Monday, August 8, 2011

Generating BUZZ

This October will be the first time I’ll finally be able to attend the SPIEL gaming convention in Essen.  Although I have yet to experience it first-hand, I’ve followed the event religiously for years, including the hype leading up to the new releases and the reports made during and after the fair by various gamers and gaming journalists.

As I last wrote, it takes some marketing savvy—especially for small publishers—to attract attention to their new games, as there are at least 600 debuted in Essen each year.  In my last blog entry, I covered some methods publishers use to create hype before the convention.  Now, I’ll list a few ways they create “buzz” at the convention, attracting the attention of the tens of thousands of hobbyists looking to fill their backpacks with new games before heading home.

When it comes to any kind of open market, whether it be a flea market, farmer’s market, or game convention, there is one universal truth:  people attract more people.  The more people there are huddled around a market stall, the more passersby will line up behind them to see what all of the hubbub is about.   Once, at a flea market stand my youth group was using to raise money for a project, we routinely had some of our other teens crowd the tables, pretending to pick over the various second-hand items for sale, The plan worked beautifully, as we soon had quite a few others squeezing through the crowd—and actually buying some of the stuff before anyone else could snatch it up!

I doubt that there is a need for this tactic in the crowded halls of SPIEL, but there certainly is something to be said for attracting a “critical mass” of visitors to a publisher’s booth, especially if it is a new publisher with no previous track record or reputation.  If the games are well-hyped before Essen, further tactics may not be as necessary, but there are plenty of publishers who still employ these well-publicized attempts at creating “booth buzz”:

Promotional Giveaways
Especially when there is a limited supply of them, giveaways are usually quite effective in bringing a good crowd to the booth early on in the convention, when critical mass is most important. Many gamers who cannot attend Essen may complain about he limited access to these extra goodies, but that really is the point.

Usually the promotions are extra things for existing games such as special components (“real metal coins!”) or special expansions.  Since they are usually advertised “while supplies last”, visitors are encouraged to come early if they want the extra stuff.

Gaming Tables
The larger publishers always have them, and I’ve heard those are hard to get, as there are tens of thousands of other visitors scrambling for them each day. Small publishers do not usually have as much space to work with, however, but having a couple of tables is a real advantage, even if only to do demonstrations and play a couple of practice rounds of the game.

Having people who know the game, love playing the game, and are skilled at explaining the game (preferably, fluently in several different languages) is a must!

Unusual Booth
An unusual design for a publisher’s booth may also be enough to attract attention at the fair.  This may include:

I’ve seen photographs of all sorts of costumes at publishers’ booths, ranging from silly sombrero and traditional kilts to fantasy dress, the latter usually worn by attractive women.  My favorite from a few years ago was a pair in traditional operatic dress singing to promote a game about the Opera.

Food & Drink
It’s no secret that free food and drink—especially if it’s a specialty from the publihser’s home country—is a great crowd-pleaser and buzz-enhancer for any game that might be showing there.

Game Gimmicks
The games themselves can attract special attention if they have some kind of gimmick that is unusual or creative.  Although a “gimmick game” is usually a bad thing, there are many that are simply creative uses for unusual game components, and sometimes they work quite well.  Game gimmicks can rang from Wallenstein’s cube tower to Space Dealer’s multiple sand timers to Space Alert’s soundtrack CD to Cop & Killer’s dart guns.

Several polls have emerged in recent years that keep track of the most popular games during the fair.  Fairplay magazine—and now Geekbuzz from—are the most well-known, and both fairgoers and fair-watchers take notice.  Because of this, it seems that they have also become the target of buzz-manufacturers, as publishers try to get their games listed in the various “top 10’s.”  I’ve heard stories of people working for publishers—obvious because of their T-shirts—spiking the votes in favor of their own games, and ever since I’ve been a bit weary of the results.  Apparently, though, Fairplay now limits who can vote in their annual poll.

Autograph Signings
Finally—and most importantly from my perspective, is the presence of the game designer—or illustrator—at the booth.  Scheduled autograph sessions can attract interest, and they are a great way for inventors to have direct contact with the gamers who enjoy their creations.

These are my observations as an avid “Essen-watcher” for many years.  It will be interesting to see how this may change after finally experiencing the event first-hand this October.  I hope to see you there!

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