I'm Brett Douville. I'm as of now a 17-year veteran of the games industry. Mostly in my career I've been a lead programmer, although about 15, 16 months ago I've gone indie, which, for the first part of that has mostly been relaxing and taking a little break from the daily grind. But places where I've led and games I've led have included LucasArts and Bethesda Game Studios and the games Starfighter, Jedi Starfighter, Republic Commando, and then I was in at the end of Fallout 3, and I was a lead programmer on Skyrim, as well as what they're doing now.
So you've made some games is what you're saying.
I've made some games. I've made some games.
This was in our email threads, but given that you've about seven more years on the industry than me I do, I was just kind of stunned about how little I understand about what goes on at the other side of the aisle. And looking out at social media and a lot of what's on the Internet around games, there's just a real lack of communication and understanding. I was told by colleagues who have worked in bigger games that I would likely be met with resistance and a total lack of cooperation from anyone who's ever made a bigger game. You're actually the first person so far who's fine going on the record, and so I was wondering if you could elaborate and explain to me what people are afraid of saying or afraid of being heard saying? Or is fear not even the right way to characterize it?
I'm not sure that they're afraid of saying anything in particular. It's more that with an industry like the games AAA business, it's so very hugely hit-driven and in order to maintain that level of driving a hit, you sort of want one story to drive your marketing. Ultimately this stuff comes down to marketing questions and if you have a studio of hundreds who are talking at whatever level of different sorts of stories that they're telling about the thing that they're making, that all muddies the waters for the consumer, so I think that's the fear from the corporate side, less than from the developer side. The marketing wants to control the message. And so typically the expectation of someone speaking in public such as Twitter or whatever is they are speaking for the company, so rather than speak for the company, most people would prefer just not to speak at all because that's safer. That probably is the fear end of it on the developer side.
So it's certainly industry standard across most creative industries and certainly in the games industry to have non-disclosure agreements. Normally you'll sign one just interviewing [for a job]. Especially AAA. That's less true in the indie space just because there the expectation is that speech can only help you because of visibility, whereas in AAA they're paying a lot of money to get the visibility they want and so they don't want to get any visibility that they don't want.
We also discussed in our email thread a bit about whether AAA is being creatively blocked or stuck. I feel like things are very cyclical, but it also feels like we've been locked in the current phase of whatever this cycle is for a long while.
In terms of the industry being held back, it would be great if people could be more open about their processes and things like that and the mistakes that they make and that would help AAA developers lift all boats. And some developers are very open about their process and things like that. But typically you're hearing about the successes in those cases and so it is sort of to other game developers still marketing in the sense of, "This is how we did things to do this successful thing." When they talk about their technical pipelines or how they structured their teams or whatever sort of information that they're allowed to share.
I don't necessarily know that we're held back on that stuff. I don't know. Could you elaborate on where you think we are in this cycle?
I see where we are now as part of a bigger pattern. The types of things I'm talking about is seeing very similar types of games coming out either in terms of voice or subject. The thing I always see get dumped on is things like Call of Duty, but I think in general bigger games are sticking to shooters and violence. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but why can’t we also have different things, too? It's sort of getting to the point where people who never really play games, the way they talk about most big videogames, they're more or less spot-on in describing them as just being violent.
Right, sure. I get you. I think what's happening there is what you're also seeing in other creative media that are expensive. So, Hollywood, when something hits and works and seems repeatable and generates a huge amount of income, the money men who are putting up a huge amount of money to be behind these things want to see that repeated success. That's why you see whatever it is, 25 films in the next five years that are superhero movies. Because that's a repeatable, understandable, "this is how you build it, it costs this many hundred-million and you can expect this kind of return on that." And when you're putting up that much money, that kind of return becomes a huge deal.
It's getting to that point in games, and I think that's why you see the same thing there. "Well, we can see that Call of Duty works. Battlefield works." And so you're likely to see more rather than fewer games made at that scope simply because of the amount of money that's on the line. I think it's purely a feature of perception of how you manage risk. That may not be entirely true. There are other ways to go about mitigating risk, and that would be spend less money on individual titles, but make many, many more of them in the hopes that one of them generates enough to pay for the rest or one or two of them hit well enough to generate for the rest. But if you're making these big tentpole titles, you want to limit your risks as much as humanly possible. That's why you're seeing very similar gameplay from certain studios.
Like Ubisoft is big into their open-world with story and then a million sub-goal things you can pursue at the same time, like an Assassin's Creed game. "Find the feathers. Find the artifacts. Find the I don't know, pieces of armor and the different paint jobs for your suit and etc." It just goes on and on and on, the different levels of stuff you can find. "Find the viewpoints." It's similar stuff in their Watch Dogs, it's similar stuff to a degree in Far Cry 3 and 4. It's just very -- it's a thing that they know how to do and deliver on and come out with on a relative schedule and they sort of know how to do it from a business perspective. And because they're also sort of limiting the creativity in terms of the actual game design, they also know how to do it from a creative standpoint.
Is this a childish pipe dream? Is it silly to even ask or care about there being more creativity?
At that scale, I think it sort of takes a certain amount of gumption and it just generally takes something breaking out, but even then it's really, really hard. I'm gonna lean on Hollywood every now and again because I think it really is at the hit-driven level the closest thing to AAA. You look at something that just blew up in terms of money return like Bridesmaids, and you would think that there would've been in the next creative cycle, the next year, basically, that the next May, there would've been another Bridesmaids-type movie. But there's sort of an ingrained, "Well, that was an exception to the rule, so we're just gonna keep following the rule and not even try new territory." I think that happens whenever you have that much money on the line. You're gonna get that, "Well, this is how we mitigate that risk."
That said, I think the reason why we see so much explosion of creativity and difference in the indie space is that there's lots of different business models. One is just keeping costs low. That's a common thread throughout them. But you also have low end, indie-level publishers or money people like the Indie Fund, who are willing to fund things that are different and experimental, that they still expect a return on, just maybe they're not looking at millions of dollars on return. They're probably looking at a similar level of return, just not at the millions of dollars. Percentage-wise, they might be looking for the same sort of return, although they cap it and things like that in terms of what they expect. The business model has changed the risk profile of a creative project. The bigger the risk, the less creativity you're gonna see. I think that's just a matter of fact. If games get to the point where they, say, cost a billion dollars to make, well then 10 or 100-million dollar game is not as big of a risk. [Laughs.] And so you'll see more creativity, right? But that's kinda where it is, right?
So is this just me? I'm just tired of hearing writers and players griping that things aren't as good or as creative as they used to be. Is that just one bubble about games on the Internet?
It's my perception of that bubble, as well. [Laughs.] I do honestly think that somebody who buys a small handful of games a year, just doesn't care. There are people who are out there buying Madden or NCAA or whatever their sport is. They're out there buying that every year. Or they're buying the next Call of Duty. And that's what they want. And because they only consume the one thing, they're fine with it. I think you see that in movies, too. I think that people love the superhero movies don't have a lot to see around Christmas, and they probably complain about that, but I think in games -- there's sort of a lot of factors to it. An individual game costs more and so people buy fewer of them than they see movies. And so you might only buy one or two games a year. And if that's the case, a steady diet of one or two things is probably not a big deal because you're only doing it a couple of times a year.
I think it's when you either have played tons and tons of games or play tons of games every year that you start to go, "Ugh, I've seen this before. I feel like I'm not getting anything new." And you probably eventually sort of drift away from games. One of the things that's been most exciting to me basically over the period of my career is just how much variety is now available for more adult themes and subjects and things like that in games, even if they're not at the AAA level. I still can go there. It's sort of like seeing indie film come around with the smaller budget films like, I don't know, Four Weddings and a Funeral or whatever. That was kind of a time when smaller artsy films were kind of coming out and could suddenly do enough money at the box office to justify their existence. And you're seeing the same thing with small budget indie games now. But that's not going to change how the big money goes about their business fundamentally. I can't imagine that happening. There's just too much money on the line. Because it'll crater a company. You think about that. I mean, look at Homefront and that was, what, Take Two?
THQ. THQ. Right. So you look at these games that are super-super expensive, and basically the way for tax reasons that these things work is you sort of write off as R&D product development for years until it's ready to come out, and then you put all that in that year that it actually comes out. So it's gotta do a huge amount of money to make your shareholders happy, and then it doesn't, and then your stock price tanks and see ya later. You just crater as a company. And that's really kinda what happened there.
I think also Homefront was an example, though, of something not doing anything particularly or especially different if memory serves.
Right. I mean, that's definitely true. I think to a certain degree, and it wasn't the only title that sunk that company, but to a degree it was probably the case that they just didn't even put enough even into it. It just wasn't big enough. It was the Green Lantern of superhero movies. Had it been enough, been marketed even more than it was, or whatever it was -- if the gameplay wasn't quite there, I mean, I didn't play it. So I'm picking on a game I haven't played. But in terms of -- it just didn't have enough to connect and make it pay for itself. Just like Green Lantern didn't. It didn't have the effects that it needed or the tone that it needed. Whatever that thing was, that it was made, or it just wasn't marketed in such a way that it got to the people that it needed to or whatever. There's some cauldron of stuff that just couldn't come to a boil.
What would it take for somebody to come in from the outside who isn't one of the handful of normal names making these type of games? What's the point of entry for people like that to even get on the radar to even have a chance to even do something different?
You have to place a bet that you feel is reasonably sized and hope that that pays for you to make a bigger bet. And so you're just stepping up a ladder of level of table of poker you're willing to play at. Because you can't really expect to come in and just compete at AAA level out of the gate. That is so expensive. The amount of money you need, you actually have to legitimately limit down what you're gonna do there. I think to take something that's even more expensive than normal AAA development and think about MMO development, that's something that's even more expensive because not only do you need a program that runs and does this crazy thing on a PC or a console. You also need to write this whole server back-end that does basically all of your game, but does it for thousands of people at once and etc., etc. The scale of technical challenge there is enormous. That's why people come into the MMO business and just can't make it happen, because the bar for entry there to make it, that sort of WoW level is a huge huge investment. Making that even work right out of the gate is really hard. Just like such an incredible longshot. The benefits are huge. The upside is gigantic. But the expense is, frankly, absurd.
In any case, to come in and do that at the AAA level would be sort of at the same level of difficulty, say, $100 million. Just to throw out a number. So, what you're better off doing is coming in and trying to do, "What's the biggest bet we can make? Is it $500,000? Is it a million? How are we going to market to enough people to pay for that?"
And that's what you sort of see at the indie level with teams that are sort of building their audiences slowly. Bastion comes out, does really well on Xbox Live and then on PC and on tablets, and that's enough to pay for a bigger bet with Transistor.
Braid came out, I think Braid hit it way bigger than anyone could've expected for just weird virality reasons. But Braid comes out, makes [Jonathan Blow] a mint so that he can spend a lot more money investing in his second project. And that's sort of how you have to build up your ladder of risk that you can afford to take. I don't know that that means The Witness, for example, will be a bigger creative risk than Braid. I haven't seen it. I don't think anybody's really seen it outside of a small circle. But I guess that's also what I presume they're doing at Fullbright. They had Gone Home, some moderate success. Certainly success enough to pay them to be able to do another game. Now they're gonna try to do a second game that's maybe a little bit more ambitious, and that's something they talked about after they released their trailer to various outlets. "All right, well, we did that. That was the biggest risk we could make at the time. Now we're gonna take the reward of that and try to make another bet that's a little bigger and hope we can keep doing that."
You don't have to do it that way. You can stay at the same level of risk for a while or just build a lot for a lot longer at a slower burn. I sort of feel like Vlambeer does that to a certain degree. None of their games seem tremendously bigger until maybe now, Nuclear Throne, which I haven't played enough to know. But it feels a little bit bigger than their games normally are.
That's accurate. I would agree with that.
Yeah, but it took them a while to get to that point. Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing feel like around the same level of complexity and maybe even Luftrausers -- they're different games, certainly, but they sort of feel at the same level of complexity. And then Nuclear Throne is now taking those lessons learned both creatively but also probably from a business perspective and figuring out how to stretch that to the next thing. You see that everywhere. You see that with Introversion. They made smaller games for a while that were very stylized and they had that DEFCON game and then -- I'm trying to remember what their big first one was, but whatever. You sorta see the same period there. Now they're doing this Prison Architect, and it's much bigger and much more ambitious than anything they've done before.
Yeah. And I think what we're also saying is that as the indie space is continuing to grow, it's sort of filling the role that the middle tier of publishers and developers used to occupy. I just feel like it right now it's a lot of people who are just scattered on the Internet who are congregating -- or not. But my big criticism for much of that group is I feel like they're also recycling the same ideas. Certainly I could go further down the rabbit hole and look around at a bunch more artier things, which I guess is the "solution" is to these types of things. And as you said, the pressures of capital can't allow bigger budgets to dabble with stuff like that. But it's just funny because those are the people who could potentially do the most interesting things, with those much bigger budgets. And it's unfair to expect just one area of the industry to do all of the experimenting, or most of it.
I mean, that's absolutely true. It's just that at this point the AAA level of budget has gotten so far out in front of what a big creative risk can afford that even a middle-tier can't survive against it. You look at, say, in the PS2 era, you could have your big tentpole games, and there were even Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, or whatever sort of games then, but you could spend a third of that or a half of that spend and get a game that was still very competitive visually with those games, making aesthetic choices, what have you. But they basically feel like they could compete on an almost level playing field and be a little more creative because they were spending a little bit less. But it was still not a ton of money, right, when you're talking in the single-digit million dollars to develop. Not so bad.
Then you take that and multiply it by a hundred. Let's say it goes up by a factor of 10 every generation. So, PlayStation 2 is in the millions of dollars. And you get tens of millions of dollars in the PS3 era, and even towards the end you're probably pushing towards hundred-million dollar mark. If you're talking half or a third of that, you're still talking tens of millions of dollars. To make that back on an investment is just really hard to do with something that's really out there. Because now you probably don't have the money in your marketing to reach enough people to connect with that.
The problem always becomes, "How do you reach my parents?" My parents aren't on the Internet like I am. They would probably be interested in games that are a little bit off the beaten path. I know I got them a Wii and they had a blast. They would've known nothing about the Wii had I not bought them one, and that's with television saturation from Nintendo. How do you reach the people who will enjoy your thing if it's kinda out there and you don't have millions to spend in a real mass media way? You kinda have to hope that you're gonna get coverage from somebody in a major news outlet of some kind. But hope is not a business plan. If that doesn't come through, then you're done after one title. And it might've been a great title, but it makes it hard to make that next title.
I think you see this with creatives in Hollywood, as well.
Terry Gilliam does not find it easy to find money to make movies. Anybody sort of -- he's sort of at a level where his movies are expensive enough that it's probably hard to get funding, but also creative enough that they're strange and risky and people are kind of worried about them. He makes Baron Munchausen back in the early '80s, and he can't find funding for years. He literally just can't make the movies he wants to make as a result. It's very similar in games.
Are there figures who you feel are correlates to Terry Gilliam in the game space? Do we have a Terry Gilliam of AAA?
I don't feel like anybody really gets to AAA as far as that goes, but I would say Double Fine and maybe Ron Gilbert as well are pushing more in that direction. Certainly their budgets are no where near a Call of Duty or a Destiny or whatever. Titanfall.
Did that ever exist in AAA? You mentioned the PS2 era.
I felt like at PS2-era budgets and certainly PS1-era budgets, you could make a fair amount of B titles and be fine as a studio. I think LucasArts, when I was there, was mostly making B-level Star Wars titles. They were good games. They weren't amazing games. They weren't revelatory and they didn't push the technology necessarily as hard or what have you, but they were certainly solid, good games. And they weren't nearly as creative and interesting as they had been before I went there. When they were all their story and SCUMM games.
And I think you could do that even as a boutique publisher. LucasArts never published more than a handful of games a year. As long as they were solid B titles and they didn't really blow up the expense report in terms of how much they cost in a given year. That's just not -- I mean, you look when they go from PS2 era to PS3 and Xbox 360 era and you go from games like I made, which were the Starfighters and Republic Commando and those expenses were probably in the millions. And then you go to something like The Force Unleashed, which took years, was big and spectacle, and part of that hit-driven business, and I think really there was a big shift starting really then. I think LucasArts was -- I mean, I love my time there, but at that time I think it was more, "Well, we're sort of publishing B-list Star Wars titles, and some of those will hit tremendously. Battlefront did great. And some of them will be fine, they'll maybe break even or a little bit better just because they have Star Wars on it." And then, the sort of creative titles they were doing at the same time could still live in that space. There was still a Monkey Island game or two the year after. The year after I started there was Grim Fandango. That did well enough that Tim was gonna do another game. I was on a cancelled Full Throttle 2 project for a year or two. These were all games that could compete financially and be part of a roster because the expense wasn't so high, the teams weren't so huge, because that's really what you're paying for in development. People.
And once you get to teams of 100 or 200 or whatever, when you get past something even comprehensible in terms of how much money you're spending every month, it just becomes impossible to do something at that level. I don’t think it’s nostalgia; it just really is a function of finance at that level. Like I said, I think that Double Fine is still trying to do highly polished titles that are smaller and quirkier, that are not meant to compete against the AAA space. They're not meant to be in the AAA space. And I think that's sort of the way you have to think about it. They're off making the small indie-film studio titles that are still possible. So I guess that's where I come down on that. I really do think over the last half of my career, basically, it's gotten so expensive just to come to the table that you have to really, really go big or just not show up at all.
What creative strides would you like to see the AAA space make?
The biggest things I'd like to see in the short-term are probably around issues of representation. I would love to see more kids able to see themselves on the screen. If you're a young black woman in America, there's nothing in the AAA space for you really. That's not entirely true, but it's pretty close to true. And so I would love to see any kid who's sitting down with a console to be able to buy games that are the big games of the year and see themselves in that game in some way. Whether that's race or gender or orientation or what have you. I do think that would probably be the biggest creative step that wouldn't impact the bottom line. I think that would be great, and I actually think that would be great not just for people who are under-represented in games but for people who are well-represented in games.
I tell my son that I would love for there to be a variety of characters in games so that he could see a variety of characters in games as well as -- because he's very well represented in games, because it would give him some empathy for people unlike him. And he gets it. Same with movies.
Why isn't that the case today?
Again, it's a perception that if something -- so.
No, I know. It's kind of an uncomfortable question to answer.
Well, it's not that it's uncomfortable. I'm trying to think of a good example. I look at a game like Remember Me. I think that was the name of it, right?
It had a female character. A female lead. It didn't do well. It didn't do AAA big hit numbers. And if you're on the outside of that as a money person who probably doesn't play games looking at that game, you look at every way in which it's different from a big hit and you say, "Well, those are risks I'm not willing to take." And as a team making that game, the reason why it could be different was that it probably was cheaper to make, and as a result, yeah, it couldn't get that same level of polish or whatever. It just didn't have as much time. It couldn't have as big a team or whatever, as a big AAA title. And so it's sort of self-reinforcing that the titles that try to do something different can because they have less money, but because they have less money, they can't often be quite as successful on all fronts as a big AAA title that has all the resources in the world. And as a result, because they tried to do something different and then try to do with an appropriate budget to do that, they can't stand up against something that has all the resources it could possibly need. As a result, the people who put the money into the big things, are just looking at that and saying, "Well, that just didn't follow the formula you need to get the ROI." So it just reinforces itself.
The reason why Remember Me didn't do all that well not might have anything to do with the fact that it had a female protagonist.
Having played it, I would say that that's the case, yeah.
And again, I read a ton. I don't have time to play every game that comes out. [Laughs.]
No, that's fine.
I don't want to pick on games. I'm just saying that's one I can remember from the recent past: an unusual protagonist, it didn't do great, and it sort of reinforces a myopic vision of what sells. That game probably could have sold extremely well had it been marketed in the same way Call of Duty is. So, saturation bombing of the media that 18 to 30-year-old men watch. You can't watch a football game in the fall without seeing the big tentpole titles. You just can't.
And if that game had that kind of marketing spend, it undoubtedly would have sold better. They would have found a way to make it connect with more people. Again, it's sort of self-reinforcing.
What people, or what roles do they have, that make the calls on marketing spend? They're at the publisher?
Yeah, they're always at the publisher. Big publishers have substantial financial departments that think about, "How much are we spending and how are we gonna get that back?" And that's their job. They have sales as part of their -- sales and marketing are all kind of wrapped into that question. And yeah, that would be at a publisher end.
Also just hearing you describe the diversity of characters that can be in games, and talking to you, it's hard not to think of Skyrim or Fallout 3 where you can sculpt any number of characters. Was that an intentional byproduct of that desire? Is that unique to the developer you're at? I know you said you couldn't talk about companies you've worked for or things like that, but I'm curious about that.
Yeah. And absolutely, I can talk about it in general terms because it's not the only -- certainly the Mass Effect games did the same thing in terms of better, more representation.
More open-ended representation. And to a certain extent, you can see it in even Destiny, where you have a wide variety of skin tones. You have male or female, you have -- and Saints Row. There's lots of games where you can do that more. There are narrative implications that come along with that that make it not always the choice that companies want to make. If you're trying to tell a very specific story, and you look at something like Destiny and the story is highly non-specific, and in some ways completely nonsensical from a standpoint of the main character. I played one of the Awoken, and you go and you meet with their queen, but that's sort of your queen, I would think? Where you're just like, "Wait a minute... I’m talking as if I were a regular human, I guess?" There's places where the story doesn't quite work as a result.
When you make the character more open-ended, that means your narrative has to be able to deal with that, and that might mean your narrative gets less specific. And that's fine, because in a game like Skyrim or a game like Mass Effect or Destiny, you're sort of making that player character, that avatar, an embodiment of the actual player. You don't think of that as an actual person. It doesn't often have a name.
Which is funny, too, because I think back to the original Legend of Zelda. Link didn't even have a name. He never spoke. A lot of those really earlier games do that, and I wonder a lot of these attempts to make games more ambitious with storytelling, they fall down in trying to make the character something very specific rather than a universal, I guess, mask for the character, if you will?
I'm at a point, as a person who reads a ton and a person who's seen lots and lots of movies and played tons and tons of games, I'm really at a point where I'm eager to inhabit a different frame of mind. So I can play a Gone Home and be empathizing with the story and even thinking of myself as the main character there. As the actual daughter coming home. But I don't think that's necessarily true of the whole audience. And so I don't want to say the audience holds back AAA, but I do think AAA is making stuff specifically for that audience, which may not be interested in that.
I think that's why representation is held back to a degree, and why if you have a specific protagonist, you will almost always be male, white, thirtyish, wearing a ballcap, and jeans or what have you. You're gonna have one thing, and that's because it's reinforced by the culture altogether. I think it would be less of an issue if all representation across the board were less of an issue. Games would just be the same, then. They would have a variety of protagonists because superhero movies have a variety of protagonists, but it's impossible -- or very difficult, and thankfully we'll get this changed in the next few years, I guess, to have a female superhero be the lead of a film. Which just almost never happens.
I think if that happened more frequently, you'd see a lot more female leads in games as well, and you could substitute in race or whatever for gender as well. You don't see a lot of black superheroes, either. I would love to see the Captain America series get to the point where they kill off Steve Rogers and they do all the stuff that's in the comic books through the aughts and Falcon ends up becoming Captain America. That would be great. That would be amazing. I would love to see the black Captain America on the screen. I don't know that we'll see it anytime soon.
Maybe 30 years from now?
Could well be. I certainly feel like we're gonna get there, I just think it's gonna be grinding and slow, and at a certain point you have to hope that budgets level out a little bit more. I think they've somewhat leveled off in Hollywood. They're ridiculously expensive, but they're not growing by a factor of 10 every few years anymore. Avatar is now, what, five years old or something like that? And it's still the most expensive film ever made. Nobody's tried to top that yet. I think there's a lot -- all of this stuff is hugely complicated. I'm making these generalizations on these very, very complicated things.
I wanted to ask you about consultancies and internal reviews of bigger games. I'm not sure if Bethesda or LucasArts has had them, or if you've had friends or colleagues that have gone through that process with them, but what's your opinion on them? Do you feel they help games? How do you measure that?
Yeah, I think that comes a lot from the product-driven side of things, that think of games as sort of razor blades or whatever. I know that that became -- I can sort of talk about what Bethesda's done because Todd's talked about it publicly and so it's not really an issue there. There is no sort of -- they don't take it out to people and have them review it and give feedback sort of early in development, or anything like that to test, have a consumer test, of a product. The people who develop Bethesda games and who play them initially are the same. The team plays the game like crazy and gives feedback and they sort of understand the type of game that Bethesda makes. They make it and they get it. They give feedback based on that experience.
But I do know that at other publishers, there are different levels of testing that they will do with concepts and even at LucasArts, towards the end, when we had a new president who was from a consumer products -- I can't remember, like, Pepsi or something. He had come in and was very much about getting out there and testing ideas with focus testings. The thing that I think you don't get from that -- I think that actually hinders creativity even more, because when you focus test a game against 18 to 30-year-old men who play one or two games a year, what you get from them is, "I want 'insert most popular game right now' again." You almost never get from them something new or interesting.
Back at LucasArts, if we had gone to focus testing and said we were gonna do a first-person shooter, they'd tell us all about the ways it needs to be like Halo. It's not their job to think about what's next. They're very happy and excited about what they're in right now, and it's kind of our job as creative people to push that dial along a bit.
I think focus testing really works against creativity and I also think it tends to blandness. You end up with just me-too characters or what have you. I don't know. I've never felt like that in a truly creative format is helpful. Your vision should come from the people making the thing. That vision needs to be communicated as the team gets larger. In teams that get really, really large -- I've heard numbers in like the 1,200 region for Assassin's Creed -- you establish a vision with a smaller team of 100 and then you bring on the big team later to really fill in the tons and tons of content in that last six or nine months or whatever before you put it in beta and just QA it like crazy. There still needs to be this smaller number of people who are figuring out that creative vision and I think focus testing just really clips the wings of those people.
What do you think players don't understand about the way bigger games are made?
I don't think they have any sense whatsoever of how complicated they are to make. Just how much effort and sweat -- it's always a sort of, "They coulda just done this." The reason we got to wherever we got is however many iterations we could do on that feature before we had to put it to bed. And if something isn't working in a game, it's often not that we didn't know it wasn't working. It's just that we didn't have any more time to improve it.
Bethesda, to its credit, has mostly always had the time to do things at the level it needs to do it. I think that -- I don't interact with a wide player base, but I definitely see things like, "Well, this game should have multiplayer. This game should have co-op." There's no understanding of how enormous tasks like this are and in what way they might hinder decisions you make. Those are enormous things and they change your design in lots and lots of ways. It's a whole new game, in a way, when you add features of that complexity.
I was playing some Destiny recently and that's a game that has -- it's definitely a first-person shooter MMO kind of feeling, but then they have this competitive head-to-head and control and whatever sort of modes there are. They're all kind of their own parts of the game. They don't work -- you can't just mash them together into one mode. You have to separate those out and often different teams work on those things. I think that players just underestimate how long anything takes and how many iterations you might take to get where you end up. I don't know. It's hard to inform them, and why should they care?
One of the things we often said on Republic Commando was the player doesn't care how long it took you to get to what they see on day one. They didn't see any of the iterations beforehand. They have no idea the story of how a thing got to be the way it is. They don't see how much better it is than it used to be. They have no point of comparison of, "Oh, this feature used to suck, but now it's okay." All they see is, "Eh, it's okay." So to get it to the point that it's terrific, that has to be your goal. Because they're never gonna see the steps to get there.
Now I think this is changing, to a degree, with things like Early Access and all that. And that certainly helps in a way, but those audiences are still comparatively small. I'm sure most of those are in the zero-percent, as Tom Francis likes to say. "Less than zero percent of Steam users are probably in an Early Access game, by rounding."
I'm in one. So I'm the one.
But also, I don't think you see games of that scale in a state like that.
You don't. And again that's got a lot to do with the marketing message.
Do we really want to see that, though?
I think you mostly don't want to see how the sausage is made. And I actually think it changes development a lot when you are showing your process. They really don't care about how complicated that code is to write and do well for games that are really large. So I think that is something -- it's really of a lot of interest to other game developers. Like I love watching the Two Player Productions stuff about Double Fine. I love it for a lot of reasons.
One, I know some people who work there. There's some ex-LucasArts people there, or just people I've met over the years just being a guy in the industry. But it's also you see their process and if they're doing something like an Amnesia Fortnight, you can see how crazy it is to be doing basically a full-scale company game jam over the course of two weeks. And that's really fun to watch if you've ever participated in one, or you've ever wanted your company to participate in one and do one internally. That's great. That's a great resource.
Is it great for general Joe Player? Eh. You know, it's hard for them to even have a mental framework for understanding even what's going on and what decisions are being made. I think it would be great but I think that most players just don't care. I don't really know. I sort of feel like a big thing in movies is to be listening to those commentaries that are the directors talking or some actor, and they're talking about how they got to whatever it is they're showing you onscreen now. Or maybe the special effects people are talking in a big spectacular like Lord of the Rings. And often that stuff is -- not everybody watches it. I don't know what the percentages are there. It probably, again, is one percent or less. It's the people who are deep, deep fans of that particular property.
We were actually, on Jedi Starfighter, we might've been the first game in the industry to do commentary videos that we shipped with the game. It was certainly -- if we weren't the first, we must've been among the first handful, where the director of the game and the lead designer and the level designer would talk about "here’s what I was trying to achieve with this part of the level" or whatever and they would just be playing the game and they recorded it and all that stuff, but I don't know that we ever got any feedback on that being anything that people wanted to see more of. Now it's kind of -- sometimes it's part of the marketing story of game, but I think less and less part of the marketing story of a game. **The marketing story is often, "We're working really hard."**But it's not more specific, you know what I mean?
Grim Fandango's re-release will have a commentary track that will have, as far as I know, the next big one that I think people will be interested in.
Oh yeah. I'll totally watch that. But I was there at the time. For me it will take me back to the time when Tim had a huge wall of Peter Chan drawings outside his office. That'll just take me back to those days. But I don't know. I don't know how many players who aren't in the industry or aren't already deep fans of the thing are interested in that.
How did you get started at LucasArts?
The way I got hired at LucasArts was I knew Tim's name just having played Full Throttle and knowing about Grim because of previews in magazines and having played Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island games. So I knew Tim's name and I had gotten some advice from somebody that if you're going to interview at a company, find somebody there whose work you really respect or who's doing a job that you'd really love to do someday or whatever and talk to them, whether or not that's an interview or not, but get in touch with them directly. And so that's what I did. I cold-called Tim Schafer and went out to the Bay Area on a separate visit. I was just going, I wasn't going to interview. And I asked if I could take him to lunch. He said sure. I had sent a résumé along so he knew what I was doing and what I was.
In the meantime he set up interviews for me that happened after lunch. So I came back from lunch and had interviews. The people who interviewed me didn't know that Tim wasn't seeking to hire me. Normally what teams did at LucasArts in that era was kind of the individual project directors would hire for their own projects, and they would get feedback from other people. But nobody had told Daron Stinnett, who ultimately hired me, nobody had told Daron -- Daron thought this was somebody Tim was trying to hire. But he sent an email and in his feedback he's like, "Oh, I'd hire him. I'll take him." Just kind of as a one-off, "He's good enough that I'd want to work with him." And Steve Dauterman, who was the director of programming or development or whatever at that time said, "Okay, he's yours!" So I kinda just got lucky on a lot of different levels there. But, yeah, I would have loved to have worked on Grim and I would have loved to work with Tim. I would still love to work with Tim, but I've never actually had the opportunity.
What are your games-media consumption habits like?
I'm continually a whole month behind on my RSS feeds, but that's pretty much what I read. I read a ton of RSS feeds and I listen to a few podcasts. I have a few game designers whose blogs I like to read. I've been reading both of the Pittman brothers' blogs about those games that are coming out next year. I will read Cliffski. It's Positech Games. He made Democracy 3, Gratuitous Space Battles, and Kudos and different sorts of games. He also published Redshirt.
I read Rami's Tumblr occasionally. There's lots of different developers that I read. And then sort of for general news coverage I mostly see what I see on Twitter. I read GamaSutra's RSS feed. I read Rock Paper Shotgun through their feed. Kill Screen. What else? There's kinda a whole bunch. I listen to Idle Thumbs. I know a lot of those guys. I read the CampoSanto blog. Stuff like that. And whatever comes up on Twitter.
What's the biggest thing the media doesn't understand about how bigger games are made?
That's a really interesting question. It's sort of depends, right? I think people who have been -- I think there's two different types of games media. I think there's people who have been around quite a while reporting, like yourself, and so a lot of the contributors to something like Kill Screen, etc. And I think there's sort of a more fan media, which would be just smaller sites and certainly the Let's Players and things like that. I think that the fan sites -- you may as well just think of them as players. Players who are interested and motivated enough to be more vocal and go through the work of doing additional work to talk about the games, but fundamentally don't understand how games are made and don't even get that there's this huge aspect of the business in AAA which is just this enormous amount of marketing and what have you.
As far as this game journalism cognoscenti, I think there's probably not a deep understanding of the day-to-day, like, what you do in a day if you're at a AAA studio. And I don't actually know most of the time it's very interesting. [Laughs.] So I'm not sure it's something you need to know or care to know, because I don't think there's a great, interesting story. It sort of depends. There's certainly been studios that tend to grind people down and just chew up people and they'll make more. And that was kind of a big deal in the EA spouse era. I think that the crunch aspect is a big human story and so those more human interest stories are understood and get picked up on.
Maybe I'm mistaken, but aren't those the outliers to the day-to-day?
In the course of a multi-year project, absolutely. You're only gonna be crunching those last six months or a year.
So, for example, how did a typical day on Fallout 3 differ from a typical day on Skyrim?
I came in so late on Fallout 3 that it would be hard to say. As a guy who manages people for most of my AAA career, a lot of my time was spent talking to people and not coding, for example. So it sort of depends on where you are in a hierarchy. Most studios, especially if you've got hundreds of people on a project, your work is going to be very driven by a database somewhere, which is probably controlled by a producer who is making a determination based on some larger schedule of what needs to be done this week, this month, what have you. Those people are managing very small, very fine-grained feature lists of, like, "Okay, we have 600 animations to get done on the main character, and this is the huge list and we're gonna parcel those out." In the best of situations, the producer will know the people who are working on those features very well and understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie and will match those things up as best as humanly possible. Again, you won't have somebody who's really good at working on six-legged insects working on your main character’s walk cycle or something like that.
In the best of cases, especially in things where it's very predictable, like you can know how much animation a person generates per day or per whatever, and so you can sort of map out all that stuff out. And there's a huge amount of that that goes on in the day-to-day when you're in full production. That's a lot trickier when you're talking about programming because there isn't an easy measure for the completeness of a feature and it's highly coupled with the designer. So a designer's gonna say, "Well, I want this."
You could search on the posts somebody did in the last year, I'd say, about "Here are the things that go into making a door. Here are the list of questions I need to answer if I'm going to make a door for a game. Does it open when I walk up to it? Do I want an animation that plays?" Millions of questions. The amount of questions that are involved is enormous. And all those questions are answered, often, by pairing that off with a programmer who's going to help that feature. Hopefully they're doing it that in a way so that's very repeatable or more something that they can do more experiments with without more programmer intervention. But there's a limit to the degree you can do that.
So, yeah, as a gameplay programmer, going back to my Starfighter days, every day I spent time with a designer just sitting down, looking at how they worked, seeing what kind of problems they ran into, watching their own missions and saying, "Oh, it would be helpful for them to have this, that, or the other thing." Giving them all, basically -- empowering them to tell me of these million things that they want, which one is literally the most important thing. Like, if I could do a thing today, what would that be? And that might be, "If you could just make this button bigger," which would take no time, to, like, "I need the AI to do this crazy thing," which might be several days. There's a huge coupling of those sort of people and it's hugely back and forth and not nearly as predictable, so, again it's sort of this iteration process that happens over making games. Even just nailing down what the game is or how the game plays from moment to moment can take a lot of back and forth or working together.
That said, what's been one of the biggest learning curves in shifting of things from that magnitude to much smaller, now that you're doing things that are much smaller on your own?
I mean, I think for me, and I have been literally semi-retired over the last year. I helped ship 60-Second Shooter, which was a friend's game. We ported it to the Xbox One and did all the stuff that needed to be done there. I guess the biggest challenge to going back to being a programmer is managing myself. So right now I'm basically a programmer-designer. So you have to really, as somebody who's successfully a programmer, you have to keep yourself from programming things just because you want to program them. I might want to do a particle system because I want to do a particle system and because I know how to do that, not because it will necessarily benefit my game today.
As a designer, I need to be saying, "Okay, yeah, that's kind of the look of the particle system. It's something we may care about, but we may not even need that later." I have to constantly tell myself that what I have is good enough or I need to get to something I can play with faster so that I can be a designer more than I am a programmer. Having years and years and years of experience programming -- I've been programming since I was eight or nine. So I've got over 30 years in front of keyboards, and the programming is actually not the hard part. Programming for me is not the hard part. I have to keep myself from doing that thing that's kinda easy for me and pushing myself on the thing that's kinda hard for me, which is the design and making design choices and implementing the minimum thing to understand the design better. I'm working on a couple of different projects. One's relatively small in scope, and one that's quite large that I've been working on slowly over the last year, which involves a huge amount of simulation. It's based on managing a newspaper.
You're sort of the editor and you're assigning stories and you've got reporters, and I've got to keep myself from spending a lot of time on things that don't really matter until I really understand the design better. So, spending a lot of time on a data pipeline, I might understand and get and know how to do, and I have to pull myself back from doing that because it's kind of comfortable to do. Because I know how to do it. I just need enough data to test this design idea that I have, and I need to pull away from that. I guess for me right now, the big shift has been I have to manage myself as a team of one person who embodies designer and programmer to make sure the designer is getting enough time.
You're managing a stable of reporters and you do the page layout of a newspaper like you might have in Republia Times, which is a browser game, but the focus is on building a stable of reporters, it has a very complicated economic model, in terms of people are buying your paper. Paper costs a certain amount, or you've got advertising coming in, and all that. It covers the story of the American newspaper from basically the mid to late '70s until more or less the present day. So you kind of have this period of idealism and then you have monopolistic power, basically, happening in the '80s where newspapers consolidated a fair amount, and that even continues into the '90s. But because they're the only game in town, they make plenty of money, expand, and open foreign bureaus in all kinds of places and things like that. And then you get to the aughts, where you suddenly have a huge cash crunch, the workforce is more senior, and therefore more expensive. Classified ads dry up. Lots of different type of advertising dries up and at the same time fewer people are reading because they have more opportunities for getting their news. But it's about navigating those challenges.
The game, in terms of how it plays, is a strategic layer of what stories are you going to report and where are you gonna put them, as far as their importance? Are you going to give them some kind of slant? For politics, it would be conservative versus liberal, maybe. And then are you gonna pursue some credibility, are you gonna go The New York Times route? Are you gonna maybe go for more circulation in the stories you report, so "if it bleeds, it leads?" So there's all these sorts of strategic questions. And then at the same time, you're managing this stable of reporters and you've got to keep them happy enough in a Sims-like way of different reporters care about different things. You have to make decisions about that. So it's a very complex game.
And the design questions I have to answer are the hard questions. I can code up whatever, but answering "it should be this way versus that way and why" is a hard thing because games resist having those questions easily answered.
Does it have a name yet?
I'm thinking of calling it The Fourth Estate, which is based on there being a fourth estate in the gallery around Parliament, basically. That's where that comes from. But I haven't really firmed that up because I don't know that The Fourth Estate connects with people as a name. But I don't know. I'm such a long way from naming the thing.
What does it matter if bigger games aren't all that creative? Does it really hurt anybody?
I think to a degree it does and doesn't. Yeah, that's a big question. To a degree, it might hurt the people working on them. And to a degree it might not. I could sort of see that the people who might feel the need for more creativity in their work would probably split off and go elsewhere ultimately. To a degree that's why I moved. I just had been doing the same thing for a long time. It started to feel like everyday was the same day. So it was a time for a change or even just a break because who knows. Maybe this all fails in a year and I get back and that's fine. I think there are probably -- with certain issues that we're talking about, I think people are definitely harmed. I think an issue like representation is a big problem because both for the industry itself and for people in general, I think the industry if it continues to grow in terms of cost to make games -- say we go another generation five or six years from now and we go up by a factor of five or two, that's a really big audience that you need to get to. I think if you aren't developing that audience over that time, maybe we can't afford to make another leap in cost of development to do that. I think that's a real risk for the AAA industry. So I think to that extent it matters because there are only so many -- there's an awful lot of guys who look like the protagonist in videogames, but there's not an infinite number, and lots of things are vying for their attention.
I mean, what's gonna be next for my nieces? If they want to play games. I bought them Once Upon A Monster and a Kinect and a 360 a few years back and there's just not a lot -- I don't see a lot for them on the horizon. I don't know what I would point my sister and her husband to in terms of what's next for those kids. I mean, some of the games that they had -- there was one that was a Disney game. It had Mickey Mouse, and controlling it with a virtual stick, and, like, the seven-year-olds just couldn't do it. Like, that's who that game is for. It's like a big empathy problem of just grokking who it is that plays your game if they're not you. And that's a big problem. I had to show her, "Well, here's how you're gonna jump. You have to be holding the button when you hit the jump so that you keep going in this direction." To a certain degree they just couldn't do that. They're just not dexterous enough with their hands. Or they just haven't learned. But that's who that game is for and to a degree, it's a really big failing of those developers empathetically to understand what those kids can do. To a degree, "It's a product, who cares, we already got their money already." But you might not get any more money from those people ever again because they've been turned off because they couldn't play this thing that they bought.
It's almost like you forget not everyone grew up playing Mario, so if you're making a game for people that age, guess what: They didn't grow up playing Mario.
This is their Mario, right? And if you're on a touch screen, it's even harder. You can look at a Nintendo controller and you can see what it can do. [Laughs.] It's right there. It's this piece of plastic and you can see where the verbs are. There's these two buttons and this directional thing over there. You can see everything you can do from an input perspective. But on a tablet that's a lot different. I don't think she even got that there was a stick she was pressing. I could see it. But it was under her fingers. It's weird. It's a hard thing.
One of the things I appreciated Nathan Martz, who was the lead on Once Upon A Monster, and he worked for me on Republic Commando. He was at Double Fine for a long time. Now he's at Google. He's gotten out of games. He wants to do something different for a while. One of the things I appreciated so much talking to him while they were developing that was the degree to which they were involved with kids in making sure that kids would get it and could do the things that the game could do and that the Kinect could register. There's a huge amount of technical challenges there because the Kinect is often not very good at picking up little people, which is who the game is for. They kinda went a different direction with Happy Action Theater in being less about goal-directed play, like "go through to the end of this level" and more about "here, have this wacky experience." Because to a degree it didn't really matter. There was no failure. They could throw them in a pit of virtual balloons and have them wave their arms around and if they pop balloons that in theory they didn't really pop for whatever reason, it didn't matter that they failed. It didn't matter that the game didn't perfectly represent what they were trying to do because it was just having a big blast of fun. They kinda learned a lot from that.
I look at games that are not learning what the capabilities of children are, playing on these devices, and think, "Wow, that makes my job harder when they're adults and I can't reach them because they've given up on games, even though I might have a game that's right up their alley."
I think that's the thing in general with the lack of creativity: If you lose them earlier, you shrink the audience and you can't capitalize on that later with more interesting, weirder stuff. I think this is why so many people age out or move on.
Yeah, I know. It's like, I've never aged out of reading. I've aged out of reading certain types of books. I don't read Star Trek novelizations or anything like that anymore. I read a ton of them when I was 12. It almost feels like in order to get at something that's off the beaten path, you need to know somebody who's more directly connected. Whereas if you walk into a bookstore, you'll just kinda browse the shelves and say, "Oh, I see this. It's shelved with these other things I like." I'll give them a try.
Whereas recommendation engines go kinda crazy with Amazon. They push things at you they think you'd like. The same is true with film. I sort of to a degree, I still see a lot of Hollywood stuff because I have kids. But that's not the sort of thing I'm interested. I'm more into Bergman than I am Batman. Unless you've invested into games deeply, it's hard to even know where to look to begin to find stuff. Discovery is just a huge problem, because the stuff that's popular, even on the popular platforms where there's a low bar to entry, like a phone or whatever, getting visibility on that, as something that's kinda different and off the beaten path is very, very hard. Very, very hard. I can't imagine something that's thematically along the lines of Gone Home reaching the top of the App Store and thus getting the visibility it would need. It would be a different game, obviously, but just having those deeper, adult themes, it’s just hard to know how to do that. How to cross over as people sort of age out. If they don't age out and they stick with it and there's stuff for them, then the whole industry benefits because they bring people in. When they have kids, they want to play videogames with their kids, and maybe they go and I'm watching Hollywood movies with my kids that I wouldn't see otherwise. They play videogames with their kids that they might not play otherwise. And so the audience just keeps growing. If you're turning people off, that's less likely to happen.
Even Rock Band or Guitar Hero… I have a friend who’s just die-hard opposed to videogames for kids, and I told her, "I’m going to find a videogame that you really, really enjoy," and I had no idea at the time that I made that statement what it would be. And then Guitar Hero came out a year later and I said to myself, “Ah, this is it, she’ll get this and she’ll love it, she won’t buy a console for it, but it is at least the sort of thing where she’ll appreciate that it has some actual value.” I showed it to her and she “got” it, that this is a thing that you can’t easily have. There was still a long discussion about whether it would be better to go and learn guitar, to spend years and years and years getting really good at a thing, but I told her that I felt like you lose so many people along the way to that if they don’t have the feedback of that experience. I wish it had been a few years later, so I could have shown her Gone Home or something else along those lines.
So you need to broaden that fanbase somehow. I think that's actually one of the biggest successes of the Wii, even if it was for most people maybe just a Wii Sports player: It managed to reach a diverse audience, and you could see even in their marketing and everything that they were looking to reach a diverse audience to try to bring games back to they were more marketed to families or whatever when I was a kid and everybody played together.
I think that's probably one of the dangers that the industry faces if it gets any bigger, and we're probably at that point, where, again it's a pull on the creative side of limiting stuff. So I think it matters from a financial standpoint. I think it matters to individual creators who work on these teams who might like to work on something a bit more creative. But people get into the industry for all sorts of reasons and the challenges they face might be purely, "How do I make something that's even more realistic?" that's often something that people are pursuing.
I guess there are people who probably just don't fit well into the niches of the AAA space and maybe will just seek other pastures or do other things altogether.The fewer voices you have making games, the sort of less creatively rich they'll be as well. So there are a lot of reasons why it might matter. I don't think that from a business perspective most soulless corporations care about those issues because fundamentally it's "what does the capital do?" and "how much capital do I get as a result of spending this capital?" That's pretty dark stuff. I think that to a degree it doesn't matter because hopefully the indie game will continue to grow and have that wide palette of offerings for people. If they can't find what they're looking for in AAA either as creators or consumers. The hard part there will be just how do you reach that audience? I think that that's probably the other area where lack of creativity in AAA may hurt. Just because it'll make it that much more difficult for people to seek out and find things that are a little bit different. They may not even think that there are things that are different because of the one-note approach that happens in AAA. So, I guess those are all the reasons that it might matter.