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Prepping for PAX: How to demo your game

Prepping for PAX: How to demo your game

14-Oct-2015
With PAX Aus just a few weeks away, we asked two experts for their tips on how to get the most out of exhibiting a game at a consumer show.

Micheal Muirden is from Siege Sloth Games, one of dozens of AIE Incubator and student teams showing at PAX this year. Micheal has been instrumental in exhibiting their upcoming game, Evergreen, at expos all around the world.

Leigh Harris is a Game Design teacher at AIE’s Sydney campus and one of the cofounders of Flat Earth Games. He’s showing his third game, Objects in Space, at PAX this year.

We asked both Leigh and Micheal to share their expertise…

What’s the main purpose of exhibiting at an event like PAX? Is it media coverage? Is it building word of mouth? Is it getting feedback?

Leigh: For our first PAX Aus, we were launching our first game, TownCraft, so it was a big fat dollop of all three. With so much for the journalists who attended to cover, the likelihood of coverage appearing promptly was quite low, so that was less of a priority. Also, it being our first game, watching hundreds of people play it over the course of the weekend meant that we had pages and pages of notes for stuff to fix for our first update, so it was invaluable as a testing tool for us.
It wasn't PAX which got TownCraft to the #2 spot on the charts in Australia, though. That credit goes to a positive review for the game which went live many weeks later on Good Game: Spawn Point.The review itself wasn't organised at PAX at all, but that said, it very well could've been that Good Game saw TownCraft as a serious contender because we were showing it at PAX.

Micheal: Our first few shows were more about getting player feedback and validating our idea and design decisions. As the game progressed and we begun to focus on a target market we wanted to make sure that the game was appealing to them and was interesting enough that they would bring their friends over to the booth to play. Now that the release of Evergreen is in sight we are setting up appointments with the press and trying our best to cut through the huge amount of games press and let the world know that we exist.

Do you need to have a specific plan about what you’re going to get out of an event like PAX? Or can you just wing it?

Micheal: The costs of attending an interstate or international convention makes up a huge proportion of our budget and it's a good idea to have a goal for an event so you can compare it against other activities and make sure you making the most for your money. You do need to make sure that not every second of your trip is scheduled though, as sometimes opportunities can come up and you want to be able to respond to them.

Leigh: You should always know why you're attending a show. You should contact the press before the event starts to organise times for interviews and demonstrations of your game, you should know enough about the show's typical audience that you can tailor your message to them when preparing your game, and you should make sure you have a build of your game which shows off enough of the game to get people interested, but doesn't have SO much of your game in there that one person will hog your limited booth space for an hour or two.

What are some of the less obvious considerations about getting booth space at an event like PAX?

Leigh: The first would be how far in advance you need to book your space. If a show is worth your while, you'll want to be ready to book your spot the day the spaces become available. If a show is only three months away and they still have lots of spots open, you'd best ask yourself why that is and maybe speak to other developers to see why so few people are attending.

Secondly, there's usually some room to negotiate your positioning within a show. Have you been to this particular show before? If so, do you remember which parts were the noisiest? Were they particular booths? Particular sections? If you haven't been to one of these shows before, ask a dev who has and see if they can remember where these troublesome spots were. Of course, the organisers will try to iron out areas where it's problematically noisy, but they can never be perfect. So when you're booking a spot, make sure to get a top-down map and ask who your neighbours are. If it's a booth known for making so much noise that you won't be able to talk to your fans (coughLeagueofLegendscough), then maybe ask the show for the same sized booth in a different area.

Micheal: We've also been taken by surprise by some of the rules and regulations for showing, from OH&S requirements to mandatory classification signage. Reading the materials can help avoid these surprises, but to some degree you have to just make sure you have some time and money ready to deal with the unexpected and not let it ruin your show. 


Once you’ve booked, will people just rock up at your booth? Or how do you encourage attendees to see your game?

Micheal: One of the advantages that indie devs have is that you are the one attending these events, and your enthusiasm and passion for your game can leave an impression on players that can rival or exceed the content of the demo they are playing. It can be hard to keep those levels up all day but players will avoid a stand with a grumpy or tired looking dev so having at least two people at a show is essential to give yourself time to rest.

Leigh: As long as your booth is in a good position, you should get plenty of foot traffic, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't also be reaching out! Use social media to your advantage and let people who follow you know that if they mention a certain keyword they'll get some kind of bonus. Have something to give away. Have some free keys available to win. Host mini-competitions. Have daily high scores with prizes for those who do best to generate extra word of mouth. Ask PAX organisers to promote your game via their social media channels (they totally will). Partner with other developers to do cross-promotion deals. 

Do all of these kinds of things and more. Give people as many reasons as possible to come and visit you, but make sure of this one golden rule: don't reward people for visiting your booth - reward them for finishing the build of your game that you have on display.

What mistakes do devs make in the way they try to demo their game?

Micheal: The biggest one is not bringing any backup builds to a convention. Sometimes you are not showing on your own hardware and your latest build which you've tested as bug free will crash on start up, or the build copied to the USB incorrectly or with a few files missing, any of these issues can stop you from demoing for at least a few hours which is a waste of resources. 

Leigh: The most common thing I see developers do which makes me want to slap them (out of love, you understand) is to stand awkwardly in the corner of their booth looking that their phone and not engaging with anyone.

I don't care that you're not a salesperson. I don't care that your game 'is good enough that it shouldn't need to be sold'. If you're the sort of developer who thinks that the game's quality guarantees its success, then a) you're either going to have to rely very, very, very heavily on luck to become successful and b) why on EARTH are you at PAX to begin with? If you're at PAX, it's to reach your audience. If you aren't actively, passionately trying to reach out to the people passing by and encouraging them to play your game, it's not worth being at the show at all.

How do you decide what to show of your game? Is it better to spend time preparing a small, polished “vertical slice” or is the latest build, bugs and all, okay to show?

Micheal: Having a short and memorable demo lets you show off what your game is about while respecting that a convention is a busy time for players who want to get around and play everything. A polished vertical slice also allows you to get the highest possible number of people playing and talking about your game. We maintain a level which looks good and has some late game content that we use for conventions like PAX, as we want to give the player in idea of what the final game is going to be like. 

Leigh: It's sadly too easy to get bogged down in making builds which are explicitly for show floors where you fudge a few features and squash some of the exciting bits together to make for a guaranteed 5 minutes of fun. But it's a necessary evil. If you're doing a mobile game which is designed to have 2-5 minutes of play time per session you don't have to worry about it, but otherwise you want a version which is designed to get people's attention in seconds and hold it for minutes.

How do you know when your game is ready to exhibit at an event like PAX?

Leigh: This very much depends on the game and on what you hope to achieve by showing it there. As a general rule, though, it should be fairly far along in development, or at least look like it is. You'll be showing it directly to people who play games. Publishers know what to expect from early prototypes. So do other developers. Joe public? Not so much.

But Joe public can't see a missing feature, only a broken existing one. Or an ugly existing one. So if your fighting game is going to have 12 characters it's far better to have only 2 to show which have all their moves ready and feel great than it is to have 8 which barely work. First impressions last.

Micheal: Even if there aren't any gaming or pop culture events on near you sometimes the theme of the game can allow you to show at events that are popular with your target market, for example we showed Evergreen at Canberra's Floriade flower festival last year. Exhibiting at an event like PAX is much higher stress then showing it off to friends or other devs, you will be able to really focus your pitch and find out what people are responding to and what isn't interesting to them. One of the best pieces of advice we have received was to have our paragraph pitch printed out onto signs so when we are busy players can see what the game is about and put what they are seeing into context. 

What do you recommend teams do after the show in terms of debriefing and follow-up?

Leigh: Have a formal discussion about how each show went. What went well? What went wrong? Why? How can you fix it now? If it can't be fixed now, how can you do better at the next show? Have a deliberate meeting about this specific set of questions. You can't learn and grow if you don't ask the hard questions of yourself.

Micheal: One thing we did for PAX Prime was to create a trello board and take pictures of the business cards that we had collected that day along with some basic notes that could jog our memory if or when we decide to contract those people. We also contact any media outlets we spoke to and give them links to our presskit and some other basic info, it makes their jobs easier and means that they might be more likely to write something up. We will also sit down and look at how well we did in terms of the goals we set out beforehand and make sure that the convention was worth it for us, both in terms of finance and our time.

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