I’m always hungry when I go to Gamelab, the video game conference in Barcelona that is curated each year by Ivan Fernandez Lobo. I eat up all of the morsels of wisdom that the leaders of the game industry drop during their sessions at the event.
This year, I was honored to moderate a fireside chat with former Blizzard president Mike Morhaime and another session with A Way Out creator Josef Fares and David Cage. Of that group, Morhaime had the wisdom of experience, Fares provided the passion and comic relief, while Cage had thoughtful answers to my questions on storytelling in games.
I’ll be sharing the full text of the conversations later, but for now, I will share some of the best moments from Gamelab.
Mike Morhaime’s morsels
Morhaime was recognized with the Honor Award, as his wife and four-year-old daughter looked on from the front row. He received a standing ovation, but he showed a rare bit of emotion as he thanked his departed father. It was a nice reward for a career that spanned more than 27 years at a single company. He said that Blizzard’s greatest creation wasn’t its games but its culture, which allows creative talent to create their best work.
I noted how one of Blizzard’s (when it was known as Silicon & Synapse) defining moments was when the company was working on its first original title, The Lost Vikings. Brian Fargo, then head of Interplay, gave the young team some honest feedback about how the title should be changed.
Morhaime’s first impulse was to say the game could ship without the requested changes. But cofounder Allen Adham agreed with Fargo’s deep criticisms and said the team should, for the sake of quality, make the requested changes to the game. It was expensive and time-consuming, but it set a precedent for a quality-focused approach to game development that set Blizzard apart from so many of its rivals.
Over time, Morhaime said that the company only shipped about 50% of the games that it started. Very few peers have done the same, but Blizzard has developed a great reputation for shipping the best games that it can. At one point, Blizzard counted 14 games it canceled.
“There’s a saying that ‘perfect is the enemy of great,’ because if you strive for perfection you’ll never ship. But I do think that there’s so much competition out there,” Morhaime said.
In 1996, as Blizzard was finishing Diablo, the company delayed the title past the holidays. That could have been disastrous. But instead, gamers saw that the game shipped without major flaws, and they helped turn it into the best-selling game of 1997.
Blizzard also canceled Titan, a science fiction massively multiplayer online game, because it just wasn’t as fun as expected. But the remnants of that game and team ultimately led to the creation of Overwatch, one of Blizzard’s biggest hits.
Morhaime acknowledged that the team often had to engage in crunch to become a premier game company, but he said that a culture of crunch is not sustainable in the long run, and the game industry should find a way to build a more sustainable way of working.
One interesting moment we didn’t get a chance to talk about onstage was his speaking out against bad player behavior in the wake of the Gamergate crisis.
“They have been tarnishing our reputation as gamers. It’s not right,” Morhaime said at Blizzcon, Blizzard’s big fan conference in 2014. “BlizzCon is a great example of how positive and uplifting gaming can be.”
He added, “There is another person on the other end of the chat screen … let’s take a stand to reject hate and harassment. Let’s redouble our efforts to be kind and respectful to one another. Let’s remind the world what the gaming community is really all about.”
Back in 2014, this was a rare case of the game industry addressing bad player behavior. Privately, Morhaime told me he was proud of this moment, but he had to be careful balancing what needed to be said without alienating Blizzard’s core audience.
Morhaime handed over his duties to J. Allen Brack in October, and he formally stepped down in April. He does not have a no-compete agreement, and he is thinking about what to do next.
“Right now the thought process is making a list of the ideas we come up [with], my wife Amy and I. We’ve been talking to a lot of people who are doing interesting things,” he said.
At the close of his acceptance speech, Morhaime got a standing ovation. The sound was deafening, and it felt like it echoed across the decades.
Different ways of telling stories: Josef Fares and David Cage
Josef Fares of Hazelight created some memorable games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out. David Cage of Quantic Dream built games like Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human.
But Fares, a former filmmaker, said that he starts out making a game by trying to come up with the defining gameplay mechanics first. After that, he comes up with the game concept and the story arc. It’s no accident that Fares’ games had very innovative gameplay.
That has worked for Fares. But Cage said he starts by coming up with a story idea and then fleshing it out. Later on, the game takes shape around that story. For instance, the script for Detroit: Become Human eventually took up more than 4,000 pages, with dialogue to cover so many story branches.
“Sometimes it starts with an emotion, sometimes it starts with an idea,” Cage said. “Heavy Rain as a game started when something happened to me, when I lost my son, as a 6-year-old boy, in a [shopping] mall. And I was so scared.”
The idea for Detroit started when Cage started thinking about artificial intelligence and read the book The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, about AI’s inevitable surpassing of collective human intelligence. Cage thought about how humans would have android assistants following them around. At some point, the human would go into a restaurant, but the android would have to wait outside. And then Cage wondered what the android would feel like, as a second-class citizen, and what would happen if the androids were the good guys and the humans were bad.
“For me, that was the starting point of the story,” Cage said. “For me, the most important thing is what people feel during the experience. It’s all about emotion. Of course, it’s very important what you do when and which buttons you press. But at the same time, my experience is people remember not so much what they did but what they felt.”
These different approaches reflect the core tension in games between story and interactivity. A game could also be on rails, or give players all of the choices they can make in an open world.
“What is fascinating to me about games is that we create something together [with the players],” Cage said.
Fares said that he is more the type of creator who favors linear experiences, where the developer takes the player on a journey that is crafted by the game director, rather than the player. Fares believes that Marvel’s Spider-Man did a good job of balancing story and an open world, but he thinks that linear tales like The Last of Us are more memorable. He’s not, however, a fan of open world games where you lose track of the story and forget your overall purpose.
Other nuggets from game leaders
Were it not for the Apple II, Prince of Persia maker Jordan Mechner might have been a screenwriter or a comic book artist. The machine was primitive by today’s standards, but Mechner said it was his kind of canvas for telling a new kind of story that was interactive.
Ryan Smith, game director at Insomniac on Marvel’s Spider-Man, said at Gamelab that trust is the most important thing you can establish with your team. It’s hard, but worth it in the long run as you have to ask them to do very difficult tasks that eventually pay off. He gave an hour-long talk — the first such extensive rundown on the making of Spider-Man — and I will write more about that later.
Mick Donegan, founder of Special Effect, a charity that helps disabled children play video games, talked about how “it’s everyone’s turn to play.” His team helped develop and test the Xbox Adaptive Controller with disabled people who the controller was meant to serve. I teared up as he showed videos of children who had no limbs or other challenges, playing games as best they could.
When actors were auditioning for voice acting and motion capture roles in God of War, they thought they were auditioning for a role in a movie, not a game. Creative director Cory Barlog delayed disabusing them of that idea so they wouldn’t be demotivated. Barlog said his job as creative director was to inspire the troops. In any given day, he didn’t code or create art or write scripts. Rather, his main output in a day was to talk to his team.
Sometimes, it was an achievement just to preserve the status quo on the game. He had to defend a lot of decisions, including whether to keep Kratos as the main character of God of War, and he had to fight to keep Kratos’ son, Atreus, as well.
Daniel Sanchez Crespo, one of Spain’s most successful game developers, said, “Your reputation is your future.” People will remember if you were an asshole, and they won’t work for you on future projects if that’s what they remember.
A lot of these moments and comments were moving. They were full of wisdom for the next generation of video game developers. My hat’s off to Lobo, who did a great job collecting some industry greats at this event.
Disclosure: The organizers of the event paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.