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What's Next? David Cage: 'Indie developers are the future'
What's Next? David Cage: 'Indie developers are the future' Exclusive
September 11, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

September 11, 2013 | By Patrick Miller
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Production, Exclusive, GDC Next

[Ahead of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the latest installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

One of the hallmarks of a forward-thinking game creator is the readiness to look outside of video games for creative inspiration -- and few developers are as well-known for looking to other media as Quantic Dream founder David Cage. Read on to learn about the influence he draws from cinema, working with high-profile actors on Beyond: Two Souls, and why indies are the future of the industry.

Patrick Miller: You've been known in the industry for the inspiration you take from the medium of film in your game design and direction. I assume that as game tech has progressed, you've been able to carry over the lessons you've learned from film back to games in different ways; what's the next such lesson you'd like to bring?

David Cage: My approach is sometimes not well understood: I am interested in creating emotions through interactivity. I chose to use storytelling because I love stories and I think it is a very powerful and universal way to create emotion. I am interested in learning as much as I can from cinema to see how I can create better interactive experiences. In that sense, I do nothing different than most video games have for the past twenty years.

If games and cinema have things in common, they have one major difference: games have the extra dimension of interactivity. It is what makes this medium so unique and so different from all others. So game after game, I try to discover this new language that will allow me to tell compelling emotional stories through game play, to merge what cinema has developed with a new grammar for interactivity. It is incredibly challenging, especially because it requires me to rethink most games' paradigms that seemed established and accepted by all for years, but it is also something very exciting.

Some people think that video games should remain "pure", that they should not be influenced by anything else but other video games, but I don't believe that this is the right approach. The first photographers learned from painting and theater, the first filmmakers learned from photography and theater, games can only grow if they integrate influences from the outside and accept the idea that they can also be an expression form.

Back to your question, cinematography significantly progressed recently in most games, but what I am the most interested in is how a story could be told through gameplay and not through cutscenes. How can we enable the player himself to tell the story he wants through his actions, rather than forcing him to watch cinematics? Defining a language to tell compelling interactive stories without using repetitive mechanics is really the goal of my work.

Another interesting topic is: How can we have a sense of cinematography during game play and not only during cut scenes? How can we avoid having a camera always in the back of our characters when they navigate, but rather keep the quality of filming during game play? There are many interesting things to explore here about procedural directing and how AI and Cameras could be used to create a "virtual director" offering meaningful shots without affecting game play.

I am also more and more interested in how video games can become a meaningful medium with something to say. I am convinced that we could use games to express ideas and feelings, and I think this is going to be the next revolution in gaming. We see more and more indie games these days taking the approach of a meaningful experience, and this is by far what excites me the most.

PM: Beyond: Two Souls is rather notable for being one of the few games with two well-known actors credited right on the cover. Did working with accomplished actors change your development process at all? How do you see the cross-pollination between Hollywood and the games industry evolving in the future?

DC: Working with Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe has not really changed our process. It just added some pressure on the preparation of the shootings to make sure we would be absolutely ready on the first day. It also put some pressure on the team during the shootings because any time lost for technical reasons could have added serious consequences. But everything went perfectly smooth beyond expectations, and no retake session was necessary. That was also possible because of the hard work, professionalism, and commitment of Ellen and Willem who both did an amazing work while being extremely nice and easy to work with.

I think that Beyond will be watched closely both by Hollywood and the game industry. If the game is a commercial success, it will probably open the way for other collaborations of this type, actors' agents feeling comfortable in letting their artists work on the medium and the game industry seeing the benefit of the collaboration. If the game is a failure, it will probably make people on both sides more reluctant at trying something similar in the short term.

For me, this type of collaboration with actors, or the one I had with David Bowie on my first game, is something very exciting for our medium if it is based on the desire of a sincere creative collaboration on both ends. I don't think that shooters or racing games need great actors, but for all other experiences, they can really benefit from any collaboration with the "outside world".

We see some interesting projects going in this direction with writers, directors, actors, score composers contributing to games. It will open games to other sensibilities, other ideas, and people coming with a new approach and bringing some fresh air. It is only possible if these people are sincere, if they are trusted and not scared of changing game paradigms. Some rules need to be broken in order to move forward. These people should come with new ideas and the will to change things, not just to do another video game.

PM: Historically, your career has been largely marked by relatively large-scale productions (Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain for example); ever thought about going small-team and making smaller games?

DC: I always worked on very ambitious titles with very reasonable budgets. The budget of Beyond, for example, is significantly lower than most other triple-A titles out there... So we work on ambitious projects but we try to be clever about how we develop them, being really tool-centric, avoiding redoing things three times, keeping a very experienced core team, etc.

Looking at my past games, Omikron was developed with 39 people, Fahrenheit with 71, Heavy Rain with 110, and Beyond with about 200 people. So there is definitely an evolution with staff but we remain very far from some publishers who assign 600 people to a project (and that's a good thing…).

I don't think that any developer enjoys dealing with a large staff. It gives you brute force but it also raises a lot of issues regarding organization and management. But games become so complex to develop that it is impossible to work with small teams if you want to compete with triple-A titles. Gamers don't care about development budgets or what resources were assigned, they just compare games side by side and judge them for what they are.

I think the situation can only get worse: during this end of the cycle, we see very large teams and budgets (sometimes significantly) above fifty million dollars. On next-gen, we could see these figures grow even further because development becomes more and more complex. This is something that could be an issue if the market doesn't grow significantly to recoup these budgets…

Back to my studio, I would certainly not be against working on a smaller project with a smaller team, but this is not the direction we take. We try to keep a team size that is manageable, have our infrastructure and management grow at the right pace, but all this is definitely a massive challenge for all developers. We want to create more ambitious experiences and continue to push the boundaries, which cannot be done without significant resources. But we try to keep the ambiance of a small studio working with passion and dedication on something we all believe in, which worked well so far.

PM: In games, we're used to talking about what future tech will bring the medium of games, but we're less accustomed to talking about what future design will bring. Who do you see doing cutting-edge game design work? Do you see emerging mechanics, sub-genres, theories, design processes etc. that you think will have a reverberating effect on the video games of 5-10 years from now?

DC: I am quite fascinated by the creativity in the indie sphere right now. These people have less resources but they are much more creative and forward-thinking than many triple-A developers. As was the case in the '70s in films with the "New Hollywood", I think we have reached a moment where all major publishers spend a lot of money on few titles and try to take no risk rather than trying to innovate. In films, it allowed the emergence of indie talents like Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and many others. I hope that we will see the same phenomenon with games.

Creativity and passion are with indie developers now. They are the future of this industry.

PM: How do you think the mainstream game audience's expectations of a video game will change in the future? Will people be more receptive to games that make us feel more complicated emotions than simply "entertained"? If so, how do you think a studio or a publisher ought to prepare for that future?

DC: Let's be honest: The mainstream audience has absolutely no expectation about video games just because they don't care. For most people out there, video games are a violent activity for teenagers, something that no serious adult person would even consider doing. Society looks at what video games are and doesn't understand how anyone can spend hours and hours shooting at things.

The mainstream perception will change when we will be capable of creating more meaningful experiences not limited to repetitive violent actions, which is still rarely the case today.

There is definitely a dilemma for any publisher between a limited market that we know now very well and a potential mainstream market that is challenging to convince. Most publishers chose to stick to the small market we know, and try to expand via mobile devices. This is, for example, EA's strategy at the moment -- doing Battlefield on one end and Plants vs Zombies on the other -- and it makes sense.

Personally, I believe that it is possible to convince a wider audience to embrace games by creating experiences that are different, by reconsidering our paradigms and not being afraid of taking risks and innovating. With Beyond, we hope that the story driven nature of the experience, the presence of Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, Hans Zimmer combined with the possibility to play the game with a touchscreen device will attract a larger audience without alienating our traditional audience.

This is definitely a major challenge for the game especially in the very crowded period at the end of the year (and the end of the cycle) where the biggest franchises are released. We will see what happens, but I have faith in people's desire to play something that is truly different. I know many people believe in interactive storytelling as we could see on Heavy Rain (we sold 3.2 million games to date), and I hope that they will follow us on Beyond.

PM: What (and who) do you and your peers look to for inspiration? What influences currently inform your work and those you admire? Read any good books lately?

DC: I tend to get my inspiration from many different sources, not only games or films, but also TV series, comics, music, art in general. Heavy Rain was a big change for me because it was the first time I wrote about something personal -- my relationship with my son. I followed the same route on Beyond, working on another personal experience, and to be honest I would have a hard time going back and writing about things I don't have a clue about.

As I get older, I am more and more interested in human beings, their relationships, their feelings, their issues, and less and less in gratuitous violence. When you can talk about something universal like love, redemption, mourning, death, you can create an experience that will emotionally resonate with the player, you talk to his soul rather than only to his thumbs.

My biggest pleasure is to hear people telling me about their experience playing Heavy Rain. Three years after the game was released, I still meet people who tell me with passion what they experienced having to decide if they wanted to cut their finger or not to save their son. When you create games, nothing can please you more than thinking you have created something that provoked such an emotional response from people that they still talk about it three years later…

PM: I'm curious: Is hardware on your mind at all? Other platforms, alternate input devices and peripherals, etc. Are there emerging hardware trends or specific devices that have caught your eye as something specific to pay attention to?

DC: Hardware is just the tool to create experiences. I always try to use the best tools available if they can make my work more impactful. But I never thought that I needed a certain piece of hardware to do a game. Games are really about a vision, about an emotional experience, you could create something interesting on PS1 or a PS4, they will be visually very different experiences, but what matters is what they have to say, if they can reach you emotionally or not. Technology brings nuances, more colors to your palette, but if you have nothing to say as a game creator, the best hardware in the world won't change that.

PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Is there anything that you think was too early to succeed -- perhaps something that we might see come back once the time is right?

DC: I've talked about episodic content since 2001. Fahrenheit was initially designed to be episodic, but the market was definitely not ready for that at the time. I am glad someone else made it in the meantime, but this is still an idea I am very interest in. There is a lot to do to democratize games and make them accessible to a wider audience. Digital distribution, episodic content and story-driven experiences will definitely play a bigger role in the near future.

Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass -- but reduced-price passes are selling fast, so register soon! For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Warren Spector, Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett.

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Dane MacMahon
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"The mainstream perception will change when we will be capable of creating more meaningful experiences not limited to repetitive violent actions, which is still rarely the case today."

We've had more thoughtful, comedic and deep experiences for decades now. Point and click adventure, simulation, FMV interactive fiction, tactical roleplaying, grand strategy, the list goes on and on. Non-casual gaming seriously does not get any more adult, accessible or non-violent than Monkey Island, a game made over 20 years ago.

Perhaps the gaming industry needs to accept that narrative-driven non-casual games are not mainstream entertainment because of fundamental design and cater to their actual market.

Jarod Smiley
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What platform is monkey Island on? I've never even heard of it outside of forum goers, but I'm pretty sure it's originally a PC title. If it has something on platforms today, is it as good as the PC version? Not talking to you specifically, but people need to realize these PC experiences they have are not reaching everyone, and never will. People like there tech to just work, with little to no effort from the user. So gaming on PC will likely never be as mainstream as a dedicated piece of hardware design for games. You hook it up to your TV it works, or (where we look to be headed) you turn to that channel and grab the appropriate remote/controller, and it just works. Cage is trying to bring those experiences to a wider audience, because there will always be people who simply do not want to game on PC, where the bulk of these different experiences seem to be. I think he should be applauded for that.

There are still individuals out there who would enjoy story driven games, and deeper more meaningful experiences but are just held back by the barriers of hardware. You don't need any experience with the industry to pick up a good book, or watch a movie, and Cage is simply saying that's what needs to happen in gaming.

Dane MacMahon
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I don't think this is about hardware. Point and click adventure games, as one example, have been ported to consoles, tablets, phones and whatever else runs a game. They even exist as simple browser games. Heavy Rain, and Fahrenheit before it, are even more simple and while occasionally violent no more so than a mainstream murder mystery or cop show.

None of these games suddenly discovered massive mainstream acceptance any more than their like-minded predecessors. They have an audience, a more inclusive audience than Halo I am sure but still a relatively niche audience. Non-casual games will not be that mainstream because a lot of people just don't want to play those kinds of games. We need to realize that's okay.

Jarod Smiley
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I agree somewhat, but I still think there's potential in growing the market significantly from what it is today. Tablets/Smartphone boost IMO prove that people do love games of all sorts, who would've thought Minecraft would sell as much as it did? However, most blockbusters still seem to be tailored to a teen/young adult male audience. It would be nice to see a AAA product focus on a love story or tragedy once in a while on consoles. I think that's the role developers like Cage fill, whether it's misplaced or not only time sales will tell.

Jean Auguste
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Hi Jarod, Hi Dane, Hi everyone,

There was a time, in this industry, when some big budget games chose to rely heavily on story, real actors and inspiration from cinema & TV, to sell : Christopher Walken, Christopher Lloyd, John Hurt, Malcom McDowell, Dennis Hopper, Mark Hamill, Tia Carrere, and many other big movie names physically performed in video games.

It was the Full Motion Video golden age (1993-1998).

Except for Wing Commander, which was an already established franchise before it decided to include movie stars (the cast was stellar), the other games never performed really well, saleswise, despite the presence of these particular actors.

Of course, they were running on Windows or Mac (some made it to consoles, not much though) and less people than now had a computer at the time.

But still, a PC game blew out the sales numbers in the mid-90's : Myst. So how come a game with Christopher Walken (an academy award winner) had little to no attention by the audience while Myst was selling like hotcakes to "non usually "gamers ?

David Cage shares the same dream as many designers of the Full Motion Video golden age but we learned in that 5 years period that people were not looking for video games different from other games but experiences they absolutely couldn't get anywhere else.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Jarod

There's always the chance for a big hit with non-traditional gamers. Jean gives an excellent example of Myst and Minecraft, games which sold exceptionally well with all demographics. Both those games are arguably very gameplay focused.

I just see the endless chase to make traditional games appeal to more and more people to the detriment of their core audiences as a risky proposition. Games have varied quite a lot in their 30 year history and it's been obvious that on occasion they will catch a wide group but not reliably so. Also it's usually gameplay that is the root factor, nothing else.

Jarod Smiley
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@ Dane Hmmm....You may be right!

Top sellers on consoles off the top of my head are probably COD/Halo/Mario/WiiFit/Sports/GT/GTA/Minecraft/Uncharted/Gears

All pretty gameplay focused experiences. I guess I get what you're saying now. No need to try and cater to an audience outside of the community first. Casuals will follow what's unique and interesting, and amazing actors don't necessarily make our industry more appealing to non-gamers, although a good story is always a good thing IMO...

But you maybe right, and I think it's why Sony is winning over the forum/enthusiast crowd atm because they just came out and said "we're about the games, we're for the devs, we're for the gamers". Non-traditional gamers will of course have features and content tailored to them, but it's not the heart of PS4, and I think that PR message is having success.

Hopefully DC learns a bit of balance in his approach. Because as much as I loved playing through Heavy Rain once, I never went back to see the numerous consequences and different endings because, well, it just wasn't that fun a gameplay experience.

George Menhal III
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David Cage is one of my favorite designers in the industry today. Heavy Rain was rough around its edges in terms of the stiff animations (a barrier to the emotion Cage and his team are admittedly soliciting), but it was a completely unique experience for the medium, and I'm definitely looking forward to Beyond: Two Souls in October. As a matter of fact, it's Beyond: Two Souls, and not GTA V, that is causing me to hold on to my PS3 for just a little while longer. After I play through Beyond, I will be ready to move on to the next generation.

November can't come soon enough. Looking forward to playing Watch Dogs, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Super Mario 3D World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and Tear Away all within the span of seven days. It is going to be magnificent.

Dane MacMahon
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Since you said Heavy Rain was unique I feel the need to suggest you play Fahrenheit, if you haven't. Same basic thing from a little earlier. It falls apart a bit toward the end but is enjoyable. Also adventure games in general really, 99% of them work on a laptop if you're not a PC gamer.

George Menhal III
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I played and remember the game as Indigo Prophecy (I think it had the title of Fahrenheit in territories outside of North America), and loved it. Who didn't? At the time the game was released, there wasn't much else out there like it. Everyone I knew then played that game and was blown away by it.

I didn't mean to say that Heavy Rain was unprecedented. I'm just saying that David Cage as a designer and Quantic Dream as a development studio are offering real alternatives to industry standards and cliches as they exist today, and I appreciate their efforts.

The games could stand to be a little bit more "gamey," I think. That's about my only criticism, but otherwise I look to games like Amnesia for a similar narrative bent.