We 💙 Indie Games with Kelly Wallick | The Gamesight Podcast

We 💙 Indie Games with Kelly Wallick | The Gamesight Podcast

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It's the Gamesight podcast.

Yane An: Welcome to the Gamesight podcast. We have here with us Kelly Wallick, and she is a founder, community builder, investor. And self-titled perpetual optimist. Love that. So you've been in the games industry for over 10 years, and you are an indie games guru. You support indie creators and you've given them a platform in a very ruthless industry. According to your profile, you've showcased over 900 unique titles at 33 global events, and you went from being a project manager to a chairperson for the Independent Games Festival to founding the Indie Mega Booth, which is finally back after three long years of hibernation.

Yes, I love that. So welcome to the podcast. How are you doing today?

Kelly Wallick: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. Yeah, doing really well. Getting ready to take a little bit of time off next week and doing a staycation, so looking forward to that. And been busy and working a lot of exciting things lately. So, yeah, feeling good.

Yane An: Yeah, so I mean, the biggest thing is definitely Mega Booth is coming back.

For people who don't know, what Mega Booth is do you wanna give a little bit of a rundown?

Kelly Wallick: Yeah. So there's not like a super great elevator pitch because it's kind of a lot of things to a lot of people. But, I think of it as like a showcase for independent game developers.

It had been running for about 10 years. We worked with, I think yeah, eight, 800 studios to showcase like over 900 titles globally. I think did like 30 some events across the world. During the time that it was running and really like what started off as just kind of a way for indie developers to get recognition at, at a show like pax, which is like a consumer facing event in the game space really became like a community and a network of developers.

They're all working together to help to support each other. And then with us kind of behind the scenes acting as an infrastructure, as an, and a way to advocate to like publishers and platform holders and to run grant and scholarship programs. We really started to focus a lot on promoting like diversity in the game space and getting more and different kinds of voices involved.

And so I think the Mega Booth over time kind of became like the stepping stone for people into the games industry and into the ccindie scene. And then, for fans or for publishers or for platform holders, a way to kind of like discover like who are the new up and coming teams, what's kind of the latest and greatest thing?

Yane An: Can you tell us about how that process has been and how you're feeling, and are there any like big changes coming up?

Kelly Wallick: Yeah, so a bunch of big changes with that. So the Mega Booth is probably what I'm, most well known for in the industry. I founded it and ran that for about like 10 years before it went into hibernation, during the pandemic, which, the events industry basically just like collapsed within like a few weeks of itself, right?

It was really like painful, complicated experience for me. And, something that I loved and cared about and a lot of people in the community loved and cared about. And so, during all this time it's like I was taking some time off and really like thinking about what did I wanna do next?

Was there ever gonna be a place for the Mega Booth in the future? what was that gonna be like? And it just, the pandemic just kept going, right? Yeah. And it wasn't, wasn't clear to me what was gonna happen. And so I was thinking a lot about yeah, what's next for me?

And how do I still continue to have impact in the game space in a way that I really care about?

And so one of the opportunities that was coming up was that the 1Up fund was finishing up our investing in fund one and we're moving into getting started on fund two.

And so I had an opportunity to join as a partner in the fund which is really exciting. Puts me in a decision making position. Ed and I are the two partners in the fund basically, so I'm like half of the decision making power of the fund, which is a, a really cool situation to be in. I love working with them.

I love the work that we're doing. So I joined about a year and a half ago on that. And so that's been like where my primary focus has been.

But in the meantime, people are still, as like things are starting to happen again, they're oh, we missed the Mega Booth, and is it ever gonna come back?

And what's gonna happen? So, Yeah. And so, I kind of kept everything on a back burner, like the website was still there and like I was still paying for like the hosting and just kind of keeping stuff there, like just in case there was an opportunity to bring it back. Yeah. So I started reaching out to some folks and just getting together like a team that's a combination of some folks who were worked out in the past and some new people and just, took some of the money that I was able to save back up and put it back into getting some people on board to just like blow off all the dust and get it going.

And so, there's some things that are the same. we're trying to kind of get back up to like where we were and doing the showcases and running the grant and scholarship programs and doing all the stuff that everybody kind of like knows and loves with the mega booth. But then really thinking about what is this next iteration of that look like?

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

And for me, like to have this role where I'm a bit more of like in a kind of like advisory or like a board member sort of just guiding it and letting like a group of this new team and people who love and care about it to like really take it and run with it.

At some point, it's like I wanna make space for like new people and new ideas and what is the next generation of like leaders and gamers and game developers and stuff look like in the industry. And how do I foster and support that without not that I was like blocking it from happening, but without holding onto something for so long.

Just because it's precious to me in a way.

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

Kelly Wallick: It's an interesting situation, because there's a lot of me stepping back and being okay, it's gonna be okay. I trust what's gonna happen with it. And I love the work that I'm doing with the 1Up Fund, but those, like the Mega Booth, has like a special place in my heart.

And so it's kinda I feel like I, I don't have kids, but I feel like a little, like my kids are going off to college or something. Please take all the lessons that I taught you, and go and be free. But then also please call me and tell me what you're doing.

Yane An: Very wholesome. I think in terms of indie games, we've definitely seen the industry become something sort of in the shadows to the mainstay of gaming now. Can you tell me a little bit about how you've sort of seen the evolution of indie games as a genre in the games industry over time?

Kelly Wallick: Yeah, it's interesting, like Minecraft started off as an indie game, right? And like Stardew Valley, which is like wildly popular, started off as indie. But yeah, so there's like these kind of like breakout hits, right?

Or things that, that come from the indie game space that start as like a very small team and, and become something really big. and I, I think that early, early on for me, indie games have been going on like much longer than I've been in the games industry. But like for me, my experience of it is that it was a small-ish group.

There was like a lot of walled gardens, like before, like platforms like steam and stuff opened up with green light that everybody could submit to it.

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

Kelly Wallick: There was a transition between like physical and digital distribution and there was a transition on making your own engine and having to be super technical to like being able to use things like Unity and Unreal and, and Entwined and like GameMaker and stuff that just like made the process of making games more accessible to more and different kinds of people. Mm-hmm. And so it was kind of for me it was like seeing the transition. Like there's this, like people playing around in this transitionary space early on and a lot of just like people kind of figuring out what is this new landscape looking like?

And there's kind of like a, what felt like an indie gold rush era for a little bit, where like a bunch of indie games started to get popular and make money, and then everybody wanted to make an indie game. And then it was oh my god, there's hundreds and thousands of indie games. And so then what does the discoverability--

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

Kelly Wallick: Issue look like? And then also all these conversations starting up too around how do you take this thing that's like kind of artistic and creative and be able to pay people to work on it and make money. And like this idea, this I think kind of romanticized around oh, I have $40,000 and we all eat ramen and we live in a basement, and like we make a game.

That's great and that's a cool story, but also like it excludes a giant amount of people to be able to like be in the process of making games. Right. So I think that there is like a kind of, I wanna say like a leveling up in like maybe the business acumen or kind of an understanding and, and maturing. I think a little bit of the thought process around it. Cause there used to be also this feeling of if you took money from a publisher or you took money from this, you were a sellout. But the only people who don't need to take money, like have money.

Right? Yes. Or they're, or they're getting exploited supported by someone. Yeah, yeah. Or they're getting exploited or something. Right. Then it kind of shifted a bit more to do you have creative ownership and do you still own the IP?

And there's still like every year in the IGF there's always conversations about is this an indie game? Or what is the line of that? And I think those kinds of conversations are super important, right? Because it's like there's always this evolution of what stories are we trying to tell?

What technologies are we using? Like what are we trying to express? Who are we? Supporting who and what does that, what does that all look like? And there's just, I think like the indie space in general is just always on the, the edges of those conversations. And so it's just this like constantly evolving thing.

But I think like the two biggest things that I feel really happy to see during the time that I had been working in the space, was that the diversity level of the people making the games and having access to resources grew like crazy. When I was first working on this stuff, there were so few women that were even at studios, let alone running studios, let alone talk about any other kind of marginalized community.

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

Kelly Wallick: And by the time I was leaving, it was just, I just felt like there was so much diversity and so many cool things. The younger generations of people coming up with their values and their ideas and stuff, and seeing that grow and blossom.

And then also, just the reality of yeah this is creative, but also if you wanna support new and different kinds of creators coming in and support the industry in general, people need to get paid for their work.

We need to have fair deals. It's okay to wanna sell it. It's also okay to not wanna sell it, depending on your situation, but let's bring all those people into the conversation. And not kind of make it feel that if someone needs to get paid for their work or needs to be compensated or needs to get a publishing deal, or needs to get an investment or something that, they can't be part of the club.

Those two big changes aside from the content of the game, games and how that is sort of shifted over time is kind of the behind-the-scenes thing that had, were the two biggest like shifts that I think I saw.

Yane An: I love that. That was a very high level overview and I can just imagine how many, hundreds of stories there are within each point of the timeline that you shared.

Right? Yeah, yeah. Very intense. It's a huge community and everybody's sort of like building it up together, so that's amazing to see. Yeah.

Kelly Wallick: Yeah, it's, it is very cool. There's so many stories and so many teams and so much stuff that I got to be kind of witness to over, over the time of working on that and, and to still be witness to it, in the case of working with VC backed teams and startups and studios in that space as well too. It's a unique situation to be in, to be able to kind of step back a bit and look at the forest for the trees.

Yane An: Exactly. Yeah. And then along those lines in your VC experience how exactly does the funding process work and how do you get the infrastructure and the funding for these teams?

Kelly Wallick: There's more avenues of funding and resources available than ever before, which I think is really exciting and really cool. When I was first starting off in the industry, I remember asking someone where do people get money for games?

For real.

Yeah. I know. It was so funny because I was where are you getting the money from it? And the answers were, it was pretty limited? It was sort of like you got a publisher deal or you had your own money, and some equity investing in the game space.

But I'd say it was pretty rare. And it was mostly for larger companies. And the idea that a VC would invest in an indie game was literally laughable. What about investors? And people were like ahaha, that would never happen. and here we are few years later and it's like totally happening.

And then like there was the addition of crowdfunding. So then you have all the Kickstarter stuff that was starting. So like when I, earlier was talking a bit about these changes around being able to digitally distribute your game and to have the walled gardens come down and get access to these tools.

There was also more access to funding avenues that weren't available before. So something Kickstarter or crowdfunding. And so I think there's a lot of different opportunities. There's a lot of platforms and companies as well too that have started like grant programs and other programs to help with prototyping or early development or indie scale projects.

There's a lot more stuff that's focused on increasing diversity in the game space, so funds that are specifically created for that which is really cool. But there's always still people struggling to find the money that they need outside of the US. There's also a lot of government grants and programs that will support the games industry.

So Canada has the Canadian Media Fund, which is really robust. A lot of Europe has funds that are a couple hundred thousand dollars, especially early for prototype funding for teams to start. The US sadly doesn't have anything like that. It's pretty common outside the US.

We have other avenues of funding available, there's more investment in VC for example, that happens in the US. But I think that there's more kind of avenues than there were in the past, but it's still is depending on your situation and your networks and your understanding of these things. It can still be challenging to like get matched up with the funding and the types of funding that that you might need.

And so I don't have kind of a good like answer of oh, here's where all the money is. But just more that I think to be flexible about your thinking about like how this might work or what that might look like and that there actually is a lot of interest in the game space and people putting more money and more resources into it.

And I think being a bit more varied about the types of projects and ideas and things that, that are willing to be supported.

Yane An: You heard it here first, or maybe not first, but it's a great time to make an indie game right now. Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Wallick: It's always a great time.

Yane An: Yeah, you're right. Yeah.

Can you tell me more about you mentioned it a little bit, but your work with one up and being co-chair on that team?

Kelly Wallick: Yeah. So I'll give a little kind of context on the 1Up Fund. So that was founded by a guy named Ed Fries who he was at Microsoft starting off I think in the early eighties and on like Excel and Word and --

Yane An: Oh, wow. Wow.

Kelly Wallick: Kind of the things that you think about when you think of Microsoft. Right. And then at some point they had wanted to make a games department and he was really interested in games and had been making games for a while. So he took over the games department and then helped to build and grow it up through the launch of the original Xbox and then stayed on for a long time to work on their publishing.

And so after he retired from Microsoft, did some other work and stuff, and then was putting together the concept of this venture fund. And so his idea around it was that he really wanted to have a strong community component to it.

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

Kelly Wallick: And so that meant taking up all of the founders and connecting them with each other to help to support each other through the process of like interesting building a studio and making a game and for me, coming from the indie space, that totally makes sense because you kind of have to do that in the indie space because you don't have all this infrastructure and resources and access to things that people at a big AAA company might have.

So it's super common, especially for people to make local communities and now online communities and to like be collaborative because it's too hard to be competitive. Like you just kind of can't, we're all gonna sink at the same time. Right. And so we got connected up around that part of it because of my work with the Mega Booth and all the stuff that I've been doing in the indie community.

And then when we talked, we had a lot of shared values around what we imagined for this community and then also shared values around diversity and shared values around making positive change in the games industry. And I had no idea anything about the VC part.

That sounds cool, but the part that I really liked was the kind of ethos of the community aspect of it. And then also venture funds basically fund themselves through management fees, which are generated from the overall amount of the fund. And so I had a budget that I could actually put into supporting the community stuff.

Where in the mega booth it was we're always bootstrapped and I had big ideas about things that I would've loved to do, but kind of never had the resources to do it. So I was okay, well this is a cool way to work with someone that I like to do something that I think is cool, in a way that's gonna be funded and resourced.

Yeah, so I started working on that and then, yeah, over the years had just been learning more about how venture funding works. What does equity investment in the game space look like? It was something that I got really interested in especially kind of during the pandemic, seeing how much money and resources and investing in stuff was going into the game space.

It's very impactful to be able to just give people money. It's a really powerful resource and there are not a lot of people like me that are in decision making positions. Around something right, like funding and especially in investing.

So for me it felt like a really unique opportunity to keep making the impact that I wanted to make and keep working with and supporting teams the way that I wanted to.

I love the portfolio teams that we work with, we do 50 investments per fund, and we're partway through, we're just starting to invest out of our second fund. So we've done like 60 some investments at this point. And so I'm working with a large number of studios and teams and companies again.

And seeing them like from the ground up and following along on their journey is really cool. It's a neat opportunity. Yeah. Yeah.

Yane An: I mean, you're really changing people's lives.

I hope so. And I think one of the things that I loved with the Mega Booth, and I love with this, is that I'm really a big fan of like long term sustainable changes. That's really how change happens it's just like this consistent kind of slow moving, intentional, walking towards like a goal or an ideal and you can affect all of these different people and all these different things and all these different projects in ways that like you don't understand until much later.

Like when I had to put the Mega Booth into hibernation, I was getting so many kind emails and just really lovely notes from people about how it had changed the trajectory of their career and their lives and the people that they met. And some of 'em I hadn't heard from in years, but it had been 10 years that we had been doing this and so had all these ripple effects that I didn't know anything about at the time.

And so I think that continuing that kind of work and continuing to do it in spaces in the indie space, like I said, I saw the change in the diversity and the styles of games and people and the programs and stuff.

Who is that gonna affect and what is that gonna mean? And even from the player side, the kinds of games and content and stuff that gets made can affect how people see each other and how they communicate with each other and what they think of the world. That's big.

Oh my gosh. Like tears. I'm a very emotional person, so I'm trying to be oh, professional podcast. Oh my gosh. Oh gosh.

Kelly Wallick: That's so sweet. Yeah.

Yane An: Very lovely. Amazing work. 10 outta 10, no notes. Yeah. Thank you. Oh gosh.

Kelly Wallick: Yeah. It's funny because I used to be in the sciences and maybe it can seem silly to put your time and energy into video games.

This thing that feels like not quite mainstream, or maybe people think it's silly or dismissive or something. But I think it's huge opportunity. And I think there's big culture and social shifts that can happen through like the media that's created and, and really, --

Yane An: Definitely.

Kelly Wallick: Games are the fastest growing form of entertainment now, and it's outpacing a lot of traditional media and this is kind of the future of how people interact with each other and yeah, learn from each other.

And to kind of have sort of stumbled into the industry a bit in a way, and get to kind of be involved in seeing that change and grow is I think it's super cool. It's a rare time.

Yane An: Yeah. I definitely agree with that. Yeah. Yeah. Cultural impact of games is real.

Kelly Wallick: Yeah, exactly.

Yane An: I guess we can go into some hard questions.

Kelly Wallick: Sure. Yeah.

Yane An: Obviously you have a big heart and you wanna help all these creators, but --

Kelly Wallick: I do. Yeah.

Yane An: As a leader in this space, you also have to make hard calls in terms of fielding games and deciding what gets funded and not, so what are you looking for in terms of projects you do wanna invest in and what happens when you can't support everybody? You have to be strategic with the funds. Right.

Yeah, I mean that's hard for me. Like you said, I kind of have a big heart and I wanna help everybody which I generally actually try as much as that's possible.

And it's interesting because so the way that we did curation for the Mega Booth and the way that we look at games for the 1Up fund and the way that, a publisher might look at a game they're all sort of slightly different lenses, right. And so one of the things that's really smart about the way that Ed had set up the 1Up fund is that and for folks who may not be super familiar with how equity investing works, you generally when you do like a priced round you have a lead in investor who professionally sets the price of the round, like the valuation of the company, and then you have follow on investors on top of that.

And so the lead investor will do a bunch of due diligence. They'll look into all the financials and all the kind of deep dive and nitty gritty. Is this a good investment?


Kelly Wallick: And, and then once they say yes, then you kind of have this opportunity where people can like follow onto the round afterwards.

So we act as a follow on investor. So it's like in some ways we don't have to say yes and no too often in the sense that that kind of gets filtered out first by a lead investor agreeing to be a part of it. So a lot of times, like we'll have conversations with folks and try to help them out and point them in the right direction.

If we really love their project to help them to try to find the lead investor or to yeah, just be okay, make sure you're talking to these people and this person. Get feedback on the deck, just try to kind of like get them on the right foot on their investing journey.

We make 50 investments for a fund, which is pretty, which is a lot of investing. Like most bigger firms might make five or six investments per year or something, or because they're the way that they're set up is a bit different. For us, like we only invest in games content, so it's only video game studios making video games. So anything that's kind of platforms or tech we get to say no to that right away.

Yane An: Mm-hmm.

Kelly Wallick: But then from there it's really about like what do we think of the team? What do we think of the project?

Ed and I, between the two of us have looked at thousands of game pitches and seeing lots of projects come and go. And so I think you kind of get a second sense for I think it's less around like what game is gonna do well and what team? It's more about I think what teams and what people are gonna navigate the process of making a game the best and for the best chance of success in that way.

And so, it's kind of a bit of a like fuzzy math for us, on what resonates and kind of some intuition and some experience around this. And then sometimes it's just taking a chance on a team and an idea that just seems maybe they'll make it and that'll be really, that'll be really cool and really interesting. But even for folks who we end up saying no to or that it doesn't work out for them, we try to be helpful point them to other avenues of funding that might be useful for them or give them feedback or just stay involved in their journey, if they decide to do something different in the future.

And for Mega Booth, we try to kind of do something similar as well too. Like we would encourage people to apply over multiple multiple years and be like hey, it wasn't a fit this time, but that doesn't mean that you're not gonna grow and change and make something new or different, or the circumstances are gonna change.

Once we've said yes to an investment, we have a lot of programs and workshops and meetups and things like that, that we really try to help the teams through this network and the community, which has a lot of programs that are around it, that are kind of intentional to create.

But even prior to that, a couple months ago, this past year we gave a talk at GDC that we really just broke down, like equity investing 101 in the games industry, what is equity investing versus project financing and what are the terms that you might run into and what should you keep your eye out for? We just kind of wanna be helpful to people to try to help them be and informed to make the best decisions that they can make for themselves.

Amazing. So you've been a huge part of this industry. You've done a lot of things in terms of changing the culture, highlighting so many different games, and helping people get connected and get funding.

Thank you so much for everything you've done and you're still continuing to support the future generations and just the indie games industry, and I hope you do feel the positive impact you've made in a lot of people's lives.