When I first started playing SpyParty, I never thought any game (much less an indie game) could have such an impact on my life. For years I’ve considered Mother 3 to be my favorite game. I didn’t expect much to come of my SpyParty career, in the game or outside of it. But that all changed at an event called the Penny Arcade Expo, and I believe that change has altered the direction of my life.
Before PAX 2013
Prior to PAX Prime (now PAX West) in 2013, I hadn’t been doing much with my life. I didn’t have a job, I was living at home, and although this article made me want to become a game designer, I wasn’t doing anything to reach that goal. I had an active social life and was enjoying myself playing video games (and learning about board games), but I wasn’t progressing.
One thing I was doing was streaming this fun little indie game called SpyParty. I’d started in October of 2012, and had a small (but loyal) audience. I wasn’t very good at the game, but the other people playing were welcoming and nice, and the creator tweeted out a link to my stream anyway, which meant the world to me.
I played nearly every day, and eventually reached the point where I felt comfortable talking to other community members. I started playing players with huge game totals (over 3,000 games played!). I remember Chris, on Twitter, referring to me as the “LNS” (Late Night Streamer), because I would always stream at midnight PDT.
For my 100th stream, I started using a webcam and added an overlay, which changed how I interacted with the people in my chat. The audience was still small, but also still loyal.
After streaming for awhile and interacting with the rest of the community, I found my own style and voice. Posting to the forums wasn’t so stressful any more, and talking with Chris was more like talking to a friend than an authority figure. So as PAX 2013 approached, I posted this:
As you can see, I was mostly joking. I didn’t expect to be selected. But not long afterwards, I received this email:
I had less than a month to arrange for transportation, a place to stay, and the money I’d need while I was there. I turned to the community I’d come to know and love. A fellow volunteer, zerotka, was also trying to find low-cost lodging options, so we decided to help each other out. Most local hotels and hostels were out of our shoestring budgets, so we camped on Bainbridge Island. We agreed to stick together, and I owe him a lot of thanks, not just for teaming up, but for helping me through my budgetary worries as the margins got smaller.
Once we’d set our camping plans, I got my stuff together and hopped on a bus for the long 26-hour ride to Seattle.
After over a day on a small bus, it felt great to finally arrive in Seattle. But getting to Bainbridge Island wasn’t as easy as I’d expected, and because I have no listening abilities whatsoever, I didn’t bring any camping materials for myself. I vividly recall trying to fall asleep that first night, wondering if the trip was a huge mistake. If every day was going to be as difficult as this first one, why come at all?
Any worries I had were quickly put to rest: the next three days were amazing. My throat was sore from explaining how the microfilm works over and over, but I met so many of the people I’d come to know, and we all had a blast teaching the game to new players. Being able to talk about the game in-person, after having only talked about it online, made the entire trip worthwhile. It’s hard to explain how gratifying it is to just nerd out about something when so few other people care about it the way you do.
Talking with Chris gave me a lot of respect for him, although after telling him my story about camping, he said “That’s crazy! I wouldn’t help you even if I could, that story sounds too amazing.” Which probably says more about Chris than anything else I can tell you.
Before PAX 2014
After PAX, any doubts I had about being a real part of the community were gone. It reinvigorated my interest in the game, and I started creating content (and streaming more often). This is about the time I started to think of more ways to talk about the game (like this very blog). And for the second straight year, I was selected to work the booth, this time alongside krazycaley and wodar. I’d been playing wodar a lot between the two conventions, and krazycaley was a newer player who joined when the beta opened (an event which, it’s easy to forget now, we were all very scared of). He turned out to be an invested player, a great opponent, and a great friend.
It was around this time that I started to work towards my goal of actually making games. None of my earliest attempts were any good, but some of the ideas were promising and turned into some fun evenings with friends. It wasn’t a serious attempt, just a toying around with the career I wanted to end up in. But it was a start.
As PAX approached, and because the three of us all got along great and all lived in southern California, wodar, krazycaley and I decided to go on a road trip. Caley and I were the ones on tight budgets that year, so we hatched a plan even more ridiculous than camping: we decided to sleep in Caley’s car for the now-expanded four-day convention.
@Drawnonward I hatelove you for posting these.
— SpyParty Fans (@SpyPartyFans) August 29, 2014
Chris also introduced the ability to buy the game immediately at the convention with character code cards, which were a great success. Sleeping in the car was a big problem, but we made it work, and Caley proved to be an excellent booth volunteer, helping out all over and developing an effective spiel.
On top of that, I got to meet a personal hero of mine. I mentioned earlier that a specific article inspired me to try my hand at game design; the author of that article, Mark Rosewater, is the lead designer of Magic: The Gathering, and he attends PAX every year. I let the chance to talk to him pass me by in 2013, but this year, I was determined to meet him. Thankfully, he was just as nice as his writing made him sound, talked to me for a bit, and let me take a picture with him at the hectic Magic Party that wodar and I ended up at.
Before PAX 2015
In late 2014, after PAX, I did the unthinkable: I got a job. Eventually, this forced me to stop my regular streaming schedule. It cut down on my playing, too, but not before posting a fair amount of content on the game, and on this website in particular. But my focus was shifting towards board games more and more since those initial half-hearted attempts to design one of my own.
One day at work, a thought struck me: where was I going with my life? I liked streaming, and streaming SpyParty in particular, but neither was going to be a viable career. I felt like I was wasting my time, and while I was glad to have a job, it wasn’t something I saw myself doing long-term. That day, I decided to make a serious effort to design tabletop games. I started reading more articles on design and began looking for new mechanics. Even before PAX 2015, I showed one of my prototype games to wodar and kcmmmmm at an event we attended in Las Vegas, and I was looking forward to designing more and bringing them to PAX. There was just one tiny problem:
I didn’t get selected as a volunteer.
In exchange for working the booth, Chris gives the volunteers his exhibitor badges, granting them access to the convention floor. You can buy your own badges, but given that I’d spent the previous years camping and sleeping in a car, even this moderate increase in the cost of the trip was enough to put it out of my reach.
My good friend warningtrack encouraged me to try a stream fundraiser, but I dismissed it out of hand; how could I raise enough money to make the trip when my viewer base was still so small? But then he asked me: “What’s the worst that could happen? You either fail and stay home, or succeed and go to PAX.” Wise words. So I went for it: I held a fundraising stream that involved a live cooking show, fancy audio/visual equipment, and even a self-blackmail funding tier that would unlock an embarrassing student film I was part of. I didn’t expect to even hit a third of my goal, but I passed it in the first hour, and ended up raising the cost not just of the badges, but the entire trip. I was astonished, and still am to this day, at the kindness and generosity of this community.
Thanks to that generosity, I was finally able to fly to Seattle and actually sleep indoors, albeit in the highly popular SpyParty “sardine can” hotel room. After sleeping in tents and cars, even being crammed in a small hotel room with half a dozen other people felt like the high life.
Because of my living arrangements (specifically, having some), and because I’d acquired my own badges, 2015 was a lot more relaxed than previous years. I was free to roam the convention as much as I wanted. But the most important moment of the convention took place while I was surrounded by all my SpyParty friends.
During the first day of PAX, Chris told us that a friend of his had made a board game version of SpyParty! My two biggest interests were colliding. The game was being designed by Tim Fowers, designer of Burgle Bros. and Fugitive. When the convention closed the first day we found some open tables and started playing. Tim explained that the game was still a prototype, but was designed to replicate the feelings you get while playing SpyParty.
Talking with Tim was incredibly useful: to this point I’d thought a lot about gameplay and mechanics, but very little about actually publishing anything. Publishing games is a topic Tim is intimately familiar with, as he’s worked with both traditional game publishers, as well as used Kickstarter to fund his more recent creations.
I spent a lot of time outside of the SpyParty booth in 2015, and got a chance to talk with Tim more later on. I helped out at the booth plenty, though, and had lots of fun with the best players in the world. I met sharper, warningtrack, and virifaux, just to name a few. It was an amazing experience, and I even had the same flight back as virifaux. We talked about games and game design for all three hours.
I took my new knowledge of board games and immediately began working on newer, sleeker designs. I decided to learn more about other games and how they fixed design problems, and became more aggressive about my goal. I started reading whatever I could find on the topic of design, and realized how much I’d been missing.
Before PAX 2016
I don’t know what PAX 2016 will bring, but if the previous three years have been any indication, I hope to glean more insight about games. Without the experiences I’ve had at PAX (which have all merged into one huge experience in my mind), I don’t know where I would be. From meeting Mark Rosewater, to talking to Tim Fowers, to having the pleasure to work with Chris Hecker (the man who started this journey for me), I’ve learned so much.
None of the games I’ve worked on are ready to be promoted, but I’m hopeful. The more I work on them, the more comfortable I feel designing, iterating, and tweaking these ideas I keep having. Hopefully, one day I’ll either get a game published traditionally, or try my luck on Kickstarter. I don’t know what role PAX 2016 will play in all this. I don’t know where this latest trip will take me. But I know it’ll be somewhere worth going.