Twelve lessons learned from being a newbie at the UK Games Expo 2018.

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I’m writing this blog post and listening to BBC R5’s ‘Let’s talk about Tech’. The presenter is chatting with exhibitors and visitors at the UKGE 2018.

You can tell from everyone’s voices just how hyped up and excited they all are. That’s exactly how we felt when were there too! But that’s not how I felt at the start of the show.

This was our first Games Expo, in fact it was our first visit to a big event at all. I’m sure that, like a lot of you would have been, I was nervous and unsure. I did not know what to expect. The information which flowed from the organisers was non-stop, sometimes technical and often strict. As a result I was pretty scared rolling up on Thursday during the set up phase. Luckily, it pretty much all turned out OK! But, to spare any future newbies from the jitters I experienced, I’m sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned from the experience.

The Stand

Our Big Empty White Stand

We took advantage of the opportunity at UKGE to have an affordable small stand. My wife is an old hand at trade fairs in other sectors and she was amazed and delighted that UKGE offered entry level stands for small exhibitors. The organiser’s info seemed to imply that a shell scheme was de rigeur. A shell is the flimsy walls, often white which surround the stands. We booked a 3-sided shell which opened at the front. When I arrived on Thursday, I was pretty horrified to see that our little stand was standing lonely and obvious as the only one with a shell. As the hall filled up with other stands, though, our stand became less ‘sore-thumby’ and settled in to its neighbours and I became more comfortable. We found that the shell gave us more control of our environment – we had walls to decorate; a lovely clean white space; and a bit of shelter from the noise and air-con wind. I knew I had booked a 2x2m stand and was quite aware of how small that was so before the show I mocked up the space with masking tape on the living room floor and set up all our gear. At this point it became clear what we could and couldn’t fit in, which helped us plan what to take. Our main priority was to encourage people to play Build, so our prime piece of furniture was a table and four chairs. We set these up ‘end on’ to the entrance so that there was access to the table and it didn’t block the public out in a ‘headmaster’s office’ style. Playtesting was a huge success. It was important to have a playable version to engage people.

Lesson 1: Stands are affordable

Lesson 2: You don’t necessarily need a shell

Lesson 3: Mock up your stand in advance

Lesson 4: Have a ‘welcoming’ stand

 

An army of volunteers

Sadly, the horses weren’t welcome in the NEC but the army of volunteers were!

My small experience of other trade fairs was that they were tedious and exhausting. So, to combat both of these I invited a gang of friends from our gaming club to help out. We timetabled a rota so that everyone had plenty of free time to experience the expo and also had a pal on the stand with them for company. As an exhibitor we got 2 tickets for free and 2 more exhibitor passes for £10 each. I bought an extra young person’s pass for Lily and a 2-day pass for another volunteer who was coming on Saturday. My youngest child got in for free. And hey presto! A 7 – person team! I offered the volunteers, tickets, food and lodging and they leapt at the chance. Before the Expo we created a pack of information based on what UKGE organisers had shared with all the information they needed for the weekend. This included:

  • Instructions on collecting tickets
  • Parking information (we were only allowed one free parking pass but did blag another one from the exhibitor services).
  • Team mobile phone numbers
  • Priorities for the weekend
  • Accommodation details
  • Maps and location of our stall
  • Rota and timings over the weekend (playtest zone slots, seminars etc)

Lesson 5: A small army of volunteers worked well.

Preparation Beforehand

We mocked up the stand at home beforehand

Long before the Expo, my head was a-buzz with worries, questions and ideas. As they occurred, I wrote them down on a single document. These were things like, ‘When is our playtest zone slot?’ How do we provide food at the accommodation?’ and ‘Where do I unload from?’

Closer to the date, this information began to arrive from the organisers and I was able to plan a response to issues that were in my purview.

I also sketched down a list of things I wanted get from the event from ‘Playtest Build 10 times’ to ‘Talk to retailers about placing products in shops’ to ‘Play a load of games and have fun’. Later, I put these in a priority order.

Both these processes allowed me to download the chatter in my head into an organised format and feel like I had control over it. This reduced my stress and also actually gave me control over it!

Lesson 6: Make plans well in advance

Lesson 7: Find a system to keep control of all the information

Take every opportunity offered

As well as being a chance for gamers to walk round, spend money, meet gaming celebs and try out lots of cool new games, UKGE also had the ‘Publisher/Designer track’ organised by Playtest UK who had seminars, panels, networking events as well as staffing the playtest zone. This was a magnificent source of advice and support for small (and not-so-small) companies like ourselves. I attended everything I could and soaked up all the information. Some of these required booking on before the event – the deadlines for some were a month beforehand – so watch out for that.

Lesson 8: Grab every chance you can. Carpe those Diems!

Our obligations for GDPR

Keep personal information safely locked away.

Just before the Expo, my email tray and the news reports on my radio were full of GDPR: General Data Protection Regulations. People appeared to be panicking left, right and centre about their obligations. As we were hoping to collect names and email addresses for our mailing list as well as encourage folk to follow us on social media, these regulation clearly applied to us. Luckily my wife is level headed and read up on these. The basics came down to consent, protection and transparency. Our duties involved: getting people to sign a form to say they were happy for us to include them on the mailing list; keeping their personal information (email and names) private; and telling them what we do with their data. This was all pretty straightforward so we printed off some individual forms (we didn’t want to create a long list as previous entries would be visible to the next person) and took along a lockable strongbox to keep them in on site and we made sure to remove them all off site at night. Later, back at base we kept all the personal info in a locked filing cabinet.

Lesson 9: Our responsibilities for GDPR weren’t too onerous.

Talking to the public, colleagues, networking

Early on in the expo it became clear that, in some people’s eyes, we weren’t a very sexy game. At the busy press preview, no-one wanted to stop and talk to me. I made a decision on the spot to break my habitual discomfort, come out from behind my table and engage people. It worked! And it carried on working all weekend! If I imagine how it must feel to be in a huge hall of people, overwhelmed by it all, paralysed by choice, then it must be a relief to have someone else break the ice by smiling and chatting to you. Lily was particularly good at this and got all sorts of people to stop, talk and even playtest Build. Speaking to the exhibitors, everyone I spoke to was a useful contact offering advice, the story of their game, further contacts and invitations.

Lesson 10: Be brave; talk to folk. It totally pays off.

Prototype making and game iterations

After Friday, we had already achieved my playtest target of 10 sessions over the weekend. It was clear that it would be a waste to merely present the same version of the game again on Saturday and Sunday. As a result, on the Friday night and Saturday morning we reviewed the feedback comments, changed the game, made some new prototype materials and started to playtest the new version. On Saturday night we did it again – only this time not such a radical change. As a result the game accelerated through a series of iterations which were thoroughly playtested very quickly. The game improved dramatically over the course of the weekend.

Lesson 11: Have all the printing, cutting, laminating gear with you.

Accommodation

NEC accommodation was just too damn pricey.

On the NEC site there are a number of hotels, many of which had UKGE fringe events on in the evenings. I quickly dismissed these as accommodation for our little volunteer army as they were way too expensive.

I looked elsewhere for alternative accommodation:

www.independenthostels.co.uk

www.yha.org.uk

www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/ukcampsites

www.airbnb.co.uk

We eventually settled on an Air BnB as this was the most cost effective for a group our size. I was aware as we left that some of the gamers were just about to begin some epic gaming sessions and that we were missing out, but at least we had a quiet, comfortable house to retire ot for a good rest.

Lesson 12: Look wider than the expo campus for accommodation.

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