ASCII by Jason Scott

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Hardcoded —

35 might not seem like a very old age to some, but in many ways, it’s a good time for me to really decide what projects of mine are going to “happen”, which will not, and what, if any, new projects I should be taking on while I still have the energy and age of the 30s. As a result of this, I started work on about 3 movies and a bunch of other things (GET LAMP is the absolute forefront, of course) and I’ve been dumping off a lot of other stuff that was in the planning or consideration stages.

One of these was a TV show I’ve pushed around my plate like a bit of unwanted vegetables for about 3 years. It’s time to get rid of that one. So what better way to get rid of it than throwing it out on a public website?

For all my ranting about television in previous entries, it might be surprising to know I was considering doing a television show. But part of that was that when I say “television show”, I mean “videotaped show”, which means it could have been distributed online, sold as a DVD, or what have you. Maybe even on a cable channel or one of the other many channels out there for new works. I wasn’t going crazy on that side of things.

So here we go; here’s the “pitch”, as it were, and why I am dropping the whole idea.

First, you need that kind of short-form pitch that either makes people interested or makes them cut bait. So the short form: “Junkyard Wars…. for programmers. Have people hack computers and make programs, for money, in a marathon coding session. Prizes, tie-ins… hey, you gonna do that whole line?”

Now, a little more meat. The title/name was “Hardcoded”, and the basic premise is this: set up in a warehouse with a two level structure, you have four teams of programmers, perhaps an artist or other unusual creative person thrown in, and each gets a corner of this structure on the first floor. On the second floor, two hosts (I wanted two chatty but engaging males, kind of the smart nerd type) talk to their on-the-floor person (an engaging female) about what the teams are up to.

The game goes on for two days (enabling weekend shoots). The teams can be assembled from software companies or other firms, or maybe are all from around the country and thrown together. The teams assemble on the first day to be given the task they’ve got to have finished at around 2pm on Sunday. For my example/pilot, the game would be “Pac-Man”, and we’d have a Pac-Man machine in the center of the place. It’d be plugged on, under a sheet, and lifted up for people to see. Obviously, it’d be playable throughout the event.

The four teams would be given the art of Pac-Man and the sounds, but that would be it, and they’d have to hack something together after that. A point-scale would be there based on creativity, skills… And every 4 hours or so, the teams would be given other “code challenges” they could take on at the same time, and the question would be, do we go for that code challenge and risk failing to “ship”, or do they just jam through?

Like a software project, there would be stages for “alpha”, “beta” and “final”. In the Pac-Man example, having the ability to move around would be a “alpha”, having the game playable would be a “beta”, and then the final bits would need to be there, like fruit and the like, for “final”. If this sounds rough, it is. I wasn’t exactly staying up late at night concerned about how the scoring scale would work.

The question that might come to mind is “how could this at all be compelling”? Well, several answers to that. First of all, you’d have quite a bit of post-production in place, doing things like explaining (in high-level form) how the programmers were coding, how they were working together, and so on. The hosts would be engaging in their own way, but we’d also have sequences about, say, Pac-Man and the videogame industry that could be used if segments were missing some level of interest, until we got to the “beta” stage or so on.

Obviously, all the screens of all the programmers would be recorded, as well as webcams showing their expressions and other cameras showing events within the space. Most shows/events of this sort have what’s best called a “safe room” where the contestants are allowed to go outside of cameras (specifically, to sleep and use bathrooms) but there’s a contractual obligation they sign where they don’t discuss strategy or have conversations except with producers if there’s an issue.

Now, either you buy into this idea or you don’t. And that’s fine if you don’t, I liked the challenge of making programming interesting and doing cool post-production and assigning teams of different people to interact, and so on. That’s part of what made the idea fun and worth mulling over.

There are two main problems with this whole idea, in terms of stopping me from going forward. I don’t mean cash or equipment issues, either, which are a different level; certainly tie-ins for prizes (win stuff from Thinkgeek! win stuff from sony or panasonic or apple!) and branded computer systems (Alienware!) would go a ways towards helping the cost. That’s just money.

The first problem is the fact that most of these shows are fake.

Now, I don’t mean fake in terms of actually pre-determining who will win and then crippling the other team until they can’t win, ever (like the quiz show scandals of the 1950s). I mean more along the lines that the most important thing, the driving force in putting together each show, is to make it compelling. And the fastest way to create compelling footage is to ensure, hell or high water, that there is as much conflict and neck-and-neck competition every step of the way.

This sounds logical, but to me if you’ve designed the show right, the compelling aspects will come out of it. If you’re of the state of mind that says that unless someone is yelling nothing is happening, that’s a different type of show. And with the type of shows that Hardcoded takes its cue from (Monster House, Monster Garage, Panic Mechanics, Junkyard Wars and so on), any multi-episode observation of how they flow show off several “tricks” being engaged.

A number of the shows sabotage. They fail to deliver what was asked for, they undo work the team has completed, and they modify the rules (occasionally drastically) to suit keeping everyone neck and neck. While nobody likes to see an absolute pulverisation of the losing team or the deadline, it’s mildly creepy to see weights piled on a team like Harrison Bergeron just to keep them from overly succeeding. And that’s the stuff we can see through the edits; that’s not even the stuff we never get to see.

Another trick is to force conflict; in cases where teams are assembled, say, Monster House, you will see a team assembled where you have 4 or 5 relatively together individuals, and then one absolutely insane fuck-up of a person. Someone who may or may not have skills, but are certainly not used to working with a team, or who don’t normally work under a short short deadline, and are brought in essentially to grit the wheels and get some nice sparks flying. Conflict arises in all things, to me; and you have compelling footage from that, but just intentionally hothousing a situation panders to the worst aspects of television and I couldn’t see myself being a party to that, to achieve the level of success these shows had.

In fact, that’s where the second part came in; I remembered what it’s like to work on a production like this, having been involved in such stuff in my past; the crew fights, the gossip, the little lies, the big ones, and all the pieces of you that this sort of project rips away from a person, until they’re only a small bit of what they used to be (although, hopefully at least, richer).

That’s kind of the reason I’ve grown to enjoy shooting leisurely (or at least lacking insane deadline pressure), generally alone, generally one-on-one. I like talking with people, getting to know them, not depending on their crying or breaking down or screaming to know compelling footage exists in them. I like the burden being on me to bring out the interesting part of a person, not just piling on bullshit over a person’s head until they squeak out protests and I film it 3 inches away from their face. I can live with it.

So into the shitcan goes Hardcoded. It would have been fun to watch. It probably wouldn’t have been as much fun to make.

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  1. Andy Baio says:

    What a great idea. Someone out there is bound to do it. Lazyweb, here my plea!

  2. Dan Phiffer says:

    Sounds a little bit like ACM competitions, but for non-college kids. Why would this need to be done with a standard television vocabulary? Eliminating that aspect might alleviate some of the problems you’re talking about. Webcast it, podcast it, whatever—I think it would be fun to participate in and watch.

  3. Yoz says:

    I’m certain I heard of Microsoft doing something similar – pitting two coding teams against each other to get an e-commerce site up in the shortest time, something like that – Google isn’t helping me out, though.

  4. Jason Scott says:

    Andy Biao’s always so good to me.

    So, Dan, the difference between the programming contests you’re talking about and what I’m talking about is the difference between a symposium and a radio show. Both are recorded, both might cover the subjects in their own ways, but the styles of presentation and approach are inherently different.

    The goal of this show would be to show the amazing aspects of teamwork and engineering that occur in a hothouse situation, where people are aimed towards a goal, sprinkled with the sort of fun drama that arises. ACM contests, by their nature, take on all comers and provide ways for dozens of teams to compete; this would definitely be something different.

    In other words, it would probably be an a-ok creation but mostly to the people who were involved in it (I call this “yearbook syndrome”). But I don’t know if you would end up with something equally watchable to strangers.

    Most of the problems that I mention would be pouring myself heart and soul into a show that, ultimately, would experience a lot of issues that I myself see no point in being part of. But the existence of these sorts of shows on television show there is an interest in the part of audiences and sponsors to glorify (even if occasionally ham-fistedly) the joy of engineering and creation. I just took a hard look and can’t currently see myself doing this.

    At the core of many media projects, buried under the glitz or cross-cutting or cheap tricks, you find it’s the true humanity that keeps you interested. This is why, even when Monster House started to get really trashy about forcing events, you still saw, in the builders and contractors, that spirit of “doing the right thing” that blazed in their eyes; (same with Monster Garage; some of the people there are truly folks you could lose a month of weekends just learning from). I would enjoy bringing that out, in a different approach than an open contest would take. But the rest of it….

  5. ozbroomy says:

    What about pitting teams from Different camps.
    Microsoft Visual Studio Vs Java Vs Ruby on Rails.
    I know who I would put my money on…Ruby.

  6. Jason Scott says:

    Differences in coding style, environment, approaches and the rest were part of the expected draw, yes. I think a lot of people program in very different styles and have variant methods of management, both time and personnel wise, and it would have been interesting to see that dynamic at work. One might argue that was the heart of the interest.

  7. Suppafly says:

    I would love to see that made, even just a pilot.

  8. herg says:

    I would have started watching TV for that!!