Indie devs fly off the handle at Polaris Game Jam

How did the reality TV show meant to showcase indie developers devolve into a fiasco?

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A conflict of interest is often the root cause of a fiasco, but its the non-willingness to compromise that causes problems to scale over to a wretched state. It began, as most things do, with the best of intentions. Game Jam was organised by Polaris to show off the skills and personalities of indie game developers. It was supposed to be a four-day long competitive game jam which would be broadcast on YouTube. However, the Mountain Dew-sponsored production crew, hired externally, were far too involved in the show. Instead of letting the programme Polaris organised generate the views, they had decided to take things in their own hands.

A game jam is a gathering of game developers for the purpose of creating one or more games within a short period of time. The reality TV show was stopped after only a day, when the participants refused to continue on, accusing the show’s makers of distorting the identity of Indie developers for the ratings. Intolerable creative differences with the production crew, the involvement of a producer called Matti Leshem and sexism about female developers on a team — these were the proverbial straws that broke the camel’s back.

Who is Matti Leshem? He runs a company called Protagonist and represented the interests of sponsor Mountain Dew. According to sources at Polygon, he asked Adriel Wallick if she thought she’s at an advantage because she was a pretty lady in the room. Wallick, of course, insisted that she is at an advantage because of her skills. Sexism is a sensitive issue in the game industry, a fact that Leshem knew as well; he was intentionally trying to provoke a response, but got more than he bargained for.

An example of sexism would be Zoe Quinn’s Greenlight submission of Depression Quest, in which some users of image-board Wizardchan harassed Quinn for her gender. So when Zoe had to take off the buttons she usually wears on her jacket for the show, she shouted down a Production Assistant who tried to make her cover her tattoos.

However, did the indie developers overreact in some ways, seeing that the job of the production crew was to generate viewership. Being controversial is one of doing it quickly. My personal take is that it is not only the fact that these are controversial topics or that they butted in on private discussions, it is way that the production team did it. They did not respect the participants and the organisers didn’t do anything to stop them.

There was a conflict of interest between the participants and the sponsors. The participants were told by the Polaris that their businesses would be showcased to the public, assuming that it would be in a positive light. The sponsors, however, wanted to generate the viewership of the show no matter what. Seeing that the programme was only for four days, they needed to churn out as much juicy content as possible for the screen quickly.

If a programme is non-controversial, it would not generate views. Important to note is that reality TV is part fiction and part real-life, after the act is over, everyone goes back to being on good terms, somewhat like pro wrestling. By trying to provoke a response from the indie game developers, instead of communicating what must be done, the show ended as a disaster that could have been avoided.

Even if the participants would not stand for it, though it were just an act, which is within their rights, there is really nothing that can be done. It’s just basic respect for the privacy of the participants. The producers should have settled for four days of ‘boring’ footage, rather than burning off US$400,000 it took to make Game Jam happen.

Another issue is the organiser’s lack of initiative to stand up to the Matti Leshem. He may represent the sponsors, however, Game Jam is organised by Polaris. Clear priorities must be set between the participants and the sponsors, if it is sponsors-first, the participants may feel maligned, and individuals like Leshem would abuse their power. However, to be fair, the same could happen with dominant participants controlling what is filmed and what is not. It’s the job of the organiser to manage the different expectations and keep the event going.

It’s ironic that the objective of the event was to showcase the indie developers, and they are getting a lot of publicity now even though Game Jam has failed. Alternatively, Leshem is getting a lot of flak for his behaviour. It feels like a form of serendipitous justice.

Theon Leong

Theon is a skeptic who believes in possibilities after learning that three thirds of a pie does not add up to one and that cats can be dead and alive at the same time. He writes about business and technology, and is particularly interested in deconstructing complex ideas into bite-sized chunks. His favorite novel is The Little Prince, and spends his free time on chess and video games.

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