It’s no secret that there’s a special relationship between videogames and online video. Professionals and fans alike are pouring out game-related content, to the point that game videos take up a disproportionate amount of YouTube’s 100 most-subscribed channels. While events like VidCon encompass online video as a whole, until now there hasn’t been an event that specifically focused on the nexus between interactive entertainment and online content creation. Enter Rooster Teeth Expo, an event that not only celebrates this crossover, but seeks to become the place for up-and-coming content creators to learn critical skills and get their work seen.
While some gamers might see the internet as only a platform for multiplayer, Burnie Burns considers games and online interaction to be part of a natural evolution of technology.
RTX was originally envisioned as a community event when it debuted last year. RTX 2011 attendees would get to see exclusive Red vs Blue episodes, tour the Rooster Teeth studio, and act as a horde of zombies for an episode of RT’s trope-testing show Immersion. Two hundred tickets were available, but when a website glitch sold five hundred instead, Rooster Teeth just ran with it. Smelling potential, the team got more ambitious. This year they capped tickets at 4,000, booked playable demos of Halo 4, and expanded both the venue and the scope. Instead of a gathering of fans, RTX became a place “Where Gaming Meets the Internet,” to quote the banner above the expo hall.
“Our mission is to try to make videos we would watch,” says Burnie Burns, co-founder of Rooster Teeth Productions and writer/director of Red vs Blue. “Likewise we want to make an event that we’d be interested in. We’re content creators and we like gaming. I think that’s what most people are doing online – they’re watching videos and playing videogames.”
While some gamers might see the internet as only a platform for multiplayer, Burns considers games and online interaction to be part of a natural evolution of technology, sharing both a culture and an ancestry: “Gaming was the first iteration of interactive, and now with the internet and YouTube and all that, it’s just broader expansions on that [interaction] and gaming should be included. Gaming’s just such a big part of our culture map.”
As a result, Burns called in the YouTube Brigade. Guests included Mega64, Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen, SeaNanners, various Red vs Blue voice actors and a platoon of Stormtroopers from the 501st.
However, the most interesting guests were keynote speakers Freddie Wong and Brandon Laatsch, owners of the YouTube channel freddiew. Wong and Laatsch have built a following of 3.2 million subscribers, the 6th largest on YouTube, by marrying effects-driven action shorts to videogame material. Recently, they completed their first feature-length webseries, Video Game High School, a sort of proof-of-concept of what can be done with a long-form web video. Their keynote had a radical message: As Hollywood’s studio system becomes increasingly risk-averse, it’s likely that more filmmakers will use the web as a place for innovation. Wong goes so far as to postulate that the internet may become a proving ground for new intellectual property before it’s snapped up by television and film studios. It’s an interesting thought, especially since that’s what happened to Red vs Blue when Microsoft adopted it. This permissive attitude on the part of game companies is indicative of the special relationship between the game industry and independent content creators.
“I think since it’s such a young industry you have a lot of examples of back and forth between the game companies and fans of those games,” says Freddie Wong. “The fact that Red vs Blue exists without Microsoft suing it into oblivion says a lot about how game companies view the fanbase.”
Brandon Laatsch nods in agreement. “The game industry is the first to be like: ‘Wait a minute, what if we don’t freak out about it, and we embrace it. It’s okay with us if you guys use our properties as part of the culture and grow upon it.'” It’s a logical reaction, he says, in an industry where major studio heads were garage developers only twenty years ago. The roots of the game industry are indie roots.
Of course, not everyone is prepared, or even interested in the democratization of video content. Wong and Laatsch lament the common misunderstandings many filmmakers have about online video – the worst being that it’s only a jumping off point to a career in television or film. To Wong and Laatsch, online content delivery isn’t a means to an end, it’s the future, and filmmakers who ignore the potential of online videos do so at their own peril. They foresee a type of filmmaking that involves more content, more interaction with viewers, and a greater freedom to develop projects that don’t need to abide by the 22 or 90 minute length requirements of film and TV. It’s a future that liberates the filmmaker, but will be unkind to those who bank heavily on traditional distribution. “If you’re looking at the film industry,” says Laatsch, “and saying: ‘Oh, I guess I’ll make a webseries, but I wish this were the era where I could just make my 60mm film,’ well if you can’t embrace what it is now, then you might want to look elsewhere. It’s only going deeper down this spiral. Technology always advances.”
Getting content in front of a live audience isn’t just useful for finding distribution or building a following.
“There’s a lot of ways distribution can work nowadays,” says Wong. “And it’s interesting to try and explore it.”
In fact, the themes of content creation and user interactivity are remarkably consistent across RTX. The expo floor, in addition to game demos and merch stands, features a booth where guests try out various props from Immersion. The most interesting of these is a headset that lets the wearer see themselves from the flank like a classic side-scroller, making it nearly impossible to do anything, much less play catch like the attendants prompt you to. At the rear of the room is an eSports arena hosting games of Grifball and HORSE on Halo 4 maps, often against members of the RoosterTeeth team. Everything is a layered experience for users: Here are your favorite content creators, come talk to them. Here are the props they use, come wear them. Here is Halo, the game that serves as the connective tissue of Red vs Blue, pick up a controller and play it with us.
Even the 343 Industries panel focuses Halo 4‘s highly improved Forge Mode – a nod to the show’s focus on content creation, and a drool-inducing tool for Machinima directors.
But apart from fan interaction, there’s a more ambitious side to RTX. After years of being asked by fans how to write and develop a webseries, Rooster Teeth decided to make it a focus of the event. One of the speaking venues, dubbed “The Training Room,” hosts a series of educational panels that range from writing for the web to animation, hosted by the RT team and other content creators. As the expo develops and expands, Burns hopes RTX will grow into a magnet for finished projects that want to find distribution: “I would like this to be a place where people come to debut things. If you’ve got something you want noticed, bring it here and show it to your audience, and you will get coverage. That’s what people do at gaming conventions for independent games, let’s have that for independent online content.”
Getting content in front of a live audience isn’t just useful for finding distribution or building a following. The real time feedback of a screening can give creators a better idea of what does and doesn’t work in a scene. Just before RTX, Wong and Laatsch had the opportunity to screen VGHS at E3. “That was really interesting,” says Wong. “Normally when someone laughs at something in VGHS, you read them saying “LOL” and you think, “okay, they thought it was funny,” but it’s a totally different thing when seeing it live. Also when you engage through Twitter or forums it’s distant, it’s not tangible. Having that face time is always important.” Meeting people in person, he continues, is a good way to judge the scale and scope of your audience, and it’s also a chance to network with other filmmakers.
“It’s an industry where everybody’s very busy and everybody’s being pulled in different directions,” says Laatsch. “You get so heads-down and so into your work you forget to look up and see what everyone else is doing.” Therefore, RTX’s potential doesn’t solely lie in educating and exposing new content creators – given the right conditions it could foster collaborations between established filmmakers as well.
Burnie Burns certainly sees the possibilities. During our interview he spoke with visible enthusiasm about RTX 2013. This was fairly amazing, since before dawn that morning he’d already been out on Congress Avenue, corralling 1,800 extras for the annual RTX film shoot. He expects attendance to grow to 15,000-20,000 next year, and wants to bring in more high-profile game demos and content creators looking for a break.
“Were hoping!” he said, then gestured to our surroundings, indicating the expanse of the venue’s 881,880 square feet. “We’re in the small part of the Convention Center, y’know?”
Robert Rath is a novelist and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Born and raised in Hawaii, he volunteers his time as a counselor for at-risk Spinner Dolphins in danger of falling into youth gangs. Follow him on Twitter: @RobWritesPulp