Stuart Black: EA lacks respect for development teams. The interview, part two

Lady Gaga, Call of Duty and EA’s approach to staffing are all on the agenda in the second part of our chat with the creator of Black and Bodycount…

Is there more to the modern first-person shooter than intricate militaristic detail? And what does Black’s obsession with Lady Gaga have to do with game design. The affable, turbo-mouthed creative director of Codemasters Guildford explains all in part two of our interview.

Part one can be found here.You said Black reflected the post-9/11 era shows like 24. What do you think the key series’ are now? You’ve referenced True Blood, Fast Forward and Lost quite a bit…Yeah, in terms of TV shows, JJ Abrams is a huge influence – love his stuff. Black was supposed to be sort of 24 and Alias, but it was more 24 than anything else. There was a book accompanying the first season of 24 about Bauer’s overseas missions before joining CTU and that became an influential reference for us. We felt we caught the start of a zeitgeist, we didn’t do it deliberately, but we were sensitive to the flow of where things were going at that time and just hooked into it.

So where is the zeitgeist now?A very different place! What’s the thing that makes everyone go, ‘what the fuck?’ That for me right now is Lady Gaga. I saw her at Glastonbury last year – it blew my fucking socks off. From the moment she popped out of her dress at the start, I just thought, wow this is important, this matters this changes… I didn’t know what the fuck it changes, but it felt like it changed everything.

It certainly changed me, changed the way I looked at things – I just felt really fucking old, and I felt our industry was really old and inward looking and boring. She just came in across genres – it was her attitude more than anything else. So I started to talk to people about that, and there was a lot of ‘what the fuck do you mean?’ I didn’t really know what I meant, I just know it meant something and I had to dive in and find out what it meant for us. And over the last few weeks we’ve been building on that, and she’s being doing stuff like dressing in guns – and I thought, Jesus, this has fallen right into my lap!

It’ll be difficult for some people to see the influence of a pop star in a first-person shooter…She talks a lot about living in the apocalypse; the apocalypse is happening, we’re in it, so the only thing left to do is party, have a good time – positive upwards, forwards thinking. So this guy [in Bodycount] is in a crazy, desperate situation out of his control, but he’s not going to get down about it, he deals with it, he keeps his head up, he pushes forward – that’s the kind of action we want to have.

That’s what we’re saying to our players – when they’re feeling a little bit down, a little bit harassed by all the pressure, slap this game on and blow some fuckers away, you’ll feel better. You’ll get an uplift – that’s ultimately what we want to do.

I can also see elements of Hurt Locker in the game – that sort of celebration of the effects of weapons and explosives…Yeah, loved the Hurt Locker – the machismo, the adrenaline, the addiction. It’s interesting, in terms of IP space, and the tone of the game, we went through a lot of changes. It kind of started off on the Black track, because that was easy, we knew we weren’t going to stay there, and I explored four very different concepts for the game, we went from very irreverent Tarantino-esque tongue-in-cheek humour right down to a serious Generation Kill feel, the total moral corruption of war, before coming back to where we are now – kind of glossy techno thriller. So maybe there are some remenants of that Hurt Locker feel. I’m a huge Ridley Scott fan, particulatly with shooting, so there’s got to be an element of Black Hawk Down in there – I just don’t believe you can do shooting without getting some of that intensity.

And Michael Mann, of course?Yes, I’m a big fan – obviously the big Heat street battles…

The shoot-outs in MIami Vice were excellent, too.Yeah, the shipyard at the end is very strong – that actually has more relevance to the other title we’re working on. So yes, those kinds of things – that’s the more serious side of it. That’s got to underpin the gameplay. But the story we want to tell and the characters we want to tell it with, we want those to be frothier, lighter in tone. More hip if you like, I don’t want to sound too uncool!

The whole set up of the game – high-tech anonymous organisation seeks equallly anonymous highly trained hit man for global assassinations. This’ll sound very familiar to gamers – are you going to subvert that?Yes, we are. It’s kind of fair what you’re saying, on the surface. I take issue with the ‘anonymous’ hero, because our guy has a really strong personality and the core of the thing is his character journey through the game.

I don’t care about plots and plot machinations as such. There will be a plot but so many games get fixated on the intricacies and details of that, I just think that’s reductive – this is not a movie, it’s not a TV show, this is not the medium for that. The very nature of interactivity is counter that kind of stuff – you need enough story, enough of a reason to justify what you’re doing, but it’s ALL about the doing. And rather than plotting you can explore more with character development, who you are and who the people are who you’re coming up against within the plot.

Anonymous corporation? Yeah, that would be the kind lazy way of saying it. Weve not gone deep into the personality of the The Network or The Target at the moment, but they do have strong very indivisualistic and I think quite unique personalities. So yes, they’re the stereotypical shady organisations, secret socities, Illuminati, whatever – but who they are and how they represent themelves is hopefully kind of fresh and different.

So the big building blocks are the standard building blocks, but the difference between a cliche and an archetype is, if it’s done cheesily it’s a cliché, if you do it well, it’s archetypal – and we hope to be archetypal.

Do you think there’s going to be a problem tearing gamers away from the style of FPS that CoD has made popular – you know, worthy military super realistic…If we were going to complete directly with them, and try to get people to play our game instead of Call of Duty, yeah. And there’s some titles out there in development at the moment that are sending out that message. Well, it’s kind of a crazy message. Really, the best you could hope for is to be a subset of Call of Duty – if you’re not one of the team who made CoD, it’s not in your DNA, it’s not in your blood to make that game in that way – you can never achieve what they achieved – just like anyone else who tried to make a Black-style game – they’re not going to be able to do it.

I’m not interested in beating CoD, I’m not interested in pulling people away from it, I want to give them something else to play as well. No matter how big a CoD fan you are, nobody’s playing that all year long – you need to change up once in a while and play something different. We want to provide a worthwhile alternative. Play this and CoD, and Bioshock, and Battlefield, and Halo – they’re all strong titles, the leaders of the genre, they all deserve to stand next to each other. Every time you talk about making an FPS, everybody says, ‘oh, it’s such a crowded market’, and yeah, there are a lot of shooters, but there aren’t many good ones – I pretty much just named them all. There are five or six franchises that are really strong, that have something different to say. We want to stand beside them.

British developers haven’t been responsible for many first-person shooters – but the big ones have all done something different with the genre. Individuals matter. If there’s one message I want to get across… Not enough attention is given to that. We talk too much, way too much, about publishers. Publishers don’t make any difference to the quality of the title, they just chose the titles to produce – quality is in the hands of the developer.

And then most development studios have multiple teams. Not all: Media Molecule is one tight, very focused team. But quite a few do, so just because it says developer X on the cover, doesn’t give you a guarantee of quality either – it’s the individual team making that game. So you have developers like Blizzard, who have consistency, Valve… they have consistency in their staffing and you can see that in their software. They build on their ideas and themes and the games they develop get richer. But those teams that chop and change on membership, they flounder. I’ll pick out, just in broad terms, EA – I don’t think there’s a lot of respect for individuals on teams, the team members are building blocks that they can just mix and match…That’s what Activision are about to try with Call of Duty!Yeah, well, good luck to them on that! I know nothing about that situation, but it seems a bit crazy…

So, you’re building a team that works like a band. But don’t all the best bands eventually implode?Ha, well, not all of them! But yes, they have strong passions and personalities involved…Exactly, so is that a worry for you here?Not really. We’ll face that problem when we come to it. It’s not like everyone who’s joined has stayed with us, and it’s not like everyone who’s left has been crap. We’ve lost some really good people because they just didn’t feel that this was the place for them and that’s fair enough. I’m not overly worried about it.

Right now we’re building the band, we’re still expanding, we need to get to 120-130 people to feel comfortable, because we have some ambitious projects down the pipeline. As much as we want to make this a great innovative title in itself, it’s also a stepping stone for us, a bringing together of the team. A lot of us worked on Black, but a lot of us have never worked together at all. There’s abonding process that goes on when you’re making a game – a level of trust. You understand the things people can and can’t do, and the level of commitment from people. You can’t get that unless you make something together.

So you get through that process and the next thing you make, you get even tighter and you can take on something with much more ambition. And hopefully friendship overcomes whatever passions are enflamed – the people we have, we’re all aligned.

Is there a checklist of things you want to achieve with this game?Absolutely, there are headlines that I want to achieve, for sure. We don’t know how we’re going to achieve them, or the order of importance of those headlines. I want to create situations that provoke an emotional response, that’s the core of it – something players haven’t felt before, whether that’s just the level of intensity they get, the visceral feeling of the firefight, or the feeling of immersion within that, the emotional resonance. All that feeds into who you are as a character, the story, his arc, and therefore you care about that arc. It’s all about emotions.

And by emotions, we’re talking more than anger and fear?Yes, those are the big emotions, right? Make someone scared, make them feel excited… It’s a young industry, I often talk about this. We’re at the point of movies before sound, just at the part where Al Jolson did Jazz Singer, we’re certainly nowhere near the point where United Artists formed and created cinema history – we’ve still got a way to go to get there. There’s a lot of innovation still to come…




Keith Stuart © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds is updated several times each day with the very latest Free PlayStation 3 news.

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