The Risks, Rewards, and Realities for Indie Devs at a Pandemic PAX

The pandemic has changed how the games industry comes together.

For much of the games industry, PAX East 2020 was one of the last major gatherings of developers and fans before the world shut down. Coronavirus became a looming threat over any future plans, and one by one, industry events like E3, Tokyo Game Show, and Gamescom were canceled or went digital. It’s been two years since developers and fans convened in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t too. A large percentage of people are vaccinated, but the pandemic is far from over. Game creators and game players are back under one roof, but they’re wearing masks and greeting each other with elbow taps instead of handshakes. The PAX East logo hangs all around the convention center, but the crowds under those banners have shrunk.

PAX East 2022’s safety protocols require everyone on the show floor to wear masks and provide proof of vaccination, but even with those rules in place, some of the video game industry’s most prolific companies didn’t make an appearance. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft were nowhere to be seen on the show floor. As a result, much of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center was occupied by smaller teams, from big studios with enough budget to buy floor space to two-person teams who raised money to buy a small booth just for a chance to gather with people in a way they hadn’t been able to in two years.

For fans, events like PAX are a chance to peek behind the curtain and play games before release. That’s enticing enough to bring thousands of people to Boston, even if the threat of COVID exposure hangs over their heads. But for independent developers, it can be anything from a chance to show your game to the public, to the only line you have to a community with your peers. It’s easy to see why a small team would want a seat at the table, or perhaps feel pressure to be in its proximity, even in a pandemic.

“Here’s where we get to see other people in the industry, because as big as these conventions look, the industry itself is pretty small,” Guille Chumpitaz, engagement director at Chromatic Games told Fanbyte on the show floor. “So it’s nice to see what projects people have been doing for the past year and see their progression. And sometimes we find ways to cross paths and just do work to get into business together.”

The Risks, Rewards, and Realities for Indie Devs at a Pandemic PAX
Chumpitaz at the Chromatic Games booth at PAX East (photo by Kenneth Shepard)

But for some individuals and companies, things aren’t so simple. Tursiops Studios had a presence on the PAX East show floor with a booth entirely for its upcoming space combat game The Day We Fought Space. But Catherine Kimport, the studio’s gamewright-in-chief, was taking meetings outside the convention center.

“There’s a reason there are other people on the showfloor and I am hiding outside the venue right now,” Kimport told Fanbyte on a bench outside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. “I probably am the most pandemic-averse person on the team right now. It didn’t really change our approach to this specific event, because we had already had that chat about comfort level.”

For Kimport and Tursiops Studios, PAX East 2022 was in a brief window before The Day We Fought Space launches on mobile devices on May 26, and with precious few chances to show the game to prospective players, the team had to made a decision about comfort level as far back as the end of last year.

“In a lot of ways it was a timing issue,” Kimport says. “We’ve been at this game for so long, we’re finally launching, and we saw this on the calendar and were like, ‘you know, it might be tricky…’ It was just, ‘this is right about when we’re planning to launch. This could be such a good event. I had teammates that were willing to work a show floor. I wasn’t gonna make anyone go into any situation they weren’t comfortable with. But we had enough people either working on the team or people who have been our hype train at other events that said ‘yeah, I’m ready.’”

In-between signing paperwork and being on the show floor, there was time for the Omicron variant to come and give people pause.

“I’d been up and down ever since we decided to do it,” Kimport says. “I’d been second-guessing myself. Because that was enough time for Omicron to come and to go, and to just be like, ‘oh my gosh, what did I sign us up for?’”

Ultimately, Tursiops Studios decided to attend, with individual comfort levels being used as a basis for show floor shifts and appearances. But while Tursiops’ PAX East presence was predicated on its game’s release being imminent, for a lot of studios, it was a chance to come up for air after working on games throughout the pandemic.

More on PAX in the pandemic:

Trese Brothers Games, a studio led by brothers Andrew and Cory Trese, had just funded its upcoming tactical RPG Cyber Knights: Flashpoint through Kickstarter when the coronavirus pandemic began. Fresh off the company’s first event at PAX East 2020, the team had been planning to attend again in 2021 with a demo, but as the pandemic persisted, the event wouldn’t resurface for two years. As a result, Cyber Knights: Flashpoint’s PAX East 2022 presence feels like picking up where the team left off, but with two years of work to show for it. The team was fortunate enough to be chosen by PAX for a showcase at PAX Rising, an initiative to spotlight indie games on the show floor, which helped offset the team’s event costs.

“Little studios are scrappy,” Andrew Trese says. “They’re always looking for ways to get attention and get exposure. PAX or other big, physical shows are always a lot of money for us. We were lucky to be hand-selected by PAX and get an invite here. It cuts our cost down, but going to any other show you’ll probably have to buy a booth. It’s tough to be stuck between ‘I spent a lot of money to go to this show, and am I gonna feel safe here?’ We haven’t really felt that, but I can see that there are so many people who do.”

The Risks, Rewards, and Realities for Indie Devs at a Pandemic PAX
Xu (left) and Weeks (right) greet PAX East attendees at the Tough Love Arena booth. (photo by Kenneth Shepard)

While there are initiatives like PAX Rising or PAX Together that help indie devs, money is tight for smaller projects and the people behind them. Tough Love Arena is a fighting game playable in browsers and made by two-person team Amy Xu and M. Paul Weeks. The pair released the game during the pandemic, so PAX East 2022 was the team’s first “offline” event. As Tough Love Arena is a free browser game, the team isn’t relying on it as a source of income and they work day jobs while supporting the game. Xu is an animator and designer and Weeks is a software engineer. So Weeks describes their PAX East presence as more of a vacation than any kind of business expense. But seeing positive reactions helped offset the financial strain.

“For all we knew this was the only one,” Weeks says. “‘Let’s roll out the red carpet, spend some nice money, and get a real proper booth. Just try it out once and see how it goes.’ I was worried that we were going to pay all this money and just sit here in the corner and everyone was gonna go talk to the Discord people and the Devolver people, and no one would care about our little website game. We’ve actually gotten a lot of really nice people coming up and asking questions and giving it a try.”

For games like Tough Love Arena and Cyber Knights, this is a chance for teams to finally show their game to the public, but for some new to the field, this is where they find community and learn from veterans. Joanna Keler, the marketing manager at Klabater, shifted careers from corporate marketing to working in the games industry last year. She found that connecting with industry professionals in-person at PAX  was more rewarding than the digital connections she’s made remotely from Poland.

“I’m still kind of fresh in the business. From corporate marketing to games is a big leap for me,” Keler says. “So I’ll meet a lot of people who are influencers, agencies, but also fellow devs. We’re able to talk about our games, what’s exciting, and what’s working for us. So it’s a lot of knowledge that’s very hard to pitch for when you don’t know someone face-to-face. Because then you have to send cold emails, cold messages on LinkedIn, and not everybody is comfortable sharing knowledge like that.”

Those connections have been almost exclusively digital throughout the pandemic, and PAX is helping people who have felt secluded find camaraderie.

“I’m a social person, and that’s kind of what I bring to the table,” Chumpitaz says. “I often had this thought, based on what people told me, that people in gaming tend to be a bit more introverted and not so open to certain things. And outside of conventions, that’s been the case. But I can clearly see how when people come to conventions that changes. It’s almost like they find that this is their space. And it’s really nice for me to see people blooming, even within our own team.”

But that community building carries a cloud over it now as questions of safety linger over in-person events. Several developers we spoke to say their own vaccination and keeping with good sanitation and testing practices have helped them feel safer in public spaces.

 

The Risks, Rewards, and Realities for Indie Devs at a Pandemic PAX
Xu, talking with a PAX East attendee at the Tough Love Arena booth. (photo by Kenneth Shepard)

“Numbers have been lower. Omicron was really scary, obviously,” Xu says. “But you know, we are triple-vaxxed and test ourselves regularly. Honestly? I caught COVID at the beginning of the pandemic, so if I catch it again, it shouldn’t be a huge deal. We’ve got hand sanitizers and are taking every precaution to, at least, minimize the risk.”

For many, PAX’s own protocols helped developers feel safe coming back. More so than they felt in other places in Boston, which lifted its own mask mandate a month prior to the event.

“We did notice that when we went to restaurants in the area that it seems like staff isn’t wearing masks anymore,” Xu says.

But sometimes protocols aren’t enough, as the onus is often on the individual to be responsible. The Game Developers Conference (GDC) took place in San Francisco just a month prior, and there were reports of attendees who knowingly tested positive for COVID-19 and went to events anyway. Teams had to consider whether PAX East, even with the event’s own rules, could be safe at all.

“It concerned me,” Kimport says. “You know, it really highlights that events don’t happen in a vacuum. I really appreciate what PAX is doing in requiring masks and requiring vaccines. But everyone here also has their own personal responsibility.”

On April 18, just days before PAX East and as  attendees readied to travel to Boston, several United States airlines dropped their mask mandate. Now the event wasn’t the only thing to raise safety concerns, as getting there posed a significantly higher risk. But for those who still made an appearance, it was a matter of having already invested so much time and money into something that was only a few days away.

“It’s one of those things and, you know, it’s hard for me to justify, and part of it is just my human nature. It’s sunk cost fallacy, almost,” Weeks says. “We’ve already paid all that money, which doesn’t come very easily. So when I see the news story about the mask mandates being lifted — which I don’t agree with — and I see it like a day before our flight, I was just like ‘man, I’m not willing to give this up. I’ve put too much into this.’”

Had the news been about a new variant or a spike in cases, Weeks might have felt different. But the threat felt less immediate as long as people were being responsible.

“If it was really scary and we were hearing about a new variant and people dropping like flies, I wouldn’t put myself or other people in that risk,” he says. “But we’ve gotten so many news stories in the last two years that are basically like this, I guess you get a little desensitized.”

In the face of both the city of Boston and airlines removing the mask mandate, Cory Trese says he was happy to see PAX didn’t back away from its own protocols.

“I’m glad they didn’t change the rules at the last minute,” Cory Trese says. “Like, trying to drop the masks or make adjustments. I’m really glad they stuck with what they told us in the beginning they were gonna do.”

The Risks, Rewards, and Realities for Indie Devs at a Pandemic PAX
Keler setting up at the Indie Games Polish Foundation booth at PAX East 2022. (photo by Kenneth Shepard)

All the business, community, and game opportunities aside, many people Fanbyte spoke to on the show floor expressed a desire to return to some semblance of normalcy, and that masked and vaccination-required events feel like a “half step.”

“I believe life needs to go on,” Keler says. “I like to say that ‘you can drown taking a sip of water.’ You can never mitigate the risk to zero. We try as much as we can. We have masks for ourselves, we have sanitation gels on ourselves, as well. We are masked in public transportation.”

Even despite the optimism and safety protocols, there have been several reports of COVID cases after the event, and some during. One enforcer at the event contracted COVID and passed away on Saturday, April 30. We reached out to Reedpop, the organizer of PAX, for this story and the company did not respond to request for comment.

While there was much talk about returning “back to normal” at PAX East 2022, perhaps it’s better framed as establishing a new normal. Games have been showcased and connections have been made digitally for the better part of two years, and even still, the pandemic persists. Not even masks and vaccination have prevented COVID from leaving a tragic, irreversible mark on how the video game industry comes together.

(Lead image courtesy of Eric Van Allen)