PAX PRIME 2014: A review and afterthought from a indie developer

I went to PAX PRIME 2014 in Seattle, Washington about two weeks ago to show off my small indie game “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth.”

About “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth:”

“Drew and the Floating Labyrinth” is a hand-drawn 3d puzzle platformer. The fact that it IS hand-drawn, not using cel-shading or any other fancy renderer, but still in a 3d game, makes it unique, and is one of it’s highest selling points. It follows Drew in a mysterious, barren and simplistic environment, made up of invisible levels that require you to look for clues of safety before you simply walk or jump. Therefore, the gameplay mechanics are very different to typical platformers and also a point of interest. Throw in great music and voice acting (not provided by me, and hence why I can confidently say they are actually good), and you have my first complete independent game that I am actually proud of (past attempts were barely fit to be called student projects). And I wanted the world to see it, not to sell well, but to show that traditional animation still had a place in media by putting it somewhere they wouldn’t expect for something new.

Have you seen a hand-drawn character in a 3d game before?

Have you seen a hand-drawn character in a 3d game before?

Wait… how did YOU of all people get a booth at PAX PRIME?

Like most indie developers should, when I started to have a finalized version of my game, I started sending it out to every game developer contest I could find. To date, they’ve all turned it down with barely a mention of interest or praise. “IndieCade” did leave feedback as a new experiment this year, and the judges that did leave feedback seemed especially harsh. I did send them a beta and much has improved since then, but a lot has also stayed the same, and so it was humbling to hear from professionals that your game isn’t as good as you think it is. On the other hand, the games that were selected seem either very experimental or very silly, and almost random as to why some of them were picked at all (I know I’ve seen dozens of other more worthy games still looking for support on Steam Greenlight this year alone). Jealousy aside, I highly recommend  sending your work to various contests, but don’t feel bad if you don’t win anything, as with thousands of games being made each year, it’s impossible to compare them.

As to PAX… it would have been nice if these contests confirmed acceptance or loss by the deadlines they’ve set, almost all of them contacted me weeks after they were supposed to. Being turned down might have been an eye-opener. Until then, one such contest I submitted to was the Indie Megabooth. Not necessarily a “contest,” they book large booths at famous conventions like PAX, and then sell them back to indie developers (who they first select), which I think leads to them making a small profit but more importantly, a cheaper booth space for developers. I was still turned down, but they also said that “I was one of the stronger entries this year” (whether or not this actually meant anything I’ll never know). When offered to be put on a mailing list for other chances to be at PAX should a space be available, I signed up. What I didn’t know was that a variety of other groups would contact me to sell me an opportunity to book space at various events.

Keep in mind these are not contests or publishers offering me a free-ride for anything. These were booking agencies that saw me as a company and a potential client, offering me space at expos. One of which was PAX PRIME (apparently, when I did go, there were still one or two spaces that still didn’t get booked by anyone, an empty space in a sea of developers and gamers). The spaces were only on the sixth floor (where the fourth was were most of the action was, including where Indie Megabooth had their spot), but I got to see the prices for spaces, most of which were not much more from what Indie Megabooth offered. I had committed myself to paying if Megabooth selected me… so why not spend a couple hundred dollars more for a booth here? In a instance of panic and happenstance, I immediately signed on and booked a space.

The lesson here: chances are that ANYONE can book a space at PAX, even you. Yes, it costs money, but probably not as much as you might think (more on it later).

 

Indie Megabooth has a great presence at PAX, but they aren't the only way to get there...

Indie Megabooth has a great presence at PAX, but they aren’t the only way to get there…

(disclaimer: while Indie Megabooth is one of the best groups I’ve seen for supporting promotion of indie developers, they also tend to show the same games throughout the year. For some reason, Super Meat Boy’s sequel was part of their booth, and from the prices I’ve seen, I’m certain that team could afford the largest space in PAX if they wanted, suggesting that Megabooth might have made them an offer to further get more people into the area. Politics aside, I still highly recommend taking advantage of them.)

Lesson Learned: BOOK EARLY

I got contacted by representatives at PAX really late, about a month before the event, when deadlines given to me had long since passed. The booth space, furniture rentals, electricity and computer equipment are all handled by different companies, so you’ll want to prepare to act like a proper business professional and get back to these people quickly. It didn’t help that payment options were being changed at the last minute, that they took just as long as I did to get back to me, that some of them still used fax machines for communication instead of email, etc.

Anyway, if you do get the opportunity to book at PAX, do it AT LEAST 30 DAYS IN ADVANCE. Otherwise, don’t bother. They give perks to early bookings that really should have been par for everyone: things like free basic furniture (table and chair), and cheaper rental rates (almost half of what I paid). Seriously, most of the furniture and equipment would have been cheaper to BUY then to rent (if you don’t have a car handy, that might not be an option). Not to mention booking hotel and travel arrangements. Scarred to go alone, I contacted other friends to come with me to help manage to booth (and to show off their own indie work), but this led to an increase in plane fare for not booking two weeks later. All this also forces you to know exactly what you need, booth equipment and setup included, so you’ll be more confident when the time comes.

Of course, booking early does get you more options, including the chance to be on the main floor (see more on that later). You could book later, but you can see you’d be missing out on a lot, and I quickly learned that saving money anywhere possible was necessary.

Generally, the people helping you book equipment and space are very nice people. When asked which of the available booth spaces I wanted, I asked politely which one they’d recommend, and they kindly gave suggestions, helping me get a spot near “Wacom” and the “Digipen” art college (given my particular game, that made sense to me at the time). They do run businesses first and are limited by that, but otherwise want you to succeed at PAX.

Lesson Learned: Booth Space isn’t the expensive part

Here’s a quick estimate of total costs for this little trip:

  • $1600 – PAX PRIME Booth Space
  • $2200 – Air Travel (There and Back Again)
  • $1000 – Hotel (Four Nights)
  • $700 – Printing of Postcards and Business Cards and Posters (more than I needed)
  • $500 – Booth Furniture
  • $100 – Food
  • $300 – Portable Projector
  • $800 – Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet
  • TOTAL: approx. $7,200 CDN (roughly $6,500 USD)

Again, things like Air Travel and Booth Furniture could have been a few hundred dollars cheaper had I booked about a month in advance. The hotel was booked through PAX’s site, which was convenient if a little buggy, and also the cheapest option within walking distance of the event (also included free breakfast, one less thing to pay for). I brought two students with me, which only really cost me Air Travel and about $20 extra per night for a hotel room with extra beds, which in the long run was worth while for the cost (I did pay for these myself, to my companion’s delight. In gratitude they gladly paid for some of my meals and agreed to pay me back should this experience lead them to fame and fortune). Food is dependent on you. You may book more booth furniture (all we had was tables and chairs, we used our own laptops and tablets for our games). The “portable projector” and the “Microsoft Surface Pro 3” tablet were two of several items I got just in case, and ultimately weren’t of much use during the event. Had I known, I wouldn’t have gotten them (although the Pro 3 tablet is now my favorite computer in my possession).

I was also ending a Kickstarter campaign during this, only trying to raise $1,000 for final features and language localization. We weren’t the only people with a running Kickstarter campaign at PAX either. I did try to explain why I was spending money to go to this while trying to raise a lesser amount: to date, I didn’t get much feedback about exactly which languages to translate to. Am I so pretentious to assume the world wants to play my game, when in reality barely anyone knows it exists? No. But I am pretentious enough to want to go to PAX, and to book a space to show stuff off while I’m there, to make sure the world DOES know it exists before expanding its audience. I’m in a unique position as a student that I can live off of research grants, scholarships, part-time jobs, etc. and make a profit each year, so while this trip did put a big dent in my finances, I will probably make that up by this time next year. I don’t mind spending money where it matters, but I do it for things I want to do. If there’s a place where it could go to better use for my game development that I can afford, you have to tell me.

Also, a handful of developers mention they live within driving distance of PAX and were curious whether or not they could afford a booth next year. If you don’t need travel or hotel costs (having a car would help with that), you might get away with showing at PAX for under $4,000. Given the size of the event, that’s worthwhile.

Lesson Learned: prepare booth setup, and how you plan to share it

I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that PAX is not happy about people sharing booth space. Despite that, I brought two other students with me to help manage the booth, and to show off their own projects. That way, we had a better chance of having SOMETHING you would want to see.

Before PAX starts, everyone is busy setting up

Before PAX starts, everyone is busy setting up

In hindsight, our booth setup was terrible. We looked like everything was setup with cardboard and duct-tape. One or two large screen monitors and a change in layout could have done wonders. The booth layout did change a little after the first day as we learned from our mistakes, but I’d definitely be better prepared next time.

If there was one problem with having three separate projects in a 10’x10′ booth, it was that I was too much of a pushover. We ultimately gave one person a 8′ table so he could make use of the projector, while me and the second person shared a 6′ table near the front of the booth. Because passersby-line-of-sight and equipment placement was an issue, I recommend only two projects at most at a 10’x10′ booth, otherwise try something larger. Also, being so close together, there was a lot of confusion to what exactly we were showing, given that our things were so different.

One huge benefit to three separate projects: you get more interested people. One of our projects had the words “Arcane” and “Bullshit” in the title, which immediately drew a crowd and became a sleeper hit on the 6th floor of PAX PRIME. Being right next to him, I could show off my hand-drawn 3d puzzle platformer, and our third man could show off his physics-puzzle iOS game. Ultimately, we all got a ton of feedback and praise, and were happy overall.

Of course, another benefit to not manning the booth alone: you can take a break and walk around PAX, either during the event or after hours when you have the place to yourself. That alone made the price of admission worth it.

 

PAX PRIME after hours... like being a kid in a candy store...

PAX PRIME after hours… like being a kid in a candy store…

Lesson Learned: plan what to bring and what to sell

I printed a lot of postcards (four collectable designs) and a lot of business cards. In total, I brought about 3,000 pieces of paper to give away. The problem is, most people don’t want to carry a lot of extra paper around, especially for a game they’ve never seen before. By the end of the event, I gave a little over 1,000 out, and most of the rest I threw away because I simply didn’t want to bring it back with me.

Therefore, try to print out about 1,000 things (combined, even if they are different) to give out, especially when you are on the 6th floor. In the worst case scenario, there was a printer shop on the main floor and a few down the street that were open for most of the event, and you could probably place an order there on the first day if you think you needed it. Don’t take with you anything you don’t want to take back.

Also, of the three of us in the booth, only one of us actually had anything to sell. He didn’t bring much, so he sold out of the first day. People at conventions are also all about spontaneous spending, and are much more likely to spend $20 for something at PAX then they are to look up the item later and buy it for $10 at home. To help offset the cost of PAX, do try to bring something you can sell, enough to cover most of the cost, be it DVDs, trading cards, USB drives, original pieces of art, books, figures, etc. It’s not effective if no one knows who you are, but I probably could have made a few hundred dollars more have I printed those last minute DVDs of my finished game. Although, there were so many bugs discovered at PAX that this would have been a bad idea.

But generally, people won’t remember to look you up after seeing over a hundred other games that day. Chances for profit happen AT PAX, not after PAX. Otherwise, you’re just there to mingle with the gamers (which is also perfectly fine and worthwhile).

Lesson Learned: media doesn’t pay much attention to the 6th floor

The sad thing is, most people never go to the 6th floor of PAX. This is common knowledge and has been a problem for years. It’s not a dead zone, but of roughly 100,000 attendees, less than 1/4 of them will probably find you. I’d guess roughly 3,000 people actually stopped at our booth and talked to us, which is great, but that also means I paid about $2 per person to ask about our game. Bad return rate.

And it’s not just small indie developers looking for press. The PAX 10, ten indie games that PAX chose to feature during the event, barely got any press compared to the Indie Megabooth, which I credit because the PAX 10 were on the 6th floor and Megabooth was on the 4th. That’s just not right. Of the handful of people running Kickstarter’s and sales during PAX, I don’t think any of them had a huge impact or change after PAX.

And if you hope that you’ll see famous writers you love and respect, think again. Most of them will have their own booths and panels, but very few of them will actually be on the show floor. I think I did pass by Kyle Bosman of gametrailers.com somewhere on the main floor, and had I recognized him at the time I would have stopped him for a picture and a autograph, but he looked exhausted and alone anyway so perhaps it best I left him be. Generally, PAX prides itself as an event for the fans, not the press, and that’s how you should take it to.

The Infamous 6th Floor doesn't get as many people, but there's still a crowd!

The Infamous 6th Floor doesn’t get as many people, but there’s still a crowd!

Not that no one will discover your game. Plenty of smaller news reporters and bloggers will happily talk to you. A couple people from sites I actually heard of stopped by on the last day, and talked about how thankful they were to just play games instead of having to write about them on the final day. So while there’s a slim chance you’ll get much press, do be considerate, and be thankful that the gamers give your game a chance. And make point on my previous lesson and do sell merchandise, to help get the most out of that.

(it didn’t help that FANEXPO CANADA, and the pre-show for the TOKYO GAME SHOW were happening around the same time as PAX PRIME.  Check the events going on at the same time before booking anywhere. Honestly, PAX EAST might have been a better option this year.)

Lesson Learned: your game IS good enough for PAX

Yes. It is. Don’t doubt yourself.

Reminder, our booth consisted of my game (a unique, but simple and with buggy controls, puzzle platformer), a card game (a deck of humorous and offensive designs) and a mobile game (a physics puzzler with familiar puzzle ideas but still fun). I honestly don’t think any of our work was good enough for an event like PAX, let alone our own booth, and the second I booked the booth I immediately regretted it. Especially when IndieCade’s feedback called it “barely passable for a student project.”

And yet, compare yourself to everyone else at PAX PRIME. Yes, Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo and the rest are there, but on the 4th floor, not the 6th. The event is filled with indie developers all over. There were a couple colleges showing off student projects at PAX, and most people agreed all three of our projects were more impressive (frankly, it’s hard to make stuff on point within a school semester, I’ve tried so many times in and out of class). Across from our booth was a larger booth for a game that had a 10′ statue of the main character: well-designed character, but the rest of the game looked like a basic 2D platformer with not much to the environment or gameplay to stand out: who’s to say their expenses weren’t justified? And I can’t count how many games were experimental demos with little to no art or polish. Chances are, if you took your game development seriously, your game is better than you think, and better than a lot of stuff at PAX.

On the other hand, you will see hundreds of games that are much better than yours as well. Some of which you’ve never heard of before. Why haven’t they gotten more press? There’s no easy answer.

 

I make a fool of myself trying to promote my game...

I make a fool of myself trying to promote my game…

No matter what game you have, the people who attend are gamers of all kinds, looking for the next cool thing. They just want to have fun, and see something new. Nearly everyone who came by our booth were kind-natured people, all happy to see what we had and try out our games. If you can afford it, you’ll be happy you went.

Is it worth going?

Yes… sort of.

PAX PRIME as an event worth going to as a gamer. Games and merchandise everywhere, panels and talks, cosplay as far as the eye can see. As a developer, it’s a great opportunity to get feedback and mingle with people, and is probably cheaper than you think it was.

But it’s not the holy grail for developers. Almost any gaming convention will get you similar results, regardless of size. Why didn’t’ I go to FaxExpo in Toronto instead? It would have been cheaper and closer to home. Why didn’t I just show it off at my local University during club promotional events, when I might have gotten roughly the same amount of eyes for little to no cost? There are dozens of note-worthy gaming events across the world every year, most of them cheaper and easier to get into. There’s no particular reason to go to PAX instead of any of those.

Also don’t assume that you will get hundreds of new hardcore fans. At best you’ll get a few dozen. My Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight pages got absolutely no change during or after PAX PRIME, whereas publishing on Desura and IndieRoyale made a huge difference.

 

PAX made no difference on my Steam Greenlight page. but IndieRoyale sure did!

PAX made no difference on my Steam Greenlight page. but IndieRoyale sure did!

As for me, I didn’t want to sell my game. I wanted people to SEE my game, to realize the potential of traditional animation. And once people saw it, I got thousands of gamers to see what I saw, wanting to sit down and see more. I don’t think this’ll make a difference in the years to come, but as a gamer, I can hope, and as a developer, I can keep trying. Overall, I love PAX, and I’m happy I went.

I also think booking a booth for you and your friends or colleagues to show off stuff is a fantastic idea, and I hope more students attempt something similar in the future. If I save up more money, you know I will!

(also, special thanks to all the workers and volunteers that made PAX PRIME possible, you were all a delight to work with!)