Jason Rohrer's struggle to bring a game about conflict diamonds to the Nintendo DS
Jason Rohrer's garage is full of Nintendo DS carts. Literally, full. An extra-long FedEx truck just unloaded the several pallets containing 120 cartons. In total, 6,000 boxes - not designed to withstand the fluctuating temperature of a two car garage in Northern California, where days pass the 100s and nights sink to the 50s - are crammed alongside the Rohrer family's bikes. Fortunately they don't own a car.
This will be the next couple weeks: Rohrer, a wiry giant of a man, squeezing between the pallets, grabbing an armful of carts at a time, and transporting them into his living room. There, he will hand package each copy of the game with three or four top secret knick-knacks. It's a monotonous manual labor process that the video game designer feels obligated to do on his own. He's had plenty of help; this is the easy part.
After three years, two publishers, and a thousand and some individual investments, Jason Rohrer is releasing Diamond Trust of London unto the world.
Blood on your hands
Jason Rohrer became something of an indie game semi-star following the December 2008 issue of GQ. Journalist Jason Fagone profiled Rohrer, who then lived in Potsdam, New York off an annual income of a few thousand dollars, mostly donated by fans. The story painted Rohrer as a hippie eccentric who refused to mow his lawn below the city's mandatory 10" or less policy, and who could make his newborn child pee on command. (You really should read this.) The piece also brought mainstream attention to arguably Rohrer's greatest game,Passage, a playable koan about life and death inspired by a summer in 2007 in which Rohrer slowly watched cancer take a neighbor.
Brilliant, empathic, and more than a little weird, Rohrer was what gamers pictured when they heard the word "indie." Just taller. Much taller.
So in 2009, back when the games industry was a little stronger, when publishers were more willing to spend money on risky projects, Rohrer was a hot commodity. EA had recruited him as a consultant on Steven Spielberg's "Citizen Kane of video games," the ultimately doomed LMNO project. Other studios were on the line also, like Majesco, who for the past half-decade had made a killing on casual distractions for the Nintendo DS. An unusual fit.
BRILLIANT, EMPATHIC, AND MORE THAN A LITTLE WEIRD ...
... ROHRER WAS WHAT GAMERS PICTURED WHEN THEY HEARD THE WORD "INDIE."
Rohrer was and is about making independent passion projects. But he needed cash. Potsdam offered a good co-op and cheap land for growing crops, attractive to the Rohrers years ago. Less attractive were its sub-zero winters, and oppressively hot summers, the latter of which prompted the walls of their cinder block house to sweat thatches of mold. Their extra-long lawn hadn't endeared them to the community; and let's not forget the New York real estate taxes. Or the new mouths to feed.
They had a cheap place lined up in New Mexico. A contract would expedite the move.
At the Game Developers Conference in March 2009, Rohrer met with Majesco. As did a number of other up-and-coming indie developers. The publisher appeared to be stocking up on creative, comparably affordable talent.
You imagine a company knows what to expect when they invite someone like Rohrer to pitch a game. Not so. Rohrer's first pitch, called "Deception," was a two-player digital board-game in which a married couple rush to accumulate the most damning evidence for an impending divorce. In the publisher's own words, not Majesco material.
Rohrer returned shortly after with a follow-up pitch. Another game about deception, this time between two corporate agents, the unnamed game would feature espionage, billion dollar commodity trading, and lots of nefarious and illegal activity. Rohrer hadn't decided what these companies sold yet, but Majesco trusted him to make a good choice, green-lighting the project. Weeks passed before Majesco learned what exactly it had agreed to publish.
"[Blood] diamonds, are small, liquid, and fungible," says Rohrer. "They're perfect." He laughs, and tells me the basic premise of the game, titled Diamond Trust of London: diamond traders compete to sell the most product out of Angola before a UN sanction takes effect. "You've got a guy with $5 million package of rough diamonds in the middle of Africa and you can't contact him. How do you know he's not keeping a couple for himself. It's the ultimate environment where you can trust people."
Also known as conflict diamonds or war diamonds, blood diamonds are mined to back an insurgency or warlord, generally in an active war zone. In Angola, blood diamonds financed the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, rebels in a civil war that lasted from 1974 to 2001.
"A lot of people think this is 'Jason Rohrer's quest against blood diamonds.' I'm not even a person who cares that much about blood diamonds. It's just a really good setting about these kinds of [themes]. It's not the kind of game that at the end puts up a black screen saying, 'Please, make sure all your diamonds are blood free.'"
Rohrer's never been a fan of serious games. As he puts it, "How do you play a game while someone spoon feeds you a brochure?" For him, the locale adds the extra oomph to the game's seedy mechanics. He reiterates them: deception, corruption, bribery. The context is an extra oomph, a morbid joke on the victor. You won, and all it took was bribing a UN inspector and setting-back the betterment of hundreds if not thousands of impoverished people!
Rohrer credits Majesco for not flinching, for letting the project continue as if a company known for making children's pet simulators was a natural fit for his illegal foreign trade.
New Mexico wasn't what he'd hoped for. He had a game and a new home, but there were complications. Or as Rohrer puts it, "Thug culture." Pitbulls. Drive-by shootings up the street. Burglaries next door. Rohrer tells me it's the worst place he's ever lived, which means something considering the walls of his previous home produced abnormal quantities of fungus.
He couldn't work there. Even if the place was safe, ironically enough, Nintendo requires DS development kits be kept in a secure office. A home office doesn't count. Rohrer says some people have bypassed this rule, and he thought he would do the same. Unlike the Potsdam city officials that eventually relaxed its grass laws just for him, however, Nintendo wouldn't budge. It didn't have to.
Majesco paid for an office, though it wasn't contractually obligated to. $400 a month for a shared space and lockable room to himself was a sign of good faith. Rohrer coded mostly at home anyway, writing the game on Linux, and testing it at the office for 20 some days of a five month process.
By 2010, the DS market had flipped. Too many publishers pushed too many rushed children's games onto store shelves, and Apple's iPhone had become a legitimate competitor. Majesco needed to order a minimum 6,000 copies of Diamond Trust of London from Nintendo, a suddenly risky investment.
If Diamond Trust of London could get 3,000 pre-orders to justify the manufacturing costs, Rohrer was told, it would be released. If not, the game would possibly be released on the Nintendo DSi download service, reaching a significantly smaller number of potential customers.
Rohrer thought they'd agreed upon a boxed release, but the contract stipulated vaguely that Rohrer would produce a game for DS. Not a boxed game for DS. Things became tense.
At GDC 2010, a year after meeting with Majesco, Rohrer presented a rough build of Diamond Trust of London to a few hundred colleagues, designers and reporters, knowing secretly its release status was unclear. Afterwards, Rohrer told Majesco the game needed at least two more months of development time, which he would not commit to until he knew the game would be released.
Majesco called his bluff. A reservation page appeared on the website on GameStop.com. A crappy clip-art job that mashed together an outline of Africa and a photo of London Bridge. It was accompanied by a release date one month away. Rohrer made no effort to promote the deal.
"WE'D SPENT ALL OUR SAVINGS TO MOVE ..."
"... AND HAD ALMOST NO MONEY IN THE BANK."
Diamond Trust of London got 23 pre-orders of the needed 3,000. Rohrer recommended some creative cost-cutting distribution ideas, like selling the game exclusively on Amazon, stripping the massive shipping and stocking costs. But Majesco had moved on. Diamond Trust of London was suspended indefinitely.
Rohrer doesn't hold a grudge against the publisher. He runs the math for me, unsolicited. "A lot of it has to do with all the middle people involved ... Majesco would have received something like $5 per cartridge, which would have sold for like $30 ... You gotta make your money back. It's hard and very risky."
As was Rohrer's home life. Anyone who's watched Breaking Bad knows a lot can happen in New Mexico in 12 measly months. Thug culture was getting to the family, with the violence and apathy of their city encroaching on their little home.
"This was all during a time when I was desperately trying to figure out how to bring in money for my family," says Rohrer. "Facing the future of 'how many more years am I going to be programming or developing games.' My wrists were hurting. We'd spent all our savings to move [from Potsdam] and had almost no money in the bank again."
Rohrer scrapped together what money was left and moved the family to Davis, California. A safer neighborhood with great weather, no mold, no drive-by shootings. The city has the highest number of post-graduate degrees per capita in America. "The people are like me," says Rohrer, giggling.
In California, Rohrer took some traditional gigs with the ad agency Tool of North America and the game consultancy company Gun. Both gigs were advertising and brand focused with some game design consulting as well. Rohrer never did substantial work for these people. Occasionally he would deliver a pitch that wouldn't get picked. He never completed any projects, and thus never got paid.
In the meantime, he designed personal projects from home, independently creating two PC games. Sleep is Death, an improvisational story-telling game for two-players, andInside a Star-filled Sky, a single-player infinitely recursive shooter. Being unlike anything else, they attracted positive press, and sold copies to help pay the rent.
While Rohrer was busy developing his personal projects, the founder and creative director of Gun, Wes Keltner, reached out with a new opportunity: a potential development contract.
Mark Seremet, the new CEO of Zoo, had been brought on to turn the company around. The publisher had made a name for itself pushing shovelware for the Nintendo DS, cheap and thoughtless games that capitalized on a current trend, but with that bubble bursting, Zoo needed something else - particularly a better image amongst core gamers. According to Keltner, Seremet contracted Gun to help find such talent for its new indiePub wing. Keltner then put Seremet and Rohrer in contact, sending the head of Zoo assets and design documents on behalf of the indie game maker, playing matchmaker of sorts.
Rohrer didn't have a new game to pitch, but he did have a DS game nearly finished. Following their meeting, Rohrer e-mailed Seremet a ROM of Diamond Trust of London. The CEO was so impressed that he hooked up Rohrer with a new Nintendo DS debug unit before his company had finished drawing a contract.
And the process sort of happened all over again. There was money and an office. And after a few months, the business flipped. And Nintendo made matters worse. For seven months, it wasn't clear if the Big N would allow the game to be published with the title and box art Rohrer wanted.
At GDC 2012, exactly three years after the birth of the project, Rohrer called Semeret on a pay phone and got the bad news. Zoo had promised Rohrer a release, but Semeret told Rohrer, "heart to heart that if they [manufactured the game] it would basically end their company." Rohrer laughs, and adds, "I don't really want that to happen to anybody."
Unlike Majesco, Zoo was eager to hear Rohrer's alternative release strategies. Because this is 2012, there was an obvious choice: Kickstarter. Zoo actually allowed Rohrer to set what percentage of the profits the publisher would receive, if the Kickstarter worked. As Rohrer tells me this he lets out a big laugh, as if the absurdity of this agreement is just hitting him. Their percentage, Rohrer tells me, is higher than they'd expected.
More direct and profitable than seeking reservations via Amazon or GameStop, Rohrer built a Kickstarter page, asking for payment upfront to cover the cost of manufacturing. Zoo brokered the manufacturing deal with Nintendo, and arranged for the initial run of 6,000 units to be shipped to Rohrer's house. Where they are today.
All of the delays have allowed Rohrer to release the game he's always wanted to.
To say the box art is unusual is a vast understatement - the packaging is comparable to a record with a big photo on the back. Rohrer wanted to include his music collaborator's name on the front of the box, a sticking point with Nintendo and Zoo. To get around it, he added his and the musician's names to the title, officially calling it:
Jason Rohrer with Music by Tom Bailey: Diamond Trust of London
Because Rohrer is shipping the games himself, he's able to personally sign and number limited edition copies. He's also able to include some mysterious mystery items, another idea denied by Nintendo.
Why are these things so important, I ask. "Partly because it's never been done," he says. "All these conventions are just with us." He wants to change conventions. The ones in the game, on the box, and in our heads. Change takes time and time takes money and money takes a lot of help.
At GDC this year, around the time he learned Zoo might not be able to releaseDiamond Trust of London, Rohrer introduced a card game that would help save the global economy by deflating the US economy. In each game, a player would bring a deck of real dollar bills, ranging in value. Each round, two opposing players would lay down a bill, with the round going to the player who placed the highest bill. The player who won the most rounds kept all the "cards."
There was a trick, however. Players had the option to rip a bill in half, transforming it into two cards of the original bill's value; effectively destroying money and deflating the US economy, while increasing the player's overall chance of winning the game.
As GDC swirled around him, and dozens of other designers and publishers announced imminent arrivals, Jason Rohrer wasn't sure if Diamond Trust of London would ever get released. Yet there he stood, ripping a $100 dollar bill in front of a lecture hall full oblivious attendees. Rohrer couldn't stop giggling.
I suspect Rohrer feels as strongly about deflation as he does about blood diamonds, which is to say very little. Consider his games as mechanisms that shock people into thinking and feeling. Rohrer's not telling us to care about something. He's questioning why we care to begin with.
Why do we rely on printed tender? Do we actually want to improve the livelihood of diamond mine workers? Are both life and games meaningless pursuits of temporal success?
Jason Rohrer: iconoclast, making mind-fucking games no matter how long they take, no matter what the cost. Ripping bills and laughing.
Full discolure: The author of this story backed the limited edition tier of Diamond Trust of London's Kickstarter campaign. We believe purchasing or pre-ordering a game does not impact the objectivity of a writer.
Editor's note: Previously, Wes Keltner's involvement with Gun was not included. That has since been amended for clarity.
Jason Rohrer, Shutterstock