Indie games at Comic Con Bangalore – Learnings

Finding committed partners
Once the stall was bought, I went in search of fellow studios who’d want to join in and help subsidize the cost for each of us. There was a fair amount of interest early on, from developers who really did want to participate. But when it finally came down to putting money on the table, they backed out. I don’t think they meant to do so, but when it comes to paying money – that’s when they really do the calculations about the cost of effort involved and the returns they stand to gain. So, the sooner someone puts money down, the sooner you know you have a committed partner.

Otherwise, it’s something the person would be interested in, but if push comes to shove, may not go through for certain reasons – however valid they are. So, money (unfortunately) helps to decide who’s committed to the experiment as much as you are.

Minimizing cost to interact
People, while social by nature, draw a barrier at strangers. We weigh whether the benefits of interacting with something overcome the cost of making the first move to say hello, or for that matter, even respond to an exhibitor’s greeting. We’ve come to expect that if a stranger tries to start an interaction, he’s usually selling or pitching something. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say hi and take the first step, I’m just saying you should do whatever it takes to help him feel that interacting with you would be a good use of his time.

We tried to reduce that cost, by having posters of our games all over the stall. There were t-shirts hanging on one wall, so people could see that we were showing and selling games and t-shirts. We also had people demoing games at the stall itself, so when someone was invited or felt brave enough to try a game, other people end up peeking over their shoulder to see what the fuss was all about.

Activities tend to draw a lot of people towards the stall. We had a dartboard, where the cost to play was sharing your contact information so that players could be informed of games made by us in future. Having said that, you should weigh the costs of the activity – in our case, more people came by just wanting to play the darts game, rather than to try the mobile games we had at our stall. The focus moved from playing and buying indie games to just being a darts arena. Hence, despite it being such an awesome crowd puller, we removed it on the final day. We got contacts of over 200 people, which is pretty good – but for the price we paid for the stall, those details were incredibly expensive.

Anything which allows a person to understand what your stall is about and what you have to showcase, without him/her having to actually speak to you, can actually make it more likely that he/she WILL talk to you.

This holds good for adults… I found that children are more likely to come by and interact with the digital devices on display without any qualms. One kid kept playing every other game we had on a device, except the indie games we wanted him to try. Oh well.

The Attraction factor
People are more likely to ask about stuff that seems very appealing at first glance. When first asked to choose from the posters on display, about the game they’d like to try – people were more likely to ask for Orion’s Gold, Rewind, Hues and Cricket. The only reason I can think of is that the posters were just a lot more appealing and intriguing. The other games were very easy to explain to people, as they were similar to existing popular content on the market. People did want to try something new, something different – and would pick games that were more unique over games they’d already seen in some format before.

The visitor
Most of the visitors to the stall, and to Comic Con, were either still studying or early in their careers. By my estimate, we are talking about an age group of 18-25 as most likely to be at the Comic Con. The gender ratio was more male than female, but it wasn’t too different. I’d probably say 2:1.

Is someone selling?
This one seems obvious in hind sight, but it didn’t strike us back then until we were told on day 2. As game developers and designers, we’re more likely to be introverts, and are calm and composed when talking with pride about what we have on display. While these may be perfectly all right in regular life, we didn’t have enough of the “sell it” approach. We encouraged people to choose a game to play, and were perfectly happy to cater to the few people who did stop at the stall. It was only in the latter half of day 2, when Rishi decided to step out of the stall and waylay people walking by – putting Circulets in their hands so they could try it, that we saw a spurt in sales. The energy that Rishi displayed, and his infectious laughter did more for our sales, than our wait and see approach. You’re in an exhibition, you need to pull the attention of people. Other stalls have their merchandise on display which people can see from a few metres away. People can’t see interactive games without having their nose in the devices, and so you have to do what it takes to let as many people play and experience it. And if sales is very important to you at Comic Con, that means having a few guys who are comfortable with approaching strangers and having a warm exuberant attitude.

The ten-second pitch
The buzz and energy at a Comic Con is pretty high. People barely spend ten seconds just walking by the stall, and try to take as much in as possible. If your game requires players to stop, and take five minutes to sink into gameplay – it can be a sudden change of pace for the person. Also, most people come in groups to Comic Con, so expect to see one guy being rushed by his group of friends, while you’re trying to make the sale. To their credit, the people who do play the games give it some time – though usually not enough to truly appreciate the game, given the relative pace of the surroundings. We found that the games that were most likely to be played, and bought, were the ones that players could understand in under ten seconds. Everything else just didn’t have enough time to get the player hooked.

But… games are free!
Every now and then, when someone chose not to buy a game – we asked them if there was any particular reason for not wanting to put money down on a game. The usual response was a shrug, followed by the statement that most games can be gotten for free. So I’m not sure I would want to pay for this. So it’s not the fact that people aren’t paying because their credit and debit cards aren’t synced. It’s just that there’s a lot more they’d rather spend the money on. I look forward to testing the theory that people might be more likely to buy a t-shirt featuring our in-game characters, or posters of the same, rather than pay money for the actual game. Much like the music industry – without the concerts. Because that’s where the music makers of today make most of their money from. But we can’t do concerts. ORR CAN WE? I dunno.

Environmental expectations
Most stalls appeared to be selling t-shirts or posters, so the audience while taking its cursory glance tries to bucket you into what it has already seen. On the first day, seeing the t-shirts draped on the front of the stall, people thought of us as just another t-shirt stall. Their eyes would linger on the dartboard, but they wouldn’t stop to see the games. On the other days, we gave the t-shirts a back wall, and tried to have as many devices showing games on the front desk. While some people were more likely to stop and see what was available, we did get some feedback that the first glance made us appear like we were selling mobile phones. Moral of the story, when you’re showing something that’s unexpected in the environment (especially as the first ever indie games stall at a Comic Con), be prepared to be summarily dismissed unless you have in-your-face displays telling the consumer that you’ve got something different to show.

Tangible goods
From what I say, the crowd at Comic Con consists of primarily two types of people – comic book fans, and people who watch Big Bang Theory. I’m not kidding about the latter – way too many people said that they’d heard of Comic Con while watching the Big Bang Theory, and wanted to check the event out. Ok, let’s broaden that base a bit and lump them in with the Game of Thrones fans and the Breaking Bad fans. Almost every stall had something for ALL three TV series. And Batmen. So many Batmen.

All right, fine, maybe I can provide more appropriate categories. There’s essentially three types of visitors to the Comic Con – people who really care about comics, and people who’re visiting because they care about artsy stuff, and people who’re just visiting because they’re either curious about what’s at Comic Con or that it’s a cool annual event that they want to say they went to – Like Goa or the Weekender.

My takeaway regarding these groups are that they like to show how much they care about their respective cults. The key word being SHOW. If you don’t have something physical that they could read, pin up, stick somewhere, or wear – you were unlikely to make a sale at Comic Con. Most people come to Comic Con to add something to their collection. And really, nobody was selling any digital goods. The only other exception was the Xbox gaming lounge – but that was more publicity and marketing than actual sales. What we had, were digital games – that have to be installed on the devices of the people. These are not as easily visible to everyone, as physical goods are. We actually had people come by to buy the showcase posters. We didn’t expect people would prefer our posters to the actual games, but that’s some people for you! So consider having some of that, or badges, or even t-shirts with a cool in-game character of yours upfront.

I personally thought Circulets sold easily amongst this crowd, since they involved play amongst friends. Couples and groups of friends were likely to buy the game. There was something to being able to share the experience with people around you, which somehow resonated better with the Comic Con crowd.

Keep your devices close
If there’s just one or two of you, and just as many devices, it’s easier to keep track of who has what device. But if you have too many devices that are being swapped in and out for charging and demoing, you should really keep an eye on them. We seem to have lost a couple of phones which had been kept for demo purposes, and this happened towards the end of the Comic Con. Just an obligatory word of warning, it had to be said.

Threshold of service
When it came to sales, we had around three people at the desk who were demoing various games to people who stopped by. The rest of us were busy pulling people towards the stall, or watching people as they playtested the games. When you just have three people, you can probably serve four-five people at the max, without reducing personal attention below a limit. Now, because of this limit, we had a lot of people walk away from the stall because they took a glance, realized this was a place where games can be played and bought. Having grokked that, they went on their merry way… for there were more stalls to be seen. Had we engaged more of them, maybe we’d have had more sales. The point of this is that Comic Con with its large audience may be far too much for a single indie developer. It will be hard to cater to enough people, giving them each atleast five to ten minutes so they can look through two-three games. Remember this physical constraint. You may sell just as much in a Comic Con as by taking part in much smaller fests, since you’re physically limited to engage with one person at a time.

 

In closing
That was my key takeaways from the Comic Con in Bangalore. It was incredibly surprising, fun, and tiring all at the same time. We went from nice little do-gooders to shameless promoters in three days – that was pretty funny. Did we spend quite a bit of money on it? Yes. The 2 metre by 2 metre stall came to a little over Rs. 35k with taxes and extras. Our promotional banners came to around Rs. 2k. In total, we spent around forty thousand rupees on the stall. Our returns were quite low, but I think it’s an important step that we had to take as indie developers who don’t have the big marketing budgets of larger studios. If anything, it helps understand our players better – what’s more likely to get them to buy, what they think is valuable and most importantly what they think about our games.

I’ve wondered if we would have had the same amount of learning had the exhibition just been for a single day. And I really don’t think so. The three day event allowed us to look at what we were doing, and improve on aspects where we weren’t doing so well. Just looking at the way we changed our strategy amongst all three days is testament to that fact. Of course, the choice to attend a 3-day event wasn’t be design, it just happened to be that the Comic Con is a three day event. This was a blessing in disguise, when we look at the fact that most other events might just be a single day, or worse… just half a day.

Let me know if there’s something I missed, or if there’s something we could have done different. It’s about time that Indian game developers reached out to meet our players, so any thoughts could only help make all our interactions with players better in the future.

If I was to change something in future, it would probably be to attend smaller fests – maybe even college fests, were the audience may be much smaller in size, but they are eventually the lot that will download our mobile games (even if that means that most of them won’t pay for it). The more important point to note is that it’s easier to handle as an individual, as against having seven people supporting a stall. Also, it’s more likely that the visitors to the stall, will spend time trying to play the game – instead of having to rush to the next one immediately. Of course, if there happens to be a convention just aimed at video games, that would be something interesting to check out too. There are a lot of firsts, still waiting to be made here in India – I say we take the risk and jump at it.