Earlier this month, Acclaim Games unveiled Project: Top Secret, a new massively multiplayer online game designed with the input of a community of gamers. Not only will the game give credit to all those whose work appears in the game, but one contributor will be singled out by Acclaim and entrusted with directing a future major MMO game from the company.
The man responsible for cobbling together the array of ideas, art, animation, and audio produced by the community is Acclaim's chief creative officer David Perry. Best known as the founder of Shiny Entertainment (Enter the Matrix, Earthworm Jim), Perry has joined the reincarnation of Acclaim and is currently directing 2Moons, Dance!, and Project: Top Secret. He took time out from his development duties this week to discuss exactly how he intends to keep Top Secret from becoming an example of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
GameSpot: How much of Top Secret do you have planned out already?
David Perry: It's a very complicated thing as you can imagine, because very soon we're going to be running the biggest video game development team in the history of video games. There are no books I can buy to sort of give me a plan of attack. We're having to literally just think about all the issues we expect to come up. How is this going to work? If we have hundreds of people going off with different ideas in different directions, how do we keep it all under control?
I think the clear plan of attack is to lay out the first game in a very clear and straightforward way. We'll say, "Here's the genre we want to go for and here are some ideas to start the discussion." And then let them go from there.
The moderators will pull them together as far as keeping them focused. We'll take votes on it; sometimes we'll have people coming in to help decide the winner of something. The most important thing is we'll be directing this so it's not just a crazy forum of people talking about random stuff. The goal is to try and keep them all going forward. We'll be working through the individual milestones just like a professional game. We're starting with a prototype and they're all going to get copies of that, like a build so they can play at home, and get more ideas and talk about that as we move forward to get to the next milestone.
GS: Is there a concern about running into a problem of game design by committee, of not having one unified vision guiding the development of this all the way through?
DP: Yeah, that's really why we have to have the director running the project. As you can imagine, people come up with the most crazy ideas and what we want to do is say, "This one we really like. This one's a little too weird." And we'll focus on that one and we'll move forward and get a whole bunch of new ideas. The design-by-committee thing is definitely going to happen to some extent, but it's going to be controlled. And that's why it's absolutely essential to have a director, and that's also why we're offering the directorship for the second game. They're going to be required to pull it off and get their game done as well.
GS: David, you've almost certainly spent the last decade having people come up to you with their ideas about what would make a great game. Aren't you tired of this by now?
DP: [laughs] That's a great question. I have my own forums, and on there we had all these people who would come up with these ideas. Sometimes they would have a 100-page design document completely done, but they don't have any friends that can program or do any art or that kind of stuff. So I put a wiki up and said if anyone wants to take their design and post it on the wiki, they're welcome to. And then you can invite programmers or artists that come to our site to join in, and that's completely working.
We have little teams on my site right now working on their own projects. But what they keep asking is if I'll get involved and help them on their game. I would love to, but I just don't have the time. This is that on steroids. It's kind of what they wanted, but it's taken to a much higher level. These people are going to be making a professional shipping title, and Acclaim is going to be publishing it. Of course, offering someone the chance to be a director is pretty cool, too.
GS: People generally have a good idea about what a director does in the film industry. What does one do in the game industry though?
DP: It's actually a big job, a lot bigger than it first seems. It doesn't mean just pointing your finger and saying, "Go do this. Go do that." Ultimately, they are going to get into the trenches. They're going to be talking about the game design in every facet, every little detail. It's funny. When Howard [Marks, Acclaim CEO] and I talk about the games we're doing right now, we're talking about subtle little things. Can we move this icon over here? Can we change the camera angle on this here? Can we change the timing on the way this is displayed? It's every little single piece of the game: the audio, the animation, the programming, the interface. Every single piece, they're going to have to discuss, have ideas on, and have opinions on.
GS: What restraints will the winner have on the next game, just that it has to be an MMO game for the PC?
DP: The vision for Acclaim is to focus on online games, so no question it's going to be online. Also, we like big audiences. We like the idea of there being lots of people coming in and playing. And it's very important that [the game] is free.
I just think the industry is going in the wrong direction. When we went from $50 to $60 [per game], that's the wrong direction. I'm incredibly supportive of the idea of trying to find a way to change how we fund, change how we license, change how we do all the various parts of it so that we're able to actually offer the experience for free.
It's a very good exchange because it also removes the whole concept of piracy. Our industry freaks out over piracy and these games take care of it. It also facilitates concepts like this, because then we can give away builds of the game to people, and we don't mind if they give them to their friends or let their friends see it. It's really not going to hurt the company.
GS: The premise of the competition has a strong "reality TV" feel to it. Will there be any sort of public chronicling of the development process for people to follow like an American Idol season?
DP: That's one of the funny things that happened when we said we were going to do this. People said, "So you're making a TV show?" [laughs] It's not a TV show. We want people to do this from their bedrooms so that anyone, anywhere can give it a try. It would be great if we could get some Web sites to support it and to actually create an area where people can keep track of it and see what's going on.
I know there's going to be a lot of industry people that see this as a crazy idea, but they're going to be very interested to see what the result is. ... Then there's going to be people in the forums that are scouting for talent. I'm expecting to see lots of headhunters and development team HR people prodding around, looking at the art that's getting generated, listening to the audio samples and all that stuff. I expect to see some serious recruitment going on in the background, and that's something we fully support. The idea here is to expose talent and to show that it's out there.
GS: Outside of a credit on a game, what do the participants whose work is used but who don't win the grand prize walk away with? Do they get any compensation?
DP: It would be impossible to pay everybody because there might be more than 1,000 people working on this. But we're probably going to announce some more competitions that will end up in jobs. I'm certainly going to be recruiting out of the forums for my company [GameConsultants.com]. I know Acclaim's going to be watching, and I expect other companies to do the same.
[The participants] will get credit. They'll get experience, which is valuable too. I also think if they do show their talent, even if they don't win, they'll still probably get a job offer from someone.
GS: How soon can people expect to see Top Secret hit the market?
DP: At the start, people assumed we were just going to make World of Warcraft or something like that, which would be crazy as our first project. I want to do something very straightforward so that everyone knows that style of game, enjoys that style of game, and will have plenty of ideas on what they can do.
We're going to make sure that the first title is finishable. It's not going to be this gigantic, behemoth five-year project. My personal goal is to be shipping within 12 months. If we aim for 12 months, it means every single month there will be major improvements in the title. You know the way normally a game takes 18-24 months? I think it would be pretty fun to bring in consumers and actually end up making a game faster. I'd like to show that having a lot of people involved actually speeds things up instead of slowing it down.
GS: Thanks a lot, Dave.