KublaCon ’17 was the largest tabletop convention we have participated in. We rolled down with some fellow Seattle game designers to share the costs and stresses of the four days of con and twenty-six hours of driving. We had a great time, to be sure. Our games were solid and our new friends were a pleasure to play with. The three of us also learned a lot about how we need to operate at cons, as well as what we would love to see from conventions in the future. Hopefully, both indie game developers and con operators can learn something from our experiences.
When we first started attending cons as designers and vendors, we realized the need for friends. There is great value in running a booth to showcase and demo games, as well as running full game sessions after hours. Having someone else there to facilitate games, help multiple groups simultaneously, or just watch the table during a bio break is immeasurably valuable. Last year at ETX, we shared some space with other developers and decided that is a decent strategy. KublaCon saw us at a booth as three designers representing three companies and five games. We split the cost of both the booth and a demo table, allowing us to entertain multiple groups for reasonable rates. While this made the four-day con doable, we learned some lessons along the way.
Having five games at a table proved challenging when pitching to guests. We quickly realized we had to arrange our games in a helpful manner: we chose by complexity. That way, we could ask people what level of game they liked and limit our pitches to what was close. Even then, there was always confusion over which games were available to demo, which items on the table were free swag, and which games had been released and could be purchased. Next time, we are definitely not separating the table by company, but instead by how we expect guests to interact with the games and us.
Similarly, we had trouble getting pick-up games or demos going. Part of this was on us; we needed a large display advertising both the offer and the currently chosen times (perhaps seeding the first times ourselves rather than waiting for a brave soul to select the first slot). However, tabletop conventions are surprisingly not conducive to drop-in games. Cons always establish a system of hosts and signups for the weekend. Because space is always limited, people are encouraged to sign up ahead of time (more on the downside of this later). Everyone's schedule quickly fills, leaving no slots for things other than food and wandering. A few cons have the expectation of drop-in demos (GenCon, PAX, etc), so guests know they should leave room to experience those. Having an established and promoted indie demo/pick-up area is our biggest request for any con.
This notion of unscheduled play would help alleviate the other big problem we had at KublaCon: no-shows. We ran three games of Catalyst and four of Conspire. Of the thirty-ish people signed up to play these games, only nine showed up. Most games had people waiting to see if there was leftover space, but a couple games had to be cancelled. This meant people who actually showed up had wasted their time and an opportunity to play a different game. It is also hard to blame people for bailing on a late-night Sunday game they signed up for days before. Cancelling would be more palatable if hosted drop-in games were an established thing. The less rigid a game schedule is, the more guests can adapt to their current feelings and needs.
Finally, let's talk about money. The more cons we go to, the more we realize the need to sell our own games directly to customers. There are a lot of designers who do not care about money. We wish we could afford not to. We would love to be in the position of the EA higher-up across from us who sold his hobby tabletop games at cost. It is a challenge to look relatively expensive when your business is not supplemented by outside income or a trust fund. Similarly, we respect a con’s need to maintain relations with game stores, but it does hurt us to sell through consignment (usually about 50% less money and 90% fewer sales). We made more at both the 100-person WagonCon and 250-person Big Bad Con than the 70,000-person Emerald City Comic Con because we owned our own sales.
KublaCon was our tenth convention as Cherry Picked Games. We love meeting new people and sharing our gaming passion with them. We are travelling to more cons this year and will keep doing so as we expand our game catalog. These lessons from KublaCon will be reflected upon and used to keep making people happy. We welcome any thoughts from con goers, con runners, or other designers about their convention experiences.
Next convention on the books is Shut Up & Sit Down Expo in Vancouver. Maybe we will find another one before October.