Martin Hollis was part of the team behind two of the most influential shooters of all time: GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, directing and producing both games, before leaving Rare to join Nintendo of America as part of the GameCube development team.
In 2000, Hollis founded Zoonami studios in Cambridge and has since produced a number of games, including Wiiware hit Bonsai Barber. Hollis is also a regular contributor to Nottingham's GameCity event, which is taking place this week.
As part of a forthcoming series of interviews with key speakers at the event, we spoke to Hollis about his experiences with WiiWare, what he thinks of GoldenEye being remade and why we should be curating games as a medium with real cultural importance.
Q:Let's start by talking a little bit about WiiWare - it's not a system we ever hear much about from an inside perspective. What's is it like to work on and how much support do Nintendo offer developers?
Martin Hollis:Well, I think it's a very fine thing. The best thing about it is the size of the marketplace you can access. There's a huge number of people who have a Wii, and a goodly proportion of those download games from Wii-ware - it's tens of millions of people, and it's not overloaded with games, unlike some other app stores I could mention.
That's the chief thing. Nintendo doesn't give you a huge amount of support in that they won't launch a marketing campaign for your product, typically, you have to take that responsibility on yourself. But that's typical for all digital distribution.
Q:And what sort of margins are you operating under on WiiWare?
Martin Hollis:Well, that's a very GamesIndustry.biz question! [laughs] It's difficult to get hold of numbers for WiiWare. I think it's even more difficult than it is to get hold of numbers for XBLA and PSN, and it's not too easy for those. The platform holders like to keep it all secret.
Our experience was extremely positive, but our title was a second-party title and it did have some TV advertising with a spot inside a larger advert for Wii. We assume that has to have an impact. As for margins, it's always the case that, if you make a good game you're selling ten or a hundred times as many units as the guy who made a mediocre game, a game that's maybe a little bit sub-par. Not much, but just a little bit. So that factor completely overrides any other.
I've heard stories of people who've done really very well, third-party developers who've bought titles to WiiWare, Kyle Gabler stands out and there are others in Europe as well... and I've heard stories who've decided not to make a sequel. That's generally the best indicator of someone finding that their product was profitable, when they choose to make a sequel.
Of course, Frontier in Cambridge did well and decided to make a sequel to Lost Winds, and there are various other small indie type studios around Europe who've chosen to come back again.
Q:Do you think it's perhaps more of a margins game than XBLA and PSN? Less to do with high investment/high return and more suited to people who want to keep development costs low and not necessarily look for such big numbers, just a comfortable margin?
Martin Hollis:To answer that question with authority I'd have to have seen a spread of numbers. My impression is that you can make a game if you've got a few thousand Euros, Dollars, Pounds - because you will need a dev kit or two, ideally, minimum; and you've got two really talented guys, you can make a game, and you can sell 200,000 and upwards. Some of the titles are £8 or £10.
So the opportunities are there for people, you have to make a game that fits in with Nintendo - has a Nintendo feeling.
Q:Given that, why do you think that not as much attention is given to WiiWare? What's stopping people from seeing the quality that is there?
Martin Hollis:That's a very good question. Apple have had such massive success in capturing media attention - they've sucked all of the air out of it. I don't know that Nintendo's putting a great deal of energy into trying to generate PR for WiiWare or Dsiware.
Q:Why do you think that is? Is there a conflict of interest? Are platform owners undermining the success of their own traditional retail model if they over publicise their digital download services, are they scared up upsetting traditional retail partners by doing so?
Martin Hollis:I think that has to be true. I haven't seen any evidence of that, but that has to be true, surely? It has to be true that they're making so much money at retail, and helping their partners make money at retail, there has to be some kind of organisational inertia there.
But I see Mr Iwata pushing the organisation towards digital. He made a statement at some point this year, that he expected digital distribution to overtake retail in a few years, he put a date on it, but I can't recall it. But that's a very interesting statement, and to me that's Mr Iwata trying to push the organisation towards WiiWare.
Maybe $50 dollar games will always be at retail and the $10 and the $5 and the $1 dollar games will be available digitally. My supposition is that that's what they're hoping to be able to generate.
Q:Would you think that Microsoft and Sony are also aiming for that?
Martin Hollis:I would. I'd say that for those companies there's also a convergence driver, they're very much invested in the idea that media will converge and they want to Trojan Horse something into the living room and the bedroom and so on. Netflix and etc is all a part of that. Retail is marginalised by that.
But we see that microstransactions, for example, are much more significant for Sony, especially with PlayStation Home - they seem to be making good in-roads with that. So it's a slightly different flavour, a slightly different approach to generally the same sort of idea.
Q:What was your inspiration behind starting Zoonami, going from your background developing games like GoldenEye and Perfect Dark to a more casual area of the market?
Martin Hollis:My personal history, going back - further than GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, which were great - going back to the BBC Micro and so on... Some of the very first games I made were games for my family. I always felt that this machine was something that existed in the context of my home.
People didn't call it casual then, they didn't have that word for it, that was something that I was always very interested in and found very comfortable to do.
You know, I would say that GoldenEye is a casual-compatible FPS.
There's some danger, constructing a sentence like that, because it's also hardcore-compatible. But that accessibility, that's something that's very important for me in every game I've worked on.
Q:How do feel about them being remade? Should the industry be focusing on innovation instead of replication?
Martin Hollis:I did read that Mr Iwata asked them to innovate (GoldenEye) and they did do some new things with the control at Eurocom, and I think that's great. But my feelings when I heard about that... You have mixed feelings. It's inevitable. You see it as your baby.
Even when they ask, do you want to be involved, and you say no, it's still something that's connected to you and to your personality and that you want to cherish somehow. So there's maybe some irritation, or insecurity that comes out of that. That someone else is running with that ball, but then again it is pleasing that it still has currency, that the name is still valued. And how how many games have been remade twice?
Those kind of things are pleasing.
Q:I'd argue that those games, particularly GoldenEye, really helped to define that console generation, and in fact multiplayer FPS as a genre - do you feel that the genre has continued to innovate or has it become stale, retrograde even?
Martin Hollis:First of all, those games were a particular style of FPS, and I don't feel that anyone has really carried that onwards. I feel that the consoles have lost ground and momentum with FPS since those days. Nowadays the interesting things that are happening for FPS tend to be for PC, and that has a different culture and it has different styles of gameplay. Different core mechanics and semi-core mechanics.
The experience of playing it is very different, very solitary. There's online, but that's a kind of solitary. I think that the genre's moved away from that idea of getting people together in a room, more towards, more of an Xbox experience - I think that's a great shame.
I have to admit that when I look at FPS games, I'm always looking for innovation, and I don't tend to be that excited by what people have done. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was retrograde, but there's an awful lot of things that I've seen that aren't really that new.
Q:You raise an interesting point about the solitary nature of modern gaming there, despite all the talk of connectivity and community. When I look through the stack of fifty or so games under my TV, I struggle to find more than three or four which offer local multiplayer.
Martin Hollis:I think that solitaryisation, that atomisation of people and their play styles is a great shame. It is more convenient for people, but it is less emotive. The best experiences I've ever had playing games has been with one, two or three other friends, all in a room, playing anything from Super Bomberman onwards. I think it's a shame that there are so many games that support this one person on their own, this alone style of playing with other people, and not so many that support more togetherness.
One of the things I like about the Wii is that it's more about the family and the living room, more about bringing people together. Maybe something good can come out of Kinect with that.
Q:I read something that you tweeted earlier today about the nature of the education system. Do you think that our industry is being fed the right sort of candidates by the schools and universities? Are there people who purport to be educating people for an industry job but are actually doing nothing of the sort?
Martin Hollis:Good question. My feeling is that, speaking as someone who works with people who've come through the education system, and I want them to be well trained and well served by that system, and I also want my country to do well in the sphere of games... My criticism would be that the traditional subjects like mathematics and computer science, the real problem they have is getting the bright people to choose those subjects. Especially at university.
That's connected with my experience in Cambridge. Their intake in computer science has shrunk by half over a decade and a bit. From my point of view that's a disaster because there's just as many smart people, but for whatever reason they're not choosing computer science and that impacts me personally and it impacts the industry at large in this country because you need programmers to make a videogame.
The other thing I'd say is that I'd highly question that the education system is thinking in the right way in order to be able to provide game designers of any calibre at all. I think it's an immense challenge. People have come to me and said, can you help us with our syllabus in game design, and I don't know where to start, really.
What I would like, in an ideal world, is to be able to speak to a graduate of a game design course and feel that we could talk the same language and maybe even that they'd have some fresh perspectives that I hadn't seen.
That's what happens when I talk to art graduates and that's what happens when I talk to software engineering graduates. Why isn't the education system able to deliver to that enormous amount of people who are prepared to pay a great deal of money to learn how to play games?
Q:It's something both Ian Livingstone and a number of others have spoken about recently, even saying that there are organisations who are taking advantage of the fact that people will pay a great deal for a games course, no matter its quality. Should there be more regulation?
Martin Hollis:There's no regulation that I know of on the quality of university level course for any subject, except for the barriers to entry that you need to cross to be an accredited institution.
To provide that for game design would be very tough, and I don't really believe that regulation is the right way to go about it. I don't think the government is agile enough to be able to solve those problems. I think it's a problem for education and for the game development community to solve together.
I also think that something like Skillset and what Ian Livingstone is trying to do is a very noble enterprise.
Q:What about special economic dispensation, especially in the light of the recent spending review? Are arguments for tax breaks just people fighting their corner?
Martin Hollis:I think it is people fighting their corner, and I want to fight it too. It's my corner and I love it! Also, I love film. There's been intermittent support of film by the British government. I know the history of film, and if you look there you can see that, once upon a time, we had a fabulous film industry.
Economic conditions and no support from government meant it toppled and today 90 per cent of the films I watch are made in Hollywood. Once the ball has rolled in that direction it takes an immense amount of money and energy to revive that. There's been small attempts to try to do that for the British film industry, but really it's in nothing like the shape it was in during the '50s and '60s. The likelihood is that it never will be.
There's no reason for that because of the wealth of talent and the nature of culture in this country and fact that we all speak English and so on, there's no real reason for that other than we don't quite have the scale as America.
I think the same thing could happen in videogames. We could lose our position and the fact that the country punches above its weight, to an enormous degree, we could lose that. From time to time the economy does go a little bit wobbly and that's the nature of the economy, and during those times we should support the cultural future of the nation, even though you're trying to save pennies.
Q:Let's talk a little bit about GameCity. When I spoke to Iain Simons the other week, he was saying that it's really all about the importance of games to culture, rather than the economy. Is that something that you feel gets passed over more than it should?
Martin Hollis:It's very easy to overlook it, because it's quite background. It's always there. It's quite easy to overlook that sort of background foundation. I think it is enormously important, and I think it's possible to support it in ways that are extremely cheap.
A staggering percentage of people in this country are very very passionate about videogames and are prepared to spend time to support events. GameCity has a very reasonable entry price and it has a completely different ethos to any other event I've seen anywhere else in the world - I think it's a fabulous thing, it should be cherished. It's my favourite event to go to.
Other events can be £200, $600, whatever entrance - that are much more 'professional', in quotation marks, that are more boring, I'm sorry to have to say. I think it captures the excitement, the more cultural, artistic elements, which is really what it's all about. Why can't there be more events that do that, as well as GameCity?
Q:So what will be you be doing at this year's event?
Martin Hollis:We'll be talking about game remakes and how important they are for understanding the cultural importance of these artefacts that happen to be videogames. How that informs modern game development and the future of game development.