Exhibiting Prismata: How we got screwed by PAX, blew $6500 showing our game off, and then lost our entire mailing list (PART 1 of 2) 4

This is the complete story of the first public appearance of Prismata, our new Starcraft-meets-Hearthstone turn-based strategy game. As you may know, PAX Prime—one of the world’s largest video game festivals—happened about a week ago in Seattle, Washington. Tens of thousands of fans were treated to exciting previews, live announcements, and playable demos in the massive Washington State Convention Center. It’s always been a dream of mine to show off Prismata at PAX, and we’d been planning to have our own booth there since early spring of this year. It was going to be great!

Except, we didn’t go.

In a move that left us all extremely disappointed, PAX’s sales team left us hanging for weeks without returning our emails, and ultimately denied us the opportunity to even submit an application for floor space at the event, giving preferred treatment to AAA developers and other established exhibitors. We ended up relocating our PAX booth to Fan Expo Canada—another large convention that happened to fall on the same weekend. Despite requiring a ton of planning, effort, and upfront costs, the Fan Expo booth went really well. Thousands of people played the game, and many of them came back multiple times, often bringing their friends, or waiting in line to play a fourth, fifth, or sixth time. There was nothing more satisfying than watching newbies turn into veteran Prismata players, after which most of them happily signed up to our mailing list to receive a beta key. Everything was going great! That is, until we returned to the office and realized (to our horror) that the entire list of hundreds of emails we had collected was wiped out by a bug in Google spreadsheets. More on that later.

This article is our exhibitor post-mortem. Here, you’ll find a full description of what happened with PAX, info on how we planned and ran the booth at Fan Expo, a full listing of our expenses, and a complete description of everything that we wished we’d done differently. If you’ve ever considered presenting a game at a convention, this is a must-read!

Why go to a convention at all?

There are at least four benefits to presenting a game like Prismata at a convention like Fan Expo or PAX. Our key goals were (not necessarily in order):

  1. Get feedback on the game. By having hundreds of people try out Prismata, we learned a great deal about what people like and dislike in the product, and what types of tutorial information helped people learn the game the fastest and make the fewest mistakes. That said, this is probably the least important reason, because we could conduct our own focus testing for much less than the cost of exhibiting at PAX.
  2. Promote interest in the game. Having a presence at a convention like PAX exposes a lot of really hardcore gamers to our product. These are precisely the types of people who we most want playing our game during the early stages, as they can be highly influential in spreading the game to a larger audience.
  3. Collect emails and beta sign-ups. This goes hand-in-hand with point number 2, but there’s an extra benefit to having expo booth visitors sign up as beta testers: they’ve already been taught how to play. This makes them more likely to stick around through the beta and become highly involved as the game progresses.
  4. Meet journalists. PAX is the type of place where hundreds of bloggers, youtubers, and gaming press can be found. A mention in an article by a key publication can lead to a huge spike in interest in the game, and simply exchanging business cards with the right person can lead to a huge increase in your chances of eventually receiving press attention.

A shot of PAX. A nerd’s paradise!

With the goals listed above, PAX would have been a much better location to exhibit our game than Fan Expo. Though it has a larger audience, Fan Expo is a general-purpose “geek convention” featuring a lot of comics, anime, television and film content, in addition to gaming-related content. Many people who walked by the booth weren’t interested in gaming at all, and PAX certainly has far more attendees who I’d consider to be hardcore gamers. Most importantly, aside from a few small blogs, there was very little gaming journalism present at Fan Expo.

And this is Fan Expo. Even more nerds!

That said, Fan Expo certainly had some advantages. Located in Toronto, it was only an hour drive away, so we could transport ourselves (and our gear) to the booth easily and avoid paying for airfare. Moreover, many of us had friends or family living near the convention centre, so we ended up paying far less for hotel rooms than we would have at PAX. Saving money is good, but we really wanted to go to PAX. So why didn’t we?


The PAX fiasco

In this part of the article, I’m going to hate on the PAX event organizers—not only for their poor customer service, but for policies that I feel have a strongly negative effect on the gaming industry as a whole.

I should preface this by saying that I don’t mean to call out @cwgabriel or any other specific person at Penny Arcade, Showclix (the ticketing company), or ReedPOP (the producer). But I do believe that events like PAX Prime, which are hugely influential in the industry, have a responsibility to be stewards of the gaming community, balancing the interests of fans, big gaming companies, and small indies alike. The current PAX event policies DO NOT achieve such a balance; instead, they have created an unequal playing field that heavily favours established gaming corporations over small indies like us. Allow me to explain.

We initially inquired about exhibiting at PAX prime in late April. We received the following response from PAX sales on May 1, 2014:

Thanks for the inquiry, we are currently setting up PAX Prime now and will be sending info for new exhibitors at the end of the month. Sit tight for now and I’ll shoot you over the info.

PAX’s customer service in a nutshell: we sat tight, and no info was ever shot over. But that’s only the beginning of it.

We wanted to send quite a few company members over to PAX; probably about 6-8 people. The booth itself would only come with 2-4 exhibitor badges, so this meant that we’d need to purchase additional PAX Prime badges for the rest of our team. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, except for the fact that four-day passes for the event typically sell out in under 10 minutes. We had read many horror stories of people closely following the PAX twitter feed for days in anticipation of the sale, only to be unable to actually order tickets as the ticketing site slowed to a crawl on the sale date. Many attendees lost a great deal of money by being forced to buy four 1-day tickets instead of the cheaper 4-day tickets. Worse still, the 1-day tickets sold out in less than an hour anyway, leaving plenty of people empty-handed.

A lot of people saw this.

This message was seen by A LOT of people on PAX’s ticketing day.

This was much to the bewilderment of several of the folks on our team. Here’s a sample conversation (an actual IM convo from my logs):

Shalev: Wtf? Why don’t they just increase the price?
Me: They do every year, it seems they constantly underestimate how much they need to increase it by. I honestly think the equilibrium price is probably 2.5x the current price.
Shalev: Lol. Who are these people anyway?
Me: Penny Arcade. They’re very much committed to making events that “anybody can go to” and so on, so I think it’s unlikely that they want to increase the price a lot because it would piss a ton of people off.
Shalev: Okay, but this is still a terrible strategy for them. They could increase the price, then have “sales” for a few tickets that sell out in an hour, or they could have lotteries. Obviously, if the capacity is X and 100X people want to attend the event, then it can’t be true that “anybody can go to” it, no matter how the tickets are priced.

In any case, this is NOT what I’m upset at the PAX organizers about. As far as I’m concerned, they have a right to charge whatever they damn well please for admission to their event. I do believe that the ticketing system could be vastly improved by lotteries or other similar systems, but for us, it wound up being a moot point.


Getting PAX passes

Based on the information from the PAX organizers and previous years’ PAX Prime ticket sale dates, we assumed (correctly) that we wouldn’t receive any information about our booth until several weeks after the PAX Prime ticket sale, which meant that we’d need to buy the extra passes before even knowing how many exhibitor passes we’d been offered. We’d read several other reports of first-time indie exhibitors at PAX. None of them mentioned having any problems getting a booth, though they did recommend registering early to optimize the chance of getting a better location. We were totally on top of that, or so we thought.

Our primary concern became snagging extra PAX Prime passes so that the rest of the team could attend. We all set up SMS notifications for twitter, installed a twitter notifier chrome app, and religiously watched the PAX site, preparing for the insane rush to grab passes the moment they were available.

These pieces of cardboard are probably worth their weight in gold.

Later, we changed our mind and opted to purchase four PAX Dev tickets instead, granting us access to a 2-day developer conference immediately prior to PAX Prime. These were much more expensive ($1550 for 4 tickets), but several folks at the company wanted to attend PAX Dev anyway, and the PAX Dev passes included a 4-day PAX Prime pass, allowing us to entirely skip the PAX Prime general admission ticketing shitshow. Moreover, 4 tickets plus 2 to 4 exhibitor passes would be more than enough manpower to staff the booth, talk to the media, and so on.

Getting our PAX Booth… or not

With our tickets in hand and our hotel reserved, we sat back and waited for the new exhibitor info that was promised for the end of May.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

After I contacted their sales executive again, I was told the following:

Thanks for the follow up and sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, we didn’t get a chance to let any new exhibitors into the show this year as space draw for the returning exhibitors took up all of our space.

(Emphasis is mine.)

Let’s get this straight then: faced with excess demand, PAX’s organizers prioritized the established companies who have had booths at PAX before. Activision, Ubisoft, and Microsoft got a huge booth, just like last year, with no questions asked. Meanwhile, Prismata was turned away without even being given an opportunity to bid on a spot. Zero floor space was reserved for new exhibitors whatsoever. Entrenched AAA developers got as much space as they needed, young indie companies be damned! Needless to say, this came as a huge disappointment to me, not only because we were denied the opportunity to apply for a booth, but because of what it means for the future of PAX. PAX has traditionally been one of the most friendly conventions for small developers to exhibit at. It doesn’t cost too much to get a booth there there ($1050 or $1300 for a 10×10 booth instead of the $1860 we paid at Fan Expo) and the media there is very indie-friendly. Personally, I’ve always thought of the Penny Arcade Expo as the one true video game con for the fans, and champion of the little guys, where small independent developers like us could stand tall and receive equal visibility next to all the big names. Apparently not.

I guess this is how it is… *sigh*

Now, the standard business practice when faced with excess demand is to raise prices. The PAX sales rep told me that they didn’t want to raise booth prices because they feared it might price out some of the smaller companies already exhibiting at PAX—an understandable concern. Yet it would be miles better than what they did to us, which was to dismiss us without even giving us a chance to make an offer. Why should established developers get higher priority? Why should Ubisoft get 4000 square feet when all we want is 100, and we’re perfectly willing to pay the same price per square foot?


Fan Expo to the Rescue

Defeated, with our dreams of presenting Prismata at PAX crushed, we examined Fan Expo as an alternative. Unfortunately, by the time the PAX sales folks responded to my emails, it was already past the deadline to apply for space at Fan Expo. Nevertheless, we called them, explained our situation, and they managed to find room for us. (THANK YOU, FAN EXPO!)

Fan Expo to the rescue. Their customer service was outstanding.

Our plans immediately shifted. Since pretty much everyone in the company wanted to be at the booth in Toronto, none of us ended up going to PAX. We cancelled our hotel reservation in Seattle (thankfully, we hadn’t booked flights yet), and prepared to exhibit our game at Fan Expo instead. Unfortunately, we couldn’t recover the $1550 spent on PAX Dev and PAX Prime passes, as the passes were non-transferable and the entire transaction was non-refundable. PAX’s sales team’s response to my complaining was simply to stop responding to my emails.


To be fair, the $1550 lost was, in some sense, our own fault. However, we were heavily motivated by the fear of not being able to snag enough tickets for everyone to come to PAX, and we estimated that the risk of being unable to exhibit as quite low. Indeed, even the PAX sales folks told me that they were caught off guard by the amount of space demanded by returning exhibitors (though, in my mind, that still doesn’t justify saying “yes” to all of their demands).

Two things I would do differently, knowing what I know now are:

  1. Buy the PAX Dev passes later. As far as I know, PAX Dev passes were still available weeks after the main event ticketing sale. There was no rush to get them at all.
  2. Get the PAX Prime passes mailed out to us, which would have allowed us to resell them, recouping some of the cost if we decided not to go (selling our will-call pickup passes is both not allowed, and not feasible given how fearful people are of fraud).

And as a final note to the PAX organizers and sales team: Honestly, you’ve made us all very sad. Maybe you have good relationships with all the AAA developers, and maybe their huge booths make PAX more appealing. But to leave us on the hook for weeks and then dismiss all new exhibitors without giving any of us a chance to apply for space? I have few words for how disappointed I am.

Hopefully you’ll be able to catch Prismata next year at PAX East. If getting our own booth continues not to be an option, perhaps we’ll join the Indie Mega Booth. In the mean time, the next place you’ll be able to catch us at is the Boston Festival of Indie Games next weekend.

This article got really long due to all the ranting about PAX, so I’ve split it into two parts. Read Part 2 here!

Interested in Prismata? Sign up for the beta at prismata.net

About Elyot Grant

A former gold medalist in national competitions in both mathematics and computer science, Elyot has long refused to enjoy anything except video games. Elyot took more pride in winning the Reddit Starcraft Tournament than he did in earning the Computing Research Association's most prestigious research award in North America. Decried for wasting his talents, Elyot founded Lunarch Studios to pursue his true passion.