Everyone has his own strengths and weaknesses: I am a very confident public speaker, and though there are many other things I am not good at, oration is my wheelhouse. I have remarked before that were I as unafraid of snakes as I am of making a public address I would surely be dead, because I would have walked up to a viper or python and smacked it around. I did that once in Palau, though actually it was a triggerfish. But that is another story.
I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who offered his interpretation on the oft-quoted statistic that generally more people would prefer illness or death to befall themselves or a loved one, rather than have to speak in public. That is to say, paraphrasing Seinfeld, that more people would prefer to be the corpse in the coffin than the person delivering the eulogy. By contrast, I joined ComedySportz 11 years ago, and ever since I have stood in front of strangers who have paid good money out of their own pocket for an entertaining show, and I have nothing prepared to say to them.
I don't really get stage fright of any kind, so I have to keep pushing myself to do things that do frighten me, so I don't grow complacent. A couple years ago, I challenged myself to perform a one-man musical that was totally unscripted, minimally rehearsed, and partially improvised. It was one of the most fun and scary things I've ever done. I threw up the morning of the show. It was one night only. There's a video of that night here.
But it's been a while. I improvise musical comedies and foreign films and I love it, but it doesn't give make me perspire or give me butterflies. So this year I invented E3GoMania. This is the story of that game.
To start, you need to know IndieCade is the international festival of independent games. It occurs every October in my neighborhood in LA, though they did one in NYC that I heard was a big success. For the last 2 years, my company Wise Guys Events has participated in the festival, and for the last 3 years IndieCade invited me and Greg to come to E3 to showcase some of our games.
E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, an enormous trade show that happens at the dilapidated LA Convention Center every June. It is where the biggest video game companies unveil their new wares: consoles, games, promotions. It gets a lot of press.
E3 is 100% digital games, IndieCade is something like 70% digital. Every year, E3 provides a booth for IndieCade in which indie games are showcased. Many of those games are digital, and they are frequently among the most enthusiastically and positively reviewed games of the whole conference. And alongside them, IndieCade shows off games like Humans Vs Zombies, Babel Build, and the games Greg and I do for Wise Guys: games like Pickpocket Junction (AKA Trenchcoat Grabass) and Dot Racing.
So when people ask, why are your weird physical games at a video games trade show, I say: IndieCade has a home at E3. Wise Guys has a home at IndieCade. And that's how we came to be there.
For the last two years I've noticed - you can't help but notice - the women who are hired to dress in a provocative outfit and loiter around a booth to attract attention. They're called "booth babes" or "booth bunnies" and it seems to be a practice on the rise. I noticed it our first year there - you can see some of the women posing in the Dot Racing photo above - and last year I was following @br (Brenda Romero) and @hunicke (Robin Hunicke) whose pained Tweets stuck with me.
The whole booth bunny thing grossed me out. I'm married to a Wellesley grad. I'm a feminist. And I couldn't in good conscience attend E3 for another year without adding my voice to the ongoing conversation about the culture of booth babedom. But I don't have a soapbox. I'm a game designer.
So I did what I do: I designed a game.
First thing I did was talk it over with Greg. I told him if this needed to be a Myles Nye project and not a Wise Guys thing, that would be OK. He was on board, and though he didn't have the fire in his belly about the game that I did, he did a great job making our game board and contributed some of the trivia questions. As always, Greg is a mensch. But he was firm on one thing: we weren't going to put any Wise Guys money into the project.
The next person I needed on my side was Celia, co-founder of IndieCade. I knew she would be into the game, and I pitched it to her over the phone while visiting my inlaws in Claremont. I told her that I had come to the conclusion that the game couldn't be done for zero dollars, but that I would put up my own money to make it happen. Celia got the whole picture right away and pledged to do the same. We figured it we got a few people who supported the message behind this project to make a donation in the 1-2 hundred dollar range, we could make it happen. Celia mentioned doing a Kickstarter, but with less than 2 weeks before E3 I said this isn't a Kickstarter. This is pass the hat.
Celia felt that it was important to make the game happen this year, because she thought the heat would be off the issue by next year. My thought was, "Sorry, the heat will be off FEMINISM?" but I went with it anyway.
So at this point I should probably describe the game.
As I first pitched it to Greg, it's simple a trivia quiz like something from the second season of Survivor: when you answer a question right, you move your game piece forward. The questions would all be Trivial Pursuit style Q&A about video games, classic and contemporary. Greg said if this was going to be a Wise Guys project, it would need to have a gameplay mechanism with a little more razzle-dazzle, and I took his point.
I thought it over and, inspired a little by games like The Breakaway on BBC, I proposed a game with a small, fairly simple strategy element to it, and Greg helped me refine it to the version we ended up playing. Players move a game piece across the board by advancing it on red or yellow spaces. When you buzz in an answer a question right, you earn a point of movement, either yellow (by answering an easy question) or red (by answering a hard one). Whoever buzzes in first gets first crack at answering and, if they get the answer right, select the color of the next question and thus help propel their own piece to the finish line. You can also use your point of movement to move an opponent's piece backward. Nothing too tricky, but original, and with opportunities for strategic play and come-from-behind victories.
But of course I'm leaving out the main part of the game. The game "pieces" that players move down the board are hunky men with their shirts off.
all. Just that. Like I said, adding my voice, in a mischievous way, to
say, Hey if the big companies use scantily clad women to sell their
wares, why can't I do the same with men to promote nothing? And if
nothing else, there would be some fairness at the trade show: for the
straight women and gay men who would rather ogle a man's body, something
to ogle. Is more fair than just women on display.
You don't have to be a feminist to be into fairness. I happen to be both.
And this is why the game couldn't be done for $0. Greg and I are used to bootstrapping everything, and a good amount of sweat equity went into this game, but the models had to be talent and the talent would need to be paid for their time. I figured that you could probably get some men for a few hours over the course of 3 days for a couple hundred bucks, but that's more than zero which is what we had when we passed the hat.
amazingly, thanks to Megan Gaiser, Heidi Gamer, Akira Thompson, Richard
LeMarchand, Brenda Romero, and Celia Pearce, we raised the funds we
needed. Now all that was left was to generate enough content to play a
Q&A trivia game for 3 days about a subject about which I know
virtually nothing, video games. I've seen "The King of Kong" and
"Wreck-It Ralph." That's about it. Jeopardy! has a team of writers,
fact-checkers, editors, and researchers to crank out their content. Plus
they know the format of the game and how many questions is enough. We
had just me and whoever I could get to help write questions, and no idea
how many was enough and how many would bring the game to an abrupt end.
Plus, now that we were committed to producing a game show live on the
showroom floor, there were many other details to figure out.
Eek! I perspired. I got butterflies. I got what I signed up for.
For the four days leading up to E3, I was in Boston attending my wife's 10 year college reunion. Seeing the Welleseley alumni parade reminded me of why I was glad to be doing what I was doing. I got some support from by sister-in-law Ashley-Renee, lots from Celia Pearce and Megan Gaiser, and some great questions from Chris de Leon. The rest were written by me, using Wikipedia as my source. Very bad form, but I didn't have a lot of choices.
Meanwhile, our intern Laura secured the models. Two of them were hired from Craigslist; the third was a friend of mine who is a personal trainer. You can read more about Laura and the casting process on her splendid blog, here.
Also while in Boston, we had to straighten out a minor hiccup. Celia was informed by E3 that they wouldn't approve shirtless men because "partial nudity" is not allowed at E3. This of course is an enormous double standard. Look at the women. Just look. So this was even more eye-opening than I was expecting.
It was all a whirlwind, but soon enough it was Day 1 of IndieCade. We had the models in their costumes (wrestling style singlets obtained from a local dance store), a binder full of trivia questions, a gameshow buzzer system, a game board, an announcer, a host. All we needed was contestants and to begin.
I went to the men's room, changed my shirt, looked at myself in the mirror and got psyched up. All right, I said to myself. Let's do this.
This is me with Timmy and Sammy. We have a special relationship: Timmy was the first person ever to volunteer to play this game. Sammy was the second volunteer, and won. But Timmy started the ball rolling. As a game designer and the first person who ever played it, there is a special bond between me and Timmy and I'll always be grateful.
That first day, the game went fine. The questions were way too hard, I wasn't using the buzzer system in the easiest possible way, and I was perspiring like I was under hot lights, which I kind of was. But we had some fun and we discovered that the game wasn't broken. It was a thing.
On the second day, after spending a late night with Wikipedia and editing material from day 1, we began with a better collection of material. And this was when we began to relax a bit and have some fun. This was also the day we had our best contestant, Adam, who was there with his game Love in a Dangerous Spacetime. He knows a LOT about video games!
Another of my favorite moments came on Day 2. We had our first female contestant, Ryan, who volunteered without knowing what she was signing up for. Once she discovered it was a quiz about video games she turned pale, claiming not to know anything about the topic. But she was the only person who buzzed in and answered correctly that the name of the classic PC game where an abominable snowman chases down and eats the player is SkiFree! And then her avatar, James, whom I had coached earlier, pretended to be lost and not know where to go on the game board. I invited Ryan to go take him by the hand and lead him there, but instead she put James on her back and carried him the two feet to the next stripe on the game board!.
Another memorable moment was when Sarah sang the song that made her famous, the theme to "Spaceteam." Spacetheme, I guess.
By the third day, we were really cooking. We had our routine down, there were audience members (women) who had come just to see the avatars, and we had some returning players defending their titles in a championship battle with a lot of right answers coming fast and furious and exciting, strategic gameplay.
By the third day, we were getting some press on some blogs, which was great. And Adam, defending his championship from the day before, won the game by answering the last question I had in my binder. What a squeaker!
Unsurprisingly, nothing changed. Booth babe culture did not shrivel up and die, and the men who see nothing wrong with the women being objectified didn't change their opinions because of our little stunt.
I was actually hoping to attract some negative attention from people who didn't like the game. I wanted to get the chance to be brave like Annita Sarkezian and fight off the trolls. That didn't happen. Maybe I got a pass because I'm a man. But I wanted people to attack me and suggest that I am gay or insecure in my masculinity. I had good answers ready for those things.
But we did what we set out to do: designed a game intended to make things more fair and to bring a different tenor to the conversation about models at trade shows. Judging by the comments on the other blogs, I'd say we succeeded.
Thanks to everybody who made this cockamamie scheme a reality. Now who wants to help us to produce GDCegomania?
For more on this game: