[Have had this interview sitting on computer for months. Nobody wants to buy it. Must smell bad or something. Richard Lemarchand is co-lead designer at Naughty Dog. They make Uncharted, which has lots of jumping in. Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey are from Tale of Tales. They made The Path and wrote the notgames manifesto. Found myself in the same room as all three. Tried to shit-stir. They all made friends.]
I wanted to get all you guys together because the presentation you did together [at GameCity] was very good at highlighting your separate approaches to game design. But I wanted to ask about the differences and conflicts that might arise between independent developers and huge commercially mega-successful developers. Richard, your focus would be on accessibility so as many people could enjoy it as possible, but Tale of Tales would be more of a niche. Would you all agree with that?
Michaël Samyn: I totally disagree. I think it’s the opposite.
Richard Lemarchand: And I also think it’s the opposite.
Michaël: Shit. We’re going to agree on everything!
Richard: [laughs] All right then, I disagree! I couldn’t disagree more!
Michaël: No, I think it’s like Richard was saying during the talk. I think [Naughty Dog] have an audience to deal with. So they work for the expectations of this particular group. While we are working at least for an undefined group. Our ambition is to reach out to people who have already decided for themselves that they didn’t like games and so we wanted [to say] ‘Yeah but maybe you’ll like this’ – and that happens. We get these kind of responses. You know, “I don’t like games but I would play yours.” That hasn’t really paid off commercially yet [laughs] but there could be other reasons for that, a particular style, et cetera. So I would say yes, obviously the group of players Uncharted reaches is much, much larger but I would think they’re more homogenous than the kinds of people we reach.
Richard: I mean, there’s a sense in which what you say is correct. I think Naughty Dog are a bit different as a triple-A game developer because we have deliberately tried to reach a broader audience, broader than many other triple-A games might try to reach. And this has been part of Naughty Dog’s philosophy since the very early days of the company. It’s why they went to such lengths to playtest the Crash Bandicoot games and polish off the sharp corners of the experience in those games. We’re famous for saying we do a lot of playtesting and of course it also is reflected in our emphasis on storytelling. We’ve wanted to bring a broader more general audience to videogames through the mechanisms of storytelling. It’s good to reach people through their emotions, I think, and it’s kind of reflected in the fact that we hear quite a lot from gamers that their family members will sit and watch them play an Uncharted game in the way that they won’t for other kinds of games. So in that sense we’re going for a broad audience. But I think that Michaël and Auriea are right in that the gaming audience has very specialised tastes and when you’re making games for that crowd it’s very important to think about those tastes. But there are all these other people who don’t yet play videogames who could be getting so much out of this amazing form.
Auriea Harvey: So therefore we don’t really have to think of a specific audience. But we think of people.
Some elements of Naughty Dog will be thinking of that audience in terms of a market. Does Tale of Tales think that as well and want your games to be commercially successful?
Michaël: It depends on the project. There are some projects that are more like research. Not that we don’t want to show them – that’s part of the research, to show them too. Things that we want to explore. Things that we want to do. And then there’s other projects, like The Path as the main example… where we do feel, “OK, this has potential to speak to a lot of people.” So we do thorough playtesting and see what we can do to achieve our goals in terms of what people feel when they play. So it depends. It’s not so black and white, where indies don’t care about the market and triple-A [developers] are concerned only about the market.
It’s not black and white but I wanted to see if any of you felt that difference. Because it’s a strong sentiment among indies that they are less concerned with commercialism.
Auriea: Well, yeah. But you kind of can’t help it [laughs].
Richard: I gotta say I take issue with the suggestion that at Naughty Dog we think first about the market.
No, I don’t mean it that way. Because as a developer you want to make a good game anyway, right?
Richard: What we think first about is the player. You know, human beings who are going to pick up the controller of something that we make. And all of the good game designers that I know think in this way. I think any time you try and second guess the human beings that might be interested in the thing you’re making in any commercial way you’re onto a losing [streak].
I’m not suggesting that the creative components of a studio would think that way but perhaps the marketing ends of a company?
Richard: Well, of course. If you work in a marketing department then your concern is with communicating to a potential audience that you have something they might be interested in.
That’s what I mean. Big developers will always have people employed to do that but indie developers maybe less so?
Richard: Everyone has the possibility of doing that though. When you think about a band like the Smiths who went from being a small band in Salford playing in working men’s clubs in front of maybe a few dozen people to – in just a few months – being the biggest band in Britain. They went about that not through Marketing in any formal sense but through something that’s a very important related concept – which is word of mouth and finding your audience, finding people who might be interested in your music, who share your values. In the case of games I think it’s just the same. I think that’s why indie games are so exciting right now. All of a sudden we have evidence of the fact that there are people out there who share a certain kind of values about what games could be and who are interested and who have, you know, a pound or two to spend on it. It’s like the breakout success of Sword & Sworcery EP. The fact that that went from being a side project for Capy to being this enormous hit on the App Store is testament to the idea that the audience is there and that it’s important for creative people to learn and understand how to relate to it.
You brought up music during your talk, when Richard described Tale of Tales’ work as the equivalent of punk music. It feels less like punk to me and more like ‘New Age’.
Michaël: I would describe it as Baroque actually [laughs].
Auriea: No, we’re definitely more Baroque.
Richard: Yeah, Cactus is punk.
Auriea: Anna Anthropy, definitely.
Messhof is punk.
Richard: Exactly, yeah yeah yeah.
Auriea: I like this.
Richard: Whereas you guys, I didn’t mean to draw that direct connection.
Auriea: No no no, we didn’t mind.
Michaël: We’re actually post-punk.
Richard: That’s more like it.
Auriea: New Wave!
Michaël: Actually, we’ve cleared it up… [This happened when] Frank Lantz once said that Doom is rock ‘n’ roll. And I picked up on that and said “Well, if Doom is rock ‘n’ roll then The Path is punk.” And then somebody in the comments said, “No no no, you’re wrong!” – because, you know, geeks – “According to this definition, you should be post-punk!” And that’s when we learned we were post-punk.
As long as you’re not post-pop-punk-rock.
Auriea: Oh no, let’s not go down there.
Okay, let’s move on. Some of the observations recently made about Uncharted are that it’s sometimes more like an interactive movie. That it sometimes takes control away from the player.
Auriea: We get the same comments though.
I don’t think it’s necessarily meant as a bad thing.
Michaël: In a way, I think in Uncharted it’s almost a revolutionary thing. Not so much the interactive movie kind of thing but the fact that it’s linear. And it really takes you through an entire story and it’s almost like you can’t do anything wrong. I think that’s quite rare to do that kind of thing. The only strange thing about it is that every once in a while you have to stop and shoot a hundred [bad guys]. Which is just weird.
Auriea: That’s the thing I kept saying when I was watching and playing. I was like, “Why is the shooting in here?” Because everything else was doing it for me. Then all of a sudden: “Why is he – oh, okay we’re gonna shoot something.”
Michaël: Not just the shooting though but also –
Aureia: No, I wanted to take the shooting out of it, literally. Because it seemed to me that in most games I’m always complaining that a [company makes a] shooter and they sort of smear art on top of it. You know, like Bioshock or something where it’s like an excuse for the shooter. Your game totally didn’t feel like that to me at all. It felt like this was a genuine experience –
Michaël: A story. You want to tell a story.
Auriea: I even love the action parts where he’s half falling out of some plane and you have to climb. I thought that was really cool. But then every so often you would just get the feeling like, “If they would just take the shooting out of this part” or “Oh no, somebody’s gonna show up and I’m gonna have to shoot them, right? Right!?”
Richard: No, I understand that and there are other people who feel like you as well. But we’re making a game for a certain audience, we kind of talked about this this morning.
Auriea: Yeah, I know. But I think it’s an interesting game – that’s the only reason I was disappointed [laughs].
Richard: The way I see it, the shooting – which has a relationship of course to the traversal and the way you take cover in the world and the other combat elements – all of that stuff is very richly game-like in the way that we formally define games, like we talked about this morning. Because there’s a win condition and a lose condition and there’s this compact but rich set of rules that allow you to make strategic choice in this space. And that adds up to what I think of as a kind of ‘carry signal’ for all the other stuff that happens in the game – the atmosphere and the story. It’s a way that we can sort of bring our audience of videogame players who have grown up engaged in these kinds of play activities along with us as we take them on this emotional journey through this sequence of events. And I’m interested in the potential of this kind of approach because I think already we’re starting to see games like… we were talking [earlier] about that match-three levelling game… Puzzle Quest.
Auriea: And Dungeon Solitaire.
Richard: Right, these games where you have this very rich game-like core mechanic with this wrapper of RPG progression built around them but it’s really very new and very revolutionary. That’s just one example of the kinds of things you can do when you use ‘game’ as a carrier signal for all this other rich stuff that we associate with the arts.
Michaël: But would you say that you’re step-by-step trying to move away from that? Because I see that in your evolution as a designer. Like you’re trying to educate your audience to stop wanting all that.
Richard: Well, it depends. I wouldn’t like to speak about – yet – about the kind of things Naughty Dog will do in the future –
Michaël: I’m just extrapolating.
Richard: But [within] the industry as a whole… I think that many people were surprised by how little combat there was in LA Noire, for instance. The emphasis in that game shifted towards the experiential, towards exploration and this rich interaction with the characters in the game, which in a way I think signals a trend. And of course indie games like Sword and Sworcery EP, like Dear Esther by thechineseroom and lots of other cool games are continuing to explore this avenue of inquiry.
Michaël, you sound like you were trying to tempt Richard to the dark side there for a second. To get rid of all the core mechanics.
Michaël: The thing is when we started with games… we felt this great desire within the game design community to do exactly what we wanted to do with games. They wanted it to be what cinema was for the previous century. We want to tell the stories, we want to be culturally relevant, we want to appeal to all sorts of people, have all sorts of genres. I think that… maybe we wanted to see things that were there that maybe weren’t there. But also there were games in that period – I’m talking early 2000s – there was Black and White, there was Ico, there was the earlier Silent Hill games. There were all these games that were pulling in that direction and I think it just didn’t catch on quickly enough. It felt like the games industry said, “That’s it! We’re going back to gamers.”
Auriea: But they kind of had to because it was a new console generation. Nintendo always does it’s thing, while PS3 and Xbox were duking it out so they had to have their sales, so everything suddenly got really conservative again. And we were sort of really disappointed by that.
Richard: But I think that’s how it goes. Like the tide, it rushes in and then it goes out again and then it rushes in…
Auriea: Yeah, but the PS2 generation was just getting really interesting. I mean, you had Rez, you had Shadow of the Colossus –
Aureia: Okami didn’t really do it for me but I loved it for other reasons. It just seemed like things were getting very interesting and then when the new consoles came out it got really conservative and stuffy.
There’s a different focus emerging recently of other types of games, mostly on social networks, which are removing all the extraneous narrative and just focusing on a psychologically arresting core loop. Zynga’s games, for example. I wanted to get your feelings on those kinds of games.
Michaël: Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m very curious to see how the triple-A industry will respond to it. Because on the one hand of course there’s panic… so I wonder if they’re going to start copying those things and move towards gaming and become this mature gaming thing. Or if they’re going to say, “Well, if they are doing that then we don’t have to care about it.”
Auriea: That’s kind of how I see it. That’s interesting and everything but that’s just some people who like that stuff but there’s other people who hate that stuff.
Michaël: Everybody likes games, that’s fine. I don’t think this is a new generation of gamers at all – these people have always been playing games. It’s a ‘new generation’ of Facebook users and there happens to be games there [laughs].
Auriea: Because they’re like, “Oh, Aunt Suzie is doing this thing. I’ll try that too.” Why not? That’s great. But –
Michaël: But we do that at the coffee table too when we pull out the Scrabble board.
Aureia: – and eventually Facebook is going to die.
Michaël: And we’ll all go back to Scrabble! [laughs]
Auriea: Games may or may not move on from that. Those games may move onto a different format. Who knows? The only thing that’s for sure is that Facebook will disappear at a certain point. Those people will either pick up another game or they won’t. Most likely, they’ll be like, “Well, that was interesting” and move onto whatever they going to [move onto to]. They’re not terminally invested in it, I think.
You all said in the presentation earlier that all of these types of games can live together. That there’s room for every type. But is there any kind of game you would just like to see less of?
Michaël: That’s a personal choice anyway. You could see less of anything you don’t look at!
I mean that you would actually like to not happen anymore at all. Like, imagine if you were to adopt a really despotic attitude…
Auriea: Oh, I would love to be despotic! I would get rid of war simulations. Not necessarily RTS’ like historical recreations and stuff like that but you know, I could get rid of war as a sport.
Michaël: Extrapolated from that, I would get rid of any game that uses more than symbolic representation. Representation and game structure should be divorced.
Auriea: That’s much larger [laughs].
Michaël: Because I think in games before computers and early computer games it was like that. You had abstract tokens and it was all about the structure of the game. And you could focus on that and get your experience there. Now if you take a pawn, suddenly somebody dies. And it comes with all this baggage of, you know, humans dying. And it shouldn’t because the result now is that people are still playing them as games when – as you saw at Eric Chahi’s From Dust presentation – when you die it [can be] funny. But death is not funny! And so, I would probably get rid of that.
As somebody who helps make a game in which an awful lot of people die, how do you feel about that Richard?
Richard: Yeah, it’s quite complicated subject matter. I would like to see fewer of any kind of game that degrades human beings. And I think that there’s too much suffering in the world in the early 21st century and not enough culture that elevates people. I think that game design has a great opportunity in all of its forms – both formal game design and in a broader sense of experiential videogame design – for helping individuals who are struggling in their basic human circumstances, whether they feel shitty about themselves today or whether their social and economic circumstances are really oppressive –
Michaël: You mean like all of us?
Richard: I mean like all of us! [laughs]
Michaël: The 99% [laughs].
Richard: I would like to see fewer games that aren’t helpful in that way and more games that are.
Auriea: Yeah, more games that are beautiful. I mean, I don’t want to get into some sort of la-la-land situation were everyone’s like, “Everything’s lovely, let’s join hands.” … To keep talking about cinema seems redundant but you see very interesting films about war that are not just gratuitous… you know what I mean? There’s usually a point [to those films]. And I guess with games I never see that point. That’s what I guess you mean about degrading human life.
I’m guessing there are no fans of the ‘No Russian’ sequence of Modern Warfare 2 in this room then.
Auriea: No, nothing of the sort.
Michaël: Actually, that is an interesting situation. I think all of the more mundane shooting around it I would forbid first. Because that’s kind of tricky and perverse. And that’s kind of nice, I like perverse.
Richard: I was very interested in the player’s reactions to the No Russian scene… what I mean is that how people behave in the game when they’re put into that situation I think is really interesting.
Michaël: You can’t play the victims of that, though.
Aureia: See, that’s the problem with it. You can only be one [side]. Like, you can’t be the victim of that? Maybe if they’d done that then it’d have some sort of redeeming value because then you would think about that differently. I mean, they always want to put you in a position of power. As if. You know what I mean?
But isn’t that what a lot of games are about? Being empowered?
Aureia: Yeah and that’s dumb.
Michaël: That’s brilliant that you say that because that’s actually not been my experience with games before videogames. Games tended to be more like an excuse to be socially together with another person.
Michaël: I mean, some people play competitively of course but those are nasty people – you don’t want to play with them! You want to play with nice people who don’t particularly care whether they win or lose but they –
Aureia: They just want to be with you.