This advice is mostly for the future when conventions are able to go ahead again. I’ll mention online cons but our experience of them is limited to the few we’ve attended this year (2020).
So, you’ve picked an idea, created a prototype and playtested your game; now is a good time to look at going to conventions, however that’s not to say it’s now time to pay lots of money.
Firstly, consider going to small, local conventions. The main and perhaps obvious benefit to this is that you won’t have to pay for a hotel or pay much to travel, which are hidden costs not always factored in. These conventions are run by locals who are all the more likely to support you because you’re also local; mutual support is important in any small, creative industry.
Most larger conventions will have a playtest zone or demo area which should be either free or cheaper than taking a stall. Keeping costs as low as possible at this point is vital. You still don’t have a product to sell so all costs pre-Kickstarter might never be recouped. One thing that we have found to be a good investment though is a banner; this gives you visibility across a (hopefully) crowded hall. It can be a little tricky if you haven’t solidly landed on a game title or company name, but if you have and possess some nice artwork, get a banner.
Once at the convention it’s a good time to think about a little organic marketing. Have a notepad and pen so people can sign up to a mailing list. I’ve seen people at conventions with multiple tablets and volunteers wondering about trying to get e-mail addresses, I do not understand this. As talked about in my previous blog The Wide Web of Social Media having an e-mail list is helpful though not as vital as some would have you believe. We launched our first successful Kickstater with 3 e-mails, and our second still only had about 300, massively short of the supposed 1000-2000 “needed” for a successful Kickstater. This is also where having a social media presence is important. You can have flyers but they are often more expensive than helpful, whereas having a business card with your name, the name of your game, your e-mail address and social media handles is better. If you can direct someone to your social media, they’re more likely to look you up there and then and subscribe to a mailing list later.
It might seem obvious but be friendly and enthusiastic, and it can help to also have an “elevator pitch”. This should be a few sentences explaining what your game is and how its unique. So, for SSO (our first game) it was “1-6 player co-op, sci-fi survival game with a series of classic movie-based narratives”. This pitch can help with the nerves of having to present your game to strangers, as it gives you something to say right off the bat, but also gets people interested in sitting down and playing. It helps if you can say that your game is a little like X but different (so Gaslands is a little like Car Wars but more cinematic) because it gives people a quick hook and insight into your game. Some people get very tetchy about this, again I really don’t understand why, I know it’s not always great to be compared to a game you might not like, but it’s helpful if you can turn it around and say “that’s interesting, my game is a little different though because of X”. People like to have conversations about their interests and I’ve yet to meet a hobbyist who doesn’t like to thrash out the minutia of differences between games.
With physical conventions currently cancelled, it’s worth looking into some of the online options. If they are free then sign up, it’ll mean a weekend of hanging around on your computer but for the few interactions its worthwhile. As with physical conventions, think long and hard before parting with money, even a big-name convention may not have the digital footfall to back up their prices. People are still feeling out the nature of virtual cons, and some are overshooting with pricing within that. Our experience has been that virtual stands result in around a tenth of the sales and even less in the way of interactions compared to a physical stand, if a virtual con hasn’t taken that into account in its pricing, it’s probably a poor business decision. It’s important to have your game on a digital platform in order to be able to introduce it to people. It doesn’t seem to matter if that’s Tabletop Simulator or Tabletopia (though the convention may have a preference). In these times of social distancing getting your game, even in a very rough form, on a digital platform is important; it means you can have greater playtesting, introduce it to people at virtual conventions, play with reviewers/podcasters, and generally get the message out worldwide.
My main advice is to go to as many conventions as you can because it’ll make you better at presenting your game. It’ll make you good at pitching it to strangers, good at explaining the rules succinctly and more confident at presenting yourself and your product.