GamesBeat: Zynga’s hiring. They’re up to about 3,000 people now, but more specifically, they’re hiring more people for game design. They have 150 people with the title of game designer.
Blackley: Again, there’s a chasing-the-tail aspect to the games industry and the general reaction to business trends. Everybody now understands, for instance, in the motion picture industry, that story is the most important thing. People understand that it’s fundamentally a creative industry, that the power of creativity in film has a lot to do. Not everything, but a lot to do with whether you’re going to succeed or fail. Games haven’t really done that. People evaluate the success of games like Zynga’s games based on the explosion of social. I think if you asked the audience, they’d say they play FarmVille because it’s awesome and they love playing it. They like the way that it was designed. And so I think that it’s inevitable that after that initial success… Just like with Atari. Atari had some success with Pong, not really thinking about game design, they thought about making this thing that was entertaining and releasing it. It was massively successful, and then you had this problem. We need to make more. How do we make more? I think it’s an inevitable consequence of success.
GamesBeat: You’re focusing on iOS. How did you choose that platform? Is it a coincidence that it might take about as many people to make an iOS game as it once did to make an arcade game?
Blackley: Well, if you believe in deeper karmic resonance and stuff. There are so many similarities between what’s happening on mobile platforms now, specifically the sort of pad platforms, and what happened in the arcade business that it’s kind of creepy. We could go into that in great detail. We concentrate on the Apple platform for the same reason a lot of people have, which is that it’s a well-defined business, right? It’s a well-defined, relatively predictable business structure that you can launch a new game into. You can control the number of unknowns you have. We may end up releasing products for a whole bunch of different categories, but for now, we’re going to try Apple and see if the ghost of Steve Jobs is our friend. Who, incidentally, started off in his first job as an Atari game designer with some of these guys. Again, the karmic resonance, you can’t get away from it.
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GamesBeat: So what do you actually think of the console business now? Sales year to date are down 25 percent in the U.S. I don’t know if that just means we’re getting close to the end of the console cycle, or something else is at work…
Blackley: Yep. It’s the end of the console cycle. It happens at the end of every console cycle. Per my earlier comment about…
Blackley: I don’t think we should be alarmed. The consoles are old. There’s not really a lot of interesting new content coming out en masse. I mean, there’s obviously some very interesting new games coming out for consoles, but it’s the end of the cycle, people are looking for something new. Witness the unbelievable phenomenon today on Kickstarter, Ouya [editor’s note: now past $4 million], that represents a huge amount of pent-up demand from console customers, people who want a new console. That’s them voting with their money.
That, I don’t think, comes from a desire to have a new console. That comes from a desire amongst fans and game developers alike to have a viable platform on which to play high-def games on their television. People want that kind of content. They demand that kind of content. They haven’t tired of those experiences. But they’ve tired of what we’re giving them and the product that we have for sale. So the market declines a bit, and then we give them something new. It’s an entertainment business, and again, we keep coming back to those entertainment cycles. It’s an entertainment business, if you’re not delighting and surprising the audience, you’re not going to do well.
GamesBeat: It almost seems like a push for platform owners to wake up and embrace some of these trends…
Blackley: I’m massively happy that it is no longer my problem, because if I was sitting at Sony or Microsoft and I saw what’s going on with Ouya. You really have to think about what that means. You have to think about what you can do to access that sort of pent-up demand and enthusiasm amongst the audience. Ouya, iPad, all of these things. The audience loves games. I like to say this a lot, but I think it’s very true. If you release a device that’s capable of playing games, or a device that’s going to become part of people’s lives today, and you don’t enable it to entertain, not necessarily with games but with entertainment in general, then it’s going to do well. It’s going to fail. That is an aspect of the consumers that we have today. They’re smart, they understand what they want. If you give them something that entertains them and you’re honest with them about it, you’re not trying to exploit them, you’re not trying to sell them some piece of crap game that you’re cynically trying to market to them. They’re becoming increasingly aware of those times when you do try to cynically exploit them. They’re increasingly aware and increasingly connected about what’s new and what’s not, what’s good and what’s not, and you’re going to start to see that reflected in the numbers.
GamesBeat: Is there something scary about this plan for making games as well? You don’t have to spend $100 million making an iPhone game, but I imagine there’s other things you have to worry about.
Blackley: It’s the most wonderful time, I think, since the early ’80s for game design. When you think about it, there are three things going on. First of all, we’ve discovered this incredibly great thing, which is that everybody wants to play games now. People have been quoting numbers all day here about the size of the audience and it’s great when you look at them all. But the overarching message, the macroscopic picture, is that almost everyone is a game customer. That’s the greatest news ever for our industry. Another wonderful thing going on is that people want to play games that can be made more quickly, that can be made for a more casual experience. What that means for game designers is, it’s the end of the tyranny of having to work on big multi-year console projects. There are people who still have to do that, but when you’re on a big multi-year console project, you’re not playing games every day.
You can’t change your game to reflect what’s going on in gamer culture and in world culture. You have to take a gamble on something that’s going to happen a couple of years from now. It’s very difficult, and it tends to disconnect us from audiences. We’re seeing a time now where not only does the audience want the kinds of games that are really fun to make, but they’re enabling us to become part of the audience again. I can remember in my class of game designers, who are now old men… In the ’90s there were news stories about the fact that we were aging, and now instead of making games for ourselves, we’ve become slightly more abstract, we were having to guess at the tastes of people younger than us and people who weren’t necessarily our demographic. The thing that’s happening now that’s so beautiful is that we’ve all become part of the demographic again. As a game designer, you are making games for yourself again. You’re making games for a lifestyle that you have and that you share in, on devices and on social media. That’s super exciting. If you’re invested in trying to maintain the old order and keep the business models the same as they’ve always been, it must be extremely terrifying. If you’re interested in making new games, experimenting with new types of gameplay, and experimenting with new ways of making people happy, it’s probably the best time it’s ever been.
Blackley: Well, the geriatric crowd that I work with, this is their own name for themselves… They actually have even less attractive names for themselves, but I’ve been advised by our PR professionals not to ever use those. But when you meet them, a couple of things impress you. The first thing is that they’re incredibly animated, young-seeming people. They’re constantly playing games, thinking about games, thinking about game design. When the Time photographers came, their comment after the photo shoot was, “Man, that’s the weirdest group of older guys I’ve ever met.”
Because they’re all huddled around televisions analyzing game design and talking about programming. You have Ed Logg, who made Asteroids, looking at a PSN game and saying, “Look, he’s not pre-computing the jump…” They’re all commenting on it. But at the same time, these guys come from a different era. They have a lot of strengths that they bring to the design of these games, and one of them is, they remember what it’s like and live what it’s like to create something from nothing. Dennis Koble made the first driving game. The first video driving. And so he knows what it’s like to have an idea that is totally new. Not a mash-up of other stuff, but totally new. But these guys don’t come from the culture of people who’ve always come up with these devices. So how do you deal with that? Well, we got the idea to bring in these smart young programmers and see if everyone could work together. It turned out to be a really interesting sociological exercise for a couple of reasons.
First, the programming tools now are obviously light-years ahead of where they were ten years ago, and from an entirely different universe compared to what existed when these guys started programming. Some of these guys started programming on punch cards. But at the same time, programming becomes much more of a system. I need to add physics on this, so I’ll attach the physics structures to this thing and see how it behaves. If something is too slow or something doesn’t work right, or if you want something that’s going to be truly custom, it’s a little bit of an awkward sort of event. So you have these kids, with this awesome systems engineering background, and then you have guys like Ed Logg or Bob Smith, who are really, truly frightening coders. They will go and rewrite the entire event-handling system of some big software engine package overnight. The kids will come in the next day and be absolutely ashen-faced, not even understanding how somebody could conceive of doing that. But for the old guys it’s no big deal. Between the two of them, we’ve been able to create a couple of really special things that each group couldn’t have done on their own.
GamesBeat: So what’s next for you?
Blackley: Well, I hope we make people really happy with the games we’re making. I hope we find a couple of these designs that really come out. That’s exciting. We have something like 30 games right now that we’re working on. We’ll release a bunch in the next few months. They’re all very different, a lot of them have very novel gameplay, things that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s going to be fun to see what works. It’s going to be fun to see what doesn’t work, it’s going to be fun to figure out everything from how to structure the business around these games to how to handle people’s feedback, figuring out how to incorporate customer feedback into the next game. That’s exciting, it’s a wonderful and exciting thing about being a game designer right now.
GamesBeat: Game startups started getting funding from VCs and so forth a few years ago. You’re a little late in that particular cycle of this happening. What is it like starting a company now? I don’t know if you feel like you’re later as a game startup…
Blackley: In your world, you think about all that crap. I don’t think about it. We had an awesome idea for a company, we got a bunch of guys together, and it was super fun to work with them. We found a deal and financed the company, and all sorts of people started coming to us with different business offers. I didn’t really think about it too much. I suppose, on some planet, you want to represent yourself as being a cunning businessman who’s finding the most cutting-edge deal at exactly the right time, but it never really works out that way.
Having done, I guess, at Creative Artists Agency, probably hundreds of millions of dollars in deals, I thought it was always dependent on whatever you could do that was right for the game at the right time. And so for me, I’m just happy that we’ve been able to find business situations that are right for the way we want to run this company. That’s the most important thing. Not necessarily going to a cocktail party in Silicon Valley and talking about how much more awesome my board structure is than some other guy’s.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about starting this up versus starting up the original Xbox?
Blackley: Well, it’s the same thing, really. I got 150 million texts today about this Ouya platform and what I thought about starting a new console. For me, it’s an easy answer. The idea for the Xbox was bred out of making an enabling tool for developers. I love game developers and I love what happens when you give game developers the opportunity to make awesome stuff. That’s what makes the business work. And so all of the stuff that’s been going on with game consoles, and what went on with Xbox, and what’s going on with Innovative Leisure, is designed around giving great game designers the opportunity to make cool stuff. So it seems the same to me. It is, however, unbelievably nice to not have to do it within a giant monolithic corporate structure.