Conferences: The Good, the Bad, and the ‘Are they worth it’

Game Conferences

Conference and expos are a great place to showcase your game and get feedback. They can, however, be a bit pricey and for an indie developer you might only be able to afford one a year if you’re lucky. So how do you choose the best one and how do you prepare so you can get the most out of it? I will try and explain all that here.

I’ve been to a few conferences now, both as an attendee and as an exhibitor and I have learned quite a lot from them. I will only talk about exhibiting at a conference, not being an attendee.

Exhibiting Costs

The first thing you need to decide when considering getting a booth at a conference is will it be worth your time and money. Booths range from $200 to $2000+ and depend on size and placement on the expo floor. That’s the first main cost. The second cost is travel and expenses. These almost always add up to more than the booth cost, especially when you have several people traveling. Equipment, signage, and handouts are another cost, but are usually less.

I calculated how much it would cost 2 people to travel from Victoria BC and exhibit at the PAX Prime conference in Seattle. Victoria is very close to Seattle, just a ferry ride away. For two people it is around $200; that’s pretty cheap. For conference materials I wanted a few posters and a bunch of handouts: another $300. Equipment would be a TV and cables, I would bring my computer: another $700. Hotel would be $1000 for 5 nights for 2 people. Food another $40 per person per day. Assuming a booth cost of $1500 that is a total of $4100. It really adds up.

But it is totally worth it! Right? Well in a way it is, but probably not how you think. I decided against showing Attack of the Gelatinous Blob at PAX, partially because I couldn’t get into the Indie Mega Booth (they supply equipment and more exhibitor passes), and partially because of the cost of renting a booth myself. But the main deciding factor was what I wanted to get out of the conference, and that wasn’t necessarily to show off the game.

I ended up helping out Dejobaan and Radial Games at their booth. It was a good chance to view the conference from the other side: the exhibitor. But the biggest benefit was meeting the other developers, media, and networking. When it came down to it, networking was what I needed to do more than to show off the game.

During a conference every exhibitor is busy beyond belief. They don’t have time to wander around and try out your game. So your best chance to really talk to them and show them your project is to go to the nighttime events and parties.

If you do decide to get a booth, I highly recommend having 3 people per day to take shifts watching the booth. A multi-day event will exhaust you and you must have relief. Just taking you and one other person will ruin your experience and possibly make you too tired to go to any of the networking events.

But what about showing off a game? While I was volunteering at the booth I kept a count in my head of how many people tried the game we were showing (Monster Loves You). There were 2 tablets with the game on them available at all times, and sometimes 3. From 9am to 5pm I counted 60 to 80 people tried the game each day. Over the 4 days that’s about 300 people. That seems like a lot until you factor in the cost of the conference. I was only going to bring one computer to demo the game, so I would at most have only been able to show it to 150 people the entire weekend. Dividing the cost of the trip by that number of people, it would have cost me $27 per person to show it to them. Since I plan to sell the game for around $15, I better hope that each person would buy 2 copies of the game right there on the spot! But no one sells their games there. They might try to recoup costs by selling merchandise or swag, but it won’t cover the trip costs. More people walk by and look at the game and don’t try it. For those you must have cards or flyers to give them so they can remember your game. The amount of walk-bys amounts to many, many more than those who tried the game and unfortunately I did not keep count of that.

The Benefit of a Conference

So there has to be a benefit to exhibiting or else no one would do it. And that benefit is networking and the media.

When you go to a conference, especially a major one, you must arrange ahead of time scheduled meetings with as many media as possible that will be attending the conference. They will write a story and then thousands to tens of thousands will see your game. Not just the few attendees that walk by and try it out. When you break the conference costs down by including media exposure, a booth makes much more sense.

As I’ve said, networking is huge. The indie game community is incredibly friendly and helpful: they want to see everyone succeed. Talking to them could give you good advice and create friendships that will benefit you and your company. Developers and media will now know you by your name and face. You are a person then and they will respond to your emails and write an article about you.


What Conference is Right For You?

Hopefully by now you get what I am saying: “conference are for networking and media exposure”. Yea there is a bit of brand awareness, but that can disappear quickly in the noise of the hundreds of booths at a conference. So what conference should you attend? Travel distance is a huge factor in cost. But if travel cost doesn’t affect your budget much you still need to look at if the money is being well spent.

I recently attended a much smaller conference than PAX. While PAX Prime had over 80,000 attendees, this one only had 3000. It was local however, so travel was nearly free. The booth was free as well as it was hosted by the local IGDA chapter, LevelUp Victoria. My costs were nothing so I cannot complain. But other people’s costs were not free: they paid for booths and set up all weekend. A small booth was about $300.

The conference wasn’t entirely focused on video games and the expo hall was the smallest part of what was being exhibited. There was Warhammer, board games, RPGs, and a LAN party as well there. Throughout the day we had very few people visit the booth. Over the 2.5 days I would say less than 100 people walked by and looked at the games. And I only counted 4 people play Attack of the Gelatinous Blob for the half a day it was shown. With that few of people the only thing to get from them was live play-testing (which is awesome and rare to get).

Not many attendees, players, or walkbys. But that is okay, that’s not what conferences are for! Media and networking is what you want so how did that stack up? Well, there was a media event, but only 10-15 media outlets. And the media event was focused on the conference itself not the individual booths or games being demonstrated. It was also mostly local new outlets reporting so their target audience is probably not the gaming community.

Throughout the event only one media person came by. More might have, it was hard to tell because their passes weren’t noticeably different from a general admission pass. At PAX the media have a bright yellow badge so you can pick them out and start talking to them. The whole time we were waiting for media to show up, do some interviews, and see some stories posted. But that just didn’t happen.

At least during the huge downtime between the occasional person walking by we could network a bit.

So what did I take from this experience? Small conferences not solely focused on videogames are probably not a good venue nor worth the money of setting up a booth. Without individual media exposure there is no point in my opinion. You get some play-testers and can network a bit. From talking to the other developers they said it was a bit of a letdown or “not the right venue.” To be fair the conference is growing, it doubled in size this year, but I think it needs to get much larger to make it worthwhile renting a booth there.

This applies to other conferences as well. Are people there to see new games? Are the media excited about it and will you get a chance to do an interview and get a story posted? Are there after-parties where you can network? Take all of that into consideration when planning your next conference.

What are your thoughts or experiences?

2 thoughts on “Conferences: The Good, the Bad, and the ‘Are they worth it’

  1. Jordan says:

    I appreciate the facts and numbers you laid out and you make a good case for any exhibitor to consider when thinking about investing in marketing through a conference. I attended GottaCon this year and it was my first time. From what I understand this was definitely the biggest turnout for it yet. The fact remains that many if not the majority of attendees were there to join in on playing table-top games or LAN competitions and, as you pointed out, were not necessarily the best audience for developers looking to showcase their game. At the panel I was a part of, we had around 30 people come in and join the discussion about ‘How to get into the games industry’. This was definitely a lot less then I had expected. I must say though that the few who showed up were keenly interested and engaged because the Q & A portion went on for some time after the scheduled panel questions. It is likely that not enough buzz was generated about the panels or exhibitors before the conference started. That being said, I think as a whole the conference did lend something positive to generating awareness of the game development scene in Victoria. In the most general sense it was good for the industry though perhaps not great bang-for-buck for a single dev renting a booth. Also I do agree it would have been nice to organize some more networking meet-ups and after-hours discussion. Lets do that next year! As far as the local game development industry is concerned, GottaCon was a step in the right direction. Hopefully we can all learn from this experience and keep trending up to help grow this industry in our backyard. Maybe next year smaller indies can look into purchasing a local version of a “indie megabooth” style collaboration to garner more attention or get a prime location at the venue. In any case we have a year to digest and build momentum for the next GottaCon. My question is how long until local studios and devs can host their own conference in Victoria and not have to piggy back on a semi-related event such as GottaCon?

  2. bowens says:

    Well stated points. I think the Victoria developer community can really help develop and grow the conference. Knowing what we want from it we can help coordinate events, media, and get-togethers for next year.
    A megabooth-style booth at GottaCon sounds great and I think a lot of people would be on board for it.

    Now to keep all these notes handy for next year. Or even for the next LevelUp meeting: discuss what we can do ourselves to help shape the event to be more videogame-friendly.

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