The 2014 Salt Fest official schedule didn’t appear finalized until the morning of, which seemed a little shortsighted. It was, unfortunately, the first of many examples of poor planning of this local up-and-coming video game fest. Up until SLUG announced the assignment, I hadn’t even heard of this con, didn’t even see a single flyer up at the U during spring semester. But with two twelve-hour days listed, I figured it was going to be worth it.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
The Fest set up in the spacious Olpin Union at the University of Utah. The Grand Ballroom was home to most of the action, including a massive tournament space, the main stage and most vendor booths. In total, there were less than ten vendors set up, a few local artisans, some representatives of both the U and Stephens Henagar College video game programs, interactive displays from indie game companies Mire Studios and TripleSlash, and local tech company Revo. One side room was dedicated to the panels, while the other was home to a general LAN room. Scattered throughout were some free-to-play arcade games, including Street Fighter, Battletoads and a few DDR machines, which were by far the most popular.
I stopped and chatted up Kyle Chittenden of Tripleslash Studios, a downtown-SLC company comprised of recent U of U graduates, who were offering a demo of their new effort Magnetic by Nature, a momentum-based puzzle platformer that was gorgeous with its art deco-inspired visuals and incredibly bright colors. Chittenden told us they are hoping to get the game released very soon on major consoles, and had just been greenlit by Steam, which should see the game available later this summer. It’s really awesome to see first-hand the success of the U’s acclaimed video game program, and you can bet I’ll be adding it to my Steam Library come release time.
Drawn by a giant cutout of Master Chief, we dropped by one of the tournament areas in the ballroom and spoke to Mike of Gaming Cuisine Competitive League (soon to be changed to The Hive Gaming), a local tournament collective that runs matches of Call of Duty, Halo and Titan Fall. They do quarterly tournaments under Major League Gaming rules and are hoping, along with the name change, to adapt their schedule to seasons. Several of the gamers playing at Salt Fest’s Halo tournament were already semi-pros in the Major League Gaming circuit. Players at today’s tournament were vying for a not-insignificant prize money pool, gathered from entry fees. Mike says Salt Fest was a lot more organized for his teams this year, including creating designated areas for each tournament, although the company that provided equipment last year for them did not attend this year, leaving them scrambling for equipment, which forced them to drop at least one of the planned tournaments they wanted to provide gamers at Salt Fest. But Mike was in good spirits regardless and everything we saw throughout the day suggested the tournaments they did do went off without a hitch. Gamers interested at elevating their playing above yelling at 12-year-olds on xBox Live can find all the info they need to join at gaming-cuisine.blogspot.com.
The panel titles looked interesting enough, so I dropped in to see one titled “PC Gaming Is Not As Expensive As You Think,” presented by Jerry Glaser from local tech company Revo. Only myself, photographer Matt Brunk and one other person showed up for the panel, and this pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day. Jerry was a great presenter, and he ran us through the model tower he’d prepared to show how one could build a powerful and portable machine for less than $700. He actually showed us step-by-step how to build it and even brought fancy accessories to promote customization, should we want it. He answered all our questions with expertise and was super open and approachable. As I would think more than once during the day, he deserved a better audience than he got.
The panel I was most stoked for was “Digital Painting for Game Development,” hoping to learn some new techniques I could take back to my own 2D work, even if I’m not going into game developing. This was by far the highlight of my day. Becky Pennock, a graduate of the U’s program and art lead at local indie company TripleSlash (responsible for the aforementioned “Magnetic by Nature”), gave us a really detailed look at her technique’s history, her process, and the important perspective she has learned through her self-taught and eventual traditional education as an artist. She was a total delight and I feel like I learned a lot as an artist that I could take away to my own work. She’s part of a team of U of U graduates who went on to build TripleSlash, which has gained enormous cred from the industry in its short life span, so this truly felt like a rare treat. But again, she had an audience of maybe five people, who were luckily just as stoked as I was to learn from her. It was just a damn shame. As was the ongoing theme with Salt Fest, there was no publicity and no attention given to her hard work.
The Q and A with voice actor Chris Rager took place in the main ballroom and was competing with all the cacophony of noise from the DDR machines, the tournament players, and all the vendor booths. Maybe 15 people were present for his session, to the point where he was dragging questions out of people just to fill up time. To his credit, he handled the whole day like a goddamn champ and I truly appreciate his coming to this tiny con and bringing his all, but it was frankly kind of embarrassing to see the muddled and lazy set-up they had for him. I just hope they properly compensated him for his time here. He answered fan questions about his work as Hercule on Dragonball Z and Mr. Torgue on Borderlands 2, and gave us some awesome anecdotes from his time in the biz; he gave tips to the rookie voice actors in the audience on how to get their big break (“First, you have to move out of Utah!”) and how to, ahem, trick pizza joints out of free meals (old man voice calling for pizza for his grandkids); and later he got involved by helping judge and announce the costume contest, doing his best to jazz up a tired and tiny crowd. Really cool dude. He also deserved better.
As astute readers may have gleaned, I have a lot of issues with the way Salt Fest was run, first and foremost that it was charging Comic Con-level prices for what amounted to one of the most boring festivals I’ve ever been to: $25 for a day pass, and that does not even include any registration prices for tournaments. For a festival that offered no entertainment, only a handful of (albeit solid) vendors, and didn’t even think to make sure there was food and beverage available to purchase for its guests, that’s borderline theft. I figured, since the U’s video game program was featured, that they probably had a hand in arranging the Fest and would be smart enough to ensure for the Union’s food court to be open (as it was last year, according to reports from vendors), but no. We had to leave the festival altogether to go get any food that wasn’t candy and chips. Even the vendors we spoke to said they were not warned that there would be no nearby food available for their 12-hour shifts, and I was not surprised to see that many of them were packed up and vacated by 5 p.m., well short of the 10 p.m. close time of the Fest. This is such a major oversight, and it doesn’t at all promote a festival atmosphere where visitors can freely spend all day enjoying the offerings. We were basically forced to leave and dared to return. But what do they care? They already have your money.
Really, Salt Fest seems like it is meant for tournament gamers only, and everyone else is an asterisk. They pushed back the costume contest to 8 p.m., when pretty much everyone had already left for the day, leaving the cosplayers—who all brought their A-game with some incredibly detailed costumes—with a pitifully small crowd. But even with regard to the tournaments, there were no announcements, no displays, nothing for non-players to do except hover around the relatively small monitors while people played and try to figure out what was going on. I have no idea which teams were playing, who won, or how many others they beat. I have no idea who is coming back tomorrow. And since tournaments were pre-registration, I couldn’t have hopped in and participated even if I had wanted to. Anyone who wasn’t part of that was left to wander a tiny area, play the 4 or 5 arcade games, or sit in on a panel if one was going. I cannot for the life of me understand how the Fest’s organizers justified a single 12 hour day, let alone two, and I hope they’re all losing sleep for charging dedicated geeks $25 for this shitshow.
I met some amazing, talented, devoted people at this Fest, and for that I’m grateful. The fans and vendors that showed up were excited and nice people. But really, they and everyone who attended deserved far, far better than what their money got them. If Salt Fest wants to continue with any success, its runners need to decide what the hell it is and actually dedicate time and money to building an inclusive environment to that end (and for fuck’s sake, try some actual promotion so more than 150 people show up). Otherwise, just make it a goddamn tournament fest and let the rest of us save our time and money by waiting for Comic Con. The ambition and potential for greatness is here, but the execution left a lot to be desired.
See more photos from Salt Fest here.