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 Jan 9, 2019


Dispatches from the world of video games. Noclip dives deep into the heart of gaming and tells you the stories behind the code. From the people who brought you the celebrated gaming documentary channel comes a new type of gaming podcast. Hosted by Danny O'Dwyer.

Episode Date
#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)

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Hosted by @dannyodwyer
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- [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 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 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 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. 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)

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- [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.

- Right.

- [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--

- Thanks.

- [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, 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.

- Westwood.

- 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.

- Absolutely.

- 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.

- Okay.

- [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?

- Yeah.

- 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.

- Wow.

- [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, oh sorry, it's It's, that's right.

- [Mikey] Yeah, 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 if you're interested in that. And 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.

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Hosted by @dannyodwyer
Funded by 4,912 Patrons.



- [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 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.

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- [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 If you're interested in playing the original Theme Hospital and you should be, it's really good, it's available on 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: 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 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. 

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Hosted by @dannyodwyer
Funded by 4,197 Patrons.




Danny: Hello and welcome to noclip, the show where we bring you the stories about the people who play and make video games. I'm your host, Danny O'Dwyer. Okay, I'm going to talk about European law for like 30 seconds. And I want you to trust me that it'll be worth your while. All right, 20 seconds, I swear. Okay? All right. Earlier this month, GDPR or the General Data Protection Regulation was introduced to law by the European Union. Its purpose is to protect people like you and me from the increasingly intrusive ways that our personal data is being used against us. The ramifications are already being felt with websites and online services around the globe scrambling to change their privacy policies. You've probably noticed all the emails about this in your spam box. So while all this has been going on, Steam, the biggest online marketplace for video games, has introduced a new privacy policy of their own. Valve, the company who runs Steam, had previously set it so that every person who had a Steam account had a list of all the games that they owned on their public profile. Sort of like a bookcase showing all the digital games you've collected. The new setting made it so that all of this, the bookcase, the collection, was automatically set to private. No big deal, right? It seems like a pretty sensible change to make. But sadly this has had a knock-on effect that has made an incredibly popular and useful data tool all but useless. Steam Spy is a website that used this public data to calculate game sales. You could type in a game's name and in an instant see everything from how many copies its sold to the countries its most popular and how often those players who own it, play it. Over the years this service has proved itself invaluable to people like indie developers trying to market their games, reddit users trying to learn about the industry, and games journalists mining for data. Steam Spy did something that was pretty important, it opened up a tiny window into an industry that had always been notoriously secretive about sales. Perhaps even suspiciously so. So, why did Valve do it? Did it have anything to do with GDPR? And what knock-on effects will it have on the industry? Welcome to noclip, Episode One, The Steam Spy. Sergey Galyonki was born in Lugansk in the USSR, a city located on the border between Ukraine and Western Russia. His family moved to Poltovwa, closer to the center of Ukraine. And it was here that he played his first video game.

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?

Danny: Yeah.

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,

Danny: Right.

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 You can also throw Sergey a few bucks a month for his efforts, by heading over to 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, 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 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 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
Introducing Noclip

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.

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May 15, 2018