Mario von Rickenbach

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah, my name is Mario von Rickenbach, and I'm 28 years old now in a few weeks.


Happy birthday.

Mario von Rickenbach: [Laughs.] Yeah. I always have to calculate how old I am.


Happens to everyone after they turn 21.

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah. No, my Google Calendar reminds me of my birthday. It's cool. So. I'm based in Switzerland, right now Geneva, but I move back to Zurich very soon. My background is: I studied game design at the design school in Zurich and since three years I'm working on things like games or also related things where you can use the same tools as you use in games -- but in general mostly games right now.


When we met at GDC, you mentioned you collaborated with a filmmaker. That was your third Game Developer's Conference when we met last month. Do you feel like that kind of partnership is unusual or rare of someone in games working with someone who has traditionally not made games?

Mario von Rickenbach: I didn't think it was unusual, but if you talk to games people at GDC it seems to be quite unusual. So I'm not sure. There are a few existing projects like that -- maybe you know Bla Bla by Vincent Morriset, it's a small web-game, toy, kind of thing. He's also -- his background is in animation filmmaking, so he made this game with other people and that one was one of the inspirations for our game, so, for us it seemed not too unusual to have filmmaker and a game designer working together.

But now when we talk to people they say, "Oh yeah, that's kind of something unusual."


Why do you think such partnerships between people who make games and those who don't is unusual or doesn't happen as often as you thought it did?

Mario von Rickenbach: Games are still a quite closed community, a monoculture where most inspiration seems to come from inside. Maybe that’s why it’s still a bit unusual to see games that don’t clearly look like games, because there’s not so much influence from people who have a different professional background. Of course there are some exceptions, but they’re exceptions. Which also means that people from outside may be less interested to do something in games, except they want to do something that looks like a game.


For your collaborator, what's his perspective on being around people who make games if it is slightly rare or different for you guys?

Mario von Rickenbach: In general, he's not the guy who plays a lot of games. He knows a bit about what's going on in general. It's easy to be a bit up to date if you're following some people on Twitter, but this traditional gaming stuff is not really -- I think he's not really interested in it, and me too. I'm not really interested in it. I think that's where we found our connection that we could work together because we had a similar -- and I think for him, he searched for someone who could help turn his film into a game.

For him it was quite important that he find someone who doesn't want to turn it into a game that has nothing to do with the film at the end.


Can you talk a little bit about Plug and Play for people seeing this and aren't familiar? Like, what is it? How would you put it?

Mario von Rickenbach: [Laughs.] Plug and Play is a short game based on a short film about plugs and playing with plugs and fingers.


[Laughs.] All of this is true.

Mario von Rickenbach: But how it is connected, I don't want to explain here.


I feel like if you put any more words to it it takes away from the experience. Like, I emailed you about it and said the parts with dialog felt like hazy recollections once you're under the gas before oral surgery. There's something about them that's so hard to articulate but so specific. You feel it, it feels completely true, and it is completely bizarre, but at the same time it also feels relatable.

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah, I think it's funny because people don't really expect this dialog there.


Well, so, one of the things you wanted to talk about was you "don't want to make [your] games as fun as possible."

Mario von Rickenbach: I don't want to say good games are not fun but I think it's just one of many ways how to make an interesting game. For me it's hard to make a really fun game because there often are some mechanics in really "fun" games which are about repetition and stuff like that, often. I'm hesitating a bit to really go this way. Maybe I'm unable to do it, I don't know. I'm just always thinking, "Yeah, maybe this should do something different and maybe it's even a bit less fun, but it’s something unique." There are other properties a game can have, it doesn’t only have to be between fun and not fun.


How do you think the average who plays videogames defines "fun" in a videogame?

Mario von Rickenbach: [Laughs.] That's actually a good question because I guess there's no good answer to that.


And there really is no average person.

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah, there are many different ways to explain "fun," of course.

For me, it's something that keeps you playing and sometimes games keep you playing and it's maybe -- it doesn't feel like fun but you still keep playing. If this is "fun" or not, I'm not sure. Maybe that's the kind of fun I'm not interested in when making something.


I mean, you said your intention is to create "unique and memorable games." So, in the stuff you have made, how would you define those words?

Mario von Rickenbach: It means there are not so many other games or many other things in general close to this game, when you release a game, even if it's in a traditional -- like, I made a game called Krautscape, which is a racing game. So it's not something completely away from traditional games, but I think it has something a bit unique in it. Or I try to do it at least. I think -- yeah, it's a combination of things that makes it different from some other things.

Maybe not even better. Just different.


I don't want to focus here just on Plug and Play, but something else you wanted to talk about was games on YouTube. You sent along this YouTube playlist of 574 videos that you last updated two days ago. They're all people's reactions and/or them playing this game.

Mario von Rickenbach: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's really funny to see.


So I'll drop a link in there and people can see what we're talking about, however many it will have by then, but they all -- the top one is PewDiePie, and the title is, "What the f%ck am I playing?" Others are: "Why does this game exist?," in Spanish, "The strangest game in the universe," "What the fuck you all got me playing?," "Human Centipede Simulator," "What the fuck?," "Weirdest game ever."

You made this list so you've seen all this already.

What's your reaction to seeing that this is the common reaction on this space on YouTube?

Mario von Rickenbach: I mean, I expected that it could work, but that there are no other -- I mean, there's basically one single perception of the game: "What the fuck?"

I don't know. There were a few less popular videos where people really tried to play the game and, yeah, found some other things to say than, "Oh, what is this?" I was a bit surprised that it was so extreme, and it was quite good for the game to sell it, but as a game I expected there were a bit more variations on this reaction.

But that's okay. Maybe that's how the Internet works and I don't want to change that. [Laughs.]


But I'm sure you've seen that online with other games, where there seems to be one reaction and then most people seem to glom onto or adhere to that? And sometimes there will be another opinion. But it tends to be a very binary reaction in either direction. Do you feel like you see that as well from the Internet you go to that deals with videogames?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah.

There are not so many opinions, it’s a bit like the part in Plug and Play where you can only say yes or no.


Why do you think it is? Were we that way before the Internet as much? Is it just the Internet?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah. I think it's probably a big part of that, but also that -- I don't know. I think it's the medium itself that allows to be like this.


What medium?

Mario von Rickenbach: The games. They have -- I don't know, when you go to Vimeo and the comments about Plug and Play, the short film the game is based on, for example, and there are some people: "Hey, it's a cool film, it's a bit clever." If you go there and read the comments, you think it's, like, normal people who like good videos who give their reactions.

When people do the same thing for the game, everything’s just much more extreme. Maybe it's to get attention on YouTube, of course, but I think it's the audience at the end that's making -- reacting more extreme, more simple sometimes.


Simple doesn't have to always be bad.

Mario von Rickenbach: No, no. And I also think it's not everyone, just the people who put something online at the end.


You also mentioned confusion over people recording themselves playing games and putting that online as well. What throws you about that?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah, I just don't completely understand why you record yourself and then put it on there in general. Everybody says it's -- I don't know, the people who do this say it's fun and everything. As a personal thing, I think I couldn't do it because I'm just not this kind of person. That's why I don't completely understand why you do it, and why so many people do it. I understand there are some people who do it, but this amount, 500 videos about Plug and Play? That's quite a lot I think.

Or not, compared to the size of the Internet, to people who have access to a game. But I think I just never really noticed it before. I hear a lot about streaming and people who make YouTube videos, but I never -- except some, maybe one every few months, I watched a video somewhere because somebody said, "Watch this video." But not really, I was not really interested to look a these videos. And now I'm just curious what they actually do, now that a game I worked on was there.


I think it's just the inevitable march of progress in technology. Why read when you can watch a video? Why watch a video of a trailer when you can watch a person play and you can get a better sense of what the experience is.

I think it's predominantly younger folks, much younger than us.

Sometimes it's useful for writers who maybe don't have access to a game or don't have time to boot it up and play it yourself, it's useful that people have preserved it in that way. But in my normal day to day life, I would rather play a game myself.

Mario von Rickenbach: Sadly, some of the videos are edited. It’s not like people just start recording, play the game, and then put it online. Okay. That's not a big deal. But it's more like a bad TV show sometimes. Not real reactions, but badly acted. Like, these videos are -- especially of the bigger YouTubers. I mean, it's funny that it developed like this and I guess that's what they do. That's their jobs. That's how it works.

But it's still strange to me and quite far away from what I'm doing all day or --


Well, you ask why some of them do it: Some of them are making money.

What I don't get is or fully understand is some also get money from companies to talk about or play their games but don't necessarily disclose that.

Mario von Rickenbach: I don't know. For me it was still something quite new, even after hearing so much about it before, that this huge number of people do that. This was the new thing for me, which has been surprising but I don't want to say it's not an interesting development.


Something else you mentioned was reading an article about a developer who explained how to make a game fun -- and that is the way to make games good.

Do you get the sense that when articles are written like that, people take it as gospel? Do they question or challenge that for themselves, on how they could be taking a different approach?

Mario von Rickenbach: I'm not sure. I think probably partly, anyway, in a lot of articles, I think, that people want to promote themselves a bit. So they want to explain what they did in their game and why it's so good.


At GDC, then, did you have time to attend any of the talks?

Mario von Rickenbach: At GDC, I did not. But after, I watched some on the GDC Vault.


I'm often very curious about what GDC is like for developers, because obviously I am not one. Do you feel like those talks are often very similar to those articles you're talking about?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah, I mean, last year I think, or two years ago, I went to a few talks and sometimes I just had to walk out because it was either too technical in a boring sense -- and I'm quite interested if it's something interesting technically, but, yeah, it maybe just isn't interesting for me, not bad per se. But also these -- I don't like articles or talks where people want to basically explain "how we did it right."

It can't be good. Success stories are boring.

Even if people you really like what they do, give a talk about how to do it right it can't be good, because if you don’t try to do the exact same thing it’s mostly useless information. I don't know. I think it's very interesting when people just show what they do but not when they want to give you the "recipe" to take it home and do it like this and it will be great.

Because that means you don't have to think anymore if you do that, you can just follow it. But I think it will never work. If it works, you're just recreating stuff that already exists.


Why do you think it will never work?

Mario von Rickenbach: It could work, maybe, to make a game that exists exactly like that already.

Maybe there are some useful parts. Just I think that if there is a final solution for making a good game, it's a bit sad. It's not even about the product, maybe the product is good, but, at the end it's just boring to do it.


There was a GDC talk I saw this year where they discussed how most postmortems are actually not that useful because it's only useful for that specific game and that specific team.

Mario von Rickenbach: Good postmortems can be very interesting as long as they don't want to explain how it could work in other games. It’s an interesting story.

If it's just about explaining what they did without even making too many interpretations about how to do it right. Just to show it. I think that's very interesting because you can maybe even see things that happened in this development which you also know in a way, but as long as there is no clear: "Never do this, never do that because when we did it, it didn't work." As long as it's not like this it's quite interesting to hear. Why they did develop the game and why they did things and if it worked or not.


Given that you mention you likely have a different way of looking at games and thinking about approaching making them, are you satisfied with the types of panels that are at GDC? Are there different things you'd like to be hearing about or that you were hoping to hear about that you didn't?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah. As I said, this time I didn't really take the time to actually go to the panels, so -- I didn't not go there because I wasn't interested. There just wasn't enough time in the end. I think just for me GDC is a very strange combination of something I'm really not interested in and something I'm really interested in and I think there are a lot of great people there always but also a lot of people I'm really not interested in.

So I think it's just big and there are so many corners. Yeah. I think about it like that, about the whole game-development community. There's so many people and approaches inside one large -- game developer, what's a game developer? Sometimes I think there is almost no connection between me and somebody else who both are called game developers and that's for some other people or groups that I think are that's really close. I think GDC shows this in a great way, that it's a very big thing that doesn't really stick together everywhere.


[Laughs.] So this was my third GDC. I've been to every E3, I think, since 2008 and it's very different. Have you gone to the last three years consecutively?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yes. No, actually, this my fourth one. I've gone since 2012. The first time was very something new because I've never been to a game conference before and then I wanted to go again the next year and the third year was more like I had a game at the IGF again and so -- yeah.


How do you feel GDC has changed in those years?

Mario von Rickenbach: I'm not sure if I can say how it's changed. My perception has also probably changed a lot, maybe more than GDC. I don't know. For me it got less interesting. I'm really not sure. I think it's not GDC's fault. I think it's more that I'm not so interested anymore.


Like you said, just because you call someone a game developer doesn't mean they have the same interests. I feel that way as someone who writes about games. I don't think one approach is better than the other, but I do think that just because you're someone who makes games doesn't mean you're going to always have something in common with someone else who makes games. I think the same is true of anyone who plays games.

But with GDC, there were the talks, there were the summits, there was an un-conference, Lost Levels, do you know about that?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah. I also missed it this time, but yeah. I think the great thing is that everyone is there and you can meet all the people -- the ones you are interested in. But also I think every time when I go back home, I think I didn’t have time to do anything so maybe it's just a bit too big.


In your peer group of developers, can a lot of people afford to go to the talks? What's the feeling where you are over in Switzerland?

Mario von Rickenbach: I mean, from here there's always a small group of maybe 10 people from switzerland going to GDC. Not the same every year, but they all get some support somehow from -- there's this games support thing. I don't know how it's called, the right word in English. It's a program from the swiss arts council. They support people to go to game events and help a bit. Without that probably only a few would go, it’s not exactly cheap with the flight and all. And I was always getting access to a conference pass through the IGF and other ways, without that it would have been impossible.

But, yeah, in Switzerland I think there are a few people in the game-developer community. It is growing and there are some good people but it's definitely not huge.


For people reading this who may be curious to find out more about games from Switzerland, what would you recommend?

Mario von Rickenbach: There is a game called Feist. Now everyone is saying, "Oh, it's like Limbo." Though I think they both started at the same time, they were just much slower because they were only two. [Laughs.] There are some others, but really, really, there are not so many.

There are not so many games. There are people connected to games but it's not like this -- it looks quite different, I think.


What makes you continue to make games?

Mario von Rickenbach: It doesn't really matter how the landscape looks. You're still open to do whatever you want. I think that's always the nice thing to not forget: Let's say you think there's not a lot of interesting games, then you can just make an interesting one.

So if you think something is missing in the games environment, then you can try to do it. I think that the tools are so accessible -- I mean, they could be better, still. But nothing is stopping you from changing something if you don't like it, to influence this.

I think also, I started personally, to -- I don't want to permanently be involved with all this games stuff because I think it makes you look at the thing in always the same way. But there are some people who do good stuff who almost never look at what’s there already. They maybe know what's going on more or less, but they're not permanently active in the community. I think to at least spend time to develop their own things, to not think about if it's exactly what already exists or if it's the opposite. If it's just, like, something else.

As long as you're always too aware of what's going on, you maybe don't even start to think about other stuff.

I think this why, for me, it was great to work with a filmmaker because for him a lot of things -- he just asks, "Why does it work like this?" "Yeah, that's true. That's a good question. Just normally we do it like this."

But we don't have to.

I think this perspective of someone who doesn't know every new game and all the new trends and whatever, I think that's a good thing in some way.


Are you saying we should talk about games less?

Mario von Rickenbach: Yeah. No. But really, when I'm on Twitter sometimes I think, "Come on. If you all day talk about games, first of all, you don't make games." I don't know. I think it's a very small circle of people always repeating things and maybe it's just distraction from actually -- for me it's a distraction.

For some people, maybe it's not so distracting.

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