This article series is broken into four key topical areas:
- Choosing the Right Cons: From deciding when you're “ready” to exhibit at cons, to each con's geography, size, and costs, this section should arm you with some great up front insight to help you get started.
- Logistics: There are many details you may not be aware of until you arrive at the con and then realize, “oh crap – we didn't realize <insert_problem_here>!” Let's save you some of that hassle and give you a laundry list of items to plan and look out for.
- Dress For Success: “Game face, bro!” You've made it to the con – you've got everything in order, now it's time to spin up the pizazz! We're making games after all, not selling shower curtain rings to motels - let's act like it!
- Engagement / Driving Toward Results: Ultimately, it all needs to come together to drive desired results. Those results come from engagement. You've got to put yourself out there, make yourself uncomfortable, and perform whatever acts of god are needed to “win the show.” If you don't accomplish this, the con is essentially a bust.
Part 1: Choosing the Right Cons:
- When are you ready?: I work in software Product Management by day, and certainly game design bears many resemblances. One of the best keynote speeches I've heard throughout my career was by Jeffrey Hayzlett, the CMO for Kodak (at the time). He pushed one thought that he wanted to be sure everyone walked away with: When you think you're ready to launch something, but that little voice in your head keeps holding you back, ask yourself, “is someone going to die?” Like the audience Mr. Hayzlett was speaking to, we're not designing shuttles for NASA or engineering safety equipment for oil rigs – no decision we make, in our line of work, will result in someone dying. Therefore, in the words of the great Shia LaBeouf, “JUST DO IT!” Now, with those dramatics out of the way, there are some warning signs to look out for, mostly covered by the remaining items in this section – make sure your first con is of the right type, costs an amount you're prepared for, and so on. As far as your product is concerned, it's readiness will be primarily determined by the type of con – read on…
- Type of con: We've experienced our share of different con types to date: cons dedicated to indie game designers where unpublished prototypes are welcomed (these ROCK!), cons focused on digital over tabletop, cons where vendors are primarily just selling merchandise, cons that are thematically focused (such as sci-fi) rather than gaming focused, cons where the attendees expect to sit and play RPGs for hours at pre-registered tables rather than walking around various vendor booths, etc. The type of con has a MASSIVE impact on how you and your products will fit in – far more than you may realize. It goes back to the age-old adage, “know your audience.” For us at Geek Fever Games, we work best with an audience that's expecting to walk around vendor booths, sit down, and play our games with them. When all goes well, this leads to a sale. Our products are not so well known that we can simply display piles of inventory and hope to sell them to random folks walking by. Likewise, we specialize in light tabletop board and card games, and so an audience geared for digital games or lengthy roleplaying games will not find much interest in what we have to offer. We're preparing for our first sci-fi focused con (not gaming centric), where our booth and games could be a somewhat unique attraction for attendees – this may create a great, “competitor-free” environment for us, but that remains to be seen. Bottom line: Figure out what kind of con “experience” you feel would work best for your products, and then just ask the hosts their opinion! We always ask if our style of booth (where people sit down and play) makes sense, so we're not blindsided again. Likewise, we also make sure we're free to sell our products at the con, since that's what we're primarily trying to do.
- Geography: Nothing too surprising here – choose cons that are within a tolerable distance. For us, we chose to focus on cons in drivable distance, to keep costs down. That's not always an option, but it's a great guiding principle. We have no problem driving 2 to 3 hours in the morning, and then drive home immediately following the event – doing this opens you up to a sizable radius that you can probably find some decent cons within.
- Size: As far as size goes, on one hand you might assume the larger the better – more people equals more exposure, more players, and potentially more sales. On the other hand, the larger the con the more expensive it typically is, and the more strict the rules are. We've been to many “local” cons (meaning, smaller events held in a small lodge that were only advertised at one or two local gaming stores), and these have been beneficial to us in many ways. While the exposure was far less, the connection you can drive with these smaller communities can be tighter and possibly lead to opportunities to get your products on shelves at the sponsoring gaming stores (most of them really want to support local indie designers). On the other end of the spectrum, cons with thousands of registered attendees are fantastic for other reasons – massive exposure, opportunity to meet some press and potential publishers, and if nothing else it will surly test your energy levels and help keep you young! Bottom line: We find that all sizes are valuable for different reasons. Don't close yourself off to hitting up a local/regional con – to find them you'll want to familiarize yourself with gaming stores and meet-up groups in the area.
- Costs: Last but not least in this section, and it probably goes without saying, you should understand all the costs ahead of time. If you're early in your exhibition years, don't run to Pax and spend thousands on a booth, airfare, hotels, etc. Start with some of the cons focused on indie designers (BostonFIG, CT-FIG, Arisia Indie Expo, etc.) - these offer many of the mainstream con benefits, at a fraction of the cost for indie exhibitors. A booth at Pax or a big ComiCon might cost over $1000, whereas indie friendly cons will typically cost you under $200. Other things to look out for: find out how many attendee tickets the booth comes with, if any – if it doesn't come with those then you may be required to purchase them separately. Consider all the booth supplies you'll need (which we'll cover in detail in a later section). Consider any permits or licenses you may require to sell merchandise out of state (legally) – we ended up deciding NOT to purchase a “foreign sales & use tax cert” for cons we attend in MA, due to the $500 cost, but that means we cannot sell at those cons unless the hosts have a blanket “Peddler's License” or similar. You can always ask the host to confirm one way or the other. Finally, you'll want to factor in gas, tolls, and food for the day.