You can call me a game developer who’s in his forties. Man. That’s a sad-sounding thing to be, somehow.
Why is anonymity so important for this conversation we're about to have?
The videogame audience is sometimes highly terrifying. It’s fickle, it’s reactionary, and it doesn’t care about nuance. You can bring a lot of grief to a project that you're on by saying the wrong thing. You can really summon the pitchfork-carrying villagers to burn down your castle, which is inhabited by 200 other people besides you. If you're accidentally the guy who summons those lunatics, you're gonna feel like a real asshole, obviously. [Laughs.] I think that's at the core of my hesitation. Making a game is always so collaborative, which is a cliché by this point. There’s all these dozens of other people toiling incredibly long hours -- a lot of them don't get that much attention or praise -- and yet when you talk about Important People in Videogames it’s always the usual suspects, who have the freedom to talk openly. But look at a guy like Adam Orth. Good, solid guy who said one flippant thing and his life as it existed was over. Look at BioWare’s Jennifer Hepler. The cautionary examples they offer are terrifying.
So more of the threat you're speaking of comes from the audience?
Yeah, because our audience can be really terrifying. When you're speaking about some of the more difficult questions that the industry faces, you really don't want to paint a target on yourself. Not to the audience, and not to critics, which is a whole other gross bag of frustration.
I did a preview last year. Went and visited a game studio. And I had never run into this level of not wanting to communicate on things: A writer asked whether this particular open-world game would have a day/night cycle. And immediately a PR person swooped in and said they weren't going to talk about that.
What is actually being protected here?
I can guess that maybe they were trying -- and probably failing -- to get a seamless, interesting day/night cycle to work and didn't want to say that publicly because if and when the game came out and there isn’t a day/night cycle, NeoGAF would be like, "Those jerks said it was gonna have a day/night cycle, but there isn’t one, so they suck! They weren't good enough to make one!" My guess is that. They were protecting themselves from that.
I also came to realize after doing that preview that there aren't a lot of people in games at your level really active on social media. I had been told part of the reason for that is to avoid if there's a slow news day on Kotaku or whatever, something being taken out of context. Is that an actual mandate you're being told: Don't have a Twitter account?
People on the PR side of things want you as a "visible creative" to be active; they want you to have a big Twitter presence. But I don't think everyone gets a lot of media training, and ill-advised Facebook posts and comments on Twitter can do a lot of damage. So most of us opt out on our own, for our own sanity’s sake. Certain people like Cliff Bleszinski and Ken Levine and people at that level have the luxury of being rogue agents on Twitter, you know? [Laughs.] They’ve gotten to a place where they can say what’s on their minds. Most of us aren’t there and never will be there.
That's okay, because I have a thing about Cliff Bleszinski I can share and ask about. I interviewed him, and he mentioned having watched the movie Restrepo. I didn't realize there was a PR person on the line during our entire conversation, and after Cliff hung up, the PR person called me back and she asked me not to run that he has seen that movie and that he's a fan of it. I think that may have been the first time I was like, "What the hell is going on in videogames?"
Here's how it was explained to me. You probably know all this already. PR people want to control every bit of information that comes out of the long lead-up to a game. They don't want any surprise stories. They don't want any game creator opening his mouth and accidentally becoming the story. There's limited space, there's a limited number of websites, and when they, the PR people, can't control how the campaign for their game goes -- drop dates for this trailer, drop dates for the weapon announcements, drop dates for concept art. See, there needs to be this steady information drip to all the websites, and it’s kept on a very tight schedule. They want it all feeding into their grand marketing plan. And so when you're talking about something that they don't want you talking about, that throws off and endangers their schedule.
I think it's a foolish fear, personally, but that's where it comes from. It’s them, the PR people, wanting to make sure that they give the exact stories they want to exactly the places they want them to go with exactly the people they want to tell them. Why? Because it makes the PR people feel like they're doing a good job. They can go to their bosses and say, "Look at this campaign I ran, look how well it went." In that sense it's very human. [Laughs.] I don't think there's anything insidious about it.
Here's a thing that might interest you. I've been at a studio when you have all the press come in for a preview. The more independent sites pay for their own flights and book their own hotels, of course, to maintain professional distance, but at the same time the game company will inevitably take everyone out for dinner. A lot of the journalists will pay their own way for that, too, if they can.
But at some point you get all these people in a room to play the game’s multiplayer, say, and usually everyone has a blast or seems to have a blast, and you the developer maybe even feel like you become friends, sort of, with some of the journalists. Mostly you hope they like your game. Now, the Gamergate crowd would look at all this and say, "Collusion!" But the fact of the matter is when those journalists walk out of the room, we the devs all look at each other and go, "Fuck, man. I hope they liked it." Because we have no idea. We don't know what they're gonna go off and write. People can go off and write whatever they want.
Eight of the 10 previews we got from this particular press day I’m thinking of right now were really positive and there were a couple that were not. I would say five of the 10 were really positive, two were pretty positive, and another two were negative. And you might argue that all the psychological pressure comes in when the people are there and you're eating together and being friendly, and of course video game companies are trying to create that confusion on the part of those vulnerable journalists. [Laughs.] That's totally, totally part of the design. At the same time, no developer I’ve worked for shows stuff to journalists they’re not really proud of. And again, they really don't have any idea what those journalists are gonna say when they go back to their hotel rooms to write up their pieces.
And so, from my side of things, I feel like it's sort of more insidious than I think Gamergate types would understand it to be, because it's sort of more human, you know what I mean? I mean everyone's a lot more vulnerable than I think they're aware of. But at the end of the day there's not a lot a game company can do to fundamentally change a journalist’s perception of a game, because they have the freedom to write whatever they want. Now, will the journalist who writes a negative preview of a game for which they were wined and dined to play be punished later by that company’s vengeful PR person? Maybe. I’ve heard of that happening. I’ve also heard about PR people thanking journalists for well-considered negative reviews. It all comes down to the people, how reasonable and thoughtful they are. I may sound like I’m rationalizing here, but I’m not. I’m trying to explain. Obviously it’s still a shitty system. The whole "come to our studio for a preview" thing is horrendously dumb anyway.
What would a better system be?
That's a great question. I don’t know. The thing is, it's not that different from most entertainment. Entertainment industry journalists are way, way, way more implicated in sketchy stuff than any game journalist. A lot of sports journalism, too. It's all just part of the same shitty orchestration and puppet mastery and media manipulation that goes on in every splashy industry.
When we spoke before, you said the critics are jackals and the fans are idiots. I'd be curious to hear you elaborate on that, but also to put a more positive spin on it: Is it possible those two factions are that way because they're not getting the full picture or non-controlled information?
It seems to me that the 24-hour news cycle and the predominance of constantly updated websites have been kind of a disaster when it comes to creative work being consumed by this many people. When a game that, for whatever reason, gets a bad rap out there among game writers and bloggers, most of whom, as I say, are jackals, then the conversation around that game has already been framed. And game journalists do this to games all the time, working off almost no real evidence. They can do and do it in ways that can be really destructive to a team’s morale. Especially if they’re talking about something they haven’t played yet.
I remember Wolfenstein getting massive amounts of shit right up until the moment it came out. Game bloggers and game writers would just snark on it relentlessly. This snark filtered down into the comments. By the way, don’t read the comments.
I felt really bad for the men and women on that team, because I’d heard from friends at Bethesda that the game was really looking like it could be something special. Just seeing the constant shit a game like that takes in the long wind up to its release -- it pains me even for games I know I’ll never play. Just think about all the people working really hard on a game and how absolutely devastating it would be just to be working so hard on something, missing your husband, your wife, your kids, and some fuckhead comes along and takes a crap on it, just takes a massive crap on it, despite having never seen a single pixel in the game in motion. How angry that would make someone. Being away from their family. Working long nights. Trying to make this thing good. It's very hard, I think, for game developers to keep a super-positive attitude about the role of the press when a lot of them, even a lot of the good ones, do that shit.
I think it's taken for granted that games are really the only medium where there's a constant expectation to be seeing a product when it's almost never in a state of being ready to be seen. And there's been a huge sea change from the days of Nintendo Power, when there used to be a feeling of --
Joy, and somehow what's displaced it is, I think, trying to be cool. I think it's poisoned the way people who write about games. To me, it's a very sad or small thing for an adult to derive coolness from. I don't understand where the fans' point of entry there, then, is in being jackals. Is it just merely parroting stuff that they're reading? Is it because hating stuff is popular?
It’s because, our critics often behave like jackals and our audience often seems comprised mostly of thugs. I’ve totally disconnected from the community of commentary around games. Kotaku. Polygon. I’ll read headlines, maybe neutral stuff, but I never read reviews and I never read editorials. I try to never, ever read the comments. It got too depressing.
Just the negativity. Just the endless, nasty negativity. It makes you feel bad if you do this for a living. Why do so many of the people who consume the things you make seem to hate the things they consume? It really makes you feel like, "Why the fuck am I even bothering?" The best and maybe the only way to get around that feeling of disillusionment is to just refuse to engage with it. Ever since I started refusing to engage with it, I feel great about videogames. They’re what I make with my colleagues and what I play and talk about with a few like-minded friends. That’s it.
I envy you in many ways. I don't have that luxury because of the things I'm doing, and whenever I get a chance to take a break from the Internet, it's nice to get a break from being hyper-aware of the things people are insecure, self-conscious, or angry about.
So, but, maybe you already answered this, but what are your games-media consumption habits like? Is it typical for people at or around your level?
Most of the people I know in the industry, the higher up people, do not engage with videogame commentary at all. Because they figured out what I recently figured out, which is that it’s poisonous. So no, the small number of prominent devs I know do without a diet of game commentary.
Like reading it even?
Maybe they’ll look at it but most only look at it when they're pretty sure it's gonna be positive. Or if it's gonna be negative it, they'll read it from a trusted source, like someone who doesn't seem to have an ax to grind. At the companies I worked at, after a game comes out, they'll go around and be pretty conscientious about sharing reviews, but with stuff that's negative they'll talk about it in terms of what to distill. Bomb-throwing-type criticism is never shared, probably because it’s not intended to help the people who made the game.
But here's the thing, too, though, is when you write a negative review, sometimes you do hear from the companies who made the game. And it's so rarely level-headed, it tends to just be, "Aw man, really? I thought you liked us." They just feel personally hurt, and e-mailing me about it won't change my feelings. It's just something they could consider when they make their next game, but I'm also just trying to do my job, and also: I'm not the person who made the game. Their megaphone is way louder than mine.
Right. Well, that’s true. It does hurt! And there’s the intimate, human emotion thing I discussed earlier rearing its intimate, human head. If you ask me, a review isn’t for the developer anyway. If it helps us, great. But it’s not for us. But to your point: I think when you're a game developer, you're much more well served reading a curated selection from a wide variety of reviews rather than reading all the reviews.
So why are the critics jackals and the audience thugs?
It’s a culture-war thing, basically. At least I think so. Most game journalists are lefties and a big percentage of the audience is right-libertarian. Combine those things, the crappy thinking that goes on -- well, it’s a miracle that any civil, thoughtful conversation goes on in this space at all.
I think the other thing you said is there's an empathy deficit in games.
Yeah. Yeah. And look what our games are about. [Laughs.] Killing each other. This is not a coincidence. We have the audience we deserve, probably.
What's keeping the industry from creatively progressing? How would you like to see it change?
I had all sorts of thoughts on this, but the deeper you get in the process, the less optimistic you feel about convincing companies that are spending 100 million dollars on a video game to "take chances." Some companies still do it, obviously, but here's the thing. Say you're doing a sequel to a really popular game and you, as a team, want to leave your mark on it. But the fans don't want an established series to change too much. It's a legitimate fear. If you change too much you get slapped down. Look at Arkham Origins. That was a terrific game that got smacked down critically because it wasn't different enough. But say you don't change much. Then, of course, hordes of gamers will say, "Well, this isn't different at all. It's just a mod." So you can't win. You really can't win. The loudest, least reasonable voice dominates, and it seems distressingly possible that the loudest, least reasonable voice basically is our audience, writ large.
So then you say, "Let's just do something new. Let's start a new IP." But when Electronic Arts, one of the biggest game developers in the world, has basically admitted that it doesn't know how to launch new IPs, what is the hope for anyone? When EA, which has virtually unlimited resources, is worried about getting its games into the collective zeitgeist, how can any game company push out a new product with any confidence? And then what do you do with a new IP, once it’s out? Look at something like Watch Dogs. People thought it was gonna be this revolution, and it just turned out to be a pretty good GTA clone with a hacking mini game.
Yeah. That sounds like taking a lot of risks.
[Laughs.] I mean, just putting together $100 million to make a game -- Jesus, that seems like risk enough, doesn’t it? When I’ve been on big games, I’ve felt acutely conscious of not wasting money on things the game’s intended audience is not gonna like. Because it’s not responsible. Why is it not responsible? Because it’s not my money. Which makes me sound like a sellout. Which is maybe what I am!
Fair enough. But it sounds like we're circling back to where we started. But you can't say that as a creator, that the problem is the audience.
The problem is not the audience. The audience is one aspect of a bigger problem, which is how does anyone wrangle a team of 150 to even agree on what "innovate" even means? Especially when a large part of making any game is just determining how anything is going to work. Look at Assassin's Creed, that last one, with the disappearing faces and all that. From what I understand that was the sad end result of feature creep, which is to say too much shit getting added in while the team was working on two new pieces of hardware that they weren’t still entirely sure how to maximalize performance with. Think about how interrelated the systems are in an AssCreed game. Just one little fuck-up and you just send this cascade of problems through the whole build. Obviously they didn't test enough. Obviously they added stuff right up until the thing game went gold. So, on that level, of course it didn’t work properly when it came out. How could it work properly under those conditions? Conditions, I’ll remind you, driven by the perceived need to "innovate."
Just that and how it played out are indicative of communication being really strained. Ubisoft didn't make matters better with a 12-hour embargo on the day it came out. The whole thing felt completely mishandled and mismanaged.
I still don't know what to make of all that. That half-day embargo couldn't have been driven by an implicit "don't give us bad reviews," could it? What's the difference 12 hours would even make?
I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other, it just seems to be part of the bigger problems going on here. But getting back to creativity in bigger games: What would you like to see more of?
I personally would like to see a lot more people making really cool four- to seven-hour games than another studio breaking off from Infinity Ward and trying to make the next Call of Duty killer. But will these smaller teams ever really happen? A little, but not a lot. The business of making 10 million on a five-million investment is simply not as enticing as making a billion on a hundred-million investment. Relatedly, as a dev, making a $15,000 bonus is not nearly as exciting as making a $110,000 bonus. From a creative standpoint, though, obviously the majority of the really exciting stuff is coming from smaller teams rather than the 120 people being corralled to make a new action game. There’s some exceptions to this, like Rockstar, but for the most part it’s true.
Do you have a dream game that you would love to make?
Yeah, I used to say I wanted to make an open-world game, but now it seems to me like a living nightmare just seeing how complicated they are. Can you imagine working on something for five years, six years, crunching out of your mind? I crunched for six months and I thought I was gonna die. It was awful. I can't imagine doing that for years on end. The kind of games I make are linear action games. I feel perfectly content with that. Say you can give someone an experience with cool, involving gameplay and have some great art and interesting scenarios with a lot of spectacle. Say you do that. You get someone to sit on his or her couch for maybe three nights, four nights, and give them an experience where at the end of it they're like, "Wow, that was a lot of fun. It had some cool moments. That was an experience I’m really glad I had." That seems like a perfectly awesome gift to give someone, and it’s why I never feel bad about working on AAA games. At their worst, they’re junk food, but at their best, they can be something really delicious.
Something else I wanted to ask you about was videogame consultancies. What's your feeling about them? For anyone reading who doesn't understand what they are, let me explain first: These are third-party companies hired by publishers to review a game still being made by a developer and do analysis and suggest changes.
I've had pretty negative experiences with them. I think they can be helpful, but I also think they can derail a project and cause a lot of panicky over-corrections -- while creating new problems in places. The creatives working on a game can look at it say, "Oh, dear. This isn't very good yet." But these consultancies come in and say, "This sucks." But then the suits come to the creatives in a panic and say, "Oh my God. They said this sucks. We can't have the sucky parts anymore. Because they suck. These people -- these people we paid a lot of money to -- said they suck."
The creative are telling the suits, "Yeah, we know it sucks. We’re fixing it." But because the suits have no faith in the creatives, typically, and no real understanding of how stuff gets good, they’ll come back and say, "No, don’t you understand? They said it sucks. We paid a lot of money to discover that it sucks. We have statistical support that it sucks, so get rid of it." That happens a lot and the games I’ve worked on have not really benefited from that cycle. At all. So it's not really the consultant's problem. It's more like the problem lies in the chain reactions they can cause.
It's such a difficult thing to quantify, too, whether they even helped the end product.
For what I do personally, consultants have no impact whatsoever. Even when they're commenting directly on the work I've done. That’s because I refuse to listen to somebody who's played 10 percent of a game and then makes sweeping suggestions for how the rest of the game, which they can only imagine, should be like. When I don't think a person has a clue, I refuse to listen to them. Now, I listen a lot more carefully near the end of a project cycle, when they’re playing more of the game. But then it’s often too late to make substantive changes. It’s part of the awful paradox of game development.
They're a relatively new phenomenon, right, these consultancies? In the last 10 years or so?
Yeah. I think if I were working with them directly rather than just getting the curated, bullet-pointed list of stuff they’ve complained about, I probably would have different feelings about consultancies. I could sit down with them and have a comfortable conversation about their problems and issues. But that's not how it ever gets communicated to the people on the team. The suits give you this unfeeling, impersonal report -- a mock review. Consultancies are mostly staffed with former game journalists, and so these men and women are being asked to come in and offer their expertise on what they think isn't working. So they're automatically coming into the room in hypercritical mode. When you’re being paid to find flaws, flaws are all you’re likely to find. They give notes on everything, and it's not very helpful. Half the stuff you read -- about how the game’s likely to be perceived by the market, say -- is stuff every single member of the team could have had an educated, equally convincing opinion about. I will always place much, much, much more faith in the process within a team, in the core leadership on a game, all the leads, getting in a room and playing together and talking about what's working and what's not working. You'd be shocked by how seldom that happens during development. Everyone's all wrapped up in their own little areas.
Is it just because teams are getting too big?
Because teams are getting too big. And everyone's way too busy. It can be really hard to get people in a room playing their own videogame and talking about it. Bizarrely hard. And yet that’s what everyone’s job is supposed to be, at some level. Playing their own videogame and talking about it.
What is it you think most people don't understand about the way AAA games are made?
Everyone talks about how hard they are to make, but it's very hard to quantify that. I’ll try to think of a game I worked on that never got out of concept. Okay, yeah. I was working on an open-world shooter that got canceled a couple years ago. Something as simple as picking up quests turned out to be an unbelievably complicated engineering and cinematic problem. If you're in a multiplayer game -- it was basically gonna be like Destiny. It was gonna be that kind of thing: persistent world, multiplayer-based, with story components. That was the pitch.
And so we had to figure stuff out. Like when you were with a team of up to eight co-players, and you picked up a quest, how did we make that feel seamless and significant? How did we make it so that the other players didn't feel bored, while also communicating to them mission context and character and all the rest? How would all present squad members even understand a quest was active if they weren’t paying attention? Some of us wondered what was the point of even trying to give the quest-givers any character or personality when this quest-giver could actually only address one person at a time. So it all sounds really simple, and in a single-player game it would be simple, but in the particular confines of the shared-world multiplayer game we were working on, all these questions ended up being ridiculously hard and complicated. Whenever you came into the quest-giver’s room, there was never a way to seamlessly -- this was last-gen hardware -- shift from walking into the room into a scripted event wherein the quest-giver began to talk and give context. You always had to fade down and fade back up briefly, which was bullshit for all the other members of your party. It was all very dissatisfying, and illustrated to me and a lot of other people on the team how difficult it is even to pull off the simplest little thing in a multiplayer game that tries to include story. Does any of this make sense?
Something that seems very simple and very obvious when you're experiencing a game is not so simple or obvious when you're trying to make it work. How utterly complicated this simple-seeming thing is, and how hard people work to make it look and feel good, and how many times they fail! You kind of just have to sit back and rub your chin at how massive and complex everything you do in a game actually is. Like, the first time someone made a videogame where if you shot someone and blood sprayed out of them and hit the walls, and the blood looked real? Like, how unbelievably complicated that is and how much we take it for granted now. The amount of failure to get up to that. And how depressing that blood splattering on walls is the first example that sprang to my mind. People endlessly complain about the stuff they find in videogame worlds, but don’t they know how astonishing those worlds, even the lousy ones, really are? Everything you see is a shitload of AI programming, a shitload of audio design, it's a shitload of animation. Games are impossibly complicated. I wish more gamers understood that.
Do you think the generation of kids growing up playing games today are angrier about stuff in games than we were growing up playing games?
We have a record of wonder.
So then why are we so miserable about games?
I think we all slightly fear that we’re spending so much time on completely disposable entertainment that future generations will look back on and say, "What the fuck was that?"
So, then, why does any of this matter that we as adults feel so strongly about this. Videogames. Who is this harming if bigger games are not as creative as we'd like them to be?
Everything games are going through right now, from my perspective at least, is about this false struggle for authenticity and legitimacy. Gamers are so conscious of the world's slings and arrows by this point. I think, rightfully, that playing a really good game is a million times more involving than, say, watching even pretty classy television. But it’s so hard to get someone to see that without putting a controller in their hand. Actually, this is where I think a lot of anger in this industry comes from -- a lot of this desire for innovation and creativity. It’s actually fueled by everyone’s secret agenda that they don’t want to change. Big AAA companies want to keep making shooters because they understand them and they make money. The politically involved videogame activists don’t want anything to really change because then they’d lose their little piece of the platform. Videogame advocates don’t actually want games accepted by the mainstream because that means they’d lose their little treehouse community. The thing is, nobody wants innovation and creativity. Look at the sales of games that are genuinely interesting and innovative. Very few people buy them. Certainly not enough to fund an industry.
So something's wrong here. Someone's not telling the truth about what they really like or what they really want.
Who do you think that is?
I think a lot of devs feel confused about who their audience is. My favorite game developers are people who made whatever interested them at the time. You know, though, what always kinda bums me out when I talk to some really well known developers, celebrity game developer types? All of them have one thing in common. Would you like to know what that is?
They all claim that they hate videogames.
I don't even think games are as mainstream as everyone in them feels they are.
Oh, they're definitely not. But, all that said, I feel pretty optimistic about games. There’s a huge number of gamers out there who don't comment on websites, who don't know the ins and outs of the industry, who don’t care about who’s who. They don't know or care how exactly or technically games work. They're just interested in the experience of playing them. And I think that there is a hundredfold more of those people than the thousands who get paid to talk about games and write about games and the tens of thousands who leave shitty, nasty comments on game blogs and elsewhere.
Here’s a truism: No one happy goes out of their way to shit on other people’s work. No one I’d want to be friends with would find that a useful or productive use of their time. So the only way to deal with people like that is to remove their power by not paying any attention to them.