Game Tunnel Interview


~ September 2006 ~
While I try to bring credibility to the independent scene with my games, Game Tunnel
are doing the same on the journalistic front. They're dedicated to the finest independent
projects and the developers that make them, so here's what they made of my work...

Okay, before getting started with Grass Roots, I have to ask... what made you want to do a wrestling simulator, and show wrestling fans that AKI has been going about the backstage story segments all wrong?
Exactly that! My whole career is based on the philosophy that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Ever since I was a child, I've been fiercely dissatisfied with what the "professionals" were doing - and always felt I had something to contribute. That started out with
changing the rules of board games (and even outdoor sports), and later evolved into a curious penchant for "lying". I would excitedly tell my brother about the latest wrestling game that was coming out, and embellish it with all kinds of features that it simply didn't have - such as "a really
realistic career mode where you have to negotiate your own contracts!" and "a whole schedule of matches to play where anything can happen!". Looking back, you don't need a psychiatrist to tell you that I was venting my overactive imagination. Now I find myself making games for a living, and
I've finally got a real outlet for that creativity. Every game I make and every word I write is me being a hero to my younger self, and fortunately that appeals to thousands of other kids too...

I actually thought Adam Ryland did a fantastic job with the EWR series. I always imagined that your Wrestling Encore was like a visual experience to the text-style of Ryland's in-depth look at the world of backstage wrestling and booking. What sort of research did you do to capture the sort of backstage storytelling that was done in Wrestling Encore?
A lot of people draw comparisons to those text-based games, but I must say that they've never appealed to me personally - and I certainly didn't take any inspiration from them. My sole interest has always been in creating a graphical experience, and I can't imagine why anybody would want anything less - especially when it comes to something as visual as wrestling. As for recreating those cerebral elements in my own games, it has never really required much "research" because it's something that I know inside out! Digging through the archives to recall some classic matches was about as organized as it got. Some "shoot interviews" came in handy too, for seeing firsthand all the things that wrestlers can grow resentful about. Other than that, I just ploughed through hundreds of incidents that I would expect to come across in a wrestling career...

Has anyone ever told you that your games seem like an independent version of what Rockstar is doing on the consoles? In terms of being risky, and showing gamers a different aspect of interactive gaming?
They haven't used that exact example, but yes I have made my name with that raucous kind of gameplay - especially in the early days. However, I sometimes resent the comparison because some of those games represent the worst facets of our industry - such as controversy for controversy's sake. This may sound hypocritical or somewhat deluded, but I like to make the violence in my games mean something. In the wrestling games, for instance, the death or injury of a wrestler is a regrettable experience that means you'll never use that character again - and the sentiment is even drilled home with a "memorial show". When you play World War Alpha, you'll see that I've even managed to turn a war game into a message of peace! A lot of people think I'm glorifying war with that game and others like it, but it's actually a damning indictment of modern-day warmongering and makes the futility of war painfully clear. As we speak, I'm making my most controversial game yet - about life in prison - and people will once again be surprised at how I turn it on its head. This moralistic approach annoys as many people as it inspires, but I feel these things elevate my work above certain others. If there's no method to your madness and you can't defend what you're doing, you cease to be an artist and become little more than a mischievous child...

It's interesting that you mention that "injury" and "death" are subjects that aren't glorified in your games, but used as sentimental experiences. I notice a lot of indie games try to avoid injury and death altogether. Yet it was something that inevitably prolonged the
overall gameplay experience of your titles. Do you think these subjects are something many developers feel would just turnoff many younger gamers?

There's an awful lot of snobbery in the independent scene. It's populated by the insecure and the out-of-touch - neither of which are particularly comfortable with violence. The minute anybody makes anything remotely controversial, message boards are filled with accusations of "cheap thrills" and "bad taste" - the implication being that they're far too talented to stoop to such levels! A good example is a thread I was following recently about the pros and cons of a prison game, which I was about to embark on myself. The discussion was castrated by platitudes such as, "prison is a harsh reality for many people and shouldn't be trivialized in a game". By that logic, you shouldn't have obstacles in a platform game because "overcoming obstacles" is a harsh reality for people in the outside world! I honestly believe it's as simple as that. Pious onlookers trying to raise their self-esteem by scoring points off easy targets...

When did you decide to start working on Grass Roots, and how long has it been in development?
I started working on Grass Roots at the end of April, and it was finished exactly 3 months later at the end of June - ready to be released 2 weeks later in the aftermath of the World Cup. It was 4 months between me deciding to make the game and holding the published product in my hands, but only 3 months of that was solid work. The latest game, World War Alpha, is actually the most prolific project yet - because the whole thing was wrapped up within 2 months! My work rate just gets crazier and crazier, and has now reached the point where I can expect to make anything in just 3 months - allowing me to release 4 games per year, complete with an annual compilation. The latest, called "The Squared Circle", will be out by the end of 2006...

Specifically, why the football/soccer sport? Why not basketball, golf, or hockey?
Primarily because, living in England, I'm not exposed to the diversity of American sport! Here, soccer reigns supreme over every other pursuit and you'd have to go out of your way to educate yourself in any other sport. I do have a passing interest in plenty of other sports - including those you mention - but you need to know something inside out in order to make a game about it, and you can't force these things. For instance, I want to make a game about politics - but I simply don't yet appreciate every tiny nuance that makes it work in real life, and so it goes on the backburner until I've watched another boxset of The West Wing! Whereas soccer has always been up
there with wrestling as a genre that I'm comfortable with - certainly in terms of gaming. I've played and mastered them all, so it was only a matter of time before I made my own...

Before designing these various kinds of games do you play a lot of their alternative counterparts, on consoles or PC, to see what you'd like to do differently or how you'd like to improve on the general concept of the design?
I usually do that wherever I can. However, it's not always possible because I specialize in doing things that have never been done before! I don't even have a frame of reference for my unusual career - let alone each individual game. The wrestling and soccer projects were definite exceptions though, because they have plenty of peers. For the wrestling games, I studied THQ's N64 projects because they were as good as it got for me as a player and I wanted to inherit their basic qualities. When it came to soccer, it was International Superstar Soccer on the N64 for similar reasons. I studied how the players respond to movement commands, and more precisely how the ball is affected by those movements. Sometimes it can be something as simple as inspecting how they approached the 3D modeling and animation. There's nothing wrong with examining the past and then building upon it in your own way. It's the backbone of a learning process that never ends...

Did you already have an idea in place as to how you were going to design the gameplay in Grass Roots, or was it something that you worked on as you started development?
My fans would be horrified if they knew how little planning goes into my games! It's as close to "freestyling" as game development gets. I just dive in, safe in the knowledge that I've got the skills to do what needs to be done. Of course, there is still plenty of planning - just not as much as a
professional company would have to go through. Traditionally, design is about explaining your idea to a dozen other people - and that's the one thing I don't have to worry about! For me, a lot of the "design" is nothing more than thinking about the game very intensely. I pace up and down
throughout the weeks leading up to a project, and simply visualize how the finished game should look and feel. The human brain then does everything it can to manifest that vision, and the rest is history. The Buddha wasn't exaggerating when he said that a man is the product of his thoughts! Nothing exists until a thought has been expressed and acted upon. Too much planning can sometimes interfere with that natural process. A lot of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino have said that some of their best shots were conceived by "accident" - and I find that to be true of games too. You need to approach a project with a basic shell, and then leave a little space to roll with the punches and surprise even yourself...

I guess that's what separates your games from other titles. I can honestly say that your games feel relaxed in the gaming style. This also seems to reflect a natural freedom of gameplay for players. Do you think your design approach would work in the close-knit environment of mainstream gaming?
I'm glad you feel that way, because that's what I've always wanted to bring to the table. I can't stand games that runs on rails. Ever since the Playstation hit the scene 10 years ago, many companies have fancied themselves as "movie studios" rather than game developers - and have proceeded to beat us over the head with plots so set in stone that they can actually be spoken! For me, the whole point of games is that you get to write your own story. The movie industry already exists, and that's where we go for a coherent predetermined narrative. Games are an entirely different medium, and its potential won't be fulfilled until the mainstream loses its inferiority complex and tries to surpass movies instead of imitating them. So no, I don't think my brand of game design has any place in the mainstream. I'm the Robin Hood of game development - I give power to the public instead of taking it away from them! The powers that be would prefer that no such character exists...

You really have a cutting-edge take on story telling "behind the scenes". Will your upcoming war simulator have the same kind of behind-the-scenes take on the storyline and action?
I must admit, I'm not sure why people think that side of my work is so special. A couple of months ago, a website was celebrating my work as a pioneering example of "machinema" - and I didn't even know what that was?! I just make characters speak via a few subtitles, and give you a couple of
options at the end of it. Whatever you want to call that, yes it does feature in World War Alpha - and more prominently than ever before. The usual in-game banter is now accompanied by a separate episodic storyline that occasionally follows each battle. I obviously needed to explain the
time-travelling concept, but a movie sequence was way out of my league. In the end, I had to compromise by making it an inbuilt thing - which actually helps to make the information a little more welcome. Another fine example of making it up as you go along!

This engine you're using... it seems to be versatile enough as a design tool for just about any kind of game. How do you manage to pump out a wrestling title, a soccer/football game, and a war simulation all out of this one engine?
Yeah, I do seem to have stumbled across a series of re-usable game components. I guess my games have more in common than it would first appear. They're all about humans in a recognizable world, taking to the battlefield after making a life-altering decision behind the scenes. Those basic principles can be applied to anything, which perhaps explains my impressive work rate. I can recycle characters, scenery, control methods, and that overall system of action interspersed by cut-scenes. I'm doing it right now with my prison game. That same network of conversations will be rolled out on an even bigger scale, weaving a rich tapestry amongst hundreds of interactive characters - all topped off by the testosterone-fuelled mayhem that has been perfected in previous games! That's why I called my first compilation "Evolution Of The MPire" - every game takes something from its predecessors and moves it forward. One more pixel in an image that is constantly being painted. If you look hard enough, you'll see the bigger picture...

For those of us out there who can't see that well (namely myself), could you explain what the bigger picture is and how this ties into your game designs?
I was alluding to the fact that no one game makes or breaks my empire - each one is a brick within it. For instance, a lot of fans are quick to criticize my more experimental games - and yet Wrestling Encore wouldn't exist if it wasn't for those! It literally wouldn't be the game that it is now without the programming improvements of Wrecked or the visual improvements of Popcorn. And the same will be true of life after Wrestling Encore. The games of the future won't be what they are without the lessons learned from both Grass Roots and World War Alpha. Sometimes I tackle particular concepts for the express purpose of evolution. I knew World War Alpha, for instance, would demand that I get to grips with dozens of characters onscreen as standard - and now that's in the bank, I can proceed to make a prison game that's just as big! Likewise, I'll be making a dedicated boxing game next year for the express purpose of pushing forward my fighting gameplay should another wrestling game enter the pipeline. It's easy to sit back and criticize my games one by one, but you have to ask yourself whether you're happy with as a force of nature? If so, you have to take the rough with the smooth - safe in the knowledge that the whole is greater than the sums of its parts...

Have any publishers ever contacted you about bringing any of your titles to the mainstream arena? Seriously, THQ could take a few tips from your wrestling games.
Smalltime publishing offers are always on the table no questions asked, but their "mainstream" equivalents would be quite a leap for all concerned. Even the most enamored publisher would have to think twice about sitting Wrestling Encore on a shelf next to the latest WWE outing! I'm not sure I'd appreciate that pressure myself. Part of me enjoys not having to be popular or successful, and I certainly enjoy the creative freedom of being my own boss. It would take an astronomical offer to make me give up those things. A lot of people look down on me like a wannabe, but the truth is that I probably earn more per sale than any other game developer on the planet! I'm actually in a very powerful position, because I don't need anybody for anything - and that's hard for companies to negotiate around. Although I may never be for sale as a game developer, I suppose I could have a future as a "think tank" - bringing my ideas to an existing work force. I have a lot of closet supporters in the upper echelons of corporations as big as Electronic Arts, so news of my work reaches farther than it would first appear. It just remains to be seen what will come of that unspoken notoriety...

Any final comments for fans and game designers alike?
A lot of people - including game developers themselves - see the independent scene as a "stepping stone" to greater things. An inferior last resort with which to while away the years until the mainstream beckons. It's my belief that independent game development might just be that "greater
thing". When I first started making games, I was warned that life in the industry was "crap". That you spent 18 hours a day being a cog in a machine on a game you didn't even want to make, only to receive an insignificant percentage of the profits at the end of it. Evidently, I'm in the wrong
industry because I haven't experienced any of those things! I work as much or as little as I want on a concept I passionately want to make, changing roles from one hour to the next on the road to earning 100% of the profits. From this position of pure freedom and creativity, I'm supposed to envy and idolize those that enjoy neither? No sale. The mainstream might have the marketing and the spectacle - and that's something for us to aim for too - but in the meantime, there's a lot of faith to be taken from the creative benefits that are exclusive to this style. The exact same creativity that
took Hip Hop music from the underground to the forefront of popular culture. Something may be rough around the edges, but if it's real and passionate it will eventually find an audience. And this audience is also key to the future. Thousands of kids have been told that they're not "qualified" to
participate in this profession. Let your independent achievements shine light on this fallacy, and let the new mantra be that imagination is more important than knowledge. The guy that invented the piano isn't the only one that can make music. The guy that invented the camera isn't the only one
that can make movies. And now, the guys that invented computers shouldn't be the only ones that can make games for them! It's time for a new art form to be handed over to the public, and may all creative individuals hold their arms outstretched. This is what is meant by "inspiration for the interactive generation", and will uphold it for as long as it can...

Copyright MDickie 2000 - 2006