The TotalBiscuit Interview

Since my Update announcing the identity of our Stage of Development Episode Six subject caused somewhat of a minor fracas yesterday, I wanted to set the record straight on a couple of things.

First, it wasn’t my intention to launch the Kickstarter with an unannounced episode. I recognize this might have been seen as a marketing move, or potentially misleading, but neither of those were my intent.

The fact is the timing of the Kickstarter announce overlapped my conversations with John Bain by a few days and neither of us were able to say for certain that we’d be able to collaborate on the project by the time I announced the Kickstarter on Monday. Having worked in production for 30 years, I can tell you that this is a thing that happens. The logistics leading up to actually showing up at someone’s house or office with a camera crew can be daunting, and often more complex than the actual production itself. We even have a name for all of the work that goes into cold calling, pitching, planning, scheduling, pre-interviewing, and preparing that goes into a production. It’s called “pre-production”. And yes, my budget and plan for Stage of Development include time and money for pre-production. Because that’s a thing that a lot of people forget about, and later learn they should have planned for. I’ve made that mistake in the past. Now I no longer make it.

Episodes 2-4 of Stage of Development are all still in pre-production, but John’s was a little behind the others. So we weren’t able to announce for sure he’d be in the series when the Kickstarter launched on Monday. That changed on Tuesday, and I announced his involvement on Wednesday. And that is all there was to it.

The other thing I want to make it clear to everyone is this will not be a puff piece. None of the episodes of Stage of Development will be puff pieces.

If any of my interview subjects (or anyone else, for that matter) wants to have a glowing marketing video done about them, then they can contact my direct-to-client production company at fsm@flyingsaucermedia.com and we’ll set them up with what they need. Our rate for that kind of work starts at around $10,000. We’re very good at it. Just ask Harmonix. This project, however, is documentary journalism. It is not intended to be a marketing vehicle for the people involved. It will present each subject’s story as I see it, not how they want it. And there is a huge, and often overlooked difference between the two things.

For a marketing vehicle, I would meet with the clients, listen to what they want to achieve and design a production that promotes their product or service in the most appropriate way. They would then give me notes on my work, I might make changes based on their feedback, and in the end they would have final say over when (or if) the product gets released. They would then pay me.

For a documentary, all of the subjects involved have agreed that I am in sole control over how and when their story is told. They are sympathetic to my overall goals, of course, and I, to a lesser extent, theirs. But they will have no say over what questions I ask, what answers I use, how the video is edited or polished, when and where it gets released, or what picture it ultimately paint about them. They are also not paying me. This is journalism.

For the most part, these people are willing to submit to this sort of production over which they have no actual control because they trust me and respect my body of work. I do not make “hit pieces”, and I do not put words in peoples’ mouths. If they say it, I may use it even if they wish they hadn’t said it. But they all have known me (or known of me) long enough to respect that I will respect them, and paint as true a picture as I can. Even if they aren’t paying me.

I recognize some of my language in the original announcement may have led some of you to believe that I am a TotalBiscuit fan, and that my goal in interviewing him may be to shine sunshine up his nethers. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I intend to paint a clear picture, and tell his story as I see it. That may reveal good or bad things about him, but it will not be by-the-numbers marketing/journalism. It will not be designed to his specifications or liking, and it will not be driven by any agenda other than my own, to tell a true story.

As my long-time editor Matt Leone would be happy to tell you, when I am excited, my writing gets a little too sunshiny. I am excited to interview John Bain, and my description of the project probably skewed a little glowy for some. I apologize if my language gave anyone the wrong idea about what I intend.

I am fully aware of some of the reasons that many people dislike John Bain. I’m aware of things he’s said and done. I’m aware of what others say or do in his name. I don’t endorse those behaviors.

Regardless, I’m excited to interview John Bain, not  because of anything he has said or done, necessarily, but because I want to understand what’s really behind the controversial persona that causes so many to become energized and others to want to throw up. As a journalist, that kind of story gets me super jazzed, because people like him are much rarer than people about whom you might have no opinion. And understanding what drives someone so loved by so many, yet so hated by so many others reveals, what I think, is best in humanity. You don’t become that loved or that hated by being boring, is my point.

Many have expressed concern that this is “giving a platform” to someone who already has one, and has used it terribly. I can’t argue with that, because I don’t have an opinion about how John has used his platform. I don’t really know how much of why he is despised is because of who he is versus what people have done around him. That’s part of what I wold like to try and find out. But again, I am not interviewing John to further whatever agenda he or his followers may have. Nor am I interviewing him to further the agenda of his detractors. I’m there to try and learn about him, and I hope that’s valuable in and of itself.

If you haven’t seen the recent documentary Burt’s Buzz, I highly recommend it. It’s a good example of the kind of piece I’m pursuing with Stage of Development. You could argue that a documentary starring Burt of Burt’s Bees, and telling the story of how he built his company would be giving him a platform. And to an extent, the documentary does paint an interesting picture of how this company came to be. But ti also makes Burt out to look like a horrible, spiteful and unlikeable human. Which is what he is.

Just like all of us, Burt is flawed. He has done some remarkable things. He is well-known and much-loved. But he has also fucked up. He has ruined relationships, mis-manged his business, and generally alienated everyone who knows him.

I did not expect top learn this about Burt when I watch this documentary, but I did. And I feel more alive, and more connected to humanity knowing that someone with such seemingly flawless public image is actually, just like me, kind of fucked up.

I hope that my documentaries can be as revelatory, as real, and as true as that one. And I hope that is what you value if you choose to back my project.

Posted by russ

A Question of Opinion

One of the backers of Stage of Development asked me “How opinionated will the final videos be, if at all?”

I added this question (and answer) as the first entry on the FAQ because it’s such a good question. It really gets to the absolute heart of why I do what I do.

The short answer is that my goal is to present an objective look at each story we present in Stage of Development, but that absolute objectivity is impossible. My point of view as a human will invade my work as a journalist in how I interview each subject, how I direct each shoot, how I edit each video and how we assemble the entire final product. My goal, as a journalist, however, is to not allow my own personal biases or opinions to intrude on what I believe is each subject’s story, as much as is possible.

It is not my intention to tell you, as the viewer, what you should think or feel about these humans. It is my intention to show you as true a look as I can at who they really are, what really drives them, and what makes each of them unique. Then allow you each to decide for yourselves how you feel about that person.

That’s not always possible, but it is how I approach the work that I do.

A longer answer follows here.

I consider myself a journalist. Some may disagree, I don’t know. But that’s how I see myself. And I firmly believe that a core directive of good journalism is to be objective. That is, to not color a story with your own (as a journalist) biases or beliefs.

Every journalist who has ever worked with me knows I have “rules”, and one of those rules is that the journalist has no place in the story. The story is about the subject of the story, not the journalist’s opinion of that person or thing. I have broken this rule, and I will continue to break it. Because I believe rules are not rigid commandments, but rather guidelines. Sometimes, for good reasons, a rule must be broken. But there has to be a good reason. That’s why there’s a rule. Not to restrict you, but to encourage you to understand why you are doing what you are doing. Why you are breaking it, if you are breaking it. If you don’t know why you are breaking the rule, then you should probably not be breaking it. That is to say, if you don’t know why you are making the choices you are making, then you should reconsider your approach.

That said, I don’t believe journalism can be fully objective. I don’t think it’s possible for a person to completely remove themselves from the thing that they are doing. As journalists, we seek out stories that effect us in some way. We have to. Journalism is hard work, and takes time, patience and passion. Reporting on a thing that doesn’t speak to you in some way leads to boring journalism, and I hate that more than stories about journalists.

So understand that when I say “be objective” I don’t mean to refuse to follow your own heart or conscience. What I means is to, as much as possible, allow the truth of a story emerge, even if it’s not what you would have expected or even wanted to hear.

Is there such a thing as an objective truth? I don’t know. We’re getting into philosophy here, and that way madness lies. But I will say that I don’t believe that for any person or thing there’s only ever one story than can be told.

Different journalists will find different things interesting, different angles worth exploring, and different facets of a subject worth drawing into the light. Two journalists writing the same story about the same thing will, hopefully, create different works. That is as it should be, and a perfect illustration of why, although objectivity is a goal worth striving toward, it is impossible in reality.

Stage of Development is a product of my journalistic ambition, and my creative direction. It will then, by necessity, be colored by my thoughts, opinions and ideas. If you typically enjoy the way I see the world and the products I create, then you will probably also enjoy Stage of Development. If not, then probably not. But is my goal that it be as objective as possible, so that you may focus on the story, and not the person telling it.

The person asking the question on the project also wanted to know how similar Stage of Development would be, in actuality, to my previous documentary series, Human Angle. They cited some concerns about the content of a few Human Angle pieces, and I have to agree that we sometimes missed the mark on that series.

The answer to the subtextual question there is that I’ve learned a lot as a creator and journalist since Human Angle. And although I developed that series and oversaw all of its production, there were decisions about how it was produced that I wouldn’t necessarily repeat.

Stage of Development will, in general, be similar to Human Angle, but it will also be its own project. I am literally the only crew member returning, and that in and of itself opens the door for a lot of new creative thinking.

I also have to acknowledge that Stage of Development is different in one other respect: I am entirely in control of it. It is my company producing it. It is your money funding it. There is no media company standing behind me making decisions. No home office making changes merely to put its thumbprint on it. And no political struggles for control of it.

Stage of Development is an independent project, from soup to nuts, and will therefore be as true a reflection as possible of my artistic and journalistic intentions. This will be either a good or a bad thing. I hope a good thing. You will get to decide.

As far as Human Angle was concerned, that series was on a very tight schedule due in part to advertiser considerations and corporate hurblegerbles. By the end of it, we were not where I’d hoped we’d be in terms of the care and time we were able to put into each episode. I’m still proud of the films, but I would do them differently if I had it to do over again.

Good news! I have it to do over again, with Stage of Development. And the entire production plan for this series has been designed from the ground up to accommodate lessons learned from doing Human Angle. Every aspect of this production will be, in my opinion, a step up.

Posted by russ

Stage of Development Kickstarter

My new project is a documentary webseries about the people of video games.

From the pitch:

STAGE OF DEVELOPMENT is a documentary series featuring human stories about real people. Some of them make games. Some of them play games. Some of them just happen to be caught in the crossfire. All of them are helping make the video game community one of the most vibrant and exciting collections of humans on Earth.

I’ve spent my own money producing the first two episodes. I’ve launched a Kickstarter to raise the rest.

Why spend my own money? There are a couple of reasons.

First, I didn’t want backers to have wait a year or more to see what they paid for, like happens with some Kickstarters. The first two episodes of this webseries will get published whether or not the Kickstarter succeeds. The rest will come each month afterward.

Second, I put up my own money to prove I’m serious about this. Yes, I’ve done this kind of work before, at media companies with media company money. But when a media company gives you a lot of money to make content, their reasons for doing so can be … questionable. I’ve yet to work for a media company willing to invest in quality content for the sake of creating quality content. When the market shifts, so do their spending habits. And I’m sick of it.

I believe there’s an appetite for quality content. I believed that four years ago when I helped found Polygon. I proved it when I produced the Human Angle webseries, and other features for Polygon. And although the winds of the ad-driven content model may have shifted, I still believe it.

The demand for well-told stories about interesting people doesn’t end just because ad dollars dry up. People who want to be inspired don’t stop wanting to be inspired because the dollar is weak. And I didn’t get into this business to work for advertisers.

By spending my own money, I’m hoping to send a message that I care enough about telling these stories to tell them whether anyone pays me or not. And if that means something to you — if you want to be inspired, and you want to watch the stories I’m telling — then maybe you’ll help me out.

Either way, two episodes of this webseries are getting produced, and will be released in about a month. But man, I’d really like to produce the rest of the episodes.

To help me spread the word, or back this Kickstarter, check out the project page.

 

Posted by russ

Upcoming Events

UPDATED (23 August): Some changes, some additions. This is where you can officially find me over the next few weeks.

 

I’ve got a lot of good stuff coming up this month and next, so I figured I’d put (most of) it all in one place for easy reference for those of you concerned about such things.

So here’s where I’ll be / what I’ll be doing in August and September:

 

I’ve got two panels at PAX Dev: Depression-Proof Your Studio Culture and Embedded Games Journalism (with Jeff Pobst).

At PAX Prime, I’m doing a good handful of things:

Take This AFK Room; Room 309

Take This merch booth at the PAX Diversity Lounge

How to be a Hero” panel; Monday, August 31 at 2pm in the Chicken Theater

Premiere Event for the documentary “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone: The Story of Take This”; Friday, August 28 at 9:30pm in the Chicken Theater 

Game Show Night: Blankety-Blank; Saturday, August 29 at 9pm in the Sphinx Theater

STAGE OF DEVELOPMENT is a documentary series featuring human stories about real people. Some of them make games. Some of them play games. Some of them just happen to be caught in the crossfire. All of them are helping make the video game community one of the most vibrant and exciting collections of humans on Earth.

I’l be a special guest at the annual Gamestop manager’s expo at the Sands casino in Vegas. No idea what exactly I’ll be doing there, but it’s to support Take This!

Posted by russ

Get my eBook How Video Games Are Made for a Ridiculously Low Price, Plus Seven More Books

Who doesn’t like words? Nobody.

Here’s your chance to get a  lot of words (I mean A LOT. OF WORDS.) for a super low price, help support indie authors like myself and give to charity all at the same time. My eBook “How Video Games Are Made” is included in this summer’s Storybundle.

Also, you get stuff.

There is no reason not to do this. Unless you don’t have $3. Then, OK. You’re off the hook.

The rest of you? You, with the $3 and the love of words? Go buy this.

In addition to my amazing book, you’ll get Boss Fight Books: Bible Adventures, which explores the odd story behind the even odder Christian NES games, to Put This In Your Brain, a world exclusive to this StoryBundle compiling some amazing writing from the first year of game culture pub Unwinnable Weekly.

It’s here: storybundle.com/games

 

Posted by russ

On Eagle Semen and lessons learned

Starting this month I’m selling my book “Eagle Semen” as an eBook through Amazon and Gumroad. It’s the story of how I quit my job as a producer of TechTV’s The Screen Savers in the worst possible way, and why.

Eagle-Semen-Cover_2What the book doesn’t really go into, though, is what happens after you write an email like that. At the time I thought I was walking away from working in television, and that it really wouldn’t matter what people would think of me for writing an email about all of them “drowning in eagle semen.” I was right and wrong.

As it turns out, I never did work in television again (nor do I intend to), but it does matter what people think of me. Not only did I manage to burn bridges with many of the people I worked with at TechTV (most of whom did me no wrong), but at every job interview since I’ve been asked to address that email, and there have been times when I’ve missed opportunities because of having written it.

I have zero regrets. After all, I’ve done alright. And the person I am today needed to be the person I was then. But one of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that how you say goodbye matters just as much, if not more, than how you say hello. I’ve never again written such an angry farewell email.

That said, I’ve been tempted. And I’ve also been tempted to “revisit” the “eagle semen” email in sly ways. But in the end (no pun intended) I’ve tended to fall on the side of trying to inspire and encourage those I’m leaving behind, rather than intimidate them.

Below is an email I wrote (but never sent) when I was leaving Polygon in July of 2014. It’s a riff on the “eagle semen” email, but, I think, much more positive.

When men look to the sky, they see the eagle soar and feel shame that they, too, can’t fly. When eagles see men, they see all that man might be and know that some day man, too, will fly.

As you walk into the future that awaits you, don’t look to the sky and see the eagles and doubt that you belong among them. Instead, allow yourself to be filled with the spirit of what the eagles see in men, and know that one day, you too will soar.

If you want to read the original “eagle semen” email, as well as the story of how I worked up to writing it, you can buy my eBook “Eagle Semen” for $1.99 at Gumroad, or $2.99 at Amazon.

Get Eagle Semen

(For those who are curious, below is the actual email (slightly edited to remove confidential company information) I sent to my colleagues when Ieft Polygon.)

My dear friends and colleagues,

You’ve all probably heard by now: I will be leaving Polygon, effective June 27.

When I spoke with Vox in November of 2011 about helping to start Polygon, I thought it was a company led by crazy people. The plan they shared with me, to build websites based on quality first, driven by premium advertising, was one I knew well. We tried it at The Escapist, and I believed in it there (hey, Webbys) and still believe in it now.

But focusing on quality first is a risky play. It takes time and money and a commitment to persevere in the face of impending doom. Many media companies simply don’t have the will to pull it off.

Vox had the will. Vox believed it could execute, deliver on quality and build a business on top of it. And it convinced me to help try. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

So I joined this company led by crazy people and guess what? We did it! We built Polygon, and everything we’ve done at Polygon has been of the highest quality. And people noticed. And we became envied, admired and even feared. And we did all of that in just two years.

Features has been just one part of that, but it’s obviously the part of which I am the most proud. Working with Charlie and Matt and Jake and Warren and Tom and Jimmy and Caleb and Tyson and Ally and Jon Douglas and all of you to write, edit, design, film, illustrate and publish Polygon’s amazing longform features has been the fullest experience of my life so far. We created two of the most exciting and interesting products I’ve ever been a part of, in the longform feature-meets-video series ‘Press Reset’ and ‘Human Angle.’ We touched the humanity of game design in a way that few outlets had done before us, and few will successfully copy after. And this passion for quality and humanity is one of the things we are best known for now.

Simply put, these past three and a half years have been the fulfillment of a very long-held dream for me. A crazy dream, perhaps, but living it out has nevertheless been amazing. And I thank you all for every part you played in it, big and small.

But things change.

As Vox continues to tighten its operations — becoming less crazy maybe — it has become clear to me that the time for what I can positively contribute to Polygon has come to an end, and that now is the time for a graceful exit.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be wrapping up existing stories and helping the features team transition to operating in my permanent absence. After that, apart from finally diving into personal writing projects and giving takethis.org some long overdue attention, I have no idea where I will end up.

Wherever I go I will leave a substantial piece of my heart behind with all of you, at this place we built together with our passion, our hard work and our dreams.

Thank you all for making all of it feel worth something. Best of luck with everything that you do in the months and years ahead.

Keep dreaming,

-R

P.S. I’ll still be here for a few weeks, so don’t make it awkward and act like I’m dead.

Posted by russ

Flying Saucer Media: Elevating Ideas

I’m a writer. I have always been a writer. I will always be a writer.

But I’m also a video producer.

My career has been a constant struggle between these two, at times mutually exclusive, jobs. At times I’ve favored the video producer job. At other times, the writer job. There have been social and employment pressures in each direction, and being my stubborn self, I have generally stood fast on whatever side I wanted to be on at the time.

When I helped found Polygon.com in 2012, my job description was both. I was to be a writer and a video producer, features editor, and executive producer of Video. And, for a time, this worked out fine for everyone. In those early days of Polygon, I produced what I think are some of my best works in both written and video media. But as the site grew, I inevitably had to choose one path or another. Panic.

When I had the talk with my boss about whether to focus on the video or writing side at Polygon, I remembered a similar situation years before, when I worked at The Escapist. I started there as a writer, and I wrote a lot of stories I was proud of. But then, seemingly out of the blue, video became a big thing in web media. Since I’d worked in television and film, I was asked to build The Escapist’s video program, and I agreed. I had no idea at the time that this would soon overwhelm my life and crowd writing completely out of the picture for the next five years. But it did. I helped create big brands, like Zero Punctuation and Unskippable, and I oversaw the creation of a division that would expand The Escapist’s traffic by 2,000% and help it win numerous awards and make all kinds of money and blah, blah. But in order to do all that, I had to walk away from the writing career I was building and focus exclusively on making and executiveproducing videos. It was an exciting time, but I spent a lot of it wishing I could have kept writing.

So when I thought about what to do at Polygon, the question, for me, was simple: I wanted to write. I wanted to see how far I could go with writing the kind of longform, human-driven stories I favor. I wanted to find my limit. I wanted to find out what kind of writer I wanted to be. What kind of writer I could be. So I stepped aside from video production and focused on writing and editing feature stories. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

But times change.

Having now moved on from Polygon, I feel I’ve finally proved to myself what I can accomplish as a writer. And I have the drive and energy to pursue writing projects whether they are commercial or not. (More often, they’re not, and that’s just fine with me.) I’m working on a number of projects now, and some of them might get published in magazines or online, and others might just be for myself. Some might start one way and end up the other. Doesn’t matter. I’m writing what I want to write. These days, I’m doing it for me. But having answered the question of what kind of writer I want to be, I find I am now in a place where working in production again feels less cumbersome. More than that, I’m finding I miss it.

The fact is, I’m good at producing video. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. I’ve worked with some of the most talented people and helped them do their best work. And I’ve created video products I’m genuinely proud of. I realize, having found my confidence as a writer, that I don’t have to do one or the other. I can do both. And if producing video just happens to be more commercial than writing, so be it.

TL;DR: I’ve founded a production companyFlyingSaucerMedia-Logo-Black

For now the goal is to keep the Flying Saucer Media client list small, working on just a few projects a year. Mostly brand-building or documentary-style consumer films highlighting the humanity behind products or services. We might also work on non-commercial stuff, if we feel like it.

It’s a small thing right now. But it might become a big thing. And I think I’ve found a market niche where my style and reputation for on-time and under-budget production will be in demand.

So if you like the stuff I worked on at Polygon and want me to do something for your company, let me know. We are now accepting requests for proposals.

Posted by russ

Why Amazon? And what happened to Gumroad? And why didn’t you tell me?

These are all good questions.

As some of you have noticed I’ve shifted sale of my book “How Video Games Are Made: My 16 Months Inside the Development of Defense Grid 2” from the Gumroad marketplace to Amazon. This was not a frivolous decision.

Continue reading →

Posted by russ

Update on my eBook “How Video Games Are Made”

Since the publication of the last installment of my article series at Polygon about the making of Defense Grid 2, many of you have been wondering when those articles would be available in eBook form. I can now, at long last, give you an approximate answer: Soon.

I finished writing the book, adding new chapters, expanding the original interviews and restructuring the story to account for being able to apply hindsight (and now having an ending) in October. And last month a version of the eBook went out to people who’d ordered the “Steam Special edition” version of Defense Grid 2 on Steam. Early reviews of the book are positive.

Soon I will finally be offering the eBook for sale, via Gumroad, but it will be slightly different than what the Steam customers received.

 

HowVideoGamesAreMade

 

The new title is “How Video Games Are Made: My 16 Months Inside the Development of Defense Grid 2, by Russ Pitts.” And the book will have new cover art (the above image is temporary) created by the designer of many of my Polygon articles, Tyson Whiting.

The book will be made available as soon as it is ready, which I hope will be sometime in December 2014. You can pre-order it here. (Thank you to those who have already done so.)

UPDATE (12/15/14): The book will definitely be made available this week. Thanks for your patience.

Posted by russ