So after a 30-minute presentation on the business end of social gaming that--to put things as lightly as possible--seemed to be geared towards people who had never heard of Facebook but wanted to make money off it, I had a whole bunch of really interesting conversations. One was with a Dutch guy who, working on a grant by the Dutch government, had come to New York to learn about the American game industry and find ways to translate that model to the Dutch game industry. Another was with a bunch of German iPhone developers (we showed each other our games, which felt vaguely dirty), who bought me a beer on their tab and talked about profit models for mobile gaming, and still another was with one of the guys who does Live Baseball Chat, a site where people chat with each other about baseball matches as they are happening, who was scoping out the industry to see if it was a good place to expand his business. All of these discussions were somewhat astonishing in that people there treated me as a professional equal, not some kid who might be in their line of work someday. (Nipping at the heels of mainstream developers for so long has gotten me so used to condescension that I am surprised when niche developers I have never met actually take me seriously. I guess the New York game industry is still young, and most of us are new at this...)
Then I started showing people my newest stable build of Lasers! Pew! Pew!, and fireworks! Magic! Lasers! (Pew! Pew!)
You know how when the first kid at middle school to get the new Pokemon game brings it to the playground at recess, everyone's all crowding around watching him or her play and providing running commentary? Imagine that it's ten or twenty years later, the kids are all grown up, they are in an East Village bar swilling Bud Light instead of huddling together with juice boxes on a sun-hot blacktop, and nothing has changed.
Without an actual game at the table, any game industry social event might as well be about the paperclip business. Even if you're not a business guy you get so caught up in monetization and distribution, funding and profit models, scalability and workflow and userbases and metrics and all the unpleasant hassle of turning ideas into money, that it's easy to forget about what you are actually making. This was true at GDC, it was true at SIGGRAPH, it was true even at the more businessy panels at PAX--and it's certainly true at the NY Gaming Meetup. Maybe more so, considering how law a ratio there is of designers, programmers, and artists to business and marketing types, the industry in New York being so small. Growing--and rapidly!--but still small.
But the moment someone flips open their DS or silly shooty explodey noises start coming out of an iPhone, it is as if you have opened a movie poster box of treasure, the kind so shiny that everything around it is splashed with light. Someday I'd like to get a photo of a mobile developer showing off her game at a darkened bar, taken in front of her (so the game screens are facing away from the camera), gesturing didactically with one hand and playing the game with the other, and all around her all these curious, ghostly faces, canonized in the halo of the device's backlight.
This is, among others, one of the things that makes mobile gaming so glorious. Dark spaces--trade shows, cocktail parties, soft-lit East Village bars--are the native habitat of a smartphone or handheld console. They are not the places where the devices are most often used, but they are the places where they are first conceptualized, demonstrated, advertised. In such spaces the device is transformed into a tiny, cold square of fire, a bugzapper for the soul, and it is all you can do not to stare at it and be transfixed. One look at the thing, and it is not a trade good, it is not a basket of assets, it is not even the product of months of worry and toil; it is a tiny beckoning pixel pixie, gesturing through a window into a distant and mysterious world. And it is impossible to fight the urge to hold it in your hands right now.
Through the night I'd demo my game to other professionals as a sort of business card or visual portfolio. Says more than a resume, really, and it's one of the more practical reasons why I set industry events as deadlines for development milestones. But invariably the call of the game attracts more than a prospective fellow developer, business partner, or employer. Small crowds gather. People look over my shoulder and others look over theirs, if only out of curiosity over what that little glowing thing is. I find myself presenting, like a museum guide, rather than explaining my development process casually, as if this thing has always existed on its own and I have merely discovered it. Showing off the demo feels very much like the odd conflux of being a tour guide and an arcade attendant.
A piece of an arcade--all those tall, gently sloping painted wooden cabinets, rows of glowing video screens in the dark--that's what I'm holding in my hands. A tiny prismatic shard of a collective childhood spent spellbound and awestruck at the brink of dozens of different worlds, hands diving into pockets for quarters. And I made it.
\m/ >.< \m/
A guy named Donnelly, who I had met at the meetup in February, saw the flickering dual screens and homed in on them as if they were a targeting beacon. "You're Kevin, right?" he exclaimed. "The DS programmer! Where have you been? We've been looking for you!" Turns out he's about my age, he's in business school or something, his friend just finished art school, and in terms of their ambitions and their passion for making great games they are basically me with different skillsets. They, too, have been trying to break into the industry forever, and are now doing preproduction on a Xbox Live rhythm game with no money (they've done about as much art for their game as I've done programming on mine), which they are going to release for peanuts, just to get their name out, and with a business guy and an artist all they are missing is a coder. When I come back from the Cormac's magical game development safari in late May, a point at which Donnelly and his friend will have hopefully secured some venture capital, I am going to meet up with them and see what we can work out. This is, needless to say, extremely fucking exciting.
Now that in itself would have been utterly fantastic news, and if the night had ended there I would have gone home whistling. But then about twenty minutes later I was showing the Dutch guy my game, and he asked me some questions about wireless multiplayer (answer: doable but not easy, currently, without the official Nintendo SDK which costs thousands of dollars), and two German dudes looking over my shoulder asked me about
dswifi. I asked, "Holy crap! Are you a DS homebrewer?" and he said, "A little bit."
Now, there is a DS homebrew scene in the United States, but it is so small that, well, I spent half the night explaining to people what homebrew was. Most of the people who buy the flashcarts necessary to run homebrew don't even know what homebrew is (cursed pirates). My only interaction with other homebrewers so far has been through an IRC channel and a couple of forums, with a community of maybe twenty to thirty other homebrew developers. It is something I have only talked about before through the medium of text--I have been working with PAlib, for example, for over two months and I realized for the first time tonight that I still don't know how it's pronounced. So this was a really, really big deal. For the first time ever I got to talk, with my speaking voice, to a person about the DSOrganize guy leaving the scene and the drunkencoders competition and the bizarre animosity between devkitPro and PAlib without having to explain what I meant. With someone who's just as excited about all the new stuff that has been coming out of the homebrew scene recently. That it turns out that he was from Germany and vacationing in the U.S. (Europe has a much bigger DS homebrew scene than over here) and had stumbled upon this meetup via a random tweet was of little consequence. Holy shit. Community.
So I asked the guy what homebrew apps he had worked on, and he said, oh, just some little toy he calls Pocket Physics, it's kind of like
THIS IS THE GUY WHO WROTE POCKET PHYSICS.
Who also wrote that other...you know, that much bigger project that everyone
"NitroTracker," he said somewhat surprisedly, "Yeah, I'm pleased, you've saved me the trouble of trying to explain what Pocket Physics is. And NitroTracker, it's, like,
Okay. So there are no celebrities in the DS homebrew scene--it's way too small. But if you try to make a compelling case for the power of Nintendo DS homebrew, and why you should load up your flash cart with homebrew apps instead of pirated commercial games, a few programs always come up. NitroTracker--an elegant, useful program for composing music on the DS in the FastTracker .xm format, a file format associated with games for many years--and Pocket Physics, an amazing little physics toy, are almost invariably among them. New gaming sites that write top ten lists of DS homebrew apps will usually mention both. gbatemp.com, a major emulation site, asked him to do an interview a couple years back, and he refused because he believes gbatemp.com's editorial position implicitly supports software piracy. That's the kind of stature this guy has in the community, to be able to set that kind of example for others. He is, as minor as the DS homebrew pantheon is, a legend.
To give you an idea of how influential his work is: Before devkitARM's
maxmodlibrary existed, the folks who created LemmingsDS--one of the most popular early homebrew apps--used cannibalized NitroTracker code to play the game's music. To give you another idea of how influential his work is, Eric Barker and I are considering using NitroTracker to compose the music for Lasers! Pew! Pew!. Have you ever gone to a fancy nightclub or a low-budget anarchist techno dance and seen the DJ manipulating images and music via custom-written Nintendo DS software? There's a good chance they're using DSMI. (Video.)
In my six months or so in the NDS homebrew scene I have not met a single other homebrewer in real life. And now the first one I meet is Tob himself, on vacation in the US, who just happened to visit this bar following a friend's Twitter message on a lark.
So...I told him about a bug I found in his software. (System hangs when converting NitroTracker-composed songs to soundbank files via
mmutilconverter utility. Since this only happens with NitroTracker songs, and I've gotten others on #palib to confirm and replicated the bug, it is almost certainly a NitroTracker problem.) It's an issue that has been delaying the production of music and sound effects for Lasers! Pew! Pew! for the past few days. I'd posted on his forum about it but I couldn't pass up the chance to tell him in person, and we discussed the issue for a while. Apparently it had escaped his notice because he, having laid the early groundwork for libraries like
maxmod, doesn't use
"It was an honor to meet you," I told him during our handshake goodbye. "I honestly didn't expect to run into the author of NitroTracker and Pocket Physics in some random bar in New York."
"The same," he said, grinning, "I didn't expect to be getting a bug report about my software, in person, in some random bar on the other side of the Atlantic."