My name is Ryan Payton. I'm 35 years old, based in Seattle, Washington. I spent five years in Japan and now I run a studio called Camouflaj. We've been around for a little over four years and we've made one game so far called République. It's an episodic game for iOS, Android, PC and Mac and we just announced a publishing deal with GungHo and announced the game for PS4.
This is all really exciting for us.
We're also working with a new company called Shinra Technologies, which is run by Yoichi Wada, formerly the CEO of Square-Enix. We’ve been working on a prototype for them that’s due near the end of the year. So yeah, we have lots of stuff going on.
You've been in the industry for a while. What is it you think the audience doesn't understand about how videogames are made at any scale? For extra context for people who aren't familiar reading this, you've worked on bigger games, too, while you were out in Japan.
I think the audience has become a lot more savvy about how games are being made thanks to the Internet and sites like yours. There used to be something of a monopoly on access to developers when it was just magazines and a few websites out there. Now there's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to development diaries, Gamasutra, postmortems, Kickstarter campaigns, and guys like Vlambeer streaming the development of Nuclear Throne on Twitch.
When gamers get frustrated about how games are being created, I think part of that stems from their lack of experience. For many, this level of exposure is a lot to digest and understand.
What's a new thing?
The amount of access that they have to development is unprecedented. In a way, now gamers have a clearer window into how maddening game development is.
Really. You think equally?
Or equally or probably more. [Laughs.]
Who, the audience is probably more?
Yeah, the audience is probably more perplexed and frustrated by all the mistakes and false starts they’re witnessing. I have to imagine developers are less fazed, only because they’ve been doing this for a lot longer.
Yesterday I was talking to a colleague of mine who's no longer in the industry, but has been it for a long time. He had this theory that a lot of vitriol from the audience somehow stems from the fact that gamers were the first Internet-connected consumer group.
It's interesting. I think it's true that gamers are more connected, probably more than diehard fans of literature, film or music. Early days of IRC and things like that.
So, I don't know if that really connects with the vitriol we experience. I think that has more to do with people still learning how to communicate online, plus I don’t think these different forums for online communication are very well designed.
For example, Twitch chat allows some of the most disgusting things I've ever seen on the Internet. It doesn't seem like Twitch does much to police that, and I think it’s unfortunate.
What did you take from your experience at a bigger company to what you're doing now?
I feel fortunate having worked at a big company before starting an independent studio. Sometimes college students tell me they want to start their own studio, and I usually recommend that they first go to a larger game house to understand development, to understand better process and all those important tools, and then go and start your own studio and go independent. It's better to know what you like and don't like about the big studios before you start your crusade against them.
How do you not get buried by the deluge of negativity? Like, Tomm Hulett gets blamed for some stuff on some of the games you've worked on, and I've seen things online said about both of you. So, I understand some the things said online are just completely off-base, but how do you not just get inundated by it? Do you know the sort of stuff I'm talking about?
Yeah, I know.
I think Tomm gets it a lot more than I do. I'm really lucky in that for the duration of my games career, I've never been in the mix of anything really negative. I'm not quite sure why that is. In the past three years, I think I’ve only received one really nasty Twitter comment.
What was it?
It was a guy who wrote me and said, "Fuck you for the Metal Gear Solid 4 story."
[Laughs.] And I wrote him back and said, "You know that I didn't write the Metal Gear Solid 4 story, right?" I don't remember if he responded or not. I remember piling it on after that saying, "I hope somebody doesn't just randomly accuse you of something you didn't do."
Thankfully, he went away.
Where do you think it comes from, though?
What, that guy?
Yeah, I mean, especially if you've just had one. That's such an outlier, right? And it's a couple years removed.
My theory is -- and my theory doesn't really hold a lot of water because I think Tomm is also a very positive guy -- but on Twitter and in real life, I try to stay as positive as possible. I try not make judgments or allow much negativity to come out of my mouth and onto my Twitter feed. And so, as much as I want to speak out against some things, I oftentimes don't express my thoughts in a public forum.
I like to think that people don't associate me with negativity. When I see game creators suffer when they're on these public forums, sometimes they have to remember that they are also guilty of firing shots at people.
You can't have it both ways.
Do you think that stymies the growth of anything? There can seem to be a lot of negativity, but not necessarily a lot of criticism.
I think it's really hard to do a thoughtful critique in 140 characters.
Oh, I just mean in general.
The Internet is so complicated. There are so many opinions being thrown around that if this was back in the 1950's and you were to write a Don Draper-like letter as the guest editorial in The New York Times, that's a shot heard across the industry.
Nowadays, even if the biggest video game website in the world, which I believe is IGN, wrote some really thoughtful critique about, I don't know, the lack of female protagonists in Assassin's Creed, it wouldn’t go very far. An article in the biggest game website today isn’t likely to have as big of an impact that an editorial in Next Gen Magazine had 10 years ago. It's just a drop in the ocean now. There are so many opinions out there online.
24 hours a day.
You said you would advise people getting started now to go work at a bigger company before you go out on your own. So, how did you end up working for a bigger company?
It was at E3, 2005. So exactly 10 years ago.
Ten years ago today?
It might've been, actually.
It might've been 10 years ago yesterday.
Ten years ago, it took me 24 hours door-to-door from my place in rural Japan to the front door of E3, and by the time I arrived, I was completely exhausted. I hadn’t slept, and I was coming down with something nasty.
I remember I more or less passed out in front of the Konami booth. I was so tired, but I really wanted to see the Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence trailer because I had just played Metal Gear Solid 3 and absolutely loved it.
I remember laying down. [Laughs.] And basically falling asleep or passing out. I don't know how long I was out for. Maybe an hour or so.
People walked around me. The first thing I did when I woke up was checked to make sure I still had my wallet, and thankfully it was still there. From there, I got up and started my freelance assignments for 1UP.com, which were mainly checking out Nintendo DS games that the editors weren’t interested in. The next day I got a phone call from James Mielke, who tells me, "I double-booked and can’t make my interview with Hideo Kojima, which starts in ten minutes, by the way. Can you run over to the Konami PR space and interview him about Subsistence?"
Of course I said, "I'll be right there!" Not only did I end up getting a job on Metal Gear because Mielke double booked his meetings, but that one fateful call changed my life.
After the interview, I befriended his translator Aki Saito. I was just singing my praises to Aki, who was the best translator I had ever encountered. I was telling him how amazing he was, and then we started speaking in Japanese.
That’s when Hideo walked by. "Why is this guy speaking Japanese? And is that a Southern dialect I’m hearing?"
From there we started talking and I told him I was living in Osaka.
One thing lead to the next and he said, "I'm looking for a foreigner to help me at Kojima Productions. Would you be interested in interviewing for that job?"
Did you even have to think about it?
I probably thought about it for a few seconds, only because I was very wary of journalists moving over to the games industry. That's why, during the Subsistence interview, I was very much on point. After the interview, everybody asked him for autographs and pictures. I didn't.
So what happened?
I went back to Japan and worked with his colleagues on the interview process. I was spending a lot of money going back and forth between Osaka and Tokyo for the interviews. Spending a lot of money. I did one interview, two interviews, and then I think it was after the third interview when I got the phone call that I didn't get the job. They said I was competing with about 25 other people for the gig and that they found somebody better. I thought, "Well, my time in Japan is over."
I packed my bags and I moved back to Seattle, went to Costco, bought the World of Warcraft box set and a huge case of Mountain Dew and thought, "This is what I'm gonna do with my life."
I played the game for a day or two at my parent’s place, thinking about what I would do next. Then I received an email from Konami: "We may have made a mistake. You actually did pass the interview. When can you start?"
Hmm. I just moved back to America and I had just bought a car.
How nonchalant were you about accepting that offer?
To be honest, I did put a lot of thought into it. I told them I needed some help with the moving costs and they said no. I thought to myself, "Am I going to really pass up this opportunity to work on my favorite game series over a few thousand dollars?" I replied, “I'll be there as soon as I can."
I barely made it to Konami in time for Tokyo Game Show 2005. That's about how long the process took. So, that was about three months, four months. Definitely an emotional rollercoaster.
How long were you there?
I was in Japan for five years. At Konami for three.
What was your official title?
My official title was kaigai tantou, which I translated as "international manager." I got in a little bit of trouble because I was not managing anybody. "Why did you give yourself the title of manager?"
Well, it does sound really important. "International manager."
I was managing assets, translations, and communication between Kojima Productions and then Konami America and Konami Europe. I was constantly on the phone with them, sending emails and documents back and forth, getting box art approved, and cycling that through Hideo and the other guys on the team.
Were there duties you didn't realize you were signing up for?
Oh, absolutely. I worked on the websites, promotional materials and podcasts, too. I loved it. I would take anything on. I even produced a pre-order exclusive DVD for Subsistence called Metal Gear Saga -- that was my baby. I concepted it, pitched it, got it approved, managed the budget, and took it to the finish line all in a few months. Saga was a big step for me.
I was so in love with the franchise, the team, and the company that they could barely pull me away from the office. I would stay there as late as I could. In fact, I moved next door to the studio so I could stay there longer and not miss the last train, even though the rent in Roppongi ate almost half my paycheck.
My big break occurred in 2006. Things were really bad on the production of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for PSP. I volunteered to play the build every night after everybody went home and just give feedback. The project was in trouble, so myself and the audio director just got into this habit every night of playing the latest build until we passed out.
So you kinda did QA in addition to --
It was like QA. I don't want to say I was giving game direction -- that would be giving myself too much credit. However, by the time the team got back into the office the next morning, they would have a written report from me. Stuff like, "This is just my opinion, but this boss battle is broken. This sequence is janky. I love this thing you guys added, and so on."
I just kept doing that everyday, sending my bullet points.
Then the executive producer on the project came to me a few weeks later and said, "Hey, Ryan, you know those reports you were writing?"
I thought I was gonna get in trouble.
"Keep doing that."
They gave us time off in exchange for overtime. Three years in I accumulated over two or three months of vacation, I think.
And so, you also worked on 4, as well.
Yes. That came about because I worked really hard on Portable Ops. I remember that the game had to be out before Thanksgiving, but it just wasn't ready.
I remember flying to America and telling the Konami staff, "The game needs more time. We need a few more weeks." They agreed to push the game to December. I flew back and crunched like crazy. Thankfully the end product reviewed really well.
At the launch party, Hideo sat down at my table and said, "Good job on Portable Ops. I want you to do the same thing on Metal Gear Solid 4." Later he introduced me to the team: "He's not an international coordinator anymore. He's an influential member of the project."
This is a trite, but what was it like working with Hideo Kojima?
[Pause.] I have a lot of respect for Hideo as a creator. When I joined I did, and when I left I did. I think he's very talented.
That said, I never treated him like the other employees did. I knew it’s important to elevate your boss in Japan, but I just never did that. It wasn't out of disrespect -- I just wanted to speak to him as a peer, as a human being.
What was his reaction to getting that sort of reaction from you on an ongoing basis? Obviously you're not the first foreigner he's worked with, but how did he respond?
He probably just assumed I was like a lot of other foreigners who don’t know how to speak in honorifics. Again, my intent was not to be rude -- I just wanted him to know that I was there because I wanted the games to be great, not because I’m a member of his fan club.
Do you have any insights into Kojima's friendship with Geoff Keighley?
I don't know. I think that's more of a new thing.
Do you think the industry has a cult of personality problem, or people can be a little too fixated on such things?
Hmmm. Hardcore gamers are enamored by these larger than life personalities, and this extends to a small percentage of journalists, too. However, it doesn’t really matter because the biggest franchises in the world are designed and directed by people who you couldn't spot in a police lineup.
I think the same is true for other industries. There's a few exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, people see films because of the trailer or the poster or the IP and usually not because of who's directing it.
Have you ever talked to Kojima or been in conversations with him where he talks about his view on the industry and these sorts of things?
Probably! It’s been awhile since I worked with him, though. I remember talking to him about specific games, but not so much about the industry in general. I recall there being a lot of pressure to include Metal Gear Online in the MGS4 package.
Can you tell me a little bit about the TV channels in MGS4 in the beginning of the game?
Oh yeah, sure. [Laughs.]
That was such a strange project. That was one of my things I worked on with Ken Imaizumi, who was my boss. We took that thing from start to finish, working with Logan, which is a company that I still work with today.
The opening was definitely our pet project. Ken always wanted to work with Logan, and I was lucky enough to be looped in on that.
Near the beginning, Hideo wrote up a number of ideas about how the opening would work. He wanted it to be different. That's one thing he was sure of.
One of them was about future TV channels, others were about claymation. Some ideas were better than others. Alexei Tylevich, the owner of Logan, was really inspired by the "Future TV" idea, and that spiraled into different channels and into the idea of doing it all live action. The project grew organically out of that. We worked on the opening for years. Years.
What’s going on down over at Konami is not atypical of what's happening in the Japanese game industry. The only difference is that it's being done in a very public manner.
Many classical Japanese game companies have more or less abandoned the console market and are moving into areas that make them money. This includes smartphone games and casinos, and in the case of Konami, fitness centers.
Look at the console market in Japan, like the PlayStation 4 -- it has been a massive success worldwide, but has only sold north of a million units in Japan. To date, the Xbox 360 has sold more units in Japan than the PS4, and the PS4's been around for how many years now?
I think gamers sometimes take it the wrong way when companies abandon making the things they love -- they're just responding to the realities of the marketplace. Konami shouldn’t make another Contra if the end result is simply a charitable gift to gamers. That’s a tough pill to swallow for fans, though. I get it.
Without any sort of insider information, all I can say about Konami is that they probably looked at the balance sheet and saw how much Metal Gear costs versus how much money it’ll make, and then they evaluated how much risk is involved in that equation. This is all conjecture though -- it’s hard to get a straight answer out of anybody involved.
So what happened? How did things tip the other way to where Japan wanted to turn away? Was it America and the West's influence?
I'm half-joking, but, you know, across the street at the convention center, these are mainly Western sensibilities --
Yeah, I think it would be very different. I don't blame the West at all. "Blame" is probably not the right word.
In my opinion, Japan transitioned away from console gaming because of screens. The lack of screens in the living room and the proliferation of screens in their hands is how we got here.
Homes in Japan are typically small and they generally have a TV in the living room, which, up until ten years ago, were used for console gaming. The transition started with the PSP and Nintendo DS and then went into full effect with smartphones. The PSP was a huge hit with junior high and high school kids who didn’t have control of the living room TV, but could use their PSP as their own personal screen to play whatever they wanted to play and watch whatever they wanted to watch.
When I lived in Japan I was able to observe the rise of the PSP, and see how junior high students were so attached to that device. Capcom struck gold when the Monster Hunter demographic and PSP-carrying kids became almost one-to-one.
Now what you have in Japan is a marketplace dominated by handheld devices instead of a healthy console market. Quality has fallen off, especially on console. Many Japanese studios are struggling to keep up with large-scale projects coming out of the west. If the console market was healthier in Japan in the mid-2000's, I think the investment would have continued and things would be very different now.
Right. Businesses don't get nostalgic.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Exactly.
Although there are a lot of remakes. What do you think's behind that? Even for stuff that came out two, three years ago.
I love it.
It's funny. When the PS4 and the Xbox One hit the market, I was really upset about lack of backwards compatibility. Now Microsoft is bringing backwards compatibility to Xbox, and I'm actually a bit disappointed because I found myself really enjoying all these remasters coming out. It's like building a Criterion Collection, being able to play the best games of the last generation with upgraded graphics, at 60 frames per second, with all DLC packed in. I love it. I love playing these great games the way they should have been experienced the first time around.
To contrast a little bit more with America against Japan, are the fan perceptions of the work that goes into videogames --
You mean from like the family perspective?
From just the fan perspective, just, curious if you run into that same sort of vitriol over in Japan that we talked about before. I'm just curious if the expectations over there, from what you've seen or heard or knew, are different or they manifest themselves differently.
I watch Twitch every night before I go to bed. I watch it on my phone, and when I hold the phone landscape, the video is fullscreen and I can’t see the chat window. Every once in a while I tilt the screen over to portrait mode, which allows me to see the chat, and I’m usually mortified by what people are saying.
At a global level, when I work in this industry, I try to keep my perspective in landscape mode -- I focus on the content instead of what the bottom-feeders are saying in a space that has zero accountability.
You don't have to give me specific examples or whatever, but what do you find so mortifying about what you're seeing?
Oh man, nothing I can repeat here. Just glance at the chat during Games Done Quick when a female speedrunner appears.
What do you think is weird about the videogame industry?
I think so much of the game industry is very strange.
Don’t make me just choose one. [Laughs.]
You don't have to choose just one. I mean, you have seen the industry from a number of different perspectives.
I think about it every day. I go online and I read articles, I look at trailers, and I like to see what's going on in the industry. Everyday I see things that challenge my preconceived notions and these theories that I've generated about how the industry works, what sells, what doesn't sell, what game people like, what games people hate -- I'm frequently being challenged.
Is it because the industry is moving so fast? It seems that way. The game industry seems to be moving faster compared to film, literature, music.
I find it a challenge just to hang on.
Moving incredibly fast as far as?
Technology, people's expectations, how community plays into these experiences.
Unlike film, TV, literature and music, games are not only being consumed through the Internet in interesting ways, but games are being altered by things that are happening in real-time. I think this is a really interesting, scary, strange proposition, and a great opportunity.
I meet people in the industry who lament all this and drag their feet. "Wouldn't it be nice if we were back at the $60 price point for all games? You knew what you were paying for. I really miss the old days." It's fine to have nostalgia, but it can be a self-defeating process.
I think we need to embrace technology and embrace the way people are consuming content now. We have to continue to innovate and move forward.
For games of a bigger scale, and you also worked at Microsoft on Halo 4.
Right. Oh yeah.
So I don't want you to speak specifically to any company here when I ask a question like this, but how do you feel time gets wasted on games at a bigger scale?
Well, as the scope and scale of the game increases, inefficiency creeps in. It’s a tax you pay. That's true of any AAA game, although games have varying levels of process and efficiency. These things take a long time, but there's no other way to do it, I guess.
So, but you worked at two big-budget game companies in two different capacities.
Very different roles. How did that actually work? Like, what was your day-to-day at Konami like versus your day-to-day on Halo 4?
I was in a lot more meetings when I was at Microsoft, which is partly because I was in a more influential role. There was a lot of decision-making on me, and also because Microsoft has a meeting-heavy culture.
Yeah, I've heard that. Like, what's the breadth of stuff that meetings might have been on and how long would they last?
At Microsoft, people will often set recurring meetings. Once per week, per month, once every other week.
So, whether that meeting really needs to happen or not, it’s on your calendar.
I'm an early riser, so I would get to the office by 6:30 or 7 in the morning, do my "real work" until about 9, and that’s when the meetings would start. Most days, my Outlook calendar was booked from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and that was just my weekdays.
Did you observe the culture change at Konami or at Microsoft while you were at either place?
I can't really say that I saw a significant cultural change while I was at Konami. Granted, I was only there for three years.
Microsoft is a little bit more fluid -- they have strict top-down initiatives that are usually pretty public-facing. When I entered Microsoft, it was before the Kinect era, so the group was very focused on existing franchises and the hardcore gamer. I was then able to observe the company shift focus to a broader audience with the Kinect. That transformation happened fairly quickly.
How did you feel those things ripple or manifest themselves down on the ground in your day-to-day?
I think it affected me more only because I was at a director level, so I would be looped in on more director-level initiatives for the company.
So, as a director, what parts of your job did you feel you had a lot of control over?
I think that's tricky. I think control is an illusion at many large companies, so it's really all about how you get along with people and your ability to influence people through -- this is a Microsoft sort of term -- but your "soft skills."
That's "people skills."
I generally like that style of leadership, though. As opposed to saying, "Hey, look, I have a more impressive job title than you do, so now we’re going to do it my way."
What parts of Japanese business culture specific to the games industry did you find you had a learning curve of adapting to?
I found it difficult in my early days at Konami to get used to the hierarchy, how seniority worked, how communication is done. One of the advantages I had was that I wasn’t born into that society, so I didn't have to adhere to the same social rules. I was able to intentionally and unintentionally break a lot of rules and do really cool things only because I was woefully ignorant. I had a bit of a carefree, devil-may-care attitude.
What sorts of awesome, cool things are you referring to? Or is this one of those things where you can't go into specifics?
This is true for any company, not just a Japanese company, but I am never, ever intimidated by anyone's job title. While I was at Konami, I had no problem walking over to the head of a big division and saying, "What's up, man? Wanna get some coffee?" Whereas most of my colleagues would only quietly walk past this gentleman.
What sort of perspectives did you glean from those conversations?
It was all really positive. I think he liked talking to me.
When we moved offices from Roppongi Hills to Tokyo Midtown, he was getting a new office and furniture. [Laughs.] So when I was walking past his desk during the move, he said, "Ryan, see my awesome executive leather chair? Put your name on it so you can have it at the new space." That was really cool of him.
It ended up being a little embarrassing because when we moved into the new space, everybody sat in the same type of medium-range chair, and all of a sudden, I’m rolling in this really plush leather chair! [Laughs.] It became a funny story.
The chair was a nice visual analogue to how I stuck out like a thumb. I did things that garnered a lot of attention, whether I was aware of it or not. I was breaking rules.
You said he was pretty positive. Do you remember any of the things he was particularly optimistic about?
I just remember having good chats.
I don't know. I've never heard of any game company doing that. I assume it happens at places, but I've never actually seen it..
That's not a surprising number. In fact, I look at some game productions and I'm assuming they have a lot more people dedicated to lighting than 20. The number's a little bit misleading because oftentimes lighting doesn't occur until late into production, so we staff up near the end. Then the art director walks through it and makes sure everything is consistent.
If you look at the new Metal Gear, in particular, like the Ground Zeroes trailers, you can see how focused the team was on lighting. You get a lot of bang for your buck.
So what does that actually mean, though? I understand the concept of lighting in games, and how it has to be added manually, but what does that work actually entail?
It's a lot of trial and error, getting the proper systems in place that can support realistic lighting. Then it comes down to a stylistic choice about how you want to approach lighting in your game.
As game engines become more based on the way the real world works, in some respects, lighting doesn’t require a huge army of artists because the engine is actually systemically doing it for you.
But, again, when you look at the Ground Zeroes trailer and early Phantom Pain trailers, it's not just about realistic lighting -- just like film, it’s smart to amp up specific elements to make it a lot more dramatic.
Why did you decide to leave Konami?
It just seemed like the right time to leave and return home. I had lived in Japan for five years.
Metal Gear Solid 4 was an exhausting project. I heard rumblings of what we were going to be doing next, and I wasn't sure that was for me. That project ended up being Peace Walker, which I ended up loving as a consumer, but I didn’t want to work on a game so focused on winning the Japanese market.
I really loved my teammates, I loved the franchise, and I really loved living in Japan. It was time to leave though, due to some family situations back at home which occurred while I was on vacation after Metal Gear Solid 4. The decision was more or less made for me. Hideo was very supportive.
When you went to go work at Microsoft, where did you think that that might be a path to?
When I interviewed at Microsoft and on Halo, I had full intention for being there at least ten years working on not just one, but multiple Halo games. My intent was genuine, and I woke up every morning wanting to pinch myself that I was working on Halo. Leaving Microsoft was a difficult decision, again, because of the team I helped to build and because it is a franchise I really love.
And with Konami, where were you thinking that might be a path to?
I think it's a little different when you're living abroad working at a company. It's harder to think in five years' time because your parents are getting older, your friends back home are getting married and having children.
And, so, I was young. I was 24 when I joined Konami. Most 24-year-olds I know are not thinking, "Where am I gonna be in five years?" Maybe the good ones are, but I wasn't.
I wasn't. [Laughs.]
At either of the bigger companies you worked with, did they deploy review agencies or consultancies?
For Konami and Microsoft, there were third parties that we would work with on various projects and on various initiatives, so I don't think it's uncommon.
Oh, no, I think it's very common. You just don't see it talked about too much.
Whether it's the creative or the technology or some kind of problem that you're trying to wrap your head around and you feel like there's a deficiency in your knowledge base, then it’s natural to supplement that with an expert source. So, yeah, there were a couple things. I don't know if I can really say which ones we talked to.
How do you feel they helped if they were able to bridge that knowledge gap?
I always felt like it was a case-by-case basis. Half of it is how professional and how much of an expert these consultants are, and the other half of it is how good you are at utilizing their expertise. It's a two-way street.
What sort of influence do you feel game critics on the industry?
That's a good question. When game critics band together, they have a disproportionately large amount of influence over the hardcore game industry, while at the same time, game critics oftentimes feel like they don't have enough influence. A lot of watershed moments in recent years, especially the introduction of the new console generation, are in response to not only hardcore gamers, but the critics who are speaking using their megaphones about things that they don't like. Collectively, they have a big voice.
How are they influential?
For example, the way consoles handle DRM and used games is directly related to how influential enthusiast gamers and enthusiast critics are. Because the hardware manufacturers understand how important early adopters are, they must appease these smaller, more hardcore groups in order to move these expensive boxes.
Ultimately, it's a business decision. The collective voice of game critics can be highly influential, especially in the early developmental years of console hardware. It’s fascinating to see how their influence wanes when products and initiatives become more broad-reaching. League of Legends, Minecraft, even Madden to a certain degree -- those are behemoth products that plow forward regardless if a game critic likes the latest version or not.
When large companies’ business depends on having hardcore gamers onboard to grow their business, then those hardcore critics get heard. And when larger initiatives don't rely on the blessings of the core, then they’re more likely to get swept to the side.
Why do you think that they think they don't have an influence?
I think that's just the nature of being in journalism -- you always want more influence.
[Laughs.] Maybe. I don't know.
I've met a handful of game journalists who told me they just want to write articles and be left alone, but those who truly believe that are in the minority. If they actually had a large audience, most journalists would do everything they could to keep it.
Well, so you were a games writer for a while. Tell me a bit about that.
Well, I was a contract writer.
Did you go into the office at all?
My short stint in game journalism was just after I graduated from university. I was a massive fan of XBN Magazine, and I was just about to move to Japan to teach English. I thought, "Well, I'm gonna have some free time. I'd love to do some writing for XBN. Maybe I can cover the Xbox beat in Japan for them." Which, as you can imagine, is not a very coveted position.
Right before I moved to Japan, I sent some samples of my school newspaper writing to Greg Orlando, who was one of the editors at XBN. I wrote him, "Hey, I'm moving to Japan, I want to cover Xbox over there. Here are some samples of my writing." He liked my reviews for games like Eternal Darkness, Metroid Prime, the first Halo game.
He responded and told me I got the job.
So it took a while for the other editors at Ziff Davis to get familiar with me, but while I was adjusting to life in Japan, I spent most of my free time generating article ideas and writing. At first this was for XBN. I eventually wrote articles for 1UP, EGM, Wired Magazine, and The Japan Times.
What do you think the games media could be doing to help improve the industry?
I don't know if it's the job of the games media to help improve the industry.
Who's is it?
As a fan of the game industry, I feel like it’s our job to make this a better place. Developers, too. In my opinion, it’s the journalists’ job to report on what’s happening.
Back when I was a games journalist, it was my job to speak the truth and inform our readers via critical thought and information that they normally wouldn't have access to. We had access to developers that they normally wouldn't have, and by proxy, I guess you could say we helped improve the industry.
But if a story came across my desk that was an unpleasant topic and could harm the industry, I still think it would be my job to report on it.
Let's take a controversial topic like used-game sales.
I would prefer that journalists inform readers about both sides of the argument regarding used-game sales, as opposed to a LiveJournal approach with their "news stories." Either they write news stories or opinion pieces, and I think that line is too often blurred.
So, then you have arguments like, "What is best for the game industry?"
If you use the topic of used-games as an example, I think you can make a good argument that used-game sales benefit the consumer because they get their entertainment for cheaper, but I still think you can make an equally strong argument that used-game sales mainly benefit big retailers and actually harm developers who get stuck adding loads of terrible multiplayer modes and DLC to incentivize consumers from selling back the disc .
It's a complicated issue.
Going back to your original question -- I don't want game journalists to wake up every morning thinking, "Hmm, what should I do to improve the game industry today?" It’s not their job. In fact, I want more investigative reporting and less "what’s my opinion on this random topic."
Do you feel like there are outlets that do a good job of that thing?
No, I take that back. I think Gamasutra is probably the only site that I feel like is usually informing me as opposed to telling me how to think.
I mean, that's a lot of the Internet these days.
Yeah. Journalism, in general, is in a pretty bad state right now. I think somehow, somewhere news reporting and blogging had a baby, nobody noticed, and now that baby is a fat, full grown man sitting on top of all of us, suffocating us all. [Laughs.]
How does the game industry learn from its mistakes?
I think the games industry, like the rest of the tech industry, is good about quickly pivoting based on consumer expectations and the state of technology. In fact, I think tech is in a much healthier state than film, music and books. The game industry is relatively agile and quick-to-change industry, and that's part of the reason why I love it so much.
In fact, I would wager that a lot of executives in other entertainment industries are afraid of the Internet and how it's going to disrupt these sandcastles they've been building over the past century. Good executives look at how the Internet and technology can empower, enforce positive change, and make their businesses better.
Let’s take the backlash to Kinect, for example. Say whatever you want about Microsoft, but to their credit, they responded very quickly to the negative feedback of the device and swung the pendulum almost too far in the opposite direction by ripping the Kinect out of every hardware bundle. They did this because hardcore gamers screamed very loudly, and the press amplified it. That was a big move for a big company. I can't imagine a car company making changes that quickly.
From what I know of the car industry, I think they're a little bit slower to respond.
When was it when Avatar came out? 2010? 2011? And the introduction of 3D glasses? I swear, for the past five years, all I heard was complaints about 3D in movie theaters, yet that has not deterred studios from producing 3D films so they can charge more money for them. There was no pivot -- they just powered through despite what the consumer said.
I want to give the game industry credit for reacting quicker than most industries, but we still have a lot of room to grow. For example, as we're seeing with Arkham Knight, shipping unfinished product just continues to plague our industry. It's very anti-consumer and everyone, especially publishers and hardware makers, really need to change their policies and not let unfinished product hit the market like this. We shipped a buggy second episode of République on launch day, so I get it, but we need to be better.
Do you feel like the vitriol, when it does come up and out from the audience, is it properly directed?
No, of course not. [Laughs.] I don't think anybody would argue that. It's mostly just spreadfire, and that's just the nature of the Internet.
I think the targets of the vitriol need to be reminded about how the world works these days. That’s not to say that people who are being rude are in the right or that they should not think about other people's feelings, but I think it's a symptom of having, what, a billion people online now?
We're not in a village anymore, you know?
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I’m extremely proud to be even a small cog in this industry, because I believe that games are the most exciting, forward-thinking, and innovative sector of entertainment. As you know, we’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s amazing to see what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short time.
Just look back at the past few years: gaming is no longer for the hardcore thanks to the rise of mobile, Journey killed the whole "are games art?" debate in one fell swoop, The Last of Us elevated game narrative to new heights, and now Minecraft stands as this generation’s Super Mario Bros -- a safe, social, highly creative, and educational game that we can all be proud of. Sure, we’ve got our share of super villains, but I think we’re doing pretty good, especially when you look at other entertainment industries.
When I look at the music, book and film, for example, it just seems like everybody is trying to hold on and weather this new Internet-induced storm. Sure, there are artists who are still producing quality work and I’m just as excited about upcoming albums, novels and movies as the next guy, but I don’t think anybody is anticipating huge paradigm shifts. The game industry, on the other hand, seems to be in a constant state of flux and innovation. How will cloud computing change game design? Will VR take over? Will we finally get great AR content? Where’s mobile headed? Will PS4 break out to a more mainstream audience?
All of this instability also creates a lot of anxiety, and even though I have a hard time wrapping my head around these big shifts, I still wouldn’t want to do anything else. We’re on the cusp of something really exciting here, and I’m happy to be along for the ride.