I'm not going to give you my full name because I hate my middle name with a passion, and every time I hear my middle name I feel like my mother is yelling at me. So. My name is Ben Judd. I've been in the game industry since 2002, so, what, 13 years? That makes me more of a veteran than some, but a lot less experienced than others. I worked a wide variety of different jobs. My first company, and the company I've worked with the longest was Capcom.
I started for one year in their US office as a marketing specialist and I have no idea to this day what that means because I didn't really do any marketing. After that I went back to Capcom Japan and I was an international business guy. I was basically called an asset wrangler and the president of the US office at the time called me an "ass wrangler" for short.
That is cute. It was cute and funny to him.
Is that true?
It is true. You're only hearing true stories from me. In 2005, I think, they allowed me to -- I still remember one of the producers, and Japan is a very producer-strong country when it comes to game development. If the producer says, "Let's do it," you're gonna do it. Contrast this with the West where sometimes it requires a president or someone who's a VP to be able to greenlight stuff. In Japan the producer can pretty much take the ball and run with it. Much more easily than they can, I think, in the West.
But the producer says, "Hey, we've got some text that came in, and we don't feel it's great. We want a second opinion." I looked at it, and the translations weren't great. I said, "Listen, these translations aren't great." They were using a Canadian company at the time to basically -- they had four people that were internally taking the text and they were Japanese natives that had a decent grasp of English, but it was totally non-native. They would take the Japanese, put it into non-native English, and then send the non-native English over to a studio in Canada that would then rewrite it. So, right there the process is awkward 'cause you're going through an extra step to get from point A to point B.
At any rate, Capcom's games didn't have quality translation back then at the time. So I looked it, said it wasn't great, they called in the Canadian studio head and said, "What's your agenda, Judd? You're trying to steal business from me?" I was like, "Dude, I just love Capcom games, I want them to be better." He had a little meltdown, and after that, they decided they were not going to use that studio anymore but they needed a solution set. They didn't have one so they said, "Ben, will you translate it?" I said, "Yes, this is awesome! I get to do something creative!" Little did I realize that I couldn't quit my ass wrangle job, either. So I had that during that and was translating at night. I was pretty much giving myself a second job for no extra pay.
That meant staying at the office. But I was young and I loved games back then, so it was the dream. It was the start of a dream. And after doing one title, I got halfway through it and said, "Listen, I need an editor. I can't edit it myself because I'm the guy who translated it. I need a separate person who will be able to have perspective on it." I was able to bring in somebody, and after that I grew the team and before I knew it I was the head of the localization team, and we were about 12 different people from around the world. That was great.
While still working that other job?
At that point, I was able to make the transition over -- it was about 2006, a year later. I was able to make the full transition over to the head of the translation division. I became an official Capcom Japan employee and got rid of my Capcom USA roots. And things were going well and I was saving the company probably about $500,000 to $1 million by having this internal team. And so they liked me, and I pretty much had two options: I could have gone over to the US and been head of PR, or I could have stayed there and been a producer and made a game. And I've always had a good understanding of what's what and who butters the bread and what pays the bills. And I knew it was a Japanese company, and I knew the mothership had the strength, and the US satellite office never really had any pull.
So while it would be nice to be the head of PR and work the excellent US hours compared to the Japanese hours, still, the idea of being able to make a game and be the center of power -- and in Japan you really couldn't get fired unless you did something terrible. So, there's lifetime job security, technically. There's a lot of good things. So I started to stay there and become a producer and became a producer on their first digital title, Bionic Commando Rearmed. It was one of their first few western developed titles. It was developed by a Swedish studio no longer around named Grin. And so basically I went from someone who was running the internal translation team to somebody who was producing six different SKUs: two different titles on six different platforms. It was scary. It was more than I actually wanted to do. I really wanted at the time to do Bionic Commando Rearmed on the PSP. On a couple handhelds.
My boss, Keiji Inafune, the creator of Mega Man, came in and said, "Listen, we did some research on this. It looks like a lot of people like Bionic Commando, so ultimately this needs to be a big three SKU, 3D game." I was like, "Okay, great! But also scary?" I actually didn't know if it was going to be something that was doable in 3D. But still, if an opportunity like that comes in your lap, you'd be a fool not to pursue it. So I did. Long story short, we made both those games. One did very well, the other did very poor. I'm actually very lucky to have had the opportunity to do both insomuch as --
By what rubric do you mean it --
Sales. Sales and I think if you looked at the Metacritic, Bionic Commando 3D is low 70s, which is not bad for a first 3D title that I've ever produced in my entire life. But Bionic Commando Rearmed got low 90s. So that was a runaway -- both a success from sales, from a digital perspective, and score. But, nonetheless, I'm happy that I had both the opportunities because you really do learn more from your failures. After that I stayed with Capcom a little bit longer, but I had learned a ton about what not to do because I did it the first time. [Laughs.] And so when I was working on titles after that, I knew the process, I knew where to be afraid, I knew where to be relaxed. There's a certain mindset that I think a lot of Americans have, which is the American Dream, which is "I'll wing it and it'll work out" sort of thing. "Chase the dream. Be positive. Positive thinking."
Ninety percent, just show up.
Japan is a society that's the opposite. It's "always fear risks." If there's two-percent risk, then don't do it. I don't necessarily agree with that mindset, but I definitely think there's something to be said about being a little bit conservative, a little bit safe, to worry, to think about the worst case scenario rather than think things are gonna work out. I learned a lot of that from doing this project. So, fast-forward to today, after I was leaving Capcom and it was pretty much -- when I had joined Capcom in 2002, we had four amazing genius-level creators. Believe what you will, if you look in the history of games, the number of people that have been able to produce five totally different IP that have sold over a million IPs, there's maybe three or four, which suggests -- and this is probably the same for the comic-book space, the movie space, the music space maybe a little bit less so. But having one creative person that is truly creative, that is a true creator, that's not doing sequels or has remixed the same ingredients but really coming up with something that's new and making it a hit? It really doesn't happen.
You'll have the one guy. Even, like, Hideo Kojima, right? He had Metal Gear Solid. He made other good games, but none of them were big-selling games. He'll constantly say, "Well, I want to do something different, but look where he's at." And he's doing sequels to that for forever, and he's really not made another major 1 million-plus selling title beyond that. That's the reality.
But at the time, Capcom had Hideki Kamiya who did Devil May Cry, Resident Evil 2, Okami, and he did Viewtiful Joe. All great titles, all super highly reviewed. Inafune-san. He did Mega Man, Onimusha, Dead Rising, Lost Planet. Also, their initial runnings, all very good, highly reviewed titles. Noritaka Funamizu, who was responsible for Street Fighter II. He was responsible for Monster Hunter. He gave that present to Capcom before leaving. Best present ever, because that has made them millions and millions and millions of dollars. And then we had Shinji Mikami, creator of Resident Evil, right? Dino Crisis. A few other titles. Now Evil Within.
So, all of these people, Capcom realized, were their bread and butter. They totally allowed the creative element to take control and to make games that were fun. Slowly, one by one they all left. The final straw that broke the camel's back was when Infaune-san left. He was the last of those four guys that I knew that were truly talented. Not that there isn't a ton of talent at Capcom. There is. It attracts talented people. But as far as super-creators, right? That could actually give birth to an IP that would have staying power and be original and fun? They were gone to the point where I was like, "You know what? I don't think Capcom is going to be the Capcom that I know anymore." It felt like it was going to shift in a way that many companies shift once creators lose the creative control, which is when politics come in, and the suits will look at numbers and analyze, "Hey, this is what we're supposed to do."
And no longer can you really create something original.
And sure enough, if you look at the recent five years of what Capcom's put out, it's been pretty much a lot of returning the same IP and nothing truly new that's been a runaway hit for them. And so they're gonna be, I think, conservative and take a lot less risks, etc., etc.
What made the suits have a louder voice over there in the last few years other than just those people leaving? Or is that really it?
There were two things. One, which is the big thing, is just naturally once the creators -- they knew they were awesome. You don't make Resident Evil and then don't think that, hey, you've got juice in the company. You do. So all the people who had juice and could actually stand up to the suits left. So, if you have nobody to fight the battles.
Just to do their own things somewhere else with fewer restrictions or --
Some of it was to do their own thing. Some of it was internal political struggles with other top-level creators because sometimes there can only be one big dog. Some of it I think was that --
You mean, like, getting more money to do the thing they want to do when there's only so much money to go around?
Sometimes that. Sometimes it was just -- there can only be one head of R&D that manages projects, right? And if you are someone that's worked with that other person for 20 years and they get that job, and they were always sort of like a rival to you, then you don't have a leg to stand on. Right? So it becomes really awkward, and so why stay?
So there was some of that. But in general, back to my point, I was gonna say that the creators leaving for multiple reasons -- there were two reasons. One was the politics. The other was -- I know Inafune-san, the way that he left, he had planned to work with Capcom in a different capacity that I can't unfortunately go into in a bunch of detail. But I'll say this: Ultimately, the chairman, the owner, the founder of Capcom didn't like what he was doing and felt very nervous that it was going to be something that would damage his legacy. If you do some research into the chairman of Capcom, he was initially one of the key founders of I.R.M., a company I think in the early '80s that did shooters. And it was like him and a monitor, a television monitor manufacturer that got together and it started to take off. The monitor manufacturer guy ended up pushing out of the company and he, I think, continually held onto that fear of being ousted out of his own company to the point where, if anything, even small came up, that fear came out and that sort of person is going to more aptly surround himself with yes men and people political that are going to say, "Yes, you're right. Oh, yes." Not doing anything adversarial to him to the point where that was another, I think, underlying factor where I think it's a lot more politics on top and a lot less master creators.
This is something I've always wondered and never quite known how to ask you: Were you penalized for the way that Bionic Commando was received?
So it comes down to who has the juice and who's going to be able to greenlight that title. Bionic Commando went through because Inafune-san pushed it through. Street Fighter IV went through because Inafune-san pushed it through. He still had my back at the time.
After. Yeah. So I was still on the track to continue to make titles. As a producer, if you're not producing titles, then why the hell are you there?
You're not a producer.
That's right. So, I was still making titles and that's why I was going to stay for a while. But as soon as he left, and this happens not just in Capcom and not just in Japanese gaming companies. But in all Japanese gaming companies, there's a tendency to have two warring factions. There's the guy on top, and there's the second in command that wants his job, and they both have their own parties, and as soon as one leaves, then the other comes into power. Then everybody that was in that old party gets screwed, pretty much.
As soon as he left, the writing was on the wall. There was no longer somebody that has my back. The chances of me getting to move forward with any of these titles are a lot less now. It'd be a total uphill climb. I would have to realign my political thinking which a bunch of people. And you have to realize this other faction of people, they were not sold on working with the West. That was their biggest point of disagreement with Inafune-san. He's like, "Listen, we have to learn how to work with the West." They were like, "Japan is where it's at." If it ain't broke, don't fix it, pretty much. And so when that happened I was like, "Oh, it looks like it's gonna be -- for me as a producer, a very limited time here, so I need to start looking at my options."
And now you're at an agency?
That's right. So when I decided to leave Capcom, I had three possibilities. I could have gone to GREE in San Francisco, because they were opening up a San Francisco office. They were opening up a US office and social gaming was the big sexy back then. I could have joined Inafune-san and his new developer, Comcept. Or I could have become an agent.
I went from being a producer, which is a job that everybody's like, "What's that?" Especially my mother. To being an agent, which is another job when everyone's like, "What's that?" Especially my mother. So apparently I like nondescript job.
I have a similar career. I understand.
There you go. But the founder of the place that I'm currently working at, DDM, Digital Development Management, his name is Jeff Hilbert, and he -- I worked with him on a few things right before I left Capcom and he said, "Listen, we're thinking of growing our office in Asia. Why don't you come in and be our Japan guy?" And I'm like, "Well, I'm mulling over different job offers." And he's like, "Listen, you really want to be an agent. It'll help you out in the long run." I'm like, "Okay." And the more I thought about it: What an agent does is we are very similar to a producer in the fact that you're the glue that holds together different pieces of the development puzzle. Whereas the producer will hold together the marketing plan, the PR strategy, the number of people making the game, he will have a direct pipeline to the director and try and say, "Hey, right now these sorts of features are selling. We have to have multiplayer mode!" He'll also be outward-facing to the different end user as well as first-party, etc. So he's the guy who's in between everything.
The agent is the guy who's between all the companies that are connecting all the different deals. So if this developer is going to make this game, but they need funding, and I know this publisher is looking for that sort of genre, we'll connect them. Or, oh! They need someone from Hollywood, they need this famous actor attached to this game or this favorite writer, I'll connect them. So you're again in the middle but it's more on a macro level than it is on a per-title level, which is what a producer did. I was told, rightfully so, that if I was an agent I would be able to work with the West more, which was something I was interested in. Japan isn't in a good place. If I'm in an agent, at least I'll be able to learn the different methodology and how things work in the West better. It would allow me to work with all companies in Japan. I wouldn't be limited to just Capcom. I knew everything that was happening at Capcom, but I didn't know what was happening at Konami or what was happening at Square-Enix or GREE or DNA. And so I decided to go down this path not knowing 100 percent whether it was going to work out because it was -- for me, I'd never seen an agent really before I had met Jeff and it seemed like it was going to be something that maybe the Japanese wouldn't be able to understand, business model-wise.
As far as a lot of outsider involvement?
As far as there's going to be a separate company that's going to help you pitch the games that you want to make to different publishers around the world and we're going to give you advice because most creators are like, "Well, I know what I want to make and this is how I'm gonna do it." But you can have a game in mind and it can be the right game but you don't know how to convey that to your target audience. And so as I did the job more and more, I was like, "Okay, this publisher wants to see these features. I know 'cause I'm talking to them all of the time or because some of our other developers are talking about that and we've heard that information."
But you basically are in the background so that you don't cause a lot of noise or interference but you're always able to listen and you're always able to be objective to the point of now having done this job for four or five years, you know, I know what first party wants. I know what western publishers want. I know what Chinese publishers want, Korean publishers, I know what developers -- we have more developers than any other agency right now, and so I know the struggles that they go through. I've seen just about every contract there is. We get to work with mobile publishers and we get to work with console publishers and we get to work with investment banks. You get to look at the game industry from a bird's eye view and a totally objective view that it's super-interesting because I do get to see the sort of things that a western publisher would need versus a Japanese publisher. I get to see the differences in their contracts. I get to see what sort of issues come up. Some are the same. Some it's just development being development. But other things are like, "Wow, okay, that's a very Japanese concern, and that's why you need to create that document." Or, "Okay, that's a very western way of doing things."
Do you have examples? I'm not asking for specifics. Or is it not even that interesting?
Well, just a very simple thing is that Japanese publishers a lot of times do things on faith. The producer will say, "Okay, let's do it." And you'll do it and the contract will come and it'll be like four pages, versus a Western contract, which is like 40 at least. And you're like, "What?" And after looking at Western contracts, every single western contract has some sort of pitfall that will screw the developer and the developer will never know about it because every developer is scrounging to stay alive and they need that money and so they're not going to know where to push and where not to push.
Worry about it later.
That's right. Well, they wouldn't even know. That's one of the things that an agency would do is be like, "Hey, we've looked at 500 different contracts, and sure enough it's So-And-So Joe Q. Publisher's contract and we know this section, this clause is going to screw you unless you get it changed. Good news is we can get it changed." And that in and of itself has a lot of value.
And for me, one of my key motivating factors behind being an agent is that, you know, not to give you my sob story -- I'll try to keep it down to 30 seconds so we only have a single manly tear instead of an actual sob.
I'm here for you.
There you go. But I was a latchkey kid, my parents divorced when I was six, mom had to work two jobs, was never home, lived in an area where there was no one my age. Really life was pretty shitty until the NES came out and then all of a sudden it was, "Hey, you know what? Nobody even has to be here. I got my buddies Mario and Luigi, they're with me, this is awesome. Life is fun again."
So, you know. Those Japanese games were one of the things that really helped my childhood be fun. I owe a certain debt of gratitude to them and so when I see the Japanese market not doing as well -- and it's doing fine in the mobile space, don't get me wrong. They're making lots of money over there. But not the console space. I still interface with all these console creators, and many of them begrudgingly go over to the mobile space. They don't want to do it. They want to make console games. But there's no publisher money in Japan that's going to console titles anymore.
So, me being able to help my Japanese clients secure funding in the West because in the West they are still serious about console means that more Japanese console creators will get opportunities and get to make the games that they love. And that's what it pretty much boils down to.
This is incredibly broad, but how did Japan lose its foothold?
A little bit of it is pride. They still thought that they were No. 1. It was their legacy and they didn't see that slow train coming, so to speak.
I remember what day it was. It was when I saw Grand Theft Auto III on Nightline. I was like, "Holy shit. Nightline's a major show and Grand Theft Auto-- they've got videogames on it?" It's like -- and they're talking about it, like, a serious debate. Like, games have graduated now. They're serious.
After that day, it was -- it had already started to show up in PC space, of course, shooters and stuff. There were tons of really avid fans. But it was the console space with that and Halo and it slowly became taken over by western developers. And Japan continued to do the same thing that they always were doing. And so that wasn't working.
The second thing that came up was that their budgets were lower. The West? They were spending big or going home. Typical US budgets were, at the time, two or three more times higher than Japan. If you look at a budget like Destiny, or whatever, it's literally -- probably highest budget you're going to see around now in Japan is going to be around $20 million. Maybe $40 million. And that game was reported, I think, at like $250 million or something like that. It's over. And you throw in marketing, and again marketing is something in the West where they spend big or go home. In Japan, they're very limited in marketing. In their western offices, they don't tend to hire very expensive staff, which means more inexperienced staff are trying to do the base work. That doesn't mean they can't do it well, but in general they're up against it.
Does it feel like flip is true now, where the West is doing something over and over again, and there might be the slow train of something else coming? Maybe even just in the big-budget space?
Well, my opinion would be any time you wanna go big budget, it's gotta be an FPS.
Which wasn't always the case, though. Right?
That wasn't always the case. That wasn't always the case. But still I would always argue even from the early 2000's when the Western publishers started to come into their own, it was a lot more than was FPS or sandbox games -- were the two things that they started to excel at. A lot of those are very programming heavy. A lot of those -- it's very hard for a Japanese developer to create a sandbox game because just their development style is they set the borders of what they're gonna do and they're great at painting within the lines. Whereas I think Western developers are great at knocking out the borders and saying, "We're gonna throw in aliens, and we're gonna throw in marines, and we're gonna throw in dogs." Just tons of creativity. But they have a tough time locking it down. But when you find a team that can do that, you have something super-interesting and it would be a challenge for a Japanese developer to be able to do that. But now it is -- you look at any of the big budget stuff, it's FPS. There's a recent company that was canceling a lot of their digital titles, but the one thing they left around was the FPS.
And it's just like, as someone who doesn't play FPS, for me it's like -- ugh. And the sad part is that I know as virtual reality becomes a bigger and bigger thing, guess what? More FPS, because envisioning that world through that character's eyes, that's what it's about.
Sure. But I also think it's also the laziest thing you could possibly do with it.
It is, but I tell you, there's gonna be a time when they connect to Hollywood, where you got a Brad Pitt in an action movie, but you're seeing it through your own eyes and hearing his voice or something. It's not that far away.
So, but here's the interesting thing about that comment, which is that **I would argue that most of the base gameplay and genres have already been discovered.**Same thing with movies before the advent of CG, many of the classic storylines or plot twists or whatever had already been seen. I remember watching a James Bond movie and being like, "You know what? The sad part is, having outer space battles and having undersea battles, they've really gone everywhere with James Bond." They can't really come up with a new setting that's truly interesting because we've already mankind's already been to these places, so it's no longer as fantastic as it used to be, which is a shame. I think that in the games space, we've already done a lot of that. But one of the things we've been able to do through smart narrative, through taking sound and voice in the right direction is we've been able to make games evolve without having to create new genres.
So, just, hear me out real quickly.
One of the other things, and the reason why the Japanese market lost its power is Western developers are always near Hollywood. They're always on the West Coast. They could borrow from really good sound people or they could borrow from good writers. Sometimes comic-book writers would cycle in, cycle out, but these were people who understood the American culture and far as narrative or story creators, they were very strong. And so that was one of the things that made Grand Theft Auto so interesting is there's a story and there's great voice and you never had anything like that at all in a Japanese game. And as much as they'd like, a Japanese scenario writer couldn't really write to the same level that a western scenario writer could. Look at the Japanese movie space. Look at the Japanese short story or novella space. You'll notice every once in a while a few people that are big, but in general it's going to be Western writers that are writing to their western audience.
Back to my point, with Bioshock, I remember people bragging about how great that game was. It was still an FPS. It had an interesting setting, which is great. That's one of the reasons that people liked it. But they also really liked the voice. The sound clips and the voice really added to the depth of the world, and all of a sudden you're in this deep experience.
Back to your point about virtual reality is it may be an FPS experience, but the immersion and how they're able to tie in the key points of what makes a Hollywood movie great into what makes playing a game great, if they find that right blend of part game/part cinematic experience, it'll be different. Trust me. It'll evolve this entertainment experience in games even though, yes, it may seem like the lowest common denominator solution set.
No, I mean, I'm definitely a believer in VR. I think it has potential. I interviewed for a job at Oculus that they ended up eliminating in the end, but the impression I got after spending time in their offices is they feel like games are the main market pressure, and that's what people want.
What do you mean what they want?
Experiences like what you just said. Which is okay, I'm never going to say the audience is wrong, but to flip it to you: How would you like to see games progress creatively?
[Sighs.] I would say that -- I don't know. My answer is going to be very different from anybody else's, and my answer probably is not going to be the most popular one. Just, I like Japanese titles. They're slowly going away. I just want one or two more days of fun in the sun. I realize I'm an old dinosaur. I realize my play tendencies and the games that I like are going to be very different from what young people like now. But, like, a lot of the Japanese games have gone away and I would love to see more of those. I would love to see that balance shift back a little bit more to the point where the Japanese studios have a chance.
They may blow it, they may continue to make the same things they always do, but in general one of the games I loved playing last year or two years ago was Bravely Default, which is just your standard RPG. But the thing is, Square-Enix had gotten so far away from that Final Fantasy, like, nostalgic formula that I loved when I played IV and VI and VII that when they went back to it, it was actually fun.
One of the things that I think is interesting and I'd also love to see actually being used more often is games are addictive. They actually stimulate the same part of your brain that other addictive drugs do, at least so I've read. Don't take that as 100 percent true information.
You are a doctor, right?
That's right. I am doctorate. I have one.
I've heard that too, though.
There's been times where I've literally was like, "I should go to bed." I'll look over at my StarCraft II game and I'll be like, "I should probably play one more game." So by that level. I'm not saying it's like heroin. I'm saying there's definitely something that appeals to the addictive side of people. And so taking that, and it's an old word, popular three or four years ago -- gamification. Being able to take the idea of playing games, but attach it to learning different skills for jobs or for different things. Like, gamification has existed for several decades but people just didn't realize that's what was happening. You go to McDonald's and they have the Monopoly game that everybody loved. Right? And the idea was that they were playing a little mini-game within their life of eating. The sales did great for McDonald's during those times. People loved that game.
Taking that and applying it to learning or to a wide variety of different fields, I guarantee you we as humans learn better when we're gaming. When we're having fun. So if you find that system that works, that bonus, with enough competition, enough rewards, etc., that's when people really, I think, learn and grow at a higher rate. If we're able to blend game theory and gaming into the workplace, that'd be interesting. We still haven't done it.
There's that whole serious games movement, which is sort of treated as separate but equal from the games we're here for here at GDC. For some reason it's looked at from these circles as, "Eh, it's not really the same thing." I think you see that same thing with what's referred to as "indie" and "AAA." Just, "These are the lines."
"We're not the same thing." But they're all the same thing, right?
So here's the problem. One of my clients is Platinum Games. They make a lot of really good games. They recently released Legend of Korra and it was a game that I think Platinum Games, their animation and their fighting and their combat style fits Legend of Korra's interesting IP. Problem is it was a $15 or $20 digital title and people would slam the game for its length. I think Platinum was genuinely, like, a bit disappointed that there was that sort of feedback. People were expecting a $60 game, when really it was a $20 game. So, there are lines. There are expectations that people are going to have when they hit that "purchase" button, and being able to throw yourself into the indies category gives you somewhat of a shield but I think you're seeing a lot of companies that are doing that because indies are being champion as, "It's the little guy! It's David versus Goliath, and this is David."
But you're starting to see game companies that, hey, guess what: That's an "indie" developer but they have $2 million or $4 million to develop this game. Whereas Bob and Tom Johnson over there in the garage, they're developing, that's a real indie developer, versus these guys. Oh, that's a 35-person team and it's got offices in three different places around the world. "Oh, but we're an indie developer. We're small, we're small." No, not true.
It's so moot.
It is. That part of it is moot.
I always forget when I talk about it, like, Square-Enix has some sort of indie publishing initiative thing, but it's seldom discussed in this context. Do you know what I'm talking about?
I knew that they were dipping into Kickstarter in a very interesting way. I can see it happening. Indies are the new sexy.
The sad part is, what it's doing is it's creating what people are thinking are a lot of opportunities. The perception from the general public, I assume, and this is also created by the medium and first party saying, "Oh, we love indies, and we're gonna do all these new things with indie, etc." Indies need funding at the end of the day. No one can quit their day job and survive unless they've got money. Right? Or unless they're working two jobs. In which case, they're not gonna be able to really put the time and money into making good game unless it's a game that's gonna be out in five years. That's the reality.
From a first-party or third-party perspective, they're happy because these developers are spending their own money and risking their own livelihoods to make games to the point where they get to prototype phase, and then the risk is taken out from the publisher's perspective. They're like, "Oh, well, you've already built it out to the point where we know it's going to be a good game or we know it's going to be a bad game." So they love it. For anybody that's releasing the content on a platform, they love it because they get more content. Not less. And they spend a lot less money. So guess what? The one percent continues to get bigger and bigger and gets less risk. The little guy is taking a lot more risk. So, again, it's more of the same where you think it's the American Dream where you think, "Oh, there's all these possibilities." And yeah, you'll hear the one or two success stories. Notch. But in general, yeah, there's always a lottery winner somewhere walking around us. But there's also a lot of schmucks who haven't the won the lottery and are just constantly spending tons of money hoping that they win and they don't.
That's the American Dream.
It really is.
Same as it ever was.
What's weird about the games business to you?
The thing is, my expertise lies in the Japan sector. And if we're gonna talk about the weird things that have happened to me there, they would be a lot more personal and they wouldn't be necessarily all-encompassing. Like, for example, at a Japanese [company] you have these parties whenever the game is done. And everybody got together on a certain team and all of a sudden the director took his clothes off in a restaurant and then he had his lead designer also, uncomfortably so, take his clothes off. And there are these two naked guys with their arms around each other and the rest of the developers that have worked with them, they're all laughing. There were some ladies there, and they were all laughing all awkwardly and feeling all uncomfortable. And I'm just like, "Mmm, this is, I guess, happening." [Laughs.] So, yes, there's a lot of personal weird stories.
[Laughs.] Well, that is weird. But maybe also just culturally different.
That's right. No. Well. [Laughs.] Culturally inappropriate. [Laughs.]
I guess I can't really say it's strange, but I can say it's different. Still in Japan these days whenever you go to a Tokyo Game Show event, they're like, "Don't take any photos." They've got this very archaic ways of PR. It's like, "Guys, there's Twitter and there's sociaI media and there's all this stuff. You can't really control what's going out and what isn't." If that's the case, don't be annoying. Don't be like PR cockblockers --
But that's a big part of PR's job, is to safeguard stuff.
There is. It's their message. They want to craft it. They want to do embargoes and stuff like that, fair enough. It's still, I'm telling you, 100 times worse in Japan. Because you can at least go to E3 and take photos, right? You can't do that at Tokyo Game Show still to this day. So whenever I see it I'm like, "Guys. You want more. Not less! Some of it will be crappy. But in general people will gravitate to the good stuff."
If they don't, if you trust them, and they come back -- and that's where with your PR messaging you point them to the good screenshots or whatever. But still, don't tell people not to take photos. That's terrible.
Maybe you can answer this with the East and West in mind, but what does the general audience for games not understand about the way that they're made?
Well, I would say that -- so I was attached to the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter campaign. I was one of the key people that brought it together. That was a top 10 game Kickstarter. I think it is. It raised $3.8 million. We knew what we were getting into to a certain degree, but when you've got 100,000-esque people that are basically all investors into your project, their understanding of what it takes to make a game is never on the mark. They either think it's way too much money or they think it's not enough money, and so it's like jumping into the middle of GameFAQs and saying, "Give me your money and we're gonna make a game." There are gonna be so many people that are passionate and have feelings about how something should be and try to control that and keep it from getting negative, but still get out the right information.
You always put FAQs at the very bottom of these Kickstarter campaigns. Like, these are the questions that you know you're gonna be asked and these are the answers. Nobody reads them. And so you'll get the same questions and people get angry, and you'll be like, "Look at the FAQ. It's been there. The information's out there, just have to bother yourself to read it, but you know.
To be an informed investor.
That's right. You have to be an informed investor.
And it's like part of the dossier.
No one's telling you you have to spend your money before you read it.
And it's not even fine print. It's big print. It's bolded. And they're always there. Anyways. That's neither here nor there. The point is people don't realize how much games cost to make. They cost a lot of money to make. I have, during this job, gained respect for publishers. Publishers are oftentimes see as the bad guy. The big corporate America sort of side of things. But without publishers, a lot of your favorite games are not getting made. It's that simple. Crowdfunding recently, because there's a lot of negativity and trust issues that have gone on has had a much more of an uphill recently to try and secure money for these creators that really it's the only way they're going to get to make that game or to own that IP for sure. And so since that's going away and since, like I said, platformers aren't really funding these indie titles, publishers coming in and greenlighting these things and taking these risks -- it's good. It's allowing you to play a lot more different games, and they're the only companies that have the juice and the money to put behind it.
Mighty No. 9 raised $3.8 million. People are like, "Ah, that's so much money." It's not so much money. Trust me. As a publisher trying to put in roughly $3 million into a game, they would do it and it wouldn't take that much time. They would put in $6 million. They would put in $10 million. Right? So, they're able to put in the big budgets, whereas your average Everyday Joe wouldn't and couldn't. So I've gained a lot more respect for them.
What's the Japanese attitude towards Kickstarter and crowdfunding?
Japanese in general, it's a culture thing. They will contribute money to causes that are like natural disasters or earthquakes or tsunamis in different countries and try and support them, Red Cross, etc., but when it comes to supporting a creator or something like that via Kickstarter or crowdfunding, it's just not there. It's just not something they do. Money doesn't go that way. They'd rather support poor, famished, malnourished -- but I'm just saying they don't even look at that. There's a crowdfunding site called Campfire in Japan that just never raises a fraction of what Kickstarter does.
The number of Japanese backers for Mighty No. 9 was a lot lower than anybody thought it would be even though that sort of type of game should for all intents and purposes have resonated quite well with the Japanese.
Is it just us Americans who are caught up on the older Japanese games, then? Can that really be the case?
There's some of that.
And I realize it's a bit absurd to comment on an entire culture's preferences --
Yeah, no, no. There's some of that.
You would have a better sense of it than I would.
But no, I mean -- I get my haircut and every time I do, they know I'm in the games industry and they're like, "Oh, what are you playing?" And I'm like, "PlayStation 4." And they're like, "Oh. I haven't played a PlayStation game since PlayStation 2." Probably a third of the hardcore gamers stopped playing after PlayStation One and then another third stopped playing after PlayStation 2. And now you have, of the remaining third, so many of them are playing mobile games. And the mobile games are fun enough that they're not really going to the PlayStation 4. That market -- the console market in Japan is not going to come back.
So. You know, the money is all going to mobile, so, they don't need to. It's the future for Japan.
I'm gonna do a callback to something you said way earlier. You said, "When I loved games." Past tense. Can you elaborate on that? Have you lose your love of games, or your relationship has changed or --
Uh, no. That's merely I've done it for so long and also when you play games when you're a kid it's more magical, right? Isn't it? As you become an adult you become a jaded fuckwad and so --
Hey, look who you're talking to.
Hey, here we are! And now that I know what I do about the game industry and some of the stuff that goes on, it's harder to love it. You don't have just the purity that you do.
So you mentioned beforehand you had some theories about why people move on or age out or lost interest?
Uh, I think that sometimes it is -- the No. 1 thing that people tell me why they don't play games as much is they're busy. They have a family. They have kids. These things take away from the 10-hour gaming sessions that we could do in college, right? Beyond that, I think some of the things that occur is if you're in the game industry, you now look at it as far as a business. It's your job, and so you can't really chill out and play games like you used to without thinking of it as part of your job.
Yeah. And then the other thing is just that it's fatigue -- shit, I'll go and do a movie marathon and I have a ton of Blu-rays, but do I really enjoy watching movies as much as I did? Not so much. Could I really put in the sheer amount of hours that I did into movies that I did in games? No. If you think about the compounded time -- portions of my life on playing games, it greatly outweighs any other sort of entertainment medium to the point where it just naturally having seen it all or done it all or being burnt out, there you go. You get to that point.
That being said, as with movies or comic books or books or songs, you're still gonna have your classics that you love. Every once in a while, you go back and play those and that's why we want, like, a remix of Final Fantasy VII or whatever is we still appreciate -- I'm playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night right now on my PlayStation Vita, I put in like three or four hours and was like, "This game is so good! Why is this game so good?" So, there's still the spikes of passion that still are there as gamers, I think.
Yeah. I think part of it is nostalgia.
Ah! One more. Sorry, this constantly comes up: There is a certain level of -- back when I was a kid, gaming was mine. We were the small collection of nerds that gamed and it wasn't mass market. NES -- it may have sold mass market, but it was still this dark little secretive thing, and people who did it were nerds. It wasn't cool yet. It was our own little thing. I remember being able to share stories about games with other friends that were gamers and one of my best friends I met that way. We were talking about Phantasy Star II. He was like, "I'm playing that game." And I was like, "Oh!" And the bond started. It was our special thing back then.
Sometime probably around the PlayStation era it became mass market. It became tons of commercials and in your face and the cool thing and lots of Madden games and fast-forward to today and, you know, the gaming space makes more money than the movie space. And so it's not my thing anymore. It's totally mass market. It's everywhere. You can't escape it. Because of that it's lost that sort of special just-mine sorta thing. That vibe that existed.
I look at kids nowadays that are young and playing games and I'm just like, "It's a shame that everything is so socially connected to the point that their entryway into games and how they're going to feel about games is going to be very different from how I felt about it." For me it was discovering something new in this small world that slowly started to get bigger and bigger and more widely accepted to the point where it was, like, too much. But I got to experience the beginning, which was great. To play that Zelda, to find out there was a second quest on my own and not have the friggin' Internet spoil it. "A second quest? What?"
Playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and I was playing it. I had just started studying Japanese. Didn't understand a lot of what was going on. I was playing through that game for hours and hours. Didn't realize that you'd have to put on this special item to be able to beat the boss in a certain way that would open up a whole 'nother second half of the game. You know, all these ideas that were new? They're no longer new and they're already out there and just games being so brutally hard to now being so forgiving and having all these checkpoints and it's all about not putting fatigue on the user so they constantly play, play, play, play. We got to experience it as the new thing and grow with it. New gamers today won't get that. So, that's another part that has changed and that will be different because it's already all laid out in front of you and already set in stone, some of the things that are happening.
What do you feel the media for games doesn't really understand about the industry or how games are made?
I think the media are in trouble.
I would agree. [Laughs.]
Here's why: I mean, not because you guys don't get paid enough for traveling and going to all these shows and doing meeting after meeting. I think that they're in trouble because they're starting to -- not starting to, I think they already are, honestly. I think they've already jumped the shark, so to speak.
The world is now so connected that your average, everyday user, his clout and his word of mouth carries a much higher degree of power than what it did before. Before, the media were these authorities that you had to go to to hear more about the game to get an understanding and now we have a much -- it's still not there, but they're more informed and they're more vocal and they're tweeting and they're doing a lot of this stuff to the point where they don't actually have to go to the media to sometimes get good opinions. And so the media's opinion is counted less and less. And now the new age marketing and PR strategies is, "Hey, let's tie in YouTubers and Reddit and do AMAs." These sort of things now also circumvent the media pipeline to the point where getting a top 10 YouTuber to review your game is gonna get you more hits or certainly more juicy interaction and excitement than what you'd get posting your announcement video on a top-three videogame website.
So there's a lot of options now and, again, back to Legend of Korra, I just -- this is again just me objectively looking at it. The user score on Metacritic was, like, mid-8's or even low-9's. It was very high at the time. It may have decreased from when I saw it. But there were a few sites that gave it a 3 and a 4. That's a problem, because what that means is the consumer that's buying the game is pretty much saying, "This is fun." If you look at Metacritic across the board, usually the user scores are closer to the press scores. But there are cases in which the press in general are way off than what the user score is, and what that means is that if you're the publisher, you're like, "Why am I gonna go with these guys? Now I've got a grudge against this particular company because they were wrong." They can say, "My opinion's fine." And I can be a movie critic, I can be Roger Ebert and say, "This movie sucked." And the rest of the world can say it was great. But I'm a movie critic, so I can say whatever I want. "He's right. He can say whatever he wants." But the press is strong only insomuch as the publishers are going to give them exclusive content, they're going to get a chance to do their job, and if the publisher at one point is going to take a step back and say, "Hey, you know what? You hurt us, and we unfortunately think you didn't do it in a way that was fair." Now, there's a lot of other options. They're gonna start going with those other options. They already have.
Every single movie critic, I'm sure, has at one time or another in their career either given a really bad review to what later came out to be a well-reviewed movie or a really good review to something that came out -- and that's all right. These are opinions, and you're allowed to be off a bit. But, like, when the gap is that big and it's too frequent, then that means there's a problem.
Well, but all of this is so subjective also.
I don't blame companies for going more directly to people who are going to be more in awe or forgiving or more enthused. But they are stepping into the role that the media did originally.
It would be nice to have room for more than an enthusiast press, though. Because it feels like we are stepping firmly back to Nintendo Power.
That's a great point. But you want people who are enthusiastic towards your product. At the end of the day. And, unfortunately, the videogame journalism job, from what I've seen is it's brutal and tough -- and it's easy to get burnt out if you're looking at that many different games and having to write that many different reviews. And if you've done it for 15 or 20 years, unless you really can still look at yourself in the mirror and say, "Jesus, I love my job. This is amazing. I'm so excited," then maybe it's time to move on into a different direction. I've seen tons of different journalist friends that have moved onto community manager, some to game developer, etc. They're having a great time.
I just think there's a time limit on how long you can do any job and still really love it. I was very fortunate to Capcom to get to do so many different jobs. And being an agent, I get to work with so many different people that it always seems fun. There'll come a time, I'm sure, where I'll just be like, "Okay, I've done this for so long now. Maybe I should shake things up a little bit and do something new. Do something fresh."
So, talking about the media: What's your games-media consumption like. Do you pay close attention? Do you read stuff? Are you less involved with that side now that you're deeper behind the scenes?
Yeah, yeah. So, what happened to me is with Bionic Commando-- and I can't, I've heard this from other people -- is at that time, there was so much pressure on me and it was something that I cared so much about that whenever bad interviews or whenever I get on a fansite and see negative press or negative opinions, it just felt like, you know, 1,000 needles sticking in my body everytime to the point where I was just like, "I can't look at it. I should look at it, but I can't take my emotion out of it. It's going to hurt me everytime I do" to the point where I stopped doing things like reading NeoGAF and just decided to ultimately trust my own judgment and trust the people that were around me.
I used to read Kotaku insomuch as at the time, it was the blog that had the most amount of information that was the quickest. And I was just looking for information to be summarized for me. And now it's got, you know, manga and anime and Japan jokes and it's like -- every website now has had to conglomerate all these different entertainment articles into one single place where there's less and less true game-only videogame websites. So I rarely, unless it's a client's review or something like that -- I rarely go in and read it. There's every once in a while where, you know, The Order: 1886 not getting great reviews where I was like, "Okay, this is a big news spike and this is interesting to me because this represents one of Sony's big bets in the future and it didn't work out, so I want to see what people are saying." But in general, I don't go in and read nearly as much games media. Barely at all.
What trends do you notice in what they cover or do not cover?
In recent media?
At any point. Whenever you were paying closer attention or whatever you feel qualified commenting on
The media -- the reality is they have a relationship with the publisher. They have to. Because if they don't the exclusives or whatever, then they're not gonna get the viewership. They're fighting a tough battle. Like I said, there's lots of competition right now. So they need to have that sort of relationship, I think, with the publisher. And because of that, while I've never ever seen what happens in Japan -- what happens in Japan is Famitsu will give you your article and say, "This is the score we're gonna give it." They'll give it to you a few days before it's released to the point where your PR guy can say, "Listen, I don't think you should say this."
Famitsu, the largest Japanese videogame magazine, will give the review to the publisher and the publisher's PR team will look at it and be able to comment, and change what they're saying sometimes. That would never happen in the West. Or if it does, it's a very rare case. In general, you get what you get. Which I respect.
But even if you get what you get, every single writer -- and this was the whole Jeff Gerstmann thing, right, where his superior said, "Listen, we get a lot of money and advertising from So-And-So, you can't give it a bad review." And he was like, "Bullshit, I can." Everybody knows in the back of their head, they're still, the publisher still is important to them and that relationship is important and there's lots of ways that relationship is maintained. But again, one of the things is they still have to walk a careful line as games media because they can't lose that support 100 percent. So there's still somewhere in their head where, "I wanna go off on this game but I'm still going to give it the benefit of the doubt and I'm still not going to be as hard as I want to." Or they'll sometimes come out and be hard on it because they don't like the IP or that creator doing it or whatever. There's definitely that that occurs, people don't realize: That there's an unspoken rule going back and forth between the game media and the publishers and there's lots of course correction that's maybe going on. Although, not ill will.
Do you think something suffers as a result of that type of relationship?
I haven't really thought about in-depth, but obviously what it means is you're not sometimes get the true end result of what that person feels. You know, me as an agent, I'm in between multiple deals all the time. And there's sometimes where a developer will say something that I think is ridiculous, but they're a client so I can't say, "Ridiculous!" Even though I want to. There's sometimes a publisher who's giving all my clients opportunities will make something that's a very unrealistic ask, and I'll want to say, "Come on guys." There's sometimes I can, depending on that relationship, and sometimes where I can't. Again, that's the reality of human nature: You're going to be stuck in dilemmas or certain situations where you want it to be a certain way and it's not that way.
You mentioned that you feel like most of what's out there for games creatively has already happened. That there won't really be new genres.
Most of it. Not all of it.
I wanted to ask if you think something suffers as a result of it, but, like, does that really matter? Does that hurt anyone if that is the case, if you feel we're at, like, 90 percent tapping the potential of what we can do?
Fortunately, I think people are pretty creative. And I think that at the end of the day there'll be something new. Maybe virtual reality will be it, maybe holograms will be it, maybe -- there'll be some invention that will come along and alter things. Just as we did net games in the early '70s, since we didn't have videogames as we did nowadays. There may be some kind of new medium or new genre or something that happens. But in general, I think if you look at the creative discoveries in the game space alone, most of them were made in the early '80s. Some in the '90s. Some came with technology, naturally. We didn't have voice, really, in the first games, and then we did and then we had full-motion video and 3D and all these things that gave birth to new camera angles, styles, whatever. But in general I think we're now at a point where unless there's something that's going to involve body sensory technology, we're there. We have explored many of the genres. Every once in a while a new idea will come out.
What was it? Shadow of Mordor had the whole lieutenant idea. You know, it was a new system that people had not seen before. It's gonna be copied all the time. I have seen now in many of the pitches, the word "procedural" because of No Man's Sky. It was something that people threw around before, but now it's really getting to the point where it's like -- they've said that new crop of gamers, the Minecraft group, they're gonna want to play games in which they can create something. They're basically the LEGO-building gamers of the now. And so you'll hopefully see a lot more creative aspects.
We've had these before. There's been "build your own maps" in Warcraft III and StarCraft II.
But hopefully that will help evolve how people look at games and think about games and play games and you will see a lot more shared content. People have talked about this for 10 years. We're just now finally getting to the point where I think that will be a serious necessary piece of new game design. So that'll be cool, but in general, as far as genres, gameplay styles, camera angles, etc., I think we have made a lot of the key discoveries that we're gonna make so that now maybe once a year you'll see a game with a new system, but that's about it. You're not gonna see something with just this wildly new control scheme that's totally crazy.
So when is the swing mechanic going to come back? I know you tried.
[Laughs.] Never. [Laughs.]