“Fashion, for such a mainstream thing, has this amazing ability to absorb from other disciplines.”
“Games, I would say, is at the other end of the spectrum. It really struggles, I find, to look at contemporary animation, look at contemporary fashion, and draw from those other media in a way that’s going to excite consumers. I think games design has been conservative for so long, that it’s trained its audience to be inherently conservative.”
David Surman is anything but conservative. He is one half of Pachinko Pictures, a new Melbourne design studio that has charted an unusual – possibly even quietly radical – course through the world of videogames. The other half of Pachinko Pictures, Ian Gouldstone, is equally dynamic.
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“Whenever I see a Sony ad, I think of Benetton,” says Gouldstone. “No other games platform makes me think of that bridge between games and fashion.”
For a new videogames company, an advergame is not usually a calling card first move.
Advergames are usually relegated to the bottom of the pack, dismissed as simple games with simple (and worst of all, sponsored) messages. The advergaming world is not a place that taste-makers usually turn to when searching for the next breakthrough hit. It is not a place that new design studios usually aim for to make that breakthrough hit.
But Pachinko Pictures is not an ordinary studio. Equally, their new game, Lol-a-Coaster, is not your usual advergame.
At the intersection of videogames, animation, advertising, and fashion, nothing about Pachinko Pictures fits into the standard understanding of what a videogame development studio might be.
For one, they aren’t just videogame designers. As the ‘pictures’ part of their name indicates, David Surman and Ian Gouldstone began the company not specifically as a game development venture, but as an animation studio. Now, they’re very much multidisciplinarians, working with materials as diverse as animation and iPad magazine platforms.
But it feels like it would always have come back to videogames. Pachinko Pictures may have only just released their first game, but videogaming has been a major locus that both Surman and Gouldstone have been circling for some time.
In Surman’s case, the link is clear – he worked as a scholar, developing Newport School of Art’s game design programme, and more recently as a curator of videogames for ACMI. Gouldstone’s work in animation also shows clear aesthetic links to videogames, like Face The Music, an animation commissioned by Oxfam.
After their relocation to Australia (Surman is a UK native, while Gouldstone is from New York), Pachinko Pictures was formed. The pair say the push towards an advergame was far from a cynical cash-grab, but instead came from an assessment of what Pachinko could do in the field. “Neither of us are innocently enthusiastic about the medium,” says Surman. “Instead, we want to challenge it, and we want to see it work.”
It’s an unorthodox move that speaks to their years of experience in other media, and to their understanding of where and how the videogames industry can be pushed. While most new independent studios will try to win public funds or work from savings over the course of a desperate few months, Pachinko Pictures struck a relationship with Chupa Chups to make Lol-a-Coaster.
To Pachinko Pictures, this was an important decision. Surman and Gouldstone argue that the advergame holds a similar place in culture to music video clips in the 1970s – marginalised, with as-yet unrealised potential.
“When artists were requested to make music videos by labels, they were seen as a massive burden that ate into their time,” says Surman. “You have this moment in the late ‘80s where talented young film directors and designers came into the music video space, and really tried to make a style statement that makes the music video stand alone as a cultural artifact.”
So for Pachinko pictures, an advergame can be more than the shallow and unoriginal games we’re so far used to. “An advergame doesn’t have to be a cynical, cheap kind of small, mean thing,” says Surman. “It can be audacious.”
Talking to Surman and Gouldstone, you get a real sense of their understanding of videogames as an aesthetic style, as a fashion, as a graspable, material thing. “When we first pitched Lol-a-Coaster, our own creative discussion was very much focussed on games like Parodius and Pop’n TwinBee, classic, surreal, optimistic, colourful games,” says Surman. “These have disappeared.”
“You’ve got the photorealistic thing on one end,” adds Gouldstone, “and all other styles, all other illustrative styles, get lumped into another thing.” In this environment, Surman and Gouldstone felt that a distinctive visual style was crucial. “In the indie space, style goes a long way,” says Surman, “and this creates a natural interface with advertising design. In advertising design, you’re totally focussed on having an impact in as immediate way as possible.”
“So the goals of being an authentic independent game developer with an original voice and the goals of people who make media for advertising, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive,” says Surman.
Another connection lies in the duration of both media. “Part of it was wanting to change the monologue from a single-screen game which is infinitely replayable to something which more resembles a TV commercial,” says Gouldstone. “It’s 30 seconds of an intense but fun message.”
“For us,” says Surman, “it’s intensely selfish to expect hundreds of hours of a person’s time. When you think of really awesome commercials or really awesome music videos – how long is Thriller? Eleven minutes?”
This interest in small, fiercely individual creative projects is what defines Pachinko Pictures. They have styled themselves as a boutique studio, an unusual designation within the games sphere, but it’s something of great meaning to Surman and Gouldstone. “Boutique means that even though a company is providing a service that they might provide to other people, you can expect a commitment to originality, to doing something a special way,” says Surman.
“We’re proud of being small, just like we’re proud of being in Melbourne,” adds Gouldstone. “We’re not interested in being Zynga, in taking up a huge slice of the pie. We’d rather be known as individuals.”
For a company that realistically could have chosen almost any city in the world to work in, Melbourne is clearly a passion for Pachinko. “Melbourne is a city that a long time ago made a commitment to art and to design in a big way,” says Surman.
“There’s the reactions against Australia Day here, and against national pride, but you actually encounter a lot less cynicism here,” adds Gouldstone. “It’s so much easier to put your work out there and stand next to it than it is in North America or Europe … We don’t feel a need to [diminish our work] here, but at the same time we don’t feel a need to make stratospheric claims about our work. We can be a lot more honest about who we are.”
That identity is key to the early success of Pachinko Pictures. As much as the studio is a sui generis mix of videogames, animation, advertising, and fashion, there’s ultimately a telling maturity to how they understand their work.
“As much as we can make a game like Lol-a-Coaster, which is a surreal, young game, you ultimately want to have an adult life in your professional work,” says Surman. “We don’t want to have a desk covered in vinyl toys. I think we’re past that point.”
“At our age, having played games for twenty years, we’re yearning for some richness.”