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Xbox co-creator: "It's about gameplay, stupid"

Seamus Blackley of Innovative Leisure talks about "video games unplugged" and how five guys can make a game 150 can't

Seamus Blackley, co-creator of the original Xbox and founder of mobile startup Innovative Leisure, is one of the more intelligent and charismatic veterans of the games business that you'll ever meet, and so when Blackley talks we listen. Blackley was giving a presentation at The International Games Innovation Conference held at The Strong in Rochester, NY and GamesIndustry International was on-hand to chat him up afterwards.

Blackley was sure to point out how he was giving a speech at 6AM Pacific time, which no human should have to do, before he proceeded to update us on the state of Innovative Leisure. While THQ is no longer getting involved with mobile, Blackley was lucky enough over the summer to gain some investor support.

"Around DICE when we announced the company we got a lot of interest from a lot of people and the thing that became apparent is that nobody knows really what's going on right now [in the games business]. We got a good amount of interest from investors and I've come to understand that typically when you start a company you have to come out and pitch all the investors, and that investors were coming to us was probably a good thing," he said.

"I talked it over with my partners, and this is a group of people who've been around and excelled when conditions have been really turbulent. We love these turbulent periods because we believe quality trumps all," he continued. "We ended up getting a venture company - Hummer Winblad - who really are just great people and love games. So it affords us the ability to self-publish, and in a world where everyone is trying to figure out what's going on, the advantage to follow what's working right away is probably more than the stability of being attached to a big organization. So it kind of worked out perfectly that THQ has been turbulent and decided to ditch social and mobile gaming. It's a case of the universe finding the right thing to happen."

"When you're a developer and someone asks you when your game is coming out... You just want to instantly kill them"

As for THQ's new direction and leadership from Jason Rubin, Blackley is fairly optimistic. "I think Jason actually has a chance of really making a difference, so I'm incredibly enthusiastic for them and for us, which in the world of video game business breakups never happens," he noted.

If you're a fan of classic games, you'd be blown away by the all-star team comprising Innovative Leisure, which includes Ed Rotberg, the creator of Battlezone, Owen Rubin, creator of Major Havoc and Space Duel, Rich Adam, creator of Gravitar and co-developer of Missile Command, Ed Logg, co-creator of Asteroids and Centipede, Dennis Koble, creator of Touch Me and Shooting Gallery, Bruce Merrit, creator of Black Widow, and Tim Skelly, who's the only non-Atari veteran arcade game designer who worked for Cinematronics and created games such as Rip-Off.

It goes without saying that expectations are high to see what this group can do to create the "new arcade" on iOS. So are the games actually coming out this year?

"God I hope so. As a developer you never want to curse yourself with that," warned Blackley. "When you're a developer and someone asks you when your game is coming out, it's the same feeling as when you're in college and a relative you haven't seen asks you what your major is. You just want to instantly kill them. But it's a totally reasonable question. In your mind as a developer, you're thinking of all the things that still have to get done, and... it's like what happens to writers. You have this amazing idea on your mind, and you know that by putting it down on paper you're just going to destroy it, and so it's like this painful process of making sure the thing you're really excited about [turns out well]. Fortunately for us, we have this group of guys that collaborate in ways I've never seen before."

Blackley fully admitted that he plagiarized his speech at the conference... from himself. It was quite similar to his DICE Summit talk, but there's a reason for that: "The reason I gave that talk again - and I would give it 50 more times - is I think the most important thing to remind everyone in the industry right now is 'it's about gameplay, stupid'. That's really the most important thing in the world right now. Anywhere we're serving up any kind of jaded, calculated, exploitative content, we're losing, and people are getting kicked in the teeth for it, from Zynga to everywhere else."

We asked Blackley about how easy (or difficult) making games for mobile really is. It's obviously a lot less difficult than the console market from a financial standpoint. Blackley has an interesting perspective on the market, however.

"This is really like video games unplugged. You can think about it in economic terms, but the reality is five guys can make a product that 150 guys can't make"

"With respect to budgets and smaller teams sizes, I really think that's secondary. That's an analysis by people who are thinking about this in an abstracted business way, not thinking about it from the standpoint of the audience. What's happening is the audience is demanding stuff that is cool and different, and plays differently and fits into their lives in a different way. And you're able to deliver that, luckily, with smaller groups of people, because you're getting back to sort of the purity of what game design is," he observed.

"It reminds me of trends in all sorts of other media, like in music. If you look at music, there's this huge overproduction and then MTV Unplugged shows up - it's that kind of moment in games. This is really like video games unplugged. You can think about it in economic terms, but the reality is five guys can make a product that 150 guys can't make."

Blackley pointed out that there's something very, very special about a small group of talented designers getting their heads together to make a cool game. It's not easy, though, and Blackley actually thinks it's a greater challenge than a triple-A console production.

"It's not because it's easier or cheaper or something - it's harder. There's nowhere to hide when you have five guys making a game," he said. "You can do something that a huge team can't do. There's a kind of immediacy and playfulness that is thrilling to the audience, that you can't get any other way. Does that mean people don't want to have giant console games anymore? No, it doesn't mean that, but it means there's a whole new way and people really like it."

Indeed, consoles - or at least console-like gaming experiences - will be here to stay, for a long, long time, Blackley said. Blackley said he's tired of seeing "histrionic articles in the press about the death of consoles."

"I think if we look at the Ouya as an example, aside from being an awesome, ballsy project, it's a great litmus test for the enthusiasm of the audience for console content. You have to remember that people want to play console games because they want to have a super premium high-end experience - it doesn't really have to do with anything else," he said.

"That moment is what you crave - that moment of this wonderful, life changing place you can go which is so much better than this hellish earthly existence we have"

"When you say, 'Do you still want console games?' - people aren't saying that they want a dedicated device hooked up to a television. What they're thinking is that they need to have a super premium entertainment experience in the living room. They still want that really badly. They don't care how it comes to them. And it's totally different than playing a game on your iPad. You're not expecting [a tablet game] to give you dreams and nightmares and all that stuff."

He continued, "So I think unless we screw it up and no one finds a way to keep delivering [high end] content while still making business sense, that people are still going to want that. And if we do screw it up, people will demand it and it's going to come back in some other way. I don't think it's necessarily tied to a packaged goods retail cycle. It's fashionable to say that it's an artifact of various technological limitations or whatever."

And while digital is quickly advancing, there's still some magic in going to the store to buy a disc and bring it home, Blackley remarked. It's part of the gamer's psychology, he said.

"There's a huge amount of positive reinforcement with a generation of gamers right now about going to the GameStop or Best Buy and buying a game, taking it home and seeing what it's like. There's a magical thing about that. There's a trend with vinyl toys right now where you buy a box and don't know which toy it is, and you get it home and find out. There's an element of that with the console game, no matter how many reviews you read," he commented.

"You put the disc in and find out what the game's like. It might be awesome, it might change your life again, like Mario 64 did or like GTA did or Modern Warfare, or it might be a dud. But that moment is what you crave - that moment of this wonderful, life changing place you can go which is so much better than this hellish earthly existence we have."

Blackley still sees the digital and mobile upheaval causing a lot of angst for executives at major publishers, but there's also plenty of opportunity for those smart enough to take advantage.

"So I don't think that [console experience is] ever going to go away - whether it's dedicated consoles providing it or some other device that makes sense within consumer behavior patterns. In the near term, what does that mean for guys with massive legacy businesses? I think it means a lot of pain and trouble managing things, and they are having a lot of pain and trouble," he said. "The flip side of that is, if you talk to Bobby Kotick or John Riccitiello, really smart guys, and they understand these moments of turmoil are also moments of opportunity. I want to see what they do too, and Jason [Rubin] at THQ - these are smart, interesting guys, and they are going to do something smart and interesting and weird. And fortunately, I just get to hang out and make mobile games for a while."

The key to success, no matter what technology is being used to provide the experience, is to absolutely respect the customer, Blackley said. There have been too many examples of companies shafting the very consumers they need to support them. Blackley stressed that "when you disrespect the customer you trash yourself." He noted in his talk, "let's not be doomed, let's respect the customer, let's not screw ourselves and squander the opportunity that we have now."

While Zynga may be one of the more prominent recent examples, history is littered with the failed companies that have disrespected customers. Hopefully, the game companies and executives of today can learn from history and not repeat it.

"When they come back to a game and they feel short changed, you've ruined their day and they will now proceed to crucify you online"

"I think that every large game company from Atari forward has at some point in its history made decisions that were cynical and that were exploitative. In almost every case, that has ended up totally backfiring, even though in the short term it seems to make sense. And yeah, Zynga has really had its share of that. The backlash against those guys for games that they've copied and the business practices that they've used has been immediate," Blackley said.

"On the flip side, the times when Zynga has paid attention to its customers and taken care of them and given them content that they really liked, Zynga has done incredibly well. In just looking at that, the lesson is when you use all of that data and all of that feedback to delight the customer more, the customers will do anything to help your business. But when you use that data to try to squeeze more money out of your customers, they will kill you," he continued.

"It's entertainment for these people, and it's easy for business people to think that entertainment is a sort of disposable item - like, 'who cares if it's not good? Customers will just move on.' No, that could not be farther from the truth. For this audience, these games are the point of their day. It's not the thing they're doing to take a little break; it's like the point of their day and they're incredibly enthusiastic about it. And when they come back to a game and they feel short changed, you've ruined their day and they will now proceed to crucify you online. They will absolutely crucify you. If you can get your head around what it's like to be in that audience - God forbid you play some games and see what it's like..."

Knowing what the gaming audience is really like could be a big asset for Innovative Leisure. Blackley and his team are all gamers at heart.

"The problem is that's easy to say but to simultaneously run a business and also keep that in mind is really a trick; it's really a hard thing to do. You have to design your business to make it possible to do that. Guys who've done that well have designed their business to do that. Most of the guys who've done that well I think are people who've found a way to keep themselves in their own target audience - to keep themselves being their own customer and playing a lot of games," Blackley noted.

"When we interview people and when I talk to people about working with them, I always ask them what they're playing and what they have on their iPad. It's a serious question - are you obsessed with three or four games right now? Because if you're not, how can you trust yourself to make judgment calls about stuff you're going to serve up to others? It's not an abstract thing at all; it's a real thing."

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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