Last week, I heard a lot of smart people talking about the game industry at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas. After I got home, people kept asking me what the most interesting thing I heard was. I had to punt and say I couldn’t think of any single barn-burner moment that had everybody talking. But I’ve tried to cull the lessons I heard and the best quotes that I came across at the event and the accompanying DICE Awards, the Oscars of gaming. I’ve summarized some of the best moments for you in this week’s column.
I can’t say all of these snippets share a common thread. But they held my attention and made me linger on the ideas expressed well after the show was over. These are memorable moments, quotes, conversations, and ideas from the top minds in the video game industry. I’m still thinking about some of them, and so I’m sharing them with you. Hopefully, game developers and publishers will find their own inspiration from these words.
On how a core game designer monetizes mobile
I chatted with Todd Howard, creative director at Bethesda Game Studios, about the success of the mobile game Fallout Shelter, which was downloaded more than 12 million times in its first 24 hours when it debuted last June during Bethesda’s Electronic Entertainment Expo event.
He noted how the company didn’t do “evil” free-to-play monetization.
“The monetization — we had a lot of people telling us to do it this way or that way, and none of it felt right. So we came up with a scheme that felt right. That has served us pretty well,” he said.
Many told Howard that he should have predicted the success of Fallout Shelter. But he said, “That’s easy to say. It’s not even second-guessing. “You should have known it would be that popular.” Really? If your expectation is it’ll be number one. I just don’t think that can be your entry-point goal. That should be a surprise.”
On creating joy for gamers
I’ll come back to Howard again on something else he said. Howard was on a victory lap after Fallout 4 — which he and his team spent more than four years making — shipped more than $750 million during the holidays, coming on the heels of the success of Fallout Shelter. His title won Game of the Year.
But Howard said it isn’t about making a lot of money or really big numbers. It’s about doing something for gamers. On stage at the DICE Summit, he said one of the touching moments of the success came when the Make A Wish Foundation brought in some kids who were dying, and they said they wanted to play Fallout 4 before it came out.
“They come and spend a day at the studio. It is great,” Howard said. “If you want to see the power of video games, it is condensed in those moments. It is amazing. They come with their parents. The parents change more from the beginning of the day to the end, and they have a new bond with their child. It’s amazing. That makes them realize how lucky we are to do this. This is important to people’s lives.”
Penn Jillette, the magician and comedian, had a conversation with Randy Pitchford, head of Borderlands creator Gearbox Software. Jillette had an interesting insight about gamers.
“(Raymond Joseph) Teller says the difference between magic and theater is theater is the willing suspension of disbelief, and magic is the unwilling suspension of disbelief,” Jillette said. “There’s a bigger umbrella in that. Games are being played in a safe space. That is the most important thing about art. We deal with horrific ideas, but deal in a space that is completely safe. There’s a big misunderstanding that when we think about art, they are not celebrating death and pain. They are celebrating youth and life. Death is certain. Pain is certain. We cannot fight that in the real. But in art, we can. It’s the 21st century. Stop fucking beating up artists.”
On building lasting franchises and memorable worlds
Plenty of brands and franchises have only a minor impact on consumers. We see few real, lasting brands in video games.
Civilization is one of those. The game celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and the game’s original creators, Sid Meier and friends, spoke at the impact of the game. Civilization has sold 33 million copies in sales to date, including 8 million for its latest, 2010’s Civilization V and its expansions. Meier’s teams at MicroProse and Firaxis have created 66 versions of the game across all platforms, and based on extrapolations from sales on the Steam digital distribution and community platform, the Civ series has been played for more than a billion hours.
For Civilization IV, game designer Soren Johnson operated on the ideas of “one-third old, one-third improved, and one-third new,” so new fans could embrace the game and old fans could enjoy familiar features.
Meier said, “Some franchises go into overly large, overly complex ideas and crashed and burned.”
Ubisoft’s Tommy Francois, head of the company’s new intellectual properties, noted how world creators have to turn to so many different disciplines — books, movies, and other games — to get inspirations for creating virtual worlds. But he also encourages his world designers to get out of the office, put away the books, and “smell the grass,” or really learn what it’s like to be in a place that will become a setting for a video game.
On creative expression
I was struck how some of the biggest artists of the industry confessed how they didn’t always get to do what they wanted.
Game broadcaster Geoff Keighley moderated a talk with film director Guillermo Del Toro, director of the film Pacific Rim, and his friend Hideo Kojima, who received a Hall of Fame award for his work on the Metal Gear series over decades.
Del Toro said that he may have a half-dozen movies in the works and only one of them eventually gets made. He has co-written 24 screenplays and only made nine movies, he said. Each screenplay can be a year and a half of work.
“A quarter of my life has gone into projects that haven’t happened,” Del Toro said.
“I feel extremely free right now. I am trying to make a big game with a very small team. I am doing exactly what I want to do,” Kojima said through a translator about his new Kojima Studios company.
On virtual reality’s beginning
Virtual reality was on everyone’s mind at the DICE Summit. Digi-Capital, the tech advisory firm, projects VR will be a $30 billion industry by 2020. Just about everybody asks me how I think the pending launches of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets will go.
OK, I’m cheating on this part, as Nvidia’s boss didn’t appear at the event. But I interviewed him about the company’s earnings during the show. Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia, said in an interview with GamesBeat that he isn’t sure how much a lift VR will deliver for the graphics chip business and the PC business.
“It can’t help but help our business,” he said. “When it happens, it’s going to be a bonus. But it’s uncertain.”
On investing in games
Dan Fiden, chief strategy officer at China’s FunPlus, told me that conventional wisdom is that the mobile game gold rush is over.
“And I’m not afraid to disagree with conventional wisdom,” he said, as he unveiled a $50 million game fund with a focus on mobile and other platforms.
Fiden added, “I started making games and investing in games because I love playing games. I think it’s going to be a great art form and business for the next 30 years. I would like to invest in a great video game more than I would like to invest in a ride-sharing app. I know more about video games.”
Del Toro had harsh words for the money people when he appeared on stage with his friend Kojima, who recently left Konami and the Metal Gear series he created after a dispute with the publisher.
“Games are only limited by the bastards with money,” Del Toro said. “I think it’s a pity. It is a marriage that happens in every big industry. The storytellers look ahead to see what they can discover, and the money people look back to see what is a safe route. There is a tension there.”
As for the “bastards” comment, Kojima said later, “He’s absolutely right.” Del Toro added, “I’m sure the money people think I’m a bastard.”
On diversity in gaming
The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and Intel launched an effort to improve diversity in games. A year earlier, the International Game Developers Association and Intel said they wanted to double the number of women in gaming.
Women are about 48 percent of gamers. But Mike Gallagher, chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association, and several other speakers noted that just 22 percent of industry jobs today are held by women. This isn’t bad, considering other tech fields have dramatically lower percentages, he said, but it isn’t good enough, Gallagher added. He noted that 31 percent of students enrolled in the 180 schools in the Higher Education Video Game Alliance are women.
“So we have 31 percent more that are coming,” Gallagher said. “That’s helpful. It’s nowhere near that for engineering. When you look at most other major universities, they’re operating around 15 percent, 16 percent. So I see the pipeline looks much brighter when it comes to the diversity issues of today.”
“It seems that our audience is far more diverse than the industry or the characters in our games. We’re way behind our audience when it comes to diversity,” said Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Rise of the Tomb Raider and another speaker at the DICE Summit. “I think the industry is slowly getting the message. I’d like the industry to realize that the message isn’t just about women, though. It’s not about, ‘Just put women in games!’ Racial minorities in games, different ages in games, sexual orientations, diversity of thought — there’s so much more to diversity than just putting women in it. I’d like the industry to embrace that.”
On giving gamers control
As noted in our interview, all of Warren Spector’s games over the past few decades have been about “emergent gameplay,” which give players choices so that they can solve problems in their own way. Spector has been religious about this view, which contrasts to the tastes of game writers such as Amy Hennig, creator of the Uncharted series, where games more often follow a single path with a cinematic, movie-like structure.
“Here’s the pathetic thing about myself. It’s not a deep, dark secret, but the pathetic thing about my career is I’ve spent the entire, what is it, 32 or 33 years doing nothing but trying to re-create the feeling I had in 1978 when I first played Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t someone telling me a story. I was working with my friends to tell our story,” he said. “Bruce was my dungeon master. Obviously he was a terrific storyteller, but he also knew that we were storytellers too. That’s been my mission. One thing I tell my students all the time is that you need a mission. You need to know what you stand for. What are the things you won’t compromise on? Everything I’ve worked on, it’s all about the same thing, all the way up to Epic Mickey. A lot of people didn’t see it there, but they’re all about players showing off how clever and creative they are and telling their stories. That’s all I’ve ever done. That’s all I’m interested in doing as a game developer. I just want to do it a little better every time.”
On one-hit wonders and portfolio strategies
Niccolo De Masi likes to take a lot of swings to get a home run. His rivals at Supercell and Machine Zone are much more focused, and launch a lot fewer games.
In an interview, he said, “Supercell has obviously done a great job, at least up until their latest launch. We haven’t heard or seen from them since. It’s hard to produce one every year. On average, I like to joke, gaming is like men’s tennis. If you’re in the top 20 seeds you can be dangerous in the final. You can have a $500 million game or win Wimbledon if you’re in the top 20. It’s not like women’s tennis, where Steffi Graf won every year she played.”
He added, “Reversion to the mean is a powerful phenomenon. It’s still in Glu’s favor. It’s a lot less likely that King or Supercell will produce another $500 million game than it is that Glu will get its first. Our biggest game is $100 million or $200 million, not $500 million. A $500 million game for Glu would be a real needle-mover. For King, because of Ricardo’s tremendous success — King was half the size of Glu in 2011. Now it’s a $2 billion juggernaut. A $500 million game only keeps the catalog flat, if they’re lucky.”