Stage Of Development: Indie City Edition On Kickstarter - An Interview With Russ Pitts

Russ Pitts co-founded prolific games-media-website Polygon, is Executive Director at non-profit mental health awareness charity Take This and has over 25 years of experience in film and web production. Returning to a theme he explored in "Human Angle" during his time at Polygon, Russ is looking for the help of fans in telling the stories of the people behind the games themselves. He very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the project; read on to find out more! A link to support Stage Of Development: Indie City Edition can be found at the bottom of the page.

The series is focusing on Chicago, what made you decide on that setting as your jumping off point?

RP: Ideally Stage of Development is a series we can do anywhere, and about anyone who makes games. But in practical reality (the most miserable place), we needed to focus on a location that I could get my crew to relatively inexpensively, where I already had good contacts, and was an interesting enough place to support the kind of storytelling we like to do. Those considerations narrowed the list considerably, and Chicago was a nice confluence of all of them. Most importantly in regards to how in love with the city I am. It's simply a wonderful place full of wonderful people. And it's story as an indie hub is a little different than in most other places with a thriving indie scene. I'm hoping that the final film will communicate to people who watch it why that is.

Is it the idea of finding a game developer's inspirations, motivations, overall story or simply illuminating the human side of the games industry - and exposing it to people - that compels you to tell these stories?

RP: All of the above. Perhaps because I came into games journalism sideways, through TV and theater production I have a different take on what writing about games means. I get bored by the manufactured controversies and pixel counts and hardware penis measuring contests. As a gamer, and a creator, what I find fascinating about game creators is what drives them to make these things in the first place. Game makers are usually people with highly marketable skills who could be doing lots of things with their time and passions. Yet they choose games. And most of the people I know who make games feel a deep, abiding love for the medium and the people who play their games. It's a very human thing driving this highly technical medium, and I think that humanity too often gets lost in our journalism about video games. 

Something interesting I notice about your pilot is the fact that it's all from the developer's perspective, with them telling the whole story and without any form of "presenter". How important do you think this is and why did you decide to present the stories in this way?

RP: We've toyed with the idea of going in with a "presenter" viewpoint, like Anthony Bourdain or something. And we may yet do that on a future project. But Stage of Development, as it currently stands, is rooted in my journalist past, and embodies a lot of my journalist hangups. One of those is that the story is about the story's subject, not the storyteller. I'm not interested in passing judgment, or inserting my own editorial ideas. There are LOTS of places where you can get that, if you want it. What I want to do is translate the game creator's spirit in video form, and help others see them the way I do. Make no mistake, I'm in these stories. As director and editor, I'm very much in the story. It's unavoidable. But I feel that if I'm doing my job right, I'm showing you a picture of these creators in the way they would also see themselves. 

Why do you think this human-side of the games industry isn't explored that often - if ever - by the larger games-media outlets?

RP: Well, it's hard, right? For one thing, it takes money and time, which are rare commodities in games media. And it takes a willingness to connect with game makers — and for them to connect with you — on a level deeper than what you usually get at press events. You don't get these detailed, human stories in a heavily controlled PR environment. And those environments (whether it's at a junket, or through the traditional PR/journalist dialogue) are where most of the reporting we see about games gets done. I like to think I'm good at what I do, but the reality is that's only half the story. My ability to tell these stories well depends on game creators' willingness to let me. And to trust me to get behind their (often necessary) barriers and pick apart what makes them tick. You don't get that sort of access easily, or quickly. And it's extremely hard to repair that trust if it's ever broken. I've been doing this for over a decade, and I've built my reputation on not taking advantage of that kind of access. That's a huge part of how this work gets done. And I think a lot of people either aren't willing to put in the time and faith to build that kind of trust. To their detriment, really.

How did you go about selecting the teams that the episodes are focused around?

RP: That's the secret sauce. And it's so secret, I don't even know what's in it. There are some things you can practice and perfect, and some things that will always come down to instinct. I trust my instinct to tell me what the stories are. And it's usually feeding off a lifetime of vague interests, half-remembered rumors, and various other bits and pieces. William Chyr, for example, I met two years ago at a video game legal conference in Chicago. We spoke for about 15 minutes. I never expected to hear from him again. But when I did, this idea he'd been hatching three years ago had matured — and so had he. My instinct was screaming at me to put him in this film, and I trusted it.

Please support Stage Of Development: Indie City Edition here.

Please note that I am supporting this Kickstarter as a backer, but have no other attachment to the project.

Image taken from the Kickstarter page.

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