I'm Tomm Hulett. I'm a game director from California. You might have heard of me from such games as the Trauma Center series, Contra 4, Rocket Knight, two Adventure Time games, or one or two Silent Hill titles.
What are you working on now?
[Laughs.] We're off to a great start here with more communication and honesty in the games industry.
You've got a really interest resume and you've got experience in both AAA and stuff smaller than that, which is a big spectrum in and of itself. So how did you get your first job in AAA?
I'd been working at Atlus for several years and I just wanted to get involved in the development of games, since Atlus is just localization and publishing Japanese titles. So after a couple of years of me trying to convince Atlus to do internally developed things, just because I wanted to. When that didn't work out, I found a job at Konami.
What attracted me to Konami is I had a producer position, but producers in Konami also have a sort of creative voice in games. They're not just giving their developers a deadline and waiting for the game to show up. They're actually involved in the development. That was pretty attractive to me, so that's how I jumped to Konami, and I lucked out in that they put me on the Silent Hill series pretty early. So I kinda just stumbled into AAA, but it was a franchise I really loved already as a gamer, so that was really exciting for me.
How was getting jobs in AAA changed? Has it gotten easier or more difficult?
It's hard. There are fewer games with bigger budgets now. I think you either luck into a studio that lands a big game or maybe they were hoping to get funding and they did. Or you work on an annual franchise. I won't name any because it sounds negative in that context, but people know about franchises they buy every year. So, one of those.
[Laughs.] So when did the word "franchise" become so synonymous with games? McDonald's is a franchise. Games are a series. But when did that start becoming so much a part of the gaming vernacular?
[Laughs.] That's a good question. I don't know. Because normally I would say series, too, but when you think of "annual," "franchise" just follows it, right? You wouldn't say "annual series."
I don't know, we don't call Breaking Bad or Frasier a franchise.
Maybe when they got so big that there were outside-of-games things, like you could buy a novelization of a game or if McDonald's had toys from that series, it was kind of franchised out.
Maybe. But what about those Scholastic novelizations of Mega Man 2? Because I definitely don't remember as a kid being like, "Man, I love the Mega Man franchise."
But to your point, I have heard from other friends trying to break into AAA that it is very tough to get in because you need a resume where you meet the requirements of shipping AAA games already. How are people supposed to break in if they've never shipped a major game?
That's always the problem. [Laughs.] I wonder if that's how the indie boom got started is people trying to make games so they could get into games. And then it was like, "Well, I made this game, so why wouldn't I just sell this game I made as opposed to getting into AAA and letting someone else determine what I make instead of me doing it?"
So what's your take, then, on people outside of AAA saying that AAA games are not creative or personal statements?
If it's a AAA series right now, it probably has a huge fanbase behind it. And so people want to always get behind and defend the series they like, but then at the same time if they don't like it anymore -- instead of it being [about] this group of great artists making a wonderful game that we all loved, it turns into, "Oh, well, no one cares about it, they all phoned it in, they don't know what they're doing. It's all corporate." It's weird.
Games take years and years to make, whether there's three people making them or 300 people making them. And you don't do that unless you love what you're doing. Even if it's AAA, everyone loves it. Well, maybe not everyone, but most people love working on it. If it's indie, they love what they're doing. People love games that make games. So it's weird that people forget that if they hate a AAA franchise. They're like, "Oh! They sold out and it's just men in business suits and they hate me and they're taking advantage of me." So it's weird to me.
Why is there that inclination in the games audience to act like it isn't a business?
I don't know. Gamers love games, right? They devote themselves to it. But if you say, "I'm devoted to this consumer product," it sounds weird. And you feel kinda icky saying it. There are artists that make games, and even if they work for a big corporation, they love what they do and they put their heart into it. They try to be innovative or creative. Like, that's cool. You can back those people even if they work for a big corporation. It doesn't mean you're selling yourself to the matrix or whatever.
Which is another franchise.
How would you like to see bigger games progress creatively?
So you've got the team making the game, and then there's a lot of voices that have to do stuff with the game that's not creating it. They have to sell it to retailers. They have to sell it to customers. They have to market it. They have to tweet about it. Whatever they have to do. A lot of those voices factor in just as much as the creative team, and so even if the creative team is like, "This is the right thing to do, we have to do this thing. It's brand new and no one's seen it before. It's really exciting. Just let us do it." If there's enough voices that are scared of that idea, it won't get done or it'll get watered down. And that's frustrating. In my experience, the people building the game kind of want to be new and different, but we still see a lack of innovation in a lot of games. And it's not necessarily because people don't care. It's just so many voices are factored in that it gets watered down along the way. Personally I'd like to see the creative voices get heard more. Maybe people be more willing to take risks because we could either depend on the indie space for all our innovation or we can get these big budgets behind innovative products and then sort of drive games forward even faster.
What do you feel is missing from the bigger space in that spirit of creativity?
That's a hard question. You're asking the hard questions, man.
I know. I haven't even asked anything I have written down here yet.
[Laughs.] I've actually been thinking about this. A lot of people have been saying this lately. Jeremy Parish [https://twitter.com/gamespite] says it a lot, but just that B-tier game is missing on consoles, anyway. Portables are kind of in that space, but you either have AAA or you've got indie, or you've got C-level stuff. But there's none of that -- like, we have enough money to try something weird and make it polished, but it's not AAA. That's kinda gone. No one will take that risk anymore. I would just like to see that again, because that drove the AAA to be different, because it had to, because it was competing with these slightly smaller budgets right at their heels. So I kinda miss that tier of gaming.
Yeah, the Acclaim of the worlds of whoever. We've seen them all fall one by one, but for kids growing up today it's much more binary. They won't remember a time where there was a bigger rainbow of bigger budgeted games.
Like, on the NES days, right? You knew Mega Man was cool, so you'd check out every Mega Man game. You'd go to the rental store, and if you've played everything, you'd take a chance on this weird game called River City Ransom. And then you love it, it's amazing. It's not necessarily a AAA of its day, but it's really cool, and you might go buy it after you rented it because it was so cool. That's just not happening anymore.
What's not happening anymore? The rental market?
I've been talking to people about this and they keep telling me that YouTube is the new rental space, because a lot of kids are watching YouTube playthroughs and Let's Plays, and I guess that's making us feel old again, but that doesn't stand right to me. That's not the same as renting. Renting's different. But maybe it's the same. I don't know.
I think there's certainly a difference between trying it and watching someone else try it.
Right. Or beat it. And then you're like, "Well, I've seen the ending to that game."
What do you think is weird about the game industry? Or I don't want to put words in your mouth, you don't have to think anything is weird.
No, there's plenty of weird stuff. It's so hard. My friend Nich Maragos, who works at Atlus now, but he used to be a games journalist. When he came to Atlus, like a week or two in, he said, "I wish every game journalist could work in games for, like, a month, because so much of it makes sense once you've been there and done it." And it's hard to explain what's weird without people having context, which I guess is what you're trying to accomplish with all this. [Laughs.]
No wonder we don't have any context, though, because we're not even really given a chance to. If we're to disseminate out to the public, how can we be a responsible and meaningful press if only get what you want us to see? Even as live-streaming takes hold, it is just a shift towards even more tightly controlled, properly contextualized information. Short of hiring every person who has ever written about games for a month, though, what do you think is the biggest thing the media doesn't understand about the way bigger games are made?
Oh, but I just thought of a weird thing.
Let's go back. Just one thing. My weird thing is how many different types of people that are in games, just because it came up so fast and you had the boom-bust in the '80s and you had Japan and America and all these different things. There's people in games that are just in marketing. Maybe they worked at Pepsi. And now they happen to work at a game company. Or there's people like me who played games all their lives, and this is what we had to do, and so we made it happen. And then you get some guy who learned how to code databases and then one day he worked at a game company and he loved and so now he's an engine programmer or something. There's so many different people and they all love games for different reasons or maybe they're just marketing games and games are just a thing. And all these people have to communicate to get that end product out. And so I guess it's a miracle that games out that everyone loves because there's all these different people with different opinions. But, like, movies have had so much time to build up and there's a system. There's a way to be in there, and this guy does this job and this guy does this job, and they all know their place.
And games is just the Wild West still. People seem to want it to stay that way. People in it don't seem to want to change it. It's weird. So that's weird to me. I don't know if that made any sense, but it's weird.
What do you think happened to the Japanese game industry?
I think a lot of it has to do with losing that B-tier of games. Just because I think Japan had a nice system of this is how much a game costs, this is how many people we're gonna put on it. For whatever reason they would reinvent the engine at the start of every single game project instead of reusing them. I'm generalizing, I'm sure there were companies that didn't do that. But a lot of them did. But it worked, so, when they were sort of in control of the industry and the front-runners of it, they cranked out games: AAA games, B-level games, C-level games. All these different spectrum, and we bought the ones we bought. And then once it kinda shifted and the consumer demand went up and more people played games, and games started to compete with movies for visuals and all these things, the budgets went way up and the Western market coming from PC was already used to reusing code and leveraging tech they'd already done. So they could build up and increase the budgets and staff up and make these AAA games that people wanted. Whereas Japan, that's not the system they had. They had to play catch-up.
A lot of companies for a while seemed to try to make Western-style games, but because they were Japanese, they were not playing to their strengths. So the Western market of people like me who liked Japanese games didn't like the games they were making because they were Western-Japanese Western games. And then people that loved Western games didn't like them because they were Western games that were Japanese-flavored. So, their end of that part of the market fell out, and now it's like Atlus will pick up the really good Japanese games, XSEED will do that, but they can only afford so many. So we're missing those big-budget games. Japan can't make as many. Most of them aren't coming here if they're weird and they won't sell. So it's just a weird situation.
It's hard to say, because I was a Metal Gear fan, and I'm a Metal Gear: Ground Zeroes fan, and I'm hopeful for Phantom Pain. But that could do it. And then the Dark Souls games have huge followings.
I feel like the last good game that struck that sort of balance was Vanquish.
Yeah, Vanquish is an example where it's like, yeah, we're back. If you're a fan of Japanese games, you'd look at that and go, "Here we go. We're back. This game appeals to me. It's great." And then it didn't sell really well, and then a lot of people don't know about it.
Except for us. Is that just a thing in your experience where, there's an explicit conversation about how to water down the Japanese-ness?
I would never want to water them down. Konami didn't really want to water them down. But then again, Silent Hill came over and became a Western-developed franchise. So Kojima kinda stayed on the Japanese side of Konami and did his games. Most people didn't have big budgets, and those that did tried to make Western games. And so for that generation it just kinda fell apart.
What did you learn working on Silent Hill?
That the Internet's mean?
Tell me more.
Silent Hill is weird. Like I said, I was a super-fan coming into it. I knew what I woulda done. When I played Silent Hill 2, then in my mind I made a Silent Hill game. And then I got to work on it, but the two that were being developed when I came to Konami were Silent Hill: Origins, and that had been developed by Climax US, and they made this weird version that you can still find videos of that wasn't good. And so it had just gone over to Climax in the UK.
What wasn't good about it?
It was, uh, not a Silent Hill game. It was supposed to be a comedy, I guess? I found out about this years later. I just know there was a video that got released, and the character models were bad, and it was action-based. So people were really upset, and then I later found out from Climax that it was supposed to be comedy. Which is not Silent Hill.
Then Homecoming, which was very action-based. Like Resident Evil 4 had just come out and was really popular. So people were kinda wrestling with that internally. So I came into the middle of this, and I wasn't in charge of it. I was just an associate producer. I was new to the company. These two projects were already ongoing. I looked at Origins and said, "Okay, this new group seems to know what they're doing. So that's fine. But this Homecoming thing has a lot of problems. So I'm just gonna be an annoying jerk and argue with people about these problems." Which made me like the Internet fanboy on the project, but that didn't go any good because people could just overrule me and say, "Well, it's too far along, we're not gonna do this." Or, "You don't understand the vision of the project."
And then that went on for several years, and I got more and more clout internally. And then certain things didn't work anyway, and other things got moved around. So by the end of it, the original producer was gone, a lot of the staff at the developer had switched over. So almost none of us were the same people that started this project, but the budget was reaching its end, we had a release date we had to hit. We had so many assets that existed we had to use. So we kinda made the best of it, but then the game comes out. I'm the Konami guy on it. I'm at Leipzig, showing it off.
So the Internet sees that and goes, "Oh, this Tomm Hulett guy doesn't know what he's doing. He ruined Silent Hill forever."
Do you feel that's a fair characterization?
No, not at all. [Laughs.] I saw all these things coming, because if I'm giving feedback to the developer and I'm like, "You can't use Pyramid Head this way, this isn't what his character is, you gotta change it," and then it doesn't get changed enough, I'm not stupid. I know what the Internet's going to say. They don't know any of this context. So they're gonna go, "Oh, Pyramid Head shouldn't be used this way. He doesn't belong here. This isn't how his character works."
I can't go back and fix it. It couldn't be fixed. Games are made by hundreds of people, so one guy can only do so much. I guess that's something that's often mischaracterized as this auteur theory that people have about games, that having one man as the single braintrust of the entire project and everything that happens is his doing. Even on Kojima projects, he's pretty auteur, he's as auteur as it gets. Right? And his games definitely feel a certain way that's consistent from game to game. But, you know, Kojima can't draw mech designs. He has [Yoji] Shinkawa to do it. It's not like Shinkawa traces stuff that Kojima draws. Kojima says, "I want cool robots. You draw cool robots. Here's what I want this robot to do, make it awesome." And that's Shinkawa's robot, right?
He hires Harry Gregson-Williams to do music because Kojima can't make music. He doesn't hum it Harry Gregson-Williams. And it works that way in the indie space. Jonathan Blow for Braid make placeholder graphics, and then another guy came in and made super-pretty graphics. It's just how games work. So no game, even if it's a vision that one person sets forth, pieces of it still belong to other people. If they weren't allowed to put their heart into it, it wouldn't turn out good. So you can't blame a game on one person, you can't credit a game to just one person. The media tends to do that, and it's easy because this guy was talking about his game or this guy was a super-senior member of his team. But there's still all these other people, and they still worked really hard and they still put their hearts in it. It still has their soul in it. So it's just weird to be the target of, "This one guy ruined these games." I don't know. That was harsh.
I agree. And I'm thinking, does this happen in movies? I think in movies audiences and critics are savvy enough to to be able to say, "Well, the script was good, but the acting was terrible." I don't think I've ever seen that distinction be made. Have you?
I've said it. But I don't think I've seen it in a review.
So what's the analogue there for games of "great scripts, shitty acting?"
I'll say gameplay, because I think a lot of times a game will have fun gameplay or good gameplay or decent gameplay but maybe not great art. And so people just focus on the art.
What do you mean when you use the word "gameplay?" That's another word that I get caught up on. I don't know what that refers to because people don't really say, "Oh, this book has great book-read." And I'm not picking on you or trying to be cute, but for someone who has made games, what does that term mean to you guys? On my side, I just feel like it's a placeholder for a more descriptive adjective. Are you talking about flow?
[Laughs.] Kind of. I mean, that's part of it. I'm trying to find the best way to explain it. It's interesting because I work with other game directors and everyone has their own style of game direction and if someone came from art school they worry more about the art and the art direction. Just each person has their own taste, like, this is the most important part of a game to them. And for me it's gameplay, so I'm just trying to define what that means.
If I sit down to design a game, I outline it. If I'm making a platformer, what do I want to do? I want a double-jump. I want to air-dash. I want to have an attack combo with a finishing move on it. I want the game to be fast and I want encounters to last approximately this long. I want there to be this much platforming. So I write that all out and then I look at it and I find, "Does that all fit together?" You don't want it to just be separate parts of a platformer and they all happen. You want it to be like, "Yes. The player jumps into this, lands, runs over here, kills this guy, wall jumps up the wall, there's another guy, you can attack him in the air." And that all feels good. I guess that's gameplay. Or like in a brawler like Double Dragon, when you punch a guy, how long does the animation freeze before it starts up again to give you that snap? That's all gameplay.
So you're talking about the diversity and feel of actions you can do in a game.
Right. And how that fits together to be satisfying and make a whole.
I guess it's that auteur thing. I think people in the media know it, logically, because you talk to so many different people about a game. You might talk to a designer, you might talk to a musician, you talk to the producer, you might talk to just a marketing guy showing it off at E3. So you guys get that. But I get it, it's hard to encapsulate the story into, "This person's vision is this game." Or whatever. So the shorthand is you go, "Kojima did this. Or Jonathan Blow did this." It's easy to do that. So I think the media understands it, but because of limitations in communicating games, it's perpetuated by the media, and the audience picks up on it and they're like, "Yup. This guy did this thing because he's in five interviews about it, so he must be the guy."
Sorry, I'm gonna jump back to Silent Hill for a second here. Like I get people thought I was responsible for Silent Hill because I was always talking about it and the assumption is the guy talking about it is the most important person on the project, but the whole reason I was talking about it all the time is either the person above me didn't want to do interviews because he didn't like doing interviews. Which, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Or since I'm the Silent super-fan guy, they don't want to say the wrong thing and sound dumb. So they know I'm gonna know more about it, so they put me on it. Or it's a choice between me and a marketing guy who's got seven other projects rattling in his head. Silent Hill is just one of those projects. So if I'm talking about it, it's coming from this enthusiastic fan place, rather than "it's just a job" marketing place. And growing up I always liked the interviews with the game people, because they cared about their games and they would talk about them best and that's would I want to hear about. So I was trying to provide that for other people. But then it turned into, "He's the guy. He's always talking about it. This is his fault. Look at that smug look on his face. Blah, blah, blah, blah."
That smug look he gets on his face when he's ruining Silent Hill. He just loves to ruin it. But there are people who think that.
[Laughs.] I know.
[Laughs.] I think there's a lot of reasons. I think the one-sentence answer is: People being careful because they don't want to screw up. [Laughs.] But if you think about it, there's obviously the secret tech stuff that no one would ever talk about, and I'm sure in the old days maybe they did. And so they'd say, "Oh, we have this great new 3D technology." Then all the competitors hear about it and steal it first. Or marketing was planning on using that as a big press release later and then this guy just spoiled it. Or also this person's representing the publisher and the game that the developer is making, and there's a contract between the publisher and the developer that might say certain things and the person being interviewed doesn't know that, and so they say the wrong thing and they piss off the business partner. Or the company is being represented because it's a media event and the lead programmer is being interviewed but he curses a lot, and so now the company looks bad. There are probably single instances of all these different things have happened to various companies that it's just better to be careful even though this guy wouldn't do that, we have to button up all the possibilities, so he's not allowed to talk about this, this, this, or this so there's no risk that anything bad will happen. And on top of all that, sometimes the media has probably tried to get a story, and I'm not saying this happens often, there's not a media conspiracy, but some well-meaning person got excited about one thing that was said, makes it seem like it's the wrong thing, and now the company is like, "Why did you say that?" And the guy is like, "I didn't say that at all. I don't know where they got that from." And it just becomes a big mess. So everyone is kinda like, "Let's all just avoid the mess and be boring and talk about these same things. And if you ask an interesting question, we can't answer it."
Look what all this has forced me to do. But I don't know, man. It's odd. And I don't think there's any conspiracy going on here. But I do think if you're a reasonable person, I think you're like, "What's the damage that could be done?" I've never run a company of that size. I've never made a game. But I'm just trying to do my job, which is to try to write something interesting and try to be a proxy for the reader. And it just gets difficult to write interesting things when you don't really understand stuff, or there's stuff you can't ask about, or if you can't even see the game or play it at all. Or if you see things and you're told, "Don't write about this." And I get it. I totally get it. Games are so expensive and it's the only medium where professionals from a different discipline are invited in to be shown your belly. It's a really vulnerable thing for you guys, so I'm not surprised it's going towards streaming. Because it's an odd use of our time to just be threaded through the needle of "here's all the stuff we want you to see and here's all the things we want to tell you." So I don't know. What's your relationship like with games media now? Do you pay attention to blogs and podcasts and read them actively?
Growing up when there were magazines, I read most of the magazines. I worked at GameStop and EB, so I had the whole magazine rack right there and a lot of time on my hands. So I read everything. And then magazines went away, so I was online checking websites. Now I get my news if something pops up on Twitter, game-related, I'll check out the article it links to. I don't really go on sites just for news anymore. There's a couple I visit, but I don't just go out there looking anymore.
What trends do you notice as far as what they cover or don't cover? Even in the cursory hops in that you do?
There's a lot of complaining about Nintendo.
There's a lot of complaining, in general.
There's a lot negativity. Yeah, there's a lot of complaining. And then I tend to listen to a lot of retro podcasts, because if I was hanging out with my friends, that's what we would be talking about. If I'm gonna listen to other people hanging out and talking, it's gonna be about retro games. So that kinda shields me from a lot of the modern news. [Laughs.] But it's the same sort of cycle it's always been. After shows you'll get all the news from every site. You'll get the same games. And after that it's whatever the interests of the people are, but lately it's just a lot of complaining.
What happened with the Silent Hill HD collection? If I'm remembering correctly, you guys didn't have access to the final code on Silent Hill 2?
How can I say that. A lot of companies from back in the day didn't archive their data. At all. On that project, as we stated at the time, or shortly after, the data that we had access to was not final. It wasn't that there was data being withheld, it's just that the data was what it was. I was in charge of re-recording the voices and making sure we got good talent like Troy Baker who's now been in everything since then. I was on Book of Memories for most of that time. So HD Collection was going on nearby, and I was offering feedback, but I was in no way in charge of it. So I don't really know the particulars of what went wrong. And then I made the mistake when it came out and there was a bunch of problems, and there was a patch coming out, of coming out on NeoGAF and telling them there was a patch coming. Which put a big target on my head. So that was a mistake. But people were not happy with that product. [Laughs.]
A lot of the complaining is, "Why did you do that?" as if it didn't just occur to you to just use final code.
I totally get both sides but I don't understand the whole re-releasing of games, anyhow. But I can see people being upset at Silent Hill without the fog. It definitely loses something. Which is just an odd thing for one adult to ask another adult about. But it definitely does feel like a totally different game. What do you think of remakes in general?
I think remakes are cool just because they give access maybe to people who didn't play at the time or wouldn't have given it a second thought at the time but now they might be into it and now it's hard to find. But when you do a remake, you have to do it properly and you have to make sure the stuff that was good about it -- nothing should be worse. It should either be the same, or it should be better. There shouldn't be this, "Well, the music's way better but the gameplay sucks now." Or whatever.
And so when something's handled really well, there's nothing wrong with it inherently. It's not like people shouldn't remake games. Nintendo's been doing it for years and they do a great job and so people are happy with the products. But at the same time, I understand from a fan point of view. I played the Team Ico HD Collection, or whatever you want to call it. They used the European version, probably because that's the last version they made, so that's the archive they had. Just speculation.
But the European version had an extra puzzle that the US version I grew up playing didn't. And it was a little harder and a little broken, I might say. I got stuck on it. Even though I knew this was in the European version of the game, this was true to Ico, this is not different, it's just something I didn't have and it really frustrated me because I got stuck there for a half-hour. So I get when something's actually wrong that's not just a personal preference it would really upset people. So I think remakes are great if you have the resources to be really careful and do them right.
I think you implied with your inclination in retro and older games is a reaction to there being fewer, bigger creative games out there. And I ask everyone this, but who does it really hurt if the AAA landscape continues to just be derivative of itself at this point? And you can disagree with that, I don't want it to seem like I'm putting words in your mouth.
In a way, it doesn't hurt anybody as long as there's alternatives if this is what the majority likes to play, then, whatever. It's also troubling in a different way because if that's where all the money is because that's what the majority of people are playing because that's what games are to those people, games aren't going growing as a medium. Think back to the NES days. Platformers were huge and then all of a sudden tournament fighters were huge and then all of a sudden RPGs were big if you were on Super Nintendo. The rate at which the mainstream game changed as pretty fast. But for years now it's been first-person shooters or third-person shooters or open-world games or some mix of the three. I enjoy that type of game to a certain extent. Most people do. That's why it's the AAA mainstream game right now. But if that's what videogames mean to so many people and it's that strict little box, then we get all these people saying, "Well that's not a real game! And this game where you point and click on objects and there's text, that's not a real game." Even though that predates first-person shooters. It's ridiculous. They're all games. We've kinda built that box. And so since the mainstream's in that box, if it were a little more creative, maybe people would be more understanding. Maybe they'd try something new. They don't have to love that new thing. Maybe they only buy one of those every five years. But it keeps it fresh and keeps the industry growing.
Well, that's all the questions I had. Is there something else you'd like to talk about or ask me about?
What's your opinion on why games are all the same now? [Laughs.]
Wow. Okay. I think that's such a broad statement, but I also feel like that's the number one complaint that I hear. And I think that's part of what I've been saying to you. I think there's a very narrow, though very large part of games that are pretty much the same. I guess the simple answer is because people keep buying them.
[Laughs.] That's probably it.
That's a very simple, snotty answer. But my point and why I'm also talking to lapsed players is the problem is AAA games are almost like "Weird Al." Every year they're gonna have a new crop of 12-year-old fans, and because those concert tickets keep getting bought, why should he change? There are some of us who will be nostalgic for Even Worse, but did you know he has a recent album and has another world tour? Probably not. I only know because I got press releases about it. And I think that's just the problem: People keep buying them and then they tend to just move on because games aren't changing. And so we are of that generation now where we're the old ones, and it's weird because since the market crashed pre-Nintendo, there hasn't really been a generation of people who are adults both as the audience and creators of games. But at the same time: We're adults, so why can't we change this? We are the audience for what those games would be.
What's interesting is in most things, the old group is the one that doesn't want it to change. "No, back in my day they were better. This could be different. We could do new things." And then the young generation is like, "Nope! Don't want that. I want COD and I want Minecraft, and that's it." Okay, but what about all these things? There's no Katamari anymore. What's that about?
I think you look at figures like Keita Takahashi, there's a lot to learn about why he quit games. He made a really awesome game, and then he made a sequel, and then he didn't want to keep milking it so he quit. He's designing playgrounds now. Like, look at Namco now. What are they doing now? Seriously, they had a good thing going with him and they stifled him. To their detriment.
I think it would be interesting to hear what happened with The Last Guardian with [Fumito] Ueda and his team.
E3 this year, we'll see it.
Yep, and out by fall! But something's there, right? He was kind of that same figure. More in a game than a non-game playground sense, but he made this artful game and then he made this other artful game much later, and then he was like, "Here's the third one. It's gonna be the same deal but bigger and better." And then this happened. There's something there. That's a story.
I'm thinking about it because I interviewed him shortly before he surfaced with Uvula. I don't know how good his English is because our interview was via email, and he never really bluntly articulated to me why he left and what his feelings and hope for games were. What I gleaned was he was years ahead of a lot of us with trying to slay this particular dragon of sameness, and he moved on. I guess the solution increasingly is folks from your side of the aisle leaving AAA to form their own indies, like the Fulbright Company. And I guess what needs to happen is five years need to pass where they will repopulate the middle tier. But who knows if the market will sustain that. How long can you realistically Kickstarter your game company or survive on contracts and try to make the industry a more balanced ecosystem? What do you think is gonna help assuage this stuff?
That's all good, what you said. I'm also worried that once they find a way to repopulate the middle tier that they have to find a way to sell the games on phones for less than a dollar.
I don't think they think they can afford to charge that much, even. But I have another theory, too, that most indies and part of what's wrong: Most people are just making shittier versions of games they played five or 10 years ago.
I think most indies are afraid to make the things they really want to make for fear of discoverability and for fear of being judged harshly as you and I have both experienced. Like, why do you think we're seeing so many zombie games? Because they're popular and people want to get their game noticed. It's not that people don't have the creative inclination. Cop shows are popular on TV, so let's do another cop show. It's the same thing, and that's disheartening because I think the middle tier is the great hope, but it's just weird. But my go-to is look at how different Mario 2 was from Mario 1 or Castlevania 2 was from Castlevania 1 or Zelda 2 from Zelda 1, and maybe not so much Metroid 2, but it was that notion that those series could take drastic, sharp turns and I guess that was true of Silent Hill as well to a certain extent. But you don't really seem to see it as much anymore. The next Gears of War, if they're doing one, will not require you to make a tense choice between fighting more aliens or go frolic in a field of flowers and actually frolicking in the field of flowers is much more difficult than the firefight. Like, where is that digression?
That's no way to build a franchise. [Laughs.] So I have another ramble, and then a question again. It's about media stuff. I'm not the guy who reads the review and is like, "They're wrong about my game! I'll strangle that guy!" I don't go on the Internet and challenge people, right? But it really frustrates me when I read things that are like "clearly no one cared." Or, "with just a little more effort, this game could've been blah blah blah." Like, it's a miracle that game even exists. Games are so hard to make and take so many people and so much money. It also goes along with consumers saying "there's no possible reason this couldn't fixed." There's always a reason. Whether it's the budget or the schedule or this guy got married or this guy just quit and so he couldn't finish whatever he was doing. There's a million different reasons.
But games are flawed and sometimes they're super-flawed and sometimes parts fall short. But it's never because no one cared and it's never because no one put forth effort.
But that's the thing. If you work at Konami you can't be like, "Hey dude, where do you get off? Why do you think you understand?" They overstep their bounds. We can get into consultancies, if you want. Like, why do a bunch of games writers or people who have never made games before band together and tell devs how to make their games? What do they know about game design?
Is that happening? I didn't know that.
Yeah. For a long while now. But games writers specifically, that is a newish thing. As there gets to be less money in writing about games, it's a logical way to capitalize on their expertise in criticism as a portfolio to ostensibly understanding what people want or like in games, when in fact they're just one person who's been lucky to write about someone else's creative work through their own creative filter of a review. But that doesn't mean they understand what an audience wants or what a developer wants to execute or even how games work. It's a rising trend on my side of the aisle. I find it odd and want to say, "Hey man. Where do you get off? You've never made a game."
That's like the new guy fresh out of school, he gets his break, comes to his new job and is like, "Hey guys, here's everything you've been doing wrong." And they're like, "Yeah, well, sure it is. Here are all the problems with what you just said."
So, that was my ramble. Now here's my question. Let's say there's a website, right? They have all these different writers and each writer has his own favorite genre and this guy loves survival horror games or this guy loves retro games. They don't get put on the review of the survival horror game or the retro game. They put the sports guy on the survival horror game. And the review starts off, "So I don't play survival horror games. I don't like them. And this one's no different." Like, why does that happen? They have a guy who would love to review that game, but he doesn't get put on it. This other guy who is dreading it gets put on it.
[Laughs.] I can't answer that authoritatively. I almost was a reviews editor at EGM, which ended up being a good thing not to get. There's a couple different schools of thought when it comes to games criticism, and I think I'm of one that most don't subscribe to. I'm always of the mindset of wanting to check out something new. I don't want to feel like I'm pigeonholed or like I have a "beat." I want to be a stand-in for the consumer because I am a consumer. I like games. I'm a fan of games. So I have reviewed sports games, but I'm not a sports game fan. There are good games of all genre, but I honestly think, too, but there are writers who just come in with an axe to grind. They have their mind made up before they even give something a fair shake. I think it's popular to hate stuff. But I think, also, people want to make a name for themselves by hating something everyone else likes. "So doesn't that make me interesting?" But there are also writers who take no joy in writing bad reviews, and I think people forget that, too. When it comes to who writes up what, it's just luck of the draw. Or can be. I think at some publications, editors have relationships and understands the voice, tone, and perspective a writer will bring to a game, and sometimes it's just like, "We're strapped. Yeah, you normally write about Madden, but how about you check out Silent Hill?" I think it's just another indication of the problem with games being really broad, but I feel like a lot of AAA games in general or genres in specific act like they are the only type of game you are playing. And that mentality needs to go away because not everyone who watches movies only watches action movies. Sometimes you'll watch a comedy. Sometimes you'll watch a documentary. No one in their whole life has ever just played one type of game, and I think if you're a person who only writes about one type of game, then I think you're a very weird person. You would never make one type of game, right?
Right. Yeah, that makes sense. I guess it's just the negativity I don't get it. If you like games and you like writing about games, not you personally, but if that's your job why come in with negativity? Why not want to explore the game? I know there's deadlines and stuff like that, and I don't understand why there's this negativity of, "I'm gonna punish this game for being bad."
I think, too, when you talk about games and their audience, we should accept the fact that there can be in some pockets of the audience a fundamental difficulty with connecting with others. And people who feel that way can very easily dismiss or hate things they don't understand and take it out on games. I honestly think that's part of what's going on.
Yeah, that makes sense.
It's odd nerd aggression. But growing up, loving games was not socially acceptable. We were nerds because of it. We never thought you would try to be cool and into games, but something odd is in the air of being people being cool and making games. That's just unthinkable. And even if you don't believe it, even if there is a cool crowd, that means there is a not-cool crowd. And it manifests itself in odd ways.
When we were doing Genesis versus Super Nintendo. Like, I loved the Super Nintendo. It was technically better, and I had one. Everyone who was like, "Super Nintendo's best! I love Mario World!" We all wanted to play Sonic. We all wanted the money for the Genesis so we could play every game. I don't feel like that's here now. I feel like they really believe this shooter is the one true game.
I feel like it's the same conversation, only we've replaced Nintendo and Sega with AAA and indie. Somehow we have been tricked into thinking the budget of a game determines the quality of a game, but that's insane. Because you can have fun with either one, they're just different. But I never liked Altered Beast, but I would always play it as a friend's house. I was the same as you.
Yeah. It was always like, "Sonic sucks... Can I play Sonic?"