Issue 3 â€˘ Fall 2010 gamesauce.org
e c u a S e m Ga l a i t n e d i Conf
terview with In n A . e r a W io yka 15 years of B k & Ray Muz u h c s e Z g re G Co-Founders
The Long and Winding Road
10 Myths about Working in Japan
Taking Games from Digital to Retail
Rethink What You Think You Know
Blast from the Past Spider-Man 2: Pushing Through Something New
A note from the editor
nce more unto the breach gentle reader! Another issue of Gamesauce graces your eyes! So the Gamesauce Conference! A rousing day of sessions from such diverse developers as Bungie, Infinity Ward, EA, Runic, Robot Entertainment and more! (Name dropper! And can we possibly get some more exclamation marks in here? Ah, a question mark. Better.) The Conference also featured sessions from luminaries such as John Romero, Brenda Braithwaite and Laralyn McWilliams (the subject of our 10 questions article in this very issue!). Next year’s conference, in sunny Seattle, is already on the drawing board and we want to hear from YOU, dear reader. Ideas for what you’d like to see sessions cover, actual proposals for sessions, let us know what you want to see. Drop a line to email@example.com and she’ll let you know what the next stages are. We need to know what you want to hear about since the major thrust of the Gamesauce conference is By Developers For Developers. It’s not about students, or press, it’s about people who are in the trenches actually doing things, sharing that with the rest of us. So sit back, relax and enjoy another issue of Gamesauce Magazine. Spend an extra 10 minutes on the porcelain throne absorbing one of our many articles, and then pass on the experience to your co-workers. The article I mean, not the extra 10 minutes on the WC—that would be gross. Enjoy! Jake Simpson, Editor in Chief, firstname.lastname@example.org
Gamesauce.org is all about putting the people of our industry out front. We leave the business talk, sales numbers and analytics to others. We want to be the voice of the coder, the developer, the marketer, the all-nighterpulling crunch-guy. We want to help others get to know you—what drives you, what makes you successful at your job, what (besides caffeine) keeps you going hour after hour, year after year. Most of all, we want to tell your story. We want to hear your anecdotes and wisdom, your lessons learned and secret tricks, and we want to share those tales with other. What’s your story? Share it through Gamesauce.org. Submit your ideas to email@example.com.
issue 2 • spring 2010
Issue 3 | Fall 2010
36 Gamesauce Confidential An Interview with Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, Co-founders of BioWare
2 4 7
Let ter from the editor Postcards from a Studio Team 17 Blast from the Past Spider-Man 2: Pushing Through Something New by Jamie Fristrom 15 10 Questions A Conversation with Laralyn McWilliams 20 Industrial Depression Bonus Schemes 72 The Aha Moment with Will Kerslake
24 10 Myths About Working in Japan Rethink What You Think You Know by James Kay 32 Let ting Go On Designing Games with Dynamic, Non-linear Game-play by Harvey Smith & Raphael Colantonio 48 The Long and Winding Road Taking Games from Digital to Retail by Dawn McKenzie & Kate Freeman 52 The Life of a Booth Babe Reflections by One Who Knows by Yvonna Lynn 58 Why Are Sound Guys So Grumpy? Don’t Get Me Started… by David Chan 66 Extrasensory, Extravagant, Exhausting The Pomp and Pageantry of E3 by Jon Jones
MISSION STATEMENT Gamesauce is for those who have already discovered the great secret about making games: it’s fun, it’s cool and you get paid to do it. In publishing this magazine, we make the following promises: • G amesauce will be fun and cool—just like making games. • We will give you a 30,000-foot view of the gaming industry so you can see where it’s going as clearly as you can see where it’s been. • We will give you the good, the bad, and the ugly of the game industry, leaving you free to form and express your own opinions. • We will not merely be interesting; we will be provocative. We will not shy away from asking the awkward question or printing the controversial answer. • We will not spend our pages giving away source code for particle systems, but we will give you the history of them. Or we would if that wasn’t quite so boring. • We will never take ourselves too seriously. Seriously.
gamesauce • Fall 2010 1
Letter from the Publisher
ow. Can you believe the year is almost over? It seems like only yesterday we were tearing the shrink-wrap off the latest Call of Duty. But when I think about how fast our industry has changed over the last 30 years, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that one of those 30 years has vanished more quickly than a burrowing zergling. Ah, the passing years. When I was a clueless young coder, my boss always used to hammer on us about passion. “Always be passionate about what you do, that is the most important,” he would say. His point was that even if you’re coding up the UI or you’ve been appointed the Art Director of Rocks and Dirt, your efforts will be reflected in the final product. And regardless of whether you create Flash games for kids or console games for the frothing fringe, whatever you’re doing is worth doing well. (I think
Publisher Jessica Tams Editor in Chief Jake Simpson Editor, Gamesauce Magazine Peter Watkins Copy Editors Tennille Forsberg, Catherine Quinton
Contributors David Chan, Raphael Colantonio, Kate Freeman, Jamie Fristrom, Jon Jones, James Kay, Will Kerslake, Yvonna Lynn, Dawn McKenzie, Harvey Smith Editor, Gamesauce.org Vlad Micu Special thanks to the Hub Bay Area
Creative Director Gaurav Mathur Art Director/Designer Shirin Ardakani Contributing Illustrator Crystal Silva Comic Artist Shaun Bryant Comic Writer Ed Kuehnel
2 gamesauce • Fall 2010
Contact Us Address Changes or Removal: Tennille Forsberg, firstname.lastname@example.org Magazine Article Submissions: Jake Simpson, email@example.com Gamesauce.org Submissions Vlad Micu, firstname.lastname@example.org Publisher: Jessica Tams, email@example.com
my Dad is the one who used to say that, but then again, don’t all dads say that?) My point is not to get all paternal on you (which would be no small feat considering I just had a baby), but rather to get you to pause and think about what you want to do. So let me ask you: What are you working on? What do you want to work on? Wanna relocate to Japan, maybe? Quit your job and start your own studio? Finally get a piece of one of the big franchises? If any of that sounds even mildly interesting, then read on. There’s something in this edition of Gamesauce for you. And lots of other really good stuff as well. As for me, my goals are simple: I want to become a booth babe. And the good news—especially for you members of the frothing fringe—is there’s an article about that in here as well.
Jessica Tams, publisher, firstname.lastname@example.org
Trademarks © 2010 Mastermind Studios LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part of this magazine is strictly prohibited. Gamesauce and the Gamesauce logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of Mastermind Studios LLC. All other product and company names mentioned herein may be trademarks of their respective owners. Disclosures Mastermind Studios LLC’s (“Mastermind”) Gamesauce (“Magazine”) is for informational purposes only. The Magazine contains current opinions which may change at any time; furthermore, Mastermind does not warrant or guarantee statements made by authors of articles in the Magazine. While the information included in the Magazine is derived from reliable sources, the reader is responsible for verification of information enclosed in this Magazine and Mastermind does not guarantee or warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information.
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Kate Freeman & Dawn McKenzie
Kate and Dawn oversee the sales and marketing teams at MumboJumbo, LLC. Kate has three amazing boys and some of the best retail relationships in the industry. Dawn loves frozen yogurt, the creative process and market statistics. Kate can be reached at email@example.com; likewise, you can drop Dawn a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave has always had an interest in computers and audio. While in the systems department at BioWare, he was offered a chance to make placeholder sounds for MDK2. They liked the sounds so much, they asked him to do the whole game. The rest, as they say, is history. Since 1999 he’s worked on over 20 titles. He has been an active member in the Game Audio Network Guild since its launch and is a co-chair of the GANG Voice Acting Coalition. He has spoken at the GDC and is on an AIAS panel selecting licensed music for the Interactive Achievement Awards. Currently he works in serious games at 3DI in Canada.
Jon has spoken at Casual Connect Seattle and Europe, the Montreal International Games Summit, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Game Developer’s Exchange conference among others. He’s been making games professionally for nine years and involved in the video game art community for fourteen. He recently managed outsourced art teams for MMO projects at 2K Games and NCsoft. He has run his own outsourcing consultancy, but not long ago joined Vigil Games as Outsourcing Art Director. Jon is recognized by many as an expert on the subject of outsourcing art, and can be contacted through his website at TheJonJones.com.
During his 19-year career in the industry Jamie has worked on games such as Magic Candle, Die By The Sword, Tony Hawk, and SpiderMan. He’s written for Gamasutra, Game Developer Magazine, and his own blog, gamedevblog.com. Currently, he’s a partner, technical director, and designer at Torpex Games, creators of the game Schizoid—“The Most Co-Op Game Ever”. He’s on the committee for the IGDA Leadership Forum. Jamie can be reached at email@example.com and his Xbox LIVE tag is “Jamie Fristrom”.
Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith
Game designers Raphael and Harvey have been making games professionally since 1993. Colantonio is the founder, CEO and Creative Director at Arkane, based in Lyon, France, with a second office in Austin. He is currently teamed up with Harvey Smith, co-directing an unannounced project. Smith has worked as lead designer at Ion Storm and studio creative director at Midway Games. He won the Game Design Challenge at GDC 2006 with his concept “Peace Bomb”. Both have spoken at numerous game conferences and are passionate about immersive, highly interactive games with simulation elements.
James has worked as a game artist for over a decade in both the UK and Japan. He cofounded Tokyo-based independent video game development company Score Studios LLC, score-studios.jp. For several years he was the inside voice reporting on Japanese game development under the pseudonym “JC Barnett” on the popular blog “Japanmanship” and has written for various video game magazines and websites. James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yvonna began modeling in France on a 3-month contract which somehow lasted 6 years. Combining a passion for video games with a career in modeling and acting, Yvonna built the Charisma+2 agency for talent who share her enthusiasm for gaming. Direct and agency gaming credits include: Bioshock 2, Starcraft 2, Rage, Borderlands, QuakeLive, Nickelodeon Fit, New Carnival, Nocturne, Dragonball Z, Doom 4.
Will is a Creative Director at Radar Group in San Jose, CA. He got his start programming training simulations for the local fire department and joined the professional gaming industry in 1998 as an artist at Atari Games. Since then he helped found Lightspeed Games and has held design positions at Maxis and EA. He has worked on everything from racing games, to action RPGs to openworld licensed properties. He can be found on Twitter and is jumping back into the blogging space at ndlabs.net. gamesauce • Fall 2010 3
Postcards from a Studio
Team 17 Name: Team 17 Location: West Yorkshire, England Year Founded: 1990 URL: www.team17.com Softography: Worms™, Alien Breed, Superfrog
eam 17—based in Osset, West Yorkshire in the UK—has been around a long time. A long, long time in video game developer terms: 20 years in fact, or 160 years in developer years according to the eight-game-years-equals-one-human-year scale we just invented. The teams came originally from a publishing group called 17-bit software, and once they got into making games themselves, Team 17 was born. Not that they’ve left their publishing legacy behind—with the advent of digital direct-tocustomer sales over the Internet, Team 17 is back in the publishing biz, starting to pick up and distribute games from other small indie outfits. As Creative Director Martyn Brown puts it: “We’ve been able to move back into self-publishing and liberate ourselves to work that way.” This is my first visit to Team 17’s offices, but Team 17 is a it is not my first encounter with Martyn Brown. Martyn is a blunt Yorkshireman: plainspoken, full original of humor, with a twinkle in his eye that indicates IP, licensed IP, and he’s not afraid to have a little fun at your expense (and that he expects you to return the favor). His recently, for cohorts, producers Mark Kilburn and John Denother indie studios. “Our nis, have that same twinkle, making it clear that these guys are merciless to each other—that any are all weakness is seized and exploited for full humor over the place, so it’s hard to potential. Before long, in fact, John launches into a story about being caught inadvertently without his define what we do because trousers at the office and never living it down. we’re doing Having been around so long, Martyn reminisces about being in business before the Internet was what it is today. “You’re talking about a time where the Internet was still six years away. There was no email when we started. Everything was phone calls, letters, disks through the post and modems. It’s easy for us to forget that’s how we started. You couldn’t even imagine running a business these days like that.” Team 17 has made a lot of games over the past 20 years. “We’ve probably done about 50 titles in those 20 years,” Martyn explains, “but most people they just think of one. Worms is about 30 to 40 percent of what we actually develop right now; that’s far and away the biggest hit, you know. We’ve probably sold 28 to 30 million in 15 years. It’s a lot of titles really.” It is a lot of titles—from Amiga games all the way up to Xbox 360, PS3, and Facebook games, with everything in between. They use their own technology for the most part, only using an external engine when absolutely necessary (as they did for the recent Alien Breed remake for Xbox LIVE Arcade). Team 17 fans will remember titles like Alien Breed, Phoenix, Assassin and licensed IP’s like Lemmings and Army Men. Martyn makes the point that Team 17 is a blend of many things: original IP, licensed IP, and recently, mentoring for other indie studios. “Our opportunities are all over the place, so it’s hard to define what we do because we’re doing so many different things. For example we did Lemmings on PSP two or three years ago, then we also did a PS3 version, so if it’s something we feel an affinity for.”
blend of many things: mentoring
so many different things.”
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These are the people who make Team 17 games. Note the one female who is reading a book. See? There should be more women in game development.
Martyn is a blunt Yorkshireman: plainspoken, full of humor, with a twinkle in his eye that indicates he’s not afraid to have a little fun at your expense (and that he expects you to return the favor). gamesauce • Fall 2010 5
Which appears to be the root of what Team 17 is about—there’s a studio culture there and they make games that fit into the studio culture rather than trying to make the studio culture fit around a specific game genre or IP. It’s something they can afford to do, inasmuch as they are 100 percent self-financed. “We’ve never used any outside investments,” says Martyn. “Everything is self-funded. Any f**k-ups are our f**k-ups.” The makeup of the teams at Team 17 is interesting from an age standpoint. “We’ve probably got a higher average age than a lot of people,” says Martyn. “Quite a proportion of our guys have been 10 to 15 years just with Team 17. I would say early 30s is the average. I’m 43 now which makes me feel like a bit of a dinosaur in the industry. We have a very, very low staff turnover. I mean people working in the games industry should not take for granted how f**king great this industry is. Yes it’s difficult and all the rest of it but, my God, if you’re going to be in it, you might as well enjoy it. We’re always good fun. We’re always good for a laugh. We’re not ego-driven. It’s always about just having a good time and enjoying life.” That philosophy is apparent in Team 17’s expansive catalog of games that seems to span every platform and every genre. “I saw an opportunity with digital distribution of being able to produce great games at great prices, giving back to the community. The stuff we’re doing on Facebook for example—with the people playing that game we have direct access to them and the feedback is
fantastic. We’ve got so many plans with different platforms and different games it’s hard to come up with a single statement of intent, really.” After some reflection, Martyn continues: “If there’s a word that’s really key to our approach, it’s real. We’re real, genuine, open and transparent. And it’s those kinds of sentiments we like to be associated with.” Even though they’re based in Yorkshire, Team 17 doesn’t have any trouble attracting talent. “Not at all,” says Martyn. “We’re besieged. There aren’t that many studios around these days— certainly not that have been around 20 years. We’ve proven we know how to stay in business. And it’s surely a cheap place to live and a great place to raise kids.” Team 17 has been around for 20 years, bending with the twists and turns of the industry, re-inventing themselves when appropriate—and they show every indication of being around for another 20 years. It’s not hard to wonder what they’ll be making 15 years down the road— Worms Mental Control, perhaps, for PlayStation 5. 6 gamesauce • Fall 2010
Blast from the Past
Spider-Man 2 Pushing Through Something New by Jamie Fristrom
had a lot of trouble reproducing our previous success. Since Spider-Man 2, we’ve had many more ideas for game mechanics, only one of which actually made it to ship (the color-coded two-ship game-play of Schizoid on Xbox LIVE Arcade). Most of the others have been canceled, shelved, or are placed on hold, looking for funding or a perfect storm of greenlights at a big publisher. And yet we’ve been following those same steps we followed with Spider-Man 2—prototype, play-test, prototype again. Why did it work so well then but not now? Let me go back and unearth some of the history of how the Spider-Man 2 web-swinging idea came to be.
lot of people assumed that the video game for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 film was just another movie tie-in game, necessarily mediocre because of a tight schedule and a strict licensing agreement. But it ended up being legendary as one of the few movie tie-in games that were actually good, getting scores above 80 on metacritic.com and gamerankings.com. Even game critic curmudgeon Yahtzee Crowshaw—known to hate everything—gave it props. Part of the reason for its positive reviews was its innovative core game mechanic: web-swinging that actually felt like webswinging. Previous Spider-Man games did not do web-swinging justice. In Neversoft’s Spider-Man game for the PlayStation, web-swinging was essentially old-school platforming—you could jump far, but it was still essentially a jump, albeit with a cosmetic web painted on. And with Treyarch’s SpiderMan 1, the web-swinging was essentially running in mid-air, again with webs hanging from the sky that were purely cosmetic. But Spider-Man 2 was different. The webs no longer attached to the sky, they attached to buildings in the environment. And then “physics” took care of the rest: A pendulum simulation evoked the gut-wrenching feeling of falling from a great height only to be caught by a stretchy web. And yes, it was harder to control—less accessible—than its predecessors; even after two years of tweak-
ing and iterating on tutorials there was a steep learning curve. But most gamers rose to the challenge, losing themselves in the feeling of swinging about New York City. Bottom line: Spider-Man 2 had new, interesting, fun game-play—which was a rare thing, even in 2002. The console game industry might not yet have been as risk-averse then as it is now, but it was still plenty risk-averse! Even then, players could typically only look forward to yet another level of polish and graphical refinement on a succession of first-person shooters. I’ve written and talked about the development of this mechanic for Spider-Man 2 multiple times. (Some of you must be getting pretty sick of hearing about it.) My hope was that by talking about our development process, not only would I get to brag, but people adopting the process would be empowered to also create new sorts of interesting gameplay. Sadly, not only is there a dearth of new game-play out there among retail, disc-based games, but those of us at Torpex Games have
Theory 1: You Probably Have to Invest Your Own Time and Money During Spider-Man 1’s development I lay awake nights thinking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” I wasn’t satisfied with the swingingis-flying game mechanic we had then. I had this crazy idea that we could simulate it “for real.” I developed the idea in my head, and knew I had to tell the higher-ups at Treyarch—but I also knew that they wouldn’t buy it. And I was right—“Spidey Vsim,” they called it, after Treyarch’s first game, Die by the Sword, in which we used a physical system we called “Vsim” to simulate sword fighting. Die by the Sword was a modest success, profitable, but only just. We came away from that game with the conclusion that people do not, in fact, want something new. “They want Coke and Pepsi” was the way Peter Akemann put it. The fighting gamesauce • Fall 2010 7
in our next game, Draconus, was much more traditional: button-mashing with canned animations. (To mediocre sales and reviews, I should add.) We felt burned by physics and tough-to-control game mechanics, and weren’t likely to try that again. Spider-Man 2 may have had a particularly rough row to hoe there, but this is typical of any new idea, isn’t it? When anyone hears an idea that isn’t theirs, their first impulse is always to shoot it down. Which is why, if you have an idea you believe in, you have to make it happen yourself. So about a third of the way into development, I decided to do something about it. After the workday was over, and I had logged my hours meeting the “lead programmer” job description (tracking the team’s tasks,
assigning bugs, and programming the things that slipped through the cracks) I would stay late and work on a separate branch of the code, prototyping this crazy idea. I didn’t have kids back then—I could do that sort of thing. These days when I prototype I do it during regular work hours (but usually for no pay.)
Theory 2: Good Ideas Take Time to Incubate I got it to the point where I thought it was pretty cool: To me, it really felt like being Spider-Man. Sure, you stuck to walls a lot. A whole lot. And you couldn’t really control
where you were going. But I liked it. And I couldn’t wait to get it into the game. We had already started making levels for the system we had in place, and I needed to get it in front of people and see what they thought. And most of the team thought it was pretty cool, pretty interesting—“It’s like the real Spider-Man,” Tomo Moriwaki said. But as you can guess, since that mechanic never showed up in SpiderMan 1, as we went up the management chain cooler heads prevailed. We had already started making levels—we’d have to throw that work out and start over. And although it was somewhat promising—it might be fun enough and accessible enough someday—it wasn’t worth betting the farm on. And hey, the cooler heads were probably right. We shelved the mechanic and went back to work and shipped a safer game, challenging in itself because it was our first game on the new consoles and one of the first games in history to ship on all the consoles simultaneously. So what’s the lesson here for Torpex Games? Well, I can’t go into details because of nondisclosure agreements and such, but we have several prototypes and many more ideas that have yet to gain traction. At this point it’s hard to tell which of those ideas are merely on the back-burner and which have been irrevocably canceled. It took about three-and-a-half years for the original webswinging idea to finally appear on the retail shelves, after all. So maybe that’s the trouble with Torpex’s prototypes: They’re still embryos in the “on hold” phase. Stay tuned.
Theory 3: Threaten to “Quit” Jake Simpson once said on his blog Jakeworld: “If you can’t get fired over an idea, it’s not worth having.” When Spider-Man 2 rolled around, and they asked me if I wanted to be technical 8 gamesauce • Fall 2010
Original design maps for Spider-Man 2, along with plan views of the actual layout of the city. One day developers will be able to make these from Google Earth!
gamesauce • Fall 2010 9
director again, I was already tired of the gig. I’m not sure what I thought I could do instead, but I said, “I’ll do it, but only if we get to try the physical swinging again.” It wasn’t threatening to quit per se. Rather, it was threatening to quit the job description, and I don’t think Pete Akemann and Dogan Koslu, the executives at Treyarch, took it as a threat. But making that bold proclamation did enable me to show them how much I believed in the idea. What does “Threaten to Quit” mean for an independent studio? It’s easy for an independent studio like ours to put our own IP on the back burner and instead make ports and licensed titles—in fact, we’re glad to do it, because the alternative usually means going out of business. But at some point we have to ask if that’s really what we got into business for—and be willing to burn bridges and take that big risk to make those new ideas happen.
Theory 4: Avoid the Stench of Failure
Prototyping is everything—rapid testing of ideas in ‘bad art’ environment means that no one imagines this work is finished or representative of the final game.
10 gamesauce • Fall 2010
It was right around this time that Game Developer published an article by Mark Cerny on what he called “Method” development. It was this article that really launched the idea of the value of prototyping in our industry— but another thing the article mentioned was The Stench of Failure: the notion that it is damn hard to tell an unfinished idea from a bad one, and when people mistake an unfinished idea for a bad idea, the smell spreads until that idea is doomed. Cerny’s conclusion: Keep upper management the hell away from your ideas until they’re ready. I’ve seen multiple promising prototypes, loved by many, killed because they were unveiled to a large audience before they were ready, so I think Cerny’s definitely on to something here. (Sometimes it’s not just upper management you have to keep away from your ideas, by the way. Sometimes it’s the rest of your team as well!) The problem: How do you keep upper management away from your ideas? Well, we showed Pete and Dogan Cerny’s article and they bought into it and its arguments. It also helped that upper management was busy fighting fires on other, more urgent projects, so they didn’t pay close attention to what we
were doing. They gave us a deadline to make a prototype that would prove the concept and agreed they’d keep eyes off for the duration. The deadline, in hindsight, was very generous: three months. These days, I can’t imagine spending that much time on an idea that might fail! What does this mean for a studio looking for a publisher? I can guarantee you that no publisher will let us work on a prototype while they keep their eyes closed. But one thing a studio might be able to do is convince the publisher-side producer to wait as long as possible before demoing your game to others at the publishing company.
Theory 5: Keep Avoiding the Stench of Failure Although Pete and Dogan were willing to let us “go dark” for a while, they did have second thoughts. Once Pete saw the game running in one of our empty offices late at night, and went in to try it out, and couldn’t figure out the controls. He was tempted to cancel the project right there, but Tomo and Greg John somehow talked him out of it. And then there was the day Dogan brought me and Greg into his office to air his misgivings about the whole thing: how Treyarch had been burned multiple times trying physics-based game-play. The actual conversation is lost, but it went something like this: Me: But you guys said we could try this if I took the job! Dogan: I hope it’s more important to you to make a fun game than to try out your pet idea. Me: We’ve got to do something cool if we want this game to be as successful as the first—we can’t just rest on our laurels. Dogan (shrugging): Do something else cool. Me: Like…what? In the end, he agreed to let us have the time to finish our prototype. And with the amount of time we had, we were able to do quite an impressive demo. My original proof-of-concept prototype had no animation, just a cruciform SpiderMan lurching through the skies. With animation and iteration and some other cool
More in-game images—note the story boarding of cinematic events, and even game play events.
sorts of Spider-Man-like locomotion such as wall-running, we had a demo that really impressed people. We showed it to Pete and Dogan and our Activision-side producer; they showed it to their boss; and it went up the chain until Ron Dornink was in the office smiling at our work.
Theory 6: Worry About Accessibility Later Here’s the thing: We had a game that was fun…once you were past the learning curve. Tomo demo-ed the game very well. But it was profoundly inaccessible. In the hands of a noob, Spider-Man would bang into walls and generally look like a spaz. I’m surprised our Activision-side producer took so swimmingly to it. He was the highest management type to actually play the thing.
And this was a relief—we were afraid that if upper management actually tried to play it, they’d hate it. Now if I were on the publishing side, I never would have greenlit the idea without trying it myself. I might have insisted on seeing it in a focus group. And as a result I probably would have ended up killing my own idea—which would have been too bad, because we did manage to make it accessible enough before we shipped. (Although it was never as accessible as the previous Spider-Man games, for which I do not apologize.) Although I’m really lying here—we were absolutely always worried about accessibility, to the extent that we were building various sorts of tutorials (that never shipped) in the hopes of gradually introducing the player to the system, time that was in large part wasted. My point is that, in this case, at this moment, the executives weren’t concerned gamesauce • Fall 2010 11
An example texture page for an in game character. Peter Parker has never looked so flat!
with accessibility. Otherwise the idea might have been shot down. Who knows how many great game ideas get killed because they’re hard to play at first?
got Bruce Campbell to encourage the player to keep trying if he gives up on the whole swinging thing and starts running through the city: “I know it’s your game and all, but I really think you’d have more fun if you tried the swinging.”)
On the Other Hand…. Theory 7: Don’t Use Focus Tests To Evaluate Prototypes Think of this as the “Worry About Accessibility Later” corollary. I’ve seen prototypes killed by focus tests too. It’s another failure stench. Your first testers probably won’t be able to figure out how to play your new game mechanic. As a result, they probably won’t have fun, which means they probably won’t like your prototype—even though they might learn to really enjoy it if you spent the time and money later to make it accessible, be it with changes to the mechanic or tutorials. Eventually, you absolutely need Kleenex testers to help you figure out why your game is confusing or frustrating so that you can fix those problems. But when deciding whether a prototype is good or not, you should be considering whether it’s fun once you’ve learned how to play it, and have the confidence that you’ll be able to make it accessible to the public later. (For example, we 12 gamesauce • Fall 2010
It occurs to me that all of these theories have something in common. They’re risky. You’re spending time and money working on something that might never pay off, or you’re trying to get the executives and business-heads to leave you alone and give you space while you spend their money, or you want to make a game that maybe nobody will buy because they can’t figure out how to play it. All of those things make businessmen nervous. And, well, now I am a businessman, a coowner of Torpex Games, and so the designer in me and the businessman in me are often at odds. When I’m wearing my businessman hat, I like to talk about “new product science” and “the funnel” by which ideas are filtered down to actual products: You start with n ideas, go to n/3 proofs of concept, go to n/9 prototypes. Then you take even fewer of those to full production, but you cancel some along the way, and maybe even ship a few things, sometimes canceling the marketing budget because, really, at this point, you’re only shipping them to partially recoup losses.
Even the designer in me sometimes accepts that the opportunity to make a bunch of prototypes increases the likelihood that some of them will get through, right? As a designer, if I want the right to make prototypes, don’t I have to accept the fact that most of them will be canceled? Even so, accepting and expecting that most prototypes will get canceled is part of the reason I haven’t been fighting as hard to get our ideas past that “canceled” stage. If I had this attitude back when we were making Spider-Man 2, would I still have said, “Let’s keep trying the weird thing, even though that first proof of concept sucked?” Hmmm. Maybe the important thing with SpiderMan 2 was that we created enough space and time to actually give the idea an honest shake. Which is to say (I suppose) that if you’re trying to push an idea through, you shouldn’t put on your businessman hat. If you’re being the inventor, let someone else be the businessman.
Work’s not all fun and games? It is here.
Boston - Los Angeles - New York
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A Conversation with Laralyn McWilliams Laralyn McWilliams is Creative Director of Free Realms at Sony, was Game Director at Edge of Reality for Fear & Respect and Over the Hedge, and Lead Designer for Full Spectrum Warrior at Pandemic. She also happens to be an all-around good egg. As if you didn’t know…. – ed.
1. Why did you decide to build Free Realms? What was the rationale behind this project? We had a lot of different reasons behind the decision to make Free Realms. One of the main reasons is that everyone at Sony Online Entertainment loves MMOs—they’re our business but also our biggest hobby! We wanted to share that with our families and friends, but fantasy settings, traditional MMO play styles, and the usual grind don’t
have much appeal to non-gamers and kids. We really believe people can have fun and build emotionally fulfilling and meaningful relationships through cooperative and competitive play, so we wanted to find a way to make that experience more appealing for casual players—and safe for kids.
We also saw an opportunity to go beyond the expectations of how an MMO “had to work” and look at the online game space in a new way. MMOs are complex from a development perspective, but they’re usually complex from a player’s perspective too, with lots of rules, stats, POIs, NPCs, quests, and items—and then on top of that, all of those things interact and affect each other. It’s why sites like Zam exist: There’s more minutia in a traditional MMO than a player can figure out without help. For Free Realms, I vowed that players wouldn’t have to use a calculator to figure out what pair of pants to wear! Free Realms was a big investment for SOE. We spent over four years working on it, and we had over 130 people on the team at its peak. I’m really proud of the game and how well it’s doing: We hit 12 million registered players in July, and the game continues to grow. We’re still pushing forward into new spaces and audiences with our upcoming games, including some that haven’t been announced yet, because we still want to find ways to bring the fun and community of online games to new audiences.
games. Loving the games themselves isn’t enough because it’s a really exhausting, stressful and sometimes frustrating line of work. I’ve enjoyed working on and I’m proud of every game I’ve made. Nevertheless, I’ve never had the chance to make the kind of game I really love as a player. It’s a funny dichotomy because I’m at the head of the crowd, shouting about how game development needs to diversify and how we really need to start making games that appeal to “normal” people as opposed to games that appeal to game developers. I really believe that’s true, but I also recognize and respect core gamers as a valid (and fun) target audience because I am a core gamer. At some point in my career I really want the chance to make a great, story-based, action game with RPG elements. I’ve had the chance to make that game twice, and in both cases the game was cancelled (by the same publisher, now defunct). One was Fear & Respect, and one was a Vietnam-era game at Pandemic with a great military license. Someday I hope to get that chance again.
2. In a perfect world, what game would you love to have made and why? I believe in designing the right game for the audience—whoever that is—and I find the process fascinating and fulfilling by itself. I don’t think you’ll last long as a game developer if you don’t love the process of making
3. What was Fear & Respect—and what happened? Like every developer, I’ve had a few games cancelled over the years. Fear & Respect was gamesauce • Fall 2010 15
more action (or at least interaction) in my games. I also question whether realism is always good in games. I blogged about that topic before playing Heavy Rain, but it really proved the point, in my opinion. I don’t play games to simulate shaving, or opening a fridge, or sitting on a teeter-totter. It’s why movies don’t spend five minutes with the hero sitting on the toilet with a magazine. On my PC, I’m playing Starcraft II and I just finished Singularity. I’ve been working on an old-school 2D RPG as a personal project, so I’m also having a little RPG renaissance on my laptop with Wizardry V-VII, Lands of Lore, Anvil of Dawn, Divine Divinity, Might & Magic IV, and Stonekeep.
the roughest cancellation I’ve been through, though, because it would have been something really special if we’d had the chance to finish it. I was with Edge of Reality in Austin—one of the great, independent thirdparty developers still out there, working hard and making games. We were working with Midway as the publisher, in a partnership with John Singleton and Snoop Dogg. Fear & Respect was a story-driven shooter, set in Los Angeles. The first part of the game took place in the late 1990s. It gave players a tutorial while also showing how gang-related decisions made by the main character, Goldie (played by Snoop Dogg) landed him in prison. The rest of the game took place in the present day, when Goldie gets out of prison and restarts his life. He discovers his little brother is making some of the same choices he did, and he has to encourage him or intervene. Everything you did in the game affected your reputation in the game world, where you could earn Fear or you could earn Respect. Fear came from backing your gang, and Respect came from backing your neighborhood. It was really important to me that the game and world be honest—we didn’t make any judgments about whether Fear or Respect was the right path. It was up to you to make decisions, see what happened, and decide how you feel about it. It was a lot like a present day Deus Ex in terms of the choices you could make. We had some really fun levels, and a great cover system that focused on assessing risk rather than taking damage. 16 gamesauce • Fall 2010
We also had fantastic art and great characters, and I was just finishing the game script with John Singleton. I still regret that we had to set it aside. 4. What are you playing now? I tend to play games almost everywhere, and I play just about anything, so my list of what I’m playing always sounds schizophrenic. Right now, I’m playing Red Dead Redemption on my Xbox, although to be honest I think
the game really bogs down in Mexico so I’m not sure I’ll finish it. It was a great game until Mexico though—it really reminds me of Oblivion in a wild west setting. I’m also replaying Gears of War 1 and 2 with a friend to get ready for Gears 3. I’ve got Heavy Rain in progress on the PlayStation 3, and it’s an interesting attempt to create deeper storytelling—but it’s having trouble holding my interest because I prefer
5. How can our industry do a better job of welcoming and encouraging women? The game industry is driven by the market. Sure, to some extent it’s a chicken and egg problem—if you don’t make any games that appeal to women, no women will buy your games, and then there’s no proof that women are a viable market. That’s not the whole answer, though. I think most non-gamers just aren’t interested in the games we’re making right now, at least on traditional (non-Wii) consoles and on the PC. The industry is evolving though—you can see it in the reaction to Facebook games and to many of the announcements at this year’s E3. Hardcore gamers sometimes feel threatened or marginalized when there are announcements about family or nontraditional products, but they’ll get over it once they realize we’ll still be making just as many (if not more) traditional games. Eventually the industry will be as mature as television and film, so that it will not merely be OK but will be considered interesting and refreshing for the same developer to make a family game, then turn around and make a hardcore fantasy RPG, then start on a modern-day shooter after that. When we get to that point, the industry will be more welcoming for women simply because we’ll be making more products that have mainstream appeal.
6. Tell us about Full Spectrum Wargoals, especially in terms of giving an honest rior. What was the brief and how well look at a soldier’s daily life. I’ll never forget do you think you guys hit that? one of our press events, where we hosted Full Spectrum Warrior was originally a US press the first day and European press military training tool, developed to help the next. The US press kept asking me how Army squad leaders make better decisions I felt about making such a pro-war game. in the field. As a training tool, it was almost finished when I joined the team in 2003. The team was led by Wil Stahl, who had worked on Battlezone and Battlezone II. He’d made a really brilliant leap in the control scheme and behind that training simulation was a secret: It was the first real RTS for a console. It was also amazingly complex, intended to reinforce four years of Army training with brutal realism. One wrong choice and a soldier on your squad was dead in less than a second: Game Over. As you would expect, it had no real levels or game spaces, no progression, no difficulty system, no story or characters, and the control system, while brilliant, was super complex. kept asking me I was brought aboard as lead about making such a designer to take that hardcore military training tool and make . asked it into a commercial game. I how we thought a game that was didn’t want to make something would be received in so that would just appeal to the people already playing Rainbow America. At that point, 6 and Ghost Recon—I wanted to make something an armchair general could enjoy, something for the guys who only played Madden and Halo. I also wanted to take a The European press asked how we thought a documentary approach and show what it’s game that was so anti-war would be received like in the field for actual soldiers. My father in America. At that point, I knew it had was career Army and it was really important worked—people were playing FSW and to me to give an unflinching look at what the deciding for themselves how they felt about average soldier deals with every day. war, weapons, and what soldiers experience I always say game design is the ability to in the field. understand your box and then work inside it—and FSW was a really, really small box. 7. What’s your favorite thing you’ve Giving a sense of progression was really designed or worked on over the years? challenging in a setting in which we had to It’s a tough choice for me, because I really stay absolutely realistic. The soldiers on your love Free Realms. It was a lot of fun to make, squads are dismounted light infantry—they and I’m really proud that we pushed the aren’t the guys who sneak into the dictator’s envelope in terms of what you can do in an house to defuse the nuke, they’re the guys online virtual world. I’m also really happy who patrol a bridge for two weeks. Their that we were able to make something that weaponry is very specific, and they don’t appeals to non-gamers, because broadendrive tanks or man rocket launchers. We ing our audience as an industry is really worked really hard to find ways to keep each important to me (and, I think, to the future level dynamic and entertaining. of games). Although I think FSW shipped a little I’d have to say my favorite things I’ve too difficult and complex, I think we hit our designed, though, are the systems in FSW
because I’m a systems nerd at heart. Wil Stahl and I worked hard together to come up with new ways to handle cover, enemy fire, and control schemes to balance complexity and playability. Of all those systems, I’m most proud of something people don’t notice because it works: the soldier personality/VO system. My goal was to create something brand new—soldiers with genuine personality who would respond in real-time and dynamically to events around them. It was a crazy complex system, with something like 10,000 lines of diaFull Spectrum Warrior
The US press how pro-war I felt game The European press anti-war
I knew it had worked.
logue that all worked in a non-linear fashion in response to literally thousands of events. Even cut-scenes were dynamic because you could go into the cut-scene with up to two soldiers unconscious and being carried by squad members—so other characters had to pick up their lines in a way that still made sense but reflected their personalities. It was a powerful moment for me when the audio files came into the build, a soldier on my squad got shot, and the other soldiers reacted, calling him by name, the young recruit freaking out while the sergeant shouted a command to regain control. My goal was to create something that felt so natural and so much like a movie that you wouldn’t notice it, and I think we got there.
8. Which is easier to make: A story game in which you are given a predetermined path to follow, or a sandbox game in which you are given tools and told to go have fun? And which is better? I wouldn’t say either story-driven or sandbox games are better from a play perspective— it’s all about personal preferences and play style. I think they’re equally difficult to make in their pure forms, but in different gamesauce • Fall 2010 17
Studios open and close, games are started and cancelled, and the cycle continues. There are only so many places you can live to make games, and I feel like I’ve hit almost all of them in the past 15 years! I’ve liked different aspects of everywhere I’ve lived, but my spouse and I love San Diego. It has all the pros of LA without all of the crowds and congestion, and most of the pros of San Francisco with cheaper housing and less traffic. I liked the really great game development community in Austin, but I missed the ocean.
ways. Story-driven games are challenging because you have to find ways to keep the experience fresh and interesting over hours of play, and you also have to tell a compelling story while giving the player meaningful choices and opportunities to feel like he has shaped the story in significant ways. Sandbox games are challenging in terms of creating systems that are robust and fun enough to hang hours and hours of play on them—the systems have to be fun in themselves, so adding play spaces and toys (like weapons) on top of that just becomes gravy. I think there is a middle ground, however, and I believe it’s an answer Warren Spector and other developers came up with years ago. Create a great story, then let the player steer and direct his experience through that story via a series of natural choices that come out of his personal play style. When you look at Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Deus Ex and Thief, you can see the marriage between a strong story with linear progression and a sandbox that lets you decide where and how to solve problems and move through the space. It’s really brilliant when it’s working well—in Deus Ex, for example, I discovered that friends completed levels in different ways I didn’t even know existed, because the way I’d played felt so natural to me that I assumed it was the only path or choice. I love some of the games trying for that same mix today, like Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Red Dead Redemption, but (so far) they haven’t managed that great combination you see in 18 gamesauce • Fall 2010
10. What’s next for Laralyn McWilliams? I’m really interested in finding ways to bring games to a new audience, and ways to bring new experiences to core gamers. My current Free Realms project at SOE is an unannounced online game for Facebook, bringing the real-time games like Deus Ex. The newer games still communities and personal connections from feel like you play sandbox for a while, then MMOs into the social space. We also have have an opportunity to step out of the sanda strong sense of story and a mature theme box for a minute to play some story. It feels that will feel really fresh. It’s a new frontier like stepping onto a ride at a theme park, on Facebook, where everyone is still figuring out what will work, and it’s an exciting place to be. I believe Facebook gamers are true gamers—I think was to create something that they’re the same people who and so much like a bought adventure games like Myst and who still buy “cait, movie that sual” games from PopCap and I think we got there. and Big Fish. The majority of the game industry just wasn’t making many games that appealed to them. In my personal time, and not like a continuous experience. The I’m working on an old school RPG. It’s games that got it right years ago also tended partly because I really miss those games, to be too complex (by today’s standards), so and partly because I really miss working on I think they get overlooked in terms of how art and scripting—so it sounded fun to have they blended story and sandbox. I hope we’ll a side project. More than that, though, it’s get back around to that style of game-play because I think we game developers threw soon, because I think it’s where games really out the baby with the bathwater when we shine as a unique entertainment medium. went real-time, action 3D with pretty much every game on the PC. Games go where 9. You’ve moved around a lot: San Dithe market is, and the mainstream market is ego, LA, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle. definitely in present day, realistic, real-time Any preferences? 3D action games. I love those games and I was an Army kid, so I moved all the time, I play a lot of them—but I don’t think I’m but it still sounds crazy when you list them the only one who misses some of the slower all out like that. And you missed Chicago, paced, more thoughtful 2D CRPGs. I’m Michigan, and North Carolina (where I posting development updates on my blog at made my first game)! Being a game develhttp://www.eluminarts.com. Drop in, check oper often feels like being a migrant worker. it out, and tell me what you think!
My goal felt so natural you wouldn’t notice
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Bonus Schemes W
e’ve all seen the amazing, royalty-driven excesses that some developers have been prone to—the cutting-edge electronic toys, the fast cars, the expensive bikes, the million-dollar homes in the Hollywood Hills, and (lest we forget) the twoweek vacations on the International Space Station. After reading stories in the mid-‘90s about John Carmack and John Romero racing each other to work in identical Ferraris, it was easy to conclude that making video games was finally a real job that any young gamer could aspire to—with an honest-toGod pot of gold at the end of it. Sadly, these stories of financial windfalls have turned out to be aberrations. Indeed, it’s the fact that they are so few and far between that makes them so newsworthy. These days publishers want to own the IP rights (because that’s where the long-term monetary value really is). Owning both IP and getting a great royalty rate from a publisher is getting rarer all the time—especially if you’re a startup without 100 percent self-financing. Add to that the fact that 85 percent of games do not, in fact, make their development costs back, and you realize why distributing royalties (or bonuses)—when they do happen—can become such a political nightmare, particularly when the sums are small. That may sound contradictory, but experience shows that financial envy is strongest when the amounts are low because who-gets-what suddenly becomes that much more important. Once your own personal bonus goes beyond $100K, it becomes less about what other people got because what you got was 20 gamesauce • Fall 2010
sufficient for you to feel ok about yourself, your position and your contribution. However, if you got $10K and the guy over there got $25K, well, a difference of $15K suddenly assumes that much more importance:
are so uncommon, it’s probably smart to understand what kinds of royalty schemes are out there, how they work, and how they might affect you.
Because “bonus” opportunities are so uncommon, it’s probably smart to understand what kinds of royalty schemes are out there, how they work, and how they might affect you.
$15k can keep you from buying that car you want, or from totally paying off your credit cards. When the values are of a magnitude larger than that, then you’ve already satisfied your immediate wants. At that point bonuses start becoming a means of keeping score. But let’s return to the point that this is less likely than more likely. Most games do not make their development and marketing costs back. Unlike movies, games have only one avenue of revenue, and even that’s diluted by the buyback policies at companies like GameStop and GameFly. Given this point of view, worrying about what you might earn versus what you are earning is somewhat premature. Because “bonus” opportunities
Bonuses, Royalties, and Profit-sharing A bonus is, at root, just that: a lump sum given at a company’s discretion to say, “Thanks for working here and contributing.” It might be for something specific (shipping a game, for instance) or for doing something above and beyond the call of duty (moving to another location for six months to help finish something up). Or you may receive a bonus just because the company wants to reward everyone. Yearly bonuses are most often a predetermined value (a percentage of your actual salary, perhaps) tied to a performance review. For instance, your company’s policy might be to give bonuses of up to 30 percent of your annual salary, depending on the degree to which you have met your various performance
targets. At some places your bonus may depend on a combination of factors: overall company performance, your studio-specific performance, your individual contribution, whether you shipped that year or not, and so on. Bonuses may be mandated by employment contract or left to the discretion of company executives. In general though, they are a onetime lump sum that doesn’t fluctuate with how well the product did in the market place. Especially if your bonus is calculated as a percentage of your salary, you may have the world’s bestselling game but your bonus remains the same regardless. EA, for example, is fond of this approach. In contrast, royalties are the sharing of income from a specific project— much like profit-sharing, which is the sharing of all of the income a company generates across various projects. If you share only profits generated by games you were directly involved in, that’s royalties; but if you share the profits from every game your studio makes, regardless of whether or not you worked on it, that’s profit-sharing. Royalties can often be applied across different SKUs as well. Say you build the Xbox version of a given game but someone else makes a DS version—you might well be eligible to share in royalties for that game simply because they used an IP you created. Royalties and profit-sharing typically are not a function of your salary but rather of the company’s income. The actual value a studio passes on to its developers varies widely depending on a variety of factors— fixed and variable marketing costs, R&D earmarks, and working capital allowances
can all eat into what might otherwise look like “profits.” Publishers who front money for development and marketing tend to take their cut first, with the developer not getting a royalty until the publisher’s money is recouped. This means that if the ad spend was high and the game took a while to make, it’s entirely possible to sell a million units and still not see any money at the developer end.
Getting Personal The real question is: Assuming there are profits to share, how does your company determine how much you get? That’s the bit that matters to each individual, and it’s often the part that generates the most heat and resentment.
Generally, the amount given to each contributor tends to be left to a lead’s discretion. Most studios have the leads all sit down with the project lead/exec producer/guy-in-charge and map out percentages for each person based on the lead’s personal experience through the development process. It’s usually pretty informal and depends on personal knowledge of what you contributed to the project. The final scoring for each individual is usually tempered with duration-on-project: If you’ve only been on that project for the last six months, you’re
likely to receive relatively less than someone might receive for filling a similar role over the course of a year or two. Now this can be viewed as a popularity contest—who is liked by the leads and who is
Assuming there are profits to share, how does your company determine how much you get? That’s the bit that matters to each individual, and it’s often the part that generates the most heat and resentment.
not has a huge impact on this scoring methodology—and sometimes it’s true. On the other hand, human discretion in the scoring process can also take into account edge cases that a purely mathematical approach cannot. A set formula can’t really take into account the junior engineer who stepped up and created a system that has been universally applauded for making the game two times better. It also can’t be appropriately sensitive to the fact that a designer soldiered on even though his wife left him in the middle of the project. There are other methods of allocating individual profit shares based on statistical methods that assign values to seniority at the studio, seniority on the project, check-in count (seriously!), values from a pre-negogamesauce • Fall 2010 21
tiated contract and so on. Lots of companies prefer these hard-coded equations since, while they may be unfair in certain circumstances, they are uniformly unfair to everyone. Seniority is often used as a multiplier for percentage calculations, however it has the
Inspired by The Wisdom of Crowds, Linden Lab (creators of Second Life) used to have an allocation method that left the bonus pool in the hands of the employees. Say, for instance, that the pool provided the equivalent of $2,000 per person. Each employee would then receive $1,000 to keep and $1,000 to
While hard-coded equations may be unfair in certain circumstances, they are uniformly unfair to everyone.
downside of allowing employees who have been around for a while to coast more because their guaranteed percentage is higher than the average anyway. For such people, there may be less incentive to really kick ass because they are going to get a decent bonus anyway. On the other hand, seniority is often viewed by management as a way of rewarding loyalty.
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distribute to anyone else in the company. The money could be split in any way the person saw fit—distributed to an individual, a group of individuals, or a team, or to anyone associated with a specific task. The idea behind such an approach is that any given individual probably knows what about 20 percent of the rest of the studio does in any detail, but for everyone, that 20 percent is a different 20 percent—so that in the end, those most deserving will be appropriately recognized and rewarded. The downside to this tack is that people who do repetitive work—work which never changes, like MMO maintenance for example—may go under-appreciated and compensated because their work lacks the flash and sex appeal of
more highflying projects, even though what they do may be equally valuable to the company. The ultimate point may be this: There is no universal, everyonewill-always-be-happy bonus-awarding scheme. Whatever you choose, someone at some point is going to have a problem with it.
Keeping Things “Fair” Whatever method of remuneration is employed, there is some debate regarding whether or not the company should make the details of the profit-sharing public. Some argue that if the details are made public the company will be forced to be fairer in how it shares the wealth (although what constitutes “fairer” is open to interpretation). Others argue that making this kind of information public fosters unrest—that unless everyone is receiving large bonuses, there will always be individuals who feel that they deserve more than someone else. Speaking of “fairness”: What happens when people who were crucial to a game leave before the money comes in? Do they not deserve to share in the post-ship rewards? They did the work right? At most studios, the answer to that question is a resounding no. Studios use the bonus system as a retention tool, requiring employees to stick around for at least six months after ship in order to participate. Companies that share profits even with those who have gone elsewhere are definitely in the minority; it’s just too easy to use profit-sharing restrictions to entice developers to stay with the company and become invested in the next game before they get their bonuses from the last one.
However, at the end of the day, the lure of large house-purchasing bonuses is hard for a game developer to ignore. And it’s right that this potential be out there. Developers work hard. They put in long hours and they take risks. It’s only right that they share in the final rewards from their hard work
There is no universal, everyone-will-always-behappy bonus-awarding scheme. Whatever you choose, someone at some point is going to have a problem with it.
because it provides impetus to do that hard work in the first place. At the same time, wise developers consider any sort of profit-sharing gravy. Even though it’s very easy to feel that you deserve a bonus of some kind, the fact remains that you are paid for your day to day work. A bonus isn’t an entitlement, after all; it’s a reward for building something successful. Which is, perhaps, the ultimate lesson here: Do good work, and the rewards will come.
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10 Myths about Working in Japan Rethink What You Think You Know by James Kay
ew countries receive such gushing praise and adoration as Japan when it comes to video games—from the West at least. It’s not uncommon for Western developers and game aficionados to look longingly Eastward and imagine the possibilities of moving and settling in the Land of the Rising Sun, and maybe even making a career out of developing the kinds of games that many of a particular generation grew up with. The good news: It’s no pipedream. It’s entirely possible! That said, developing games in Japan might not be all you imagined, and though I would hate to dissuade anyone from coming over, I would highly suggest becoming as well informed as possible before making such a lifechanging decision. Permit me to summarize some of the common misconceptions I have identified through my blog, “Japanmanship.”
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illustrations by Jim Moore gamesauce • Fall 2010 25
Myth #1 The Japanese Game Industry is a Closed Shop
Though Japan has been slow to hire expatriates, even in recent years we’ve seen a surge of foreign developers working at Japanese companies.
This is a line I’ve come across often on forums. Usually the reply to a young hopeful who has expressed his desire to work in Japan goes something like this: “Well, I went to Japan straight after college, and after two weeks I applied for a position as CEO at Sony and they turned me down. It’s such a closed shop! Forget it!” I think you’ll find if you have little experience, no marketable skills and high expectations, every country’s game industry will appear to be a closed shop. Though Japan has been slow to hire expatriates, even in recent years we’ve seen a surge of foreign developers working at Japanese companies. In the apparent belief that adding “foreign” to their studios will enable them to compete globally, Japanese developers have opened their doors wide to foreigners with the right experience. Those who wish to move to Japan could make good use of this misconception to land themselves a decent job. Whereas it would have been slightly more difficult to find work in Japan even just a few years ago, these days your nationality might actually be seen as a
competitive advantage—assuming you are otherwise qualified to fill an open position.
Myth #2 To Work in Japan You Must Be Fluent in Japanese Though it is undeniable that you’ll have a lot more job opportunities and choices if you are fluent in Japanese, it is by no means a requirement anymore. A few studios have entire sections made up of foreign talent, and some even offer Japanese lessons to their foreign staff and English lessons to their local staff (though time and budgetary constraints make these fairly rare overall). Depending on your job description, it is not entirely unthinkable that you’ll do well enough with conversational Japanese alone. That said, you will be working with Japanese colleagues and you will be living in Japan, so do yourself a favor and start learning the language as soon as possible! I know of a few foreigners in Tokyo who have lived here a long time without ever cracking open a textbook, and though they manage at work, buying groceries can still be a monumental task. The better you can communicate— both inside and outside of the office—the better off (and happier) you will be.
Myth #3 The Japanese Have an Exemplary Work Ethic This is one of the most persistent myths floating about, due in no small measure to great PR by the Japanese themselves. From the outside it certainly seems to be the case that the Japanese work long hours, deep into the night—sleeping under their desks, giving up their weekends and family life all for the glory of game development. It isn’t the full story though. One tenacious tradition that blights any Japanese company is the unspoken, unwritten rule that employees should not be seen leaving the office before the boss does. Knowing this, and realizing that working flat out for 14 hours a day is a sure path to karoushi (death by overwork), your average Japanese employee has adapted a few survival techniques. They come in as late as possible, they stretch six hours of work into 12, and they take copious breaks and the occasional nap. And who can blame them? If you know from the start you’ll be at the office until midnight, why hurry and work yourself to death?
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From personal and anecdotal evidence I’d confidently state that your average Japanese employee working the “Japanese way” is no more productive than a dedicated employee working nine to five. In fact, as projects drag on (as they are wont to do), the long hours, lost weekends and lack of sunlight seem to make the listless, groggy Japanese employee less productive over time. It is fun to note that such working practices, especially when they go unremunerated, are illegal, even in Japan. If a game company has strict working hours, it’s probably because some tired or bitter employee reported them to the Labor Standards Office, who themselves annually spot-check and fine hundreds of companies all over Japan. Nevertheless, working long hours is still a fairly common practice and a surefire way to be seen as a good employee. Just don’t confuse it with work ethic.
Myth #4 Japanese Salaries Are Very Low Japanese salaries are lower than those in the West, that is damn sure as mustard. I’ve often been shocked—horrified even—to learn what junior Japanese members of a team earn. One of the great things about being considered an “outside person” (or gaijin, as some Japanese would say) is that you are not expected to follow all the rules and societal obligations that Japanese people pretty much are forced to. Even though there is no escaping the long working hours, it is almost expected that foreigners will negotiate for a decent salary during an interview. If you take a job at a level of pay you are unhappy with, it’s pretty much your own fault, as it is everywhere. Even in Japan the only real way to get a pay raise is to switch jobs. That said, there is no way you’ll earn as much in Japan as you would in, say, the U.S. Luckily, reports about the high cost of living in Japan are somewhat exaggerated. If you can adapt to smaller housing and a different lifestyle—one that excludes champagne and oysters for breakfast every day—you can live a pretty comfortable life in Japan on a Japanese salary. With a more favorable tax system than you may be used to, you’ll also find yourself taking home a bigger chunk of your wages than you would in other countries. With the recent vogue for hiring foreign talent, Japanese companies have found their salaries creeping up somewhat too. With
the right talents, the right experience, at the right time, at the right company you could earn a decent wage—but it won’t make you rich.
Myth #5 At Least They Give Bonuses in Japan There is a thing that is laughably referred to as a “bonus system” in Japan. One sometimes reads reports on bonuses given to employees of certain companies in Japan, but as with many things this isn’t the full story. The “bonus system” (note my sarcastic use of quote marks) works if you have a full-time contract at most companies. It basically means the company will withhold a certain amount of money from your yearly salary and pay that back to you in June and December. Consequently, when you are interviewing you’ll probably want to inquire about the bonus system and ask to be excluded from it. Otherwise, rather than have your yearly salary divided into 12 monthly chunks, it is more likely to be paid out in 14 installments—that is, assuming the company survives and is in the pink when it is time to receive your semi-annual “bonus.” I understand why employers do this: The bonus system is something of a pair of leaden handcuffs that prevents employees from quitting before June or December.
If you can adapt to smaller housing and a different lifestyle—one that excludes champagne and oysters for breakfast every day—you can live a pretty comfortable life in Japan on a Japanese salary.
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When you are interviewing you’ll probably want to inquire about the bonus system and ask to be excluded from it.
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Why employees so readily agree to this is the real mystery. The “bonus” is taxed as salary, which it really is anyway, and though it’s the annual salary you’ve negotiated there is no guarantee you’ll actually get it. Performance reviews may bite into the total and the company might lay you off or go down in May or November. Not only that, but the system also prevents you from switching jobs until July or January, when you will be compelled to join the thronging masses looking for new jobs.
familiar relationship with your leads (possibly even your boss) and I’d be very surprised if you end up having to bow to anyone— ever—aside from visiting clients. There are a few limitations, of course, and as usual the Japanese employees suffer a little more under the pressures of hierarchy than foreign employees have to, but your working day will very probably not resemble any of the overblown and somewhat comical scenes you may have seen in films or television shows.
Myth #6 The Hierarchy is Obtuse and Strict
Myth #7 At Least I’ll Have Job Security
Stories of tight suits, deep bows and shouted morning greetings often lead Westerners to look askance at “silly” Japanese corporations. Such customs do exist, but the game industry is a lot more relaxed than most in Japan. Sure, there may be a few older companies in which such traditions still linger, some that even make you wear company windbreakers, but generally it’s pretty relaxed. You won’t need to wear a suit, you can have a pretty
Compared to the West, where the laying off of masses of employees seems to have become a bi-annual tradition, Japanese companies generally will seem more stable. The government prefers badly run companies to survive and continue to pay into the welfare system rather than let them go bankrupt, and often smaller, ailing companies will seek solace in numbers and combine into larger umbrella corporations.
Even so, “job for life” is a thing of the distant past—but all in all, it’s pretty difficult to get yourself fired, or to find yourself kicked out on the street. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re perfectly safe, of course. Companies do close down, and people do get laid off or asked to take voluntary separation or redundancy. With a dodgy economy and the general malaise that the Japanese game industry is suffering, I predict we’ll see more studio closures and layoffs in the coming years. But if you’ve experienced the Western postChristmas-release reduction waves Japan may seem a wee bit more secure for your average employee.
Myth #8 You Get to Work on Cool Franchises Sure, you might—if you’re lucky. Perhaps your dream will come true and you’ll get hired by that company that has been making that franchise that you love so much. But what few people seem to realize is that there is so much more to the Japanese industry than what filters through to the West. So many games get made here that are either too low-budget or too culturally Japanese to be worth localizing and releasing in the West. Even highly-informed Western geeks who can read Japanese might still only be seeing the tip of the iceberg. And as probability dictates, you may also be working on one of these. Not that there is any shame in working on a furry dating sim or Japanese talento karaoke game, as opposed to, say, Final Fantasy 25. Just be aware that if your goal is to work on specific franchises because of some perceived cachet you are not only severely limiting your options but also in danger of being rather disappointed. Employees get moved around teams, your company may be taking onboard an outsourced project—anything can happen. So don’t be too prejudiced when it comes to your future résumé. You might not have the choice.
Myth #9 Life in Japan is Super Awesome Special Don’t get too excited now, tiger. Japan is a country, like any other, and has many good points to appreciate and its fair share of negatives to annoy you. The question is: Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Only you can answer that, and only in the long run.
You’ll find your first couple of years in Japan to be a magnificent adventure, full of surprises, technology, discovery and fun. Hell, you’ll probably even start blogging about things like ramen lunches and that small temple you found tucked away in between some high-rises. You’ll love the food, the people, the opposite sex, the nightlife, the shops, the service—everything that seems so much better than home. Then you’ll invariably enter a bleak period of hatred and frustration. You can’t order pizza without wasabi and mayonnaise on it; the trains are too crowded, the summers hot and humid, the people rude and xenophobic, the red tape cumbersome and obtuse. You might even consider giving up and just moving back home, you hate it so much here. You’ll probably blog about how annoying Japan and the Japanese are. However, if you have the gumption to work yourself through this phase, you’ll find it’s all relative and that Japan is no more special than any other country and that life here is just what you make of it. It’s not for everyone, of course, but if you find the good outweighs the bad, it’s a perfectly fine place to settle and build up a new life. But you’ll need to live here for a few years before you truly know.
You’ll love the food, the people, the opposite sex, the nightlife, the shops, the service—everything that seems so much better than home. Then you’ll invariably enter a bleak period of hatred and frustration.
Myth #10 The Japanese Industry is Collapsing Reports of the death of the Japanese industry have been greatly exaggerated. I should know: I’ve contributed to this scaremongering online and in magazine articles. What is happening, though, is that the industry as a whole is faced with a choice: continue as it has, which is the preferred choice for many change-resistant Japanese; or change to compete with Western game development, which has surpassed Japan’s in technology and sales over the last years. However change-averse Japanese society can be sometimes, when faced with an imminent collapse or change you’ll find most will happily embrace change. And this is something that can already be seen to be happening. Though these times may be rough, and the future uncertain, they also offer interesting possibilities and opportunities. You could be part of the growing stream of foreigners successfully finding placement at Japanese companies and contributing to the better, mixed environments and improved gamesauce • Fall 2010 29
working conditions and practices, bringing along much needed development savvy. You could be part of the solution to Japan’s current hiccups, not just in the game industry, but in its overall society. And though things may get a little iffy here and there, if you’re thinking about emigrating to Japan you’re obviously ready for a challenge anyway, and now would seem as good a time as any to head east. I have every confidence the Japanese industry will survive. Recovery—maybe even surpassing the West—may be a little farther down the long road ahead. But as long as there is a market and a country full of creatives, the Japanese industry will eventually be just dandy.
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Author Once, Deploy Anywhere.
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On Designing Games with Dynamic, Non-linear Gameplay by Harvey Smith & Raphael Colantonio of Arkane Studios
round 16 years ago, the two of us were drawn into the industry by a love of games that were part first-personshooter and part role-playing game (for lack of a better descriptor). Games like Ultima Underworld, in other words. Such immersive games are marked by a combination of values and player-experiences: visceral first-person action, exploration, role-playing, player-driven pacing, environmental coherency, physical interaction, non-combat interactions, and AI behavioral simulation. These shibboleths join us to a subset of game developers who’ve made games that are sometimes hard to categorize. In 1980,
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord featured a crude first-person view for dungeon encounters, and seven years later FTL created Dungeon Master, which came closer to being real-time and enhanced the visual fidelity of the world, thus taking a strong step toward putting the player more fully into the world of an RPG. The Ultima games made by Richard Garriot and Origin always had an extra layer of depth due to the fidelity of the world, the way items could be consumed or alchemically combined, and the way the characters in the world seemed to exist, living according to intricate schedules that allowed the player to infer additional meaning in each situation. While not presented from a firstperson perspective, the Ultimas (and the original Fallout series) were hugely influential on this family of games. Ultima Underworld
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
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But this hard-to-categorize genre of games wasn’t fully realized until Doug Church and Looking Glass Technologies made Underworld, System Shock, Terra Nova, and Thief, an unprecedented run in terms of cutting-edge technology and singular creative vision. Arkane’s first release, Arx Fatalis, was a direct homage to Underworld itself. In other corners of the industry, over time, the Deus Ex games, STALKER , Arkane’s Dark Messiah, the Bioshock games, and a few others trace their lineage directly from Underworld. Games like Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 all feel like cousins, sharing some of the same core values. We love these sorts of games. And we believe the industry could learn a lot from them.
Terra Nova System Shock
Dark Messiah Oblivion
Far Cry 2
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A Proliferation of Genres
Little Big Planet
In today’s game “industry” there are many types of games being designed and executed, especially once you take into account the variation that exists within the mod scene, the indie movement, and all the experimentation found in academic programs. There are developers now who focus on serious games for professional training, military recruitment, education, social causes, or artistic expression. Increasingly, people are being paid to make advertisement games which support fashion or fast food. Mobile and social games are ubiquitous, having leapt into existence seemingly out of nowhere. Party, music and exercise games have flourished over the last few years. This proliferation is great. Some subset of these games will be ground-breaking or inspiring, providing more fuel for the creative fires. Among expensive commercial projects aimed at core gamers, there are strategy games, side-scrollers, creativity toys like Little Big Planet, and evolved adventure games like Heavy Rain, with its focus on traditional storytelling segregated from the game-play. Fast-paced, first-person shooters are still super popular, as evidenced by Modern Warfare, Halo and Half-life. Then there are the open world games like Crackdown, Just Cause or Red Dead Redemption. And there are numerous third-person action games with an emphasis on character animations, or sticky cover systems. Driving or racing games and flight sims are perennials. MMOs are everywhere, from the megaWoW to the stunningly communitydriven EVE Online. This list is not all-inclusive, of course, but it demonstrates that we’re working within a plural medium. Some of these games rely on simple timing or control input, requiring the player to jump or turn a vehicle at the right time. Many of them involve traveling along a fairly narrow or linear path, killing an enemy, collecting some resources, and moving to the next mission marker. Some put more emphasis on selling the fantasy than letting the player engage in expression. Others are so expansive that they trade off depth for breadth, allowing players to explore a land mass, but only at a shallow level.
Red Dead Redemption
WoW EVE Online
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In Search of Mystery and Exploration Among all of these games and genres, periodically there are interactive works that provide players with the sense that they have influence over just enough dynamics to exceed their ability to hold it all in mind at once; or enough dynamics to create some sort of unified aesthetic effect; or dynamics that in some way provide a sense of mystery—like something large enough, complex enough, or happening fast enough to feel just beyond comprehension. That sense of mystery and exploration, created through interaction with very analog systems, is somehow vital to games. To use very old examples,
Lunar Lander cre-
ated that sense through small physics impulses versus gravity, applied at just the right second, and Dragon’s Lair by contrast didn’t really have it, except as a really coarse sense of exploration in the form of finding out where the next cinematic scene might lead. Lunar Lander, like a good board game, could be played over and over; in contrast, Dragon’s Lair—while an entertaining experience—was over once you’d seen all the scenes. Recently, games like Red Dead Redemption provided interesting dynamics like this as the player guided his horse, herded cattle, or attempted to lasso another horse; all of these systems, even when manipulated via clunky interface, feel analog enough to create some sense of play that is absent in many games. When you think about backing up and moving forward in time in Braid—manipulating your avatar’s position, the music and the enemy locations—maybe you can remember a sense of fascination with the interplay of all the elements and your influence over them. That sensation is worth chasing at the expense of many other forms of time and effort that routinely go into games. In ideal circumstances, the two of us want to make games with some of those qualities, games that allow players to experiment with systems, to make decisions about
how to solve problems, and to find their own way—games that involve dynamic, nonlinear play between the player and the environment. We don’t always succeed, but when we get our way and things come together just right, our games should be presenting the player with worlds where there are clear, interesting consequences for each action.
Defying the Trend Toward Static Games The problem is that as games have embraced polish and opened up to wider audiences, they’ve also become more static. In order to preclude unsightly physics interactions, the tendency is to lock down all of the objects in the world. It’s as if you put players in a little cocoon of non-interactivity to protect them from breaking the game. There are counterexamples, as we’ve said: A game like Red Dead Redemption—thank the stars—favors open movement, player-driven pacing, some simulational wackiness and (often) casual secondary goals made up by the player, despite a few wonky moments and bugs. RDR feels like a game that favors interactivity over the cinematic experience. The proliferation of photo realism has also led to more static (albeit prettier) games. If you render the most realistic environment you can, the temptation is to minimize the number of dynamic elements in order to make the game run at an acceptable framerate, but in doing so you rob the game of its most valuable element: dynamism. Again, it’s the exceptions that are most interesting. Bioshock will be in our minds for many years, not just because of the impressive setting, art direction and characters, but more poignantly because our own memories of the game are built on decisions we made: times we backtracked to a room because we remembered a specific resource remained there; moments we executed a convoluted plan and defeated enemies in a clever way; or instances in which the environment felt like it belonged more to us than to the enemy because of decisions and investments we’d made earlier. As games have embraced the Hollywood fantasy, they’ve become more static as well. Taking cover and firing over a wall might
look like a scene from last year’s action movie, but these macro actions feel more like pressing a button and triggering an animation than playing a game. Getting stuck on cover points while trying to smoothly move around in the environment never feels right.
No Perfect Formulas Everyone has different tastes, of course. For our part, we’re chasing something immersive, atmospheric, and expressive—built from lots of atomic actions and player decisions that matter. We don’t always get a chance to work on games like this, but it’s always the goal. Too often, the people managing or funding AAA games seem to lack confidence in interactivity or innovation as selling points. This diffidence comes across in the series of expensive me-too games that come and go. Teams are encouraged to use last year’s characters and settings and to pound off all of the risky, rough edges. As a result, there are about five games a year that are interesting. To be fair, there are multiple ways to succeed; some games are great because they’re super polished, while others are great because they enable the player to experience something wondrous, often at the expense of accessibility or smoothness. Hollywood figured out a while ago that there’s no formula for success—that no one can predict which creative projects are going to be successful. There are just too many variables. So the Hollywood approach is to encourage constraint where possible, but to respect creatives (while trying to get them locked down under contract). Then the five percent of projects that are successful fund all of the others. Which five percent will be successful no one can predict; even the people who invest their money in games haven’t figured that out yet. Game development is not easy. Especially if you’ve got a set of aesthetic goals on top of all the other goals related to satisfying players, making the tech work, building tools for your team, hitting the platform specs, meeting the needs of business, et cetera, et cetera. Success relies on a dizzying number of factors, some of which are intangible or simply come down to chemistry. We believe that named values and distinct creative targets—shooting for a specific player-experience that allows players to express themselves, make meaningful decisions and explore the environment according to their own whims and strategies—is the best way to make games that inspire people and stay in their minds for many years. gamesauce • Fall 2010 35
GameSauce Confidential Zeschuk and An Interview with Greg ers of BioWare Ray Muzyka, Co-Found
BioWare doesn’t shy away from having toys around. Or awards for that matter. And they’ve got a few to choose from. Awards we mean, not toys.
GameSauce: How did you two meet? Zeschuk: Ray and I met in university— before medical school at the University of Alberta. We realized we had a serious mutual passion for video games and spent a lot of our time playing games in the arcade. Over time we both played around taking programs apart and putting them back together—and playing a lot of games when we should have been studying. The funny thing was that back then (in the mid 1980s) it didn’t seem like computers and programming was actually a career. Especially in Edmonton where we 38 gamesauce • Fall 2010
were—no one did it. So we actually went for medical degrees and during school we started working together on medical education software. We were just starting to use programs—diagnostic simulators, actually—to help us learn to be doctors, and we thought, “These are terrible. We could make these better.” And we did. We actually made a couple educational software programs that were adopted by the local university and eventually used across Canada. What we built wasn’t all that great; it’s just that the software we were using were so bad that ours looked decent!
GS: Is that where the name BioWare comes from? Muzyka: Well, people assume that it’s inspired primarily by our medical backgrounds, but that’s only partially true. Where BioWare really comes from is partially a play on the idea of doctors making video games; but it is also meant to suggest the human/machine interface and the concept of people interacting with software. When we actually came up with the name we had finished with the medical software and had moved on to video games as our primary pursuit. Our first logo even included a human hand and machine hand, but we dropped the two hands fairly early in BioWare’s history and went with just the text logo for BioWare. Zeschuk: Back at the time we got started (the mid ‘90s), my cousin said, “Hey, I’ve
got these friends who are making games.” I knew the guys as well, and they were pretty sharp fellows. They were working on full 3D environments and voxel terrains; this technology that eventually would drive our first game, Shattered Steel. That’s how BioWare got started. And then because there were two of us (me and Ray), we each wanted to have our own project. It wasn’t just a one-person shop, and we both had a desire to make games. So while Shattered Steel was going, Baldur’s Gate started up; since then we’ve always had multiple projects running at BioWare. GS: BioWare is famous for large-scale RPGs. Was that always your intent, or did you have interests in doing FPS or something else as well? Muzyka: Well it’s funny because we really started indirectly in non-RPGs. Shattered Steel was exactly that: a MechWarrior-ish, gamesauce • Fall 2010 39
Men with guns and swords. We haven’t come so far, even if they are nerf guns and plastic swords. What ever happened to rites of passage anyway?
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action-y, 3D shooter. However it did have a story, and that is something we’ve had in all of our games. When we started BioWare what we really wanted to do was make a game like the classic Ultimas—top-down RPGs with interesting characters, fun combat, character progression and personalization, and cool worlds to explore. Prior to the time Diablo and Baldur’s Gate were released, everybody thought RPGs were dying. We thought, “No, no! Making RPGs is a nobrainer.” We didn’t have a research department telling us it was a bad idea, so we just did it. That entrepreneurial spirit drove us to make what we loved, and we felt intuitively that there was a market for the classic RPG. So, lo and behold, the year before our game launched, Diablo came out, and it helped ignite that market again. Then Baldur’s Gate came out six or seven months later, and it just took off. So Baldur’s Gate was our dream game at the time, and better yet, once we launched the game it was clear there was a significant market there. And the funny thing about Baldur’s Gate is that it wasn’t initially an obvious success. It broke most of the rules you are supposed to follow in video games. It shipped the week of Christmas, something like the 21st of December, and you’re never supposed to ship past December 1st. And we released it with very little marketing; it was kind of thrown onto the market, especially in Europe. But the funny thing is it was one of those sleeper hits that got bigger over time through word-of-mouth and positive reviews—very different from today’s market in which two weeks after launch you’re either a hit or not. It just kind of grew and grew. And we thought, “It’s doing pretty well. Let’s do another one.” GS: Which is harder: Being a doctor or running a dev studio? Zeschuk: [Laughs] It depends on what kind of doctor you are. If you are running your own practice, it’s pretty hard. It’s similar in that you’re the end of the line: If a patient needs something you’ve got to be there. It’s very similar to running a game studio. Our medical experience really helped us understand responsibility. That experience also made it easier to run a game studio, because we had so much passion for it. We liked medicine but our true passion was making games and building our company. But I think the hardest thing probably was being an intern or resident. It’s kind of like gamesauce • Fall 2010 41
Art work and grease boards, the wall hangings of all developers. But which is the real art? The painted stuff, or the brain dumps on a grease board?
crunch, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but it doesn’t seem to end for years. GS: How did Stars Wars Knights of the Old Republic come about? Muzyka: I think we were finishing MDK 2 at the time, and we were trying to figure out what to do with the team when we got a cold call from Simon Jeffrey from LucasArts (he was the head of development there at the time). He said, “Would you guys be interested in doing the first Star Wars RPG?” Our jaws hit the floor, and then we said, “Oh yeah, we would be very interested.” The timing was perfect. Later that week, we had a meeting in which we listed three or four new project alternatives, some of which were cool ideas that other publishers pitched us. Then we put “ Star Wars RPG” in there, and everyone in our senior leadership team said, “You’re joking, right?” We said, “No, seriously.” And they’re like, “YEAH! We now know what we want to do!” From an external development perspective, Lucas had been a bit opaque to us in that we didn’t know who to call there. Plus, at that time they weren’t doing a lot of external development. We had actually always wanted to work with them, but we didn’t know how to get a foot in the door! They were different than other publishers who are always looking for external product, so to actually be called and asked was a real honor for us. From our perspective, great games come from the passion for the subject matter, the passion for what you’re creating. I think if you don’t have that as part of the equation you 42 gamesauce • Fall 2010
usually don’t end up with a good product. It’s almost impossible to have that level of devotion, attention, and engagement from people to make something great without passion. The only way to do that is if they love it. This is why it’s so exciting for us and our teams to be working on projects like Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. GS: So, we have to ask: Why did you set up shop in Edmonton? Zeschuk: Yeah, that’s a funny one in that there was no specific plan behind it; Edmonton is our home town and that was about it. I think we get a fair amount of credit for being strategic thinkers and planners and all the rest, but boy, we didn’t do any planning on this location. We didn’t think, “OK, where’s a good place to do this?” We just did it and never looked back. Edmonton obviously isn’t the first destination about which everyone thinks, “Oh, I can’t wait to go there.” Consequently, having Edmonton as our starting location allowed us to select people who love being with BioWare. People who come to us in Edmonton come there for the studio, for the people, for the team, and for the product—and that again factors into the passion. Muzyka: Edmonton is a very interesting city: It’s a good family city with a reasonable cost of living; there’s great education and health care options; it has solid infrastructure, plus it’s surprisingly cosmopolitan. And it’s interesting for us because now we’ve got multiple studios in the BioWare Group.
15-plus years, it’s
been a fantastic ride. We’ve made a lot of games—we’ve probably made 10 or 12 products that have
had a big impact on the industry, which is gratifying.
We’ve got BioWare Austin, BioWare Montreal, BioWare Mythic in Fairfax, Virginia (Mythic is part of the BioWare Group of studios now) and we’re opening BioWare Galway in Ireland shortly. But in spite of this we’ve never been empire-builders. We’ve never had the objective to have studios everywhere. We’ve always been focused on making great games and facilitating our teams making games. Ultimately, that’s what drives our expansion and our growth. GS: How did acquisition by Elevation Partners [the investment group that bought BioWare and Pandemic] come about? Zeschuk: That’s actually kind of funny too. You look back on all these things and see
that there were all sorts of fortuitous events that came to fruition. That one was probably around GDC 2005. We had a meeting with a guy named Greg Richardson (someone we knew from EA previously). He set up a meeting, but we didn’t know what we’d be discussing. Then the really ironic thing was that our very next meeting was with Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton (the guys that we’d work with to start BioWare Austin). We said to each other, “Hey we should talk about working together.” So we had backto-back meetings at GDC. And what was so funny about those two meetings was that unlike the many meetings we have that don’t lead anywhere, we were pretty sure these were two real opportunities. gamesauce • Fall 2010 43
Its just as well there is plenty of space at BioWare—think of how many developers you could squeeze into the space required for a pool table!
Greg Richardson was working with the guys from Elevation and was brought in to help facilitate potential deals—somewhat like an exec-in-residence to help them get into the video game business. Elevation was quite serious about getting into video games, did a lot of research on it (really impressive stuff) and believed that BioWare was one of the top prospects. We were quite open to the conversation; we weren’t specifically seeking it, but if the deal was right it was something we were open to—particularly considering that we knew we’d be seeking external financing for the first time to help us start our MMO studio. Many of the entrepreneurs we’ve met over the years advise you to plan your exit at the same time you’re starting your business; frankly we always thought they were crazy. We just wanted to make games. We didn’t care about selling our company and planning an exit. It’s really interesting that of the people we admire the most in the business, none have or have had an “exit strategy.” Each one of them is like, “the minute we don’t want to make games anymore, we just won’t make games anymore.” GS: So how did you feel when EA subsequently purchased BioWare/Pandemic? Muzyka: Quite a few members of our Austin team had worked at EA previously (many at Origin) and I think they had very mixed feelings about it—and we were sensitive to that. When we announced it internally across our studios, that’s the very first place we went. We went there and sat in front
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of everyone and said, “Hey, we’re going to do this, and here’s why we think this will be great.” And they asked us some very tough questions. It worked out well because we had the credibility with the team already; we had been working with the team for two years and they trusted us. John Riccitiello and Frank Gibeau were there with us as well to help answer questions, and that was a huge positive factor as well. Given that we had worked with the team for a couple of years before the deal and had demonstrated who we are through our actions, there was a belief across our teams that we could make it work and retain our values and cultural identity at the same time. And that’s always a challenge in an acquisition—ensuring that your culture survives even as you deliver the expected results as part of the larger company. Again, it’s not an EA-specific thing or anything like that. Rather, being part of a big company is a very different thing than being independent—we had never done it before. We were always entrepreneurs prior to that time. And then suddenly you’re in this big giant company and there are a lot of new things to think about! It’s exciting, and interesting, and scary, all at the same time. Change is like that sometimes. GS: Now that you’re part of EA, you suddenly have vast resources at your disposal that you have never had before. How do you keep from losing your edge and developing a blasé attitude? Zeschuk: We’ve had the opportunity to grow very rapidly as part of EA, but we were very careful about how we focused our efforts. We invested more resources into our key products, for instance. There’s always that seductive concept that more products equal more opportunities, but the industry has shown that it’s getting more and more hit-driven. You have to deliver hits. It’s just not realistic—even with a deep talent pool—to think too big and broad. Frankly we were guilty of this too, so a couple of years ago we had to reduce the number of projects and refocus—and we were and are better off for it.
I’m not sure our focus and approach to successfully delivering products is a philosophical thing—I think we’ve just been fortunate. We largely self-funded Never Winter Nights, paying for it with the money we made from Baldur’s Gate. When you’re paying your own money, when you’re paying your own way, you can do whatever you want, but you also need to be practical— so in that sense, we’d already learned to operate without heavy publisher oversight. Within EA, we’re not directed specifically on what to do or how to do it. We get goals and we get targets we have to meet, and we go figure it out and ensure we deliver results to meet the goals we agreed to at the outset.
are a variety of different ways to approach this, and they can all be successful.
GS: You have been indie and a part of EA. What is the biggest ongoing challenge in running a studio in these environments? What are the advantages? Muzyka: One of the best parts of being a part of a larger company is having peers with whom you can discuss your challenges openly. It’s also great to work directly with the sales and marketing teams as part of one aligned larger team. We have gone from a small startup with just one team, to a two-team studio, to three teams at one location, to a multi-location studio group, to part of a larger, private equity-funded company, to a five-location group division within a large, publicly-traded company. And I’d have to say that every stage of development we’ve gone through in the past 15 to 20 years has been fun and interesting for us. The common elements at all of these stages are ensuring strong alignment between your teams both internally and externally, through ongoing and frequent communication around mission, goals, values, vision and strategy.
GS: Given EA’s bad experience with Sims Online, it will be interesting to see their reaction to your Knights of the Old Republic MMO. How do you feel it’s going to go? What’s your biggest worry? Muzyka: You can’t predict the market, but we’re very confident we’re going to make an awesome game. There’s always a chance that you can make a great game, put it out there, and for whatever reason it doesn’t do as well as it should, but we’re confident that SWTOR is shaping up to be something quite special. We have a lot of things in our favor— the Star Wars license in partnership with LucasArts, for example, is a huge thing. We have a great design, a really good plan, the game is already incredibly fun to play, and we’re not afraid of competition. Another possible risk is a change to the MMO business model. One thing that mitigates that business risk is the fact we’re going to be a premium service, and if you’re big enough and provide a high value, people will pay a fair price.
GS: Would you say that EA is starting to adopt more of a city-state approach like the Activision model? Muzyka: Well, absolutely and I think John Riccitiello’s pretty public about the concepts of valuing talent, making great games and structuring in a city-state model. What’s also interesting is that it’s something that continues to evolve over time; EA has been doing this for a while. When EA originally reorganized into labels, integrating with the city-state model was one of the considerations. Some of the labels are also fairly focused on specific product lines, so there
GS: So you’ve done Star Wars. Any other licenses you’d like to have a crack at? Zeschuk: Originally the D&D license was something we loved and that was really cool to work in. Beyond that, I’m not sure. I think for us any license we work on would have to be incredibly valuable to offset the complexity of dealing with it—having to get approval on things, for instance, and adding in the administrative overhead. It’s one more step in the process, and as you know, game development is already a convoluted process. The more simplified you can make the act of making the game the better.
GS: The Sims label, for example? Zeschuk: Yes, though it’s now called the Play label and includes a wider range of titles with other franchises too. Within the Games label it’s very diverse—for example, you get MMOs, Shooters, RPGs, Driving, and Action. So within the organization we’ve had to sub-organize. The only way to manage is to subdivide, so we’re organized into the BioWare group covering RPGs and MMOs, then there’s the Shooters/Driving group, EA Partners, and an Action/Adventure group. By structuring in this way you do end up creating unique cultures, which is a good thing, we think.
We strive to work with our teams in setting their goals and saying,
“Hey, go for it.” And then we
really want to be in the position to say, “Yep, you
gamesauce • Fall 2010 45
At the same time, that’s something that’s been really cool over the years: getting cold calls from people that we thought were joking—from movie studios and directors, for instance. We’re like, “You’re not really this person, are you?” I think the games we make are certainly in tune with movies and TV and stuff that actually works well in other media—the kind that enrich the world.
Yeah, we didn’t believe this is how they design their games either. But we think it looks good anyway.
GS: How involved were you with the scramble to snag the Lord of the Rings license? Muzyka: The Lord of the Rings license scramble a number of years ago was pretty interesting to observe from the inside. Everyone was seemingly vying for it before EA ended up with the movie rights, and simultaneously the book rights were still a little unclear. So people would call us up, randomly it seemed, and say, “Hey, can we say you’ll make the RPG if we get the license?” And we’d say, “Uh, maybe?” Then other publishers would call a day or two later and say, “We’re trying to get the rights, can we say you’re doing the RPG with us?” And so on. We were really only interested in doing a Lord of the Rings RPG if the entire license could be all sewn up under one umbrella. We also insisted on having the business conditions right before we considered any deal. It was already going to be a very high risk venture given the move timing, so we didn’t want any uncertainty in the business terms. We didn’t want to risk having the license terminate after a period of time or having someone introduce a competing game that could mess up our PR and marketing or cloud the market with confusingly similar games. Right now there’s not too much in terms of licensed IP that we’d love to work in beyond what we’re doing now (BioWare IPs and EA’s catalog of IPs, plus Star Wars: The Old Republic with LucasArts), apart perhaps from that property. GS: BioWare is known for huge scope—very big, expansive universes. How do you start a new IP at BioWare? Zeschuk: When we’re doing a new IP there are a couple of key ingredients. One of them would be a team—a team that is passionate. The idea is largely driven by the team. We have general ideas or settings, then we largely work on world-building, a lot of richness to the background and history. It’s very interesting work. I think we do something similar to what the paper RPG space has done. They can’t really do anything else.
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They write these big giant manuals about the politics, the culture, about the history. So you end up with this kind of world bible. I think the thing that we do differently is take the preproduction phase really seriously. There have been a few times that we’ve taken a swing at really developing a new property—Jade Empire, Dragon Age, Mass Effect—and we realized you have to do all this work. The thing about RPGs is there’s so much content that is so interrelated and detailed that it has to all hold together. When a player sees the cracks within a world or gaps in the setting then that cohesion and immersion are gone. That’s why it’s particularly cool that we have not only huge world bibles, but also multiple novels for our games written largely by the writers of the game. When we get started in the development process, it’s that attention to background and setting that makes us different. Once we’ve got that we’ll usually tie the technology to the game background. We usually have a good idea what the game-play is going to be right at the outset along with the details of the world. For our last few projects we have been working primarily at the goal level. For example, when Casey and his team started Mass Effect the overall goal was to try and capture a feeling of exploring the galaxy. The team works on the goal and we check back and see what they come up with. When you’ve got a bunch of really great people together and you give them a lot of latitude they come up with some really cool stuff. In the case of Mass Effect 2, the team’s goal was very specific. They said, “We want to streamline the experience. We want to keep all the depth there, but change it up so that it’s not as complicated. Everything needs to make a little more sense.” So that was the goal at the outset of the project. When we actually played it and saw it in its final form, we said, “Wow!” When you go back and play Mass Effect 1 and then Mass Effect 2, it’s really different. We strive to work with our teams in setting their goals and saying, ”Hey, go for it.” And then we really want to be in the position to say, “Yep, you nailed it.” Our core goal is getting our teams excited about what they’re doing, having them feel that they’re working on something that’s really good and really worthwhile. Everybody wants to work on good games—that’s what it’s all about. So no one’s there to do anything but be successful. At BioWare we never feel like, “Oh well. We’ll pump this one out and make a real
game later.” Every single release is something we take very seriously. GS: Let’s talk about smaller scale. Have you thought about setting up a division for smaller teams? Muzyka: We actually have one. We’ve been doing it on and off. We’ve done iPhone games, we’ve done DS games…. GS: You do that internally? Muzyka: Yes. We have been working at it for awhile. Clearly that’s one direction the market is going. Traditionally, in a big company you say, “Oh, we have a division that takes care of that,” and you keep your head down and focus on the giant stuff. But what we’re seeing is an increasing value in the vertical integration of the experience. The Dragon Age Journeys Flash game was done by the EA2D guys at the EA headquarters. One cool thing about it is how seamlessly it is linked into the Dragon Age franchise. It is increasingly important to provide multiple inputs into the worlds we create. You can play on one version and influence the world on different platforms, creating unique and different experiences. The smaller games are super important—something we’ve worked on understanding for a couple of years. Traditional developers occasionally have a tough time doing it though. There are two archetypes: there are the folks who have started small and gone to big games—only to decide that they prefer the simplicity of small games; then there are the new kids who pop out of school saying, “Oh, I love the small game stuff.” But something happens when you’re a five-year veteran trying to make your mark: You intuitively feel you have to do something gigantic—console, PC, or whatever. Which is fine, but those guys sometimes just aren’t as passionate about doing smaller stuff. We try to match our teams to the projects they are most passionate about, which is one benefit of having a portfolio of different types of products across the BioWare Group. GS: Will we see more stuff from BioWare of that nature? Zeschuk: I think so. We’re always playing around with different stuff. We did a Mass Effect iPhone game, and our team has created all kinds of different prototypes (with small games, cycle times are short). A small-game team gets the experience of shipping multiple products faster. Every cycle you learn something. Within a year they’ll
have done five things. They’re working on something new and surprising that people are already finding impressive. GS: So where do you see BioWare five years from now? Zeschuk: That’s a secret. [Laughs] We do plan ahead, but we also understand that the world changes very rapidly, so our plans are dynamic. Obviously a very big shift for us will be moving from developing Star Wars to maintaining it, running it and expanding it. It’s an exciting prospect. I think that’s going to dominate a lot of our time for years to come. I think the second thing is we have two established franchises now that we can work within, and there are an enormous number of possibilities there. One thing we try not to be is too predictable. continued on page 70
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The Long and Winding Road Taking a Game from Digital to Retail by Dawn McKenzie & Kate Freeman
48窶トamesauce 窶｢ Fall 2010
e play your games. A lot of your games. If you’re on a Top 10 list out there, we’re downloading the demo and maybe even buying the whole thing. Which can really add up these days: With the advent of game-a-day saturation and so many of us sporting two or more portable gaming devices, there’s a lot to be played out there. So, when we decide to take a game to retail, it is not a decision entered into lightly. This is not like accepting a Facebook friend request from an acquaintance in college; this is like deciding to confirm your Mom as your friend. This sort of decision comes with responsibility. Above anything, we have to believe in the product—if those of us in the halls of the office are evangelizing about a new iPhone app we’re addicted to or telling each other to jump on Big Fish Games to get the game of the day, it’s probably a good one. We play enough to be discriminating with our recommendations to each other and to our consumer. And, if we feel like a game will really bring something new to the retail space, resonate with our buyers, and take off with our players, then we look at the schedule and try to find a place where it fits. And then, your phone rings or your inbox dings, and we see if there’s a way to work together.
It’s a Process The route to take a game from the digital space to retail is a long and twisted one, with a lot of logistics and processes involved. There’s the testing, the content adjustments, the contracts, the packaging, the market research, the buyer feedback, the rating, the production, the manufac-
Step 1 First we star t with sketchs. Lots of sketches.
turing—and the list goes on. Even if a game has performed really well at digital download, that doesn’t mean it can translate directly to retail—handing over a Gold Master (GM) is just a first step. The good ol’ days of simply acquiring the license to a title and sticking it in a box are long gone. When the digital download price dropped over the course of 2009, retailers across the nation asked where the value was for their customers. Developers now have to deliver more content to the retail consumer in order to maintain a higher price point. This means that, when we review a title, we also look for potential for value add-ons. The fact is that video game software sales declined in 2009 along with the rest of the economy—by eight percent across Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. according to the NPD Group. The retail space of 2010 requires innovation and flexibility—and teamwork between developers and publishers to ensure that products are successful at retail. And, many times, the terrain of today’s retail market also requires a different kind of relationship structure. A few years ago, large advances for games in the Top 10 on major portals were pretty commonplace—developers could shop for six-figure advances from publishers if their casual game was an online hit or had a major license or brand attached to it. Today’s market doesn’t support this type of capital investment up front, as more and more publishers demand a product prove itself in the marketplace first. Thus revenue shares have become a more viable option for those companies fronting the cost and providing the expertise to take products to the retail space.
The Asset Drop More than any banner ads, e-mail campaigns or print advertisements that you might run, a small publisher’s biggest marketing tool for a game in the retail space is the box itself. When a potential buyer is strolling down an aisle at their favorite big box store, the packaging is the best advocate for a product. In order to put a game’s proverbial best foot forward, we spend countless hours perfecting the packaging artwork. Naturally, that means that we start hounding you (the developer) immediately for an asset drop—which is to say, we want everything. What can you do to ensure a great final product from the beginning? Give your publisher everything. We want your logos, your backgrounds, your screen captures, your textures, your fonts, your character renderings, and pretty much anything else that’s high resolution. The better, more comprehensive the asset drop, the more inspiration our design team can draw from and the better the final box art will be. And the better the box, the better the in-store draw for customers.
Creating the Artwork After pouring over our market research and competitive analysis, we pull out the sketch pad. Our artists will pencil dozens of ideas— different perspectives, compositions, title treatments, etc.—all in the name of exploration. This type of exploration takes a while to complete, and at the end of it MumboJumbo pulls our top creative minds into a room to duke it out in order to narrow the layout options to three. At that point, it starts to feel like America’s Next Top Box Art: “I have 20 beautiful sketches before me, but unfor-
Step 2 Refine pencil sketches to help narrow feedback.
gamesauce • Fall 2010 49
tunately only three can continue on in the hopes of becoming the next box art.” Culling down our options is a multi-step process—we may have to combine elements from a few different ideas or eliminate an idea that we love because, in the end, we know that it won’t resonate with the consumer. But once we get down to the top three, we start showing those concepts lots of love. Once we have selected three concepts, we’re then able to start creating color comps. Our illustrators look at the game’s mood, settings, and characters and then create a color snapshot of the game—we talk color palettes, illustration styles and discuss where to take the sketch next. Knowing that we have maybe 30 seconds to convey to a consumer the object, mood, and wow-factor within a game makes the color step in the process a very critical one. This is the phase in which the illustration really starts coming to life, and we can see the final product start to take shape. After days of laboring over Wacom Tablets, our illustrators and art directors settle on the three final color comps, and thus begins the real drilling. We’ve cultivated a great list of players and fans through the years, and once we have our comps ready, we ask them what they think. After we have had a chance to digest what our consumers have said, we feel pretty comfortable choosing the final artwork for the box. We’ll work on polishing the selected design with the consumer feedback, although it will still be rough, and then we’ll send it over to the original developer for feedback. As a publisher, it’s ultimately up to us to make a title successful
at retail. But because we understand what it’s like to pour months of effort and sweat into the making of a game, we know that this is your baby, too. We ask our developers to send us timely feedback. The sooner you can get your thoughts down in an e-mail the better—especially if you have large concerns. What kind of feedback is helpful from a developer? We love feedback. Great ideas come from everywhere, and we want to be sure that no stone is left unturned in the creative process. But retail is a different animal from digital, and we ask our developers to recognize that. Some feedback can be very helpful; some not so much. What we ask is for you to focus on a few key areas:
›› Evaluate the Characters A lot of times a publisher may need to polish a character to make it boxappropriate, but the character’s essence should still be intact. Let us know if it’s not or if you have an idea for improving the character further. ›› Assess the Look-and-Feel Have we captured the right mood, the right theme, the most pivotal setting? Let us know if there’s something you feel would be more appropriate. ›› Take a Step Back Just for a moment, pretend that you’ve never seen your game before—you don’t know how it’s played, you don’t know the story, you have no idea how many hours went into creating the characters or the plot or the game-play. Then look at the box—would you buy the game based on this box? ›› Express Your Concerns In an ideal world we would only
receive mountains of praise from our partners—and we’re fortunate that nine out of ten times we’re able to make developers really excited about the retail box. But, if you don’t agree with the direction, let us know. We can set up a call, go over the reasons that we’re pursuing a certain direction, share market research, share buyer feedback, and pull back the curtain to show you exactly what we’re trying to achieve. And if we need to, we can go back to our sketchbook to see if there’s something else that we both feel would work.
Preparing for the Pitch Once everyone is on the same page, and we feel like we have a really strong direction, our illustrators dive in. There are hours that go into making a final illustration. And from there we spend hours on the back of the box. We feel like the back should be given the same time and respect as the front. Once the layout is complete, it’s time to shop it around. We pull together presentation materials and send our sales team out with the best representation of your game that we can. What can you do to help the pitch? If you have statistics to share with us about how your game performed online, share them! Of course, we’ve done our homework before signing your title, but no one knows the lifecycle of your game like you do. Let us know how you’ve phrased things—what was the point of difference you targeted? Share your research and reasoning with us to be sure that we’re all sending out the same message.
Step 3 We create color comps.
Step 4 W e send it to you to see what you think.
50 gamesauce • Fall 2010
[gohld mah-ster] –noun The final version of a game that is submitted to a publisher for commercial release.
[kuhl-er komp] informal –noun A digital rendering meant to assign a mood, hue, saturation, illustration style, logo placement and object arrangement to a packaging composition. Still considered a “rough draft,” a color comp is meant to further the ideas put forth in a pencil sketch, but in loose terms that can be altered and tweaked along the way.
[bom] informal –noun –abbr. abbr. Build of Materials. An itemized account of every component that must be used to build a product.
Finalizing the Packaging Once we know that a game is going to be placed at retail, we spend a good portion of time finalizing the box by determining printing methods and treatments. There are numerous factors to consider in this phase: How broadly is the game going to be distributed? Who is the primary target audience? What’s hot now? We work with great vendors across the country who are constantly letting us know about the latest and greatest techniques out there—presses are capable of some really amazing things, and once you know exactly which consumer you’re trying to attract, manufacturers can help you seal the deal by placing that final touch on your box art. What can you do to help finalize the packaging? Trust us on this one. Sometimes what was hot a year ago in the retail space isn’t something that’s done anymore, or there’s a treatment out there that has emerged as supe-
rior. For example, a lot of retailers no longer allow publishers to ship in boxes with a fifth panel—those boxes that have an extra flap that folds out like a book cover and give you more space to show off a game. If a developer comes to us and asks for one, we’re going to have to politely decline. Remember: We have skin in the game, too, and we want you to succeed—we’re not trying to hold back!
Production, Pack-out, Ship And then we zip it up—we put together our pre-press files and let our vendor know that the files are on their way. To ensure quality control, we don’t just hand over your GM to a replicator and the box art to a printing press. At this point, we are still fully in the middle of the process. We test the GM and our build master creates an installer for the game based on the packaging design. For PC products, we burn a GM, test it, then test it again. For Nintendo products, we work with Nintendo to test the final build and deliver a final version of the game to them. While we can work with local manufacturers for our PC products, all of Nintendo’s DS product is made in Japan, so we try to provide them with everything they need from us to turn the product quickly. Once we turn over the PC GM to a CD replicator, we upload the disc face art and the manufacturer sends us a PDF for proofing. We circulate the PDF, checking the rating size one more time, triple-checking the legal and logos—and then we’ll say OK. Once we’ve signed off, the replicator creates a glass master from the GM and they begin molding the CDs. While they’re doing that for the next seven days, we finalize the build of materi-
als (BOM) to ensure that every Mylar tab, every security device enclosed label, every corrugate shipper is accounted for and on the floor for manufacturing. And, there’s a lot to consider—everything is intentional. What tab should we place at the top? Which plastic casing should we pack this product out in? How many products go into a case pack? Our retailers each have different specifications, and we have to keep on top of the process and their requirements to be sure that we ship a product in such a way that they can shelve it immediately. Much like the CD process, the paper components for each product we manufacture are press-checked—we drive over, bring our final files and red Sharpies, and make sure that everything is exactly right before signing off to let the presses run. Once the paper runs, the sheet then has to go to be coated and converted into individual boxes—these then head to our manufacturing floor, where each of our games is assembled. Once we’ve created the pieces, tested the replicated pieces and gone into fulfillment, we make a trek out to our warehouse to be sure that everything is coming together according to plan. We double-check the build specifications and line up the orders that we have to ship. We back the freight trucks up to the dock, and—finally—we ship your game to stores all across the country. And we ship you copies, too! We know how exciting it is to hold the finished product in your hands, and we love sharing that experience with our developers. We hope you’re just as stoked as we are when we finish up! Now what do you do? Send a copy to your mom—mom’s love that stuff!
Step 5 W e refine the concept until it’s juuuuust right!
Step 6 Final prep, press check, and print!
gamesauce • Fall 2010 51
Photo: Jim Brown
Photo: Andrew James
52窶トamesauce 窶｢ Fall 2010
The Life of a Booth Babe Reflections by One Who Knows by Yvonna Lynn
weeping back the thick velvet curtain to the booth babes’ dressing room, we find the girls throwing soft pillows at each other while frolicking in their underwear. [screeeech!] Actually, no they aren’t. The girls are slipping out of high heels, de-cramping their perma-grin smiles, and collapsing into chairs. Gone are the skimpy booth costumes, replaced by yoga pants, big comfy T-shirts, and bunny slippers. The full time professional promotional models look over their itineraries to see where they are being flown to next. The girls who do promo work merely to supplement their income (between acting and modeling gigs) start calling their agents to let them know they can go to the next casting. And Charisma+2 gamer models go home to show off their swag and hop online to play some games. gamesauce • Fall 2010 53
Paid to Be Perfect The highest paid booth babes are, in a word, perfect. They have extensive promotional experience, no detectable body fat, perfect faces with white teeth, pleasant voices, and exuberant, infectious personalities. They work out on a regular basis. They also eat right and have a natural proclivity to shining
I met Miyamoto!
when out in a crowd. Event managers know the ultimate booth babes also have the critical quality of reliability. Attractive girls are fairly easy to find, but the truly dependable ones with no drama are rare treasures. For booth babes, the best gig is working with a client who pays them well and treats them with respect. Most promotional models jump between working random conventions, car shows, and shopping mall promos. This means game conventions are not especially noteworthy—except that attendees seem to shower less than those at other shows. Promotional models who are gamers work the gaming conventions because it is a great way to get into industry-only events or conventions that happen to focus on their favorite hobby. The average workday for a standard booth babe is eight hours with two 15 minute breaks and one half-hour break for lunch. Generally speaking, clients will give longer breaks when it is impossible to get lunch in such a short time. At GDC, E3, and PAX, for instance, the lines just to buy lunch are longer than 30 minutes. On the other hand, in my first year as a booth babe I simply brought protein bars because I wanted to run to the other halls to check out the exhibits.
Getting Ready for the Show There are basically three types of booth babes. A standard booth babe hands out T-shirts or promotional material, frequently wearing black slacks, black flats, and a knit shirt with the client’s logo. A specialty booth 54 gamesauce • Fall 2010
babe often wears a custom made outfit with heels. She may do photograph sessions, demo the game, and/or serve as spokesmodel in the booth. Standard booth babes are either locals or hired as models who will “work as a local”—meaning that there is no compensation for travel expenses or incidentals. A premium booth babe can do everything a standard model can do, but because she is in very high demand, her compensation often includes reduced work hours, hotel and airfare, and a premium price. Normally booth babes are chosen four to eight weeks in advance of the convention. If the developer wants the booth babe to demonstrate the game or talk about it, then NDAs, scripts, and demos should be provided no later than 48 hours in advance, though more time is recommended if at all possible. If the developer wants to do some sort of live “shoot-out” or “challenge a pro,” then obviously they will need to get the game to the talent with plenty of advance notice to allow her to practice and prepare.
Preparing for the Big Day The daily convention grind starts the day before the event’s show floor opens. Most professional agencies give a short orientation to get paperwork signed, to review a brief outline of schedules, and to provide basic instructions. The agencies do not discuss game-play or attempt to provide answers to common questions that might be asked because they don’t know much about it. I have never been told any of the interesting facts about a game before showing it. I was lucky that I got to play some of the games beforehand while the booth was being set up. I then just figured out the answers myself. Those agencies who contracted me wanted to get the critical information to the models as succinctly and quickly as possible. For most agencies, the significant details have little to do with the product being represented.
Preparation sometimes gives way to compromise at show time, and unfortunately last-minute changes are more common than not. Every client has individual ideas and expectations of what is needed in a booth babe, but these ideas are rarely put to paper. Developers and publishers spend exhaustive amounts of resources preparing their games for a show only to compromise first impressions by having their game presented by someone who is clueless about their masterpiece.
The Seeds of a Business I recall wondering what was wrong with my agent before my first E3 gig as a booth babe. At least once a week she would ask me if I was still planning on flying out to LA. She couldn’t understand why I would want to “work as a local” when the entire job barely covered my trip expenses. What she didn’t realize is that I wanted to be there so badly that I would have paid her to be able to work the show. In those days, the conventions were not as widely available for public viewing as they are now, so I jumped at the chance to be there in person. At this first glimpse into the industry, I worked the Nintendo: Legend of Zelda booth. I went on my big 30-minute lunch break and excitedly told some of the other booth babes that I actually met Miyamoto! They were completely unimpressed and didn’t even know who he was. I thought it a terrible waste to fill these prime promo modeling positions at the gaming conventions with girls who make noobs look like pros. Thus the seeds of Charisma+2 were planted.
Beautiful Gamers Although it was initially hard to convince developers that attendees actually cared about whether the booth babes knew about games, it has finally been revealed that it is indeed a very cool addition not easily forgotten. Actually, developers didn’t realize how much better it is to have game-savvy models until recently. For instance, at the most recent GDC, Katie Engel asked me to get some Charisma+2 hostesses for the Valve party. She was terribly frightened that they would be like the (non-gamer) girls from previous years. She knew the Charisma+2 models were attractive gamers, but she was still concerned that they would bunch together talking rather than mingling and serving drinks. I assured her that my models
would be far more interested in talking to the people who actually worked on their favorite games than to each other. Further, I assured her that they would want to work hard if for no other reason than to make a positive impression that they were industrious and not just another pretty face. As I looked over the party that night, I saw these beautiful, smart young ladies literally breaking a sweat, busting butt to make sure everything ran smoothly so the Valve executives and guests could enjoy their evening. Katie said later that Valve could not have been more pleased. As for the guests, I get stopped and complimented on the Charisma+2 models every time I am out. It’s rare to have a hostess who can talk intelligently about rigging, quest givers, and great GUIs. To have models who are able to talk about such things from personal experience is almost unthinkable. Though I had the idea for Charisma+2 when I first worked for Nintendo in ’05, most of the girls I knew who might be able to do promotional modeling were not yet 18 at the time. I had to do some preliminary groundwork and testing first anyway. The initial challenge in ‘07 was finding gamer girls attractive enough for the developers to hire. Luckily I had become acquainted with enough of them to get things started. So I had pretty girls, but some of them had not even worn heels before. Even fewer knew how to put on glamorous make-up or talk to people without using a keyboard. Fortunately, I had been modeling since I was 13, so I was prepared to teach them to succeed. gamesauce • Fall 2010 55
No, She Won’t Give You Her Number Today I represent more gorgeous gamers than I ever imagined—and I no longer have to teach them how to model because they come to me with solid portfolios and experience. Both male and female models seek me out. Many are incredibly bright and well educated. They include business owners with masters degrees and litigation attorneys while others are just graduating high school and not sure of where they want to go with their lives. I truly do believe
that each one has something unique and precious to bring to the table. It is timeconsuming, but it allows me to match the right girl with each client. In many ways, I am like the “House Bunny” if you ever saw that movie. I’ll teach the girls things like taking a few “Electrolyte Stamina” pills keep the cramps at bay if they aren’t used to wearing heels for more than 8 hours a day. Professional insight like how one shouldn’t face one’s hips flat to the camera that makes even slim girls look wider. The biggest lessons come in preparing themselves to not be seen as just ditzy girls. Not long ago I took some girls to a wine and cheese pairing class so that they would not feel uncomfortable at the formal dinner, which was going to be a part of the schedule for a convention week. To expose their intelligence, I started the Cplus2Magazine 56 gamesauce • Fall 2010
specifically for the girls to hone their writing skills, get some published articles for their resumes, and show off their brains for games to developers. Cami, a journalism major, is our editor. She is honing her skills while cracking the gentle whip on the journalists. She requires that the girls with a degree write their reviews in 3rd person like the New York Times. The younger girls grow into writing more than “OMG”, “LOL”, “this game rocks” type bloggy reviews. There are no banners or ads, no comments, and no interaction with the fan boys on the magazine, or on the site. This allows the girls a safe place to express themselves currently or develop into being an asset for a game developer some day. We have had models get noticed and picked up by several developers over the last few years. Programmers, artists, QA, and community managers have been placed from C+2 models. I realize, of course, that sometimes booth babes are seen as targets for potential dates. Think again. The models are there to work. Charisma+2 models are there to model for something they love, but this does not mean that every guy wearing a Lord of the Rings shirt has a shot. I wish I had a dime for every time a guy asked me if I could hook them up with one of the girls. I’m not a madame and the models are not call girls. Guys, if you think you might want to date a promo model, she will let you know she is interested. Still, I can say one of the best parts of being a gamer model is that, generally speaking, gamers are the most gentlemanly of attendees. They tend to respect personal boundaries while taking pictures or talking to the models. At the same time, Charisma+2 models are taught to respect developer boundaries as well. They are instructed, for example, to never say, “Hey, I have this great idea for a game.” What’s more, they understand the importance of NDAs and honor them. The models are a never-ending source of entertainment. It is exciting for me to customize each event’s booth babes to that particular client. At every single event, the models come back to me with their fun stories of who they met and what the devs were like. I love hearing them get giddy about meeting their heroes. I am frequently asked who do I see as a hero. I admire certain aspects about a number of people but only know them in limited ways. I am grateful for the trailblazing that Brenda Brathwaite and
Photo: Andrew James
Corinne Yu made for women in the industry in an actual game development capacity. I have high esteem for the genius of John Carmack. I’m a huge fan of Miyamoto and value his focus on the family. I love Romero’s undying passion for game design, Cliff’s open ear and implementation of what gamers want in their games, and the sheer success of Blizzard’s team as a whole.
Paid to Look at Models If you are thinking that you would like my job—which consists of looking through countless photographs and videos of models in bikinis—consider how hard it is to keep just one girl happy, much less 150. At the same time, it is endearing how eager the models are to make their mark in the gaming world. They ask me questions about sponsorship details and TV contracts. They
seek my advice on personal issues. I know when the girls get into the college they want, when they buy a new car, when they are failing a class or having relationship issues. I suppose it is like having a bunch of kids. I want each of them to excel, but I also have to watch them skin their knees along the way. My role is to try to minimize those painful lessons. I can’t comment on the lives of regular booth babes because I have never been one nor managed one. The booth babes at Charisma+2 are all gamers, some of whom want to ultimately end up with careers in game development as they work their way through game schools or colleges. Others book game voice-overs and gamemocap through the agency as well. Even more want to ride the promotional modeling train as long as they can—because it is just plain fun. gamesauce • Fall 2010 57
Why are sound guys always grumpy? Don’t Get Me Started… by David Chan
f you spend any time at all around a development studio—especially when deadlines are looming—you can’t help but notice that the sound guys are really cranky. Even crankier than the artists and coders, if you can believe it. Although you may be inclined to attribute their grumpiness to a personality flaw, the truth is much more complicated than that. In fact, an audio designer’s state of mind is really a reflection of the nature of his work. I once read a book called Sound-On-Film: Interviews With Creators of Film Sound by Vincent Lobrutto. In this book Lobrutto talks to sound people from the early “talkies” all the way up to the recent past. It seems sound editors/designers have been fighting since day one to get an even footing with visuals. The problem with sound is that even though everyone knows it’s important it’s been a struggle to explain why. (At first people didn’t even want sound in movies because they assumed that it would be too distracting.) Sound affects people on a subconscious level. When sound works well you feel it, you
a development team that it needs to think about sound as much as visuals and gameplay. I know some may disagree with me, but I see the “game-play pie” divided into three equal parts: visuals, design, and audio. Programming, of course, is part of the equation, but it is the infrastructure underneath everything supporting the more abstract elements in the game. Audio always comes into play very late in the project, sometimes for good reasons. You can’t really develop the sounds until you know what a level is going to look like. Is it a forest or a jungle or a cave? Is the creature large or small? Does it have fangs? Does it breathe fire? These are all valid reasons why sounds cannot be created at the start of a project. Even so, that doesn’t mean that sound should be discussed only at the end of a project. It’s also a challenge for non-audio people to express what they want in a sound. Audio people are used to expressing things with a certain vocabulary. Even if two sound designers have never met before, chances are that they speak a common language. They know how to describe a “whirring buzz” and a “meaty thunk” with crystalline accuracy. We spend so much time hearing these things in our heads that we are used to expressing them.
meaty thunk don’t really notice it. When sound fails it becomes obvious and breaks the suspension of disbelief. That in a nutshell is the challenge of a sound designer: to make sounds that reinforce visuals and story and to make them so they don’t stand out to the point of annoyance. You might say that at its best, you don’t even notice the sound. Which is a big part of the problem.
Working with Sound Designers It’s this relationship between games and sound that makes it difficult for sound designers. It’s sometimes hard to convince 58 gamesauce • Fall 2010
Non-audio people on the other hand can get embarrassed when asked to make the weird noise they want the “Florb” creature to make when it attacks. Maybe it’s a lack of social graces that allows audio people to go around making noises that you wouldn’t normally hear from someone over the age of twelve. There is also this little game that often takes place between non-audio people and sound designers. I call it the “Make It Better” game. The rules of this game are simple. The person wanting a change in a sound will continue to give vague feedback to the designer until the designer, by fluke,
makes the exact sound desired or a kind of uneasy détente is reached. It usually involves conversations like this: “That’s close but I need you to make it better.” “Sure, what exactly do you want?” “I’m not sure, just make it bigger without being too big.” “Ummm, so you want some more bass. Possibly I could layer in a growl or two?” “No, just make it better.” “Okay, how about I punch it up a bit in the lower midrange and then add a bit of jet roar?” “No, no, just make it sound cooler.” “Yeah, okay I’ll just pop into Sound Forge and apply 10% more of the “Cool” filter then?” “Wow, they have a filter to do that?” “Yup, they sure do…”
The Advantages of In-house Sound Design
Photos: Winston Chen
You might think I’m joking about the conversation above, but it’s pretty close to some of the real-life conversations that take place every day. Some people in the industry think that audio is akin to voodoo. We often sit in rooms with intimidating consoles with hundreds of knobs and flashing lights. We have cables strewn about as if in some kind of techno-jungle. Even people with many years of industry experience have trouble understanding and communicating audio needs. If you’re looking at a texture you can say that it is too green or too dark. You can tell a programmer that the lighting is too bright. You can tell a writer that a particular piece of dialog is too long. But when you have to express to an audio designer what is wrong with a sound, it’s hard to find the words to describe how you want it changed.
A few people related stories to me with the promise that they remain anonymous. I don’t blame them because audio is probably the smallest and one of the more cutthroat portions of the industry. Sound is one of the most frequently outsourced parts of game projects. Outside contractors have to try and understand a project and get in tune with its spirit and direcgamesauce • Fall 2010 59
Being immersed in a project from the beginning gives you a better perspective on what the world you are creating should sound like. It also allows other people on the project to give you direct feedback and input. tion in a very short period of time. Not only do they have to get into the vibe of a team that may have been together for years, they have to do it from a distance. Outside contractors also have to think about the next project since they only get paid when they are actually on the job. This makes it difficult to deal with problems because if they push too hard they may not only lose the contract, but their reputations may suffer as a result. Working as an in-house sound designer has a lot of advantages over being external. The first is that, as an employee, you have existing relationships with the people that you will be working with from project to project. This helps a lot when it comes to
understanding the language and culture of a company. Having that understanding will go a long way in helping you achieve the right sound for a game. Another benefit of being in-house is that you are more likely to be involved at the earliest stages of production. Being able to help shape the tools to be used and the feature set will give you more and better options for putting sound into your game. Often with audio, the contractor is brought in when the project is already at full steam or (worse) almost done. Being immersed in a project from the beginning gives you a better perspective on what the world you are creating should sound like. It also allows other people on the project to give you direct feedback and input.
Photo: Winston Chen
Audio Director Lorien Ferris gives us a peek at the Toys for Bob sound studio.
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Being in-house also gives the designer the advantage of knowing the schedule more intimately. An external contractor who may only see a new build of the game once a month may not be able to accurately judge how on-target the progress of the development cycle really is. Unfortunately, not all developers will be 100% honest about changes in deadlines and schedules until the last minute. When you are working inhouse it’s easier to assess the “real” state of the project and adjust the audio production schedule accordingly. In addition, an in-house position usually means you can concentrate on the project at hand without having to worry about lining up another contract when the current project ends. The so-called stability of working in-house is often weighed against the flexibility of contract work.
The Downside of In-house Sound Design However, working in-house has its drawbacks as well. One disadvantage is that often sounds will be requested without much thought to the additional workload. If the same scenario occurred with a contractor doing the audio, cost and time considerations would determine if adding content was worthwhile. Game designers sometimes think that creating and implementing a new sound is “easy” when in fact it frequently involves a fair amount of work. If you are already working at capacity, unplanned requests can make crunch time even more stressful and exhausting—without the offsetting increase in compensation that outside contractors receive. Resources can also be a problem for inhouse audio providers. If a project is quite large and requires audio assets numbering in the thousands, it’s possible that an in-house audio staff can be overloaded. In that case there are only a handful of solutions. You can hire additional audio staff, but this process can take a long time. Finding someone who works well with the existing team and has the experience required is no easy task. The upside is that, given the time and budget, you can turn to more than one external contractor and spread the load and the risk of running over schedule. However, an external contractor might have the same resource constraints, so you have to make sure that whoever you look at hiring has the bandwidth to handle your project.
Capturing sounds in the wild
a. Chevy Blazer dropped from 40 ft. for a Bond game.
Field recording can also be good relaxation therapy.
c. Recording exotic cars is just one of the many thankless tasks in the day of a sound designer.
Photos a, b, c: Chuck Russom; Photos c, d, e: Watson Wu
Hopefully the lion doesn’t mistake the microphone cover for some kind of fuzzy prey.
e. Watson would like to tank the military for their assistance.
Not shown: Picture of the publisher at the other end of the target range.
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Since audio contractors are usually offsite and treated as black boxes (direction goes in and audio comes out), it falls on the internal team to implement whatever sounds they receive—even though the tools provided to external contractors are often better than tools strictly for internal use. It’s often assumed that an in-house audio person will be able to adapt to tools that would not be acceptable for an external party. This can mean that the tools have a steep learning curve, incomplete functionality, poor stability or all of the above. With tools like SCREAM, FMOD, and Wwise being used more often than internal tools, the lines of division between internal and external tasks are blurring somewhat, but ultimately the success or failure of a game’s audio lies on the shoulders of the in-house team.
Audio Horror Stories I may be taking my life into my own hands here—after all, I did take the sacred oath at
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I may be taking my life into my own hands here—after all I did take the sacred oath at the secret sound designer ceremony—but to truly understand the life of an audio designer, I have to tell some stories.
the secret sound designer ceremony—but to truly understand the life of an audio designer, I have to tell some stories. We’ll keep the sources anonymous just for good measure. One sound designer was asked to do over ten revisions on a sound. He suspected that the person on the other end didn’t have a clue what he really wanted and was just asking for revisions and hoping to get lucky. Rather than continue with further guess-
work, the designer decided simply to change the name of the first sound he had sent and resubmit it. Of course, it was accepted as the final sound. Then there is the old “Phantom” knob trick that many music engineers are familiar with. This is the cute little trick that is used on musicians who just don’t know what they want on the other side of the recording studio glass. When the musician asks for
Photos: Winston Chen
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more gain and you know it will saturate and cause a lot of noisy distortion, you pretend to adjust a knob—and keep doing it until the musician gives the thumbs up. This bit of engineering sleight-of-hand occurs in the sound design arena more often than anyone would ever admit. Sometimes a designer will receive a request for sounds with no video, no pictures, not even text descriptions of what is
This also means that sound usually gets crunched in with other deadline problems. Sometimes sound gets less design time and often less of a budget than other facets of the game. This presents many problems in terms of quality and variety. Sure, it’s fun working against a deadline and coming up with incredible sounds under pressure. (Well, it’s fun at times.) The rest of the time it’s ulcer-creating, sanity-wrenching, creativity-sapping madness. Operating under these conditions will affect anyone’s work in the long term.
In Search of Solutions needed—just a list of 500 sounds with names like laser_1 and creature_attack2 and a oneor two-week deadline to go with it. Or an outside contractor will agree to a flat rate for a project only to have 50% of the sounds cut in the last week without additional compensation. One hears of last-minute rewrites to entire sections of dialog even though the voice actor who recorded it originally will be in the South for the next two months. The tales are as numerous as the designers in the business. All too often what happens is that sound gets left until the last possible minute.
There are solutions to this mish-mash of audio problems, and they are fairly straightforward. First, producers and others involved with audio need to educate themselves. With the help of sound designers, they can learn the basics needed to communicate effectively with their sound people. Chances are that this insight will bring about a domino-effect, helping developers and publishers see that it’s in everyone’s best interest to get audio up and running as soon as possible and to keep it in sync with the rest of the project. Second (and most important), all the audio folks out there need to be more vocal and take a more
assertive approach to audio problems and solutions. This can mean going out on a limb, but nothing is gained without risk. Even contractors that traditionally compete with each other need to join in to help further “the cause.” After all, a more cooperative approach is likely to benefit everyone. Tom Peters has told of the CEO of a printing company who gave away a new technology so that his competitors could also use it. When asked why he would do such a thing, the CEO replied that he preferred to have his competition running with him and not against him. He felt that there was room enough in the marketplace for companies that had the right attitude and quality. Basically, it was the concept of friendly competition. In that vein, I encourage everyone to visit the Game Audio Network Guild website (www.audiogang. org) and join in the conversation. I encourage everyone (not just audio people) to check it out, and if you are at all interested in game audio join up and chime in. The more voices we add, the more notice audio will get—and then maybe we can stop being so grumpy. That is, until the next time someone comes into the studio and asks if that thing over there goes up to 11.
Story and art: Ed Kuehnel and Shaun Bryant
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Extrasensory, Extravagant, Exhausting The Pomp and Pageantry of E3 written by Jon Jones
rdinarily, when you think of a trade show or industry conference, your immediate thought is of a small convention center with neatly-arranged booths of ordinarylooking people in business casual clothing chatting it up, exchanging business cards and light, fluffy conversation. And then there’s E3. When you visit the Electronic Entertainment Expo, your immediate impression is that of a circus, with an endless array of flashing, colored lights, a dynamic, ever-changing sonic landscape of ridiculous booths, and hordes of scantily-clad women begging for your attention like glorified carnival barkers. And that’s a dramatic contrast to the serious business professionals in neatly-pressed suits striding briskly down the hallways, checking their expensive watches to see how late they are for the next back-toback-to-back meeting they have slated. It’s quite an experience to observe a hardened executive in an Armani suit jabbing anxiously at his Blackberry as an eight-foot-tall space-marine passes by him on patrol. It gets weirder still when you realize that neither takes any particular note of the other because they both belong there. The primary purpose of this industry mash-up is to sell games to big-box buyers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. The secondary purpose is to court the media by announcing the newest and hottest software for the latest cutting-edge hardware to build up awareness and anticipation of this season’s most exciting buys.
Big from the Beginning The first E3 was held from May 11 through May 13, 1995, in Los 66 gamesauce • Fall 2010
Angeles, California. The show was created by the Digital Software Association (now known as the Entertainment Software Association). Prior to E3’s existence, most game developers displayed their new products at larger and less-focused conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show and the European Computer Trade Show. E3 filled an obvious void, and in a big way: The first show was one of the largest trade show launches in history, with 1.2 million square feet of show space and over 80,000 attendees. Not a bad start! Fast forward a decade and a half, and you find that E3 is the glitzy, glamorous, gloriously gaudy game event of the year. Publishers pour literally millions of dollars into their booths, floor shows and marketing in fevered competition to maximize media coverage. The media flock to the much-anticipated keynote addresses and press conferences put on by Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony so they can be among the first to hear announcements of the latest hardware, software and acquisitions. The game industry’s rock stars—Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, and Sid Meier among them—stride boldly up and down the halls during the one week a year in which the titans walk among the mortals and survey their domain. Hapless game developers do double-takes and almost unconsciously scoot out of their way, pointing at the titans as they pass and whispering to their friends, “Do you know who just walked by us?!” Developers new to the show beg their leads and studio heads for passes to go to E3 so they can be at ground zero as all of next year’s hopeful hits and certain flops are unveiled. At the same time, there are just as many developers who have been going to the show for years
Photos: Jonathan Racasa
and have had their life’s fill of the media mayhem and do their level best to avoid being conscripted into E3 duty.
Who Needs Substance? All that being said, there is an underlying truth here: If you’re a developer, on the surface, it would appear that E3 has virtually nothing of real substance to offer. Fundamentally, it is purely a media event staffed by developers and hired help. There isn’t a single unveiling, trailer, teaser or game-play video you can’t see on the Internet four days later with none of the endless lines, the immense crowds of people reeking of stale coffee, sweat and hangovers. The nonstop sensory assault of the show itself even provides its own hangover once you’ve been there longer than a day. Only the foolish go out without gel inserts in their shoes. After a single, long, and brutal day of exhibiting, you have no voice left at all and have seen virtually nothing at the show outside of your own game’s booth. Even the most hardened gamers who routinely complete marathon, 24-hour gaming sessions are often left longing for nothing more than a shower in a quiet hotel room. And yet, thousands of game developers still faithfully make the trek out to Los Angeles year after year to become one with the spectacle. There is something to be said for the moment-to-moment sensory experience of E3. Nowhere else can you stand in a crowd of hundreds of career geeks quivering with excitement at the unveiling of the exquisitely rendered cinematic trailer for the next Star Wars game on a hundred-foot-wide screen. Feeling the wave of utterly uninhibited
joy and excitement rippling across the crowd at the speed of sound as it erupts into involuntary fist-pumping, shouting and raucous applause is a magnificent sight to behold. How many times in your life will you share something so viscerally, intensely and uninhibitedly with so many people that really get it? But let’s not speak of the big publisher strip club parties. Aside from all of the aforementioned wonders and curiosities, of course, the other glaring aspect of E3 is the shameless catering to the lowest common denominator. By this I mean giant space-marines in armor, half-million dollar cars, cosplayers in movie-quality War Machine suits, and, of course, booth babes. What can I say about the ubiquity of booth babes? Virtually every booth in the South and West halls are manned by these skinny, beautiful, scantily-clad women who are often dressed in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the game they’re presenting. While they may signal the inherent adolescent nature of E3 itself, they also provide a welcome counterweight to the testosteronic, male-dominated nature of the trade show. After all, what self-respecting geek wouldn’t want to pose with one or two (or more!) beautiful women who will (can it be?) actually put their arms around him or touch him on the shoulder to pose for a picture? As much as we like to think that we, as game developers, are advancing the state of the art and bringing games up to a level where we’ll be respected as a form of art on the same level as film, we still cannot resist the siren call of beautiful-but-still-irrelevant women paid to shill our products. (Pro tip: No, they aren’t going to give you their number, no matter how
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into you and your D&D group they sound. They’re paid to act this way. Don’t blame the player, though; blame the game.)
But Wait…There’s More That’s really just the tip of the iceberg as far as E3-related debauchery goes. Without divulging too many lurid details, suffice it to say that the E3 party scene is rather legendary. The big publishers typically throw very large and well-funded parties, but there are a number of smaller, more exclusive parties that many developers look forward to even more than the trade show itself. This is the reason approximately 90 percent of the conference attendees look spectacularly hung over for the entire show: because they are, and it’s another wonderful part of the show. E3 offers other perks if you run with the right crowd. The games you see demonstrated on the show floor and in the inevitable deluge of videos released right after the show are just a hint 68 gamesauce • Fall 2010
of what’s available to the well-connected. The amount of material shown behind closed doors to potential buyers, investors, media and lucky friends of the developers is immense. And if you happen to be a celebrity you can get the up-close experience as well (or so they say). Like everything, who you know is more important than what you know. One of the aspects of E3 that everyone appreciates but few call attention to is the constant series of warm and almost comically improbable human connections made every day in passing in the halls. Where else might you see a UNIX programmer stereotype giving an enormous bear hug to a young, mohawked punk in a late-’70s era, torn leather jacket? This happens a hundred times a day at E3; it’s the one time of the year when old coworkers from around the world come together to unveil their latest and greatest labors of love to one another and share war stories over a pint.
The World’s Biggest Focus Test E3 is also the world’s largest glorified focus test. The industry-wide crunch leading up to an E3 demo is well-known, and it’s a stressful exercise for all involved. But it’s all for a crucial purpose: to see how the media and their peers react to their games. Developers manning booths are all too eager to invite other developers and press over to grab a controller and try out their latest to see how they play. Attention spans at E3 are woefully short, and at best you have three minutes to get noticed, differentiate yourself from the competition, and create excitement. It takes Herculean effort to keep someone’s eyes and mind on the game for longer than a few moments in an environment in which everything and everyone else is literally conspiring against you. Only the best, loudest and most engaging titles will win the game of E3. Then again, what better place is there than E3 to learn valuable lessons in user experience and attention retention? You’ll be hard
pressed to find any other single event that has so many people coming through in such a short amount of time in which you can test the game’s immediate appeal. Although booth duty at E3 can be drudgery, with the right attitude it can be an amazing opportunity to learn about people, your game, and how to make it better. When taken as a whole and adding up all the cumulative sensations, spectacles and experiences comprising E3, oddly enough you’re left with an overall impression that E3 mimics the very games it presents: Flashy, full of polish, but ultimately more about style than actual substance. But that’s not to say that it’s a hollow experience. By no means. Much like visiting Las Vegas, it’s an experience every game developer needs to have at least once. Or a few times. Speaking of which: When’s the next E3?
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continued From page 47
We went through a long period during which we did a lot of one-offs for business reasons (among other things). We never did a sequel to KOTOR, and we never did a sequel to Never Winter Nights. We actually did one-off, one-off, one-off multiple times. Fundamentally, it is very hard to get one of our games done. When we do finish
ever you have to in order to make sure you’re right. GS: In your view, what’s the best game of all time? Zeschuk: I would have to answer contextually for the time it was released. It’s very personal. I think Wasteland is the best game of all time. It was actually one of the first open
I think one thing that’s important to us is not getting stuck making the same franchise over and over. We want our people to be able to move and gravitate to what they like and what they’re passionate about. it, it’s just barely done because it’s very difficult to connect all of the moving parts and we do it to such a high standard. In terms of our future work, I think one thing that’s important to us is not getting stuck making the same franchise over and over. We want our people to be able to move and gravitate to what they like and what they’re passionate about. We don’t want them to feel like “Oh, I have to do a fantasy game again.” The prospect of doing something new is hot, after all. Of course, the industry is changing massively. Some first launches might actually be social games. You may have to throw it in the pool and test the concept before someone will throw their money at it. The challenge we have is that, when we attach our BioWare name to any product, everyone expects a product at grand scale. So when you do something smaller, you almost have to do it in secret. Right when we started the company, we had all this furniture delivered and the shipper listed us as “BLOWARE” on all the boxes. So we proposed using that as our minor release label. “Bloware: Our Software Blows.” (OK, that’s a joke!) Smaller releases are a great opportunity to test out new IP ideas, although we probably wouldn’t go as far as other types of media. We actually talked at times about doing a graphic novel even before we started making a game in order to gauge public opinion. I like the idea of doing something smaller in the game space, then testing it before we go big. Nowadays the risk is so high that you want to do what70 gamesauce • Fall 2010
world games in which you could go anywhere, change the environment, and there was also a variety of ways to solve problems. It was very forward-looking for its time. The scariest thing is when you discover that it was done by only four or five people. There were other guys testing it and stuff, but the actual core work was done by a team that was a fraction of the size of anything we work with now. Muzyka: I agree that it’s very contextual and personal. For me a few of the best games of all time are Wizardry, from 1980 or so—one of the first role-playing games and one which really made you feel like you were exploring the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord Trebor. Along with Zork, it set the stage for many adventure and role-playing games to follow. Probably my all-time favorite game is System Shock from the mid-90s, one of the first true 3D games, which helped build a foundation for many great shooters on PC and console in years since. It had amazing atmosphere, and it really helped immerse you in the world of Shodan. On console one of my early favorites was Sonic on Genesis – it was an amazing achievement for its day. GS: That brings to mind the guy who wrote Star Raiders. One guy, 8K. It’s hard to imagine a sound sample that’s 8k anymore. Zeschuk: That’s one amazing thing about the craft—there was a beautiful simplicity to some of the earlier design. One thing I find really interesting is seeing how the complexity of the stuff we make is kind of narrowing
the top of the pyramid. There are so few who can actually mechanically play these incredibly complicated games compared to, say, Pac-Man. GS: Do you sometimes feel that you’re creating content that 50 percent of players will never see anyway? Muzyka: Yes, and we’ve historically been bad for that. We spend a lot of time creating two different sets of content, to enable choice. On the one hand it encourages replay, but you have to be very dedicated to see everything through a second play-through. We certainly appreciate those fans that do that. The actual complexity of what we create is revealed to a select few, but it’s worth it in a sense in that it helps create the feeling of being immersed in a real world. People know the alternate content is there should they pursue it, and they have the opportunity to make alternate choices to discover it. Seeing them do that and talk about it is pretty amazing and rewarding. GS: How do the money hats feel? Do they keep the rain off? Zeschuk: [Laughs] No, no, it’s all about making games. We don’t worry about that stuff. We’re just always focused on the future looking down the road and trying to understand how to make our products successful. You can always say, “We’re not in it for the money,” but the proof is in your actions. We actually love what we do. We want to create stuff that people want to play. I remember one time Ray and I had this deep philosophical conversation about why we make games, and in some sense it’s to share the experience we had when we were little kids playing games. And it’s so amazing to experience these worlds. The chance to share that is really cool. And the stuff on the side is great—being able to do well and do what you love and get rewarded for it. To be able to have the flexibility and freedom is great too. We’re working because we love it. It’s what you are and who you are. We don’t define ourselves by it but—it’s cool and crazy. Thinking back 15-plus years, it’s been a fantastic ride. We’ve made a lot of games—we’ve probably made 10 or 12 products that have had a big impact on the industry, which is gratifying. GS: And pretty successful ones too. Muzyka: Yeah, definitely. We’ve been very fortunate and lucky to work with great,
We both like to say that our best work is still ahead of us—and we
both believe that!
passionate, smart, creative teams on amazing projects. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we’ve been able to iterate on success. We and our teams try to always remain humble—we know that our next game has to be better than the ones before it. If people are grounded and retain their passion, it works. Where it sometimes falls apart and people lose their focus is when the money hats get too exciting or the peripheral benefits of making games become more important than the art and craft of video games, which is why we entered the industry in the first place. That’s when you risk falling down in the eyes of your audience of fans. We are doing our best to avoid that. We both like to say that our best work is still ahead of us—and we both believe that!
GS: How do you keep your employees happy? Muzyka: At BioWare we’ve always focused on core values. For the BioWare Group, our core values are quality in our products for our customers, quality in our workplace for our employees, and entrepreneurship for our investors, all in a context of humility and integrity. We talk a lot about core values in meetings and we focus on ensuring that our three core stakeholders—employees, customers and investors—have their needs met. We try to make sure that we’re making decisions with all of the core values and key stakeholders in mind at all times—as opposed to making short-term, unsustainable decisions which favor one stakeholder group over another. For our employees, we try to create the sort of workplace in which we’d enjoy being employed—a workplace culture which is fun to be part of and respectful. For our customers, we try to create the types of products we and our employees are proud to be associated with. For our investors, we build games which provide a good return on investment, so that the whole enterprise is sustainable in the long term.
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Story and art: Ed Kuehnel and Shaun Bryant
gamesauce • Fall 2010 71
by Will Kerslake
e designers encounter an abundance of little moments in which we make discoveries about things that end up becoming trivially obvious in retrospect. Ideally we all strive to create designs in our games that are both elegant and simple; however, we often get there through a process that is neither. As Scott Adams quite eloquently said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Design is knowing which ones to keep.” That is not to say that all game design is wistful trial and error. With time and experience, good designers should be able to derive a majority of their craft from previous efforts, isolating new creative mistakes to the areas in which we are branching into new territory. While experience significantly reduces the resulting surprises, they are never entirely eliminated.
For Instance When working on The Urbz, one of the tasks I had was rebuilding the social interaction system. It needed to take into account the different subcultures we were adding to the game. The resulting system was based on RPG combat mechanics, substituting attack types and armor classes with cultural and social interactions and clothing styles. Things were working well, so I decided to take the RPG metaphor to the next step, color-coding player interactions with the equivalent of “to-hit” percentages. Unfortunately for a game like The Sims, humorous failures and unpredictable results are part of the appeal for many players. In attempting to bring clarity to the system, I ended up 72 gamesauce • Fall 2010
breaking it—because I lost sight of the target audience. The problem with these kinds of revelations is that they tend to be tied to specific genres or individual projects. While interesting in a postmortem context, the findings don’t have a sufficiently broad application. My position at Radar has me delving into the world of transmedia, and consequently I’ve been spending more time working with writers and producers from the film side of the entertainment business. When explaining one of the project concepts to me, the writer kept referring back to this central theme he was attempting to integrate throughout the story.
As I pondered this, it hit me. In nearly a dozen years of making games, I’ve spent countless hours in meetings trying to nail down the core focus of the project, but I had never even sent an email to discuss the message we were trying to leave people with after they finished the game. A lot of this comes from the simulation mindset so present in game development. We are often trying to take some concept— driving a car or exploring a city—and make it feel as absolutely real as possible. There is a constant quest for better and more reactive emergent systems that can make our worlds feel alive. We build first-person shooters that strive to make you feel like you are actually on the battlefield, or at least a Jerry Bruck-
Where are our themes? What are the questions that games are asking us to think about after we put down the controller? And it got me thinking…. When writing book reports in elementary school, students are taught to explain the basic elements of the story—the plot and characters. As those students approach middle and high school, the focus shifts from literal understanding towards exploring the themes present within a work. The same can be said about film. While it’s true that some summer blockbusters are little more than a series of special effects, every year a wide range of films are released containing strong underlying themes. In both literature and film, detailed critiques are focused less on the specifics of what happened and more on the themes present within the work. What if the same sort of analysis were applied to games? Where are our themes? What are the questions that games are asking us to think about after we put down the controller? Outside of a few, select examples, particularly in the emerging art-game genre, there really aren’t many games out there that engage the player to think about issues beyond the context of the events being simulated on screen.
heimer version of a battlefield. And there is nothing wrong with that. There is value in focusing on those simulation-based goals when deciding what features to add and what falls outside of the scope of the game-play. However, to give our audience the sort of experience that transcends moment-tomoment game-play, we have to go beyond the simulation focus. Not only can we expose players to deeper concepts, but unlike any other media, in ours the audience can directly experience the message. Yet our games won’t do that unless we are actively engaged in weaving thematic elements into our stories and more importantly, our mechanics. It’s obvious that you can make fun and successful games without themes. I love blowing stuff up as much as the next gamer, and the last thing I want is for designers to start turning every game into some sort of moral sermon, preaching their view of the world. But with all the time and effort that we already put into our games, it’s worth it to sit down for at least one meeting, or even one lunch and ask, “Is there anything we are trying to say here?”
EVEN IF YOU GOT YOUR OFFICE CHAIRS FROM THAT DUMPSTER BEHIND THE BUILDING, your game can be Unreal.
No matter what size your budget. No matter what type of game. Unreal can be your game engine. Email Mark Rein at firstname.lastname@example.org. gamesauce • Fall 2010 73
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