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I’ve spouted a lot of opinions about video games in this column. But I like to listen to what some of the smartest people in the game business have to say about what stirs their passions. Before, during, and after the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in Los Angeles, I had a chance to interview 18 different CEOs, executives, and game creators about their views of gaming. I’ve dedicated this week’s story to gleaning the most interesting observations from those interviews.
After all, that’s how I get a lot of my own opinions, and it’s the best part of my job. I talk to the people with the ideas, the passion, and the insights. Please check out my favorite quotes from each interview. These are the kinds of comments that gamers and industry followers can have long conversations about. They talked about creative freedom, digital disruption, and the craft of making games. I fully expect to absorb these quotes, internalize them, and use them to tout my own forceful opinions some day.
For each executive below, if you want to see the full interview and context for the quote, just click on the person’s name.
Reggie Fils-Aime, president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America, acknowledged his company’s challenges head-on. He said, “The last three years for Nintendo have been operating profit negative. It’s a situation that we’ve never had before. For us, what that has done is brought into sharp focus the need for us to have compelling software to drive our hardware installed base, which will create an opportunity for independent developers to bring content to our system.”
He also spoke out against games that go too far in allowing players to shoot police officers. We took that to mean a criticism of Electronic Arts’ Battlefield Hardline, a cops and robbers game. He praised Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege, but he added, “I have to say, I see a lot of me-too content. I see a lot of shooters that don’t seem very differentiated. I see a lot of zombie games that don’t feel very differentiated. I see games utilizing gore and violence for the sake of gore and violence. I see things that trouble me. I don’t like the concept of a game where you’re shooting at policemen. I think that’s bad for our industry.”
Mike Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, said the right to make games, violent or not, has been clearly established under the law.
He said, “First Amendment issues are resolved and clear. Making sure that everyone necessary around the country understands that is certainly a part of what ESA does. But the Supreme Court case we won in 2011 has been a substantial catalyst for that understanding around the country.”
Gallagher added, “Also, it’s a great shield for the industry and its creative energy. The developers and storytellers and magicians making video game experiences can labor in a sense of security, knowing that their works are entitled to the same protections as books and music and movies. That’s a very profound, important thing. It’s known more broadly. We’re in better shape, probably the best shape we’ve ever been in, when it comes to first amendment issues as an industry. The industry has shown a great responsibility and responsiveness to that freedom.”
Hideo Kojima, head of Kojima Productions and creator of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, reacted to criticism of a torture scene. In response, he said, “Of course, I expected people to react to this. But then again, the theme of the game I’m trying to create here — these are very dark themes, themes like race and revenge. These are things I don’t want to look away from. I did see it coming, that people would react to this. But that doesn’t change the message I want to relate. There are things that I think we can’t look away from. What I’m trying to do is different from just shooting a zombie in the brain. We’re trying to depict something with a very specific message, things that have happened throughout history. Because I have very that very specific message I want to relate, there are things I can’t look away from, that I have to depict.”
Brendan Iribe, head of virtual reality goggles maker Oculus VR, acknowledged that creating an input system for interacting with virtual reality is a big task. He said, “On the technology side, we haven’t announced what we are shipping in terms of input or what we’re looking at as the go-to-market for a V1 input device. Input is going to be a long-term challenge. The most natural form of input for VR is just your hands. People put on the headset and look around and the first thing they say is, “This is incredible! But where are my hands?” We want to solve that, certainly. The second thing everyone does is look down and look for their hands, for their body.”
Iribe added, “We don’t know how long it’ll take to solve that. We do try to set expectation along the way. The first challenge was making a consumer headset that everyone feels comfortable in, where you get that sense of presence. Then we go from the sense of visual presence to getting avatar presence in there, trying to master input. What is eye input, mouth input, hand input?”
Tony Bartel, president of the GameStop retail chain, also dealt with his company’s digital competitors and how those rivals with address the consumer’s right to resell used games.
He said, “I’m not sure there’s exactly a ‘threat’ in digital. The key is all about consumer adoption. We view it as just another consumer option for purchasing a game. If consumers want it digitally, they’ll be able to get it that way, whether at GameStop or directly through their console. The issue of discovery is still important, whether you’re digital or physical.”
He added, “The other thing about a digital good that the publishers and platform holders are going to need to consider – and this is something that we see more than anyone else in our customer base – is that people who buy a physical game attribute $20 in residual value to that game. If you have no ability to develop a similar program on the digital side, where you give them that $20 of incremental value for a trade-in credit, then it’s going to be difficult for a digital game to sell at the same price as a new game, or even to sell above $40. As an industry, we need to sort that out.”
Eric Hirshberg, president and CEO of Activision Publishing, publisher of Call of Duty, said, “I remain fascinated by the degree to which it seems like we live in a franchise world. People, across all media, seem to be most attracted to worlds that have the depth and the complexity and the characters to keep them coming back over a period of years. You see it in the movie business, the book business, in our business. It’s different than it used to be. That makes launching new IP more challenging, but also more of an opportunity if you can get it right, as we’re hoping to do with Destiny. The reason for us betting big on it is because if you can do it, you don’t just have a hit this year. You have a new world for people to live in and come back to. To me, that’s a lot of fun, thinking about creative ideas on that scale. You look at it and say, is this a world I want to come back to again and again.”
Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s Xbox game business, laughed when I asked him if he would listen to gamers who wanted a console price cut. He responded, “The one thing about running Xbox — I think about this business as a decade-plus business. I know you’re asking in a teasing way, but I don’t think I help anybody if I put the business in a position where it isn’t a rational business over a long period of time. If you buy a console and the console isn’t a success, that’s usually not great for you. I’m committed to making Xbox One a success for gamers, but it’s also gotta be a success for Microsoft. Both those things have to be true. That’s good for gamers. Giving consumers choice around a $399 console, I look at that as a way of making Xbox more successful.”
And on the topic of turning Halo into a TV show, he said, ” I love playing video games. Not everyone consumes stories through video games. To some people, that’s an abnormality. They don’t want to hold a controller. They just want to watch TV. Halo’s story is an interesting story. It’s something that we want millions of people to be able to see and experience. Video gives us an outlet for people who maybe aren’t going to play a first-person shooter game. They can say, ‘Okay, I get it.’ Because the story has merit on its own. That obviously makes Halo the name, the brand, more valuable, more popular, more enticing, because more people know about it. If certain people then choose to play the game, that’s great, but we don’t look at it necessarily as an on-ramp to bring all those people to the game.”
Telltale Games has had great success with episodic story-based games like The Walking Dead. Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale, told me, “It’s a commitment to making sure the story feels playable. In Call of Duty, you could see a great cutscene that creates a lot of emotion around the characters that you’re with, but then you go and play the mission, and by the time you come back to the story again, that emotional connection is gone. It’s too big of a separation. You can try to carry it through the gameplay experience, but then it’s to the detriment of that gameplay. It’s a hard thing to get both.”
He added, “With Telltale, we just decided to commit to making people care about the characters as much as we could, making the characters feel as real as they could, and then putting the player in compelling situations and making them make choices. We committed to that at the core of the product. That was what the product would be about. Call of Duty is still about being a great action game. It does that very well, but it’s hard to coexist that with strong storytelling in that environment. Our games are for someone who wants to sit down and feel like they’re immersed inside the story in a new and different way.”
Maya Rogers, who took over as CEO from her father Henk Rogers at Blue Planet Software, talked about the 30th anniversary of Tetris. She said, ” For us, having this global brand is what’s kept us alive. In the future, we want to go beyond gaming. We’ve started doing that with a bit of merchandise here and there. We see Tetris as a lifestyle. Every time you’re doing something around the house or driving or walking around, you see Tetris blocks on the walls or something. I want to embrace that idea. We have fans around the world on social media who love Tetris. We want to go beyond gaming – go into stuff like making more Tetris fashion items, stuff that isn’t so obviously gaming-related — but also always keep the games alive. We’re doing this theme called “We All Fit Together” this year. It speaks to the game and how blocks fit together there, but it also speaks to how the game is universal. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak. Everyone loves Tetris.”
Owen Mahoney, chief executive of Nexon, talked about restoring creativity to gaming. He said, “My belief is that we’re coming out of what I’d consider to be five very bad years in the games industry. The bad years started around 2007. There was this false dichotomy in the business. You had the big established publishers – not just in the west, but also in Japan – where they had a hard time understanding what the impact of online would be on their business. Even when they were forward-thinking and pushing into online, they had a hard time learning a new set of skills and how to make a synchronous online game work. To way oversimplify what happened, they put a lot of resources into graphics fidelity.”
Mahoney also said, “On the other hand, you had a lot of people coming out of the Facebook world and into the mobile world who didn’t care about games at all. They were on record as not giving a damn about gameplay and game quality. The founders of these companies were not game players themselves. We all know who those were. What they never tried to do was ask themselves, “What’s a good game? What inspires me? What’s fun to do?” They might have asked, “What’s addictive?” But that’s different from what’s fun.”
Ted Price, chief executive of Insomniac Games, said he tried to apply his lessons of being a manager to being more hands-off with Sunset Overdrive, the studio’s new Xbox One game.
“The biggest lesson I tried to convey was the importance of delegating creative authority. We have two creative directors on this project who came up with the vision for Sunset Overdrive, Marcus Smith and Drew Murray. From the beginning, I felt it was very important to stay out of the way and not try to make this my vision, but support what they believed in. The team rallied around Marcus and Drew, and their vision and began adding to it. As a result, we have one of most unique games we’ve ever made at Insomniac,” he said.
Price said, “We made a decision to move away from this societal obsession with the apocalypse. We wanted to focus not on a gray, brown, rubble-strewn end times vision but instead make this your awesome apocalypse. An end times where you’re actually having fun, where you don’t have to work that dead-end job anymore, where you don’t have to worry about what you wear or how loud you play your music. You can be yourself and have a blast.”
Chris Roberts, head of Roberts Space Industries, has raised more than $46 million via crowdfunding from more than 400,000 fans for his Star Citizen sci-fi game. He said, “People always ask what it’s like having 400,000-some bosses. My answer is mostly, in the old way of doing it, you always had people you had to tell what you were doing. But I feel that in this case, there’s a lot of people, but they’ve got money down on this game. They love this game so much that they were willing to pay for it long before they can play it. They’re invested parties.”
He said, “A lot of times, in the old publishing model, I used to get frustrated when you’d be dealing with a marketing executive that didn’t really care about the game. They would come at it from, “Oh, I saw this game sold so many copies and it has this feature, so you should have it too.” I’d say, “That feature doesn’t make any sense for our game.” “Well, you need to have it, or we’ll have to put your sales forecast down and cut your budget.” You’d end up compromising stuff in your game to make sales and marketing happy. In this case, we don’t have to. We make the game that we think the community wants, and we get community feedback on it. It’s a fun process.”
Patrick Soderlund, executive vice president of EA Studios, spoke about the need to do new intellectual property, even if a company like EA has lots of franchises.
He said, “You absolutely have to continue to invest in new IP. We showed a glimpse of a new BioWare IP that’s really exciting to me. We showed a completely new IP from Criterion, a very different, unique game. We have a lot of our investment today going to new IP, because I firmly believe that if we stop investing that way, that’s the day we’ve signed our death certificate. We’re going to slowly die that way. That doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes bring back a game that’s been resting for a while, in case there’s a demand for it. That’s fine. But if you do bring something back, you’re going to have to make sure that it’s relevant, that it pushes the boundaries. You need to come in and lead and not follow with it. We’re trying to do that with something like Battlefront or Mirror’s Edge. But we also have to push quite a bit of our money into new IP.”
Robert Xiao, chief executive of China’s Perfect World, said, “We’re not limiting ourselves to only Chinese types of games. In China, we do try to utilize a lot of specifically Chinese fantasy and historical-driven games, but at the same time we’re exploring different kinds of graphical expression, especially using more western types of characters. We’re trying to create a more global sense around our products. We’re aiming to create products that aren’t only limited to China. We want to export them to every corner of the world.”
Frank Gibeau, executive vice president of mobile games at Electronic Arts, said, “We’re marshaling a new assault on the mobile business from Electronic Arts, going forward. We have some powerful competitive advantages, and we’ve got some things we can do better. The big brands, the intellectual property, the production values, the technology, the creative talent, I think we’re in good shape there. What we’ve needed to master and we’re getting in position to be able to do is the science of live services, being able to engage customers and sustain that relationship over long periods of time.”
He added, “As you know, in the live services business, it’s kind of a combination of art and science. While EA’s been good at the art, we haven’t always been good at the science. When we transitioned from feature phones that were premium, we were in good shape there. The transition to smart devices and freemium live services was something we had to learn from scratch, like a lot of other people. That’s what we’ve been doing over the last period of time. I feel like we’ve come through that. Now it’s about going on offense and creating some spectacular games.”
Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, said making next-generation games is always tough. He said, “It’s harder, because there are so many things to do, so many possibilities. We saw that when we launched Watch Dogs. To make sure the mobile works with the seamless multiplayer, with all the things we’re bringing, it’s more complex. It’s always on. There are lots of things to check and control. We didn’t do a beta on Watch Dogs, for example, and so it took us a certain amount of time to make everything work. We’re also at the very beginning. Starting next year, things should go smoother. We’re not expecting every game to take longer to make. It’s not as complex, I would say, as the jump to PS3. PS3 was extremely difficult to develop on when it came. All our teams had been on Xbox, and they had to learn how to develop for PS3, which was quite difficult at the time.”
Peter Moore, chief operating officer of Electronic Arts, talked about putting players first. He said, “I don’t know about “get back,” but continue to listen and take input from players at a higher level. We’ve always done that, but I think the tools and the desire from the player community is stronger than ever. Our ability to listen and implement feedback, in particular on some of our longer lead time games that are two or three years in development, has never been more front and center for us as far as what we need to do.”
And he added, “We did it with Battlefield Hardline. We have a group called the Game Changers, who are linked to just about every franchise in the company. These are core gamers who understand the genre, who are articulate, who can give feedback, who have played either that particular franchise or the genre as a whole for many years. We can get good, meaningful, actionable feedback in a timely way. Usually around alpha. As you get to beta, it’s more difficult. You get feature complete. But if you can get them in early on a playable version of the game, listen to them playing, get some feedback from them, we’re doing that. We’re doing that all across the company. It’s a great bunch. In the last couple of years, we’re getting them in earlier and giving them playable builds. Typically they have to come on campus to do that. And we listen to them and talk to them afterward. There’s a greater focus on what we call “player first.”
Sony’s Scott Rohde, head of game studios in North America, commented on the rise of indies. He said, “We have great relationships with indies out there. We love working with them. They love working with PlayStation. We embrace that, totally. The guys you know, like Adam and Nick Suttner and Shahid over in Europe, they’re out there with arms open wide, embracing every indie at every show they can go to. There’s a genuine love for the games. That could spill into free-to-play. It’s already a big part of PlayStation on all three platforms. I expect that to continue. It’s fun for all of us. The most amazing example of that from the show last night is No Man’s Sky. I am completely blown away by that game. To go from Joe Danger to that is an amazing transformation. That’s a team of four guys making that game. I hope you were blown away too. You just look at it and you’re mesmerized. It seems like it goes on forever.”
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