You started out as a game tester at Acclaim, then became producer on the games that put Rockstar on the map: “Grand Theft Auto III”, “Vice City” and “Max Payne”. How did you make that leap?
It was a combination of good fortune and hard work. After four years at Acclaim and a couple promotions I was one of the supervisors overseeing a large staff of testers. A former boss, Jeff Rosa, had been tasked with building up the QA (Quality Assurance) department at Rockstar and he brought over a few of us just as Acclaim was really starting to take water.
Rockstar was expanding at a rapid clip so there was room for growth. The company was relatively small and there was natural overlap between QA and Product Development so it wasn’t long before a few of us were being given new titles and greater responsibilities.
What was your favorite part of working at Rockstar Games?
Definitely the people. Everyone there was passionate about making great games, even if they weren’t necessarily gamers. Rockstar set out to be a label in the style of Def Jam and that attracted people who saw this as a craft, not just a business. It was also a fun environment. We worked hard but also cut loose with game sessions, heated foosball competitions, drinks in the neighborhood and of course, tons of Rockstar schwag.
Your grandmother didn’t approve of you working on violent video games. What things did your grandmother say to make you reevaluate the work you were doing at Rockstar?
My feelings about working on violent games definitely came about over time. I don’t think I ever had an actual conversation about it with my grandmother, but I do recall my own uneasiness with the notion of explaining to her my involvement. Just the thought of trying to justify it was a catalyst for me to reflect more on my deeper feelings on the matter.
What are your deeper feelings on the matter?
It’s a difficult subject to speak on broadly because every game takes a different approach in how it incorporates violence. I mean, I love watching “Game of Thrones” as much as the next guy, but when it comes to games and the agency they provide, I’m not a fan of over the top violence. I can see the cathartic argument, but many violent games fail to induce a great deal of sympathy or introspection, so what we’re often left with is a simulation that excels at reinforcing participatory destruction in some form or another. Not everything needs to be a morality play but personally I’m not interested in creating any more games that hinge on overt violence to arrive at some end.
Do you feel the migration from console to social / mobile gaming has led to a lot less violence in games? Or is it still prevalent as ever?
The mobile audience is obviously broader so you’ll see more non-violent games that attempt to appeal to a casual set. Also, with the input limitations, there just aren’t as many games from certain genres such as first and third person shooters. Overall though, I wouldn’t say that things are too different.
You run Rally Games from Brooklyn, New York. Is there a community of like-minded people, a mini “silicon alley,” in Brooklyn? Or is it hard to find people that do what you do?
Brooklyn is loaded with creative people who share a passion for games. It’s actually been pretty easy to connect with other game developers. Since studios here tend to be smaller and more independent than say, in California, there’s a sense of community and collaboration amongst the folks that are here.
What made you decide “Top Bot” was going to be your first game?
The whole notion of Rally Games was born out of the idea of bringing people together. We knew that we wanted to make a game that leveraged asynchronous play to allow friends to connect even when they weren’t online at the same time. We also wanted a core mechanic that anyone could pick up and play. The result was “Top Bot”, a one-touch, turn-based racing game that allows up to seven friends to compete against each other.
The crazy thing with “Top Bot” is that you’re always racing against your friends’ ‘ghosts’. It takes a minute to understand how it all works but it’s pretty awesome once you get into it.
For console developers, producers and marketing teams are in different departments. But for mobile developers, the producer and marketer are often the same person trying to find ways to monetize the gameplay. What business model challenges do you face as a mobile developer?
This is a tough one. The whole industry is still adjusting to the explosion of mobile, but the real shake up is in dealing with free-to-play. A fellow developer shared something he heard at a conference: at any given point, a player should be able to spend $10,000 in your game. To me, that’s just bananas. It doesn’t feel good to imagine that sort of business model, but that’s the way things are trending, and it’s a shift that’s coloring game design in a massive way.
For us, it’s about striking a balance between offering players great value and remaining profitable. It’s an additional design challenge that you might not have with a console title.
What advice can you give someone wanting to start his or her own independent developer?
Whether you’re starting out as an independent developer or launching your own studio, the best thing you can do is to talk to other developers. Attend local meet ups and plug yourself into the community. Ask advice and try to leverage the experience of those who’ve already gone down a similar path.
Build a game that’s simple but solid. Be creative but don’t be too ambitious when starting out. Remember that with each game you’ll gain valuable experience that’ll apply to subsequent projects, and each project that you complete, however ‘small,’ will build your confidence. Even geniuses like Notch developed several games before hitting it big with “Minecraft”.
What’s next for Rally Games?
We’re continuing to update and enhance “Top Bot” each month and we’re looking into the possibility of an Android version. We have some great ideas on how we can build upon “Top Bot”’s asynchronous tech for new projects. “Top Bot” is inspired by “Mario Kart”, we grew up playing the NES & SNES, and we see a lot of potential in taking some of the classics and re-thinking them with an eye towards asynchronous play.