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Puppeteer: A macabre fairy tale game made 'the Japanese way'

British ex-pat and 10-year Sony Japan Studio studio veteran Gavin Moore, director of Puppeteer, discusses why Japanese developers deserve respect, and how console games are turning off audiences and creators both.

Puppeteer is one of the most interesting new titles to come out of Sony's Japan Studio in some time. The PlayStation 3 platformer aims to be enjoyed by wide audiences, and its macabre fairy tale-style story -- a young boy is turned into a puppet and his head is torn off -- is a return to the children's tales of the old days while being a departure from the thematic safety of most kiddie fare available on consoles.

Gavin Moore, the game's director and 10-year Japan Studio veteran, spoke to Gamasutra at Gamescom about making a game that appeals to kids and adults, why the Japanese development industry deserves respect, and why he thinks the game industry needs to get more creative fast -- or lose both its audience and its development talent.

Last year you spoke very eloquently about the fact that Japanese game developers aren't getting as much respect as they deserve, possibly. What do you think is going on there?

Gavin Moore: I think what happened was that, basically, Japanese development teams tend to be quite small. Picking up that new technology was pretty difficult for them, because you need big teams to produce big games.

What they should have been doing instead of chasing Western-style gaming -- which is what they ended up trying to do -- was stick to their guns. What they're really good at is being imaginative. And they're really good at making games that feel good. You ended up with all of these Western game clones that the Western gamers didn't really want, but they thought that Western gamers wanted. And they didn't do well.

And I think that Japanese game developers need to be respected, because they have a long legacy of making games, and some of the best games ever have been made by the Japanese, and still will be made by the Japanese.

And I think that certain people out there in the gaming community -- not the users, but more the actual creators -- panned the Japanese recently, and I think it is completely unfair. Because the bosses are dictating what they're making, when really it should be the creators who are saying, "No, no, no -- I want to make this, and it will be okay." And I think it will be if they're allowed to do that.

How do you figure into that? Because you've lived in Japan for some time and worked at Sony for some time. And you've ended up leading this team.

GM: Yeah. I've been at Sony for 16 years, and in Japan for 10, at Japan Studio. It's really interesting as a Westerner, moving from Western development. I've been in games 21 years, so moving from Western development to Japanese development... in Western development we tend to take an overall view of a game and build it in its entirety, whereas the Japanese tend to take a core feature of a game and make sure it's great, and then build the game around it.

And it feels much more crafted and much more professional to me, actually, as a Western developer, to actually make a game the Japanese way. Because what we do, is you get Western games where something -- "That feels great! But that doesn't feel too good. And that feels good, but that's not...." And as you're playing the game, you kind of step through it. Whereas Japanese games tend to be more, "That just feels good all the way through."

I've learned a lot, actually, working in Japan, as an actual game developer, in how to make games in that way. But also there's a lot that the Japanese can learn through trying to actually understand that some things just will not go in the West. And they do need to know that there are cultural differences, as well. But they shouldn't be chasing Western ideals.

Gavin Moore

Puppeteer was your concept, right?

GM: Yeah. Right.

You said that it came out of some ideas relating to your own son, and I was wondering how the team reacted to the concept, and how you ended up leading the team.

GM: Basically, I came up with the idea, and explained it, and the head of internal development said, "You should make a concept video of this." And we had a very small team of guys and in about six weeks we put together a concept video -- which was completely different, actually, to the way the game looks. It was actually much more Japanese looking, as I love Japanese culture and I was trying to put lots and lots of Japanese stuff in it.

And then we showed it, and Japan said, "It's great, but this is going to take a sizable chunk of money to make, so you're going to have to get America and Europe to look at it as well, to see if they would want it. And we can then put the money behind it to develop it." And so we showed it to Europe and America, and they were great about it, but they just said, "It's too Japanese looking, so we need to tone down the look, slightly." But at the end of the day, that's how it went.

And what we did, actually, which was completely different to most of the way teams work, is that we basically split the team into individual teams. And they'd all work on an individual part of the game. So there'd be a game designer, two animators, and two background artists, working on one particular level. And then I would say what I want that level to be, and we'd have the image boards for the look and everything, but then they had the right, as well, to put anything they wanted into the game, into that level.

And then we'd play it. We'd review every two weeks. And if it was fun, and if it made us laugh, and if we had fun playing it, then it stayed in. So instead of being top-down -- which is most of the time what you have with game development -- it was a much more, "Here's my vision, but go away and have fun." And what it meant is that the whole team felt like the game is theirs, rather than, "It's Gavin's game."

Is that why you organized it that way?

GM: Yeah.

To get that sort of democratic feeling?

GM: It's not democratic, because at the end of the day, I say yes or no. It has to be that way. But building games that way is a much nicer way to build a game. You can't build a game on your own. Not at the size and scope of Puppeteer. It's virtually impossible. You have to rely on other people, and you have to trust them. If you show confidence and trust in them, and let them be creative, you'll get the best out of them. That ethic that I had, and the team had together, was that we were going to do it that way.


Allan Becker moved from Sony Santa Monica to head up Sony Japan Studio. Has that changed things for the better?

GM: Obviously, working in the Santa Monica Studio, having a massive hit in God of War, and also their external parties, bringing Flower and Journey and those things, and his vision of the way a studio should be run -- Allan's come in and said, basically, "Japan, your job is to make things that people can't see on other platforms. You're not going to make massive blockbuster stuff. It's not going to happen, because we don't have the budgets to do that in Japan, or the team size to do that. Just be more creative." He has a very good eye, I think, for what makes a good game, and that has helped maneuver the studio in a better direction in that way.

I think that Japanese games are, obviously, part of the culture of PlayStation.

GM: Right.

You need to have them.

GM: Definitely. Definitely.

I felt kind of encouraged when Mark Cerny said, during Sony's Gamescom press conference, that we'll see the kind of diversity of games you remember from the old days of PlayStation.

GM: Right. And we're going to kill ourselves as an industry if we just keep making FPSes and racing games. And we know we are. And Sony's attitude at the moment -- which it's always been, actually -- is, "Let's make things people don't get on other consoles."

That can be a downfall as well, because obviously you're experimenting a lot, and it's difficult to make money off of things people don't know, or already understand. But at the same time, it brings diversity into gaming, and that's exactly what we want to be. We have to diversify to survive, basically.

I feel like over the course of the previous console generation, the PS3/360 generation, what became a "mainstream game" got narrower and narrower and narrower.

GM: Definitely. As a creator, it would be insane for me to make a first person shooter. Because I've never made one, my team's never made one, and look at who we'd have to go up against to actually compete in the marketplace!

And so it's much more fun going, "Well, we don't have to do that. We can make things that just come into our imaginations, and we pitch them, and if management like them, we get to make them, and get to have fun making them." And at the same time, there are a lot of users out there who want to play that sort of stuff as well. And if we just keep making first person shooters we're going to alienate a lot of users, and they're going to walk away from gaming.

Changing topics... Puppeteer itself has that macabre, fairy tale thing going on. I really like that, and I think that stuff for kids should be a little macabre.

GM: I totally agree. Absolutely, completely, totally agree. We pander to kids, and we mollycoddle them. We don't let them see things. "You can't do this, you can't do that."

Actually, Grimm's Fairy Tales -- there's nothing more violent on the planet than Grimm's Fairy Tales. And yet we read them to our kids, and we let them read them on their own. They're fascinating because they are dark. As a child, they're terrifying stories. "Don't go into the wood, because you are basically going to be raped and eaten." But the kid in you goes, "But I still want to go into the wood." You want to see what happens, right?

Children are far more intelligent than adults are, because they're much more open! They see everything as it is, rather than adults, who are trying to hide behind everything and see it in a certain way. When you actually make product in that sense, you need to be a little bit darker, a little bit off-the-wall. Children love it, and at the same time, adults love it.

I don't know if you've ever read Neil Gaiman, but he wrote a book called The Graveyard Book. It's a horror-themed children's novel. He said that kids didn't think it was that scary -- they went straight into the story -- but adults freak out and really get scared by it.

GM: It's exactly the same with Puppeteer as well. Because when we show the game to adults, they go, "Oh my God! Is this a kids' game? Because they just pulled off his head and ate it, and now he's running around headless in the world, and it's terrifying! How is he going to get home?" And yet, you focus test it with kids, and they just fall in love with it straight away, and they're right in there, laughing at it and thinking it's great.

We're attuned, as adults, to try and think, "Oh, this must be bad." It's like ratings boards. I'm sure, personally, the people actually watching things that they're seeing are actually rating them harsher than they personally believe they are, because we're just attuned to do that -- we're attuned to protect. But kids are just like, "Yeah, great! That's awesome!"


It was surprising to me because you don't see that much original IP for kids these days. Obviously Skylanders is the big counter-example, but that was a big surprise. In video games, you don't see so much original kids' IP.

GM: But Puppeteer is not only for kids, because we were all gamers making it, so we were making something that we wanted to enjoy as adults at the same time. Puppeteer, you can get a lot of fun out of it as an adult -- especially if you're playing it with a friend or a partner, or somebody. It's a lot of fun to muck around with, and the story is funny, and there's loads of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam in it to keep you hooked on it.

But it's true. And the funny thing is, we should, though. Because I'm 43 and I have a son, and I'm sure there are a lot of game designers out there who are of that age, who have children as well. Why aren't we making games that we can all enjoy? We're putting our kids onto iPads and iPhones and Androids and letting them play five-minute experiences, but they'd have a much better time if they were playing on a TV. As long as they're being supervised by somebody, then that's fine.

Sometimes I wonder if kids who play a lot of these throwaway iOS games are going to grow up to like video games, or if they're going to put them down when they get older.

GM: I don't know. That's one of the frightening things for me, that I'm kind of a little bit afraid of. Because they're five-minute experiences. And they're being bombarded with information from everywhere, on every side. And are we making stuff where we're actually turning off our next generation of gamers? Because they're not used to what we think is gaming? They think it's something completely different.

You talked about how the game can work on multiple levels, for adults and kids. That's interesting. The prototypical example is Pixar. I don't think that's your exact approach, but it sounds like you're thinking consciously about both gamers and novices, kids and adults. How do you approach that?

GM: It's really interesting, actually. Because the first time we made the game, before we did any focus tests... [laughs] We're all gamers, so we're playing the game, and it's like, "Yeah, yeah, this feels a bit easy." And then you focus test and it's like, "Oh my God. Oh my God. They can't even get past the first level." And that wasn't bad game design; it was just because it was too difficult.

There's one side where you can do that focus testing -- you can balance levels, you can balance difficulties -- you can focus test with different groups, too, and make sure that they're satisfied. You can get different feedback, and you can see the focus test going on, and you can see whether they're having fun or not.

And then there's the writing side of it. The writing side is much more difficult. Writing it and keeping that humor in there that keeps an adult entertained and surprised and want to keep playing, and then also making sure there's enough humor and entertainment in there for children as well.

It's kinda funny, though. Because adults and kids generally like the same things. We're all kids at heart, anyway. So if something weird happens, we're in there and we're looking at it, and we want to see what's going to happen.

I get the sense that you're trying to surprise people when they play this game. It seems like you want to catch people off guard with the game, and the theme, and what happens in it.

GM: Yeah, definitely. After you've cleared the first act, which is kind of a simple way into the game, which sets up the situation, and you get the scissors and you eventually escape the castle... then the real fun starts. Because you're going to get thrown into a series of situations and scenarios that I don't think people are even going to believe. You're just going to be surprised by it.

I don't want to spoil anything, but we were just having so much fun putting these situations in there. And they would get wackier and wackier, and it would be like, "Is that crazy enough? And can we push it a little bit more? Can we say that? Can we make that point, and play around with it?" and "Let's introduce these weird characters here," and all these sorts of things.

How do you design for surprise, in the end? How do you know when you've gone far enough?

GM: I think you can't go far enough until somebody on your team turns around and says "stop." I think that's the way we did it. I would be pushing it and pushing it and pushing it, and then somebody would just go, "No. That's enough."

Is this both content and concepts, or level design? Is this on the design or writing side?

GM: It's on the writing side, it's on the design side -- it's everywhere, really. The core gameplay doesn't change, but the situations you're in and what you're doing... the level we showed at E3, where you're riding on a pink flamingo across the back of a dragon that's harvesting the souls of children, and he can't stop talking... Just mucking around, really, with the script and the characters, and those sorts of situations.

We have to get some playfulness back into games.

GM: We have to. As I said, if we don't, we're going to stagnate. And we're going to lose creators. I know a lot of people already who've been in the industry for a very long time are starting to walk away from it and do other things. Because they're just saying, "Well, I can't work on X Number 4 or X Number 7 anymore. I want to do something a little bit different."

When we launched this at Gamescom [2012] nobody much in Sony knew about it. My producers in America and Europe knew about it, plus marketing and PR obviously knew about the product. But none of the other studios, the actual developers, knew about it.

And I used to work in London Studio. I did The Getaway and stuff. So I have friends there. And then Gamescom comes up, and I go on stage. And then afterwards, everybody goes to the bar and they're going, "Gavin, your game is amazing! I would love to work on that." And I say, "Sorry. You're living in London and this is being done in Tokyo." It was interesting that creators themselves were going, "Oh, God. That's the sort of thing I want to make." 

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