I'm Laralyn McWilliams. I'm currently chief creative officer at The Workshop Entertainment, which is an independent, third-party developer. Mostly consoles and PC games, but exploring other platforms as well. So, my background is I started in game development, opening my own company in 1993 and worked in PC games for a while and then made the big console switch around the year 2000. Worked at a bunch of different console development companies, but probably the best known thing I did during that period of time was being lead designer on Full Spectrum Warrior at Pandemic. I did a couple other things and then went to Sony Online, where I was creative director on Free Realms, and then spent some time in social games and then returned to core games for my current position at the Workshop.
What do people not understand about the way bigger games are being made? Speaking strictly about the audience here, end user.
Yeah, so, I've worked on teams of all different sizes both back in the day and currently. You can't really compare the two because when people talk about the early days of game development, teams just were small then. Teams were six or seven people. That was a decent-sized team. Because that's, honestly, what it took to make the game. We're seeing that start to return now in the indie scene, for sure, but most AAA games are to the point where the team is 70, 80 people, [and] that's a small AAA team. I've worked on both sides.
But when you talk about really large teams, like Free Realms, for example, I think the team was around 150 when the team shipped. It's a completely different way of thinking about how games get made because in that circumstance usually, everybody on the team has a pretty specific task or set of tasks. And a pretty specific skillset. For people who spend a lot of time in that environment, it's both a blessing and a curse because it means you get really, really, really good at something and you develop a lot of deep expertise. But it also means you kind of get pigeonholed because you don't have a lot of opportunity in that situation to try other things.
So what that means is when you're talking about a game that large, most of the time, with a few exceptions of specific people, it's really difficult for any one person to point at the game and say, "This is mine." I guess you can say, "I wrote the bit of code that's doing that. I wrote that system." Or an artist can say, "I built that model." Or a designer can say, "That's the UI I designed." But for the most part it's definitely a team's game. And I think it's a myth, with a few exceptions, that larger teams have a captain at the front of the ship dictating everything down to every individual texture and polygon and single second of gameplay. If you don't delegate, your ship will sink most of the time.
I think people think about when they think about games, they don't really think about the flipside of that, right? Everyone thinks it's awesome to be the captain of the ship with this idea that you're going to be shouting creative orders to everybody on the team, but the problem with that is that means that no one on the team feels any ownership of what they're working on. You absolutely do not get the best results from creative people -- and don't get me wrong, every single person on a game development team is creative, including the database engineers and the technical artists. They're just as creative as everybody else. And nobody can feel creative when someone is telling you what to do with every pixel and polygon. You feel like voice-driven mouse system at that point.
So I think one of the largest myths is that there are creative people calling every shot. There really aren't creative people calling every shot. On the great games, it's the team working together and it becomes an organism that is huge and sometimes unmanageable and unwieldy and sometimes frustrating. But it is an organism that is together accomplishing something together really great.
Do you feel like there's been new myths worked into the fabric of people's perceptions of bigger games since the rise of really, really, really big games?
Well, I think there are a lot of myths even honestly before that, but certainly crystallizing a little bit more in more recent times. For example, that individual artists or individual designers on a team have complete say over what they're building, when in fact kind of not at all. [Laughs.] Ultimately it's something that I had to come to terms with even as the design lead on medium-sized teams. It's that ultimately, especially in third party -- so I have to preface all this by saying: All of this is especially in third-party development where someone else is paying you to make the game that they want you to make.
It's something you have to come terms with. That ultimately you're making their game. You will love the game that you're making, and it will certainly feel like your game, but ultimately at any time they can swoop in and say, "No. This thing is awful. Do it this other way." Or, "No, the thing you made is great, but it's not really what we want so do it another way." So it's basically a hierarchy of people who have the authority to tell you how to do the thing that you're doing, really. [Laughs.] At whatever level you're at. Unless you are the head of an independent developer or unless you don't have a publisher or any ties, a financier, nothing. Unless you're in that situation or you're CEO of Activision. Unless you're in either of those two roles, there's some hierarchy of people telling you how to do your job and what to do. It's the nature of what we do. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It's the way it works.
But for all developers, and I'll talk about design because that's what I'm most familiar with. But if you think about there is the designer who is designing the combat system for the game. So, he probably has a combat lead who's overseeing his work. And he probably has a lead designer or a creative director overseeing his work. And there's probably a studio design director overseeing his work. And there's probably a producer at the company overseeing the work, and there's probably a producer at the publisher overseeing the work. And there's an executive producer over him. And then there's marketers over him, and all of it has to go to execs for greenlight at the publisher.
And at anyone of those stages they can say, "Hey, no. Make the ship blue." Or, "Make her hair longer." Or whatever. Right? From a design perspective, they can say, "No, we don't want this at all. We want guns." So there's this myth that I as an individual designer am choosing to put certain content in the game, and there is a certain amount of flexibility, but you understand that you're operating within the framework of what the company and the publisher will allow you to do.
What is that typically dictated by?
It depends on the game and the company. Ultimately, publishers and most game companies need to make revenue. It's a fact of life. People need jobs, and they don't want people to lose jobs. So I'm not assuming there's anything nefarious in the need to make money. What I usually say when I'm working with a company that is going to fund an internal project. Which is, for most third-party company, a big endeavor, to self-fund something. I will usually go through some questions like "What is our goal?" Because there's different goals for it. Your goal could be, "We wanna make money." Or your goal could be, "We wanna make an artistic statement." Or your goal could be, "We want to do something so crazy and fantastic that it brings in people who want to work with us, so we don't necessarily care if we get money. We just want to get attention." And those goals can work hand in hand, but if you're gonna be honest with yourself, you need to pick one. "Our goal is to make something so crazy-awesome that publishers are lining up at our door to work with us on what they want us to make." Versus "We wanna make something crazy and awesome that's gonna make us a million dollars." Those are two different goals.
So the reason I say that is because a lot of the decisions that you're talking about depend on the core goals for the company. Some decisions during the development of a game are made because the company wants to make an artistic statement. Other times it's because market research or focus testing leads to the believe that it will sell more or less based on certain decisions.
Ultimately, depending on the company, it ends up being about what they believe the market wants. For the most part. There are exceptions. There are indie companies and definitely auteurs who are making what they want to see. But that's a hard road, and certainly not an immediately commercial road. So you'll find larger devs, unless they have a lot of money in the bank, would be hard-pressed to take the road of, "We're making all of our decisions based on the statement that we want to make artistically."
And if you look at the auteurs around today, they only seem to be grandfathered in from just sheer virtue of still standing 20 years or whatever. I guess Kojima is usually the name that is thrown out, and there certainly are others, but the commonality among them is because they're still standing they have a lot more leeway.
So here's the thing. It's funny. Game development is a weird business. [Laughs.] It really, really is. And I'll use a personal example. I even hesitate to say this because there's this thing in game development. It's such a team effort that anything, at least for me personally, feels weird to say. So I'm putting all that in front of it to say that it's gonna sound egotistical and I hesitate to even say it for that reason, but I don't consider it egotistical. Somebody in the process of talking to me about something else today, not at work, someone who pinged me very similarly to the way you pinged me for doing this interview, said, "I'm a big fan of your work." And my first response is, "How on earth is that even possible? How do you even know what I did?"
I think that's something fundamentally true about the game industry, because if I went up to, with the exception of some fairly famous designers and Kojima is obviously one of them, obviously -- there are a lot of us who have been around for 23 years or whatever. I know Brenda Romero is over 30 years now in game development. And yet the vast majority of players would not know either one of us. And we've both been design leads. It's not like we've been in minor roles in development. We've both been design leads for 20 years.
Were you surprised that I approached you for an interview?
I actually was. I actually was, honestly. I fly pretty under the radar, anyway. Part of that's intentional because a lot of game developers are not super-extroverted. But I think it's a weird place.
I think the other thing is it's a very passion-driven industry, and it continues to be so. More so than I think even film. Probably not more than comics, because comics has a different factor, but for games it's because it's such a challenging experience. I guess the best way to sum it up is I did a talk at GDC last year for #1reasontobe, and part of that talk is me saying to everybody in the audience that I can probably pretty much guarantee that everybody here is a game developer because it's what you believe you need to do. It's who you are. It's a fundamental part of who you are. And the reason I would say that about everybody here is because otherwise why would we put up with so much bullshit to do this for a living?
As I was saying that, I was showing headlines of game companies closing and layoffs and crunch and all of the things that go with doing this for a living. I've relocated, I don't know, 15 times probably? And certainly certain areas are worse than others. Consoles are one of the worst for churn and layoffs and relocations and long hours and all that. I think the very nature of that means fewer survivors of 20 years and up. I think some people just have the good sense to stop at some point and say there's gotta be an easier way to make a living than what I'm doing.
I think comics are similar, because for comics, it's money. Comic artists and writers are paid so terribly. Holy shit. They must love that job. They keep doing it, right? Except for at the very top.
Everyone I know who has quit games tells me they're much happier now.
Yes, I have friends who tell me that, too. Absolutely. And I'm not going to go into this more, right now, but what I will say on the record is that [in] the last six months I have seen more women talk about quitting game development than I did the last 22 and a half years before that.
So why do we put up with this? It's very clear what this line of conversation is going to get us talking about, but why should any of us stay? Not that you need to speak for everybody, but outside of a handful of writers with full-time jobs and benefits, we're also just doing ostensibly for the passion as well.
Obviously I can only speak for myself. I don't really blame the people who do leave for whatever reason they leave. Family or whatever. So I don't blame anybody under any circumstances who chooses who chooses an easier road. But I think, for me personally, it's because I literally can't imagine doing anything else. And I hear people say a lot of times in response that they don't know what else they would do, and they don't believe they have skills for anything else. I actually do have skills for other stuff. I totally know I do because I came to games after doing a bunch of other stuff. I have a law degree. I did a whole bunch of other stuff before I started finally doing what I really wanted to do, which was game development. And I know I could walk out of the job I'm in and do something that's non-game related and probably work less and make more. But I literally live to make games. It's who I am. It's a fundamental part of my DNA to the extent that three times a year I am incredibly happy when Ludum Dare comes around. I discovered it, I guess, three Ludum Dares ago. I really live for that. I'm doing Train Jam this year for the same reason. I've just had a renaissance of making games by myself. Which is kind of the answer to those large teams in some ways, but I think the trials of the industry over the years -- I don't even want to say weed out, because that sounds like they shouldn't be here. The trials of the industry over the years wear down some really, really talented people into making them leave. And certainly the trials of the last six months have worn down some really, really talented women and made them leave. It's all about accumulation, and I think the same thing's true for games, honestly. So I said in the past that a certain failing in metrics and in A/B testing in particular is that it looks at specific events and it says, "What does this event do?"
And sometimes they are concerned about making players happy, not just about money. But they'll say, "Hey, we changed this system, what did players say?" It's a very short-term way of looking at a live game. Because a live game, like a large team, is a large organism, and that organism accumulates data and has a history to it. So every time you do something that makes players unhappy, you are accumulating chips that someday that player is going to cash in and leave. So it's not like, "Oh, he was okay with this change and he was okay with this change, and he'll just be okay with it forever." At some point you're gonna hit a point where he's like, "No, every one of these has been making me a little more mad and I'm just done with you." I don't think metrics are good at tracking, right now, looking at players more holistically and over a longer term. So I would say similarly that game development is doing the same thing to a lot of people who work in it.
Over the last few E3s, I've noticed a bigger pause after each trailer shown before the polite round of applause that eventually erupts into the more enthused applause. I've just noticed that year to year. I don't think it's really discussed much, but there's also a fatigue on the press from that sameness, and folks on my side also just cash in their chips or just mentally check out and keep writing about the same things in the same ways.
This is why I think it's a pivotal period in game culture right now, because you have the rise of the indies at the same time as you have probably one of the deepest cases of sequelitis that we've had in games for a while. It's reached the point where certain franchises are alternating teams, sometimes even having three teams, going simultaneously on different iterations of sequels for a franchise. And you used to only see that in things like Madden and the sports games that had a yearly update. And I'm not saying there's anything bad with that, because there are TV shows I watch for nine years and love it for nine years. Some longer than that. And I have no problem with releasing -- in fact, I have been on the other side of the complaints sometimes and said, "It's kinda dumb that they don't put out this game series that I love more often, why don't they put two teams on it and alternate?"
So I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. If you can continue to innovate with your game and players continue to be happy with it and enjoy it and they have the same feeling about it that I would have about some of my favorite games more often, then by all means, forge ahead. But it's an interesting climate because I think there's two ways to look at games: You can look at games as entertainment or you can look at games as technology. And when you look at games as entertainment, that sequelitis is great fan service, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. But I think a lot of people who make games and talk about games and write about games really love games as technology, and when you look at them as technology, it's easy to look at something like the last Wolfenstein game. The recent one.
"It's not a good game because it didn't innovate anything." What if it was a great game? If you love shooters, it was fantastic. Especially if you love straightforward, old-fashioned shooters that don't feel the need to pile a whole bunch of new mechanics on it, right? You can see people sort of divide over it. The people are like, "No, man, this game is so much fun! I had such a blast." And people who are like, "It doesn't innovate. Three stars." I think that says a lot about the divide in games as a whole right now. Some people believe we have to keep pushing forward all the time, and some people believe it's okay to make the equivalent of another romantic comedy. Not that we have those. Thanks games! Or the equivalent of another Terminator movie or another Die Hard. [Laughs.]
What do you think is the closest we've ever come to a romcom in games?
Oh God. Probably Hatoful Boyfriend, really. We really haven't. There's some great moments in Dragon Age: Inquisition-- some humor about sex that's really funny. But, yeah, we just don't yet. And I've bitched about that a lot in the past, that you see great directors like Spielberg go from Catch Me If You Can to Schindler's List to Indiana Jones, but God forbid a game designer. Because if a game designer, especially a lead, and I say this from personal experience, ever works on a kids game or a game for women, you are fucking doomed.
It is really hard to come back from that because two reasons, honestly. There's an understandable desire to only want to hire people who have direct experience in the genre being made. So I have the great advantage of while I have worked on games for women and kids, I worked on hardcore console games before that. So I have some cred to fall back on that I think worked with my return to core. But then at the same time --
Who's doing this hiring that you're talking about?
The HR for major companies.
What type of companies? You're talking about developers?
Developers, for sure. My experience is not publisher side at all. But then, I think the other thing that's going on, though, is that everyone in the industry knows, even though we don't often talk about it, that games for women and games for kids always get the B team and the lower budget. So there's an assumption that if you were on that team, you were not on the A team.
Who's making that decision?
I don't think anybody is talking about that decision. It's a part of why -- it's kind of a sore point for me, for lack of a better term.
I'm not trying to agitate a sore point.
Oh, no. It's fine.
I'm just trying to illuminate my own ignorance on how these things actually come together and work, because on the press side, games are so weird. It's such a weird business. We have such restricted access to the people making these things. In a way, it is a very unique medium because there is no other medium where it's like, "Yeah, press, come on in and check out this thing that's no where near done and hopefully it won't break because we have to worry about whether you understand that things might change or just because we're having problems with it now, we might not be having problems with it later."
That's something that I've been talking about a lot lately. So I think that's a really, really interesting area of discussion. Especially when you think about things like Early Access. I was just having a discussion about that on Twitter the other day on, "Is it good? Is it bad?" Because the problem is it's really challenging, even under the absolute best circumstances to explain to a player why this feature he really loves is being cut or being changed. Even if it's for a reason that is totally understandable, there is gonna be some player that thought the old broken way is better.
When you're talking about players here, are you talking about media visiting or --
Both. Both, honestly.
Because they're kinda the same.
Yeah. The thing that you absolutely really can't explain well to players or to media is "we had to cut this for money."
Do you have an example? Or can you not get into specifics?
Yeah, I can't get into specifics.
So, that's fine, but can you explain why you can't get into specifics?
Just in general, and you can see this if you follow me on Twitter: I have a very firm policy of not discussing anything that could be perceived as negative about people or places I've worked with in the past. So the closest I will ever come to this is telling completely anonymous stories if I have to about certain situations that need illustration. In this case, there are tons of things I've had to cut for money over the years. Plenty of times. Absolutely. I haven't ever really had to do that in front of players who weren't expecting it. Or in front of press who had a whole bunch of information about the game. Because the last time I had to do a big cut like that, the press was not that involved before the game shipped and players never saw it. It wasn't in Early Access.
So I've never been in that situation, and that's why knowing the types of cuts and the reasons we have to make cuts, it's what's made me follow Early Access with such interest, because I know exactly the sorts of things you have to cut. And the kinds of changes you have to make. I've had to be a part of communicating and handling those changes on a live game before, and really, Early Access is just turning your normal game into a live game, effectively. In terms of community management it's the same thing. So I'm just watching with some amount of horrified fascination.
It's incredibly polarizing among devs I talk to, just the way it can allow things to just creep. In terms of, "Why isn't this done yet? Why are they focusing on this instead of that?" I think it's a thing people are increasingly comfortable with in a post-Double Fine Kickstarter age, but it's weird because in many ways the end consumer now is getting access to games on a comparable scale that would be unthinkable to the media pre-Steam gaining legitimacy. It's really interesting.
See, that's the thing. The thing is my experience with live games is that players absolutely can give correct feedback and players can absolutely have great ideas.
But players can also give terrible feedback, because it's their perception of it. And one thing I always say when I'm talking to other developers about that conundrum is that if, for example, the sword of doom is overpowered. And you look at the stats. A, you have an obligation to listen and still look at the stats. I mean, please, go look at your metrics and see if that's true. If it's not true, your work is not done, because the player still has the perception that it's overpowered. And a lot of things can contribute to that perception. And the perception is as much of a problem as if it is really overpowered. You're not off the hook.
I think the same is true here, where when a player has an idea, even if it's a bad idea, he has some amount of investment in that idea, and there's a reason for what he wants. So I guess to that extent, players are a lot like execs because execs a lot of time will give you feedback and sometimes even mandates. It's easy as a creative person to get your back up and say, "Who is he to tell me that I need to change the sword of doom?"
That's just an amazing sentence, I'd like to point out.
[Laughs.] I sense a tagline. So, if you can get over yourself for a minute and get over your ego and put all that aside and actually be objective for a minute, even if the sword of doom is just fine, there's a reason he's saying this to you. There's something missing and something lacking. There's something that item is not conveying. The problem of Early Access is that's the process of design in a nutshell: You make something and you get feedback for it and you evaluate that feedback in the context of a game and then you either make a change or you don't. And the change that you make, if you choose to make a change, might be to fix the actual properties of something or it might be to change the perception of something. And it's a complex situation with every single change, and if you have designed a game well, all your parts are interwoven into a working machine. So it's not like changing just the sword of doom doesn't mean you have to think about everything that changes.
It might change a lot of things, it might not. But you have to go through that analysis. It's a complex process. So, the problem is: If you have a player in Early Access who gets super-attached to something you have to change, it's challenging to explain in a way that makes sense to someone outside of the scenario why you have to change it. There may be reasons that are honestly difficult to explain to a player because players, I think, to a large extent don't really want to view games as a business. Fundamentally. You can see it in the people who bitch about the Monument Valley expansion being 99 cents or whatever the price was. You can see it in the people who are like, "That app's $1.99, I won't buy that!" And then they'll go buy a $4 latte at Starbucks and drink it in five minutes.
Well, that latte was a rewarding experience.
[Laughs.] It's this mentality of -- and honestly, to be actually blunt, you can trace it back to the uproar over that guy's article over game developers being paid too much. David Jaffe stepped in it accidentally when he was talking on Twitter about if we value game journalists, why don't we pay them the way we pay developers and throw down a salary of something like $100,000 and people just lost their minds about why would game developers be paid that much. Well, I tell you what: An engineer in game development who is paid $100,000 would probably be making $180,000 if he were outside of game development.
I'm not trying to defend our salaries or anything else, it's just that ultimately this is a business. Outside of indie games. The auteurs. Outside the auteurs, this is a business. We very much want to make great games, but we also have to keep people employed and pay salaries and pay insurance and pay rent. All of the things that you have pay. And I think that all of the context of all of the things that come together to make this bit of entertainment that the player is experiencing get lost when you tell him, "Hey, we're cutting player housing from launch because it's too expensive." In my experience, they handle that information poorly.
Do you really owe an explanation, though?
I think in Early Access, you do. Especially if they bought your game on the list of features. That's the trick of Early Access. And this is where, once again, unfortunately, my legal hat comes on. I can't help looking at things as a lawyer sometimes, and as a lawyer, I'm like, "Hmm." I don't practice at all. And this is no way legal advice or any kind of legal statement, but personally I look at that and I'm like, "Hmm." Because did they make the purchase on the promise of features? I don't know. It's awkward and difficult.
The thing is a lot of times, cutting things is the absolute best thing for the game because for every extra feature that you add, you are dividing the attention of this organism. And now you have an organism that is trying to have eight little pseudopods doing things instead of six little pseudopods doing things. And if it were six little pseudopods, the organism's gonna gather more food.
Wait, you just reminded me of something. Late last year there was a thing where Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was replaced on Steam with a mobile version of the game. They updated it, but it actually was a downgrade. Do you remember reading about that?
Is that illegal? Isn't that the same kind of bait and switch thing you're talking about where customers bought thing X and then it becomes a different product than what they signed up for? I tried to pitch pieces around on this and couldn't get anyone to take it. I was just curious.
Legal or illegal, I honestly don't know. But I've seen that come up before, where certain things are released, whether it's a game or a book or whatever, and it's bundled or titles changed, or cover art has changed, and people buy it thinking it's something else. So I would say on a general level, when you're providing a product to consumers, you have to be clear if the content is fundamentally identical to another project that you have on the market. If they didn't do that, then, yeah, I think that was a PR mistake on their part.
We just touched on a lot of different topics, but something I'd be curious to have you clarify on is what you were mentioning before about the hierarchy of different people looking at a game. What are the mechanisms through that hierarchy? What are they actually looking at? Is it like a movie where there's dailies? Are they getting a build of the game and playing it through? How does that work?
So I think it depends on the team and the company. Sadly, I have heard of circumstances in the industry where the lead designer or creative director for a game did not play it very often. Which is probably one of the most messed-up things I've ever heard, and unimaginable to me.
What generation does that --
Oh, I actually hear that probably once every three or four years. And that's just unimaginable to me. If you're the design lead, how can you not know your own game inside and out.
This wasn't a thing that tended to happen on one console over the other?
Oh, no, I'm talking about the whole game. I'm not talking about just one version. I mean the whole game. It's amazing. Amazing. Outside of strange things like that, what I would say is frequency of play is reduced as you go up the chain. So, everyone on the team is probably seeing at least definitely seeing their part of the game every day. Probably seeing their game and integrating it into some larger element, like playing through a level or a section of the game at least every week. On games at The Workshop, for example, we have daily play tests for the games that we work on. But we're just looking at a section of it. We can't look at the whole game everyday. We'd never get anything done. [Laughs.]
And then as you move up the chain, higher ups at the company not directly on the team or leaders of a team if it's a really large team, like I would imagine Destiny or Free Realms probably see bits and pieces here and there, but see major things towards the end of each month or in the middle of the month. Around monthly milestones. The publisher definitely looks at monthly milestones, unless you have a really close relationship with them. And then execs higher up in the publisher and marketing groups and stuff like that typically see it every quarter.
I don't even want to run that through a rubric of whether that's good or bad.
But in your opinion, do you think it should be more frequent?
No. Oh God no. So here's a fundamental problem that we have in game development as a whole, especially in design, that it affects the whole team: Which is the problem where you're not allowed to finish your thought. For almost every department, that thing you just did is not awesome the minute after you did it. A lot of times it takes some work to make it awesome. One of the hardest skills to develop as an individual, a career growth thing, is enough objectivity to look at your own thing until it's not good, and it's never gonna be good, and you need to just throw it away. That can be really hard to do, especially if you did invested work in it. But a problem that we often, especially in design, is that you need to work with something through the phase of it not being awesome for a little while. And if someone interrupts you in the middle of it not being awesome to either tell you all the things that aren't awesome that you already know, or, even worse, to go ahead and cut it when you just haven't had time to do anything with it -- it's not good for you, it's not good for the game, it's not good for anybody. Because a lot of times second-guessing things constantly in game development leads to a very crappy game, and you'd be better off just following an idea through and just polishing it than you would be continually discarding things and trying something new.
So, these problems are exacerbated as you go higher up the food chain where if you had, for example, publishing execs looking at half-done work, they may not want to follow through with something that, given three more weeks or another month, is gonna be awesome. And a lot of times, and I'm generalizing here, it depends on the execs. Some execs came out of development and absolutely understand what they're looking at. Some execs didn't, and that's fine. I think a lot of times game development would benefit from having people who didn't grow up in our incestuous little world that we have, and can bring some objectivity and understanding of consumers to us. I think that's awesome. But what that means is they may not really be able to look a half-done system or a half-finished level and envision how it's gonna turn out. I think that can really hamper things.
I think the same thing, honestly, is true of players in Early Access, and honestly the same thing can be true of press. Game development spends a whole bunch of time taking things that we're never gonna use in the final game to a polished state just to show the press.
But they don't know that, right?
The press doesn't know that.
Yeah. We don't know that.
Of course not.
But it leads to some of the disconnects when they're like, "Hey, I saw this level at GDC and it was never in the game." "Yeah, because we made it for you. [Laughs.] Right? Or because we cut it or whatever. Things change. We spend a lot of time building things for demos. If you're a AAA studio, you spend a lot of time making things for demos.
I was gonna ask you before, because you said the business is weird, what you thought was weird about it. This sounds pretty fucking weird to me.
It is. It absolutely is weird.
Because you're talking about gigantic teams now just spending that amount of effort on a thing just for pageantry, really. It's vestigial pageantry.
Well, so here's the thing, as much as I say it's weird, and it really is weird. It is. It's also beneficial because when you have a large team, or a small team, or any size team working on a game, the worst thing that can happen for that team is to go months and months and months and never see anything final quality that you're proud of and makes you believe in this thing you're building. And while E3 demos and Gamescom demos and all of those can be a colossal pain in the ass for the team, when they come along, they also mean the team rallies together around something that everyone believes in and can see. Even on the team itself, outside of different disciplines, it's sometimes hard to understand how everything's going to come together and hard to look at other discipline's work and go from what you're looking at to the final version in your head. And these demos provide an opportunity for even the team itself to do that. I'm not saying they're all bad, but certainly they are distracting and were it possible, it would be better for the team to bring actual content to final and not just special content for the show.
But I think, too, this is the disconnect that both our sides of the aisle to a disservice to the end consumer, the person ostensibly all this effort your side of the aisle and my side of the aisle do all our work for. I was just saying it was weird, and you were saying it was weird, but this is kind of about the pageantry. Games are not about playing them and blowing through them. It's about experiencing them, and that pageantry is kind of important, but maybe we're both so close to it that on first brush it does seem weird. But I wonder if a regular civilian reading this, if that makes slightly more sense to them: "Well, yeah, of course they need to crunch on having something to show at E3, so that way writers..."
But that's the thing, too, even writers are being marginalized with the rise of Twitch with the inevitable march of progress, to the point where game devs just push their stuff directly to the end user. I don't want to get too tilting at windmills with predictions here, but do you think that's gonna continue to be an important part of major-game development? Those pushes for those pageants, if you will?
I think absolutely. For sure. It may take up the form of trailers rather than playable, because that's the E3 secret, right? I guess it's not so much of a secret anymore. I think the secret's out. When you walk by for a demo on the floor of E3 and someone plays it for you, obviously it's a house of cards. You couldn't, for example, put that in front of a Twitch streamer and just let them go. Oh my God. That's where I think it'll turn to videos and trailers of gameplay being released or someone who actually knows the safe path through the level, playing it and capturing it. Streamed by somebody on the team. And there's nothing wrong with the house of cards. Sometimes that's what you gotta do to have something playable.
I know that every game team that is building something special for GDC or E3 any show absolutely wants to build something that shows off the best of the game that they're building and absolutely wants to show off what the player is going to experience. The game may change in between that show and when it's actually shipped. I have never ever been a part of a game team that said, "Hey, we're gonna do this for E3 and we absolutely know we could never ship this in the real game." I personally have never experienced that. I've seen people accuse game developers of that, and I've never been a part of that in all my years. The intent is always there to accurately represent the game itself on the hardware that's actually going to run. At least from the team's perspective.
What are your games media consumption habits like? Do you pay attention to the games media?
Absolutely. I have feedly, that I use for RSS feeds.
How voracious are you with it?
It depends on how busy my day is. There's some sites that I cover pretty thoroughly, and I don't mind naming sites. Like Rock Paper Shotgun, I like their content a lot. But it's also, to be honest, because they are very selective in what they cover. I don't mean that in the sense of I align with their views, but I mean that in the sense that I come back after being in meetings all day and I've got 24 stories from Rock Paper Shotgun. I'm like, "I can do this."
And I sit down and I look at the headline and the blurb and I know what's going on and then I read some of them. But I come back to Kotaku, which I also read, and I've got, like, 89 stories. And I'm like, "How could I possibly?" I tend to read more thoroughly the sites that have fewer updates, although I guess I will say. I will say I follow a lot of them on Twitter, as well, so I do see the stories go by in my feed and will often follow up. So at least if I see the headlines, I know something's going on, and will follow up on the ones that are interesting later. But I'm a pretty voracious consumer of games media.
What trends do you notice in what the games media does cover or does not cover?
I think we're again in a funny spot because you want to write -- games media wants to write for the people who are going to read it. I don't even mean that from the mercenary sense of generating revenue. No one wants to write an article about great sci-fi movies and put it up on a site for people who like procedural crime dramas. You write it and one person reads it and everyone else is like, "What is this thing?" And you're like, "Ugh, this is so depressing. Why am I doing this?"
We don't get coverage, really, of games that aren't for mainstream gamers. Really. And I include indie games in that. And by mainstream, I mean men and women between 16 and 40. When I say women, I largely mean core gaming women. Because, like, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood got some press. But you don't see a lot of the press for the majority of really casual -- like Big Fish's hidden-object games aren't getting any press on Kotaku. So I understand that those sites are writing for the audience that they have, and that's cool, but it leaves this big void, honestly, from the development side if you're working on a game that's not for mainstream audiences. You kinda don't get reviews and you don't get press and you kinda put it out there, and unless you happen to see a kid playing it at a show or something, you're just kinda in the void of, "Yeah, I made that thing, I hope people like it." [Laughs.] And that's it. And chances are if any mainstream press reviews it, you get an automatic 1 or 2 full points off for being a kids' game. Just up front. I was super-proud of the Metacritic score for Free Realms, which for the year after launch I guess was sitting at 80. I was like, "Holy shit, for a kids' game, that is phenomenal."
So, yeah, I think there are some gaps. And I don't necessarily think it's something we can or should fix because the sites need to write for the audience that exists. I think people should start new sites with reviews of kids' games and games for women. I bet if there were a site started that had great, really robust reviews of hidden-object games, they could probably have a lot of people come read it. But it just doesn't exist because most of the people who are passionate about games and writing about games don't give a flying shit about hidden-object games. [Laughs.] So it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.
Yeah, well, it never broadens if you keep writing for the audience that you have. You'll just keep having the audience that you have.
Well, yeah, and I understand that, though. To be honest, I feel the same way about the games that I make. I'm trying to pull an example that we're not making at all. If I were doing a space-combat flight sim, like X-Wing, to be honest, I'm not gonna give a crap about hidden-object game players. That's not my market. And there probably are some people out there that love hidden-object games and love X-Wing or the game TIE Fighter. And that's cool, that's awesome, and I love those people. But there's a whole bunch of people who don't. We target in the same way as journalism targets.
I'm saying all of this, obviously, without any statement as to gender. Because there are men who love hidden-object games, there are women who love flight simulators. So I'm using hidden-object games not as some sort of strange shorthand for gender, but as a separate type of game that has hardcore fans that are all about it.
In 2010, I wrote a review of the Murder, She Wrote hidden object game, I think that was actually right before my first GDC. I was excited. It was a good review. But coming to GDC, and meeting other games writers for the first time who I had read online, a lot of them scoffed or laughed. They didn't understand why I took that game seriously on its own merits. That was sort of my first entrance into the games world and meeting other games writers.
I have my own reasons for feeling like this is a weird business. I just never felt like I found my tribe of other writers. I do stuff for Kill Screen now, I do things here and there. But it's a world that I think wants to be narrow.
It is. I will never forget my first GDC I ever went to. It was probably three years after Myst first launched. We launched Mac and then it was a few years later before it came out for Windows. And when it came out for Windows is when it exploded.
So it was the year after it exploded, and it was still huge. Unbelievably huge. I can't remember how many million. I think it was two million or three million. Which was just mind-boggling at the time. So I went to GDC, and so many talks, actual lectures, bitched about Myst and how it wasn't a real game. I was just thinking to myself the whole time I'm there, A, I love Myst anyways. It's part of why I started making games. But B, I was just like, "You gotta be kidding me. They win!" They just won. It was two million in sales. Which in 1995 or whatever, when the Windows version came out, was just unbelievable. I mean, absolutely phenomenally unbelievable. Nothing was selling even close to that at that point. That was the point when selling 300,000 or 400,000 was a huge success. I mean it was just mind-numbing.
And then the next year, I went to GDC. It was all about how much Deer Hunter sucked and it was a terrible game. [Laughs.] And they had just had millions of copies sold. At that point I was like, "Okay, so, I love Myst. Not really into Deer Hunter. But what the heck is wrong here?" Instead of us saying, "Well, those teams did something smart," we wanted to just dismiss those games because they weren't games that we were personally into. I mean, I was into Myst, so I'm speaking as an example here. It kinda changed something in me where over the years I actually did a GDC talk, even, one of my favorite GDC talks I ever gave was called "Get Over Yourself." It's about stopping this tendency we have in game development -- I think it's true in journalism as well -- to think about a game in terms of, "Is it for me?" Instead, thinking about a game as "is it a good game for the people for whom it is intended?"
It's not about whether this kids' game or Deer Hunter is for me. Would I play Deer Hunter? No. Absolutely not. If I were working on a Deer Hunter game, it'd be the best Deer Hunter game it could be. Because I would get inside the heads of the people who absolutely want to hunt deer and give them a great experience. And I think that's kind of endemic in game development and in games journalism. It's why I sometimes call this an incestuous business. And it's not just because we all know each other, because we do, to a large extent. But it's also because we all feed on each other. It's almost cannibalistic in a way. I think in that, great ideas just get left by the wayside because they're not something that appeal to us. One thing that I always work on when I'm working on a really mass market game is take my design team and ask them what shows are [they] watching on TV and write it on the white board and ask them to rank those. We end up with a rank and then I say, "Well, okay, here's the actual top 10 TV shows." It's like Dancing with the Stars, right? And this stuff that we just never would watch, but it's to remind the designers and developers working with me that we're not normal people.
Because we're not normal people, we tend to assume everyone likes the same thing we do. We're just floored when people don't like sci-fi games or fantasy games. We can't imagine it. "How can they not like this?" There's a reason real-world military games are so popular, and it's not because the people playing them are militaristic assholes at all. It's because they're normal people. They're not like us, and that's okay. I want to do more to understand what other people like. I'm kind of bored with what I like.
It's like somebody who said, "Why would I want to date myself? I see myself all the time." It's something like that. I'm interested in doing things -- I would love to make games for people who don't have great games right now because people don't take the time to understand what they would really love to experience.
Who does it hurt, or help, if much bigger games don't try to actively change?
So here's the thing. I don't think it hurts anyone, honestly. I don't think it hurts anyone in the fan base who loves that game. Absolutely. It's just like me and my 9 seasons of X-Files. And I see nothing wrong with that. And in fact sometimes I think it's unfair, like I was saying, with the example of Wolfenstein to score a game poorly from a critical perspective just because it doesn't innovate in technology or systems. If it's a good game. That's not fair. That's like digging a football game because the rules didn't change. I mean, come on.
So, that being said. I think that the only problem with sequelitis is that I think it sucks up a lot of design talent and development talent because the games that are producing all of the sequels are some of the large behemoth teams of hundreds of people. What that means is hundreds of game developers have a job, which is fantastic. But what it also means is a hundred game developers are all working on something that's kind of derivative. So, I absolutely believe those sequels should exist as long as people want to buy them. I think in many ways it's similar to being on the live team of a game that's been around as long as World of Warcraft or Everquest. And there are players who love them and I absolutely think it's awesome that people continue to make content for those players. The only time that becomes a problem is when either the people making those games or the people buying those games start to think those are the only games that matter. When, in fact, I would bet a lot of the people on the teams making the games are fascinated by the indie scene, for example. And are taking away a lot of the learnings from the small, scrappy studios who are experimenting, and have the freedom to experiment. I think that we're so saturated now with games, though, when you look at -- an easy example is the App Store. We're so inundated with games, that it can be difficult for something that isn't a sequel to get any kind of meaningful attention. Even when it has a big budget behind it.
So I think ultimately the answer is not going to be in not having sequel games or in continuing to crap on them, which as I said is not necessarily right, but I think the answer is in better curated spaces so that consumers are able to hone in on the exact kind of content that interests them. So that somebody who doesn't really give a shit about iteration 15 of this modern-day military game can just say, "I don't care about this. I care about hidden-object games. I care about platformers." I care about this thing. And actually be able to access information about that in some sort of meaningful way as well as the game itself. Because right now it's really hard. Even in media. Because the vast, I'll use Kotaku as an example, and Polygon would be another good example. I like both of those sites, but the sheer amount of things that they cover is just overwhelming. So if you only give a crap about a quarter of what they're talking about, it's even hard to find that quarter among all of the games that they're talking about.
I think across the board, both in the storefronts and in the media, some sort of better curation and better ability for consumers to find what they're interested in without either the consumers or the people providing the content shitting on the people who don't want the mainstream. [Laughs.] That's the conundrum we find now, which is for people who are not interested in the mainstream, it's either hard to find that content and you always feel like you're getting shit on all the time for liking whatever it is you like that isn't iteration 13 of the modern military game.
What's sad about that, too, is I don't even know which series you're actually referring to there.
Yeah, yeah. And I say this as someone who plays a lot of those games. I'm a core mainstream gamer myself.
I've reviewed some of them, too. there should be room at the table, there should be room for everyone at the table.
Absolutely. And to me that's the bottom line. Right now, there is room for everybody at the table, but unfortunately all the food is in a big pile and you can't find the thing that you want to eat, and by the way you may be sitting next to somebody nice, or you may be sitting next to an elitist asshole. There's no way to know right when you sit down at the table what your experience is going to be.