Last week, Dave Perry helped close out the Austin Game Developers Conference with an on-stage Q&A session conducted by GDC director Jamil Moledina. In the hour-long discussion, the Shiny founder retraced his career, from his earliest games to Top Secret, one of six massively multiplayer online role-playing games he's currently working on for Acclaim.
After his session, Perry sat down with GameSpot for a follow-up interview delving deeper into some of the issues already touched upon, and exploring a few more for the first time. Over the course of half an hour, Perry talked about the increasingly high-stakes world of game development, and how upstart developers can get a foothold. He also candidly discussed his own views, explaining how Nintendo's success could bode ill for the rest of the industry, and how close Shiny came to a "Hot Coffee" scalding of its own.
GameSpot: Early on in your AGDC session, you said there used to be no problem with meeting your game design idols and then just talking to them all day at trade shows. That accessibility isn't there in the industry right now, but the developers that do have name recognition are held up as celebrities a bit more. Are we better or worse for the trade-off?
Dave Perry: I personally think [accessibility] is a good thing because it's very inspirational, so I wish it were there more. With blogs there is some accessibility. If you like David Jaffe's games, you can get to him through his blog. It's not a perfect model right now for [meeting respected developers], but it certainly is inspirational when you realize they're just normal people. They're just people who like games and worked really hard and did something interesting.
GS: In your session, Jamil mentioned always being afforded some level of creative control in your games. At the same time, you worked on a slew of licensed titles. How did you wind up with control over games when they were based entirely on someone else's IP?
DP: That's a strange one, and the answer is trust. They believe you know what you're doing, and they don't want to get involved in every little detail, so they generally will just say, "OK, sounds good!" In certain cases they'll have some opinion. With The Matrix, they really had very clear opinions on what they wanted. They said we were going to start in a post office. And we were like, "Post office? How are we going to make a post office fun?" But it's not negotiable. To some extent, that becomes a challenge.
GS: As games have gotten to be a bigger business, are companies getting more hands-on about how their brands are represented?
DP: My experience has been they're very much taking it seriously. Most of the time companies have interactive producers now, so there's someone there from the game industry who plays a lot of games and isn't going to swallow any bulls***. It's not like the old days.
GS: You've dealt with people expanding their intellectual property (IP) into games, and with Earthworm Jim, you handled expanding your game IP into the rest of the world. Did that look at the other end of the process make you understand the problems and concerns of the IP holder a little better?
DP: It actually is quite difficult to let other people take something you love that belongs to your team and go and start tweaking it. We had all kinds of issues with Earthworm Jim where things got done and we just didn't like it. The Halloween masks had a pointy head and made you look like an idiot. But the momentum gets going and you can't control every little detail unless you have a gigantic licensing department, which we didn't have.
It is interesting that if you're going to keep controlling this stuff, you're going to have to start staffing up to keep doing it, and that's dangerous because you can't predict what you're going to build that's going to need it. Otherwise the department's going to be just twiddling their thumbs wondering where the next license is for them to work with.
GS: One of your side projects is Game Investors, a company specifically set up to help developers find funding for their projects. Is that problem of getting start-up costs becoming even more acute for developers, or is it easier to get funding now than it was when you were starting up?
DP: It's probably 100 times harder, maybe 1,000. It's amazing to me how many people pull it off, because it's so difficult to get that funding.
GS: Is it getting any easier with things like Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, and the casual scene taking off?
DP: Yeah, that's helping a lot. It's helping small indie teams get visible because they can post a demo and the publisher might spot that. But that's always been there. There have always been ways to get your game seen.
GS: The industry's really starting to embrace alternate means of distribution. Do you think it will ever embrace alternate forms of funding for projects?
DP: I think you're going to see all kinds of models. There's going to be the standard model you have today, with the publishers funding the games. But with the lower development costs of smaller games, you're going to have some developers pay for it themselves. If [your studio] goes to Quebec, they will pick up certain of your costs. You'll have microfinancing, which means you'll get a large group of people to put small amounts in together, which is something the Internet will make successful.
Then you'll also get the wealthy people. There are some very wealthy individuals in the world where the money doesn't matter. So if I said, "Would you like to make a video game starring your son and it'll cost $1 million," they'd think it was the coolest thing. Another one is doing two projects simultaneously. So you take the funding project, which isn't what you want to make, but you do it because it funds your engine development, which is needed for the game you want to make. I have friends doing that.
GS: You talked a bit about believing your own hype giving you the opportunity to make games that probably shouldn't have been made and the belief that you could get away with it. What brought you back down to earth?
DP: At the end of the day, it's all about sales, right? That decides everything because that's the gamers voting with their pocketbooks. It is the games business, so if you want to keep funded and keep going, you have to have the lightning strike every single time. And it gets tough to do. ... To really pull it off these days, you have to blow people away. You have to do a BioShock or something for everyone to agree it's a high-quality piece of software. ... You have to really, really care now to get into a big title from scratch. You have to be excited by the idea. So I think that's probably where I'm at now. Unless the idea really grabs me and I think it's just fantastic, I don't know if I'm going to give it three or four years of my life.
That's why it's worked out really well for me [at Acclaim]. Currently I'm just learning about the MMO market and I'm trying to absorb as much information as fast as possible. At the same time, our 2Moons game is already a hit. It's a profitable title, we have 500,000 downloads...
GS: Is Bots profitable?
DP: I believe so. To my knowledge, every Acclaim title so far has made money. It's been interesting. It could have been an absolute black hole for money, but it hasn't turned out to be that way. There's no risk they're going to go away.
GS: You mentioned the Wii as a disruptive innovation in the gaming industry, and Jamil drew a parallel to digital cameras essentially making old Polaroids all but obsolete. Do you think traditional games are actually going to be hurt by the Wii's success?
DP: To carry the analogy forward, I think if Nintendo keeps innovating this way and nobody else does, it could spell doom and gloom for [those who don't innovate]. They're reacting. They're not just sitting back. The concern was price as well. Prices were very high, but they're realizing that and they're trying to get the prices down. They're also adding on more and more features, like the EyeToy, the Xbox Vision camera, that keyboard so you can type on the controller...
But nobody's going to be able to respond to it this time around. The question is what happens next time around. Are they going to ignore [the Wii] like it never happened and just keep the arms race going? Or are they going to try to play the Nintendo game, which is to go for the mass market? That's going to be where the answer happens. If Nintendo somehow keeps going in this direction--if they innovate yet again and surprise us all again--that could be bad. That could be very unhealthy for everybody else.
GS: You said the ESRB gave you flak for a lesbian kiss in Enter the Matrix when you were trying to get a T rating. Did you have any other issues with the ESRB when you were working on console games?
DP: Not really. It's not a fun job dealing with the ESRB because they make you expose everything in the game. Being a game developer, when I heard what happened with Take-Two, I understood exactly how that went down.
DP: Yeah, I know, god. It's Hot Coffee. [The ESRB] is very clear, it's not gray. They want to see anything in the game that could have any questionable content to it at all, and they want it all on video so they can sit down and watch it. And it's very difficult doing all the paperwork and preparing everything... It's clear that whoever filled the forms out didn't know. It's a simple mistake to make. The developer put something in the game.
I caught a developer doing that once at Shiny. He was doing artwork on packages in the post office for Enter the Matrix. Because he knew we couldn't see what the text said on the packages because it was just a blurry blob, he was putting swear words on the packages. And he was absolutely getting away with it.
Then we started doing the PC title, where everything was [higher resolution]. I was like, "Dude, what the hell do you think you're doing?" And he'd forgotten all about it, which is even worse. He did it as a joke and then forgot. So if we were filling out the forms, we would never have known to fill that out. In that situation, you can see how the mistakes could happen. We did ship OK, but it's the kind of scenario where I can see this happening quite often where somebody's joking around and they wind up getting caught because of it.
GS: Why doesn't Acclaim have its games rated?
DP: The games I'm involved in are not sold at retail. It's something they'll probably end up having to do, but right now we're just superclear on what the game is. With 2Moons, it says all over that it's for adults only. We're trying to be as clear as we can possibly be... Applying to the ESRB and going through all that stuff wouldn't help. We're not trying to slip it through. It's really necessary when you want to be lower than you are, because then you have to work out trying to be a Teen. I'm not trying to be a Teen.
GS: If you're really up front and really clear with the consumers about it, what pressures will eventually force you to get rated?
DP: We will end up doing it, just out of support for the ratings system. At some point I'll probably say to Acclaim, "Please get this done." I can't really justify it right now. If we wake up the next morning and we have a little "M" on our site, it's not going to make any difference.
GS: Legislators in this country have been trying to regulate games for more than a decade now. While their efforts consistently get overturned, games like Manhunt 2 seem to come out at a pretty steady clip to reignite the debate. Do publishers and developers have any obligations when it comes to resolving this issue for the industry as a whole?
DP: That's a really good question. I just think of all media as the same. Anything you want to write or draw, you're free to do so. If there's a market for it, great. If there's not a market for it, it's because you chose to do something that people don't want. ... You can be as controversial as you want to be, but none of the retailers will touch it with a pole. There will be no distribution. Effectively, it kills itself.
So there's a line, and the line is very much determined by the retailers deciding this is acceptable or not acceptable. And they make the decision based on the rating that the game carries. So the system works. The fact that they pay attention to the ratings is actually very important. That's why when an AO-rated title comes along, it's a dead game. It may be a cult hit on eBay, but it's not going to sell 5 million copies or anything.