In The Land of Cosplay and Cupcakes: Expo Post Mortem from an Indie Developer’s Perspective

What went right and wrong and what lessons I learned from exhibiting Executive Star and the OUYA at a comic convention

Last weekend, I headed on down to the MCM Comic Con in Birmingham. It’s primarily a comic book and memorabilia convention, but is chock full of everything science fiction and fantasy related. I had been toying with the idea of exhibiting my game at such a convention for some time, but this time finally got round to doing it.

Background

The convention is one of a number organised by the same company around the UK every year. I’d previously visited their London expo as a regular punter, since I’d always had an interest in comics and anime in particular, and it was within walking distance of my home at the time in London.

However, when I got there, I found there was a whole section of the exhibition hall dedicated to gaming. Whilst my game was not directly related to comic books or anime, it was the same story for many of the other stands and products on sale (everything from ninja lego sets to custom cupcakes).

So I eventually got round to booking a dealer table, hired a car and packed together everything I’d need to put on a show!

mcm exec star

Costs and Objectives

There’s no point charging off to do something like this unless you know what you want to get out of it. Ultimately, it costs time and money, so there has to be a way to measure whether it was worth it.

Costs:

  • £160 – Dealer table (stand), backing table & venue entry
  • £110 – Electricity
  • £10   – Materials for stand (table cloths)
  • £53   – Accomodation
  • £0     – Car/Van Hire (borrowed from my parents)
  • £56   – Fuel Cost
  • £??? – Opportunity Cost (3 day’s development time)

Total: £389+

Objectives:

  • Increase game sales
  • Raise company/game profile
  • Get feedback on game
  • Determine if future events are worthwhile

What went wrong?

Nothing to Sell:
I booked the event about two months beforehand. I thought at the time that I would have a far more presentable and complete product. As it transpired, I had completed the tutorial, which subsequently served as the demo, rather than something I could fully show off or even take pre-orders off. I also had no OUYA consoles to sell, since it hasn’t shipped yet.

Low Traffic Location:
My position in the hall was a low traffic location. The t-shirt sellers next to me has a particularly torrid time. The exhibition was split between two halls, with a wide central connecting corridor connecting them together (floor plan). My stand was in a block in the middle of the left hand hall (E12). I picked this spot because on the plan from the previous year, the video games exhibits had all been clustered at the back of the left hand hall, making my stand right next to them

Turns out I guessed correctly that this would be the video games area, and my stand ended up directly opposite the shiny corporate Nintendo 3DS stand. In that regard it was perfect, as gamers attracted to the other games would be attracted to that part of the exhibition.

In practice, the Nintendo stand had been set up with a waist high wall around its circumference, with entrances to the left and right, where there was more space for people to queue. That meant people who were exiting that stand did not necessarily spill straight out with my stand in front of them, but rather, with my stand out of their immediate eyeline:

mcm nintendoIt also meant there were no stands for people to look at immediately opposite. People who have just finished looking at a stand opposite yours often turn around after finishing with it to see what is next. It also gives people somewhere to go if you are currently busy / until the stand is free, and they can have a go themselves. Finally, not being the stand at the end of a T-junction made a big difference. People are already walking sideways / across the stand and have to actively look left or right, instead of straight ahead, to see the stand.

I should also note that the highest traffic volume area (the corridor between the two halls) would probably also have been inappropriate, as people need space to stand whilst they play the game

No banner:
Most exhibitors, stands and sellers had relatively cheap, pop up banners with glossy images of their products, which I didn’t have. That made the stand look a little less polished and professional, and meant people could not see what the product was from a distance (despite having the big TV screen showing the game).

Contact details:I had the two side monitors showing the game’s main splash screen / box cover art, but only one of them had, in rather small writing, the company logo, website and twitter handles. On the first day, I forgot my business cards, and a lack of flyers meant people who wanted to know more had to take a blurry photo with their phone cameras of the screen corner.

No Camera:
I forgot my digital camera (hence the lack of photos on this blog post). This was a major fail I realised, as otherwise I could use that as valuable marketing material for my game (showing people playing it, showing it in a colourful and active environment, and providing something to write about on this blog, on my development log, on other websites that might pick up on this story).

No t-shirts:
I didn’t get round to printing any t-shirts for myself to wear. Although it was probably too cold in the hall to wear just a t-shirt, it still represents a missed opportunity for additional advertising of the company/game. It looks more professional and at moments when I was wondering around the exhibit, it would be something different that may later lead people to come and visit the stand when they see it later on

No helper:
At times, I had to go get lunch or a drink or visit the toilet. As I had no helper, I had to trust those on the stands next to me to make sure no one stole the equipment (especially the wireless controllers). Plus obviously lost sales, and it doesn’t look very edifying when sat hiding behind the screen, quickly stuffing ones self with whatever lunch could quickly be got hold of

Black tablecloths:
Black might fit with the space/scifi theme of the game, but they really show up any dust, dirt or bits that get on them, especially under the harsh lights of the venue. An iron and board might have also been an idea, since the setup of the stand meant a large area of just tablecloth in front of the screens, which was a bit creased and wrinkled from the packaging in which the freshly purchased sheets were in

Music too quiet:
Music can be a great way to attract people to the stall, but generally it was too quiet. The exhibitors at the stand next to me actually commented I should turn on the music if I had it, and sticking my ear near the speakers, I realised the music had been on the whole time, and myself and everyone else had just not noticed. Obviously there is a balance between the already noisy environment, and blasting out excessively loud music, but I definitely got the balance too quiet this time

Difficult for kids / not interactive enough:
A lot of kids were naturally attracted to the game, but had difficulty understanding it was just a demo / tutorial and struggling with the abstract nature of the game. Something more interactive (for adults as well) might well have been better than something complete, but largely passive

Where to stand?
When talking to people, standing behind the screen feels a bit removed from them, and also makes it very awkward to see what people are actually seeing on screen. There was a gap between mine and the next door stand for access, but it was too small and was being used by the neighbouring stand to likewise stand to the side of the customer and the product whilst making the sales pitch. I spent a lot of time actually standing in front of the stand, making it harder to make eye contact with incoming people, whilst also confusing people as to whether I was the stand owner or another customer, and that the stand was currently being used (so no chance for them to have a go).

Hostels:
I was feeling cheap after all the accumulated costs of the event, so booked to stay in a dormitory in a youth hostel. This was great in the evenings, as it gave me people to socialise with and practice my sales pitch on

However, being woken up at 4am one night by other guests staggering in drunk, and having to wait 30 minutes for the shower to become free on the next morning (which meant I nearly didn’t get to the venue on time), was a big downside.

Electricity & Wifi:
I got passed around between various different companies when I first booked the stand/table, and it was only about a week before the event that I was able to secure electricity supply. Furthermore, there was no wifi, which was fine for this event, as the OUYA store was offline anyway, and it would prevent people from being distracted by wanting to play other games they saw on the store. However, it will be a problem in future if I want to demonstrate any features of a console that is entirely digital distribution for its games

What went right?

New / unusual product:
Many people had heard of the OUYA, but never seen one. That was a great way of attracting people over, before going on to introduce my own game. Equally, people who had no idea what it was or had never seen one before could be drawn in by telling the story of the console (and by the fact people just wanted to know what on earth it was). Again, that made a good way to lead into my own game

Multiple sales pitch angles:
I was able to talk about the OUYA, about board games and strategy games, the state of the games industry, independent game development, or even some of the other games on show at the event (f.e. Crysis 3 was on show and made by a company based in Nottingham, where I’m from). All these things gave me multiple angles to lead into the pitch about my own game

Engaging with customers:
I felt I was really able to engage with customers, not so much being able to talk directly about all things to do with the product, but being able to answer their questions and have an open and honest discussion with them. Being able to have rebuttals to questions about both the game and OUYA in advance, and being able to spin them in an honest / ernest way helped connect with people and make them feel positive and included in the conversation, rather than just sold to

Near the Gaming Section:
Being near the other games was a big bonus, as evident by the conversations I had with most people who stopped by the stand.

Interactive:
The line “want to have a go?” worked fantastically in drawing in people who had already glanced across at the stand or who’s eye I had caught. Being able to immediately offer something of value to the customer gives a platform to build a rapport with them that will eventually lead to a sale. Seeing people already having a go drew in yet more, who were interested in just seeing what was going on.

The downside is that only one person can have a go at a time, and the experience is quite time consuming, so it is difficult not to lose customers who are interested, but can’t have a go, or who I can’t focus attention on because I’m already talking to someone. This can be solved by having the multiplayer version of the game completed (which in time / next time, it will be), and also by having more consoles and more helpers (though both of those increase cost)

Results

Since I wasn’t able to sell the game, the objectives change slightly from sales, to promoting the game, getting feedback and determining if future events are worthwhile.

Promoting Game / Company:
This is easier to measure, as you can see how many times people have tweeted about the game, followed the company on twitter or liked it on facebook. I picked up a couple more followers on twitter, which is quite clearly completely not cost effective. However, I think with the lessons learned (as per above), this can be turned round, and as a purely marketing exercise, the event can probably be made to at least break even

Feedback:
One of the really great things was the amount of encouraging feedback I got about the game. Clearly it is difficult to give valuable criticism in terms of game development, especially to the game creator’s face if that feedback is negative. However, from a morale point of view, it has been really encouraging, and hopefully will translate into increased productivity

Research:
For determining if this sort of event is a good way to promote a game, I think it definitely fulfilled that objective. It has helped in assessing the different demographics of people interested in the game, which will be useful for picking the events most worthwhile. It has helped confirm that it is possible to sell at events outside of the usual gaming oriented / dedicated conventions. Also the usefulness in terms of generating press interest and gaining industry contacts: I did meet a couple of people in the industry who took an interest and who might not have otherwise been present at traditional, gaming centric events. I also noted a distinct lack of press interest, so I can probably assume that unless it is a lack of banners and other stand presentation factors (and the fact I didn’t advertise the fact I would be at the event beforehand), it is probably safe to assume the event will not get me in any newspapers or website articles.

Finally, it was useful talking to other stall holders. Their experience of different conventions, from science fiction to board games. How this one compared in terms of stall location, visitor numbers and the makeup of those visitors (the Sunday at this event for example, had a lot of families, which makes for a very different sell)

Conclusion

Taking all the lessons learned to future events, I don’t believe in terms of raw sales, that it would ever actually do more than break even. Feedback I’d been hoping to get on the game was also thin on the ground (this is perhaps where meetups with others in the industry are more valuable). However, the additional factors, such as motivation (getting me out of the house) and raising the game/company profile tip things over into positive territory.

This is not the marketing magic bullet that will make all the difference. I won’t be doing this every weekend, but I will definitely be trying this again. If, with a finished product and these lessons learned and effectively applied, it proves more measurably successful, it will make a useful addition to the suite of tools (mostly social media) that is within the reach of the average indie developer and plays to their strengths

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