Now, before we start, I've got a question for you.
Obviously, our conversation I thought about after we hung up. You said that a number of people had said you should perhaps give me a hard time, and I'm slightly mystified about that.
So, could you expand on that a little bit and what your thoughts on that are?
Yeah. You know, like you, I thought about our conversation. To clarify what I was saying, no one in my circles was like, "Oh you have to rub his face in it!" or anything. I think the thing I was wondering as well -- not to throw a question back at you -- was how you arrived you at feeling that the sort of treatment you had gotten was, as you said, inevitable.
I think it is above and beyond professionalism to take responsibility for that vitriol regardless of how unprofessionally it has been presented to you in your direction. But it seems to be that whenever you put or anyone puts a strong, emotional statement out online, there will always be disciples who will gather around it and will agree. Or there will be an equal and opposite reaction.
I think you talked a little bit about that yesterday, and I think -- that's some of where the questions about entitlement come from, and I don't just ask them to you. It's obviously not just you.
I was talking more in the projecting into the future sense of when this is posted, the inevitable comments that will come flung my way, flung your way. It won't be on the site, but obviously people will be curious to see what you have to say and what I asked you and what people will perceive I chose not to ask you.
There's also that flip that I as a creator get these projected expectations, but I'm not doing this -- I'm doing this to try to understand and present all these philosophical things we're talking about to people who think videogames are still Pac-Man.
But, for me, having grown up with this stuff, I don't know where this anger's coming at that's being pointed at anybody.
So I just said a lot of stuff, and that's not me side-stepping through answering your question. Do you feel like I explained, though, at least a little bit?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think it is -- when you have --
I think part of the problem, if you like, and again, we touched on this yesterday, is for people -- especially people like myself, maybe, who have been around in the press a very long time, the press has evolved. It's evolved, especially, in the last five years, incredibly quickly.
You know, we have gone from the ability to -- well, back in the early days it was we were "geeks." I'm a programmer geek and I would go and talk about coding and talk about, you know, the AI and stuff like that. And then that changed from me being a programmer into me being a designer and where I was talking about kind of ideas and game mechanics and maybe still slightly on the technical side on things like AI, and then that changed into me being a corporate spokesman-ish as part of Microsoft.
And that changed from me being a designer talking about his current game into talking about the state of the industry. And then that changed again into me being more of a spokesman for an undefined category of a catch-bag of things, everything from what I thought about the indie stuff to what I thought about corporate life.
All of those things have changed.
While that's been going on, of course, the press has changed. It's gone from being you would give an interview and six to eight weeks later the interview would come out in print. That's gone from now you give an interview and between six and eight hours later, it's live.
And we've gone from -- our readership, if you like, has gone from the silent majority who had no voice except through maybe reader's letters, which was a complete misnomer, into the immediate capacity to blog and immediate capacity to react. And one of the things that I'm always surprised about is just how fast the reaction is.
I've seen articles posted and then I've seen reactions come from those posted articles in seconds and you think, "How can this person have a chance to have read and digested that whole article?"
What strikes me about it is I've been on the supply side of that for a while and I've seen it change my career and go off in different directions because of it. What strikes me about a lot of this is there's a reaction, but there doesn't seem to be that internal gut check of, "Do I even need to have an opinion on this?"
Yeah, well. Yeah. That's true.
But don't forget the thing we spoke about yesterday as well: If you post, there is a gratification, a score almost, to posting. The number of people that retweet you and the number of people that comment on your post. And Twitter -- I've always thought Twitter is kind of like a game. The score is the number of followers and the number of retweets you get.
Very often -- I have friends who do this to famous people. They will and try and say something amusing to famous famous people because they know that they're going to get retweeted more and they're gonna get more followers, and they're proud of the number of followers you've got. Quite often, that can be people's motivation. Not that they have perhaps a view. It's just we human beings like to be noticed.
We like to be the center of attention and why not comment, especially if in 120 characters or whatever it is, it's very easy to comment and some people are very clever about that. Some people are brutishly aggressive about it. That's the way that they get noticed.
But you know there's a thing in which -- there's a saying that you just cannot, it's impossible to please all the people all the time.
It's not -- you can never, even though emotionally you may want no one to react negatively to anything you say, that is an impossibility in today's world. You're either gonna aggravate someone or offend someone or people are just gonna get pissed off because that's the sunspots at the moment.
It's a very different world that we live in.
I don't know where the world is going on this side. I don't know where it's gonna end up. I suspect -- I'm obsessively fascinated with Donald Trump over in America because I think he has kind of said, "Fuck all this political correctness. I haven't got time for political correctness." But you know, in a weird sort of way, I can see -- I can't imagine what his Twitter feed's like. It must be poison. But he's said, "Fuck all that. I'm just gonna go and stand on my soapbox and say what I believe."
You know, there's an honesty to that which is kind of refreshing in this because I think the public image, especially the political life, tries to be as antiseptic as possible and tries to make no waves at all and not say anything that is going to offend anybody, which is incredibly hard to do.
So I don't know where the world's going to end up in all of this in this social experiment we're in.
Were you familiar with the show Breaking Bad?
Yeah, I know Breaking Bad.
It's interesting that you bring Donald Trump up, because increasingly I am bringing him up as an analogue to the vitriol and entitlement in videogames -- it's not just in that bubble. It comes from the same spot in the world. But there was also a thing with Walter White's wife not just the character Skyler but also the actor who played her. Do you remember that she also wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about that?
No. I've not been exposed to that at all, but I'm fascinated by it.
I can send it to you, but basically she wrote reacting to the same things we're talking about: Where is this coming from?
I always like to ask people outside of America: Does this seem like a distinctly American thing that --
No. I think England, Britain, it's leapt on that bandwagon where perhaps other countries in Europe haven't. But we very much -- you've got to remember, the press in Britain have got a tradition of building people up and then slamming them down again.
Yeah, the libel laws are completely different.
Yeah. Very different. And you've got The Sun newspaper that absolutely revels in doing that sort of stuff, and they're very very good at corralling public opinion and making people hated. There's some really good examples of this where we had -- well, it's a very long example and I won't go into it, but there was Big Brother. I'm sure you know what Big Brother is. It's out of fashion now.
But there was a character in Big Brother there called Jade, and she was plainspoken, sort of London girl. [Laughs.] And The Sun got behind her and she almost reached A-list celebrity status because of this, and then she said one unfortunate thing, which was a racist remark and The Sun just destroyed her utterly. [Laughs.] I shouldn't laugh, really, it's just a perfect -- she only came back into favor when she announced that she had cancer, and of course The Sun got right behind her again.
But, you know, it just shows that public opinion can be influenced and swayed and now that people can comment on it, you know -- she almost had to go into hiding when this hatred campaign was against her. It was quite harrowing to see because she was quite innocent, plain-speaking sort of person who -- okay, she went on Big Brother so she should have known what she was getting, but she didn't really appreciate the full burden of that complete life.
Anyway. It's a fascinating thing. We are digressing a little bit.
No, it's all related. To connect it more expediently, though: What more do you think entities in the game industry or the games media to combat or assuage or at least dilute some of this stuff?
Of course, the answer here is very simple. You've got to be more and more and more politically correct to make your community or your followers or whatever you call them these days is genuinely behind you. And unfortunately, the best way of doing that is to not say anything controversial and not to talk about anything that's absolute fact and if you feel like sticking a head up and being a spokesman, you'd better be damn well qualified with exactly what you say. You know, the public opinion pieces, if you like, are very very dangerous these days unless you've got a cast-iron soul, and the problem is with saying things that are reactionary if if you are representing a team of people or a product, it can affect the product.
So my fear is that the world turns into a very antiseptic, very bland place where conversations that you and I could have over a beer, which could result in really interesting insightful pieces would be too terrifying even to commenters. But I do think that we are in the middle of an evolving medium which only in its infancy.
There are many court cases yet to come out and many legal battles which will, I'm sure, end up defining what we think of as the digital free space which we have right now. And you can already feel the kind of net neutrality under slight threat, and it's only gonna take -- in this world, it's only gonna take some tipping point event, some smallish event which could cause dramatic difference. There have been people over here who have very sadly committed suicide over net bullying, which is another form of this and you only need that to continue a little bit and the powers that be, whoever they are, are going to decide that this needs to have regulation, perhaps. Which would be a shame, I guess.
But it feels like a bit of an experiment at the moment.
I suppose the analogy is -- and it's an interesting analogy, actually -- that we're all now living in the equivalent of a little, small midtown America or mid-England village where if you live village life, you can't do anything in a small village without everybody gossiping about it and everybody talking about, "Oh, I saw you holding the hands of someone in the coal shed."
Or whatever it is, and that goes around the village.
That was very much part of village life, the gossip, and maybe this is another example. Maybe this is gossip times infinity in that now everybody has the power to gossip about everybody, not just the people who live in the small village.
Does that make sense or does it sound insane?
No, it sounds like Salem days in a petri dish, is what I would say -- and have said.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
One of the things is you never know nowadays, of course, if you are a celebrity: When you are going to be photographed and when you are going to be found out, even if it’s on a trivial thing. I mean, there's a blogger over here. She's become quite famous.
And, you know, the front page of the national newspaper was her personal trainer stayed at her house until 4 o'clock in the morning. I mean, you know, that's like village-life gossip on a sort of international scale. Of course, that whole hashtag appears now on Twitter and everyone comments. "I just have to look at her to know that she's a slag."
And you know, "God. These things are so hurtful."
They must be hurtful.
You have to anesthetize yourself against them.
Well, I was gonna ask, speaking of celebrity: I don't know, it's kind of a cheesy question, but when did you realize that you had become successful or you "made it" in videogames?
I always truly believed I had an absolute destiny to fail at everything I did.
And that was kind of drummed into me right from my school years where I was just terrible at everything I did and I was painfully kind of shy and introverted and I just got the lowest possible marks in everything from sports to everything. So, built into my DNA was this belief that everything I touched turned to dark brown.
And, you know, that in a way is a liberating thing. It doesn't sound like a liberating thing, but I've got a friend who is the exact opposite of that. He believes that everything he does will be unbelievably successful. We have these conversations about what belief structure makes a better person and a person who believes he will succeed and one who believes that everything they touch will turn to brown or someone who believes everything they touch will turn to gold.
Anyway. So, when I did my first proper game that I did, which was Populous in 1989 and, you know, I did the game purely and utterly because it was kind of born slightly out of my incompetence as a coder and the reason why in the game the player changes the landscape is because I couldn't work out how to get the little people to move around the landscape. So I just thought, "I'll just change the landscape." Anyway.
After trying to get it signed up with a publisher, a lot of the publishers said no.
We finally did sign it up with Electronic Arts, and this chap, after it was released, this chap called -- there was two events that just took me by incredible surprise. The first event was that a journalist called Bob White -- I remember him well -- he was from this very respected magazine called Ace and he phoned up and said, "I really want to come around to your office."
I had never really met a journalist before.
I said, "Fine." And I took him out -- I thought, "Well, you've got to get journalists drunk." That's what your job is.
That old stereotype, yes.
I took him down to the pub -- we took him down to the pub and plied him with a huge amount of alcohol and I was dying to ask the one question, which was obvious, which any person would ask: "What do you think of the game?"
[Laughs.] And he said, "Oh! Populous is one of the best games I've ever played."
And this immediate thought went in my mind: "He must never touch the game again because he must have done something wrong."
So that's a little insight into maybe it was going to be more than just a crushing failure.
And then about three weeks later, after it being released and these review scores came in and they were incredibly high, David Gardner, who worked at Electronic Arts -- he's still in the industry now -- phoned me up and said, "How's it feel to be a millionaire?"
It was an incredible statement. I almost dropped the phone. He didn't quite caveat it right, because what he should have said was, "However, with the royalty structure you negotiated, it's gonna many years before you see any of it."
[Laughs.] How did it feel, though?
Well, like all of -- it didn't feel real at all.
It doesn't feel real.
There was a temptation to, you know, want to stop and to say, "Well, that's it."
There wasn't enough money on the table to even consider stopping, but there was this debate about do we sort of take the money and run sort of thing or do we put all the money back into the company and make the company bigger and get more people in and work on more games, and that was the decision point to do that.
And then, after that we had a proper team. Before that it was just me and someone called Glenn Corpes, really. I mean, there was a couple of other people but it was just work-experience people. And then after that, that gave us the money to start building a small company in Bullfrog, and that was -- that grew to about 35 people before we were acquired by Electronic Arts, and that was, you know, that acquisition process was bizarre in the extreme. That was very bizarre.
And after that, you suddenly have this amount of money which is life-changing. Because, you know, before that I didn't really have any money at all. I had minus money.
And after that it really was quite an end. It was like winning the lottery in a way, it was quite obviously amazing and incredible, but also disturbing because a lot of what -- especially your friends, when you suddenly almost stumble upon a lifestyle which was inconceivable before just don't -- can't really make sense of it. So you lose a lot of your friend structure.
That is true within the company itself. I mean, it's a very long, long story but it sounds ridiculous: How could someone not really think that getting money was a negative. It's not a negative, but it does change you. It changes you in ways you could never imagine, really.
The thing about it is, and I do not know firsthand, but I do have what is perceived success, which is just as damaging and isolating. You're talking about people coming out of the woodwork -- I'm gonna guess and you can tell me if I'm wrong, but this is based on me and people I know -- asking for money, expressing an interest in the things you're doing suddenly when they weren't even supportive of before --
-- coming to you with their problems while you're just trying to figure out why you were doing this in the first place because this outcome is not what you anticipated or even expected.
Yeah. It's like -- you become a different person to them and you're right. It is incredibly painful when friends ask you for money because it's not the money issue, it's just the painful process of going through that, and you realize that as soon as you lend them -- or give them the money because, you know --
It's a gift. [Laughs.]
It's a gift. Essentially.
Yeah. They're not going to be able to pay it back.
They're not. And it's changed your friendship forever. There's no way that you can be friends in the same way you were before. So it's almost -- there's a sense of grief when you give money to people and it's kind of very sad and there were quite a lot of people like that who I still regret losing their friendship.
And of course you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.
Either way, there's no way that you can get it. And it's just that the people -- one day you've got nothing in the bank at all, and the next day you've got money in the bank and certainly people treat you in a different, different way. Not that I'd ever get the money back, of course, but it took -- I ended up having to have counseling at that time in my life because it was very disturbing, mainly because I had run Bullfrog from about two people to about 30 people, and these were 30 close friends.
I mean, it's an amazing experience to be a part of a team that is producing successful games. There's some incredible camaraderie that's there, and then suddenly the company is sold and it changes. You lose 30 friends, essentially, because you really do become the boss at that point.
This is pre-Internet, too --
-- where the intensity comes -- in a way you're even more blindsided by it because it finds you. It's not like you can go looking around to confirm and suddenly find it.
Yeah, that's right.
It is like that phone call you were talking about, "How does it feel to be a millionaire, asterisk?"
[Laughs.] Yeah, you're right. It is. People almost attribute you with this authority, which you actually haven't gotten at all.
I'm familiar with what you're talking about. You learn to step into this role because people just project onto you that you have them, these abilities.
It's truly insane.
It is truly insane. I mean, it wasn't huge, vast sums of money. But it was enough money to have this shocking thought of I can remember walking down my local town, Guildford, and walking -- that I had only walked down only a few months ago thinking, "God, I'd love to have one of those." Or I'd look in a shop window: "I'd love to have a new pair of shoes."
And thinking, "I can afford anything in these shops." That is a -- that's an incredibly shocking experience, really.
But, you know, it's very interesting. It's fascinating how you psychologically come out the other side of that because there was one event, one conversation that completely changed my life. It was with another games developer. One of the nicest, most wonderful people in the games industry. A chap called Bruce Shelley and Bruce Shelley had worked on, like, Civilization and stuff like that. We met one time -- it was one industry event, I can't remember exactly what it was -- and for some reason we were talking about our lives and our lives meant.
Bruce said something, and this is my mantra in my life now.
He said, "You know, all I want is on my tombstone to have over the top of my tombstone written, 'Here lies a nice guy.'"
And that is exactly what I think about life. If you can be a nice, fair person, that makes all the difference in your life. That has sort of rung in my mind so many times, just that one statement: "All I want on my tombstone to have 'here lies a nice guy.'"
Because, you know, it's a wonderful life aspiration. To be nice. And to be regarded as fair, as well.
I've always tried to be incredibly fair, as fair as I could be, especially with the teams I worked with.
Are you familiar with the band Nirvana?
Yeah, I know Nirvana. Yeah.
I was just watching the documentary about Kurt Cobain, and a lot of this stuff about fame and treatment of the media is germane to this conversation. But part of what strikes me about him and his beliefs and these things you're saying is just how ordinary they were and the messages that he had, which is basically what you just said, which is: Let's try to treat each other nice.
I guess this is a big philosophical question, and maybe you disagree: Why does the world seem to be so cruel to people who are just trying to be kind? [Laughs.]
It's a really good question. The interesting point about that question is so many -- when you do get kind of exposed to this world where people have wealth or they're retired or they're comfortable, so many of them are just horrible people. [Laughs.] They're just absolutely horrible people to the point where you just don't want anything to do with them.
They've kind of forgotten that the reason is to just be a nice person to everyone.
The problem with the word "nice" is there is no checkbox for "nice." Everybody can always -- you know, I've always --
Whenever I go to a show or whenever I give a talk, I always try and talk to everybody who wants to talk to me and I don't know quite why they want my autograph, and if they email me, I always try to respond to the email. That's part of the tickboxes of "nice."
But you're always gonna forget someone. You're always gonna miss someone. When you're trying to be nice, there's some conversation that someone wants to have to you that you're gonna end up blanking them and they're gonna end up hating you.
But also, remember that there is a -- it's like, now, Michael Jackson.
I don't know what your views of Michael Jackson are. I don't know whether he was actually guilty of misconduct with young kids, but he was destroyed by the press over here completely.
I think all he was someone that really wanted to entertain people and he dedicated his entire life to it. I think that's what he was. He was that simple.
But there's no story in that, is there?
The story is that he was in an oxygen tank and he had his chimpanzee and he had these kids around. That's more of a story. And of course, we human beings do love juicy gossip. But, yeah, there we go.
Well, so part of the reason I'm asking about these other things, too, is I'm curious: After you had that phone call and things changed and started to -- I wouldn't characterize it as things improving for you, but you certainly decided to change something.
But I'm curious, what were your interests and passions outside of games at that time in your life, when you were making Populous and pondering what to make next? I'm not asking what are your inspirations from, but what else did you steep yourself in?
Yes, you see, you're painting a more dimensional picture of a person than I actually am because --
[Laughs.] Because games are pretty much well it as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I say that but, you know, obviously my family, my son, is a huge inspiration. I find it amazingly inspirational what he finds fascinating and what he obsesses over. It's an incredible inspiration. At the moment he's obsessively passionate about CS:GO and I am stealing, blatantly stealing some of the passion he has for trading in the game that I'm working on at the moment because I think there's that realization that he gets so excited about the potential of getting something. Once he's got it, it doesn't mean anything to him. But the anticipation of getting it.
Do you feel like you lost dimensions as a creative person, then? Like, did you have other passions than games in the '80s and '90s?
No. No. I mean, you know, I would sit and stare at the wall until I found a Pong machine. That's the way I feel about it. I do watch television and I enjoy watching television. I watch it perhaps for an hour a day, maybe at most with my family.
But when I'm not watching television or cooking or experiencing things with my son, I'm playing games. When I'm not playing games, then I'm writing games.
The difference now between pre-Rock, Paper, Shotgun article and post-Shotgun article, which is a huge difference is that now I've thought, "Right. If I'm not doing any press anymore, you know, that's in a way less work. I don't have to go to conferences anymore. So what'm I gonna do with all that extra time?"
And I decided that I would start coding again and that's indeed what I've done.
So I know, you know, I spend a lot of -- about two-thirds of time at work coding where I used those two-thirds doing press and running the business.
Because now I've got, at 22Cans, as a result, directly of the Rock, Paper, Shotgun's article, there was a CEO here, Simon, who has taken off that burden of running a company. And it is a burden. So that's enabled me to get back into coding again, which is just wonderful. It's just -- it's almost as if I've kinda remembered, you know, what it's like to be really creative.
Because when you're a designer, you're creative on a piece of paper. You can't -- it's almost like -- I always think being a designer these days, especially, it's like whispering in an artist's ear that's got a canvas and a paintbrush. You know, "Why don't you put a bit of paint on the left hand side of the canvas."
It's not actually in touch with creativity. You're not on the coalface of creativity, and coding has allowed me to get back to that, that closeness to that creative edge. You know, I'm fabulously enjoying it and, in fact, the next release we have, a fair well slag of code will be from me and that's gonna make me feel wonderfully proud that it's not only ideas I can contribute, it's actually doing those ideas. That was a slight reaction to the Rock, Paper, Shotgun article because a lot of the time when you say or you design something, you're designing it through these documents that you roll out to a team and then that team interprets those documents and quite often it loses something in that interpretation. Of course, your job as a designer is to make sure that stuff is not important. But if you code it yourself, then you can do exactly what's in your head.
That's been a fascinating, but very time-consuming thing to do.
I wanted to ask you a little about being on the some of the other end of this stuff, being at bigger companies at other points of your career. Specifically, when it comes to stuff like management and creative decisions.
So when you're working on big, big, big games, how are creative decisions actually even made?
There is a kind of formula.
Well, this is the reality about computer games. Unless you're working on some very, very defined sequel, then a lot of what happens in a project creatively happens at the end. Happens in the last -- I would say, 25 percent of the entire creative energy in the project happens in the last 10 percent of the time in the crunch, in what we traditionally call crunch.
And the way the creative process works is you start off with these things called pillars.
Some companies call them pillars, some companies call them X statements, like EA's interpretation of them. They are, "Right, this is what we're going to build. We're gonna build a role-playing game where the character is going to morph to reflect the morality of the person playing. We're going to make you feel like a hero."
These are X statements that you have underneath.
And after you've done that, there is an incredibly tedious amount of time. I can't begin to explain to you how tedious this time is where nothing happens whatsoever other than the creation of tools, the creation of all the engines stuff, all the physics stuff, all the animation stuff -- all of that stuff has to be put together.
The interesting thing is a lot of projects have these very lumpy milestones. One of them is called greenlight, which publishers often have, which is the checkpoint of whether or not the game should go ahead. Other checkpoints are things like E3s and doing demos for E3s.
But, at the start of the project, it's just frustratingly slow.
You, as a designer, can go away and you can design reams and pages and pages of design documents, which would never be read or seen by anyone because they're pretty pointless at the start because you're still waiting for the shaders so you can have shadows so that you can walk through an environment which doesn't look absolute rubbish.
And that goes on until probably halfway through the project, and when you get to this first important milestone -- probably the most problematic for a designer, the most stressful time in a project is something called "first playable."
That's where all the tools have been constructed and made and your core pillars are in some way demonstrable. So, in Fable, the big thing about Fable is morality and the morphing character and him changing. You can see him morphing. And you can attack things with a sword or with magic or with a range weapon.
And then you have the first playable, and the worst part about first playable is, of course, the team -- these are the people who are working hard, that dedicated a life and career to this project -- get to play the game. [Laughs.]
I would say 9 times out of 10 that ends up as being the team having statements like, "Well, we don't know what the fuck this game is. It's a load of rubbish. I hate it. This is the most boring thing I've ever played."
But that first playable thing, that's when you're really able to engage designers because you've got all the stuff that you can start painting the picture. If you use the artist analogy again, if the first part of painting one amazing picture was going to the shops and finding all the paint and buying a canvas and, you know, that's how creative the first section really was. You may decide, "I'm going to paint the most beautiful landscape ever." That's your pillars. But it takes you half the time to buy all the paints and stuff like that.
You then get the first playable section, you then start putting stuff together. There's still a lot of tools work going on, and it's not until you're about halfway through that -- so three-quarters of the way through the project, you're actually starting to make creative decisions about what the real direction of the game is.
And most of those creative decisions are formed, bizarrely, around the start of the game. The start of the game is always the most difficult to do. It's insanely hard to do because kind of -- and I've made so many mistakes with the start of games. It's unbelievable. But you kind of want to show the person who's paid money for this gaming experience. You want to show them all the toys. You want to give them as much as you can as early as you can because they're frightened they might just go away. So you can over-saturate and overwhelm the player with stuff which they don't end up caring about. You've gotta have an incredibly subtle approach to introducing those game mechanics at the right time and the right pace and it takes a very, very long time to meter that stuff out.
And very often you get to the end of that start stage of the game, especially in console games, and you think, "Crikey, I've got all this stuff which I haven't used."
There's no space to tell people about trees that grow and all of that stuff. We're gonna have to put it to one side and we're gonna have to leave it out there, and then you slowly start to build out the rest of the game, which is usually built out from pieces that you've already gotten. That last section of the game, that real crunch period where you're trying to file all those pieces, very often that's where the real creativity and the real tweaking and the real balancing comes in that makes a difference.
But I have always said the same: Making a computer game is almost impossible.
It should be impossible because especially in today's world, you're not only making a computer game, you're writing a story. You're not only writing a story, you're making tech very often which has never been seen before. And you're not only making tech and writing a story, you're creating interfaces which have to be, by definition, so simple and so understandable that make any digital product look childish. There's so many skills that have to come together to make a great experience.
You just reminded me of an email I got earlier this summer from a developer I'm friendly with up in Canada. I told him I might be working on my first book and he said, "I wish I was just an author, something that is one-dimensional. Just me and a typewriter and time. Making games, you have to be an industrial designer, an architect, a writer, a game designer, a voice actor, a musician, a cinematographer, a director, a player tester, etc., etc."
Yeah. It's amazingly hard.
It's amazingly hard to do, and it requires an incredible amount of patience.
I mean, last night, after I got off the call with you -- this is why life is so much better now than it was before. For some unbeknownst reason, I got insanely excited about one feature of the game that I'm working on while on the environment. And I said, "Fuck it. I'm gonna code it tonight. I'm not gonna go to sleep. I'm gonna code it tonight. And sure enough, I managed to almost finish it off.
That's what so brilliant about me going back to coding, is I can do that. If I had that in a big team, in a Fable team, which is 150 people, I can get that excited and it wouldn't be for another, probably, three months before I would see anything of that idea. So you have to have the patience and even remembering, "Oh, Jesus! I did have that idea, didn't I?"
One of the reasons I've gotten in trouble in the press is often I would talk to the press and I would say things like, "Oh, I just got this really good idea for Fable or for whatever. Why don't we do this?
And of course, when it comes down to it, it either doesn't fit in the game or it's not as important as some other feature.
When you are working on a team of 150 -- and I have talked to some people who have been on teams with you or other people elsewhere who have been on big games with teams this size. And sometimes there's a feeling of there being a cabal of middle management where it feels like their ideas aren't being heard or obviously there's the other challenge where you have 150 people: How can they all even agree on what is creative?
From your position above middle management, how do you guard against that so that people feel like their ideas are being heard and considered even if they're not being executed on?
Yeah, well it's very difficult. The way I do it -- well, to start off with, the biggest nightmare is when you come in in the morning and you see that someone has been coding away all night and they say to you, "I've had this great idea."
And that can be an incredible nightmare because these people have put an incredible nightmare because these people have put an enormous amount of passion into something and, you know, they're trying to make things look great and sometimes they think those ideas fit, and really inspired by those ideas, you say, "Yeah, that's great." There's someone I work with called Adam Langridge who was just a genius at doing that stuff. He would have these ideas, he would execute them, and he'd show you a demo. "Why don't we do this?" And -- brilliant.
I worked with Mark Healey and Alex Evans, who run a company called Media Molecule now who did LittleBigPlanet, and they were just brilliant at doing that stuff, of having an idea and actually doing the homework on it so they could demo the idea and many ideas that they had went into games like Black & White and The Movies and some of the demos that I showed. So, those are the brilliant people.
There are another sort of people, that have an idea and it's in their head, and it never comes out of their head. But they really feel they're not listened to.
The answer is in a big team, if you really want your idea to be heard, you've got to go that extra mile. You can't just expect to bump into someone while they're making a cup of coffee and say, "I've got this idea. Wouldn't it be brilliant if we did this?" That's never gonna get anywhere. Because really what you're talking about in a team -- of course everybody's got ideas. But if you end up jumping from one idea to another idea to another idea, you end up with just a big mess.
You don't end up with, you know, something that's brilliant.
What I say to anyone who's working on a big team: If you've got an idea and you really believe it? If you're a coder, code the idea. Do it in your spare time. It's worth doing because those people -- Adam Language and Mark Healy and Alex Evans were recognized for their creativity and their extra mile that they went to. If you're an artist, you know, take the extra time to draw it. And if you can't do either of those things, then try and explain it as clearly as possible and try and give something to someone that they can hold and that they can see and they can experience.
Nowadays, with things like Unity -- which I'm a huge unity fan -- and things like a lot of the art packages out there, there is no excuse for not going that extra mile. It may mean you have to learn something new, but you have to go the extra mile. You just cannot expect to have an idea at two o'clock -- even I wouldn't do this. I would never think of going to the team and saying, "I've just had an idea. Everyone stop what they're doing and work on this idea."
You've got to go -- what I did last night was what I think you should do. You have to go that extra mile there yourself to actually, if you really, truly believe in that idea. And of course, pick your moment. So many times I've had people come and say, "Oh, I've had a really good idea for Fable, why don't we do this?"
And we're in final testing. You know, it's pointless. No one's going to stop the release of the game. A AAA game is on a 26-week release cycle. That means 26 weeks before the release, you are pretty much locked and loaded. You have no flexibility. Once this meeting at Microsoft called "go/no go," once you're through that, that's it. You're locked and loaded. You can't afford to leap off on creative visions.
So if you want to be creative on a team, do the homework and pick your time. Pick your moment. A perfect moment is when the game is first playable. That's the time.
But there are some people that you kind of walk past in a big team and you just think, "Oh, there's something about them. They've got an idea inside them." But they just can't get it out.
But, yeah, I've always loved the moment where you can think of yourself as a curator as much as a designer. In other words, you're kind of cherry-picking other people's ideas and trying to get other people to have a great idea is part of a designer's job, I think. It's not to come up with ideas yourself. It's to nurture people to come up with great ideas of their own.
For people who don't really keep up with videogames and don't really know what's going on with them today in any capacity, can you explain why project management is so difficult on games at a giant, giant scale?
Well, the thing is there's not many -- well, I could almost say there's no other creative endeavor I can think where so many people are pushed together in such an incredibly small space for such a long time. So, in the Fable example, there were about a 120 people in one big office for, like, three years. Now, that -- and they're all creative. They're all creative people. They're artists and programmers and animators and musicians and all of those people are you're asking, very simply, for them to give their life, their soul, and everything into a game because that's what makes a great game.
If anyone asks, there's always that question, "What makes a great game?" Easy. No problem. I can answer that very simply. Great people make a great game. It's obvious. And if you've got great people, then, you've got 100 people, you've got this mix of egos. You've got people who will hide away in this corner and try and be as small and as quiet as they possibly can. And then you've got other people that will feel that they have to explode everyday. You've got people on the edge of insanity.
So all of that stuff is all going on. All this melting pot. There's always a problem. Always someone's got a problem.
I've had the most bizarre problems to deal with you could never even guess. Everything from bullying going on to -- I'd love to be able to you about these things because some of them are truly astounding what you have to deal with. And the job of middle management, really, is to hold the torch as high as they possibly as they can as far out as they possibly can and say, "Come on, everyone follow this." And to make sure everyone knows what they're making. This is the bizarre thing, especially when you're doing an innovational title -- it's also about when you're doing a sequel, but when you're doing an innovational title, people just forget what they're making. They forget. You're doing something for two years, and it sounds bizarre, but they forget they're making a game.
And it's the job of middle management to recognize when the team is starting to spin out of control, which is quite often an emotional thing, but it can also be purely a function of people getting tired and to hold that torch out there and to remind people.
Now, there are always tricks in this that I've used, which are very simple tricks and they bizarrely work. They were pretty hard to do in a very large team, but much easier in the slightly smaller team. That is, every single Friday to have a meeting and talk about what has happened in the last week and what we hope to happen next week. That is as simple as that, and it's a meeting that you try and encourage everyone to talk in and to go over what their thoughts are.
Sometimes it's someone like me standing on a soapbox, talking about why the next feature is so exciting. Sometimes it's people showing off what they're working on. Sometimes it's people showing, you know, talking about negative stuff. But having that is terribly important.
Especially in the last few years, in the last 10 years, this advent of sprint -- you must have heard of agile development and spring.
Yeah. It sounded like some of what you're talking about was also scrum, too.
Yeah. It was scrum. It's really helped. That structure has really helped.
It is still a very dangerous game because scrum can end up being -- I have seen teams over the years. [Laughs.] They're not making a game anymore, they're just scrumming. That's all they're doing, scrumming.
And you can turn around to them and say, "You know, well what are you doing?" "Well, it's important we get this step." They've forgotten completely what they're making and they're just spinning on this scrum thing. But I'm a great believer in it. I think it's a real science and you have to über good at running scrum and a scrum master who really knows what they're doing and can spot things. But it's a very difficult thing to do and it's a rollercoaster of emotion in that you can -- especially, I think sequels tend to have their own distinct problems to them that there's a lot of things that are a little bit easier in sequels. Some things are harder, and some things are easier, but when you're working on a new title, it is like exploring a new country without a map. You're never sure whether you're going to go down some blind alley or you're gonna come and see a wonderful view.
What business practices do you think should change to improve the game industry?
I mean, one of the things -- and this is quite a controversial point. I am a great believer in crunch. I think we did have a spell in this industry of us trying to say, "Oh, we condemn crunch."
But crunch is energy, and that's what you need, is you need that energy in people and you do need to all come together. There's this wonderful thing that happens to human beings when they're faced with the impossible, which is that they often bring their best foot forward and that's what you need.
So I wouldn't get rid of that stuff.
I do think, though, that the whole approval process that the industry goes through -- the greenlight process that a lot of publishers use do just by definition mean that very often games that should absolutely be made never get made. I'm not sure that Kickstarter is the answer to that. It seemed like it was going to be the answer for that for a while, but I actually think that Kickstarter is not a great place. It's a personal opinion and I'm sure people will flame me to death for it. It's not a great a place for getting money from backers if you're doing a very innovational product because it requires those backers to have a huge amount of imagination unless you can actually show what you're making.
So I think the industry needs to go through some evolution about how we can make those games. I'm sure there are hundreds of games that would've been made that should've been made. How we can make those games a reality by not going through the really quite painful greenlight process that all publishers go through, and of course realizing that very often great games don't get made because teams need more support or they need more talent, so I wish there was a re-flowing of talent in the industry because if you look at Hollywood, for example, a lot of their talent moves very fluidly between project to project. Where, in this industry, people tend to stick in one place and so I think if you really wanted to continue making great strides forward in creativity, we do need to find ways of greenlighting or kicking off projects which may initially seem badly presented or maybe the people who are showing the project off haven't done a particularly good demo there or a fantastic demo there -- then trying to find ways of getting great people to work on those great ideas.
You also mentioned Kickstarter. What do you make of that Shenmue III Kickstarter? That's a question I was not expecting to ask you, but we ended up --
It is interesting that Sony actually announced it onstage.
I'm including that as part of the question, yeah.
I suspect that -- and this is a suspicion -- if they had just launched it on Kickstarter, they wouldn't have gotten the height of pledging that they got.
I worry about anybody going through the mill of Kickstarter because it's so easy to get swept up on the tide of what Kickstarter is with stretch goals. If you look at some of the stretch goals -- and some of the stretch goals on a lot of Kickstarter projects are just ridiculously huge in comparison with the amount of money that you're getting. "For $50,000 more, suddenly you're introducing multiplayer." And multiplayer doesn't take $50,000 to make, it takes a ton of time to make.
So, you know, I do worry about it.
What I hope is that they get the money they need to make Shenmue into the game we always hoped it would be, which was like this incredible open-world game which seemed far more detailed and open world than before, but it's a hell of a ride, Kickstarter. It's a hell of a ride.
Do you think it's weird that they announced it on the stage during E3?
Well, here's the thing. Why didn't Sony just back the project?
You could almost read it, "Well, we don't want to back this, so why don't you guys all back it?"
A lot of people did read it that way.
Yeah, they did. It's interesting, you know. Maybe Microsoft should give it a try with the next Halo.
People had joked that Sega is gonna use the money they get from it to re-establish themselves and then next year at E3, "Hey, here's gonna be Dreamcast 2. It'll be announced at E3 and Kickstarter it and these are the stretch goals of all the different games we would make."
But what does seem to be missing in this dynamic is people who make games making the games they want to make.
That's an interesting question in and of itself because there's an interesting point in that. It's not only the games you want to make, it's who you want to make it for.
Now that, if you start saying that, that actually changes a lot with the way you think. Because what my absolute passion -- this is what I believe. It's a childish belief. I know it's a childish belief, but it's an interesting one.
Before I started in the games industry, there was a person in Britain called Clive Sinclair, and he made through his sheer force of will one of the first home computers called the ZX81. I don't know if you've ever seen one or heard about it or anything like that.
And his -- I saw an interview with him, and this is back in the early '80s, I think, and he said, "You know what we've got here? We have got a home computer and you can make games on this home computer, and these games will be the most dominant entertainment medium in the world."
Now, he was off, yeah, by many many decades.
But I've always been fascinated by that statement.
Maybe because -- I mean, I'm a fan of great television, but let's be honest. A huge amount of television is just mind-fog just so that people can just burn away their lives without having to think about what else to do and that's a horrible thing.
And the beauty about computer games is they involve the player, and I've always been obsessed about that. And the thing I think is we're at almost a crossroads at the moment with mobile.
And, you know, it's amazing the number of people that have played Candy Crush. It's incredible the number of people that have played Clash of Clans, that have played Boom Beach -- I mean, we're talking about hundreds of millions. Not tens of millions. Hundreds of millions of people have played these games.
But what else is there for them? Where do they go after that? Do they go off immediately to some hardcore game? No. That's still gonna be -- that's too big a leap. I think if we gave them the right game, we could change people's lives. And that's what I am fascinated -- the game I want to do. I mean, I've got a wishlist of games that I want to do for hardcore audiences and I'm working on one of those at the moment, but my obsession at the moment -- imagine we can give true innovation to those people that are just starting to get a bit bored with Candy Crush. And are just starting to get a bit bored with the Supercell approach, and that's what I find absolutely fascinating, because for a designer that is the ultimate sensation, is to see someone playing your game and to know that the person playing your game, you know, you've grabbed just a little bit of their mind and their memories and that's a wonderful, wonderful sensation. So, you know, a lot of my obsession at the moment is could you make a game which inspires hundreds of millions of people?
I think from the outside, though, people would say the same about videogames in general and don't make those distinctions. They may know what Candy Crush is but don't consider themselves "gamers" because they don't play Halo, but they would lump all of videogames together and also call it mind-fog.
Yeah. Well, yes. They would.
And there are games that are mind-fog absolutely. Even the worst of the mind-fogs, and I've played a lot of mind-foggy games. Even that is less -- if you look at someone's brain waves under an MRI scanner, I have seen them when they're interacting with a game. They are using more of their brains than they are at the alpha states that they go into when they passively watch television.
Especially, the other thing is, and we're getting maybe a little too much into the game itself is especially if you make it a community -- I'd love to show you the game because you would see at the absolute designer's reaction to everything that's happened to me in that game.
I know you had made some comments before about people making games independently, where your tone seemed to be, "Enjoy it while it lasts, your moment in the sun." What do you think people are coming up in the community now -- what do they not grasp about what's ahead for them?
Yeah, I mean, the first thing is that every industry and the community -- we're a proper industry now, and every industry has its cycles, and I would say it's about a 7-year cycle, and we've been through probably three of these cycles. In my experience, we've been through this three times, where you have these little companies -- indies, we now call them. We didn't use to call them -- we used to call them devs before. But they're called indies now.
They spring up out of nowhere, these little chutes spring up, and some of them get acquired, some of them wither away, and some of them flourish into much bigger things.
We're just coming to the point where it's a lot harder for indies to flourish now. Partly, now, that's due to the bigger developers have realized that the low-hanging fruit of Steam or the App Store or the Android Store is something that they should focus on. So once they start, or once publishers they start developing and layering in the layers of quality, which consumers obviously want, then it gets a lot tougher for indies. That's no bad thing, necessarily, it just means indies have to work harder and it's tougher and they have to get more money.
So we're going through that cycle of this flourishing of those small indies and then this distillation of those indies into bigger groups or the consuming of them into bigger groups or, indeed, them dying off.
Then there's going to be a time when there's hardly any indies at all.
You know, everyone would say -- and I can remember this in the '90s and I can remember this in the 2000's: "Oh God, I wouldn't even think of starting a computer games company now."
And there's this terrible fallow period and then we grew up again.
So I would say to an indie at the moment is -- the first thing is obvious.
Just have one idea. Just do one thing brilliantly and make sure the thing you do has never been done before because at this point in this cycle, you just can't, "Oh, I'll do a Clash of Clans and I'll do it better than Clash of Clans because it'll have pixies rather than fairies or whatever it is."
Your opportunity is to do something which other people just aren't doing, and especially at this stage in the cycle, you've gotta spend a huge amount of time on polish.
I mean, in the early cycle days, when indies were just coming out and doing things which aren't sequels and stuff like that, you can get away without doing polish, but the amount of polish you have to add now is insane. And that costs a lot of money.
And then whatever money you think you need when you start out, you probably need twice that.
Just work on stuff that no one else is working on. It could be the recreation of it. I mean, a really good example is, like, Crossy Road that came out, which was a huge success, which was a recreation of Frogger. That's still innovational.
You know, if you said to me, "What game are you working on?" And I said, "I'm working on remaking of Frogger," you'd probably think I'd lost it completely but they added something to Frogger that was really, really nice.
You mentioned you were sort of stealing your son's passions. Has he expressed an interest in wanting to go into the industry himself?
Yes he has.
How do you feel about that?
That would be amazing. Incredible.
He is very, very creative and he loves computer games. Totally loves computer games.
The only problem for him, and I think this is a problem for the generation that's just coming -- you know, into their teens right now: His life has been completely tuned to immediacy. That's what kids up to the age of about 14 or 15, the structure of their brains are different to the structure of our brains because everything that they want is there immediately, and there are creative outlets which are immediate. You know, he can create a video using Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas or one of those tools. He can create a professional-looking videos in hours.
And asking him to burn away that immediacy on projects -- on a project that will take two years is almost unthinkable.
So I think he did want to be a designer and was very vocal about that, but then the reality of having to go through the mill of waiting so long is something that he may not do.
I do this thing at local schools -- I go around to local schools and do this kind of teaching thing where I show people how to make games and there's always this slight look of disappointment on people's face. [Laughs.] Because I always start off and say, "Right, we're gonna start today and by the end of the day, everyone in this room will have made their own game."
And that's what I say. Nine times out of 10, that's what happens. But then it dawns on everybody exactly how much further you have to go than just than primitive game that they've got. For that younger generation, it is all about that immediate creative outlet, as opposed to this incredible patience.
Anyway, I can hope. I wouldn't want to insist. If it's something that he finds a passion in, I back him all the way obviously.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
[Pause.] That's a very interesting question.
Well, they're culturally significant, aren't they? They're incredibly culturally significant.
Depends who you ask.
Well, I think it would be very, very hard to not give a tent to its cultural significance, whether it's the influence that they've had on places like Hollywood or the way people approach things and the way that they consume -- consume people's lives sounds negative, but the way that they use up people's spare time is undeniable.
I think we have gone from an incredibly primitive, childish industry -- well, not industry. Collection of geeks. Into a multi, multi-billion dollar industry which is -- well, I still argue this point, but it is supposedly bigger than the film and television industry combined.
And that's an incredible achievement, I think. We've built empires out of things like Electronic Arts and if the games division for Sony -- I'm not sure where Sony would be.
So I think there's an amazing -- over the 30 years of our history, really, it's about 30 years, I suppose, we've gone from nothing, really, to a culturally significant and dominant format. It's still, like everything, it's still, especially for the people who aren't exposed to games, it's still perceived in the incorrect way, I think.
A lot of politicians still, even to this day, and it's incredibly naive of them, to think that a computer games industry is defined by things like GTA. You know, I think that is starting to go away now, though, and it used to be every time there was a shooting, a computer game is blamed for the shooting.
I think people are realizing it's as diverse a medium as television and film is. Just like television and film, if you were to happen to pick a film like Saw and say, "Right, this is what represents films," it would be a pretty awful picture you'd have of it. But if you took something like Shawshank Redemption, you'd have a much broader, wonderful view of it. Same with the computer games industry.
So our achievements are huge and many and there are many people who have dedicated their lives to it and we've entertained billions. It is billions. As I said at the start, it's a really amazing thought that there's probably 100 million people playing a computer game in the world at this moment in time and that's gone from probably 1,000 people playing to 100 million. It's an incredible thing.
And the most significant thing, for me, about the computer games industry: Our greatest moment is yet to come.
You did mention we were at a crossroads.
We are. Because we can truly be mass market. This argument about, "Are we bigger than Hollywood and the music industry?" No, we're not.
Because until we can touch as many people's lives -- maybe we make more money than them but until we can touch as many people's lives as regularly as they do, we're not truly as big as them.
But we have the potential to do that. Especially if we can start realizing that more and more, computer games don't have to be a solitary experience. They can absolutely bring people together. You know, in the same incredible way, although we're negative about Facebook and Twitter, they have changed the world. Undoubtedly. And they've brought people together that never ever would have been brought together.
We can do that again with games.
We can do that in a most amazingly incredible way.
You know what? You know what the greatest game of all time is?
What do you reckon it is?
Oh, I don't know. [Laughs.] I hope it isn't out yet, because wouldn't that mean it's all downhill?
What about the greatest game so far?
Oh, I don't know. I'm sure you have one in mind, though.
Yeah. Well, it's Minecraft. It's unquestionably Minecraft.
What Minecraft enables people to do? This is amazing. It's a new way to be creative. It enable people to be creative, and we can do that in the games industry. Enabling people to make something and do something and create something they can truly be proud of and not do that in a solitary experience but do that in a community.
Minecraft shows a glimpse of that.
Which, we shouldn't say, "Well, Minecraft's it. The end of the road."
We can take this a lot further and use today's technology in ways that will just astound people.
And I truly believe that. I truly, absolutely believe it.
We can't expect a constant surge of creativity and everything to get better all the time. You need the dips and the lulls to get the next step forward. But I'm incredibly bullish about the future and I hope that I'm here to experience it and to see where the game industry can really, really go because we're still falling way behind the science-fiction writers of my youth, of my mid-twenties, like Snow Crash and creating worlds -- maybe one day we'll be up there.