don daglow

don daglow

So, my name is Don Daglow, I'm president of Daglow Entertainment, and I've been doing games for 43 years now. Since back when I was in university. I'll just say what Wikipedia says about me: I was born around 1953. 

Something else I think I saw about you on your Wikipedia page is the phrasing that you've been involved with games since before Pong?

Yeah, when I started out I was a university student and we had access to a mainframe computer, which today, the phone we're talking on is more powerful as a computing device than that mainframe at the time. And the mainframe literally cost millions of dollars. But I was fortunate enough that I was amongst those very first students who were given access to computers, whoever had the chance to do something more than support faculty research. 

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If Pong is the rubric of where things "started" -- 

And of course we just lost Ralph Baer just a few months ago. 

Yeah, that's right.
Well, so, in your emails you put that the situation we're in with videogames "comes with its own new set of conundrums" but you think this is a great time for games. Why? 

The reason that I referred to it as having its own conundrums?

Every era of games has problems that drive you crazy. If you dropped in on lunch conversations at game developers at any point in the history of games -- and I bet you this was true going back to board games people -- there's always a problem that drives you nuts and you're complaining about. Because the technology keeps changing, both the opportunities and the problems keep changing at the same time.

So in my view, in that context what makes this an exciting time is there are so many different platforms, there are so many different sizes of screen, there are so many different kinds of interfaces: if you think about touchscreen, if you think about traditional point and click, if you think about console game controllers. So that variety and the audience has spawned more variety and diversity as well to mimic all those opportunities. So I think that makes it a very exciting time. 

So what do you view as the problems?

I think there's a couple of things going on.

No. 1 is those of us who come from a console tradition had one kind of audience in particular to think about for many years. And thinking about only one kind of audience, if that audience is your specialty, is a great feeling. And now we have these kinds of games and these other audiences and they distract some of our console players. That's naturally not welcoming. 

If you have everybody coming to your museum to see your kind of art and suddenly there are some other museums and some people are going there to see other kinds of arts it's kind of like, "Wait a second! No! We don't want to have anyone leave our museum!"

So I think that's one aspect of it. 

I think another aspect is the whole free-to-play model is in its infancy, and as is true of both business models, the infancy of things produces excesses, and I think those excesses have produced a lot of resentment. Over time I think that will settle down. I don't think free-to-play is going to be the only game in town, but I think it also will over a period of years or maybe even decades become a much less controversial business model than it is now. 

I certainly agree with you that sets of conundrums are nothing new in an industry.

[Laughs.]

Do you have an example of a set of conundrums from another era in games and how they ended up resolving themselves? 

If I'm looking for a distant mirror, I would look back, for example, to the first era of videogames. When I was director of game design for Mattel for Intellivision and we were locked in this great battle with Atari for dominance of the videogame world, the things that drove us crazy were the -- we were writing 4k videogame cartridges. So everything you wanted to put in the game had to fit in 4k. These days it's hard to write an email that's smaller than 4k. 

Okay, it's probably 3.2k if we actually go back and look at it. But that was an entire game. Our screens had resolution that now people see graphics from our old games and they want to laugh because every pixel looks like it's the size of a piece of cereal they ate for breakfast in the morning. Depending on which system you're on you maybe had four to eight colors, and all those other restrictions. 

When you were coding a game on those early systems, you spent much more of your time compressing than you actually spent creating. Because you'd add some code to your game, the game would get too big to fit on a cartridge, and then you'd have to go back and figure out how to make it smaller again. You were literally doing more of your time cramming and less of your time creating, which is not people's image of the process of game design in the good old days or the glory days. 

I've always wondered why some of those early games had such simple names. 

Oh, why one-word names for a lot of early games and things like that?

Baseball.

Yeah. For Baseball and Dungeon, when we were in mainframes, there was no business there. We were writing games for our friends at our own college and then when games to be shared both formally and informally by ways we're not sure about across university systems, and we started to get mail from other universities and somebody was playing our game? That was really weird.

I'm not familiar with the PLATO system's restrictions, but on the DEC PDP-10s, as I remember, you could have a six-character filename for a file. So today's -- where it's, "Letter to David 2/17/15 Final Version," that kind of file name, we didn't even conceive. Whatever you were gonna name it, you had to get it into six letters, and so that in the precommercial era inspired short names because you were either going to fit it in six letters or you were gonna have to abbreviate it to six letters. 

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What's weird about the games business to you? 

[Laughs.] You know, I think every creative craft where I've ever -- if I talk to friends who have been in the music business, in theater --

I was originally trained as a playwright, I thought I was going into theater or television or whatever. All of us think there's something weird about our business. Actually, I'm stretching to think of something that's Weird with a capital "w" right now. The rate of change I would say is weird but the fact is everything changing that fast is becoming normal.

Sure, but I think based on some of your output you're someone who has tried to make a lot of sense of what's going on in the industry. Like, with your laws of the games industry. But, like, how have your laws shifted over time? 

A number of them have shifted over time. The one, and I'd have to look -- I think I have it as my law of media, I have rephrased that over the period of 20 years a number of times. It's now two laws.

The first of which, if I paraphrase, is to the effect of: "We will use all the bandwidth you can give us." In fact, I'm not giving the dramatic, tight phrasing of the book, but whatever bandwidth you give us in media, we want to use. So, if you increase the bandwidth for Internet access, we'll start to immediately develop fatter and fatter media to fill that pipe. We'll have richer videos. We'll have higher quality videos. Whatever it is. And we'll turn up the volume at which we as consumers want to download and share things to fill that volume. 

The second law is that creativity expands to fill the creative potential, the potential to touch people with art, at a slower pace because first you have to use up all the technical growth, and only then do we find as a society do we turn to using all the creative space that the technology has allowed us. 

What's a law you're thinking of writing out right currently? 

Actually, the one I'm currently drafting to put in I'm calling my Law of Motivation.

Again, if I'm just paraphrasing the thought off the top of my head, it's that the only truly motivating thing to do is to build something great, to build something worthwhile, and to build something that matters. Everything else that affects our morale as individuals, everything else that affects the morale of teams and individuals on teams, typically can be dealt with.

You change a policy, you put free drinks in the fridge, whatever it is, there are different things that can be dealt with. Sometimes on compensation somebody is not going to be satisfied and they leave. Whatever it is, those things can be managed. The one thing that cannot simply be tuned or altered is whether the work has the potential to be great, has the potential to touch people, and has the potential to be worthwhile.

You've worked on a variety of games in a variety of different capacities, so you've likely seen this shift, but what do you feel people don't understand about the way that bigger games are made? 

You know, I've not actually talked to players about this particular issue, so you're getting my supposition. 

Sure. 

The fact that over the last 10 years in particular the process has gotten to be more and more like the way that large-scale animated movies are made and less like the way that one programmer -- computer and videogames used to be made during that time. The fact that now you have groups of really talented specialists who have to collaborate effectively rather than one or a handful of creative people who are taking that vision and trying to find a way to get it on a much more primitive screen. 

I know you're talking about your supposition here, but do you find there are different misconceptions between, say, American and European and Japanese audiences about the whole process? 

I could not speak to the Japanese audience 'cause I don't think I have a basis for having a good understanding there.

What I find in the difference between the North American market and the European market is the European market, I think, has more patience for a story to develop, for the strategy of a game to emerge, and more patience with not playing well for a while until they figure out the best way to play the game. I think the North American player, if we talk about people as a group and not as individual, I think very often is much more easily discouraged in a game. The traditional core gamer, absolutely not. The traditional core gamer is patient, wants that failure as the road to success to loop.

But as we broaden the base of our audience more and more in North America, I think that all the metrics tell us that if people get frustrated early in a game, they're quite likely to leave and give up trying, and so we have to give them a lot of support in that early phase of a game than necessarily a European developer would think that they're going to need to supply to their players.

So where's that feedback coming from that that's a thing that should be done? 

Well, one thing we know, if you look at online games and mobile games, we have lots of metrics we get, which actually represent a direct indication link with the player. So, you can read the email, you can read the comments on the boards, but we also see, "Oh, wait a second, lots of people play this game up to level four. They start level five and we're losing half of our players at level five. Something is going on in level five."

And so on the obvious level, you can say, "Okay, we tuned this too hard for some reason. It wasn't too fun. We introduced a new mechanic, people couldn't play it." Whatever it was, you're losing people at that point. 

So with those metrics, you have those kinds of things, and you have more subtle things because there might be moments when one part of your audience suddenly starts having more fun when you introduce a new game mechanic. And another thing is having less fun, and there's no easy answer because you see greater activity on the part of one set of players and another set of players starts to drop away and you're going, "Wait a second, how could I have made a change that made the game both better and worse at the same time?" [Laughs.] That's an example of something that's weird. 

I think it's also that games are super-complicated and you have to do that work of making those changes without calling attention to them. 

And it's like being in a movie. If I'm watching a movie with my wife and we talk about it later, there might be times where, "Oh, I was with it right until that moment when it turned out that Tom Cruise was a villain instead of a hero." And I might feel like, "Oh, that's the moment where it got really interesting for me."

So the same thing happens with all forms of storytelling and all forms of entertainment. But now we have incredibly greater insight into it because of knowing -- if you bore your player, you know about it really quickly and clearly. [Laughs.] Because they just disappear. There's no data at all.

It's kinda like you call them up on your phone and they won't take your call anymore. 

Did you have metrics in place like that on Neverwinter Nights

[Laughs.] We had so much more primitive metrics. First of all, it was a much more primitive game. If you go back and look at it, the graphics are so laughable by this point. And this the original AOL version, so it's based on a 1988, actually, I think in '87 was the first game shipped with that engine. I realized we could have a graphical MMO in about '89 and pitched it to SSI and TSR and AOL, and we went live in the spring of '91. But by that time, that engine was already four or five years old. That engine was already pretty old. Even in the times of that era, that engine was already old by that point. So it's that primitive of a game.

The kinds of data that we had were in what region were our players, how many players did we have in the game overall, in which regions were they, so we could track that. We could track back go through a log -- and I'm now reaching way back in my memory here -- which quest goals they triggered. So we knew those kinds of things. 

So we had a general idea of where our players were going, what they were doing, through different means. But what we have now, where pretty much every key press, every mouse click, every selection gets amassed as global data. Not necessarily as individual data, and certainly not as individually trackable data because there's a privacy issue there and frankly it does you almost nothing as a designer.

But compared to the detail of data we get today, it was primitive. But compared to shipping a packaged game you cannot change once it's been shipped and then only hearing from users who write you snail mail letters that your publisher decides they're willing to share with you -- there's a lot of points where the communication that players that otherwise would have had with game designers would have had in the day, there's a lot of points where that communication breaks down.

Once you get online, even for Neverwinter Nights in 1991, we could go into the chat rooms and talk directly with our players and get feedback that way, and then combine the numerical data we got from the logs with the subjective data we got from people in the chat rooms to be able to have ideas of what we needed to do the game, how we needed to change it, and just the idea of being able to change it. So, incredibly empowering. 

How does that compare to, say, what you know World of Warcraft has access to? 

I think that, I would suppose -- and I'm guessing here since I have not worked with them -- I think all of these games now, you get torrents of data.

Because if you imagine -- let's take even a really simple game. The simple games probably deliver almost as much data as the complex ones. If you -- gosh, take Candy Crush Saga as a really simple match three game. So, the team will know on something like that when someone logs in. They will not have information about that person personally, but they'll know whether they're a player who plays all the time, who only plays occasionally, things like that.

So you see patterns between the people who will log in five times a day, the person who plays once a day, the person who plays once every three days. That's something that every game is gonna have. But then, pretty much after that, every key press, everything somebody does, apart from individual moves in the game itself, is going to be logged. So if I'm on level 97, and I'm guessing here, they might be guessing what my start condition is on that level. They might be collecting the first five things I do, they're collecting how many moves I take, what my score is at that point, how many specials I earn and use, how many minutes I play that level, whether I complete that level or I don't, what my score is in each situation, and then every key press in the interface that's leading me into and out of that level. 

When you're in a situation like that and you get that much data, who makes the call on what segment of the audience you should consider "correcting" for? Is that a thing where the publisher is also involved?

Typically the publisher is involved. Often, in many cases, the publisher controls all those decisions.

So you have cases where a developer designs a game, hands it off to a publisher, the publisher runs the live team, and then works with the developer to create what the publisher thinks the customers need. So at that point, the original creators may in fact be disenfranchised from the creation. It may also be the publisher had in-house people who developed the game idea, had it developed outside, and so the technical creators are outside the company, but the IP creators and the original vision resided in-house. There's all these different mixes of where the spark comes from that makes the game special. 

In other cases, you'll see where a developer will actually run a live team and the publisher is looking at the analytics and the data and working with them, but the developer is driving it. And then you have lots of examples in between.

In terms of how to pick which segment of the audience you're pleasing? Well, you know, of course we're trying to make everybody happy, and the danger of that is you produce vanilla because you're trying to please everybody. And this is a very common discussion in the industry.

If you want to please everybody, you'll produce vanilla. There is no shortage of vanilla in the world, so it's very hard to sell more vanilla. But that's what happens when you try to please everybody. And yet if you do whatever you damn well please and you don't care about pleasing the audience, you might find a vein where it turns out that a billion people unexpectedly agree with you. But very often that becomes an exercise in ego of, "I, the great artiste, I have a vision for this a-game! And I am going to execute this vision no matter what anybody else a-tells me!"

And that usually is a fool's errand as well in the extreme. 

Somewhere in between, in my consulting work I have periodically worked with teams where this is an issue and where creatives feel they're being handcuffed because they're being told what to do based on numbers, and where business people feel there's some clear path and people aren't listening, and they're trying to resolve who should be in charge. And I'm oversimplifying here, but I think that in most cases, the solution is to not have the numbers do the game designing, but to have a game designer who really understands the numbers and that if we go solely based on intuition it's like walking through a strange room in the dark: You're likely to hurt yourself.

But that having someone who doesn't have a creative intuition following the numbers still won't get you the right answers. There is a very messy combination of the data of what's really happening out in the world and creatives who have a vision for how things ought to work, but have the humility to recognize when it's not working, and likewise have a creative vision for, "Okay, what could we try now that may work?" Because all numbers doesn't work and all blind, lovely idealistic creativity falls flat on its face most of the time. 

How rare do you feel that balance of respects of both disciplines is?

I think it depends on how many beers have had when they're talking at work.

How about, say, just people in big-budget games? 

If I start to think about AAA teams I can think of, the first ones -- well, both Blizzard and Valve, for example, have a very, very active user feedback mechanism. I went to conference presentations where they talked about how they bring players in to play games, have the developers and creatives have a chance to watch the games be played and to learn from that process. I think in AAA -- I think other publishers probably do it as well. I just haven't had as much insight into it. But I think that's the gold standard for how to balance the two. 

I can think of cases in the free-to-play space, both PC and mobile, where you had people who were doing copycat products entirely by the numbers and doing okay and then proclaiming how smart they were, only to fade over time because that's not a sustainable strategy. And I've also seen people tragically refuse to listen to their players. That's a thread that goes back decades, where we have very clear player feedback and as creatives we don't listen to it, whatever form we get in. So, I think it is the nature of humanity to always believe our ideas are a little bit better than somebody else's to feel like if we were in charge, things would be better. That's why I think humility is such an important designer characteristic, because almost all great games suck for much of the period of their development.

On Facebook I had seen an article about this, a link, where they were talking about with large games they usually look bad and play fairly poorly until they're 90 percent done. And I'm thinking back on a pure design basis. Most of the games that I've ever done and my long-time designer friends -- we talk about this. The first draft playthrough of any game normally is awful. It's what you do after that that makes you a good professional designer. It's not necessarily the clarity of vision you had before that. It's what you do once you see the first sucky version and then set out to make it good. That's what makes a professional.

How would you like to see bigger games progress creatively? 

You know, I think that -- I'll start with a problem that I believe is a Gordian knot, and that is -- 

That is the word for the games industry. 

There you go.

The bigger the game, typically the bigger the budget. The bigger the budget, the more expensive any individual mistake can be, any false path, and therefore the more nervous the people who are funding the projects are going to be and therefore the more conservative they are naturally going to want to be.

If you make a mistake and it costs you $20,000, that's one level of the problem. If it costs you $2 million, it's another level of problem. If it costs you $12 million, it's another level of of problem. I think that we have new production methodologies that help balance that.

I think that that's probably an evil that's also afflicted the movie business in particular where the bigger your budget, again, the more the pressure for vanilla and the less interest there is in Cherry Garcia, cookie dough, with the banana frosting edge.

As a person who plays games, do you feel like bigger games are less creative? Do you feel like they're pretty much in line with other periods in games? 

I think that we actually have had games that were very creative and ambitious that had gotten built, where we had publishers and especially hardware makers who were willing to back them. So if you think about games like The Last of Us where, okay, you could say that's a very formula game but there's a unique story layered on top of it. You can look at Walking Dead and go, "Oh, they're just trying to exploit the show." Yeah, but, the way the story unfolds there is creating far deeper choices for players than traditionally we have had. I think at our best as an industry, if you go back to what Hamlet tells his players putting up their little play: What we're doing at our best is trying to hold the mirror up to life.

I think one of the very exciting things about AAA large-scale traditional console games is that we're doing a better and better job of doing that. I think we also are doing a better job of variety of ways we play things. If you look at things from Thatgamecompany and Journey in particular. That's also a broadening of our ability to deliver our story and deliver emotion of players. 

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When I was training as a playwright, the professor with whom I had my weekly one-on-one discussing my work who unfortunately passed away last year. He would tell me over and over in different ways at different times: Give somebody an idea and it's gone in 15 minutes. But if you write something that creates an emotion in their heart instead of an idea in their head, you'll still be reaching their head through their head tomorrow and the next day and the next week and the next month. And maybe one day they'll face a choice in life and they'll think about it differently because of what you created.

I think the very best games are now reaching the point where they may very well do that and that is a very exciting thing. 

Whether it's holding up a mirror or trying to evoke a feeling in someone's heart, is there something you'd like to see more of in games? 

I think that the number of publishers on the console space who can afford to take the chances that come with that kind of game-making, where you have to have strong storytelling and still strong game mechanics and gameplay. Very few companies can afford to take those risks just because the need for very high production values pushes the cost up so much.

In my ideal world, there are too few companies that can take the economic risk of building that kind of AAA console game that also has those kind of ambitious creative goals. So it isn't just a matter of having a game with great game mechanics and very high production values that's unique to that space. But also having an ambitious story, which is another place you can fail. So very few companies have the financial resources to take those risks and to push the envelope on all those fronts. So that's why you only see those games coming from very large publishers and very large manufacturers. 

In my perfect world, we'd have a magical solution that enabled a wider range of companies to try to build those kind of games. I don't think there is a nice, neat answer. Not only do I not have the answer, but I don't think there's a nice, neat one. I think over time -- whatever we try to do, we get better at over time. As we get better at doing it, we can do it for less money. And we also start to figure out when do you need to have 10,000 USC students charge a hill in Ben-Hur and when can you have 25 people from LA City College working in a computer lab and create 10,000 3D figures? Each of them looks unique at a glance, and each of them go up a 3D synthetic hill. The more time passes, the more we'll be able to do for less money. 

But I don't know of any solution that is instantaneous. It is a progressive process of learning rather than a magical wand that is going to wave over us and solve these issues. 

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