“So just out of curiosity, how many of you were at RTX Sydney last year?” asks Rooster Teeth’s Chief Creative Officer Burnie Burns at the opening of the Founding Fathers panel. A respectable cheer goes up from the crowd. “I can’t believe you came back.”
Last year, RTX Australia was characterised by humidity, disorganisation and learning what it was to be sous vised alive. Thus in the lead up to the renamed RTX Sydney last weekend, there was only one question on people’s minds: “Will there be air conditioning?”
The answer was, “Yes, and there will be more bathrooms too, because we love you.”
Do you ever wonder why we’re here? I wondered a bit as I stood in line for a line for The Patch panel, unable to see past the con attendees who loomed above me on all sides...
Rooster Teeth’s second convention ever held in Australia, RTX Sydney boasted special guest Metal Gear developer Hideo Kojima, while the Nintendo Switch was made available for the Australian public to play for the first time. But neither of those facts were what had me wandering around for the first half hour in mild disbelief. RTX Sydney is a completely different convention to last year, and the change of venue to the new International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour has made all the difference.
The air is a cool, reasonable temperature. The bathrooms and food stalls aren’t overcrowded, and are of a respectable number. I can breathe. There are more exhibitor’s booths, which are also much better presented. The Centre Stage has forgone chairs in favour of standing room for non-VIPs which, though it takes a toll on your feet, makes moving between panels much smoother.
The guardians, bless them, are kind and helpful, and I’m only misdirected once. I never feel like I’m irritating or interrupting them when I have to ask for help. They also come armed with clickers, enabling them to count the queues and inform attendees if they try to join one that is capped.
My baby convention is all grown up and no longer causing people in fursuits to huddle around portable air conditioning units like early man around fire.
“I once read that a kangaroo kicked a guy’s dick off.”
I’m in my first panel of RTX Sydney, and Slow Mo Guys Gavin Free and Dan Gruchy are conducting a Q and A. As is Rooster Teeth tradition, they haven’t prepared anything for this panel and are simply seeing where it takes them. So far, it has taken them from a running joke about the assassination of JFK to what A Levels they achieved in school. They’ll also touch on long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours before the end. (“Do you remember when Harold came back?” “That was some messed up shit.”)
The audience doesn’t mind. This is a significant contribution the appeal of Rooster Teeth – its laissez faire, laidback attitude toward everyone and everything. This “she’ll be right” demeanour has endeared Rooster Teeth to many Australians, who make up the company’s largest audience outside the US.
This attitude is carried through the production of Slow Mo Guys videos, which are typically shot using props purchased from local shops. Though technology has progressed significantly in the seven years since the Slow Mo Guys began, Free still uses his first camera, a Canon 7D, for normal speed footage, despite it now being caked in paint.
When asked about future videos, Free states that he wants to do a giant balloon video every year, as they tend to do well. “I’m trying to think of a way to somehow hang a balloon full of water with Dan inside,” he says. The main concern appears to be the difficulty in setting it up. My main concern is Gruchy’s potential drowning.
On the other end of the spectrum, they aren't interested in filming pornographic content, though it is a common request. They have also turned down filming two scientific studies involving performing lethal heart surgery on a mouse and shooting a horse in the head.
“You can’t unsee something, especially in slow mo,” says Free.
Burnie Burns founded Rooster Teeth in 2003, along with Geoff Ramsey, Gus Sorola, Joel Heyman and Matt Hullum, the only member of the five not in attendance for the Founding Fathers panel. Since then, the production company has grown to over 250 employees, with multiple divisions including Let’s Plays, animation, live-action and the recently launched game publishing division Rooster Teeth Games.
But despite Rooster Teeth’s growth from its humble beginnings, they never forget how it began: Getting drunk with friends.
“Suck it Burnie Burns, we’re coming for you.”
Sometime during her first two years working for the company, Rooster Teeth Director of Social and Community Marketing Barbara Dunkleman was a guest at an event which was predominately populated by men. One approached her and asked, “Whose girlfriend are you?”
Angry, she responded, “Actually, I’m here as a guest. Whose boyfriend are you?”
Similarly to the previous panels, the Ladies of Rooster Teeth panel is very much a group of friends simply enjoying each other’s company (“Which Spice Girls are we?”). This time, however, it is filtered through the omnipresent lens of gender, as the panellists discuss the realities of working in an industry where women’s contributions are often undervalued.
“I’ve had credit for things I’ve done given to my male peers,” says Elyse Willems, member of Funhaus, a division of Rooster Teeth that produces tightly edited gameplay videos.
“I tend to have to prove myself more or less every day,” says Ashley Jenkins, host of gaming news show The Know. “If there’s one thing you don’t know, they’re like, ‘You’re not real.’”
“You need to know three times as much,” agrees Lindsay Jones, head of Let's Play division Achievement Hunter. She recounts how, during her early days as a member of Achievement Hunter, people would comment that she was only there because of her husband Michael Jones, a fellow Achievement Hunter. During Jones’ first Supanova in Australia, she was with Michael when a male fan asked him, “So how many people are here to see you instead of your wife?”
Jones’ husband responded, “Actually, a lot more people are here to see her for RWBY than me.” Jones voices the protagonist in the Rooster Teeth cartoon.
The women don't appear to consider themselves role models. (“If this is formative, I'm sorry, kiddo,” jokes Jenkins when they realise a baby has been brought to the panel.) Nevertheless, listening to them discuss the preconceptions they dealt with in their careers and how they navigated those attitudes is heartening.
Because this is a Rooster Teeth panel, the conversation also covers such topics as the women's worst period stories. The man sitting next to me makes happily disgusted noises as they recount tales of “vampire ass”, fearing sharks and white jeans.
“I’m really happy we’re hiring more women in managerial roles,” says Bethany Feinstein, Head Director of Live Events, shortly after discussing her drying up menstrual blood.
Last year’s diversity panel was thrown together at the last minute, and itself featured a disappointing lack of diversity. This is another area in which RTX Sydney shows remarkable improvement.
Opening with the panellists defining terms such as “cisgender” and “intersectionality”, the GX Australia Diversity in Games panel makes a concerted effort to respectfully address numerous aspects of diversity. This year this effort extends not only to the discussion, but also to the makeup of the panel itself, which contains visible people of colour.
I liked that the panel was actually diverse this year!
— Char (@universe93) February 4, 2017
“Diversity is important to the mainstream so they are exposed to diversity,” says Liam Esler, co-director of GX Australia. “That kind of exposure is really, really important.” He paints a scenario in which a conservative young boy realises that he’s gay, and is able to identify his experience in the media he consumes. Suddenly, this truth about himself don’t seem so scary. He has a point of reference to reassure him that he isn’t a freak or abnormal, and can use that point of reference to help him talk to his family and change opinions.
Diversity in video games has a bad reputation for some, who feel that conscious efforts to address it only leads to shoehorning in bad characters. However, the panel consider that it is not the effort to address diversity that causes this, but the substitution of diversity for characterisation. “Typically when you find a bad diverse character, it's because their diversity is their only character trait,” says Peak Distapan from Sydney Gaymers.
They further agree that while there’s “nothing necessarily wrong with sexualising a character”, when that is the only or predominant characterisation seen of a group of people in games, it is an issue.
“It would be like if the only time you saw a black person on television was as a slave,” says Joshua Meadows, co-director of GX Australia.
“It's naive to think that this doesn't go on to affect how people treat other people,” adds Lee Flores of GirlsGotGame.org.
The panel also touches on the portrayal of mental health in video games. “We’re just starting to talk about mental health in games,” says Jennifer Scheurle, a German game designer living in Sydney. They point to the overuse of asylums as a setting for video games as perpetuating a negative perception of mental health issues, and acknowledge that some indie games are beginning to tackle the issue in more nuanced ways.
On how to encourage more diversity in games, they ask that people not only to vote with their wallets, but to write their support for developers who do it well, even if it's only in a tweet. “It's important to call out bad things, but also to recognise good things,” says Esler.
Burnie Burns is telling the audience that Rooster Teeth shot seven live-action productions during this visit to Australia. One of them was an episode of Immersion – a show which recreates video game scenarios in real life. In this episode, they remade a scene from The Last of Us wherein a character is hanging upside down from the ceiling and shooting zombies while another works to free them.
“We’re going to Australia, everything there is upside down already,” says Burns regarding the reasoning behind the choice of scene.
He notes the difference between American and Australian medics while recounting a story from the set. Adam Kovic of Funhaus had been suspended upside down for a while, and was therefore lying on the ground with his feet in the air while the medic checked him over. According to Burns, if he had asked an American medic what was wrong with Kovic, he would have received a detailed account regarding fluids, rest and blood vessels. When he asked the Australian medic, they merely responded, “Pfft, he’s fine.”
Though they don't shy away from ridiculous stunts, Rooster Teeth are fairly safety conscious. Gavin Free took so long solving the puzzles while Michael Jones was suspended, that they began shouting the answers to Free in order to speed up the process, fearing for Jones' health.
“It required Michael to stay calm and Gavin to be smart,” says Burns, traits that the two men are not known for. He imitates a zombie that had gradually slowed her approach to allow Free more time to complete the puzzle. “I’ve never had a zombie have a look like, ‘Come on, dude.’”
I later meet that zombie at the end of the line for the Achievement Hunter panel. Tanisha Jenkins-Ayres and her friend Madeleine Finley, both 21, have been fans of Rooster Teeth for several years, having first stumbled across them via Michael Jones’ Rage Quit videos on Tumblr. Their main interest in the production company is in the Let’s Play division.
Last year Jenkins-Ayres missed out on a signing with Geoff Ramsey despite lining up for hours, as VIPs were constantly cutting the line. This year she missed Ramsey again, but was able to meet several other Rooster Teeth personalities, including Gavin Free.
“I was going to ask, ‘do you remember me [from the Immersion shoot]?’ but I didn’t have to – he did it on his own!”
Jenkins-Ayres carries a graze on her right cheek where she was hit in the head with a piece of wood during filming. She doesn’t seem to mind, wondering whether it would make it into the final cut, as they only shot that scene twice.
While we are waiting in line the women emphasise how nice Burns is, and recount how he happened upon them after they were turned away from the filled Immersion panel. Recognising them from the shoot, he then took it upon himself to ensure they were able to attend the panel.
Burns happens to walk past again while we wait, surrounded by a phalanx of guardians in bright orange T-shirts. Finley breaks away from the queue to get a selfie, dashing after the procession. Upon her return there’s a moment where it seems that a guardian won’t let her re-join the queue, but it is quickly resolved.
“It would have been worth it, though,” she says, showing Jenkins-Ayres the photograph of herself beside Burns.
Unfortunately, he isn’t there to usher the pair in this time, and we and 17 others are turned away due to the Achievement Hunter panel being full. You can't win them all.
This year RTX Sydney extricated itself from the primordial convention ooze and began to pull itself forward on new legs. It really felt like Rooster Teeth listened to complaints from last year and worked to address them, and the result was in a smoother, more enjoyable event. Even where there were still lines for lines (as would be expected for trying out the Nintendo Switch), and where people were turned away (such as for the incredibly popular Off Topic Podcast), it was conducted as efficiently as possible, and everyone was much less disgruntled.
As RTX Sydney wraps up on Sunday evening, I stand by the door and watch the crowd slowly trickle out, shedding their cosplays while carrying white bags filled with merchandise. Spotting a pretty good Yang Xiao Long cosplayer, I head after her to ask for a photo.
Upon exiting the building I'm hit with an assertive heat, the remnants of a blistering day. My skin begins to grow sticky. Reportedly, it had been over 40C - a temperature of which I had been blissfully ignorant.
I retreat back inside. Air conditioning. Never hold an Australian summer convention without it.