Should independent developers go to E3 ?

[In which I discuss that independent developers of a certain size need to be at E3, especially nowadays]

As promised, now that the dust has settled, it’s time to find out if our recent little outing to E3 was worth the effort. Specifically, is it something that I’d recommend to other developers like us ? The short of it is a definite yes, but there’s quite a few caveats that you need to be aware of.

Larian at E3 - proof that "no sweat, no glory" has its merits - it was hard work but it gave us good results

Traditionally, E3 is an industry-only show and its raison d’être is showing off upcoming games to retailers. The general idea is that you get them excited enough to place large day 1 orders and thus ensure a succesful launch.  To do that, you need to convince them that yours is a big game, and demonstrating some muscle is believed to be a tried-and-true method of achieving just that. Hence the extravagant booths with occasionally outrageous budgets.

Retailers & distributors also read what’s written in the games media, so another of your goals is to ensure a lot of, preferably positive, media attention. Booth babes, private party invitations, freebies etc… are all part of the standard package of trying to get the press to spend some time at your booth, and part of the struggle of participating in E3, is ensuring that the press actually visits your stand.

The games industry is also fairly small club, and one other advantage of being at E3 is that most of your current and potential business partners will be present, either as visitor or as standholders, so while you’re there, you might as well take advantage of that too. And since perception is reality, it helps if you can somehow impress them.

For an indepedent developer with a moderate amount of cash, trying to compete with publishers for the biggest & coolest booth is probably a very bad idea. For one, a publisher can spread his E3 costs over multiple games, something most developers won’t be able to do, and besides, you probably don’t have as much money as these publishers do. Typically you aren’t there to impress the retailers anyway, but rather to take advantage of the presence of all the media and industry people, in an effort to ensure some coverage and try to score some distribution deals.

So your presence at E3 should be measured by those criteria – does it generate more media coverage than you could otherwise get, and does it increase your chances of establishing distribution contracts ?

Media coverage

As with any PR effort, the biggest struggle is to first get the media to actually come and see you. Afterwards you also want to ensure that they actually publish a story based on what you show them, something that’s not always a given. Ultimately, your goal in getting the media to write about you, is to make potential players aware of your game, and get them convinced that this is something for them. If at all possible, you’d probably prefer talking to future players directly, but to get there, the media step is one that needs to be taken.

Our PR efforts ever since we started this self-publishing adventure have so far been focussed around three moments. The announcement of Divinity – Dragon Commander at Gamescom, a big PR event at Larian Studios in the build-up to E3, and the showing of our games at E3.

Compared to the coverage we had at Gamescom where we focussed everything on one moment, and how we approached E3, I’d definitely suggest our E3 approach in terms of increasing media reach. That means, try to get coverage in selected key media first, get it published just before the event, and then use that to ensure interest from other media. The advantage is that you have more coverage for a longer period of time, thus increasing the chances that you get players interested in your game.

As it turns out, our approach managed to get us stories on most of the major outlets like PC Gamer, IGN, Gamespot & Game Informer.

I’m quite happy about that because it’s something that proved to be a challenge even for some of the mid-sized publishers I used to work with.  My most notorious example of that is flying over the Atlantic to visit the offices of one of these, only to be told that the appointment was cancelled because they were busy with a big feature on Dragon Age 2.

The funny thing is that the coverage by the majors was actually a bonus, because our real intent in going to E3 was to get in touch with all those journalists we’d otherwise not reach, e.g. Gaminglives, or Gamercast.

It was also actually a relatively cheap way to get in touch with all these journalists. On our PR event, we spent on around a 1000 euros on average per journalist, whereas at E3, the cost per journalist turned out to be around 400 euros. That’s still a lot of money but if you consider that in the past to promote Divinity II, we had costs of +1000 euros/US journalist, with less coverage generated, it’s quite an improvement. I think we could actually reduce that cost even more by increasing our booth size next time.

One key thing I’d like to stress for any developer thinking of doing something similar – make sure you have an ace PR agent, who can  literally drag the journalists by their hairs into your booth if need be.

In that respect, we’re very lucky to have Tom from Evolve PR, who’s done a stellar job in ensuring that our booth was continuously full with journalists. To put it bluntly,  if you don’t have somebody like Tom & you’re not enormously connected, don’t bother. Next to us were booths that were empty most of the time, and that’s something you definitely don’t want to happen to you. For these guys E3 really was a waste of time and money.

The business side

Our distribution network is starting to take shape, but we still have a number of territories that we need to take care of, and here too E3 was worth it. If we had to organize trips to each and every single country we’ve talked to, that’d be a far more expensive approach than meeting potential partners at an event like this. And showing your games in person rather than sending them some video of the game together with some documentation, is a far better method of selling it.

Also, the fact that as we were meeting them, a lot of coverage was appearing in the media, helped quite a lot in establishing their belief in our games. More than often, we had to cram in these guys in the midst of a presentation in front of 5 journalists, and there’s no denying that seeing positive reception by media going on live, has a much bigger psychological impact than reading an article afterwards.

The presentation side

The Gamespot article has two videos about the actual presentations, so if you’re interested, you might have a look at how we approached it. The key thing about these presentations was how prepared Farhang, David, Benoit & Octaaf  were. They had been practicing this thing for days, and in hindsight that was really important.

At some point, David did around 6 presentations in an hour, with constant interruptions, and all the drill ensured he could pick up where he was without a glitch. I witnessed a presentation of another game in a booth next to us (game budget 25MUS$), and the presenter there hadn’t bothered to rehearse sufficiently, meaning that what actually looked like a good game, came out far worse because of his stammering.

You can read here, here and here about all the effort it took us to get this thing done, but given all of the above, the blood, sweat & tears were well worth it.

So to summarize – yeah, I recommend going to E3. It’s been getting a lot of flak for being uninspiring in the mainstream press, but there’s still a lot of industry concentrated in one spot, and you want to take advantage of that. It’ll take you between 30K & 50K euros or so to do what we’ve done, so you’ll need to sell an extra few thousands  of your game to cover that, but given that you reach an audience of millions, that’s not an insane proposition.

  • arne

    So in the end it all comes down to preparations. That sounds fair enough

  • martin k.

    Yes, you should definitely visit these kind of event, but only (as you said it) if you prepare very good. 
    You already covered all, but one thing: You need to emphasize even more that you’re self-publishing. Seems to me that people react pretty friendlier towards those studios who are somehow independent or indie. Nobody likes money-grabbing corporations who spend buttload of money on buying coverages or reviews, because they seem quite distant from an ordinary customer, where smaller studios who work independently are more accessible and look really honest. Use this to your advantage.

    • Katrien Cornelis

      I couldn’t agree more, also after i read the difference on how much you have left (€) after selling the game if it goes by your hand or a publisher is (for me anyway) a major incentive for buying the games..Because I really have the feeling I’m supporting the creators of a game I like, rather than paying the people that are most of the time to blame for rushed games or a blatant mass of look-a-like bad ports for some easy quids.  But maybe I’m just very biased ^^

  • Juan Pablo De Maio

    Very nice article…as always 🙂

  • AlexF

    How successful do these two projects have to be for Larian to stay affloat and produce more games without a publisher? A couple of hundred thousand copies is enough or do you need to sell several millions? I’m positive that there is an audience for both of your games but maybe not enough for millions of copies sold.

  • Swen Vincke

    That depends on the price point 😉 We’re quite resistant so I’m not that worried about staying afloat (well, I say that, but obviously I worry all the time – on average though, we always seems to manage, somehow ). However, if we reach Divinity II numbers, we’ll be extremely happy as that would open up the doors to make something quite extraordinary.