How’d you get into the industry?
It depends on which side of the industry you’re asking about, because prior to getting into game development I worked in the gaming press for a number of years. I started writing about games in high school and started a little fan-scene with a friend that I met on the Internet. I started going to trade shows, and even went to the very first E3! I’ve played games all my life and in high school I sort of felt compelled to do something productive with them, if only to justify how much I was playing them. I had wanted to make games since I was a little kid, but programming was not something that came as easy to me as I would have liked, whereas I really enjoyed writing, so I got to writing about games. I got some small game writing jobs, started my own website for a little while, and then eventually landed an internship at a site called GameSpot that had just launched in 1996, and I ended up working there for more than 10 years. By the end, I was editor-in-chief and running the editorial board there. But all that time, I never lost sight of wanting to make games, even though I had really fallen in love with writing about them. It got to the point where I woke up one day and it felt like 10 years had sort of flashed by and I felt an intense urge to at least try to get into development, as I thought I may never have another chance. It turned out that a former colleague of mine went to go work at EA and they had a producer opening on the Command & Conquer team, so I applied for the job and got it! After working at Electronic Arts for a while, I left and started working at 2k Games for about a year, and then reunited with some of the friends I made at EA, who formed Supergiant, which is where I am now.
So, did you help ship the second Bioshock with 2k?
Well, at 2k I was more on the publishing side of things, although I did work in the same building as the people who worked on the second Bioshock. It’s interesting, because a lot of the team who worked on Bioshock 2 have now branched off and are doing their own thing, but they very much keep in touch. It’s a small industry, among a lot of game developers there’s only one or two degrees of separation.
Did being a journalist affect your perspective when it came to development?
As some clarification, I was a critic and an editor, not so much a journalist. Consequently, I didn’t interact with many developers while at GameSpot, because it was a requirement for reviewers to be separated from developers. If an editor on the team had a personal relationship with a developer, they would not be permitted to review their game. I reviewed a lot of games, ergo I didn’t have many personal relationships with developers. However, for sure my experience as a game critic has helped me as a game developer. It’s done two main things; one, I’ve played a lot of games, which has given be a broad base of knowledge. When thinking about a certain aspect of a game, I can often think of a game I’ve come across in the past that has tried something similar. The other side of it is I had to learn to think critically about games and be able to articulate what it was that I liked or didn’t like. Consequently, I have a strong sense of my own preferences regarding games, and I can distinguish between a poorly executed good idea and a well executed so-so idea. In game development, everything is hard to do, so making choices about how you spend your time and resources is important, and my background as a reviewer has helped me make these decisions.
As a critic, do you find yourself overly critiquing your own games?
Well, I think being able to objectively criticize your own game is an important skill that all developers have to have. I just happen to have a different kind of experience around that, but reflecting on your own work is not an optional skill in this industry. If you can’t take feedback and process the perspective of other players, you can’t really be a game designer, because what do game designers do? They make games for other people.
What’s your position at Supergiant?
My title is Creative Director, so what that means is I do all the writing for our games, and a bunch of level design and miscellaneous design, among other random things.
Bastion has a reactive narrator, which I haven’t seen in any other game. How did that idea come about?
It was actually pretty spontaneous! It wasn’t there as an idea from the start. At the start of Bastion’s development, we were inspired by games like Braid, made by smaller teams that were more than just fun to play. These types of games were meaningful. We wanted to make an action/RPG, but knew we couldn’t complete with games like Diablo. One of the opportunities we saw to make our game unique was to do something with narrative. We knew we didn’t want walls of text that would interrupt the flow of the gameplay, so it seemed like a paradox, and we didn’t know how to reconcile those issues. A few months into development, Amir Rowe, our studio director, thought to try using voice over, which was made possible by Logan Cunningham, the voice of the narrator, and Darren Korb, our audio director. Amir, Darren and Logan go way back to playing soccer in middle school, so basically the narration in Bastion started as a favor between friends. Before the narration, Bastion actually looked sort of like a Dungeons and Dragons rip off. But the narration suddenly gave the game a mood and made a huge difference. It happened to align with the story ideas for the game, and was a really interesting angle. A number of games had used narration in interesting ways, but not as the one and only pervasive technique. Previously, there had been games that had bits of reactive narration here and there, and each of those scenes was incredibly memorable. So the thought was pretty simple; just have more of that, and let’s do that as much as possible.
I personally have not yet played Transistor (I bought it during it’s Black Friday sale), so how would you describe the game to someone who hasn’t played it yet?
We describe Transistor as a science-fiction themed action/RPG from the team that worked on Bastion. By then, Bastion becoming relatively well known, we understood that one of the most important things we could say about Transistor was that it was from the people who made Bastion. In making Transistor, we set out to make a game with it’s own distinct identity, but for sure a lot of our predispositions as a development team are consistent between the games. For instance, we really value the use of music in our games, as well as creating a strong sense of atmosphere and creating three-dimensional characters that players can sympathize and empathize with. Other than that, the main focus of the play experience was on this more strategic feeling combat system where you can dictate the pace of combat in this game. Having already done a very action oriented kind of combat; we wanted to explore a more deliberate combat system with Transistor. Even after exploring the action/RPG genre with Bastion, we felt like there was a lot more room left to explore, and we wanted to go to a whole new place with a whole new set of characters in order to do this.
I noticed that the titles of both games are also the names of important entities within the games. How did that come about? Did the name come before the entity, or did the entity come before the name?
That’s a really interesting question. It’s a little different for each game. Bastion was always called Bastion, which is relatively uncommon for games, since a lot of games have a working title, or a project name before release. On a brief side note, it’s hard to come up with a name that everyone on the team can get behind, and it’s hard to even get that name, from the perspective of registering a trademark. Almost every cool name you can think of is probably already taken. Even if you come up with a name you love, there’s a good chance you won’t get it, because someone probably loved it before you. That being said, in Bastion, it was always called Bastion, and we were very lucky to end up getting that. The name Bastion was rich with significance to us, because the design idea for the game was that you are in the last Bastion of your race, and it’s an exploration of what a Bastion means. A Bastion is a safe haven for the people in it, but for the people outside it, it may be dangerous to outsiders. Anyway, it’s thematically a rich title for us, and there’s a reason its called “Bastion” instead of “The Bastion”. Transistor is a similar thought process, but that name came up after a design for the object was conceived. I think as a title, it’s a little less thematically rich; I don’t know that the associations are the same for the two terms, but certainly the parallel is not an accident. I’m really happy that both of our games are named the way they are, and I like it when the title of something has immediate implication and significance, and over the course of reading the book or watching the movie or playing the game the title takes on an even more rich implication. After these kinds of experiences, every time that name comes up again, I recall these special moments.
How do you feel about independent development versus AAA development as someone who’s been involved in both?
They’re different, right. Game development has been a real roller coaster ride for me. The highs are high and the lows are low. I think I’ve had a certain amount of success in both environments. But here’s the thing about me, I have a certain amount of difficulty meeting new people. So, when I work with the same group of people that I know and trust, it’s inherently a more confortable place for me. In that sense, independent development is ideal for me. I’ve worked for some relatively big organizations where they were hiring new people every week, and that made me feel very alienated and uncomfortable. I like getting to know the people I’m going to work with and what makes them tick. But when people are coming and going and there isn’t a sense of stability, teamwork is hard. Anyway, AAA developers are capable of doing truly incredible things that are beyond the means of smaller teams. A lot of AAA developers are accused of not taking enough risks, but I think the reality is very different. The risks that AAA developers take are massive; they’re actually bigger than the risks of indie developers. As an indie developer, you have to have a unique game, or else you’ll feel. But a AAA developer has a different set of goals, and their budget means they have to make a product that millions of people will enjoy, and that’s hard to do. As a gamer, I like all sorts of stuff, and there are certain aspects of AAA development that I miss, but as an indie, we get to make games without answering to anyone, and that’s a rare position to be in. Even smaller teams have to take funding from Kickstarter or publishers and then they have constituencies that they have to answer to. Thus far, we’ve been in a fortunate position to make what we want to make and what we feel others will like and put it out there and see how it works. Thus far, they have liked it, and that puts us in the position that we can keep doing what we’re doing, and that makes me happy, and proud! Every studio is different, and even talking about AAA versus independent tends to be misleading, because each studio is organized differently and has different cultures and subcultures.
By the way, how did you fund Bastion?
Both of our games were self-funded, so Bastion was done through modest means. It was just the savings of the guys that formed the studio and help from their families. One of the biggest factors was that we made Bastion in the living room of Amir Rao’s dads house. Amir’s dad was out of the country, and gave permission to use his house. That eliminated one of the biggest costs, as the price of leasing a studio space in San Francisco was well beyond our means. It was the classic scrappy startup environment of people paying themselves close to nothing and hoping beyond hope that their first project would be successful. For us, the whole point of being independent was to not have to make a game for anyone but ourselves, so self-funding was critical to that. Luckily, Bastion was successful enough that we could reinvest the money we made into our next project, and hopefully this trend will continue!
What’s next for Supergiant?
Your guess is as good as mine! It’ll take us a while to figure out our next project, but there will most certainly be a next project, and it will be made by much of the same team. We find bands very inspiring, as these small groups of people stick together for decades upon decades! To us, there’s a lot of appeal in keeping the people the same, and we find that the chemistry we have as a team is the most important aspect to the games that we make. Our history with each other allows us to be more successful than we would be individually or as parts of other teams, and we just want to keep doing it for the long haul and keep making games that surprise people and leaves them with a lasting impression. That would make me happy!