I had an absolutely amazing time at Expo this year and I hope that has come through in my previous posts on this excellent convention. That said there is always a little room for improvement and I would like to use this post to chat about things I don’t think are right and how I think they could be improved.
I thought the expo organisation this year was pretty top drawer. I picked up my tickets on the Thursday easily, though I understand there was a bit of a crush on the Friday. One of my friends got a little frustrated with the NEC staff telling people to move along when they couldn’t. If possible it might be worth making a queue for prepaid tickets over people buying on the day, or certainly asking the NEC staff to be a little less enthusiastic.
The app was still not great after the debacle of last year and didn’t update with the full NEC map until the day of the con. I would really like to see a more dynamic app where I can make a list of exhibitors I want to see, have links from the exhibitor list to their homepages, not just an excel spreadsheet, and also have any exhibitors I choose to see highlight themselves on the map.
I found navigation pretty straightforward but there were occasional moments when I was following numbers to a particular stall and had to sidetrack or double back to find the one I was looking for. A little more logic in the placement of the would be appreciated for future cons, but this is a very minor niggle.
Overall I thought the con was really on top of it this year: staff seemed good, hall 1 had loads more space to move around and felt much less packed even when it got busy. Congratulations to Richard and the huge team that made everything feel smooth.
The press preview was a pretty useful affair but I don’t think essential. For me it was good to have a look at things off my secondary list and see if they were actually up my street and also speak to people from last year like Thomas Pike from Themeborne.
If you choose to go to the press preview as an exhibitor then why on earth would you sit behind your stall staring at your mobile phone like I saw a few doing. Stand up, look out from your stall, make eye contact. I am much more likely to approach you if I can see you want to engage me. If you need to sit, which is fair enough over the 2 hours, keep that engagement, say hello to the people that pass your stall and ask them if they would like to try your game. It is your opportunity to make your game stand out.
This leads nicely into pitching your game and again starts with first contact with punters. On Saturday myself and Gaz walked up to one stall and literally picked up the components and started commenting on how nice they were. There were two people working the stand talking to each other and no other customers. I got no eye contact, no ‘Hi can I tell you about the game’. Nothing. I walked away. I was quite interested in that game but if you can’t be bothered to engage me then why should I take the time. There were literally hundreds of exhibitors at the con and you need to stand out in anyway you can.
Once you have made contact with a punter you need a refined pitch. I was talking to Rory Sommers of Board Meetings about this and he mentioned the idea of 3 different pitch stages for games: 2 sentence pitch, 2 minute pitch and the 20 minute demo, we will get to demos shortly so let’s concentrate on the pitch for now. Exhibitors really need to keep in mind that they are selling you something at cons like this, even if they don’t have actual physical product to hand over: the sign up to a Kickstarter, the prototype of a game going straight to retail later in the year, a service etc.
Your 2 sentence pitch should be short and sweet and draw me in, your 2 minutes should expand and explain the core concepts of the game and the 20 minute demo should leave me with a smile on my face and the name of your game in my heart. I’ve covered some of this ground before here but it definitely bears repeating.
I’ll use my in development game Swordstory as an example. Here is the 2 sentence pitch for that.
You are sitting in a pub with fellow adventurers all telling the tales of the fantastic weapons you have obtained. The person who tells the best story will get their accommodation for free, winning the game, and you are nothing if not frugal.
That’s not bad I think, has some humour and tells you what the game is about. My 2 minutes would likely cover the basic mechanics: rolling dice, activating sword parts, taking on encounters. I think allowing people to pick up the components and play with them is a really good idea at this stage and I would encourage you to show off the components of your game.
Something to be said here is to read the customer. If they don’t seem interested, don’t push it. Don’t go for the hard sell. Give them a flyer maybe, but leave them with a good impression of your service and your stall, even if they don’t engage with your game.
That leads us to the final and most important thing, the demo.
I covered this last year and in the run up to the con but holy hell it is still confusing how bad this is across the industry. Let’s look at computer games for a moment. At the big computer game cons attendees get 15-20 minute demos of games and that is enough to give them a taster of a game. Now sure computer games share control systems and the like but still the company sorts out a demo that they think is representative of the game. This should be your primary aim on your stall: Pitch, demo, Pitch, demo and so on. You want to get as many people through your game over the course of the con as you can.
At Games Expo people were offering a whole range of demo lengths from 20 mins, correct, to an hour plus, wrong. I did sit down for some of the longer demos as I wanted to play those particular games but I would have much preferred shorter ones. A demo should not be a play through of the entire game. It should be a taster, a teaser. It should get me enthusiastic about your game and you should shove it in my hands so I can buy it afterwards or leave me with a flyer or have me signed up for more info. I don’t need to see the whole enchilada.
There were some companies offering booking in for their games and I really am not sure how I feel about this. I got a demo of Holding On this way and they had doubled their slots from 15 to 30 over the course of the con by the time I arrived. This means that 120 people, 4 people per slot, got to experience that game over the course of the con out of 21700 or 0.6% of attendees. Is that useful to the company? They were talking people through it a little but that isn’t quite the same as a demo where you get to pick up the pieces yourself and make some decisions.
If you are going to run booked demos then people need to know this way in advance, I only knew as I followed them on twitter. What about all the people not as immersed in the tabletop world as I and others are? I would have been really disappointed if I had rocked up to the stand, as was initially proposed, only to find a booking system was now in effect. Portal were running 3 hour demos of Detective, that is a huge ask from people and again I don’t understand why that is helpful to them (though I think those demos were mostly press). Without demos being bookable through the convention, this kind of thing feels very exclusive to me and that is not something I think we should be embracing.
The ideal situation to me, and this can only really be done on larger stands, would be to have 20 minute demos being run all the time and a second table for booking in games. Worst case you could sit someone in the open play areas, tell people where to find them and do longer demos that way. Ideally slots could be booked through the Expo app which publishers could then access to see who is turning up and when. Someone must be able to make that happen right?
I’d like to address a likely criticism of this 20 minute demo model I am proposing. I used to be a member of the Collective Endeavour, a group of indie RPG publishers that banded together at cons, and we would run 20 minute demos of RPGs. RPGs whose usual time slot is 3-4 hours. I released a card game that played in 30 mins called Revenge of the B-Movie, but still my demo was only 10 mins. I sold out my first con. You can make a 20 minute demo of your game trust me. I am offering, right here, right now, to help you make that demo. Get in touch if you would like my help.
Now not all cons need you to run demos quite in this way I will admit, but at a con like Expo with literally thousands through the door your job is to make sure people remember your game amongst the hundreds of others. Expo is a sales con, even if money doesn’t exchange hands when you are talking to a punter.
Focus on the positives
I did have an absolutely amazing time at this year’s expo and the majority of the companies I spent time with where doing a great job of showing off their product. We can always find things to criticise about an event but we should never forget the reasons that we come together to play. Tabletop Gaming continues to grow and evolve and I look forward to what the future brings to such a great event as Expo.