As I write this, I’m battling the worst (and only) cold I’ve had all year long, which is saying something considering this New York/East Coast winter has been rolling along for what feels like 14 months now. But in arriving at this point, I’m only a few days removed from a trip to San Francisco for our industry’s annual Game Developer’s Conference. In addition to my duties as an ambassador for TURBO, I was also invited to GDC as a guest speaker, giving a presentation on the human element of BitSummit; a discussion on the unknown heroes of the Japanese indie dev scene. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s a chronological recap of my agenda.
Wednesday: Arrived at lunch time. Ignore the gaming industry for a couple of hours and head to Millbrae, CA, and have lunch with and check out the offices of the ThudRumble team (aka DJ Q-bert, ShortKut, and Yogafrog). While Q wasn’t there, I did get to hang out with the rest of the crew, take pics, Vines, Instagrams, and got some schwag signed by the guys. Watching ShortKut in action was just jaw-dropping, and to him it was just a Wednesday afternoon. Yogafrog was a super nice dude to chill and chat with. Truly stellar dudes, and it was an honor to meet them.
One short, quiet, comfy BART ride up into San Francisco later, I met up with my homey and coworker, Jon Yao, and walked over to the Moscone Center to pick up my pimped-out GDC Speaker badge. This badge is truly the one to have at GDC as it functions as a baller, all-access pass into any panel or presentation. GDC hosts a party for guest speakers (I bailed), and gives you coupons for a free speaker lunch every day. I totally did not take advantage of any of this stuff, but I appreciated that they offered such things to us. I made a mental note to implement such perks to future speakers at BitSummit.
After I obtained my badge I had a couple of hours to kill before the Sony PlayStation GDC Mixer (fancy term for big-ass party at the Metreon), and ran into some old 1UP.com mates (Sam Kennedy, Alice Liang, Tina Sanchez) and longtime industry buddies Alex Monney and Shon Damron at Chevy’s nearby. I went and caught up with them for a bit, eventually meeting up with Kyoto pal, Baiyon, before finally meeting up with friends and collaborators in BitSummit, Mark MacDonald, John Ricciardi, and Hiroko Minamoto of 8-4, Ltd.
Once we all ventured up into the PlayStation Mixer, I ran into tons of industry friends from various publishers and Sony itself. As a result, I found myself being ushered past the massive line waiting to get their party wristbands, and motioned over to one particular table where a guy checked my friends and I off the guestlist and handed us our wristbands. Once inside it was nearly impossible to move from a spot as I kept running into dozens of the friends I’d made in the industry over the past decade and a half. This is in no way an attempt to ‘show off’ on my part; it’s just a side-effect of being in the gaming industry for so long. Having recently worked on PlayStation-specific games, ranging from Child of Eden on PS3, Lumines Electronic Symphony for PS Vita, and various PixelJunk games (like Visualizer and PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate) I met up with a lot of the Sony folk I’d gotten to know over the years.
I eventually caught up with TURBO Founder, Yohei Ishii (ex-Square Enix, CCP), and TURBO’s Senior Director of BizDev, Ray Bautista. Of all the TURBO dudes in attendance that evening, I was the only one wearing the t-shirt! I see how it is. One fella I am getting used to seeing at things like this is Martin Jonasson, the dude behind the brilliant tactical game, rymdkapsel. He’s a bit taller than me, which causes me no end of frustration, but I’ll learn to live with it I guess.
From an industry perspective it’s a lot easier to have meaningful conversations at GDC than it is at something like E3. E3 is just a circus, so GDC is that once a year event where we can see everyone else in the industry in one place. Although the party ended at around 11pm, instead of going to the Wild Rumpus party (the place to meet up with the gaming industry’s indie developers), myself, Jon, Cindy and other friends trotted over to Denny’s to get a cholesterol-defying meal that may or may not have involved mozzarella sticks.
Thursday: This was my action-packed day full of meetings that began with a meet-up with a friend and editor from CVG UK (who in turn passed me a card from an editor at EDGE who wanted to contact me). After that breakfast was finished, I walked across the street to Starbucks to meet with an editor from Gamasutra, who wanted to hear all about how BitSummit went, and our new studio at TURBO. Due to the sheer convenience of the location, I fielded almost all of the day’s meetings at either Mel’s Diner or Starbucks. Bouncing back from Starbucks to Mel’s Diner, I then sat down with a former coworker from Q-Games and some new friends from Indiecade who also wanted to discuss BitSummit and possible collaborations on future indie events together. That was definitely a fun meeting. There’s a lot of like minds in the indie scene, a very strong community of people who want to further the efforts of indie developers.
I then left the meeting with the Indiecade guys to catch up with one of my oldest friends in the industry, John Davison, my former colleague and boss at Ziff-Davis Media. That guy is a prophet of the games industry, regularly forecasting trends and the way the industry would move during his tenure at ZD, and I am lucky to have worked with him. So it’s always nice to get together and discuss this volatile business we’re in. We were soon joined by Ryan Payton, he of Camoflaj/Republique fame, and prior to that 343 Industries and Kojima Productions. GDC is actually just like a big, fat high school reunion that just happens to take place every year.
After the day’s meetings were over I shuffled back to my hotel, which was situated in one of the sketchier parts of San Francisco, to work on my GDC presentation for a bit before dinner. When dinner time did arrive, the party consisted of myself, Jon Yao, his girlfriend Cindy Chow, and our friend Chris Fox. We had all met in person almost exactly a year prior, eating at the same Amici’s Pizzeria, so we decided to symbolically return to the same place for dinner this year. The pizza was as good as it always is, but now that Jon and Cindy and I all live in New York City (for them the first time, for me it’s just coming home) we have access to the best pizza in the world, so that tempered things somewhat. Still, it was good to think over just how much we’d gone through to get where we are in the one short year since we first met. In that year, more than a few of us have moved to New York and joined TURBO, to make games in the heart of Brooklyn at our small indie studio on the shore of the East River.
More partying was had on this evening, with Notch’s massive rave, the Microsoft party, and tons of other events. Not for this guy, though. I had a presentation to give to a bunch of hungover editors and enthusiasts in the morning, so back to the hotel I went to tidy up my Powerpoint.
Friday: Unfortunately for my hour-long panel, the GDC organizers switched my talk from its original Thursday afternoon slot (primetime) to Friday morning at 10am. This meant that most people were probably too drunk and hungover from the previous night’s events to bother getting up before noon. But even so I still had a nice turnout of both Western and Japanese media attend, and the post-session QA was really nice. I even had one fellow come up to me and say “Hello, I’m from the Swedish government. I’d like to talk to you after you’re done.” Talk about ominous. I thought I might have to rappel down the side of the Moscone Center, Bond-style, and escape under a hair of gunfire. Alas, there was no espionage to be had that day. He just wanted to talk about working with BitSummit and some cross-continental meet-up/game jam.
That’s the great thing about BitSummit; loads of people in the international indie development community --from Metanet, to Wolfire, to 17-Bit, to the Swedish government, and more-- all want to discover what’s going on in Japan. This is, after all, where a lot of us first discovered the wonders of video games. Whether you’re an old-timer like me, who grew up on Nintendo Game & Watch games (yeah, I got you SNESers beat), or part of the younger generation who jumped into gaming in the 32-bit era with Tekken and Final Fantasy VII, most of us have at some point or another been touched by the magic of Japanese video games. It’s my opinion that in an industry struggling to remain relevant --Japanese publishers are taking fewer chances, breaking less new ground, and therefore suffering as a result-- that the next Shigeru Miyamoto will be found in Japan’s burgeoning indie scene.
My presentation at GDC featured no pie charts, bar graphs or discussions about audience retention. I was there to talk about human beings, people whose games we’re only just learning about, and whose names we barely know. I flipped through a few informational talking points before putting random faces of humble Japanese developers onscreen --whose names I mostly did not know, due to the sheer number of them-- and told random stories about my experiences with the indie scene in Japan, about why we built BitSummit in the first place, and the positive effect it was having on the indie scene.
A friend at Microsoft Games Japan sent me a message, post-session, saying “it was really amazing, and really the only heart-filled presentation I saw at GDC.” While I’m sure he was overstating things, it was still nice to hear an objective opinion. An hour is a long time to go up on a stage and talk about anything, so it’s hard for me to know if that message came across loud and clear.
Ultimately my session was merely the bookend to a short but fruitful trip. The number of friendly faces I simply ran into on the street were too many to name --it seems we all lived in San Francisco at some point-- but I enjoyed seeing everyone. Two standout dudes I’d like to mention are Per Micael Nyberg (the dude from the Swedish government) and Mikey Dowling (voice over producer from Obsidian Entertainment) who has been an e-supporter/pal of mine for years, but whom I only got to meet in person at this GDC. We had a nice lunch and talked about games for a couple hours. I gave him a copy of Stick of Truth to take back to Obsidian and get signed by the dev team for me. That’s how nerd I am.
In reality I was probably only in San Francisco for something like 48 hours --from Wednesday afternoon to Friday afternoon/ That’s a crazy short amount of time when you think about it. So it wasn’t long before I was taking my flight back to JFK and sharing a cab home with my friend and coworker, Jon Yao at midnight EST, Friday night. Somehow I live to tell the tale.