ben hopkins

ben hopkins

Well, yeah, my name's Ben Hopkins. I'm in LA, Los Angeles. I'm 39.

So, losing interest in videogames. I guess on and off, somewhere between this creative inspiration and escapism, there's been sort of -- at least an adult, this draw towards videogames, and where I lose interest in them is they get to feel stagnant. It's like the promise of a learning experience and either you already learned that five games ago and they're just copying that other game or maybe life taught it to you already.

What sort of things you feel like you can learn or have learned from videogames?

Well, I guess there's a bunch of different things. You can devise weird things about the nature of perception in games. Whether it's illusions and you learn to see around them and so you can understand a bit more about how your eyes can trick you.

Social games are more popular now. Language itself is almost like a game. The way that it's generated, some researchers think that little kids have the propensity to generate language in a way that adults totally lose. And so there's a sort of a cultivating aspect to it like that, on a social side and you can lose sight of that. And going back to games, you can sort of get a sense of that coming back.

I don't know if that's the nature of the industry or just trying to -- there are formulas sort of, for entertaining games, and people sort of clone gameplay? I don't know if it's that or it's just constraints in any creative pursuit help you to make something that's focused -- it helps you focus and it'll make for a focused experience and can be compelling, but once you've gone through it, your focus sort of burns out. And what's left?

It depends. It depends on how patient you want to be as a consumer or an appreciator of stuff. Because the same could be said of TV shows, right?

Yeah. I like games more than I like TV.

How come?

Oh, it just seems so cliched and boring. It's hard for me to say much more. I gave up watching TV a long time ago. For the most part, I just tease my kids about the TV shows they watch. Like, the shows that I saw when I was a kid, it's the same shows with different people more or less. In some cases, it's a new edition of the same show with some of the old people brought back in.

Games can be guilty of that same thing. You see it in the language a lot around it. You're not buying a game anymore -- you're buying a season pass for a game. Like, I actually think the word "season" is appropriate for these conversations, because I think we all go through phases of being really into something, and then wanting to shift our attention elsewhere, and then after it’s been long enough, we’re back to where we started. What's so unusual with videogames is, very often, people don't dip back in at all, or with as much intensity as they had before. Music is easier to revisit, since it's a much more passive activity. Books can be harder for people, like games, because you've got to set aside the time. But games have additional hardware, etc.

I definitely have a collection of books I haven't finished reading.

For games -- reading a book feels like more of a commitment than playing a game. Playing a game feels more like an impulse normally. Like, I'm not going to say, "I'm planning on playing that game for the next week or month."

Sometimes I hear people say stuff like that. And sometimes games can be a pretty big commitment: When you have to start off sculpting an entire face and physique and then go through very narrow but specific back stories before having any context for what's ahead, that feels like a huge commitment. You just want to dive in, not finesse a philtrum.

Some of the ways they design these online games, they try to make you feel continually drawn back in, like you have a commitment. That can be good and feel good. You make friends and have fun and whatever, but when you start to notice the corporate aspect that people are specifically engineering this so they can make money and everything starts to feel false, it becomes incredibly alienating instantaneously.

Definitely. You said in your emails that you're pretty sure you like games in the abstract, but what you don't like is the gaming industry. Is that some of what you're talking about?

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there's other aspects, like ridiculous ads that show up in games. Like, any game that would have something to do with warfare. My daughter is nine, she'll be playing this game, and an ad will come up for Game of War with this ridiculous model showing off her cleavage as much as possible to try to sell an iPhone game.


I've seen that ad in movie theaters.

I saw it on TV recently. So I guess it's really successful.

Or they have a lot of money to throw at it.

I talked to my daughter: "When you see that ad, does it make you want to play that game?"


"If you played that game and saw that ad, would you want to ever play it again?"


That just seems like an appropriate metaphor for me right now for the games industry.


They're just so narrowly focused on their profit bottom line that they will gleefully alienate anyone. They have a pattern that's been established, the corporate pattern of profit and how games can sort of feed that, and they're just iterating on it until it stops working. It's like oil companies or anything else, I guess. Just milking every last dime.

Do you feel like the game industry learns from its mistakes?

Depends on what you mean by mistakes.

Wouldn't you consider tone deafness about how to approach your audience a mistake?

I do, but at the same time it's that bottom-line mentality, I think. If they're still making money, then that's how they listen.

They're listening to their bottom line. That's their feedback. That's what they want to know: how much money they make. If they're still making money, then that's good, and that's sort of the end of the story. It didn't matter how loud some people would shout. That sort of doesn't matter.

I remember a long time ago, I was really into the Star Wars Galaxies. I played the beta and stuff. The very beginning time period of that game I really enjoy. So, I remember reading stuff the designer said about building games and people on the forums bitched and moaned and it was like, "There's a vocal minority. The people that you see on forums that scream about everything that's wrong with your game are less than 10 percent of your audience."

And so part of that might tie into, "Well, all these people keep giving us money, so these few people are obviously the minority." I assume that's how that perception arose and continued.

What do you think would actually be the responsible thing to do here?

In the industry, there's a general, acknowledged reality that you should never be the tester for your own code. Or if you review your own code, it's your style, it's your thoughts, you just are reiterating your thought process you had when you built it. So, you're just repeating something to yourself rather than really try to analytically observe what the hell happened.

So, from that perspective, it's tricky. They have spent more time thinking about it more objectively, but then, they make conclusions and those conclusions get solidified because that's true in some sense for everyone. Once you decide something about a game, you're never going to change your mind. You're not going to go, "Oh, no, I think that's actually good now." Maybe someone has that experience, but I've never seen it.

I guess. But a lot of this stuff is so subjective. What's fun for me would not be fun for you. Does that really mean something is "busted" in this game? I guess you're a good person to ask because you do make software, but if 10 percent is the vocal minority complaining, how much do you need for consensus of, "Okay, well, maybe we should look into this," if you were going to go percentage-wise in feedback on a specific feature or thing?

So this is the frustrating thing that everyone has. When you get bugs reported to you, there's genuine broken software bugs and then there's "why did you design it this way?" bugs. The "why did you design it this way?" bugs are the hardest to fix because it's design by committee by that point. Design by committee tends to suck, even if the idea is right, the motive behind it is right, the intent is there, but too many voices and you just get lost and everything becomes too PC and you end up with this watered-down --


Yeah. Or the kitchen sink.

You try to fix it for everyone, and I guarantee you get a lot more of the real bugs.

Right. You please nobody.

Yeah. I think that's just inherent to the intention of building software. The design issues can be pointed out, even if it's just a few people. I mean, those can really be genuinely be concerning or interesting, but it's a profit motive. Are you trying to make the most compelling or immersive experience you can or are you trying to make money? So, I would rather make more compelling stuff, but you need to make money, so.

Let's talk about your moving on from games. When did it happen?

Several times. Being a kid, games are everywhere, and if you don't play games you're weird. But after that, once you get older, you don't care about things like that or anything can happen. College can sweep you away on weird tangents. But after my childhood game experiences, actually, I started working on VRML stuff during a time when I was into games. Then, at first at least, I started playing them just to understand what the hell I was working on.

Oh, wow, I didn't know you worked on VRML.

I mean, I didn't build the underlying structure. I worked on world-builder tools to build VRML. So, I mean, it was really cool and inspiring technology, even if the graphics were kind of crap. But it was really cool you could build it and share worlds and do whatever you wanted. Most people did, I guess, traditional gaming or simulation things. But one the first things that one of the originators of VRML ever did was create an online ritual space, and he used it to craft the visuals of the space and share it with people in other parts of the world.

The creator's ideals of what it could be used for and what it ends up being used for ended up being wildly different.

So, from that, that drew me into games and graphics a bit. After that, it seemed like I would occasionally get injured or whatever. I'd be stuck sitting around doing nothing for a while, and so games could fill the time well. So, that happened a couple times, I guess. And it's like once you start engaging in online games, when they were a real thing, by the time I had started coming back to them -- once you get into it, it's like a perpetual-motion machine almost. You've got this ongoing inertia, you feel like you have to keep up. That made falling away sort of hard in a sense. You're sort of engineered into it, and so I think that might be one of the ways that people who are vocal in complaining end up so impassioned or enraged is they feel they're trapped in this world or pattern of gameplay, so it's frustrating and it becomes more frustrating.

Sometimes rather than playing the games, whether it's their fault or not, it seems like: What's the point of even getting into it? It becomes a drain rather than a joy.

What was the first time you remember ever running into the expectation that maybe you're getting a little too old for this or maybe you should have already moved on?

Probably when I very first started playing games after I was working. So, I was working on computers and then playing games on computers, so it had that weird tunnel-vision effect where life was just in a computer screen. That made it easier to stay in that focus.

But, I guess, thinking, "Well, I should be learning some technical detail rather than trying to enjoy someone else's interpretation of making it." That was probably the first time I could remember feeling like that now. It's probably not entirely accurate, historically, but it feels right.

What games did you play? What did you enjoy about them?

Well, usually it was nostalgia for when I was a kid and played D&D with my friends on paper and things like that. We did other role-playing games, I think. Some of those people, like, we would just not participate in PE and make up our own roleplaying game for the hour when we sat in wherever it was that they sent us when we didn't want to go running. So, that was sort of socially creative and you could be spontaneous and interesting and it could be whatever we wanted it to.

What sort of videogames were you playing when you were far more into playing them? What did you like about them, and why did you stop liking those specific games as well?

I used to really like strategy games, things with titles like Age of This-or-that. I burnt out on them because they all ended up feeling like the game was really about reverse-engineering the AI that was playing against you. Playing real people makes for a much deeper challenge, and old school games like chess do that just fine without necessitating twitch.

I also used to like RPGs, but again, creating a dynamic narrative was more fun than figuring out the magic sequence of skills to macro in order to win. Attempts to replicate the pen and paper RPG experience -- like Neverwinter Nights -- never really did it for me, though I gave it a go.


How do you define creativity in games?

I guess there's a couple of different levels. There's the game-grammar people, which I guess are more of the academic side of things. They come up with a new verb or something. That would be creative in that aspect. Maybe part of the way that everything feels like iteration is you don't get new verbs very often.

But there's other things, like the perceptual side of things where you can -- just the way that things look. I don't just mean higher res graphics, which is what most people end up obsessing over. As an engineer, especially, it's easy to do because you like pixels. [Laughs.] It's very easy to quantify those things and focus on them and it's never really good enough. Something could still be higher res. Like, if you try to use one of those modern VR sets and look at text, it's so hideous you can barely read it. So, yeah, it's easy to ramp-up on that.


But it doesn't change that much of the experience. You can do wild things that could look like things that aren't necessarily real. Like, there's some game that I guess got hyped a lot. I don't really listen to game news very much. Miegakure, or something? Someone tried to have a 4D puzzle and they're rendering it in 3D space on a 2D screen. So, things like that are maybe -- I don't know if that counts as a game-grammar thing, but visually that's sort of intriguing. There are certain ways that visual perception can be elusive and you can trick your own perception and learn how to work around it. So I think that's probably a good example of something that can be really creative.

I guess from a game-industry perspective, how can you use these things to make money is what counts, and I don't know. I'm bad at emulating that perspective. I'm much better at complaining about things.

[Laughs.] I think we're just trying to figure it out. You don't really sound like you're complaining.
But let me ask you this: You did mention not really paying attention to games media. Did you ever pay attention to that space?

Sort of. I guess there was some time where I sort of felt the inertia of wanting to play games and I didn't have a game in mind, so I would see what's up. But they always had the articles, so you would read game reviews. But they always felt like sales pitches.

How do you mean?

It's very rare to see a critical review. You always get the sense that there's kickbacks, whether it's money or just the promise of future relations or whatever. You just felt like it oozed out of it.

Reviews and stuff, they try to highlight the good parts of the game and things that aren't that good they would marginalize and say, "Well, I didn't really like this but." And then you'd have paragraphs about the awesomeness and then this tiny little sideline about the things they didn't like.

I just wasn't that into the reviews or find ones that were in-depth. The ones that were advertised higher had weird things related to them because they were more money-driven. I don't know.

Why do you think it is that it's so rare and people would be trying to emphasize the positive stuff?

Well, other than the making money aspects of it --

Do you feel like it's comparable in other media about media? Like, do you feel like you see similar things about movies?

Sure. The media is a surrogate sales channel. [Laughs.]

What trends did you notice in games outlets in terms of the things they would cover or not cover?

They would cover highly produced games more than any other, which sort of made it clear there was monetary interest involved. AAA games have -- they might look better and have less bugs, but they also have a ridiculous amount of money poured into them and that's not just on the development side. Just knowing that always left me suspicious. Not surprising, they always show up there on volume mode 3,080. It's like, "Oh, it's the same game with prettier graphics and it has a 9/10 review. Wow. Interesting."


So, does it seem arbitrary what gets popular in games, even if we're talking about things outside that big-budget space?

I don't know. I guess there's occasional surprises. Something like Second Life never made that much sense to me even though -- like, the VR ideal is cool and I guess supposedly you could code up your own stuff in it, so that was interesting. I was working in a really pretty corporate place and they sold software to other corporations and one of the people I worked with were with a client and this whole client stopped their work for a day to all collectively play Second Life on one screen for simulating their corporate space. It just seemed like the most bizarre, ridiculous thing ever. I guess it was compelling to people for some reason, but I didn't get that at all. [Laughs.]

So, and things like Minecraft, it doesn't seem like a game that would get big, partially because it doesn't have super-high res graphics, but if you're targeting people who are programmers and technically minded and a group loving LEGOs, then it sort of ingenious.

In some very specific ways, and I guess I never really thought about this, but Second Life is pre-Minecraft Minecraft. Like, I get that it feels like Minecraft came completely out of nowhere, but if you think about it, there's something similar there.

Yeah, there's something similar about the way they made it into the industry or game space or mindset. People that play games. But it didn't seem to follow that traditional mold of, "We're gonna give you the same game with better graphics."

How do you think the games media could be improving or changing the industry?

I think that one's hard because of the sales-channel aspect. That's a way that game companies use the media. And so I think that makes it hard because unless the media could somehow direct the actual games consumers' use of money, like, what they spend money on for games without going out of business and starving. It could affect it that way, but I don't know how it would do that effectively. It's just down to that bottom-line mentality, I think.

If the games companies are making money, they don't see much reason to change.

What's weird to you about videogames and the internet?

I guess the internet doesn't seem that weird anymore. It was one of the things I liked about the internet when I first got started on computers: everyone wasn't there. It was a good space for intellectuals and odd people. That totally went away. So if anything, I think the internet is increasingly less weird, and that's sort of disheartening. It was more interesting when it was weird. [Laughs.]

But also I don't think that was just familiarity. It's signal to noise. There's so much noise of social emulation of stuff that happened outside of computers before the internet was there and it's just noise now and anything that's interesting or obscure might be hard to find.

In our emails, you were talking about Ong's Hat and Incunabula. I'm sure you'd do a far better job of connecting those dots than I could. I could paraphrase what you said, but if you don't mind?

Yeah. I found that on -- well, just a bunch of forums for people who would explore weird crossovers between pseudoscience and mysticism online, and it was related around a story made up by a guy that was somehow related to a real place. Ong's Hat is somewhere nearby Montauk and there were some stories of trying to relate it to government experiments, like, Montauk had, I guess -- I don't remember exactly which project, but related to nuclear arms or something. So, this was sort of fascinating for me because I was a technical person and I had been a teen occultist. This was a great intersection for me, it was a lot of fun.

But there were some people who really, really believed that all of this stuff was real.

And I never did.

And so it always seemed like a fun game for me and so I wasn't at all surprised when they revealed that, "Hey, we were actually totally making this stuff up but thanks for all the content you generated for us."

When was this?

This was -- oh God. Around 2000, I guess?

But you were talking about, in our emails, some of the mean spiritedness that's prevalent in the internet today, you also remember back then as well?

Well, yeah. Once people came out explicitly -- so, there was a couple of things. One was I was friends with some of the people who were involved with this and one of them in particular said that they were straight-out plagiarized on some of the stuff they researched and had written about was almost if not totally verbatim copied into someone's work that they later published later on as a book.

There were other weird things like taking pictures of people's faces and putting it on a milk-carton image and then posting it on the internet and stuff. It just seems like bizarre stalkery -- the asshole of anonymity factor. "You don't know what my real name is so I'm going to be as big of a dick as possible." So, I mean, I don't know how that happened or why but it definitely happened and there were two camps of people who just hated each other and wouldn't talk to each other over it. I don't know.

It was a massive buzzkill for what started out to be really interesting.

What do you think it would take for videogames to be worth your time again?

I'm sort of hopeful that new interfaces and VR stuff will have more promise, there'll be more immersion and more potential. The formulas that work for a desktop game may not be totally synonymous with that, and they also have to experiment before they know what makes money, so there will at least be a pure time period where you'll have people really trying to be creative and innovating cool stuff. So, I'm hopeful about that, about those things.

The SDK's for building these games are very, very new. So it's probably going to take a little bit of time. I'm sort of afraid they'll just try to figure out how to shove shooters into it and that'll be it.

What do you mean you're afraid they will?

[Laughs.] It's like, the first game they ship on it is a spaceship shooter. It comes with it. Right? So it's sort of there, but they don't know what's going to generate the most interest. Right?

I was at Oculus Connect last year, the developer's conference for Oculus. It was really interesting to see people at Oculus disagree with each other about what should be done, especially as it pertains to controls.
I'll never forget this: After all this philosophical debate about controls and how do we even wrap our heads around controlling in other dimensions that don't have to necessarily emulate our own, a member of the media raised his hand and asked if there would be sword controllers.

It's closer to a real hack 'n' slash!


[Laughs.] I've tried once or twice to have some sort of discussion about this and people are like, "Oh yeah! Kinetic feedback, gun controllers! That's it! That's everything you could ever want."

Technically, incorporating that with visual feedback, that's awesome, if they actually get controllers to do that. I hope they do more than handles of guns and swords.

Well, they did have gun controllers outside in the hallway.

Yeah, that's how I know about these things.

"You know, there's not much tactile feedback going on."

"No way, man, you're totally wrong. Check this out!"

"Well, that's cool, but it's a gun. That's it."

The problem is not that the Rumble Pak or the Dual Shock or whatever is limited, it's that it's narrow. I don't know if you've ever shot guns -- I have. It's close enough. I don't think the lack of accuracy in this one particular area is holding games back.

I only ever shot guns in Boy Scout camp when I was a kid. Shooting a .22, I totally see them emulating that, but shooting the shotgun? My shoulder hurt for two days afterwards because of the kick. There's no way they're gonna reproduce that unless they're mean, because no one's going to pay to get injured. [Laughs.]


Is there a way that you feel not included by videogames right now?

In that I'm not constantly looking for them and spending money on them, I guess I'm sort of de facto excluding myself. But, other perspectives -- once you can see the formulas behind the games, like, "Oh, that's another Doku MUD or this is Doom, Vol. 3000," it's hard to feel included because it's just copying stuff that you already did, so you felt like part of Doom, the original version -- I remember playing Castle Wolfenstein when it had super-crappy graphics and I could barely keep my computer running for a week.

Yeah, but it looked amazing at that time.

That was the most awesome thing ever, even though the pixels were the size of my finger.

Why does this stuff matter? Why does it matter if games are sticking to formulas and they are not as creative as they could be?

So, I guess that's back to the ideal of computers as having the potential to augment human capacity. Most of what we actually do is emulating things that already exist in the real world. So, there's an enormous fantasy space where you could make things ever-weirder, like that game that tries to explore 4D puzzles, Miegakure. That's a good example of people actually exploring that. But I don't think that your average gaming house is looking for that sort of content. They're looking for what they know makes money.

There's also that thing of the way that language gets cultivated socially through other kids and stuff. Things like Pig Latin, where it's fun and natural in a certain sense and then you get older, you like grammar, all the rules, and you have these big spreadsheets of what details go where and how to try to explain it and turn it into an algorithm or something and it totally loses the nature of how it actually works in the first place and maybe what the point of it is at all. So, I mean, whether that's communicating experience on a deeper level of you can do audio/visual over time, which can be cinematography or it could be, like, the immersion factor where you're actually doing stuff through VR or whatever other means of immersion we can work out to try to control that.

I think there's just a lot of potential of what could be and so I think games are at the forefront of where that potential can be explored.

Maybe we could put the sword controller to the side?

Might be fun for a little while. Lot of different controllers out there.

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