This is a continuation of Part 1 from last week. Read that first, as it explains how we ended up at Fan Expo in the first place.
Fan Expo Preparation
Fan Expo for us practically began after the first week of August, when we finally got confirmation that we’d have a booth. It was exciting, especially after the disappointing news from PAX, but there was a lot to be done and we didn’t have much time.
Most important of all was figuring out the booth. We provided our own tables, seats, and computers, so we had to determine the exact dimensions of the space to ensure that our equipment would fit in the booth. Acquiring this information was more difficult than expected; Will had to make a huge number of phone calls to receive an answer, since the plans weren’t terribly well-organized and no one was completely sure how much booth space we actually would be getting.
We borrowed a page from Bitflip’s guide and made a mock setup of the booth in the office. The game ran on our own work laptops, which were hooked up to monitors brought from the office (they were easier to transport, and it’s not like we would be needing them.) We spent under $250 on four cheap height-adjustable tables and 6 of the tiniest chairs we could find. There were many variables in our set-up, so we tried tons of different configurations in an effort to optimize how many people could play the game, how visible the monitors would be, and how much art we could show off. We also had to determine whether or not we wanted standing desks (we decided on a mix of sitting and standing ones), if we wanted any sound (we decided to have no sound at all, though this may have been suboptimal in hindsight), and how many laptops we would need (we went with 6 running the game, plus one collecting emails).
There were also many logistical details, decisions, and expenses:
- Transportation: We carpooled; about $150 was spent on gas and parking
- Lodging: 9 of us went in total, but most of us found people to stay with. Thankfully we only needed one hotel room! $553
- Electricity and Internet for the booth: Power was $43/day and desperately needed; internet was $700/day so we decided to make do without it (which ended up costing us dearly, see the section below on losing our mailing list…) Total cost: $172.
- Theft insurance: Skipped out on it. We just took the laptops with us every night when we packed up and left. Nothing else was particularly valuable. Nothing was lost.
- Online advertising: We put $44 into promoting our Fan Expo hype post on facebook to encourage people to show up. It’s hard to measure if this was a good decision, but at less than 1% of the budget, we hit 24000 people.
- Last-minute hardware shopping: $148 on some extra mice, keyboards, mouse pads, and monitor cables.
- Other random supplies: Duct tape, fabric tape, binder clips to mount posters, etc.
We also made modifications to the Prismata software for Fan Expo. These only took a day or so in total:
- Airplane mode: Prismata is an online game, and it’s designed to stream sound and images from our server to reduce load times. Since we decided not to pay for internet access in our booth, we had to embed all the sound and images into the game itself.
- LAN mode: Prismata connects to an online matchmaking server to pair users together when they want to play games. We had to add a simpler LAN mode so that we could just connect two laptops with a single ethernet cable and have them play against each other.
- Expo build: We made a special version of the game that had some unique challenges for new players, and provided us with an easy method of resetting the game for the next user.
We also spent a lot of time generally polishing the software and fixing a few lingering bugs. We would have done this stuff anyway, so I don’t count these hours in our total man-hours spent on Fan Expo. However, some polishing work got done sooner than it otherwise would have (at the cost of other, less Fan Expo-dependent, development work).
We’d always wanted Prismata T-shirts, and we needed them at the booth anyway, so we got 100 printed. They came to about $20 each: more expensive than I’d have liked, but worth it. They were great quality with really nice full-colour screen printing on the front and the back, and very comfortable. Everyone at the booth enjoyed them, plus we also gave some away to a few of the people we met at Fan Expo who couldn’t get enough of the game.
Posters were a must-have to show off some of the game art, so we printed a bunch of laminated ones. We also printed a huge vinyl Prismata banner that ended up looking pretty crappy, unfortunately, because the “black” is more of a medium grey. One thing we’ll do next time is to reprint the banner as a laminated poster, and possibly add “turn-based strategy game” under the Prismata logo. A lot of people had no clue what Prismata was, and the show was busy enough that our team couldn’t always stop to explain the concept to everyone who looked interested.
We also made some 2-sided how-to-play cards that featured the rules of Prismata. Since Prismata is a hybrid of a real-time strategy game and a card game, it was very important to highlight the rules that make Prismata different from what new players are typically used to.
The last thing we did was print 1000 beta key cards. These were designed to be simple giveaways that we could hand out to people who didn’t have time to sit down and try the game, or didn’t want to wait in line if the booth was busy. Each card came with a unique beta signup code. Alex generated the codes with a Python script, and we printed them on sticker sheets, dozens at a time. The most annoying task was manually affixing the stickers to all 1000 cards. Our solution was an example of Fordism at its best.
In total we gave out all 1000 cards, and we ran out 2 hours before Fan Expo ended. Of those 1000 cards distributed to Fan Expo attendees, about 170 were actually entered in as beta sign-up codes, which seems like an excellent ratio. We didn’t actually need to have unique codes on each card, but we thought that making them seem a bit more scarce and precious would encourage people to sign up.
Author’s note: If anyone didn’t get a chance to sign up using a Fan Expo code, you can still sign up for the beta at prismata.net. Fan Expo code entries get first dibs on beta keys, but we plan on growing the beta by a LOT really soon, so you shouldn’t have to wait long.
At The Booth
The key takeaway from our experience at Fan Expo was that you can never be too prepared. The floor plan for our booth showed two curtained walls abutting a 10-foot square of concrete flooring. When we arrived, we discovered that one of the curtains—which were crucial for us to be able to mount our posters—was missing. The Fan Expo staff couldn’t do much to help us, so Alex ended up bribing a janitor $20 to acquire another wall for us.
Intern’s note: when I first arrived at the convention, Alex asked me if I had change for $100, and I wondered why. What a noob! Bribing with $100 is just overkill.
Fan Expo was scheduled to open to the public at 4pm on Thursday, August 28. We skipped the exhibitor set-up day on the preceding Wednesday, thinking we’d have enough time to set up on Thursday morning and afternoon. We really should have gone on Wednesday instead. Aside from meeting janitors and other members of the underground Fan Expo economy, we would have had more time to comfortably set up our booth and check everything over. Instead, we found ourselves sticking our last poster up on the curtains at the exact moment that the loudspeaker announced the show beginning. That poster fell down within a couple of hours. Fabric tape, it turns out, is a vastly underperforming craft tool. Never sit underneath a heavy piece of paper taped to a curtain!
The location of Prismata’s booth was in a mecca of children’s entertainment, nestled between Teletoon, Potted Potter and Entertainment One. Our location meant tons of booth traffic but many hit-and-miss conversations. The question, “Do you like strategy games?” would either be met with a “heck yeah!” or a blank stare. Or, in the case of a particular gentleman responding to our marketing intern Rachel, “Nah. I’m a console guy, I like to hold the thing in my hand. What can I say? I’m a man,” followed by a wink. Unfortunately for console guy, Prismata won’t be coming to him anytime soon.
Our location also meant that when Teletoon was spinning their wheel of chance, or the Potter people brought in live owls and arachnids, their line-ups ended up snaking in front of us, cutting off our own booth traffic. What we learned, though, was that tradeshow people are almost always willing to cooperate and relocate their queues of visitors. In some cases, favourable outcomes could be achieved by bribing other vendors with valuable, scarce commodities like AC power and duct tape.
Pitching and Demoing Prismata
Over the four days, I had a lot of experience refining the sales pitch I used to get people to try the game. Prismata has an interesting user interface and nice art, so it catches people’s eyes. However, it isn’t a game that people instantly ‘get’ when they stare at the screen. They need to be told what’s going on. What I found worked best was to figure out what types of strategy games a person liked, and then describe Prismata via analogy. I would often say things like:
- Prismata is the turn-based StarCraft that everyone’s been waiting for.
- It’s different than a card game like Magic or Hearthstone. Instead of building a deck and playing cards you draw, you get a bunch of workers that make resources, and you can spend those resources on attackers, defenders, tech, or more workers.
- In a game like Civilization, there’s a huge map and it can take an hour to play a turn. In Prismata, there’s no map and you can play a turn in 10 seconds.
In my experience, the best way to get a person to sit down and try Prismata is to find out which games that person really likes, and then pitch Prismata as a fresh new take on a similar idea.
For the demos themselves, we had prepared two distinct experiences for new players:
- An exciting single-player battle against a boss controlled by the AI
- A 1v1 match against another human
We found that option 2 yielded a much better average result for new players, and we quickly retired option 1 altogether, reserving it only for players who came back multiple times and wanted a new challenge. Most people arrived at the booth in groups, so it was usually pretty easy to get people to play against their friends. Our staff stepped in to play against people when necessary.
As for the results of our demo, they were phenomenal. The positive feedback we received completely blew my expectations away.
Prior to Fan Expo, we had done lots of focus testing of Prismata beforehand (mostly with university students who were pretty strategy-game savvy), so we roughly knew what to expect. At Fan Expo, strategy gamers immediately understood the appeal of a card game without randomness, and the mechanics were familiar enough for those people to grasp basic strategy quickly, while also being unique enough to intrigue them, even while playing with only a tiny subset of the hundred or so units in the game.
What really took me by surprise was how addictive Prismata was to people who weren’t typical strategy gamers. Often people would drag their friends or girl/boyfriends along to play, and the less experienced gamers found Prismata equally enthralling. Kids as young as 8 years old were also really into it (some of them came back 5 or more times to play). Of the hundreds of people who sat down to play a game, almost nobody left without completing at least one match. Nothing was as gratifying as seeing players come back to try the game day after day at the Expo, especially when they brought new friends to play with them. One kid got to know us so well that he returned to our booth after losing his Dad (Whinnie successfully reunited him with his family).
As expected with a large scale user test, the demos also allowed us to get tons of great feedback on the game. Observing all the new players, we learned a lot about what beginners find fun, and which things people were still having difficulty learning. However, Fan Expo provided some opportunities that a regular focus test wouldn’t have given us; for example, we met a user interface designer who meticulously analyzed our game’s look and feel, spending over an hour with us offering suggestions on how to enhance its presentation.
Regrettably, there was little media presence at Fan Expo, and press members that did show up were mostly focused on photographing cosplayers. However, we did swap business cards with a few authors from small gaming blogs, and several of them tried Prismata and were excited about writing future articles about it. We also got plenty of networking done with local gaming groups, artists, and the head of a voice actor’s association. I wish we had brought more business cards!
Some general stats:
- Beta key cards handed out: 999
- Beta key cards redeemed: 171
- Number of laptops running Prismata: 6
- Total number of hours of Prismata computer playtime: 180
- Total number of Prismata matches played: ~400
- Number of people who played at least one game: ~500
- Number of T-shirts given out: 10
- Email addresses collected: We’ll never know… 🙁
Disaster: Losing our mailing list
Fan Expo concluded right before the Labour Day holiday Monday, which I happily spent relaxing. The following Tuesday, we were all back at work. I was having a great day until I heard the following coming from Will’s office:
Will: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!
At Fan Expo, we’d collected email addresses from everyone who was interested in signing up for our mailing list and beta. These ~300 emails were kept in a Google Docs spreadsheet on a Chromebook in offline mode. When Will checked the spreadsheet on Tuesday, they were all gone.
Apparently there is a known issue with offline mode in Google Docs, where in some cases, syncing can mess up and cause data to be lost. This is exactly what happened to us.
We talked to Google’s tech support (it exists, for real!) They were very nice to us, but said that there was absolutely nothing they could do for us, as the data had never been synced on their servers. We even tried contacting some of our friends who work for Google. Their replies were all something like this:
What happened? Oh fuck. That. 🙁
What boggles my mind is that this software bug was first reported over two years ago (see the link above), so it seems completely bizarre that Google still hasn’t gotten around to fixing it, especially since it led to catastrophic data loss in one of Google’s core products. For fuck’s sake Google, get it together! Our company keeps hundreds of documents on Google Drive, some of which are incredibly important. A lot of my trust in Google’s software has been lost. I won’t ever use Docs in offline mode again.
To our Fan Expo guests: I’m incredibly sorry. We tried literally everything we could to recover those emails. If you think that your email was lost, you can do one of the following two things:
- Go sign up at http://prismata.net/expo/ with the code EPICFAIL and I’ll add everyone who does this to the mailing list and beta
- Email me personally and I’ll add you manually: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, spread the word if you know anyone else who might have been affected.
Complete Cost Breakdown
Here it is! All dollar figures are in Canadian dollars, where 1 CAD = 0.91 USD
|Tables and chairs||$242.84||Four height-adjustable tables and 6 really tiny chairs|
|Booth supplies||$38.49||Tape and binder clips|
|Hardware||$148.01||Four keyboards and mice, six mousepads, two HDMI-DVI cables|
|‘How-to-play’ cards||$68.55||12 slides: $45.96 to print them and $22.49 to get them laminated|
|Posters and banners||$651.20||7 small background posters, 2 medium unit art posters, 3 huge character posters, and one massive Prismata banner|
|T-shirts||$2098.52||USD $1,689.24 + import fees. Taxes not included in our total because we can get reimbursed for them.|
|Total durable goods…||$3247.61||(Excluding 10 t-shirts that were given away, these are all costs that we would NOT have to pay again next time)|
|Fan Expo booth cost||$1,689.24||4-day booth 10′ by 10′ booth rental at Fan Expo Canada 2014|
|Power for the Fan Expo booth||$171.76||4-day power outlet for the booth|
|Janitor bribe||$20.00||Janitor bribed to get us the second wall curtain that the Fan Expo organizers originally promised us|
|Exhibitor badges||$285.00||Five 4-day exhibitor passes to Fan Expo|
|Additional badges||$280.00||Four additional Saturday Fan Expo passes and two additional Sunday Fan Expo passes|
|Total paid to Fan Expo…||$2,446.00|
|Facebook advertising||$44.00||Promoting our Fan Expo hype post|
|Cards||$124.30||1000 beta key cards|
|Stickers||$10.00||Stickers that we printed out and stuck to each card by hand, each containing a unique beta signup code|
|Total advertising and giveaways…||$178.30|
|Gas||$60.68||Three cars from Waterloo to Toronto and back|
|Parking||$72.50||Fan Expo parking plus some downtown Toronto parking|
|Bus tickets||$16.95||One Toronto-to-Waterloo bus ticket for|
|Hotel||$553.35||Three nights at the Doubletree downtown Toronto hotel for two people|
|Food||$319.95||Random meals and other food, plus a group dinner on Saturday|
|Total transport, food, board…||$1023.43|
|Fan Expo Grand Total Costs:||$6,895.34||(or roughly $6300 in US dollars)|
|Plus, money wasted on PAX:||$1687.91||$1536 US dollars spent on PAX Dev and PAX Prime passes that we never used|
|The Grandest of Grand Totals:||$8583.25||(about $7800 in US dollars)|
I also estimate that we spent roughly 340 man-hours of labour on activities exclusively aimed at Fan Expo (not counting general bug-fixing or polishing of the game). Some of these, like the preparation of the posters and planning of the booth, could be done much faster next time.
- 185 hours presenting at Fan Expo
- 55 hours of setup/takedown/driving
- 40 hours of Will planning the booth, calling Fan Expo, preparing everything
- 10 hours writing custom code for Prismata so we could run it at Fan Expo
- 50 hours getting all the cards, flyers, t-shirts, posters, and other stuff printed
This is really an incredible amount of work: roughly 8.5 full work weeks.
Between our complete disappointment when PAX turned us away, the utter elation upon witnessing hundreds of people become addicted to our game, and subsequent devastation upon losing all of their emails, this whole experience was a roller coaster, to say the least!
Did we achieve anything? Let’s revisit our initial goals for going to
PAX Fan Expo:
- Get feedback on the game: Our success in this regard was undeniable, but I suspect we could have made similar progress with far less effort by just doing extensive focus testing. Still, we might not have met some incredible people, like the UI designer who spent over an hour at our booth pouring over the game.
- Promote interest in the game: This deserves a small check mark. A good chunk of the Fan Expo attendees got to try Prismata. We’re on the map.
- Collect emails and beta sign-ups: *sigh*… at least we still got 171 people who took our cards, went home, and actually entered the codes. Those 171 users are hopefully highly motivated and dedicated, given that they went to all the effort of doing so.
- Meet journalists: There weren’t too many at Fan Expo, unfortunately. At PAX, the opportunities would have been 100-fold greater. However, the few that we did meet seemed very enthused; one blogger told us excitedly that he had been keeping a list of all the units he’d seen in the game so far, and was going to do an analysis on them.
In any case, by the goals listed above, it doesn’t seem like we got a great return on our 340 man-hour and $8600 investment (which is really more like $6500 if you don’t count the T-shirts). However, I think there is an additional benefit not listed above: experience. When we do go to PAX (and we will, trust me!), we’ll have a better booth, be better at demoing the game, and be better at knowing our audience. That may be well worth the cost, as just one key journalist introduction could be worth the entire $8600. You just never know.
Finally, if you’re an aspiring indie dev interested in exhibiting at a convention, feel free to email me if you have any questions about our experience. And of course, check out Prismata if you’re interested a turn-based StarCraft/deck-free Hearthstone type of hybrid strategy game.