During our first year in business, Mary and I would buy banner ads for some of our titles. It was, after all, a Thing That Publishers Did in order to let people know that their products existed. But when we looked at the actual numbers, we saw that it didn't really make much of a difference. All other things being equal, the games that we advertised didn't sell better than the games that we didn't, and traffic from a given website didn't appreciably increase when we advertised there. That being the case, we felt it made more sense to keep that bit of money in our pocket, and we stopped buying banner ads.
This doesn't mean that banner ads don't work for other publishers; for many, they do. For whatever reason, it just doesn't do much for us. I was talking about this on the twitter a while back, and Joshua Buergel, the designer of the two-player trick-taking game Fox in the Forest, pointed out a reason. "The narrower the audience you're speaking to, the more possible it is to reach that audience with non-advertising means. I'm aware of your games due to discussions in places like CSW, for instance. Ads really only make sense for much larger things."
And I think he's absolutely right. We make our weird games for a specific niche audience. 95% of gamers have no interest in our stuff; we cater to the 5% that does. So when Mary and I talk about trying to grow our business, we're really talking about growing within that 5%, and not about trying to engage with a broader audience that's not interested in weird games with paper maps. You want to reach that 95%? Advertising works. But if you're speaking to the 5% that are already willing to meet you half-way, that are actively seeking out new and interesting experiences? Banner ads aren't going to move that needle in any appreciable way. At least that's been our experience.
Another way most publishers try to grow their audience is that they go to conventions. I've talked with a small publisher who says that they do the vast majority of their sales at cons. Another publisher conceded that every year that they go to Origins, they lose money doing it, but they always end the con with some new customers who will be buying their games over the next few years.
So, the question Mary and I had going into 2018 was how conventions figured into our weird little business model, and so as an experiment, we went to four of them. Three of these took place within the last five weeks, and I will say the first takeaway is that was way too many cons to attend in a one month period. Preparing for a con, going to the con, recovering from the con, and then immediately preparing for the next: that's a big no thanks from us. It was really exhausting, and it disrupted our day-to-day routines sufficiently that it put us a bit behind on projects we have coming down the pipeline. We publish games at a pretty rapid clip while maintaining quality, but doing that requires a lot of time, and going to so many conventions in such a short period really threw a spanner in the works.
As for the conventions themselves. The first of the four was Trains and Chit. I wrote about it before here and here, but the short version is that it was very much a small group getting together at a friend's house for the weekend, only in our case the friend happened to live twelve hundred miles away. We got to meet some lovely people and play some lovely games. I wouldn't say that we really grew our audience there but it really wasn't that kind of con.
In late May, I attended Heavy Con in Denver. There were something like 150 people and 1 greyhound in attendance, but it still felt relatively intimate and low-key. I got a lot of playtesting done for This Guilty Land. We see the game as having the potential to crossover with the heavy gamer audience, in much the same way that An Infamous Traffic did, so testing with that crowd was tremendously important and useful. The convention was much more heavily focused on heavy economics games like the 18XX than on wargames (though one fellow spent the weekend winning converts to Combat Commander).
For-ex, our unconventional boardgame about the really exciting world of currency trading.
I had a number of folks tell me how much they enjoyed For-Ex, which was pretty gratifying. The game's reception has been fairly mixed, and it's easier to focus on the negative than the positive. So running into lots of folks who dug the game was a nice corrective, and who knows, I might even be able to look at the game again someday.
Origins was next on our itinerary. We had originally planned on having a booth and selling our wares, but when we did the math we realized that if we sold everything that we brought - a dicey proposition, to be sure - we would only break even, which didn't sound like a good business strategy to us. Enterprise Games offered to sell a few of our games, which enabled the folks at Grogheads to run some demos of Supply Lines and Bitskrieg, and to hold a Table Battles tournament. It was a blast seeing people play and enjoy our games, and we got to compare notes with a handful of publishers and designers.
Origins of course has thousands of attendees, and that made it easily the most exhausting of the conventions that we went to. And you would think having that many people would mean that many more eyes on our games, but again, we're selling to the 5% that aren't interested in the new hotness; the vast majority of the Origins audience could care less about wargames, particularly weird ones like ours.
And just when we thought we had recovered from Origins, it was time to fly down to Tempe for CSW Expo. I would say that it was roughly the same size, perhaps a little bigger, than Heavy Con. The attendees skewed somewhat older (though we were by no means the youngest folks in attendance), and of course they were much more interested in wargames. The convention is very much focused on playing games, though there is a vendor room that's open for an hour or two every day, and there we did some pretty brisk business; maybe a quarter of our June sales were done at CSW, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Plan 1919 our unconventional "monster" wargame. Monster approved. (Monster likes this one best because of all the counters she can move around. And knock off the table.)
Many of the games being played were of the monster variety. Now, I had never actually seen a monster game close-up before, and I'm kinda in awe of the things, and of the people who play them. The Hollandspiele title with the most counters is Plan 1919, which has 440 of them; these monsters had counters numbering in the thousands. Not a single one of them could ever fit on our table.
I was a little worried going into the con that we would simply be preaching to the converted, but after wandering around the hall on the first day, I had a very different concern: that all these hardcore grognards would simply turn up their nose at our small games. I needn't have worried; around the monsters a number of smaller games were being played. On our last day there, I spotted Table Battles out in the wild a number of times, and ran into a number of folks who had some very nice things to say about it and about our products. Which told me that we were reaching that market.
How much of that was us attending the convention and how much of it was already there is hard to say. I think in general we're not really seeing conventions as part of our business strategy, at least not in the same way as other publishers do. We don't really need to go to conventions to sell our games, particularly since Steve at Blue Panther attends a number of conventions for us. So the question for us isn't really do we need to go to cons?, because we don't, but do we want to go to cons?
And there we're conflicted. I think it is safe to say that we do not enjoy traveling. We don't like driving long distances (as we did with Origins) and we feel just as miserable flying. We don't like sleeping in hotel rooms and we don't like being away from our cats. We certainly don't like the expense!
Most folks come to these things to play games, and that's not really our priority. I play games every day at home; it's my job to play games. The kind of games we like to play require a bit of concentration and some quiet, so it's hard to play them in a noisy, crowded hall. Everyone else is primarily interested in playing as many games as possible, while we're mostly interested in just talking with people who we wouldn't get to talk to normally.
And we had some great and meaningful conversations. At Heavy Con, I got to spend some time talking with Tim Fowers. Now, Tim's games and ours could not be more different: Burgle Bros. has the kind of broad, popular appeal that something like This Guilty Land never would. They're produced in traditional runs instead of print-on-demand like we use, but the vast majority of Tim's sales are direct sales. He could very easily get wider distribution for his games - they're the sort of games that could crossover into the mass market and adorn the shelves of your local Target - but he doesn't want to. He refuses to play the game everyone else is playing, and that conversation has gone a long way toward informing my own attitude toward our business model.
At CSW Expo, we got to talk business with Roger Miller (of Revolution Games) and Randy Lien (of Legion). In addition to being informative, it was quite entertaining - they're a funny couple of guys who play off each other beautifully, like Laurel and Hardy if both of them were skinny. We exchanged a few words in the hall with Gene Billingsley of GMT, and I was surprised he had heard of us. At long last, we got to meet Brian Train, who was as generous and as thoughtful in person as he is online (even if he doesn't like cats).
That was the thing I liked most of all: meeting people, talking to people, sharing ideas and perspectives, making new friendships and strengthening old ones. For each of the cons, regardless of size, that was the thing we got the most out of. Is that experience alone worth the time, effort, and expense?I have no idea. Right now, as a I write these words, I am struggling to recover from a nasty cold that we caught somewhere in Tempe or on the way back. Mary's got it even worse, and right now, neither of us feel like we ever want to leave the house again. Maybe in a few days we'll feel differently. Maybe next year we'll want to do this all over again, or maybe we'll attend some of them, or none of them.
I can’t believe this just occurred to me, but the type of con you may be looking for is right outside your door in Chelsea, MI – it’s Protospiel. This con is run by game designers and for game designers to test each other’s games. Think of it as having a group of playtesters you’ve never met that really get it. Some publishers also attend. The one in Michigan is the original (the others are also great like San Jose Protospiel, but accept no substitutes!). And it’s run by Dave Whitcher, who is as generous with his time as anyone I know. And it’s this Fri-Sun. When I lived in Michigan, I never missed one. Check it out!
It was great to meet you two finally too but…
I like cats!
It’s just that my wife is much more of a cat person than I, and if we got one I know I would fall to #8 or 9 on the affection totem pole… I’m just trying to keep my station in the house.
You have two cats, you understand.
If it’s the travel that’s such a hinderance to your enjoyment of the conventions then it sounds like hosting a HollandspieleCon near your home would be the ideal solution to allow you to continue fostering friendships and playing games with your target audience. Just a thought.