Dining With Developers, Vol. 1: Pete Wanat and Nick Torchia
(Contributors: Evan Narcisse and special guest Victor Lucas)
Tired of reading the same old, tired interviews with game developers? We are, too. Which is why this year we're taking developers to dinner, plying them with alcohol, and hoping they say something interesting and perhaps revealing. We love developers dearly. But the canned answers to canned questions in controlled environments, usually with a PR flake sitting nearby making sure everything stays canned?
That's not useful.
Pete Wanat and Nick Torchia
In our inaugural installment of Dining With Developers, Evan Narcisse, Victor Lucas and I sit down with Pete Wanat and Nick Torchia, producers currently working on the upcoming Wanted: Weapons of Fate. If you played Scarface: The World Is Yours, and enjoyed it, you can thank Pete for that. He's the person most credited for saving that game from certain damnation. Another landmark Wanat title was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, aka The Best Game No One Ever Played. Riddick gets a high-definition reboot this spring.
We sat down at Hachi, a "contemporary Japanese restaurant" inside the Red Rock Resort & Casino immediately following Gabe Newell's keynote at DICE Summit 2009. What follows is an edited transcription of what took place that night. Enjoy.
Scott Jones: I would like us to stay focused on games, if possible.
Evan Narcisse: Jones is afraid we're going to nerd out on comic books, and then he's going to be out of his element.
Jones: That's true. Anyway, the reason why we're here is because we're tired of reading the same old developer interviews. Voil?: Dining With Developers is born.
Pete Wanat: We're tired of them, too. Especially when they're all bunched up. We're doing the PR cycle for Wanted now. Honestly, you wouldn't believe how many times you get asked the same question about what it's like making movie-based games. And the thing is, if you don't answer it, then you sound like a douche bag.
I think that there are plenty of good game journalists out there. But I'm not just talking about the best and brightest in the industry. When we do a PR tour, we see everybody. Gamers are actually easier [to talk to]. You can talk to them on relatable level. But when you talk to someone in the game press, that's when questions come in generic form. That's when it gets really tough -- when you just crossed off half of your Afro Samurai questions, and wrote "Wanted" at the top...
[We order appetizers. Conversation shifts to Gabe Newell's keynote.]
Wanat: Gabe does something unique. He brings in the equivalent of garage bands, and then creates platinum records with them. That's what happened with Counter-Strike, and it happened again with Portal. When was the last time you saw Activision or EA do something like that? Bring in these no-name developers, and give them a shot? [Gabe] creates an original IP that isn't dependent on anything else. Same goes for Blizzard. Once you have that level of success, and do it to such a huge degree, you're in a great position to do it again. That's what great producers do. The better you are, the more money and time you get to work on your next project.
Jones: Talk a little bit about how the new Riddick game came to fruition.
Wanat: We started working on the product [before Vivendi merged with Activision]. The original idea was that we were going to update Riddick for HD. [Note: It was a 2004 Xbox and PC release.]
We were working on another project with Starbreeze at the time. It was this killer, awesome game that was so ambitious that it was very far away from being completed. [Note: Wanat wasn't at liberty to discuss this "killer, awesome" game.] We realized that we needed some time to do [research and development] before going forward, so we thought, "What can we do in the meantime?" That's when we decided to do "Riddick HD." Vivendi green-lit the project. And then marketing got involved.
Narcisse: That doesn't sound good.
Wanat: They said, "How do you sell this? What's the price point? How do we market this?" I said, "It's an HD version of Riddick." They said, "Well, what else could you add to it?"
So we sat down with Starbreeze. We wondered this: What if we added another chapter after Johns and Riddick take the ship out of Butcher Bay and they're on the run? For fans of the movie, this isn't the beginning of "Pitch Black"; this is another chronicle. So we pick up where the first one leaves off. [Note: The new chronicle is titled Assault on Dark Athena.]
Also, the first Riddick didn't have multiplayer, and we got dinged pretty hard by the press for that. We got into it with an IGN reviewer who said that if [the game] had multiplayer, he would have given it a higher score.
This suit that Wesley earns links directly back to the original Wanted comics, where it was Wesley's super-villain uniform.
Victor Lucas: In defense of critics who complain about missing multiplayer, because I certainly complained about it for BioShock...
Wanat: But why? Why would you want multiplayer in BioShock? [And so begins a semi-hostile digression on multiplayer.]
Lucas: You create this incredible technology, you create this incredible world, you create these great weapons; and it would be fun to play with them with other people.
Wanat: [Noticeably agitated] You realize what you're saying. You realize that multiplayer is not free. It comes at a cost. You want multiplayer, but you are willing to sacrifice 20 or 30 or 45 to 50 percent of single-player content in order to add multiplayer? And that's what it is; it's a huge chunk. It's a quality cut. It's a content cut. It's a time cut.
And the other thing is, if you're going out there and you're going to be a multiplayer game, you have to listen to the community. You have to listen to what they want. And the truth of the matter is that, after all that, most people are going to go, "F*** you; we're going back to Gears of War. Or, we're going back to Team Fortress. Or, we're going back to Call of Duty. And I don't give a f*** that that game has multiplayer, because the truth of the matter is, most people play five or six games of multiplayer, and that's the end of it.
And then the press goes, but why doesn't this have multiplayer? What, are you, Pete, anti-multiplayer or something? What's wrong with you, man? [Wanat pounds the table a few times for emphasis.]
Narcisse: Isn't there also a tonality inherent in multiplayer that betrays the subject matter of Riddick, which is more of an intimate, single-player game?
Wanat: It's not even that. It's a development choice. It's about money and time and energy.
Lucas: But when you're reviewing a game, you're not looking at the business side of it, or the development side of it. We're only looking at the potential of the product.
Wanat: Yeah, but why shouldn't it be judged on what we are, rather than what we are not? If you deliver a great single-player game, I don't want my single-player tainted with multiplayer. Does multiplayer belong in Metroid Prime?
Lucas: I wanted multiplayer in Metroid. And I wanted multiplayer in BioShock. [Narcisse and I edge our chairs away from Lucas at this point.]
Wanat: Do you play a lot of Grand Theft Auto IV multiplayer?
Wanat: Why? It's great, but nobody plays it. Well, some people play it. But what I'm saying is, they didn't need multiplayer. They're just showing off with that. "We're Rockstar, we can do whatever we want, and we'll just put in multiplayer in for the hell of it."
Jones: Can we order some food? [We flag down a nearby waiter.]
Any hard feelings that Activision ultimately passed on Riddick?
Wanat: I'm more disappointed than anything else. You know what? At the end of the day, I have a feeling the game will be amazing, and Activision will wonder why they passed. But you know they have business reasons, and at the end of the day, it's not my job to comprehend their business reasons. Bobby [Kotick] certainly doesn't need to listen to me.
Jones: A lot of people give you sole credit for saving Scarface from certain doom...
Wanat: Look, Scarface got off-track from a development standpoint. Vivendi management at the time said, "Look, Scarface is really, really important. It's a really big deal for us. We've put a lot of money into it, we want it to be a quality product, and we're going to give it the time and money it needs."
Vivendi gave us the resources to go and do what we needed to do [on Scarface]. Where we succeeded as a team was in managing to convince Vivendi that they should do that to the extent that they did. What it comes down to is this: You can try to fix something all you want, but if you don't have the backing on the financial side, then you're throwing darts in the dark.
The ability to try and fail and try again is what makes quality. The problem you have in game development is that so many people think that risk is bad. Risk is what makes you good. If you take risks, and fail, and learn from it, and make it better, that's how games go from okay to good to great. If you don't have the ability to take risks, if you're constantly in risk mitigation, constantly going the safest route, that's bad. The safest route does not result in great games.
Nick Torchia: Pink Floyd's first album sucked. But if they didn't try again, there would be no "Dark Side of the Moon," no "The Wall."
Jones: But games are not always created in the most creative environments.
Wanat: No, and the hardest places to create are at games companies that are so business-centric. The reason why Blizzard is Blizzard is because nobody tells them shit! Try something and it doesn't work? They try again. And to know that if you fail, you're not going to get fired? That's a great thing. In the games industry, if you fail, there are so many people behind you in line ready to cut your throat politically, ready to move you out, ready to take your job. So, it becomes a challenge to be creative in these kinds of environments.
Narcisse: Was there a moment in your career when you thought that was going to happen to you? When someone was going to slit your throat?
Wanat: When we were making Riddick, we were doing a demonstration to some sales guys, and we started talking about Halo, and the new Doom that was coming out, and comparing Riddick favorably to those games. I remember, after that meeting, someone pulling me aside and saying, "Pete, you're overpromising what your game can be." And I nodded my head "yes," but I was thinking, Are you f***ing kidding me? If we're not going to try to be shooting for the best, to be on par with Halo or Doom? Then what the f*** are we doing here? Let's go sell shoes! Great games should be a motivator. When I sit down to play a great game, I feel envious. I think, holy shit, how did these guys pull this off?
Cross wears the mantle of the Killer (the character's super-villain codename in the comics) in some of the game's early sequences.
Torchia: Honestly, that makes me upset. I look at [great games] and I think, Christ, these guys are so smart. For example, I've been playing Flower. How the art works, f*** me, they're so smart. Something like Super Mario Galaxy, how everything flowed with the Wii Remote ... They're so smart. I would love to be a part of something like that.
[Pete rolls eyes.]
Jones: Are you rolling your eyes, Pete?
Wanat: I'm jealous over the time that people get to create content. If you look at the best creators in the industry, the one common denominator is, they have a lot of time. And time is money. So that means they get a lot of money. If you look at the games that get the time -- and, by the way, for every time you get a World of Warcraft or Half-Life, I'm sure you can point to Duke Nukem Forever -- that unlimited time doesn't always guarantee success. But more developers should be given more time, rather than always [being rushed] to try to make games. I understand there are business reasons for it. What can really be the kiss of death is if a game company is a publicly traded company. Because then, they have to show revenue. That's what killed Acclaim. Quality of product gets sacrificed in the name of making money.
Look, the bottom line is this: We need to stop trying to have all games be all things to all people. When you do that, what you get is generic. You don't have anything special; you don't stand out at all.
It's funny, I meet so many people who say, "I've got this really great game idea, but I don't want to tell you about it, because I want to do it." You know what? If you've got really great game ideas, you'd better bust your ass to get them made, because if you don't get them made, there are 10 other people sitting around in the game industry with the same f***ing idea, or one so similar that it will overwhelm your idea. Get that shit in a game and get it made as fast as possible. Or you lose.
Jones: OK, so let's talk about your secret projects. What's your Flower?
Torchia: My Flower is a game based on a hair salon. It's a simulation of a hair salon on the DS. You can give haircuts or makeovers in the game, and it's all done through the touch-screen.
[Silence for a beat.]
Lucas: This is the gayest conversation ever.
Narcisse: I worked at Teen People for many years, and managed to coax the editors into letting me cover games. There's the notion that girls don't play videogames. I got to use readers as a research sample. Girls do like games, but they like them in different ways. Girls like progressing. They want to go to the next level. It's all about progression and goals. Guys want to own the level. They want all the collectibles. They want to dominate.
Torchia: No one has ever done a hairstyling simulation.
Jones: Pete, what's your Flower?
Wanat: I'm not sure this is my Flower, but I moved from NYC to LA in June 2001. A few months later, 9/11 happened. I was in LA feeling very alienated, and my uncle, who passed away in 2004, was a fireman. I always wanted to do a game based on firefighters, and take something like "Backdraft" or "The Towering Inferno," and do the type of game where heroes are actually heroes, and they're not just killing people over and over again. Instead of having the standard-issue villain who spouts bad dialogue, the fire would be the villain. It's constantly surrounding you.
Narcisse: I have sort of a personal question.
Jones: Evan wants a job.
Lucas: You must get sick of that -- journalists always asking you to hire them?
Wanat: Some of the smartest people I know are game journalists. This back-and-forth dialogue we're having here, this helps us make better games; this stuff helps us think about what we should and shouldn't do, and adds ideas. It sparks creativity. This [dinner] is a popcorn-maker for those kinds of ideas. All that stuff comes popping back up.
Jones: And voil?: hairdresser game!
Narcisse: Back to my personal question: I have three builds of Resident Evil 5 in my office. But I can't bring myself to actually play it. Have you been following the controversy surrounding the game?
Torchia: I played Resident Evil 4, beginning to end. It's so good.
Jones: But it didn't have multiplayer.
Narcisse: Pete didn't want to talk about the social context, and that's OK.
Wanat: [Pete's face gets firey.] I'd be happy to have a follow up with you once I've played the game, but for me to comment on the social context based on what I read? That's not right. Are you saying it's the videogame equivalent of "Birth of a Nation"?
Narcisse: I wouldn't go that far. But the Spaniards in Resident Evil 4 don't have the history of demonized imagery that black people have. Where's my American localization? Nobody thought this was an issue? You've got zombies wearing grass skirts and wielding spears.
Jones: There's the more global issue of how race is portrayed in game at large. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is an example of a game that takes race more seriously.
Torchia: San Andreas was the best Grand Theft Auto, in my opinion.
Wanat: Because more than any other Grand Theft Auto, it does a great job of really putting you in that time period.
Lucas: Unlike Vice City, which seemed more like a paint job. "Oh look, remember; this is how things used to be in the '80s, ha, ha, ha."
Wanat: I just finished GTA IV last night at one o'clock in the morning, the night before leaving for DICE. I started The Lost and Damned; then I packed and left.
Jones: What else are you guys playing these days?
Torchia: Flower. Killzone 2. To be a successful producer, you've got to play stuff.
Jones: I was playing Killzone 2 at the same time that I was replaying Riddick. One world is convincing, credible and real, even though Vin Diesel is in it. The other isn't. Playing Killzone 2 made me appreciate Riddick that much more.
Lucas: You felt like you were that guy. That's what I loved about Riddick. But Metroid Prime 3 was the best. I was actually playing BioShock and Metroid at the same time.
Wanat: BioShock is a very special game.
Torchia: But Metroid is a better-designed game. If you look at how they structured the game, all the different areas, it's really brilliant. In BioShock I've always got this big yellow arrow telling me where to go. And you've got this suit on; why can't I go out into the water?
Wanat: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don't think there was any expectation about going out into the water. And they probably decided not to include any swimming because swimming always sucks in games. Unless you're Ecco the Dolphin, I don't want to be swimming in a game.
Narcisse: "It's Flower underwater."
Lucas: And the boss at the end of BioShock was terrible.
Wanat: But you did play the game to the end, and that says something. If you play a game all the way to the end, it's OK to feel like a bad-ass at the end. The whole point of putting Riddick in the suit/mech, and have him walk down the corridors [in the game's third act] is our way of saying, "You know what? You played this whole game calmly, and stealthily, but this isn't about that. This is about revenge. This is about you blowing everything away."
Torchia: I'm looking forward to want to playing Street Fighter IV. I preordered it.
Wanat: I have my stack of games at home that I'm trying to get through.
Jones: I love how much you guys love games. I love that Nick preordered Street Fighter IV.
Wanat: I preordered Wanted.
Wanat: I buy every game I work on. It's a tradition.
Jones: As journalists, we envy you guys. That scroll of credits at the end of a game? Those hundreds of names that scroll by? Any of us would kill to be listed there.
Torchia: It's so hard, though. Making a fun game is so hard.
Wanat: Making a game, especially if you give a shit, is hard. If you don't give a shit, it's easy. If you don't give a shit, you just push to hit your milestones, and take the money.
Narcisse: Pete, if you could take any comic book property and you were able to make that into a game, what would it be?
Wanat: X-Men. I'm the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I want to do a multiplayer-only X-Men game really badly. If I could do anything, I'd do that. I'd set it [around issues] #220, #230.
Jones: A-ha! So that's your Flower?
Torchia: I'm getting punked out on my Flower now! So that's how it's going to be?
Torchia: I say, "hair-salon simulation," and he says f***ing X-Men! This f***ing sucks.