Former Naughty Dog art director Bob Rafei and creative director E. Daniel Arey recently announced
the formation of their new studio, Big Red Button Entertainment, with the lofty intention to become "the United Artists of games", and Gamasutra sat down to discuss the details with them both.
The two are both Naughty Dog veterans, where Rafei led visual development for Jak & Daxter
, shaped the look of Crash Bandicoot
, and most recently co-art directed Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Arey, who left Naughty Dog less recently, has provided high-level design input into games for some time, also working in depth on series including Gex, Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter
. Right now, Big Red Button just consists of the duo, with plans to staff up gradually.
Rafei says that, as employee number one at Naughty Dog, he got a taste of what it feels like to create a studio from the ground up. He says Naughty Dog spun its status as an upstart franchise to a successful studio -- now, he and Arey are going for round two.
But there are a few key differences now. "The name 'Big Red Button' is not random," Arey explains. "The idea is how we want to see games change and move into a wider mass market."
Just Push The Button
The goal then, Arey continues, is to create games that are as easy to play as it is to push a button on a television remote, easy to navigate as a DVD player. "Games need to become much more accessible and more friendly for everybody," he stresses.
With that in mind, the pair have shaped their new studio around a core philosophy: "This is a guarantee," Arey continues. "We want to make sure that Big Red Button games are games you always complete."
The team believes that gamers who pay $60 for a game should be able to experience all of the content and complete the full experience. So they'll be implementing technology like auto-play, accessible hints or puzzle fixes players can use when they get stuck -- as if pushing a single emergency button to move them through a tricky situation.
Explains Rafei, "The idea behind that is that right now. when I play a game given a limited amount of time, when I get to a place I'm really challenged at... I go online and look for a site that has a walkthrough. We want to have that built right into the game."
But what about the inevitable question that philosophy provokes: Won't the fun go out the window with the challenge?
"DVDs allow you to do this right now," Arey points out. "You could jump to the end if you wanted to, but you don't, because you want the full experience. Games should have that same freedom."
The pair have found a high correlation, he continues, between players' favorite games and the games they've finished. "Can you imagine what the film industry would be today if you could only watch 60 percent of a DVD and then stop?" Arey wondered. "Video games have such great promise."
Ultimately, says Rafei, they want to provide the player with the freedom to choose the extent to which they're challenged. "We want to make sure you don’t ever hit that brick wall… [where you're] having fun anymore. What will happen then, given that we are now an older demographic, and there are so many more games coming out, is you'll never pick that game up again. We think that’s criminal. Everyone has own threshold, but the big red button is right there to press… and see, 'what am I supposed to do, give me a little hint here.'"
He added, "There will always be something special for gamers who don’t use helps. We think there’s always something to give people willing to go for the hard distance and actually deal with it. But we know everyone is at a different skillset... we want Big Red Button games to be played by all levels."
Overall, the pair eschews the idea that games drive for a specific niche players have to fight to enter. Challenge should be fun, they say -- don't use the button if you don't have to. But if it's a choice between never finishing a game and getting a little help, they say, the choice is clear. "You will finish every game you start," Rafei stresses of their future productions. "I think that will emotionally add a whole new level of satisfaction that hasn’t been there, for a wider audience."
"We’ve gone through a lot of interesting lessons about the market," says Rafei. For example, he says, seeing a studio start from scratch, making the transition from Jak and Daxter
's stylized characters to the lifelike look of Uncharted
, building franchises, moving a team across a console generation.
From that experience, Rafei continues, "It came to be the right decision to make this studio go cross-platform and cross-media. So that stems out of seeing these great franchises we developed for Sony -- and seeing competitors selling 3 to 5 times more because they were on multiple platforms. In order to have a studio today, building from the ground up, it’s important to go cross platform."
Added Arey, "We want to think of ourselves more as a production company: cross-media, cross-platform." Elaborating, he explained the difference between the traditional game development background -- "extreme duress and time crunch" -- to the Hollywood script mill, wherein stories and ideas "gestate" over time.
"Some of the best stories in film and TV took 10 years to get made," Arey says. "It takes a long time for a good idea to really be honed down. We’re trying to push games where you pay attention to details. Film and TV work through those things and sweat every element."
Explains Rafei, "We're creating properties that can easily be vehicles that would lend themselves well to comic books, film, TV, what have you. As a studio, we're pursuing alternative financing models to leverage more of a production business model instead of a traditional work-for-hire developer-publisher relationship. It's not very easy to do right now.... but it's our goal to ultimately have control over properties and be able to proliferate them in other media."
Arey agrees that this studio model is ideal for games: "Who better to really nurture those properties into other areas than the people who create them?" He said. "Creators should be able to do that. We really want to be like the United Artists in games -- a group of artists that come together and understand what the creative process is... where the actual developers and creators have more control and participate at a higher level at the back end."
Looking Back On Naughty Dog
And how will the lessons from Naughty Dog help inform the studio's direction? For one thing, Rafei says they learned this is no time to sit still: "We know what you have to do is work your ass off," he said.
Added Rafei, "That's one thing that really got Naughty Dog to the place where it is. We never gave up -- our ideas were crazy, but we never said it cant be done. Our motto is creative accountability – we give ourselves a window of time to prove the concept, and at a certain point you have to basically put it to bed and go to the next idea."
Some other big Naughty Dog do's: "Talent makes a big difference," continued Rafei. "We didn't resign from Naughty Dog and Sony -- which has been a fantastic family -- just to get another job. Most important to us is to really build our know-how and philosophy into a new studio where everybody benefits, creatively and financially."
When we asked about don'ts, Rafei stressed, "You have to take risks You have to basically learn from the genres that are out there that are doing something really well -- but iterate on them. Nothing hugely
revolutionary that can't gain traction in market, but at the same time, you can't be just another clone."
The first step for the new studio, the pair say, will be to secure funding. From there, they're ready to begin work on two ideas -- one "very ambitious," and one that's more achievable as a first property, along with several other ideas on the back burner ready to roll once the funding comes in.
Arey and Rafei also hope that their cross-media studio aims will play a key role in the current climate. "Video game mechanics are starting to level off," Arey suggests, "especially in next gen and 3D. We're starting to see game mechanics that are working over and over again. Now, what matters most is the details."
He continued, "In a way, we create our own cinematography, in our own language, as you'd see in film… for example, cover mechanics work really well for a lot of things, like having a film mechanic. How interesting would it be to innovate on that, where the character behind cover is talking to you, or doing something unique? That’s the innovation on what you already know is there."
Some games are already going in the right direction, says Arey. "I absolutely fell in love with BioShock
because it was a unique piece of art for me. Like falling down a rabbit hole into Alice in Wonderland. Like, 'We’ve seen lots of FPS, but boy, we're going to do something different that you haven’t seen before.' It struck me as something very powerful, in not saying yes to the first right answer."
Using more real actors in games is one way to bring more subtext into their stories, says Arey, now that games' fidelity has advanced enough where actors can bring that subtext in. "We'll see a lot better storytelling because of that," he adds.
Games can take a page from film -- and yet, not in the way many people often say, with more explosions and film-like conventions. Instead, the influence should come in on the production side, the team stresses.
For example, says Arey, "David Lynch never does anything you'd expect. We don’t have enough of that. Everybody’s taking the safe path."
And while they understand that some companies can't take risks for the long-term health of the industry, Rafei points out, "Directors don't settle. We're past good enough; now, we need to make it great."