This is a two part series! Read part one to start.
Since I moved to San Francisco, I always end up backstage the first time I visit a concert venue. This comes from being a vegan baked goods delivery service for Jenny Owen Youngs. This was a favor for my friend Lynn, baker for the Rockstars. This time I didn’t have brownies in my hands, but I would have an audience with Amanda Palmer at the Filmore.
Meeting with Internal Staff
The morning of Sunday May 18th, I met with Margot Cannon, who would be my co-conspirator for this project. While I was planning the ARG assets to be completed by the Palmer Art Army, I needed someone to help me with the writing, planning, and general ‘I know a guy/girl’ task assignments.
While we had talked quite a bit before that morning, this was the first face to face about the project. We got a few things put together, but it’s extremely hard to plan this out when you have no access to the source material, regardless of its status. We were flying blind, thus our plans were pretty wide open.
Time was also the big issue. This was late May and the album’s street date in mid-September. These things usually run with 8 months of planning for a 4-7 month run time. While the ARG would run after the album release, we had less than 4 months to plan and implement. As a product of episodic games, we came up with a plan to break content drops in episodes. The Rabbithole (initial contact) in mid-July lasting two weeks, two content drops every two weeks, then a content drop each week after and though the release of the album. Still a very aggressive schedule, but spacing out the content to allow development to catch up on itself.
This pattern is a little less organic than I would like. Structured more on media drops which result in specific calls to action, rather than giving more flexibility to the players on the flow of the game. Not ideal, but this way the game would be accessible to players who aren’t used to ARGs and more accommodating to the very short schedule.
Waiting for Palmer
Beth told me Amanda would meet me sometime after sound check. Having worked as in-house tech and pseudo roadie a few years, I’m fully aware this means ‘unknown’. After parking near the venue, I hang out at a Starbucks around the corner as the only place I could chill out near by. The few hours here allowed me to think about this project, and more importantly why.
If I was approached this project any time before March 2007, this would have been the priority in my life. This project would be grand exposure for me as a game designer and lead into other high profile projects or employment at a major studio. This is the thing I went to Emerson College for. In March 2007, I got hired at the best independent studio in the world and working with people whose work got me in this art form to begin with. I’m at my career path and don’t need something else to accomplish this goal. For the first time in my life, I can say no to a large opportunity and not be that regretful.
I still wanted to do this project! What has changed is the reasons. I wanted a project to call my own outside of Telltale to keep me current. Also, I wanted to get a few more people on my contacts list. Did I mention Neil Gaiman was writing the book companion piece?
There’s also a large moral reason for this project. Which, if I’m going to be taking on a second full-time job as this project would mandate, it needs to be for something more than money and fame. In part one, I talked about the Detroit Dream: Get the fuck out of Detroit. What I want to do is change the Dream. Give inspiration for people to create their own Dream, independent of an outside and physically distant force. It’s not just the money or the credit, it’s being able to make a change in someone’s life by showing them what they are capable of.
The call came in and I went to the stage door of the Fillmore where Beth greeted me at the door. She gives me a hug as I walk in and tells me that the sound check was about to wrap up. We walk into the venue and I sit down stage left on the wall. Palmer was onstage working out the rest of the sound check, followed by placing some flowers around the venue for one of her songs.
In my mind I’m figuring out on how to approach this meeting. I had all these ideas and conceptions, but the deficit I had was what the client wanted from the project. I needed to hear from her what she wanted and make a project everyone wanted to be apart of.
While waiting, I saw a fellow Emerson alumni, Jenny. Both of us were surprised to see each other so randomly as we haven’t seen each other since graduation. Though seeing someone I know from Emerson working for Palmer isn’t exactly a stretch. Caught up on what we’ve been doing since graduation and getting caught up.
The Artist will See You Now…
Finally it came time to talk to Palmer. There was a bit of a rush to start as I was being penciled in between interviews and other things Palmer needed to do. She introduced me to Brian V. and got to shake his hand. Being in rushed mode, I quickly told him I enjoyed his work and wish I could spend more time talking with him, but time was very short.
We walked up to her dressing room and told me to wait there for a few moments. I took the opportunity to take a photo, marking the occasion.
Palmer shortly returned and we started the discussion. I started by asking what were her intents with the project; Where did she want to go with it. She started explaining how she liked the concept with Zero Year from Nine Inch Nails & 42 Entertainment. Zero Year included a tight integration between the album (the primary product) and the game itself. The album was made for the album was made for the game. This kind of project involves a lot of time to plot and prepare, and most importantly integration with the album. It was also clear that no one had really sat down and talked to her on what an ARG was, what it meant, and the practices in the art form. Not that she was misguided, but I she was trying to grasp for a vocabulary to express what she wanted. Something I we could work out, but not in a 10 minute span before a concert. Certainly not while she was touring.
Where things started falling apart for me was the lack of access to the development of the album and/or book. I asked where the status of each of these objects were, and she responded that she wasn’t ready to share them yet. I tried to impart on her that I can’t make a project with the title “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” and not have access to the album and book I’m trying to promote.
Then the 10 minutes were up. We said our goodbyes and that we’ll continue talking though e-mail with her people. After saying goodbye to Beth and Jenny, I walked out waiting for the concert itself to start.
Met up with Margot and Tara for the concert. Briefed Margo about the conversation which left both of us not too enthusiastic of the prospect. Time was not on our side, nor was the lack of access to the stakeholders. Still, the Dolls put on a wonderful show, as always. I also got introduced to a band that started the concert. In a place somewhere between the Squirrel Nut Zippers & the Dresden Dolls are The Vermillion Lies.
The E-mail Trail
After that weekend, the e-mail trail was short and not too communicative. Palmer was on tour and starting the Europe leg of it. While Palmer was being positive about the project, there was simply more important things on her radar. Finally, I sent an e-mail cutting my involvement in the project.
I don’t believe that Palmer was dis-interested in the slightest. The problems were between what I required for me to create a project and what the Palmer camp was able to provide. I could have produced something, but it wouldn’t be something I would be proud of giving my own resources and time limits.
It’s been over two years since this interesting story happened. In that time, Palmer released the album, followed by her public wishes to be dropped from her label and then granted. She also got engaged to that Neil Gaiman. I’m still working at Telltale having released over way more games than you can imagine on almost every platform that isn’t portable, and two that are.
I also found my way of creating a venue for people to be creative themselves, and in a way that also helps children & families around the globe deal with illness. With Ümloud!, donators take to a concert stage and perform a song using Rock Band. Some of them go beyond simply singing, dressing up as various rock stars and making the performance their own. It’s truly amazing what these people do for the charity concert. So in a way, I’m accomplishing my initial goals with the Palmer ARG, but in a way that also benefits sick children.
What I walked away from all this was my ability to pass on projects of high notoriety. If this project reached my door before I started working at Telltale, I would drop just about everything to do it, even with the tough conditions. That’s just it; I didn’t need to take the Palmer gig to showcase my talents. I do that now with monthly video game releases and with Ümloud!. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to work with Palmer. I just don’t need to work with her.
Amanda Palmer (the person, not the idiom) gave this same opportunity two two people I know: Beth and BriAnna Olson. Palmer took a risk with them to create wonderful art. Both of which have grown stronger in their work by working with Palmer. For this I will still feel a debt for making my friends better artists.
This is why I still wear a “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” button on my jacket. When people ask why I killed her, I respond:
“Well, I almost killed her, but that’s another story…”