Dominic Robilliard is the creative director of Pixelopus, a development team at Sony who recently released Entwined, a game about a bird and a fish who are in love but cannot be together. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Robilliard, and we talked about his time at LucasArts, his start at Sony, the development process of Entwined, and more! I’d like to personally thank Mr. Robilliard and the entire team at Pixelopus and Sony Playstation for all they have done, and I hope people can learn something from this interview!
How did you first get involved in the gaming industry?
When I was at school, you couldn’t take any academic courses that had to do with gaming. Even though I was a passionate gamer, it never felt like a career option to be. So I went through a pretty standard academic course. I loved English Literature and storytelling, so I decided to read that at university, and I did a degree in English Literature. After that, I made a bit of a mistake and became a management consultant for a year, which was pretty soul-destroying. It got to the point where I realized I needed to find a new path, so with a bit of help and encouragement from my parents, I decided to try to get into the game industry. I started out as a tester with SEGA in London with an eye to becoming a game designer. I ended up working on a few Dreamcast games, like Rez and Crazy Taxi, so I got to see those games take shape. QA was such a standard way to get into design back then, because it offered this window into the entire development process. It was a really eye-opening experience. Then, my boss put me in touch with the lead designer on a game called the Getaway, happening at the Sony SoHo London studio. I interviewed for a level design position and managed to get that, and spent about six and a half years at that Sony studio working on various different projects. In 2008, I had the opportunity to come to America where I took a job at LucasArts. That began a five-year stint there, where I got to work on a number of projects, big and small. I got to get a taste for small team development with LucasLabs, working on the Monkey Island Special Editions.
I’ve actually interviewed someone who worked at LucasLabs, David Nottingham. Do you know him?
David actually hired me at LucasArts! He also was the one who started the LucasLabs team, and that was my first exposure to small teams. A lot of the methodology that I use now is based on what we experimented with while working with David at LucasLabs. That was a really influential part of my career.
What happened after LucasLabs?
I went on to work on Star Wars 1313 and eventually became its creative director, which is unfortunately dead and gone.
It’s not often a game that is that good doesn’t make it out, but due to unfortunate circumstances, the game was cancelled.
What is your involvement in Pixelopus?
After LucasArts went away, I took some time off to decide what I wanted to do, and came to the conclusion that I really wanted to get back into small team development. There is an agility to working with small teams and an immense sense of collaboration. Within a small team, everyone can share in the vision of the game, and one of the things we loved at LucasLabs was that everyone had autonomy and felt very involved and everyone was expected to contribute to the development of the game and hold lots of different positions. On a bigger team, you’re placed into a small section that has a small area of influence. Once I decided that I wanted to work with small teams, a friend of mine from Lucas, who had been the art director on the Monkey Island game, Jeff Sangalli, and in the meantime had been the art director on an animated series called Star Wars Detours, started working with a group at the Sony San Mateo studio. I started talking with these guys and fell in love with the setup here.
It’s very unusual for a big company like Sony to be so open and adventurous in the risks that they take.
What has been going on here is that they’ve been looking at new ways of making games and trying to research and get as up to date as possible on all the latest game theory currently happening in America. They started working with universities, such as the Carnegie Melon Entertainment Technology Center, which is at the forefront of forward thinking in digital media and education. They had a small team of six Carnegie Melon graduates from their masters program working in this group. Something that’s always fascinated me is how to teach what we do. Once I met the team, I realized that they’re incredibly talented, with skills learned at school that took me a decade to learn on my own. It felt like this incredibly enabled group of young people with an amazing attitude, and it’s turned into this wonderful opportunity to make new games in a different way with all the backing and support of a big company. It’s been a real gift working with this team, and it’s not often that you look back on the production process of making a game and have such fond memories, when it happened so recently! Usually, you come out of this process and feel a bit chewed up about the whole thing, but in this situation the process has been wonderful.
The other remarkable thing about this group is that it’s very culturally diverse. There’s five different countries represented amongst the ten of us, and we’re split half in half, men and women. Sadly in the games industry, this is quite unusual, as it should be normal.
Entwined shows a lot of that diversity and that spirit – it’s come from a huge breadth of knowledge and interest. Frankly, I’ve never worked on a team like this, and it makes me feel very special.
What were some of the influences behind Entwined?
Originally, it began purely as a design prototype. Two members of the team were messing around with multiplayer ideas, as that was a core part of the gameplay very early on. But that evolved to this idea that you could control two entities at the same time, and so the very first prototype was about trying to control a red and a blue ball at the same time. It was so challenging, but there was something there, everyone wanted to keep having another go. We started developing it further and started working on the basic design of it to make it a bit more accessible and understandable. Once we had a prototype that felt really addictive and compelling, we started working on the story and what the narrative could be. That’s when it turned into this very abstract experience. Jing and Haewon started coming up with this idea about two people who are in love but can’t be together. It originates from an ancient Chinese legend from Zhuangzi. For me, this idea felt perfect with the gameplay devices, and to make this idea playable, we had to stop the characters from crossing the central line. There have been other games that allow players to control two characters at once, but once they cross sides, players get confused as to which stick is controlling which character. Our idea was to lock you on one side or another, which supports perfectly this narrative idea of two people in love who can’t be together. They can never cross this central line. The story that Jing brought to the team was about a bird and a fish, and they can’t be together because one lives in the sky and one lives in the water. There’s a poetic beauty in that which really inspired the art team. This whole abstract visual language grew out of that.
It’s not often that a game starts with gameplay and then crafts a story around it.
Well, that’s a good point. I’ve worked on games where it’s been both ways around. In this case, we deliberately started with the gameplay mechanic, mainly because, at this point in my career, the right way to start a game is not to put one discipline in front of the other. I’m a designer, so my instincts tell me to start with the design, because I’ve worked on projects that started with art or story, and it can be incredibly hard to put gameplay back into those things. Actually, what I’ve learned is that if you don’t consider everything at the beginning of a game, it can be hard to get anything into the game. I’m very happy with the way Entwined’s story and gameplay compliment each other, but we could have been in a situation where we couldn’t find the right narrative, and it wouldn’t have worked. My general feeling, and what Jeff and I are doing for game number two is to work very hard at the beginning considering the game design, the story, the art and the tech all at the same time so they can all influence each other. The things that we’re already finding is that disciplines can often inspire each other in ways that are surprising. Technological ideas such as rendering or physics can actually then inspire the design or the art, and design can affect the tech development as well. It’s only really possible to consider all of this right at the very beginning when nothing is solid. The bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules for how to make a game. I always used to think that at some point in my career I’d finally figure out how to make a game, I thought there was some magic formula. The reality is that there is no one-way of doing it. Actually, the things that have the biggest effect on how you make a game is the team that you have, what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they’re most confortable making a game.
Something that struck me about Entwined was the soundtrack. I see that it’s composed by Sam Marshall – how did you find him?
This is a great story! We knew early on from how hypnotic the gameplay was that the visuals and the audio were going to be critical to mesmerize the player. We wanted to be able to work with a composer and sound designer who understood that, and were part of the game from the very beginning, so that we could be influenced on a design and an artistic side by the music. I’m a bit of a musician myself, and it’s always frustrated me that in game development, music often comes along later, and actually it’s just as essential to the creative process as any other part of the development. We wanted to make sure that in our game, the audio was completely integrated. We spoke to the amazing music department here in San Mateo, and they had the brilliant idea of trying to find somebody in a similar stage of their career as our team, IE, very early on. They had had an intern who was very talented and full of promise, and recommended we speak to him. That was Sam Marshall. We met with him and showed him the game, and he wrote two demo tracks that we put with the prototype.
We knew literally instantly that he was the guy.
He understood the game and seemed inspired by it, and when he talked about the game, it was apparent that everything important to him was also important to us. Best of all, we got to have him work in the same building as us. There’s a HUGE world class recording studio underneath our campus, and Sam basically moved into one of the pods there. We have a process called dailies where we play the game every single day. It’s very central to how we make the game as a team. It was really important to us that Sam be a part of that, and he ended up being a part of our design meeting, our art meetings, he was a pivotal part of the team. It was a very collaborative effort – his music helped influence design ideas, and our design ideas helped influence his music. I am so excited for Sam’s career because he’s such a passionate, talented guy.
Is he working on game number 2 with you?
Well, I can’t say definitively, because nothing is set in stone yet. But, obviously, that’s what we would desperately love to do! I feel like Sam is a part of the team and I personally can’t imagine a game that we make without him. However, since Entwined came out, he’s now in demand! Yes, though, ideally he will be on game number two with us!
Does game number 2 have the same team?
It’s the same team, although we are looking for one roll to be filled: lead engineer. Right now, I’m the creative director, Jeff Sangalli is the art director, and it’d be great to have a very senior, experienced engineer who appreciates the way we work.
Could you talk about Entwined’s Playstation exclusivity?
Well, it’s console exclusive on Playstation, and also on IOS devices. While I am the creative director at Pixelopus, that’s not my only responsibility, although I can’t get too much into detail on my other projects. The group that I work for all report to this rather incredible woman, Connie Booth. She’s been at Sony for a very long time, and this group works on an awful lot of things. The unique thing about this group is there’s this mandate to be very entrepreneurial in how we look at the digital space, how we make games, and the type of games that we make. There’s a huge amount of support and encouragement to think differently about how we do things. I never thought I’d be working at Sony with an internal team making a game for IOS and Android, but that’s a perfect example of how forward thinking Sony Playstation is at the moment. I think we’re the first internal team to have ever released a game on IOS and Android!
What was it like working with Sony?
I can’t say enough good things about Sony Playstation! When I was at LucasArts, on the outside looking in, and hearing about the development of the Playstation 4, the story was how developer-centric the Playstation 4 was going to be. The thing that struck me when I first came in to chat with the people here was that that was exactly true. Its not often, in my experience, that the external perception of a company reflects exactly what’s going on internally. I feel as though we’ve lived that through the last year.
People like Scott Rohde and Shuhei Yoshida are equal part passionate gamer and equal part gaming executive, they are exactly who they say they are.
They come and work with us and guide and advise us and help us where it counts. They give us the support that we need and the time to get done what needs to get done. It’s been better than I could have possible hoped for, to be honest.
Entwined, was, at it’s core, an indie game, even though it was being developed internally at Playstation..
That’s actually an interesting concept. We said before E3 that we wouldn’t refer to ourselves in those terms. That’s not to do with the output, but more with the fact that I know so many developers who are indie developers, and it’s a very sacred thing. It’s a different context when you’re out there completely doing something on your own. I personally think that the indie label is a very precious thing, so we wouldn’t call ourselves that because we have the benefit of so much support. The reality is, though, the output of our group is very similar. It feels very much like an indie game. It’s a small, young team working with Unity to make a very unusual and experimental game, and that ticks a lot of the indie boxes.
What are your thoughts on the indie industry as compared with the AAA industry? I think both have their place, but with a franchise such as Assassin’s Creed, there’s not a ton of room for creative expression. Not to mention, with a game like Assassin’s Creed that has such a large team, not everyone has equal roles. So there may be someone who is in charge of rendering facial expressions, and that’s it. Whereas in a smaller team, like Pixelopus, everyone wears many hats within the development process.
Well, that’s a very good observation, and aligns with my thoughts. But I can say from my experienceworking on a large game (like Star Wars 1313) that the person or group who’s working with cutting edge facial technology, if that was their absolute passion, then they’re in the right spot. Knowing exactly what you want to do is a completely personal thing that can take a long time to figure out. I think my best answer to the question is this: from a developer’s point of view, I’m very happy that this industry offers options in the type of job that you do. A lot of my friends are still in the AAA space, and the scope and fidelity of that world gets them excited about making games. I love playing AAA games, and I may work on one again in the distant future. It’s just that right now, I want to be part of a small, collaborative group that has the opportunity and freedom to do whatever it wants to do.
There’s actually a lot of valuable creative work to be taken from the restriction of working within an IP. In terms of an academic exercise in problem solving and imagination, I actually loved the boundaries that came with working on Star Wars. The challenge never felt restricting; it was ‘How can we do something that is awesome that we are passionate about that still fits the universe in a plausible way?’ I suspect that people working on Assassin’s Creed have that same sense of satisfaction innovating within an established idea.
So, I was watching the Sony conference at E3 this past year, and there you come, onto the stage! I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy? What is he just going to spew sales numbers?’ And then you show a trailer for Entwined, and I suspended those thoughts, and thought, ‘Wait, this could be interesting.’ And then you said I could download it that very moment and I was hooked! Describe your emotions on the stage at E3.
When that idea started taking shape, I had a lot of concerns. I was conflicted as to whether or not it was a good idea. The thing we’re really proud of is that that was a very gamer-friendly way to get your game out there. You’re not leveraging the hype machine in any way, you’re literally saying, ‘Here’s the game, and if you like it, you can buy it right now!’ I’m very pleased we grabbed that opportunity, and it was a huge privilege to be on stage at the Sony Press conference. Surprisingly, the nerves subsided just before I stepped on stage so I really got to enjoy those moments! The team loved it as well, and it was really special seeing it through their eyes, as they had never before been to any trade show. It was magical!
I’d like to sincerely thank Dominic for his time, and he helped reaffirm my love for the games industry and helped fueled my drive to continue this site, and continue to interview really cool people in the industry.
Readers, let me know in the comments below what you thought of the interview and what you thought of Entwined!