Recently, I was invited to participate in Free Play, an Australian indie games conference. Since I just resigned from Ion Storm 6 weeks ago, in order to pursue my schemes related to starting an independent game studio, and I had just coincidentally started a rant-on-paper about the independent creative spirit driving so much of what I love about games, this seemed like fate or something. I decided to go to the conference, despite my insanely busy schedule, despite the fact that I had just returned from E3 2004 only days earlier and despite the looong flight down under and the jetlag, in order to speak on a subject outside my normal game design comfort zone: inspiration.
Just prior to the last 3 trips I’ve taken-Montreal, LA and Melbourne-I’ve played in late night D&D games with my long-running campaign group, which consists of designers from Thief 3 and the Deus Ex games. I do this to knock myself out on the following morning’s plane ride. So, since I slept most of the way, the flight to Australia was fine; not nearly as bad as I had dreaded. By the time I awoke, we had only 5-6 hours to go. None of the nearby babies behaved too badly. I had an aisle seat and no one sat next to me. I slept, played Tetris for hours (…it was built into the plane seat in front of me), and watched the last half of a movie called “Something’s Gotta Give.” (Warning-avoid this movie unless it turns you on to watch 60-year-olds make out like dry, slow-moving lizards.)
I arrived at the airport at 10am and went through immigration. A pair of cute dogs-a beagle and a lab-searched me for drugs or illegal fruit. Someone immediately took my passport away for a while due to “some problem with my middle name.” He brought it back within minutes and I passed through to the next part of the airport.
My bag finally showed up on the luggage claim conveyor-unlike my recent trip to Germany, when my bags went to wrong city. I was worried my luggage was once again doomed because the international part of LAX (Tom Bradley) seemed to be run by 100 slackers, none of whom spoke the same language. (When I dropped my bag off, they scanned it, tagged it and handed it off to someone who walked it into a small office nearby. I wondered: How can this be their routine process for getting bags to Australia?)
Outside in the airport lobby, Binh picked me out of the crowd. I’d never met him, but had been told by email that he would find me. (“We have organised the conference assistant, Binh Nguyen to collect you at the airport. Binh is Vietnamese Australian, about 25, so keep an eye out for him at the gate.”) Binh was with a friend who was holding an ice pack to his face; he had a huge swollen spot next to one of his eyes, and claimed to have walked into a pole. I picked up a cup of coffee at a nearby counter-after struggling to order, since I had no idea what “white coffee” was-and we headed off in Binh’s car. He and his friend were smart and fun; we chattered and laughed most of the way to downtown Melbourne. (When I said “downtown,” they were both confused. Apparently, they say, “CBD,” for Central Business District. But after a second they knew what I meant, claiming to have only heard the expression “downtown” on the TV show, The Simpsons. Go, American culture.)
We drove for half an hour to the conference. This was the first year for Free Play. Some of the developers in Melbourne are very indie in nature. They’re just talking about getting an IGDA chapter off the ground. So it was a really cool time to come in contact with them. I met Fiona, who had brought me over, and several other cool people, including Katherine, Casey (the tech director for the conference), and David (from Tantalus), the driving force behind the upcoming Melbourne IGDA chapter.
Day 1 Continued
The keynote speech-which I was scheduled to give at 6pm-was to be held in a dojo, which I liked a lot. (There was actually a framed photo on the wall of a screaming Australian martial artist getting poked hard in the eye.) By this point, I was running on fumes. The conference got under way, in a super casual “set up the stage audio stuff as the speakers are talking” fashion. Looking around, I saw a bunch of people who were there to do a good thing because they were having fun, because they wanted to, not because they were being paid a lot of money to do it. It was really refreshing, in contrast with the energy-charged, but impersonal, mass-spawning-waters experience of E3, which I’d attended less than a week earlier.
After the conference got under way, Fiona recommended that I head to the hotel for a shower and a nap. (I was looking even more bedraggled than usual, apparently.)
The cab ride to the Ibis hotel was cheap and the driver was friendly. He’d moved to Melbourne in 1957, years before-in his vernacular-I was a wicked grin on my mother’s face.
At the Ibis, my plans were dashed. I couldn’t check in until 2pm, something like 4 hours later. I couldn’t buy Australian cash with my plastic, so I was only able to get enough for a locker. I dumped my baggage into the locker, and then went into the lobby to use the Internet. However, both terminals were down. The Ibis is cool, but it’s not the W, I learned. I trekked out into the streets, starving and exhausted, looking for food and connectivity.
It was looking more and more like I would have to give my speech un-showered and un-rested. (Before arriving, I assumed that I’d be able to rest for one day before speaking, as is the usual custom in the tech-culture-conference world.)
I walked for blocks, checking out 3 Internet cafes. None of them would let me plug my laptop in; they would only let me use their computers. Since, before leaving the US, I had left a world of intriguing business and game studio developments in a whirl at my back, I really wanted Internet access.
At one of the Internet cafes, the attendant was also a vegetarian. She recommended a place to eat called SushiMax, which was good. Starving, I ate too much, probably to kill time and busy my anxious self.
My laptop batteries were fading away as my own biological batteries were doing the same. I had tweaked my speech on the flight (of course), so I copied it to a USB keychain fob just in case. (I suddenly wondered: How can the GBA have so little memory when this tiny keychain fob holds hundreds of megs?)
Back at the Ibis, they finally let me check in. I took a shower and-after lying in bed for a long while, fighting jetlag-managed to get an hour of actual sleep. When I woke up, I felt like a donkey had kicked me in the head, so I took another shower.
I had a taxi drop me at the Free Play conference dojo and prepared for my speech. I’m not sure how many people were there, but I was told it was a couple of hundred. Who knows… This was my first speech that wasn’t specifically about game design. It was all about inspiration and hanging on to the spirit of creative independence in the modern game development climate. Everyone I talked to seemed to like it, but then again the Australians seem like very polite people to me. So, again, who knows. I enjoyed delivering the talk, one way or another.
I hung around after the speech and the conference slowly transitioned into a party. I didn’t have a drink (just because I didn’t feel like it, in my exhausted state), but everyone around me started getting sloshed. I spent 5 minutes with one group, 10 with another, moving around and meeting as many people as I could.
One of the best conversations I had was with a guy who had been called “insane” at an earlier session for asking whether interactive media might someday be more culturally relevant than film. I opened my laptop and showed him a rant I had written earlier in the week on the exact same subject, sharing his viewpoint. This gave him a feeling of vindication, I think. He was smart and passionate.
At some point, the party transitioned from the games group to the film group; within an hour, the room had a much higher ratio of hip haircuts, attractive women and (I kid you not) men in fur coats, Tyler Durdan style. It was increasingly difficult to hear the drunk people talk over the obnoxiously loud DJs. Wanting to go back to my room, I finally walked out with a group of developers-with whom I had spent the last half hour talking-and said goodnight, flagging a taxi.
This cab driver was a serious racist, explaining to me how his favorite hate group controlled the world’s economies. Last time I’d heard this rant from a cabbie, I was in LA, several years back.
At the hotel room, I tried to call back to the states, but failed to figure out how. Feeling totally frustrated by technology and totally cut off from my life, I fell asleep, exhausted.
When I woke up at 7am, I was experiencing a terrible caffeine-deprivation headache, recognizable across all cultures (and eras, I assume) by coffee drinkers. My body-due to the time change-had expected a heavy dose of caffeine at 4pm the evening prior. Staggering like a zombie, I made my way down to breakfast without showering…that’s how bad I felt. An hour after having coffee and breakfast, I was back to normal.
At the conference, a company called Nocturnal had sponsored a breakfast. I briefly talked again to Casey-the conference tech director, who was an expatriated American from Chicago-and then I went to fetch us both some more coffee half a block away at a deli.
The deli was small, but friendly. As the woman behind the counter made us two coffees (“tall, black,” as Casey had described them, using the Aussie vernacular), I listened to a man and woman at a nearby table talk excitedly about 3D graphics-related math; Free Play spillover, no doubt.
Back at the conference, I talked to some more evocative people, including a media-arts guy named Adam, who had filmed my keynote speech and planned to show it later in the month to a bunch of students. (Very cool-normally only the privileged people at a given studio or school get to attend conferences.) Adam also had an exhibit showing (the following day) at the conference.
I listened to a speech given by Damien Scott, the game designer and mod community advocate who had created Team Fortress. Nice talk-he and his partner seemed like smart, fun people. Listening to them made me wonder, once again, as to the exact definition of a mod developer. (Was Deus Ex an Unreal mod?) Several things they said resonated with me; in ways, the distributed development some more mainstream developers are starting to employ resembles the way the mod community works. I’d bet a lot of the problems have already been experienced (and often solved) by mod makers.
I wanted to corner Damien Scott for a chat, but never got the chance.
An hour later, I sat on a panel moderated by an art curator and designer named Rebecca. Also on the panel were Brody Condon, an innovative interactive artist from C-Level, and Ian Bell, who had co-created the classic game Elite.
The panel was on politics in games. It was inspiring and humbling at the same time. Inspiring, because it’s cool that people like Rebecca, Brody and Ian have put so much thought into activism. Humbling, because games like Deus Ex only barely scratch the surface of dealing with thematic issues like violence or gender politics in games, and really I am much less thoughtful about politics than a bunch of the game developers I know. Ian Bell, for instance, was a fountainhead of mindful comments about how games carry political messages whether intentional or not. (It struck me that if Bell and Will Wright ever end up in the same room for more than an hour, the world itself might instantly change in some good way.)
At some point during the panel, a person named “Kipper” was piped in through virtual chat with speech synthesis ‘reading’ the chat log. This was fairly interesting in and of itself, but apparently Kipper is someone associated with a very impressive political game project called Escape from Woomera. Prior, I had no idea there was this big point of contention over the unethical treatment of refugees in Australia. (It sounds horrible, and just goes to show how unethical behavior on the part of governments and law enforcement is a potential danger everywhere.)
Day 2 Continued
After the panel, a group of around 7 people approached me and said they’d heard from friends that my keynote was good. They wondered if I could cover the high points. Instead, I offered to give the speech again, at some nearby restaurant of their choosing. We all took a long walk back to the hotel so I could grab my laptop. (Along the way, I stopped once to get more coffee, at Starbuck’s no less, and again to browse the D20 section of an Australian RPG store. The guy working behind the counter looked just like Andrew Leker, co-designer of Oasis.)
At the hotel, I gave my talk again for this small group, downstairs in the hotel bistro. They drank orange and pineapple juice, while eating potato wedges and listening. Afterward, we hung out and talked for another hour. Some of them in the group were developers and some of them were students. One of them fondly mentioned that-two years earlier-Doug Church had come to Australia and had given a meaningful talk at a development conference. One of them, Mark, had developed MS and had lost the ability to walk a couple of years earlier; he had not given up on his game development dreams, though, and talked passionate about his future plans. Game culture people never cease to amaze me. Eventually, I bowed out and returned to my room for a while.
At 830pm, I met some of the conference people at Lebanese House, a restaurant. Dinner was great; we talked about games and world politics which are, at the moment, the dog’s breakfast, as some of the Aussies might say. I sat next to Katherine and Fiona, from the conference, and Ian Bell (who is also a vegetarian).
Afterward, Ian and I went out for a beer with Brody and Ian Shanahan, a mod developer who had worked with Kieron Gillen on the Deus Ex mod called The Cassandra Project. We walked seemingly forever, just to find something resembling a bar. (Discos were everywhere; quiet pubs were rare.) We finally rested at the oddly-named Spaghetti Tree and ordered drinks.
For me, this conversation was great: Ian Bell (a veteran game developer whose game Elite touched many of people I know, putting a permanent watermark on their memories), Brody Condon (a world class interactive artist, who boldly works on projects like Waco Resurrection), and Ian Shanahan (an exceptional mod game designer and a really fun, smart guy). I would nerd out with one of them about games, only to have someone else at the table pull us hard in the direction of art or political message, then we’d drift back toward talking about gamer-thrilling features that wanted to eventually see in games.
This conversation was essentially a commercial for the value of having a diverse game culture. We talked a lot about what game designers, mod makers and artists might be able to do in the next two rounds of games, using some of the Ken Perlin-style emotive animation tech. (We really wanted to use this same stuff for Deus Ex: Invisible War, before our total mismanagement of the technology we were creating ate our freaking lunch and cost us a bunch of our game features, aesthetic goals and polish.)
The Goth and the Ultra-modern
In keeping with my jetlag trend, I had breakfast at dawn while reading the local papers and working on my laptop. The sunrises in Australia are beautiful.
Later, I walked 15 minutes to the conference and listened to a panel while eating an Aussie doughnut. I also went to an art-interactive installation called Faux CAVE, hosted by Adam Neykoff-Davies. Mostly, though, I just hung out on Day Three and chatted with gamers and developers, non-stop. Ian Shanahan is full of great ideas and is recovering his passion quickly, I think, after pouring himself into shipping the first episode of the Cassandra Project. I met lots of artists, designers and technologists who were full of good will and great ideas, confirming my finding that Melbourne really has major potential as a center for game development; many different energies in one place.
Later, after the last panel/speech, we moved all the chairs out of the way and started setting up for an expo of demos and games. (Half-jokingly referred to as “E3.1b.”) Around this time, I almost single-handedly demolished a snack tray-being ravenous, due to missing lunch-fully conscious that I must look like a pig to nearby Fiona Maxwell, leader of the brains and muscle team behind Free Play. By the time evening rolled around, I was wiped out. After many more conversations, I headed back to the hotel for a “nap.” But of course I was unconscious until 4am, so I missed the last night’s activities entirely.
As the games/interactive branch of Next Wave, Free Play is an interesting and meaningful conference. It feels like a stripped-down GDC seen through the lens of DIY independence. I had a great time and I appreciate the invitation to contribute.
I met students, developers, modders, organizers and artists…enough to convince me that Melbourne has a thriving game dev culture. Hopefully, an IGDA chapter will be forming there soon. I saw no kangaroos, crocodiles or koala bears…just a very livable city and bunch of fascinating people expressing themselves through interactive media.