Swordy PAX Badges – Manufacturing Postmortem

Everybody loves freebies. When you go to a gaming conventions, part of the fun is getting free stuff. We quickly learned that at PAX, badges (also called pins) are the thing, it’s part of PAX culture. People go nuts collecting them, sometimes wearing them all at once.

Researching our options, the most common type of badge the majority make (and is the cheapest) are the round metal ones like this. Another option is the colorful pins with acrylic coating like this.

The first option is cheap to make but also feels cheap. Moisture destroys them, the metal backs rust over time, they rattle if shaken and overall is not a quality product from my point of view. The positive aspect is that it’s DIY-able at home with a badge press we could borrow.
The second option is very expensive to manufacture and can only be done at an equipped facility. It does look colorful and feel awesome though.

Neither options “felt” like Swordy however. Swordy is very primal. If I was to describe it through tactile qualities of materials, it would be very raw. If it’s metal, it’s heavy Iron, steel or copper, then wood, leather and stone. If I was to represent Swordy in pieces of physical matter It would have such material qualities.

 

PROTOTYPING

Inspiration for the badges we ended up making came from a badge we received as part of the Gather unconference goodie bag

gathergatherbadge

This started everything. Danny created the skull crown design which stands for “Swordy deathmatch mode”. It’s the component of the game that we went to PAX with so that made sense to feature as our giveaway and it’s a badass icon too.

I was able to prototype a few using fabrication labs at AUT University with samples of bamboo ply veneer I picked up at a roofing material warehouse. I did a batch of 61 because I wanted to maximize the use of lazer cutter and sample material at the time to have a leftover “frame” as seen in the photo. Initially I wanted it as something to potentially prototype a board game with but it ended up being extremely useful later on.

Our material of choice was bamboo. The wood grain looks great by itself but also reveals amazing patterns after layers have been burned away with a lazer. I purchased the two different kinds that were available. The first hurdle that I’ve bumped against was the ply itself was warped after it has been cut up into pieces. Thinner 3mm ply has differences in tension in the fibers between layers that makes it unsuitable for lazer cutting as the sheet needs to lay perfectly flat for the lazer to focus on specific distances. Bamboo ply sources were limited and I went with 5mm slabs that were perfectly straight made out of single solid layer of bamboo (as opposed to three layer with birch in the middle).

The best part is that the thickness added the right amount of boldness and weight to the overall feel of the badge, which we felt complimented the qualities of Swordy but it was also the only way to make it happen in the time given.

Surveying online and consulting other developers about giveaway volumes we decided to make 1.5 thousand units. Our limitation was cost potential shipping issues (we needed to take close to 5kg of wood worth of badges over to Australia) and the time it would take to manufacture. We decided that if eight people were playing at a time with ten minute rounds, over eight hours, across the three days of PAX that we’d give away 1150 badges – plus extras.

 

MANUFACTURING DIFFICULTIES

I had to source a lab that would cut 1500 for us for a reasonable cost. Luckily I found ADFW. Amazing physical model making architecture visualization house that let us use their cutter idle time for a reasonable price.

When you see 60 pieces it’s hard to imagine what 1500 would look like, you don’t realize just how much more that actually is in physical volume and weight.

Dealing with large volume manufacturing, the larger the volume, the larger margin of error and success / failure ratio called yield is. The final numbers were 1260 badges out of 3 big sheets of bamboo, 420 badges each. Not everything comes out perfect.

First issue is the material. Any sort of ply is a variety of fibers from different stock pressed and glued together. That variety means different density and hardness of some areas in the wood that isn’t at all consistent. This resulted in some considerably large chunks of wood weren’t cut all the way through and had to be separated manually afterwards.

Lazer cutting is a high temperature process. For us, a sheet would process over the course of roughly 2 hours (due to the nature of our design / layout for this specific job) and as the lazer head goes through the engraving / cutting process the temperatures at the start and end of the job are drastically different. This manifests itself quite obviously on the quality of the line and engraving. On one hand it worked out nicely for us yielding a decent variety of badges with different qualities to them but on the other hand if you were after precise identical product you would need to count that into your manufacturing process design.

Also due to heat and the epoxy (that’s used in the process of manufacturing ply) evaporates at high temperatures. A lot of that glue ends up coating the entire sheet as the lazer does its thing. All the badges were coated in it. It smelled bad and was sticky to the touch. I washed the whole lot manually rinsing everything multiple times before air drying to get rid of the residue. The whole separation / cleaning process took a day for the whole lot.

 

BADGE MAKING

One aspect of the badges we thoroughly considered was branding. Our design is cool but there’s nothing there that identifies it as Frogshark or Swordy. How would people know after a few days which stand they picked the badges from and what game it’s from? We wanted the merchandise to somehow direct people to the game too. We decided to put our twitter and Swordy website on the backs of every badge.
The cheapest way I could figure to do that was to order a custom self inking stamp that I would use before gluing the pins as opposed to doing a double-sided lazer cut or ordering expensive heat branding iron. While not the best solution (it bleeds and smears from moisture) it was the cheapest.

We bought 1700 pins from a local wholesaler, essentially bleeding their stock dry for that particular pin. I wasn’t sure what glue would be best, I wasn’t going to risk the pins falling off under stress (normal use of clothing, bags etc rubbing against folds and catching on things) so I bought polyurethane glue variety made for woodwork, metal, concrete and ceramic.

The stamping / gluing process took me 7 hours straight for the whole lot. This is the point at which I was so happy I made that hex frame from the first test run, because I used it as a jig of sorts. It helped me stamp and glue lots of 61 badges at a time without them moving all over the place, then helped me move them once I was done with the lot. It saved me a massive amount of time.

 

BONUS: SWORDY SHIRTS

As part of our “presentation” we also wanted to get Swordy tee shirts done. It’s rather easy to learn how expensive things get. A single custom plain color (black or white) double-sided shirt would cost roughly $30 to order with shitty digital print and double that for colorful fabric and screen printing.
I took it upon myself to make Swordy shirts done as well. Luckily AUT has a printmaking lab which I was able to use. It was my first time doing screen printing and I learned a lot about the process. It cost roughly $8 a shirt to print double-sided with colored fabric with amazing screen print quality.

 

SUMMARY

Wood feels nice to the touch handling crafted wooden articles just feels good. People loved the badges. It got us a lot of attention and we used them as rewards for people who played Swordy but also as a way to lure people in from the crowd.

For some the prospect of building hands on DIY style is not an exciting one. It’s a lot of work and time that “could be spent making the game”. For me it is a craft. It is as much “making the game” as doing code or putting new textures and sounds in. Of course it was only made possible because Danny and Hamish were taking care of the PAX build while I worked on the merchandise.

It is just as much about saving money as much as accepting a challenge, overcoming new things and learning something drastically different in the process.

It was quite a feat to pull of in the time frame and budget that we had. All the badges cost us roughly the same as getting someone to make us the cheap round stamped ones would.
We were in a good position that I am doing a masters degree at AUT and have access to a lot of the facilities we normally wouldn’t have, which saved a lot of cost and time in the prototyping stage.

It was worth it.