Fantastic Arcade 2014

September 29, 2014

Time has wrapped around, concluding my first year going to game developer conferences and festivals. My first, and the Choosatron’s, was Fantastic Arcade. I didn’t know anybody, and had a game that was by its very nature an outsider. That didn’t stop everyone from being incredibly welcoming, and it remains my favorite festival experience. I remember meeting Rami Ismail for the first time, and despite not knowing anything about him or his work, he was the most impressive person I’d met in a long time. After I got home I realized that I wasn’t alone in thinking this, and decided it was going to be a good year. Enough reminiscing!

The timing was better this year, arriving three days early and staying to watch films. It started with an 18 hour drive with my good friend Melissa Kaercher, booking it from Minneapolis Sunday, and arriving at 1:45 Monday morning.

Monday

I managed to put a little time into my Barfcade game, Polite Dinner Extreme (mostly finished during the drive). We spent our first evening with our close friends the Cargills, and caught up over the best fried chicken I’ve had in a long time, followed by long discussions about the endings of various popular television shows, and I even changed my mind about my feelings toward the How I Met Your Mother ending. Summary: I was not against the writers having the mother die, but it was not given the time or respect it needed to work. I’m now with the “they should have ended after the umbrella” camp. Also, 18 year scotch. THANK YOU CARGILL.

Tuesday

I finished Polite Dinner Extreme! Adriel Wallick, one of the coolest game devs I know, arrived in Austin! Melissa and I meet Adriel and Alexander Bruce at Gourdough’s Public House to share in some unique donut flavors. We got four different types and rotated the table to try them all. I believe we decided Alex’s was the best (not sure what kind), and Melissa second with a bacon spicy jalapeño jam donut. I learned all about Alex’s brothers who evidently make crazy bets on just about everything. Also, the man can handle any level of spice. Any.

Adriel Wallick & Alex Bruce

As a bonus, here is Adriel and I with our Muppet faces.

Wednesday

We began our evening by meeting Harry Knowles, his lovely wife Patricia, and a handful of fascinating filmmaking friends at Mister Tramps for drinks. I’ve hung out with Harry many times, but it was probably the most I actually got to really chat with him, joke around, and trade stories. I know, especially thanks to the internet, many people think a lot of different things about the great ginger, but whatever you think professionally, he is a really nice guy that’s a lot of fun to have around; a true geek in the most positive way.

Harry Knowles & Patricia

From there, we went to the home of Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs for some pre fest game fun! Adriel and Alex had invited me, though they didn’t make it, so I got to enjoy my old past time of crashing a party and getting to know a bunch of new people! I’m not being sarcastic, I used to do that a lot and loved it. We played round after round of eight player Gang Beasts, and not only was it insanely fun, but I learned some pretty crazy tricks in that game! Including how to hang myself in the elevator. Then, either due to drinks or exhaustion, I began telling stories about my sketchy game past of Astral Entertainment and Pac-Guy. It must have entertained because they weren’t even sure whether to believe me.

We left just after the sky opened up and an ocean dropped on us. Even with an umbrella (thanks Alex!) we got soaked, and the drive home involved precariously avoiding flash flood areas.

Thursday: Fantastic Arcade Day 1

Melissa and I started the day in our usual fashion, working. By lunch we headed out for an airport run, some food, and finally arriving at the Alamo Drafthouse where we went our separate ways; her to the films and me to the arcade. I felt immediately at home, running into the wonderful people who make FA live: Wiley Wiggins and Joshua Fields to name just a few. It was an overwhelming evening being confronted with so many talented faces that I’ve met over the last year, especially when I’m so bad with names and remembering exactly HOW I met them.

The most frustrating and wonderful moment of the evening was when Adriel brought Tim Schafer over to meet me and try out the Choosatron. I was not ready for this, and though I had a Choosatron with me, I didn’t have the case. I nervously pulled out the essential Choosatron components as Adriel described what it was with far too many kind words. After plugged it all together and I turned it on….RED LIGHT OF DEATH. This of course is the nightmare of anyone demoing anything to someone they respect. I quickly pulled out my laptop, dumping parts into Adriel’s arms, and due to a weird MacBook Pro bug the keyboard and trackpad weren’t responding…fuck. So I hard reset, got set up as quickly as I could while holding the laptop in one hand, and managed to get the firmware working after a few tries! Tim had wandered off at this point. Embarrassed, I took the newly functioning bundle of wires and quickly went after him to prove I wasn’t a failure and a madman. I did lose my headphones at this point, which made me sad.

Thankfully I quickly found him and he was very kind to me. He played a game, though I cringed as the one he picked was a weird internal dialogue story, written for a zine in Berlin, but he seemed to enjoy it. The menu spit out four more choices including a hilarious tale by MST3K’s Kevin Murphy! I quickly sold him on one more play as I was sure Tim HAD to be a fan, which he was, and I managed to leave him with a much more positive impression (so I hope). We chatted a bit about storytelling, creative writing and making it accessible to younger people, and he went on his way! A big deal for me. I don’t have many heroes but he is one. The thing is, it isn’t just about his great work, but that he is a really great person, shown by recent game industry politics as a start.

Tim Schafer & Jerry

During the tournaments of the evening I got to chat with James Brown, one of the developers of Gang Beasts, a brilliant multiplayer game with gooey, rag-doll physics based fighters often wearing Kigurumi outfits. I was excited to hear how they are planning to implement future features (keeping many things optional), and expand into a full single player Streets of Rage style fighting quest.

There was another exciting discovery that evening in the form of one Thu Tran, a brilliant woman responsible for my new favorite show Food Party, as well as a hilarious set of Kinect powered installation games for Cleveland. The games she helped design were clever and irreverent in the most wonderful fashion (see some of them on the day 1 wrap-up here!). I found her sitting on her own in the evening so said, “hi”, and had a great chat about creating interactive installations and having a lot of fun with freedom of design. She is easily on my list of people I hope someday I get the chance to collaborate with.

Friday: Fantastic Arcade Day 2

It started a bit calmer, hanging out in the Highball for a while catching up with people. Kyle Reimergartin, one of my favorite game devs, finally arrived! He is the creator of Fjords and his latest creation Banana Chalice. I played the latter and found a fun bug that he really enjoyed, as any glitch that doesn’t break the game only makes it better.

After this lovely reunion I decided to sit down and finally get the Choosatron working properly so I could demo it for new folks, and show off the latest firmware and stories for existing fans. I achieved this while drinking and bantering with the Young Horses team, especially my favorite John, who likes to make sure I have a decent drink in my hand whatever city we’re in. I was going to show the complete Choosatron to Tim Schafer who happened to be nearby (so he didn’t just identify it with a pile of parts), but while putting it all together with a battery, something slipped apart and it shorted out, killing the Choosatron core and making me quite the sad panda.

I felt defeated and gave up on the Choosatron for the rest of the festival. I felt better after talking at length with Rami Ismail about a new hardware based game design I’ve been working on utilizing rotary phones. He revealed to me how much my design was feeding off my recent foray into working on Room Escape concepts, which we both found really interesting. It helped me gain a new understanding of the framework for the project that I think will be quite valuable.

That evening I went to Tim Schafer’s panel to hear about the development of the original and new HD update of Grim Fandango, a brilliant game made at an important time in game dev history. I went through a few buckets of beer with Bronson Zgeb of Please Don’t, Spacedog! (and KO-OP), whom I had the pleasure of getting to know at Alt.Ctrl.GDC. The talk itself was informative and funny, leading into an evening of tournaments, and eventually heading out to the IndieCade Annex house party. Of course to get a ride there, Alexander Bruce offered to ride in the trunk – evidently something he is used to doing and quite enjoys.

Alex in the Trunk

I had a great long chat with Jason Roberts of Gorogoa about art and storytelling, and the interesting juxtapositions that can be achieved with both. It was one of my favorite chats. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a higher concentration of game developers that I love under a single roof before!

Saturday: Fantastic Arcade Day 3

On the way to the Alamo, I got a tweet from Joshua Fields that he found my headphones! I was ecstatic. He followed it up by asking if I wanted to shotgun from 11 till 3…I wasn’t sure if he actually meant guns, or some phrase I didn’t understand, so I said, “Sure!”. Upon arriving he explained that I could go shoot skeet with shotguns for a while if I wanted to, and I did. I had never used a shotgun before, and it was a pleasure to be taught by Tim League, the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse and co-founder of the festival. I was also fortunate enough to learn to shoot skeet along with Leonard Maltin, the famous American film critic! Pretty…damn…awsome. We shot a 12-gauge pump-action, then a 20 gauge double barrel, which felt a lot better to me. We moved around to various skeet stations, and at one of the trickier ones I had both discs pulled, and managed to hit both with the double barrel! That felt pretty amazing.

Here is a bonus picture of the shotgun crew!

Back at the Alamo I caught up with friends for a little while before hitting the main theater to watch more tournaments for a while. During Towerfall I took the role of commentator with Rami Ismail for a few rounds, and enjoyed generally goofing off with everyone. It was a great day as I’d gotten over the death of the Choosatron for the most part, and was achieving a very relaxed state when it came to spending time with an incredible group of people who I’m around so sporadically. There were so many new games to play, like the super creepy Push Me Pull You, or Jukio’s Life on a Mountain discussed more later. Oh, and let’s not forget that an amazing man recreated the fictional game from The Last Starfighter. Incredible.

The Last Starfighter

Sunday: Fantastic Arcade Day 4

The last day. Most of the afternoon consisted of four fantastic game developer commentaries and a secret alpha game play-test. Starting with the last first was Vlambeer’s Jan Nijman with a prototype FPS that felt very much like Goldeneye on the N64 (in a very good way). Titled Get Killing, it ensures no instructions are necessary once you are in play.

Get Killing

Then Yukio talked about his subdued yet sublime game Life on a Mountain which served as a wonderful reminder of how someone can create a game to express their own simple joys, or express versions of themselves they wish they had an easier time accessing. His discussion about the ambient music system he developed was incredibly clever, and did much to add a lot of texture and atmosphere to the game.

Ben Esposito’s presentation on Donut County was an especially nice treat as he not only exposed a lot about his creative process and intentions with his game, but details on the technical creation as well. He discussed exploring gentrification and the role that raccoons played, and catching himself co-opting a culture he wasn’t capable of representing accurately, so diverted to a more animal based approach for the life populating his world. As someone still fairly new to the Unity game engine, it was great getting to see some of the projects nuts and bolts, like how he laid out his levels, or how he achieved the ‘hole’ affect; which was far simpler than you’d imagine.

Finishing up the game commentaries was the magnanimous Kyle Reimergartin with Banana Chalice, a weird and wonderful adventure of a cat flying through a tunnel consisting of about six zomes. He started with a song for us all to sing, gave us a tour of the process which included him diving into 3D that was new to him, and adorable other small games that helped him make the blood he so desperately wanted. During his talk I chatted with George Royer of Monstrocards and he introduced me to the most awful and terrifying thing I’ve ever seen, which we decided Kyle had to know about. I was able to make sure Kyle also saw this creepy creature video later.

Banana Chalice

Lastly, KO-OP Mode talked about their experiences as a Montreal based game collective, supporting themselves as a team and each members projects. They also introduced their first artist in residence Paloma, who proved multiple times throughout the talk how much she deserved the support of a great team to realize her creative vision(s). GP has a wonderful cat generating project that Bronson helped make a twitter bot for which I happen to love. He and I discussed a project where I can license his cat generation technology, the contract of which I have safely on a scrap of paper. 🙂

KO-OP Mode

This led into the main event, Barfcade! Thu Tran hosted the event where two contestants answered trivia questions and played Barfcade games (mine is here!). They also had to eat some terrifying foods, though the grossest to me personally was having to consume an entire stick of butter. Slippery!

Dinner needed having so I took to the streets with members of KO-OP and we found a great food truck where I had a rabbit and kimchi sandwich. Delicious.

Upon returning, a group of us went upstairs to the Alamo’s themed karaoke rooms, ending up in the murder cabin. It’s been a while for me, but after a great response from singing Mack the Knife I had the confidence to do a few more like Bohemian Rhapsody and Psycho Killer. Also, who knew Phil Fish could pull off such a great David Bowie singing Ziggy Stardust??? So awesome.

Once the two hours were up I went downstairs and caught the end of Fernando and Yukio’s DJ set, and danced my heart out for a half hour, sweating out all the stress!

Fernando & Yukio DJ

The evening concluded with a trip to the Yellow Jacket Social Club where a huge group of people who I know from various events weren’t just fellow game developers anymore, but friends. Sounds cheesy, but it isn’t easy to spend quality time with people at conventions and festivals, which is why Fantastic Arcade is so special to me. It’s the only one over the last year where I forgot I was at a festival at all, and thought I was just hanging out with kind, open, and inspirational people doing amazing things.

Yellow Jacket Social Club

Monday: Post-Fantastic Arcade

I got a few movies in before Adriel got in touch and informed me we were all going to hit Salt Lick for enough amazing BBQ to make us all have food babies. I may be taking artistic license with the wording there…anyway, almost everyone was still in town so we had the chance for one more grand hangout with way too much meat.

Salt Lick Meat

Then moooooore karaoke! My favorite personal performance was Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher. Plus we got to be in the Twilight Zone room this time!

Twilight Zone Room

What followed was three days of nonstop movie watching. I won’t go on about it except to say that the best movie, hands down, was In Order of Disappearance. Melissa and I started our 18+ hour drive back last Friday immediately after a perfect lunch with the Cargills at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, the greatest ramen place ever (that I have personally eaten at). I had a restful weekend, so I’ll sign off now as I get myself back to work this lovely Monday, my birthday. Until next year FA!

LET'S WORK TOGETHER!