Okay, so I'm Sam Barlow, I'm 36, been making games officially for a while, I guess over 10 years now. I mean, started out like most people my age, I guess, playing games at home, writing stuff in Basic, typing stuff out from magazines, never really thought kind of where the games came from or thought of making games as being a career choice.
I was encouraged to do sensible, solid careers by my parents. Ended up, after university -- because I went to university -- I ended up working in the States as -- in the business of business intelligence for a kind of big data warehousing company, but it was kind of doing stuff on the kind of consumer end of things. They were trying to do kind of stuff that was like what Facebook and things are now, but way before, not doing them in quite as cool a way. And at some point the dotcom crash happened, and I was without a job. Ended up coming back to the UK and looking around at some jobs, and it was a similar story there.
I was at that point where I'd been away from university for long enough that I was now an experienced hire, but the experience I had was all with this dotcom industry, so it was kind of tricky. And a friend who was a coder for a games company suggested that I apply for a job with a games company as an artist, because you need -- I did kind of bits and pieces of art. So I sent my CV to -- I think pretty much every games company in the UK, did a portfolio which I'm glad doesn't exist anywhere anymore, because it was pretty awful --
And I got -- three people came back to me, and off of that, I ended up getting a job at Climax, who at that point, I think, had an office in Fareham. They were just about to move to some bigger offices. Wound up working on a game there, Serious Sam, for the GameCube, and very quickly transitioned over into design, because I wouldn't shut up talking about design things. And so I made a bunch of games there. And eventually got the chance to work on the Silent Hill franchise, which ultimately led to making Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which is probably the best thing I've made. Worked on another big project after that which didn't come out. And then in 2014, I decided to go independent and work on a smaller, self-funded project called Her Story, which is what I'm working on at the moment.
And how's it coming so far?
Good, good. It'll be finished soon is the idea. It's -- .it's very different doing a game of this scale for myself, because I get to skip all the meetings, and I don't have to pitch it to people, certainly not while I'm developing it. But I also don't have all the resources to fall back on.
So is that the only thing you're working on right now, or are you doing other contract work as well?
That's the only thing at the moment. There's bits and pieces, and some people that I continue to talk to, but it's my main focus at the moment, is getting Her Story done.
Gotcha. I only ask because I think, it's sort of like what I see with people who are in bands, they're always curious, "So do you work a day job? What's going on?"
I feel like you seldom see people who go independent and make a game by themselves. People are always curious about that. So, I ask more for them than for myself. So let me ask you this, then: With all the variety of experience that you've had, what's weird about the games business to you? Because you mentioned also having experience outside of it.
What is weird about the games business. I think the -- and it might be the same thing that's weird everywhere, right? But the actual structures that are in place, and the processes that happen are oftentimes counterproductive, but they are the kind of systems that we have. So I think a lot has been made of the games industry trying to ape the way that Hollywood works, in the sense that we make these entertainment products that are very, very expensive and huge, collaborative team exercises, so that's the best example we have. But we have a very different type of product that we're making, because the development effort lasts for much longer, because of the way teams work, and the way teams are in place and work together, it's very different. And this has resulted in -- the strangest thing about the games industry is the way in which products are signed and greenlit and initiated, and how that works. So to compare it with something I think that the movie industry does have, which we don't have, is to counterbalance the movie industry to all the sequels and uses of other peoples' IP and stuff, you have the spec scripts market, which is -- at various points in history has been more or less important -- but the idea there is, you have all these millions of budding screenwriters out there, or successful screenwriters.
And a lot of time, they're working on spec, they're being paid to go and do something and there's a brief there. But also they can go away and they can spend six months, a year, two years, however long it takes to create their own original screenplay, and then people will read it. And you have this whole industry around the studios acquiring new properties. Whether that's reading spec scripts, whether it's going and reading books and then buying the rights to books or whatever, this huge industry that is trying to find interesting, quality story material that can be turned into movies. And it gives you an idea of how hard it is to create great stories, when you've actually seen what comes out the other end. [Laughs.] But what's really neat about the market there is you have a writer who sits and he creates a script and he can then pass that script to someone else to read, and if you have experience with making movies, you can read that script, and a lot of what is ultimately going to end up being a good movie is on the page there, and you can assess that, and you can read it, and you can pass it to someone else, and you can agree that this is a really well-constructed movie, you can see how it's gonna look on the screen, you can assess what the budget's gonna be, what kind of stars you're going to get in it.
But it allows a single individual to go away and focus on creating something really interesting and of a really high quality. And, of course, the reason this actually works is because in theory, if someone then decides to option that spec script and buy that screenplay, you're going to get paid a decent amount of money, so there's a kind of compensation on the other end. Otherwise, no matter how much they love the craft, a lot of these people wouldn't be out there writing these spec scripts.
Now, what you have in games is the process that leads to an original game idea actually being signed up or a particular game concept being signed up, that kind of initial creative effort is often much more minimal or slight, because the dynamics of the game industry -- there isn't enough of a market for that kind of original material in the same way. There's five-hundred million dollars spent in Hollywood every year on story development alone. We don't have that in video games, so there isn't an incentive for all that upfront development of the ideas, of the thinking behind the games.
So, story development being things that a production company would work with a writer on and they would actively be spending time --
Yeah, so --
-- discussing the various elements of the story, and how it will be executed.
It's just literally the process of production companies having readers on their books who will read screenplays, who will read books, who will read IP that is up for purchase, and then recommend that up the chain until the point where they actually acquire it. And a lot of the stuff that gets optioned isn't necessarily produced in the end, but it's the effort of going out into the world looking for material to make movies, because they need to make X amount of movies, and so they're out there looking for the good ones and interesting ones.
So you have this thing in games where you've got a much lesser investment in that upfront thinking. And then the point when a game gets signed, because of the way a lot of companies are structured, you have a need to get on with making the game. If a game takes hundreds of people and they're all sitting in house waiting for a project, the minute you sign a game, you're going to want to get moving on that. And you might be able to juggle the numbers so that you've got multiple projects and people can come off and go on separate projects, but once a game gets greenlit, and you're not looking at this long road -- "you know, let's make the game" -- you're looking at the long road to getting that game out the door and actually recouping your investment, there's an incentive to get moving on that. And so then you quickly transition from whatever the initial spark was that got this game signed and the initial agreed idea between the people who are funding it, the people who are making it, and the various other decision-makers, you very rapidly then move into the process of making the game, but you have this contract which is a kind of understanding between people, which is around this unformed idea of the game.
I mean, ultimately, if you were making a movie off of a script, a lot can change, but that script is a blueprint for what's actually going to happen in it. In terms of, then, the creative effort that's involved in actually fully developing that idea, that's now occurring in an environment where you've got large teams of people creating the game and so you're kind of laying the tracks as the train is moving along them. And at the same time you've got all these decision makers and people trying to sign off on it. I think the thing that makes it doubly hard is -- and I remember reading a brilliant article, and I can't remember where it was, it might be in Variety or something -- which was talking about the amount of problems that had been brought into the blockbuster movie business by the advent of CGI and just the amount of CGI that's being used, because it brought in the ability to redo things and keep doing things, which changed how moviemaking works in that you could slip, you could take longer, you could add this whole extra uncertainty into the process.
You then have with games, whilst you're making this thing -- so you have this big, expensive project that you're making, and you're laying the tracks as the train's moving along them, but also because it's this fluid thing that's being created and can be iterated and tweaked, what that means is that how many decision-makers you have above you and interested parties, they can all have input and ask for things to be changed, and fiddle with things throughout the process. You know; as things are being formed. Which I think creates a much greater degree of creative friction and uncertainty in trying to create this big, complicated thing, which I think makes the kind of business of making video games much more difficult, perhaps, than some other creative industries.
So, you had mentioned the whole process being weird, but actually something I've always wondered about is -- this may be a very simple answer, but -- what exactly is the process of a game getting signed? Who starts looking first, and what are they looking for? Then how do they make that decision?
So this is all gonna be my perspective from having worked for an independent developer, so all the work that I've done has been work -- for-hire work for publishers. So I imagine it's a different process if you're internal to a publisher.
Even on Silent Hill?
Yeah, so that was -- Climax were paid by Konami to make the game and we were paid on a milestone basis, so they were paying us to, to run the development, and they would sign off progress against pre-agreed deliverables. But the way that kind of process works, you're either in two boats: You're either taking your idea to the equivalent of a spec script and you are pitching it to a publisher or multiple publishers in the hope that they will sign it, or you are responding to a request from a publisher.
So the publishers routinely may have a piece of IP that they want developed or a property that's been lying around, or the olden days, it was much more common that you'd have movie tie-ins and you'd have stuff like that and there was this whole business of publishers looking for people to make games off that stuff. I think that still exists, it's just transitioned to the mobile space now. So it ends up -- the publisher will speak to multiple developers and give them a very brief outline of what it is they're looking for, and then your job as developer is to respond to that, usually -- just initially -- with a document, say 10 pages, outlining what you would do with their brief, why it would be interesting, and that will then usually progress to the point where you're putting together nice presentations, maybe some concept art, some kind of mocked-up shots of how the game would look -- in some cases, you would actually end up making a demo, something playable, or maybe it's just an engine to give the impression of it being -- of what the finished thing would look like.
Obviously, the more effort you spend on those kind of things and demos and stuff, the more of your money you're investing, so you're unlikely to do that unless you feel like it's a very interesting opportunity or you're likely to get something from it.
So in both those cases, you -- you're leading with these smaller documents and presentations, and you're building up to showing something that gives people an idea of what the game might look like. And I think that's interesting, in that at this point in time, the game idea that you have, especially if it's in response to someone else's brief -- it may be very high-level, it may be something that you can carry with you in your head -- but hasn't had a degree of scrutiny, hasn't been fully thought-out. So, like I say, it might be that at this stage, everyone thinks that they're all on the same page, or they think they know exactly what the game is, then further down the line, it might be that the game changes, things don't work the way you planned, or it turns out that you didn't actually have the same idea. So it's a quite interesting process.
So is there like an open call that they put out? "Hey, we're looking for ideas on such-and-such kind of game?" And then people apply and submit? Or they just reach out to people that they want to hear from?
Yeah, it'll usually be a business-development thing, so it will usually be people that will know, they will know, certainly, X, Y, Z studios of the right scale to do this kind of project, they will know the business development people from different studios from going to shows and conferences and that kind of constant dialogue will be going on in the background. So whilst 99 percent of the people in the studio at any time are building games, there will be a small bunch of people whose job is to make sure that the next game is ready. And it can take months to years to sign some of these projects. I think it takes longer now.
So, you know, there's a constant effort in the background going on. If they're sending out one of these requests for a pitch or proposal, they will probably be sending that out to their shortlist of studios. And you get the thing where maybe they've already chosen the studio they want, but for their boss's benefit, they're gonna need to show that they've got a range of options, a range of prices. If they're Speedysoft in San Diego and want them to make the game, their bosses are maybe going to be skeptical about that, because he knows this is a personal collection or something, or if you just give one option to someone, they're not gonna --
Well, the same is true of any job-interview dynamic, where they may already know who they want to hire, but they still gotta go through the process of putting out an ad, interviewing a few people, just for the sake of comparison. It makes sense.
At any given time, a lot of these things are going on, a lot of things are being pitched -- any time, if you are pitching for a proposal, you don't know how real it is. You might have a feel. Sometimes you get these pitches and you think -- you kind of question if they're ever actually gonna make this game, but maybe, again, if your job is big -- if your job is in some sort of big publisher -- and your job is to develop your portfolio, your suite of what your next bunch of games are gonna be, you probably need to have more proposals and more ideas going on than you end up signing, so in some cases it can feel like you're going through the motions. So it's all about keeping people happy and keeping these relationships going. And you know, sometimes you can get a pitch for something, and come up with something quite left-field or interesting, and even if that particular project doesn't go ahead, then it's gonna stay in peoples' minds, and maybe some other project comes along later that's a good fit.
So how would you like to see bigger games progress creatively?
I think there are several problems -- I mean, obviously the industry as a whole is struggling currently with just how much money these things cost, how much you can expect to get back against the risk of actually developing them, and I guess at the moment, in most of these cases, that risk has been offset by the focus on the regular franchises, on these large structures, now, where you have games being made by five, six, seven different studios, all spread throughout the globe producing different components, and this huge logistical effort behind that. Obviously, that creates a lack of creativity in some cases, in terms of how many risks can be taken with those ideas, and the gestation of those ideas. I mean, for me, the challenge we have is trying to find a set-up that allows people to come up with more interesting ideas. And you see with the, the challenges people have now, with trying to create games that have more interesting stories, more integrated stories. What I've seen first-hand is that the only real way that you can tell an interesting story in a game, and do it in a way that is sufficiently game-like and makes that story something that's worth telling as a game is by having that as part of the development from the beginning.
So you can hire as many wonderful, Oscar-winning screenwriters to come in and write your dialogue for you, you can invest in all this wonderful capture technology, but if all of that is something that's happening in parallel to the development of the game, that, for me, is not ideal. And what you need to do is actually have the development of the game itself, and the story, and everything be integrated so that all the mechanics are all tied into that. And that does run counter to having this large ramp-up of teams, it's kind of counter to a lot of the prevailing common sense of making games by iterating on core systems, playing around with the core mechanics and getting those feeling right before you proceed. I think there must be a way of giving people some kind of creative breathing room or space to conceive of, of ideas in a way that is more akin to developing a book or a play or a movie where there is a lot of thinking and a lot of research and a lot of on-paper development of things up-front. I think that's something that should be possible, but it's -- I mean, you're essentially saying to people, "You want an extra year up-front in a game development where there's nothing to see."
It's the point where it's just a -- someone sat on a sofa, staring into space, writing notes, whatever. It's that kind of thinking time, that point where stuff is authored and made interesting. And obviously, in an industry where there's such momentum, and everything is motivated by hitting dates, and where there's a sense that you need to get things done as quickly as possible, because otherwise you might be outdated before you even come out. That kind of attitude, I think, doesn't fit right with people.
It hasn't always been like this, has it? [Laughs.] I mean, I'm a little bit younger than you, I'm 32, but I'm trying to remember if there was a time where -- I don't know. Did something change along the line, like, even in the period where you've worked in games, where you noticed it wasn't so frantic with needing to hit dates, where there was a little bit more leeway or a little bit more thoughtfulness at the beginning of a project?
I don't know. I think it's always, everything I've seen -- and talking to guys that made the games that I used to play when I was a kid, I think it's always been an industry where things are produced under high amounts of pressure.
And so I don't think that's necessarily changed. I think the scale has changed, though. And I think that changes the kind of pressure. So the freedom for people to screw around and fix things themselves and deal with stuff has, perhaps, changed, so the amount of scrutiny throughout organizations, because of the sheer amounts of money, because of the marketing spend you'd expect of a game now, I think that's the kind of thing that's changed that focus.
The marketing spend.
Yeah, so for example, the vertical slice, right, is this concept where once a game is greenlit and is gonna go into production, you essentially work towards this thing called a vertical slice. I think it was EA who coined the term. So it's, in theory, if you've got a giant cake, you build just a single slice of that cake, but that will give you a sense of whether this is a good cake to make.
Obviously not how baking works, but --
No, I mean, I've always heard that, "vertical slice" -- I've always understood that to mean a it's like a demo, basically, of like everything that's going to be in it. I just never thought of it as a cake.
Yeah, see, and basically that's the point where everyone can look at it and go, "Yes, that's the game we agreed to make. Yes, it's going to work." And traditionally, as well, it's always been a really useful step, because you will have built -- let's say it's a very traditional action game -- you will have built a whole level. You will have built a number of enemies. You will have built out a number of weapons or vehicles. You will have created some cutscenes. You will -- so you will know how everything in this game is put together, you'll know if you've got any risks that are outstanding, you'll know if, "oh God, actually, creating animations is really hard, because we've created quite a different combat system," or whatever, you'll know how much money you spent building your environments, and the artists who are building environments will know what methods they need to use, how many polygons can they use, because there's gonna be five enemies on screen, you know, these guys could use more or whatever.
You'll have a really good -- it's always been a very practical thing of, "At this point in time, we now know how best to work, how best to make this game, we know what works best about this game." So it's always been quite a useful, production-orientated thing. And certainly, speaking to people in the kind of games I've worked on, a vertical slice has now changed, and the vertical slice is now your E3 demo, it's your, it's your press tool, it's actually shown to sales reps at Gamestop and whatever before your E3 demo.
And those people will then make predictions on how many pre-orders -- you know, how many units they're going to order X months, years down the line or whatever. And because of the sheer scale and the sheer amounts of money -- the marketing budget now is such a huge proportion of the current total spent -- those kind of structures and that involvement of having, say, marketing people coming in and looking at your vertical slice and assessing it as, "Is this something that's going to get the guy at Gamestop to buy more copies?"
That completely changes how things work.
So you're actually, now -- you're not necessarily building that vertical slice in a way which is efficient and which enables you to plan for creating the rest of it. Maybe you're not so worried about addressing how that core gameplay works, and getting a feel for it, because actually, what you want to do is bring all the really cool stuff forward. And you want it to be like, "Wow!"
And it wants to be really polished and really sexy because it's essentially a trailer in playable form, now. And so actually, you're -- previously you were learning through vertical slice about how you pace your game, about your density of content and all this sort of stuff, kind of goes out the window, because now you're editing your gameplay like a trailer, and you're cutting out the stuff that isn't sizzle, and you're trying to create this really awesome playable trailer that's going to wow people. And that has kind of changed the way that whole process works. I think we've seen really notable examples of how bad this is for development.
I think probably the worst example was the Aliens: Colonial Marines game where they had this playable demo which journalists played and which was shown around as being what the game was, and when the game actually came out, that wasn't the game. And you get the sense that there was a lot of smoke and mirrors being used, that that might have soaked up a lot of the resources, and then actually finishing the game was a lot more difficult.
Wait, how long has Gamestop been involved with this part of the equation? That’s news to me.
That's news to me. [Laughs.] That doesn't surprise me, but that's interesting news.
Yeah, I don't know. In terms of, certainly, in the first -- I'm relying on my memory, now, it's going to be very vague, but -- certainly, the first five or so years of me working on games, the idea that the vertical slice would have that level of external scrutiny wasn't as prevalent, and it was probably only in the last few years where I've heard about other games -- or seen it myself -- where you've had overt input from marketing and people like that from day zero. Beyond just being involved in the pitch process and stuff, this sort of -- a kind of day-to-day involvement.
I think -- and this is, for me, the hardest thing about trying to make a videogame at scale is trying to pull this whole thing together, so if you're working on this thing that's taking hundreds of people multiple years to make, and you have an idea of where you need to get to, is trying to walk that path, build this really complicated machine at the same time as having all these other people look at it and fielding all their input. And again, making that kind of analogy with classical moviemaking, where essentially you have the clichés of the horrendous feedback, right, of the awful notes they give the writer, the awful edits that they're asked to make at the last minute when films get showed -- but you have these very clear points, so there's beautiful anecdotes of the classic directors saying -- there's some great stories of Hitchcock, who hated to have people meddle with his films, so he would go and he would shoot the films.
And on most films it's usual to shoot coverage, where you shoot the same scenes with lots of different cameras, so that when you edit it you've got lots of different choices of different shots and things. You know, you might even shoot some alternate scenes if there's contentious lines, or you might do multiple reads of them or whatever. But what Hitchcock would do is he would just turn up and he would shoot only the shots he had in his storyboards and he would shoot them exactly as he wanted them, and then when that was all finished and it was in the can, then the studio execs might come in and they might say, "We really don't like what you did here. Could you change it?" And he'll say, "I'm sorry, that's the only footage we have. My hands are tied."
And, you, and at that point, there was nothing they could do. And you might occasionally do reshoots, but there's a process there.
So, y'know, there were ways of managing that feedback. But I think the difficult thing with games is, there is no -- you don't go away, shoot a game, come back, and then spend the rest of it in post-production. You are constantly making it -- requests to change things can always be fielded, things can always be played around with and altered. And I think with the kind of scrutiny from all these different levels throughout the process creates a very difficult scenario.
Because you can imagine making a movie and you have your script -- and let's say everyone's agreed and signed off on the script -- and you go away and you make it, and then you cut together the trailer. And that's the point where you can really sex things up in the trailer and give it the strong sell. But if you had that kind of scrutiny throughout the process, then it creates quite a different pressure on the development, on the trying to wrestle these things together and balance all the different competing voices. I think it makes things much more challenging.
So I know we're talking a lot about process, but I am curious, who gets the ultimate say in what gets changed and why? Because it sounds like there's just feedback coming from so many different directions and so many different things. Who is at the center of it and making that decision of what gets honored and what gets ignored?
I think it's a bit like -- it's a bit like watching a David Simon drama, like watching The Wire and --
There is no one. That's the thing, it's very Kafkaesque, the --
The chain of command.
But, you know, it's a very fluid thing. I mean, it is a collaborative medium, and I think a lot of it is about diplomacy and bartering, so you might -- you might notice something that you want to stick to your guns on, but you know there's going to be something else further down the line, and so there's this constant -- there is no hard and fast rule. It's kind of a case of picking your battles and being clever in terms of how you play these things, so I think you're always going to have to compromise somewhere, and it's trying to figure out how best to that. And there are other tricks of the trade. [Laughs.]
So -- I did a project a while ago, I can remember there was a feature that was requested which was just awful. It was just the worst idea ever. And --
What was that, or can you not say?
I can't say.
It would give away what the series is?
Yeah. Well, I --
Yeah, I understand. I have to ask.
And all of the leads on the project hated this idea, and really wanted to push back on it, and -- but it ultimately came down to, "Look, we've argued the toss on a bunch of other things and we were just gonna have to let this one slide, because it really matters to the publisher."
And so we were all just mortified that this change was going to go through, and it was right at the end of the process.
And I think, meanwhile, we were at the bug-fixing stage, and with the raft of changes we made to the bug database it just so happened that this particularly onerous feature got moved from the "we're definitely going to fix this, because it's very important" category into the "actually, we probably don't quite have enough time to make this risky a change" column from just the little bit of -- you know, whoever's in charge of sorting the bug database or whatever -- and so overnight, suddenly, we didn't have to do this thing, and everyone was just so happy.
And I think there's a lot of bits and pieces where there is this constant level of barter at different levels about making changes or keeping things, and a lot of it's, "Well, we can't make this change because it's too risky, or it'll affect these other things, and it'll be this knock-on." So it's such a complicated beast. It's not like saying -- you can imagine there being a process where you're making your movie and at the end of the film, the protagonist is killed, and it's a very sad ending.
But you've been forced to film the ending where he doesn't die as well, because people want to cover the bases. And then it's showed to a bunch of audiences and everyone hates the fact that the guy dies because it makes them unhappy.
And there's no -- I imagine -- no argument there, because you have the footage, you can make the change, and if the -- all the commercial pressure is "the audiences hated the sad ending" then I imagine your hands are kind of tied. In games, everything is so much more complicated, because it's all these moving parts, so if you want to change a particular animation of a character or if you want to move a bit of a level around, or if you want to make something happen early, there are so many different knock-ons. But it's quite hard to define exactly where that power lies, because there's this constant process of making deals in terms of, "well, this is going to affect this," and it's not necessarily always going to come down to just people's opinions.
Do you think if the audience for games understood more about this, they’d be less vitriolic about videogames in general and why things turn out the way they do?
Yeah, the point when a game gets delivered to you, you assume -- as you would -- that everything that happened, or every part of that game was made for a reason, and that there was a guiding thought process behind that. And I think the cliché among people that make games is that when you see a bad game come out, and no one can understand how did such a bad game get released? The prevailing logic amongst people who make games is that it's amazing that there aren't more bad games, it's amazing when good games do come out.
It's such a complicated process, there are so many pressures, that when something good does come out, it's very impressive. And yeah, I think it's understanding just how difficult that process is.
You know, we made the game Silent Hill: Origins, which was the first Silent Hill game I worked on, and there was -- I remember we took that project over, and it had already been started by another studio, and their version wasn't going very well. And we were kind of petitioning at our end to get allowed to take it over, because we felt it wasn't necessarily being treated like what a Silent Hill game should be. And at some point, we got a chance to take it over, because things were not going well.
So we took that game over, and we had -- they had already spent --
I think Tomm told me about this. Was this the one that was, like, a comedy or something?
Yes! Yeah, we were told at some point --
[Laughs.] Can you tell me more about that? I had never heard about that, but I did some digging after he and I spoke. So, but I’m curious: How come sometimes people who have worked on games can't get into specifics, but this is an example of something you might be able to get into a specific on?
Yeah, I mean, all these -- I don't even know how -- I mean, we did a making of interview about this. I think generally people don't talk about stuff because everything is -- again, it's very different in games, because it's much more corporate. You're working for companies, you're sitting in offices, everyone has a day job, and these things take so long that generally everyone is tied up in contracts when it comes to talking about them, because if stuff leaks early on then it could ruin the surprise or whatever. [Laughs.] What am I talking about?
[Laughs.] That's OK. No, I was just curious, so then -- yeah, I had never heard of, "this is a Silent Hill game that was supposed to be a comedy?"
Well, the -- so, I'm only going on what I was told and what I heard, so I can't speak for the guys who were making this version of the game. But when we looked at it, it had a very different tone to what I had in my mind for Silent Hill. So I guess if you're take on horror was like Evil Dead, that kind of thing?
Then it was more that kind of thing, I guess. There was wisecracking in it and stuff, right? I wouldn't expect a protagonist in Silent Hill to be doing lots of wisecracking and stuff. It had that kind of -- certainly the plans that I saw had that kind of colorful, Halloween-y, grotesque, macabre quality to them. But we came in and looked at it and we felt that it wasn't true to Silent Hill. As well, it was a prequel to Silent Hill, which in itself, it was a kind of strange idea, because that's a game which essentially tells its own backstory.
[Laughs.] I was gonna say.
So the basic concept, it's a slightly strange thing anyway. And there were just issues with it, and so this is a game that was taking place seven years before the original game, but characters in it seemed older than in the original game. And there were just sort of details like that that didn't seem to add up.
So we felt that it wasn't necessarily going to do justice to the franchise. At that point, no one else other than the core Japanese teams had made Silent Hill games, so it was quite a big deal. So we eventually got given that game, and there was a Herculean effort, because at that point, time had been spent, money had been spent, the game was supposed to be finished at a certain date, so we had no breathing room.
And our initial agreement was just get the game finished. And we looked at it, and we, we wanted to change everything. [Laughs.] It felt like we couldn't use a lot of what was there, which the more business-minded people in development, it's gonna -- that's gonna put their backs out. "A lot of this stuff exists, we've gotta use it, what do you mean you can't? Just because you're going artistic and high-falutin doesn't mean you can throw all this stuff out."
But we really pushed through, and said, "We're going to make sure this game comes out, but it can't come out in such a way that it embarrasses us, and that it embarrasses the franchise." And I think our objective -- we knew that we had a tough kind of thing to achieve -- but our objective was to make something where our worst level would be no worse than the worst level of the other Silent Hill games. And if we were good, and we were lucky, our best level might be as good as some of the really good levels in Silent Hill games.
And so we said, "Look, we need to do this stuff from scratch." And so I think I had -- I essentially rewrote the story in a week, and then had a week to storyboard everything because the motion capture was happening. We had to redesign all the creatures, and so I did a lot of that myself. I'd go home and just work through the night doing creature concepts and stuff, come in the next day and talk over them. And I think we had at that point shot some of the FMV already, and that was expensive, so we were told we couldn't throw out the FMV. And unfortunately for us, the FMV gave us the opening five minutes and the closing five minutes of the game.
But we did a lot of re-editing a bit, we did some fairly labored voice over over the top, just so that it -- for example, the main character Travis, we felt, didn't really have much going on with him, and there was no introduction to him or who he was, so we put in a CB radio conversation over the opening FMV just to try and flesh him out a bit. We were trying to do everything we could just to pull it all together.
But we worked so hard on that game, and I remember when it came out, there was a mention of -- at the very start, you rescue this character Alessa from a burning house, which is a key moment in the Silent Hill storyline. I think that's something we added in, because I think originally -- the original design, you had no connection to her and her story, you just kind of found her, and she just sent you on a fetch quest to get a few magical artifacts, and then that was the end of the game. It was like, "Why are these two people connected?" It just didn't really --
So I think we put that in as kind of opening set piece. And I think in our game, you rescue her from the first floor of the house, and that matches the geometry of some cutscenes that you see in the original game. But there is a strategy guide that was put out in Japan which says that she was burnt in the basement. And I think this discrepancy between the Japanese strategy guide and what we had in our game was something that people fixated upon and grew into the idea that this game was a -- it completely destroyed everything, got all the continuity wrong, and was just awful.
Based on what's in the strategy guide?
Yeah. And obviously, we were given a somewhat poisoned chalice. Like I say, the original Silent Hill game tells its own backstory, so the idea of going back over that, there wasn't a huge amount -- and I think obviously the idea of doing a prequel and not being the original creative team is in itself problematic because you're messing with someone else's stuff. And you know, we tried our best to be respectful.
Did anyone voice that from the audience of what an odd challenge that would've been for you guys, or not so much?
No, again, I think the perspective is, "Why are these guys making this game? Why did they?"
It's kind of, "How dare they decide to come out and make this game?"
Whereas obviously Konami wants to make the game and they're speaking to people to make it, and especially from the perspective of the team that I worked on, we went out of our way to save that project, since for us the version that would've come out potentially might not have come out, we felt would've been much further from what the fans would want. So again, the way people perceive this stuff from outside, it's as if we sat down to mess with their favorite franchise. And for us, it was odd because we love the franchise and we were trying to do our best to keep it true to it.
And certainly, when we then went on -- so after we finished that game, and we got a chance to make another Silent Hill game, which ultimately became Silent Hill: Shattered Memories -- which itself was ostensibly a remake, we really wanted to not riff on the kind of stuff that the Japanese teams were doing. We wanted to make a Silent Hill game that was our own, and so even though it was ostensibly a remake, the way in which we interpreted that brief was to do something that was very different.
And it was -- you know, it in no way touched on the original games. It didn't mess with or screw around with their continuity -- their chronology of what happened in those games. It was very much our own game, and like I say, we tried to bring our own particular flavor to it and not just kind of ape what other people had done, which I think was important.
What do you feel about the media for games? What are things you typically see them either get wrong or operate under the false assumption of, or just demonstrate a lack of understanding?
I don't know if there's anything hugely, hugely wrong that the games media does. I mean, it's -- essentially anything that they might do that that's a fault is perpetuating the ideas that everyone has. Which I'd guess is useful as well from a marketing perspective, in terms of just, you know, the games are a product of a guiding hand that there is -- I guess there's no incentive in portraying or in people wanting games to be portrayed as anything other than that.
Things are reported in such a way that makes some things out to be more overt decisions or particular choices that might not have otherwise been.
But I don't know, I think the problems -- or any problems that the games media might have, I think, are tied up in just the problems that the industry might have in terms of the need that how the industry might want to use the media to get the word out. I mean, they're, you know, totally, as you said, over the last year or so, you've seen an increasing friction between different parts of the games industry, and you now have the prevalence of embargoes, the response to that from games media is to now have no day-one review, or to have reviews that can change, or to move the focus away from reviewing games entirely, almost, to talking about the experience of playing games, and the experience around that, rather than specifically just to hype up a game and review it on launch and kind of move on.
What trends do you notice in things that the games media does cover or does not cover?
[Pause.] I don't know if I can make any observations there.
That’s okay. What are your games media consumption habits? Do you pay really close attention?
So, I'll definitely read -- I do this a lot less, now? I feel like I need to do this a lot less since -- over the last year since I've become independent. So prior to that, I would fairly, as a kind of habit, read the major sites. Certainly the front pages and stories, and I would read all the coverage of generally, of all the big games, certainly ones that were in the same sort of space as I was working in.
I've definitely, over the last year, transitioned away from that. I'll certainly look at a handful of sites, but I definitely find myself reading reviews a hell of a lot less. And I mean, I haven't got into video at all, which I know makes me a --
[Laughs.] I think some would describe me as a grumpy old man, because --
What are you referring to specifically, though?
Well, there's just the sense of I don't consume a lot of video about video games. I don't necessarily watch a lot of Twitch stuff. There aren't any YouTube shows or personalities that I regularly watch. I think for me it's I don't have enough time, and video takes more time than reading text.
So that's something I haven't moved into, but I can see that's a big part now of games media. And it's a weird one for me, because the kind of games I like to make -- and certainly the game I'm making at the moment -- is not the kind of game that lends itself to that approach. If you are making a game which has -- if you're making a procedural game, or an always-online game, something that has hundreds of hours of potential gameplay, if it's a game that's very expressive of different play styles and stuff, then that's perfect for video, because you can watch a YouTube personality play it, and you can watch it and you can think, "Well, I'm going to play it differently."
Or what you're seeing is promising, all sorts of other untold action that might occur should you go and play the game yourself. Whereas the game I'm making at the moment is very much aimed at someone sitting down, playing it, and getting this experience for a few hours, maybe, and telling this story, and there being things that you discover. And it very much being about you leading that discovery of the story. So it's not really the kind of thing where you could have someone sit and play it on video and then leave you wanting to go and play it yourself, because you're gonna kind of have that spoiled for you.
So I can imagine, that the kind of -- and I guess you're already seeing this anyway, but the rise of this kind of coverage of games, the popularity of this kind of thing is definitely pushing, or certainly helping put attention on a particular type of game. And we are talking about games that are essentially multiplayer-enabled that support different playstyles, more expressive playstyles. You know, small amounts of sandbox gameplay, or large amounts, those kind of games definitely are certainly benefiting from a moment in the sun where it's much easier to sell that kind of game now than it is a more limited, authored experience.
What's your opinion on game consultancies or companies that come and do internal reviews of bigger projects?
So I've had a few of these various variations on that kind of theme in the past, and I think -- obviously there's gonna be good ones and bad ones -- I think you have to be wary of anyone that is promising that they can come in and give you some kind of concrete outcome, whether that's, "We promise we can help make your game, give you that extra five points on Metacritic." [That’s what] used to be what the pitch would be.
Or if they're trying to impose a specific template. Now I think if you're talking about people with experience coming in, understanding your game, and giving you that kind of outside perspective, that can be very useful, especially if that's a perspective which doesn't necessarily have an agenda, because I think if you're -- like I say, you're inundated with opinions when you're trying to make a game, and a lot of those opinions are going to be coming prejudiced with whatever that particular person's agenda is. They might already have an idea what the game is, they might want a certain type of game, they might have some other reason, though.
I think if you've got people coming in from an outsider perspective, in theory giving you this clean, fresh opinion, then that can be quite useful. It's the classic -- I think it was Neil Gaiman -- quote that, "If someone tells you that something you've done is wrong and they're right 99 percent of the time, and if they tell you how to fix it, then they're wrong 99 percent of the time."
I think the rest of the quote, too, is something like, "but you have a 100 percent obligation to at least consider it."
Yeah. So I think that kind of thing can be pretty useful. I mean, these kind of things are going to become more and more prevalent, because when you're spending more and more money on a game, and given how tricky to pull off making a videogame is, publishers are going to be looking for ways to offset that.
If they can pay a small amount of money to a consultancy to come in and advise, then that's always going to be good. I mean, I've definitely seen examples of focus groups and things like that used in such a way that people go into them knowing what they want to get out. [Laughs.] And then using that set-up to tell them what they wanted to hear in the first place. But I think that kind of thing can be -- I can imagine it being useful. Feedback is always quite useful, so as long as that feedback is done in the right way.
So, okay: Why does any of this matter? Who is it really hurting if bigger games are becoming less creative, and it's getting harder to discover other smaller, or other more creative things? Does it matter? Is it hurting anyone?
I think the healthiness of just in general the quality of games is important. To me, it's important, to the people that are consuming them.
I mean, there's a very old quote and it was either Plato or Aristotle, or maybe someone else --
"You can judge the quality of a civilization by its stories."
Or some variation on that.
I'm probably misquoting that, mangled it terribly. But these stories we tell each other, the games we give each other to play are important, because they are our way of sharing ideas, they're our way of commenting on things, they are this wonderful shared thing that we have to all play and enjoy together.
So if there is some large-scale problem that is endemic -- if there is some problem which is causing problems with the quality of those games, then I think it is something to worry about. I mean, if you kind of step back a second -- it's hard not to see how cyclical things are, and it's very easy to talk in doom-laden terms, as if things are coming to a head, and things are never worse than they have been or whatever.
But I think actually there have been all sorts of cycles, and a lot of it you forget, and you can look back and throughout the history of games -- which is not a particularly long history, you can see these different cycles, and you can see the rise of individual creators, and then you can see the bigger, high-budget things, and you can see the big flops and the vaporwares, and you can see whole swathes of games history that people kind of forget about.
So, a favorite of mine is there's a period in the ‘80s where the big publishers were spending lots of money getting respectable names to come in and make games. So you had stuff like Thomas M. Disch writing a game called Amnesia, which was for Activision, and that was touted as being the future of the novel. It was electronic literature, it was games being very worthy and artistic in a way that wanted to push things forward.
And you had Robert Pinsky, the poet, wrote a game called Mindwheel, again, which at the time, it was -- these were big companies trying to push an agenda, if you will, and the agenda was: "We want to make sophisticated, intelligent things." In the same way that movie companies, as much as they put out the big summer blockbusters, know that they have to have their shelf of Oscar-worthy films. And so much of that is about giving a kind of -- putting out the right image to the outside world, because in the early days, movies were seen as being immoral and a waste of time, and pure entertainment, and as a non-artistic thing. So it was always very important to the movie studios that they could have their premium stuff, that they could put out their prize pictures as this thing that they could hold up against all those accusations.
And we've all these cycles in games where people have tried to push an agenda, trying to move the medium forward, and those things have been forgotten, and things move on again, so it doesn't feel to me like we're in a position where we need to be too concerned. Because I think as rapidly as AAA has shrunk in terms of the creative opportunities there, other things are springing up, so there is the -- we've kind of written off what used to be called the AA game, which was the games that maybe cost 10, 15 million rather than the 50 to 100 million or whatever. Those sorts of games, people aren't interested in anymore, because the scale of operating at, they're not the kind of investment people want to make.
But then we're seeing those things springing up again, and whether that's fully independent studios taking advantage of digital distribution, or whether it's things like the Telltale games, there's -- that kind of outlet is springing up again, and there's a lot of ambition and interesting ideas being played out there. And I think the key to all this is the digital distribution. I think that has been the thing that's actually caused all of the problems in the big publishers, it's changed how they have to think about their business, but it's such a boon to people who are trying to create more interesting things.
You no longer have to package things in a box. You don't have to justify the box price. You don't have to justify selling enough copies that you can actually pack it onto a truck and drive it across America to all the different stores. You know, it's -- cutting out all these logistics means that you can potentially create more interesting things. And I think, you know, the market for games has changed and increased so much when you have touchscreen devices, when you have people sat on a sofa with an iPad playing a game. That's a very different experience to being sat with a joypad in hand in front of a big TV. There's all these different ways of playing games.
I think that fills me with lots of positivity and optimism about where we can go. And I think there are gonna be speed bumps along the way, and continued shockwaves. I think the transition to the current generation was something that people were absolutely terrified of and publishers just had no idea what to do. They knew that games were costing twice as much money, but they knew that the early install base was never going to be able to fund those games. And they knew that they had to deal with online and how the games as service thing was going to work. And now we're in this generation, there's a lot of PR fluff around the numbers, and how healthy things are doing, but I think we still haven't actually solved that -- the problems that we had making that jump and trying to figure out what those big, expensive products are. So the console market in particular is still definitely addressing itself to a particular hardcore market, but it's potentially slightly smaller than it was.
I think across that Xbox 360 generation, coming off the PS2 generation, it kind of felt like there was this shift to more interesting games, to experiences that were kind of more varied, and it does feel like we've taken a step away from that. But I think that -- those steps are being picked up elsewhere. I think it's not necessarily up to the big publisher-funded console games to actually address some of that stuff now.