PAX East ran this year from March 23rd through the 26th in Boston, Massachusetts, and…
The Iterative Collective team had an absolute blast showcasing our games, Sigil of the Magi, Knight Crawlers, and Homeseek at PAX East 2023. Things went really well, and you can read about our general experience here, but we also learned a lot and would like to share so that other exhibitors and devs can benefit from our first PAX East experience!
Before the event:
Before you get started with anything, you need to set your budget, right? You’ve got your items, their shipping costs, your travel, etc. Pretty straightforward. But if you’re going to be in America for PAX East (or West!), you’ll need to factor in some extra costs:
These are often not listed in the original price. Even our original hotel invoices said “does not include taxes and fees.” We only got the full breakdown later. If you’re not sure or it’s not clearly listed, you can generally find the tax rate for things online to help you factor in those percentages.
Fees are snuck into nearly everything big you’re going to do here. Your hotel will have fees, food delivery will have fees, even shipping or event setup will likely have fees. Be ready for them!
And sometimes fees are intentionally obfuscated, so it’s best to ask and be direct. For instance, we got hit with an exit fee after PAX. I’m sure it was in the fine print somewhere, but with all the other things to keep track of, we didn’t manage to catch it. It’s always ok to ask in advance about all fees.
Another kind of fee that is “hidden” is tips. We tip almost everywhere in America. If someone carries your bags to or cleans your hotel room, they should be tipped. If someone serves you in a restaurant or delivers you food, they also expect to be tipped. (No tipping when you eat at fast food restaurants.) In sit-down restaurants, sometimes, especially if you go out in a big group, this will be included as “gratuity” on the bill. If so, you do not need to tip on top of that.
Some tips on tips: We tip 20% in restaurants, $1-$2 per bag for bellhops (called porters in the rest of the world), 10-15% for taxis, $1 a drink if you order directly from a bartender, $2-$5 every time you pick up your car from a valet, $1-$5 per day to the housekeeping staff that cleans your hotel room, and the list goes on! A quick Google will generally lead you in the right direction if you’re unsure. We had a lot of supplies with us in our hotel rooms leading up to the event, so that led to a lot of bellhop tips as they insisted in bringing our bags and boxes up for us, so this can really add up if you’re not careful.
This year at PAX East (and I believe most years), setup was handled by Freeman. It’s really helpful to know that you can ship to their warehouse pretty far in advance of the event and they’ll hold your things for you and deliver them to your booth location on a set day during the setup period. This can really save some headache of trying to time your shipping to perfectly line up with the event, so be sure to look into the dates they accept deliveries on and make use of this helpful resource.
While there may be the random member of the press here or there that might wander through your booth, it’s unlikely, and you shouldn’t count on it. Press mostly have a schedule set up and visit the folks who contact them in advance. We did this about two weeks out with simple, clear, personalize emails letting them know about our booth and our games and invited them to schedule a time to drop by. We gave them hour long time slots, which is generally more than they needed but allowed for some wiggle room and for them not to feel rushed. This worked well and we had lots of scheduled appointments! If someone is meant to stop by and some time has passed and they aren’t there yet, do politely reach out. We had a few instances of people mixing up time zones (they put the appointment in their calendar when they were elsewhere and it didn’t transfer correctly) or folks who just lost track of time and were thankful for the nudge so they could stop by.
One big thing that needs to happen is making sure your builds for PAX are as bug free as possible! Resist the urge to throw in just this one last feature right before PAX. It’s better to have a simple build that runs smoothly than one with all the features that breaks constantly; one will have players leave wanting more and one will have players leave disappointed and with a bad impression.
If you have any merch that needs to be taken out of packaging or assembled, such as press kits or putting tags on things, etc., I highly recommend booking out time to do so before the event starts. This sort of thing can take way longer than you think, so allowing for an extra day to coordinate this sort of thing can be a real game changer. Don’t put it off and think you’ll do it after set-up day or any other day of PAX—trust me, you’ll either be crazy exhausted or want to go attend social events. You will not want to be assembling merch after working the floor all day.
During the event:
I recommend looking at pictures and videos of PAX East specifically if you can find them, or other similar conventions if you can’t. Sometimes a smaller, busier booth is better than one that is big and spacious, as the latter, if it’s empty, makes folks hesitant to enter. A welcoming setup can be better than a super fancy high-tech one, so if you don’t have a huge budget, don’t think it means you can’t have a huge turnout!
With merch, one big thing to think about is where to store it in your booth and, just as importantly, how you’re going to access it as people purchase it. It’s fine to have some backups stuffed in the secret door under your display counter or something like that, but you don’t want to be digging in there every time someone buys something, so even if you don’t have a huge, fancy merch set up, plan to invest in some shelves or drawers to be able to find what you need easily. Also, when budgeting, you might also need to consider the costs for shipping extra merch back home unless you plan very carefully. Planning to run out and a directing people to your store page might be more cost effective than shipping back a ton of merch.
Relating to the merch, if you’re dealing in cash, have a plan for the money. Where will excess be stored? Who is responsible for it at the end of the day? Do you have a way to deposit it before flying back home, or will you travel with it?
As for taking cards, there are all sorts of portable options, with Stripe and Square being some of the most common. It’s important to either have a dedicated device to run these, or test them on everyone’s personal devices beforehand. We encountered a situation where our payment device only worked reliably with one person’s phone, and of course that’s less than ideal.
Competitions, giveaways, and freebies
Obviously people love these! The items don’t have to be expensive so long as they’re unique. We had a few:
- Giveaway for the BIG DUCK, which people could enter by buying merch, playing its associated game, and wishlisting the game
- We had cards that replicated cards in our tactical deckbuilder, Sigil of the Magi, as well as the level up cards in our dungeon crawler, Knight Crawlers, and people loved drawing from the deck and seeing what ability they ended up with.
- We also allowed people to draw their own characters for one of our games and displayed them. Winners were drawn at the end of each day.
- We also had some unique giveaways associated with our survival strategy basebuilder, Homeseek. These little vials, the newspaper, the CYOA were some of the most unique freebies we saw being given out by booths.
What’s most important is that each item has something branding it back to your game, ideally with a QR code, but a website at the very least. Folks visit a lot of booths. No matter how memorable you think you are… go ahead and give them a little reminder.
We mentioned them on merch, but have them other places too! On your merch table, on the panel showing off your game! Make it as easy as possible for people to wishlist or buy your game!
Devs on site
If you’re taking your own game to the con—done! But if you’re a publisher like us, it can definitely be worth making sure your devs are able to attend. This, of course, only works if they’re personable and willing! Not every dev is great at things like this, and that’s ok, but if they are and you can get them there, that really sticks in people’s minds, especially press. Take, for example, this rave review:
“Really what was so great about it was Mike and being able to speak with a developer who was just so sincerely excited and passionate […] I want to do anything I can to protect that man and support him.”
Make sure everyone gets breaks. (Devs too!) Even if folks aren’t feeling tired at break time, the constant stimulation wears down on anyone, and even the most energetic people will feel drained at the end of the day, so encourage breaks or set up shifts and try to make people stick to them. Taking breaks or having shifts also encourages you to have some energy for parting and/or networking events after the con.
Demo time restrictions
This is dependent on how many play areas you have set up for your game(s), but especially if space is limited, having a clear way to encourage people to let the next person in line play is a must. Some games lend themselves to this easily. Knight Crawlers, for instance, has a PvP mode that lasts for two minutes—easy! A game like Sigil of the Magi or Homeseek, however, can encourage long play times. Homeseek sort of needs that for you to get the feel of the game, so we might choose to have more play areas rather than cut people off too quickly, but a game like Sigil can be understood a little more quickly, so having a timer or a levels-played limit that’s clear can help give more people the opportunity to try it. Of course if no one is in line, you can also tell the person to keep playing!
This also helps you reserve play time for press if needed. Once someone moves off a game because their time is up, you can reserve a station fort the next press appointment if you’d like, or know that they’ll be press will be able to quickly hop on after watching someone else play for a reasonable amount of time.
If you have the manpower, an alternate strategy might be making a conference-specific build of the game that simply wraps up more quickly after giving players a good taste of the mechanics and play, but not everyone has those resources, so alternative strategies should be considered.
Key Points of your Game(s)
Speaking of press–and just questions in general–it might be wise to make up a list of the key points of your game(s). This might not be necessary if you’re a dev representing your own game, but especially if you have multiple games or people helping at the con who aren’t as intimately knowledgeable about everything, having key points accessible to be referenced can be really helpful. Take into account that you’ll be tired, busy, overstimulated, talking to a lot of people, and your brain gets scrambled at the end of long days, and sometimes people ask questions about things you haven’t thought of in ages. It’s nice to have clear things written out. Which games work on Steam deck? What are future plans and features? How long have the devs been working on this? What languages do you plan to support? Will the game be ported in the future? etc. It’s all stuff you probably know, but when you’re running on empty some details might slip your mind, so it doesn’t hurt to have a handy reference. No one will be upset to hear “You know what, let me check on that for you!” before you check in and give them the answer.
Don’t forget this important part! Have a good time, make connections, make friends, play games, check out other booths and feel what it’s like to be a visitor at PAX as well as an exhibitor! It’s not all work! (But also, that stuff can help you with your work too!)
After the event:
Some of this was already mentioned, but have a plan for your leftover merch, your cash (especially if no one on your team is from the country you’re in), the teardown of your booth (which can start immediately after the close of PAX). If you can, try and stick around a day or two to hang with your team or see the sights! If you can’t do that, at least account for the fact that you will likely be very tired at the end of the con and plan your travel accordingly, especially if you’re driving anywhere.
Go over your experience, either together or individually. Do this as soon as you can in the coming days before you forget what went well, what went poorly, and what you liked from other booths you saw. Remember that no matter what, your team worked hard and this was a BIG accomplishment! It doesn’t take away from that to acknowledge what you’d like to do differently next time, but be sure to celebrate your wins as well!
Schedule a time to go over these thoughts with your team and document them somewhere so they can be referred to as you gear up for your next con.
Do you have other pointers or thoughts about attending PAX East or another convention? Share them in the comments below!