Being an active presence at gaming conventions is the life blood of any independent games designer and publisher's campaign. Its not only the most cost effective form of advertising but its the best route for selling you'll likely have available. However, rolling up at a strange convention alone to sell your baby can be nerve wracking, particularly for those of us who excel at rules creation and probability calculation rather than self promotion and public speaking. I've spent a few years now running Gaslands and SSO on the boardgames and miniatures circuits from playtest, beta-test through Kickstarter to launch, sales and in the case of Gaslands, being present at one of the biggest conventions in the world while winning industry leading awards. I've been at conventions covering a few rooms in a hotel to those filling warehouses and here are a few pointers that I've picked up.
Just to say, I have no advice for people planning to pitch to publishers at conventions, I've never really tried to and certainly haven't succeeded. This is a blog for independents looking to promote their own creations at conventions.
Know the scene:
If you've not attended many conventions, visit a few trying to see them from the other side, talk to stall holders and stop for demos. Generally speaking conventions vary in size and type (board, RPG or miniature). Big cons will have all types of gaming, though they will lean one way or another, but small cons will generally be of only one type and they have surprisingly little cross over. As a generalisation, small boardgame and RPG cons are more settled, social affairs where players turn up with games they intend to play and quite clear plans for the convention while miniature cons, unless they have a tournament running, will have more attendees turning up empty handed looking to see what they find. Practically this can mean that unless you're quite aggressive with your "pull in" (see below) small boardgame cons can be more about quality rather than quantity of interactions.
It can be tempting to start with UKGE or Salute, they have footfalls in the tens of thousands, you'll have heard of them, they're professionally run making contact and set up clear and easy, and will give you a lot of return for your effort. There are a few reasons not to do so, firstly money, there are small cons up and down the country willing to give demo tables for the cost of a ticket while big cons will charge in the region of hundreds of pounds, a lot to lose on a bad day. Secondly, at big cons even if you're not doing a good job you can still make your money back which can entrench bad practice by making a bad day look like a good one. If you pay for a stall at a large convention you should be making a profit, not just breaking even. Thirdly, there are a fantastic group of gamers for whom the convention scene is the center of their hobby and you can only really connect with them in the more relaxed longer interactions that only smaller conventions allow. Finally, and most importantly, if you're going to get it wrong (and you will the first few times) its best done at smaller cons. There's nothing worse than realising two days into a £200 con that you've been presenting everything back to front.
Cover The Practicalities:
Check with the convention what will be provided in the way of chairs and tables, not all provide either or both and some will charge to supply them. Even if you're running a party or miniatures game or don't expect to sit down much (I tend to stand up a lot) bring at least one chair if they are not provided. Bring a sheet large enough to cover your table, some conventions provide very rough trestle tables and a cheap, black sheet can really up your presentation. Have something to hand out, a business card or flyer as a minimum, so long as anyone who stops by can leave holding something that has your details on it. You may as well start a mailing list since a clip board, pen and paper cost little in time and effort but don't get tunnel vision about it. Make sure that its entirely clear that e-mail addresses are given to be added to a mailing list, if you say that the list is just for a single or specific event such as a Kickstarter launch be certain that you ask permission before sending anything else. Keep in mind that a mailing list is nice to have but hard selling signing up to one is not worth putting people off. A banner is pretty standard even for tiny booths at small conventions these days. A roller banner is about £80 and often comes with a flyer or business card package. I don't think they are a total necessity for your first con but once you have some finalised artwork they are a worthwhile investment, if only to make you feel better about your stall. Peripherals such as posters, badges etc. are largely a waste of time unless they come free with a printers package.
The Pull In:
This is the step that the banner really helps with since you can see people stopping to look and explaining what they're looking at is a good opener. If you see people looking an obvious opener is to ask if they have heard of your game, it both implies that you're big enough that they might have heard of you and gives them a question to respond to, starting interaction. If they've heard of it they'll have an opinion on if they want to hear more or not and you can skip straight to the main pitch. If not give a simple one sentence explanation of the game's background and a strong selling point. So for example with Gaslands those are "Its a Mad Max or Death Race 2000 car racing and combat game", or "Its designed to play with Hot Wheels cars, so its the miniatures game you already own the miniatures for". If you've gotten this far its time to offer a demo or run through. When you make this offer its important to know how long a full game will take and what the minimum amount of time you need to give a flavour of the game is. Be realistic, people have other games or events booked in and they will not appreciate missing out thanks to your over ambitious claims. Personally I don't use sign up sheets because I don't have the heart to cut people off half way through a good game because of a previous booking. In the event that your tables are full you're having a good convention, and people are usually fine with either returning or learning by watching.
Crunch And Run Your Rules:
However complex your game is find a way to strip its rules down to a 30 second to 1 minute long rules dump. You don't need to introduce every rule at this point, just enough that your players can understand their final goals and get through their first activation. Co-op or open information games are a lot more forgiving for this, in a versus game people can become very upset if they suddenly discover a rule they could have used or worse one that makes a strategy they spent a few turns working towards useless. Hopefully you should understand your game deeply enough to drop in a few rules during play and read players actions ahead of time to make them aware of rules that might change their intentions. Once you've figured out your condensed rules try not to vary them too much, it might feel odd but its less important that things feel fresh to you than that your presentation is effective and efficient for your players.
Find A Light Up Moment:
There are a series of moments in any good game that connect to people, light up moments. Many of them will be emergent and late in the game, and you won't be able to force people into them, but find one you can include in your introduction. As examples, in Gaslands how the slide template works to simulate losing control on the apex of a turn, in SSO the understanding that it allows but never requires both betrayal and sacrifice. If you can find this moment in your game and give it to your audience then you've got them.
Run Your Best Game:
Don't dumb your game down, don't miss out rules or simplify them. Don't alpha game, you should be the best player of your game at the table, give your players a chance to catch up naturally, let them make mistakes and discover tactics. Don't correct them but make clear the choices that can lead to cool and cinematic moments. Don't push for a result, let players lose and lose badly if need be. Be enthusiastic, your love for your game should shine through but use an indoor voice and let your game speak for itself as much as you can. Push too hard and people will just back away. Finally, unless you're running a game in a clearly designated playtest zone you should know every rule by memory, you can check numbers and statistics but nothing makes your game look complex and unwieldy than the creator checking basic rules.
You'll have conventions where you're doing well if you get one or two demos all day, it can be disheartening but don't let it get you down. I've run Gaslands at conventions where the tables have been crowded non-stop from 9am to 2am the next day, and had others where I barely got two games all day long. Its not necessarily your fault or something you can change. Try to use the time to chat to other stall holders or organisers.
Sales Vs Size:
I've heard opinions that you should sell 50-200 units at conventions without reference to either unit cost or convention size. What I would suggest is that sales equal to roughly five times what you paid for your ticket/stand price is what you should be shooting for as acceptable.
In conclusion there are cheap or free spots at conventions up and down the country every few weeks, and every one contains valuable contacts, experience and promotional chances. Just turn up to a cheap one and see how it goes.