A writer and editor turned game developer who has previously worked for websites such as Destructoid and the Escapist, TechRaptor was lucky enough to talk to Allistair Pinsof for a series of interviews about the current state of the gaming media. In the second part of this series you can read of Allistair's experiences of relationships in the Indie gaming scene. You can read the first part of our interview here.
Disclaimer: Allistair's interview had been re-arranged into sections, with Allistair's permission, to make for more manageable reading. No edits have been made to the interview save for spelling and grammar.
All views are the interviewee's own and not necessarily shared by TechRaptor.
TR: You mentioned in your Reddit confession that "in more ways than one, (the gaming sites) are all in bed together" what did you mean by that?
"Bed together" was a careless way of framing this thought, given some of the allegations and conspiracy around intimate relationships going around. I just mean the whole Game Journo Pros thing in general.
Let's talk about Brandon Boyer. He already cut me out so I'm going to speak honestly about this. Here's a guy who runs multiple award shows, runs a game site that promotes indies, is friends with devs, PR, and all media types, and here he is on the Game Journo Pros group. If having a chairman of a judging committee running an indie game site that features exclusives from possible award show applicants doesn't seem like a conflict of interest, it's because you don't have a say over how he runs the IGF or you are a journalist who doesn't want to get on his bad side.
In 2011, at Fantastic Arcade, I was talking to a former game journalist Tiff Chow who I recognized from her work at Destructoid in 2008. I asked what she thought would win the Best Game Award, she flippantly bragged that her boyfriend is friends with Brandon so he'll win. (Ed: we don't have permission to use the picture linked, but it shows Brandon, Steph and Tiff's relationship. The couple are also part of a gaming collective with Phil Fish.) I took it as a bad joke. Next day, sure enough, he won Best in Show for Faraway, against games such as Fez (which won audience award), Skulls of the Shogun, Radical Fishing, and Octodad. It seemed fucked up, but it was such an insignificant show and I depended on Brandon as a local journalist so I stayed silent. Looking back now, it definitely makes me question how the IGF is run. Along with all the controversy around IGF judges years back and recent rumors that have come out about Fez being pushed by investors who shared judging roles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ON-oL4Mlks), what I witnessed give these claims some credibility along with how Brandon Boyer treated me personally recently, when I've always been a friend and supporter to him.
He's not some guy who grew up in the industry. He's a journalist who was suddenly put in this position to overlook all indie games, when at the time, no one could have known how influential and powerful that role would be as PSN and XBLA turned bedroom programmers into millionaires. I think Boyer is a good guy at heart, but money and power have a way of changing things. I'd like to see him and the IGF investigated and better governed in years to come so people outside Boyer's inner circle of investors are given a fair shake and not taking part in rigged festivals; if corruption is found and people are punished for it, I have no sympathy. Gaming should never have gotten this corrupt on the grassroots level of indie promotion, community and investing.
You hear a lot of things when you become a journalist prominent enough to cover big exclusives but not popular enough to be initiated into the game media elite's inner circle. One of the more interesting things I heard was a notable indie developer tell me that Phil Fish significantly stole from their code, projects and ideas to create Fez. When I questioned why they won't sue, they said they were in fear of being ostracized by the IGF, media, and indie dev scene.
It may seem hysterical or nutty but so much of this industry runs on fear. Journalists fear getting on PR's bad side and indie devs fear getting on judges' bad side. This sort of collusion and fear may have started from an innocent place of a small group of friends making it big together, but it has gotten to a point where the industry has been torn apart because of it. The media doubled down on fear tactics and panic in recent months, the IGDA published a blacklist (developers depend on social media for a living), and game enthusiasts are hated for simply not acting on a hate agenda, be it toward SJW or GG extremists.
Most of us just want to give each other a hug and make some fun games to play with people we appreciate and trust. I don't want anyone's career to burn away like mine did. I hope people who made mistakes come forth, admit, apologize, and ask community how they think they could improve or repair their business. Instead of trying to make peace with all, it seems certain devs and media are putting their eggs in one basket and hoping it's the right one. I want hope and forgiveness, not punishment and chaos.
TR: Why did this developer come to you about Phil Fish if they didn't want the information to be public?
I don't mind naming this developer because most of the information is in fact public, just ignored by the media. So, this developer Shawn McGrath approached me when Indie Game: The Movie came out and featured credits that libeled his friend Jason Degroot. Both of these guys were extremely influential on Fez; there's a good argument that it's their game. McGrath created the central mechanic, design, and code which was lifted from an earlier project he made with Fish that was a music game. Fish admitted to this as far back as 2007, but he'd say "the whole game is made around the 3D pixel aesthetic" or "it's all designed around my Miyazaki influence". This was dishonest however because it was really designed around McGrath's mechanic.
Let me roll back a little here. Degroot did music for Fez in 2007. He had a falling out with Fish which led to legal threats and drama which you can find in Indie Game: The Movie (which by coincidence was produced by Fish's current partner, hmm). The film presents him as an ominous entity who exists to make Fish's life hell, never was he given a chance to tell his side of the story, and -- a total slap in the face -- the film's credits said he "asked not to participate in the film" which was untrue. Degroot is a non-confrontational guy so McGrath took up his cause -- feeling sympathy since Fish stole from him too and backstabbed him -- and came to me with his story. So, let me get back to that.
The thing the public never knew -- that McGrath and Degroot held for leverage should the filmmakers & Fish not change the credits -- is that McGrath worked on Fez until the GDC trailer put out in October 2007, according to McGrath. At this point, McGrath had a second falling out and this time it was serious. McGrath told him they were done and Fish agreed to cancel the project. The agreement was that McGrath would take his original design (2D/3D rotating mechanic) and Fish would take his Trixel engine, according to McGrath. When McGrath saw the game appear at IGF 2008, he was furious and felt backstabbed. There's been bad blood between them ever since. This behavior seems habit for Fish since the same thing happened to Degroot who designed the game's original audio aesthetic via sound effects and a chiptune score, only to be cut and suddenly replaced with someone else who copied his style -- it's an amazing soundtrack but Fish keeps bringing in new people to follow through on other people's ideas.
I think Fish is a talented visual designer and Fez carries his unique stamp on it, but the problem -- and this is according to McGrath -- remains that two of its biggest creators were snubbed out of its development, uncredited, unpaid, stolen from, and lied to. What makes this an industry wide problem is that the two were afraid to speak out because of Fish's connections. Fish was friends with Boyer who ran the IGF, Fish was a social butterfly who knew a lot of gaming press (there were multiple videos of him casually hanging out with 1UP staff back on their video site in 2008) and had high level connections at Microsoft. Degroot & McGrath feared Fish would use his connections to ruin their career right as they were to debut their successful indie title Dyad.
I feel like this story embodies the indie game development scene as a whole. You have guys like Degroot and McGrath who are non-confrontational, good people who just want to make a great game. Then you have these megalomaniacs who use their influence to cheat their way into awards, take ideas and more from other developers, and depend on media, investor, and judge connections to keep their corruption away from the public's eye.
Would 1UP have reported on this if they found out, given how buddy-buddy they were with Fish? Would any game outlet report on Boyer given he is part of the Game Journo Pros group, gives them exclusive party invites, and is their source for the entire IGF world who could deny them access? Indie developers, like Degroot and McGrath, are afraid to step out and say what is going on is wrong and it's a damn shame there is no media not under Boyer's influence who could, in the very least, do an investigation into these matters. With the truth out, I expect Degroot and McGrath will remain silent and some people in this business will remain doing whatever it is they think they can get away with. This is what occurs when there is no true watch dog in the games press and they have judges and PR in their insane email list that shouldn't even exist in the first place.
You can find what else Allistair had to say about GamerGate, industry relationships and what happened at Destructoid in the rest of our series. Here is a link to Part 1 and to Part 3. You can find him on Twitter.
Do you think there are serious instances of corruption in the indie scene at the moment?