Indies react: PAX East as a showcase for small studios

Like so many PAX shows before it, this year's PAX East showcased a ton of indie games -- the gaming equivalent of a Williamsburg dubstep show, if you will. In our experience at this year's event, larger industry players like EA and Bethesda showed off their titles with hired hands and private theater viewings, choosing to exhibit older demos rather than new content.

The indies and smaller studios, on the other hand, were out in force. Beyond bringing playable versions of their games to the show -- even Fez was playable, for the first time in several years of development -- the indie studios brought themselves. They continued the tradition of directly engaging with attendees and, often, solicited game-testing feedback on the fly.

"I approached PAX East as a three-day playtest session. I learned so much about what works and what doesn't just from standing in the back and observing how people played the game," Fez co-developer Phil Fish told Joystiq. "It's also an amazing morale boost to be told by so many people that your game is great."


Supergiant Games' Bastion

Supergiant Games' Greg Kasavin agreed. "Other independent developers we spoke to, including Twisted Pixel, Haunted Temple Studios, Trapdoor, Moonshot Games, and others, all shared similar stories of how packed and exciting the show was for them," he explained. "While many large publishers cordon off their games and veil their developers in anonymity, smaller studios can put themselves out there at an event like PAX East and really connect with players."

The same case applied for Shoot Many Robots dev Demiurge Studios. "People were often disappointed that they'd have to wait in lines exceeding two hour waits for the bigger titles at the show, which allowed us to swoop in and let people play Shoot Many Robots with a much more modest wait," studio head Albert Reed told us. "I suspect many of the indie booths had similar successes."

"We never set out for it to be an 'indie show.'"- Robert Khoo, Penny Arcade

Fire Hose Games did; president Eitan Glinert adamantly exclaimed, "If it wasn't for the amazing reception we got at PAX East, we would never have been able to make this all happen." According to Glinert, the success of his studio's game, Slam Bolt Scrappers, was directly a result of last year's PAX East. He told Joystiq, "Getting huge press last year was huge. Without it we would never have been able to bring Slam Bolt Scrappers to PSN -- Sony basically gave us a deal because of it."

Given the success and increasing scale of indies at PAX, we wondered if the biannual show was becoming a showpiece for indie developers. For their part, devs were divided on the subject, with Twisted Pixel head Michael Wilford summing up the general zeitgeist rather succinctly. "PAX East is a showcase for a lot of things, and indie game development has become one of them; to the point where I think attendees have come to expect one-on-one interaction with their favorite game developers every year," he offered. "It's a pretty awesome feeling to know that there are so many people that are interested in what we're doing. We even held a cosplay contest!"

Regardless of what we saw on the show floor, PAX wasn't necessarily planned to be indie-centric. "I think the show is very indie-friendly, especially since we're friends with most of the developers, but we never set out for it to be an 'indie show,'" Penny Arcade business manager Robert Khoo told Joystiq. "I think you see a large independent presence on the show floor because marketing budgets for the little guys are pretty much non-existent, and as far as getting a good value for what you pay, PAX is really solid for exhibitors," he argued.


Alex Schwartz' Smuggle Truck

That value was perhaps most apparent to Smuggle Truck creator Alex Schwartz, one of three developers chosen to be highlighted in the Boston Indie Showcase, and therefore awarded free floor space. "Despite the flashy animatronics, booth babes, and 20-foot projections elsewhere, people still lined up to play small innovative games," Schwartz observed.

Indeed, the inherent constraints of PAX give indies a chance to shine -- even among much larger and more financially able competition. "It's much easier to get noticed at a venue where all exhibitors share the same exhibition hall, for sure," explained Moonshot's Michel Bastien. "From that standpoint, the setup at PAX East couldn't have been better. Most indies were conveniently located next to a large exhibitor. As a result, attendees don't have to go too far to find us and our games!" His studio's game, Fallen Frontier, enjoyed plenty of foot traffic, being just a few feet from Microsoft's enormous setup.

And in 2012, we expect the show to grow even more. After this year's expansion to the Boston Convention Center (from the Hynes across town), and record attendance numbers, we'd be shocked if fewer than 80,000 people were admitted to PAX East 2012. With any luck, that means even more great indie games to check out.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.