Happy Chess at PAX South 2016
Whether you’re a gamer or developer, attending a major expo like PAX is an incredible experience. With thousands upon thousands of people congregating to share in their love of video games, it almost feels like a religious ceremony – our own personal Mecca … with Wi-Fi. The excitement on the expo floor is electric. Cosplayers, gamers, developers, gaming companies big and small, all there to share in our collective love and passion for games. But participating in an event like this as an exhibitor can be daunting, and the three days we spent at PAX taught us a lot about what it takes to make an event like this a success.
Preparing for PAX
As a small, self-funded game development company, we didn’t have a ton of resources to spend on things that weren’t directly related to the development of our game. We all have busy schedules and full-time jobs outside of our game company, so time was never on our side. What’s more, we knew that no matter how much time and money we devoted to an expo like this, people may simply not like our game.
Luckily, this wasn’t our very first expo. In August 2015, we exhibited at GameCon in Galveston, Texas – a regional, kid-friendly gaming convention attended by about 4,000 people. It was an amazing experience. Most of the attendees who stopped by our booth were regular chess players already, and their input and excitement as they played Happy Chess really fueled our fire.
Still, we knew we had a few factors on our side at GameCon. First, our booth was located right between the entrance and all of the minecraft machines used for the daily tournaments. Prime spot. Second, the GameCon tickets covered both days of the convention, which meant that after attendees had walked the floor, they had ample time to return to our booth to hang out, talk chess and play the app. Finally, the convention attracted a variety of vendors, so the competition among video game exhibitors was light. We were also lucky enough to not be placed next to the anti-smoking booth which featured actual pig lungs and reeked of formaldehyde. It was an interesting exhibit, but I just kept wondering how that pig took up smoking in the first place.
With PAX, we knew the odds would be stacked against us. We had to share the floor with major industry players like Capcom and Twitch, along with dozens of innovative game development studios. These guys already had games out on the market, plus tons of experience with expos like this, while we were an unknown studio working on our very first game. Naturally, we had some doubts. What if we secretly suck? What if nobody comes to our booth? What if everyone else’s games are way better than ours? Do people even consider mobile games to be ‘PAX worthy’ video games?
Setting Up for PAX
Despite our nerves, we went in swinging. With months of preparation behind us and carloads full of electronics, equipment and swag, we set off for San Antonio the night before PAX opened.
We were excited to demo the game – but we were also looking forward to walking the expo floor and catching some of the seminars on the schedule. There would be five to seven Happy Chess team members present at all times, so we were confident we could schedule breaks to see some of the cool talks being advertised. We were so wrong.
Since we all worked Thursday (curse you, day jobs!), we couldn’t leave in time to set up our booth before the exhibit hall closed for the night. So we set our alarms and left the hotel bright and early Friday morning to get to the convention center right at 8:00 AM, when it opened to exhibitors. We spent the better part of an hour unloading our cars and hauling everything we needed to our designated booth space – backdrops, pop-up banners, tablecloths, rugs, seating, a TV stand and all our giveaway merchandise … we definitely got our workout for the day.
Then, disaster struck. The big screen TV we’d brought to display the game had somehow been damaged during the drive, and the left side of the screen now had a giant, multi-colored fracture. What was worse, we hadn’t anticipated the lack of free wireless internet for event exhibitors – and with a multiplayer, online game ready to demo using our tablets, we definitely needed that. We happily paid the hefty fee to purchase internet organizers – until we realized the charge was a daily fee per device! That put paid internet firmly out of our budget.
Luckily, we had 20 minutes to come up with a plan before the floodgates opened and attendees arrived. We booted up all our devices in local game mode instead of online, so that people who stopped by our booth could play with us (or each other) via shared tablets. We also channeled our inner interior decorators and strategically draped one of the Happy Chess shirts across the end of the TV, using the middle of the screen to display our game in landscape mode. Hardly ideal, but we made it work.
The Reality of PAX
And then it was 10 AM. The doors opened, and throngs of people entered the expo floor and – to our delight – started stopping by our booth right away. As the day went on, the crowds kept coming by – some even returned! (It probably helped that our booth was located across from the bathrooms). With up to seven people working the booth and big groups of visitors playing the game, we definitely tested the limits of our booth space – and our own energy levels.
Looking back, the weekend is a bit of a blur. Three full days of nonstop foot traffic and game demos for all of us. Obviously we missed the chance to see the other events, performances or talks. We barely squeezed in lunch each day and had only a little time to check out the rest of the expo. None of us had any idea just how exhausting talking for 8 hours a day non-stop would be!
It was so worth it, though. We quickly went from a bunch of semi-awkward, individual game pitches to a streamlined, cohesive explanation of the driving motivation behind Happy Chess. We found a concise, singular way to quickly share the unique aspects of the game with every visitor while allowing them to experience it for themselves – and watching their excitement grow as they progressed through their matches was incredibly rewarding.
Over the three days we spent at PAX, we played hundreds of local vs games with people and eventually gave away all our promotional t-shirts and hoodies to anyone who beat our team members at a match. We also had a variety of pins, stickers, tote bags and, of course, candy for anyone who stopped by the booth. Things were frantic, chaotic and mesmerizingly exciting. That’s when it happened. We noticed that the people coming up to our booth were sticking around to explain our game to other passersby. This was incredible. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as honored as I did in that moment. We had a community of people we’d never met before PAX reflecting the same sense of pride and excitement we felt about the game – and it was unbelievable.
By Sunday afternoon every one of us was completely drained. The words I spoke to each new visitor to our booth tumbled out in a familiar rhythm, but my brain was in a zombie-like trance that only dissipated when I received questions I wasn’t already prepared for. By 4 PM things were winding down a little. I took a few laps around the expo to see what was out there. I wanted to stop by the Devolver booth (one of my favorite new publishers) and hit up the Capcom station (one of my favorite old publishers).
At 5pm we started packing up. That’s when one of the “enforcers” of the event ran up to us. He was waving his hands in the air, wearing a facial expression as if he was taking a bullet for the president, or perhaps trying to prevent a tear in the fabric of spacetime. “You can’t do that!!” He exclaimed desperately and somewhat out of breath. “You can’t pack up until the event ends at six, it’s in your contract!”. So, we unpacked again. We were out of shirts, sticker and buttons. All of our devices were dead. There wasn’t much for us to do that last hour besides just sit around and try to process everything that went on.
Overall, the show was a big success. We got over 500 people to sign up for our early release, which will be a tremendous help with getting feedback from the community about which features to add – and with finding obscure bugs in our game. We also met tons of amazing people, Youtube personalities and other developers. The reaction we got from the PAX community was just phenomenal. We couldn’t recommend the experience more to other developers. In fact, we are already looking forward to going to the next one to promote our next game!
Tips & Takeaways
- If you’re staying at a hotel, book it months in advance. Expos like PAX mean local hotels fill up very quickly, and you don’t want to have to stay across town or pay huge surge fees.
- Post about the event on social media sites well in advance so people will know you’ll be there. We loved meeting attendees who’d seen our online posts.
- PAX provided a contact list for media personalities who would be attending. If your event does the same thing, consider emailing the ones that might be interested in your game to ensure they stop by your booth.
- Pack snacks and water. Lots of each. You’ll need them.
- Bring antibacterial wipes and microfiber cloths, too. Things can quickly get grimy with so many hands touching everything.
- Make sure you have enough people to man your booth. We had 5 - 7 at all times, and it was still exhausting making sure all our visitors were getting attention. Getting by with 2 or 3 can be a real challenge when someone needs food or a bathroom break.
- Bring plenty of phones, tablets or laptops for people to play on, as you will likely encounter multiple people wanting to play at once. And consider buying a small charging station so you can charge several devices at once. It was one of the best investments we made.
- Also bring a large TV and TV stand (and don’t break it on the way up, doh). You want people to see your game in action from far away.
- Create a demo mode (or video) to display on the TV or on a tablet. This will ensure your game is consistently engaging people whether they’re passing by or stopping at your booth.
- If your game relies heavily on audio, consider bringing headphones for people to use so they can hear your game over the crowd noise. Also pack spare devices and controllers.
- If your game hasn’t been released yet, be sure to have a signup form for early access. That way, you can track interested people and reconnect with them once your game is ready.
- Have a stash of stickers, buttons and shirts to give away. People love collecting expo swag. (Branded tote bags are a great option since people need a place to put the stuff they’ve collected.)
- Having a free bowl of candy at your booth doesn’t hurt.
- Budget for event parking. Ours was a little pricey, but it was worth the convenience when it came time to set up and tear down the booth. In retrospect an Uber would have probably been cheaper to take on the day when we didn’t have to pack or unpack.
- Have a backup plan in case internet access is not readily available on the expo floor.
- Create some graphics of the expo floor plan that show your booth location. Post it on social media, Reddit and Imgur, and to the event app, if one exists. This will help people find your booth from anywhere on the floor.
- Bring lots of business cards. Chances are you’ll meet a lot of really cool people, and you’ll want to be able to swap contact info.
- Bring a notepad (or just use your phone) to take notes. People will likely have some interesting insights and suggestions for your game that you’ll want to record. On that note, pay close attention to how people play the game, or even record them for future study. This is basically free playtesting, so make the most of it!
- Take breaks if you are able. Your exhaustion will show, and you don’t want people to think you’re not interested in talking to them.
- Be prepared to stay until the close of the last day, as it is likely in your exhibitor contract. Ration your supplies wisely.
- Look up events and parties happening after hours. This is often the best time to get to know other developers.
- After the expo make a list of people you’ve met and a little bit about them while it’s still fresh in your mind. Putting names and details together is much harder the longer you wait.