james silva

james silva

My name is James Silva. I'm one-half of Ska Studios, which is an indie-game studio located around Seattle, Washington. We've been making games for seven years now. Mostly Xbox Live Arcade, but we're gonna be on PS4 next-gen. And I love video games.

What are you working on right now if you're at liberty to say?

The game we're working on now is called Salt & Sanctuary. It's most easily described as a 2D Dark Souls or 2D Souls-like. It's about a year and a half into development, shooting to release this year. It's like a really, really stylistic, really demanding hardcore RPG. It's come a long ways. I'm really proud of what we've got so far. It's one of those things where you put together bits and pieces for years before and at some point you're like, "Let's just go with this."  I'm one-half of the studio. The other half is my wife Michelle.

I don't really know what the typical incubation process is like for a game. So is that a year and a half, two years actively working on it? That doesn't account for the time where you're like, "I think I wanna work on this," right?

Yeah, yeah. A lot of games are just ideas for a while. I know the first one out of our studio, when it was just us was The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and that, I think I had the idea for it in '05 and I finally started working on it in '07 and released it in '09. The '05 is important because -- I think it was '04, actually, because that's when I was working as a dishwasher. I was like, "I have to make a game out of this somehow, where you've got this lovely dishwasher who becomes this unstoppable force of murder and mayhem. How can we make a narrative around this where it's not just ridiculousness?" I don't know. Maybe it is. I like the way it came out, though.

Was that the one I reviewed, or was it the sequel?

You reviewed the sequelVampire Smile. [Laughs.] For what it was, it was a lot more polished than Dead Samurai. Maybe it was good you reviewed that one. Usually, though, it seems like we've been able to put a game together in two years of solid work and then usually the ideas come earlier.

Charlie Murder was our last Xbox Live Arcade game and I wouldn't call it a flop but it didn't do so well. [Laughs.] That's kinda interesting because it'll kinda come into play with what we're gonna be talking about, but it was a punk-rock-themed beat 'em up. You're playing as the band Charlie Murder and the zombie apocalypse is occurring. The premise was just so generically -- what was the Living Dead movie where it was punk rockers? I think that was the one where one of them had a job as a janitor in a top-secret base and then his buddies were like, "Dude, let's hang out!" And he's like, "Okay." And it turned out that while they're trying to hang out, there's a zombie apocalypse that happens. I just remember there was a dude with a mohawk in it. So I just remember thematically that's where that came from.

Now we're working on Salt & Sanctuary. And actually the one game that's in the middle of it that we ended up getting way, way, way too much recognition for was this Xbox indie game called I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1. So that's our portfolio, pretty much.

Is your embrace of the zombie aesthetic sarcastic or is it sincere?

It's funny. It was actually inspired by a Penny Arcade comic a long time ago. Where they're just -- I think it was probably based on a Resident Evil 2 kind of game, where they're playing a game about shooting zombies and there was this zombie just outside of their house just kinda looking in sad because people just hated zombies.

Zombies used to not be so prevalent in games, though. Like I think Zombies Ate My Neighbors was one of the first times I remembered seeing them in games.

Oh yeah. That was a cute zombies game, though. I didn't like that. [Laughs.] Like Plants vs. Zombies, also cute zombies. I've never been down with the cute zombies. Now the whole zombie thing is so, so, so overdone. So oversaturated.

But for a while it was kinda just my thing, and then now it's everyone's thing so -- I don't know. It's harder to get excited about it now than it used to be.

Well, you know: I don't think I've ever asked anyone I know what it's like to get their game reviewed. Would you mind sharing what that experience is like?

When Dead Samurai came out and was getting reviewed, it definitely is like a weird, special experience. Just seeing strangers poke and prod through this creation of yours that you've had such an intimate relationship with over the last two years of your life -- this was everything to you and now someone's just poring through it and it's weird. Sometimes it's hurtful. [Laughs.] Sometimes you just feel like you just glow over it. But, yeah. It's weird and when you see reviews go up, everything they say feels like it has so much weight on it. And honestly it drove me a little bit crazy. You're working on a game for two years, and then now the opinions start to show up. "How is it gonna go? Is everyone gonna hate this game? Is everyone gonna love it? When the tastemakers are done with their reviews, how will gamers react? Is someone gonna tell people who otherwise might've been interested, 'Do not be interested in this game, it's not worth your time'?"

Because it kind of makes you go crazy -- lately I've just been crazy about the promise of YouTubers and Twitch streamers because they break down that tyranny, I guess. [Laughs.] With Salt & Sanctuary, we had this one guy, his YouTube handle is VaatiVidya who did this really awesome coverage of Salt & Sanctuary, this preview coverage. That was just worth more than all of the previews and reviews I've seen of any of our stuff coming out. It was just really neat to see this landscape shifting. I don't have to be terrified or reviews anymore and that's exciting.

Yeah. I haven't had my stuff been reviewed by others, unless you count reader comments.

It's a horrible feeling. It's a horrible, amazing feeling. Yeah. I've always loved Giant Bomb, and they did a quick look at Vampire Smile and I couldn't bring myself to watch it because I was so scared of them saying something negative about it that I didn't want to endure it for the possibility of them saying something positive. I think it was mostly positive, too.

Yeah, but any time you get feedback, you'll latch onto the one thing they said.

You always do. Yeah.

So, talking about fear. Something you wanted to talk about was danger in games. You were saying that "usability harms danger." What do you mean by that?

I had this idea about where games were going. The word that I just couldn't put my finger on [showed up] from Blizzard in a postmortem of where they were doing with Diablo III, which really said what I was trying to say: the concept of fantasy in a game, preserving a fantasy. Fantasy basically means you're putting yourself into that character. You're putting yourself into their shoes. It's super-important to me, without ever realizing it was important to me. [Laughs.] It's part of this childlike love of videogames that I'm proud to still have. I think everyone into games should hang onto that. But fantasy, I brought this up with AAA games. They are so over-tested. They overdo this usability testing, where it's like anything that's a rough edge -- "Okay, I shouldn't have gotten killed by that, that was a sloppy thing like that." It's a lot of polishing those rough edges down.

So being frustrated. Nobody likes being frustrated. It's obviously good to have a good user experience. What happens when you over-polish, though, is you end up removing any fear. I played the latest Call of Duty. The entire time that I was playing Call of Duty, I was never afraid for my character. Every time something amazing was happening I was like, "Okay, let's see how the game will guide me through this thing that's happening because I know it's gonna be no big deal."

How can you tell that nothing's going to be happening to you?

Just kinda the track record, I guess. It's the feeling you get in one of these games from the next, and also knowing from what I know about how the industry works I guess.

But I think the fear with what you're talking about is games will be broken if they're not tested enough, not in a buggy sense, but they'll be "unfair." That's what you're talking about, right?

Right. Yeah. There's that, the frustration aspect. I think another big part of it is the budgets are so insanely high that they wanna make sure that every gamer who plays gets access to all of that content.

Well, when you talk about games in that way, yeah. If you think of it as pieces of content to plow through or experience, I don't think anyone would ever use phrase, like, "This is dangerous content."

Right.

But if you think about it as a game, you'd be like, "Oh, this is a game that is challenging." And I think there has been a shift in just even calling games "content," and the language around games. I think that's why there's this perception. Like, I went to Gaming Insiders Summit last year. It's mainly biz-dev people, people trying to make apps, and people trying to get their apps downloaded by a million people. I talked to a guy who’s entire job was to sell ads that pop up in games.
But there was a talk on a panel where I remember a guy saying, "Well, people who play games no longer want videogames that are extremely hard 'cause that stops them from experiencing all the content." Which is fine, except for when you're like, "Well what about Dark Souls? That's pretty popular."

It definitely brought out this aspect of gaming that had been lost for a while, a long time.

I think it's a loss of the mentality or just not being aware that games that are side-scrolling and are very difficult aren't Dark Souls-like, they're throwbacks to the earliest games. Most of those games were pretty broken, but we were young and hadn't played a ton of games before, so we'd just think, "Oh, I'm just not playing this right."

Yeah. [Laughs.] I did that. There were a lot of games where I was like -- for some reason the one that just springs to my mind was Terminator 2 for Nintendo. I was like, "I must be playing this wrong because obviously the Terminator is just this amazing killing machine but he just got punched to death by bikers again." So. [Laughs.] "Obviously the fault is on me."

How did that notion erode that it's our fault, not the game's fault? Because now it's flipped.

I guess it just came from expectations. As we got more into this use-tested future that we're in, we just expect that a game will point us where to go. It'll tell us when we're doing something wrong. You'll have all these tutorial pop-ups and lit passageways. Wherever you're walking, this path that you're on, thousands of man hours have been spent making sure that path is okay. [Laughs.] That's our expectation, that everywhere we go is just okay.

I remember when Limbo was in development -- which, it was a great game. Not knocking Limbo. But I remember talking to the developer behind it. He was telling me, it was this real point of pride to him: He had 150 users just doing blind playthroughs of it, and then based on all that feedback, they were able to really tweak this to be just this perfect experience. And it was a good experience, but playing it there was never this sense of, "Okay, this is too much." Maybe it was having that knowledge that they put such a focus on user experience, but even though it was designed as a horror game, it was meant to be scary, it never felt really really scary. Everything was already already explored, already tweaked, the rough edges ground down into a fine polish. I think that makes it feel like it's not your experience. It's an experience that's really ground down to be just the most general experience, the most mass-consumable experience. It no longer feels like it's your experience. It was a good game, don't get me wrong.

No, you can criticize things you like. Believe me. I've done it for a while.

[Laughs.] Right. Right. We don't want to have this "indie shots fired" thing. As a journalist, you can criticize games, as a game developer, now we're talking about peer territory. I don't know if I'm at that level. I criticized Peter Molyneux once. That was cool.

I think you're the only person who's ever done that.

I waited until everyone started. It was a brave move.

How do you protect that danger? How do you test but not test too much?

Honestly, that's something I worry about a lot, is where we come across. Just looking at our studio history, Dead Samurai and Vampire Smile were the first two and we didn't really put a lot into testing. It was mostly just, I remember with Dead Samurai, it was just me playing it by myself. And then I had a roommate who loved playing it, so he would basically let me know if certain areas were a pushover or too easy or if something he could cheese to just really make it too easy. Stuff like that. That's the kinda stuff you want to avoid, stuff where you have a strategy that's just overpowered. But in terms of, "Is this boss totally ridiculous or is it doable?" I thought we had a good handle on that.

I think just for some reason I felt like I wanted Vampire Smile to feel more accessible. We did away with -- like Dead Samurai had limited continues. We did away with that so you could just keep retrying at a checkpoint, which takes the fear out because you could keep trying over and over. I feel like there were some cheesable strategies.

And then with Charlie Murder, Microsoft did a bunch of testing where it was those iterations of polishing down the rough edges. I think we were trying to make it more accessible, too, and I feel like I maybe sold out a little bit. [Laughs.] Because that was an important thing to me, was having this really exacting difficulty. Dead Samurai was very inspired by Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. The Xbox Ninja Gaiden. That was just where I was at as a gamer, though, was being into that kind of danger. That fantasy of it. I feel like I kind of sold us out a bit, and it didn't work. [Laughs.] It wasn't like we made millions or anything. It was just like, "Oh, okay, this game is kinda generic and meh."

The other thing you wanted to talk about was whether indie is a fashion statement.

[Laughs.] Yeah, that's kind of what I have been wondering for a while. You end up with a certain style that carries through. Maybe it goes back to the pixel art for me.

But what are you talking about here? A statement by who, and what are they saying?

It's more of a culture than just "we're playing games." I guess it kinda comes back to punk-rock for me. So when I was in high school, I fashioned myself as something of a punk rocker. Now I'm really embarrassed about that. It was kinda like -- what was it for? Exploited patches and Rancid shirts. I mean, I still like Rancid. I don't think anyone listens to The Exploited for fun. But I still like Rancid. But the whole idea of this counterculture for the sake of being counterculture, like not liking mainstream things just because they're mainstream, just preventing yourself from enjoying things just because that's part of your culture, that was kinda my takeaway from it. But why? What's the point? Why can't I just enjoy Nickelback? No one likes Nickelback. [Laughs.]

Nickelback likes Nickelback.

Nickelback loves Nickelback! But you would prevent yourself from liking things because they went against the punk-rock ethos. I feel like I see that spirit ring through in a lot of indie voices, where they'll say, "AAA is just utter crap. It's not fun. It's not art. It's an embarrassment." And not only is that not the case, but it really harms the work of a lot of really talented individuals. AAA doesn't take a lot of risks. We know that. But still, you sit down and play a AAA game and you'll be impressed. If you sit down with the right attitude, you'll be impressed. You'll enjoy it. In my spare time, I'm playing Dragon Age: Inquisition right now, a game by EA. The most evilest of publishers. The multiplayer has the stupid "buy gems to unlock upgrades" system. It's all just horribly evil and big business, but it's a great a game. I love it. Saying it's crap because it's AAA -- what about all the artists that put so much effort into it? Animators? Writers? So much effort was put into it.

In the last month and a half I've talked to probably more people in AAA than I ever have before in my life. Which is not a high number, mind you, but what they will tell you -- although they will agree with you, they will say, "Well, what about the money that's being put up? That's an enormous risk." But I think the big thing that's confused here is in using the term "indie" is the culture of that sector -- like, do you feel you're part of whoever that group is?

I don't know.

You pre-dated it in a way.

I have kind of a weird place in it because I was Microsoft's pick for their "indie guy."

What do you mean by that?

I think the indie stuff was just becoming this up and coming movement and Microsoft had just -- they created this XNA framework that would allow hobbyists, homebrew people, to develop games for Xbox 360. I think they were like, "Hey, let's run with this. Let's throw in with this indie thing." I'd been trying to make indie PC games from before indie was the word. The only one that anyone has ever heard of was Survival Crisis Z, this PC game that I made.

But yeah, when Microsoft was like, "Hey, let's do this indie thing," I just got swept into it as an indie thing. I was like, "Okay, this is cool. We'll run with this." But it was apart from the movement. If there was a movement.

Well, part of being into punk-rock and understanding the term "indie" means you have to question yourself a lot about "Am I doing things according to my own standards? What does success mean? What does success look like?" I don't know if indie is a fashion statement, but it's interesting to watch people to proclaim to be indie, although act largely the opposite the way of an indie-rock band would. You wouldn't try to seek a publisher and try to sell a million units.

Yeah. And I mean if you're just sticking to making games, you're just sticking to making games pretty much. I don't really get to talk about the culture of it too much. I think that's the way I'd like to keep it, probably. Just sticking to making games. I have opinions. [Laughs.]

As you said in our emails, you'd "rather pretend to be a wizard than actually be a delusional scene kid."

That kinda comes back to this realization that a lot of punk-rock is not liking things because they don't align with your culture, and how much that's kinda an analog to indie versus AAA.

What I see a lot of from my end is a lot of folks vying for attention from a handful of folks who have become figureheads who are gatekeepers to whether your game gets noticed and then whether you have a future in games.

Yeah, and that kinda goes back to the open feel of this Twitch/YouTube movement where it doesn't really matter if you're winning contests or if you're in documentaries. [Laughs.] All of those, like, being on a who's who of indie lists. It doesn't really matter anymore. It's still nice. And obviously I'm glad that you had me on your show. [Laughs.]

What show? I don't have a show. There's Twitch and YouTube; nobody needs me anymore!

I'm looking forward to when this becomes the next Serial. But, yeah. It doesn't really matter so much. What matters more now, it feels, with democratization of media, which is what should've mattered all along is "is your game fun?" Which is great, because that's what I want to focus on. That is nice that it is that way now.

Do you think that's something that got lost in indie as it exists now coalescing post-Indie Game: the Movie? Less focus on "is your game fun?" and more focus on something else?

Do I think the movie made it happen, you mean? Yeah, it definitely -- it was a good movie. [Laughs.] But it definitely portrayed indie as a very specific feel. Not only in just attitudes but even game type. I don't know if you noticed, but all three of the prominently featured games in Indie Game: The Movie were side-scrolling platformers with this Mario -- it was like that era of side-scrolling platformer.

Now that you mention it, yeah. But I haven't heard that articulated before.

Yeah. Super Meat Boy. Fez. Braid. All of them were shout-outs, send-offs to 8-bit Mario era. All of them were good games. Not disparaging anyone, but I thought it was kind of interesting where it was like, "Here's the culture. Here are the people. And here are the games." And you definitely see more of that style of game coming out of the indie phenomenon than otherwise.

My main criticism with that movie, and I have friends who were in that movie, but I think even they would agree that it was sort of narrow. I don't think you can say, "Here are three games and here are the culture." So you noticed the genre of games being narrow. I felt like the movie on the whole was pretty narrow.
A friend of mine who's much smarter than me explains it like this: It's good that it exists, but the problem is imagine if you made Indie Rock: The Movie and there were some shots of Arcade Fire recording their new album and a Q&A with Thurston Moore. And that was it.

Right. Yeah. [Laughs.] That's the whole picture. I remember watching it and feeling like, "Hey, we were complaining about all this stuff, but we didn't get an audience to complain to." Like having to deal with the bug database. You wake up the next morning and the bug database now has 200 more entries in it and you're like, "I just fixed all of these." Constantly wondering how your game's gonna do. So all those things, we got to experience them on.

I view indie games and AAA games kind of in the same space as we're just making games so you can have fun. [Laughs.] We're making games so you can be a wizard because I wanna be a wizard. None of this antagonism where "we're bringing the truth, they're bringing lies." It's not us versus them. It's just I wanna make games that I wanna play. I wanna be a wizard. I just keep coming back to that.

I want to create this fantasy universe. I want to enjoy it. I want you to enjoy it, too.

Our story is considerably less interesting. [Laughs.] But we're doing it.

How do we broaden all this stuff with indie. "Is it a fashion statement? Is it this? Is it that?" Do we just stop talking about it? Do we just go back to focusing on the games?

I think so, yeah. There are trends and I think the indie trend is doing what it's doing and I'll just keep doing what I'm doing.

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