That Google has its sights set on the games industry is no big surprise. If its 2007 acquisition of then upstart in-game ad firm Adscape for a reported USD 23 million wasn't the first major tip-off, or the recent surprise launch of its virtual world Lively, the company's presence at this year's Austin GDC should have brought the point squarely home.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with creative director Kevin Hanna just hours before he was due for his flight back home. While he artfully dodged the question when asked if Google itself had internal games projects in the works, that the company remains heavily invested in X-Ray Kid - the self-professed "games studio" behind Lively staffed with former Warner Brothers, Disney, EA, Sony, Marvel Entertainment, and Microsoft talent - is perhaps telling in itself.
In this wide-ranging interview, Hanna talks about his own background in the industry, the precise nature of the relationship between Google and X-Ray Kid and overseas vendors, why virtual world sceptics should care about Lively.
Q: Where and when did you get into the industry?
Kevin Hanna: I started the industry in 1997, straight out of high school, for a small company called Semi Logic working on games for Electronic Arts, Mattel, and for the Pentagon.
Q: What did you do on the Xbox with Microsoft?
Kevin Hanna: I was on the content side, I came in at the very beginning when we were, if you remember, trying to blanket every gap we had on games. I was brought in to work on a game called Dante that never took off, went from that to Crimson Skies and spent a long time working on that as both a game designer and an artist, then worked on Shadowrun a little bit. At Microsoft at the time, games had really long production cycles, so that sucked up about five years.
From there I went to Disney, starting as an art lead, and ended up as senior art director, overseeing all externally developed games - some 50-odd games.
Q: And that's when the phone rang from Google?
Kevin Hanna: Yeah - it was through people I knew. I didn't know the exact nature of the project, but I did know the people that were working on it, like Jeff Matsuda, the visual art director. I've been a fan of his since high school.
Without knowing what the project was I went in for the interview, and still without knowing what the project was I accepted the job.
Q: Did you even know it was for Google?
Kevin Hanna: I did know it was for Google. I could see who the players were. You know, they're not going to hire Jeff Matsuda to work on a new version of Google Talk.
Q: When did you actually find out what it was?
Kevin Hanna: Oh, the day I started. I had some fairly accurate guesses, I knew it was going to end up being something along the lines of what it ended up being, but I didn't actually see the demo and the prototype and the progress that'd been made until my first day.
Q: How was it coming from games to virtual worlds? Was that your first exposure to virtual worlds?
Kevin Hanna: I'd definitely touched on it some on the Disney side.
Q: On Toontown?
Kevin Hanna: I didn't work directly with Toontown, but there were a lot of initiatives for MMOs. Let's just say, I was familiar with the space, but not seriously hardcore. A lot of the stuff I was working on were very similar things, in the artistic direction, creative direction, so on the 'under the hood' side, it's very much the same.
On a production schedule side, you have milestones but you don't have a date that it's going to be on the shelf - you don't have a target platform, a solid platform, all these different weird things about it.
Q: Is that freeing or is that constricting?
Kevin Hanna: Oh, it's horrible - err, let me rephrase that - it was horrible for me. It's actually been really great for the project, and it made a lot of sense for this project and for the things that Google do.
For me, I'm going "OK, when are we gonna ship, when are we gonna ship, when are we gonna ship?" They said, "We're not going to ship, we're going to have a beta," and so on. That's the way Google does its job.
Q: But as an art director, how does that affect you, what are you looking for - you just need that drive forward?
Kevin Hanna: Well, we absolutely still had milestones, and mountains of content to produce, and we knew what our expectations were. We pushed hard on what we called the 'personaliser' - the tool to put the same hairstyles on all the characters, set skin tones, and that actually hit very close to the end.
I knew it was going to be work, because I've dealt with personalisation stuff before, but this was like nothing I'd never done. I remember just doing eyebrows - we had around 4000 eyebrows! - I had to put every single one of those stupid things in to make sure they looked good on everyone. My God...
Q: And you had a number of overseas teams to coordinate with as well?
Kevin Hanna: Yeah, we had a number of overseas teams. The people that we worked with that were the strongest was Maya Entertainment out of Mumbai, India. Maya, like the software, which obviously became very confusing when we'd be like "Is this from Maya?" "It's from 3ds Max." "Yes, but is it from Maya...?"
We also worked with a phenomenal studio called Mindwalk Studios in Beijing. We're continuing to work with both of those studios. Not all outsourcing stories that we have to tell are that great, but once we were able to separate the good from the bad, we latched on to those guys and are trying to work with them as much as possible. They produced all of the production content. We did all of the prototyping and first generation content and art directing Stateside.
Q: At what point did X-Ray Kid start up?
Kevin Hanna: We had all come into the project and - I'm not sure of the exact timeline, but a lot of corporations have this 'love em and leave em' attitude towards vendors and contractors and say "Well, this project's done, shut them off."
But Google wanted a long-term relationship with us, and we liked the idea of a certain level of autonomy. It was just a really great set up for both of us. They basically helped us get set up, but it's our company and we're just working with them.
Q: So you'd say Google are just investors? Are you a subsidiary of Google?
Kevin Hanna: No, we're our own company, our own independent vendor set up with and for Google. That doesn't mean that we're exclusive, or necessarily that they have to keep giving us work, but so far our relationship with them has been a very good one.
Q: Has it been exclusive thus far, or are you looking at outside work from here?
Kevin Hanna: We're starting to put our toes in the water about other projects, but a lot of the projects are in conjunction with Google. Not exactly for Google, but part of the Lively project yet to come.
Q: Moving on to Lively more specifically, who do you think virtual worlds actually are for? I've got Facebook, I've got instant messengers, what do I need Lively for?
Kevin Hanna: I think that's kind of like saying "What are videogames for?" You can't compare the Nintendo DS to the Xbox 360. This is just me personally, not a Google opinion, but I don't think you can compare the Theres and the Second Lifes to what we're doing.
If you can imagine a scenario where you would want to replicate your house and throw that onto Google Earth so your mother overseas can see what you've set up, or even if you wanted to rapidly prototype what your house should look like or try out some new furniture, the bar of entry on that stuff in the past has been insanely high. Now it's click and move.
It's still very early in the cycle, but it's been cool seeing the diverse uses that people are using it for. People are using it to augment other games, producing 3D galleries - I've seen some very cool ones for other people's products.
For the social network generation, I see it as something they can use to quickly convey a lot of information: I can have theme music, I can put up all my favourite videos, and I can put all of my images in one cluster. It's not something I have to download, and it's not a series of images I have to click through, you're there, and it's a 3D space and becomes that much more intuitive and interactive.
It's like "Have I seen all the pictures? Well, have I been through the entire house?"
Q: Do you use it yourself? Do you actually meet people inside of it?
Kevin Hanna: I don't use it for straight up socialisation - I found out that if I did I'd need to come up with an alias, because since so much of my job was plugging in the bulk of the content, even though I didn't create all of it, it has my alias 'frogchildren' on it. When I'd go into the world people would go "Oh my God!" I had no idea what they were talking about - someone would say "You're one of my favourite modellers!"
I still use it a lot, mostly I'm just banging on it. I'm always running around taking screen-grabs, and getting ticked off that all of these people want to talk and hang out and make friends, because I'm trying to take screen-grabs.
It's funny because for the longest time this has just sort of been 'my product,' and the only people it works for are me and the people I want to meet. It's really exciting to see it live and in the wild, and it's a little unnerving even that it became a world.
So yeah, I use it all the time, but I imagine I'm using it differently than the bulk of the users.
Q: You touched on this a little at your GDC Austin session, but as an art director - Lively does have a consistently high level of production quality for now, but are you worried about...
Kevin Hanna: ...The Second Life Syndrome? There may be multiple phases, and new iterations and - I think I can say this - we actually have a lot of content that we held back on. We have a lot of cool stuff that we're going to be releasing iteratively.
Q: Is that new characters, new locations?
Kevin Hanna: A little bit of everything. Some of my favourite stuff has yet to come out. There's a lot of different characters, and cute animals and stuff, but we didn't do anything really genre-pushing. I think with the next step we're going to be still within that style, but really pushing the different genres of known game types.
We're probably always going to have a toe in the water when it comes to Lively. I think it's quite possible that we'll have specific styles that are gated, maybe a scenario where you could go in and it would say "You can't be a regular Lively avatar, but you can choose one of these avatars specific to this area."
It's totally possible that we could just get flooded with poor content, but I think that because the bar's higher than a lot of the other stuff out there - if you think back in the day of Quake 2 mods, the bad stuff just didn't rise to the top because the original source was really cool. A lot of similar virtual world products - the original source just wasn't as cool. I think this has the potential to retain its original integrity.
Q: Moving on specifically to the games API, the first step is Google Gadgets? That's already working with existing Gadgets?
Kevin Hanna: But not interactive ones, right. It's maybe not 100 per cent interactive to call it a gaming API, but it's interactive Google Gadgets which can include games.
Q: Is there a longer term goal?
Kevin Hanna: There is a longer term goal of opening up the API so the architecture of Lively could be used as an online games platform.
Q: Are there any internal projects going on to exploit that as well?
Kevin Hanna: [smiles] I can neither confirm nor deny that. I know nothing of it.
Q: If you were another virtual world company, would you feel threatened by Google coming in?
Kevin Hanna: If I was any company in the world I'd feel threatened by Google, regardless of what my industry was. The reason I think Google does well is that they continue to iterate and promote creativity. I've been at Microsoft, and there's good and there's bad about Microsoft, but I've been really excited to work at Google and it's not just the free food and the little perks.
The fact that they require every employee to contribute new ideas one day a week - that's just insane, and that's been my dream since I was a kid, of some magical place where the company would say we want your ideas.
Pretty much everything that you could ever have an idea for, I'm sure someone at Google is cooking it up. A guy at the session asked me what Google has over a passionate start-up, but you know, Google actually acts a lot like a passionate start-up, even in co-creating X-Ray Kid with us.
We are a passionate start-up, and the mentality of people having a chance to put their ideas out there, regardless of their role, that is a heck of a lot of ways the same as a passionate start-up.
Q: Do you get all of the famous perks, like the 20 per cent personal work time?
Kevin Hanna: I don't as a vendor, but I have all the other perks that come with that. You're constantly being updated on the stuff that's happening, the stuff that rises to the top, and there are some pretty wild ideas out there. I'm sure a lot of them will never hit the market, but the fact that they're supporting all these mad scientists is a brilliant model.
Q: You touched on this a bit in your session, but what is your long term goal for this? Where do you want to see it go?
Kevin Hanna: Again, this is just my personal preference, but I'd like for it to be invisible, where when it makes sense to have 3D aspects of the web, that everyone will have already downloaded the plug-in, it's one of the first things you do when you install your machine, and you're able to just jump around and play in a creative space.
I feel like a big chunk of the games industry out there has a corporate mentality where you're first to be second, and I've been there, where they say, "Make sure you include this aspect, and this aspect, and this aspect, to ensure that we have an 80 per cent market share."
And it's sucking the life out of what should be the most creative and innovative medium out there, and I hope that this inspires those same 'passionate start-ups' and kids in college to actually go and produce games where they don't have to worry about the visual bar or the accessibility, because those things are already pre-established.
Kevin Hanna is creative director on Google Lively. Interview by Brandon Boyer.