April 1, 2014 10:45 AM | Eduardo Garabito
Randy Smith is co-founder and designer at Tyger Style Games, creators of games such as Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and Waking Mars. He began his career at the legendary Looking Glass Studios with Thief: The Dark Project, and later served as chief designer in Thief: Deadly Shadows at Ion Storm Austin. He has also been a columnist for EDGE magazine, where he has emphasized in interactive storytelling. Ruber Eaglenest from Spanish site Indieorama.com caught up with Randy on the score of the upcoming publication of the sequel to Spider: The Rite of the Shrouded Moon. Here's a talk at length about being independent and the human connection between design and video games.
15 years has passed since Thief The Dark Project. It is a game of importance, not only because it established stealth games as a genre, but because it used world building towards storytelling as nobody did before. Now games that "let the walls talk" are popular, with games like Gone Home or Among The Sleep. Prior to those, there was your Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. Tell us something of those years at Looking Glass Studios and its legacy, working with some masters of interactive storytelling such as Warren Spector or Marc Leblanc.
Yes, 15 years... Many stealth games were released around then: Tenchu, Commandos, Metal Gear Solid. And they were based on earlier games with stealth mechanics. But, yes, Thief was one of the standouts that really emphasized stealth as its primary focus. It had clear precedent in games like System Shock and Ultima Underworld, and it was contemporary with Half Life. To me, System Shock is the strongest, earliest "environmental narrative" game, and Thief followed in its footsteps in that regard.
Not to destroy your illusions about crediting in games, but as I'm alluding above, everything is built on something else, and in the case of Looking Glass in particular, it was very much a "hive mind" mentality. It was a fairly large group of people with similar values and beliefs, working autonomously but toward the same goals. Even as a Junior Designer on Thief: The Dark Project, there was rarely anyone telling me what to do, as opposed to giving me chunks of the game to create. We would have group discussions and share ideas, but there wasn't a central figure handing down proclamations. I personally would credit Doug Church as the creative lead behind some of the crucial game design decisions, and Project Director Greg LoPicollo did a fabulous job maintaining a vision for the tone and atmosphere of the world and fiction. But Marc LeBlanc, Dorian Hart, Laura Baldwin, Terri Brosius, Tim Stellmach, Eric Brosius, Dan Thron, and really everyone on the team played crucial roles in making the game what it was. The Dark Project was my first game with Looking Glass, but I got the sense that their earlier games had a similar flat, collaborative structure. Warren Spector wasn't on Thief 1 or Thief 2 at all, that's a misleading statement I hear repeated pretty often. He was friends with the studio and during System Shock was the publisher-side Producer at Origin. Later he was head of the studio where Thief: Deadly Shadows was developed.
Like most people at Looking Glass I got involved because I shared their beliefs about games being open, systemic, immersive experiences meant for a player to take control, be on stage, and invent their own narratives. I learned a ton from those guys, and my years there were incredibly important to pushing my skills forward and my design in a formal, academic direction, essentially sharpening the instincts I came in with. You can see the echoes of the Looking Glass mentality all over the place in games like Dishonored and Bioshock but also in less obvious places like Hero Academy, Card Hunter, and our own Waking Mars.<(p>
Certainly, I mean people are related to the studio to the extent that they are bearers of that philosophy. But yes, I'm always mixing up Warren Spector and Deus Ex with Looking Glass. I'm sure that story could be tracked somewhere, but I think it would be worth repeating as an inspiring story: how did you manage to "get involved" with Looking Glass? How did you, with 20 few years, get hired as a junior designer?
This is a extract from this book, which will be published in 2014:
When I attended college in 1992, gaming degrees weren't offered. I majored in Computer Science with minors in Philosophy and Media Arts, which turned out to be a great substitute, even by today's standards. I had a normal computery job the summer after college, and in my spare time I compiled a list of every video game company that might be hiring, sorted by my interest in working for them. The very top of the list was Looking Glass Studios whose work I deeply respected based on System Shock, a seminal immersive sim, which to this day is one of my all time favorite games. Looking Glass's website at the time was an incredibly evocative teaser, all tone and mood with no details, for a game known only as The Dark Project. I wanted to work on it more than anything, so I looked up the information for project director, Greg LoPiccolo, and cold called the phone sitting on his desk. I would not recommend this approach today, but Greg didn't hang up on me, and he entertained my request to drive myself down to Cambridge, Massachusetts for an interview. After a couple interviews and some homework assignments to prove my potential, I was hired on as a hybrid designer/programmer on the game that would become Thief. Eventually the senior staff pushed me into a pure design role, due to more confidence in those skills than my iffy programming abilities."
It's known that you were dissatisfied with the development of Thief: Deadly Shadows at Ion Storm Austin. I wonder if that dissatisfaction was the cause for you to go indie and fund your own company.
Ion Storm Austin was a very unhealthy culture, and game development there suffered from issues that are unreasonable for a supposedly capable studio. There were lots of good people and good intentions, but it was hard to squeeze a great game out of all the obstacles. I myself at that time was in over my head - I was directing my first game at 25 years old with a >$10M budget (and this was back in 2000) - and my own contributions were far from perfect. And to some degree all of this was not uncommon for mainstream industry game development back then, and certainly today it's not rare either.
So... that situation in the industry was a determining factor in you going indie and funding your own studio?
I definitely feel the mainstream industry is too restrictive and slow for where I want my career to go. But my primary motivation in founding Tiger Style was that I felt indie games were finally evolving into something amazing, and it clearly matched my values, beliefs, and interests. It was a very natural shift. Since I came from Looking Glass (which was an independent company) and wound up with my own company, you could say I only spent 4 or 8 years working for mainstream companies, depending on whether you would call ION Storm mainstream.
We have Spider on Android. Walking Mars was multiplatform covering Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS portable systems, although released gradually. The second installment in the series Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon will be multiplatform, too. Multiplatform, I imagine, is a desirable goal for every indie, but 4 years has passed since the first part of Spider on Android. I wonder if someday we could play Spider on desktop computers, and I wonder how difficult for a small company is to fulfill all the platforms available.
Multiplatform development is getting easier and easier as indies become a larger and more important section of the video game market. We have tools and partners that make reaching more platforms easier. However, there are design and market considerations, too. The first Spider was passionately designed specifically for the iPhone, which is part of what makes it succeed. It wouldn't work as well on PC, not without lots of rethinking. Tiger Style would never casually port our games around to different platforms. We always consider from day one which platforms we are targeting and address them all the way through development. All of our games are designed with specific hardware in mind.
That's interesting, because Rite of the Shrouded Moon is for PC and Mac, too. So, how did the game evolve? What changes in the interface were necessary to accommodate the spider simulation for keyboard and mouse?
Yes, exactly, the PC and Mac versions of Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon only work because of lots of critical thinking about those platforms. It's not just the interface we've taken under consideration, but the culture too. PC and Mac gamers prefer more depth to their experiences. That's something we felt Spider was ready for, and we believe we're going to do it without turning off the casual gamers who we are trying to seduce into more sophisticated interactions than Match 3 and endless runners.
AAA game industry and indies alike are doing great things for interactive narrative with works like Tomb Raider, The Two of Us, Spider, Daniel Benmergui's works, Walking Dead, etc. How do you see the medium? Are you happy with the latest efforts in that topic?
I covered that question with my last ever Edge column here.
I am very excited about where things are going in games. I feel like 5 years ago the industry was overly powerful, overly risk averse, and designers were chained by dogmas about what games supposedly must be, about what players supposedly demanded, about what supposedly can and cannot be done. It was all lies. Games are as powerful as films, books, music, painting, or any other media. Indies in particular seem to prove every month that something is a great idea that 5 years ago industry was telling us was impossible. There is finally a large, healthy and growing market for experiences other than the same old mainstream industry fodder that has been pushed on us for a decade or longer.
That said, this is the beginning, not the end. We've gotten out of a rut, and we're finally working on some of the hard problems again. It's going to be many years before some of the hardest ones - most notably truly interactive, systemic narratives that model human interactions - get any real traction.
What do you think could be the next step of evolution in interactive storytelling?
I think text-based interactive fiction has long been exploring interesting things that should be grafted onto other types of interactions. I'm seeing some very encouraging work in games like Device 6 and The Novelist (just to name a couple that spring to mind). These are merging words with other types of playful experiences and interactions to create a larger whole, one that couldn't exist in any other format or medium.
Some designers think the ultimate goal for an experienced game designer is education, like Warren Spector. Your articles on EDGE were very oriented in educating the audience in Interactive Storytelling. I wonder if you are the kind of guy that will write a book on theory and practice in interactive storytelling in the future, or maybe that is not something you'd consider.
I like the idea in theory, but one day a journalist told me there were entire schools of people who wanted to and were good at analyzing works to produce education, and what I should be doing with my time is producing more of more works, not their analysis. That made sense to me. I was certainly doing intentional educational outreach with my Edge column, but I was also using it as a space to dive deeper into some really tricky topics for my own sake. I'm a better designer for the experience.
About Tiger Style Games, what can we expect about interactive narrative? Are you going to continue to pursue those environmental games? Or maybe you have something new, different, or more theories about interactivity in mind to pursue?
Right now we're working on Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon which evolves the core environmental storytelling ideas of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, pushing them further in ways I think are really exciting and I think will satisfy players more and reach a wider audience.Literally the best idea I think I have right now is for something that's more of a text-based interactive fiction than I ever thought I'd want to make, but I'm not at all ready to talk about that.
More importantly, Tiger Style is devoted to working on those hard problems in game design around interactivity and human connection. One of the reasons we chose to make a Spider sequel, in addition to our love for the material, is to buy more time to continue developing some super interesting (but really hard) concepts around perilous teenage friendships.
About that text game, why not to do it? An interactive fiction by Tiger Style Games, combining text with modern multimedia. Like some stuff by Inkle Studios, Sorcery for instance. Or Jim Munroe and his Everybody Dies, Guilded Youth...
Yeah, it's a cool field to work in, for sure! Let's say I'm experimenting with the idea, and we could release it some day.
Providing there's a map in returning to Rite of the Shrouded Moon, I wonder if that means that you are going to drop the structure of consecutive levels, for a more open structure or with hubs. The puzzle game levels structure in Spider worked pretty well and support replayability...
What a great question (laughs). And you're right that we only increase the complexity gradually, with an understanding of how it improves the experience, never just because "more is better."
What influences can be perceived in Waking Mars' art? One of our editors at Indieorama noted some influence from pulp art style of the 60's.
We definitely looked at vintage and other sci-fi posters and books when art directing Waking Mars. I really wanted a very abstract art style for the game originally, but I stumbled upon some challenges about putting those into motion, so we eased pretty far back, but you can still see some of that influence.
I'll take advantage of this and ask for the influence in the art of Tiger Style Games in general. And about music too. Spider's music feels weird, ambient, alien and sometimes full of action. Of course that fits well, as it's a day in the life of a spider.
Art and music are so lush and beautiful and varied. When I started Tiger Style I was very disappointed with how little of it games were tapping. Most mainstream games were (and still are) photoreal, and indie games lean on the pixelated crutch far too often. Game music is usually either bombastic soundtrack classical music, or an echo of the 8 bit Nintendo. I wanted our games to have music and art that was contemporary, high quality, and not lodged in these weird ruts about what games should have. I'm still baffled about why doing so isn't more common. Music in particular - almost no one listens to this kind of music outside of playing a game, so why is it the only music people can think to put in a game? Why not put, you know, good music in games instead? It seems kind of obvious... ?
I have around five videogames soundtracks in my car. But yes, I'm sort of a fan... so, maybe the affirmation could be "almost no one listens to this kind of music outside of the gaming scene".
I would say that people in the gaming scene are a minority of all people. Remember Tiger Style is a company that is trying to reach both gamers AND non-gamers. Making music that appeals to non-gamers is one way we try to signal to them "this game is for you."
Do you think simulation games where the player is drawn into an ambience, like Thief or Spider, changes the perception of life for him or her?
During the development of Thief, I remember standing in shadows on the subway platform or flitting between shadows walking home. While working on Spider, I always looks at a surface and see about 5 different web shapes I could build.
Mystery stories, Sci-Fi, it seems all of you at Tiger Style bring a lot of your childhood for themes for your games...
Yeah, I have this theory that video games aren't quite mature enough to tell mature stories, so I tell young adult stories instead, which still seem mature by comparison. I also love those stories; they cut to the romance and optimism of everyday life very astutely.
Talking about childhood, in this in-depth interview from Killscreen, you mention that your favorite toys were action figures, making stories and battles with them. Now boys and girls are growing up with technology; they have access to computers and consoles from year 0, living immersed in always-online technology. Do you think that permanent connection will cause children to have a poor childhood --in terms of experiences-- compared to ours?
My parents gave me very limited access to television and computer games growing up. They wanted me to go out into nature and play, to hang out with friends, to invent my own games, to read books, to play board games, to draw. This clearly makes for a richer life and a more diverse and human set of influences. I do agree that many great experiences can come through a flickering screen, but humans are animals, and I refuse to believe there is no deep, spiritual difference between playing a video game, reading a book, and listening to a storyteller around a campfire. I want for myself and others a life that is rich with people and empathy, and only a part of that can come from digital media.I always wince when people try to compliment our games by calling them "addictive." That's the opposite of what we are trying to do.
I don't have children of my own, but I still care about education and the culture children grow up in. Historically, people have always had issues with how new technology changes culture. There was a time when people complained that reading books and writing letters by hand was damaging communities by replacing face-to-face interactions. One relevant point is that we should relax, that the new, emerging culture will find its own values, and if we don't agree with all of them, then that's just how things evolve; i.e. - that we are the stodgy old men of tomorrow yelling "Get off my lawn!" at kids. Another relevant point is that face-to-face human interactions, being present in the real world around us, has always been a value and hopefully always will be, whatever substitutions get invented and emphasized.
About the the future for Tiger Style Games, what comes next, beyond Rite of the Shrouded Moon? You have covered one of your favourite genres, the mansion mystery, and you've travelled to Mars, so... what about a game about travelling by ship around the world, like you said about your grandfather in the aforementioned interview?
I mentioned some things above, but the truth is even we don't know. There are a million experiences to be covered, and we'll never even touch on everything we want to do. Our company mission is to deliver innovative, engaging, personal, highly interactive experiences that never rely on violence as the central mechanic. Whatever we do will match that.
Thanks a lot for your time. I think I'm going to replay some of the most adventurous Thief levels of ancient places and civilizations, or play some mystery mansion game, or planing a going out adventure for my daughters, you and your grandfather has inspired that to me. Thanks a lot!
My grandfather would be honored to hear that, as am I.
What a stupid omission for my part. Maybe you have already pay tribute to your grandfather with the figure of CK Bryce in Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor? Or it is just a great coincidence?
No, that's not an homage to him specifically. But obviously the people who influence us find their way into everything we do, right?[Eduardo Garabito and Ruber Eaglenest write for Spanish indie game site indieorama.com]