American Interview: Damon Slye

Damon SlyeAs part of a continuing series of developer interviews focused on Kickstarter, I spoke with Damon Slye, CEO and Creative Director of Mad Otter Games, but best known for his work with Dynamix on such classic games as Red Baron, A-10 Tank Killer, and Aces of the Pacific.

AJM: Can you tell me more about the project you’re currently working on?

DS: We are working on Villagers and Heroes, a live game with thousands of wonderful players and the most welcoming community on the internet. The world is open and players can do, create, and grow in whatever ways they choose. We don’t slot the players into set tracks. Building this game and working closely with the community is really rewarding. We engage our players to find out what works, what doesn’t, and in which direction to take the game. Some of the features that we considered fairly minor turned out to form the core of the gameplay for the players. When we see these features, we reinforce them, and do more things in that direction. We are currently running a Greenlight Campaign on Steam to get it greenlit.

We are also preparing a Kickstarter for another game that we will announce in a couple of weeks. It’s very exciting!

AJM: Your earlier games were released at a time when publishers shared box covers with developer’s names (or names of their studios). How do you think this impacted developers, customers and publishers?

DS: Some of the publishers in the mid 80s had the marketing strategy to promote their developers as artists in the same way as the music industry. One consequence was that a talented new game developer would be more excited to sign with a publisher who promoted their developers as celebrities, so I think it was a good recruitment tool for these publishers. As consideration for this promotion, the publishers would in return require the developer to sign a contract that made it very difficult for the developer to work with another publisher.

All of this was not healthy for the industry as a whole. What happens when a developer has a cool idea for game, but the publisher doesn’t like the idea? It was possible, but very impractical, for the developer to find a different publisher to do the game. I am not a fan of stabilizing forces that create rigid structures. They protect the status quo and stifle innovation. I prefer a more fluid eco-system so that things are freely and rapidly destroyed and created as necessary. People should be able to freely associate and quickly move around between different studios and publishers. Hollywood went through a similar transformation when the studio system was replaced with the open system they have now. By the way, I strongly recommend the book “The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era”.

AJM: Any thoughts on why this changed and how that change has affected our industry?

DS: I’m glad the exclusives are gone. A game developer who is really talented will become a fan favorite with or without the promotional support of publishers. A person’s reputation and public goodwill should not be an asset that is owned by a company. So, I neither think that a publisher should be required to spend money to build up the reputation of an individual, nor should they view it as one of their assets. Let the publishers invest into their brand lines, and let the game developers earn their public reputation on the quality of their work. Less coupling means a more creative, fluid, healthy industry.

AJM: As physics in games became more advanced we saw the emergence of details that could lead to emergent game play (think wings shearing off planes in Red Baron or rocket jumping in Quake) – any favorite unexpected behavior or result to emerge from your games?

A few days after we shipped Red Baron at the end of 1989, we read about a rare tactic that some pilots used at the end of World War I, called a slashing attack. Instead of getting into a turning contest, which was the norm in WWI, a pilot with a faster plane could attack from above, then zoom away, essentially getting a free attack with no risk. Then they could turn around, and do it again. So, we booted up the game and tried it out against the Red Baron, the best A.I. we had in the game. He was nearly impossible to defeat in a turning contest. Despite the fact that we had never tried out this tactic during playtest, and we had never explicitly coded it into the game, the slashing attack worked perfectly. We could defeat the Red Baron repeatedly. It was exciting to us to see that the modeling of the physics created a virtual world that had the same behavior as the real world, and that the exact same tactics emerged as the best. This was the most satisfying moment for me on the project. We had built interactive history, a time-machine that allowed people to experience WWI air combat in a way that a history book or video could not.

AJM: The majority of your games have been simulations of combat – players controlling avatars who are operating war machines. With the advent of remotely piloted drones we’re seeing a new generation of warfare emerge. Any thoughts on the implications of the virtualization of warfare – either on the real-world battlefield or in the virtual world?

DS: Yeah, this brings to mind the episode of Star Trek, A Taste of Armageddon, where two “warring” planets use computers to simulate war without actually firing the weapons. The computers spit out the casualty reports, and citizens marked as casualties are required to step into a disintegration booth where they die bloodlessly and cleanly. The people on the planets prefer this because no one is wounded or maimed, and there is no destruction of property nor disruption of the economy. James Kirk, in his typical cut-the-gordian-knot-fashion, destroys the computers running the simulation, gambling on the fact that if war is no longer clean and sterile, the two planets will most likely choose peace instead of face the actual horrors of war. A brilliant exploration of this topic is Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi couplet “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead”.

I don’t see a lot of connection between games and virtualized warfare other than in form. In virtualized warfare, the operator’s actions are tied directly to real world machines and weapons and the purpose is to alter the real world in real ways: to kill real people and destroy real property. In a game, the player is affecting a virtual world, but even that is not the actual purpose of the game. The game really exists in the mind of the player, and a game designer should be focused on providing the best experience inside the mind of the player more than the best experience on the video screen. Great screenplay writers understand this, too. They have a precise understanding of what the viewer is thinking about in each moment of their film. It’s always about the people, never about the technology.

American Interview: Chris Taylor

Chris TaylorContinuing with a series of interviews geared towards support of our ongoing Oz Kickstarter campaign, I’ve asked designer Chris Taylor a couple of questions.

AJM: Last time you and I talked you were in the middle of your Kickstarter campaign, then came the Wargaming announcement. Can catch me up on what’s happened since the acquisition? What are you working on these days? Is Wildman coming to life or have you shifted towards a “World of…” project?

CT: We’ve been busy since the acquisition working on our “next big thing”, which we have so far announced as a big new Free-to-Play PvP MMO that will continue to expand upon what people love about the Wargaming titles that have been released so far.

AJM: Your Kickstarter was brutally honest and at times very very difficult to watch without being overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and loss. You really laid it on the line… Can you talk a bit about the sort of reaction this generated from the press, your supporters and detractors? Beyond the response from Wargaming (which is great), what was the single most surprising thing that came out of that experience?

CT: It was indeed a very tough, emotional rollercoaster ride, but it was a good experience to go through. I think it got us all a lot closer to the truth about game development, and that ultimately helps more than it hurts. The big thing that I was left with was the enormous support that I received from my friends and the gaming community, there are some truly great people in the world, and it really came through during the campaign.

AJM: A lot of people assume that because we’re in the business of “making games,” life must be easy and stress-free. You showed a different side of the story… and I wonder how you got through. What do you do outside of making games to blow off steam? Any secrets to success in life (not work)?

CT: Making games has always been challenging, right back to the first title we made, Dungeon Siege, when we first started up Gas Powered Games. I remember continuously having the bridge the payroll by using my house as collateral, but looking back, those were great experiences that really made the successes much more meaningful. The best way to blow off steam is to play more games! Seriously though, these days I also like to tinker with electronics thinking up some cool new gadgets that I can take my experience in games and combine that with hardware… it’s good to keep expanding and finding new ways to express myself creatively.

AJM: Conventional business wisdom suggests we not broadcast our struggles, yet your transparency proved that something good can come from letting the world know when we need help. Can you talk about the thinking that went into making the decision to reveal the struggle and the risk you were dealing with? Was it a unanimous decision?

CT: I believe that it came from the belief early on in the process that to be successful on KS, much like doing an AMA on Reddit, that the community expects and appreciates a great deal of transparency. Trying to hide the real truth of what’s going on would not be well received, and we believed that and really took it to heart. We all know what it feels like to have someone “spin” the truth, so I was like, guys, we need to just show it the way it is, and now we should pull back the curtain and let them all the way into the process. Looking back, I understand that this was a very uncommon approach, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re seeing more and more of this openness and it’s a good thing.

American Interview: Chris Vrenna

Continuing with a series of interviews geared towards support of our ongoing OZombie Kickstarter campaign, I’ve asked musician Chris Vrenna a couple of questions. Chris and I met back in the day, while I was at id Software and he was banging drums for Nine Inch Nails. He was instrumental (pun intended) in establishing the tone for the first “Alice” game and I’ve been a fan of his work (Tweaker and other projects) for years. To the interview!

AJM: Let’s start off by getting out of the way some of the basics… Who you are and what you’ve been up to since you made the soundtrack for the first “Alice” game over 10 years ago?

CV: I am Chris Vrenna. I scored your first “American McGee’s Alice” game over 10 years ago. I can’t believe how long it’s been! I have had a pretty amazing post-Alice decade. I released three records by my side project, tweaker. tweaker is primarily a studio collaborative project where I have been fortunate enough to work with many of my personal idols. Robert Smith, David Sylvian, Will Oldham, and Johnny Marr to name a few. I also spent an amazing year or so drumming for Gnarls Barkley. Their single “Crazy” was a massive #1 hit in almost every country in the world. I was honored to play with, and become friends with CeeLo and Dangermouse. And I spent 7 years working with Marilyn Manson. I co-produced and co-wrote the last two records and toured the world as either drummer or keyboard player numerous times. In my “free time” I take on remixing, programming, and/or mixing projects.

AJM: You’re attached to the OZombie Kickstarter campaign as a “Stretch Goal.” Have you ever been a goal of any sort or particularly stretchy? How does it feel to be a Stretch Goal on a KS campaign?

CV: I have never been a goal, “stretch” or otherwise, on a KS campaign. And I am SO excited to once again team up with you (American) to score OZombie. I am the opposite of having any “stretchy” abilities, except maybe time-stretching samples! (Insert rimshot sound effect here.)

AJM: It’s a little early for final thoughts on many things related to the project, but have you had any early thoughts on directions you might take with the music for OZombie? We promise not to hold you too severely to any ideas you might express here.

CV: Wow! It is definitely a little early to talk specifics. But, I am SO inspired by all the early concept art I’ve seen. Like with all your games, the design is so vivid it instantly gets my brain spinning with ideas for both sound palettes and melodies.

AJM: You had a chance to visit Spicy Horse Games in Shanghai back in 2009 (is that right?). Can you share some of the impressions you took away about Shanghai?

CV: I believe it was 2009. It was my first, and still to this day, my only visit to China. I found Shanghai so fascinating and was surprised by how varied the city is culturally and architecturally. The ancient city, the European riverfront, and the incredibly futuristic business district just show the long history of Shanghai.

AJM: What do you do when you’re not creating music? Any hobbies or past-times you’d like to share? Any links between those hobbies and the inspiration you find to make music?

CV: My passion is art. I buy and collect as much art as I can. There is such a connection when a piece of art (whether painting, sculpture, photography, etc) grabs you and draws you to it. It becomes so personal and that’s when you know you just have to buy it so you can feel that connection forever.

AJM: Lastly, do you have a favorite character from the Oz books or films? If so, why?

CV: I have a few favorites. First has to be the flying monkeys. They were the most terrifying creatures as a child. And, at 46 years old, I STILL find them scary. And I have always had a soft spot for the Cowardly Lion. Can’t really put it into words, but I always empathized with him. maybe because I was picked on in school.

American Interview: inXile’s Brian Fargo

While we’re running a Kickstarter campaign for OZombie I’ll be interviewing others who have had experience on the platform. Today, I’m starting with Brian Fargo, leader of inXile, the developers behind Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

AJM: You’ve had a long and amazing career in the industry, made awesome games, built companies and managed great teams. Can you give me your “Top 2” lessons learned – and a little detail on the mistakes or trials that lead to understanding those lessons?

BF: It is difficult to boil my thoughts on building teams and games into THE top 2 lessons but I will take a stab at two very important ones for sure. I find that people spend a lot of time designing a game but not much time designing the company itself and ultimately it is great people that make the games and having the proper dynamic in a team or company is paramount. I get plenty of credit for my role in these games but we all know that these larger products are always about a team of people pitching in ideas and talent, no one person can take credit for it all. Every game I have worked on has become bigger than any one human can do so that leaves it to me to make sure I create the right environment for this kind of magic to flourish. The personalities and talents and morale of the group all need to work if you want to make something special. My mistake in this regard was to spend too many hours trying to get an individual to buy off on the vision when it just wasn’t going to happen. It’s important to get that dynamic in place as soon as possible and protect it fiercely.

And I guess the second part of building a great game is to make sure everyone clearly understands the goals and sensibilities you are trying to achieve. This part is along the same lines as the point above except is more product focused and makes it so that the healthy group you have established can soar. When everyone on the team understands the sensibilities it gives more energy to the production and it allows for more of the team to contribute towards it. And defining things in a set of ideals allows for maximum creativity without getting too attached to a narrow set of ideas. Most often I have seen games go sideways because of a contractually tight payment structure that doesn’t allow for enough of a constant tinkering or if there isn’t enough time in the back end of development for the iteration. I really don’t have a true feel of a game until it is well along and playable and only then can I start to address pacing, balance, sign posting, satisfying effects, areas of boredom and excitement etc.

AJM: “DRM-free” is committed to with both your Kickstarter campaigns. Can you talk a bit about the math behind this commitment? Is there any chance the games will generate meaningful revenue after release (outside of the money raised via Kickstarter)? Do they need to in order for you to be “successful” with them? And what’s the definition of success in this context?

I’m not sure of the math but putting DRM on a game ends up pissing off the legitimate users of the game for an impossible battle against pirating. What’s the point? In general I believe that people who were going to buy your game will most likely do so if you get it in front of them somehow. During my days at Interplay we used to do a fair amount of business with the hardware manufacturers bundling our games with a hard drive or a PC in which they paid us only a few dollars for our games and then they could advertise “Comes with $150 of free games.” Well they would sell hundreds of thousands of units with our games and no matter how much volume they did our retail sales never dipped. There are just audiences of people who are buyers and others that won’t pay or weren’t going to buy it anyway. And beyond that we have been pre-paid to make this game so it would be doubly outrageous to then add DRM to the very people who made it possible. I’m not entirely certain what is possible from a sales perspective outside our backers but I feel pretty strongly that when we deliver the
epic, moody and reactive game that we promised that its sales will match that of other games of scope, scale and excellence.

AJM: What non-gaming topic has you most intrigued these days and why? Just curious if there’s something you’re following in the news that you’d like to share your thoughts on.

I’ve been in the gaming business for 30 years and when I speak to folks outside the field there are generally very few follow up questions when I tell them what I do. But now with crowd funding I have more interest in my business activities and ideas than ever before which further cements how important and powerful this new concept is. I’ve always felt that money in the hands of individuals has a greater chance of doing good and being used to help others over what corporations do with it. Removing the gatekeepers will allow more profit and rights to be held by people who are not beholden to shareholders or feel the need to crush all competition. I like to do my part in helping progress this movement which has come in the form of Kicking it Forward, tweeting about interesting projects, supporting projects financially and giving advice to my crowd funded “competitors” where I can. We need to help make it so more of the money goes into the hands of the people who are actually doing the creation and I know most every creative industry feels the same way.

Alice: Madness Returns @

Madness Returns - Wired Front Page writer Chris Kohler did an interview with myself and RJ Berg where we talked about Alice: Madness Returns. From the article: Since this will probably be many people’s first experience, I’m guessing you’re crafting the game in such a way that you don’t need to have played the original to enjoy it.

McGee: Yeah, but there’s a definite need for us to honor and answer to the existing audience, people who’ve been loyal fans to the property over the years. We’ve done our best to blend together into the story elements from the first game. This is a natural sequel, a narrative sequel to the first game. So we get back in there and people who know the first game are going to have a lot of reward in terms of seeing locations that they may have seen before, characters that they knew from the first game. But it’s certainly not a requirement, bringing this game to console for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 players, for them to have played the PC one.


Off the Map in China

Off The Map in China

Off the Map in China

Gamasutra has posted an interview by Christian Nutt with your truly. It begins with…

Famous for his work with id Software and on EA-published cult classic Alice, American McGee set up shop in Shanghai, China, in 2007 with his new studio, Spicy Horse. Though the company’s first game, Grimm, for the GameTap digital service didn’t make a big splash, McGee maintains that developing the game was instrumental in setting up a tightly-run and efficient organization in China, one which has helped him reexamine the very process of developing games.

In fact, McGee suggests that most of what developers know about working in China is wrong. He suggests that process can lead to a crunch-free environment and great quality games — his team is currently working on a sequel to Alice for EA, for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

Says McGee, “EA has talked about trying to figure out how it is we’re doing what we’re doing, because clearly they’re looking at what we’re doing and they’re seeing us hit all the milestones and come in ahead of time, and come in high quality, and everything that they could ask for from a development team. [But] I don’t know if you could export it.”

Christian and I go on to talk about life and work in China, cultural and development impacts on starting and running a studio in Shanghai, and more. You can read the full article here.

Also, if you’re interested in some of the thinking that originally inspired me to move to China, I suggest you check out “Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic” The book examines how American culture has become obsessed with consumption – and how it’s destroying people’s ability to be happy with themselves and what they have.