jeff ward

jeff ward

So, my name is Jeff Ward. I'm 33 years old. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia.

My first professional job in the game industry was working for Bethesda Game Studios as an associate programmer in 2005. After that I went and did a game metrics startup in Boston called Orbus Gameworks with my good friend Darius Kazemi. After that, when that start-up didn't pan out, I went to another game development start-up, Fire Hose Games, which released Slam Bolt Scrappers as well the PC port of Ms. Splosion Man. I've worked on Rock Band Blitz and, finally, Go Home Dinosaurs.

At the end of Go Home Dinosaurs, I was laid off and decided to leave the industry for more stable grounds. I just had my first kid and I now work for a contract app developer in Charlottesville called WillowTree.

Working at Bethesda, what sort of stuff did you do? What was your title?

So I was an associate programmer, which is kind of the lowest level programmer. It's their entry-level programmer job. While I was there, I kinda got bounced around a little bit -- because I'm not really a graphics guy, so they tried. They were like, "Hey, you should try to do this graphics stuff." I was like, "Okay!" That didn't work out and so they bounced me around a few times. I ended up doing a lot of their kinda low-level system stuff.

I worked on the memory manager for Oblivion, optimizing portions of it, looking for crashes that were not caused by the memory manager but were caused by memory corruption, and because I had a really good understanding of the memory manager I could figure out how it was getting corrupted.

I also did a good portion of the build process. By the end of Oblivion we had a really good build server and a really good asset optimization pipeline, and that was partially me -- and worked with, at the time Oblivion was still Gamebryo-based, and worked with Gamebryo to get their asset-optimization stuff for the 360 so that we could load models more efficiently and they'd take up less memory and that kind of thing.

I also kind of pup diagnosed crashes in Oblivion kind of near the end during crunch time. Part of a team whose sole purpose was to stay late and make sure the builds were good before the next day started so one was blocked the next morning.

I assume what you just said was the day-to-day, but when you walk in one day, is there a pipeline for what you need to be working on? Are you given autonomy to do whatever? Or is it a bunch of trouble tickets coming your way? What is it?

Yeah, it really depends on what stage they're at, right? Bethesda's really gotten really really good, and this is in no small part to Todd Howard, I think. They're really really good at -- there's this hire/fire wave that kind of comes through the game industry and it's been happening pretty much since the game industry started, where you have your game, you need a bunch of help to finish it, so you staff up a big staff, then you finish your game and you all of a sudden don't need all these people you have on staff and so you hire a bunch of them, keeping a few for a core team. That core team starts on the sequel and then lather, rinse, repeat, right?

Bethesda, especially in the last few years, I think they got really good at making sure that they were starting on their next game while they were still doing things like expansions and and things for their previous games. So, starting with Morrowind -- they finished Morrowind, they started working on Oblivion almost immediately, working on the engine for that. But in the meantime, they did two expansions to Morrowind and then Oblivion came out, they did a bunch of DLC for that as well as the major expansion Shivering Isles while Fallout 3 was actually being developed. The whole engine was being written by kind of a core team.

And so Bethesda hasn’t necessarily needed to do that, staff up a ton of people and then have to fire them because you don't need that many people when the game is first starting. So that's really good.

It really depends on where you are. When I started, Oblivion was just kind of finishing up. They were starting to enter crunch for it. So, my day to day on Oblivion is very different from my day to day when Shivering Isles started our versus my day to day when Fallout was starting up.

So you mentioned you were doing low-level -- I feel bad even saying that.

[Laughs.]

It makes it sound like it's not important.

Right. "System-level" is probably a better term.

Thank you. So, that system-level work, what would be the most intense type of programming that people do on games like those in that generation?

Each level is incredibly different and it takes a different set of skills. A system-level programmer has to have a full understanding of the hardware it's going to be run on. Even when I was doing this at Bethesda, I don't think I had a firm grasp of everything that I do now. Now I'm frigging, what, 10 years older now? And I have 10 years of experience doing system-level work, but a lot of it stems from the problems I saw working at Bethesda on their system-level code.

Is it kind of the most intense? Sort of. But it has the biggest ripple effects, I think. If you get that level wrong, everybody else has to work around your screw ups. [Laughs.] Right? It can have the biggest impact. If you get things like memory management and your lowest level systems right, it gives a lot more freedom to the people at the higher levels. But it can also end up being misused.

A really good example is we made systems that allowed upper-level programmers to create scrap heaps, just small buckets of memory that were very fast to work with but were not particularly efficient, so the idea was you create one, muck around a little bit, and then immediately destroy it. I created that. By the end of Fallout 3, when I was long gone -- I had been gone for about a year -- they were cursing my name for having ever created that heap system because people had been abusing it and these heaps were leaking memory.

The different levels are different.

I assume you're translating that somewhat into laymen's for highly technical things, but for the end player, what does this allow the ability to have happen in front of them?

It really just allows more things to be onscreen. There's three levels to it.

The lowest level programmers that do their job well, the system-level programmers that do their job well -- it allows the games to be developed faster because you have less of a worry of going over your budgets because the system level can potentially manage your memory well, it can manage your CPU well, which means you can put more things on screen which means -- this is the wrong term, but I want to say it allows higher level programmers to be more careless. That's incorrect.

It affords them more opportunities.

It affords them more opportunities to do more interesting things than, say, if that lower-level stuff is programmed badly or isn't tailored to the type of games you want to make. The difference between a really well run, really good low-level system like Insomniac or Naughty Dog make -- or Bethesda -- the stuff that they can do with those systems, like, they don't have to worry about the same stuff as someone who's working in Unity. They are given a lot more opportunities to do a lot more stuff because Unity is made for the general case and to work very well in the general case, whereas Insomniac's engine, Bethesda's engines are created specifically for the type of games that they make and so the higher level programmers don't necessarily have to worry about a lot of that stuff.

So, at Bethesda, especially, quest designers can work in their scripting language. They don't have to worry about the performance necessarily of those low level systems, and they don't have to worry about the specifics of how things work. They can just write the quests they want to write and lower level systems take care of it, for the most part.

I don't want to pose this question to you and have you just speak to Bethesda, but for you and maybe your colleagues or friends who work at other companies: How is time wasted making games at this scale?
Don't answer just speaking for Bethesda.

Yeah, and I can't really talk to Bethesda at this point. I haven't been there in 10 years and I don't really -- I have a lot of friends who are still there, but we don't necessarily talk about the specifics of how Bethesda's run anymore.

I think time wasted on any game project is the same on almost any other software project, with a few kind of weird additions. So, any software project is going to have time wasted. If you get your requirements and then your requirements change, you have to redo work you've already done. Time is wasted by needless conversation.

Like at any job.

If programmers can't focus on the stuff they need to focus on, then they're not gonna be able to get their work done. If you look into people who talk about flow and getting in the flow of programming -- and it's not just for programmers, it's pretty much any technical or creative job -- if you can't get into that flow of sitting down and focusing on the task you need to do for a long period of time, it's just going to waste time.

And then, on top of that, the one that's specific necessarily to the game industry is making demos, right? [Laughs.] Like, we were just talking about E3 -- making demos, their only purpose is to demo. They're not actually there to show -- you're not adding to the game, you're just adding to the demo.The really good companies can find ways to make -- when they have to do a demo, they can find ways to work with the stuff they have and make sure that that just creates a good demo.

I think, then, for the other two -- for the first one of having the requirements change, I think that's just unfortunately a problem in the game industry in general. When you're working on something -- you've designed this game and you're gonna rework it, right? It's not working. You have to rework it, and so your requirements change. Then there's a bunch of subpoints there I could get into. [Laughs.]

Then the second one is when people aren't allowed to get into the flow. The game industry is such a collaborative industry, it's kind of built up as this collaborative industry. People want to collaborate with each other. They want to be in these creative meetings. They want to be part of the game that's being designed at every level, and on a bigger game you just freaking can't be.

Like, you can't be in every creative decision meeting and you can't have your voice heard at every point and you can't spend 80 percent of your day in meetings and, again, I think the bigger AAA companies have learned this for the most part. They probably avoid a lot of those kind of useless meetings. They don't let decisions be made at the lowest levels. They have their technical and creative directors for a reason.

And then, again, going back to the first point. There were cases -- especially in the indie-game world, but in some of the AAA world as well, and some of the medium world -- where the thought is get the easiest thing done. "I don't care whether it's right. We're gonna pick the thing that's easiest to implement. Not necessarily the right thing."

It comes from this rapid prototyping mentality, and it works really really well for some studios. They just -- it's like, you have no idea what's going to stick to the wall, so you want to throw as much as you can at it as fast as possible.

And for certain types of games, that's great where you're iterating very quickly. But at some point you have to stop implementing the thing that's fastest and start implementing the thing that's right. If you're looking at two options, like, "Well, we think this one's really fast and this one's really slow, and we think the really slow one is right, but we can't prove it. Let's go and implement the really fast one and iterate on it until it's right because we can probably do that."

And in my experience, that ends up being faster maybe one in 10 times because what ends up happening is we're going to iterate on that fast thing repeatedly attempting to get it right, attempting to get it to work, and then eventually we're gonna say, "You know what? Maybe we should go back to the thing that was right." I've seen that happen time and time and time and time again.

Again, not so much something that happens with AAA because usually if you get it wrong you have to live with it at some point. [Laughs.] Again, depending on your publisher, depending on how much money you actually have in the bank. I think the successful AAA studios, at this point, when something like that's going wrong, they can kind of take a turn. Or, they just don't experiment as much, right? I think that's quite possibly one of the reasons why we see a lot of stagnation in terms of design: If we're gonna take that type of risk, we have to take a small risk in one small area to see if it works. If it doesn't, we can just go back to what we did before.

Do you think there's a risk -- I know we were talking about that piece I did before, and it's easy for me to say that in an article, but do you think there is a risk with taking no risk? I mean, you're not in the industry, per se, right now, but how does it look to you?

Do I think there's trouble ahead? Not in the long-term. No. I don't think so. Do I think some companies are going to have a problem? Yeah. Interestingly, I would have put Bethesda potentially in that group probably last year.

But now, kind of looking at them -- the Bethesda studios, not necessarily Game Studios, is now starting to play around with more things, more interesting things. Game Studios is also doing some really interesting stuff, so, especially that company -- I don't think they're in trouble at all. They make really really good games, they really know their audience, and they're kind of leveraging their properties really really really well. So that's good for them.

What companies do you think might need to re-assess their strategy? You don't have to name them specifically, but maybe what sort of common behaviors do you see from them?

I think any company that's -- and this has always been true, I think, which is what makes me say that the game industry isn't necessarily in trouble: Studios that put all their eggs in one basket, that really only have one property, and bet most of their money on the next version of that property. I think Rockstar is interesting because -- well, here's what I mean.

[Laughs.] I laugh only because the examples of things they've done outside of what they're known for is a table-tennis game.

Oh yeah. Well, but they also don't -- and I don't know that they actually bet the farm on any given Grand Theft Auto. But -- and I don't know that for sure. They friggin' make enough money on one Grand Theft Auto. I've said this before about other companies. This isn't just Rockstar.

There are a lot of AAA companies that have one money-making product that does really really really really well for them and they have a rabid fanbase and it always take those companies at least three games to go under. It will take them making a terrible, terrible first game for all the gamers to essentially be like, "Oh. Maybe I'll wait to buy the second one." And then the second one also has to be terrible for -- because they'll wait, but they'll see it's a five and be like, "Well, I really liked that other." It'll have to be that third game that's also awful for them to be like, "Nope. I'm done."

I think that's true of a lot of the big companies that do really big blockbuster products. I think Call of Duty is that way. I think Grand Theft Auto is that way. I think Fallout is that way. I think Elder Scrolls -- anything Bethesda Game Studios does is that way. Most big studios have to fail three times before they're just gotten rid of.

But for some of the AAA studios that are just starting out -- all it takes is for a studio of that size betting all their money on their first or second game to have that fail. They're done. They're done. They have to close their doors because they don't have the money to stay solvent.

And so if you get a whole bunch of those studios at the same time and they all make kind of the same product, you can see a pretty big crash, but I think the indies have a harder time of it right now, which is just getting in front of people's eyes and getting their games known. But at the same time, I think we're seeing more really interesting stuff from a lot more really interesting people, which is always really exciting. I just wish more people would take the time to play around with stuff they might not normally, and I wish we'd take more time to welcome them into the fold.

This gets into our main topic, which is everybody uses "walking simulator" as a derogatory term but you know what? Screw you. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

So, first of all, whether or not you want to consider them "games," I don't want to get into that discussion. But if I enjoy walking around some area like Proteus -- the whole game is just walking around this beautifully rendered that's rendered in an interesting way -- if I find that enjoyable, like, what's the problem?

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What is VR gonna be?

[Laughs.] Right. I think it's John Siracusa who says, "VR will have arrived when we have a hiking simulator -- when we have an actual walking simulator." When you can put on VR and walk through the Grand Canyon and have it look realistic, VR has arrived.

In my opinion, it started around the Quake era, when John Carmack had that famous quote of, "Story in games is like story in a porn." [Laughs.] It's -- it's great but it's not important that it's there.

As someone who grew up -- my favorite games were always plot-based games. And someone who grew up playing PC games before Doom 2 and Quake came out, my favorite games were Sierra adventure games and LucasArts adventure games and Star Control 2 and these games that don't have a lot of combat. They don't have a lot of what you would recognize in modern games, this twitch mentality. I've never really liked -- I enjoy some games that have those twitch mentalities, but for the most part I really like adventure games.

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I've gotten to the point, probably two or three years ago, where adventure games weren't coming out. This was before Double Fine Adventure [Broken Age] had really taken off. The last adventure game I remember seeing on shelves was the original Longest Journey, which has its own problems.

The original Longest Journey had issues with how long some of its conversations went. You'd get into a conversation and 30 minutes later you'd exit the conversation going, "Oh, right! There's stuff to do."

But I love Sierra adventure games. I love LucasArts adventure games. I do love exploring an area. And so, for a while, there weren't games being made like that or they were really niche or they weren't really taking advantage of the new graphics functionalities, so they looked kinda not great. It wasn't until probably I think in the last few years with -- I don't wanna say who it started with. But when I started seeing a lot of those adventure games coming up again with stuff like Wadjet Eye, and then it was Double Fine that really brought it all back into the forefront with [Broken Age]. After that we saw Long Journey Chronicles, you saw more games in that adventure, kind of exploratory genre. Gone Home. Proteus. We saw Kickstarters for a new Lori and Corey Cole game. We saw another one for Tesla Effect, which I did, and one of the things I realized was these games came out and for the first time in a long time, I'd pick them up and I'd play them straight through.

I friggin' hadn't done that -- I think the last time I did that was college. That's partially because of time and that's partially because the games didn't necessarily grab me.

I was going to say, too, there's also Telltale and the concessions they've done to make these types of games much more digestible, being episodic.

And I should give them a shout-out because I did get that episodic Sam & Max, I have my season one DVD around here somewhere.

I don't want to talk too much about the past, but the last thing about that if it isn't prying: What made you decide to leave games as a job?

So, I should tell you kind of the story. [Laughs.]

I want to start by saying the the guy who runs Fire Hose is a really good friend of mine and this will make him sound bad, but I want everybody to know that he absolutely made the right decision in doing this.

Go Home Dinosaurs was the last product I worked on at Fire Hose. Go Home Dinosaurs for iPad was the last project I worked on. It shipped to the iTunes store on a Thursday. The reason I know that is because my wife went into labor that same day with my first son.

That following Sunday -- that next Sunday, three days later, I was like, "I wonder how Go Home Dinosaurs is doing. I have access to iTunes Connect, so I'm gonna log in and see if it's selling."

I go to log into iTunes Connect and the password's not working.

Mmm.

Yeah.

I was like, "I know what's happening. I know what's going on." The following Monday, everybody has off. The next day, everyone has off. The president of Fire Hose sends an email out: "Everybody, for doing such a great job on Go Home Dinosaurs, you should all take Tuesday off as well." And then he sends an email to me privately and says, "Hey, can you jump on a Skype call around 1 o'clock?" I was like, "I know exactly what's coming."

Yeah.

And so I was laid off on Tuesday. Yeah, I was laid off on Tuesday.

Like I said, he made absolutely the right decision. I was the only remote worker for them, which was really difficult. Especially around launch times. Both times, when we were launching to the store, being remote was really, really difficult. The entire team was in Boston and I was in Charlottesville. On top of that, I was feeling creatively drained.

That was my second startup. I was actually fairly in debt from doing two start-ups, so kinda coming out of that I said to myself, "So, I can probably contract in the game industry. I can work from home from Charlottesville. I have contracts in the game industry. I could probably do okay."

But I'd constantly be having to look for work. I'd have to be constantly out there pounding the pavement looking for contract work, which with a newborn doesn't sound like a great idea. The other possibility is I could go pound the pavement and look for another game-industry job with the possibility of getting into a studio that would either work me ridiculous hours or at the end of the project could potentially do the same thing Fire Hose did.

Very frequently those are the options.

And so I looked around Charlottesville. We have a few tech companies around and WillowTree was definitely the most interesting. WillowTree does some really interesting work. We do contract apps, and that sounds probably boring as hell, but I like to say I worked in the game industry for 10 years. Almost that. And in 10 years I shipped three or four games. I've shipped more apps in a year and a half at WillowTree than my entire career in the game industry.

That's not because necessarily they're less interesting. There's definitely some interesting stuff that WillowTree does. Some of which I can't talk about.

Sure.

[Laughs.] Like, we do some really, really interesting technical stuff because at the end of the day, people go to contractors because they can't figure it out themselves. Some of our clients are big companies that could figure it out themselves, but they want to hire really good people that really know their stuff. So, WillowTree gets a lot of really, really interesting projects. That's one of the reasons -- I was given offers by a few companies in Charlottesville. WillowTree was not the best offer, but definitely looked like the best company. I think they've proven that out. So, if you want to come work for WillowTree. [Laughs.]

One of the reasons I left the game industry -- I went to a start-up, and you can actually go back. I gave a talk at GDC about a year after Orbus went under and I had started working at Fire Hose. It's called "20 Lessons Learned in the Game Industry." You can look it up. I think it's still a great talk, and I still think all the lessons I've learned from it still hold true. When I talk about why I chose to go to work for Fire Hose, I wanted a company that lined up with my values and wanted to do the stuff -- especially in the startup world, you want a company that lines up with your values, that wants to do the same stuff that you want to do.

When I was laid off by Fire Hose, they still had the same kind of mentality, but I didn't see them making the types of games that I wanted to make, and I didn't see anywhere in the game industry -- there were companies, I will say, that do the types of games I wanted to make, but not that I think I wanted to work for. And certainly not that were going to let me work for them from Charlottesville. Charlottesville, as I've gotten older -- we're here because we have family here and we need help raising two very young children.

And so, when you reach that phase it's like, "Well, I don't see that many companies doing what I want to do in games and I don't want to leave the area I'm in, and even if I went to one of those companies, I wouldn't have the creative control I would want to do my own things. Oh, and I've already done two start-ups, so I don't have the money to do a third right now." [Laughs.] What do you -- why stay?

Yeah. No. I understand. [Laughs.] It's the same question a lot of writers I know over 30 are asking themselves, though much more frantically than you worded it here.
I don't know what job interviews are like at game companies, but when you went to your last company in the industry, where did you think you would be five years later? I don't think I've ever been asked that in a job interview I've had, but the whole: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

[Laughs.]

What were you hoping that job would take you closer to?

So, working for Fire Hose.

Yeah, I mean, working for Fire Hose -- so I'd been working for Orbus for three years doing metrics software. That was super-interesting and it ended up -- it didn't grow as fast as we needed it to grow. And there's a lot of reasons for that.

I had been out of working on games. I was working on this metrics back-end software, and I was doing it in games, but I hadn't actually been working on games. So, working at Fire Hose, I wanted to get back into working on games. I wanted to get back into working on really interesting technologies surrounding games.

One of the great things about working for Fire Hose was working on the PS3 for Slam Bolt Scrappers. Trying to solve some hard technical problems, some of which never got solved, at least SBS.

I wanted to be in a company that was going to grow and do some really interesting things with gameplay, which is why -- I was pretty happy working on SBS for the most part. The beginning of that game was so different from a lot of the other stuff, which was also to its major detriment, if you've ever played it. It's just so different. It's really hard to wrap your head around, and that was, I think, the major failing in that game.

But then, like, working on Rock Band Blitz with Fire Hose and Harmonix was really fun because it was kind of the same but different. It was an interesting take on the Rock Band world. But then kinda moving into Go Home Dinosaurs, and one of the reasons I wasn't as happy working on Go Home Dinosaurs is it was a genre of game I didn't care about -- which was tower defense -- trying to do free-to-play, which I didn't care for. We had to react to the realities to market we were in.

Yeah, at the end of Go Home Dinosaurs it was like, "What're we gonna do next? What's gonna happen next?" [Laughs.] "We're not working on really interesting games anymore." [Laughs.] And also, to work on the really interesting games would take more time and more money than I think we could really devote to it.

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Well, so you said basically you wanted to talk about all the binaries in videogames. You call it the "us vs. them mentality."

Right.

But you quite expertly listed a lot of them in games. [Laughs.]
From your email: developers and casual, formalism versus story-driven, FTP versus premium, premium and cloners, mobile and PC, the list goes on and on.

Yeah.

You said it was "incredibly limiting and stifling."

Yes. Yeah, so, and actually I was gonna segue into it earlier, but going all the way back to talking about Quake and all those years when the story-driven games were coming back out, and even a little bit when I was entering the industry in 2004, there's the first one that's the story-driven versus formalism -- you know. It's more the, like, story-driven versus mechanic-driven mentality. For some reason they're diametrically opposed in a lot of people's eyes and you can't have one and the other. Or one side of it's completely uninteresting to a lot of people. I think that's incredibly stifling if you're thinking that way. I find it way more interesting to try and figure out how those systems interact.

As I said, I love listening to formalists. I have a dinner with a bunch of people that call themselves formalists at GDC when I'm able to go. The way they think about games and the way they think about systems is incredibly interesting. I want to be able to think about games and systems that way, but I'm also an incredibly narrative-driven person and I also want to think about the narrative systems and to have anyone come out and say, "Well, the narrative systems aren't interesting. The narrative portion isn't interesting."

Like, every time I would hear that, it just made me a little bit sad: "But I like that part!"

And so, I'm one of the people who wants to really see if being able to notate game mechanics so you can look at it and say, "Well, okay, maybe this'll work, maybe it won't work." You can look at a thing of sheet music and you can tell for the most part, "Okay, this chord is gonna sound good or it's not gonna sound good." There are technical musical terms for these, and I can't remember what they were.

Well, you're talking about musical theory and discordant.

Yeah, there you go. See? You're making me sound better.

But, and discordant things aren't necessarily bad. Melodic isn't necessarily good. It's just how it fits into the whole of everything. You have Bach who kind of defined music theory, or at least classical music theory. And we kind of don't have a lot of that for the games industry. We don't have a lot of that in games, period.

I think Raph Koster and Dan Cook come kind of the closest, and Frank Lantz, as well, where they kind of try to lay out these systems and feedback loops that work or don't work. That doesn't necessarily mean -- some terms are like "positive feedback loop" and "negative feedback loop," and neither of those is necessarily good or necessarily bad. You just need to understand how they work in the whole of the system you're designing.

I think that's important to understand before we move onto a more complex system of narrative design. Narrative system design is an incredibly hard problem. One of the mainstays of the game industry, Chris Crawford, has been working on it for how friggin' long and he still hasn't cracked that?

I think he's got a Kickstarter going now.

He does. And I always wonder whether it's really going to be that interesting. But, like, the question is not just: Can you make something from a systems perspective that is also from a narrative perspective, and where the narrative and the systems interact in such a way that one complements the other. The question is whether or not Chris has achieved that with his new Kickstarter, and I can't say. I haven't really played it.

We don't have a lot of great examples. I think Raph Koster has one of the greatest -- on his blog a while back he talks about how he analyzes a game. He analyzes the mechanics and whether the mechanics work and then he analyzes the dynamics of the way everything interacts and he analyzes the aesthetics and whether or not the mechanics in the aesthetics match up, because we have a lot of instances in games where what you're told to feel and what you're driven to feel by the mechanics are completely diametrically opposed. This happens constantly in games.

It's just because -- there's lots of reasons why it potentially happens, but the end result is the people that either look at the narrative and say the narrative is terrible or, like, nobody looks at fun mechanics and say, "Well, these mechanics are terrible because they don't match the story." No one says that.

But it's just as right.

I can look at a story and say, "That story is completely valid to me. It's the mechanics that suck because they don't match. I don't care that they're fun." And I would be frowned upon for that, right? I would be frowned upon in almost every gamer gathering for saying, "I don't care that these mechanics are fun. It's brought down by the fact that they don't match the narrative, which I like more."

So we get into this habit of just making the narrative kind of secondary and unrelated to the mechanics to try and avoid that problem.

For people who aren't familiar, what is formalism in games?

Don't ask! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I know this is a bit of a trap, but for people reading this who honestly have no clue what you're talking about, try to throw them a line.

This game formalist dinner had a joke this year about what to call themselves because they're not really formalists but they are formalists? It's very strange. Frank [Lantz] basically kind of talks about formalism in terms of looking at the whole game as its systems, and formally describing its systems and only its systems. He finds narrative uninteresting, which is fine. Frank's a brilliant guy, and he's a really great game designer, and I think it's completely valid to look at games from a formalist perspective, as I've said before.

So, formalism is basically about looking at games as their systems and only their systems and looking at that from a formalist's perspective, and not letting authorial intent drive what you look at the game as. I think there are games that lend themselves really well to formalist review. I think almost every game lends itself well to formalist review, but I think it's also good to look at it from other perspectives as well.

But that's because I find narrative so interesting.

Isn't this another "us versus them" thing?

Sort of, yeah! I would say it's not really an "us versus them" thing. I'm not saying the formalists are wrong. It's not "us versus them" thing in that way. I think the formalists are right, but I also think other things are just as interesting.

I don't think it's valid to attack anyone who is into formalism because they're into formalism because they only want to look at the formal systems of a game. I just think that when you're designing a game, you should consider all of them. I think even the formalists will say that as well.

What's interesting is I can hear some of this refracted back, where there's a perception of what a game critic should be doing or not doing. One is the school of thought that is just, "Tell me if it's fun, that's all." And then there's the school of thought a little more to what you're talking about. And offhand, maybe I'm just forgetting or not thinking of something, but I don't know if this is just a thing in videogames. I don't think it is, but the intensity seems higher in videogames, and I wonder where that comes from.
Like, I wonder if you don't hear so much about it because you don't review games?

Right. Well, I used to.

There are, I think, two videogame reviews with my byline on them.

It got me a pass to GDC as press.

What year?

Uh, 2006? Somewhere in there.

But I had to approach it the same way that everybody kind of approaches it, especially at the smaller sites. It was numeric and it was "rate the graphics, rate the sound, rate the gameplay."

"This game had good colors!"

Yes, exactly. And one of them was Tron 2.0, and one of the things that frustrated the crap out of me -- it was just so frustrating -- is you get shot in that game and you have no idea where you were getting shot from. So how do you rate that? It's incredibly friggin' frustrating. The game's beautiful. And so it's like, do I write that down on gameplay or sound?

It's both.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility to do things a certain way as a critic as someone who worked on games or did you not really wring your hands on it?

Sorry, actually, it was to go to GDC in 2005. So it was written in 2004 because I wasn't working at Bethesda at the time. I should make that clear.

So in the timeline, it predates --

It predates my employment at Bethesda, and in fact when I went to Bethesda, I was asked if I could do it again and they said no. They said I could not review competitor's games.

That was the interesting problem. I was someone who wanted to get into the game industry as well: "How do I review this when I'm not a huge fan of the game?"

Tron 2.0 looks beautiful, but the game itself wasn't amazing. It has a huge number of gameplay issues, like, how do I deal with that? It's completely subjective.

Reviewing games in general is completely subjective. What I find fun, some other people might not find fun. And what I find entertaining -- more importantly, I think "fun" is a ridiculous term. We should abandon it. In fact, my senior thesis, I was actually hoping to talk about it: I wrote my senior thesis on interactive narrative. One of the things I wanted to eventually get in there was this discussion about why do all games have to be friggin' fun?

At the time -- Requiem for a Dream had been out for a while and I would think to myself, who leaves that movie going, "Man, that was fun!"

No one really leaves The Royal Tenenbaums going, "That was fun! That was a fun movie." No one comes out of Finding Neverland going, "Man, that was a fun movie!" It's a fantastic movie. It's a great movie. Like, why, can't -- and this has been talked over and over -- why can't we have romantic-comedy games? Why can't we have tragedy games? We sort of have tragedy games, but not really. Like, why can't Gone Home not be fun but be incredibly entertaining? Why can't exploring a space be incredibly entertaining? Why does it always have to be fun and why do you have to sit there and say, "If it's not fun, it's not a game." What? Seriously?

[Laughs.] I think a lot of this is just remnants of the mentality that games are for kids.

Mmhmm. Part of it is and I think part of it stems from this idea -- and I think we talked about this when you were down -- I think part part of it stems from the fact that a lot of geeks, and myself included, and I'm actually gonna sell myself out a little bit: We talked a little bit about when games like Quake were starting to come out, and I think even more so starting with Halo and more and more people playing things like Halo and Madden and sports games. Being a geek myself, and seeing those, a lot of those games are now kind of mainstays of the geek culture and gamer culture, but at the time they were coming into a space where I was like, "No, no, no! No. No. Did you play Final Fantasy VII? No, you're not a geek."

[Laughs.]

"Do not try to import games from Japan! No." I had the exact same mentality. I didn't take it quite as far as I think a lot of people do now, but I had that exact same mentality. "This is my hobby. There is where I go for refuge. When I was young and growing up, I didn't have a lot of friends. I was a geek. This is where I went for my refuge, and you're taking it from me. You can't do that."

You get angry about these people coming in and taking what you kind of think of as your hobby and doing something different with it, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen. I wouldn't say the game industry is worse for some of these games. I think some of the culture coming out of it is worse.

I wouldn't say that games as a whole have gotten worse. In fact, I think they've gotten better. Especially, including -- as people have taken the technologies and done more interesting things with them, I think that -- I'm still not interested in Halo at all, because it's not my thing. But the concepts that came out of Halo are the same concepts that have made games like Deus Ex better. Concepts coming out of Bethesda are what make The Witcher better.

Like, it's not that games have gotten any worse. I think they've gotten better, and yet, at the same time it's also departed from what I would like to see games be. I think we're getting back to it and fighting against this -- I don't know how most people see it. You try to look into someone else's intent, you're going to be wrong 99.99 percent of the time. But, they can potentially be seeing it as, "This is my hobby. This is where I went for refuge, and now you're trying to take it away from me by doing these different things."

There's space for all of us. Moreso now than before.

I had more of a right to be pissed because there was less of a space for that back then. There's more of a space for that now! So we're starting to see some of that stuff come back, and it's actually better for having gone through that kind of transition.

I think that the adventure games that have come out in the last few years are way friggin' better than any of the adventure games that has been made in the past. I think that Broken Age has taken a lot of lessons from modern gameplay. Did that make it easier as an adventure game? Yeah, a little bit. But I still enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it as an adventure game. We won't get into whether I liked the plot of act two, but as an adventure game I thought it was really solid.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to loosen up or change your mind about who you felt is or isn't allowed to also seek refuge in games?

No. 1 was I didn’t have a choice right? Games were going that way whether I wanted them to or not, so you kinda have to live with it.

No. 2 was that it didn’t actually affect my gaming habit that much. Sure, I didn’t see as many adventure games come out during that time, but some of my favorite games did, including Deus Ex, No One Lives Forever, Ico, Amplitude, Ys, Metroid Prime, and a few others.

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Then lastly, when I started to critically think about gaming, I was able to start look at lots of different types of mechanics and manipulations -- agencies -- that make up games, and realize that no two people like exactly the same makeup from games. Even if two people like the same genres, they might like them for completely different reasons. Two people that both like Halo, one might love Alpha Protocol, and the other might hate it, right? And that doesn’t mean either of them are wrong.

And also, you just kinda mellow out a bit with age.

Yeah. I pulled out my notebook from when we first met. I'm sure you remember me jotting down some notes, but I have here something written down I wanted to make sure to repeat and explore a little bit more. I know you already went into this but from our conversation back in March: "People aren't talking the right questions. They ask 'is it it fun?'"
I feel like you already explored that, so, maybe instead I wonder if there's a question you have for people inside the industry now that you have kind of left it behind?

They can't.

[Laughs.]

At the end of the day, and this is unfortunately -- I think there's two different problems here. Indie game makers can ask that question. They can ask the question, like, "What does this say?"

A colleague of mine once said -- I won't sell him out -- "If you don't have anything to add, if you don't have anything to say, get the fuck out." He's a AAA developer. He was saying that to the whole industry. "If you don't have a point of view that you want to share with someone, get the fuck out."

But at the same time, the AAA space -- I'd love for more people to ask that question: "What do I have to say? What can I say with this?" For some people the answer is going to be nothing, and that's fine. That's where a lot of fun games are going to come from. I think indie developers need to ask themselves that question: "What am I trying to say with this?"

Then they can ask themselves: "Can I say this and also have it be fun?"

Because that's where I think you'll end up having some more sales.

I think the AAA space really can't ask that question because they have to make their sales. It'd be great if they could ask that question and they could have an answer for it.

When I was in high school -- this is gonna be a little bit of a tangent -- my senior year I had an English teacher who taught AP lit. He said, essentially, you got two people who get into trouble at college: the people who defined themselves by high school and what high school is and they get into trouble because everything they've defined themselves by is no longer there, and the other type of person that gets into trouble in college is the person that's defined themselves as not that because as soon as they get to college, all of a sudden not that is also not there. And so they also get lost.

And so you always see two types of people come back frequently. Any time they're on a break from college, they'll come back and visit their high school. Those two types of people. Looking around my senior year, looking at the people that came back, you could look and say, "Yup. You either defined yourself as what high school is or not what high school is."

I think that the game industry kind of -- not necessarily the game industry has the same problem, but you have a lot of people that either define themselves as "we are the game industry, we are games, rah rah rah, fun is tantamount and it is the only thing we care about" and you also have the people who define themselves as not that or not whatever the flavor of the week is.

So, people who define themselves as "we are not free-to-play, we are not going to do free-to-play" and those who define themselves as "we are going to do free-to-play, we are going to do it exactly the way we need to do it, and we're not going to challenge the status quo of free-to-play because down that road lies bankruptcy," and in a lot of ways they're right. You have some people in the middle floundering, people that don't know what they are -- they want to define themselves as kind of both. I think that's a lot of indie-game creators that don't get a lot of airtime, they're like, "Well, I want to be like the game industry, but I don't have anything to say myself so I'm just gonna do the stuff I know." Which is the stuff that's already been done, and it's not going to be done as well as everyone else.

You have these people that know exactly what they want to say and how they want to say it, and on flip sides of that you get Crossy Road and you get Gone Home. I think Crossy Road has done much better financially than Gone Home, but Crossy Road basically said, "We want to make a fun game that's going to be free-to-play and we may sacrifice money by doing this, but this is the way we want to do it." It's been incredibly successful for them. I think Gone Home is the same. It's been incredibly successful for them by basically making something where they said, "We know exactly what we want to say and we know exactly how we want to say it and screw whether people think it's fun or not because we think it's at least interesting."

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