Earlier in the year we submitted Expand to the PAX Australia ANZ Indie Showcase. We were extremely fortunate in that our game was selected and we were provided with booth space at the event. In this post I want to reflect on the experience of exhibiting at PAX Australia and hopefully provide some useful information to people who are considering exhibiting in future years.
To give some background, PAX is a large scale festival/convention for game enthusiasts in which players can try out some of the latest video games, attend panels on a wide variety of topics, play table top board games, dress up as their favourite pop culture characters and so much more. PAX is shorthand for Penny Arcade Expo which is run by the popular web comic called Penny Arcade. PAX Australia is the first PAX to be held outside of the US and this year was the second year running in Australia. This year the convention moved to the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre to accommodate the sheer size and demand for the event.
Expand, is a single player video game in which you explore a circular labyrinth that constantly twists, stretches and expands underneath you. The game is being created by myself, Chris Johnson and composer Chris Larkin. My partner Cat helps out with a bit of the writing.
PAX Aus, similar to the US events, runs a competition called the Indie Showcase where six games are selected and provided with large booth space at the event. Developers interested in showcasing their games had to submit builds and pay a registration fee of $50AUD. Apparently nearly 100 games were submitted and we were extremely fortunate to be one of the six games selected as part of the showcase. You can view the six selected games here.
Submissions closed on the 6th of July, we were notified about our selection on the 29th of July and it was made public on the 15th of August. Within a few days of confirming that we could attend we were able to start planning out and preparing for the event. We left a lot of that planning until we got back from the Tokyo Game Show and only filled out the required information that PAX needed before we left. This was probably a mistake as we bought plane tickets when we should have actually considered driving over from Adelaide to Melbourne. I’ll come back to that later.
I think it’s important to be very clear about what exactly was provided to those who were selected for the Indie Showcase. Firstly we were prominently promoted on the PAX Australia website, within the convention booklet and on the guidebook application. This also followed through to prominent feature coverage in Grab It Magazine which PAX promoted and a panel on the Saturday night dedicated to the showcase games. The booths for the showcase were lined up in a row at the edge of the Indie Pavilion. Each booth which was apparently valued at roughly $3600AUD was 3x3m in size. We were provided with one cocktail table, two cocktail chairs, one trestle table(no chairs, we pinched them) and a large 40″ screen that was held on a tall standing frame.
Before continuing I should give some background about how PAX operates. Firstly PAX is actually run by an event management company called ReedPop, Penny Arcade is just the front face of the event. ReedPop then deal with different companies that handle shipping, furniture, electronic tag/testing, etc. So as an exhibitor you mostly deal with ReedPop but may have to talk with these other companies. When it came to furniture for the event ReedPop initially told us that we’d only be provided with a cocktail table and two chairs. They also said that we should let them know what other equipment we needed and they could possibly provide that to us at no cost. My impression here is that ReedPop are ordering equipment in bulk from the supply company and hence there was the possibility of having excess equipment which could be passed onto us. Before PAX we were notified that they could provide us with the large TV and at PAX we were provided with just the trestle table that we didn’t have the pay for. The only problem is that we weren’t provide with chairs for the trestle table and since we didn’t pay for them we couldn’t show an invoice to the furniture company to claim them. In the end we just pinched two chairs that weren’t needed from the sit down spots within the pavilion.
We did incur several costs that are important to identify. When setting up for PAX we had to wear high visibility vests which were conveniently sold to us for $5 each. Arriving at our booth we were provided with a ‘Check the Classification’ sign that was used to guide parents on the fact that the game wasn’t classified by the OFLC. This sign actually costs $10 and had to be bought. Luckily ReedPop waved the cost for the Indie Showcase games but I believe everyone else in the Indie Pavilion had to pay for this. Lastly we were slogged $100 for electronic testing and tagging which was discounted from $150. This charge came from another company and not ReedPop itself. This caught us off guard. We didn’t expect such an exorbitant cost for something that takes 10 minutes to do. You definitely want to tag your equipment before heading over to PAX in order to save money. For context here, we had 15 items that were tested, with less items this clearly becomes less of an issue.
Expand Build for PAX
Developers often suggest that you should create a shorter demo version of your game for events. It’s always worth questioning advice like this because it comes from a perspective based on very specific goals and reasons. I think the idea behind this is that there are lots of people at a convention, way more people than could ever play your game and so if you want to expose as many people to your game as possible then you should limit the play time to let more people play. It also might mean that having a shorter play time will leave people hungry for more. That is of course only possible if your game can actually stir that hunger. There are many more reasons behind this approach. The important question is whether those underlying goals actually work for or against the game and the type of impression you want people to have about it.
With Expand we always exhibit the latest build of the game, levels that aren’t finished aren’t linked into the build and people can(and did) play through the entire thing which currently lasts for at least an hour. One of the reasons for doing is that we want to gage how people will respond to the game and not a demo which is different from the game. It also helps us gage how engrossed people are with the game. If people are playing for over an hour, at a busy convention, surrounded by onlookers then it’s a sign that we’re doing something right. This also means that we can get player feedback on later levels. An added bonus is that we save time in production as we’re not using energy to spin off another build. That’s pretty important for small teams.
From the business/marketing side of things you also have to consider the impression people will have of the game. Expand won’t be released until 2015 so at this stage we’re wanting to create buzz around the game. As a small team with limited resources our reach is constrained. One way to resolve this is to have people who’ll champion your game for you. 9 out 10 marketing people agree that this is the most effective way to spread the word about your game. By letting people play for an hour and properly engage with the game we are setting up an environment where people are more likely to champion it. By playing longer, you are more interested, more invested and more likely to tell other people about the game.
Anyway more about the build. For PAX Aus we completely reworked the hub area of the game that links the different worlds. Previously this was a large space that consisted of many rooms with many connections between them. We found that people were getting lost in this space, firstly because it was big and secondly because the rooms didn’t contain distinct identifiers for players to remember where they had been. For PAX we created smaller clusters of rooms in which each cluster was separated by a distinct ‘joining’ room. These new rooms were also more animated and purposeful with little micro ideas behind them. We also used switches in a way that gated progress and encouraged players to explore the branching paths in the world.
Through observing and talking to players we found that they weren’t getting lost and were actually enjoying the space much more. By solving one design issue we introduced another, smaller one. Players took a while to realise that this space wasn’t linear and could be explored. Up to that point in the game players were just moving through the world in a linear fashion. We’ve now created a new landing area that should hopefully better convey that this space branches out and isn’t linear.
For PAX we also tweaked levels in the second world and added a new music for that section. The music there really represents how dynamic we want the music for the game to be moving forward.
Since Expand is a single player game and players are spending long stretches playing it, we wanted to make sure that we had as many machines as we could comfortably fit within the booth. However since we had bought plane tickets it meant that we were physically limited in how much technology we could bring over.
Our final technical equipment list looked something like this:
- 4 x Laptops(1 borrowed)
- 4 x Xbox 360 Controllers for PC(1 wired, 3 wireless)
- 3 x Wireless dongles for Xbox 360 Controllers
- 1 x 24″ Monitor
- 1 x Battery Charger
- 4 x Closed, Noise cancelling headphones
- 1 x Netbook
- 1 x Web Camera
- 2 x USB extension cables
- 2 x Power boards
- 1 x Camera with stand
- 2 x HDMI cables
Since we were limited with our luggage when flying over, we used four laptops one of which was borrowed from a friend. Ideally we would have the laptops tucked away with monitors sitting in their place. It just looks tidier and keeps the keyboard out of reach. We could have shipped over monitors or hired the equipment through PAX. Both of which are extremely expensive and in some cases it is would be more cost effective to just buy the equipment out right.
The picture below, while not the best gives you an idea of our booth layout. We used the cocktail table on left hand side of the booth. On it sat a monitor and a laptop behind it. On the trestle table in the middle we had two laptops setup. On the far right we had the large display setup with the controller/headphones sitting on the right hand side of the trestle table for people to collect when ready to play. If we had the additional monitors they would be situated on trestle table in the middle.
We also had four pink containers with badges in them spread across the tables. The PAX crowd loves button badges and I’d highly recommend purchasing a bunch if you’re intending on exhibiting a game. We started with about 70 badges left over from TGS and bought another 800 for PAX. By the end of PAX we only had about 120 left meaning we’d given away roughly 750 badges over the three days. At certain points we actually handed out badges while chatting to people as they waited to play. We also had several stacks of business cards that were placed by the button containers. I think we had roughly 400 cards and by 11am on Sunday they were all gone.
Before PAX Chris was encouraging us to consider buying several sets of high quality headphones. As a composer and audiophile Chris’s taste in headphones is not exactly cheap and so I decided to reach out to Audiotechnica to see if they could lend us several pairs for the event. Audiotechnica was one of several headphone companies that had bought a booth for PAX. I reached out to them on a Sunday night and received confirmation that we could borrow four sets of headphones by 9:15am on the Monday morning. We picked them up during setup and dropped them back before closing time on Sunday. In our initial conversation with them they didn’t ask for anything in return but on the Friday morning of PAX the PR manager asked if we wouldn’t mind if he left a small pile of brochures for the headphones at our booth. For us that was fine, especially considering that they leant us about a $1000 worth of headphones. It’s surprisingly easy to reach out to these companies and from our point of view we’re not selling out or loosing any creative of over our game by doing so.
In terms of other supplies we also brought the following to assist in the booth layout.
- Fishing Line
- Blue Tack
- Sticky Tape
- Fabric Scissors
- Fabric for Table Cloth
- 4 x button baskets
- 800 x button badges
- 400 x business cards
We also brought together a survival kit that contained:
- Hand Sanitiser
- Cleaning Wipes
- Vitamin C
- Multivitamin Tablets
- Throat Lozenges
- Pain Killers
- 2 x Large Bottles of Water
- 3 x Smaller Water Bottles
- Band aids
We kept hand sanitiser, food and water on the right hand side of the booth, near the TV so that it was in reach if needed. We kept coffee intake down as we didn’t want to be trapped at the booth while busting for the toilet. We made sure that we had a decent breakfast, lunch and dinner. Coming out of PAX none of us were sick, we only suffered exhaustion which for me took over a week to fully get over.
At the back of the booth we mounted a web camera and took a running timelapse over the PAX weekend. Unfortunately we had a minor technical problem in which the web camera didn’t capture photos at the resolution it promised. We also did a short timelapse on the Sunday morning of PAX and during packup on Sunday evening.
PAX Aus was the first event that we have exhibited at where we were provided with press list before the show. The press list contained contact details for roughly 350 journalists all of which had applied for media passes. We filtered that list down to 140 journalists who worked for outlets that had covered either indie games or PAX Australia in the past or looked like they would cover either of the previous two. Then when sending emails we would send one email to the most relevant journalist(s) at each outlet. Our plan was to send one email a month before PAX and then a general follow up email the week before PAX that contained a new trailer for the game. I prepared two general emails that left room for personalisation based on the outlet/journalist. About 60% of the journalist that were contacted received an email with at least a sentence or two personalised based on their outlet. The remaining emails were only personalised through mentioning the journalists name. The follow up email didn’t really happen as the trailer only ended up being finished the Friday morning of PAX. We sent out about 10 general follow up emails and that’s all we had time for. We then repurposed that email and sent it through to some journalists after PAX.
In the emails we had a strong introduction that stated what the game is and why the journalist should care about it. We included three animated gifs that quickly conveyed interesting aspects about the game. We included general details about the game, links to a press kit and details on how to download the most recent build. We also invited journalist to reserve a time to meet with us at our booth and talk about the game. We created a spreadsheet that listed our availability during PAX and would reserve times for journalist that requested it. At these times we made sure that the booth was well manned and that we were on the lookout for journalists. You can view the spreadsheet we used here. In preparing for the press I found this collection of articles from Indie Hangover and this talk at Full Indie Summit by John Polson to very helpful.
Here are some stats that people may find useful.
First Pass Emails Sent: 66
First Pass Responses: 25
Press Meetings Scheduled: 16
Meeting Attendance: 12
Press that mentioned they’d visit(all visited): 4
It’s worth pointing out that the reason we schedule these meetings was to give the press a reason to swing by the booth. One of the tricky things about an event like PAX is just getting press over to your booth. Journalists are tight on time and outlets don’t have the resources to play every game at PAX. The meeting gives them a reminder to visit the booth. We noticed that most scheduled meetings were with the smaller outlets. Many of the larger outlets don’t schedule meetings as they know they’ll be too busy to keep them.
We also did a bit of research about the larger outlets, what the journalist are interested in so that when they did visit the booth we could have several talking points prepared. Journalists are looking for an interesting story and so you should think of something to feed them with.
Here is a list of the different articles written about Expand after PAX.
Here are some quotes pulled out of the various articles. Sorry to gloat.
Expand is a wonderfully original experience that defies easy definition, but when you play it, you will know. You will know you’ve played something special.
Mark Serrels – Kotaku Australia
Expand was my favourite game of PAX 2014
Lucy O’Brien, IGN Australia
In the past when we have exhibited Expand we have an iPad on hand that we use to take down email addresses for people interested in the game. In preparing for PAX we actually forgot to bring the iPad with us. On the Friday morning we were talking about creating a large scale post-it note picture on back wall of our booth. Chris actually suggested that we could ask everyone who played the game to write down a few words on the post-it note to describe their experience playing the game. Later we decided to also ask people to scribble down their email address on the back if they wanted to be subscribe to our mailing list.
We created a short video and a website where you can view all post-it notes.
Here are some stats based on the post-it notes.
Post-it Notes Collected: 184
Email Addresses Collected: 122(109 Valid / 13 Invalid)
Other bits and pieces
The intention with this piece was to have something to point to when people asked me about how PAX went. I think I’ve covered most of what I was intending on saying. Here is a list of smaller points/advice that I left out.
- GCAP is a few days before PAX. You should consider heading down early to attend. Many of the people we met at GCAP we ran into again at PAX.
- The parties held after PAX are great for winding down and meeting with other developers. You at least want to go to MegaDev if that’s held again next year.
- PAX doesn’t actually end after exhibition hall closes. It runs till about 10pm, so you do have the chance to be involved in the other fesitivites.
- If you’re travelling from overseas or interstate then make sure you spend some time and enjoy Melbourne, especially the food. It’s a great, modern city.
That’s everything I wanted to say. If you have any questions then feel free to post a comment, email me or contact me on Twitter and I’ll happily answer them for you. Hopefully someone has found this useful. It’s been great for me as way to reflect on amazing time that we had at PAX.