Dark Futures Part 1: Randy Smith

By Kieron Gillen on June 29th, 2010 at 7:47 pm.

I am the best of Phonoshoppers. I am!

The Ten Year anniversary of Deus Ex has lead to a week of looking back at RPS. But that bothered me a little. Deus Ex was about the future, after all. The question we should be asking is… what now? Hence this series of interviews with some of the brightest minds to have toiled in the field that Ion Storm Austin once called “Immersive Sims”. First up is Randy Smith, a designer on the first two Thief games, the Project Lead on the Third, worked alongside Spielberg on an ill-fated EA project and has since released one of the IGF-winning Iphone games the form of Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor. As such, his perspective on the state of the genre is an interesting and – I suspect for some purists – a challenging one…

RPS: If I said the phrase “Immersive Sim” to you, what would be your immediate response?

Randy Smith: Well, I built the early part of my career on them, so I have a rich response… but when I think about them today, they do feel a little bit dated. A little late nineties and early 00s in vibe. There’s not a lot of them going on – at least, being released. There’s certainly some. Fallout 3 and Bioshock were considered successful games, by some standards. So it’s not like they’ve disappeared… but while this may be my shifting attention, it seems that you see a lot of Rockstar Stuff – whether Red Dead Redemption or GTA – getting a lot of attention and having a very different vibe.

RPS: I remember in 2003 or so chatting to you and you were very open about drawing a line between what Ion Storm Austin and Rockstar were doing. How would you characterise the differences and similarities?

Randy Smith: I guess GTA is a very emergent game. Highly simulated… so they have the “Sim” part. And they’re using it in a very similar way we used to do. But the “Immersive” part? They don’t do it the same way. Immersive, to us, meant it was a game that tried to dissolve the boundaries and distance between the user and the experience as much as possible. To try and make you feel as if you were looking through the eyes of the characters into a full, rich world. And some of that GTA does – they’re good at modelling complicated world. But not quite so much about putting you in the feet of an entity living in those worlds. They keep you at a distance. That’s the biggest difference. The Sim part is very similar in spirit. The immersive point not so much.

RPS: So they’re using some similar techniques, but at a completely different target.

Randy Smith: I feel like Immersive Sim and other similar terms in how we genre-ify videogames is similar to how we genre-ify music. Like punk rock is a genre of music. And I think Immersive Sim is a genre of game. But Punk Rock has a number of sub-genres, and so do videogame genres – like action or whatever. And Immersive Sims feel kind of like a sub-genre. And I kind of wonder how current they are right now.

The way we’ve done immersive sims in the past has very much been focused on Sci-fi and Fantasy story-lead adventures. So we’re taking something that’s a sub-genre already and then on top of that, we’re adding a whole load of other rules, like it should always be an Action-Adventure with a rich story. And some of the time – though not all of the time – you play an anonymous character you can fill out with your own sense of how they should behave. And you usually have superpowers – whether they’re magic spells or bionics or whatever. And we end up applying so many rules to sub-genre, it’s a little bit stuck doing the thing it does.

Based on my own predilections about the future of videogames I really hope the simulations we start working on have more to do with characters or have more to do with the types of situations which would appear in the types of films which us so-called mature-adults would watch… and less about wizards and bionic-warriors who work for shadow governments. That stuff is interesting and cool, but we’re a little stuck in it – like a lot of videogames. But if you’re going to try and make Heavy Rain or Indigo Prophecy into a better game, dealing with some of those topics, could that be an immersive sim? We’ve seen first-person interaction simulations like Façade which had their challenges… and I think part of the challenges is how this sub-genre of immersive Sims applies to these kind of problems.

The thing with looking through a character’s eyes, when I think about the possibility of applying the sub-genre to the topics which I hope videogames will increasingly cover… it’s not clear that the sub-genre applies well. What is it that you do when you interact with characters or deal with emotional topics? It’s much less the case that you wander around a big world and explore it and unravel the mystery of it and pull levers, which is what goes on in immersive sims. Plus shooting things, of course. With spells or cybernetics.

RPS: So it’s the lack of questioning core assumptions which is the problem?

Randy Smith: When I thought about this… I thought that Immersive Sims are great, but what we see in FallOut 3 and Bioshock and the next game from Arkane… are likely to bear a lot in common with what we saw in 1992 with Ultima Underworld and 1998 with Thief, The Dark Project. They’re going to be games where you inhabit a character who explores a world which has a mystery and you deal with conflicts by sneaking past it or killing it or casting magic spells at it. Or with the world simulation. Which is cool… but it’s like racing games, in a way. I don’t want to play the next racing game very badly either.

RPS: I think the genre/sub-genre metaphor is a good one. I’ve just finished a comic about New York punk in the 1970s, so I’ve been chewing this over. That was an interesting sub-culture of music. Fast forward to 2001, and you’ve got the Strokes, reviving some of that material, with a modern sheen. But it’s not the same thing at all. What it means in 2001 is different than 1977 or whatever.

Randy Smith: That’s almost the same metaphor I was thinking of. The Strokes were an interesting revival of something which happened a while ago. There’s these sub-genre scenes which are very current and modern and resonant and relevant to the time they occur in… and then people move on. And then people were very into synthesisers. And then years later, some of those scene qualities which made NY Punk relevant kind of resonate again… and then you have the Strokes, right after September 11th people are angsty in that way, which matches the Zeitgeist. And it’s interesting that the Strokes second album, which seemed to be as good an album as the first one, didn’t strike the same popular or critical chord. It’s because that year was over. And videogames don’t seem to think they confirm to the same standard. They seem to think they can keep on making the same game forever, whether it’s a racing game or an immersive sim or whatever.

RPS: In the round-table discussion which kicked off this carnival of Navel gazing, one of the things which popped up was the simple “why are we talking about it”. Which lead to the idea that we felt that it was a game that was inevitable. It was how we in the 90s saw the future of games… when in fact, it was the ending of that era. It wasn’t a step to anywhere. And – what I didn’t say – is that the idolising of that period is just proving what old men we are.

Randy Smith: To a degree. When Thief came out, it was very timely and felt very fresh and original. And I had similar feelings about DX… but I think the sequels tend to lose a little bit, much like the Strokes album. Not because they’re worse, or even because you’ve done it already, but because it’s not that time any more. To connect it back to everything I said earlier, I don’t think of Immersive Sims as lost and gone forever… and Bioshock and Fallout 3 show that it carries some weight, and as a genre there’s stuff you can do with it.

But when I think of the deeper future of game, much like the excitement we tapped into back in the 90s and thinking about what’s the coolest, newest thing we can do with a game. I think you have re-imagine what you can do with the sub-genre… and to me, that won’t be making a game just like Thief, but you’re a bionic assasin. That’s not good enough. It needs to be something that people haven’t done with the sub-genre before, or something that has emotional content that’s very timely with the Zeitgeist. And people don’t really think about making games this way. They think “Wouldn’t it be cool to be a bionic assasin”. Which is kind of sad.

RPS: I dunno. I kinda would like to be a bionic assassin. So… looking forward, how can you see stuff in the sub-genre could work better with the zeitgeist, or be something new?

Randy Smith: Everyone’s read Neuromancer, which feels like a good reference point to use. When I think of Neuromancer, I think of Chiba City, I think of seedy back alleys, doctors who will implant cybernetics for hacking, going into a crazy Gibson-esque cyberspace, meeting up with prostitutes who have the secret password to some Yakuza bosses’ server or whatever. All that stuff is very appropriate to an Immersive Sim, because it’s very environmentally vivid. It’s got a fair amount of walking around and different contexts. But at the same time the appeal of Neuromancer isn’t just the fetishism of technology – though that’s part of it. It’s also about interacting with this society.

It’s not characters exactly – it’s this society which has a texture which comes through in the book. Something like that could be really slick to play in an immersive sim. What you’re doing is walking around and interacting with different characters – but sometimes you’re logging into Cyberspace and talking to people, getting responses. Maybe the cops show up, and everybody runs – then there’s a bit of running. A lot of stuff going on, but not what you tend to do in Immersive sims, which is frankly crouch in a corner and shuffle through your various mods and spells and decide which one to cast into the environment to set fire to something so there’s an explosion. Immersive Sims are very focused on the player power-ups and the environment interacting with it.

RPS: One of the standard drums I beat is that context-as-narrative is one of the things which games arguably do better than any other media. Moving through a textured environment, and getting everything from that.

Randy Smith: I very much agree with you… but I’m trying to take it a little further. What you’ve mentioned is why I think that something like a Neuromancer game could be a cool next-gen Immersive Sim. But the difference I want to see isn’t that the fundamental gameplay that you’re engaged in … well, that the fundamental gameplay isn’t that you’re shooting cyber-spells at cyber-ICE. I want you to be doing the things that actually happen in that book. The society, the characters. Almost playing a movie in first person – but not a movie about shooting people.

RPS: I never thought of this as an Immersive Sim before, but Pathologic was kind of in this area. I know you haven’t played it, but it was basically a Russian award winning game set in a city with cancer. Quinns wrote loads about it, but one of the more novel things it did was to create a desperate situation via limiting the food in the world. It was a game which when you got a gun, you’d sell it for bread, grateful you can eat today.

Randy Smith: That’s a pretty good example. It is an Immersive Sim. You are this character and the world is realistic enough to suspend your disbelief, as much as it’s possible for a videogame. And there’s a simulation which allows you to decide, as a player, what agency you have. But it’s not about spells or cybernetics.

RPS: Talking personally, where do you see yourself going and doing in the future? Spider was something of a triumph.

Randy Smith: Hopefully that’s because what seemed fresh and current to me. I’m drawn to the challenge of taking some mature – as in, not especially advanced or sophisticated, really – design ideas from games we’ve developed over the years, and finding a way to package them up in a way which works for a more mainstream and casual market. I wanted to reach people who own cell-phones. As in, everybody. As opposed to people who own X360s, which means hardcore gamers with a set of expectations on what games are meant to be. That’s the challenge which I thought was exciting. Taking – frankly – those Looking Glass and Immersive Sim concepts about learning a story through environment and deciding what you’re accomplishing in games… and finding a lightweight way to bring them to a wider audience.

It’s kind of related… but I wasn’t as excited to do it as an immersive sim, partially because I think that sub-genre comes with all these expectations which I’m trying to thwart not follow, and partially because they’re massive and enormous and huge to make. I can make a large number of games like Spider in the time it would take to make even one game like Pathologic, let alone Deus Ex 3.

RPS: Something I’m talking to other people about is that looking at the 00s, I sort of saw it as a story of people trying to work out a way to make Immersive Sims sell enough to justify them. I didn’t really think of you, with Spider, actually being part of that. With Spider what you said was keep ideas… and lob everything else. That’s certainly a solution.

Randy Smith: The solution is to not use that sub-genre, at least what I found. But you can look at Fallout 3 and go “That’s a solution”. It’s interesting that you’re asking that question and in the back of my mind I’m going “Oh yeah! You’ll set it in an underwater dungeon that has an art-deco art style…”.

It’s not always clear what’s going to sell more or sell less. Bioshock in a way is a kind of surprise. I think Bioshock succeeded by being very combat orientated, because that’s a clear and direct thing people understand. [Combat] has wonderful feedback and lots of good tension and stuff. I don’t like to generate violence, but I understand the appeal of having combat in a videogame. They were like… “Let’s just focus on that”. While Deus Ex, you could argue, focused on dialogue and story a lot, which pulls the player away from just very gratifying combat as often. And Thief, obviously, wasn’t a very combat intensive game. So maybe the art-deco underwater theme is on one end of the scales… and being combat-focused was on the other. And it worked out, taking a rich combat centered game to a wide audience.

RPS: I was more about the actual specific moments of execution rather than the grand scale stuff. Accessibility issues. Questions of craft. Playing through Bioshock, I could see how carefully they were trying to make sure the core of the tools were clear in a way which didn’t happen in Shock 2 or Deus Ex.

Randy Smith: There’s an interesting comparison there. And another reason why I’m less interested in Immersive Sims right now – though, to answer your earlier question, I’m not against getting back to them, as I really do love the sub-genre and think you can do good stuff with it… but it’s not where my heart is right now, nor within the reach of my current studio.

But it’s an interesting point that in Bioshock to even get people to the point where they can do basic match-3 and using systems in the way we hope they are… takes a really long time. Like half an hour, if not an hour, plus tonnes of training and really slow, careful stuff… and you’re still losing people along the way. While on Spider we get some – not all, clearly – of the same concepts which Immersive Sims are trying to reach people with… in two and a half minutes. We have people like my 5 year old nephew and my grandmother making webs of their own design to solve the problems. It’s pretty cool. A lot less to do, and a lot of fat-trimming. Immersive Sims are pretty cumbersome and hard to work with as a designer.

RPS: And any final comments about the future of the Immersive Sim?

Randy Smith: I like the sub-genre and think it has lots of potential… but to make an immersive sim which I’m really excited about, we have to look deeper into the future and make something that would have genuinely surprised the living shit out of everyone at Looking Glass working on Thief.

RPS: That’s the other reason why I want to do these forward looking interviews. I’m uncomfotable with any deification of the past. The “this was the best game ever and we’ll never see its like again” response…

Randy Smith: Yeah, make another one! We’ve got the Eidos Montreal studios working on both sequels, and Arkane working on something… and I really hope to see new stuff. I liked Bioshock but it felt like a best-of hits of games that Looking Glass had already worked on.

RPS: Thanks for your time

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85 Comments »

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  1. disperse says:

    Wow, what an interesting point of view.

    I never looked at games like Deus Ex, Thief, and System Shock as being “dated”. Like, if someone released a game in the style of Deus Ex, people would look at it and say, “that’s so last decade”.

    I like the term “Immersive Sim.” The combination of a 1st person point of view (I am speaking to Paul Denton, I am shooting that torch with a water arrow) and unscripted sim elements are what make that group of games timeless.

  2. Okami says:

    This man said many true and clever things.

  3. Justin Keverne says:

    The manner in which the concept of an Immersive Sim was implemented for Thief, System Shock and their ilk, is potentially dated, but all that means is it’s time to reimagine what the concept means. Punk as a concept can still exist even if most bands that get given that moniker don’t really deserve it.

    The Immersive Sim always ended up being about giving the player five different tools to set something on fire, or providing three different ways to turn the lights. I love them to pieces but they often had just as many abstractions and artificial restrictions as any other genre or sub-genre; like doors in Deus Ex that had Infinite Strength even when you were carrying a LAW.

    What I always felt the Immersive Sim should have focused on was on integrating the Sim elements, the systemic design, into the higher level gameplay. Designing characters as systemic agents with goals, desires and motivations, allowing player actions at the low level, to reverberate upwards leading to higher level consequences. Deus Ex had glimpses of it, with the reaction of Sam Carter and Paul Denton to your actions, but they were never followed through, a positive reaction from your brother never meant he opened up to you any earlier about his NSF ties, presenting the possibility of siding with him of your own volition. The sequence of levels you had to go visit and characters you had to encounter was always the same.

    Maybe the best way of implementing these systemic concepts at a higher level would be to provide the player with tools that more directly affected them, but limit the range possibility space somewhat to prevent a combinatorial explosion. Along the lines Randy mentioned of focusing on the social aspect, I’d love to see somebody take the “slut em’up” dialogue gameplay of Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines and built an entire game around that. With relationships between different characters changing based directly on your conversations with them, new side quests and encounters with new character come about as a result of your moment to moment dialogue choices not some over arching narrative structure.

    Heh, set the entire thing during a single night at a club, then we could have a game where we play Kieron’s teenage years and see how many Goth chicks we can pull… Systemically of course.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      “Heh, set the entire thing during a single night at a club, then we could have a game where we play Kieron’s teenage years and see how many Goth chicks we can pull… Systemically of course.”

      There was no system there. Only carnage.

      KG

    • qrter says:

      A young-Kieron game sounds like one where you’d constantly be trying to turn the cheats off, without much luck.

    • Sören Höglund says:

      Having overdosed on mediocre crime procedurals recently, I reckon you could build a pretty decent immersive sim just out of investingating crime scenes and interrogations.

      The interrogations especially could make for some pretty neat dialogue set pieces, given that they lend themselves to more gamelike elements, and have pretty clear objectives. ( How much evidence have you found on the crime scene and from other characters to bludgeon them with? Do you play empathetic and get characters to start justifying themselves? Do you keep the pressure up and risk him clamming and realising he could have a lawyer in there? Etc, etc.)

      Best of all, for once there’s a good reason as to why characters can’t just tell you to fuck off, or walk away instead of standing there like an exposition dumps.

      Keeping the thing contained to one crime at a time would help prevent all possible combinations from spiralling out of control as well.

    • bildo says:

      Flip that ‘W’ upside down. LAM

    • jeremypeel says:

      Sören, you really need to look at LA Noire.

      http://www.edge-online.com/tags/la-noire-0

      Really exciting stuff, pretty much exactly along the lines you just imagined.

    • Kazang says:

      “Maybe the best way of implementing these systemic concepts at a higher level would be to provide the player with tools that more directly affected them, but limit the range possibility space somewhat to prevent a combinatorial explosion. Along the lines Randy mentioned of focusing on the social aspect, I’d love to see somebody take the “slut em’up” dialogue gameplay of Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines and built an entire game around that. With relationships between different characters changing based directly on your conversations with them, new side quests and encounters with new character come about as a result of your moment to moment dialogue choices not some over arching narrative structure..”

      Taking it a little further in the sense of a “slut ‘em up” game:
      It doesn’t really work that well as that’s the kind of thing you can just go out and do in real life. Why would I play a game about hitting on goth chicks when I could just hit on a real goth chick and have (potentially ^.^) much more fun.

      That is a major stumbling block to the immersive sim genre. Unless it’s being immersed in something unique and fun (such as setting things on fire or making them explode) that are not mirrored by life it’s going to be dull.
      Getting that balance of fun and different yet still immersive gameplay is difficult. The game has to be more fun than the real life counter-part or it’s going to be pretty bad. Which is why there wont be any decent “slut ‘em up” games beyond mere comedy or novelty titles.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      If a game can allow you to explore multiple potential outcomes and possibilities then I don’t think it needs to be objectively “more fun”. The benefit of simulation as a concept is that you can explore and manipulate the, tweak elements and see what happens. You can’t do that in real life, or at least you can’t without being a sociopath.

  4. Clovis says:

    Yeah, can’t we do something in games besides shoot/stab people with bullets/arrows/flaming arrows/color? That’s getting really boring.

    Oh, wait, I just bought ME2, Bioshock 2, DA:O, and Call of Pripyat on Steam. Nevermind.

  5. TheSombreroKid says:

    eek he’s perilously (for me) close to my line of thinking on my current project, if he made a game like mine nobody would care about mines when up against a proven celebrity like Randy Smith!

    • TheSombreroKid says:

      I hate that first person and shooter are so inseperable, in fallout 3 you spend 99% of the time not shooting and quite often shooting can feel like it’s getting in the way of a better game.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      I’ve heard from many people who wished BioShock had no combat, just being able to explore and discover that world free from attacks would have been an incredible experience. It need not be safe, but there are more, better, ways of creation fear and danger than purely engaging in direct combat.

    • TheSombreroKid says:

      penumbra is a perfect example of how seperate fear and threat of reloading are completely unrelated, it’s also a perfect example of a first person game without guns and generally chronically under rated.

    • Antlerbot says:

      Eh, once I realized just how easy the zombie dogs were to kill, Penumbra lost all fear factor for me. Hit gas canister, fling at dog, next. If no gas canister, run up and whack dog with ice pick. Wait till he gets back up. Hit again. Rinse, repeat, next.

      And fuck cliffhanger endings.

    • yns88 says:

      The problem is that many things (close-quarters combat, platforming, puzzle solving ala minesweeper 3D) are just very awkward in a first-person perspective. It works with Penumbra because in that game you’re intended to be rather clumsy in action scenarios, and games like Mirror’s Edge and hopefully Brink are slowly improving the platforming aspect but those things are still better done in another medium.

      First-person does immersion well but it struggles with spatial awareness, and if the game asks you to do anything other than point and click at things it will feel more more clumsy than if you were asked to do such things in real life.

    • Clovis says:

      @antlerbot: That’s why the sequal was better. You really couldn’t fight back in most situations. Combat was the worst part of Penumbra. Interaction with the world and physics puzzles were the best part.

      The biggest mistake (by far) was making it a horror game, which alienated much of it’s natural player base: adventure gamers.

    • sfury says:

      I wish Mirror’s Edge had less combat/people chasing you to kill you. So much effort spent on level design (especially the interiors), so pretty views and you had to sprint and jump through all of it.

      All I wanted is to stop, admire the view, improvise a couple of parkour tricks instead. Story mode sucked.

      (of course the story itself was pretty abysmal too)

    • Urthman says:

      Clovis, I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way. The gameplay of Penumbra sounds like it’s one of my very favorite kinds of games (the Research and Development mod for HL2 was maybe my favorite game since Portal), but I haven’t tried any of the Penumbra games because I’m really turned off by the horror theme.

    • bill says:

      I definitely wish bioshock had had less combat. There was this cool world to explore, but I kept getting interrupted by annoying respawning enemies! And clearly Mirror’s Edge would have been better with no combat.

      But I think the problem is that games do combat really well. Combat is variable and interactive. It’s exciting and varied. Many other things in games end up being much more static and repetitive.

      For example, I almost always end up making Thief Characters in games where I have a choice. Then I wish I hadn’t because lock picking and pick-pocketing get old quickly as it’s just YOU. But if I’d chosen a boring old fighter then the combat would be interactive, with different events each time. Or a boring old mage.

      Even in SS2 or Deus Ex the non-combat techie skills (or Swimming and being able to lift crates) weren’t half as fun as the more offensive ones. Because it’s a bit like the difference between a tennis game (with different weapons and ammo types) and a bat-and-ball game. One gets old quickly as it’s always the same, the other has infinite variations.

      I guess you could make Conversations into a more varied approach, but often even talking your way through is much more limited, as in combat you can do what you want, in conversations you have a choice of 3 pre written choices made by someone else.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      I get the impression Eidos Montreal have been thinking about this, and that’s why conversations in Deus Ex: Human Revolution take on a more competitive edge, and why there is the possibility of the AI Security Systems reacting to your hacking attempt.

  6. faelnor says:

    So Immersive Sim is the new name for any game that uses clever design to immerse the player more than the average game?

    • faelnor says:

      Oh, seems I read everything but the introducing paragraph. My bad.
      Stupid name, still.

  7. Dominus says:

    thanks so much for this amazing read, a great game designer!

    “Don’t create “scripts”
    Don’t plan the player’s experiences for them.
    Create “possibility spaces”
    Populate the world with challenges.
    Populate the world with things that interact with the player’s tools, the simulations, manipulate the data flow.
    Avoid absolutes, embrace gradients.”
    – Randy Smith

  8. Sinnerman says:

    It’s interesting that gameplay formats might go in and out of fashion. Certainly things like cyberpunk and virtual reality seem very badly outdated now but many people will probably never tire of game concepts like pointing a cursor at a person then pressing a button to watch them die. People keep on saying that turn based gameplay has gone out of fashion but I don’t see that myself since it goes back further than the pyramids.

  9. Sobric says:

    Great read. Although I’d say that GTA IV, at least, does immersion very well. Probably too well. No I don’t want to go fucking bowling.

    I’d love to see games attempt less of a shooty approach (or at least, have other options aside from shooting). Mirror’s Edge is probably a good example (I’ve not played it, but so many people mention how much better it would have been without combat).

    • Premium User Badge

      drewski says:

      GTA doesn’t give you any control over the story, though. It pops you out into cinematics around every mission, which is always immersion breaking.

      Compare that to Fallout 3, Bioshock where the *whole time* you’re in the FPS perspective, chosing the way your character interacts with the rest of the world.

    • jeremypeel says:

      I’d be interested to hear how immersion-breaking people found VATS to be, as it was a (crude) cinematic effect that took you out of first-person pretty regularly. Personally I’m not sure I found it too distracting, Fallout 3 is still one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. Perhaps that’s because it was regular and consistent, and not many different one-off cinematic events?

  10. Nova says:

    The last sentence describes BioShock very good. Especially when you replay SystemShock 2 and Thief 2 its kinda er… shocking how much they “borrowed” from these games and how directly. Blood Trail was one of that very similar/familiar levels.

  11. Helm says:

    The man raises excellent points, even where I do not agree I can see his line of thinking and it really would be a better world were he and others sharing his point of view given the time and space to make the videogames they envision.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Lambchops says:

    Everyone’s read Neuromancer? Hadn’t even heard of it up to this point!

    Interesting interview though, good read.

    • sfury says:

      What a shame.

      Funny that Eidos Montreal decided to preview Deus Ex 3 pretty much the way Neuromancer starts – neon asian city, the pub and the bartender with the rusty mechanical arm (bet it’s old wartime russian tech too ;)

    • cjlr says:

      @Lambchops
      … Never heard of Neuromancer. Never. Heard. Of. Neuromancer. Does not compute. Count zero interrupt.

      Neuromancer is one of the most important cultural touchstones of the past thirty years. It is one of the best pieces of literature of the latter half of the previous century.

      @sfury
      I found the Gibson allusions a touch forced (it’s just such a damn parallel), but it can be nothing but a good sign. You can never have too much Ratz.

    • Premium User Badge

      drewski says:

      @ cjlr – only in this very specific societal sub-culture. Compared to the cultural touchstone of, say, Friends or Harry Potter, it’s completely irrelevant to most people and I’d suspect most haven’t heard of it.

  13. sfury says:

    Great interview, hope the other part(s) are on par. Really that’s the stuff I love reading RPS for. :)

    “Arkane working on something” – and what might that be?

    Though I’ve got to agree with the man – today’s immersive sims are playing it too safe and you can’t rely on them to innovate. So whatever it is they’re developing we’d better not get too excited. Renovating/updating 10+ old concepts is just not enough for me these days – I prefer playing something even shorter, smaller scale but new and different.

    • jeremypeel says:

      This is the third time I’ve excited mentioned this in about a week, but hey, it’s relevant: the “something” Arkane are working on is headed up by Harvey Smith…

      Also, how come Arx Fatalis hasn’t been mentioned at all amid all this talk of immersive sim-successors?

      Y’know, I’d argue that Fallout 3 took the immersive sim style in new directions. When I started playing I was immediately struck at how much the minute-to-minute gameplay reminded me of Deus Ex, Thief et al. Open world, rather than more concentrated depth, may not be the direction most of us are hoping for, but it’s certainly a valid one and Fallout 3 provided plenty of fantatic emergent opportunities because of it.

      I think people are often too busy comparing Fallout 3 to Fallout 1 +2 (and to a lesser extent, Bethesda’s Terminator games) to think about what other lineage it might be following. The project lead was Emil Pagliarulo for Christ’s sake!

  14. YogSo says:

    I’m still reading the interview, but I feel the urge to pause for a moment to comment on this:

    <>

    Yeah, fuck them. We already had like 3 or 4(!) immersive-sim games, and it’s only been 10+ since then(!). What do they want, saturate the market? Stop with the sillyness, enough immersive-sims already!

    /rolleyes

    • YogSo says:

      Ups. The missing quote:

      They seem to think they can keep on making the same game forever, whether it’s a racing game or an immersive sim or whatever.

    • jeremypeel says:

      This links to something I was wondering about whilst reading the interview. Games – particularly of the immersive sim kind – take so long to make and are often so specialist that only a few of them get made in a five year period, after which point they’re unlikely to be coming out in a similar kind of zeitgeist.

      Of course people want more games of a particular kind when there were barely enough to satiate them in the first place. Are our tastes irrelevant in modern gaming culture, or does relevance move in slower patterns in games than in music or literature or film, simply due to the generally much longer development time?

  15. evilchili says:

    Designing characters as systemic agents with goals, desires and motivations, allowing player actions at the low level, to reverberate upwards leading to higher level consequences.

    Nail-and-head here. That propagation of consequence was one of the few elements of Alpha Protocol that, when it worked, worked very well. AP’s implementation of the player’s reputation, where player actions in one location would influence how NPCs you had never met felt about you later on in the game, was well done. In a game set in a modern world centered on espionage, I expect intelligence networks to have prior knowledge of my actions and deal with me based on that intel, and that’s exactly what happens. It’s just a shame that Obsidian felt the need to expose that statistic to the player. AP’s reputation points (like Dragon Age: Origin‘s love meters) are an interesting mechanic, but exposing them ruins the immersive potential, turning relationships into just another stat grind rather than convincing character interactions.

    Likewise, notoriety in Hitman: Blood Money was a clever way of allowing the player’s actions to alter the system down the road; the louder/messier your performance in early levels, the more paranoid and edgy NPCs would be later on, restricting your choices and limiting your opportunities. As a game with virtually no character interaction, Blood Money does a great job of making your play style matter, altering the system based on your choices.

    I’m not sure how you expand the concept of immersive sim beyond their late ’90s heyday. I expect, much like “RPG mechanics” in shooters, aspects of immersive sim will continue to be iterated into systems design and we’ll see it pop up here and there, much like my examples above. But the games we think of as LG/ISA -style immersive sims will be few and far between, and whether any titles can or will extend beyond that model remains to be seen. Portal 2 perhaps?

  16. YogSo says:

    OK. I’ve read the interview in its entirety. I have a big problem with Randy’s take on the Immersive-Sim label. The fact that the greatest Imm-Sims (bear with me, I don’t want to repeat it everytime) we’ve had (the Thief-s, the Shock-s, the Deus Ex-es) were about stealth-cyber-heroes doesn’t mean that’s the only thing an Imm-Sim can be about. For me, and this is not a complete definition, more of a necessary condition, an Imm-Sim is a first-person perspective game in which the player is something more than a floating gun. And by “something more” I mean the player’s interaction with the world isn’t restricted to “shooting at it/its inhabitants”. The Penumbra games, for example. So don’t come at me with all that “I’m bored of shooting at things”. Of course you are! And so do I, that’s why I want to play more Imm-Sims games!

  17. Mo says:

    I think it’s true that the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock 2 were products of the 90s, and we won’t see titles like it in the near future. I think it’s a good thing though.

    Bioshock was revolutionary. It was a revolution in usability. Despite being a PC gamer through the 90s, I’d never been able to get into Deus Ex or System Shock. I wanted to love them, but they felt too clunky. Bioshock took the good, trimmed the fat, and turned out a game that was highly usable and maintained a lot of the freedom and such from the previous generation of Immersive Sims. “Finally”, I thought, “I can play one of these fabled games!” I’m sure there was many others who thought the same thing.

    However, “that’s all” Bioshock did. It took the good from the past, and served it up in a usable form accessible by all. That’s an amazing achievement. The next step for 2K Marin, Irrational, et al is to make a clean break from the past, exactly as Randy Smith asserts. Screw the past, screw what the PC elite think, screw what the sub-genre “Immersive Sim” has become. They need to think long and hard, and ask themselves: “Now that we’ve captured what we did in the past very well, what are the next step for the future?” If the answer does piss a whole lot of people off, they’re doing it wrong.

    Which makes me think about XCOM, and how it could be seen as a successor to the Immersive Sim. Judging by the response online, they’ve pissed a tonne of people off. Maybe the future of the Immersive Sim is fine after all?

    • James T says:

      I think it’s true that the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock 2 were products of the 90s, and we won’t see titles like it in the near future. I think it’s a good thing though.

      Bioshock was revolutionary. It was a revolution in usability. Despite being a PC gamer through the 90s, I’d never been able to get into Deus Ex or System Shock. I wanted to love them, but they felt too clunky. Bioshock took the good, trimmed the fat, and turned out a game that was highly usable and maintained a lot of the freedom and such from the previous generation of Immersive Sims. “Finally”, I thought, “I can play one of these fabled games!” I’m sure there was many others who thought the same thing.

      If you’ve played any first-person shooter, you’ve come as close to “these fabled games” as you have while playing Bioshock.

      They need to think long and hard, and ask themselves: “Now that we’ve captured what we did in the past very well, what are the next step for the future?” If the answer does piss a whole lot of people off, they’re doing it wrong. Which makes me think about XCOM, and how it could be seen as a successor to the Immersive Sim. Judging by the response online, they’ve pissed a tonne of people off. Maybe the future of the Immersive Sim is fine after all?

      I’m guessing you meant “doesn’t piss a whole lot of people off”.


      -The evolution of a game genre will leave some people unhappy.
      -Half-Life 3 is a falling-block puzzle game, and this upsets some people.
      -Therefore, falling-block puzzle games are an evolution of the first-person shooter.
      .

    • James T says:

      (…I know it’s contextually obvious that the first paragraph there was part of the quote, not my own words, but let me make it clear that I couldn’t possibly agree less).

    • Justin Keverne says:

      Because in Halo, or Call Of Duty I’ve ever had to worry about using my tools to alter the environment to gain an advantage, or given thought to which character build I want, or had to worry about researching an enemy to gain an advantage over them, or experienced a narrative by piecing together fragments of events through audio logs and environmental clues?

      BioShock features very pared down versions of a lot of the mechanics System Shock 2 had, and it presents them in a way a majority of gamers will have never seen before. Just because we might have grown up with Deus Ex and STALKER, doesn’t mean everybody else has.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      Obviously only the first line of that is the quote… *SIGH*

      No Preview and no Edit makes Justin… something, something…

    • Mo says:

      If you’ve played any first-person shooter, you’ve come as close to “these fabled games” as you have while playing Bioshock.

      I’m not going to bother arguing this further, since this is well trodden ground. Suffice to say, Bioshock feels notably different than Half-Life 2, Modern Warfare, Halo, Gears of War etc.

      I’m guessing you meant “doesn’t piss a whole lot of people off”.

      Oops, yeah.

      -The evolution of a game genre will leave some people unhappy.
      -Half-Life 3 is a falling-block puzzle game, and this upsets some people.
      -Therefore, falling-block puzzle games are an evolution of the first-person shooter..

      This is just a wind-up. You know what I mean, but I’ll humour you anyway.

      The Immersive Sim genre could move in an interesting direction by taking the essence of what makes them great, but making them more accessible. Just to clarify, accessible does not mean less depth, which is again, another argument I’m sure some will disagree with, but that’s okay. Bioshock essentially did this. Where can we move on from there?

      XCOM, I think, does some interesting things. Put aside the expectations of what a new X-COM should be, and you’ll find aspects that are quite like Immersive Sims. Choosing where to explore next, research (I know, how shallow, it’s just a camera! etc), character progression, sandbox-esque levels and scenarios, and the idea that you don’t have to “kill everything” on a mission. The latter is especially interesting, as it’s very rare for a mainstream game to encourage you to retreat (outside of scripted sequences).

      And that’s exactly what they’re doing, making mainstream games. I see the work of Irrational and 2K Marin as bringing Immersive Sims to the masses. Does that mean they’ll never produce a “true successor” to Deus Ex? Yeah, probably.

      But that’s okay, because as mentioned in the interview (and comments), the likes of Pathologic and Stalker exist and can claim to be Immersive Sims as much as Deus Ex can. Mechanically, they aren’t exactly the same, but that ties into what Randy was saying, that we’ve got this very exact idea of what an Immersive Sim is, and that is detrimental to the growth of the genre.

      So stop defining the Immersive Sim so rigidly, loosen up a bit, try some of these games (both mainstream and not), and play them with an open mind. You’ll have fun, and you’ll help the genre evolve while you’re at it.

  18. Jimbo says:

    I suppose the ultimate immersive sim is to turn your computer off and live your life, but gaming thrives because it offers a temporary escape, the opportunity to experience something you could never experience IRL, or gratification you are incapable of receiving IRL.

    If you remove the violence (and even the violence isn’t really seen as violence by players anymore; it just represents being better than those you are beating) you will still need to incentivize the experience with something else – be it sex, popularity, success, whatever. If you lose the ‘better than life’ aspect of it entirely, then you’re doomed to failure.

  19. Tim Ward says:

    Guys,

    Stalker is an immersive sim, ok.

  20. Robert Yang says:

    What’s Arkane working on? Last I heard, they canceled The Crossing…

  21. RagingLion says:

    This was a really great interview with some great ideas in it. I’ve think I’ve just about worked out that an ‘Immersive sim’ (never heard of that phrase before) is pretty much my ideal game type although interestingly I don’t think I’ve actually played any of these games that are held up as the pinnacles of it so far. I want to see far more games built around these ideas. I love the idea of creating texture within a game from the society of the world that you get exposed to and learn about it in the game.

    I agree with YogSo above, Randy Smith has this history of working on these games and so is using that phrase ‘Immersive sim’ quite restrictively when he needn’t. Maybe there was just this link with these games and this phrase but ‘immersive sims’ conjures up a far wider range of possible games that encompasses much of what he was actually talking about wanting to see.

    Some great user posts here already. I very much agree with the 3rd post from Justin Keverne and think it makes some very insightful points.

    Conclusion: come on game-makers this what I/we want to see more of and the game experiences will be so much more enriching in the process.

  22. dspair says:

    “We’ve got the Eidos Montreal studios working on both sequels, and Arkane working on something…”

    Deus Ex HR looks anything like an immersive sim taken on a new level. Quite the opposite, it’s probably going to be a game that throws immersion away by constant 1st-3rd person camera toggling, Gears of War’s cover system and cool kill animations. BioShock looks like a perfect Immersive Sim in comparision to DXHR.

  23. Owen says:

    Absolutely fascinating interview.

  24. Nickless_One says:

    I don’t understand that talk about genres and sub-genres… or I do, and in that case I disagree…
    Jazz is around for how long? hundred years? plenty of people still like it… plenty of people play it.
    Chess is over a thousand years old a nobody said: “Gee, turnbased strategy is so out of style now, let’s play something more in/now/whatever” (Ok, I guess somebody could’ve said it but that wasn’t my point…)

    Also, I haven’t read the Neuromancer (but I know about it and it’s on my to read list :) )

    • cjlr says:

      @Nickless_One
      But… Neuromancer! If you put Neuromancer, Aliens, and Mad Max in a blender, you get 95% of all video games ever made.

  25. Vivian says:

    Agree. I kinda wish the dialogue had been written and acted by the looking glass crowd though, much as being constantly berated by dissociative russki kebab-shop owners has its own particular charm.

  26. Vivian says:

    REPLY FAIL

    Agree. I kinda wish the dialogue had been written and acted by the looking glass crowd though, much as being constantly berated by dissociative russki kebab-shop owners has its own particular charm.

  27. Vivian says:

    AAAARRRRGGG

  28. Gassalasca says:

    Hm, I love the 70s NY punk, but I can’t stand The Strokes…

    Anywho – .” I’ve just finished a comic about New York punk in the 1970s, so I’ve been chewing this over.”

    I’d love to know the name of the comic.

  29. Premium User Badge

    Dan Milburn says:

    ‘Immersive Sim’ is an odd term. RPG levelling mechanics are fun, but what they are not is an attempt to model what the reality might be like. Any game that uses them is pretty much by definition not simulating anything.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Thief and Shock don’t have them. Shock 2 has them, but hides it.

      KG

    • Premium User Badge

      Dan Milburn says:

      Yeah, I was mostly thinking of Deus Ex for, um, some reason. Also the mentions of Fallout 3.

      I do think it’s interesting that those kind of mechanics are now so ubiquitous that people forget how silly they are, particularly when applied to any kind of ‘real world’ setting.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      I suspect this is part of what Randy is talking about in terms of expectations of the sub-genre.

      KG

    • disperse says:

      @Dan Milburn

      I think the advancement system in Deus Ex was more to limit the player. If you started the game with perfect accuracy most players would turn it into your standard FPS. Having limited ammo and a targeting reticule the size of a barn forced me to avoid conflict, use stealth, hack turrets, strategically place explosives, and throw boxes.

      That said, I don’t think anyone wants to play a game that accurately sims the real world. (Serious surgery and a month of bedrest after a gunshot wound anyone?) The sim part of Immersive Sim is more the unscripted game elements. The designer puts a collection of objects and entities into a world and sets their properties but has absolutely no idea how the player is going to use them.

    • Premium User Badge

      Dan Milburn says:

      @Disperse

      Right, but that’s not how the word sim is used in any other gaming context. A flight sim, for example, tries to recreate, as accurately as possible, the experience and physics of flying a plane. Other games might allow you to fly a plane in a deliberately unrealistic way, and that’s fine, but we don’t call those simulators.

      There’s nothing wrong with having a targeting reticule which attempts to make aiming a gun more realistic. What is wrong, from a simulation point of view, is arbitrarily earned skill points you can spend to make your aiming better through the course of the game. I’m not knocking this as a gameplay mechanic, many of my favourite games use it, what I’m saying is that I can’t with a straight face call any game that does so a simulation.

  30. nabeel says:

    Great interview, Randy Smith is awesome. I love his editorials in Edge, I wish he’d do them more often.

  31. Simon Griffee says:

    Looking to create new things is good and necessary, but since people die and new people are born stories have to be constantly re-told, whether in literature or music or games…I am looking forward to a new game I never imagined, and also new Thief using today’s technology…

  32. Huggster says:

    Here is an idea for an immersive sim:
    – you are working in a jungle taking photos of endangered species and whatnot
    – you make friends with the locals
    – you can have an extremely complex love interest(s) with many branches and dead ends
    – you get involved in exposing nasty poachers, who may chase you
    – you get poisoned and have to get back to the village alive

    – you never fire a gun
    – there is rumpy pumpy but its done really well with good character models (NOT like dragon age which was just disturbing)

    – games need some kind of reward system – maybe trying to be a published photographer and getting the girl, whilst saving cuddly kitties form meenie poachers
    – make it fun without combat or some kind of threat?

    I think a game like this would look the part now game engines are quite advanced – like Cryengine and farcry 2 engines

    Why it wouldn’t work:
    – most people would be “Why can I shoot this animal”
    – “Where is my gun?”

    • Huggster says:

      “Why can’t I shoot this animal”

    • Geoff says:

      Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor (The Immersive sim mod project) gogo.

      Seriously how f ing cool would it be to play as Shelob!

  33. Huggster says:

    “LA Noire is due for release on PS3 and Xbox 360 this autumn.”

    This is getting annoying. Is it worth buying an Xbox for this and Red dead? Probably not. I will wait for the appaling port.

  34. Randy says:

    I like your idea. I would be stoked to play this immersive sim.

  35. airtekh says:

    “I liked Bioshock but it felt like a best-of hits of games that Looking Glass had already worked on.”

    This is exactly how I feel about Bioshock.

  36. Bart Stewart says:

    The “immersive sim” has also been my favorite style of game since Ultima Underworld. Even a highly polished linear game of the sort that Valve makes doesn’t scratch that itch for creative problem-solving as the major games from Looking Glass (and Deus Ex) did.

    That’s why I keep thinking about the “Living World” game concept (http://flatfingers-theory.blogspot.com/2008/06/living-world-massively-single-player.html), which runs with the notion of plausible mobs in a generally open possibility space where small individual actions can accumulate to produce large-scale consequences. It sounds like other commenters here are wishing for something similar themselves, and that’s encouraging.

    Still, I wonder, given Randy Smith’s feelings about the sub-genre: if Looking Glass were still making games today, what would the game they’d be working on Right Now look like?

  37. CMaster says:

    I have to say that I don’t really get why Bioshock is brought up som much in this discussion.
    Bioschock seemed to be a series of (underwater) corridors in which to shoot things in.
    It had a very nice art style, some very clever commentary on gaming and its own linearity built into the narrative.
    But at the end of the day it was “here are some corridors full of splicers. Choose how you want to disember them”

  38. Ehcmier says:

    In many cases, the past isn’t deified so much as sorely missed when the present has not achieved related high-water marks in gaming elements that really fit well with a narrower gamer-type audience, and when the industry doesn’t seem interested in using the past greatness as a platform to leap into something new, but which still fits well with the same gamer-type. Newer games are reaching their own high-water marks, and/or are evolving with tech, sometimes more than gameplay and immersion ideas, and the people who really fit well with a certain type of game and can’t find such well-fitting with other games, regardless of greatness and achievement in broader terms, are feeling left out, and let down.

    Companies don’t seem to be trying to achieve greatness in areas that only games that happen to be in the past ever did. Those great concepts have not been carried forward., and the more mundane ones have, evolved for new tech and social changes. When new games take the elements that were great at one point in time, and are built with a realization that those people who the game fit well with then are still here now, and still want to play newer games, but don’t have a new game that fits well with them now, then it won’t be about the past, but the present, and future, too.

    It’s not a deification, it’s not a good fit. A favorite moment in a lifetime has not been given much competition for next favorite thing.

  39. MacDegger says:

    @Dan Milburn:

    But that’s where “simulation” and “RPG” collide: as I choose to understand an immersive sim, I take it to be an open-world type game (or open-city, or open-house, whatever the setting ) where things happen due to behaviours.
    (note, btw, that these are scripted :P AI is scripted, even if we reach the poiont where it can selfmodify …. but that’s beside the point).
    What makes the sim immersive is that we, the player, interact with these systems; the world physics, the way doors are programmed to open [be it using a key, blowing them up, whatever way the system is programmed to accept], the characters in them [killing, talking, etc].

    But in a game, we also play a role; which introduces an RPG mechanic. We can do things we possibly can’t in real life (hack a computer, shoot a heavy gun, jump 5 stories, smooth talk someone).

    Now, the aim of a game designer is to make this all fun, so it all comes down to a collision between the sim (do you really want to simulate having to take a dump? How about a breathe button?) and the RPG. And that mix has to be FUN

    And it’s the funfactor which dictates the granularity of the sim and the systems which make it into the rpg. It seems to me it’s all about which RPG mechanics are you going to implement and how can they interact with the sim, and how much fidelity does your sim need so that you can do ingame what the designer has envisioned.

    And looking at it like that, the reticule mechanic used in Deus Ex is an implementation of roleplaying someone who is getting better and better at shooting a gun in a simulated environment, and doing that in a fun way (the Morrowind hit-mechanic being a horrible implementation which makes no sense in an otherwise great simulated environment).