Christian Allen has been making his name a bit more pronounced lately after diving deep into the indie sector to tackle game development. He’s an established force in the industry, having worked on notable games like Halo: Reach as the design lead, as well as Ghost Recon, Takedown and the recent Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor. Allen has been in the industry since the late 1990s and is still creating and developing games, including his studio’s latest project called Epsilon, which is kind of a visually stylistic throwback to games like Rainbow Six.
While Allen is busy working on the tactical team shooter Epsilon, I did manage to get in a few questions with him about the trouble of getting the game insured, the difficulties developers face making creative decisions that the media may publicly crucify them for, as well as developer-centric movements like the Rebuild Initiative and the LetDevsSpeak hashtag; two social media initiatives to allow developers and studios to speak up about important topics affecting the gaming industry at large. Check it out below.
Billy: While working on any of the high-profile titles classified as AAA games, was there ever a time where you or your team was made aware that hitting a certain average on Metacritic would net the team performance bonuses?
Christian: Me personally, no. I have had metacritic goals as part of the requirement for getting a project greenlit (i.e., this game must be capable of getting an 85, etc), and I personally know other devs from other publishers who have had metacritic numbers as part of bonus structures. Most of my personal bonus structures have either been arbitrary, or based on sales/profitability of titles.
Billy: The gaming community is fairly divided about how to approach rewarding developers for a successful game. A lot of people seem to feel as if Metacritic scores are a poor way to gauge success for a game, but having worked on games like Halo, Ghost Recon and Shadow of Mordor, have any of the publishers opted to use other standards, methods or metrics to provide contractual bonuses for the team?
Christian: Generally, I have seen bonus structures based on studio profitability, or product sales/profitability. Both can be problematic for individual devs, for example, if your studio is working on two games, and yours does great but the other fails, that affects your bonus. Also, generally devs don’t get a huge say on what they are working on, so if you get assigned to the “B” team, you already know your bonus perspectives are lower. Studios and publishers are constantly evolving pay structures to try and retain talent. It’s an ongoing process with no real standards industry wide.
Billy: We often hear about publishers using focus group tests to determine what sort of topical content might be featured in a game or how some characters or scenarios might be portrayed. Having designed games for big publishers as well as games in the indie space, do you find that focus groups help or hinder the design scope or direction of a game?
Christian: For content, I think they are a hindrance. I could write a book on my feelings on focus group testing. The main problem is when the testing is used to drive a feature, or storyline, or character that is being pushed by someone in publishing with their own ideas, as a way of pushing their ideas onto the creative team. The way I dealt with this was to insist that I be involved in the process, which was really a waste of my time, but allowed me to make sure the results were interpreted correctly.
Because focus groups can be so subjective, it’s really easy to get flawed results with shit like this:
Rate these game modes in order of preference:
A huge battle with tons of players and lots of fast action
A game mode with tons of rewards and unlocks available
There can be value to focus group testing, but more in the marketing/communication arena. Examples include “which of these screenshots most speak to our core values, what message are you getting from this statement about the game, etc.”
Billy: You mentioned previously about the troubles of getting your new project insured based on Serellan’s previous game, Takedown. What do you think was the insurance company’s actual motivation behind their decision to decline Serellan insurance for Epsilon?
Christian: In hindsight and talking with additional folks, I don’t think it was necessarily nefarious. At the high level the ring of companies had a list of areas that they considered “high risk” such as porn, gun industry, etc, and at some point “violent video games” got added to that list. Probably some bureaucrats went to our steam page and read our ESRB rating, which listed:
“Intense Violence, Blood, Language.”
Maybe it was my fault for not going back to the ESRB to change some of that language (go play Takedown and let me know where that “intense” violence is, and while there is blood, it’s nothing like Left 4 Dead), but I didn’t want the restrictions of a [Teen] rating, so I didn’t really think much of it at the time.
I ended up having to get my policy through Lloyd’s of London. For a game with this concept art:
Billy: James Portnow from Extra Credits mentioned in an update for backers of his Games For Good drive that the gaming industry recently lost a lot of support and positive backing from potential lobbyists and lawmakers in Washington due to all the negative press attacking the games industry over #GamerGate. Is this an issue that you worry over, that maybe insurance premiums might continue to rise for “high-risk” games or it might be harder to get the ear of lawmakers if or when gaming comes back under the spotlight for any sort of legislation? Or is this just a temporary cry-wolf scenario that people may forget about in a few months?
Christian: I am concerned about it. If the general perception of gaming being related to violence or harassment, I worry that we will be rolling back a lot of the gains that gaming has made in the past few decades, and sliding back into the Jack Thompson days. The first time someone sues a publisher for “enabling” threats or harassment through their game, that could have a huge chilling effect. And the next time there is restrictive legislation introduced to “protect the children” from evil video games, we will have less support from folks who don’t want to be seen as supposedly supporting violence against certain groups.
The challenge seems to be is that if the gaming industry community is fractured, then it is hard to have a constructive discussion moving forward about how to find real world constructive solutions to issues of harassment and threats that in actuality transcend games in today’s internet culture. It feels like politics and personal views have been injected into the discussion, so people are put on “sides,” and instead of talking about technological, social, and law enforcement solutions to these problems, there is just a lot of blaming and name calling.
Billy: There have been debates about the importance of the old gatekeepers, the established media. For a lot of indies they worry that not getting in with the right journalists and not saying the right thing publicly could be a death knell for getting word out about their game. For big publishers they can just pay for the public’s attention with brute-force marketing. For the mid-budget studios and projects – when you know you have steep overhead and consumer feedback to worry about, is media coverage a concern? Especially from large and established outlets like Polygon, Kotaku or Rock, Paper, Shotgun?
Christian: Media coverage is a huge concern for mid-level and indie development. With the saturation of the market, discoverability is a huge part of whether you have sales. If you, for whatever reason, get cut off, you are screwed. I’ve run into it myself, trying to get coverage of the extensive patches, features, and content added to my last game post launch, and even trying to get updated reviews or new reviews that would affect the Metacritic score.
But it’s not just the traditional media, the same things happen with the “new” media, like Youtubers. If for whatever reason they decide they don’t want to cover you, it’s the same issue.
I do think it can have a chilling effect on some areas of speech. My personal politics never seemed like an issue I needed to worry about expressing before relating to my gaming career, but I definitely try to think hard about what I comment about on social media much more than I did in the past. There are certain subjects that are “safe” and certain subjects that I don’t even want to touch with a ten foot pole.
Billy: Now more than ever before we have a lot of controversy surrounding game content, character portrayal and gender politics. Some developers just don’t care about this sort of stuff and just want to make a good game. Some developers do care about this sort of stuff and make it the cornerstone of their projects. With media attacking some developers for not adding the right kind of politics or adding what they perceive as the wrong kind of politics into a game – and sometimes negative press is good press, while other times it can land you with an AO rating like Hatred – how do you navigate the sociopolitical minefield and what would be your advice to other developers facing the same issue?
Christian: Hatred is not really a good example, they clearly benefited from a PR campaign specifically designed to outrage people, with the exact same style of imagery as some of Uwe Boll’s recent movies.
I personally just try and make the best game that I can. I’ve worked in the past to inject some social commentary into games, there was one storyline in a Clancy game I worked on about US forces being tricked into an unjust war, for example (it was eventually was co-opted into GR: Predator), and I felt that was appropriate because at the time I had friends and colleagues getting maimed and killed in an unnecessary war. It did kind of annoy me that early Ghost Recon’s didn’t ever get any kudos for it’s portrayal of women in combat. We actually spent a lot of time on it, even going back and re-doing one character’s entire VO because it just didn’t sound confident enough.
I was also pretty stringent on the inclusion of a female Noble Six in Reach, which from my point of view was about allowing options for players. That kind of thing.
In one interview for Takedown, I made mention that the team leader was gay. No one really picked up on it, and I never mentioned it in game, because my thought was “what does it matter?” Most people thought I was joking. That was interesting.
As far as advice, I would say try and make the best decision for your games and your audience. If someone is trying to shame or harass you into including or not including types of content, that is not creative expression. If you want to make a statement, or expressly NOT make a statement, that is fine. Every game does not need to appeal to all people, just as every movie or book does not.
Billy: With the current landscape being the way that it is in the industry, some developers are afraid to speak up about certain topics, obviously, while others are afraid that by speaking up they’ll be ostracized from potential hiring pools at larger publisher or development firms. With the gaming industry being as fractured as it is between the media, gamers and developers, what do you think developers can do to speak up without facing the abusive attacks or dog-piling for sharing their opinions, and are things like #LetDevsSpeak or the Rebuild Initiative the right or wrong way to go about getting developers to speak up about the industry and the divisive topic of creative freedom?
Christian: That is a really tough problem. I’ve never been one to hold my tongue on things, I mean hell, I wrote an article for Kotaku on guns and games in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. Some people disagreed with me, some called me names, but I didn’t get thousands of messages or threats. But when you see the kinds of things bandied about in relating to gaming today, it really just makes you want to turn it off and ignore it. I have also been warned about “courting” the wrong group of gamers. I was like, “what the fuck is ‘courting?’”
I think maybe taking the discussion to different forums other than ones that limit discussion to 140 characters might be a good thing. Nothing good seems to come out of there. Maybe we should sit down and actually have real, human discussions and debates; humanize devs, players, journalists, and critics. A bunch of anonymous people figuratively screaming at each other has not seemed to help the situation, so maybe another format where people are nice to each other. You can disagree with someone while still being nice.
Huge thanks to Christian Allen for taking time to answer the questions. Allen and the rest of the developers at Serellan are currently working on the upcoming shooter Epsilon. The title is moving along toward a release on Early Access for Steam. You can learn more about the project by paying a visit to the official website.