David Jaffe is one of the stars of the video game industry. Since the 1990s, he has shown his creativity over and over with games such as Twisted Metal, God of War, and the most recent title, Calling All Cars. VentureBeat caught up with him recently for an interview.
Jaffe worked designing games at Sony for 13 years, but he left Sony in 2007 to cofound the game studio Eat Sleep Play. During his career, Jaffe has been loud, vociferous, and potty-mouthed — but fans love his games. In June, he rolled out on stage at the E3 trade show in an ice cream truck (a signature vehicle from Twisted Metal), and announced that his studio was working on an online multiplayer version of Twisted Metal, a car combat game that will debut in 2011.
VB: You caused a stir by saying you were not doing a Twisted Metal game on Twitter. Then at E3 Sony announced you were doing Twisted Metal Online.
DJ: I suppose that was a stir. I don’t know how many people follow me on Twitter. There was a vocal minority that took it the wrong way. I meant it to be fun and wanted the E3 attendees and players to have a surprise. I’ve been to E3 for many years and it was fun to be surprised by what you saw on the show floor. I think most people took it this way, that it was a little white lie. It was in the interest of being able to drive out on stage in the ice cream truck and give people a surprise. There were people who said, “Dude, Jaffe is a liar. We f***ing hate you.” I’m not a politician. You don’t have to look at my voting record. My job is to entertain. I entertain by putting pickups in the right part of the level in a Twisted Metal game. If it means I have to lie in order to entertain, I’m totally fine with that and I would do it again.
VB: What have you been doing in the last couple of years?
DJ: I had left Sony after God of War II to make small games on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. I still feel that is a really exciting space for so many reasons. It’s a brand new way to distribute games at different price points for consumers. That remains a passion of mine.
We did a small game called Calling All Cars. It did OK. It didn’t do as well as I hoped it would do. It jostled our confidence a little bit. Maybe we didn’t connect as well with that market. It was brand new for us. If we had taken another couple of swings at it, we would have done better. But then we thought, “Let’s do something smarter to help get us up and running.”
We had just started a new company. We hadn’t made a new Twisted Metal game in years. Not since 2001. That was the motivation. Fans want this. We can do something new with the new game console technology. We were licking our wounds because our game didn’t resonate with the volumes of gamers that we wanted it to. Some would view that as a spectacular failure. I don’t think Sony looked at Calling All Cars that way. It made its money back.
Then we pulled out the ice cream trucks and motorcycles from the mothballs and got re-immersed in the universe of Twisted Metal. We fell in love with it again. I feel like this is one of the best games we’ve ever designed.
VB: What was it like going back to Sony to ask if they wanted Twisted Metal Online?
DJ: I was at Sony for 13 years. I don’t know where the mandate comes from. Maybe it’s [Sony CEO]Howard Stringer. I’ve had great bosses like Alan Becker and Shu Yoshida and Kelly Flock. Sony has never come to me and said, “This is the product you will make.” It’s always the opposite, where they are asking what I’m excited about. What will get you and your team to come into work and bust your butts to make something awesome?
We launched the first Twisted Metal in 1995. The question we talked about this time was whether we could make Twisted Metal relevant. The last game was June, 2001 on the PlayStation 2. Games like Grand Theft Auto came after and changed what it was like to be in combat in a vehicle. Can you get out of the car? Can you go on missions? Twisted Metal was more like a fighting game like Mortal Kombat, only you fought in cars. So we had to work on what would bring fans back and create new fans for the franchise. That is what we have been working hard on for the last two years.
VB: There’s a rich tradition in car combat, right?
DJ: If you go back to the movies, there is Auto Duel and Mad Max. Great Hollywood car chases. That’s the DNA of Twisted Metal and that is what our focus is.
VB: And you’re taking the franchise into the online game market.
DJ: It’s challenging because if you get into the nuts and bolts of Twisted Metal, it’s a fighting game. Fighting games are usually one on one. There’s a part of me that hopes that players will play one vs. one. We are now up to 16 players and you have to start designing your game for a different kind of combat. There are so many other opponents attacking you at the same time.
The game play becomes more like a macro mentality. You have to take a macro look as a player and look at your health, resources, weapons and objectives. Going online is exciting because the fantasy of car combat is much more compelling when you have a lot more people chasing you down the freeway with missiles flying everywhere, tanker trucks exploding, and snipers in helicopters overhead shooting at you. It feels like you are in the middle of a great action movie. It becomes a challenge to maintain the engagement with other players when you are throwing 15 other players into the mix.
VB: What’s the reaction to the game?
DJ: It’s been great. You never know what the reaction will be when you go to E3. Games are expensive to make. Now that I own my own company, there is more stress. Sony didn’t put pressure on us, but we put the pressure on ourselves. We did not know if people would like our game play. When we walked out on stage and got fantastic applause, that was the first time we knew. At the show floor, we had lines of people waiting to play it. I love games. I’m not hating any of them. But so many games take the cinematic storytelling approach, like it’s a movie. That is great. We made a game like that, God of War. But I am happy that people are embracing Twisted Metal’s game play. This is about sitting on the couch with buddies and playing. There is clearly still room for that kind of game. I love that PlayStation 3 fans can enjoy that kind of game. So far, so good.
VB: Can you explain what is fun about the game?
DJ: If you are into the fantasy of vehicle combat, with machine guns and missile launchers and flame throwers, it’s that kind of game. You can lean out the windows with shotguns and 9-millimeter guns. If you get goose bumps and geek fan boy grin on your face when you watch a great chase scene in a movie, that is what Twisted Metal is trying to evoke. Within the first minute, once you get the controls down, you have fun. It’s a cross between a shooting game and a driving game.
It’s not as pick up and play as Split Second or Call of Duty, because we are asking you to do two things. You have to drive and shoot. It takes a couple of minutes to learn. The graphics on the PlayStation 3 are great and the environment is destructible. It really does feel like we’ve dropped you in a war zone. Twisted Metal is not on a distant planet. It’s in your own backyard. You are destroying suburbs and crashing your car into movie theaters. You are going to theme parks or battling on the lawn of the White House. It speaks to that “f**k you rebellious attitude” that people have inside. That’s the first blush. Once you get into it, you realize that there is a lot of strategy and tactics. The surface game brings you in, like the smell of popcorn at the movie theater. The movie keeps you there. You want to get engaged with a story. We get you there with the chaos and rebellious attitude. Then it really becomes a tactical game. You have to position your vehicle. You have to choose the right weapon against the right car. You can change to a helicopter and get an aerial view, but your armor is much weaker. There’s a lot to it. It’s more than juts a fun, chaotic romp. There is a deeper game under the hood.
VB: While you have been working on this for the last two years, the game industry has changed directions. If there were once 100 massively multiplayer online games getting funded, now it’s 100 Facebook game companies. What do you think of these changes?
DJ: I think it’s great there are more people getting into games. Whether it is FarmVille or MMOs or the many millions playing Modern Warfare 2. It’s the coolest thing that interactive media is at the forefront of the way that people like to be entertained. I see that gaming has overtaken email as an activity online. That’s really cool. When the whole Facebook gold rush kicked off a year ago, my partner Scott Campbell and I asked ourselves if we should do a Facebook game. The only way we would do one is if we could find a way to monetize arcade games on Facebook.
I don’t like Mafia Wars or FarmVille. I respect those games. I just don’t enjoy them. This industry is as much of an art form as it is a business. You have to bring yourself back to your center and ask what excites you. What excites your team? I have friends who have chased after the FarmVille chuck wagon. They want a piece of the pie, and it hasn’t gone that well for them. I think that people who create games have to stay true to what they love. Maybe the pendulum will swing back. Maybe you are on the path to irrelevance. You can’t live your creative life by chasing what is popular. You have to do what excites you.
VB: Were there any things from this explosion of social games that you could bring into your own game?
DJ: I really like microtransactions and downloadable content. I like the ability to customize to what you want. Whether it is $20 or $60, the initial purchase has to be satisfying. You have to feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth and then some. You have to feel taken care of.
Once the publisher and the developer have fulfilled that part of the bargain, then I love the fact there are ways to add to your games. Whether that is add-ons for your cars or different levels. You can add brand new stories for individual characters. We want to apply that in a way that is consumer friendly to Twisted Metal. The other thing I have learned will be for our next game. If you are doing a story-based game, it doesn’t have to be full of fluff. You can budget for a game that you sell for $15 on the PlayStation network. It can be a story-based game that will last for just four or five hours. You don’t have to inflate the game into 15 hours. For $15, it’s cheaper than going to the movies.
It used to be that your only option was to create a $60 game. A lot of game suffered because of that because they were too long. Developers made those games only because they had to. Then they were stuck with games that were boring halfway through.
VB: Do you know if you will do a longer, $60 game next or a shorter one?
DJ: I don’t know. We have a lot of work to do to finish this game. All of our energy is on that. A couple of hours a week or so, I open my notebook and think about what we would do next. A lot depends on how this game is received. If it does well, maybe Sony will ask for a sequel. Who knows? I am kicking around some ideas and I want to get back to some storytelling after Twisted Metal, and creating new intellectual properties. But that’s all up in the air now.
VB: What do you see as the competition?
DJ: We are an action, shooter, and online game. You immediately think the elephant in the room is Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, which people are still playing. The trick is we have our fans. If we treat them well, they will show up. We are trying to get new fans as well. I think other shooters and action games are competition. I thought about Nintendo would say about how they had no direct competition for what they were trying to do. I always thought that was such bullshit. That is corporate spin bullshit. But the more I do this job, the more I understand what they are saying. I can’t worry what others are doing. You have to compete against yourself. Otherwise, you are chasing a phantom. Even if you catch it, then your only goal is making money. If that’s your only goal, then you won’t succeed. Most things that do well have some internal inspiration behind them. In terms of pure car combat, we are the only game on the block right now. We still feel there is a lot of life in this genre and it is wide open for us.
VB: How many people do you have on the team?
DJ: We have 36 at Eat Sleep Play and a small team of four producers at Sony Santa Monica. Sony San Diego has a team working on cinematics and in-game movies. That’s a team of around 40 or so. I work out of my home in San Diego. It’s still iterative, with a lot of trial and error.
VB: So you’ll work on it maybe three years?
DJ: We are launching in 2011 but don’t know the exact date just yet. Most games are taking 2 to 3 years. We are likely to hit about 2.5 years. We could have done it faster with a bigger team, but it’s not running up huge expenses either. We’re shooting for the best game in the series and the best game we have ever designed. The game is really game play and multiplayer focused. And that is a lot more about iteration. That is like taking wind-up toys and putting them in a sand box. You see what happens and then tweak them again. That’s where a lot of the time and investment has gone.
VB: Do you think of it as an MMO? Those usually take much longer to do and then service after the launch.
DJ: Sony hasn’t announced anything yet. For me, the part of the MMO that is interesting is the service aspect. I love the idea that we could keep pumping out stuff for you to enjoy in this world. But it is 16 players in one environment at a time. It’s not massive that way. It’s fast action and small matches. You can level your character and your vehicle up. It’s more of a story, than a big journey with lots of missions. I am hoping that Sony will allow us to keep generating content for a long time to come.
VB: How do you like coming back to these characters?
DJ: I love it. We just got a look at the in-game movies of Sweet Tooth and Doll Face. On the one hand, it is cool because they are old friends. I still find this stuff amazing. I love the Halloween aspect. The twisted, Twilight Zone-style stories. It looks like something out of Creep Show. It’s got a fun, Fangoria-style vibe.
The stories are twisted and weird, but they’re getting mature and come from a deeper place now. There is a growth to the characters. Our character Doll Face is worried about her fading beauty. It’s more emotional, and we have never associated that feeling with Twisted Metal before. I’m not saying this sh*t is Shakespeare, because it ain’t. But it’s fun video game stuff that is personally fun for me to watch grow up with me.
VB: Do you identify with the characters? You have a bad-boy image in the industry? You don’t mind using foul language when everyone else in the industry is so polite.
DJ: Bad boy is the wrong word because that implies I’m getting laid and doing drugs. Unfortunately, I’m doing very little of that. If you want to call me a bad boy, you have to provide some proof. If you want to call me a potty mouth, I will give you that one. The language is really how I speak. I said to my daughter last night that I don’t care what you say. She was stuck in her pajama shirt and said she couldn’t get out of it. I said I don’t care if you say (swear) words. But the word you cannot f***ing say is “can’t.” I grew up in a loving family that cursed like sailors. That’s how my kids will probably grow up.
In terms of the industry, people should be polite. But I don’t like a lot of the PR spin that happens in this industry. It’s a disservice to customers and a disservice from a karmic sense to the world in general. I want no part of that. Whenever someone gives me the opportunity to talk in an interview or go up on stage, I’m not going to be an asshole. But I do think being genuine is important. There are a lot of images that are presented in the media about how life is beautiful. It’s such bullshit and I don’t want to be part of it. It’s important to present your genuine self.
VB: You sound happy with the state of the industry.
DJ: It’s a great industry. It’s an exciting time, but it’s always an exciting time. I got into it when I was a game tester when they flew me out to Chicago to look at a game called Live Action Hero. It was awful. But I was so excited. We’re so close to being able to step into the Star Trek Holodeck (which creates a completely convincing virtual illusion).
It’s scary because of things like the disruption from digital distribution. Games cost too much to make and they take too long to do. Very few games make money. There is a lot of that going around. But I still feel it’s a great industry. Our industry is allowed to be so much more creative when it comes to intellectual properties than anything else out there. It’s hard to be cynical about games. You have creativity every single year. The business is getting harder. The cream will rise to the top and hopefully we will be in the cream.
VB: How do you stay in touch with your creativity?
DJ: That’s me. I watch movies. I play games. I play with my kids and go to Disneyland as often as I can. It’s not a challenge for me to be engaged. The loves of my life are my creativity and my children. This is my f***ing passion. I’d be doing it if I got paid or not.