Jesse Schell

My name is Jesse Schell. I am 45 years old. I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In terms of experience with the game industry, wow. Let's see. I started making games as an amateur in probably 1982 and started professionally probably about 1995. I had a lot of experience initially in The Walt Disney Company, I was in the Disney virtual reality studio working on DisneyQuest and other interactive theme park experiences. I was the lead designer on Toontown Online, which was one of the first MMOs for kids.

Then in 2002 I started teaching at Carnegie Mellon and I started Schell Games in Pittsburgh here, which initially was just me and then I took on a few staff and over the last 10, 12 years we've grown into a staff of about 100 people and we've developed about 30 games over that time.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your experience with games academia. Do you get a sense that games academia is siloed from bigger game companies and the industry? Like, is there a lot of communication between them?

[Pause.] There is some communication. So, it all depends on what you mean by games academia. I would divide games academia into two categories. I would say there is, call it, professional education. So, education for the purpose of going in the industry. And then there is the more kind of PhD research, game studies kind of academia. I would say I think the professional education is fairly connected to and has fairly good communication with the industry and the sort of PhD level tends to have much less strong connectivity to industry.

Yeah. That's the sense I've gotten, too. Is that unusual for industries? Like, for Boeing or car-makers or whoever, people are ostensibly solving the same problems and the same design problems, do you know if they reach out to the more research-driven or PhD-driven sectors of the same work?

It all depends. I mean, part of the whole job of academia is to be separate from industry.

[Laughs.] This is true.

In some sense, it makes sense for them to be separate. It's also usually the job of academia to be both reflection-oriented and future-oriented. Neither of which are things that industry has much patience for.


And so it depends. I think you've got industries that are just naturally reflective when it comes to process and are future-oriented, and then you have ones that are less so. So I don't look at it and say, "Well, this is really weird, the relationship between other industries and academia." It seems about normal, especially given the fact that games industry changes very fast and very radically. Academia, because of its reflexive nature, tends to change less fast and less radically. So, it is a little hard for these two things to stay in touch with each other.

If the game industry has access to incredible technology and you say they are able to move very fast, why do you think that so much of their output is still shooting galleries or sports games and driving sims?

Well, because those work. [Pause.] I mean, the whole idea is about making stuff that sells. So, they make stuff that sells. Those things sell. If those things stop selling, they'd stop making them tomorrow.

Just that simple?

It's just that simple, man. [Laughs.]


It's logic. It's what the market will bear 100 percent. It's not that people don't try crazy stuff. People try crazy stuff all over the place. Most of it doesn't work because people don't want crazy stuff mostly. They want some crazy things, but you don't know which ones.

So when we try crazy stuff, you know you're taking a big risk but, you know, how many versions of Doom can we make? Apparently quite a few.

I think we're finding out.

Yeah. [Laughs.] And you keep thinking, "Well, people will get sick of this soon." Well, yeah, no. No, not really. It's like, "How many love songs can you write?" Quite a few. We haven't had a year yet where the world has said, "Yeah, no love songs on the top 20 this year. We've had enough of those." No. I think people like what they like. That's all.

What are the crazy things you feel like you've seen the industry try even if they didn't ultimately work out?

Oh my God. Crazy? Okay. Sure. So, Electronic Arts spending $40 million on Majestic. Do you remember that?

I do.

I mean, we're talking about EA. EA is not known for really crazy moves and they certainly did that. Or think about Spore. That was a pretty crazy one for them to do. That was pretty far out there.


I certainly would argue that Microsoft took a big risk putting the Kinect out. Same thing, Sony with the PlayStation Move. Those were kind of weird kind of experimental things to try. There's a lot of -- you know, people try a lot of experiments. Some of them stick and some of them don't.

Are there types of crazy risks or things you'd like to see more of from that space?

Oh, boy. I don't know. I feel like people try weird experiments everyday. It's always exciting to see the new experiments. One of the things that's really blown that up is it used to be if you were gonna sell, you had to sell it through the retail space. Now you can sell on the download space and that has vastly increased the innovation. because people have been able to try kooky things like -- I don't know, a Journey or, God. There's so many crazy things that you wouldn't try if you had to sell it in a $40 package for retail. So, yeah, I don't know. I almost feel like we're sort of overwhelmed by innovation at this point.

I did want to mention, and maybe you can talk a bit about your book on game design, but how do you feel game design in the medium has changed since it's started to be codified?

Yeah, I mean people now have better rules of thumb and we have a little more language for talking about it.


One of the things that's good now is just game production in general is less sloppy. It used to be everything was always late all the time and every project was a terrible risk. And that's less true now, which I think is good. Now that we have better process, it allows for more opportunity for experimentation and a greater chance that your crazy experiment, you're gonna find a way to get it shipped and out the door. So, I do think that better production process has been a great help that way.

The other thing is I think it's allowed for larger, what I call more symphonic games to get created. When everybody's flopping, you don't know what you're doing and you can only make games of a certain size before the whole thing just collapses in on itself. Things like, say, GTA3 was a real step forward in this regard and/or the Uncharted games or Last of Us. Like, these are games that have many, many people working on them, have very bold, strong vision and are able to reach it and achieve it because of a combination of strong vision, excellent grasp of design principles, and rigorous production practices. You weren't able to get these sort of big, high-quality symphonic games done even 10 years previous. So, that's certainly a big change in that way.

I think the other thing that's helped is the fact that now there are more books and guides to game design it's a little less mysterious and it's more accessible to -- it's helped make independent game development much more possible because it's multiplied the number of confident independent game developers, which has allowed for a lot more interesting experimentation.

This might be a weird question to answer, but do you have a sense of how your book impacted that?

It's hard to know for sure. I mean, I certainly hear a lot of anecdotes from individuals who for them, it was the book that kind of gave them an entry into the space and it gave them enough kind of confidence and tools that they could kind of jump in. Whether they would have jumped in four months later anyway, I have no idea. But certainly some people seem to felt its influence and so that's exciting.

I wanted to talk to you a bit about the talk you gave about the Hello Kitty game.

Oh yeah, yeah.

So, I'll just pose the question that you asked: What the hell is wrong with us? You were talking about how even that game, meant for kids -- am I remembering right? Wasn't your daughter crying about it?

Yeah, yeah. No, that's right. Yeah, my daughter, I want to say she was five about then. And I had the idea that, "This will be cool. This will be her first console game. And what could go wrong? Hello Kitty: Roller Rescue. What's the worst that could happen?"


And yeah. No. She definitely -- it started out innocuously enough. You're picking outfits for Hello Kitty and so I watched her do that for about 15, 20 minutes and then I went out of the room to answer the phone and I came back about 10 minutes later and she was in tears because once you kind of picked out all your clothes and your magic wand and you went outside, you were expected to beat all these cute characters to death with your magic wand. That was the whole point and object of the game.


And she was absolutely furious at this notion and she was crying and I came in and she threw the controller on the floor and she looked at me and said, "Hello Kitty doesn't fight!" And I said, "Yeah, kid. How can I argue with that?" That was kind of embarrassing.

So, how did we get to this point?

I think it's just laziness. I mean, games need to have challenges to overcome. We like for them to be emotional challenges. So, emotional challenges usually means overcoming some other character and physical confrontation is the easy way to do that and so there you go.

Now, there's a little bit of an extenuating circumstance with Hello Kitty in that the game was originally created for the Japanese market where Hello Kitty is not strictly viewed as a children's entity. It's a little more of an all-ages IP. But still. That's kind of extreme. But that's kinda just what it comes down to.

I mean, I went through the same stuff. When we created Toontown Online, we very much had a vision that, "Yeah, there'll be some kinda conflict-y fighting stuff, but we don't want everyone to have to go down that path. We want a create a path where you can be creative and express yourself creatively and have that through your, like, path of growth in the game."

And we couldn't make that work at all. And we had a couple of other ideas for non-violent growth paths in the game and they didn't really work. And ultimately, combat is your main kind of quest path through the game because it was the only one that we could really make work given the circumstances and everything in terms of what an MMO requires, we found it necessary. And I think this is the thing that's true in games again and again: The business model drives everything. With the given business models, there's usually a limited number of paths that actually work and are profitable. We certainly can see it in the free-to-play realm right now. Like, we see the energy mechanic and we see match 3's all over the place. It's not just that people are copying each other. It's that people are trying stuff and they're seeing what works. It's sort of shockingly narrow, sometimes, the paths that actually work and can make money. It can be really disturbing. Like, I just played Bullet Train and I'm still creeped out from playing that game.

What creeped you out?

Well, if you'd like to know what it feels like to be a mass murderer in a subway station, that's the game for you. I mean, that's what the game is: You stand in the subway station, you have a gun in each hand, and you try to optimize for how many people can you murder with the gun in each hand. And it's an interesting challenge because we don't typically have a gun -- typically when we play videogames, you have a single point of view. You don't think about, like, "I've got two guns I can point in two different directions." But once you're in virtual reality, everything changes. And the fact that you're actually holding the gun in your hands and then just trying to optimize for how many people can I shoot before they can come and take me away -- it's like, yeah, if I was gonna plan a mass murder, this is how I would rehearse. This is exactly how I would rehearse for it. And that's -- I don't think that's a very good feeling.

Last week, there was that school shooting and I was contacted a major news outlet not to make a comment on the record but they just wanted to talk about the pattern of them happening and people trying to connect dots to videogames. What do you make of that, when media tries to point fingers and make a connection that someone who does a school shooting played videogames?

I don't think it's an unreasonable connection for somebody to make.


I find it highly doubtful that there's a really strong causal -- like, if the kid hadn't played videogames that he never would have tried this. But I certainly don't say, "Well, videogames are certainly preventing this kind of thing." It's absolutely not pushing in the opposite direction. I don't think. And I don't think it's at all unreasonable to suggest that these games, you know, may grease the wheels a little bit of this kind of activity.

And so, I mean, the truth is we don't know and I do find it -- the idea that we live in a culture where it's now the cultural norm for 12 to 14-year-old boys to play these games that are about running through an area shooting down as many people as possible, that we now consider that a completely normal activity as part of our culture, yeah, I certainly find that disturbing. The question of mass shootings is really interesting and we don't have a lot of countries that have this as a persistent problem and I guess that you could argue that we don't, either. That we don't really see it as a problem.


We see it as something that happens, but it never occurs to anyone that maybe we should do something about this. We just kind of observe it and move on. So, I think the whole thing is fairly complicated.

Yeah. I mean, videogames don't exist in a vacuum.


I mean, who knows. It so often comes down to that individual, too.

Yeah. The thing I guess I'd say is that I don't think the problem is so much that these games exist. The problem is that we don't talk about them and that if we act like this is normal, acceptable social behavior. That's probably not great. I mean, most people would agree, I think, that murder is worse than rape. And if you imagine that instead of murdering people in these games, every murder was replaced with a rape, how people would feel about that. And I don't think people would feel very good about that.

There was a thing with Hotline Miami 2, which, I don't know if you're familiar with that series.


But there was a rape scene that turned out to be part of a movie that was being shot that you didn't know until moments later. But people were more upset about there being a simulated rape in the game than all the violence in it.

Right. I think that just says more about us than the game.

That's what I was just about to say.


So what does that say about us, then?

Yeah, I think that we like and encourage brutal violence. I think it's sort of central to our culture. And I guess see games as more an unfortunate reflection of that than so much a cause of it because, again, it's what people and so it's what people buy.


I don't want to talk at length about Gamergate, but I know you've been in the industry for a long time and been a vocal critic of many things. Have you ever had conversations with anyone in the industry or at companies now about whether there were responsibilities that should be taken for the audience that games have been building, as far as how commonplace death and rape threats have become? Or have you not really heard anyone talk about it as something that should be acknowledged publicly?

I get what you're saying, and I guess I look at this way: Gamergate is kind of a terrorist situation fundamentally, right? And so you've got to choose how you're going to deal with terrorists. And it's always a tough choice, right? Because on one level to ignore it makes it seem like you're saying it's not important, but on the other hand to acknowledge it gives the terrorists more power. So this is a difficult choice and a difficult conversation for people. I do think -- I mean, certainly, we've heard a lot about death threats against women in the industry. I mean, I certainly know of many cases where men also received similar kinds of threats and things.

Was this going on in the '80s and '90s as well? Do you have memories of that?

I certainly know of cases where it was happening in the '90s. The '80s I kind of doubt. And again, the anonymity that the internet provided starting in 1993 really changed things. So, in the '80s, it would be way weirder.

It wouldn't surprise me if a few cranks wrote letters. But the problem is now the terrorists can organize. The internet really allows for that. They can organize and they can encourage each other. So one of the problems of internet culture is that you have the worst people in the world can congregate and find a home and reinforce each other and we just have to deal with it, unfortunately.

This happens in other industries, too.

Yeah, I'm sure that in the movie industry -- any place where you're kind of getting mass attention, you're gonna have some amount of this. Now, I think the Gamergate one is strange. I think the part that's peculiar about it is this notion that the Gamergate folks seem to have this perception that there's only a finite amount of games that can be produced. And there was a time where a certain percentage of the industry was the kind of games that they like, and now they see that percentage is now smaller than it used to be -- it's just kind of a goofy, flawed logic. But it's kind of about territory. They feel like there was a territory and somebody's impinged on their territory. So in a sense, we're talking about really, really primal kind of stuff. And if you're talking about individuals who, you know, maybe they've got problems and they have this one refuge in their life and then they feel like their refuge is impinged upon, you can understand why they would go over the edge. There's nothing healthy about it, but you could see how it could happen.

And I think part of what it points to is how central these games sometimes become in people's lives that they get so strongly emotional about them. One area where I'm seeing it is when Disney chose to shut down Toontown Online. I get continuous communication from that community that even though the game was shut down, what, two years ago, are still kind of actively finding ways to try and bringing it back because it means something to them personally. They connect and it resonates with them on a really deep level. And that's a really interesting thing, I think, about about games, that they can be that powerful.

Where do you stand on the edutainment brand for educational games?

Right. Well, about two-thirds of the games I've produced are education or transformation games. And I guess I feel like there's tremendous power for games to serve educational and transformational purposes. The word "edutainment" has all this kinda funky baggage with it.

Yeah. Yeah.

Because people tried a lot of experiments back in the '80s and '90s, when CD-ROMs came out. People tried all these experiments and they made a lot of promises and they couldn't meet a lot of the promises and so as a result the whole industry got a bad reputation. But one of the things that's really changed is the appearance of tablets. Tablets are a pretty good platform for a lot of kinds of educational games.

And so we're seeing a nice resurgence of that right now. There's a little bit of "once bitten, twice shy" kind of going on where people are being a little more careful about making kind of garbage-y content. There's still plenty of garbage-y content. Don't get me wrong. But at the same time, people are like, "Okay, we've learned a lot of lessons. We've seen what is and isn't working."

And so I guess I sort of see educational games are kind of climbing out of the muck and starting to become something that is having meaningful stature and so bit by bit I think they're going to be making a difference.

What sort of experiments and promises were made in the past that you were talking about?

Well, there was just a lot of flat-out bad content that was made and there was a lot of content -- you know, we're talking about content that people were maybe paying $30 or $40 for something that, say, it was supposed to teach you algebra or whatever and it was really just not doing its job. There were a lot of these that either they were really boring or they were boring but they were kind of interesting to play, but they weren't really teaching you anything. And so we just saw a lot of that kind of garbage-y kind of snake oil content. Because it's really tough to make something that is both meaningfully engaging and meaningfully educational. It's just a really difficult design problem. It can be done. It's just really hard.

This is a silly question or at least it sounds like an obvious answer, but why is it important for kids' games to be good?

[Pause.] Well, I mean, for an educational game if it's meant to educate, then it should do that. And, I mean, I guess it all depends on sort of your goals in terms of you're trying to get done. If you want someone to pay attention to something, it better be engaging. And if you want somebody to learn something for something, it better be able to teach. I mean, things should be able to live up to their claims. That's all.

Do you think it hurts kids to be playing lazy reskins of existing games or bad games in general?

Well, it depends what you mean by "bad games." Kids generally don't play games that they don't enjoy unless there's absolutely nothing else to do.

Yeah. It's not like it was a couple decades ago.

I mean, yeah. There's -- I mean, part of what kids always do is they like to just explore what's new. And a lot of time what's new may not actually be very good but it's new, so they spend some time exploring it. And if it's not any good, they'll quickly give it up. Right? Tamagotchi was new, and so all the kids explored it, but it wasn't very good and so after about three months, the whole world gave it up. Minecraft was both new and good, and so kids explored it, realized it was good, and they stayed with it.

Do you think it's important that a game is explicitly educational? Or do you think any game can teach someone -- especially kids -- something worthwhile?


It all depends on your goals. There are times you want to get a message across -- there's times you want to teach somebody about things that they have no interest in and in that case sometimes stepping up to it sideways kind of makes more sense. Like, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, it was probably more important for that game to say, "Hey, this is a really fun game!" than to say, "This is a game that will teach you the capitals of all the countries!" Because, "No, I don't really want to do that. That sounds really boring to me." Although it may be that you could play a fun game and as a side effect you'll come away familiar with with the capitals of the countries and knowing facts about them.


So, a lot of times being explicit is a little bit of a mistake. I have spent a lot of time making this game Lexica. We had, like 50 people work on it for about three years and it's a game all about getting kids interested in reading but we sure don't put that on the box.


Right? We just say, "Hey, check it out: Lexica. It's a cool RPG." And it just so happens that they get introduced to literary characters and they're given opportunities to read books and it builds their vocabulary and it does all these different things but that stuff doesn't always need to be in your face.

Do you think any game can teach someone something worthwhile? Even games from the industry?

I don't know that any game teach something worthwhile, but I think there are a lot of opportunities for positive transformation from games. Positive transformation comes from entertainment all over the place. There are inspirational songs and stories and plays and movies that really make you reflect on your own actions or -- like, look at this Martian movie that's out. Right? People are coming away from that with kind of better appreciation of the science of Mars. I doubt there are very many people saying, "Wow, I can't wait to learn about physical properties of the planet Mars. I'm gonna go see a movie." But they're gonna come away with that nonetheless because it's in there and it's kind of interesting. So, I think there are certainly opportunities for learning and transformation in straight-up entertainment all the time. But with straight-up entertainment, it tends to be a little more glancing and a little less thorough than with an experience that's all about gaining mastery over a particular topic.

I've heard in some of these interviews that if you work in big-budget games and then you go work in educational games that it in a way it ghettoizes you. That even if you are able to go work in big-budget games again, you won't be put on the "A" team. Have you heard that at all?

No. I think that's sort of silly. I think if you go away and work on really crappy games for a while -- I don't think it has to do with the games being educational. I think it has to do with them being crappy. If you go and work on crappy stuff and make a bunch of crappy decisions for a while, you'll see that it's not going to help build your reputation.

And I think very often, practically, when people are talking about that with AAA, over the last 10 years generally educational games are 2D and AAA games are 3D, which I think is probably much more a statement: "Yeah, you went ahead and worked on 2D games for several years and now we're not sure you're in a good spot."

You've probably not kept up with all the changes in 3D games and you're probably behind for that reason. But I don't think it has a lot to do with it being educational games or not.

What do you make of the current trend of free-to-play games targeting children to play them?

Yeah, it's kinda gross and sad I think unfortunately. I prefer to stay away from that whenever possible because -- you know, all the thinking you have to do in AAA is, "How can I kind of get people at their kind of weak moment and kind of trigger their impulse in order to pay for things?" Particularly to do that with children is -- it's kinda gross to do that with almost anybody. Even just designing those for adults, you don't feel very good when you're working on it and thinking about it. To do that with kids, it feels kinda gross.

You did a presentation against pointsification. For people reading this and before we proceed: Is this distinct from gamification?

Eh, I don't know. "Pointsification," when people say that word usually they're trying to insult sort this notion of gamifying things in an over simple way. And, yeah, the thing I usually say is even the very term "gamification" is a little bit of a -- it sort of implies naive thinking. That word, it literally means "to make something into a game," right?

That's what "gamify" would mean: make it into a game. And the thing is usually when people say that that isn't what they really mean. What they usually really mean is, "Okay, I see games are really engaging. I want people to be engaged with my experience in a way that's as strong as when they're playing games." It doesn't necessarily mean they want their thing to be a game, but they want that level of deep engagement. And so I guess the way I look at it is if you're studying games to understand, "Well, where does that deep engagement come from and can varieties of that deep engagement apply to my application?" That's the right way to think of it. But to just say, "Well, I see some of the surface things that worked in games. I'm just gonna slap those into my application and see if that works." That's usually not gonna be very successful and is gonna kind of make your thing look weird and tawdry.

So that's the conversation I usually end up having with folks. Because a lot of people would come and say, "We're ready to have you gamify this thing." And I say, "Great. Well, let's talk about what it's really about. What are you really trying to achieve? Let's figure out the current motivations of your players and ways we can strengthen those motivations with a variety of systems."


And they're like, "I don't want to do that. I just want to gamify." [Laughs.]

Who's reaching out to you and saying that? I'm not asking for names, but what types of companies?

Oh gosh. Oh my God, we've had everything from department stores to vitamin companies to just everything and everybody. You know, everybody's always trying to figure out a better way to sell their thing.

What typically happens with those clients when you explain there's more to it than that?

If they're stubborn they'll find someone who will put a bunch of points and stickers and things on the thing. But a lot of times through this kind of exploration, that's when they'll talk to some other people and often start to realize, "Oh. We were looking kinda for a silver bullet. This isn't really a silver bullet. This is actually kind of weird and complicated." And they often drift away from it. That's often it. They saw an easy answer or what they thought would be an easy answer and after some exploration realized, "All right, not so easy." But for other people, they kind of get into it and they use it as an opportunity to really study, "Well, what are we about? And what are we trying to do?" And end up creating some systems that really do work and really do make a difference. That does occasionally happen.

What sort of insights into how we work has that shone a light on for you?

Oh, well, the whole thing sort of forces you to reflect more on what are people's motivation when they do things? What are they really trying to do and what do they really need and want? One of them that I think is really interesting is how important progress is to us as individuals and I think that's often a big piece of what people are looking for when they're talking about wanting to gamify something. They want to imbue whatever their thing is with a sense of progress because there's something about progress that's just deeply important to us as human beings. There've been surveys about what is it that's most important to you in the workplace and it often comes up again and again, like a feeling of progress, that I'm getting better at my job, that my salary is gradually increasing, that I'm gaining greater mastery over what I'm doing is important. And even if you look at -- it's funny, if you look at inflation. Inflation, when you look at it logically, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. You know, logically, it would make sense that the economy would kind of increase a few points one year and decrease a few points the next year, but generally you expect everything to kind of be level. But it's not. It gradually rises.

And it's not like it's gradually rising because everybody's getting better at everything and that everything's gaining more value. That's not what's happening. But what happens is we all want to feel like that's happening. Everybody wants to get a raise every a year whether they should be getting a raise or not. If you're doing the same job for 20 years and not getting appreciably better at it, why would you get a raise? It doesn't make any sense. But people expect that raise and so, "Okay, we'll give you the raise, but all the prices are gonna have to go up in order to compensate for that." And we're all good with that. We all think that's totally fine because it creates this illusion of progress. And that's just how much we like progress that we don't care that it completely distorts our economy.

Why do you think progress matters so much to us?

Well, because the brain is all about change. You know, if we didn't have to deal with change, we wouldn't need a brain. A rock just sits around and it's just fine because nothing changes that it has to worry about.

But we have to worry about, "Oh, I don't have enough food" and, "Oh, I don't have enough reproductive possibilities and all these things that are trying to eat me up." So, the brain is all about, "Okay, what's changing out there and how am I going to deal with it?" And part of the change it cares about is, "How can I change to be better?" Because if things are getting better, then, "Okay, then I know I'm on the right track." So I think there's something about that feeling of progress that makes us feel, "Okay, I think it's comforting when there's progress. We're on the right track. Things are gonna keep getting better. Even when something goes bad, we're still on an uphill trajectory and in the long run we're gonna be okay."

When you started your career in games, what were you hoping it would be a path towards?

My path is really weird. I had kind of a funny path. Initially -- when I was younger, I was kind of a circus-performer career for little while.


Oh yeah, yeah. And I wondered whether I might really pursue that professionally but after doing it for a few I thought, "It would be nice to eat three meals a day. That might be a nice change."

What were you doing in the circus?

Oh, I was a professional juggler for a few years. But I'd always kind of been doing the computer-science stuff.

So, initially I got really into artificial intelligence because back in the '80s we really believed that really powerful AI was just around the corner. There was a lot of belief by the year 2000 we would definitely have computers that could converse like human beings and that it was really on the way. I was really focused on that initially. Then when I got to a graduate school, I became really interested in virtual reality and started to kind of focus on that. Now, all along I'd been doing games as a hobby. But the notion of a career as a professional videogame developer, like, that did not even seem remotely realistic. It didn't even occur to me that that would be something I could pursue.


I didn't know anybody who did that. I didn't know anybody who knew anybody who did that. I was at a college at an engineering school in computer science and I didn't know anybody who knew anybody who did that because so much of it was concentrated West Coast and I was growing up East Coast. And so I kinda got into it through the virtual reality angle. I've been focused on that and ended up seeing an opportunity at Disney. And I was like, "Yeah, I'll sign up for that." And it ended up being a really good fit. So that was kind of -- I kind of came into the game industry sideways because the Disney Virtual Reality Studio was not normal game industry.


We were working with -- I mean, we were doing virtual reality with supercomputers in 1995. I mean, we were working with 7,000 poly 3D-stereoscopic 8x anti-aliased characters in 1995 when the mainstream game industry was working on, I don't know, the Super Nintendo. So we were kind of ahead of our time that way and I eventually kinda came into the game industry sideways that way.

Did you have a sense of where you wanted it to take you when you entered it?

Well, I mean, I've always liked experiences that were really sort of cool and magical and for a while I had been really focused on -- when I was at Disney, it was really looking at the legacy of Walt Disney and how he always was kind of using new technologies to create experiences that didn't exist before and kind of bring them to everybody. And so a lot of my early focus was that.


Even if you look at Toontown Online, it was all about that. We had Ultima Online and Everquest kind of for the nerd community and it was like, "Well, how do you take that kind of gameplay and bring it to everybody?" And you know, a lot of my works at Schell Games has been that way, too.

Do you feel like some of that has gone away, that notion of "let's bring this to everybody" from the game industry?

[Laughs.] I mean, it's so funny. I mean, there's always a constant complaint of, "Oh, people aren't creative anymore. It used to be so creative." Really? Is it really getting that much more narrow? I don't follow this. I mean, how narrow everything is always just has to do with how open the market can be. So, I mean, right now we are looking at the golden age of game development. You can never see a golden age when you're in it. But we're in a golden age because the indies still haven't figured out that they're never gonna make any money and so they're just trying all kinds of wonderful things. The markets are all super open, all this new technology's coming out, there's just this huge time of experimentation and freedom that's really great that we certainly didn't have 15 years ago.

So this is a super-good time right now. And we'll see. These things come and go. But the thing that's always true is you're gonna have stable things that sell really well and then you're gonna have experimental things that break through and they're gonna sell really well. You've got Minecraft breaking through and that was crazy how well that did. So, I don't know. You always have a mix because people always want some of the familiar and something new.

What do you think videogames have accomplished?

That's a really good question in terms of what effects have they meaningfully had on society. So, I think there are a lot of things that videogames have accomplished. So, on one level you've got all the Marshall McLuhan-type stuff that the media you interact with program the way you think. And I think videogames have been able to raise whole generations that they really can reach out and kind of effect things and that they can change the world and they've really increased the way we interact with the world and the way we interact with technology. So I certainly think there's the McLuhan stuff. It's really hard to say exactly what that effect is, but there's no doubt that the people raised with videogames think differently than people raised without them. Other things, though, I think one of the things that videogames accomplish that people take for granted is the fact that videogames serve as an area -- sort of a technological experimentation zone that paves the way for lots of other new innovations.

So, for example, the Game Boy came out and it did all the experimentation about, "Well, will people carry a screen-based device around with them? And how big should it be? And how long should the battery life be?" All that. Way before cell phones and smartphones.

And those things were able to draft off of what we learned in videogames. We're seeing the same thing with artificial intelligence. We're seeing the same thing with a lot of types of internet use. So, that's another sort of side thing they've provided, the way to experiment with technology. I mean, we've got Siri now, but we had Hey You, Pikachu! 15 years ago.

Did the Game Boy predate the first digital organizers, stuff like the Wizard? I offhand don't remember.

I think it probably did. I mean, there might have been some before it. Any that came before it were not successful. It certainly proved that a portable device with a screen could be a successful product. It certainly proved that. And of course a lot of those early ones used the same technology. They used the same LCD displays that the Game Boy used. Same thing, backlit screens, blah blah blah blah. There's just all this stuff.

And of course now we're gonna see the same thing with virtual reality. We're about to see virtual reality come out and all of the early apps are gonna be games. Five, 10 years from now we're gonna see all kinds of meaningful, industrial educational purposes for virtual reality. But not until kind of games pave the way and get us all comfortable with technology. Because the thing with games is they can afford to be sloppy. They can afford to fail. But, like, we were talking about productivity software: it's gotta be dead on and right and really need a tool. But games can be way, way more experimental. So that's an important thing.

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