Gaming the System

July 19, 2017

“We have low overhead where the big companies don't. They’re like big ocean liners that can't turn.” Karla Zimonja, Co-Founder of The Fullbright Company

Last year, the gaming industry made roughly $90 billion in sales worldwide. That’s more than double what movies made at the box office last year.

And here’s why that comparison to Hollywood is relevant. Because, like with films, the most popular video games are HUGE. They have great graphics, popular characters, and the franchises keep getting repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, blockbuster games and movies can be as thin on diversity as they are on plot.  

In this episode, we’re talking about the Moonlights and Napoleon Dynamites the indie games that are breaking out, changing paradigms, and making a case for independence in gaming.

 

This episode features:

Navid Khonsari — Co-Founder of iNK Stories

Larry Hyrb —  Xbox’s Major Nelson

Rik Eberhardt — Studio Manager at MIT Game Lab

Mia Consalvo —  The Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design at Concordia University

Sherida Halatoe —  Found of Tiger & Squid Game Studio

Karla Zimonja —  Co-Founder of The Fullbright Company

Katie Stone Perez —  Developer Experience Lead at Xbox

Transcript: 

CRISTINA QUINN: Navid Khonsari says most people think Iran looks like this.

NAVID KHONSARI: The deserts, and women covered up in veils and men covered up and looking like clerics.

CRISTINA QUINN: Navid knows that if most people think about Iran at all, the images that come to mind are probably from the hostage crisis in 1979 or the violence of the iranian revolution that led up to it.

During the revolution, Navid was ten years old and living in Tehran. He remembers the hostages, and the violence, but he also remembers how it all began…

NAVID KHONSARI: My grandfather took me out to the streets and as we walked the streets I saw that sense of joy. I saw that sense of possibility that sense of hope that this country could change — change for the for for good, for the better, for people who were on the streets.

CRISTINA QUINN The Iranian Revolution started as a popular uprising — people from all walks of life coming together to overthrow a corrupt, western-backed king.

But then it changed, it turned violent.

NAVID KHONSARI: That hope kind of became a little bit darker. And and violence was out on the streets in the fighting took place and my father who was a doctor would spend the night in the emergency ward tending to wounded civilians and soldiers.

CRISTINA QUINN: Eventually, Navid’s family left Iran, for Canada. But throughout his life, whenever he tried to explain what it was like living in Iran during the revolution, to offer a more nuanced understanding of the country, he felt like he wasn’t getting through.

He wanted to humanize this monumental moment. And he came up with a kind of counter-intuitive solution. A video game.

THEME ENTERS

CRISTINA QUINN: I’m Cristina Quinn and this is dot-future, a branded podcast from Microsoft and Gimlet Creative, about making the future happen.

Because the future doesn’t just HAPPEN. It’s the result of a series of choices that we’re making right now. You can wait for the future to come to you … or you can engage with it, and get ahead of the curve.  

Welcome to dot-future.

THEME OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: Today we’re talking about gaming. Four out of five American households have gaming devices — like a tablet, XBOX or a Playstation — and over half of adults in the US play games. Half!

Production-wise, we have come a long way since:

GAME SOUND – PAC MAN

CRISTINA QUINN: The top-selling games today are hyperrealistic. They immerse players in war zones, put them on the run from zombies, and take them to the thirty yard line with 12 seconds left in the game. Last year, the gaming industry made roughly $90 billion in sales worldwide.

That’s more than double what movies made at the box-office last year. And here’s why that comparison to Hollywood is relevant. Because, like with films, the most popular video games are huge. They have great graphics, popular characters, and the franchises keep getting repeated over and over again.

I mean, you know how it’s kind of crazy that we have, like, how many Fast and Furious movies are there? What are we up to, like eight? Well, guess what? There are eleven games in the Halo family. Eleven. Blockbuster games even follow a Hollywood style RELEASE calendar, according to Larry Hyrb. He’s kind of the public face of Xbox Live. If you’re a gamer, you know him as “Major Nelson.”

LARRY HYRB: Maybe we’ve got a summer blockbuster, but we always have these huge releases, you know in the holiday season at the end of the year, and it’s noisy because the new Call of Duty is going to compete with the new Star Wars movie.

CRISTINA QUINN: Games like Call of Duty are what you call AAA games.

SCORING IN

CRISTINA QUINN: AAA is an unofficial industry rating. But it doesn’t actually stand for anything. The running joke is it means the game took:

  • A lot of time.
  • A lot of resources…and…
  • A lot of money.

CRISTINA: Even if you’re not a gamer you probably recognize the names of AAA gaming companies and their games — Nintendo with Super Mario, Microsoft with Halo, and Activision with Call of Duty.

And just like blockbuster film, blockbuster games are plagued by some of the same problems. The storylines can be kind of stale and repetitive. There’s a hero. Some stuff blows up. You have to fight something, or survive some catastrophe.  

And what that hero looks like is also repetitive — AAA games are as thin on diversity as they are on plot. There’s a really popular gaming writer name Leigh Alexander. Last year she wrote all about this in a notorious blog post called “Gamers Are Over.”

She wrote about how the AAA gaming culture can be summed up like this, quote: “Have Money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun.”

She was done with it — and she argued that even DEVELOPERS want games to be made for and by a more diverse group of people — to reflect real stories and real human struggle.

And that’s what today’s episode is about: the part of the gaming industry that’s providing an alternative to AAA games. We’re talking about The Moonlights and Napoleon Dynamites — the indie games that are breaking out, changing paradigms, and making a case for independence in gaming.

And, in the process, changing that 90-billion dollar gaming industry from the INSIDE.

SCORING OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: So, back to the video game we mentioned at the beginning. Navid Khonsari wanted to create a game…to provide a more nuanced perspective…

NAVID KHONSARI: You know you take a look at a lot of the call of duties and a lot of the war games that are out there it’s always like while you’re on the beaches of Normandy but you’re playing a member of the you know the U.S. Army and you’re shooting at Germans. But that’s really where the history stops.  

Navid made 1979: Revolution Black Friday. It’s the story of the Iranian revolution, told with the nuance that he didn’t see portrayed elsewhere.  

GAME SOUND – 1979 REVOLUTION: BLACK FRIDAY

CRISTINA QUINN: And it’s an INDIE game. It’s heavy on story. 1979 puts you, the player, in the middle of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution and presents you with a series of options at every turn. Shots are fired. Where do you go? Who do you save?

POST SOUND

CRISTINA QUINN: Critics loved the game. It’s an unmistakeable indie darling. It racked up a bunch of awards, like Best PC and/or Console Game at the ‘16 Bit Awards.

This is a huge success for an indie game developer, but that’s not what Navid was, for much of his career. He started out as the cinematic director at Rockstar games, which makes Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. He worked on some of the most profitable games in history.

But eventually all of the drug deals and shootouts and car crashes got old. He wanted to make something more real. To do that, Navid quit his job at Rockstar Games and set out on his own to make a game about his real life experience.

He and his wife, who’s a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist, founded a studio together. They called it iNK Stories. It’s based in Brooklyn. Their work is inspired by cinema verite — a raw, intimate style of documentary filmmaking.  So Navid calls what iNK Stories makes, “verite games.” 1979 blends real history and the game’s action, with real life photographs and archival footage.

NAVID KHONSARI: The game has got me splattered all over it. When you’re in the home looking at the home movies that’s actually super 8 footage that my grandfather shot from 1950 to 1979 and it includes my mother’s swimming at the Caspian Sea. My grandfather great grandfather and family had a big feast and myself attending my first day school.

CRISTINA QUINN: But Navid wanted to make sure that the game was not just just a glimpse into his own past. He wanted it to be accurate, more accurate, than the books he’d read or the films he’d seen about Iran’s revolution. So he and a small team conducted more than 40 interviews with people who were living in Iran during the revolution.

He also hired academics, and religious advisors, to ensure that the game was authentic.

The end result is a subtle portrayal of a critical moment in history.

GAME SOUND – 1979 REVOLUTION: BLACK FRIDAY

CRISTINA QUINN: Do you think there are some stories better told through the immersive, video game experience than through other mediums?

NAVID KHONSARI: Yeah. These are incredible tools to put you right in that space to put you in the head space or in that environment or in that particular instance where something is taking place. These are probably the most powerful way of creating empathy. So in a weird way if we want to actually understand a little bit more about humanity and really feel what it’s like we actually have to engage with some kind of technology that allows us to go there.

CRISTINA QUINN: Navid is part of a new class of game developers who are intent on making games that are both personal AND fun. It’s a mission that, in the hands of triple A gaming companies, often fails.

RIK EBERHARDT: You can see a game that’s made by, you know, people who look like me so middle aged white guys and those those games often don’t have anything to say

CRISTINA QUINN: Rik Eberhardt works at MIT’s Game Lab — which experiments with new game technology.

RIK EBERHARDT: And when they do try to say something they’re not they’re they’re trying to adopt somebody else’s language, and it feels wrong.

He says indie games are coming from a genuine place…and that comes across in the experience of playing the game…

RIK EBERHARDT: And with an indie game, yeah, you can absolutely see the person who made it where what where they came from what they brought to the game what culture they’re from.

CRISTINA QUINN: Culture and story haven’t necessarily been a major focal point of video games. From the very beginning of gaming, the focus has been on graphics and speed.

SCORING IN

CRISTINA QUINN: In 1977, Atari released what would become known as the Atari 2600. By 1980, millions of homes were introduced to the idea of playing games not at an arcade, but in your living room.

GAME SOUND – ATARI

CRISTINA QUINN: But Atari didn’t stay on top for long. In 1985, Nintendo released its “Entertainment System.”  The package came with a controller, and a gun for playing Duck Hunt.  

DUCK SOUND

CRISTINA QUINN: Then in 1989 Nintendo leveled up gaming, when it released a HANDHELD console, the Game Boy.  

For millions of people, being able to take your games with you was totally novel — and it changed the gaming industry — and family road trips — forever.

SCORING OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: In 2002, Microsoft introduced Xbox Live, allowing console players to play with other gamers throughout the world, something they still do today, of course.

LARRY HYRB: If I wake up at 3:00 in the morning because I can’t sleep. I can pop on my console and all of a sudden I’m playing with friends that may or may not be online or I’m going to discover new friends.

CRISTINA QUINN: This is Larry Hyrb — or Major Nelson — from Xbox again.  He’s been at the company for 14 years, and for a million Twitter followers he’s the go-to-guy for all-things Xbox.

Here’s the thing about Xbox Live, a player in Philadelphia can connect with a player in the Philippines. There’s always someone to play with.

LARRY HYRB: So if you have a young one, or maybe the baby is taking a nap, you can still go online and within 30 seconds to be connected with friends around the world… you’re playing an interactive game.

CRISTINA QUINN: Games are just everywhere. They’re on your phone, they’re in the back of your airplane seat — you can get virtual reality gear at Gamestop!

And everything looks and sounds flawless.

MIA CONSALVO: They’re stunning, right? They’re amazing to look at.

Mia Consalvo is the Canada Research Chair in game studies and design at Concordia University.

MIA CONSALVO: I think that expectations are being ratcheted up just kind of across the board. Even, for example let’s say with sports games like Madden or you know like a baseball game where you would think that the game is just about playing football but really in those games now. I mean they need photorealism. You know they need the actual images of the players the real players. They have role-playing system where you can create your own character, you can create you and be recruited and work your way up from the minors to the majors.

CRISTINA QUINN: That’s because games are in a fierce competition for our attention, according to Larry Hyrb.

LARRY HYRB: Our hours in the day that you and I and the listeners have for entertainment — how are you going to spend them? There’s just so much product out there right now, that people have trouble bursting through.

CRISTINA QUINN: And to compete at the blockbuster level, it takes a lot of money to stand out. Money that indie developers and publishers often don’t have. But what they do have — according to Mia — is nerve, and creativity.

In a way, the stakes for indie game developers are actually lower, because they don’t have to play ball with the big guys. They can take risks and experiment with visual style or even get… emotional with their games. That’s what Sherida Halatoe set out to do when, as a college student, she began working on the game Beyond Eyes.

GAME SOUND

CRISTINA QUINN: The game’s protagonist is a little girl, named Rae. Rae is blind, and at the beginning of the game, she loses her cat, Nani. Beyond Eyes is a quest, to help Rae find her missing pet. Sherida isn’t blind – but she wanted to make Beyond Eyes to help people understand what it’s like to feel adrift …

SHERIDA HALATOE: When I was 10 years old. My father died and it was a very horrible experience of course but it taught me a lot about life

CRISTINA QUINN: She wanted to help people who’ve felt lost see themselves in a videogame

CRISTINA QUINN: So, why..why is the character blind?

SHERIDA HALATOE: So for me it’s kind of a metaphor because my dad was the most important thing for me in my life like my whole world you know revolved around that…. so that being taken away was a huge loss. And that kind of kind of made it a visual translation there

CRISTINA QUINN: As Rae wanders through the game, the edges of the screen are white, but slowly, the path forward spreads out before her, like water colors rushing to the edge of a page.  Strokes of color swirl around the edges.

 

SHERIDA HALATOE: I really like watercolors and I like the idea of how things become..like when you, you know, put watercolor on paper it just kind of drifts out, you know, flows out. I like the idea of not being able to see and then touching something and everything flowing out like water.

CRISTINA QUINN: It’s so gentle, and so beautiful. The premise feels so different than other games. You’re just helping a little kid find her cat.

SHERIDA HALTOE: In essence this story of Beyond Eyes is about loss but also about overcoming

CRISTINA QUINN: Sherida’s definitely an outlier in the gaming industry. She didn’t grow up wanting to make games. In college, she took a game development course and realized that games gave her the ability tell stories in a new way. Even her way of measuring the impact of the game isn’t very gamer-y.

She keeps a glass bottle on her desk, in her office. And every time she gets an email from someone who says that the game moved them to tears, she pours a few drops of water into the bottle…

SHERIDA HALATOE:  In the first six months, the thing was half full or something. In the end, I think I got a half cup or something?

CRISTINA QUINN: Sherida’s not typical but she is successful. Beyond Eyes was featured at the E3 conference in 2015 — the world’s top gaming conference. She’s now working on a new series of short games called “Trails of Life.”

MUSIC

CRISTINA QUINN: It’s extremely rare for an indie developer to gain success on their first game. Usually, it takes years of releasing games and slowly building an audience. And lots of those developers cut their teeth at AAA studios before launching a game of their own.

MUSIC OUT

CRISTINA QUINN: Karla Zimonja knows that from personal experience. She spent 7 years working as an animator on lots of games, like the Bio-Shock series, and Zoo-Tycoon:

KARLA: I ended up working on a zoo game There were a lot of very repetitive tasks that I would have to do, like animate a sitting position to standing position for every single animal in the game. And a lot of like, you know, turns 30 degrees right turns 90 degrees or right turns you know turns 90 degrees right from standing turns or you know and from walking and from running and it very much turned it into a kind of feeling like a spreadsheet.

CRISTINA QUINN: Karla felt like a cog in the machine and decided to leave the triple A system. She and a friend got together to strike out on their own. They started a gaming studio called Fullbright.

They decided to make their debut game feel just like a first person shooter game. You know — the games where you see through the eyes of a character as they move through the world — but with one important distinction: no shooting. They called the game “Gone Home.”

GAME SOUND – GONE HOME

CRISTINA QUINN: Gone Home is set in a spooky Victorian house in the year 1995. It’s raining…the phones are down…and there aren’t any cell phones to call for help.

KARLA ZIMONJA: Gone Home is the story of a college student arriving home after being abroad to find that her family has moved into the new house and nobody is there when she gets there. And she explores the house and find out all about what her family has been doing in her absence.

CRISTINA QUINN: Although it seems like a ghost could pop out at any moment, the game isn’t scary. As a player, you search for clues — notes, and audio diaries — to help piece together what happened to this family.

KARLA ZIMONJA: An enormous part of the game is putting other pieces for yourself and learning about the characters in your own time and way.

CRISTINA QUINN: Characters that don’t appear on screen — but whose personalities, dreams, and entire lives are slowly revealed as you play the game. And perhaps the most remarkable reveal is what the New York Times called “the greatest video game love story ever told.”

GAME SOUND – GONE HOME

CRISTINA QUINN: It’s a love story about two young women. Although Fullbright didn’t set-out to be a voice for LGBTQ people in the game world, Gone Home wound up getting a lot of attention.

Because there aren’t that many queer characters in big video games. AAA publishers tend to be pretty risk averse when it comes to storytelling. Karla says when AAAs see a pitch that deviates from the norm…they’re not likely to go for it.

KARLA ZIMONJA: You know, the marketing guys at whatever publishing company would have been like “teen lesbians? No one’s going to buy that…are you on crack?”

By funding Gone Home themselves, Fullbright was able to make the game a reality, and a smashing success. The gaming website Polygon named it their Game of the Year, and it won the British Academy Games Award for best debut.

But more importantly to Karla, is the opportunity for her game to influence other, bigger gaming companies.

KARLA ZIMONJA: Indie games are often the source of new paths and new, like, approaches to things. We have, like, the low overhead where it’s like the really big companies don’t…they come in there like those big ocean liners they can’t turn.

Karla’s company sunk their savings and 18 months of work into Gone Home.

KARLA ZIMONJA: It’s nice to have people think your ideas are worth something. It’s essentially like the big guys being like, ‘oh yeah that little guy had a great idea.’

It kind of means they’ve arrived. But even more powerfully — it means that the stories — like the one in Gone Home — are worth telling.

Here’s Katie Stone Perez, who works for Xbox at Microsoft.

KATIE STONE-PEREZ: By giving all of these different people an opportunity to tell their story and to bring their voice to the table it really ends up creating those moments where people do feel like it is representative of their story and their lives and their passions.

Katie says it’s the responsibility of the gaming industry to make sure that the community feels seen and heard by having more diversity within games. That’s why Katie joined Microsoft’s ID@XBOX team and helped it grow.

ID@XBOX gives indie game developers the tools they need to bring their games to life on the Xbox platform, and they promote their favorites at major industry events.

KATIE STONE-PEREZ: Traditionally the industry has been more, ‘oh you know the right person to talk to..and you know you know do you know the right person to go get funding from and you know the right person to do this?’ And so we’ve really been about, you know, democratizing that process for everyone.

One of the developers who’s benefited from that democratization: Navid Khonsari, with his depiction of Iran in 1979 Revolution Black Friday.

The game’s success has helped rewrite how people see Iranians — and how Iranians see themselves.

NAVID KHONSARI: For the first time they see themselves portrayed as protagonists in a positive light, rather than terrorist number one two and three.

Navid says his game is helping people see one another. Like, really understand each other.

NAVID KHONSARI: This is powerful. For us that’s been really really really enriching and we’ve made look we made a lot of mistakes and it was our first game that we’ve made, but at least we know that we overcame the most difficult part which was connecting.

CRISTINA QUINN: And all it took to connect — to make a moment in history more human — was a video game.

CREDITS

THEME

CRISTINA QUINN: .future is a co-production of Microsoft Story Labs and Gimlet Creative.

We were produced this week by Katelyn Bogucki, with help from Victoria Barner, Garrett Crowe, Frances Harlow, Jorge Estrada, Nicole Wong, Abbie Ruzicka and Julia Botero. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. Production assistance from Thom Cote.

We were edited by Rachel Ward and mixed by Zac Schmidt. Our theme song was composed by The Album Leaf. Additional music from Waltho, Eliot Lipp and Marmoset.

Special thanks to: Derek Johnson, Aleah Kiley and Lena Robinson.

PROMO

CRISTINA QUINN: Coming up next time on dot-future … stories of how people on 4 continents are using one of the most popular games in history to heal, grieve, rebuild, and reinvent.

LYDIA WINTERS: I can’t even really begin to describe how Minecraft has changed my trajectory, and where I was going. It’s hard to even see back to where I was going because I’m so far from my starting point.

CRISTINA QUINN: That’s next time on dot-future.

If you like dot-future, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts!  Make sure to type period future to find us, like period as in a dot. Dot future.. And while you’re at it, leave us a review so we know how you feel about the show! Don’t get left in the past. Join us in the dot Future …   at dot future dot net. That’s D O T future dot net.

I’m Cristina Quinn. Thanks so much for dot listening!

THEME OUT