[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield revisits how an "unspectacular" interview about id Software's Rage unexpectedly turned controversial, and what that means for game developers and journalists. This editorial was originally written for Game Developer's upcoming November issue.]
A few weeks ago I published an interview on Gamasutra about id Software's Rage. I spoke with CEO Todd Hollenshead and artist Andy Chang, and it created a bit of a stir.
My line of questioning was perceived by some as abrasive, or rude, or even hostile. Others, journalists and indie developers especially, thought I was simply asking tough questions and not letting up when I didn't hear satisfying answers. While the latter is closer to the truth, I had no real angle - we were just having a conversation.
I played Rage about two months before launch, in a hotel space in San Francisco, with decent screens and nice headphones. At the beginning of the game, you wake up in an "Ark," and stumble outside. You're almost killed by mutants, but are saved by someone in a nearby car.
The next thing you're meant to do is get in the car with him. But as game players, we tend to like to test the limits of systems. So I looked around to see what else I could do. There was another path leading the other direction, so I figured I'd see what was up there.
"Oh!" I heard behind me. It was Andy Chang. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Nothing,” he chuckled. “You'll see.” I walked up the path, and was killed instantly by a bullet from an invisible enemy. I got game over, and had to start anew, calibrating my controller all over again. This time I got in the car.
This motif would permeate my entire experience playing Rage. My character, instantly ready to kill anyone on command if someone suggests it, was given tasks by the fellow who saved him in the car. I would have to go up to a person who had a task for me, click on them, and they'd introduce themselves. They'd then wait around for me to click on them again to get a mission. I could just wander away if I wanted, and do something else.
But there was nothing else to do! If I wanted to progress in any way, I had to just go right back and click on them again. Why give me the illusion of freedom if really all I can do to advance the story is go to the next node? Why give me options that don't actually exist?
I asked these questions to Chang and Hollenshead, because I couldn't figure out why they'd done it this way. This is not some amateur developer, this is id, so they had to have good reasons for their systems, and the makeup of the universe they'd created. The hostile tone people may have picked up on was likely a misinterpretation of my surprise at their responses.
I was taken aback that there wasn't a reason that all the different factions in the game use different accents. I was surprised there wasn't a better explanation for why the mutants were so artistic. I asked, in a part of the interview that was cut, why they didn't just include the character introductions with the mission briefings. Hollenshead told me this was because they couldn't know when the player would want to do the missions. Maybe they'd just want an intro. This makes sense in some games, but if there's nothing else to do...?
The oddest thing was how unprepared Hollenshead and Chang were for my questions. How had nobody broached these subjects before? It felt as though the game had been developed in a bubble, where they were told everything they were doing was great, without question. I can understand that, it's id after all. But Hollenshead seemed to genuinely appreciate that I had taken a laser-focus to the game’s systems, and the air in the room was contemplative, not hostile. We spoke for an hour, and smiled and shook hands at the end.
In my opinion, my interview with the Rage folks was unspectacular. It was the bare minimum we should expect from journalists. If something is said that doesn't match what you saw, ask about it. If you're curious about this or that, ask a question, no matter how “important” the interviewee may be. And sometimes the best answers can be gotten by playing devil's advocate. In my opinion, developers should be happy to have this sort of discussion. It allows you to explain your game's worldview and defend your gameplay choices, and your answers should tell you a lot about your own product.
Did I look like a jerk? Maybe a little. I would say a lot of the cutting done to the article makes my questions appear to come from nowhere, rather than being part of the hour-long conversation-space they occupied. But the interview addressed some rough spots that few had mentioned before, and which only surfaced once the game was reviewed.
The evening the interview went live, I received an email from an anonymous "AAA creative director," saying that "on the basis of your hostile and clearly biased line of questioning I have instructed my PR manager to refuse any and all future requests from you and your outlet regarding our game. Having spoken to industry peers in similar leadership positions, I can assure you that I am not alone."
While I highly doubt the veracity of this email, it's interesting that something as simple as asking followup questions and not letting go of a topic would be viewed as biased and hostile. I have no bias against id. How could I? They're an amazing developer, and have some of the best talent in the industry.
It's out of respect for id that I called them out on what I saw. I gave them an early chance to defend issues with the game that others were undoubtedly going to have upon release. If treating someone else's work the way you'd treat your own - that is to say with scrutiny and criticism - is disrespectful, then we clearly have different definitions of the word.