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The real cost of exhibiting at a game convention

We break down both the obvious and the not-so-obvious costs of showing off your indie game on the convention circuit

How much do you think it costs to show your game at an event like PAX or TGS? $1000? $10,000? $100,000? Unless you've done it before, the answer isn't exactly obvious. Hiring booth space alone is confusing enough, with prices obscured or missing completely on official convention websites. Wouldn't it be nice if there was just a simple guide that broke down all the costs, a primer both for first-time exhibitors and gamers curious about the other side of the convention experience?

That's what this article is all about. Collecting the wisdom of publishers and developers with countless conventions under their belts, this guide breaks down both the obvious and not-so-obvious expenses associated with showing a game at a convention. It also looks at the ways things can go wrong, and how to avoid complete disaster when they inevitably do. If setting up and showing off a game at PAX seems straightforward to you, prepare to change your mind.

The Booth

"Speedrunners is a four-player ruckus, prone to drawing large crowds. It proved such a spectacle, in fact, that it clogged the entire Indie MEGABOOTH"

Let's start with the most obvious cost: the booth space. Pricing varies slightly from show to show, but the main differentiator is size. From a small standing booth crammed in among a dozen others just like it to a sprawling booth-opolis big enough to warrant its own zip code, a booth's size can cut into more than just the bottom line.

Alex Nichiporchik, CEO of tinyBuild Games, found that out the hard way during the studio's first trip to PAX. The team was showing off Speedrunners, a frantic four-player platformer, by strapping a laptop to the leg of Nichiporchik's business partner Luke Burtis and walking the game around the show floor. This worked well until the team found out another of their games, No Time To Explain, had been accepted into the Indie MEGABOOTH, an area exclusively devoted to showcasing up-and-coming independent games. Since tinyBuild was focused on showing off Speedrunners, Nichiporchik figured it would be better to use the MEGABOOTH space for it instead.

The problem was, where No Time To Explain is a single-player game, Speedrunners is a four-player ruckus, prone to drawing large, boisterous crowds. Speedrunners proved such a spectacle, in fact, that it clogged the entire Indie MEGABOOTH, causing more than a few headaches for neighbouring exhibitors and frustrating the PAX Enforcers responsible for keeping the traffic flowing. Since then, tinyBuild has made sure to plan its booth space to accommodate not just players, but spectators, too.

Indie_Mega_Booth

The Indie MEGABOOTH

To plan your booth space, though, you need hard numbers, so let's take a look:

Note: All prices throughout this guide are in USD

ConventionSourceBoothCostNotes
EGX Rezzed 2014Developer BlogSingle-screen booth$250 per dayBooth comes fully furnished, no additional gear required
TGS 2016Developer Blog3ft x 3ft standing booth in Indie Games Area$281 per day
PAX East 2014Developer BlogIndie MEGABOOTH Minibooth$465 per day
GDC 2013Developer Blog3ft x 3ft standing kiosk$650 per day
TGS 2015Developer Blog6ft x 3ft standing booth in Indie Games Area$450 per day
PAX South 2016Developer Blog10ft x 10ft booth$417 per day
PAX East 2013Developer Blog10ft x 10ft booth$600 per day
TGS 2017Exhibitor Pricing Guide10ft x 10ft booth (space only)$800 per day
PAX Australia 2014Developer Blog10ft x 10ft booth$900 per dayIncludes table, two chairs, and 40" monitor
TGS 2017Exhibitor Pricing Guide10ft x 10ft booth (package)$1,030 per dayIncludes table, chairs, carpet, lamp, desk, three walls
GDC 2017Exhibitor Pricing Guide10ft x 10ft booth$1,660 per day
E3 2014Developer Q&A200sq ft booth$3,333 per dayElectricity costs not included
SXSWExhibitor Pricing Guide20ft x 20ft endcap$3,688 per day
GDC 2017Exhibitor Pricing Guide20ft x 20ft booth$6,640 per day
SXSWExhibitor Pricing Guide20ft x 30ft island booth$7,250 per day
E3 2013Developer Q&A600sq-ft booth$10,000 per dayElectricity costs not included
GDC 2017Exhibitor Pricing Guide50ft x 50ft booth$41,500 per day

Averaging these figures out results in the following rules of thumb, each of which matches up with estimates provided by the developers and publishers spoken to for this article:

  • Single-screen booths average at around $420 per day.
  • 10ft x 10ft booths average around $910 per day for the space alone, with pre-furnished packages averaging around $200 more per day.
  • Large-scale booths average around $6,657 per day at the low end.

For the typical three-day convention, then, you'll be looking at a minimum of around $1500 for the booth space alone. Of course, a booth is pretty useless without anything in it, so let's move onto what it takes to fill a booth with life.

The Gear

If you don't want to deal with the minutiae of kitting out a booth, the smaller standing booths, especially those inside a MEGABOOTH or similar dedicated indie space, serve as simple all-in-one solutions, with furnishings and logistics handled for you. Nichiporchik recommends that first-time exhibitors start out with such an arrangement, as they won't have to worry about concerns like power, fire safety, and booth layout.

"Half the work of attending a convention is in preparation, with the rest focused on the build-up and teardown of the booth itself"

Going it solo, on the other hand, demands extensive planning. Nichiporchik estimates half the work of attending a convention is in preparation, with the rest focused on the build-up and teardown of the booth itself. Just some of the factors that need to be considered are:

  • PC/console/other devices for demos
  • Monitors/TVs
  • Putting together a demo build of your game
  • Booth carpet/flooring (booths often require carpeting, or another type of flooring, the cost of which may or may not be included in the price of the space)
  • Banners and signage (cost will depend on size, but GDC packages start at around $200 for 72" x 36" vinyl banners)
  • Internet access. E3 charges $1000 a day for internet access in a booth!

Addressing these concerns doesn't come cheap, and the cost isn't purely financial. Rami Ismail, one half of Vlambeer, the studio responsible for games like Ridiculous Fishing and Nuclear Throne, has had conventions go sideways more times than he can count.

At PAX Australia 2016, he was told by event organizers that the Vlambeer booth would be fully furnished and ready to go when he arrived. When he walked into the convention center, though, the booth was empty apart from a couple of flags flapping above it. Frantically, Ismail rushed to the nearest shopping mall and used his own money to pick up two brand-new TVs as well as a couple rolls of silk cloth. He and his team then spent all night cutting out and sewing together a surprisingly attractive Vlambeer banner in their hotel room. Needless to say, Ismail was a wee bit tired at the convention the next day.

Situations like this are why tinyBuild follows the mantra: Always ask, never assume.

"The hidden costs are everywhere," says Alex Nichiporchik. For example, "when you rent stuff from the venue, usually it will cost you more than to buy that same thing. Renting a chair costs more than buying a chair."

Some developers get around this by buying their equipment from local stores and returning it after the convention is over. Others opt to ship their own gear from convention to convention. Depending on the size and weight of the equipment, a single shipment across the US can cost as much as $2000 or even $3000, one-way. In the long term, though, it's often the best option.

"3 years ago we invested in a turn keyT3 booth system," says Georgina Verdon, managing director of publisher Versus Evil. "We build it and break it down ourselves and replace the graphics for each brand when necessary. This booth paid for itself in the first year and now we just shuttle it to conventions around the nation.It was a very good investment."

"The hidden costs are everywhere. When you rent stuff from the venue, usually it will cost you more than to buy that same thing"

Alex Nichiporchik, tinyBuild

tinyBuild takes a similar approach. Leveraging the fact that PAX East and PAX South are just a couple months apart, the studio leaves its gear in storage in Boston after PAX East and ships it directly from there to Texas for PAX South when it's needed. For some developers, the cost of shipping might seem excessive, but for tinyBuild, it's worth it.

"It works out in the end," says Nichiporchik, "because we have our own branded stuff that is recognizable, that we know how to assemble, and we don't worry on-the-spot about either renting stuff or buying stuff and throwing it away or returning it."

It's also worth noting that, if you plan on selling or giving away merchandise from your booth, accessing your on-site storage is an additional cost to factor in. "If you want to have access to boxes in storage during the event," advises Georgina Verdon, "there's also a cost for each time you access it." Designing your booth with space for its own storage might be a cheaper solution, in the long run.

Sample Hiring Costs (sourced from GDC, but comparable to other conventions):

Product/ServiceCost
Pre-cut carpet: 10ft x 10ft$191
Plastic chair$60
Non-plastic chair$100
Fabric Sofa$800+
Table: 24" x 36"$84
Counter: 4ft$96
32" Flatscreen monitor$450
65" Flatscreen monitor$1500
Windows 10 i7 laptop$440
Wireless internet, 10Mbps, one device$650
Electricity, 5 Amp/500 Watts$50 per day
Electricity, 10 Amp/1000 Watts$118 per day

Shipping Costs:

Product/ServiceCost
TV transport case$370
UPS Air Freight, 500kg, San Francisco to Boston$6500+
UPS Air Freight, 500kg, San Francisco to Birmingham, UK$1100
Alex shipping average$3000
Warehouse storage$90 per month

Building the Booth

You've got your booth space, you've got your gear, now you're all set, right? Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. To start with, you need to get your gear to your booth, and that can be a lot more difficult than it sounds. Convention center guidelines dictate that any gear one person can't carry with their hands alone must be handled by official union labor. In other words, you have to pay for people to lug your TVs and booth props from the loading dock to your booth, and it's not exactly cheap.

Product/ServiceCost
Forklift$170/hr
Electrical labor (beyond simple plug and play$150/hr
Freight handling, Small (<50lbs)$66.50 for first package, $13 for each additional package
Freight handling, Large (>50lbs)Subject to size and weight

Then there's the issue of actually building the booth. According to convention guidelines, any manual labor that can't be completed by a single person in under 30 minutes without the use of tools--depending on the convention, screwdrivers and other simple tools may be exempt--must be performed by union labor. This is one of the reasons tinyBuild uses modular, easy-to-assemble components in its booths.

"Convention center guidelines dictate that any gear one person can't carry with their hands alone must be handled by official union labor"

The other reason stems from another convention calamity: the multi-storey mega mansion some AAA publisher has built right in front of your humble 10' x 10'. If your booth happens to be facing this boisterous fašade, and you have no way of rearranging it, you'll lose precious eyeballs to the million-dollar monstrosity across the way. But if you can rebuild the booth to face a less-distracting direction, you won't have to waste the convention in the shadow of big money.

What if you want to do something a little spectacular yourself, though? Like, say, driving a truck into your booth to celebrate your new game, Clustertruck? When tinyBuild decided to do exactly that at TwitchCon 2016, the challenges of booth setup were magnified tenfold. First, just getting the truck into the convention center proved problematic. When you hire a truck, it comes with a full tank of fuel, which under normal circumstances is a welcome addition. The thing is, if you want to bring a vehicle into the San Diego convention center, its tank has to be less than a quarter full. Siphoning the gas was impossible, so tinyBuild spent eight hours driving aimlessly around San Diego to drain the tank to an acceptable level.

Clustertruck

This debacle would have been much worse had tinyBuild not arrived in San Diego a full five days before the convention. Having that buffer is necessary to compensate for things like jetlag, pre-show meetings, and any potential truck-related dilemmas. Getting into town early also ensured tinyBuild could get the truck into the convention center before other big booths like Amazon's and Battlefield's were set up. Had tinyBuild left it to the last minute, clearing a path for the truck across a crowded convention floor would have been impossible. That's why Nichiporchik stresses the importance of thorough planning and always keeping a level head.

"In general, whenever you have a problem, and you'll always have a problem, you just need to soberly approach it. If it's the day before the event, everyone is just super tired, and you go screw it, let's just finish it--that's not the right approach."

People Costs

After the booth, the biggest cost to exhibiting is the people. From airfares to accommodation, there are a lot of expenses to consider, and cheaping out on them can be mighty dangerous. A budget flight might be tempting, until you discover your bags have been sent to the wrong airport and your back is busted from the sharp, angular seats. A hostel might seem like an easy way to save money, but only if your stuff doesn't get nicked. Greasy food might provide the energy to get through a rough day, but if you're attending a week-long convention, your stomach will be paying the price by night four.

That doesn't mean cutting costs is out of the question, however. AirBnB offers significantly cheaper rates than hotels, and booking a place further out from the convention center and catching public transport in can save a decent chunk of change, although it comes at the expense of shorter sleep-ins and potential disaster if you miss your train.

Accommodation:

ConventionAccommodationCost
PAX East 2014Single hotel room, 5 nights in Boston$151 per night
TGS 2016AirBnB, 5 nights in Chiba$60 per night
EGX Rezzed 2014Single hotel room, 3 nights in Birmingham$104 per night
EGX 2015Single hotel room, 5 nights in Birmingham$150 per night
EGX 2015Single hotel room, 5 nights in Coventry (1hr out from Birmingham)$61 per night

On average, you're looking at around $100-$150 a night for a hotel room within walking distance of a convention. Using AirBnb or staying further out can drop the cost to around $60 a night.

Flights:

Travel TypeCost
1000 mile road trip, Chicago to Boston$595 total
Return airfare from Chicago to Boston$300 per person
Return airfare from Sydney to Tokyo$780 per person
Return airfare from Prague to Birmingham$270 per person
Return airfare from Northern Ireland to Birmingham$160 per person

Airfares are going to vary wildly depending on where you're going and where you're coming from, but odds are you'll be looking at a couple hundred dollars per person for domestic flights, and closer to $1000 for international ones.

"Taking programmers and designers to a convention might seem like a vacation, but it's exhausting, even for developers who've been doing it for years"

Personnel:

On the topic of teams, you'll probably want to leave yours at home. Taking programmers and designers to a convention might seem like a mini vacation, but it's exhausting, even for developers who've been doing it for years. Not only that, time spent at a convention is time not spent working on your game, and even just a few days away can impact the momentum of development and disrupt your team's work-flow.

This is where working with a publisher like Surprise Attack Games can be especially useful. Rather than attending a show themselves, a small developer can hand convention duties off to Surprise Attack, continuing to work on their game while the publisher's experienced convention team handles its promotion. According to Chris Wright, managing director of Surprise Attack, this is one of the things that developers really appreciate about working with the company.

Even without a publisher to shoulder the burden, there are ways to avoid disrupting ongoing development. tinyBuild always puts the least technical person on its team in charge of conventions. Whether that's the producer or the project manager, the point is to pick someone who doesn't need to be sitting at a desk during active development. Then, because working a multi-day convention solo would be a nightmare, tinyBuild hires professional booth staff to help run the show. A couple extra hands can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, significantly less than the expensive development time that would be lost taking programmers or artists away from their work.

Standing Out

To succeed at a convention, you need to stand out. If you've got the marketing budget of Blizzard or EA, that might be as simple as buying up half the show floor and filling it with expensive swag and famous celebrities, but most of us don't have that kind of money. Instead, you need to get creative. tinyBuild has made this its motto, striving to make its booth the place to be at every convention. At PAX East 2016, for example, the studio held a Speedrunners tournament at its booth, bringing along the best Speedrunners player in North America for attendees to challenge. The first person to beat him would win $1000, and if nobody could, the $1000 would be his.

"Like most things in life, with conventions you get what you pay for, whether your currency is coin, blood, sweat, or tears"

The tournament was a rousing success, drawing massive crowds of cheering onlookers as contenders came within spitting distance of unseating the champ. No one managed to pull it off, but everyone left with a smile on their face. It was great publicity for tinyBuild, but the cost can't be ignored: $1000 in prize money, plus another $1000 flying the top player to and from the event.

There's no concrete way to measure the return on investment, either. Did the tournament attract new Speedrunners fans? Probably. Enough to cover its costs? It's too hard to tell. Still, by focusing on offering unique, memorable experiences, tinyBuild has built a community of fans so dedicated they collect and wear tinyBuild's swag at every convention the studio goes to. That kind of support can be just as important as your sales numbers.

Surprise Attack Games takes a similar quality-over-quantity approach to convention engagement. Exhibiting a game might not send sales numbers through the roof, but interacting with people face-to-face can be equally valuable. Scouting for new developers to work with, establishing relationships with the press, and just getting its name out there are all key to building Surprise Attack's long-term success. Short-term sales spikes are not what conventions are for.

The Bottom Line

So, what's the magic number? How much does the typical convention cost? Let's add it up:

  • Doing it cheap:
  • Single-screen standing booth: $420 per day
  • Electricity: $50 per day
  • Supply own laptop for demoing: $0
  • Booth banner: $200
  • Hostel accommodation: $60 a night
  • Domestic return flight: $300
  • Food and drink: $50 a day
  • Marketing: $0

Total cost for one person at a three-day convention: $2240

  • Upgrading:
  • 10ft x 10ft booth: $910 per day
  • Electricity: $118 per day
  • Two 32" monitors: $900
  • Two mid-range gaming laptops: $1600
  • Booth banner: $200
  • 100 flyer handouts: $60
  • 500 custom-branded buttons: $300
  • Booth carpet: $191
  • Table and chairs package: $280
  • Drayage (union labor) for monitors, furniture: $100
  • Hotel room: $150 a night
  • Domestic return flight: $300 per person
  • Food and drink: $50 a person per day

Total cost for four people, three-day convention: $8965

  • Going all in:
  • 200sq ft booth, E3: $10,000
  • Electricity: $700
  • Two 65" TVs for demo reel: $3000
  • Four demo stations (PC+monitor): $4000
  • Table for demo stations: $84
  • Custom booth display (inc. setup): $100 per square-foot
  • Booth help: $15/hr per person, 9hr days
  • 1500 custom-branded buttons: $850
  • 1000 flyer handouts: $580
  • Courtyard by Marriott, quad hotel room w/ two Queen beds: $359 a night
  • International return flight: $1000 per person
  • Food and drink: $75 per person

Total cost for four people, three-day convention: $45,131

From a couple of thousand dollars to the price of a small house, exhibiting at a convention can get mighty expensive, especially if you don't plan ahead for when everything inevitably goes sideways. Now, at least, you should have a clearer idea of the costs involved. Like most things in life, with conventions you get what you pay for, whether your currency is coin, blood, sweat, or tears.

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Latest comments (6)

Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop3 months ago
Cracking article.
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Andrew Walker Director of Business Affairs, Gameforge3 months ago
I agree, this is great info for aspiring indie devs.
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John Cook Senior Partner, Bad Management3 months ago
Excellent comprehensive summary - nice one Matt.
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Show all comments (6)
Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios3 months ago
I think this is the most practical, actionable* advice I've ever read on GI.Biz :)

*Not in the legal sense.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises3 months ago
Great information, thanks for writing this!

How about the booth babes? What are their rates like?

And can you hire an entourage to hang out at your booth to make it seem more popular than it really is? Maybe some actors to play your game and act really excited? Seems crazy but if you're going to go all in and spend $45,131, then a couple more thousand isn't too bad.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 3 months ago
Known for a while from my own experience that events aren't cost effective in terms of raw sales and general promoting of your game.

Either you're paying to hopefully get press coverage. Which involves a lot of legwork beforehand imploring journalists to come check out the game.

Or it's glorified user testing. For many smaller, local events, the fee for a basic table is tiny or even free. So for travel/food/accommodation costs, you can spend a weekend watching 100+ Joe Public try out your game.

Consider as well that some games simply don't lend themselves to events, and I struggle to think of any other purpose/aim that justifies the cost of showing your game at conventions.
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