Jaffe 2.0: David Jaffe on putting gameplay first

Thursday, 1 September 2011 07:13 GMT By Nathan Grayson

David Jaffe lit a fire under the audience at PAX 2011, foregrounding mechanics over narrative drive. Nathan Grayson sat the God of War creator down and fanned the flames.

David Jaffe – Eat Sleep Play

Began his career as a QA tester at SCEA.

Created the Twisted Metal and God of War series.

Instrumental in the creation of Sony’s Santa Monica studio.

Founded Eat Sleep Play in 2007. The studio is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and has an ongoing exclusivity agreement with Sony.

Latest project is Twisted Metal, due exclusively on PlayStation 3 in February 2012.

Gave a rousing keynote at PAX 2011 calling on developers to foreground mechanics over story in game design.

David Jaffe isn’t a typical “core” gamer, and he’d be the first to admit it.

If you’re into reading between the lines, you’re probably already scratching your head. After all, we’re talking about the man who pioneered PlayStation mainstays like Twisted Metal and God of War; today’s cinematic giant-boss-bashing epics owe him the kind of gratitude usually reserved for parents or whoever came up with the idea for Nutella. In other words, Jaffe’s been down this path before and then some.

Thing is, he’s now certain that he’s found a dead end.

Story and gaming have always had something of a rocky working relationship. The end result? Jaffe’s message during PAX: Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. No more long-winded cut-scenes. No more throwing bottles at NPCs while they obliviously carry on with their life’s story.

So he’s going back to the basics, right? Not exactly. We sat down with Jaffe during PAX to chat about where he’s at as a game developer, storytelling in videogames, Angry Birds, microtransactions, telling the truth, and tons, tons, tons more. Tell your loved ones you’ll be occupied for most of the day and get ready to see the word “fuck” every time you blink. Here’s David Jaffe on, well, everything.

VG247: Obviously, you’re working on Twisted Metal right now, which is a big-budget ultra-blockbuster. You’ve also said, though, that $60 is a pretty extraordinary amount to charge for games. Given the popularity of smaller titles right now – especially on iPhone and stuff – would you be interested in giving smaller scale development another go? Maybe make Calling All Cars 2: Calling Even More Cars Than That?

David Jaffe: I think what’s really cool about the game space is that there are so many opportunities – such a spectrum of ways to communicate and make games. I love games on my iPhone, and I love big-budget games. So it’s really about what makes the most sense for what we want to do and express. So I have ideas of big things and small things.

The key thing that speaks to me is more about… I don’t want to be a movie-maker. I want to make play mechanics. I want to make gameplay. And so, I think there are games in my head that I can do at any of those levels that speak to that mechanics-driven mindset. But I think the bigger thing in my mind is less about scope. I want to walk away from trying to express things with anything other than mechanics. For a while, I really thought [big, cinematic games] were the way for me, but – for me, and I know for a lot of people it does – but for me, it doesn’t feel genuine. It doesn’t feel pure.

Did that shift have anything to do with your canceled PSP project, Heartland?

No, it mainly came about as the result of God of War. I mean, God of War was my swing at the fences of merging narrative and interactivity and merging emotion with interactivity. And I think we did a really great job – and it’s a really fun game and everything – but ultimately, I realized that pure play mechanics [matter most]. And I think you have to wrap it in a nice wrapper. It’s got to be fun and compelling conceptually. But, at its core, what your brain is doing when you’re playing a great game is a totally different thing than what it does when you’re watching a great movie – in my opinion.

Jaffe’s one hour PAX 2011 keynote in full.

I mean, I was on a panel with Ken Levine today, and he was like “Well yeah, but don’t you think part of your job is to sort of figure out how to evolve that – how to learn a new language that mixes interactivity and story?” What it taught me was, my gut doesn’t automatically come forward and assume that you have to merge storytelling and narrative with gameplay. I mean, why? Why is that the most important thing in the world? Why are we so compelled?

I don’t know about other players, but for me it’s absolutely a sense of wanting to do things that play to the strengths of the medium. The purity of the medium. And I look at the things that have been so successful – whether it’s, like, an Angry Birds or something like Ms Pac-Man, which I grew up with, or even big stuff like Deus Ex – they’re more about play than anything else.

It really is a sense that I don’t want to spend anymore of my precious time trying to be someone making a movie. I don’t want to make a movie. If I did, I’d go make a fucking movie. I want to make a game, and – even if it’s an epic story based thing – I want it to be epic and story based because of the interactive nature. Not the presentation and the cut-scenes and all that.

Certainly. But – by the same token – there are degrees of interactivity under that umbrella. For instance, a lot of shooters are trying to be big and epic with setpieces right now. You know, stroll through a corridor and thrill at the prospect of what’s essentially a tightly choreographed dance routine put on by monsters and explosions. Do you think that approach to interactivity dilutes the medium’s purity just as much?

I think what it comes down to is – and I haven’t seen any scientific studies about this, but I’m sure they exist – if you give me a controller, my brain is doing something different than if you say, “Hey, sit down and watch this movie.” So if you give me a controller and I walk through a room into this amazing thing that’s been set up, I’m just like what’s up there? What’s over here? What does this do? And it doesn’t feel anywhere near as emotional as when I abdicate control in a movie and go “Yeah, I don’t need to look around. I haven’t been given the preconceived idea or expectation that I need to look around.”

Jaffe’s PAX 2011 keynote in 1:20.

So my brain is in a different and relaxed state of “Entertain me. Show me something.” But the minute you put a controller in my hand, I want to play and run and jump and try things. And I don’t necessarily feel that the traditional narrative experience – or most, not all, but most narrative experiences – trying to piggyback on interactivity is conducive to that sort of mindset when you give me a controller.

And I know this isn’t every gamer, but this is me. And if I’m designing, I have to design for myself first. Otherwise, I can’t get excited and commit three years of my life away. Like I said during my keynote at PAX, I get that most people love that stuff. I appreciate that. I’m not trying to sell anybody on it like “I’m right. I’m right. Listen to me!”

Think about this, though. And I’m not trying to disparage any game, but let’s take Homefront from THQ, for example. I enjoyed what I played of it. I really liked Kaos before they closed down. They did a game before it called Frontlines: Fuel of War that was a really cool shooter – in fact, better than this one. Regardless, though, think of all the money and time that went into creating that bus ride at the beginning of Homefront, where you’re watching your countrymen get shot and all that.

As a player, I have a thousand times more fun – as an interactive experience – playing Angry Birds. Dragging my finger, pulling back the bird, realizing that “Oh, this one does this when I press it. This one goes faster! This one breaks into three! This one drops a bomb!” And I’m not saying it’s got to be a small game like that, but it’s a game that puts interactivity first. It puts the spirit of the medium first.

“The minute you try to merge [gameplay and narrative], it’s not like chocolate and peanut butter. It’s chocolate and tuna fish.”

As brilliantly executed as that Homefront scenario was, I still found myself looking around the bus. “Why can’t I move? What can’t I go over here?” The minute you try to merge [gameplay and narrative], it’s not like chocolate and peanut butter. It’s chocolate and tuna fish. It’s not a good combination for me as a player. Not necessarily for everybody else.

That’s the thing: I always say shit like this on the Internet, and I get hammered because people think I’m trying to knock the shit they like. I get that – especially at a conference like this – I’m not the guy. I’m not the Pied Piper. I get it. But for me, I don’t like that type of game as much.

And that’s interesting, because numbers seem to be on your side these days. I mean, Homefront sold a few million copies, but I imagine even gray moon men know about Angry Birds at this point.

Well, there are other reasons, too. Let’s just take Angry Birds. Part of it is the interface, the cost – all that’s true. But I look around the industry – and I love this industry; I’ve been part of it for a long time – and there’s a sense of a barrier to entry. Whether that’s controls or just the fucking wait it takes to boot up your motherfucking console, and then do an update. I mean, literally, on my PSPgo with street mode, I’m immediately in. Or on my iPhone or whatever.

To me, that’s a big part of it. And maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I just want to have fun, have a good experience, and move on. I don’t have interest in making a commitment. And I don’t know if that audience is getting smaller, but certainly when you bring up Angry Birds, it does say that there’s a lot of people – far more than we originally thought – that love interactivity. And there are now devices able to speak for that.

So then, on a personal level, is that encouraging for you? It seems like the industry’s shouting “Hey David, you’re right!” Do you think this is a good direction for the industry?

First off, to be clear, what’s great about PAX is – while you get a lot of core gamers – there are a lot of mechanics-based players here as well. But when I look around this group [gestures toward PlayStation demo kiosks], I see so much effort put [into cinematic stuff]. For a lot of people at PAX, I think it’s not effective.

You know, I don’t think the industry’s moving collectively toward small mechanics-based games. The industry is expanding to allow different profitable and sustainable business models. And I’m very passionate and excited about that. I mean, I would still love to make a big game one day. I’d just want it to be more mechanics-based than something like God of War – just as much as I’d want to make something small like that on Vita. It’s not so much about scope as it is focusing on mechanics. And I think the industry has now shown that there’s a big audience along that spectrum.

So what about the other side of the industry’s shiny new toybox: social gaming? Around events like PAX, it gets a pretty bad rap for being sort of “soulless.” What’s your take?

I think a business model is a business model. There’s a difference between a business model and the idea of social games. The idea of games that are meant to bring your friends into the experience is as old as the very first game that was invented. That’s wonderful. The idea of a business model like free-to-play or microtransactions or a number of those things – that’s going to be invented as we speak.

And I think even people who make those games will admit that they’ve tapped into something that works for a number of people. But at the same time, I imagine they would also admit that – at the moment – a lot of the most successful models do come at the expense of the quality of the experience. I don’t think it’s a baby-bathwater kind of thing. Like, can you take what the Zyngas of the world have pioneered and go “OK, there’s something here that’s absolutely working and resonating” with the mentality that currently the way it’s being expressed as a business model is a bit flawed? That needs to be worked out.

Twisted Metal in action.

I don’t think anybody would say there’s a problem with paying for fun. But I think the minute you start to tie in the amount of money you’ve paid with your ability to succeed, that’s where myself as a designer and player and a lot of people here at PAX have an issue. It’s not that we don’t want to pay for things. It’s that I want to know I beat that guy with my own ability.

What’s ironic about that, though, is in those social games – if you study them – you don’t have to pay a dime to be the best fucking player. And it’s not that dissimilar from a lot of guys who will spend months upping their rank in a game like Call of Duty or Battlefield, and going “I’ve paid with my time, so I can now decimate everyone.” So it’s just a matter of where you put your value. I mean, I don’t even like that one. With Twisted Metal, we do have a rank up system, but we’ve bent over backward to make sure that anyone who’s the highest level can still get their ass kicked by someone who’s just coming in. It’s not like you can unlock a car at level 30 that’s way better than your car at level one.

So it’s kind of interesting that a lot of hardcore gamers will bitch about that business model and how it breaks the game – which I agree with – but they don’t also realize that they’re kind of breaking it in the hardcore sector. What people like Zynga and Activision have realized is that there are other ways to monetize, whether it’s money or time. But I still think there’s a little bit more to go. We have to find a way to embrace these business models – which we have to embrace, because games are really expensive now – but not to the extent that the player feels like “I lost because I didn’t pay as much money as the other guy.”

That’s where it breaks down. Or “I didn’t spend as much time!” I don’t fucking like going into a first-person shooter that’s been out for a month as a level one. I just get headshotted by someone who has a better weapon than I do because they’ve played more. That’s really shitty. So I think it’s a really exciting time for redefining what a game is, what’s its value, how do we charge for it. But I don’t think anybody’s hit that sweet magic spot yet.

What did you do in Twisted Metal to make sure there wouldn’t be that kind of disparity?

We let you unlock options. We don’t let you unlock power. So, for example, we let you unlock a shield at a certain level, and it’s a reflection shield. You start with the normal shield that protects you for X number of seconds. The reflection shield will send back missiles and some other weapons with homing on them to the guy who fired them. But it takes more juice to use, and it doesn’t last as long. So it’s a matter of risk-reward. I can use the normal shield, which will still let me survive just as long as your reflector shield. I just won’t have offensive power. I can use it more often than you can use your reflector shield.

Or let’s say you unlock Sweet Tooth at level 15. I can wipe the floor with Sweet Tooth using the car you unlock at level one. It’s just different. What you’re unlocking is new content, but the content isn’t better or worse. It’s just different and more. So that’s how we’re approaching it in Twisted Metal. If you’ve got everything unlocked, you’re still no better or worse than everyone else. Your skill determines that.

That’s actually really cool. The Tribes: Ascend folks are doing something really similar, but with microtransactions. You buy different classes, but it’s not, say, the difference between being Captain DeathLaser McMurderface and a guy who’s jetpack is an office fan duct-taped to a backpack. Their term for it is “horizontal expansion.”

Right, like League of Legends. And the tricky part there is, well, there was this journalist online who said it’s a really cool monetization model, but you can’t recognize in the heat of battle which person has which character class. And without the ability to do that, it kind of devalues it a bit, because you can’t plan around how that guy is going to be able to fight you. And I hope they fix that, because I really like it. I like that term, too. Horizontal expansion. That’s really cool to me.

Switching to a more personal topic, you’re obviously a very outspoken guy in an industry that’s become increasingly obsessed with very deliberate messages dressed up in little pink PR packages with bows on top. You actually speak your mind – even after having it come back to bite you. Which is completely awesome, but I have to ask: Why? And can you think of any situation where you’d just default to “OK, I need to stop talking”?

“There’s a necessity – in my opinion – to be honest. If someone’s going to put a spotlight on you or a recorder in your face or even if it’s your own blog.”

Of course. I’m not reckless with it. There’s a necessity – in my opinion – to be honest. If someone’s going to put a spotlight on you or a recorder in your face or even if it’s your own blog, I think you have a responsibility to be honest. That doesn’t mean that you’re reckless. I work for and co-own Eat, Sleep, Play. I used to work for Sony. There are secrets, political things, and personal things that are not my position, and it wouldn’t be in my best interest to share them. And frankly, most of them are no one’s business. Just because someone would like to have a webcam at Sony in every conference room… that’s fine. But you don’t have the right to all that information.

But yeah, certainly there are things I don’t say, because it’s not my place [to say them]. Maybe it’s no one’s business. But within that, I think there’s a lot of freedom. The thing for me where it started is that I grew up absolutely obsessed with Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas as a kid. And my walls were covered; it was almost like a shrine. You would have thought I was a serial killer stalking him. It was like behind-the-scenes photos, movie posters – I wanted to be a movie maker. And I was obsessed with watching the behind-the-scenes making of Temple of Doom and all their movies and shit.

“It’s hard. You put your health second a lot of times. You put your family second a lot of times. Failure sucks; it hurts. You doubt yourself.”

The reality is – it’s not that they were out-and-out lies – but when I came out to Hollywood and tried to make movies, it was so manipulative in terms of a message intended to sell a product. Now, I want to sell products. I’d love for Twisted Metal to become a big hit. There’s all kinds of great stuff that happens when you make a big hit. I want that. But I still think there’s room to tell you about our game and be excited and let you in. We can also kind of say, “This is real.”

When I did my keynote, it was very important to me that if I was going to stand in front of all those people, I had an opportunity to really express something genuine. Like “Hey, you get scared, and you get worried, and you have doubts about your abilities. You don’t know if you’re going to be as successful as you once were, and what does that mean?” The message that you’re sending out to the world is this big fucking loud bullhorn of “Everything’s great. This industry’s awesome. It’s not hard. Come join us. Make games.” And all of that is true. Those aren’t lies. But there’s also a flipside, which is “It’s hard. You put your health second a lot of times. You put your family second a lot of times. Failure sucks; it hurts. You doubt yourself.”

I’m not trying to make it sound depressing, because I love this industry. But I think people are owed that. In our society – whether you talk about videogame journalism or politicians – I think we’re owed more truth than the media or the people with the media have allowed us to get. And I think it’s damaging to us as a human race. And so, in my own teeny tiny small way, if I can stand up on stage and convince someone that “Hey, the guy who makes these games that I really happen to like with a team I really happen to like is also a real guy. I can relate to that. Maybe I can contribute in a similar or even bigger way then he did,” I think that’s cool!

On the flipside of that, what about the folks who decide you’ve committed a cardinal sin by not being some sort of omnipotent deity? I think it’s similar with, say, Peter Molyneux. The second either of you slips up, gamers storm the message boards with stories of how you ate their families. Are they being unreasonable, or is there a tiny sliver of method to their madness?

You know, anonymity is a really dangerous fucking thing. It’s wonderful thing, but it’s also really dangerous. People let their worst sides of themselves out on the Internet. It’s cruel and it’s mean. But at the end of the day, I don’t give a fuck. I’m not saying I don’t care. Like, nobody wants to be told that they’re fat. A few days ago, I did an interview, and I saw that someone said, “Jaffe, your forehead’s too fucking shiny.” No one wants to hear bad things about themselves. I guarantee you, though, it’d be pretty easy for me to go to every single one of those commenters and point out a bunch of fucking shit I don’t like about them either.

“People let their worst sides of themselves out on the Internet. It’s cruel and it’s mean.”

But ultimately, yeah, it hurts sometimes, but what are you gonna do? Shut up? I mean, it’s an absurd concept, and I would hope that these people commenting and having really negative opinions don’t think it’s actually having an effect. I mean, really? Do you honestly believe that has power? Get off your fucking ass and go make something. That has power.

But sitting there anonymously and saying I’m fat? You think I don’t know I’m overweight? But trust me: I’ve beaten myself up a thousand times worse than you ever will. The thing that bothers me the most isn’t the haters on the Internet hiding behind anonymity. It’s the fact that there’s actually a perception of strength or balls [in doing that]. You want to fucking come at me? Then come at me at PAX in real life. Then we’ll figure it out. Then we’ll have a real conversation. But don’t post anonymously and act like you’re the man.