Sure. My name is Jennell Jaquays. I am actually 58 years old. I’m currently based in downtown Seattle, working as the creative director/chief creative officer for my own company called Olde Sküül.
I got started in the industry back in the mid-'70s with tabletop role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons had been published for just about a year and I discovered it by way of a magazine review that my brother read to me while I was working at a college radio station as an announcer. He called me up on the phone and we were chatting about this magazine called The Space Gamer that he had just gotten. And it had two reviews in it of Dungeons & Dragons. As I listened to him read that, it just struck me that this is something that I've been looking for all my life, the ability to game out my fantasies in a sense. And looking back, it's one of those times where you realize a moment in time when your life went in a different direction because I had actually wanted to just get into commercial artwork and suddenly that changed to doing games, art for games.
I know you've been involved with multiple games.
After you make one game, what makes you decide to keep making them?
Harsh truth? Money. It was for money.
I got into games originally because I wanted to make a career of making art for games. My first job was working for a small publisher in Illinois, off-site. I wouldn't move to the little town they were located in, writing Dungeons & Dragons adventures and illustrating them. So, some of those are still in print 35 years later.
What town was it? I'm from the Midwest originally, and I don't know how many people who are cursorily aware of D&D realize it has a lot of origins in that area.
Oh yeah! No, I was originally from southern Michigan, and the publisher was based in Decatur, Illinois. So, down near, I think it's the Twin Cities or the college towns. I'm trying to remember the names.
Oh, it's okay. I'm obligated as a Midwesterner always to be like, "These towns have names!"
I know, I know! There's a videogame company down there now, and a couple of my friends work there. Still doesn't mean I'm gonna remember it.
What was it like, working remotely for a game company at that time? In hindsight, how was it or how wasn't it good prep for working for game companies in the decades that followed?
By the time I was working for Judges Guild, I already had experience working on my own and doing freelance projects for at least one other publisher, Metagaming. I made the choice to not work onsite in Decatur for a couple reasons. The first was that I saw in Decatur a town that was in worse shape than where I lived in Michigan. The second was that it seemed to me that nearly everyone in the Judges Guild offices smoked and I found that to be an unacceptable working condition. So we set up an arrangement where they sent me projects and assignments and left me unsupervised to fill them. They reimbursed me for my art supplies and shipping expenses -- no digital work or online submissions back then. I turned the crank as fast as I could making art and game content.One of my takeaways from this working arrangement was that it prepared me to be a professional freelancer in games. I see it that way because I had to be my own manager. Often I had to create my own projects. I did the freelancing thing from my little home studio -- my bedroom -- for the next year. And it taught me to be a self-starter in later jobs.
How does the work of designing quests and levels for an intangible game where players imagine translate -- or not translate -- into making videogames where people see everything you’re creating and can’t rely on their and your imaginations alone?
When I’m making game settings, the locations and the story are constantly growing in my head and I just let them flow out. Good adventure game design for me has become a process of imagining how players might solve a situation that I’ve set up and leaving a descriptive record in the adventure about options the players may have.For videogames, I find myself doing that same task, but for my co-creators, the engineers, artists and other designers who are implementing ideas. I create the descriptive record of what could happen and we adjust the game to make as many of those possible within the rules we set up. The game levels, enemies, and control interactions that we create from that are how the player sees our work. Hopefully, they evoke similar enjoyment as a DM or storyteller describing an RPG encounter.
For your work and the people you know, has it been a bell curve of how lucrative it is making games? Or how have you seen that shift?
Well, I can just state from my personal experience. My first job out of college making role-playing games, I made 1978 minimum wage. That was less than $4 an hour. I think I got a 10 cents an hour raise during the year I worked for them. I left them because I felt that I could do better financially, and I did. Marginally. I went freelance for a year. But the next step was that I had the opportunity to work for a toy company on the east coast designing a role-play game for them and I jumped at it.
So, I went from earning about $5,000 a year up to making, I think it was about $20,000. This was early 1980's. Still was not good money but it was a lot better than --
Exactly. My income basically went up from there over time to the point that -- and I had a family to think about. You know, kids came along and mortgage and spouses. So, by the time -- like 1993, I had been freelancing a number of years and I jumped out of that to go take a staff job with TSR, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons. I was there three years and the opportunity came along to get out of role-playing games and go into videogames again. [Laughs.]
Why are you laughing?
Oh, I'm just laughing -- I went from painting book covers to designing levels for id Software on Quake 2. And literally within -- the financial was important -- because literally within two years, I had multiplied what I was making at TSR by roughly at least four and a half times.
So, it was more lucrative -- it was more lucrative. And that would be the peak of my income earning. It went down from there to where, right now as a self-employed business owner, I don't make any money. [Laughs.] But, I do it 'cause I enjoy it and there's potential.
I should mention. Before we started I told you about a lot of places I have written for, but a lot of that was freelance. So I'm in a very similar boat to you.
And I'm thinking, "I hope I haven't hit my peak earning potential."
Well, you're probably still young.
You're young. You're my oldest children's age. Just sayin'.
Do you advise people to pursue a career like yours? Do you tell them that now is a good time to think about going into the industry?
Actually, I tend to tell people to really give it serious thought not to.
I just wrote an email like that yesterday, about my industry.
Yeah. Well, what happened was both my kids growing up -- I have a son and a daughter -- both expressed interest in creative careers. My daughter wanted to be a writer and we told her that the best thing she could do was to get a day job and support her writing through that. And she did that. She's still working on being a writer, but she has a good day job.
My son wanted to follow in my footsteps and he became an artist in the game industry. Kind of, I would say, against my advice. But, you know, he's 10 years into the career now and senior level or lead level at a small developer in Texas. So, it still comes down to you've gotta have the willingness to stick it out through the rough parts. It's not gonna be a gravy train.
Do you feel like the climb is much steeper than it was?
You mentioned four decades of experience.
Oh yes. Definitely. When I got into tabletop role-playing games, all I really needed was a typewriter and pencils and paper. Literally. Or pen and paper. By the time -- you know, I didn't even have a computer for several years, and even then it wasn't to do graphics. By the time you're entering the field now as an artist, you basically need to be able -- you should have the ability to make motion-picture quality computer graphics, whether it's 2D animated art or concept art like you see being shown for movies or 3D sculpting. That's kind of the bar these days. And it's a steep jump in.
There's a lot of people who get in through indies, technically where I'm at these days where I'm a small indie publisher or an indie publisher-developer and we're ideally providing that stepping stone for people who may not be able to step into the AAA market. But at the same time, we're also giving them the ability to be a major contributor on a project as opposed to someone doing shoelaces on all characters.
How did becoming a parent change your relationship and view of videogames?
By the time my first child was born, the videogame crash was already in motion. We just didn’t know it. It would hit us at Coleco less than a year later. Most of my gaming at that time was tabletop role play with my co-workers. And even that gave way to the demands of parenting while being self-employed and then moving away from my gaming group.
I didn’t get deeply into educational games for my kids. My daughter had one that she liked. My son fell in love with a text adventure designing tool on the Mac. When the kids wanted a videogame, their cruel parents actually made them spend their own money on it. That Super Nintendo got a huge amount of play for years. I think my son may still have it. We couldn’t afford games for it, but our local library was cool. They had video games that could be checked out! So we did a bit of that.
I don’t think I really felt frustration regarding games and my kids ‘til MMOs came along in our house and my son couldn’t just pause and come to dinner. That and the time he died in Everquest around bed time and couldn’t quit til he went back and recovered his stuff. I wasn’t a happy camper about that.
Okay, so, this has been gnawing at me since I spoke with Rebecca, according to my computer, on June 10th. So, 15 days ago. What is this story that you have to tell that I should be asking about? I know it has something to do with canceled games? Sorry to put you on the spot, but I'm curious about this, of course.
No problem. I can basically go with two specific incidents.
The first one, midway to end, near my career with id Software -- I was at id for five years as a designer -- we had shipped Quake II, Quake III, and were finishing up Quake III Team Arena. I was going to be the lead level designer on a project that Graeme Devine, who was our lead designer -- I would have been lead level designer -- on a kind of role-playing game project. Probably similar to the Final Fantasy series at the time, like, around Final Fantasy VII. Sort of in that range.
We were a small team, and we had mostly been doing games like -- you know, the Quakeseries. John Carmack, our lead engineer and CTO -- I think he was CTO? Chairman of the board and CTO -- what he and two other employees really wanted to do wasDoom 3. So, because he had the weight in the board of directors to pull that, we changed games. And from there went forward. id was pretty much only committed to doing, like, shooters. Continuing more shooters.
That just broke me.
You know, kind of took the wind out of my sails. It kind of felt like something underhanded, to me, from a company standpoint. It just became a fait accompli: "Here, we're changing from this project that you and our lead designer were working on to this other project that you and, like, the rest of the board of directors -- me and the two other owners of id had really no interest in working on." But they were minority shareholders.
There was at least one book I can think of that was written about Doom and that company.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I was there when it was being researched.
What do you think was driving that about face? By that time, [John] Romero was gone, right?
Yeah. Romero was gone before I came to the company.
Do you feel like Carmack had something to prove?
I don't know about anything to prove. If you basically look at the history of id product and this may sound unkind, but since the original Castle Wolfenstein, they've been making the same game over and over and over. They speed it up, they slow it down, they add better graphics. Each one has essentially been a vehicle for whatever the most recent 3D graphic game engine ideas that John had to produce, and it went that way -- Doom 3, the play of it is essentially in response to the way Carmack wrote that engine. Quake III, pretty much the same thing: We want to make a fast graphics accelerator card-only game, so that's what we made. Anything that wasn't fast came out of the game. There was no story. It was just about shooting. So, that was kind of what -- and generally speaking, because John was majority shareholder in the company and he basically got to say, "This is what I want to do. This is what we're going to do.”
This might sound like an odd question given that anecdote, but I wonder about individuals like Carmack and Hideo Kojima and whether they feel like leaders. In both cases, we're talking about people both iterating on making the same thing over and over again. I'm not asking you to comment on someone you haven't worked for, but what are the ways you feel people like that don't act like leaders? And what among that do you think is actually out of their control and can't be helped until the industry changes somehow?
The Carmack that I worked with -- I can’t say that I knew him -- we were never really what I would call friends in any way. He was the figurehead guy for id. He didn’t have to share that with Romero anymore. None of the other id people would ever be as visible again as Carmack and Romero had been. He was focused and I mean focused on his technology, and less so on his cars for awhile, and then his new rocketry hobby.
By the time that id and I parted, he was definitely near the top of his game as a technologist, but I can’t say that I saw him as a leader. He was always too deep into his own tech. What I saw then and for the next several years was a guy who wanted to do what he wanted to do and had the leverage to get others to join him in that. Sucking up to Carmack was polished to an art form back then.
Fifteen years later, I’m still surprised that he and the id management team didn’t see or realize that Doom 3’s tech was going to require several orders of magnitude in the complexity of content creation, especially in terms of employee time over what had been done for Quake games. Id was still trying to operate on the small team format where a few guys working horrific hours would reap massive rewards. That worked right up through Team Arena. Id had to grow an order of magnitude to make Doom 3 and it still took longer than expected.
My opinion, Carmack’s focus on tech that he wanted to make led to some poor choices for id that in turn led them down a narrowing product path of big tech demos for his games. Some, like Quake III,were critical successes. They had a product that other developers and publishers wanted to license in that Quake 3 engine but never managed to develop a consistent support structure for it while I was there. The Doom engine was going in a direction that would make it difficult to use for anything but a game almost exactly like Doom.
id Software could have become what Epic Games is now. Instead, they went the route of making technology demos for Carmack’s new engines and have become a house brand for another publisher.
Was there ever much discussion about branching off or away? I don't think it's unkind to say that they basically have been remaking the same game. I mean, fait accompli is Doom is coming out again.
Oh, I know.
And they reissued Quake III and Team Arena as Quake Live, which, by the way, I do approve of. It was quite good.
But was there ever talk about, like, "Let's try to shake things up a bit?"
That was what the project that Graeme Devine was creating, was supposed to be. It was not a shooter. And essentially, you know, it went off in a direction. We were developing the backstory and the play and the mechanics and then all of a sudden we weren't. So, again, I think I stayed with the company maybe another year, a year and a half, and really tried to focus on doing the Doom tech but ended up shifting more into community development for a while.
I usually don’t like to ask trivia-type questions about specific games, but I would be interested to hear if there’s anything about that sort of first non-id id game you were working on at the time. What sort of potential did you see it as having or how was it going to be really different for both the company and the landscape of games at that time?
I don't remember as much of Graeme’s game as perhaps I should. There was a lot of drama going on in the company around that time, including demoing Team Arena at E3, team members being distracted away from Team Arena by Carmack’s new tech, Paul Steed being terminated and then not long after the company moving to new offices. From what I do remember, gameplay would have been more like the Final Fantasy games of the time -- VII and VIII. Not a first-person point of view. A very dark and eclectic world. Perhaps a nexus-like meeting of worlds. Graeme Devine is a passionate storyteller and this game would have been about story and people. He essentially brought that style of game making to Ensemble Studios after id as the lead designer on the game that eventually became Halo Wars.
You mentioned your shift into community development. I saw that, I think, on your LinkedIn, too, that you were doing a lot of interacting with the community.
You said that you had two stories?
That's the first one.
Before we get to the other one, what was interacting with the community at that time versus interacting with the community now -- you mentioned before you're not very active on Twitter, but what's one of the main ways that you noticed the community around games shifted or changed since that time of Quake II in 1997 to 2015?
I feel it's become a little bit more disrespectful. It's basically -- what is it? Familiarity breeds contempt. When people from id were online on the forums, there were a couple of us who participated regularly. It ended up finally just being primarily me working with -- Quake III World was the vehicle we communicated a lot of stuff out to the world through. And I ended up being not just a moderator but a behind-the-scenes coordinator on it as well. And when we were dealing with people, sure, we had a few jerks on there. They were cranky. But there wasn't a one of them that would have thought to actually physically threaten a moderator or to threaten sexual activity against them. That just wouldn't have happened.
"Disrespectful" would be the polite way of putting it. But the audience wasn't quite that way if we're talking a decade, maybe two decades ago.
The common response to reflecting back that far and drawing that conclusion is, "Oh, you're just having rose-tinted glasses." The thing I'll point to is, like, I don't remember people into videogames calling the SWAT team. Even if it wasn't possible in areas, people weren't trying to do stuff like that.
No. I mean, we would have disrespectful people. We would have people who caused problems. And generally the way -- if it became serious, we would have a moderator team IRC chat figure out what level of punishment was deserved. And usually it would be disabling contact on the forums for a week to a few weeks.
And then we'd usually let them back unless they were complete and utter jerks. But, you know, we just didn't have that degree of meanness.
I remember last year just rooting around -- I don't spend every waking hour thinking about Doom and id Software.
But I found, like, the readme file from the demo.
And there was just a direct phone number in it to Texas that you could just call if you had questions.
Well, for a while, back when the original Doom was released, id actually did maintain a user-help customer service line. In fact, if I remember correctly -- I could be mis-remembering a little bit -- the designer, American McGee, that's how he got started with id. It was in that role. He basically was id's customer service line for a while, or participated in that.
Do you remember any horror stories? I mean, a lot of videogames get a bad rap but shooters do get singled out. I think they're problematic as far as their prevalence.
But I think you know what I'm asking.
Yeah, no, I don't remember. When I worked there, he and I weren't close. That's the best way to put it.
Fair. But where do you think this ownership and disrespect and antagonism from parts of the audience comes from?
Oddly enough, I think it's voice chat.
[Laughs.] I mean, I don't feel like antagonizing you right now. Do you?
No, but we're also not running around trying to blow the crap out of each other with pretend weapons and then feeling we got cheated or lagged out by something or that somebody's using a bot. That would be another problem. [Laughs.]
I would have a problem if you were using a bot in an interview.
Well -- I better go turn that off.
Yeah, thank you.
Were those the first games that connected people in that way?
I think it was with the shooters. I think at the time, like, when the Xbox Live stuff rolled around was when it really started getting going. You know, it came with a headset. It encouraged voice chat.
Maybe I just remember the early days of Doom, with deathmatch, there was just, like -- you could just type to other people.
Yeah. And usually if you were playing, like -- early on, there wasn't really convenient internet access. People had to set up, basically, custom servers and there were services that provided that. But usually you LAN played with three or four other people because you could only get four people in the game. So you LAN played there at the office or you had a LAN party -- there's an old word. [Laughs.] And you cursed and you screamed and then you went and got pizza together and you went back and you cursed and screamed some more.
You understood everything within the context of a conversation with other people you knew personally and were playing with.
So that's the hardware side of things. But what do you think about the human aspect of it? Like, where have people sort of glommed onto that screaming and yelling, even outside of the game, at people they don't know?
I mean, there has been -- there's another side of it. One of the things that I understood about gamers when we were making the Quake series was that gamers are conservatives, just not in a political sense. When you make the next version of a game, they want it to be exactly like that perfect memory they had of a previous numbered version of the game, but only somehow better and they're not certain what that "better" is. But every time we issued, like, when we shipped Quake II, there was this vocal contingent that was just angry that it wasn't fast like Quake.
And then when we turned around, and we shipped Quake III, there's this vocal, angry contingent that was mad that it was not slow and thoughtful like Quake II. [Laughs.] So you take that sort of over onto the political side of things and you, you know, it's not a political conservatism. It's a form of conservatism: Don't change things.
But you take that, the political side, then, is you have a growing prevalence of a political conservatism in the US and when you look at a lot of these angry men’s groups that are causing problems online, you can trace them back to almost the same route, kind of through this whole FOX News conservatism, talk radio that got going in the late '90s, and unfortunately -- and I will say this -- you can find links for most groups all the way back through white supremacism. So, it's this angry political "I've got mine, you're threatening my well-being by existing" kind of thing. You know, it was part of the whole anger at women who are making commentary about games about a year ago, who suggested that the casual sexism in games was detrimental. Well, suddenly, you had a response to that of all these people who were angry that their game -- whatever game it was -- was going to be taken away because somebody was talking about no violence or no overt sexism in the game and so on.
Was there ever a talk at id about a concern of "overdoing" it on the violence or imparting certain values like what you were talking about? Not that I'm drawing a line between Doom at all and certain behaviors in players, but I do wonder about how game companies think about this stuff -- or if they ever do, and self-correct out of a feeling of responsibility or empathy? Like, yeah, these are entertainment products, but I guess certain things have been broadcast to parts of the audience without saying this isn't how they felt or didn't want people to take cues from.
I remember talking about it, but it hit somewhat deaf ears with my coworkers. From a few conversations that I had I came away with a sense from some of the younger guys that they were creating stuff that they knew would annoy their more socially conservative parents. I was never comfortable with extreme levels of gore -- at the time I saw the whole “explode into gibs” things as cartoon violence. Nor did I really like all the Satanic-feeling symbology in some of the games and didn’t include those images in my own levels. The events at the Columbine, Colorado high school while we were working on
Quake 3 were sobering, and I did have to think about what impact our games had on fans. I made a point to advise fans not to use their school layouts as game maps, despite them being obvious and familiar possibilities for deathmatch play.
When the Mortal Kombat stuff was happening in the '90s --
[Laughs.] They were there, but they were outside of the gaming hobby. It's the same monstering -- the game industry at that time became the target du jour of those conservative elements who raised funds by creating monsters that must be slain. And you can go backwards through history, you get people of color, you get jazz music, you get rock 'n' roll, comic books in the '50s, eventually Dungeons & Dragons, videogames, now it's gay people, now transgender people. Every one of these: They must be stopped to save America. Keep those checks and money orders rolling in.
Do I sound cynical about certain aspects of the politics? [Laughs.]
No, you sound pretty reasonable.
But I guess that should tell you something about how cynical I must seem to other people.
Well, so, I suspect you may be like me in that you have good cause to be cynical. What was this story? I assume you were saving the worst for last?
It is in a sense, because it actually wasted a greater part of my life. It's more recent.
After id Software, I went to work for Ensemble Studios. It was a Microsoft studio. Produced several great games there. Very happy about the work that we did there. Disappointed that due to some shenanigans -- that's the best way I can call it, "shenanigans" -- in my own company, or in the studio: Microsoft decided to shut the studio down.
And they decided that because they didn't really know who was really responsible for it or who was on the inside of it, they let us all go. So, they shut down the studio in 2009 after we shipped Halo Wars on the Xbox 360. Which, by the way, we knew four months before we finished the game that we were gonna be shut down. We made a decision at that point: "Well, we could kinda half-ass finish it or we could make a game so darn good that it will be embarrassing to Microsoft to have to say, 'Yeah, we shut the studio down that did this.'"
We did the latter. [Laughs.]
That's probably smart in the long run.
Yeah. So, I went from there, about eight months later, seven months later, I ended up at CCP in Atlanta. This is the studio that used to be the role-playing game company, White Wolf. They had merged with CCP, the company that makes Eve Online. So, what they hired me in to do was to be a level designer, because I had been doing level design and world development on every single project since id Software. That was kind of where I was at.
They hired me in to be a senior level designer on the World of Darkness, which, for explanation, was an MMO version of White Wolf's popular but aging Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game or live-action game, however you ended up playing it. So, when I joined the team, the companies had been merged together for about three years. They had been working on, since that time, with a few breaks, the World of Darkness MMO. They had just finished a milestone in which they created a working version of the game to a certain point. A prototype version. When I came in, they were in a break time and we started in developing the next stage of it.
We would do this, finish a stage, and then pretty much damn near throw everything away at least two more times while I was there, even after the time I left. So, we were trying to develop this game world. My responsibility was designing the overall game world, the zones, the districts -- however you want to phrase it -- and running the teams that did that. I had alternating teams of about six to 10 people of mixed disciplines working with me, artists and writers primarily.
We kept working forward. We fleshed everything out. We started doing individual development on areas. And all the while, the company is using Eve to generate income and is developing a second large-scale project called Dust 514, which shipped about two, three years ago.
People running the Eve project made some crucially stupid decisions about the project that ended up losing subscribers instead of gaining some. And then they were throwing all this money at the Shanghai studio to make Dust. Well, they decided they were over-committed at that point and they did a 20 percent layoff of the entire company worldwide. Studios in Shanghai, Atlanta, Manchester, England, and Reykjavík, Iceland -- the home country, the home office. But fifty percent of those cuts came in the Atlanta studio. A lion's share of the people let go were the content people who worked on my team.
So, suddenly I went from running a content team to pretty much having nothing to do. And this came out of the blue as far as I was concerned. I was blindsided by it.
So, I continued, but at that point I lost heart in the project and tried to keep working on it but I had lost heart, and about nine months later, I left the company on my own. In that time, the man who hired me in, my boss -- I had been promoted to lead level designer by that point -- the guy who hired me in was now director of level design, working on all the company projects. About three months after that, he just up and quit. He reached his "I'm fed up" point. So, a new manager came in over me and in a kind of classic style, he decided to throw everything out and start redesigning things.
So, my work for three years -- by two and a half years by that point, was pretty much a moot point. Nobody I worked with was on the team anymore, all the work that my teams had done was being shelved, and I knew how that was going to be treated. You don't look at them again in that company. So, time came. My lease ended on my apartment and I moved west for a brighter and newer uncertain futures. Within a year, a good share of the rest of the team was let go. Within two years, they shut down that aspect of the studio and shut the project down.
Something I've been increasingly fixated on in the course of doing this is perhaps one of the least sexy parts of making videogames.
Do employees at videogames -- can you sue, or is that a mark on your record and no one will ever want to hire you anymore?
Depends on why you feel the need to sue. If you're just being laid off because your managers were stupid, you have no recourse. Managers are stupid in every industry.
It seems like project management is either a joke or something that people are still grappling with. Granted, I understand these are complicated projects. But some of this stuff, it just sounds like incompetence or shortsightedness.
Yes! [Laughs.] Let me go to the top level: The people running the company at the highest level were the people who got lucky with Eve. Eve, at the time, was the second largest western MMO as far as income and players.
So, it's been going on for a long time now. Not quite as long as some of its competitors, but it's maintained success and growth over a long period of time. Plus, you know, maintains success, retention, and growth. They've kept it fresh. It's not the same game that it was when they started. But they made the mistake in thinking they could transfer that luck that they had to developing a new property that was not a space game. These guys -- it's basically they had called down the thunder once and they thought it was something they did. That's the best way to put it.
What is that, the sharpshooter fallacy?
Is that common in the games industry?
Yes and no. I've been working in videogames since the early '80s and I worked for a toy company first. It was a toy company on the east coast. They were a toy company that was a smaller toy company and they were mostly successful because they'd see other companies succeed at something and they'd jump in and say, "Me too!" So, this is how -- they pick up toy lines that other companies had failed at. Do you remember the Big Wheels? You would have been a kid then.
Do you remember the Big Wheels? The big plastic Big Wheels? They bought the molds for that and they figured out the way to keep that alive, the product line, for years by putting other brands on them. There was a freaking Dungeons & Dragons Big Wheel.
Okay? [Laughs.] So, they figured that out, but they also did the same thing with videogames. But they got in -- they saw a product, the Atari 2600, and the Intellivision, they saw what looked like Atari and Mattel minting money. So, they made their own version. The problem is they got into it and they realized, "Wait, the way the Atari runs uses a 4K ROM chip, at most. The minimum Colecovision cartridge is, like, 8 to 16, more like 24K because of the way the graphics were handled." And in 1982, '83 terms, making ROM chips was expensive. So, their costs were higher so they didn't make as much money and then they jumped on it the same time that the industry tanked.
But at the same time, a lot of the game companies that came afterwards, you get -- id Software was a pretty classic example. You get a game company founded by some very creative, very talented young men who were talented at making game product. They knew how to make fun games. You know, Romero and Carmack working together and then bringing in some of the other guys. But when got into it, starting long-term -- one, they burned through a lot of their ideas. They weren't good production managers. They were basically -- the owners were forced into those production roles. So, it would be for years until the company actually brought in some professional managers and business people that they actually started making real money in the mid-'90s.
That still goes on. We kind of anticipated that when we started our company. We're a very small team, and everyone has hands-on experience making games at some level, whether it's programming, art, QA, a producer. But the lion's share of our company is business people. The core. Because we understood that to be successful, we had to run as a business first and then make games. Our means for running that business was to make games, not to make games and, "Oh my gosh, I hope we're successful."
[Laughs.] But why does this keep happening? Like, down the line, shouldn't there be meaningful advancements being made in project management in games? It's hard to imagine or even understand what goes wrong and how if you don't make videogames, but from where you sit: What's the main thing about project management in videogames that needs to change?
I have to believe that “dog memory” comes into play. People forget the last beating -- at least until they come away with PTSD from working in the industry and that never goes away.What needs to change about project management is realistic evaluation of the challenges, realistically estimating the amount of effort and budget needed to overcome them and the amount of sizzle and polish necessary to make a fun, playable game into one that excites the marketplace enough to pay for it.One thing that we find is still lacking is communication and the expectation that somewhere in the past 30 years we’ve found the magic formula that creates gourmet chicken salad, overnight, for the price of chickenshit.
Do game companies give employees severance?
Some do. Your mileage may vary. [Laughs.] It's really gonna depend on the company. A good company will keep -- will basically determine their ability to keep employees on by having the last payment for everyone.
So, if you've got 10 employees on and your bankroll says, "Okay, barring a miracle, we can't make payroll after this, we have just enough money in the in the bank to shut down the company, give everyone a couple weeks' severance, retire our debts, and we're done."
Good companies do that. Other companies will just run so tight to the wire -- let's say 38 Studios. It looks like it should have been a good company. It had a lot of funding. And yet, suddenly people found out that their health care wasn't covered. They found out that their moving expenses weren't being paid. And then suddenly they were all let go without a nickel.
When Ensemble closed us down, we got a very reasonable severance. It was based on our amount of time and service, remaining vacation days, etc., etc. It was a very good severance. When my wife was let go from Sony, she got a very good severance. But that's not always true.
Yeah. And you're talking about Microsoft and Sony.
Right. I know. We're talking about Microsoft and Sony.
But well-run companies will think in advance on that. They won't try and spend the last nickel before it's all gone. I mean, a couple of the guys we have working with us right now were working for a small developer and they basically knew about three months in advance that their employer was not going to have any more money to cover them you know, after, I think it was May first. So, we were working to make sure that we could bring them on at that point because they just got a little bit of severance and then they were done.
How does the game industry learn from its mistakes? Usually people just laugh at that question. [Laughs.]
Oh my. Can I laugh at that question?
I'm not certain, because a lot of the game industry -- aspects of the game industry still run on that "next hit record." They're looking for that next hit. Now, this is even going back and the music industry doesn't even have that anymore.
The toy industry did. When I was at Coleco, they kept hoping that they would have Barbie show up, basically. There would be a Barbie toy that would fund the company forever. They thought they had that in Cabbage Patch Kids. But that ended up being one of the things that killed the company instead.
Learning from mistakes. The thing is a lot of the time is they don't see it because a lot of times the same people who end up creating these companies, they become serial offenders. I won't name names, but I will say someone fairly well known in the game industry started a company. He was basically asked to leave that company. So he started another company with some other people who had been asked to leave their companies. Their company failed spectacularly. All these people then went on to form other companies which got other people's money and then failed. So, to the point that it's finally taken, I'm gonna say 15 years, almost 20 years, for some of these people where no one will trust them with money again. These are people who, "Wow!" you say. "That guy's pretty good at what he did. Why not?" [Laughs.]
Yeah. That's a really long runway, though.
Yeah. A lot of time it is based on the cult of the personality. Even in Hollywood, you go with, "Oh, this producer, he's great. He can print money. This director. Most everything he does is successful." Sometimes it takes a number of times to realize that, "No, most everything he does is a failure. He just got lucky once." Say, M. Night Shyamalan. [Laughs.] He did a couple of amazing pieces, and then everything else, it's been like, "Okay, I'm not gonna waste money on that until it goes on TV."
What's the lesson there?
Anyone can get lucky at a couple of things. So, but, what can the game industry do better?
I'm kinda thinking that one of the things that it can do better is -- God, how do I want to phrase this? One: Make sure if you're running the business that you have someone involved who understands how to run a business. The other is to don't base your projections on wild success, base it on barely being able to make payroll every month.
One of the things to do is when you succeed is to understand why it was you succeeded. Spend as much effort on understanding what you did right or how luck played into it or what factors were the accidentals and then assume that you're gonna have to have that come together again in order for lightning to strike.
The other thing is to always have the people on staff be the right people at the time in your company. Nolan Bushnell, he's famous in the game industry and even in tech for starting small companies. He created the Atari 2600 -- Atari, the company. He did Chuck E. Cheese. He's done a number of other ventures. But the thing was he was good at was starting businesses and then he got out. Running businesses wasn't his strength. And that's kind of the way with a lot of small studios -- they're good at starting things. They're not good at keeping it going. By that point, you need to bring in -- you basically, unfortunately, bring the suits in to a degree, to keep the money flowing.
Talking about project management, I was talking to someone who used to be at Konami. They left before all this weirdness. He was explaining to me about how E3 can sneak up on developers, on publishers, on marketers for deciding to show and what to show. We were emailing a bit about the notion that the people who market videogames also don't understand how games are made and as he said, "They frequently refuse to learn more about it." Have you ever had any run-ins with that?
Oh my. [Laughs.]
We had that problem going back to Colecovision cartridge days. We understood -- by the time we got going, we understood that our life cycle on a project almost regardless of size was going to be nine months. We would get an arcade in or some piece of software in that we could continue to develop. We would go through the production, the art process, the approvals, into manufacturing, and then sell it. And usually invariably it took nine months. And I could usually have one designer handling three of these.
Because they'd be at different stages. But a lot of times, we would talk with our marketing people and our sales people and they just wouldn't understand it. They wouldn't understand the process. They wouldn't understand pixel colors. We had -- there was a famous interaction we had when we got the Smurf license for the videogame. We had three colors of blue, if I remember. Maybe it was only two. We had three reds and I think two blues that we could use on the TI color chip. So we made our decisions based on that.
The people, Peyo -- the people who were licensing The Smurfs to us, came back to us with a Pantone sheet and said, "You need to match this blue." And we had to explain to them, "We can't do that." [Laughs.]
Was that a thing where you explained it and they said, "Well, just do it anyway?"
Yeah, well, no. I don't know how -- I wasn't privy to that part of the conversation. [Laughs.]
I could tell this was going to be a story about the color blue, though.
[Laughs.] It was, "Okay, we can do anything we want but we can't make it that color blue." Same thing with the Tarzan estate, Edgar Rice Burroughs' estate, when we were designing a game based on -- to be marketed in conjunction with the Tarzan movie that came out in the mid-'80s. We had it explained quite clearly to us that Tarzan never dies. However it ends, Tarzan cannot die.
So, you know, you got people coming in and saying, "These things have to be in the game." It was little things like that or -- this one broke my heart. We were getting near the end of the life cycle on the Colecovision. We had an arcade game called Victory. We had done a reasonably faithful execution of it on a Colecovision cartridge. It went through all the development cycles and the QA cycle. We made the master EPROMs, the ROMs we would send over to Asia to master. It was all approved, sent out. You weren't sending data. You were sending physical things.
This was 1983, '84, '85. We were sending physical things. So, the game comes back and the designer working on it looks at it and says, "This is broken. This isn't what we sent." I mean, it still functioned, which made people think that it was usable. But the game was not the game that we made. It was broken. They still shipped it.
And then we would get people wanting to shorten development cycles. Or the idea -- you've heard this one -- it's called the "nine mothers' theory," and people still try to apply it today. It's that, "Well, if we just put more people on the team it'll go faster." That kind of thinking has lead to the big team developments of the late '90s, early 2000 where if you just keep throwing more talent against it, brute force, you will ship the game faster. It really never works that way.
You talk about how it's necessary to have a group of people called "the suits" involved and they are often derided and blamed for a lot, but how have they helped?
They generally aren't involved in the creative process. In fact, if you can keep them away from the creative process -- unless they're gamers themselves. One of the things about working both at id and Ensemble and a number of other companies is that our senior management were also gamers. So they at least had an understanding and passion for the product we were making. That wasn't true at Coleco. If you got above -- our studio level at Microsoft, it wasn't necessarily true, although usually the studio managers, the general managers we worked for were also gamers. After the fact, I know socially two of the guys at Microsoft who at one time were my big bosses, the general managers at Microsoft Game Studios. The funny thing is I discovered later that one was also one of my fans. [Laughs.] When we got together over breakfast, he was just as excited to meet me as any other person. And I worked for him at one time.
Generally, you really do need somebody counting the beans reminding you that when we're all said and done, this piece of artwork that we're making also needs to stay under budget.
It sounds like just working on videogames, they are sort of amorphous projects that grow and shift and can suddenly turn sharp corners. And I understand that they're very hard to plan for, but the bean counters, how do they help plan for something that sounds essentially very hard to and is getting increasingly more expensive to plan for?
The thing is is actually unless you're doing R&D -- research and development -- you have a rough idea of how much money and how many people should be required to do a particular project. There is some amorphous in there, but we're not talking, like -- it shouldn't be, like, more than 10 to 15 percent variants. Because you should know that, "Well, okay, to do this project, I need this number of artists, this number of programmers with these specialties. We need a manager to manage these artists. We need a couple producers to handle asset management and scheduling and QA." So, these end up being fairly known facts and you can cut corners around them but unless you get into something and you just had people making bogus estimations -- let's say, like, one of the Star Wars MMOs. It only succeeded because EA came in and just threw more money at it and more brute-force people at it than it would ever make back. But they did produce it. And sometimes, like I said, when projects get that large they can get out of scale.
You mentioned, regardless of scale and scope, there's 10 to 15 percent variants. I mean, you just said that, but who actually makes the creative decisions, then, on those variants?
Usually you've got design leads and usually they're doing it. Design, engineering leads and they're usually looking at both, well, risk factor compared to how long this is gonna take and what kind of return we'll get from it. I've worked on some fairly large RTSes. The Age of Empires series. And we would get into it and we had pie in the sky ideas for some great features in it. But as we got into it, we realized that, "Okay, making these features work is more work than we thought it was gonna be." And at that point, they make a decision to cut it even though a lot of time and energy was put into it.
I can't say the details, but we've been working with a client just the past few months putting our most talented engineers on the facet of the project. We get to this point and the client says, "Okay, we don't think that's gonna work for us. We're gonna turn that part of the project off." Even though it's really -- from our standpoint, it would have been a differentiation. It's their project. It's their money.
Some of where I think the antagonism comes from in the audience for games is them not understanding how games are made. I understand they don't need to understand every part of the process, but I often find even broaching this subject with people in the industry there's a very broad assertion that, "Well, they don't need to know any of it."
Like I say, from my standpoint, making games -- once you understand a lot about making games, you can't look at anything without deconstructing it. That's from my point as a game-maker. A lot of times, as developers, as publishers, we over-promise. Case in point was -- I think it was Aliens: Colonial Marines, from Gearbox. What they showed originally was exciting and awesome. What they eventually delivered was far less than that and never felt right.
In fact, to be my honest, my stepson gets mad at my wife and I for even having relationships of any sort with Gearbox because he's so upset about Colonial Marines. [Laughs.]
Is he joking?
No, he's not joking. Maybe half-joking. Still, he's very invested in that IP and it was very disappointing to him that they failed to deliver the product as promised. And we see that a lot. When we were working Halo Wars, the project we first thought we were going to make ended up being a far cry from what we eventually shipped. Both were good projects, but they were different.
Do you think there's something to that? The lack of transparency, that, if people understood a little bit more about why these things shift or how they come together they would be less angry? Or do you think they'd just be angry about something else?
I don't know. I think part of the problem is everything's been raising the bar so high that if we're not basically watching a movie on your videogame these days, people expect that you didn't do something right. Something of movie-level quality. And for those of us in the industry, boy, I don't think people understand the amount of work that goes into every aspect that they see on that screen.
When we made the jump from Quake III to Doom, to the Doom technology which, from what would now be considered very low-resolution graphic characters and painted surfaces on everything to the per-pixel lighting of the Doom 3 engine and similar engines like Unreal 4, or the Cry engine. The jump in difficulty of making those assets and the amount of man-hours that had to go into those assets jumped by at least two orders of magnitude.
And I don't even think the people making the games realized that was gonna happen. I could see it coming. When you have to make this many layers to go in your art and your models have to be this much more complex, it's gonna take time to do that. And if you're trying to run it with a small studio like id was at the time -- we were about 15, 16 people by that time -- it's gonna take a very long time to do it. There's gonna be no shortcut. It just requires man hours. So, instead, what we've done is we've shifted all that off to people who make less money per hour than we do in the Far East, Indonesia, India, Eastern Europe, Russia. You know? [Sighs.] We've done it at cost. We've off-shored that part of our industry.
I've heard that a lot of those choices are made triangulating on countries that have different rules and regulations on overtime.
Is there any insight you can share?
I don't know about overtime. I do know if you want to do things more cheaply, we end up having to outsource overseas. Let's just say you have to do that, particularly for this density of high-resolution content. And you save money that way. But sometimes you can also sacrifice quality because you're suddenly not having it done by people who have their finger on top of the art at every moment.
Have you ever heard any anecdotes of other countries exploiting workers to help make videogames quicker or in an attempt to stay under budget?
I don’t have much, if any insight on that. From what I’ve heard is some off-shore studios are not that much different from US studios. Devs work long hours as much out of passion as for deadlines, but nothing particularly abusive-- or at least outside the norm of traditional industry abuse.
What do you think the game industry could be doing to help improve the industry?
You mean from the outside, the journalists, whatever?
Okay, people outside the game-production side. Wow. I think it would be awesome -- I don't know how they would approach this because a lot of companies might not appreciate having their brands diffused by focusing on the people making the games, but do things where we see people who make games as people.
[Laughs.] You're describing what I'm doing.
Kind of like that. And I wasn't even thinking this, I was just thinking: Oh, let's see. Rather than see all the gloss that goes into a movie and focus on the movie stars, what if we were more talking about the guy who did the special effects? Because they're as bad off as the game industry sometimes. The whole special industry effects industry is being moved out of the U.S. for the same reason that I was talking about offshoring art.
But the idea -- let's focus on the people who make the games more and less on the brand name and on the publisher because, sure, the publisher is going to make decisions that make you angry about the direction of the game or a title, but it really comes down that there's somebody in the middle of that chain who's making a model or rigging that model or figuring out the weighting of a weapon or a car or something who's the real person who makes that game come alive for you. There's so many of them now, this industry is fairly huge that we just don't know them. Humanize the game industry by focusing on the people in it.
What do you think will hypothetically be the net good of something like that being done?
I don't know, because it's balanced against people who are trying to collect information on game-makers to doxx them or SWAT them.
I mean, I know people here -- I know people locally who have had to call their local police departments say, "I want you to know that this could happen. We could get swatted because people are angry about this." And they kinda hear back from the police department, "Oh, we're handling a call about that right now." So, there is that risk.
How do you deal with industry burnout?
I've actually been through it several times. I have burned out. What I've often done is change what I do. I have that ability. There are a lot of people who are complete specialists. I tend to be more of a generalist in things.
An example would be in the late '80s, I was doing writing for the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG. Writing adventures, writing rules contents, and I hit a wall. In that wall, I worked really hard on a project. [Laughs.] The project I was working on specifically got canceled out of where it was supposed to go. It was a large rules chapter in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons second edition book. I finished the project and I burned out on it. And I burned out so badly that I couldn't do it anymore. And then to combine that, I also realized that when I was trying to write game adventures, I was imitating myself. I wasn't creating anything fresh. So, at that point I really just shifted over and started doing more artwork.
And I did more artwork and then I ended up shifting over and working in computer games for a while. Worked for EA for a couple years as a contractor and then got bounced out because the project I was working on got canceled. In that case, it was Bard's Tale IV. So then I shifted back to doing painting full-time. That lead me into doing cover paintings for TSR on staff. And I was there about two years and I realized that, "You know, I'm really getting tired and I'm getting burned out on this constant cycle of starting a new painting, finish it, starting a new painting, finish it." And I shifted over into management briefly. Very briefly. About six months.
Went back to doing artwork after I realized I sucked at management -- still. Again. I had been a manager at Coleco as well. And then I was back at doing painting and artwork and then, again, it was getting tiring. Bored. That's when I shifted into videogames again with id Software.
That's where we started.
Yeah, I think so. The word is on what I do? I reinvent. I can do it in three words: I reinvent myself.
What's weird to you about the games business specifically?
[Sighs.] Oh, goodness. What's weird? I will make one point. I've not worked in any other industry. At least, not full-time. It tends to attract and nurture unusual and even difficult personalities. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You're being diplomatic.
I mean, I had a boss at Coleco for years afterwards -- and now understand it as being PTSD, but he would be the boogeyman in my nightmares. And he was tolerated. He was a vice president.
What's one thing you thought would never change in all your time in the game industry that did eventually change?
Let me think here. I'd say one thing coming from the side of publishing books was that basically the book-publishing market would go away as we understand it. 'Cause that's how I got into a lot of things was going through book stores. Books for games and for reading and they've literally just gone away.
The other is, God, and I kinda love this: How we send money around. [Laughs.] Thirty-some years ago I would have never even considered the idea of working with a developer in Australia. Now we're trying to figure out, "Well, what's the easiest way to pay her?" [Laughs.] PayPal! Okay.
What's something you always figured would have changed but hasn't?
I would say, at least from an outside perception -- and it's really perception -- is that games are for kids. I mean, it has actually changed, but the perception is that games are still for kids.
What's something you wish would change next week in videogames? Or tomorrow. Why wait?
Yeah. Why wait 'til next week? Wow. What I would really love is for that -- it's the equality dream. I would like not to be worrying about games being reviewed poorly because they're not made by guys.
Was that a concern before last year?
A little bit, but not as much. 'Cause the interesting thing was -- the industry is actually less accepting of that than it was when I got into games in the early '80s. My Coleco studio was more diverse than the average game studio of a similar size these days.
You know, we've had people commenting about our announcements about games, about the diversity aspects of our company in a negative way. I would like not to have to worry that who the people I have working on the game will affect the acceptance of the game.
You mentioned in our emails that "fun is hell." Can you tell me about that?
Oh. [Laughs.] Okay. That goes back to the Coleco days. Lawrence Schick, who is currently a loremaster of the Elder Scrolls Online for ZeniMax Online, at the time, when I got to know him, he was my senior game designer at Coleco. So, I've known him since even before Coleco. In making the games that people really enjoyed at Coleco, we went through a lot of hell with the people we worked for. It was really hell at times, with a lot of unnecessary stress. We would get together on Friday nights to play role-playing games to blow off steam against our bosses.
I wonder how many videogames are just that playing itself out.
[Laughs.] Not in videogames so much, but in other games, I have written in former employers into the villain roles. [Laughs.]
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Games have normalized technology in our homes, our living rooms, and our lives and turned play into meaningful social interaction. They’ve given us the ability to make that social interaction global, with a common language based around games. In the late ‘90s, my family was playing online MMOs Like Diablo, and Ultima Online with friends in Europe. They have driven the technology that supports them. 3D video cards would probably not be as refined as they are if games had not driven their development.