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