Friday, November 12, 2010

Speak Summary, pt.2

This is part two of a summary of a guest speaker talk I did at the University of Utah. See part one here.

Chicken Little
  • My first project at Avalanche was Chicken Little.
  • Avalanche is a hands-off company; they like self-motivated people; the environment was very different and I was critical their process; the transition was hard; I disappeared in a cubicle and was worthless and depressed for awhile.
  • I decided that being a lead again might give me the chance to effect some of the change I thought Avalanche should adopt; I didn't expect a positive reaction but sat down with Blackburn and explained that being a lead might be the only thing that would make it worth staying there for.
  • He thought it was a bad idea (of course) and agreed it might be best for me to move on; he made no ultimatums but I think we both assumed that would be the end of things.
  • But I was bothered that I started at Avalanche partly to learn something but never gave their method a chance; I had to, so I grabbed something I thought needed help and went for it.
  • The turn around in my attitude was fast; people had a reason to dislike me after seeing what a tool I was in my first months, but I felt welcomed after finally agreeing to play ball; I had years of Saffire work behind me but not a lot of experience with other companies, and this lesson of going with the flow was a valuable thing to learn.
  • Since Van Helsing, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of emotion in games; on Van Helsing, Vivendi had sent us to a lot of story and screenwriting courses to improve the story of the game, and that exposure made a big impact on what I wanted to achieve in games.
  • I was jealous of shooters because they could build cinematics around the player to bring the story to life, but I always worked on third-person games; I started dreaming of ways to ensure the actions of a third-person character always matched the mood of the story around them; I was also inspired heavily by dog in Half-Life 2, which for various reasons I felt was the first character that felt like had his own powerful will and purpose in a game I had played.
  • I theorized a lot about these ideas, with Todd Harris, a concept artist at Avalanche who had been working on a new intellectual property that fit these ideas really well; we became good friends.
  • An extremely rare opportunity happened: after Disney bought Avalanche, they asked for new IPs; Avalanche did an open submission from the company, and two ideas I was involved with got a lot of votes; one of them was the idea Todd Harris and I were developing.
  • We pitched it to Disney and they said yes; it was extremely ambitious but Disney was in the mood for it.
  • I can't go into details about the project, but I'll say that I tried to pair gameplay I knew with storytelling and characters worthy of the Disney/Pixar heritage; there was a lot of positive momentum within Disney about the project, and I was extremely proud of how it looked and played.
  • After years of development, and for various reasons I won't discuss out loud, the project was shelved; it seemed to happen at the height of some amazing team momentum; reading about LMNO in the press, there are many similarities.
  • I reflected deeply on what the cancellation of the unannounced project meant for other projects at Disney; what worried me was the idea of Disney losing its appetite for risk; the cancellation decision made good sense on paper but, in my almost-certainly-biased opinion, poor sense in terms of what Disney could and should make viable.
  • I felt Disney needed more risk, not less; When Walt Disney was making Snow White, people called him crazy because no one would watch a 2 hour animated movie; when he was building Disneyland, they thought he was throwing away his fortune on the dumbest of ideas; special ideas are interesting because they come from left field and aren't easy to justify; they have a certain amount of WTF, and Disney needs more special ideas, not less, to establish the niche they want in games.
  • And special ideas inspire passion; passion is a requirement for success; it doesn't guarantee success, but they make success possible, and companies that make games without passion only last so long because someone will eventually do what they do with passion.
  • I imagined what would be interesting at E3 in the Disney booth; if they make a shooter, it's not interesting because it's "jaded"; Toy Story 3 is "expected"; and though attaching a well-known name like Warren Spector to a license like Mickey is an example of an unusual pairing, Avalanche had no industry personality that, paired with a particular licensed product, would create similar opportunities.
  • I found myself unnerved by potential again; executives can stay executives by justifying decisions, and doing what trends and focus groups tell them rarely creates something special; my gut told me that the same executive culture that dulled Disney feature dulled its games division; and it might be years before that changed.
  • I quit with great admiration and hope for Blackburn and Avalanche; a lot of amazing people still work there.
  • As before, I left without having something lined up; I knew I wanted to pursue one of two things:
    • One, a big successful studio; just to learn how they make big successful games, because I want to know; I don't have to be a lead, I just want to help them make great product and learn from the process; I might love it, I might hate it, but it would be an experience.
    • Two, my own thing; something with WTF, that was passion-first; that might have a good chance of dying along the way, but would fill my soul.
  • I leaned towards leaving Utah for a big company, but some friends appealed to me, convincing me that it was worth trying to do something before I left the state; my self-consciousness was defeated by the show of support and it made sense; I decided to try.
  • I started LittleBot, grabbed Unity, and started teaching myself to script.
  • My plan probably needs help:
    • Phase one, do something interesting (has WTF) that fills my soul and inspires my passion; prove the idea is fun or find out it's not, even if it takes years.
    • Phase two, find friends to polish a piece of it and truly show its potential; sell production on an idea that was once WTF, now playable and awesome, and that has talented and passionate people attached.
  • I want to succeed and probably need a plan with more practicality, but feel good about chasing my nose and filling my soul doing something that inspires my passion; some WTF.
I only hope my WTF has a happy ending.


    1. I have to thank you for writing all this up and posting it! Intensely interesting stuff!

      I'm again impressed with the level of passion you've maintained for so long. I expect fantastic things from LittleBot - I can't imagine your first game will be anything but passionate, original, and built on adamantium WTF bones.

    2. A fun read- It's cool to see your perspective and what you learned from your experiences. It was great working with you back in the day.

    3. <3 Truly interesting, thanks for the write-up Mr. Tew!

    4. Fantastic run down memory lane. It's interesting to see where your head was (and is) at during all of that. Thanks for sharing!

    5. Cool. : )

      The religion thing I've wondered about but haven't felt confident enough to ask. : ) And you've been at this longer than I thought. Really interesting read, thanks for sharing.

    6. Thanks for the comments guys.

      @stay if only adamantium wtf was like adamantium; i think some of the wtf might even come from how conventional it seems on the surface.

      @steve thanks. i left out the part where a bird of prey landed on your nike flag in our barbarian trailer. madness.

      @tom you're very welcome!

      @shaneo in a lot of weird places, no? i'm glad you liked.

      @elias yeah, i'm not shy at all about that, actually; feel free to ask if you're curious about details.

      @all cheers!

    7. Absolutely agree about the Disney-risk thing. But I think if you asked any executive they'd tell you they're making really risky decisions all the time. So how would you articulate the difference between the heavy risks they _feel_ like they're making and these Walt Disney-esque big-payoff types of risks?