Online Events Benefit Indie Developers

Why online events should continue and expand as we move into a new digital era.
June 26, 2020 1:09 PM by Morgan Shaver

Header Image: Using a screenshot from Roki, a game developed by Polygon Treehouse. Wishlist the game on Steam

Even though we’re only six months into 2020, it seems accurate to say that it’s been a rough year. It feels unreal to think that back in February I was at PAX East playing indie games on the show floor surrounded by hundreds of people. In hindsight, the thought is kind of terrifying.

PAX East right at the cusp of when people began shifting their attention over to the illness rapidly spreading across the globe. It became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going away anytime soon.

At the same time PAX East was in full swing, other large in-person gatherings like the Game Developers Conference (GDC) were cancelled, pushed back to later dates, and/or transformed into online-only events.

Like a row of dominoes, when the first one fell, the rest quickly followed.

Gamers undoubtedly felt a degree of disappointment seeing their favorite events cancelled. It’s depressing, especially with the stress of COVID-19 taking up permanent residence in people’s heads. The only consolation is that we’ll eventually figure a way to combat COVID-19. When that happens, events will pick back up again. Well, maybe. 

It’s important to resume in-person events when it is safe to do so. If it’s unsafe in 2021, we’ll have to wait until 2022, and so on. Most of us can wait, after all, we have no other choice. For indie developers, these event cancellations are harder to work around.

PAX East was the last in-person event of 2020, it's unclear when these in-person events will resume.
© PAX East

Unlike AAA studios, indie developers have limited resources when it comes to marketing and promotion. It’s not just a money issue, having your indie game displayed next to other indie games at in-person events helps boost organic discovery.

With these events, participating indie games are no longer relegated to a page on Steam or screenshots shared on Twitter. The creative booth designs at these live events become physical destinations for gamers to visit and interact with.

They can watch gameplay live on a screen, ask questions in real time, purchase merchandise, and so on. Yes, it costs money for indie developers to attend these events and put together a booth, but it’s often worth the price.

Furthermore, there are outlets like the Indie MEGABOOTH who are willing and able to help smaller indies show off their content at these events.

Attending events like PAX East can also provide developers with valuable networking opportunities. With all of these events postponed for the foreseeable future, indie developers are thrown back into an oversaturated online market. The number of games on Steam scheduled to release in 2020 alone is staggering.

To give these indies a little more visibility, outlets have begun putting together Nintendo Direct-style showcases, this site included. Back in April, IndieObscura aired its first IOX digital direct featuring 21 indie games and a number of in-depth interviews from indie developers.

Not only did IOX introduce people to new games to buy and play, it also offered some much-needed distraction to gamers stuck at home in quarantine.

Another noteworthy event was the Wholesome Direct from Wholesome Games which showcased beautiful, heartwarming indie games to thousands of appreciative viewers. We need more digital events like the Wholesome Direct.

Events that remind you of all the positive, incredible indie games out there that can help brighten your mood and put a smile on your face even when you’re feeling stressed and depressed (which many people are right now).

When late May rolled around, digital broadcasts increased tenfold. Everyone was putting together versions of their own, though they all share a common theme in showcasing games for viewers to learn about and discover.

I know for some it may seem like a negative to have so many online shows take place over the last few months – not only for indies but AAA as well with Microsoft’s Inside Xbox and Sony’s State of Play serving as prominent examples.

Personally, I don’t think there’s a downside to having all of these outlets show off games for people to consider playing, or games for people to tell their friends and family about. As long as they’re free, digital shows are an easy way for indies to get a little more exposure. It’s not the fact that these games are being shown in place of physical events.

Digital showcases where you can show trailers or sit down and record a video interview offer a great way for indie developers to promote their games early. For in-person events, you typically need a playable demo. The same can be said for promotions like the Steam Game Festival.

With pre-recorded shows, developers are able to put together and send whatever content they have available.

If it’s a few minutes of footage, that’s still enough to catch people’s attention and have them follow your game on social media, or wishlist it on Steam. Recently, more elaborate events have been announced like PAX Online. The goal of events like PAX Online are to recreate the experience of attending a physical event in an online-only format.

© PAX Online

What events like PAX Online special is the level of accessibility they offer. Events like PAX West are fun, but they require money, time, travel, and the ability to traverse the multilevel Seattle Convention Center with a mob of other people. Having attended last year, I can say from personal experience that it’s a little chaotic. Fun, but definitely chaotic.

I hope PAX Online becomes a permanent yearly event that’s open to almost everyone.

I say “almost” because it requires access to the internet and I understand that not everyone has this luxury. Seriously, in an article from the FCC, it’s estimated that 19 million Americans lack access to broadband internet. Adding to this, PAX Online is free this year. There’s no guarantee that it’ll remain free in the future when physical PAX events resume.

I hope it remains free, not everyone can afford the cost that comes with gaming events and having PAX Online available provides a nice alternative across the board. If you get sick and have to stay home, you can attend PAX Online.

If you’re a caregiver, a parent with a young child, someone with a compromised immune system, someone who recently suffered an injury, or someone who’s physically unable to get around at an event like PAX West, you can attend PAX Online. I could go on and on, but the bottom line here is that PAX Online is more accessible than physical PAX events and that broadens the number of people who are able to participate.

The more people that participate in PAX events like PAX Online, the more exposure indies have in addition to other promotional opportunities like the aforementioned online Nintendo Direct-style showcases. An argument has been made that developers would still need to pay to participate in events like PAX Online, and would likely need a demo to offer similar to the Steam Game Festival.

With the Steam Game Festival, gamers can demo indie games for free and add the game to their Steam wishlist. 
© Steam

However, not having to fly out and physically set up a booth can help save quite a bit of money, which can help give more indies the opportunity to hop aboard the PAX train. The future is digital which brings about its own pros and cons. One pro that’s very clear is the impact online events will have on gamers and indie developers.

I feel like I’ve seen more indie games get time in the spotlight through showcases like Wholesome Direct or the Guerrilla Collective Indie Showcase than I’ve seen in previous years. Even though I’m seeing more indies, I’m not overwhelmed by what I’m seeing as it’s not like all of these games are available to play right now.

Oftentimes, I see something awesome in a showcase and promptly add it to my Steam wishlist which is currently hundreds and hundreds of games long. I’ll also see games that I know other people may like and will link them the Steam page, giving them the opportunity to add it to their wishlist as well.

Heck, I’ve even seen indies incorporated more into larger showcases like Microsoft’s Inside Xbox and Sony’s State of Play and that’s genuinely exciting. Stereotypes about indies are fading into the background as gamers become more exposed to all of the different indie games that are available.

Indie games like The Medium have been revealed in large showcases like Microsoft's Inside Xbox.
© Bloober Team

There’s truly something for everyone, and now we have the ability (more than ever before) to discover games that appeal to us. I apologize if this article felt a little long-winded, I just really want to emphasize how happy I am to see the rise of digital gaming events like PAX Online, and showcases like the Wholesome Direct.

I feel honored my site is able to offer one as well with IOX. I’ve met so many amazing indie teams over the last few months, and have seen so many games that I’m really looking forward to checking out. If you have the time, I highly recommend checking out some of the gaming shows as they air, they’re really entertaining.

I also recommend looking into PAX Online, it sounds like it’ll be a really cool opportunity for gamers to come together from the safety of home to discover games, talk with one another, and in general experience what max PAX so awesome. For many, PAX Online will be the first event they attend, and that’s a huge deal.

To wrap this up before it gets even longer, I hope all of you are safe at home, healthy, in good spirits, and enjoying some indie games. If you want to experience a digital direct event, IO is putting on IOX-2 on July 1 at 1pm (PST), 4 pm (EST) on you’re all invited to check it out!

If you can’t, I’ll also be uploading the show in full on IO’s YT channel after it airs. We have the first one and individual clips from it up already so you can get a feel for what IOX-2 will be like, and discover even more indies to support!