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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.


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.
David Jaffe certainly switched gears in Calling All Cars.

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.
Telltale's Sam & Max franchise relies heavily 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.
Demigod cost at least one child a college education.

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 '' not '' 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."

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