Okay. My name is Borut Pfeifer, I am 38, and I live in Los Angeles.
I’ve worked in game development for about 15 years. I played games since I was young, wanted to get into it, studied computer science, and -- yeah. So now I've been, I worked in a bunch of big AAA companies, I went indie and I've done that and now I sort of do contracting to kinda support my own game-development work.
What were you hoping working in the industry would be a path to?
Well I actually started in the industry, technically, by going indie. In 2001 or so, I was working at an online casino game company and a couple other coworkers and I were all kinda frustrated and we wanted to make, like, videogames. So we left and formed our own little company and were working on -- this was the time where you had to work on a demo and you had to pitch it to publishers and all that kinda stuff. Steam wasn't quite a thing yet and there was no real path to digital distribution, and that was kinda starting to come about, but we failed ultimately.
We did make a little demo though and then I ended up taking a job working at Radical in Vancouver, but it was the sort of thing where we definitely learned a lot in terms of the things that we were trying to do. Right around the time we were working, like, Counter-Strike would come out. And so, if we had worked on a mod, perhaps we might have been more successful. We learned a lot about how to scope our own ambitions and, you know, instead we were trying to build our own engine and license it and do all this stuff. It was stupid youth, basically.
But we did have some success. We did license some of our graphics tech to a company outside the games business who did lighting design, you know, for concerts and stuff. They did pre-viz, even using VR back then, to simulate what lighting for stage shows would look like, for the people working on them.
So, yeah, a lot of lessons learned.
And then went to work for AAA companies. Worked at Radical. Worked at Sony Online. I mean, the goal all along the way was to work on my own games, and working at big companies was just a means to an end in the sense of learning more and also getting paid, paying back the debt I had accrued working for myself the first time.
So I ended up at EA eventually working on a project that -- code-named LMNO, which was this idea by [Steven] Spielberg. It was his concept and the team was pretty small. We were mostly in pre-production for a long time, like, two or so years.
And then eventually EA canceled it in the economic downturn and that's what kinda made me go indie and then, you know, from there worked on Skulls of the Shogun and -- yeah. That took a long time.
I know we'll talk a bit about Steven, but first, and because this won't be germane later: Can you measure audience entitlement along those 15 years?
[Laughs.] It definitely has increased in a certain way. Like, when I was working at Radical on a PS2 game, a game version of the movie Scarface, right? And that was like a huge "IP", if you want to call it that. A lot of existing fans. And you'd think a lot of them might be even, like, peeved with what we might have done with that. But it was still, yeah, not that big a deal. They were just happy to have something in game form to kind of play in a lot of ways. And criticisms were criticisms of the game and not criticisms of what you're doing at large.
I think, yeah, over time definitely compared to, like, working on Skulls of the Shogun, which is this little indie strategy game, and getting hate because we came out on Xbox a few months before PC and -- maybe it's also perhaps hard to dissect becoming more personally involved with the entitlement, where there's a direct channel for people to directly talk to the game-makers and it's all there. Like, maybe it was there before but there was never any outlet for it.
Or never any as meaningful or powerful an outlet, and so you didn't see it. So it was kinda like "under the rug" stuff. That's part of it, maybe.
But it definitely feels like, combined with a lot of other things, it's definitely increased and is always a frothing, foaming, seething rage under the hood.
'Cause, like, when we -- yeah, even as kids, you had a Super Nintendo, I had a Genesis. Whatever. You were fans of whatever it was you might've had, sure. But, like, the weird way people identify with their brands now is kind of more advanced. Like, I definitely think it's an advancing progression where now Xbox or PS4 -- it's not just a point of argument online, it's, like, seething rage, yeah.
Certainly, obviously, the capability to call a SWAT team on --
-- someone wasn't there back in the day. But, like, I'm talking to someone on Thursday who was a gameplay counselor for Nintendo back in the '90s.
They might've been one of the few outlets for that kinda stuff.
Yeah, my partner on Skulls of the Shogun, Jake [Kazdal], he started -- that's how he got into the game business originally. He was answering calls and they would have all the maps written up, yeah. They would have to talk people down, sometimes. [Laughs.]
What do you think is the worst thing you heard when you were growing up or in those formative years with games, like, in the '80s and '90s as far as people just being horrible to each other with videogames?
Yeah, it just was never -- it was always personal, right? Like, you might've had a group of friends and, you know, two people's opinions -- like, they wouldn't get along because they were so opinionated along that spectrum. But, yeah, just the scope of it was not so broad. So that was the extent of it.
Like, you could disagree with someone in person and that was about it. And you might really disagree with them, but that still limited it.
[Laughs.] I think that's true today. People are still disagreeing.
Right, but you know the person. That's the thing, right?
It's a personal disagreement and not an overarching brand war. [Laughs.]
So, you were saying that a lot of these things people talk about in videogames is immaturity. And, as you wrote me in your emails, it "may not be that simple."
And so we have prepared, you and I, for this conversation, a really interesting flight of ways to put some more context on what you call "a modern, contextless culture combined with sort of self-perpetuating infantilization of games."
Which in turn leads us to our conversation we had during E3 over burritos about Joseph Campbell and videogames and the misuse of the monomyth. I have the notebook here with notes from that talk, but do you want to tee this up and then I can ask you a question?
Right, so, originally, I got into reading Joseph Campbell and that kinda stuff by -- I'm trying to think if it was directly -- I think was Brenda Laurel's book, Utopian Entrepreneur, and she talks about Campbell, in terms of entertainment as mythology and being sort of responsible in creating modern mythology and helping people follow their bliss, as Joseph Campbell says. Following a path and so, yeah, I got into reading about Campbell.
I know you're familiar with the site, and Sam Barlow was talking about -- I think he went back to Socrates, and Sam said, "We are the stories that we tell ourselves."
Exactly, exactly. And I think a lot of modern entertainment -- I think people who make games and even other entertainment don't fully grasp that. But I think in other media, it's a little more built into the culture that that's true.
And so Campbell gets kinda a bad rap because he's written a lot of books and one book was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is what [George] Lucas used to pattern off a few things in Star Wars and that kinda stuff.
And it's sort of become overblown as a -- it is an analytical tool for stories, but when you use any sort of analytical tool for stories to create a story, you kind of lose something. And so, yeah, it's kind of over-used, the same -- I think there's about 40 elements in the book -- but the same 10 are basically used in a very rigid sort of way. And even so, he's written a ton of other books. He's a comparative mythologist, not a screenwriter.
So he's written books about all sorts of different cultures and different myths in different cultures and how they relate as well. And so it's a fascinating sort of place to start if you're interested in making entertainment and understanding human nature and that kinda stuff.
And for people reading this who don't know, it's not just Lucas. It's used over and over again. Like, a good example I like to use is Dan Harmon, Community. He's a huge disciple of the monomyth. It's even used in Adam Sandler movies.
It's not some ancient, irrelevant scroll.
Right, no. And the way -- it has relevance and resonates with people because of those elements.
But it's still, you see versions, like, Campbell talks about in the book: You don't necessarily see as much, like, the reluctant hero versus other types of heroes. There are kinds of heroes.
Yeah. They're archetypes.
Yeah. So, we were eating burritos and I don't know if this is a conversation you had before but it obviously stuck with me if we're revisiting it here. But I think the gist of the conversation was perhaps due to the narrow range of stories told in games, the protagonist who is ultimately changed in the hero's journey is the player of videogames?
And so, like, the -- stepping back, the point of entertainment as modern mythology is to show us how to live our lives, how to deal with problems, how to overcome challenges. But in this one sort of specific version of the monomyth that is especially applied to films and games directly kind of, it's what the player does. It's this: You have this challenge, if you work at it, you will overcome it, you will achieve your elixir of wisdom and have been transformed.
And the point of that myth to an everyday person is when you're confronted with something that seems truly insurmountable, whether it's some sort of serious illness or a family problem or something that requires you to pretty much get up out of bed and struggle, then that is a lesson to take away and they're like, "Hey, you can work and struggle and succeed and get through it."
But then, when that's your only sort of myth and the only sort of lesson that you take away from that, what does that tell you? That you can get anything you want as long as you work at it.
So it kinda reinforces that sense of entitlement that you see.
So we're kinda leading ourselves down this path where that's one of those things that kinda reinforces these notions of consumer entitlement and whatever because that's what we're told!
It's like, "We want it, well, you know. We'll work at it and we should get it."
That's the thing.
Yeah. The thing I had here in my notes was: "You're the chosen one and if you do this and this and this shit, you'll be in control of everything. You win."
Yeah, basically. [Laughs.]
Also: "The changed protagonist is the player, here to tell you how to live your life."
You know, I used to think, eight months ago, before I started doing this, that people were not so suggestible by things like marketing or videogames. And so you were saying before, "Well, most of the time when these conflicts come to a head with entitlement, it's a personal thing."
I understand the hardware, the infrastructures, the technology that allow people to gather and find each other. But as I like to say, why do people put the key in and turn the ignition? Why are people so detached and thoughtless about the ways they connect with others?
If anything, yeah, you could argue that a lot of these structures and reuse of the monomyth in entertainment is one of these systemic pieces that indirectly encourages these kinds of antisocial behaviors. It's also -- it is online interactions, it is de-individualization. You don't know that it's really another person across the screen and all that kinda stuff.
But everybody is another person. Every avatar, every name, every byline. But it seems like people seem to forget it by the time they scroll down to the bottom of an article.
And there's all these -- there's a lot of things about online interactions that take away opportunities for that individualization, that it can be obscured, it can be anonymous, all this stuff.
It's sort of a big factor in terms of avoiding certain systemic problems in human interaction because we kind of use our free will a lot less than we might think. Look at stuff like the Stanford Prison Experiment. There's a kind of cognitive bias whereby you will -- you're more inclined to blame a person than a person's place in the system and the other systemic effects they might have.
And combine that with you playing out more of the roles or choices that the system is foisting upon you because you're sort of interacting with people not as people but as agents without identity.
So you're taking away -- the Stanford Prison Experiment, it's the guards with the sunglasses and the uniforms -- you're taking away their identity and they're only able to function just as their role in the system, which is "abusive guard."
So, this may relate similarly. I know you said you were loathe to compare games to movies, but you were also asking in our email whether Marvel movie fans go and post dismissively on sites discussing the latest Criterion releases. You said, "Well, maybe they do but it doesn't seem like it."
It doesn't seem like it. I don't follow enough movie blogs to really 100 percent say that. But it does seem like it's just a known thing. If you're a fan of, like, the big Marvel movies and you follow them religiously, you may also be the same person who follows the Criterion releases and be, like, really amped that some more obscure artistic film is going to come out. Whatever. Each group of people is cognizant that that entertainment is not for them. They may look down on that other group, either one, but they're not gonna go and argue that it should not exist. Right?
Because it's there, they're at least existentially comfortable with it being there and it's more an issue of taste and in games, like, we have yet to sort of cross that boundary whereby, yeah, if you disagree with someone's taste it's that it should all be gone and not exist. [Laughs.]
Well, but a lot of that is self-perpetuating. If you, as an industry, keep making things for the same audience, and then parts of that audience keeps outgrowing it and leaving, then perceptions and nothing will really change.
Right, and the audience grows, but it's still been kept in the same sort of trap. I've been told that and I've been lead to believe that my whole life, my career, games are going to mature as the people playing them and the people with game literacy get older they'll deal with more emotionally complex topics, that kind of thing. But it's not really the case because it's just that games have this sort of emotional spectrum, which is culturally agreed upon amongst the people who play games. And even though you might get a broader demographic, all the people who started playing Candy Crush on their smartphones, maybe a wide range of demographics do that, but they still see games as the same thing, which is an amusement and a diversion and not an artistic entertainment medium.
What would Joseph Campbell say? Are we stuck at, like, refusal of the call?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think that's an accurate statement.
It is on game developers to acknowledge that they have a responsibility in creating popular culture.
And what does that mean? That means what you put out does affect things. And it's kind of an uncomfortable situation in the sense that we want -- for the longest time, games were derived as, "Oh, violent games cause violence." And that kinda stuff.
So, we've had to fight against that perception, but at the same time we can't have games that are art and moving and impactful unless they do affect you. So, we've never as a group never really been able to reconcile that.
And obviously, yeah, okay, games aren't going to cause violence in that direct fashion but, yeah, they can affect you. Just like any meaningful art or even popular entertainment can affect you. Like, you have to take that upon yourself as a creator to be like, "Okay."
And it's kind of daunting in the sense that you have to have a certain element and creative ego to be able to say, "This is what I'm gonna do and it's gonna actually try to have some meaning or impact." And it may not. It may ultimately completely fail, but it's certainly a lot harder than saying, "I'm gonna mess around on this game jam with this prototype and do this one thing."
What seems to be missing from the industry side to try to grow that or to make people more comfortable trying? Is it that they're not taking the risks themselves?
It’s the culture of the creators, too. Like, where you learn to make games and how you're sort of brought up in that career and what people around you reinforce, and that's one area, like I was kinda saying, where film is just different amongst filmmakers, like, even if they're making the most pedestrian popcorn sort of film, they understand they're doing it as a function of entertainment and it's something that people are able to de-stress and watch and enjoy and they take that part, at least, seriously in a weird way.
Whereas game-makers don't really think about their work, I guess. As much. Or in the same capacity.
Yeah. We were talking a little bit about, I think it's the fundamental attribution error, where developers in their mid-twenties who strike some sort of success. I think in your words, you said, "They act just not like they're the first to succeed, but also that this hasn't been discussed by other, many people who were successful before them."
To point it back to the industry, what seems to be missing? Are there not enough of the right talks at GDC about the right thing?
[Laughs.] There's a lot of talks at GDC. That is definitely not the problem.
That's not the question I asked.
I think it's pretty safe to say that's not the case.
That's the question I asked: Is it just not the "right" talks?
Right. And, yeah, but in there, I'm sure there are -- actually, I can't really say that because GDC has gone past its point of usefulness in my career. It's definitely targeted to people with less than 10 years of experience.
But that's -- still, there are good ones in there, but you have to spend the time to find it. So, it's definitely -- it gets back, yeah, to that contextless culture, when you have all this information and it's there, and you can pull up any of it at your fingertips, you lose the necessity of understanding what came before you because, basically, finding useful information is going to take a bunch of time and it's going to take a lot of sifting. And when you find it, you don't necessarily get the backstory and the history unless you then spend a lot more time digging. And you've already spent all this time just to find the useful bit. [Laughs.] And so you're more likely to not necessarily go past that. So, yeah, that effect or that set of systems creates these effects and exacerbates them.
I can't believe I'm about to use this word, but what's the missing "content?"
[Laughs.] That's the thing! There's too much.
So, there's too much content and the way we access it has no context. You just search.
So, I mean, a lot of people have said this: We're missing curation.
But you effectively can't curate anymore, just because there's that much stuff.
So, that's probably just not a problem that's gonna be -- that's one axis of the problem that's just not gonna be solved effectively. Because, also, and for people making games, the tools become more and more approachable and more people get into it without a lot of study and work towards it. So that's great, you can a lot more diverse set of people making games, but then, it just adds to the fact that everyone, not just a more diverse set of game-makers are making games. Everyone is making games. More of them.
You just have more stuff. That cat is out of that bag.
I think a lot can be done just through individual storefronts, just design and AI and recommendations and a lot of them don't do that, and they just kinda push what is already successful.
So I think more what has to change is the people who are curators, a lot of times don't want that responsibility, or claim they don't have it like Valve or the App Store. That kind of thing. They don't want to. They just show the top-selling things, which basically just reinforces that those are the top-selling things.
So let's take a page from a totally different book here. Let's talk about Robert Parker. So you're gonna have to, again, be the connective tissue here. Can you connect these dots to wine?
So, I've been into wine for a while. Not as long as I've made games. Probably like 10 years.
So you're an indie wine developer?
And as I've gotten more into it, and my wife and I go to tastings, that kinda stuff, I've gotten more into not just to develop my own palate, which is something you actually have to do. It's not like you inherently have good taste or bad taste -- you have to figure out what smells are actually what and what tastes are what. You know, I've kinda gone on that journey, which has been a lot of fun.
But also then delved into the making of wine and the regions that I like and learning more about them and kind of even the business behind it.
There are areas north of Santa Barbara, around Santa Ynez valley, where it's this very indie thing, winemakers are collaborating and making labels and blending certain wines together as a group and then doing their own thing and then working for bigger companies and doing all sorts of things.
I think those are called "wine jams."
Yeah. Right. [Laughs.]
No, but they at least appreciate that it takes time, right? That's one inherent difference.
So, I also have been getting more into reading wine criticism. and so there's -- much like anything, there's different kinds of wine criticism. There's stuff that's kinda meant to help you make purchases and there's stuff that kind of describes the environment of making wine and just the attitudes of the winemakers and just the experience of having the wine. All sorts of stuff.
But then I found out about -- inevitably, because he's huge -- this fellow called Robert Parker. It turns out -- and this was, at the time, actually of Gamergate going on and TotalBiscuit being a proponent of certain things aligned with Gamergate, and people were realizing this fella has a lot of influence in a certain way.
And Robert Parker, his story. In the '70s, he was a lawyer and wine lover and saw a lot of writing about wine to be very biased and unobjective and saw a lot of what -- at the time, wine writers would go to a winery, they'd do a tasting to write about the wine, and the wine makers weren't allowed to give them wine, but the writers would leave the trunks of their cars open and if a couple cases happened to get in there, you know, what're you gonna do? [Laughs.]
And so there was a lot of collusion, to borrow a word, that Parker saw, and he wanted real objective wine reviews, which is, in my opinion, just is nonsense on the face of it.
Especially more so in wine than something like games, like, people argue about game scores but, you know, wine is inherently subjective in the sense that every person's sense and smell and memory is different and what one person smells in a wine will be different than what another person smells or tastes.
Anyway, so, Parker started this direct-to-mail newsletter -- very humble beginnings -- and made this 40-point scale. So, he rated wines between 60 to 100 and basically set up certain ranges as to what they meant, and wine above 90 was, like, a really good purchase. And slowly his publishing organization, the Wine Advocate, and others became very very successful and helped to sort of reinvigorate French wine. Like, in the '70s and '80s, a lot of companies had taken over the French chateaus, which are the wineries, and they had been making crap, basically. And a few of them had started improving things, and he sort of realized that and rated them very well, and so they did much better financially in part because of his "objective" scoring system.
He basically became huge and the wineries, you know, really sort of started over the next 15, 20 years even to make their wines -- to get a good score from him.
And he's one guy with one palate, but has been hugely influential in terms of how wine is made because he insists that his perception is objectively what the quality of the wine is.
And so he's the only fellow who's been inducted into the International Vintners Hall of Fame. He's not a vintner. He's never made any wine. He's only a writer. But he's this huge figure and kind of has held sway over the whole wine industry for some time. But there's always, you know, sort of offshoots and interesting things going on. Creative people doing creative things.
But it's just kind of like, even if you hate that -- as I do -- the notion that you'd have this objective scoring system for something so inherently subjective. Nobody argues that it shouldn't be there or exist in some fashion. Ultimately, yeah, it's a guide to help people buy wine. And if you don't know a lot about wine, that's an easy way to learn more or find out more. So it totally makes sense.
And you might disagree with the importance of it, but you don't disagree that it should exist.
And in games, a lot of times when we talk about subjective, objective reviews: "No, all reviews should be this! All reviews should be that! That's the way it should be!" Like, we're maybe slowly getting to a point that it's okay that they sort of coexist, but this is just an inherent trait of, even with this split in wine and winemaking, people have just inherently understood that, I think, to some degree.
Yeah. His Wikipedia page under the header, "a new role for the wine critic," it says, "Until the 1970s, wine criticism was usually complementary to the production or trade of wine. The conflict of interest that might ensue from this close relationship was accepted by consumers, as they consulted wine reviews to gain an introduction to the world of wine, and not necessarily for advice on getting good value for their money. Hence, before Robert Parker, wine critics almost always had some link to the production or trade of wines."
For people who are not familiar, how does this parallel videogames?
Right. So, especially in indie games, but even in AAA as well, it's just like -- the people writing about games have always been enthusiast press, and so they're there at the invitation of the game-makers to write about their product and even if they don't know them and aren't friends with them at all, that's inherently there that the game-makers inviting those people -- you're putting on your best face. You're putting on a show for them.
You're inherently trying to make friends. And it's a small enough community -- both in games and wine -- that you build networks of people, friends, and acquaintances that you work with and that inherently you're a writer and you're gonna write about something, you're more inclined to write about the work of someone you know and like because why not? You've got a choice of a ton of people you could write about. You're like, "Oh, I'll write about someone I like."
How did the way games are promoted or marketed -- I don't really talk that much about studio visits. But on the roles that you had at game companies, were you forward-facing enough where you would be there when writers would come visit and see the game?
So, usually I wouldn't be there while the writer was playing. But in several places I worked, I would be involved whatever the demo leading up to that.
Deciding what was going to be shown and what areas needed to be focused on, what areas needed to be fixed and worked towards. A lot of times at a lot of places it was a huge time-sink to prep for that sort of press.
And so you're taking away time from the game's overall development to sometimes even for E3 to create custom content that you don't know will make it to the final game. And so definitely spent a lot of time, like I said, putting that best face forward in terms of actual implementing stuff in the game.
But only when I was indie did I actually do the whole spectrum of press interviews and demos and managing and helping to run all that and that -- yeah, that was definitely a new perspective.
It's inherently subjective. All of it. You aren't ever going to avoid it, so as long as you acknowledge that -- and you don't even have to acknowledge it in writing, but acknowledge it from a perspective of the stuff I'm reading, and it's an entertainment product. Whatever. It is subjective. You might enjoy this! You might not! [Laughs.]
Well, having gone through that process of prepping stuff for press visits -- and for readers who aren't familiar, these are specifically set times for a number of writers from different outlets, and now also some streamers, to either come to the studio or to a hotel conference room or something where they are given access for a set of time to a set of stuff from a game that is not yet out.
That and a lot of the stuff about the close relationships between outlets and studio came mainly by necessity of just trying to get the industry established.
Right. It was a small number of people making games and a small number of people writing about games.
And so it's pretty natural.
But at the end of the day, it's still, like, they're all enthusiast press.
Even when you've got the games guy from The New York Times or whatever it still has that sort of, yeah, angle on it.
So what do you think could afford to evolve? I mean more on how to make it less of a clusterfuck for the people making the games so that there's not extra work made for these milestones that exist strictly for promotional or budgetary purposes. Which, well, I understand those have values, but something I hear time and time again is just project management is so difficult in games that it's poorly done, period.
Right. Absolutely. And just the -- it is also, I found it really weird. When doing press for Skulls and it was like, perhaps one-hundredth or one-thousandth percent of what movie actors must feel when they do a press junket, so maybe we can't totally get around this. But you just get asked the same questions and the same things over and over and perhaps the weird thing with games that I doubt the average entertainment site covering a film -- like, the games writers really think their questions are unique and interesting. They're not.
There was just, like, kind of an agreed upon understanding that this is what you're doing, I understand it, I understand why you have to ask these same five questions, but just, you know, understand that I may know -- I'll try and bring the best to answer that in a kind of upbeat sort of way, but I can only do what I can do. [Laughs.]
Yeah, the flip is, thought, too, and I understand it's different if you're independent, but if you're at a studio, you have talking points you have to hit.
But that's why.
Ultimately with Skulls, we had talking points, too, because it was just a lot more effective. Because you get asked the same questions over and over, so, you might as well answer them the same way because otherwise people get confused. Not the writers. The writer's gonna capture what you say, but maybe you only remember 90 percent of what you want to say, and then the people read it see a slightly different version and they get confused.
With Skulls it was like, "Oh, is this gonna be async[hronous multiplayer] on everything or not?" So, yeah, we totally came up with talking points ‘cause it was just, like, "This is easier to deal with." [Laughs.]
And you're thinking, "Yeah, it's your game. You've been indie. You wanna communicate personally in a lot of ways."
But it's just so much easier. You couldn't get around it and it was a lot more effective in terms of getting your point across. So the talking points are definitely I think a byproduct of that process.
Yeah. Do you think there's something studio-side that they could make that process easier or more streamlined or better? Whether it's the visit or preparation of the material?
I mean at this point, the big studios are all probably very polished in terms of they have the material, you've got data, screenshots, everything prepped for you and ready to go. It's just, like, they will probably now that they can kind of directly communicate with their audience, like, they'll probably do more stuff where it's like, the E3 press briefings are just directly streamed and it's more direct communication.
Yeah, but I just mean the generation of the screenshots or the demos or all the stuff that adds time into the production of the game just for that purpose.
But I think a lot of places are doing that kind of stuff. Maybe I'm wrong. Certainly, we tried to just as a small team, you know. But that's really, I think, the point where what if that information, just the straight PR information about the game, "It's got these levels, these features, blah blah blah," if that's coming directly from the company and then sites had to build an identity around, like, subjective reviews or assessments of that or of final games or whatever -- I think that's part of the problem, is just that apparatus is still there and going, and I don't know how. I mean, you've seen some sites, like Kotaku, have changed their policies so now they comment more about games that are released and maybe changing and having a community around them, which has its own issues. But that's kind of a reaction to that maybe, to break that machine.
But the problem with that is it then is games that don't have communities, games that are focused, single-player experiences lose out on a lot of attention.
So I guess to imitate the Campbell question, what do you think Robert Parker would say? What are the ways he changed these types of things?
I mean, yeah, and this is kinda where TotalBiscuit comes in properly as an analogue to Robert Parker where, yeah, even just claiming objectivity -- this is not what I actually recommend happen or what I would like to have happen, but there's definitely a lot of potential for, you know, the ability to change the apparatus, not necessarily in a good way, but by feigning objectivity right now. Where someone like TotalBiscuit, in 10 years from now, he could be super-influential in the world of games criticism. I don't know that I necessarily want that.
So that's definitely one way it could change or to change it, but I don't know that that's how I would like it to change. And so moving away from that is a lot harder.
It's, yeah, a lot of these small sites kind of need to deal with creating their own community in a way that's like, "This is what this community is about," and not trying to draw -- the problem they're online websites, and that inherently is a business proposition that's daunting and you have to get as big an audience as possible. And so it's not really -- you're not really able to create smaller communities but that is necessary to creating a larger, kind of more mature overall game-playing public.
Give people a place where they can gather and gain traction, in other words.
Yeah, exactly. If you're a Marvel movie fan, you can go to those blogs and you're a Criterion fan, you go to those and amongst your separate communities. But in games, you can't escape it. If you like Gone Home, wherever you go, and want to talk about it, some asshat is going to show up and tell you it's not a game. It doesn't matter.
There is no safe place to kind of discuss the games that you might want to discuss that are outside of that mainstream.
People do like to debate "walking simulators."
Which is a point that -- actually, more than a minor point of annoyance. A "walking simulator" is QWOP. That is a walking simulator. People call Gone Home a "walking simulator." It's not. They're not even pursuing their own definition strictly enough.
So, wait, though, how would you like the space around this stuff change? You mentioned a couple things you said you would not like to see happen.
More spaces to talk, buy, or otherwise just consider different games, each with their own audiences. Understanding that it’s not just ok that those spaces exist, but they need to just for games to survive. Like, in order for whatever games you care about to still be thriving and coming out, there need to be vibrant spaces for the other sorts of games.
Even if all you want is just games to stay exactly the same as they are now, that will never happen. Change is inevitable, like with free to play and mobile. You can’t stop it -- but there’s a healthy ecosystem where people can find and enjoy all sorts of different types of games they care about. Then when the kind of games you care about now start to wane in popularity, there’ll still be a place for them. A rising tide lifts all boats sorta thing.
In preparation for this I watched a couple of documentaries about winemaking, and there was a quote from one of them that stuck out to me. There's a guy who runs his own company and he makes wines and he said something that the subtitle translated as, "Growing vines is purely academic. There is nothing artistic about it."
[Laughs.] Right. And that's -- that's fascinating to me that wine culture is so varied. Like, in some places, that is completely the attitude. And in other places, it's not. Like, you have vineyards where people who basically grow the grapes, make the wine, blend it, everything, oversee. The auteur of the winemaking industry.
And so you have that whole spectrum, from hardcore traditionalists to the avant garde independents.
Sure, but are you aware of any winemakers making bomb, rape, and death threats to each other online?
No, exactly! They're having heated discussions over wine. [Laughs.]
Because ultimately you know everyone is there -- well, not everyone. Even that has a caveat. But most people are there to enjoy it, and you might enjoy it in different ways, and you might enjoy different things about it, excluding the people who buy wine as pure status symbol who spend thousands of dollars on a bottle. There's that. But excepting that, you might like French wine, especially from Bordeaux, it's really like -- it's all about the place the wine came from.
In 1855 there was a government decree: These are the best. And they were rated and pretty much hasn't changed. And that's just how it is. That's the best! If you're into that wine you're like, "Oh yeah, this winery? Boom. This is better than the other winery because that's the way it is."
I should say, too, the government stuff is no joke. From the documentaries, I think they were saying there's like five or six or seven different bureaus from the government that will come and inspect and make sure the wine is being made properly.
Oh yeah, and every village has its own rules -- each appellation, which is the term for specific wine-growing region. It could be down to just one vineyard, it could be a few vineyards in that area. In most appellations in France there's very strict rules about what you can grow and how you can grow it. And then in other places, like in California, it's just all over the place. A lot of people don't even have vineyards -- they just buy grapes, or they buy grapes from different regions with different properties and blend them together in different ways to kind of create what they consider to be their art, whereas in France they're like, "I'm doing this very traditional thing and taking a lot of pride in doing that."
What is the most you have seen people lock horns in the wine subculture online?
Right. It's a dismissing of taste. Most of the time you run into it in person and it's sort of like, when meeting people and you both realize like, "Oh, you're interested in wine?," and you start to discuss it, you inherently -- you don't want to kind of express your opinion too much because you don't want to alienate this person that you have this common interest with, just because your taste on one minor thing differs a lot.
For instance, I'm not really into French wine in general, but especially not Bordeaux. It's just that it's made for French cuisine, which is has a lot of fatty meats like duck. And I'm a vegetarian, I live in California. The fattiest thing I have is avocado, and I often drink wine by itself, not necessarily with food. Different palates, different tastes, all those things affect what kind of wine you enjoy.
And yet I still find you tolerable to talk to. [Laughs.]
Right. And you inherently might understand or come across someone who's more opinionated than you or me, you still kinda know you want to dance around that issue because you don't want to alienate them -- and you might want to get into a bigger discussion, but if you don't, you're not necessarily gonna explain your opinion. And they might explain theirs.
I might go into a wine shop and they'll push some 90-point rated wine and I'm gonna be like, "Eh, that's okay. That's fine." [Laughs.] You're not really gonna take it out on each other.
It's just a disagreement of taste and you're not interested in that and you're gonna go somewhere else where you can get that. At my local wine shop here, the owner curates the wines to include winemakers that have really interesting tastes and goals with their wine-making and they're all $15 to $30, and he's not telling me what the points are and this and that. And you're gonna go to a place where you can enjoy what you can and when you come across people with different tastes, you realize that or suss it out early on.
Did you ever get the sense from the 15 years you were in the industry proper -- which you're still in, but you know what I mean --
-- That they were afraid of their audience?
No. Not until now. That's definitely a new thing. Whereas before, they might have disdained their audience, they might have just sort of completely kowtowed to the audience. The audience, their wishes maybe were the most important thing. Or they might not have paid much attention at all and just treated it as a separate thing that was going on.
But it was never, like, "Oh my God." You might have been worried about what people will think, but you weren’t worried about what people would do.
And now I think you're worried about what people will do. What sort of things they'll do online and even offline. Like you said, swatting. That's an issue.
Eh, there's other stuff, too. There's a lot of stuff against individuals, there was the flight that the guy from Sony was on where people called in a bomb threat.
Have you talked to anyone still within those walls about -- are they having conversations about this stuff? Is it just a total zero-sum game?
No, I haven’t necessarily talked to folks there about this after that happened. But he was -- I mean, he was always an opinionated guy. He always --
"He" being --
[John] Smedley, the CEO of Sony Online and then Daybreak, and you kind of liked him or hated him based on whether or not you liked his opinions. He had an opinion, and at least -- I think a lot of people working there, you respect that in terms of a CEO.
A lot of times, CEOs won't, necessarily.
Yeah. What about EA?
With EA, exactly. It's a complete contrast.
Which, by the way. Sorry to ask you to talk about a former employer. I know that's a huge no-no in these things especially.
It's true, it's true. But at the same time, like --
How about this --
I'll just say one fact, and this is a fact. This is not my opinion.
In the two and a half or so years that I was there, EA LA went through I wanna say five studio heads. So, yeah, it was a very tumultuous time. [Laughs.]
And there was definitely not that sort of thing -- Smedley, his leadership, his vision, there was not anyone quite like that. For a little while, Neil Young was the head of the studio and he definitely had a vision for it. But he went off to found Ngmoco, and had great success with that. But it was a lot of changing stuff going on at EA at the time, and the economy was going down and they were trying to figure out digital distribution.
It was, yeah, very tumultuous.
Yeah, very tumultuous.
Do you think the industry just grew too fast?
Not necessarily. It was definitely the economic downturn -- not just at EA, but at a lot of studios a lot of interesting projects, it was a lot of build-up. If you look at 2007 and the heights of games that came out at the time, Far Cry 2 and Bioshock and that kinda stuff and studios were seeing success and being more ambitious and, right, like 2008, 2009, that sort of reaction to the economy, a lot of that got cut out. A lot of titles across the board from all publishers got canceled. So, I don't know that it was growing too fast, but it definitely contracted.
[Laughs.] No good segue for this. Let's talk about Steven Spielberg.
So, I don't want to get you in trouble with NDA stuff. What is okay to talk about, what is not okay to talk about?
There was a time limit on that, I should have looked it up, to be honest. But a lot of this stuff is, like --
I know there was that big feature that was done a while ago and some of this, but we're not really gonna talk about the game itself.
Yeah. It was definitely, like I said, a byproduct of that time where EA was being ambitious and it was his concept.
Well, so tell me how that even came about. Because I know, and I've told you, too, I sat in an Uncharted demo with just me and him in a small room. He had his hat on. He said nothing.
I mention that just to illustrate that his interest in games is genuine. And I know he's long been interested in games.
Well, he worked with what eventually became EA LA. He worked with DreamWorks on Medal of Honor and so he had worked with games before that point.
So I don't know the specific genesis of how this deal came about. But, yeah, at some point, they basically got him to -- I think he -- I don't know the specifics of the deal, I shouldn't say at all so nevermind.
But basically, EA wanted to be more ambitious and he sat down with Doug Church, who was the creative head and, yeah, it went from there.
So, you worked with him and I don't know how silly it is to --
-- and I know how that looks in writing, but can you clarify on that a little bit even though I know you interacted with him professionally?
I mean, yes. I was in a few meetings with him. That was the extent of it.
The other team leads -- I was the lead AI programmer. So, the executive producer and development director -- which, ironically, in EA parlance, they do the opposite things: directors produce and producers direct -- and sometimes the lead programmer would meet with him pretty regularly. Even as often as once a week or every couple weeks.
And they would often film those meetings for the rest of the team to watch and learn from.
I've talked to film critics who say that videogames have siphoned off the audience from movies, which is funny because I also hear people say, too, that movies are becoming more videogame-like.
There has always been this deference to Hollywood from videogames.
But did you get the sense that things Steven would say be treated as gospel and people didn't feel comfortable challenging him?
Well -- it was definitely an ongoing sort of thing to work at, in terms of stuff you'd present, you'd want to make sure he understood was a work in progress. Trying to kind of manage his expectations around that was definitely important. Because the bar we were trying to set with this playable companion AI character was that you would build this relationship with her over time and that she would grow and change. And so you're in the process of building characters and placeholder animations and you're trying to make a game and do all this scaffolding, there's a lot of stuff that looks janky. And obviously Spielberg himself has a high visual bar for fidelity.
And so, yeah, there's definitely time spent in managing that expectation.
Well, wait, what about feedback coming from him, though? Do you remember him ever being challenged or some of his ideas meeting resistance?
Well if it fell into territory that was clearly too ambitious, maybe the pushback wasn’t confrontational -- much like those ideas from any team member, sometimes the best way to redirect creative energy is to say, "Oh that. Yeah, that would be nice." Then, realize it would take a bazillion hours and then turn to other ideas. And the team creative leads had a strong enough vision for the design that they were used to dealing with that kind of redirect.
But then in the areas that fell between - that were ambitious, but maybe we could accomplish if we set out to, there probably wasn’t enough push back. But not just to Spielberg, I think that’s a challenge you run into on creative teams elsewhere too. When trying to be ambitious, you can still only do so much all at once, you have to pick your battles.
I guess you touched on it a little bit already with managing his expectations, but how did he not understand how games of that scale were made?
I don't know that he didn't necessarily understand. I mean, it's less an issue --
Like, what was his learning curve, is more what I mean.
It was more about getting useful feedback out of him.
So in a sense that -- I think he understood a lot of production realities, but at the same time, when we would want to show him something, you'd want to get really interesting feedback creatively. "Oh, could you do this? What about this other crazy idea?" That kind of stuff, and not, "Her walk looks broken right there. What is she doing?" [Laughs.]
Like, you want to focus that feedback on what was going to be creatively useful.
For people less familiar with videogames, what made -- obviously his involvement is clear, why that's ambitious -- that project special or ambitious for videogames?
Right. So, at varying times, there's been push towards having more believable characters. And it's sort of come and gone, and in the early-, mid-2000's there was, like, Facade where you could talk and there was natural language with two characters interacting that felt real in moments. We definitely wanted to push on that and you were gonna play this game over the course of several hours with this AI character who was this alien you were saving.
We really wanted the game to change based on what you did, how you played, and your relationship would change as well. if you just let her go and she always had to fend for herself, she'd be very good at combat but she would be very distrustful of you. And so we had a lot of ambition in terms of making that relationship change over time.
And you'd see something like Bioshock Infinite, like, Elizabeth, that was kind of the bare-bones, "Yeah, we want you to be able to interact with her." And they did a good job of putting her center-stage in a lot of ways, but we wanted to do even more than that.
Well, you had told me one of the skills you noticed Steven had -- which makes sense -- was that he would be really good at problem-solving, story-wise. Obviously that, but I'd be interested to hear about other ways he was impressively insightful or interesting to have at the table for a videogame's development.
Oh yeah. Like, in the few meetings with him I was in, it was always -- I remember one in particular. Well, I should backtrack and just say, like, I was never a huge Spielberg fan. I was not not a fan, but you know, I liked some of his movies, and some of them I didn't like.
But so, yeah, but being in a brainstorming session, it was immediately clear.
Someone would put out an idea, like, "Oh, this is what we were thinking." Brainstorming our vertical slice, what powers the character would have, what spaces he might interact in, that kinda stuff. And someone would throw out an idea and he would come up with just five, instantly, that were more interesting. [Laughs.] But the first idea wasn't bad. It was a good idea. But it would be like, "Wow. Okay. Those are better." [Laughs.]
And he would also -- he had a sort of scope of, like, someone would suggest an ability or a power or something that the other character would have and at first glance it sounds like it'd be a cool thing and he would be like, "Oh, no, actually..."
I remember specifically he, like, pulled out a reference of that show he did in the '80s, that sci-fi show that was a little bit inspired by Close Encounters and he was just like, "Oh, no, it had that character who did that in that show and that totally causes these plot holes because they could do this and do that." And we're like, "Oh wow, yeah, okay."
He would just be very insightful in an intuitive way. So as the AI programmer, I was reading a lot about facial animation and there's this thing called FACS -- Facial Action Coding System -- which is the micro-expressions of the face, how they convey emotion. And so we were trying to figure out how do we set up this character to play different animations at different parts of the face, all this kinda fun stuff. And so I was reading all about that and he would just like -- you would show him a character shot or something like a model being worked on and he would immediately know what about that character looked off. And it would be like, "You see one extra tooth in her smile." And you're just like, "Wow, okay."
Subconsciously you get it. You're like, "It doesn't quite look right", but he would just be able to pinpoint and say it exactly.
You told me, too, that he had similar recall with sequences in videogames.
Yeah, he was definitely a super-avid gamer.
And current games, too. I think when we were driving around you said, "I don't even know how he found the time to play stuff that was out right now that just came out."
Yeah. It was either Modern Warfare 1 or Modern Warfare 2, like, it had just come out. He had come in the studio and used as a reference a scene at the end of the game. So if anything, there might have been a couple people in the studio had started playing it but nobody was that far. We understood what he was saying but it was definitely apparent that he was playing games to a degree that's more advanced than even many of us.
Well, tell me about -- you said he brought his son in once.
Well, his son worked there.
And so, yeah, he would bring in his son and also give feedback during the meetings, which was a little weird but I thankfully didn't have to sit through any of those specifically. Just 'cause, like, yeah -- well.
Do you think that game companies -- I think stuff like that points to, like, "Huh, it's interesting how much more interesting games could be if people from other disciplines are allowed to come in and collaborate?"
Well, in our case, there were already all these great creative game developers - the head of the project was Doug Church, who worked on System Shock and Thief - so, I mean, it was certainly plausible that folks on the team would make something really interesting without other influences. But that’s true in general, definitely. I also think having Spielberg associated was a risk management thing for EA, like, you know it's going to be successful.
And he is, obviously, really creative, like I said.
But, right, I do often wonder: How much if game-makers got over their own weird motivational issues and kind of took that ambition on, how much we could actually manage to do ourselves? But definitely any impetus from the outside, I think, helps bring that kind of focus and it brings that kind of attitude where that ambition and making more emotionally mature -- even though what we were doing was more action/adventure, it still had this element of, "Hey, a relationship is actually developing."
So what are those motivational obstacles?
Yeah, I mean, it gets back to that infantilization where are we perpetually just navel-gazing, like nostalgia-based -- at least in terms of developers. It's not necessarily players. Like, I don't know. I mean, I definitely think it's always been a very small group of developers that have wanted to tackle more mature sort of topics.
But that's still at least grown a little bit. But I don't know what it is. It is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like, if you have game developers who have grown up on games that kind of insist on infantilizing themselves as a whole, then what are they gonna wanna make?
What do you think the games media could be doing to help stave off and combat entitlement and infantilization?
Yeah, it definitely gets back to that.
You had said in our emails that even the places that are meant to be outposts do not feel like they're coming from a different place.
Right. So, if you look at a place like Offworld, which from my perspective definitely seems like it wants to be a place where if you like games outside the mainstream, that's a place for you to go and read about them and kind of learn more. Which is a great sort of thing, but even that has to -- I don't know if it has to, but it definitely seems like it has a lot of pieces in conversation with the rest of games. They're not just writing solely -- and maybe because they feel like they can't -- about the games they're interested in. They're still in relation to -- their coverage of E3 is like, "Oh, you'll read about all this other garbage over there, but this is what you can get here."
So it's still always referencing and existing in that space.
So, I don't know if you -- for me, at least, I can't go there and just get information about games and perspective on games that is different. Like, you kind of have to take it as a piece with all this other stuff. That other stuff is inescapable.
I mean, I'm on all the same press lists.
Maybe that's one cog in the machine, right? Like, just the fact that you're on those press-release lists, just massively unsubscribe them all. Just cut them off.
It inherently probably affects you, right?
Look what I'm doing now.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But you're still on those lists.
Yeah, but it's years of being on those radars. It's not that I'm not interested in what those people have to say, but I feel very similarly where it's just like -- I'm clearly curious about different things with this.
But, like, we haven't even talked about games as products. Did you like Castlevania 2? Did you think it was cool?
[Laughs.] Nope! I had a Genesis! [Laughs.]
I'm not gonna lie. But that makes me wonder if maybe I just missed the nostalgia train because I'm a few years older than especially most of the indie developers who kinda want to go back to those Super Nintendo kind of classics. That's not true. I mean, Jake Kazdal was the director on Skulls of the Shogun. He is super in love with that era, too. So I don't know. Maybe it's just because I had a Genesis and the one piece of marketing that has inherently worked across my entire life is just that "Genesis does what Nintendon't." You know?
It's inherently for kids. I don't know. I don't know. It's hard.
So being outside of that bubble, what do you think people are actually fetishizing?
That's the thing.
Because the games on Genesis that I loved and were popular were often just kinda iconoclastic and creative genre mash-ups. You had stuff like Herzog Zwei, ToeJam & Earl. Games that were hard to define at the time in a lot of ways. And on Super Nintendo, it was, to me, a lot more produced. The audience was younger and you had pretty graphics and a little more staid gameplay, and so, yeah, you had the whole range of platformers that were more emblematic of the genre.
And even on Genesis, you had Sonic, which was a platformer, technically, but also weird in a lot of its structure and reliance on speed and that kind of stuff. So, I just inherently look at it from that sort of way. So maybe there is something to the production of those games and that they were just even at the time intended for a younger audience.
Well, one more thing, too. We talk about being contextless. Let's put that into context. What's different about then and now?
Well, you were forced to basically, you know -- only so many games came out at a given time. Pretty few. You had one game and this is also probably what you could afford as a kid. Like, you'd save and get one and maybe your friends would get one or two here or there, and then you would wait and there would be time. Hopefully the game was very long and involved and had many hours of gameplay, blah blah blah.
But you were inherently locked into this cycle of, "Okay, there's only so much actually coming out." And when there's 1,000, 2,000, 10,000 games released a day, there's no way of knowing, or you have to spend a lot of effort to find what you want if you're interested in something different.
I mean, just not a lot of stuff was out, period, then. I mean, there was computer stuff, too, but I don't think it was possible then to be like, "Yeah, I've got, like, 200 games I've never played."
Right. No, yeah. Or if it was, they were all shitty ripoffs of, like, two or three games. And then they would try to package them up and you'd be like, "Nah, that's bullshit."
What do you think videogames have achieved?
[Sighs.] I dunno.
They got me a job, that's about it. [Laughs.]
You sound nonplussed. [Laughs.]
That will not come across in the transcript. It could've sounded like you were really glad.
Right, right. It's true!
It's not that I'm not glad -- right. When I try to sum up -- you know, they've definitely served as an entertainment medium and players everywhere have highs and lows and have enjoyed the things. But there isn't -- I'm trying to think of a single game that's moved me in a way that, even if it isn't the same, but it's related or kind of parallel to other mediums. I've watched movies, like, I watched Fight Club when I was going indie the first time, 2001, and it helped me sort of change my life in terms of how I viewed life -- I was buying coffee tables that tried to represent me and all this sort of bullshit. I was like, "Screw that!" [Laughs.] I'm like, "What is really important?" I want to make art and commercial art, that kind of thing.
And so, I can't think of any games that have affected me that way a lot of times. There's a handful I'm kind of inspired by in terms of as a designer, but a lot of games that have inspired me have also inspired me by the opposite.
So, like, one of the games early on that I was like, "I wanna make games!" was Ghouls and Ghosts on the Genesis, and I hated that game because it made you replay it. You got to the end -- it was super-hard, you get to the end, and then you find out you have to go back and do it over again, and that was bullshit. [Laughs.] So that was, like, this huge waste of time and so it inspired me in the sense that I always want to be really respectful of players' time and what they commit to the game.
But a lot of examples are like that, and not that many -- aside from maybe something like Facade, which, playing that for the first time, seeing these characters kind of react in - not always, but - a believable way, you're like, "Wow, this is kind of meaningful." But it didn't necessarily move me in that other way.
So I don't know. I don't know.
I think a few years ago there was a big discussion about whether games would become comics or whether they'd become film, and I think it sort of weirdly landed in-between. In terms of infantilization, I think everyone's opinion about what games are is very limited in that way, but it's also, weirdly, the audience has become broader. So I definitely think there's an opportunity to kind of use that to change what games are?
But I don't know that a lot of game developers are interested in that.
I don't know. I've talked to some, even for this, where on the email thread I'm just like, "All right, well, this is really interesting." But sometimes I say, "Well, what do you think about discussing this in a context outside of games?" And they'll say, "Well, I don't know why people outside of games should care."
I don't know. I come across instances where, for instance, someone who's not into games I think would be really into a game. Like, my wife, she would love to play Gone Home and has played it for, like, a few minutes, but at IndieCade. And trying to convince her that it's worth her time is very difficult because she can just read a book, she can just watch a movie. It's not -- you know, those she knows. So it is sort of overcoming that knowing what is safely going to entertain us.
While also, those things may lay outside the mainstream of games. So, it's about this stuff that games aren’t normally even about, so trying to get people to see that and convince them to spend their time on it? Yeah. I don't know.
I don't know that we'll ever achieve that, but at the same time, that might still be okay. It's just -- we're not even reaching the people who would play those games. I mean, outside of Gone Home, but that's kind of the case in point. There is an audience that might be interested in that stuff, and they're playing games now. I definitely think the first step to success is focusing on that in terms of making a game and then I think, yeah, Fulbright sort of achieved that and they got sort of mainstream attention by being about those things and achieving success in games. But that's an outlier right now. That's not a common occurrence for sure.
And so we might have another game like that every three, four, five years. What does it take for that to be a regular occurrence?