Jaffe, Capps, Garriott fire up hot topics

DICE 2010: Leading independent developers sound off on casual games, storytelling, and developer independence on insider convention's opening day; Telltale's Connors and Gas Powered Games' Taylor also chime in.

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LAS VEGAS--Though the DICE Summit's acronym isn't that well known--it stands for Design, Innovate, Communicate, and Entertain--some of its presenters are household names in the game industry. At a "Hot Topics" panel held Wednesday, several leading lights of game development took the stage to convey their thoughts about the state of the interactive entertainment industry.

David Jaffe certainly switched gears in Calling All Cars.

CRANE AND JAFFE GET CASUAL
First up were two legends in the core game community who have recently decided to dabble in the casual market. David Jaffe, late of Sony Computer Entertainment and founder of Calling All Cars creator Eat Sleep Play, was joined by David Crane, creator of the Activision classic Pitfall, released for the Atari 2600 system in 1982.

"When I started games it was a one-man project," recalled Crane some 28 years later. "And I really liked the one-man projects because I could excel in all the projects I like to excel at."

For Crane, hardcore gaming began in the arcades, where each title would try to one-up the next. "It was a chicken and the egg situation," he reminisced. "They wouldn't have made Defender if it hadn't been for Space Invaders. They evolved."

Now, though, Crane is focusing on courting the casual customer with an all-new venture, AppStar Games, dedicated to iPhone development. Crane's previous company, Skyworks, released its first iPhone game, Arcade Hoops Basketball, in 2008. Since then, the platform has become Crane's favorite to develop on.

However, that doesn't mean that making games for Apple's ubiquitous device is without its risks. Crane is concerned about the low bar for iPhone games, which can be made by just a few people. However, he feels it's hard for small companies to compete with a "$50 million game from EA…you know they call their casual games 'gamettes'?"

Jaffe's foray into casual games began much more recently, when he left the God of War development team in 2007 to found Eat Sleep Play. Following the release of the PlayStation Network racer Calling All Cars, he said he has agonized over striking the balance between mass-market appeal and game quality.

"The very thing I struggle with as a designer right now is what is satisfying to the average consumer," explained Jaffe. "I'll watch my brother who's not in the game industry at all, and he's like ducking and really into it, and I'm like 'Really?' But he's more representative of the average consumer, so I am respectful of that."

That said, Jaffe knows that just because a game is popular that doesn't necessarily mean it's good. He debated with an audience member about whether Mario Kart Wii's sales makes it a great game. Jaffe thinks the title--which remains a best-seller nearly two years after its release--is a great game but doesn't feel a game can be "great" just for being popular. "Avatar is the top movie, but is it the best? Sales don't equal quality. That's bulls*** and you know it."

Telltale's Sam & Max franchise relies heavily on story.

GARRIOT & CONNORS ON STORY
Next to take the stage were Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games (Sam & Max), and Richard Garriott, the game designer behind the famed Ultima series and the infamous Tabula Rasa. The two were asked by moderator Adam Sessler of G4 to debate the importance of story versus gameplay. Garriott, who just joined open-source social-networking company Portalarium, wasted no time in sharing his opinion.

"As long as we're in a Moore's Law era [where technology advances rapidly], gameplay is going to trump story," he declared. "The vast majority of attempts to include narrative are failures. I was giving a speech at West Texas University and somebody said they wanted to pen interactive dialogue, and I asked myself, 'Do I know any people who can write interactive dialogue?' And the answer is 'No.' Do I know anyone who could mentor this person and teach them? The answer is 'No.'"

Connors disagreed, saying that narrative in gaming is much more than dialogue. "Story is everywhere in gaming right now. It's in level design, it's in context," he explained. "There's a lot more headroom in story. … If you want to tell a great story, hire great storytellers. We need to get Hollywood involved."

Garriott's response was quick: "I've hired high-priced screenwriters, and I've found that they can't write interactive dialogue." He thinks that dialogue in games should be kept to a minimum and that emotional reactions can be created by giving a player dramatic choices. As an example, he held up a situation from Ultima IV in which players opened a cage full of children--who promptly turned into monsters and attacked the players.

Though his father, mother, and brother Robert all begged him to excise the scene, Garriott left it in. As a result, during the QA process, one tester resigned in protest, saying he could not be part of an organization that endorses child abuse.

Garriott found the resignation both hilarious and gratifying. Grinning, he declared, "To get that emotional of a reaction was a victory. There's great value in those reactions."

Demigod cost at least one child a college education.

TAYLOR AND CAPPS GET INDEPENDENT
Last but not least, Gas Powered Games cofounder Chris Taylor and Epic Games president Mike Capps--who was sitting in for Double Fine's Tim Schafer--sat down to discuss independent game development. Taylor began by warning of how indie developers--including his own company--can become quite dependent on publishers just to pay the bills.

"I think we fell into a rut these past years where you're dependent on a check coming from a publisher every couple years. That's not really independence," said Taylor. "I've been stubborn at times and there's a lot of independent developers out there who don't have that luxury. There's a lot of developers out there who have to make payroll and they get slaved to this model."

Taylor then admitted that his company's last game, the coolly received real-time strategy game Demigod (2009), cost him dearly. "My children will probably not go to college because of Demigod," he joked.

Capps, whose company is flush with cash from its hit Gears of War series and popular Unreal Engine middleware, concurred. "Independence is not needing to ask for money," he said. However, Capps also said that self-promotion is vital in building an independent developers' brand.

"I think it's really important to put your name forward. You want [the marketing] to say 'Epicgames.com' not 'Publishername.com.' I mean you see Infinity Ward, you want to buy it. You see Activision, and you don't."

However, Capps does think that publishers have an important role to play, especially when it comes to marketing a game. "I don't know the first thing about marketing. I slap [Epic design director] Cliff [Bleszinski] onstage and hope he does well. But someone has to buy ads on Hong Kong subways, and I can't do that."

Discussion

13 comments
Synther33
Synther33

I find it funny that Garriott's attitude on story seems to have changed so much over the last 2 years. His primary goal in Tabula Rasa was to make it more story driven and give more interactive dialogue. After the first 2 zones, that kind of interaction dropped off completely and he had always promised that it was going to be brought into other zones in future patches. I think the failure in story telling isn't so much a fact that it can not be done as much as it is a fact that he failed in bringing it to his own creation.

selbie
selbie

Garriott seems to be taking the concept of Story too literally. Games like Half Life, Sam & Max, Zelda, Mass Effect etc have shown unequivocally that story can be the backbone of a great game. Of course gameplay will always come first. IT'S A GAME. But without a good story (ie. progression of a character and plot) to keep the player interested, the game won't be as enjoyable.

akiwak
akiwak

Gamers are growing up getting old and having responsibilities, much like myself. I now want my games to tell a good story also. The first console game I played that had me drawn into the story was Max Payne, after that I kept looking for the next best story. To bad for me though as not to many games actually have a story at all. Gamers grow up, that's life; my 6 year old can play Ben 10 and think it is the hottest thing out there. I on the other hand just picked up Heavy Rain and can't put it down!!!!!

VarietyMage
VarietyMage

Actually, Garriott is stating precisely how he feels. That's why he sold Origin to EA and subsequently left. He made Ultima 7/2, 8 and 9 as reaction against how people felt concerning the playing of "The Avatar" and the required virtue. There were published interviews about it back in the day - he deliberately made Ultima 8: Pagan to make the Avatar do things that Garriott thought would be unvirtuous and upsetting. Why? Because he thought The Avatar's lifestyle was completely inplausible, and he wanted to deconstruct what (ironically) he constructed. He noted specifically that people were playing Ultima 5 and 6 without stealing, even without being prompted. THAT is what made him successful, whether he likes it or not. The real reason he couldn't hire people to write dialogue is because at his core, he was against the entire story in the first place, and nothing would seem right to him. And damn him for ruining a good story by selling it to EA, who promptly turned into an MMO and killed the original story. I still have all of the Ultima series, including the cloth maps and the floppy disks, all the way back to the Commodore 64 days. With the recurring characters over the entire saga, it felt like an epic story I was a part of. Damn him again, I miss it so much.

TheZorker
TheZorker

It's kind of funny that Richard Garriott, of all people, is ridiculing storytelling. I still think his crowning achievement was Ultima 6, where the ultimate goal was to NOT beat someone's head in. But I think I shall have to set my hamster on the eyeballs on the next person to say that sales are not indicative of quality. Go check out Batman: Arkham Asylum (which had a reasonably good story of its own) or Mass Effect 2. No. Seriously.

Arksa
Arksa

Someone said need great storytellers,let's get hollywood involved(paraphrased)... If you invent a time machine or visit the Brentwood ole folks home maybe. Blind leading the blind ~sigh~

TheoleDominion
TheoleDominion

@JanusStormsword - Agreed. Unless they find better cost-effective way to develope great games, this may be an on-going trend. Unfortunately, since how well a game sells determines what's made, people who do this for a living are going to go where the money is. It would be great for developers could create games freely regardless how much it cost or sells, but businesses don't operate that way. Passion,Quality,Innovation, and Creativity doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't make money.

JanusStormsword
JanusStormsword

Nice to see at least one guy (Jaffe) is aware of the fact that he's selling out, and has at least some reservations about it. It's just sad seeing gaming pioneers like these abandon the industry and go after the casual market. Nothing they can say would convince me it's about anything but the Benjamin's. No self respecting game designer would make a crappy Facebook social game for the masses, rather than the next great PC or console game for real gamers.

TheoleDominion
TheoleDominion

I disagree with Jaffe...There's no way to objectively say what's good, better, or best. It's impossible, since those are all relative to that individual gamer. If I ask you all of you what's the "best" game you ever played, I'm likely to get several different answers. So sales is best way to determine what's great, since it has the backing of enough people voting with their dollars. Though games that are successful on the market does NOT mean YOU would like the game. That's an individual preference. The word "quality" of the game is relative too. I've seen games with great "quality" graphics,storyline,combat-systems etc.. you name it, but there was ALWAYS someone on the other side of the aisle who didn't agree. So even the term "quality" is different from person to person, because it depends if the "product" has what that particular person deemed as what's important to them. Besides you'll find it very hard to define what's "great" or "quality' regarding anything in the "entertainment" field.

dok_dx
dok_dx

"Sales don't equal quality. That's *** and you know it." So true! Case in point Britney Spears sells a lot of songs on itunes and cds but she is far, far from being a quality singer. It just goes to show that the masses like crap over quality.

dok_dx
dok_dx

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Dualmask
Dualmask

" ...Sales don't equal quality. That's bulls*** and you know it." " That depends entirely upon who you ask, doesn't it? It stands to reason that even if a crappy product sells well out of the gate (like, say, Just Dance) that means someone thought it was good. But word of mouth will ensure that the game won't go far in sales or have legs...unless it provides something that consumers want to pay for. And what consumers consider to be worth paying for is entirely subjective. Sales may not necessarily equal quality all the time, but that doesn't make the opposite true either. The fact that Mario Kart Wii continues to sell means that a great number of people think it's high quality--certainly higher than what people may think of GTA IV today.

Rottenwood
Rottenwood

Dropping dialog in games? I dunno. A lot of it sucks, sure, but that's a testament to the low ability and inexperience of the writers. Have your scribes stop watching anime flicks for a month and have them take some screenwriting and theatre classes instead. Dialog can be VERY effective. BioWare, Telltale, and Toys For Bob do it just fine.