A Weekend at the St. Louis PixelPop Festival

I first heard about the PixelPop Festival last year. It was of particular interest to me as I was making killer progress on The Path of Dissent (sadly unfinished for now) and I was thinking seriously about trying to demo it at the event. It was about that time that I had to accept that my recent transition to work-at-home dad status wasn’t conducive to steady game development progress and I switched to games journalism almost exclusively for most of a year. I didn’t get to the event and I didn’t think about it at all for another good year.

Luckily, just as I was really getting back into it with solid progress on my first educational game for kids, I saw a post from Carol Mertz on the excellent Midwest Game Developers Facebook group reminding users that PixelPop would be taking over the St. Louis Science Center on October 8th and 9th. With development again front and center in my mind (right after parenting, you know), and my extremely busy wife actually having a rare weekend off from doctoring things and people, I knew it was meant to be–I made plans to attend the entire event.

Just one of several demo and play areas at the festival
Just one of several demo and play areas at the festival

The coolest thing about PixelPop is that it’s every bit as much a developer conference as it is a convention (oh, is that why they use “Festival?”). While eager players can check out games old and new for the duration of the event, creators of all disciplines and experience levels can sit in on panels and presentations featuring absolute indie rock stars (Jarryd Huntley said I could call them that). When I saw the tentative schedule last week, I went to my social media accounts saying “If you’re anyone who has asked me about or expressed interest in game development in this area, this is somewhere you should plan to be.”

I was not disappointed.

The worst thing about the weekend was deciding how to spend my limited time. More than once I found myself having to choose between super relevant presentations happening simultaneously. Ultimately, I decided to stick with the material closest to my current project, even down to which phase I was likely to work on next.

My current project is a flashcard game for kids under age five, and that has required more V.O. production than any of my previous projects combined. Given that the driving force behind the educational products I have in the pipeline is my effort to continuously provide my son with learning material that I’ll gradually polish and release into the wild, I still love the idea of having my wife do as much voice work as possible. She has a great voice for it to begin with, the only quality hurdle is me. Voice Acting for Games was my first destination.

A great panel including voice actors, employers, and developers
A great panel including voice actors, employers, and developers

 

I left this panel feeling so much better! I learned that plenty of voice actors are using the same mic I bought for podcasting work, and that the only difference between my current quality and the next level is a matter of moving that equipment into a more suitable environment, along with the possible addition of a fairly affordable portable isolation shield. I’m excited for our next recording session.

I stuck around in the Boeing North lecture room to hear from a panel of several successful creators of board and card games. No one ever mixes words about the difficulty of creating a successful tabletop product, but I think we’re drawn to it the same way bloggers dream of having a book on the shelf. I put together a moderately popular card game during a Ludum Dare jam not too long ago, and I’ve put some hours into fleshing it out for a possible wider release, but this session–and Carol Mertz’s later post-mortem about releasing Pass the Buck–gave me plenty to think about as it pertains to ever actually printing the game.

At the end of the panel I asked how they recommend closing the gap between all the great books and learning resources for developers of video games and the comparatively tiny collection of resources for tabletop designers. They were able to point me in a few helpful directions but the really impressive moment happened when the panel let out.

A guy directly behind me said, “Hey man, I didn’t want to interrupt the panel, but here are some other great things you can look at.”

Resources for Tabletop Designers

I was blown away by this gesture. If you handed me this, thanks again. That made my morning.

Other things that make any event better: VR demos going on all around you.

VR Demo

Chatting a little bit with Michael Hicks of Pillar fame was also a pleasure. He’s about as nice a guy as you could ask to run into. Before captivating the crowd with a story about wowing both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network almost completely alone, he approached me in the front row.

“Hi. Any chance you’ll be here for the next presentation?” he asked.

“Oh. Yeah man, I’m here to see you,” I told him.

“Awesome! Is there any way you could take a picture of me during the talk?”

I laughed a little and happily agreed. I tweeted one to him directly after and thanked him for the great stories.

Michael Hicks made a fan out of me
Michael Hicks made a fan out of me

I don’t really know how to describe what happened in the Game Concepting Workshop beyond saying there were a lot of very enthusiastic young people in the audience and that Adron Buske and the panelists were extremely good sports. The result of the workshop was a short vision document for a game called SkyPounce: Explore the Flying Ocean.

Game Concepting Workshop

I was glad I stuck around after Game Concepting to catch Jarryd Huntley’s discussion about the parallels and the lessons to be learned between indie rock and indie game development–and I think I heard he came couchsurfing from Cleveland to talk about it, which was greatly appreciated. Jarryd shared some very cool ideas about actually merging the two scenes together more to produce indie music-inspired games, game-centric concert tours, and more. Here’s wishing him the best with his virus-ridden tablet.

Here, we come to a part of the day I wasn’t sure how much–if anything–I wanted to write about. I knew there would be a game journalism primer near the end of the day, and I sort of decided to wander in at the last minute. I did the job for a year and I was certain I didn’t need a basic primer on the topic, but I was very interested in learning more about any game journalist with ties to the Midwest.

Josh Boykin did a great job with this. He has a long history of writing about games, and now he’s running Intelligame.us where his influence will reach even greater heights. As he explained his life as a writer, he delivered a point that hit me unexpectedly hard.

Josh described needing to cover the launch of Pokemon Go on the very day that the nation began trying to make sense of Philando Castile’s fatal shooting near St. Paul. His intention was to explain the inherent challenge in doing this “always on” job in a positive way when the rest of life is not fun and games. Near the end of the panel I asked more about how he coped with that issue and later had the opportunity to discuss my experience doing a feature interview with a French retro game developer during the terrorist attacks in Paris.

It’s such a bizarre juxtaposition of emotions, I knew exactly the challenge Josh was describing. He told me a few truly insightful things. He reminded me that we do something people return to when they’re ready to cope and to get a reprieve from what else is taking place. He also said it was crucial to him to have outlets available to express his thoughts during that time, whether they are those same outlets or others. It made immediate sense. That additional writing brings a feeling of honesty to work that might otherwise require “shutting out” real life, and I know a lot of writers won’t settle for that. Talking to Josh was a heavy, but extremely positive experience.

Day 2 was a bit more relaxed for me. It was great to sit in on the Promoting Your Game panel and learn about the experiences of local studios and developers trying to effectively reach audiences with their products.

There was a short but informative session about source control with Git (in which an audience member confronted me for using Dropbox. Fair enough).

The Atari 2600 presentation by John Mikula was a real treat. My very first feature article as a journalist was a set of interviews with game developers who work on defunct systems. If John had started his homebrew Atari game project sooner, I would have made sure he was one of them. He shared great insight into what it’s like to use assembly language to make a game with tighter technical restrictions than the average JPEG image. He gave an excellent presentation and was great to talk to in the demo room. I’ll eagerly follow his future projects.

Atari 2600 Development Presentation

Finally, Fat Bard’s Patrick Crecelius fascinated us with his know-how in the game music department. Over the course of an hour, he showed his process for composing music, arranging beats, melodies, and harmonies in his software of choice, and walked us through some basic theory for mixing, finalizing, and even coding that music into game projects. I could have spent a third day trying to absorb every bit of Patrick’s expertise that I could, but you can’t just ask someone for things like that.

If I did not mention a panel or presentation here, chances are good that I still REALLY wanted to sit in on it. As it was, I absolutely filled both days with sessions and actually only spent about 30 minutes playing games and chatting with developers. The PixelPop powers that be should be thrilled with the event they put on this year. I’m also grateful to be connected with the St. Louis Game Developer Co-Op as a direct result of attending.

I should be coding right now! Here’s to next year.

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