brian kung

brian kung

My name is Brian Kung, I'm 27 years old, and I am in the suburbs of Chicago, although I commute in quite often.

Let's see. How I started to lose interest in videogames: I think it was around the time my high-school friends began to become hyper-competitive with Super Smash Bros. Melee. Prior to then, I had always jumped at the chance to grab a controller, grab a keyboard and mouse, and just play. Really, it was just play. But with Super Smash Bros., it's a really remarkable game in that conceptually it's so shallow: there's directions, there's a special attack, and there's a melee, an attack. So there's not much going on. But when you combine all those elements, the depth of the gameplay just becomes really immense. I really admire that from a game-design perspective. But what I didn't realize until almost, like, 10 years afterwards -- I think it was actually over a decade after the release of Super Smash Bros. Melee -- was that that very same depth was probably something that had at least tangentially caused me to turn away from games and to develop, I wouldn't say an aversion, exactly, but, a hesitation.

Let's call it that.

Insert

So, what happened was my friends became very competitive and they would play each other for hours and hours on end and attempt to get better and better, and around then YouTube was also starting to become extremely mainstream and you'd find people looking up techniques and strategies and legitimately training their muscle memories to be able to pull off techniques like wave dashing and all sorts of things, not to mention the mind games. And at that point, I just didn't want to put in the hours. I didn't want to make it into a job, because that's what it started to feel like, because I was just getting destroyed so badly by my friends. This had actually happened earlier in my life with Counter-Strike as well but it wasn't until Super Smash Bros. Melee that I just kinda metaphorically put down the controller.

You talked about in your emails -- you mentioned a lot of multiplayer games. Is that mainly the type of gaming that you did?

Yes. Yes. There were a few exceptions. I would say Star Fox. Rogue Squadron. Pretty much, actually, come to think of it, anything that requires flying is a single-player game I would probably play. Not quite to the point where I would play flight simulators because I thought those were deathly boring. But anything with explosions and lasers and flying.

RPGs to an extent, mostly, I would say because of my brother's influence. But, yeah. I guess each one of those has its own kind of story arc in my life because I'll still play plane games. RPGs have a different ending, I guess, than competitive multiplayer games. Those just ended up being -- I found it difficult to justify the amount of time to put into them along with the fact that, I don't know. Something about the storylines became unappealing.

Insert

You had also mentioned a disconnect between the multiplayer experience and the alternate experience in those types of games. Like, you wrote about Counter-Strike. You wrote, "I can't tell you how happy I was to play against bots in Counter-Strike, only to find out that no matter how many hours you spent scrimming against them, it wouldn't matter a wit in a competition against real people."

That's true. Yeah.

It's an interesting thing to articulate, where, in some of those games maybe there seems to be this notion that the purest form of playing it and the one that really matters is the type that doesn't appeal to you anymore.

Like, competitive head-to-head play. It puts me off a little bit.

You said that you don't like to feel unprepared. What's the message being sent, then, by game companies? You have to be top-notch, otherwise you're not going to have any fun at all?

Yeah, I mean, in any competitive arena, you have a bell curve, right? Maybe that's not the game companies' message, but maybe that's just something I feel compelled to be if I am in a competitive arena. It's not as fun if you're not at the top with purely competitive games.

I mean, it's not as fun if you can't even tread water.

Right. Yeah.

And I think very often, bell curve or not, it does give the impression that if you don't have the time to commit, you're just gonna be -- you're not gonna have fun. [Laughs.]

"Why are you even playing if you can't be in diamond tier?" Or whatever hierarchy they have you in.

Mainly these conversations are about losing interest in games, but I did want to talk very quickly about something else you articulated really well: Why the character class of rangers appeals to you.

Yeah. They've always appealed to me. I think just the mythos of the ranger appealed to me, like, from a very young age it was being one with nature, the mysterious shadow in the forest. Kinda like a ninja but with --

Magic?

Magic and arrows and shit.

[Laughs.] Well, but as I pointed out to you, that's a character class that is someone outside. Someone observing. Do you feel like that's where you are at with games overall now --

Yeah. When I had mentioned metaphorically putting the controller down -- so, what I wanted to mention actually was that that was when I kind of put down my identity as a gamer. But when I was writing that email, I didn't really stop playing games. I'll still play a game here and there. If you go by the strictest definition on the term, I guess when I am playing games, it is hard to deny that I am a gamer. But, I don't feel like a gamer. I don't care about the newest consoles, the newest games.

But I think you can be a reader and not care about what Dan Brown's newest thing is.

That's true.

Which is a super-dated reference. Whoever the cooler version of Dan Brown is now.

I think it's George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones.

[Laughs.] Yeah, I'll agree with that.

[Laughs.] Yeah, except he kills a lot more people.

Yeah, true.

I don't know anything about that series.

Me neither. But it sounds right.

Out of my league here.

We just angered a lot of the Internet here.

[Laughs.] Oh man. Don't put my name on this one.

But, no, no, no, what you were saying is actually true. I feel that, interestingly enough, on both sides of the fence, right? I'll follow game-industry news as a gamer, but I'll also follow game-industry news as a developer. I'm definitely in observation mode when it comes to games and gamedev. It's not that I've completely divorced myself from that world, but I'm definitely much more of an observer than I am a participant in either of those realms.

How do you feel about that?

As a gamer, I feel okay with my level of participation. If something's fun, if I get pulled into something by my friend and the game is fun, then it's fun. As a game developer, which I am not, but as a developer, I always have this yearning to: "One day. One day I'll make a game." Or something like that. It's unfortunate because game developers, in a lot of ways, out of all of the programmers, have the hardest jobs. Just speaking from a technical perspective. They also end up having the toughest jobs in the industry, too, because it's just a really tough industry to be in, and if the world had ended up in a different way and game developers' time was valued as much as, say, a web developer, which I am, then I probably definitely would be a game developer.

But for now it's one of those pie-in-the-sky dream things where, yeah, I kinda have related skills and I would love to do it because games are how I got into computers, really. If I had the time and the wherewithal, I would definitely probably find myself in the gamedev industry. Or not industry. That makes it too corporate. I'd make a game or two! That's what I mean.

I feel like the party line for that would just be like, "Well, it's so easy! You just make a game."

Right. I kinda see what you mean. Because they're so entrenched in that world that, like you said, the obvious to another fellow programmer, "Oh, well, just make a game." It's like, I'm sure Jim Butcher or one of those other prodigious authors would be like, "Oh yeah, just sit down everyday for eight hours and pound out a book every three months. Just do it." But, yeah, for people who aren't as enveloped by that environment, it's tougher to switch over to that form of production.

So we're talking about priorities and aging and shifting focus. Did you ever run into the expectation or notion that people thought you should have moved on from games or caring about them before you did?

That's an interesting question. I guess games are publicly not a very big part of my life. So I haven't had any pushback. Not a lot, actually. My field being very technical, also, I remember going to work at Aggrego. Or, well, we were in The Sun-Times building. We basically worked on The Sun-Times' website, and my co-worker, who is my senior by quite a few years. Perhaps decade. I don't want to guess too specifically in case he hears this.

At least a day or two.

He was at least 30 seconds older than I.

[Laughs.]

He would go crazy about the latest games stuff, and I would be really impressed. "Wow, you really know your stuff when it comes to these new games." [Laughs.] "You play these with your son? I don't even play these games, at all." So, I think my field, the no-suit pants, roll-into-work-at 10 a.m., 11 a.m.-whatever culture is more open to that kind of thing. And what I found, actually, is, interestingly enough, in terms of gaming is that my friend circles have really embraced board games, card games, and tabletop gaming, basically. Maybe not D&D and RPGs, but, yeah, that's what a lot of my friends do now, which kind of weirded me out, but once I got into it, it was like, "Hey, these are fun."

Board games weirded you out?

Yeah. Yeah they did, and I think it's just because I associated -- and now I'm being the oppressive adult figure, but I just associated them with being juvenile, I guess. Yeah.

What's funny is people who tell me they lose interest in videogames will graduate to board games, and I guess you have some more insight into the design perspective than me, but I never really understood that.

Maybe that's because board games are more accessible. You know what I've seen is a lot of -- so, as unfortunate as it is, videogaming, I feel like the traditional concept of videogame where you pick up a controller seems to be a more male-dominated hobby. Although, you do have those stats saying that over 50 percent of gamers are women now. So who knows. But I do know that boardgames are inherently social, so, they'll spread through friend groups. They're easy to play for anybody who can read the instructions, and you can also, you know, get drunk while you're playing them. So.

I think you can get drunk while you play videogames.

This is true. This is true. This is true.

I have heard. I wouldn't know about such disgusting acts myself.

No. Of course not.

I just have my Nilla wafers, and I play my Solitaire, and then I go into my mud hut.

And retire.

So, let me ask you this: How do videogames seem limited to you?

Oh. That's a pretty interesting question. You see, on the other hand, I've been thinking that videogames are amazingly unlimited in certain ways. You get games where you can experience the physics acting very strange or perspective defying your preconceived notions, like, I just started playing Monument Valley and it does some Escher painting-esque things with the way you manipulate obstacles so that your little character can get around. In the physical world, that's not possible.

And then you have a game that I've been wanting to play for a while called Antichamber.

In the past few years, I've also been thinking about -- like, reading a lot about social justice and stuff like that. With the rise of virtual reality headsets, you know, you can sympathize with a person of another ethnicity, but you don't really know what it's like to be. Like, I don't know what it's like to be white. I don't know what it's like to be black or Latino. But with the rise of immersive virtual reality and stuff like that, it's actually technologically feasible to recreate those perspectives from a visceral first-person view.

What seems weird to you about the intersection of videogames and the Internet?

For me it always comes down to -- reality is already a pretty good game. There's a subreddit called "outside." Yeah. Yeah. It's "r/outside." And they talk about the world like it's a videogame. Let's see, this one says, "PvP arena, self.outside: 'I think there needs to be a PvP arena in outside, a large island maybe? The top clans are completely unorganized and have no idea what they are doing. It wouldn't require a single penny or drop of blood, it would just require 100 people to get over their defeatist attitude that blah-blah-blah.'" "There is a PvP zone. It's called Syria."

Uh, okay. Well, nope. And right out of this thread.

"I'm currently a hardcore World of Warcraft player thinking of coming back to outside. Thoughts? Advice?"

Anyway. Yeah. So. Outside is already a pretty good game for me.

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"Outside" meaning literally the outside world?

Meaning the real world. Yes.

A lot of that sort of, "Here's my opportunity for a snide, detached sort of witty joke," I feel like that's a lot of the Internet, and then you get videogames, which is sort of an offshoot of tech, but it doesn't really want to act like it's a part of tech.

Right. Well, but what is the difference between games and the real world, right? I feel like maybe it's the fact that games represent a small slice of the -- they are not actually the real world. Because we're already in the real world. There's no reason to recreate that exactly. Even Second Life, it's different. You don't have to file taxes in Second Life. Although, I think if you make enough in Second Life and you cash it out, or something, there are tax consequences, but, whatever.

The point is the game developer chooses a specific subset of experiences that they want to expose you to. And those are kind of the limits of the game, right? The reality is, in a lot of ways, more mundane, but obviously more flexible.

I think it has the perception of being more flexible when in reality it's much more rigid.

Agreed. Yeah.

Which is a super heady way of saying games are like echoes of our lives, in the sense that there's the perception you can do almost anything, when in fact you can't. Whether you're a frog trying to cross the road or an immigrant trying to take over the criminal underworld of a city, you really only can do a couple of things.
And I think the counter to that would be, "Oh, well, in real life you can do just about anything."

Well. When's the last time you took over the criminal underworld?

But that's sort of the reason, supposedly, that games are so popular: They let you live out these fantasies. Even in that way, games can be fairly limited.

So, this actually reminds me of a theory. Actually, I read it in an Elon Musk interview, you know, the owner of Tesla and SpaceX and who knows how many other things worth billions and billions of dollars. I had heard this theory before, but it came up against recently in an article, but the idea goes that if it's possible to simulate reality -- if it's even remotely possible to simulate all of reality, all the physics, and the universe, and everything, then the chances are that it has already happened and we are currently in a simulation, which makes this kind of an interesting game, right?

Elon Musk was raising this in the fact that we haven't found any intelligent life. We haven't find any signs of intelligent life in the universe and he said that -- his quote was, that, well, either in the huge vast expanses of the universe there's not another set of circumstances like ours, which is extremely unlikely. Or we're just a simulation, a petri-dish experiment or something for beings far more powerful than we can imagine. Anyway, random tangent.

No, there are a lot of reasons people say they play games, and I think one of them is that -- let's say that is true. Wouldn't you want to do something for a couple minutes a day a week, or a couple days a week, that helps you feel in control of the chaos around you? And may help you feel powerful even if you know it's fake? Even with those concessions: That is a world that revolves around you. Although not all games are like that --

You can find the ones that are.

Do you feel it's unfair to say the ones that are are the ones that are the most popular?

No, I don't think so. I don't think it's unfair. It's just a reflection of the fact that it's all about the customer, right? And those are probably the ones that sell the best. I can't think of a single game that de-centers the player, other than maybe that Peter Molyneux game that was, like, "chip away at this giant block and I guess get something maybe?" Yeah.

People didn't really like that.

I imagine. Yeah. But they love, like, Cow Clicker and Cookie Clicker, I think?

Does it feel arbitrary to you, then, the things in games circles that will be rejected versus the things that will be hailed as popular?

It depends on the circle, I guess. Depends on what types of games, but, yeah, yeah. Pretty much. At least in casual games, there are a thousand games that could have been Flappy Bird. Right? Who knows why Flappy Bird because so popular. Or Angry Birds? Except, maybe, things with birds do really well. Maybe that's not so arbitrary after all.

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I think also it depends -- I wouldn't say arbitrary if you take into account the context in which the games have to appeal. So, fighting games have to be really well-balanced. People expect certain things out of a fighting game. I can't even say what because I am so out of the fighting-game circle.

I think very few of them have birds.

Yeah, what's up with that? How can that entire genre exist and no birds? I don't know.

I think if that happened, the world might end. I can't prove it, but I read in an Elon Musk interview --

[Laughs.]

I don't know. When you were into games, and maybe even now, like, you mentioned you pay attention to news. But how did the games media impact what you were interested in?

Early on, I would hunt down reviews. I would keep up with review sites and read about the new games coming out. I was very interested in what could run on my computer and what couldn't.

Actually, I kinda consumed the -- I'm pretty sure this is accurate. I'm not entirely sure because I can't transport myself back to the early 2000's or whatever, but I'm pretty sure I consumed a few things, a few genres of journalism just for the journalism themselves, and then I got bored because, like, reviews would be their own form of entertainment. I'd find out what the author thought was interesting, what they thought of the graphics, the gameplay, and that in itself was -- because I can never really buy these games and expect to play them.

A lot of time, I didn't have the right hardware or I only had Nintendo systems growing up, so -- and besides which, not only would my parents not buy games for me really, I from a very young age inherited their cheapness. So I just consumed game journalism as its own thing, and then the games that I would actually end up playing were mostly -- well, okay. Indirectly.

So my uncle was the one who introduced us to games. He bought us a bunch of systems like the Super Nintendo and the N64 and the GameCube and so we would play whatever he bought us, and I'm pretty sure he bought us whatever was rated pretty highly in game journalism. So, I guess indirectly that's how it lead to it.

But as for the direct influence on games themselves, what's interesting actually is I did become a lot more -- because I would subscribe to Maximum PC and they'd review games and they'd also take it from a very hardware-based perspective -- hardware and pushing the envelope -- I became really aware of the technical sides of the videogames. Like, the specific rendering techniques and shaders and stuff like that. I at least got the vocabulary to talk about it.

And, interestingly, going back to outside, I began to appreciate nature and reality that much more because I'm like, "Wow, look at those volumetric fog or whatever."

[Laughs.]

And we'd be standing outside. So, my friend who is a game developer and I will make observations like that about reality every once in a while and it'll just be an extreme nerd moment. So, yeah.

But that's a way that we're talking about playing games to make sense of our lives. I mean, were you appreciating for before?

Probably. But not so specifically as that.

Well, what's funny is we talk about games as something you should outgrow and I think they're valuable in the sense that they give you fun, which is important to have in your life. But that's an interesting thing I had never before: Knowledge of the tech made you appreciate nature more.

Really? You'd never heard that before? Like, we'll stare at water and be like, "Wow, that's really convincing."

Are you talking about fog in the real world or fog in games?

Fog in the real world. Fog and water and I forgot -- there's a bunch of terms that I'm forgetting.

But maybe that's just a more dev- or tech-focused thing to say.

Right. Especially coming from Maximum PC.

So, but, talking about magazines that you read, what sort of trends did you notice in things they would cover or never cover?

The trend that I noticed that really actually weaned me off of game journalism was that it -- I don't know if I noticed it so much as I just got bored of the format. Like, for technical hardware reviews, like the ones Maximum PC will put out or Tom's Hardware, whatever, there are lots and lots of benchmarks and charts and graphs and it's all kind of data pornography, but you can get the major points by going to the conclusion at the end of the article and going, "Okay, yeah, well, it's pretty good." Or, "It's not good at all."

But for videogames, a lot of times, I felt like it actually wouldn't tell you that much and there weren't that many key things to pick up. Like, there's no conclusion. And I ended up just looking at the pictures and just judging it from that. I made exceptions for certain games that had already gained my loyalty, like, Diablo 3 I read about extensively and then ended up not playing at all. I don't know. I just feel like I got bored of the game journalism genre. Maybe it was just the formula. Maybe it's just reviews, period, that I got bored of because ultimately it's just -- I don't know.

How would you define creativity in games? Do you feel like what you see of games now, are they more creative than what you remember?

It's hard because the world of games has also expanded so immensely even from when I was a kid. You can play games on your desktop, your phone. You can play augmented reality games. I don't know. For a while, I considered Foursquare a game, where you would check in and stuff.

From a gamedev perspective, I imagine that it -- you'd find a lot of creativity in indie games, I guess, at least more so than, like, the latest EA title, which is where creativity goes to die.

Why do you say that?

Aren't they the ones who release a soccer game every year? Is FIFA an EA game? FIFA and I know they own a bunch of companies that started out pretty decent. Madden? Who does Madden?

EA does Madden, FIFA, NHL, NCAA, NBA Live --

That's so weird. It's like the sports genre of games has always been weird to me because, like you said, it's so direct an echo of reality and how much time and money and attention we as a society spend on these games that it always just seemed so bizarre. Why don't you just go play soccer or football or watch the pros do it?

Let me ask you this: Why do you think this happens? That videogames become very important to people and then they lose that importance? Do you think it matters? Do you think it hurts anyone, that people just move on from games?

People have an impression of games as being juvenile, just like I did with board games. This is starting to sound like the most banal, uncreative answer to the question, but, so, a few women that I've spoken to have said they really despise when their boyfriend or whatever spends time on videogames. They associate it with not going anywhere in life. I think the reason why people graduate or migrate away from games is --

I think the reason why people migrate away from games is actually not primarily because they see it as being juvenile. I think it's actually just because the game of reality becomes that much more pressing in a lot of ways. Like, if you're invested in your education, if you're invested in your career, if you're invested reality, then there are certain things that you just -- but I guess, even so, even if you take all those things into account, you still have free time. Like, what's the difference between people who watch sports and the people who play sports videogames? What's the difference between people who play board games and people who play MMOs in their free time?

Proximity to other people?

Proximity. Maybe social circles. Maybe it is the interactivity. You can't be very passive with games. You always have to be doing something. And that takes more out of you. Like, when my dad gets home from work he has two options, right? He can watch whatever's on the TV or he can go on Netflix and choose something to play. And what ends up happening is he'll just turn on the TV, even though there's plenty of options to pick from on Netflix.

So maybe it is the fact that it requires a more sustained effort than -- so, while it doesn't actually take more time, it appears to take more time. It just seems like it's more of an investment than -- and it is. It is. You have to think. You have to act. You can't just sit back and consume what's being thrown at you. Yeah, maybe that's it. The appearance of taking more time, or the cognitive load. Maybe that's why, combined with social circles and social expectations. But, yeah. I don't know.

Also, too, cable or whatever else is cheaper.

Oh yeah. That's true.

[Laughs.]

Well, you could buy a videogame every month for the price you pay for cable, right?

But then, what game?

Ah. More choices.

I win!

Analysis paralysis.

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