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Living Indie and Free: Reflections on PAX West 2017

By: Mithrandiel

Mithical Entertainment was delighted to be covering PAX West for the 2nd year in a row, and with an extra body on the ground this year we were able to hit a LOT of developers and games over our 4 days in Seattle.

An Overview of PAX West

For those who have never been, I’ll provide a brief overview of the layout. Essentially, the Washington State Convention Center is not traditional in that it’s not a sprawling, single or two-level building. Instead, it opts for height. So, there are 6 floors in the convention center, with the majority of PAX West’s content divided between the 4th and 6th floors.

On the 4th floor are all of the “big dogs” – the holy trinity was present (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo), as were other AAA developers such as Square Enix, Sega, Bandai Namco, etc. Nestled amongst the larger booths is the famous “Indie Megabooth” – a space designed to showcase some of the most promising indie titles currently in development. Going even further, within the “Indie Megabooth” is the more dynamic “Indie Minibooth”. The key difference being the minibooth is divided into two, 2-day blocks in order to showcase the most titles possible.

The 6th floor is primarily indie titles, and is also the home to the esteemed “PAX 10” – 10 games specifically selected to represent some of the best the indie game realm has to offer. You can find more info on this year’s PAX 10 here. We also did spotlights on a fair number of them – so make sure to check those out as well!

At Home With The Indies

Between the two floors, Archmage and I found ourselves more at home on the 6th floor. Tons of interesting titles being showcased by developers, all standing by their booth like proud parents.

Now, it’s hard to deny the cynicism that many gamers have developed over the years as various AAA companies have released incomplete games and leaned more heavily on DLC. The indie market has also suffered a number of lashes to its reputation as Kickstarter has provided a platform for certain indie devs to propose games that never see the sun, or fall far short of its initial promises.

That being said, it’s hard to remember such negativity as you wander the halls of what amounts to a gaming science fair. We had the chance to get our hands on over 30 titles over the weekend, running the gamut from mobile puzzlers to platformers, metroidvania titles, couch co-op party games, boss battlers, first person shooters and more. There is a feverish excitement around the state of indie games – a sentiment that anything is possible.

Where Have All The Good Ideas Gone?

From a business perspective, you might wonder why all of these games that get such immense Kickstarter backing seemingly go ignored by AAA companies. “Mighty No. 9 raised millions of dollars! Why doesn’t Capcom just give us a new Mega Man already?!” At the very least we would expect they would take a page out of the Metroidvania playbook after waking up to find yet another intriguing title crushed their Kickstarter goal. (As someone aptly put it at PAX: “Only three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and metroidvania titles on Kickstarter.”)

All this actually ties back to Mithical Entertainment’s founding article, which discussed this very topic. Indie companies have flexibility – a team of 3-5 programmers, artists and designers can pivot and adapt their game fairly quickly. Furthermore, as Millenials grow older and (theoretically) acquire more buying power, indie devs who are of similar age have a particular understanding for what gamers of that demographic are looking for.

The Power Of Nostalgia In Indie Titles

Consider one of this year’s PAX 10, Celeste, for example. A pixelated platformer that looks like it could’ve been released on the Super Nintendo, this game had a bustling booth all weekend long as players lined up to try and make their way through frost-covered rooms – jumping and dashing between sliding spike-covered blocks.

Hardly something you’d expect from a AAA company like Bethesda to release, and yet the demand for it continues to grow. Crisp gameplay and complex mechanics that never could have been executed in the 8/16-bit glory days are now bringing players back to this nostalgic visual style. Like parents who fondly gaze upon their grown children’s baby pictures, these retro-styled games allow gamers to remember a simpler time. It’s a way to turn the clock back while still getting to enjoy visual advancements that have helped to produce games like The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, and Witcher 3. 

Switching to the Switch

In chatting with dozens of developers, there was an interesting recurring theme: interest in the Switch. As many devs explained, the library for the Nintendo Switch is still pretty limited, and the platform is still fairly young. By bringing their title to the switch, they hope to stand out and offer more quality titles for the console. Combining numerous elements including being handheld, with a touch screen and detachable controllers for easy on-the-go multiplayer, the Switch has certainly piqued quite a bit of interest among indie devs who wish to tap into one if not all of these features.

In short, if you’re a Switch owner, it’s important to keep an eye out for these titles as they arrive! Expressing interest and buying these games will no doubt open more paths in the future.

Organized Chaos

Coming at PAX from a con-goers perspective I have to say I was very impressed with the organization of the event. Clear signage, helpful staff, an abundance of maps and resources available for attendees, and largely it all ran on time. There’s been quite a huff regarding the scarce nature of PAX badges in the past, but I think that the current size is just about perfect. Any more and it would certainly feel a bit too claustrophobic, especially considering the venue.

Final Thoughts

In closing, I found my time chatting with these indie developers was definitely the highlight of my weekend. There’s an infectious energy and positivity around the work that they do. Sure, I have no doubt there are days they wake up and wonder if the project is worth it. There are frustrations and setbacks, and in the age of the internet, trolls galore ready to tear down any project for any reason. Yet within the halls of PAX West, with thousands of excited gamers lining up to play their game and sharing their genuine excitement for its release, all of that seems to melt away.

Until next time, thanks PAX!

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