Sure. My name is Ron Gilbert and I have been working in this business probably around 30 years. I live in Seattle but I don't give my age. Well, I've been working in the game business for 30 years. They can probably extrapolate my rough age. [Laughs.]
My first job was at Lucasfilm. It was called Lucasfilm back then, not LucasArts. It was Lucasfilm Games. I got the job porting Atari programs to the Commodore 64. That was kinda my first job in the business. Well, actually, it was my second job. My first job I worked at and then they went bankrupt, so I guess the Lucasfilm job was my second job in the industry.
And then I worked at Lucasfilm for eight or so years and then I started my own company called Humongous Entertainment and I worked there for about 10 years or so. I've really been making games and doing a lot of programming pretty much nonstop for the last 30 years.
I wanted to ask you about Steve Jobs. In 2011 -- I don't know if you remember this -- but you wrote a blog about having met him years and years ago. You were warned to not get into an argument with him. You wrote about getting in an argument with him. [Laughs.]
I guess he started off saying to you first thing that he doesn't believe you can tell stories in games. I'm guessing your opinion on that is obvious, so I'm just curious instead: Why do you think people still argue against that?
I don't know. That's a really good question. I thought that that was a question that was kind of resolved 20 years ago but it just doesn't seem to be and people keep bringing it up. I think a lot of it is that people that bring it up have a very narrow experience of playing games, and I think specifically in Steve Jobs' case I don't think he was a gamer at all. So I think his experience of games were basically arcade games and shooter-type games and really had no breadth of experience. I don't know this for sure. I'm just kind of assuming based on my quick conversation with him.
But I think other people that say, "Well, you can't tell stories in games," I think they have an experience with just a very limited set of games. You know, they have not played truly narrative games and really kind of understood that. I think storytelling in games is also very different than storytelling in movies or books or television or anything. It's a different structure, it's a different pacing. I suppose if you want to reframe their quote as: "We don't think you can tell movie-style stories in games," I might actually agree with that. Maybe that's what people are really saying when they say you can't tell stories in games because narrative in games takes on a very different structure to be successful.
Do you feel that is starting to change? Have those perceptions shifted? I mean, from this end -- I know you said in your emails you get tired of philosophical arguments about games, and it's not my intention to have one of those. I just feel like I see this frequently and I guess more mainstream media where there's a sloppy, disingenuous exhuming of 10-year-old arguments with the latest example of it and framing it as a new realization.
I don't know if you would agree with that. I don't know if you feel like the frequency of this has changed. I don't if it really matters. What do you think?
Well, to be honest, I really don't pay that much attention to it recently. It used to be that this was an issue that really got under my skin and I would argue it with all these people. I think now, I just tend to not pay much attention to it because, like you said, it's the argument -- and this isn't the only one, but it's one of a set of arguments that just kind of keeps coming up over and over and over again. Maybe it's just that a new group of people are exposed to gaming at a different level and they go, "Hey, wait a minute!" Then they ask the same question that's already been asked and answered three or four years ago. But I think it's just this kind of cyclic thing that happens.
You know, I'm not really tuned to what goes on in, say, like, the movie business or the music business, but I gotta believe they have the same problems. I gotta believe that there's some musical thing that keeps coming up over and over and over again that all the musicians roll their eyes and go, "My God, are we talking about this again?”
I think in music it's probably, "Well, there are only so many notes and only so many combinations."
"Everything's been done."
[Laughs.] Right. Or you have the argument about music publishers versus indie musicians and online distribution and physical distribution. There's all these things that probably just get brought up over and over and over again I think in any industry that you're in, whether it's creative or not. I think with the games business, that old issue of "can you tell stories in games?" just keeps getting brought up.
Yeah. Well, I think it's funny. Did Steve Jobs sort of stick to the script that everyone sticks to when they argue against this? Or did he have some sort of different position?
Well, no. I think it was pretty much the same script. Also, I don't think you really argue with Steve Jobs.
[Laughs.] Well, I find it interesting because there are several lingering memories of who he was, some flattering and some not flattering. But I think something everyone can agree on is he was a big champion of computers are for artists. For some reason, I just remembered when you wrote about that years ago. It stuck out to me.
Yeah. It wasn't a huge in-depth conversation. The whole thing lasted 10 minutes, if. We didn't get into a big discussion about it. My impression of leaving that discussion was he had really made up his mind and he was just telling me what he thought. It really didn't matter what I thought. He wasn't there to go: "Change my mind."
"Hey, am I wrong? Let's talk about this and let's sort this out." It was more like, "No, this is what I think." That's just kinda all there was to it.
I'm surprised, though. In all these years, why is there still no middle ground? It's either, "Games are the most advanced storytelling medium" or "Well, games can't tell stories." Like, I rarely hear anything in between.
Yeah, I think games can tell some kinds of stories really well. Certain types of genres do a really good job of storytelling and some don't. You know, I play a game like Halo or Battlefield or any of these games and you know what? I really don't care about the story. I really don't. It's just absolutely immaterial to me. I know there is a -- I guess I would call it a scenario more than a story, so to speak. But that's not why I'm there.
I'm there to shoot stuff. I'm there to do something else. And so the story is this thing that just kind of lingers on maybe for marketing reasons more than anything else. But then I play other games, games like adventure games -- whether they're modern games like Gone Home or Firewatch or classic games like Monkey Island or Thimbleweed Park and stuff and it's like, those games are about the stories. If you pulled the story out of your favorite first-person shooter I think most people probably wouldn't notice much difference, right? I think there's probably kind of a flavor and an atmosphere that the story creates to it, but it's not integral to it. But I think if you pull the story out of these games that are basically narrative games, I don't think you're left with much.
Like, a classical point-and-click adventure game, you'd be left with a whole bunch of puzzles that you were solving for absolutely no reason whatsoever. And so I think a certain type of game, you pull the story out of it and you've kind of removed the soul of the game in a way. I think there is a valid argument to be made about "are these games telling good stories?" You know, have the people that make games -- have they figured out how to tell really, really compelling stories in games? Or are games really still just borrowing the movie structure and trying to shoehorn it into this interactive experience? Because it may be that there is a yet-to-be-discovered structure for game stories that suddenly becomes amazingly compelling and everybody goes, "Oh, okay. Well, now they got it."
That certainly may be down the road for us to figure out. So, I think there is a valid argument about: Are we telling good stories in games? Or are we basically telling Scooby-Doo adventure stories in games?
[Laughs.] What do you think? It's so funny because you mentioned movies and music and I always wonder: Do people talk about the totality of movies and music in the same way that people easily get swept up in talking about capital "V" videogames?
I bet they did at some point.
I think movies have been around for over 100 years and I have no doubt that back in the '20s people had the same arguments. It's like, "Well, are movies telling stories are they just this kind of technological candy experience people are having?" I'm sure they had those. And I'm sure they had people that put on stage plays were just rolling their eyes at movies going, "Well they don't really know how to tell a story."
But I think even if you kind of look at a lot of really old movies, kind of before the Golden Age of silent movies, they really were stage plays, right? They were kind of very fixed camera-type stuff and it really looked like you were just filming a stage play. It could be that we're really in that period right now, where we kind of understand movie structure very well and we're just trying to adapt that but we haven't figured out our own language.
Where, today, I think everybody agrees that film just has its own language for storytelling. It's 100 years old. A lot of people have spent a lot of time thinking about film language, and I think people are just now -- and I might even argue that it's really only been in maybe the last five or so years that people have really, really started to push the edge of what is the language of interaction?
I would agree. I don't think that just because it's in the process of figuring it out or that it doesn't tell those types of stories well that it doesn't have merit or that it doesn't influence other works.
I remember -- maybe you recall, I don't know where you were in terms of developing Thimbleweed, but I remember I DM'ed you after an episode of Mr. Robot, which had some Commodore 64 games in it. I think they mentioned or referenced or had flashed onscreen on a DOS prompt or whatever the prompt was. They flashed onscreen, Maniac Mansion.
I'm curious: What do you feel through the years some of the older games you've worked on, what are the -- I wouldn't say overblown, but maybe hardest to believe or to discern, as far as people citing your work as an influence? That may have been a jumble of words. Basically: What or who has surprised you to learn has cited stuff you've done as an influence, be it games or other stuff?
Well, I don't know. That's a good question. I think the most surprising thing to me is that games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island have so much relevance today. Like, you could not have convinced me back then that anybody would have been talking about Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island 10 years later, let alone 25 years later.
I think that about those two games in particular, that is kind of surprising to me. Not in a shock surprising way, obviously, but in a kind of a slow build over the years surprising kind of way is the relevance those games continue to maintain. You mentioned the thing on Mr. Robot and there have been some other TV shows that have not directly referenced them but indirectly referenced them just in terms of artstyle and point-and-click stuff and it's very obvious what they're referencing. I think what you're seeing is you're seeing these people that are making television shows grew up with that stuff.
People who are making television shows when I was in my twenties didn't grow up with videogames. They barely really even knew arcade games. So, now, we're seeing this whole generation of people who are making movies and television shows and wonderful cartoons like Rick and Morty and all this stuff. These people grew up with videogames. It wasn't something that they were introduced to in college or anything. It's like, from the moment they were little kids, videogames were an acceptable form of entertainment. That certainly wasn't true when I was growing up at all.
So, I think that's why you see some of the stuff kind of creep into popular culture more because it is a part of artist's culture today. Even though they're not working in videogames, it's a part of what they have built their artistic experience on, is playing videogames.
What do you think they're responding to? Are you at a point where you're tired of being asked questions about these games?
Well, not really. I guess I'm tired of being asked questions about them where I don't know the answers to.
You know, people say, "Well, why do you think Monkey Island has such an enduring quality?" It's like, "Well, I don't know. I really don't." I just don't know the answer to that question. You know, I think some of it is luck. Some of it is -- I just don't know. I think it's a good game but why it decided to latch on and become "the game" of that little generation, I don't know the answer to those questions.
I guess I'm obligated to -- I don't normally ask questions about products but I am curious 'cause I do know there was a shake-up with Disney and LucasArts and I know at some point you expressed an interest in buying the IP and completing the trilogy. Has anything come of that? Is that a thing you would still want to do?
Well, it's definitely something I would like to do. I think I've been pretty clear about this, although some people have misinterpreted it. Is, I want to own the IP. I don't want to go Disney and say, "Hey, I'd like to license Monkey Island to do a game." It's like, I want to own that IP and I want to kinda do what I want with that IP. You know, I would kind of love slash be terrified to make that new Monkey Island game, right? I would love to do that because there are some things with that universe that I would kind of like to explore and there are some things that happened with the later games that I just disagree with.
Like, I do not believe that Guybrush and Elaine ever would have gotten married ever.
Yeah, no, I've read some of your comments about the subsequent episodic entries, which I know you didn't have much creative input on.
Not a lot.
But I think those would be fun, creative problems to work my way out of. It's like, "Okay, what do I do to kind of undo that without going, 'Oh it was all a dream!'?" You know, Guybrush wakes up one day and, oh, everything after Monkey Island 2 was a dream.
That's kind of the cheap way out.
That was actually something -- I replayed a lot of those games in anticipation of speaking to you. Not that we're going to dwell on them, but something I had noticed and didn't strike me at the time because I didn't play them back-to-back then, but what I noticed pop up in those first two games and also pops up in Thimbleweed and also pops up in Mario 3, for that matter, is this notion of presenting a game story as there's a fourth wall but it's all just a dream or life is all a stage. Do you know what I'm referring to with your games, at least, or when I compare it to Mario 3?
Yeah, I do kind of understand what you're saying. I think that is a subject that has always just kind of fascinated me at a lot of different levels.
What in particular?
Just that: What is the nature of reality? What is it that we live in? Is the world real? My father was a physicist, so I kind of grew up with really being interested in physics and quantum physics. I remember when I was really young, having these great conversations with my dad just about: "What is the nature of reality?" He would explain quantum physics to me and all this other stuff, and I guess it just kind of made me really question: What is it that we're living in? What are we looking at? What is this reality we're in?
Did you ever figure it out?
No, I didn't. I would have a Nobel Prize if I had figured it out.
But I just find it very fascinating. I think that probably creeps a little bit into games where -- the ending of Monkey Island 2 and the whole Thimbleweed Park story, and all this stuff, it's just kinda pushing against that. What is real and what is not real in the world? Is that really true for the world we live in? And I also think I kind of love the comedic-ness of fourth walling. Movies like Blazing Saddles. I just adore that movie and the way that just kind of went off the rails at the end of the movie. Some people hate it and that's a classic top 10 best movies ever made, but some people just hate the ending to that movie. I just loved it.
I recently saw it for the first time, and either you're the type of person who's outraged that I haven't seen every movie or you will congratulate me on that.
But I think it's interesting because that's a movie that I think people say can't really be made anymore. I know you're probably also sick of hearing about the adventure-game genre and the inverted bell curve it went through where it died and it came back. I mean, do you feel like games that you could have made 30 years ago, 25 years ago, are you still able to make them today? Or is Kickstarter an interim stopgap Band-Aid to kind of doing that?
Well, I think that question deserves three different answers to it. One part of it is, well, could you make those games you made back then? I think the answer to that is no, because I'm just a different person. I've spent 25 years learning things and being exposed to things and just becoming a different person. So, it's very hard to go back and -- people say, "Well, if you were going to do your Monkey Island 3, would it be that exact Monkey Island 3 that you were going to make back then?" And the answer to that question is, "No." There's no way it could be, because I'm not that person anymore.
No, it would be false if you did.
Yeah, and so, I guess one answer to that question is, "No." I really can't make those games again that we did.
I think the other answer to your question is more of a -- you know, from a business point of view.
Right. That's more what I was getting at. Yeah.
Yeah, I think from a business point of view, I think if you're going to make an adventure game today, it has to be like Firewatch. It needs to be a big, kind of immersive, quasi-deep experience that people are looking for. I think doing the point-and-click-type stuff, I don't think there's really a sustainable mass market for that. There certainly is a sustainable market for it. Like, Dave Gilbert makes lots of point-and-click adventures with Wadjet Eye Games and he seems to be able to make a living doing it. I think he's kind of nailed his kind of style and scope that works really well for him, and he has a very dedicated audience that is large enough to support what he needs.
But I think if you're going to say, "Well, could a point-and-click adventure sell a million copies today?" That's -- 'cause I think Firewatch did just over a million copies, so, could a point-and-click adventure do a little over a million copies? I just don't know that it could.
I think I remember -- 'cause we've interacted on Twitter a few times, I remember tweeting at you around the time of the Thimbleweed Kickstarter, and you mentioned and blogged about it later that the budget you were asking for did keep pace with inflation for what it would have cost back in the day, right?
Am I imagining that?
No, that's roughly about true. I think the first Monkey Island game, the budget that I had for that game was $135,000. But that did not include overhead, because the way it worked at Lucasfilm, my budget was really only the bodies on the project. I didn't have to pay portions of the rent, which would have been ridiculous considering that we worked at Skywalker Ranch. You know, so, there was just this kind of overhead that when we were doing budgets for games back then, we just didn't have to deal with that. So, I think they kind of made us budget games based on the things that we had control over, which were basically people. That was about the only resource that we really had to worry about. And so, Monkey Island was about $135,000. So, I think adjusted for inflation and then you add in some overhead, kind of what we were looking for initially for Thimbleweed Park probably was about in the ballpark of that.
To shift gears, I alluded to this, but you mentioned via email that over time you started tuning out philosophical conversations about videogames and media about videogames. I don't want it to sound like in the transcript that you're fuming or upset about it.
Can you talk a little bit about why these conversations lost you over the years? Is it just sheerly by the fact that you make games for a living and are around it all the time, or is it something else?
No, I don't think it's anything deeper than just: I'm bored. I'm bored with those conversations. As you'd mentioned earlier, we've just had them all before. There was something that recently erupted on Twitter a couple weeks ago about story in games: "Can you tell stories in games?" I kinda greeted that with an eye-roll. It's like, "Oh God."
I was referencing that, the re-framing of an old thing, but I wasn't labeling what it was.
[Laughs.] Right. Yeah, and so, I think it's more just I'm kinda bored with this discussion. Let's talk about something new, let's talk about something different. I'm very passionate about a lot of things and I can get very agitated about a lot of things, but there's just a whole slew of things that I would have been very passionate about 20 years ago and pounding my fists on my desk and all this stuff, where I just don't care anymore because I've just been through all these arguments with people and just part of it is, "You know what? I'm just gonna make games." I'm just gonna do what I want and if people like them, that's great. If I happen to do something innovative, that's great. If I happen to make the greatest Scooby-Doo adventure ever, that's also great. It just kind of doesn't really matter to me anymore.
Well, I guess because that's my side of the aisle in the media -- it might be hard to answer because you said you pay less attention, but does it surprise you that 20, 30 years later media still doesn't write about something in the game industry? Is there something that you would've figured by now, surely, they would have caught onto and given real estate to but they haven't?
Well, I think games journalism has kind of gone through -- I guess it's a cycle. It's not a continuous up-ramp or down-ramp. I think it's kind of a cycle. I think there's a part of games journalism that existed not too long ago where I felt like games journalists were really technology journalists. They were reviewing games in the same way they would review home speakers for your home stereo system or something. It was basically reviewing games like they were personal electronics, and I think we've gotten away from that. I think there are some new publications that have come out in the last few years where they are kind of trying to look at things more from an artistic point of view. Not reviewing them so much on feature sets. It's like: "Does it have multiplayer? Check. Does it have this? Check." But really looking at the holistic experience that people are coming away from the game with and not so much a pros and cons list. I mean, when was the last time that you read a movie review and the end of the movie review was a pros and cons list for the movie?
I mean, it's just not the way people review movies today. I'm more interested in game reviews where the reviewer really is talking more about the experience that they had playing the game, what the game meant to them. This is art. Art is meant to affect people. That's why we do it. To me, I'm interested not so much in, "Did I check somebody's list with Thimbleweed Park?" but, "What did Thimbleweed Park mean to this person? What did they pull out of Thimbleweed Park that was interesting or not interesting in it?" Those types of things, I find a lot more interesting when I read reviews. I think we're seeing a lot more of that kind of stuff today, which is good.
Yeah, I noticed and maybe you've noticed just reading this project, is I look a lot at labor issues in the game industry. Or I'm just very fascinated or interested to read about, similarly, the experience of working at these companies and what that's like. I think that gets back-burnered a lot in the way that games are written about, as I mentioned before. I'm not at all implying or referring to anything specific, but it's hard to miss in Thimbleweed Park there's a lot of winking commentary or flat-out criticism of the games industry.
It's either decades ago or it's today.
I don't want to ask that in a way that makes it seem like I'm asking you to throw a gauntlet down or to name names. So, rather -- I'd be interested to hear more about that but I guess I'm also curious because today is an extension of 20, 30 years ago, I mean, do you wish there was stuff people were more vocal about in Lucas' heyday? Maybe not just at that company but across the broader industry?
I'm just curious.
You know, I mean, I'm only pausing because I don't know that I have a good answer to that question because back at Lucasfilm, I think we had just exited the period of the computer-game industry where floppy disks were sold in Ziploc bags hanging in these weird little computer-game store shelves. It's like, I think the game industry had just entered this stage of legitimacism where it was like, "Hey, this is actually a business. This is a real thing that people do. It's not just a hobby that people are making some spare coin on."
Right, and on top of that it's a couple years removed from a crash, too.
Yeah, but that was a weird -- I mean, you're talking about the Atari thing, right?
Yeah, but that was kind of weird.
All of it's weird.
Well, but I think people today really lump the computer and videogame business into the same thing.
PC, mobile, it's all one big thing. But back then it really wasn't. What Atari was doing with selling cartridges was so different than what we were doing that it's the two amoebas hadn't really merged at that point. It's like, we just kind of looked at it a little differently.
But I think it was so new at the time, I don't think we knew what problems to really look out for. We didn't really know what issues were gonna come up or not come up. We certainly dealt with things like crunch mode. Monkey Island had a lot of crunch mode. There were issues like that, but I think they weren't these big flaming issues that we have today, just because the industry was so small. Crunch mode was kind of a new thing. People didn't really know. It's like, "Yeah, man, I really hate working my weekends but I'm not really sure what to make of that. Is that a good thing or is it a bad thing? Is it a problem?" Just because everything was so new at the time.
Well, what was that process like for you to realize, maybe in hindsight, at Lucas or elsewhere -- I mean, I went through a thing in my twenties where I was like, "Wait, why don't my friends have to work all weekend?" You know what I mean?
But it took me a stupidly long time, until I was in my late twenties where I was like, "Wait a minute. There was something kind of fucked-up with those jobs I had." [Laughs.] What was that process like for you to maybe realize some of that stuff in hindsight?
Well, I think there were two things that were kind of working against really recognizing it as a huge problem. One is that I was young and I had a ton of energy and I didn't need a lot of sleep.
And so, working until 3 in the morning and then getting up and being back at work at 10 in the morning, it just physically and mentally, it didn't phase me. I was 20 years old, so, that stuff just doesn't phase you as much. And then the other problem was I just loved what I was doing so much that I just couldn't imagine wanting to do anything else with my time. I think you see that even today in a lot of indie developers. They work ridiculous hours and you kinda don't want to call it crunch mode because they're not sitting there forcing a bunch of people to kind of do this stuff. But I think they just love what they do so much that it kind of allows you to kind of accidentally step into crunch mode because you just love what you do.
Well, and because you're solving creative problems, they don't really behave like other types of professional problems. You know, it's more about getting it "right" than getting it done quickly.
I don't need to tell you that. I'm sure you know what I mean.
Yeah, well, I think it's more -- I think that's more important because it's not somebody else's thing that they're working on. It's their thing. It's their dream. You really want to make sure when you're doing something that is your dream project, that is your passion, you just want to make sure that it's perfect. You're so kind of engrossed in the whole thing, you just don't realize that you've been working seven days a week on it.
Tim Schafer had said in one of those documentaries about one of the games he was working on, that he realized in hindsight that Lucasfilm really didn't care about its games division. Would you agree with that assessment?
I would say that it's not that they didn't care about their games division. I don't think they knew they had a games division.
What's the difference?
Well, I think there is a difference. I think one is going, "Well, we don't really care about this so we're not gonna give any attention or money because we kind of hope it dies." And then I think there's not realizing you had one. I think that was actually one of our biggest strengths at the time, that we were part of this very, very large company and we were just so under the radar that we kind of had a whole lot of autonomy to do whatever we wanted. I mean, George was never coming around telling us, "Oh, change this and do that. More monkeys, Mr. Gilbert!"
I mean, that just wasn't happening. So, we just kinda had this wonderful autonomy. We also, you know, in those early days we had a really great boss. Steve Arnold ran everything and I think he just did a really good job of isolating all the creative people from all the stuff that was happening at the corporate level. He was just a wall between that stuff for us.
Where was his wisdom coming from to treat you guys like that? Because that was kind of an unheard of thing at that time, a major movie studio also starting a games division.
Yeah, I don't really know. The games division came about because Lucasfilm started the computer division, which, their focus was really on doing special effects for movies. The computer division was then sold and renamed Pixar. So, that's kinda how -- we were really, in the initial days, we were really a part of the computer division. There really was no games division. There was just the computer division. That was created to do movie special effects. We just kinda fell out of that and kind of became our own little entity when the computer division was sold off.
It's interesting because I'm sure you've heard of headlines on Uber and all sorts of terrible abuses happening elsewhere in the tech industry. I don't even know if it's fair to distinguish games from tech, but from what I've heard, at least, is there are instances where even at Lucas, tech and the dot-com bubble actually helped improve things like salary at LucasArts? I mean, have you heard of things like -- do you know what I'm talking about? I know you were long gone --
Yeah, I was long gone by then.
I know it was after your time there.
Yeah, and I think Lucasfilm changed a lot after I left. When I left, it was kind of the beginning of the company starting to pay more attention to the games group. I think that's where a lot of stuff changed. I was really not there for any of that. So, it's really hard for me to really comment on that kind of stuff.
Sure. Well, I mean, another thing too is obviously in recent years there's been a lot of discussion of sexism at game companies. Is that stuff that you remember also hearing about, seeing back then as well?
I certainly don't remember seeing any of that at Lucasfilm. We were -- I think Lucasfilm was a fairly progressive company in that regard. I think Lucasfilm, the games group, was heavily male, obviously, for the time. But we also had a lot of women doing stuff. One of the programmers on Monkey Island 2 was a woman and we had several woman programmers who were working there. I don't think it was something -- maybe it was just me being utterly naïve, but it's just not something that I remember dealing with. I mean, it didn't seem odd to me that you wouldn't have that issue.
I've also read a lot about how there really were a lot more women gamers back then. They kinda hadn't been pushed out of or more new ones weren't evolving in the same way that the male gamers were. Certainly with adventure games. I think the demographics for adventure games have always skewed very high, if not 50/50 male and female. So, I think I was just kind of operating in a weird little bubble in that we had a really, really great company to work for back in those days and I was working in a genre that was well-represented by female players.
I was just mentioning Emily [Morganti], who I've worked with for a number of years. Must've been 10, 12 years, with her working PR on different titles. We met last year at GDC, and I don't know where that was in terms of the chronology of when you did the Kickstarter for Thimbleweed. I'm paraphrasing something she paraphrased, which is maybe something I'm supposed to know, not supposed to know.
We can strike this if I'm not supposed to know, but she had mentioned her interest in me interviewing you for this because you were running into a lot of media attention for the Kickstarter more through the lens of the death and rebirth of a genre, speaking of stories that have been told for years and years and years.
Why do you think you're not thought of as part of the "indie" movement, and why do you think still even all these years later the lens that people are using for you is the rise and fall and rise of adventure games when writing about you and the work you're doing? They still visit that old narrative, rather than, say, looking at you as getting the band back together.
Well, I think I'm very specifically attached to adventure games. Maniac Mansion was kind of the first modern point-and-click adventure game. Monkey Island had a lot of appeal and had a long-lasting value. I think I'm just kind of attached to that. So, when people talk to me, that's kind of the first question that pops into their head. It's like: "Well, here's Ron Gilbert, it's Mr. Adventure Game."
That's just kind of the first thing that they really think about. I don't think that's necessarily unfair in a lot of ways. If you look at all of the games I've made over my career, whether it's the ones at Lucasfilm or it's all of the games I've made at Humongous Entertainment -- which are really just adventure games for kids -- there certainly is a lot about adventure games that I have purposely or accidentally staked my career on in a lot of ways.
So, I think it's kind of a fair question. But it is a little bit frustrating that, you know, some people don't consider me an indie developer in the same way that they consider other people to be an indie developer even though I deal with all the same issues. I'm not rich. I didn't make a whole bunch of money off of Monkey Island and all this stuff. I have the exact same issues that indie developers do. I have to worry about paying my rent and is this thing gonna make me enough money to survive for the next month? I deal with all of those issues. All of those same issues. So, it is kind of a little bit frustrating. I mean, maybe in some people's eyes, indie developers are supposed to be inexperienced. That's part of what being an indie developer is: You must have this little experience to ride the indie developer ride. So, it could be kind of that thing, that I have been in the business so long, that I have been doing this for such a long time, it's like, well, he's not an indie developer or she's not an indie developer because they've been doing this too long.
But I think that's a little unfair because I think I deal with the exact same issues that almost every single indie developer deals with.
You blogged about it, as well. Do people still use that as a verb? "Blog?"
[Laughs.] I guess so.
I guess I just did.
I don't know. How old are you? You still use the word "blogged?"
I was trying to impress you.
Well, you know, I did go through your website where you journal and you wrote in 2014, sort of assessing that term. I don't know if you remember that.
Yeah, I do remember that.
I still struggle with why that term "indie" still makes sense in game. You wrote -- you sort of assessed it as a marketing term. I don't know. I don't really know what the question is. I don't know if you read, but I interviewed a film historian, Mark Cousins, who told me that this whole "indie" thing is a much more American fascination. It really doesn't matter anywhere else. Have your feelings changed about it since you wrote about it? It just, to me, feels funny to even discuss because in my mind it doesn't really matter, but yet it kind of does because it opens a door to being considered in certain ways, to being written about in certain ways. It might make people more likely to, you know, give you money so you can make more stuff. I guess, how do you feel about that term today? Do you care about it at all?
Well, I think it is still primarily a marketing term, or it's a categorization term, right? It's an easy way to throw somebody into a bucket. It's like, "Oh, indie developer? You're in the indie bucket. Oh, you're a AAA developer? AAA bucket." It's an easy way to categorize people, which I think the human brain wants to do. It loves to just categorize. I think that's kind of the root of racism and sexism, is it's our desire to just throw people into categories very, very quickly. So, I think a little bit of that -- you get some of that with "indie."
I think the thing that spurred me to write that article way back in 2014 was -- and I'm not gonna mention any names here, but it really was because of this one person who tweeted something and they were kind of tweeting it in a very condescending way that somehow indie developers are the pure form of game development. It's like, you know, if you're an indie developer, you're in it, you're independent, it's all about your passion and your vision and all this stuff. I just kind of read this and I thought, "Okay, I could kind of believe that, but I know that you just took $2 million from a very large publisher.” It just kind of made me go, "I don't think that you're even following your own rules for what an indie developer is." That just kinda got me and that's when I wrote that whole thing. That's when I thought, "You know what? This whole indie thing? It's really just a marketing term more than it is anything else.”
Well, marketing is --
I think marketing is hugely important.
I would agree.
I think it is one of those things that -- I'm gonna use the term indie developer, but I think it is one of those things that indie developer are kind of slowly starting to realize how important it was. I think in the early days of Steam, which I think really coincided with if not created the whole rise of indie developers, I think marketing was poo-pooed on. I think a lot of people kind of followed the Field of Dreams model, you know, build it and they will come. I think with the exception of a few weird, random cases that's just not true. You have to be as good at marketing your game and yourself as you do building the game.
Right. I mean, it's ironic because I think maybe just people are bored by history no matter what, but there are so many lessons in videogames where it's helpful to not just be strictly an artiste but also to know some things about business, know some things about marketing.
I didn't expect to get into Sierra, but you look at a Sierra and that's sort of my memory, that that was their downfall. Al Lowe told me about it and called it "the invasion of the suits," which may be a gross simplification.
Well, that certainly could be true for Sierra. I mean, I didn't know anything about it. But I think that was definitely true for Lucasfilm. When I worked there, Steve was running the division and I think he as a very, very, very smart guy and I think he did a really good job of that. I think when I left, he had left just before I left and after I left, I think there really was this point where Lucasfilm became much more concerned with, "Well, how many units are we doing? What is the ROI on this? Should we be spending this much money on this thing?"
While I think that is a very, very important part of stuff, it can't dominate. There's kind of the marketing, the business side of things. You really have to kind of balance the creative side, and those two things should kind of balance each other really well. You know, I think with Lucasfilm it just tipped the scales. Then, they decided to make Star Wars games and that just totally threw the scale completely out of whack with things there.
Whatever happened to Star Wars?
Well, I think it's similar with Kickstarter. There's this uncomfortable balancing -- maybe it isn't uncomfortable for you, but with a thing like a Kickstarter, you have to balance creative process and marketing ploys at every step. Does it feel weird to you how that works? Or am I just imagining things that that might be uncomfortable?
Well, I don't know that I would use the word "uncomfortable."
I think it's definitely something you have to do.
To clarify and to state my opinion, I think what frustrates me about a lot of Kickstarter projects is because games are more and more expensive to make, there's a lot of conservativeness that comes into play of, "We're gonna make the game that you want." Whereas, I'm personally much more interested in -- I want you to make the game you want to make.
So, I guess the discomfort that I'm alluding to is just that it creates a lot of compromises.
It can. I don't think it has to. But I think it can and I think maybe some people let it create those compromises, when they just need to kind of hold fast to their vision. You know, when we did the Kickstarter for Thimbleweed Park, I mean, we had this vision for this game that we kind of laid out. I think that we stuck to that vision and it was a lot of work. You know, it's not so much that people were kind of constantly pulling us away, but it was this thing that for two years on that project I felt like I had to constantly explain why I was making the decisions I was making.
A lot of people just found it very educational. They're like, "Wow, this is really amazing to hear why you're making this decision, why you're changing this little piece of the game." A great number of people who followed the blog, I think, found it to be a really educational experience for them. You know, some people would sit there and argue with me. It's like, "Well, you don't need to change this. Don't change this. Do this. Do that."
There's kind of this point where you just have to tune them out.
Hey man, they gave you $5.
Yeah, and I have to change everything for them. because they gave me $5. I think you have to be respectful of the fact that they did give you this money, right? We can laugh about $5, but to some people that's actually a lot of money. So, I think you have to be respectful of that. But the fact that you've got these Kickstarter backers pulling you and making weird suggestions is like, "Well, yeah, but that's just like a publisher.” That's no different than dealing with a publisher, if you're not doing a pure work-for-hire project for a publisher.
But if you have come up with the idea, then you've pitched it to a publisher and they've agreed to fund it, believe me, they don't leave you alone. They are constantly coming at you and they're probably worse than the Kickstarter backers because they've done a whole focus group on your idea and have decided that these four things need to change in your idea because of what some random focus group said. So, I think as a creator, unless you truly have your own money to spend on this thing, where you are completely self-financed, I think you are always dealing with somebody kinda pulling at the edges. Whether it's Kickstarter backers or whether it's a publisher kind of pulling at the edges, I think you always have that. I think you deal with them differently. You know, you deal with backers a little bit differently than you deal with a publisher, but I think that's always there.
This is out of left field, but you mentioned your dad and the conversations with him as being influential on your games. What did he make of your games or your working in games?
You know, both my parents were incredibly supportive of what I was doing with games. My dad really got me into computers. This was in the mid- to late '70s, and he was working at the college and he would bring home programmable calculators and he would teach me how to program them. You know, we had a home computer in 1978, I think, was when we bought our first home computer. That was something that they always really encouraged me to go to. I was in college and I was getting a computer-science degree and I had written this program called Graphics BASIC for the Commodore 64 and I had sold it at this company at California for them to publish. They really liked it and so they offered me a job. It's like, "Well, why don't you come work for us and make games?" I was right in the middle of college.
My dad is a PhD physicist and not only that, but he's the president at the university at that point. So, he had kinda moved from being a physics professor to being the president of the university. Here I am, his son, coming to him saying, "You know what? I'm dropping out of school to go make videogames." But he was completely supportive of that. He had no problem with that. I think like any parent, they're kind of concerned: "Wow, are you doing this?" But it was clearly something I was very passionate about and it was something I had spent years of my life all the way up through high school doing this and working on this. I think he just knew this was something I really loved and wanted to do. Both my parents were very, very supportive of this. This was in the day when nobody made money making videogames. It wasn't a real career back then.
To shift back, I had sent that question along about empathy, which is really just about gauging where people who make games feel the process of making games can be demystified a little better. Like, you mention it was very educational with your fans with those updates. Are there aspects of making games, in general, that you wish the media or fans understood better?
Well, I think the process of making Thimbleweed Park and dealing with the backers and the devblog and all that stuff -- I think the one thing that I think was the most difficult for some people to wrap their heads around with making games is just this whole notion of trade-offs. You know, you can't do everything that you wanna do. And so, it's really just a part of saying, "You know what? I have enough time to do 90 things, even though there's 100 things I want to do." It's just those trade-offs. It's kind of figuring out, "Well, what do I think are the most important things to be doing at this time?" You know, when people look at a finished product or in the case of Thimbleweed Park, looking at something that was kind of evolving really before their eyes, it's really kind of understanding the trade-offs that have to be made with things. That's a very difficult decision, and you're always just making those trade-offs. I think that's true of any creative thing, whether you're a writer or a movie-maker or anything. It's just all about managing trade-offs. I think that that's something that I wish that people magically understood.
Well, yeah, I realized my question sort of was directed more at making games themselves, but what about the more infrastructure or running a game company aspect? Do you wish there were things that you wish the public understood better?
Just more globally about making games at a studio? Well, I mean there is the whole business aspect to it that people sometimes don't fully grok. We get this with Thimbleweed Park because we haven't announced other console platforms the game might be on. Like, people just don't understand why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you just tell us it's going to be on the PlayStation if it's going to be on the PlayStation or be on the Vita? I'm just making up names here.
But, "Why wouldn't you just tell us that?" It's like, well, there's a whole lot of business reasons why I wouldn't tell you that. You know, so, I think there's a lot of things like that that kind of go on with business where you have to be very cagey a little bit about what your plans are because there's a big reason to not announce a platform.
until a certain point in a project. So, you don't announce platforms before then. You even asked this question earlier. It's like, "How's it going with Disney and getting the Monkey Island rights back?"
It's like, "Maybe I don't want to tell you that." Maybe it's to my advantage to not tell you that information. Maybe it helps my negotiation with them -- not saying that I am -- If I don't tell you that.
Right, I totally get that. At the same time, sometimes there are questions you’re sort of obligated to ask. That if you don't ask, it's a missed opportunity of having some of your time since people are curious.
So, I think there's a lot of things like that where it's easy for people to go, "Well, you're just being secretive. You're not being honest. You're not being up front." It's like, "Well, no, I'm trying to run a business." There's kind of a way that you have to do business things. So, there's that whole aspect of making games that has nothing to do with making games.
Do you think that's an internet thing, where it's eroded the notion of just paying people stuff for what they make? That they now think everything in the process belongs to them. Maybe there is stuff that are going on with these products and projects and companies that, really, isn't any of their business and they don't need to be offended by it? I mean, do you feel like that's been static? Has that changed? Was it caused by the internet? Where do you think that comes from?
I don't think it's changed. I mean, I can remember even when I was a kid talking about stuff like this with Star Wars and George not announcing this. But the problem was it was five of us sitting around the school lunchroom and that is as far as that discussion ever went. I think what the internet has allowed is it has allowed that discussion to become global almost instantly. So, if I'm just kind of a kid who's upset about something, it's not me and my four friends around the lunch table at school anymore. It's about what my social-media reach is, which could be thousands and thousands of people. So, I think the internet hasn't caused us to care more about that stuff or misunderstand that stuff less or more. It's just it's allowed the noise to travel much, much faster and farther.
Do you feel like the game industry learns from its mistakes?
I don't think they learn from their mistakes any less or more than anyone else does. I think it's not fair to label the game industry and go, "Oh, well, we never learn from our mistakes." It's like, well, a lot of people never learn from their mistakes. A lot of industries never learn from their mistakes.
I think we're just no different than anyone else in that respect.
Because we're just human beings?
Yeah. I mean, we're humans and we have imperfect information and imperfect knowledge and all those things. I have a lot of friends in this business. Some of them have made colossal mistakes and they certainly wished they hadn't. I kinda see them going down the same path again. [Laughs.] But I can say that for myself, too. I mean, I've made a lot of stupid mistakes in this business and I have walked down the same paths and made the same mistakes a second time just because, you know, we're imperfect on that level. I think when you're trying to do something new and interesting and innovative, it causes you to take risks. I think sometimes those risks involve beating your head against the door a second time. Those are just kind of part of the risks involved.
In spirit with that, I don't know if you heard but Annapurna is getting into -- they're becoming a boutique videogame publisher. The film studio. They're also becoming a film distributor, but that movie company, they're getting into games. I don't know if this is public or secret or maybe it's just a poorly kept secret, but Bad Robot is gonna be getting into making games -- J. J. Abrams' production company. So, I mean, it seems like -- things are cyclical, everything's coming back around again. It's tempting to say, "Oh, this is a new thing! Movie companies are getting into games.”
Maybe a question like this is lame.
If you feel like, if there's one lesson to learn from LucasArts for a movie company getting into games, what might it be?
Don't treat them like movies.
Games are a very unique thing. I have seen -- this is one of those cyclic things that I have seen over and over and over. I mean, all the way back to Lucasfilm, where games kind of start to peak up as this thing people are talking about and then you have a whole bunch of movie people that go, "Dammit! We need to be in games! This games thing, it's growing, it's big. We need to be there!” And so they jump into games and they fuck it all up and then they run away, and then five or 10 years later it happens again. The movie people go, "Oh my God, this games stuff, it's getting big, we need to be there, we're missing something. Let's get into games." Then they fuck it it all up and then they run away. I've seen this over and over and over again. And so, you know, when I hear about these companies like Bad Robot and all this stuff saying, "We're gonna get into games," I just go, "Okay, well, I'm gonna start my stopwatch and I'm gonna wait for them to fuck it all up and run away."
I think the biggest problem with movie companies getting into games is they don't truly understand the economics. They're used to applying movie-television economics and then they jump over to games and they realize, "Holy shit, there's no money in this." And then it causes them to go away. I think that everybody is very misled when Electronic Arts announces that Battlefield did $6 billion in their first week of release or something. They go, "Oh my God! The whole games industry must be like that. These people like Ron Gilbert must be swimming in money from doing this stuff!" They don't understand the true economics of these different marketplaces.
There was just this thing -- I can't remember the guy's name, but he published on Gamasutra the other day about the economics of Steam releases over the last month, and looking at how much money these games had made on Steam. It's like some staggering some number of games had made $100 or less for an entire month. There's this very top, cream of the crop, 3 percent of games that made over $100,000. I could tell you that $100,000 a month is not an interesting amount of money to a movie company at all. I think that that's kind of where -- it's like they're getting sucked in by the hype and not really understanding the real economics of it.
It's so confusing, too, because -- it's really weird. Box office is reported as big news, or reported as news every Monday or every Saturday or whatever. But on top of that, there's confusion in that space where people report revenue and think it's the same as earnings.
[Laughs.] Right, right, right.
I think there's a lot of -- I don't know. It's not even like a gold rush, but I think it's like people don't really understand what they're reading, what they're saying, what they're assuming. It sounds like business decisions are being made based on that.
Yeah. Yeah, no, I mean that's very true. I think even people within the games business don't have a good grasp of that kind of stuff, so how can you expect these movie studios to have a grasp on that kind of stuff? I mean, I think there is amazing talent out there in Hollywood. There are amazing things doing absolutely amazing things. I think if those people ever truly decided to focus all of their creative energy on figuring out truly how to make a game, I think they'd just lay waste to all of us. But they're not. They're focus is on making movies. That is kinda what they're doing. Or television shows or all these other things. That's where their creative energy is. I think we're really kind of playing catch-up. When they do turn their attention to games, it's very superficial. They kinda go, "Well, I've got this huge hit television series. I clearly know a whole lot about episodic or a whole lot about narrative and all these things. Which is totally true, but they really don't wanna go steep themselves in the artform of making games. They kinda look at it very superficially, which is kinda why they fail in a lot of ways.
It's doubly ironic and enmeshed because Comic-Con, basically, now makes a ton of decisions about what happens in Hollywood. And yet, videogames and movies -- you know, maybe this is a thing you have some insight into, actually being at Lucas and stuff like that. I personally have never understood the whole "bigger than Hollywood" line or videogames' quest to usurp whatever throne it perceives movies as being in.
What do you make of that?
Yeah, I mean, the whole thing "is the game business bigger than Hollywood?" That's been around forever, for as long as I can remember. That was a thing.
Was George Lucas ever coming down commenting on this? Do you remember him ever discussing it?
I don't mean this from a bad side, but I don't think that George cared that he had a games group. It was just not something that he really cared about. I think that was almost a brilliant move on his part, because we were a game studio. We had this heritage and this lineage of Lucasfilm and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and storytelling and all of these things, but we were allowed to be our own thing. We were not told, "Hey, go make interactive movies." We just made games. We made point-and-click adventures. That was the big thing that we were known for. I think that was a good thing, that we were kind of left alone to be our own thing.
But, you know, even when I was there and soon after I left, there was all this, "Well, games are bigger than Hollywood." Again, that was another eye-rolling moment for me because I kinda looked at these numbers and it's like, "Oh, I see what you're doing. You're taking all the money that all the software makes and all the hardware makes and you're comparing it to movie box office, but what you're ignoring at the time is you're ignoring VHS rental and all these things." Where, if you really want to compare apples to apples, you have to take all of the box office, plus all of the movie and videotape rental, and all of the money spent for people buying VCRs and DVD discs. You have to put all of that together, because that's what you're actually comparing when you compare the game business. If you do that, it's just dwarfed. The movie business just dwarfs the game business and I think that's probably still true today. I think if you truly compare apples to apples with movies and games, you'll find that the movie business is quite a bit larger.
Usually, like, you I just wind up so tired of those discussion and I want to find something else to talk about. But I think it is interesting to dissect why it becomes a point of fascination for so many people.
Well, I think for the games people it stems from insecurity.
There's this insecurity and if the games people can say, "Oh, we're bigger than Hollywood," it just kinda makes them feel legitimate at some level. I think games people need to solve their insecurity by really understanding taking pride in what they do. I think that's changed. I think that is something that is changing, is people who make games aren't just kind of movie-director wannabes but now they go, "Oh, well, this is games. This is what I do. This is what I understand. This is my artform." They take a lot of pride in that.
So you don't think people weren't looking over their shoulder at the Edison cylinder and saying, "Mimeographs have to do better."
Did that feel way, ever, at Lucas that you were competing with other groups in the company or is all of this kind of a fabrication?
We were never really competing with them. The company was not set up to cause that kind of competition to happen. I also think that we also just knew that we were such small potatoes compared to everything else going on at the company. We felt pride when we'd have company meeting and we get to show our stuff on the big screen in front of all the other employees. There was a kind of pride that we had to it, but I don't think we ever felt we were gonna dethrone the Star Wars movies or dethrone ILM as the big thing in the company.
Speaking of dethroning, I think a lot of people have told me -- maybe you would agree, maybe you would disagree that the thing that dethroned adventure games was Doom. Speaking of things one couldn't have predicted, who would think even still to this today that that's the dominant game type?
Why do you think nothing has usurped that?
I don't know. Games like Doom -- I mean, I don't blame Doom specifically for that. I mean, I use Doom as more of an analogy to that stuff. But I think what it is is just a more visceral type of entertainment. I mean, why do movies with big explosions and car chases outdo movies with long scenes of dialog around the dinner table? That's kind of what adventure games are. Adventure games are My Dinner with Andre.
That's kind of what they are in a lot of ways. Where, first-person shooters are big blockbuster movies. So, I think even movies even have that. I mean, if you look at the movies making all the money with a couple of odd exceptions every year, it's car chases and explosions. I think that's just the same thing that's true in the games business.
I had interviewed Laralyn McWilliams, who told me this story -- maybe you read it on here already. She told me about when Myst came out and at GDC that year, people universally were pissed, sniffing and saying that Myst isn't a real game and it's stupid and there's nothing to learn from it.
Even though the audience had spoken and it had done really well. I don't know what your experience has been. I know you went and made kids games for a while. I don't know if you would agree with this. I've heard this from a couple of people, where there's almost resentfulness against people in games who step up to address unfilled niches? Is that a thing you've ever felt? Did you see that today? Is that a thing you feel like you ever saw?
Well, I do feel that I see that today in the mobile space. Like, a lot of game developers will kind of raise their nose a little bit to people working in the mobile space because the mobile space -- because a lot of it is free-to-play. People feel, "Well, that's free-to-play. That's a sleazy type of game. You're being a predator on the gambling part of people's brains." There's all these things.
I don't necessarily disagree with that stuff, but I think there is a little bit of poo-pooing that area of gaming a little bit, which is too bad. I think you can build a really good free-to-play game that can be really interesting and enticing.
After you finish making a game, why go through all that again? Why make another one?
[Laughs.] 'Cause it's the only thing I know how to do. That's the honest answer to that question. 'Cause, you know, I have -- in pits of frustration that you get at any point in making a game, I have thought, "Oh my God, I don't want to do this anymore. I'm gonna go get another job." Then I sit there and think for a couple seconds and I go, "Wow, I have no marketable skills.”
I really can't do anything else but make games. So, I think that's kind of the sarcastic to that question but I think there's also some truth to it.
No, I think it's honest.
I love what I do and I think I do it very well and I don't know that I could do anything else nearly as well as this.
What makes for a good puzzle in a game?
You know, a good puzzle -- at least in an adventure game, because there's lots of different puzzles. There's puzzles you might find in The Witness and other types of games like that. I think that's kind of a different genre of puzzle and I don't know that I know how to design those puzzles well.
But I think adventure-game puzzles, I think to me what makes a really good adventure-game puzzle is just a puzzle that really invokes that a-ha moment. You know, the moment where you have been given all of the pieces to it and you're kind of staring at your screen going, "I don't understand what I'm supposed to do," and then all of a sudden the lightbulb goes off and you're like, "Oh, of course!” And then you just take the three things that you have with the three locations that you know about and you put them all together and you solve the puzzle. I think that's a very difficult moment to construct. I think a lot of times it almost happens randomly. It's like, we build so many puzzles in a game that we're kind of guaranteed that we're gonna make three or four that have that, but I don't know that we specifically go in and engineer those moments.
You mentioned The Witness. Are there modern games that inspire or motivate you, good or bad?
Not really from a puzzle standpoint. You know, because I don't really enjoy puzzle games. Things like The Witness, it's like my wife was playing that and I would kind of pop my head in the living room and watch her play for five minutes and leave. So, I found the world fascinated -- I was more interested in walking around the island in The Witness than I was actually solving any of the puzzles, which was the exact opposite to her. She was far more interested in solving the puzzles and hated the fact that she had to walk around this island. I don't enjoy that pure puzzle-y, solve-y-type games. I like my puzzles to be a lot more narrative-driven puzzles. I want my puzzles to feel like "these are the kinds of puzzles that somebody in a great novel is trying to puzzle their way through as they're doing something."
Are there any projects that never came to be that you wished had seen the light of day?
Of my projects?
Too many to count.
I had heard something, and I don't know if this is true or not or just a total rumor. I had heard John Romero mention somewhere he had worked as a designer for you on some kind of MMO that never happened? Is that real?
Yeah, I worked with him on it. It was a company that he was doing and I worked as a designer in that for about a year. It was a contract job. It wasn't a full-time job. I had worked on that for a year.
Is there a game you want to make that you haven't before? I guess making games for as long as you have, I assume it's like in any other medium. Are there things you want to do that you haven't been able to do yet?
I think the game that I have always really wanted to make is a really good RPG. You know, a Western-style RPG. Not a Japanese-style RPG, but a good Diablo-style RPG. I really enjoy playing those games and I think that's something that I would enjoy making. But I don't think I know that much about it. It's not an area that I can claim any expertise on. My expertise is I played a lot of them, but that doesn't necessarily translate into design expertise. But I think I would really enjoy working on a small team of people that were building a really interesting RPG like that.
You had mentioned this in an email, that you don't play games as much. That's a foundational type of conversation I have with people on this project, which get similarly existential as you wondered: Why does this seem to happen with videogames, where it becomes a big part of people's lives and then it just sort of dissipates?
You said you think about that sometimes, so maybe you don't know, but could you talk about that a little?
Yeah, I think games are a lot of work for the player, let alone the people building them. I think they're just a lot of work. Especially when I've had a hard day and I'm kind of tired, I don't mind just laying on the couch and watching a movie. I don't mind laying on the couch and watching a television show. I'm not gonna fail at it. The movie isn't going to fail to finish because I didn't do a bunch of stuff while the movie was going on. It kind of makes sense that it's like, "Well, I'm gonna zone out. Maybe I won't really pay attention to the movie."
But I think for games, I feel like I really have to work a lot to make the game be successful. I've talked to other friends of mine who are very much in the same position as me, that they used to play a lot of games and they don't play them a lot anymore. I think it really comes down to that one aspect. It's not that they don't play them. I think they're just very selective about the games they do play.
Instead of playing 10 games every week like they used to, they play one game and they really play it. They kind of -- they say, "Well, this is my game. This is the thing that I'm going to play for the next few weeks," rather than play a whole bunch of things. I think that's probably fair of me as well.
It can be incredibly stressful. I talk about this all the time: The reason I started playing videogames as an adult and as a teenager more than computer games is 'cause you didn't have to deal with a lot of things you have to deal with today. Which is, updates, making sure there's enough space on the hard drive.
It's very ironic. I've had so many videogames just crash on me. On top of that now, you know, like, I started Fallout 4 a couple weeks before it came out. I was so stressed out from the face-sculpting that you always have to do in games now.
Oh, right. Creating your character.
The philtrum length and all these things. I was just like, "I have to come back to this later." Sometimes you just want to dive in.
The irony is, too, you never see that part of the character because they're always wearing a helmet.
[Laughs.] Right. Yeah, well, I mean it was different even in the early Nintendo days.
You'd pop on the power, you'd slam the cartridge in, and that's all there was to it.
Absolutely. Well, I have one last question for you: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
[Pause.] What do I think videogames have accomplished? I think that videogames are probably one of the few new artforms to emerge. I think the whole idea of interaction, unless you get into some weird avant-garde interactive theater in the 1950's, videogames have really touched on this whole artform that is highly interactive where players are kind of not only meant to view it but meant to be a part of it. I think that is kind of the thing that they've really done, which is just introduce the world to this brand new and very unique artform, which probably hasn't happened since movies came out. That was probably the last, totally unique artform that there was. But I don't know that -- I would be hard-pressed to say, "Well, videogames have changed the world. Videogames have brought us closer together or have solved these horrible world problems."
I think videogames are just a very really nice form of entertainment. So, I don't know that it's any deeper than that.
I'm sure I could pontificate on the importance of videogames and all this stuff, but I think going back to our earlier conversation, it just doesn't matter anymore to me. I just want to make games. I enjoy making games. I like to make games. I just want to make games. All these bigger picture questions about games and all this stuff has kind of ceased to interest me anymore.