Is the games industry vision-impaired?

Brothers director Josef Fares on the lessons developers should take from film, and the ones they shouldn't

It's not entirely uncommon for filmmakers to make the jump into games, but it is rare for them to enjoy similar success in each medium. Josef Fares accomplished exactly that earlier this year, adding a BAFTA Award for his first game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, to the numerous honors he has earned for his feature films. In speaking with this week about the launch of his new studio, Hazelight, Fares said there are plenty of things game developers can learn from movies, but how to tell a story isn't necessarily one of them.

"The way of telling stories in movies is great, but I just feel the potential in telling interactive stories is much greater," Fares said. "There's an unexplored area. There's so much stuff to do. When I think of games, I try to always do it from a different perspective... What I love is interactivity. I sometimes pick up games like The Walking Dead, which I enjoy, or Heavy Rain, which I also enjoy, but I think those games are too close to movies. For me, it's all about interactivity."

"I think it's important to have a vision and know where you're going, and I think that's actually lacking in the game industry a little bit."

However, there are common practices on the production end of films that could be applied to game development. One misgiving Fares has about the state of games is a general sense of sameness among projects, a reluctance from many teams to try things particularly different from the norm. It's a situation Fares attributes to games that lack the foundational vision that can seem intrinsic to filmmaking.

"In my experience from the game industry, I see that of course it's a collaboration of really talented people working together," Fares said. "But you need a person or two who are like, 'This is what we're doing.' I think that's a problem with the game industry, actually. If you look at Bruce Straley and Neil Druckman, what they did with The Last of Us, of course they had a super talented team, but they're the ones who are leading it. I think it's important to have a vision and know where you're going, and I think that's actually lacking in the game industry a little bit."

Fares says he has a clear vision of Hazelight's first game, and had it half a year ago when he first decided to start the company. In discussing the studio with several big publishers (Hazelight would eventually go with Electronic Arts as a publishing partner for its first game), Fares said he was adamant about that vision.

"I just told them, if I do this again, it has to be my way. I need to have full creative control and everything," Fares said. "I was very clear in every meeting I had. This is how it's supposed to be. If you're not interested, I'm not interested."

"You have to respect that there are two sides of the coin. Yeah, I'm the creative guy, but there's also an economic side of it. We cannot work on something and say we want to do it to be creative and not give a shit about the economics.."

Perhaps surprisingly, Fares found that his interactions with all of the potential publishers were respectful, even pleasant. It was a minor surprise to Fares, given the reputation publishers as a whole may have in some corners of the development community.

"It's the same in the film business," Fares explained. "Many of my director colleagues are like, 'Producers just want to make money, blah blah blah.' Sure, you have these kind of producers. But at the same time, they ask me why my relationship with my producer is so good. And it's easy. You have to respect that there are two sides of the coin. Yeah, I'm the creative guy, but there's also an economic side of it. We cannot work on something and say we want to do it to be creative and not give a shit about the economics. You have to respect that, and when you respect each other, you meet in the middle and come up with a way that's good for both of you."

Fares considered self-publishing, but ultimately opted for the security a publisher can provide.

"From a perspective of budget and stuff, you can relax a little bit more," he said. "Right now we're at around 15 guys, and all these people have apartments, bank loans, and everything. The thing I'm not sure about is if it's going to sell a lot. I know it's going to be a great game. Brothers sold like 750,000 units and is actually still selling, but you never know about that. For me personally, I would take that risk to publish a game myself, but not for the team."

At the height of production, Fares believes Hazelight will expand to about 25 people. And if it needs to be larger, he's not terribly concerned about it.

"Even if we went up to 50, I don't have a problem with that," Fares said. "I know some people have told me when you're over 40 or 50 or whatever, it's tends to be really hard to keep a vision. But I don't think that. I've had teams when I work on movies of 70 or 80 people without a problem."

"There are some ideas that you really don't know will work until you try. But that's the fun of making games.."

While Fares isn't worried about headcount spiraling out of control, he's a little more concerned about his vision doing the same. He said Hazelight's new game is especially ambitious, and with the team barely a month into a project planned to take about two years, there's a lot of room for unforeseen difficulties. That said, Fares felt the same way at the outset of Brothers development, and that game turned out to be well scoped, relatively speaking.

"From the people in my team here, they said Brothers was the game where they threw away the least stuff," Fares said. "We threw away very little because we had a very clear idea of what the goal was with Brothers, and it's the same with the new game. We know where we're going, where we're heading."

If the team is smart about its decision-making and prototypes everything early to get a quick handle on what will work and what won't, Fares said the hope is that very little will wind up on the cutting room floor.

"Of course, the vision is there, but it will change," Fares said. "There are some ideas that you really don't know will work until you try. But that's the fun of making games."

Latest comments (4)

Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations3 years ago
The problem with our industry is that there's too much money involved and without great personalities like world-wide famous directors, writers, actors, etc... marketing usually takes lead (even creative), becoming the proverbial tail wagging the dog.

Of course there's also the issue of creative people not getting paid enough for their efforts. Let me give you an example that I know of. I've read recently that Ubisoft renounced full localizations in Polish for some of their blockbusters, claiming that the reception of Polish dubbing "hasn't been great". Well... how could it! For years Polish localization vendors have been forced to accept deals equivalent to 20-25% of German or French rates! Sometimes Polish VO actors get paid as low as $0.5-0.7 / line. Less experienced Polish translators are often forced into accepting rates as low as $0.02-0.03 / word. Can you imagine the effect it has on creativity and the final effect?

Maybe it's time to understand that in a long run investment in quality pays off... Oh wait! I've been saying that for 10 years now. Nothing changed.

Good night and good luck.
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online3 years ago
@Andrzej, interestingly enough, German localization is not always in better shape. Vendors are lowering their rates per word frequently or freeze them. With inflation, this means an effective lowering too. Experienced translators eventually can't accept these rates anymore. Price dumping might look good in the beginning, but in the end it will cause games to sell less. But will the cause for that be linked to the effects?
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 3 years ago
One thing I know: everyone has opinions about how this or that from film would or wouldn't work in games, BUT nobody acknowledges that it hasn't been tried out yet! If you were a scientist, you'd be pretty incompetent to say that the outcome of an experiment would be X before you actually ran the experiment.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 9th December 2014 9:22pm

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Bradford Hinkle Associate Product Manager, Spicy Horse Games 3 years ago
I really appreciate the message you are promoting. I would like to see more team leads taking a strong stance on creative control and building games on top of a strong vision. When I play games, I dont want derivatives. I want unique experiences.

However, the importance or value of vision in development depends on the type of game you are making.
The value of Brothers is found in it's story, in the delivery, in the sense of empathy to characters. The quality of these things depends on having a strong vision and maintaining it over the course of development.
The merit of a game like Candy Crush lies in the feeling of progression. You don't really need a strong vision for this. You just need an excel sheet.

Games like brothers are too risky for most big studios. You can still make a lot of money without a strong creative vision. Until vision becomes essential to profits, I don't think we will see this changing. However, big props to Ubisoft for supporting projects like Valiant Hearts.
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