Foot on the Gas
Chris Taylor talks about the changing landscape of videogames, and why he set up Gas Powered Games
Chris Taylor set up Gas Powered Games in 1998, and the company has since produced a number of key titles, including the Dungeon Siege franchise and Supreme Commander.
The studio is currently hard at work on Demigod, due next year, and here Taylor talks about why he founded the business, and what the most exciting thing about the games industry is today.
Q: What's been the most intriguing development in videogames for you in the past ten or twenty years?
Chris Taylor: That's an interesting question - RPGs started out as a very hardcore in the early eighties. They were turn-based, they had minimalistic graphics, they were very deep in statistics. It was like turning board games into digital equivalents.
I enjoyed those games a lot when I was 15 or 16 years old, but then the more advanced graphical RPGs came along, and they definitely grabbed a bigger audience. People weren't interested so much in all the number-crunching - they wanted the action, they wanted the visuals, but a good number of people still appreciated the deep mechanics of the engine, not just the statistical part, but the underlying attack rating, defence rating and so forth.
What happened was that we started to see a simplification of the genre, and we just wonder how far can that go? When I played some of the big MMOs I found that not only had they been simplified in the number crunching respect, but they'd been simplified in terms of the gameplay mechanic.
Part of that is the reality of having to run so many people on these servers - just making the game work and run. But on the other side it also changed the way that people looked at RPGs, it was more about a social dynamic, a kind of co-operative competition, not so much a head-to-head competition. I think most people who play MMOs like to play co-operatively, but at the same time like to be competitive in the way they're growing their characters.
So we really saw a softer side in what people were looking at in their RPGs, and where it's going I don't know. But I do know there are a huge number of people out there who deeply appreciated a more complex, deeper RPG experience, but there are a lot more people who like the social side, the beautiful graphics, and the action.
Q: But if you look at the market, particularly World of Warcraft, that's what has been successful and pulled in the numbers.
Chris Taylor: Right, and no-one wants to say "I play a simple game" - that seems to be a fact. In the casual game world they don't like the word "casual", it's a dirty word because it doesn't capture the spirit of what you're creating.
Isn't television casual? Are books casual, if you look at what they are? Who reads a book intensely?
Q: Well, perhaps if you're studying Shakespeare...? Maybe that's 'hardcore' reading...?
Chris Taylor: Exactly...you can start to break down all the other entertainment genres - film, TV, books, music...well, there is such a thing as easy-listening music, and there's hardcore music...but what's the stuff in the middle called? It's not "casual".
It's really interesting - there's a world that's outside of the gamers that is saying "We want to get involved, we want to play games". They're all saying, pretty consistently, the same thing - knock it off with the complexity, stop throwing complex tutorials at us. They don't want to read those, they don't want a lot of text on the screen, don't want to have to join MENSA in order to keep up - they want to have fun, first and foremost.
From where I'm sitting, I get it, and you're going to see me going down a different road now. It's taken some years to turn the ship, but that's the road we're definitely going down.
Q: I wonder where all those people that played flight sims on the Amiga back in day...I guess reading the manual was something to do while the game was loading...
Chris Taylor: That's true - where did they go? Well, they stopped buying games, because those games stopped. There was a whole simulation category on the PC, and it's kind of gone away. You do have your classics like Flight Simulator, and I don't know what the numbers are, but that category has withered down to a fraction, to the point where if you walk into a publisher today with a great idea for a simulation - a tank sim, helicopter sim, a submarine sim - they'll say: "Well I hope you're doing it in your garage in your spare time, cos that's about the budget..."
Q: What about other strategy games then? Not many triple-A turn-based titles seem to see the light of day any more, it's all real-time stuff now.
Chris Taylor: Yes, and the real-time element is a double-edged sword. If you get real-time, you get the parallelism of a game experience - things are happening all over the place at once, it can be very overwhelming.
So the turn-based games have their place - think about the traditional board games, like Scrabble and Monopoly, they're all turn-based. They're not saying "Hey! Let's all play at once!"
Clearly real-time doesn't necessarily mean better - look at Civilization by Sid Meier. He's one of the industry greats, one of the top inventors of all time, and he's proved to us that a turn-based game can be incredible and deep, and have mass appeal.
But the number of people who can pull that off are few and far between - it's like an action film is probably easier to make, I'm guessing, than making a deep drama. Take something like Titanic, that's deep and moving...that's got to be harder to make than some guy shooting up the streets of LA.
Q: You're working on a couple of titles at the moment - how are they coming along?
Chris Taylor: We have Demigod, for which we just released an in-game footage trailer, it's getting lots of attention and coming on great for a release next year. Plus we're in development on another title which isn't announced yet - the publisher hasn't announced it - so we're not able to talk about that yet, but it's looking really good and we're really happy with that.
And we're just now starting on a new title, although for that there're multiple things on the whiteboard. We have to put a few things in the oven now so they can come out in two or three years.
Q: You need that conveyor belt going...
Chris Taylor: Absolutely, you have to - or you have to become a smaller company. You can have a one-team company now - for a while there in the industry it looked like one-team companies couldn't survive, so we realised we need two, three or four teams. But now I think there's a realisation that coming back to two teams, or using an incubation team that's working on an early concept, is probably the way to go. As one game ramps down, another one is ramping up.
Q: What was your motivation in setting up Gas Powered Games in the first place?
Chris Taylor: Well, when I was working in previous companies, the old saying that "The grass is always greener..." I had this notion that if I could run my own studio I'd do this, and this, and this...
I had that dream really from the day I first walked into my first full time job as a games programmer. I wanted to be the guy running the company. I was a little foolish in that thinking, because the work it takes to run a company is a hundred times more than your imagination can even begin to speculate on.
I just didn't understand that running a games studio was getting away from the singular focus that you have when you're an individual working inside a company - your focus becomes so broad, you have to keep track of so many different things, and your day is not dictated by your own creative whim. Your day is instead dictated by the business demands.
That's a little bit of the darker side, but on the positive side we've created our own original IPs consistently. Some are great, some are not so great, but the fact is you have to keep throwing darts at that board. You have to keep trying to make great stuff, and you can't do that if you're inside of a large megalithic organisation to the same degree...unless you can navigate that organisation.
But when you have your own company, that's the return - that's the deal you make. You accept you'll bore your own brains out with complexity and solving problems that aren't the problems you used to solve - they're not game design problems, they're banking problems, they're legal problems, they're accounting problems.
But on the flipside the games I'm working on are the games I want to make. Everything comes with a price. It's like good game design - it comes with a price. You don't give your player the rocket launcher and allow them to shoot rockets like bullets - it shoots less frequently. It's got to have its downsides, even though when people get it, they're like, "Yes! I've got the rocket launcher!"
That was like me with Gas Powered Games...I finally got the rocket launcher. But the rocket launcher is only what you need to get through your day...
Q: Knowing what you know now, after ten years of managing the company, would you still make the same decision?
Chris Taylor: Yeah, I probably would, because now - unfortunately - I've learned all about how to do it. You develop muscles, and certainly eyes-wide-open now I'd know what I was getting into. I might approach things a little differently - I might outsource more, for example. It's the difference between jumping from the riverboat and being swept downriver, and surviving to make the bottom, or going white-water rafting with all the right equipment.
The river is the same river, no matter how big the drop-offs are and ultimately how dangerous it is, that's the business. But at the end of the day I do feel like I've developed a skill set for this. Of course there are days when I could use a break, but then I'd get right back on the horse again.
Q: What is the most exciting development in the games industry in recent times?
Chris Taylor: Well I think one of the key words is the social aspect. Gaming isn't just about an individual all alone in a dark corner of the house - it's now become a mainstream for of entertainment. It's right up there now with all the other big ones, and that's terrific.
What's so exciting is that my family, we play Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance together. That's not a load of bull, my kids are playing the game so constantly that my wife started to join in. Now she's playing, and begging the kids to play as well. You wouldn't have seen that years ago in an average family.
That's the biggest thing, that's what makes it so exciting.
Chris Taylor is the founder and CEO of Gas Powered Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.