So a thing came up on the Googles (over here) and it reminded me that we had not, in fact, posted about our experiences running a booth at Gen Con. This oversight will now be remedied, if only to pay homage to my feet.

Running a booth at Gen Con was simultaneously exhausting, exhilarating, manic and fun. Much like game design, actually. Also, like game design, it’s difficult to relate the experience—like an idea that’s just too big to convey all at once. I happen to love lists, so here’s a list of the top ten things (in random order) we learned by doing. Fair warning: this is all based on our experiences, and may not match other people’s experiences for the matter. Also, it’s based on running a first time, 10’x10′ booth for selling RPGs. So, caveats in place, here’s our list.

Bring rubber mats.
Oh dear lord, the concrete floors.  They broke us. My feet cried out in agony after the first few hours each day; this wasn’t helped by my predilection for really cheap shoes. We tried alternating sitting with standing, we tried walking it off. But there’s no solution except to cover the floor with something else. A nearby booth (Mercs) had brought in carpet, which worked well. Catalyst Game Labs uses branded foam matting with their logo and everything on it. Whatever works. Because…
You should stand more.
People who come to the booth are going to be  standing, and it’s really hard to engage them while sitting down. All of us are animated when we’re telling someone about the game, but sitting down cuts off half the visual cues. Worse, and I’m not sure if this is just a me-thing, but sitting down sends my brain a message about how I should be acting—I get this voice from grade school telling me to stay in my seat, and be quiet. Screw that.
But actually, you should listen as much as you talk.
There’s a very delicate balance of saying enough but not saying too much. It is the most frustrating thing about selling anything, in my opinion. It’s impossible to make hard rules. We had some people who literally didn’t want us to talk to them; they just wanted to look at the game, read it over, and make their own decision. (Sold it!) We had others who wanted to come back to the booth three or four times and hear about the game before finally picking it up. (Sold that one too!) We also had people we drove away by talking at rather than with.
What seemed to work best for us was a kind of tiered explanation of the game. You show interest, we ask if you want to hear the pitch. You like the pitch, we ask if you want more detail. You like the detail, we ask if you want to buy the book. This really helped save our voices and made people more comfortable as well. Speaking of which…
Have a pitch.
So if you’re doing this gradual “what do you think, do you want to hear more” approach, one thing you’ll need is a tight pitch. Also, this thing is a myth. My greatest embarrassment of Gen Con is from when Ryan Macklin came by the booth and asked for our 25-word pitch and I completely train-wrecked. (To be fair, I was exhausted, sore, and a tiny bit star-struck.)
But here’s the deal with pitches. They need to be a) true, b) concise, c) make you want to play the game. Not “you” the general you, but you, the person giving the pitch. It’s not just a tool for convincing someone your game is worth hearing about. It’s a tool for remembering how awesome the game you’re selling is. That excitement will be heard over anything else you say. It may be a cacophonous din in the hall, you might be speaking in low tones, they might be blitzed from an awesome late night last night. But if you’re excited, that will come through.
Staff your booth and figure out a schedule.
Our goal in attending Gen Con was experiential, not profit. Maybe other people would be happy to work the entire con in their booth. We were not. The challenge then was in negotiating who would be in the booth at any given time. If we had it to do again, I would want to ensure that everyone got to play at least one game a day. As it was, everyone was super awesome and filled in when possible—but I sorely wished for a fifth person to run the booth.
That’s right. Only 10′ square and four people weren’t enough. We had two in the booth at all times, plus two more to swap out with. At times, we were all in the booth, and everyone was explaining the game. But still, a fifth would’ve made it possible for everyone to have time off during the con or to…
Demo your stuff.
We drastically underestimated the effect of demoing the game for people. Not that this is why we demoed, but sales among people who played our game were really high—to the point that I regret not running more games. We’re in debt to the Indie Press Revolution folks for letting us run something at Games on Demand. There was such a good response, and the games that we ran were really reaffirming, positive experiences, which made designing this game worth it. (Yeah, it isn’t for the money.) Now I’m looking forward to running games at Ghengis Con (one of the many local cons in the Denver area.).
Ship it!
There’s a bunch of stuff that goes in the booth—notepads, business cards, posters, banners, hand sanitizer, books, CRAP CRAP CRAP. Many hands make light work, of course, but we really could’ve done more with mailing things to/from Indy. Had we had any more booth set-up, we’d have really eaten a lot of bag fees. There’s a cost, of course, but particularly with signage, that cost looks downright reasonable compared to what planes charge for an extra bag.
Meet Aspiring Folk
One of the best parts of the con for us was who we met. Whether it was meeting up with Famous Game Designers, or learning about new games like Outrider Studio’s Remnants, there’s a load of people worth talking to. Some people came by the booth asking if we wanted to advertise in their magazine (Not yet!), or if we had a distributor (We don’t!) or if we would consider stocking in stores directly (Yes, and ask us how!). Also artists who wanted to work with us, people who wanted to stay in touch, people who wanted to write their own game and had questions about the process… the list is rambling and eclectic and full of win. Make time for it. It will make the con better.
Internet/Cell signal sucks.
This isn’t something to do, but just to be aware of. We had exceedingly mixed results with data, and it was the most glaring problem with running a booth at Gen Con. See, internet is available in the convention center, but it’s run by this racketeering group that charges $100 a day. That means resorting to using cell-phone signal for credit-card sales, but signal is sketchy. Not cool, Gen Con. We really wanted to do things like live-tweet or to send people their PDFs of Becoming Heroes right after we sold the physical book but generally couldn’t.
“Social media” is amazing.
Several of the people who came by our booth did so because of hearing about us from the blog, from story-games, or from traffic on Twitter. We tried to keep that going during the con, and I think it was well worth the effort. And it’s the kind of thing that you’ll be happy you did a month after the con and you’re having cool conversations with people that you didn’t realize you really wanted to know.

We’re uncertain whether we’ll run a booth at Gen Con next year—I hope we do, but there are plenty of reasons to not. For one, the cost goes up after the first year. For another, the experience is less unique the second time. So we may figure out a different strategy involving placing things at Indie Press Revolution or Design Matters… but anything we do will be informed by these lessons we learned this year, and I wouldn’t replace that even if it would’ve doubled the number of copies we sold. In all, we had a blast and were really grateful we had the opportunity to go.

Now we just have to write more games.

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  • Mlatouche

    Thumbs up John! Beautifully delineated post-mortem. It sounds like you guys had such a blast.  Your interview was also very cool. The enthusiasm definitely comes through, too – and that is from a non-gamer. 

  • Stras

    On Demo-ing: As a demo-ee I have to say seeing the game has three massive bonuses going for it.  Firstly, you get to play the game. Instead of going on a 25 word pitch which may or may not be tied into grabbing bills from your wallet, and then trying to puzzle through 100+ pages of rules, you get to see the game in action, and decide with an excellent and very accurate example whether to invest.  Secondly, the population of a place like Games on Demand is smaller.  Whereas I had actually walked by the booth twice in my futile efforts to ‘see everything’ in the dealer room, and then tried to purchase the game from the IPR booth and was pointed in the correct direction, the GoD room is very clear.  You have a sample of ~20 or so people there specifically to try new games.  It’s a tight target audience, and while you won’t find AS MANY people walking by, you’ll always find not only people who are interested in your pitch, but are receptive to the product.  Thirdly, there’s a bit of star quality. Not every creator makes a game I like, but there’s a certain charm and mystique to being able to walk home with a game that you ‘played with the designer’. It lends a bit of geek-cred, and certainly makes you want to show the shiny signed copy of the game off.  Also – it doesn’t hurt that your demo rocked. 😀