For the better part of a decade Good Game has been one of the quiet achievers of Australian public television. Early in 2015 this game-reviewing institution branched out into online-exclusive video content, and GG Pocket was born.
We recently caught up with ABC TV producer Peter Burns, who gave us a behind-the-scenes look at how his daily web series is made.
Early in 2015, the ABC launched a new show under the Good Game family of programs: GG Pocket. Created exclusively for digital distribution over iView and YouTube, Pocket content is released every week day, and over the past year the show has built a loyal following.
The core Pocket team currently consists of Nich Richardson, the presenter, John Emerson, the video editor, and Peter Burns – who does everything else. Producer, writer, camera operator, and more besides, Peter was the ideal person to talk to in order to get an impression of what GG Pocket is, what it's accomplished, and what it will become in 2016, and beyond.
Peter joined the ABC straight out of university. He did a single day of work experience in 2010, and made a positive impression on executive producer Janet Carr. “I called her up asking for a reference, and she offered me a position!
“I started on the show on my 21st birthday: the 17th of January in 2011. I started as a production coordinator. Which is the entry-level position in most television production units. So, a lot of administerial stuff. Managing the website. Managing social media stuff. But also, it's such a flexible team here at Good Game, and I was able to expand my skill set within that role, and pick up a camera and point it at things. Over time I grew to do a bit more writing for the show, and then was made a producer mid-way through 2014.”
It was around this time that wheels were in motion to start creating daily web content under the Good Game umbrella. For while Good Game and Good Game Spawn Point are highly evolved, efficient productions, the time consumed by their production pipelines means there are things that those programs simply cannot do.
“We get a game, Bajo and Hex spend their time with it, and review it, so we can shoot it the following week, and then there's another week on top of that to turn it around to get it on to television sets. So there's a fortnight in getting a review out in the traditional method. Which is so slow, in the modern age. So we always knew that we needed to be more current. And YouTube was the place for that.”
Good Game began uploading their episodes to YouTube at the end of 2012. While they were happy to have their content on a different network, this arrangement wasn't a perfect fit.
“It's content made for television, you know. It's such a different medium. There's so much that goes into producing something that needs to fit a certain strict form and structure, with television. Whereas YouTube is so much more free-form, and that's what makes it a special place. And we were putting our structured thing onto a platform that wasn't built for it. And so we knew we wanted to make something more appropriate for the medium. And we knew that from 2012.
“It was years, years of talking about how we would do it. Where we would get the resources for it. Mid-way through last year we made some ground with the iView team, and they were really happy to throw some funding our way. And they helped us get it up and running. So we create daily content now for iView and for YouTube.”
Time Out Of Joint
When Peter arrives in the Good Game office each morning, his first task is to collate the biggest news stories from around the web. “We're not a news outlet here. So what we try and do is update people, but with more of a light spin on it. We've got a front man in Nich Richardson who is politically savvy, very smart, very witty. So it's good to get him to have some fun.”
In its original form, each episode of GG Pocket consisted of a brief news update followed by a hands-on look at a game. But part way through the year the decision was made to split this content into two discrete shows: Pocket News and Pocket Prime.
“The news, when it existed with the main feature, dated it. Because you couldn't watch the video without seeing three minutes of stories from that day, before you got to the feature piece. YouTube exists forever, right? There's this archive of video content. People still share videos from 2007! And you look that, and you go: 'Wow! This thing has existed on this format for eight years now!' An age.
“We didn't want to date our content by leaving the news where it was at the top of the show. So we separated the two entities. The news exists how it always did, except it's a much shorter format.”
As for the main feature, Pocket Prime, Peter stressed that the goal of this show is not to review.
“The goal is to watch someone experience a game for the first time. And with Nich, he is really good at voicing his thoughts, and articulating his thoughts, as they hit him. And also experimenting with his thoughts as well. It's not so much about seeing someone play a game and do really well at it. It's trying to emulate what we all experience the first time we pick up any particular game.”
Peter cited Nich's experience with Poly Bridge as an example of how this innocent approach can be entertaining. “There are particular ways to build bridges [laughs]. And people know how some structural integrity will come together to form a decent bridge. But if Nich has a thought that he knows is wrong he will still play it out. We get to see the learning process. And I think that's what's really interesting about Pocket. Watching someone learning a game as they play it.”
The Fan Club
It's not just the structured news and feature segments – the Pocket team has also been conducting live streams over Twitch, in which fans can see Nich play while joking around with John and Peter off camera. The milieu of the Pocket mini-studio creates a cosy, inclusive atmosphere, and it's certainly endeared the team to their fans.
“Pocket still has quite a small following, when you compare it to Good Game proper. Which makes the community quite close. And it gives us the access to make our show feel like it's just another extension of the community. Sure, we have the camera. And we're choosing where to point it. But we're also just trying to get the conversation swirling. We have such a tight little community. They've created their own Steam Group. They've got Facebook chats happening all the time. That we're just ancillary to. That's where we're on the sideline [laughs]. We can participate in the conversation, but it's amazing watching this.
“They meet up! We get tweeted photos of people who have met through Pocket, meeting up and playing. At Rocket League at PAX, for example, it was like: 'I never would've met this person if it weren't for Pocket.' But what the Pocket community really is, is the really hard-core Good Game group. And they consume ALL Good Game content. They've now got this voice to tell us their appreciation of Good Game in a way they didn't have before.”
This fan-feedback has allowed the Pocket team to break out of the thought processes associated with conventional television production.
“Anything scripted gets called out for being scripted. They don't necessarily consider it a bad thing. It's just, there's a clear difference between someone thinking free-form and someone delivering information in a way that's been prepared. And we get told all the time that they prefer it. We've tested the waters throughout the year. We started being a lot more scripted, and then we pared that back. And then, about half way through the year, we thought we should try that again, and see what people think of it now. And as soon as we did it, the immediate response from everyone was that they didn't like this style, they didn't like having something so prepared delivered to them. They wanted to see Nich learning the process of playing this game.
“We did it with Tembo the Badass Elephant. If you watch that episode, it's mainly Nich delivering pieces to camera, and we overlay. As we typically will with a Good Game review. As opposed to him experiencing the game and talking about it simultaneously.”
The Boiler Room
While this learning process has been rewarding, it hasn't been easy – and by far the biggest challenge has been adapting to daily deadlines. “As I said, we have a week to produce Good Game. And we can put so much polish on it, and make it the best content that we can before we push it out the door. But with News and with our main segment we have two deadlines a day. While they're not unattainable, there's a constant pressure there to have content ready to push out the door. And that often means ending with something that we would like to spend another couple of hours on getting right.
“We have evolved the way we make the show, to tailor to that. We just make sure in the shoot process that we don't get too much content, and that we don't get too little content. There is a fine line, as well. We will turn an hour shoot session into a 12-minute gameplay session, with something like Mushroom 11. This niche little indie game, it's got some really cool mechanics, and it takes an hour to get a sense of what this game will be. But there's not an hour of content there. There's not an hour of entertainment there. There's ten minutes of entertainment in that hour. Whereas with something like Assassin's Creed, which is designed to be cinematic, and really engaging from the first minute, if we played more than the first 35-40 minutes of that, in the episode we had laid out, we wouldn't have got it cut in time. We would have too much content, and there would be no structure or closure to that piece.
“The toughest thing has been letting go of time [laughs]. Just accepting things. I don't want to say that 'Just enough is good enough', because that's not the case. It had to be at the start. But we're in a position now where we can produce cleverly enough to make sure that what we push out is good. It's less polished, but it's good.”
The Pocket team attended PAX AUS this year, and just to make things interesting they performed on stage, creating content in front of a live audience. “That was really interesting. We're a small team. There's three of us that make Pocket every day. And of course Janet signs off on everything, and makes sure that we're all okay. But between John the editor, myself, producer, and Nich, presenter, only one is a presenter [laughs], so to put us all up on stage was frightening, for myself. John's pretty good. John's a pretty cool guy. And I think everyone saw that. He's so confident in himself, he was fine being on stage. But it's definitely a different position. Sure, I was behind the camera still, but all eyes were on me as one of three, which isn't typically the case.
“What we wanted to do with the live show, and the feedback was really good, was take our daily schedule, and just do it on stage. The first thing we did when we got up on stage was shoot the news, and we got the audience behind Nich to participate. And then we shot a segment and got people up on stage, and they participated in that. It was really about opening up the doors, again. And that's what Pocket's about, as part of Good Game. Opening up the doors to the audience. And we were literally able to do that at PAX, and get people on stage, and get people in to a piece of Good Game content. And they're all so awesome. The PAX crowd is awesome, but to have Good Game fans at PAX was... it was the best. They're all awesome.”
Given the dizzying variety and quantity of content created by the GG Pocket sausage machine, we felt compelled to ask which aspects of the job Peter enjoys the most. “The things that I get the most out of are when I do lean back a bit towards television. When we go out on field shoots, and we're shooting with structure and with a story in mind, and we know what we want to get, and we go out there and we shoot the shit out of it. We come back with B-roll, we come back with all this stuff, and it's awesome, and we get to the edit, and then John has to work like a dog to turn this thing around, in the day that he has. That's definitely the most fun. Going out to film the V8s was a really memorable thing for us. For me.”
Some of the shows more memorable moments have emerged from the infamous mid-year dry spell, when they had no choice but to play some more obscure titles. “We looked at Fishing Planet. Which is a hardcore fishing simulator. I knew it was going to be dry, so I just went to the Costume Department and grabbed Nich some rubber overalls and a fishing hat [laughs]. For the first seven minutes of that episode, no-one said a word. I rolled the camera, I said 'Action!', and Nich... played the fisherman [laughs]. He had prop food. He was eating, he was drinking out of a can, he took a leak behind the set. It was amazing. And at the end of that we all just burst out laughing.
"So that was probably the most fun we've had in a shoot, for sure. And we didn't have to say anything to each other, which is even better [laughs]. Because when you spend all year in a room with two other people, you can get sick of each other. But we're pretty good. We're pretty good. We get along alright [laughs].”
GG Pocket has been officially renewed for 2016. In the new year Peter and his team will be taking advantage of the shows flexible format to take it in new directions.
“At the start of next year, we're actually going to come back with a different format for what we see as our deliverables. We're going to take the news that we currently do, and just scrap it. And make more of an informed opinion-based discussion around the headlines. Rather than just regurgitating news.
“It'll be Nich and rotating seats. Every day we'll get people to sit with Nich and discuss the headlines, and have more of a discussion about things. Because there are so many people in this office with years and years and years of knowledge about the industry. It's all sitting behind the front lines. We've got so many people out there to send into battle with information, and they don't get to do it. So we're going to exploit that next year! We're going to give them an opportunity to have more of a say. That will be our feature that we deliver through iView. As well as YouTube.”
As for the gameplay video content that Pocket creates, the plan for 2016 is to give that material more room to breathe. “We cut these things down, and we can make a boring game look great. A good editor, and John is a good editor, can make a boring game look great.
“One of our controversial episodes this year was looking at the first hour of Metal Gear Solid 5. Nich was playing it, and John and I were all there with him, and we all agreed that this thing was just a hot mess. It was a piece of crap. It was crap! And so we actually put the full hour of that up. But the cut-down for iView turned that hour into 11 minutes. Cutting down the content to make it entertaining. And it was fricking entertaining! That 11-minute piece made the game look fantastic! And that's disingenuous, you know? That's a misrepresentation of our experience with the game. And it's misrepresenting the game, I think, for the audience as well.”
So next year Pocket fans will be able to see Nich's play sessions in full. “For the people who like the shorter-format content, Nich's end of game discussion will be a little more fleshed out. So that they can skip with an annotated link to the end of the video, and hear his thoughts, rather than just seeing them play out throughout as well. They don't have to watch the full hour. They can get their five-minute experience, and learn about the game, without having to watch the whole thing. That's the goal, anyway.”
The New Frontier
2015 has been a maelstrom of activity for Peter and his team, between adhering to strict daily deadlines, developing and evolving the show, performing live, and even inadvertently creating a meme or two along the way. But he regrets nothing – the immediacy and interactivity of Pocket makes it all worthwhile.
“It's such an important arm of Good Game as whole, now. I can't imagine Good Game existing without it.”
James Cottee has worked as a video game journalist since the late 20th Century. His material has been published by PC PowerPlay, AusGamers, Official Australian PlayStation Magazine, and many other fine media outlets. He currently works as a writer and researcher for Good Game and Good Game: Spawn Point.