If you've followed the recent surge in the popularity of indie game development, you've certainly noticed the increasingly frequent festivals and competitions like the Independent Games Festival and IndieCade, the number of blogs and amount of press devoted to indie games, and the rise of what we are calling "AAA Indie Games" -- games like Braid, Castle Crashers, World of Goo, and more recently Limbo, Trials HD, and others that share the same combination of polish, attention to detail, and design focus, not to mention significant critical and commercial success.
You also may have noticed a related trend: indie game developers are purchasing booths at consumer-facing conventions, like San Diego Comic-Con and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX).
These booths cost thousands of dollars, even before factoring in travel and outfitting the booth with furniture, HDTVs, and computers, so how do indies justify the expense?
Well, to be honest, we're not actually sure yet, but we're going to find out in two weeks, and in the meantime we're going to discuss -- from a development perspective -- how and why we decided to take the risk and what we hope to achieve.
We are Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, the Excellence in Design and Seamus McNally Grand Prize winner of the 2010 Independent Games Festival, and Chris Hecker, creator of SpyParty, and together we bought a 10 by 20-foot booth at PAX next month in Seattle.
Given that neither of us has been to PAX, and this is our first time running a booth at a trade show, we basically have no idea what's going to happen.
PR and Marketing
Both Monaco and SpyParty are shooting for the aforementioned AAA Indie Game stratum, and as a developer trying to make AAA Indie games, you could do worse than to crib the marketing and PR plans of The Behemoth, creators of Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers.
Regardless of what you think of their games, it is inarguable that they are the masters of indie game PR, marketing, and "customer relationship management". One could write volumes analyzing how The Behemoth does marketing and PR for their games and company, but for the purposes of this article, one thing they have done since 2002 is get a booth at Comic-Con, and then later at PAX.
Unlike the GDC and E3, Comic-Con and PAX are open to the public, and are primarily for consumers to interact with game companies directly. These shows do absolutely huge numbers, with 70,000 attendees at PAX, and over 100,000 at Comic-Con. They're both dwarfed by GamesCom in Germany (going on this week, in fact), which has something like 250,000 gamers descend on it.
The idea of building a direct face-to-face connection with gamers is very appealing for indie developers. Most indie game fans who visit your blog or Facebook page or follow you on Twitter will be able to read about your game online, both on your sites and in any press coverage you get, and they can talk to other fans about it in forums, but it's rare that fans can get hands-on play time with a game before it's released.
With the more traditional establishment model of game development and sales, giving fans this early access is less important than it is for indies, because the marketing spending is heavily weighted towards the end of the development cycle. You make the game, and then you spend a lot of money marketing the game right before and during the game release, so that someone who is made aware of your game by this marketing expense can actually give you money immediately.
With indie games, often there is no marketing budget at all, and so you can't buy wide awareness of your game in a short period of time. Word-of-mouth and grassroots marketing become incredibly important, and these types of marketing take nurturing and need time to grow, and it seems that every little bit helps.
Naturally, it's great to have a journalist play your game and like it, and then post on his or her site. Press coverage is highly leveraged. But having a gamer come play your game, fall in love, and then tell anyone who will listen about "this awesome game I played" is a different flavor of coverage, and it's hard to quantify how valuable it is. Study after study shows word-of-mouth as the top influencer in purchasing decisions, so it seems likely to be quite valuable.
Another important aspect of having real live gamers touch your game is it gives you a reality check against your assumptions about how your game is perceived. It's one thing to hold a playtest with your friends or colleagues. It's another to have thousands of gamers stream through your booth, pick up the controller, and in a few seconds decide to play or go to the next shiny thing 10 feet on. We expect to learn a lot from watching people play, and will probably be coding furiously each night fixing issues discovered during the day.