Last week I had the privilege to show my game Squarelets at this year’s Develop: Brighton conference. Squarelets was one of the 10 indie showcase finalists, and it was a big opportunity for me to show the game to the world.
The conference was an amazing experience, I met a lot of really cool people and also learned a lot in the process. I think my most important lesson was that the success of your showcase is defined in equal measure by what you do beforehand, and not just during the conference itself.
Define your audience
Develop: Brighton is primarily a game developer conference - to a lesser extent for gamers and that makes a big difference. While a lot of people from the gaming industry are gamers themselves, they don't come to the conference to play games that much (at least for most of them, it's not the primary focus).
These people are there to work, which means they'll be looking for potential opportunities for collaboration, sharing experiences and writing a story about you.
This is one of the things we didn't get quite right - we had a competition for people playing the game, but nobody had the time to play it and then come back to our stand. I still think that the competition is a good idea but maybe not in this setting.
That being said, meeting so many people from the industry was extremely valuable, and the connections I made will definitely help me shape the future of Squarelets and Chaos Cookie as a whole.
Define your goals
Once you know what kind of people will show up to the conference, it’s best to define beforehand what you would like to get out of being there. It might be a good idea to write it down to solidify the goals, as it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the moment.
Here are a few goals that I think would be useful to consider in the future:
Getting immediate feedback from people playing the game at the conference itself (keep in mind that they’ll only be able to comment on the first few minutes of gameplay)
Finding people who fall in love with your game and could provide feedback long term
Connecting with people whose services will help you grow (such as designers or marketing)
Finding new co-workers
Sharing experiences with others on a similar path
Raising awareness of the game (eg. through connecting with press)
Finding a publisher
It’s best to focus only or 2-3 goals per conference, unless you have a big team coming with you and you’re able to divide responsibilities (but if you do, you probably don’t need to read this article in the first place).
Set your expectations
Conferences are usually busy and chaotic events - that's what makes them great after all. They make it easy for you to bump into someone randomly while getting coffee, only to learn that that’s the person you dreamt of talking to.
But it also means that people won't have that much time to spend at your stand, since they’ll want to check out everything the conference has to offer. Plan for this in advance and make sure everything you have to say fits in a 3 minute chat in a noisy environment. Put it all in writing and give out (as a leaflet) to people you talk to so that they can remember the details (also include a link to your website).
If you're working the booth, chances are you won't have much time to go to talks or see other people's stands. If you care about this, consider a rotation or a designated person to go check out the rest of the conference.
In my case this was particularly tricky, since I am the sole creator of Squarelets and the friends I brought to help didn't have the whole context. That's a great learning point for me: move away from being the single point of failure, and tell people what they need to know.
This conference was the first time when I needed actual printed and physical objects for the game. I had to figure it out, and make it both coherent and visually consistent. Differently from software, you can't iterate on physical objects once they're made, so the messaging has to be finalised before you send it off to suppliers.
Such a feat requires a lot of creativity and it's not something you can get right straight away, especially if that's the first time you're doing it.
The strategy that worked best for me was to create the design, print it at home and cut it, hold it to spot any mistakes (such as text too small to read), and see how it feels. I then leave it, come back after a day or two and change whatever doesn't make sense anymore.
I found that repeating these steps two or three times works best. After that you're just floundering and it's best to make a decision and move on - especially because at that point you’ve already spent 3 days on it.
This approach worked very well for all types of media I had to create: a stand banner, leaflets, stickers, pins and lollipops. I also noticed it was getting easier with every item that I made because I had more sense of direction and more constraints.
Also beware the lead and shipping times. You can get stickers delivered in 3 days, but enamel badges take a good month!
I have to admit I wasn't fully aware what it means to have a booth at the expo. I expected some people to come and ask about the game but the interest Squarelets got was way beyond what I imagined.
It was wonderful to see so many people come and learn about the game but it also meant we didn't have that much time for proper breaks and lunch. This is where the advice I got the evening before (in a sheer strike of luck) was a life-saver: bring lots of water and lots of snacks.
The most important part of the advice was to take breaks. This is a very demanding job, where you have to be “on” all the time. You need to smile and look approachable - there’s no space to yawn or sit around at the booth itself. It can be exhausting.
When you start feeling tired and feel like you can't talk to people anymore - just go take a break. There's no point pushing through the tiredness because you won't be able to demo the game very well. People who come to try it deserve to see the best of you.
I cannot imagine going to the conference alone and working the booth all day each day. It would have been incredibly overwhelming, exhausting and inefficient. I think that even having one other person with you is going to be challenging.
I had enough foresight to recognise this and I asked a few friends to help me out. It didn't even take too much convincing as they were all excited to come and support me - and for this I will be forever grateful.
There were 6 of us in total and that gave us all a chance to take breaks and rest, as well as have some people working away from the booth spreading the word about Squarelets and encouraging them to come visit.
We've made some great memories, gathered priceless experience and met many amazing people. This is going to be one of those events we'll remember for years to come.
After the conference we spent a few hours discussing what went well and what could go better next time - we put it all in a doc to remember for next time. This article is inspired by this retrospective and will probably come in handy in the future.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat! When the next opportunity comes, I’ll be even more ready!