Every year, I like to write about just a broad, imprecise piece on SXSW Gaming. What started as a satellite event for the larger mainstream parts of the Austin-based festival has grown to be its own sizable attraction. What used to take place south of the downtown hotspot at the Palmer Events Center now almost matches the physical presence of the main trade show where startups from all over the world show off their technological nonsense.
And it kind of shows that this is still a growing, learning component of SXSW. It takes up a lot of space, but there never really seemed like there is enough to fill it up. There continues to be a refreshment area that, as far as I can tell, is just to make the hall feel complete even though it’s just a bunch of highboy tables and the staple soda and pizza vendors, which is perhaps the biggest giveaway when it comes to growing pains.
Granted, this is far better than being seated at the kiddie table across the river where people tended to stumble across purely by accident rather than on purpose. And it’s better than having to turn away nearly every panel proposal every year. And it’s definitely better than everyone quizzically looking around like a John Travolta gif wondering why video games are randomly in Austin.
But this, still early into this promotion to the main SXSW metaphorical stage, has cemented the problems with being a codified track. There’s nothing…weird anymore. One year, there was a Mario Kart go-kart track outside on the lawn of the Long Center. Another, NASA erected a gigantic outdoor exhibit to talk about their upcoming James Webb telescope launch. And then there was that Powerpuff Girls parade that was just fantastic.
Some Swedish developers once stopped me outside a shuttle stop to show me their new game that involved spinning and jumping while holding a phone and then got a crowd of a dozen or so people to play along. All the indie folk gathered at a nearby house for an impromptu house party to celebrate so many of their first and first successful shows. Really, it was an anything-goes kind of event because it felt like the parents at the convention center weren’t looking.
Now, it is big enough that it feels like just about any other show. It has an indie alley of local Austin talent and student showcases. There’s some of the larger publishers with their collective space like Devolver Digital. And, long overdue, there is a sizable board game section with a full contingent of tabletop developers. Perhaps the only differentiating factor is the persistent and varied arcade cabinet offerings. I mean, how often do you get to play Windjammers in public?
There are pros to it, of course. You get folks like Triband showing off What the Golf. You get a tabletop studio that only makes games about language that doesn’t have winners or losers and only endless stories. And you get entire companies making a play like Microsft’s Xbox arena and the Houston Outlaws competition setup. It’s exposure that Austin doesn’t get when it comes to games in an open and affordable way. (Compared to RTX and DreamHack and PAX South, SXSW Gaming’s price of zero dollars means it’s the only way some folks get to give this part of the industry a whirl.)
But then the weirder and more indie-focused panels get overtaken with things like advice for becoming a community manager at major studios or listening to Peter Moore talk about soccer. Exhibit space is taken up by the apparently indestructible Alienware truck and radioactive HyperX signage. The idea that any of those surprise moments of past SXSW Gaming (remember when it was called Arcade?) occurring now doesn’t even cross my mind anymore.
This happens, though. It’s the commodification of something that started out weird and now just can’t stop existing. It happened to SXSW way long ago and now it’s happening to its myriad tracks. It’ll eventually happen to Fantastic Arcade and all the small, oddball, intimate experience that you value. But that also means other ones will take up their mantle. And now, as excited as I am each year to go back down to Austin, I’m more excited to see what takes SXSW Gaming’s place in the local indie space.