Different Worlds: The Art of Video Game Convention Booth Design

When you're showcasing your games on a noisy convention floor, how can you immerse players in your world? Two set designers share their secrets.
The Cult of the Lamb booth at PAX Aus 2023

You’ve finally made it. After lining up for what felt like hours, securing your pass and battling against the crowd, you enter PAX Aus 2023. Eager to immerse yourself in everything the three-day convention has to offer, you scout your new playground, and establish an attack plan. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the endless sea of variety, and swept away by the many conversations, announcements, and ever-so-prominent “YAHOO!” from the direction of Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Despite this, you notice the Cult of the Lamb booth – someone is actually physically kneeling at an altar as they play the game for the first time and are entirely absorbed with the world it has to offer. Somehow, they can ignore the convention around them, and have become entirely immersed in the game. 

We all know that there are many components that stimulate immersive gameplay, but what about outside of the video game screen? How is it possible to be immersed in a game when you’re not even playing it?

cult of the lamb booth set design conventions
The Cult of the Lamb altar at PAX Aus 2023. (Image: Isabella Verduci)

A good set, like those used for eye-catching booths at conventions including PAX Aus, represent the game by using prominent colour palettes, differentiation between textures, shape and colour, and commonplace objects to create an immersive experience for people. All these things combined are an example of how physical objects can act as “touch points” for a booth. 

This term was brought to my attention when speaking to Jonathan “JR” Rosales, the director of publishing at Devolver Digital, who has been designing booths for 15 years. He has designed booths for Minecraft, Wizard with a Gun, various Batman games and many more. Throughout his work, Rosales aims to create stands that have impact and maintain the integrity of the property they represent.

This core goal also aligns with those of Ruby Zimmermann, Communications Specialist and Product Marketer for PikPok, who said it was essential to get the players into the right frame of mind.

What excites me the most is how both talented creatives managed to succeed in offering touchpoints in a setting that stayed true to their respective games. Interestingly, both designers highlighted a desire to, as Zimmermann puts it, “not create anything that’s too much of a fantasy”. 

Cult of the Lamb, despite being a fantastical game, didn’t house any elements that were strictly fantasy-coded within their set. The booth was decorated with candles for ambient lighting, flower petals of different colours, and velvet drapes that added an element of class I didn’t know was possible for a game about “min-maxing” a cult. 

Despite these individual elements being commonplace objects, they all melted together to create a tone that was totally different to the rest of the booths at the convention. The standout feature was the way that you were encouraged to play the game – this is where the kneeling comes in. I think this was a beautiful nod to the religious undertones that are prevalent throughout the game. It also nods to the action of prayer and other religious activities that take place in both a church and the game. Although this method of play lies outside of the screen, it is quite powerful in its ability to allude to the game’s core ideas.      

The Into The Dead: Our Darkest Days booth at PAX Aus 2023. (Photo: PikPok)

For Zimmermann’s booth, it was essential for their design team to incorporate household items resembling Texas in the 1980s. They were inspired by real pictures from the 1980s which helped them capture the era perfectly. 

Having vintage props to communicate an authentic setting was quintessential in order for the set design to immediately ground players who are about to try the game for the first time. Zimmermann’s booth had an amazing attention to detail for making the space her team created feel once lived in – Bloody fingerprint smears on newspapers, to family photo frames on the walls being unaligned, made this space feel incredibly familiar, yet eerily disrupted. 

When questioning Zimmermann about these details, they noted that an integral concept within their game is that these zombies still have remains of their humanity left. It was essential to bring zombies into familiar spaces, such as their set, because their gameplay revolves around zombies overrunning familiar spaces. Therefore, by showcasing a family living room that has been bloodied and disturbed right before players play the game would create the exact tonal shift required for an immersive experience.

Zimmermann with the Into The Dead: Our Darkest Days booth at PAX Aus 2023. (Photo: Ruby Zimmerman)

In the small spaces allocated to them, Rosales and Zimmermann both transported PAX Aus attendees to totally different environments with the work of their incredible set designs. I encourage everyone to consider the elements outside of the screen which immerse or influence methods of play. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much these exterior elements impact your state of immersion within the screen, making for more enjoyable and memorable gameplay experiences that let the rest of the world completely fade away.

This article was commissioned by GamesHub and Creative Victoria as part of Wordplay, a games writing mentorship program held during Melbourne International Games Week 2023.

Isabella (she/her) is a Melbourne-based games writer. She is on a mission to document memorable and dynamic virtual experiences within video games. She has a particular love for music composition and sound design, focusing on these elements in the games she makes. She will occasionally post academic games research articles she writes on her Linkedin.