July 27, 2017

Aligning Game Chi on Deadspace & Battlefield, with Ian Milham

Aligning Game Chi on Deadspace & Battlefield, with Ian Milham

Ian has been in the gaming business for twenty years, including time as an environment artist, the art director for the Dead Space games, and the creative director of Battlefields 4 and Hardline. In 2016 he became Game Director for Crystal Dynamics directing the Tomb Raider Series.

Connect with Ian

Selected Links for the Episode

Featured Show Highlights

  • It’s imperative to ensure clear communication when working on large game development teams.
  • In a AAA process, your plan needs to appeal to everyone in the market
  • The key is to make people “feel” something with your game trailer
  • The best alignment or reference for chi is real world
  • The role of a director is to draw a treasure map for the team and then creating faith for those who do not see it.
  • My career as an Art Director was not spent improving people’s art, but rather aligning there are to make it look as if one person created it
  • They key in game maker audience is focused and presents a powerful promise to the player
  • Ripomatic Demo Reel - Chris Weakley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7y5YmTvSGk

Episode Transcription

Jordan (00:03):

You're listening to Playmakers podcast. I'm your host Jordan Blackman. And on this week's episode, we've got Ian Milam. He is the game director at crystal dynamics over in Redwood city. Before that he was the creative director, an art director at Redwood shores, electronic arts, working on games like battlefield hardline, and of course the dead space games. And before that, he worked at Lucas arts. This man knows this stuff. We talk about that stuff on this week's episode of Playmakers. So I am very excited about this interview that I'm sharing with you today. I was excited before the interview has excited. As soon as we recorded it, I felt that it was something special and listening again, to prepare this intro, I had the same feeling. Ian is in addition to being clearly an incredibly talented GameMaker, he's also a great interlocutor and somebody who is able to explain the concepts of game creation and the processes and his own opinions on it in a way that is unique.
Jordan (01:08):

Before I even interviewed him, I had seen his GDC talk about doing the art direction on dead space two, and we'll put a link to that on Playmakers podcast.com. And that talk was so good that I knew I had to have Ian on the show. And I recommend watching that talk. We do cover some material that's a little bit similar, but it's largely separate and it's incredible. So you're definitely gonna want to check that out in. And I had, I would call it a wide ranging talk. We had a great conversation covering just a lot of meaty stuff around making games. So we talked about the history of the dead space franchise. We talked about why sometimes you actually want to squint at your work, and that's not just an art thing. It's actually a metaphor for all sorts of stuff. We talk about some of the differences between working on big AAA projects with huge budgets and smaller indie games.
Jordan (02:02):

We talked about why maybe your studio's first game, shouldn't be the big Opus that you had in mind when you created the studio. And we talk a lot about cheese, and I know that sounds strange, but we talk about the games chief. This is a concept Ian has, and it is well elucidated in this episode and in this interview. So what she is, how to align it across the game. And we talk about the role of different tools and doing that. And one of the ones that was interesting to me is the rip amatic. So we talk about that and we talk about how you do all that to cultivate this game feel and to, you know, Ian calls it a promise between the player and the game creator about what kind of experience you're going to have. So, you know, this is an episode about that promise and about how to deliver on it and about studios that have the values to do it in an exceptional way in was a great person to interview. I'm very excited to be sharing this week's episode. So let's dive with Ian
Jordan (03:02):

And thank you very much for coming on the show. I'm really excited to have you here. I'm excited to be on glad to be here. I love dead space and I loved your GDC talk. I think your approach to that work was so thorough. It was inspiring to me.
Ian (03:15):

Oh, thanks. I appreciate that. You know, you work on talks like that and stuff, and I've always found them no matter how you end up delivering them or whatever, just the act of creating one, especially in that case, right? At the end of dead space to it was a good chance to sort of codify what, what we'd learned and how it had gone. And so in a way I just made that talk for myself just to sort of really think about how things had gone, but I'm happy to hear other people got some use out of it too.
Jordan (03:43):

One of the things I was curious about is kind of from dead space, two to three, where you went from there,
Ian (03:48):

The straight shooting idea basically is right. We made dead space one, we loved it. It was a good expression of why do we wanted to do, we thought we could do better? And, you know, it had come out at a very crowded time. It came out in October of Oh eight, right before like modern warfare and, and a bunch of other big, heavy hitting games that fall. And so I think a lot of people found dead space later and it was sort of a, a critical hit, but not really a giant seller, although it's proven to have some good legs over time. And then we were like, Oh, well, if we really, you know, we'll just, let's do a great one. And so Jen spaced to, you know, obviously we expanded and improved the formula and worked a lot on it. And we, you know, it's probably the, my favorite game that I've made, but the sales didn't really expand that much.
Ian (04:36):

And in that intervening time from Oh eight to 11 games got a lot more expensive and making games that were getting more expensive, but not selling more was not a, not an appetizing, you know, a prospect to anybody. So the real challenge with three was, well, man, that's phase two, it was already a 90 Metacritic. We could, I think there's ways we can make it better this formula, but just making it better is probably not going to, you know solve this problem. So we need to think about how we can evolve it. You know, that was, that was a big time challenge. The idea there was well, let's see if we can, you know, it's always a challenge with some of these straight nine or 10 hour single player focused games, although dead space two did have a competitive multiplayer mode you know, in the age of rentals and everything else, it, it, it, they just have some real challenges.
Ian (05:32):

So the idea of, of bringing co-op into the dead space universe, we thought would be actually pretty cool. The number one reason why people loved dead spaces, cause it was scary, but the number one reason why people said they didn't buy it is because it's scary. And the idea of the whole co-op was, you know, it'd be like maybe going to a scary movie with your friend and you could, and it could sort of bring people along that way. And I actually thought the implementation of go up in that game is pretty clever and pretty successful. So there's aspects of that, that I, that I'm proud of. And I think, you know, it was critically a lot more mixed than the other two, I think, because critics over time, just w you know, they thought they, they had an idea of what dead space was and dead space three was different than that. But, you know there you go in the end, I, I think it has some, it has some real stuff going for it.
Jordan (06:19):

One thing that I noticed in your GDC talk that I thought was very interesting is you talked about this quote from one of your art school professors who had said squinting can replace four years of art school. And I kind of wrote that down. Like, that's a really interesting quote. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means for you?
Ian (06:35):

Well, you know, it means a lot. It means a lot of, a lot of different things. I think, you know, it's a good, you can kind of, in his case, he was talking about, you know, two dimensional illustrations. I was an illustration major in school and that's, and that's what he was talking about. And that idea was just when you squint at something, it needs, it needs to work that way. It needs to work in its bones. It needs, you know, details will not carry the day for you if your core composition color theory and everything else isn't successful. I think that applies for, for games in a lot of ways to where we, especially as game developers can get so caught up in implementation and, and, and the way things are being made and all these little details. But the, the real key is, is being able to squint at your game and still, and get it.
Ian (07:27):

And is it, and is it strong? And, and so often you can also, when you squint at something, see what's wrong with it because you're, you're taking away the superfluous details and things, and that's sort of, it's always a challenge. Cause you, you get, you get down really into the weeds of your game and you're working on this little texture or this beat or whatever it behooves us all to take a step back and squint at it every once in awhile and, and really see, is that, is it paying off at the, at at the top of it
Jordan (07:56):

Sort of like specifically visually, you know, if you, if you're squinting, you can kinda, you can kind of like, are the colors working? Is the contrast work? Is it still, is there still something cool there? What I like about the way you express that is that there's, it sounds like there's kind of a deeper level, like squinting the metaphor of squinting at whatever you're doing the story. Can you squint to the story and still have it
Ian (08:18):

Right. If you can't, then you got a problem. This happens a lot in, in, in this particular, in the art context, right? It's because you can make fundamental compositional errors or biological errors if you're drawing a person or something, and it doesn't matter how nicely you render that skin tone or the hair, if you didn't lay out that face, right. It's not, you're not going to save it. It's not going to work. And also as you're laying in light and, and shape and form you should be able to squint at it and, and, and still get it. And I think it's the same same thing with code or story or design or any of those things. It needs to work at a detail level. And at a squint level,
Jordan (09:02):

I want to ask you, I noticed that you started back at LucasArts. Is that kind of where you feel like you've got, I mean, I know you did some work before that
Ian (09:09):

Didn't work before that. So I, I, my first gig was doing AR back in the, sort of when the PlayStation came out in 96, that's when, you know, CD rom was sort of a part of the package for the first time. And we all remember what a leap sort of final fantasy seven made in terms of graphical storage and that kind of thing. And being able to move around all these background paintings. So that was my first gig was working on an RPG. That was a lot like that, that was just fine. And then in November of 98, grim Fandango came out and it was technologically very similar, moving around a sort of relatively crude, 3d character on a, on a two D background that had had some elements cut out and stuff like that. So it kind of had a full three D effect. And I just, man, I just loved every part of that game. I loved the vibe, I loved the originality. I loved every part of it, talking about it,
Jordan (09:56):

Where you can squint at it and it still works.
Ian (09:58):

Yeah. In terms of like, what are they incredibly strong concept? And so I went to Lucas arts about six months later after grim Fandango had come out, unfortunately, I kind of felt like the guy who got to the party that was kind of lame and there was a couple of people to party that were like, dude, you should have been here an hour ago gazing because right as I was getting there was during that year is when nihilistic infinite machine. And DoubleFine all got started by Lucas arts, people who had all just made stuff I loved and then decided to leave. I got there only just in time to see the bus pulling away with the loop starts that I knew what year was that this is 99 and I would turn into other fabulous opportunities. And I, and I had a great time there. It just, wasn't what I thought I was joining up with.
Jordan (10:51):

Amazing how many great studios came out of that.
Ian (10:54):

And double find still going strong and really sort of delivering on the same mission that Tim had when he struck out to do it in early 2000. And then a lot of the guys that I came into and worked with for a little bit, just after that they left and formed telltale and man were they ahead of the curve with their episodic model? And what they'd been doing and telltale has been a, quite a machine ever since actually did a few games with them when I was at Ubisoft.
Jordan (11:20):

Oh yeah. I know that crew pretty well, amazing talent over there. And they're doing their V the way their vision has become their reality is just
Ian (11:27):

Awesome. Right? Yeah. Those guys were on it.
Jordan (11:30):

I mean, even their name, you know, from way back when they started is exactly what they're still doing. And better and better. Yeah.
Ian (11:37):

I thought it was very wise of them to have something that their studio was about. They knew who they were as game makers, but they didn't necessarily try to make their Opus right out of the gate. They weren't making some giant game. Right. They started some licensed IP and of course, that's, that's turned out to be their bread and butter, but it was pretty small at those days. And they were just like, Hey, let's just learn what we're about as game makers. And let's get something out and let's stay open and see how it goes. And then gradually build, I think some of the new studios that start, and then they start because the creator has this amazing game idea or something. And they immediately try to make that, you know, giant Odyssey of a game that rarely ends. Well, I find the studios that are still open that have made it happen and eventually get to make that a giant game usually started with something more modest. You've worked on
Jordan (12:30):

Lots of huge games. Just, I assume I don't obviously don't know the budgets, but we're talking, you know, incredibly large budgets. Okay.
Ian (12:37):

Over nine figures in one case. Wow.
Jordan (12:39):

Wow. Okay. Can we talk about which, which product that was? Is that hard line that'll feel? Oh, a battlefield one.
Ian (12:46):

No, no, I'm sorry for that battlefield hardline line. Yeah. That's okay. That's what I figured. Incredible Batman games are getting expensive
Jordan (12:54):

Tweeted. I don't remember the name of the account that you retweeted this picture of the battlefield one team,
Ian (12:59):

Each party that dice had in Sweden now that was with their like plus ones and stuff like that. But these days, I mean, you know, it's not at all uncommon for AAA teams to have, I mean, the legend on GTA fives that they had a thousand people, but if you count partner studios and, and easily, if you count outsourcing, it's not at all rare to have teams in the two 5,300, 400, 500 people range. Yeah.
Jordan (13:24):

I've seen some of the kind of huge rooms housing, some of the Ubisoft teams and it's, it's, it's enormous. It's really something
Ian (13:34):

The studios pitch in simultaneously on a, on an Assassin's creed or something is pretty remarkable.
Jordan (13:39):

It seems like you're someone who's just very comfortable working in that, in that environment with those huge teams. And I'm curious, like if you were, you know, what, from that process would you take, if you were doing a game that was like a few hundred thousand dollars and you were doing pre production or concept work on something like that, what do you feel like from that, that experience working on those huge games would apply down to those size products?
Ian (14:03):

Well, what I would say would be maybe the, the actual development wouldn't resemble so much, but one thing I can absolutely see is that when you get to a really big team or really high stakes communication is, is critical. And what I mean by that is with so many people working on something, it becomes a big effort just for them all, to have a really clear idea about what the thing is, the vision for it needs to be really clear. And the priorities of it need to be really clear. The, the metaphor that sort of comes to mind for me would be the game at that scale needs to have really good cheap, you know, like the energy of it needs to be aligned, whatever it is like to bring a recent example. I think Titanfall two has really great, gee, you know what that game is about the respond they don't want to get too big.
Ian (14:59):

They are a design first and on the sticks field, first company, you can tell that that is a group of people that really agree about what they're making, how that applies at a more indie scale, I think is good news about making an indie game is you've got a lot of freedom. The bad news is you've got a lot of competition and getting the game out itself might not be as much of a challenge, but getting it noticed sure can be. I think that sort of clear cheat, that, that alignment, that communication when you're an indie, it's not so much about within the team. It's more about, can you get that clear communication with your audience or your potential audience? Can they look at it briefly and get like, Oh, I really get what that's about. I understand that. And that's something that might appeal to me because chances are, there's going to be something like it, unless you're really being crazy innovative.
Ian (15:53):

There's probably something else like it, and there's going to be competition out there. So is that vision really, really clear? So I spent as a creative director, right. And a game director. That was my gut. That was my job. My job was to make sure that an animator in Montreal and a modeler in California and a coder in Vancouver all had a really clear idea and were bought in on what we were trying to do. And we're all really aligned. So if I was part of an indie group, I would be trying to take that same approach, that same power of like, are we crystal clear on what we are making and what we are not making? It might just be that that's being pitched or shown outside because there's only six of us in a room and we already know what we're making that same idea of making sure that, that, that is really, really well defined, I think is, is critical, no matter what scale you're working at,
Jordan (16:48):

That makes sense. And it's actually really interesting because that in a lot of ways, that was the story of your GDC talk as far as dead space one. And when I think about that message that you're saying for, for kind of standing out in Indies, that's always been what I think of as what's required to create an IP. Like if you want to start an IP better to have not the greatest game, but have a really vital feel, brand something that pops and you know exactly what it is. If you can create that, you know, you get the opportunity to kind of continue because you're going to stand out. I think you're right. That's, that makes a lot of sense for anyone trying to stand out in Indy and mobile, and then what's becoming more and more, just an incredibly crowded field.
Ian (17:27):

And if you do have
Jordan (17:29):

That clear whatever, yeah.
Ian (17:31):

You want to call it clear energy T vision.
Jordan (17:34):

I liked it. I liked, I didn't remember that
Ian (17:37):

Allows you so much because especially at a, at a, the thing what's great about an indie game is that it doesn't really have the same expectation of features that a AAA does, so you can get away with not having stuff. If it makes sense that you don't have it right. Take the Stanley parable that game has that game is great because it's tone it's visuals. It doesn't, it hardly has anything in terms of mechanics, but you're totally fine with that because it's exactly in line with the experience that you heard about and bought. And so the fact that you can't do much in that game, but sort of like walk around and interact with things you don't mind. Cause that's exactly the tone and vibe in the end. The energy of that thing is very, very aligned. One of the things that can be frustrating about AAA is that you really aren't afforded that at that scale, your game needs to appeal to everyone on planet earth, you know, and it becomes a little bit of a features shopping list where it has to have this.
Ian (18:32):

And it has to have that no matter what your sort of perspective or, or alignment or vision for the, for the game is if you don't supply an answer as a game maker, if you don't supply a vision to your customer or to your teammates, they'll fall back on other metrics. Like what features does it have? Yeah. I don't know. They'll do reports on, on what the frame rate is rather than how did it, how did that game make them feel? But if you do have a really clear and compelling vision that is aligned all the way through the features that you don't have no one on mine because they get it intuitively why it's not in there because it's not appropriate for the vision that you've communicated to them.
Jordan (19:11):

What kinds of things do you do to communicate that vision to these large teams? I know there's, there's kind of the famous story of Tim Schafer making the social network for the characters in Psychonauts where I've, or I've had guests talk about, you know, making the box are, I think that might also be a thing that they've done a DoubleFine before, before they even do, you know, before they complete or start to,
Ian (19:35):

You know, it's really whatever you can do at the time over and over again. And it sort of developed, so I've done a lot of rip somatics and dependent, you know, so like just taking clips from movies and creating something. Usually I prefer rather than trying to create like a fake movie trailer out of stuff, just create little example, experiences that kind of hit a tone or hit a vibe specifically early on with those things. You can't really control how they look. Right? Cause you're just sourcing from found footage. Although a couple of times I have shot new footage just to kind of intercut with existing DVD stuff to kind of give an overall tone and feeling. And those can be, those can be really helpful. They can be misleading. And a lot of times, if you do it wrong, people just end up playing sort of spot the movie. They want to feel clever. So they go, Oh, that's from mission impossible or that's from that. So you have to kind of be, be a little bit careful about it, but I've done that a lot.
Jordan (20:31):

I've never done or seen one of those. So what you're saying is you take clips from different movies and splice them together. Are you creating a story or is it just a field?
Ian (20:40):

It kind of, it depends. So usually you can't because you don't have the, you can't like just one movie, cause then it doesn't really work. If people think you're doing the movie and you can't really straight rap and recognizable actors are distracting. So it kind of, you, you are just grabbing shots and using new music and doing whatever to kind of give a generalized tone. Dead space was relatively easy to do because there's a lot of, a lot of spaceship movies and Saifai business that you can use from a lot of things. So we cut one together out of, I think there was ma you know, lots of like Solaris and, and I think under the old one, the old one and a bunch of other sunshine and a bunch of other things, just trying to kind of get stuff together.
Ian (21:33):

They kind of gave a general impression of what we were going to do. One of the biggest ones was for, for battlefield hardline, because battlefield had a, I mean, had a, such an identifiable tone already, and we wanted to do something different for that one. We, we cut together a bunch of sort of, you know, sexy crime and, and car chase stuff, sort of escalating that to give that because our whole point was to give something a little more aspirational, a little more Polish. And the key is to just sort of, again, you're trying to make them make people feel a certain way. How did they feel at the end of that minute and a half? Are they excited? Are they full of dread? Are they you know, are they curious? And, and eventually you're hoping that your first game trailer, that your first other material will make people feel the same way.
Jordan (22:25):

I like editing video. I just enjoy it. It's an incredible time suck, but I just find it fun. And this sounds like something I'd like to try to do. I just like to know kind of your process and then, so you don't have the main characters, I assume it's not a lot of plot. It's more like here's an opening shot. Here's some interior shots, here's some key moments, that sort of thing. Typically lots of times
Ian (22:48):

I we've, we've started tried to start with a song. A song is a good place to start cause that's going to be the glue because it's largely going to be a montage of stuff, different stuff. A couple of times, if there's a really great voiceover or conversation from one movie that really sort of sets a nice tone, we might start from that, but then undercut a bunch of other footage underneath it to give a an overall impression of what we're trying to do. That's if we're going for a tone piece just as often, if we want to inform how our animation is going to feel or the kind of, you know, sometimes we'll just do like a super cut of the kind of things that happen in this game, running along rooftops or swinging from vines or what, you know, like some adventure kind of game or whatever you might do it that way.
Ian (23:35):

Instead, the tricky part is to really kind of have an understanding audience because I've done these before, you know, people from the marketing might get in and look at it and go, like, I don't what that wasn't in. You know, let's say you're making a space Western, you know, like, let's say you're making some sort of adventure that happens in space, but you don't necessarily use movies from space because you're really going for it, the tone and the vibe and the, and the feeling of it rather than the literal images, right. That can confuse people if they aren't kind of people of imagination and fluency with this kind of thing. But you asked about, you asked about process, you know, in the, in the beginning, it's a lot of harvesting, it's a lot of just grabbing as much as you can from certain things that, that feel right.
Ian (24:26):

And feel like an expression of character. And then typically, like I said, we've started with a song and sort of felt the beat along that, and then started to fill things in around and just sort of see, see where it takes us. And like I said, a couple of times I've shot new footage to kind of intercut with it. Cause we had a very specific like key image or something that we wanted to make it a little more ownable or one of the things that can be difficult right. Is following a character through action because you're using a bunch of different found footage it's you can't really do. I mean, sometimes you can get away with it. Maybe if you are, you know, I, I haven't ever done this, but I could see maybe someone with a huge filmography, like Tom cruise, you could intercut and like there's movies or something, but for the most part, you can't do that.
Ian (25:13):

So it tends to be more sounds hilarious. Right? He's got a great run. He's easily, the best runner in Hollywood always has been. And then you sort of, you know, you just sort of go from there to cut, to cut something together. And it's really just a conversation starter hopefully with the team or whoever you're communicating with. You're like, well, this is sort of the ballpark of what we want it to be overall. And how do you go, how does that make you feel? And someone got, might go, Oh man, that's, that's a little darker than I thought. Or that's a little, you know, one of the, one of the key learnings from the dense based ones that we did is that it was pretty slow. The rip hematic that we made, it was, it was, there was punchy, but there wasn't a lot of jump scares in it.
Ian (25:58):

And it was sort of a slow psychotic build with some purposely vague voiceover about, you know, why don't you, we can't explain what's going on. Why don't you come see for yourself kind of stuff. And it had sort of a tone that is actually pretty good through line to how the shipping thing, how the shipping thin felt compared to, for instance, they might've thought we were making aliens that there's going to be space Marines in it. And it was going to be machine guns and stuff. But the, from the beginning, the [inaudible] help establish no, no, this is going to be a game where you actually kind of walk a lot. Yeah. And then that kind of gives you some of that too. Right. Right. But then for instance one of the, the, the core things about the mechanics of dead space is that right. It's a game with long enemy interactions. Like you don't, you're not fighting eight dudes simultaneously, at least very rarely that all sort of drop with one shot. It's about having a long combat relationship with something, with a powerful thing that's approaching you slowly and you have to do fine motor movement. You got to get in the elbow, you got to get them in the other elbow. You got to get in the leg, right.
Jordan (27:09):

Contrast, nicely with fear. Right.
Ian (27:11):

And you know this because also in fear, people have a hard time doing fine motor movement in fear. And the analogy that we used a lot for dead space combat is it's when the person is getting chased and they get to their car and they have to get their car keys in the door. And they're like, right. They're trying to get the car started. And it's, it's it's that. So we would literally use a clip of somebody, you know, like find little things like someone trying to get their keys in the lock or whatever, even though that could be like from Friday the 13th or something, it's not on a spaceship at all. But the emotional truth of it was, was applicable.
Jordan (27:51):

Although from my, what I remember, it's been awhile, but I remember, and dead space, you think you've got the monster, but then they're still there. They're still alive. It's like, you finally get the key in and then there's another, there's another lock. Yes. That's true. Before we go, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the transition from working as an art director to a game director. What do you think has served you really well from working as an art director and how have you had to adapt or change? I think
Ian (28:18):

Just like anybody who makes a transition from someone who has a work product, who makes something and that thing does most of the talking to them, as you transitioned to direction, it's really about achieving through others. So that's the natural transition that anybody has made. And, and the role changes quite a bit through production. In the beginning, you might be making a lot of stuff, but as the team gets bigger, I've always found that directors are best served by being at other people's desks and making other people more efficient and better, and not really making things themselves. I mean, really what does anybody on a game team want? They want to be given, you know, one metaphor I like is they want, they want to be given a road, not railroad tracks, right? They want to have some restrictions and a goal, but they don't want to have like literally control that they don't want to be just used his hands.
Ian (29:08):

They want to contribute to the whole thing. So they want to target to shoot at, they want feedback along the way that they are in fact going towards the target and then they don't want to have to do it over. So they don't want you to change your mind. Now you do change your mind sometimes, but you have to kind of own that. That's your problem. And so, as an art director, I was mostly, my job, right. Was to help establish in the early times a, a vision and a look for how this thing was going to look on screen and how it was going to what was important about the gameplay and the mood and the tone, and working with the other departments and negotiating with the other departments. I think that's a big, that's a big sort of misconception about being an art director.
Ian (29:53):

I found more than half of my time was with non-artists. It was working with the engineers and the designers to make sure that arts needs were represented with them and that their needs could, you know, is there something that, that art could be taking advantage of to deliver something even better, but it was mostly a communication job. And then as people are creating work capitalizing on wins, when somebody on the team makes something incredible, making sure that the rest of the team hears about it and learns from it and maybe changes their plans based on it and so on and so forth. And I actually haven't found it to be that different between art direction and game direction, just scale. But it's the same ideas of, you know, out giving people a playground to work with working and having a nice, having a nice target. And then as things develop, staying flexible and excited and communicative around the whole team so they can get those things they want, they, they have a target to shoot for, and they don't have to redo it. Cause there's not enough time for that.
Jordan (30:59):

You have a way when you're, when you're kind of at the desk at someone's desk, working with them do you have like a ton of reference on a server somewhere or on your phone, things that you're bringing up regularly to kind of re you know, to kind of realign as you're, as you're working with people,
Ian (31:15):

You know, it depends, hopefully you've assembled quite a lot of that in, in preproduction. You, you know, so yes, there are vast folders full of images, and then it can be all kinds of different stuff. It can be the tone from some movie or, or, or that kind of stuff. Or a lot of times I find the best reference or alignment for G is just real world. You know, that way you're not really being derivative of some other creative work necessarily, but if you talk about the way certain activities feel or the way certain experiences we've had, and that we're trying to translate, like I was talking the other day, I don't think this is a spoiler or anything about searching and discovery and how, like, you know, when you go to the beach and there's that old guy with the metal detector and the, and he's got the earphones on and he's sort of walking around naked and well, that's the thing is you, okay?
Ian (32:12):

You make fun of that guy, but you're also watching him. You're also a little bit jealous. Like there's, there's a, there's a primal curiosity going on there. And so, you know, we might talk about things like that and, and that's the kind of stuff you're doing during preproduction. And then what I find then it's, it's a matter of when you're talking about actual production, then you want is then you want to be as concrete as possible. There's certainly a lot of exploration still to do, but to the point where I'm a big fan of early on getting paintings done that are basically screenshots that you can, that everybody agrees. If it looks like this, when we're done, are we good? And we will, we will do paintings that are graphically real to whatever our look is and scrub them on the screen, right on top of the live scene.
Ian (33:04):

Cause we'll capture it from a camera in the game, paint over it until it's really tight and everybody really works on it. And then we, we aim towards that specifically. And then rather than reference in touchstones in a broad, creative sense, my job is to just focus on the, what can we get done right now? What's the most important thing right now that gets us on the way to that. I find so often artists and designers, they sort of, they see all the problems broadly and they're like, Oh, we gotta do a, B, C, and D, and we've got to do this and we've got to add that. And a lot of my job comes down to alright, cool. You're not wrong, but how about for right now? Let's just get a, like, just, let's just get this one part. And like, cause almost all quality that I've ever really gotten to in making games has come through iteration and you're so much better off bringing your ambitions in.
Ian (33:57):

So you can iterate on something. Then you are trying to get so much done at the same time. So I found that, you know, my job can be like, all right, don't worry about it. We will get there. I frequently am a supplier of faith, right? And then, so it's my job to express faith and be like, I believe in you, we are going to get there. Let's just do this little part that we can get all the way through the process. And we can learn about getting all the way through the process. And as we get to the end, we will realize how completely screwed we are and how this is no good. But then we'll go through the process again and we'll be a little less screwed and we'll kind of keep on going there. I actually found broadly that's what the role of director ends up being a lot because as anybody working on a game by themselves or with 500 people knows games look like crap for a long, long time.
Ian (34:47):

And then they all of a sudden kind of look good and they don't make their own case for existing until pretty deep into it. And so a director's job in the beginning is to sort of draw the treasure map for everybody about, Hey, this is going to be great, but then it's a lot of months and maybe years of just creating faith for people that don't see it, even if they're working on it or frequently in a big organization, creating faith outside the team. So people will just, so people will just leave the team alone long enough for the thing to actually become what you are certain. It could be.
Speaker 4 (35:24):

Yeah. I've, I've definitely seen how just, you know, just protecting the team from disruption can be a huge, huge benefit. Yeah. It's a, well, yeah, and it's an, it's a necessary thing. And the thing is no one means
Ian (35:38):

Ill. They're just sort of, you know, they're doing their jobs and they're either curious or they, they are whatever and they, and they just can't see what the thing is going to be. Or maybe no one knows yet that's the process. That's how things just take awhile. And so your job is to act like, you know, exactly where it's going, even if you don't and to have faith that it's going that way while still doing your homework and making sure as much as possible, but it's going to get to go that way. It's, you know, I think I've been very lucky to be a part of some very talented teams. And most of the, most of my career, even as an art director was not really spent improving people's art necessarily. They, they were pretty good at that. It was aligning their art as much as possible.
Ian (36:26):

So it looked like one person did it, making sure that as much of their effort ended up on screen as possible that they weren't searching for things. And they weren't doing things by half then being told to redo it because the designer actually forgot that we had to go into this room instead of that room or any of that kind of stuff or marketing or direction actually thought they were getting this kind of game when we promised them this kind of game or any of those other kinds of things. It was really just trying to align those teams and set them free more than create anything or, or, or anything like that. For me personally, I think that the real key in the sort of game maker audience and the whole relationship is that, that focused, powerful promise that you are telling people I'm we're going to deliver this kind of experience for you.
Ian (37:15):

And they say, Oh man, that sounds awesome. And then if you do deliver that experience for them, that's a really powerful loop and there's a lot of affection and loyalty that's created there. And I think the best, the best game developers, you kind of know what they're about. I know what naughty dog is about. I know what not BioWare's about. I know what Bethesda is about. And as a people become fans then because they identify with what you're about. Like, I think Bethesda is a really great example, right? They promise they're like, this is the game where you can do whatever you want. You can do whatever you want when there's castles and dragons, or you can do whatever you want and a post apocalyptic wasteland, but you can do whatever you want. And they keep that promise radically. Even if it means their games are going to be kind of buggy and breakable, we're going to do, we're going to let you do whatever you want.
Ian (38:01):

Even if it's collecting every head and putting them in this one house until the frame rate goes to three and the physics explode, but we're going to let you do it because this is the game where you get to do whatever you want. And what's interesting is that promise is so focused and so powerful for that audience that they forgive a lot, right? Naughty dog kind of makes the opposite promise. You don't get to do much of what you want in naughty dog games, but Holy hell is it going to be amazing? Like, they're like, listen, man, we're, we're going to do a little less choice, but if you trust, we're going to deliver a really impressive time and people go, wow. You know what? That was really wasn't impressive time. I don't mind that I didn't get to choose that much. And that kind of focus promise on either end or whatever other promises that other games are making. I think that focus is so important because compared to well, this is just that this game is going to be super fun and it's going to have single player and multiplayer and co op and it's going to have all that. That's not something that I can really feel passionate about as a fan. And it's not, it's not a focused enough promise. So I think related to that same idea of squinting or cheat or whatever you want to call it, having a focused promise is super important.
Jordan (39:18):

Well I can't wait to see what what the next focus promise you're going to create for us is you and the team, you know,
Ian (39:27):

Me too, we got a long road ahead of us. So there's a lot of, there's a lot of focus in yet to do, but I'm, I'm pretty excited about the opportunity.
Jordan (39:34):

Well, thanks so much for coming on. And it was, it was great having you and, and learning about, you know, the way you approach delivering on the promise to the player. Thank you very much. Well that wraps it up with Ian. I think it was a fantastic interview, super valuable lots to learn. I love this idea of a promise between a studio and its audience about what kind of experience they're going to have. And, you know, Ian gave us a ton of tools to deliver that experience and to align the values and what he called the chief of that experience across these large teams. And I think a lot of this stuff would work on small and medium sized teams as well. And that covers, you know, 99% of games. It's very rare that there's just one person making a game, but you know, for every Stardew Valley, there's everything else that's ever been made.
Jordan (40:29):

That's undoing more and more of these interviews. There are residences that come up, there are things that appear over and over again, you know, the importance of the team, the importance of all boats, rising together of, you know, making sure that your team is working well as a unit shows up over and over again, the greats, they don't make it just about themselves. They make it about their team. It is the team that makes the game great. It is the team that fulfills the promise. And what can you do for your team today? That's my question that I'm going to leave you with that before I leave you. I do want to ask you if you're getting something out of the show. If you're enjoying these interviews, if you've listened to a few episodes and you find them useful and enjoyable, please do support the show. You can do that by rating us and reviewing us on iTunes. Those reviews are how we get noticed by more people and get a larger audience, which helps keep the show going. So I would very much appreciate it. If you would head over to iTunes and write a review. If you don't listen on iTunes, if you listen on Google play or Stitcher, we're on all those platforms and you can leave us a review there as well. That's it for this week. I'm looking forward to seeing you on the next episode of Playmakers.
Speaker 5 (41:57):