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Interview with Ben Paddon of PortsCenter

My name is Jeff and I'm a lifelong gamer myself. I write 'The Console Slayer' column here on CBNAH. There are some online sites and shows that are worth your time that I want to make you guys aware of. To that point today I'll be interviewing Ben Paddon, the main mind behind a show called PortsCenter.

CBNAH: How are you doing lately Ben? Why don't you tell everyone who you are, a bit about yourself and your history with gaming and about the show you star in and produce?

Ben Paddon: Sure thing! My name is Ben Paddon, and I'm... well, I'm a lot of things really, but probably the simplest "catch-all" title would be "content creator". I'm the writer and host for PortsCenter, which for the last year-and-a-bit has been looking at interesting and unique ports and conversions of video games. And it's still going, so that's nice. I also co-wrote the Left 4 Dead parody webseries "Boomer's Day Off", which has been viewed millions of times over on YouTube and been nominated for all manner of awards, I was the co-creator and Head Writer for Jump Leads, a sci-fi-comedy webcomic that ran from 2007 to 2012, and I've written bits and bobs here and there for various websites and magazines. I'm British, but I moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and I've been here ever since.

I've been playing video games for as long as I can remember. There was always an Amiga computer in the house when I was a kid, and I'd spend hours playing games on it. Some good, some not so good. I probably clocked just as many hours playing Lemmings as I did playing the absolutely dire ThunderCats game. I actually taught myself to read when I was very little so I could play The Secret of Monkey Island. I bloody love that game.

CBNAH: That's an impressive resume. I know PortsCenter isn't just a one-man production but I think it goes to show the quality of the show. Tell people what PortsCenter is and how it came about? Perhaps what inspired it?

BP: PortsCenter came out of a conversation I was having with a friend on Twitter back in 2011. I can't remember the specifics but it basically ended with my saying, "Look, Doom on the PSone is the best version of the game, I'll capture some footage for you and prove it." A week later I had friends 'round my apartment filming the pilot for PortsCenter, going into detail about the differences between the two ports and making jokes about the crappy multiplayer. Bit of an odd jump, but there we are. The name of the show came to me as I was in bed, the script was easy to write because I knew the game, and the port, inside out, and I had a friend, journalist and stand-up comedian Nick Simberg, help me punch up the jokes and set the tone. A year later we wrapped up a successful Kickstarter, and then the show began proper in January 2013.

In terms of the format, I was very specifically inspired by British media commentator Charlie Brooker. He's done a number of shows for the BBC looking at different aspects of the media, and that year he'd done a one-hour special called Gameswipe which was kind of an "Intro to Gaming 101". A lot of what I do is inspired by or directed lifted from the format from his shows, though I do try to make it my own as much as possible. For the second season of the show I've started giving Brooker a Very Special Thanks credit at the end of the show, because without the influence of his work Glod only knows what this show would've been like.

The pilot aside, those early episodes were very much a one-man affair. For most episodes it would just be me setting up the camera, the lights, managing the sound, all of it. Easy to do for the most part because I seldom do anything different with the camera; it's always me sitting on the couch talking to the viewer. But for occasional episodes in the first season, and so far every episode of the second, I've had people step in to help with all manner of stuff from monitoring the sound to color correction to location shooting. My friend Cara has joined the crew for the second season and she's brilliant. She is. She's invaluable, she's a great judge of whether a take of a particular scene works or not, and she's fantastic at managing everybody who's on set. And she keeps me in check, which is no small feat!

CBNAH: It's kind of comical in a way to know the show was sparked out of the desire to prove someone wrong. Nice to learn how it's coalesced into a show with burgeoning success. Lets talk about the production of the show. Can you talk about how the show is produced? What kinds of things go into making PortsCenter?

BP: I wouldn't say it was about proving someone wrong, more about giving someone a nugget of gaming history. It was never an argument or a debate, just a conversation. :)

Each episode is the product of hours and hours (and, occasionally, hour and hours and hours) of work, from picking the games I'm going to look at right up to editing the episode. I choose my games well in advance. Almost all of season one had been decided partway through the previous year, and the line-up for season two is basically locked in. I also have back-ups in mind just in case I'm not able to look at a particular game, which is good because that's happened on a few occasions.

I usually pick ports I already have some experience with, but even if I don't I make sure I sit down and play the game for several hours, usually capturing footage at the same time. I never used to make notes as I played because I figured I'd remember everything, but there have been occasions where I've been uploading an episode and realized, "Oh bugger, I forgot to mention that one thing!" So now I have Evernote open on my phone or laptop as I play so I can make notes, and I'll refer to those as I write the script.

Writing the episodes, figuring out how to get my information across and keep it entertaining, takes some time as well. Some scripts, like the script for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Wii episode, took a couple of weeks to write. Others, like the episode about The Real Ghostbusters or the episode about Luigi's sprites in the different releases of Super Mario World, were bashed out in a matter of hours. Sometimes an episode takes a while to come together - either I have the jokes but not the information, or all the information but no jokes. Nick Simberg used to be a great resource there because he could make anything funny, but he's not so involved now due to the tight production schedule. Also he moved to San Francisco to be with his girlfriend, the selfish bastard.

Once it's written, and then rewritten and edited, and then rewritten again, printed out, gawped out in disbelief, rewritten a third time and then printed out in triplicate, it's shot. I've shot in a number of places over the last year and a half but I try not to shoot at home when I can so as not to disturb the family. Most of the episodes are shot in the apartments or houses of various friends, because disturbing them is perfectly acceptable. Plus they often buy pizza afterwards. Shooting usually only takes an hour or two - set up the camera, figure out the angle I'm shooting the couch at, then set up the lights and sound equipment and away we go. Some episodes take longer, like the Donkey Kong Country episode which had multiple camera angles and lighting set-ups. The Mortal Kombat II episode took about four hours, two of which were spent shooting a cold open that was eventually cut for technical reasons, then we had to come back and shoot pick-ups a week later because our lav mic crapped out... and the replacement barely worked. Oy.

But once that's all done all that remains is editing the episode, which takes the better part of a day. I record the voiceover before I start editing, I assemble the graphic elements in PhotoShop - stuff like the overlay, the end credits and so on are all assembled in PhotoShop - then I start building the episode, which involves going through multiple takes of scenes, picking the right moments of gameplay footage, and occasionally sourcing video from elsewhere for stuff like commercials and game trailers and so on. Then I add the music, which is almost entirely sourced from open-source music libraries, and once that's done I watch it, rewatch it, make tweaks, occasionally wind up rerecording a bit of VO for whatever stupid reason, and then it's rendered and uploaded. That whole process can be anywhere between five hours and eighteen, depending on how complex the episode is. I probably get some sleep in between all of that as well. I'm sure I must do.

CBNAH: In the whole process, from pre to post production, is there any part you enjoy most?

BP: Being finished with an episode, and getting to climb into bed and fall asleep next to the love of my life. This invariably happens between 4 and 7 o'clock in the morning.

CBNAH: Ha. One of the things I enjoy about PortsCenter is your sense of humor. What is your goal with the show on an episode-to-episode basis and any eventual goals with the show? I imagine gaining a partnership with a site with some viewership might have been one. Such as the case now with RetrowareTV.com. How did that partnership materialize?

BP: I never really had any long-term goals with the show other than, y'know, making it. And it was important that it was of a certain quality. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and I've abandoned entire shoots in the past when things haven't quite worked out as I'd wanted. When we were shooting the pilot I brought in my friend Jonathan to film it (I didn't have my own filming gear at the time), and I can remember, during one shot, that he'd said, "Yeah, it doesn't need to look good, it's just for YouTube." And I said, "No, that's why it does need to look good." The show may just be me sitting on a couch talking about old games nobody cares about anymore, but that doesn't mean it can't have a slickness to it. I'd be shooting in 24fps if my camera supported it. It says it does, but it's lying. Canon cameras like, folks.

So, yeah, my goal was to make the sort of program I wish existed, but didn't. And now it does. I knew from the beginning that it's a pretty niche subject. I don't know that many gamers who give anything even vaguely resembling a shit about video game ports, but it's a very important part of gaming history. The Street Fighter II I grew up playing is almost entirely different from the one my friends grew up with. If you had a Sega Mega Drive instead of a Super Nintendo then your experience with Earthworm Jim is going to be different. The Sega Master System was a huge success outside of America, and there's an entire Sonic the Hedgehog game on those systems that maybe Americans aren't familiar with. And then there's stuff like the cancelled Game Boy Color port of Resident Evil, or the Japan-exclusive PSone port of Mortal Kombat II. I've always been fascinated by this stuff, and even now when I can afford to buy the same game for multiple systems I do because I want to see the differences. I want to see what's changed, what's been done differently. These days it's not much, but in the 80s and 90s, games had to be rebuilt from the ground up to be ported, sometimes without access to the original game assets. I fucking love that. I find that side of things immensely fascinating.

Whoops, I went off on a tangent.

So anyway, yes, partnerships. My good friend Shane Luis recommended, back when season one was just starting, that I should post PortsCenter in places like Screw Attack and Retroware using their user-submitted content forms. But I'm a lazy man, and I didn't get around to posting episodes to Retroware until the middle of the year. Retroware loved the show - it was featured as User Content of the Week I think two or three times - and the rest is history.

CBNAH: That's awesome. I'm fascinated by that stuff too. I much enjoy ScrewAttack and Retroware. A lot of shows now famous started by people posting on those sites. Is there anything you can talk about that we can expect from the rest of season 2 or even season 3?

BP: I have a lovely little list of games for season 2, which includes a couple of games I wasn't able to get to in season 1. I'd wanted to cover the PSone port of Mortal Kombat II last year, but I had trouble finding a copy I could afford. Thankfully some wonderful internet folk came to the rescue there. I also planned to do an episode on the Gears of War board game, but the logistics for that one are tricky. That episode basically needs to be a fusion of PortsCenter and Wil Wheaton's show Tabletop, and I don't want it to stretch on for too long, so I'm still trying to figure it out. And I'm still hoping to do that Street Fighter II Amiga special I teased last year. I want to get a group of people who play Street Fighter on the tournament circuit and watch them get to grips with the Amiga's single-button joystick!

As for other episodes... lots of cool stuff. A lot of people have asked me to do Tetris, which is bonkers because that game has been released for everything, but I think I've found a way of doing Tetris that should be a little different and fun. There'll be three or four Top 5 lists this year, because I wanted to experiment a little and try some new things, and nobody on YouTube has ever done a Top 5 list of anything ever, so I'll be the first! Can you tell I'm being sarcastic? Oh, and I have a musical season finale planned. I'll keep quiet on that one for now.

Already I've had to cut games off the list for season 2, though. Sadly earlier this year Nintendo decided to have YouTube pull one of my episodes, and I had to reupload it with different audio. I'm not the only person who's been affected by Nintendo and even though my use of their game footage and audio is covered under Fair Use YouTube doesn't make the distinction or the final decision, so the video gets pulled. I'd really hoped to do episodes on SimCity for the SNES, the two Commodore 64 ports of Donkey Kong and the Game Boy Color versions of Mario Tennis and Mario Golf, but why put all that effort into talking critically about these games if Nintendo is just going to have the videos yanked? And these are games that I fucking love, by the way, I mean the SNES port of SimCity is the definitive version of the game, and it was developed internally by Nintendo! It's fantastic, and I'd love to gush about it for five-to-ten minutes... but it's not worth the risk if Nintendo are just going to have it taken down.

There probably will be a third season of PortsCenter, and I already have a tentative line-up planned. Lots of cool stuff, lots of great games. I don't want to spoil any of it now because who knows what'll happen between now and then? I'll also be launching another show later this year for SoulGeek that uses a similar format to PortsCenter but has nothing to do with games. Still in the planning stages on that one, but I'm very excited about it.

CBNAH: Sounds like some fun stuff to look forward to. I was going to ask about your new show next. You haven't revealed much about it yet as far as I know. Anything else you'd care to share about it?

BP: Absolutely! It has an "&" in the title. That's an ampersand, if you're into lolograms. It's not about those, though. Keeping everything under wraps for now, but it should be good fun.

CBNAH: Are there any other shows/ventures/whatever you're involved in right now that you'd like to tell people about?

BP: I'm writing a drama-comedy webseries that, fingers crossed, goes into production later this year. Can't say much about that though.

CBNAH: Well, thank you very much for your time Ben. It is much appreciated. I think people will enjoy learning about new sources of entertainment such as PortsCenter, and hey, it's educational too. I really hope people will check out the show. It's great. Can you tell people where to find PortsCenter?

BP: Absolutely! You can watch new episodes on the YouTube channel, which can be quickly reached at PortsCenter.TV, or you can go to RetrowareTV.com to catch new episodes as well as a bunch of other retrogaming shows.


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