Paul Neurath Interview

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Paul Neurath is the founder of the mythical company Blue Sky Productions, later renamed as Looking Glass Studios, one of the best videogames studies we’ve enjoyed to date. His name is for many a solid pillar of videogames history, a point of reference for those who believe that games are more than mere entertainment, indeed a form of artistic expression similar to movies, theater or literature. His role in Looking Glass has been, among different things, the creative director, and that creativity is a vital and defining sign of identity of this study.

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After Looking Glass closure, Paul founded the company Floodgate Entertainment, where in addition to mobile games development they have also taken care of ‘Neverwinter Nights expansion”Shadows of Undrentide’, working again with Arkane in ‘Dark Messiah of Might and Magic’, the underrated first-person shooter game published by Ubisoft. He has kindly agreed to answer our questions, something we really feel proud of, as you all fans of this humble site can imagine.

Are you aware Looking Glass is a true legend for many players?

Not sure if players consider LookingGlass a legend… are not legends things that are more mythic than real? 😉

I do know there are gamers who fondly remember playing our games more than a decade later. In an industry where memories are often as short as the hit game from last year, it’s cool that folks still recall these games.

Would you share with us what are your best memories from that time?

What I enjoyed more than anything as when our teams would pull together to solve some thorny challenge on a project, and come out the other side with something better than I would have thought.

For instance, I recall when we were having difficulty getting the stealth dynamic for Thief. We had spent months trying to get this to work, but it just was not happening. There was no tension, no sense that you as a player were actually sneaking through dark corridors trying to evade guards. Then the programmers took a new approach to the stealth AI, and the audio guys came up with a more effective way to communicate to the player how the guards sensed their presence if they made noise. These two things came together, and all at once we have a version of the game where the stealth dynamic clicked!

You’ve spent ten years conducting games of quite different styles, all of them displaying great quality at almost all levels. What’s the secret?

No secret really. We care greatly about the games we work on. We also try to innovate where we can, bringing something new to the table. I’ve also been privileged to work with some super talented folks. That’s really it in a nutshell.

Having worked as a creative director and designer, we guess that must have posed a lot of challenges when dealing with a project, especially one as complex as a video game. What aspects are the most important for you when setting up the master guidelines for any of those projects?

Reiterating the point above, I believe innovation is an essential ingredient. If you’re not innovating in at least some aspect of a new project, then why do the project? Passion is another essential ingredient. If the team is not genuinely passionate about the game then the results are invariably going to be less than great. The third essential ingredient is a strong team who are a good fit for the project.

I also do look for a high-concept design that holds together well. Something that draws together the minute-to-minute game play, and provides the players with a compelling aspiration. Thief is good example. We were struggling in the early months for a high-concept for the game, but once we gravitated to the simple premise that you are a thief trying to steal stuff and using stealth as a tool it all came together very quickly.

Have you ever felt the very well known ‘blank sheet’ syndrome most writers always talk?

Actually, not really… The way I tend to work is that at any given time I’ve got a half-dozen concepts percolating somewhere in the back of my head, often only half-formed. The challenge I find is not so much the starting point of a concept, but fleshing it out and finding a way to make it cohesive. Some writers say that they let the story write itself, and I think I fall more into this category. Only downside is that sometimes you just have to be very patient for the right story to surface 😉

Looking Glass has created true masterpieces, none of which cannot unfortunately be considered as a great commercial success. Is there no market for creative videogames?

It is somewhat of a myth that LookingGlass games never had any hits. Ultima Underworld, Flight Unlimited and Thief each sold over a half-million units, which was pretty darn good for a PC game during the 1990s. At the same time, it is true we never had a blockbuster original game, like what Valve did with Half-Life or Id with Quake. We also had a few games, such as System Shock and System Shock 2, which were superb games but only achieved mediocre sales.

I think that there were two likely factors why we fell short of the blockbuster mark at LookingGlass. First, we were more focused on providing a deep, immersive experience than folks such as Valve and Id. For instance, System Shock was a complex game and demanding on players, particularly for a game circa 1994. In comparison, Valve and Id made their games with a lower “barrier-of-entry”, and with the focus being more on fast action and great graphics. The latter approach makes it easier to reach a big audience.

The second factor is that we were not always able to get strong marketing support behind our titles. In the game industry there is no question that a big marketing campaign can dramatically increase sales. Games such as Quake had substantially more marketing behind them than any of our titles. This was partly because our games were a “harder sell” for our publishing partners, as we often went outside of the conventions of the day with our designs. Game publishers are most comfortable selling what they know, and we invariably threw some surprises and unknowns into the mix.

To circle back to your question, I do believe there is a market for creative videogames. But if you get “too creative” the risks go up that you may find it challenging to get a publisher behind your title. Likewise you risk getting ahead of the audience. There is a balance. I think BioShock, which in many ways is the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, illustrates what can happen when you strike a commercial balance between being creative and being sellable, and have the benefit of a big marketing campaign behind the title.

Would you say a better promotion and distribution campaign could have changed things for them?

I’m sure it would of helped. Would a big campaign have doubled the sales of a System Shock 2? Who knows, but I would have been nice to see 😉

Videogame distributors and publishers are always looking for an early recovery of investment (logical to some extent), believing also that complex videogames will not be well received by the mainstream videogames market. Do you share that view?

Some of the games we did at LookingGlass were overly complex and deep to readily reach a wide audience of game players. The design of Thief was informed by this knowledge, and indeed Thief ended up being a solid hit for us. Had we done more games at the sales level of Thief LookingGlass would be thriving today.

The original System Shock probably went the furthest into the deep and complex territory. Yet it was an awesome game, and many gamers view it as one of the greatest PC games of all time. I do not in any way regret us making that game. Nevertheless, if we could do it over I would have focused more on making the game more accessible and toning down some of the more demanding aspects of game play — if only so that we had a better chance to commercially establish the franchise.

Relationship between Looking Glass and distributors could be defined as…

Occasionally great, sometimes challenging. Again, we often gave our publishers titles that were challenging to market, and that goes against the strength of these companies.

Over the years people usually realize and accept both errors and successes committed in the past. Looking Glass main successes are evident, but what about errors?

We surely made many errors over the 10 years we were in business. All companies do; more so if they do anything interesting. We did try to learn from our errors.

Some of the errors we made…

– We should have dialed back somewhat the level of depth and complexity we put in some of our games, and put more emphasis on accessibility. We did learn from this, and Thief was the result.

– We did not put sufficient emphasis on pure visual pizzazz for many of our games. Fight Unlimited was an exception; but for our other titles the level visual eye candy, and providing fast and smooth frame rates, was not on par with the blockbusters of the time. This hurt our sales.

– We spread ourselves too thin in terms of genres. Nearly every blockbuster studio of that time had a tight focus, such as only doing PC first-person shooters, as often as not just a single franchise. We did 3D fantasy games, 3D science fiction games, flight simulators, sports games, and others genres. In hindsight, we were slightly crazed to try to tackle such a wide palette as a small company, and it meant that we could not build the level of expertise in any single genre as we otherwise could.

– We were undercapitalized for what we were trying to do. As an small but ambitious studio we tried to push ourselves and do a lot; but often with not quite enough capital. It was a risky strategy that ultimately contributed to our demise.

I could go on, but that’s probably enough to mention for now.

After all these years, would you share with us your sincere opinion about the current videogame market state?

Ever since I entered the game industry in 1984 it has been in a constant state of flux. This has not changed, and it something I like about the industry. It means there is always something new; always something to learn. I’d get bored otherwise 😉

Recent industry trends I like…

– Emergence of social network games. Before I got into the game industry I played tons of pen-and-paper and board games. These were all multi-player games, and they were all about being social. Only relatively recently with the emergence of MMO’s and now social network games have social games really come into the fore in the game market. No longer is it an anti-social experience of being alone at your PC monitor 😉

– Still creativity going on if you look for it. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by new game that come out every year that do something really cool and creative. Look at what PopCap did in the casual PC market with Plants Vs Zombies; what the Harmonix guys have done with their music games, or outside-of-the-box games such as Katamari Damancy.

– Games reaching much wider audience. Back in the LookingGlass days even the top games such as Quake reached only a relatively small audience of core gamers. If you reached 2M players that was about as good as it got. Today a top social network game or casual game can reach 20M or more players. That that can include Grandmothers in their 60’s, kids, and everything in between. I’m a fan of games, so having more people play games is a good thing in my book 😉

– Cool new platforms. New platforms, such as the iPhone, are a great way to deliver cool games to a wider audience than in years past. They are also fun platforms to develop on.

Recent trends I don’t like so much…

– For the big, traditional games (e.g. console games), pretty much a requirement today that you spend at least $10M on development with a massive team, and likewise have a massive marketing campaign, if you want to have a fair shot of a hit. Massive teams means more focus is on pure production and managing the team resources than on being creative. Like a big ship, it can be hard to change course if you are half-way through the project and find that the design is not fun. Likewise, at these budgets publishers are, understandably, even more gun-shy than they ever to try out some creative, new concept. Much more of the development dollars get plowed back into doing “safe” sequels of last year’s hits.

– Dominance of established brands. Related to the point above, to try to reduce risk publishers are gravitating more than ever to using brands from films, TV and the like to build games around. A strong brand certainly can help, but it also means that what the developer brings to the table in terms of their creativity and design is valued proportionally less. Also, too often publishers overspend on branding and under spend on development, with the result of a mediocre game.

– Focus on fast and cheap in the casual, mobile and social network game market. There is a fairly commonly held belief that fast and cheap is the way to go for these markets, with the expectation that casual gamer care less about quality. The strategy often seems more about throwing a lot of stuff against the wall and seeing what occasional title might stick. Casual consumer are not dumb, and they value quality games. Actually really good casual games, such as Plants Vs. Zombies, sell extremely well. However, the opportunities for developers to do that caliber of casual game are few and far between.

Many veteran or expert players, myself included, feel that current games are less creative than those from ten or maybe fifteen years ago, most of them at least. I am being nostalgic, I know, but it is a difficult task today finding a similar study to those of Origin or Looking Glass, to name two examples.

I think it is true generally speaking. The more recent industry trends have tended to work against supporting the more creative titles. But there is still creativity to be found if you look around.

A lot of publishers and distributors seem to be fleeing from complex or difficult offers, fearing a frustrated player who will stop playing if faced against a really tough challenge.

Certainly for casual gamers this is true. Most casual gamers are not looking for a complex or extra challenging game experience. Among harder core gamers, they want the challenge, and value a measure of complexity if it is done well and translates to compelling game play. But as a business, it is harder today to justify the big development budgets if you are catering to the more niche audience of hard core gamers. Consider that in the 1990’s you could deliver a challenging and complex PC game for a few million dollars. Today the cost are about 5 fold that, yet the sales are no higher for these core games than back then. The costs are higher because, generally speaking, core gamers demand the top visuals and deep game play that clearly exceeds the best of such games from a few yeas back, and this is costly to deliver. So there is a bit of a catch 22.

They commonly believe that difficulty and complexity will never favor sales. Your thoughts?

No question that going too difficult or complex will cut back sales, as we saw with the original System Shock. But there is a middle ground, at least for core gamers, where they want enough difficulty and complexity to keep the game challenging and with new stuff to learn.

Time ago, Warren Spector defined both ‘Thief’ and ‘Deus Ex’ as ‘immersion simulators’. Would you suggest us where to find them today?

At LookingGlass we called this approach “immersive reality”, but Warren’s term is equally apt. It came out of some of us having worked on flight simulators in the 1980’s, and then applying some of what we learned about this genre to Ultima Underworld and System Shock. In flight simulators you bend backwards to give the player as much freedom and control as you can in the simulation, creating a sort of game play “sandbox”. To some degree games such as the Sims and GTA took a similar approach.

Many players like being taken off the “rails” of more traditional games and having the freedom to chart their own course in the game. At the same time, if the environment is too open-ended this can lead to frustrations for players, who still need some direction and prodding at times 😉

Anyway, to answer your question I believe that elements of “immersion simulators” can still be found today in a variety of games, but games that have the all-out focus on this approach are few and far between. This is in part because of the belief, perhaps correct, that full-out expressions of this game play style are suited only for harder core gamers, and again, it is hard to justify modern game budgets for just this audience. On a related note, there are notably fewer flight simulators and racing simulators today than ten years ago for much the same reason.

It’s true there is fewer Racing and Flight simulators today, but they are better. If you test iRacinc, X-Plane, IL2 Sturmovik series or DCS Black Shark, you can see that they are superb sims. And MS Flight Simulator sold a lot before was discontinued. May be the market is profitable enough for making such of great sims.

I’ve played a couple of these simulations, and they are very good. Nevertheless, there are many fewer simulations being developed today than in the 1990’s years, with the major franchises from that era having been generally discontinued.

What is ‘inmersion’ for you?

For me, Ultima Underworld was the first game I worked on that achieved immersion. It was a game where you could suspend your disbelief. You could get so pulled into the minute-to-minute game play that you forgot, at least for brief spells, that you were playing a game, and instead felt and acted as if you really were exploring a dungeon. It also gave you the sense that you could problem solve your way around obstacles, finding your own solutions that perhaps not even the game designers had thought of.

We believe games can be not only entertainment but a fantastic way for storytelling, offering many possibilities for singular artistic expression. Looking Glass showed that, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of both comparison with the quality of movie scripts, and respect as a truly artistic medium at the same level. What does it take to change this?

Absolutely agree that games have a long way to go to match the level storytelling and character development that a good film can deliver. Part of it is an inherent limitation of the interactive media. It is far easier to tell an story and communicate character in a liner media such as a film or a book. Once you go interactive and non-liner, you introduce all sorts of hurdles, and game designers have not yet found a way to level to fully compensate.

I think the other challenge is delivering believable characters. When a fine actor is on screen, the tone of their voice, the gestures, the non-verbal communication they can deliver — it all adds up to something that no AI can come to close to as yet. The “uncanny valley” effect also factors in, as nobody has figured out yet how to render virtual characters in a fully life-like way, and if you get close but not quite there, it just looks strange.

So there is a lot of stuff to solve yet if games are going to compete with Hollywood on story and characters.

Maybe we need a more mature and specialized press?

There are many in the game press who are well informed about games, and value what LookingGlass and others have done in terms of innovation. What I think might be lacking is the equivalent of the Academy Awards done in a way that the broad audience cares about. There are various awards given out, but the broad gaming audience mostly does not follow these. Without the draw of big movie stars and comedians to get audience attention, perhaps this is just wishful thinking.

It’s been established a dependence between distributors and press. Distributors need and use press to promote their product, while press needs and use distributors to attend events, enjoy access to exclusive content and receive trial versions of games before they are released. The obvious result is we have no news, only propaganda. Would you say this tendency is hurting media maturity process?

I suspect, but not an area of my expertise.

May be you could also say that any saga being stretched out does not help too; it seems they fear creating new licenses, and that goes against games evolution.

Yes. Given the big budgets of modern games, publishers are more than ever nervous about backing some game that is novel and innovative. But it still does sometime happen.

Are you following the Thief 4 development?, What do you think about?

Not really. Hope it lives up to the original…

We can find several ex-components of Looking Glass in Floodgate. Any plans to develop a new license for PC?

Floodgate is focused on casual and social games. As such, we’re not looking to do the high-end, harder-core PC games that LookingGlass was known for. But we do still push for innovation in our games, and look to do immersion where appropriate.

Would you share with us any fresh news about Floodgate future plans?

We started a big push towards social network games this year. It not simply that it is a “hot” market, but we feel that there are opportunities for us to innovate and raise the quality bar. We’ll be announcing some cool stuff soon…

Is it less risky the mobiles market than the PC one?

Yes. Budgets are much lower, marketing is much lower.

Looking Glass final project was ‘Deep Cover’, which was never finished. Can you confirm us who owns the rights?

Complicated…

Would Floodgate be interested in it now?

It as a cool game concept and I wish we could have brought it to market. But it is not a concept that is compatable with Floodgate’s focus on casual and social gaming.

PC platform is said to be not as profitable as consoles, and that’s funny as Activision-Blizzard are making a lof of money, working exclusively for PC.

Yes, the broad notion that PC games are less profitable than console games is not accurate. Some PC games are among the most profitable games in recent years, and continue to sell in huge numbers. Many, perhaps the majority, of console games today are break-even or lose money. That being said, top selling XBOX, WII or Playstation games do typically outsell the top selling single-player PC games, and in terms of gross revenues, if you exclude MMO’s, I believe that console games outsell PC by a wide margin.

I think it would be hard to justify the economics of a modern single player focused PC game such as Thief or Ultima Underworld, which is why so few are produced. But if you could pull off this same game genre with aplomb on an XBOX or Playstation, you could do just fine.

They say their success is based on just giving people what they want. What do you think people want?

I don’t agree with this adage. I think that successful film directors, book authors, and game designers go under the hood to figure out what the audience “really” wants, not simply what they might tell you if you ran some focus group. More to the point, most often this process involves some creative and intuitive leap that the person driving the creative process finds personally compelling.

Floodgate has closely worked with Arkane. I guess you know it’s been purchased by ZeniMax Media. Any thoughts on that?

The Arkane guys are great guys, and one of the few studios trying to develop immersive games today. ZeniMax core company is Bethesda, who has likewise continued to do some innovative and great games. So seems like a good match!

Do you think this could affect the creative freedom of the company?

I’m not close enough to how these guys are planning to work together to know. I hope it allows for Arkane to have greater creative freedom than they have in recent years.

Is true creative freedom available only in the independent games, or are there also constraints due to limited budgets?

I’m pretty convinced that any studio can achieve creative freedom if they try hard enough and they have the talent to pull it off. Budgets are a secondary consideration; unless the expectation is that you are building a high-end game with lots of content and features and also trying to be innovative – all while under a tight budget. That combination is not likely to work 😉

What would be your ideal game?

One that I would play again and again, enjoying immensely every time. Probably not going to happen; but that is what ideals are for, something to shoot for.

Still playing videogames? (that’s a question my wife asks me)

Yes. I enjoy playing all types of games, so long as they are good 😉

Thank you for this interview, Mr. Neurath, and thanks a lot for creating Looking Glass.

Most welcome.

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