Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, the game i co-authored with my 5-year-old daughter Cassandra, was a finalist this year at IndieCade 2011. You’ve seen plenty of pictures from E3, GDC, Tokyo Game Show and other more well-known video game industry events, but what’s IndieCade like? Come with me – it’s my magical IndieCade adventure!
Our Arrival in LA-LA Land
IndieCade takes place in Culver City, a close suburb of Los Angeles California, the Most Horrible Place on Earth. i don’t care for it. Ever since getting dumped out of a cab at two in the morning somewhere in LA, and asking some nearby police officers to help point me towards my hotel, and being denied, i don’t much enjoy traveling there. Culver feels a little bit smaller and a little bit homier than LA proper, but it’s still carved up by vicious six-lane mini-highways threatening to Frogger you at every crossing.
i traveled to IndieCade with fellow indie game developer Michael Todd (@thegamedesigner), whose antics i hope you’ve been reading about on my Twitter account (@untoldent). In case you missed it, here’s a taste:
Despite the chaos, Michael Todd managed to spot someone on the plane who was going to IndieCade as well, zeroing in on a guy who was playing SpaceChem on an iPad. That’s how we made friends with Matt from NVIDIA, who agreed to split a cab to Culver with us.
Michael Todd, looking like he’s going to set Matt from NVIDIA on fire.
Michael Todd, after setting Matt from NVIDIA on fire.
We stayed at the historic Culver Hotel, an early 20th century joint situated just up the street from the former MGM (now Sony) studios. Apparently Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley used to whoop it up there while filming Showgirls.
The Culver Hotel by day …
… and by night.
Travel-weary and hungry, our first order of bidness was to beeline for the nearby In-N-Out Burger, which certain folks on Twitter can’t stop raving about. My hopes were high for what many were calling the best fast food burger in existence. My concierge told me to order a “double double, animal-style” from the secret menu. This being LA, i made absolutely sure that we were both referring to a burger.
My meal. Thankfully, my chASStity remained intact.
Of course, no Earthly burger could live up to that amount of hype. You couldn’t find a more pedestrian burger. And American cheese sucks. i took special note of the burger wrapper:
If the very best thing you can say about a burger is that it’s been wrapped in paper since 1948, you’ve got yourself a shitty burger. Here’s a list of other bullet points the restaurant could have printed on the wrapper:
Since 1948, In-N-Out Burgers have been
- legal in 48 states
- made from 100% stuff
- found only at In-N-Out
Aim high, burger joint. Aim high.
Spectacles, Testicles …
The night we arrived, IndieCade held its big awards show. It was much bigger than i expected it would be. The invite suggested we come dressed in “cocktail” attire. This was the best i could muster:
i’m ready for my cocktail, Mr. DeMille.
Many of the other indies, being primal savages, managed to squeeze themselves into pants for the event (which is more than i think most of us hoped for). At the awards show, we were met with a bona fide red carpet entrance.
Jim and emmie McGinley from BigPants games were agog … but not as agog as they’d become when they won the Audience Choice Award for The Depths to Which I Sink a few days later.
You never really get to see a red carpet photo from the perspective of its intimidated subjects, so here you go:
G4TV’s Rob Manuel does his best impression of an Oreo.
Inside, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. A … Chinese-lanterned Chinese Christmas tree from China.
IndieCade assembled a list of Hollywood actors from geek-related movies and shows to present the awards, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Freaks and Geeks actor Samm Levine (famous also for his leading role in Showgirls) brought his A-material, including “programmers never shower” and “gamers live in their moms’ basements and masturbate a lot”. i mean, granted, but i’m sure there were one or two folks in the audience who resented being lumped in with the rest of us.
i swear this guy’s been cryogenically frozen since his show got cancelled.
At one point, two young starlets joked that they should start making out at the podium. i could feel the room bristle uncomfortably. Know your audience, kids.
Ponycorns got a few unexpected shout-outs from the mic, and was nominated for the Community Impact award, but ultimately lost to Johann Sebastian Joust. But it’s an honour just to lose bitterly.
As the party drew on tipsily into the wee hours, more than a few people asked me where my daughter – my five-year-old daughter – was. i had no response. My Twitter pal Ian Bogost cooked up an appropriate comeback:
“Fuck if I know. She got trashed and went home with some 8 year old.”
The Lay of the Land
Aside from the Santa Monica-staged awards ceremony, IndieCade took place within a 3-block radius of our hotel. In the parking lot across the street, they’d erected some neat puzzle buildings designed by a local artist, whose nearby gallery hosted some of the finalists.
They’re cool and all, but i’d hate to see the IKEA instructions.
One of the venues was the Ivy Substation, a local theatre:
The park on the way to the Ivy had a really kickass climbing tree, if you’re into that sort of thing. i mention it in the off chance that you are:
Most of the finalists’ games were on display at a nearby firehall which, to my surprise, continued to operate throughout the weekend.
In front of the fire hall, you can see people playing the cardboard box-based “real” game Ordnungswissenschaft.
Alienware donated the equipment for the showcase. Somewhat unfairly, certain developers were assigned desktop machines with proper monitors, while others of us were assigned little 14 inch laptops. Ponycorns was squished on to one of these diminutive little screens, and shared a cramped table with an interactive geology textbook. “HELL naw,” said i, and grabbed an extra table. Then i proceeded to pimp my table out, Untold Entertainment style:
After the first day, the IndieCade organizers shut down my merch sales, claiming that i couldn’t sell anything because the firehall was a public place and i didn’t have a vendor’s permit. At first, i was asked to remove the two price tags from the shirts and plushies, and was later asked to remove the T-shirt rack entirely. It was kind of a bummer, but one day of T-shirt sales was enough to pay for my cab rides and meals at the event. i can’t help but think that if i had produced a valid vendor’s license for the organizers, they still would have asked me to shut down my merch sales … but that’s just conjecture on my part.
i was asked to speak on a Family Friendly Games panel on Sunday, which was a real thrill. Soon after, some of us piled into a car with my friend Joel from Riot Games (@lowpolycount) to hit up the rarified East coast burger joint Five Guys.
i washed the In-N-Out taste out of my mouth with a proper burger from this place.
Everywhere you go in California, there are these vague “shit be causin’ cancer” signs:
(They must be talking about Cinnabon?)
Conferences are exhausting, and IndieCade was no exception. After being on my feet for twelve hours on the concrete firehall floor, i was wiped. Thank goodness – three tall, frosty glasses of Cherry Coke came to my rescue.
Kids Play the Darndest Things
On Saturday and Sunday, the firehall was open to the public to just wander in, try out the games, and meet their creators. This was, by far, my favourite aspect of the festival. i just loved talking to Joe and Jane Community Member, and it was especially exciting whenever a little kid played the game:
i caught this girl petting each of the ponycorns in turn, giving their manes a test drive. Protip: Fluffybuns has the nicest hair.
Next to our booth was Johann Sebastian Joust, the game that edged us out in our award category. It drew large crowds with lots of clapping and laughter.
Okay, sure – if all you’re looking for in a game is for it to be fun and exciting for large numbers of people.
Each player gets a Playstation Move controller. The players must move around the arena in time to the Bach soundtrack – if you move too quickly, you’re out. So the game is all about swatting someone else’s remote to make it move too quickly and knock that player out of the game. It’s a neat idea, and people loved it.
i met a fellow wearing a paper tie whose father was the subject of Deepak Fights Robots, a Pac Man/Bubble Bobble mash-up that took home the award for best game design.
They really managed to *curry* favour with the … no, never mind.
That’s a Rap
The festival concluded with the Audience and Developer’s Choice Awards. A stunned Jim and emilie McGinley accepted their Audience Choice award, but not before the crowd tried a few rounds of Local No. 12’s the MetaGame.
In the MetaGame, each player gets a deck of cards. Most cards depict video games, while some cards pose a comparison question, like “Which game is a better waste of ten minutes?” or “Which game deserves to be locked in a vault for 1000 years?” The challenger chooses a discussion card, and both players throw down a game card. Then they debate. It’s all very Socratic.
Never debate a man in a moustachioed shirt.
i squared off against Myles Nye here on the left, who wound up trouncing all comers. He later brought down the house while defending Parappa the Rapper by freestyle rapping his rebuttal.
IndieCade 2011 was capped with a backyard barbecue at Robin Hunicke’s house. Robin is a producer at That Game Company (Flow, Flower, and the upcoming Flowest: Flow Harder).
Set phasers to “mingle”.
Ed from Twisted Tree Games (Proteus) toasts a marshmallow, while other bearded men and women make s’mores nearby. The non-bearded gentleman in the background was quickly expelled from the party.
Phil Fish, developer of the Best in Show winner Fez, spun tunes with Richard Lemarchand, of Uncharted fame
i sat down next to Richard to reclaim my key drive, which Phil had borrowed to transfer some music. He introduced himself, and then said “i loved Ponycorns.” i had to admit that i got stuck somewhat early in his game when i was shot repeatedly in the face. He assured me i could play Uncharted 2 without missing important plot details.
Richard is a very nice guy. Very British. This is confusing, because his last name is “Lemarchand”. He makes frequent, almost self-conscious references to Dr. Who. i have a sneaking suspicion he’s an imposter – a Frenchman posing as an Englishman for some bizarre reason. You can’t fool me, Lemarchand. Blood will out.
The Voyage Home
It was an exhausting five days. By the end of it, Michael Todd had learned that hotels not only charge exorbitant amounts for in-room phone calls, but also for in-room death threats.