Creating Digital Worlds: An Interview With AAA Developer Ethan James Petty
First of all, introduce yourself for those who don’t know and let us know a little bit about what you do.
My name is Ethan James Petty and I’ve been making games since 1992. I started off with my high school shareware company, Bloodlust Software, which released several hideous games as a tongue‐right‐through‐cheek response to the “violence in gaming” outrage at the time. The Bloodlust games paid for much of my college and actually still have a bit of a cult following. I later went on to work in the “industry” side of things, starting in QA, moving to design, and ultimately into scriptwriting. At Ubisoft, I am a scriptwriter (or scénariste here in Montreal), which means I work on creating characters, story, scenes, and ultimately recording actors. I like to think of it as writing movie scripts, but also having to write lines for every single extra and then hand the camera over to a director (player) who wants to try to break your scenes in any way possible. I’ve worked on most of the big franchises at Ubi in some capacity.
At home, I am currently working on my indie company, Gnarled Scar Manipulations. My first title is the Knobbly Crook, an old school point‐and‐click adventure with a ridiculous sense of humor and set in a surreal world. Chapter I: The Horse You Sailed In On is available free on Steam.
So, in a way, I’m working at both ends of the spectrum in the gaming industry – the biggest AAA titles distributed everywhere and my 1‐man‐team with a few download links and no advertising.
For those interested in that side of development, how do you get into the business of writing and world building?
For writing on the AAA side – there are two simple steps: know how to write and know games. Fortunately, you can learn both of those things. Sure, every company is different and some might ask for specific degrees or background, but ultimately, you’re going to have to convince a team that YOU are the person who can make their world interesting. My advice to anyone wanting to break into big business gaming – you won’t succeed if you just whine about how it’s too hard to get in. You must submit applications and samples. This field is absolutely a meritocracy. In fact, I was a level designer years back who begged a producer for a shot at the job and won him over with samples. Since then, I’ve helped with the hiring process many times and the samples matter more than anything else you can say about yourself.
Keep in mind, you must be willing to relocate. Usually, you will need to be near a gaming studio to work there, like any job. Fortunately, there are amazing studios in some of the most interesting parts of the world.
For world building – that’s a wider topic that could take you in many different directions. We all contribute in different ways. On the script side, we’re helping to define themes and characters. Level designers are trying to find ways to let the player explore the world and reward that exploration. Game designers want to lure you into engaging with the systems and learning more about the world. Artists/Sound Designers build the direct links between all of these things for the player and a good style can sometimes cover up any holes left by the other departments. QC tells us when we screw up and they’re not immersed. (note: back to the “how to get into” question, since I’m off track, you can switch between these departments once you have the experience. QC is a great place to get familiar with the teams and I’ve seen a lot of testers transition to other professions. It’s the path I took.
On the indie side – just get in there and get it done. You don’t need anybody else. There are plenty of engines made for dummies who can’t grasp programming (I’m one of them). Look me up on twitter and I can probably help you find one. There are free to use art assets and sounds all over the internet. Use stick figures if you must and make sure the parts you are good at shine. There’s no excuse. The best part: once you’re done, you’ve got a sample. Even if it’s a bad sample, you show that you’ve actually made a game and that is something huge.
What do you think are the things that are most overlooked when building a game‐world?
The game world itself. I’ve played a lot of games with interesting mechanics or new and exciting characters, but far less attention to the world in which I’m playing. Most games will have the usual suspects, depending on setting – cargo ships (I’ve worked on 3 of them), warehouses (don’t ask), castles, dungeons, caves, and the list goes on. If you just say, “we need a cave level” and leave it at that, you’re going to have a cave level. It’s much better if you instead say, “we need to find out what makes our cave level new and exciting.” It’s infinitely better if you instead say, “we need to create a cave level that is new and exciting *and* has a connection with the themes of our game.” I’m sure people are going to browse my portfolio and say “well you sure screwed up on that specific game.” Yup, I probably did. It’s hard to nail down and even harder to get hundreds of people all on the same page, but it’s still a goal to keep in mind. If your game is about the class divide in a medieval society, it’s going to work in your favor to make sure that medieval cargo ship has something to say about it.
What inspired the world of your game The Knobbly Crook?
The Warriors movie, originally (bear with me). I originally imagined it was all about fantasy gang warfare. The goblins vs. the trolls vs. the plant golems. As a tribute, I had the Great Green Man calling the tribes together for peace and then somebody assassinating him and blaming it on the protagonist, O’Sirus the Snip. The whole thing was going to be an elaborate escape from everyone (and an action game). I changed my theme later, but one remnant is the name “O’Sirus the Snip,” which was a nod to Cyrus from the Warriors. Can you dig it? So I had this great character, but the theme wasn’t doing it for me. I really needed a better hook to pull all the world elements together. I started to map out what using rock, paper, and scissors would do to this fantasy scenario. The goblins soon became Knobbcrookians, golems made of random metal elements (including scissors and blades), the trolls became stone beasts, and the plant men became paper men. Now that gang warfare meant something more – these were elements that could hate and fear each other in a vicious loop. The war became much more dangerous. The world itself was now full of the three elements and different character types would react to them based on their own element. New logic puzzles started to write themselves. How does a Knobbcrookian boat work? Paper sails constantly repelled away from a scissor engine pushes the whole thing forward.
Also, hearing “rational design” so much at work, I thought I’d try out “irrational design.” The two have nothing to do with one another, but it’s something I keep in the back of my head as I craft the world. It makes everything feel unique and bizarre, but totally logical within this world. For example, if the player needs to hammer nails into a ship, they’re expecting the hammer and nails to work together to do this, and I reward that logic. But when the event plays out, O’Sirus creates a Knobbcrookian tool to “screw in nails.” Sure enough, when used on the ship, he kneels down and screws them in with a painful squeak. Once the player has seen these things a couple of times, they are now ready to be entertained with even the very simple interactions.
This has all been a long way of getting back to what makes the “world” of the Knobbly Crook – I decided to focus on rock, paper, scissors and absolutely logical nonsense. So far, it has made my life easier and the fan reaction has been great.
What are the major differences when working on a AAA game to working independently. Do a lot of practices carry over?
I think the biggest thing that carries over is an eye for planning and organization. I didn’t have that before I started working in AAA and I actually lost a whole expansion pack I was working on due to data corruption (possibly a virus).
The biggest difference is the scale of the team. Working with hundreds of other developers is much more difficult because you need to make sure all the right people constantly know what you intend with every line you write. Working at home, it’s just me. I don’t always agree with myself, but it mostly works out. Becoming your own boss also means you need to be cracking the whip. It’s very easy to go get lost for 100+ hours in somebody else’s game when you should be working on your own self‐imposed deadlines. Keep in mind I’m a *very* small‐scale indie dev. It’s mostly just me. I’m sure there are people who work in small teams that can give you more insight on these differences. Working indie also means you’re losing the biggest advantage of AAA development – other people doing most of the work. I’m currently scripting, writing, puzzle‐designing, drawing, acting for 95% of the voices in‐game, and handling the release. I could probably write a Knobbly Crook chapter in a month, but doing the rest of the tasks myself takes roughly a year.
What caused you to make The Knobbly Crook, a free game, and when in the process did you decide that?
Pure nostalgia. Point‐and‐click games were the first ones to really convince me that I wanted to make games for a living (a goal that was constantly fighting with my other goal – to become a monster effects artist in movies). The pioneers of this genre – The Williams’, Al Lowe, the Two Guys From Andromeda, The Coles, Jane Jensen, I could keep listing once I move into the Lucas games, but I saw all these people as supreme beings when I was a kid. I feel like I missed out on what I consider to be the most creative era of gaming. So I guess in a way, I’m pretending the Knobbly Crook is from that era (it definitely fits the style) and offering it up as a kind of abandonware.
I know a lot of people are making totally free point‐and‐click games and have been for years. Definitely look around – this genre may have have died out a bit in the mainstream, but fans have been keeping it alive.
Do you think the big‐budget game industry fosters or stifles innovation?
Probably a bit of both. Obviously, big money means big experimentation and we’ve seen some serious innovating come from the big studios. But it also comes with big risk. I’m just a lowly keyboard‐monkey, so I don’t know the ins and outs of getting risky ideas approved, but I’ve heard the discussions and I know that our teams often need to be good at selling the weird stuff and getting the people with the checkbooks onboard. There’s a common misconception that the people at the top only want to make more cash and that they damage the games because of it – that’s not true (from my experience). We have to sell how we’re going to innovate just as much as how we’re going to deliver on‐time and within budget. In fact, if you can’t convince the bosses that you’re doing something new, they’re going to send you back to the drawing board. They’re thirsty for new ideas and they want to be the studio that everybody is talking about.
Where we run into problems, and this is just my opinion and no official comment, is when we have certain expectations at the base of our design. Each new game must compete with the things it (or other games) has done before, plus add a bunch of new and exciting features. The problem with new and exciting things – sometimes they don’t work out, or end up being far less exciting that expected. When you’re working on a franchise, you know, based on millions of angry forum comments and an equal number of fan ravings, what people are expecting and you need to deliver that. Sometimes playing it safe ends in disappointment. Sometimes going big ends in disappointment. It’s always a bit of a gamble. Fortunately, any industry hit that’s something new inspires everyone else to up their game. It’s not even a matter of “we need to beat them,” but more the excitement of “we need to do something to turn heads, too!”
There’s also this fantasy that the indie scene is somehow vastly more innovative. Sure, you have some amazing hits that pop up that probably would have had a hard time getting past the approval process at a big studio, but you also have 100 uninspired clones of those hits. Both sides of the industry have their problems.
I should probably point out that there’s nothing technically innovative about the Knobbly Crook, and I’m OK with that. When something works, it works. I’ve chosen to invest more in the world itself and the surreal nature of the story. I think on the indie side, as long a game has something new to experience, you don’t have to worry as much about raising bars. That’s harder to pull off in the AAA field.
When you are staring at a blank page for a game how do you get started?
I’m never staring at a blank page for long. I have a thousand stories in my head fighting to be turned into something creative and no time to do them! Usually, I start with the themes and then work out a main character who best represents them. Next, I start to fill in which types of people might be in the same world and how they would compliment or challenge this character. Once I’ve got that, I tend to roll pretty fast into production.
You’ve said before many developers don’t feel they can defend their work or their fictional worlds, how easy is it for AAA developers to speak their mind?
I think it depends on what you’re saying. I am free to praise my games publicly as much as I want, of course, but I have to be constantly aware that anything I say can and will be used against me in a court of social media. The context will be ignored. The dates of individual statements don’t matter. Lines will be stitched together to create a story, because everybody loves a good story. Even stating a political view, contradicting another online personality, sharing religious or social views, enjoying certain hobbies – any of these things could be weaponized to make me or my company look bad. Nobody cares about the “my opinions are my own” disclaimer if they see you as a rival. We have to be constantly aware that people are trying to trip us up and get us to leak info on new projects or to try to get us to make an official statement on some grievance they have with our games. The fact is, I go to work and I spend most of my time there writing. That’s it. I don’t manage anybody or speak for anyone but myself. Unfortunately, that’s not how people see me online. I’m suddenly the company spokesman.
The fact that I am a writer is a plus – I can get away with most of my tweets because I am careful to word them in a nonaggressive way. I am polite to everyone. I never directly attack, though I do enjoy satire and mockery. Feel free to fire it back at me. I genuinely want people to get together and play games and to stop fixating on the drama. There’s no need for “sides” in entertainment. Let’s simply be entertained and agree that we like different things. With that said, the drama still finds me once in a while and I do my best to stay friendly. If I slip up, please call me on it and I’ll apologize.
In your view, what makes a game world feel “lived in” and believable?
As people who are raised by people and taught by people, we look to the people in games to convince us the setting is real. If your characters are interesting, players are going to be pulled in. Some MMOs have become very good at this – the content is often something you’ve done a hundred times before, but a well‐written quest giver’s plight is enough to make you feel like you’re suddenly the most important person (or beast) on the planet. You could spend large amounts of money to render a family eating at the dinner table inside a house, but a good writer can convince you there’s a family eating inside a noninteractive house and make you care about them without ever getting a glimpse inside. Of course, getting people to READ the quest text in MMOs can be a whole different issue.
I’d also say it’s important that the player feels they have an impact on the people living in your world. It’s great if they end up talking about things you’ve done, but even better if you’ve somehow made their lives better … or worse.
Do you think game worlds created by other cultures and nations, for example the world of the Witcher, are unfairly subjected to a more Americanized lens?
Absolutely. Even as an American living in French Canada, I sometimes forget that I’m viewing things through an American lens! We all have specific histories with major impact on our world views. Just working with localization teams and reading some of the questions we get back, I’ve started to understand just how different our societies can be. I can make a smirk‐and‐shrug type of joke in North America that comes back as very taboo in other cultures. Sometimes jokes or culture references just cannot be translated. A harmless word can become a word worth fighting over. It’s very noble to want the world to be progressive, and I admire that, but keep in mind the North American perspective is one of many, and every society is constantly trying to better itself in its own unique way. They’ve had their own victories and tragedies and they don’t always mirror our own.
Remember that Midnight Oil song “Beds Are Burning?” I remember people just stupidly singing along and thinking it was just another cheesy song with an animated, weird‐looking singer back when it was a hit. Once we finally understood what it meant, it quickly turned into a very powerful song and made us all feel like assholes. For many of us, it was our introduction to a tragic part of Australian history. We learned something. Same goes for the Witcher. Reading some of the reactions defending it, it was clear this was a case of people viewing it through the wrong lens. There is a reason it is the way it is. People need to accept that and move on.
I’d go a step further and say it’s not just an Americanized lens – it’s a lens further crafted by our own frustrations and tragedies. It’s easy to perceive the rest of the world as aggressors once you’ve been hurt or seen someone else hurt. It’s natural to seek out villains to strengthen your stance. When there’s an issue close to your heart, it’s easy to find evidence of that issue in everything you view. Again, noble intent, but it’s easy to get carried away.
The Knobbly Crook evokes games with a rich world like Beneath a Steel Sky or more recent titles like Machinarium. Do you feel there is still a demand from gamers for old style 2D point‐and‐click adventures?
Absolutely. People still love crossword puzzles and mazes. We love to have our brains challenged and a good point‐and‐click does exactly that. I think the tragic decline in these types of games was due more to the “hey, look! Something new and shiny!” speed of our industry. We’re really good at new and shiny. However, as the mainstream games tend to get more and more complex, I think the simple puzzle games (that are also usually gorgeous to look at) give people the variety they’re looking for between the 200 hour investments. Plus, a lot of the original pioneers are coming back through modern funding techniques, which makes the whole genre sexy again.
What do you think has most changed since the early days of game design to what we see now with the modern mega‐publishers?
For me, everything. I literally started doing this as a pimple‐faced teen in my parents’ basement. The first games I shipped required me to visit Kinko’s, burn a disc, then manually print and stick a label to it. It didn’t get much more garage than that.
Now, twenty+ years later, just the sheer scale of everything can be overwhelming. I remember not long ago, I was in a voice recording studio directing actors to say main cinematic lines which would be played over animations done elsewhere. Now I’m working the scenes as they are mocapped live with helmet cams and twenty people on set, with multiple actors at once. It really feels like we work on a movie set now when we’re recording. We’ve outgrown most of our meeting rooms, they just can’t hold teams our size. We do conference calls with designers from 3 – 4 different countries at once. It sounds like a headache, and it can be, but it’s also amazing to see how fast things start coming together days after you request them. Yet somehow in all this chaos, you still feel like an important part of the team and your opinions do have weight.
I remember attending a meeting once where we had a heated discussion and ended up changing something minor. Somebody said “I hope it works, because that’s a million dollar change.” I honestly didn’t know if he was joking.
How free are artists and writers in the games industry to create any world they can imagine? In large studios are any subjects still “off the table” for fear of political incorrectness or offense?
From my experience, our teams are usually OK with most things if they are done respectfully. I don’t think you’ll ever see direct references to current tragedies or anything too dangerous, but that’s usually us pulling back ourselves to be respectful. You might see a situation that mirrors a specific theme, but we’re going to try to avoid any kind of links. Generally, you can have a character who is politically incorrect and that’s fine as long as the story you’re telling isn’t agreeing with them.
Keep in mind a lot of the “censorship” comes from trying to get the proper rating to sell your game, too. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure letting the player harm a child in your game would get you a really nasty rating and would be hard to distribute worldwide. I’d have a hard time agreeing to write something like that into a story, anyway. Maybe if we were doing Willy Wonka and we had game mechanics to trap and punish children in his chocolate factory. Huh. I think I just gave away a killer idea.
I remember once scrapping a small mission that was set to go live because it was about a mine collapse and that month we had two mine tragedies hit the news. We also had a campus mission at one point that was altered due to a school shooting. Our goal is to tell a fictional story, not try to capitalize on controversy.
Most people don’t realize that we often work with historians, consult with people local to the region in which we’re working, and try to ensure authenticity in the slang and dialog. I’ve been in a few situations where I saw accusations made about our lack of authenticity and scratched my head because I knew we’d done the legwork.
How much detail do you go into when creating the flavour of a game world? We’re all familiar with the little stabs of text that help flash out a game but just how in‐depth do you go?
For the big open‐world stuff, we do tons of research and we have pages and pages of cool things specific to the real world that we are trying to fit in. Sometimes we could be better about how we deliver this information, but it’s a learning process. I remember working on one project and asking a historian if our villain was too cruel to be accurate and he told us we had completely missed the mark – he needed to be much more cruel. We made him worse. Many of the missions were directly inspired by his oddball stories. In an open world, you want to make sure the people around the location are talking about things relevant to that location and we do our best to make that happen. We send several scouting trips with various departments to go visit and get a real flavor for their setting. The art team obviously does a lot of heavy lifting to create depth and authenticity in the world.
In both AAA and my indie games, I try to make sure to have “distant mountains” (not my term) for players to discover. These are people, places, or events that are referenced in the game but are not explored within it. By adding these, your world will feel more and more real outside of the setting slice you’ve chosen for your story.
Can we expect more from the world of The Knobbly Crook or do you have other projects in the pipeline? Shill away.
I am aiming to have Chapter II: The Face of the Face out before the new year (free). I hope that’s a realistic goal – things are moving along pretty well so far. Anyone interested has plenty of time to check out Chapter I: The Horse You Sailed In On, which is free online in many places, including Steam. I can’t announce my Ubi project because we haven’t announced it yet.
If you enjoy the weirdness of the Knobbly Crook, you can find more like it in my ongoing serial novel, Jack Steamheel. It’s also 100% free. Jack is actually a bar patron in the game, so you can learn more about him here: http://www.wattpad.com/user/EthanPetty
We want to thank Ethan very much for his time and his insightful answers!
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