Kingdom, Lobo and Games Starter) with computers for all 3 pods and everything we needed. We are a little happy dev family.

 

Our little family, or those that could attend to PAX South: Rocha, Jesús Fabre, Edgar Marez, Jerry Rodriguez, Analu, Lex Garza and Homero Flores

 

What went right for REalM: Walk of Soul

So, now that I’ve talked about the expenses we had and how we actually got to San Antonio, it’s time to talk about what went right for REalM: Walk of Soul. At PAX South, we found 3 different kinds of  public: consumers, media and twitchers/youtubers.

 

Breaking their heads and writing down all the hints of a riddle in one of Walk of Soul’s puzzles.

The first of them are the actual people that are going to buy your game. They are the ones that will give you some of the most important feedback you’ll get, your End Users, and their opinion is very important, why?, I already told you, because they are the ones that will buy your game. Listen to them, what do they like the most?, what do they dislike?, what would they like to see? Their input is extremely valuable whether they played the game or just walked by and didn’t even notice your trailer (this last one is very important, since even though they won’t say anything, if no one is looking at your trailer, then be careful, because it may lack some juiciness).

The second kind of visitors you’ll get were tagged as media in their badges. Remember when I told you networking is key in this industry? Well, you may want to talk to them about your game, my advice is to not oversell it, be honest about what you are presenting and also be kind and treat them like any other colleague visiting, enjoying and (at times) suffering a big convention. They are the ones who will get your game covered by sites and or on their channels (streamers/youtubers). If one of this guys likes your game, she/he will remember it, and maybe talk/write about it, probably reaching lots and lots of people, not just those at the event.

Last, but not least, we have the twitchers and youtubers. These guys (and girls) are somewhat in between the first two. They can be end users, so their input will always be awesome, but they will also want to play your game in front lots and lots of other end users, so they’ll be like the media guys, but without writing articles about your game or interviewing you.

So, how did the public influence what went right for REalM: Walk of Soul? Well, people loved the game (those that are into this kind of game). They got trapped by the visuals, and as soon as they wore the headphones, they got lost in the game’s world. We had lots of interviews and people from the media were falling for the game. We got to meet the awesome crew of CONtv, Tiny Cartridge and many more who were interested in talking about the game

The guys from IGN interviewed us (I still can’t believe it) and Mashable wrote about Walk of Soul as one of the top 10 indies at PAX South. Now, talking about streamers, many of them were actually at the event looking for indie games to play and see if they’d be a nice fit for their channels. We had the chance to meet Krystalrayne and Manofwarjf2 among others. Very nice and interesting people, but above all, passionate about what they do and, hopefully will play Walk of Soul someday. What does all of this mean? well, I know our game is not the next CoD since it’s a niche game, but at least we got a seal of approval from those that are actually our players. So all in all, it was awesome!!! :D

 

What went wrong for REalM: Walk of Soul

Well, now that we talked about all the awesomeness that happened to us at PAX South, it’s time to talk about what went wrong. So let’s go. Walk of Soul is a game that thrives on immersion, anguish and psychological perturbation. You’ll have to let yourself go into this place we’ve crafted just for you in order to enjoy it. And as we’ve stated before, people were losing themselves into it, nevertheless, it’s hard to do so if your feet hurt because you’ve been walking for 1 or 2 days looking at all the great games at PAX. We couldn’t have chairs in the area due to the space at the PAX Rising area, and that really hit us.

An awesome experience for the PAX Rising’s studios.

Next, the space. Oh my god, the space. As I mentioned before, we had 2 computers to play. Big mistake. Again, our game likes to take its time, to make you think, and play for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Having said that, people were actually playing for 30 minutes to 1 hr! So what’s the problem? Well, imagine you are next in line, you’ve been waiting for around 30 minutes and you can’t still play the game… You ARE going to leave. So, people gathered around, lets say 10 people, and then they left… Lots of them got back later and had a chance to play, while lots of them came back to find people playing and tried again later or the next day. As to how to actually solve this problem, I have no idea how to do it in an easy and, at the same time, affordable way. The first thing to do would be to use smaller monitors in order to put up several PC’s, but that would mean bringing for example, 5 PC’s. Well, we don’t have 5 PC’s, we have a mix of PC’s and Mac’s. Maybe using laptops, problem is, we want the game to run as smooth as possible, so unless we use really good ones, they won’t be as good, meaning we would need to get some good ones, which goes completely out of budget. Another idea that was thrown away was to put a timer and limit the time players can play, it could work given the limitations, but I’m not fond with the idea of telling players to please stop playing. If you have better ideas on how to solve the playing session time dilemma we are all ears (or eyes, as we would read your comments).

What did we do? Well, we improvised a third station using one of our laptops, my headphones and an extra wired xbox 360 controller Iwas carrying around for emergencies, and although it helped a lot, 3 were still too few. In the words of the guys in charge of the PAX Rising Area (thank you a lot for everything Kevin and Kyle), our game actually needed a booth with three times more space, be kind of isolated and have chairs or somewhere to sit.

Another of the problems was the number of people that could take full care of the booth. One thing is to receive and greet people that were playing the game, and a very different one is to be able to give interviews. In our case, we were 1 and a half :D. Me and Jesus Fabre, our PR guy, well, PR guy for Games Starter, so he divided his time between the three games. So, word of advice, you want 2 or 3 people fully prepared for everything at the booth. Next time I’ll be sure someone else from the team with good communication skills can make it to the convention.

Moving on, we had a huge problem with the stickers and the flyers. The organizers told us that people were just taking stickers to put them on the walls, not just ours but from other devs too. At this point we had to take out the stickers from the booth and started giving them to only those that liked the game (we also had to ask them to please not stick them in the walls). And the flyers, we made a huge mistake with them. We only printed the front side. Literally every single person I handed a flyer turned it around to see what was on the other side. It was white, blank. Also, Walk of Soul is a surreal and cryptic game, so a simple image, a logo and the platforms weren’t telling anything. So, if you are taking flyers to PAX, print on both sides. And very important, if you are making a narrative game like REalM: Walk of Soul, try to use both sides to show the uniqueness and narrative of it.

Finally, get used to it, you are going to lose sensibility of your feet. Get the most comfortable shoes you can. If they are $100, they are well worth it. I used my normal shoes and I regret it. I wish I bought new and comfy shoes just for the show, the investment is totally worth it.

The good points of attending PAX South

  • If you sharpen your senses, you could end up attracting some journalists/youtubers/streamers to your booth and potentially get some interesting coverage.

  • Thousands of very receptive and proactive (giving feedback and suggestions to us) gamers.

  • Great place to do networking with other fellow developers, meeting and hanging out with other devs, that was one of the greatest part of PAX.

What could turn you away from attending PAX South

  • The cost, even though is not that much, I know that each dollar matters for us.

  • It’s a gamble. There is no guarantee that you are going to get covered by a big press site or famous youtuber/twitcher.

  • You are going to wish feet transplant existed and no matter if you have stop eating for a year to pay it.

 

Conclusions: Is PAX South actually an event worth to attend for an independent developer?

All in all, attending PAX South in the end was a gamble for us. In our case we got lots of coverage (IGN, Mashable,...), but we are also aware that not all games did so well. Nevertheless, all the feedback given by the players proved invaluable to us.

So, is it worth it? Yes. Totally. Period. You’ll tell me, but didn’t you say it was a gamble? Yes, but this gamble can only be done a very limited number of times in the year at PAX East or Prime, E3, GDC, Gamescom. And not only that, but we are close to launch and couldn’t afford to miss the opportunity of attending an event like that near home. There is only one place where you can really show your game to media and the public for a relative low price (if your game gets in one of those booths with multiple indies, i.e. PAX Rising, Indie Megabooth, etc), and that’s at these events. Also, if you happen to not get any attention at all, remember, you will still be learning a lot from all the feedback given by people playing your game, players from all ages and colleagues. And with their input, be sure to make not a great game, but an awesome game for your gamers.

It’s been a long article, so to end this, I’ll just leave here this:

TL,DR - If you are an Indie dev with a game in an advanced development state, you want to go to PAX.

Thanks a lot PAX South, from: REalM: Walk of Soul’s dev team :D

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