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2010: Interviews of the Year Part 1

Mon 20 Dec 2010 8:00am GMT / 3:00am EST / 12:00am PST
Business

Sony, Valve, Sega, Hello Games and Lionhead revisited

We run a lot of interviews throughout the year on GamesIndustry.biz, and we try our hardest to cover all areas and aspects of the business, from the top suits to the creative designer. This year we've had - as a rough calculation - more than 200 full interviews with publishers, developers, politicians, start-ups, industry giants and even the odd genuine legend.

So here's part one of the editor's pick of the most interesting, insightful and inspiring interviews from 2010.

Shuhei Yoshida, Sony

One of my personal favourite interviews of the year has to be Shuhei Yoshida's frank and revealing discussion at the Tokyo Game Show in September. It helped that our journalist, Rob Fahey, is currently based in Japan, and has a good understanding of local culture and language. As he said at to us at the time, "that last question was the ticket. He opened up like a sunflower, kept laughing and smiling the whole way through the answer."

The last question was about the structural changes at Sony since the departure of hardware man Ken Kuturagi, the promotion of Kaz Hirai and Yoshida's new role as head of Worldwide Studios. As far as I'm aware, it's the first time Sony has been open about the changes and effects of that shake-up - from being dictated to by an engineer in Japan to being led by a software-focused head willing to consult every internal team around the globe - and having a few years pass allowed Yoshida to put the new structure in context.

The first real results from that management change was PlayStation Move, said Yoshida, where creator Richard Marks had carried a hand-made prototype to Japan to demonstrate the technology to senior management.

"That's a totally, totally different approach from the days when Ken was running the company. As soon as Kaz took over Ken's position, Kaz told the people in Japan that from now on, they had to talk to Worldwide Studios about anything about the platform, and get our feedback on any decisions. I thought, "wow"!"

"But there had never been that kind of process. People understood Kaz' vision, but they didn't know what to do, or who to talk to. They had set milestones in terms of developing hardware. I felt like I could uniquely go into that group of engineers in Japan and suggest a new process - interject the right kind of software teams to the right kind of hardware issues that need solutions."

Yoshida even opened up to suggest that new process will be adopted for the successors to the PlayStation platforms, with software developers having a hand in the creation and influencing the direction of new hardware, something that hasn't happened with previous consoles.

"Our central tech groups, the Worldwide Studios tech groups, have been making game engines or tools for the studios in the group - but now they are part of the tools of development and the low-level middleware library development. That means the future platform, the PlayStation platform tools and OS... At least part of those will actually be developed by game developers."

Jason Holtman and Doug Lombardi, Valve

This year GamesIndustry.biz gained a new deputy editor, Alec Meer, long-time games journalist and one quarter of PC blog Rock, Paper Shotgun. With plenty of experience and genuine love for PC games, he was the ideal team member to tackle Valve, the guys behind market-leading digital distribution service Steam.

This two part interview began with a look at the early success of Steam on Mac, with business development director Jason Holtman and marketing VP Doug Lombardi quick to point out that the service had quickly unified the PC and Mac experience.

"They're not thinking about their PC and Mac being separate anymore, they're really thinking about both of them being together and the platform just being there," said Holtman. "It's truly cross-platform. You can get beaten up by a Mac guy just as well as you can get beaten up by a PC guy."

Only one of the few developers to embrace the Mac audience, Holtman revealed to GamesIndustry.biz that is releasing some of the graphics code for developers to convert their games to the format, "so our Steamworks partners will have access to some of the hard work that we do to get our games up on Mac, and they'll be able to incorporate that into their games, and our hope is it gets them there faster.

"Because that's the real hard work in making Mac version is doing that graphics work, so we're going to help people along by giving them some of our code."

Attracting a whole lot of developers and publishers back to the Mac in 2010 has been beneficial for all - not just Valve - by simply opening up or bringing back a platform many had given up on, said Holtman.

"The other interesting thing we're seeing from publishers and developers alike is people aren't necessarily thinking of it as... it's kind of derogatory to think of it as a Mac port. They're not thinking about porting about their games to Mac: they're thinking 'wow, I need to write for a Mac. I'm not going to do a port six months later or maybe a year later, I should bring that in and do that now because there's a fair amount of people out there.'"

Sean Murray, Hello Games

It's been another successful year for independent developers, none more so than Hello Games with its PSN release Joe Danger. In another honest interview - conducted by the newest member of the GamesIndustry.biz team, Dan Pearson - developer Sean Murray opened up on the realities of self-publishing on consoles.

"PSN is the only place you can really self-publish a game," he said. "The only route on XBLA is through Microsoft as a first-party, or through another publisher. So you always have a publisher. On PSN we're the publisher, so we're totally in control of everything"

Echoing the thoughts of a lot of individuals this year, Murray said that he thought the end of the current console cycle was near, and that developments in indie circles and smaller innovation were much more exciting than the traditional console business, and this is where we're likely to see much more creative and innovative projects in the short term.

"I'm really excited that there are these new ways to create games, like digital download, XBLA, PSN. A lot of the stuff on Steam is way more interesting to me than a raft of new sequels at next year's E3 for example. I'm a lot more excited for that stuff, and I think a lot of people are.

"You see the way that Minecraft, for instance, is on fire at the moment, you know? People want innovation, it's just that at this stage, publishers don't want risk - and that's what they're saying. I think that's really short sighted, to me, but then I'm a small developer. I think it would be really risky not to innovate at the moment."

Mike Hayes, Sega

Sega is one of the big Japanese companies slowly changing its traditional business to take advantage of the shift to digital markets. At E3 this year I got a chance to sit down with western boss Mike Hayes. The first part of our chat was very much focused on the most recent announcements of Kinect, Move and 3DS, but the second part for me was more interesting.

It's always going to be harder for a company as big as Sega to adapt to new markets, especially when they are still undefined and evolving, but Hayes clearly understands the importance of new business, platforms and talent in a changed industry.

"If you look at the top 25 social games - not that they're easy to identify - none of them come from a traditional games company. They're made, they think and they operate in an entirely different way. Whilst we can take our traditional values across to certain devices like the iPhone or iPad, social gaming is completely different," he said.

Aware that growth isn't coming from the boxed console business, Hayes said Sega's money is currently being better spent on digital products for alternative platforms.

"Do you spend $50 million trying to compete with Call of Duty: Black Ops, which is a very challenging task, or do you take that $50 million and look at different ways of investing it? That's not to say we're not in the core market, because with things like Aliens Vs Predator and Vanquish you can see that we are, but in terms of where do you start diverting funds, it's definitely digital and devices that bring different gaming experiences and different consumers that are a very important part of what Sega's doing."

While the buzz around social games companies was appearing to peak, Hayes called out the prices being spent on acquisitions, pointing out that they have value, but are possibly over-priced in the current market. Sega, he said, would rather build its own social experiences than splash out cash on buying the next big thing.

"The value of what is current - you could argue is actually too high," offered Hayes. "If you look at a lot of famous companies, I won't mention any names, but look at their balance books and they are not making any money. They have value."

"With the Sega name and the money we have, we believe we can bring people in to build those things up. The good news is that particularly from a game design and production point of view the teams are relatively small. But as a company at Sega we can fund all the back end stuff fairly easily the operations and customer service, the servers, the bandwidth. The clever bit, we think we can do that organically. It's not a gold rush."

Peter Molyneux, Lionhead/Microsoft

The media is never short of a Peter Molyneux interview, but I honestly think this is one of the best interviews with the Lionhead boss I've read all year. And I've read all of them.

He's known for speaking his mind and making any PR's in earshot wince (Fable has "got more bugs than any game that Microsoft Game Studios has ever had in its history"), but he's also straight up and insightful about the entire development process, and in this interview he held up his hands to say the current way of making games is fundamentally broken.

"Here's the issue which I hate - again, we're in the same position as many, many other developers, if you read the post mortems of Uncharted 2 or any game, they all say the same. We find our game so late on in the process, that it's very hard to pull it all together - and that has to change.

"We cannot do this - we can't keep turning up this late. A film analogy is me turning up with a camera on set and saying: "Okay, I'm not sure what the story is, but let's turn the camera on anyway."

"We've got to stop doing this, because 1) It's too expensive, and 2) Our consumers, the people that play our games, are too demanding of the quality we have to deliver. We just have to work on a different way - it's got to be the case."

He also chipped in on the idea that developing on newer platforms is cheaper and easier, predicting that once a company begns to spend millions on developing an iPhone game, everyone feels that they too have to match those budgets.

"It's only a matter of time before some b*****d out there makes an amazing quality app on the iPhone which blows everybody away, which costs a $5-10 million... and everybody will turn around and say: 'Great - now we have to spend $5 million on every app.'"

More of the best GamesIndustry.biz interviews of the year will be published tomorrow.

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