A reality TV show about some of the best indie game developers in the business competing Iron-Chef-style to make amazing games? Sounds like a great idea, right? You'd think so, but this story does not, unfortunately, have a happy ending.
According to a report on Indie Statik (and corroborating testimonials from Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn, SoundSelf maestro Robin Arnott, and traveling indie of all the hats Adriel Wallick), GAME_JAM was originally conceived as an attempt to give wider audiences an inside look at what a game jam - that is, a rapid-fire game creation process, usually done over the course of a few days as a creative exercise - is actually like.
Having participated in a few myself, I can add that it's a stressful and difficult but exhilarating process. And in many ways, game jams really get to the heart of what modern "indie" game development is all about: small teams, off-the-wall ideas, and sloshing gallons of blood, sweat, and tears.
So the idea checked out, but what developers and YouTubers (who were also involved, much to some developers' surprise) discovered when they got there was apparently a far cry from what they signed on for.
Filming allegedly happened last week, with the process ending when everyone walked off set in outright refusal to have anything more to do with the show after Pepsi consultant and Protagonist CEO Matti Leshem repeatedly attempted to sir up drama. Apparently, production company Polaris (a subsidiary of the now-Disney-owned YouTube network Maker) dropped somewhere in the realm of $400,000 on the project. It was even sponsored by Pepsi/Mountain Dew.
So then, what happened? To hear the developers tell it, intense contract negotiations were the first sign that something was amiss.
"From the beginning there were potential problems with the 'Green Label Game Jam' (branded on set as 'GAME_JAM')," wrote Wallick in her testimonial. "The contract was full of corporate legalese. There were clauses about being allowed to misrepresent us in any way on any topic for 'dramatic effect'. There were sections barring developers from appearing on any form of broadcast media for a period of time longer than anyone should be comfortable with. Many of the participants were the sole faces of their company. We, off the bat, would be risking our reputations – our livelihoods – to participate in this jam. We negotiated the contract as a group. We reworded the most egregious sections – but not before having to push back for days."
So then the competition itself began. Things got off on a strange foot when developers were organized into game-show-style teams with "captains" - in this case Zoe Quinn, Robin Arnott, Perfect Stride creator(s) Arcane Kids, and a group of USC students - each with a surprise YouTuber (among them personalities like JonTron) along for the ride, which is not really what a game development team looks like. There were 16 competitors in total, divided into four teams. They'd have four days to come up with a game idea and prototype it for all the world to see. Strict limits, but - bizarre team structures aside - that's a game jam for you.
But then things got stranger. Polaris ground any sort of, you know, game development to a halt by filling day one with Mountain-Dew-sponsored "challenges," the first of which involved YouTubers doing "Let's Play"-style videos of their team captains' games. That put a lot of stress on the developers, who were already under the gun to create something in an incredibly short timeframe. Every day counts when you're jamming. Heck, every second counts, really.
Moreover, it quickly became clear that Mountain Dew had center stage here. The prizes were Mountain Dew (a year's supply of the stuff, a trip to a Dew-hosted extreme sporting event), the stakes were Mountain Dew, the message was Mountain Dew. If developers held cans incorrectly or didn't smile enthusiastically enough, scenes had to be shot again. And again. And again. If developers were on camera, Mountain Dew was the only beverage they could consume. There was talk of having participants even drink water from used Mountain Dew cans.
Tempers flared as it became apparent that the show wasn't quite what people were expecting, and Pepsi's on-site consultant decided to get involved - but not as a calming influence or a mediator. YouTube personality JonTron and Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn butted heads during the Let's Play challenge, and they decided to resolve their differences with a discussion off-set. Cameras, however, quickly followed.
"The second their feet left the competition floor, however, something happened that I didn't expect: cameras," wrote Indie Statik reporter Jared Rosen. "Cameras from every angle and direction, marching in to the discussion as someone started feeding the fight with inflammatory comments, and all of it filmed for what would likely be some of that legal 'misrepresentation.' Zoe was horrified."
"Jon didn't want that. Zoe definitely didn't want that. Serrato, Umetani, and the many producers spectating didn't want that, and it went against everything game jams stood for - but [Pepsi consultant and Protagonist CEO Matti Leshem] pushed the angle. And as the challenge went on we discovered that he had cornered Jon in a room to try and get him to speak poorly of Zoe, the only negative 'story' they could muster out of all fifteen contestants."
"Jon's a nice dude. That interview attempt failed, with the result of making him furious."
Things spiraled from there. Computers broke down, YouTubers discovered that equipment provided to them was extremely low-quality, and morale hit rock-bottom. Meanwhile, Leshem wouldn't stop pushing, and then he took things 200 steps beyond too far.
"Two of the other teams have women on them. Do you think they're at a disadvantage?"
“Do you think you’re at an advantage because you have a pretty lady on your team?”
He apparently asked variations on those questions to multiple teams, all of whom more or less responded that the question was moot, because a) having women involved gave them a huge advantage by adding more viewpoints to the equation and b) these women weren't inherently less skilled or qualified by way of not being men. They were professional game developers. End of story. Wallick, especially, was at her wit's end.
"After pushing more, he got a rise out of me. He got me to, with an embarrassed and flushed red face launch into a statement about how his question is indicative of everything that is wrong in our industry in terms of sexism. That no, we weren't at an advantage because we had a woman on our team – we were at an advantage because I'm a damn fine programmer and game developer."
Indie Statik claims that Leshem responded to all of this by saying, "Stop filming. We're not getting a story here."
He later defended his actions by saying he marched with women in the '70s with "flowers in his hair," but by this point the damage had already been done. He then apparently tried to get one more rise out of Quinn, and that's when everyone decided they'd finally had enough.
The teams banded together and stormed off the set, various entities involved in production begged them to stay, and - while the developers eventually reached some kind of compromise with Polaris for a hypothetical future program - this one was over. Ultimately, Arnott's testimonial claims, everyone later met with Polaris to air their grievances in a less heated environment, but there was little to be salvaged except perhaps a future professional relationship.
It sounds like things continually went from bad to worse every possible step of the way, but it wasn't all bad to begin with. Even as things fell into disarray, Polaris' project leads tried to keep it together, and they accepted responsibility for what ultimately happened. SoundSelf's Arnott explained:
"Aaron Umetani was the director of 'GAME_JAM' – it was his baby, supported by producer Jason Serrato. As the project grew in scale, they made compromises that they shouldn't have, but when those compromises were manifest on set as the unsafe and unfriendly environment the four of us have described, they were as horrified as anyone else. One of the difficult parts about being on set was not knowing who we could trust, or to what extent."
"Over the course of the weeks leading up to the shoot, the single shooting day, and the days since, these two were the only beacons at Maker/Polaris who I believed I could trust. They have assumed personal responsibility for what went wrong and repeatedly demonstrated their integrity. I would happily work with them again, and sincerely hope that one day Aaron's baby will be realized as it was imagined."
And while the experience was trying for all involved, it was also rife with important lessons. Quinn summed it up:
"There was this amazing thing that happened after the production was over. Without any organization or prompting, we acquired and shared some refreshments around, set up some multiplayer games, invited production staff to just come be people and play with us, and had a spontaneous pop up party more or less. It was the first time I had started to feel like myself at all since landing in LA. I started to remember what life felt like off-set again, and it reminded me of what I love about game jams and the indie community in general. It felt like such a complete contrast to the 24 hours that preceded it, and a thought clicked into my head."
"I want to run a game jam. I'd love to have the LPers do what they're so often so brilliant at and bridge the gap between the games and the audience, and do it super low-tech, low-budget, documentary style. Capture the inspiration, the hard work, the 3am delirium and the dumb jokes that come with it. Show people how we all band together and support each other through the deadline. That's what I want to show the world about game jams. That's the ambassador I'd rather be."
We have reached out to both Umetani and Serrato for comment, as well as various YouTubers, Matti Leshem, and multiple developers. We will update this story as more information comes to light.