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Make It Work: A PAX Event Postmortem from a New Indie Publishing Label’s POV

by Cassandra Khaw on 04/24/15 01:43:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Ysbryd founder and commanding general Brian Kwek says: 

 

I, together with Cassandra Khaw, run a boutique publishing label called Ysbryd Games. We’re in the business of helping indie game studios with ambitious and charismatic projects procure funding, and we also battle by their side at the frontlines of PR and marketing. The latter, in particular, involves us coordinating the set-up and execution of a serviceably attractive booth to exhibit our partners’ games at shows like PAX, Gamescom, Eurogamer Expo. At least, that was the running idea.

 

Here’s the thing – we’re pretty much the new kids on the block. Our company just came into being in 2014 and we inked deals with most of our partners toward the tail end of the same year.  So, PAX East 2015 was to be our first rodeo.
 

Although we had a pretty rough idea of what we needed to achieve, Cassandra and I had never dealt with setting up a booth meant for the offerings of multiple games. We set ourselves some leeway in our budget in anticipation of having to eat a costly lesson or two, but even then, there were great horrors to come.
 

(Spoiler: It all worked out in the end, but man, it was freaky.)
 

We’ll walk you through how we planned and ordered logistics before the actual lead-up to the event, then how we actually set up and learned in the actual days of PAX, before summing up total expenses. Hopefully, if you’re a mid-sized game dev or marketing type in the business of setting up booths, you can learn something from what we went through!

 

Planning & Ordering
 

The first set of logistical obstacles was handled in this order: accommodations, booth rentals, booth furnishings, and transport (particularly flights),
 

Accommodations

We knew we would have at least 3 separate teams attending the show to exhibit 3 different games. These games would turn out to be YIIK: A Postmodern RPG (by Ackk Studios), Masquerada: Songs and Shadows (by Witching Hour Studios), and VA-11 HALL-A (by Sukeban Games). There was to be a fourth game but… legal stuff happened.
 

We didn’t have any friends in Boston who would be able to put up 3 separate teams of two to three people for what would turn out to be 6 nights. We’d briefly considered renting a big Airbnb house type of thing, but there was nothing available for the dates that would’ve been near enough to the BCEC convention center.
 

This meant we needed hotel rooms to house the 3 teams (plus Cass and I, of course). AND we would want the hotel to be as close as possible to the PAX venue – in this case, the Westin Boston Waterfront. Any hotel connected to a PAX venue is notoriously difficult to book.
 

We invoked some dark sorcery to land ourselves 3 rooms in the Westin, plus one more room in a separate hotel at the InterContinental, as Ackk Studios ended up needing a reasonably bigger room to cram 5 team members into.
 

Booth Rentals

We elected to get a 600 sqft space. Comfort is a big deal to gamers; nobody likes being mashed up into a tiny-ass table. We envisioned having about 10 separate stations spread across four games (later reduced to three).
 

I was pretty stressed out about booth availability being blocked up by exhibitors from 2014’s PAX East, who got to make their priority booking in early October 2014 ahead of new exhibitors like ourselves.
 

However, if you’re renting a booth of THIS size, it’s unnecessary to worry so much until maybe the end of November, as we found out later. A lot of developers and publishers – even big AAA companies – don’t really put down the moolah to lock in their booking with ReedPOP until later on, so if you’re able to pay up earlier, you can likely forgo a lot of that stress.
 

At 600 sqft, that’ll ring you up US$13,200.
 

Booth Furnishing

In the hopes of taking a load off our minds, we originally thought about having a third party events company handle of the entire logistics process for booth setup and teardown. However, when we started making enquiries about this in December and January… We received quotations from US-based events companies to the order of US$80,000 just for set-up. That’s murder for anyone without an AAA marketing budget! Preposterous. This also meant we definitely had to figure out everything ourselves.
 

Ysbryd is principally headquartered in South-east Asia (between Malaysia and Singapore), not North America. This immediately introduces a significant obstacle that most American devs do not contend with: having to buy or rent nearly every goddamned thing used at the show, because you don’t live there and you don’t own anything you might conceivably be able to bring to the show by hand or by freight.
 

(American indies would experience this phenomenon when they try to attend a show like Gamescom. Also this is why I believe precious few have attended Gamescom aside from the Indie Megabooth’s showing last year.)
 

We mitigated this situation with the help of one of our partners, Ackk Studios, who were super helpful in allowing us to ship a few boxes of stuff we’d ordered from Amazon over to their place in New Jersey. They brought the boxes along in their car during the actual event. You might be able to achieve something similar by having Amazon ship to your hotel as well, but the ability to do this may depend on your hotel, so YMMV.
 

In the planning phase, a lot of grief went into figuring out how the booth layout should be set up. Should we do it arena-style, allowing all game demo stations to be visible from all angles and hopefully encouraging gamers to roam from game to game and try all of Ysbryd’s games? We eventually decided to keep it simple and form up the booth space like this.
 

Macintosh HD:Users:briankwek:Desktop:Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 12.12.45 AM.png
 

A very brief list of the big items that are present in this diagram:
 

  • Two giant banners for our “headline” games (both produced in Singapore for US$3,271 total and checked-in during our flights from Singapore to Boston)

  • Eight 6’ tables (this became six 8’ tables later, rented for US$686 total)

  • 10 yellow ottoman cubes for seating (rented for US$1,298 total)

  • 10 Windows laptops, hooked up to 32” TVs, headphones, and controllers or keyboards + mice, for game demos (see spreadsheet for breakdown)

  • Two larger 60” TVs to be elevated from the center and show off game footage/trailers (rented for US$2,390 total, including truss hardware)

  • A private area for storage, demarcated by 8’ black drape walls
     

Make a mental note of the two large TVs. At this point we’ve not figured out exactly how the hell we’re going to raise those TVs above the 8’ black drape. The TV rental people, Reaction AV, advise us to rent a 12’ truss tower to get this done. Being generally ignorant of the situation as first timers, this makes perfect sense. The manager at Reaction AV assures me that their people working the PAX floor will give us guidance as to how we can get those TVs up manually on the truss tower. We think to ourselves, we’ll wing it and it’ll all work out. Right?
 

Transport/Flights

Thankfully, Ackk Studios being in New Jersey meant they were no more than 4 hours away from Boston by car. We didn’t pay for their gas but we certainly bought them dinner, if that equates to any sort of equitable exchange.
 

The other two developers were obviously more expensive and potentially arduous to bring over, with Witching Hour being in Singapore as well, and Sukeban being in Venezuela (plus their composer based in Alabama). We locked in Witching Hour’s tickets pretty early with Delta, so that cost as much as you’d expect airtickets from Asia to Boston to be. (US$1,943 for two tickets)
 

On the other hand – we weren’t prepared for how difficult it would prove to get Sukeban out of Venezuela. In hindsight, we should have known that we ought to budget something like 5 months in lead time so partners in less developed countries with shitty government bureaucracy can get a hold of things like passports and visas.
 

When we realized this a week out from the show, we roped in Sukeban’s PS Vita porting partner, Wolfgang Wozniak of Wolfgame, to help out with manning the booth together with Sukeban’s composer, Michael. That’d be that, right?
 

Ha.
 

On-site Prep

Cassandra and I arrived in Boston on the evening of March 3rd, giving us a full 2 days to complete preparations on site before PAX Day 1 on March 6th. Did we need that much time? In hindsight, maybe not. We gave ourselves a very comfortable amount of time that didn’t require us to rush for anything. This probably comes at the cost of an extra night in our hotels, but as first-timers, I recommend having buffers for your mental comfort, especially if you’re planning to do stuff like buy furniture from IKEA instead of renting. (PS: Disposal is a pain in the ass.)
 

Why did we theoretically not need 2 full days? For starters, The Freeman Co. (the guys who run logistics for everything on site) didn’t deliver quite a bit of our rented stuff to our booth location until close to the end of the first day. These kind of dependencies are unpredictable, and led to us spending most of our first day running errands like picking up stuff from the print shop and other miscellaneous items we’d forgotten to buy, which could have being accomplished on the second day by way of delegation.
 

At the end of 2 days’ set up, this is what each side of the booth looked like:

 

(Cass: Q___Q I lost my photos of the other side of the booth, somehow.)

 

Macintosh HD:Users:briankwek:Downloads:IMG_2747.JPG

(Image credit: Ian Gregory, Witching Hour)
 

Electrical needs

Pro-tip with respect to power wiring layouts: Have a look at what we submitted for our electrical floor plan (which you WILL need to submit):
 

Macintosh HD:Users:briankwek:Desktop:Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.31.33 PM.png

See each circle with the X in it? That’s meant to be a power point. With the exception of the 4 points circled in red (which was “substituted” with the main power box), each of those other points entails an extension cord, which the vendor will automatically charge you for when they lay down cables. If you want to avoid that charge, you’ll have to figure out how to lay cables yourself – and you will have to request that you be able to do this before carpet is laid down.
 

Even if the vendor lays down their own extension cords, it’ll be a single-point socket. You’ll want to bring as many 3 or 5-port extension cords (of a reasonable length, say 12’ to 15’) as you have game demo stations.
 

Curve ball #1

This PAX was in early March. At the time it was still snowing in most Northeastern parts of the US. This meant high probability of flight delays. Guess what? Michael, Sukeban’s composer, got his Thursday flight from Alabama to Boston cancelled. (PAX starts on Friday.) We were still holding out hope that Michael would make it for Saturday and Sunday, but US Airways managed to cancel his Friday and Saturday flights as well. Pro-tip: Don’t fly US Airways.
 

This left us short-handed with only Wolfgang on hand to hawk VA-11 HALL-A. Cassandra and I had to be surrogates for Sukeban, instead of our original plan of helping to manage journalist play sessions while helping to substitute for our devs all around so they could rest.

 

Curve ball #2

Remember the thing about the 60” TVs and the truss tower? The dudes from Reaction AV had great attitudes and were super helpful. They set up the truss tower and placed the necessary brackets required to hold up the TVs. However, their hands were tied when it came to actually placing the TVs up on the raised tower. THAT required two ladders (one person on each side of the tower to carry up each TV and place it with precision into the bracket’s slots).
 

Now, the convention center enforces a rule requiring exhibitors to delegate any rigging work to their union of choice; pay fees to get our own union to do it; or do it ourselves. If you attempt to risk the wrath of the union and not follow regulations, and if they catch you… They’ll quietly slap you with a charge for the same amount of labour they’d have ordered, even if you already have your own means.
 

If Ysbryd Games had brought its own ladders, we could have done it on our own. But we sure didn’t foresee that coming – and again, how could I have justified purchasing two expensive ladders early on for what we thought would be a 10 minute set-up job? So, without ladders, we had to consult Freeman Co. on how to resolve the situation. They proposed bringing in forklifts to the tune of US$1,800. Of course. Note: This is the only “official” way to solve the problem. Our neighbours, Supergiant Games, paid for forklift labour time to get their TVs mounted as well.
 

The cool people at Reaction AV had the great idea of suggesting that we approach Supergiant and try and convince their labour people to help mount our TVs, and we’d chip in on their labour bill. Supergiant’s people were uber gracious and put in the request to the guys running their forklift, who in turn sent up the request to higher command… and as you’d expect, the union refused.
 

I can’t say any more about how we cost-effectively solved the mounting of the TVs without getting certain people into trouble, but let’s just say that you should not attempt to follow in our footsteps without a foolproof method of procuring those goddamned ladders. Also, these issues also apply to teardown. If you have a method for getting those things up, make sure you have a method for getting them down.
 

Curve ball #3

We totally forgot to order or bring any tools except for Gorilla tape. Primarily, screwdrivers of various sizes were needed for the purposes of getting the rented TV screens screwed into their stands. You shouldn’t need things like hammers or saws unless you’re building IKEA furniture or manually fashioning furniture from Home Depot supplies.
 

We got screwdrivers from the very nice people from Klei (thanks, Corey!), tinyBuild (thanks, Yulia!) and one of the Freeman Co managers whose name I unfortunately didn’t get.
 

Also, try to get a vacuum cleaner if you don’t wanna pay for the exorbitant nightly vacuuming services. The carpet starts off dirty and will only get dirtier.
 

Learning during D-Day

 

Things To Be Improved:

 

#1: Lack of “label” branding
 

We actually didn’t have any sort of Ysbryd Games branding visible, other than subtle, small logos attached to each of the various games’ banners. This was a big mistake on our part, much as we believed that it was better to help push the identity of our devs’ games. A lot of people believed our area was still part of the Indie Megabooth – which theoretically isn’t a bad thing (we love you, guys!), but this just means we have a long way to go with establishing our label as a proper brand.

 

#2: Insufficient staffing

 

We’ve established that the Ysbryd booth area had 10 demo stations. On one side, three were assigned to YIIK, and two to VA-11 HALLA; on the other, Masquerada ended up having five stations, as one of the other projects we were supposed to support had backed out due to legal reasons.
 

The YIIK team had five developers on head and managed their energy perfectly well, but the same could not be said for Masquerada and VA-11 HALL-A. We’ve touched on the problems with bringing down VA-11 HALL-A’s devs earlier. As for Masquerada, we had only budgeted enough to bring two developers from Singapore, but we were lucky to snag a friend living in Greater Boston to come down and help out with the Masquerada demos. (Thanks, Barry!)
 

Still, to cover the seven stations for Masquerada and VA-11 HALL-A, we only had 6 people, and this got worse whenever a press person came around and one of the devs would need to duck out for an interview. Everyone involved with these two games was working for pretty much 470 out of 480 minutes of each day across all of PAX East.
 

This problem could’ve been avoided if we had a backup for the disastrous travel situation of the VA-11 HALL-A devs; if you want to learn from our example, have a backup plan in case devs don’t show up. If you intend to schedule rotations, you’re going to need at least 1.5 people per demo station to allow people to rest every 30 minutes or so. By the way, rotations help to account for people who fall sick. As I did – I caught the flu on Wednesday night and still worked through it regardless. We just didn’t have enough people.
 

#3: Not-quite dedicated press area
 

We didn’t actually plan for a dedicated press area, but it turned out that the inner “storage” area blocked off by the black drape would serve as our press arena. Since we didn’t plan for it, we didn’t have any furniture, let alone machines dedicated for press to try the three games being exhibited. We pulled together two laptops – personal systems from Ackk and Witching Hour – to act as the press demo stations. Furniture-wise, we lucked out upon realizing that certain storage items – the giant casings for the 60” rental TVs in particular – could double up as standing workbenches for press people.
 

In all likelihood, most AAA devs and publishers construct a special closed-door room to entertain press, but that wasn’t something we remotely considered with our budget restrictions. We managed to coast through this with a barebones setup, but a dedicated press area is something you want to spend a bit of money on, so you at least have a proper table and chairs on standby.
 

On a related note: If you meet a big journo/YouTube/Twitch/other media personality, DO NOT FORGET TO GET THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS OR BUSINESS CARD. And also, it will probably help massively if you have clearly labeled USB sticks with a media kit on it, inclusive of high-res video footage of your game. The latter will go a long way with Let’s Play-ers.
 

#4: Useless padded carpet
 

We were told that this would be important for the comfort of visitors, and yes, this would have been great for a true “arena” styled booth. However, most of our visitors and even our devs were mostly hanging around the fringes of the booth or off the carpeted area. People playing the game were seated on the ottomans as well. So the single-layer padding, at US$1,179, was ultimately a waste of money for our the layout we’d chosen.
 

#5: Wasteful curtain walls
 

To create the neutral black backdrop from which the “storage” area was cordoned off, we had to rent 48 ft of black drape at a cost of US$1,573. Take note that ReedPop management will provide framed black drape (plus some basic tables and chairs) free of charge only if you are an exhibitor with 300 sq ft of space or LESS, so this was something that caught us off guard.
 

It might have been more cost-effective to have cloth drape with our own graphics or logos produced and reused for the shows we attend, instead of renting like this. The main trouble for us, given our geographic situation, would have been transporting the metal frames used to hold up the drapes. Other exhibitors like Devolver and Supergiant could clearly be seen bringing in larger metal frames and custom cloth drapes that made a big visual impact and also served as effective booth separators, but we couldn’t figure out how to make the logistics work cost-wise.
 

Things We Did Alright On

 

#1: Things for visitors to remember our games by
 

We bought about 750 pins for each game (2,150 in total) from PureButtons.com, plus 3000 flyers that were ordered from a printing shop nearby PAX (ProPrint Boston). These things had a fairly good reach, and in spite of what cynics like me tend to think, flyers actually do work. We were rather surprised and delighted to see one of our flyers on Greg Miller’s Kinda Funny Games.
 

#2: Set-ups to make people stop and watch
 

It’s hard to evaluate how much impact the raised 60” TVs made in increasing our overall visibility, but we certainly had more than a handful of people comment that they stopped to gape at the visuals of our games. It’s a great thing that we publish games with awesome art styles, but having nice big TVs visible from an open aisle certainly helped to push this further.
 

I would call this a major advantage of our open-faced setup, as opposed to the “arena” style that keeps things visible in the line of sight of someone already within the booth, but excludes people outside of the booth from seeing what’s going on. If you can achieve maximum visibility for people inside AND outside of your arena, that would be best, but that’s probably extra expensive in terms of requiring additional display screens.
 

#3: Easy mailing lists
 

We set up one iPad on each side of our booth to collect email addresses using an app called Enlist, which is tied to a mailing list tool called Campaign Monitor (similar to MailChimp). Enlist can be used offline and it’ll sync new emails collected to an online database as soon as you get online.
 

If you secure your iPad properly, this is much more effective at collecting emails as you don’t have to worry about bad handwriting or losing the pieces of paper on which you wrote those addresses. Well, you could lose your iPad too, but provided you sync online at the end of each day, you won’t lose the addresses!
 

#4: Keeping people hydrated, fed and able to talk
 

Go to CVS and for each day of PAX, buy one box of 24-pack bottles of Poland Spring for every 5 people you have. (We had 11 people, so we bought six boxes across the 3 days of PAX East.) Grab a bag of throat lozenges and aspirin as well. You want to avoid people being dehydrated or otherwise suffering.
 

Day 1 of PAX was painful because most of us at the Ysbryd booth did not eat lunch. We discovered on Day 2 there was an exhibitor’s lounge somewhere in the show that provided free lunch, first-come-first-serve, so we delegated people to acquire this manna from heaven. Again, if you have rotations scheduled for your team, this is less of a problem as people can find their own lunch during break time.
 

Total Costs VS Goals Achieved:
 

Our first larger-scale rodeo at PAX was filled with great learning and wondrous bonfires. We’re still chasing down all the leads generated from the event! And rest assured, we’ll be doing it all over again at PAX Prime, and possibly Gamescom and/or Eurogamer Expo.
 

All in all, we spent a grand total of US$52,654.47 making our booth at PAX East 2015 come to life. This… sounds like a hell of a lot of money, and it is; there are Kickstarted games that needed that much to get made. But, if you’re running an operation that deals with international elements (instead of working with agents and logistics purely within North America) then you might find your costs veering towards what we’ve experienced.
 

Did we succeed with what we set out to achieve at the show? It’s honestly hard to truly estimate how many eyeballs we got, but it is safe to say that each of the 10 demo stations was never empty for more than 20 seconds throughout all three days (not counting the final half-hour of each day when people start going home). As for media coverage, we won’t inundate you with a plethora of links, but our games definitely had our fair share of interest from the likes of Kotaku and Destructoid, plus tons of smaller outlets.
 

If I mentioned a thing that we hired/rented/purchased for PAX East 2015, and I didn’t list down the precise cost in this article, have a gander at this Google spreadsheet here which lists everything we spent money on, sans daily meals and cabs! https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1fxQTApN-ZhrEhzJVzYnoWeCTFyozj5-0T7qsyv9S3uE/edit?usp=sharing
 

And if you have questions following up from there, get in touch with me or Cass on Twitter at @briankwek or @casskhaw respectively. Thanks for reading!

 


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