Go around to developers at conferences around the industry and you'll hear a familiar refrain: There are too many games. There has been such a flood over the past couple years that worthy games are getting drowned out and ignored, and that goes double for small indie teams that don't have the budgets to keep pace with well-funded studios.
No one is more aware of this change in the gaming landscape than Indie Megabooth founder Kelly Wallick. Since launching the Indie Megabooth at PAX East 2012, she's watched as indie development has grown from a niche culture into something much more mainstream.
"[Two years ago] felt like the tip of the indie bubble," she told me at the Eurogamer Expo last month, where the Megabooth was showing its usual array of indie games. "We had 105 or 110 games. We were still letting people split booths or sneak in their friends. We didn't even really know who was in it half the time, and I started to get worried that it was going to be a discoverability issues in our own space. It had stopped being an issue of, 'Look how many indie games there are,' and instead became an issue of, 'Look how many interesting indie games there are in this scene at this moment.' That's when we started more tightly curating for content, the team, and the community building side of it."
Wallick's Indie Megabooth was a originally conceived as a way to give independently developed games mainstream exposure. But with Steam and other services now so thoroughly integrated into the ordinay gaming experience, indies are no longer a novelty. For that reason, the Indie Megabooth is no longer about evangelism, but curation. These days the Megabooth brings about 30 games to events comprising a broad swath of what's trending in the indie community.
Wallick is doing more than simply showing games, though. Behind the scenes she's working closely with developers to address the sort of nitty gritty details that developers don't always think of, like developing a sound business plan. She counts many of them as friends, and she's personally invested in their success. And in that, she has a big role to play.
You could say Wallick is one of those people who likes to take her work home with her. When she's not managing the Indie Megabooth, she's playing management sims like SimCity - games that allow her to channel some of her desire to be in charge.
"I played the first SimCity on PC and have played everyone since," she says. "I manage things in my job and manage things for fun. I try to channel those energies into my games rather than into my friends or family."
While Wallick has been playing games pretty much her entire life, though, her background is in the sciences. Before starting the Indie Megabooth, she was a chemist who at one time worked for MIT. She only got into the games industry when her sister decided that she wanted to make games. Wallick joined in on the management side, where she came into contact with Boston's large and vibrant indie development scene.
The impetus for the Indie Megabooth came with what Wallick perceived as a lack of attention given to indie games at major shows and events. In a lengthy series of posts on the site's webpage, Wallick described how the project worked initially: "When the Megabooth first started at PAX East 2012 we had to essentially recruit people to participate. It was untested and new so there was risk in even the concept. After the inaugural event the teams who participated were interested in running it again and were starting to tell their friends about it. For the next two to three shows it was fully referral based. If a company we worked with prior recommended a game or a team then it would in most cases be part of the next showcase. The submission was informal and privately distributed. Four years ago the climate was different and indie studios that were attending large consumer events were ahead of the game so to speak. Personal recommendations from these teams held a lot more weight and 99 percent of the time were also really cool games with great teams behind them."
As the Megabooth began to gain traction, though, it became clear that they had to introduce a slightly more formalized submission process. A Google form was introduced to collect information on submissions and establish a bar for quality, and Wallick pulled together a small group of friends to go through the games that were submitted. The process remained relatively loose, though. Even today, there are no specific questions or voting systems.
After two years, Wallick left her day job to focus on managing the Indie Megabooth full-time. In the meantime, the Megabooth grew from 16 companies in its first show, to 32 exhibitors, and then onward and upward until it became a fixture at events ranging from PAX to GDC to BitSummit to EGX. Wallick became a mainstay as well, buzzing from exhibit to exhibit meeting with developers and organizers. She's making an effort to cut back on her commitments as she builds the Megabooth's full-time staff, but she still averages a show month.
As time has passed, the Indie Megabooth's mission has progressively changed, as has the way that it's viewed by the press and other outlets. In the early going, Wallick says, it was a gold rush of sorts. The success of Minecraft pushed developers to make their own games in hopes of striking it rich, aided by the advent of tools like Unity and the rise of digital distribution platforms like Steam. "It got to a point where a lot of it is similar to how the music industry is too, because it's so oversaturated with people who want to be famous rock stars," Wallick says. "That's a cool thing to have in your life, sort of like winning the lottery. So I think there's that big rush for a little bit, but then people can't make their money back, and there's the shakeout over the next one or two shows or something like that."
At some point, that trend began to change a bit. "We started getting a lot more very simple, quiet, thoughtful games that were a little more like a thought experiments where they were testing one idea instead of being a free-to-play MMORPG with cards, and dice, and fireworks."
As the gold rush aspect has subsided, Wallick feels indie game development has gotten more nuanced. "There's obviously still all the stuff where there's 14 clones of whatever on the App Store, but I think the indie game scene as a whole has not totally recovered from it, but I'm definitely seeing the post-indie bubble games."
With the shift in philosophy has come a shift in the role of the Indie Megabooth. They still evangelize for developers and the community at large, but there's now a greater focus on curation, which is why they've dramatically cut the number of games that are shown at any given event. And in many respects, the Indie Megabooth's role continues to grow.