This is how you make friends and influence people in the Information Age (as a writer, anyway):
You write something, you Twitter about it, you religiously check your mentions and retweets, you follow the people who mention or retweet you, you keep on the lookout for your new friends tweeting about their own writing, you retweet their writing, prefacing the retweet with a sentence fragment including an adjective ("excellent article by @number108", etc), you feel safe in the guarantee that they'll retweet your next article. Eventually, you're rich and/or famous. It hardly even matters if your writing is good or not, so long as it's inflammatory or flamboyant enough to make a substantial number of people go, "Hey, look at this jerk." Using this strategy, I've managed to make six or seven real friends in the past eight years.
In person, what you want to do is just not be a jerk. This is a little harder than it might sound, because people's definitions of the word "jerk" tend to vary wildly. I've known, at the bottom of my heart, for well over a decade, that I am entirely capable of coming across as a normal, intelligent, likeable person in public situations. In the opening seconds of a conversation, I can feel out what sorts of behaviours will repulse the person I am talking to. Thirty seconds in, I have a concept of what that person would enjoy talking about, or even what would enthrall that person. The sad thing is that, most of the time, in the interest of keeping the Game of Real Life challenging (and more full of inward, inaudible, lonely lols), I have celebrated the practice of mixing love and hate in my conversations, occasionally flipping back and forth between annoying and enthralling my conversation partner four times in one sentence (I call that a "Tetris"). Every time I go to some kind of place where money is on the line, I tell myself, at the end of each day, "The next day, let's just be a 100 per cent nice, normal person." I have myself dead convinced that being a "normal" or "likeable" person is all the matter of flipping a mental switch.
Over the past eight years, I've come across a handful of people (six or seven) who seem to actually like the way I play with conversations. These people are all so genuine that it makes me wonder if I'm not genuine too. I'd wondered, for about half a decade, if I was neither a businessman nor a successful businessman because of some fault of my own or some fault of everyone else; I'd wondered if that flipping of the mental switch was something that, when the time came, I would actually be able to do.
Well, I went to the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, USA, in an attempt to really, actually start up a company. By the end of the experience, I was rationalising my "failure" to flip the nice-guy switch maybe 600 different ways. It didn't matter, at this point, however, because my company is now real, and we are officially making a game, and that's a little scary. We went from not being anything to having a game in development in the space of twenty minutes. Maybe we'll be alright; maybe we won't.
So I'm back in Tokyo, sleepless for 60 hours, sitting on my sofa, temples making sounds like My-Little-Pony-sized lawnmower engines. Did GDC work out for me? What sorts of things did I do there? What sorts of cool people did I meet? Will I ever go to GDC again? Did I learn anything valuable? Maybe, in the next 45 minutes, I'll write about all of those things. Or maybe I'll just get something to eat and then pass out. Maybe I'll do some mixture of those two things, typing words while passed out. The latter would probably be ideal. My awesome ideas to interview numerous developers about the business cards they'd collected at GDC, and to interview Flower composer Vincent Diamante about how and why he is the only person to attend every talk at GDC 2010, unfortunately, fell through completely because of things like trying to establish a world-class corporation, so I can't write about them.
On the plane back from San Francisco, I thought of what I think is a great sentence. I was maybe half asleep when I thought of this, doing one of those wake-dreaming things. It doesn't have anything to do with GDC, though I'll shoehorn those three letters in there somewhere:
"I didn't fall in love [at GDC] ; I did, however, learn how it is done." For a couple of years, I've had people ask me, "What do you do? Are you a game developer, or do you just write about games?" The people asking were usually sure of the latter and usually puzzled about the former. They'd never heard me mention specific details about any developers I was working with, for example. Most of the things I mention in my article "Japan: It's Not Funny Anymore" aren't just things I don't like about Japan: They're things I don't like about being forced to work with people. In many cases, the more people you throw at something the more fucked-up it gets. Let's say I want to make a game about killing skeletons and werewolves. I have this idea all laid out in my head; I've never thought once about why it has to be skeletons and werewolves (because zombies are overplayed?). At the very first meeting of my new game company, the CTO asks, "Can we make it aliens? Can we make it take place in 2012?" He's dead set on it being aliens and being 2012. I'm sure we're going to work this out, because the particulars of the game aren't important at this point - just the game design. Imagine if there were 50 of us.
I mentioned how I've made "six or seven 'real' friends" by being myself for eight years. I would say that four or them are more or less the same personality type as Robert Pelloni, whose friends call him "Bob." Bob is an independent game developer working on a game called "Bob's Game". Bob has been making Bob's Game, all by himself, for six years. Five years into its development, he launched a viral campaign. The particulars of the viral campaign are too mind-boggling to be summed up in less than ten thousand words. Suffice it to say that Bob positioned himself as the final boss of his own game, and at one point faked his own death on webcam. The police came to his home. "They did the good cop, bad cop thing," he says, not even bragging.
Bob is a hilarious human being. Me and him have been good enough friends since he first started posting at a forum I like, where the thread in which he introduced his game eventually grew to a staggering, terrifying 48 pages. Most of the people on the forum had no idea what Bob was up to - and most of those people already knew that Bob was interested mostly in being an Internet troll. The videos on his YouTube channel climbed to tens of thousands of views thanks to the power of the "Hey, look at this jerk" variety of word of mouth. Most viewers were puzzled. The thing about the internet is that nearly all of the time you can't be sure who's serious and who isn't, and most of the time you can't even begin to understand what their motivations would be either way, whether they're sincere or not. The nature of the printed word took the blame for a long time, though things still haven't changed much with the advent of YouTube and webcams. I dare say that we're going to have a more bountiful crop than we've ever seen of Oscar-worthy actors 20 years from now.
Bob's impetuous trolling style is not without its own counter-trolls. One "ancient internet troll", whom Bob likens in personality to an "adult baby", even went so far as to orchestrate a scam at GDC 2009: He told event organisers that Bob was going to bring firearms into the convention centre and go on a murder spree. Bob was apprehended the second he reached the bottom of the escalator into the main hall and dragged into a meeting room, where security interrogated him, inspected his belongings and eventually allowed Bob to present evidence (Internet forum posts by the counter-troll) that the event organisers had been trolled.
Trolling, I suppose, is a foreign enough concept to Real-World inhabitants that the event staff didn't immediately consider the possibility that Bob had created both the legacy Internet troll persona and the legacy Internet troll persona's forum posts on his own, in the name of deepening his own trolling efforts. Instead of delving deeper in their questioning, they let Bob go, and he's been a free man ever since. I asked Bob about why they didn't consider the possibility that the fake shooting threat had all been Bob's idea to begin with. Bob didn't seem to think much of the question. I asked him if it's the kind of thing he would have thought of. I don't even remember what he said; it was too late at night, in a room too loud for anyone to have a conversation under screaming volume. I take it illegality is a little farther than Bob is willing to go. He's not crazy - he's just pretending to be a guy who's pretending to be crazy. Bob had laid out the entirety of his viral PR explosion - excepting the part about the third-party-phoned-in shooting threat - in correspondence with Nintendo of America prior to beginning his campaign. "They offered me a team," Bob said. He didn't take the offer. He was too busy having fun all by himself. This year, at GDC, Bob walked over to the Nintendo booth on the expo floor and started messing around with Wario Ware: DIY. He near-instantly had four Nintendo employees around him. Pointing at an air duct high up on the ceiling, he nonchalantly asked, "Hey, do you think there's a way for a person to get up there?"
Bob and I hung out pretty much the entire week of GDC and the week after. About a year ago, I'd even offered to let Bob sublet one of the rooms in my apartment. I knew pretty much exactly what kind of person I was going to be hanging out with. I invited him to dinner with myself and a couple of close friends on the Sunday night before GDC. During that dinner, the not-so-subtle accusation that Bob has been developing his game entirely in his mother's basement came up. This accusation is false: Bob is a travelling man. He's been developing his game in various people's basements and spare rooms. He earns his money on the stock market, calling it the most meaningless and depressing way of earning money that you could ever think of. It's like fighting big evil robots with your own robot, which you control by entering text prompts fuelled by human intuition.
Bob is a hilarious conversationalist, if you're going entirely by my standards. One common conversation topic among me and Bob is what acceptance speech he would give if he won an Independent Games Festival award. His version of the acceptance speech changed every time the topic came up: Once, he said he'd simply get up on stage and "Tell everybody to 'Fuck off and die.'" I then gave Bob some PR advice: "People react negatively to strong words. Try telling them to 'Go somewhere else and stop living,'" and we both lolled pretty hard for a minute or so. The thing is, even on paper, I could see Bob's comments about telling the audience to "fuck off and die" and know immediately that he was joking. Many other people, however, wouldn't.
Where does the trolling stop? I asked Bob, and he produced an instant reply: "It stops in that there actually is a game, and it's actually pretty good."
Of course, this is an opinion that the public might never get a chance to evaluate. "Bob's Game" is a title with some baggage to it: Not only is it a game that Bob made, it's a game that maybe only Bob will ever get to possess. I asked Bob if his tight grip on his content was some comment on the insularity of the video-game industry, and he said that he doesn't actually think of it nearly that deeply. Bob makes games, he says, because he doesn't know how to do anything else, and because he doesn't want to do anything else. He took a programming class in high school, before realising that he didn't care about anything else. He said he decided to start making a game because he had this one thing he was able to do, so he might as well do it. If Bob's Game is ever released, Bob has dreams of making it "infinitely episodic". He'd ideally be making new areas and episodes constantly, and uploading them to a server, where they'd be downloaded into every player's copy of the game in real-time, for free.
I asked Bob if he's seen the film "Synecdoche, New York". He says he's seen maybe less than a dozen films made in the last 20 years, and "Synecdoche, New York" is not one of them. His iPod is full of primarily hardcore German industrial music. He plays DDR daily, for fitness purposes. Every day we hung out, he consumed at least two litres of coffee and three litres of water. What kind of a game will a person like this make? Alfred Hitchcock - and someone else - said once that an artist in a storytelling medium only tells the same story over and over again. Alfred Hitchcock made his living at the movies. Bob makes his living at the stock market, affording himself a decent lifestyle in an upscale town "halfway between Apple and Google" ("you're going to have to change your name to 'Bobble'") with shockingly minimal effort. In short, he doesn't have to make a game a year. He doesn't need big sales numbers. All around the world, people like myself and Bob are finding ourselves in a state where legitimately earning money is about as complicated as downloading pirated music. (The download speed of money, however, is not so phenomenal.) What kind of art do we make when we're not starving? Bob very well could just go on making one game for the rest of his life, enjoying coffee and DDR and gothic industrial DJ nights at the DNA Lounge. Maybe, when he dies, someone will find this game, and say, "Oh, hey." The big question is whether the people who pick up this game will say "Oh, cool" or "Oh, OK". It's a fascinating gamble. I say, and emphatically, that we need more stuff like this in all forms of art. I say that, in this age of Twitter and Facebook and what-have-you, if Franz Kafka had been born in 1986, he'd probably leave just one unfinished manuscript after death, not several.
On a whim, over dinner before GDC, I asked Bob to join my company. He accepted the offer. Bob is now vice president of Action Button Entertainment. We have five games in development. That sounds like a joke; maybe it isn't. I'm sure some of those five games will be cancelled at some point. Three of them most likely won't be.
A close friend told me that I should be careful "hiring" a guy like Bob, explaining that he's not released a full game, and that "follow-through" is probably the most important thing for any kind of artist. To this I say, hey: Bob's been working tirelessly at one thing for five years, and I've seen his work, and I know it's actually real; that's better than nothing. In addition, I have worked on game projects with development teams ranging from 13 to 60 persons, rolling on headlessly three years at a time, failing to settle on a lead character design, a scrap of story, or even a single spark of inspiration regarding the game design, despite said game company receiving literally millions of dollars in big corporate funding and working their employees 12 hours a day, six days a week. Bob's at least uploaded a demo of his game, and he's at least doing something he believes.
We spent most of GDC learning that we already know more than we really need to know about everything. We're going to make a bunch of ridiculous mistakes and probably have a lot of fun doing it. Developing a game is probably more fun than playing one. I had a great conversation with Adam "Adamatomic" Saltsman about game design and indie game development. Bob and I had a meeting with American McGee just hours before McGee's buddy and former coworker John Carmack received a lifetime achievement award from the GDC awards. John Carmack would talk about making games, becoming a real life rocket scientist, and then announce he was working on cold fusion, before walking off the stage in mid-sentence. Days later, Bob would comment, "The guy's already a genius programmer and an actual rocket scientist: He was probably pissed-off that people didn't scream and cheer when he announced he was working on cold fusion. He was probably serious!"
Days and hours before, American McGee would tell us all we needed to know about getting into game development: That he wasn't quite sure why and how he got his name on the box of Alice, that his "Little Red Riding Hood" game is real, and that he himself hadn't attended any sessions at GDC in over six years, that he was only in town from Shanghai to meet with several publishers about several different projects. This was maybe more information than it at first seemed: Why would the week when everyone is drunk, busy, and half-insane be the best time of year to stage one meeting an hour, 12 hours a day, for five straight days? A cornucopia of answers - some sincere, some cynical, some simply wrong - occurs to me in an instant. The easiest explanation is that American McGee is from out of town - though he used to live in the Bay Area - and that GDC is the perfect opportunity to get all the people he wants to talk to in one place at one time. This is where the cynicism starts to seep in: GDC was originally established as a place for developers to get together and talk about ideas. They set up a little expo floor so that developers could get their hands on each others' projects and learn and grow from there. Journalists got interested and flocked to the convention. So companies started making large announcements there. Now you've got basically everyone important from every important game company at GDC every year. Some of the talks at GDC focus on the business side of things. The business guys have schedules packed with meetings with people who are only at GDC because they know everyone who's anyone is going to be there. What it comes down to is that these business guys would rather actually do business than talk about or learn about doing business.
I expected someone at one of the talks at GDC to tell me something fantastic, interesting or enlightening, though I found it was much more fun to have my own micro-talks with Bob, brainstorming on individual titles of talks read out of the GDC brochure. People often say that your university years are the best of your life, and many of those same people say that uni is more of a social experience than a learning experience. That's weird. I'm not saying it's not true. It's just weird. Going to parties is probably more important, in one's development as a person in the world, than learning the particulars of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In this way, maybe socialising with people is more important for a game developer than learning job skills - even proper methods for socialising - in a formal context. I met some great people at those parties, and talked about some great things.
By the end of the week my throat was terribly sore thanks to the age-old hypothesis that nobody hates techno music, and that people, in fact, love it if it's played really, really loud. Or that people have more "fun" when they can't hear each other talk. Eventually, when my game company is at least as big as Valve, I'm going to have a party at GDC: It'll be inside a library. Maybe, during that week, I planted the seeds of future money, simply by conversing non-unintelligibly with people who are or will soon be recognised as valuable members of the industry. If any of my socialising translates into money, I'll be surprised pleasantly. If not, I'll be surprised not-unpleasantly. I know how things work; I know that everything isn't what you know, it's who you know. Heaven help me if I start applying empirical knowledge to all my social interactions.
I met a girl at GDC. I can't say I fell in love with her, though I can say I learned how that might be done. She was really attractive instantly. She was hot like a Disney princess, five years after the movie ended, older and wiser and incredulously hotter. Me and Bob were on our way to a talk about who-knows-what. We were having so much fun talking to people in the press room - maybe it was Matthew "Matt Wasteland" Burns - that we didn't even realise that the panel we maybe-sort-of wanted to go to was about to start. We poured ourselves complimentary cups of coffee and headed down to the conference rooms. The green-shirted staff were just putting away the tables of coffee and coffee cups. About to enter a room, a girl stopped us and asked us to show our badges. I showed her my badge and my cup of coffee. I asked her if it was OK to have a cup of coffee inside during the talk. She had to think about it for a second. I opened the door and illustrated that the carpet was the same colour inside the meeting room as it was out in the hallway. It was, in fact, the exact same carpet, continuing, breathing, flowing into the room. She shrugged and said we could take the coffee in. She was gorgeous. Hours later, Bob and I were back down in the conference hall area. Curious, I dawdled a bit before leaving. I was maybe, subconsciously, looking around for the girl. The girl appeared out of nowhere and grabbed my arm. "You left your empty coffee cup in there, you jerk!" I offered to apologise by giving her my phone number. She refused and said that she'd rather give me hers. "That way you won't feel as bad when I never call you." Wow! She was clever.
We had lunch the next day. I was three-quarters dead. I swear I could hear my eyes existing. The sunlight made my skin feel frozen, about to shatter. I introduced Bob at lunch, the way I plan to continue to introduce Bob at corporate functions: "This is Bob; Bob is here to assure that I never get laid again." Bob kept complaining about being a "third wheel". This gorgeous girl and I explained to him that tricycles have three wheels, and they're generally easier to drive than regular bicycles. Bob explained that he felt like a third wheel attached mutant-like and useless to the side of the back wheel of a regular bicycle. I was going to start talking about sidecars on motorcycles, and then I realised that sidecars usually have at least two wheels of their own. Well, let's not talk about the number of wheels: I figured I would tell him that he wasn't a third wheel, he was more like the guy actually sitting in the sidecar. Then I realised that guys in sidecars look really weird and lonely - and unheard of - if the guy actually driving the motorcycle has a girl sitting behind him with her hands around his lower back. Investigating conversation trees in my head, based on knowledge of my conversation partner, is at least as much fun as levelling up in Dragon Quest. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you come up with dialogue choices you actually get a chance to use in real life. For example, my bit about how "I want to buy a boat that's precisely as wide as a king-sized bed, plus the thickness of a seaworthy hull times two." The (ideal) woman would (ideally) ask, "Why a king-sized bed?" The girl did this that day at lunch while we ate falafel sandwiches. "Well, you know," I would say. "I, uhh, you know." "You what?" Then the punchline: "I roll around a lot in my sleep." This conversation went exactly as planned. The girl's response: "You're ridiculous."
I swear I have probably never macked on a girl as hard as I macked on this girl. I hardly knew what I was on about. I'd never even really macked on any girl at all before this one, to be honest. I guess she thought that I was being my usual self, so genuine and real was my macking. So often, genuine and real are mistook for rehearsed. It used to be that only the vice-versa was true. At one point, en route to a party of sorts, she kissed me on the cheek. She said that she is looking for, in addition to a job, a man who will make her feel in love. She was only looking for one of those things at GDC: the job. I asked what would happen if, say, I just messaged her on Facebook every day for two years. She said that that might be worth a "pity makeout". We sat in on a couple of panels together. The last time we hung out - this would be the night before I shaved for the first time in a week - she took me to a bar where some people she'd met at GDC were hanging out. They were on their way to an "exclusive" "suite party". The alpha dude of the group really didn't like me. He wouldn't even acknowledge my presence. I might have said something that pissed him off. If I were him, I wouldn't like me either, I guess. He seemed like a pretty cool guy, from what I could tell.
This girl told me I wasn't invited to the party, which was OK, because I had somewhere else I'd promised to go. (After which I'd end up eating delivery pizza in a hotel room.) Some group of three guys started talking to her - which meant that, for minutes on end, they were also talking directly to only each other. I stood back. She took out her phone and started writing a text message to someone. I butted in. "I've got to go," I said, my phone buzzing in my pocket. She gave me a really nice, long hug. When I walked away, I saw she'd sent me a text message. "I would really much rather hang out with you, if this wasn't a week devoted to work. I need to do what is best for my career." Maybe she was being totally honest. Or maybe she's a natural PR genius. I'd respect her either way. Well, she's my Facebook friend now. I posted on her wall: "I am going to change my 'Relationship Status' to 'It's complicated', because 'Waiting for a pity makeout' isn't one of the choices." See, to me, that looks ridiculous. It probably looks serious to some of the people reading her Facebook wall. That's a little weird. I guess I'll have to keep doing this, the way I and we have to keep doing a lot of things.
I'd joked days earlier at our falafel lunch about hiring her to head my new company's PR. I suppose the main requirement to my hiring you for my company is that you perceive my "hey, work for me" joke as sincerity. Oh, well. Maybe, next year, it won't seem like quite so much of a joke. Wow, listen to that. "Next year, it might not sound like as much of a joke as it does this year." This very sentence is buried, somewhere, in some form, behind every stone-faced declaration about fiscal years or quarterly earnings in even the largest corporations.
How do we turn the something that sounds like a joke into something that doesn't sound like a joke? One night during GDC, Bob told me, "You're the only person I've ever met who I'd want to make a game with." The night before I left, we sat in a Denny's for two hours, during which I summarised every great game design idea I've been entertaining recently on the back of a place mat. Bob asked all the right questions at all the right times. At least three of these games are immediately doable, releasable, sellable, stupidly fun experiences. One of them is deeply personal, and so long that I might have to lock myself up in a room for five years to make it. No one in their right mind would want to help me make this game. I'll have an advantage over Bob, anyway: I'll have Bob's Game Engine complete and usable.
After Denny's, on the road, as we slid all over Oakland, Bob explained that in order to make something great, he would need someone to tell him what to do, to lock him in a room and feed him succinct directions. I offered him a room in my house in Tokyo. Before I left, he'd send a text message to my prepaid phone: "Tim Rogers you rock! I'm loyal to the end bro."
I got back to Tokyo, got detained for a routine immigration interview, caught a cold somewhere around the time the immigration officer suggested that I just "find a nice girl and get married", and existed as one of many passengers on a terrible train for an hour. Halfway to Ueno, I realised, shocked, that the train station at Narita Airport had been renovated near completely in the two weeks I spent in America. I'd thought that would never happen. It was always, like, as you close in on the airport, you travel back in time to a point where nothing has to be flashy and new. I was at an old hotel in Shinjuku for a company thing a couple of months ago, for example, and I swear I saw three or four women with hairstyles unseen since early 1980s Japanese porn. I was in a weird mood. I got on the internet and watched all the Bob's Game videos on YouTube.
Man, Bob really has crafted a huge, personal, dense, thick, enormous world of a game. It's fascinating that someone could maintain that focus. And now he's telling me that he's "loyal to the end". Maybe that's the second-nicest thing anyone's ever said to me. This is going to be fun: It's time for me and Bob to get in the proverbial car, input "the farthest brick wall from right here" into the proverbial GPS, and step on the proverbial gas.