Indie Megabooth Overlord: How Kelly Wallick became one of the most powerful women in indie gaming
Kelly Wallick used to be the project manager of Infrared5, a company that made “cutting-edge experiences, applications, and games for mobile platforms and the Web.” She also helped manage and run the now-famous Indie Megabooth at PAX East and PAX Prime. These two jobs were beginning to take over her life, and she had to choose between one or the other.
She chose the booth. In doing so, she has likely become one of the most powerful women in indie gaming.
The Indie Megabooth is a collection of independent developers that take over a section of the show floor at PAX, and attendees are able to visit, talk to developers, and check out a large selection of high-quality games from smaller studios. The booth enjoys significant foot traffic, the press spends hours looking for the next big thing, and the developers who take part in the booth enjoy a number of boosts to their business.
What is the Megabooth, exactly?
The question is whether or not the Megabooth itself is a business.
“I don’t know. That’s something I’m going to be working on in the next couple of weeks,” Wallick told me over the phone. “It’s something that I’d like to be able to support myself doing.” Right now she’s technically the full-time head of the Indie Megabooth, everyone else involved merely calls her the booth’s “Overlord,” but she’s living off savings. Her newfound focus on the project will allow the Megabooth to explore other options for growth and expansion.
“This is exploratory at this stage,” she explained, before listing the pros and cons of taking the concept of the Megabooth to other shows. Does it make sense to go to E3, where you’ll only meet the press? How about the Game Developers Conference, where you’ll be networking with other developers? Does the Megabooth need shows that include the public to survive?
These questions take time and energy to answer, and the developers are busy making games. This is where Wallick comes in; her job is to deal with the logistics of the booth, explore the possibilities, and see what works.
“I want to keep going with it, and expanding it, and seeing what we can do with it. I haven’t had the time and energy focus on that question: What can we do with it? It’s pretty exciting, because it’s open,” she said.
A huge job
Many people assume that running the Indie Megabooth is as simple as showing up, putting together a few tables, and letting the developers show their game. The reality is that the logistics of an operation this large get very complicated very quickly. Wallick has to set up a support structure for 100 or so people who may be showing their game for the first time. She offers guidance on how to set up a booth for maximum impact, and how to create and share a strong demo. There is a mailing list for developers who discuss best practices, and she’s working on a wiki that would allow Megabooth attendees to share information on what works and what doesn’t.
Developers in the Indie Megabooth may have never shown a game before, or this may be the first game they have ever made in their career. Wallick wants to allow them to focus on the game, while helping with promotion.
“A lot of time indies are heads-down on what they’re working on. They have support in their community, but they don’t have a concept of how do you show your game to the public, and sometimes people need help,” she said. Some of the things they’ve learned make sense - giving out buttons is an inexpensive way to get people to stop by your booth and wear your branding - while other lessons are less obvious, like locking down your iPad before handing it to someone to demo the game.
The level of support and buzz that comes from having your game in the Megabooth is attractive for developers, and for the first time they’re getting more applications than they have space to accommodate. This brings its own problems.
“Because of the increased interest we’ve been revamping how we have people submit information,” Wallick said. “We’re redoing parts of the website so I can handle the amount of data and information coming in. We’re sorting out space and locations, sorting out submissions, seeing about sponsorships… I’m doing about 500 things at once, every day.”
The trick is to keep the Megabooth fresh. “What we don’t want to do is become this space for big indie companies,” Wallick said. They’re working on a way to take submissions, and it’s something they’re putting much time and thought into. There is also the “minibooth,” a shared space that’s cheaper for developers to show off games. The Megabooth has multiple strategies to make sure they’re giving exposure to a wide variety of high-quality games. “There’s a lot of really neat and interesting things going on in the indie scene that I’ve never heard of, and I’ve been doing this for a while,” she said, bringing up the challenge of keeping up on smaller games.
I was curious about how that works, as the Indie Megabooth has now been around long enough to have a history, and keeping developers inside the loop while adding new ones isn’t sustainable. At some point you run out of space. Wallick said that was a problem, but in many cases companies simply grow out of the booth and make their way.
“What ends up happening is that companies that get big enough to not need the Megabooth will graduate into having a larger booth on their own. An example of that would be Capy and Double Fine. Capy was in the first couple Megabooths, but [Super Time Force] is getting pretty popular, and they were able to work with Double Fine to get a nice space.”
This is the ideal. People who show their game a few times, get popular, and then release their games either don’t need to show every year, or they move up to a larger space. Another example would be Alexander Bruce, as Antichamber has been released, the sales were strong, and he didn’t present at the Megabooth at PAX East. That opens up a slot to another developer who would like to do the same thing.
“At a certain point you can stand on your own. I see it as lifting people up and giving them the opportunity to have a ground level way of doing this,” Wallick told the Report. “Then once you’re comfortable with it and people know you, and you have the resources and time to do this one your own, you can do that.”
Advertising, the danger of selling out, and you
As the Megabooth becomes more popular, and the possibility of expanding to more shows is raised, how do you keep from pricing out the smaller developers? The booth was designed to give smaller games more exposure and better placement at PAX, but that only works if the cost to show your game is affordable. The amount of people willing to donate their time helps with costs, and that group becomes larger as the Megabooth becomes better known, but the other big help is sponsorships.
That's right, the Indie Megabooth is open to companies helping lighten the financial load, but Wallick is quick to point out that she's aware of how quickly that can go bad. The Indie Megabooth already has strong branding and industry presence, so a “Doritos Mountain Dew Pile of Indie Games, brought to you by Pepsi,” would destroy much of what they've worked to accomplish. But hardware sponsorships are incredibly helpful for the developers, and the return on investment can be high.
“It seems so simple; big companies have huge TVs or a projector, but for an individual booth to get a TV is a big deal,” Wallick explained. Spending thousands of dollars for a display is nothing for EA, but when you're a two-person team it can kill your budget. That's where sponsors come in.
“We had a sponsorship from Intel for Pax Prime, and everyone got a TV, a pole stand, some computers and things like that. And that saved people tons of money. Enough money to get flights out, bring extra people, or for developers to spend more time on their game,” she told the Report. That sort of sponsorship is unobtrusive, it doesn't hurt the booth's branding, and it directly helps the developers in a non-trivial way. Having someone working full-time to broker that sort of deal gives the Indie Megabooth another strong advantage when trying to help developers.
Helping smaller games find an audience is why the Megabooth exists, after all. Kelly has “Don't you worry about blank, let me worry about blank,” written on her Twitter account. The Megabooth crew holds a post-mortem after every show where developers talk about their experiences, and they share stories about connecting with the press and the fans. It can be hard to track the actual value of the booth, and Wallick points to times a game connected with a member of the press, which led to a positive story in a big outlet, which led to a publisher showing interest in the game. All it can take is one good connection to make your game.
“We try to help a lot with bringing in the press and helping to connect with fans, but that can be very hard for many indies,” she explained. “We try to fill that gap for them so they can focus on their game.” That relationship, and the amount of support given to developers, is rare in this industry. The policies and systems Wallick puts in place will have a massive effect on the independent gaming scene for years to come, and she's treading carefully.
There are dangers when something that started as the counter-culture begins to simply become the culture, and that's the struggle Wallick will be facing as she grows the Megabooth. These are good problems to have, but that doesn't remove the fact that they are still problems. For now, Wallick will be working hard to get everything ready for PAX Prime, while trying to figure out what the Megabooth is, and what it will become.