In the weeks leading up to SXSW, and the impending launch of Yomi's Gate, I wrote a blog series called "Road to SXSW" in which I talked about the origins of the game and some of the challenges I've worked through to make it happen.
Now the dust is settling, SXSW is over, and I have thoughts to share on the experience. A full, stream of consciousness post on the experience would be incredibly long and difficult to follow, so I'm going to do what many game developers do and write a postmortem about it. I'll catalogue what went right, what went wrong, and then summarize with what I think should happen in the future.
Note from Future Jake: Now that it's written, it's still incredibly long. Even at that length, there's more I could keep talking about, so I'm going to leave it at this colossal size and hope that it's useful and interesting for those reading. Enjoy!
Let's start with what went right.
I work from home by myself. Once a week, if that, I get to the Philly Game Forge to hang out with other developers. We play each other's games, do game jams, have presentations, and play lots of TowerFall. That is, however, about 99% of my developer social time.
SXSW was filled with developers, including some I'd already met and had missed terribly, some I knew online but had never seen in person, and some wonderful folks I had yet to meet. Everyone was fantastic.
I loved getting to see people, getting to play others' games, and even just getting food together. It's remarkable how important all of that is when you're so far from it almost every other day.
If I could afford it, I would travel to every show as often as possible just to see these people.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of being around other people who do what you do, especially when those people are great people.
+ People LOVE the Deluxe Edition of Yomi's Gate.
As I was developing the game, I had more than one person experienced with game manufacturing tell me, "You should reconsider making the game from acrylic. It's way too expensive." That got me thinking that people are going to be very concerned about price, so I also became concerned about the price that I would be charging. I made the Deluxe Edition the intended version of the game, then removed the box for the Standard Edition and changed some materials and armies for the Basic Edition.
It turns out everyone who sees Yomi's Gate wants the Deluxe Edition. As Kelly, who won the auction for copy #1, told me, "With board gamers, there is no upper limit to what people are willing to pay for a really nice game."
We brought 10 special, serialized SXSW copies of Yomi's Gate to the show. They were all numbered 1-10 and they were the first copies ever made. We sold them all through various auctions and raffles.
We brought about a dozen standard editions and struggled to sell half of them.
Exposing the game to thousands of people, many of whom only having a cursory interest in games, was a great learning experience in finding out what people wanted. I was shocked that the $120 Deluxe Edition, which I thought would be prohibitively expensive to many, was the version of choice for just about everyone. Making a special version of the game for the show, which I was also worried wouldn't be popular, ended up being a great decision.
+ I managed to get interviewed by Felicia Day live on Geek & Sundry.
One of the great things about SXSW is that it gathers all kinds of amazing people in one place. One of the great things about Twitter is that it lets you send messages to people who would normally be completely inaccessible.
Last week I tweeted at Felicia Day, telling her I had an award-nominated board game, I would be at SXSW, and could I show her my game? She got back to me and said to come by her event on Saturday afternoon, so OF COURSE I did. I brought her one of the special, serialized copies and thought I would be lucky if I got to hand it to her and tell her what it's called.
Well, when she opened the box she loved what she saw, so she did something I wasn't expecting and asked, "Would you like to talk about it on the show?" a live broadcast.
So OF COURSE I said yes.
This is what your traffic looks like when that happens.
For reference, March 13th was when my game launched and 13-15 were general SXSW days.
Messaging Felicia was a great decision. I'm grateful for being on the show and it was a wonderful experience. If you want to see the show, the link is above. The interview with me starts at about 1:15.
+ There are tons of people at SXSW.
Something I have always struggled with is getting out of obscurity. Without advertising dollars, you can only do so much to get word out. I've been posting on Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and FB and telling everyone from taco truck vendors to help desk employees about my game. It's hard to let people know that you and your work exist.
Then there's SXSW, where there's a constant deluge of people all day every day for an entire weekend.
I know people seem to like the pieces from Yomi's Gate, so I set aside a bunch of my extras, bought tiny bags, and half business cards that said "Yomi's Gate, now available at Spriteborne.com, Booth 157 at SXSW." It was a little promo bag that had a unit and a card in it and it was super cool.
We had 500 of them and gave them all out on the first half of the first day. Well, when we saw how fast they were going we saved a couple dozen for day two, but the point is we could have brought 5,000 and still given them all out.
That kind of exposure is unprecedented for Spriteborne. Combined with getting on Felicia Day's show, more people now know about Spriteborne than ever did with all pre-SXSW time combined.
+ When you don't know what to price something at, run a blind auction.
The Deluxe Edition of Yomi's Gate is priced at $120. That price is determined by a number of different things, from material costs to hourly rates, and it's something that can be figured out with a spreadsheet.
The special SXSW edition doesn't have those same features, as it carries a special one-of-a-kind characteristic. They're the first 10 games ever made. How do you put a price on that?
My approach was, "You don't." On the first day, I ran a silent auction where the top three bidders each won a copy with their bid. That worked okay, but it was intimidating when people saw a high bid and turned some people off from participating.
On days two and three, I ran blind auctions. In a blind auction, neither you nor the bidder know what the bids have been so far. It's far more exciting and everyone who wants to bid can do so without the intimidation of going against high bids.
The highest blind auction bid was $225 on day 2 and $200 on day 3, so I think that worked out quite well.
On day three I also ran a raffle, but I'll talk about that next...
Now for what went wrong.
- SXSW Gaming is free for attendees.
For attendees, this is great news. Show up, get in, see games, leave when you're ready to go. Magical. It's infinitely better than trying to get to PAX and finding out passes sold out in three minutes.
As an exhibitor, this is a mixed blessing.
On the positive side, it means that you're getting totally different market penetration. Since anyone can show up for free, there were lots of families, small children, and people who aren't totally immersed in gaming news and culture. It means lots of people who see your game won't have even heard of your game before, so the exposure is unique. I talked with Dan Adelman, who was representing Axiom Verge (March 31st on PS4), and he said that about 75% of PAX attendees had heard of Axiom Verge or even played it before, but maybe 25% or less had heard of it at SXSW.
On the negative end of things, that meant that you might be talking to people who are less likely to actually buy or play your game. Calvin and Alix brought their game, Upsilon Circuit, and part of their tagline is that it's an action RPG. That doesn't work when the people you're pitching to don't actually know what an action RPG is.
Another effect of SXSW Gaming being free is that people aren't invested in staying all day. When I ran a raffle, I said that you had to be present at 7:30pm, 30 minutes before closing, to win. Almost everyone I talked to in the first half of the day said they wouldn't be around for that, which is so foreign to me. At something like PAX, people are asking you how late you're open. Is it midnight? They're staying til midnight. Is it 2am? They're happy to play games until 2am. After all, they paid to be there and tickets are very hard to come by, so nobody wants to miss even a minute of the show if they can help it.
For me, it's hard to tell if this was more of a boon or a curse, but it did mess up my raffle so I have it listed in the negative column. Your mileage may vary.
- This year, SXSW Gaming did nothing to sort booth locations by booth content.
In fact, the booths were sorted alphabetically. Ska Studios, Soundself, Spriteborne, and so on. This put us in between a huge, fabric-walled tent and a VR game about bomb defusal.
I want to be clear that I have nothing against either of these games. Both of those booths are excellent. It's putting a quiet, contemplative board game in between them that makes no sense.
I don't know what sort of thought went into the floor design for the rest of the show, but the Indie Corner was a mess. So many problems came up because things just weren't laid out well. When Soundself and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes had a crowd, we struggled to get anyone at all to check out Yomi's Gate. I'd approach people hanging out in front of my booth and ask, "Do you like tabletop games?" or "Would you like to hear about my new board game?" and sometimes people would just point at the VR game next to us and indicate that they weren't interested in mine.
Location matters. Putting similar games together so people can go from one relevant interest to another in rapid succession matters. SXSW did nothing to make that happen, at least in Indie Corner. We did the best we could with what we had, but it often was difficult to fight the environmental handicap.
- The logistics of SXSW were awful, at best.
You're not allowed to bring in any outside food at all, so you have to either leave to eat and drink or you have to buy food at the tiny convention food stand.
For instance, if I wanted coffee while I was setting up the booth at 8am on Friday, I couldn't bring my own. Naturally, I went to the convention food stand. "Oh, we don't open until the show starts at noon."
I've reserved my strongest language for this part of the post:
You won't allow outside food, but you're also holding back on the food we are allowed to have? What the fuck? You want a room full of grumpy exhibitors who are all being deprived of coffee? When the show floor did open, I went to the register and asked for, "the biggest coffee you have," and received a crappy 16oz cup for $3.50.
For food, pizza was $8 a slice. There were taco products that started off at $8 and $9, but during the show they actually raised the price to $10 for all of them.
Unrelated to food, utilities were grossly overpriced. I paid $135 for some guy to spend 30 seconds plugging in what was basically a specialized extension cord so we could keep our phones and iPad, our credit card payment mechanism, charged. That cord was gone within about 10 minutes of the show floor closing on Sunday, so we couldn't even charge our devices while we were breaking down the booth. We essentially paid someone $16,000 an hour for 30 seconds of work and less than a $1 of electricity over the course of the weekend.
Parking was also less than ideal. There are no hotels near the Palmer Events Center, the ones nearby are expensive, and public transportation is awful. The most common travel plan was to stay up to a few miles away and call an Uber ride each morning and evening. For me, I stayed with family about 20 miles away, drove each day, and paid $8/day for parking. It would have been a drop in the bucket for SXSW to give exhibitors parking passes for the event, but that's another in the long list of things that just weren't included.
It's also worth noting that the WiFi was unreliable. Most of the time this wasn't too much of a problem, being that I brought a tabletop game, but I'd like to point out that credit card transactions have to verify via WiFi. At one point, someone's card simply wouldn't go through because Square couldn't get a good connection. Now, of course you can pay for booth-by-booth ethernet, but it's hundreds of dollars to do so and very much not worth it unless internet is critical to running your game.
Even the functionality of something as big as the Gaming Awards show was sub-par. They somehow managed to completely omit the video for Salt & Sanctuary in the Gamer's Voice Award category. How does something like that even happen? Can you imagine traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to be in an event and award show and then not even getting acknowledged during that award show? I hope that reading this, you'll visit the link to Salt & Sanctuary to help make up for the attention that James and Michelle missed out on.
Beginning to end, everything related to the functional running of the booth and being at the show was ridiculously expensive and restrictive. I'm just glad we were allowed to sell copies of the game, because I don't know how else I was going to afford that.
- We needed more people staffing the booth.
The Spriteborne booth was staffed by Nadja and I. Being that Yomi's Gate is a board game requiring lots of individual attention, that was rough.
Video games can actually play themselves. In arcades, games have an "Attract Mode" where there the game plays itself to show people what it's all about. Demos can be set up to be largely automated and many devs will do this so they can focus their time on questions, interviews, and problem solving.
The "Attract Mode" for Yomi's Gate is the game sitting in its box with a demo copy set up next to it. They look great, but they do nothing to speak for themselves. I made a nice sign that gave a three-sentence overview of the gameplay and I had full instruction booklets printed out that people could read. Nobody was very interested in reading unless Nadja or I had already convinced them to sit down with the game.
The point here is that every person or small group requires attention. It isn't as simple as handing them a controller and saying, "Here, play this game."
So on Saturday when I had to leave for the Geek & Sundry event, that left just Nadja to run the booth. Luckily I was able to enlist Calvin and Alix to take turns helping her out, but even that was difficult. I was pulling them away from their game, first and foremost, but they also didn't know my game very well. They could only answer questions in so much detail.
Beyond that, we weren't allowed to leave the booth unattended. That was a problem when, on Saturday night, we were required to be at the Gaming Awards ceremony and had to leave the booth unattended (read: Watched by the wonderful Heather from the Soundself team), but it was also a problem in that we couldn't put up an "out to lunch" sign or anything during the rest of the show.
We really needed three people to staff the booth, but SXSW only gives you two passes per booth. A third would have cost $1,500 and we just didn't have those resources (see UPDATE below). Next time I do a show, maybe I'll bring a digital game with a few stations for a fully automated demo.
UPDATE: I just learned you're actually allowed a third badge per 10'x10' booth and this badge is free for exhibitors. It's worth noting that in the contract the wording says that additional badges can be "purchased," but it's not clear that they can be purchased for $0. We definitely would have used the third badge if we knew we could.
- There is no press connection at SXSW.
The SXSW website advertises that something like 500+ members of the press will be attending the show, but what it doesn't say is how many of those attendees are gaming press. Turns out that number is somewhere in the vicinity of zero.
Personally, I had exactly zero press appointments at SXSW. My only interview was with Felicia Day, which admittedly is like playing the lottery once and winning.
Upsilon Circuit's devs also had zero press appointments and they were 1) featured in a much more prominent place on the show floor; 2) previously featured on major websites like Kotaku; and 3) actually had an on-stage event during SXSW.
If an award-nominated game and a major feature game can both go through a whole show with no press appointments, press coverage at that show is terrible.
For reference, PAX compiles a list of all attending press and sends it out to exhibitors. From there, exhibitors can email press whose interests would match their game. It isn't difficult to organize, it's painless for press and exhibitors, and it's easy for both press and exhibitors to pack their show with interview appointments. Everyone wins.
The only "press" contact I had related to SXSW was with someone representing a list of YouTube personalities. When I got in touch, they asked me if I was informed about their "usual rates" for YouTube appearances and asked what kind of budget I was working with. When I told them that budget was "basically zero," they said they'd set up meetings for me with personalities at the show, then I ended up never hearing from them again. Sorry, but money doesn't flow in that direction unless it's for advertising, in which case you shouldn't be using the guise of "press" to make connections.
SXSW is currently a gold mine if you are press, because you can run wild and interview whoever you want on whatever schedule you want. Conversely, it's currently terrible for press attention if you're a developer who wants to be interviewed.
What I learned and what to do in the future
What follows are the lessons I learned from the show. Some are framed as though they're being told to future-me or someone in a position similar to mine. Some are lessons directed at the organizers of SXSW (Hi Justin, Estevan, and Syd!).
- The personal connections you make and nurture at conventions are more important than anything else. The people you meet will have insights you can't reach on your own, they will help you in ways that money cannot, and the psychological and emotional connections you make will keep you going better than Twitter, caffeine, or prescription medication. I spent a fair amount of time cultivating these connections prior to SXSW, but in the future I'd dedicate even more time and energy to that.
- When you're a small, unknown, and trying to promote your work, "risk mitigation" is a phrase that should just be thrown out entirely. I almost brought a standard edition of Yomi's Gate to the Geek & Sundry event, worried that I'd miss out on an opportunity to auction or raffle one of the first edition, serialized copies. Calvin from RobotLovesKitty convinced me to bring one of the special copies and that was a great choice. I feel like this is a micro version of this lesson: Take the huge risks, because you're not going to find initial success by taking small ones.
- Bring LOTS of promotional items and make them items that people actually want. People loved the little promotional units and I had people coming to my booth throughout the show telling me things like, "I got this little samurai guy and I just had to know where it came from, so I followed the directions to your booth." Business cards and postcards are better than nothing, but a physical artifact that people are interested in is way better. I grossly underestimated demand by only bringing 500. Next time, I need at least ten times that.
- Shameless plug: I can make cool, promotional artifacts for shows. Ask Greg Lobanov from Dumb & Fat or Chris Hoopes from Ghost Crab. Shoot me an email and let's talk.
These are the promotional items I brought. They were universally adored, especially by children.
Thank you to Nadja Mummery, who stuffed like 80% of these bags.
- SXSW needs to rework its perspective to be developer-centric, asking the question, "What is this going to be like for the people running the booths?" at every single turn. This would solve problems like not being able to get coffee before noon, terrible floor plan layouts, and shoddy to non-existent press connections. If it's a good show for the people in the show, it's going to be a good show for attendees as well. Create better food and utility solutions, organize the show floor in a way that makes sense, and court press to the show.
- Do your best to cover the cost of the show with whatever you do and sell at the show. For me, my auctioned first editions were my bread and butter. Not all shows allow direct sales, however, so maybe you need to give away enough free stuff to drive traffic to your website for sales there. Maybe you don't even have a game yet and you're running a Kickstarter so you're looking to court backers. Whatever the case, make certain you have an open avenue by which people can give you money and do your best to direct people to it throughout the show. When you can recoup costs, it's easier to shrug off the less desirable aspects of a show.
- Have backup plans and be prepared to spend money on them if you need to. During setup, we found that we had no place for people to play the game so we had to buy a card table and chairs. During the show, we learned that staffing the booth with one person would be a nightmare, so we had to call in help from friends while I went to the Geek & Sundry event. Many times, small to medium sized problems popped up and we had to figure out how to solve them. Be ready to deal with the unexpected, accepting fully that those problems are going to be unexpected. You cannot possibly prepare for everything.
Finally, I just wanted to thank a bunch of people for making the SXSW experience possible and enjoyable. In no particular order...
- Nadja, for endlessly supporting me at home and helping run the actual booth at SXSW.
- My family, for encouraging me to keep making things and for keeping me afloat financially.
- Dustin and Kristyn, for believing in me and selflessly helping with whatever I've needed along the way.
- Cassie and Nick, for hosting me at their house during SXSW.
- Everyone at the Philly Game Forge, for repeatedly playtesting my game while it was in development.
- Justin, Estevan, Syd, and the rest of the SXSW team for making the event possible and nominating Yomi's Gate in the Gaming Awards
- My show floor neighbors working on Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Assault Android CACTUS, and Soundself for being excellent neighbors, great company, and helping me survive the show.
- Calvin and Alix at RobotLovesKitty, Michelle and James from Ska Studios, Don, Vanessa, and Kazuo from the Starrmazer team, Dan, Andy, and Maya for all being wonderful humans.
- Felicia Day, for having me on her Geek & Sundry live broadcast, as well as the team at that event making that show possible.
- The Austin games community, for being full of great people like Adam, Rebekah, Jeanette, Eduardo, Alex, and Jo who made me feel at home over 1,600 miles away.
- Lex, for designing the Yomi's Gate instruction manual.
- Everyone who visited my booth at SXSW for helping Yomi's Gate have a fantastic launch.
- You, for reading this.