Electron Dance
1Mar/13Off

The High Five, Part 2

This is the concluding part of my IndieCade East diary. The first part was posted last week.

the-press-is-your-friend

You wouldn’t have easily picked him out of a crowd, no GTA-style floaty arrow over his head indicating him to be the creative genius you are looking for. But poor old Brendon Chung, stood beside a PC running Thirty Flights of Loving, was always trapped in conversation. I wanted to talk to him but as soon as one person finished speaking to him, another would jump in. And another. And another… until eventually he’d flee the room under the guise, I imagine, of a reasonable excuse. He had to attend one of the presentations. He had to do a thing. Perhaps he had to weep silently in the toilets.

Oh that was a running joke, by the way. In America, the word is “restroom” and Joel keeps saying “toilet” and boy does he sound dirty and not in a good way. I hope you all had a good laugh at my expense. As I wept silently in the restroom.    

Anyway, that's enough about that attention-seeker from Blendo Games. The last talk on Saturday was Kris Piotrowski's keynote about the shit Capy Games went through before they made the big time. As there were problems setting up the presentation, we were stuck in a queue for a while. Yet even here I was still telling random strangers that I had come to high five Richard Hofmeier.

Well, I had to, because who else was I going to talk to? Not Amanda Lange or Richard Goodness. Those two getting on so well was a surprise and they just yakked and yakked with no need for a third contributor in the conversation.

Stop, rewind. I haven't told you about when I met Richard for the first time.

Eric’s shower had thwarted me. There seemed to be some crazy trick to it, the kind of puzzle you'd expect to see in Myst but not a Brooklyn apartment. I threw in the towel then threw on a towel so I could go demanding assistance from Eric. And there was Richard Goodness sitting on Eric's sofa, saying it was nice to meet me.

Richard sings himself hoarse for a punk rock band called Riot Fox so I guess the explosive beard and multiple ear piercings come with the territory. Just like the man I heard on Trekabout, he talks a few decibels louder than everyone else and has two personalities. There's the thoughtful one that observes and analyses, and there's the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil. The former one I think is the punk rocker and the latter is a Bunheads fan.

I didn't work all that out, there and then, of course, because I didn't think either of us were ready for an introduction while I was clad in just a towel. Hi.

kris-keynote-smabu-earth-wars

Let's fast forward into the Piotrowski's talk which tried to cover way too much ground and was cut short. Here's the précis.

Capy started as a spare-time ambition but soon went from there into developing mobile games on contract. The idea was to build up a base from which they could make serious games but, after many years writing soulless cookie-cutter pieces they realised they were stuck in “mobile development hell”: each game was on a 4-6 month cycle and they were working on 2-4 games at a time simply to keep the lights on. Capy permanently teetered on the verge of financial abyss.

The dream of true independence, of making their own games, seemed no closer than when they formed Capy. Then they watched indie auteurs (Piotrowski cited N+ and Everyday Shooter) create their own success with no studio, no reputation, no funding. Others had simply spread their wings and flown. This realisation could have been the end of the studio and Piotrowski confessed he created a lot of “drama” at the time... but somehow they found a way forward. This is not a new story. Boy meets game, falls in love with game, works for the Man thinking he can one day be independent and marry his true love... and either quits or manages to break through.

After the talk ended it was time for “Night Games” but, well, we were hungry. A group of us – Richard, Eric, Amanda, Hofmeier and several others – retreated to a burger place where I spent most of my time chatting with Zenus Ballace about going full-time indie. Ballace is behind QuadraTron Games and is currently working on their Kickstarted Robotronesque game Monsters! but he also runs an “underground electronic music label” Zenapolæ. This, right here, is what makes attending an event like IndieCade East worth the trip: the chance to meet other creative people and be humbled by their achievements. It's an energising experience.

After we spent way too much time sitting on our butts and talking, we returned to the museum to experience the last half hour before IndieCade East closed for the day. I got dragged into the gnome game that was running in the lobby and that was pretty much Night Games for me.

I then attached myself to Hofmeier because I didn't want to fly back to the United Kingdom without having shared a beverage with his Hofmeierness. But, gadzooks, he recruited a bunch of hungry indie devs and we all ended up heading to a sushi place. I didn't eat, but did enjoy being snuggled between Rusty Moyher of the fucking fantastic Bloop and Rob Davies of Playniac. The words “FINISH HIM!” should have been hovering above Moyher's head because he looked absolutely exhausted. It seemed unfair to record an interview with him there and then even though we had a fascinating chat.

Davies seemed more compos mentis. I talked to him about International Racing Squirrels, because I wanted to know something about the game. See, Eric, Richard and I had spent a few minutes pottering around with it and couldn't understand what the big deal was. It came across as one of those grindy Flash games with a shop, upgrade options and little apparent player agency during the races. Yet here the game was in IndieCade East, commissioned by Channel 4 Education and even Hofmeier praised some of the subtlety in it. So here's the skinny on Squirrels: it's a game about international banking concealed in something that looks like a sport management sim, where some of the tougher lessons come later down the line. I'm obviously not the audience for this game but it does seem to have found an interesting sweet spot. Readers can judge it for themselves as it is available as a browser game.

And there he was. Brendon Chung, a man I had been hunting all day, was sat at the end of the table making his way through some sushi. I couldn't bring myself to ask him for an interview so late in the evening, when perhaps he thought he'd rid himself of the Gauntlet of Eternal Conversation +1. So I dumped a business card on him instead and said I might try to catch him the following day. In and out, just like that. He probably thought I was drunk. Wait. I might have been drunk.

George "v21" Buckenham gets everywhere

George "v21" Buckenham gets everywhere

At one point, I was taunted by Richard Goodness to imitate an American. The Americans wanted to see a Brit impersonating an American. In my head, this phrase “oh my god, girlfriend” went around and around, blocking any alternatives. I was tired. I thought I'd just throw it out there. Except the alcoholic content of Kirin Ichiban intervened and mashed the words into

OH MY GOD BITCHES

complete with a campy hand gesture. Instant hilarity, a moment that could have gone viral on YouTube, I fucking swear. You'd all be laughing at me. Electron Dance would have been world famous at last, just not for videogames.

After the developers had been fed, our numbers dwinded to three: Eric, Hofmeier and myself. We searched around for somewhere nice to hang out but none of us knew the area. Everywhere we found was jammed and Eric said the only good places he knew were in Brooklyn. For readers who aren't familiar with New York, Brooklyn is like Wales and Astoria is like Finland, the distances are approximately the same. Hofmeier made up his mind: he wanted the Brooklyn experience.

I absolutely knew what this meant. Joust's Doug Wilson had said he'd join us for a drink but was busy until midnight. While we were in a taxi, my burner buzzed with a text message from Wilson: where r u. He wasn't going to follow us to Brooklyn at midnight and I started blubbering in the car that I didn't know how to answer him. What was I supposed to tell him? The truth, of course, you idiot. And that was how we dropped Doug Wilson from the party.

Eric took us to this bar. Inside, red light washed over everything and a bass-blurred guitar riff oozed from speakers. God damn, I knew this place.

I was in the Pink Room from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Lots of personal stories got exchanged, Eric got excited and banged the table a few times to express himself and I wondered how much Hofmeier objectivity I was flushing away with each swig of beer.

We got to sleep around 5am.

Sunday

Three hours later I was up again because I had arranged a Skype call with Family HQ in UK. Everyone was happy to see me even if I couldn't hear anything they were saying for about five minutes on Eric’s iPad. In time I discovered the volume control. Give me a break. I’d never used an iPad before.

Eric, Hofmeier and I made it back to IndieCade East in time for the “Well-Played” session on Cart Life delivered by Nick Fortugno.

Oh now, this did not go down like I’d expected.

First, Fortugno admitted he didn't like the game. Second, I was really uncomfortable for about five minutes where it seemed like he was about to condemn it for not being a good enough retail simulation (Fortugno is behind Diner Dash) especially as he called out Cart Life's subtitle as “a dodge”. Awkward.

Fortugno waxed lyrical about how Cart Life humanises its characters and does some astonishing things that really haven't been seen in games before. But in the end he didn't like it because the “gameplay is not compelling”. Cart Life is ambitious but fails. The game is work for the player and the final slide read:

drudgery != fun

Are we still debating whether games have to be fun? What?

Hofmeier came out to do a conversation with Fortugno in front of the audience, looking uncomfortable under the spotlight as usual. I now apologise to everyone who attended, because Eric and I were the ones responsible for Richard Hofmeier being well tired. I probably wouldn't want to engage the obviously well-rested Nick Fortugno in a Well-Played session either. But Hofmeier refused to be specific in his response and made a familiar reference to a scene from the French film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles where the audience watches a boring sequence in which a woman makes meatloaf. (See Eurogamer's fascinating interview with Hofmeier for why this is important.)

Afterwards, Eric and I talked to Doug Wilson who shared our discomfort with Fortugno's final thesis but Hofmeier himself was unwilling to be drawn on it. Fortugno had a point, he said, but I think Hofmeier saw what he wanted to see. He has long been waiting for an Emperor's New Clothes moment, when someone would point out the game's built-in mundanity and call it mundane.

Later, I located Davey Wreden, the developer of The Stanley Parable, loosely wearing a dark shirt and tie like a man who'd come home from a hard day at the office. Wreden, a man I suspect was suffering from an overdose of high-grade espresso, couldn't explain anything without getting really excited and making sweeping hand movements. Everything seemed bigger and more epic when he talked about it. In fact, Wreden was my main regret about IndieCade East. I found him fascinating but I'd only just played The Stanley Parable and done no research on him at all. Shooting from the hip will only get you so far in an interview.

Doug Wilson roped me into playing Hokra, which made me nervous. It's not the Hokra that's the problem, it's the Wilson. Wilson is a Hokra pro. Being Wilson's wingman is an awesome responsibility. You don't want to let him down. Who wants to be downgraded from “Doug Wilson's favourite videogames blogger” to “the guy who's rather average at Hokra”? And Hokra gives me a sore wrist. I’d asked Hokra developer Ramiro Corbetta on Friday when he was going to reveal to the world that Hokra was actually a fiendish RSI experiment involving controllers and he openly mocked me in front of Hofmeier, saying that he wasn’t to blame if I couldn’t hack it.

We faced Corbetta and another IndieCade East visitor, so I guess it was an even match. Except just as we were about to start, Wilson told Corbetta that the reason the Sportsenemies won Friday night's match is because of a new bug in Hokra which had changed the way it plays. Corbetta fired back that the change was no bug and had been in the game for some time.

“We’ll talk about this later,” promised Wilson. And the game commenced.

indiecade-main-room

To my astonishment, Team Wilson won round one! I handled myself a lot better on the Hokra field than I had on the giganto screen in ITU Copenhagen last year. I was feeling lucky. If you want to know what pro Hokra players say during play, it sounds like this: “Yes. No. Noooo. Fuck. Good. Fuck. Good, good. Fuck.”

Anyway, I stopped feeling lucky after the second round when Team Corbetta fought back. As we were now tied on games, we needed to go to a third round. And yay! We lost. My left wrist resigned in disgrace, throbbing from the action.

As the day wrapped up, the visitors vacated leaving a smattering of developers behind. The guys from Amanita Design, who were there demonstrating Botanicula, spent most of the last hour on Bloop, a welcome relief after three days explaining their game to others in a foreign language. They looked really happy. That fucking Bloop, man.

The Oculus Rift was still available for a test drive but I had no intention of trying it out as I was pretty sure it would trigger a bout of motion sickness. My fears were confirmed when Wilson came out of a short session feeling a little dodgy.

Hofmeier, on the other hand, had a good stab at it. On a monitor, we could see what he was looking at. He was in some olde worlde RPG town with snow falling from the sky and it might actually have been Skyrim. At one point, the guy showing off the Oculus Rift told Hofmeier to walk under a canopy and then asked, “Don’t you feel safer now?”

“No, I don’t know where I am and I don’t know anyone in this city.” Hofmeier, his head wedged firmly in the maw of the Oculus Rift, looked genuinely lost.

Finally, it was time to leave. I wanted to catch up with Doug Wilson so I followed developers across the street to Five Napkins. The entire place was infested with IndieCade East people. A round of applause caught our attention; Matt Parker, the chair of IndieCade East, was being congratulated for bringing the event home.

Aside from Richard Goodness, I wasn't sure if there was anyone else in here who bore the fabled press pass.

We talk a lot of talk about how games journalists get too close to the PR factories that line the edges of the AAA publishers, but less so about becoming friendly with indie developers. The indies have little power. Some of them can barely feed themselves so are unlikely to send batches of journalists on junkets.

But bloggers who are struggling to attract traffic live an existence more sympathetic to that of the independent developer. They live in a sort of symbiotic relationship and one I've exploited since Electron Dance was conceived. Interview a developer and the developer will send some of their fans to your site to read the results. Some of them might stay. Keep doing this and eventually you will have your own audience. Keep doing this some more and, hopefully, you can truly return the favour with a traffic army recruited from the indie corners of the web.

Of course, I'm not there yet and Jonas Kyratzes' comments in last month's Dialogue Tree podcast about small sites not leading to sales stung a little because I knew it was true. I don't have the power to shine attention on a game without pulling some strings. Cart Life was an exception. First, I went all-out calling it “game of the year” which I can't do for every game. Second, this wasn't enough, so I knocked on Adam Smith's door at RPS and meekly asked him to take a look at the game.

The question I always ask is whether this symbiotic relationship between indie developer and indie blogger is problematic.

So you've read two articles about IndieCade East in which I told you about people I met, the people I ate and drank with. I spent more time talking to people than I did playing games or attending talks. As Doug Wilson said to me, “If you're spending all your time attending talks, you're not doing it properly.”

When I attended Eurogamer Expo in 2010, I found it dispiriting. After playing a few games and attending one presentation, I went home. Today, I can't get enough of the Expo because it's all about meeting new people, making new contacts and learning about what is happening behind the scenes, the trends that are shaping an uncertain future. The things people won't talk about on the record.

Now in private, I will scream bloody murder about a game I hated, but on the site I project a more positive persona, a little too positive at times. When I think about all the developers I've got to know, there is the danger of substituting writing about my friends for objectivity.

The Sportsfriends Kickstarter was the first time this became a real issue for me because I'm pretty anti-Kickstarter. There was some real soul-searching at the time, wondering if I was writing about it because I was convinced that local co-op play was something that needed support or whether it was because, well, I knew Doug. Not Wilson. But Doug.

In the original draft of this article I didn't write about Hofmeier. I wrote about Richard.

Is any of this really a problem? It's not like I have the power to move the masses. It's not like money changes hands. I don't even want to call myself a game journalist or a critic. But there is still a transaction here and that can't be overlooked. Just because it's not a problem today does not mean it is not going to be a problem tomorrow. I get mails from PR factories every week. I ignore them; they obviously think I might be worth the mail. Maybe not today, but perhaps tomorrow.

I don't really have an answer to the big question about the symbiotic relationship, but I keep asking it all the same. That's the best I can do.

Monday

At JFK airport, I phoned Hofmeier to say it had been great to meet him and it would be great to meet up again one day.

I closed the call and then realised something. I had told everybody that I'd come to New York to high five Richard... but, you know what, I never did.

Thanks to Eric and Louie and Hank for letting me stay. At this point I am legally obliged to mention Louie’s five-star service and must not “forget the omelette” in my praise. It was a hot damn tasty omelette, for sure, so thank you for that Louie. Also, much thanks to Richard Hofmeier and Doug Wilson for bullying me into the trip. Oh my God, bitches.

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Oh my GOD this has been in rewrite hell for over a week. Some things were taken out which would’ve made me sound like a right twat and I just couldn’t spin into something more self-effacing or humble. It was super-hard trying to strike the right balance between “woohoo look at me hanging out with all the devs” and something interesting to read.

  2. Well I liked the article very much, millions of rewrites notwithstanding–I’m very much of the opinion that the more rewrites the better. Seven rewrites! Eight! Ah ah ah! (That’s a reference to an American television series called Sesame Street.) Seriously Eric will tell you how awful my first drafts and how drastically my rewrites usually are. I thought your characterization of me in this was wonderful but I thought we’d agreed to pretend the Towel Incident hadn’t happened. I would also argue that my love for Bunheads comes from my punk rock side–either way, Riot Fox appreciates the plug and we will be happy to record a soundtrack for any indie games which need loud dramatic punk. The song we’re working on right now is about robots.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Indiecade aftermath it’s how much it SUCKS to work full time. I’m normally part time but I’ve been on a heavy schedule since the ‘Cade, and I haven’t had time to get to play anything. Everyone’s gushing over Stanley Parable and Unmanned–I didn’t play either of those at the ‘Cade because I wanted to spend my time with games that I couldn’t play at home (Hokra, fucking Bloop man)–you know, iPad stuff or things that you need friends to play–and I wanted to give Racing Squirrels a proper try. And I haven’t had any time to–I get home from work and I’ve either got writing or I’ve got to go to band practice, and then when I get home all I want to play is Skyrim because I don’t have to pay any attention to what I’m doing there.

    But that brings up an interesting point–we’re all reconsidering Racing Squirrels partly because of how enjoyable we (I, at least) found Ron Davis’s company, but because of the context that it was in. Curation is EXTREMELY important, I find. If we had hundreds of games for displays, it would be easy to assume that some lesser games would get in–but in the context of Indiecade East, there were, what, about a dozen games in the main exhibition hall. That group was EXTREMELY carefully chosen. There were enough games I’d played previously or heard good things about (Cart Life, Stanley Parable, Botanicula) that it was extremely easy to trust the tastes of the people who chose the games which would be exhibited–so while at first glance, Racing Squirrels looked like a simple casual racing game (the kind of thing I’d not be interested in), its context made it clear that there’s a bit more going on. (Eventually I’ll get to it, I swear!)

    I don’t trust people who like EVERYTHING–I generally consider cultural omnivorousness to be akin to a lack of taste. And you know me as someone who’s not going to like a game or a piece of writing simply because it exists and because someone worked SUPER SUPER HARD on it. Which dovetails into my general feelings about, for example, Critical Distance’s uselessness–since there is no real criteria for selection, we just see a gigantic list of articles, with no assurance as to quality, and I’ve got a lot of other things to do with my Sundays than read a selection of a dozen or two articles that may or may not be any good. I go in and out of indie games–I was way into interactive fiction in the early 00s and very into flash games in the middle part of the decade–and I’m just starting to learn which sites have a taste that I trust. Besides ED, Indie Statik is doing very well for me–while they do cover a LOT of games, I find their writeups do a pretty good job of letting me know whether or not I’d enjoy a particular game.

    I’m not going to comment at this time on the Cart Life Well Played Session because if I did here, there’d be no reason for me to finish the article I’m currently in the middle of writing. But please, everybody, comment away and give me your thoughts so I can steal them and pretend they’re mine.

    As for the symbiotic relationship, while I certainly see some difficult conflict-of-interest concerns going on, those kind of concerns seem modern and almost manufactured. In the literary world, for example, nearly EVERY writer up to a certain point also wrote literary criticism. Virginia Woolf is an extremely obvious example, mostly because her critical output was just as fine as her fiction. She’s particularly famous for being impressed with Ulysses during its first chapters and praising his technique…and then, as it dragged on, thanking God when it was over and lamenting that she had to “bind [herself] to it like a martyr to a stake”. Pretty much the only other writer that she thought was as good as herself (if not slightly better) was Katherine Mansfield (and if you’ve read Mansfield, you’ll understand why Woolf’s opinion of her was correct). Woolf damns Georgian and Edwardian fiction as extremely shallow–very heavy on details but giving no psychological or internal insight. And works like A Room of One’s Own are canonical Woolf texts. Her criticism, her philosophy, and her fiction are all intertwined: She has a certain view of life which contradicts earlier philosophies and which is expressed in her writing, which is–in her mind–superior to much of what came before her.

    And then there are the Malcolm Cowleys of the world. Cowley is best known for Exile’s Return which is a (goddamn wonderful) chronicle of Lost Generation expat writers (Hemingway, Dos Passos, Crane, etc). While he wrote some poetry and fiction, he was best known for his editorial and nonfiction work about that Scene. Let’s go back to being a curator: The developers that you’re interested in all have some intangible quality in common. There’s a reason you decide to write about certain games–I know in the “about” section of ED you specifically say you don’t look for review copies because you want to play and write about what you want to play and write about. Some people need to write about EVERYTHING–and some people need to write deeper about a specific group of people. As long as that doesn’t turn into a myopia, I think that’s wonderful. Let’s go back to Cart Life: Much of its current rep comes from Electron Dance. I think that’s great–and I think putting this into a more human context works. And let’s face it: This is not an article about how your mommy was a horrible person who forced you to wear a bra and then, insult upon injury, bought you a box of computer games. You incarnate yourself in the space of Indiecade, to give an idea of what being at Indiecade is like and what it would be like for those who couldn’t make it to the event. That’s useful.

    Oh my God, bitches, I’m rambling again.

  3. Your account of the Cart Life Well Played is spot-on, Fortugno was terrible. Kept bringing up The Master, too- the most clinical and detached movie I’ve seen in a long time, but not a drudgery movie. And the play W;t, which he seemed content to namedrop and leave it at that with no explanation. But he sure was eager to ramble about ‘saving the world.’ Maybe it’s just my taste in video games, but I haven’t played a world-saving game in a very long time.

  4. @Richard: If only you could write essays for publication this long =) Thanks for liking the article although, to be blunt, your opinion doesn’t count because you’re in it!

    On the conflict-of-interest issue, the fact that I’m writing things which can compel people to spend money means that I do to need have a sense of responsibility. (Of course, if I were to “take advantage” too much, no one would buy anything I recommend ever again.) The Sportsfriends Kickstarter was about getting the word out for more donations. I think it’s more about having a healthy mindset and paying attention to the potential impact our words can have. I’ve never ruled out sponsorship/micro-advertising of some kind on the site but it throws up issues that I don’t like.

    Actually, one of the aims of “The High Five” was to try to show the people more and dial down on the actual games. Because that’s what this was all about, in the end, meeting people. Hah, I didn’t include anything about how I was pseudo-apologising to Chung and Wreden for not having some really interesting questions for them to answer. (It’s not the first time I’ve done that.)

    I see indie developers as people first and businesses second, a perspective which is useful… but can also act as an Achilles’ Heel.

    I don’t know. Just keep asking the question, right?

    @awkward: Thanks. I didn’t get too much into the Well-Played session here because Eric & I had a lot more to say about it in the Counterweight podcast on Tuesday. You’ll find a lot more dissection of Nick’s talk in there! I agreed with his point on “saving the world” doesn’t generate create memorable stories but I could have done with hearing more of the technical successes of Cart Life’s blend of mechanics. Then again, if he’d just re-iterated everything I wrote about Cart Life last year, perhaps I would’ve been bored!

  5. You’re very logically afraid of what you’re capable of. That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Electron Dance and not really thought about until this article. It’ll probably help keep you sane despite some of the obvious stress in the thought process. Especially if you’re wearing just a towel.

    Also, it sounds like it was a hell of a time, and I hope I can make my way over there one of the next times it happens. Look at you hanging out with all the devs, like, oh my god, bitches.

    P.S. Will that replace “on videogames of the personal computer”?

  6. Hi Sid! I’m never sure if there is an issue or not. If I had an enormous followship then, for sure, you need to think twice about the stuff you do. Seems I’m on this very long grey zone between “having no impact whatsoever” and being a fucking “thought leader” =)

    Actually thinking of dropping the tagline. Thinking about a rebuild of the site. HAHA with all that free time I’ve got.

  7. Electron Salsa:
    gaming thoughts for banditas and bitches

  8. iAy dios mio, putas! iBailemos la mamba del electrón!


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