Gaming convention Gen Con 50 broke every record in the book.

Everyone expected the 50th occurrence of the tabletop-gaming convention started by Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax to attract a big crowd, but few expected anything this big. For the first time in history, Gen Con sold out literally every ticket it had for sale. Turnstiles clicked over 207,979 times in four days in August, and even the football field of adjacent Lucas Oil Stadium (home to the Indianapolis Colts) had to be annexed to accommodate the roughly 60,000 attendees at the convention.

Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops called Gen Con an "epic experience" for attendees, according to a press release from the gaming organizers. But here's something you might not know: Gen Con is turning into an experience incubator for small businesses.

"Gen Con" displayed on a video billboard

After 50 tries, Gen Con finally sold out last month. Image source: Author.

Before the kickoff

I've written before on the growing importance of Kickstarter crowdfunding for the small businesses that display wares at Gen Con. Kickstarter is a fundraising community for artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and other creators. Roughly 500 exhibitors of toys, games, apparel, and more filled the cavernous exhibition halls at the Indiana Convention Center last month -- many displaying signs pointing customers to their Kickstarter campaigns.

The Kickstarter phenomenon is huge, accounting for tens of thousands of projects started over the past few years, and hundreds of thousands of new jobs. For board games in particular, Nate Silver's popular statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com says, "Kickstarter has become the go-to place to finance a passion board game project." Since Kickstarter began operations in 2009, no fewer than 87 separate "games" projects have attracted over $1 million in funding, according to Kickstarter, more than any other project category on the website.

That's even more impressive when you notice that (according to Kickstarter data) games account for fewer than 10% of all projects that Kickstarter has helped launch. Despite their small representation among overall projects, games account for more total dollars raised ($699.4 million over the past eight years), more "successful dollars" (projects that reached their targeted levels of funding), and more "live projects" (projects currently being funded) than any other category of product that Kickstarter promotes.

But if small businesses are enjoying such success launching board games on Kickstarter, why do they even bother coming to Gen Con? Why incur the expense of renting a physical booth at a gaming conference (even at the world's most popular gaming conference), along with the expenses of air travel and hotel accommodation, when you can just as easily start and fund your business online?

To find the answer, I asked around, visiting several small entrepreneurs' operating booths at Gen Con. Here's what they told me.

Unraveling the mystery

The answer, it turns out, is that Kickstarter and Gen Con go hand in hand. Neil Gilstrap, founder and CEO of Happy Gorilla Game Studio, explained it to me like this. When an entrepreneur sets out to promote a project on Kickstarter, two things must be kept in mind: First, 65% of all Kickstarter projects fail. Second, to maximize the chance of succeeding, a Kickstarter project needs to build up serious momentum before it even launches.

The rule of thumb, as Gilstrap explained it to me, is that "for every $100,000 you want to raise, you need 1,000 [email addresses] on a mailing list, and 1,000 [different] social media followers." That's a lot of people you need to reach before you should even contemplate asking them to help fund a Kickstarter campaign. And where do you find all these people?

Well, at Gen Con, for one. The convention provides a venue for showing off your product (and incidentally, proving you have an actual product), signing up people to receive email updates, and reminding folks to keep an eye out on social media for the official Kickstarter announcement. It's where you begin building the momentum for a Kickstarter campaign -- and gauge customer interest in the product.

How much does it cost to Kickstart a board game?

For an entrepreneur risking his or her own capital on a new business venture, prelaunching a game at Gen Con can be invaluable. Gilstrap estimates that between hiring artists and designers to prepare mock-ups, 3D modelers to manufacture initial small batches of game pieces and dice, and printers to print boards, cards, instructions, and so on, it might cost $7,000 or so to prototype a relatively simple board game -- say something like Monopoly -- today. And that's just to prepare something solid to demo.

Further down the road come additional costs: renting booths at conventions such as Gen Con, building a webpage to promote the product, preparing a demonstration video for your Kickstarter page, and -- eventually, hopefully -- hiring contract manufacturers in China to produce games at scale. (These, too, were in evidence at Gen Con, with Chinese companies like WinGo and LongPack promoting their services to would-be board-game tycoons.)

When all's said and done, what does it cost to get a board game off the ground? Gilstrap estimates "$10,000 to $15,000 out of pocket." And that's with no guarantee of success, and before any funds from Kickstarter start rolling in.

Still, this is money that must be spent. Another game designer I spoke with at Gen Con, Nauvoo Games co-founder Brett Sobol, insists that preparing a physical prototype -- and paying to get it ready for production -- "is 100% necessary prior to Kickstarter. By the time a game hits Kickstarter, it should be ready to be produced."

Sobol agrees that $10,000 is a good ballpark number to plan on when calculating pre-Kickstarter expenses. At least, that's what Nauvoo budgeted when preparing its stock-market board game Stockpile, which raised $28,000 on Kickstarter two years ago, exceeding its funding goal. More ambitious projects, such as Nauvoo's larger The Reckoners board game (not yet Kickstartered), which license ideas from intellectual property created by others, can cost "much, much" more.

Why Gen Con matters

Granted, $10,000, $15,000, or even $28,000 may sound like peanuts to a large gaming concern like Mattel (itself a Gen Con fixture for the past five years). But for a small businessperson with a day job, trying to bring a board-game passion project to market on the side, it can represent a sizable portion of that entrepreneur's nest egg.

Introducing the game at Gen Con is one way to maximize one's chances of seeing that egg hatch.

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