A line item expense breakdown & other logistical challenges.

Editor’s Note: Based on a few comments floating around the internet, some people think this is meant as an indictment of PAX. It is not. PAX is actually one of the cheapest video game related trade shows around and they have been super helpful along the way. This is here to give you an idea of the cost and logistics of going to any large trade show and to encourage you think about and budget for marketing your game.

Also, there’a great writeup of Minion Master here, and don’t forget to visit the Minion Master website!
/Editor’s Note

Most indie game developers (the successful ones, at least) will tell you that marketing your game is just as important as making your game. Too many post-mortems have come to the conlcusion, “I (we) focused all my (our) time making this great (awesome, beautiful, super fun) game, but I (we) never thought about promoting it until it was done.” I have thought/done the same thing in the past. It always made sense to me that, “If we build a good, fun, game, people will find it!”

That was younger me. Younger me was stupid and gets a SLAP to the face. Older me says this, “Here’s the reality, younger me: Marketing your game is 50% of the job.” It is generally the harder 50% of any indie dev’s job because, for the most part, we’re good at making games. Being a salesman is a whole other ballgame.

Tradeshows and festivals are wonderful places to promote your game. They are a great way to get your game in front of (and played by) gamers (your potential fans) and press (your potential promoters, also your best friends, new drinking buddies, and all around fantastic human beings). However, a tradeshow is both expensive and a lot of work (the larger the show, the more of both). Below, I’m going to lay out the cost, line by line, and logistics involved with doing so based on our visit to the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) prime this weekend. By no means is this the be-all-end-all guide. There are places where we wasted money. We made some decisions based on our game, our location, and our needs that are not right for you. Also, PAX is a HUGE show. There are many, many smaller shows where you can engage with fans and press with far less planning and expenditures (and I suggest you go small and local before going big).

Booth Space
First things first, you need booth space. This means becoming an exhibitor. For 100 square feet of space on the 6th floor of PAX, we shelled out $1300.

Our game, Minion Master, is awesome. It’s a genre busting game that mixes table top gaming, RTS & turn based strategy, collectible card deck building games, and even has some MOBA thrown in. Needless to say, it’s been a challenge to describe it on paper, especially to a marketing noob like myself. But when people see it, wow, do their eyes POP. Because of this, we wanted to maximize the number of stations available for people to play the game as well as have the largest possible screens as high up as possible (so we can pop eyeballs from across the room). We thought about building our own custom arcade cabinets (badass!) but after pricing out the materials (not too bad) and the amount of time it would take to build (a couple weekends) and the shipping weight (horrendously heavy, hence expensive), we decided to find another way. After quite a bit of searching, we found modular, customizable racks from Ikea that were about the perfect size, the same cost as building it ourselves, and much, much lighter. We’re able to fit 6 of them in the booth. For those 6 rack units, we paid $435.28.

The finished Minion Master booth, built at PAX

The finished Minion Master booth, built at PAX

Remember when I said large screens? Well, we need a way to mount those screens. Add in $67.40 for two TV mounts. Thank goodness Brown Bear is in our neighborhood. Buying direct from the manufacturer saves you 50-75%.

We also need a way to attach the TV mounts to our Ikea racks. Fortunately, we got off light here. $14.75 for 2×6 packs of beer, traded for welding services. Much thanks to Philip at 522 Industries in Oakland. You are awesome!

So we have furniture for 6 stations, but our game is multiplayer. The cheapest wired internet option at PAX is $3,500 for the weekend. FUCK. THAT. SHIT. Add in another $60 for a stand to hold our on-location server.

That puts us up to $1877.43. It also has taken at least two full weeks to fill out all the applications, cut checks, pick booth space, price materials, and customize our booth build.

Fortunately, our game targets low-end machines. You can play Minion Master with an old system running Windows XP and a GeForce 6600 graphics card. We want the game to be smooth, but we don’t need a full sized gaming rig. Also, we have to ship these machines from Berkeley to Seattle and back (there’s that shipping thing again). We found what looked to be a decent machine at New Egg and bought 1 to test it out. $375.36. Then we went to buy 5 more and New Egg no longer carried the exact model. Shit. So we found a similar, comparable machine, and New Egg offered us a great deal on checkout, so we bought 5. They sucked (I should say, their integrated graphics were not up to par). We kept one to use as the server ($375.36) but had to eat another $60 shipping the other 4 back. We found 5 more of the first machine at Best Buy ($2055.32). About two weeks before PAX, we rewrote our graphics shader and added a new particle engine. Unfortunately, we had already shipped our machines to the show, so we had to buy yet another one to test and make sure the new shader/particle stuff performed well on our demo machines. Add another $400.

The array of computers for PAX.

The array of Minion Master computers for PAX. Waiting to be set up.

Computers are fairly worhtless without monitors. For 5 x 23″ monitors plus 2 x 40″ televisions, kick another $1813.21 on the pile.

Add in a router, network cables, power cables (strips & extension cords), and mouse pads. $186.92.

Then there are the miscellaneous supplies. Sharpees, scissors, packing tape, boxes, cable ties, boxcutters. We’re taking pre-orders at the show, so fanny packs for holding cash & redemption cards. $78.20.

Now comes the fun part, we need to get all these great supplies from our office to the Seattle convention center. That means shipping. Logistically, this is one of the more daunting aspects for a tradeshow noob. Your stuff needs to either, A: Get to the convention center at the exact correct time or B: Go to a warehouse a few weeks beforehand. In option A, you are likely to incur lots of overtime labor charges if you get things wrong. In option B, you have to pay a separate, “Material Handling” charge to get your supplies from the warehouse to the convention center. All in all, we’re out $1505.77 to get our stuff to the show. Yes, it cost us more to ship our stuff to the show than it did to buy our booth space.

Our entire booth packs up onto two pallets. Adding onto our time statistic, we’ve spent another 2 full man weeks setting up our booth in the office, adding the computers, running the cabling (to make sure everything is long enough), building a custom game client that connects to our local game server (among other changes), and packing up the booth. It actually took me 2 full days to dismantle and box up the booth by myself.

Finished tearing down the booth. Two pallets going back to the BitFlip headquarters.

Finished tearing down the booth. Two pallets going back to the BitFlip headquarters.

Getting There and Sleeping
If you’re local to whatever show you’re visiting, you’ll get to save a bit here. Airfare for 4 team members, even with Virgin’s lovely summer sale: 1257.40. Don’t forget a place to sleep. Hotels in downtown Seattle were running $300/room/night when I checked. We decided to save some cash by renting a house for the weekend. We’re about two miles from the convention center in a nice, cozy two bedroom. $710.

The BitFlip PAX House

The BitFlip PAX House

At the Show
You had to order electricity a month before hand (or the price went up). (Most services worked on the “order early and get a discount” model. It’s best to keep a calendar at your desk with all the deadlines marked.) Most shows we’ve been to give you enough electricity to run a computer, maybe two. We have 7 and estimated needing about 3000 watts. We paid $219.05 for 3500 watts (better to have more capacity than to go dark).

Internet? Like I said before, $3,500 for the cheapest wired option provided at the convention center. Exhibitor only wifi was available for $100 / day / device. There was also free wifi–though it can be un-reliable. Fortunately, PAX did a great job this year and we were able to keep our Square running smoothly on the free wifi service all weekend. (Are you taking orders for your game? Want to accept credit cards? Square is your best friend ever. I wish I could take all my laundry money and invest it in Square. Those guys are going to be ga-ba-jillion-google-plex-aires.)

Then there are incidentals. Food, taxis, beer, coffee, etc. I have yet to run our receipts, but our estimated cost for the wekeend is $1750.

Promotional Items
With 70,000 people potentially walking by or visiting your booth, you want to be sure they remember you and have the opportunity to look your game up later. Minion Master play is based on cards, so what better thing than to give out actual cards from in the game? For 22,500 cards we spent a whopping $1836.10. (Thanks to Guy’s parents for picking up part of the tab.) That ends up being about $0.08 per card. We also littered our booth with signage (homemade prints, laminate, and foam core backing). Add $150.

Minion Master Limited Edition Promo Cards

Minion Master Limited Edition Promo Cards

We’ve spent all this money already, so the team better look good. Add 8 embroidered polo shirts and a few caps for $600.

The Recap:

  • Booth: $1300.00
  • Furniture: $435.28
  • Mounts: $67.40
  • Beer/welding: $14.75
  • Server Stand: $60
  • Computers (8): $3265.36
  • Screens (7): $1813.21
  • Router, Cabling, Power: $186.92
  • Misc. Supplies: $78.20
  • Promotional Cards: $1836.10
  • Shirt/Caps: $600
  • Electricity: $219.50
  • Incidentals: $1650
  • Airfare: $1257.40
  • Housing: $710

Total: $11758.70.

That’s a hell of a lot of money for a 3 person, self funded team to spend. And that’s just one 3 day show. Many of the items we bought can be re-used for other shows or around the office (or sold, anyone need a 39″ LCD TV? Going cheap!). Even so, every show will have a new charge for booth space, travel, promo items, and incidentals. Single use expenses were over 58% of the total dollar amount we spent on PAX

Preparing logistics for the show also took *at least* a full month of time for myself. It also took another week from the rest of our team doing little tasks to help prepare (on top of all our normal, “making the game” things.) I also spent at least a week contacting press outlets and booking appointments for them to come see Minion Master and get a hands on tour (nothing like letting someone play your game to get them excited about it!). We brought 4 team members to the show for 5 days, so that’s another 4 weeks of time. All in all, we put in about 10 person-weeks to prepare for and attend PAX.

The Bottom Line (tl;dr)
10 person-weeks.