Asher Einhorn

All right, so, yeah, my name's Asher Einhorn and I'm in London. I'm 28.

I actually started doing film first. I knew I always wanted to do something creative and I think I always knew I wanted to do games. I was always designing games.

But I think when I was younger, and this always annoys people when you tell them this, especially in the games industry -- I kinda thought games was too geeky to do as a job. When I was a lot younger I thought people would judge me for it. But then when I got a little bit older I realized that was kind of ridiculous, so I switched to do games programming in university to get my foot in the door and then basically annoyed the crap out of my bosses until they let me be a designer.


So, yeah. And here I am now. So I've been working -- I worked on F1. That was the first game as a programmer. And then all three Disney Infinity Games that have been out or coming out so far. And that was kind of as more and more of a designer as that went on and now I'm in between things doing a bit of freelance stuff.

So, you skipped a couple of steps there. How did you go from university to being in between projects now? Like, how did you go from university to getting a job and then -- I don't want to pry too much, but why did you decide to leave?

Yeah, no, fair enough.

So, yeah, at uni I did this course where we kind of learned a bit of everything, you know, a bit of 3D modeling, some programming, stuff like that. And the thing about all the courses at the time -- I think they're a lot better now -- is that they're just terrible. They don't teach you what you need to know. And having been in the industry now, I think there's a really specific set of tools that you need to know to get the first job that you could quite easily tell someone. So there's already a bit of misunderstanding there, like already the people who run the courses there don't really know what is needed for the industry.

So, I spent about 10 months back living at home with my parents learning more coding, making portfolio stuff, and then applying for jobs and eventually getting my first break at this company.

And so, basically, yeah, so I guess we’ll talk a little more honestly than I could in other places. The real truth is I was just tired of making Disney Infinity. You know, it's a great game but it's for kids. And there's a really nice learning curve you go through with learning how to design for other people and getting into that mindset. But ultimately I didn't really get into games to make them for other people. I wanted to make games that I wanted to play. So after a while, I learned an enormous amount of stuff but it kind of became clear to me that I would be better off leaving and working on my portfolio and making, you know for example -- third-person action kind of stuff if I wanted to get that next job. It would be more relevant at this point.

Yeah. There's another interview I did which you may have seen, with Laralyn McWilliams, who talks about how if you make games for kids or games for women you end up --

Typecast, I suppose.

Maybe it's too soon for you to know whether that's going to be true, but is that a concern of yours?

Yeah. Definitely. It definitely was a concern.

I think now that I've been applying around and getting quite good feedback from some big fine studios I think I'm fine. But I was worried about that.

But they say as well, if you go and work on mobile games, if you work on mobile free-to-play and things like that, it's very difficult to get back into hardcore games as they call them. Console games. That kind of thing.

"Real games."

Exactly, yeah.

But yeah, so, it's one of those things where it would be really nice just to be able to fill a bit of time between roles by going and working for, like, a mobile company, but it's so much better to work on your portfolio, which is crazy. You know, this is actually one thing I hadn't even thought of before we spoke, that I think is really stupid about the industry, because it works both ways.

A mobile company will look at you, and you might have had five years' of experience working on big big projects and they say, "No, sorry, you don't have any free-to-play experience so we're not gonna give you an interview." And it's like -- it seems ridiculous because, really, if you're a good designer, if you're an intelligent person, you can really adapt to anything. It seems like people are really put into these little sectors and it's very difficult to move between them.

How much of that do you think that has to do with ineffectual HR people who don't actually work in the game industry or understand the skill sets? In other words, just being like, "Well, the listing says this and I don't see those keywords."

Yeah, I think that's a big issue. And I think the problem is -- it's kind of twofold, I suppose. One -- there are so many people who want to work in the industry and so few companies. I mean, America is kind of a little bit of a different story but it's really like this in the UK. There are, like, three companies you might want work for and there are so many people trying to get those jobs.

Is one of those Rockstar?

It is, yeah. We've got Rockstar, Rocksteady, and Lionhead basically. And there are others, but those are the big ones.


So, with the amount of people that apply, they must have to filter this stuff down. And that’s the second issue -- the majority of HR people don't really know about the industry. At the very good companies you see that they do. But, yeah, you want to be able to just send an email to somebody saying, "Hey, I love your game and I've been passionate about it for years, look at my portfolio." But that email will never get through to the person you want to see it.

Can you say what you did on Disney Infinity?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I started off as a mission scripter. They have this whole tool you use to actually make missions, so it's a little bit like programming and I was using that. Then I kind of went through a phase of doing things like enemy design and stuff like that. And eventually, on the last one, I was designing the core components of the game and helping out with general things like the main story arc. I think when people think of what a games designer is, you know, they kind of think of someone who sits back and just thinks of the ideas. I think I was actually doing that on the last one a little bit.


But then, you know, once development starts, you focus down, and you make things.

How do quests get approved in games? Is there a pitch process? I'm sure stuff gets rejected, but how does it get approved?

Yeah, I think it's probably -- that's probably one of the things that needs to become better in games. The process for all kinds of design is a little bit loose, and I'm sure it varies from company to company. In general, what I've seen is this kind of method that's taken from Pixar. So, what you do is -- for a number of different things is you basically give somebody a piece of work and that could be, like a mission. A writer will say, "Okay, we need the characters to get from this point to this point. You have to put something in the middle." And you as a designer will kind of make this mission and then you will have something called a daily, and this is the thing that's taken from Pixar, you'll kind of sit down, everyone that's interested will come and your lead will come and you'll let them play through it and they'll give feedback. And it can be really brutal 'cause you don't want to waste time and, yeah, that's kind of how it happens. And you keep changing it and keep changing it until it's approved.

But that kind of process is not necessarily as -- I think that probably what you imagine when you hear that it’s a little bit more formal than it is. I think quite a lot of the time there's just a lot of content that needs to be made and those sort of processes get skipped over a little.

But then, you know, if you look at, say, a company like Naughty Dog or Activision, for example, I imagine that their design, before they even start making anything will be much, much more solid.

As far as what?

Levels, mechanics, missions design. Just in general. The way that people are starting to do these things is they work out the emotions that they want the player to go through and they write down some sort of arc. Just like in a film, you've got your peaks and valleys or whatever, rising and falling tension. And then somebody will try and design gameplay and kind of the level around it so that it actually makes you feel that tension in the right kind of way.

And then after that, then, I think people will kind of sit down and start to pick it apart and say what works and what doesn't. But I think on paper in those companies it's a lot more designed. At other companies you can get this role, for example, called a quest designer for a lot of things like big MMOs and stuff like that and that's much more like you go and make a load of stuff, it's basically meant to be filler content and it's not held to such a high standard.

What sort of feedback gets back to you from the general gaming public about your games or anything you've specifically done?

Yeah, I guess the thing you mostly hear about is when the game is shown to a publisher or someone high up in the company and then you get feedback from that, which can be motivational, or can be when they really don’t like something.

But as far as the general public goes, you don't really get any feedback from that. The only thing you get is comments on YouTube videos, user scores on Metacritic and all that kind of stuff. The one thing I would love to do, actually, is there's a lot of games being made now with either, like, transparent development processes where people can just talk to you or a game that's more like a service - like a multiplayer game where the community's really, really involved. And that would be really cool because if you're making it specifically so people can play it, it's not like a story that you want to share, it's just like a gamey game that people play, it'd be a nice thing to have that kind of direct feedback.


A gamey game? Are you liking that phrase? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I am a word person so, yes.


I was just clapping in my head.


[Laughs.] I mean, you were saying, too, there's a real lack of availability of information about in the industry, like, well -- what were you referring to? Because I know the things that I sense are missing.

Yeah, the main thing that sort of stand out, is that when I was younger and I was just playing games, I'd constantly be coming up with these crazy ideas for stuff and I'd be thinking, "I'm a genius! I've thought of this idea, no one's made it yet. Why is no one doing this?"

And you get into these companies and you realize that, you know -- okay, so, first of all you play all these generic games and they're pretty boring. There's a lot of first-person shooters. There might be some good ones but basically they're all more or less the same. And then you get into these companies and realize that everyone feels the same. **Everyone has some crazy idea for a game that would be really cool but no one's making them.**And I think the real problem is -- well i'm not really sure, but, I guess I could take a sort of stab at why.

One of the biggest problems, I think, is that a lot of the people who run the studios -- they were in the industry from the beginning and they're not necessarily -- and this is not directed at anyone in particular -- the right people to make games. They don't necessarily have a passion for it or have a talent for it. They're just the people that were in at the beginning and they have these studios now and they're really established. But, so, you know, that's one reason why games design can be kind of generic.

The other is that, just like the Avatar syndrome of that film, when you're spending so much money on something you don't want to take chances. So you go with the kind of safe, generic route.

It's kind of a weird thing, actually, because I think about this a lot and I think one of the weird reasons as to why the videogame industry is a little bit stale is maybe -- this might be absolute nonsense -- because it made too much money too fast. These things suddenly exploded and they make so much money now that you need thousands of people on these teams. So people play it safe.


And so, you know, it's a slightly different cycle to the film industry.

I don't think that's crazy or weird at all. I talked to someone at E3 this year.


They worked on a Halo game. I think that'll do a sufficient job of masking their identity but will give you an idea of where it's coming from. They said that the game industry got too big, too quick. I think the exact metaphor was, "It's a speedboat that people built hastily without learning how to drive it. It's falling apart but they're trying to just keep driving faster away from itself."


Yeah, that's a very good analogy.


We’ll dig a bit deeper into that, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you mean when you say games are "generic" or the industry is “stale?” Like, what does that mean to you?

For me it just means that game design is very static. There are basically a few archetypes of games -- FPS, JRPGs, big open-world collectathons. and these just get copied and made over and over again. Actually, that’s kind of an interesting thing -- in the games industry and within a company, it seems totally acceptable to plagiarise other games. I found this bizarre when I first entered the industry. But yeah, so that’s kind of what I mean -- a real lack of innovation. You do see some stuff, especially in the indie scene where games need to make less money, and it even slowly bleeds over into AAA, but games are nowhere near as interesting as they could be with the technology we have to build them. At this point we could really just do anything, but people don’t.

But, yeah, like, it is an interesting notion that the game industry is a victim of its own success and I think certainly makes sense when you see game companies with a lot of money painting themselves as victims where they're like, "Well, it's too big a risk."

So I don't think it's crazy, like you were saying, that's all.

No. I think, actually, there is sort of light at the end of the tunnel because whereas film went in a very sort of understandable arc where things got bigger and bigger -- well, actually maybe that's not true. I guess the Hollywood studio system is maybe where we are now. And that's gonna collapse and it kind of is collapsing.

And there's all these little teams making little indie games, which is kinda cool, but I think the real thing that seems significant at the moment is that there are quite a lot of teams emerging now, of, like, four to 20 people making kind of this mid-tier games, so, they're pretty nice-looking, they're not quite AAA, and they're pretty short but they're really interesting with much smaller budgets.

And that's really exciting, I do think it is changing the industry for the better. There's some really interesting things coming out now like, I guess the one that really kicked it all off was Journey. So, yeah, stuff like that, I think that might be the future.

So, the job working on Disney Infinity. This is always a weird thing to answer, I think, but do you feel like you knew where you wanted that job to take you? Like, I don't even know if they ask you this question in those type of job interviews, like, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Yeah, well, it's different. I mean, yeah, they do ask you those types of questions.

[Laughs.] I'm sorry. I've never been asked that question in job interviews.


So that's where they're asking that question.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. But, I mean, the one thing, and I can definitely say this 'cause I've told all my old bosses this a long time ago. I started being interviewed for F1 and I kind of pretended that I like racing games and Formula 1 and then when we started working on Disney Infinity and we were all kind of friendly, a year down the line or whatever, I finally admitted that I was completely pretending and I really hate F1. So -- [Laughs.] Yeah. I mean, so, to answer your question, I didn't really know what I was getting into when I first joined that company. We took on Disney Infinity while I was still there, but I was very glad we did.


But I was really happy to be working on something that was, like, story-based, that had characters in it, that you could use all of that knowledge and thinking about -- you know, a racing game is just a simulation game. They kind of make themselves. They're not very interesting, I think, but a character and story game, there's so many weird problems that are just specific to games like if a character can go anywhere, how do you direct people? How do you make a story well-paced? How do you get them to do something you want them to do without actually telling them to do it? And all of those kinds of problems that make games games. It was nice to able to actually focus on that stuff.

What parts of your job did you feel like you had control over?

In what way?

I mean about creative choices and making contributions.

Yeah. Yeah, so, it's funny. It's kind of -- it's not easy to answer that question because it's not like you have a certain amount of control. There are certain points in the project where you have an enormous amount of control and then there are other things that are -- I think it's just about picking your battles, really.

That's what it feels like. And a lot of the time, and everyone knows this, you just have to get used to seeing an idea that you thought was absolutely brilliant just get cut out of the game for reasons that you probably disagree with. And then maybe one idea out of 10 will actually make it in there and that's like a little victory and you just kind of have to get used to that cycle. But from where I'm standing, and maybe it's a little bit naive, I do feel like a lot of those decisions, they're made sort of from a kind of a safety point of view.

I guess that's not really describing it right, because when you're working with such a big budget it's kind of understandable.

I guess what I mean is I feel a lot of those decisions are made out of timidity. There's a thing that happens a lot in games in every company -- I've spoken to a lot of friends that work all over the place, which is, like when the shit hits the fan, you fall back on traditional game design because you know it works. Yeah. So that's something that everyone in the industry feels is a bit of shame.

Who in what sort of roles is making these sorts of cuts you're talking about? Please don't just talk about your experience if you don't want to name names or whatever.

Well, I guess a lot of them are sort of they filter down from the top, whoever the top may be. And it's not necessarily your lead or it's not necessarily your studio director, but it could be a publisher and that kind of thing. That's something that happens quite often and I suppose the diplomatic way of saying it would be that neither choice is better. That it's just a matter of opinion and sometimes the person who outranks you, you just have to accept that their decision is the one that flies. And sometimes that's true. A lot of times, I think especially as a designer, a decision might come down -- and you can kind of see why it's made, but really you feel like those people don't quite understand how the whole game is put together.


And I think that's actually a big reason as to why -- or one of the reasons, anyway, why games aren't better as a whole, because a lot of the time, I think, a design is only good if it's working 100 percent.

If you take away one element, it all kind of falls apart a bit. I do have to say there is -- at every company there is an element of, "Okay, this change has to be made. How are we going to quickly last minute change everything else so it still works?"


And that's a huge thing, actually. You know, I have to say, if people would just design a game and stick to that design through the whole development process, I think the quality of games across the board would go up. I mean, it's not always possible, sure, but there are a lot of unnecessary changes that just happen because of these sort of political pressures that occur. And they're such long things.

In a way, I'm just thinking of this off the top of my head, this is not well thought out at all, but I wonder how -- it's difficult to tell whether that's a problem because it's too much of a top-down hierarchy or it's because there's not enough of one.

Like, in a film, you only have one director. Sometimes in a game you can have more than that and maybe that's where the problems lie. I'm not really sure, to be honest. But I do feel like there's some kind of formalization that needs to happen to the process.

So you had said there just a lot of bad business practices in the game industry. Where to start? [Laughs.]

Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I think the one thing I was thinking really focusing on in that is that I went to GDC in San Francisco and the art talks and the sort of animation talks and all of that kind of stuff, they're so incredibly inspiring because you sit down and this person will tell you about their process, they'll tell you about how they're mentoring people and it's so technical and they're artists, but the way they work is like they really have a process. You get the feeling that you're talking to somebody as you might, like, talk to a carpenter or some craftsman who has learned and his trade and seen it evolve over years and years and years.

And then you go to the design talks and they're just a mess. It was really disappointing, actually. People kind of ramble on and tell you how they kind of managed to fumble around and make a design for their game, but it's mostly a story of trial and error and it's definitely not something you can apply in general. Quite honestly I think the majority of game designers are idiots, but no one else in the company seems to have enough faith in themselves to realise it.

And I feel like, yeah, you do witness that a lot in the industry as well. I think a lot of the time people just don't understand what design is, and I think there's this idea that it's this art that you can't possibly explain or quantify -- which is, just, I think it’s completely wrong. I do really think you should be able to justify and measure design just like you would justify and measure how good a programmer someone was.

So quite often it's people that don't understand design hiring people that don't understand design and -- yeah. I mean, the really odd thing is when you get into the industry, you realize how good a design sense most people in the studios have: programmers, artists, animators, everyone. And from talking to other people, quite often, the sort of vibe in the studio is everyone talking behind the designers back saying, "Why on earth are we doing this?"

And there are a lot of designers who just got into the industry a long time ago when it was a little cottage industry, and have never worked as anything else. They really tend to use a kind of trial and error and guesswork to design. just not very good at their jobs in all honesty. Yeah. [Laughs.]

You had said that just the profession tends to be very misunderstood, and this is just a quote from your email: "We don't know how to hire talent yet and end up with people who don't really know what they're doing."

Yeah. Yeah.

Tell me a little bit about that.

Yeah, so -- yeah, this is a tricky one to talk about.

I'm aware it might be.

Yeah, yeah.


So, okay, here's a good way of phrasing it. I have spoken to a lot of people in the industry and I've gone to a lot of talks at big conferences about how to interview designers. And the thing that I always find really frustrating is that all those questions that I thought would be completely vital like, "Tell me about your process? How would you design this? How would you break down the problem?" They're not asked.

Most of the time people have these bizarre criteria, or these overly basic questions they ask -- it's like, "Oh, what films do you like? What games do you like?" And it's sort of about preference, which kinda tells me that those people asking the questions don't really know what they're doing themselves and that they're gonna hire someone based on some sort of arbitrary preference. But, like, you know, it's like if you were hiring somebody to make you a kitchen table, you wouldn't just ask them what tables they like. You'd ask them exactly how they make tables.


It sounds silly, but it is exactly that.

I say this as someone who has been pitched a lot of things: games to be covered, stuff in classrooms, stuff from freelancers as well myself pitching things. I'm not saying I'm an expert at it, but I certainly have experience. But I find that a lot of people who make games don't even know how to talk about their games.

Mmm. Yeah. I think that's true. Kind of an "if you can’t explain it simply, you don't understand it" kind of situation.

And that's funny, actually, because that reminds me of something else I thought about just before we started talking, which is a lot of the people that get promoted in the industry, and I'm sure this is not the case at the really great studios, but basically there is a really well known thing in the industry which I did not realize when I was first starting -- that you basically get promoted based on your years, not based on your talent.

So if you've been in the industry for five years, you'll probably be a senior, and if you've been in there for 10 years you'll probably be a lead. But what happens is you end up with people that are sort of -- they're terrible at presenting things but they always get chosen to do the sort of public appearances and presentations or they're really bad at running a team but they're the lead of a team or they're terrible at designing things but that's the thing you've gotta work with. That, to me, was completely baffling. Yeah, because it feels very bizarre having to -- I mean, you know, it sounds arrogant but I kind of consider myself a good designer, but it feels really odd just having to count down the years when you feel like you can already do a job.

And then those things do come when the years roll around but, yeah, it's kind of a strange archetype of the industry.

I mean, do you feel like the game industry is deferential to people who have been in it longer?

Yeah, absolutely. I suppose you see that with, in other industries, too, you see CEOs get fired, but be the CEO of some other company year or two later or whatever. Although, on the other hand, I do have friends who, yeah, have experienced the opposite where they kind of feel like it's a young man's game and all that stuff.

I mean, I definitely think that people do want to hire young. They hire graduates. But for the most part, no, it really seems like -- we were talking earlier about HR people. And it very much seems like in order to get the interview, it's about nothing more than the years on your CV.

You know, you could have the best portfolio in the world but, yeah, it's just kind of a ticking clock. Yeah, it's kinda a strange thing.

At game companies, when is the decision made to hire contractors?

Basically, from my own experience, that happens when you can see that the game is sort of on the way to being done and suddenly you realize the game is way too big, which basically happens every single time anyone ever makes a game.

'Cause, you know, there's this concept of crunch, which I'm sure you've heard of.

I have.

Yeah. So, I've never heard of a game that doesn't have at least a little bit of crunch associated with it and usually the thing that is the biggest bottleneck at that moment is not programming or design or anything like that, it's content creation. You need, like, five million unique rocks to populate GTAV or whatever and they'll hire people on contracts to do that and then those contracts end when the game ends.

What are their working conditions like, the contractors?

I mean, from my experience, in my studio, it was the same. They were hired in and it was kind of a --

Do they come into the office?

Yeah, absolutely. Although, you know, we did also work with outsourcers. So there are big studios, also, that just do that. So, they get hired out by multiple different companies to just help them make stuff. And then, also, there are definitely stories about -- there was one recently where, The Life of Pi where all those people got unceremoniously fired and treated really badly - pay refused and so on.

So I don't think it's a brilliant situation to be in. Some people love it, you know, because it lets them move around. But for the most part, I think, it wouldn't be internal. You'd hire people and they'd work from home or work as part of one of these big outsourcing companies.

How is time wasted making games at a big scale?

Ah, well, that's a good question with a really easy answer: It's all wasted in the beginning.


Yeah, absolutely.

So, you know, there's a really important part in the beginning of a game which is prototyping stuff, trying out new things. But I personally feel -- and I think a lot of people do -- 'cause you speak to people sort of industry-wide and this always seems to be the case that that process just takes too long. And not only that, but after that process there seems to be a fairly long period of kind of disorganized content creation where you're just making the game but not really with a sense of urgency.

Then there comes a point sort of midway through where the producers really kick in and say, "Right, we really need to do all this stuff to be on schedule." And then it always happens that at the very end or even for quite a significant period of time, you have to squeeze all the sort of man hours you possibly can out of everyone. And you can't help but think, "You know, why couldn't we just have gotten on the ball a little bit faster?"

Maybe it's a personal thing, but I've always felt like, yeah, it's great to have a bit of period of experimentation at the beginning of the game, but a lot of the time, you know, any number of these ideas could be really interesting, so let's just pick one and go with it and make that and, yeah, I do feel like quite often what happens is you end up going 'round and 'round and 'round in circles for a while and then kind of paying the price later.

How does the game industry learn from its mistakes?

Well, I guess it depends what kind of mistakes you're talking about.

Do you feel like it does learn from some mistakes, period?

I'm not so sure. The thing that I have seen a lot is that, you know, people will be making a project like a small team of people, and their publisher will say, "Okay, this is a sci-fi game, sci-fi is not popular so you can't make that. You have to make it cartoony." And then one day somebody will just release a sci-fi game and it'll become incredibly popular and it's like, "Oh, everything has to be sci-fi now."

I feel like, yeah, I don't feel like people really recognize that what's truly valued by players is kind of something a bit new and interesting. It feels -- I've never really thought about this before, but it feels like the industry is kind of a state of just following what's popular. And maybe that's the same with every industry, but it's like, if you look at the amount of Minecraft clones being made now, you can really see that people try and jump on the bandwagon. I don't know, maybe it's just 'cause I've got more eyes in this industry than others it seems more apparent.


I don't know. I think I just saw yesterday -- you know, they named a director for the Minecraft movie and Minecraft has spun out and another studio is making a game. They licensed it to another game studio, Telltale.

Oh yeah. Absolutely.

I don't think it's just you.

There's a real "let's kind of ride this thing until it's dead" attitude about the industry.


And you know, I think it's more so than in other industries. I think the people who really did that in the film industry is Star Wars, even from the beginning, the merchandising was out of control.

But with games, it's like, if you look at Angry Birds, they've made that -- I mean, they didn't make that one game, it was like their fiftieth game and it was their first really popular one. And it's like all they do now and it's the TV series and it's the merchandise and all this kinda stuff. Personally, I would hate to have to work on the same game forever, but I'm sure they're pretty happy with the amount of money it's making.

That's something I wanted to ask about, because you said you quit because you were tired of making that game. You worked on how many, three?

Yeah, three. Yeah.

Really? Three? There's a third one?

Yeah. It's coming out soon.

Oh, it's not out yet.

It's not out yet.

Well, but that's what I was wondering about, like: Do people stay past that point of, "I'm tired of making it and it's a job and so I'm just gonna stay here." Maybe not necessarily at Disney or wherever but do you get a sense that a lot of people end up doing that or do not a lot of people end up doing that?

They do. A lot of people do that, but it's always the same reason: it's family. You know, when people have families, they stay in that company and they kinda wish that somebody would make something different and that it would change tack a bit, but they'll stay because they've got a stable job and it's a good -- if you stay in a company, you can get fairly decent promotions and a good kind of career path.

But for the most part, if you don't have that, you will move on after a while because people get bored of doing the same thing. And they do talk about that internally, as well. It's not like something you're not allowed to talk about.

So, a lot of the time studios will kind of try and start up little projects or get little games going so people can work on them part-time and just have a bit of a break.

And also sell off the franchise. It's like Halo is done by a different studio now. Gears has been taken by something else. Just so that team can have a break.

'Cause otherwise, they will leave. If you want to keep all those people you have to do something new.


Does that some sort of burnout have a specific name internally?

Wow, yeah. No, I don't think so. I suppose you could make one up. Series fatigue?

But, you know, when people talk about burnout, they're typically talking about crunch.

Speaking of fatigue, you mentioned that you've also largely stopped playing games. I think that actually makes sense, though, because I think a lot of people who end up creating stuff do it because what's out there isn't satisfying them.

Yeah, yeah.

So, you know, the first thing is when I did film, when I started learning about films, it really ruined them for me. But when I did the same thing with games, it actually -- I find making games and thinking about how they're made a lot more interesting than playing them anyway. So that's kind of cool because if that wasn't the case, that would be a bit of a shame.

But mainly, I think the thing that bores me is not that I don't want to play them, it's that they're all the same.

There are so many third-person sort of high fantasy games with a combat system that's a bit like the one in Batman. There are so many games about, like, the resistance and you're some sort of American soldier and it's a first-person shooter and it's -- yeah, a lot of the time I look over at my consoles or whatever and think, "Oh, now would be a really nice time to play a game."

And I don't just because there's nothing I want to play.

And then, you know, the flip side of that is when something original comes out, I will kind of sit like a child two feet away from the TV and not move for 10 hours until it's finished.



I mean, that's what got us all into this, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

What do you think we're seeing the evidence of where it doesn't really matter if people are burning out?

Then someone will release something new and it will be incredibly popular and everyone tries to copy that. And basically, I think --

That's just the nature of things. Mankind is lazy.

That's true.

And greedy.

That's true. Yeah, and greedy. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] It can be. Can be.

I do feel like, for the really big companies it's because they've got a franchise and they wanna sell and it that's almost understandable. But then for the smaller companies, I mean, I really -- I ultimately feel it's a lack of imagination, really, from the people that are making the games.

I went to a talk once and he was telling us about how there were so many different game ideas out there that you don't even need to think of a new one, so don't bother. Just remake an old one.

And I was sitting there thinking like, "Oh God, that is so depressing."

You know, I suppose for me, going back to the other question, why I stopped playing games? They kind of tie into each other because I think they are the equivalent of little independent films in games, which are these little indie games, but a lot of the time because they're small teams they have to be, like, 2D or they're little puzzle games and that's not why I like games.

I like games because you can explore a world that's surreal or fantastical, and so it all boils down to something specific. I really like 3D adventure games, but you can't really do that as a tiny team. That might be changing a bit now with new tools but, yeah, we're sort of at this -- it's a very strange industry, even from a really basic point of view. Games are a flawed medium in a way, at least for storytelling. Because, you know, in a film or a book, there's specific things you can do.

But they all tell a story. They all tell kind of a human story, but the fact that you have to be the main character in a game means is so restrictive on its own. Maybe there is something in there as to why they haven't quite become the artform that film and TV had as quickly.

Maybe it's because movies and TV aren't trying to be another medium?

Yeah, yeah, that's a very good point.

And that's something I think that really does need exploring more. A lot of games, and some of them do it incredibly well, but they are essentially films with a bit of game in the middle trying to figure out what a game really is, which is an interesting thing.

Like, someone who says, "All the ideas have already been done, just keep redoing them." Why are those the people who are asked to give talks and be listened to?

Yeah, okay, so the truth is it's not all bad.

Of course not.

There's a big part of it -- I don't know it. It's funny, though, because there's a lot of people who are in games, you're expected to be really passionate about what they do and they've sort of ended up in games and now they're just trying to make a successful business inside of the games industry, which as someone who worked really hard to get into this really specific industry seems really strange to me.

I feel like if you were gonna do something else, or something to make money, you'd probably do something other than games. But I guess in a weird way it is the Wild West. You can just build something and if people like it, then, it can mean millions and millions of dollars or pounds or whatever. Yeah.

I have this sense that a lot of people aren't even making the games that they want to be making.

Yeah. That's true.

I would extend this to outside of the industry as well. You know, it's a lot of work. It is a risk, especially if you're doing it on your own.

You know, maybe it's that the people that have that kind of mindset to go off and start a business and, you know, get people around them to kind of make something and not the same people that have the creative ideas, maybe? I think that so often the case. I’ve freelanced for games companies who don't even have an idea for a game yet.

Well, but I think there's some harm that's done in the echo chambers of the Internet in perpetuating these stories that are not true or these perceptions that are not true. I'm trying to find the link here to send you right now to look at, but Angry Birds was not a couple of kids.

Yeah, absolutely, it was like their fiftieth game. A lot of people worked on that game as well, it's definitely not as small an undertaking.

What do you think the games media could be doing to help improve the industry?

Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I definitely think that there could be more of a spotlight on interesting little games. There are definitely websites that do this kind of thing, but they're like little blogs that are difficult to find. It would be really nice if we would have in a magazine or in a big website that focuses on the non-AAA stuff -- it would be nice if there was a dedication section to shine light on those sort of things because if you're a smaller company, you basically have to do your own PR. And if you fail at that, no one sees your game. You have to be the kind of person that really reaches out and creates some sort of marketing buzz around your game that will actually let it stand beside the AAA industry and it's sort of a shame that there's not, I guess, a more hobbyist side to those websites.

Even a lot of the indie press, actually, I saw some of them speak. Without naming names: "In order to be successful, you need to kind of befriend us. It's not good enough to send us your game. You need to actually be the kind of person who comes to up to us and charms to us and talks to us." I get why they would say that, but it sort of comes out of their mouth and it's the exact opposite of what it should be like. If you're, like, a quiet person who has no social skills whatsoever but make this incredible game, shouldn't we be trying to make it easier for that game to be seen by everyone? I found it quite funny that the people saying those things didn't realise they had replaced money with a different sort of currency in their little slice of the industry.

I mean, maybe that's a big problem with our industry, as well, is there really is this --

And it's not just games.

Yeah, it's probably not just games, but there's definitely a sort of "you do not talk about the games industry" thing when you get in here.

[Laughs.] I'm aware.

Yeah, which is very odd because I think actually you can have conversations like we are having, which is to just talk about the problems in the same kind of way that you'd talk about them with anyone without kind of bad mouthing people.

What are these fears? Like, what is the damage that can be done?

Well, I have no idea what the actual damage that can be done is, but everyone always talks about how the game industry is very small and so you definitely don't want to make any enemies. What that really means is if somebody treats you badly, you basically have to swallow it.

Although, that is something that is not just for the games industry. That is kind of worldwide, I suppose.

I sort of feel like, well, maybe you shouldn't treat people badly rather than indulge them.

Yeah, yeah. I know, absolutely.

I mean, ultimately, I think it always comes back on those people anyway because word gets around and no one wants to work with them anymore.


How do people who market videogames not understand the ways that games are made?

I mean, I have no idea because I've never met somebody who markets videogames. And that is probably part of the problem. [Laughs.]

Not even at your job?

No. No, I have no idea. I mean, we've done a few little things which go on YouTube, for example. But even my old bosses would talk about that -- the publisher would basically commission somebody to make box art and it would come back and it would not represent the game at all. There's a real disconnect between that kind of side of things, the marketing, the publishers, PR, and the dev team.

And I think that is actually one part where the industry is learning from its mistakes, albeit quite slowly, is that they're starting to realize that people really want to know how these games are made and people want to actually talk to the people that are making them. They don't want any of this PR nonsense.

If you look at, like, E3 for example, they used to always have these professional actors present whatever show it was that they were talking about and now they basically get the devs to come onstage and talk about the games and I think it just feels much more genuine and a lot less fake. Except for Ubisoft, of course, who always use that actress [Aisha Tyler], but it's very cringe-worthy because she so obviously does not play games or enjoy them. She constantly does that old-hat thing where she's talking about, oh yeah, how much she's a gamer and all this kind of a thing. And it's just so disingenuous. I think people really pick up on that.

The word I always use for those conferences and presentations is always "tonedeaf." it's not so much that what they're saying doesn't make sense, it's that what they're saying seems to be so not like a thing a human would say. But maybe that's just me.

It’s not just you.

I find the whole ritual to be a weird kabuki that has very little to do with games itself and what they're capable of.

Yeah, I think that's definitely true. I mean, maybe they're odd things all around but we actually watch them because it's something we're interested in. Yeah, and that's the other thing is that as a developer, it's very easy to think that everyone is watching E3, that everyone is involved in this very vocal part of the industry when actually the majority of the people that play your game -- they don't watch any of that kind of thing. They're not even aware of it.

And that's the part that you're really disconnected from, although I have no idea what the solution to that would be.

You've been involved in making a few games. After you've made one, why do another one?

Just for the love of it, I guess. I think that's the thing about everyone that works in games is internally it's not just about the end product, it's so much about the art of it and the technical side of it. There's so much that goes into a game that you don't see as a player and actually working on how good you are doing those things is really fascinating and really rewarding.

Any programmer will tell you that two programs might be identical but one of them they'll have programmed in this way they think is beautiful and neat and all this kind of thing and this gives them an enormous amount of satisfaction. And it's also, I think, the childish truth of it is that you're still working towards this dream. You still want to make that game that you wanted to make as a kid one day. Hopefully this will bring you closer to actually doing that. Yeah.

Do you notice things in games that take a ton of work that tends to get little or no appreciation or even notice?

Yeah, I think it's the same with everything really. You know, I think when you craft something, you spend so much time creating it and then it fills a very specific, quite small purpose. And really, most the time, if that thing is working well you don't notice it.

Yes. Yes.

It's like when people make forced perspective sets for films or something, people don't notice that stuff. It just seems unnerving and, yeah, I mean, it's funny. I think it's probably the same with everyone who makes anything.

But quite often I make something for a game and I'm really, really proud of the way that it works and I kind of wish that there was a way for the people that were playing the game to appreciate that. [Laughs.] But I think that may just not be something that can ever happen. Although, there are a few exceptions, I suppose. One thing I really like doing is making AI. And I think a lot of games, or some games at least -- like Killzone has this insanely complicated AI that you just cannot notice being clever because those guys are dead in 10 seconds.

It does all this crazy stuff and you read about how it's done online, but you can't really notice that in the game and I sort of feel like there is a way of making your work a little more noticeable if you build it differently, if you build it so they do a few different noticeable actions that -- I think there's something nice about that beyond just getting your work kind of noticed. I think there's not really much point in creating something for a game that the player is not gonna see, and that does happen a lot. People do wheedle away on something in the industry, some crazy technology that is really clever but doesn't really show up much in the final product.


I feel like a lot of the things that people are allowed to appreciate about games in general is narrow.

Maybe that's true. I mean, I think that as a game developer sometimes you're funneled into a place where you have to create a game for a certain target audience, but mostly you are making a game for those people that are really into it. You're making it for the people who do read about games and watch E3 and all that kinda stuff.

I guess with your point, though, people do sort of hook onto certain buzzwords and start talking about that sort of thing. I think until recently "replayability" was like a category of review score on most sites. In development, it used to be, like, you're making a game so you wanna give people the most for their $60 as possible. So everything should be replayable, it should be an experience you can have again and again, and I think the more the medium matures the more that people realize that it’s actually really nice to have a really great experience you just have once. People really don't seem to mind paying for less game if it's a really great experience. Journey's a really good example of that. I mean, it's not the price of a full game but it's only two hours long and, yeah, I think kicking and screaming, we're dragging the industry into the future where, God forbid, we might call games art one day and not just talk about replayability. Or how realistic graphics are.

I mean, again, it kind of varies studio to studio. Some studios still really care about replayability.

What do you think videogames have accomplished?

I think the most profound things are that a game can immerse you or connect you to characters on a far deeper level than any other medium. It took a while to see that because we’ve only fairly recently learned how to create games well, and we’re definitely still learning. But they’re capable of being so many different things - you can design games to educate people or to bring people together, where the real interaction is between people in front of the console and the game is sort of facilitating this relationship that happens as you play. So it’s a whole new way of creating stories I suppose.

But what they’ve accomplished? that’s a tough question. I think one of the things you see again and again is that people read into them. People will say a certain game has helped them overcome the death of a loved one or come out to their parents. They leave a lot of space for interpretation. I think it’s just having a really close bond to something, and that something guiding that player to realise something about themselves. When that happens it’s really magical, and we’re slowly starting to learn how we can give that to more and more people.

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