After owning the game for several years, and playing through it just as many times, I decided that I'd learned all I could from fan sites and numerous reviews I would read just for the sake of reading about one of my favorite games. It was time to go to the source--Denis Dyack himself, director of Eternal Darkness and founder of Silicon Knights, a game development studio responsible not only for one of my personal favorite titles, but several other gaming gems as well. I recently had a length chat with Denis about the founding of his studio, the longevity of digital distribution, video games as a viable art form, and a recent controversy surrounding video game journalists and the E3 2006 preview build of Silicon Knights' next title, Too Human.
Shack: Out of everything you've played, what game would you say is responsible not only for getting you into video games, but also inspiring you to enter the industry?
Denis Dyack: I've never been asked that question before, and the answer's going to be really funny, actually. When I saw this game, I was like, "That's the right way to go, these guys know what they're doing." Speedball, by the Bitmap Brothers.
Shack: I've heard of it, but haven't ever played it.
Denis Dyack: They're doing a remake now, and man, back in the day--going back to '88 on the Amiga--I saw that game, and it was, in my opinion, the most polished game ever. I'm excited about the remake, but haven't seen much of it. Back then, that was sort of it for me. I thought the Bitmap Brothers had quality down, back in the day when three people could make a game. Now our teams are comprised of hundreds. But that was the one for me, the one where I said, "Those guys are doing it right; I want to do it, too, and have the same type of quality that those guys have." And that's what we're shooting for.
The game that made me play video games was Pong, but everyone's going to say that.
Shack: At least we know now, when the Speedball remake comes out, what will account for Too Human's sudden halt in development.
Denis Dyack: [Laughs] No, it won't. I can't afford for Speedball to do that. You know, actually, there have been some games that I've pulled myself away from. World of Warcraft, about a year ago. I had one of the highest characters in the company, and I finally went, "It's time to stop this." I was level 58 or something.
Shack: Wow, right near the edge of the level cap, before the expansion.
Denis Dyack: Yeah, right at the edge. But man, it was insane. The game was great, I didn't want to put it down, and I just said, "This is like an addiction, I've got to put it down. There are other games to play." I think World of Warcraft was an excellent game, but fortunately, I removed myself from it.
Shack: How did Silicon Knights come about? Did you always want to form your own company?
Denis Dyack: I don't think there was ever a want to form my own company. We made our first game in 1992. It was published by SSI and a group called Millennium [Interactive] in the United Kingdom--Cyber Empires, for the Amiga, the Atari, and the PC. Back then, we just wanted to make video games. We were in Toronto, very, very different from an area like Silicon Valley on the west coast. We didn't even know if there was an industry. Because we wanted to do our own type of games, and because there was no one around [in our area] that did those types of games, we just formed our own company with two people, actually. Our first hire was an artist, and the first game we did... I designed the game, did all the art, and the programming. My partner at the time, who left about seven or eight years ago now, he did a lot of the artificial intelligence stuff. It was a really small team. You could start, literally, in your basement back then. It's a completely different world now. You can't do that anymore. We just started because we wanted to.
We called the company Silicon Knights because we wanted to be the knights in shining armor in the games industry. We wanted people to recognize that the games we were going to do would be of the utmost quality, and that every game we did, you could rely on a Silicon Knights game. It's like a Stephen King book--you know that you're going to get something good when you pick it up. Back then we thought there were a lot of bad games, and not enough good ones. Ironically, it's only gotten worse these days. Percentage-wise there are a lot more bad games than good games out there.
Shack: That's a good point you make. You look back at, for example, the Wii's growing Virtual Console library, and it's easy to see where video games re-started after the crash in the early 1980s. Some of those games are just terrible, and you'd think that, after all this time spent designing and learning how to make games, more companies would know what constitutes complete and utter crap.
Denis Dyack: I agree with you--some of the games are just so horrid. It's because they're hard to make, and there's no set of ground rules for the games industry on how to do good game design. Hopefully over the next twenty-five years or so we'll get there.
We're such an immature industry. The definition of "game designer" isn't even concrete yet. Silicon Knights, when we did Legacy of Kain... in North America, I was the lead programmer for a while, then I became a director; no one had even heard of that before. Everything was about producers. I look at it as, producers deal with money, and that can conflict with creativity, so you need a creative person. Now, there's a ton of directors out there, but jeez, Legacy of Kain, that was about nine years ago, and it's just recently that directors are really emerging. Finding a game designer these days that actually knows his stuff these days is really hard. We're actually working with a local university, creating a program called Interactive Arts & Sciences, where people can get a degree in the arts, in game design, technology, in all these different areas that explore what the role of a game designer is.
Shack: You'd think that a lot more game companies would be anxious to get to that point, because these days, games cost so much to develop that in many cases, one flop could cost someone their company.
Denis Dyack: Oh yeah, for sure. One of the things that I'm a big proponent of is, I wish there were fewer games. So, you do reviews and you report on the industry. It was last Christmas or the Christmas before, there were two hundred games released in November.
Shack: It's absurd. I think the problem was, there were so many quality titles that got outshined by bigger names, so no one ever got a chance to play them.
Denis Dyack: I totally agree. It's a shame, and at the end of the day, there's just so many out there that the market is over-saturated. I'm hoping that these games, becoming more and more expensive, I'm actually hoping that at some point, publishers will just go, "We can't make all of these any more, so we'll just make few gamers." Which I think is a good thing, because I want to play them all. I'm a big movie buff, too; I watch as many movies as I can. But you just can't get out there all the time to see everything. With a game being... it used to be around forty hours on average, but now they're around ten and fifteen, which I think is more manageable for the consumer. Still, though, there are just way too many games. Between Nintendo DS, PSP, 360, all the other consoles, you just can't play them all, and I just hope that at some point there are significantly fewer games.
Shack: In a recent interview, you said that you believed gamers do not want long games. Do you think that episodic content and its eventual spin-offs are the format that video games will be released on in the future?
Denis Dyack: I would categorize episodic content as a similar medium to television--it has its place. There are films, and then there are shows like Heroes on T.V. I think episodic fills that gap, and I think there's room for both, actually. When we created Legacy of Kain, it was upward of 60 hours to complete. No one's got time like that any more. I'm thinking that, just in general, with higher production values, I'd rather be done with a game after ten to fifteen hours, and have a tremendous experience, than have a sixty hour experience that ends up as just so-so. Not including replays, not including online and all that stuff. For example, Halo 3--if it takes between ten and fifteen hours to complete [the] single-player [campaign], I'm a happy guy.
I think episodic content is its own sort of derivative. It's just a smaller type of game.
Shack: Along those same lines, we're watching digital distribution grow quite rapidly. Do you see brick and mortar stores becoming less and less the primary means through which gamers acquire new software?
Denis Dyack: Yeah, I see that as inevitable. I think that eventually, the only way of distribution will be digital. Actually, it comes down to a very interesting philosophy. I'd like to extrapolate quite a bit, and if you'll bear with me, it's kind of a long answer, but I think it's an interesting one. If you look at technology, and if you were just to assume technology is infinite--the amount of pixels you can process is infinite, the amount of memory is more than you'd ever need, the hard drive space--imagine in the future that your [Internet] bandwidth is unlimited. Essentially what you're doing there is, you can actually hook up your controller to some audio/visual device, whatever that will be; maybe you can plug stuff into your head after a while, I don't know. You should be able to play games without downloading anything.
The reason that's so important, and why digital distribution is going to win, is because you then could set up things such as server subscribers that will limit piracy, because there's nothing to pirate. If you look at MMOs, and if you look at China where there aren't any copyright laws, essentially the only games there are MMOs because you can't pirate that experience; you've got to pay to interact with everyone else. As technology continues to explode, which I think it will, we'll get to the point where what you'll be purchasing is the game experience. There's no disc, no software to download. If the technology gets fast enough, you can probably just play games from a central server, and it doesn't mean things need to be [only] multiplayer, it just means that the technology is so good that you don't have to wait. You can enjoy the experience in ways that can't be pirated, and I think that because our medium is interactive, it does mean that it has substantially more value than old mediums that are more linear, such as television and movies. Once something gets put onto a bit torrent site, it's over; that value just decreased like MP3s in the music industry. But with these kinds of technologies in the future, digital distribution is not only the future, but it's the only answer to stopping some of these problems that we'll be facing.
Turn to page 2 to read more of Denis' thoughts on the future of gaming, as well as the inspiration that led to Eternal Darkness._PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: You hit right on something I wanted to discuss with you. John Romero recently said that he believes gamers will be "playing on their PCs or a new PC-like platform that sits in the living room but still serves the whole house over Wifi, even the video signal."
I know that you recently announced your preference that there eventually be one central console. Do you see this, or something akin to it, happening? What will gamers use to play their games, downloaded or otherwise?
Denis Dyack: Yeah, I think there will be a console. I would somewhat agree with what John Romero said. It all comes down to commoditization. Essentially, as technology becomes more powerful, we're reaching a threshold with the average consumer, internally, say our parents or our grandparents, they won't be able to tell the difference between a PlayStation 3 and a 360. The technologies are different, and I think as a hardcore gamer, you can tell the difference, but with each successive platform, say the Xbox 720 or the PlayStation 4, whatever, the differences will become smaller and smaller. What happens is, the technology jumps become less and less, so the amount of effort that Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo put into proprietary hardware... the value will be reduced. I think eventually we will come to one homogeneous platform, and the hardware will become so powerful, it will lose its value. Which, in a sense, is commoditization to the point where different technologies can't match up.
Now, I don't know if I would call [the uniform game system] a PC. The technology, whatever derivative form that it's in, I think without question, a homogeneous platform is inevitable, just like digital distribution, because in the end, our market is less competitive and not as good as it should be, because you have these false economies where you can have an FPS on the PS3 that's exclusive, and an FPS on the 360 that's exclusive, and quite frankly, gamers would win if there were one console that allowed everyone to play everything. For example, take Gears of War and Resistance: Fall of Man. Both very good games, but the person who has a 360 versus someone with a PS3, probably have not played both. If they do have both, they're either in the games industry like we are, or a hardcore fan. For most people, consoles are still fairly pricey, and if they do get both, they'll wait two or three years down the road to get the other one. I know when I pick up a movie, even though we have the whole Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD thing right now--that's going to go away fairly quickly--but if I pick up something like the latest Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, I know I can play that on any DVD player; I'm not worried about different compatibilities.
Commoditization is pretty hard to stop. It's just like cell phone technology. At first, the cell phone itself was everything, now they're given away for free because it's all about the service plans. I think Microsoft's real console is [Xbox] Live, not the hardware. I think Live is the future. Sony's certainly heading that way, too. Everyone's heading to online.
Shack: Speaking of the technology, one term that I feel is extremely clichÃ© is "next generation." I think it's a bit misconstrued. Everyone talking about next generation seems to mainly be talking about graphics. Personally, from last generation to this generation--PS2 to PS3, for example--I feel the leap in graphics has been quite small, which is something you touched on earlier. What do you see as the true meaning of "next generation?"
Denis Dyack: That's a really great question. I think generally it's going to be a move toward content. As the technology becomes less important, the true games that are going to stand out will be compelling experiences versus. A lot of people think next generation means new and inventive, but I don't think it means that, either. I think it all comes down to production value. There are other ways in which we can tell compelling [stories], different gameplay, audio, graphics... all in a way that really mesh together. I think that's really going to [define] "next generation." That, and compelling entertainment experiences, really content-crafted games.
Shack: In terms of delivering compelling entertainment experiences, companies seem to be trying more and more to make gamers feel like they're "really there" when playing games, but if I don't have a good control scheme, I personally don't feel as involved in the experience. Do you think that systems like the Nintendo Wii and the DS, are changing--or at least attempting to change--the way gamers actually play their games?
Denis Dyack: I think they have significant value. The catch-22 with me for those systems--and let's talk about the Wii in particular--what I'm particularly talking about is, everything we [Silicon Knights] focus on is software-driven. I think as the hardware becomes less important, is going to be about the software--and how you use that software. You always hear people say, "It's all about the games." Nintendo has always been about the games, and here they come with this really unique input device. I think that's akin to, maybe in the future, plugging directly in to our brains, or using some kind of virtual technology or whatever. I would say, with Zelda [Twilight Princess] it would be the actual game experience itself, and I think that the input device that [Nintendo] is using now, it's very original and very cool, but because it's hardware, I would be more inclined to look toward software for next-gen, but I do think they [Nintendo] have something there, no question.
Shack: I'd like to steer us back toward Silicon Knights for a bit. One of my favorite games is Eternal Darkness. I'm curious, can you tell us about the inspiration as to how Eternal Darkness was born?
Denis Dyack: Good question. All our games, where they come from, it's really hard to say. I remember thinking about a lot of things at the time, and I loved Resident Evil 2, and knowing that what I liked about Resident Evil 2, and what I thought was interesting about it, was how [Capcom] told the story from two different sides [Claire Redfield's and Leon Kennedy's]. I thought that was ground-breaking. To me, that's what made that game stand out. Also, when we [Silicon Knights] think about making games, we never want to make anything similar to something else, and frankly, Resident Evil was good enough at the time, and we didn't want to make anything like that, but I did like the juxtaposition of seeing the story through two different pairs of eyes.
Our impetus for doing Eternal Darkness was, to take some [H.P.] Lovecraft elements, let's take some Michael Moorcock elements--have you heard of Michael Moorcock?
Denis Dyack: He wrote a series called Eternal Champions and another series called Elric; it's fantastic. A lot of people who have read Michael Moorcock have seem similarities in Eternal Darkness. It's basically about parallel universes with champions who interact at times.
So we kind of combined those elements, and we wanted to create a game that had a ton of characters who had to fight these supernatural forces, which are basically immortal, and ask how humans could fight these near-immortal beings? The only way they can do it is passing things on to other people over a period of about two thousand years. That's how everything started.
Nintendo was really supportive for that project. I remember kicking off the idea at the Nintendo Store in Redmond. We had a bunch of other ideas, too, but this is the one we really hooked on to. Within a month, we'd started, and it was pretty exciting.
Shack: Could you tell us a bit more about its development?
Denis Dyack: We pretty much got close to alpha on the Nintendo 64, and we did some amazing things with the technology. We were running in 640x480 screen resolution within the memory add-on, and we had a decent frame rate. We switched over to the GameCube and were going to make it a launch title, just because everyone thought that would be the right thing to do. Eternal Darkness had gotten so many accolades already. Unfortunately on that, we almost made launch, but then 9/11 happened, and we had a lot of Middle Eastern content that we had to make sure was very safe. I don't know if there was anything in the game that really wasn't safe, but at the time, with anthrax threats being thrown around and a bunch of other things--George W. Bush was saying it was the next crusade, and we had a crusader in the game--so we had to delay the game a bit more to make sure everything was totally cool.
It was a beautiful game on the Nintendo 64, and we learned a lot on that console, but taking it to the GameCube, which was much more powerful, allowed us to do a better camera system and we're pretty happy with how that turned out.
Shack: The sanity effects were a great idea.
Denis Dyack: Yeah. Some almost didn't make it into the game, like the one that allegedly erased your save game file. That was my personal favorite. That took a lot of work to get in, and no one's ever really done anything like that before. We really broke down the fourth wall, there. We got most of the ones in that we really wanted to get in, but there's certainly room for a lot more.
Turn to page 3 to learn about the partnership between Silicon Knights, Nintendo, and Konami that led to Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, Denis' thoughts on video games as art, and more._PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: Would you say a sequel to Eternal Darkness is pretty likely?
Denis Dyack: I've never seen so many requests. Every day I open my email--and we have a web account as well--we have people just hammering us. Every day, without fail--"When's Eternal Darkness 2 coming?" I think there's a lot of people who want [a sequel], and it'll require the right timing and, you know, the right circumstances, but certainly when we create a new IP, we create entire universes; we don't create one-shot stories. I personally would like to tell more stories [in that universe].
Shack: How did the partnership between Silicon Knights and Konami come about?
Denis Dyack: Actually, it was before Eternal Darkness hit the streets. I was in Japan sitting down to lunch with Miyamoto-san and Iwata-san, and we were just talking casually. Out of the blue, Miyamoto said, "Would you like to do a Metal Gear Solid [title]?" I kind of looked up and wasn't sure if it was a translation issue, wasn't sure if he was serious, because you know, Metal Gear [Solid] was always on the PlayStation. So I went, "Huh?" Because we were talking about future projects and stuff, and that one had obviously even entered my mind. And he said, "We were talking with Kojima-san, and we think it's a great possibility. He's very busy with Metal Gear Solid 3, but we'd love to do a GameCube version [of Metal Gear Solid] if you're up to doing it. You'd get to work directly with Kojima-san." And I said, "Sure, let's talk about it."
The next day, he [Hideo Kojima] actually came in from Tokyo on a bullet train and had an hour long meeting, then started the project ten days later. It was completely unexpected, and something we hadn't planned on at all, but before you know it, there we were up on stage at E3--Kojima-san, Miyamoto-san, and myself--talking about Metal Gear Solid. It was a great experience, and I think working with both Nintendo and Konami was really rewarding for us, they were really great partners to have.
Shack: Were you a fan of the Metal Gear series?
Denis Dyack: Oh yeah, I was a huge fan of the first one [Metal Gear Solid] for sure. I thought that he, Kojima-san himself, took things to the next level. He did some things in Metal Gear Solid that I thought really stood out from the crowd of most games, trying to tell a compelling story rather than just something that's pure gameplay. I wish more people would do that.
Shack: One common thing--I guess I'll phrase it as a complaint--about the Metal Gear series, is that there are so many cinematics to the point that gamers get frustrated and just want to play the game. Do you feel cinematics should all occur as real-time, in-game events, or do you prefer the pre-rendered variety?
Denis Dyack: Well, before we did Metal Gear Solid, I thought that pre-rendered was the way to go, and since working with Kojima we're now all behind real-time, but the reason that we're behind real-time is that, I think the whole idea of story-gameplay-story-gameplay, is really going the way of the dodo, and what we're doing with Too Human is, we're adding interactivity into the content as much as we can. That whole gap between gameplay and story is something we're trying to erase. By doing that, specifically in Too Human and in our future products, we think that it's really going to help video games stand out on their own merit. We're big believers that video games are an art form, and there's a big upcoming conference where we're doing a talk called "The Eighth Art." By and large, film is called the seventh art, and we think video games is the next step, that it's really a convergence of all the other art forms. By making and allowing things to be interactive and non-linear, video games can do something that all the previous art forms can't. That's where we're heading.
There are certainly valid complaints about a cinematic going on too long. Fifteen or twenty minutes is too much to do, to just sit there and watch when you'd rather be playing; I agree with those criticisms.
Shack: Obviously when remaking a game, you have an obligation to stick close to the original source material, yet enough new content must be added in order to attract those players who have already played through the original game. How much control did Silicon Knights have over the remake of Metal Gear Solid?
Denis Dyack: We were charged with the gameplay aspects, and mixing elements from the original with the second [Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty]. We didn't have a chance to change the script. A lot of the cinematics were produced by Kojima's friend, Ryuhei Kitamara. He re-choreographed everything. The script was unchanged as far as I know, and the voice actors were the same. Kojima-san made the decision not to change that stuff at all, and Kitamura-san directed all the cinematography and fight scene choreography. Our job was to make the game.
Shack: Now obviously, you said you were a fan of Metal Gear Solid, and that it was an honor to do a remake, but what led to the decision to remake a game rather than continue one of your own IPs such as Eternal Darkness, or even create an entirely new IP?
Denis Dyack: Basically because Miyamoto-san and Iwata-san asked me to do it. They said, "We think this would be great for Nintendo, and great for your team." It was more of a strategic thing for the overall good of Nintendo, and it was something that Kojima-san wanted to do as well. I don't know if we would do something like that again--actually, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't. We're focused on original IPs now, but I was excited about the learning experience and the collaboration, it was pretty worthwhile. I think it was a cool project, but we don't do that kind of thing anymore.
Shack: Back to something you said earlier, there are of course proponents for video games as art--I myself am one. However, I wonder, is there a point where a game is art, or just a game? For instance, let's compare Street Fighter II and Metal Gear Solid. Some say that Street Fighter is "just" a fighting game, whereas Metal Gear Solid is art because of its dynamic characters, its story, and its deep gameplay. Do you believe there is a proverbial line that a game must cross to be considered a viable form of art?
Denis Dyack: You know, I think that's a good question. Essentially, there will always be entertainment, and there's a school of thought that everything we do is defined around story. So, when you play Street Fighter, the story is, you beating up your pal, doing crazy combos, pulling off victories at the last minute. You tell that story over and over again. We're defined as individuals by the stories we tell people, so one could argue that there is a story in everything. However, just like modern media, there's film--serious film, like cinema--and then there's pornography, there's television and short films, short stories and full novels... I think the real issue I have when people say that video games are not art, is they think it's okay to say what can and cannot be defined as art. Documentaries, as an example, are now considered art, but a long time ago, they were just considered kind of a scientific methodology for finding the truth in something.
I guess my answer would be, there's room for everything, pretty much. Whatever entertains people and is really what they're looking for. That's not to say that games like Street Fighter will ever go away--I think they should stay--but I think it would be not a good idea to not submit video games as an art form just because some of those games exist. I guess the question would be, in the film industry, is pornography art? I've heard people like CliffyB [Cliff Bleszinski] say that games are almost a form of pornography, or the equivalent of pornography, so it all depends on your take on something. I don't know what I would do, personally, without Final Fantasies, without Metal Gears, without the types of games we [Silicon Knights] make, because those are my favorite types of games, but that doesn't stop me from playing things like an RTS. Supreme Commander is one title I'm really enjoying right now, and it's not very heavily story-driven.
Shack: You make an interesting point. I've always believed that some games don't have storylines per se, but rather, their gameplay can tell a story in and of itself. Do you think that doing things like exploring the world of Hyrule in a Zelda game, stealing cars in Grand Theft Auto, stomping goombas in Super Mario Bros.... can those types of things be considered as a form of storytelling?
Denis Dyack: Oh, good question. I think it's that kind of stuff, that kind of game design, that's going to be the future. We're talking about something like Street Fighter, which is pretty old school, but when you have games where the content just develops over time, it helps you tell a story. I think Shadow of the Colossus is a really good example--not a lot of dialogue, but it's crafted story is very thoughtful. It's those kinds of things that I think are really the future of gameplay, of game design. We're certainly trying to head in that direction. Games like Zelda and Super Mario, the stories are crafted well, it's just not crafted in the traditional sense. When you have a mime who doesn't say anything--and mimes have been around for thousands of years now--they tell stories too, they just don't speak in the traditional sense.
Shack: Your relationship with Nintendo was arguably very successful, but it was rather short-lived. What happened to end the partnership?
Denis Dyack: It was a secure relationship. Really, I guess it came down to the direction they were planning to take the Wii--titles that are aimed at a more casual audience. At Silicon Knights, we like to make pretty big blockbuster games. We [Silicon Knights and Nintendo] shared lots of similar ideas of quality, and knowing we work for the consumer, and doing whatever we could to make a quality game. Unfortunately, the kind of games we wanted to do required high system requirements, and the Wii wasn't something we thought we could do a lot with. It's a different perspective, and Nintendo will still do games like Zelda, but I think even Miyamoto's even recently said that he thinks those types of games aren't the future for Nintendo.
We at Silicon Knights believe games like Too Human are our future, and all the stuff we talked about before, with the bigger games and hopefully having fewer of them, that's the direction we're taking, and Nintendo's just taking a different direction. They want to go more toward the smaller party games, and that's just the kind of stuff we're not interested in right now.
Turn to page 4 to learn about Silicon Knights' partnership with Microsoft, as well as Denis' thoughts on video game previews._PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: What led to Silicon Knights' eventual partnership with Microsoft? Was Sony ever an option?
Denis Dyack: Ken Lobb, who was at Nintendo for a long time and who eventually went to Microsoft... before it was even out that we were no longer exclusive to Nintendo, he went to Microsoft right away. He's always loved Too Human, he knew that was the type of game we wanted to do. Microsoft moved fast.
Shack: You recently gave a GDC panel that revolved around independent developers maintaining their identities. Do you feel that Silicon Knights is able to do that while working with Microsoft?
Denis Dyack: Yeah, absolutely. I think Microsoft is fantastic in that regard. They do whatever they can to support us. Microsoft has done a fantastic job of letting us keep our creative vision, and they're pretty awesome to work with.
Shack: Did you enjoy that same creative freedom while working with Nintendo?
Denis Dyack: Definitely. Nintendo was fantastic as well, and I think we were doing some pretty radical things with Eternal Darkness at the time, and they were fully supportive. Groups like Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony--they're all really good to work with. They're strong, they know what they're doing, and they're good partners. They all have their different ways of working--Microsoft involves a lot more people on projects, whereas Nintendo involves fewer--but they're all very good. For any developers out there, I can recommend them all strongly, they're good partners.
Shack: A few months back, you were involved in a dispute with some Electronic Gaming Monthly editors over their preview rating of Too Human at last year's E3. What caused the dispute? Do you think perhaps the game was shown too early, or do you think the problem lies in video game marketing?
Denis Dyack: Yeah, I said a lot of things at GDC specifically tied to the industry, which is essentially this--when journalists start giving reviews of previews, I think that's really, really bad, because often times when a game is shown at E3, you really don't know when that game is going to come out; the developer doesn't know, the publisher doesn't know, and I think without question that Too Human was shown too early. I could have cared less whether we got a great rating or a poor rating, because we've gotten a lot of great ratings before at E3. The unfortunate thing is, they're rating all these titles, and they are predicting how they're going to do. My issue with them is that there's absolutely nothing for them to base that on. They're not able to play many games. Most of the games rated as 'awesome,' they didn't even play. To even play Too Human at all was out of the norm.
We need to start showing games when they're closer to being finished so that press can make more accurate judgments. How many times have you read a preview with developers saying, "Oh, don't worry, this part will be fixed, and so will that one," and have it not be fixed? We have to get away from that stuff. So, you guys have to be fully critical. If the frame rate's bad, say it's bad. But if someone clearly says, "This isn't done yet," then you have to be pretty careful if you want to say something good or bad. This kind of thing is happening more and more in the industry. Right now, the cash flow problem is the bottom line. Our industry needs publishers who can do the marketing, but if you slip, where you have to get into magazines three or four months early, you spend all that money and the game's not out... that's too risky.
Think about it--how much have you seen of Grand Theft Auto [IV]? Nintendo's been doing it [previewing games later in their development cycles] for a while now, and other groups will do it more and more, because it's just a good business model. The fact is, them [EGM] being super-critical at E3 was one of the reason E3 died. It's important that the mainstream press be more critical, but if you're going to be critical when things are shown early, like at E3, it's not worth it for anybody, because the game's chances of doing poorly become better than its chances of doing well, irregardless of what game it is. Is it good, or is it bad? No one can tell, because it's not even close to being done.
Shack: I have to agree. I think one of the former E3's biggest problems was, because there are hundreds of games released every year, I think the show got to the point where journalists felt that they had to assign ratings to a degree just to keep the public informed of which games to watch out for, since the industry is so over-saturated. The whole concept was and is misguided.
Denis Dyack: Exactly, and I tried to mention that in the EGM podcast. It's really funny, a lot of people there really didn't understand what I was trying to say, but if you have five thousand games shown at an E3, and a game journalist previews twenty... I mean, even by previewing those twenty at all, aren't you essentially saying that they all have something special? I mean, there's five thousand games there, so those twenty must be something special, right? How can you possibly preview five thousand games in three days and be fair? You can't. So, at that level it's like, there are too many games, and that's why the show died. I'm really glad you agree.
Shack: Do you think the smaller scale of E3 will maybe take some of the apparent stress away from journalists and allow them to properly do their job, which is to report on what titles are coming out?
Denis Dyack: You know, I've got to tell you, I don't know if E3 will do that, but I think the industry's going that way. If I had my way, what I'd do is give you a finished copy of, say, Too Human, three months before it comes out. You can play the whole game, have plenty of time to write your review, and then you've played it, you've given your opinion, rather than saying, "Here's a huge game, it's got four player co-op, there are five classes, you have seventy-two hours to review it--GO!" It's not fair.
I feel really sorry for the press, because there are too many games. How are you going to review fifty games in a week? It's not possible, at least not fairly. Don't you look at a lot of games?
Shack: Yeah, and unfortunately, I found it to be one of those things where, with so many projects, you have to pick and choose how to spread out your time, because there are only so many hours in a day.
Denis Dyack: Exactly. Why should you, as a review and preview writer, have to take anything on good faith and take the word of the developers when they say, "We know the frame rate sucks. Don't worry, we're going to fix it?" You should just be able to sit down and play the finished game and say, "The frame rate is great," or, "The frame rate sucks," and know that you did your job, and you're giving your audience a review they can trust. Right now, our industry is so messed up, you can't do that. It's not that it's anyone's fault, but it's not fair to you guys, that's for sure. That's one thing I'd love to see changed.
Shack: Do you think that previews are necessary, or would you rather implement your suggestion and have the press wait until a game is completed, play through it a few months before its release, and then give a complete review?
Denis Dyack: Actually, in my world, previews don't go away, you just preview more finished products. The way a marketing campaigns would work is, there'd be a reveal, and during that reveal, the game could be done, or close to done. You show one level, you talk about it, you let the press write about it, let people digest it, then you slowly build up to a big blowout where you let everyone review it. So actually, previews don't go away, but in the movie industry, generally by the time you start seeing previews, the movie is done. That's what I would recommend--when you see a preview, you know the game is almost done, or close to being done, even though it may be a couple of months before you see it on the shelf.
Shack: I can imagine, from a development stand point, that having a preview build ready for E3 was quite a pain.
Denis Dyack: It was universally acknowledged as a complete nightmare for developers, publishers, and the press. No one liked E3. It cost a ton of money, it wasted a lot of time, and the results were questionable. Sometimes the show was really good, sometimes it was really bad. That's why it's gone. Why do something where publishers are spending tens of millions of dollars to put on this show, when it's questionable as to how much coverage they're really going to get, and they games may not even look that good because they're forced onto this brutal schedule which takes away from development time and ends up delaying the game even further. Show the game when it's ready, and you don't have to take away from development time.
Shack: I'd prefer things move in that direction. I recently had to review The Lord of the Rings Online, which came out on April 24, and just a couple of weeks ago, I finally had my review done to the point where I actually felt competent and confident enough to give a widely-read opinion. By that time, though, the game had already been out almost a month.
Denis Dyack: I think you're exactly right, and what you're looking at there is a cash flow problem. Imagine if the game had already been done and you would have had three or for months to review it. That would be awesome, and the developers would have time to tweak the game more. But everyone has to meet their fiscal quarter demands.
Shack: Thanks for your time, Denis. I really enjoyed speaking with you.
Denis Dyack: Me too, man, I really enjoyed it.