To establish my tradeshow bona fides, just know that there was a point where I’d regularly get lost in my apartment because I spent so much time on the show circuit that I didn’t know the layout of the place I lived. Much of this advice is based on actual experience and while some of it sounds ridiculous, it’s usually being said because it needs to be said. Like how it’s ridiculous that one of the shows I went to had “Please bathe” in the official show program…but it needed to be said.
In this rather lengthy post, we’ll take a look at all sorts of things you should consider before committing to attending a tradeshow or convention, and we’ll discuss the value and appeal of specific events you might be thinking about. Note that we won’t go through every single event here; there are too many conferences you may consider attending. If you have questions about a particular event we don’t mention, ask us about it in the comments!
Should I go to (fill in show here)?
I say this a lot in these columns, but it depends on your goals. If you want to do E3 because “everyone” does, you’re entering a world of pain. If you want to do any trade show or convention hoping for tens of thousands of new sales, you’ll be disappointed because very few games I’ve worked with have gotten an instant lift just from going to E3 or PAX.
At this point it’s really worth remembering that every person you reach during your PR campaign is another potential fan. If it makes financial sense, you might as well attend every event you can; gain 10 players here, another hundred there, and within a few months, you could have a legion of loyal fans ready to help you make your game a success.
If you’re attending an event hoping for a massive groundswell of press support for your previously unknown title and counting on that to be what makes the company go big-time, you might consider saving the money to focus on advertising and marketing. While the press support and relationships established can benefit your game, a lot of companies have “won” E3 and vanished shortly thereafter.
Tradeshow and convention attendance should be part of your wider marketing and promotional strategy and one of many venues you’re planning on to promote your game rather than being your home-run, all-or-nothing shot. A tradeshow or convention is a great way to show the flag, establish relationships with press and fans and build your brand, but it seldom ties directly to a massive increase in sales or playerbase. Essentially, it’s a branding exercise to increase your visibility among press and players, not a marketing strategy to add 500 new players over the weekend. Unless you can directly sign up new players at the show. Then yes, that’s that, too.
Obviously, if you’re going for business development or professional reasons, that’s a different story altogether and that can be an extremely viable strategy instead of doing the booth-having dog-and-pony show. One of my most successful shows from a career perspective was a GDC in Austin where none of my games were going to be on display, leaving me free to socialize, talk to press without pushing something and make contacts. I came home with a stack of business cards six inches thick, so while it didn’t give us a wave of new players, it paid tremendous dividends in PR coverage down the road. Never underestimate the value of walking around and meeting people.
Can You Afford It?
Start with the simple step: figure out what your travel costs would be, then add in the cost of the badges, booth space, the booth, swag and/or fliers, and whatever else is required for your presentation.
As a side note to this, tradeshows are one of those things where people will spend $1000 for a badge but try to save $100 by booking a room in a hotel an hour away and wondering why staff is cranky and giving bad demos. Or they’ll pay for floor space, but only in the lightly trafficked back corner of the convention center by the sex toys and weird furry art and weird furry sex toys, then wonder why crowds and press aren’t flocking to them.
Going to a show is putting yourself and your game in front of thousands of potential players, press and business contacts that you may never get a second chance to impress, so if it’s worth paying hundreds or thousands of dollars (or much more, in the case of big booths at big shows) to attend, it’s worth paying the relative few bucks more to do it right, look professional and make sure everyone is at their best.
No, Seriously, Can You Afford It?
Many developers look at the costs as strictly the dollars and cents required for a booth or table and the travel expenses to put them there. However, trade shows have significant costs beyond that.
Hijacking your development team to make a pristine, polished build outside of your regular cycles can become all-consuming–everyone that’s worked on an E3 build knows the whirling vortex of suck it becomes–and very few small teams can put together a show-quality build AND keep on chugging on regular development.
There’s also the human cost: You’re effectively taking attending staff out of the loop for a few days or a week, then whatever time it takes for them to catch up, and that can be compounded by the inevitable Con Crud that they will catch.
Many, many teams have said, “Oh, that’s fine, we can just work in the evenings on the hotel internet” and wound up pulling their hair out when the hotel internet is down for the entire week or convention center power goes out. That’s just the show proper, of course, there’s pre-planning, trying to schedule meetings, setup, the show itself, teardown, and followups after. From my perspective, “E3″ consumes late April to the end of June.
This is another place where many teams think they can scrimp by and fly in someone on a redeye flight with a laptop, have them grind out demos for 3 days, then fly back home, only to lose two weeks of work from them because they are exhausted and infect the entire office with Convention Disease. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth ensuring your people are relatively comfortable and can stay rested and focus on giving good presentations rather than trying to keep up with work AND be “on” for 3 days on the floor.
Is the game up for it?
If it’s going to be there, your game needs to be in good shape. What that means will vary based on the show and the plans for your presentation/presence.
Your game definitely doesn’t need to be content-complete and ready to ship, but it needs to be stable and suitable for regular people doing unintended things (if you’re giving hands-on time). A lot of writers will give a game that’s in rough shape a fair shot and see what it can become, but there are also a lot of writers that will see a game in less-than-perfect shape and consign it to the memory hole forever.
Savvy consumers who know the ins and outs of game development may also tolerate a few rough edges. However, if you make a bad first impression, their negative word of mouth may later come back to bite you in the ass. On the flipside, the mass-market consumer who’s been raised on the top-notch production values of AAA games may be very unforgiving of experiences that don’t meet their expectations.
With media and consumers, the rule is to put your best foot forward. Once you’ve decided to attend a tradeshow or convention, make sure that what you’re showing and how you’re presenting it is as good as it can be.
You’ll also want to consider how early you start attending conferences. If you have a presentable game (or portion of a game) but are still two years from launch, you might want to reconsider your investment in attending a tradeshow. While you definitely want to run extended campaigns to raise awareness for your game, you also have to be aware of fatigue among media if you keep showing them the same content or only incremental improvements from one event to the next. Rather than showing things off too early, it may be in your best interests to wait until your game is further along in development.
This is where it’s important to plan your event attendance as part of a cohesive campaign rather than showing it at a convention and then disappearing for two years; at that point, you’re effectively starting from scratch. If you don’t have something fresh and of high quality to present, maybe your game isn’t ready for the show.
Is there time?
Everyone that works in gaming PR has a story about the client who decides a week before PAX that they want a booth and finding the right way to say “lol” without hurting their feelings.
When hitting a big convention, exhibitors may begin planning a year in advance to be there. Smaller conventions may be booked solid six months out, while every hotel within a reasonable drive is completely full. If you’re going rogue without a formal booth, a PAX floor pass sells out in literally minutes and there’s nothing anyone can do for you except maybe keep an eye on EBay. And while a lot of press can be pretty understanding about an indie developer with no badge doing demos in the hotel lobby, a lot of press can also consider it amateur in the not-professional way, not the indie way.
You may be saying “Well, it sounds like you’re saying we shouldn’t do any trade shows.” For a lot of very-indie developers (of the sort relying on DIY PR advice from our blog), that’s correct, unless it’s expressly for the purpose of making business contacts and developing relationships as at GDC or some of the specialized conventions for mobile or casual games. Even a show like PAX – which is fantastic for interacting with fans and showing your game to a range of people – can be a significant expense, and you need to be able to make financial sense of it.
Showing your game should pass a cost-benefit analysis versus everything else you can do with that time and money, and sometimes it’s worth doing a little recon. Giving one person a badge and time to check out the show to see if it’s worth doing a year in advance is considerably less costly than going all-out on a show only to find that it’s a bad fit for your goals.
E3: E3 is the monster everyone hates but is afraid to kill. Since my first E3 in 2001, when I went as press, I’ve heard press saying it’s stupid and dead, and then it’s impossible to get anybody to pay attention to non-E3-related pitches from May through July. Publishers and developers complain E3 is too costly and time-consuming, then throw a hissyfit when the ESA attempts to change it.
First thing’s first: E3 is expensive. Booth space alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars –for a meeting room, not a fancy booth on the floor – and that’s not counting the cost of booth construction, getting internet in your booth ($1000 a day!), chair rental (how’s $60 a day for a plastic chair sound?). E3 isn’t a friendly home for an indie that can’t afford a booth or meeting room. Essentially, you have two options. One of them is to bring a laptop and try to hold a meeting in one of the public spaces, which is basically planning to wind up screaming “WHAT?!” at each other a lot. The other is to try off-site meetings, which may be cheaper, but the few times I’ve seen it tried, we’ve had no-show rates higher than 50%. Once people hit the floor, they don’t leave.
E3 is a great opportunity to get your game in front of a range of press, but your Little Game That Could is competing with everything else out there. If Halo of Warcraft gets demoed and a writer is pressed for time, guess who gets dropped? Even if you get covered, your story may be up for 15 minutes in that site’s E3 Exclusive Coverage section before it gets buried by 100 other reports from 15 other correspondents. Getting a meeting as an unknown quantity is also tough: Would this writer rather cover Nintendo or Some Developer?
However, the upside is that E3 is good for building relationships with the press and you can get a lot of attention from the smaller sites that don’t get invited to Console AnnounceAThon 3000. Pay particular attention to them, too. Small gaming sites serve as a feeder league to the entire industry–both journalism and developer/publisher–and it’s not at all uncommon for someone who wrote for MyRadGamingSite.Blogspot.Com to wind up highly-ranked at that publication or publisher you’re hoping to get attention from.
For North America-based developers, E3 is also a good way to increase your contacts internationally, since a lot of sites from various countries will make the trek to Los Angeles for their one and only American trip of the year. Just make sure that your game will actually be available in the applicable writer’s country.
If you’re not necessarily looking for a ton of press coverage, E3 is a great show to go to for meetings and business development. You might not need to get a booth, and if you can prove your industry credentials, it’s also free to attend. If the only cost is travel and accommodations (and eating and drinking) there are few events as effective for networking.
GDC (in all its forms): GDC is worth going to for business meetings, though these days a lot of press are attending even if they’re not doing hastily-scribbled write-ups of everything they encountered as they do during E3. Don’t go in expecting you’ll get a front page writeup on a big gaming site, because a lot of press are attending because they’re interested in games, not to pump out hot, breaking news as fast as possible.
The upside to this is that GDC can be a good place to show the press that attend what you’re working on with fewer expectations than a show like E3. Since it’s more casual, it’s also a good time to make friends with the press, relax, and talk about games. The pressure is a lot less intense since, at the moment, there’s no crushing weight of expectations on having “a good GDC.” While it may not pay off in instant coverage, an early game they saw and liked at GDC is going to have a much easier time getting attention when it’s time to start spreading the word.
Additionally, the speaking/panel opportunities GDC presents are a fantastic way to further your PR stories. Are you looking to establish yourself as a thought leader in, say, artificial intelligence? Propose a talk. Want the world to know about your unique business model? Propose a talk. As complements to your ongoing pitches to media, lectures and panels at shows like GDC can help form interesting stories around your games and company.
PAX: If your goal in attending a trade show or convention is to get a lot of consumers to play your game, one of the PAX shows is where you want to be, though it requires a lot of advance planning. Press do attend, but don’tt go to PAX expecting lots of press write-ups. The media that attend are generally more laid back about scheduling; for the most part, PAX is an opportunity for them to roam the show floor and discover the undiscovered.
If you want gamers to get quality hands-on time, though, this is the show. PAX is fantastic for meeting your customers and developing a community of loyal fans. You may also consider panels and talks, which tend to be a bit less formal and professional than those at GDC, and maybe even a little easier to secure. You’ll also be speaking to fans directly, rather than a room full of developers.
But I mean it about advance planning. Simple attendee badges sell out in 10-20 minutes and floor space is booked solid well in advance. That said, PAX floor space is quite a bit cheaper than it is at E3, and with opportunities like the Indie Megabooth, there are affordable options for exhibiting here.
gamescom: gamescom is PAX but bigger and full of Europeans, as well as press. Gamescom is a fantastic opportunity to get your game in front of players – attendance in 2012 was over 275,000(!) – and media in Europe. If your game isn’t going to be available/playable in Europe or Germany, specifically, don’t bother with gamescom. It doesn’t have to be fully localized, but if you’re limiting to only US IPs and credit cards, you’re going to be actively offending a fair chunk of the people you encounter here.
There are really two distinct parts of gamescom: the press/business area and the consumer area. The business area is a great place to do business (duh) and show your game to press in a quiet environment. On the other hand, the consumer area is a total madhouse, and as a smaller developer, you’ll be competing with big franchises, massive booths and lots of noise. A consumer-area booth is also going to be quite costly – though less so than E3 – so it might not be a great option for a lot of smaller teams. One note regarding press attendance at gamescom, though: if you’re hoping to reach North American press, the show has limited appeal; while a handful of outlets do make the trek to Germany, they tend to send very small teams, which means their time is quite limited. Start booking early.
Other Video Gaming Conventions: Smaller and more regional shows may be a good place for an indie to make an impression, but they also may be more focused, may not have a lot of press attending, or it may not be worth spending a lot of travel money to go given the small crowd.
For example, QuakeCon is a good place for shooters and a great place for, say, the Rise of the Triad reboot and we had a fair number of press attend, but it would not be a great place for your casual mobile Match 3 title.
Likewise, GameStop holds a convention in Las Vegas that’s great for consoles and other games hoping for a big retail push, but it’s not going to be worth looking into if you’re selling only on Steam.
Big LAN parties can be great places to demo multiplayer games with lots of action, but are less of a fit for that hot new Facebook game, while something like Casual Connect isn’t a show I’d take a hardcore title to and expect a lot of press write-ups from. Casual Connect is a good place to do business if you’re in the mobile/social space, though.
Non-Video Game Shows
The thing about non-video gaming shows is that they cater to enthusiasts of a particular stripe, so while comic book or anime enthusiasts may also enjoy video games, they are so hardcore into comic books or anime that everything else kind of falls by the wayside.
This can be an expectations problem. If they’re expecting to spend three days playing their awesome World of Darkness character, they may check out and even enjoy your video game, but it may get mentally filed with “other things I saw that were okay” rather than “awesome thing I must check out when I get home.”
I know video game developers that regularly go to Non Video Game shows to hang out and have developed enough of a presence there that people know and expect them to be there, but it was a multi-year commitment to get to that point. I know a lot more that book space at a tabletop or anime convention with visions of dollar signs and big sales that only wind up disappointed in the end because those fans are there for tabletop games or anime, not necessarily video games.
Tabletop Conventions: For a developer or game with a long lineage in tabletop or heavily influenced by tabletop gaming, it’s worth considering shows like GenCon. However, I’ve gone to a lot of tabletop cons with a lot of properties and while the crowds were friendly and receptive, a lot of them were there for tabletop games and didn’t care about video games beyond polite interest.
Anime Conventions: If you have an anime-flavored title, these can be a good place to go, however, anime conventions are like tabletop conventions, where developers think “anime fans love video games and I won’t have to pay for PAX booth space! It’s brilliant!” then wind up surrounded by anime fans who are super-enthused about anime and don’t understand their non-anime game and wind up disappointed.
Comic Book Conventions: If your title draws heavily from comics or features a comic book art style, this can be worth considering, and a niche game that feels like a comic book can do very well at these. Events like San Diego Comic-Con have become huge draws, though attendees are arguably drawn increasingly by celebrities, film and TV properties. Unless your game fits squarely in the comic demographic or you have a big AAA game with a massive consumer-marketing budget, you may want to skip these events.
Every now and then, I encounter a bright bulb with the idea to go to a non-gaming convention that’s somehow related to their game, with the idea that they’ll show off their game to a whole new audience and make buckets of ducats. It’s not a bad thought; however, as with tabletop and anime shows, people that go to, say, a sailing show may be really enthusiastic about boats and much less interested in a game that lets them pretend to be driving a boat (they’d rather be on a real boat).
A lot of this advice may not apply if you’re in an area with a lot of trade shows and conventions or where attendance won’t be that hard at all. If 50,000 people are showing up in your town and they may like your game and all it costs you is a few hundred bucks for a booth and a couple days of time, why NOT give it a whirl? Print up some nice fliers, go, have a good time, and see what happens, but keep your expectations in check.
The Local Show Alternative
To contradict what I just said: If you’re in an area with a lot of trade shows or a big convention and considering attending, consider having a Press and Players Day at your office or place of business instead. This will keep you off a show floor, where it’s noisy and you’ll be struggling to make a point. It will also let you really show off to people who are genuinely enthusiastic about the game. And it will build you a local presence in your immediate community. Players love this. It doesn’t even have to be fancy. Buy some beers, set up some computers with builds, and invite people in. This only works if you have an existing community and a way to get the word out, but it can be a lot of fun and build some very serious loyalty with your player base.