Talking The Saboteur With Tom French
The thing you always remember about Tom French is The Hair. Also: The Beard. And also: The Piercings.
But Tom is more substance than style. See: The Resume. His most recent employer is the just-shuttered Pandemic Studios (see the studio's "Office Space" tribute here), but he has also logged time at Interplay, Black Isle and Obsidian. He has had a hand in some landmark titles, including the first two Fallout games, the Icewind Dale series and, more recently, the Mercenaries series.
Which brings us to The Saboteur (in stores next week; I'm handling the review). French was the lead designer on The Saboteur, the last of Pandemic's titles -- R.I.P. -- and the last of 2009's AAA releases. Some journalists have speculated that EA isn't exactly feeling bullish about the game. Note the tardy release date. Note also the fact that EA sent out early builds of the game that were unplayable thanks to an XDK debug update that hadn't been released yet. Translation: I had a build of the game a few weeks ago, but without the debug update, the game was unplayable.
Some of my more paranoid colleagues suspected this was a bit of, er, sabotage on EA's part. One journo confided: "The last thing the world needs is a bad Pandemic game."
I talked to Tom from his home where he was enjoying a much-deserved holiday break.
Crispy Gamer: Question: Is Tom French your real name?
Tom French: [Laughs] It is.
Crispy Gamer: Because it sounds a little like a porno name. "AND STARRING ... TOM FRENCH."
French: [Laughs] It does a little.
Crispy Gamer: So the hair, the beard, the jewelry. Is this something you do for the media, or is that really you?
French: It's really me. I feel kind of naked without my jewelry at this point. I usually wear more jewelry than most women.
Crispy Gamer: This your first time being lead on a project?
French: Yes. In the early days of the industry, the only thing you could be was a programmer. That was your only option. But over the years, as I worked on more games, I have had people say, "You shouldn't be a programmer. You're more creative than that." So I began moving away from my programmer role...
Crispy Gamer: Talk about the transition from the technical side to the creative side.
French: When I first got into the industry I was a scripter, which is a junior, junior programmer. It's like being the cartilage between the design of a game and the engine. No matter what my role was, I was always asking, "Would it be cool if we did this? How about this?" I wanted to make cool stuff happen constantly. I also was fortunate enough to work with a lot of great people over the years, like Chris Avellone at Obsidian. I learned a lot from him.
Crispy Gamer: Your resume dates back to the '90s, which means you've been in this business for the real-world equivalent of several million years now. What's the secret to longevity?
French: Anyone outside the industry thinks all we do is play videogames all day long. They don't realize how stressful this job is. During the Fallout games, I was easily working 120-hour work weeks. On The Saboteur there were a couple days where I just worked around the clock. It weeds people out. It's exhausting. If you're not strong, if you don't really love it, you're not going to be around for long.
I think it also helps that I'm obsessive about things. When I was a kid I had a TRS-80 computer, and I was constantly doing these game-design sketches. Man, I wish I still had those. I also have 6,000 music CDs. I obsess. So, of course, I obsess about the games I work on.
Crispy Gamer: Did the dev team do anything silly, like plant a guy with a long beard and pointy hair in The Saboteur somewhere?
French: [Laughs] No, no, nothing like that.
Crispy Gamer: Talk about the game's main character, race-car-driver-turned-Nazi-ass-kicker, Sean Devlin.
French: There's no denying the fact that he was inspired by Indiana Jones. Bruce Willis from the Die Hard movies was also a key reference point. We wanted a character who was funny, but also good in a tough situation. Sean is classically cool. We also watched all the Steve McQueen movies. "The Great Escape" is fantastic, if you haven't seen it.
Crispy Gamer: The setting for the game is a fully-realized Nazi-occupied Paris, and the story is lifted from history books, but the game has a comic book undercurrent to it as well. Example: The well-endowed S.S. officers wearing skintight leather outfits.
French: We definitely borrowed elements from the comic-book world, especially all the hard-boiled, film noir stuff that Frank Miller did, like "Sin City." [The game world] is still a seemingly realistic world, but we've simply turned it up to 11.
Crispy Gamer: Strippers and their pasties [the game gives you the option to turn the pasties on or off, FYI] figure prominently in the game. Devlin's hideout, in fact, is inside a Parisian strip club. So, did the dev team actually go to La Cage aux Folles?
French: When the team was building art assets, we did make a trip to Paris. We did a lot of research. We took 2,500 photos. Those photos would be considered the worst vacation photos of all time. We took pictures of drain pipes and rooftops and sewer grates. [Laughs] All of those things, those little details, work together to make up Paris in the game, and capture the core spirit of the city.
Crispy Gamer: Going to Paris to take pictures of drain pipes? Poor you.
French: [Laughs] It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Crispy Gamer: The game's liberal use of nudity is something that's still relatively taboo for the medium. Tell me about the decision to make nudity and table dances and so on such a prominent part of the gameplay.
French: We didn't want to make your grandfather's World War II game. We wanted to make something different, something that fit. Paris has that sexuality to it. It has that amazing Red Light district. We knew from the start that we wanted that kind of hardboiled sexuality to be part of the game.
We also decided that we wanted to handle the nudity with a bit of class. So, no, you won't find any interactive sex mini-games or anything like that. The goal was to make something mature, something adult, but not to make it sleazy.
Crispy Gamer: The game is shipping during a strange time. This is really the last of the AAA titles for the year. Are you concerned that The Saboteur will get lost in the holiday madness?
French: You know, I think it's an interesting time [to be shipping a game]. In the past, the idea was that you always had to hit Thanksgiving. But this year, everyone had to get away from Modern Warfare 2. The thought of going up against that game is just plain scary. Our next option was the January to March window. But with all the titles coming out in that time frame, we realized that we would get probably get buried there, too.
So we're somewhere between the two. Is this an experiment, to see how a game might do shipping during this time? I don't know. All I know is that we've made something very cool, and I hope that gamers are curious about it.
Crispy Gamer: With the deluge of games that gamers are confronted with, plenty of great games wind up as bargain-bin fodder, even though they deserved better. Is that something that concerns you and your team?
French: Every time you release a game, it's scary. You pour yourself into it; you sell yourself into it; you want to get it into people's hands. Particularly now, when games require so much time and effort to make. But, yes, we also realize that heartbreak is a real possibility.
Crispy Gamer: What did you guys do during stressful periods and/or to feed the muse?
French: We had a Rock Band setup. So, if we were working late at night, and we just wanted to check your brain out, we could go play Rock Band.
But beyond that, reaching milestones, seeing the game come together; that really inspires me. In the early stages of making a game, you have all of these systems and gameplay mechanics that don't work together. But when they do, when they start to go hand-in-hand, when the game starts to become the game, that's motivating. That feeds the muse.
I could always demo the game and make it look good, but a real breakthrough for us was Comic Con this year. We let consumers try out the game. I stood nearby and watched them, and took notes. Seeing people playing the game, and enjoying the game? That's incredibly exciting to me.
Crispy Gamer: Developers lately seem to be becoming low-level celebrities. You OK with that?
French: You know, I think it's good for games. Gives people someone to identify with, something other than the game. I think it inspires people. I think letting consumers meet people who want to make games, seeing them putting their hearts on their sleeves, that's great. It's something [the industry] could learn from movies and music. Videogames need celebrity.
Crispy Gamer: The Saboteur is done. It's up to gamers to decide its fate now.
Crispy Gamer: Taking a much-deserved break?
French: I am.
Crispy Gamer: Doing some gaming?
French: I have been. This is a chance for me to catch up. I've been doing so much press lately. I remember in August, I came back to the office, and everyone was going on about the Batman game. God, I thought. I don't even have time to play it. That sucks sometimes. Lately, I've been playing Modern Warfare 2, Brütal Legend and Borderlands. I've also been playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii with my boys. This is my chance to look around, to catch up, to see what [other developers] are doing.
Crispy Gamer: Might these be the seeds for a future project?
French: It actually does inspire me. Look at Borderlands. It's a really straightforward game. But I really like what they did. Having worked on Fallout, I know that everything behind the scenes is really just stats and numbers. My question was always, "Why isn't more action-y?" And Borderlands does exactly that.
There's so much great stuff headed our way. We've got Natal in the pipeline. We've got smaller teams now working with shorter development cycles and making these terrific XBLA games. It's hard not to be inspired and feel creative right now.
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