Right. So, my name is Jason Rohrer. I'm 39 years old. I live with my spouse and three kids here in Davis, California.
I've been making videogames pretty much full-time for about 10 to 12 years, depending on how you count it. I made 18 games during that time. I'm currently working on my 19th game right now. And the question is why I make videogames?
[Laughs.] Not in an accusatory way.
[Laughs.] Yeah, so.
I didn't realize this until we started emailing again, but you've been making games for as long as I've been writing about them.
Yeah, it's been --
I remember emailing you. I don't remember if you remember me emailing you way back in the day.
Well, yeah, when I searched my email, my email archive doesn't go back that far because I switched computers. Back then I think I was actually -- I didn't use webmail, I actually was downloading my email with some email client, right? It's on a hard drive. So, anyway, when I searched for you I couldn't find that stuff so I don't remember. [Laughs.] That was before webmail.
So, yeah, why am I making games? It's in part because -- I mean, to quote Tommy from Team Meat, "I make videogames because I can." [Laughs.] But yeah, as somebody who is both sort of like somewhat an artistic person or someone who is interested in the arts or someone who has always been drawing or making music or making little films or working on little creative projects over the course of my life -- you know, I ran a record label in college, I used to publish a zine when I was in high school, and I was always drawing stuff or trying to figure out art stuff or at least absorbing and exploring the arts, I was more interested in the arts than most people I know. But also I was someone who was kind of engineering and scientifically minded and went off to study computer science and learned how to program and became what I think to this day is a pretty good programmer after years of doing it and getting better and better at it. So, good at programming, good at inventing and engineering things, good at figuring things out -- so those two things kinda wed together in videogames as sort of, like, looking back at my life as this obvious choice. They are both artistic creative kinda things and yet at the same time, they're working -- they're operas made out of bridges, I think Frank Lantz says. [Laughs.]
So, you know, they can, unlike a novel, which can be good or bad or it doesn't work or this novel sucks or it fails as a novel, videogames can actually fail in a very rigorous sense, right? In a very provable sense in that they can not function as programs.
They can also fail in another sense, which is sort of a mathematical sense. They can have an imbalance in them that's provable using game theory or Nash equilibriums or something, where it's like, "This game has this degenerate strategy, and here we can prove why this degenerate strategy is present." [Laughs.] So, you have these two very rigorous, technical levels where they can fail, right? They have this weird combination of -- when I look at the current game that I'm working on, it's just mind-bogglingly complicated, the engineering aspect of it. I've been working on that part of it for about two years. The coding. The server. The data formats. The way all the files are stored and the way they're loaded and all this kind of stuff.
This is --
-- One Hour One Life, yes. And so, this is, in a lot of ways in terms of the code and -- it's sort of a tendency, right? To take on a little bit more audacious things each time, and so this is one the most complicated code things. [Laughs.] It has a real-time server, where none of my games have had that before, and just all these other aspects to it. Content management system that can manage up to 10,000 objects and all these different sprites and pieces of graphics and sounds and everything. Mind-bogglingly, at this point, it all works. [Laughs.] I'm looking at this thing that I'm cobbling together piece-by-piece, up close to each piece over the course of, you know, two years. And from afar, if I step back from the thing, I have no idea really how any of it's working or -- it's like, "I guess it's working! Wow, it all works!" And if I zero in one little piece, I can remember how that little piece works and maybe fix something about it, whatever. When I step up to, like, the 10,000 view it's like, "This is this really crazily complicated thing that magically is working."
And the same, when I look back at some of my older games, I'm like, "I don't know how I figured out how to actually engineer this thing. But look, it works! It still works!" Those two aspects -- those are two things that I'm pretty good at or at least have interest in, you know, this creative stuff and this engineering stuff and where else but in videogames do those things wed as solidly as they do in games? [Laughs.] So, you know, the editor that I made for One Hour One Life and the server and everything else -- I mean, in terms of engineering complexity, it rivals any other piece of software. It rivals Photoshop or a web browser or whatever in terms of its complexity. As an engineering project, it's one of the most complex things there is, right?
I don't know -- this is connective tissue with that. I don't know that I really see people talk about this, but after you finish making one game, why make another one?
[Pause.] [Laughs.] In my case --
Are you gonna say, "Because I can?"
No, no. In my case, the answer is very simple and that's because I'm supporting myself and my family financially with my work. [Laughs.]
No, but, I mean, it's a really important point. And aside from just being a flippant kind of answer, it's -- you know, if you look at my career, I've made 18 games in 12 years and a lot of people go, "Wow, that's quite a lot of games!" Jonathan Blow has made two during that time. [Laughs.]
But I'm not knocking Jonathan or really comparing him to me because his games are on a different scale in some ways. But, there's also the fact that his first game was a big financial hit, right? So that gives you a certain amount of breathing room and a certain amount of time to say, "You know, I'm gonna spend six or seven years on my next game." Or, successful indie game designer disease, when you make a million dollars on your first game, you never make another game. [Laughs.]
I've got a bunch of friends that that is essentially the pattern. Or, you know -- eight or nine years later, their next game comes out. So, there's this looming financial pressure on me and I think that even though people like to draw this line between doing good work or doing commercially successful work or "not everything has to be sold, you can give things away for free and it can still be a valuable thing," I think this is an important point where the rubber hits the road in terms of the quality of what you're making and how many people it's actually touching and benefiting and how many people are sort of moved by it or connected to it -- how many people are willing to actually take money out of their wallet for it is kind of the only place where you have to face reality. [Laughs.] It's like, "Ooh, Passage is such an important game." That's what people say, right? But, nope. It's not good enough for people to really actually pay for it.
And, I don't know, I'm really trying to judge the quality of what I'm doing. If I just put it out there and a bunch of people download it and talk about it or whatever and a lot of people say it's great but it's kinda wishy-washy, right? When I look at -- when I compare the quality of two things that I made and one thing's way more financially successful than another thing that I made, it's like, "Well, maybe that thing in someway is objectively better." Because there were this many more people who were like, 'Woah, I really love that idea. I really love this and I heard about it from my friends and they said it was amazing and I was finally convinced to take out $15," or however many -- even if it's $1, to go through this extra action to reach this thing. And so, yeah, I think that that driving force for me, where it's like -- this is my full-time job. I am supporting my family doing this. This other pressure has not only made me more prolific, because it's like, "Well, after I'm done with the game I can't spend three years doing something else or traveling the world or whatever."
Searching for inspiration.
Yeah, it's like, "I gotta make something else and it has to be good." And on top of that, yeah, it's really made me reach in terms of what I'm taking on and how good the things are that I'm making. I think my games have gotten progressively better and better and better over the course of 18 games in part because of this pressure.
I mean, I don't know how you describe your games. I'm sure you've seen the way that they've been written about. It's rare. Isn't it rare to be doing what you're doing? As far as being able to support yourself and a family and doing it full-time?
[Pause.] I don't know.
I don't have a sense of it.
Like, yeah, in terms of -- if I look back at the history of the 12 years that I've been involved in the scene, maybe it feels rare now? But there was a time when it felt like I was the only person who wasn't a millionaire.
Still, when I think back about the people that I know in the indie scene, it's like -- out of the people I've met over the years, one by one, they each made a game and became millionaires. So, and now, a lot of them are superstars? Phil Fish slept on my couch back in the day. [Laughs.]
Did you sell the couch? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] That's how crazy it is.
It's like -- I've slept at Phil's place when I was visiting up in Montreal. And, you know, then slowly, he makes this game and it becomes this gigantic hit and he becomes this -- you know, Jonathan Blow, as well. I was in communication with him before Braid. I knew Edmund before Super Meat Boy and before Indie Game: The Movie.
And so, those are just a few examples of people who are publicly known to be millionaires just because of the number of copies that they've sold. But there are just so many other people that I've interacted with over the years and it's like, "Woah! Your life has totally changed! Well, here I am still struggling away."
I think there's another dichotomy, as well. And I don't know if this is as true anymore or if you even care to comment on it, but I remember with the rise of all the people you mentioned, there started to become this division somehow of games with huge budgets are directly in competition with games that don't. That these "smaller" games are "more artistic" or are "more interesting." I'm sure you're aware of huge huge budget games -- do you feel like even those games say something about the human condition?
The really big budget games?
I guess, yeah, there was a -- I've been talking about this with some friends recently, but there was this time where -- I mean, I'm still kind of a holdout for AAA. I'm, like, keeping a flame burning for it, right? I mean, I've been playing what you might call AAA games or mainstream big-budget games my entire life.
Do you ever think about these distinctions that we make, when they're all just videogames?
No, I don't think that's strange at all. We do that for movies, right? I mean, there's the Blair Witch Project and there's Inception, right? There's Memento and there's Inception. They're by the same director, but the way they're produced and the system that made them is totally different. So, I feel like maybe we don't make that distinction for music as much because --
Well, you can talk about indie rock or whatever but yeah. I don't know. I guess most of those indie bands, if they make a good-sounding record are going to the same studio that --
-- they're going to the same recording studio and using the same equipment.
So, the way Memento is made and the way Inception is made and the process behind it are very different.
Well, but you're a holdout for --
Yeah, I've been playing AAA games my whole life. Super Mario Bros. was a AAA game and Zelda was, right? Throughout my childhood and teen years I bought pretty much every videogame console that came out, one after the other, and sold the last one to buy the next one. All the way up to PlayStation 3 is kinda where I got off the train mostly, but I still keep an eye out for something happening in AAA that's interesting. Over the past 10 years, I'd say, there were a bunch of things where it's like, "Woah! People from the Looking Glass school of game design are doing something cool here." Or, "We're getting away from cutscenes and we're kinda still doing something of human interest." You know, things like BioShock or Far Cry 2. Or things like The Last of Us or things like Dishonored.
There are these little glimmers of hope that, yeah, some of the stuff that's going on in and the experimental stuff that's going on in the indie scene -- I know for a fact because I know some of the people who made some of those games that they are inspired by what's going on in the indie scene. They're sick of just big linear games with cutscenes and so on. They're trying to figure out how to do more interesting things and weave human-condition stuff through it. So, they're very aware of -- I don't know, the quest or whatever to improve the way human and artistic things are treated in games. They were doing work that I felt was really good important steps forward in those things. But I kinda -- if I look back at the last five to seven years or so, I'm like, "Woah! What happened?" [Laughs.] It's been, like, four years since The Last of Us. And if I look at all the games that have come out since then, there's not really very much in AAA that I would want to feel like I had to play for the reason I felt like I had to play The Last of Us. The Last of Us felt like it was on the cutting edge of this emotionally evocative story-game genre kind of thing where you're gonna see the very best of voice acting and writing and emotional tone throughout this thing that videogames had ever seen. You just couldn't really not play it, I felt like, for someone who's interested in the artistic future of videogames. And I felt like you couldn't not play BioShock, right? [Laughs.] Back when it came out. You couldn't not play. Here's a game that's a critique of Randian objectivism. I mean, like, okay, we actually have a game that's a critique of Randian objectivism. I really feel like what has come out in the last four years that you can even give a string of garblegook -- [Laughs.] Right?
It just feels like that reaching that used to be done in AAA isn't really being done. If you look at the numbers, it's like, well, you know, The Last of Us, BioShock, Far Cry 2 -- they weren't gigantic hits. The landscape has changed so much and maybe some of these studios got burnt a little bit by how much it cost to make some of these things because it's risky. I mean, Far Cry 2 was a crazy experiment and in a lot of ways the experiment completely failed. They had very big plans for how these characters were gonna be interactive, how they -- the non-player characters -- were gonna move in the environment and do things. They had to basically cut all that for budget and development time reasons and end up with these characters standing stock stiff in cafés waiting to talk to you. [Laughs.]
You know, so, it's like all that stuff, that crazy experimental stuff we're hoping they're gonna be doing, we imagine AAA trying to do -- LMNO, that Steven Spielberg worked on and consulted for? I mean, they were crazily audacious in terms of what they were trying to achieve and it's like a couple years into research and development and it's like, "We can't keep throwing money at this thing." These are hard problems. And so I think that that those rays of hope in AAA have kinda been left by the wayside and we're onto Assassin's Creed 6 or whatever. [Laughs.]
Oh, I think there's been more than that. [Laughs.]
Whatever. Yeah. [Laughs.] And also, yeah, the idea that one thing that we should be pushing for is -- I hate to use the industry term but -- "new IP." Like, the new IP is important. The Last of Us is new, right? It's not a sequel to anything. That's important. And when I look at the year-end list of best games of the year in the AAA space and so on, all I'm seeing is This Game 4, This Game 3, This Game 2, at least. Or sometimes they stop giving them numbers, right?
The Witcher: Wild Hunt, isn't that The Witcher 3 or something?
Yes, it might be one of DLCs.
I don't think they're up to 4.
But anyway, yeah, I feel like that -- yeah. I don't see as much hope there. I haven't felt -- my kid finally saved up his own money, his 14-year-old son, and bought a PS4. But up until three weeks ago, we did not have one. Or an Xbox whatever it is. An Xbox One? Like, there's just nothing. I don't need it. I'm just waiting. I'm like, "I'm gonna wait to buy it until there's some game I have to play." That has not happened for either of those systems.
Do you feel like -- it just seems so nebulous to split it up between larger companies and smaller groups of individuals. Do you feel that the smaller groups of people of individuals, say, in "your" camp, do you feel like they've picked up that slack in terms of that reaching for games?
Oh, not as much as I would want them to. [Laughs.]
'Cause that's the thing. I feel like there's just as much creative conservatism taking place there.
Yeah, no, I agree. I don't --
I feel like 10, 12 years ago when we were both getting started -- which of course was an extension of all the years that came before, I just feel like it isn't nostalgia. I do feel like there was more reaching 10 years ago, five years ago.
Yeah. It's hard to tell. I mean, what are these watermarks in the indie scene that were really reaching? Obviously, I guess we'd say Braid was reaching.
Was Fez reaching? It was very innovative and it was very beautiful. I guess in a lot of ways there are things about Fez that are reaching. Once you get into this world is that you're in and what this character is figuring out and there's all these crazy things embedded in the game with all these secret alphabets and all this other stuff. You know, that is pretty much the work of a mad genius. [Laughs.]
Yeah. That is accurate.
Other touchstones from the golden era --
[Laughs.] "Golden era."
-- of "AAA indie games" as Chris Hecker likes to call it are World of Goo. I mean, World of Goo is pretty frickin' amazing and cool and kind of with it and interesting. It's got a little edge to it and so on. But, you know, it's not like completely over-the-top reaching. The creator was a relatively inspired individual and he slipped a bunch of little cool things in there in terms of the way it all feels and this kind of creepy overtone to the whole thing. So, anyway. When I look back, those are the things that are standing out to me, right? Or if we go back even further, you talk about, like, Aquaria. [Laughs.]
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Or, you know, I don't know, Cave Story, if you want to count something like that that was kind of outsider art.
And it keeps coming back, so I think it's fair to count it.
[Laughs.] It's almost like outsider art in the indie scene, right? It's like, lone Japanese man toiling away for decades or whatever before releasing this thing. So, yeah, and today, there have been -- I'd say the stuff that Davey Wreden has been doing with Stanley Parable and The Beginner's Guide are just crazily audacious, right? [Laughs.]
But that is the only, I guess I feel like -- and maybe there's a few other walking-simulator games that I've avoided feeling that I didn't hear about. But none of them have risen to the level where everyone I know is talking about them the way that his stuff has in terms of game designers and --
Yeah. That might be a byproduct of just how increasingly splintered all of these scenes are becoming.
You know, I felt like I had to play Edith Finch because it was sorta the game of the hour that everyone's talking about. I know the people who worked on it.
It does reach in some pretty crazy ways in a couple of places.
It's definitely a little different.
Yeah. Yeah. And so -- but, yeah, I don't know. I guess I feel like, yeah, these games are relatively far and few between. And the things that -- I don't know. As a videogame designer, the things that are more interesting for me are, like, what's going on with League of Legends or what's going on with Rust. It's because these things are actually -- I don't know. On their face, League of Legends isn't reaching. Rust isn't reaching. It's a very simple survival game in a post-apocalyptic situation. League of Legends is, like, a 5 versus 5 MOBA with these crazy superhero fantasy characters. But, the actual aesthetic experience of those two games is so rich and so emotionally rich and it kinda puts all this other stuff that's intentionally on the surface emotional and evocative and artistic to shame. Like, the kinds of things that Rust puts you through? The kinds of situations you end up in? And the kinds of arguments you have with other players and the kind of weird little human interactions that you have with them? They're unprecedented.
If we actually want to talk about this, Rust is kind of what Far Cry 2 wanted to be. [Laughs.]
Yeah, that's accurate.
I mean, there's times where -- I haven't played Rust in a while, but there were times back when I played it where I'd have this interaction with somebody else or some other group of people and of course it's a real interaction. They're real other people, first of all. But what we're interacting about and negotiating about, actually, is something very real because it's real time invested and real in-game resources that are at stake. Real lives that are in the balance. And the threats that are being made are real. And the wheedling that happens and trying to figure a way around it or trying to outsmart this person in this situation or trying to detect whether they're lying or not -- you've got L.A. Noire right in there, too. [Laughs.]
You got all of 'em.
So it's like, this game, obviously, no one in terms of people talking about the artistic future of games is even thinking about something like Rust. But at the same time, it creates one of the richest, most artistic kind of humanistic aesthetic experiences that I've ever had with a game. Yet, it's a bunch of nude guys running around with their foreskin flapping around in the wind, right? [Laughs.]
Well, I'm not surprised to hear you say that. Probably my favorite games of yours are the ones I'll never get to play. You probably know which ones I'm referencing, like Chain World and --
Oh, right. A Game for Someone.
I would just be interested to hear you talk about -- because I feel like people forget this, that the real world can be a component of a digital artifact. I mean, do you feel like people get tunnel vision and it doesn't really occur to them as something they can draw inspiration from? Or, why does that inspire you?
Yeah, well, I think we have this idea of this sort of artwork as this very self-contained thing. If we look at the artworks that we know about from other established mediums that have been successful in terms of artistic endeavor, they're all single-player experiences. [Laughs.] It's like, you go and you look at the painting or you go and you watch the movie or you put on the headphones and listen to the music or you go and sit in the concert and listen to the music. Right?
Or you go and look at the sculpture. You go and walk around in the building. And so -- and for a lot of them, there is some take-home version of it. Like, you go and buy this Blu-Ray edition of this movie and you bring it home in this little box and the entire work is in the box, right? Or, the record album, you take this piece of vinyl and there it is, the entire album, and it's in this cardboard sleeve and that's it, right? Like, I could toss it to you! [Laughs.]
Yeah. It's real.
And you would have the whole thing, right? And so I think that that's the model that we're going forward with and that's why most of the things that we've talked about, even in this conversation in terms of artistically audacious things are single-player things, right? There's something kinda muddier, messier, less clear about multiplayer things because there's so many other ingredients that get thrown in. [Laughs.] While I've described these amazing, almost very real experiences with Rust and these other players, there have been just as many times when somebody in broken English is walking up saying, "Friend! Friend! Friend! Friend! Friend!" and then killing me. Right? [Laughs.]
So, it's this kinda crazy mixed bag. It's like the happenings of the '60s or something.
That's exactly what I was thinking about.
It's like, you never know who's gonna show up and what kinda crazy thing is gonna transpire. Sometimes it'll be amazing. It'll be, "Woah! What just happened? This was this amazing thing that just happened!" And other times it'll kinda just flounder. [Laughs.] So I think these very tidy, sort of self-contained single-player works are more controllable by the author. They more seem like the direct product of one person's vision and so on. Therefore, it's more easy to judge them on those terms than it is to judge some kind of, "How I felt playing in the League of Legends championship on national TV." [Laughs.] Like, what was that aesthetic experience like? Not that I've ever done that, but if I did, I'm sure it would be a pretty crazy aesthetic experience.
That was something I was gonna say, too. I know that's something I feel when I play your games, and it's rare. I don't know how often you feel this, but when you play games made by smaller teams, very often, it doesn't feel like you are connecting with the people who made them. I guess I don't know what the question is, but do you ever feel that? Are there ways you wished videogames in general were more honest?
Yeah. I guess there's still this tendency even among smaller teams and independent studios and whatever you wanna call them to -- I don't know, fluff up your thing with these tropes that seem very conservative or lazy. [Laughs.] Like, there's gonna be these characters that we make up and there's gonna be this concept art for these characters and they just feel very contrived and very reminiscent of other videogame characters that have come before or other sort of comic book or maybe storybook characters or something. There's this distance that's placed between us and the people. What you're saying is there's this distance that's placed between us and the people that created this work because they put up this barrier with these tropes, essentially, I guess.
You feel that, too, though? That's not just me?
Yeah. I mean, I do. I don't know if -- [Laughs.] We take Jonathan Blow as an example, right?
We look at Braid. Braid does not -- aside from the game design tropes that are present like, "Ooh, this level looks like Donkey Kong or this level reminds me of something from Mario. The way these goombas move or these cannons or something." In terms of the other stuff, like the character of Tim? [Laughs.] Those aren't tropes. It's like, there's this little guy -- Mario for the future in a business suit with his hair dyed orange. [Laughs.] It's not a character or an archetype that we recognize. It's not a "pick one crayon out of the box and use it" kind of way of -- and even the way the goombas look or the way the little pink rabbits and the other elements in the game, this is coming from a pretty unique point of view. Even though I know Jonathan personally, do I feel like he's really coming through this thing in a personal way? Not necessarily, but it's still a very unique point of view that clearly came out of his head, right? If you look at The Witness, The Witness is obviously very lush and beautifully kind of crafted garden-island. But at the same time it's a very cold --
I was going to say, it's almost sterile.
Yeah, it's a very sterile-feeling place.
There's no signs of life. Nothing else moves except mechanical things on the island. There's no little bunny rabbits hiding in the corners jumping around or anything. [Laughs.] Everything's very still. It's frozen in time almost. Yet it's very unique. No one's gonna play that game and be like, "Yeah, I've played tons of things that are just like this." It's really odd. Even the fact that you're dealing with these panels is a really odd design choice and really like, "Woah. There's gonna be hundreds of these?"
And your reward for doing the work is doing more work, immediately.
[Laughs.] Yeah. And I think both Braid and that game, because they're so unique and so strange, I think they do feel like things -- I know Jonathan personally and I feel like they are things that came out of him and could have only have come out of him and represent his point of view and represent who he is in some ways even though it's not some character in there that represents his mother or something.
So, yeah, I think that part of the way forward in terms of being able to connect better with these creators and so on is to let them kind of reach into their own strange directions and not be afraid to. You can't play The Beginner's Guide and not feel like it came out of Davey. [Laughs.] He's screaming at you during part of the game. [Laughs.] It's like, he literally is screaming at you. He's there. He's in there.
You mentioned that there's too much tribalism in games, when we were emailing. What sort of work do you think deserves more celebration?
[Laughs.] Good work. Good work.
Well, but --
No, but I think that's something that is kind of being lost in all this tribalism stuff, right? It's like, if we're trying to look out and look for somebody either who we think is marginalized just as doing the right thing or -- some of it feels like this noble quest to help find people who are marginalized and lift their work into attention where it's not getting the attention that it should get because it's interesting.
Like, "Ooh, here's this interesting work from this interesting point of view and we've never seen a game like this before and this person is worth talking about and their work is worth looking at. Let's seek these people out and find out where they're hiding or where they're being ignored."
But some of the tribalism feels like, "Let me seek you, uplift and promote and seek out only work of people who are like me or in my tribe."
I'm more interested in the good work from wherever it's coming from and judging the work on its own merits. I guess a lot of people think that's code, right?
No. It literally just means --
It's code for only paying attention to games made by white males, right? Or something.
But all the games that we've talked about in this conversation, sadly, maybe, were made by white males. Every game we've mentioned has been made by white males. [Laughs.] So it's like, that's an elephant in the living room and I don't know. There's all these things that come in -- all these difficulties and obstacles that may cause that and all sorts of cultural biases that may cause that.
But on the ground, if we're talking about these really big kind of touchstone things, it's like -- people are talking Edith Finch and Ian Bogost's article was knocking it, "And here we have a game that's actually about a female character." Some white male professor can't knock this game! [Laughs.] But it's a game that's made by -- some of the primary creators on it were white men.
They were. Yes they are.
And I'm not allowed to, of course -- God, I'm going to get roasted if you print any of this stuff. I'm not allowed to talk about it because I'm a white man, right? But this is not a problem unique to games. If you look at American Film Institute's list of top 100 directors of all time, there's one woman on the list: Sofia Coppola, who happens to be the daughter of another white male film director. [Laughs.]
And, so, you know, videogames, I guess, have even more obstacles. Because not only do you have to have this creative drive and be able to get through all the challenges and whatever that are standing in your way to actually create something, which is true of any kind of creative endeavor -- film as well -- you also have to kind of master this whole engineering thing, which historically has been a male-dominated -- when I was studying computer science in school, in engineering classes, there was a hundred guys and 10 girls or something. So, you know, that -- you've got all these historically male-dominated things or -- I don't know what the reason is. Maybe it isn't for historical reasons. We don't really know. But all these factors conspire and make videogames even worse. Brenda Hathaway had this famous slide she used to put up where she'd be like, "Here's a shot at a GDC show floor with this crowd of thousands of people walking up the escalators." And then she'd put two little red circles on the screen: "These are the women in this picture." She was making a point that if you're going to be a woman in games, get ready to be the only one in the room. Like, that is what it's like. She's been doing it for 30 years. She's been the only woman in the room in most places that she was at throughout her career.
I just feel like in our quest to solve this problem, which is this problem that we feel like it is a problem. When we walk around at GDC -- and I don't know that when Brenda was talking about it, maybe she was more just talking about it as, "This is the experience that I had as a woman in this industry.” I don't think she was necessarily saying, "This is a problem! We need to go out of our way to highlight women that are doing good work." I think she was saying, "Get ready!" I think, in part, the next generation is coming up and it has more gender diversity in it and in her talk she was addressing these young women who are thinking about a career in games and telling them what they had to get ready for.
And so I think that -- I don't know. I just feel like there's a lot of bluster about this issue and there's not really any progress being made. You can't just seek out somebody just because of some trait completely unassociated with the quality of their work and say, "Well, this work is good!" Well, but if you actually play the work and it's not good, that's kind of a problem, right? So, it's like, I think -- and as these tides rise and swell over time, I think that the quality of the work is this thing that remains. And so, you're not really solving the problem and it kinda just -- people are just gonna move on if the quality of the work isn't there. They're not gonna keep -- a lot of these celebrities that became celebrities in our world that were celebrities for these diversity reasons have kinda ebbed and flowed. They kinda stopped making games after their one game that got them the attention or whatever. I don't know.
I suppose it's exacerbated by something else you mentioned. You told me you feel there's something fundamental standing in the way of games that were seeing wide mainstream adoption. I think the way you phrased it was, "There's no barrier that will eventually someday be broken down." Can you tell me a little about that? And also, what was your process for realizing that? Because that's something I think about daily.
Right, right. Well, I think that ties into the thing we just talked about.
People think the reason that -- one of these barriers is lack of diversity in the points of view of the people that are making the games. In that, when the outside world looks at videogames, they see these big brutish space marines or whatever that is clearly a white engineering male point of view. And that outside of games, we have much more content diversity in terms of all these different movie genres and things that are aimed at different movie audiences.
That people from outside of games look and see this very stunted medium for a lack of diversity and that the diversity quest is gonna save us, right? Just like before the diversity quest, maybe there was this quest to improve the artistic merits of the things that we're making or improve the content quality of whatever, and that was going to somehow save us.
That's something I was going to ask you, yeah.
By "save us," I mean get us the red carpet from the flashbulbs and the primetime television award show. [Laughs.]
I think that none of these things are going to save us and that isn't necessarily an apocalyptic kind of proclamation. I mean, what's going to save the fine art world? It's a very niche thing that's mostly ignored. I mean, there's no award show on primetime television. There's no red carpet -- I mean, they have their own little red carpet, but they're pathetic compared to the Oscars.
Yet, there's still this viable subculture and world. There's things that rise and fall. Works of importance. Historical records. All those kinds of things. Just like there is in the world of fly fishing or there is in the world of skateboarding. [Laughs.] Or there is in the world of any activity that a subset of the population is interested in. Or the world of poker. Or whatever it is, has a world where there's experts and critics and people can do deep and people can spend their lifetime working on it and thinking about it and arguing about it and whatever. That's kind of all it needs to be, right?
So, for videogames, I think this primary thing that's standing in their way is the fundamental difficulty of consuming them. Because unlike other leisure things that fit into our leisure time like books which you can read on the beach or movies you can watch on the weekend with your friends or music you can listen to while you're driving or even going to an art museum where you wander around with your friends on a Saturday afternoon and it's kind of like a social event, it's something you can do in your off time to relax to unwind. To just sit back and experience something. Videogames demand that you try and that you put effort into them. Even the walking simulators. Even the games that are not games. Even the games that have excised challenge from their design palettes still require your input, require you to at least try to walk around, at least make some decisions about what you're going to do next, at least keep pushing the forward button. [Laughs.] Right?
And that amount of effort that's demanded of the player. Or, for the better games, the games that are actually compelling and are worth playing, that really will make -- I feel like if you actually took someone from outside of games and said, "No, no, no! Games are worth your time!" And then you set them down with this walking simulator, they're going to say, because they're not aware of the history of game design and the sort of punk move that the walking simulator is, they're gonna be like, "What's the point of this? What's the point? It doesn't matter where I go or what I do? I just walk and listen to this?"
We as game designers go, "Whoo! That's an interesting move." [Laughs.]
But it's not like that suddenly solves the problem. And, "Oh, this game's not difficult, so everybody can play it. Even Roger Ebert might be able to play this." Because he would play and be like, "This is the worst thing. Why am I even doing this?”
They understand that if they're being asked to do something, what they're doing has to have consequence. And so, completely removing the difficulty doesn't solve the problem. So clearly, there still needs to be difficulty or else what you're doing doesn't have consequence, and then you've got a work that's fundamentally difficult to consume and therefore doesn't fit into most people's mainstream ideas of a leisure time entertainment relaxation.
That's exactly what I was going to say. No matter how hard or easy these games become, they're still a leisure activity which usually invites skepticism as far as taking them seriously or digging deeper. You said games get no respect culturally, which I have my experiences with as a journalist trying to cross-pollinate more coverage that isn't strictly about products. I recently had the experience -- I was up for a journalism fellowship from this project. [Laughs.]
I sat down at this big foreboding table. I was interviewing by 12 or 13 other big-deal journalists gatekeepers of that world. From where they sit -- I mean, up top, they said, "We know nothing at all about videogames." I said, "Yeah, that's fine. I expected that." But from where they sit, videogames are a single-story space in that Gamergate. They said, "Oh, Gamergate has been written about a lot. Isn't that enough?" Or, also, gamification.
I'm serious. Beyond that, they just I guess don't see the point of writing about videogames. I mean, I always will point to labor issues in the gaming industry as there a reason to be more scrutiny or more awareness. I'll try to come down on the humanitarian side. But I don't know what your experiences have been with reaching this conclusion, that videogames being like Rodney Dangerfield.
Are there things you would like to see more coverage of? Or do you not even expect that anymore?
Well, okay, so -- yeah, I guess there still remains the issue that even if you got someone through the challenge barriers. One of these outsider people, one of these journalist gatekeepers that you're talking about. Even if you got them through one of these barriers, what games would you show them?
And not be somewhat -- where there'd be no moments where you're cringing a little bit.
Yeah. "I think you should look at this, but actually, now that I see you playing it I'm like, 'Oh God, I shouldn't have showed them this one.'"
And so, that list is a very, very, very short list if it has any games on it at all. [Laughs.]
Even if I start to think, "Well, would I have shown them The Stanley Parable? Maybe. I don't know. Ooh, even for something like that..." You know? I definitely wouldn't have shown them The Beginner's Guide. They wouldn't even understand. There's things that -- it's like someone who's never read a novel before. Would I hand them Pale Fire or Lolita? No. Probably not. [Laughs.]
But that's an example where, with The Beginner's Guide, I feel like we're able to acknowledge that we have a niche world and it's okay for us to go really deep for people who are in this world. The Beginner's Guide is not a game that's gonna appeal to people who don't play games. But it is a really deep, sophisticated work with complexities and things you could argue about and things you could write papers about if you wanted to and try to figure out what he's really trying to say and all that kinda stuff. All the hallmarks of a great novel or something are in there. Of course, but, like Ulysses or some other crazy novels that are really meant for novel aficionados, it's really only for people who are deep into games. [Laughs.] Maybe it's even only for game designers.
[Laughs.] And so, yeah, I guess there's kinda these two different problems.
One is that even if you convince these mainstream people that they should at least acknowledge the world of games, when they peep in at it, they see the same stuff they've always seen. [Laughs.] Which is this big, bombastic male-power fantasies and very childish, very simplistic stories. Even the things that aren't male-power fantasies are, like, childrens' storybooks in terms of their complexity of content and so on or --
It's just where it's at.
Yeah. And so, you know, even if they peep in, that's what they're gonna see on the surface level. So, if you improve that, at least they see -- like, if they peep in at the world at poker. Because, like, think about it. The mainstream journalism world periodically does a story about poker. And they peep in at poker and they're like, "Oh my God! Look at this world, it's amazing. This is crazy what these people are doing in here." They're not looking and being like, "Eh, this looks kinda dumb." [Laughs.]
They're like, "Look at that photograph of a table covered with millions of dollars and twenties." Nobody can look at that stack of money and not be like, "Oh, wow, there's something interesting going on here," at least. [Laughs.] When you look at the spatial expressions or you interview Annie Duke about what it was like to play against her brother in a championship tournament it's like, "Okay, yes. Mainstream is not gonna cover poker every week in a weekly column." I guess, yes, poker is on ESPN or whatever, but it's not on primetime television. It's this thing that's always gonna be somewhat niche. People who really understand it and care about it are really deep into it and there's books about it and whole magazines about it and whole websites and whole conventions about it. But the mainstream, at least when they peep in, they're like, "There's something pretty amazing going on in the poker world. I don't know how to play poker and most of my readers don't either, but they're gonna wanna hear about this. When we write about it, it's gonna sound pretty cool." [Laughs.]
You know? And so I guess we can get to the point where, yes, we're always niche. But when you look in at it from the outside, it at least looks like something amazing is going on there.
And so, I don't think we're there yet because everything is just so on the nose. Everything is so -- for the most part, except for a few rare exceptions. So there's that issue.
Then, the other issue is are we going deep enough for us to excel and thrive and develop as this niche culture? I don't think we're doing that, either. It's like we're stuck in the middle of this, "Ooh, we're trying to make a game that's gonna appeal to the mainstream, so we dumb it all down and make it real simple and remove all the difficulty and sand off all these details that would be of interest to aficionados, and at the same time not really getting our content in order so that if someone looks in at it it doesn't look embarrassing." [Laughs.] So, I think we're kinda juggling these two things and to our detriment. At my point at my career -- for many years I quested for, I wouldn't say, mainstream recognition or getting respect, but quested for making games -- like, I have all these other people in my life who don't play games. Most people in my life don't play games. Most of them are really, really interested in movies, television, music, theater, art, fine art. All different sorts of things. I can go to them and talk to them about the latest, most audacious thing that's happening in film or whatever and they're interested in talking about it or if they haven't heard of the film, they'll watch it with me and discuss it with me and argue about it with me.
These people are not at all -- I really had the gumption to say, "You really need to play this game." They're like, "Oh, I do I have to?" [Laughs.]
"Just do it for me. Just do it for me. Please please." But I don't even have that gumption anymore, but over many -- for the early part of my career, I was trying to make games that those people would somehow get something out of. It's like we're stuck in the middle of this, "Ooh, we're trying to make a game that's gonna appeal to the mainstream, so we dumb it all down and make it real simple and remove all the difficulty and sand off all these details that would be of interest to aficionados, and at the same time not really getting our content in order so that if someone looks in at it it doesn't look embarrassing." [Laughs.] So, I think we're kinda juggling these two things and to our detriment. At my point at my career -- for many years I quested for, I wouldn't say, mainstream recognition or getting respect, but quested for making games -- like, I have all these other people in my life who don't play games. Most people in my life don't play games. Most of them are really, really interested in movies, television, music, theater, art, fine art. All different sorts of things. I can go to them and talk to them about the latest, most audacious thing that's happening in film or whatever and they're interested in talking about it or if they haven't heard of the film, they'll watch it with me and discuss it with me and argue about it with me.
These people are not at all -- I really had the gumption to say, "You really need to play this game." They're like, "Oh, I do I have to?" [Laughs.]
"Just do it for me. Just do it for me. Please please." But I don't even have that gumption anymore, but over many -- for the early part of my career, I was trying to make games that those people would somehow get something out of.
And my wife was this primary test subject for a lot of my early game design sketches. She would be player No. 1 and quietly, if she couldn't figure it out and couldn't play it, then there's something wrong with the way it was designed. So, I was really trying to figure out -- one example is a game I made for The Escapist. It's called Idealism. So, it's a little game sketch made in GameMaker in one week. And it's a shooter where you aim with the mouse and you move around with WASD, and there's enemies coming at you and bullets coming at you and you're aiming and dodging the bullets while shooting at the same time. And those types of games, essentially two-stick shooters or mouse-keyboard shooters are usually really hard. Anybody who doesn't have game skills is gonna struggle and feel frustrated and stop. And I was like, "I wanna make a game that has those elements in it but that my wife can actually play right off the bat without any particular training or effort or frustration on her part.”
And so, the solution I came up with is whenever you're not moving, time freezes. [Laughs.] And only when you fire a bullet or when you move, the enemies all start moving as well. It's kinda like Matrix bullet time or something.
Right. Or Superhot.
And sure enough, she could play this. That was sort of one of my litmus tests: All these games I'm making, she has to be able to play. I'm not gonna make something that has reflex difficulty in it that's gonna be beyond her abilities as a strident non-gamer. [Laughs.] But I don't know. I feel like I haven't been doing that. She hasn't really played Inside a Star-Filled Sky, The Castle Doctrine, Sleep is Death, Cordial Minuet, One Hour One Life -- you know, these things that I'm working on more recently. And I'm not even worried about that. I'm not even going to these relatives and different people in my life and saying, "Please try this game. See what you think of it." It doesn't matter anymore because I've realized that quest is never going to be achieved. [Laughs.]
Maybe not in our lifetimes, yeah.
Well, yeah. So, trying to continue to make games for those people -- what for? They're not playing them anyway. [Laughs.]
That's what I was wondering about. From a media perspective, reflective of the thing you're talking about -- the more mainstream outlets, it seems like it's perpetually 101 introductory stuff. It's almost always like a "Minecraft exists" type of article. And then on the more enthusiast sites, there are so many more assumptions being made about the people reading it. There's almost nothing in between. I mean, is it weird that videogames get as much attention as they do, then? [Laughs.]
You know what I mean? I just mean in general. I mean, you said videogames are bigger than fountain pens but they're smaller than poker. [Laughs.]
To follow your framing, which I would absolutely agree with, maybe it's a little odd, then, that they get as much attention as they do across the board, then, is what I'm saying.
Yeah. I mean, the championship for poker is broadcast to most people's homes on television or at least in past years it has been on some cable channel.
So that kind of, at least for the time being -- and maybe we're getting to that point with League of Legends or something. [Laughs.] But for the time being, that sort of transcends the importance of videogames. Of course, there's absolutely nothing about fountain pens on any cable channel that I've ever seen. [Laughs.] Although, there's a completely thriving subculture and there's dozens of blogs and all sorts of online stores and forums.
I'm sure there's a Reddit or something.
Yeah. There's definitely a Reddit about pens and some subreddits. And so, yeah, while videogames have gotten a great deal of attention -- the fact that you're talking to me is sort of a product of that trend, right? Here's this guy, Jason Rohrer, he made this little game Passage and a lot of people liked it and mainstream journalism at the time was really gung-ho about talking about games or maybe it was just the young generation of new reporters who had weaseled their way into these media rooms at these outlets were bound and determined to finally bring their favorite hobby to light. I don't know. [Laughs.]
But, anyway, for whatever reason there was all this coverage and there was interest -- there was something going on in games. There's this whole indie scene and games are still making a lot of money and they always have and maybe something cool is happening here. I don't know exactly why but suddenly I'm with this six-page spread in Esquire, right? [Laughs.] You're like, "Why would Esquire want to devote six pages and all these photographs and all this time, effort, and money to some dude making videogames?" But that wasn't that unusual at the time. There were profiles of videogame makers in The New Yorker. Will Wright and Cliff Bleszinski. Tom Bissell was writing regularly for mainstream outlets about videogames. And so -- there was Newsweek. Some magazines seemed to have weekly things about, like, little game reviews or --
Yeah, what was the thing we just mentioned before we started about seven years ago?
Oh, I don't know how to pronounce the guy's name. N'Gai Croal?
Yeah. N'Gai Croal. That's right.
[Laughs.] But anyway, I think he was brought on at Newsweek and was, like, maybe writing about videogames every week?
Yeah. Who, like many of the other names you mentioned have switched over into consulting on making games or making games like Tom Bissell.
Right. Right. So -- [Sighs.] The question about why videogames have gotten the attention? I think in part because it's hard to ignore the money.
It's roughly 10 times the size of the NFL, if you include mobile and all the other ancillary markets.
Yeah, or, people compare how much money Call of Duty has made to how much money Avatar made or whatever. But --
But you had said in our emails that those numbers don't necessarily reflect audience size but the fact that they're expensive to buy.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah. It's, like, $60 to buy Call of Duty and it's $10 to go see Avatar.
It might be, like, $100 with all the extra DLC and stuff.
Well, not only that but -- well, yeah. It's not counting that.
So, $100 a pop versus $12 a pop.
Yeah. And there's some famous tale about when Gone with the Wind came out in England, enough tickets were sold for everyone in the country to see it twice. [Laughs.]
You know, so, when we look at the history of the box-office take of movies, even that is a little misleading because the ticket prices have changed over time. And so, cultural penetration and stuff -- so, yeah, I think most of what -- [Sighs.] I don't know. There's also a tech story. Like, people look at videogames. There is a tech aspect to them that when people peep in beyond the cover of the boxes and the titles and the graphics that are shown on the boxes, if they actually peep in on what's happening on the screen, there's some pretty amazing stuff happening on the screen. Seeing, essentially, something with more visual fidelity than a Pixar movie kind of happening in real time where you can spin the camera around and move around inside of it at your will, there is a gee-whiz element to it. I mean, there has been tons of coverage of Oculus Rift for a similar reason. People are not looking into Oculus Rift and writing about it like crazy in mainstream media because they see any compelling content there. It's just because of a gee-whiz tech --
Yeah. This is kind of real now. This actually exists. You can step into a virtual world. I don't know. I'm wondering how if we actually compare volume how mainstream coverage of pornography and the porn industry --
It's not like there's no coverage. I mean, they do cover -- I don't know. They do sometimes get interviews, almost like as a gag or something or as a curiosity kind of piece.
Talking about what's going on at the AVN Awards or whatever as a curiosity piece. So, and, you know, if you actually go back in time to the '70s, I think Roger Ebert did review porn movies. [Laughs.]
Didn't he famously say porn will never be art?
Maybe he did.
I don't think he did. But he co-wrote that movie with Russ Meyer, so that doesn't surprise me.
Oh, yeah, I think that's true. I think he may have even mentions that in his review. But he either reviews behind Behind the Green Door or Deep Throat or The Devil in Miss Jones or something. One of those --
Back in those days, those movies were coming to mainstream theaters. [Laughs.]
Well, you're saying they merited inclusion despite the perceived social desirability aspects, which videogames also suffered from early on.
[Sighs.] Yeah. I mean --
Which, you laugh but --
Yeah, but if we compare the last 10 years and the fleeting interest in the mainstream of videogames to the way pornography was being treated in the 1970's where it's like this up and coming thing. These young hip kids were doing the stuff. They were supposedly breaking ground and pushing boundaries and doing kind of cool, innovative stuff. But if you actually peeped in at it, it was garbage. [Laughs.] It was garbage.
I mean, like, none of those movies stand -- I mean, like, Behind the Green Door or whatever is supposed to be this edgy, art, avant garde thing? But it's just -- I mean, I've not actually seen that one in particular. But some of the older ones that I have seen are just ridiculous. [Laughs.] They're really poor quality compared to any of the mainstream films that were coming out at the time.
Exhibiting very shallow understanding of filmmaking concepts and capabilities. It's like some guy got his hands on a cheap camera and he thought he could be a filmmaker, basically.
Why not? Well, that's interesting because I think that overlaps with another chunk of questions that I had for you. I completely forgot about that, how people in pornography -- why is there this obsession in videogames, or there has been, with videogames being art. I forgot that pornography --
-- also had that same aim. [Laughs.] I mean, I understand it's a pursuit for some sort of legitimacy. But to me it always seemed kind of odd because even in the art world, people can't agree on what is art. [Laughs.]
So, what is the implied goal?
What are we really trying to achieve?
[Sighs.] Yeah. Obviously the definition of art is a thorny topic. I don't really want to --
No, I'm not interested in that.
I don't think that's really that important. But I think people know what they mean when they say that. When we say that pornography is not art or that these people making it are not artists, we know what we mean and don't really need to go into definitions or say, "Well, why not? Isn't everything art?" You know? That kinda stuff. You know, the sort of fundamental long-term merit of what they're doing versus the more utilitarian purpose of the thing. Where, if you look at a slot machine as a very core utilitarian purpose, which is to keep you entertained while it takes money from you. And so, we can say, "Well, is it art, though? Is a slot machine art?"
We'll argue in the devil's advocate, "Of course it is! It's a human creation!" You know, all the reasons that it could be seen as art. But that doesn't change its primary purpose, its reason for existence, the motivation of the creator, or any of those things. And so, if we look at pornography as having a very specific motivation and a very utilitarian purpose, then it doesn't align itself with this sort of more esoteric high-minded non-utilitarian purposes that we think of as an artist being driven to make a work of art for.
And so, and for videogames the same thing. Especially if we go back to the arcade machines, I mean, very much so, where it's like this game is designed to get you hooked and take quarters from you. And if it doesn't do that, it fails. It's a failed product. It's not, "Ooh! What is this game trying to say?"
It's not a good game and it's taken out of the arcade. It's gonna be removed.
And so, at the same time, the people who invest their lives in making these things come to some point where they start to think about their greater purpose in the world and so on. I think they sort of are inspired by the idea of art and being an artist and this sort of higher purpose to what you're doing. And so, for the pornographers, as well, I think that they are -- [Laughs.]
We can giggle about it but --
No, it just comes up a lot. It comes up more than you might expect or maybe it wouldn't surprise you, just how often pornography gets compared to videogames in these interviews. They have a shared PR problem --
Yeah, I gave an entire talk about this about six years ago.
It was called "Game and Other Four-Letter Words," and the two other four-letter words I was implying -- I never used the two words in the talk -- were "porn" and "drug." Right?
And the similarities between the way these things are consumed, the way they're thought about culturally, the way that kinds of sort of prurient interest aspects of them and the sort of specialty stores you need to go to to get them. Even the fact that you often stay up late at night alone with them. [Laughs.]
Which is true, I'm assuming, for drugs and also for pornography, right?
I'm assuming. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I'm just saying, I've never stayed up way too late doing drugs.
[Laughs.] Yes, you stay up until a respectable hour doing drugs.
[Laughs.] You know, where you're just completely strung out and then -- I'm assuming that that happens. I've definitely stayed up way too late playing videogames.
Where it's, like, embarrassing.
Well, it's irresponsible and embarrassing.
It impedes your other basic responsibilities.
Yeah, where you go to bed with your tail between your legs and your spouse is like, "What time is it?" And you're like, "It's late."
"Just go to sleep."
"You don't want to know.”
I don't know if we mentioned here or if you mentioned up top, but as someone who has had their videogames exhibited in museums -- I mean, this is sort of what rekindled our conversations was I had just interviewed Erica Gangsei at SFMOMA last week. I've talked to several museums that have included videogames. Do these entities, do they act like they're St. Peter? Like they're going to anoint you with legitimacy? In your dealings with them, is this stuff even acknowledged, this sort of friction?
Or is it more like an e-vite where they're just like, "Hey, come on in."
I mean, it doesn't have to be that binary.
Yeah, yeah. That world is messy in its own right. [Laughs.]
Yes it is.
So, you've got the fine-art world, which is continuing to function as far as I can tell. I mean, when I go to New York City and go to Chelsea galleries, I mean, they're still there. They're still functioning. Their doors are not boarded up. They're still selling very expensive pieces to collectors and there's still Christie's and Sotheby's having these crazy auctions for tens of millions of dollars for obscure or collectible or less obscure pieces of art. Some of the pieces that go for crazy amounts of money are pieces that the public, if they were shown a photograph of, wouldn't even recognize. And so, clearly this is totally niche but it's still, as far as I can tell, self-sustaining and relatively vibrant because there's enough very wealthy people collecting art to make it keep going. Right? That's all you need in that case.
And, in the museum world, on the other hand, is, from what I can tell speaking to the curators that I've worked with and so on, is in this somewhat panicked state of, "We're not getting people coming." [Laughs.]
I mean, I feel like an asshole because I'll ask people in places like that why in the age of the listicle why are museums still relevant to people. Not in an accusatory way, but just in a -- I do think that they are receding for a lot of, at least, younger people. Why is that a thing they need to go and experience?
Right. So, I think the sad truth about why a lot of these places are making exhibits of videogames is trying to get younger people in the doors.
Like a transactional kind of --
Yeah. Like, you know, "Young people are interested in videogames. Let's do something about videogames! What are we gonna do? Oh, I don't know, well, we have to do something with some artistic merit. Huh." And then they look around and, like, see some indie games that are a little bit more artistically interesting or see some guy like me who's like, "Well, this guy is at least grappling with some of the stuff that some of our artists might normally grapple with."
"Why don't we do something about this guy? Then maybe we'll get some kids coming into the museum!"
I've seen the directors of these places sometimes being like, "Oh, this is so great! We had three kids in here yesterday!" [Laughs.] And then you have the opening where the patrons of the museum come and it's all a bunch of white hair and they're like, "Well, we don't play videogames but we find them very fascinating. I'm so glad to meet you." That kind of thing. [Laughs.]
So, I think that, yeah, it's partially just this desperate gasp. [Laughs.]
I mean, like I said, I've interviewed several of these places and I don't know that I've really broadcast what my feelings are about it. But that does seem to be what telegraphs. Yeah.
I don't know. It's also just, like, while these are clearly culturally relevant things and we should be paying attention to what's going on and figuring out what's interesting and happening out in here -- but, yet again, that's kind of strange because all the things that they're showing for the most part are commercial work when they're showing videogames.
And so that's a very odd place for them to be going, where it's like, "You can come in here into this museum and play this thing and then you can go home and buy it for $12.95."
You can buy it at the gift shop. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You get exactly the same thing. It's not a print. [Laughs.]
And so, and maybe a couple museums have film festivals or something, but that's kind of the equivalent of what it is. Or "TV night" or -- [Laughs.]
Yeah. Yeah yeah.
Or a thing where they're showing a Tom Clancy retrospective, where it's all these Tom Clancy novels on display and ephemera from his life and whatever. They don't need to be in there. There's no reason to put Tom Clancy novels in there. They are their own thing. Or maybe Tom Clancy's too pop, right? Like a [Vladimir] Nabokov retrospective, right? [Laughs.] The guy's been dead -- Nabokov's been dead for, like, almost 40 years. Isn't it about time we had a museum retrospective of his life and work? But -- well, he's a novelist, you can just go read the book. You don't need to come to the museum to see it.
So, but you're not saying these museums treat you like they're christening you or they're giving you legitimacy they didn't have before?
Yeah, no, I didn't really feel that. I didn't feel like they were saying, "Aren't you lucky to be recognized in this way?" Yeah.
I'm not implying that they do, it's just that -- when I reached out to you a few weeks ago with some questions about MOMA, I was thinking about how people who are not on either side of our aisle, people who are consumers or just regular folks who don't make games or who don't write about them, I think they see the six-page spread in Esquire or a piece in The New York Times or your being on NPR or being in MOMA and think -- I don't know. I guess I'm curious what type of assumptions do you find people make about you because of your time occupying those channels?
Like, do people draw conclusions because --
Well, so, okay. There's two different camps in terms of people's reactions to those kinds of things.
The first is, of course, the target audience for all these outlets is the mainstream. Just everyday ordinary people who probably don't play videogames. If you pick any average ordinary adult person out in a crowd of people, yes, I know everybody plays videogames because they all play Candy Crush or whatever.
Candy Crush. Yeah.
[Laughs.] But they don't play any of the things that we're talking about.
And if you ask them if they play videogames, they instantly say, "No."
And they say, "Really? You don't play any videogames?"
"Oh, yes, well I do have Angry Birds on my phone and I play it when I'm waiting in line or something."
So, they don't identify as gamers. They don't think of themselves as gamers. As far as they're concerned, they don't play games, and then until they're reminded that they actually do, then they acknowledge that they do but kind of begrudgingly. The idea that the entire world is filled with gamers, everyone is playing games, this is a huge phenomenon -- [Laughs.] This is kind of a --
[Laughs.] Yeah, not really.
My cab driver has Angry Birds on his phone. He does not play -- [Laughs.] He has never even heard of Far Cry 2. [Laughs.] Never even heard of it! He doesn't know what it is.
Anyway. So, those people, very often their only real brush with videogames aside from Angry Birds on their phone is: "Oh my God! I think I recognize you! I think I read about you in that in-flight magazine!" Or: "You know what? I've seen this thing on Netflix, Indie Game: The Movie. That was something about videogames. I watched it!”
Like, Indie Game: The Movie is actually the biggest kind of thrust culturally that videogames have ever had because pretty much whenever I mention to anybody that I make games, they mention, "I saw this -- oh, you make independent videogames? Yeah, I saw this something on Netflix about that."
I'm like, "Indie Game: The Movie?"
They're like, "Yup!"
I'm like, "I know those guys."
Of course I know those guys! I should know them, right? As far as they're concerned, it's not even surprising that I know those guys because --
Yeah, because there's gotta be like, what, 10 people who make games, right?
It's funny. If I mention that I know the guys in Indie Game: The Movie, that's far more impressive to people in the game industry. [Laughs.]
This is true.
Because they're like, "Really! You talk to Phil Fish?"
So, anyway, "Oh, I heard you about on NPR," or, "Oh, I read about this show," or whatever, right? I mean, that kind of stuff dramatically -- that's the thing that they're aware of in terms of your work or whatever.
That mainstream coverage does reach them. They do read it, right? But none of them are actually pushed after exposure to that coverage to actually go and play any of the games, right? To the point where I could sit there and have a nationwide 10-minute story run about me on NPR today on To The Best of Our Knowledge or whatever. I know that nationwide this ran today, probably a million people heard it or something? [Laughs.]
And go to my website and look at my little web counter and see zero upticks over the normal baseline noise level of traffic.
Yeah. But you said they definitely don't buy them, also.
Well, but they're not even visiting the website. Of course they're not gonna buy them. Yeah, this is not a sales uptick. This is a visitors uptick.
That's what I'm saying, yeah.
Yeah. And during that whole museum show thing with the Wellesley Museum --
Yeah, last year there were, like, you know, maybe 10 articles in Art News and Boston Globe and this big media outlet and that big media outlet -- New Yorker, whatever. Anytime one of those came out or during the entire museum show in general, I looked at the month that the show ran and the month that it opened and whatever and sales numbers, visitor numbers, the graphs are just flat, right?
"Oh, there's a bump in the graph! What's that from?" Oh, that's because somebody in some videogaming forum mentioned one of my games in passing. [Laughs.]
And there's a big spike in sales that day. But the fact that I have a museum show, the fact that the New Yorker just wrote about me is flat. [Laughs.] That makes a flat graph.
Much bigger was this obscure little forum post. [Laughs.] So, that's that side of it.
The other side of it, of course, is how does the game industry or other independent game designers or whatever react to this kind of mainstream coverage. Obviously, it could almost should go without saying that that is kind of negative. It's like -- my reputation precedes me, all sorts of tall tales exist about me.
Your reputation? What is your reputation?
Well, for people -- I'm this guy who lives in a cabin with no electricity and never washes his hair. [Laughs.]
That's not my perception of you.
No, but there's these legends circulating. "He grows all his own food and he never wears shoes. His kids are naked all the time."
So, anyway, that's the sort of larger than life thing, which I'm assuming is true for the guys who were in Indie Game: The Movie in the main version of it. That once that happens to you and -- like, look what it did to Phil Fish. I mean, I'm no where near what has happened to him, but anytime my name is brought up, all this kind of baggage from this coverage is kind of wheeled out. "Isn't it that hippie dude? Isn't it that guy who never washes? Oh, that guy is disgusting."
Whatever it is, I'm not really hurt by it. I think it's funny or whatever. But when I meet someone in person, it's mostly -- is it because of the games I made? Not really. It's not like, "Woah, that's Jason Rohrer!" It's more because of this coverage. And so, yeah, the coverage has kind of swamped everything else.
How many articles have these game people read about me? For whatever reason, I was in the right place at the right time and kind of got showered with all these different opportunities to be the centerpiece of some story.
And it was actually interesting -- it's as much, at least back when this was happening. So, the Esquire piece happened in 2008, which is nine years ago. The interest was as much in the games I was making and equal parts interest in this crazy kind of experimental lifestyle that we were living, which was kind of on the cusp of this whole green -- it almost pre-dates the green movement or whatever.
All concerned about global warming. I don't think An Inconvenient Truth had even come out or whatever. Or maybe it came out right around that time.
And so, you know, we had been doing that kind of stuff or experimenting with those kinds of minimal impact lifestyle or voluntary simplicity or trying to figure out how to maximize our family budget to reduce the amount of time we were working jobs that we didn't like. All these kind of life questions for quite a while and sort of had -- at the time there was a lot of interest in that. We actually, after the Esquire piece, we had calls from documentary crews and television shows and stuff that just wanted to come -- just about our lifestyle. Not about my games. Just, "Can we come in and follow you for a day with cameras just to see how you do thing? We're doing this piece about such and such for 20/20 or whatever about simplicity or whatever."
We actually turned some of those down because it felt too much like being in a fishbowl.
But most of the bigger kinda mainstream pieces around that time did definitely touch on those aspects of our lifestyle, did want a photograph of me on my weird bike, did want to see our laundry line in a photograph. [Laughs.] I think there's multiple public documents showing our laundry hanging on our line. [Laughs.] It's in Indie Game: The Movie Special Edition and I think it almost made it into the in-flight magazine. Like, some picture of us out by our laundry. [Laughs.]
"Oh my gosh! They have laundry on the line! These are like Amish people or something!"
So you're saying --
[Laughs.] But you're saying, as far as from the videogame side, that sort of exposure -- I mean, I guess you said it already. It hasn't really moved the needle. I'm trying to figure out what that means. Is it just another side of the same thing we've already discussed as far as this stuff isn't as mainstream as it thinks it is?
[Sighs.] Yeah. Yeah.
Which is not a new thought for me. It's just --
So, obviously, as a creative person who's trying to make a living from their creations, when opportunity comes for that kind of mainstream coverage, it's like, "Woah, we got a reporter from The New York Times on the line!" Right?
The business sense in your mind says, "Jump at that! Oh my gosh, yes! That's amazing that this is happening."
I felt that way in sort of a business sense or in a "keep myself afloat creatively" sense for a long time. Would jump at it and bend over backwards to facilitate all these different things happening. I think that in the ways that that actually panned out was all because of the reaction that the people in the game world had to that coverage more than any kind of mainstream broadening of my audience.
I think I've had similar experience, where this project was written about by USA Today and -- [Laughs.] I was asked similar questions to what I was asking you in our emails earlier this month, which is people being like, "What did that do for you?"
I think I wrote a very similar response to what you wrote me a few weeks ago, which was, "Well, not much.”
So, the people in games Twitter or in the games world will sometimes be reading USA Today and say, "Woah, there's an article about our favorite thing and there's this guy that's speaking," and that gets posted in Reddit or whatever and that is the place where it's like, well, this may actually generate some something that will translate into some additional advancement of your career.
Who knows though, yeah.
Yeah. But, yeah. It's a very sort of minor note. I mean, for me, if I can get a story on Kotaku, that's a much much bigger deal in terms of me financially and supporting my family and advancing my career than being on NPR, even though Kotaku readership is way smaller than NPR or even being in The New Yorker.
Well, you had mentioned that you don't really read too much writing about videogames yourself. I don't know if that's an accurate summing up of what you said, but if it is, why is that? Or what was your process of receding from that like?
Which, again, is not an unusual thing.
It's just interesting to hear be discussed.
I guess I used to read more about videogames. I don't know. I guess I just kinda felt like over time the stuff that was being written wasn't that relevant to me anymore.
I used to spend -- maybe part of it was as I was climbing up the bottom rungs of the ladder as a designer in terms of understanding this medium and what we're trying to do, I was kind of lapping up everything that I could.
A lot of early coverage of things like Braid was very design-focused. When people went deep -- I don't know. Do you remember a guy named Iroquois Pliskin?
I know what the names are stolen from, but is that their real name?
No, it wasn't his real name. I can't remember what site he wrote for. It wasn't The Brainy Gamer. There was one site called The Brainy Gamer and there was another site called -- I can't remember.
I would remember a name like Iroquois Pliskin but, no offense to them, I don't remember that individual.
[Laughs.] Iroquois Pliskin. Right right. But, like, "Oh, this guy has really deep insights into Braid and what it might be about philosophically and so on." It felt important to read. I don't know. And then I guess like that sort of game blogosphere has changed so many times over that keeping track of who's currently writing about games or who's written their big exit. [Laughs.]
There's always a big exit. [Laughs.]
How many big exits are like, "You know, it's finally come to this: I decided I'm leaving games." And then they keep writing about games for a while.
"I'm still gone, you guys, but check this out."
[Laughs.] So, you know, I've seen those big exits and returns over and over from certain people. It's just like, I don't know. There's so much turnover. I don't think there's that much money in writing about games.
There is not, no.
I think that's one of the driving factors. So, yeah, keeping up with or keeping track of who to read -- and then on top of that, even if you find somebody that you feel like you should read, I don't know. These pieces are just these giant walls of text.
This is true.
It takes a long time to read this stuff and if you actually wanted to keep up with this person who's writing every week and writing this giant wall of text -- also this gonzo element of all of this where, "We're gonna go really deep." I don't know if it's called new journalism or what it's called where you go real deep into your childhood story about you and your brother in the basement kind of thing.
Yeah, that's new game journalism, right? Isn't that it?
I think it's just called --
Where you have a real perspective and you're not an objective -- you're bringing your whole self in, the story of --
I guess the sediment on it has settled and it's just called experiential writing because it's not really journalism.
Right, right. But I think it ties back into Hunter S. Thompson or something.
In terms of lineage, the lineage of, "Hey, I'm not gonna take myself out of this piece that I'm writing. I'm gonna write about it from the point of view of me getting off the airplane onto the tarmac and what the heat felt like, whatever, and how hungry I was." [Laughs.]
Anyway, so, that kinda stuff? I don't know. I guess there's not much value in that for me. I'm not just looking to fill time with reading. I'm looking to have an interesting, rich reading experience as much as I'm looking for, I don't know, very concise, condensed, thought-provoking arguments about something. I don't know. I don't really have a good answer.
No, no, no. That's fine.
I'm also really busy making games and I've also got three kids. I kind of hold the record in the game industry for most kids, I think. [Laughs.] I don't think -- I've never met anyone else. I've met very few people who have even one kid.
I think you're prolific in a number of ways.
[Laughs.] But three kids is not prolific outside of the world of games.
I know, I know, I know.
But I think of most of the people I know in the games, they have one or no kids. The vast majority have no kids, even if they're the same age as me. There's one other guy I know who has two kids. [Laughs.]
I think you mentioned something a while back -- I did re-read a bunch of the articles you're talking about that mention your lifestyle. Many of them described you as "at the forefront of art and indie games." But a detail that leaped out at me from one of the articles was that you used to work in the advertising world at some point? Is that right?
Yeah, so. [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, just as part of my game career.
It sounded like a brief stint, from what I read.
No, I never actually got paid. [Laughs.]
Well, I was just going to ask if there were ways the videogame world seemed similar to you to the advertising world.
Well, so, that was because I was this superstar indie-game designer that was written up in Esquire and these other places around that time. I was getting calls and inquiries from people in the mainstream all across the board. From stuff inside the game industry like, "Hey, you wanna come work on this Spielberg game?" To, "Hey, we're in the advertising world and we're really interested in getting into videogame-based advertising or tying videogames into ad campaigns." Or something like that. To different people like literary representation agencies who wanted to represent me to the literary world and help me get books written or I don't know what or get movies made? Who knows what. All these people were calling and trying to figure out a way to leverage me somehow.
And so, I was still, at that point in time, had not made any games that were commercially successfully. I had not even tried selling any at that point. I had made -- the whole thing with The Escapist was, "Hey, maybe I can make money by getting these games commissioned by The Escapist, one a month?" That ended up being -- literally, I think the non-disclosure agreement has expired, I'm pretty sure, if there was one. [Laughs.] So, it was literally $250 per game. [Laughs.]
That was the small deal with the bonus based on traffic. Right? However many downloaded the game, if I get this many thousands I get an extra $100 or whatever. But I never got any of those bonus payments because I never attracted that much traffic. Right.
And so, I think I could have taken the $400 per game or the $250 per game with the traffic bonus or something. I think I took -- I spent a week making this thing. [Laughs.] I may have the numbers a little fuzzy, but the order of magnitude is correct. It's a couple hundred dollars.
And so, that was an attempt to support my family from games.
And then, I saw a couple years later some people selling smaller games on Steam or even on their own website and making a decent living, some of my friends. Not necessarily becoming millionaires with super-high polished things for HDTVs on Xbox 360 but VVVVVV. [Laughs.] "Oh, wait, you can put it on your website and make $30,000 from selling directly to your fans? Maybe I can do that, too."
And so I finally graduated to that point, but in the meantime there, I was exploring all these different things. I was consulting for EA for the Spielberg thing. I was consulting for a bunch of other little companies along the way here and there. And then also this advertising guy called me and was like, "We're a big advertising production company and we pitch to Y&R and all these ad agencies to produce campaigns. They're not just magazine campaigns or television campaigns, they're sometimes multimedia, weird alternative-reality kind of things."
One of the things that I pitched for was Campbell Soup, Michelle Obama, and backyard gardens? [Laughs.]
Campbell Soup sensed this opportunity because Michelle Obama was tearing out part of the White House lawn and putting a garden in and trying to get everyone -- that was one of her early missions as first lady, I guess, was healthy food and eating more vegetables and growing some of your own food and so on.
And so, there's all these pictures out in a dress with a shovel digging around the garden. [Laughs.] So, anyway, there I am in the Y&R offices in New York City with some people who have been working their whole career in the ad industry, in a meeting with them, trying to come up with some ideas for this Campbell Soup -- [Laughs.] I mean, what does Campbell Soup have to do with backyard gardening? It seems like Campbell Soup would not want you to have a backyard garden. But somehow, they were wanting to hand out tomato seeds with every can of soup? [Laughs.] I don't know. Anyway, they wanted some kind of videogame element to this. I was tasked --
All of this sounds incredibly surreal, by the way.
I can't imagine what that was like, being there.
So, and it didn't have to be a videogame. I was like, "I don't think videogames fit for most of these things. Maybe some sort of real-world game or alternative reality game is a better fit or something."
I think I pitched some kind of underground Fight Club-esque secret gardening thing? [Laughs.]
A guerrilla gardening kind of game where there's cryptic posters posted around cities and people meet in some disused warehouse. Was this before or after -- because I know you made a game also inspired by gardening? Was this before or after that?
Yeah, this was way after that. Yeah.
So, these strange kinds of tasks. Another task was, "Here's this song that this Dutch DJ had produced and we want to make some kind of videogame to go along with it. Either a music videogame or something. Come up with a videogame to go along with this song."
None of those things really panned out or the pitch didn't get accepted or whatever. It's like, well, when that happens, you don't get any money. [Laughs.] So, I pitched a couple of different things and nothing panned out. But that? The fact that I did that is also one of these lingering legends about me.
Like, "The dude also sold out and worked for the ad agencies!" [Laughs.]
I was going to ask whether anyone accused you of selling out. I think you have to be paid to sell out.
You don't have to be paid to sell out.
At the time, I was just trying to figure out how to bring in money for my family.
I don't know. Nobody who has to pay bills uses that phrase.
[Laughs.] Well, anyway, on top of it, it was really interesting.
Well, but I think in a way that's an insight into the way the mainstream views videogames? But I'm not sure quite what that was. I mean, do you feel like you learned something like that through those experiences?
Yeah, and they were almost for the same reasons that I was suggesting that museums might be interested in showing videogames for penetrating new demographics. It's like, what was it? There was one example thing they had worked on, which was this Doritos haunted house. [Laughs.]
It's literally some app for the a phone that is a spooky kind of scary game where you go down hallways and are jump scared by things. The whole thing is sponsored by Doritos, or there's bowls of Doritos sitting on counters in parts of the haunted house or whatever.
Maybe there's some code on the back of some Doritos bags to unlock new things in the game. You know, this kind of thing. But just, like, this Doritos haunted house was a free game and it was a relatively huge hit in the advertising world in terms of, "All these kids downloaded and played it around Halloween." [Laughs.]
It's basically a way to tap into some of that eyeball market share that might otherwise be wasted on Angry Birds as far as they're concerned.
It's interesting because there's some of that same impulse in what has helped bring videogames into museums, like you said. But what I've noticed is people don't like when you assert that or even suggest it. There's almost this notion of -- the fact that videogames are inside those buildings is supposed to be "good enough." There's this weird gatekeeping on, like, legitimacy that takes place where you're not allowed to criticize or ask certain questions or wonder what are ways videogames could maybe integrated more respectfully or more thoughtfully. Why do you think there's that notion that videogames can have "enough" legitimacy?
Do you know what I'm talking about?
I definitely feel like for me and my career and so on, it did matter to me personally that the MOMA has this permanent collection and they're acquiring 14 videogames into it and one of my games, Passage, is in it. Like, that -- in terms of legitimacy or whatever to other people I don't really know how to measure whether that actually works. [Laughs.]
But for me as a creator, it's like -- it's separate from, like, I talked before about the business concerns and the lack of traffic bump when this kind of stuff happens. But it's still an affirmation that I did something good that at least some people appreciate or can understand. And so, that has been good for me. I'm not complaining about any of that.
And having that museum show, as well, it's like, "Woah! I have made 18 games, I guess that's enough for a mid-career retrospective." If I look back on these and they're collected in this way, people have recognized them and come together to at least acknowledge that something I did here was good. It's kind of like, I don't know. You could say that you're operating in this bubble where as long as you think it's good it's good and it doesn't really matter what other people think but I don't ever feel that way.
I have inklings that what I'm doing is good or suspect that, "Ooh, this is gonna be cool. People are really gonna like this." Or whatever. Or, "This is really clever." But if people don't get it or understand it, I feel somewhat disappointed. In some of the games that I've made that were more audacious or reached more, like Between, I did feel somewhat disappointed that more people didn't get it or understand it or appreciate it. And so, it kinda felt like it misses. The point is not to make something for myself. I mean, by the time I'm done working on this thing I'm not gonna want to play it anymore. [Laughs.]
No. You've lived it for so long.
Yeah, yeah. And so, it is for other people and so, hopefully, it reaches them and touches them and these kinds of things -- being included in MOMA or having the show -- are signs that that has happened. And I have had other signs that that's happened. It's like, "Oh, this number of people shelled out money to play this game and they posted on the forums about it for 11 months or whatever. It clearly touched them and it was important to them and it was good to them." So, that's good, too. Another measure there.
But I don't know. It's just nice for me as a creator to have a more long-term record of what I did. Like, videogames are so fleeting and ephemeral. It's like, Passage doesn't even work on the iPhone anymore. It doesn't on Linux/Mac OS anymore. [Laughs.] The fact that I've got this little book that was published as part of the exhibit at Wellesley College, it's like a little scrapbook. Or I've got a couple magazines sitting here on the shelf. I know, like, that Esquire is in the archives of every library around the country. It's this record that existed that I did something. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I understand.
That, to me, is good. In terms of legitimacy? [Pause.] I guess, yeah, as a creator, maybe there is some feeling like, "Oh, yes, even these sophisticated art-world people see something valuable in what I've done. These people have really lived through a lot, seen a lot, they're jaded and relatively skeptical and cynical about all this kinda stuff probably because they've seen so much and are interfacing with some pretty sophisticated work on a daily basis and so on. If they see my stuff and can say, 'This is worthy of comparison to this other stuff that we're showing here, this is sophisticated for us to even want to consider it and to think about it and talk about it and argue about it and write about it,'" then I think that that does help me gauge the quality of my work.
It's like, "Oh yeah, I guess all that sophisticated stuff that I felt like I was putting in there and all that effort I put in that direction, it holds water. It stands up to scrutiny. These people are scrutinizing it from this point of view that is a pretty sophisticated point of view and it passes muster." [Laughs.]
I find it interesting, your answer to my question when I emailed you again. I had no assumptions about it and I mentioned it to Erica [Gangsei, head of interpretive media] at SFMOMA, just your experiences of having your work there didn't necessarily translate into sales or uptick in traffic.
I find that surprising and interesting and she didn't even blink an eye.
Where, just to contrast, I'm assuming that if you're an artist in the fine-arts world and you have a mid-career retrospective at a major -- I mean, Wellesley College is not a major museum. But a mid-career retrospective at some big museum or you're included in a permanent collection or something that probably has an impact in terms of the value of your work, right? And how financially successful you could be, going forward.
And being in Art News and having a write-up in Art News in the fine-art world probably does translate into some collectors calling.
And I think it all has something to do with who you are in that position. That is, what communities you're in and the ways you're able to leverage that. Like, it's not necessarily going to have an equal impact on everyone who is included in those walls.
Right. But, you know, my work is not -- even if an art collector reads about something in Art News, they can tell by the way that the work is described that it's not collectible. [Laughs.]
They're not gonna call me and say, "Can I have one of your originals?" Original what? [Laughs.] I think that's just sort of understood.
So, I don't know.
Similarly, I don't know how much you think on this, but something that I thought about in prepping for this was this post you had made about Castle Doctrine a few years ago, "Why Rampant Sales are Bad for Players". Does that ring a bell?
Yes. [Laughs.] One of my most famous articles.
I was gonna say, I don't know how notorious or infamous or memorable it was for you in hindsight. These things don't always linger for the people who put them out.
Yeah, writing that article was way bigger for me than being on NPR. [Laughs.]
Man. I don't know. How do you feel about that? That's such an odd but true but I find kinda sad statement that a thing like that is likely to be more of a lightning rod than something with much huger reach.
Right. Well, yeah. I'm still joking about that point, basically.
I agree, though. I think you're right.
But that is a huge -- [Laughs.] I didn't do that on purpose, necessarily. I was trying to explain why Castle Doctrine wasn't gonna go on sale, because I had made up my mind that it was not gonna go on sale. Which is still a legendary thing about that game. Anytime I'm mentioned, people are like, "Just wait for Castle Doctrine to go on sale instead of buying this new game." People still joke about that or poke or prod me about it or whatever. People who were into The Castle Doctrine feel like the game died because it never went on sale.
But I find that that happens on these games sites, where it's astounding to them that creators will stick up for themselves and be like, "Hey, what I create has value and you can take it or leave it." Like, that's sort of seen as an amazing position to take.
Well, yeah. I don't know. I wasn't exactly taking that position.
No, I know. But that's the way it's often taken.
But, yeah. I mean, that article -- that is actually one of the most viable paths forward in terms of PR for somebody who doesn't have a PR budget. [Laughs.] It's somehow figuring out something to say that gets everyone riled up. [Laughs.] I didn't do that on purpose. I've tried to do it since unsuccessfully, if I'm actually trying.
The other thing that really worked for The Castle Doctrine was this "Steal Real Money"contest, which I was laughing my head off as I came up with it and composed the text on the page and so on. But the idea -- even the title, "Steal Real Money?" [Laughs.] Or giving away my famous dog club, right, as one of the prizes? As I put this website together I was like, "Oh, people are just gonna go crazy over this." [Laughs.]
They certainly did. If I look at coverage of The Castle Doctrine, and I can go and look and, like, "Wow, there were 25 or 30 articles written all over the web about that 'Steal Real Money' contest and then 25 or 30 articles written all over the web later on about Castle Doctrine never going on sale and why sales are bad for your fans and there's still some of the graphics that were composed as part of those articles with Gabe Newell with a crown on his head and dollar bills floating around him still come up in Google image searches." [Laughs.] I didn't compose that image, but someone who was covering what I was saying did. It's iconic.
I think the world "entitlement" gets thrown around too casually when referring to the audiences for videogames. But, what struck you as maybe something beyond that in the responses or the ways that was received?
Yeah, I don't know that the article was -- yeah, maybe. I guess the article was somewhat received negatively by players. But I think most of the churnalists -- journalists who ever covering it were saying, "Yeah, he's got a point. By God, he's right. I've got 300 unplayed games in my library." Part of what motivated me is I saw a couple stories around that time about people ashamedly posting pictures of their library with how many of their games that they had purchased over the past three years were unplayed. And so, you know, that just feels weird to me. Do I want all these people buying my game and not playing it? I guess I get a dollar each out of them or $5 each out of them or whatever the sale price was.
But, still, it's like -- I don't know. It's like, no! I want people playing it. [Laughs.] I don't just want them to hand me money by accident.
It's like, I don't know. Should I put a story on NPR where at the end of the story I ask for people to mail donations to me and give my address, knowing that the people who listen to NPR don't play my games? That'd be a way to make money, maybe, if I snuck that into the end of the interview if I was live. [Laughs.]
Yeah, it's almost like in a way making the games gets in the way of your soliciting money.
Yeah, so, anyway, whatever. It's like, I want people to play my games. I want people who shell out money for this thing to have made a decision to do it. A conscious decision that, "Yes, this game is for me. Yes I want to play it."
The other thing is people who don't really research your game and come in and play it and they don't really have the motivation to stick with it because they don't have that much invested in it. So, it changes the way you have to design the game. Like, if I was designing free games to be played on Kongregate or some Flash website, like, the way you design the game has to be very different because as some wise designer once put it, "Lolcats are just one click away." [Laughs.]
So, the way that the game engages, the way that it pulls you in, the way that it tutorializes itself to you and introduces and the way it doesn't confuse you and it doesn't leave you feeling frustrated and so on have to be tailored in a certain way depending on how much the audience has invested going in and how difficult or easy it is for them to get away from it. And if somebody has spent $16 or whatever it is on your game, they're not going to do that without watching the trailer, reading some reviews, understanding, looking in the forums to see what people are complaining about, understanding the dynamics, if it's The Castle Doctrine, "Well, how many people are still playing this thing?" All those things are mandated by the price. [Laughs.] Where, if it's in some kind of flash sale and it's a spur of the moment decision and they buy it without thinking about it because they heard about it from somebody and it's not even their type of game, they're much more likely to have a negative experience with it, much more likely to not get through the sort of more difficulty beginning parts. I don't want to make games that are full and loaded down with all sorts of hand-holding and so on just to make sure we don't lose any single player.
Like, I want to be able to make a game that's a little bit experiencing at first or has confusion or frustration as part of its core aesthetics if that's merited. Like, in One Hour One Life, the game I'm working on right now, there's no tutorial aside from a little thing that comes up on the screen and explains the controls and the controls are dead simple. It's like, "Left mouse button for almost everything." That's the instruction. [Laughs.] "Right mouse button for these three special things." And that is the only explanation that you get. Not only that, you're born into the game as a helpless baby who literally can't do anything except walk around. Like, you go to try and eat. You're starving to death currently, there's a thing on the screen saying, "You're starving starving starving." You go to a berry bush, click on it, nothing happens. You go to some tool on the ground, you click on it, nothing happens. You go over to the fire and click on it, nothing happens. You go to a piece of clothing, click on it, nothing happens.
And then you die. Then you die.
Then, "What just happened? I couldn't do anything. What the hell is going on here? What kind of game is this? What kind of beginning experience is this?" There's a thing that says, "Get reborn." Okay, I get reborn. I know I can't click on anything, so what? So, this time, I walk up to this parent and they pick me up. Okay, now I'm being picked up. Oh, wait, now I'm hungry anymore because I'm being held by my mother. Okay, hmm. No I try clicking. Oh, I jumped out of her arms. What if I run away now that I'm full? Oh, I still can't click on anything. Now I died again.
I died in 30 seconds again. What? I didn't even do anything.
So, this next time, I'll try it again. I'm reborn, now I stick with my mother. She sets me down periodically to do things. Now she's feeding me some berries. Oh, she can feed me. Can I go pick the berries? No, I can't. Wait, why can't I pick the berries? Okay, well, I guess I better stick around her and -- and then something happens to her and she dies. Then I'm standing there by myself. Now what? I try and do anything. I can'd do anything. I die.
You know, so, that experience is really important. It's this experience of being confused and this experience of trying to figure stuff out and realizing that your efforts are being frustrated by the fact that you are a helpless baby and you are actually helpless. Like, I want you to have that experience of, "I'm trying to do something but nothing's working. I know what I wanna do but I can't do it." [Laughs.]
That would be the death knell of some game that either was free or extremely cheap or bought on an impulse buy to be cast away if it wasn't immediately interesting and so on. But to anybody who's paid, I don't know what the price is gonna be, $15, $20 or whatever they're gonna end up paying for it, it's gonna be like, "Yes, I know what this game is like. I've researched it. I'm gonna be a helpless baby at the beginning or, even if I don't understand that, I'm gonna try and figure this out because I've got $20 on the line." Although, maybe with Steam's easy refund policy that's gonna subvert that.
But anyway, the point is you have a captive audience a little bit more. You have a little bit more latitude to do interesting things design-wise, to not hold their hand as much. To give it a "you can discover it on your own" kind of feeling. The Castle Doctrine did that as well. It just kinda throws you down into this house construction where you kinda experiment. You're feeling your way through the way you can construct the house and the only way you figure out whether the house is working or not is to test it by putting your own neck on the line and making a mistake and losing everything. [Laughs.] Like, beginning players, they spent a half-hour working on a house and they lose everything because of a careless mistake. That is everybody's first experience with The Castle Doctrine. That's the experience I want you to have. It was designed that way. It's designed to make you kick yourself. It's designed to make you feel frustrated at your own folly. That's the core aesthetic experience and I want to be able to design a game with that experience in mind and do everything in my power to give you that experience without sitting here saying, "What are the masses going to think of this who bought it casually and I need to hook them somehow?"
What have videogames accomplished?
[Pause.] What have they accomplished? [Laughs.] Oh. [Pause.] Yeah, I don't know. Yeah, I guess because I look at them as a creative endeavor and an artistic kind of endeavor, I guess they're sort outside the realm of accomplishment. That's what makes them what they are. Whereas the -- oh, I'm trying to think of the pneumatic pump that has accomplished better clean-water delivery or something for humanity. [Laughs.] Or the MRI machine has accomplished this or that. Or this invention of this particular technique or tool accomplished this thing in the real world that's very concrete. So, yeah, I feel like videogames are sort of outside of that realm. It's like, "What did Bob Dylan accomplish?" Really, at the end of the day, what did the man do?
He made some great music. That's it. It's kind of its own accomplishment. I think that videogames hopefully at their best, even when they don't reach the mainstream, which they may not necessarily ever do -- and even when they accept they have this niche kind of thing, that they're gonna appeal to these aficionados and so on, I think that being really good at what they are is the main thing that they will accomplish. I think there's still a long ways to go, both from a design point of view and from a theming cultural content point of view in refining this form and figuring out games and figuring out game design and understanding what we're doing and all those things.
So, yeah. I think that there have been some games that have been really good. I think there have been very few games that are really good on all the axes that they could be good.
I would agree.
I think that we are gonna keep getting better at doing that and there are going to eventually be games that are really, really good on all the axes that they could and should be good. Simultaneously. [Laughs.] I mean, we're not even necessarily sure what that looks like. We're not sure how those pieces fit together or what the balance of them is gonna be. And so, like, you could look at something like The Last of Us and say, "Well, it's still kinda cutscene-heavy, isn't it?" [Laughs.]
Right. Still running around shooting stuff.
You're still running around shooting stuff and there's a little bit too much of that. And then on top of that, it's like kinda cutscene-heavy. Those scenes aren't really interactive in the way that they feel like they should be. That doesn't feel like quite the right balance even though it's doing a lot of things right and it's a high water mark in terms of AAA games that are about something. So, it's like, "Okay, yeah. These are steps in the right direction."
I hope that the games I've been making are a little contributory steps in that direction as well. I hope. And I'm trying to make my games better along every axis simultaneously as I can figure out how to do that myself, given my own capabilities and my own resources. So, yeah, I think in terms of what games are accomplishing, I mean, it has to be this self-contained self-definition of accomplishment that is true for any non-utilitarian endeavor. [Laughs.]