Yeah, so, I am Adrienne Hunter. I am 29 years old. I live, and was born and raised, in Seattle, Washington.
And I am one of two founders of a virtual-reality game studio based out of Seattle, Washington. I have also worked in the game industry since I graduated from high school. I started at Nintendo, and was there for six years. Put myself through college working there and have, for better or for worse, been unable to completely leave the gaming industry. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, we're gonna get into that a little bit. So, you're with an independent company right now. Are you doing contract work or anything else?
So, I run an independent game studio on my own. I am working with my other founder, who is also conveniently my best friend, Keith Bradner.
That is convenient.
Yeah. He's the lead developer. I'm the lead designer. And we are both -- this is a side project for us. So, we have full-time jobs in our respective fields. He's the lead VR developer at a VR start-up in Seattle, and I'm a user experience designer at a start-up in Seattle. But, in our spare time, we make videogames.
What did you do at Nintendo?
I started at QA. So, I worked in QA at Nintendo. I started there and got to know friends, etc., and basically grew up into an adult version of myself there. I still have a handful of friends from those days, the narrative designer at my VR studio is an old coworker who I enjoy working with. A couple of years into working at Nintendo, I decided to go back to school and really had no idea what I was doing but was just determined to finish, and so that's actually where -- I finished my undergrad degree and promised myself that when I got my degree and I finished it and I walked that I wouldn't work at Nintendo at that job anymore because I was better than that. So, I left.
Better than QA or better than Nintendo?
Better than that part of the games industry, in QA, because that corner is where aspirations and hopes and dreams go to die.
A lot of people have told me QA can be sort of a dead end. I did interview someone earlier this year who worked at QA for eight years in Scotland and said that he felt like he wasn't even part of the industry.
So -- just to make it clear you're not the only one picking on Nintendo or that role specifically.
There is a -- I feel free to expose this a little bit because I don't work there anymore and I have no intention of working there ever again.
But there was a reputation for QA for swallowing up people who got fine arts degrees or design degrees, or what have you, and trapping them forever in purgatory and never allowing them to rise up into the positions or the places in their respective fields where they actually aspired to be. Like the system wears you down even just on the periphery and it’s just easier to stay in QA because at least you can tell people you work at Nintendo or whatever and the prestige of that is somehow supposed to make up for it.
So, it was a personal promise to myself that I wasn't going to let myself end up -- like, my story wasn't going to end the same way like so many other stories that I've heard.
How is it people get stuck? Are there fewer opportunities for advancement? Is it, like, more people are willing to come in and do the same jobs for cheaper because it's a "cool job?" A combination of both? Neither?
It's, in my experience there, it was that you get ingratiated into the Nintendo QA clan. That's where all of your friends are. That's where everybody that you bond with works. And it makes you not want to leave that place. And that's not unique to Nintendo. That's everywhere, right?
And any job.
You get comfortable.
You get content in that job and you get comfortable and it pays you just enough to have the lifestyle that comforts you. You can afford the videogames you want to play. You can afford to go out to eat sometimes. It supports you just enough to want to keep you there, and then it also kind of holds everything that you love and care about hostage, because all of your other friends are stuck there too.
And, I see this recurring issue, and not just at Nintendo, but other places I've worked at that I've done QA, where everybody kind of is holding hands and trying to keep everybody collectively afloat, coworkers will loan each other money and there are carpools and people become roommates, but everybody's paralyzed and feels really afraid to leave.
Well, you know, it's the Hollywood dream of, like, you get a job at the mailroom in CBS and you want to be the next Stephen Colbert. Like, I don't even know if that really happens anymore.
Yeah. Yeah. The more that I think about it, there's a lot of parallels between the fantasy of what people imagine rising up through the ranks, climbing the corporate ladder, used to be. And there's not a whole lot of opportunity like that internally. At least, of the videogame industry that I've seen where -- I have very rare stories that are true of some of my friends that I made at my time at Nintendo, who have risen through the ranks through some means or another. And inevitably those means are, "I became friends with somebody in another department and I got hired into that department and that kept happening over and over again and then eventually I became a writer or I became a designer or whatever.”
But that's few and far between, in my experience.
You just gotta want it really hard and wait 20 years.
[Laughs.] I have seen and heard enough of that to know that that is a lie. [Laughs.]
Well, in my experience, in my time freelancing with Adult Swim, I had a lot of colleagues who were hoping to get a show on the air and hanging in. But more often than not, there were a couple people who got bit parts or the chance to be an extra, but they were never asked to write or to do anything beyond that.
Yeah, but the thing about QA in particular is it's somewhat rare to watch people burn out after trying for so long. Like, you'll get the people who have one opportunity and completely blow it and then burn right the hell out of there.
But then you'll have these people who get the opportunities, like, they cling to them like pieces of driftwood, and they're constantly swimming from bit part to bit part, hoping that the next one is the one.
Yeah. Twigs in a river.
Yeah. And it's so demoralizing. [Laughs.]
Oh, no. I know. At least, I mean, I know from my experience in different companies. The specifics are the same, though.
So, but you went independent. You got a job not at Nintendo. I don't want to make a snap judgment or anything, but it seems like you're pretty aware of a lot of the nasty, toxic shit a lot of people don't want to talk about. You seem pretty aware of that but you don't seem completely bitter or burnt out. So, I'm curious, how do you do that? Is it 'cause you have an unrelated job? Or what do you think it is? Or, am I wrong and you're completely burned out?
[Laughs.] I think what you said is true, that part of the equation -- like, the equilibrium that I've achieved is because my day job and where the bulk of my income comes from is not related to games whatsoever anymore. The straw that broke all of this for me was doing QA for a third-party company. They do a lot of the QA contracts for ArenaNet. OK, so you have a room full of QA veterans in love with their game and who were laid off a couple of years ago so QA could be parted out to a third-party contracting agency, I’m assuming to reduce costs, and then the company asks us to do illegal things like work for free on the game after hours. Because they know if you love the game you’ll do it. And this was in 2015 for fuck’s sake, this isn’t some war story from working QA in the 90s and having to sleep under your desk to make a ship date.
Imagine asking a room full of people who are being paid $11 an hour where you have to stock the staff kitchen with supplies for PB&J sandwiches because half of us can’t afford to feed ourselves, asking us to work for free. And the sacrifice was glorified by the floor manager and we were praised for reluctantly submitting to things like last-minute overtime. I still bring up that job to my friends who were working there with me and we’re like, “Yeah, that was dehumanizing.”
And the crazy part is that while I’m over here making next to nothing to test this game -- I had still been spending my free time, spent literal years making games in my spare time with friends. So then if I can’t work in games to feed and house myself and be treated with respect, then what? So I spent two months on a design portfolio, transitioned out into a software startup as a designer, and the rest is history.
The best part is that games and what I do now are still really closely related in terms of I have a design position. So, I love cross-pollinating between the two. I think there's a lot of good design work and best practices that happen in the games sphere that I can bring into more traditional, like, web and mobile product design.
And then, vice versa, I have brought a lot of what I understand about the product development process from more traditional software companies and start-ups into the game-development process, and that's kind of why I'm manning the ship at this studio that I'm running right now.
It's trying to prove to myself that my hypothesis is true about how you can make games differently. And not treat people like shit in the process.
Yeah. Well, so, tell me a little bit about why, as you said, you feel alienated from the gaming community at large and in and out of the gaming industry as well. Which, I know is incredibly broad, but we were emailing about that a bit.
So, looking back, I treated playing videogames no differently than I would reading books or going out to play in the streets with friends or going to the park or whatever.
It was just another piece of my childhood. It wasn't particularly important. It wasn't what I wrapped my identity around in any respect. So, I ended up picking out videogames -- let's say my brother and I get to go to Blockbuster, when that still existed, because my mom took us. We would get to pick out a Super Nintendo game or an N64 game and we would have these -- be mulling over these options that we have between my brother and I, but we didn't have any context to decide which game was better or worse. And so, as most people could remember from picking out a rental movie from Blockbuster, it's kind of just, you got what's there, and you have to pick something. So you kind of just cross your fingers and pick one.
And hope you don't regret your choice for the next three or five days.
[Laughs.] So, I played a lot of crap, and I played a lot of crap that I guarantee you I don't really remember anymore. I don't even remember the names of most of the games that I played. But the ones that stood out to me were the ones that I ended up buying for myself as I came through elementary and middle school and into high school and had more control over the games that I decided were important to me and that I wanted to invest the time in. And, the games that I chose were not the games that a lot of other people chose when they were growing up. I did not pick out and play Castlevania or Final Fantasy or Xenogears. What I was picking was whatever caught my fancy.
So, it was widely scattered. I played Sonic a little bit and Kirby and Super Mario, of course, like Super Mario 64, absolutely, but I also played a lot of really strange -- I don't know if there were necessarily independent way back then, like, late '90s or early 2000s.
Oh, it would have been what we used to refer to as third party.
Yeah. So, I ended up playing a lot of games like Roger Rabbit, Krusty’s Fun House, The Haunting, SimAnt -- that made a mark somehow on my decision-making process about, like, what I value in games and what I enjoy.
And then, I was at this really awesome crossroads when I was 10 or 11, when PC gaming started becoming a thing for me and then I started getting invested in this idea of buying the graphics cards and building the computer components to build this gaming computer. And my mom actually supported my efforts to do that. So, I switched from console gaming around the N64, Playstation era to PC gaming, and there was a lot more freedom of choice in that arena. Because, then, now instead of going to Blockbuster I could go to Best Buy or whatever and I had my free pick of all these PC games that had come out. And that's when I started getting into stuff like Warcraft 2 or the original Starcraft, which I didn't actually play a whole lot of.
If you look at my cross-section of all of the different types of games that I played, it's pretty evenly scattered between -- like, I played a couple of shooters. Like, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark. I wasted an entire summer playing the shit out of those games. And everybody can relate to those games because everybody had that summer. But then I also played the shit out of Yoshi's Island far beyond its shelf life as far as most people are concerned, because it was a game that kind of stayed with me and kept bringing me back to it.
So, my relationship with games growing up was really piecemeal and scattershot compared to what a lot of people I met, who would call themselves gamers, would consider the classics. Like, I missed a lot of what they would consider the classics, and so my experience with gaming is a lot different. My point of view on what a classic would be is different.
Yeah. Which, normally, wouldn't be a big deal, but I think surprisingly some of the problems come in when you try to talk about your shared experiences with other people. And I mean, what I gleaned from your email is, yeah, you've played a lot of games, but for some reason you played "different" or "not the right" games than what a lot of other people did. The way you phrased it is you "constantly have to explain myself in the absence of familiarity." Do you mean it's very hard to find common ground with people because you didn't play the same games as them?
Yeah. So, I'll give you a great example. When PAX -- the first PAX, 2004.
I knew this was going to be a game-convention story.
[Laughs.] Because I've had that experience, too.
So, I went to the first PAX as, I'm trying to remember correctly, a 17-year-old. Or about to turn 18. So, freshly out of high school. And I had been reading Penny Arcade for a long time, and was really excited at the prospect of what kind of community or event that they were trying to build because I had been to a couple of other smaller conventions and it's really energizing to me to be able to be around your people. Right? And that's what PAX was going to be to me, was being around my people.
So, I get a pass, I get a "bring your own computer" room pass, I pack up my rig. My boyfriend at the time and one of our good friends packed up their rigs. We all go into the BYOC room, set up shop, and I look around and I am one of very few women in a sea of men. And that's pretty normal to me, but to see it kind of in physical reality and to actually look at the face of it for the first time -- because when you're online you can't see everybody's faces. But, then, there was a physical real-ness to how rare I was in that respect.
Did that surprise you? Did you have any expectations?
Absolutely not surprising whatsoever.
It was just -- I hadn't felt it before. Felt what it feels like to be one woman in a sea of men.
Or smelled it.
[Laughs.] As it was, yes, that was a particularly smelly room.
I mean, I've been to stuff like that where literally the employees are spraying Lysol on crowds of people playing videogames.
[Laughs.] I remember the first year that PAX Prime put little deodorant sprays in the swag bags for everyone.
All joking aside, really, though, what is that feeling like, being the only woman in a sea of men?
It’s like, I don’t know if you’ve ever walked into a room where you are just not supposed to be there. You walk in on a private happy hour like a mixer for doctors or something. It was a lot like that feels you know, maybe no one noticed at first but then heads turn, people stare. You’re not like everyone else. It felt like people were waiting for me to do or say anything so they would know how to react or treat me. And I had this attitude at the time where it was all stars in my eyes, just like so optimistic that at the time it didn’t bother me at all. I mean I noticed it but it was just some side thing compared to the Holy Grail of being in one huge room full of people who play games like I do.
And we were laughing a bit about it now, but as we mentioned above -- well, why does this sort of thing become problematic?
At the time, even then, it wasn't problematic to me because I knew where I was in the scheme of things. You know, because I've been through grade school. All of my female friends didn't really have anything to do with videogames. Except for [Dance Dance Revolution]. That was, like a really early game-changer. So, for the exception of the Japanese imports, DDR, Para Para Paradise, all of my friends that were female didn't really play games, but my male friends did. And I had a pretty even split, and so it was easy for me to relate to my male friends through videogames, except my male friends in high school were all about the Castlevania and the Final Fantasy and all of these other games that I didn't really play while I was growing up, let alone really have an interest in to begin with. And so, the way that I bonded with those male friends of mine that played games was not through games. It was through, actually, let's say anime or comics or whatever.
So, when I got to PAX for the first time, I fortunately was there with a couple of people that I knew and was able to have a pretty good time as it was. And I say "a pretty good time" because at that moment in my life, I was over the moon. I was in a room full of people who had brought their own hand-built computers, and I was so excited to talk to these other people who had taken such care with their computers and had named them and decorated them. And those were my people. I was thinking, "These are my people!"
And I sit down, and it's a LAN, of course, because back in 2004 it was still a little bit rough on the whole Internet-access end.
Yeah, it would've had to have been a college campus with a T1 line or something. Otherwise, it's just going to be incredibly dicey.
Right. So, I was, like, trying to talk to the people around me: "So, like, what LAN games -- what does everybody have?" I was, of course, savvy enough to hop on the network and see what folders people were sharing as you do and check out the things everybody has available. But a lot of the games that people wanted to play -- like, let's say Counter-Strike, I had never played Counter-Strike, didn't know anything about it, and wasn't interested in playing a game that I was just going to get my ass handed to me repeatedly over and over again.
And my friends that I had come to the first PAX with that had set up their own computers next to me were interested in playing videogames, including Counter-Strike. So they were able -- they felt like they got enough of a good time out of playing Counter-Strike, but I just didn't feel like it. And so for a lot of the first PAX that I ever went to, I spent a lot of time trying to find people who were playing a game that I actually wanted to play.
And I wasn't -- I didn't feel compelled to play a game that I didn't want to play just because it was a videogame. I got a sense that there were a lot of people in that room that were so hopped up on the atmosphere and the energy of what was going on around them that they were playing, like, literally anything because it was just so exciting to have a roomful of people who knew Penny Arcade and liked videogames.
You know, it was, like, 250 people with their own computers in this huge LAN area.
Right. And this is pre-Steam, before matchmaking being as easy as it is today, pre-streaming, pre-anything. I mean, it sounds so archaic now.
But that was when you would show up and have to be like, "I hope we have the same game and maybe the Internet'll work!"
Otherwise, it was not gonna happen.
Yeah. So, there was actually one game that shook out of it all, which, it's a really popular LAN PC game, that's like a racing game. And I can't remember the name of it, but I ended up playing that almost the entire weekend and it was really fun. The people that I was playing with were all scattered throughout this big space, right? So, you don't necessarily know who you're playing with and there's some degree of anonymity.
But for the most part, I showed up, I participated enthusiastically, and found a game that I was really into and I walked away from that weekend having been there, been involved, stayed up all night. I was present for the Bawls booth running out of Bawls soda and having a last-minute shipment come in at midnight and announcing it over the PA system and by the time the woman announcing it had finished her sentence, everybody had just made a mad dash for the Bawls booth.
But, I came away from that weekend having felt no more connected than I was when I started it. I had met nobody that I could even say I made a strong connection with. I was so ready to connect with someone who was more like me than any of my friends were and showed up and did all the things to participate, I played the game I wasn’t familiar with and brushed off the awkward social stuff. But I didn't make any friends, I didn't talk to anybody who talked to me at length about getting to know each other, or any of the other kinds of conversations that you have when you go to one of those things.
And I didn't really think about it at the time, but in retrospect, I guarantee you that it was some combination of the fact that I was a girl who showed up to this kind of event coupled with the fact that I had showed up with two guys, and there's this barrier that gets created when you're a woman who is with men in certain social atmospheres, which is obviously outside of gaming, but PAX included, where they just assume that you're claimed or that you're taken, and so there was nobody -- nobody ever even really approached me. Like, I got a lot of side-eyeing, but nobody actually came up and talked to me.
You mean, like, in a relationship "claimed?" Is that what you mean?
Yeah. [Sighs.] Yeah, I think so.
So, there would be no reason to talk to you because you're with somebody?
Yeah. And it's actually something that I continued to experience as I got older and kept going to PAX and then PAX became PAX Prime because East became a thing. And every single time I would go to one of these events, I started noticing that if I was with a guy or a guy was, like, talking to me and in proximity of me, then I would get treated differently. I think that's one of the first times that I noticed that there's things about me that are out of my control in terms of what kinds of social interactions I'm allowed to have or can have based off of how people perceive me.
I've even, at this point, can admit to in my earlier years, after I recognized that this was an issue, I've gone to great lengths to be by myself so I seem more approachable. [Laughs.]
And so that people feel like it's easier to talk -- and by "people," I mean men at gaming conventions.
No, I knew what you meant.
Or any kind of event or meet-up or whatever, it makes you seem more approachable and easier to talk to than if you have a male in your proximity.
You were saying part of what was going on was that in combination with because you don't have a shared history of playing the same games, people just didn't know how to bridge the gap with you?
You were saying a little bit about how you think "men are used to talking in the narrow dialect of best or favorite with regard to whatever they're familiar with."
Right. Even as early as high school, with my male friends, as I mentioned who played the "classics," I had a friend in particular who loved Castlevania and that was actually one of the first things that he tried to talk to me about because when he found that I played videogames he was like, "Oh, well, of course: We'll go with this Castlevania lead-in and we'll have so much to talk about and be the best of friends."
And when I told him that I had never played a Castlevania, let alone knew what it was about, he had one of those moments that I imagine he might remember even to this day where an assumption that he had was just proven wrong utterly and he kind of paused and had to kind of reboot the conversation and then approached me from, "Well, okay, so what games do you play?"
"This changes everything. You're not who I thought you were."
So wait, is this different then? Because in your email you said you had a friend who mocked you for not playing Chrono Trigger. Is this the same person or is that a different instance?
Different instance. I don't know if I would say mocked so much as it was that he was so --
Oh, you said "shamed." "Shamed" was the word that you used.
Yeah. I go to great lengths to try to describe the feeling that I had, and I think "shamed" struck it closest. It felt like everything was riding on me enjoying this videogame that he held so dearly. And I could feel the sense of obligation on me as I was putting the cartridge in and starting it up and going through the very first screens.
While he scrutinizes your appreciation of it?
Right, while he is examining me for making sure that I am appreciating it sufficiently so we can continue being friends. [Laughs.]
And it's easy to say, like, "Oh, isn't that kind of weird?" But where do you think that attitude comes from? Because obviously this is a sort of thing that gets normalized in videogame circles.
Yeah. I think that there's an identity association -- like, an attachment that happens really early on. I think that this also happens with other niche subjects. Let's say, like, superhero comics or board games or whatever it ends up being. Like, that's your subculture. It becomes your niche. It becomes a part of how you define yourself.
And if that piece of you isn't sufficiently represented as being genuine or sincere, then you get shamed and judged for not having that same level of sincerity or borderline obsession. Like, for a lot of people it is actually obsessive. But if you don't prove that you're actually a gamer or that you actually enjoy games, then it's seen as some kind of front or some kind of falsification of who you are. Like, you're trying to trick people into thinking that you're somebody else than you really are and that it becomes this really strange "burn the witch" situation.
So you mentioned your first experience with PAX. How do you go from there to saying you feel alienated? But you seem at peace with your alienation.
[Laughs.] I think working at Nintendo for so long -- so, I was there from just about to turn 19 to 24. And so, I went through the vast majority of that whole awkward young-adult phase where you are legally an adult but you still don't have your legs yet and still don't have your bearings. You don't know how to orchestrate yourself with friend groups. You don't know how to behave appropriately in different situations. And working at Nintendo in this pit in QA, it was actually a really easy segue into true adulthood for me because I was surrounded by people who were as equally socially deficient as I was, regardless of whether they were much older than me or not. [Laughs.]
It was a really safe space to kind of be fucked up a little bit or be wrong about or to act weird or to be yourself as some people would probably. And I found some kind of solace in being there and being able to let out some of these sides of me. Like, the part of me that does like videogames doesn't have a home anywhere else, and this was the closest to home that I was going to get. And so I took whatever was offered, which was Nintendo, and which was staying in that community and that friend group that I built.
Yeah. But, I mean, I think maybe it's difficult to chart a timeline of why maybe you feel disaffected. Does some of it have to do with job prospects within the industry, since you chose to a different direction?
I voluntarily decided that finishing my undergrad degree was my hard line. Prospects had nothing to do with it, even if there had been an opening -- it was time for me to go.
What did you get your degree in?
I got my degree in linguistics, which has nothing to do with videogames.
I don't think that's a bad thing. I think it's good to have "outside" influences.
Yeah. At this point, I would agree with you. At the time, I had no inclination to stay in the gaming industry. I actually felt like I had seen enough of the seedy underbelly of what actually happens to understand that the game industry, as much as, if not more so than other fields, is a meat grinder. It really just eats people up and spits out broken dreams. [Laughs.]
Even if you personally made it, or whatever, even if you scratched success out of it for yourself, how many people around you didn’t? And why is that? Why is there so little room for individual success in such a big industry?
Yesterday, in another interview with someone who also considered a career in games and changed his mind, he also also considered a career writing about games but called all of it a “meat grinder” as well.
[Laughs.] It's actually a pretty common way to describe what's going on around you internally. Like, everybody's disillusioned inside of games to some degree or another. Unless you're brand new to it. Like, if you stick around long enough, you can kind of see it. But the people who see that and experience it and decide to stay in it, that takes some strange combination of surrender and self-delusion that I just don't possess. I'm one of those people where if I don't have the freedom to call things like I see them and to engage with things as they truly are, then I get incredibly frustrated and I will inevitably leave. That's part of the reason why I ended up leaving Nintendo, because I didn't feel like I could make an impact or be effective there.
Yeah, and you were there for six years. And I think that's enough of a furnace for you to reach some conclusions.
In your email, you were saying, like, "Indies are stuck in a hard place right now, trying to carve space for thinking differently in an industry that hates them for eating into their profits and yet desperately needs them in order to sell them more consoles." Tell me a little bit about that hate and resentment.
As you can probably imagine, there is a lot of bitterness that's grown since indie games have become a feasible, alternative path for people who are in the AAA vortex and can see how good it is and how good it looks on the other side.
Is it, though? Is it really feasible?
I think AAA and indie take different constitutions and I think that there are often times, as there are in any other industry -- here I am inadvertently apologizing for how the games industry is, right? [Laughs.]
I think that the way that AAA gets sold, that starry-eyed dream of what working in AAA games gets sold to people who aren't quite there yet, it requires a certain type and constitution of person. And if you're not willing to become that or if you aren't that already, then you will hit the wall. And that's where I see a lot of people getting burned out and going off to do other things in other fields.
And conversely, I think that indie games also, too, requires its own type of person and constitution. And if you don't have that then, you, too, will burn yourself. The only problem is that in AAA you can burn yourself and then take your experience and go do work elsewhere easily. If you burn yourself out in indie games, you've probably squandered your life savings and all of your extra income and you're left with little to nothing to show for all of the work that you've put in.
So, that's a whole other level of risk-taking that I think that a lot of people are not willing to engage with. And I think that's why AAA becomes a life raft for a lot of those kinds of people who see the greener grass on the other side of the fence but they're not willing to make the leap because they know what the risks are and they're not willing to take them.
Well, there's this intense pressure cooker going on of how no one has a full picture of what's going on. Like, it's really interesting to see the way the independent circles are mirroring the big industry circles as far as how no one's really clear on what the working conditions are even among themselves. Among independents, it's really difficult to glean, "Okay, was your spouse supplementing you? Were you living with your parents? Did you give your parents a loan? Did you just inherit a bunch of money?"
Like, you very casually up top telling me you have a day job, I feel like people never really disclose that. And it puts, from what I see, people think they are expected to starve and starve and starve and expect coverage and somehow ascend to hopefully breaking even.
But I don't really see people labeling that. Do you have that perception as well?
So, in my experience. I had to go find a day job where I am not defined by games at all, and that pays me what I’m worth and what my time is worth, so that I afford to have my outside life at the studio where my work is entirely defined by that industry. And I knew what I was getting into when I left Nintendo. Nintendo was the only AAA experience that I had, except for I did that stint doing QA on Guild Wars 2. But for the most part, my experience is indie.
And the crew that I roll with now, they're all indie developers, too. There's this really sharp divide on some level between the indiest of indies and AAA, and there's no accessibility in that direction. So, you've got these really hardcore hobbyists, like, indie people who have all banded together and they've kind of drawn this dividing line between -- you can almost call it the hipsterfication of game development where they pride themselves on certain definitions. And I know that people have oftentimes criticized the label "indie" because oftentimes these companies who label themselves indie are not actually truly independent of publishers. They have publishers that work with them, or at the very least, they have a publisher as Steam because they sell their games on Steam and can get ad spots or whatever.
But there's a lot of, like, animosity or Othering that happens from the indie side of the fence. Because the further the distance that those people get from AAA titles and from the commercialization and marketing blitz that happens around AAA games, the more well-defined they are as indie. You know, it becomes this kind of, like, "Well, I'm not that, which defines me as indie.”
And I struggle myself with having gone into indie mode and wanting to embrace that community and understanding very well that a lot of these people have AAA experience and got burned on it and wanted to come out here into what they thought would be fresher, cleaner water. That they could spread out and do their own thing and pursue products the way that they wanted to pursue them. But then there's also this risk of struggling, like you were saying. Struggling for exposure and struggling to "make it," whatever making it ends up meaning.
And I think oftentimes, the motivation behind “making it” is operating under the illusion that the indie games space carved out a place where people could work on their pet projects and treat it more like art instead of entertainment and still make it. And so, you know, we had this whole Indiepocalypse fluff thing going on earlier this year.
My friends in the indie space were reflecting on the outrage that was coming out of it and saying to themselves, "Well, those people who were so angry about failing, like, trying so hard and failing are just now tasting failure for the first time. They're people who have probably succeeded or been passed through grade school or what have you, graduated with passable grades, and this is the first time that they're actually being shown by a market or a force of economics that their thing isn't good enough and meditating or reflecting on that in a very public way." And thus, Indiepocalypse. And so, there's that perspective again of, "Well, they just didn't do it right or they just didn't know that failure was possible. They didn't consider that failure was possible."
So, you've got a camp of indie people who are probably on the side of Indiepocalypse outcriers who are thinking, "Well, if you just try hard enough and believe in yourself, surely." And then there's the other side, the other camp who are seasoned veterans of failures and false starts and whatnot. And those are the people who you'll find me among them, in the back corner of every meet-up who are, like, drinking to ourselves and sharing war stories. And it's funny how much more vocal the Indiepocalypse camp is than the people who, I think, don't usually get heard and don't usually speak up about stuff like this. Just because they’re so, so, so over it. There's marketing that you have to do. There's all of these different mechanisms just inside of game development that have to get done, and it's such a complex process and it takes so much out of you that at the end of the day, those people in that second camp just don't have the fucking time or energy to do it.
Well, it's understandable. The other thing that the guy yesterday said that it's no longer -- your game just can't be good. It has to be great. It just seems incredibly discouraging. If you don't happen to get coverage, or whatever the other metrics of "making it" is. I mean, I know people who are $40,000 in debt, their game is coming out in a couple months, they know it's probably going to fail, and they're already trying to figure out what to do after but also know they have to still finish and release it and still live their lives. And yeah, it's true, it might be a huge, huge success, but I know so many stories like that and I doubt this is the first time they've failed.
It's even hard to quantify it as a failure because maybe something will happen five years later because of it.
Yeah, you get yourself into this funny position now that the indie space has matured enough to take on indie publishers where you have the same mechanisms that keep failing start-ups afloat. Let's say, like, a web start-up and they have VC funding. They've done a seed round and a series A, and they're still failing to gain traction and they're still failing to make up the net losses that they're accruing and they just keep taking on more and more funding. If you peek under the hood of indie games, that sort of climate is happening now also, where you have indie studios who have grown big enough to support 10, 20 people and they have games that they're putting out there but they're not covering their own costs anymore, but they justified bringing on the people to get the game out. so that they could make the money. And then you have these publishers who are trying to float them to try to get to the game that's going to be the big payoff. And it's really frustrating to me to watch that happen.
From where I'm sitting, of course I would want a publisher. Of course I would want to make some sort of relationship with another company who's trying to support indie development and put indie games in the hands of more people and get more exposure. But at what cost? There's a cost-benefit analysis that I don't think a lot of these indie companies are necessarily making where they show up to the plate and they think, "Oh, I'm gonna make games now. And that's just gonna be what I do. And I'm just gonna make money doing it and I'm gonna have the support of the rest of the industry.”
To go back really quick, you mentioned the industry hates independent games because it cuts into software sales. Could you touch on that a little bit?
Like, the rise of XBLA for example, or WiiWare or what have you, like, those storefronts weren't opened up altruistically.
They were a money grab.
Wait a minute!
Well, but this is a thing that I rarely see get articulated. And it's like, what do you think the reason is the game industry and really big companies all of a sudden are really sounding the alarm for this stuff. Part of it is because game costs have gone up so ridiculously high and this is a group of cheaper developers taking risks that they don't want to take themselves.
I'm sure there's parts of them that really like the games, but they love more that it's going to cost them less money. [Laughs.]
Yeah. So, reflecting on my time at Nintendo, I was there for the entire Wii cycle and when the Wii came out -- even when it came out, the Internet channel wasn't quite ready. It was actually one of the first patches that people downloaded. So, the WiiWare channel, like, buying and downloading third-party software onto their console wasn't even a thing. But, as I was working there and as we progressed through the first three to six months of the Wii being on the market and watching the reaction that the consumer market had was astounding because a lot of us internally, by self-identifying as gamers, we're thinking to ourselves, "Okay, Nintendo, you're gonna make this console that has a goofy-ass name and you're gonna try to sell it to moms and old people. Sure, okay." But we're along for the ride because we're working there, and of course as any human being would, we were curious to see what happens next and how it all pans out.
The Wii comes out and then the WiiWare channel follows that. And I wasn't privy any of the conversations about why the WiiWare channel was made or anything. I can only reflect on what I saw and what I understand now.
But the vast majority of the titles that got put out on the WiiWare channel were shovelware. And a lot of it was companies from overseas who had slapped something together and saw it as more of an opportunity to get on a market channel and a distribution channel with what they called blue ocean, which is where nobody else is selling anything. And so, mobile apps is a great example of how it used to be a blue ocean and now it's a red ocean because everybody's just, like, eating each other. [Laughs.]
It's the proverbial bucket of crabs, as I refer to it.
[Laughs.] The WiiWare channel and a lot of the games that came out on it, Nintendo tried to seed the pot by releasing things like -- if I remember correctly, it was called Fluidity. It was an amazing WiiWare title. But that was independently developed and Nintendo just kind of scooped it up and put their name on it and then sent it out to the world.
So, as very often happens and it's just not really called out either, right? Like, the first party publishers will scoop up the third party development titles and then put their name on it and then everybody will think to themselves, "Oh, well, that's a Nintendo game." And it's actually not. It's made by a studio somewhere full of poor, starving developers who are just trying to make it like the rest of us. [Laughs.]
But they just signed a publishing deal that may or may not see to it that they never get money.
Right. Right. There is that. The visibility problem crops up again, right? Because Nintendo put their name on it. You don't get the credit. Which means you don't get seen. Which -- of course.
Which means you don't exposure. Which means people have no legacy at all to attach to your name.
Yeah. And the WiiWare channel was my first experience with watching Nintendo create a space on their platform for indie developers. But the thing was, as many if not more of those studios and developers were people just releasing games because there was an opportunity for making a quick buck.
So, that's kind of an interesting instance of maybe -- I don't know if you'd characterize that as hurting independent developers, but I'd be curious to hear about how you feel the press hurts independent developers.
[Sighs.] You know, to be honest? I don't and really haven't ever gone out of my way to regularly read, like, gaming news sites.
Everything that I understand about marketing for indie games is from the perspective of having tried to run a studio or tried to put a game out there into the world that got the attention of these channels. So, I helped out a couple of acquaintances, like, fellow indie developers. I helped run their marketing and press for them at PAX East in 2014, and I got the full exposure to interacting with the press by cold calling or cold emailing, as it were, and everything that I got out of that experience is that it's kind of like hitting a brick wall at full speed. [Laughs.]
What is it about it that's like smashing and braining yourself?
[Laughs.] I think it's a couple of things. One of the pieces of the puzzle is definitely that the people that make their email addresses available or the catch-all, general, "Email us at [email protected]." The people who are reading and checking and following up with those are people who themselves have a lot of pressure on them to pick the cream of the crop, the thing that's going to get the most attention, the thing that's going to be the most outrageous or whatever.
So, there's this kind of self-selective process that happens on the other side of all of these press outlets where they're trying to find what the story is and there's a lot of marketing material out there oriented towards indie developers that says, "You gotta tell your story. You gotta help them find the story." And oftentimes that means writing it for them. So, in your introductory email, there's a very specific format or template that they suggest that you do because it helps people who are skimming their email recognize where the stories are, and then they might pick up yours easier because you've made it really accessible.
So, that's definitely a huge hurdle for a lot of people right up front, is just knowing how to communicate that to the press outlets. And then there's also this aspect of if your story is good but not great, like that guy that you mentioned is saying, well, your game is good but not great, then there's no reason for them to give you the time of day. Let's say you have 100 emails in a day and five of those sound promising, but two of them are really good, meaty -- you might get a good pat on the back for publishing the first story about this game that's gonna be released in a couple of years or whatever, then that's your opportunity and you take it.
That's one more aspect of this whole shit-cake. [Laughs.]
That sounds less delicious.
In theory I agree with you, but I feel like I rarely see people who are trying to be the first to expose their audience to something new. There's a lot of, and not just in games, but a whole, "Well, this other place covered this thing and this thing seems cool, so we should cover it, too."
And I've heard that, too, people saying, "Oh, you have to tell them your story." What are the stories that the press likes to tell about games that they're championing?
They like to tell stories about games that they know that their audience is going to like already. At face value, they pick out the games that look the most like the other games that were really successful. And I know it's not necessarily that that's the way that the games industry operates, this whole, "Well, we made Black Ops. Why don't we make Black Ops 2?" And it's the same game. Surprisingly.
There's also, like, this idea of, "Well, if we told this specific story and it was really popular -- it went viral, as they say -- you wanna hit that button again." From my time in online marketing that I spent after I left Nintendo, that's one of the things that I took away from that: If people think that they've struck gold, then they're just gonna keep hammering in that direction over and over again until it's completely dead.
I mean, you were saying, speaking of "hitting the button," you had said you wouldn't mind if just all of games journalism got burned to the ground and start it over right.
You are not the first person to tell me that. Several writers working in it have told me that. But what specifically needs to be burned to the ground?
I would say it's -- so, back in the day, there were publications like Nintendo Power that were driven really hard -- they were marketing pieces, right? Nintendo Power was owned by Nintendo and run by Nintendo and therefore wasn't what you would consider an objective third party. [Laughs.] Because it's almost like Nintendo is playing up and marketing their own games under the very thin veiled guise of, "We're objectively reviewing our own games." But they don't even say up front that they're objectively doing anything. However, it's packaged -- if it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, then it must be a duck, right? So, if it's a magazine in the same section as all the other gaming magazines, then of course it's taken at face value.
Right. I think the whole premise of having a gaming publication website where the premise and the front that you put out there is, "Yes, we're a legitimate source of reviews and gaming news and whatever else." That, if that's not actually true, then the only people that really know that and can hold them to those standards are the people that are part of the organization internally or that run those organizations. That's what I was getting at about maybe just starting over from scratch, like, getting rid of the pre-existing pillars of that community.
For people further outside of this stuff, what's really the damage that's being done by having this tightfisted narrowness?
There's a lot of skepticism that anything that's published on your typical gaming news outlet is actually true or wasn't actually secretly an advertisement or paid for by somebody under the table or is somebody playing favorites with -- maybe I am the lead editor at a really popular game news organization and all of my friends are game developers and publishers and whatever because the industry is so small. And so there's a lot of perceived, maybe actual collusion that happens. I mean, I don't know. That was the premise of Gamergate, right? Like, the premise was that they just took it at face value that there was that kind of collusion. And then they concocted -- they reverse-engineered all of these reasons why it was actually true.
I mean, there's collusion and all of the stuff that was being talked about. Just not in the places they were choosing to look.
Right. Right. Which is hilariously ironic. Right. [Laughs.]
What does a games press doing better look like? You said that there's no sincerity or deep analysis coming from the hive mind. So, what would you rather see?
Yeah. Well, so, there's no sincerity even in games journalism as it is right now because of not just this problem of the perceived collusion or the potential for that because of the proximity of everybody next to each other, but it's also, like, what traditional journalism has come to be defined as and the fact that games journalism in particular has not adhered to those standards in general.
Yeah, well, games writing got its start in enthusiast publications, as opposed to something like film writing, which got its start in journals.
From there, here we are.
Yeah. And I think that it is going to be people gathering together and collectively deciding that, "No, we're going to do things differently and better." And refusing to take part in some of the gray areas that more traditional game websites do right now. The whole, like, sponsoring the industry parties or being so close in proximity that you actually become involved in the story somehow. The lack of disclosure about people's relationships with each other or how the news story fell into their lap or whatever -- there's no telling of the story around the story that happens in game journalism. And that's something like -- what you're doing with your website is part of that missing puzzle piece. Like, the frame around all of the stories that come out of the industry needs to be more transparent about what's happening.
Thank you. That's very kind.
I mean even if you’re going to try to critique games and not like, the culture around games, gaming criticism hasn't found its voice. We don’t have our Roger Ebert yet, whatever acknowledgment needs to happen that games are as much of an art form as a medium of entertainment. I hear “the goal of a game is to be entertaining” and I’m like, would you say the same thing about movies? There’s tons of room for new voices to establish gaming as an art medium that can and should accept criticism. I want game makers to have that space inside of games, to be artists.
I mean, part of what I found really alarming is we're talking about a huge workforce that is largely invisible, is faceless, and anonymous. I think some of what we talked about before with where you worked at Nintendo or whatever, that these are seen as glamorous or coveted jobs and the attitude is, "If they don't want to be working on those projects, well, then maybe they shouldn't be doing those jobs."
But the problem with that attitude is, like, "Well, maybe no one should be doing that job?"
But the thing that's strange is this intersects with budgets getting bigger and bigger and that's becoming more and more risk-averse. I mean, I've played so many more industry games this year than I ever have before so I feel like I am able to say they're all pretty much the same now? Which is crazy because I didn't really think they were that similar but they are staggeringly very similar. And so we're talking about a workforce with tons of talent and intelligence that may want to do something different at their jobs but they can't. [Laughs.]
I sometimes wonder when it comes to journalism and the state of the industry, you can point to exceptions to the rule but they're still exceptions. So are we all just complicit in this bed that was made and we're all forced to sleep in it together?
I actually see a light beam of hope in places like Patreon. So, Patreon is a great example of a place that is desperately trying to make an alternative venue for financially supporting the kind of artistic work that you want to see in the world.
I think that the flack that people get for participating in the games industry and then being repulsed by the lack of financial compensation or benefits or steady work even is based in this idea that if you're working on something that you're passionate about that is an artistic medium, then that should be its own reward for some reason, and that it is okay for people who are artistically inclined or want to produce art -- that it's okay for them to starve to death by doing the work that they feel compelled to do. And I just fundamentally don't agree that that's an acceptable way to treat people who have that kind of drive. I, myself have struggled riding this fine line between feeling very creative and very generative, but then also understanding that if I pursue that in a more traditional path that my chances of what they call "making it" are really thin.
To the point where my mom actually discouraged me when I was a kid to consider writing full-time as a career because she asked me point-blank: "Do you have any idea how many people are actually able to support themselves on their own writing?" And I had never considered it that way. I had just kind of assumed when I was younger that if I had this drive that I could take it and harness and then build it into this thing that I could just do for the rest of my life.
But she kind of opened up the idea to me it's possible that I might not get to do what I want to do with my life, which was terrifying and a very real game-changer and made me grow up a little bit. That whole idea of artists doing art and being kind of left with that as their payment -- like, your payment is that you're allowed to make art is just ridiculous.
That art could be so devalued in that respect is just really sad to me. And even that though it is games and though there has been the runaround in the arguments that games aren't art, they are an artistic, creative medium. They are entertainment. They're a lot akin to film. For a lot of people that I'm friends with or that I've met recently, I draw a really strong parallel or metaphor between film and games because the development cycles work very similarly and the demands on people who do creative work are very similar.
And it's easier for people to conceive of the film industry as being a worthwhile facet of life. Like, "Of course films should exist! Of course we should invest in films and directors and actors and actresses." But they don't see the same parallel unless you actually present it to them in that metaphor of, "Well, consider the games industry like the film industry: Should games exist?" Well, of course they should because they're an artistic medium unto themselves. And they're not even as nearly as well-explored as film is.
You know, arguably, we're just now, with the rise of indie games, coming into this space where people are given the creative freedom to dive out in directions that people wouldn't have taken games in previously because it's all attached strings of publishing money and marketing expenses and trying to keep the whole ship afloat. Whereas, you can do what I'm doing right now: Strike out on your own on the back of work that you've done in a completely unrelated industry and paint your own path I guess.
I'm doing it backwards. I'm doing this while looking for unrelated work or, if I can find it, something complementary that will let me still keep doing this.
And I mean, that's sort of the thing, speaking of connected strings, like, anytime I see conversations on social media or elsewhere where developers are talking about how they're not able to get coverage or they really want to have coverage and sort of -- they're cursing different writers. And I'll hop in sometimes and say, "Well, you know, the rates are really bad and there's not a lot of places that are willing to go against the grain.”
Anytime you try to tell developers that writers are having inter-related problems, where they want to do but there's no outlet for it, like, I notice the conversations tend to just drop off.
And I don't know if it's, like, developers don't care or they legitimately don't see the connection. I just know that they then want to go back to why writers should be covering them. [Laughs.]
But I tend to want to focus on the bigger, more impossible problem and that might just be me. But do you ever run into that? Because I didn't know that about you from your emails, that you chose to go the other way and not go down a path that I went down.
Should've warned me. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] So, the writing that I actually was pursuing was fiction writing and, truth be told, I am still pursuing it. I have continued to write well into my adulthood. I have written a handful of novels and several dozen short stories. I am building myself up to a point where, at this point, I feel pretty confident that I have the time to apply myself, that I could finish this novel that I've been working on for about a year and that it would be pretty well-received.
But I think that the empathy that is required to understand the plight of your fellow artists in arms is something that is lost on a lot of game developers because the game development process is so demanding and the unique situation that comes about to give rise to somebody who wants to be a game developer is even pretty different than anybody else who works in any other creative medium. I think that the similarities between even writers and painters or visual artists or illustrators is a lot more similar than it is to game developers because there's that aspect of programming, that element of analytical science that comes into play that is marginalizing for game developers. And they're marginalized on top of being gamers, which they probably were to begin with, right? Like, do game developers even consider themselves artists? Because they’re totally functioning as ones.
Which is the other thing, too, where I tell people: See, you guys are ahead of writers because at least people understand that what you're doing is a skill. There's still that education that still needs to happen with writing.
I always hear from people who start dabbling in writing where they hit me up and basically are realizing out loud, "Oh! This is, like, work!" [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, the perception that art isn't work, right? And that's why it's devalued because people who are not artists who don't maybe have a creative drive like artists do see it as frivolity and see it as just you just kind of faffing about doing what you fancy, basically, and having fun doing it. And then, so, they say to themselves, "Well, why should you be paid anything to have fun?"
And that's profoundly depressing and shines a really bright light in a really dark corner of this modern day capitalist social idea that work isn't supposed to be fun. [Laughs.] And that you're not supposed to be paid to have fun.
So, this also, though, goes to some of the stifling of what is nebulously called AAA in the game industry, or big-budget titles. And then yesterday someone reminded me that there is talk of AAAA.
Which is great. So, that, may also be a thing we can start talking about.
But, you were talking about -- basically you said "there's a lot of bullshit that is a second renaissance." Which I would agree with, when you think of thousand-person teams across different countries in studios hiring artists making nothing but rocks for $65K. I mean, you called it "a waste of resource and talent."
Yeah. There's that idea that we're at this point where these games need the bigger budgets and that means they have to hire more and more people and the roles and responsibilities get more and more specialized, and then you have tragedies like you were saying -- what I mentioned about people who are assigned to do production work on a very specific piece of the setting or the environment or whatever, and that's their entire job. That's their entire view of the game.
And that's really sad that we can slice something up that is supposed to be this rich, creative endeavor into such fine pieces and shop them out to individuals who maybe don't even have a good perspective on what the larger work is supposed to be accomplishing or whatever. Like, you can be so removed from the creative core that's actually justifying the work that you're doing in the first place that you feel completely detached and disassociated from it.
But, like, do you know anything about management styles or ways this might break down or play out differently at a Pixar or something like that? You had made the film-industry comparison before, which I sometimes also see game developers hate because they think games are this incomparable thing which, ironically, I think also only strengthens resistance to implementing better best practices or actually improving people's work existences.
If running a studio has taught me anything, it’s that you can absolutely plan for a margin of error, and you can absolutely plan for experimentation. It’s literally baked into the job I do during the day, we’re given a block of time to do discovery work where we take a project and blow out all the details and planning and then come back and say, this is the plan, this is how long it’ll take, here are your options. Which sounds pretty similar to film production in a way where you do a lot of planning and scouting and casting ahead of time.
And I know now that I’m not being naive about it because this is how our studio is run, and this is how the VR game we’re announcing soon is being made, if we release on time we’ll have made a game in 10 months. Discovery time included. And trust me it was like, 80 percent discovery, because it’s VR. [Laughs.]
And all it took was this idea my founder and I had that game development isn’t sacred and that every step of the process and every part of the structure is up for alteration. But discovery time is controlled chaos. I think it takes a strong leader and the right people to help orchestrate that process in a direction that’s productive. Your people drive your culture and your work experiences, you have to pick the right people and then get in the trenches with them.
The really depressing thing is, too, if you offered a job to any of my writer or freelancing friends, like, "Do you want to make $65K just making rocks?" Like, they would totally jump at it.
[Laughs.] That motivation is kind of why I found myself in the place that I -- I actually put myself here. I'm not going to say that I fell into it.
I think that's clear.
No, I think that would, for people reading this.
I recognized really early on that I wasn't going to be able to stomach suffering the weight of my own art and having that put on me by a society that doesn't value what I think is valuable. So, I decided to kind of excuse myself from that part of the program and went and found something completely different from a completely different angle that ended up meeting closer in the middle to what I really wanted to do than I thought. And there's a really interesting side of the design work that I do outside of games that takes into consideration all sorts of fun things like cognitive science and psychology, and those are the interdisciplinary pieces of game design that I really enjoy also, and so it's very easy for me to get that itch scratched by doing design work in general. Not just for games.
But then there's the extra layer on top of that that I've more recently discovered in the last couple of years as I've been spinning up game studios is that I get really deep satisfaction about solving the meta problem of, "How do you build a studio that respects and supports the creative people that work inside of it and gives them the allowance and the freedom to be able to apply themselves in ways that satisfy them, while also paying them for the work that they do and trying to support them in their own careers?” And I think that that's a fundamental piece of the game industry, even at the AAA level, that is just completely lost. Completely non-existent, even.
I mean, you made the really great point that we're talking -- and this will be a little inside baseball for people who don't closely follow games -- about "a whole generation of Flash game designers and animators who filled places like Newgrounds to the brim with brilliant ideas in the 2000's. This is the generation who defined virality. You can't tell me all that creative fire and clever humor and willingness to boldly experiment can't be trusted."
Um, yeah. [Laughs.]
Which is weird, because I have had conversations with friends about, "Whatever happened to Newgrounds?"
This thing that was pre-Steam and pre-Itch that should have decimated but sort of fell to the side or just got quieter and quieter. Maybe it's because a lot of those people went to go work in game development and are making digital rocks in a digital chain gang?
Yeah. Here's my proposal -- and if I had more time in the day I would totally throw down and put my money where my mouth is on this but -- if there was a place that was essentially Newgrounds, that was that crucible or that primordial ooze of up and coming creative people, kids, most of time, who feel compelled to create and to make things and want to share them with other people -- if we had a Newgrounds now but the cost of entry was $5 a month, like, there it is: You don't have to run ads. That's the work. That's it. It's just that barrier of the entry has to justify itself somehow. And the way that we've been monetizing games isn't servicing the kind of internal creative community that Newgrounds fostered and it’s not monetizing it in a way that suits its audience. How many people use ad blockers now?
And Newgrounds was driven off of passion alone, right? Like, nobody was really getting anything out of that, except for the satisfaction of having made something and shared it with other people. And that can be a really rich experience in and of itself. But then when you become an adult and you want to continue to that kind of creative work and it needs to be compensated by a lifestyle that helps support you -- like, not just barebones. Not just ramen or whatever. But helps psychologically support you in a safe living situation so that you can continue to do really good creative work? That's the nut that I'm trying to crack right now.
Yeah, which, by the way, how fucking demoralizing and insulting is it that we also romanticize poverty and struggle in a creative industry? Like, "Oh, eating ramen. I miss those days."
[Laughs.] It's funny. I have what I call poverty PTSD.
It's a real thing.
I still stock my pantry with mac and cheese and ramen in the off chance that I suddenly lose my job and I'm back to square one again.
Yeah. But it's hugely traumatic and often the reality, but where's that story of game development? Not the highly edited, weirdly overdramatized Indie Game: The Movie way, but, honestly, and unflinchingly, like, "What does this really take?”
Like, we know nothing about the working conditions, really, of the big-budget space or small scale. I mean, we know a little bit. People feel okay saying crunch is a problem. But just to touch back on something you said, which is that "to climb the ladder at AAA, it requires you to become a person that you're not." I understand what that means, but how specifically did you mean that?
It goes back to what I was saying about how you have to be a certain person already with a certain constitution to stomach AAA production. And to be able to not just stomach the entry level but to climb the ladder and be the boot that stomps on the face below you. I mean you might not want to be that person, but if you have any amount of success in games, you become that person to someone else. I think that that's a lot of what's continuing to be perpetuated in some dark corners by some of the people who survived the game industry through the '90s. That they have this idea of how things are supposed to be and you're supposed to earn your stripes and you're supposed to get hazed and abused in that respect because they did. And it's one of those cyclical things where the people at the top think, "Well, what do they think? They deserve this? I struggled to get to where I am right now. They have to struggle the same way to prove their worth.” And then it's a huge power trip.
Yeah, which is weird because sometimes I have gotten that feeling, too, where the game industry is still bolted into the '90s in its thinking. I have been told in some cases the same engines or versions of them are still kicking around, just with some cosmetic changes and rebranding.
[Laughs.] I don't know exactly how much experience you had with the complexities of what the development resources and costs of building the engines or even just making a game to begin with, but the development requirements of software tends to be pretty painful because it's kind of unknowable.
Yeah, I'd assume so.
So, to call something halfway through, "Oh, this engine was doing something for us but it's not doing other things, so we should maybe roll our own engine." And then it becomes a question of, "Okay, so now you're talking about throwing away everything you just built." And do you really wanna do that? And then there's things like deadlines that you have to meet. Those deadlines are oftentimes driven by business initiatives and marketing, and it's not necessarily the people who wanted to do the creative work in the first place. I think that -- like, that's another part of the problem at large is that business and marketing are steering the cart and running the show and dragging everybody along with them for the ride.
I've heard that before.
But I do think part of the situation is there's no way to hit pause after a game comes out and be like, "Okay, next year we're going to build a new engine or we're gonna rethink what sort of stuff we want to do in general or find the way do everything differently."
I mean, I talked to Lorne Lanning, who's done the Oddworld games and he told me that game companies don't spend that much money on R&D. I talked to Warren Spector a few weeks ago and he told me game companies rarely spend money on R&D. And so, I'm curious: You are the boot stomping on the face below you, you have that intense drive and passion, and you have the right kind of personality. But what do you feel like clout actually gets you in the broader game industry?
I have a feeling that much like the transition that we've seen through online marketing and social media, where brand marketing has become all about transparency and identity, that the way that people have clout or hold court in their respective fields is going to play more into who they are as a person and not necessarily who they've branded themselves to be.
Like, I can already see it. And I don't know if you can blame it generationally. I feel like that's something to do with it. But there's been this really strong trend recently of being more honest and upfront about what you're all about, where you're coming from, what your story is, why you're motivated to make the games that you do. And that's kind of fed into the indie space, too. So, I don't necessarily think that it's so much about clout. I don't think it's a good-old-boy's game like it used to be, you know, in the '90s where you just knew everybody that you knew and you grew up into that community and you had a job for life.
I think we're moving away from that with the influx of all of the people that are my age and younger that are coming into indie games or even AAA and they're saying to themselves, "This can be different. I am going to make things different."
And in a large part, that's kind of why I stabbed out into virtual reality is because I kind of get to make my own rules out here. In a large way, it's a wild west of opportunity for establishing what your group is capable of and what you're driven by. And that gets perpetuated into the kind of creative work that you put out. So, like, the kind of games that you make are definitely heavily influenced by the kind of organization or the kind of people that are running the show.
Right. I mean, you're not beholden to certain expectations as opposed to, like, you mentioned something like Mario Maker where it seems like game companies are trying to "solve" genres.
Like they're "done."
Right. Right. So, Mario Maker is a great example of a late-stage older generation games company where you're basically giving away the work that used to be done internally and you created a game around it and it's very meta in that sense, but it's also a way of kind of stating once and for all, "We've solved platformers. This is what a platformer is and this is what a platformer can be."
And I think that's extremely limiting. Like, God bless the indie space for beating the shit out of platformers as a genre. Like, that is definitely a genre that has been done and done and done again. But I think that there's something really limiting to just say that that is what a platformer is and to make that a game and then to put that out into the world as if this is all that can be said about what platformers are capable of doing.
I think that there's a really large creative space that is available to be branched out but like we were saying earlier, it's being stifled by the existing architecture of the game industry itself.
You were saying some of this could be solved if we just took some cues from the animation industry, "the willingness to branch out and away like cartoons have."
I don't know if you had more you wanted to say, but I think that's a pretty clear and easy example of providing one extra possible path forward for another direction or inspiration.
Yeah. So, you and I were talking earlier about trusting the creative. And I think there's this hard line between people who have a creative drive and people who decidedly don't, and not understanding what powers that and how you can even rely on something like that. I think oftentimes people who are running the business end of things, the marketing end of things, look at the creative and think to themselves, "Oh, well, they're just a bunch of wild horses or a department full of cats that we constantly have to be herding in the direction that is the optimal way for this business to be run or the marketing to be executed.”
So there's a lot of richness in the creative side and the creative people that power the output of all of these games or the production of all of these games that isn't being tapped into because they're being limited by what business or marketing says the game has to be in order to satisfy whatever they think is going to sell the best or be the most successful.
And then they draw their lines for success around financial gain or exposure or whatever. So, there's this element of trusting your creative that got harnessed in the animation space and now you've got this amazing second renaissance in animation of little groups of people or companies or studios that are making things like -- Bravest Warriors is a great example. Frederator, who was the company that helped bring Bravest Warriors to life, they have been playing this really strong role in this idea of YouTube only or online only cartoon production and they also helped produced, if I remember correctly, Bee and Puppycat.
Yes. And that was also a Kickstarter, too.
Yeah, it was Kickstarted. Absolutely. But there's effort and energy being put in that direction because there are people finally at the business level who know how to tap into that richness of the creatives and to tease out and draw out all of the elements of their work or aspects of their work that hasn't seen the light of day before. Because, you know, my feeling is all the games that we've played up until now for the most part are the raw creative energy as filtered through several fine-grain layers of business, marketing, and censorship in some respects, and then what comes out the other end has been curated and created to be very successful in a very narrowly defined way.
So, where you've got animation right now, and it's not just Frederator. It's however Bojack Horseman came into existence, or Rick & Morty. Those are also really great examples of ideas from creatively driven people like Justin Roiland who, if you’re not attuned to it, at face value there's no concrete evidence that their work is gonna be successful. If you’re not the audience or you can’t sympathize with that audience, you won’t get it. It's one of those things where if you don't understand the creative drive and you don't have it, it's quite possible that you don't understand what's so compelling about until it's already been invested in and given the money to make it come to life so you can see and experience it. I don’t think it’s a failure of imagination, it’s just the creative people should be steering the vision and it takes a lot of trust and understanding to be able to allow that to happen. And accepting that failure is an option which is probably a really healthy lesson to learn.
And then that means, like you were saying, that these game companies don't put any money into R&D. Well, they're missing a whole other aspect of some kind of second renaissance that we could be having, where it's really about the investment and taking the time to dive deeper and deeper into the creative people that you already have access to and there's just a lot of filtering that happens.
There was something positive you wanted to hit on, and I feel like I rarely hear this, but you said you appreciate the chance to be a woman in this field --
-- which is largely still dominated by men. You said you really appreciate being a woman in a leadership position and how you can use that to help fight on the frontlines. Can you just talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, I didn't expect myself to kind of fall into the position that I was in. I was hoping that I could be one of those people that kind of hangs out in the background and pulls the strings and helps orchestra the entire process of production. Like, maybe a producer or something.
But there's a lot of people, even in the indie space, who are so focused and fixated on the creative work and the creative side of putting the games that they want to see out there that they aren't really tackling some of the bigger -- what I'd call the meta-issues of the games industry in general. Or even, maybe, the nature of being in the field that we're in right now, which is creating a sustainable business entity that can support that kind of work. And I hear a lot of my fellow indie developers talk about how they're in it for the passion project that they've always wanted to make or they're in it because they left AAA because they were disillusioned and they think that they can make a game that will actually be satisfying and rewarding for them to work on. And so, then it's a lot more about the creative work itself or the process itself, and it's not so much about the kinds of impact that running that kind of organization that supports creative work could be making.
As far as I'm aware, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but there's hardly anyone out there who's talking about fostering this kind of sustainable creative work much like I was referring to animation is doing right now in games. And there's hardly anybody maybe even approaching it from this perspective of, "Things are wrong and bad and they can be different and better."
And if I can just find those people wherever or whoever they are and start -- I feel like it's one of those things where as alienated as I already feel inside of the gaming industry and games in general, it's even more alienating to be a single individual who wants to create that kind of environment to foster all of these creatives. I want to help us make a living.
Yeah, I know a little bit about that.
Some of the stuff you ran into with PAX or with that friend you mentioned, so much of the weird treatment of women that seems to be so persistent in the space -- have you run into that in a professional context?
I can say that a lot of what I think is understood collectively as sexism, which is, like, bald-faced sexism, like, telling a woman that she's no better than being pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen or whatever. Like, that's very stereotypically over the top to me.
The kinds of sexism that we see and that we have now is this kind of insidious, systematic sexism which is just implicitly held in place by virtue of the people being raised with certain rules that are never fully explained exactly. So, for example, I had a conversation recently with somebody really high up at a games company. Like, on the senior leadership team. He and I were talking about why would I feel compelled to run a woman's VR workshop because the fact that there are so few women in VR must be because women aren't naturally attracted to virtual reality or somesuch like that.
So we're just gonna go back to the '80s and '70s again?
[Laughs.] Right. So I'm thinking in my head while he's saying this, "Well, there's your insidious, systematic sexism right there." It's this implicit understanding that some people have that, "Maybe things are the way that they are because that's just women, right?”
Like, it's just totally normal for women to be completely disinterested in a vast world of computer science when there's no proof that it's one way or the other so they can get away with working in the gray area and saying, "Well, since we don't have any evidence..."
Is it ethical for people to encourage their daughters to get into game development?
I think it's a matter of being transparent and honest about the full scope of what that entails.
And I hope it doesn't feel like I'm prying with these types of questions because I never want people to feel like they're pigeonholed to be an authority or whatever or that this is the only thing they have to talk about.
To me, it's this divisive thing where it's like, "Well, it's the first time I'm talking to someone and they might be really offended if I don't ask or they might be really offended if I do ask."
Yeah. It's a lot of situations where I take it like, "I am one person with one series of experiences and set of circumstances."
Right. But you know what I mean. It's just that systematic problems are hard to talk about, period, but I don't want it to seem like I'm painting you as an ambassador or expecting that sort of position. You know what I mean?
Yeah. I just get this sense that there's nothing necessarily disingenuous about, say, being a white man and wanting to encourage women to get more involved in tech or games. I think that acting on that, wanting to be the person that spearheads the movements, is disingenuous. I think that if you want to encourage -- if you are a white guy and you want to encourage women to be more engaged or more involved, then it has a lot more to do with you creating a space for them among other white guys -- that is a sort of quiet idea that could be perpetuated. Make them feel like you’re their people and that they will belong there. Like, the very concept of hiring women is a good thing, and wherever you can diving into the details of why that is a good thing with other white dudes who maybe aren’t aware it’s even that difficult for people not like them.
My co-founder of the game studio, my best friend, is a white guy. And so he and I get into it sometimes about how he should behave when we both go to business meetings or if we are somewhere and both representing our company in some respect. We decided really early on that we're not going to do this really awkward obvious dance where he is always deferring to me because I'm supposed to all of a sudden be the authority and the spokesperson.
It's more about deferring to our respective expertise.
So, if it's about development and it's the nitty-gritty details of development, then it goes to him because he's the lead developer. It's not because he's a white guy.
And if it's about design at all, then it gets deferred to me. As long as it's something that we consistently act on whenever anybody asks us questions about our game or what we're working on or whatever or who's in charge of what, everybody's really honest about it and defers to each other. It's not even just him and me. It's also our audio engineer, our 3D artist, and our narrative designer. If it's in their camp and they're the ones that should be speaking to it, then we offload the questions or the people who are inquiring.
I mean, you can be as assertive and clear and concrete and transparent as that, but I have another friend who's a husband and wife development team and for the life of them, they can't get anyone to email her for stuff. They're always emailing him.
Yeah, there's still -- going back to what I said about the business of systemic sexism.
I have a running list of experiences that I've had that I always -- whenever these sorts of things come up with friends of mine, that these are the things that I talk about. So, these are some examples.
I was at a VR event recently where I and our VR developer, Nick -- we were running a demo of VR games and we had a gentleman come up to our station and he started talking to both of us. The conversation was fine, he was talking to both of us equally. And then Nick had to step away to go handle the person who was currently playing a game on our station. So, I continue the conversation and he formally introduces himself and asks me a little bit more about who I was and what we're doing there. And I think everything's fine. Like, I'm having a really enjoyable conversation with this guy. I give him my business card because I'm telling him what the name of our studio is and it was obvious he misunderstood me or misheard me or whatever because it's loud in there and I give him that.
He takes it from me, looks at it, acknowledges it. Totally normal. Again, no red flags or anything.
So then, our narrative designer comes over, who is also male, and he strikes up a conversation with us and about 30 seconds into him joining our conversation, the guy who we're talking to has to excuse himself. So he looks at the business card and then he looks at our narrative designer and he says, "I have your card, so I'll be in touch with you." As if it was his card and it wasn't me. Like, as if his memory had been completely wiped clean of the fact that I had been the one that told him what it was about.
You were the assistant.
Right. So, he automatically started deferring to the narrative designer as if he was the one who was in charge. And as soon as the guy left, I looked at my narrative designer, because I had mentioned to him very recently that these things happens sometimes to me. I said, "Did you notice?" And when I explained it to him, he was like, mindblown. Could not believe that that dude actually thought that he had given him the business card and not me. Let alone that he was now the point of contact because he had just magically shown up out of nowhere.
I thought that story was going to end with them thinking you're just a huge fan of that studio.
This is the other shitty question to ask, which is: How long ago was that?
That was a month ago.
Yeah. That's not great.
There's some other aspects of it, too, that I don't necessarily have evidence for, but I'm just gathering data in my head as I do. So, for example, I can count on one hand the number of times that I've been asked if I'm “the developer” at an event. And I've demoed countless times and I've shown countless games. Like, done countless playtests and what-have-you. But the number of times that I'm mistaken for the artist is about five times the amount of times that I'm mistaken for the developer, and then the number of times that I'm mistaken for somebody who is not involved with the company at all is probably double both of those.
Does the dynamic -- did it feel different from whether you were presenting professionally or it was your first PAX? I mean, does it feel any different to you, all these years later?
[Laughs.] I definitely acknowledge and recognize that things have been steadily getting better in their own small ways. Like, I don't necessarily get nearly the amount of side eyes that I used to get. There are a lot more women that show up to gaming events in general. Not even just PAX. Because PAX is just an enormous juggernaut at this point.
Say, like, the same VR event that I was at where I had that moment with the business card, there were at least 15 to 20 women there. And I was pleasantly surprised. And a lot of them were not even, like, already working in the space. They were just curious. They just wanted to know what was going on and what was happening with VR and to try to figure out how they could be a part of it or what all was there to play around with and to experience.
Yeah. So, I mean, it's crazy how much stuff changes culturally, like, really quickly. But then, like, other stuff like that is really really slow. I don't know. It sucks to hear about and sometimes in this project I just talk to people who are completely not perceptive of there being problems like that.
And then that does stuff to my head where I'm like, "Well maybe it's sort of been solved? Or maybe I'm just not talking to the right people?"
I am just continuously skeptical of -- like, there's no way that's changed that quickly where I talk to a few people in the last year and they haven't seen it.
I read one of your interviews a little bit ago and I can't remember who it was and I don't think I want to name names right now. But, I mean, it's there. It's publicly available, so, people can go find it if they want to.
But there's an interview with a guy who said, "I don't perceive there being any sexism in the games industry anymore." And when, say, for example, like, he said, "When we were hiring people there were a bunch of men and two women in the room, and we hired the right candidate for the job." And the thing that really struck on for me is actually something that I bear witness to outside of the games industry and in my day job, which is -- so that means that it's not just the games industry, right? Like, again, hitting on the systemic sexism thing where I really recently was in a room full of men and women trying to get together and wrap our heads around -- we need to hire for a specific position and we had two different candidates. And it wasn't about the candidates. It was really about what the roles and responsibilities of the person that we were hiring needed to fulfill. And so, what I was pushing for in my own small way was I wanted to hire the woman that we had interviewed because I saw a lot of really good potential in her. I said, "It wasn't the candidate that we were expecting and it wasn't the candidate that we were asking for. However, I can see a space for her here if we give her a little bit of internal support.”
And the idea of giving anybody -- not just a woman, but anybody internal support was immediately shot down with just a brief justification of, "Well, nobody has time to handle them." And that struck on an even deeper nerve which is even more a generalization of the games industry and other industries at large, like, since the recession, the idea of mentorship and training on the job has just completely evaporated. And so it's hurting everyone, but it's hurting women and minorities in particular even harder because those are the people who are, by default, don't have the accessibility or the proximity to tech fields or STEM or whatever.
Yeah. They're already marginalized.
Yeah, they're already marginalized and they're being marginalized even further by the fact that nobody's willing to train anymore. Everybody just wants to hire the perfect person right out of the box.
And so I witness it happening, you know, in its own very indirect way and it's really tough for you to draw that, to tease out those nuances. So, for example, somebody who had the same experience, the same viewpoint as [that interviewee] where they don't see it for what it is is couched in their own experiences and their own privilege and their own accessibility to the games industry. You know, whereas the woman that we interviewed, she didn't know hardly anything about computer programming until after college. She actually heard about Ruby from a friend because of a bootcamp or something or another and she thought it sounded interesting and so she looked into it and the more that she worked on it and then she went to the bootcamp and now this is what she wants to do as a career, and this is, like, one of those beautiful, like, "I truly found myself that day" sorta stories.
And that's the thing that I was fed by and that's the thing that I wanted to invest in. I wanted us to invest in that idea of somebody finally coming into their own and finding their place in the universe and trying to help them grow into that. And there's no culture in tech, let alone the games industry, that actually fosters that anymore. Like, nobody's gonna come out of nowhere, take you under their wing, and fly you off into a really cushy design position on a AAA title somewhere.
But the resolution on this huge systemic issue that we're getting in the present day is that it doesn't matter how much resistance to change there is. It's going to change with or without you. And that makes me content at the end of the day to feel like I tried hard enough.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I think that they've accomplished helping us understand what the point of technology is and what role technology plays in our lives. And there's a lot of things that tech does -- computers, mobile phones, or what have you, the Internet -- with respect to productivity and kind of supporting the ease and the efficiency of day-to-day life. But games have provided us with this method of using the technology that affords us, like, efficiency and productivity and given it an entertainment quality and the ability to not just entertain ourselves but to connect with other people socially through entertainment. So, you can have a situation much like I found myself in time and again where I feel particularly socially isolated but I can get online and play games with my friends and it's as if I just spent an entire afternoon outside playing basketball or what-have-you.
Like, it's the same kind of social de-stressing and kind of satisfaction that I get out of it. And in a large way, for better or for worse, with all the problems that you've got with 9-year-olds on Xbox swearing racial slurs and all of that shit, you've got this venue through which people can bond by participating in these different kinds of, like, online interactions that have a basis and a justification for happening.
Like, there's now a culturally-acceptable excuse to socialize through games. And that's, like, games have become this vehicle for socialization and not just that but being exposed to new ideas, like, games as a vehicle for living and walking in the shoes of somebody who you've never met before or living a life that you could have never lived before we had things like videogames or things like virtual reality is a great example because that's part of my motivation for walking in VR, is to expose people to different lives and different ways of experiencing reality that they otherwise, if it were not for VR, would have never experienced.