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Commentary on Games Design

Make the most of a convention as a designer – 7 Principals

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I'd remember him...

I’d remember him, look how much whimsy he has!

Conventions are wonderful places.

Full of intrigue, wonder, and whimsy! Like-minded people convene to enjoy their hobby with others. First and foremost: at a convention, you need to have fun. Everyone is there for the same reason and non-mass boardgames can be quite a cottage industry, as you know, there is no worse feeling than having your work hat on while everyone else left theirs at home.

Remember though, as a boardgame designer, conventions can places of particular importance. There can be many points to consider here, and sticking to a few principals can be very helpful. Know that people at the convention here are your friends, customers, competitors, co-designers, publishers, artists, revenue, and industry contacts.

A convention is (at least in one view) the absolute apex of being a boardgame designer. Weirdly, this is also where you should do the least amount of boardgame designing – so what gives?

A quick aside: If the convention you are going to is 100% dedicated to games design like the global games jam, or a convention with special playtesting teams such as www.playtest.co.uk in attendance, where you have a special place to playtest and design, then do that. But if it is a straight-shootin’ convention then there are special avenues you can take.

What are you here for?

– get to know publishers or distributors?
– pitch your game to that great publisher that will be there?
– meet new people and make friends?
– meet new contacts and make business acquaintances?
– put your name out and get known?
– shill your game at the playtest tables?
– feel popular?
– absorb the atmosphere?
– meet those convention friends of yours and have a drink with them?
– play and experience new or unreleased games?
– scope out the competition?
– find new and hot trends?

The 7 principals

Now remember this is an exercise in getting the most out of convention, as well as having fun. An important point here: doing these things will take mental agility and emotional patience, you will be flitting and flying between things, and it will take its toll. All of which mean that it is a very exhaustive exercise. So, this is where we get our first rule of thumb:

1. Have a quiet haven somewhere

– Conventions are busy places so you will need somewhere to retreat to. When a general faces overwhelming odds, he needs a Plan B. There will come a point where you will either dissolve into madness or need go somewhere quiet. You might use it to reflect on your most recent conversation, write down some notes or have a more intimate chat. Somewhere peaceful is needed, like your hotel room, a group of unused chairs, behind an advertising board, the cafeteria, the bar, or outside. “Hey there John, well sure, I have seen your game and it sounds quite good, have you got somewhere quiet we can go?” Remember that in most public situations like this, more “deals” are made behind closed doors than in front of the cameras.

2. Get straight to the point

– Think to yourself “What’s the point of my current exercise?”. If it is to test out new games and buy the best one – then do it! Ask the demo guy “What’s this game about, why should I test it?” If you are coming as press then it will not only speed up your process, but give the person an easy restriction to work in. “Tell me why people should buy your game, in 2 minutes”. To the publisher: “Would you ever consider taking submissions?”

3. Use a notebook

– Write in it sparingly, and effectively: Use every line (don’t skip any), always make a note of their name, any points of interest, and any leads. eg “Matt Green: designer, did “Big Game X”, Loves Diet Coke. Wants to make an Egyptian game.” or “Big Jim. Gatekeeper publisher for “Gamey Games inc”. Really nice guy. Used to be a chef. Looking for quick gateway games.” This is a distilled form of what people call “industry knowledge”. When you get home (or back to your haven, see point 1), open the notebook and extract the vital information, send follow-up emails and behold, you have already bridged the stranger-gap. “Hey Jim, if you remember, we met at Convention X and had a great chat. I have been using those recipe suggestions you gave me from your Chef days – they are great! Is Gamey Games Inc you still looking for quick gateway games? I might have something coming up soon.”

4. Rule your own time

– Very important advice here. Conventions are very fun and it is very easy to get swept up into something. But if you have promised a famous Designer that you will see him at 4.00pm, then you must damned well see him at 4.00pm. The choices are: “See him on time” or “Miss your opportunity and get a black mark on your relationship”. This is my personal biggest challenge (too much of a butterfly) so I try my hardest to rectify this point. The same applies here when trying to arrange meetings with publishers. Email them before “can we meet on the Saturday at 3?” or ask them the day before “can I spend 10 minutes with you tomorrow at 2?”, giving them lots of time and options. If you don’t want to, you don’t need to get suckered in to long games or demos.

5. Be a clever butterfly

– Keep moving. I love this about conventions (too much actually) but there is just SO much stuff going on that you can see hundreds of things within a few hours. As a games designer this is great. There is lots of everything. Publishers, new games, ideas, people, components; why not do it all! The more people see you, the more you talk with people, and the more your name gets out. People talk about being “known in the industry” That is this. If people don’t even know you – how can they respect you? One problem is that you can do it too much – zipping from one place to the other like a whirlwind-frenzy. This is why you have to be a clever butterfly. Eg  Games’n’things (they don’t take submissions) have just released “scrabble 2” and are inviting players. At the same time over by the bar is that new publisher guy you met before, having a sit down and enjoying a beer. So, clever butterfly, where should you spend the next 15 minutes?

6. Give before receiving

– The size of a convention plays a part in how to behave. The bigger it is, the less time people will have. Remember that ALL attendees and exhibitors have their own specific agenda and, for now, you are nothing more than one of the crowd. People are scientifically more likely to trust you if you show trust in them first. Same applies with a positive attitude. If you ask someone to look at your game, they will maybe do it. If you buy them a drink first, they will probably do it. If you buy them a drink and 20 of their games, I can almost guarantee they will look at your game. Understand that this can be seen as immoral, or even as “bribery” in a certain light, but as long as you’re keeping everything friendly and fair it is a very useful tool. eg: “If I come back in 4 hours and bring you and your demo team pizza, will you THEN sit down with me?”. Pizza is the always the key.

7. Stand out & be memorable

– There are two distinct units of measurement in conventions. The first unit of measurement is You & your entourage. Second is Everybody else. The easiest (thus, most recommended) way to break through this barrier of anonymity is by standing out. Being memorable. Exercise: Do you remember that guy in a black shirt that was into wargames you spoke with at that last convention? No? Ok, do you remember that guy with the luminescent green hat with the feather in? If you have trouble purchasing a fancy a green and zebra-stripe pimp hat, then you can make do with a nickname and some business cards.

To sum:

Start with a peaceful haven but get to the point. Bring your notebook, and a watch. Keep moving, give first, and wear a silly hat.

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