Ben Andac is a Producer at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and a vital member of one of PlayStation’s most important teams that you don’t know about: Strategic Content. Andac is currently the Producer on No Man’s Sky, everybody’s most anticipated game!
How did you get into the industry?
It’s quite a long story. I actually never trained nor did I intend to get into the games industry. I was always into games growing up, very much so in fact, but I actually studied English literature, and then journalism specializing in the arts. Initially, my career was in the film industry. I did that for several years; it was quite fun, although it’s quite difficult to make money and sustain yourself as a young freelancer! I did do some freelance games writing, not just film, and I eventually decided I wanted to do something a bit more stable. I had a friend from university who had a games studio, and I got in touch with him pleading for work [laughs]. As I said, I had no formal education or professional experience making games, but I was fortunate enough to learn about production, coding, and art. I was very lucky to have a mentor who was willing to teach me about all the varying aspects of making a game. I eventually discovered that the design side of things was where I wanted to be. I focused on level design as I love creating spaces and communicating through spaces, and eventually found myself at SEGA, working in their creative division under SEGA Europe’s senior designer. Following that I joined Sony for the PS3 launch and was there for around four years before travelling to Asia where I worked as a senior designer with a small independent studio, and then most recently returned to Sony a few years ago.
What exactly is your position at Sony PlayStation?
Currently, my official title is Producer, which is not really an accurate title for what it is that I do. I work with Shahid Ahmad, he’s my boss, and what we do is quite different. We’re a bit of a special experimental division within Sony. I often describe it to people as though we are an external team working on the inside [laughs]. Obviously, we work for Sony and for PlayStation, but our team of four is unique in that we are given free rein to try new things. We also all come from different backgrounds and as such we have a very keen insight into both the development and publishing process though as a team we’re neither of those things – we’re more of a business development group. The title of our team is Strategic Content and it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m a Product Developer. We look for games that can change the way people experience and think about the medium – and in that sense, its not just about PlayStation but about moving the medium forward. What I do as a Producer is a lot of prospecting, finding talent, building and maintaining relationships, finding games that would strategically fit the platform, and helping to create new models for both the business and our partners. It’s not a producer role in the sense that most people would think of a producer; it’s more hands-off. We don’t micro-manage deliverables, or interfere in the development process; we trust the people that we work with and do our best to collaborate and make it easier for them to bring their games to PlayStation.
When you’re working with these developers, they’re often working on unannounced games that you can’t discuss. Describe that, does it ever get frustrating?
No, it’s quite rewarding actually. You know that people are going to be really excited when something is announced, or you don’t, because you can’t really know that can you? But it’s never frustrating, no. I think when you’re working on something that’s cool – and the whole point of our division is to work on cool shit – it’s quite exciting to see people react to it, and to know that the developers are going to get the recognition they deserve. We often don’t get recognition but we’re fine with that, we’re much more facilitators and enablers. We love to connect people: to assist them and ultimately assist and advance the entire industry. We want to create a healthy game development and publishing environment, one that benefits everyone, whether they have a PC, Xbox, Nintendo or PlayStation console. Helping people like we do is never frustrating.
You’re at SCEE (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe), correct?
How close is your relationship with the great folks over at SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America)?
It’s very close! There are groups within all of Sony PlayStation’s divisions who are responsible for having relationships with external developers, for example the Developer Relations group in Third Party Relations. Strategic Content is not a part of that group; actually there’s no equivalent division to ours in all of Sony. However, we work closely with the Developer Relations team in Europe, America and Japan. In the US there’s Adam Boyes and his awesome team, and we have regular catch–up calls with them and our European counterparts. We meet with them at events such as GDC and PAX, and we look at what’s on their slate, tell them what we’re interested in, and we sometimes collaborate on projects.
The big question is: You are the Producer on No Man’s Sky, and a big part of bringing it to PlayStation platforms. What’s it like working with the Hello Games team?
It’s been pretty amazing! Shahid and I have been involved in that game for a long time now, since its first announcement at the VGX awards in 2013. The great benefit of our team’s background and experience is that we always hear things that are going on in the industry from old development colleagues and friends. Everyone talks! With No Man’s Sky, Sean Murray got in touch with Shahid shortly before the game’s official reveal, and I think Shahid was one of the first people outside of Hello Games to see that video. Shahid in turn showed me the video, and we were in such awe! There are no words to describe how I felt; I must have played that video every morning for a couple of weeks! Anyway we immediately spoke to Sean and the Hello Games team: we wanted to know how we could help them, and the rest is history. That game, and that team, represents everything that our team is working towards; No Man’s Sky is certainly a game that will define the medium. Working with Sean and the team has been one of the highlights of my career: it’s challenging and fascinating, and it’s different. I’ve traveled with Sean and the team to events like E3, Gamescom and the PlayStation Experience and it has been such a pleasure to share in this journey with them so far. The 65Daysof Static concert we did at PlayStation Experience was completely unique and is probably the best gig I’ve ever been to in my life. There’s still a long way to go but I believe that the game experience itself will offer the same kind of fulfillment and wonder – it’s the game that I, and I’m certain many other people, have been waiting for for many years; it’s genuinely exciting.
Is the game still set to launch in 2015?
No specific date has been announced yet but hopefully you’ll be hearing more about that soon.
Is there a marked difference between working with AAA and indie developers?
In short, no. What has changed is everyones understanding and appreciation of publishing needs. There are a lot of considerations that must be taken into account when discussing self-publishing a game; it’s hard. There are a lot of moving parts, there are lots of costs involved, and though this has greatly decreased, there is still this stigma that publishers exist to take advantage of independent developers. What a lot of independent developers are now finding is that the risk they’re taking by self-publishing a game is no laughing matter. So the conversations that we have with these kinds of developers often revolves around finding these risk points and how we can help them de-risk. This approach we’ve taken has in turn informed how these developers are able to work with traditional publishers. Now with developers such as Hello Games or FuturLab the conversations they’re having with publishers is often more mutually beneficial –the conversation is much more open and transparent, and the business models fairer.
Taking a step back from gaming, what are you passionate about outside of gaming?
I consider myself a designer, first and foremost, and what I think about when I think of design is problem-solving and making something authentic. I really enjoy learning new things: a new scripting language, a new art tool, and so on. I don’t believe that creating new things can be done in a vacuum; I think you need a wide vocabulary of media and mediums to absorb that can influence you; and this happens whether you like it or not; what matters is what you do with it. In my case I’m a big fan of cinema and cinematography, about how visual design can communicate things and interact with the audience, and in the case of games, the player – I could talk for hours and hours about that kind of stuff [laughs]. Anything that involves thinking about and practicing the application of these things is what I enjoy doing in my spare time. So really I guess I just do the same things as most people in my spare time but I just make sure that I do them with the frame of mind of ‘How can I learn something from this? How can I apply this to what I’m doing?’
What games are you currently playing?
I’ve recently finished replaying GTA V on my PS4, which took me a long while! I have this obsession with Luftrausers, which is a game that I worked on last year, and whenever I’m using my Vita I play that. I’m currently playing through The Witcher 3 and regularly playing Destiny with colleagues. I went through a Hearthstone addiction period but that’s now transferred to Gwent in The Witcher 3 [laughs].
What are your thoughts on the status of the gaming industry?
From a personal perspective, I think the industry is in a good place. I don’t know if it’s in the best place; if such a thing were even possible. People will always tell you that video games are on the brink of some sort of crash – studios and publishers, small, medium and large go out of business and at times it can seem dire. I think some of that comes from the inflating costs of big AAA productions and how that seems unsustainable, but it also comes from this ‘gold-rush’ and race-to-the-bottom mentality of mobile, tablet, iOS and Android gaming over the last few years. A lot of people are feeling a squeeze, but if you go back 6-8 years or even earlier, people would have told you the industry was on the brink of collapse as well. It’s inevitable in an industry that’s as dynamic and fast moving as ours; it becomes very difficult to predict where we’ll be in a few years’ time so the best thing you can do as a company is remain light-footed and flexible enough to adapt quickly, but do so strategically without simply being reactive and going along the same path to convergence. We’re seeing a shift with smaller studios becoming more successful and blurring the line between indie and AAA, leading to those more open conversations I mentioned before. The term indie and the entire notion of it has become muddled and lost its meaning as well, and I’m glad that other people are starting to move past it; it’s dangerous to read too much into such definitions and use them as a catch-all term.