The Making of Indie Van Game Jam: Pre-Pro

Indie Van Game Jam is a reality web series about the challenges three indie game developers take to create video games in a van — in a compressed amount of time — as they road trip across North America.  Special guests (seasoned indie devs) play the games and provide helpful feedback and suggestions for improvement along the way.  The team learns valuable lessons about game design and teamwork along the way.

Our plan was to travel to 7 cities in less than 90 days.  In fact, for two weeks back-to-back we shot three episodes and traveled to three cities!  That’s three playable games in 2 weeks — and a lot of coffee!

This is the definition of BADASS.

Here’s what the team’s January calendar looked like this year:

shooting schedule for January
Shooting schedule for January

Step 1:  Buy a van.

van

blue van is a GO!
Blue van is a GO!

Diego’s brother (who is fortunately a mechanic!) helped the team out by sending us Craigslist links to about 8 conversion vans in the DAL-ATX-HOU area, as well as tagging along to inspect its quality and driving performance.

Once we procured Big Blue and had it brought to our mechanic, Art, for repair and winterization, the series’ biggest missing component had been solved.  The van was a Dodge B2500 High Top Conversion Van with over 100,000 miles on it.  She turned out to be gentle and kind to us even as we racked up another 100k miles.

(We toyed with the idea of painting her with the IVGJ logo, gutting her insides pimping our ride, but we fell short on funds… Six seasons and a movie?)

Step 2: Contacting Studios

While the logistics were being ironed out for purchasing a van, I was reaching out to indie studios and gauging their interest level in being part of the web series.

In my opening emails, I would try to address questions that I felt indie devs would inevitably ask, such as, “Who are these guys?  What is the web series about?  Why should we [the indie studio] let them film here?  Why do they specifically want us in an episode?”  I wrote that in exchange for access to their studio for a day or two to film and demos/beta keys/etc. to play their games and capture gameplay footage, we’d provide them with high quality marketing material that would showcase their latest and greatest games.  Plus, we’d take them out to lunch.

I was surprised by how welcoming people were!  Here are some of the emails from the indie devs:

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Reading these emails again made me feel incredibly appreciative of how welcoming and receptive the indie devs were to our pitch.

Once we had all seven studios on board (we tried in lock in all filming dates with studios before traveling), it was time to get serious (not that we weren’t up until that point!)

Step 3:  Prepare!

We set out to procure what we didn’t have: hotel room reservations and/or lodging with friends, episode travel itineraries, emergency supplies, equipment purchasing/rental, equipment insurance, car insurance, release forms, beta codes and/or demos to play the indie games on Steam, driving directions, packing equipment, hard drives, etc. We actually got really lucky and only had to do the hotel deal twice.

We researched what news had already been covered on the developer/studios.  Doing so forced us to familiarize ourselves with the company’s culture, history, and the surrounding indie scene in each city (for example, this Polygon article on Klei: http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/5/29/4362838/the-birth-and-re-birth-of-klei) , as well as generate interesting interview questions if we ran out of ones to ask.

I’d like to state that we followed through with all of these plans as a team of FOUR people working at a startup.  Again, that’s badass.

Step 4: More Research!

The components of any single episode ideally include:

  • Intro Animation
  • Binary Solo HQ: Game Analysis
  • Studio Intro
  • Travel: {Whiteboarding, Art, Coding, SFX, Pit Stops, etc.}
  • Studio Game Jam Playthrough
  • Game Jam finish (in the van)
  • Wrap-up
  • Credits
  • Link to download the game

I then set out on to put together a kind of “look book” for the series based on web series with similar content, tone, and aesthetic for reference.  In retrospect, this was a tedious task but a necessary one, IMO.  I wanted to understand what other web series were doing, the aesthetics they embraced and how we could possibly differentiate ourselves from similar ones.

The series we looked at for inspiration were Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Man Vs. Food, Mythbusters, Penny Arcade, and Indie Game: The Movie.

In addition to assembling a look book, I started to create a shot wish list, breaking down the scenes into their visual components.  For example, under the Whiteboarding scene, I wrote down “packing, tracking shot of van, GoPro dev cam, pitstop commentary, computer screens, keyboards, eyes, interviews with the team.”  I knew that at the very least, if I captured a majority of these things on camera, we could stitch together an arc to the episode.

One of the last components we had to film as a team that I still consider pre-pro was the Binary HQ scene for all episodes.  This segment consisted of having the team meet at Zeb’s place on a Friday or Saturday and spending time sampling the indie studio’s gameography, then thinking about the common threads their games exemplified and finally developing the central game design question for the episode.  For instance, the game design question in episode one was: How can we remove an essential element from a game genre and still have people think it’s that genre?

And with that, like when Captain Picard took the helm of the Enterprise and set sail to Farpoint Station, we started the drive to Chicago, IL in December to visit Rob Lach.

Engage!

This is Part III of V of a series about the making of Indie Van Game Jam. See Part I about the Gear used in Indie Van Game Jam. We will also be posting about our filming (production) phase as well as the editing (post-production) phase.

Indie Van Game Jam is currently performing their Steam Greenlight campaign. To help them get Indie Van Game Jam on Steam, consider donating a Yes vote now on their Steam Greenlight page.

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