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Author Topic: Running Indie Games at Smaller Cons  (Read 2568 times)
Michael S. Miller
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« on: March 04, 2003, 04:27:21 AM »

Well, the Sorcerer game I was scheduled to run at A Gazebo of Games did not actually run. I only had one player sign-up and he showed up 15 minutes late and fled to another game quicker than you can say “I can run this for one player!” I mentioned this to Ron and he expressed his feeling that the standard four-hour convention slot is not the best way to promote the game, favoring the half-hour “power demo” model of the Forge GenCon booth. I said that the Forge booth is difficult to replicate at smaller cons. He said, “Good point. Let’s post about it.”

So here’s the question: What is the best way to promote indie games at smaller, local conventions?

Option 1: The standard 4-hour scheduled slot. This has worked fairly well for FVLMINATA. We have developed something of a following. However, I think the game has a special advatage by virtue of the fact that there is no other major Roman game out there. So someone with an interest in Rome might turn down another game they’re interested in just to check out the novelty of it. We’ve had miniatures gamers who don’t generally like RPGs, as well as hard-core D&Ders. Sorcerer, on the other hand, is competing with Call of Cthulu, White Wolf, and even Nobilis for interested players. I think this might indicate that games with a more unique creative agenda, like Kayfabe and even Dust Devils (provided there isn’t a lot of Deadlands at the con) would do better in this set-up.

PROS: Four hours allows a more intense/wider exhibition of the game’s strengths; Appeals to players that like to preregister and/or plan out their convention activities; Requires no additional approval/coordination with convention management

CONS: Competition with more well-known games (as discussed above); The game often folds, which may reflect badly on it in the perceptions of other con-goers; Often requires the GM to huckster* for players, which may delay the start of the game
(*“to huckster” verb to persuade, cajole, strong-arm, recruit or otherwise convince uncommitted players to join in your game.)

Option 2: The one-man Forge booth. Schedule a four-hour slot as an “Indie Games Demo.” In the game description, note that there will be half-hour demos of games A, B, C, etc. and that players can enter or exit at half-hour intervals.

PROS: With only 3-4 player slots, games will be easy to fill; A variety of games should attract a variety of players; Many games get showcased

CONS: Will require approval/coordination with convention management, especially if you expect to get complimentary admission in exchange for GMing; The individual demos will start at odd times relative to the general convention schedule, which may make huckstering more difficult

Option 3: Playing with ringers. Before the con, coordinate with folks that you already know will be there to play in your game, so you’ll have a guaranteed minimum. While at the con, try to huckster for one or two more, to demo the game to them.

PROS: Only the need to huckster for a few players; Requires no additional approval/coordination with convention management; Four hours allows a more intense/wider exhibition of the game’s strengths; Ringers can help with explaining/displaying the rules

CONS: Depending on how the convention schedules its events, coordination might prove difficult; This might (or might not) preclude playtesting, if your ringers are the folks you’d normally playtest your event with.

Option 4: The 4-hour generic demo-slot. I’ve seen board gamers register events entitled “Cheapass Games Demo.” What happens is the GM presents several games, and the players decide which one they want to play when they show up.

PROS: Four hours allows a more intense/wider exhibition of the game’s strengths; Appeals to players that like to preregister and/or plan out their convention activities

CONS: A variety of games should attract a variety of players, therefore, they might not be able to agree, or may be disappointed if the game they wanted to play is not picked; May require approval of convention management; Requires massive GM preparation, most of which will go unused.

Are the other options I’ve overlooked? What other pros/cons can you see? I know that some of this will vary regionally, as convention rules differ from place to place.

Personally, if you’ve got a friend who’s up to the challenge, I think trying a TWO-man Forge Booth might work out pretty well.
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Alambr1
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2003, 06:01:12 AM »

Hi ya,

Just thought I would chime in, this is my first post on the indie boards!

I feel a booth and a demo are necessary, they compliment each other.  Though this usually requires atleast two representatives from your company.  

Some players just want to review information or don't have time to play a full due to game scheduling.   Others prefer to talk in length to members of the demo team and play through a game or two.

Conventions are one of the best routes for direct advertising.  However, given the limited attendance and costs of smaller gatherings you should also figure in how much support a convention can give to you and/or your demo team.  

A small company usually runs a demo or two at my old gaming club's anual convention.  Members of their staff show up, mill about a booth where the demo tables are located so they can answer questions or run an impromptu session if a group of people show up. Their game always gets a positive response and I think people would be disappointed if the team didn't show up one year.

The down side is the club doesn't cover their travel/board costs and they are charged a $20 booth fee.

Now this year I also ran a demo since I'm starting a LARP company; LARP demos are much different than regular gaming demos.   Our set up time was approx. 5 hours for a two hour demo so we really didn't have sufficient time to run an effective booth and set up/run what was planned.  I do feel we didn't attract as many participants as we could have if we had a better booth.

If you guys are interested I can give you the club contact information.  Since the convention was held end of Feb' they wont have solid dates on next year's con for a few months.
 
Ugh better quit typing, starting to ramble.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2003, 06:48:11 AM »

Hi there,

Michael, I offer possibly-thorny suggestion that ringers are a very good idea, most especially well-behaved, charismatic female ones. This is a very cynical suggestion, I know, but I think the "flee! only one other player!" reaction would significantly decrease in these circumstances.

Rachel, welcome to the Forge! I think you'll like it here. Since you are LARP-oriented, I can see that "demo" for you is really a plain, straightforward game session, which is an advantage for LARPing. RPGs have a tougher time - a demo session really isn't a game session in the usual sense of the word, and whether it can really represent the game is questionable.

Another thing to consider is the size of the convention. I've found it to break down like this:

1. In a very small convention, reserved demo tables are a great thing. Everyone can see you playing and the chance to grab someone out of the crowd "just c'mon!" is very high.

2. In a very big convention, I think the reserved demo is counter-productive. Especially if your staff is small, then four hours of pumping the game to very few other people is four hours of not selling the game at the booth; I can move a hell of a lot of copies in four hours.

I prefer informal or semi-formal demo play, in which people who are interested in the game at the booth can be farmed into play within an hour or two at most, possibly immediately.

3. In a medium-sized convention, I'm not sure. My personal preference is to stick with the booth and quick-fun play (as well as setting up an informal play session with interested people), but who knows.

One thing we should all consider are the goals of being at the convention in the first place. In my case, it starts with sales. I want to move books at that grossly high profit margin that I can't get anywhere else. The next issue is promotion - people having a positive experience at the booth and becoming interested in the game. I know that people who get this are quite likely to buy the game later at their store if they don't at the convention. The final issue is play, as a means of driving at the previous two goals. I think play-for-play's-sake is out of place at the convention, and also that four-hour demo play is not time/cost-effective for these goals.

I just realized that everything I'm saying presupposes that the company has a booth at the convention. If it doesn't, then demo space and time are better than nothing.

Best,
Ron
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Michael S. Miller
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« Reply #3 on: March 04, 2003, 07:21:52 AM »

Just to clarify where I'm coming from goals-wise, sales has never been an explicit goal of mine, as we've never had a FVLMINATA booth (Booth costs at our local cons are quite high, and I doubt we'd ever make the booth cost back, let alone profit). Promotion-through-play and play-for-my-own-enjoyment have been at the forefront. Plus, now that I'm something of a free agent, I'd like to promote other folks' games as well as my own.

As you said, your suggestions presuppose a booth. In my experience, booths at my local cons (100-1000 attendees) are pretty dead, in terms of activity and traffic; cramped, in terms of space to run any actual play in; and pricy (they're aimed at retailers who bring half their inventory). I was musing on booth-less options, that require only one person.

About the ringers, hmmm, I do have a sister-in-law who's a boy-magnet... 8^)
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jdagna
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« Reply #4 on: March 04, 2003, 12:44:35 PM »

In my experience, having a booth is the most important key, both for sales and for attention.  It gives you a visible place to recruit players for any kind of demo.

Ringers are also very useful.  At conventions, I often have two people (my wife and a good friend) who can fill in, but they don't register (if the con is selling tickets).  This way, they can step out if we get a full slate of players, but the room isn't empty if we only get one or two others.

For Pax Draconis, I haven't had a lot of trouble getting four hour slots filled.  I think this has a lot to do with disaffected Shadowrun and Traveller players looking for something to replace it.  I also think the four hour slots are quite effective in selling the game - a positive experience with the session sells books well.

There is a very good option D.  Run a two hour demo instead of four hours.  If you keep the plot simple and give characters some starting assumptions and narrative, most scenarios can be done in two hours.  This is a shorter commitment for players, but still gives that lengthy exposure to the game.  I run a character creation and short scenario demonstration that lasts two hours and has been very well received - especially at small cons.  I also let people use their characters from this scenario in my four-hour sessions, and a lot of people come back because of that.  And, the ones who come back already know the system basics, which makes any new players at the four-hour scenarios feel like my game is wider spread and better established.
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Justin Dagna
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Andy Kitkowski
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« Reply #5 on: March 07, 2003, 10:17:31 AM »

Quote from: jdagna
Ringers are also very useful.


Ringers.  Damned nice idea.

I can't say whether booths work or don't. Most of our local cons, even "large" local cons, have like zero game booths. That is, the dealers' floor may have comic dealers, clothiers, game stores and the like, but no game company booths.  Dread's Raf tried to set up a booth at a large local gaming con, and ended up making off with, I believe, one sale, no demos, and about 40 stories from passerbys that begin with, "That reminds me of a character/campaign I made for D&D/Vampire/etc..."

Here's what I've seen work for me:

1) REALLY THINK about your game's description.  You often have to list the rules you're using, but instead of marketing your slot as a "Sorcerer Game", market it with the story behind the adventure. Be evocative. Grab people's attention (for a great example of this, see Rafael's descriptions of Dread con adventures). I think it was also an important point to say at the end of the listing, in CAPS if not In bold lettering, something to the extent of: "You don't need to know Game X to play in this game!" or "The rules are easy to pick up, and will be taught before play. Beginners welcome!"

Also, if you can, put up a website off your domain with more background about the adventures you're running, and inlcude the URL in the preregistration book, if there is one. If there is no prereg book, then it doesn't matter.

2) Recruit folks.  Often games WILL collapse. It just happens. So wander around for a few mins once the session begins, and begin looking for other folks whose games collapsed: GMs who got no players, players whose GM cancelled, etc. I was able to run a couple games at various local cons that way, and everyone had a blast (partly because they expected that those 4 hours would be a wash). So recruit. If you have only one person show up, show them how to make a character, and when they ge tot the inevitable "think about skills/bonuses/character background/etc" phase, excuse yourself for 10 minutes and quickly hunt for new players. Be approachable and not desperate, and you should get folks in quickly.

Good luck!

-Andy
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Demonspahn
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« Reply #6 on: March 07, 2003, 12:52:45 PM »

Hi all,

I think Ron mentioned well-behaved Ringers and I think that's extremely important.  

This also probably goes without saying, but another thing, since the concept of Ringers is already slightly deceptive, :)  I would try to have the Ringers act like they don't know the game inside and out.  This is very intimidating to people who have never heard of game X before.  

I actually did this successfully with a Dreamwalker promo at our local bookstore and had one of our co-designers pretend to be new, sit in, ask questions and prod people forward at times.  It worked out pretty well.

More importantly, I recently witnessed a D&D "promo" at the same bookstore.  Three players were old hands while the other two had heard about the game but never gotten the chance to play.  It was quite obvious the newbies were being overwhelmed by the in jokes and D&Dspeak of the other three.   I saw one of them glance at the clock every ten minutes or so.  Thirty minutes later he was gone.

Anyway, great thread Michael.

Pete
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Andy Kitkowski
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« Reply #7 on: March 07, 2003, 01:02:28 PM »

Quote from: Demonspahn
I would try to have the Ringers act like they don't know the game inside and out.  This is very intimidating to people who have never heard of game X before...   I saw one of them glance at the clock every ten minutes or so.  Thirty minutes later he was gone.


Word.

I've been on the newbie side of those kinds of sessions at countless cons, recently with Seventh Sea and another homebrew game. People spout in-jokes about chargen or game events and my eyes glaze over. Really annoying cause I have nothing to relate it too, and with 3 people laughing and 2 people going "what the f***?", it's an equation for disaster.

Make sure you shill plays the part of a newbie.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #8 on: March 07, 2003, 01:22:42 PM »

Quote from: Andy Kitkowski
Make sure you shill plays the part of a newbie.

Poppycock.

That can work fine. But just having a well-behaved shill works fine too. Many (most?) of the games at GenCon we ran last year had booth crew filling in, and we made no bones about being part of the group (our badges stated the booth affiliation I think). All you have to do is control your urge to in-joke and you'll be fine. Basically, in the demo's mentioned above, the shills were enticed by the person running the demo saying, "Hey, I'm going to run a demo, wanna play?" So the shill behaves like a player.

You just need shills who understand that you're "selling" the game, and that they are supposed to be helping with that. At which point an open shill is even more valuable than an easily spotted plant.

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: March 07, 2003, 01:41:32 PM »

Hi there,

I agree with Mike. The term "ringer" isn't what I'm suggesting, actually. I am referring to someone at the table who was committed to play, whom you can count on to be there, and who can provide a welcoming presence to someone who doesn't know a thing about you or the game.

I think it's silly to expect or even to want anyone to pretend that they're not familiar with the game.

All of the in-crowd behavior being described has little to do with knowing or not knowing the game or the designer - it has to do with being or not being an asshole relative to the unified, in-play dynamic at the table. The in-crowd in-joke phenomenon is best understood as one way to be a disruptive asshole, in this case being demonstrated by the GM as well as the insider-player.

See, the whole problem is that we're pre-supposing something very dysfunctional in the first place: "the newbie." What's this person doing there at all? I think the ideal situation is for this person to have already gained a good deal of enthusiasm about the game, again, at the booth (if there is one). Without a booth with a functional and exciting pump to the demos, well, recognize that you're already 'way in the red, in terms of successful play and promotion at the demo table.

Best,
Ron
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Demonspahn
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« Reply #10 on: March 07, 2003, 02:34:21 PM »

 I think it's silly to expect or even to want anyone to pretend that they're not familiar with the game.

Perhaps.  I think for the venue we did it in though it worked better and maybe a con demo and a book store demo should be treated differently because of the type of people who frequent them.   At a convention I guess you expect a bit more RPGspeak.  This was a regular book store (not a gaming store) and the other four people who played had limited RPG experience/knowledge.   I was trying to avoid having them turn to David whenever they needed guidance or sitting back and just following his lead.   Worked for us anyway.  

Pete
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jdagna
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« Reply #11 on: March 07, 2003, 03:22:51 PM »

Quote from: Demonspahn
This also probably goes without saying, but another thing, since the concept of Ringers is already slightly deceptive, :)  I would try to have the Ringers act like they don't know the game inside and out.  This is very intimidating to people who have never heard of game X before.


Perhaps...

But in my experience, having the ringer show his experience in a helpful cooperative style is much better than pretending to be a newbie.  For one, this person can show their enthusiasm for and loyalty (if that's the right word) to the game, which tends to be contagious.  For another, the experienced person can use the rules more proficiently and may help to show the newbies a level of depth in the game they wouldn't have picked up on in their first session of it.  This can be very important when running a game that shares narrative control, since your average newbie has never done this before and isn't always sure what to do with it.
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Justin Dagna
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Luke
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« Reply #12 on: March 10, 2003, 12:02:17 PM »

Hello Michael,

Since the topic has turned its attention to RIngers I will start with a note about them.

In my limited experience ringers are vital if not necessary to a successful game demo, whether it be a four hour sit-in or a half an hour quickie.

First, they help attract other players. NO ONE likes to be the only player at a table. RPGing is a group effort. One and one can be fun for a GM and player who have a history or something to accomplish, but I have found players non-plussed about one-on-one's in a demo/con scenario. Having people at the the table flipping through the books and chatting about the game or a "game-related" movie or something creates an atmosphere for other players to tap into.

In actual game play I've found ringers are also a great tool. I let my ringers know in no uncertain terms before the demo starts, "You are here to help introduce these players to the game. Be nice. Be civil. Go easy on them." They know well enough to put on a good show for them, too.

After that I will often give the ringers cues in game to where to take the adventure/situation. No one seems to mind and it makes for tighter demos. My ringers are generally very familiar with the system so between us we can usually control the situation.

In-game, ringers are also invaluable at helping foundering players. If a player "just doesn't get it" a ringer can have a private conversation with him while I continue to move the adventure along for the rest of the players.

As for the question at large, I can only speak from my again limited experience.
My goals at a con are to spread the word. This is done through showing players the books, giving them promo materials (stickers and soon there will be buttons), and then showing them a good time in a game.
 
Four-hour slots are not ideal for this. I see them as an adjunct to a more open demo where players can come and sit in, look through the books, do a demo script and even create a character. It is dead hard to find players at a con if you haven't had a chance to canvas or demo yet. Doing a cold four hours can be very lonely.

For me, and the style of my game, the "open table" where we can park for the duration of the day and show our wares is vital.  My game is completely unknown––I have no draw on the program––but if I can get people to the table to roll some dice I can show them a good time, possibly win a sale, and generally get them back later that night for a four hour demo. This is much easier if I have a set position in the con (my own table) where i can sortie out from to rope in players and a few ringers to mind the table.

This seems similar to what a con booth would be, but frankly I just can afford to pay for a booth on my own. (Which is why I love the Indie-Rpg booth idea.) Of course getting a free table at a con can be downright impossible.


So far I've narrowed my demo/con techniques down to three stages: a 5 minute pitch, an hour of generally fun dice rolling, and then the four hour demo.

In the "hour" slot, I always tell the players it will only take a half hour or 45 minutes. By the time the half hour rolls by they have forgotten the time and are eager for more. Though I do try to stay aware the players attitudes in moods in this and try to break it down into smaller chunks, asking them, "Do you want to hear more?"

I usually run a combat demo in this hour. My game has a fun and interesting combat mechanic and it showcases the game system in a rather memorable way. It's been fairly successful.

Also, ringers make this process DOUBLY fun, because with a shill  we can pick a suitable monster from the book then do a little PVP action. Of course the trick to this last bit is to judge the player carefully. Does he need to win or lose? The shill has got to do his part for the player's needs. We are NEVER afraid to take a fall to show a player a good time in our game. Not that I am admitting to ever letting players win or fudging dice. No! Never!


Setting up exposure for indie games at cons in tough. We really have to fight for it and really make our presence known. I make sure I hit a con with flyers and stickers to hand out and big, clear table signs so that when people glance at our table they know who we are.

I can't wait to test my chops at the almighty Gencon.

-Luke
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: March 10, 2003, 01:47:36 PM »

Hi Luke,

Looks like you've given a lot of thought to this, so I'm interested in whether, in your approach to it, the folks who help with the demos are really "ringers," meaning, they pretend to be new to the game when they're not.

I wasn't really able to tell from your post.

Best,
Ron
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