It's been several weeks now since I got back from running my very first convention booth for my first game. My thumb is at last healing from the only battle wound I got on my excursion, caused by tearing my nail while lifting luggage into a plane's overhead bin. The bad thing about tearing a nail is that it doesn't leave a cool scar that you can show off at parties; it simply grows back and heals. I guess my thumb injury is a lot like the hit my pride took in that respect.
You see, I got a booth because my game, The Robot's Body, has yet to get through Steam Greenlight. I'm introverted so I tend to keep to myself, but I thought a convention would allow a fairly focused, large influx of people getting to check out my game. That is, I figured people would come to me without needing to put myself out there too much. In some respects it was true, and on some level my experience was a success. To paraphrase a selection of the things people told me over the course of the convention weekend:
"This was really fun; I really enjoyed it."
"I loved playing this!"
"I really hope this gets Greenlit so I can play it some more."
I did find an audience for my game, even if I didn't draw the crowds some other booths seemed to gather. I passed out about 200 cards with QR codes to get people to vote. Some people even came back to play again, or called their friends over. So how has Greenlight gone now that two weeks have passed?
I've gotten eight votes so far from the estimated sixty-thousand attendees of the convention. Just like my thumb: ouch. Clearly, it could have gone better. Journey with me as I look back to see where things went wrong and where things went right.
So what is my game, you ask? It's a retro puzzle game. Hmm... Not very descriptive, right? I've read, and it's likely true, that comparing to other games is more effective than saying a genre. So, my game is like Adventures of Lolo and Chip's Challenge.
An earlier build of The Robot's Body
There's a couple of things possibly going against my game right off the bat there. For one, the games I can compare to are old and a bit obscure, though YouTube has somewhat helped in that respectably large channels have played Adventures of Lolo recently. Only a handful of people at the convention could point out the type of game I was going for: "It's like Adventures of Lolo," "It's like Chip's Challenge," and at least one "It's like Kickle Cubicle" (that person... They were a gamer after my own heart). The younger crowd tended to pick out smaller parts of larger games such as "It's like the block puzzles in Zelda," and several "It's like the puzzles in that one Pokemon gym."
My game wasn't as easy to immediately grasp being in the niche genre that it was, and therefore people were more likely to be ambivalent due to not knowing what my game is about at first glance. On the other hand, it did help the game stand out for people who did try it and were unfamiliar with the genre. It was gratifying when I could see people discovering the joy of these types of games that I had first experienced some 20+ years ago.
Another thing my game possibly had going against it was the retro pixel art graphics. I personally like pixel art and consider it an artistic choice rather than a limitation, but not everyone sees it that way. And even if people do enjoy some pixel art, my art is not as rich and detailed as pixel art can get, a byproduct of the type of game I made (puzzle) and the era I was emulating (NES). Video games are a visual medium, for the most part. Graphics might not matter much ultimately to whether someone enjoys a game (debatable, maybe), but graphics certainly go a long way in helping initial marketing.
And one last thing is that my game was not terribly convention-friendly. A single person playing a puzzle game and trying to solve a puzzle in silence did not elicit crowds the way party and competitive games did, or the way the crazed reactions of the wildly popular horror game booth did.
This is not to say that I or anyone else should only try to make games that follow market trends. I stick by my decision to make the game I wanted to make (and would encourage others to do the same). This is only to say that some decisions in game design might lead to an uphill marketing climb that you should be prepared to face.
If you're going to a convention to accomplish specific goals, make it as easy for people to help you as you possibly can. This I consider the biggest failing of my booth setup. There were more than the eight people who voted who seemed to genuinely enjoy my game and likely would've voted "Yes" on Greenlight right then and there if it was as easy as pushing a button. And even those who only slightly enjoyed the game may have voted if it was easy.
The design for the cards we handed out
As I've already mentioned, I handed out cards as a way to get people to vote. Each card had a QR code that directed to the Steam Greenlight page for the game. This posed several issues:
The more steps there are, or the harder any individual step is, the less people will bother. But beyond that, handing out cards relied on people even remembering they have the card when they get back home. And if people did find their card but did not remember my game, my card does not do much to remind them what the game is all about. It was also pointed out to me by one person that my card may read a bit condescending.
One person had the Steam app on their phone and asked me how they could vote for the game using the app. That question caught me off guard when I should have been prepared for it. I likely lost a vote because I didn't know how to make it easier for someone willing to help.
So, make things as easy as possible for people. In my case, the goal was Greenlight votes. I should have considered easier routes, or ways to gather contact information to remind people to vote after the convention.
As previously mentioned, my game did earn some super fans who got intensely into playing. As nice as this was, some of them played a long time. On several occasions this meant there were some people watching in the background who gave up waiting and left my booth. I still handed such people cards, but they were probably less likely to go vote or remember to vote having not had a chance to play. Not to mention all the people passing who may have played if the booth was open, but instead passed on by without ever getting a card.
My first problem was that I had only one demo set up. Some games can probably get away with only one demo if the game can naturally lead to quicker game sessions, like competitive matches. Being a puzzle game, however, my game could take some people a longer time to get through even a handful of levels. More demo units would help. Two demo units would have been ideal for my booth size. In short, have more demos available for play if your game takes longer.
Speaking of time, I also did not limit players in any way. This was mostly due to my non-confrontational nature. In my particular situation, I should have thanked players after a certain time and indicated in some way that I'd like others to have a chance to try.
The time issue leads to my other problem: I brought the full game as the demo. All 50+ levels. No one played even half that, though some got close. Ideally I would have brought a demo with a limited number of levels so that it would be less likely that someone takes an inordinate amount of time playing.
Bringing the full game also meant that most people (in fact, all people) did not get to experience everything that my game had to offer. The way my main campaign is structured is such that many elements don't come into play until later. A demo would've helped here in that I could have shown levels that better display all the game has to offer.
At least one fairly famous YouTuber tried my game and I suspect his lackluster response was from having played and reviewed a lot of games in his time. Based on only the first few levels, my game might not seem like anything special to someone who's seen it all. A demo might have helped the game stand out at a quicker glance.
My game also has a level editor which nobody got to try. A shorter demo might have lead to being able to show off the editor if someone was able to complete the demo and wanted more.
Being that this was my first booth, I really did not prepare as well as I should have. This was my booth as it initially looked:
The booth before the convention started
My first problem is that I relied on having the small, white default company name banner. I was probably the only booth there to do that. Normally I'd say don't follow the crowd, but in this case I think everyone else had it right. A company banner looks more professional and inviting, and my booth ended up seeming fairly barren in comparison.
At first my table only had the one demo station. Eventually, we decided to loop a YouTube trailer on a second smaller monitor. This helped a bit, but it still ended up feeling a tad lacking or uninteresting.
Something I noticed once the convention was under way was that many attendees pass by VERY quickly, with only the faintest glance at any given booth. You truly do not have a lot of time to sell what you're all about as people pass. This observation ended up leading to a helpful change in my demo. Originally I had the demo on the title screen, which periodically returned to the opening story animation. With the demo like this people glancing had little chance to understand what my booth was all about. It likely also didn't feel like there was anything they could actually play. When I switched to always resetting to the first level, far more people ended up giving my game a go. They better understood that this was a game they could pick up and try.
Another slight misstep was that the banner did not have a QR code directly on it. Being on the banner, rather than on a card they could take and forget about, might have lead more people to scan right then and there.
My swag was also an issue. Little stacks of cards were not inviting. Stacks of something larger and more visible would have elicited more curiosity at a quick glance. In my particular case, 3D foam robot heads might have been a better option.
Going forward, I probably would not go with a bare bones table, banner, and demo monitor. It doesn't end up feeling inviting. Even me, the person running the booth, felt my booth was not appetizing as I walked down the aisle. But then again, that also could have just been me being self-critical.
I'm not really a people person. And I don't mean that I dislike people. Being introverted and somewhat shy, I tend to prefer being alone. Naturally, then, I'm fairly terrible at social media. Any time I do have a social media account I either rarely post, or if I do post it's usually a link to music on YouTube.
This ends up being pretty bad for marketing a game or booth. I tweeted maybe once during my whole convention experience. That was the extent of marketing my booth via social media. I took very few photos or videos. And as people passed my booth I never tried to speak up to grab attention, instead letting people naturally come up to try the game (still not sure if this was actually the better strategy).
An outgoing helping hand would have helped here. Someone to tweet and Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram... Whew, I'm getting exhausted just listing everything out. Someone to take pictures and document everything for further social media follow ups. Someone to be a showman for the booth and talk to people and manage crowds and gather interest.
I handed out personal business cards to people with a more professional interest in the game, such as streamers and YouTubers. However, I never asked for business cards in return or took down any information. This lead to being contacted by very few people after the convention was over.
The most unfortunate instance was someone really good at my game who said they were good at QA-ing, something my game is in need of. I gave them my card and told them "I'd love if you could play my game some more and give me feedback." I never heard from them. If only I had asked for information in return!
Networking should be a two-way street, especially if you're the one who wants or needs something from someone you meet.
At this point you may be thinking "Gosh, mister pessimist, did anything go right?" I don't want to give the impression my booth was a total failure. At the very least, even if it was a total failure I still consider the learning experience a win. To quote Stephen McCranie, "The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried." These first steps are always important, even if they don't go well.
All the same, I don't consider the weekend a total failure.
My game is one that had yet to be vetted by many people. In this respect, it was useful to get to see many different types of people try my game out. I was able to observe some positive and negative aspects about my design thus far. I got to note some things almost all players did that I could improve with some level tweaks. And, on extremely rare occasions, I got to see some bugs I'd missed (customers are great QA... only half joking :P).
It's not perfect, though. I don't think many hardcore puzzle fans, or people really good at puzzle games, tried my game out so I didn't get to gather their opinions or experience with the game. If you do go explicitly for play testers, you may not get a wide breadth of audience types.
I had been worried, before even planning a booth, that my game was too niche. The booth helped show that there is an audience for my game, however small it may or may not be. Nobody who tried my game outright said they disliked it, but I have no idea if most people are just polite for booth demos.
The most encouraging were the "super fans," the people who stood around and played my game for a long time, or came back to try to get further. They showed me that my game could have a dedicated fan base with the right effort in getting the word out. But even beyond super fans, it was also good to gauge the reaction of more casual players.
Being niche isn't automatically a bad thing. There very well could be an audience for your game out there, and a convention could be a good opportunity to test it on a crowd of people.
Hopefully this helps someone who might be planning their first booth. And even if it doesn't go as well you expect, try to learn as much as you can from the experience both in terms of your next convention, as well as noting how people play your game (the good and the bad). And don't be afraid to network!
P.S. This tale has an unexpected happy end after all. The Robot's Body was recently Greenlit on Steam! I'm not sure what drove it to being Greenlit other than, perhaps, the passing of time. The mysteriousness of the Greenlight process is a discussion for another day, though.