Editor’s Note: The Opinionated Gamers was asked to preview “The Next Great American Game”. In true OG style, a few of us got together for a virtual screening, and we have written a review roundtable style. The main website for the film is http://www.tabletopmovie.com. The YouTube trailer is available at http://youtu.be/DJeO3s6YtdA
Contributors to the discussion include:
NB- Nate Beeler
DY – Dale Yu
MJ – Mark Jackson
JF – Jonathan Franklin
JG – Jennifer Geske
NB: “The Next Great American Game” is an uncomfortable documentary about an awkward human being. The title comes from a phrase we hear repeatedly from the mouth of the film’s subject, would-be game designer Randall Hoyt. He believes his game, Turnpike, will be an instant classic along the lines of Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or Pictionary. Yes, this man has more than a dollop of self importance. We get a clue to its possible origins right from the very beginning, when we see Hoyt wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Bipolar”, as he’s assembling parts for his board game prototype in a hotel at Gen Con. This will be just the first of many times that he assures us that Turnpike is the next great American game that everyone will love it if they just give it a chance. The evidence for this heartfelt belief is that his friends always have a good time when they play it together. Throughout the bulk of the film, Hoyt stands by this belief, despite a wave of contrary evidence that the game is too long, badly themed, poorly designed, not developed, too random, too expensive to produce, outdated, and not fun. You probably know the type of game and person I’m describing.
If delusions of grandeur were the only manifestation of his affliction it might be a little easier to take. But his unshaking belief in himself and his product have him convinced that nothing, not even his own ignorance of the market or the process, should stand in his way. This means we get to watch him hector booth workers, foist his game off on people who make it clear through social cues that they don’t want it, and argue with people who try to point out some of the more obvious flaws with his design. Crunchy stuff. In a particularly strange early scene he casually tries to promote Turnpike with the very first people he talks to at the convention: the people working the badging stations. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cringeworthy. My girlfriend stopped watching shortly afterwards, when Hoyt was openly debating with one of his friends whether to interrupt an ongoing playtest so he could show a publisher his game. I carried on, partly for the sake of this review and partly out of morbid fascination.
DY: Like Nate, there were a few moments early on that nearly made me want to stand up from my computer and walk away shaking my head. I have run across a number of “designers” with similar stories, and from my experience, I can pretty much tell you the ending of their story as soon as I hear the beginning. However, I found myself compelled to watch the rest of the movie. Not because I have been asked by Doug Morse to write this review, but because I actually ended up wanted to see what would happen next. Additionally, as I’m familiar with nearly everyone in the movie other than the protagonist, I did enjoy seeing the reactions and advice given from people I know (and have even pitched my own games to!)
I’ll admit at this point to having had some inside information (previews, if you will) of the movie. I have met Mr. Morse at a few gaming conventions in the past, and he asked to film one of my own prototype playtest/pitches at the Gathering of Friends — the prototype that eventually became Gib Gas! I had also had a number of discussions with gaming folks at the most recent Essen – most of whom had roles in the movie. Due to the involvement of so many friends, I wanted to see how the project turned out.
MJ: I’m finding myself feeling a lot like Nate’s girlfriend. I will soldier on for the sake of the OG, but the film – so far – is a documentary about a clueless amateur game designer who deals with bipolar rather than a film about game design.
JF: This should be required viewing for prospective game designers. I have been on Randall’s side of the table, so some of the pain I felt in watching it was seeing myself. At the same time, as Mike says, Randall is choosing to remain an artist, which might not be surprising given his profession. Game design is a business and this film shows what happens when an artist enters the commercial realm. I admire his transition and ability to listen, whether he has success or not. Perhaps he could have talked more about pitching and been a little less self centered at points.
JG: I agree with Jonathan that this film is required viewing for anyone interested in designing a game that they’d like to see published. If you do buy the film, pay a few extra dollars to make sure you have access to the designer/publisher interviews that are not part of the film. In the film, the protagonist exhibits some behaviors that would go on the ‘what not to do’ list for designers, but in the designer/publisher interview footage the viewers will find nuggets of good advice. I am not a game designer, but I do have a very good understanding of the process of invention and product development. For any product to be commercially successful, the inventor has to put together a cost-effective and compelling product for its target demographic groups (You know things aren’t going to be smooth when Randall’s response to a publisher’s query of ‘who is going to play this game’ was ‘everyone; it’s the next great American board game’, without articulating WHY everyone would like to play the game.). Even then, as Alan Moon wisely points out, you have to have the luck of ‘good timing’ on your side to have a hit game.
OUR HERO’S JOURNEY
NB: Dale brings up an interesting point that I wanted to explore after seeing the movie. As a long time amateur game designer, I could relate to Hoyt’s position in the film. In fact, my first playable prototype was a game about weaving in and out of traffic using cards. When I showed this to a friend, the only person I knew at the time who had successfully published a board game, he just laughed. He told me his first design had also been something very similar about driving through the rush hour hell. There is definitely something about letting one’s mind wander on a commute that pushes certain people to want to gamify the experience, if only to make it interesting.
But then what? That first design never went anywhere because it wasn’t very good, and as noted multiple times it had a terrible theme. By the time I did finally design something that was much more positively received, I had a lot more contacts in the industry and I was able to set up a few meetings with the same kinds of people Hoyt talks to in the movie. In fact, I tried hard to set up a meeting with Mike Gray. But despite being at an intimate weeklong gathering with him I still couldn’t make it work. He was just too busy and not at all interested in talking to non-established designers at the time. He said that much to me when I asked him directly. And there’s the rub. Seeing Hoyt get ample time in Mike Gray’s home to show his roll and move game took me right out of the film. I could not believe that he would have the access he did just using his game as a calling card.
DY: Well, again this might be some insider knowledge, but I’m guessing that many of those meetings were a result of the film-making process. Mr. Morse was in attendance at the Gathering of Friends for a few years, and was able to meet many of the industry folks seen on the film at that time. Would Randall have had the same access without the film? I doubt it – though I couldn’t say for sure. I might be able to believe it if he had planned ahead – i.e. emailed folks for appointments months in advance of GenCon. Plenty of people get access that way, and meetings with cold calls is one of the ways that companies get games submitted. Heck, I know that that’s how Dominion got started with Rio Grande. Donald sent an email to Jay, asked for a meeting at Origins, and the game was signed before the end of the weekend. There is clearly value for game companies to meet with anyone who might have “the next great game” (American or otherwise), but I just don’t know if Randall’s lack of organization would have allowed him to meet with those people were he left to his own devices.
Well, I pulled some strings – ok, a slight exaggeration – I just emailed some of my friends who were in the movie. At least one of them has confirmed that their meeting at the NY Toy Fair filmed in the movie was set up in the standard fashion. And that meeting was typical of many meetings at that show – from their standpoint, you just meet with just about anyone who asks because you never know when someone is going to walk up with a great game. So, I was wrong – anyone with enough motivation can actually set up meetings with the big guns of the industry. Now, of course, I am still betting that this was done by the film director and not Hoyt – but I feel better knowing that the access wasn’t just because of the movie.
JF: I did not have a problem with the demo sessions. Many of these guys are paid to see games and if that footage of 15 minutes out of four days at GenCon was representative, you wander a ton, try to find relevant folks, and make a few connections. Also, being in New England might facilitate for face-to-face meetings outside of conventions. Picking up on Nate’s point, I wonder if companies were more positive with Randall because it was being filmed. Everyone in this industry is very nice, but maybe he could have used a bit more tough love and a little less encouragement. I appreciate blunt reactions compared to kid gloves, but that is me, and I’m not Randall.
JG: Overall, I thought the film did a decent job of showcasing the pitching process for people without industry connections that Dale and Nate have, even if Randall scored some meetings that he otherwise wouldn’t have if he weren’t in the movie. There were some cringe-inducing moments that we all wished Randall had responded differently, but as Jonathan pointed out, designers/artists react to feedback differently. A couple more things that I think would have been helpful to viewers with game design inclinations are working with independent consultants (the film touched on it a little bit and the person did have good feedback for the designer) and expectations when a publisher accepts your prototype for evaluation (Randall was frustrated that a publisher did not play his prototype in a couple of months; someone should tell him that it’s common for game submissions to sit on the shelf for years.).
As an avid film viewer, I enjoy documentary films that showcase interesting stories and relevant information about the featured topics. In the case of The Next Great American Game, I am interested in the part of the story on how to pitch a game to publishers, and I think the filmmaker does a good job of highlighting the process. Like Dale, it is also fun to see people I know featured in the film. The part of the story on this particular game designer pitching a specific game did not grab my attention as much, probably because I felt that Randall’s game wasn’t ready to be pitched. Maybe if there were more background info on how the game of Turnpike has evolved in design and play-test iterations, I would have been more invested. The medical background and struggles help to focus the story on a more personal scale. Unfortunately, I think it actually creates a more distracted narrative – is the film about how anyone can make the next great American game, or about a bipolar first-time game designer struggling to navigate the process of getting the game he’s worked on for years published? Are Randall’s struggles cautionary tales for other would-be game designers, or are they attributed to his medical conditions? I think the filmmaker set out to make a movie about Randall’s journey, but other than the subject himself talking about his background, we never got a closer look (from medical professional or his friends/colleagues/families) on how his condition impacts his life. As a result, I don’t care as much about Randall or his game – it could have been any other first-time designer that I don’t know.
DY: Overall, I felt the film was decently done. The story is told well, and given that most of the filming was done by a single person, I think the end result looks good most of the time. However, there was one thing that constantly bothered me. The film has many scenes that are strangely not always in focus. At first I thought it was arty – but in reality, I think that it’s just poorly done or the autofocus on the lens chose the wrong focal ratio. There are times where the tight shot works, where you want the background to be blurred. But I think that there are a number of scenes where the lack of focus is distracting. In the scene with Tanya, for instance, there was a whole cut where Tanya is in the foreground, and she’s talking, but it’s just poorly focused.
NB: I noticed how the camera seemed to be on auto-focus at times, too. The sound was a bigger problem for me, because I’m getting older and have a hard time hearing when there’s a lot of background noise. Some of the interviews were clean, or at least natural sounding. And some sounded like they were using the mic on the camera. Having seen a few of these documentaries on niche subjects, I just chalk up technical quality issues to “you get what you get” and try to look past it. They were not the things that took me out of the flow.
JF: I’m pretty lenient in terms of criticizing things I know nothing about, so I’ll leave the technical comments to others. One issue I had was the arc. I saw the arc as him starting as an artist and ending up as a designer. I also understand the importance of his bipolar nature, but wonder if it could have been more interwoven, rather than game chunk – medical chunk – game chunk. Also, it appears to follow him for about a year, from GenCon to Origins, but unless you know the con schedules by heart, you might not have any sense of time passing or not passing.
JG: I noticed the same issues Dale and Nate pointed out with respect to sound and focus, especially in all the extra interview footage. I can be lenient about not being able to control everything in live-filming, but with the interviews where the filmmaker does know the environment and can set up in advance for sound and image quality checks, there should be no excuse for the consistent quality issue.
NB: Speaking of the extra interview footage, it should also be noted that there is a really bizarre moment in those where Steve Jackson is being interviewed while he’s laying on his back in the middle of the floor. I couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be quirky or très casual, or if perhaps he was in great pain and that was his only relief. In any case, it is one of the weirder moments I’ve ever seen in a documentary, and I would dearly love to know if there’s a story behind it.
THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN MOVIE?
DY: I have not watched American Movie nor Crumb which are the two documentaries that the press release compares itself with. The film had some uncomfortable moments, but nothing that made me stop watching it. I did not find it as compelling as “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, “King of Kong” or “We the Tiny House People” – but I was interested in the story and seeing how it played out. Again, I’ll repeat that some of my interest may have come from the fact that I knew about 90% of the people shown on film, and that could certainly sway my judgement. And as such, I don’t know if I’d even be able to speak to whether or not Joe American or Joe Boardgamer would respond to this film.
NB: I have seen and loved American Movie, and was mentally drawing the comparisons to it while watching this film, well before I saw the press release touting them. The 1999 documentary by Chris Smith follows would-be filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he tries to finish his long stagnant short film, Coven (pronounce by him like ‘oven’), in the hopes of using it to finance his dream of making a feature. To me the major difference in tone between the two movies can be found in their protagonists. Both are hard to watch at times because of their failure to see their own limitations. But where Borchardt is striving for an ideal and is frustrated by his inability to get there, Hoyt believes he has already reached it and is frustrated that no one else can seem to see it. Borchardt comes off as somewhat pathetic, but there’s a sincerity that has me pulling for him. I return to the movie time and again because I can sympathize with his plight. Hoyt just seems like a self-righteous jerk, even when we are given initimate access to his personal struggles. Yes, he does calm down by the end, even making a half-hearted attempt at retheming to appease the many who said it was a non-starter. But at no time in the movie was I pulling for him to succeed. The possible irony is that I believe he has a much better chance of eventually making a good game, perhaps even the next great American one. He’s clearly talented and hardworking — his prototypes look amazing. When he’s been immersed in the world of modern gaming long enough I have no doubt he will learn to make truly fun games. I just don’t care whether he does or not. And to me that’s the ultimate downfall of the movie.
JG: I agree with Nate that Randall’s seeming frustration with everyone else not seeing how great his game is makes him a less sympathetic protagonist. The documentary Crumb did an excellent job in showcasing how a talented but flawed creative mind works. In The Next Great American Game, Randall is portrayed as a first-time game designer whose idea of a fun game is very different from others in the hobby gaming industry. He is more like Ed Wood than Mark Borchardt in that respect. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t help change people’s opinion about Turnpike. We kept hearing from industry insiders that traffic jam isn’t fun while Randall insisted that the game is fun without really telling us and the publishers with whom he was meeting why. Naivete is forgivable, and everyone makes first-timer mistakes and assumptions that lead to setbacks. It is interesting to see both Robert Crumb and Randall process critical feedback in similar ways – blaming the world for failing to see their ‘vision’. The difference is that I don’t know if Crumb ever cares about mainstream success, while Randall strives to attain it. Everyone loves an underdog story. In the beginning of the film, I was pulling for Randall, but my hopeful optimism dimmed after witnessing some of the interactions between him and the publishers. The film does an excellent job in conveying Randall’s strong vision for his game, and I do admire him for that. I just never got to the point where I share in that vision for this particular game. I ended up with the conflicted feeling of wishing Randall find success as a game designer and cringing each time he insisted that Turnpike will be the ‘next great American game’.
DY: If you’re interested to see the movie, or to watch the extra bits – which I personally found more engaging/interesting than the movie itself (and I liked the movie!) – go to http://www.tabletopmovie.com