Eurogamer: Kim Swift Interview

By John Walker on December 20th, 2009 at 12:45 pm.

Happy Portal to you.

Over at Eurogamer today I have a great big interview with Kim Swift, the project lead on Portal who has recently moved to head up a team at Airtight Games. It’s part of EG’s Retro Sundays, so the focus of the interview was on Narbacular Drop, how that game came into existence, and the path it took to become the seed that inspired Portal. We also discuss that games that preceded it at DigiPen, and later Swift’s philosophy of gaming and where she’d like to see the medium heading. Also she mocks me. Here’s a chunk of it. The rest of it is here.

Eurogamer: And what makes something fun?

Kim Swift: Well, I suppose the word fun is really relative. I think games should be something really entertaining and should make players react in a tangible way. Whether that be anxiety and tension from Shooters, or sorrow from a character dying in an RPG, or a good laugh at an amazing line of dialogue. Games should give players the opportunity to create their own story because those are the sorts of experiences that they’re going to really remember. When people talk about games to other people they talk about what they did or what they played through, not the cut-scene that they idly watched. It’s the player’s actions that really count.

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42 Comments »

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  1. hydra9 says:

    That is an extremely good answer.

  2. Mr. Versipellis says:

    This dude is a gunius!

  3. underproseductor says:

    Enjoyable reading material, thanks.

  4. DMJ says:

    Some people just “get it”, and those in the industry who don’t “get it” should be forced to take notes from Kim Swift (among others, naturally).

  5. A-Scale says:

    You didn’t ask why she left Valve.

    • SpinalJack says:

      @ A-Scale
      I don’t know about you but if I were given the chance to head up my own team and develop my own game I’d snap at it. Lets not forget that portal holds very little resemblance to the game she originally wanted to make (Narbacular Drop). Valve is an amazing place for a student to get a job at but you don’t want to remain as ” the student” forever.

    • Pace says:

      I also thought that was a conspicuous question not asked. More of a void really. “..and now you’re at [some little company I’ve never heard of]”. Um, hello, what? Valve has a reputation as a very good place to work. And not losing people. Was there an agreement not ask the question? Or maybe it’s been mentioned elsewhere? This was news to me.

    • jalf says:

      If I’d been interviewing her, I’d have kind of assumed that *if* there’s a good story behind it, she wouldn’t tell me. If she left because she was sick and tired of Valve, she definitely wouldn’t want to say that publicly. (attacking your previous employer literally days after leaving generally isn’t a good move for your career).

      And likewise, If she had a fight with Gabe Newell and was fired, both parties would be interested in keeping it quiet as well.

      If there was some kind of “inside” story to why she left, you’re almost guaranteed that neither she nor Valve would tell you.

      So why bother asking? She saw an opportunity for doing something different, and jumped at it. There might be more to it, or there might not. But it’s almost certainly all she’d tell you in either case.

    • CT Dahl says:

      Ms. Swift sounds like the person who isn’t too concerned about keeping down a job, and more about exploring new ideas with the mad skillz she gained from Valve. She probably also made a good amount of money with Portal, so she probably inclined to take some risk for trying new things.

  6. ThatWordAgain says:

    Good answer Kim.

    I like Marc LeBlanc’s (ex-Looking Glass) list the best even if he did call it a strawman just to get over people asking “what is fun?”

    http://algorithmancy.8kindsoffun.com/

  7. Steve the Imperial Guardsmen says:

    She was given the chance to head her own team in a new development studio, pretty compelling reason for any aspiring developer to leave any other previous job they may have had.

    Personally it seems rather odd, giving up a great job at the one of the best developers in the industry now, to instead work at a new company who’s future is still very much up in the air, but I guess fortune favors the bold as they say.

    • Steve the Imperial Guardsmen says:

      Son of a bitch, to hell you with reply button.

      My original post was in response to the honorable A-Scale.

    • Torgen says:

      Folks leave the top company in their field in many industries, to strike it out on their own. Perhaps she’s just one of those people who wanted to give it a shot herself, work on her own ideas, with no hard feelings toward the company she left?

      I think sometimes we (meaning the consumer *and* the press) are so used to drama in the gaming industry that we assume drama. Of course, people who are interested in other industries probably assume drama, in these situations too! ;-)

  8. Wooly says:

    *Gasp!* RPS is snowing!!

  9. Gpig says:

    It’s not sticking though

  10. Birdoman says:

    The RPS Train has been cancelled, the RPS Plane grounded… is this snow any relation to Tom Francis’?

    Great interview, the fluidity of the conversation and the ‘rightness’ of the questions shows up the difference in quality between your good selves and what seems like the majority of interviewers (some of who are just embarrassing to read). It helps to have a vivacious and interested subject, natch.

  11. Petërkopf says:

    Is it just me or is Kim Swift one of those geeky, average chicks that is just insanely scrumptious for being a geeky, average chick?

    Either way, I’ve decided to totally agree with everything she says based on that. Same as I do in every election.

  12. Casimir's Blake says:

    Between Kim Swift and Derek Yu, today has been good for interviews.

  13. MrTambourineMan says:

    Great interview indeed, but THE question about leaving Valve should be asked. In my personal opinion Airtight Games may very well be a company that will go bust after Dark Void. Why? Because DV seems to be lacking any advertising budget + they are stressing that their strongest feature is vertical combat – last company to do that were Blue Omega with their Damnation game and they went bust. I don’t give a flying f*** if I travel and fight enemies vertically or horizontally.

    • Bowlby says:

      Like a few others on here, it does occur to me as odd that the question of why she left Valve was never put forward. I can only assume it was off the table.

    • jalf says:

      Why would that worry her though? With Portal under her belt, she doesn’t really need to worry too much about landing a new job. She’s getting a chance to try something new and different. If it doesn’t work out, if the company goes bust, so what? She can move on, get another job. And perhaps she simply wanted to try doing something “smaller”.

      I don’t think she really needs to worry about job security much.

  14. Ponderous Ordo says:

    I wonder if she feels the same way about people coming up to her and saying “The cake is a lie!” like Dave Chappelle did with “I’m Rick James, bitch!”

  15. Dinger says:

    Why leave Valve?
    Three possibilities:
    1. Personal Conflict: sometimes you don’t get along with the people you have to get along with.
    2. Professional Interests: Valve’s games are built around the Source engine. Maybe she wanted different types of projects.
    3. They backed up the truck of cash onto her driveway. Let’s be honest: we pay attention to who’s working for Valve, but Valve doesn’t have a business model that needs or uses “star power”. Sometimes, to sign a deal, you gotta promise that ‘Barton Fink’ style. So, yeah, she made a name for herself. That name means a lot to many companies, but that’s not how Valve rolls. Good for her.

    Besides, the Wikipedia page for her new co. lists key persons as John Deal (CEO) and Kim Swift. Many folks are gonna think Jonathan Swift and Kim Deal, who would make killer games together.

    • Heliocentric says:

      I can think of a forth reason to leave Valve, being totally cat hat insane.

      I’d rather toil in obscurity working with greatness. But then, thats me.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Dinger

      And I can think of a fifth, though you can argue it’s a subset of your #1: not being able to work on the projects you want. I don’t know what Ms. Swift’s opinion of the Left 4 Dead series is, but a zombie shooter sequel does seem like a waste of her talents. If she wanted to be working on more innovative and unusual things, Valve might not be the best place to stay.

    • Pace says:

      Somebody should go interview her then. Oh, wait…

    • jalf says:

      @Heliocentric: Does everyone at Valve work with greatness though?
      Endless TF2 updates doesn’t seem like my idea of greatness. Taking a game developed by an outside team, and “doing it again” with L4D2 doesn’t seem like greatness, even if the end result is fun to play.

      Valve has their fingers in some interesting projects, and they’re good at a certain kind of polish. But sometimes, it feels like polish is *all* they do.

      If you were hired to remake your student project, and then afterwards, gets assigned to making a *sequel* to your remade student project, before being reassigned to making a sequal to a game Valve bought from *another* group of outsiders, I think sooner or later you’d get the feeling that “I’m just polishing old ideas taken that people outside Valve came up with… Is this really what I want to do?”

  16. Marcus says:

    Great interview and the Carmack comment was pure gold! :D

  17. Mike says:

    I don’t understand the interest in Kim Swift over any other developer really. But it’s a nice interview, and it’s always good to see what effect Valve has on a person. I don’t think she’s particularly notable in the industry though, is she?

    Still, always good to talk games design. Some interesting topics discussed, cheers Jon.

  18. tapanister says:

    “When people talk about games to other people they talk about what they did or what they played through, not the cut-scene that they idly watched. It’s the player’s actions that really count”

    Truer fucking words have never been spoken. Fuck yes.

    • Vinraith says:

      @tapanister

      Damn right, it’s always nice to see game designers say things like that. I also quite liked:

      “Games should give players the opportunity to create their own story”

      Too many games are so busy being “cinematic” that they forget to be a game.

  19. hoff says:

    Eurogamer: What do you think of it now when you look back?

    Kim Swift: Wow, it’s very brown.

    Eurogamer: That must be how John Carmack feels all the time.

    *ptshnk-tish!*

  20. DJ Phantoon says:

    I just keep thinking the thing about something being fun is a punch in the gut to MW2.

    • hoff says:

      Indeed. She has learned the diplomatic talk during her coolest-game-developer-ever days when Portal was presented everywhere. But you can clearly hear how critical she is of this trend of “interactive movie” games like COD and the dreadful “quick time event” trend that is swapping in from consoles, catapulting actual gameplay back to the middle ages. “Interactive movies”, of course, being ironically the least interactive genre in gaming. “Gameplay should be the story”… still my favorite one-sentence bit of game development wisdom.

      Even Valve itself got a fair share of criticism for catering exclusively to the testosterone crowd of violence-loving hardcore gamers. Portal for me had more of the sense of freedom and adventure I remember from HL1 than the official HL sequel. And that without a drop of blood or even a proper weapon. That should make you think. About “advanced dismemberment physics” being a selling point for L4D2, for example. It also sheds some light on her decision to leave Valve. I guess, should she get the opportunity to work on something truly original at her new studio, I’m looking more forward to that than to L4D3 or Episode 3 or Counter-Strike 9000.

    • Premium User Badge

      Vandelay says:

      @Hoff
      To be fair, L4D2 is a zombie game. “Advanced dismemberment physics” is kind of fitting.

      But yes, Portal was a breath of fresh air in a heavily violence saturated genre.

  21. Pod says:

    I want to hug John Walker.

  22. jsutcliffe says:

    Pod said:
    I want to hug John Walker.

    Oi! Get in line.

  23. Starky says:

    As much as I love Portal, I do get the feeling that if any other company had hired the Nurktargubular Drop guys the project would have been a pit of suck and fail.

    From what I’ve read here (and elsewhere) it seems mind-boggling to me that any company would hire some clearly talented, but unbelievably green game designers right out of college – then give them that level of support. “Here’s our engine, our IP, and our resources – and 2 writers who’ll make your script one of the funniest games of the decade”, perhaps only bettered by Lucas Arts classics. Not with the same level of freedom they clearly enjoyed. The very fact that the core team remained the core team amazes me, that they didn’t end up absorbed into the middle of a larger team (probably more experienced, knowledgeable, and arguably talented being Valve). The job offer clearly wasn’t just a sham to purchase the game concept/technology on the cheap cost of a few entry level wage packets, as it might well have been had another company hired them.

    That combined with Valves iterate, iterate, iterate philosophy…

    I don’t mean any disrespect to the Narbacular drop team, I am a great admirer of their product – it just amazes me how good it is, and how literally no other company on earth could have, or would have caused that to happen.
    Say for example EA had hired them and put them to working with Dice (who was working on Mirror’s Edge at the time, and might have been looking to hire people showing a talent for first person puzzle/physics games) can you imagine that college project ever becoming a title that is a good bet for getting into the majority of game of the decade lists? Probably winning a good number of them also.