Hi, I'm Steve, Steve Gaynor. I'm a videogame writer and designer. I worked on the Bioshock series for a number of years. I didn't work on the first game, but I was a level designer on Bioshock 2 and I was the writer and lead designer of the DLC for that game, Minerva's Den. And then for a year of Bioshock Infinite's development, I was a level designer on that game as well, but after I worked with Irrational for a year, I left AAA game development and, with a couple of my former co-workers from 2KMarin, started Fulbright, which is an independent game studio here in Portland, Oregon. And we released a game in 2013 called Gone Home, which was like a first-person story/exploration game, and we're working on our second game now, which is called Tacoma.
So I noticed you didn't use the phrase "walking simulator," there.
I mean, I think "walking simulator" is probably too broad to… I mean, that's the interesting thing, is on Steam, when they started putting community-driven tags on games, we had "walking simulator" on Gone Home, that people had put on there as the highest rated tag, and then you click on it, and the other top games that had gotten that tag are, like, DayZ and Rust, and also, you know, The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther and games you would kind of expect. But it seems like people lump a lot of different kinds of games into that category.
This morning on Steam, I saw "squirrel-driven." Hyphenated. As a descriptor. So… [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Do you play as a squirrel?
Yeah, you can play as a squirrel! [Laughs.]
I guess it's an apt descriptor. I guess, so,okay, "squirrel-driven" is specific enough, "walking simulator" is too broad.
It's good to clarify things right out of the gate.
So, but you’ve had an interesting transition going from working on bigger, acclaimed things to working on smaller, acclaimed things. How would you like to see the bigger games space progress creatively? What is keeping that from happening?
I think that we're seeing some -- seeing a lot of good examples of a trajectory that I think is positive, and it's on a lot of different levels. Because when you say "big games," I think that naturally one thinks Grand Theft Auto, or The Last of Us, or whatever. And I think that you could look at examples within that realm that are valuable. I think that The Last of Us is a really well done game that merges cinematic story and character-driven story with gameplay that is engaging and kind of takes advantage of what AAA are good at well, but also, as far as big games go, Minecraft is a much bigger game than than The Last of Us just as far as impact, right? [Laughs.]
As far as how many people are playing, and you go into any -- I don't know, Powell's Books here in Portland -- and you go in through the main entrance, and one of the big tables of featured books is just all Minecraft books, you know? [Laughs.] And so in a lot of ways, the biggest game of the last generation is an indie game. That game was programmed by Notch on his own and then he started working with more people, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and it's the biggest thing that's happened in the games world, I don't know, since The Sims, maybe? Something like that. And so I think that part of what is worth doing is looking at not just what is interesting that's happening in big splashy blockbuster AAA game development, but also just what the biggest influences on -- practically speaking -- on the audience that's playing games now is. And I think that a game that is about -- at its core, about creativity and discovery being the biggest influence on this generation of people who are coming up playing games, I think is a really, really inspiring thing.
Do you think it’s fair to say that it feels like most big-budget games are antithetical to that, where rather than about creativity, they’re about destruction?
I guess on some level. I think that when you look at it less from a thematic point of view and more from an interactive point of view, I guess I would say that they're antithetical in that they're not about creating, they're about consuming. But I think that that's true of Gone Home and tons of more traditional games of all scales as well, where it's like, okay, "This is about the people who made the game being creative and you using your abilities as a player to uncover all of the content they put into the game, find all the secrets, and learn the most effective strategies, and stuff like that."
Whereas Minecraft being procedurally generated and not bound by the developer's creativity, but only bound by the player's creativity, I think that's the biggest difference. Because there are the specifics, when you go down further, of -- and yes, in The Last of Us, almost all of your verbs are about killing enemies and killing zombies and it's about clearing out threats and solving simple puzzles and stuff like that. And I don't think that there is schematically a huge difference between that in a game like The Last of Us and the high-level proposition in Gone Home, which is all this, like, "Okay, you start at the beginning, you're given this sort of chaotic, disorganized set of data that you encounter, and you organize it, either by clearing out all the enemies, so that you can find all of the collectibles to move forward, or by opening all the doors and cabinets and reading all the notes, and kind of organizing the stuff you're finding into a narrative in your head. So I think that when you back off of some of the more fine-grain mechanics and exactly what images are going on the screen, the two have more to do with each other than not.
That's interesting. Just the verb "consume" applying to it. I'd never really thought of it in that context.
Yeah, I mean, the other image that I've thought of in regards to that is it's something to occupy one's time, right? So it's a knot. You get one of these types of games, and it's the challenge and satisfaction of untying a knot. It's like, "Oh, there's this very complex knotted-up bundle of content and I'm kind of going through and straightening it all out, and now I've gained control of this so I can move onto the next one of these things." And it is a consumptive mode, but it's not purely mindlessly eating through it, you still have to be very engaged and you are instrumental in untangling the thing. But it's still about that act of "Okay, it's in one state, I'm going to fight through it, now I've got to the end and I can move on."
Well, I think certainly there's a spectrum there of the blatancy of it. Like on the Pokémon side of things to -- certainly it's true of Gone Home. But I hadn't really thought of it.
I guess for Bioshock and some of those bigger games, for me, some of that consumption can feel peripheral to the main crux. And I’m not just picking on Bioshock. Like, I just played a Vita game where that's true, where you can skip the story, so I end up skipping the story, which I guess is my fault? But I guess there's also some of what Gone Home sort of tinkers with is you can't really skip over it and there's really no reason to.
Right. Well, because it is the point.
And I think that there are tons of games that I've played where I just instinctively start skipping the cutscenes really soon after the game starts because all right, "There's nothing… I don't need to be watching these," you know?
Yeah, I don't even do it vindictively. I'm sort of programmed from, I don't know, two decades?
Well, and I know -- I guess what I would say is that it's the developer's job to make you not want to skip that stuff, as opposed to forcing you to be unable to skip it, you know what I mean? Because there are games where it's just like, "Oh, you can't skip the story." And it's like, "Well, that doesn't make me want to engage with it."
"It just makes me more annoyed," right? And because the developer hasn't held up their end of the deal of making me not want to skip it, you know what I mean? And that is the difference with something like The Last of Us, which is you can skip any of the story sequences, any of the cutscenes in that game if you want to. I didn't want to, because I was interested in finding out what was going to happen to the characters next. And I think that Gone Home is kind of one step further down that scale of not just "I'm playing through mechanical combat sequences, oh and now some story popped up, and I actually want to find out what it is, so I'll sit through it" to "there's literally no reason to be playing this game unless I care about what the next story thing that I'm going to find it, and that desire is strong enough that it makes me want to keep playing."
That's kind of the frame that we were in when we made the game: Can we not just make people care enough they don't want to skip the story, but in fact they only want -- like, it's an upward motivator for them to keep playing, keep finding things, and not want to leave this interactive experience?
So I'm assuming from what you're saying, the way you'd like to see bigger games progress creatively is to have better or stronger writing? But what I'm curious about is what will it take for games on the bigger scale to become more receptive and friendly to writers?
Yeah, I guess the thing I would say is I don't personally feel prescriptive towards what any one segment of the industry should be doing differently or better, I feel like really it's just a question of the entire experience, whatever it is, feeling unified and of a piece. And I think that that's a lot of times where writing and story in games runs into problems is when it's like, "Okay, this is a game that the mechanics and the core of what the player's doing and the overall experience does not lend itself to like a story-driven, cinematic, character-based kind of thing, and yet there's all of this story stuff in it that just feels incongruous."
And so you're like, "Just leave me alone. I want to do the thing that the game is about." And well, some of Nintendo's main properties recently have really fallen into that, where it's just like there's so much text in Zelda games now. And even some of the Mario Galaxy games at the beginning and stuff, it's like why? The core of the game is what you're doing as Link or as Mario and it's not about the peripheral stuff, so I think that's what you run into a lot of times, where those two things just aren't harmonious in a lot of AAA games.
I'm glad when I play a game that is good at being story-focused and it does a good job with that story. That's great -- it's not necessarily what I come to AAA games looking for. I think that what is valuable and powerful about games is how many different things they can do and how many different things that they can be, and I would much rather play something that is -- that fully supports its own identity as an interactive thing and is enjoyable all the way through for what it is than something that feels awkward and has elements that aren't really native to what its goals are. And I think that's the mark of something that really works, when you're like, "Okay, I'm constantly in a state of flow within this game, I'm never pulled out of it by this, that, and the other disharmonious element." I think it's why a lot of times games that can overlay narrative stuff with gameplay in a way that makes sense can work especially well. I think that that's why the narrator in Bastion worked so well was he was a narrative presence while you were playing, and not only that, he was talking about, in many cases, what you were doing as the player, and it all supported the overall experience. I think that's why audio diaries in Bioshock or in Gone Home are valuable because it's like, "I'm still in the role of the person playing the game, I'm still in the environment, and also I'm hearing these elements of the narrative that are relevant to the space that I'm inhabiting and what I'm doing." Obviously that's not the only way that game story can be effective, but just anything that can bring the interactive and the narrative elements together I think is really valuable.
What is it you feel that audiences don't understand about the way that much bigger games are made?
I don’t know? [Laughs.]
I guess it's really hard to see how many dependencies there are from the outside. I think that the process of game-making can be very emergent, which is to say you can make decisions early on that basically you become stuck with and that shake out to their logical conclusion by the end of development and have a much bigger impact on the final product than you expected. So I think that it's easy, from a player's perspective, to look at the final product for what it is in and of itself. Which obviously, that's the way you should look at it. There's no -- that's the natural way to understand something that you're playing is the piece for what it is in the form that you're playing it in, but I think it's also fairly natural to assume that everything in the production that you're playing was intentional. You know what I mean? Where it's like, "they thought that this minigame was going to be fun, but it's not, they're bad at making minigames or something."
And it could be something like, well, at the beginning, they were like "here's this minigame, you'll just play it once or twice, and so it won't be a big deal," but by the end of the game's development cycle, they're like, "Oh wait, we're using that minigame in such a way that you play it every five minutes, and now there's way too much of it, but we can't just pull it out, because that would unstring all of these other things that are dependent on it, and now we're just stuck with this thing..."
I guess that's part of the dynamic, is generally, game developers know what parts of the game people are going to complain about or not be fans of before the game comes out. But it's not so much that those parts are in because the developers thought it would be awesome for them to be in and they were just wrong. In a lot of cases, "oh, that's something we thought was gonna be good, but games are such a big, complex ball of interlocking systems and technology and content that by the time we realized that wasn't a good direction for this one part of the game, we couldn't go back and change it because all these other things depended on it and now we just know we're stuck with this thing that we wish we would've done differently if we had known earlier that it wasn't going to be a positive part of the experience." You know what I mean?
Which is -- you know, it's tough for game developers, just knowing, "Oh, here's this thing that we totally would've gone back and changed, but since nothing stands on its own in a game -- which is a piece of software, which has to not crash and all this kind of stuff -- we couldn't go back and take the time to change it because we had to ship the thing and it's just going to have to be that way." And maybe if we make a sequel or if we can patch the game or whatever. [Laughs.] We can improve it, but it's a tough process to kind of keep everything in line all along the way, and keep an eye on how decisions that were made early in the process are kind of getting a life of their own as development continues, and try to keep things on track all the way to ship, but it's really, really hard the bigger the game is.
You mention minigames, and my mind flashes to hacking minigames. Why has that become such a popular thing recently?
I think it's just something where there's this desire for it to make the player feel involved in the process. But also hacking, as it were, is generally not something that you can allow the player to actually do. Like it's a much more complex process than pressing the button at the right time when there's a meter going back and forth or something. But I think it's just this desire to want to say, "Okay, one of the things you can do is hack, but you can't actually let the player do that, so how do we put a fake little version of that in here and make that fun?"
[Laughs.] Wait, are you saying I haven't been learning how to hack all these years?
I don't think so, no, I'm sorry, I don't think that --
[Laughs.] I'm going to take that off of my LinkedIn, then, I guess.
So this might be the same thing, but the flip is what do you feel the games media doesn’t understand about the way bigger games are made?
I don't know. I've had the game player's perspective and the game developer's perspective, but I've never been a games journalist, so… I mean, I assume that especially when you're dealing with big corporate organizations, you're given a very specific lens into the game development process and so forth that is kind of distorted in the way that the publisher wants it to be in most cases, but I'm -- I don't know what the specifics are that a lot of the...
Well, I just mean from your side of the aisle, what you've seen written in reviews or previews or I don't know, even news posts or what have you.
I think I didn't have a great understanding of how game development worked until I started doing it. There's just a ton of minutiae that goes into it that's hard to visualize from the outside.
There's kind of stuff where somebody or some game is missing this feature, or has this bug, or whatever, whatever, and on the one hand, there might be a ton of good reasons for that to be true, where, "Sorry, we can't fix that, or sorry, we wouldn't have been able to ship the game if we included that feature that we thought was going to be in it," or whatever, for tons of good, practical reasons as far as just making a judgment call. You know, like, "Okay, well, we can either add that feature in or ship the game without running out of money. And those are our two options." And you make the call at that point.
But on the other side of it, I don't think that that's… it might be true, but it doesn't mean that anyone shouldn't also expect people to -- developers to follow through with what they said they were going to do or to not ship buggy games or whatever. I think that you can always be expanding your perspective of how the work goes and I think similarly -- I think it's absolutely the same from the developer's side. I think there are tons of developers who are like, "Oh, why don't these journalists understand the reasons for us announcing these things, or why were they so hard on us when we said this one thing and they took this quote out of context," and it's like, "Well… that's the job." It's your fault, developer for saying something that could be taken badly out of context, or for announcing something and then announcing that you can't do it any more.
I mean, I don't think that it's...you can do as much as possible to understand all angles of the context in which you work, but I think at the end of the day, that understanding is there to help you be able to kind of do a better job with your part? [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
Where it's like, "Okay, if you're a developer, you should know the industry well enough to know what the implications are going to be if you say a certain thing." Like, "Okay, that's gonna get reported on." [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
Because you are the authority on what you're doing.
Yeah, and so if you don't know that, then that's on you, not on games journalists, I feel like. And vice versa.
So I don't think that there's a huge schism between any parts, and I think that anything that one doesn't know about how another side of the industry works -- you know, it's something that's always good to learn more about. But I don't think it changes the overall paradigm.
But, you know, I think the flip of that, too, is it's also kind of your job to be a showman and to get people excited about your thing. I also think, too, being an editor myself and having run stuff, and running this, I also sort of feel like audiences don't really know what they want. And there's something to be said for being surprised, pleasantly or otherwise. You don’t want to be just handed what you think you want. Because no one really knows.
Yeah. Definitely. Yeah, I think that absolutely, the idea is to make things that people didn't know they wanted, and then show them why they should be excited about it.
Because yeah, if you say, "What do you want?" and then you do exactly what people say -- it's like you said, it's not surprising, it's not something that people are excited to discover that they care about.
So for you personally, what's your games media consumption habits? What do you read or not read in general or in specific?
Oh, you mean -- oh like games journalist stuff.
Sorry, I thought you meant, like, playing habits.
We can talk about that as well, yeah.
I mean, either way. But I guess I used to use more of an RSS feed-tracker kind of thing for keeping up with specific games sites. But at this point I almost exclusively just use Twitter, really, and see what people are linking to. So I think if anything, it's caused my games writing consumption to be broader in terms of the outlets I read. Because it's not sort of like, "Okay, I have Rock, Paper, Shotgun bookmarked, so I'm going to look at whatever they have."
It's more like, "Someone posted a link to an interesting article that's on a blog or on a website that I've never heard of, or on a website I've heard of, but I didn't know that they were writing about this kind of stuff on it" or whatever. Somebody just has their Patreon page and they're like, "I posted this thing" and it's not on an established website. And so I guess my general consumption is I do look up reviews of specific games when they come out and I'm interested in what people are saying about them just to kind of figure out, "Oh, is this actually good? Should I bother playing this on day one?" kind of thing. And then aside from that, it's more just, "here's a link to an essay someone wrote about some issue in games that I'm interested in," whether it's something surrounding games, or whether it's a specific, "oh, here's a thinkpiece about this game that just came out and it sounds like an interesting perspective on it, so I should check that out." I'm a fan of Simon Parkin's writing, I feel like he always does a really good job. So if he has written something in The New Yorker or whatever I'll probably check it out. I think there's a couple of writers like that, where it's like, "Oh yeah, they'll probably have something interesting to say." But I think it's a much broader sample than the way it has been in past years, at this point.
What are your playing habits like, and what are you playing right now?
I almost exclusively play stuff on Steam. Well, I should say for commercial releases.
Because similar to the games journalism question, there are a lot of interesting games that I see somebody tweet about, and -- like a very small independent creator kind of project that either I'll download off of itch.io or just play in a browser kind of thing. But yeah, big releases, commercial releases I pretty much play on Steam, and if something new comes out that I have been looking forward to a lot then I'll just grab it and play it and generally crank through it in the course of a few days or a week or something like that, and then there's other stuff that you just keep an eye on for when it's going to be discounted. Like I didn't play Shadow of Mordor when it came out, but I played it when, I forget, it was 33 percent off or something like that for the holidays. And like you were saying, with just the sheer volume of stuff that's coming out, it's sort of win-win for me. Because it's sort of like -- in October, there was just tons of stuff coming out, and maybe conceptually I did want to play four or five different big titles that came out, but if you buy them all at the same time, there's only so much of them you can even play in the next however many weeks or months. So it's nice to be able to say, "Well, even if I bought all those, at least I wouldn't have been able to play them, so I'm going to prioritize and just grab this one on release." Then by the time I actually have time and energy in my schedule to play this other game, it probably will have been on sale for 25 percent off or something like that, and I'll grab it then, and it's perfect.
So what are you playing right now, if anything, recreationally, or even for research? And what's something you're really looking forward to coming out this year?
They released the HD whatever re-released version of Resident Evil 4 on Steam not too terribly long ago. And I pretty much -- I just always have a save game in a Resident Evil 4 playthrough that I can just kind of load up and play for like half an hour and go through some encounters, and then save and quit and come back to it. It's one of those things where it's like, "I feel kind of bored and tired right now, what should I do? Oh, you just load up that Resident Evil 4 save game and play through a little bit further," and then come back to it later. Because I've beaten that game probably like seven or eight times at this point. It's just… it's something you can always snack on, I guess? [Laughs.]
What is it about that world that you like to inhabit?
I think the core gameplay and the pacing of the game is -- really lends itself to that kind of infinite replayability. Which is to say, it's a very long single-player campaign. Like, there's a ton of content end-to-end, but also it's broken up into little chunks, where's it's like, okay, you come into a new room, you have to clear out all the enemies and solve the little puzzle, and then you go to the next room, and it has a really satisfying structure of these sort of bite-sized pieces of gameplay that you can say, "Well, I'm just going to do one of those and then go back to the save station and save the game and quit." Or you can string together an hour of that and be like, "Okay, that's a good place to stop." It's just, like… the mechanics are so perfectly tuned and responsive and satisfying, and the creativity of the level design in the campaign was so inspiring, where it's just sort of like, okay, there's a fairly small number of elements to play with here, but every room you go into is unique, and there's something happening in it that you weren't expecting, and it's layered incredibly smartly. And so it's just one of those things where it's like, I never don't feel like playing a little more Resident Evil 4. [Laughs.]
You talked a bit about what’s reasonable to expect out of the bigger budget game space, and I basically feel like they are increasingly lacking creativity. There might be good reasons for why, but it’s still something I feel. So, I’m curious, from your perspective -- and feel free to disagree with this assertion -- but what does it really matter if bigger games aren’t as creative or ambitious? Who does that really hurt?
I think it's like asking the same question about big Hollywood blockbusters. I think that big tentpole pieces of expensive entertainment serve a purpose, and there are certain things they're good at. Which, in general, is the sense of spectacle and scale. And I think that there are certain things that we can say, "Oh, big summer blockbusters should do this or that better." But I think that something what's really good about where the games industry is now is that there's so much more territory now outside of big console releases than there was 10 or 15 years ago. You know what I mean?
Or even five years ago.
Yeah. And so you don't have to say, "Well, if we want games to be doing X, Y, or Z, then big AAA games with $10-million budgets need to be doing X, Y, and Z." We can say, "Big AAA blockbuster games should be doing what they're good at well, because these other things that are kind of foreign to that mode of production and that scale of development can be accomplished elsewhere and actually find an audience and be distributed and so forth without having to be boxed up in a DVD case and sold at Gamestop or whatever." I think that's a really good thing.
I mean, so that's a correlation that's brought up a lot, is Hollywood to games. But not all of Hollywood movies are big summer blockbusters. Like, I wouldn't call Birdman a big summer blockbuster.
I haven't watched it, no, but I know of it.
But there’s still something to be said for something unusual getting released or seen on a similar scale or scope, and not having to dig as aggressively for it.
Well, I mean, I doubt that if you were to talk to a movie producer, that they would say that Birdman is anywhere near the scale or scope of even a third-tier Marvel movie. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] I think those things are still very, very different.
For sure. I think you know what I’m saying, though: Where it's released in movie theaters, and people can go and see it there. Birdman is not a Shrek 4 direct-to-video.
Yeah. But, you know, games don't have the concept of public display. Which is to say, there's Gamestop, and then there's Steam, and then there's download it off of the internet, and those are all methods of buying the game to own and play at home.
And I think that there's just a separate set of expectations there. But I think it's still pretty similar in that if you take your smaller-scale film that's critically-lauded and has kind of a more niche audience, it's still playing at 1/100th the number of theaters that The Avengers is playing at or whatever, right? I think that what you're pointing at is a closer-to-middle ground of production values and visibility with a different name than blockbuster entertainment. But I think there's some of that. I think that when we look at some independent productions like The Witness that Jonathan Blow's working on, or even when The Walking Dead games came out from Telltale, they were download only and they were nowhere near as high-fidelity as a game that's produced by a big publisher, but they had more exposure than a single-person production indie game, and eventually they got to retail. And so I think that spectrum is there, but I think it's -- kind of going back to an earlier response -- I think it's trying to make the experience unified with what its scope and scale and development process makes it good at.
Something I don't really see talked about publicly is these consultancies that do internal reviews or I guess sort of institutionalized therapy for bigger games as they're in development. You know the types of things I'm taking about, right?
Yeah, where you, yeah, have a firm come in during development, give feedback on it and stuff.
I don't know if you've worked on anything that's been impacted by any of those or if you can comment on them, but I'd be curious to hear your general response or thoughts on them?
Just on the practice of having consultancies come in during the development of the game?
Yeah. Like, have you worked on anything where that had been deployed?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, there was that kind of stuff on the Bioshock series. I mean, the publisher wants to hedge their bets and just get an idea -- like an outside perspective on where the game's heading, and how these people believe that X, Y, and Z is going to be perceived when a trailer goes out, or when an E3 demo goes out, or when the game itself comes out, or whatever, kind of have the ability to react to those things before much is actually out there in the world and the public is reacting to it.
I mean, it's just one of those things that is kind of native to AAA game development, I think. Which is to say, when a publisher is putting many, many millions of dollars into the development of a game, they want to be able to say, "Okay, what's everything we can do to try to make sure that the target audience is going to react the way that we want them to when this thing's actually released, and that it's not way off-target for that stuff." And, you know, there's pluses and minuses to it. I think that in a lot of cases, the feedback ends up echoing what developers inside the studio have already been saying, but I think that it's not unfair to say even if the internal and external feedback ends up being the same, having an external perspective is valuable to kind of confirm what the internal feedback was, as opposed to assuming that the changes that are being asked for from the inside are worthwhile, because developers have a game, they're working on it every day for years, I think it's totally fair to say, "You might be too close to the game to actually have a great idea of how the direction of it needs to be changed." So, you know, it's worth it to say, "here's somebody who isn't working on this thing day-in and day-out every day, all week, all month, all year. And hey, they said the same kind of stuff isn't working, and had X, Y, Z suggestions," and some of that has come from inside the studio, but it really is important to know that the developers weren't alone, basically on thinking that those things would be worth doing. [Laughs.] And then also, there's always perspective that is unique to consultants that you wouldn't have come up with from inside the studio at all.
So, you mentioned that there are pluses and minuses. Those sound like a lot of pluses. [Laughs.] What are some of the minuses?
When you're a developer, it's not really your problem, but I think it's expensive. [Laughs.] And it can be disruptive or whatever, but I haven't been in a situation where it was disruptive to the process and a net negative. Generally, it's disruptive to processes that needed to be kicked in the ass on some level. It's like, "Well, it is a pain that we were going in this one direction, now we have to turn 90 degrees and do something differently, but also that's better than having just continued to barrel forward on a bad trajectory until we shipped something that we weren't happy with."
And I guess it can definitely feel frustrating from inside the studio when someone is saying, when people on the design team, whatever, for months are like, "This aspect isn't working, we should cut it," and then it's not getting cut, and you have to keep working on it, and then they call in consultants who spend a couple days at the studio and write up a feedback report and then it's like, "The consultants said we should cut that thing." [Laughs.] And you're like, "Yeah, we've been saying that the whole time."
But it's one of those things where it's just sort of like, outside perspective is really very valuable regardless of whether it's a hired consultant, or whether it's playtesters, or whether it's other friends in the industry that aren't working on the same game you're working on. I think it's a totally important part of the decision-making process of kind of, like, "What should we be investing in and what should we change direction on?"
What was the biggest draw then, for you to shift focus and start working on smaller things? Is it strictly just fewer voices and opinions around everything, and smaller scope, or was it something else?
So in my own personal case, a big part of it was that my wife and I wanted to move back to Portland, and there aren't any games studios in town that are making the kinds of games that I wanted to be working on. So it's like, "Well, okay, then you can not live in Portland, or you can try to start your own thing." So it's a practical question on some level for me, which just means if you're going to try and start your own thing, it has to be small. Well, I guess you can try to get investors and all that kind of stuff and whatever.
But, you know, aside from that, it was a difference in scale, where it was like, I had worked on Bioshock 2 and then been the lead on Minerva's Den, and then gone back to Bioshock Infinite. And, you know, that was -- the two big titles on either side of the DLC were 100+ people on the team, and then Minerva's Den, it was 12 people full-time working on the DLC, and it took a total of nine months from concept to shipping it to develop that. And having gone from big team to small team to big team again, it just made me realize I wanted to work on smaller stuff, where you could get the whole team around a table and you could make decisions quickly. You know, turn around to the programmer you're working with and be like, "Hey, I think it would kind of be better if we changed this one thing. Can we try that out?" And be like, "Okay, let's see how it works," and not have to go through all those layers of production and publishing and approvals and so forth.
There's an agility to being able to work small that I think is really satisfying, whereas when you're working on a really, really big project, it's pretty much impossible to be able to keep track of all the different moving parts of it. And so, being able to work on something smaller, where you can really kind of be invested in all the pieces of the whole experience, I think is really, really valuable.