Brian Mitsoda Interview

Brian MitsodaBrian Mitsoda is a northamerican game designer. We have talked about him before, but in case you do not know him, we should remember he has written great amount of the Vampire Bloodlines story, including the dialogues of the Malkavian clan, and he is primarily responsible for the level Ocean Hotel, from the same game. Perhaps this could be his best known work, but he has also been part of Black Isle for the development of TORN, later canceled, and Obsidian, collaborating in Alpha Protocol.

Brian is currently an independent developer who created the Doublebear Productions team, which is developing a promising zombies role-playing game called Dead State. They are supported from Iron Tower Studios, developers of another promising RPG: Age of Decadence, a game we have already talked about. Brian has kindly agreed to answer a few questions by email, so we thank him deeply.

How does it feel to work in an independent study after having participated in major productions like Vampire Bloodlines?

Well, technically, I don’t think Bloodlines was major compared to the 50+ size teams most projects have to have today. It was a small team working on a project we all felt strongly about and it was probably the closest thing you could have gotten to indie/garage development at the time on a title that was backed by Activision. I think most of the team liked working on the project because it felt less like a production line and more like a collaborative effort.

DoubleBear is definitely a different experience with us having a smaller team and most of us living in different areas of the world, but it’s very exciting to be working on an indie RPG that tries to do something a bit different than everyone’s used to. It can be a challenge, sure, but that’s a factor in projects of any size.

In past decades, particularly in the late 90’s and early 2000, creativity was the main factor for many video games, whereas in the current decade that creativity seems to be aimed only by certain independent studies. Do you agree?

Yes and no. I love a lot of games from that time period, and there were a ton of unique titles coming out at that time. But, of course, we only remember the best games and even some of those don’t hold up that well when we play them now. As for creativity, there’s no shortage of it out there – developers have tons of good ideas and you can see that in the explosion of indie titles – but the costs have escalated to unheard of amounts and the money is always going to bet on the safe projects. I guess as a side effect, the mass market has put pressure on developers to make the controls and interface as intuitive as possible, which has led to less frustrating games with good ideas buried under horrible control schemes, and as a result, there are more people playing games. Some of those gamers get bored of the mainstream offerings and move on to check out smaller projects, which is great for the indie community and creates a consumer base for more unconventional games. In turn, a lot of the success of those smaller projects will occasionally ripple into the mainstream development community.

Vampire Bloodlines was not released in optimal conditions and that affected the sales. You once said a member of Activision was constantly in the studio supervising everything, as the launching date approached. Too many pressures?

Well, some of that was due to deadlines, and a lot of it was the team’s own devotion to putting out the best possible game they could in the time remaining. That turned into a lot of late nights on our own time to try and make the game better. In the end, there was only so much we could do or were allowed to do and it was taken out of our hands. Would more time have helped? Yeah, most developers will always want more time to polish their games and Bloodlines needed some more time. We were also released against multiple big name sequels (Half-Life 2, Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 3) and that kind of hurt our initial sales too, so holding the title to a less crowded release window would have helped too. I have no idea what the sales figures are now, but I’m betting that Bloodlines has beat sales expectations over time.

Troika has already made three great games, but containing some serious mistakes on them. In fact, all of them received patches made by the community. It seems that they needed more development time; may be they were too complex or launching deadlines were too tight…

I can’t really speak for the other projects – I was only on Bloodlines – but I think that some of that has to do with publishers giving RPGs the same time constraints as other titles, which just isn’t possible. They’re big games and they need a lot of content. Not saying it was the case with Troika, but sometimes the developer overpromises and that definitely doesn’t help things either. As for the community, almost every semi-popular game (and a few not so popular ones) seem to have some level of community support and the requisite nude skins.

Must be a relief to work with no one telling you what to do and when to do it.

That’s not entirely true – I tell myself to finish shit constantly. There’s still pressure to get things done and we all try to meet deadlines because the longer a project goes, the harder it is to keep up the momentum. That’s not just a team problem, but it also affects the community for your game too.

Vampire Bloodlines case is weird. The game had bad sales that meant Troika’s end, but since then it has been followed by a loyal community able to release patches through these years, trying to improve it and even adding further modifications. Actually is still being sold through Steam and other platforms, despite all this time. What do you think?

Troika’s end wasn’t completely due to Bloodlines – we could have had another project lined up after Bloodlines. Not like there was much time to pursue that though. Had Bloodlines been a success, sure, maybe it would have been much easier to sign another project or a sequel, but that didn’t happen and we all moved on.

It’s strange and awesome that Bloodlines is still being played and sold to this day. Even though we don’t see a dime from it, it would be nice to know what our numbers are. Maybe it would help publishers think about RPGs as a long-term investment versus a game that lives or dies based on its first week’s results.

No editor or SDK ever appeared, limiting the possibilities of modifying it. The publishers are today more interested in paid DLCs, but they are not noticing what advertising could involve for a development team when a game is kept alive for so long. Any chance for Dead State including an editor or SDK?

Probably not. At least, right now, we don’t have any plans or time for it. The first priority is to get the game out and get the engine in good enough shape for us to rapidly integrate content.

Free software is helping many companies to grow, including Google. However, with a few exceptions, developers and game publishers do not seem to believe in this philosophy, as if they were afraid of losing intellectual property rights. Free software could help to share ideas and improve them, reducing costs. As a videogame developer, do you see any advantage in free software?

That’s a complicated issue. Certainly there’s some quality open source projects out there, but it all comes down to features in the program and what your team is used to using, so I don’t know if there’s going to be any time in the near future when major projects can be done completely with open source art, engine, and animation tools. You’ll probably see more engines and tools going for a profit-share model, if anything.

Dead State uses the Torque 3D graphics engine, which can be compiled on GNU / Linux. Have you ever considered a version of Dead State for this operating system?

Not really, no. But I guess the diplomatic answer everyone always gives is “we’ll consider it when the game is done” or something close to that.

Your work in Vampire Bloodlines is, in my opinion, brilliant. Can we expect to see something similar to the Malkavian dialogues in Dead State?

Not really. Malkavian insanity was part of the game world – there’s not really an equivalent in Dead State. We’ll probably use extra lines to expand dialogue choices and reaction.

Isometric perspective, turn combats, morals, complex IA… We should be thankful that someone dares to engage in such a project. It seems that today only the first person is admitted, while the turn-based role games have almost disappeared, even though that system provided masterpieces like Fallout or Arcanum. Are we doomed to see how turn-based combats become a relic of the past?.

Dead State

I don’t know if that’s the case. There are so many platforms out there and so many people making games. Isometric turn-based on PC has been lacking as of late, but I’ve played a few on consoles, like the Disgaea series. We went with isometric turn-based because we wanted to build a lot of different environments and maps (which takes much longer in third/first person) and we wanted the combat to be ruled by tactics rather than reflexes. I’ve said it before, but I think the tension in X-Com was a big influence on our game.

Veteran players are notice that the videogames are taking the same way as Hollywood cinema: high budgets, poor scripts, sagas repeated to infinity, and so on. Has technology won over creativity?

For big budget movies and games, it’s unfortunately going to be ruled by the lowest common denominator – try to attract as many people to your product as possible by making it accessible, familiar. The thing is, that same digital technology and cheaper FX has allowed some filmmakers to make some incredible films on a shoestring budget that would not be possible in years past without looking really cheap – movies like Moon and District 9, for example. When game developers don’t have to reinvent the camera, actors, and production process for every single project, I think you’ll see more indie projects start to challenge some of the larger projects graphically, and then it’s just a matter of someone doing something incredible with the tools. There are always going to be people who like more of the same though, so just being creative or innovative isn’t necessarily going to change the gaming landscape.

John Carmack recently called “snobs” to those who criticized the lack of creativity in franchises like Call of Duty, while Raphael Colantonio of Arkane Studios has said that Call of Duty turn players idiots. What could be your position about this “battle”?

People like what they like. You can expose people to new and interesting music, movies, games, but criticizing their taste isn’t going to change anything. All you can do is put your stuff out there and help it find an audience.

Carmack said also they make games to be sold, not to be creative.

Almost every developer makes games to be sold. If you can find a way to sell it and make it creative, that’s fantastic. We couldn’t make the game we’re making for an audience of several million, so our game is budgeted and targeted for a smaller audience. If you like creating games and you like working with the people on your team, you’ve got to make enough to fund the team for the next game.

It seems there are some unwritten rules stating that games called “AAA” must follow a simple premise: covers, regeneration and “final” bosses. An staggering 97% of the major productions in recent years follow those rules, we even have cases like Deus Ex Human Revolution where the “final” bosses were imposed by the editor and developed by a different team. Your thoughts…

Again, this stems from money issues. Publishers fund games, producers and marketing teams decide that “X” sells more copies, and the developer puts it in the game if they want to get paid. Some of these things might coming from designers who can’t think up a new mechanic or that feel a familiar mechanic would work well. There’s a plus side for adding familiar mechanics and GUI element – you don’t have to train your players to understand them, so likely they’ll be less frustrated with your product. Generally, you should only introduce a few new concepts in your game for both player reasons and production/prototyping reasons. But realize a lot of times there are edicts from the top in “AAA” games that the designers can’t argue with. It tends to be bad for their career, whether they are right or not.

Will we find “final” bosses in Dead State?

No. Tougher encounters, sure. Giant zombies with steel hooks for hands? No. Humans who take ten times the damage of normal humans? No. A face made entirely out of velociraptors that breathes flaming eagles (with hooks for legs)? Maybe.

In some games the player must face ambiguous moral decisions, not knowing exactly which is the right choice. Dead State features state no “black or white” moral decissions will be faced by the player, but he will have other factors to consider. Tell us how morals will work in the game

Most decisions involve either deciding who gets their way or risking respect with someone by stopping something before it gets out of control. More difficult decisions will require possibly risking someone’s life or deciding who gets essential resources such as food or antibiotics. Resources are precious – sooner or later they are going to cause a conflict within the shelter or another group. Some allies will support your decisions, some will not, some will be the sacrifices. If you’re a good leader, you minimalize the categories and convince everyone it’s for the best. Or you’re just good at scaring other groups or taking their stuff. And then, of course, there’s the constant threat of the undead ticking away at the morale.

Will we find actions and consequences?

Of course. Anyone can die, not everybody follows you blindly, and conflict can rise from within your own group. Combat solutions are not always the best options for other groups. I’m betting very few people will have similar experiences in their Dead State story.

I remember a scene from The Witcher in which Geralt was in jail, and he was charged a task in exchange for his freedom. Despite being a game with actions and consequences, there was only one option in that case. I wonder if Dead State will provide this kind of situations.

It’s almost impossible to have complex consequences for every single action in a game. Some will be a lot more open than others and will depend on your allies, relationships with them, skillsets, and prior actions. Some of the decision will be a simple matter of this or that. However, I’d say we’re a pretty open-ended game and your primary goal is surviving to the next day.

Regarding the AI, will its behavior change depending on the main character features?

The AI can be changed over time – for example, developing a relationship to the point where you’ve made one of your allies into a cold-blooded killer rather than a timid scavenger who would run at the first sign of zombies. Or one that respects you so much they would protect you at any cost. You’ll reach points with your allies where you can influence their personalities permanently.

The game poses no direct control of the characters in a group, so the player may give global or individual orders indeed. This raises the challenge of a very complex AI. However, even the most complex IA is not comparable to human intelligence. Do your plan to include, in a near future, a cooperative multiplayer mode for Dead State?

It’s not in the cards right now. It’s just beyond our scope. If we ever decided to do it, it would be a completely different mode of the game or its own game.

The traditional role playing game was created thinking in several players, but only a few computer rpg games have cooperative multiplayer. Don’t you think that single player role-playing games are loosing some essence from the traditional RPG’s?.

Since most computer RPGs promise that the player is the hero and the one that gets to change the world, I’d argue that single-player works best for that. There aren’t a lot of cooperative RPGs with consequences for that reason. It’s much easier to do that for a dungeon hack or co-op action game.

When talking about the zombie theme, it is easy to recall endless waves of undead to be massacred. Mindless brain hungry bugs moving like customers of the late “after-hours” bar, walking back home at midday. How does the complexity of Dead State match this theme?

Sometimes when I’m writing the game, I forget I’m making a zombie game. The zombies are just the storm in the background – the human story is what we’re focusing on.

In a world overrun by zombies, as the one represented in the game, sleeping would be a challenge for obvious reasons. Will the main character of Dead State be able to sleep?

Yes, in the shelter. It’s too dangerous to sleep outside the shelter. For that reason, we have a fatigue system to limit just how long you can be out scavenging.

This is an exclusive game for the PC. How do you see the PC market today?

Pretty exciting. Lots of ways of getting games – lots of people making them and buying them. The numbers for Steam alone are amazing. There are very few development hurdles to releasing on PC compared to consoles too.

Do you think the PC market is more profitable than the console one due to lower development costs?

It’s certainly costs less to release on PC. For indies, I’m pretty sure it’s much more profitable, depending on the kind of the game you’re making and what platforms you’re releasing it on.

Only easy and simple games can achieve sales successes?

I don’t think so, no.

Vampire Bloodlines was a commercial failure upon its releasing, but was well received among critics. Editors spend a lot on ways to entertain the media and achieve good reviews, but that’s not a guarantee that the game will sell more. What do you think about the gaming press?

I think there are some extremely talented journalists out there who are doing an excellent job at analyzing, criticizing, and defending the games industry. There’s also quite a lot of people who are enthusiasts masquerading as journalists. I’ve seen a decline in the quality of most journalism across the board, so the gaming press is probably doing a better job than their counterparts in political or investigative reporting.

Gaming press is often benevolent with sucessful sagas, while the film press uses to harshly criticize third or fourth parts. It seems that media are much more mature and have a critical sense.

Games tend to improve their flaws and add features in their sequels, while movies tend to degrade in quality after every sequel. I can’t think of many movies that hold up for three films, but I will buy Saint’s Row 3 the day it comes out.

We look forward to Dead State, and Age of Decadence too. We like their approach. I suppose that right now you don’t have much time for anything else other than work on your project but, are you personally looking for any other game coming up soon?

I think I answered that one in the last question, but you know I try to play everything eventually. In the next few months it will probably be Orcs Must Die, Arkham City, Saint’s Row 3, and I’m always loading up tables of Pinball FX 2 to unwind.

Thank you very much for your time, we honestly hope Dead State achieves a great success. I think it would be good news for everyone enjoying games not governed solely by commercial criteria.