Webcomics is a difficult field for me, in part because I have the artistic skills of a three-legged rhino, but it’s one I’ve always gravitated to because I’ve always been a very visual storyteller. I’ve been very lucky enough to work with artists who have helped to tell stories like Jump Leads, and when those artists find their time suddenly at a premium those stories have to end. Which is a shame, but there it is.
I loved working with JjAR on Jump Leads, and I loved, and continue to love, those characters and that universe (or multiverse). The story ended on a cliffhanger in the comic, mostly because that’s how that particular story was supposed to end, but even when JjAR stepped away and Mr. Phillby filled his somewhat sizable shoes to help finish that final story, I didn’t want to change the ending. Changing the ending would have been admitting that Jump Leads was over, and I wasn’t ready for it to be over.
In hindsight, I regret not changing the ending. I regret not giving our readers closure. Those who had stuck with the comic for five years deserved a proper ending, not what we gave them.
I want to bring Jump Leads back. I do. I’ve struggled with what form. If it were novels, I’d have written them by now. I struggle with writing longform stories. The words don’t form in my head when I sit to write. I have tried – there are unfinished drafts on my hard drive. I wonder why I don’t have the patience for it?
I keep thinking of doing audioplays. I could do that. In my head, Meaney and Llewellyn are British, but everyone else is up for grabs. It shouldn’t be too difficult to cast, right? Oh, but then there’s that whole “money” thing. Studio time, paying the artists, mixing, sound design… how do I cover all that? a Kickstarter?
In a perfect world I’d like to write comics again. But that has the same logistical problems. Time, payment, what have you. It’s a quagmire whichever way you look at it.
I did write a sort-of “Writer’s Bible” for a potential revival, though. Maybe one day I’ll be able to put it to use.
Mike and Jerry will, from time to time, use the Penny Arcade front page as a correspondence hub, sending messages to each other. I found the comic in mid-2003 and fell in love with it almost immediately, but a few short months later they posted this comic about Mike’s attempts to grow a beard, which was accompanied by a news post by Jerry where he described his cohort’s failure of personal hygiene as “sparse, almost theoretical hairs”. I laughed, but not as hard as I laughed at Mike’s response which, spoiler alert, ends on the line “So to recap, my goatee is awesome and Tycho is bald from head to toe like a baby mole.” This, in turn, led to a response from Jerry, which may be described as “biting.” Alternatively it may not be described as that. That’s really on you.
That moment sticks in the mind, bu perhaps not as much as today’s conversation will. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say it’s not mean-spirited.
Read them, top the bottom, in order. Fantastic.
That is all.
Last year I was in a panel at Gallifey One, the largest Doctor Who convention in the US. This year, I’m participating in two panels. Given this rate of growth, within a decade I will be participating in five-hundred-and-twelve panels. Which seems reasonable.
Gallifrey One runs from February 14th-16th this year at the LAX Marriott Hotel, and this year includes guests Colin Baker, Paul McGann, Billie Piper and Arthur Darvill. Yeah, I know. Blimey. Shame tickets have already sold out, eh?
Here are the details for the panels I’m appearing in.
Sex and the Single Time Lord – Friday, 10:30pm, Program E
Though it wasn’t about the Doctor when he wrote it, Douglas Adams may have put it best. ”What is he, man or mouse? Is he interested in nothing more than tea and the wider issues of life? Has he no spirit? Has he no passion? Does he not, to put it in a nutshell, f—?” A late-night discussion topic about how the Doctor gets on without copping off.
Appearing with Bridget Bowes, Rod Hedrick, and Eric Hoffman.
The Non-Violent Solution – Saturday, 2:00pm, Program D
We live in a world of violent video games, slasher movies and car chases on television… and yet, somehow, Doctor Who endures. He’s never cruel or cowardly, and he never raises a weapon to solve a problem. What is the appeal of a character who lives boldly and espouses virtue above all things?
Appearing with Kyle Anderson, Lindsay Mayers and Kathy Sullivan.
More information about the convention as well as a full schedule of the weekend’s events can be found at GallifreyOne.com.
PortsCenter 1.22 is uploaded, I’ve created and queued the pages for Retroware (today, just after 1pm PST) and PortsCenter.TV (tomorrow, twenty-four hours later), and I’ve also queued up the post for the PortsCenter Tumblr on Friday at 1:01pm.
I need to get more organized with my post-production process. Shooting the couch segments of an episode only takes, at most, two hours, which includes setting up and tearing down the lights. Post, however, takes the better part of a day. I have to:
- Record the voiceover,
- prepare overlays for things like game captions, credits, etc.,
- capture any game footage I might not have yet,
- get the bones of the edit in – voiceover and shot material,
- curate game footage and drop it in,
- realize I’ve forgotten to capture footage of some other game I mention within the episode, so set up to do that,
- add the background blur effect so it’s not just game footage on a black background,
- select my music,
- rebalance the audio tracks,
- prepare the end credits, including game footage and footage from last week’s episode and footage from the next episode
- (which usually involves capturing about 30 seconds worth of gameplay of next week’s game, unless I can’t be bothered like last week),
- give it a watch-through, tweak any parts I think need tweaking,
- re-record any voiceover I think needs to be redone or rewritten,
- watch it again,
- render the video,
- prepare web assets such as YouTube thumbnails, featured images for PortsCenter.TV and Retrowaretv.com,
- watch an episode of Futurama while the rest of the episode renders,
- upload the episode,
- prepare posts for PortsCenter.TV, Retrowaretv.com, and the PortsCenter Tumblr,
- add annotations once the upload is complete,
- and update the annotations for the previous episode.
That’s a lot of work. Today it took me ten hours to get it all done. If I did color correction or any particularly intensive visual effects I’d probably never get any sleep. Is it any wonder I haven’t had time to do much behind-the-scenes stuff?
Still, I am exceptionally proud of all 22 episodes so far. There’s two left to do, then I’m taking January off to rest, recuperate, and get ready for season 2 in February.
In 2011, with the help of a handful of friends, I produced, shot and edited the pilot episode for PortsCenter. The process from early idea to finished edit was surprisingly short, sparked from a conversation I had with Kyle LaCroix about the PSone port of id Software’s Doom. I wrote the first episode over a couple of days, purchased two grey PlayStation consoles and two copies of the game (with kind help from Teri Fisher and David Lewis, who chipped in funds for the pilot at a time when money was thin on the ground for me), and roped in a bunch of friends to help me shoot the episode and capture the game footage.
Two years later, I’m in the final stretch of the first season. 2013 has seen PortsCenter join Retroware TV as a featured show and signed with Screenwave Media, a YouTube network that has been incredibly kind and supportive of the show. But most importantly, we’ve nearly completed our first full year of production on the series, with twenty completed episodes and a further four left to produce before the new year.
Over the last year I’ve learned a lot, a lot, about producing content for the internet. I’ve learned a lot about what I need to do to make PortsCenter work. I’ve no idea how much of what I’ve learned is going to be applicable to others, but what the Hell, I’m going to write it down anyway.
#1: Keep your mouth shut.
It’s a fool who tells the world what he’s going to do before he’s actually done any of the doing of it. Don’t tell the world you’re going to climb Everest before you’ve bought your gear. Or before you know how to climb a mountain, for that matter. Do your research. Study. Figure out what you need to do in order to do the thing you want to do. Then, once you’ve done that, keep your fucking mouth shut until you have something to show the world. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
I’ve made this mistake often over the last fifteen years as I’ve hopped aimlessly from one pipe-dream creative endeavor to another. I still made that mistake with PortsCenter, by posting the complete list of games I intended to look at for the first season. You’ll notice games on that list that I sadly didn’t get to this season - Perfect Dark, Street Fighter II, Gears of War: The Board Game. The Gears episode is my biggest disappointment, because I’d announced plans to look at it before I’d figured out the logistics of filming four people playing a board game.
For season 2, I’ll be keeping my planned titles close to the chest. No list, no episode list complete with intended release date that I have to keep editing to shift stuff around. Just the show, and the episodes I release.
#2: Tell the world.
You may think this contradicts my previous point, but it doesn’t. You’ve got to plug. You’ve got to be on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, everywhere talking about the video you’re filming, the song you’re recording, the comic you’re drawing. Then you’ve got to do it again when it’s released. Then you’ve got to do it again so you catch the people who didn’t catch it the first time ’round. Then you’ve got to do it a third time. Then you have to do it all over again when you’re getting ready to release your next video, or song, or comic, or whatever. If you don’t tell people what you’ve released, how is anybody going to find it?
The trick is not to be obnoxious with it. I try very hard not to drown people with “WATCH PORTSCENTER!” messages on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook every five bloody minutes. I use a rule of three – the day the video drops, the night the video drops, and then later in the week as I’m working on the following episode. This may seem excessive, but remember for every person who saw your first post, there’s probably someone who missed it who’ll catch it in one of the later posts. This is the internet. It’s global, and not everybody is going to be online or even awake at the time you make your initial post.
Occasionally I’ll post something from an episode currently in-production – a photo of my monitor showing part of a script, or a voiceover outtake. Something fun, so it’s not all promotional. I mean yes, ultimately this sort of stuff is promotional, but it’s fun too. There’s a world of difference between a tweet that says “Episode 21 drops tomorrow!” and another that says “Wow, Ben can’t even get his lines out of his mouth without accidentally beatboxing.” Again, the key difference here is that I’m not stating an intent to do a thing. I’m showing you the doing of it.
#3: Give a shit.
If you’re talking about a topic, be it for a podcast or a video series, or just for your Tumblr blog, make sure it’s something you genuinely care about. I’ve seen people, occasionally friends, make videos solely to attract an audience, often about a topic they have no genuine heartfelt interest in. It shows in the work, and people will see through it, whether you’re making a simple YouTube video, or a blockbuster movie.
On the flipside of this: If you have a genuine, heartfelt love of the project you’re working on, don’t phone it in. A “That’ll do” attitude isn’t going to result in a fun game, or a decent video, or a song worth listening to. It’ll be crap, nobody will give it the time of day, and you’ll wonder why you bothered.
The point is, a labor of love has got to be exactly that. It’s got to be hard work, and it’s got to be something you care about. Forget just one of these ingredients, and it’ll just be a thing you did.
This may sound silly, but I care deeply about video game ports. I’m fascinated by them. Almost obsessed. The version of myself I portray on the show is a little more aggressive about his fascination with ports than I am in real life, but the passion is still there. Ultimately, without that passion, PortsCenter wouldn’t be what it is. If I were just making this show because there aren’t other shows about game conversions on YouTube, it’d feel hollow. I think that’s an important distinction to make.
#4: Push your limits, but know your limitations.
Plan to make stuff outside of your comfort zone, outside of your knowledge level, because in doing so you’ll learn new tricks and techniques which will make your work better. You may fail, but you’ll still learn something and you can use that knowledge in the future. Or, as Thomas Edison allegedly put it, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
That being said, keep in mind your resources, talent pool and technical ability. It’s one thing to write:
A giant robotic spider lurches over the city, firing lasers from its eyes and swatting down aircraft like flies.
It’s another thing entirely to actually film it. If you know you can, do it. If you think you can, go for it anyway. If you know you can’t, or think you won’t be able to, scale it down to something more manageable and realistic. Remember to push yourself, but don’t overdo it and don’t try to run before you can walk.
That, ultimately, is what bit me in the arse with the Gears of War: The Board Game episode. I have no bloody clue how to film it. I still don’t. I want to include the episode in the second season, and I’m working on how to make it happen, but it’s nowhere near as simple as pointing a camera at my couch and making jokes about it. Mind you, two of my webseries projects for next year are going to be… well, not exactly simple. Yikes.
#5: Make the sort of content you want to see.
This is an extension of sorts of Point #3. If you want to see a webcomic about a sentient cheeseburger trying to make it in a world populated by anthropomorphic geometrical shapes, start drawing it. If you want to watch a webseries about a guy with rabbit ears applying for a business loan, get writing. Write, draw, film and record the sort of stuff you wish existed, because either you’ll spend the rest of your life waiting, or someone else will beat you to the punch and you’ll regret not acting sooner.
PortsCenter exists because nobody else was making a show about video game ports, nobody else was making a video game show with this kind of sense of humor, and the one person I secretly hoped would make one, Charlie Brooker, seemingly had no plans plans on following up his single Gameswipe special, although in a few days his next gaming project, “How Video Games Changed the World”, airs on Channel Four in the UK.
So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned. Except that I’m lying, of course – I already knew all of this. The trick is remembering it, and acting upon it. Here’s hoping that next year, be it PortsCenter, Dalek Gary or the other projects I have in the works, I’m able to keep a firm grip on these words.
Webcomics are important. Or at least, they are to me – not just as a source of entertainment but culturally. For the last two decades cartoonists have been able to cut out syndicates and publishers entirely and get their comics out directly to readers, and that is phenomenally important. It means comics are not longer constrained by external editorial forces demanding that they keep their comic simple and homogenized. Dumbing of Age probably wouldn’t run in a newspaper. Girls with Slingshots definitely wouldn’t.
Unfortunately I’m noticing a growing trend with webcomics of keeping the comic strip out of their RSS feed, replacing it with a tiny, unreadable thumbnail or, in some cases, a simple link.
If your webcomic’s RSS feed does this, I’m probably not reading your webcomic anymore.
My morning ritual is simple. I wake up, get out of bed,
drag a comb across my head and jump onto my RSS reader to check the sites I follow. It’s nice, simple and convenient – I can read blog posts, news articles and, yes, webcomics without having to have a hundred different tabs open, without having to browse over to each site individually. My RSS reader allows me to quickly digest the online content I want to digest. It’s brilliant, and I’m able to read more blogs, get caught up with more news and read far more webcomics now than I could a decade ago.
But now that some cartoonists are opting not to include their strip in the feed, I’m simply not reading the comic anymore. It’s easier for me to hit K on my keyboard and skip to the next one than it is to open a tab and check out the comic. I’m not unsubscribed from the feed, so I find myself skipping past a bunch of comics that even as recently as a few short months ago I was reading voraciously, but I am reminded that, yeah, I don’t read that much anymore.
I don’t begrudge the decision to omit their comics from their RSS feeds. Ultimately they need to get eyeballs on their website so people can see and possibly even click on the ads they’re running, and this won’t adversely impact a comic with a large fanbase like PvP and Least I Could Do because there are enough readers who will click through and read on the website. And yeah, I’ll admit that there are a small handful webcomics that I will click through to read – Penny Arcade, Wasted Talent, and the aforementioned Girls with Slingshots are the ones that come to mind.
But when your time is limited, when your morning routine is locked to this narrow band of time like mine, eventually you’re just going to stop reading these webcomics because you’re not going to click those links. There is a very small list of people who will click the link to every comic they follow on their RSS reader. Most will be forced to pick and choose what they read. That’s when webcomicry becomes a competition, and it really shouldn’t be.
One of the last things you want is for someone to stop reading your comic, because that’s one less person who could be buying merchandise, going to book signings, and sharing your work with their friends. But worse than that is having someone stop reading your comic, and realizing they don’t miss it.
Because if they don’t miss it, they’re never coming back.
Last week I tweeted about a song that had been stuck in my head that I discovered was, in fact, this piece of music from Ocean Software’s Jurassic Park game for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy:
LaserFrog tweeted back at me that actually the piece of music was lifted from a Konami game called Comic Bakery for the Commodore 64. BEHOLD:
The answer, as it turns out, is on the Amiga. See, we didn’t buy most of the games we had when I was a kid. We copied friend’s games, and we had an extensive library of pirated titles. Most of these titles’d had their copy protection circumvented (or cracked, for some reason) by cracking groups like Fairlight, Paradox and Skid Row, and they’d often slap a fancy intro onto the disk which would appear before the game itself loaded. I got very used to seeing these intros as a kid, and some of them featured some very snazzy animation and catchy music.
It turns out that much of the music was catchy for a reason – it had been lifted wholesale from other games. Check out this crack intro for Crystal’s release of the Team17 platformer Superfrog:
I don’t remember ever watching that intro all the way through, but I must have done because that tune was lodged in my head for a long time, resurfacing earlier this year. Then there’s the weird chain that led to my discovering where this piece came from – hearing it in Jurassic Park, learning it originated in Comic Bakery, then realizing I’d heard it in Superfrog, where you’d not hear it at all if you owned a legit copy of the game (as I now do, of course).
That absolutely fascinates me. This goes beyond my love of video game ports – I wonder if there is other brilliant video game music I’ve heard in cracking intros like this?
In the highly unlikely event that you subscribe to this blog but not, say, my Twitter feed, Tumblr page or Facebook Page, I should point out: PortsCenter launched five weeks ago, and has been doing rather well. Two episodes have been featured on the front page of Screw Attack, and the show has received positive write-ups from Nukezilla and VelocityGamer.
I haven’t been posting the show here on the blog because it’s so much easier to disseminate stuff on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter et al. but in case you wanted to see the five episodes we’ve produced so far here’s a handy-dandy playlist. It’ll auto-update with new episodes too, so that’s nice.