Yesterday, the Indie Megabooth announced it would be on temporary hiatus due to the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 -- which have essentially cancelled all in-person games industry events for the foreseeable future.
The announcement arrives what feels like an eternity after I spoke with IMB founder Kelly Wallick at PAX East about the organization's past, present, and -- at the time -- optimistic future. It's only been about six weeks.
When we spoke at the booth on the penultimate day of PAX East, we had only just received the news that GDC was being postponed. Though the atmosphere at the show was somewhat anxious, Wallick at the time was nonetheless full of hopeful energy -- likely bolstered by her pride in what IMB has accomplished over the last near-decade.
Wallick founded the booth at PAX East in 2012, at the time with no expectation of the eventual scale of what it would become. She tells me the idea was a bit of a whim while she was still working as a chemist and volunteering with Firehouse Games.
"There were a lot of console launches around that time, and a lot of things changing with digital distribution too, so it was like this perfect storm"
She had been to PAX West the year prior, where all the indies had recently been relegated to the sixth floor, and had heard complaints about a disappointing experience. No one had known to come up to the sixth floor, so a lot of work and effort on the part of the small teams had resulted in very little foot traffic.
At the suggestion of a colleague, Wallick took the initiative to buy up a big section of the show floor, and then wrangled a group of 16 indie titles to occupy a space where they would be noticed -- and they were noticed. The feedback was positive. Word spread. The second year saw 32 games in the booth, and it kept growing, eventually becoming more work than Wallick's day job. So she quit, and founded IMB as a company full-time in 2013.
"I had always wanted to start and run a company," she says. "I was looking to start a biotech company when I was on the chemistry side of things... I didn't know about this at the time, but this was right before indies began to really take off, and there were a lot of console launches around that time too. There were a lot of things changing with digital distribution too, so it was like this perfect storm, and the situation filled a niche I didn't understand was there in the industry at the time.
"Also, people were approaching us about sponsorship. And at the time I was like, 'I don't know how to take your money, I only have my own bank account, I don't understand how this works.' But it got me thinking that this was something I could do as a full-time job. It's been seven or eight years since then, nine and a half years since I started organizing the first one, and we're still here."
At PAX East 2020, there were 57 games in the Megabooth proper, and 79 games across 78 teams with the Minibooth included. That growth requires a team of people, the size of which varies between six and 12 depending on the time of year and what events are going on, with two primarily full-time (including Wallick) and others contracted for varying hours.
But the IMB community is far larger than just the employees and the indies who happen to be in the booth that year. Wallick tells me that IMB maintains an active mailing list with its alumni alongside various other community initiatives throughout the year, all with the goal of putting together a support network for the teams, old and new, that join the IMB.
And that support network is there from the very start, beginning when developers submit their games at the biannual open call for consideration in the Megabooth at either PAX East, GDC, or PAX West. Developers submit builds, information about their studios, and their plans for launch. Then, between 30 and 40 judges -- all game developers -- go through the submissions. The judges, Wallick says, have a discussion about every single game submitted.
"We'll have larger companies all the way down to someone's very first game that they're putting in the Minibooth at the first time they've ever been to PAX"
Aside from looking at the quality of the games themselves, she says the judges are also looking for a diversity of content -- "we don't want 50 action games" -- as well as a diversity of creators. They also look at the presentation, to see if the team would be a good fit for the overall experience of the Megabooth.
"What do we think they're going to do with the booth? How well did they present their materials to us? When you do something like this, you're essentially pitching to fans. So if you're having a hard time talking about your game or you're not sure how to present it, that'll be harder."
Beyond just looking at whether a game and a team are a good fit for the Megabooth, Wallick says they are also considering whether or not the teams match well with one of the grant programs attached to IMB. Companies like Oculus and Epic can support developers for the booth with fewer resources, and there's also an alumni fund where previous IMB participants can donate to sponsor newcomers with, she adds, a focus on diverse and marginalized creators. Wallick tells me it's raised somewhere around $20,000 to $30,000 in the past few years.
"Are they in need of some mentorship? Are they new? Are they coming from a country where we haven't seen a lot of games coming in before, and could they benefit from being mentored by the rest of the community and people with more experience? We'll have larger games with larger companies each year, all the way down to someone's very first game that they're putting in the Minibooth at the first time they've ever been to PAX, or America, or Boston."
Once they're at the show, IMB helps facilitate walkthroughs of the space for publishers and investors, offering a pre-curated selection of indies for those looking to add new games to a platform.
"For many of these teams, they might not have experience doing business development, or they might not feel comfortable going into a social situation or a show like this, or just cold emailing someone from a really big platform or publisher," Wallick says. "So we facilitate all that happening in an easy, low-barrier-to-entry way so it can be accessible to people from all kinds of places, to help them be socially comfortable.
"Someone might show a game in the Minibooth, then someone from Microsoft might come by, and then they're on ID@Xbox. That can really make or break a situation for someone. We're not the only way that happens, but we try to facilitate as many of these opportunities as possible for as diverse a group as possible."
The Minibooth, though smaller in both size and title, is yet another example of the varied ways IMB is trying to support smaller creators who might not have the means to attend a show like PAX. IMB provides the kiosks, signs, booth space, equipment, and marketing, and the developer just has to show up with a build of the game and decorations, if they want them. And they're only there for two days, with the showcase switching to an entirely different set of teams and games halfway through each show.
"Some people, like Lucas Pope, will only show his games in the Minibooth and people come yell at me: 'Why did you put Lucas Pope in the Minibooth?'" Wallick says. "Well, he likes it, because it's not a lot of work for the teams. It's easier for teams, and they only show for half the show, so it keeps the cost down and gives them a chance to check out the rest of the show and have meetings."
Wallick is candid about the challenges in managing such a large-scale operation multiple times a year. For one, IMB is self-funded, and is primarily supported by partner sponsorships.
"We're all humans, we're not machines. As much as we'd like to keep going without sleeping or drinking water, we all need that"
"That's great," Wallick says, "but it means that every six months or so we're having to go back and renegotiate the agreements. These are all small teams we're working with, so having access to a lot of resources and budgets is a challenge."
Furthermore, three massive shows a year and tons of satellite events, community building, networking, and everything else in between is a lot of work for a small team, even a flexible one.
"We're not really a startup anymore," Wallick says. "We're out of that phase, but events work is really emotionally intense. I think in games in general, everyone needs to be really careful of burnout and crunch and the 'always on' culture and very reactionary things. It's like we're planning and running a wedding every couple of months.
"And for some people this is really important and exciting for them and there's a lot of emotional tension and anxiety and fear and excitement. When people come to events like this, it can be invigorating and intoxicating, but also exhausting and overwhelming -- burnout is a really big struggle. And everyone's so passionate and cares so much about the community, it's easy to want to keep giving and giving and giving, so having boundaries around that and being clear about those, taking time off for self-care, and encouraging the teams to do that and model what we want that to look like [is really important].
"We're all humans, we're not machines. As much as we'd like to keep going without sleeping or drinking water, we all need that."
Having run the IMB for nearly a decade, Wallick has been well positioned to watch the trends in the indie space change with the industry's continued growth. At that first PAX East, she says the IMB was effectively the main go-to option for indies who wanted some visibility and attachment to something bigger. Now, she says, there are lots of other indie initiatives like the IMB. But, she adds, it's not a competition.
"When we were first starting, I was just, 'I wonder how many indie developers there are around here?' The world felt bigger, in a way. Obviously the internet was around, but there's been so much revolution with how we communicate, digital distribution, access to tools like Unreal and Unity and Twine all coming up at the same time. Before us, there was the PAX 10 and some other little indie things, but we were kind of the indie area. And now that this is here and grown up and stuck around, people want to be situated physically near our space. We all help co-promote each other.
"It's a little hard for me, because I've been heads-down in the Megabooth for so long, when I talk to people about the influence it's had on their lives and career and games and how they feel it has had an influence on the industry as well. We've worked with over 800 companies in that time, and we've showcased almost 1,000 games, and we have a really active network of hundreds of developers representing, I think, 68 countries."
"My hope is that we can return and continue to support the indie games community we love so much"
After the IMB shared its announcement on the organization's hiatus yesterday, I reached out for more detail. Though Wallick's statement specified it was a sunsetting "for the duration of the pandemic," the tone was that of a bittersweet farewell letter. And given what Wallick had said at PAX about the organization's financial situation, I wanted to know how likely it was IMB would eventually return.
"It's unclear to us how long it may be until large scale, consumer-facing events are able to take place again with guaranteed regularity," Wallick replied over email. "Although we support indie developers in many ways outside of events, our primary source of income comes from sponsorships during events.
"The events industry has been hit incredibly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery in that sector could be a long time coming. We're a very small team and we operate mostly on a break-even scale so, like many small businesses whose work relies on in-person gatherings and social connections, our future is very uncertain right now.
"I don't want to close the doors on the future because I don't know what it holds -- and my hope is that we can return and continue to support the indie games community we love so much -- but I want to fully acknowledge the reality of the situation we find ourselves in and the impact it's having on IMB."
Wallick's decision is clearly required by everything that's happened since we spoke at PAX East. But six weeks ago, before the reality of COVID-19 had really sunk in for most of us, it was a far more convenient time to hear about her aspirations for the booth's long-term future. It's been around for nearly a decade -- give it another decade, and Wallick wants to do a lot more. In a perfect world, she says, she would eventually hire more people full-time, launch educational content for developers, find more funding opportunities to support smaller teams, and invest in initiatives to lift up studios led by women, people of color, and other marginalized individuals.
"We have an opportunity to influence hundreds of companies. We get in front of thousands of fans of video games"
Above all else, Wallick sees the IMB as having a responsibility to push for industry and social change by virtue of its capacity to uplift positive and diverse voices, often where those voices first enter the community.
"I really do think it's important that we all commit to positive impact and really advocate to larger companies about how important these things are," she says. "Being able to be financially sustainable, not committing exploitative work practices, and not creating situations where we're fantasizing about this life of just scraping by and living on ramen and sacrificing yourself financially, emotionally, and physical for your art.
"I really feel passionately about getting more diversity of creators into games and technology in general. I see this as a stepping stone to getting more people involved in making technology, because that affects how politics works, and how the world works, and all of these bigger global issues. We need more, different types of perspectives and more types of people in there. The world is getting smaller and we're all making connections we never did before. And if the same types of people are always shaping these things and making all these decisions, it's going to leave a lot of people by the wayside.
"I would love to have the grandiose idea that the Megabooth is having some kind of gigantic global effect, but I do really think all politics is local. All changes have to happen on small scales to facilitate larger things. We have an opportunity to influence hundreds of companies. We get in front of thousands of fans of video games. We have a louder megaphone than most people ever have access to, and I think it's an obligation for us to do the right thing as much as possible."
Disclosure: GamesIndustry.biz is a subsidiary of ReedPop, which owns and operates PAX East and West.