Conventions Part I - Strategic Overview

Paul's picture

People often ask me what they should do to best advertise their game to prospective customers. I tell them that in many ways we in the tabletop gaming industry are incredibly fortunate. Every year, we have a number of large consumer trade shows attended by not only the majority of the major players in the industry, but also a huge number of potential customers.

Game conventions are almost perfect marketing opportunities. If you are a publisher in any part of the tabletop industry, an extremely high percentage of attendees are interested in the types of products you sell. What is more, convention attendees are, for the most part, the gamers with the most disposable income and strongest passion for games among their circle of friends. In other words, game conventions allow you as a publisher to get your game in front of an incredible concentration of industry taste-makers. All you have to do is make an excellent game, and convince them to play it!

There are two broad aspects to attending game conventions as an exhibitor; the strategic decision of which conventions to attend, or whether to attend at all, and the tactical decisions involved in attending a specific convention - everything from pre-show logistics to convincing people to play and purchase your game. This post considers the strategic side of the equation.

There are hundreds if not thousands of gaming conventions every year, most of them varying in size from several hundred to a few thousand attendees. Deciding whether or not an individual convention is worth attending requires a publisher to weigh the costs of attending (in both money and time) against the expected gains (both advertising and direct sales). However, there are a few guidelines that we have found helpful when deciding among various conventions:

  1. Definitely attend gaming conventions. The logistics of a gaming convention, in particular the larger conventions, can be daunting. In addition, the up front expenses required can be quite high. However, if done well, the marketing payoff from a convention booth will be higher than any other type of advertising.
  2. Do not attend too many conventions. As awesome as it would be to attend every gaming convention you can possibly afford, conventions take a lot of time and energy. Attending too many conventions will leave you physically and mentally drained, and unable to properly attend to the other aspects of your business.
  3. The primary value of a convention is exposure, not direct revenue. Expect to spend several thousand dollars on a large gaming convention, even after accounting for sales revenue. This is particularly true your first time at a given show. Consider this an expense for advertising. A net loss does not mean that a convention was not successful, and, just as importantly, a net profit does not mean that a convention was a success.

We assess every convention for an expected value before we attend. While it would be difficult if not impossible to list every convention, below are my assessments of several of the largest and most prominent shows. Note that there are a number of other large gaming shows in the US not on this list. BGG Con is probably the biggest such show, and is not included because GTG has never attended. However, we will likely do so in the future on a trial basis, as it focuses on the south-central US, a region not covered by other large US shows, and has been growing quite rapidly.

 

The Tabletop Publisher’s Guide to the Big Game Conventions

Gen Con

If at all possible, attend this show. Unless your game is a mass-market family game or is not written in English, make every possible effort to get a booth at Gen Con. It is, bar none, the best place in the western hemisphere to launch or bring attention to a new hobby board game.

Attendees: Nearly all of the approximately 50k Gen Con attendees are interested in tabletop games and are at the show to learn and buy new games. Attendees represent the entire spectrum of the hobby game market, from wargamers to Eurogame fans to professional CCG players.

Networking: Representatives from nearly all of the major distributors in English-speaking markets attend Gen Con, and are generally willing to set up brief meetings with new publishers. In addition, representatives from various Chinese, European, and US manufacturers typically attend the show, as do many of the most prominent game reviewers in the industry.

Logistics: Gen Con is generally a well run show. Booths are a bit more expensive than some other shows, but hotel space in Indianapolis is cheaper than in many other cities. The Indianapolis Convention Center has recently been remodelled and is an excellent facility for a large trade show. The Gen Con staff are generally good at communicating with exhibitors; they have been doing this for a long time, and it shows.

Origins

Origins can be worthwhile if you can attend cheaply. Origins is a bit smaller than Gen Con, and in essentially the same Midwestern market. If you have to choose just one of the two Midwestern shows, go to Gen Con instead.

Attendees: Many, though by no means all, attendees overlap with those at Gen Con. The demographics are similar as well, with perhaps a slightly lower percentage of roleplaying fans and professional CCG players.

Networking: The absolute best thing about Origins is the number of tabeltop game designers who attend and have free time to chat and go over ideas. The schedule of many designers is quite a bit less demanding at Origins than at Gen Con, so many have time to get together and share their thoughts on game development.

Logistics: Origins scheduling has been a bit chaotic the past few years, but it is generally a well run show. Both booths and hotel rooms are comparatively inexpensive, so attending Origins can be very cost effective for midwestern companies for whom travel expenses will be low.

Internationale Spieltage, AKA “Essen Spiel”

Attend at least once if you have the resources, in particular if you publish “Euro-style” games. This show is legendary in the tabletop community as the largest board game convention in the world. With approximately 130k attendees, it is a great way to expand into global markets. However, with so many exhibitors, it is easy to get lost in the crowd; make sure you make your booth stand out!. In some ways, this show feels more like a giant flea market than a US gaming convention.

Attendees: Intuitively, most attendees at Essen are Europeans, most commonly Germans. While many or even most people will speak at least some English, a sizeable minority will almost exclusively be looking for games in German.  However, there are so many attendees that even a game solely published in English and taught by a booth staff with no German can sell fairly well. Attendees are more interested in purchasing and less interested in community events than at most US shows.

Networking: Essen is better for networking than anywhere else, with the possible exception of Gen Con. It is certainly the place to be if you are interested in publishing or licensing your game in continental European languages, meet with reps from game manufacturers, or connect with European game developers.

Logistics: Exhibiting at Essen can be quite a challenge. The show is fairly old and very large, and as a consequence it can be difficult to get information as a new company. In addition, for a company traveling from overseas, coordinating shipping and travel to Germany takes quite a bit more work (and money!) than getting you and your product to US shows. Finally, the hall in which the show takes place, the Messe Essen, is much older and lower on amenities than most US expo halls; the bathrooms are relatively rare and crowded, the show is split among several smaller halls, and workers are allowed to smoke and drive diesel-fueled vehicles into the hall during setup and tear-down.

PAX (Prime & East)

PAX is an incredibly well-run show that provides fantastic access to different geographical and cultural demographics than Gen Con. PAX is a “general gaming and geek culture” show rather than specifically a board game convention, and focuses on creating a gaming community. It is a great way to market to tabletop fans on the coasts and reach out to new potential tabletop fans.

Attendees: Both PAX shows in the US have approximately 1.3 to 1.5 times the number of attendees as Gen Con. However, PAX attendees span the entire “geek culture” gamut, including dedicated video game fans. Consequently, the number of customers already interested in your type of products as a tabletop publisher will be somewhat lower than Gen Con, though still fairly high. PAX attendees tend, on average, to be a bit younger and more affluent than Gen Con attendees, and have a more limited exposure to tabletop gaming.

Networking: The primary networking opportunity at PAX is with new, Kickstarter-based game publishers, who make up a high percentage of tabletop companies at PAX, and with various “geek culture” celebrities.

Logistics: For the most part, PAX is an incredibly well run show. Enforcers, the volunteer staff members that help manage on-the-ground logistics, consistently go out of their way to solve problems and make the show an awesome experience for exhibitors. Lodging at both shows is a bit more expensive than in the midwest, but they partially make up for it with slightly lower exhibitor fees. In Boston, the Exhibition and Convention Center is a huge, brand new building that works very well for this type of show. In Seattle, the Washington State Convention Center is too small for PAX, and the only reason the show remains in Seattle seems to be historical. This leads to an unfortunately cramped expo space.

The only other real issue with PAX is that there is a divide between the “main expo hall” and the “tabletop area”. Tabletop publishers can exhibit in both, but they differ somewhat. In the Expo hall, you get regular show hours (10am-6pm), plus phenomenal Enforcer support, but you are sitting in and among video game exhibitors with massive, sometimes loud, booths. In the tabletop area, you are next to various tabletop vendors and tabletop free-play tables, however, your hours are much longer (10am to midnight or so), Enforcer support is much more limited, and the tabletop section is typically somewhat or even much harder for attendees to locate.

PAX Australia

If you are serious about pursuing the Australian market and have the capital, attend this show. The general statements I made above about PAX apply to this show as well. The difference is that there are no other similar shows approaching this size in Australia. PAX Aus is already the absolute best place to reach the Australian tabletop market, and If the show continues to grow like the US PAX shows, it will come to dominate the market in that country.

Attendees: The demographics of PAX Australia are similar to those of the other PAX shows. Australians are also accustomed to big events and companies overlooking them for the US or European market, and in our experience are very excited to have a large convention experience in their country.

Networking: Again, similar to the other PAX shows, with the added benefit of networking with Australian distributors and publishers.

Logistics: Incredibly straightforward, even for US based companies. The show staff go out of their way to make product shipping and similar issues proceed smoothly for companies based outside Australia. The venue for the first show (2013) had some issues, but the next show (2014) will be the Melbourne Exhibition Center, a massive and brand-new convention center that has been described by some convention professionals as “the best expo hall they’ve ever seen”. Only time will tell! On the down side, travel and shipping to Australia from almost anywhere else is quite expensive, and lodging in Melbourne is quite pricey as well.

Part II - Pre-Show Logistics

Comments

PlatinumWarlock's picture

One of the nice things about living in the Dayton area is my proximity to both Origins and GenCon.  I've been running games at Origins for 7 years now and at GenCon for 3.

I've found that both places have been very receptive to new RPGs, and I've gotten a lot of great word-of-mouth for Cold Steel Wardens by running demo games.  I typically stick to a slate of 3 per day:  2 2-hour demos and then a full 4-hour one shot in the evening.  That helps keep me fresh and eager to run game, despite using the same scenarios time and again.

I'm intregued by PAX, but I haven't been able to scratch together the funding to establish a prescence there yet.  I'd like to try to get there and to DragonCon in Atlanta at some point.

 

I've also been able to enjoy lots of smaller conventions, as they're prevalent in the Miami Valley.  I usually hit 4-5 smaller conventions (usually for a weekend) each year, in addition to Origins and GenCon.  A smaller, more intimate environment definitely helps exposure!