Disclosure: The organizers of the Quo Vadis event paid my way to Berlin, where I moderated this session. Our coverage remains objective.
People around the world want to make great games. And American game creators are eager to impart their hard-earned knowledge. I traveled to Berlin with a group of gaming veterans who talked about their decades of experience in game development and their advice for those breaking into the business.
The panel I moderated at the Quo Vadis game developer event in Berlin included Glen Schofield, the cofounder of Sledgehammer Games, which created last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare; Noah Falstein, the chief game designer at Google; Jens Begemann, the CEO of Berlin’s Wooga; and Ed Fries, the former head of Microsoft Game Studios and an active game startup advisor.
We talked about how to break into the business and their predictions about where gaming is going. Virtual reality was high on the list, but so were mobile games and triple-A console titles. Here’s an edited transcript of our discussion. (Here’s part two).
GamesBeat: We have a very interesting group of veterans of game development and publishing here, from very different parts of the industry. To my right is Glen Schofield. You heard from him earlier today. He’s the general manager and cofounder of Sledgehammer Games. His studio created Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Glen has a long history of working on games like Dead Space for Electronic Arts’ Visceral Games.
We have Noah Falstein. He’s the chief game designer at Google. I’m not sure if Google makes games, but I guess they do? The Google Doodle games maybe count?
Noah Falstein: Well, there’s that Ingress thing.
GamesBeat: Yeah, Ingress is pretty good. Noah has also been around the industry for quite a long time, working at places like LucasArts, Dreamworks, and 3DO. We have Berlin’s own Jens Begemann, CEO of Wooga, the creator of games such as Agent Alice, Pearl’s Peril, and Jelly Splash. Then we have Ed Fries, the former head of Microsoft Game Studios. He’s a game adviser now. Ed had 18 million-unit hits at Microsoft during his time there.
Ed Fries: That used to be a big number.
GamesBeat: He was also one of the founding members of the Xbox team. So, welcome everybody. For each of you, from where you sit, tell us how long you’ve been in games and why you’re still in games.
Glen Schofield: I’ve been around for 25 years. Why am I in it? Every single game presents a challenge. I feel like video games are one of the biggest creative endeavors we have in entertainment. It’s not just visuals. It’s gameplay. We just keep adding more and more to them. I love the challenge, love working with people, and I love seeing people’s faces when they like the game you’ve made.
Falstein: It’s 35 years for me. I was talking to Ed yesterday about how one of my influences was, in the 1970s, seeing Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space, which was even before he did Pong. It wasn’t a big commercial success, but it did get me and quite a few others excited about games. Now it has grown in so many ways into consoles, the PC, web-based gaming, social gaming, free-to-play gaming, digital distribution, mobile gaming, just one revolution after another. What’s happened is, it’s created one market after another. Instead of there just being one thing that will be the future of gaming, there are all these different platforms and all these choices and they all create opportunities for game developers.
GamesBeat: Everyone here is at a very seasoned place in their career, if not at the peak. What kind of advice do you have for people who are starting out now? I guess you wouldn’t tell them to go into Facebook social games now, but what would you say that people should pay attention to or study or be ready for?
Fries: Sometimes it’s good to be where people aren’t going.
Falstein: One thing that has been absolutely true throughout the whole history of games has been that if you have an aptitude for coding, that’s a good way to get a steady, safe employment. Now, perhaps even more than before, that tends to be a predestined thing. It seems like there are a lot of people who say, “Oh, I never considered doing that. Let me try it.” They find that they’re actually good at coding. It’s almost a calling that way.
Short of that, one of the things that’s been clear to me and that I try to pass on to people is that passion is great. Passion is really important. There are so many passionate people who love what they’re doing in this industry. It’s hard to compete if you don’t have that. Being persistent, sticking with whatever you do and not giving up is in my experience the quality—Particularly for people breaking into the industry, that’s the difference between somebody trying for a month or two, sending out a few resumes, and getting disappointed, versus the one who sends out 80 resumes and the 80th gets them their dream job. Persistence probably trumps just about everything else.
Schofield: I always say passion, persistence, and patience. All the time, when I talk to kids coming out of school, that’s what I tell them.
Jens Begemann: My biggest thing would be to tell people to make games. The tools are now so powerful that even if you’re not an engineer by education, you can create games that are fun. You can use Unity. You can use things like Game Maker. One of our game designers, last autumn, started to work on a strategy game. He said, “Let me try it alone. I’ll do the first prototype in Game Maker.” It was basically just two people with a game design background, and after three months they had a strategy game with PvP in it coded in Game Maker. It was just a prototype, no impressive graphics, but 50 employees played it for months, doing 30 or 40 sessions every day and competing for the high score. It was nothing we could ship, but it was clearly fun. You don’t need to be an engineer. If you have the skills of a game designer, you can take these powerful tools and create games that are fun.
Schofield: People are always saying, “I can’t get a job. There’s not many jobs. You won’t find a dream job.” What I say is, “Let’s step back for a second.” At my studio in Foster City we have 250 people. Electronic Arts is about a mile away with a couple of thousand. In our area alone we probably have 10,000 jobs. My studio alone has 120 jobs for artists. You go down to LA you’re talking thousands of jobs. So don’t say there’s no work. It takes persistence and passion and all that. There are jobs. But you have to love what you do and show us that you love it. We want to give jobs to passionate, talented people.
GamesBeat: What’s the progression of a career like now? Ed recently did an Atari 2600 version of Halo.
Fries: Yeah, that’s the standard progression.
GamesBeat: But I mean that probably gives you the skill to do a wearable game, right? An Apple Watch game? That’s one interesting end of the spectrum. You could also be one of 250 people working on a Call of Duty game, which is a very different experience than doing a game all by yourself.
Fries: To me it’s back to what he said about making games. There’s no excuse anymore. If you’re a designer you can make a game by yourself. If you’re a programmer, write a lot of code. If you’re an artist, make stuff. That’s how you get better.
Schofield: I hear different things. “I don’t want to do a mobile game.” “I don’t want to do a console game with 250 people.” I think that’s the wrong attitude. The attitude should be, “I want to get into the game industry.” Once you get in, we want to keep you in, because you have experience. Whether you’re making a mobile or a console game, you’re making a game for a living. There’s something good about that.
Falstein: I hear about that all the time too. “I can’t decide if I should apply to this company or that company.” Apply to all of them! Get yourself some offers and then you can decide. Then you can be picky. If you only get one, that’s where you’re going.
GamesBeat: Why would Google be an interesting place to wind up if you’re a games person?
Falstein: Google has certainly not been the first company people think of as a game company. On the other hand, we support games pretty much across the spectrum, more so than any single company. We have Android, the mobile platform. Just in the last year we’re also introduced Android TV, Project Tango, Project Cardboard, lots of exciting ways people can make games of all types, from consoles and mobile to virtual reality.
I do get a lot of people asking, “Hey, you’re Google, are you making games? What can I do to help?” Google is a big enough company that even a small percentage of it making games means there’s a fair number of game jobs. I point people at our website for that, because I never even hear about the majority of them, the company is so big.
The reality is that we’re moving into a future where games are increasingly very expensive. The other piece of it is that the handful of games those triple-A companies were making were almost all sequels, or the same five genres. The big question is, do you do a science fiction or a fantasy shooter this time?
I think we’re in a bright time that way. Having the kind of breadth of what we can do is a big part of what Google is behind, making it possible to have an even wider range of games and get them in the hands of the next billion people who will be coming online in the next five years. I’m really excited to find out what happens to adults who get their first smartphone next year. I’m sure they probably won’t spend their money on just games, but if that’s not the second thing they download I’ll be surprised.
GamesBeat: We’re starting to hear some indirect criticism of the triple-A business – the death of consoles, the shrinking of triple-A, fewer jobs left available. The choice that’s left may be, do you make sequels for the rest of your life? Competition is starting to show up in the form of Android microconsoles or cloud gaming. How do you apply some of the learnings of having been through platform and cycle changes to what’s happening today?
Fries: There are some things you see happening over and over again. A platform comes out. The early adopters do really well. Things start to get harder. A lot of people rush into the market. Budgets go up. You get consolidation. When it gets harder people react in certain ways. Sometimes they start to do more sequels, more copying, more brands. We’re starting to see more of that in mobile. People say, “I love your attitude. Let’s be more creative.” That’s the right approach, but an easier approach is to say, “Oh, no, we just have to go get a strong brand and do the Kim Kardashian game or whatever.”
So there are things you see that are the same. At the same time, you can’t rely too much on that history. Free-to-play is different. Digital distribution is different. Trying to find the line between those two is difficult.
Schofield: Can I ask you guys a question? A lot of the games that I see—My family plays so many of these mobile games, and I look at them and I think, “I made that game 14 years ago on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).” Playing some of these games like Plants Vs. Zombies, first it’s all 2D painted sprites. Then they’re 3D rendered sprites. Is what happened in the console business going to eventually happen in the mobile business? Is the consumer going to say, at some point, “I’ve played the 2D side-scroller for a while. I’ve played the top-down shooter. I want a big immersive world now”? Or is that not going to happen?
Begemann: I think there’s a number of differences, actually. Obviously, in terms of technical capabilities, that’s happening. If realtime 3D is an advantage for my game, if that makes it better, then now it will happen. Devices are capable of 3D now.
The key difference with free-to-play is that if you do a $70 game, people mostly buy it before they’ve played it. They pre-order it. They buy it based on reviews or videos or screenshots. Those things are key. Because of that, production values are important. It’s easier for me to shell out $70 for high production values. In a free-to-play game, it has to be good-looking, but people are more willing to just download it and try it out. Then you have to keep them. The key to success there is retention, keeping them in the game for a year or longer.
Schofield: Yet the market is just growing. AR and VR all have their place within video games eventually. We’ll get to that point where it’s $100 billion a year and we can all work. It’s great. I look at the mobile stuff right now and think, “Man, there’s a billion cell phones out there that still don’t play games yet.” That’s a lot of growth.
GamesBeat: What about e-sports? Is that exciting to you guys?
Fries: I think it’s incredible to see what’s happening. I just helped some friends of friends get tickets to the International, the DOTA 2 tournament in Seattle. I tell stories about that event last year. It takes place at the Key Arena, where our basketball team used to play. It sold out last year and again this year. Even if you were there clicking right when they went on sale, you wouldn’t get tickets. Last year they raised the prize pool to more than $12 million, and all raised by crowdfunding within the game. The winning team took home $5 million, more than the PGA major tournament that happened that same weekend. I don’t know the exact numbers, but there might be more people watching the International that weekend than watching the golf majors. You can tell non-game people that and they don’t believe you, but when you show them all the broadcasters in all the different languages on all the streams, it’s incredible. It’s something we’ve talked about for years and it’s finally really happening.
Schofield: People say, “You can’t judge a game by looking at it.” But nowadays, with Twitch, people are just watching games. We just had a Call of Duty tournament where we gave away $1 million. We work with them a little more now. We want them to give us feedback and play the game. It’s pretty amazing.
Falstein: There are a lot of game people at Google who are over on YouTube just because there’s so much going on there. It’s one thing to be a professional game player. But it’s amazing to me that you can do so well just being a game player who goes out and comments and becomes incredibly successful at that. That shows every sign of continuing to grow. People are concerned about discovery. That’s one of those things where both the people that become these commentators and popular YouTube channels—It’s good for them. It’s good for players. It’s a whole new entertainment form.
Fries: At the keynote today the Amazon guy showed the top YouTubers. Three of the top five or four of the top six were all game-related. They were all above any star that you might now, any musician or whatever.
GamesBeat: They’re making game journalists and game reviewers feel a bit obsolete now. I’ll be opening up my Twitch channel pretty soon. [Joking] We were supposed to answer this question about “Quo vadis game industry?” Where is the game industry going? Does anybody actually have a great prediction? What are you going to be doing on the Star Trek Holodeck in the distant future?
Falstein: A lot of times we hear this question and people want the one thing. I’ve already addressed that. There are many things, and I’m grateful for that. I do believe that the sort of holodeck feel—Having tried a lot of these new VR systems recently—I was a skeptic. Jaron Lanier did a demo for a group of us at Lucasfilm Games in 1984. He was the guy who coined the term “virtual reality.” The fact that it’s taken so long has made a lot of people skeptical. “We’ve heard this before.” In the talk I’m going to give tomorrow, I show a cartoon a game developer did in 1983 about the future of arcades. It looks very much like the Oculus Rift, frankly.
I do think we’re at that point, though. I was talking at the beginning about creating science fiction. Even before Star Trek and Holodecks I’d read books that had this idea of people being able to go into virtual reality systems. There was a great one from the early ‘60s, Way Station by Clifford Simak, that had it as a minor plot point. It’s exciting to me that we’re getting to that point now, being able to blend the real world and the virtual world increasingly seamlessly, much as the movie visual effects people have been able to do. We’ll be able to do that in real time in everybody’s home.
GamesBeat: You just told everyone to go into virtual reality. That’s exactly what you said you weren’t going to do. [Laughs]
Fries: I just finished watching a Japanese animated series with my kids called Sword Art Online. It’s about 50 episodes, taking place in a VR world. But what that got me thinking about more as far as the future is this idea of value and what matters. My kids would much rather get a stored value card for their birthday than a toy. To them it’s just as real. When they can take that and go into a game and buy some digital asset, to them it’s just as real. That’s something we’re going to see blur over the next decade, this idea of what we think is real.
What I’d ask you to think about is, why do you think the real world is so real? The things we care about in the real world—Take diamonds. The only reason we value diamonds is because De Beers wants us to. Or pearls. Or money. What’s money? Bitcoin? It makes us wonder what money really is. All the other things we care about. Brands? Mostly things that someone told us are important, told us are worth something. It’s all just as virtual as these virtual items. That blurring of what is real and why “real” things matter more than virtual things is going to change. Maybe our generation has to die before that can take over with the next one.