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Interview: GRIN's Andersson On Game Directors Becoming More Like Movie Directors

Interview: GRIN's Andersson On Game Directors Becoming More Like Movie Directors Exclusive

January 14, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield, Christian Nutt

January 14, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield, Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

After nearly a decade of releasing, at most, only one title a year, Stockholm-based GRIN looks to explode with activity in 2009, planning three multiplatform games for just the first half of the year -- Wanted: Weapons of Fate, Bionic Commando, and Terminator Salvation.

Founded in 1997, GRIN's previous shipped titles include the Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter series and last year's acclaimed remake Bionic Commando Rearmed.

The ramping up of the company's projects can be attributed to its increased headcount, with new development offices setup in Barcelona and Gothenburg, as well as a QA studio in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Wanted: Weapons of Fate, GRIN's third-person shooter due for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on March 24th, is based on the Universal Pictures film and takes place immediately after the movie's events.

Players take on the role of Wesley Gibson, a young assassin with the power to perceive time at a slowed down rate and curve bullet trajectories to hit shielded target, as he continues his battle against the corrupted Fraternity of assassins.

In this interview, the studio's always candid co-founder and director Ulf Andersson talks with Gamasutra about how working with film studios to develop video games is getting easier, why the company hasn't sought out projects based on original IPs, and how the role of video game director is "moving more towards what a movie director is."

What is it like working with film company Universal on Wanted?

Ulf Andersson: It's been great. It's been a lot better than I expected it to be. I haven't gotten any work with movie-based IPs before, and I heard a lot of rumors like, "Oh, they'll just control you super-hard and then say, 'No, you can't do that! You can't do this! You have no support!'" and blah blah blah.

But I actually got to go to the set, and we talked to the team and got to be a part of the event. So far, it's been great. I think the movie industry has started to pick up this whole universal system. I worked on another title with Warner Bros. [Terminator Salvation], too, so it's very similar.

I've actually heard a lot of horror stories about working with movie companies and movie-based publishers in general, especially with no access to the scripts, you can't talk to the director ever, and that kind of stuff.

UA: We got the script when they actually started production for the movie. I think the movie business has picked up on a lot of that shit. They've fixed a lot of it, and they understand their weaknesses, basically.

It's nice that you didn't have to release day-and-date with the movie.

UA: Yeah. We had a choice to do it, but we decided together with Universal that we shouldn't, just to be able to focus on the game and make something special. We'll make something that actually plays and is actually a game

So you could've had it out?

UA: Probably, if we really pushed for it.

That's quite a difference, in terms of time.

UA: We decided very early, "Fuck it. We're doing something that's actually a game." I think a lot of what I told you about before, with experiences with movie-based stuff, it's because a lot of game makers have issues of creating new ideas around what the IP actually can do, instead of saying, "I have this game mechanic!" and just trying to fit the idea into that. You need to come up with new stuff from the top.

Another big problem is that people often say, "Well, the movie's release date wouldn't move, so I have to finish it now."

UA: Yeah. They won't push the movie release date.

I think a big problem is that people who run studios or are in positions of control over these projects are 100 percent incapable of telling a bad game from a good game, anyway, so they have no capacity to say, "Looks like a game. Must be done!"

UA: (laughter) Well, if you can control the character, it's done! You have a credit screen, and I'm in it, so it's done. But as the industry grows and as there's more money and more risk, there are less idiots. So, I'm happy. More consolidation, more money, less idiots.

Why has GRIN yet to do much original IP at all?

UA: What I always ask myself is, "What's an original IP? What are the benefits?" You have to look at it from the business side. You can't always be the creator and say, "Oh, I love to have the creative freedom of blah blah blah." But the real benefits of doing your own IP is that you have complete freedom where you can start, but you don't have the backup you might need.

Today, in this environment, it's very hard to actually do something that's really high-quality without the commercial backup of something. I'd say that Bionic Commando might be very close to being original for me, because I created everything in that game. There's no, "Do this." It's like, "Here you go." I have the original game, and I created that.

It seems like it's the closest, to me.

UA: Yeah. But on [Wanted], we did the story and all the core mechanics. We had a lot of freedom. I love making games, and that goes for my studio, too. We love making fucking games, and we're not in the business to be creatively free.

And that's also the thing: What is creativity? If you box somebody in and say, "These are the rules. Here is the problem to solve," that's when you get creative. If you have no rules, there's no need. You're basically just brain-pooping. "Oh, let's play with a fucking marsupial in space! On the moon!" Everybody can do that.

People do say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I can see, certainly, that having some limitations would cause you to be more creative, but also having those limitations imposed upon you can sometimes squash what you want to do. I don't know where you are in the line there. It seems like GRIN has been in a semi-fortunate position, in terms of ability to actually work on what you want to work on.

UA: Yeah. That's part of the whole thing. We won't go into a contract if we don't have creative control over the product, you could say. Of course, the customer always has the real control, but up to a point where you go, "Okay, you've got to have some hierarchy." But you know, we're the game developer, so we're going to do the game, and publishers ...

Are going to tell you what they don't want.

UA: They'll tell you what they want and what they don't want, and they'll tell you a lot of shit, but in the end, we're not going to release a game that we can't stand for. We do it justice within the time we have. We always try our best to do good shit, and we don't want to release games that we wouldn't play or buy.

It's all about work ethic and being proud of what you do. Being able to do games is pretty fucking awesome. I'd rather do that than be all artsy-fartsy about it.

I felt like Sweden is the next big European game development power. After France, there's Sweden. I'm trying to figure out why that's the case. Have you given any thought to why that environment created this?

UA: Yeah. There's a culture of creative engineers, you could say, and there's also a culture of starting up your own shit and doing your own stuff, and not being too afraid of trying. There's no shame in failing. You can always try again. There's that base culture that works. But it's always been like that in Sweden. It's just that now, it's moved into the gaming industry.

We've done a lot with mobile phones and movies and shit, so there's always something out there. But right now, yeah, I'd say that Sweden is among the strongest. Except for Ubisoft, which is like a big publishing house who does most of their work in Canada, Sweden is probably one of the stronger ones.

So, with starting a studio in Barcelona, how did that come about? I really don't know what the development culture is like in Spain, and maybe you don't either, I don't know.

UA: No, I don't. Now I know. A lot of games come out of there -- a good example is the Commandos series from Pyro. There is a strong development culture. The only difficulty is that there are no companies.

We also needed some place where we could attract people who fucking hate the cold, because we've got a lot of people who are like, "I want to join GRIN, but I can't stand the cold." So we started this office to attract all those people, so we got a lot of talent from across the world to go there. Barcelona is a good party city.

You're using an original engine for Bionic Commando Rearmed. Are you using the same engine with Wanted?

UA: Exactly the same as on Bionic Commando Rearmed, Bionic Commando, Wanted, and Terminator. It's slightly different for people who sell their engine, because we keep updating it all the time. This engine has been around for ten years or something now. We just keep updating.

Do you find it difficult to update an engine when stuff like multi-core comes out and things like that?

UA: We were first out the gates with multi-core and were first out the gates with fucking shaders. We're hardware. We're people who love supporting the hardware and making new technology and shit. That's their creativity. That's why we like people to indulge themselves in that.

Everywhere we can find somebody who actually loves that area, we do that area. We don't have a specified culture. Of course, we recruit a certain kind of people, so that molds the culture, but whatever the guys want to do in the future, we're going to be doing that.

Sweden has always had a pretty decent demo scene. Is that where you grab people like that from?

UA: Yeah. The older-school people came from the demo scene, of course. We got a lot of our base engine teams from the demo scene. But the younger generations, like 24 and down, not so much.

Sadly, [the demo scene] is not so important now.

UA: It's just sad. I love the fucking demo scene. ... Like with all subculture shit, it's really pushing what you do and what you try and how to experiment.

Technique, really.

UA: Yeah. And it's also good education, understanding that it takes a lot of time and dedication to do stuff, and a lot of days and nights. When people come straight from school, they think it's like, "Ah, cool. A game job!" and they go straight in and expect it to be a rockstar thing, when you actually have to fucking work.

If you want to make an impact on the gaming industry, you have to pay attention and fucking work a lot. It's a fact. At the same time, you have a lot of people who just do a normal job. You have those different types of people, and they still fit the business. It's just that the guys who really spend their time and focus on the shit, those are the guys who are going to go to the next level.

They rise to the top.

UA: Yeah. That's usually it.

You are directing this game, and you're in Sweden, while the studio is in Barcelona. You also have a creative director on-site. Can you talk about that process and how difficult it is to manage the game around it?

UA: Difficulty in management is always depending on who you're working with. I have an excellent creative director, and a very good producer team. So, I'm pretty lucky with that. I've been in way worse situations before.

It takes a while to get to that point and find the right people. Maybe one of ten guys are suited for that role, so you're very lucky to find people that actually fit into management-style jobs. You have to find the right people, but also, you have to structure and make sure you follow up on shit and make sure you're clear with your direction.

And also, make sure you know what you're doing, because if you tell somebody something and you expect them to deliver in one day exactly what you tell them, and then another day it's like, "No, I didn't mean that! I meant that, but in a good way!" that is bullshit.

You have to really be able to stand up for your decisions, but also make sure that you know what you're doing. You have to know art and game design and engineering and everything yourself, basically, in my opinion.

The director's job, in my mind, is moving more towards what a movie director is. A movie director knows the camera, and he knows acting. He doesn't know how to act, but how to direct an actor. He knows color and lighting and composition. It's a broad range of shit. Otherwise, you don't know what the fuck you're doing. I think the requirement for directors is going up, right now.

There is a real lack of true directors in games, I think.

UA: I think so, yeah.

It seems like a lot of people are actually doing what producers should do, in that they're making sure that the game is on track and it's actually going to ship in an acceptable manner. They're not directing it as much creatively, in terms of making sure the game is what it should be.

UA: That it's a good game, yeah. It's a problem of the job of game design. What is the game designer? He's working with the gameplay most of the time. But since he doesn't know the repercussions of what he does, it's very hard to use his design in the current business. Right now, we can't try as much. You have to know more of what you're doing, because the price of trying now ...

It's very high.

UA: Yeah. Having risks ... the amount of game design actually goes down, and the amounts of more directorial-type work goes up. Before, it was mostly like a bunch of game designers and a bunch of producers. Now, it's more like the director, executive producers, [and maybe] a couple of assistant game designers to help document or gloss out all the details in menus or features or enemies.

It's basically grabbing the ball and then running with it. It's not necessarily creating the actual stuff. The business, at least for us, is changing radically, for how we work.

Do you find that the role of the game designer is become diminished, or at least becoming more compartmentalized? Like, "You should work on this specific thing."

UA: Yeah. If you put that on Gamasutra, you're going to get, "No, a game designer is blah blah blah!" or "This guy is a game designer and he's great!" like Miyamoto. But then you have to define what a game designer means.

And if you look at it, if it's "game designer" like "I designed the whole game," you're basically a director. But if you're working with gameplay, you're a gameplay creator or manager or whatever. I think that role has to be redefined, in a way, because it's growing too much.

Definition of roles has been getting harder and harder, as jobs become more specialized. But also at the same time, for some companies, a game designer is kind of taking the role of a director when a director does not exist. It's really weird, in that industry jobs are not standardized. They are company-by-company.

UA: Yeah, basically. But the movie business is a pretty old creative business, and it's very, very similar. Not the actual product, but the structure of how it's going to work. We start to outsource now. Not everything is outsourced, but you might outsource characters or art or programming or sound. It's exactly what the movie business is doing.

And how they handle royalty and risk and everything... It's a model that's actually working for the movie guys, and since the budgets are growing for the game business, they sort of have to mimic the same thing, but in their own form, because there's still a lot more cooperation between people. You can't just do the art and then do the programming. It has to be all at the same time.

Right. I was talking to Yuji Naka, the Sonic the Hedgehog creator guy. He was talking about how the reason why he made his own company is because, like a movie director, when you're directing a movie, you're always working on the movie.

But when you become a director or an executive in video games, you kind of stop working on the game, at most companies. You wind up basically being a manager. He wanted to still actually direct a video game, so he had to leave Sega and start his own company in order to do that, because he had gotten too high up.

It's bizarre, but it seems like our existing structure does not support a proper director that is actually mostly watching the scope, feel, and vibe of the game, rather than being a project manager.

UA: Yeah. I'd say the big reason for that is, of course, that the director is part of a company that makes games, while a movie is more of a project-based thing. They gather a couple of guys -- this producer, that casting guy -- and a lot of them are consultants and such.

The director is part of a company with the producer who's actually hooked into the product to make a movie. I think that's why. It's sort of a weird thing, having to be creatively responsible while at the same time running a company. It's both the money and the creative part, and managing the fucking crew.

To me, managing a good game and being a good business man are totally two different things. If you can find a guy who is good at business and also has had experience working on games, that guy is ideal to be a business man that will be good.

A director should have some ideas about budgets and stuff, but he shouldn't be beholden to that. It shouldn't be his main thing.

UA: It's too much.

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