There are bodies everywhere on the train from Los Angeles to San Diego. It’s a three-hour ride, glamorously titled “The Pacific Surfliner,” that snakes along the coast. I’ve never taken it before, but my travel companion Brendon has. Today, the Surfliner is over capacity. He assures me that usually it’s not.
Many passengers like us, on their way down to San Diego Comic-Con, will stand for three hours for the chance to experience the mecca of geek culture.
All around us people are talking about the latest Spider-Man storyline, or the Game of Thrones panel they’re dying to see. They are fans, journeying to San Diego to buy t-shirts and art prints, meet creators, and maybe spot some celebrities.
Brendon and I are secretly different. Surrounded by enthusiasts leaning over seatbacks in excited conversation, we sit quietly at our laptops, making videogames. We’re independent game makers (“indie devs”), who left jobs at large videogame companies to make things of our own. Right now Brendon is creating a 3D model of a button for his ‘90s cyberpunk hacking game, Quadrilateral Cowboy. I’m writing computer code to make a giant stone block vanish for my team’s Zelda-like adventure Hyper Light Drifter.
This is what we indies do. Making games solo (in Brendon’s case) or with a few friends (in mine), we take them on the road before they’re finished, to give demos to press or in pitch meetings. When your team is small you have to be your own marketing department, on top of making the game itself. I’m a game designer, a producer, sometimes a writer or musician. Today on this train I’m a programmer. At Comic-Con, I’ll be a marketing guy, on a mission to figure out whether indie games belong there.
When we arrive in San Diego, I check into my hotel and continue to work late into the night. At 1 a.m. I get a call from a friend whose plane just landed, and we go out for drinks until the bars close. By 3 a.m. we’re out on the beach, still awake with nervous energy.
This is my first Comic-Con. I have no fucking clue what I’m doing here.
Thursday is opening day. People flood into the San Diego Convention Center to buzz around the comics, merchandise, and art prints of their favorite heroes. I know this only because I’m tracking it all on Twitter from my hotel room five miles away. It’s a workday for the Hyper Light Drifter team. Today’s Comic-Con for me is game development, coffee, and texting everyone in San Diego to make party plans for the evening.
After a day of programming dangerous fire traps into my game, I catch dinner with a comic publisher to get my bearings in this foreign world. I ask a few questions about the comic business, hear what life is like for its artists, and head out for some overdue social drinking.
There’s a big games industry party at the Hard Rock Hotel, with all the trappings of a convention party — DJ, meekly-used dance floor, open bar, and photo booth. I manage to find some familiar game executive friends amidst a sea of strangers and tell them about my Comic-Con mission: “I want to know where indie games fit into all of this.”
None of the usual suspects from my community are here. Indie devs mostly frequent the game-focused festivals and conventions like E3 and PAX, often banding together to collectively raise our tiny voices. One such collection — the “Indie Megabooth” — is even frequently the biggest booth at PAX, out-sizing big dogs like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. Our games sit next to multi-million dollar blockbusters on digital storefronts. We’ve found a way to exist alongside them and (sometimes) make a living.
At tonight’s party, everyone seems to have the same idea as to why there aren’t opportunities like this at Comic-Con. There’s a waiting list years-long to reserve exhibitor space at the over-crowded show. Games obviously belong among comics, movies, and TV, but all those mediums crammed together make space really competitive. “Okay,” I think, “time to get on that waiting list.”
I know why none of my peers are here. Now what do I do all weekend?
Friday goes by much the same as Thursday — work, work, Twitter, work, business dinner. I spend some time at the Square Enix Experience on couches with friends from the studio, marveling at the mass of con-goers.
Saturday is finally the day. I head first-thing to the convention center and slip into the river of people flowing through its doors. Shoulder-to-shoulder with giggling kids, photo-posing cosplayers, and bag-toting merch shoppers, I wade through the main aisles of the show. The energy is amazing, positive — 150,000 geeks set free to flaunt their fandom.
But I feel disconnected, like a singer in a music video standing still while crowds pass by me in fast-forward. I’m not excited by the flashy displays or exclusive merchandise. I’m worrying about my games, and whether they’ll ever make it into these halls. In an act of desperation I try checking out the Square Enix booth. Their Final Fantasy games were some of my favorite as a kid and continue to inspire my games now as a creator. Surely I can find excitement here.
I find some cool figurines and try to ogle them for a few minutes, but I don’t feel anything. The toys are beautifully crafted — collectible sculptures of my favorite childhood memories. I should be drooling, but I’m not. I wish I were. Instead I’m wondering whether my team should sell figurines of our own. How much would they cost? Whom could we collaborate with to design them? In what feels like an oxymoron, I’m overwhelmed by my lack of enthusiasm.
I take a break to grab some lunch and sit down next to two Game of Thrones cosplayers; one is dressed as Daenerys Targaryen, The Mother of Dragons. We gaze through open windows towards the street and people watch. A passing man on the street looks toward Daenerys and her friend, and calls out, “Lookin’ good ladies!” I wonder how the fuck they still make dudes who don’t know that cat-calling isn’t a compliment; it’s gross. I’m already disconnected as a creator. Now I’m upset by what fans have to put up with.
But Daenerys isn’t phased. She’s made of tougher stuff than I and visibly shrugs it off. A few minutes later she and her friend get up and discuss what panel they’ll head to next. Their costumes are impressive, clearly the result of many hours of passionate, fandom-fueled sketching and sewing, and they have shit to do. They won’t be deterred.
I’m walking out the door myself when I cross paths with The Incredible Hulk. A huge bodybuilder, painted all green and strolling down 4th Avenue with a confident gait. His smile is infectious, today is his day to dress as his hero, just like Daenerys, and wear his fandom proud. I follow The Hulk down the street all the way to the convention center as people part around this colossus to accept his high-fives — a one-man parade.
Back at the convention center, I feel my focus and energy shift. I’m no longer looking at the merchandise and displays — the feats of creativity competing with my own.
Instead, I’m looking at the fans. The smiling chorus of geeks young and old, men and women, of all colors from black to white to green. I see some kids taking a photo in front of a giant Mario face, and I line up after them to snap my own. I am kinda getting it.
I reach the final section of the convention hall: Artists Alley, the origin of Comic-Con. Here writers and illustrators promote their work, independent of Marvel or DC super-publishers to meet fans directly and sell original works of their own imagining. They look exhausted, and I know the feeling. These are my people! Kicking their own asses to promote the art they love to make. The crowds aren’t as dense down here, but I can still feel the love and passion from the die-hard comic fans who cherish the heart of this massive event.
I’m exhausted, physically and emotionally. The aisles of Comic-Con didn’t give me the rush of geek fandom I expected from myself, but I realize that’s not important. What matters is that these 150,000 people do feel it. When I next open up my laptop to push my game forward to completion, I’ll have images in my head of giddy cosplayers and joyous collectors. I can hope my games will get those reactions out of them. THAT is the thought that excites me.
I’m back on the Pacific Surfliner riding up the coast to home. Con-goers have once again packed the train to standing-room only. Again, the train is abuzz with chatter, this time over the newly-revealed Suicide Squad trailer, Ben Affleck spottings, and The Legend of Korra comic announcement.
A man complains to the conductor that he can’t find a seat. The conductor responds, “Sorry, we’re coming from Comic-Con. That’s where all the nerds came from.” For an instant his tone offends me — until the train car around him erupts in laughter. He’s surrounded by nerds, packed-in and proud. I open up my laptop and return to my nerdy job with a smirk.