Brianna Wu Talks Game Dev Trends, Industry Challenges, and GSX
Brianna Wu has been a leader in game development as well as the video game industry. Check out her insight on development trends and the state of the space.
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Brianna Wu is leading a revolution in gaming. Whether it's groundbreaking design and mechanics or advocacy for individuals and diversity within the industry, Wu constantly brings a fresh and much needed perspective. I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with Brianna about her work at GSX, development challenges, and the state of the industry. For more information on Brianna Wu, visit BriannaWu.net or find her on Twitter, @Spacekatgal.
You’ve been a real pioneer game development and game design, and specifically with “Revolution 60” there were some really cool touchscreen controls and in-game mechanics. What inspired those novelties and how were you able to achieve those?
I think games are in a position similar to the way that music players were before the iPod came out - games are just far too complicated. If you hand a hardcore gamer a Playstation 4 controller, we’re very comfortable with that. But in my career, I've met so many people that want to play games. They’re interested in games. With each generation of system a new layer of complexity was added and you and I, as hardcore gamers, layered it onto our base knowledge.
Those people that now want to like games just don’t have access to that information. It can be intimidating. So the truth is, casual gamers don’t want to just play “Bejeweled” and “Candy Crush.” They’re very interested in stories, particularly women gamers. The problem is, as much as I love games like “Mass Effect,” it can be challenging to the point of discouragement for most people.
What we’re doing at GSX is taking a step back, and we’re trying to simplify things as much as we can. With “Revolution 60,” the main mission of the game was to tell a story in a way that anyone could pick it up and enjoy it. The thing I’m proudest of is that you can hand “Revolution 60” to someone who’s never played a video game before in their entire life, and they can play a story.
It’s good and it’s bad, like in the midst of Gamergate I’ve certainly had people yelling that it’s "not a game,” or “ugh, this belongs on mobile." By the traditional tastes it is not a game for people that play “Modern Warfare,” or “Assassin’s Creed.” It’s not that way because that’s not the kind of game that I’m interested in making.
And there’s a planned PC port that I was particularly excited about. Reportedly, it uses elements from “Typing of the Dead.”
We do have the PC port coming, it will be out in October! It’s something I’m completely excited about actually.
We loaded it up on PC, and we had our quick time events, and you could drag it with a mouse, but that’s not fun. So, we sat down to reassess.
One of the core concepts we had with this was that it had to work with a trackpad laptop. For instance, “Portal” is a brilliant game, but when I try to play it with my Retina MacBook Pro it just doesn’t work very well with the trackpad. Since almost everyone nowadays uses a laptop as their main device, we wanted to ensure our control scheme didn’t require an external mouse.
We looked to a lot of PC adventure games, such as “The Wolf Among Us,” trying to figure out the best implementation of this, trying to pin down which titles had done this well. As it turned out, “Typing of the Dead” was a fantastic experience.
We prototyped changing some of these action events into different emotions that you would have to type during events. There’s a scene where Holiday is betrayed by someone, so you’re typing words like “betrayal,” and “sabotage.” When you have those two things link, typing these emotions with these action events, it’s really a lot of fun. I’m proud of that. It goes into something we really prize at our studio, which is accessible game design.
You mentioned “Typing of the Dead,” so how have you been influenced by past games and other media and seen their impact on current releases as well? “Revolution 60” definitely brings to mind shows like “Sailor Moon,” or N64 era games.
If you came over to my house I could show you entire notebooks filled with my drawings. I love “Sailor Moon,” and I was obsessed with her from a very young age. So while I love that kind of girly art style, one of the things that I think makes “Revolution 60” very interesting is that it’s not a children’s game. In fact, I’ve had to tell a lot of parents “No, your kid is too young to play this.” It’s a very nefarious plot, and to be honest, the tone of the game is closer to “24” than it is to “Sailor Moon.” You’re this team of special agents, there’s betrayal, there’s violence (though it’s implied rather than shown).
You have to make some really tough decisions. There’s a moment in the game where you have to choose to let people die, or you can choose to save your friend. And either way that’s not a good choice that you can make. So it’s a game that consistently gives you difficult choices, and you have to actually live with them. That’s part of the design philosophy of the game. It really bothers me that for so many of these story-based, choice-based games, they give you a perfect ending. Like “Mass Effect,” I made sure I did every single one of those missions because I wanted to get the perfect ending. I don’t believe in perfect endings, I believe in tradeoffs, so that’s kind of what we were going for.
Growing up, it was just a different era. When I first created the characters of “Revolution 60,” I was really thinking about the idea of being Kate Beckinsale from “Underworld.” She’s tough, she’s awesome, she doesn’t take shit, but she’s also sexy as hell. And what I’ve found is that my own opinions on this have really changed in the last five years. It’s a hard thing to describe. What I’ve realized is that the “sexy but kickass” female archetype is kind of a dated thing now in 2015.
I look around at the women heroes that our industry is putting out nowadays, and I see Zoë from “Dreamfall.” And what we’re hearing from our players over and over and over again is that women who play our games love when women get to be the heroes. They love that we are portrayed as people first, and not sex objects, or damsels in distress.
The criticism we have continually gotten from our game was that players didn’t like the sexualized character design. Here at GSX, we listen to that feedback. So “Revolution 60,” the PC version, has actually been delayed for six months as we’ve gone through and completely redone the costumes. We’ve re-rendered opening movies, and we've tried to change the characters to reflect the direction we want to go as a game studio. I could say going forward, as a studio, you’re going to see us commit to this even more. You’re going to see more body type diversity. It’s not that portraying women as sexual creatures is bad, it’s that it’s the primary way women are represented in games. And we’re going to listen to the feedback from our consumers and change that going forward.
That’s something I didn’t realize about the PC port, that you had a major overhaul based on fan response. So how do you take fan feedback into consideration?
We had a really great play-testing department that was run by a former Harmonix person, Carolyn VanEseltine, she did the play-testing for “Rock Band.” She came in and did a lot of play-testing as we were getting our game out the door. We had a few people that came in for the playtests and they just yelled about it being feminist propaganda. However people who would be our consumers are also giving us feedback, so we try to listen to and absorb. It’s a balance, I think, that you have to learn and listen to people as you’re going forward.
With the portrayal of women in video games like you mentioned, there was a neat article in Bloomberg recently about Anita Sarkeesian’s web series, and I was curious what games would you say you’ve been really impressed with?
In 2013 the “Tomb Raider” reboot came out, a title that's one of my favorite games that’s ever been made. And they don’t put Lara [Croft] in armor, she’s in a tank top while she’s running around the island, but they portray her as a person first. She has emotions, she kills people and she feels regret in her voice, you feel her trauma as she’s trying to save her friend Sam.
That's what I look for in games, those that represent women as people first. Sometimes a character can be sexualized and I’m ok with it, sometimes a character can be sexualized and I’m not. I personally am a sex positive feminist. To me, the better question is if she’s a real human being, and not just an object to be lusted after.
That was very high praise about the 2013 “Tomb Raider.” Are you looking forward to “Rise of the Tomb Raider?”
Oh God yeah, I’ve been begging every friend in mind that works at Crystal Dynamics to let me have an advanced copy of it which I’m hoping I’ll be able to get. It’s my most wanted game of 2015.
This is something I really feel strongly about. So often when we talk about this stuff, we concentrate on the output of our industry. Anita Sarkessian, for example, will show you clips from “Grand Theft Auto,” and rightly say “Look at this, this is problematic.” The question I am concentrating on is the input side. “Well, ‘Grand Theft Auto’ is kind of a sexist game. How many women were included in making ‘Grand Theft Auto’?” What’s the makeup of that team? Who’s reviewing Rockstar games when they come out?" I think in order to change the output, you need to change the input first. That's why my focus has always been about hiring practices, about diversity within journalism, especially on the dev teams.
One of the things I really, really focus on at Giant Spacekat, is growing my company. And I feel like this is such a critical fight. I have young girls who write me all the time asking for internships because they want a place to work where they can get experience without sexual overtures. I have moms on my staff that wouldn’t be able to continue working in the industry that they love without support and flexibility with their childcare. The problem that we’re trying to solve and advocate for at Giant Spacekat is 100% about the developers. Because I don’t think it matters what games we end up making, if the only people who get to review and critique them are men. I think we’ll continually get the same sexist output if you don’t have women making your games as well. So I think it’s time to really think about that critically. What I see in the game industry constantly is we talk a lot about sexual harassment in the industry. We talk about death threats that I’ve received, and the rape threats that I’ve received, and that is really important to talk about. But if I were to sit here and be honest with you, statistically, the thing I personally see driving more women out of games than anything else, is a lack of support after we have children. I see it happening to so many of my friends, and it’s really time for us to wake up to that and start thinking about it.
So “Revolution 60” was built on the Unreal Engine. What were some of the advantages of using that as well as the challenges.
I think the biggest challenge is expense; it’s all not super well-documented. If you want to make a shooter with the Unreal Engine, that is something that is built, that’s something that is very easy to find. For our gameplay type, which is something closer to “Mass Effect,” that’s very hard to find. It was basically a small studio working with this tool meant for teams of 20, 30, 40 people. It was extremely challenging for us.
One of the biggest technical problems we had, circles back around to this problem of a certain personality monopolizing the conversation about games, we were very frequently criticized about our graphics in “Revolution 60.” I completely accept that criticism, but I want to talk about some of the technical reasons that we made the choices that we did. “Infinity Blade” looks a lot better than “Revolution 60,” but “Infinity Blade” also only has two people on-screen at once. They’re made with two 2k maps each, so kind of a lower texture count, and there aren’t a lot of sounds, dialogue, or animations that go along with that.
With “Revolution 60,” we made some of the most complex animation rigs that have ever come out on mobile, period. Cyrus in “Infinity Blade” only has 22 mesh-influencing bones at a level 2 joint-influence. Holiday has 78 mesh-influencing bones at a level 3 joint-influence, which is an order of magnitude higher and more complicated to render. She has more facial animations, her hair moves as she talks, her eyebrows move, with “Infinity Blade” they’re just wearing masks. And we didn’t just have two characters on-screen, we sometimes had five or six characters on-screen at once. And nearly every moment of the game, except for parts of the combat, is unique scene animation, not repeated cycles.
So what our game players don’t realize is that engineering is fundamentally about tradeoffs. We have X amount of RAM and X amount of processor power to work with, and the decisions, the tradeoff that we made at our company was to throw all of it into animation. To throw all of our computational resources into dialogue. There’s a ton of dialogue in “Revolution 60.” We chose to throw all of our resources into all this stuff that tells a story rather than pouring it into textures and detailed characters all around us. And that’s a tradeoff I wish we didn’t have to make.
A lot of people actually believe that it’s harder or takes a higher-level skill to make something like “Infinity Blade,” versus working with fragments of RAM, and I can tell you I’ve very often had to texture levels with like, four 1k maps, which is nothing. That is N64 levels of texture. So, granted that we chose to emphasize these other aspects, “Revolution 60” is actually a technical marvel. But the problem is because a lot of the players that are loudest in the culture, they don’t prioritize our story decisions. They don’t prioritize that women want to see pretty hair on characters that animate as they move, or fight, or talk, all these things that were really important to the women who worked to make “Revolution 60.” It’s not a priority for this very vocal part of the game development audience. And I’m not saying they’re wrong, their point of view is certainly their point of view, but my point is that’s not the only set of priorities out there.
What would you say are the main opinions that are arising from the game development community?
Well, we won three game of the year awards for a reason, people love to think. But the people that love these games are the ones we made it for. We didn’t make it for this bro gamer who is already well-represented in the marketplace. What we found is that there were a lot of casual gamers, the kind that wanted a story, the kind of simple-sided experience, they loved “Revolution 60.” We got a lot of outright hate from Gamergate. I’m an adult woman, I realize hate is just part of the job, you just have to accept that, but it’s sometimes frustrating that so many people attack the work my studio does, because they don’t like Brianna Wu the person. There’s this misconception that I made “Revolution 60” by myself, when it’s a team of about 10 people that put in 80-hour weeks for about three years to make this, and I’m very proud of that.
And one project that you’re working on is “Giant Spacekitten” that’s a kids game, and I’ve seen a lot of literature on children and learning through gameplay. So I was wondering if you could talk a little about “Giant Spacekitten,” and how you came up with that.
Well, one of the things that happens when you put a bunch of women together and let us have our own game studio, the culture is a little bit different than it is at triple A studios. So at Harmonix, you have one person on a team who’s the vision-holder, and any decision anyone makes on the entire team has to go through the vision-holder. That’s not the way we operated our studio. So after we shipped “Revolution 60” we were moving from Unreal 3 to Unreal 4, and we wanted to put together a prototype using Unreal 4 to kind of get up to speed on it. And Amanda, my co-founder, wanted to do more of a kid’s game. Since she’d been following my dream for three years, I thought it was time to let her drive the car for a bit.
It’s not a game I did a lot with, it’s more of an interstitial game, but I can tell you that early play-testing reports show that kids really, really love it.
The stuff we’re working on next over at GSX is next-gen. It’s not games that run on your phone or PC, it’s Holodeck level ideas. It is really exciting, and not like anything that anyone else is doing. We’re moving from this scrappy team that put out this game for a third of a million dollars to having investors, and really being able to work on some next-gen projects. So “Giant Spacekittens” and “Cupcake Crisis,” will be our next game, and I’m really excited about it, but our best stuff is yet to come.
I don’t know if you saw this, but “Resident Evil 2: Remake” was just announced. So what is with the trend of all these remakes?
So wait, they’re remaking “Resident Evil 2?” I love that game, so I’m happy as well, but we’re out of ideas. I have a Playstation 4 and an Xbox One, and they were the worst upgrade in my life. I can play “Titanfall” on it, and the graphics are a little prettier, and the textures are a little sharper, but we’re not really trying to solve new problems. We’re not really trying to give new gameplay. It really feels to me like game development has hit a point of stagnation.
I think it’s really telling that with the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, our first instinct is to just upgrade the graphical fidelity. It’s the same criticism we got with “Revolution 60,” that graphics are all that matter. But why don’t we try to map out more realistic AI with NPCs? Why don’t we try to emotionally simulate situations better? Why are we still pinning every woman’s hair to the top of her head in a clip and not putting bones on it so it moves? We’re just solving the same problem over and over like it’s “Groundhog Day.” We need to get new people in the door so we can come up with new games. Game dev is a hall of mirrors, and you have the same kinds of people that develop the same types of games for 30 years.
How have you seen the crowdfunding scene evolve from a developer and designer standpoint?
Well, it helps a lot of these smaller games with one or two people, but the true trend is that crowdfunding has dried up for indie developers while costs keep getting higher and higher. A lot of people think of “Monument Valley” as an indie title, but it cost over $1 million to make. As much as I love the idea of crowdfunding, I think the reality of it is that if you really want to get in there, and make a triple A product and compete, you're going to have to work with venture capitalists, and do interviews.
One of the things I see happening, and it’s so frustrating for me, is that a lot of women in this field look at the venture capital scene, and there is this preconception that it’s not a space for us. That we can’t go out there and raise a few million dollars in seed funding. And I think if we really want to compete and build companies that are going to change the world, we need to push past that fear and ask to be taken seriously as Activision did, as EA did, as Blizzard did when they were starting out.
What gets me up in the morning is I completely believe it is a good and moral thing to give jobs to people in the industry who are typically not treated well. And it’s not just women, it’s people of color, the LGBT community, it’s all kinds of minorities in the field. And if you want to create a place that gets beyond the kind of scrappy, indie startup, that involves getting involved in the business-sphere, and auctioning off stock, and really growing the company. What you’re going to see from GSX in the next few months is the name of our studio is going to change. You’re going to see a whole bunch of new hires, and a whole bunch of money. I want to create the EA of our industry, but for women and other under-represented communities. It’s ambitious as hell, but it’s a worthwhile goal.
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