My name is Matthew Burns, Matthew S. Burns, and I've been in the game industry for about 15 years now. I've worked at AAA companies, I worked on games in the Call of Duty and Halo franchises, and I contributed a little bit to Destiny as well. That's my AAA experience; I've also worked on my own indie games off-and-on as I've had the chance to, and right now I work at the University of Washington in the Center for Game Science, which is a games lab that's part of the computer science department. So I've seen game development from a lot of different angles; I've worked on the big projects and the small projects as well. Over that time, I've also written a lot about game development, kind of as a way to get my own thoughts together about what I think about what's happening, and I've written pieces here and there for publications like Kill Screen and Paste and stuff like that.
Well, I guess just to start off: did you have questions for me?
I think -- I mean, my big question was the overall shape of what you're trying to do.
Most people ask, "Why are you doing this? Is this because of Gamergate?" And I in a way that that’s part of it. It’s more that you could've seen it coming. Which I guess sort of explains why I hit you up. It's a response to your piece.
There was a little bit of a predictive aspect to the piece.
Well, but the general tensions.
Yeah, and it's true that the piece came about a month before the shit really hit the fan with all the -- all of the pieces that Gamergate's talked about, the gamers are dead articles, came a little bit after the piece that I wrote. But I think at that time everyone was sensing that there was something unsustainable going on, and the tensions that sort of broke over the next several months were partly an outflow of that situation.
So you've been professionally involved with games twice as long as I have, so maybe seven or so years on me. When did you start to sense these tensions?
Well, it's interesting. So, from the moment I started working in games, the relationship between a developer and fans of the games was one of the first things to notice. One of my first jobs working at a game developer was, my boss came to me and said, "Hey, read the forums and see what the forum people are complaining about and maybe we'll fix those things." You know, and I read the forums, and the way people engaged with games was… in a good way, you'd say it was very passionate, in a bad way, you would say it's extremely entitled and demanding.And that was one of the first things that I learned when I started in games, was that people get extremely, extremely dogmatic about the way a game should be, they argue a lot, they argue with developers.
When you are a game developer, having fans that are like that is just part of the territory. And that never stopped; especially when you work on these games like Call of Duty or Halo, fans are -- can be extremely poorly-behaved and say all kinds of terrible things. The thing, though, about -- the thing about Call of Duty and Halo is that they are made by Activision and Microsoft, respectively, and they have departments that are like -- they can clean up the forums. They have security. If someone makes a threat on your life, you can contact their security department. There are protective measures in place which you don't have as an indie developer, right? If someone does the same thing. Yeah, so to -- sorry, to get back to your question about how long has this been going on -- that tension has always been there. As far as I can tell people have always had extremely strong opinions about games that just hasn't boiled over in the same way that it has now.
Yeah. I had this weird theory that it sort of goes back to Sega in a strange way. Like I had a conversation with someone last year, just their general image that they were putting out, which may have planted the seeds in a way? But I think that's a different audience than what the audience now is.
Right. I think that's definitely another thing. Like, Sega marketing certainly went in that direction, the hardcore, bro-y gamer direction that you're talking about. Another culprit, I have to say, is Microsoft and Xbox, the original Xbox and before that -- DirectX marketing, PC marketing.
[Laughs.] This is about DirectX marketing?
Oh, because it was like Doom and --
-- id Software --
Who best utilized DirectX, yeah.
Right, right, and it was -- they really glommed onto that kind of FPS, Doom, gibs, and stuff like that.
That really was the culture in the late ‘90s and early 2000's. That Quake II to Quake III era, there was a lot of that in PC games. And a lot of companies really played into that. Like, they went full Axe Body Spray on it, you know? There were girls in bikinis in regular game magazines, and it was just part of the territory. And if you went to E3 in 2001, that is what you saw -- booth babes, and how buying an nVidia GeForce2 would make you see more detailed violence, and stuff like that. That was a tremendous part of it. So I think you can trace this sort of strain of that through games maybe starting with Sega and kind of continuing from there.
Do you think that's a fair thing to say about maybe that's kind of where it started? I'm not looking to blame Sega, I'm just trying to figure out -- because before Sega was around, Nintendo wasn’t really --
Yeah, it all just depends on where you want to draw the line, right? Like, depending on who you talk to, some people would say it started with misogyny in human civilization, and this is just a new expression of it in games. You could say that, and I see that. Where it definitely -- where it starts in games? I'm not really a historian, so I couldn't really say.
Me either. And we're too close to it, also.
Yeah. For me, early Xbox marketing, and kind of earlier PC marketing, to me really pushes that. I definitely think that there's an element to that "Sega is more adult than Nintendo" thing as well. It was still really goofy. Like, it wasn't -- that I can remember, it wasn't as bad as the later PC stuff, the slightly later PC stuff. But again, I'm not an expert. That's just my sense of it.
What’s weird about the games business to you?
One thing that's really weird about the games business is that games people don't really pay attention to a lot of businesses other than the games business, and people think that the games business is just business, when in fact it's a very specific, very small group of people doing this thing. People think games are really big and encompass the whole world. When you work in games, it feels like you're in a normal world and this is your world. But it's not. It's really hard to get that perspective of what a game is to just a normal person. "Oh, there's a video game that I could play or I could not play." But you really lose that sense when you work in the game industry. Maybe they read a book or see a play once in a while, but when you are in games, you really think about games so often that it's hard to get perspective again. That is definitely one very strange thing about games to me.
Why do you think that is? Like, I don't know movie people who are only into movies. Maybe book people are only into books?
Yeah, but it feels like there's just a little bit -- and again, it's easy for me to say -- but it feels like it might be easier to get perspective as a book person; you know that most people don't engage with books in the same way that you do. But for games, it's very hard for people in games to imagine that a lot of people don't engage with games in the way that they do -- or it's hard to accept, I think, maybe, is the right word. There's something about games that's just very subsuming when you think about them. There's just something where people want to spend their lives inside games. It just becomes such a large part of your life. I don't know why. I think some people would say it's because it's such a compelling medium. I don't know if that's true. I think other people would say it's because games are about escapism and solipsism, and pretending you're in your own world, so therefore anybody who's into games is into that being in their own world, right? Potentially, that's another reason.
It's very reflexive, in a way, where you are what you are.
Yeah, like self-referent. "I like games where I can be whoever I am in my own little bubble world."
"So why should I change?"
So maybe games actually attracts that kind of person, and everyone who's in games likes to be in their own little world. That's just a theory, I don't know if it's true.
No, I think that's sort of the point. I feel like these are things I don't hear people talk about in the context of games, and I think a general lack of understanding or hearing this sort of stuff contributes to that gut anger or visceral pissiness.
Yeah, that's certainly part of it, I think. I've seen some people suggest that because these people have grown up playing games, they haven’t had a chance to learn real social skills, human skills, and that's why gamers can be so poorly behaved sometimes. It's an interesting theory, but it's hard to be, like -- there are a lot of people who play games who are just fine as well, right? So I'm not sure you could just say that there's a 100 percent causal relationship between those things. It would be interesting to study, though.
What do you feel is not typically part of the conversation when we talk about what it means to be a person who plays games?
What's missing from that?
What's missing, but is true?
One thing that I think we aren't really addressing -- I feel like there's still really a stigma with people who play a lot of video games. If you watch movies or TV, they'll use a gamer person as a shorthand for a person who's not well socialized. They'll show the murderer or whoever playing a video game, and that's kind of a shorthand for they're a geek, or they don't quite get it, right? The people who are suave and sophisticated don't go home and play games, it's the more awkward people.
Yeah, we never see James Bond playing a video game. [Laughs.]
But you see Kevin Spacey on House of Cards playing a Vita.
Right, exactly, and that establishes his character as kind of quirky and that he's a little bit off, right?
Like, "What is he doing playing these games?" Right? It's used in that way. It's not necessarily a negative stereotype, but it does kind of have this feeling to it. And so, what I would like us to think about, in terms of people who play a lot of games, why do people still think of games in that way? I think a lot of gamers would say, "Well, that's just a cultural stigma that has no basis in reality." That we're perfectly fine, awesome, well-adjusted people, we just play a ton of games, and it's society's fault for stereotyping us this way.
However, I would say, "Well, maybe there is still something to this person who doesn't want to engage with the real world, and maybe you can acknowledge that part of why you play games is you don't want to deal with the real world." Like, why can't we just be honest and say that? Why can't we just be honest and say, "I like games because I can be in my own world, so I don't have to talk to people"? Me personally, I really like Bethesda RPGs, Fallout and Elder Scrolls, and I really like those games because they're so lonely, it's just you and you're in this vast world, and there's nobody else at all. Every time a new Bethesda RPG comes out, I lose three or four days just into that, I just sort of sink into that world, you know? And I like that, because dealing with people in the real world can be exhausting and upsetting. However, there's a stigma that if you withdraw, that's the wrong thing to do. There's a social expectation that you will come out and participate in society. So I think that we need to acknowledge that those forces are at work. We need to acknowledge that there's a balance between retreating into your own world and also going out there and engaging in the world. There's a tension there.
Is that coming from somewhere? Like, do you think people who make games are also like that, and it stems from --
I think certainly people who make games become attracted to games because of the unique things that games can do and can bring to you. And I was certainly interested in games because of the feelings and experiences that I got when I play games, and I was interested in what was artistically possible.
A lot of people articulate, "I grew up but games didn't grow with me." I had a 17-year-old girl in Nigeria tell me this, and I'm 32, and I've only started to have this realization a couple of years ago. You become an adult and you're like, "Is this really all that's possible?"
Right, right. "I'm not as interested any more."
I mean, I clearly am, because we're sitting here, and I'm out here [at GDC], but --
I think that that is true for a ton of people. That there are a ton of people for who -- yeah, it loses them. And I would not want to say definitively it's just because people just grow up and they grow out of games. Is it because there's something about games that stunts games' growth on itself?
Something about the medium itself?
I don't want to say it's because of games or it's because of people, but there's definitely some combination of factors where, yeah, I think games really do lose people. I think that there is a big indie-focused movement now to try to make games very relevant for people who might have been lost before. There are people our age who have gone and started indie companies and made games with more complex narratives and so on. But those are still kind of few and far between. The industry at large isn't making those types of games. That's more of an indie thing.
But there are dangers of expecting one type of "innovation" from one pocket as opposed to it being something everyone can try to do.
I mean, as you get older, you've encountered most of the design patterns people use in games, you start to recognize them faster and faster, and it just becomes a little bit less and less interesting, because you've used all those mechanics before. I think it's like as you get older, maybe you get a little bit less interested in action movies, for example, and there's this -- in other media, there's this sense of there's the media for younger people, and there's the media for older people. Older people watch dramas and --
Mysteries, yeah. But younger people like the action-packed stuff, and the sexy stuff.
So we're saying there's not really games for older people?
Well, there are games for older people, if you count like chess or the New York Times crossword puzzle, or -- those are games we associate with old people. And right, maybe as our generation gets older there will be, like, games that are for us in our older age. That could be part of it.
How does this stuff get solved or addressed? Will it just be a byproduct as we age and start solving it for ourselves?
I think in some way it will.
If players burn out and move on from playing, how many devs do you feel like burn out and just completely stop making games? Isn’t there a risk there?
Some developers definitely do that. In fact, a lot of developers do that. And there are a lot of developers right now, again, who are in their thirties like you and me, who have left AAA companies and are trying to make kind of small, cool, interesting games. There's a real crop of new games coming up that are going to be trying to, I think, be a little bit more interesting for those kinds of people. At the same time, I will say, because I've worked in those AAA companies, there are some developers who would be totally happy just making Call of Duty for the rest of their life.
Like, that's all they want from life. That's fine. They love Call of Duty, they'll play it over and over and over, and it's great. They don't mind. There's tons of people who would be happy just drinking Bud Light their entire life and never really experiencing other kinds of beers.
And that's fine! There's nothing wrong with it, right?
No, there's nothing wrong with it.
There are those people, it's just, "Give me Bud Light, and I will drink that." And that's -- people who play Call of Duty for decades tend to be those types of people, too. They just enjoy that experience.
Yeah, there's nothing wrong with those games at all.
Right, it's not bad in and of itself as a thing, it's just --
It's the lack of variety outside of it.
Right. That has dominated everything else quite a bit.
How would you like to see games progress creatively?
Gosh, how would I like to see games progress creatively. That's a huge, huge question.
I think a lot of people are kind of thinking or assuming that games will take a course similar to other media, when we look at the book industry and the literature world, and then the movie industry. Film has a huge range of products. There's indie film, there's high art, prestige project films, there's big budget popcorn films, there's LGBT film, which is its own little world. And there's all kinds of different films for all the kinds of different people, and millions of films have been made, and it's hard to keep track of even if you work in film. And I think that people are kind of assuming that that's where games will go, that there will be so many different subcultures of games and so many different ways you can make a game, and big games and small games, and games for everybody, and niches and small niches of people who really like specific games. I don't know if that's what I would like to see or not, though. That's a very different question from what I think it will be.
I mean, what I would like games to be is not really possible in this world.
Let's hear it.
I would like it if games were less commercially dependent. I would like it if the need to make money wasn't basically your overriding concern for everyone who makes games. That would be the number one thing. That would unlock so much creativity and interesting things almost immediately. Unfortunately, that's not the case; games cost a lot of money to make. But that would be the number one thing that I would change, if I could magically change anything about game development right now, it would be that it doesn't cost money or that the monetary factors don't come into --
I don't want to throw the word "crash" or "bubble" around, but don't you think if it continues in this trend, it's headed to a bad spot, at least on console?
Console, yeah. I think most people are in agreement that the big-budget console stuff isn't going to stick around in the same form. It's definitely on the wane right now. There's different stuff that will change it, but when I think about the industry right now, I think about -- you know the film industry in the ‘30s, where movies started to get bigger and bigger budgets, and they went kind of crazy? You know how, like, Cecil B. DeMille would have 10,000 extras running around in the desert to recreate ancient Egypt? And then it crashed -- there was a crash in the movie industry. There were just too many high-budget productions; it was just out of control. But then eventually the industry figured out how to make blockbusters again, and right now we're in a golden age of these special effects-driven comic book movies, which are all blockbusters.
For the next 15 years, five years, whatever it is?
Right, Disney-Marvel has a complete lock on it and they do great in China and all the other important markets, so it's like they figured out to make these big blockbusters again. And so I don't think that big console blockbuster games are going away forever, but we're definitely kind of in a spot where right now economically it's becoming harder and harder to do that.
But it doesn't feel like we're seeing fewer of them, right?
It kind of does. Like, what are the really big console games that are coming out right now?
I am the wrong dude to ask.
Destiny came out...
Destiny. Is Mortal Kombat really expensive? I don't even know.
Probably not. I mean, Mortal Kombat would be kind of a mid-tier. Right, what else is there? Battlefield?
So, I think it does feel narrower as far as retail $60 products.
I mean, is that an unfair assertion, then, for me to say, if I can't even think of the ones? [Laughs.]
Yeah, no, I think that that's definitely true, that big blockbuster $60 retail games are kind of --
Well, from your perspective, what do you feel the audience for games doesn't understand about the way that they're made? Bigger games.
[Laughs.] Almost everything.
Seriously, there's so much to know about how games are made that nobody understands. And here's the thing: Okay, so, who of people who read novels really get the novel-writing process? Not many, even though you can picture sitting down and writing enough words to become a novel. How many people really get what it's like to go through writing a novel? Not very many people. You kind of have to be someone who's written a novel to really get the struggle and the pain and all of the things that happen. Same for movies; if you've ever shot your own home movie or pointed your cell phone at something, you get the basic, "I'm making a movie." But unless you've made a movie in Hollywood, there's so much more to it that you have to understand -- that helps you understand why Hollywood movies become the way they are. And then, games on top of it are even more mysterious to people. Especially if you don't understand the technology. It's just a mystery. Games just appear out of nowhere if you don't know those things. Even if you do know a little bit of stuff -- even if you know a programming language -- everything else is fuzzy. So it is very difficult to understand how games are made, especially these bigger games.
And a lot of the audience, if they're not interested in making games, then they're not paying attention to how they're getting made. It's hard to explain. It really is. Some of it is highly technical, and it's just a lot of people all working on something at once, and it's just not -- it's not worth explaining, in a lot of ways.
Really? I'm not challenging you, I'm just --
No, no, that's a good question --
I mean, that's my theory: If people understood a little bit more, and if marketing was a little bit more loose --
The reason why I said it's not worth explaining is because I just feel like there's too much to try to explain to an audience that's not necessarily willing to meet you halfway.
Some of them want to.
Some of them definitely want to, and that's great. And engaging with those people is wonderful. And I'm definitely not saying, "Nobody should ever understand."
I mean, basically, for me, I got the point -- like I said, seven, eight years, and feeling like I haven't really learned much. And granted, this is not the entire focus of my career, but usually, you do a thing for seven, eight years, you learn a little bit more.
Right. But it's hard; games can be incredibly impenetrable in the way that they're made, and yeah, I think PR and marketing departments don't really want you to know, so they can say stuff -- they can get around stuff that they don't want to talk about.
Well, so same question, then, but about the media. What do you think they don't understand?
Okay, so the media also doesn't understand how games are made.
Is there harm that's done by them not understanding, though?
Sometimes. And harm not just to the consumer, but to the press themselves. And this is because when the press doesn't understand how a game is made, they have no framework to understand if something that PR tells them is a lie or not. And so I think, the reason why I said earlier, I think the reason why PR likes that you may not completely understand how a game is made or not, is if they show -- the classic example is bringing press in for, like, an alpha, "This is the alpha version of our game." The press is like, "Oh, it looks like shit." And PR is like, "Don't worry, it's only Alpha. It will look amazing by the time it's released."
Okay, so you as a press person, what do you do? Do you believe them or do you not believe them? Maybe this developer has done that before, maybe this press person has lied to you before. That's all you know. But you can't tell, just from playing the game, how close it is to being done, or what they say they're going to do with the game is actually possible, even, in the time left. The thing that I used to complain about all the time is they would get press to come and play the game like a month before the game came out -- this doesn't happen much anymore, this was back in the day, but -- they would get the press to come play the game a month before the game came out, and the press would write their previews, and the previews would be like, "Well, the controls were bad, but there's a month to go, so there's plenty of time to fix that, so we hope that they'll fix this by the time the game comes out." And it's like, actually, when you're talking about a retail game, a month before? The game is on the disc already, and it's out the door. A month is how long it takes to press all the discs and ship them out to all the Walmarts of the world.
You don't -- it doesn't happen that you can keep working on it up until it's in the store. That's different now because of zero-day patches, but that's the example that came to mind. So if you don't know that as a press person, you'll be like, "Oh, well, they have a month still to work on it." You don't know that, no, they're not making any more changes at this point. That's just one example of how not knowing enough about games are made harms a press person's ability to get at the truth of the story. They have to either take the PR person's word for it, or distrust the PR person without really having a good reason to, without really knowing.
So what are you working on currently?
So, at the University of Washington, we have a few games for scientific discovery that we work on, there's one called Foldit, which allows you to design proteins.
Oh, that's you guys! I've read about that.
Yeah. There's a real protein simulation running underneath it, so the results of your gameplay are actually scientifically interesting and relevant. That's one of the main things. There's a bunch of other programs that we're doing, studying various things using games. That's my job now.
So I guess I'm curious then, for you or your colleagues, what's your games media consumption? Do you pay attention at all? Did you when you were development-side?
Yeah, so when I worked at Activision and Microsoft, I definitely paid a lot more attention to the big-name game sites.
And this is when, roughly what years?
Activision was 2001-2006. Bungie/Microsoft -- I went back and forth with a break in the middle -- was 2006-2012. So --
So you sort of trailed off post --
Kind of. I went back to Bungie this summer to help finish Destiny on a contract for about two months. So I've been back in AAA in a very limited capacity.
[Laughs.] What was that like?
Oh, it was fun. [Laughs.]
I'm not asking you to go into detail, just what was it like to go back and know that there was an expiration date or whatever.
Yeah, no, so Bungie was the same and also different. When I started at Bungie in 2006 it was something like 70 people, and by the time I left it was maybe 150 people. When I went back for Destiny, it was nearly 600 people. So -- in one way, very different, and yet, many of the same kind of challenges with communication and teamwork, all of those kinds of things, I recognized from before.
What sort of communication stuff?
It's just very hard when you have 600 people that are all making different creative decisions, to coordinate all of that. When you have a guy who's in charge of the way the laser beam looks as it's shot from the gun, that's how granular you get when you have 600 people. And everybody has different needs and wants. There's gonna be a guy who's a designer who's in charge of the gun. There's gonna be a sound guy who makes the sound of the gun. There's gonna be a concept artist who kind of does the overall shape of the gun. There's a hard surface artist who makes the 3D model of the gun. There's the effects artist who makes the particles of the gun. And it's like, they all have to know what the other is doing in order to make a gun. And that's just one gun! That's not even a level or a character. It's a tremendous amount of stuff.
It's a prop.
It is a prop. But, like --
It's a prop in a world, is what I'm saying.
Yeah, it's a prop in a world. And it needs all these different -- and you need to make all these different considerations, and if these 10 people all make a gun, and then you hand it to someone who's not on that team, like an animator, and the animator is like, "Actually, the way you've designed this gun, it will go through this guy's face because you made this weird shape. You should've told me about it." And it's like, "Okay, well now we need to involve the animator in the gun from the beginning." And now you have this 20-person team that's making one gun. It gets very hard to manage at that size.
So this is a dumb question: What is crunch? People talk about it, and people tell me it feels like they're gonna die. [Laughs.] Is it just long hours? Or is it just extreme number of tasks? And again, I'm not asking you to go into specifics on projects, or complain or anything, but just, like, what is it?
Well, I would say sometimes people work late and it's fine, that's just, "Oh yeah, let me just get this out the door." And there's one or two nights we stay 'til 9 and we finish it. That's not crunch, to me.
Are there set hours at a game company?
Usually, game companies have what they call core hours, which is, "You have to be in the office during these hours, and then you're expected to work eight hours, but you have to be there during the core hour period."
Crunch -- it depends on the studio, but it can be mandated, it can be 12 hours a day mandated, six days a week, seven days a week. Crunch can also just be socially mandated, so not management, but you will be ostracized and --
For being "lazy" or not pulling your weight.
Yeah. I think the most important quality of crunch is not number of hours worked, or number of tasks you're behind on, but the big defining thing of crunch to me is this real siege mentality, this really bad psychological sense of being completely underwater, under siege, you're only ever at the office, you feel like you have to keep doing it, you feel like you can never take a break. It's self-reinforcing -- especially if you're successful. If you crunch and you're successful, how can you change that? It's very, very difficult to unlearn that habit.
I’ve always meant to ask in these about contracts and how they work. I’m not even sure if I’m phrasing it right or what that means when I ask you.
Contracts are just --
Not like as documents, but -- do you interview to work at a developer, and you have a job there until the game is done? How does it work?
It's all -- there's a lot of different ways to do it. And there are oftentimes, people under different arrangements at different studios.
So there's no standard, necessarily?
Not really. So there's full-time employment, where you're just an employee of the studio, and that's very common. There's contract by the hour, which is you're just paid hourly to be there. There is kind of a limited-term employee, which is you are an employee, but with a term on it that is by the end of the game. And then there is, like, a subcontracting company as well, so you are not actually an employee of, say, Bungie, you're an employee of Bob's Art, and you work for Bob's Art, and Bob's Art has a contract with Bungie to make art for Destiny. Those are all the different ways that it can work. There's tons of different ways.
How good can the good contracts be and how bad can the bad contracts be? Not talking about you specifically, but even anecdotally, stuff you've heard.
Well, on AAA, the really good contracts are like, "Our game is in trouble, and this one star programmer can fix it, and he asked us for 200 dollars an hour, and he gets it." Or whatever. I don't know what the rate is, but you could make a lot of money.
That sounds good, though.
Yeah, right? You can make a lot of money being the fixer, coming in and just --
Right, yeah, exactly, the cleaner. I knew a programmer who actually asked for his credit to be "The Cleaner." It was in his contract. And they did, they credited him as The Cleaner.
[Laughs.] What game was that?
Oh, it was a PS2 game, it was a long time ago.
[Laughs.] That's awesome.
Yeah, it was funny. And it was true. They needed him to fix the mess of code that they had made, and he did. He came in and did it. So that happens, and that's kind of a lucrative contract if you can deal with the chaos of dealing with this --
Is that probably on crunch then, also?
Oh yeah, completely crunchtime. There 24 hours.
There's a date to hit, and --
The problem with crunch is that it's self-perpetuating. If other people are crunching, but you aren't, not only is there the social thing that I talked about, but you miss stuff that happens when you're not there, and it's hard for you to keep up unless you are also there. And when you are also there, other people -- you know, it's just a self-perpetuating thing.
That seems to be a big thing out here in the tech community, in tech culture.
Yeah, tech in general has a culture of that kind of thing.
What about the most unfair contract, what is that like?
Unfair contracts are very common. They are --
[Laughs.] Between who and who? Not companies, but...
The most unfair contracts are usually with people like -- who are seen as kind of entry-level positions or lower-down positions. And again, I say "seen as" because they're very important positions. But QA testing, community manager --
Yeah, front-line, down in the trenches kind of stuff, those can be extremely unfair contracts, because they are only by the hour, they're low rates, and you can be let go at any time. They're often not for the developer, exactly, they're for a temp agency that supplies temps to a developer, so there's a lot of companies -- you know, up in Redmond, where I am, there's Microsoft and Nintendo, and there are these other companies that supply you with testers.
Specifically for the game industry?
Yeah, specifically for the game industry. It's like, "We just need 10 people playing this movie licensed Wii game right now just to find bugs." And five weeks later, "Okay, thanks, bye." Those are pretty bad contracts.
So getting back to the media, when you did pay attention -- or even if you do now -- what sort of trends do you notice in the things that they will cover or will not cover?
I don't know. I think the media in general is still very much an enthusiast's media, they're about "this game is coming out on this date, and it will have these features, and here's some hot new screenshots." You know, a lot about feeding the beast and continuing the industry.
What was your phrase for it in your piece?
"Help the consumer-king feel good about his own tastes and his own choices."
And that's an important function of that kind of industry. And it happens in other industries. I mean, in the piece I compare it to a sommelier at a fancy restaurant -- he'll have his ideas, but if some high-paying customer came in and had weird ideas about wine, the sommelier would probably be like, "Oh, if you want that, sure, you're the customer" Right? That's just how you do stuff when you are working with customers. And so that's just kind of how they play into things as the media.
What’s the harm being done here in the media supporting this?
Well, there -- I mean, what the consumer ends up missing out on is really the complexity.The consumer misses out on the complexity behind what's really going on. And it's too bad, because more people should know about what's going on. At the same time, people don't know what's going on in almost any industry. People get exploited and screwed over making movies all the time, but most people who go to see movies, they don't come out of the movie saying, "Well, that was a great movie, but boy, the writer didn't get the credit they should have." You know, that's all stuff that's all very internal. You might read about that in Variety, but basically nobody who's not in the movie business reads Variety, right? And the same thing, if you're -- to go back to the sommelier thing at a fancy restaurant, the sommelier isn't going to come up to your table and say, "This is a really fancy, great wine. Also, you should know, the owner of this winery is racist."
That's just not going to happen.
It may be true --
It's almost guaranteed to be true, right? There's always bad stuff going on. But, it just -- the consumer doesn't want to know that. They're in this fancy restaurant, they want to have a nice time. The consumer doesn't want to hear about it. It's like --
Or it's like the very little that I know of, like, the diamond trade, for example.
Right, exactly. The diamond trade, or even the rare earth minerals that are used in game consoles. Game consoles use a lot of rare earths. And if you look into how those are mined, they're not entirely super ethical, if you really want to think about it. But I think most consumers do not really want to think about it.
I actually didn't know that.
So if you confront them with this, they'll kind of be pissed that you brought it up.
Wait, so is this another thing that PC gamers have over other people? Or is there also similar --
Well, PCs are just as bad as consoles in terms of having components that --
See? This is a perfect example. I didn't know.
I mean, anything that's got graphics cards and chips and all that, they rely on these rare earth minerals that are gotten either from China or in very unsavory conditions, or both. The industry hasn't been developed anywhere but in China, because it's such terrible work. It's hard to mine rare earths anywhere else because only China's willing to put up with --
-- the bad -- actually treating their workers that poorly, basically.
There could be a rare earth industry in the US, it's there in the soil, but it wouldn't be competitive internationally because the costs would be higher. That's my understanding of it, anyway, I'm not an expert in that. I want to declaim that I'm not.
I also wanted to ask you about reviews and consulting agencies within the games industry.
Well, there's different types of consultants, but one of the most common and important to know about is the reviewers, the mock reviews.
How many are there? I know that they don't even like having their names mentioned.
A lot of them are former game journalists, and what they do is they write the review that they would have written were they still at the publication where they were. I don't know how many of them that there are. It's probably not a huge group, but enough to cover almost everything. And the larger publishers retain these guys to write the review -- they send them the preview code, and they're like, "Write the review that you would have written of this."
And in many cases they're actually very accurate, because they're very good at predicting what reviewers will actually give the games. And so oftentimes publishers know what their games are going to get on Metacritic to a pretty high degree of accuracy before the games actually come out. And so the critical consensus is usually not a surprise on a larger game like that.
So this is unique in the sense that -- I don’t know that I’m going to ask you to talk about Destiny, but I have a friend who was deployed in this capacity to consult on Destiny. And that’s an example of a game, I think, where it was technically a hit but I don’t think it got quite the reception they were hoping for.
By all means, you can tell me if you can’t answer this or don’t want to, but I’m curious: What happens in situations like these where consultancies come in, they did what they could, but then reception is what it is anyway? Is there hand-wringing or penalizing? Because I feel like this sort of just calls into question these agencies’ worth overall.
But this is stuff I know so little about, so --
I'll say a few things, just in general. A lot of times, by the time the game is playable enough for the consultant to come in and actually play it, it's kind of too late to change a lot of the things that the consultant brings up as problems. You know what I mean? It's like if you cooked a meal and you gave it to someone and said --
"Change the recipe?"
Would -- yeah, right? And they're like, "Change the recipe? I already cooked the meal!"
You're like, "Just tell me if it's good. If the customer is going to hate it or not." But you already kind of baked everything, so it's like -- it just helps you know what you have. But there's not a lot you can do to a dish that's already baked. You can sprinkle some paprika on it, maybe. [Laughs.] It's kind of what it is.
Interesting. So then, what's the value of these?
I mean, they like to know what it's going to do in the press. They like to know what the rating is going to be. And they can change their messaging based on that.
What to emphasize or downplay?
Right, what to emphasize or downplay.
Which, again, I don't want to say -- I don't want to imply that it's sinister or whatever. Maybe you disagree, I don't know.
It's not the coolest thing in the world.
[Laughs.] Your face didn't show up on the recording. Let the record show, you kind of winced.
It's not horrible. I mean, if publishers want to do that, and they think it gives them something, great. In my experience, the outside review consultants do not bring up anything that the developers do not already know is a weakness of their game. However, sometimes it's useful if the publisher and the developer are fighting about something, and the developer's like, "No, it's not a problem, it's cool." And then the publisher can be like, "Look, we asked this consultant guy, and this consultant guy also said it was a problem." You know? "My consultant agrees with me, hah."
It's a tactical move. And sometimes you don't want to be the bad guy, so you hire a consultant to be the bad guy and say the things that you would have said, but you don't want to say. That's very common in business in general, like if you have to fire people, but you don't want to fire people?
"I'm just following orders!"
"Ahhh, I would've wanted to keep you guys, but the consultant said we have to fire people, so..." That's very common in the world of consulting, is that you use them as kind of a lever.
Why does it matter if bigger games are sort of creatively not doing as much as they can? Like, is it actually hurting anyone?
It hurts people because people still -- big games still take up all of the money, big games still take up a tremendous amount of the attention, and the technology that's developed for big games filters down into smaller games. So Unreal -- the Unreal engine wouldn't exist if there weren't games like Gears of War or Unreal. But now, people can use Unreal to do kind of more interesting, artsy stuff. So the tools and technologies that get developed for big budget games can make their way to smaller games, and if the problems that big budget games are trying to solve are more relevant to interesting experiences, then we'll see those technologies put in the hands of independent creators sooner rather than later. So it's important that big games do explore new territory, because if they don't, then we won't get the kind of technological development that we really want to see in the hands of individual creators.
How hopeful are you of that happening in the near term vs. long term?I feel like something has to snap or to change --
Yeah, I think something has to change. I don't see a very smooth path right now from big budget games really doing something brand new. I think there's going to be -- you know, if you say there's like a crash coming, maybe then that is what helps people --
Oh, I don't know, and I'm not a market analyst.
Right, right, I don't know, either. But if there is a crash, maybe that's the impetus for big budget games to try to figure out, "Okay, now what we did doesn't work any more, we have to figure out a new thing." Maybe. That's completely speculation, I don't know. But yeah, I don't see a super easy path right now for big budget games to suddenly become these super relevant, amazing, high art things. I just don't see it. There's just too much built up behind those games being what they are right now. That's my sense of it.