Cosplay Marketing – Maria Żeleźnik aka Atai Gemino – GAMEDEV INSIGHTS #7
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In this episode of Gamedev Insights, we sit down with a cosplay marketing expert and cosplayer Maria Żeleźnik, known in the cosplay world as Atai Gemino, to delve into the captivating realm where cosplay meets marketing. Hosted by 8Bit’s Senior Recruiter, Ljubica Garic, this discussion explores how Maria seamlessly blends her artistic passion with the practical aspects of business, offering a unique perspective on the role of cosplay in the gaming industry.
Ljubica Garic, Senior Recruiter at 8Bit
Hi everyone and welcome to Gamedev Insights, a place where we dive deep into the fascinating world of creatives and their inspiring journey in the games industry. Today we are diving into the vibrant universe of cosplay with a twist. Meet our guest Maria Żeleźnik or Atai Gemino, who is not just a cosplayer but a visionary who crafts bespoke cosplay team’s visuals for brands. Maria is fueled by her love for gaming, movies, and comics. Maria transforms everyday marketing into enthralling narratives, bridging brands with audiences in unforgettable ways. And today’s chat promises a fresh take on how passion meets profession. So let’s explore. Maria, thank you so much for joining us and it’s a pleasure to host you here.
Maria Żeleźnik aka Atai Gemino, Cosplay Marketing Expert
Thank you very much for the invitation. I’m really happy that I can be here and chat with you.
Before Cosplay Marketing was a thing – getting into cosplay community
Okay, awesome. So let’s start with sharing your story. Maria, what actually inspired you to get into cosplay?
The story is quite long and made of a few different steps. At the very beginning, when I was really small, the first step was the competitions of the preschoolers’ costumes in the carnival. Here in Poland, we don’t celebrate Halloween, so this was the only time in the whole year that you actually dress up in something very colorful, for your favorite character from the animation. But as I grew up, I also discovered games which were very colorful and immersive.
I felt like I’m the character. I played an RPG server of Lineage II and dived into it really deep. We were role-playing really long with my friends and that was such a great experience. And then you go from real life to the game, to be immersed – that was such a great experience that I thought, why stop here? Why can’t I bring the world from the game to real life? Of course, it’s not really possible. But how can I do it?
The answer to that question was when I went to a convention and I saw a girl dressed all in white. This was her original character, but she looked so refreshing and magical. I have this memory very vivid in my mind. It was the thing that really changed my perception of the world. Because what we can do, what is acceptable by society, is to dress normally. Every time you wear a vibrant color, you are like a magnet for the eyes. The more weird you dress up, the more eyes are looking at you, it’s not really accepted by many people. And in Poland, we don’t really have the culture of dressing up. So the only place you can see people dressed up is in the conventions.
When I saw the girl and I saw she was so beautiful, I wanted to be like her. Then on the other hand, there was this feeling: why can’t we have all those beautiful things that are in games? This merged and I think that this is how cosplay was made up. Because people really wanted to have all those beautiful things in the real world. Same goes for me. I also wanted to have those beautiful designs, those beautiful dresses, armors. I just wanted to feel a little bit closer to this fantasy world. Those worlds that are not real.
Awesome. And actually, what was your first cosplay? What was your first take on all of these beautiful dresses, the costumes, the armory, wigs?
Maria, Cosplay Marketing Expert
The costume that I wore at the beginning of my life in preschool was Nala from the Lion King. But I can’t call it cosplay because obviously I didn’t know that this is how it’s called in the community. I’m not quite sure IF there was a community back then.
The first cosplay that I wore was Rarity from My Little Pony at a Polish convention. I had a group of friends and I asked, is anybody willing to take your clothes from the wardrobe, just put on some cutie marks. Maybe you can even print them on your printer, from the paper. Just stick them somewhere in your costume. So everybody knows that you are the particular pony. My friends agreed. So we had six of us and we went to the convention. Lots of people recognized us and they said, wow, you are Rarity, you are Fluttershy, stuff like that. They were taking photos, discussing the show with us, the characters, how we made our costumes. It was very uplifting. It was very good for me and for my friends also because they were very happy with what was going on around us.
Tips for Cosplayers Attending Their First Convention
You were lucky to have a close group of friends, who shared the same passion, willing to go to a convention with you. But I was wondering, what is the cosplay community in Poland? And how can actually one become a part of it?
Right now it’s pretty easy. We have more and more people that are putting on clothes of the characters they really love. It’s really easy to find other cosplayers. You can go to the convention and just ask for their social media, for their tags and stuff like that. This is the first step. Go to the convention. Even if you don’t have your own costume, you can go to the person and just chat a little bit. It’s very easy.
I had my friends, but actually, no other girl from the group followed the cosplay hobby. They switched to other things. But it’s really good to have a close friend to accompany you at your first convention. It would be lovely if they dress up with you, like a duo. So you don’t feel stressed too much. Even if you are not ready to go to the convention right now, on Facebook there are lots of cosplay groups where you can ask for an advice of making a costume.
There are lots of YouTube channels where creators and cosplayers share their knowledge. And you can ask in the comments section about some details. This also connects you with other cosplayers. Those two ways are the first two things that came to my mind. How to connect, how to be in the community, in the cosplay community.
Awesome. I love that you have mentioned the fact that it would be good to have a friend with you, to support you, to help you with the process. As you said, when you are in costume, you are like a magnet. For others, to look at, to comment at, and it really can take a toll on a person to be in the center of attention. I actually wanted to ask you this as well, can you maybe share some other tips about how to properly prepare for an event? Putting it all up takes a lot of time, costumes are very heavy, very uncomfortable. Throughout the years, what are the tips and tricks you have learned?
What really works for you that could be helpful for others? Whenever I’m at the event, and I see cosplayers dragging their swords on the floors, dragging their feet, in really big, clunky costumes, I cannot help but wonder how they eat? How do they drink? How did they come here and how did they drag the costume here?
The first very valuable tip, whenever you have a big costume or even a smaller one: bring a friend with you. A friend, a fiance, a partner, whoever it is. You cannot really drink, eat, order stuff to eat, or go to the toilet without any help. Usually when you have bigger armor, you also need help to put it on. And to take it off. Another pair of hands would be very, very helpful. And it would be great if the person could stick with you all the time because of the reasons. Whenever you have something to carry on, sometimes you have gloves or fake nails, which are very, very long. You cannot really operate with your hands. Having another pair would be really great.
And it’s really, really crucial to drink water. Because of adrenaline people in costumes forget about that, but your body is body and it’s behaving very normally. If you dehydrate yourself, you just faint. Eating, but most importantly, drinking water is a very crucial thing. Especially if you have a huge armor, which is not breathing. It’s not your skin, it’s not breathing. Those two tips are crucial. The most important stuff.
Okay. So it’s all about having support and having water. Cool. Maria, you’ve been cosplaying for quite some time now and you mentioned your first cosplay was My Little Pony, you were printing out the stickers yourself.
Now of course you are making very elaborate, very complex costumes. Could you tell us more about how your approach to crafting the costumes has evolved over time?
Creating Your Own Cosplay Outfit
Yes. At the very beginning, I thought I’m an artist. I was making photos, I was drawing, so I considered myself as an artist. And I thought that it’s very easy to make a costume! So I don’t really need to prepare myself to learn new things because, what’s the big deal about using a sewing machine?
I was so wrong.
Were you a hot glue person?
Oh, so many times I burned myself. But at the beginning, I was just like, chill. It’s so easy. It looks so easy to make, that I will make it because, yeah, I’m an artist. It will take me like one month or even two weeks and I will make a full costume. And… it’s not so easy because I really badly wanted to do my favorite comic character, which is Rogue from X-Men.
And I actually made Rogue from X-Men cosplay once, but I made so many mistakes. I know that I will redo the whole costume. And I think that after 10 years of experience, I’m still not ready to make this particular one. I’m a little bit afraid of how the first version turned out. It was not so good as I expected because I thought that it’s so easy, but it wasn’t. So, yeah, I’m still waiting for the perfect timing.
Once I had this conversation with a cosplayer who was more experienced than me at the time. And I asked her about doing the character from League of Legends. It was Kayle, but the skin name is just, I can’t remember what it was. It’s the one with mechanical wings, gold wings, gold armor, and violet catsuit. I really wanted to make this one without knowing how to do the armor. I went straight to the more experienced cosplayer and said, how do I do this? She said “maybe this costume is a little bit too much for you. Start for something a little bit smaller with less amount of armor, just, you know, check how things are working, what tools are necessary for making the stuff”.
I thought, who is she to tell me such things? I’m an artist. But I did as she suggests and I planned to do looks from League of Legends. I thought it will be perfect. It will be so awesome. And then I will show her, look, I’m ready for Kayle.
I’ve made looks and she liked lots of things. Despite that, the costume was not so good. It taught me a lot of stuff. The one that is most crucial is, okay, I may be the artist, but I still lack lots of skills. I need to develop myself in so many fields to do cosplay. I started to develop things like crafting. But yeah, I was doing the leather armor from the leather crafting. I never touched crafting from the metal yet, but I have cosplay friends that are willing to show me how to do that. I have a dream to make a dagger from real metal with the covers with gold and silver. And all the shiny gems. Everything is ahead of me, I’m looking forward to that.
Cosplay Conventions: Behind the Scenes
And I also wanted to ask you, do you have like a costume repair emergency kit that you actually take to conventions?
Yes, I usually have. Cosplayers nowadays are really lucky because right now in conventions there are some cosplay aid places where you have sewing machine, hot glue guns and stuff like that. You can do lots of stuff, even make a costume from scratch. But of course, before they were so common, I had a little box where I carried some needles, a hot glue gun. You have to have that because you never know what will happen and it’s good to have in case of an emergency.
I really hope that you did not have to use that kit a lot. You have acquired a lot of skills, like sewing, working with different types of material, and what has actually been your most ambitious cosplay project up to date?
Raiment of the Lich from Guild Wars 2. This is leather armor. It’s quite revealing, but in other hand, it’s not so easy to make even though there is a lot of a free skin in that costume. I also have huge black wings. Wings and the leather armor were the skills that I tried to master. And it turned out really great!
Before doing the leather armor, I had a workshop with the leather master of Poland. He is very experienced and also selling stuff for the LARPs. I had one-on-one workshop with him, which by the way, I won on the costume competition. Then I made a prototype costume, which was actually another one. It was Red Sonja from DC comics. She has just a little bit of leather, mostly on the boots and mostly on the hips, lots of belts. This was the one that I could actually train a little bit, how the leather is functioning in my hands and what I can make from the leather by myself, not with the supervision of the leather master.
And then I was confident to make a huge version, the Raiment of the Lich from the Guild Wars 2. Yeah, this was quite a journey because I’m not quite sure how many years from the first workshop to the finished product for the finished costume. But hey, right now I know how to do the leather stuff. It was worth it.
And how much time does it usually take you to craft a costume?
It depends on the complexity. My personal record was only two days and it was Starfire from Teen Titans. Of course some of the costumes may take up to six months, it depends. Usually the time that I’m suggesting my customers is from three to six weeks. And usually I can deliver what they want, the costume that they want.
And how do you actually choose the character you will be cosplaying? Do you only pick some of your favorite characters, do you follow what’s trending, what’s popular? Some video games have a much stronger cosplay culture than others. What goes into deciding, hey, I’m going to spend at least three or six weeks of my life working with leather, working with needles, working with hot glue guns, to produce this?
When I’m making a costume for the client, I always go through the character lists and I check which one is most outstanding. Which you cannot really copy, which is not a copy of the character from another game because it’s all about standing out.
If the character has something which makes them a little bit unusual, for example, long white hair or a big belly. I also had this client with a game with a huge rhino. This is something that you don’t really see in games.
For the clients, my suggestion is to go with the costumes that are already outstanding, that are already not a copy of something that is already in the market, because it doesn’t make sense.
However for myself, I usually pick characters, which suit my vibe, which are a mix of strong female characters like Red Sonja, like Rogue, like, even Rarity. Also a little bit elegant, for example, Ari from League of Legends.
So I’ll go with elegant, showing a female side of myself. Like also Poison Ivy. Also it’s not always about the outfit that they are wearing, but also about the character itself. Are they having a strong opinion on something, are they visible, are they meaningful in their community, in their fictional community?
Of course, outfit is also very important because for example in League of Legends, you have lots of skins and you can choose from everything, and lots of different styles. It also matters. But if you combine those two and if those two are really having the vibe that I’m looking for, I’m going to make that costume.
Awesome, and have you ever had a chance to collaborate with other cosplayers, on costumes?
Yes. Of course, when you reach some, not quite sure if you want to call it popularity, but if you do a lot of work and if you are making lots of costumes, you basically cooperate with lots of photographers. I know lots of cosplay photographers. But of course, we also make some kind of groups or duos to make characters from the same universe.
For example, I was making White Queen, a costume from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. And my friend was doing Red Queen. White and Red Queen, we had this duo and we won the competition in Poland and then we went to ECG, European Cosplay Gathering in Paris to represent Poland together.
Those cooperations exist and they’re pretty exciting to make because you never know how the other person is doing. Is she doing great? Or if she or he has any issues. We communicate, exchange ideas, let’s make this or let’s make that. It can also be both challenging and exciting because you are not alone anymore. You have to communicate.
Cosplay Events Worth Attending
Awesome. So you mentioned going to ECG. What event did you visit that actually had the biggest impact on you, regarding your views on how to be a better cosplayer or maybe resulting in shifting your mindset and in some way when it comes to what you’re doing?
First of all, the convention that I mentioned earlier. When I first saw that girl, in costume and her own costume, this was the first shift. The second one was definitely at Pyrkon, which is like the biggest convention in Poland. And I was on a stage in a costume from Lineage II. Draconic Armor, which not only took me a lot of time to make, but it was let’s call it emotional luggage. I was all in that game, in Lineage II world. I have played this game so much, I have so many friends from that game, my best friends are from it, my fiance was playing Lineage II.
I was on a stage and I knew that in the audience were people playing that particular game with me, which was so exciting. I went on the stage, I did my skit. I went back backstage and I just sat and cried. Of excitement, of all the mixed feelings, of the stress. I was just shaking, but it was so fulfilling. Because I made one of my dreams come true. I took part of the game to this world and I could actually be my character. In this real world here, it was very exciting for me.
That sounds so heartwarming, honestly. Awesome. Throughout your career as a cosplayer and in cosplay marketing, you’ve made a lot of costumes. How do you decide when is the time to retire a costume? Do you ever retire a costume?
Well, actually it depends on the costume. I had some costume, I think at least two that I had just thrown away. I learned a lot doing them. And I learned a lot with them in terms of craft, but they were just no good. There was no point in rebuilding them. I just had to throw them away. Maybe, maybe somewhere in the future, I will just redo them.
But has it ever happened that you have outgrown a costume or simply fall out of love with the character?
I’m treating my costumes, even those really bad ones, like my little babies, who don’t need to eat or sleep, but I just have them in my basement. Maybe this is not a good comparison, but you know what I mean. I treat them like the artwork. They are with me. I just hope that they are not eaten by the rats in the basement.
Nevertheless, I will be moving out from the tiny apartments to the bigger house. I will be having a lot of space over there and I’m planning to make an exhibition of my costumes. Even if I have a costume that it’s not a good fit for me anymore, it will be displayed so I could just look at the journey that I made, from the really bad ones to the good ones. This is the plan.
Dos & Dont’s When Approaching Cosplayers
Awesome. I’m definitely looking, I’m looking forward to all the posts on social media that will be documenting your evolution as a cosplay costume maker.
Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that once you’re in a costume and once you’re at a conference, a lot of people feel free to approach you, to take photos with you, to interact with you. Could you maybe share some of the good practices and point out some bad practices that people have when they are interacting with somebody in cosplay? What is a proper way to approach you, to ask for a photo, what have been your experiences with this?
Thank you for asking about that. Actually, this is a crucial thing because, usually cosplayers that you meet at the conventions are just normal people. They are not hired by anyone. They are just, they’re enjoying their free time, but in costume. Nobody is paying for them to take photos with you and nobody is paying them to be nice to you because they are just normal people, but in costumes.
What you want to do is to interact as with normal people. Just go “Hey”, please don’t touch anybody, but approach from the front, and ask, “Can I make a photo? A photo of you or with you?”. 99% of cosplayers will agree, but please ask.
What not to do with making photos of a cosplayer is to make photos when they eat or drink or having the resting time, or they are just sitting half dead on the floor. Your photos will not be so good. This is the first thing. Just respect the free time. Ask when a person is planning to end and if they are willing to take a photo with you after they have their break.
So these two, and no touchy-touchy because those costumes are not real metal – usually. And, if you touch them, you might break them, which is sometimes so many hours put in the part of armor and the parts of the weapon and just touching can break it.
It’s all because you are just holding it improperly. Just to avoid that, don’t touch, or ask if you can touch it, hold it. But obviously don’t smash things. Just respect other people’s work.
Golden Rule: “Cosplay is Not Consent”
We have been witnessing that a lot of female cosplayers have been getting inappropriate comments, because of their costumes. Like you’ve mentioned that in your costumes, you’d like to show more of your feminine side, to portray these strong females, that we all look at as look role models, but they still keep in touch with their feminine side.
While you were discussing this etiquette of behaving with cosplayers and taking photos with them, you mentioned people expect you to always be nice. People expect you to always be smiling, and you mentioned “no touchy touchy”. I keep thinking about all of those situations, when people take photos with especially girls and they have the hovering hand or sometimes they touch you without you actually agreeing to that.
How do you actually deal with these types of comments, with these types of behaviors and what is your community doing to fight this sort of behavior?
Thank you for that question because it’s a really, really relevant one. It’s so relevant that the cosplay community made posters and stuff educating people that “cosplay is not consent”. This is like the theme of that. Cosplay is not consent, not only for making an inappropriate comments, not only for touching inappropriate places, but in general.
Please do not take photos because cosplay is not consent also for photos. Cosplay is not consent for touching your things. You have to remember that all the convention stuff, at least in Poland, developed from the small communities from the small groups of people that were knowing each other. It started to grow. Right now we don’t know all the people that are attending Gamescom, obviously because there are so many of them.
But back in the days, it was normal that you come to the convention, you know everybody, you make free hugs. And it’s just so cozy and it’s so cute, you know each other and you trust each other. Since it’s developed, we don’t really know each other, we should treat each other as the people on the street. You don’t go to the people on the street. You don’t take photos from hiding. And obviously you don’t grab people’s buttocks. It’s not okay to do.
We have this pretty long list of behaviors, but the subject is cosplay is not consent. It covers pretty much everything, what not to do, with a cosplay area. Just treat other people like decent humans and it will be all good.
From Cosplay to Cosplay Marketing
Thanks for sharing that. Let’s talk a bit about cosplay marketing as a business, because you actually managed to turn your passion for cosplay into a successful business. Could you tell us at what point did you realize, “Hey, I can make a living out of this, I am making something great that can be turned into a service”?
At one point, lots of cosplayers are going into social media. Mostly Instagram and TikTok, but back then it was Facebook for me. I enjoyed looking at the followers base growing, but in the end, it doesn’t really lead to anything. It was numbers. That was kind of depressing at some point.
But what I observed is that people are actually coming to me to look at my content, the photos. And it was like a switch in my brain. If the people come to me to check my content, why not sell the reach? I could actually go and say, look, people, I have this, this beautiful game with the beautiful characters that I’m dressed for, go play that game because it’s awesome.
And it’s not only about my community that I created through the years. Not only my fans, but I also made a pilot campaign for the plushie creator. I was dressed as my little plushie. I had a lovely character, and I was just advertising her plushies. The campaign resulted in increasing the number of visits in her store by five times. It was just like a green light for me – you are going in the right direction. Just try to adjust things and it will be maybe not another channel of marketing, but another way of marketing things.
I’m actually getting inquiries for the costumes of different games quite often right now. What is really funny, I learn about so many great games, that probably will never reach the popularity of the games like Baldur’s Gate, League of Legends or other Diablo, but they’re really good. To be the part of bringing those little indie game developers to another level, to make them reach more and more people, that would be an honor for me. I know that the game is good, that the graphics and the characters are great. And I just want to be part of the success story. I know that I can deliver that to the customer.
Best Social Media Platforms for Cosplayers
What platform has been working best for you? You mentioned Instagram and TikTok are the best platforms for cosplayers at the moment. Which one do you use? If somebody wanted to keep in touch with the content that you are creating and posting, where should they look at?
This is really good question because, right now, I paused just a little bit on my social media, from the cosplayer point of view, not from the marketer point of view.
I post on my Facebook. I made a post on Instagram, on Twitter, and on TikTok. I’m in the process of adjusting the communication to my fans. And I’m in the process of developing new ways of improving, reaching more and more people. I have a person who is consulting me, we are emailing back and forth and we are just like thinking of the new ways of doing that.
However, from the cosplay marketing point of view, I’m using LinkedIn, which is really good because I can reach not only game developers, but also game marketers. They actually know that you can use cosplay marketing, because not many people know that, that you don’t need to have a friend who is cosplaying or you don’t need to do the costume by yourself, you can actually hire a person who will do the costume for you. Who will prepare the marketing materials for you. Who will make photos and make all the stuff around it, including posting in social media, not only the social media that I have so many likes on, but also, portals like Reddit. There is a huge potential in Reddit.
This year I concentrated on LinkedIn, but probably, until the end of the year, I will get back to at least some of my other social media. So, follow me to be in touch, to be updated, and to see what you have actually in the making.
Cosplay vs Cosplay Marketing
For the actual end of our conversation, I wanted to ask you what is the most rewarding part of running a business in cosplay marketing, which is centered around your passion?
On the one hand it is rewarding and on the other hand, it’s not so good. You actually have to make the costumes all the time. Maybe not the costumes that you really want to do, because for example, there is no interest from some anime director or whoever is responsible for the marketing on their side to really hire me. I really want to make the costume.
It’s really hard to have time to make something from myself for myself nowadays. When I do a costume for myself, I have to be very, very quick because clock is ticking and I also have other projects.
Also, when I’m doing the costume for the client, I have to think about the purpose of the whole thing, because for example, when I have like, this helmet over here, it is a helmet of a robot. Usually I would make a whole robot costume, but client wanted only smart parts because they had little budget and wanted to make it as effective as possible. So I had to stop myself from doing the whole costume because they couldn’t afford that. And therefore I couldn’t afford my materials to do that. But even though I made a helmet, I made it only a half, and it’s not finished here. And for me as an artist, it’s not finished. I have to finish this but yeah, there are compromises.
You have the budget, you have the goals and the goal is not to make a full beautiful costume, but bring me more players. So yeah, I have to keep that in mind. And definitely this is something, which can be a little bit, maybe not disturbing, but not so easy for me to balance it out.
Maria, thank you so much for sharing your passion for cosplay and cosplay marketing with us. We are all very much, looking forward to the your future projects. Thank you again.
Thanks again for inviting me. Feel free to not only follow my social media (here’s Atai Gemino’s YouTube channel), but go visit my Atai Gemino website and check it out because there are lots of photos and you can check how many characters and which characters I made, maybe a character that you really like. Why don’t you put a comment if I made a character that you like? That would be awesome.
Or maybe we could also share, you know, which character we would like you to cosplay next!
Yeah, this is a very good idea. I will read all of them and and reply.
Awesome. Thank you again so much. Thank you for being our guest, Maria. See you.