I have seen every side of this organization. Nights out with my boss’s bosses, nights in with tenth-string RPM channels as we drank beer and watched horror flicks about King Tut’s curse. I know someone from every vertical, hear tell of every project and rumor and hire and fire. Even as I began covering indie development. Even when I shifted focus to outside projects. Always have I kept an ear to the ground, hoping to preserve my exceptionally specialized freelancing position in a company that is constantly moving and changing and expanding.
To say there is an uncomfortable air of fear in security is one (perhaps overblown) thing. To see the largest and only production of its kind, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line and an entire secondary production company locked in silent rapture under lit signage for Mountain Dew, the entire project gloriously rupturing like the belly of the Bismark – that is another. To be ushered by muted fear and nervous glances, to stand in desolate directors rooms filled with black screens and empty chairs. Darkened judging stands. Color-coded team challenge floors, soon to be dismantled, but left intact in the hopes that some shimmering archangel would descend and reinvigorate the eleven indie developers currently revolting against Maker Studios inside their rented Winnebagos.
To see the funeral procession of high creatives and story writers and production directors as they left the studio lot, heads down, on their way to a punishment tribunal we would only learn about in cracked voices and quaking half-jokes. The fake grass, crushed cigarette butts and empty beer cans. The trays upon trays of uneaten catering. And the understanding that it was a total wash, completely unsalvageable from a production standpoint, while the developers sat in tears, horror and shock on brand-integrated lawn chairs mere yards from a freelance crew already looking for their next gigs.
“Remember when it was just the five of us,” one of my supervisors asked me, “playing Dungeons and Dragons over the taco shop?”
“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “But that was a long time ago.”
I work at Polaris, but not as an employee. I contract out. Still, they pay my bills, and in return, I create for them on a scale and timetable no one has yet been able to match. On the other side of the coin, I do the brunt of my work in the indie games sphere as a reporter. I’ve worked with the developers that were involved here, I’ve covered them, and in some cases, I’ve written for their projects. I understand their processes and this industry on a deeply intricate level, and I know exactly how and why they rallied together on that Thursday evening and collectively rebelled against my biggest clients.
Maybe I’ll walk away from this unscathed. Maybe not. But either way, I have a job to do, and I intend to do it to the best of my ability.
This is the story of the most expensive, most highly-produced game jam in the history of the video game industry, and how it was dismantled by a single man.
Let’s get started.
GAME_JAM didn’t start out as a reality show; I know that for a fact. The original concept work came from Indie Statik’s then-face Josh Mattingly and Game Jolt founder David DeCarmine, back before that ugliness back in January lost us half our staff and an EIC in around twelve minutes. By then, the natal idea had already been picked up by Maker’s Polaris vertical, which deals in gaming entertainment and editorial offerings for a mostly YouTube-based audience and was tossed into the hands of Aaron Umetani and Jason Serrato, two on-site producers who specialize in larger projects going back farther than I’ve actually been here (and I’ve been here a while).
That natal idea, and one of the themes central to all eleven developers agreeing to travel to Los Angeles for the shoot, was the production and filming of a game jam for a televised audience (or at least a YouTube audience) with the intent to document the ups and downs of actually developing a game – hopefully sharing that experience with a viewership likely ranging into the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. More importantly, it would be an opportunity for the group to share the closely-knit spirit of togetherness unique to indie development, presented through the lens of popular YouTube personalities with massive, mostly younger built-in viewerships. A slam dunk, you might say, created in earnest to shine a kind of light into the often misrepresented world of creating… or, at least, that’s what everyone thought.
At some point, GAME_JAM outgrew itself, attracting the attention of major sponsors, as well as a couple of our “high creative” production executives from the adjacent office down the street, and over the next four or five months, the show began phasing into something less documentary and more docu-tainment. A sort of competition, held between four teams of “Jammers” (the developers) and “Gamers” (the YouTubers) as they battled it out to see who could come up with the best game combining both development and entertainment skillsets. Plus to see who could win a healthy array of branded prizes, generously procured by said sponsors and totally un-vetted by anyone who actually understands game development. At some point which remains unclear, the show wholly dipped into a scripted reality slant and became less about making a game, and more about creating drama for sake of the audience, less than one day out of the four blocked off for shooting available to sit down and jam. The rest of the program, as it turned out, was filled with arts and crafts, physical challenges and competitive gaming – once again, totally unrelated to game development. But that wasn’t communicated to anyone, and through Polaris’ local contacts, the developers were signed up and flown out to Culver City, where they awaited their first hurdle in Maker’s legal department.
What Zoe Quinn and Robin Arnott later described as “Day Zero” is still a little hazy to me, mostly because it was the only day I wasn’t there. Sure, I was aware of GAME_JAM (early on, I offered names for devs who might want to be involved), but no one asked me to show up as press until Wednesday night, and I didn’t get an official invite until the following afternoon. What is clear, however, is that the pair fought a fairly bitter battle over the contracts everyone was supposed to sign with legal, who had drafted sweeping, draconian agreements meant to completely protect themselves from any kind of resulting legal issues. Standard practice for a production company, but the wording, once again, failed to understand what game developers actually do.
I’ve read both the original and revised versions of the developer agreements. To Zoe, Robin and Maker’s credit, the second is far fairer a deal. To say that the first was an overstep would be a bit of an understatement.
Points of contention were numerous, but from what I’ve been able to gather from both sides, a huge issue was a clause that forced devs to avoid self-representation in any form of digital media during the time period the show was originally supposed to be broadcast. From Maker’s standpoint, GAME_JAM would take place, and nothing would compete with it or detract from it during that time (or two weeks following that time). Fair enough. From the developer’s standpoint, they wouldn’t be able to represent, voice or otherwise appear in, on, or for their own work. Games. Writing. Outside projects. Anything that took place in a digital space (so for most devs, everything) that could be construed or argued as competition was potentially grounds for breaking the agreement and inviting a lawsuit.
Another clause allowed for willful misrepresentation for the sake of drama, something that could sink the developers’ careers. Another required devs to travel around on Maker’s timetable in the event interviews, talk shows or reunion episodes were required, but if anyone lived less than 200 miles away, they would have to foot the travel expenses themselves. Still more was a lifetime barrier against defamatory language against the company, even if something went horribly wrong.
Maker was protecting itself. And in all likelihood, a lot of these sticking points wouldn’t have actually been pursued (otherwise, they’d be suing their own channels every minute of every day. Or me, for at least three reasons I can think of off the top of my head). But by wording the contracts so aggressively, they ran right into the livelihoods and independent agencies of every GAME_JAM contestant from the minute they hit the pavement. The option was there. The possibility was real. A massive lawsuit over some minor breach was a non-zero probability. So, as contract negotiations tend to go, most of it was eventually changed.
The digital competition clause was dropped. The travel and advertising clauses were altered. Time-sensitive restrictions were made more lenient, and the contracts became palatable enough for everyone to get on-board.
Perhaps this should have been expected when an entertainment start-up not well-versed in game development ran into a group of actual developers. Unfortunately, it all came to a head at the last minute, sapping everyone’s energy and putting a bit of a sour note on the experience early into production, but the opportunity was still there to show the world what making a game was like, and everyone stuck it out until day one – when I finally arrived on set, and when everything went to Hell.
Sixteen hours later, I walked into Maker’s Culver-based filming suites not as Polaris or internal press, but as an independent reporter not even necessarily with Indie Statik. I wasn’t being paid (and I asked – a lot), I wasn’t under contract, and I was by myself – the only journalist, invited at the behest of the producers and (I was told) the developers. Introductions were just starting. Takes were being filmed. And the set… that set.
In my almost three-and-a-half years at Maker, the company has grown from a small office over a real estate agency (who still call me to sell timeshares) and a taco place to one of the biggest new media start-ups in the world. Our relationship, though at times contentious, has been stable enough to the point that I’ve seen productions of every scale imaginable – from my own show clocking in at under a thousand dollars an episode to multi-million dollar, old-media style affairs that pull talent from every corner of YouTube and Hollywood. It’s mind-blowing the kind of shit they’ve done, but to date, I’ve never, not in all that time, seen a Polaris production the scope of GAME_JAM.
The entire building had been converted into a gigantic, branded reality show set, complete with a judge panel, a stage for the four teams, color-coded workstations with computers and conspicuous Mountain Dew signage. Developers from across the indie spectrum had been flown on the company dime to LA, with the intention to live and work in four gigantic Winnebagos that were being re-fuelled and re-stocked with water, electricity and supplies every few hours. An entire second production company and a small mercenary army of creative consultants zipped about the stages, while dozens of TV-quality cameras hovered unblinking over the central floor. Joe “AngryJoe” Vargas and Kellee Santiago of Thatgamecompany presided over a stage of Zoe, Davey Wreden and Tom Jackson, Adriel Wallick, Robin Arnott and Cale Bradbury, the Arcane Kids and a three-man student team from USC. It was spectacular. It was outrageous. And it was… alien.
“The juxtapose played out like a sick, surrealist painting…”
Indie development is small. It is a very closely knit, communicative place bound together by common causes and artistic vision. Everyone knows everyone, and they all understand that the process of creating games isn’t a flashy affair; it is a deeply invested journey that requires energy, passion and thoughtfulness on par with any other artistic medium.
This, by contrast, was loud. It was very loud. Beyond anything I would have ever expected to see associated with these people, having known some of them since my earliest days covering games for Statik. Robin Arnott, MY Robin, who built a chanting-based psychoacoustics game based on an acid trip at Burning Man, standing under a gigantic soda ad? Adriel, who used to make satellites for Lockheed Martin, being stricken back to one so she could enter and re-enter the room over and over? How would Davey, the guy behind self-aware existential satire The Stanley Parable, react to the pageantry of this… whatever it was?
The juxtapose played out like a sick, surrealist painting, with producers getting orders from two huge command blocs on stages 2 and 3, where Ray William Johnson used to film =3 and Jesse Cox did a 48-hour livestream of Final Fantasy VI. Guys with secret service earpieces and disheveled clipboards barked instructions on how to properly represent branded products. Production assistants rushed around with instructions and codes and bottles of water. An uncomfortable tension gripped the air as everyone shifted nervously for the cameras, nodding slowly as people ebbed and flowed from the room every minute.
I watched, for a moment, taking in the terrifyingly enormous spectacle of it all, and was quickly shooed into a corner behind a teleprompter.
I’d never met Matti prior to GAME_JAM, but I’d heard of him. Multiple central figures in multiple departments complained privately to me both before and after GAME_JAM about his conduct. He was apparently some kind of middle man between Pepsi and the branding teams, though not a full-timer, and was apparently very good at it.
Somehow, he had ended up as the most visible director on set, as well as what was described to me as a “Pepsi Consultant.” I quickly took from his posture and the way people were interacting with him that he would spearhead the tone, the filming and the brand-friendliness of the entire affair – but I was wrong. He ended up being a creative consultant who had somehow slipped into the project through his connections to the sponsors, the de facto “guy” by virtue of being the loudest.
He was also a huge liability, and everyone knew it. In the later stages of GAME_JAM’s development, once the decision was made to bring on a second production company, pre-production meetings quickly turned towards one recurring fear: that someone external would say something offensive, trip an emotional switch, turn the environment toxic – and the devs would walk. It was the single greatest worry of Umetani and Serrato, who seemed to understand the nature of the space and the sensitivity of everyone to all-too-common bouts of explosive sexism and misogyny throughout the industry. Matti and the members of the second team were a time bomb, but for some reason, no one did anything about it.
“I didn’t do anything when I had the opportunity,” Aaron later explained as he took a long, slow walk back to set, glancing around nervously as he filed his fingernails into barely-recognizable nubs. “A lot of us didn’t. It was easy not to, you know? But Jason did. Jason stood up to the guy, and I failed to.”
He hung his nail file on the side mirror of a green sedan, staring into the ground as though he stood on the edge of a skyscraper.
“I guess a lot of us found out who we are today. And I don’t feel good about it.”
The First Challenge
The first shots of the day went smoothly. JonTron, Markiplier, Sam Strippin and CaptainSparklez were attached to their respective teams, and the whole procession was moved out to the competition floor with what was honestly a buzz of cautious excitement. Everyone seemed to be getting along, and the YouTube talent was honest and open about their lack of coding ability, offering talents in graphic design and voice over to blunt their eventual hamstringing of everyone else. The judges seemed interested. No one threw a punch.
Despite some initial weirdness, all early indicators said this was going to go over fine. I checked the schedule and the prizing for any reason it might go otherwise and was greeted with some confusion – the prizes themselves. Every challenge had an item that would go to the winning team, but they ranged from Mountain Dew “Dew Packs” (we never found out what these were) to a free pass into Microsoft’s Xbox One indie developer program (which every single person present either had or could get with a phone call).
And everyone “got it.” It was a reality-kinda-sorta-thing. Sponsors would be there. Mountain Dew would be there. Dramatic tension was likely unavoidable on some level, and the prizes would be dumb. If anything it was just poor planning, and maybe some questionable brand integration. But no one, not a single person there, expected Matti to push the stuff so unnaturally, barring any drink that wasn’t water or Dew from being consumed while the cameras were rolling. Even the development manna that is coffee was barred from set, and if anyone wanted some, they had to leave their workstations and get it over by where I was sitting – an unlit chunk of Rodeo-side work space normally occupied by someone named Brad. Then came the demands.
Davey was forced to take off his nail polish because he couldn’t hold the can with it on. Zoe had to take off the buttons she usually wears on her jacket, but shouted down a PA who tried to make her cover her tattoos. The Arcane Kids were screamed at for not holding bottles right, while the entire group was lectured on how to properly smile like you’re enjoying the product – a product that everyone was enjoying less and less. The slow train wreck of faces flipping into scowls marked only the beginning of what would soon turn into an utter shitshow.
JonTron and Zoe butting heads was something I was worried about from the second I saw their team line-up. Tensions were high, and everyone was out of their element, but if any two personalities weren’t going to gel, it was them. And they didn’t, to no one’s surprise, but the pair quickly left to talk in the hall, instead of letting it sour the group dynamic. The second their feet left the competition floor, however, something happened that I didn’t expect: cameras. Cameras from every angle and direction, marching in to the discussion as someone started feeding the fight with inflammatory comments, and all of it filmed for what would likely be some of that legal “misrepresentation.” Zoe was horrified.
The backlash of Depression Quest appearing on Steam Greenlight is not lost on me, and it’s still a fresh wound to both Zoe (who had to change her phone number due to death threats and harassment) and many female game developers and journalists who call the industry their home. The potential backlash of being “the bitch with a beef against JonTron” was all at once shockingly real, and by even having it on film, the risk for a fight to be cut into the show began to grow on everyone’s mind. Jon didn’t want that. Zoe definitely didn’t want that. Serrato, Umetani and the many producers spectating didn’t want that, and it went against everything game jams stood for – but Matti pushed the angle. And as the challenge went on, we discovered that he had cornered Jon in a room to try and get him to speak poorly of Zoe, the only negative “story” they could muster out of all fifteen contestants.
Jon’s a nice dude. That interview attempt failed, with the result of making him furious.
Then the computers started breaking. The rigs were the same ones I use to capture game footage for reviews, normally fairly powerful machines able to handle huge processing loads, but someone had filled them with unregistered copies of Premiere and flooded everything with viruses. One machine instantly crashed when the USC team tried to plug a USB stick into it, halting production for almost an hour as assistants scrambled to purchase licenses and wipe the malware. The YouTubers, meanwhile, had a different problem: their headsets were extremely low quality (challenge one was creating a Let’s Play) and were, as every single one of them said, “worthless,” with Mark recording himself talking into his cell phone receiver and playing it back as an example of more quality technology. Somehow, most of the issues were resolved, but the scene was embarrassing for every human in that room, affiliation be damned.
“I cannot begin to impress upon you the psychological effect this line had on everyone.”
Challenge two rolled around – an arts-and-crafts-style affair that would be judged by Joe, Kellee and Nidhogg creative director Mark Essen, and the toll began to sink in. The devs were tired. Their energy was quickly waning, and their ability to code well was being jeopardized by the excessive pageantry. There was will left to go on, but it was fading fast… then, once again, Matti.
“Two of the other teams have women on them. Do you think they’re at a disadvantage?”
Silence. It was like the wind was sucked out of the room behind the barrier, but the floor was so loud, only the two all-male teams heard the question. Mark answered diplomatically that the teams actually had a huge advantage by having more viewpoints, though everyone was strong regardless because of their skill. Matti cut him off, pulled back the camera, and coughed, “Stop filming. We’re not getting a story here.”
It went on down the line. Is Zoe off her game? Are women coders a disadvantage to their groups? Point by point, the questions were shot down, until he reached Adriel’s team and asked if they were at any sort of advantage by having a pretty girl with them.
I cannot begin to impress upon you the psychological effect this line had on everyone. The idea that these professionals, who stake their livelihoods on code and design, might be reduced to “pretty faces” and antiquated gender stereotypes, an idea perpetuated by the guy who was ostensibly in charge, was like hitting the biggest nerve in the history of nerves with a pneumatic drill. Adriel built shit that flies around in space. It’s probably flying around in space right now.
She erupted, and Matti once more pulled back his camera, making sure to privately half-apologize that he “marched with the women in the ’70s” with “flowers in his hair.” Finally, he cornered Zoe with a camera as everyone left for dinner, trying one last time to get a rise out of her. She told him to go fuck himself and marched off set. And that is precisely when everyone else realized something was wrong.
It took around twenty minutes for the man with flowers in his hair to storm out of the building sans job, his trilby, director’s scarf and lit e-cig marking the last time I’d see him. But the damage was done. Akira Thompson (organizer of many LA-developer events) and Kellee were rapidly notified of the brewing situation, and Zoe pulled me aside with Davey and Tom as she demanded Matti’s head on a stick. Adriel was livid. Robin wanted blood. And as the developers shared experiences the others didn’t know about, a strange thing began to happen between them that at once solidified what games are all about and doomed Polaris and Maker’s program. They formed ranks and revolted.
The rest of the night was an odd blur of Polaris folks, Maker production staff and YouTubers trying to wrap their heads around what was happening. We were able to film the final walk before the judges, but that was the end of it. Many folks tried to offer compromises or change the programming bloc entirely to game development, pow-wowing on the fake lawns outside each of the four Winnebagos as I chain smoked American Spirits and scanned faces. Adriel and Zoe stuck to their guns, and most everyone stuck with them. They wouldn’t be associating their names with a company that hired people like Matti. Even though he was fired. Even though he was a consultant. The energy was too low, the products of a hypothetical jam at this point wouldn’t meet their own standards, and the programming showed a lack of understanding that made it difficult to get behind.
There was uncomfortable begging. There were tears. A lot of heavy shit came out, and by the end of it all, Maker, Polaris and the dev teams had said their peace and resolved to move forward… later. Polaris had a good idea, and their people had won everyone over with their dedication and perseverance to getting game development out there where people could see it. Maker could make that happen. Zoe and Davey spoke to some of the higher-ups and figured out a hypothetical compromise way down the line, one that would stay true to the original spirit of the show, and while it didn’t fix the leveled production now, it was at least something.
“We could salvage this if it wasn’t for that dude,” Robin frowned. The producers nodded.
They finally, finally got it.
So, with a fourteen-hour day behind us and everyone tired or beaten down, Joe, Zoe, Robin and I went to the liquor store for cigarettes and 40s as Akira, Russel, the students and the Maker teams played some unreleased games on a mini-laptop. Four hundred thousand dollars, someone quoted. Four hundred thousand.
If there’s anything we should take away from this, it’s a lesson in solidarity and accountability. Maker and Polaris, as the developers consistently have agreed, are really only guilty of being misguided. They didn’t do the research, or at least ignored it, resulting in an uncomfortable product that really wasn’t about development at all. The contracting was expected. The prizing, branding, sponsors and cinema of the whole thing fell in line with what they thought might happen. But these are professionals, at the end of the day, and they came to make and share games with a wider audience – and on that, both Maker and its vertical failed to deliver a suitable platform.
But even then, it could have been salvaged. Something could have been done. The programming altered. The team altered. Something, anything altered… if it wasn’t for a single man who decided to push every issue gaming suffers from and threaten the closely knit communities of indies that make up so much creative power in an industry that often suffers from stagnation. He screwed over Pepsi and Maker, not to mention Polaris, all under the span of twelve hours, all for the sake of some much-needed drama for an audience that, I can assure you, would have rejected it in a heartbeat.
The following morning was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in a while. I slept in a dressing room across from a toilet and awoke to the sound of multiple companies awkwardly shuffling around the studio, bereft of any work or purpose. My bosses, their bosses and their boss’s bosses tried and failed to get the devs back on board, hoping against hope that they could salvage something out of the remaining resources. Nothing. No one budged.
Robin flew back to Texas. Tom went to Disneyland with JonTron. The USC team went home, Arcane returned to Glitch City, Zoe crashed on my sofa, and the rest went to Rich Lem’s house for some much-needed hanging-out with Rich Lem. I heard that the second production company was caught trying to incite drama again during exit interviews so they could keep getting paid, causing everyone to leave the lot entirely – but by then, I was long gone, scratching my head over the day’s events.
“[Gaming's] not about divisiveness or drama. It’s about fun.”
Indie is small. It is small companies and individuals, fighting for relevance in a sea of uncertainty, and those processes and creative energies should be explored – YouTube, television or otherwise. But if and when that happens, we need to be careful to approach those people who give it life, who make it such a vibrant and special place, with the respect and the space they need to build things we as critics and fans want to play. This was a disaster.
Maker, Polaris and the developers know that. Every side was pulling for what they wanted, and in the end, the side that mattered most got burned. We can’t have that. And I’m humbled and profoundly moved by the way these men and women banded together to reject what was a violation of their principles.
I have no idea what’s going to happen when this goes live. I’ve been writing it for three straight days, drafting, redrafting and re-editing and re-proofing, but one thing keeps popping back into my head: this dude, who took the fates of three massive companies and the entire indie scene into his own hands, is not the only one of his kind. Small men with small hearts will always persist, but the strength of people like Zoe and Davey and Tom Jackson, Cale and Robin and Adriel, Russel and Jacob and the USC team headed by Scott Stephan – those people make gaming what it is. It’s collaboration. It’s togetherness. It’s sitting around in a parking lot, playing a game about Popeye lookalikes punching each other out of a wrestling ring. It’s not about divisiveness or drama. It’s about fun.
I think we can all jam to that.
Zoe did sign her contract, but you can read her take on these events here.