Hey, remember in my first post where I said I wouldn’t try to offer industry wisdom I don’t actually have? Well, what’s the point of setting rules for yourself if you can’t immediately break them? (Spoilers: That’s a running theme for this post.)
In the past year (or so), I’ve presented at MAGfest twice, and TooManyGames once. While those cons were obviously tons of fun, I’ve found that the experience I’ve gained and lessons I’ve learned from trying to pitch a game at a convention largely translate to presenting in any environment. Hopefully, that means that even if you have no plans to get behind the booth, you might still find at least one of these tips helpful somewhere in your life. Without further ado, here are seven guidelines, tips, and life lessons I’ve learned from presenting at conventions: How to look like you know what you’re doing even when you definitely do not.
Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m doing. These tips are entirely based on my own experience as a booth demonstrator at the three cons I’ve been to, and I’m sure a few years from now I’ll read back on this post and shed a single tear for my naive misinformation, at which point I’ll probably readdress this topic. That being said, I’ll be presenting advice as though I actually know what I’m doing and you can absolutely have a problem with that if you disagree with me.
1. The Core Rule: Look like you belong.
As you can imagine, being an indie on the convention floor is all about appearances. There’s a lot of little bits to this, but the most important thing to keep in mind is if someone has to ask if you’re with the booth, you’re doing it wrong. One of the lowest-effort ways to address this (if you have the money) is to get some kind of matching clothing item or pin that everyone at the booth wears. Our group is pretty small-budget ourselves, so we used buttons (we’re looking into buying hoodies for next year).
Another important aspect of this is setting up your booth correctly. This topic could probably take up another 3 or 4 posts, so for now I’ll leave it alone except for a couple short tips: Bring a rug, a tablecloth, and at least one big banner. You’d be amazed how far a small, cheap(ish) floor rug and semi-nice tablecloth will go to making your booth feel more welcoming. The banner will be a bit more expensive, but almost nothing will be as eye-catching to people walking buy. The banner is often the first thing people see, so its important that you make it as enticing as you can (this, again, I could spend another whole article talking about).
2. Always face your audience.
This is one of those things I see other developers do wrong all the time. This is also probably the rule with the most exceptions/room for interpretation. In general, though, you never want to be facing toward your display if you’re standing outside the booth. It can make your booth look closed off or intimidating. Even if you’re talking to someone directly to your side, try to angle your body outward (in theater they call that “cheating out,” and while it feels kind of awkward to stand that way, it looks more engaging to a random person watching you).
Like I said, this rule has a lot of exceptions. For example, at MAGfest, one our fellow indies set up their booth with a large inflatable couch. The demonstrators stood behind their players on the couch as they played. However, since the couch was L-shaped, and the booth was on the end of a row, it still felt open to the audience. Also, I guess its okay if you’re personally engaging with a player and you want to show them something on the screen… See, like I said: Exceptions.
3. Never block your display.
This is another one of those things that comes across as obvious, but its not as trivial as it sounds. You can have the best banners and finest screens in the world, but they’re absolutely no good to you if nobody can see them. Sometimes, however, it’s impossible to stand in front of the booth and not block off some part of the display. That’s fine, but try to cover the least important bits of your booth you can. Try to envision a cone coming out from each of your displays. You want to avoid covering those areas like the plague; only your players should be in that space.
Slightly less important are your primary banner, and slightly less important than that are your additional banners/decorations (if you have any). If you do find yourself standing in front of your banner but you don’t have any room to move, try to stand a bit further out in front of it so it’s still at least somewhat visible.
4. Don’t sit down, Don’t look bored.
At any given time, at least one person on your team should be standing at your booth, ready to present to the passersby. Even if your game is enticing on its own, nobody wants to play a game if even its developers look disinterested in it. This isn’t always easy to do; there are few things more difficult than trying to still sound excited about your game 38 hours into the con, where you’re spending 10 (or more!) hours daily on your feet, repeating more or less the same thing to everyone you see. If you’re willing to put in that extra effort, however, you’ll find far more people will be interested in trying out your game.
Once you’ve found a groove and a really gripping pitch, it can be hard not to fall into repetition. People will notice if you sound like you’ve been reading the same script verbatim for three days straight, so try to find some variety in your words. Sometimes, sounding enthusiastic is more important than what you’re actually saying.
5. Let the player learn.
This guideline is probably the most frustrating. It can be infuriating to watch a playtester struggle for five minutes to figure out that WASD moves their character, but you’ll gather more from watching a player struggle with your game than you ever can by showing them how to play it yourself. Sometimes strategies and paths that have become second nature to you as the developer turn out to be much less intuitive than you thought, and sometimes the boss fight you spent weeks meticulously fine-tuning and balancing is actually quite a bit more one-sided. Above all, you must avoid taking control of the game away from the player at all costs. Taking control creates an unsatisfactory experience for the player, and denies you feedback that could help you make your game more accessible. Remember to be open to criticism, but also remember that you don’t have to address every complaint. To quote Neil Gaiman (that’s right, it’s getting literary up in here):
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
― Neil Gaiman
6. Take notes.
And here I become the biggest hypocrite of this blog (aside from all the other times I did that): Not once, not twice, but all three times I’ve presented I’ve failed to do this. Naturally, on all three occasions some valuable development insight would strike that I’d completely forget by the time I get home (or even back to the hotel), so I can’t stress enough the importance of at least bringing your phone to jot loose thoughts down on. That’s all, this one’s pretty simple. Don’t sweat it, we’re almost done.
7. Have fun.
Don’t forget, this isn’t like sitting behind the counter at a retail store, mindlessly scanning items and attempting to make inane small talk. This is your chance to show off your hard work for the group of people that will most appreciate it. Nothing I’ve experienced is more satisfying and rewarding than watching somebody pick up a game for the first time and find genuine joy in it. Easily one of my happiest memories in the past year was from TooManyGames, when a kid sat down in front of my tiny, barely playable demo for LightFight, and didn’t get back up for 20 minutes. At this point, I was growing tired of LF’s development and I hadn’t made significant progress in almost two weeks. All there was for him to do was start the game, kill the bot I’d coded while half-asleep the night before, and start the game over again, but he got so excited every time he managed to get the bot that I left the con newly invigorated and ready to keep pressing on. That’s perhaps the best thing you can get out of a convention, and it’s an experience I’ve found nowhere else.