My name is Ryan Dombrowski. I am also known by my business' name, Doombrowski. I am the sole member of an independent game studio. This post will explain my experience leading up to and finally running a booth at a Gaming & Technology convention.
This past weekend was Orlando iX 2016, "the South's largest celebration of creators in video games, virtual reality, and immersive experiences."* The convention included multiple speakers, industry keynotes, gaming tournaments, independent games & studios, and interactive exhibits.
I first learned of Orlando iX by attending a local gathering of game developers called Indienomicon. A speaker gave a brief description of the convention and offered a great price for booth space for early sign ups. I had a mobile game finished at the time so I decided to sign up. The cost for early sign up for a 6'x8' booth space in the indie pavilion was $50. At this time, I had no idea what I was going to do other than let people play my game and answer questions.
I signed up for the booth many months in advance which allowed plenty of time to figure out what I wanted to do and if I wanted to work on anything else that I might want to show. Not long passed before I started working on other projects. One of the projects ended up sticking. The project that stuck and that I decided to feature at my convention space was Suburban Scavengers, a tug of war style fighting game where you're trying to get somebody's garbage couch into your house. It was inspired by a One Game a Month challenge where the theme was "couch."
I did loads of research on marketing, looked up pictures of other people's booth spaces, listened to tons of indie developer podcasts, and watched many speeches from indie developers on Youtube to get ideas for what I should be doing at this convention. After gathering information, I made a list (or more accurately, many lists) of the things that I should do before the convention.
The key things that I feel were best for the convention are as follows:
Get a banner
Having a banner with clear information allows people to recognize you from a distance and helps draw people in. It also tells them who you are, which is most important. I also found that having a large banner that was high enough in the air placed my logo and studio name in many other people's pictures at the convention. I had 4'x4' banner printed from an online print shop for around $70 after shipping. Well worth it. I happened to have a lighting stand that I was able to use for my banner that put the banner roughly 8 feet in the air. I think it cost me around $90 when I bought it 10+ years ago.
Pinpoint What You're Trying to "Sell"
As an independent game developer, learning from Youtube tutorials and Udemy courses and not knowing anything of business short of things that already logically made sense to me, I had no clue what I was going to do at this convention. I sat and thought for quite a while before figuring out what was best to "sell." I keep regular development blogs. This may be of interest to people so I needed to let them know about that. I record a weekly video games and development podcast. Another key item. I have games that I've made. That's the ultimate thing that I want people to know about. I took the information from the most important things and told them to anybody that stopped by the booth to play the game. I also had small 4"x5" fliers with very brief and clear information including my website and social network information. It got a great amount of exposure and also got me things related to the next point.
Have a Mailing List Sign Up at your Booth
If you don't have a mailing list yet, don't worry about it. Make one after the convention. I had a clipboard with a mailing list sign-up sheet with the words "FREE GAME" in big bold letters at the top of the page. Since people are offering me their name and e-mail information, I decided to give them a copy of my first game in return; a fair trade if you ask me. If you don't have a game to give away or just don't want to give a game away, give people another incentive for signing up. I let everybody know that I sent out weekly newsletters with development progress as well as the latest podcast that I'd released. Let them know that you'll give them details on release dates, other conventions that you'll be at, where to find your game. Also, make sure that you can read what people write if you have a hand written sign up sheet. About 10% of the sign ups that I got look like a flea did burn outs on the page with a tiny motorcycle. If you can't read it, double check with the person before they leave the booth and re-write it yourself....clearly.
Have Lots of Business Cards
Business cards were the most popular item at my booth. People love having all of your information in a small, simple, and easily accessible format. Make sure that your business card includes your name, business name, contact information, and website. Having an eye catching logo helps as well. Logo and website could be a post in itself. They're super important. I got 500 business cards printed up at the local Staples for around $25. Well worth the investment. Don't go anywhere without them.
Interact With People
People that stop by your booth generally have some sort of interest in what you're displaying. Talk to them. If I've learned anything from years of customer service based jobs it's that you have to interact with your customers or they will leave and probably won't come back. In the convention scenario, everybody that stops at your booth is a customer. Be kind to them. Help them out. Answer their questions. Make small talk. Be interested in them, or at least act interested. You want people leaving your booth with a positive experience.
The game that I displayed had a small learning curve so I took the time to ease people into the game and learn the mechanics by playing with them and not treating them like an idiot because they didn't know how to do something. I was basically a less annoying version of Navi from Ocarina of Time.
I shook many hands while keeping a positive attitude and most people left the booth with a smile on their face. It was a good feeling.
Take Lots of Pictures and Video
A convention looks impressive with loads of neat banners and games and people. Get pictures of people at your booth playing your game. Get pictures of people smiling and having a good time. Take some short videos of people playing your game. I would suggest asking permission before doing so. Also, ask if it's alright to tag them when you post the pictures of videos on social media. Having pictures will also be good for possible future media. Your picture of people laughing while playing your game could look great in an future article about your studio or your game.
There is no way that I would have been able to do this convention without the help of my friends. I was offered 4 passes with my convention space, so I invited my girlfriend, Sandra (@Devotchka2000), my friend Nate (@theninjafatman co-host of my podcast Doom Ninja Podcast), and my friend Kale (@Kullingmusic). They were all generous enough to offer their entire weekend to helping out the Doombrowski booth. We were all very tired, but we got along great and had an awesome time.
I don't think I would ever do a convention on my own after this experience. There were times that I had to leave to use the restroom or eat and having them there to watch over the booth and keep interacting with people was invaluable. It also allowed me to have a chance to look at other booths and enjoy the convention a bit from the public perspective.
I would say that those are probably the most important things to consider when working a convention space. Doing all of these things lead to a smooth and relatively stress free convention weekend.
Some issues arose with the latest build of my game which I had never encountered until the first people started playing the game. At first, it felt like a nightmare scenario. Game breaking bugs that would literally crash the game at certain points. I did some on the fly bug fixing, but still had problems. Luckily, they were fairly minor and nobody seemed too put off by the fact that I had to reset the game occasionally.
The reception for Suburban Scavengers was overwhelmingly positive. I would have never imagined people's reactions to playing their first match against a friend. People were shouting at the screen, bouncing up and down, and laughing themselves into tears. Thinking about it now actually makes me start to tear up. To know that the months of work that I've put into this still unfinished game were worth the effort is a huge relief and feels amazing. People enjoy the game and it makes me feel like I just might be able to succeed as an independent game developer.
The Big Surprise
Near the end of the final day at Orlando iX, Nate motioned for me to move in close so he could tell me something. While I was gone, one of the event coordinators came by and told him to send a representative for Doombrowski into the conference room at 5:00. Suburban Scavengers had been nominated for an award. This blew my mind. Amidst all of these amazing games, mine was recognized and now had the chance to win an award that I honestly had no intention of even trying to get. It was crazy.
At 4:55 I headed to the conference room and sat in for the awards ceremony. There were only 4 awards for non student, non VR/AR indie games available so I had no expectations of winning anything. I thought it was cool that I even got nominated. The speaker tells a few jokes to work the crowd a bit then gets into the awards.
The Indie awards were first on the list.
Best Visual Art......Paragonyx with Super Blast Off.
Best Narrative.......Doombrowski with Suburban Scavengers!
My game doesn't have a word of dialogue. hahaha. My guess is that the judges were listening to the stories that people playing the game were creating about the scenario and based the award on that. There was the couple that broke up, the college students, and the people that just live on the same road trying to take advantage of the free couch. People were talking about how the police would be coming soon in the game and how they had points in their lives where this game was parallel to. They were all creating these great stories far beyond what I'd even considered when making the game. I remember a guy saying that I should make a level with an Xbox and a TV because he's fighting over that at home right now.
Overall, going to Orlando iX was a great decision that I feel will do nothing but help grow my game development business. I look forward to future conventions and can't wait to get the free version of Suburban Scavengers ready for the masses.
Thanks for reading!
_Until Next time
* Quoted from OrlandoiX about page http://www.orlandoix.com/about