We announced a game! Our first game! And we were going to take that game to a convention! Our VERY first convention!
So, naively, we set out as a tiny NZ studio to have our first boothing experience at PAX West. It went far better than we could have expected, despite multiple mishaps, sore feet, lost passports, and merch that arrived a day after the entire thing finished. With the first trial by fire over, we’ve come out braver, wiser, and with the strongest potions to share with our fellow travellers.
Let’s dive into Starcolt’s Hot Tips for your First Date with PAX West:
Do you actually need to be at this convention?
Seriously, are you sure? It’s a whole THING. You are? Okay, read on.
We weren’t sure how BFF (a very text heavy, dating sim/pet management game) would play on a show floor, as it’s a very loud setting suited for very busy and flashy games to draw crowds. We were pleasantly surprised that there was a line around the booth the entire duration of the convention, but we’d also just gotten a bunch of attention from the Nintendo Direct showcase, which helped our cause. Have a think about whether cons are the correct route for your game, what ROI looks like for you, and what you’re hoping to achieve there. Biggest question to answer is what constitutes a “good PAX” and a “bad PAX” for you? And how will you tell if you achieved it?
Suss out your booth layout waaaay in advance!
We figured out a (extremely MS-painty but actually done in PS) booth layout before we went to PAX, along with costings for everything. Here’s what my quick top down and “3D” view looked like:
Being able to block stuff out from a top down view works well, but having a semi-3D version bashed together will help you work out which parts draw the eye and what is being blocked from view. Make sure you block out for how many people you’d like inside your booth, and for friends to watch over shoulders of those playing.
They’re good, and they’re very busy – act early and act fast. If you can afford it, fork out for a third party to manage bookings etc for you. If you’re doing it yourself, set up a calendar schedule for press to book themselves into (we used the free service Calendly when we showed at our own stomping ground, PAX Aus).
Because we weren’t familiar with American press, we teamed up with Popagenda (https://popagenda.co) to handle all our press bookings and set us up with meetings. It was a bit tricky because we had to get press to book in with us before our game was announced, and having Popagenda managing it helped boost our legitimacy. Send out the press release as soon as you can – we were fortunate to be almost completely booked every day!
My advice would be to write your own press release, even if you do go with a third party for PR management, as understanding the studio/game tone can be tricky, and then hand it over. Now you can focus on fixing last-minute bugs, booking travel insurance, and the million other deadlines happening around a con.
If you’re not able to get help on the PR front, PAX sends out those handy lists of attending press – resist the urge to email every single one! It’ll take some time to go through the spreadsheets, but it’s worth identifying which outlets/journalists/streamers are tapping into your target audiences. We had a list of “send a personalised email” and then a general email release that we sent out to those who we felt would be interested. Resist the urge to only send emails to big-name streamers – often great conversion comes from accounts with smaller followings who are more dedicated to your niche (and therefore, so are their followers).
Unions are a thing!
If you’re from NZ, or anywhere else that isn’t America, you may be completely unaware that you may not be able to carry a massive lounge suite into the venue by yourself.
This is where a lot of the “hidden” (read: for internationals) costs come in. We just expected to lug all our own stuff in with help from some friends, and so as soon as we realised how much extra money, time and complexity we would be adding with our original booth ideas, we started downsizing the ideas and coming up with more creative ways to make the booth look good with soft furnishings and things that we could just carry in easily.
Basically, for those not in the know: Unions manage all the labour in American PAX events. This means limits on everything from what you can carry in yourself, to what you can plug in yourself, etc. etc. Of course, the labour is paid, and with these extra regulations comes extra costs. This can come as a surprise to internationals, so ensure you read all the information PAX sends you very carefully to avoid any dramas!
Should I hire equipment through PAX?
Hiring through PAX isn’t the cheapest option, but it’s definitely easier than having to source it yourself – plus it gets delivered and taken away!
We ended up hiring a big TV (for our trailer) and monitors, but bringing the keyboards, mice, laptops and mouse pads ourselves. As far as furniture goes, it was more cost-efficient to hire a table (for play stations) chairs, and a stand for our TV, than to buy one and bring it in. As internationals, sometimes you’re outta options. Hire the cheapest and make them cute by grabbing tablecloths and decorations at Target or any other nearby store (we used curtains).
One neat thing about PAX West was that we could donate booth furniture to charity (Child’s Play) afterward, and they’d both take care of it and benefit from taking it away when we couldn’t. We hope PAX Australia starts to do this in the future because it’s really quite a cool initiative.
If you’re staying at a nearby hotel, you can call them ahead and beg them to take your shipping, so that you’ve got all your printing, merch, game cards, and whatever else by the time you arrive. The nicer the hotel, the more likely you’re going to get away with this. Otherwise, take advantage of the ‘same day’ printing in the convention center – very useful if you run out of game cards on the first day (yes, we screwed up).
If you have friends in Seattle, you can ask them nicely if you can post to their address as well (very useful if you want to save costs by buying cheap party décor on Amazon). Basically, and I cannot stress this enough, avoid having multiple heavy suitcases if you’re doing big international travel like us – your back and feet will thank you for it, and there’s nothing worse than doing set up and then boothing with an already exhausted body. We’ve learned. It’s awful. My feet will never be the same.
This one is a sore spot for us, as we didn’t get our fabled dog butthole socks to Seattle in time for the convention. Due to a tornado (apparently??) the shipping was delayed, so we only had some art prints to sell. Merch can really offset the cost of the convention, as well as being a nice physical reminder of the game for future players, so if your game works well with merch, we’d definitely recommend it!
To sell, we had a Square and a swipe reader that could operate offline, meaning that we didn’t have to rely on the internet or cash. We also had an iPad that the Square was connected to. Just as a caution; ensure all your Square set up is done well in advance to avoid any mishaps – the website proudly says it’s international, but we’ve had to buy separate Squares and set up separate Square accounts per country we’ve sold merch in. You’ll also need a local bank account set up to be able to take cash, and depending on what country you’re selling in, the offline selling function may or may not work. This could probably be an entire article in itself.
General Boothing Tips for the new ones among us:
- Having a press station was very necessary – we had to keep a laptop separate. It wasn’t ideal, but meant we could stop kicking off players (we had no idea how popular our game was going to be, which is very hard to tell shortly after announce).
- On a similar note, have a printed copy of your press schedule, including the outlet, who the journo is and what they usually cover, and any notes you may have that will help you smash any potential interviews.
- Prep your whole team with a little PR briefing– this helps keep a nice united front on how you’re presenting the game. Include things like the game’s elevator pitch, what information is public and what’s NDA, and aspects of the game/USPs you’d like to highlight.
- You don’t need sound on your trailer, and turning it off might save you from going wild.
- Sanitizer!There’s no such thing as too much. Wipe down all the peripherals every night of the convention, and sanitise often to avoid PAX plague.
- Get some sort of flooring for your booth – a standing pad thing could help here too. By happy accident, we were dead set on having astroturf at our booth, but we really noticed the difference between standing on the thinly carpeted concrete and our turfed booth.
- You can never have enough tape, cable ties, scissors, and string.
- Make sure you have a million game cards (okay more seriously – we had 500, and ended up handing those out in our first day. Having a lot of these is good).
- Your banner is real estate – try and have platforms and release date in an easy-to-see place. It’s really good to have that info up there for people to take photos of if you a) run out of cards and b) have a small crowd around your booth.
- Sometimes you need to be flexible and buy stuff from Target on the day. As you’ll notice, my original booth layout had chairs rather than dog beds. We couldn’t find any chairs I wanted because they were all bought, presumably by other booths. It’s fine. Improvise. People loved the dog beds anyway.
- Enlist friends to help you with set up and pack down where possible– and arriving the day before so you’re not dopey really helps if you can afford it. If you don’t have any contacts in the city, often you’ll be able to find local games students etc. to help you (paid, please) and honestly it’s worth it.
- Always have at least two people at the booth. Conversely, don’t have too many of the team on at once as it can put people off coming and speaking to the devs. Try to keep an eye on the play stations and don’t get too engrossed talking to each other.
- Prepare to do the entire convention without internet.
- If your feet are sore you can stand on each other’s feet to get the blood moving again. We’re not responsible for any weird looks you get.
- You will be tired.If you’re the producer, prepare for the week following PAX to be a write-off for team members going.
- Please don’t lose your passport in America. It’s a nightmare.
- Have a mailing list at the end of your demo for people to enter their email addresses. At the end of the convention, pop the mailing lists onto a USB so you can do a follow up after PAX. We had a field at the end of our demo which added email addresses to a .txt file and it was a quick, easy way to keep people engaged after the event without an internet connection.
- Try and keep the demo 5-8 mins long(ours was 15-25, meaning we had people waiting for an hour to play the game).
- Make sure you have a quick key to restart the game from the beginning rather than having to navigate through an esc menu – saves so much time.
- Lower seating can help with accessibility (wheelchairs) and for groups of friends to watch one person play.
We hope this has been helpful, and feel free to reach out to us if you’ve got any other questions about boothing for the first time!
Starcolt team xxx