Game Jam: The Documentary - Troy Morrissey

Indiegogo, Integrity, and Game Jam: The Documentary

Troy Morrissey

One year ago, director Troy Morrissey went to the 2012 Toronto Global Game Jam with three crews and three cameras and recorded approximately 144 hours of footage over the course of a single weekend. A few weeks later, he released the first trailer for Game Jam: The Documentary.

That early footage featured a series of Toronto developers describing the personal significance of game jams – gatherings where amateurs, professionals, and hobbyists get together to try to make games from scratch under the constraints of time and resources. But Morrissey felt his fledgling documentary needed a more global perspective, so he launched an Indiegogo campaign asking for $4,500 for a plane ticket to the 2012 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The game community obliged, pitching in a total of $3,490, at least half of which came from the Greater Toronto Area.

That was the story when we left off last March. While Morrissey rode an initial wave of excitement to GDC, a second Indiegogo campaign – this one asking for $5,000 to film the 2013 Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen – fell $4,000 short of its goal, indicating that enthusiasm might be waning.

If so, it would hardly be surprising.

Morrissey had originally hoped to debut the documentary before the end of fall 2012, which meant the second Indiegogo campaign arrived when backers expected to see the finished film. The current release window is late summer 2013, although that was before sudden health problems derailed Morrissey’s second trip to GDC and a planned contest that would have flown two winners to the Toronto Independent Game Jam (TOJam) next month. Production has picked back up thanks to the help of a team of volunteer editors and animators (the group will be filming at TOJam), but Morrissey’s limited involvement until further doctor’s notice likely ensures that the film won’t be completed before autumn.

Though understandable, the setback clouds an already hazy timeline with no fixed terminus on the horizon. Given the ambiguity and the lack of satisfactory updates, it’s little wonder that once-proud backers have become less forthcoming with their wallets. One brief missive indicated that the team had moved on to post-production, a prospect that at first seems downright paradoxical. How can the documentary be in post-production if the team is still acquiring footage?

“We’re being selective now,” answered Morrissey. With an outline firmly in place, he spends his days editing the footage captured during 48-hour binges and only breaks out the cameras for interviews needed to complete specific storylines.

Game Jam: The Documentary

Yet persistent production remains a danger. The same chronological demands and updates that necessitate filming at the eleventh hour ensure that the documentary will never tell the complete story of any of its subjects. If Morrissey wants to keep filming indefinitely, do his backers have the right to tell him ‘no’?

It’s the most relevant question facing any crowdfunded project, but it’s unusually complicated with Game Jam: The Documentary: though the amounts raised via Indiegogo are non-negligible, Morrissey remains the primary and controlling financier, having personally contributed more capital than all other backers combined.

“That’s why I was trying to come up with extra cash,” he explains. “After spending at least $15,000, it just wasn’t feasible. We [me and director of photography Ryan Cox] didn’t have the money.”

While backers might not like to hear it, the unusual crowdfunding calculus — who owns the product, the artist or the appreciator? — doesn’t apply to Game Jam: The Documentary because it’s not a fully crowdfunded project. It’s a capitalistic hodgepodge of crowdsourcing, charitable donations, and Morrissey’s five-figure personal investment, and he’s prepared to upturn other couch cushions in the never-ending quest for loose change.

“We have considered sponsorship, maybe product placement or something. It’s just a hard sell,” said Morrissey. “Game developers don’t have a lot of money, and [they’re the ones who] would want to be contributing to the film.”

Morrissey has even fielded offers from groups looking to purchase the project wholesale. He’s turned away all suitors thus far, although he could envision a scenario in which he no longer owns Game Jam: the Documentary.

“We had a couple investors who were interested, but they wanted creative control,” he revealed. “They wanted to turn the film into a television show. Jersey Shore Game Jam was actually mentioned at one meeting. They wanted the atypical hot girl as the host of the show.

“If it was the right company and people who knew about the game industry I would be open to it,” confessed Morrissey. “It’s when people who don’t know what a game jam is and don’t know about the indie game community that want creative control, where I’m not comfortable with it, for obvious reasons.”

The notion that Morrissey might collect Indiegogo money and then cede creative control might be distressing to backers waiting for Indiegogo care packages, though such concerns appear to be misguided. Backers will eventually receive a digital download, while the physical Indiegogo rewards will be sent out in the next few months. (Morrissey already has the T-Shirts and hoodies.)

Game Jam: The Documentary Trailer (with an appearance by our own Games Editor Emily Claire Afan in her pre-Dork Shelf days)

More importantly, while Morrissey would consider selling out, he’d have to be fully convinced that the finished product would still be Game Jam: The Documentary. That’s the harsh negotiation facing any independent production. As a creator, how much are you willing to pay to maintain the integrity of a vision?

“[Making a documentary] really is equivalent to trying to make a game,” advised Morrissey. “There’s so much polish and finesse that goes into making a film great.”

It’s a clever reversal of conventional media genealogy. In phrasing his task as a broader aesthetic challenge, he’s able to remind a younger generation of developers that gaming has forgotten – or perhaps never fully appreciated – filmmakers who pioneered a similarly exhausting and expensive creative endeavour.

“We could release something tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be good. Wait a little longer and it could be a great film,” said Morrissey.

But even the most ardent supporters eventually grow impatient, which brings us back to a failed Indiegogo campaign and an aborted trip to Denmark. The diminishing interest of the crowd could foreshadow a more severe funding drought that further stalls the production.

Morrissey admitted the latest feedback was disappointing, but it hasn’t dampened his resolve nor, he said, will it have a significant impact on the finished documentary. He’s already visited Denmark, stopping in Copenhagen to conduct interviews after filming the 2012 No More Sweden Jam last July. Besides, even a failed Internet campaign has its benefits. The Indiegogo movement attracted the attention of other donors and volunteers within the game community.

“It wasn’t enough for us to go back [to Copenhagen], but it did raise awareness,” Morrissey says about the second fund drive. “Indiegogo’s not just about the money you raise. It’s also about getting the word out.”

That’s much needed publicity for a man with no time for marketing, and Morrissey remains appreciative of every dollar he’s received. He’s just not beholden to those dollars because nobody makes a crowdfunding contribution unless they’re comfortable with a little gamble.

But if you’re wondering, the backers will have a tangible presence in Game Jam: The Documentary.

“Without Indiegogo, it would have been a Toronto film,” says Morrissey. “I didn’t think it was fair to call the film Game Jam: The Documentary because it’s not really about game jams. It’s one area that jams.

“The nice thing about going to No More Sweden is there were people there from Italy, Poland, Finland, Germany, so we got to talk with people from all over the world. It’s a global view.”

So how does a European game jam like No More Sweden differ from a Toronto jam?

“They drink a lot of beer while they’re jamming. And I mean a lot of beer, which is awesome,” said a reverential Morrissey. “In Toronto we’re involved with all these different events and we see each other all the time. At No More Sweden, it’s people who don’t get to see each other unless they’re at No More Sweden, so it’s a lot more social.”

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Game Jam: The Documentary is consequently about the history of game jams and the people met along the way. The narrative is anchored with several recurring teams of jammers, including Toronto’s own Asteroid Base, whose rise to prominence began at Toronto Global Game Jam 2012.

“We filmed them last year when they made the prototype for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. Now they’re up for an IGF Award. It’s great to sit down and talk with them about the things that have changed and why they decided to work on the game after the jam,” boasts Morrissey.

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime follows Capy’s Super TIME Force and Untold Entertainment’s Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure as games that made the leap from jam to retail, and it’s indicative of the creative potential with which Morrissey is so enamored.

“I programmed my first game [at the Atlantic-Con Jam in Newfoundland], so we wanted to show that game jams are about trying new things,” said Morrissey. “Anybody who says they can’t learn to program, I can tell you: you can learn to program.”

Morrissey just decided to follow up on the jam itself rather than the games, and that’s why it would have been a betrayal of the documentary’s theme to set the film entirely in Toronto. Morrissey believes that jams exist as safe spaces for the exploration of personal limitations, so he went beyond national boundaries to document unfamiliar aspects of the jam. For his Toronto backers, that’s Copenhagen and Sweden. For international jammers, that’s Toronto.

“When I attended my first TOJam it really was a life-changing experience,” recalled Morrissey. “In life you have little epiphanies. One of those epiphanies happened while I was at a game jam.

“Game jams are my life,” he added without any trace of irony. “It’s what I read about. It’s what I research. It’s everything. I probably am one of the most knowledgeable persons about game jams on the planet.”

It’s that passion that first drew backers to Game Jam: The Documentary, and if Morrissey is able to translate his enthusiasm to film, all of the economic politics immediately fall by the wayside.

Until then, backers that have paid for a product they haven’t yet received will have to defer their gratification. That’s the risk inherent in crowdfunding once fiscal reality conflicts with best intentions.

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