What are the benefits of showing your game at conventions?

There are plenty of ways to promote your game, and conventions can definitely have a place in your plans says developer Stuart Maine.

Alongside social media, Steam, news sites, Discord, Reddit and so on, attending conventions with your game can be a useful tool in the eternal battle to attract attention. The obvious choices are gaming conventions like Insomnia and EGX, but you could also consider ‘non-videogaming’ events frequented by your game’s intended audience. Anime or comic conventions for example, or sci-fi, board game or horror conventions. You name it, there’s a convention for it. We took Warhammer Combat Cards to several Games Workshop-related conventions and Angry Birds: Transformers to -you guessed it -Transformers conventions, as we knew that fans of our IP would be there and we weren’t going to get buried in the mass of hundreds of other video games.

But attending conventions costs time and money, so you need to understand the benefits of doing so. Here are a bunch of tips and things to consider:

What do you want out of it?

Taking your game to a convention obviously allows you to showcase it to the public, gaming press, and publishers. But beyond this you can use conventions to gather feedback on how your game plays, both by talking to people playing your demo and by watching where they get stuck, confused, excited and so on. Also, this gives you a chance to see which audience demographic is attracted to and enjoys your game, allowing you to compare that to who you thought your audience was going to be.

Conventions can be a great way to make contacts such as other studios that you could perhaps team up with; contractors you can outsource art or audio to; and streamers that might cover your game. With the latter, focus on building a relationship with small-but-passionate streamers that you can work with to showcase your game, rather than chasing after bigger names who often charge huge amounts to feature games.

Top is our original stand, and below that our slightly higher budget version. Note the standees for social media selfies.

Budgeting for conventions

But while attending conventions can be useful, there is of course a time and money cost to attending them. You may lose development time ensuring you have a reasonably polished playable demo to show off, but you’re also going to need time to prepare and recover afterwards. Then there’s the monetary cost of travelling to the show, food, accommodation, making your stand look attractive, and the possibility of merchandise.

If money’s tight then a great option is Payload Studio’s Tentacle Zone, which allows smaller developers to attend conventions extremely cheaply. A little extra money can be useful in providing attendees with social media photo opportunities, such as standees or someone in cosplay as one of your characters. You can also look into giveaways but these need to either be useful or have a reason for people to keep hold of them instead of just chucking them when they realise how much stuff they need to carry home.

The Tentacle Zone is a great way for smaller teams to get their game in front of a convention audience.

What to take

The easiest option is probably going to involve demoing your game on a PC, though showing it on tablets can work well. If you can manage it then taking two PCs helps, letting more than one person play at a time or having the second one loop a video (and also giving a backup in case one of the computers unexpectedly dies).

You should discuss the space you’ll have to work with - plus power and network requirements - with the convention organiser. Always take extension cables, and you should be wary of needing an internet connection to show your game. The WiFi at big conventions often collapses under the strain, and relying on your own mobile hotspot can also break down as networks struggle to cope with thousands of nerds using their phones. If your gameplay relies on multiple players then you might need to hack together a simple AI for the event (it only has to survive a single game per player so you don’t need Skynet).

I’d recommend at least two staff, but ideally three. One of you runs the demo, but this can get exhausting so you’ll need to regularly rotate. Meanwhile another works the crowd, drawing people in to play your game, while the third can take a look at the rest of the show floor, fetch drinks, and so on. I’d suggest each of you wears your game’s t-shirt, making it clear you’re developers.

Finally, take plenty of drinks and snacks, throat sweets (as you’ll hopefully be talking constantly), deodorant - for the love of god, don’t forget this one - and business cards. Cards should include your contact details but also where your game can be found after the event. Ideally include a logo or screenshot so people can remember which of the many, many games they saw was yours.

Practice your demo

Practice how you’re going to introduce your game to convention players, giving them just enough context ('this is you, this is what you’re trying to achieve') and instructions to get started, because when someone sits down in front of your game at a convention they just want to get playing and definitely don’t want to hear your detailed backstory. You should refine your intro over the convention as you work out which elements of your game players are responding to.

Ask your players for comments and suggestions, as interacting with the enthusiastic developer behind a game makes it personal and not an easily dismissed corporate product. Speaking of which, it’s worth considering if you have a ‘developer story’ to relay to any gaming press or streamers that try your game. With hundreds of games to cover anything that they can hang a story on makes their life easier and can help get your game featured. Why are you making this particular game? Anything interesting about your team members or methods? Any political, charitable, or other goals involved?

The ideal situation is that people can play the demo and then immediately download your game, but if it’s not out yet or that’s not feasible then make sure it’s easy for them to follow up later. Point them at a beta, early access, wishlist, mailing list, competition, Discord, or video channel.

Promotional cards that we gave out before Combat Cards’ release, giving people a reason to keep our game in mind.

After the convention

Beyond the energy boost of seeing excited people playing your game it’s worth taking stock of what you got out of attending a convention so you can decide if it was worth the time and money. You should also write up what you learned in terms of areas of your game that people gravitated towards or were bored / confused by, as seeing potentially hundreds of people play your game in quick succession can be a real eye opener from a playtesting point of view.

Finally, you should reach out to any streamers or journalists you talked to, asking if you can provide any follow up material that would help them. Keep in mind that they may be extremely busy with post-convention write-ups and your game may not be their highest priority. Still, if you’re friendly, polite, and can provide an interesting developer story then they may get back to you at a later date, so keep your follow-ups professional. Actually, that’s a good point to end on…

You are your game!

Returning to the show floor, if you only take one piece of advice from this piece it should be: ‘be professional.’ While at a convention you’re not hanging out with friends, at University, or at a game jam - you are at a public event, representing your game and your studio. I’ve seen young people demoing games at conventions get bored and wander away from their stand, sprawl out on the floor while using their phone, get into tickle fights with friends, and more. Because we’re an established studio I’ve then had those people come over and ask about jobs with us, and believe me it’s hard to shake the image of someone acting like a child on the show floor when picturing them as a teammate.

While at a convention you should assume that the person standing behind you is a journalist or a streamer, works for another developer or a publisher, or is part of the convention staff who decide if you’ll be allowed back next year. You are the public face of your game, so act like a professional if you want the rest of the industry to treat you like one.

Stuart Maine
Stu has been a designer and writer for 26 years, across PC, console and mobile. His first book, I’m Too Young To Die, is out now. He’s on Twitter as @maine_stuart.

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