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#10 - Playing Sekiro with One Arm
On this episode, we dive into the conversation around Sekiro and accessibility as we chat with Clint Stewart about his experience playing Soulsbourne games with an arm and a foot.
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
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Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about the people who play and make video games. I'm your host Danny O'Dwyer. We've had a lot of people on who have made video games, so it's about time we've had someone on who plays them. And this isn't just anyone, this is a friend of Noclip and somebody I've wanted to collaborate with for quite awhile. So I'll let him introduce himself. Clint, how are you doing this fine Friday afternoon?
- [Clint] I'm doing great, thank you. Hey Danny.
- [Danny] Tell us a little bit about yourself. I'll kind of get into what we're gonna talk about in a hot second, but tell us your name, where you are right now, and what we're here to talk about.
- [Clint] Alright, my name is Clint Stewart. I go by DisabledCable on Twitter and JehovahNova on Steam, bunch of other names. I think TreeLegDog may be one of them. I've been a gamer most of my life and almost seven years ago, I was injured very badly and I lost my left arm and I broke my back as well, so trying to learn how to play games one-handed has been quite the challenge.
- [Danny] And you're somebody who can kind of speak to the accessibility question from somebody who has experienced playing games with no disability and experiencing games with a pretty heavy one as well. We've a lot to get into today. Before we sort of talk about, I guess, your experience more generally, I just want to let everyone know how this came to happen for this episode of the podcast. I've been wanting to do something with Clint for a long time because his insight into this is super refreshing and he's a very eloquent speaker but we've sort of struggled to get that project up and running. We're hoping to do it the future. But what happened in the past month I guess is this sort of general conversation that's been going on around Sekiro easy mode and accessibility, which I did a video on on Noclip. You can watch an episode of Bonus Level that's kind of all about that. And that was kind of my opinion on it but I thought, the way Noclip works is that we often ask the experts about these things. People who aren't, we're not just giving my option on the state of development or design or anything but we go out and we find people who are experts in these issues. Clint is an expert in this. Not only because of the way in which he plays games but also because he's a fan of the particular series in question. So pretty early on I kind of tapped him up and was like, hey, when you've played the game a bit can you come on the podcast and sort of chew the shit with us about this? So first of all, thank you so much for coming on and making the time.
- [Clint] Yeah, thank you. I've gotta say to start off with too, you did buy it for me. So I gotta be, first off, I've never been called an expert and you did buy the game for me, so that's all. All that's out of the way and start now.
- [Danny] Yeah, we don't let interns, we don't do unpaid internships or don't pay people who are contributing to our work so yeah, yeah, no. Absolutely, it's the least we could do. So before we touch on Sekiro, can you tell us a little bit about how you generally play games? Like if you're going out to buy a game today Clint, what are the considerations that you have to sort of take into account? And how do you actually play them?
- [Clint] Definitely, and this is a great first question because it really made me think about the Souls games and games like those and just everything that I have to take into consideration when I buy a game. The last game that I bought that was similar to Sekiro would be Neo. And I had to refund Neo when I first bought it because they released that PC port with no mouse keyboard controls whatsoever. I'm used to some games mouse and keyboard not working in the menus or maybe I can't rebind the keys in-game but I can do it in the Razer Synapse software, but with Neo, it was just like no. You better buy a controller or it's just not gonna work. And just one of the only times I've ever had to refund a game.
- [Danny] Is that rare? Does that happen often?
- [Clint] That is extremely rare these days, thankfully. And enough people, I got on Twitter which my tweet might have got two likes. I don't think I got noticed by anybody but more than just me who's coming out saying, hey, this needs mouse and keyboard support. You can't release a PC game with no mouse and keyboard support. And I was hoping that maybe the Dark Souls, before the remaster that just came out, the community got together and made mouse keyboard controls work in that game as well. Because the first Dark Souls port was horrible. It's one of the worst ports I think I've ever played. And the community got, what was it called? The DS Fix, I guess the one guy made. But then they added on to it and added mouse and keyboard support, but they still didn't get the prompts right. So you would get a prompt on the screen to do something but it would say, it would be the controller prompt. You still wouldn't get the mouse and keyboard, which is extremely frustrating when you're trying to remember. You've just changed everything up and you think you remember what you did but then you know, that's extremely frustrating. Generally when I buy a game I look, does it have rebindable keys? And if not, that's not always a deal breaker, but does it just have mouse and keyboard support in general? Because I have two different one-handed controllers and I don't want to knock the guys that worked on those, that created them. One of them was the first guy who I'd ever seen even do this. He has a channel on YouTube. And each controller has it's own issues, but I mean for what they are, there really is no other choice if you have to play console games. I mean because they still haven't gotten around to adding mouse and keyboard support fully on the Xbox. I think PlayStation has some in a couple games. But even like Xbox, they just added it and they have a partnership with Razer, but yet if you were to turn on the Xbox and try to just use the mouse and keyboard, or in my case the mouse and footboard, which is the Stinkyboard, you can't do anything. You have to use a controller to navigate the UI. And then to find the games that will work with mouse and keyboard. It's a lot to think about when you're looking at games.
- [Danny] Yeah, it's a whole lot of questions that most of us don't really have to consider at all. So when you're interacting with these games, obviously the bindable keys, you said, is a really important part of it. But what are you using physically? Because presumably you're not using both a mouse and keyboard. You're remapping this to a third-party peripheral, or sort of a--
- [Clint] So yeah, just let me explain that a little better. I use a 19 button mouse that's called a Razer Naga. Razer is the company that makes it and the Naga is the brand. And basically it's made for MMO. It's called an MMO mouse. Which I have used it in an MMO, and we can talk about that later. I think that's, one of the games that I used to try to teach myself how to play again was World of Warcraft. And then I also use a Stinkyboard, which is a four button footboard. Now both of these hardware have software tied to them as well that will allow you to completely rebind. You can make any of the buttons whichever button you want. And then the Razer software is even more powerful because you can make macros as well. And there are certain games like Devil May Cry 5, that just came out recently. That's a beautiful game. It's brilliant, it's a lot of fun to play. But for me as a one-armed gamer that was infuriating because you had to press three different buttons to be able to do some moves. And that was including having to hold down a button for lock on. So I ended up having to go in the Razer Synapse software and make a simple on/off macro for lock on, just so I could do some of the moves in that game. Out of all the things that they forget to add, like of course I would love to see ultrawide support or unlock frame rate. The game does have unlock frame rate, but just simple lock on. Being able to just toggle that on or off. Just like maybe you want to have sprint always on, have a toggle on sprint or a toggle on crouch. For lock on should be something that just needs to be industry standard. Do you want it toggable or not?
- Just help people out. That's definitely something I've come across in a few different games.
- [Danny] Yeah, I hadn't thought about that consideration at all. When you're playing then, so you have a prosthesis, right? Like you have some sort--
- [Clint] I actually do have government subsidies, or I should say subsidized, because I had to go through a legal battle just to get Medicare and Medicaid. I've talked to you about my story before, you know what happened. They denied me disability. I actually got denied twice and had to get a disability lawyer to get disability. And then when I finally got in court the judge was like, oh my lord, son, we're gonna take care of this.
- Oh my goodness.
- And I was in and out of there in two minutes.
- [Danny] On what grounds were they?
- [Clint] You know what, the first letter I got back they were like, oh he can still bend over and lift things. I'm like, with what good back and what two arms? Did you even read what your doctor said? Ah, bureaucrats, man.
- [Danny] That's incredible. So the judge like took one glance at you and kind of--
- [Clint] Yeah, soon as I got in front of the judge he was just like, I am so sorry sir, and we're gonna get this taken care of. Within the next three months I had an arm. You know, I think the government paid $90,000 for it, I wanna say. And it's very nice but it's very limited. I mean, it's the first version, right? Like if I had, I've got a few complaints about it, but one of the most being is how heavy it is. Because it's carbon fiber and it's got a battery. And also due to the kind of amputation that I had. I don't have a lot of arm left so it's pretty much just resting on my shoulder which is supported by my back which again, my L3 and L5 were severely cracked and my L4 looks like a spiderweb. They didn't think I'd be able to walk again. So that's a miracle in itself that I'm still walking and talking. So I count my lucky stars and I don't complain about too many things. But definitely this whole conversation around accessibility versus difficulty's really got me thinking. Your video is great that it looked at the nuance of it. You didn't just do one hot take or try to ride the fence. I saw your other tweet where you compared it to how you play racing games, and that really hit home for me because I would love to play VR games but yet you don't see me demanding them make all VR games playable for me with one hand because they're still creating that space. Like if I were to buy VR now I might be able to play Dirt Rally or maybe Elite Dangerous. They'd probably be the only two games I could really play in VR.
- [Danny] Yeah so let's jump into that then there, since you brought it up. How did you feel then about that sort of, I mean it was a very broad conversation that sort of was almost like numerous different conversations that were bumping into each other. But just speaking from the heart, what was your initial reaction to the conversation about that and what was your opinion on it?
- [Clint] Honestly, I really feel like it's a branding problem. I feel like, let's say they added an easy mode tomorrow in Sekiro or the Dark Souls games, you're not gonna care, right? Is it gonna lesser the experience that you had? No. Matter of fact, I could enable easy mode in my game right now because I ended up getting that mod. They patched it and then my workaround for the ultrawide fix wasn't working anymore so I found a mod that unlocks the FPS, does the ultrawide, lets you choose some camera adjustments. Where the game works now is if you target someone the camera automatically snaps to you. Or if you move at all, the camera automatically will snap back on you and this mod will disable that as well as give you FOV adjustment. I know it's something TeeVee was always preaching about. That really makes a huge difference when you're sitting really close to the monitor. Having a bigger FOV, it's huge. But that same mod will also let you turn down the speed, which isn't that how the guy from PC Gamer, I forget his name, but he was like, I cheated and I feel fine.
- [Danny] Right
- [Clint] I feel like it's just a branding problem, right? If we called it cheats I think everybody would be happy, because the people that don't care would just be like, yeah, I cheated, who gives a shit? And then everybody else would be like, you cheated yourself and the game.
- [Danny] That's a good point.
- [Clint] 'Cause it's all the same thing. We're just talking, like you said, we're talking around each other. We're all talking about different things but they do kind of correlate. I really do feel like it's a branding problem. Let's just call it cheats and be done with it. 'Cause even though I could cheat in this game I'm not gonna do it. I love this game. Honestly, the boss I had the most trouble with so far was a miniboss. It's not in the main bosses I've encountered. And I should say, I haven't beaten the game yet. You got it for me a couple weeks ago. I've been taking my time. I've been enjoying it. I've been exploring everywhere.
- [Danny] Good, me too. You're way ahead of me, buddy.
- [Clint] Oh, really? That makes me feel good.
- Oh yeah.
- [Clint]I'm like, he's probably gonna beat the game and be like, you're where? But yeah, the biggest difference for me I feel like with accessibility versus difficulty, like I recently beat The Witcher 3 as well. And that's a game that I had to start over because I ended up having to wipe my hard drive so I lost like 80 hours. And then I ended up like, I'm just gonna do everything. And so I spent another 150 hours just trying to clear my map. And so I finally beat that recently and that was a game I actually turned down the difficulty on a few of those last fights, just because they were annoying. The controls are transcendent in Sekiro, even more so than Dark Souls.
- [Danny] Well, it's funny like you're talking about how you're adding all these things and you're saying you're not cheatingsome people could argue that you're playing the game at a way higher level. 'Cause you're playing with your foot and one hand, whereas most of us have access to two analog sticks.
- [Clint] This game makes me feel like a ninja, it really does. I'm playing a one arm ninja, so the symbolism is not lost on me. I completely adore this. And the fact that you said maybe I'm playing on a higher level, I have felt like that has hindered me in some games. Take Dark Souls for example. Even on the remaster the mouse and keyboard controls are not perfect, they're not. I have to make a macro in that game for the jump attack and then like a kick I think, where you have to press two buttons at once. One of them's like forward and attack and the other's like, I forget exactly what it is. But I had to make that simple macro just because those buttons wouldn't always register because I've got W on my footboard. So I guess I should just tell you a little about this. I've got W and S on my footboard. So where those are very close together where I can press them very quickly if I need to. And the first two buttons I have on the Naga, there's a row of 12 buttons on the side, and the very first two where my thumb constantly rests are left and right, so A and D. I did it that way so I could press them in combination together because the Stinkyboard, when I first got it, it's first driver revision it wouldn't allow you to press more than one key at a time. So I couldn't, for instance, press two buttons on there at the same time. Where if I tie it to the mouse I'm able to do a Shift move to the left and move forward at same, it's kind of like a diagonal, you know. You're pressing three buttons at once to do what two buttons should do. And it's little workarounds like that that I've had to get comfortable with. I used to make a profile for each game that I would play. I mean, I've got a gigantic Sting library now. I started to realize, I need presets, right? Like this is the preset for action RPGs. This is the preset for shooters. This is my strategy preset. So I've just kinda had to learn just by doing, like okay, this is what I should do.
- [Danny] Right, are some genres that are totally off the cards? You're saying up, down, left, right. Like Mortal Combat just came out. Are you able to play that at all?
- [Clint] I have not played a fighting game since my accident and I would say, now I grew up playing Street Fighter. I had a Street Fighter callous. People that played that game will no what I'm talking about. If you played enough of it you would develop a callous. Depending on what kind of characters you like playing too and I never played the guy, the M. Bison kind of characters. I always liked the Ryu and the Ken's and the 360 characters like Zang and stuff. So my thumbs got destroyed, especially depending on what controller you used. And now with the setup I have I could play Street Fighter if I programmed everything or if I played with simplified control. 'Cause I think they introduced that in one of the games. It was like, you could do advanced moves by just pressing a button and I tried it and was just like, this is so boring. Now I haven't tried it since I've been hurt. This was several years ago. And I just know that the game wouldn't be fun to me, to play it that way. Like I'm not looking for something so easy that it's just mind numbing. That's not, I do play games to be challenged and to have a good time. Just pressing one button over and over's not really, that's not a good time.
- [Danny] I think that's why I was so impressed by the fact that you were playing these games because for me, as somebody who has both my hands, I was incredibly intimidated to play Bloodborne last year. I'd never really played a Soulsborne game until last year and then the reason I played it was we'd just had a kid and I was spending hours and hours lying on the sofa with her asleep on my chest and there was nothing I could do except play games. And I thought well, fuck it. This is probably a good a time as ever to actually try and--
- [Clint]Are you playing with the baby on your chest? Wow.
- Yeah, yeah.
- [Clint] Heard about being cold and in the moment.
- [Danny] It forced me to actually, I don't know, be very intentional. And I couldn't get frustrated because she'd wake up if I started to shout or move or get angry or throw a controller. So going back and playing the first Dark Souls which I did months after when the remaster came out, and also playing Sekiro, I found them very, very intimidating. What other games do you play? And is there something special about those Sekiro, Soulsborne games?
- [Clint] So yes, yes. First of all they are brilliant. They're a masterclass in game design, whether it's the art team. Now, the only thing you could really knock against it may be the story. The story in the Souls game's pretty obtuse. You kinda have to go looking for it. Maybe you need to watch some lore videos. I am glad that this new game there are cinematics. There's like more of a traditional story. I do appreciate the fact that it's not quite so, they respect the player. And that when they teach you something, they expect you to have learned that and to begin, not necessarily master it right away, but begin to start working on it. There are so many times where after I've beaten a boss I've been like, okay, so let me see, what's the cheese for this strategy? Is there a cheese? And I'll look it up after just to see did I do it the cheat way? I actually thought that I had beat, what's her name? Lady Butterfly, I had thought I had cheesed her because how I killed her was I kind of, I love they have fake attacking in this game. Like you can act like you're gonna attack and then block and it will fake it. And that's very similar to World of Warcraft, fake casting. As a caster in WoW, you don't want them to interrupt your heal, like when you gotta get off, or the spell you have to get off, so you kinda have to fake. Like you're, I'm gonna cast, I'm gonna cast, use your interrupt, ha ha I got ya. That's built into the gameplay. So I kinda tricked her and baited her to get into a corner and then one of her really killer moves in the air, I only had to dodge twice and I'd be able to attack her. At least get like two attacks on her when she's in a corner. So I look up the cheese on her, and the cheese is like do this one move over and over and over and over and over. And I was like, holy shit. That's so cheesy. I did not, I thought I'd cheesed it but no, I didn't cheese it at all.
- [Danny] You talking about cheeses is like, also sort of goes into the previous point you made about this being a marketing issue. The delineation between accessibility and cheats and then cheeses and strategy, because one of the things that came to my mind when were talking about easy modes in these games was the music box in Bloodborne, which is like, it's a fucking easy mode.
- [Clint] I'm not familiar with that.
- [Danny] So if you, you know, Father Gascoigne is a, oh, have you played Bloodborne? Of course, it's a PlayStation--
- [Clint] So yeah, I should say, yeah, it's on PlayStation. I haven't played it because I only have the Xbox one-handed controllers. I'm hoping they just add, they bring everything to PC. I know they're not gonna bring everything to PC but at least let me use mouse and keyboard, or in my case mouse and footboard on console. 'Cause one-handed controllers, no matter which one I have, they don't compare. For me, they have a one-hand, a mouse and this footboard, there's just nothing that comes close to that. Such a shame. I saw the tweet from the God of War guy and I'm like, yeah, your game's really aren't accessible to me at all, buddy. And I know it's, I know he wasn't thinking like that but I hate exclusivity, man. I really do. I wish you could play everything on anything. That's what I hope the future of gaming is, honestly.
- [Danny] Yeah, I'd never even considered the fact that basically the PlayStation games are completely off the cards. So Spiderman.
- Played Bloodborne, I haven't played Spiderman. Yeah, Spider-Man's the one that's killing me. Even more so than Bloodborne or God of War, is Spiderman. I wanna play Spiderman so bad.
- [Danny] Metal Gear Solid V, did that come out on PC?
- [Clint] Yes, that was on PC, yes. And that was actually a great--
- [Danny] Let me quickly explain that, the music box thing 'cause then I've got another question, just now that we've brought up the Metal Gear Solid thing. So in Bloodborne, they're one of the first bosses you meet, Father Gascoigne. Earlier, I'd say at least half of players run into this like windowsill where somebody, who I think you later find out then is his daughter, gives you a music box. And if you use the music box during the fight he basically staggers and you can use it infinitely up until I think, no you can use it three times during the fight. But it's basically a free hit.
- Oh wow.
- [Danny] And it completely changes the difficulty in that. I would say cuts the difficulty at least in half for that fight for new players.
- [Clint] You used or did you avoid it because you knew about it?
- [Danny] Yeah, the first time I played through it. The first time I played through it Bloodborne had been out for so long that at that stage, you know, I think I was working at GameStop when it came out so somebody did a video about that. So when it came round, the first time I played it I definitely did it. But in subsequent playthroughs I haven't bothered because I've gotten better at it by that stage. Which, you know, that's kinda how those games work, right?
- [Clint] You use the skills that you have, right? That makes sense. The difficulty, they want you to learn. I feel like these games are trying to teach people patience and just not to give up.
- [Danny] Totally, but at the same time they're not completely walling it off to people who--
- [Clint] I don't think so.
- [Danny] No, I don't think that's the intent. I don't think it's some crazy hardcore.
- [Clint] The quote that everybody loves to put up when they talk about, oh, it'll never have a easy mode. This is from Miyazaki, I'm sure I'm saying that wrong, the quote that everyone always loves to through up is, we don't wanna include a difficulty selection because we want to bring everyone to the same level of discussion and the same level of enjoyment. The next part of that quote is, so we want everyone to first face that challenge and to overcome it in some way that suits them as a player. That's the part everyone always leaves out. And I feel like with this one, they've really nailed it because they include a lot of options in terms of changing the keybinds. In some of Dark Souls, you couldn't change some of the keys at first. Like it was just completely locked out. The camera options that they added in, the fact that even include a selection now to show keyboard and mouse prompts instead of just, even though you changed the settings and maybe even changed what the keybindings were it still will show up Xbox buttons. That's so infuriating.
- [Danny] Absolutely, and whenever I play PC games and I've got my Xbox controller plugged in that happens. And it irritates me, but obviously the other way round it happens all the time, I imagine.
- [Clint] There's the other side of that too, where games like Battlefield, and I don't know if this works in the newest one, but it did work in Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4, as well. You could set up different keybindings, right? Like they've always allowed that. But then they also would allow you to set the plane to a flight stick. So if you had a cheap little joystick or something, or a controller even, you could set it to where when you've got it in the plane it would switch over to the controller. And then when you ejected, you could move back to mouse and keyboard. And I always thought that was brilliant and I wish more games would do stuff like that. Granted you're taking into account people have additional expensive hardware and that's the other thing people don't always think about is all this accessibility stuff is really expensive. I even saw the Xbox guys getting crap 'cause they're XAC was $100. When you look at what they did, they could have easily charged $300 for that. And they still probably would have been taking a loss.
- [Danny] Another element of this that you brought up a second ago was the way in which the lore of Sekiro sort of marries with your personal experience as well. I've actually noticed, I'm not sure if this is just because accessibility's been part of the general gaming conversation more now than it certainly was in the past, but I've noticed this recent trend with player characters with prosthesis on their arms. Am I crazy or has this just suddenly appeared everywhere?
- [Clint] No, it's definitely starting to be a thing. I got asked like what was my favorite disabled superhero maybe four, five years ago. And the only one I could even think of in gaming or in comics was the guy from Deus Ex, the remaster, the remake, or whatever. What's his name?
- [Danny] JC, no JC Denton was, Jensen? What was it?
- [Clint] Jensen was the guy from the last two, I think. Yeah, I'm pretty sure.
- [Danny and Clint] Adam Jensen.
- [Danny] We got there.
- [Clint] Yeah, you got me thinking JC Denton and I was like. That's the original, but the remakes or whatever, the reimaginings. 'Cause he was the only one I could really think of and then since then you've had the chick on the Battlefield cover. There's people in Overwatch that only have one arm.
- [Danny] Apex Legends, I think.
- [Clint] Apex Legends as well. Well, they got a whole cyborg in that one too.
- [Danny] Right, Solid Snake?
- [Clint] Yeah, that actually, you know what, that hit me the hardest. That's something I could talk about real quick.
- [Danny] Yeah, go for it, absolutely.
- [Clint] That scene was so powerful. It totally blew my mind. Now, I didn't have exact similar experience where I woke up. I knew, I came into the hospital talking about chop me off. Chop it off, just chop it off. I know it's gone, chop it off. And those doctors and nurses looked at me like I was crazy. Like damn, how is he living? I don't know if I told you this story but they didn't even know about my back. I woke up after my amputation and was like, holy shit, my arm is gone. I need a smoke. And they were like, you can't go outside? I'm like, you can't tell me what to do. And then I fell on my face and that's when they were like, oh, we need to check something. That's when they found out my spine was all screwed up. But yeah, getting off topic. So Call of Duty, in the last two or three Call of Duty's, it seemed like they just kept having, Buddy would always get his arm chopped off. There would always be that scene where like, it's just gruesome and they're tearing the arm off or it's getting trapped in a door or something. And you see, you get dragged away and your arms left there. They did that, I know for at least two years in a row. That never bothered me or impacted me at all. I played that opening scene in Metal Gear and all, granted most of it is just kind of a walking Sim for the first hour, hour and a half. But that first 20, 30 minutes is very powerful because you wake up. And I do remember waking up in the hospital bed and being like, what do you mean I can't get up? Oh, you did what to my back? Oh my god, my arm is gone. That was very surreal, very powerful. And the have David Bowie playing over it too. And of course those guys come in and kill the one guy couple minutes later but it was a very powerful scene. I love Hideo Kojima, that guy is a genius. I hope I get to play his next one.
- [Danny] What was it like, I guess as well, the subtitle for that game is Phantom Pain, which we've talked in the past, that's obviously a massive issue for yourself and for people in your situation.
- [Clint] And trying to describe that for people is nearly impossible. I mean, it's a constant thing that I have to worry about and over the last, I wanna say the last year or so, it's gotten a lot better in terms of I'm not getting the spikes. Have you ever had a searing headache to where, or let's say stomach pain, where your stomach's hurting, right? But then you get those surges to where you just wanna double up and you can't do anything. Phantom pain is like that. It can be a constant aggravation. Just something's constantly in the back of your mind. Or it could constantly just be bringing you to your knees where you can't do anything else. There is no, I mean I've cussed out my mama before. I love my mama, I would never do that, right? I've been hurtin' bad enough to cuss my mom out. That's kinda how I have to explain it to people. It hurts bad enough that it'll make you cuss your mom out. And you the type of person that normally do that, that's saying a lot. It's a mindfuck, man. And I'm sorry for cussing, really no other way to describin' it. It is unreal. I wish there were words that I could use to give it justice. And for some people, I've heard stories of where it lasts 90 days, they lose a limb and 90 days later, they're fine. Maybe it aggravates them every now and then, but for the most part they're fine. But for some reason with me, this October will be seven years and I'm still dealing with it. So I wish I had an answer as to why, but I don't.
- [Danny] Does that, presumably not just playing video games, but that must impact every moment of your life.
- [Clint] Oh yeah, the first thing I did when I got my disability was not build some crazy super rig and buy this Razer Naga and all this stuff. I bought a chair. I bought a very expensive chair that was good, felt comfortable to sit in and supported my back. That was the first thing I did and it was, it cost me $400 but it was worth every penny. I still have the same chair. It doesn't need an upgrade. I'll be ready to upgrade this computer before I'm ready to upgrade this chair. That definitely helps a lot. But dealing with pain and dealing with pain management, I've had to learn a lot of things because when you're constantly, your head's constantly cloudy it's hard to think clearly about anything, much less be able to deal with, you know. Let's say I get a cold or something, sometimes that's enough to just ruin my day whereas having a cold before was no big deal, whatever. 'Cause it's just addition, right? You keep adding on the things. I'm grateful that you followed me this long on Twitter, man. I can't imagine you haven't wanted to just mute me before. Because I either would just go blackout for six months or just rage for several days in a row. And then be like, oh, I love this, I love that.
- [Danny] I think that's everyone on Twitter actually. Myself included.
- [Clint] I kinda noticed that a little. Basically there to just bitch.
- [Danny] I mean, was there any then, you know, just in relation to the thematically, this has been used in games a number of times, what was your experience with what happens in Sekiro and his use of a prosthesis?
- [Clint] It's genius, it blew my mind. Like I know it's game design, right? And this is not, like none of it's real. But it really got me thinking, well, what if some of this was kind of based on some history? Like how much of this, because when I first lost my arm that was, me and my friends were talking about it like, oh, wouldn't it be cool if it had a blade like the dude from Deus Ex? You think you could, what all could you fit in there? Would it fit grenades? And it's like, no man. Why would I walk around with, you know, not serious talk. Just friends being, they were drunk and being stupid. And just thinking about what all different things could you do with an arm? And then I'm like, I wish it was the future where I could just walk up to a system and be like, okay, I would like a soda from this machine. Or give me 10 grand out this ATM. Have you seen the anime where the little finger pops up and the little wires come out? Like that would be amazing. But yeah, I love the use of the prosthetic. And I feel like that balances some of the difficulty, especially early on. I've seen a lot of people have trouble with that first red-eye ogre. And when I came across 'em I had already done the memory and beaten Lady Butterfly, so I was super powerful. I felt super, I mean I had the flaming barrel, I had plenty of oil, and I totally messed that dude up. He might have killed me once, twice maybe 'cause I didn't know about the add with the spear. Oh man, there's definitely some moves that once you get 'em, they tell you how useful they are and they'll even warn you again. And some of the handholding. That's actually hurt me, and something I'm sure they didn't think about. So I have to take my hand off the mouse, go over to the Escape on the keyboard, hit Escape, try to get my hand back on the mouse before I get smacked. Nine times out of 10 I'm getting smacked. And I know they're doing it to help people and trying to remind them like, hey, this is what this does. But that kept getting in the way for me. I realize what they're trying to do and I know they're trying to make these games more accessible. And I think that fact that it sold two million copies in 10 days, that surprised me even. I didn't think this game would do that good. These games are notoriously hard. My brother said I can't believe you're playing this. Not because he thinks I'm too disabled, but because he thinks it requires too much patience. They all have the impression they're so hard that nobody can actually play these unless you just can control your rage.
- [Danny] Yeah, they do sort of have a, I don't know, there's a sort of a mythic quality to this, which is earned in many ways, but there's an urban legend aspect to it as well which has kind of made it a bit ridiculous. One question actually we got from somebody. I put a call out on Twitter just before we went live for questions and one we got in actually rubs up against that which was, Video Attack asks, how much of the reputation for the series being obtuse and difficult do you think could be addressed with proper tutorializing and making more in-depth mechanics easier to understand? I love the series, but I don't always feel they've done well explaining mechanics to the player. I found that in the early games that was kind of part of the discovery of those games, was trying to figure it out. But Sekiro I feel like is so, I feel like you really have to defeat bosses in very particular ways, in ways that I maybe aren't, I don't know. Maybe I'm just lacking the patience for it a little bit or something. How do you feel? 'Cause they've definitely done a better job of the tutorials. It's interesting to here you say the tutorials were getting in your way.
- [Clint] They've definitely done that. Yeah, and that's just for me having one hand. Let's say maybe I had decided to put Escape for whatever reason and I macro'd that, or put that on my footboard or somewhere on the mouse, then I wouldn't have this issue. But of all the keys that I could afford to re-keybind, Escape is almost never one of them. Escape and Map are the last two things I worry about in games So they've definitely done a better job in terms of addressing that. But I feel like it's only gonna get as good as it can. Again I tell you, this does this and this is when you should use this. Now whether you remember to use it then, when you're supposed to, that's not really up to them, right? So a lot of I think like is perspective. Like you can die to a boss 10 times and think, oh, this is bullshit. I'm never playing this game again. Or you could die 10 times and during those 10 attempts somewhere you see where you made a mistake. Maybe you panic, maybe you got overaggressive. I feel like their games are trying to teach you certain things but at a certain point they do expect you to put it all together. And not everyone is the type of gamer to have read the messages and pay attention to what it is. Maybe even practice what the move is and been able to put into practice at the right time. I don't really know what they can do to do that besides even more severe handholding which I think would just detract from the game, honestly.
- [Danny] It reminds me a little bit of just how games have changed over the past 20, 30 years. And one of the instances where this sort of, at least from my experience, reads most clearly is, the first game I ever completed was The Secret of Monkey Island on the Amiga. And it took me I think three months. I was pretty young when it came out. I think I was eight or nine. And it took me like three months, a whole summer basically, to complete it. And then the remaster came out. I wanna say it was on 360 and PS3 maybe. And it was really cool and updated graphics and loads of cool new music and all that stuff, but they also had the tip system in it. And there were some things that you had to do in that game. Like to get to one of the little islands off of Melee Island, you had to use a rubber chicken and a wire to zip across it which kind of makes no sense. I remember being stuck on that forever. But in this thing, you could use a tip and it would like, I think there was three levels of tip. They would give you a little bit of a nudge, a little bit more of a nudge, and they would just say, just use the fucking chicken wire on the wire, right? And I remember thinking, oh that's a good thing, right? Kind of, 'cause it's helping people. But I guess it says less about how difficult games were and more about where our expectations of difficulty came from. Like when that happened years ago I didn't think, oh they made this game wrong. Or you know, this is stupid. I wish they did something to let me know how to do this. I just thought, oh I'm dumb. I don't know what to do to get to that island. Whereas these days we have this expectation that we sort of need to constantly be getting this positive feedback. Even when, like you said in the boss fights, often times I'll die 10 times in a row but it's because I was using the same tactics 10 times in a row. Other games might actually, some games if you play the boss fight for the third time, they without letting you know will make that boss fight easier. And they don't signal it. Games are constantly doing this sort of stuff.
- [Clint] The new Resident Evil does that, I believe. I died one too many times in the police station and they were like, would you like to make the game easier? And I was like offended by it. I was like, hey man, F you. It's not my fault your buddy cornered me. I was trying to leave I was like, I appreciate the offer but at the same time, I was like, that would be great for someone who needs it. And it didn't offend me that it was in the game, it just offended me that they thought I needed it. I was like, hey, hey, I got this, man. Leave me alone. But I have no problem with it being in the game. I honestly don't care.
- [Danny] And that was an instance where they told you. Where sometimes they don't even bother telling you. Actually, now that I think about it, there is another bell. Speaking of bells from Bloodborne. There's a bell in Sekiro, have you seen this one? The bell that you can ring and it makes the bosses harder.
- [Clint] You know what? I've come across it but is that what it does? It makes stuff harder?
- [Danny] I think it does two things. I think it makes one thing easier and one thing harder. Like I think it might increase the drop rate on certain things but it makes the bosses more difficult. I don't know exactly what it is. But definitely if you ring it it will make the game harder in some respects.
- [Clint] I've come across it and the message was a little bit cryptic. It sort of made it sound like it was gonna be a harder game if you rang the bell.
- [Danny] It's something like, don't ring the bell, or something.
- [Clint] Yeah, yeah. I was like, I'm just gonna ignore this for now 'til I know what this is. I'm sure there'll be a lore video on it eventually that I can figure out whether or not I should ring it. This kinda makes me think of Wolfenstein, Doom. You could pick easy mode in those games and then have them like sucking on a pacifier. They're letting you know, like hey, you can play this way but don't you feel like a man about it. Like don't go bragging about it. And you know, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Why not?
- [Danny] And it's pretty funny that you mention that because when this conversation was happening, I think one of the questions I put out was like, let me know a game you play on easy because you don't care. And the one I said whenever I'm in really bad turbulence on a flight, I have my Switch with me usually and what I usually do is I just put it on easy mode and I try and score as many goals as I can and it kind of takes my mind off things. But the one that so many people kept saying which actually, now that I think about it, I have totally done as well is the MachineGames Wolfenstein games. Those games are brutally hard and a lot of the time they're kind of, I don't know, I feel like a lot of us play it because we want to feel powerful but also we just want to see what the story, where it goes. So I feel like that's, again, a lot of people play on an easier mode just so they can get through it and enjoy the experience.
- [Clint] I used to play the Call of Duty's on like the Veteran or whatever the hardest one was until I realized, I don't remember which, it was probably one of your videos or somebody's videos, where it was like, you know this is just a visible line you have to cross, right? As soon as you cross that invisible line you stop spawning. And I was like, oh shit. So you mean I've purposely just been driving myself crazy? 'Cause some of those games there's certain sections where you're just like, how the fuck, how did he shoot me, no way.
- [Danny] That's your World of Warcraft shit. You are farming them. You're just sitting back and farming these dudes.
- [Clint] Basically, and I'm thinking like, we're gonna make it. Oh no, here comes some more. It's just like, I'm killing myself and for what? Like I could be having the same level of enjoyment and my frustration level's not getting near as high if I just turn it to the appropriate difficulty. Now, whether or not they should, there's a whole 'nother can of worms, should they include it? Like if it's gonna takeaway resources and time and if they have a vision, I think you're getting more into the singular vision versus the design by committee, right? Miyazaki obviously has a singular vision for his games but he also, I don't think he enjoys the fact that everyone thinks his games are so hard. I don't think that's something he takes pride in. I think he wants more people to play 'em. I think he's pretty much said as much.
- [Danny] So I guess yeah, taking everything we've talked about today, like the different ways in which games can be more accessible to people, the sort of amorphous conversation about cheesing and difficulty and cheats and how they all sort of blend into each other. As somebody who has experience in these games, who enjoys them, who has been playing them, as far as I'm concerned, on a much harder difficulty level than most of us, what do you feel about Sekiro and how challenging it is? And how you were able to play it as somebody with a disability? Where do you land on it?
- [Clint] Honestly, since I downloaded that mod couple days ago, it really got me thinking. Because essentially I've done the same thing the PC Gamer guy has done, except I haven't enabled the cheats, right? Some people may say, oh, you're using ultrawide or unlock frame rate, like you're cheating. And I would say, yeah but I paid for that 2880. I want my frames. I paid for this ultrawide. I'm not changing the game design so much as I'm just adding things they should have maybe thought about if they're gonna release a PC port today. I love the challenge. I feel like each encounter, sounds cliche, but it's like a dance of death, right? If you get surrounded by two or three normal guys, they can kill you. The bosses are very, very hard. Now, granted I haven't beaten the game. I'm sure there's gonna be a boss where I'm just like, oh my god, I'm gonna die 20-plus times. But so far, the most I've died was maybe, actuaLly it was the guy after Blazing Bull. I can't remember the name. I've started calling him General Fuck You. Because every time I get to him he'd just be like fuck you, you're not getting past the gate. And he was such a bitch. He had like a grab and a sweep and then also like, it was the first guy I think I encountered that had three of the warnings and they were all different things. So it took me a while. And you're fighting that closed little section between the walls and it made the camp bit, oh that was a pain. I probably died 10-plus times to him. That's probably the only guy I've died that much to. Maybe Lady Butterfly, might have died like seven or eight, nine times, maybe. I love it for what it is. And I can't thank you enough for it, man. I've had a blast playing it. It's really made me think about a lot of different things. Eventually I'd like to make a video on it or something. Do something more. But you know, I appreciate being brought on this podcast, man. I've had a blast thinking about this and ways that we could try to improve the game for people with disabilities. And I feel like they've done the best job they could. These controls are super responsive. I think transcendent's probably the best way I can describe it. I don't feel like I'm using a mouse and footboard when I'm playing and I feel like I'm the one-arm wolf.
- [Danny] Well, you are the one-arm wolf and we really appreciate you coming in. There you go, just in case you didn't already have enough really good internet handles. You can add that one to your repertoire. We really appreciate your time, plqying the game and coming on to talk to us today. For folks who want to follow you, where can they catch you on the Twitter and whatnot?
- [Clint] DisabledCable on Twitter.
- [Danny] Awesome, good stuff. And yeah, how much more time do you think you have with it? Just as the parting question. Do you think this'll be something you play for the rest of the year? Or another couple of weeks?
- [Clint] Honestly, probably another couple of months. I tend to have, like I'll have my action game. I'll have my shooter. And then I'll usually have a role-playing game. Some of those can be interchanged, kind of be the same thing. And this has been my go-to. Like alright, this is my single-player game. If I'm gonna play something with my brothers it's either gonna be Destiny or Vermintide. Not playing any MMOs now. So this is, I'll probably beat it sometime, I would say in the next month, month and a half. Something like that maybe.
- [Danny] Awesome, well we wish you well on the journey. I'll be right there with you. I'll be probably a couple of bosses behind you actually. Thank you so much for coming on. And thank you so much to all of our Patrons for funding our work. As ever, you know you can follow us on Twitter @noclipvideo. I am @dannyodwyer on Twitter or /noclip if you wanna follow us on Reddit. And of course this podcast is available early if you're a Patron. Go to patreon.com/noclip to support this show, get it early, and also support all the documentaries we make on our YouTube channel.
- [Clint] Go hit up this man's Patreon. Come on, y'all.
- [Danny] Thank you so much We've actually got another YouTube channel for the podcast, youtube.com/noclippodcast. If you wanna watch this one. Alternatively, we are available on basically every podcast service in the known universe. iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, and loads, loads more. Soundcloud as well. We fixed the Soundcloud. There was a problem with our uploads but it's all right and ready now. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe, give us a review if you can. We've never asked really, much, so if you can do that on iTunes or whatever. I mean, give us a good review. Don't give us a review if you think it's shit maybe. Just forget this part of the podcast. Go do something else. But thank you for listening, thank you for your time, and we'll see you next time. Actually, hold up one second. One little thing to add to the podcast before we close it out. I got an email from Clint after we recorded who felt bad that he had, in the haze of the podcast conversation, forgotten to call out two important people that helped him quite a lot on his journey. The first person is his brother, Matt, who sent him the Naga which he used when he first started coming back to play games. The other is his friend, Kyle, who was actually building him a two button foot switch when they found out that somebody was actually making one commercially., the Stinkyboard, which he ended up using afterwards. Clint's journey to actually being able to play games was quite long. He was in bed for the best part of a year, had to play on a laptop. And then through the help of using those inputs over the course of the next couple of months, learned to play with his feet and learned to play properly with one hand. So he wanted to give a shout out to the two of them who helped him so much when all this was going on, six, five years ago. And I thought I should definitely make the point of sticking it into the end of the podcast. So thank you so much to Matt and Kyle. Clearly he couldn't get to where he is right now without your support and help, so thank you very much.
|May 03, 2019|
#09 - Jeff Gerstmann's Giant Bomb
The video game website Giant Bomb recently celebrated its tenth birthday so what better time to talk to its creator about the early days of the online games media, the future of games coverage, and getting fired in front of the entire world.
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
Watch our docs: https://youtube.com/noclippodcast
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about video games, the people who make them, and the people who play them. On today's episode we talk to a guy who grew up a short drive from the epicenter of the online media revolution. As video game website Giant Bomb recently celebrated its 10th year of operation, we decided to talk to its founder about skipping school, hosting podcasts, and getting fired in front of the entire world. Jeff Gerstmann is a name you either know or don't, depending on whether or not you care about the world of games coverage. Outside of the world of games, Jeff is a husband, son, and a grown-up local kid in Petaluma, a city in Northern California that sits on the outskirts of what many would consider a reasonable commute to San Francisco. There he grew up with his mum and dad who operated a tire shop. A small town kid, with a small town life who loved rap, skateboards, and video games. But inside the world of games Jeff is larger than life. He's part of a dwindling older generation of journalists who were there when the magazines died, and the world of internet reporting exploded. He's lead the charge on finding new ways to talk about games, be it on video, podcast or late light E3 live shows. And crucially, his surname became a rallying cry for media ethics when he fell victim to one of the most lamentable acts of brand self-destruction of the digital age. Much of Jeff's story lives in the gaming zeitgeist. Before I met him, I thought I knew most of it. You see, to me Jeff was a hero. He had figured it all out. Growing up in Ireland, years before Twitch or even YouTube had started, I'd watch him host shows broadcast live from the GameSpot offices in San Francisco. His job was talking about games, and he knew more about games than anyone I'd ever seen trying to do it on television. His job became a north star that I'd spend years following. And when I'd eventually find myself working in the same building those shows were filmed in, sitting at a desk a short walk from his, I slowly began to get a deeper understanding of Jeffrey Michael Gerstmann. Equal parts a quiet, contemplative person and a troublemaker, now responsible for keeping order. I recently sat down with Jeff to talk about the 10 Year Anniversary of his career's second act, the video game website GiantBomb.com. But the story of Giant Bomb and the story of Jeff Gerstmann are intertwined. So to tell you how Giant Bomb was founded we have to go back to a small town in Northern California, to the kid of the folks who ran the tire shop in sunny, quiet, suburban, Petaluma.
- [Jeff] The first video game console I owned, it was the Fairchild Channel F, which was, it kinda came out around the same time, same window as the Atari 2600 but it had a few more educational games so I think that tipped my parents in the favor of getting that thing, it had this terrible plunger controller, there was like a decent bowling game but it just immediately failed. I had relatives who had an Atari 2600 and would kinda covet that thing and eventually they gave it to me when the video game industry kinda crashed. But we got into computers not long after that. I got an Atari 400 and that was really the first proper like hey, this is a somewhat successful platform with stuff coming out that mattered. And so I mostly started on a computer.
- [Danny] What was the impetus for your parents getting it? Were they interested in technology at all or were you crying for it or what was the story there?
- [Jeff] You know, my dad played some video games certainly over the years but I think that was largely because that's what I was interested in. We were going to arcades a lot and on the weekends we would go out, there was an arcade in town called Dodge City and we would go to Dodge City. You know, my mom went once or twice, this was like the height of Pac-Man fever so like I would be there, my dad would be there, we'd be playing games and there would just be this huge line almost out the door of people waiting to play Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man. And it was just weird, you know, because it was just another game, like to me it was just like, all right, well yeah, I don't know, Pac-Man's over there and it is what it is and I'm over here playing Galaxian or Vanguard or you know, whatever the heck else, I don't really remember talking to too many people about video games. This was, you know, this woulda been, god, 82 ish, like early to mid 80s really and I was going to elementary school then and just there were like one or two other kids I knew that had computers but most kids didn't and they weren't really into video games per say or if they were they weren't really letting on. So there was one kid I knew that had a TRS-80 and so I'd go over to his place and play Parsec and some other stuff like that. There was a kid near the tire shop that my parents ran that had a VIC-20 and I could go over there and play like Radar Rat Race and some other stuff too.
- [Danny] So, I guess, what did you want to be when you grew up when you were like a middle schooler? Obviously games journalism wasn't a target you could exactly aim for so what were you thinking about your future when you were in like middle school, high school?
- [Jeff] When I was in high school we saw a posting, so LucasArts was relatively local, they were in Marin County and, you know, this woulda been like 1990, 1991, somewhere around there, and they were looking for testers. And I remember applying for it but like I was 15. Like it was, logistically it would've been impossible for me to even do that job 'cause I couldn't even drive a car yet. And it was 20ish miles away. But also like I remember writing, like they wanted a resume, I wrote an essay and it was like, you should give me this job. It was real dumb, I mean, whatever, in retrospect it was like, that is not a way to get a job. Also, ridiculous to assume that that would've even been possible at 15. But yeah, that was the first time I ever really thought about working in video games, I woulda been like 14 or 15.
- [Danny] So how did it actually come to pass then? What was your first gig in the industry and how did you end up getting it?
- [Jeff] So, I started going to trade shows, I met a guy a named Glenn Rubenstein who was a year younger than I was and we went to the same school, we went to the same high school. And Glenn was writing video game reviews for the local Petaluma newspaper and also I think he had a column in the San Francisco Examiner which was a newspaper. And so there would be articles about like, this youthful guy writing game reviews, look at this guy, it was like kind of a story or whatever. So we became friends, then he kinda said like, hey, I'm going to CES, do you wanna come with me? And I was like, yeah, I would love to go see video games.
- [Danny] How old are you?
- [Jeff] This is, I'm 16 at this point, he's 15.
- [Danny] Wow, okay. It's in Vegas, right?
- It's in Vegas also, yes. He's like, hey do you wanna come to Las Vegas. So I pitched it to my parents and just said like, hey, this thing's going on, I'd really like to go do it and they said yes, for whatever reason they said yes. And so me and Glenn set out to go, he had been to one before, he had been to CES I think the previous CES in Chicago might've been his first and so I went with him to that and just like I bought myself like a blazer and put it on and went to this trade show and went around and played video games and tried to play blackjack wearing a blazer because I looked like maybe I was of age. And that's where we met Ryan McDonald. We needed, honestly, I think we just needed more people to help pay for the hotel room or something like that and Ryan was doing something similar, he was writing about video games for a Healdsburg newspaper, which is about 40 miles north of Petaluma, where I'm now, which, for people who don't know, Petaluma is about 40 miles north of San Francisco, so, you know, Healdsburg's getting pretty far out there. And we met Ryan at the local mall, he seemed like an okay guy and we're like, yeah, you wanna come, let's go to Las Vegas. And so I kind of started just going to trade shows, we all met the guys from Game Informer pretty early on, Andy McNamara and Paul and some of the early other reviewers that were there at the time, Elizabeth Olsen and people like that, and we knew some people that were doing PR for video games at the time and stuff like that so we just kinda started meeting people and getting around. So that led to, Glenn ended up, so Glenn actually got me my first couple of jobs afterwards. We started going to the trade shows, we were doing a local public access show that was not about video games, it wasn't about much of anything really, and basically like barely getting by in high school 'cause we were just doing all this other stuff and not wanting to go to school very much. And so he ended up getting in at a magazine, they were starting up a magazine, they were originally gonna call it Blast, they were gonna call it Blast and it was gonna be like this lifestyle magazine funded by the, I guess the CEO of Creative Labs, so the Sound Blaster people were starting, basically funding a magazine. And so I spent a year commuting to Berkeley working for this magazine right after I got out of high school, so that woulda been like 1994. I was 19 commuting to Berkeley, working for a magazine, having no idea what I was doing, and we were covering Doom and we were covering, what are some fun things you could do with your Creative Labs branded sound card and stuff like that, that place lasted a little under a year before it folded. We made it about three issues, I think there was fourth that was almost done, and then I was out of there and had no idea what to do next. I was 19 and jaded and like burned by how that job went and angry at everything.
- [Danny] Yeah, had you dropped out of high school, had you just sorta finished it and then left off or were you thinking about college or were you thinkin', oh shit, do I jump to another journalism gig, what was your head space then?
- [Jeff] I finished high school. Between the public access show we were doing and this video game stuff that was still pretty nascent, you know, it wasn't really a job, it was very easy to look at that stuff and go like, man, I don't wanna go to school, like it's a waste of time. And so there was awhile there that like, I'll get my GED which is like so you can kinda test out of high school. And they tell you that it's equivalent to a high school diploma but then in some ways it's kind of not, I don't know, there was a weird. I had missed so much school and also we, so we were doing the public access show and I filmed a teacher, so a teacher at the high school I was going to, our chemistry teacher got fired and I believe the talk was, and I'm not sure, it was sexual harassment from the sounds of things, like to students. And so the first day that they introduced here's your new chemistry teacher I had the video camera that we used to tape the show so I filmed them introducing this new teacher and all this other stuff and like asked them questions like it was a press conference. And they answered, no one said, hey put that thing down. Like I was very clearly pointing a video camera at them. And then like the next day, that day, the day after, something like that, like the principal called me and said, hey, what are you gonna do with that video tape? And I said, well we're gonna put it on television.
- [Danny] Oh my gosh.
- [Jeff] And he was super not happy about that.
- [Danny] I wonder why.
- [Jeff] Yeah, and so at that point we realized we had something so we called the papers and said, hey we got this tape and they started investigating it and it became a story, it was something that they, I think they were trying to keep very quiet. Later on that teacher would show up at my doorstep looking for a copy of the tape because he was trying to sue the, I don't know, he was trying to get something out of the school district or something over what happened, this was years later after I was out of high school. So that was very strange. So after that between the amount of school we were missing, I had like a guidance counselor basically recommend that I should go on independent study. Which was basically, at the time it was primarily, it woulda been like pregnant teens and people that like were having trouble in school and that sorta stuff and they were like, oh, we're piloting a new program for kids who don't necessarily fit into the standard curriculum and they pitched it like that but basically it felt like they were just trying to get me and Glenn out of there.
- [Danny] Right, journalist at heart it turns out.
- [Jeff] I guess, I don't know. And so that led to me getting much higher grades and stuff because I was able to just kinda like crank through stuff really quickly. I graduated early because I just finished the work. I mean, I graduated like two weeks early, not hugely early. But it was great, it felt like I was getting one over on the school district because I was doing a full semester of science while like reading a book in my patents hot tub or, you know, just like stupid crap like that. I was getting like journalism credit for the stuff we were doing going to trade shows and like video production, they were just throwin' credits at me left and right and so yeah, I graduated early, it was great, I was able to take that and go back to the high school that I had stopped going to and go talk to like the one teacher that I liked, Mr. Moore, he was a math teacher, great guy, I think he taught some of the computer stuff also. And I remember telling him like, hey, I just graduated. And he just looked at me and said, god dammit, Gerstmann, you got 'em. He seemed like dismayed that I had managed to get one over on the system somehow but he couldn't help, but yeah, it was a, that felt pretty good.
- [Danny] Through his life, Jeff's do-it-his-own way attitude has been both a source of great strength and the catalyst for much drama. He attended a local junior college for a semester, but it didn't stick, preferring to do extra-curricular work like attending trade-shows with his friend Ryan McDonald, hanging out with local bands, and as he put it, learning how to drink. Around this time Glenn, who had gotta him the job at the magazine years earlier, started working for a new website in San Francisco's Richmond district. Just a few blocks from the servers of archive.org on the cloudy avenues of Clement Street, lied an office where a staff of 20 was running the website GameSpot. They had hired Glenn to lead the charge on a new console-focused spin-off of the site that they were going to call VideoGameSpot.
- [Jeff] Glenn hired Ryan McDonald not long after that to be like the strategy slash codes editor and then I started freelancing for him because they wanted 100 reviews by launch and they were lookin' to launch like three months, four months from that time. And so I started crankin' out reviews and the way I always heard it was that I was turning reviews around really quickly, really clean copy, and so Vince Broady kinda said like, hey, bring this guy and let's see. And they brought me in as like an editorial assistant which was more or less an intern type role and within two or three months, not even two or three months, within like a month, the launch editor, there was a guy, Joe Hutsko, who would come on, it was one of Vince's friends who had just come on I think to kinda see this console site through to launch and then I think he was gonna go on to do something else somewhere else and I was working late one night and Joe Hutsko walked by and saw me there and he was like, you're still here, what are you doin'? I was like, this work has to get done. And then like the next day I had an offer letter for a full time job at that point.
- [Danny] GameSpot would go through several transformations and acquisitions over the coming years. But as the business side of online media was learning how to walk, emerging technologies were creating exciting new ways for people to talk about games. GameSpot led this charge with one of the first video game podcasts, The Hotspot, and a weekly live show, On The Spot. Suddenly these young game reporters were starting to become more than just bylines. For years readers, the folks writing reviews and new articles, were just names at the bottom of a page. But now, for the first time, they were people with voices and faces. People with unique perspectives, opinions and personalities. And Jeff, with his experience doing public access shows in Petaluma, was at the forefront of this new form of media. The idea of streaming video games on the internet now is so blase and normal but back then I think to a lot of people it felt like magical, like a television channel that's broadcasting about games. From your perspective on your guys's end, did it feel weird to be like doing a live show that people were watching while you were just talking about this relatively niche hobby?
- [Jeff] It felt like a natural extension of the stuff we had been doing. And it felt like, I don't know, it felt fresh and cool and like the tech was weird and sometimes it didn't work the way you wanted it to but at the same time we were wearing makeup, we had built a studio, we had lights, we had a jib, it was Frank Adams lowering a camera into the shot and all this other stuff and so coming from like these lame public access shows I was doing when I was 16 and stuff, like I had a weird leg up on a lot of other people because I was already relatively comfortable being in front of a camera.
- [Danny] GameSpot continued to evolve. It went from indie to being purchased by media house Ziff Davis who then eventually sold it to CNET. By this stage the editor in chief was Greg Kasavin, who you may now recognize as the creative director of Supergiant Games, a studio we're currently running an embedded series on. His two right hand men at the time were Ricardo Torres on previews and Jeff on reviews. But when Greg left to start his career in games production, the role was never properly filled. Instead Ricardo and Jeff sort of ran it together, with increased influence being exerted on them from the powers above. The original founders of GameSpot had come from a editorial background but they were gone and the site was now being managed by people were less seasoned, more traffic orientated, and didn't value the power of editorial independence as much as they should have.
- [Jeff] You know, there was an understanding about like this is kinda how this stuff is supposed to work, it's not always supposed to be an easy relationship if everyone's kind of sticking to their guns and doing their jobs and stuff. I don't know that they always saw the value of that, I think that's something that they corrected quickly, it was just kind of, it was a blip, if you look at GameSpot as a 20 plus year institution there was that brief period of time there where it was like, man, this went a little sideways for a bit and I was just in the right place at the right time, wrong place wrong time, whatever it was.
- [Danny] What happened to Jeff next has been told a thousand times with new pieces added as time has provided new context. I myself spent years trying to fill in the blanks on how it all went down. Talking to friends and colleagues of Jeff who were there that day. It was a Wednesday in November, 2007 and the office was busily preparing for the weekly live-show which aired on Thursday afternoon. Jeff had just another another brush-up with management, this time over a review of Kane and Lynch which had made the sales department uncomfortable as they had sold a large advertising campaign to the game's publisher Eidos. If you visited GameSpot that week, the entire homepage was taken over by messaging about the game alongside a six out of ten review from Jeff. Jeff had had some run ins with top brass before and felt like he'd come close to losing his job a few times but this wasn't one of those times. It seemed like it had been dealt with, and he was already working on his next review. Later that morning his supervisor called him into a meeting and then called HR. He was told he was being terminated immediately, and as California is an at-will employment state, Jeff had no recourse. He was told to clean out his desk and bizarrely he was allowed to walk the halls for the rest of the day. Saying goodbye to his friends and colleagues, who were cursing the names of those in charge. Jeff drove home that day, the same 40 mile commute between San Francisco and Petaluma he had done thousands of times before. But this time it would be different, it would be a number of years before he stepped foot in the building again. There was no live show that week, the Kane and Lynch review had been taken down and then reposted and slowly over the coming days rumors began to circulate about Jeff's termination. Popular webcomic Penny Arcade ran a strip outlining the pressure from Eidos. Staff from the website 1UP, who were located just a block north of GameSpot on San Francisco's 2nd Street, held a protest outside the lobby of the building in support of the remaining staff. In an age before social media it would be a full eight days before the staff would actually speak up. And it happened on the next episode of On The Spot. The show ran with a somber opening. Ryan McDonald flanked by Ricardo Torres and a wincing Alex Navarro explained the situation. The camera pans out to reveal a full set with previewer Brad shoemaker, new hire Kevin VanOrd, community manager Jody Robinson and reporter Brendan Sinclar among a dozen of other staff.
- [Ryan] Obviously we wanted to start today's On the Spot off a little different than we had in the past. The recent events and what happened last week in regards to our longtime friend and colleague, Jeff Gerstmann, being dismissed. It's been really hard on us and the response obviously's been tremendously immense and it's been on both sides. It's nice to see that everybody speaks up and has been kinda pullin' for us. On the other hand it's been hard obviously seein' GameSpot sucks written 100,000 times on forums and stuff so obviously we wanted to address this and talk to you guys today. Jeff was a personal friend to pretty much everybody so it was really, really hard that it happened the way it did. But yeah, we really wanted to say that we love and miss Jeff and give him, honestly, the proper send off that he deserves so that's what today's show's all about. And obviously you can see this is hard for me personally.
- [Danny] For Jeff things were equally as bizarre. Tech Blogs like ValleyWag were running stories about the state of the site which were clearly sourced from somebody inside of GameSpot. The LA Times ran a story about the firing. And Jeff's mother received a phone call from a newspaper in Norway looking for a quote. It was three a.m. when the phone rang.
- [Jeff] You know, some of it was just like, some of the people I talked to were very like looking for more dirt, they were expecting me to get on the phone and be like, oh, well here's where the rest of the bodies are buried. But like, you know, I was shocked. I was not happy about the whole thing but at the same time I feel good about the work I did while I was there and there were so many great people there that kinda got caught in some of this crossfire a little bit. I wasn't like, oh well here's the other nasty things that happened, there wasn't any. There wasn't anything else. So some people were coming to me looking for like some bigger story that I just didn't have to give. And that was strange, it seemed like everyone wanted something from me for a little while and it was a very weird time. And so at that point it was like, 'cause you know, like I was not an editor in chief in title but you know, we were running an editorial team. And so there aren't a lot of jobs out there at that level. It wasn't like I could walk into IGN or 1UP or, you know, I don't even know who else was even out there at that point, it wasn't like I could walk into those places and say, yes, make me your editor in chief. Like, they already have people in those roles, it wasn't really a viable thing. So at that point I was like, well I kinda need to maybe start something new. The weekend after everything went down or it might've been, it was like the Friday after or maybe it was like a full week afterwards, a bunch of people that I used to work with came up here to my place and we just hung out, like kinda impromptu, just have a bunch of drinks, play some Rock Band, and that sorta thing, and Dave Snider came by, Ryan Davis invited Dave over. And Dave was working on his stuff, I think Boompa was still up, they had a car website, you know, they were running Comic Vine, they were building Political Base which was another kind of wiki focused site for political donations in the run up to that election there, this was November, 2007. And so they were starting a new company and looking to build, they were building websites. And I was like, oh, that's cool, awesome, and nothing really came of it for a little bit. So I went and did a show on Revision3, so I drove into San Francisco, did that show, and then on the way back from or as I was finishing up that show I got a call from Dave and he said, hey, you should come by the office in Sausalito and just come by. I was like, all right, cool. And so on my way back from there I stopped at the office in Sausalito and looked at Comic Vine, the other stuff they were doing, and we sat in a room and ate sandwiches and I more or less committed to them right there. It was kind of like an, oh, we'll think about it and they were very much like, hey, why don't you just take a month and get your head together, like take an actual break 'cause this is so crazy and then let us know what you wanna do. And so we kinda started building a website not too long after that.
- [Danny] Over the coming weeks several of Jeff's friends would leave GameSpot. Some were burned out from games coverage, this latest spell just being the straw that broke the camel's back. But others were leaving to work with Jeff. Fellow Sonoma County local Ryan Davis was the first. The two of them set up a blog, and started to a run a podcast which they hurriedly titled, Arrow Pointing Down.
- [Jeff] So, every single person at the company that we were, that I was now a part of were people that had worked at that old company. And so we did not wanna give the appearance of people getting poached out of there and like I don't know if there was an actual non compete with some of the people in the building or anything that would've prevented them from doing this stuff but all of it had to be kind of like quiet and so it couldn't be something as simple as like, hey we want to hire you over here. It had to be like, well, if you were, if you were no longer working and you needed a place to work we do have some opening. You know, it was very much that sort of thing. But I knew pretty immediately looking at it and going, okay, we wanna team of about this size and I knew that Alex would not be available, Alex Navarro, I knew that he was not looking to do this sort of work at that time. He was, you know, I think already thinking about Harmonix, he ended up doing public relations for Harmonix for a brief period of time. Like I pretty much had a whiteboard, I knew in my head that I, at that point it was like okay, this is me, it's Ryan, it's Brad, it's Vinny. Which is not how you're supposed to hire people. You know, some people are like, well what are the positions that we're looking to fill and all this other stuff and, but like knowing like what we looking to build and we needed to be a tight team, who were the people that are gonna be impactful in those roles, like okay, Brad has a lot of experience in previews, he is a person that I know, like he knows a ton of people around the game industry. Like, I've worked reviews and so on the review side of things we didn't talk to companies all that often. Brad had that in his role so he left, he left and he had other things that he was maybe thinking about doing, it wasn't like a, it was not a clandestine like, he left specifically to, it was like, okay, he's out and we're gonna figure this out. And then we needed someone to do do video and we had been working with Vinny for awhile and Vinny was fantastic and it was like, okay, Vinny's really funny, this seems like a good fit for him and so we kinda went about it that way. It felt like night and day a lot of ways, but very similar in others. We were able to sit down for the first time, for me the first time ever, like I never thought I would have the opportunity to build something like this, you know. I was always like very respectful or very envious of like Vince Broady as like the editorial lead of the founder of GameSpot and so I was like, man, he took a chance and built this thing and built it from the ground up and look at it, it's this huge, this monument, it's lasted so long. And I never thought I would have an opportunity like that in my career, it just never seemed like it was in the cards. And so being forced into it was exciting. Because it let me sit down and be like, okay, what do we actually want to do? What do we think is actually the best way to cover games with a small team in this day and age? And when we started in 96 on VideoGameSpot, like the videos had to be very low frame rate and very short because no one could download 'em and, you know, it was like we were doing minute long video clips of gameplay and that was revolutionary at the time. You know, you had to install the Real Video Player and all this, you know, all this other stuff. And here we were on the cusp of like, actually we can kind of, we can kinda livestream, you know, the services to do it easily weren't in place, you still had to host it yourself and that got very expensive and all that and YouTube wasn't really there in the way that they are now, YouTube existed but it was, I don't think you could put up videos that were longer than five or 10 minutes at the time and it just was not a viable place for that at the time. And so we had to kinda sit down and say, well with the technology we have available what can we do? And we wanted to be a podcast, the Hotspot was one of the most fun things I had doing in my entire time at GameSpot and we knew right out of the gate that we wanted to have a podcast be kind of one of the main things. And then from there it was like, okay, well, do we wanna write news? Not really, none of us are really news writers per say. And it was like, well, we need to able to capture video of games and put it on the internet. And we need to be able to talk alongside it or something like that, whether we're cutting it together or doing it on the fly. And so Mike Tatum, who was the head of biz dev for the company just went out to the Apple Store and came back with the biggest ass Mac Pro he could've gotten at the time and set it the room with me and Ryan and we looked at it and we were like, neither of us know how to use any of this shit. And we messed around with it long enough to figure out eventually we could capture some footage. We were like, okay, we figured out, first the game we captured footage of was Hot Shots Golf for the Playstation 3. And we were like, okay, we captured the footage, now what do we with it? And we hadn't answered that question yet 'cause there was no website to put it on or anything like that. So those early silly days of just like putting that stuff together. We didn't really know exactly what we wanted to do, it was just a matter, it was very freeing in way to be able to sit down and be like, okay, here are the things that we liked doing before, let's try to keep doing that. And then the rest is up in the air. For a long time there we weren't even necessarily sold on the idea of just covering video games. It was always meant to be bigger than that. We were gonna cover music, we were gonna cover movies, you know, all this other stuff. But at the end of the day old habits die hard, it was very easy for us to cover video games compared to like, calling music PR people out of the blue and being like, hey, we wanna interview this artist that's coming to town, can you set, you know, it was just, we stuck with what we knew and kinda just mainly covered video games and flavors of Gatorade. Really it was the original mandate for GameSpot was we wanna create a site that we ourselves would use. And I approached it that way and said like, well, what kind of game coverage do I actually care about? And a lot of the preview related stuff at the time was just not, it was a lot of like carved up little parts of a game. Like, we're gonna give you assets on these three new guns and this two new trees and it was like, here's the rims and tires of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Outlets used to compete for the exclusive rights to run stuff like that. It was a very different time so we knew we were never gonna matter to publishers the same way the big sites did and that was fine, we wanted to kinda do our own thing and so that led to it being a little more guerrilla. You talked earlier about long footage of games being something of a novelty or a weird impossibility back then but for us it kinda just became a necessity because of the number of people we had and the lack of time we could devote to actual editing. It was like, just stuff kinda came in long out of the gate. And so we first launched as just a WordPress blog and we went to our first E3 in 08 with just a WordPress blog. We could run videos on it but it was pretty bare bones. It was mostly a placeholder, it was like, here's the name of the site, you can comment on these stories, and we were just kind of writing news and reviews and putting up videos here and there. And it was all pretty straightforward stuff, it was like that and the podcast. And then we rolled out the full site not long after that E3, it was like July of that year I think and then that was like, okay, now here's this full wiki, here's all this other stuff. Better user features, full message boards, all this other stuff. And so we went at it that way for awhile and then the premium membership stuff came later.
- [Danny] It wasn't just old staff who were leaving GameSpot for Jeff's new project, users were flocking too. Once the full site was launched tens of thousands of profiles were created, a large portion of which were disenfranchised GameSpot fans who wanted to support Jeff and the staff who had left. I was one of them and I remember that time well. The passion and excitement of those days was one of the most powerful moments I've had as part of an online community. And the folks at Whiskey Media used this passion to help fund the site. Giant Bomb had taken the ad-free subscription model that GameSpot had pioneered, and added much more. For $5 a month you not only supported some of your favorite creators, but got access to bonus videos and features. New users signed up in their droves.
- [Jeff] The launch of the site proper exceeded our expectations in a way that like wiki submissions were taking a week or more to approve because so many people were signing up and contributing and all this other stuff, it was just, we were staying up all night working on just the community stuff, moderation stuff. And then the premium membership stuff did well out of the gate. We went back and forth on a few ideas about what are we offering here and all that sort of stuff but yeah, it did really well that first day. Advertising was never really a thing for us, we had one in house ad person eventually for a brief period of time but like, you know, advertising's all about eyeballs and we were never gonna be the biggest website in the world, it was we were about, okay, well we want people who really care about this stuff and so, you know, in advertising you're trying to make a case for just like, oh no, this is a smaller audience but they're smarter and they spend more money and you know, at some point you have to go out and educate brands and say like, here's why you wanna advertise here instead of there or spend your money with us because our people are smarter or this and that and at the end of the day advertisers just want eyeballs so like you can go in and pitch that story all you want, it's just not how the advertising model typically works. So we had a few things where like, you know, we had some sponsored achievements on the site and there was a livestream, I was actually against it, but they did a livestream for, NTSF:SUV:SD, I think was the ordering of that, an Adult Swim show. Actually, I thought it was pretty funny. They did a livestream like live watch along with it. And so we were doing a few things like that that were innovative at the time I guess and so you would have people who understood like, hey, the internet is changing, it's not necessarily about just raw eyeballs. We wanna find people who are more engaged with a thing and you know, this was kinda like the nascent form of like the influencer type stuff about like figuring out who are these people we can get that have sway with their audiences and so on and so forth. But, us being an editorial operation, we could never really go fully into that world. So the stuff that I would be comfortable doing in those spaces kinda, we ended up shooting down a lot of stuff, probably more stuff than we signed because it was like, no, I don't think we can do that. So the advertising stuff was never really gonna be for us and for those reasons, it's just, you know, the advertising market just wasn't really compatible with our size and our scope but also kind of our mentality and where we were at with stuff so we wanted to try and find something different. And again, that was another Dave Snider, Dave was kind of the main first proponent about like, no, people will pay for good stuff on the internet, I know it. And I think I was a little more like, I don't know, man, people like to pirate stuff. But he's like, no, this will, he won me over pretty fast and we went through with it, we went on with it.
- [Danny] Giant Bomb has been running for a decade and in that time the site has evolved to keep up with the changing desires of its audience. But there are a few shows that have lasted the test of time. Their weekly podcast The Giant Bombcast has had over 570 episodes and is one of the most popular video game podcasts in the world. And their Quick Looks series predated the creation of Let's Plays, still exists today. I asked Jeff to tell me about some of his favorites are. He notes their live E3 internet show, and eventually making the podcast profitable as some of his proudest achievements. As shows have come and gone, so too have staff. Just like GameSpot created a platform for Jeff to make a name for himself. Giant Bomb has become an incubator of talent all to itself. As the sort of captain of the ship as well, what does it feel like to be responsible for kind of what Giant Bomb has become in terms of its, as an incubator for talent, right. You've had people come through the doors and leave out the other side to go on to wonderful careers as well. Do you take a pride in that, especially considering, you know, how you seem to have a reverence for the people who gave you opportunities in your early career.
- [Jeff] It's cool, I don't always think about it. Like, I don't know, like I look at it and go like, did I do anything for anyone, I don't know, I'm just here, I don't know, I just do my thing. And I don't know that I always, I used to take it really personally back in the GameSpot days when anyone would leave. I would always think like, man, why would you, why would you go do something else, we're doing great, we're doing all this other stuff, and now I look at it in retrospect and go like, maybe it was people like me in the senior roles for as long as we were that led to people below us wanting to get out for more opportunities, and go like, man, yeah, okay. But yeah, I used to take it really personally 'cause I just, you know, it was great to just, there were times where, you know, man, this is the best team I've ever worked with, this is great. Oh, three people are leaving over the course of six months, what's goin on? And the people that left in the run up to me leaving, at the time I was really bummed out, in retrospect I was like, oh, yeah okay, I get it. And things change and people change and they want something else out of their careers and they wanna take on new challenges and all that sorta stuff and I think that's great. At the same time, like I miss the people that have moved on. Like, there was a time there that there were, we were starting to have conversations, it's like, no, we need to move Danny O'Dwyer over to Giant Bomb, like we have, this should happen. And then he went out and found fame and fortune on his own without us and I was like, well, shit. Let that one slip away, I guess.
- [Danny] There will always be a part of me in my professional sort of hindsight that will, I remember when you mentioned that to me at a certain point, I can't remember, was it when I had already handed in my notice or I think it was probably a little bit before maybe, where like, that is like the ultimate dream come true. But now I have a new dream come true which is that I get to just pop into the office and review European sports games twice a year or whatever.
- [Jeff] Right, yeah, I mean, I have a code for FIFA that I don't know what to do with so. Might be callin' you for that one. So, it's stuff like that, like it's great seeing people out there doing their thing, and the thing I've tried to be better at this time around that I was terrible at back in the GameSpot days is try to keep in touch with people on a regular basis. Like it can be so easy just to put your head down and be like, I'm surrounded by these people, these are the people I see everyday, these are the only people I talk to because I don't have time for anything else. Discord has actually been really useful at that, honestly. Like hey, let's keep in touch with friends and try to maintain these friendships and stuff like that. So yeah, it's great being in regular contact with people like Patrick and Austin Walker and stuff like that.
- [Danny] Giant Bomb lived under the Whiskey Media banner for four years, but the media startup was struggling to grow at a rate required by the landscape of the bay area investors and so the decision was made to fold the company to sell of its assets to suitable suitors. What happened next seemed impossible to anybody watching from the stands.
- [Jeff] The process of us selling the company was strange, for a lot of the reasons you would expect. But you know, I think the thing that happened, every start up that sells or fails or anything always like to say, aw, we were just too early. We had the best ideas, too early. But you know, in some cases if we were a year later or something like that and YouTube had been more viable for longer form videos, like who knows what woulda happened. You know, we made the best choices we could along the way but at the end of the day, you know, they had launched a lot of other sites and wanted it to be this big network and when that kinda, I think that wasn't happening at the rate that they needed it to happen so it became a case of just like, okay, maybe it's time to move on and move onto a different business and do a different thing and so we were at that point lucky enough to be something that was sellable, you know. Like you think about the number of start ups now, especially the number of content companies that launched and just went under. And with Giant Bomb with the premium memberships and that sort of stuff we were in a pretty good position there to where we were doing something that people I think were just starting to get a sense of just like, hey, maybe this direct to consumer like subscription type stuff is something we should care about. And so it was something that people were starting to wake up to and be like hey, maybe we want some kind of back pocket plan in case this advertising thing doesn't always work the way it works now. So Mike Tatum, the head of biz dev for Whiskey, asked me one day, he said, hey, would you be open to maybe selling the company to CBS? And I just laughed. And I was like yes, of course, absolutely, go have those conversations, that's the craziest thing anyone's ever said to me, absolutely, yeah, of course. That's the thing, it was a very different time, a very different company, all that other stuff. Like the stuff that happened to me was this blip on this timeline of this multi decade operation that has had good people at the helm of it for almost all of its time, you know. And most of the people that were there when I was there last time and involved in some of that unpleasantness were long gone. So at this point it was like, hey, do you wanna go talk to John Davison about, you know, maybe comin' over there, and Simon Whitcombe. Yeah, they've been around this space for years, it's totally different people, like yeah, of course. And there were other people that were interested, the company that ended up buying tested was like lightly interested but not in a way that sounded all that exciting to me. And so yeah, I had lunch with John and Simon and in, this would've been, it was around the holidays, I don't remember the exact year anymore, it all runs together, man. But it was the holidays, it was like right after Christmas, we went into Christmas break knowing that it was likely that the company was gonna be sold early the following year. And that the GameSpot team was interested, was kind of like what I went into the holidays knowing. And so I met with them and we just kinda talked it out and, you know, like they had a good head on their shoulders and we were, you know, fairly attractive I guess in the sense that we had our own revenue, it wasn't like we were coming in and like, okay, you gotta bolt us to a sales team, you gotta bolt us to this 'cause otherwise we're gonna be losing money overnight. We were coming in doing pretty well in the grand scheme of things. So yeah, I wasn't in all the negations and meetings and all the back and forth for that sorta stuff but, yeah, it was an exciting weird time because we knew it was happening but we couldn't say it was happening. And rumors started getting out there a little bit, it was a very strange time, you know. It was so hectic. My dad went into the hospital as we were packing up the office to get everything out, and we were entering this quiet period where we wouldn't even have an office and we couldn't even say why, which was so unlike everything we had done with our community and all this other stuff. It was like, here's the thing where we are forced to not talk about this deal or act like anything is weird but we also are not in an office, it's hard to generate content when you're not in the studio. And there was just so much going on around that time, it was really, it was bizarre. I came out of it feeling like we did pretty good. For someone who came into that situation with little more than his good name I feel like I came out of it better. Personally better, better at my job, better at more types of things, better at running a, a little bit more respect for what it takes to run a business but also knowing when to sacrifice the business needs for editorial interest, you know, that sorta stuff. I was able to grasp more pieces of the puzzle, I guess. And so yeah, we came back in and it was fun because I had set up Giancarlo Varanini, I set him up real good where I saw him at an event the week before the deal was getting announced and I think my exact words were, hey I'll see you next week. And we left this Microsoft event or whatever we were at and.
- [Danny] Did he know, did he twig it or?
- [Jeff] He didn't know at the time but he pieced it together and then he was like, oh my god, you were saying what you were saying, yeah. 'Cause, you know, we still talk to a lot of those people that were over there.
- [Danny] So strange, I think I told you, we were in the bizarre situation where the UK, I was at GameSpot UK and the UK sales team had leaked the deal to us, I think maybe six weeks before it was announced.
- We all knew and we couldn't tell the American office about it.
- [Jeff] That's GameSpot UK for you, man. One year they tried to give FIFA an 11.
- [Danny]Did they actually?
- [Jeff] Actually, yes. They turned in a FIFA review that was trying to give it an 11 out of 10. And we had to be like, no, you absolutely cannot under any circumstances do that.
- [Danny] For most of Jeff's life his career and hobby have been impossible tangled. And so for much of his life his identity has been too. For years his Xbox Gamertag was GameSpotting. He only changed it when he set up his new site, to GiantBombing. But since selling to CBS he's tried to create more distance between these two worlds. Jeff isn't the most social person you'll work with. He commutes to and from Petaluma every day, a 40 mile drive during bay area rush hour. Perhaps it's why he doesn't socialize much after work. Or maybe it's a convenient excuse to not have to. At his desk, he sits with headphones on, usually working on something. When he talks to you he speaks openly and honestly. When he doesn't want to talk, he doesn't. He's always struck me as a person who's gears are always turning, thinking about the work. Half enjoying it, half burdened by the weight of it all. He's tried to get better at delegating responsibility but in many ways Giant Bomb is his child and he feels like he needs to be in the room when decisions about it are being made.
- [Jeff] For me that's the struggle. Like my personal struggle is like the time management aspect of it and like keeping everything going. Because before I had other things going on in my life you could throw as much waking time as you could at a thing and also we owned the company. It was a sick cycle where in the back of your head you could always say like, well I need to work until three a.m. because this could be the video that puts us over the edge and turns this thing into an even bigger thing. And so it was very easy to justify to yourself incredibly unhealthy work habits that didn't make the site better, that didn't lead to necessarily more content or anything like that, it was just it was very easy to spend every waking moment thinking about it. And now I don't and at first that made me feel guilty, yeah, that's the weird struggle of just like, it's all just kind of a weird head trip. And the worrying goes from like, am I spending enough time with my family, am I spending enough time with my job, this seems like stuff that everyone else figured out a long time ago but I'm coming to it over the last few years and going like, man, this is an interesting new challenge. But it's been great, I wouldn't, if it wasn't for my wife I don't think I would, I'm not even sure if I would still be doing this, honestly. I probably would've completely burned out or something by now without her to kinda have my back and all that sorta stuff. Yeah, she's been great. She's the best thing that ever happened to me, totally.
- [Danny] Trying to create a distance between life and work you're passionate about can often be a struggle. But it was impossible for the staff of Giant Bomb to do so in the summer of 2013. This July will mark the 6th year since the tragic passing of their friend and colleague Ryan Davis and in recent months it's been on Jeff's mind a lot more. Last year the site launched a 24 hour livestream that plays videos from throughout the 10 year archive of Giant Bomb and users often vote for videos that Ryan is featured in. So Jeff is confronted with the memory of their friendship a lot more these days.
- [Jeff] You know, going back to those videos and stuff, the relationship that Ryan and I had was very complicated and changed a lot over the years because, you know, we were close friends, we were in a band, we were inseparable, I got him hired, we became coworkers, I became his boss. And so the relationship changed along the way too. So yeah, I don't know, when I think about Ryan I think about the days before were working together, primarily. Those are my Ryan memories, usually. The videos, the stuff we did along the way, yeah, we did some really cool shit and I like a lot of it just fine, but me personally, I think about the stuff prior to, when Ryan was answering phones for AT and T internet at three in the morning when people couldn't get into their email, that's the Ryan I think of. The Ryan that was living with three other guys in this tiny ass place and we'd just go hang out and he wasn't 21 yet so I was indispensable. Like that sort of stuff, that's the stuff I think about when I think about Ryan.
- [Danny] When I asked Jeff about the future of Giant Bomb he's excited, but cautious. Years of working on the internet has taught him to be careful about over-promising before stuff is built. Perhaps his experiences have also taught him not to plan too far ahead. As the site enters its 11th year its been changing its programming to try and bring in new viewers. Giant Bomb has been successful, it pays its own way at CBS, but it's still a website owned by a large media organization, so often the future is planned quarter by quarter, year by year. Perhaps the most surprising thing in coming to know Jeff, is how excited he still is about games. His Twitter profile reads "I've been writing about "video games my entire life. "It would be insane to stop now." So you wouldn't blame him for being burned out on video games after 30 plus years of talking about them. But if nothing else, the thing that strikes me about Jeff Gerstmann is that these days when you can be so cynical about video games he's still a true believer in the power of the medium, whether it be players of Pac-Man or Fortnite.
- [Jeff] I think games are only gonna continue to get more popular. If you look at what we're seeing with something like Fortnite right now. Like, it's having a moment that, that Minecraft had before it. It's huge, it's bigger than a Five Nights at Freddy's, it's crazy. But like I'm just trying to think about like, you know, games that have penetrated the mainstream in a huge way. What we're seeing with Fortnite right now feels almost unprecedented. It's Pac-Man esque. You know, like Minecraft was huge, but not in a, like kids loved Minecraft, kids love Roblox, but Fortnite is cut such a wide swathe across society to where it's like all these popular mainstream sports figures are now doing Fortnite dances in actual sports and it's never been like that before. So in some ways like, gaming has kind of never been cooler or less cool depending on your perspective. Because it's literally everywhere. You know, everyone is carrying around a device in their pocket that is capable of feats that like it would've been insane, no console 10 years ago could've done anything like this. Granted, the controls are still bad. The technology is pushed so far forward and it's so pervasive and in so many different places and in so many different styles. You look at like Pokemon Go and the idea of location based gaming, you know, people getting out there and moving around to catch Pokemon, like all that stuff is amazing and it's crazy. But like where we're going on that front, I think if the technology bears out and data caps don't kill the dream and all this other stuff, we're gonna reach a point where anyone can play top level video games on the device they carry around with them every single day. And in some cases they are, I mean, Fortnite's on phones for whatever that's worth. So I think that this isn't gonna go away, this is gaming's kind of big push into the mainstream kind of once and for all. And I think that games coverage, that's a more complicated thing. If you look at YouTube right now with demonetizing videos and everyone trying to stream and everyone trying to have a side hustle streaming or something like that. Kids growing up like commentating games as they're playing 'em because they just watch people on YouTube and they think that's how you're supposed to play games. That's it, that's where we're going, or that's where we are already. And so I think over the next five years it'll be tumultuous because I think you'll see the bottom drop out of ads in a way that makes the Twitch streaming and YouTube and like the kinda hobbyist turned pro streamer, I think that that's gonna have to even out. I think it's only gonna get harder and I think that will keep a lot of people out eventually, or it'll lead to a growth in just the hobbyist streaming and people will have different expectations. They'll just be like, I'm streaming 'cause I like it, I'm not gonna sit here and think I'm gonna make a bunch of money. The same way I made public access when I was 16, it's like, oh, we're on television. Like I'm not making any money off of it the way real people on TV do but I just wanna do it 'cause it's fun.
- [Danny] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Noclip Podcast. Sorry it took so long to get this one out, it was quite a long story and it's also kind of an impossible story to tell in its entirety so I had to pick my battles and figure out a narrative that kind of worked. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it was nice piece to celebrate a website that means a lot to me and I'm sure a lot to you as well. Now for the housekeeping, if you wanna follow us on Twitter we are @Noclipvideo, I am @dannyodwyer, we have r/noclip if you're interested in getting on board and talking on Reddit and of course if you're a Patron keep up to date on all the Patreon posts. Podcasts are available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, and loads of other places anywhere podcasts are sold basically. We also have a YouTube channel where you can watch the podcast. That's Youtube.com/Noclippodcast. If you didn't know, we also make documentaries about video games, those are available for free with no advertising at Youtube.com/noclipvideo. Patrons get this show early for 5$ a month, if you're interested in supporting our work please head over to Patreon.com/noclip. And that's the podcast for another episode. We are actually at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco right now recording bunches of interviews which will be going up on the channel in the next couple of weeks. But we'll be back with another podcast in the not too distant future so make sure you hit that subscribe. We've never actually asked people to rate it, so if you're listening now and you're still listening at the end of this podcast, hey, why not rate us? Thank you so much for listening, we'll see you next time.
|Apr 01, 2019|
#08 - March Update
A bit of a change of pace this episode as Danny & Esteban get together to chat about their recent trip to NetherRealm Studios, and all the stuff coming to Noclip in March.
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about the people who play and make video games. I'm your host Danny O'Dwyer and this week, man, if you thought we went real casual with some of these recent podcasts, you've never seen casual like this week's. I'm joined by Esteban Martinez, a producer for Noclip, he's don't a bunch of work for us, including making his own documentary near the end of last year, our Spooky doc, a great insight into the fighting game community. Esteban's up in Philly, how ya doin', my friend?
- [Esteban] I'm so casual right now, I'm just laying out on this couch in my pajamas ready to podcast.
- [Danny] Is that how you edit? Do you sit on a couch, is that why your back is broken?
- [Esteban] Yeah, pretty much, I just lay down and you know those like cool like lazy boy sofas, that's me, that's just the image of me with a laptop and that's how I edit.
- [Danny] How do you actually edit because I edit, I've always, I did the standing thing for awhile and then edits take so long and I sit in like, I have a really nice desk that does do the standing stuff but when I bought my chair I didn't buy a particularly ergonomically sound one, I just bought like a nice leather one.
- [Esteban] Yeah, I've been to your studio, I remember that chair, that chair hurts. So for me at least, not to get too deep into it, but I did spend a lot of money on the chair and the desk 'cause you're here at it the whole time so I've got a nice desk that can go from standing to regular position real easy and then like, I bought one of those Herman Miller chairs, the Aeron chair.
- [Danny] Oh, yes, la de da!
- [Esteban] It is the best purchase I've ever made in my entire life. Everything is just so comfortable, you focus more, my back doesn't hurt anymore, 'cause I used to have one of those $20 office chairs from Staples and I was like, this thing's actually killing me. Like, you know, you read all the reports of like, sitting too long will shorten your lifespan. I actually felt my life force draining from my body as I was sitting on this chair. It's like, all right, you know what, things are good, I'm in a new apartment, let's just bite the bullet and buy this chair. And I bought it and, look, I know you've had a child recently and I'm sure that's wonderful and joyous, but this chair, nothing's better than this chair, my first born will not be as good as this Herman Miller chair.
- [Danny] God dammit, I got chair envy now.
- [Esteban] It's really good.
- [Danny] It's wise, its an investment in yourself, it's an investment in future medical bills that you will not have to pay. So really you're just, you're really investing in yourself. Fair play, we got a bunch of stuff to talk about today. This podcast is not just the two of us yammering on about ergonomics. We're gonna just kind of, I don't know, I feel like I need to clean the slate on everything we've done over the past couple of like weeks, like six weeks 'cause so much happened, and what's happening in the next 'cause there's also a lot happening. Like, I'm in the eye of the storm I feel right now and I kinda just wanna talk about all of it. So first of all, let's talk about the thing that both of us did, which is we just returned from Chi town, sunny Illinois--
- [Esteban] It was anything but sunny.
- [Danny] Jesus, it was like, yeah, what was it, it was one of those temperatures that like, in like European it was minus 12 I think, so I think it was like, what was it, 15 or 20 in Fahrenheit?
- It was bloody freezing. Like, when we were flying in it was just frozen lakes. Every lake was frozen.
- [Esteban] I mean, not even just flying in, when you stepped off the plane it was like, oh no, I messed up, I'm in the wrong place.
- [Danny] Yeah, I had my, I had like a big jacket but I had it stuffed in my camera bag, in the bag with the lights in it, just to basically keep the lights from getting rattled around in the plane so when I got off the plan I wasn't wearing anything warm and that little gangway was like fucking, I felt like going through the six layers of hell, well the opposite of hell, freezing hell, which apparently is Chicago. But we were there to talk to mister Ed Boon and his friends about Mortal Kombat 11. It was like a press event, influencer event, and I've been kind of askin' him about maybe doing something post release, just kind of getting into, nothing confirmed or anything, but just kinda like askin' around just to see and they said, well, we don't know but there's this influencer and media thing goin' on if you wanna come. And I think that was like five days earlier and I emailed you and were like, are you free on Monday? I think you had just gotten back from Japan.
- [Esteban] Oh man.
- [Danny] Yeah, so kind of it all came together last minute. We were in and out, one day. We turned up, went to a diner, talked to Ed Boon, back on a plane, back to our respective cities on the East Coast, but what did you think, I wanna ask you what you thought of the game, 'cause we don't really cover that so much in the thing 'cause we're not doing fuckin' impressions here on Noclip.
- [Esteban] Yeah, I get to put my journalist hat on now. Here's your preview of Mortal Kombat 11.
- [Danny] Well you're like the fighting game expert here in my social life as well, but I also wanna know if like, I don't really consider MK a fighting game, to me it's always just like a fun arcade game I buy every time it comes out.
- [Esteban] You just offended so many people right now.
- [Danny] It kicked Smash off Evo.
- [Esteban] That's right, get outta here, it's Mortal Kombat time. The game is great from what I played and what we can talk about but, you know, I've been a fan of Mortal Kombat, especially going back to the arcades, I was a big arcade kid growing up in Brooklyn so I played a bunch of the Mortal Kombats but especially coming from 9, like 9 was kind of like the big rebirth of Mortal Kombat or like the renaissance of the games. So they had a good track record with like 9 and then X was very good and now 11 just looks to be continuing that streak of just really quality games, lotta good single player stuff, good graphics, controls well, and man have the upped the scale on like Fatalities.
- [Danny] Yeah, they're pretty wild, I didn't really appreciate how nuts they were when I was watching the trailers because like, that type of grotesque cinematography you're kinda used to in trailers a bit but when you're actually doing the fights and it happens, like, I love those those X-Ray things that were in, was that X or 9?
- They were in both
- They were in both, okay. Yeah, but they, I really like that, I guess they have the Fatal Blow system which is, they're basically just like mini Fatalities that happen during the fight. And then they have the Fatalities which are just like so absurd, there was one that I wish I recorded. It's Scorpion pulls the head off one, you know, the classic one. And the face, the like disembodied head with the like, almost looks like a tail hanging out of the bottom of their neck was just, like I laughed it was so disgusting. Did you have any favorite ones that stood out to you?
- [Esteban] I mean, it's the one that's going around so much now, it's the Johnny Cage one. Not only is it, if you haven't seen it's homage to I think his Mortal Kombat II fatality where like--
- [Danny] Yeah, you punch off multiple heads.
- [Esteban] Yeah, he just uppercuts you multiple times and just multiple heads came out in the old school games, like it made no sense. So in this one he uppercuts you and you hear a director off screen like, cut, cut, 'cause you're head's supposed to come off I guess, and so it's just multiple takes like in a Hollywood production and it's a really cool idea of merging his background lore to also this silly fatality existed in these older games. There was that one and Kano's is just, it's very simple where he just headbutts you and your head just explodes on the third one, very simple, very bloody, but just funny, it just made me laugh.
- [Danny] Yeah, there's something about the slow mo thing that they do in this game where when the last strike that makes the person dead, as if they're not already dead at the previous couple of strikes, it just slows down in this comically grotesque way and then the word Fatality pops up and everyone on screen, either the person who's dying or the person who's just murdered them has just like the weirdest, the worst freeze frame face. So it's every, it's just so ridiculous, I absolutely, yeah, I'm really into it, no wonder, it's perfect like 2019 social media fodder as well. Like everyone's just sharing gifs of this stuff all day.
- [Esteban] Yeah, I mean it's going everywhere, even in the Designing a Fatality, our video you put up, the Baraka one of him where just like, you're dead, you're already dead, he's already cut you up, he's cut you're face off, everything dead. No, he's just gotta go in there, stick in, grab your brain, and he like bites it and eats it and that's the last frame you see.
- [Danny] That's what kills you, it's not the removal of the brain from the head, it's when Baraka had it for lunch.
- [Esteban] He's hungry man, you know, all that fighting burns a lot of calories, you know, you just make the best of both worlds, two birds with one stone.
- [Danny] The Johnny Cage stuff reminded me of when people ask what should Duke Nukem be in 2019? There's something about the tone of these games that they, they're like weirdly self serious in terms of their lore but they're so in on how stupid the whole thing is. Like just how stupid like, they just made these characters in in the early '90s based on what was popular in movies and ninja movies, both western and eastern, like Ninja Squad and some of the stuff coming out of Japan and they'd invent nothing and they had to sort of shamble a story around it but now they have to shamble a story around with like people who do motion capture and like famous celebrities doing VO but it's the same troop of like nutter, like what the fuck is Baraka, he's just a troll or--
- [Esteban] He's a Tarkatan soldier or general, Danny, don't you know the lore?
- [Danny] God dammit, it's amazing. Yeah, I'm looking forward to playing it, they seem to be cramming a bunch of different stuff into the single player as well. Which I guess is the problem every time they do it, it's just that most people just wanna pick up and play but I guess they're stickin' a bunch of stuff into the towers. I didn't get to experience that much, what was that like? I know we can't talk about the campaign stuff at all but what was the towers like?
- [Esteban] So the towers are returning from, I believe in MK9 they kind of started working on that feature and then they brought it to X. But the towers are essentially, think of like the old school arcade mode where you play like one character and you make your way through a tower of opponents. But they've added a bunch of stuff in terms of like, you have consumables, so you can summon Shinnok's hands to do like an attack or call in a drone strike or something like that, or even call in an assist like a Marvel 2, Marvel 3 style of like, you know, Scorpion comes and he throws his chain and then that sets up a combo, so it's pretty wacky and the computer for some reason at the press event that computer opponent was set to an incredible high level of difficulty for some of them. They had one where you fought the entire Cage family one on one on one, it was like gauntlet and you had like one life essentially and you just had to beat four people. But for a press event I was like taken aback for like how high the computer was set. So they're definitely gonna be challenging and they're definitely gonna be a lot of fun for, that's a bus, gimme a second. Philadelphia. They're definitely gonna be challenging and they're definitely gonna be a lot of fun for single players but I think that's, I think if anything Mortal Kombat and NetherRealm have leaned into the single player, right. We think fighting games in terms of like, just always two people or you go online and you play ranked or what not. But they really know that not everybody can do that or not everybody wants to do that so let's give them a story mode, let's give them these towers, let's give them the Krypt. Like the Krypt last game was essentially like Skyrim, like it was crazy, it was like a first person, or more like Amnesia, it was a first person horror game. I couldn't play, I'm bad with horror games so I couldn't play the Krypt 'cause things will just jump scare you all the time so I never unlocked anything in Mortal Kombat X. But they do that, they lean into the single player and I think that's what really sets them apart, outside of the gameplay, outside of the graphics, what really sets NetherRealm apart lately is them leaning so hard into the single player aspect.
- [Danny] Yeah I guess it's some learnings maybe they've brought over from their little flirtations with DC but I was even, I went back and played the arcade collection, which actually isn't on Steam anymore, but I found a key for it, I bought it through Amazon weirdly and it spat out a Steam key at me and then I guess I installed it and realized I think the reason they pulled it is that it's got all that Games for Windows Live shit embedded in it so you have to create a local profile and do all that to get to the main menu. But I played through a bunch of the first three of them again just to get a bit of gameplay capture and just have a bit of fun and yeah, it just reminded me of like, oh yeah, this is what fighting games used to be, and also this is what most fighting games are to me still. It's like way harder difficulty, especially the arcade ones 'cause they were the arcade ports. Way harder difficulty and then it's you against, you know, just a stream of people, it's like a rougelike. in a different way.
- [Esteban] How long can you survive on this one quarter, that's all you got.
- [Danny] Right, so yeah, it's funny how these games are just like, yeah, it's all about setting up the scenarios. Like even the different fighters, they just do such a good job of like setting up the scenario even with the quips that they talk about at the start, you know, like having Baraka and Johnny Cage shit talk each other before is, it's funny. Yeah, sure, and it makes you wanna like, I don't know, do all the different duos up against each other and stuff so I'm lookin' forward to it, there's a beta open near the end of this month I think.
- [Esteban] There's an online stress test I believe next week, so the weekend of the 15th I believe.
- [Danny] Excellent.
- [Esteban] So they did it with Injustice 2 last go and it worked pretty well, it was a little rough with the stress test but that's why they do it and I remember hearing good things, or decent things about Injustice 2's online netcode. So hopefully that comes true for MK11 'cause I know a lot of people wanna play it.
- [Danny] Yeah, all right, let's move on from the game I guess, before we get into everything else, what did you think about NetherRealm and the studio? It's in like a weird office park, right?
- [Esteban] Yeah, I remember us getting there and we were very confused 'cause, I think the biggest thing that confused me is like you have NetherRealm on one side and then you have like a kinder gym or daycare center on the right, and like man, these two things don't go together at all but all right, cool.
- [Danny] And there's like a big sign, it's not like NetherRealm studios is written in like, you know, Impact on a bulletin board with all the rest of them, it's a fucking, it's the biggest sign on the, you know, the list of businesses and it also just says like NetherRealm Studios written in the gnarliest font ever.
- [Esteban] Yeah, it's not hiding, it's making you well aware that it's there.
- [Danny] We got a nice tour of the office. It kind of reminded me of like a bunch of Japanese studios, just a lot of, what do you call them, cubicles, not much light, the folks there seemed pretty cool, a pretty nondescript canteen, might get very high in our top 10 canteen video. But the sound stage is pretty cool, they have a really large motion capture stage, it's in the Ed Boon video. But yeah, apart from that though, I guess there was that main area, right, you filmed a bunch of with the--
- [Esteban] Yeah, I think the main area was kind of like what took the cake for me at least where they just had, you know, it's like a little small museum of just NetherRealm's past, they had like, I think the coolest thing I saw there is they had the original, I don't wanna call them figures, but originally the statues they used to make Motaro, Goro, and Kintaro and stuff like that and I forget who was giving the tour, but they said like, hey, we have these encased 'cause if we even touch them once they'll basically disintegrate, that's how old these things are. And they had props from the movie, they had the Goro head from the movie and they had all the various toys. They don't have an Amiga copy of Mortal Kombat II, Danny was very happy about that.
- [Danny] Well they might, they said had a DOS one but he did say they cycle them out. So maybe they do have one, I almost brought my copy of MK2 on Amiga 600 for Ed to sign. His office was like right there, and also you said you noticed, I didn't recognize what they were but they were like these long rectangular logos and you said they were the cabinet heads, right?
- [Esteban] Oh yeah, so they had the marquees, like the marquee titles for like Mortal Kombat 1, II, and 3 right next to like the museum, or the foyer I guess and they just had 'em right there and I was like, oh that's really cool, they even took pieces of the cabinet. You know, they have their own arcade too which we didn't get to go in but I saw three stations of the Grid which is like so rare to find even one. I was like, man, if it wasn't for this press tour I'd be in that arcade right now.
- [Danny] Yeah, that was pretty cool actually. There was a lot of people on that tour so it was kinda hard to actually see anything and I felt like there were other people there who were way more jazzed to be there who were like long time fans or something so I was kinda happy to hang back and hang out weirdly with a bunch of ex press people that I know from London and San Francisco so it was kind of like a weird meet and greet as well which was really cool to catch up with some folks.
- [Esteban] Yeah, it felt like you came into NetherRealm, you signed whatever you needed to sign, and then you said hi to Danny, that seemed to be the course of events as people were coming through the door.
- [Danny] That's 'cause we turned up early as well 'cause they were all staying at a hotel I guess, we paid our own way of course so we kind of walked 10 minutes in the snow, sorry about that again.
- It's all right.
- To get there. What have you been up to outside of Noclip stuff, 'cause there's a bunch of Noclip stuff I need to get into in a second and I'm conscious I'm just gonna be rambling so what've you actually been doing? How was Japan, you we're at Evo, right?
- [Esteban] Oh man, you know, not to go too far behind the scenes, but like, you asked me what I've been up to and I actually had to take a minute and just be like, what have I been up to? 'Cause I feel like the couple of weeks have been a blur.
- [Danny] You've been nonstop, man, yeah.
- [Esteban] Yeah, the biggest thing has been Evo Japan. I went to Tokyo for a little bit to do some work and also to just hang out before things got busy and then I went over to Fukuoka, which is a place I've never been before but it was very cool and I got to go to Evo Japan and shoot some stuff there and that was pretty awesome, I'm still recovering from jet lag, it's getting better.
- [Danny] Well you were there for a while, you were there for like over a week, right?
- [Eseteban] I was there for like a week and half, two weeks.
- [Danny] Yeah okay, that's gonna take awhile.
- [Esteban] It has been taking awhile.
- [Danny] Yeah, East Coast US is also like the worst, it's like 13 hour difference or something, right?
- [Esteban] Yeah, it's like they're like a whole half a day ahead essentially. So, Evo Japan was pretty cool but for the most part I've been, we went to Chicago, we did the NetherRealm thing, I've also been kinda skipping around on other secret missions on my own, I'll be able to talk about those eventually.
- [Danny] Oh, you're gonna do that, yeah?
- [Esteban] Yeah, I gotta do that, I'm gonna big time you right now, I'm so sorry. But the biggest thing I've been doing outside of editing and shooting is just getting back to playing games. Which is something I haven't had the chance to really do until recently.
- [Danny] Yeah, I've not over the past month so please tell me what the fuck I'm missing 'cause all I've been doing is playing like Astroneer and Hades for gameplay. Sorry System Era and Supergiant, not that I don't enjoy those games anyway but, you know, I don't know nothing about Resident Evil 2 and the only game of Apex Legends I've played was like the day it came out, so what have you been up to?
- [Esteban] I think the biggest game I've been playing recently has been Resident Evil 2.
- [Danny] Oh, cool.
- [Esteban] I got the remake the day it came out before I left for Japan or what not. And I kind of, I ran through the first campaign with Leon and that game is incredible. Especially coming from somebody who didn't like, I know of the original and I played a little bit of the original but I never like beat it, I just watched all these speed runs, stuff like that. But to see how they took the concepts of the original and evolved them for this remake and not one to one either, like you don't go through the same hallways you did in the same order or even if you do the same events might not happen at the times you expect them. They did a really good job of keeping everything familiar but not one to one copying it and just kinda pushing it forward. Like, if you look at what Resident Evil 7 did Resident Evil 7 brought Resident Evil back but it also pushed it into like a new realm, like it learned from things like Amnesia or it learned from things like Soma, where Resident Evil 2, this remake, is taking all the lessons they've learned from that game and trying to make the ultimate Resident Evil, trying to make that Resident Evil that when people talk about Resident Evil they're trying to capture that essence and that feeling and put it into this game and think they did a really, really good job. It's hard too, there are some mean moments in this game. And I know everyone's posting clips of Mr. X, he's one of 'em, he's just one of 'em, but there's some mean stuff and some mean tricks they pull in this game but otherwise I had a really good time playing this, I'm gonna go back and do Claire next soon.
- [Danny] Rad, yeah, I'm looking forward to, I got it and played maybe two hours, actually that might be generous, maybe closer to one hour, and yeah, I was kinda taken aback. I'm one of these people who, like I completed the first Resident Evil a bunch of times, like I've played through that one loads. Res E 2 was never really my jam so I only played the start of it. And yeah, I actually didn't realize until I guess the week it came out that it wasn't just an HD remake of Res E 2, because Res E 1 have been HD remaked like four times by the time this one came around so I was like, oh, they'll just do the same thing. But yeah, now actually I just want them to go back and do this to the first game.
- [Esteban] Yeah, I know a lot of people have been talking about that, a lot of people have been talking about Resident Evil 3. Resident Evil 3 was like the first real Resident Evil I actually played all the way through. 'Cause I'm really bad, I mentioned before, I'm really bad with scary games, even like, Resident Evil's not horror scary, like jump scare every five seconds, but it's like that sense of it could happen, like something could attack me at this point. But Resident Evil 3 was the first time the series really leaned into action where you're constantly on the run and Jill's armed to the teeth really. So I played through that, so a lot of people have been talking about, well what if they did what they did with this remake to Resident Evil 3, they already got the thing that's chasing you all the time and they've got the police station so I kinda hope they do that with 3. It's probably too soon to do that with 4 but I love 4, but it could use a little streamlining too. It's on everything, pretty sure it'll be on my phone in like five seconds.
- [Danny] It's so much bigger of a game though I feel like. Like, Resident Evil 2 is like one where it's so confined, like the design of it is, you know, I mean, eventually, but it's not like Nemesis or Veronica where now these larger scale sort of things where you go off into parts of the environment. So yeah, I wonder, would it have the same effect 'cause that's what's so cool about this is that it's like, they've made the world of that police station and the city just richer, it's not like it's, you know, they've just made it more detailed than the way that modern games can and with mechanics as well, like adding a bunch of different stuff so it's a bit more emergent than the first one was. 'Cause the first games are just like horror Sudoku really, you're just collecting one thing and going to another. What else have you been playing, aside from your remakes?
- [Esteban] I've been playing a lot of Tekken, getting back into fighting games. I haven't played, while I was in Japan they updated the arcade version 'cause it's been back a couple of characters and stuff like that so I actually got to play in arcades again. Part of the reason I go to Japan so much outside of work is 'cause I just like playing in arcades and it's hard to play in arcades in the states 'cause they don't really exist anymore. So playing a lot of Tekken over there, getting better, getting my fundamentals back, becoming a competitor, I might compete, we'll see we'll see. And then Apex Legends, I think everyone's been playing Apex Legends.
- [Danny] Yeah, people have just been asking me to make a documentary about it, that's all, over and over and over again. I think mostly because we were just at Respawn for the Half-Life thing, we interviewed Vince Zampella presumably while they were chipping away on that thing. Yeah, that's cool, like I said, I only played an hour or two the day it came out. Have you consistently been still playing?
- [Esteban] I play at least for an hour every day.
- [Danny] Oh man, really, god, everyone's playing this game.
- [Esteban] And it's like the first, we've played PUBG and stuff like that and that was okay, I could at least call people out and be like, oh, we're getting shot from over there, by the way, I'm down.
- [Danny] I played PUBG yesterday.
- [Esteban] Oh, look at you. But this is like the first, I really like Titanfall 2, in fact I still, Apex Legends had made me buy Titanfall 2 on PC even though I own a PS4 copy and play that nonstop so I'm switching between the two all the time.
- [Danny] It's real good.
- [Esteban] The gunplay is so good, not even talking about the campaign or the multiplayer, just the core of the game itself, but the gunplay is like insane. And then when you take that and you move that to like a battle royale, and yeah, you lose some movement stuff, like you can't run across the walls or anything like that, you don't have a double jump, but the speed of the game is still pretty quick. I think my longest match in Apex is maybe 25 minutes. And that's like getting to the end, that's last two squads.
- [Danny] Which I think in PUBG I wanna say that's closer to 40.
- [Esteban] Yes, PUBG's a much longer game compared to Apex but in Apex you have so many more options for engaging and disengaging with all the character abilities and the ability to use the terrain to your advantage. So like, you carry momentum when you slide down terrain and you can use that to jump further or, you know, when you're running and healing or walking and healing you can't run but you can slide down so using terrain to, if you're losing a fight, oh we can disengage, I can create a smoke field or whatever, get outta there and we can come back and try to figure out a way.
- [Danny] Ah, this is why I'm scared of getting back into it now 'cause now like, I still haven't figured out guns and you're all learning how to be fucking ninjas in this thing and it's just gonna be like week two of Gears of War when suddenly everyone's figured out the timing of that shotgun kill and you're just like a lamb to the slaughter.
- [Esteban] It's not that hard, like I went away for two weeks to Japan after the game came out and that's all we were talking about. Outside of fighting games we were like, man, everyone's gonna be really good by the time we get back, this is really bad. But when I came back I got like two wins Like, it's not hard to adjust and especially, you know, you're a really good shot so there's some weapons that you can take advantage of that other people can't, like long range fights are kind of rare. I feel like this game is more mid range to close range so they just updated some of the guns so that might actually change. But if you've got the reflexes or if you're just a good shot you'll be fine and then balancing that with this pinging thing, like this pinging system is so good in this game. I have not talked to anybody, I play randomly. All my wins have been from random teams.
- [Danny] They're adding it to Fortnite now. They're actually like literally adding the same. To me it's the pinging system from Portal 2 just in a different game. It's contextual stuff to use.
- It's super contextual. Like it's contextual to the point where like if we're in a building and someone hits me through a window or something like that I can hit the H key and my, or whatever key I have it assigned to, and my character will be like, I'm being hit from somewhere with a sniper rifle.
- [Danny] Yeah, I'm doing like a day off tomorrow. I decided to turn the $20 tier on Patreon into I'm just going to like play games all day and stream it.
- [Esteban] Yeah, I think that's a really good choice.
- [Danny] Yeah, just to take some time off more than anything else. To have some like work dedicated time off 'cause otherwise I'll just never do it and I'll keep editing and keep burning myself out all the time. So yeah, maybe tomorrow I'll give a go at that. Let's get into what's coming up on Noclip and what's already come up on Noclip 'cause it's been a crazy couple of weeks here. The second episode of our Hades documentary has gone up, that was a lot of fun to put together. Shout out to Jeremy Jayne over in Berkeley for putting that one together. The name of it has already escaped me, what is it, what did we call it, we called it episode two? The first one is called, How Supergiant Secretly Launched Hades, the second one's called, the Chaos of Patching Hades, that's right, so it's basically all about them adding the Chaos update and the one that came after that. We kind of split the difference over a couple of months. We're at work on the third one which will be up in about six weeks time, we have like a, five weeks time actually, we have a calendar we're sorta working with that we're gonna make public soon enough that'll show you what's coming out for the rest of the year. There's also a Patreon Q and A video we shot with them which will be going up, I think probably closer to the end of this month and then also we have the behind the scenes from episode two, the deleted scenes rather, sorry, which will be going up, it's already been edited, just going through clearance with them to make sure that we didn't show a screen we shouldn't have and then it'll be up at some stage next week. The Astroneer documentary's up as well, delighted to get that one done and dusted. Shout out to Joe Dorada over at System Era and Samantha Kalman, a friend of Noclip for putting me on that story I guess two years ago. That was a hard one to edit, it's probably one of the more difficult human stories we've covered on Noclip and it was kind of a sensitive topic so I'm kind of, as relieved as anything else that we didn't sort of drop the ball on that one. People seem to like it which is good. Have you had a chance to check that one out yet?
- [Esteban] I have not, I downloaded it for my recent flight and then I lost my iPad on the plane so.
- [Danny] No, you didn't!
- [Esteban] I also cried for my human interest story. Yeah, I got it back though, I got it back.
- [Danny] Oh, thank god.
- [Esteban] But yeah, I wrote up a bunch of cool stuff and like cool project stuff, got off the plane, got in my Uber, realized I totally left it in the little, you know, where they keep the magazines at.
- [Danny] Yeah, how'd you get it back?
- [Esteban] So, not to get too nitty gritty, but American, they automated everything, like they're lost and found stuff so you just fill out a form online. You know, hey, this is what it looks like, this is where it is, this is where it was last seen. And they either hold it for you at the airport or they can ship it to you. I was luckily coming back to the same airport and they found it and they gave it to me.
- [Danny] That's nuts. I had those Airpods, I held out on getting Airpods for like forever 'cause I just thought they were needlessly expensive and ridiculous and then when you have a kid and not having dangly things in front of their face sometimes when you're around and doing stuff, it's kinda handy just to have one in while a podcast is on. You know, while you're playing with them with the toys for like two hours. So, god, I'm a bad parent, so I got them, but I was in the airplane and I fell asleep with them in my ears and I woke up and both were out of my ears.
- [Esteban] Oh no.
- [Danny] Yeah, and it was when we were like deplaning so it was, I was like jumping up around. I eventually found both of them but I had an absolute heart attack. Well that Astroneer doc it's up, it's about 50, 45 minutes long I think. The Jeff Gerstmann podcast is coming next after this one. It'll be next week I guess, from when you're listening to this, if you listen to this when it was the week it went up. I did a vote basically on what people would like to see from our backlog of bits and bobs we've yet to finish and this was the far and away winner so getting that done at the moment. It'll be more of the story style podcast we started out with and it's a long one, about an hour and 20 I think is what it's gonna land on. A lot of trips coming up for the rest of this month, I'm off to South by Southwest but before I talk about mine you're also going, right?
- But now with Noclip. What are you doing? Can you say?
- [Esteban] I'm trying to figure that out right now.
- [Danny] Okay, you're doing something.
- [Esteban] I'll be at South by Southwest helping out with a stream for a very large company, that's all I can say. Apple, IBM, there we go.
- Sure, why not.
- [Danny] Yeah, get those International Business Machines. Is that what that means, I don't know.
- [Esteban] That's right, buy stocks now.
- [Danny] I'm gonna be there doing a panel at South by Southwest Gaming called Noclip, Convincing Gamers to Love Developers, which is not Noclip, Convincing Gamers to Make Love to Developers, which was the original rejected title. It's part of the game and design development track. I went on their website and they said it was, level beginner, which--
- That doesn't make sense.
- [Danny] They don't know what I'm gonna talk about, I could go up there and talk about fuckin', I don't know, object oriented programming, we'll see what they think then.
- [Esteban] Hit 'em with the intricacies of god rays.
- [Danny] Yeah, we'll go straight into LUTs, an hour on LUT talk. Yeah, I don't know, I have like three version of that talk in my head and I'm basically gonna do a show of hands and start to see if people are either developers or working in PR or are just game players, not just game players, but you know, just game players, and then I'm gonna do it from there. I've got a couple of meetings as well and there's a couple of other reasons I'm heading out there. And the other reason is that it piggybacks right onto GDC and this our biggest ever GDC. This is the Game Developers Conference in sunny San Francisco. We are all heading out, well Jeremy still lives there. I'm heading over, Esteban is coming too. Jeremy is currently resting up at home 'cause he broke his foot, kicked a chair while he was making food apparently.
- [Esteban] Shoulda bought a Herman Miller.
- [Danny] He shoulda, yeah.
- [Esteban] You guys are making mistakes.
- [Danny] You can kick that thing all day, it just takes it.
- [Esteban] Oh, it'll break your leg, it's made out of steel.
- [Danny] So he's resting up at the moment. So that's, that's not the only reason you're coming but it was definitely like, we had like a mounting amount of interviews and I was like, we really need to bring Esteban, we're not gonna be able to do all this just the two of us. And then we kept getting more and more and more and I was like, yeah, we're probably gonna do that and then he broke his foot and that day four more people confirmed and we were like, yeah. I like called you up I think and was like, can you definitely please come to GDC?
- [Esteban] So I woke up that morning and the first thing I see is a Tweet saying from Jeremy where he's like, I broke my foot, dammit. And then I was like, I bet in 15 minutes I'm gonna get a text from Danny that says, hey, are you free for GDC, are you still free? And then like 10 minutes later you were like, hey, are you like free for GDC still? And I was like, yep, yes I am.
- Amazing. We have a ridiculous calendar so this is, we did this two years ago and it was really fun and we got a bunch of these little mini interviews, we called 'em Noclip Sessions then. We're not gonna brand them this time, we're just gonna make a bunch of smaller vids, kind of like the Corey Barlog one or the Ed Boon one. Just like a little, I don't know, not super long ones but interesting little chats. I'm looking at my calendar right here, man, and I mean, they're all between 10 and four during the day, we've got the studio of Patreon booked for basically the entire week. Now we have everyone from like mid tier developers, some massive indies, folks from Japan, some big western devs, and a bunch of interesting indies that people have been asking us to talk to, folks to do a unionization and, it's a crazy murderers row of names, some of which people would be very familiar with and some of which people won't. If you're gonna be at GDC we're not gonna be around that much but we will be at the showing of our Half-Life documentary as part of the GDC Film Festival, which is on at 4:40 p.m. on I wanna say the Tuesday, I closed my calendar like a silly boy. That's gonna happen at Yerba Buena I think it's called, yeah it's on the Tuesday, that's the 19th of March. It's gonna be at the Yerba Buena, I think it's called film, cinema or whatever, I forget what it's called, it's just that little one that's right there in the park. And yeah, we'll be around before and after to hang out and talk and stuff. I think myself and Jeremy are gonna get up on stage afterwards and do a Q and A or something, so that should be fun. So we're not an official meet or anything, we just kinda can't, like I used to work in SoMa in San Francisco and getting a bar for 20 people will be impossible. I feel like if Noclip did a meet up at GDC we'd get like 100 people so I just can't do it. So we'll be at the, if you're at the premier or the showing, it's not a premier, you can literally watch, almost a million people have watched it on YouTube already.
- [Esteban] I don't know if you know, Danny, but that video's been out for quite awhile.
- [Danny] We did this last year too with Horizon and it was amazing, sadly they had to turn people away. So that might happen this year again. The weirdest part about this is that the film festival's sponsored by Valve, who did not talk to us for the documentary.
- [Esteban] Oh man, I'm sure they love this.
- [Danny] Yeah, so this is gonna be a little awkward. Yeah, so we'd love to see you there before and afterwards, before or afterwards, whatever works for you even if you can't go watch the movie we'd be happy to come up and say hey. If you're not going to GDC though we're doing something weird, we're doing something new on our Patreon. They have this special offers thing which I didn't really ever want to do because I feel like our tiers our fair and cool and what not but just considering how big we're going at GDC this year it would be helpful to get a little bit more cash in the kitty as it were, so what we're doing, if you want, is we're gonna add this thing called an event pass, very careful not to put GDC in the actual name of that 'cause I'm sure we wouldn't be allowed to do that. Although, GDC tickets are pretty expensive. How much did it say when you, like $2,500 or something?
- [Esteban] It was like 25 to $2,800 and you sent me this link that was like hey, just sign up for this. And I saw it like, GDC has like a little checkout and I saw $2,800 and I was like, is he out of his damn mind?
- [Danny] Yeah, we have press passes so he didn't, you literally--
- [Esteban] You go through another page and then it makes it like zero, like a coupon code but you gave me a heart attack at once point.
- [Danny] You literally get a coupon code for like $2,500.
- [Esteban] It's crazy!
- [Danny] Yeah, like can I redeem this somewhere else maybe?
- [Esteban] Yeah, can I buy a mortgage? Can I put a down payment somewhere else with this?
- [Danny] Can I buy 10 of these chairs, or three, I don't know how much they cost. But yeah, we're gonna put that in the $10 tier. If you're already in the $10 tier or up you'll get all this already but if you're in the five, if you wanna jump up. Basically what we're gonna do is live check ins every day so we're in the studio from Monday to Friday and I'm also there Sunday and Saturday, we might do those days too but we're definitely gonna do Monday to Friday we're gonna do little live streams from the studio. I was thinking about doing them longer day but I don't know how good the internet is in the studio so I don't wanna commit to it but we're definitely gonna do these live check ins where we basically host a little live stream and let you know who we're interviewing that day, stuff like that, like kinda insider bits which we kind of wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable broadcasting to the entire wider world but it'll be fun to do for some of our Patrons. Yeah, and if you have any questions for those people or questions for us we'll all be there. So that's our, yeah, Noclip at GDC event pass, Noclip games development event pass, let's call it.
- [Esteban] Early access Noclip GDC buzzword keyword search influencer pass.
- [Danny] There'll be a post about it in the next few days anyway, yeah.
- [Esteban] It's the battle pass for Noclip. You can start it for free and then pay $10 later and get all the costumes.
- [Danny] I did think about doing loot boxes at one stage where we do like a real world loot box but it's always got something good in it but then I like ran the numbers on it and was like, no one would ever pay money, the amount of money it would take to make everything be really really rad no one should ever have to pay blind. I think loot boxes are inherently evil so even with all good intentions I couldn't figure out a way of doing it. It's a bit of a shame. Yeah, so you'll be there too. You've been to San Francisco but not to GDC, is that right?
- [Esteban] I've been to San Fransicso but I've never been to GDC, I've always wanted to go to GDC, I love the talks that they have there and it just seems like a cool place to be.
- [Danny] Yeah, it's super cool. I'm not sure how much time we'll have to actually go to the Moscone Center, what I'm trying to do is make it so on the Friday at least we've got a bit of time so we can run in for awhile. But also we can so stuff in shifts, like I'm sure we won't need all three of us all the time over at Patreon but it's gonna be a lot, man, we're gonna come out of that thing with like 20 interviews and then we have to figure out how to cut them and who's cutting them and which ones are coming out and what not so a lot of stuff comin' to Noclip. And that's a podcast, basically. Just wanted to give an update to what we're doin'. That Jeff Gerstmann one will be up next, you know, you've heard all the stuff that's coming depending on whatever tiers you're in. Esteban, where can people follow you and watch you play video games?
- [Esteban] So I, you can follow me on Twitter at Twitter.com/TheBesteban, that's where all my stuff is at. I'm also getting the habit of streaming at least once a week, nothing like crazy like Ninja like every day but trying to stream at least once a week.
- [Danny] He's hanging out with Neymar at soccer games now, he doesn't have time to stream.
- [Esteban] Yeah, come on. But I'm here to take his spot now, dyed my hair red and everything. So you can follow me at Twitch.tv/TheBesteban 'cause branding and I'll be up there, you know, it's casual, once a week we just play games. Right now I'm downloading Devil May Cry 5 actually as we're speaking.
- Oh sweet!
- [Esteban] As soon as that thing hits midnight.
- Is that out tomorrow?
- Tomorrow, yeah. So I'm probably gonna actually play couple hours tomorrow, get into that game, 'cause I love Devil May Cry, so that's it for me.
- [Danny] I like those Nigerian movies, the trailers for the--
- Yeah, they're cannon now. It's crazy, I can't believe Capcom made them cannon.
- [Danny] I mean, they fuckin' might as well be. Like, they make as much sense as the official lore as far as I'm concerned so.
- [Esteban] Oh man, now the Devil May Cry Reddit is on fire, way to go, Danny.
- [Danny] All our Patrons who love DMC are out. I did really like that Ninja Theory one though, that was quite fun.
- Oh no, what have you done.
- [Danny] @Dannyodwyer on Twitter, @noclipvideo if you don't follow us there. You know the drill, we're all over the internet, r/noclip on Reddit, we got a Patreon in case you didn't know. This podcast is on Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, loads more, and we have a YouTube channel, Youtube.com/Noclippodcast. We also make video game documentaries at Youtube.com/noclipvideo if you didn't know that. Patrons get all that stuff for the show early, this show early, sorry, for five bucks a month. Thank you to all of those folks for supporting our work, see you next time, Jeff Gerstmann will be up and then we'll probably do a post GDC wrap up as well but we also have a bunch of developer interviews coming over the next couple of weeks as well so stay tuned. Thanks, Esteban for hanging out.
- Thanks for having me.
- No worries, and we'll see the rest of you next time.
|Mar 13, 2019|
#07 - Lucas Pope
This week we're diving deep into game creation as Danny sits down to talk about design with Lucas Pope, the creator of Papers Please and Return of the Obra Dinn.
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about people who play and make video games. Our guest this week is an independent developer responsible for 2013's political passport checker, Papers Please, and the recently released seafaring dither punk solve-'em-up Return of the Obra Dinn. Today he lives on the island nation of Japan which makes me even more grateful for his time today as it's currently 9:00 a.m. here in Maryland, which makes it around 11:00 p.m. in Tokyo. But if the conversation flows we should hopefully get him in bed before midnight. I'm delighted to be joined by Lucas Pope. Lucas, thank you so much for making the time today.
- [Lucas] Yeah, thanks Danny, I'm happy to be here.
- [Danny] Do you feel like you have sort of a less busy schedule these days? I mean, you finished up on Obra Dinn and then I'm guessing you then spent a lot of time sort of fixing bugs and what not, has it eased off a bit now?
- [Lucas] Yeah, definitely, it was exactly that basically, where I released the game and spent a long time fixing stuff that was broken, more or less. And then that's cooled off a lot now. I mean, the work stuff has cooled off but I was sort of holding off so many other things in my life with family stuff and everything else that once even that work stuff was done, there was a huge stack of things I needed to take care of after that so most of that also was sort of out of the way so now I'm finally able to kinda cool down a little bit and take it easy.
- [Danny] Now you're able to do your podcast backlog for the previous four and half years.
- [Lucas] More or less yes, actually exactly that.
- [Danny] How's the game backlog looking? Did you get much time to play stuff over the development of it or? It sounds like it's a lot of work making these games, especially on your own, so do you sort of like disconnect from mainstream game releases for awhile?
- [Lucas] A little bit, yeah. On the things that I would normally play, yes. I was still playing things like Mario games with my kids and Switch games and stuff like that but on the stuff that I should be checking on, most of that, yeah, was just stuck in a pile somewhere and I'm kind of going through that now very slowly.
- [Danny] Awesome, let's go back in time just a little bit before we sort of dive into the design of the two games that most people will know you from. I feel like if there was a Venn diagram of people we talk to on Noclip, the biggest one sort of section would be folks who worked on Quake mods and you apparently fall into that department as well.
- [Lucas] Yeah, represent.
- [Danny] Was that your first sort of foray into design, what did you work on?
- [Lucas] I wouldn't say that, it was my first foray into 3D design and also where you could put a tiny bit of effort in and then see it in 3D was just mind blowing. So I had done like small sort of C64 games or HyperCard games or basic type in kinda things before that but Quake was the one where you could just open up a texture in an editor and draw a few things and then you could play it in the game in 3D. It was like the kinda stuff you would dream about with SJI work station kinda things or when you see N64 and just blown away by the fact that it's 3D, Quake was where you could edit that stuff in 3D which was just kind of a revelation for me and a big change from what I was doing before, which was just kinda 2D simpler expected things in '96 or whatever, by that time most of the other kinds of games were pretty mature 2D stuff so Quake was yeah, kinda mind blowing. And again, it wasn't just the texture stuff, it was everything, you could make models, you could do animation, you could write code, it had this really nice Quake C system. So it was just really the perfect thing for me at that moment in time, just to be able to do that kind of stuff easily and then get it right into the game and actually play it.
- [Danny] What was the aspect of it that appealed to you back then because, you know, you seem to be the type of person who enjoys many facets of this type of work, was there an aspect of it that spoke to you in particular back then, was it programming or was it, did you just like, I don't know, making something that actually sort of existed as quickly as possible in that process.
- [Lucas] Yeah, probably that last one. I started doing textures which was the easiest thing, you could just take one of the textures and there were tools right away that would convert to the, you know, some PNG or BMB that you could edit and then it would convert back to the Quake format. So that's what I started doing. I guess at that time I fancied myself an artist, although it really wasn't very good. You could be not that great and it'd still look okay 'cause it was transforming so much to put in 3D. So I started with textures and I was at the time actually studying compute science so it was kind of a natural slide right into the Quake C stuff and programming some of the logic when maybe our programmer had too much stuff to do or something on a couple of the mods we were working on and I decided to just like slip in and write some system or fuck around with the code a little bit. And once I was kinda in that position of being comfortable doing art and then programming I, I mean, I kinda realized this before that time but it was I was very comfortable, basically, doing lots of different stuff and sort of not killing myself on any one thing. Kind of trying to decide where I should spend my energy and what would be important in this case, would it be better looking or better behavior or better sounding, I kinda like that engineering challenge of allocating resources and it worked out for me because, not that I could all those things very well but I was at least interested in doing all those different disciplines when making a game.
- [Danny] Right, and I can sort of appreciate how you ended up then working as an independent developer. What I'm kinda interested in then is what was it like working at Naughty Dog where I imagine you were probably pigeon holed into a specific type of work, right?
- [Lucas] Sort of, Naughty Dog was really nice because when I started there I was the GUI tools guy, which means making the graphical tool for the designers to use or the artists to use or things like that, and that was not a popular position.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Lucas] So, maybe I was pigeon holed but my hole was huge and on the other side of that was a huge space for me to play around in 'cause nobody else was directing me at all basically. I could decide, okay, the designers need this kinda tool and I'm gonna make and then they're happy with it, great, they need these features, I'll do those too, that sorta thing. So for me Naughty Dog was very liberating because I had all that space and no one else was really telling me what to do, but at the same time I was working alongside just brilliant programmers and amazing artists and it's kind of a dream position basically because I needed to integrate really well but kinda on my own terms and it just worked out perfectly for me 'cause I could make these tools and then the designers and the artists could use them and I could see the final result and when you have that caliber of artist or that caliber of designer they could use anything and it'll look good so, you know, maybe it wasn't even my tools that were any good but at least I got the satisfaction of seeing the awesome stuff they were making with my tools, so it was perfect.
- [Danny] When we talk to independent developers, sort of these days you're getting a lot more, I feel like graduates who are jumping straight into it but of a certain generation. Like for instance, I was just over with System Era in Seattle, they're working on Astroneer which is coming out this week, and a lot of that crew are ex-343 people. Do you think that having that sort of triple A experience is kind of like, was very important to your professional development or was it the type of thing that just, you know, even if you were learning independently you feel like you would've got to where you are now?
- [Lucas] That's a good question, I think, I wouldn't generalize and say triple A but I would say specifically Naughty Dog taught me a lot about production and about kind of seeing what's important in your game as you're making it and using that to triage and to cut things and to really focus on what you have decided is important about your game, that was all critical. I think there's a slight danger in working in triple A, the quality of things that the artists and designers and sound guys and everybody and the programmers create is super super high and just the sort of production style in general is that you have very skilled people and you can give them difficult tasks and they will do a great job. And that, in my opinion, does not scale down to smaller studios, you kind of have to cut more corners, you have to rely more on your tools and your pipeline and you have to make more concessions to just produce the same amount of stuff and that's kind of, I mean, a snapshot of what I do is I try not to compete in that way. I consciously say, there's no way I can match the art skill of a Naughty Dog or a triple A studio so I'm gonna try to kinda leap, not leap frog, but I'm gonna just gonna go a completely different way and not compete on those same terms at all. So part of the challenge of making a game for me is finding that way to not compete and to make sure that the things that I create are not gonna be compared one for one against what a bigger, more resourceful studio can do. So I wouldn't say like working at Naughty Dog taught me that I can just do anything with the art, like the artists can make the most amazing things and the game is gonna be awesome for it. It was more about just the style of production that they had there taught me a lot about focus and real kind of, think about what the final result is gonna be, don't think about the components that make it up as much. I mean, the components are important but one problem I used to have as an engineer is that I would want the code to be perfect, I wanted the systems that I was designing to be elegant and to, if an engineer looked at them I wanted them to think, yeah man, that's pretty good code he's got there. But what I learned at Naughty Dog was none of that matters, what matters is what happens when the player puts the controller in their hand. And a lot of the times those two things are connected but a lot of times they're not and it's a difficult lesson to learn if you're strictly an engineer all the time, to sort of back off on your number one OCD skill.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Lucas] Actually, what's more important is that, even if this is kind of shitty code here, it works pretty much, I can predict how it works and I know that the end result will sorta be like this and that feels really good to the player so that was a good lesson too.
- [Danny] Right, yeah, we'll get into the sort of, the economy of independent development in a second 'cause I'm very interested in talking to you about that, especially somebody who sort of works from home, myself as well. But first of all I guess, that initial leap to go your own way, to leave the collaborative workspace of Naughty Dog, where did that come from?
- [Lucas] Well, it started before Naughty Dog actually because in college I was working on Quake mods with a couple of friends, international friends, we decided to start a company in Virginia, not far from you actually.
- [Danny] Yeah, was it Richmond where you grew up, in that area?
- Yeah, yeah, in Richmond.
- Yeah, cool
- [Lucas] We decided to start a company together and we were small, you know, four or five guys, and we were workin' on weird games, different games that we thought could sell. So that didn't work out in the end and I ended up going to LA to get real work where somebody could just pay me but in the back of my mind, even working at Naughty Dog or working in serious games, I had always kinda felt not out of place, but man I really wish I could be working on my own stuff. And when it came time for Uncharted 3 I basically thought, well, I have a bunch of ideas that I want to do, small games, experimental stuff that I can do by myself or with my wife, who's also a game programmer so I'm just gonna try to do that now instead of staying around for the next sequel or whatever, I'm gonna try to do that instead. So it wasn't so much that I was rejecting anything about Naughty Dog, it was just I was kind of pining for the old times when I had less responsibility but also not a small piece of a big picture but kind of the only piece of a very small picture.
- [Danny] At that stage was there projects that you had sort of on the horizon, like on your mind's horizon that you wanted to do or is it more a case of just having that sort of process where you could, you know, set your own destination and work on things the way you wanted to?
- [Lucas] Well at Naughty Dog on Uncharted 1 and Uncharted 2 was pretty crazy, it was a lot of work so I didn't have a lot of time to think about other stuff. I was totally occupied with those games while I was working on them but there was a time when we had shipped, I don't remember the date exactly, but there was a time when I had some free time, basically we had just shipped something or we were about to ship something, some big milestone had finished, and I wrote a game called Mightier with my wife and it was experimental kind of puzzle platformer game. That was a lot of fun and just working on that was kind of the culmination of an idea I had been thinking about for awhile and we made it and it was a lot of fun and we got nominated for the IGF and that kind of put a little seed, you know, planted a little seed that maybe I should start thinking about these sorts of games more. And that's kinda just what happened over the next year or whatever when I was still working at Naughty Dog, thinking, you know, I gotta couple ideas here and there but actually none of that was a reason to leave, it was more just that Uncharted 2 had shipped and if I'm gonna leave now is really the best time. I don't wanna start working on a new project and leave in the middle of that, if there's gonna be a sever it's gonna be now so. We hadn't really figured out what we're gonna do when we left our jobs until we left, we left and we kinda just played around with a bunch of ideas and then came up with Helsing's Fire. It wasn't, you know, oh man, I really wanna make a Helsing's Fire, I gotta leave Naughty Dog to do it, it was more, okay now what are we gonna do with it, we've left and we decided to try this independent games thing, let's try this, a couple different ideas, and okay let's do this one sort of thing.
- [Danny] It's been fun diving back into your design history, especially on your website, you have a bunch of games on there, sort of Flash games that people can go play right now. And it's been fun I guess backwards charting maybe some design influence that came from those early projects too, but the game that most people sort of know you from, even now perhaps, is Papers Please, which is interesting because it's a game that's sort of the elevator pitch for, not necessarily something maybe that you'd imagine people would get very excited about but obviously, as game playing experience, it's incredibly compelling. What do you think it is about Papers Please that actually sort of cemented its place within the gaming zeitgeist when it came out in 2013?
- [Lucas] Good question, if I knew I could sell it in a packet. I mean, I think, you know, if you ask me I would say it's very different from the other games that are available so if you in the off chance want a game about checking passports you gotta come to me, basically and that was kinda my theory about me making games alone is my only chance is really to make something you can't get somewhere else easily. So Papers Please was kind of that and it was, I didn't have visions of grandeur with that game, I was sort of making the game that I would wanna play as a kind of analytical kind of OCD-ish kind of details oriented person. And I tried to capture good gameplay and weave it with a narrative just kind of, you know, as I would want to be in a game I play so I didn't kind of think, I'm aiming for a zeitgeist here, I was thinking, okay, I need to make something different and these mechanics I have work pretty well for this kind of story and if I can put them together in an interesting way then I would like the way it turned out in the end and yeah, it's a little bit of luck I think as well. The timing kind of worked out with the explosion of streaming games or YouTube let's plays and sort of things where Papers Please I think works pretty well in that format because you can role play as the inspector and, you know, somebody who's playing that game can be funny and can be fun to watch when they play it and I think that lined up pretty well with just the timing of when I released the game, which is pure luck, you know, that's not something I had planned. Marketing wise I didn't do anything for that game that you would actually consider marketing so, you know, there wasn't a whole lot of clever planning on my part for that, I was really just trying to make a game that I thought I would enjoy and everything else sort of, you know, fell into place.
- [Danny] You say that that wasn't a lot of sort of marketing done around it, but it did have a very strong trailer, like I still remember the music, you know, maybe it's just 'cause I'm a video guy or whatever but I remember it was very well cut to the music and compelling, did you work on that as well yourself?
- [Lucas] Yeah, I made that too. So, one of the things about picking game ideas for me, when I sit down I collect, as I'm doing anything I'm always thinking, okay, that might make a cool game, and I'll just write down a quick note about it. And I sort of collect those over time and then the ones that stick in my mind the most I sort of focus on those more. So something like Papers Please or even Obra Dinn, when I'm even thinking about the idea I'm thinking, how could I express this in a trailer? If it can't imagine right now a cool trailer for this then it's probably not worth pursuing. And it's kind of part of the decision I think about making games is at the very beginning like that. So it's not the idea that I like this other game and I wanna make a game like that, only better, it's that I wanna make this game and I can sort of see all the way through how it's gonna be, how I can market it, in air quotes, or how I can talk about it or how I can think about it for, you know, a year or four and half years or whatever it will take to get it done. So the initial idea is very important to me. So something like Papers Please where it's a game about checking passports, I can already kind of imagine that it, you can have a trailer just showing the guy denying passports the whole time and it can be interesting, basically.
- [Danny] Last week had Marijam Didzgalvyte on who works for Game Workers Unite and we were talking about politics and games and political games and we talked about Papers Please 'cause it was actually something she wrote an article about years ago. Sort of, she's Lithuanian and she was quite critical of it because she felt like wasn't political in the way that she was maybe expecting. Were you trying to make a political game or were you literally trying to make a game about checking passports and the sort of, the wider theme that's very well presented in the game sort of came from that, like what was the impetus of this? Was it meant to be political or was it something that you were just compelled with that sort of, you know, that OCD nature of checking passports at border sections?
- [Lucas] Yeah, I never set out to make a political game and I think for me personally, I couldn't start with the message and then make a good game out of it. If you gave me an assignment and said make a game that projects this message I probably couldn't do it very well. It was really the core mechanics that I had that I felt, first I can make a fun game out of it, for me, I can make it where you're just checking, you're correlating information, that could be fun, the mechanics of that could be fun. And then I started working on the narrative and I wanted that kind of complexity of that lack of clarity 'cause a lot of politics is about lack of clarity in my opinion so I wanted to express sort of how, not both sides are equal but both sides believe in their cause fairly strongly and it's hard to present that in a movie or a book but when you have an interactive medium like games it becomes a lot more possible to put the player in the position where suddenly it's not so clear cut what they would do in the situation. And it wasn't until I had the mechanics and some idea about the narrative that that became important to me to express that. And I didn't wanna make it very clearly for one side or the other because, I don't know, to me the game is a lot more powerful when the player's kinda stuck in the middle there and they're not, they don't have enough information really to even decide who are the good guys and who are the really bad guys so to me that's like life, you don't ever really know the whole story of anything and you still have to make decisions, you still have to live and work that way. So, yeah, I did not start out with a message and an idea that I wanted to teach the player something, it was more, with the tools I had I recognized there was an interesting way to construct an interactive narrative here that the player could enjoy.
- [Danny] And then obviously the game went onto great critical and commercial success as well, and I believe the only other time we've ever talked actually was I believe you received, was it the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF that year?
- [Lucas] Yeah.
- [Danny] Gamespot had me backstage interviewing everyone coming off and we talked for probably about 30 seconds but obviously you know, then you know, you were well known within the industry and within the independent industry but then you became sort of infamous within the wider game player community. So what was it like then trying to make a second game? Because suddenly, you know, you've got a lot of eyes on you and there have been many creators who have created a game that has been very successful and then the pressures of having that follow up prove to be too much, how did you sort of deal with it and how did the concept for Obra Dinn sort of come out of that?
- [Lucas] That whole follow up thing, sophomore effort, you know, it's not my sophomore game, I've made a lot of games so there wasn't as much pressure in that sense, the can I even do it, or can I even make a game, that was fine, there was a lot of pressure of about how to follow up with Papers Please. I spent a couple years worrying about that, and that's, you know, one of the reasons why Obra Dinn took so long, it took me a long time to get tired of worrying about that, more or less, which is what happened. You know, I stressed out about it for two or three years and then finally said, I just gotta finish this game. Not, fuck it, but very close to, fuck it, I gotta finish this game, more like, damn it, I've gotta finish this game.
- [Danny] You got kids, you know, you gotta be careful.
- [Lucas] Yeah well, that's a good point, I got kids and they're growing in front of my eyes and if I don't just finish this game then I can't sort of focus on them again. I wanted to put the game away and focus on the kids more so that was a good incentive. And that's enough, you know, having kids was actually really important for me because even if Obra Dinn sucked and was a huge failure my kids don't care, they don't even know about any of that stuff and so that support was always there, whether Obra Dinn was good or not, so that helped a lot and that took a couple years to even see because of just kind of Papers Please was a whirlwind for me and it wasn't until things cooled off and I'd been working on Obra Dinn for a long time that I realized that like, even if it sucks I'm just gonna finish it and release it. But the other thing is kind of the way I make games is I try to get a lot of pieces together that I think will make a good game without actually knowing exactly how the game is gonna turn out in the end and changing things along the way, maybe the way I envisioned the game originally is not how it ends up but what I envisioned was made of these parts and then I just reshuffled them along the way and added a few things and took away a few things and then I released the game. And Papers Please was like that, and Obra Dinn was like that too. So from very early I had pretty good confidence in the pieces I had for Obra Dinn. I wasn't confident that I could actually make a good game out of it but I thought the individual pieces, there's probably a good game here, maybe I can't find it but I feel like these elements could come together and could make a good game so it's worth working on the elements sort of independently without seeing exactly how they're gonna work together, just having kind of a little bit of faith that they're gonna go together okay. And that pulled me through, you know, a couple down periods over the years as well.
- [Danny] I've read before about how Papers Please sort of came from, you know, your travels and going to border guards and having that experience and, you know, that the idea sort of springs from that. How about the Return of the Obra Dinn, where did you come up with the sort of overall concept? There's one game actually that's on your website dukope.com, the Sea Has No Claim which I've really enjoyed playing, which has some sort of both graphical and sort of thematic connections to Obra Dinn, is there any connective tissue there or where did the idea for Obra Dinn sort of stem from originally?
- [Lucas] I mean, the project itself started with, I wanna make a one bit 3D game. So I didn't have the idea of the ship or anything, the murder mystery, the watch, the flashbacks, none of that, it was really, let me sit down and try to make a one bit 3D game. And once I started doing that I had a couple different ideas I could do with it, one of them was set in Egypt, one of them would be on a ship, one of them was somewhere else, a power plant, and just sort of thinking about having to do everything I thought, well the easiest thing is gonna be a ship 'cause it's a contained space so I kinda just decided, okay, it's gonna be a ship and then I started researching. And at the same time I was getting my chops down with Maya again, I'd used Maya a long time ago but I hadn't done a lot of 3D stuff recently so a lot of learning was happening on the tool side which meant less focus on what am I actually gonna do with this so by the time I realized the ship was gonna be a huge pain in the ass and a ton of work it was too late, I was already committed to it. So that kinda gave me the ship idea, and you're right that there's kind of vapors of Obra Dinn in my other games, there's another game called Six Degrees of Sabotage which is kind of where you're recognizing connections between groups of people, which also is thematically similar to Obra Dinn. I thought about this a little bit when I was giving, somebody asked me for some advice about their game and my advice kinda boiled down to add a lot more people to your game and so when that happened I realized that the way I think about narratives I guess and gameplay really falls back on just having lots of people, something about having a lot of people and characters and interactions, to me is mechanically provides a lot of opportunity and also gives me kinda motivation for building an interesting narrative. So Obra Dinn is just a ton of people, and like I said, I didn't know exactly how they were all gonna fit together but I kinda felt, if you gave me 60 people there's gotta be something I can do with that, there's gotta be some way I can put this together. It's kind of like establishing the problem space and then recognizing not the solution, but that okay, I seen the shape of that problem before and it looks really interesting, I wanna try to solve that.
- [Danny] When you look back at that, you know, the manifest of all those names, those 60 people, is there any ones that stand out to you, that became like little favorites of yours?
- [Lucas] Well, an interesting element of the game is that I did not attach the names to those characters until kind of late. I modeled them randomly, I just created a bunch of random characters, dressed them randomly as well and then named them randomly at the end, or near the end at least. But what I tried to do is I tried to make a lot of people kind of human, so not black or white or not clearly evil or clearly good, maybe there's one or two fully evil guys there but you know, they have motivations that maybe could be justified in some way. So one thing that surprised me is that when I created the characters and I kind of assigned their stories and wrote all the scripts and things like that, I was thinking very mechanically at the low level, so I need to sprinkle enough clues around that the player can figure out who they are, and also at the high level of what do these characters mean to each other and how are they interacting and who generally is on this side or on that side. And I wanted to show that on these ships that it's, first off, they're very dangerous, people die all the time, and so your survival depends on, to some extent, getting along with people. And you know, you spend a very long time in a very small space with these people and it just by the nature of it, you have to get along. If you don't get along then someone gets hurt or someone dies or they get off at the next stop or something like that so I wanted to express that in the game, I'd read a lot of literature about these ships before designing the story and the characters and things, and some of the characters, when the player meets them initially they look like bad guys and I wanted to sort of set that up where your first impression is that this guy is a murdering asshole but as you see them more and more you realize that they're human and they have friends who were killed or they were put in these difficult situations that sort of flipped the switch in them or just made them worry more about their survival than everyone else's survival or things like that so one of the good examples of that is this guy Brennan, Henry Brennan, who when you first meet him seems basically just like a tough guy who's bloodthirsty and wants to kill people but if you think about in the context of a ship and what people's duties are, he's not doing half bad, you know, maybe he's a little bit aggressive but you kinda need somebody like that on a ship or you need people to do that sort of thing in these situations when there's, I can't say these kinds of disasters 'cause it's pretty fantastic, but when there's that kind of trial, you know, these guys are not necessarily bad guys, they're just the ones who have a clear vision of what to do and if some people get hurt in the acts then kind of that's something they also calculated. So Brennan was one of those guys and what surprised me actually is my wife was the first person to play the game all the way through and the whole game didn't come together until maybe two months before release, to be actually be able to play from beginning to end. And she really liked Brennan which was kind of an indication that the kind of set up that I was going for worked because he, yeah, he's pretty, he kills a lot of people, basically.
- [Danny] His face kind of keeps appearing.
- [Lucas] Yeah, he's a pretty aggressive dude but he has qualities enough that my wife was, liked him, basically.
- [Danny] That's awesome, yeah. You know, I encourage anyone who's played the game to Google Henry Brennan and once the face pops up you'll know exactly who we're talking about. One of the things that stood out to me as well as an Irish person who, you know, I lived in London for a number of years too, was the voice cast for this game was tremendous. And, you know, even outside of that I felt like I sort of had an unfair advantage in that, you know, accents were very cleverly delivered. There was one actual accent that was from the north of Ireland that I thought, oh, that must be somebody from Ireland, there's a character called Patrick O'Hagan in the game, I actually went to school with somebody called Patrick O'Hagan so, can you talk about the, I guess, the work in getting all of those voices? How much did you know about different voices in the British Isles and Europe I guess as well, and also abroad, there's quite a complex number of languages being used as well. How much work went into that and did it come easily to you or was it the type of thing that took a lot more work than you were expecting?
- [Lucas] That's a good question, actually it's one of my favorite questions about Obra Dinn and it's good to talk to you about it 'cause you know these accents. I do not know any of these accents but I knew that they were important and one of things I like about making games is to pick something like that that is normally not important and make it important. So, normally when you hire a voice actor they can do lots of different accents and it would've been very easy for me to hire a few Americans to do all those accents and just call it a day, but I knew that, first off, I would be torn up in the UK because they would know they were all bad.
- [Danny] Absolutely.
- [Lucas] I personally have heard people, foreigners do bad southern US accents so I know that feeling when it's wrong and I didn't want anybody to have that feeling but I had made this sort of critical importance on the accents. And it's the same thing with the audio in the game, I wanted to make a game where, it's not just that I wanted a game with great audio, I wanted a game where the quality of the audio was actually critical to the, I mean, it's kind of making it hard for me but the quality of the audio is important to the actual mechanics of the game. So in this case the accents of the characters was important to the mechanics of the game. So I basically had to just find native voice actors for every case and because I don't know those accents myself I have friends who were there at least who could help me decide if they're, you know, if it's not somebody, if it's somebody doing a Welsh accent for instance, it's actually kinda tricky to find good Welsh actors easily. One of the things I didn't do was I didn't hire a casting agent to go out and do this for me, I basically just went to Voices.com or Voice123.com and talked with their casting people and they would do it but all of those actors there kinda skew for a certain region so some roles were hard to cast and like I said earlier, a lot of different people can do a lot of different accents so it's not that when you say you have an Irish character you may get lots of people who are not Irish auditioning for that. And in some cases I would use those guys if I could play that there audition for a native speaker and they could tell me, that dude sounds Irish, then okay, he's good. What was most important to me was the performance. If their performance sounded convincing I wanted to hire them for the role. Then I would send it to somebody who could recognize that accent and they would say it's good or it's bad. Hopefully they would say it's good and I could use that performance and that actor. Sometimes they would say it's bad and I would say, well, okay, I'm sorry, I have to find somebody else. In one case, it was bad, or it was not the accent that I wanted for the region that I wanted but the performance was so good that I changed the character to be a different region, basically. So he was supposed to be Welsh but he had a straight up English accent, RP maybe, and so I decided this guy is, for the purpose of this character, I need the performance to be very good and his performance was excellent so it's more important to get that than it is that his location is correct so I changed his location in the game.
- [Danny] Yeah, and I guess then sort of how that reacts to the mechanics of the game in that, you know, I felt like I had an unfair advantage 'cause I could pick out a Welsh accent and a Scottish accent as opposed to say, a north English accent. But then also, there's a lot of sort of classism going on on a ship, right, so you have second mates and the captain and all them, you know, and the bosun sort of had a, they're a certain strata of English society, well I guess in the case of the bosun he's Austrian, but you know, you're talking sort of well to do private educated English people but then you also have like you know, all of the midshipmen who were from sort of more working class parts of England. So, like, how did you account for the fact that people in the British Isles would probably have basically more information to solve these clues than, you know, people who weren't from there?
- [Lucas] Well, it's a good point about that, and what's interesting to me is that I didn't know all that stuff, really. I didn't know that most of the people in the UK can pick out, within 100 kilometer radius, where somebody is from based on their accent.
- [Danny] Totally.
- [Lucas] And not only that, but their class within that region, they know where they are on that scale of, you know, working class or well to do. I had an idea about that but not really how specific it was, how powerful that skill is in most British people so, luckily, when you hire native voice actors and you tell them about the character they know, so they know how to read, they know how to perform, the actors know this stuff so on that side the authenticity was okay because I didn't know but the actors knew, that's one reason you know you hire good actors. On the gameplay side I didn't know any of these things. So for me, I can assume those clues are there but I can't rely on them, personally. So I had to supplement all those places where this guy's identity is revealed by his Scottish accent, I had to supplement that with some other clues somewhere else, for me personally but also for anybody else who's not from the Isles. So that was just kind of naturally baked in to the way the game was made by an American who doesn't know these things as well as a British person would. So I knew it had to be accurate but I also knew that I wouldn't be able to tell and it wouldn't help me personally so kind of a tricky thing to think about but it basically meant that I had to be okay with people in the UK would play the game and would have more clues than other people who didn't know those accents, which was, you know, I think a small sacrifice in my opinion because I didn't know how useful those clues were I couldn't really consider them as something really that I should worry about.
- [Danny] Yeah, and I mean, as you've said, you know, having sort of accents in games are so often the opposite, they're kind of misleading, you have to kind of read the intention of the author in a way where as, I can definitely say that from my perspective, it added a richness to the experience that I really appreciated. So too did the just general sound effects of the game. A lot of this game involves, you know, sort of stepping, you know, not using your eyes at all and just kind of going into your minds eye and imaging the scene before it's eventually sort of presented to you at the end of the sound clip. Can you talk about the process of doing that because, you know, the production value on those is very, very high but also there's lots of clues. Like, you're telling clues in audio which we're not really used to in games.
- [Lucas] Yeah, that was, like I said earlier, that was kind of a thing I recognized I could do and I really wanted to try it, basically. It was a really interesting challenge for me, is to make the audio mechanically important. I have done sound effects in a lot of games for myself over the years so it's something I enjoy doing. When starting this project I didn't realize the challenge really, the full scope of the challenge, it was extremely difficult and one thing that made it harder was I didn't record much of it myself. I recorded a few full effects here and there but most of it was sourced from sound libraries. So what I would mostly do is just spend a long time, a long time, searching sound libraries for just the right sound effect. And a lot of times not finding it and deciding to rewrite things or change things a little bit so that I could express what I wanted, something useful or some kind of clue or something. And I wrote the whole game so instead of, like you can imagine if it was a team of multiple people with the sound guys here and the story guys and design guys separately, it would be a lot harder I think, but for me, because I wrote the whole game I had every scene in my head, I can close my eyes and see the whole thing, in movement and where they are and what the ship is doing and everything else, it's all just in my head. So pulling out from that what's important sound wise was a little bit tricky. Sound is about focus, if you actually stick a mic in one of those situations you would be overwhelmed with the amount of things that you would hear. So part of the challenge there was figuring out exactly what I need to be playing for it to give the information to the player but also enough sounds that you feel like you're there. So it's not just the key sounds that you would need to figure out what's going on, but also to make you feel like you're on a ship in this place during a storm or whatever. And then balancing all those things together, yeah, it was a pain in the ass. And it was the kind of thing where I normally when I work on a game I jump around from here to there, so I work on some art and then okay, get tired of working in Photoshop so let me do some programming, let me do some sound, I do some music. For the audio sound effect stuff I had to sit down for a month and a half basically and just work on it straight. So yeah, it was hard and it required a lot of focus over a long period of time which I wasn't used to at that point so it was kind of a production wrinkle for me but in the end it was a lot of fun, it was a lot of fun and I, the thing I like most about it is that it's, it's like I said earlier, I wasn't just trying to make it sound good, I had a gameplay core mechanic goal with the sound that I tried to execute.
- [Danny] You talked about how the ship, the idea of the location for the ship was sort of born from an earlier process and then you sort of went into that, the story telling process to try and flesh that out, one of the interesting things you said, like sort of making something that's not important important, one of those things in this game is I guess the language of seafaring. Like, I feel like everyone, once they've completed this game they sort of get boats in a way that maybe they didn't when they started. Was that an advantage maybe of, you know, from like a world building perspective or even from a puzzle perspective, that fact that like people don't know what a bosun is maybe or a midshipmen or topman.
- [Lucas] When I started, when I decided I'm gonna make a game about an East Indian trade ship that has this problem I researched a lot about it and when I was building the ship itself I had to do a lot of research about how those ships are constructed, and that is a deep, deep.
-Yeah, I bet.
- [Lucas] Deep rabbit hole, let me tell you. People have been making model ships for hundreds and hundreds of years and those guys are crazy, full on 100% nuts. So every single piece of a ship has a specific name and they're all weird and funny and they're usually like, it was heard in Italian and then repeated by the Portuguese and then British started using it kinda thing. So that to me was super interesting, just how deep, how both wide and deep the custom knowledge is for sailing ships. And I didn't even begin to scratch the surface of that with the game because I knew that I couldn't, there was just too much crazy shit in there that I could've referenced that I didn't. I basically wanted just enough to add the flavor, like you say, but without confusing the player too much, or at least in cases where it wasn't that important. And what's funny is there's a glossary in the game that defines a couple of these terms, that was like in the last two weeks of the game I added that glossary.
- Oh, really?
- [Lucas] That wasn't in there, yeah. I had this idea that people would go search for it on Google or something, which, you know, what a terrible idea.
- [Danny] I think I did, I think, yeah, I remembered looking at the glossary maybe 40 minutes in and I was like, all right, you know what, fuck this, I need to like learn about this sorta stuff. But I had Googled on my phone I think what something was, like a midshipmen maybe or.
- [Lucas] Yeah, all the terms, nobody else uses them so you just gotta use a few of them and suddenly you feel like you're there kinda thing. So I recognized that very early, that the potential was there and I really wanted to do that. And, again, that's the kinda thing where there's not a lot of games that are gonna reference these terms as if they're important. They may throw them around just for some flavor but in this case you actually need to know what a topman is or what a midshipmen is so I also like that aspect of it, and I tried to pick words like that where they weren't totally abandoned words, they were kind of maybe, someone might've heard them recently if they read like a Patrick O'Brian novel or something like that, they would get the references.
- [Danny] I could see that, yeah, there sort of evocative of what they are as well, some of them, you know, other ones maybe not so much. I've got a million questions for you about Return of the Obra Dinn but I feel like I should throw in a couple of Patron ones, seeing as they're the ones funding all this, is that okay?
- [Lucas] Yeah, absolutely.
- [Danny] Thanks so much to all of our Patron to help make our work ad free and they all get this show a day early, but of course, like all of our stuff, it's all free for everyone. Patreon.com/Noclip if you're interested in helping us out. The first one comes from Brett G, says, what do you consider the cannon monitor choice for Obra Dinn, Macintosh for the win. The art style of the game, very unique, I can sort of, I'm reading into what you're talking about, it's maybe a way for you to do a lot of art on your own in a 3D space without going absolutely insane. But yeah, what's the cannon monitor choice for you, which way do you play?
- [Lucas] Definitely Macintosh, he's right, of course. That was the first color, that was the first and only color I had for a long time until somebody asked me, or a couple people asked me for RGB sliders--
- Oh, really?
- [Lucas] For the black and white colors and I'm not a guy who's gonna put RBG sliders in because there's too many ones that look terrible, basically.
- [Danny] You literally made GUI tools, like that should be right down your alley.
- [Lucas] Yeah, my solution would be to give like the nine colors that looked good basically and not give those sliders to make the bad colors. And that's kinda what I did and I, so the Mac colors are the ones that for me, I developed a whole game on the Mac. And then when I was sort of playing through the game and testing it a lot I would try one of the other colors and the one I like the most, after the Mac, 'cause there's an IBM sort of brownish brown and white one that I like as well, I can't remember the name of it but it's not the green IBM one, it's the other one. It is a nice soothing color as well.
- [Danny] Next question comes in from Chris Petter, says, did you draw inspiration from other detective games when designing Obra Dinn? If so, were there any aspects in how that genre has been tackled in past games that you wanted to rectify on your own? I was watching a live stream you did on the GDC channel recently and I was interested to hear that lots of the games that have come out over the past couple of years are first person detective games like the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you actually hadn't played. Yeah, was there any games that did sort of inspire you with Obra Dinn?
- [Lucas] I don't think so, not with the detective aspect anyways. I was visually inspired by the Macintosh games I played as a kid but design wise, no, I was trying to do something different and then games like Ethan Carter or Edith Finch or some of the Sherlock Holmes games, people would tell me that they're kinda similar to the old demo I had or they would suggest to me, check them out. But I kinda just, I felt like if I look a those games I'm either gonna change what I'm doing or try to do something different. I figured like the best thing to do was just not play those games until I'm done with.
- What I'm working on here. Yeah, and Obra Dinn, like I said, I had the pieces of what I felt could make a good game but I didn't have the whole thing together in one piece until very late. So you could kinda say I didn't know what I was doing for a long time, which meant, if I'm inspired then I kinda would put them together in a certain way but I was putting them together in lots of different ways trying to figure out the best way to to do it, yeah, on the one hand I'm trying to make a different game so I don't want to take too much inspiration from anything. But on the other hand I don't really know what I'm doing so I'm even not together enough to be inspired properly I guess.
- [Danny] Ben Visnes asked, when I played Obra Dinn I was struck by how consistent everything was. I didn't notice any information that would be misleading or a red herring, so my questions are, what was the writing process like, did you write every crew members story up front?
- [Lucas] No, definitely not, and it's a good point he makes because I intentionally avoided red herrings. There were a lot of places where I had the opportunity to fool the player into thinking one thing but then revealing another. And I actually do it in I think, there's one death where the means of death is not totally clear and I did that intentionally there but for identities I tried very hard to make your first sort of supposition the right one. So not trying to fool the player, just because there's 60 people, it's just too much. When you start trying to put red herrings in and kind of tricking the player I felt like that was just way too much. I was really worried the whole game that I'm asking way too much from the player and the book itself is kind of my solution to that to help the player understand what is going on, who is who, to let them traverse the web a little easier. So I was very worried that the game is just way way way too hard the whole time I was working on it. So I consciously avoided red herrings like that. That doesn't mean there aren't any in the game, actually, there is an unintentional one, a pretty big one near the beginning of the game where I didn't realize it but there's some dialogue about a character that's referring to one character but actually if you play the game and you're not me who doesn't know everything you would think it's referring to a different character and you would be confused about that for a long time, and that's, yeah, I regret that that slipped through. My wife didn't catch it, I didn't catch it, it's only later on when people started talking about the game they thought, oh, this guy was that guy for the longest time and I, you know, kinda just sighed and regret that a little bit. So I really didn't want that to happen, I wanted it to be not tricking the player just because, not that I love the player but I was sure that it was just way too difficult and I shouldn't be fucking around like that.
- [Danny] I mean, how did you even play test this? If you're saying your wife is the first person to play the game from start to finish, were you still like sending it to other people and having them give you feedback? 'Cause like I just can't imagine how you would possibly be able to put your self in the position of a new player when you know how everything works, you're the puppet master.
- [Lucas] Yeah, this is another question I like. I didn't play test this game very much at all, I play tested and old build without the book and that's when I realized I need the book. But my solution was tools, lots and lots of tools. So one of the things I do when I try to solve a problem is I need to visualize the problem. So in the case of this game, there are ways you can build tools that let you visualize that there are enough clues everywhere for this character, for example. So you don't need to play through, you just can see, okay, there's a clue for this guy here, here, and here, that's enough. This person's identity is revealed at this point and then he, once you know his identity you can figure out this other guy's and this other guy's identity. And you can, without playing the game you can graph that on a directed acyclic graph, you can graph when identities are revealed. And that hooks into my kind of heavy dependence on tools to make this happen, is that I can write a tool that generates that graph, then I can just look at the graph and I can see, there's a problem here, this guy, you're not gonna know who this guys is in order to figure out who this guy is so okay, I need to add more clues in the scene. So basically figuring out sort of the problem space and then the way to visualize it for me was the solution instead of building something and having somebody test it, building it again and having somebody play it, that sort of loop of play testing I didn't need for this particular thing because I could express it and visualize it in a way that allowed me to just check it instantly, basically.
- [Danny] Wow. The book is obviously a massive part of the design of this game which solves a lot of problems I'm sure for you, but I can't imagine how difficult it was to sort of figure out how to use it. It's almost like a diegetic interface in a way and also the ability for you to, I guess travel on the pages at least between the different death scenes. I remember hearing a bunch of people getting frustrated that they couldn't just, you know, bounce between, you know, teleport almost between the different death scenes after a certain point, but can you just kinda speak to the design philosophy of the book, was it really important that people, you know, got familiar with the boat and walking around it and that the death scenes themselves were sort of more isolated little pockets that they couldn't get too lost in?
- [Lucas] I think so, yeah. That decision is kinda rooted in the original concept of the game where you didn't have the book so how are you gonna fast travel if you don't have the book? The book seems obvious in retrospect but I was pulling my hair out for a long time about how to structure and arrange the events on the ship for a long time in a way that the player could reference and understand easily. And actually if you look in the book there's a deck map which shows all the flashbacks, the location of the body of each flashback and there's like this, once you've finished them all there's like this really crazy system of arrows that connects them all and if you look at it it's just a jumble of spaghetti arrows and Xs and shit. That was originally my solution to letting the player understand, there was no book, it was just that map with arrows everywhere on it. So you can see, it took me a long time to get from that to a full book with a page for each flashback, divided into chapters with referencing and bookmarks and all that stuff. But once I had the book I realized how useful it was and how it contextualized almost everything in the game and the metaphor is so easy to understand that I got a lot of things for free basically by doing the book. And, you know, even having like a death on each page wasn't obvious from the beginning, I had tried a lot of things for how to arrange the structure of the book and sorta ended up with this one. So in my mind the book was always a supplement to helping you understand the story, it wasn't a way to navigate. And I have this long term problem with the Obra Dinn that there is frankly way too much magic going on. There was a real conflict for me between the watch and the, spoiler, the mermaids. And, you know, let's be real, if you had that watch you would get right back on that rowboat, go straight back to the mainland and just rule the world, basically. So I had a lot of really cool ideas about things to do with the watch and I cut them all. I decided, the watch cannot be the star here because if the watch is the star here then nothing else about this story is important at all. So I tried to downplay the watch a little bit, and likewise, the book, to me, being able to fast travel with the book is just too video gamey, too magical. Now, that's kinda dumb because it's a video game and there's a lot of stuff about this that's very video gamey and I personally usually lean towards being more video gamey when it's convenient to the player. But for some reason, maybe because of the way that the book came about and the way the game was developed, I just could not give up the player having to walk around the boat to go to different areas. To me, that way of showing the player's intent was just too good. To say like, you don't flip to a page and click a button to say you wanna see this thing again, you put the book away and you walk to it on the ship. And yeah, it was a really tough call for me because it is inconvenient for the player so it wasn't easy for me to say you're not gonna use the book but it just, to me I couldn't have you skip right to the flashback. I felt like, one of the problems is like, you skip right to the flashback let's say, through the book, and then you're, the way you're playing the game is by skipping around, so you would wanna skip out of the flashback too. But I've got this system where you walk through a door to get out of a flashback, so I could satisfy the first one and say you can travel to the thing. But then I've also gotta satisfy the fact that you can get out of it quickly. That kind of slippery slope to me was just, especially at the point where I finished this game, I was beyond done with this thing. I was so exhausted from working on this, and I made so many very big design changes near the end that it was basically like, I don't care if this game gets like a 0% because you can't fast travel, I can't deal with the design changes that that's gonna inject into this game. So, you know, I could justify it now and say that I don't want the player traveling around but really one of the really important parts of that decision is that it would've changed so many things so late at that point in the game that I just couldn't manage it.
- [Danny] Another sort of, I feel like, aspect of the game that gives the player a little bit of help is the verbs. Am I right in saying that there are some deaths that you can sort of say stabbed or speared or there's a little bit of wiggle room there?
- [Lucas] Yeah, there's a lot of wiggle room, actually more than I anticipated at the beginning. It's funny, when I first had the idea for the design of this game it was mostly about figuring out how people died, it was the means of death that was the important thing. It wasn't until I had a lot more of the game together that I realized, I mean, you can see how he dies, there's no challenge there, that's not fun, and so that whole idea of constructing a sentence became kind of perfunctory, I don't know, became kind of unimportant. The identity's important but how he died, maybe we don't really care how, not that we don't care, but you can see it, it's like okay, he died this way, maybe the book can just tell me, I don't need to answer it. But for me, always, the act of building a sentence as fun. This is one of those kind of like really carnal sort of low level joys, is just selecting those verbs and those nouns and those subjects from a list and then having a sentence at the end that you could read was fun, that very low level thing was fun for me. So I never wanted to give it up, I wanted you to have to select. But I didn't want you to get hung up on it, and that was a real, real big problem actually because I didn't, when I designed, there were too many things pushing on this games design basically. So when I designed the way people died, it was on context of how to make it interesting for the player to see and how to make it fit within the story of the events of what's happening. And it was not at all how to make a sentence, how to make it easily describable with a sentence. So there are a lot of cases where, yeah, he's getting hit by something thing, what is that, is that a spear, is that a spike, what is that? And I didn't want the player to get hung up on that so what I did is I made it you could say either speared or spiked. Now the problem with that is that actually doesn't help you get hung up on it or not, you still get hung up on it, you still need to select one of those, they're both right, but you don't know that when you're worrying about which one to put in, so that is kind of a failure but I still really like just the act of building grammatical sentences with the kinda cheesy book interface, I like that. And it became I liked it so much I put a lot of work into keeping it, so doing the things where multiple fates are possible or rewriting the fate system multiple times to support localization, which was a huge can of worms.
- [Danny] Got it, yeah, I can imagine, especially with the subtleties involved in those words. You know, I'm not sure if I've picked the right one but you said there was one character where their death was maybe a little bit difficult to deduce, 'cause it could've been a few things, was that by any chance Charles the midshipmen?
- [Lucas] No, but he's another good one. Actually, that was a case where he died in a very cool way which is little bit undescribable in the very simple sentences that I had. So yeah, I just had to kind of put a lot of options in for that one.
- [Danny] Oh is there multiple options for how Charles dies that you'll get?
- I was wondering, 'cause like at the point of his death he's like being burned and spiked and is just like.
- [Lucas] Yeah, what's kinda cool about that one is that one made me realize, and I implemented this ina few other deaths, but this one kind of opened it up a little bit, he's getting spiked, he's getting burned, and he's also getting potentially stabbed by a crewmate. So I realized that your selection says a lot about how you interpret this situation in the scene and the guilt of people. So if you think he's being stabbed by, say you don't like this character who is maybe stabbing him, then you would put in, he's being stabbed by this guy and that would be in the record, and noted by the crown or whatever. And that kinda opened up a nice extra aspect of the game that I didn't originally intend. And so I went through and I kind of tried to grow that a little bit in a few more of the deaths. But the one I'm talking about that I intentionally made ambiguous it's somebody who's dying who you think is bleeding out but actually at the moment he dies something happens that is hard to notice. And his original death was, he is bleeding out. I wrote the whole thing that way, the scenes written like that, the voice actors recorded it that way, and it wasn't until very late that I realized the potential for a small subversion in what the player expected here. Which actually ended up working better because I had this kind of, I had this problem that I needed to kill people in lots of different and interesting ways, which is a weird problem to have. And some people die in really cool ways, really quickly, you know, an explosion or their head's cut off or what not, and some people bleed out. And I gotta tell you, bleeding out is kind of an uninteresting way to die. So the cases where I had people bleeding out I realized maybe I could do something cooler there. And this is one of those cases where the player thinks he's bleeding out, I thought he's bleeding out, but actually something else is happening.
- [Danny] Was there a couple of red herrings in that book as well for the verbs for death, was there a few that weren't used?
- [Lucas] Yeah, that's another thing, what I liked about it that, in games in general I try to get the player thinking about how big this world is or how big the set of things that they're doing is without actually going that big. And those verbs, I really wanted the players mind to go crazy with that stuff. You know, that's one of the main reasons also I wanted to keep this verb sentence structure system is just looking at those things if fun to think about how this guy committed suicide by cannon or whatever, or you know, just putting together those different combinations in their head they think, what the fuck happened on this boat? Even if they're not used at all, even if no body eats anybody else, that's still the option to be a cannibal is there and you can already start thinking cool things when you see that verb.
- [Danny] And I wanted to keep this question til the absolute last for anyone who has not played just in case, it's been light spoilers a bit so far but just step out of the room for two minutes here 'cause I feel like, what the fuck happened on this boat? That could've been the name of this game, actually, and it would've described it pretty well. I gotta ask you about the various beasts, I feel like every new chapter I got into my eyes got wider and wider, like I wasn't expecting any of that shit. And by the end it's just, you know, it's just fuckin' madness. Did you come up with, like where did you pull inspirations for these, you know, giant crabs and obviously there's a kraken in there, but the style of mermaid, where did you, is this stuff that you found in your research or did you sort of take them from your own twisted brain wrongs?
- [Lucas] Probably the twisted brain wrongs thing. I had set up just the structure of the game meant that I needed to be killing a lot of people, and I didn't want them all shooting each other or fighting pirates or anything like that. I wanted some variety in the way they died. And I wanted it to kinda, yeah, keep surprising the player, keep showing them something new. So I had already set up kind of the need for lots of things like that, not exactly what it should be. And then I had the overall structure of the story, and this is a huge, maybe I won't say it actually 'cause it's too big of a spoiler, but I knew I needed a lot of sea creatures, the story I had in my mind was mermaids. I wanted something different actually, I wanted something wilder and crazier but at some point I realized this game is so scattered to the player, and this is before the book, way before the book, this game is so scattered, I need some kind of reference for them. I think if I choose mermaids it's gonna be a little bit more accessible. You know, I could do something crazier, but then it's just a little bit too far out there so I felt, okay, I'll just make 'em kinda weird ugly gross mermaids. And then I kinda figured, okay, I need something really fuckin' crazy to try to rescue the mermaids. I need some, you feel like, okay with the kraken, all right, kraken, that's crazy, that's wild, didn't expect that. But you know, I've seen krakens before. Mermaids, I mean, wow, mermaids, that's out of left field there, okay, but we've all seen mermaids. And then I wanted something that was just really bizarre, something you wouldn't expect at all and it's kind of something that you could say this game showed you for the first time and that was the crab rider guys basically. And this is funny, a lot of games, a lot of any media, when you've got a bad guy, it's a bipedal, and it looks like a dude in a suit, basically. So I had that same restriction where I needed, I only had one rig basically for all the characters in the game and I needed to make something, some wild creature that looked cool with that rig but also looked different. So that's the kelp men basically, I gave them a lot of kelp hanging off of them. And then I, living in Japan, you actually, those huge spider crabs are not that far from cultural zeitgeist in Japan, people know about those things here. So that was the kinda thing where that thing looks just fuckin' awesome in every way. When you see them in the aquarium, you know, you're walkin' along, you're lookin' at fish here and you're lookin' at some crabs and lobsters, that's cool, but when you see the spider crabs it's just like from another world totally. And the funny thing is those guys have no strength at all, you take 'em out of the water and they just like melt in your hand, but visually they are just absolutely striking and I thought, man I wanna ride one of those things. And so that's where these kinda kelp men crab riders guys came from, just that kind of limitations on the production side of what can I do with a character, I can make a biped, and what can I do to make him interesting, and then this crab thing, which was actually, making that crab rig was a lot of work 'cause its only used for two characters in the whole game and it was a totally different set up but they look so cool to me that it was worth it and the set up worked out well.
- [Danny] Yeah, and it's a certainly, you know, tweaked my arachnephobia instincts as well quite a bit, really wonderful character design there. Lucas, I could talk to you all day but I wanna make sure you get a good night's sleep so you can hang out with your family tomorrow. Last question, from my point of view, you know, you spend a lot of work on these games, you know, this one was four and half years, you obviously did everything from the, you know, the music, sound effects, the art, coding, the whole shebang, the marketing. It seems like after one of these is done it takes a lot out of you, what do you think your learnings are from Return of the Obra Dinn and from Papers Please when it goes into whatever your next project will be? Do you think just giving yourself the time to do it or from a production side maybe scaling it down a little bit, or do you like the work as it is, do you like having those, you know, moments of crunch' during the project because it's all sort of on your terms?
- [Lucas] I don't mind crunch that much, yeah, because it is on my terms. And not only that, I work because I love to work, I love to do all the things that I do when making games, it's my hobby and my passion. So I'm lucky enough that I can do that and not have to worry about getting the game out right away to make enough money to survive. And I do feel like I worked too long on Obra Dinn, four and a half years, I wanted to finish it in three to six months, if that gives you any idea of how badly I can answer this question for you. So I would, I would wanna do smaller projects and I would aim for smaller projects but when I did that last time it didn't quite work out. It's, you know, it's fortunate for me that it did work out in the end, the game is okay, and I didn't have to remortgage my house or anything when I was working on it. So I feel extremely fortunate for that. And as far as the future goes, yeah, it took a lot out of me to finish Obra Dinn and I'm sort of cooling off now, I'm getting my strength back now, like I said, but it's probably gonna be a while longer and it's probably gonna be that I'll try a much much much smaller stuff before I jump into another big project.
- [Danny] This might be a gauche question, so apologies in advance, but it seems like it's done really well from the commercial side, are you happy with how it's done and does that set you up to make your next game?
- [Lucas] Yeah, absolutely, it's been beyond my expectations. My expectations are already bad just across the board, for Papers Please and for Obra Dinn. I mean, I should probably know better by now but when you work on a game for that long and you're that close to it, anyone will tell you this, it's really hard to know what you've got, basically. And especially the way that I finish the game, I felt I got to, I had feedback sort of session with one of my close friends who's a designer as well, and it did not go well. So I reactively changed a lot of things about the sort of core game loop and then did not test it again, released the game basically. I did not have the level of, I wouldn't say confidence, but I wasn't sure that people would like the game, basically and that's totally common for games. So yeah I'm very happy with how well it's done and it's, I can't say it's a complete surprise because I, looking on it now I did enjoy the game at the end, I couldn't play it the way I could play Papers Please 'cause Papers Please had some procedural stuff that Obra Dinn doesn't have. But I always like the way that it looked. The one bit was something that I always liked from the beginning to the end. And I liked sort of just walking around on the ship and I could enjoy that all the way through the game. So those sorts of things I felt confident about that people could enjoy that part of it. But as far as like a whole package that people would enjoy the whole thing, I wasn't sure about that at all and so the way that it's been received has been a very nice result for me.
- [Danny] Awesome, and good for us too 'cause that means we get more Lucas Pope games in the future. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, I really appreciate it.
- [Lucas] Yeah, thanks a lot, Danny.
- [Danny] And thanks to everyone listening as well, you can follow Lucas on the hell scape of Twitter @dukope, I also recommend, highly recommend you go to dukope.com and check out a bunch of the awesome games that we talked about earlier on the podcast as well, the Sea Has No Claim, Six Degrees of Sabotage, and a bunch of other cool stuff there. You can follow us @NoclipVideo on Twitter, I'm @dannyodwyer on Twitter, if you have any feedback on the show or ideas for guests, r/Noclip on Reddit and of course hit us up on Patreon.com/Noclip if you're interested in funding our work. The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, and a 1,000 other fuckin' things that I can't remember. We have our YouTube channel as well with the archive on it, we have a short URL for it now, YouTube.com/Noclippodcasts. Patrons get the show early for five bucks, thank you to all of our Patrons for funding our work and making it so we can do all of this stuff ad free. Thank you for your time and we'll see you next week.
|Feb 11, 2019|
#06 - Marijam Didžgalvytė
This week we dive into the issue gripping the development industry; workers rights. Marijam Didžgalvytė joins us to tell us about Game Worker's Unite - a global grassroots organization dedicated to advocating for workers' rights and unionization within the game industry.
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello, and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about the people who play and make video games. I'm your host, Danny O'Dwyer. Our guest this week is a tech and politics writer and workers' rights advocate, with bylines on GamesIndustry.biz, Kotaku, and The Guardian among others. She's also a youtuber on her channel Left Left Up, where you can watch her insights on gaming and tech news from a radical perspective. Today we're gonna talk to her about game dev unionization as she is also chair of communications committee for Game Workers Unite International, a global grassroots organization of game workers organizing unions to improve working conditions within the industry. Speaking to us from her home in London, England, I'm delighted to be joined by Marijam Didzgalvyte. Marijam, thanks for taking the time to talk to us this week.
- [Marijam] Hi Danny, thank you so much. Thank you for your lovely introduction and for covering these important issues.
- [Danny] No problem, our pleasure. I think it's something that we've had a bit of a blind spot on for the two and a half years we've been working, so I'm delighted to start the conversation. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, because I have a lot of questions for you, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What were some of the games that sort of inspired you as a young person?
- [Marijam] I grew up in Lithuania, and being eastern Europe, we were really big with Counter-Strike and Quake, and Quake is something that definitely continued with me. I am an avid player of Quake Champions right now, and I sort of, I was thrown as an economic migrant to London right when I was 17 and was still playing a lot of gaming, however in the leftist circles that I found myself in, gaming was judged. I don't know, it just seemed to be seen as this sort of waste of time activity, whereas in 2017 I know it has overtaken the films industry in terms of profits, so it is a huge political space. It's the biggest cultural outlet there is. However, progressives have really not been in that space and really abandoned it, and in that vacuum, obviously, right wing politics have developed. I've sort of taken it on myself, about two years ago, to try and change this and to try and encourage progressive voices and a critical view in this industry out of that. Yes, I've written for quite a few publications, GamesIndustry.biz, Kotaku, Vice, the rest, I developed my video series and then a year ago, things have really changed obviously with what happened at GDC, and obviously I'm alluring to the Game Workers Unite movement being born. It seemed like all of my loves came together. My love for a class war, my love for trade unionization, my love for gaming, so obviously I was extremely privileged and lucky to be at the right time and the right place and get involved.
- [Danny] Yeah, so I guess we're mostly here talking about Game Workers Unite International, which is coming up on its first birthday because it was sort of founded out of GDC last year, is that right?
- [Marijam] Yes, it's actually incredible that it was only a year ago and still so much has been achieved. Yeah, so IGDA had a silly idea of doing a panel discussion that was fairly anti-union. They posed the question, whether unionizing is the way to go in this industry. I think they were understanding that there is already a bit of a movement or at least some quiet talk about unionization and I think they freaked out and wanted to sort of whack their finger being like "No, no, it's gonna be very, very bad for the industry "if you do," so yeah, weren't into that. Hashtag GameWorkersUnite started trending, a logo by Scott Benson was created, a Twitter account, website, that was all, incredible work was done at the GDC, but a few dedicated organizers, Emma Kinema being one of them, and it really hit the nerve. It seems like that's just something that that was just a culmination of very, very many things, and chapters sprung up all across the world. There are most of the states, well, quite a few states in the US, Canada, we got Brazil, we got obviously UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, Singapore is about to also have a Game Workers Unite branch, so it was born, it exploded, and obviously a very, very important moment for this movement happened in December, when Game Workers Unite UK declared to be the first legal trade union of this entire effort. It's actually amazing, in the space of what, seven, eight months they got themselves together and formed a legal trade union and quite a few other places are now talking about it too, so yeah, it's incredibly inspiring. I am very sad that I won't be able to make it to the one year parties at GDC, but everyone, if our Saturday's launch is anything to go by, it's gonna be a sick party and everyone should go.
- [Danny] Yeah, tell us a little bit about Game Workers Unite UK and the sort of the collaboration with IWGB, which is, I understand it as sort of like a gig economy trade union. Can you tell us bit about sort of how that, I guess, relationship was formed and I guess the goals that GWU UK has as a sort of chapter onto itself? Because you guys have, it's almost like a distributed sort of organization, right? Everything is locally operated?
- [Marijam] Certainly. I have, it's been the privilege of my life to be so close to the birth of this trade union. Really, in March 2018, when I saw what was happening in GDC, it seemed like all of my worlds collided. My love for trade unions and my love for class war, my love for video games, so I had to definitely get involved and Declan Peach was already organizing at the Score Chat here in the UK and we had our first national meeting in Manchester at the beginning of June, and I was just so incredibly inspired by what workers were how they were organizing in a very horizontal manner and yet, because there was a lot of work involved to establish, and wasn't really just based in London, I think seven cities, or seven or eight cities in the United Kingdom have all got their own local chapters where they all meet and discuss the issues and sort of try to raise membership and raise awareness around. Basically, yeah. Summer came and went, there was a lot of sort of talk and meetings with different trade unions, because basically we had three roots. One was to create a completely new trade union from scratch, which would require quite a few thousands of pounds and a lot of lawyer time and in general just a lot of resources, something that we didn't feel like we had at that particular moment. Second route was to join one of the big trade unions, so Unite, or Unison who have like two million members. Again, the organizers have definitely had quite a few meetings with them over the summer, but then I think everything fell into place around September when we met IWGB, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain is only about four years old. It's a small, dynamic, quite militant trade union that is mostly, whose members are mostly migrant workers working in very precarious conditions and industries such as cleaners and foster care workers, Deliveroo couriers, Uber drivers, so really people that are often on zero-hours contracts, sometimes just cash in hand. Again, people that really have that are sort of at the I guess the most precarious contracts. Sometimes I hear people like "Well what about QA workers? "Surely they're gonna be so difficult to unionize "because they're so precarious." I'm like "No guys." IWGB is like "If they got Deliveroo couriers covered, "testers are gonna be just fine." And that meeting was I think the beginning of sort of realizing that GWU UK has found home, because it's not gonna swallow up the branding, it's a small, effective trade union and it's really allowed for GWU UK organizational structures to stay in place, all the branding, and the relationship with the international, et cetera, and was really excited to work with another industry that is not traditionally unionized. And again, IWGB only has like 3,000 members. Again, sort of every penny, and also the president of the union only earns like London Living Wage plus one pound, you see? Again, it's not one of those often corrupt and bloated trade unions, it's a union where you can see where your monthly dues are certainly going. And yeah, in December there was an inaugural meeting, executive committee was elected. It was a packed meeting, so many members turned up, I think the membership is at a good couple of hundred now and growing every day and at that inaugural meeting, three pillars were, sort of campaign pillars were discussed. They're sort of around crunch pay and diversity, that's quite a long document that at some point I'm sure will be published in detail, and those will be the campaign goals for the next year.
- [Danny] Excellent, so that's I guess what the key focus is for GWU UK. Do you find this, everyone within the organization has had in some way been affected by either zero-contract hours or crunch or do you find that a lot of your members or the members of the UK chapter as it were are sort of more so protecting themselves against the eventuality that perhaps within their career at some stage they'll run into that sort of thing?
- [Marijam] It's difficult to really say what was the main decision for every member to join. I think they all come from varying different contracts and there are different parts of the country and various different parts of the games industry. Some treat it just as an insurance in case they get fired, the union would be able to negotiate severance pay and et cetera, so they won't just be out in the cold as such. And some really have, have probably had terrible experiences perhaps around harassment or crunch and that sort of stuff, and they are thinking, and perhaps they have individual issues that they would like to bring up. However the union, and this is sort of a public service announcement, the union can only deal with incidents or any issues that have only sprung up three months before one joining the union, so although someone could be like "Oh, two years ago this and this happened," the union can't necessarily help with that. And yeah, so sometimes it's only individual members of a particular company that will be joining a union to protect themselves, but obviously the more workers in the particular company are unionizing, the better, because then they as a whole body at least as a majority can push, not only be on the defensive, they can push for better working conditions for bigger pay, for less crunch, for a bigger bar in their office or something.
- [Danny] More ping pong tables.
- [Marijam] Yeah well actually I say this, but I'm joking here, but actually it's, that's the sort of irony that a lot of people think that because there is yeah, a pool table or an arcade in the office that there is some sort of glamorous industry whereas actually quietly people are really suffering and under this allure that they should be lucky to be in this industry. For instance, that they are really hiding their terrible experiences. The secretary of GWU UK, Austin Kelmore has written a very eloquent piece with his experience a couple of years ago, where he was under 100th hour crunch and he was by himself in the office with one other co-worker and on his birthday and it was his co-worker's birthday as well, and around 1 a.m. they just shared a drink, like a can of Coca-Cola at like 1 a.m. for 15 minutes as their happy birthday and then had to go back to work. Again, people that are in the executive committee that are the front of this union and are going to be making decisions mostly, and again, these are elections, one can be on exec committee every year and put themselves out there. They really know and they see the darkest of this trade union. Two other exec committee members, they are freelancers, so again, we got freelancers covered as well. As long as there is some sort of contract, whether, obviously it mostly helps if it's written, the union will have you covered and IWGB has experience with working with professions, that they're now literally having to argue in court that they're workers. IWGB has actually one in court to now class Deliveroo couriers as workers, something that was not in the UK employment law before.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Marijam] IWGB, although tiny, it is not afraid to take on the big shots.
- [Danny] Let's talk a little bit about then I guess trying to get people on board, right, so your role is obviously, you're the chair of the communications committee for sort of the international umbrella group as it were that sort of oversees a lot of what's going on in these localized chapters. The sort of forward-facing stuff that I guess you sort of talk about is the parties and the social aspect of it. I'm interested in the sort of utility of that type of thing. Why is having these sort of meetups important? These sort of more relaxed social gatherings. Why is that important? And also I guess, what's the barrier to stop people from joining a trade union? I understand from, I grew up in Ireland and I lived in England for a number of years and sort of the image of the trade union, either by sort of the elements within the political establishment which would make you, funds that sort of negative image or via the sort of the corrupt nature of some trade unions over the years. It's that sort of 80's idea or the TFL stuff in more recent years. Do you have to fight against that sort of negative image of what a trade union, some people has seen? And is there a reticence from people to join up for a part of larger studios because it might negatively impact their employment? How do you convince people to get on board? And what's the sort of utility of having these social gatherings?
- [Marijam] You're completely right. There is certainly a stereotype of trade union that we're trying to fight. I'd like to think that as part of this small, more new minted trade unions that have sprung up, the new trade unionism as I call it, we are really challenging the view of trade unions who are, let's be honest, I'm not gonna beat around the bush, most trade unions are rubbish. They just are. They have been, obviously there's been a political project in the past 40 years, especially here in Britain to really dismantle trade unions, to create this bad rep around them, but they're not helping themselves a lot of the time as well. A lot of the time they're bloated, pall-mall, stale, sometimes corrupt, they're in bed with the employers rather than employees, you pay your monthly dues and then an issue arises and you can never even get in touch with the trade union. That happens, that has happened. I am not going to sit here and defend the entirety of trade unionized movement, because it has failed and failed workers again. I would separate IWGB from that because it's worker-led, completely, and it has already proven itself in the last four years in its militancy and dynamism. The sort of dynamics that it reproduces. And this is where I think the social stuff comes in. Just to sort of plug, but also reflect on the incredible two weeks that we had with Game Workers United International where we have pushed for something called GWIRL, which eight cities across the world have utilized and attempted and thus far we've had incredible response. Basically, we've asked for our local chapters to do just, whether that's a small dinner party or a huge rave, how it happened in the UK, just create something along, just create a real-life gathering, because we think that, especially in such alienating industry as the games industry, real life relations are so important. That's where people establish solidarity with each other, that's where they meet each other and something that is as abstract as workers' rights becomes part of their every day, it creates that empathy and creates that solidarity between workers which is something that will be necessary whenever some problem will arise, whenever we will ask for numbers to, whether to start with simple as sign a petition, whether that is to come out on the streets and be there with us. For instance, the different branches between, so IWGB is sick at throwing parties. Mostly there are salsa dance parties, they're incredible, but the reason why they do it is because they have many different branches, right, so there's electricians branch, couriers branch, cleaners branch, foster care branch, well now there is a gamers branch. And they by themselves don't necessarily have the numbers, but if all of those meet each other and dance and then create those relationships, we know that for instance electricians will turn up to the cleaners protest, or game workers will help in terms of IT for the couriers branch, let's say, see? Rather than these being abstract groups, they then meet, they dance, they perhaps share a cocktail, and it all becomes a lot more real. And I think so much of our activism in general and so much of our political organizing, but it just can be so, we're so often just on the defensive, we're defeated and it can just be a drag and whereas those moments of victory, of empathy, of creation of a communal experience, that's what it's meant to be. That's how sustainable political projects work, and that's how sustainable workplaces should be as well. When people have empathy to each other, when workers understand that something problematic that has happened with one worker can very much happen to them, and creating that empathy to each other is sort of at the core of the trade union movement as it should be. Not this sort of client versus service provider relationship that some of the bigger unions have perpetrated a bit more. Yeah, and again, we're utilizing in our communications we're utilizing or we're planning to utilize more innovative ways to talk about unionization, whether that's Twitter takeovers or a podcast or yeah, just another push for these IRL events and perhaps also establishing solidarity with existing strikes, so the teacher's strike in America or perhaps Wetherspoons and McDonald's worker strike here in the UK. Sorry, I'm being very UK, US-centric here, but I guess this is just, these are the sort of places that I'm presently working with right now, however I'm obviously supporting the local chapters all across the world. But yeah, so we're just looking at ways to raise awareness towards our issues, but also to inspire broader political education and class-based politics inspiration towards the new generations. The idea for me that some 16 year old that is playing Fortnite that perhaps looks at Game Workers United Twitter account and sees that there are actually lots of cool gatherings happening, and that's the hook for them, rather than this boring statistics on work. And that's the hook for them and they get excited about what this could be and their politics shift. To me, that is a really exciting part of what we could be broadly achieving.
- [Danny] Yeah, let's talk about that sort of the other side of the transaction I guess, which is game players. The audience of sort of Noclip enjoys, we do have a lot of developers who watch our documentaries and listen to the podcast and obviously we also have a lot of game players who do this same thing as well and we try and sort of bridge that gap, and I know that a lot of the folks in our community and our patrons have been sort of asking about what it is that they can really do in terms of boots on the ground activism, be it online sort of stuff or actual in real life, as you said, that more substantive action that they can do to sort of help out. I guess I sort of have the general question of how people can help, and also, I'm just sort of interested in how you feel about engaging with the sort of online discourse in relation to this? We live in a post-Gamergate world and it seems now that most people sort of widely understand that the Trojan horse of consumer advocacy that was sort of used and that was not sincere and really it was just a bunch of horrible bad actors attempting to target women and minorities within the games industry. Is the idea of getting into this sort of the consumer advocacy world or the way in which the online discourse over this sort of stuff, is that something that you think the Game Workers United should be engaging with or is it something you are keeping at arm's length?
- [Marijam] Okay, so I think games industry consumers are in a very unique position where they are closer to the producer of their product than in many other industries. Their voice is much more listened to than for instance, I'm thinking the McDonald's workers or something, right? The person that they're selling perhaps the burger to will not be as easily aware of the issues that the McDonald's worker is having to deal with, right? Or in any corporate, other corporate job perhaps, again, the relationship between the consumer and the producer is much more, is much more invisible. Whereas games consumers, a lot of the time they are on social media, they are vocal, and really what we can ask for is just every little bit on every little tweet that you can do towards the companies that have really abused their workers. That is always extremely helpful. Content creation, I've been extremely impressed by Jim Sterling, Jimquisition, who has really taken the time to talk about these issues. And again, for better or for worse, gaming communities do have their influencers and they do influence opinions and then I think a lot of the people that perhaps weren't aware of these issues will find out because of people like you doing these podcasts or because of people like Jim Sterling that really have a huge reach. Something like top six of his 15 latest videos at one point were the most popular ones, were on workers' rights. Not only that people that this content gets created, it is certainly popular and watched by what I assume to be quite a young audience, so that's incredibly exciting. But really, researching the modes of production of a particular game is very important. I am also, and I'm now sort of saying this as just someone that is looking at games industry in the critical point of view in terms of my content, I don't think we should be stopping just at game studios and game creation, I am interested for our movement and talking about modes of production to grow into something that the fashion industry is well ahead of us, talking about terrible working conditions in the factories of the gadgets where we are enjoying games are created, right, so whether that's the mineral mines in Democratic Republic of Congo or the Foxconn factories in China, something that we're completely ignoring and yet the conditions that are terrible and much worse than probably whatever happens in the worst games industry studio, and that's something that we are still very much silent about. I'm obviously hopefully gaining trying to gain momentum first on these issues and establishing worker solidarity here, but we have to be we have to understand that we mustn't just stop here, that this is a much wider issue and so I'm interested to sort of start talking to consumers about these issues as well and not just talk about not just stop these conversations on studio-level. But yeah, create content, research modes of production, spread the word. I think Game Workers Unite UK have their merch, so buy the merch! It's so funny, I think they will also have a donations website as well, and I think thus far it's been an extremely they have been extremely transparent as to where the money is spent and I think that will continue in the future and yes, I think that the consumers in this industry, more than in any other, even more than in the tech industry I would say certainly can make that difference.
- [Danny] Speaking of people who donate to things that they support, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions from our patrons?
- [Marijam] Sure, gladly.
- [Danny] Awesome. First one comes in from Ralph Elliott, he asks when looking for new members, do these trade unions target specific companies? I'm sure indie developers are important too, but surely the power of union comes from having members who are working at larger corporations. Is that something that the trade union chapters sort of actively do? Or is there any reason why they wouldn't be able to do that type of thing?
- [Marijam] I think that our meetings currently being taking place with the workers of a few companies that have come together and said that we want to unionize our entire company, they're actually surprisingly some of the bigger ones and they're meeting with the this is I'm talking about the GWU UK of course and they're looking how to come to bosses saying like "Look, a few of us have organized "and we want to unionize this trade union." In terms of indies, we had really lovely response from a few of them messaging. Actually the boss is messaging being like "Hey, I am not gonna join the union," well first of all because they're not eligible as bosses, but also because it just wouldn't make sense, but I actually think that's for the betterment of my workplace, it only makes sense that the people do, so if we could do that as soon as possible that that would be great. Another thing that the union is planning is sort of accreditation system for studios that have really great working conditions. Not only to be on the defensive, but to also celebrate good working conditions. I guess we'll start with small indies, and then once enough of them are organized, we can push towards the triple A's being like "Hey guys, if these people can do it, "then you can do it of course too." Really, if you read through the GWU UK eligibility rules, mostly it's like the bosses can't join, and then people that just don't have any contract at all, I suppose so like a student and not working, or if you're working just for a mate, then it's really unlikely that union can help with you a lot in the UK employment law, but no, I can't say that we have really focused on bigger versus smaller sort of thing, and lots of freelancers are joining as well, so that's really exciting. But yeah, the more the better. And yeah, the union's actively sort of talking with a few studios, et cetera.
- [Danny] That sort of bleeds into the next question I have here from Nick, who's asking what positions the union would cover? You sort of answered already, but I'll just throw this one at you as well because it is an important part of the conversation. QA, quality assurance traditionally gets shafted when this topic comes up and I'd argue that if anybody gets abused the most during crunch it could be QA. Most times, it's waved away with the excuse that that's outsourced, but that of course is some, not all studios. You're saying that at least the work that the sort of the IWGB, I guess that's all covered as well, that type of outsourced or contract labor, right?
- [Marijam] 100%, I think QA workers from what we're hearing especially here in the UK are the ones that are getting the worst deal for sure. You hear of zero-hour contracts, you hear of abysmal pay even in London, you hear of terrible crunch. QA workers are certainly the prime contingent to be unionizing, and so that's something that they should definitely be looking into, especially since the monthly fees, they are divided into different pay grades, so people that are not earning enough, they really won't have to pay that much at all but they will have that insurance. And also, if enough people in the studio unionize then they can ask like "Okay you guys, "you're ending zero-hour contracts," or if we're outsourced, all right, we're you have to bring us back in-house, right, no agency work. And IWGB is actually extremely experienced in bringing back agency workers in-house, that's victories that they have achieved with cleaners mostly and I think they're talking with a few electricians in their branch as well. Cleaners are outsourced in a particular establishment, perhaps in a museum or something, and IWGB gets together, they do a lot of pressure on the media, they get articles out, they do demonstrations outside the venues and what not, and the institutions usually cave in and then bring those workers back in-house, which is an incredible achievement for sure. Yeah, QA's are very much I think the sort of prime membership material. But obviously everyone else, no, your other question was like who should be looking into this? Really, I think the main focus has been at I suppose developers and artists, et cetera, but even if you're in a games company and you're at like HR or what not you should be still looking at joining this union. Perhaps there are other unions that perhaps would be of more interest to you, but I think IWGB is just sick and everyone should join it in general, but yeah, so it really, as long as it is sort of and you work in a games studio then you should be eligible. There is now a conversation, now even at some point in the future to bring in board games, so that's exciting. My personal sort of dream down the line would be esports players. I think that's something else that has been completely sort of over-glamorized et cetera, whereas these workers are doing, and it's not perceived as work but actually esports players are creating profit for someone else, a lot of the time they're sort of chewed up and spat out and yeah, I think esports is a space where unionization, conversations around that will be happening very, very soon.
- [Danny] Yeah, it's interesting you mentioned that. We interviewed Scott Smith, SirScoots he's know as--
- [Marijam] Oh, he's a legend! He's an absolute legend.
- [Danny] He said he set up the Player's Association, which is a sort of I guess a Counter-Strike professional players' union, which is trying to do some of the things that you're talking about there.
- [Marijam] So you see it's this is interesting, this is a conversation I had with him and we've had this one disagreement, but it's I think he shouldn't be afraid of the word union. I think he thinks that union, the word union has certain connotations attached to it, whereas association doesn't, that is a bit scary to the employer or what not. I think that we should be going back to the roots of what the victories that unions and unionization has achieved and really being and reclaim this word from the, I guess failures of the past 40 years of some of the unionization efforts. But yeah, he said he went more towards the safer routes, but we'll see how it'll go in the future.
- [Danny] Could there be sort of an element of a difference in culture between the UK and the US with that one? Because the other big union that I think of here is SAG-AFTRA, which refer to themselves as sort of a guild rather than a union and they do represent people within the games industry insofar as voice actors. There was that famous strike back in 2016. It went all the way into 2017. Yeah, do you think there's a cultural difference? I guess you must think there is, because you've got all your chapters working independently.
- [Marijam] Yes, perhaps you're correct. It's here in the UK that we've experienced really crushing, really substantial crushing from political actors in 1970's to do with miners and many other industries that have now been outsourced. The word union has a very particular historical connotation that has been lost and has been co-opted by the sort of new Labour view of what a trade union looks like, and I think we're just trying to reclaim that. But I know what you mean, that as you say, that SAG-AFTRA is extremely effective as an association in the US, and perhaps if that's a more fitting description of what essentially hopefully will be the same thing then so be it. But I just think that, yeah, we shouldn't be afraid to really understand that stuff like pensions and weekends and maternity leave, these have all been brought by trade unions in 20th century, sometimes under terrible oppression from the states and there is a history in that word that we should be taking with pride.
- [Danny] Yeah, absolutely. It seems like the sort of the history of union-busting is seems to be relatively well-known.
- [Marijam] Yeah, no one ever says association-busting, right, nobody.
- [Danny] Exactly, and in recent weeks even, just looking at the government shutdown that happened here, ultimately it was the union of air traffic controllers which were the one that finally sort of beat down that door and got almost a million people who were working for free. It seems like it's on the tip of everyone's tongue. I want to talk about a question just quickly we got here from Farhad who lives in Berlin, who is asking the question, he said "I have no idea how or if there is such a thing "in the US, are there any good examples?" This individual is also living in Berlin. Can you tell us where Game Workers Unite International, where the chapters are? Whereabouts they're located, so people who are maybe listening can get involved.
- [Marijam] Yeah, Game Workers Unite Deutschland is definitely a thing and you should definitely be looking them up. I spoke with them recently and they're looking at setting up, at being a bit more active than they have been, but again, the law is so different in different countries that some countries I find it way easier to establish a trade union than others. Right, okay, yes, people across the world, if you live in Atlanta, Austin, Australia, Baltimore, Bay Area, Boston, Brazil, Chicago, Dallas, D.C., Detroit, Deutschland, Spain, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York City, Orange County, Orlando, Ottawa, Seattle, Sweden, France, Toronto, Triangle, United Kingdom, or Vancouver, there is a Game Workers Unite chapter in your area. If you are a games industry worker quietly suffering in any of these places, definitely get involved, check their Twitter, check their websites, get on their Discord channels, meet up with them, and really start understanding that you should not be feeling guilty or abused in the position that you are. If your city of country hasn't been read out, then set up your own. These have, no but really, so now there's someone that got in touch being like "Hey, I think a few of our friends are in Singapore "would like to do something along these lines. "How do we do this?" And we're like "Okay, yeah, so these are little things "that you do, get Discord, "then we're gonna hype you up on our social media, "then more people will join you." And again, from the international, and again, these things, yeah, they're just springing up like mushrooms after rain, in this drought if I can use such a cheesy metaphor. But certainly it's something that it seems like across the world, everyone's very, very thirsty for it. Yes, definitely the German one is there and US, that's not legal, there are no legal trade unions just yet, I mean, there's not even a year of this movement yet and already so much has been achieved.
- [Danny] If anyone wants the list of those again, you can go to GameWorkersUnited.org and there's a map that has all of them in there. It's amazing to see so many of them close to me here. Baltimore, D.C., and I guess the Triangle area is North Carolina. There seems to be quite a lot of them. Even just looking at Europe, I'd love to see a little pin on Ireland. I know IMERC is a really good organization that operates out of Ireland.
- [Marijam] There are conversations going. There are conversations going.
- [Danny] Oh cool, it would be awesome to see something over there, because I know there's a great spirit of revolutionary advocacy in my home country. I have one more question here, this one's from Sharkie81 on Twitter who says "I'm pro-unionization. "Creators must have good working conditions. "But could this mean that making games "could take even longer than now? "A lot of triple A titles have four or five years "of development, even with crunch." What would you say to that? Do you think sort of crunch is an element of game design that makes them come faster or is it the product of bad planning and worker manipulation that could be--
- [Marijam] I think you know what I'm gonna say.
- [Danny] Yeah, bit of a loaded question there from my part, sorry.
- [Marijam] I think whereas perhaps 10, 15 years ago, crunch perhaps was an accident and it was, I suppose, I don't know, a failure of management or what not. Right now it certainly is plan of the management. It is part of the project creation. That culture is now so embedded, and sometimes workers are even competing between each other who is gonna do more crunch. The culture is so rotten that we just have to call the whole thing out. Obviously managers are, yeah, I also think they are just failing and whatever it is that they're doing is inexcusable because it hurts workers so much, but the things have become so bad that there is literally now, and there's so little solidarity and it's so, it's such an individualized industry that is so sad to see sometimes, even workers volunteering to do more work than the other and that's how they feel like they are gonna get a promotion or something like that. In terms of games taking even longer to be made, I'm kind of a bit like boo-hoo. If that means that workers are gonna have better lives, then I think that's worth it. Of course, I mean you look at huge company like Apple. It churns out an iPhone very, very easily because they're outsourced in Foxconn and workers that get, I don't know, $10 a day or something like that and there are just terrible accidents and incidents that you hear of from those factories, et cetera, and is that what we want games industry to be? I'd like to think not. And I'd like to think that there are ways perhaps of employing more people or just more creative ways of implementing certain features to the game that need to be found. I don't know, if things are so bad now that if it's gonna affect the company, the fact that workers want better conditions, they just have to come up with a better plan. They just have to completely adapt. That means completely rethinking their business strategy, their production management strategy, or throwing in their whatever they saved in the vaults, the investment money perhaps, not towards the studio hardware or what not but towards I guess recruitment and human resources and that. Then that's just something they have to do. Yeah, I'm sorry, times have changed. 2018 has proven that you can't get away with stuff any more and if that means there needs to be some sort of revolution and rethinking as to how they make games, well that's on them, but they can't be on the lowest, well it can't be on the workers, that's it. Times have changed, get on with the program.
- [Danny] Marijam Didzgalvyte, thank you so much for your time today. Where can people find you on the wild world of the internet?
- [Marijam] I post all of my controversial opinions on @MarijamDid on Twitter and my YouTube channel really is just the archive. I mostly post my videos on Twitter first and I will leave an archive on YouTube, but it's Left Left Up, and yeah, do check out my portfolio. I've written a lot of articles, I've done lots of panel discussions and guest lectures. I'm interested in sort of gaming communities, the push, the way for progressives to reclaim this space in an empathetic manner and looking at the modes of production of this huge industry and how can we change the cultural hegemony towards the better. Danny, thank you so much for covering this. It's been a huge pleasure, and I think we should be celebrating what we've achieved in the last year. Game Workers of the World, unite. Let's see what happens.
- [Danny] Awesome. I have one more question for you actually, because I watched a really good lecture you did at the University of Lincoln. Just before I let you go, I'm basically saying you can take off your Game Workers United hat now and put on your sort of Left Left Up hat for this question. You did a really good talk, it's available on your YouTube channel with University of Lincoln, and there was one element that stood out to me, well sorry, it didn't stand out to me just in relation to this podcast, because next week our guest is Lucas Pope, who made Papers, Please.
- [Marijam] Oh!
- [Danny] I'm interested in your perspective on this, because obviously, Return of the Obra Dinn came out last year, his previous game, Papers, Please sort of came to great critical acclaim. Obviously your perspective I think is incredibly valuable on this, not just to somebody who sort of rallies against that sort of milk toast, pat yourself on the back liberalism that has dominated a lot of the speak of the left over the past couple of years, but also as somebody who's from Lithuania, a Baltic state, a former Soviet Bloc nation, and the sort of made up country of that game obviously lends itself somewhat to that sort of general culture politically. In that talk, you sort of talked about how the game was sort of, you don't like political games as it were. Can you speak to that a little bit? What is it about political games that you think is sort of preaching to the choir a little bit more? It doesn't actually change minds or make people do any sort of on the ground political work after they've played them?
- [Marijam] Yes, oh, fascinating. Right, so I have to give a bit of context here. My master's was in art and politics. It was at the politics department of Goldsmiths University and the entirety of that course was an attempt to really understand how culture can affect political change or the other way around, and there was a lot of sort of dissection of political art in particular, so I think I've gained an understanding and a critique of political fine arts that I'm then applying to the games industry, which is obviously very, very late in this game when it comes to political themes, and the trend that has sort of sprung up in the fine art department has been, especially since sort of post-9/11, post 2001 WTO riots, et cetera, was that trend of very attempting to be high-brow political art that really doesn't look into modes of production. Because it is very edgy and fashionable and cool to create an object that gives you that high status of someone that is thinking of politics, that it sort of straight away it puts you into some sort of a holier-than-thou category, whereas real activism and real, I even hate that word, activism, but real change requires us looking into global manufacturing chains and looking at modes of production and looking at how our Western, I suppose, consumerism in a very real manner is affecting the global south, and these are questions that are not necessarily solved by these tokenistic pieces of art. I'm just sort of thinking ice, polar bears, or
- [Danny] Right.
- [Marijam] Or stuff like that, stuff like this that has just as you've basically just said before is just preaching to the converted. I don't think there is a political project in there that is just basically a way for a particular artist to feel a bit better about themselves with the fact, or even edgier or cooler with the fact that they've touched on a political theme. I am yet to find anyone, so yes, I've basically then wrote a critique of Papers, Please about two years ago that gained a bit of traction where I say that Lucas Pope has created this somewhat, I suppose one of the first viral politically-charged video games, then was traveling across the world, collecting awards, collecting a BAFTA for himself, and not ever really talking about real issues of migration, of our brutal borders, of the fact that United Kingdom, where he collected the BAFTA, imprisons hundreds of people in really brutal detention centers. Basically he used a very particular I guess theme, he sort of picked a particular battle that is not his, that he hasn't really done anything with it, hasn't really created any he hasn't pointed it out, pointed the capital he gained from it. I don't mean material capital, I mean social capital towards any real organizations that are trying to solve the migration issues or whatever you call them, and I just felt it was such a, yeah, it's a very sort of lazy liberal attempt and a very self-glorifying attempt at politics that I think should be challenged. I think there are more creative ways to achieve cultural significance and to basically attempt to convince people from the other side than this. I actually have examples in fine art, when I think certain fine artists do do that, so that would be Santiago Siarra, who really works with actual migrants in his work and then puts himself on the line as to being, so he pays for instance a prostitute, the amount that those of harem would cost and then he tattoos something on her and some people were like "Hey, but what are you "just abusing a prostitute or something?" And the prostitute actually tells that this person has given me more time and has looked at my issues more than most of these people that come to galleries ever would. Or Hans Hakia, who as actually done a lot of investigative journalism into Manhattan real estate industries and then literally in a gallery just produced all the evidence of corruption. Again, that's sort of real engaging with particular issues and trying to find a solution. In terms of video games, I was very impressed by the Uber game, which it sounds like a political game, but the Uber game was, basically it's an Uber simulator. You are just a driver, and it looks like it's not that much difficult of a job and I will, spoiler alert basically, at the end of it all it seems like you actually earned a lot of money. And then at the end of the game, all of your expenses go away and actually you see that you've earned like four full dollars an hour, et cetera, but that's not what interests me about it. What interests me about it is its mode of distribution. This game was released by a Financial Times, which is a center right wing, sorry, newspaper, right? If it was released by The Guardian, I would just think it's another quite sad liberal attempt, but because it is released by a right wing medium, I think it has a chance of actually changing someone's mind. I think modes of distribution are much more interesting way to apply politics into gaming than the form of them or the plot of them. That's why I've been very, very critical of the new Brexit games, that are just like "Ooh, Brexit will be a dystopia," and play in this terrible zombie land Brexit. Is there gonna be a Brexit voter that you're gonna show this video game to that is gonna be like "Oh shit, yeah, you're right, crap, that's true. "It will be a dystopia." No, it's just preaching to the other lib dems, and yeah, I just think it's such a lazy attempt at politics, however, it gives you a lot of social capital and it kills me. Sorry, so that's a long response to this but I just got so much, I've got a lot of passion towards this.
- [Danny] Well I appreciate it, Marijam, thank you so much for your passion and your incredible insight. And thanks for sharing it with us today. We'd love to have you back on, maybe to talk about Game Workers Unite after another year or so. Who knows?
- [Marijam] Yes, hopefully all the victories will happen in the next year. Thank you so much for covering this.
- [Danny] Our pleasure. If you're listening, thank you so much for well, you are listening, because you're listening. Thank you so much for following our work. You can follow us at NoClipVideo on Twitter, I'm @DannyODwyer on Twitter you can hit it up, or /noclip for all our subreddit stuff, including a bunch of outreach stuff we're doing on there. If you're a patron, of course you get access to all of our special patron posts as well. Special thanks for our patrons for making all of this possible. I have the podcast available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, I think that's a thing, Google Play, we have a YouTube channel after the podcast, archive is separate to our regular video stuff so go searching for that. You can get this show earlier for our $5 tier, but otherwise it is ad-free and supported by our incredible patrons to listen to a day later. Thank you so much again for listening. Hit Patreon.com/NoClip for any more details on how to fund our work, and even if you don't, we'll see you next week. See you then.
|Feb 04, 2019|
#05 - Steven Spohn
Danny talks to Steven Spohn about growing up as a gamer with a disability, and the work he does at the Ablegamers charity to make games more accessible. (Recorded January 10th)
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip; the podcast about people who play and make video games. I'm your host Danny O'Dwyer and today I'm joined by somebody who kind of has a finger in both of the pies we generally talk about; people who play games and also people who make games. We're gonna talk to him about a lot of different areas of his work and also the ways in which he enjoys playing games as well. He is the COO of AbleGamers, he is a fellow Trending Gamer nominee survivor. I am delighted to be joined by Mr. Steven Spohn. How are you doing my friend?
- [Steven]I'm doing well. Can we just talk about pies for the next 15 minutes?
- [Danny] I wanted to bring up the pie because I was trying to think about how you fit into the world of video games and, in a way, your work at AbleGamers is involved in both sides of the equation. You help individuals who have trouble accessing video games to get controllers and the means by which to play the games they wanna do, but you're also talking to game studios and hardware manufacturers about they ways in which they can make it so you don't have to do the other thing.
- [Steven] Yeah. The truth is when I did the game awards video, one of the things that they captured me saying was that I don't know how I got where I am and I don't know what I'm doing and it was the absolute most truthful thing I had said during the whole piece. I don't know exactly what you would call my job. My job is literally whatever AbleGamers needs and sometimes that's talking to hardware, sometimes that's talking to developers, sometimes that's talking to fundraisers, sometimes that's talking to people with disabilities who need tech support, so I have really become the Jack of all video game trade at the moment.
- [Danny] I've got a lot of questions about your work at AbleGamers and we've got some from the Patrons too. We've actually been, like, I feel like we've been working on the AbleGamers documentary, in some respect, either us having conversations or filming stuff like we did last summer, it feels like it's been going on forever and it's something that we eventually will get done. Today I kind of wanna talk a bit more about Steven; about how you came to be in the position you're in because, like you said, in a way I can't imagine anyone else doing your job, but also I couldn't imagine anyone doing your job until you did it. So, let's go all the way back. When did you start playing games or when did you start getting interested in games?
- [Steven] I became interested in video games actually thanks to a friend I had made in high school. We were in a vo-tech class and we were doing AutoCAD designing and...
- [Danny] Oh, cool.
- [Steven] I, for just a brief hot second, I wanted to be an assistant engineer and then I wondered how much work it is and I said, "Nah".
- [Danny] What was the name of the class? It sounded like volt-tech class.
- [Steven] It was vo-tech.
- [Danny] Vo-tech?
- [Steven] Yeah, vocational technical school.
- [Danny] Oh, okay, okay.
- [Steven] Yeah, vo-tech is like the American, "We're not going to real school, we're going to fancy 'you're going to learn actual useful life skills' classes".
- [Danny] Awesome.
- [Steven] Yeah, like its where your mechanics go and all the people who are gonna do computers and what they do is, or at least in my school, you did your math and your science in the morning and then they shipped you on a bus during lunch to go to the other school. It's kinda cool.
- [Danny] Wow, we had something similar in Ireland. It was called Leaving Cert. Applied and it was where all my friends who are tradesmen went. Like electricians and plumbers and then they all ended up moving to Australia anyway because the economy crashed and nobody was building houses. So you were in that class and you were learning AutoCAD. Was that the first piece of software you ever encountered?
- [Steven] It was the first time that I had really worked on computers for more than a few minutes. Of course, everybody had Oregon Trail on their MathLab or whatever, but I grew up poor so we didn't own a computer and that was really the only time I got to have hands on a computer from multiple hours at a time. One of my friends there worked at a computer shop and he was telling me how he just got all these parts for computers secondhand because people would turn them in for repairs and then they wouldn't want them, so he would just end up fixing them and taking them home, and I was like, "That's amazing", so he started talking me into getting into video gaming and he told me about this fabulous game where you could go online and you could have a life and you could do amazing things like walking around the town of Britain and you could fight dragons and you could own a house, and I was like, "This is amazing", and so he sort of talked me into this persistent world, he was a Guild Master in his own right. That's how I got sucked in to Ultima Online and from there I just became super interested in the alternative reality that video games present.
- [Danny] Was there an element of the escapism that appealed to you? Escapism is something that we all enjoy, but perhaps somebody in your position, maybe, was there an added element of escapism for you?
- [Steven] For me it was the timing of where it hit me in life. I had gone into my senior year of high school and I had discovered friends and it sounds corny, cheesy; it's something that I'm probably gonna get up on a stage and give a TED Talk about one day, but it's interesting how our school system kind of segregates people with disabilities away from the main population if you let them. They'll put you in a special classroom and they will put you in a special room to eat lunch and they really keep you almost walled off from everyone else and I was super lucky that I had a friend who talked me into doing that and I made friends. Long story short, I sort of got a huge case of senior-itis and I just didn't want to do the school thing anymore. I wanted to go have a social life because holy crap having friends is awesome! And so I just wanted to go experience that and have fun with it and it was fantastic. The only problem was that I was just at the age where we were transitioning from middle-teens to late-teens so it was a couple of years of doing...
- [Danny] Hell.
- [Steven] Oh, hell! But also doing video games in your friends garage, to, "Hey, let's go to the club and pick up girls." and its like "Well, the club has a stair to get into it, so I can't do that, oh damn". So I started kind of being walled off by life. Just happenstance of things not being wheelchair accessible and here's my other friend going, "Hey, here's a world where your wheelchair doesn't eff-ing matter". I don't know if I can say swears on this show.
- [Danny] Say whatever you want, man.
- [Steven] Right, cool, so they were like "Who the fuck cares if you're in a wheelchair. Go play this world where everybody's equal", and I was like "Oh, this is my first experience where everything is a level playing field" and it was amazing, so... Was it escaping or was it choosing to forge a different path in life? I don't think I'll ever really know the answer to that, but consequently, through the butterfly effect, deciding to do that and take that friend's advice led me to where I am right now.
- [Danny] You're an incredibly social person. I feel like everyone in the industry has met you and had a conversation with you. I've noticed that you're very good at advocating for people's time, which is something that a lot of people who like having friends and like being social, they sort of don't put themselves out there to, you know, they don't want to be a bother or something like that but I've always found you to be incredibly inviting and sort of proactive in your friendships, which I think is a really important trait, especially the older you get. Video games, in that way I suppose, have sort of provided you with a lot then, in terms of both your social life and your professional life. Is it fair to say that most of that sort of revolves around the world of games?
- [Steven] I think it is now. I mean, you hit the nail right on the head. When you're in your thirties, going out and making new friendships is exceedingly difficult and we could literally talk for the rest of the podcast about the difficulties of living the disabled life and having to fit in to the norms of society. But as far as the video games industry has been, to me it's been a very welcoming and inviting place and I am super honest guy, you know, you follow me on twitter, we've been friends for a couple years now. I, to my own detriment, I am way too honest sometimes and I am sure that there are people in the industry who love me and there are people who probably wish I would just stop talking so much and I feel like if you don't have some people that think you talk too much then you're probably not making change and that's what I'm trying to do. I have terminal illnesses, I have a disability for those of you who don't know me. I am aware that there is that shot clock ticking and I don't talk about it a lot but I'm aware it's there probably more than your average person and I'm trying to use all the time I've got to do something with it.
- [Danny] It's an interesting dichotomy you bring up there, in that, in many ways, who could say a bad thing about Steven and AbleGamers, you know what I mean? At least, who could say it out loud? But you are kind of creating problems for companies, right? Like you're creating a problem that, by the fact that you're even having the conversation with it was a problem that they thought didn't exist. You're fashioning it for them. Is that the case? Like, is it different now talking to companies than it was when you first started doing this work?
- [Steven] The difference really is that I didn't make the problem. I shined a spotlight on a problem that was in the darkness. It was always there and the more technology advances, the less accessible it becomes, just by the very definition of advancing technology. So, we banded together, me and Mark Barlet and Craig Kaufman, and a bunch of amazing people, now AbleGamers, got together and decided that we were going to take this problem head on and we changed a multi-billion dollar industry. I tell you the weirdest thing that I could ever say to another human being because it is entirely factual, you could prove it, in fact, we're doing a documentary talking about it, so it's, you know, it's something that's kind of shock and awe to even try to talk about it, but here we are, years later, where developers went from laughing at us and walking away to now coming to talk to us, so, you know, it's pretty amazing. I am very fortunate in my position that I am able to walk all these different sides of the video game life.
- [Danny] When you think about some of the ways in which you guys have changed the industry, the one that comes to mind right away, for me at least, because it's probably the most recent, is the work that you guys did with Microsoft on the, is it the Adaptive Controller, is that what the name is?
- [Steven] Yeah, it's called the Adaptive Controller.
- [Danny] What other stuff comes to mind for you, over the years?
- [Steven] You know, I think some of the biggest were going into Harmonix and getting to talk to Alex. Sitting down in his office and doing the whole Rock Band thing and talking about the various ways that you might wanna play the game. The fastest way I can tell this anecdote is we were sitting in his office and we were talking about how, if someone wants to play the video game, how many buttons would they have to use at minimum? Could you do this if you only had three fingers on on hand? Could you do it if you were one-handed? You know, yes, no, yes, no. So we talked about that for a minute and I just came up with a question to ask; "Why did you come up with three buttons as the minimum to be able to play?" and his answer was, "Well, it's just the number that we thought was the smallest that people would ever wanna do". I said, "Well, what about somebody who only has the ability to push one button?" He said, "Well, we never thought anybody would want to be able to play Rock Band with just one button." I looked him in the face and I said, "I would." And the color just drained out of his face and he just nods his head and goes, "Okay, we'll have to work on that" and that was sort of a great beginning point for, not only my friendship with Alex, but AbleGamers as a company we have worked with Harmonix ever since and they've been really great partners of the business and I've made some good friends over there as well. It's this amazing thing of how, one of my friends put it best, my job title is to go out and be who I am very visibly and let people learn lessons from my experiences and I've been able to thread this needle of using personal experience and second hand experience from the gamers I've met along the way to then translate that into the friendships that I've forged in the industry and then turn that into making changes for other people. So it's this tightrope act of making sure to be friends with everybody because the only way that you really can get people to make change is if they want to. If they don't want to, they're not gonna change.
- [Danny] When you think about changing those games, were there games when you were growing up that you were like "Oh man, I'd really love to play that", but then you realized that there were barriers in your way to doing so?
- [Steven] Yeah, I can tell you that I wanted to play Dance Dance Revolution and that'd be a great sound bite. Of course I'm in a wheelchair but I've always been a very realistic kind of guy. I am a logic-based person, I have the weird sort or emotional Spock thing going on where I wear my heart on my sleeve and I will fight for anybody if I believe in them, but there has to be logic in my brain, also why this is a thing, and I'm never gonna be on Dancing With The Stars. I'm never gonna be a ninja. It's just not in the cards for me. So I am okay with that and there was no particular game that I wanted to play that made me start advocating for people. It was simply having a disease that was advancing slowly, taking away abilities one by one, made me go, "Oh, shit, I guess I need some technology" and somewhere along the way I discovered that it was a lot more fun to help other people than to help myself.
- [Danny] What was it like then for you, trying to gain access to that technology? Presumably you were doing that before AbleGamers existed, so was it a case where your conditions were getting worse and you were effectively looking for solutions as the issues presented themselves?
- [Steven] So it's interesting when you're doing a technology upgrade as someone with a disability because it's often a mismatch of just MacGyver-ing your way through technology. To eat potato chips, I used to use hot dog tongs as I couldn't lift up my biceps, but I could rotate my wrist so I would just pick up one chip at a time with a hot dog tong. It's the same thing with video games. I used a little tiny dental hygiene tool that has a little crook on the end of it, has a little rubber tip and I would use that to push W, A, S, D when I couldn't reach it and operate the mouse with the other hand. So I was already using technology, it was just this way... Doing things the low-tech way was beginning to start to fail, so I had to find a little bit more high-tech solutions.
- [Danny] And how did you do that? Did you fashion stuff yourself? Were there people out there making custom rigs for people?
- [Steven] Well, you know, I started doing it by finding ways to play video games with only the mouse and just getting rid of keyboard entirely. Fortunately, I had found a program called TrackIR which generally allows you to look around in the cockpit of a Microsoft Flight Simulator and when you're looking around, you're also telling the computer to push different directions and I found that you could use this to push keyboard buttons and it was a totally unintended thing that this program was offering. They were trying to use it to help people have a more virtual experience, more immersion, and I ended up using it as a disability tool and now I teach others how to do the same thing.
- [Danny] That's incredible. So you sort of hacked it in a way to be quick key-binding stuff. How many buttons could you set up on a TrackIR? How many directional ways are there to use it?
- [Steven] So the best way to think about it is to think about a dartboard.
- [Danny] Okay.
- [Steven] If you think about each position, each little block, being a different key then the laser pointer that is attached to the brim of one of my hats allows the laser pointer to move around based on the way I'm looking.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Steven] So I can move it to whatever block. The only downside of that technology, of course, is if you're thinking about moving in a straight line. If you gotta get to block number three, you gotta run through block number one through two.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Steven] So, it sort of becomes this interesting way of lining up the buttons so that they don't do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
- [Danny] It sounds like key-binding is something that is one of the most powerful ways of allowing people to use controllers in these interesting ways. You say using a mouse only; I imagine setting up 'run' to be right-click or something like that would maybe fix one sort of problem. We talk about the hardware issue, but also one of the biggest issues in games that has sort of been slowly fixed over the past five, 10 years, well, maybe closer to five, is the ability to re-bind controls, which certainly has never been something that was standard and is a lot more common now. Is that a big issue with accessibility as well?
- [Steven] Yeah, re-mapping has gotten a lot better. Now, re-mapping is almost as standard as closed captioning is for TV shows and movies. That's a lot thanks to the groundwork that people have done, demanding it to be a thing. It's not just a disability thing. Everybody loves for you to be able to re-map things so that they're more comfortable, so that your hand isn't stretched out in weird ways that the developers didn't quite think somebody would try to do. So it's good for everybody, it's good design and it allows us to be comfortable playing video games.
- [Danny] So what other big games were you a fan of? Or what other games were you a big fan of, rather, back in those days, back in the Ultima Online days? Eventually those doors closed, but you could've got back into that fantasy world. So what other games are your favorites when you look back?
- [Steven] Back then Diablo was huge, I loved that game. Star Wars Galaxies actually was the bait that Mark used to get me into AbleGamers.
- [Danny] How'd he do that?
- [Steven] Okay, so I loved Star Wars Galaxies so much. Star Wars Galaxies was, and maybe is, my favorite game of all time and they had just changed it to the NGE and the NGE made it more into an action simulator game, which took away a lot of the accessibility.
- [Danny] Oh, really?
- [Steven] Yeah, in SWG, the original vanilla version, you had macros, you had slash commands, you had buttons on the screen that you could click, you could do macro ability to do more than one action at a time. It was a very very friendly game for people with disabilities and they didn't even realize they were designing it that way. They were just trying to make it friendly for everybody. So, it just happened to be accessible and I happened to latch on to it as the most amazing thing since pizza and it was great and they changed it and then, right after that, they were gonna change it again for the combat upgrade and they were gonna make it into this, I don't even know what kind of 'Barbie Ken Dreamhouse' thing they were trying to do with this game, but it was just destroying it from the inside out and then then closed it so I literally told Mark that I would come work for AbleGamers, volunteer my time, and at the time I was just being a writer and trying to help the cause, and I would do it, but only if he would give me the email for Smedley so I could tell him off.
- [Danny] And did you?
- [Steven] I did, yeah, absolutely.
- [Danny] Oh, God.
- [Steven] I wonder if he still has that email.
- [Danny] Did he respond?
- [Steven] No. I was nobody then, so just an angry guy yelling at him, which he had a bunch of those already.
- [Danny] How long is the email, do you reckon? Is it like one paragraph or was it like 20 paragraphs?
- [Steven] It was like five paragraphs with expletives and doing something between rational explanation of why he should change it back to, you know, "I hope both your eyebrows catch on fire!" It was not my most refined moment but I was just so passionate about it.
- [Danny] Yeah, shoot your shot, fair enough. So what have you been playing at the moment? We were playing a bunch of PUBG I remember last year and then you went off and joined the Fortnite gang. You said you could never be a ninja but there you are, every day, playing Fortnite. Are you still playing it?
- [Steven] Actually, no. I don't play Fortnite as much as I used to. It is still a fun game for me, but I've actually began to fall away from first-person shooters a little bit. I've been doing the Rocket League thing, I've been really into Kingdom: Two Crowns recently, just playing that 8-bit life. Yeah, it's the third installment of this franchise where you're just a little dude or a queen that's got a kingdom to take care of and there's little greedy things that are trying to take all your money and beat up your people to get it, so there's no fighting involved so, I don't know, I'm one of those gamers that, I used to run a violent game like a Diablo and then I would run The Sims Online. I would just bounce back and forth to satisfy both sides of my brain, so I guess right now I'm just like, "I don't wanna shoot people, I just wanna watch little monsters be murdered."
- [Danny] Okay so by that rationale, Rocket League is the violent game?
- [Steven] Yeah, well, if you've ever seen me play Rocket League, it depends how many times I get scored on.
- [Danny] Oh dude, I swear to God, I have never been as angry and stressed out as when I play Rocket League online.
- [Steven] It's like a stress test, they should replace that at the doctor's office.
- [Danny] I swear to God, I had to start playing on PS4 because then I couldn't type shit at people. Then I just started doing it on that as well, bringing up the little PlayStation keyboard. In between goals where you've hardly any time to trash talk anyone and you just figure out ways of doing it.
- [Steven] What a save, what a save, what a save!
- [Danny] Oh, yeah, totally and all that sarcastic stuff for sure, yeah. It's ridiculous. Did you do a 'Top 10' list or anything for 2018?
- [Steve] You know, I think I'm one of the three video game industry people that didn't do a 'Top 10' post.
- [Danny] You need to get Alex Navarro over at Giant Bomb to email you as well next year.
- [Steven] Apparently, yeah. Next year I need to get on the list, I was like, "every one of my friends has a list, what the hell?" Damn.
- [Danny] So what was the stuff last year that really caught your eye? Were you playing a lot of those games? Well, playing Rocket League I guess, since 2017.
- [Steven]Yeah, it was a good year for video games, man. The one I wish I could have played the most was Spider-Man. Man, that looked like an amazing game. I couldn't personally play it, so it was actually one of the only games that I sat on Twitch and watched friends play from the beginning to the end. It was so good. I loved it so much.
- [Danny] Is that because it's a console game and it's just the accessibility issue?
- [Steven] It was the way that the accessibility was set up was just a little bit rough for trying to aim and change your weapons. Anything that has a weapon wheel just adds another layer of complication for people who have a limited number of buttons that they can push, so, yeah. Even if you were using a QuadStick on a console, the weapon wheel is just difficult, so, you know.
- [Danny] How does the QuadStick interface with the PlayStation? Because obviously Microsoft now has a controller that's like officially doing it. Do you have to hack it to get it to work?
- [Steven] Yeah, its just an adaptor.
- [Danny] Oh, really, just like off the shelf? You just get it off Amazon or something, or eBay?
- [Steven] Well no, it's not off the shelf, but there are adapters out there that let you use PlayStation and Xbox things, vice versa, depending on which console you need to use the most, so we can put a QuadStick on either one. It doesn't really work on a Swtich, unfortunately, looking at you Nintendo. But, yeah, PlayStation and Xbox works just fine.
- [Danny] Is it the type of thing that they know about and they're cool with or they know about it and they're just gonna go, "Ah, whatever"? Like what is it that Nintendo are doing that stops people being able to make adapters for that?
- [Steven] You know, I'm not really sure what I can say, legally. I can tell you that it's still works on Xbox and PlayStation and it doesn't work on Nintendo.
- [Danny] Fair enough. Sorry, you were saying, what other games are you playing?
- [Steven] The God of War series was, of course, super amazing. I had a lot of strange indie taste as well, like Tricky Towers was a really good game I found. Just something sort of different. I loved Into the Breach. I think the only one I've lost a lot of time into was Odyssey. Odyssey is just so good; I can't stop playing it.
- [Danny] My wife is playing it too. It's the most game I've ever seen.
- [Steven] It is ridiculous, it is. I mean there were so many good games that came out last year, but Odyssey is maybe the first one in forever that I've been playing off-stream. There's usually, for me, only two kinds of games that I play; either I play them for work or I play them for stream work. Don't you get it where it's like, I'm sure, just like you, I don't like play just to play very much, so when I do, a game's gotta be great and Odyssey was fantastic.
- [Danny] Did you play the Origins? The one that came out the year before?
- [Steven] I didn't. You know, Odyssey was actually my first venture into Assassin's Creed world.
- [Danny] Oh, cool. It's crazy how people are, I feel like there's two groups of people; there's the people who played so much Origins that they just can't play Odyssey because it's just like, it's just so too much, too quickly and then there's people who didn't play Origins who are loving Odyssey because it's a lot of the same sort of systems and stuff that worked there, but in a much bigger map with so much stuff. It's ridiculous how much stuff is in that game. Like how much of the map have you uncovered? My wife's been playing for months and like a third of the map has been opened up.
- [Steven] You know, I probably have got a little over half of it at this point, and it just seems like the game just keeps going and, I gotta say, I'm into it though. It's one of those games where I'm finding I don't mind how much time has been sunk into it. Normally by like hour 50 I'm like, "Alright, come on, we gotta wrap this up", but this one I'm like, "You know, I could probably play this off and on for the next year, I'd be alright with that."
- [Danny] What is it about it? Is it the setting or the combat or is it the ticking off the things on the list? There's a lot of 'do these things' and then you do the things and they give you stuff for it and you're like, "Yeah, give me more things to do." Is it that?
- [Steven] I think it's a combination of the story and the never-ending tasks. I love the bounty hunting system, oh my goodness. I love how you just randomly get hunted and then you get to kill them and then more people hunt you. It's just awesome.
- [Danny] That's rad. What are you playing at the moment? So you're playing that at the moment still, are you?
- [Steven] Yeah, I mean whenever I get spare time, that's where I'm sinking my time right now. That was after I beat Far Cry. I don't know if you got a chance to sink your teeth into that but, man, that was a mind trip.
- [Danny] Yeah, that was another one, my wife is basically just on the Ubisoft open world ticket at the moment, so that was another one I watched her play a lot in the evenings. Had you played previous Far Cry games? Was that your first foray into that one as well?
- [Steven] That was another first note as well. It seemed to be my year to break into story games. I guess now we're looking back at it and I liked it but, this is gonna turn into spoiler-cast if I'm not careful, but, man, the ending in that game. At the end of the day I am a writer who just happens to be doing other things right now and so I love, love, love a good story. So, if it had something that can just grab my attention and make me wanna find out what happens at the end, then I'm in.
- [Danny] You're one of the first people we're talking to in 2019, I mean you're one of the first people we're talking to on this podcast, this is the 5th episode. I feel like I haven't been able to stop and take stock of what's coming out this year. Is there anything, I have a list in front of me here but is there anything off the top of your head that you're looking forward to? Because I feel like 2018 actually ended up being a fantastic year but I worry that we ended up going into a slower one, when that happens. But is there anything off the top of your head that's popping out that you're looking forward to in 2019?
- [Steven] I don't know, it can't be a slower year than last year. Last year was just boom, boom, boom. I would say, right off the top, and the same thing everyone is gonna say is Anthem. If Anthem is bad then I am going to riot. I'm going to grab a pitchfork and I'm going to the studio and I'm gonna stand there and be like, "You guys fix it." I'm gonna do it in a very non-threatening way. I'm just gonna stand there and it's gonna be a safety pitchfork, there's gonna be little plastic things on top of it.
- [Danny]Orange tips.
- [Steven] Yeah, orange tips on it. I'm gonna have a peaceful vest on me and just be like, "I just want you to fix the game."
- [Danny] Well you say you're a fan of stories, does that mean, are you a fan of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, the other BioWare games?
- [Steven] Oh yeah, oh my goodness. Dragon Age: Origins is... So Dragon Age: Origins, I love it so much, so anybody who really is a fan of mine may have picked up my one and only book that I have out there and if you look hard enough at the book, you'll see that one of the main characters is actually nearly directly pulled out of the Origins video game.
- [Danny] Oh, careful, this is fucking EA man!
- [Steven] I did not steal their IP, but that was like my main inspiration. It was so good.
- [Danny] That's awesome.
- [Steven] It was like, you know, the character and the everything just was so great to me that I was like, "I have to create my own version of this and plug it in somewhere", and I ended up doing that.
- [Danny] That's right, what's the name of the book? Where can you get it?
- [Steven] It's a horrible book, you don't wanna go find it.
- [Danny] Hey man, I a 33 year old video game fan. I don't read books, I just buy them and put them on my shelf.
- [Steven] That's fair. So the book is called The Finder. You can get it on Amazon still. I got it under my pen name, Steven Rome. Honestly, I hired an editor but the editor really kind of let me down so there's grammatical errors and there's an audio book uploaded to it. I really tried pretty hard and it sold actually pretty well. So I've actually got a screenshot. Back in the day, you could put your Amazon book up to be downloaded for 72 hours for free and I put it up to be downloaded for free and it was downloaded as much as Game of Thrones was bought.
- [Danny] Oh wow.
- [Steven] So I've got picture of my book right beside George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.
- [Danny] That's rad. Yeah I see it here, right here on Amazon. Go pick it up everyone, 13.95 paperback, Amazon Prime, you can have it by the time your next bowel movement comes, that's the way Amazon works now, it's pretty good.
- [Steven] Yeah, if you need bad reading material, then... It's so sad too, because it's one of those things. It was a good story in my head and then it's like you can tell there's a certain point in there that I just wanted the book to be done. So I was just like, "You know what, I'm just done with it", and it goes from a very slow-paced book to "Alright, it's done."
- [Danny] Steven, I feel like people go their entire lives trying to write their books so do not kill, or kick yourself over the fact that your first novel wasn't exactly what you needed it to be. That's incredible. Are you writing another one? Are you looking to write another one? Are you too busy with AbleGamers stuff?
- [Steven] You know, I am super busy, but this is actually AbleGamers' 15th year. So, as I was saying to you privately when I agreed to come talk to you, not only because we're good friends and I wanted to help you launch this thing and if three of my fans will come listen, that'd be great. You know, its one of those things where I'd like to get into the writing and doing some of my own flights of fancy that I've been putting on the back burner for so long because I feel like after 15 years I've put in a little bit of blood and sweat into the cause and now maybe I can do a couple of other things I wanna do before the shot clock quite runs out.
- [Danny] Well, I think there'll be a lot of people who would be interested in experiencing whatever you put out there into the universe, so... Let me tell you about this place called Patreon.com and it lets people do their dreams and get funded by the people who want to experience those dreams.
- [Steven] Really, I'd never heard of that, Danny! Do you have one of those?
- [Danny] Steven, can I ask you some questions from people who pay us money?
- [Steven] Nope! I'm out of here, bye everybody.
- [Danny] Thank you to Steve for being here. If you wanna get your questions in, go to Patreon.com/Noclip. If you're on the $5 tier you also get this podcast early. You don't get it exclusively. We had some people be like, "Hey, I can't get the podcast" and we had to be like, "No, you literally can't, everything we do is available, except the behind the scenes stuff". But if you're on the $5 tier you get this beautiful podcast early as well as a bunch of other stuff and we put the word out for some questions, we got a bunch of them. I'm gonna ask about two or three of them here. This one's from Matthew Glenn, he said, "What accessibility feature should indies and small teams prioritize when hoping to be more accessible?" Any come to mind?
- [Steven] You know, I think the thing about being an indie, and I've had so many great conversations with Rami about this, indies have such a luxury of being flexible. Being an indie developer is super hard, right? It is back breaking work in a mental way. It is blood, sweat, part of your soul going into this game and here I am telling you you have to do even more. To indie developers out there, keep in mind everybody on the accessibility side understands that you didn't need one more thing to worry about, but if you add things like re-mappable keys, you add things like sliders for all of your settings, or allowing people to edit the INI files instead of keeping them hidden or encoded. Allow people to move the game as much as they can, without breaking your game or altering it, ` then let them play it your way and you'll have more sales and you'll have happier customers. It's interesting how some games tackled problems. Let's take, for example, one of my favorite indie games of 2018 called Raft. Raft was a cool little indie game where you basically were on a raft, spoiler! You had to fish junk out of the ocean and build a bigger, better raft that had air conditioning somehow, I don't know. It was a fun game but the settings in it were bare and minimal and when I reached out to say, "Hey, I can't play your game because the mouse sensitivity is very low, you capped it barely above what you'd need to move the mouse across the screen if you got an entire mousepad, not to mention you don't have the ability to re-map, you didn't have stuff like that. And within two days they turned around; they added the ability to map the mouse, the added the ability to uncap the mouse sensitivity. These are all things that don't take developers a lot of time, but if you don't do them, they can lock people out of your games. I happen to be one of the people that gets caught up in those times when you're alienated, so I always recommend, you know, do as much as you can with little effort and things like adding settings and adding re-mapping are often relatively easy, nothing is "easy" in development, but if you do it early in development cycle, it's doable without too much cost.
- [Danny] Raymond Harris asked the question, "Have you tried Microsoft's new accessibility controller, if so, what do you like and dislike about it? I mean you guys were involved in the whole R and D aspect of that, is that correct?
- [Steven] I was privileged to be one of the people that Microsoft pulled into it first. Me and my co-worker Craig, we were the ones that were asked to come sign some NDAs and check this out on a low key, 'here's a tablet with a drawing on it because our lawyers won't even allow you to look at the real prototypes, so here's what it looks like' kind of thing. Yeah and then from there we brought in AbleGamers and we became an entire organization to help, not just one or two of us, but everybody had a hand in making this thing better, so it was great to get to be a part of that and it's honestly going to go down in my brain as one of the highlights of my career. I had a very small part in personally bringing about a controller that is now available in freaking Walmart. Well, technically the Microsoft Store, whatever. Walmart, Microsoft Store, same difference. I'm definitely not gonna get an angry message from Microsoft PR tomorrow, its fine, right?
- [Danny] Matthew Rogers asked the question, "Do you find that people with disabilities often write off video games as a hobby and don't realize that there are organizations like AbleGamers out there?"
- [Steven] I do. I think one of the things that my job has become has been fighting against the stigma of being a gamer, let alone having a disability, so, in a lot of ways, 15 years ago when I got into this game and when AbleGamers first started, we were not only fighting for people with disabilities, which, back in the early 2000s and early 90s, was not as welcomed as it is now and neither is being a gamer and both of those had negative connotations on them. If you were a gamer, you're lazy. If you were disabled, you're lazy. We had to fight all these stereotypes and yeah, I think that there are so many companies out there who don't even understand what we do, what I do and my daily operations and what my company does and what even is represented by gamers with disabilities being a part of the world. I don't know that everybody's quite yet aware. I think we're making it so. I think people like Danny are helping us push the narrative into the mainstream that it's not some little niche bunch of people that just wanna play a couple of games, but gamers with disabilities are everywhere. People like Halfcoordinated who are out there on the stage of Games Done Quick, who are out there pushing, me being on award shows pushing. I think we're all doing our parts and I think everybody who is listening can do their part by saying to their friends, to their family whenever the situation comes up, that people with disabilities want to enjoy every hobby, including gaming. I think it's gonna be interesting watching companies get involved more and more as they figure this out.
- [Danny] We go back and look at the commercials of the 90s, where the prevalent idea of the teenage boy, the white teenage boy, right? The able-bodied, white teenage boy was the...
- [Steven] Straight, able-bodied, white teenage boy.
- [Danny] Yeah, lets keep going! Eventually we'll find that gamer. The one that gave birth to us all. Do you find that accessibility and people with disabilities have a place at the table now in a way that they didn't five or 10 years ago, or it is for people like you that are visible, but for most people it's not?
- [Steven] Here's the thing. I think that accessibility has come a long way in a lot of ways thanks to the work that has been done at AbleGamers and our allies and our people that care about our narrative, right? There's no question, accessibility is better. Full stop, period, end of sentence. However, to continue the conversation, if you are not somebody that has a high profile, you do not have as good of a chance of things being made accessible quickly. I am extremely privileged, in that if somebody gets a hold of me and says, "I can't play this game because of this feature being in the way", chances are I can get to a developer and say, "Hey, is there something you can do about this?" Sometimes they can do it quickly, sometimes they can't. I've had developers literally, and I will not tell you who, go behind their bosses back and find code and tell me slash commands in engines to get around the accessibility things because the publisher didn't want to deal with the problem and the developer cared enough that they were like, "Just tell them to do this and it'll be fine." Okay, cool, I am super privileged in that I can do that, but there's not a lot of people in my position that can do that and I can't do that for every single person all the time. Everybody at AbleGamers has their people that they can turn to and they can make magic happen sometimes, but there's only so many of us and only so many hours in the day, so you can't do that for everybody. What happens if you're a gamer who can't play a certain game and its because of a feature in a game and there's nothing that can be done until that feature is changed? Well, you can tweet and you can email and you can send a feedback report, but you have to wait your turn, right? So there's definitely a position of privilege there for people like you and me who are in the game industry because we have the right ears. We try to do that honorably. Danny and I try to use our power for good. At least I do, Danny, I don't know...
- [Danny] No, no, honestly please don't even say us both in the same sentence because you give me credit that I do not deserve. The work that you've done is literally changing people's lives. Maybe I'm making people smile a little bit, but you're doing some work that is really affecting people in incredibly important ways.
- [Steven] I think we all have a different part to play though. I think that everybody who's listening has their part to play. This magnification of positivity that I have turned my "brand" into, if you will, is 100% honesty and compassion. We're all playing a part. I think anybody who's listening to the 75 minutes of this that we've done so far is doing their part by absorbing this information that they might not have known, about the struggles of people with disabilities. They may not have known that these are problems and issues. Now they can watch out for them. Now they can be an advocate. But, to get back to the original question, you do everything that you can and I think that we're in a position that we can make as much change for as many people as we possibly can, but I think that there are minority groups who are very vocal. The LGBT community which, of course, I support and Blacks in Gaming is one of my favorite GDC groups. I support every minority I can because I know my own struggles and while I may not know theirs, I know how difficult mine were and I can imagine and empathize with their struggles and I try to amplify where I can. The problem that I always find, and it breaks my heart, is that I'll see people that I respect so much in the industry, tweeting about how we need to support races, genders and sexualities and then they'll leave out disability and I don't understand why we're still not putting disability on the same level as these other minorities. Because guaranteed every single one of those groups, there's also people with disabilities within that group. So I would like to see when we're all unifying a bit more, to say that my LGBT friends who are disabled need support, my black friends, my latino friends need support. We are all in this together and I think that if we continue to amplify each other, we'll make this battle just a little bit easier.
- [Danny] Is that why you make yourself so public? Like, you talked about your brand, right? You don't strike me, I'm not gonna bullshit you, you don't strike me as someone who suffers fools, you've got an incredibly intelligent head on your shoulders and you talk about this like feel-good brand that's really really important. Do you have to be watchful of people who would try to utilize that for their own optics? Like who would try and manipulate or would try and use the feel-good narrative to make their brand look good and then ultimately not really invest in your mission in a way that is substantive?
- [Steven] Oh, absolutely. It is a hard and fast rule at my place of work, that no one with a disability is to do work without being compensated in some way. It does not have to financial because sometimes the government frowns upon that kind of thing, so maybe someone who is on government assistance can't take a payment because then that could endanger their insurance, and that we would feel horrible about, so instead maybe they get a copy of the game. Maybe they get a free tablet. Maybe a new webcam, who knows? It's that you don't use people. You utilize their skills, you utilize their experiences, you do not use them. And I think that's something you have to watch out for, and again, just anybody who has followed me so far, or if you plan on following me, Danny knows all too well that I am a lover but I'm also a fighter. If I see an injustice, I will strap on a sword and I'll go to town. I have no problem with picking up the battleax and running into the fight. I am not somebody who thinks the world is rose colored and we can just all love each other because that's the right thing to do. I think sometimes there comes a time where all people must fight.
- [Danny] And whenever the battle happens, I'll be, hopefully, standing right beside you, swinging my morning star as well. Steven Spohn, an absolute pleasure to talk to you as ever, my friend. Where can people follow your work? What are you up to? Where can they consume your delicious content?
- [Steven]I don't want that advertisement on my phone. My most active place right now is Twitter. I find it's the best place to amplify positive messages to fight some of the darkness; you can find me @StevenSpohn and you can find me on Twitch at the acronym that is my name: SteveInSpawn, like the comic book character, and I stream on twitch five days a week, just trying to showcase that people with disabilities are out there and we're not innocent snow flowers that don't so anything but sit around and watch TV. We're out there playing games, we make dick jokes and we're funny and inappropriate and we're just human beings like everyone else and I'd encourage anyone that has a disability that happens to be listening to the amazing Danny O'Dwyer, that you too should go out and live your life as visibly as you can because that's the only way that we're gonna change the world.
- [Danny] Steven, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. We'd love to have you back on if you're up for it again in the future.
- [Steven] I'd be more than happy, Danny. Thanks for having me.
- [Danny] No problem. Thank you, as well, for listening, everyone out there. We don't know who's up next week, but if you follow @NoClipVideo on the Twitters, you'll get an update over there. I'm @DannyODwyer on Twitter. If you have any feedback or any ideas for guests, you can also hit up our sub-Reddit, r/Noclip, or if you're a patron there is always a Patreon post you can just jump into, or hit us up on the DMs. The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, the whole sha-bang. Anywhere podcasts are sold, stick 'noclip' in there and hopefully we'll pop up. We also have a new YouTube channel as well. If you type 'noclip podcast' into YouTube, we'll get that short URL soon enough, but until then if you hit that up, you'll be able to watch, slash, I mean 'watch', it's just a static image, pretty much with some gameplay in the background, but it's up there on YouTube. We also have full transcriptions as well. We don't talk about it very often. We do closed captions on all of our videos, but we actually also provide full transcriptions of the docs if you go to our Libsyn page, so that's like noclippodcast.libsyn.com and there's a link in all the descriptions no matter how you're listening to this and you can go check that out as well. Patrons get the show early. $5 if they're on the $5 tier. Thank you to them for making this ad-free and making it possible in the first place. Patreon.com/Noclip if you're interested in that. I hope, wherever you are, this finds you well. I hope you're enjoying some video games and we look forward to talking to you again on the next edition of the Noclip podcast, next week. See you then.
|Jan 21, 2019|
#04 - Mikey Neumann
In the first episode of the all-new-format Noclip podcast, we talk to Mikey Neumann about media criticism and his time working at Gearbox on games like Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Brothers in Arms & Borderlands. (Recorded January 8th)
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello, and welcome to the NoClip podcast, the fourth episode of the NoClip podcast. Though, in many ways, kind of the first episode of the NoClip podcast. There's a whole new format. Less edited, less produced, more chatty and conversational. If you still like those ones, don't worry. They're still gonna drop in on the feed. But generally it's gonna be a weekly show now, just me sitting down with a bunch of interesting people from the world of video games be it people who are in development or people who are streamers or journalists or maybe just somebody who plays games who's got an interesting story. Speaking of interesting stories, we have a person here who writes quite a lot of them. Or at least did in a prior life at Gearbox Software. Today, you can find him as a... I don't wanna say film critic. Maybe film connoisseur? Maybe he prefers to be called a YouTuber? I'm not quite sure. Let's ask the man himself. I am talking, of course, about the one and only, Mikey Neumann. Mikey, how you doing today, man?
- [Mikey] I'm good. Now you've given me like an existential crisis to worry about 'cause I used to worry. Like, what do you call yourself?
- [Danny] Yeah, I don't know. The one that keeps coming to mind is like content creator, but that sounds worse than YouTuber.
- [Mikey] Yeah, I get in trouble a lot 'cause people call themselves content creators, and they're people that I think are making incredible art leone.
- [Mikey] And they're like, I'm a content creator. And I'm like, that's so dismissive. And they're like, why? The only one dismissive is you. They're just words.
- [Danny] Yeah, I feel like the people who are actually content creators are those 3D model farms that game developers use that are in Singapore. You know, like the outsourcing places. Like that's content creation. They're making fridges and tables, they're creating content.
- [Mikey] Teaching moment, for real, you actually do have good relationships with those different outsourcers. They tend to be with artists and designers 'cause at the height of a game, you might be using eight to 10, even more. Like if you're Red Dead Redemption, I'm sure they use like all of them. But it's not just throw it over the fence. I think the good games and good studios build a really good relationship with those outsourcers. So, it's never just throw it over the fence.
- [Danny] Yeah, it came up in our Horizon documentary, and we'll get more into the development stuff in a little bit. But I remember we were talking to... Is it Herman? God, I should remember his name, just feels terrible. The lead over there at Guerrilla, and they're not that big a studio, but Horizon Zero Dawn is a really big detail game. So, they basically created an outsource management team within Guerrilla to do that. And he said it was like the game changer for getting that game out the door because before it's just there's too much stuff to make now, and it's 4K, and it takes forever.
- [Mikey] And you call it content because it does describe all of it 'cause content can be sound effects, it can be how using those sound effects in the audio engine. There's so much content that I think, in the game sense, that word actually does work really well.
- [Danny] There you go, we've solved it. You're not a content creator. So, we now have to figure out what your real job is. Yeah, Herman Hulst is his name. It's funny 'cause we're gonna get into development shot, which I feel like we do at all that often in the world of video game podcasts. I mean, there are some really good ones out there that do this sort of stuff for developers, but I'm hoping we can sort of break a little bit of new ground on this one. But we're not gonna do that for the first section 'cause I just wanna talk to you about what you've been playing at the moment.
- [Mikey] Number one, I'm not really ranking them, but it's sorta like... I order them like how much I'm playing them.
- [Danny] Okay, quantity, not quality.
- [Mikey] Well, yeah, just to properly describe how much I'm playing Slay the Spire. It sort of combines everything I love, which is like a strategic, rogue-like, card collecting, card deck building, RPG, climb a tower. It checks all my boxes.
- [Danny] I think those are the same boxes that make me fearful. I think any one of those. I mean, I love rogue-likes, but I think it's the word card, and I think it's the screenshots when I see cards. How much is it a card game and how much is it just the cards are a part of the interface? And you're just there--
- I mean, the cards are the game. I mean, it's an attack and defend game. You're making choices about how much damage you're trying to do, or how much you're trying to protect against. So, it's math fighting in the same way that one of my favorite games ever, and I used to exclusively play against UD engineering students because they were the best ones, Virtua Tennis. Like the first one.
- Oh really?
- [Mikey] It's math fighting.
- [Danny] How come?
- [Mikey] Because it looks like tennis on the surface, but actually--
- [Danny] It's virtual.
- [Mikey] Well, it's Virtua, thank you, sir.
- I'm sorry.
- [Mikey] Sir. No, it's... And Mario Tennis ended up using these mechanics, and a lot of other people did. Never as punishing as Virtua Tennis where like you select a spot to hit the ball from, and the faster you get to that spot, the harder and better angle you can hit it at.
- [Danny] Okay.
- [Mikey] So, your ability to setup in time sort of makes it like you can hit it better and make it harder on the opponent, but they're also doing that to you. So, the exchange of basically fighting with angles and timing is Virtua Tennis. It looks like tennis because that's how tennis works, basically also, just not as mechanically solid.
- [Danny] And just speaking to that sort of beautiful era of games when they were mechanical to the point where you could predict things. Obviously, sport games now are like kind of, they're supposed to be these massive simulations that are ultimately sort of like, you know, there's a lot of RNG involved in what they're doing. But that was not the way it was before.
- [Mikey] I was waiting for that term. I was like, when's he gonna say RNG because Speedrunning grabbed a hold of us. I like that because it put it in the Lexicon.
- [Danny] It's the wrong term though, is it? Or is it too broad?
- [Mikey] It's sort of like, god, you're gonna get me in trouble. One of my old pet peeves was, and I try never to bring this up anymore. But if you watch Speedrunning or Esports, really, people say hitboxes in place of the term collision. And it drives me bananas 'cause hitboxes were what we used in Counter-Strike and Half-Life because you add rudimentary boxes sort of overlayed over the model, and that was collision. Collision's not that simple anymore.
- [Danny] Actually, this is really what I wanted to get into later as well, which is the sort of disparate ways in which we do communicate about this sort of stuff. Do you think, in using the word like hitbox, it's reducing it? Like it's not talking about it in the way it should be? Or does it just irk you because it's the wrong term?
- [Mikey] I think it irks me because I'm a pedantic moron. I think what isn't annoying about it is that the term hitbox is quote unquote sort of grew up to mean collision. Which is sort of synonymous, they're just not generally boxes. Collision tends to be people-shaped in people-shooting games.
- [Danny] What other games you playing?
- [Mikey] The one that's your fault, and I'm about to get back to Zen, I'm playing Half-Life one again.
- [Danny] Oh, wow, okay. And that's, you worked on--
- Direct result of watching your incredible documentary.
- [Danny] Thank you, you're too kind. Sorry we didn't actually meet. We did have lunch after I interviewed Randy Pitchford for that documentary.
- Yeah, I met you at Gearbox, it was a fun day. We went and got barbecue.
- [Danny] It was delicious. We ended up talking a bunch about Counter-Strike and Half-Life stuff 'cause of course you worked at Gearbox during a lot of that time. All of that time? When did you start at Gearbox?
- [Mikey] Actually, specifically, 2001.
- [Danny] Okay.
- [Mikey] This is actually... You know how you can't find a word 'cause I almost said this is awesome. And then I was about to--
- [Mikey] I was about to say, no, I was like, it was awesome, 9/11 happened two months in, and I'm like, that's not awesome at all. Awesome in magnitude, not in quality.
- [Danny] Good save.
- [Mikey] Thanks, but we're working on Counter-Strike Condition Zero, a game at the time you could play as the terrorist.
- Oh yes.
- And we're like, that's not great. Everybody, is that great? Oh no, that's not great? Okay, and then I remember it became counter-terrorist only. And the game actually got better 'cause we did a game that will never see the light of day now but.
- [Danny] Yeah, so how much of the Gearbox stuff was actually in the one that came out? Because it got passed, I think Gearbox was the second team to work on it and it ended up going through Turtle Rock and then Ritual, and it changed. It was like Valve's weird version where they wanted it to be a single-player game.
- [Mikey] Well, it was Rogue first, right?
- [Danny] Yes.
- It was Rogue?
- Was it Rogue? Yes, I think it was Rogue. Then you.
- Yeah, the Alice developers, I believe. And by the way, I could be totally wrong. I'm just going off the top of my head here, memory-wise. It went Rogue, Gearbox, Ritual. It's still in Dallas, actually, they just drove it across the street. And then, Dallas isn't really that small, I'm kidding. And then it was Turtle Rock, which Valve ended up having a really interesting relationship with.
- [Danny] Right, 'cause of the Left for Dead. But when you played the released version, was there any of the Gearbox DNA in there?
- [Mikey] I don't know how much I'm permitted to say.
- [Danny] Right, that's fair enough.
- [Mikey] I mean, it's been awhile. I don't know. I don't think so. Off the top of my head, I would imagine no, but again, I haven't looked at it or anything in a long time. I think everybody that worked on that, which is really interesting and something I can say, is I think everyone did really cool work with what they were given and what they were trying to do. Ritual made some really cool art that Turtle Rock ended up using in their version. And Rogue had some cool stuff that we... To me, it was a lot of cool stuff and not necessarily knowing what to do with that brand at that moment.
- [Danny] Yeah, bit of an impossible task trying to make a single-player portion of this beloved multiplayer mode. It's almost like you're trying to paddle the wrong way up the stream.
- I can only speak for ours, and I can really all I can say is that it was really fun, and stuff we added did make it through like the Galil and the FAMAS. That was us that added that to Counter-Strike, and that ended up mirroring all the way back into 1.6. It's really interesting how that all kind of bounced around.
- [Danny] Crazy, yeah, and people still play 1.6 today. And people still playing Half-Life today. So, what was it like going back and playing Half-Life? Considering you're sort of history with the franchise. When was the last time you played it?
- [Mikey] Right when Half-Life Two came out.
- [Danny] Okay, 2004.
- [Mikey] Yeah, it's been a bit, it's been a bit.
- [Danny] What are the parts that sort of shout out, or any specific levels or moments of it that you really like?
- [Mikey] I think what I was doing was sorta, 'cause to me, what I really wanted to see again was that feeling of being Gordon. Half-Life one does something so brilliant, I've never seen any game replicate it, including Half-Life Two. Which is you're just a dude who is late for work. And everyone is like, ugh, Gordon? Ugh. And you feel like a piece of garbage. You're an MIT graduate, and they're treating you like nobody, and I just love that because it weighs into all of the gameplay through the whole. Like that guy hiding in the trashcan that we all threw a grenade into. But, you know what I mean? I love that sort of moral gray area that they played with because undoubtedly the hero, but they don't really treat you like one.
- [Danny] Yeah, it's not like a sort of traditional, I don't know, hero. There's the mountian, go climb it kind of hero's journey type thing. It's a bit more of the everyman.
- [Mikey] And you get to Half-Life Two, and every person you meet is like, Gordon? Gordon Freeman, the Messiah of Black Mesa? Oh, Gordon! I've heard every story about! You know, like everyone reacts huge to you, and it made me feel like less of a hero in a way. It sends me back to all those thoughts.
- [Danny] Does it make you feel like a bit of a fraud almost? Because it's likehe kind of lucked his way through, like it wasn't exactly a charitable mission he was on. He kind of just had to survive in the first game.
- [Mikey] Yeah, and there's like weird alien suit-wearing men that pull all the string. He's really not in control of anything.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] And it was funny 'cause what your documentary did that has never been done was you gotta remember, Half-Life Two was, obviously you remember, but it was huge. And it came out and it was massive and everyone loved it, and they're like wow, this is the best first-person shooter of all time. And I'm like that ends on a massive cliffhanger.
- [Danny] It's funny, I forgot about that element of it. 'Cause to me, I just thought, oh people want more Half-Life.
- It's huge.
- [Danny] But actually, when I went back and replayed Episode Two as well, it's kind of like, oh yeah, this does totally suck. It's bizarre. I think it was difficult to separate the baggage from the game. And even the memory of playing of the game. You were talking about turning up late for work. When I went back to play it recently to capture footage, I tried to as much as possible to remember the first time I played it, and you do get that sense of when you turn up for work late when people are already making their lunch, and they're already sitting down at their desks and you haven't even gotten into your uniform yet. You know? That way about it, which I feel like now when I play Half-Life, I'm thinking this meta-version of Half-Life that's just me playing my nostalgia, not necessarily playing the game. So, it's cool that you actually got to go back and play these games. You haven't played in quite a long time. Kind of feel it authentically that first time. So, are you interested in playing the episodes? Or are you gonna just be pissed off by the end of it?
- [Mikey] It's tough to play Half-Life Episode Two and not just feel sad. You know what I mean? 'Cause there's a lot of effort spent on no, it's not over. So, you gave us a massive cliffhanger and then said but it's not over. But it really it was. That's a huge disappointment, I think, that has weighed on people for a long time. I wanted to say that your section on Half-Life Three actually did give me closure.
- Ah, nice.
- As like a game player. I was like, it doesn't matter. All these people are making all this cool stuff, that's fine, go check that out. It is what it is, I guess.
- [Danny] Right, it felt like, you know? It just felt weird to do with the doc, and for that to end on a cliffhanger would just suck. Everyone was saying you should release it in three parts and just never release the third part or something. Even the idea of making anyone watch a retrospective on this game, and then to make them feel shit about it again by the end just felt really wrong. Although who knows now? Eric Wolpaw has rejoined the Campo Santo-infused Valve. So, I don't know, maybe they're making games with writers again.
- [Mikey] Yeah, well they're definitely making one 'cause they brought everyone from Campo Santo in. I think you could say the same nice things about Portal one as well 'cause Portal one, you start in a cage, you're a prisoner, and it's like you are trapped. And the climax of that game is the realization for the player, oh I can escape. And that twist was my favorite thing ever 'cause that moment when you're going up that ramp with the stair car on it, that moment I was like, oh sorry GLaDOS.
- [Danny] So, it's similar to Half-Life one and Two then where, in a way, they just kinda have to... Everyman, everywoman, aspect is completely lost. The twist is gone, and now we have to kind of, I don't know, justify the lure of the first game in the second game when also just not making the first game. Did you like Portal Two?
- [Mikey] Absolutely. I thought the writing was incredible. There's so much good content in Portal. I got to that word, and I was like caution signs, but Portal Two doesn't have that central promise. And I think that's what fantasy fulfillment is about. Portal one, you're in this scientific facility getting lied to about cake. And that's kind of the, you know what I mean? That's kind of the game, and you get to accomplish the fantasy of, you know what? I hate you, I'm getting out of here. I'm not living this life anymore. And you get to feel what it's like to be a prisoner, and then escape. You get all those kind of emotions. I don't know, I just like games that give me something more that sort of inform my actions in an interesting way.
- [Danny] You enjoy good writing, which makes sense because that was your job, right?
- Sure, sure, sure, sure.
- For a decent amount of time. So, when did you can start doing writing at Gearbox, right? That wasn't always your focus, right? 'Cause even before you were at Gearbox, you were, was it Dave Defeat was the mod that you were working on?
- [Mikey] Yeah, I did art on Dave Defeat way way back in the day when we're still rockin' DoD WAD files.
- [Danny] Hey, man, John Romero is still selling them in 2019, so.
- [Mikey] There is... wait, really?
- [Danny] He's making a Doom WAD, yeah. But it's unofficial like he's releasing the Wad for free, but they're putting out a special edition box of it. And I forget what it's called, I should remember what it's called. I mean, if you type in John Romero WAD, it'll pop up, I'm sure.
- [Mikey] I don't feel like that's what I wanna type on Google.
- Yeah, maybe have safe search on when you do that.
- [Mikey] That's cool though. I love John. That's super smart.
- Yeah, that's rad.
- [Mikey] Super neat. Back on DoD WAD files, if you go into the Day of Defeat box copy, there is, in fact, a WAD file called Mike Zilla Loves Ketchup.WAD. 'Cause I used to rock Mikey Zilla back in the day.
- [Danny] That was your handle?
- [Mikey] Yeah, I figured I could just shorten it to my name, which made it a little easier.
- [Danny] That's great. Does that mean that Valve had to pay you for the WAD, Mikey Zilla Loves Ketchup?
- [Mikey] Yes.
- [Danny] Fantastic, congratulations. What was the first game that you were writing then? Was it one of the--
- Brothers in Arms.
- Brothers in Arms?
- Was the first credited write 'cause I was pushing some stuff even before that. But, again, I was a texture artist that painted sky boxes, and I'm over here being like, I can write, and they're like okay kid, we got it. 'Cause you also have to understand that I started at Gearbox when I was 19.
- [Danny] Oh my goodness.
- [Mikey] Yeah, I was a baby.
- [Danny] So, what did writing look like on a project like that if you're just getting involved?
- [Mikey] I mean, if you're a guy that fancies himself a screenwriter, not naming any names, me. Like I did. 'Cause we were trying to define what video game writing even was back then. Brothers in Arms one, I was working with this programmer, he's still at Gearbox. His name's Neal Johnson, he's one of my favorite people. He coded the battle dialogue system, which is all the barks and shouts and like, reloading! No one had done that. All the games kinda came out at the same time 'cause we all kinda solved that problem at the same time. But I remember thinking it was genius to figure out the exact number of variations you would need. 'Cause also when somebody said reloading in a game back then, they said it one way, and I had 20 variants per character, and depending on which character they were, they said it differently. Some people were more scared of bullets, while others were less, and that wasn't like a programming thing so much as just trying to be clever with the systems we designed, you know? Like make characters feel individual.
- [Danny] So, the writing, it wasn't just a case of writing a script or a documented setting often team. Like you're part of a collaborative process of just trying to figure out narrative as a whole.
- [Mikey] Yeah, and part of being a game writer is finding value in the bad thing. And by that I mean the thing you wouldn't want 'cause you're not, the writer is not the person that just decides everything. You have to write a game based on what you have, and I remember the voiceover stuff with Matt Baker and the Brothers in Arms games, with the red line on the screen where he's just talking like this. That was created because we had a load, there was still loading to be done. So, I could have a moment to just bloviate about the existential crisis of war. I remember, and I'm gonna paraphrase the lesson I learned, not necessarily the words said. But Randy Pitchford, when we're going through Hell's Highway and I remember, 'cause that game was really important to me, but I was like I'm gonna make everyone feel terrible. And you're gonna be like, war is bad, and everybody already knows that, man. But I was gonna go for the jugular and just, 'cause heart socket's paralyzed and all this horrendous stuff and I remember after that game did okay, Randy said to me something to the effect of it's hard to sell people loss.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] When you're making a product, your first instinct shouldn't be, I'm gonna make everyone cry all the time and you gotta feel terrible, and I'm gonna, you know? And it was just really interesting 'cause I never thought about it in those terms. And I don't think that's an absolute statement, but it's a good statement. You can't just sell people bad all the time 'cause they'll stop buying it.
- [Danny] So, Hell's Highway didn't do particularly gangbuster you're saying because that's my favorite Brothers in Arms game.
- No, it did really good. It just didn't, I think, it didn't position itself as what Call of Duty was positioning itself as by that point.
- Right, yeah. That was a game that was part of the sort of before Gearbox got the IP back, right? 'Cause Ubisoft were publishing all of those games. Is that right?
- [Mikey] Yeah, Ubisoft published all the Bros in Arms games, yeah.
- [Danny] Right, do you have any insight into, we had a question actually from one of our Patrons. Let me see if I can get it here. This one from Raymond Harris, he said, "What ever happened to that new Band of Brothers games, the..." Sorry, I'm gonna have to repeat this question 'cause I'm sure he meant Brothers in Arms.
- [Mikey] Oh, yeah, I've seen that mistake made a record, a hundred million times.
- Really? That's so funny.
- [Mikey] It's the most common mistake. It's interchangeable though 'cause people will call Band of Brothers Bros in Arms. The thing is, they're actually kinda close together and hard to keep track of.
- [Danny] Yeah, I can see that.
- [Mikey] Which I think ended up helping both of them. So, it's fine.
- [Danny] Yeah, there's probably not many people who were buying box sets of Band of Brothers and trying to stick them in their Xbox 360s and wondering why a movie is playing. But Raymond asks, "What happened to that new "Brothers in Arms game that disappeared into the darkness?" I'm assuming he is referring to Furious Four.
- Furious Four.
- Which was--
- I cannot in any way comment on anything.
- Oh really?
- I'm sorry.
- Okay, fair enough. We found--
- I'm not even sure I know all the story, but absolutely not. I was the Creative Director of that game.
- [Danny] Oh you are? Oh my goodness. Okay, I can tell why you probably can't talk about it then. Let me ask you a different question then. What is your most proud moment of working at Gearbox? 'Cause we haven't even talked about all the work you did on Borderlands, which was a lot of writing.
- [Mikey] Well, we're gonna segway in very naturally here. When Borderlands one came out, I still had this dream in my head that mattering. Like Brothers in Arms was still the thing that mattered, and Borderlands was like, ha ha, goofy fun. And I was making that distinction in my head like, Brothers in Arms matters, Borderlands is just fun. Which is a bad distinction to make, and I don't think fair. For whatever reason, whatever arbitrary guideline led me to this, I always had this dream that I would of made it when someone tattooed a line I wrote onto their body. And in my head, that... And I can only imagine that other writers have done this as well, but in my head, that only applied to Brothers in Arms. I was like, your writing such beautiful soliloquies. Thinking that mattered, and I remember the first line anyone ever tattooed on their body. Do you remember Zombie Island of Dr. Ned? First DLC for Borderlands one, and it's right at the beginning, Claptrap wheels up one of the other Claptraps, and he looks you right in the face, and he goes, "I pooped where you're standing." And that was the first thing anyone ever tattooed on their body that I wrote. They came up to me at a con and they're like, "Check this dope shit out!" And I was like, yo!
- [Danny] Where was it tattooed, crucially?
- [Mikey] Right on their arm, right on the bicep, just a massive Claptrap with a speech bubble that said, "I pooped where you're standing." And at that moment, at that exact moment, I went, all that matters is that you entertain them and give them joy. That became my whole thing after that one moment.
- [Danny] How big was the writing team on something like Borderlands?
- [Mikey] Borderlands one, it sorta passed through a few hands. Ultimately, I wrote the words that are said. I actually sort of think of it like Speed. The process of Borderlands one was sort of like the script passed through a few hands, and then I just rewrote all of it. Exactly the number of lines and the way they would go, and the reason I use the Speed example is if you look back at the movie Speed, the movie was written and ready to go for Jan de Bont to direct, but the script was kinda weak in terms of character.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] So Joss Whedon, back when he was a script doctor for Hollywood, he was hired to rewrite every single line in Speed by the person who says it at the time they say it at the length they say it. But rewrite all the lines.
- [Danny] Wow.
- [Mikey] But keep everything exactly where it is.
- [Danny] So, the production can change, nothing else can change, but we're just go in and ninja this part of the production, change it. Go in, change it, go out, and nobody's none the wiser.
- [Mikey] Yeah, so I got a big plot 'cause all the plot stuff was pretty much in place. So, it's a little loose in Borderlands one, but that's on purpose. When I got it, it was just make it funny. And that wasn't even a decision I think everyone agreed on at the outset.
- [Danny] Was this because of the sort of the big change that happened? 'Cause obviously the Borderlands, the graphics, the art side of that game was obviously changed in sort of, maybe not the 11th hour, but pretty late in the process, right?
- [Mikey] Yeah, it's funny 'cause if you type healing bullets on YouTube, you'll still get this video and like I, so long ago. I'm such a baby in that video, but I did an interview at PAX about healing bullets. And the thing that basically made me realize that game should be funny and try to get you interested in the world and the characters was we were play testing it, and the game was pretty much what it was. It just wasn't over-the-top with title cards and it's goofy. Roland has a box in his skill tree for if you shoot your teammates, it will heal them. But the gun you have determines how much you can heal. So, if you have the bombest shotgun in the whole world, you can be a combat medic in the middle. But if you just wanted to be a long-range sniper, you could literally snipe health into people. And I was like, and I had nothing to do with this decision at all, and I was like, wow, you don't care about realism 'cause why would you. That decision is show genius, I can't even. And that was the moment on Borderlands where I was like, oh, this is funny. This is a game that does not care about the existing restrictions of realism, and just make it make sense to that world, you know?
- [Danny] It's interesting to hear you talk about the process because I think, maybe this is just my assumption, and we have a pretty good divide I feel of people who work in development and people who are, you know, just people who play games like myself who watch ourself and listen to ourself. So, maybe I'm speaking for other people as well, but I feel like whenever I'm thinking about writing in games, I think about writing in film where it's like if something gets done really early in the process, and then it's locked down and it's content-locked, but it sounds like that's not the case at all.
- [Mikey] I don't think that's the case in Hollywood either because I think there's a desire to make it appear like that's the case, but you see screenwriters on movie sets a lot rewriting a scene while they're shooting the scene. That's insanely common. So, I think writing is just more complex than people think it is in general.
- [Danny] Do you miss it? Has it been two years since you?
- [Mikey] Yeah, it's coming up on two years. 'Cause I think... It's hard to remember 'cause I was out of the hospital for multiple months, and then I finally one Sunday just kinda resigned 'cause it was time.
- [Danny] For people who don't know, were you diagnosed with MS around that time? Or had you been suffering with it for a longer time and it was getting worser.
- [Mikey] No, it was just an incident. That's a whole other... That'll be a podcast all its own.
- [Danny] Right, yeah, and you should go check out. Is all that stuff on the FilmJoy YouTube channel or is that a different YouTube channel? All your retiree stuff?
- [Mikey] There's a short film called Get Off the Floor on FilmJoy that fills you in on all the stuff that happened last year, which wasn't technically MS that caused the original thing, but then it is exact... When you have my body, all of that stuff just mixes all the time, and then you find what fixes it, not necessarily the key to solving all of it. But just enough to get better for a second, and you just accept that and move on.
- [Danny] Right. I mean, obviously, you're working for yourself now. You're working on your own project. I can empathize with you a lot on the struggles of kind of that thing 'cause we kind of got very similar styles of projects, I feel like mostly. But what are the things you miss most about game development? Is it working with other people?
- [Mikey] Yeah, absolutely. I don't need to listen to the other options, yes.
- [Danny] And what else? Is it just a social thing or is it like collaborating or?
- [Mikey] I think I am most effective in a collaborative space. And I've sort of designed this new life and new persona that doesn't do that. I think, we have a show called Deep Dive where me and my friends watch bad movies. I know, so creative, right? But Deep Dive, the rule is, and the rule to like be on the show 'cause I made us all agree to this upfront. And they're all better at it than me now, but the rule is you have to find something to love. We're not here to make fun of it and destroy it. 'Cause people spent effort on it whether you care or not.
- [Danny] Actually, I wanna talk to you a little bit about that 'cause recently I got into a bit of a... I don't know if I call it a beef on Twitter, but I said something on Twitter and I really pissed off a bunch of game star lists.
- [Mikey] Oh, I did that this morning.
- [Danny] Oh, did you?
- [Mikey] I did it yesterday too with Speedrunners.
- [Danny] Oh really? I was making a point that I was really irked that so much of, not just YouTube, but also so much of the sort of op-ed space of games coverage was... Critiquing games is fine, but just saying games are bad because you don't like them. Saying you don't like something and saying that it's objectively bad because of x reason when I imagine just from, I feel like I empathize with developers more now that I hate watching videos or reading articles where people say, oh the developers should have done x 'cause it's like they fucking know, and they made that decision because of something. It was a decision, not an error. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. So, I wanted to ask you, as somebody who sort of has been in the development world and now is essentially sort of like in the criticism world, is that something that used to irk you when you'd read things or listened to podcasts from journalists and they're talking about games, and you kind of shrug your head and say they don't know what they're talking about? How did you feel?
- [Mikey] I think, well one, yes, absolutely that irked me. Yeah, like I'm responding to it. I think it informs my entire being because I spend all of my effort to be like, wow they really tried in these ways, and it's worth respecting these people here for this. Just point out the good stuff because bad stuff, quote unquote, I don't know. What ever thing is making people mad about games right now, they'll also tend to be like, and here's why 'cause one person just hates gamers. And it's like, probably it was some cross section of money, personnel, and time.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] You know? You have those three things, you have limited quantities of all of them, you must decide the best way to... Generally, it's actually just business that causes stuff to be quote unquote bad. It's never someone was like, yeah, let's get 'em. Let's show 'em!
- [Danny] Does that extend at all to the way in which Gearbox itself was reported on? 'Cause I feel like there's been quite a lot of anti-Randy sentiment in the media over the years. And obviously someone you worked with closely.
- [Mikey] That is the most unfair question. 'Cause I can't really answer it, but I can say I think everyone has a not great reading on Randy, and that's on purpose. He's one of the most personal, personable, kind, caring people who is very serious about running a business and rewarding his employees and doing that. And it matters so much to him that he's just willing to take the bullets for the... And I think that's very respectable. It's huge, that's what a boss is supposed to do. I think Randy's a great boss. I said it!
- [Danny] Quoted. So, I guess you say, is that why? I mean, the name of the channel is FilmJoy, right?. Was that a big part of sort of passion behind it was to try and not glad-hand, but just to speak to a different facet of film and not just sort of go for the easy thumbnail or the easy title?
- [Mikey] It's also sort of about even though I'm not necessarily part of the business, I understand the entertainment business and I have a lot of friends in that business. It's explaining that things you don't like are often more complicated than you think they are, but it's okay to love stuff and to celebrate it. So, I try to use that methodology where even if I needed to talk about something that people perceive as negative in my opinion, you then kinda show them why we're the value of the thing in a way they haven't thought about it. A lot of times, it just comes down to perspective, honestly. You can give someone a perspective on a movie, and it will change the movie entirely.
- [Danny] But now we live in a world where Lindsay Ellis is making amazing videos, and loads of people are watching them.
- [Mikey] You have this sort of cabal 'cause we all know each other, and we're all friends, and we're all supportive of each other. But we're also trying to make people happier and looking at art as art because if there's one goal, I think for me, it's that let's appreciate the struggles of art. Let's appreciate the failures of art for what they are, or what they went for. Let's not just look at movies as this throwaway thing. That you just go to a theater, you turn your brain off. My least favorite piece of advice people give, just turn your brain off! All die!
- [Danny] Do you think we have someone like that in the world of games? 'Cause it kind of requires somebody to be like, have experience in the field, or be a scholar of that field. And I think we've really good critics and some good analysis. People like Mark Brown or Super Bunnyhop. And loads--
- Mark Brown's great.
- [Danny] You think he's the closest, probably, we have to somebody who does that work?
- [Mikey] Intellectual, I would say, like Mark Brown is more in that Lindsay Ellis direction, which is highly valuable and highly great. I would put up, and this isn't intellectual criticism, it's emotional, which kinda is more in-line with me, I would say that the video game creator on YouTube that speaks to sort of my direction is NakeyJakey.
- Oh yes.
- You ever heard of him?
- Yes, he did a, he has a really good Red Dead Redemption video I've watched recently.
- [Mikey] But it's like mature and it makes good points, but it's also from a place of, I love everything and I wanna keep loving it. Here's some thoughts, here's some, I don't know. I really love his content.
- [Danny] Alright, let's jump into some Patron questions. These are questions from the folks who support us on NoClip, patreon.com/noclip. Also, if you subscribe with the five dollar tier, you get this podcast early. Would you imagine? And you also get to ask a bunch of questions. This first one comes from Tony Voots Zaninga, which may or may not be that individual's legal name. "What is your favorite movie licensed game?" Anyone's pop out in particular? I'm a big fan of a Die Hard trilogy on the PlayStation one.
- [Mikey] That's funny. Does the West... wait, what was the company name? The people that made Command and Conquer.
- Was that Westwood?
- Yeah, yeah.
- [Mikey] Do you remember that Bladerunner game?
- [Danny] Oh, yes, I do.
- That point and click.
- I thought you were gonna say Dune, but yes, that Bladerunner game, absolutely.
- [Mikey] Also, Dune is good too. But the Bladerunner one is kinda the movie, kinda not. It's tough to say.
- [Danny] What is it about it you like?
- [Mikey] I am a sucker for point and clicks, so.
- [Danny] Did you like the old... I've recently been re-watching the Indiana Jones movies 'cause my wife had never seen them, and we were talking about Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, which I played on the Amigos old Lucas Arts one. Did you ever play that one?
- [Mikey] Yeah, you actually just reminded me of another Randy quote. It was, "Fate of Atlantis is the third best "Indiana Jones movie." And I was going like, yeah.
- Yeah, I could see that.
- Yeah, 'cause like it could be fourth, but it caused a conversation where we're like, is Fate of Atlantis a better Indiana Jones movie than Temple of Doom. And I was like, if you can create that conversation in one question, awesome.
- [Danny] That's interesting 'cause Temple of Doom is my favorite one. That wouldn't be my number three.
- [Mikey] Yeah, but it could be number four as long as Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls is not your number one.
- I respect the opinion, and I give you the floor if it is.
- [Danny] The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull deserves to be in the top three best indie movies?
- [Mikey] No, if it was, I respect your right to have that opinion.
- [Mikey] I'm not gonna be like, no. I'll make the joke 'cause Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is eh. But it also actually does have some really good scenes in it, and I don't know. It's worth a re-watch for the first 40 minutes. That scene with Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf where they're passing the beer off the train back and forth, you know what I'm talking about?
- Yeah, that's, yeah, that's pretty good.
- That's classic Spielberg. The rest of the movie isn't, but that--
- [Danny] That is, it's like a... I think it's a oner, is it? You know, one of his shorties that's sort of like, it plays with props and has your eye moving around the frame, where is then you go to the fridge nuclear explosion andit's a hard swing.
- [Mikey] But even that 'cause that scene destroys Indiana Jones, but it also welcomes it into the nuclear age in a single shot 'cause the one of him against the mushroom cloud, even though everything leading up to that is like, what? That shot is so iconic of a world where Indiana Jones entered the nuclear age. That was a perfect shot.
- [Danny] It's coming up. I keep telling my wife 'cause the Blu-ray pack I got came with all four of them, so it's on the list. So, I guess I'll know soon enough.
- [Mikey] Oh, hey, what you do today, Mikey? Oh, I went on Danny O-Dwyer's podcast and defended Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to prove that I know movies. Oh, my show's canceled? Ah. Okay.
- Kristoff Shepherd wants to know what games you played last year that you think were sort of like under-deserved or underappreciated. Was there anything that popped out to you?
- [Mikey] Last year?
- No, actually, I can't answer that 'cause my body didn't work for most of the year, so I skipped out on a lot of games.
- [Danny] Did you really?
- [Mikey] I couldn't play. I would do the Rocket League test every day to see if my fingers worked.
- [Mikey] When I got out of the hospital, it was five months before I could control a game like Rocket League sort of where I was. 'Cause I played hardcore.
- [Danny] God, I'm so sorry. It's that fine motor skill that--
- [Mikey] Yeah, my professional gaming career has ended.
- [Danny] You don't have the... What is it? I thought that happened to all Cannon Strike players when they reach 30 anyway, right? You lose your fine fibers in your hands, and suddenly you can't be a Starcraft pro no more.
- [Mikey] Well, I'm also, at this point, 40 to 60 percent blind, so. Those dreams have sailed, they have gone. I'm not gonna be the number one League player.
- [Danny] Does that inform what you're deciding to play now then? 'Cause I know it's not like you're feeling completely perfect now or anything. It sways on a moment to moment, day to day basis, right?
- [Mikey] There is... So, specifically, one thing I cannot do at all is play VR games.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] 'Cause my balance is so bad that if I stand up and put that on, I would immediately fall over.
- [Danny] Really?
- [Mikey] Yeah, you ever do that thing where you're trying to stand on one leg and close your eyes? You just can't do it? That's me most of the time with my eyes open. But if I cover them up, I'll just fall over. And I can't really see in 3D anyway, so it doesn't matter.
- [Danny] So it's not like even Astrobot sitting down or anything would be doable?
- [Mikey] 'Cause it's also just like how bananas the game is. I mean, we were talking about what games I was playing, and like Slay the Spire and Half-Life are pretty chill. I could do Mario Party, I'm good at that. Still got the Mario Party gene 'cause some of those games are just smash a button.
- [Danny] Do you like the new one? Have you played the new one?
- [Mikey] I think the new one is the best Mario Party they've ever made.
- So do I! I don't know why people don't like it. It's me, you, and Dan Ryker are the ones that actually enjoy the new Mario Party.
- Hell yeah.
- [Danny] I think it's great. I think the dice stuff is wonderful, and they, not to use the term RNG again, but they pulled back a little bit on the random bullshit at the end of each game where like it doesn't matter how well you did.
- [Mikey] The thing about Mario Party is it doesn't matter who wins or loses. You're playing to have fun with your friends. Don't forget that part. Don't forget that step. It doesn't matter, nobody gets anything for winning. It's fine, the game will lie to you and bullshit you out of a star. It's okay. You're playing 'cause it's fun.
- [Danny] But Mikey, we're so used to video games letting us win all the time. If we wanted to lose at games, we'd play board games or card games.
- [Mikey] If you don't like RNG, play checkers.
- [Danny] I got a question from Raymond Harris here, let's make this the last one. He says, "What is the culture like working at Gearbox?" Yes, you were there for a long long time. From my very brief time in the office, it seems like there were a lot of people who worked there for a long, 10 years. Is that the case? Has it grown a lot in the time you were working there?
- [Mikey] I was like employee 32, somewhere around there. When I left, it was like, god, between 300 and 400. I don't even, it's over 400 now.
- [Danny] And would that have just been in Dallas?
- [Mikey] Yeah, that's just in Dallas.
- [Danny] Just in Dallas? 'Cause they also have that studio open in, well everyone has a studio in Quebec now--
- I never went to that studio, so I don't know anything about it, but yes. So, it's massive, and I was part of building that thing. Like helping build that with all the amazing people there, but the culture was supportive and nice and you made good money, and people stuck around. That's still true. So, it's great there.
- [Danny] Was there much of people bouncing between there and maybe age work in Richardson down the road? There's a couple of other studios around the sort of greater Dallas area?
- [Mikey] There were, like 3D Realms was out there.
- [Danny] Of course, yeah.
- [Mikey] God, it's been so... Like now, I feel like... 'Cause the Words with Friends guys are or were here. I haven't thought about it in awhile, but.
- [Danny] And that was the biggest game in the world for a hot minute there.
- [Mikey] Yeah, and then they got bought by somebody. I don't even remember. It's so complicated, but I remember they were out there, but other than that, it's id and Gearbox pretty much. id, actually, when they built their new building, it was right down the street from Gearbox. So, the employees that knew each other, we'd eat lunch all the time together and catch up, especially after Doom came out, you know? The reboot.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] And we're like, this is the greatest shooter ever! It's just fans. The reality is a lot of game makers are just fans of each other. It's okay that they're friends.
- [Danny] It's also cool that there's so much history between those two studios, and the RPG 3D Realms. And so much of that studio also being at Gearbox.
- [Mikey] I remember one of our first interactions that I remember. I'm sure there were ones before it. When we did Tony Hawk Pro Skater Three for PC, we added the Doom guy from Quake Three, I think.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Mikey] On PC, if you type the cheat code, it's either iddqd or idkfa, but if you do that in Tony Hawk, it gives you the Doom guy. Well, we did that with id. They gave us the actual re-Doom guy model. I think, again, not sure, it's been awhile, but.
- [Danny] That's awesome, especially from somebody who runs a company called NoClip. I remember walking into the studio the first time and then being like, oh yeah, we really like the name. And I was like, that's good to know 'cause I was worried Bethesda were going to sue me.
- [Mikey] I never actually thought about it in context now. You typed, idkfa was weapons. Iddqd, I think, was keys. Yeah, specifically noclip was noclip, right?
- [Danny] Yeah, yeah, noclip was turn off collision. Clipping, clipping, clipping, clipping.
- [Mikey] One of those sounds like a cheat code, and one of those sounds like a programmer, you know what I mean? Half of those probably were cheat codes, and half were actually just test things. Which is really interesting.
- [Danny] It's different to like Impulse Nine or Impulse 101 we used to do for--
- Right, oh god! Impulse 101! You take me back, Danny. Wow.
- [Danny] Mikey Neumann, thanks so much for coming on. Before we let you go, can you tell us what you're working on? What's going on over on... It's patreon.com/, oh sorry, it's patreon.com/movieswithmikey. It's youtube.com/filmjoy, that's right.
- [Mikey] Yeah, youtube.com/film joy and go check out our stuff. I have a big cork board across the room. I just did my schedule for 2019 and Movies with Mikey episodes. There's some real good stuff on there. Actually, I should hit my 100th episode this year.
- [Danny] Congratulations, and congratulations on over 200,000 subs on the channel and on finishing your monster, three-part Harry Potter Series which myself and my wife have been enjoying. We still haven't watched the last section of it. Does it feel good to get those out? Just to have them done when they've been in your brain that long?
- [Mikey] It felt amazing up until the Pottermore Twitter account tweeted that stuff about students shitting in the hallway and just erasing it with magic, and I was like... Ah, cool, cool. I tried to talk about how this is a serious exploration of death, and it all just disappeared in shit. Like that destroyed anyone talking about my thing. Now, it's a business, and that's the thing the third episode's about is like how Harry Potter is actually an exploration of multiple sclerosis. Which I didn't even know when I started it, and that messed me up when I went into the last episode and I was reading all these old interviews with J.K. Rowling about... So, when J.K. Rowling was 15, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and just under the 10-year mark after that diagnosis before J.K. Rowling is 25, it kills her. Her mother passed, not directly, but it was MS, and you don't see that a lot. Harry Potter is about dealing with the death of your parents and not accepting simple answers. That destroyed me to know that the disease I have leaves these holes in people, these Horcruxes, if you will. That was so monumentally world-shifting to me that I was like I can't talk about any of this other stuff, even though it's interesting.
- [Danny] Mikey, this is why I love talking to you because whenever I'm enjoying a movie or in our chats up in Dallas, playing a game, I feel like your analysis always gives me further sort of layers to either enjoy or understand something, or understand myself, or how I should react to it, or even wide our culture a little bit more. And I think that's really important. Thank you so much for your work, man, and thanks so much for coming on today. I'd love to have you back any time, any time we shoot the show.
- Any time you want me, man.
- [Danny] Appreciate it, dude, and thank you so much for listening to this, the fourth, slash first episode of NoClip podcast. We'll be back next week with Stephen Spohn, the CEO of AbleGamers. Good friend of mine. Talk about all the games he's playing and the work that he does. If you have any suggestions for guests or questions or anything, go over to the subreddit that's r/noclip. Hit me up on Twitter at Danny O'Dwyer. The podcast is available on everywhere podcasts are sold, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, FlamBlam, all the Google Play. I made one of those up. We also have a new YouTube channel as well, which doesn't have a tiny or a small, sexy, URL yet, so you're just gonna have to take my word for it and type in NoClip podcast into Google or into YouTube and it should pop up. Yeah, five bucks a month to get you the show early, but of course, these are all free anyway for everyone. Thank you so much for supporting our work. Thanks to all our Patrons for keeping this stuff ad-free, and patreon.com/noclip if you're interested in that. And youtube.com/noclipvideo if you wanna watch our documentaries. Mikey, thanks again. Thanks to you for listening, and we'll see you, would you believe it, next week.
|Jan 14, 2019|
#03 - The Dunes of Arabistan
In this Noclip Podcast Story we talk to indie developer Rami Ismail about the representation of Arabs and Islamic culture in video games and discuss the steps developers can take to buck the stereotypes. Follow Rami on Twitter.
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to noclip, the podcast about video games and the people who make them. On today's episode we talk about how a quarter of the earth's population became video games' bad guys. Representation is an important part of any media landscape. As a kid growing up in Ireland, I can attest to the power of seeing your culture represented in a piece of global media. I remember the joy of hearing Atlas' Irish accent in BioShock, or that of Shay Patrick Cormac in Assassin's Creed Rogue. The flip side of this, of course, are the stereotypes, the drunken Irish louts and the mercenary terrorists that represented Irish people in films, games and literature throughout my childhood. Thankfully these days those associations are considered lazy writing, but sadly not every group of people are afforded such creative understanding. A few months ago I came across an interesting Twitter thread involving indie developer Rami Ismail. In it he describes how contemporary games still seem to struggle with the basics of writing Arabic, resulting in, at best, a horrific break of immersion as words are written backwards or with letters unconnected, and at worst an insulting disregard for a language spoken by over 400 million people. Rami understands this from both a cultural and developer perspective. As co-founder of Vlambeer, he has worked on numerous successful indie titles including Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, and Luftrausers. How is it that films and games still manage to get so much wrong when it comes to depicting Arabs, muslims, or Islamic culture? There's a lot to talk about here. How media reflects our stereotypes, how fiction reflects the world as we see it and not really how it is, and even how code itself can contain racial biases. To get to the bottom of it all, I called Rami up on Skype to talk about how Islam and Arabs are portrayed in games, and the steps that developers can make to make games more accurate and to buck troubling stereotypes.
- [Rami] Yeah, so I'm Rami Ismail, I'm a Dutch Egyptian game developer. I spend a lot of my time traveling around the world working with game developers everywhere to advance the games industry in their respective countries, and in doing that I've gotten to learn a lot about the cultural impact of games and the way games reflect on culture and represent culture. And that's always sort of been an interesting story on my life, I grew up as a child of a Dutch mother and an Egyptian father, which are two quite divergent cultures to grow up between. So I've always felt a little bit of a third culture kid. And I started traveling around the world, started meeting other developers and started to learn about this games industry. And it was really only then that I really realized just how much media shapes your view of the world. Because despite being Egyptian, I've kind of internalized that Arabs are the bad guys in a lot of media. And that that is fine, for some reason. And then when I started traveling and I started to look around the world and realizing that, it actually isn't fine that I started seeing just how ubiquitous this is, this idea of like, you know, that our people are the good people and the other people are the bad people. And as soon as I started looking at it through that lens, I obviously was a little shocked because I went back to games that I loved in my childhood and just started looking at the representation of Arabs, games as old as like the arcade title Metal Slug, which is what, 20, 25 years old by now? And just realizing that we've kind of been the bad guys in media all along. And obviously it shifted, there's been a period of times where there's Nazis, periods of time where it's the Russians or the Soviets, other periods of time where it's the South Americans, but it's never, it's never the Western world. And then you start looking around and you start thinking, like, okay, well what do I know about my Egyptian family, what do I know about my Egyptian friends, like how do they feel about it? And it just kinda internalizes, you just kinda get used to this idea of, well, I guess we're the bad guys. It's weird knowing that kids in the Middle East and kids around the world are growing up with this idea of oh, yeah, we're the bad guy, like, we're supposed to shoot us, right, like shoot people that look like my parents.
- [Danny] That's interesting to me, because obviously you grew up in a sort of, in the Netherlands, I'm assuming, especially because it's English speaking, stuff is so prevalent, there's probably a lot more sort of American and British media shown there than perhaps in a lot of other European countries. But you're even saying like relatives of yours that grew up in the Middle East, it's the same thing?
- Yeah, no, when you think about it, Hollywood and the games industry, they are Western media. And in many ways they represent a Western view of what is right and wrong, what is morally acceptable, what is morally unacceptable, who is good and who is evil. And a lot of that media still makes it across, like the movies that people watch in the Arab world, they're not different movies. Yes there's obviously Arab cinema, but that doesn't exclude Western cinema from being played there, like they watch the same Avengers movies. And yes, sometimes there's modification, sometimes certain ideas about what is acceptable in a cinema, make changes to a movie. When I was a kid I would watch movies in Arab cinema and miss plot points because those plot points happened during, what's the polite way of saying it, like a romantic scene in a movie that contained too much nudity for Arab audiences in those days. Like the movies were edited for content, but in essence, they were the same movies, and nobody really cut out Arabs being blown up in a movie. That was acceptable. The same double standard we have in the West, violence is okay and sexuality is very much not. That same standard exists in the Arab world. So they're not that dissimilar, and they're consuming a lot of the same media, which means that they're also accepting a lot of the same messaging, and that's, you know, a little concerning.
- [Danny] The sort of pastiche of the Arab terrorist which persisted in the 90s, is it fair to say that that sort of, turned a little bit more evil, or had a more, I don't know, like, spiteful edge to it in a post 9/11 sort of media landscape?
- [Rami] Yeah, absolutely, and I think it's also just a more common trope now. I mean, every era has, every part of the Western era has its prevalent enemy culture, right, and for a while after 9/11 that was considered the extremist muslims. Which, you know, muslims are all over the world, they're one of the largest demographics on the planet. They live as far as Indonesia all the way down to central Africa. There's muslim countries everywhere, but really instead of doing muslim extremists, a lot of people just default it to Arab. And they're not very good at that, either. Like, if you look in movies, if you look in games, if you look in media at large, what is Arab is often conflated and mixed up. A lot of times Persian cultures that don't speak Arabic get represented, they use elements from those cultures to represent Arabs even though they are not necessarily Arabs. Not all muslims are Arabs, not all Arabs are muslim. But for ease of stereotyping they get represented that way, similar to how, and I've started, me and friends have started to call this Arabistan, this sort of like fictional Arab country in which everybody lives in a little desert village that is dusty, with small stone houses, and everybody, all the women are very thickly veiled, and all the guys are in the back of Jeeps with AK 47s with like beards and turbans, like that country does not exist. There is no place like that, and like, you will see a television series that will say like, Beirut, and show that, while Beirut in reality is like this huge metropolitan city that if you would take a photo of an average street you wouldn't be able to tell it apart from London, or any other major city. But that's not what people are selling. What they're selling, what these series are selling, is confirmation of a stereotype. People think that that's what the Arab world looks like, so if you do a scene in Beirut and it looks like a city, people won't believe it. So in a way, it's keeping itself, it's self-perpetuating.
- [Danny] This speaks to something that happens probably to every foreign culture when they're viewed in the media, but there's something about this specific sort of laziness, I feel like, when it comes to the Middle East in particular, considering probably especially that it is such a melting pot of different types of culture and ethnicity and everything else, and that that happened. Like I remember, I could imagine getting frustrated about people now knowing where Ireland is, right, like American's don't know where Ireland is, but that's not really that big a deal. Or the Aurora Borealis was in Street Fighter 3 when they were in England, and I remember thinking, what the fuck's that about, that's ridiculous. But why is there such, like, painting with a broad brush is sort of something that happens a lot, but it does seem like the brush is much broader when it comes to the Middle East. Why do you think that is, do you think it's because people know that the audience is kind of not clued in, or that they think that a Western audience doesn't really care, and they don't really care about the audience that might actually be from that place?
- [Rami] Yeah, I think it's mostly the second thing. There's no, for a lot of Western media, there's no particular appeal in appealing to Arab audiences. Even though the Middle East is one of the fastest developing regions in the world, and it's not a poor region, it's a relatively rich region as well. Only recently have people started to look at the region as like an actual place of people. And it's sad that this has to be an economical function rather than like a moral function that people would just get it right, because if you make a movie that includes a certain culture you should represent it well. But being Dutch, like, I know the Netherlands gets represented as speaking German in movies very frequently, like, that's just a thing, right? Scenes that are supposed to be in Amsterdam are shot in like, Berlin. And in the Netherlands that's common, but the thing is, that's not, it's not a misrepresentation of who the people are as a people, it's just the wrong place. They're still represented as positive, friendly, kind of European, you know, kind of quaint people. Which, fair enough for the Netherlands, I can see how that works, but for Arabs, who are often stereotyped as aggressives, as angry, as evil, as plotting and scheming. As a game developer, I love the medium of video games. But if I have to name you like five Arab protagonist characters, or not even active protagonist, not a player character, not like a main protagonist, but even a fellow protagonist or a secondary character, I could maybe name you two? Just off the top of my head. And I've researched this, obviously, right, there's just not a lot of characters like that. I remember playing Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, and there was a scene in that where you're in Cairo, like future Cairo, and there's a rebellion that is fighting alongside you, and I was just, I was so excited that these Egyptians, these fellow countrymen of mine, were fighting on the good side. I was elated, I was so happy that this was a scene in the game and then obviously they betray you later on, because no Arab can be trustworthy in a video game, apparently. And it just broke my heart. It's one of those moments where you're like, even that moment of like, oh, these people are fine, they're also fighting for good. It just wasn't a thing, like that, they had to betray you for that character to make sense to the writers or to the developers or the creators. And it's incredibly sad when you think of that in that that is the message that's being perpetuated, while at the same time a lot of movies, TV series, games, don't even take the time to get the language right. Or to take the environment right. To place cities in the right countries, or to even make them somewhat believable. There's just an incredible laziness to which Arabs are used as antagonists that is somewhat similar to how a lot of old movies used Nazis as antagonists. And honestly, when it comes to Nazis, you know, fair enough. The Nazi Reich did horrible things, and their ideology as a group, which was not a huge group, but as a group, was evil. And I think we all agree about that, and there's no real discussion about it. But you can't really say that about Arabs. The difference between a Lebanese person who is, the Lebanese tend to be very Western, very progressive, very Western-focused, and very modern in that regard. And somebody in Saudi Arabia which is more strict, more Islamic, more muslim-focused, they're both Arabs. But there's no consistent evil Arabs there, like, they're not Nazis.
- [Danny] So do you think that media sort of, as the years progressed and Nazis became less and less relevant that there was a sort of a Nazi-shaped hole left in, I guess, tropes, and then essentially Middle Eastern people just kinda filled it?
- [Rami] Well yeah, that and the soviets, right? Like it was the Russians or the Arabs, and then eventually the Russians weren't that scary anymore because they haven't really caused war for a long time. So for a while they tried the Chinese, but China controls a lot of media nowadays as well, so that doesn't really fly either. So the Arabs are left, the Arabs don't have a lot of influence on the world stage, there have been incidents and wars in the region, often not caused by the people there, but wars that happened to them, but regardless, war. There is absolutely an extremist part of the Arab world or the muslim world. And yes, there has been terrorism in the region, absolutely, but when you think about it, most of the victims of that type of terrorism have been people that live there. They live under terrorist groups or in terrorist territory, and the people most affected are the local people there. And they're also Arab. Sometimes also muslim. So when you think about it, the media needs a bogey man. It needs an evil that we can all agree on is evil, and the thing is, for Arabs, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's the most visceral thing that can represent evil to a lot of people, and part of that is self-perpetuating. Part of that started with 9/11, but then as things went, as things changed, it never corrected to being a truthful representation of the world. And instead we're still watching TV series in which Beirut is a sandy village full with people with AK 47s.
- [Danny] When you think about the games that sort of stand out from this awful stereotype, the games that sort of maybe didn't get everything right, but did something right, what are some examples that you have? What comes to mind for me as somebody who, I've barely been to the Middle East, I've only ever been to various cities in the Emirates, which is its own culture as well. But to me, the only one that sort of struck any sort of a chord seems to be the first Assassin's Creed game, although that was largely in sort of Christian, Israeli areas. But what are the ones, is that a good example, or is that an example that through my Western eyes looks accurate, but actually through more accurate eyes is not?
- [Rami] Well I mean obviously Altair, who was the main character of Assassin's Creed, like I remember playing that game and just realizing that my Arab was useful here. Understanding Arab made a difference because Al Mualim, which is one of the main characters in the game, just means the wise one. Like Altair means the flying one, and Altair Ibn-La'Ahad which was the full name of the main character in that game means Altair the son of no one. I understand these things before the game would explain them and it was a phenomenal feeling, it was great. Just realizing that this part of my culture, even though it wasn't Egyptian, per se, but part of the Lavantian region, that this was taken seriously, was incredible. Also Assassin's Creed Origins, the most recent version of the game, is technically about Ancient Egypt, but like most Assassin's Creed games, there is a contemporary element to the games, and in this case it takes place in Egypt with an Egyptian main character. And she is a phenomenal character, westernized, but a modern, westernized but clearly of Arab heritage person. There's a moment where she curses in the game and she does it in Egyptian, and like in the right accent, with the right tone, with the right Egyptian, like, words, and it feels very, it felt very nice, it felt like a little wink to the people that are Egyptian or Arab that would recognize that. Deus Ex Human Revolution had a female Arab character in the game, and she wasn't the protagonist, but she was a trustworthy, reliable person. Call of Duty Infinite Warfare had a Lebanese soldier that she, as well, was a dependable, trustworthy person that plays a major role in the story. Overwatch has two Arab characters that are actually really good, Pharah and Ana, and both of them are fully realized Egyptian characters, as well. But the amount of times you actually take control of a fully Arab kind of contemporary person, I don't think I could name you any, at the moment.
- [Danny] Where do you think the impetus is to getting this stuff right? Is it a mixture of more Arab people being involved in development, or is it the fear that Rami Ismail will get on Twitter and start giving out to people, or is it the developing audience within that marketplace, or is it just that games generally are being held to a higher cultural standard than they were 15 years ago, what do you think?
- [Rami] I think it's a little bit of all of it. I don't think my Twitter is that big of a deal in the whole but, obviously people giving attention to an issue or pointing out that something is an issue makes people look at it and reconsider just how sloppily this is handled. And when I say sloppily, that's not an exaggeration. Again, in many games, Arabic is a beautiful script written from right to left, it's cursive, so all the letters are connected. The amount of games in which, or even movies, movies like Captain America Civil War, or games like Battlefield, these giant titles, often just get Arabic wrong. It's not written properly, it's the right words written backwards with no letters connected. Something that any Arab, if any Arab had looked at these scenes or these moments in these media expressions, they would've immediately said, well that's wrong, we should fix it. But that doesn't happen because the representation of these people, the attendance of these people in the creative process is just very low at the moment, we're not represented well because we're not. We don't have access to these creative processes very often, and that's changing. In the last few years there's been an increasing amount of Arabs that have joined the games industry or that have gotten in positions of more influence in the games industry. At the same time, the market in the Middle East is growing. Where a decade ago, two decades ago, a lot of games that you would buy in the region, because of the economical differences between the West and Egypt, would be pirated copies. You would go to a store, you would buy a pirated version of FIFA 2001, and it would come pre-installed with a crack that would allow you to play this pirated copy on the disk. But now that the economy is sort of shifting and the world is globalizing, a lot of Arab countries also just buy legal games. The digital revolution obviously helped a lot there. So people have way broader access to games now than ever before, and it also means that the market there has grown. And then finally, like you said, I think games are being held to higher cultural standards, too, I think as the medium is maturing and as games are becoming a broader and broader part of the global conversation, of the global awareness, of the global consciousness, not just the creators feel an increased responsibility to represent the world well or even their fictional worlds well, to not take shortcuts when they can avoid it and to not take harmful shortcuts under any circumstance. At the same time, the audiences are more critical of the media they consume, and they're not as happy to just be like yeah, of course, Arabs are the bad guys, clearly. Evil that is just evil is less and less accepted in our media, and if there is somebody evil we like to have a justification, like why is our protagonist fighting this person, what brought this person to be that. You see that in big blockbuster movies like Avengers Infinity War in which the antagonist is basically the main character in the movie. But you also see it in some of the stereotypes in other places where even if you are an Arab that doesn't make you evil, there's a separate thing, a separate like, inciting incident that puts the character on a certain trajectory. That makes me hopeful, because that's honestly a way more true version of the world. People aren't evil because they are of a certain race or heritage, or country, or ideology, they do bad things because they believe that is the best course of action for them or their family or their life, or their people. That holds true for honestly most things in the world. People are not evil because they're Arab. They might be evil despite being Arab. Most Arabs I know are, pretty much all Arabs I know, honestly, are tremendous, welcoming, warm, hospitable people that you meet them and they will invite you for dinner the same day.
- [Danny] This reminds me a little bit of when I was talking to CD Projekt about how so many of the games that were coming from, I guess across the Iron Curtain, at that stage and then later once they'd joined, or once the wall had fallen down, that there was a big sort of culture of localization happening there along with that pirate scene. Is there any sense of that at all in the Middle East that like, some of these big blockbuster games are getting some kind of localization treatment?
- Yeah, no, it makes a huge difference. Until recently, the three games that were ever translated in to Arab were FIFA Pro Evolution Soccer, and for some reason, WALL-E. I have no reason why WALL-E, but WALL-E had Arab localization. But more recently, a lot more games have had Arab localization, and it's frequently not Arab voice acting, that's still pretty rare, but a lot of games at least have Arab menus, they have menus that are displayed properly from the right to the left instead of the left to the right, like they invert their UI. The Division had that, I think Horizon Zero Dawn had Arabic. A lot of blockbusters are starting to take the market seriously which means that in return, the markets are taking these games as products made for them instead of things you just download from the internet illegally because it's not for you anyway. And that's honestly, it marks a huge shift. It's an important moment, I think, that a lot of these major platforms and a lot of these creators are realizing that there are people out there that are interested in their media. All they need is just to feel like they are respected even the tiniest bit, and they're, instead of being, instead of the bullet point on the game that refers to Arabs being, well now if you blow up the car, the Arab guy that's next to it will fly away with more spectacular rag dolls. Like, instead of that, saying hey, we see you as a people, we see you as a person, and we think you deserve the same level of respect and attention, the localization, the culturalization, that all of these other cultures have. And that, you know, it just means, even though nobody will consciously be able to put into words that difference, it is huge, it is night and day.
- [Danny] As somebody who understands games production, what are the ways in which this sort of gets solved? Is it just a case of having more Arab people on staff, is it a case of, I don't know. Is this something that just takes time or is there some more immediate way that like, 'cause we have a lot of developers that listen to our stuff as well. Is there any best cases or any stuff that can help fix this issue?
- [Rami] Obviously if you're gonna represent Arabic culture, you have to think very careful about what Arabic culture means. Because Egyptian culture is extraordinarily different from the culture in, say, Saudi Arabia, which is different from the culture in Lebanon which is different from the culture in Syria which is different from the, like, every one of these countries is its own culture, the same way you wouldn't get away with representing California as, say, Montana, or you wouldn't get away with representing London as Dublin. They are different cultures. Even though they have a lot in common, they sometimes speak the same language, they might have accents. Thinking of Arabs as one thing is already a problem, the same way thinking of Arabic as one language is incorrect. The easiest way to get that right is obviously if you're doing something in the Arabic world, have Arabs look at it, have Arabs confirm it, and don't just have them confirm it at the start, but have them confirm it at every stage through the process. The main reason for that is that computers are actually terrible at Arabic, they're devices made to deal with the English language. Which is written from left to right as individual characters while Arabic is written right to left as a cursive script, so the letters have to be connected. Computers were never built to do that. No computer was ever built to deal with a cursive script or a script that is connected. So the way Arabic works in computers is technically kind of a hack, and until 2017 even Word, Excel and PowerPoint didn't properly support Arabic, that is a relatively recent addition to the Office suite of programs is proper Arabic support. Which means that, until 2017, if you copy/pasted an Arabic sentence from Word to PowerPoint, it would break.
- [Danny] That seems incredible in 2017 for that to be an issue.
- [Rami] Yeah, this was like a big update, Arabic support in Office. But that is still true for a lot of software, that Arabic breaks, and one of the pieces of software is a commonly used creative tool, Photoshop. Which still does not support Arabic properly. So in a game production or a movie production, often what will happen is they will have English text, they will ask for it to be translated, the translation company will send back the translated file, and then the artists or the creatives that work with it copy paste from that file to their programs or software or whatever they're using, and then it breaks, but they don't notice, because they don't understand the language. So they don't notice that the text is broken or inverted, or that the letters are no longer connected, because as far as they're aware, copy paste always works. So having Arabs involved in every step of this process, and not just Arabs, preferably Arabs from the region you're representing, is a huge difference. Then the second thing is like, obviously the Arab region is full of mythology and history and culture, music, art, stuff like that, and it's very easy to base a fictional culture on that. If you do that, it might be worthwhile trying to think of anything more interesting than it is a place with sand in which everything is terrible. Overwatch did a really beautiful map of, I forgot which country it was, I think Iraq, and in that map it's displayed as this beautiful city full of like green and glass tall towers, and this positive view of the future. And you know, just that, just the representation as something else than a forgotten part of the world would mean a lot. So when people think of creating a space, a fictional or realistic space in the Arab world, make sure they involve Arabs. Try to think of anything but, this is where the terrorists live. And try to think of it as like a place that has aspirations, hopes, that is trying to, given a lot of the messed up history there, whether it's messed up from colonialism or messed up from invasions, or messed up from war or messed up from corruption or political problems, whatever the reason is, a lot of these territories have issues that they're desperately trying to fix, they have a youth that is so hopeful for the future, that wants things to be better, that is willing to, you know, go on the streets and protest, to cause revolutions, to try and make the world better. Back them up. Give them something to believe in, give them a future to believe in, and make them feel heard, make them feel valuable. If anything, isn't that what games and media should be about? Showing us a mirror of the world that sometimes shows us what is bad, but also sometimes shows us what is good. Like there's an entire people out there that the only mirror they've ever had shows them as terrorists, and that's incredibly sad to me.
- [Danny] Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the noclip podcast. If you don't already, you can follow Rami on Twitter @tha_rami, that's T-H-A underscore R-A-M-I. Thanks so much to him for taking the time to talk to us, I believe he took the call from a hallway of a games convention in, I wanna say it was Croatia. It was a few months ago now, so I can't quite remember. I'd also like to wish you a happy new year, and tell you that we're actually going to be changing the format of this podcast quite a bit in 2019. As you can probably tell from this episode, I'm stripping out some of the more time-intensive editing techniques that I used in previous episodes to basically try and get more of these out there. In fact, instead of this being a sort of edited, curated type of show, we're gonna do it more conversational. More like a lot of podcasts out there, but instead of it being a collection of people who talk every week, we're gonna talk to a new person within this sort of massive global sphere of games every episode. So that might be a developer, it might be somebody who works in the press, it might be somebody who is actually not involved in games but has a completely other interesting facet of their life and also plays games. As it turns out, we have a sort of a massive document full of people who are super interested and down to do this, and if I just did these recorded, edited interviews like this, I'd never get around to doing them. So what we're gonna do is essentially make this a more conversational type of podcast, and then every once in a while do these curated, highly edited episodes sort of like special stories every once in a while. The next one of those you're going to hear will be an interview with Jeff Gerstmann I conducted about the 10 year anniversary of Giant Bomb, and his history of working in the games press. But aside from that, the rest of the podcast you're gonna hear on this feed are going to be less edited and more frequent. The plan is to make this a weekly show at some stage in 2019, but we're gonna sort of ramp up to it a little bit slowly. If that sounds like a good idea to you, or a terrible one, let me know. I'm @dannyodwyer on Twitter. As ever, thank you to our incredible patrons for supporting our work. You can support our documentaries, this podcast, and more, by joining up on patreon.com/noclip. You also get access to this podcast early via a special RSS feed, not to mention all the other goodies we give out on the Patreon every week. Thank you so much for supporting our show, I'm very excited to take it into new and interesting places in 2019. Talk to you soon.
|Jan 07, 2019|
#02 - The Return of Theme Hospital
We talk to Bullfrog and Lionhead legends Gary Carr and Mark Webley about the design of PC cult classic Theme Hospital, and how their careers twisted and turned to see them return to create a spiritual successor.
iTunes Page: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/noclip/id1385062988
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
- [Danny] Hello and welcome to Noclip, the podcast about video games and the people who make them. On today's episode, we pay a much needed visit to the video game doctor, as we celebrate the return of a PC cult classic. Bullfrog are synonymous with a wonderful period in time for games development in the United Kingdom. Producing many cult classics including Populus, Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate, and Theme Park. But to me, the jewel in Bullfrog's crown has always been their lesser-known follow up to the theme park management game. While becoming an instant classic in the UK, Theme Hospital is much lesser known here in the United States. So it was quite the surprise to me when, on a date with an American, the girl across the table from me mentioned it as one of her favorite games ever. I think that was the moment I decided I wanted to marry you, was when you mentioned you liked Theme Hospital.
- [Lindsay] Oh yeah, that's, like, an important aspect of our relationship.
- [Danny] Yeah, what do you remember about that game?
- [Lindsay] I remember all the little goofy components of it, like how the people look, and how you can pop heads, and how you can deal with a million Elvis' and the helicopter comes in and has a thousand people on it, and the fancy man comes around with his top hat.
- [Danny] Oh yeah, I forgot about the VIP.
- [Lindsay] The fancy man.
- [Danny] Yeah. And you had to make sure that he didn't, like--
- [Lindsay] See all your rats and shit, like-- So you be, like, "This way, Sir."
- [Danny] Or somebody would get sick right in front of him. He kind of looked like the Monopoly man.
- [Lindsay] Yeah, he was so fancy. And he, remember when he stopped by all the wards and looked in all the windows, he peaked in. He'd be like, "Oops, not that one, "no one works in there."
- [Danny] I wonder how much it mattered. Because when he was walking around, I always thought, oh, I better make sure that wherever he walks we have fire extinguishers.
- [Lindsay] Totally.
- [Danny] But I bet it was just, like--
- [Lindsay] It was predetermined before he even landed on his helicopter or however he got there.
- [Danny] I think this might be the first time I've ever worked on a Noclip project which is a game that you care about? Is that true? I guess Rocket League you liked.
- [Lindsay] Rocket League I liked for a few minutes. None of the other video games you've ever done a podcast on, I mean done a documentary on, I've ever even heard of.
- [Danny] Yeah. You're not a final fan of C14 fan?
- [Lindsay] I've heard of Final Fantasy. I didn't know there were 14 of them, but--
- [Danny]There's way more than 14 of them.
- [Lindsay] I've heard of it. Oh, really?
- [Danny] Yeah. And since it is the first time I've kind of worked on something that you actually have a deep knowledge of--
- [Lindsay] Oh, I'm excited.
- [Danny] If you had any questions, let me be those sort of the translator between you and the developers. What would you ask if you had any questions?
- [Lindsay] Well my big question is when they are going to make a sequel. Because as fun as it is to play that pixelly thing, they better make a sequel. My real questions are about the silly things, like how the handyman could smell cabbage or just little silly components that they put in there.
- [Danny] It's the doctors, isn't it, it smells faintly of cabbage.
- [Lindsay] It smells faintly of cabbage, yeah.
- [Danny] When you were hiring them. Oh yeah, I guess the handyman, too.
- [Lindsay] Anybody could smell like cabbage in real life. Anyone could smell like cabbage. So I had that question, and also about shooting rats. Like, what that's about and sometimes you could unlock that secret level where it was just rat shooting. And that was really cool.
- [Danny] It was kind of random, though.
- [Lindsay] Yeah yeah, it was just like--
- [Danny] Like, why does this happen?
- [Lindsay] Right, I have some experience in hospitals and I've never once shot a rat, but they thought it was important that we have that component.
- [Danny] I can answer the first question.
- [Lindsay] Oh, when the sequel's coming out?
- [Danny] Yeah, so I decided I wanted to do this a while back, and it took a while for me to hunt down the two main dudes who worked on Theme Hospital. It turns out both of them ended up having really prolific careers and getting to the top of Lionhead Studios, who made a bunch of games.
- [Lindsay] The Movies.
- [Danny] They made The movies, I remember you love, which is so funny, you love The Movies because it's probably Lionhead's most obscure game.
- [Lindsay] The Movies was really hard. I've never made any progress at all in that game. I think I'm doing something wrong, actually.
- [Danny] And the guys who, I think both of them actually worked on The Movies as well.
- [Lindsay] Well then I have further questions for them of how you achieve anything in that game.
- [Danny] We'll have to leave that for another podcast.
- [Danny] But I ended up finding them because they're working on a spiritual successor. So after, I think it's been eight, 19 years? Around two decades, and finally you can play a new hospital management game, it's coming out really soon, so--
- [Lindsay] Yes.
- [Danny] Let me ask the questions and I'll get back to you.
- [Lindsay] Report back.
- [Danny] Like report back to you--
- [Lindsay] Thank you.
- [Danny] On the condition of our patient.
- [Lindsay] Of our fair game.
- [Danny] Yeah.
- [Mark] Yeah, I'm Mark Webley, I'm one of the founders and I guess I'm game director at Two Point Studios.
- [Gary] I'm Gary Carr, I'm also a founder and I'm creative director at Two Point Studios.
- [Mark] I kind of heard about Bullfrog, I didn't really know that much about them until I saw this EA poster, a friend of mine worked at EA, and it was a poster with all their games on, it kind of looked like interesting games. You saw this one in the middle, which is, looks incredible, I said, "What the hell was that?" And it was Populus, and I thought, wow that just looks insane, I mean, you kind of looked back at it and you might not see it, but at the time it was, in my view, whoa that looks so different and cool.
- [Gary] I think I started a couple years before Mark, I think I started in 89.
- [Mark] Yeah, you were definitely before me.
- [Gary] So I done my first game at Bullfrog was Powermonger, I was there at the back in the Populus and I did a little bit on the data disks but not very much if I'm honest. I did a little bit actually on Syndicate, but it was called Cyber Assault when I worked on it.
- [Mark] I thought it was called Quaz at one point.
- [Gary] It was called Bub as well.
- [Mark] Bub? Yeah. Just something easy to type.
- [Gary] That's the game that we could never actually decide what it was going to be. It was in production forever.
- [Danny] Back in the early 90's, the team at Bullfrog was only around eight people led by the excitable hand of a man called Peter Molyneux. The studio operated out of a makeshift office crammed into an attic above a stereo shop and a flat occupied by a chain-smoking old lady. Peter had used his charm to persuade Commodore to lend them a suite of Amiga's and it was on these computers that the team worked on games, games like Powermonger, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Flood, and Dungeon Keeper. Gary, an artist, left for a time after they had completed the iconic Theme Park. He went to work at famed UK developers the Bitmap Brothers for a number of years before being tempted back to Bullfrog by a devilish dungeon keeper.
- [Gary] Yeah, Peter has got a great way of, kind of, sort of making people believe that these things are going to be what they want them to be and he's brilliant at that and I loved the guy for it. But I wanted to come back and do something that wasn't Theme, so I kept saying, "Could the game idea possibly be a dungeon-y game?" And he sort of said, "Could be." What he meant was it could be, but it's not. So I came back, but actually it was the best decision of my life, it really was because it was great to work with Mark. We're very different people, and we both have sort of different things we bring together and we had--
- [Mark] We argue a lot.
- [Gary] We argue a lot and we had total freedom. I mean, back then there was only about three or four people that had the luxury to sort of take an idea and own it, and we were one of those few. So it was a great time in our careers, we were at the right time, I think, to sort of build a team together and make that game. When Mark and I were probably at similar age and different types of experience, I'd had a bit more games experience at the time, Mark had had a lot more management experience at the time.
- [Mark] But I was a lot smarter.
- [Gary] Yeah, I think so. But at this point in time, I think it was when Bullfrog was splitting up into creating teams within Bullfrog because we'd gotten a little bit bigger. So Mark kicked off what was called Pluto, believe it or not, which was the design and series team that was gonna do all the theme games and I was brought in to sort of partner with Mark on this game, we had no idea what was going to be coming and it ended up being Theme Hospital.
- [Mark] Well at that time, it was just me and you to start with, it was just, I mean, the team at its maximum size was probably about five or six. So it was pretty small teams, there's no producer, there's no designer, so I was programming, Gary as doing the art and--
- [Gary] And we were kind of making it up as we went along so that process kind of carried on for a while and I think that kind of originally it was a game about a hospital, a game about a theme park was kind of great, you got rides and exciting things and lots of fun just without even having to go outside the box.
- [Gary] Try too hard.
- [Mark] And then afterwards it was different. We kind of thought about the flow of the game the patient, the diagnosis, and the treatment of patients, but the sticking point was after. In fact, we were on the research back in Gilford, it's right next to the hospital, so we'd often spend out lunchtime walk around Dart U we'd probably get choked out now.
- [Gary] Trying to get inspiration, weren't we?
- [Mark] Yeah, just walking around the corridors, and just kind of seeing what's in the hospital. We're going to have lunch in the cafeteria and it was, it came to a point where I think you just, you said, "This is it, isn't it. "There's nothing more, it's just "boring corridors and plain walls."
- [Gary] They're all very similar, it doesn't matter if it's the US or the UK, I think hospitals share, they always have the same floor tiles. They have these slightly curved floors where obviously they're easy to wash in up corners so the floors slightly curve, they have this kind of shiny, painted up to about waist-high where I think that can be washed down as well.
- [Mark] Hosed down.
- [Gary] Hosed down. And they have a few machines with little screens on them and they all sort of makeshift beds that seems to be some sort of crash unit near it. And that's it, and we just suddenly thought, Oh my God, how does this compete with things like roller coasters, and water fluids, and all that kind of color? And we got really scared and we also spent about, and this has been said many times, but we spent about a month in different hospitals trying to do some research, trying to find a game out of all that.
- [Mark] Integrate on the street.
- [Gary] On the street, we went to Brimley and Rolsory, and we just spent time in all these hospitals and we just kind of got so weary.
- [Mark] Gary even got circumcised.
- [Gary] No, I didn't. We viewed operations, we were invited to go and look around the morgue and we went into business meetings about how one hospital could strategically beat another hospital to people that have been in injuries. And it just sounds like, oh god this is so grim.
- [Mark] We were setting up the ambulance.
- [Gary] That's right. Do you remember that?
- [Mark] Yeah yeah.
- [Gary] And then we sort of went for lunch and again in the canteen that looked very much like a real canteen, they have lots of really unhealthy food. And, uh, we just suddenly I think just landed on this idea at the same time to sort of just let's just make it up. Because we actually knew nothing about hospitals, we didn't know how they really worked.
- [Danny] Mark and Gary did their game design due diligence and visited hospitals all around the Greater London Area. They were kicked out of an operation for distracting a surgeon once, and almost visited a morgue before losing their nerve. It was these experiences that brought the boys to the conclusion that they were better off distancing themselves from the grim reality of hospitals as much as they could. They knew that the subject matter wasn't really the focus of the gameplay experience. It wasn't like people who played Theme Park all wanted to run Theme Parks, and the same could be true here. Through their experience they understood that the drive of this game came from the problems players would encounter and the ways in which they would solve them. So they didn't have to make a game about running a real hospital, they just had to make a game that was fun and challenging. It was around this time that Bullfrog was acquired by Electronic Arts. And when their new bosses turned up to see what the team was working on, they were, a bit confused.
- [Gary] And when they'd come to the studio and have a look at all the games, it's kind of like, a hospital game? No, I don't get it. It's like, oh, think about ER and things, we were trying to jazz it up. It's actually a really popular, exciting show. They'd say, "But this isn't like ER, is it."
- [Mark] I guess that's the problem. I think everybody probably would assume science fiction or fantasy--
- [Gary] Or killing or blowing up.
- [Mark] Making some sim game around that would be the best possible subject matter, but I think coming up with, if we stay in kind of reality, and relatable subject, but then you twist that into something else is, makes it way more interesting.
- [Danny] EA was right. It wasn't really ER. For one, Theme Hospital didn't have any real illnesses. The people in this world suffered from conditions like Slack Tongue, Bloaty Head, Kidney Beans and Third Degree Sideburns. One condition originally called Elvitus had to be changed when Elvis' estate got wind of it. The character art, which did look a lot like Elvis, was slightly changed, and the condition was renamed King Complex. Another legal faux-pas came with the original box-art of Theme Hospital, which carried a red cross. The Red Cross wasn't too happy about that, so they changed it to a green star. The guys were starting to warm up so I figured it was probably about the time to ask Lindsay's questions. First of all, what was with all the doctors that smelled faintly of cabbage? Who wrote this stuff? And why did Theme Hospital have a rat shooting mini game?
- [Gary] One thing I think Lionhead and Bullfrog haven't probably promoted enough is the great writers who have actually made us look even, well, made us look way better than we actually are. Because it's actually, it's interesting, there wasn't that many visual illnesses in Theme Hospital, but a lot of people remember the wonderful names and they paint their own pictures.
- [Mark] Yeah, and the descriptions of how they're contracted, so.
- [Gary] So I think, but the writing was really important to us.
- [Mark] There was a guy called James Leech.
- [Gary] But James Leech did the original, but James also worked with a guy called Mark Hill throughout, on and off through the Lionhead days, and that was something we wanted to bring, keep that consistency of writing. So, it was probably Mark, probably is, he's really strong.
- [Mark] Yeah, if you've got enough, if you've shot enough rats in a level, you could unlock a secret in between levels, you rat shoot. And it was basically just a lot of rats. You had a certain amount of time to kill as many as you can, and if you kind of chain them together, if you've got enough, if you've got a streak as it were, you could level up your weapons.
- [Gary] That's right.
- [Mark] And they were really difficult, I think the rat was two by one pixels, you know it was some of my best work, and you had to get a headshot. So you literally had to be almost pixel perfect, certainly in the harder levels.
- [Gary] It was hard, yeah.
- [Mark] And it's weird, things like that used to happen because we didn't have design documents. We didn't have, you know, we weren't scheduled to do, this week we're on this, next week we're on that. So, you know, this is just when developers just start dicking about really.
- [Voiceover] Could people please try not to be sick in the corridors.
- [Danny] Theme Hospital was a critical and commercial success, but once they were done post-acquisition Bullfrog saw an exodus of developers as Peter Molyneux left to form a new studio, Lionhead. Mark followed his old boss to Lionhead while Gary was part of another group that founded the studio Mucky Foot. There, he worked on the art for Urban Chaos, Startopia, and Blade 2, and left once the studio closed in 2003 whereupon he joined Lionhead to work on The Movies. By this stage the two friends found themselves in lead positions at the company. They shepherded many games through the studio during this time including Black and White, Fable, Kinect Sports, and unreleased projects such as Project Milo and "BC". They worked together at Lionhead for a decade, but as time passed the job became less like the good old days. Microsoft had acquired Lionhead in 2006 and the now 200 person studio had run into financial difficulty. So as the years wore on, the influence of their parent company was having an erosive effect on the team's creativity. Gary found it especially difficult to get his ideas to gain traction, and so he decided to leave.
- [Gary] I guess the thing I enjoyed most of the Bullfrog era was definitely Theme Hospital. It just was, because it was a point when I was ready to do more than just the artwork on a game. So I felt I was much more stepping into being a kind of a co-creating role rather than just making things look as pretty as I could. Then, I enjoyed my period with Mucky Foot, which was a company I sort of helped formulate, and we had some great years there. Lionhead, I guess the challenges were always working with Peter on such ambitious ideas because Peter would, I was in a team that wasn't Fable, so my part of that was Peter would throw some incredibly outlandish ideas around and it was kind of my job to get a little group of people together to try and realize that ambition. And it was really exciting, I mean, we literally went from making things on Kinect or things like Milo and Cabige, which was a bit nice for a while, it was just weird and wonderful opportunities to try and make a difference and do something strange and interesting, so I enjoyed that, too.
- [Danny] By the time Mark's tenure was coming to a close, Peter Molyneux had long left the company and Mark was creative director of Lionhead. His final act at the studio was to help get Fable: Anniversary out the door, and it was then that he stepped away from a job where he'd spent most of his adult life.
- [Mark] Yeah, I mean, I was there from the beginning, and my tenure was 15 to 16 years.
- [Gary] It was 16 nearly, I think.
- [Mark] Yeah, I left in the beginning of 2013. But it was a long and anxious period that I was kind of working through. I mean things had changed, obviously Peter had gone, and the kind of vision for Lionhead was, well, a vision for the Europe Microsoft was free to play console stuff and it wasn't really, I wasn't really enjoying it anymore. I think that's the best thing to say. You know, I kind of, if I was going to do it again, I wanted to fall back in love with making games and--
- [Gary] You're quite an emotional person, if you don't like something, you let people know about it.
- [Mark] And I sulk about it.
- [Danny] Mark and Gary were free agents and worked odd jobs here and there for old friends. They enjoyed the easier workload after years of grind at the top of one of the UK's largest developers. Perhaps it was then, given the benefit of hindsight, that the two remembered just how much fun they had had working on those old games together. So it was then, one evening, when Mark was picking up pizza, Gary pitched him an idea about starting a small, independent studio, and working on games sort of like they used to, in a cramped old flat stuck above a stereo shop and a chain-smoking old lady.
- [Gary] Yeah, I kind of didn't think. I thought, well who'd be interested in, you know, revisiting--
- [Mark] Two old farts you know, making old games, who's interested in it? And I think that was kind of--
- [Gary] We had to go on a journey of discovery. And actually it was when we started sort of talking to some people when we were still trying to find a partner to make this, we certainly realized there was a lot of interest.
- [Mark] We did a tour, didn't we?
- [Gary] We did a tour, we sort of went on the roads, and met up with a bunch of either, we were looking to either sell publish, initially, maybe do a kickstarter, or partner with a small publisher. We didn't know, you know, who would go for this. So we just sort of started looking into it. And we just literally got in the car, booked into a sort of cheap hotel, motel-type places, and just knocked on doors and that's how we started. Which was great fun because this was a couple of 50 year old guys, basically in a band back together again.
- [Mark] And going on tour, so we just, our wives probably thought, look at them, they're pathetic. What do they think right now?
- [Danny] Mark and Gary thought there might still be a thirst for their old sim games. The classic Bullfrog titles were still selling well over on GOG and new games like Prison Architect and City Skylines were creating a whole new generation of fans. They had considered crowdfunding the project at one point, but they were warned away by some of the developers they talked to during their road-trip. So, they wrote a pitch for a new hospital game that would evolve the ideas of a game they had made almost two decades earlier. They knew they needed financial help. The guys were experienced and understood the type of game they wanted to create would require more money and time than they personally had. They shot the pitch around to publishers, and while some were receptive, there was one in particular that seemed very keen: SEGA. They negotiated terms with SEGA from the end of 2015 right up to the summer of 2016. And as it happens, right as the deal was signed, news broke that Microsoft would be closing Lionhead Studios. So, somewhat ahead of schedule, Gary and Mark rushed to hire their new team.
- [Gary] We kind of imagined we'd take them over a period of time, but Lionhead closed, and it was suddenly these brilliant people were out of work.
- [Mark] Tons of brilliant people.
- [Gary] And they weren't around for long.
- [Mark] No, we were going to lose them.
- [Gary] Companies were coming to Gilford doing presentations just going, "You should come work for us." And we, you know, we had to kind of promise--
- [Mark] That was a risky thing to do. Because obviously we had to sort of lay out a huge amount of our expenditure earlier than we would ordinarily do it, but the point thing is we made a huge advancement in the development in the game and also this team, I wouldn't swap them for the world. They're amazing bunch of people.
- [Gary] Some of them have worked with us for over twenty years. But Alan, who's sat behind Mark right now, I think he was your best mate at school, wasn't he?
- [Mark] Pretty much. I mean Pram, Pram reminds me of Chris. Pram literally knocked on the door, and one of the guys we've worked with for over twenty years, I hired him out of college. And now he's absolutely integral to this team. So that's the kind of things we like to do. It's to build those relationships.
- [Danny] Mark and Gary founded Two Point Studios, and over the coming years built a team of 16 people to help make this game. Some were old friends and colleagues, others new kids on the block. Their game was going to be called Two Point Hospital. The spiritual successor to a Bullfrog classic. But it wouldn't be enough to simply re-make an old game. For one, Theme Hospital was a 2D game. When Edge Magazine came to visit the studio in the mid 90's, they barely took notice of it, as gamers were far more interested in 3D screenshots of games like Dungeon Keeper. But time would prove to be kinder to Theme Hospital. While those early 3D games aged quickly as 3D technology improved, 2D games have a sort of timeless, inviting quality to them. Plus, to create these sophisticated sandbox they were aiming for, Two Point Hospital would have to be in 3D.
- [Gary] We knew how Theme Hospital had done better over 20 years and some of it's contemporary.
- [Mark] So we needed to come up with a style which incorporated something that felt like it was fresh and up-to-date, but we felt if the game does have legs, if people do love this game and we can keep it around for long enough, won't look out of sorts in two, three, four years time. So, we went for something quite organic feeling, it doesn't feel like it's rendered, it feels more like it's made of clay or plasticine, and it feels drawn rather than engineered,
- [Gary] And I think also that that art style back then was, with was certainly Theme Park and Theme Hospital had, we had quite a big proportion of female players, which back then was certainly unheard of for our types of games. Obviously something like the sims, which came later, it just blew their market wide open. But I think we didn't have an art style that was--
- [Mark] Exact not footing.
- [Gary] Yeah, it kind of, it was accessible, I'm not going to be patronizing and suggest that, you know, we made something that was appealing to girls, Because I wouldn't even have a clue how that would, you know--
- [Mark] I think it felt accessible, it felt like it wasn't aimed at any particular type of gamer.
- [Gary] Because you're looking at the game not from a fixed angle, you could be above or sort of, like, low down, you could kind of twist the camera. So a lot of these kind of considerations were kind of worked through and then,
- [Mark] And then the US, is it Where's Wilbur in the US? Where's Wally?
- [Danny] Oh yeah, Waldo they say over here.
- [Gary] Waldo, that's it. And we, you know, to make something readable when you've got so much on screen, and I don't know if you need a screenshot with some of the later levels where you've got absolutely vast marks with hundreds of people on screen. To get a clean read and not get it to look noisy and kind of, I don't know, slightly put you on edge because everything's moving and they've been shimmering because everything's trying to fight for your attention was a real consideration for us. In fact, I've seen some footage that's just gone out last night, and the guy's captured all his footage top down.
- [Danny] Right.
- [Gary] Imagine being a designer or an artist trying to design a game that looks good from anything possible conceivable angle. It's really difficult.
- [Danny] Theme Hospital was accessible, not just with both men and women, but with gamers and non-gamers, and young and old too. It was one of those games that was effortless to pick up. But after the first few missions, Theme Hospital's rough edges began to show. First of all the game got rather hard really quickly. And secondly, there just wasn't any interesting progression. Each level in Theme Hospital was almost identical to the previous one. So to combat this, the team created a world where each hospital takes places in a unique region with its own biome and its own unique needs.
- [Gary] Because the regions are very different, the people in that area are very different, some are rich, some are poor regions, and some of the challenges are different. In some cases, you may be running a hospital that's actually funded rather than you get paid for curing people from the individuals, they don't pay, you just get a budget at the beginning of the level. And that just makes the plagues spin completely different, so we wanted to kind of make it stay fresh as much as possible. And also give people the opportunity to circle back and go back and do things that they probably struggled earlier on and keep that fresh by putting new challenges in there.
- [Mark] And you have the ability to progress through the county reasonably easy. But if you really want to max out the game, you can kind of return to earlier hospitals, you can unlock things in later levels, you can do research, maybe unlock certain qualifications, come back to one of the earlier hospitals and train the staff in those things, upgrade those machines.
- [Gary] So the game doesn't have that pinch point, which the original game had where it just got too hard for me, I think I got to about level seven and would find it a real struggle. And we didn't want to do that again.
- [Danny] When I ask the guys about the features that excite them most, there's one that immediately stands out. Two Point Hospital features characters with a variety of personality traits that are not only affected by the world around them, but also by the people around them. They want you to care a lot more about your employees in this game, but more than that, this system has the ability to create wonderful emergent moments as doctors and patients clash with both each other, and the rules of the world. M This is what's real new cutting edge stuff is we've got this, the brains the little people now, is they've got these traits and of course they also have the conditions they're under combined to make quite unique animation blends, which means they do things, they react almost uniquely. It doesn't feel like it's pre-canned. You see somebody walk up to somebody and they'll respond completely different to the next person based on how those two people feel about each other.
- [Danny] Could you give an example? Like is it, if two doctors don't like each other, or if they have a tough patient, or how does that sort of manifest?
- [Gary] It's just patient is a good example, I mean, they as well as the personality traits, the things that are going on, if doctors has just treated a patient and they die, that has an effect on their happiness, they go on a break to the staff room, and that could end up in an argument with another doctor, and then just that argument could just--
- [Mark] And it's not all emotional, sometimes it's just that the habitual things, like you have a fantastic doctor who may just never wash his hands when he goes to the toilet.
- [Gary] Right, now that has an impact on the game. It's not just funny, it actually has an impact and in fact, there was somebody who was showing the game to in San Francisco the other week, and this person has an amazing hospital, doing really well, but when you put the filter on to look at hygiene, the hospital is really clean, but all the staff are really filthy, and I mean you couldn't work it out, and she'd built this massive facility with a toilet which only had two cubicles and she put no sinks in it and no hand dryers and put no sanitizer units anywhere in the hospital. So all these doctors were working on all these patients, filthy. And we put this kind of filter over it and showed her all the instants of filth trails in the game, and Mark just went, I can see your problem. He said, "Do you ever wash your hands "when you go to the toilet?" And this girl was just so embarrassed and immediately went and put this bathroom, a sink into the bathroom, to the toilet. And all the staff just ran to cure, to wash their hands, it's that stuff.
- [Mark] Everything in the game affects something else so the people, the machines, the way and the sick, and everything in your world is important.
- [Gary] If you have a brilliant surgeon but he's an angry man or woman, right, your job is to try and work out how to diffuse that situation to get them to do even better. And that's kind of the fun depth that the game has. Maybe this person just needs more caffeine in their life. Maybe this person needs more weird executive toys in the office. Those kind of things, it's just you getting that extra ten percent out of their performance which is the real depth I think this game supports.
- [Danny] As Gary just said in Two Point Hospital you can have an angry surgeon, man or woman. Another evolution from games past that shows not only just how far games have come in terms of representation, but also in terms of technology. If there's one thing I keep hearing when I interview designers today, it's that technology provides, it provides answers. Many design problems that used to exist in the past have been rendered moot by the advancement of technology. And Two Point's character variety is a perfect example of this. The original Theme Hospital had four main character types: A nurse who was a women, a doctor who was a man, a receptionist who was a woman, and a janitor who was a dusty-looking old man. So I asked Mike and Gary, why?
- [Mark] It covered respective times people have said that we made a sexist game, but we had to make the game run in four megabytes. I mean, it was a time and memory, and it wasn't a question of, like, well doctors are just men and nurses are just women, it was just a question of like, we had to make a call with it, and I think you had new, you had different heads, but it was pretty much the same body, different jackets and stuff, and we couldn't have made--
- [Gary] I was really keen on skin tone was important. I did not want to have a particular skin tone, but we just did not have the time or the memory, mainly the memory.
- [Mark] The character variation was important to us back then, and it was only 21 years ago but you very rarely got very different clothing variations and we did manage to get an element of that in. But the basic model of the man and the woman, that was the huge memory part of this. You know, so rightly or wrongly, I could have made a male nurse and a female doctor, I could have made a young janitor, I could have made a male reception administration staff. All of those things are absolutely true. You know, 20 odd years down the line it just seems critically incorrect but it wasn't our intention, I'd like to think we're quite right on. But the decision was made that the doctors were male and the nurses were female, rightly or wrongly, it was a call I made but I certainly didn't mean the offend anybody.
- [Danny] But it sounds like that's something that's been changed for Two Point?
- [Mark] Totally.
- [Gary] Absolutely. I mean, you know, that would have, that's absolutely goes without saying, he's not trying to correct anything, it's just that we had no choice back then to make a decision, rightly or wrongly, but it was just never going to be a situation. I mean, we've got so many more other types now of staff anyway, and what they do is very different. I mean, and thank God our initiative stuff in this game do all sorts of things, they're not just manning, I mean the little bit of footage you've probably seen, it may look like, oh look, there's somebody on the reception desk again. They do all sorts of different roles.
- [Mark] Yeah so we've got a marketing department which you open up later in the game, so the assistants can work, if they have the qualification, they can work in marketing,
- [Gary] They're kind of civil-servant-y type people, aren't they. They do a cross of different things, but the other things is we've taken a variation to a ridiculous level now. You can have hundreds of people, in fact, somebody took a fantastic screenshot within the studio, it's on our Twitter feed, and it's just about three hundred people just jammed into section and no two, they're all completely different characters. We've got this amazing modular system which puts on things such as steam goggles if it wants to, you know, boots, every component can be different and it just randomly generates them. So you really are lucky if you see two characters that look vaguely similar. Certainly more similar people in Yorkshire than there are in our game.
- [Danny] What excites me most about Two Point Hospital isn't replaying a style of game that I enjoyed in my youth, it's that this game seems to be free of the technological restrictions of its predecessor. It's full of neat little features like teaching janitors to vacuum up gDannys. So even that old dog has a new trick. The guys are busy finalizing the game so I didn't want to take too much more of their time. But before they left, I had to ask them the most important question: What new illnesses could we look forward to treating in Two Point Hospital?
- [Mark] Turtle Head is an affliction where the head shrinks down to a very small and it has to be a, I'm only saying that because I know it's on our website.
- [Gary] There's another one where the guy's foot is like a camel's foot and it's called Camel Toe and that has to be, that's not in there, it's just hardly been--
- [Mark] That was one of my favorites ones. I thought you liked it.
- [Gary] Mark, he's trying to get that in the game. I have to say as well--
- [Mark] I say we've talked about it now in the press, so we have to put it in.
- [Danny] Lads, you sound like you're having a great laugh. This sounds like a very professionally exciting period in your lives. Is that fair to say?
- [Mark] I mean, 21 years ago, releasing Theme Hospital, that was an amazing time. We had such good time, and just kind of starting a studio and going "Wouldn't it be cool to be able to "recapture some of that kind of--"
- [Gary] Actually we started our families. I mean, we both got married, you might have been before me. Side having your family at the beginning, I think--
- [Mark] Yeah, I hear you, Sam was born just as we started.
- [Gary] There's a story: Sam actually worked with us here. Sam's Mark's firstborn, was born right at the beginning.
- [Mark] Pretty much as we started.
- [Gary] As we started, and he's one of the engineers and creatives on this, it's very odd, it's very strange, but that's what makes it fun, right, because we got to a stage in our careers where we just want to actually enjoy coming into work, not have to be some, the problem with games is you get promoted, that's the problem with games. And when you get promoted, you stop making games. You start becoming that person nobody likes. You have to get a game done, and it has to be done like this, and nobody likes people telling people what to do. So we've basically set up this company so nobody, we don't have to tell people what to do and no one tells us what to do and yeah, it's great fun coming into work everyday. I don't think we've had one day where I haven't felt this is the best thing I've done in my life.
- [Danny] Two Point Hospital should be available to purchase on PC, Mac, and Linux around the time you hear this podcast. You can learn more about the game at twopointhospital.com. If you're interested in playing the original Theme Hospital and you should be, it's really good, it's available on GOG.com. If fact, if you're a fan of GOG, you should check out our documentary on the company and their game preservation efforts over on our YouTube channel: YouTube.com/Noclipvideo. I'd also like to recommend a patch for that game: Corsix TH. It's a tremendous community-created wrapper that updates the GOG version of Theme Hospital to work with modern resolutions with sharper graphics and updated menus. A wonderful testament to the fan passion that has surrounded this game for 19 years. As ever thanks to our Patrons for supporting our work. You can support our documentaries, this podcast, and more by joining up at Patreon.com/Noclip. You'll also get access to this podcast early via a special RSS feed. Thanks so much to Gary and Mark for their time, Lauran Carter over at SEGA for setting the whole thing up, and my wonderful wife for chatting to me about one of our favorite games. Sorry for the delay in getting this episode number two out. It was supposed to be up about six weeks ago, But then my baby girl decided to come a couple of weeks early. So we've been rather busy here in the O'Dwyer household. We have a bunch of fun podcasts planned for between now and the end of the year, so of course, keep this feed running. Until then, play some games. We'll talk again soon.
|Aug 29, 2018|
#01 - The Steam Spy
Sergey Galyonkin was just trying to fix a problem at work when we accidentally revolutionized the way we understand video game sales. We uncover the fascinating story behind Steam Spy, the people who use it, and the insights it gives us.
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
Sergey: My godmother, she used to work for a huge computer center, you know like a secret type of building, you know, so you can't get in unless you get a y'know pass or something. But because I was a kid, they would let me in with her. I was, I don't remember like, seven or eight. And she let me, she would take me to you know to her job and she would let me play with computers. And they didn't have many games, it was you know they were mostly to do with statistics and stuff like that, but they had Tetris and they had Kingdom Euphoria. And back then I totally hated Tetris. I didn't play it much, but I mostly played Kingdom Euphoria, which was a text based strategy game.
Danny: Text based strategies appealed to Sergey. From a young age he enjoyed solving problems. He'd spend hours making small games on a programmable calculator. You see, the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s had restricted access to most type of electronics. So the computers available to consumers was limited to Soviet manufactured machines, or expensive black market imports from the West.
Sergey: I didn't play many video games until like maybe age of nine or ten. Because we didn't have any. We had only like you know those old Soviet arcades. But then the Z Spectrum came to our country and it was a revelation. It actually was the first mass computer in Soviet Union. Not just in Ukraine, in whole Soviet Union. And I bought the first one, not I bought it, my father bought it for me. And I actually assembled the second one myself. Because you could buy you know the scheme, you could buy everything, you know separately. And just solder it. And it was fairly easy back then and I saved a bunch of money, do it.
Danny: Using his ZX Spectrum, Sergey would create games for himself. He didn't enjoy programming in BASIC, he found the code too restrictive. So instead he opted to program using Assembly Language. His love of programming continued through his teens and when it was time to go to university, he chose to study Computer Integrated Systems, with a focus on Neural Networks. Ukraine has always been ahead of the curve when it came to developing algorithms. For instance, the first Neural Networks used to detect fake dollar bills were prototyped in Ukraine. Sergey continued his education and worked a bunch of jobs. He did page layouts at a local newspaper, he spent some time at a game studio, focusing on edutainment. Eventually he'd find himself moving to Kiev and taking up a job at a games distributor responsible for selling games for some of the biggest publishers in the world. What were some of the popular games in the Ukraine around that time? Any stand out in particular?
Sergey: Well, I mean, it's the usual, except for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. We were not distributing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a different company. But you thought about S.T.A.L.K.E.R., right? That was the most popular game in Ukraine and I guess it's the only, see a lot of people, I guess playin' it. From our products I would say World of Warcraft was the most popular game ever. I mean, it was selling like hot cakes. That was just literally crazy. You know? We couldn't get enough of it, y'know? Into stores. That was unbelievable.
Danny: Was there any games that were very popular in the West, that just were not popular at all in the Ukraine?
Sergey: A lot of like, intellectual properties that are not familiar to Ukrainians were not selling well. Like 50 Cents video games that, y'know nobody, knew about 50 Cent back then in Ukraine. So didn't really sell well. Also was an awful game, to be honest.
Danny: Not many copies of Blood on the Sand sold in Kiev?
Sergey: Yeah, yeah.
Danny: Sergey's greatest love was programming. He'd continued to code during his spare time. But there was something about the distribution business that excited him. Again, he was problem solving. Learning how customers made decisions and using data science to find answers. Well, that and simply watching people.
Sergey: I enjoyed it immensely. Because you learn a lot about how people behave and how people consume games, by just doing a little distribution. And I sometimes, I would just spend like half a day in a store, one of our partner stores, just talking to people and trying to understand how they behave, you know how they're looking and products on the shelves, how are they buying, how they're making decisions to buy, and that helped a lot because, I mean, I like looking at stats and the numbers, but unless you talk to people it's sometimes really hard to understand how they actually think, y'know?
Danny: Sergey would eventually take what he learned in distribution and bring it back to the world of development. He spent two years at Nival Interactive, creators of the Blitzkrieg series and the developers of Heroes of Might and Magic V. He enjoyed the job and life was good. Sergey was married now, he had children. But something bubbling under the surface in Ukrainian society was about to come to the boil. A few days after Valentines Day in 2014, the Ukrainian revolution would see rioters clash with police throughout the capital city. The tragic shooting of unarmed protestors would lead to the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the eventual war in Donbass which continues today. A frozen conflict taking place on an area half the size of the country. A proxy war where Russian funded proto-states fight Ukrainian government forces, thousands dead on either side.
Sergey: I was in Kiev at the time. My family was still in Lugansk, so we had to move them out of the war zone. And, yeah. But me and my kids and my wife were in Kiev.
Danny: Was it a difficult decision to leave during the war?
Sergey: Well, not really. I mean, when people are shooting outside of your apartment, it's kinda like a natural decision. So, yeah, no. The moment they started shooting, y'know, in my area, I just packed my family and we left. A lot of people don't realize how, how the stuff affects game developers as well. I mean a friend of mine he was still living in Lugansk when the war started. And he would drive to his office and he would like he would hear bullets just flying past his car when he would drive to his office. And it continued for like maybe a week until he's like I'm crazy. There's a war going on and I'm going to a job making video games. So he left after that. But I mean, because it happened all of a sudden and you know you see it in the movies and you expect it to be like in the movies but it's not. It just, y'know, it's a new type of war. You don't see a lot of tanks just rolling in. You don't see like, you don't see the front lines. It just, it's just, people start shooting. So he left and a lot of people did around the same time.
Danny: The conflict led to an exodus of Ukrainian Game Development. 4A Games, developers of the Metro series, relocated their studio to Malta. Sergey and his family left for the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The reason was simple, it was the closest country him and his family could move to without requiring visas. As it happens it was also one of the 20 or so global locations that developers Wargaming had offices. The Belarusian developer responsible for the wildly popular World of Tanks.
Sergey: Yeah, Wargaming is an amazing company. It's huge and Wargaming is really different from any other companies I've ever worked for. And I've worked for Eastern European companies, not just for the Western companies. Its culture is really something. It's a conflict-driven company. Yes, you're expected to shout at other people in discussions. You're expected to disagree. You know like every time I go to a meeting with my friends at Epic, it's usually I agree with you, I respect your opinion, but in Wargaming you would start with the but part, y'know? You would not do any formalities. You would say well, this idea is incorrect because this and this and this and I don't like this because this. And it really saved a lot of time in discussions, because people know that everyone respects everyone, otherwise you would not be working, y'know? At the company. If you don't respect other people. And that let people express opinions kinda in a more aggressive way. We're getting also, it's really interesting because, the core gaming audience, people that don't usually play video games. So you look at people that play World of Tanks or World of Warships, they are over 40, most of them have families and kids and sometimes they have grandchildren, y'know? And they don't know much about other video games. And they don't consider World of Tanks or World of Warships to be video games. They just consider it to be y'know their hobby. Like they would consider fishing to be a hobby. And that is both amazing and really demanding. Because you know it's a different audience, gamers are used to certain rules in video games and gamers are used to change. And gamers are used to a lot of stuff being taken away. Like people do not complain when Call of Duty releases a new game every single year. You essentially have to re-buy it and they take away all of your progress, when you buy the new Call of Duty, right?
Sergey: Well imagine doing that to a bunch of 60s years old people, you know? Every year. They would probably not like it, right? On the other hand, you hear a lot about in online gaming. And while World of Tanks players are not, not the most pleasant bunch, they are way more polite than your average kids in Call of Duty. So that, likewas never a huge problem in World of Tanks, every time people come and talk about we are free to play game, you're supposed to have a toxic audience. Well, not really, I mean if you're 60 years old you probably know how to behave yourself, right?
Danny: Sergey worked as a Senior Industry Analyst at Wargaming. Helping the team find in-roads into different markets. Aside from their core Wargames, Wargaming published games from other studios and even worked on experimental games, under different brands. Think mobile games about managing a coffee shop. It was varied work that Sergey found interesting. In the spring of 2015, like so many others in the international development community, Sergey took the annual pilgrimage to the Gamers Developers Conference in San Francisco. Here he attended panels, networked with other analysts, and met old friends. One panel he attended was presented by Kyle Orland, a journalist for the technology website Ars Technica. Kyle had created a program that could pull user data from Steam and using it he was able to calculate video game sales. He called it Steam Gauge.
Kyle Orland talking at a conference: I'm Kyle Orland, I'm Senior Gaming Editor at Ars Technica, and this is Analyzing the Steam Marketplace, using publicly derived sales estimates. Now I've been covering the game business for a little over a decade and anyone covering this industry, or following it, one major annoyance is the lack of reliable specific data about sales of games. Now it's not like this in most other entertainment media. It's just not a problem. Nielsen, for instance, provides ratings literally overnight for TV shows and makes the headline numbers very public in publications like Variety. Theaters and studios provide box office estimates every weekend for movies. There's billboard charts for music, there's The New York Times Bestseller list every week for books, et cetera, et cetera. So what do we have for games? For games we have this. This is what NPD, a US tracking firm sends to the media every month. It's a top 10 list based on their sampling of US retail outlets and now electronic sales. If you pay a lot of money you can get more details than this. You can get every game that they track and actual sales numbers, but people who get those numbers are contractually prevented from sharing them publicly. And NPD is pretty strict about enforcing it. You get occasional leaks.
Danny: Back in Cyprus a few weeks later, Sergey was doing market analysis for Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars. Wargaming was publishing the game and Sergey was trying to determine market data around 4X Strategy Games. However, his VPN was down and he didn't have access to any of his data. It was then that he remembered Kyle's talk.
Sergey: Well it was end of March, 2015 I was still working for Wargaming and the funny story behind Steam Spy that my VPN was down and the office was closed for an extended holiday. And I needed to look up some numbers and I didn't have access to my data and I like, well I need this data, because I have nothing else to do. And I was just came from GDC and I remember the presentation by Kyle Orland from Ars Technica, about Steam Gauge. And I said well, how hard would it be to recreate that? And he didn't give any y'know instructions or anything how to do that, but I mean you have internet it's fairly easy. So I spent couple of evenings writing it and by Monday I had all my data, I wrote my documents, required for the office, so by the end of Sunday and I was like, I was stuck with essentially Steam Spy. Without any interface. And I was like, well maybe I should just add interface and open that up to everyone.
Danny: Sergey added that interface, gave it a web presence, and shared it with the folks who listened to his video games Podcast. Right away he saw indie developers flooding to it. This tool, something he was calling Steam Spy, was democratizing data in a way the PC market had never seen before. What Steam Spy was doing was incredibly clever. The Steam marketplace was the biggest online retailer for PC game sales and by default user profiles were public. Sergey's algorithm would poll data from between 60-70,000 profiles a day and using that extrapolate total game sales. It didn't poll every single person on Steam, but with enough data points his algorithm could get to within a few percentage points of accuracy. When NPD produced its top 10 charts, all that that was highlighting was which games were the most popular. But Steam Spy, with its repository of data, was far more powerful. For instance, you could look at trends and see how must more games sold when they went on sale. Or you could use the data to see how popular baseball games were in Portugal. Unlike NPD which just told you a specific thing, if you had an unanswered question about PC games sales, Steam Spy could help you get to the answer. Sergey had developed a tool for market researchers in the video games industry, but it seemed everyone wanted to play with it. It wasn't long before the games press started posting articles using data they had gathered from Steam Spy. Reddit was full of threads about games that were secretly incredibly popular. But it wasn't just hobbyists using it. Indie devs now had access to a powerful market research tool. And even large publishers were using Steam Spy. Were you at all worried that, I mean you were just using the Steam API, right? To pull this stuff?
Sergey: Yeah, yeah, I was, I checked the rules. I mean I'm not a lawyer or anything, but I read the Uler, I actually read it. And I didn't find y'know that I'm breaking anything. They changed the Uler after that. But back when it, I launched it, I was not breaking any laws. And I guessed well, I mean, anyone can estimate anyone's sales, right? That's why we have a lot of research companies. And you have super data, you have Usuy, you have NPD. They all do an estimate and they all the publicize them y'know, online and it is completely legal. Anyone is allowed to do that. As long as you're not stealing someone's, y'know financial information, you are allowed to do estimates.
Danny: And you weren't surfacing any individual's information, were you?
Sergey: No, of course not. No, European laws about user privacy are way more stricter than American laws about user privacy. So all information from the beginning was already itemized. I was never storing anything that is, can be used to identify a user. Well, but coincidentally, it was mostly y'know gaming journalists, small indie developers, gamists, y'know, game enthusiasts, trying to understand how the market works. I was, after started adding more and more professional tools, into Steam Spy, like Cross Audience research, playtime distribution, and stuff that I felt is useful to me. And I've seen that the audience has shifted towards more professionals. And it's been, it's been interesting talking to people that actually use Steam Spy, at different conferences. Intel uses Steam Spy. Tencent uses Steam Spy. Electronic Arts uses Steam Spy. Ubisoft, Activision, you name it, I don't know a single gaming company that does not use Steam Spy right now. It became a tool that a lot of people in the gaming industry use, because it's not great, but it's good enough. And if you look into any other tools available, you know like SuperData Arcade is an amazing tool. App Annie is an amazing tool. But the precision is actually way worse than Steam Spy's precision. And accuracy is way worse than Steam Spy's accuracy. And people still use it, because having information that might be 50% off is still better than having no information.
Danny: One of the things that Steam Spy did great was validating the market. For instance you could use the tool to see if fans of a certain genre bought lots of games in that genre. So, for instance Sergey found that MoBA players rarely played more than one MoBA. So during the height of DoTA2's popularity, when every developer under the sun was trying to make the next big MoBA, they were trying to sell to an audience that largely didn't want one.
Sergey: On the other hand, you look at Survival Games, like DayZ and you see that people that enjoy survival games actually buy a lot of survival games. And that you know that makes it safe to launch a new survival game, like Conan Exiles for example. Y'know you look at the market, you realize well people will buy your game and you make leap of faith. People looking into trends obviously and it's harder to do with Steam Spy unfortunately, I'm using different tools myself, when looking for trends, but Steam Spy is decent at this. So you could look into what's growing y'know how games are changing what people are playing now verus what people were playing last year. If you look into audience for playing on battle grounds, you'll see that while some of them are coming from so that's good, a lot of them are, haven't never played anything before. So they are newcomers to the genre and it means that a lot of them will not leave the game because that's the only game they ever played or played in recent years. And that makes it really hard to compete with and Fortnite on the market, unless you're willing to do something radically different. And that's why I believe it's, a lot of innovation is gonna come from, y'know. People doing Battle Royale but in an unexpected way.
Danny: I'm European. I grew up in Ireland, I lived in London for a few years, eventually found myself in California and now live in the woods on the East Coast. And one of the things I've enjoyed throughout my life, moving from country to country, is understanding the preferences of different people in different parts of the world. As it turns out, Steam Spy is really good at highlighting the types of games that certain countries like. I asked Sergey, what were some of the most interesting geographical trends that he came across.
Sergey: Well my favorite part is the German admiration of anything that has similation in it. Like the farming simulator, anything that has to do with simulation, really. They will play it. Farming simulator is a phenomenon. And it was developed in Switzerland, but is mostly played in Germany. And you talk to anyone in America and the fact that they have a trolleybus simulator they have a trash garbage trash simulator. And people buy it and people play it and that's just crazy, but that's, that's how people in Germany particularly like to spend their time, y'know. Japan, back then was obsessed with zombies. Anything with zombies would sell really well in Japan.
Danny: Was there any stuff that was very popular in America that just was not popular in Europe or vice versa that you kind of saw?
Sergey: Well America is such a huge market and when Steam Spy started, was still the biggest gaming market in the world. So everything that is popular in America was pretty much popular everywhere else. So they have a, well back then they used to like royalgames and open world games. Not as much, like French people do not enjoy open world games as much as Americans. But French video gaming companies like PBSoft it's selling games they make recently, right? They only make y'know open world games.
Danny: Steam Spy was cracking open the sales data of thousands of games. As somebody who worked in the games press, I couldn't imagine this was something that publishers were particularly happy about. The gaming audience is savvy. It cares about consumer rights and it's quick to react when publishers do things that take advantage of them. Steam publishes some data themselves, like concurrent live players. But the amount of data that Steam Spy was surfacing was on a whole other level. I had to imagine that publishers must have been lobbying Valve to do something to lock out Steam Spy. I asked Sergey if he had ever talked to Valve during any of this. I just wanted to know, what did they think of it all?
Sergey: I used to, when I worked at Nivall, I used to work with them, because we published games on Steam and when worked at Wargaming,
Sergey: We also published some games on Steam. And they used to reply fairly quickly. But every time I would mention, well I would not write from my corporate email, of course I would write from a personal email, every time I would write about Steam Spy, they would just shut down. They would, I mean it would just literally, shut up and not reply to any of my emails or any of my communications. And I have couple of friends working there, not on Steam, on the Dotter team and it's the same situation. Every time we discuss something, you know like, gaming related or something like that launch plans or something like that, they talk, anytime I mention Steam Spy, they just shut up. I guess it might be an uncomfortable topic for them.
Danny: Why do you think that is?
Sergey: Well, I feel like Valve is a company that has no leadership. It has no management structure. So there's no one to make a decision. And they only make a decision when everyone agrees to that decision, or everyone on a team agrees to that decision. And there is no consensus about Steam Spy, I guess. And no one is senior enough, like in any other company you would have a head of whatever, head of Steam, come up and say, well that's my decision, we'll shut it down or we will let it go and everybody will, okay! I might disagree with that, but I will, y'know. I can live with that. Any time they make any decision, you will sit and wonder why did they make this decision? Every time they make something new, it feels like a compromise. Y'know what I mean? It doesn't feel like they are making any bold, unusual decisions and it's, to me it has been a probably the biggest disadvantage in the last several years, because they stopped experimenting, they stopped doing something really unusual or bold. Like I mean the trading card game in 2018, really?
Danny: It's difficult to measure the effect that Steam Spy was having on the games industry. He heard anecdotally about games that were funded through market research derived from Steam Spy. He saw publishers like SEGA bring many of their classic games to PC once they saw there was market for them on Steam. But one of the big trends that Sergey noticed was how his tool allowed indie developers to more accurately price their games.
Sergey: I feel especially if you're a young developer it's really hard to put a price tag on your game. You always feel like you haven't made everything you wanted to. You haven't achieved everything you wanted to with this title. So if you're releasing your first game and you feel like well, maybe I should just price it 9.99 because that's a no brainer. But actually your game is worth maybe, y'know 29.99, because if you look at the last games at that price points when they were released they were priced higher, so maybe you should price your games higher. Maybe your game is unique and it has no competition and it has no comparison points. And if it has no comparison points, maybe you should price it higher, because it's something unique that people are willing to pay more money for. People are trained to expect triple A quality from $60 titles and for $50 titles even, but you go below 50, you go to 40 to 30, and people expect it to be an indie game, maybe rougher on the edges, y'know, maybe y'know, better graphics than y'know, $5 game, but they expect it to be an indie title. They are willing to forgive a lot of quirks if the title is actually fun. This is the biggest fear of any game developer I believe. You're making something, you're sitting in a pretty much in a dark room, talking to no one but other fellow developers, from the same company and you always think well, maybe I'm not relevant anymore. Maybe people don't want to play city simulators and I've just spent four years of my life developing one. Maybe people want something to play something different. And maybe I should just under price it and put it for 9.99 and hope that well, maybe if I don't make a lot of money at least people will play it, y'know?
Danny: Steam Spy ran for three years, helping indie devs price their games, helping large publishers do market research, helping journalists find sales figures, helping redditors prove their point. That was until a few weeks ago, when Valve flipped a switch. On April 10, 2018 Valve pushed an Update to every user's Profile Privacy Settings Page. Up until now if you created an account, your game ownership data was public by default. People could set this to private, but most didn't bother. Steam's update flipped this entirely. Not only would new accounts be automatically set to private, but it switched every account on the system to private, too. Without this data Steam Spy could not work. And Sergey quickly announced that the service was dead. At the time the update went live, the EU had just pushed through a new regulation on data security. GDPR or The General Data Protection Regulation was created to add new protections to user's personal data. As soon as it came through, online services around the world were changing their End User License Agreements to be in line with the law. Some services were having to push updates to get in line. One game, Monday Night Combat, would eventually have to shut down, as making the required changes to their backend would cost more than the game was bringing in. Everyone assumed that this was just Steam doing the same, falling in line. But after a few days, Sergey realized it had nothing to do with it.
Sergey: Well it's not really related to GDPR, the latest change was not related to GDPR, because GDPR requires companies to do a bunch of changes to appoint a person responsible for User Privacy to change default settings, to change privacy settings, for underage people, under 18, and Valve did nothing. Like that. Valve still displays your friend list, your achievements, your groups, your screenshots, are publicly on your page. The only thing they hid were games. And GDPR actually does not require that. GDPR requires to hide everything else, that is still displayed. I don't believe it was linked to GDPR at all. I thought that it was like that when they made the change. But after looking into it, I don't think it was related to GDPR.
Danny: So if that's the case, then it must have been related to what you were doing, right, because is there anything else that's happening, that people are pulling from game data?
Sergey: Well, I don't know, I mean, it's on one hand it's nice to think that Steam Spy was so disruptive they decided to shut it down. But it's really easy for them to shut it down. They just have to drop an email to me and I will stop it. I guess, bunch of companies are doing similar stuff to what Steam Spy does. Only keeping it to themselves. Or I've heard of other companies that charges like a thousand bucks per month for accessing the service that does this, similar to Steam Spy. Has a little bit more options, but mostly similar. And maybe they were unhappy about those guys and the only way they saw to shut it down was just shut it down completely, so no one could use it. I guess that's, that's one way to do it. But yesterday they shut, well they didn't shut down, but they made some changes, rendering the Store API useless as well. And the Store API is the API that provides information about the game price, game developer, like the basic stuff. Like genre and so on and a lot of sites were using that and it's now unavailable to them and I mean, what they did, they improved the store's privacy, or what? It just feels really odd to me.
Danny: Without access to games lists and with the Store API changes, Steam Spy was unable to poll the data it required. This was a seemingly insurmountable problem, but Sergey, Sergey likes to solve problems. And in this case he used machines to solve the problem for him.
Sergey: I no longer rely on information provided by an APT at all, I use a bunch of other parameters. As it happens I have an unfinished PhD in machine learning and topic my thesis was using unrelated, using loosely related information to predict economical outcomes. And that's what I'm pretty much using for the new algorithm of Steam Spy. My algorithm that I developed when I was still thinking about taking a science pass. And it works more or less.
Danny: And this is probably like maybe it's a stupid question to ask because it's incredibly complex, but what is the machine learning doing to try and figure this out, if it's not pulling from statistics or from data and creating statistics out of it, how are you coming to these numbers?
Sergey: Well, the thing is that, it is kind of hard to explain. It takes a really huge sample of data like I would say, maybe 15 million data points, and it goes through processing trying to filter out the data that is proven to be irrelevant and trying to amplify the data that is more or less relevant. Then it feeds it into a Neural network. And that Neural network does its magic. And the problem with Neural networks is, Neural networks tend to over feed. Neural networks are great for recognizing images, but are really bad for predicting outcomes that are outside of what they are recognizing. So, if you feed an image of a man to a Neural network and say, it's a man and you also feed an image of a dog to a Neural and say, it's a dog, Neural network will be able to distinguish between this man and this dog, but it's going to be really hard for the Neural network to, if it sees a woman. It will not understand if it's a, y'know if it's a man or a dog, because it does not fit into any of those categories. And in case of our Steam Spy, we're trying to predict well the game is, the Game A has 10,000 owners, the Game B has 20,000 owners, Game C doesn't have 10, doesn't have 20, it might have 30, it might have 40, please do an, predict that and Neural networks are really, really bad at it. But that was my PhD, testing this. Is preparing the data in a way that lets Neural networks actually work with this type of tasks. And it works more or less. It's not perfect, I'm not, I'm still not happy with it, but it is, it works. Yeah, based off of what I've heard from developers and I have a sample of maybe 100 games, y'know that provided me with actual data, it seems that for most of them, for maybe 95% of them, that used Steam Spy, it was within 10%. Give or take. So actually pretty good. For some of them, it is violently inaccurate. The last 5% I mean I've heard about a game that was the difference was 15 times. That was just staggering to me. But for everything else it seems to work.
Danny: Steam Spy started while Sergey was working for Wargaming in Cyprus, but during the intervening years he moved around quite a bit. In early 2016, him and his family swapped Nicosia for Berlin as he became the Head of Publishing for Eastern Europe for an American company in the online shooter space. This company was responsible for some of the biggest shooters in the early 2000s, but they were struggling to find audiences for their suite of online games. One of those games was a third person MoBA called Paragon that would eventually shut down. Another was a remake of their classic arena shooter, perhaps you've heard of it, Unreal Tournament. And the third was a survivalcraft game that had been in development for the best part of a decade. It had sold well on launch, but the game was designed to be very malleable. With Sergey and Steam Spy's help, the team looked at the market research data and decided to take a swing at putting in a Battle Royale-style game mode. Seeing as Sergey was working with the headquarters in America so much, he would eventually move him and his family to North Carolina, to become Director of Publishing Strategy. The American company was of course, Epic. And the game was Fortnite.
Sergey: Yeah, I was part of the team. I was part of making the decision and obviously we were looking at Steam Spy data to see how the genre is evolving. And with talking about Fortnite, original of the Wolf Fortnite, that's the reason I joined Epic. I visited Epic several years ago, they showed me Fortnite and I was blown away. I mean, that was a game that you could make into anything. It is so flexible, it is, I mean, well it didn't have Battle Royale mode, but it had several PBB modes back then. Experimental PBB modes and people you saw 50-versus-50, right? It is actually, well the idea for them all. You know, two teams building castles and fighting each other, was actually back then, in the original Fortnite. Obviously not 50-50, versus, smaller teams. But still. And Fortnite to me felt like a, y'know like a mold, you could make it into anything.
Danny: And I mean even when you talk about Fortnite, it's like we don't know 'cause it's on the Epic, Epic launch, right? So we don't know how many people are playing Fortnite, we don't know how many people are playing World of Tanks, actually now that you mention it, either. So your games have been surprisingly hidden behind this.
Sergey: Well, I'd have to, I mean have access to all the data, but somebody else could. Both of them have APIs that you can access. For World of Tanks, there's bunch of services, statistics services for World of Tanks. And there are several services for Fornite statistics, as well. So you can see the numbers. Actually, it's just Epic is a company that doesn't like to brag about numbers and when we publish numbers we, we've felt some pushback from, y'know from the gaming audience, because they felt like, well, we just were viewing them, gamers, as numbers not as people. And we are really sensitive about that. I mean we're trying, we're always trying to do the right by the gaming audience. So we decided to do it less. It not completely stop it, but just do it less often. After I was, I decided, I actually decided to shut Steam Spy down after all those changes, because I didn't feel like continuing. We also had a huge outage at Fortnite at work and I felt like, well I don't have enough time to, y'know do my day job. I also like to sleep sometimes. This didn't leave a lot of time for Steam Spy, but I thought I've received maybe, 200 emails from people using Steam Spy, asking for me to continue and I felt like, well I mean, yes it makes sense to do so, y'know, people really like it. And that's when I heard all those amazing stories about y'know peoples, companies starting a publishing business because they now were able to see the statistics for game that offered for publishing company getting small indie company from barely getting financing from the German government, because they were able to prove that well, the gamethat they were trying to make is gonna sell. And it did. It was really good. So I felt well, it provides a lot of fire to the market and I like that. And I'm not doing it for money or anything, I mean, at my current day job, I am well provided for. It's not that. It's, it's, the fact that I believe that informational asymmetry, asymmetry of information is unethical, in any business transaction. And Steam Spy is designed to remove informational asymmetry from business transactions or from any discussions. The gaming publisher, the big gaming publisher, have access to more information than a small gaming publisher or a small developer. Then if you're trying to sign a contract with a small developer, you can abuse your power. You have access to more information to get a better deal. That is not gonna be beneficial to the developer. And we've heard these stories about that so many times, y'know even before Steam Spy, like publishers abusing power or big developers abusing small developers. And having this removed actually helps the market whole.
Danny: And do you feel like you're doing a service to the world of video games?
Sergey: I feel like I'm doing more good than harm. In this case, yeah.
Danny: My sincere thanks to Sergey for talking to us this week. You can learn more about Steam Spy and look up all your favorite games by visiting SteamSpy.com. You can also throw Sergey a few bucks a month for his efforts, by heading over to Patreon.com/SteamSpy. Thanks for listening to this first episode of noclip. We hope you enjoyed our first story. If you have any feedback or tips you can hit me up on Twitter @dannyodwyer. Or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh, and hey, if you liked the show, maybe subscribe, tell a friend, or leave us a review on iTunes. If you enjoyed this Podcast but you feel like your eyes are missing out, a friendly reminder, if you want to watch some high-quality video game documentaries for free, head over to YouTube.com/Noclipvideo. We recently traveled to Amsterdam to tell the story of Horizon Zero Dawn. And to Canada, where we filmed a documentary series on Warframe. All of our work is crowdfunded, so if you like what we're making, please consider becoming a patron of noclip. We have bunches of fun rewards, including early access to this Podcast, behind-the-scenes videos and much, much more. Head over to Patreon.com/Noclip to learn more. We'll be back with Episode Two in just a few weeks and we'll be focusing on a game. One of my favorite games, in fact. A game from my childhood. And the creative team who left Lionhead to make its spiritual successor. Whatever happened to Theme Hospital? Find out in our next show. Thanks again, see you then.
|May 16, 2018|
Welcome to Noclip, a podcast about the people who play and make video games. Each episode Danny O'Dwyer tells a story from inside the world of gaming. Learn about how your favorite titles were made, discover gaming communities you couldn't have imagined, and gain a deeper appreciation for the people behind the code.
Hosted by @dannyodwyer
|May 15, 2018|