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Q&A: New AAA studio from 2K Games all about players' stories
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Q&A: New AAA studio from 2K Games all about players' stories

December 4, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

I think another consideration is that we have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge, both in terms of the tools, and in terms of the people who make the games. The shooting mechanic for an FPS has been continuously refined for 20 years now, for example. So it's so seductive to keep refining that.

HB: Yeah. I think that's absolutely 100 percent true. You can look at what you've done in the past; as game developers, we're always doing that, looking at what we worked on in the past and figuring out how to iterate on that, and how we get better, and better, and better.

I think that's natural and healthy, and it's something we should do, to continue to make high quality experiences. But I think on top of that, you also always want to have those one or two things that scare you, and that you're experimenting with, and that's where you get true innovation.

So we've definitely been thinking along those lines: How do we pick the one or two things that we haven't necessarily done before in the past, and try them? And maybe they work or maybe they don't. And maybe they don't end up in the final game. But we're definitely trying a lot of stuff right now.

You mentioned Dragon Age. Something that BioWare is particularly lauded for, I think, is that the player can create a character that can fit any mold. That helps, when you go back to talk to being a partner with the player in developing the player story of your game. It seems valuable.

HB: I think it is valuable. I don't think it's the only option, though. I think you can also create a game that has a strong, well-defined character that the player inhabits at the beginning, and then you take that character on and you journey, but the outcome of that journey or the experience that happens along the way, or maybe at key points -- ideally as many moments as you can -- can shape that character and change over time.

So I think there's a lot of really cool what-if scenarios with something like that, where you create a strong central character that is recognizable or relatable to the player, but has a couple of different paths that they can take, and ultimately can end up in a variety of different outcomes. That is compelling, too.

But again, to hit on every tier of this "the player story is unique," that has to be married with the moment-to-moment choices, and the minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, so the player feels like they are really shaping their experience even if they're playing a character that has a face and a voice and has been defined by the developer.

To what extent do you personally see the player inhabiting the character? Some people very strongly feel that they expect the player to take on the character as an alter ego. I go on the other side of it, where I view a game character as I would a character in a film. I have empathy, but I don't inhabit game characters in that way.

"I've had experiences with well defined characters that were well written and human on some level -- even if they were superhuman in other ways -- that I felt like I was inhabiting."

HB: I really think it depends on the game. For me, I've certainly had experiences where I feel like I inhabited a character that was really well defined. Again, in an RPG, where you're creating your character from scratch, I feel like I'm all-in and I am that character. But I've also had experiences with well defined characters that were well written and human on some level -- even if they were superhuman in other ways -- that I felt like I was inhabiting. 

I think a lot of it has to do with camera, and whether or not you're seeing the character, and you're associating the look of the character with the character. But a lot of it has to do with writing and characterization, and how well that character is written.

I tend to find that when I am in first person that I'm me, and I forget that I'm playing a character, because I'm not constantly reminded who that character is. When I'm playing a third person game, when it's someone who is well written and I can relate to -- or is aspirational, even, someone I would want to be, and I can channel my 13-year old self, then I get sucked in, and it's completely immersive for me.

Do you get yanked out of that when the character does or says something that isn't what you wanted to do?

HB: Yeah. I mean, again, it depends on the writing, I think, and how intrusive it is. And if it's not consistent. I look at something like BioShock Infinite, where I didn't have that experience, where it wasn't jarring for me, because it was so well written. A lot of it, I think comes down to that, and comes down to the character.

There are so many variables. How much of the character is defined up-front? How much do you learn over time? How much impact do you have on it? Do I feel like I have ways to customize my experience, even if the character is immutable? I think that there are hundreds of variables that play into it. But in general, I would say that it is true -- it is more jarring for me to suddenly see my character in a cinematic or cutscene, if I've been playing in first person than in third.

How are you approaching the way you develop the game? How are you looking at how you want to do things like structure the team, structure development?

HB: We have five big pillars that are aspirational for the culture, as we build the team. One of the reasons for this announcement is that we are recruiting, we're building the team, and we're hiring, so we want to get the word out on that. The culture will evolve over time in terms of who we bring in.

We've hired a lot of veteran developers from cross a wide variety of studios and companies, that have worked on a huge number of games and genres -- everything from obviously Star Wars, but Dead Space, Splinter Cell, and Assassin's Creed. Every major franchise, pretty much, from the past 10 years, we've got guys that have worked on it.

One of the things that we're doing, one of our pillars is "good ideas can come from anywhere," but we don't just mean that from a design standpoint, although we try to make it true there, as well. We also mean in terms of how the studio is structured, how the team is structured, how we approach milestone planning, the way we build our culture, the way we do team bonding.

We are soliciting feedback from people we hire, constantly. I feel like anybody who joins the studio how has a good opportunity to have an outsize impact in a short amount of time, because we're really in the process of listening and finding out what worked at other studios and what didn't work, and what did you like and what didn't you like, and how can we mold it to fit our needs here?

That's one, the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere.

"We're also adamant about the idea that everybody on the team should feel like they are problem hunters."

We're also adamant about the idea that everybody on the team should feel like they are problem hunters, that they're constantly seeking problems -- whether that is problems within the design or the code, or even just the health of the studio. What we expect is that everybody is an adult, and that they are going to raise issues, and it's my job to solve problems. I can't solve them if I don't know about them, so I've got to seek them out, but I'm reliant on people on the team to bring them up as well.

We really push on people being decisive and owning their decisions, as well. Whether that's deciding an efficient way on who we hire, to making decisions on which way we go with the design, and really owning those decisions, and focusing -- especially as it relates to the game and how we can get them up on screen and start iterating on them. That's huge.

I feel like one of the things that really drags teams down is a lack of clarity, and you end up with a lot of churn if you're kind of guessing and operating in a vacuum, or in an environment where there aren't decision-makers. So we try to push that to the whole team.

Everybody on the team has a responsibility that they can make some decisions on. We expect them to do that, to own those decisions and champion them, and if they're working on the game to get those decisions up on screen so we can react to them and start iterating.

And then, the next big one for us is that we push each other. We really want to push each other to get better at their craft. In some cases, that's pushing people to try something that they haven't done before. It's pairing people with other really smart people so that they can learn from one another.

It's saying, "That's not good enough. Let's try again," and getting honest feedback. Our design director, Matthias Worch, he's constantly saying he wants to make the design team very vulnerable to feedback -- so that's one way we're pushing the design team, to make sure that their designs are exposed to the rest of the team and that it's on screen, and that people can provide comment and feedback.

And then the last is, we really are trying to develop technology, and process, and structure, that is not just functional but efficient. So in a new studio, all of these are very aspirational goals, and we're hitting different ones to different degrees, but we're very happy with where we're at with most of them. As new people come onboard, again, they bring new ideas and we're able to take advantage of those to continue to evolve.

"I walk the floor and I know everybody by name and by face, which is really important to me. And it's something I want to always be true."

To get a little bit more specific, for people that are interested, we work not unlike a lot of other studios. We work in a pod structure; we try to be very nimble. We try to get a lot of stuff done and stuff on-screen at any given time, but we're small enough to be nimble and we can iterate and change direction if necessary. And I still know every person on the team. I walk the floor and I know everybody by name and by face, which is really important to me. And it's something I want to always be true.

Another team member is Andy Wilson, who came to us from Ubisoft, who is our EP. He's been really instrumental in establishing a lot of the production process and making sure that the designers and artists and engineers, everybody has time to iterate built into the schedule. And we're very cognizant of the iteration time every month. That's been a really big boon for us as well.

You've recruited a lot of triple-A talent, you've said. But with an eye toward wanting to change, also, and push in new directions -- how is that part of the culture? How do you make that the ethos of the studio?

HB: Some of it is pushing people, obviously, to start thinking a little differently. We're trying to do that wherever we can. Some of that is hiring, so hiring people that have tried things. Even on a triple-A title that might have been a little bit, for lack of a better term, subversive, in terms of traditional design.

We're always looking for who, if there's a system that we find particularly interesting, or a feature we find particularly interesting, we try to find out the person who worked on that and get their take and potentially recruit them.

I spent almost a year in mobile free-to-play before coming here, so there's a lot of learnings I have from that. I think there's kind of a problem in the industry right now where we have folks on either side of that divide being very dismissive of the work being done on the other side. There's a lot we can learn from each other, still. And there's a lot of good that's being done.

It's a great time to be a gamer, right? Because there are so many options. There's a lot of good work being done at so-called "traditional" triple-A studios, and a lot of really good work being done at mobile studios and free-to-play studios, and independent studios.

We're not ruling anybody out. We have people on the team that have come from independent studios, that have come from startups, that have come from free-to-play, that have come from mobile, that have come from traditionally PC development and haven't worked on console games, that have come from triple-A console titles. 

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