I heard the news on a Saturday morning in March, scanning the gaming blogs. Target was selling T-shirts bundled with experimental games. Excitement took over – I had to get one. I practically skipped to the elevator.
I was still high on the news when I parked the car on 225th Street in the Bronx, but suddenly it felt too good to be true. The blogs didn’t post any details on how to get the shirts, and I had no luck on Target’s website. On the escalator ride down, I descended into despair.
I found a T-shirt with Mario wielding a Donkey Kong hammer with the pun “Let’s Get Hammered!” Was I getting close? Canvassing every aisle of Men’s Wear, combing the games section alongside kids duping their parents into buying those plastic Wii Sports attachments, I found nothing. The store clerks looked at me quizzically. I went home dejected.
EGP Apparel was an experiment that, by the time it became public knowledge, was nearing the end of its life span. At the helm were Kyle Gabler, Edmund McMillen and Kyle Gray. As I write this, Gabler is the Golden Boy du jour of indie games. Everyone loves World of Goo, developed by his two-man studio, 2D Boy. Critics are still drooling, but more importantly, my non-gamer roommates love it. That begs the ultimate question: How do we get roommates, parents, teachers and anyone who still thinks of videogames in terms of Halo and World of Warcraft to expand their view of the medium? EGP Apparel was supposed to answer this question.
“It was basically a way to reach people that wouldn’t otherwise know we exist,” Gabler said in an interview.
Too bad it failed.
All of this began in 2005 with the Experimental Gameplay Project, a collaboration between Gabler, Gray and two fellow graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. They set a goal to design 50 games during their last semester, with three rules: one developer per game, no more than seven days per project and a theme, such as “gravity” or “vegetation,” that guides the creation of each game. Every week, they’d upload their results to www.experimentalgameplay.com.
When bloggers started posting their scores for Tower of Goo (the predecessor to World of Goo) and commenting on the other games, Gabler was shocked. “We had no idea that people were watching it because we didn’t have logs or anything,” he said. “But they were.”
The project took off. There was a speaking engagement at Game Developers Conference, a whitepaper for the industry website Gamasutra and the conversion of www.experimentalgameplay.com into a public prototype space where anyone could post a game if they followed the students’ rules. There are over 540 games on the site today.
“It changed everything for us,” Gabler said. “That’s the reason I’m able to do what I’m doing now.”
Compass Marketing came calling in 2007. The Minnesota-based company had seen the Experimental Gameplay Project and, as Gabler recalls, wanted to package some of the games on a CD and get them sold in stores. That idea didn’t pan out, but after months of back-and-forth, the T-shirt idea was born. To Gabler, it made perfect sense.
“Why not? I mean, art and indie games is like – it’s a little more subversive, and so it’s a really natural fit for shirts,” he said. Compass picked the designs they liked best from the project, including five from Gabler.
Gray’s sole contribution, Flip Out!, plays like an ode to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Players drag the mouse over a set of tiles to make them disappear, but running the cursor over an empty space brings the tiles right back. For some reason it reminds me of stopping over cracks in the sidewalk. Gray also thought of EGP Apparel as a way to introduce these kinds of experimental games to the masses.
“When I first heard about it, it was pretty exciting,” he said. “I mean, I think we were all kind of a little skeptical because nobody had ever seen anything like that, and it’s hard to imagine anything you’ve done as having significance to other people, I guess.”
McMillen was the maverick of the group. He found his own indie credibility designing Gish, a platform game starring a ball of tar, with puzzles borne from the main character’s elasticity. The Independent Games Festival awarded its top prize to Gish in 2005. Compass approached McMillen last year as well, looking to fund a game or some other project.
When the T-shirt idea came around, the company told McMillen of their experience with retail and how they could easily get a product into stores. He picked out several games, including Tri-achnid and a “lost levels” Gish package, and sent shirt designs to Compass for consideration.
By February, Compass had eight shirt designs lined up for a test run at less than 300 Target stores. They got good placement on the end-caps of aisles, accompanied by a description of the clothing line. Each shirt included a brief bio of the game developer. The designs themselves included a craning tower of black liquid, a robot with blazing laser eyes destroying a city, and a sea of faces, staring forward, eyes glazed over.
Every week and in every store, McMillen said, the shirts would have to meet a specific “sell-through rate,” or percentage of product sold. If the shirts performed well enough, the retailer would place them in more stores and the EGP Apparel line would expand to include more games and different developers. In this initial test run, the developers would reap none of the profits.
Gabler’s 2D Boy blog, where he posted a brief explanation once the blogosphere discovered the project in March, oozed excitement. “Anyway, I can’t tell you how giddy we are that we actually have a shot to get indie games out there in a sexy and fashionable way,” he wrote. Gabler encouraged readers to keep their fingers crossed and asked game designers to pitch their own ideas.
One week later, the technology blog Boing Boing Gadgets reported that EGP Apparel was no more, citing an anonymous designer within the project. Gabler went silent when someone pointed this out on his blog, and that was it. The test run had lasted less than two months before Target pulled the plug.
McMillen believes that sales fell just short of the goal, though the developers never saw any specific figures. “We don’t even know any numbers that we’ve sold, and we haven’t seen any money,” McMillen said. “At least we got shirts.”
Jenni Hank, the developers’ contact at Compass, wasn’t available for an interview to discuss EGP Apparel in detail. She stressed in an e-mail that the Target run was only a test. “In their opinion it did not work,” Hank said. “It does not mean there is not a chance for it again, right time and right place.”
The developers tell a slightly different story. McMillen said the cardboard sleeve that held each game could have been seen as an oversized tag rather than a CD case. All three developers said the shirts could have been better marketed to shoppers.
Gabler cited additional problems. Compass sent spies to select stores, and some locations, he alleges, didn’t replenish their stock of shirts when they sold out. Others simply didn’t display the shirts at all. Target never accounted for these discrepancies, which still hurt EGP Apparel’s sell-through rate.
“Target doesn’t really explain itself,” Gabler said.
This is true. I sent a list of questions, both specific to EGP Apparel and in general about the company’s test run system, to a Target spokesman, Joshua Thomas. He declined to answer all of them, saying the information I sought is proprietary.
Compass felt that EGP Apparel still had life after Target. The marketers said they would try to find other retail avenues, including Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters and Spencer Gifts, but that was months ago, and the developers haven’t received an update since. Surprisingly, they don’t seem bitter about the way things panned out.
“I’m pretty certain it’s dead,” Gabler said. “The cool thing is, I’ve talked with lots and lots of indie developers about this, and everyone wants to do it.”
So why didn’t we hear about EGP Apparel until it was too late? For starters, all three developers were fairly busy at the time. Gray got a job with Electronic Arts and was working on a Nintendo DS game, Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. Gabler was in full-swing turning Tower of Goo into a bigger commercial title, and McMillen was getting a sequel to Gish off the ground.
But Gray has another theory: None of the three developers are particularly media-savvy. McMillen confided at the end of our interview that he’s just now getting out of his shell and making himself more available to reporters. The idea of publicizing the shirts to gaming blogs such as Joystiq or Kotaku didn’t occur to Gray at the time. There’s also the delicate indie conflict of wanting mainstream acceptance without “selling out.”
But with EGP Apparel, there was no compromise in artistic quality. There were issues with retail and marketing, but ultimately, the shirts underperformed because they lacked the fervent admirers that the games built for themselves in 2005. “It almost did feel like things just went too big, too fast,” Gray said.
Gabler and McMillen have new ideas. World of Goo will soon be available for Linux, making it compatible with the movie and game players on the seat backs aboard Virgin Airlines. (Gabler is hoping the carrier will notice if he speak publicly about the idea.) McMillen is working on a line of toys along the same vein as EGP Apparel, and will have more details in a few months.
Whatever other distribution channels they devise, all three developers behind EGP Apparel want to resurrect the project, albeit in a smaller setting. They see it as an internet venture first, slowly building a following until, like the Experimental Gameplay Project at Carnegie Mellon, it reaches a critical mass and takes off. I hate when journalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Gabler sent me this message by e-mail:
“You know, talking to you has started up a little process in the back of my brain – I think we’ll put together a new shirt thing much sooner rather than later,” he wrote.
This time, let’s hear about it.
Jared Newman is a freelance journalist. Visit his blog at www.jarednewman.com/blog