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Interview: David Cage Talks About The Perfect Future Of Gaming

by Matt Bertz on Feb 25, 2013 at 11:30 AM

We sat down with Quantic Dream founder David Cage (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls) to discuss the game industry’s Peter Pan syndrome, the technological limitations facing creators, and the parallels between the evolution of the film and game industries.

As the data you presented at D.I.C.E. demonstrated, the console space is dominated by platformers and action games – I would classify them as popcorn experiences. But I think you could also make the argument that this is also the case for books, television, and film. Isn’t this a shared issue in the media?

What I like about cinema and literature is the great diversity there is there. So yes, if you are looking for superheroes saving the world, you can probably find that in films. Look at the success of The Avengers last year. So there’s a market for that, and there are people doing it, and they can be successful. But at the same time, if you are looking for dramas, comedy, tragedies, or very different types of films, you can also find them. In games, the problem is that action, violent, and platforming games are 90 percent of the industry. So we don’t have the same choice, the same diversity. And this is what I would like to see change. 

Where do you think this lack of diversity comes from? The creators, the businessmen, the consumers, or the press?

There’s not simple answer because it probably comes from everywhere, and it’s probably a chicken and the egg thing. Do people buy the same games because we just give them the same games? Or do you we make the same games because this is what people want? It’s really difficult. I like this quote from Henry Ford that said: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” That’s absolutely the case. You can’t expect people to tell you what games they want to play. This is not their job; you need to come up with proposals and then ideas, and these are the games that we wanted to make because we strongly believed in. And yeah, it’s very different from what you know, but give it a chance and then we’ll see if people are not interested in other types of experiences. My guess is that they are; they are eager for something new. There will always be a market for violent games and platformers, no doubt. That’s why I’m just saying can we have different types of games taking more risk and just offer this level of diversity to people so they can pick up the games they like. 

Do you think the inflation of budgets for games is inhibiting this kind of risk-taking?

It’s definitely one of the reasons because making games, especially triple-A titles, is more and more expensive. As technology becomes more and more complex and we want to raise the bar, and you want to face competition, so you want the best graphics, and the same engine, and the same base gameplay, etc, etc, so it costs a lot of money. When you take so much financial risk, of course you need to make sure that you’re going to get this money back so you tend to take less risk with the content itself. So let’s make a shooter because we’re pretty sure that we’re going to sell some. We know that the market wants that. There’s a market for it, where if you work on a totally new concept, it’s a huge risk. 

This is also why the indie space is so interesting. They don’t have the same pressure regarding budgets. They have pressure, too. They spend less money, but if they don’t sell it they’re going to die, so it’s another type of pressure. They can work on shorter cycles most of the time, with less money, so they have to be creative, because this is what they sell I think many interesting ideas in the coming years will come from the indie space. 

When I think back to the history of film and when it expanded from popcorn entertainment experiences to more serious concepts, it seems to me like the ‘70s was a really big growth area. Suddenly you had gritty films from John Cassavetes and Sam Peckinpah. This golden age happened well after the invention of cinema, when it didn’t take much other than a small budget and a camera to make a film. Do you think these types of projects in the video game space will happen more as we democratize the toolsets and it becomes less inhibiting for people to get into video game development?

I hope so; I hope so. I hope that development will become less and less demanding in a matter of time and resources so people can focus much more on the content than the technology behind the content. 

When you look at the history of cinema, there were many, many eras that we could connect with, you know, game space. First of all, cinema started in a time where movie directors invented and were building their own camera because they wanted to improve the technology and do something that they couldn’t do before. So they worked on the technology and invented new cameras. 

This is pretty much where we are. A company like Quantic Dream, we have 50 engineers in a team of 200, and we develop the engine. We build our camera every game, which is quite a strange thing to do because on one side you develop technology and on the other side you want to be creative. Cinema solved this because at some point they had companies appear that focused on technology so film directors would only focus on creating great content because they didn’t have to build a camera. They had someone who could think about it for them. 

We’re not at this stage yet with games. Then we saw another era in cinema where film studios became really big. You were going to watch the next film by this studio or this studio, but directors and actors were employees, sometimes having a tenuous contract, until things changed totally in the ‘60s and ‘70s – I would say ‘70s in the U.S., where different people, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, started to add the arms of the independent structure and producing their own content and selling it afterwards to the big studios. So the relationship has totally changed. These indie people at the time made a real revolution in the cinema industry that is still the case today. All these things happened through 100 years in cinema. I’m impassioned to see them happening in the game space and hopefully it will take less than 100 years.

Who would you say is leading the vanguard of this brave new world that you hope video games move toward?

I don’t think there is one leader. I mean, there are different people trying different things in their own way. Valve is definitely a very interesting company, and developing a very interesting product. Jenova Chen at That Game Company’s another one. There is a bunch of people out there who really create very interesting things in their own way. Ueda is another one doing it totally differently, and that’s great. I’m also a big fan of what [Mojang] is doing with Minecraft. Again, it’s another vision, it’s another direction and it helps diversity, creating diversity. Even if there is no storytelling or emotion, that’s fine. They just explore a different direction and that’s cool for the industry. It’s a very positive thing. 

One of the points you made during your D.I.C.E. lecture was that you think we need to establish new relationships with Hollywood. I’m curious what specifically you think the video game industry still has to learn from it, and what maybe it could learn from you?

I think we had a very good example this morning of interesting relationships that can be built. The partnership between Valve and J.J. Abrams is really interesting. It’s a good example of the types of partnerships that we could have with Hollywood based on passion and this idea of building something together versus signing a contract and sharing revenues. 

Cinema is an industry that is a mainstream, mass-market industry. You really build the success on the fact that they could trigger different emotions with a wide audience. This is what they do for a living, for 100 years with success. This is definitely something we can learn from them. I mean we still work on the image, we work on cameras, we have sound, we have music, we have a script – we have all those things that they also have. 

It’s a good thing to learn – discover how they do this thing and how we can get better at this part, although this is not the goal by itself. We don’t want to copycat cinema. Because we know that we are this very important other dimension called interactivity that makes our medium truly unique, and so special. We want to develop our own language; we want to develop our own vocabulary. But at the same time no medium’s been created from scratch anywhere in the world. Never, ever. Photography was inspired by painting. Cinema was inspired by photography and by theater. Why would games be inspired by nothing and just be created from scratch? I don’t think it’s possible; I think we need to learn from comics, we need to learn from writing, we need to learn from cinema, TV series, architecture, and art in general.

One of the other points that you made during your lecture was that the industry needs to change its relationship with censorship. Have you had personal experiences with getting pushback for content that you really wanted to go for and the company wasn’t comfortable with?

Yeah, of course. Especially in the types of games we make. I mean, Heavy Rain was about child abduction. When you say it in a blunt way like that it’s like, “Oh my god – what are you going to do? Are we going to see tortured kids?” No, no, no, no, no. So we need to reassure people because they always fear the worst. We need to explain, “Look, I’m not trying to create something shocking. This is not what I do for a living. We tried to do something meaningful and sensible – something that people will react positively to.” 

But yeah, sex and violence and all these topics oftentimes will be very surprising. When you have two characters, two adults, performing love, and they end up doing what two others falling in love usually do, they end up making love. Well in a game it’s a big deal. Where in a film – oh my god, did you see Game of Thrones? There is some sex there, right? 

Every five to ten minutes. 

Yeah, pretty much. That’s in the slow part. And that’s great, but in games, oh my god, I mean if you show *** it’s terrible. All I’m saying is that I believe that games should have the same constraints regarding censorship as films and TV series. There shouldn’t be any difference. 

Since video games fall under the purview of the first amendment in the United States, do you think that you’re going to see more of a comfort level with exploring those topics?

There’s a lot of controversy in the U.S. about video games at the moment. I don’t want to comment too much, but as an author, as a writer, I feel very comfortable being protected by the first amendment. In return I feel like I need to be responsible – not because I’m allowed to express myself that I can just say anything. I need to make sure that whether I use violence or sex or whatever it makes sense in the context and brings something to the experience and it’s used in a meaningful way. If you think of Scarface, for example, it’s quite a violent film, but at the same time it’s a very strong film. There is really a story, there is a really great character, and you end up when you’ve seen the film having lived something. That’s one way of doing things. Look at Quentin Tarantino. He does quite violent films, whether he’s doing Django Unchained or whatever, or even Pulp Fiction. It’s quite violent, but it’s done with talent. When you have so much talent you can afford to do this kind of things and that’s fine. The problem is always when sex or violence is used out of context for no reason other than to shock. That makes me really feel uncomfortable.

Another point you brought up was trying to make games for all audiences. I played Heavy Rain with my wife. She absolutely loved it and was engrossed by it, but if I didn’t live with her she wouldn’t have had access to a console. That said, a lot of people who wouldn’t consider themselves gamers but enjoy emotional experiences own iPads. Have you ever thought about branching out into new platforms where an audience may be more readily available for the types of experiences you are trying to deliver?

We need to talk to Sony about it [laughs]. Console manufacturers make a lot of efforts to – they’re aware of this situation and I think that Sony working on Move devices was definitely its attempt at changing this. Kinect is Microsoft’s effort, and I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see more initiatives like this in the coming years. It’s definitely very interesting to see women playing with their iPhones or whatever. That definitely means something. It also shows what we missed in the industry – focusing so much on very complex controllers and making interfaces that require more and more expertise, and skills, and to be faster with your thumbs. I don’t think this is what women – and the wider audience in general – is really looking for when they think of interactive entertainment. 

Recently I’ve had the fortune to delve into the creative process with Ken Levine and Dan Houser. One of the things that I found interesting was their revisionary approach to narrative. They’ll change things at the last minute when everything’s in the game because there’s something an art designer may have presented that shifted their thinking. They let the narrative be influenced by the work the rest of the team is doing. Is that even something that’s possible for you guys considering you’re working with a Hollywood star like Ellen Page? Do you have the chance to go back and re-record with her or is her schedule so demanding that it’s really hard to be able to do that?

Well, actually we anticipated that and we organized the sessions in actually two sessions. So we planned for retakes in advance in a way. So it was scheduled and it was set in stone and we could retake whatever needed to be.

So have you done your second session with her already? Everything’s locked and loaded? 

Yup, hopefully. But it’s the same thing regarding the process. We also adapt based on what happens on set with the actors, but also about what designers and artists come back with. Sometimes you just want a table, chairs, and a rudimentary room, and they come back with paintings, windows, and doors. It’s like wait a minute – I need to figure out what I’m going to do with all this. 

We do a lot of rewriting and retakes because at the end of the day you want something that is truly consistent. You want everybody to contribute to this because this is what will make the experience truly unique. But you’re looking for consistency most of all. It’s not about everybody doing a great job in his or her own department. It’s about when you put everything together it makes sense and it triggers the emotions that you are looking for. That’s a big part of the job. There’s a lot of discovery along the road is what I’m saying. You try to set things in stone as much as possible, and there are things that must be set in stone, but at the same time you know that a project is a living thing. Otherwise if you set every single aspect in stone then it’s dead. You want to keep it living until you release it.