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What we learnt at our first game expo

Taking your game to an expo for the first time is always going to be, well, messy. We did some messing up so that hopefully you won't have to! And we won't have to make those mistakes either on a bigger, international stage.
Originally posted on RetroEpic Software's own blog.

RetroEpic Software is a company that’s built on the understanding that not one of us employed here is fully an expert at anything. We’re all still learning and we’re very much expected to try things that we haven’t done before and – possibly – fail at them. Of course, if you learnt something from the experience, then it was never a failure and definitely not a mistake. Our first attempt at showing our games at an expo was always going to be, well, messy. This is exactly the point, which is why we decided it would be a fantastic idea to take the opportunity to be part of the Home_Coded stand at rAge in Johannesburg in October this year. Rather than wait until we felt ready to take on a much larger expo overseas, as well as the costs that involves, we could get an idea of what would be involved while keeping our risks low.

Home_Coded at rAge 2015 | RetroEpic Software

This meant that our goal when we decided to be part of the rAge expo was literally to learn what it involves to be part of an expo. We didn’t expect any bump in sales – and in fact we didn’t expect to even make up for the costs involved in getting us there and back – and as we already have a strong relationship with the press in the country we didn’t see this as a necessary networking event (though, of course, getting to chat to our press in person was still a great experience). This post, then, is going to focus specifically on the things we learnt from our very first experience of expo-ing for RetroEpic.

Budget

With no experience in the costs of these things, we estimated that we’d be spending about R10 000.00 (about $700) on the whole event. This would need to cover the following:

  • Cost of the Stand
  • Accommodation
  • Flights
  • Car Rental
  • Petrol
  • Food
  • Screen Rental*
  • T-shirt Printing
  • Sticker Printing
  • Poster Printing
  • Sweets

*After looking into screen rentals, we discovered that it would be cheaper to simply buy a screen at a local store and then leave it in Johannesburg rather than renting one from the expo team for the weekend. We then got in touch with friends at a local university who were willing to loan us a MAC for the weekend, which then solved both of those problems and saved us a bit of money.

Preparation Timeline

We were notified of the stand availability (specifically of the special price offered to local developers to be part of the Home_Coded stand – an opportunity we felt we didn't want to miss out on) in July. This left us August for preparations (t-shirt, sticker and poster designs along with arranging accommodation and flights) and game updates, and September for printing and last bug fixes. rAge was held in early October 2015.

Marketing Angle

Although, as I mentioned before, it was not specifically our goal to make sales or chat to press, a very important part of being at an expo is talking with the press about your products. And, so, you need to have something interesting to tell the press about your games so that they want to write about it. With our flagship title, A Day in the Woods, having already been out an available to the public since April, the game had already been covered by most of the local press. They’d already mentioned its unique selling points (beautiful art style, clever puzzle design, family friendly) so we needed to give them something more to write about. Ideally we would have loved to have added some more levels or a new mechanic, but time and resources were not on our side for that venture. Luckily, A Day in the Woods had already been designed, in 2011, with a Halloween theme. The theme needed a little bit of artwork updating but was otherwise ready to go.

A Day in the Woods | Halloween Theme | RetroEpic Software

With our other game, Ginjah, things were a little easier. This would be the first time that the press and public were going to get a hands on experience with the game. Although a few outlets had seen screenshots and a teaser trailer of sorts, there’s definitely something to be said about actually experiencing the sneakiness of the cat in the game first hand. 

Ginjah | RetroEpic Software

Something that we missed at this point in time: Although we had these things planned for the press at rAge, we didn't actually spend much time contacting the press beforehand to get them excited about either title. We did follow the instructions of the PR company and send them all of the details, but it really would have been better for us to have done a bit more legwork on this ourselves.

Things that went well before the expo

Accommodation, car rental and flights were booked for the two of us travelling to Johannesburg with relative ease. We’d both spent a fair amount of time in Johannesburg ourselves so we knew the area and what to expect. Our t-shirt, sticker and poster designs all came out looking fantastic. This is not least due to the fact that we have some fantastic artists on our team who take a huge amount of pride in everything they produce. We also landed up using some great printers who allowed lots of test prints and offered alternatives solutions when certain things weren't working.

Xavier | RetroEpic Software Tshirt

Things that went wrong before the expo

Of course, game development wouldn't be game development without the last minute unexplainable bugs. We had intended, and planned very carefully, to have the A Day in the Woods Halloween update live on 1 October to allow time for press releases and a little build up before the event. We’d even ensured extra lead time for the Apple review team and had got the whole game through the review period on iTunes only to have a reviewer get in touch with us about 2 major bugs (that hadn't shown up in any of our testing). Firstly, our main character, Little Red Riding Hood, had lost her textures and was first just black and then later, pink. The second bug would (thanks to a random rounding error in iOS) make some tiles in the game immoveable – making it now impossible to get past level three. All of this meant that the Halloween version was not going to be live by the time we hit the expo floor and we would be left just showing off the (now fixed) builds on the devices we had. Press would have to happen after the expo. Thinking that that would be the worst that could happen before the expo, we headed off to Johannesburg. Well, we had planned to, but we hit another snag when our flights out of Cape Town were delayed by nearly 2 hours. Having left enough time, by booking to travel a day earlier than we ultimately needed to, this wasn't a complete train smash. However, this problem happened to be coupled with my own cellphone experiencing sudden death syndrome. All of the contact details for the people we were meant to meet that day (and now wouldn't be able to) to collect our borrowed screen were on that device*. That cellphone was also connected to our social media accounts and meant we wouldn't be active on Twitter and Facebook or get as many photos as we had intended and we’d also be spending far too much time driving to Midrand and Boxburg to try and get the device repaired. *Luckily, there were two of us going which meant we did have a second phone and after phoning a number of people we were able to reschedule the collection for the next morning.

Things that went well at the expo

A Day in the Woods

In amongst the many, many stands that were targeted at your traditional gamer target market (teenage males), our stand stood out as a happy and inviting place. With our jar of fizzers and a table covered in stickers to grab, we were able to attract young gamers to the stand to try out the game allowing us time to chat to their parents about A Day in the Woods being suitable both for young kids and adult puzzle players alike. Having devices for people to try the game out on was also ideal as it’s difficult to show how truly interesting A Day in the Wood is from just a trailer. It also allowed us to show off the different aspects of the game, like the season changes and the unlockables. Choosing at the last minute to include a $1.00 off sale also gave us an extra talking point for both press and visitors.

Kids playing A Day in the Woods | RetroEpic Software

Ginjah

Again, our stand stood out from the others with bright colours and a massive laughing cat. It’s really easy to ask a person passing the stand if they like cat games or want to give it a try. One problem was that our stickers for Ginjah were apparently too awesome, and we had loads of people taking stickers without trying the game. Not sure where those will land up, but it was interesting! One of the best things about having Ginjah – a not yet released title – at rAge was the kind of feedback we got from visitors. This is the first time the game has really been out in the public and we got to see how much people enjoyed it and how they would bring back their friends to show the game (including the most dude-bro-y guys at the event, which was somewhat unexpected). Feedback that we get from other game designers is important but here we get to see what really actually matters – and sometimes I do think we are all over-thinking things a bit. People loved Ginjah as is. Though we are adding in few more features, the game is really ready for its release and it seems like we can expect a positive response.

Ginjah being played at rage 2015 | RetroEpic Software

Things that went wrong at the expo

A Day in the Woods

  1. Inconsistent branding

One of the biggest missteps we made – and a big one for me personally as the person who is meant to be actually managing the brand – was that we ended up with very inconsistent branding at our stand. I know how it happened: dividing work and focus for rAge amongst a bunch of people (one of who works remotely) without having a clear goal of what we wanted to achieve with the items at our stand meant that we just did (beautiful) stuff without putting it all together and making sure it would fit. For instance, our T-shirt designs are fantastic. They show off the detailed wood-carved artwork style Hunny is capable of, they’re t-shirts that will be attractive and wearable at other non-rAge events and so on, but they don’t make it look like we even belong to our own stand. If we didn't actually stand at our stand, no one would link our dark black t-shirts to the bright and colourful games we were showing off. The poster also showed Neal’s artistic talent and the dark spookiness of the Halloween theme, while the stickers that Xavier helped put together showed off the characters on the bright green summer theme. Put next to the game being played in Halloween mode – which is more purple than dark – and there is a serious disconnect

Inconsistent branding | RetroEpic Software

We realised this mistake by watching people interact with the stand. People clearly didn't connect the trailer images been played on the screen of A Day in the Woods (in all its green summer glory) with the dark Halloween poster or the purple-looking game being displayed on the iPads. They also didn't realise the stickers were for the game either. Our branding also did not match with the game icon on the game store pages – something we realised when people tried to purchase the game while at the stand and wanted to check with us that they were buying the right title. The bottom line: next time, the focus will be on having posters, sticker and t-shirts that are consistent with each other and the store pages - even if that means the same image repeated on all.

  1. Game title not prominent enough

We were asked countless times what the name of the game was. Even though it was written on the stickers and the posters, it clearly was not prominent enough. Perhaps even having the name at the top of the poster (as we did with Ginjah) would have helped.

RetroEpic stand at rAge 2015

  1. Company title not prominent enough

We were also asked numerous times what the name of our company was. While having the name of the company on the back of our t-shirts was a fine idea, it clearly didn’t work if people didn’t link our shirts to our stand. It also seems that the company logos on the posters were too small or poorly positioned for people to notice it there.

  1. No pamphlet with game details

A lot of the above point would have been somewhat solved if we’d had a pamphlet to give out. I actually picked up the pamphlet that fellow local developer, Made with Monster Love, was using for their game, Cadence, as a reference for future. Essentially, what we needed to provide people with was a piece of paper that included information about the game company, game title, social media links, stores available and so on so that people could pick up and read at their leisure. This also solves the problem of not being able to talk to each visitor to the stand individually – they can pick up a pamphlet and walk away and still have all your contact and game's detail. What did end up happening was that loads of people who came to the stand actually picked up my business cards (which were not quite made for the purpose of an expo) which we brought along only really to give potential clients and partners (as RetroEpic also makes games for other people).

  1. Signage did not include important details

None of our posters indicated that the game was on sale, where it was on sale, what the website address or social media links were. This was an incredible oversight and we eventually got paper and added more poster details to our stand on the Saturday.

rage 2015 | RetroEpic Software

10 Things we learnt at our first expo

  1. Start planning as early as possible: designing, printing, researching, takes time. Everything will take you longer than you expected it to. Rather have time to spare than not get the stuff done that you need to.
  2. Research: get as much info on the event, the people, the places etc as possible. And it’s important to do a lot of research! Consider that if you’re going overseas you may want to put a little time into researching climate, culture, transport, bugs*, other language phrases that could be useful, potential contacts etc.

*We actually had two sleepless nights in our accommodation because of a heatwave and our rooms not being air-conditioned. This meant windows open allowing a healthy team of mosquitos of attack us all night.

  1. Expect delays: Book flights with time to spare. Getting stuck at Johannesburg airport for 1.5 hours landed up costing us a whole half a day the next day. Rather be safe than sorry in situations where you are getting connecting flights or have booked important meetings.
  2. Bring spares: Cellphones, iPads, vital display devices, printed paper with details etc. With one cellphone going bust with all the contact details we needed as well as access to social media was problematic. Our iPad also didn’t charge fast enough to keep up with how much people were playing so having one extra device for rotation would have been smarter. Also, we were lucky that neither iPad broke at the event otherwise we would have had serious problems.
  3. Practice:Have a pitch prepared and try it out at events. Practising at other smaller events often (something we make sure we do whenever the opportunity arises) was extremely helpful and made talking to people about the games an easy thing to do. It also gets you prepared for the things you need to remember to bring, like extension cables and chargers.
  4. Be consistent and bold (with branding). This was our biggest take away from rAge and it’s definitely going to be our focus for our upcoming games.
  5. Have an angle: Figure out your marketing selling point and promote it. It’s important to have a focus for your stand, your pitch and your press chats. This goes hand in hand with the consistent branding.
  6. Press: Speaking of press – it’s important to be in touch with press before the event, set up a schedule to chat with them and ensure you have multiple copies of their contact details and your schedule (not just on one phone).

Generally speaking, as a game developer, you should be keeping in touch with press throughout the year so that they know who you are when you decide to pop into their area of the woods. This would mean they’d be more likely to set aside time to meet you at a local event.

  1. Pay attention: The best feedback you can get is visitors experiencing your game for the first time in front of you. Pay attention to what people are doing in front of you. No one said to us specifically, “Hey, your branding is in consistent”. We figured that out from the way they interacted with the stand. We also got to see what people loved and reacted positively to in each game – as well as negatively. There’s so much useful information in this experience that you just have to be alert to it!
  2. It’s a two man job. Finally, don’t go it alone. Having a buddy with you makes all the difference because you can back each other up, lend a hand, etc. Also, a man in a beard handing out sweets to little children doesn’t go down as well as a lady doing the same thing – so tag teaming for different visitors is ideal.

The damage

In the end, we landed up spending almost double our original planned budget with our total coming to about R19 000.00 (about $1400.00). Worth it, we think, for the education. Spending money | RetroEpic Software  

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