Interviews at DesignSessions - Dave Taylor
February 11, 2007 3:02 pm
The Interviews at DesignSessions
Dave Taylor, independent video game producer and long-term veteran of the gaming industry.
Q: You're currently an independent producer in the video game industry. What does that entail?
Dave: The short answer is phone calls, emails, meetings, and meals. It's a cocktail of design, recruiting, advising, negotiation, raising money, pitching, and firefighting. I'm juggling multiple projects, and my days aren't structured like they are for an inside game developer. It more closely resembles being an indie film producer.
Q: Which aspect of your job do you find the most challenging?Dave: The most challenging thing is trying to convince a game developer to make a simpler, uglier game that is so much fun that you are in danger of losing all your productivity to it, and then making it pretty after you've finished that. They tend to want to make it pretty first, which is good short term strategy to improve business development and morale, but it is bad long-term strategy for making a great game.
Q: How many projects do you usually have running and how do you keep them all balanced and on schedule?
Dave: Usually 6-12 with only 1-3 being what I'm focusing on in a given week. I'm not particularly good at keeping them balanced and on schedule, but I do work hard to make sure that I'm working with good, talented people, and I am more interested in seeing things done right at a lean burn rate, rather than quickly.
Q: You got your start in the gaming industry working on such iconic titles, including Doom and Quake. How did you initally get into the industry? What sparked your interest?
Dave: I adored my Apple //e games, like Ultima and Castle Wolfenstein. In college, I produced a couple of multiplayer games for the IEEE CS National Programming Contest while doing journalism for one of the first electronic game magazines called Game Bytes (edited by Ross Erickson, btw, who would later go on to be the pivotal dude in making Live Arcade for the Xbox360 successful). I did a speakerphone interview with the id Software guys for Game Bytes, and there was this really, really nice guy and this other guy who had utterly fascinating answers about how to get direct access to the framebuffer on a NeXT box. The really nice guy turned out to be Jay Wilbur, and the guy with all the fascinating answers was John Carmack. I wrote John and asked him how to get into the game industry. He invited me up for an interview, and he offered me a job doing the Genesis port of Wolf 3D. By the time I started, they needed help getting Doom out the door, so I did that instead.
Q: How long have you been in the industry now and what’s the difference between working for someone else and working for yourself?
Dave: 13 years with a brief hiatus at Transmeta doing processor work. That was a lot of fun. You had this big ugly architecture that is the x86 being emulated by the lean, graceful VLIW processor.
When everything's working properly, you feel like part of a team in either case. I'd say that working for yourself is both highly educational and poisoning. It's educational because you learn what does and doesn't matter. You learn all about the bottom line, and you learn a ton about corporate structures, intellectual property law, accounting, all the stuff that companies take care of for you. But it's poisoning because once you learn this stuff, going back to a company can be extremely challenging. You often find that you know a lot more than the guy in charge about certain issues that you feel you can be very helpful with, but more often than not, the guy in charge doesn't want to listen or to have your help, so you get frustrated.
Q: What is your favorite game that you've worked on? Why was it your favorite?
Dave: That's a tough one. I love and hate them all. I can't stand releasing them, because I always want to do just 5 more things. I'd say my fav is Doom 2, because I just adored the multiplayer in it, but I'm pretty sure the best is yet to come.
Q: Honestly, who's harder to work with, artists, designers or programmers?
Dave: They all have issues. Getting an artist to use a new tool is hard. Getting a designer to flesh out a strong high concept instead of bolting on extraneous stuff is hard. Convincing a programmer to get in management's face on the important issues is hard.
My favorites are usually the junior talent. They have great attitudes, they work hard, and they're great at embarrassing the senior talent by doing the things they say is too hard or impossible.
Q: With legislators trying to crack down on content in the game industry, do you think that will affect how you do your job?
Dave: Not too much. I'm starting to be involved with less violent games. RoboBlitz, for example, has no blood, no gore, teaches kids about physics and challenges them with puzzles, and just got rated in the Top-10 list of MediaWise's 2006 Buying Guide for Parents. And despite being family-friendly, it's packed with totally bleeding-edge tech. It's the first Unreal Engine 3 game on Xbox Live Arcade, all the animations are procedural, and almost all the textures you see in there are procedural, using this amazing new technology called ProFX from Allegorithmic. As a result, the whole thing and all 19 levels fit into just 50Mb.
Q: What part of your job do you enjoy the most?Dave: I love so many parts of it. The fleeting joy is the high out of a really strong pitch at a great meeting, doing design and business strategy brainstorming, or negotiating great terms or just greeting the perfect sunny day with a cappuccino from the cafe around the corner. The lasting joy for me so often has nothing to do with the game industry, but rather with seeing friends I have made in the process starting to achieve their personal dreams. I just thrive on that.
Q: What platforms are you currently developing for? Which is the most challenging?
Dave: Xbox Live Arcade, PC, Mac. Holistically, PC is the toughest, by far. Tougher to get noticed, way too wide a set of machine configurations, impossible to test them all, hard to convince developers to go low-tech and eschew the use of high-end GPU's. Consoles are easier, because you can depend on a single platform, so you can go nuts on the GPU and frolic in shaders. Even the PS3, which is an architectural nightmare, is easier than the PC, because there's at least only one of them, and there's a ton of power to play with, assuming you've hired level 20 dwarven warriors to mine the performance.
Q: Game development requires some insane schedules sometimes. How often are you sleeping under your desk these days?
Dave: Not at all. I'm 37, can't handle that anymore, more board room material now than developer superhero. I've got friends doing this, but it's usually because they bit off more than they can chew, refuse to cut a feature, or didn't delegate properly. But more often than not, it's because they think it'll keep them from going broke or getting fired, which is usually not true.
Q: Do you think the downsizing of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) will have a major impact on the industry?
Dave: Capitalism abhors a supply vacuum, and if there's a need for an E3 more like the last, it will be reborn, if not in the US, then somewhere else.
I see this new invite-only version they're doing in Santa Monica as a natural stratification of the game industry. It's the new Oscars, and not everyone can get into that show, but that doesn't mean anything to indie filmmakers who are still quite merrily putting out great films and making some impressive bank. While at the same time, the really big game companies will probably enjoy the improved signal-to-noise ratio. DICE is a more exclusive conference, and though it lacks diversity, it's definitely higher quality in some ways.
Totally similar with games. In fact, increasingly, you don't even need game publishers anymore. Don't get me wrong. Publishers are awesome if the deal terms are good, you got assigned a good producer, and marketing is really behind your product. Although oftentimes, it's easier to make all those stars align by brewing your own with angel/corporate funding, clever co-marketing, and hiring your own PR and marketing firms. In fact, a mistake I see a lot of developers making is trying to make a game right out of the gate that only a publisher could fund, instead of making a smaller game designed to polish the core gameplay mechanics, that they could release without a publisher, which if good, should proceed to infect the minds of people inside the publishers, so that publishers call the developer, instead of the other way around.
With all these options, why go to E3? If you want to meet with a publisher, just go visit them. Don't get lost in the noise of 100's pitching in the space of a few days. If you want the press to see it, hook up with a PR firm. It costs between $2k-$5k/mo, but if it's a good firm, it's really worthwhile. If you want the fans to see it, send copies to the big bloggers.
Q: Do you own an Xbox 360, PS3, Wii or
Q: How often do you play video games? What are you playing the most right now?
Dave: I'm currently playing the Supreme Commander beta. I'm a huge RTS fan, and to RTS fans, this is the Second Coming of Total Annihilation, which a lot of us felt was the height of the RTS genre. Much of the core team from TA, similar gameplay mechanics, and tons and tons of units that do the right thing automatically instead of requiring "micro". I play a few games of that every day.
I'm also a huge fan of DotA Allstars, which is a mod for Warcraft III, but mod really doesn't do it justice. This thing is not only a whole new game but a completely new genre, and it's insanely polished due to the inhuman efforts of its dedicated author, IceFrog. It features over 70 different character classes, each with 4 radically different powers, and yet through tons and tons of testing and feedback and iteration, it has become this perfectly balanced piece of art. I like to call it the "first derivative" of an RTS, because the base is already built, the armies auto-spawn and auto-path to one of 3 front lines, and you only control one character on a team of 5, and the team tactics are everything.
Q: Outside of gaming, where else do you draw inspiration from?
Dave: You know what. I have no idea. Stuff pops into my head as if out of nowhere, and I usually can't trace it back to anything. A lot of the good stuff comes from brainstorming with people, where their ideas make my ideas bigger and better, and then we circle in on a monster of an idea that works on every level, including gameplay, art direction, sound, marketing, and business.
I avidly read slashdot and Google news every day, Penny Arcade, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from chatting with other game developers. I'm sure all this stuff is having an effect on me, but it's mostly subconscious.
Q: What’s the best part of your day?
Dave: I never know until the end of the day. Yesterday, it was a recharging visit to Naomi Mercer's house. I'm guessing this interview will be the best part of today, but it's up against a mean bowl of bowtie pasta with bacon bits that my neighbor Zach Ashton just brought over.
Q: What’s your advice to anyone trying to break into the industry?
Dave: I'd recommend they contact me or Justin Lassen. I am not a believer in generic advice. It depends very much on the individual's goals, superpowers, contacts (particularly outside the game industry), and finances.
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