Nearly a decade has passed since Jeremy Pope left Rockstar Games. Pope, who now runs a mobile startup he founded at the end of 2011 called Rally Games, has no regrets about leaving one of the best game developers in the world. He managed production and development of key titles like Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and Max Payne, eventually leaving in the middle of the development of San Andreas. Something just wasn't sitting right in his gut, and he knew he had to make a career-altering decision.
Pope, who has vowed to never work on ultra-violent games again, explained to GamesIndustry International, "I think at the time it was really only an inkling that I had. I was still in my early to mid-20s, I had grown up playing all types of games, violent games included, and worked on Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto, etc. I would always kind of defend the games we were making and I was pretty proud of being involved, but then when I would visit my grandmother in highly religious Alabama and have to explain what I do for a living, I didn't feel so great about explaining to them that I was a part of 'that game' they've been hearing about. I think that's what sort of planted the seeds of me wanting to work on different types of games."
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see by the next generation some consolidation of some sort - it seems hard to fathom that we're going to have these three big players again"
While the decision was deeply personal for Pope at the time, it speaks to a larger trend in the development scene: more and more designers are coming to grips with the fact that over-the-top, gratuitous violence is not helping the industry advance itself. David Cage and Warren Spector have repeatedly touched upon this subject, and Pope also asserted that the industry needs to expand its genres and offer consumers games with more meaning.
"I do agree that we need to be pushing ourselves [as an industry]. With any storytelling medium or any medium at all, you want to have conflict because that's how you can generate interest, and oftentimes the simplest or most base way to do that is through violence that isn't necessarily tied into a deeper, more meaningful story. I think it's often easier to do violence than it is to generate meaningful, interesting conflict through nonviolent ways. I would agree in that sense that we need to push ourselves and get away from sequels and rehashing, and taking what technology affords us and using that as a primary means to justify another rehash; in other words, we're just souping up what's already been done," he said.
"What we're focused on at Rally is really trying to push things on the social end. I think about what it is I enjoy most about games and it's always interacting with other people, it's multiplayer. And I think about where games really come from - guys gathering around rolling dice together - it was really about interacting with each other and not so much about ingesting something on your own. That's what's interesting to me. On the whole, I agree with what David [Cage] is saying, but for me it's more a personal matter of wanting to work on projects that I can feel a bit better about."
While Pope had a sense of shame about making violent games at Rockstar, in no way is he trying to diminish Rockstar's incredible achievements in the industry, nor is he trying to say that developers should stop making those types of games. Furthermore, the media storm that ensued with the GTA games got under his skin too.
"I definitely want to make a point of saying that I actually love Rockstar's games and I think that it's unfortunate that their games were specifically called out and targeted by the media, because their games - and we all know this - are really masterworks. Grand Theft Auto just pushed the boundaries in almost every possible way... So it's a shame that those games have become a talking point. I worked on GTA, and the whole thing about being able to run over a stripper or a prostitute was something that we didn't even really... Well, I guess you could say we knew about it, but it was something that was so contrived that it was almost like off the radar - so absurd and such tiny fraction of what's possible in the game. I'm really proud of the work I did at Rockstar. For me, I guess it was just getting a little bit older, thinking a little bit more about what I want to do, looking at the long arc of my career, and possibly having just a little bit of a fill of working on a certain type of game as well," he continued.
"You're seeing the value expectation for consumers on iOS going up; it's a tremendous challenge for developers right now. There is a little bit of an arms race"
While some would argue that the mainstream media has changed its tone about video games since the "Hot Coffee" scandal, the recent gun violence debate has once again put virtual violence in the spotlight. The NRA, several politicians and certain members of the media have been quick to scapegoat games. So we have to ask, what's changed in a decade? Not that much, unfortunately, if you ask Pope.
"I was reading another one of your articles on the site about how the industry doesn't represent itself as well as it could, and that feels like it's still the issue. We had the same problem 10 years ago and it still persists today. We don't really have a great ambassador, if you will. The ESRB does what it can, but it really shouldn't fall to the ESRB. And because it's such a large industry growing at an incredible rate, it's really difficult for any one body to emerge to become that [ambassador]. I feel like that's a large part of the issue. And then you see the NRA has one guy who goes up on a podium and gives a talk, and whether you agree with it or not there is a clear single voice and something to react to. I think that's a big challenge for us [as an industry] and I'm not sure how we get there," Pope commented.
Pope believes that the industry still has lots of maturing ahead of it. "The industry has really only begun to take off in the last 20 years. So we'll get there; you kind of see more and more developers exploring mature themes in a more creative and responsible way now that we have less of a distribution roadblock and we have more platforms where developers can kind of flex their creative muscle a little bit," he said. "You see it with iOS and Steam. So I think we will get there but there is a certain frustration that we're not getting there fast enough. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that video games are expensive; it takes a lot of time to make a video game and a lot of effort. Are you going to take a lot of creative chances when there's a lot at stake?"
Moving to the mobile games market appears to be the perfect move for Pope. Not only are the games more mass market, but they tend to be less violent. He pointed to Facebook games and the huge numbers those social titles produce as a comparison.
"I think what's been remarkable for me is seeing the number that comes out of Facebook games - they are almost hard to believe. It's like 'wow this game has 20 million monthly active users.' When we worked on GTA and the game sold several million copies that was record-breaking," he said. "What types of games are these 20 million people playing? They are usually really casual games that aren't too violent, that are just very broad in their appeal. I think the audience for gaming is expanding, so you have a lot of moms and people who aren't as interested or exposed to games as much who are now getting into it, and they aren't necessarily going to jump right into an FPS; they may start out with a town builder."
"We need to push ourselves and get away from sequels and rehashing. We're just souping up what's already been done"
"I think with gaming becoming more and more ubiquitous on all of our devices you're going to see a lot of money and energy going into games that have broad appeal. And that makes a lot of sense, and is sort of where our headspace is as well."
Rally Games' first title is Top Bot, a free-to-play, auto-moving racer with flying robots. Players can customize their characters and gain power-ups in the iOS side-scroller, which pits you asynchronously against friends or random opponents. Pope didn't have exact data to share on the game's market performance just yet, but he said it's been received well and Rally is looking to add features and enhancements while planning a couple different marketing promotions.
Coming from the console world, working in mobile has been quite different for Pope, but he believes he's learned what's necessary for a mobile game to succeed.
"It's an uphill battle if you take to tablet development with the same approach and mentality as you would a console, not only because of the way we use the devices - appointment gaming and things like that - but also the business model needs to be factored in to the design of the game. It's not something that can be done halfway through. For a successful mobile product, it really needs to be there from the get-go when you set out to design the game; and that's becoming even more critical for mobile games as the market becomes more crowded," he said.
"You're seeing the value expectation for consumers on iOS going up; it's a tremendous challenge for developers right now. There is a little bit of an arms race - 'what can we do to offer a value to compete with everyone else?' - and therefore you're seeing the prices drop all the way around. It's a very competitive market but I feel good about the approach we are taking because we've been very mindful about making a product that is 100 percent tailored to mobile. We're not porting something over with virtual joysticks."
While console and PC games will always have a place in the market, Pope definitely sees consolidation ahead in the console field.
"It's an uphill battle if you take to tablet development with the same approach and mentality as you would a console"
"I think it's a challenging time to be a console maker, or at least one of the big three. When I think about why they have arrived at the position they have, so much of it has to do with the developer ecosystem. This is why Apple has been successful, because they have an army of developers making apps for them, because they've made it easy to do that. You have so many people who have left console development because it's become so expensive, so time-consuming and only the major players can partake, which means you get projects that aren't as creative and projects where you aren't as involved because you're a smaller cog in the machine. I think that's going to be really hard for them to get those people back," he said.
That said, there are plenty of challenges for mobile developers, and because so many console developers have moved to the mobile sector, there's bound to be some pruning of the mobile games industry in the future as well.
"I do think there will be a contraction in the mobile industry because there have been so many people jumping into it, but I think a lot of those people are sort of gone for good; they are going to put some of their time and energy into other things like Ouya or Steam Box... It's going to be very challenging for Microsoft Sony and Nintendo. I wouldn't be surprised if we see by the next generation some consolidation of some sort - it seems hard to fathom that we're going to have these three big players again and again with the way everything is shaking out," Pope said.