I didn't know you were independent.
HS: For a while. I left Ion Storm, and I just said, "I'm quitting this cool job that pays a lot where I'm well-respected." And I thought, "Why are you doing that? Who are you going to work with?" and the answer was "I have no idea. I'm going to be unemployed." I consulted for Ubisoft, NCSoft, and EA among others, and had a great time. I wrote design docs by the pool at my condo and things like that and tried to get funding, and in all of the deals I was offered after a while, the publisher had such a chokehold on what was going on. It was like, "Well, I might as well work for one of these publishers."
So I don't know what I'm going to do. At some point I'll probably try it again, actually. Our tech director at our studio at Austin ran Charybdis, his own company, for eight years, and during that time they worked on their own engine, and they did all these military tank simulators. I talk to him all the time because he's the guru that's helped us take Unreal and add Stranglehold breakables and streaming so we could do wider-open areas. Some of our road sections, like with driving, we could only do because we tweaked Unreal a little bit. It was like, "How did you do that for eight years? I never even heard of your company." He's like, "Well, it's all about being ruthless and cutting the right deals with people, and pushing and being hungry." It sounds really good if you can make it work. That was also a different time in the industry. It's very different now.
I think things may be changing. There's an attempt to change.
HS: I agree. Middleware has made a huge difference. What I always tell people is that we made Deus Ex with literally three programmers, so we had two little teams of level designers, and a bunch of artists. It was probably a team of 25 total. But three programmers! That kept all of the feedback loops in everybody's heads. Instead of having to go to talk to your five guys, you only had to talk to one guy. You had a texture artist you'd work with, or whatever. That helps so much. You lose so much as soon as you have to talk to ten people. When you have to talk to 60 people, you lose tremendously.
You have to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, and you have to tell them.
HS: Constantly! A hundred times! I've literally been working with people, and they look up and say, "We're doing Humvees in the game?" or some strange thing, and I feel like I have to be an asshole sometimes, just to drive things home. I've had guys working with me for years turn to me and say, "Why are small towns cooler? Why aren't we doing flying saucers, and you're in the belly of a vomiting whale?" or whatever. I'm like, "Well, Hitchcock made The Birds, and it's about these freaky birds, but it had phonebooths and diners and playgrounds. Here's why that's evocative to people who grew up around those things." Anything you do in this industry is swimming upstream at some level.
You're still having to sell the same ideas to the same people?
HS: Not so much, because once we get to the point where we were showing the game to random people, you can read what they respond to. This thing that you thought was going to be the shit, turns out nobody cares about it. The thing that you didn't think would be that cool, but you pushed it and pushed it and really made it so that it was a real thing in the game, and you're not just talking anymore, could be something that people respond to and comment over and over about it. Then your team goes, "Aha!"
In the Xbox Live demo, there were aliens everywhere and you could shoot them, but the thing I heard people respond to was when you sent a guy over to open a door and he couldn't open it, so he broke the window and unlocked it from behind. That was the thing everyone responded to; that's just a logical thing that would happen in real life.
HS: It's funny that you would say that, because you never know what those things are going to be. In Deus Ex, we had a meeting with this guy we hated, the same guy who gave us a management lecture saying that if we all dressed properly -- meaning Dockers and khaki pants -- then our troops would respect us. Before he left, though, that guy said, "You know what would be fun in this game? If I could go into the women's restroom and get bitched out for it by some woman." We all just went, "Please leave," and then he left.
Later, we were like, "Hey, that's kind of interactive. What if we put a trigger in the bathroom, and if you happen to wander in there, your boss later says, 'And by the way, JC, stay out of the women's restroom,' at the end of the briefing?" And we did it, and everybody who played Deus Ex commented on it. We couldn't believe it. We were like, "Dude, they didn't even notice our weapon modification system, but they noticed you broke this social taboo."
Similarly, we realized [this] with the Xbox Live demo that the moment it's raining at night and you're in a convenience store and you're looking through the glass. The reborn scout is shaking this van, and right before he kills the guy in the van and rips the door off, the guy inside the van tries to roll up the window. People responded to that. It's these little character building moments that [matter].
I think that's one thing that is missing a lot in terms of story telling in games -- moments and actions. There's no such thing as character beats most of the time.
HS: We literally beat charted out the game. We stole this lesson from Hollywood. We've got 32 missions in the game, and we look at them and think, "What's the position of the sun in this mission? What's the color palette? What did your squadmates just go through emotionally in the mission before?" So much of that is driven by technology, though, right? You spend all this time to get your animation system going, so that when they run up and get shot, they look for cover points within the world, and then they crouch behind them and, oh god, they popped, so we've got to have them more naturally turn. Then, oh god, they can rotate in place without moving. That looks goofy. Let's have them play a little animation where they move their leg or whatever.
You do all that, and the system finally works, and then they're robots. Congratulations. Things like the Delta Force guy breaking the window and reaching around -- it's another example of the subtle stuff we're weaving in, but it's like eminent domain. Delta Force has arrived at your auto mechanic shop or gas station, and they can break the window and get in. You talk to a yokel later who is a tinfoil hat-type guy who runs the place, but at the same time, it was a character-building moment. Like, "Should he blow it up with C4?" No! How about he reaches around and unlocks it?
That's really good stuff. The thing I liked the most about Gears of War was the graphics. People did talk about the story being good, but -- and no offense to the co-writer on this...
HS: She knows that they tried a bunch of stuff. She came in and inherited the story, and then a lot of cuts had to happen to make the date. She learned a tremendous amount. She's very analytical about it.