By Kieron Gillen on July 9th, 2010 at 1:00 pm.
Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith are game designers who are currently co-directing an unannounced project at Arkane Studios, working across offices in Lyon and Austin. They’ve been making games professionally since 1993, with a keen interest in first-person games with detailed environments and RPG features. Colantonio is the founder, CEO and Creative Director at Arkane. Under his direction, Arkane created Arx Fatalis and the PC version of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Over the years, he has worked with Electronic Arts, Valve, Ubisoft and 2K. In 2005, Colantonio expanded Arkane, opening a new office in Austin. At Ion Storm, Smith was lead designer of the award winning game Deus Ex, which received a BAFTA ward in 2000, and project director of Deus Ex: Invisible War. He was lead designer of FireTeam at Multitude and studio creative director at Midway Games (Austin). In the early 90’s, Smith worked at legendary RPG studio Origin Systems. Both Colantonio and Smith have spoken at numerous game conferences, and are passionate about immersive, highly interactive games with simulation elements.
RPS: Deus Ex was in 2000. We’re a decade on. I find myself thinking about what happened to the Immersive Sim. How would you characterise the 00s? What was the themes? What worked? What didn’t?
Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: If Ultima Underworld is your favorite game ever, as with both of us, you had this experience in 1992: You’re looking out into the gloom as the lighting falls off. The goblin watching you is visibly going through AI state changes based on distance, time, or your actions. You might leave the “critical” path and end up falling into a river, far below. You drag yourself out onto the bank, pull some plants and eat them. You throw a line from your fishing pole because you need more food. Later, trying to cross a pit, you figure out how to mix jump and your levitate/hover spell in a way that is not scripted, but lets you improvise to cross the pit. Just amazing stuff, and it feels like our industry has stalled out in many areas, instead of advancing on all of those fronts. Of course, it’s not like that’s what developers (or players) want, stalling out…it’s just that moving those elements forward is expensive, time consuming and technologically heavy, in order to accomplish alongside the race toward photo-realism and the push for safe (ie, low experimentation, low iteration) financial investments in the form of game projects. At some point, the two of us have to believe (in order to stay sane in the commercial game industry) that those dynamic, expressive, deep gameplay values will rise to the surface again.
After that period you’re alluding to, around 2000, we both hoped that game worlds would keep getting more detailed and interesting…filled with gameplay-relevant useable objects that make sense in the environment, Ultima-style NPC schedules or Sim-like needs/behaviors, and non-plot-relevant gameplay and exploration. We assumed that we’d see a greater emphasis on meaningful consequences to narrative decisions, more opportunities for player-driven goal setting, and game systems that allowed for improvised solutions to problems. Looking at Far Cry 2, Bioshock, the Rockstar games, and cool anomalies like Eve Online, some of that has happened, for sure, but it’s the exception not the rule. Mostly, it seems like games have specialized, which makes sense from a production standpoint. Games like Mass Effect have gotten creative with plot branches and overt NPC factionalization, but have traded off simulation, plus non-combat AI behaviors, environmental physics and non-linearity. Those games are all amazing in some way, but they don’t feel like the gestalt experiences that the two of us, as passionate players who are always chasing a particular experience, were hoping for. Admittedly, there are monstrous challenges we all face as developers, and any success at that level is astounding. It’s not like we’ve got it all figured out.
The immersive values–not in the general “engagement” sense, but in the “you are there” sense–continue to appeal to some developers; Mirror’s Edge, Bioshock, Fallout, Far Cry 2. Even if the first Mirror’s Edge was otherwise flawed, it did amazing things with first-person movement. Even if Far Cry 2 was really frustrating at times, and even if some of the narrative dynamics didn’t pay off, it was one of the most fascinating shooters ever made.
The simulation values seem to have taken the back seat for now, with the exception of physics; many game elements are now static instead of functioning as a dynamic system with very analogue player input. Game developers have always played with simulations and very dynamic elements to great effect. Early on, there are examples like the terrain in Populous or the input controls of Lunar Lander. Thief’s AI was a big leap forward in terms of awareness states and how they were communicated to players. There are great examples every year…the physics in Half-life 2, the fully-explored rewind in Braid, the zombie population/drama management in Left4Dead, the population/wildlife simulation in Red Dead Redemption (and the shallow, but fun dynamic vignettes). The fire sim in Far Cry 2 was amazing. But mostly game environments feel more static than they should. When some game event feels dynamic or systemic, it just feels better. Even something simple feels good, like a character pathfinding through the world and finding the player, regardless of where his or her avatar is at, and initiates a conversation, instead of just standing there until the player walks up and clicks on that character…suddenly the experience feels more like you own it. This is a critical value for games.
RPS: Putting words in your mouth, the one theme I’d bring forward would be Entryism. The idea being, how can we take this genre and make it sell enough to justify doing. Deus Ex’s 500K wouldn’t be enough to justify the ever-growing budgets. Would you think is true? How do you think of the tactics?
Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: We believe strongly that any game done well enough will make tons of money. People trick themselves into believing all these false rules about creative success. Some publishers try to predict the future based on past trends because it’s easier to operate that way. It makes people feel comfortable to believe they can project future sales figures accurately. “First person doesn’t sell,” or “RPGs don’t sell.” They’re afraid of unusual settings, new gameplay features, or in cases something specific, like, “post apocalypse.” Then Fallout 3 or Bioshock comes along, the perfect examples of awesome games that, according to common industry thinking, had every reason to fail: Cross-genre, weird world, slower-paced, story-oriented titles that took gameplay risks and gambled creatively in general.
However, for sure, the problem has come to pass that people have predicted for a long time, that games would get so expensive that only a few publishers would be able to fund large games, and that these would get super conservative in terms of taking creative risks…megalithic, tent pole events as Don Simpson describe in the sickening, but prescient film production book High Concept. Despite that, a few groups every year manage to awe us and deliver: Bethesda, Valve, Rockstar. The games are a different beast in general, but Nintendo went in the opposite direction with the Wii, making games less expensive, less graphics driven, less realistic, and more built around a single set of hardware innovations. And the indie games movement is another answer, providing less realistic, more interesting, more personal experiments. (The game Sword and Sorcery is high on the list of “could be super cool.”)
RPS: If I was going to say a flaw of Entryism is that it ends up alienating the previous hardcore. They don’t want it cut down, even if that’s all they can get. Was there any way around that?
Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: It’s the valid conflict between very experienced players who want games with highly interactive, expressive, meaningful decisions vs realistic graphics winning out at the market vs production costs. At times, it feels like we’re forced to choose between the hardcoreness of Dwarf Fortress or the accessibility and graphical polish of World of Warcraft. It’s a problem, finding the right balance between new players and veterans. In part, the answer will be found a greater proliferation of games and platforms….a wider range for the industry. And getting closer to the end of the graphical arms race. Hopefully, what matters to hardcore players are the underlying values, not specific implementation details, setting, platform, or style. So, for instance, the two of us value simulated environments and meaningful player choices…as long as a game provides those experiences, we’re both interested in checking it out.
RPS: And looking forward to the next decade… what now. How do you think it can be pushed? Bioshock showed that a game in this lineage could be a blockbuster. What do we do now?
Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: Practically speaking, it would be great if games stayed on this round of console hardware for another 5 years, just so we could see what happens, creatively. How will AAA games differentiate if they can’t rely on “more polish,” or on just leap-frogging toward photo realism?
In terms of the next 10 years, for us it’s about pursuing the same values, regardless of how hard it is, how many “near successes” we have, or how much we struggle. We’d love to play more first-person games that try to simulate elements of the game in ways that create a primal response to players’ actions, with more persistent consequences for decisions, that spill over into other parts of the experience. Ideally, game characters should have a coherent place in the world, and impact…they should change things, react, and behave in interesting ways beyond combat tactics. We want to make games that constantly remind you that you have an effect on the world…personalized outcomes so that your experience is different from someone else’s. We want to give the player non-linear paths, both spatially, stylistically and morally. Hopefully, it’s not surprising to hear us say that their games should always shoot for depth-through-game-systems; allowing the player to improvise and experiment, creating moments where strange, unplanned things happen because of the simulation, when various rules and entities interact.
It’s our belief that, as developers and publishers, we should have more faith in the player and the player’s drive to own the experience, to figure things out. So many games put the player in a room, with a big navigation arrow floating overhead, pointing to the door, with text flashing on the upper left that says, “WALK THROUGH DOOR.” Near the text, a small animation shows the controller stick being pushed forward. We should all just relax…it’s not like you’ve got to go the opposite way and print out a keyboard overlay, but let’s give the player room to explore, more control over the pace, and multiple ways to do things.
Of course, we’ve both made mistakes. Development is hard. It takes a long time to understand what really drives you, where your heart is as a game designer, plus the commercial nature of the games we make add a lot of complexity. And then there’s the difficulty of software development on top of that.
Hopefully, 10 years from now, playing games will feel more personal, more meaningful.
It’s always very hard to talk about what it means to play a game, to experience it. Why do we like standing on a hill or on top of a skyscraper in some games, watching the sun rise? Why is it satisfying to see a ruined building in the distance, reach it, find a way inside and explore the rooms…to figure out who lived there and what happened based on the environmental storytelling clues left behind? First-person games that allow for exploration often provide the childhood thrill that came from sneaking into an abandoned house or a building at the edge of town.
People get a lot of things out of games. Some of it overlaps with movies and books. Those parts are important and can be satisfying, but let’s ignore them. Some of what people get out of games overlaps with physically “doing things” in the real world. (Imagine going down a wall with a hammer, driving 100 nails into wood. There’s a repetition and a manipulation of objects toward a goal that might be satisfying.) Lots of it is an abstraction of some real world situation, but rendered safe. Beating someone else in Poker, driving a car down the wrong side of the road, breaking into an apartment. Sometimes it’s a condensed form of accomplishment; winning a match is a little like being the person who solves a difficult, important real-world problem and is acknowledged. Some of what we get out of games is screwing around with a system and watching the rational, but interesting reactions. Some of it is a kind of mythic narrative…the way stories make sense to us, satisfying our sense of justice or right/wrong-ness, in a way the real-world usually doesn’t make sense.
In the end, it comes down to providing an interesting experience, but this can be done in so many different ways that it’s difficult to even discuss: The Modern Warfare games made by the incredibly talented Respawn Entertainment guys provide a perfectly-crafted, perfectly-staged single-player experience and a totally ruthless, pounding player-versus-player experience, but the Rockstar games throw the player into an open-world sandbox with lots of layered systems, and players can have “fun” either way. The game we’d like to play would let us explore a highly crafted world from first-person, and emergent simulation events would either be exploitable by the player, in a very intentional way, or they’d have persistent consequences.
The two of us were looking at a screenshot the other day, depicting a long highway running through the desert. It was gorgeous terrain, but obviously made for the player to blaze by in a vehicle. We started talking about leaving the road, setting up a little campsite, planting certain crops, living on hunted animals and occasionally protecting travelers from bandits in the area….the animal population eventually dwindling due to the player over-hunting the area, and the civilian population increasing, families moving in, as a response to the player’s suppression of the highway robbers. Lots of people are going to make driving and shooting games in open environments, and those games will be sexy and fun. But these additional dynamics are the stuff we dream about. Not easy to do, but just talking about it gave us a strong shot of excitement. The people paying for development will bend to whatever winds blow, because they optimize for competition and profit. So if players demand it, developers will get to make it.
RPS: Thanks for your time.