I went to gamescom 2017 to show Nowhere Prophet to the public but I did not have the budget to be a part of the stellar Indie Arena Booth, nor could I do the full five days. So instead I traveled to Cologne to show of my game the indie way, by myself and on the cheap.
Gamescom Side Entrance (Free tip: Never use the main entrance!)
As an indie developer both time and money are usually in short supply. That makes showing at conferences hard. There's never enough budget to go around and there's always something you could improve or tweak. Still, you will have to spend both time and money on reaching out to your audience if you ever want them to know about your labor of love. All the articles say so.
So, here's one way to reach people that will love your game, even if you can't afford a booth and/or a multi-day conference trip.
THE TRIP - A DISCLAIMER
Be aware that these are my experiences and thoughts. They aren't necessarily going to work for everyone but I found my methods to be effective.
I wanted to present Nowhere Prophet, my soon to be available roguelike deck-building game, to get some reactions and feedback. I recently redid the core gameplay completely and I'm moving towards an early access so getting some feedback on the new interfaces was important to me.
Nowhere Prophet - Greenlight Trailer
Additionally I wanted to reach out to potential players since building a fan base is important. Obviously press coverage would also be great, so these were my secondary goals for the trip.
Having goals is a good thing:
Know why you're going to the conference and try to come up with a plan to go about it. Be aware of what's most important to you and go for that first. Conferences can be very exhausting so making sure you have that done first allows you to quit early if you need to, and still be successful.
1. STAND IN LINE - MEET YOUR AUDIENCE
Go to where your players are.
It may sound obvious but one of your key advantages as a solo developer without a booth is that you can move around freely.
Developers with a booth need to make their audience come to them. They need to post on social media or hope that people stumble over their booth. Some have people with signs roam the halls hoping to pick up interested people.
You don’t have to do that. Just turn things on its head and simply go to where your players are. However, this first requires you to know your target audience. For me, with Nowhere Prophet being a roguelike card game, there's established audiences for me to tap into: Roguelike/Roguelite fans and (digital) card game players.
"But wait!", you reply. "With a conference as large as gamescom, there's thousands of people - how can I find the players interested in my kind of game?" Nothing simpler, since all these players already sort themselves by interest just for your convenience! That's what the big booths are for.
Selfie at the Hearthstone Booth (Free Tip: Wear a game shirt!)
So here's what I did: With game and merch in hand I went to the Hearthstone and Gwent booths and hung around, talking to the players there. They were mainly there to check out a card game they like, so I know they're most likely to be a part of my target audience. I mingled with them and talked to them about my game.
I did this for an entire day and the responses were genuinely positive. If I had more time, I'd have spent that dropping by the other card games throughout the show.
2. COME PREPARED - MARK YOUR TARGETS
Figure out who your audience is and where to go.
Know which kind of games they would be interested in. Larger, well known games are better because they draw larger crowds, which lead to queues, which lead to bored people happy to hear about your game.
If there's no game that's similar to yours you could try and find booths with similar subject matter: Making an indie action spaceship bullet hell farming sim? Maybe go to a sci-fi shooter booth.
Find out where those booths are in advance so you don't waste a lot of time wading through crowds trying to get there.
3. ALWAYS BE NICE - NEVER BE A DICK
Once you're there, and I'm sure you know this, but... don't be a dick.
You're hanging out at someone else's booth so always be respectful to the booth people.
Slamming their game is a dick move. As is going into the booth area trying to pull people away from there. You don’t want to be a dick. You're a professional game developer after all.
Stay close to the queue, maybe even stand in line yourself if you're interested in the game. You can chat with people around you and then let them pass so you can talk to the next group in line. Or you can try and pick up people as they leave the area, but they are probably more interested in chatting about what they just watched/played.
Of course don't be annoying to the fans visiting the booth either. Be respectful of their time and wishes - don't be pushy. If someone is not interested or would rather chat with their friends/play DS/stand silently, let them. Remember: Don’t. Be. A. Dick.
Also when you're done thank them for their time and wish them fun on the conference. Like a normal human being would.
4. USE THE QUEUE - PITCH YOUR GAME
If you want to pitch your game to people, talk to the queue.
The people standing in the queue are generally bored. They have nothing better to do while waiting and they're generally grateful for some entertainment. They may just be standing around bored, chatting with their friends or glued to their phones, so depending on the size of the queue you may have to just butt in. But again: Don't be a dick. Be friendly and say "hello", "please" and "thank you".
I generally started with something like: "Hi, you're here because you like card games, am I right?". That usually got them talking and engaged. From there I offered to tell them something about my game which I then did.
As you pitch your game, first and foremost be friendly. Smile at people, ask if they're interested before you start. And when you start your pitch, jump off from the game you're at.
Be a fellow gamer, talk about the game and tell them why you believe yours is better/different/interesting. Obviously this requires you to be familiar with the game you're standing at.
For me, this meant that I spent some time in most pitches talking about my experiences with card games.
We talked about Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, and how I came to dislike the card arms race common in many online card games: The fact that, if you want to play somewhat competitively, you need to have a certain collection fo cards to to be able to build one of the few deck types feasible in the current meta. This leads to a lot of grind or freemium purchases and limits deck-building creativity.
Nowhere Prophet being a single player roguelike does not have that issue, so this was my hook to get people interested.
What I found also worked was to tell them that I am the developer behind the game I'm showing. Consumers generally don't get many chances to talk to game devs so that may get people interested. It worked for me.
Also make sure to give them something to remember your game by when you're done; otherwise they won't. Bear in mind, they will be at the conference for many hours, bombarded by blinking booths and screaming speakers. Free merch always works best, but flyers and other handouts are cheaper and can also do the trick. More on that later.
5. GRAB THE STRAGGLERS - LET THEM PLAY
If you want to show your game, find small groups!
Conferences are a great place for authentic player feedback from your audience. So if you want people to play your game, make it easy for them to play and do it in a way that doesn't inconvenience them. And that very much depends on your game.
The queue is a good place to demo your game if it's comparatively short (say 2-3 min), engages multiple people at the same time, or is fun to watch. Often the people in queues are there in small groups, so pulling out one person for 15 minutes is unlikely to work. A longer game (5-10 min) could still work if the queue is long enough.
For Nowhere Prophet I wanted at least a 15 minute window. One of the things I wanted to test was the new tutorial and the new UI - specifically the new deck-building interface. Proper feedback for this requires the player to have a good grasp on the core mechanics, and since the queues on the card games weren't long enough I had to look for players elsewhere.
Showing the game on an iPad (Always use mobile!)
What I ended up doing was talk to the stragglers. Occasionally you will find people hanging out near a booth, in groups of three or two or preferably solo. They are probably taking a break, checking out the screens or waiting for someone or something. These people were excellent test candidates. Granted, some people will decline because they're waiting for a streamer to show up or are just at your target booth by accident, but the rest might have some time on their hands and be curious to try something.
Also it's very important that you have the game running on a mobile device even if it's not a mobile game. This is not really as much of an issue nowadays, with a lot of developers using Unity. Making the game work well with a mobile touch interface is a different story and might not be doable for every game. If you can not deploy on a mobile platform you may want to consider getting one of those convertible laptops.
Using a simple touchscreen device is the easiest way to show your game to people. You don't need to explain the buttons on the controller, lug around hardware, or find some place to set up your laptop - just hand them the tablet and go!
6. HANDOUTS - MAKE IT STICK
Make sure they remember you afterwards.
After you've shown or pitched your game, give the people something to take home. Flyers are a common and cheap option, but in my experience they are a terrible way to advertize. They often feel cheaply produced and usually are dropped on the show floor or end up crumpled at the bottom of swag bags.
Nowhere Prophet Merch: Buttons, Stickers & Cards (Wanna buy a game shirt?)
With Nowhere Prophet being a card game I printed a few business cards with different artwork on the front and some info about the game on the back. I found these to be much more effective. People enjoyed the art, and some even wanted one of each to take home with them. I'm unlikely to do flyers ever again - a smaller format and better card stock dramatically increases the value. If I do something in a flyer format, I'll also go with a better paper and a postcard style instead. Cool art, very little text. Ideally tailored towards the event you're at so it can be a nice memento too.
However merchandise still works best at conferences. Stickers and buttons are particularly popular, but in my opinion it's most important that it fits the game. Show off some cool artwork, give them something useful, but never forget to put your url on there :) It's a card game, so why not use a card?
Another way of staying in touch is you getting their e-mail for your newsletter. Whenever I've had a booth at a conference, I've always made sure to put out a signup form for my newsletter, and this is still my primary source of subscribers. I wanted to replicate something that's working, so I brought a clipboard and pen, complete with fancy signup forms. And that did. not. work.
If you're talking to people in the queue, holding a clipboard asking for mails you're suddenly no longer the cool indie developer, you're the annoying guy at the mall pestering people for signatures for some stupid cause. Don't be that guy. Nobody likes that guy. That guy may even be a dick.
Asking for their e-mail addresses even made people some people very uncomfortable. I could tell they wanted to say no but didn't want to be impolite, so they struggled with an answer. That's not really something I wanted them to experience in conjunction with me and my game so I stowed the clipboard.
However asking for an e-mail still works - after someone has spent some time playing your game. The stragglers who played Nowhere Prophet enjoyed it and were happy to subscribe.
BONUS ROUND - PRESS BADGE DETECTIVE
Remember my initial goals? Testing, players AND press?
Here’s a tip on that last one:
Find out what a press badge looks like: Usually they have a different color codes so the people checking access can quickly spot them. For gamescom this year they had a pink stripe on them. Whenever I wandered the halls and spotted a press person coming my way, I approached in a friendly friendly manner, and asked if they were interested in card games. If they said yes then I gave them the quick elevator pitch and handed them a card urging them to get in touch if they wanted to learn more.
Contrary to the queue approach this is much more of a shotgun method, but it might just lead to a happy accident and some coverage. There's not much to lose if you're friendly. And most editors are humans as well, so try not to be shy. Especially those from small media are very grateful if you approach them with something they can write about. But again, no dick moves please.
SUMMARY - WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO
So, with all that in a day's work I was pretty happy. I received some good feedback which will help me smooth off some of the edges of Nowhere Prophet's interface and tutorial. I handed out many cards to interested people. And this on a budget of ~150 EUR including travel, the trade visitor ticket, food and accommodations. Not quite free, but pretty darn close.
Note that the impact of this whole thing is still up in the air, after all gamescom is still going on and the people I talked to have just gotten home. I don't yet know how much the time I spent will eventually translate into followers, subscriptions or sales but it feels like it was time well spent. I believe there's a big chance to find potential fans using a personal approach amidst the massive AAA games.
ITERATIVE IMPROVEMENTS - BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME
This isn’t to say that my approach is flawless. Here's a few things I'd change and improve for the next time:
Goodbye Gamescom Selfie (with surprise networking photobomb)
When I pitched mygame I only had my words and the small handouts I brought. Next time I'll fire up some screens or video clips on the tablet to show off while I'm explaining the game. Obviously this requires a more rehearsed pitch in the right sequence so you need to plan ahead. Or you make it easy to rearrange them.
This is useful because a) visual aids give a much better impression of your game much faster and b) because your audiencemight recognize your game later due to the screenshots. Ideally your slideshow would be launched from within the game so when someone looking at the images is interested in testing you could just press a button and hand it to them.
In general, everything that helps people remember you and your game is good. I was thinking about a sort of outrageous themed outfit as well but did not have the time to come up with one. I am still not sure how useful this is - It might just distract people and make you look like a cosplayer.
Adding a newsletter signup to the game build directly could be useful, and you won't have to lug a clipboard around. While writing by hand is often faster for short text than entering in a tablet, it also creates fewer hard-to-read mail addresses for you to type into your list later.
I’m also considering putting a trackable link on the handouts so you I can more closely measure the impact of this whole thing.
Lastly I will bring more merch. I went through my stache faster than I expected.
So to sum up:
Find out what kind of games your target audience is interested in. These are probably games you're interested in, since they are related to what you are building. Then talk to the fans of those games and don't be a dick about it. Finally, make sure they have something to remember you by.
And yeah, that’s it. Thanks for reading and stay hydrated,
Find out more about Martin here:
And follow Nowhere Prophet here:
Martin somehow managed to combine his passion for video games with his architecture degree. Currently he lives a double live as a freelance game and interaction designer by day and independent game developer by night. He's also co-founder of the German Indie Developer community Indie Arena and the Game Culture Club discussion group.
Nowhere Prophet is a roguelike deck-building game. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by indian culture and sci-fi literature. In this broken world you are the last hope of a convoy of outcastes and refugees. You lead this desparate band in their search for safety and a new home.