[Back in 1997, I was working in the game industry as a game designer at Kuju Entertainment, but also interviewing a host of interesting game creators via email in my spare time. Following my interview with Valve's Marc Laidlaw, this second reprint in this series is with Apogee and 3D Realms co-founder Scott Miller, a fascinating guy.
Miller started programming games in 1975, and was one of the key pioneers of shareware games with Apogee (which published id's first game Commander Keen.) He was then instrumental in Duke Nukem's success as a 3D Realms (Apogee's alter ego) co-founder, and had a big hand in the rise of franchises like Max Payne and notable 'creator-first' '90s publisher Gathering Of Developers.
Although still being somewhat involved with 3D Realms as it spiraled into Duke Nukem Forever's (near)-infinite loops, Miller's most recent company was Radar Group, which was another attempt at a 3DR/G.O.D style incubator. But Radar never seems to have got off the ground, and even his LinkedIn page seems about 4 or 5 years out of date.
In any case, here's a snapshot interview after Duke Nukem 3D hit big, and his company was majorly on the ascendant - although working on multiple titles (Prey, Duke Nukem sequel) that their perfectionism would end up delaying beyond all sense. But it's super interesting that Scott was an early disruptor of publishers - and now that disruption is back full-force, powered by digital distribution and disintermediation. What goes around, comes around?]
Simon: How much of a say do you think the more senior management of a company (such as yourself in 3D Realms) should have in the design of a product?
Scott Miller: In our company, the two owners, George Broussard and myself, are intimately involved with game development. George is the project leader on Duke Nukem Forever, and I handle games by our by our external teams, such as Balls of Steel by Wildfire Studios (in Australia), and Max Payne by Remedy Entertainment (in Finland).
George and I have a long history of creating/coding our own games, back when one person did it all (multi-person teams really didn’t become a given until the late 80′s), plus we were involved in the game industry in other ways, such as arcade managers and professional writers. We even tried to start a gaming league for the top players in the early 80′s, which would organize tournaments like the PGL, but then the arcade industry had its first crash in 1983 and that killed our effort.
Basically, George and I *are* developers–game designers, more specifically–who happen to own a business. We’ve both been playing and designing games since 1978.
Simon: Should companies employ separate game designers, or does the role integrate nicely into existing job titles?
SM: We don’t employ dedicated game designers, but that’s not to say that they’re not necessary at all game companies. Our approach is to settle on a game concept, and every developer on the project gets to have their influence on the design of the game.
We have project leaders, such as George on the Duke games and Paul Schuytema on Prey [Editor's note: not to come out until 2006, after at least one complete reboot!], who help filter the appropriate ideas and shape them into a usable form–not every idea from every developer can be used, after all.
(We invented a phrase several years ago, “shit filter,” which refers to a person’s ability to recognize good ideas from bad ideas. People with bad shit filters let bad ideas get into their games.)
So, at 3D Realms, a project leader is the closest thing to a dedicated game designer, but really the roles are quite different.
Simon: Does having a major Apogee/3DRealms external developer like Remedy such a darn long way away (Finland!) make things tricky? How have you tried to get round this problem?
SM: It’s not too tricky, thanks to the Internet and email. Plus, they’ve come to visit several times and we meet at every E3. The Internet has compressed the world into a much smaller space. We get milestone CD burns from Remedy every month, and have a round of discussions based on the current state of the game. Mark my words: Remedy will soon be recognized as one of the world’s leading independent PC developers.
Simon: Do most publishers know anything about games? (heh, is this a leading question?)
SM: A better question is this one: Do the key decision makers at most publishers know a good game from a bad one? My answer is “no.” For example, you recently interviewed a CEO who, when you asked if he had time to play his own company’s games, said: “Not really. I do a few hours of each game, but that’s it.”
Is there any wonder why this CEO’s company releases such hit and miss games?
The problem with most large publishers is that the CEOs and VPs are not from a developer background, they’re most likely business, marketing and financial people, and don’t have a long track record of game development and playing games.
We had one of these VPs visit us right before Duke Nukem 3D was released, looking at our games to see if we had anything worth porting to consoles. This guy passed on Duke, not seeing its potential, and thinking it was just another DOOM clone. He simply didn’t understand all the new innovations Duke brought to the genre. He no longer works for this company.
Simon: Do you think there’ll be ‘copycat’ new companies trying to emulate G.o.D (the new ‘publisher’ conglomerate that 3DRealms/Apogee have pledged support for)? Or do you think the rest of the industry will have trouble breaking away from their current business model?
SM: I think established publishers will not attempt to copy g.o.d.’s business model, simply because a key element of this model is a board of directors mostly comprised of developers. The board’s job will be to maintain a priority on developer concerns, such as royalty rates, developer ownership of intellectual property rights, and pushing the developer’s name ahead of g.o.d.’s name.
Simon: It’s noticeable that not that many companies have tried emulating Apogee’s innovative business model.
SM: The reason few developers have copied Apogee’s shareware marketing and direct sales methods is because most publishers do not allow developers to do what we do, because it cuts the publisher out of a good portion of the game’s revenue. G.o.d., though, will help developers with selling their games via shareware, by having its own order taking and fulfillment division.
Simon: If you could steal one coder for your company, who would it be?
SM: I have the utmost respect for John Carmack as a coder. He amazed me back in 1990 when Apogee first brought id into the shareware industry. Over the years that we worked together I spent a lot of time talking to John picking his brain and trying to figure out how he came upon his innovative solutions to problems other coders couldn’t solve–trying to understand his genius.
He was always three steps ahead of anyone else in the industry. His strength is not in his programming skills–it’s in the fact that he’s very accurate at predicting which future technologies are most important and appropriate to pursue. John probably has better binoculars than anyone else in this industry.
SM: Not at all. Prey is actually two projects. The first one was cancelled after a year of struggling with which direction to take it. The second and current Prey incarnation has very little to do with that first project called Prey, because it has entirely different objectives, and a new staff running the show.
When Prey is released, it will have been a two year project, which for a game as ambitious as this, is not too long. Plus, unlike some games long in development, like Stonekeep and Descent to Undermountain, Prey when released will be a cutting-edge game in both gameplay and technology.
Simon: And finally.. give us your “State Of The Gaming Nation” speech. What’s been good, and what will continue to suck?
SM: If you’ve got money to burn, things are good because advancing hardware technology will mean incredible new games (at least, great looking games) are around the corner. If you don’t have the money to keep up, you might not be able to play coming new games. Progress is a double-edged sword.
Finally, I think more and more developers and publishers are realizing that they cannot rush out a game without months of polishing the gameplay, and this will result in better games for us all.