PAX Dev and XOXO

I managed to squeeze in two very awesome, very different conferences in the past month: PAX Dev and XOXO. Below are some brief thoughts on each. As I’m packing for a trip out of town I haven’t taken the time to link to everything, so use your Google powers and follow your bliss.

PAX Dev

This was a smallish game developer conference put on by the Penny Arcade guys, two days prior to PAX Prime, the gaming expo. Mostly comprised of seminars and panel discussions about the challenges of making indie games, with the occasional workshop. PAX Dev intentionally shuts out the press — no reportage is allowed, to the point where even tweeting was expressly forbidden under threat of expulsion. I’m not sure if this was to encourage more people to attend next year, or to avoid the chaos-fest of PAX, It felt oddly out-of-step with the way tech-minded people communicate today. By all means, prohibit reporters and cameras, but forbid attendees from tweeting? Hmph.

That’s not to say that PAX Dev wasn’t a great experience. It was. So tiptoeing around that weird NDA, here are some of my personal impressions from being immersed in the indie game crowd:

There are a ton of very bright, very hardworking, underemployed people working in indie games.

To succeed, you have to really want to live that lifestyle.

Doing a Kickstarter for your game is awesome, but also asking for a world of hurt and suffering, even if you score big.

Kickstarter, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.

You’re either developing for one platform, or all of them.

“Social” remains a cipher we’re busy unpacking (and still trying to shake off the bad taste of Farmville).

No one really knows how to make money and be happy with it.

In my opinion, successful games are all about building a world the player wants to escape to.

Take good notes, because no one will post their slides, even if they say they will.

XOXO

This is a festival of “disruptive creativity” that took place in Portland. The idea was to gather a bunch of people who make indie stuff on their own terms — games, movies, music, physical products — and have them talk about why and how they did it. The result, in my opinion, was a tiny conference that was the spiritual successor to SXSWi.

Speakers included writer/showrunner Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community; the guys from Studio Neat; ukelele songstress and YouTube star Julia Nunes; Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson; R. Stevens, the creator of webcomic Diesel Sweeties and a bunch more. Basically, an eclectic lineup of folks who managed to create successful stuff without sacrificing the vision (and most of the profits) to the conventional publishing/distribution industries. The result was pure inspiration, the kind that makes you want to start something immediately.

I can’t possibly summarize the content of every speaker, but here are my general takeaways:

Despite advances in technology and services like Kickstarter, Etsy, Bandcamp, VHX and so on, the most important ingredient is still doing the work.

Not everything can make money. Not everything has to make money. The things that don’t make money are still your work. (Matt of Metafilter had the soundbite: “Money is the least interesting problem.” Agreed x 1000.)

Kickstarter, Kickstarter, Kickstarter. We’d do well to avoid the weird technocrat-ishness of thinking we can and should bootstrap everything, lest “just do a Kickstarter” becomes the new “just borrow money from your parents.”

Embrace naïvety. A quote from Dan Harmon: “Once you know how the system works, you lose the ability to change it.”

You don’t have to know everything before you start.

The way the speaker sessions were handled was perfect. No workshops, no product pitches, no fifteen minutes of Q & A. If you had a question, you tracked down the speaker at the food carts outside during the break. Heaven.

There were also lots of social events during XOXO, including screenings of Indie Game: The Movie and an arcade featuring playable demos of Proteus, Nidhogg and other games. There was a non-stop, hours-long session of Johann Sebastian Joust. And an indie arts and crafts market that featured a working MakerBot and the Cards Against Humanity guys. And one guy brought an alligator.

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