So, I'm Adam Charles Joseph Mayes because my parents decided I need all the names.
I'm 47. I'm currently teaching in a UNESCO-protected town in the middle of the Baltic. I'm teaching game design at now Uppsala University Campus Gotland. I live in Helsingør, five minutes away from Hamlet's castle, but originally I'm a Londoner. I've been teaching -- I worked this out recently and felt very old. This is my fifth academic year teaching full-time and how I fell into that is more luck -- the industry is you fall into jobs through luck more than judgment. I did three years mentoring before that and then it was 20 years in the industry. And I think I left pretty much for the reason that most people leave: They're fed up losing their job because of a really dumb mistake made by someone else, and you can point at the dumb mistake when it was made, and you can time the unraveling from there.
And then I just left because it was getting to the point where it's just ridiculous.
You're talking about working in the game industry?
Yeah. That was game industry proper.
So, I've been in a number of companies of which the only one that still exists in its original form is Crytek. But every other one has crashed and burned.
So, the most miserable one. I worked for a company in Scotland that was just beautiful and gave me the best air family I'd ever had. They went down because an American pastor or an American politician said thatall Scottishpeople are gay, and he was a huge investor in one of the banks. They, the Scots, took all the money out of the bank and complained. So the banks called in all the business loans they could so they would have liquidity, and shut down a bunch of businesses over the weekend, and ours was one of them.
But I designed a game at a company that was designed to be free-to-play and we built the intro of the game and we built the mechanics of the game and we built the narrative for the game all based around monetizing it and it made perfect sense.
And in that miserable way that game designers now become business designers, we pitched this to the board and the board loved it. Two days before launch, a middle manager who hadn't really paid much attention to the game up until that point decided that that didn't make any sense. He wanted to go with a completely different model.
And so there was a mail conversation going back and forth saying, "But the board signed off on it and we have all of these reasons why we're building it like this and this is why this makes sense, this is why this makes sense here." His reply was, "Yeah, but in my gut, I feel that my way is better."
And within three months, the studio had shut down. The company that was building the 3D part of our game bought up our social network and it's been running for eight years and it's still making them money. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Why do so many dumb business decisions like this happen in videogames?
I wish I knew. I mean, in this case we had inter-studio fights. One studio said, "We want to do it this way." And the manager just agreed.
But in general -- I’m going to go with: "We really are a young industry." Which feels like an utter copout, but the mindset of the industry is young. Was young. Might still be young.
I think I just saw a thing a couple days ago or last week about this: People who make games don't understand money.
Tell me a little bit about that.
I think this also ties back to the whole thing about people don't understand what games are or mean. When I first started buying computer games, I had a Spectrum. And I discovered that a lot of the people I eventually started to work with all started programming games on their Spectrum. So there were 14-, 15-year-olds coding. As money was starting to be made, some of these people or parents of these people or people that saw there was money to be made formed companies. But no one had any idea what they were doing.
And so you look through the 16-bit period and companies would form and then spectacularly explode because these were generally coders and artists and one of them would want to be a manager. And generally the person who wanted to be a manager was the person who was really good at a job. So, if it was a programmer, you'd have a programmer who was a terrible manager and now the team lost its programmer and disaster fell out.
And then this continued all the way into the PC period, where you'd watch studios with two or three teams collapse and then all form companies, and they would all collapse. And you just watch this happen, explode all over the place. And once the big money got involved, they were either -- you were cogs in a wheel or that was it. Yeah, it was just cogs in a wheel. So, we spat out games as and when we're needed.
I had a conversation with someone at E3 who's working on the new Halo game who said maybe the game industry just grew too fast. Would you agree with that?
I think we ask more of it than it understands how to deliver.
Because we can look at other entertainment media. Theater was always grounded in a sense of the arts. And cinema came from that tradition. Gaming came from 14-year-olds in their bedroom.
And at no point have we had a really industry-invested period of reflection where we can say, "No, there is value to these things."
And now we are saying, "But all games should be art and we can take games and game systems and transfer them into politics, into education." But you mention the word "game" and people only see first-person shooters. And no one anywhere understands, or has the time, to look at this. And I think that's one of the biggest problems that we keep asking of it, and there is no space.
I worked at Psygnosis when it was still Psygnosis and we designed games and pitched them internally, and the rule was the game would take 18 months and cost a million and a half. It didn't matter if the game was gonna take two years or if it was gonna cost 5 million: The rule was all games take 18 months and cost a million and a half.
One of our lead coders said, "How does marketing know that this game is gonna make us any money? I mean, it's 18 months down the line. There could be more games coming out, there could be different hardware. How do they know?
And the producer says, "Well, they don't."
"Well, why are they investing this money, then?"
"Well, presumably at that end they'll market it and we'll try and make some of that money back."
And the guy sat for a minute and said, "Why don't they put money on horses? You've got a much faster return on your investment and it's probably better odds."
[Laughs.] Was this Lemmings era Psygnosis?
Yes. Yes. Well, post-Lemmings. It was the PC. [Sighs.] It was -- I'm so happy I'm teaching because I'm never going to be able to work in the industry again after this one. [Laughs.]
They had a meeting. Marketing complained that development never listened to them and development complained that marketing were just morons. So, they sat down in a meeting and they had marketing on one side and developers on the other and development was told to shut up and listen to marketing because they're the ones that make the money. So, they decided to come up with this thing that said, "Coronation Street is the most-watched program in England. And so by that set-up, we should try and make a game like *Coronation Stree*t to appeal to as wide an audience as we possibly can."
And one of the developers said, "So what you're meaning is a game on a really low-spec machine."
And they said, "No. This is why we have all this trouble with you. You never listen. It needs to be on super high-spec. Something that's gonna be out in two year's time."
And development said, "Who do you think's gonna play this game, then?"
That's when marketing exasperatedly looked at the CEO who said, "I can now see the problem. Marketing, you need to shut up and let developers make their games because clearly you don't know anything."
And that was one of them.
They made a demolition derby game that didn't sell very well in the states, so they went over to America to watch demolition derby event, took a whole bunch of photos, brought them back, gave the photo to the art team, who looked at them, and said, "Well, those cars are really ugly. We don't want to draw ugly cars." They drew a whole bunch of awesome-looking cars for the game and then no one bought it because it wasn't an authentic demolition derby game.
What was your role at Psygnosis?
I was a designer. I went in as a designer. [Sighs.] [Laughs.] There were some amazing games that we never managed to complete at that place. We -- at the same time as Galaxy Wars came out, in the head office in Liverpool, London was making another space game. So the first thing I was doing was to draft on -- to write the story for this space game.
We made the standard space epic. Player turns up through a wormhole, two people fighting against each other. If he joins one side, which are the bad guys, fights his way through the game with that side telling him what's going on. We had friendly fire in the game so he could blow up his own side.
And that really becomes important in a pivotal moment of the game where he's told to attack this ship, and it's got pretty much no defenses and it's really slow-moving, and as they're firing at it, the player gets a message from it. And it's a medical ship and they're transporting war wounded away from the war zone and his troops tell him that it doesn't matter, they're still enemy combatants and he should still blow the ship up anyway. And depending on what the player does, if he blows the ship up, he joins the evil side, and he goes on to the end of the game to be bad ending, or he can turn on the people because he knows that he has friendly fire already and he can fight off that attack and escort the ship to safety where he joins the good guys and tries to fight back. Because we always said, "No one wants to play a game where it says, 'Do you want to be the good guy or the bad guy? Yes or no.'"
And so we built all these missions in and we were 12 months into development and head office comes down to look at the game -- so, they've been aware that this game has been running for a year -- came down, and said, "So what's this game?"
"It's a science-fiction game, it's a space epic, it has a narrative."
They said, "Well, we're making a space epic with a narrative."
And we went, "Well, that's okay, because so are we."
"Well, no. We're the only ones doing that. Why did you not tell us?"
And of course our studio said, "We've been telling you for a year because it's been running for a year."
"Yeah, just take the story out and make it a shooter."
So, that had its story ripped out. [Laughs.] And then I went on to work on a superhero game that went through so many different incarnations. [Sighs.] I had a conversation with my team about this. We had two NPCs. I wanted the good NPC to be a black man. Two corporations, superhero world. I wanted the good corporation to be headed by a black man.
And so we had this conversation.
"Why do you want him to be black?"
"Well, because I'd kinda like someone who's black in the game not just to be a target that you can shoot at."
And they said, "But we don't have any black NPCs in the game that you can kill. They're all white or superheroes. Is it just politically correct?"
I said, "No, it's just that I'd like to see someone of color in a role of importance."
And so we'd have this conversation day-in and day-out.
"But only if you have a reason why he should be black," they would say.
So one day I went in and said, "I've been thinking about what you've been saying. I understand what you mean. It doesn't matter if he's black, does it?"
And they said, "No! He could be any color, 'cause it's just a texture, right? He could be green or purple."
"The color of the character isn't important."
"That's right," they said. "That's what we've been saying. The color of the character isn't important."
"Good," I said. "In that case, make him black and let's not have this fucking conversation ever again."
[Laughs.] And they said?
And I had a black character. [Laughs.] But then, they shut our studio down before that game got made. But I still have all the concept art for that game. I had a black NPC that was gonna be the good guy back in the day. But it took fighting for that to happen.
We're gonna talk a bit about things like that, but before I forget: You mentioned being in the room with the CEO talking. Looking out at the industry now, who do you feel like is being listened to more as far as leading the types of games being made? Do you think it's more marketing or do you think it's more --
It's marketing. Well, 'cause, and the thing this -- and this ties to your it got too big too fast.
Budgets are spiraling insanely out of control, and the more money it costs, the more they have to make money back, so they're only gonna make safe.
But you don't think not taking risks is a risk?
I think it is, but sales prove it's not. [Laughs.]
E3 was properly depressing this year. Everyone talked about all these great games that came out and how there was a diversity of developers onstage, but if you look, it's another first-person shooter in the chain of first-person shooters. Oh, look, it's a third-person action-adventure. And, yes, we had more women as lead characters in these third-person action-adventures, but at the end of the day it was more of the same, all the time. I even got excited -- and I'm slightly embarrassed -- because The Last Guardian seemed to be remembered. But even then, it still looks like it's a clunky, terrible old game that they're just trying to shoehorn into a new platform because they just need to get that damn thing out now.
I own a Wii U. If Last Guardian launches, I will have to buy a PS4. But when the next-gen consoles came out, I wanted a console that was actually next-gen, and so I bought a Wii U. The last proper odd game I bought was Skylanders. I watched them talk at GDC about how they get kids in to play with all the models before they launch them and how the first line of attack, as it were, is the model on the shelf. You have to look at that model on the shelf and instantly know what it does and how that will play in-game, and it has to be appealing. They did this huge talk about these fascinating set of presentations.
So I went home and I bought a couple of start-up packs and now I can't go into shops where they're on the wall because now I look at them because I've been exposed to it. "I want that one and that one and that one and that one and that one and that one."
And it's not made for me. It's made for, you know, kids. But the design of it -- and even when you play it, it's properly old-school third-person run and shoot game. But it does it charmingly. And the figures -- having something that tactile is great. The wife hates it. "Oh, you've brought more dustables into the house."
But they're brilliant, and so the money sink that I could in there would be huge. And then it makes me wonder, "Why haven't games workshop done that yet? Why don't I have a proper turn-based game of Warhammer when I go into a shop and buy a dragon, like, as if it were an original Warhammer game and I can actually play the game as it was intended?"
Do you remember a point where the industry just noticeably got more conservative?
The end of point 'n' clicks and the beginning of real-time strategy games.
So, like, late '90s?
Yeah. Starcraft,Total Annihilation, Wolfenstein maybe? I was in Berlin and Wolfenstein -- we played that at Crytek, and at that point it became really obvious. We had a conversation when I was in Scotland at that company. We had a conversation because Deer Hunter came out.
The utter ignorance of why Deer Hunter works still shocks me.
I had meetings within the company where the creatives got together and said, "We need to make games that appeal to rednecks. So why don't we have games where it's a home invasion. So you're in a house or in a trailer maybe, and someone's trying to break into your house and you have to, like, protect your house? Just something something properly rednecky that we can sell them to, because clearly that's a market now."
And you say, "It's a game about deer hunting that was $10. Played on low-spec machines and sold in stores where deer hunters frequented. Do you not think that perhaps that had something to do with it?"
And they'd look for a minute and go, "Oh. I never thought of it that way." And then went back to talking redneck software.
I want to add, it wasn’t just this company that thought that -- the entire industry was in shock with the success of Deer Hunter, and the sequels that were rushed out trying to capitalize on the "new hunting market" was shocking. But it showed a complete lack of understanding of the market. We could say that Deer Hunter was the first Disruptive Game.
I wanted to ask you a bit about entitlement.
Yeah. There's a lot of tourism going on in it. The first time it really hit me was San Andreas. A lot of my -- because, obviously, GTA, made in Scotland. I met a bunch of people that were on the original top-down version, and then when the company I worked for went down in Glasgow, a lot of people went across and just started working on GTA. So I know a lot of people who were making GTA at that time. And San Andreas came out and I was living in LA, and it was how lovingly they would talk about using 50 Cent's tattoo artist to make sure the gang tattoos were authentic, and how they really went onto the streets and made sure it was modeled properly. I remember driving through an area in-game and going, "Oh, that's Crenshaw!" And then "I drive past these people on the way to work. They're gonna sell this game with a gang banger with authentic gang tattoos driving down streets I know with the ability to shoot people that I drive past everyday, and they're gonna sell that to white, middle-class audiences? I'm not comfortable with this anymore."
I think that was in all the conversations I had about it, developers would say, "Well, it's just a game, it's just a game." But it's not just a game at that point. And so, I think, at that point it hit me. And then of course later on you play things like Conan and you play a woman in Conan and she starts the game in a transparent sheet until you can get some armor. And while I know that that's very much the source material, it's still very odd playing a female character practically naked.
And -- with the GTA time, I don’t think anyone sat in a design meeting and said, "Hey! We should let white folks kill black folks. That’d be swell." I think it’s more a case of just not seeing the world as it is. Of being completely unaware. I mean, it’s not like this was rap and there were people from that neighborhood on the team.
But Gamergate, the backlash of privilege there is horrifying. But it's what we're seeing everywhere. I mean, even to the point where in Europe you see refugees called "migrants." That way the papers can properly say, "We don't want those people in our country because they're migrants." And everyone goes, "Well, migrants are a bad thing. I completely agree."
You see that with the backlash that's inherent in Gamergate and in games. You know, we could stop the complaints about Gamergate by having every publisher come out and say, "For the next two years, all of our releases will only feature as leads females and people of color. And if you don't want to buy those games, well, then, you can buy other games because that's what we're doing."
So, part of the reason why I'm doing this is I found it interesting that were was no response or acknowledgment at all. Even at E3 this year.
There was an indirect response, but no response. The market leader on acknowledging it is Intel.
But only because they'd been suckered.
Don't you think it's odd -- I don't know. I don't want to put questions or words in your mouth.
No, it is. And it's depressing. Coming from the industry and now in teaching where -- we don't have 50/50, but we're proud of the amount of women in our courses. Knowing the industry and the audience that I'm sending them into is miserable. And, yes, I think publishers should stand up and say something. But it's the constant -- every year at GDC, EEDAR does its awesome data about videogames and every year we're told that the average gamer is now in their thirties and more likely to be female than male.
Yet, the idea that games are still being made for teenage white boys holds. And then you get to that nitpicking of, "Well, women only play casual games." As if casual games aren't really games. And the person that taught me to play Quake was a woman and she would regularly hand my ass to me. And the just rigid belief that, "No, games are meant to be made for us and us alone and everyone else is violating that space."
So, Gamergate jumped on the hashtag at GDC this year, and I always live-tweet the conference. And so you get into conversations. And I forget his surname, Rami [Ismail], who did the thing. He taught everybody Arabic. We go through, we learn Arabic letters. We learn words in Arabic, and then he shows us a screenshot of a game with the word "hotel" in English and then Arabic text on top. He says, "What does that say?" And everyone's really confused. And he says, "Well, spell it out." And everyone in the room spells the word out and I say, "Oh, wait! That's hotel. But they've got it the wrong way 'round." And he says, "In a game that cost millions of dollars to come to my country and shoot people that look like me, they couldn't spend 10 bucks on one of us to tell them that their spelling was wrong."
And all the Gaters were like, "Well, if he wants to make games for him, he should make them himself and why should we play games where characters don't look like us?"
And you say, "Well, that's what they're asking. Why should they play games with characters that don't look like them?"
"Well, that's because we're the ones that buy all the games."
And it's just an entrenched ignorance. A joyful, gleeful ignorance. It's not only with games. I just watched the county clerk from Kentucky [Kim Davis] be let out of prison yesterday, where both [Mike] Huckabee and [Tom] Cruz tried to run down and get photo ops with her. And everyone says she was jailed because she was Christian and it was persecution. And it doesn't matter. She wasn't jailed because she was Christian. She was jailed because she wasn't doing her job and she was in direct violation of the law. It was contempt of court. That's why she went to jail.
And it doesn't matter how many times you explain that to people. The prevailing wisdom is before that set of people that she was jailed for being a Christian.
How do you think this stuff gets socialized in people?
We all live in our own bubbles. We went to see -- and, again, GDC is a perfect example of this. Feminism at GDC, when they had all the main speakers, and Anita [Sarkeesian] was speaking, the first time they did the #1ReasonToBe panel, and it was the year of women in gaming. They had Felicia Day there, and at one of the main parties, an exec for one of a large game company -- never named -- came up to her and said, "What are you doing here? I didn't think girls were interested in gaming."
And at the Women in Gaming lunch that celebrates promising women in games, the swag bag included compact and some lipstick. So I think the way it gets socialized is that it's tribal.
And Gamergate, out of the Quinnspiracy, her jerk boyfriend wrote the web page multiple times until he just got it perfectly toned to cause her the most damage it could and then dropped it in the place he knew was populated by people who hated her anyways. He knew that because she had talked about her fears of those groups of people. And once you get into that echo chamber, it doesn't matter, any logic that gets put into it is lost.
And then we have a press that conflates one side with the other. There's obviously two sides to every story, and so we need to give weight to these people who are clearly batshit crazy and harassing women as we do to the woman who's being harassed because they wouldn't be harassing her if they didn't have a reason to or something.
And so then you get legitimacy. And at that point it is off to the races.
Tell me a little bit about what your short talk at GLS was about, which is this notion of "diversity lite" in the game industry. I know before we started you said there's an embarrassing story about the lineage of it you wanted to tell.
[Laughs.] Let's do the embarrassing part first.
Got an invite to go. They asked, "Would you do a presentation? It's blue-sky. It's five minutes. It's meant to have some impact and be provocative."
I thought, "Okay. I can do that."
So I get that, say, 10 days maybe before we fly out. The week before is the Roskilde Festival, which is our Glastonbury. Denmark's Glastonbury, effectively. So, to get a free ticket and not sleep in a tent in the mud pit, we worked the festival. So, a few days before, the wife and I are out putting up tents and just making sure the festival runs. I'm there for the entire week of the festival.
And I come back, and I had a day to decompress, wash clothes, pack, fly out. So, throughout the entire festival I'm just drawing boxes and throwing ideas around, and one of the things I've had kicking around is I'm a bleeding heart socialist and coming from the UK and looking at the UK, demonization of youth is massive and we are stunting youth as it starts. And we should be taking our knowledge and putting it into the hands of kids that can make games so that drug dealing and unemployment benefit isn't their only outcome. London burned a few years ago. It was a race thing that got kicked it off, but London just burned for two or three weeks. Properly worrying.
And rioters would break into supermarkets and steal baby-milk formula and diapers and that should probably tell you that there's a problem. And the government response was, "If we track the looters down and we find out they're living in government housing, we will evict them." Hearing that was enough to make you want to go to London and riot. [Laughs.]
So, taking something that we knew you could make money on, take that to people who need at least some attention and positive role modeling and opportunities and let them make games and let them try and make money that way. Seemed like a great idea.
So I was playing around with ideas like this.
But it was purely on the basis of -- and it's excuse? Idea? I -- I have no idea -- again. A talk that's provocative and blue-sky. And while it's something that I absolutely believe we should do, I didn't expect people coming up to me afterwards saying, "That's a really great idea. When you start this, we want to be involved."
I'm like, "Oh. That's not quite how I expected that to go."
And so, now, much to my horror, I am looking up, "Are there ways that we can somehow formalize this?"
But it was designed to be throwaway, it was never designed to be suddenly a part of my life that I had to stand behind.
I know how that goes.
But then, you know, the diversity SIG at GDC talks about how we only have 2.5 percent people of color in the industry in America and that's gone up by .5 percent in the last year, so that's one of the biggest increases that we've had. And coming from England, I've only worked in multicultural teams but primarily white because that's how it works.
And we talk about diversity. In our department we talk about university, but I teach in Sweden, and 90 percent of the students are white. And we don't mean it. Well, we do. I suppose in that heartfelt way, we'd like to have more diverse classes and a more diverse culture. But not to the point that we'd go out of our way and go and find those people and teach them and help them out. And so I think it does come to that point where we measure diversity by the color and gender of our classrooms, acknowledging that getting to our classrooms is already a rigged game.
So, it is diversity lite. It's diversity as long as these people look like us and come from the same kind of background as we do because they're in the same circles that we're in.
Like, you had mentioned -- I was trying to find it again because I also wanted to interview them. What was that organization you mentioned?
Yeah. Which, I did make contact with them, but I don't know if they're active --
Yeah. I don't know, either.
You know, because you look it up and they talk about how great this thing is and they're just press releases. But there was a TED Talk, maybe Detroit, where as part of the Urban Video Game Academy, they were bringing kids in and teaching them engineering and just PC fixing. And so you'd employ a couple of kids to repair PCs and clean PCs and stuff like this, and then you'd franchise that studio out to them and have them run that studio and then employ more kids and then you'd teach them to code super websites in more advanced languages so you promoted internally -- managers would go off and become coders and developers. So, it seemed like there was that going on, but that was vastly different from their Urban Video Game Academy thing.
You said in your emails that no one really talks about access and politics and respect in videogames, which is fantastic appetizer platter to go through here.
You were saying access covers so much: the third world, the Middle East, and even people with disabilities. Why does no one talk about this?
Privilege and awareness.
I mean, there is that notion that if it's a game not being made by the industry, it's pretty much non-existent.
That's very true.
You can look at Steam, but, you know, your average person doesn't even know what Steam is.
And rightfully so. [Laughs.] Steam was a really great idea but has now just become the place you go when you don't want to pay full price for games.
And that's horrible, because I believe that you should pay for games because these people have made them and stuff, but I waited until the Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel came out on the Humble Bundle and I got 75 percent off of it on Steam before I picked that up.
No one knows. No one sees.
So, we -- at GDC, it was the feminist year, and that's such a horrible thing, but it's like the Black Oscars. It's not something that they do often.
We went to a diversity special interest group round-table, because being European, "diversity" is gender. And I'm sitting there with a Swede and the room's filling up with people of color and it becomes apparent that diversity in the states is color. And I looked to my mate who -- we'll say he grew up in small-town Sweden. So, when he moved to Gothenburg, he was used to saying hello to people where he grew up. And he would say hello to people that he met on the street and no one would say anything back to him and he wondered why everyone hated him because he hadn't done anything wrong. So he's sitting in this room, and he's getting increasingly more uncomfortable as the room fills up. And he is very much in the minority as the round-table starts. He sits there and he listens to this go for an hour. He comes out and he says, "I have never had to worry or even consider how the color of my skin affects my life because everyone I see looks like me. I had no idea how big it was or how bad it was out there because I never had to deal with this." And there is that.
The biggest global game jam community this year was in Egypt. None of the game manuals or engine manuals are printed in Arabic. Because I heard this at the disability and access presentations at GDC. If you make your game blind-friendly, your sales will noticeably spike because blind people like to play games and had no games that could be made for them. And so when they have games made for the blind, the blind community just hears about it and they just go out en masse and pick up those games. But as long as marketing still thinks that white teenage boy is their audience, that's all they're gonna make it for.
Do you have examples of games for the blind?
I don't, but I can find out, as I had them in my notes when I went to see it.
There is a story that they tell you. It opens with a guy in a wheelchair outside a bar and the presentation says, "What is this person's disability?" They go through them.
"He's in a wheelchair."
"Yes," he says, "But a wheelchair isn't a disability. It's a mobile-assisted thing. So, yes, he's in a wheelchair, but that's not the problem."
"He has a clearly debilitating disease."
"Yes," he says. "But that's a diagnosis. That's not a disability. The disability is there's stairs going into the pub. Prior to this, this guy was running around the town in his wheelchair going on really well, fancied a pint, got to the pub, couldn't get up the stairs. The disability is the pub owner hasn't got a ramp. We have made this thing a challenge for him."
And he talks about how there is a game that allows severely disabled kids to get a communicative device. And all they have to do is press this red button and make something happen and they get this piece of equipment that has words on it and they're taught words and what to press, and suddenly you've got these kids who are profoundly disabled able to communicate. He talks about how the parents have gone and it was their last hope and the kid just wasn't in control of his muscles and would just twitch and he just couldn't press it. And they sat there and they tried and they sat there and they tried, and dad was holding his hand on the button and just pressing the button with the kid's hand on top of it to show him what he had to do.
And just when they were about to give up, dad stopped moving his hand and the kid pressed the button.
And he said there was just one big red button and it opened an entirely new world for him. That, just that alone, a one big red button as opposed to 50 keys on a keyboard, half of them with control button or a function button so you can access advanced things -- just thinking about things like that is the difference between having people play your game, giving access to your game, and not. And it was like, you hear the guy talk and you hear the presentation and the sincerity glands in your eyes all start leaking.
But it's those things. We never think about that.
I'm partially left-handed. If I do things at a keyboard -- and so WASD is the worst key combination for me because I'll do that with my left hand and now my mouse, which is on my right-hand side, has to be used by my right hand and now I've crossed my arms and it's just an uncomfortable playing position.
You had said the politics alone with games leads to this fear that "they're coming to take my guns."
We talked a little about entitlement before, but how did things get to be so narrow as far as output from the industry?
They're made for themselves. Because that was always the thing that we were told: "You make games for yourself because it's your personal art, darling, and so if you make it for you then it'll be authentic."
Who's telling you this?
Each other. [Laughs.] Each other in the industry.
Okay. But that sounds sort of like a lie, the way you're saying it.
Well, yes! At the moment, I'm teaching an entrepreneurial course, and I'm using one of the books, this thing called Start Small, Stay Small and they teach a market-lead, not product-lead development. So, before you write a line of code, find out if there is an audience for your game because the only thing that will make your company a success is if you have people that will be willing to give you money for your product.
And that's an entirely different way that we make games. We make games and then say, "Oh, of course people will play this game because of these reasons." But then we have Crypt of the Necrodancer. I had no idea that my rogue experience would be so much better if I had to move in time to songs being played to me as I walk around the level. But now I know that. This is the best game I've played ever.
The thing is, like, you change one tiny thing and it becomes a completely different experience.
And it's simple. I mean, if I always thought Gordon Freeman was black. And I have no idea why I thought that, but I always thought Gordon Freeman was black. So, when I actually got my hands on a copy of Half-Life and saw his hands, I was confused as to why they were so light. But, you know, give me black hands in a first-person shooter and that changes everything. Yeah. It's one small consolation, but it's outside of experience.
I mean, I'm sure they've seen black people, right?
You'd have thought! You know.
[Laughs.] I try not to assume much.
So, I lived in LA for a year and I went to get a flat in Santa Monica. My girlfriend at the time drove me around and we drove down this street and she said, "This is Santa Monica. There's remarkably few bums here!"
And I'm looking around and I'm like, "There's four homeless people sleeping outside a church and there's a couple in bushes and there's an entire field full of tents and shopping trolleys."
And I just thought she was being funny.
And so we see the house and we come out and she says it again. "It's a remarkably bum-free place."
"Are you not seeing them? 'Cause I can see quite a large amount around here. Are you joking or can you really not see them?"
I mean, like you said, some of them have tents.
Yeah! And there was just this shocked moment like, "Oh my God. Now you've mentioned it. I've trained myself not to see them."
I think going into an office of white developers with a white manager where you play games with white people in it, that's gotta be a gas for one person to say, "Can we have a black character?"
Why does it have to be someone who's not white to have that realization and tell them?
That is the billion-dollar question. Why now do we still have to have this conversation? The zombie game. The Resident Evil games set in Africa where the white, blonde guy guns down the tribe of black zombies. Why did nobody just say, "You know what? That's probably not going to play really well. The optics of you doing that -- "
I remember people on the Internet making "jokes" about whether there was going to be fried chicken and watermelon in it. Do you remember that?
Yes! Exactly. And to say that's a bit out of line? "Well, it was only a joke."
Well, you had said you wanted to talk a little bit about understanding the responsibility of designing games. You said in your emails that "everyone wants the most realistic games ever, but if you mention character portrayals then, 'No, it's just a game.'"
Yup. There is this abdication of responsibility, and it is a proper abdication: "On the one hand, look at how much money we're making. Look how influential we are. Look how important games are."
"Well, do you think maybe you should just grow up a bit, then?"
"Hey, it's just a game. It's not serious. It's just entertainment. It doesn't mean anything."
There was a Charlie Brooker show, How Video Games Changed the World, and they go through a whole bunch of -- the 10 most important videogames. And they get to Mortal Kombat and they show the new Mortal Kombat and the finishing moves and the controversy it caused. And then he sat in the studio, it was a behind the scenes thing, and he said, "This is the hardest game and the hardest decision we had to make because there's a finishing move here where this chainsaw comes out and cuts this woman in half. And we knew what time we were going out on the air and we knew the subject matter and suddenly we didn't know if we were legally allowed to show that or if it's too graphic. We had legal come in and look at it and it became the sticking point of the show. See, now, I play these games, and if I was playing this on a Saturday night with my mates, we would see this over and over and over and over and over and over again. And I think that games have flown under the radar as 'just things for kids.' But now they're making a noise and people are paying attention and they're gonna have to answer for things like this because you wouldn't do that in a movie or you wouldn't do that on television and 'it's just a game' isn't going to cut it anymore."
Do you think there's really going to be a day of reckoning?
I -- [Sighs.] Do I think there'll be a day of reckoning? I have to. I have to believe that the Tumblr generation will grow up and when it grows up it will want to make games and when it makes games it will make genderqueer, racially diverse, strange games because that will be the audience. Games will have to change.
I think even if you remove all that stuff out of it, why wouldn't people want to see more types of games?
Because we can bubble. Everyone tells me how amazing it is that women are playing games now, and I can point back 15, 20 years ago -- no, 15 years ago, maybe -- when I discovered Big Fish [Games]. And women have been playing games forever.
It's only now that we're looking for new markets and new ways of making money that we've looked at women playing games and suddenly it's the new thing. But they've been playing games forever. But if I only want to play Big Fish games, I'll only go to Big Fish. If I only want to play match-three games, I can go to my app store and type "match three" in and it will show me all the match-three games I could possibly want to buy.
Well, you had said, to get back to the trio of things you said no one talks about. You had mentioned respect, but I noticed you didn't elaborate on that the way you did access and politics. What were you thinking about?
That goes back again to responsibility of design. How are your female characters portrayed? How are your minority characters portrayed? How do you react when called out stuff that you do?
The Cluetrain Manifesto last year issued a bunch of new clues. The Cluetrain Manifesto was a thing about web advertising, that advertising on the web is a new thing, marketing on the web is a new thing. It needs to be done differently and there needs to be understanding done with it, and they put out a bunch of clues called The Cluetrain. And they put out a new set because they said, "We have become our own worst enemy on the Internet, and one of them was if the audience around your product is toxic, that's your fault and you need to clean that up."
We need to have that type of respect put in.
Sometimes when I do these interviews, people in the industry or people in the audience don't see anything toxic going on.
[Sighs.] And I think it's obviously the -- games are a microcosm.
Politics is horribly divisive. Gender roles are horribly divisive.
Nuances become an outmoded thing. It's either one or the other, and there is no middle ground at all. Because if you cede any of your ground to get to middle ground, then you're retreating.
And there is that sense of, "We're still for kids, it doesn't matter." And becoming protected speech was obviously a boon and a curse.
It's absolutely needed to happen and it's brilliant that it has. But then to claim first-amendment rights as opposed to cleaning up your act is going to be horrible.
And then, I mean, there are things. I watched my -- my wife had a child when I met her and I hate using the word "stepchild" because it sounds like, "Well, it's not really mine."
So, I refer to him as a "bonus child." That's what we say. So, my bonus child was playing the God of War series. The last one, narratively, of the trilogy, it was a really clever -- Kratos becomes this hero at the beginning and is this utterly despicable, hated thing at the end. So, thumbing the eyes out of Poseidon -- and you see it from Poseidon's view. You watch him come in and thumbs go into your eye sockets and you snap out and you watch the thumbs go down. And then you punch Zeus to death at the end, and every time you punch him, blood comes up on the screen. It's a quick-time moment. And you just keep pressing that button and there's more blood on the screen and there's more blood on the screen, and it just keeps saying, "Press that button, press that button, press that button."
And it only stops when you get tired and stop pressing it.
And part of me says: horribly gratuitously bloody. But that's really clever, that sense of anger and violence and that's a properly interactive, dramatic moment. And so on the one hand, absolutely, that should be an 18+ game and he should have never have been playing that game. That's terrible.
On the other, that's a really -- that's the type of thing that games should do. We should be able to come away from that and reflect on that level of violence. And we should have a media that looks at and analyzes critically that type of imagery and puts it into context. But all of our genres are marketing terms because games have always been a commodity and less about medium.
We have the Mattie Brice games and we have the Zoe Quinn games and we have these achingly personal games and we're moving in that way, but is it Proteus? The musical island where you just walk around?
Which, everyone proclaims and slaps each other on the back for having heard about it. And I was sitting around a table with a bunch of academics saying, "That bored me senseless. I think I spent 10 minutes in there and I had better things to do with my time."
But as an experience, it's an experience that probably five people liked.
And that's not going to open up games to a wider audience, or that type of game to a wider audience. It'll open up games to people who like that type of game. And so I think that even when you get to that auteur level, we have a problem. We have a problem in the industry. We either navel-gaze or we commodify.
And I think we need to find a middle ground where we can be interesting and still be profitable.
Do you think the game industry learns from its mistakes?
Good God, no. [Laughs.] I don't. I don't. Because the mistake -- I worked for a company that never hit a milestone on their game. That purposely chose to do other things that were on their milestone list, and when they failed their milestone, would fly first class from their country to the country of their publisher, stay in a five-star hotel over the weekend, go and see their publisher with the new build and say, "Look at all of these fantastic things we did instead." The publisher would give them money and say, "But don't do that again." And they would fly back and tell the team that was already crunching that they weren't working hard enough and their lack of work was what made them have to go and beg the publisher for more money to be able to continue and if they don't work harder, then it will be their fault if the company fails.
Towards the end of that development cycle, they lost their IP and they weren't paid for the end of the game. And then either they made the staff take out loans or they took out loans so they could pay rent.
So, even at that point, they were happily bilking their employees. But, that company's still working and it's still working in similar ways that did it before, and it's a very enshrined company. When they release, people pay attention to them. And no one cares how badly they're run or how crap they treat their workers.
And so, why would you learn from your mistakes? If it's a bad enough mistake, you'll go out of business. But then a bunch of you will restart and that'll be fine. And if it's a success, you'll make sequel upon sequel upon sequel and no one'll care.
I should also point out at this point, I love working in games.
I've always joked that it's like being religious.
It's a calling you have. You never go to the games industry because you want to be rich or famous. And all of my mates that work in coding Visual Basic in the city come to me and show me their telephone-sized book of perks that they get for working at this bank or this company. They say, "Why don't you just come back and put a suit on and code Visual Basic 9 to 5? It's easy and you'll be rolling in money."
And it would kill me.
I want to work with games, in games, in some fashion.
But then knowing that, that's the barrel that you're put over because what're you gonna do? Put a suit on and go and work in the city? You're gonna work in games and, yes, you'll presumably find the best company to work at. But at the end of the day, it's still pretty miserable. But it beats working for a living is what I've always said. [Laughs.]
What were you hoping working in the game industry would be a path to? I'm assuming not academia.
No. No. So, I wanted to write. I did a degree in computing and hated my final year and vowed never to work with computers. So I did some toy demonstrating and I eventually fell in with some performers and I was writing plays. And I wanted to write either role-playing games or comics or plays. During that time I was writing a lot of paper-based games and picked up a computing magazine and discovered someone would pay me to do what I would be doing in my spare time. So, I figured that'd be great. I'll go and join the industry and I can get paid and in my spare time, I'll write.
You'd be surprised how having spent all day staring at a monitor, the last thing you want to do when you come home is stare at a monitor.
I'm a writer. So I understand.
Yes. So. So my writing just died on its ass for a long time. I had a Flash fiction site for a while, which I really need to upgrade and get back into that because I miss that part of things. But I wanted to make role-playing games, I wanted to make deep games. I wanted to make games with meaning and experience. I wanted to make player-center games. And I wanted to make cheaply.
The state machine is a narrative generator as old as the hills and we don't use that enough. We could do really clever games that make it feel like the player is actually in control of the narrative in simple, very cheap ways. And that was always my thing: How do you get the most bang for your buck gameplay wise? And then I heard Raph Koster do his "Where Game Meets the Web," and it was a proper gut punch, and it was the thing that informed design for me. It still does now. Such a long time, you'd say, "But look. Web. Web are doing things that are kicking my ass. Why can't we be faster on delivery times, more agile with our development, more prototype-lead. Look at clever things we can do with data if you tag it in XML stuff. Why are we not being better?"
And they say, "Well, you know, games is a young industry."
And so you'd ask, "When did you last order a book on Amazon?"
"A week ago."
"Well, I think you'll find that web commerce is younger than games is and yet they can do it, so why can't we?"
And from that point it's like, "I want to make games better."
And then so getting into the teaching at that point -- and then of course as a designer you want to do something new.
So, social was just picking up, and the idea evolved: "I can make a travel game on the web and I can support my travel game with podcasts of cities. So, I can also appeal to travel people who are traveling, so I can expand my market out. Then I can have those people who can be part of my games community feeding information back so we can update our podcast and put the things that they're seeing into our travel game as well. And so we can build a game with a community that will give us brand loyalty. People don't do that. That'd be great!"
We were given access to all of the information on Pablo Escobar and the capture of him. We were gonna be given access to the general that brought him in. And I wanted to make a game that was entirely based on XML and data tags, so players would investigate crimes and the more evidence they got would fill up a certain type of crime with a tag on it. So they could build a case towards a certain crime by looking for certain evidence in certain ways, and then putting that up as evidence.
We were going to use entirely randomized locations. So you would have a building. Depending on the type of mission, that building was or where they were going to raid -- you'd have different spawn points or different decorations, but it would all be built on the fly. And it was designed to be output. Each mission would be 45 minutes to an hour. You could output a mission, and there would be 22 missions, and you would have a TV drama. Because you're a cop and you knew that cops would turn on each other, because the narco bosses would buy them off, you'd have to do things like go to one of your mate's kid's birthday parties and you'd have to hang out and talk to these people because that would build loyalty within your team. And so you'd have this game that was built entirely on the tropes of TV drama, but it would be player-lead, player-pushed drama, and then designed to be uploaded onto the web so you could have everyone uploading their stories that are profoundly different depending on how they played or how they investigated or what their seed information was.
And it was just this -- we can do things differently and better. I did a whole bunch of pervasive games, because I love the idea of pervasive gaming and alternate reality gaming.
And I'm horrified that in the years that it's been going no one's worked out a proper business model other than, "Let's just use it to advertise a TV show."
And once I got into teaching, the idea that you can infect impressionable minds to make games better and to better improve the industry was the start point. But just, then, to extend to -- we can make games for health or games for therapy or games for education. Suddenly, we had a medium and a set of abstractions that we can apply to anything. And so now, as an industry designer that's become an academic I can really use my design skills to design the education as opposed an academic fervor that has done that, I've now been bitten by the academic bug and I want to do games research and see research done well and to stop it being things like, "Let's analyze games down and look for games patterns and then if we can put enough of these patterns together, we can make a game based on game patterns, ignoring anything else that goes with it." Some dumb, dumb research has been done on games.
That's where I am now. I want to take design and games and push it forward. I don't think we've done enough with it yet.
What impact do you think academia has had on the games industry?
Sweet F.A. As miserable as that sounds, none.
Because it doesn't care and academia moves too slow.
Also, when you get students there at that level, most of them just want to fit --
-- into the existing system.
Because you've had it drilled into you that you need to get a job, and you don't want to get a job turning everything upside-down because there's not good health benefits with that.
No. [Laughs.] In Sweden, we have, as we say, 37 specialized games educations in Sweden. And every year, they graduate, a number of students equal to the current size of the Swedish game industry. And the Swedish games industry expanded by, I think, 150 percent this year. But we're still spitting out more people than we should do.
And so we're trying to teach start-ups. Teach them entrepreneurial skills and teach them start-up skills and teach them better production methods and evergreen finances because that way they could find jobs.
Teach them how to expand their skill sets into other things than games. To make serious games or to gamified elements, even though that word is horrible. Gamified, not badgified.
So you can use your skills somewhere.
But the thing that I noticed when I grew up playing games, all games were crap. And I grew up on nasty 8-bit games and paper-based role-playing games. So all of my games knowledge prior to now was systems-based. Now, all games are beautiful and whiz-bang and primarily interface-based. And so we have kids that come in that have no knowledge of back-end systems but know how make an interface because that's their primary introduction to games. And so half of our education is breaking the idea of student as consumer and pushing it into producer and then systems thinking.
Our first week, the first lecture, they do hardcore object-oriented analysis and we show them 30 seconds of Space Invaders and we tell them to analyze Space Invaders.
And so they go through all the objects. Is the shield actually a shield or is it a number of small destructible objects that come together to make a shield? There's two types of bullets because player bullets hurts aliens but alien bullets don't hurt other aliens. And they go through the whole thing and at the end of the analysis we say to them, "So, Space Invaders is 2D on a vertical plane. If you knock that vertical plane down flat and then made it 3D, you'd be playing Gears of War."
And they go, "No. But!"
"Gears of War. It's group of aliens in a formation shooting at a single player who hides behind destructible shielding. He pops out every now and then to shoot one of these things. It's the same game mechanically and systemically as Space Invaders."
"But!," they say. "But no!"
"Next week when you come back, we'll take these same things and apply them to movies and we can tell you when you walk into any film how far from the end of the film you're from and we'll destroy movie-watching and comics for you next week."
But you watch that shock. Because when I first started, I had people in the third year that versions of Medal of Honor were different because they had different guns in this game.
Oh, well, in that case, no wonder there's people not understanding why --
Yeah! It's horrifying!
"And you do know we can hear you when you're speaking, right? We hear these words. You know you're saying this out loud. Yeah."
Well, the classroom is a place to learn.
I asked a bit about the game industry and games academia, but I don't know if it's unusual for other industries for those sectors to be as siloed as they seem to be in games. Like, you're all essentially solving the same problems. I don't know if Boeing and material scientists and aeronautical engineers are in better contact or collaboration.
To be honest, I don’t know either. I mean -- we all send students to intern in companies. The hard part is when they don’t come back and finish their education because they’ve got jobs.
But, in that same way -- of maybe they’re not collaborating -- games is, probably, no worse than other industries. My brother is a freelance web designer. He was given a contract, and then the people who hired him tripled the work, kept the same deadline and all went on vacation. Now - he charges an hourly rate, but that’s little comfort when he’s working all hours of the day.
And even with my teaching -- I can go out and talk about how great games are as tools for learning, but when I’m in the class, I’m pretty much forced to do the whole "Stand in front of a class and lecture."
That said, my motto has always been: "Games might be shitty, but it sure beats working for a living."
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
So much. So much in so many ways. I mean, just in simple terms of agency, we are putting in the hands of an impressionable generation the ability that they can do anything and succeed in it because failure just means they haven't learned how to do what they need to do yet. And if we can just take that thing from game and apply it to education or personal relationships or anything, that belief that "you can succeed, just try again" as opposed to "you failed so you're done."
If we can understand that, we can transform anything.
Casual games means that your mom playing FarmVille is a hardcore gamer in the same way as a child is playing a first-person shooter because they've probably put the same amount of hours into it.
and even though we have an audience that flat-out refuses to understand that, games come in many flavors the same way that films and television shows come in many flavors. And we don't say that, "Well, you only watch documentaries, you're not a real film viewer."
That thing where we can -- there's a unified gamer, that we all play in some way. And in a way, gaming has become less "basement-dwelling neckbeard" and more "socially on my phone." There isn't an embarrassment and a stigma to gaming anymore, which I think was the thing that Leigh [Alexander] was saying when she said that "gamer" was dead. Like you said, it's not a filmer or a TVer. It's just something that you do.
I'm a tourist. I was 14, 15 when I got my first computer. And even though I tried to be bleeding edge as much as I possibly could, I'm still -- I didn't grow up with the technology. Our next generation, the one that's growing up with tech will produce things that will be fundamentally different to what we understand as gaming, and I think the saddest part is we will be bringing up those kids in a divisive community where they will learn by their community to fight against other people for no good reason.
But we have such a rich, broad imaginary tech that we can produce anything. And we always have. We have our gems. I'm playing Majora's Mask for the first time at the moment and I'm struggling narratively in it. I want to keep stopping and rewinding. Stopping playing and going back to an earlier save because I've wasted time. So, as a player, I'm constantly stressed, but as a designer, just the idea that you have three days and important things stay and everything else doesn't -- so even at the end, I'm not going to be able to save everybody and I can see that now, and so the responsibility of whose lives am I going to change for the better once I manage out how to save the world is a really heavy thing that's weighing on me already.
I've just played a game called Lifeline on my phone, which is a text-based novel told in real-time, and my character that I'm conversing with in this game is called Taylor. So, whenever I talk to my mates who are playing it, I always refer to Taylor as a she. And they always tell me, "No, it's a guy."
"Well, there's no gender. My Taylor is female."
And I played this game and it runs for three days or two and a bit, but the last part was terrifying. It was terrifying and tense and I was convinced that every decision I was making I was going to kill my Taylor. And when my ending -- the first time I played it -- when she did die, I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken for hours. "I've killed her. It was my fault. I have to go back and rectify this."
And I went back and played it a second time and I got the happy ending, but it didn't make it better. It made it no better getting a happy ending the second time because I'd already had that bad one and it felt like cheating going back and saving her now.
But these are experiences that we only get from games.
We don't have that same agency in choice with books. And we may all cry at the end of Dead Poet's Society, but that's different. The way my heart broke in Final Fantasy VII when you take the dog back and you discover that his dad was a hero and not the coward that he thought he was and he was the only character when I played Final Fantasy VII because the name he had was his slave name. And so I changed his name because he wasn't going to have a slave name if I was playing him. And these are things that you get from games.
It's such a brilliant medium and such a fantastic force, and I think that's what makes Gamergate so miserable, that we have this thing of beauty and of power. It's like owning a paper press and only printing out expletives. And all you're known for is the expletives you're printing out. And you can write Shakespeare as much as you want to on this printing press, but people only care about the filth.
I think that's what games has given us.
And like you said at the beginning when we talked about if the industry knows, why doesn't the industry know? We don't have that reflection. We don't have a language to talk about games critically. We don't have a method of studying them artistically. We don't have space to reflect on meaning in society for them. We don't have a business model that encourages documentary games or romance games or different games.
So you get tribalized communities that never cross-pollinate because we don't have an infrastructure to let that happen. And so in that way, yes, we are a young technology.
But goddamn we need to have people on the outside growing up faster so we can make this happen.