Fun fact: there were more than 80 games at the Indie Megabooth at PAX Prime this year in Seattle. It was, needless to say, monstrous. There were four full alleys of booths spanning at least 30 or 40 yards, along with a back wall of even more developers, tables, TVs, and fans.
The kicker is that not even all of them could fit in there at once. If you went only one day, you would have missed out on more than a handful of games that only took one of the other days. The rotating lineup was the only way to cram all of those peppy, scrappy little games in there.
Yet it still felt like a bewildering flea market. Instead of formal lines and appointments going through PR reps, attendees clamored around tables and foldout tables, shifting and shambling around impossibly cramped quarters. Had PAX went on any longer, bartering would have started soon after.
This is in stark contrast to just last year when you could still call the Megabooth an actual booth and not a Burning Man-esque roving city of small-time developers. Just one year ago and this was still a finely contained microcosm within an already diminutive subset of the entertainment industry (that is folks that go to video game shows).
Now we’re overflowing with indie games. Consumers don’t have the time to play every game that comes out already, but now that journalists don’t even have enough time to read every email that comes into their inbox about a new bite-sized product, the coverage has become an issue as well.
There was a time when I, even as an extremely inconsequential writer for a largely inconsequential website, could respond to every single email I got about previewing or reviewing another indie game. (Big retail games are somewhat covered by necessity since we’re not a strictly indie outlet.) I could tell them that yes, I would like to play this thing that they’ve been working on for the past year of their lives (it’s almost always an email straight from the devs) and that I would love to write something about it because this is something that deserves exposure.
Now I get on mailing lists for studios that haven’t even put out a single game and employ less than three people. I have to go through PR to set up interviews and get assets. Don’t get me wrong; there are still a significant portion of those that handle it in-house, but the percentage of devs that have someone else handle it for them is growing. That’s certainly not a bad idea, mind you, especially if they’ve never done marketing before, but it certainly is a sign of the change in the winds.
The small is becoming the big. YouTubers used to make a killing on covering solely indie games because those were the sorts of developers that understood that YouTube exposure (or, more generally, gameplay footage that you don’t send for use in video features and the like) is the new hotness. It is where games coverage is eventually headed (says the guy writing a thousand words on the topic) and, whether through prescience or indifference, indies had long ago embraced YouTubers doing Let’s Plays and speedruns of their games.
And they, just like me, used to have enough time to do that for every—or at least mostly every—indie game they so desired. But the big guys are learning. After the debacle where Nintendo claimed monetization rights over Let’s Plays and whatnot, publishers began to learn what most traditional press are trying to repress: they are the future. Some even offer carte blanche rights to record footage and monetize on YouTube.
Case in point: Arthur Gies of Polygon tweeted out that there’s a review event next month where there will be more YouTubers in attendance than traditional games media such as himself. Polygon itself, a heavily word-based outlet, has a large video component simply because they see the endgame as well: video. One of the reasons Giant Bomb succeeded was because of video (also because the original crew was so god damn lovable and unique).
So now we’ve got an overabundance of indie games trying to vie for the dwindling attention span of both the general public and the press. The one venue that they used to be able to rely on is currently on its way to earning “too big for them britches” status. This, no matter how you slice it, is a problem.
Valve saw it a while ago, another trophy to put in their case of Prescient Moves. Steam Greenlight was the answer to the flood of games, the deluge of titles that even they could not possibly regulate in any meaningful way. So they left it to the masses, the only entity that could possibly outnumber and out-muscle the growing number of indies.
The result of that still remains to be seen, as does Steam Machines, SteamOS, controller, etc. But it certainly is indicative, if the other signs weren’t telling enough. If the largest digital distributor of games and one of the biggest developers in the world sees that something needs a solution, then maybe they’re right.
How do we thin out the herd? How do we decide what needs to be covered and what doesn’t? Many outlets long ago decided how to approach the incomprehensibly huge number of Kickstarter projects bombarding their inboxes. YouTubers—media who don’t have the traditional objectivity obligation of journalism—have a more relatable approach to the whole ordeal and much more efficient, but even they are getting outnumbered.
This could be the revitalization of the evaporating middle tier of video games. Or it could be the decimation of triple-A games. No one knows. And I don’t think I’ll be the one to figure it out with this full inbox of indie pitches. (And if you are an indie developer, please do feel free to email me about your game.)