Meet the people, problems, motivations and games behind this year's PAX East Indie Megabooth.
Kelly Wallick can't stand still.
She's hurtling left and right, forward and backwards. She's racing down aisles. She's putting up signs. She's building stuff in one place, and telling others to build stuff in another. She's saying hello to old friends and to people she's never met before. She's making small talk and big talk. She's on the move, scooting around forklifts and cardboard and monitors and people. She's nervous but excited; she has a tentative confidence. But this is what she anticipated, and now she's putting everything in its right place. She's home.
It's the afternoon before PAX East 2013 in Boston, Mass., and Wallick is standing at the heart of her baby. She has been at the head of a six-month-long project, one with the potential to better the lives of hundreds of people. Along with a dedicated group of veteran game developers, inexperienced game developers, PR people, post-grads, community managers, foreigners, people with beards, nerds, spouses, siblings, geniuses and enthusiasts, Wallick has spent months losing sleep and working through the night to make sure this project succeeds, even though she's not entirely sure what that success would entail.
Tomorrow, everything will be complete. And then it will be time to unveil this year's Indie Megabooth to the world.
Human Angle: Megabooth
Kelly Wallick is "Overlord" of the Indie Megabooth, which has been a featured destination at the last three Penny Arcade Expo conventions. Indie Megabooth combines the forces of an ever-growing stable of independent game developers, allowing them to show their games, attract massive crowds and spread the word about the growing indie games movement. Its most recent iteration measured in at more than 5,400 square feet of space — making it the single largest area of the show. Bigger than any of the major game publishers.
Last month's Indie Megabooth herded together 50 separate independent studios and at least 62 games. It wasn’t so much a "booth" as it was one impossible-to-miss entity emerging from the expo hall’s concrete. You could get lost in it. More than a few did, over the course of the event.
The booth was split into separate yet nearby slices for each developer, which was then free to do whatever it wanted with the space. Keeping with the traditional indie spirit (and bank account), these booths-within-a-booth were often barebones. Everyone got a slice of the Megabooth’s red carpet (literally). Sometimes there’d be a few DIY bells and whistles, too — a simple banner displaying a studio name or game, a drawing on a whiteboard, a few pins or posters for fans to take, maybe some beanbag chairs here and there.
But for the most part, this Megabooth was about staying real. It was intimate. The keyboards, computers, TVs, headphones and other equipment were generally cheap. The tables would wobble if you leaned too hard on them. Nobody had any special lighting setups. There were no strobe lights. No announcers. No statues. No bullshit. Just games and the people who made them, there for the audience to discover.
The Megabooth brings parity. It's the kind of place where buzzmakers like Mark of the Ninja masterminds Klei sit next to bedroom studios like Rack N Ruin makers LifeSpark Entertainment, or where the guys behind recent smashes like Ridiculous Fishing stand a couple feet from the guys behind recently Kickstarted hopefuls like Delver's Drop. These studios arrived in Boston with different shapes, sizes, walks of life and levels of experience, but they all agreed to represent the Megabooth brand for at least one weekend.
Rami Ismail from Vlambeer, developer of Ridiculous Fishing
The games are the lifeblood of the Megabooth experience, as they should be. But the Megabooth is made up of the fruits of many more mundane labors. That's why 30 "Indie Mega Squad" volunteers serve the indie exhibitors at no cost over the course of the weekend.
About 1,000 maps are printed out to help PAX attendees navigate their way around the space.
Dozens of boxes full of monitors, keyboards, mice, controllers and other such equipment are brought in, even after sponsorships to help offset costs fell through just a couple weeks before the show began.
Forms to pay for electricity and internet are filled out. Same goes for carpet.
Food and drinks are ordered in advance to nourish hundreds of people.
Parties are planned to keep all these tiring folks sane.
Mailing lists are updated to include and inform all the participants of the show.
Bargained payment rates are negotiated to ensure that the modest developers aren't being slammed too much beyond their means.
Developers' press kits are collected, and then the press itself is contacted and addressed.
Banners are designed and printed for the sides of the space, while the Megabooth's first hanging sign above the show floor is created and lifted too. It costs more than $3,000 on its own.
Wallick oversees all of this.
Not everything goes as smoothly as hoped.
An act of mercy
Wallick is in charge of everything Megabooth now, but she didn't come up with the concept. That honor goes to Eitan Glinert, head of Boston-based developer Fire Hose Games and Wallick's boyfriend. He found the inspiration to band PAX's indies together at PAX Prime 2011, where Fire Hose and a large grouping of other small studios were cooped up on the sixth floor of Seattle's Washington State Convention Center. That was two floors above where the majority of the show's happenings took place. The little guys were lost in no man's land.
In what felt like an act of mercy to a few of those studios, the organizers of that year's show put Minecraft makers Mojang up on the floor alongside them. That brought the expected amount of spillover traffic, but Glinert couldn't help but feel like the talent beside him was being scuttled into obscurity. So he took action.
"It was fun," Glinert says of his time on the upper levels of Prime, "but it was just very different being on the fourth floor or the fifth floor. You could really tell how different it was. So I didn't really like it. I wanted more mainstream gamers. I wanted to see who else we could get in the booth, and so I started thinking, 'Well, what if there was a way that we could get on the fourth floor?'
"And I spoke to a lot of other indie developers, and said, 'Hey, would you guys want to band together and get one giant booth together?' A bunch of them said yes, so we got a lot of people together and we got a really big space for PAX East ."
This was simple logic for a simple idea. The smaller devs were drowning on their own at PAX — Glinert says that previous locations like the "Indie Alley" weren't doing much for most indie studios at the time — so they decided to work together by pooling their money, resources and attitude. Many of these devs were friendly with one another, so there was hardly any infighting — just a mutual desire to make things better for their creative community. It made sense, so they did it.
Glinert pitched his plan to Penny Arcade in September of 2011, and says that it was met with virtually no resistance. He notes that both PA and Reed Exhibitions, the company that organizes PAX, were "very supportive" of the effort, effectively encouraging him to help shine a brighter light on indie gaming during the show.
Penny Arcade President Robert Khoo similarly claims that his company was on board with Glinert's Megabooth pitch while downplaying PA's own involvement in the booth's creation.
"We don't deserve any credit for the Indie Megabooth," Khoo says. "[Glinert] approached us in the fall of 2011 pitching the idea, asking us if we were cool with it. We thought it was an awesome concept, and worked with him on making sure everything was kosher regarding booth sizes, fire code, etc."
All sides involved in these negotiations may have supported the Megabooth's initial vision, but that didn't necessarily guarantee its success once it came time for the big show. For Khoo, though, there's virtually no downside to assisting indies in this way.
"What's not to love?" Khoo says about the indie scene. "You have independent creators taking risks to make what they believe in. You've got an ecosystem of developers that are as much comrades as competitors. You have a community that's 100 percent in support of the little guys. It's been great to watch and help in whatever way we can."
So there were a lot of good vibes being thrown around, which all turned out to be justified after the first two Megabooth installments went well. The PAX East 2012 iteration sported 16 devs over 2,000 square feet of space, and featured such buzzworthy titles like Antichamber, Retro/Grade, Monaco and Super Time Force, among others. Fans, press and developers alike showed more interest than they had before. It was enough of a hit to make even more developers want to fly the indie flag at PAX Prime 2012, where 30 games filled up 4,200 square feet.
Everything was clicking, so bringing the booth back again for PAX East 2013 was a no-brainer. It was time to assemble.
Almost everyone involved in the behind-the-scenes construction of the latest Indie Megabooth already had deep ties to indie gaming in some way.
Glinert and Dejobaan Games President Ichiro Lambe served as senior advisors to the whole process. Fire Hose PR man and former Harmonix community manager Sean Baptiste headed up press outreach alongside Vlambeer Co-head Rami Ismail and Young Horses President Phil Tibitoski.
Pixelscopic Vision Director Ryan Baker designed the booth's T-shirts, signs and maps. That same developer's Ryan Burrell helped create the booth's website along with Adriel Calder, a software developer at tech consulting firm Infrared5 who previously worked with Fire Hose.
Blue Manchu Games and Owlchemy Labs Community Manager Eric Chon and former Harmonix dev Maria O'Brien led volunteer organizations. Sometimes-indie game maker Miellyn Barrows created the booth's two official trailers with her husband and co-worker Shaun. Former Queasy Games graphic artist Cory Schmitz created the logo.
These people and others have collectively had their hands and heads in games for years. Some of them are veterans and visionaries looking to give back to the community however they can; others are rookies and hopefuls looking to pick up a few new skills for future success. The majority of them have jobs outside of their gaming endeavors, forcing them to handle their duties in their free time.
But they don't mind. As Calder once told me, these are the kinds of people who feel compelled to do the things they're most passionate about, even if they can only do them on nights and weekends.
None of them are in it for the money or fame, if only because there's zero of it to go around. They just love video games. They want more creators to more easily bring more experiences to more people. And if that means staring at a computer monitor with bloodshot eyes every night for a few days, weeks or months, so be it.
Do something dramatic
At the top of this smattering is Wallick. She is tasked with making sure all these developers and all these volunteers and all these tasks and all these best laid plans don't all go to hell over the course of many months.
Actually, "tasked" might not be the best word. Wallick's standing at the top of the Megabooth food chain is a deliberate and considered decision. It is also one far removed from the decisions she used to make.
Three years ago, Walick attended PAX East 2010 as a fan. She went with her younger sister, the aforementioned Calder, looking for a way to get her foot into the game industry's door by searching for startups and other potential opportunities. Neither of them knew much of anyone or anything involved with the behind-the-scenes processes of making these things.
For almost a decade before that, Wallick worked in the sciences. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in chemistry and quickly settled into a career that bounced her from job to job and place to place. She first worked as a chemist at a company based at the school.
"We embedded silver nanoparticles into fabrics to make them antimicrobial," Wallick says of the gig. "So, like, if you sweat into a pair of socks, it releases ions, which can kill bacteria." This wasn't games.
That company got its funding cut, which, combined with the mostly "boring" and analytical style of her job, led her to consider moving out of the country and restarting things.
"Around that time I freaked out," Wallick says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I was going to move to France or something, I don't know ... I was going to do something dramatic. And then I said, 'If I can get a job at MIT, I'll go to MIT.' I'll go to grad school there and that'll fix my life. But if not, I'm out. I'm going move across the world and forget it all."
So she got a job at MIT. She moved to Boston and got a gig as a technical assistant that saw her manage an undergrad lab and its dozens of staff members. Then that literally blew up.
Wallick quickly rebounded and found herself expanding her management and scientific talents at another biofuel startup company. She lead research projects, oversaw more labs and staff, and even helped develop OSHA compliance and other safety regulations for the company.
"I built a lab for them. I'm on patents and stuff," she says.
But Wallick didn't have an advanced degree at the time, which held her back from moving too far up the ladder. More importantly, the passion for her career continued to be mismatched from the intelligence she displayed within it. "I didn't know what I was doing," she says again. "I didn't know if I liked the sciences anymore."
Ascent of the overlord
Meanwhile, Wallick's sister Calder was building weather satellites, but wanted more. Calder wanted to make games, and her passion was infectious. Wallick caught the bug. The two sisters dove into the always-busy Boston indie scene from there, going to local postmortems, meetups and events like PAX. In a stroke of chance, Calder eventually got in with Glinert and Fire Hose to do some beta testing and other assorted work. She introduced Wallick to Glinert at a playtest of Fire Hose's 2011 PSN game Slam Bolt Scrappers, the two hit it off and, well, they're still very close today.
Wallick, and later Calder, began to work at Infrared5, Wallick as project manager. Those management skills had been fostered for many years, but even still Wallick says that it was a transitional process. "The management style is very different," she notes. "The people are very different. No one's going to die if you do it wrong, which is nice."
As Wallick was growing into her new role, Glinert was coming up with the idea of the Megabooth. That became a reality, and for the first few months, Glinert and Wallick ran the operations together. Glinert cultivated the resources and connections necessary to make the Megabooth a thing, but his duties with Fire Hose prevented him from steering the ship.
"We started joking about it, and then we talked a bit more about it because I liked the idea so much," Wallick says about her and Glinert's initial Megabooth discussions. "The difference in traffic was really obvious, and I would've hated to see this idea die for lack of time.
"I was trying to figure out what my role in the industry could be or learn more about it. So I thought, 'Well, this is a great opportunity for me, and a great opportunity for the people that would be in it to get the traffic they would want, if we could make it work.'"
They made it work, and then they made it work again at PAX Prime a few months later. The Megabooth established itself as a now-expected feature at future PAXs, and Wallick became the "Overlord." She’s stayed in charge ever since.
"It's come very, very far for me over the last two or three years," Wallick says of her career change. "My life is just a total 180 from what it used to be."
Wallick will usually joke that the "Overlord" title is something of a misnomer, given her friendly and open stance towards developers' and volunteers' suggestions, but the Indie Megabooth was so popular amongst both established and prospective indies going into PAX East 2013 that it couldn't do anything other than expand.
This meant that Wallick had to put her foot down a little harder, focus a little more on higher-concept issues of what the Megabooth should represent and spend a little more time than before putting the whole thing together. It also meant that she had to put more trust into her team of indie task-completers, largely letting them handle the smaller, tangential things while still keeping everyone from killing themselves with work. In short: she had to manage.
"There's really not much that goes on that I'm not involved in in some capacity," she says about the current state of her position. "But there's a lot of things I like to be hands-off with, and that's part of the management style for me.
"Everyone is pretty competent in their work, but now I'm starting to … not revert back to being involved more, but I'm trying to more careful about how we present ourselves, and how we want to grow as a brand, and what kind of people we want to be working with, and what kind of things we want to do and present ourselves with."
Lucky for her, the people that made this Megabooth go round are good at what they do.
The process of building PAX East 2013's Indie Megabooth began about a month after PAX Prime 2012 ended. Reed and Penny Arcade sent the Megabooth an email asking it to reserve space for PAX East, and from there a series of negotiations took place concerning booth size, location and what the payments for all that space would be. Wallick and the booth eventually settled on 5,400 square feet of space, but instead of buying it as one, they bought it in nine 600-sqare-foot fragments to help lighten the financial load on the indies themselves.
Phil Tibitoski from Young Horses, developer of Octodad
Shortly after this, Wallick and company began to decide on who exactly would be able to exhibit as part of the Megabooth. Companies like Vlambeer, Young Horses, Pixelscopic, Dejobaan and Fire Hose, all of which contributed [to] the booth's creation, had an obvious fast pass to a space. Similarly, most developers who had worked well with the Megabooth before — like, say, Quadrilateral Cowboy makers Blendo Games or Charlie Murder scribes Ska Studios — were easier to count on and mostly got through without a hitch.
But with a bigger profile came greater attention from more indie hopefuls, and thus the Megabooth had to turn down a handful of its 70 or so initial "applicants." That term is used loosely, by the way, because there was still no formal or public application process — though Wallick says this is going to change for PAX Prime 2013, since it took too long to handle the big number of interested devs, some of whom were trying to get space without really having anything to show.
Those that did get in largely relied on word of mouth and their connections with other devs to get in touch with or get contacted by the booth's powers that be (read: Wallick). They then had to commit to having some sort of demo, trailer or any other sort of sufficient feature ready to be displayed come PAX time. They also had to reasonably ensure that they could contribute the money needed to have a space in the first place, since the Megabooth is still a volunteer-run organization and can’t cover much of the costs.
After these initial negotiations were completed, there was about a month-long lull in the creation process. Then the race to the finish began.
Punk and disco
The last couple of months leading up to March's show were stuffed with meetings between the Megabooth's "board members." Most of them were held over Skype calls.
These get-togethers almost always featured an unnaturally high level of enthusiasm, optimism and looseness. The participants joked, they laughed, they made small talk and poked fun at the world like anyone else does. It almost felt out of place given that these people were making decisions that could have long-term ramifications for the indie game scene.
But again, that relative calm was deliberate, as Wallick spaces out meetings, puts people face-to-face and assigns tasks in a way to alleviate as much stress from the team as she can.
"There's a very specific reason why it's sort of all 'rainbows and kittens' and all these other things," she says about the general tone of the meetings. "I work very, very hard to put a lot of 'rainbows and kittens' into this."
A few of these get-togethers were about press outreach, and saw the group decide how they were going to blitz the media for coverage. There, they name-dropped game journalists, tried to get every developer their share of attention and debated how to leverage the public’s perception of them to their advantage. Nobody said indies couldn't be shrewd. They try to avoid, in Glinert’s words, death by obscurity.
Ultimately, they decided to make the Megabooth about the games. They posit it as the premier hotspot for anyone looking to find the next Antichamber or Skulls of the Shogun. They want it to be a welcoming digital underground.
They also choose not to be too aggressive towards their AAA counterparts, instead stressing the idea that there’ll always be room for games of all kinds.
"I don't see any rivalry necessarily," says Tibitoski on the indie–AAA relationship. "We do things differently, but I also think we cater to different audiences. I think one difference with us is that we're are all aware that we have different audiences or different players or that we can share players with one another and that we're not necessarily in competition with one another, being independent. We're just all trying to make the best games we can."
Every aspect of the Megabooth has to be planned out ahead of time and managed appropriately, from a series of Costco runs for extraneous supplies to a series of interviews with a games writer from Polygon. The Megabooth went public on March 11. Baptiste and Tibitoski worked throughout the night and into the morning and sent the booth's official press release to various outlets one by one. It didn't get picked up by everyone right away, but it got the buzz ball rolling.
When it was over, Baptiste likened the team's vision of the Megabooth to
Once the word was out, Wallick and company spent the last week or so finalizing preparations for all the plans they had spent months making. When those were all set, it was time for the show.
I have a line, which blows my mind
Think of the Indie Megabooth like a pregnancy. After finding the right person (or in this case, people), forming a relationship with said person/people over shared interests, coming up with the idea to create something special together and working for many months to grow and nurture that special something, the ending is really the simplest part. With a baby, all you have to do is push. With the Megabooth, all the team had to do was execute.
They did. Almost every Megabooth dev reported having a positive experience, with the majority of them citing their relatively high traffic as the most obvious bonus.
"I have a line, which blows my mind," said Blendo Games' Brendon Chung.
The booth's expanded space and lack of visual cohesion came with its share of issues — some attendees didn’t realize when they were actually in the booth, for instance, and not every dev walked away a superstar. But the Megabooth mostly struck the difficult balance between being large-scale physically and staying small-scale mentally. Most everyone came together and did what they were supposed to do.
It's only been a little over a week, so it's too early to say where the connections these indies made over the course of the weekend will lead. But old fans showed up, new fans were made, the volunteers held their own, the press mostly provided enough coverage and the indie community once again united to benefit its whole. Nothing blew up, in other words.
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Where the Megabooth goes from here is still unclear. One thing Wallick has definitively stated, though, is that she doesn't want it to become its own convention. She feels that the understood juxtaposition between the Megabooth’s games and AAA games is what makes the whole idea work.
In her eyes, that provides a greater sense of discovery for players who get into indie gaming for the first time. It gives indies a prime location for those disillusioned with AAA titles; if someone gets bored with Dead Island Riptide, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is waiting right across the floor. And it probably won't have as long of a line either.
There are no definites, but the future of the Megabooth will continue to be one of expansion. That doesn't necessarily mean that the booth will physically get bigger, though, since organizing PAX East's booth was already a substantial time sink for everyone involved. A more involved curation process when selecting the booth's exhibitors is highly likely, since this thing isn’t losing steam.
Instead, Wallick wants the Megabooth to grow as a brand. That could mean an extension out to PAX Australia, most obviously, but some Megabooth devs say that it could also result in the Megabooth name being applied to indie collectives at non-PAX gaming shows like GDC, C2E2 and the like.
Other developers close to the Megabooth have mentioned the idea of creating a sort of Humble Bundle-esque platform with the brand, one that could take that spirit of "indie discovery" online by providing a place to recommend indie games, and potentially buy them as well.
For now, though, those are just a few possibilities. What the Megabooth does want to do is continue to provide increased traffic, press coverage, resources, networking opportunities, experience at big events and general assistance to as many indie developers it can. Wallick and company envision it becoming a sort of one-stop answer shop whenever indies may need a particular press contact or design tip or what have you. They wants the Megabooth to be a shelter.
But even still, Wallick says much of the Megabooth's current growing process is built on uncertainty.
"It's just a lot of figuring it out as we go and trying to see what the indie scene is and what are people's roles in it," she says, "and how do we do it, and how do we make it benefit everybody, and how do we make it benefit the fans, and how do we make this something that can help people.
"I really don't know what it could become. People like it and I like what I do, even though I'm not quite sure what I'm doing."
Standing in the ruins
Looked at one way, the Indie Megabooth's placement at PAX is like a representation of the current state of the gaming industry as a whole. You've got the bigger publishers still taking up the majority of the space, with their $50,000 booths and massive signs and pomp and pageantry.
But those folks are struggling. You can see it when a once giant studio like THQ folds. You can see it when the CEO of EA steps down because the people that make Madden can't reach their quarterly expectations. You can see it when Square Enix deems two games that each sold over three million copies to be economic failures.
"People ask me, 'When is the next video game crash going to happen?," Ismail says. "And I always kind of think, 'We're standing in the fucking ruins of it. Have you looked at what AAA gaming looks like at this point?'"
Most indies don’t exactly celebrate this. They love Halo and Devil May Cry and BioShock just as much as the next player. They don't want to see the whole of video games suffer. And they don't always consider themselves true competitors to big-money titles. Again, they believe that there's room for everybody at the gaming table.
But it’s created a greater opportunity. Now there's this movement bubbling underneath the surface, one that relies more on personality and risk than big budgets. Even if it's still unclear where it's headed, it's growing. And its people are passionate and earnest.
Wallick explains her overriding philosophy: "I have a lot of idealistic ideas and I'm not necessarily naïve; I just think people can be idealistic without being naïve.
"I think that's an important thing to impart on people, and if I can have a role in making that into a bigger community change or social change … that's what I want in general for people. The more people I can convince that that's a good idea and the more that gets into other things, the better it is for everyone else."
A little after 6 p.m. on the last day of PAX, Wallick brings every one of the Megabooth's volunteers and organizers together in one space for a group photo. They smile. And when the PA announcer declares, "Ladies and gentleman, the show floor is now closed," they roar. The deed is done.
In the next few days, Penny Arcade will send Wallick an email. Then it will be time to start this up all over again.