Q&A: Naughty Dog's Jason Rubin

Can one idea change an entire industry? The co-creator of Jak and Daxter thinks he has the answer.

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At last week's D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, Naughty Dog founder and Co-president Jason Rubin delivered a piercing indictment of the game industry's treatment of the creative and development communities. He accused the industry of selling games by attaching the showy and ostentatious bells and whistles usually reserved for detergent and other interchangeable product goods.

"Instead of strengthening our industry by promoting talent, publishers are weakening it by making us look like the vodka industry," Rubin said at D.I.C.E. But Rubin's presentation wasn't merely a 45-minute rant. Rubin lent much shading to his critique and pointed out ways the industry needs to change. While his manifesto wasn't entirely fleshed-out, he did state that an improved state of affairs starts with including additional game credits on packaging and increasing the promotion of more than just the founders and top-level personalities from the development studios.

"It's time for us to get together and start thinking as a unit," Rubin said in Las Vegas. Talent needs to "believe in our value, get real about the business, and unite as a community."

Rubin's goal? To get the industry's talent--the designers, programmers, artists, and producers--to think anew about their value to the industry. "The publishers don’t get it. They don’t understand the talent they have at their fingertips."

Suspecting Rubin's remarks were not designed to merely impress, GameSpot spoke with Jason Rubin a couple of days after his D.I.C.E. presentation to scratch further below their already complex surface.

GameSpot: What's the reaction been to your D.I.C.E. presentation?

Jason Rubin: There was a huge reaction to my D.I.C.E. talk about developer value. I had a large number of people, developers, agents, and press comment. So far nobody has said anything negative, but those who do not want to hear what was said won’t be the types to comment directly.

GS: In speaking with developers (primarily smaller-sized, single team shops) after your session, most expressed a feeling of solidarity with what you proposed, but none felt such a unified voice could ever have tangible impact. What's your response to this perspective?

JR: This is the same self-defeating attitude that has brought us where we are today. Certainly it is to be expected that a downtrodden group will have a hard time buying that they actually have the power. We are not in a unique situation, however. Hollywood talent had to fight for its rights versus the studios, and the Writers' Guild had to fight for its rights a few years ago. Both succeeded. To answer your question more directly, Hollywood studios still finance a large proportion of movies, but talent runs the business and is respected. Money is cheap and can be found outside the game industry. Talent is expensive, and only game developers have it.

GS: In what ways do you move ahead and advance the narrative you began at D.I.C.E.? What are your next steps?

JR: Getting developers together to talk. Providing opportunity so that all can speak. I believe that the vast majority of developers share my feelings, but many feel unempowered. I don’t want to unilaterally set any direction. Somebody needed to say something. Somebody needed to refuse to sit at the back of the bus. I did it. Now we have to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak before any specific direction is taken.

GS: Beyond "next steps," what sort of ultimate or substantive goals do you have based on your call to arms? Is there a timeline operating in your mind?

JR: NFL teams don’t call their plays before the snap, I don’t see how that could help the cause.

GS: Have you heard from Sony? If so, what was the reaction? If not, what do you presume their reaction to be?

JR: I would like to clarify a couple of things. First, working with SCEA Product Development has been a flawless and empowering relationship. Naughty Dog would not have had the ability to create a product like Jak II without the support of our producers and the international SCEA Product Development departments. Like developers, they deserve more credit and respect than they get. I was speaking on their behalf at D.I.C.E. as well. Second, my talk was not anti-SCEA any more or less than it was "anti" other publishers. The whole industry has taken a direction that I believe is counter to developer interest, consumer interest, and the interest of the industry as a whole. I haven’t heard from SCEA, and I haven’t heard from any other publisher either. I don’t know that I will.

GS: Are PR and marketing departments good for anything?

JR: Absolutely. Game developers contract many services from the publishers. One is borrowing capital to make the games. Another is manufacturing. A third is contracting PR and marketing divisions to do [what's necessary] to sell the game developers' products. That is always how I have looked at the industry.

GS: How has the Naughty Dog team reacted to your presentation? With support? Silence? Trepidation?

JR: Word has not spread yet about specifically what was said at D.I.C.E., so I don't know that they could respond. SCEA has made this a great environment to make games. I don't see why that would change.

GS: Let's just say that organizing game developers and designers in a way that legitimized their stature and status to the degree you proposed at D.I.C.E. could only be achieved if you were at the helm. Would you be willing to make that change in your career?

JR: Yes. Game development has made it possible for me to never [have to] work again. If we let publishers continue to lead the industry in the direction they are going, then talented game directors of the future won’t have the same opportunities that I have had. I am invested in this, but I don’t think that leaving my day job will be necessary.

GS: Is there a publisher out there who, in your book, "gets it?"

JR: No. Some more, some less. But in a word, "no."

GS: How much of a risk do you think you took in delivering that presentation at D.I.C.E.?

JR: Throughout my career I have always believed that my abilities would carry me through. I always follow my instincts and try to do what is right. I believed this when I threatened to quit making Crash 1 when Universal Studios took Naughty Dog’s logo off the box in direct conflict with the language in our contract. I believed this when I finally left the safety of Crash Bandicoot in exchange for the risk of creating a new franchise (Jak and Daxter) -- and spent $4 million to fund the project until first playable. And I believe that regardless of how publishers feel about what I said at D.I.C.E., they would still rather have me making games for them instead of somebody else.

GS: What do developers risk if they choose not to follow you down this path of demanding more recognition?

JR: The question is how the money pie is going to be split. If developers allow publishers to believe that their “brand” can actually mean something by allowing publishers to obscure the contribution of the developer, then the publisher will demand more of the pie. If we allow Hollywood to believe that it is the publisher, and not the developer, that determines the successes and failures of their franchises in the game space, then the publisher gets more of the pie. If developers cannot make a name for themselves--so that the gamer can follow them from publisher to publisher and from game to game, as they do directors in Hollywood--then it is the publisher that gets more of the pie. And if top talent is not free to choose its projects, then the gamer suffers. Does the industry do better if the titles made are chosen by creative talent or by those who keep the publisher’s stock price high?

GS: Is union a dirty word in your lexicon? Do you see the unionization of the development community an an inevitable outcome of your proposal to empower developers?

JR: Developers need to get together and share information in an environment where they feel free to say what they need to say. Developers share common needs and desires, and it is necessary for them to create a common voice to articulate them. And developers can also use that voice to praise publishers that are good to the development community. Developers have a right to try to push their industry in whatever direction they want to see it go. Call that organization whatever you want--it doesn’t exist yet.

GS: Is the empowerment of the development community the right way to look at this?

JR: The idea is to restructure the industry so that it is healthy, like other talent-driven industries. The idea is to get the developer out of the box and into a world of collaboration with other creative talent. The idea is to recognize and reward the people who keep the industry alive with new product, not the ones who put that product on the shelves. The way to look at it is that we need to give respect where respect is due.

GS: What do you see the rank-and-file developer giving up by going out on a limb and banding together with others?

JR: The question that the "average" developers should be asking themselves right now is, "What is the downside of getting connected to the rest of the development community and exploring the options?" Certainly, the publishers will do nothing differently if they [the developers] do nothing differently. If, after exploration, these developers believe that the gains that might be made by being active in a movement outweigh the costs, then let them join. If that is not the case, then they can walk away. It is my contention that the publishers can afford a disruption of the business no more than the developers. I would hope that it never comes to this, but I have not met a developer that feels comfortable with the current situation. I interviewed dozens of them over the last eight months, while working on this talk, and I have not met a single one. The value in the game industry lies in the talent. If that talent is not happy, then something has to change.

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