Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interview with Game Developer Patrick Frye

First appeared in Infuze Magazine June 2005

Patrick Frye reprinted it on his webzine, ICEPOWERED, earlier this year.

This interview is pretty old now but our motivations haven't changed and neither has the industry all that much.

Michele: We'd like to know about you, who you are, how long you've been a Christian and a bit about your technical background.

Patrick: My name is Patrick Frye. I was raised in a Christian home but I don't think I truly understood what it meant to be a Christian until about five to six years ago. Up until then I consider my faith to be nominal. This was partially due to the church I was attending at the time, which didn't teach the Word. Then I again, I may have been thick-headed.

I worked for a Department of Defense contractor where I produced the software that controlled satellite communications systems in spy planes used by the U.S., Britain, and Australia (along with some other NATO countries). It was stressful since there were always deadlines to meet.

Now I work in a service oriented department at a non-profit Christian ministry so the amount of work goes up and down and... no deadlines.

What is your position at TGS and how did you become involved there?

I'm the Lead Engine Designer, a.k.a. "code monkey." I provide the tools for the level designers and artists; it's their job to produce the actual content for the game. Of course, that means if the resulting game is horrible I can't be blamed. Just kidding. I actually have been submitting many ideas during the pre-development design stage for Nightmares. In the first game, Eternal War: Shadows of Light, I didn't have any input at all into game play since I came on very late in development. Most of my work was in upgrading the original engine with additional features and fixing major issues.

As for how I joined TGS... If I was going to work in the game industry I wanted to produce games that not only entertained but could teach a solid Bible-themed message. Along with a group of other people I started a company called Gamers Underground Movement Productions. To make a long story short that endeavor failed and I decided to set aside my own plans in favor of furthering the Christian game industry in whatever capacity was available. I believe that one of the largest issues facing the Christian game industry is the fragmentation of the talent pool, since everyone seems to want to develop their own little pet project. At this point the industry realistically cannot support that. So I set about looking for a solid Christian game developer that seemed to have a good track record. I submitted my resume to TGS and was immediately accepted.

Tell us about Eternal War and please discuss some of what is involved in the making of a game.

Here is the storyline in a nutshell:

Eternal War takes place in the suicidal mind of John Coronado, a desperate teen ready to take desperate measures to escape his "personal hell."

You are Mike, a friend sent to help John out of his pain and struggles before his time runs out. Traveling down the road of malice and destruction, Mike is faced with hundreds of obstacles ahead of him to overcome through the only power that John thought abandoned him."

There are a variety of specialized fields involved in game production including:

* Management (Finance, Marketing, Sells, Website, etc)
* Game Design Leads
* Programming (Rendered, Sound, Networking, Engine Architecture, Scripting, Physics, etc)
* AI Programming (I list it separately because it's pretty much its own field)
* Script Writers
* Level Designers
* Sound/Recording Artists
* 3D Modelers
* 2D Texture Artists
* Play testers
* Musicians

For learning more about the game industry I suggest www.gamedev.net and www.gamasutra.com.

How do see the ministry possibilities for the Christian gaming industry?

In movies the message is given to the audience and it's only passive interaction. With video games the audience becomes involved and they are forced to think about the message and to make decisions based upon it. Brain research scientists have discovered that a person's thinking can either be changed or solidified by modifying or reinforcing the brain's neural pathways. While it is difficult to change old neural pathways with enough dedication it is possible.

The U.S. military has taken this research and they use 3D combat simulations in order to desensitize soldiers to possible violence they might face in their first real combat and hopefully prevent them from freezing up and getting themselves killed.

Most people don't realize this, but the video game industry has already surpassed the movie industry in worldwide net profit. It could also be said that the ability to effect society is already greater. Movies usually run between 1.5 to 2 hours and most people spend a limited amount of time thinking on the subject matter contained within. AAA title video games usually contain anywhere from 12 to 60+ hours worth of game play content and many gamers will play popular games for months or years. While playing these games, certain neural pathways are consistently being reinforced. Because of this the potential to effect people is huge -- both positively and negatively.

So far this great potential has not been met. The "message" in the storyline of most video games is usually fairly neutral in scope and for the most part does not hold a social agenda. Just like Nintendo's Mario, most games still consist of a hero, a basic goal, and a bunch of bad guys blocking the player's path to the goal. It's slowly gotten better with in-game cut scenes and game play scenarios and environments that actually mesh and belong in the story. Technology and funding for years was mostly the limiter but those limitations are slowly being erased. Game developers are just now starting to talk about games where players will feel for the characters and think of moral situations. This brings about the possibility of producing games that can change the audience's views and thinking on moral issues.

I will state one caveat right now: those who claim video games were the cause of incidents like the Columbine school shooting are just looking for an easy target to blame for responsibility... other than themselves. At the same time those who claim that playing video games does not effect them at all usually are not being honest with themselves. Reality lies somewhere in between.

In males, depending on the game type, there is usually a raise in blood pressure and heightened aggression. This effect is limited in duration and usually dissipates within minutes after the person has stopped playing the game. Now the effect on a person's thinking is dependent on the subject matter and the perspective the person chooses to take when playing the game. As for me, when I play a First Person Shooter I view it the same way as I do paintball. Just like the board game of chess, I'm out to beat my opponent(s) by "tagging" them with a certain set of rules and tools (weapons).

On the other hand, the Columbine shooter's anger at their classmates caused them to recreate their classrooms in custom levels in the old game Doom. In this manner they simulated killing their classmates over and over before actually considering doing the deed in reality. If a person views playing video games in a similar way they should not being playing video games and should seek counseling!

Desensitization towards violence is also a rightful worry when it comes to children. During that stage in life the brain is still developing and is highly malleable to change. If a child's boundaries are being taught through video games and not by their parents then I would be worried also. At the same time children should be taught that there are real repercussions to their actions, whether it be in reality or in a game.

Publishers are very careful about claiming video games have no correlation with violence... mainly so the bottom-line isn't effect and so they cannot be held legally liable; not because all game developers actually believe this. Isn't it odd how software publishers claim educational software can teach children to think a certain way yet deny that "just for fun" games can have any effect on the mind? An employee at Id Software once made a statement to this effect: "After a very long session of play testing one level designer noticed that he was automatically thinking of ways to defeat and kill his fellow employees as he walked the hallways. His brain could not tell the difference between reality and a video game. Now even though this was a short time effect on his mind needless to say this freaked him out."

The Grand Theft Auto series is famously used an example, since in it the player role-plays as a criminal who is out to gain power using any means possible. The game play mechanics are laudable but the message detestable. But that is not the only way to package a message to an audience. The games Fable and The Sims did not comment on homosexuality but merely introduced it matter-of-factly by allowing the player's character to marry a non-player character of the same sex. While not actively advocating homosexuality through words, the message was still the same: homosexuality is normal behavior. In fact, not reinforcing homosexuality in the game as "special" only enhances this message.

In the same way, Two Guys Software doesn't plan on bashing the audience over the head with the Bible every time they play our games. We plan on integrating moral themes into our games without disrupting the player's game play experience. In Christian literature, authors Ted Dekker and Shane Johnson go about writing their stories the same way. The characters, settings, and plot draw the reader in and then they are introduced to concepts where they think about moral issues, and sometimes the basic message of the gospel, sometimes without God or Jesus mentioned until the very end. This way non-Christian audiences are not immediately scared off by blatantly Christian packaging of the message.

When it comes to EW: Nightmares, the plot will be considerably darker in content. This is where we'll probably get the most flak from the Christian gaming community, but we're not too concerned about that. This time around we're going to approach the story more authentically. We've been doing research into the real-life effects that abusive use of drugs, porn, suicidal thoughts, rage, and occult influences have on people. It's not a basic "messed up kid who needs help" story again, we're aiming more for a chaotic conflict zone, each zone having it's own type of chaos that the player interactively helps a game character overcome. So the game will be a lot darker but also much more powerful in message.

Where do you see the industry headed?

At this time the largest problem facing the Christian game industry is the lack of adequate financial investment. The majority of companies are being run from home and the work is done only on available spare time outside of normal day jobs.

The other huge problem in the industry is this: Everyone wants to own their own little company and pursue their own little vision of a great game; they want full control and to be "the boss". Some times this is due to pride, but usually it's the heartfelt desire of people to fulfill their dreams. While these desires are laudable this also severely fragments the talent pool since we have hundreds of little companies/groups made up of maybe 5 to 10 people on average.

I'm reiterating this point from above because I consider it so important: I quickly realized that the only way to succeed is to set aside my dreams for the short term and join an already established company that appears to be succeeding. Perhaps in the future, once the Christian game industry has matured, I might be able to develop my own dream but I must learn to be patient. To complete my thought, if all the available people would band together under one company it might be possible to be competitive. If we have a hundred people working part-time on the side it would be approximately equal to about twenty to twenty-five full-time workers. Of course, managing all that would be crazy and be a full time position by itself but at least it would be possible to competitive with the secular industry and thus financially successful.

One of the reasons these small groups fail is because they are overly ambitious. They have grand visions but do not consider the reality of creating their vision in terms of resources, time, and capabilities. Some people are just starting to realize this error. As one game developer put it: "I'm just sick of project ideas -- whole projects even -- just being discarded because there's no time or it gets old or its too hard." Then these groups run into another problem, that of reducing their game to the point where it is irrelevant in the market. Most "simple" game play styles are available in such quantity that many are even free! It's quite impossible to sustain a working business plan which includes profitability when faced with such a situation.

Another problem is the lack of business sense in the industry. The majority of people starting these Christian game developers have no clue what to do when it comes to even simple business practices. The last paragraph could be used as an example. For another example, when I started Gamers Underground Movement Productions with several others, none of us had any practical experience at running a business. Fast forward to the future. TGS does receive help from Christians in the secular industry but day-to-day decisions are still left up to us, as well as marketing and other disciplines we are sorely lacking in.

Only once the talent pool is consolidated into professionally operated corporations funded by investors and run by experienced managers do I see the Christian game industry as being able to stand on its own. It's going to be a hard road and I imagine it will be years before the fruits of our labor pay off and the Christian game industry has settled down into a more settled, more "normal" routine.

What, if any, have been your biggest obstacles in dealing with the Christian community?

You'd be surprised at how the majority of mainstream Christian publishers we've talked to say Christians should not play video/computer games. It's practically the same situation that occurred with the Christian music industry in the 60 and 70s, where those with the money and who were in control of the industry said rock and roll is evil. At the same time it's amazing how many secular magazines/newspapers (like Fortune, MSNBC, etc.) are asking to interview us (TGS) about these emerging "religious games." The secular media actually paints a brighter picture than most Christians, estimating that the Christian game industry will exceed five hundred million dollars in several years.

One of the few Christian publications I've seen that has even mentioned the Christian game industry is World Magazine. But even then their editorial had a negative slant, quoting Mack and others out of context, and complaining that we have any type of violence in our games. Conflict of some type in video games is pretty much unavoidable, as is a certain level of violence. In the letters to the magazine section I saw letters about that article printed over a period of several months. These letters were all negative, saying they were appalled we were making such games and calling us hypocrites. Do I see these same people screaming about the blood-soaked, gory descriptions in the popular Left Behind series?

The reason most Christians don't play Christian games is the same reason why most gamers don't play our games: With the resources we're forced to work with we can only produce games that are five to seven years behind the game play curve (or worse). The AAA titles of the late 90's were made with a budget of less than a million and maybe twenty to forty people. Today's games are made with budgets typically exceeding several million dollars (two million dollars a month for Valve Software's recently released bestseller Half Life 2) and a staff of over one hundred people. The original Half Life was released in 1998 and to this date, the Christian game industry hasn't produced a game that can match it -- though, to be fair, many recently released secular games don't match it either. To put it pointedly, the majority of gamers have grown tired of games that play like Quake 1... and that's the quality level a spare time budget allows developers to make. While it's impressive that Eternal War: Shadows of Light met and exceeded the gameplay of Quake 1 considering it was developed on spare time and a limited budget, it still isn't enough to compete with today's market.

Now, the problem isn't a lack of Christian talent -- there are many Christians already working in the secular game industry in companies like Sierra, Activision, Electronic Arts, etc. These guys have even expressed interest in joining Christian game developers like N-Lightning or Two Guys Software. The problem is that the majority of these guys have families, mortgages, and bills to pay. Joining a Christian game developer would mean a huge pay in cut that, quite frankly, they can't afford at this time.

Many publishers will look at TGS and other Christian game developers and then claim the reason they aren't interested in backing us up is because of our lack of major financial success (or in the case of secular publishers mainly just because we're Christian in the first place). What they don't seem to comprehend is the lack of success is largely due to a lack of money, marketing, business management, and store shelf space... things only they could provide. It's a Catch-22 since we first have to be financially successful in order for them to consider providing the necessities required for us to be financially successful in the first place.

Why does there need to be a Christian game industry that creates games specifically to be marketed to Christians alone? Can't Christians just work from within the mainstream game industry?

When I think of the Christian game industry I agree that it shouldn't be centered around games created specifically to be marketed to Christians alone. Preaching to the choir or specifically targeting a yet-to-exist Christian game market has always seemed a waste of time to me, though I know others in the industry might disagree. It's possible that type of business plan might be financially sustainable in the long run, but that's not my interest. Two Guys Software's goal, for example, is to reach out to hardcore gamers with Biblically sound values and game play that anyone could appreciate. The idea is to overtly integrate moral issues and a message into the game play so that non-Christians don't feel like they're being bashed over the head with the Bible.

We've actually received more interest from secular media outlets like Forbes and MSNBC and mostly scorn from Christian publishers and media. "Christians shouldn't play video games, especially if they have any sort of violence at all in them" is usually the type of response I hear. There are actually many Christians in the mainstream game industry, from Sierra to EA, but I know from experience that the publishers will bulk at the idea to produce games that discuss sound moral issues in any manner; even if the Bible, God, or Jesus is not brought up explicitly. Using the word "Christian" will almost always get you shown the door immediately. That is why there is a "Christian" game industry, because at this time it seems that is the only way the games will be produced.

Where do you see TGS five years from now?

I cannot give an exact time frame but we're expecting the development of EW: Nightmares to take several more years. We're currently seeking financial investment and/or support by a mainstream publisher, either Christian or secular.

If a young person wished to become involved with the Christian gaming industry, what advice would you give them?

To be able to make good games you have to recognize good games and the game play mechanics behind them. What makes a "good" game is a fickle thing and often requires the tweaking of many variables over a period of months in order to balance out the game play.
I would recommend reading game development websites and magazines so you can become familiar with the industry. Depending on your planned specialty you may have to be well grounded in technical matters.

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