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Q&A: New AAA studio from 2K Games all about players' stories
Today, 2K Games announced the formation of a new internal studio, Hangar 13, lead up by Haden Blackman. This brand new interview delves into how he hopes to push the boundaries of triple-A game development.
December 4, 2014
22 Min Read
Today, 2K Games announced the formation of a new internal studio, Hangar 13, lead by Haden Blackman -- who's well known for his work at LucasArts on The Force Unleashed, for which he won a Writers' Guild of America award.
While Blackman was unable to talk specifics about the project that Hangar 13 has taken on, it's a story-driven triple-A game for next-gen consoles -- one that focuses on player stories as much or more than those created by the developers.
2K's willingness to invest in a big console game was instrumental to his joining the company, he told Gamasutra.
"The things that drew me here first and foremost were 2K's library, and that 2K makes the kind of games I want to play," he says. That pairs well, he says, with the publisher's commitment to high-quality, triple-A games: "It's always a conversation about the quality of the game here."
This brand new interview delves into how Blackman sees triple-A game narrative evolving, what he expects from games, and how he plans to steer the studio to create the sort of title that will push the boundaries of triple-A game development in its emphasis on delivering a player-driven story.
Can you tell me about the project, to frame the conversation?
Haden Blackman: Two things that kept coming up that were really important to me was, one, the fact that we could really advance and start pushing on the player-driven story. And when I say that, I don't necessarily mean the narrative, although that's one component of it.
What I mean is the story we tell each other about the game that we've played. The stories that we swap about how we've approached certain challenges in the game; how the world, or the characters, or the narrative might have evolved based on our decisions, the type of characters that we played, all those things.
"But for me, making the player a co-author in the experience is hugely important, and it's something that I wanted to explore more and more."
And there are obviously hundreds and hundreds of ways to deliver on that. But for me, making the player a co-author in the experience is hugely important, and it's something that I wanted to explore more and more, and I think we have that opportunity here.
The second thing about the studio -- in conversations with 2K that I expressed that I wanted to do and they were supportive of -- was developing proprietary tech. Throughout my career, I've worked on over 20 games. Of those, I think only one was not proprietary tech.
So that's my background, that's my experience, that's what I love -- to work on games that are built on proprietary tech, because it gives us the opportunity to build tech specifically to deliver on the game vision, and we're not spending time trying to shoehorn a design into existing tech, or a vision into existing tech, or trying to retrofit technology that already exists to fit the vision of the game that we want to create. So those are kind of the big things that we're pushing on here: the idea that every player's story is unique, and proprietary tech.
This is an extremely broad question, but they're going to be a bit broad, I think, because we can't talk about your project in a lot of specificity. What do you think of the state of storytelling in triple-A games? What do you think it's doing, or could do?
HB: I would answer this question almost the same way five years ago -- I think it's an incredibly vibrant and exciting time for storytelling in games. As long as you're looking at it not through the lens of telling a linear, cinematic narrative -- I think there's always going to be a place for that in games, and I think there will always be games that do that. But where I think things are most exciting are games that are, within a framework of a strong narrative -- that might even be linear -- creating opportunities for the player to add their own "plot points," for lack of a better term, to that.
So I look at something like [Shadow of] Mordor, right? Which I think did a great job with that -- giving you a linear narrative, for the most part, that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but there are all these opportunities within that to put your own stamp on that.
"I think it's a really exciting time, because people are taking those chances, and are taking those risks, and are trying to build more systemic storytelling into games."
And I think that the story most people will talk about is that story -- the story about the orcs that they vanquished, and who rose to power, and how they approached certain missions, and how often they branded orcs, and all that kind of stuff. From that standpoint, I think it's a really exciting time, because people are taking those chances, and are taking those risks, and are trying to build more systemic storytelling into games.
On the strictly "telling a linear narrative" side, obviously as technology advances, with better facial performances, we're better able to tell more compelling stories in some ways, and more emotional stories, which I think has been great. When I look at a game like The Last of Us, which was incredibly emotional on a lot of different levels, and I think a lot of that was based on the performance of their characters.
I don't think there's a better time to be developing games, especially if you're interested in the art of storytelling, especially because you have so much to work with. But again, the thing as a storyteller that's exciting to me, is relinquishing some of that authorship, and saying that we're going to author part of the story but the player's going to author part of it as well.
Now, that's really interesting to me, because I've seen a lot of people discuss this topic. But one thing I don't see specifically addressed is the quite different nature of an authored story versus one that comes out of player actions. I think there are probably ways to get those close -- in terms of things like how you present information to the player. I was wondering what your thoughts on that are.
"The distinction between where the developer's narrative and their authorship begins and ends blurs with the players."
HB: I honestly think that it is blurring -- in some of the games that are doing this well. The distinction between where the developer's narrative and their authorship begins and ends blurs with the players.
If you look at something like Dragon Age Inquisition -- yes, I can sit down, and any one person I talk to, we have a lot of choices that we made in common. But even within that, there's nuance. And especially if you've played the two previous Dragon Ages, and you're bringing that data over, there's going to be a lot of choices that make that experience your own. So I look at a company like BioWare that's already advancing in this direction, which is really exciting and cool.
For us, we want to do it in different ways than other companies out there, and we want to try and do it at every level. The thing we talk about a lot with the team is trying to hit it on every tier. I want people to be able to sit down and talk about a very specific piece of content in the game. Let's use, for a hypothetical, a mission, for example, or a quest -- to say, "How did you approach that mission?" and be able to swap stories and have every person that describes how they approached that mission describe it in a different way. That's the aspirational goal.
And then you go to the minute-to-minute, so if that's moment-to-moment combat, it's how I approached combat? So minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, and then over the course of the life of the game, all those things should add up to some meaningful differences in your experience -- that go beyond just branching stories, for example.
There are some obvious answers to this, but I'm curious: How is proprietary tech going to help you achieve this goal?
HB: I think it does on every level. We need to make sure that we're investing in tools that our designers can use to create and iterate on content quickly. And it's not so much the volume, it's the quality, and making sure it's the right content for what we're building.
Making sure that we have the tools to build immersive worlds. Because if you don't believe in the world, you're not going to care about your impact on it, or what happens to it, or with it, over time. There's obviously investments we can make in A.I. to make the world more believable as well.
But I think maybe the area of greatest impact is in tying in game systems with game system design. So making sure that we are building smart under-the-hood systems that are not based on heavily scripted or heavily authored content, but they're more pulling on different components, or parts. I know I'm being very vague and general. Making sure that you have a lot of different levers that the player can pull, maybe even inadvertently, to change their experience, if that makes any sense.
It does, and it leads me to a question I'm very curious about. One of the impediments to player stories in games is that, in many popular games, the only interaction the player can have with the world that is meaningful and rich is through violence of some sort. How do you see that, and what kind of expressions can a player have in a world, to help shape a story?
"I think that trying to find more and more ways to interact with the world is a noble cause."
HB: Again, I don't want to shy away from action, and I think that's always going to be a big part of gaming, and certainly for me, the games that I enjoy playing have a high degree of action in them. So that will always be part of it. I think that trying to find more and more ways to interact with the world is a noble cause, for lack of a better term, for game developers, and it's definitely something we're interested in exploring here, and we've been discussing it.
I think there are examples out there of people who are doing it. But so far, we've really kind of just scratched the surface. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One is, there's a certain gratification that comes from playing action games, and I don't want to lose that -- a certain thrill from playing games with a high degree of action, and as I said, those are games that I enjoy playing.
And also, it's just hard. It's really difficult challenge to make somebody care for a character that they might want to romance, for example. And some teams are doing that, and doing that well.
I think there are a lot of other opportunities, too, to pull on other emotions. In the past, it's really easy to get people worked up and dislike a character in a game, or dislike an enemy. How do you get them to like a character? That's harder and people have been working on that.
I think we want to continue to explore that, and that's certainly something we're looking at here. How do you get people to feel sadness? How do you get people to feel loss, in a game? Is that something you should pursue? We're asking those questions right now, because of the nature of some of the stuff we're working on.
I think another consideration is that we have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge, both in terms of the tools, and in terms of the people who make the games. The shooting mechanic for an FPS has been continuously refined for 20 years now, for example. So it's so seductive to keep refining that.
HB: Yeah. I think that's absolutely 100 percent true. You can look at what you've done in the past; as game developers, we're always doing that, looking at what we worked on in the past and figuring out how to iterate on that, and how we get better, and better, and better.
I think that's natural and healthy, and it's something we should do, to continue to make high quality experiences. But I think on top of that, you also always want to have those one or two things that scare you, and that you're experimenting with, and that's where you get true innovation.
So we've definitely been thinking along those lines: How do we pick the one or two things that we haven't necessarily done before in the past, and try them? And maybe they work or maybe they don't. And maybe they don't end up in the final game. But we're definitely trying a lot of stuff right now.
You mentioned Dragon Age. Something that BioWare is particularly lauded for, I think, is that the player can create a character that can fit any mold. That helps, when you go back to talk to being a partner with the player in developing the player story of your game. It seems valuable.
HB: I think it is valuable. I don't think it's the only option, though. I think you can also create a game that has a strong, well-defined character that the player inhabits at the beginning, and then you take that character on and you journey, but the outcome of that journey or the experience that happens along the way, or maybe at key points -- ideally as many moments as you can -- can shape that character and change over time.
So I think there's a lot of really cool what-if scenarios with something like that, where you create a strong central character that is recognizable or relatable to the player, but has a couple of different paths that they can take, and ultimately can end up in a variety of different outcomes. That is compelling, too.
But again, to hit on every tier of this "the player story is unique," that has to be married with the moment-to-moment choices, and the minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, so the player feels like they are really shaping their experience even if they're playing a character that has a face and a voice and has been defined by the developer.
To what extent do you personally see the player inhabiting the character? Some people very strongly feel that they expect the player to take on the character as an alter ego. I go on the other side of it, where I view a game character as I would a character in a film. I have empathy, but I don't inhabit game characters in that way.
"I've had experiences with well defined characters that were well written and human on some level -- even if they were superhuman in other ways -- that I felt like I was inhabiting."
HB: I really think it depends on the game. For me, I've certainly had experiences where I feel like I inhabited a character that was really well defined. Again, in an RPG, where you're creating your character from scratch, I feel like I'm all-in and I am that character. But I've also had experiences with well defined characters that were well written and human on some level -- even if they were superhuman in other ways -- that I felt like I was inhabiting.
I think a lot of it has to do with camera, and whether or not you're seeing the character, and you're associating the look of the character with the character. But a lot of it has to do with writing and characterization, and how well that character is written.
I tend to find that when I am in first person that I'm me, and I forget that I'm playing a character, because I'm not constantly reminded who that character is. When I'm playing a third person game, when it's someone who is well written and I can relate to -- or is aspirational, even, someone I would want to be, and I can channel my 13-year old self, then I get sucked in, and it's completely immersive for me.
Do you get yanked out of that when the character does or says something that isn't what you wanted to do?
HB: Yeah. I mean, again, it depends on the writing, I think, and how intrusive it is. And if it's not consistent. I look at something like BioShock Infinite, where I didn't have that experience, where it wasn't jarring for me, because it was so well written. A lot of it, I think comes down to that, and comes down to the character.
There are so many variables. How much of the character is defined up-front? How much do you learn over time? How much impact do you have on it? Do I feel like I have ways to customize my experience, even if the character is immutable? I think that there are hundreds of variables that play into it. But in general, I would say that it is true -- it is more jarring for me to suddenly see my character in a cinematic or cutscene, if I've been playing in first person than in third.
How are you approaching the way you develop the game? How are you looking at how you want to do things like structure the team, structure development?
HB: We have five big pillars that are aspirational for the culture, as we build the team. One of the reasons for this announcement is that we are recruiting, we're building the team, and we're hiring, so we want to get the word out on that. The culture will evolve over time in terms of who we bring in.
We've hired a lot of veteran developers from cross a wide variety of studios and companies, that have worked on a huge number of games and genres -- everything from obviously Star Wars, but Dead Space, Splinter Cell, and Assassin's Creed. Every major franchise, pretty much, from the past 10 years, we've got guys that have worked on it.
One of the things that we're doing, one of our pillars is "good ideas can come from anywhere," but we don't just mean that from a design standpoint, although we try to make it true there, as well. We also mean in terms of how the studio is structured, how the team is structured, how we approach milestone planning, the way we build our culture, the way we do team bonding.
We are soliciting feedback from people we hire, constantly. I feel like anybody who joins the studio how has a good opportunity to have an outsize impact in a short amount of time, because we're really in the process of listening and finding out what worked at other studios and what didn't work, and what did you like and what didn't you like, and how can we mold it to fit our needs here?
That's one, the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere.
"We're also adamant about the idea that everybody on the team should feel like they are problem hunters."
We're also adamant about the idea that everybody on the team should feel like they are problem hunters, that they're constantly seeking problems -- whether that is problems within the design or the code, or even just the health of the studio. What we expect is that everybody is an adult, and that they are going to raise issues, and it's my job to solve problems. I can't solve them if I don't know about them, so I've got to seek them out, but I'm reliant on people on the team to bring them up as well.
We really push on people being decisive and owning their decisions, as well. Whether that's deciding an efficient way on who we hire, to making decisions on which way we go with the design, and really owning those decisions, and focusing -- especially as it relates to the game and how we can get them up on screen and start iterating on them. That's huge.
I feel like one of the things that really drags teams down is a lack of clarity, and you end up with a lot of churn if you're kind of guessing and operating in a vacuum, or in an environment where there aren't decision-makers. So we try to push that to the whole team.
Everybody on the team has a responsibility that they can make some decisions on. We expect them to do that, to own those decisions and champion them, and if they're working on the game to get those decisions up on screen so we can react to them and start iterating.
And then, the next big one for us is that we push each other. We really want to push each other to get better at their craft. In some cases, that's pushing people to try something that they haven't done before. It's pairing people with other really smart people so that they can learn from one another.
It's saying, "That's not good enough. Let's try again," and getting honest feedback. Our design director, Matthias Worch, he's constantly saying he wants to make the design team very vulnerable to feedback -- so that's one way we're pushing the design team, to make sure that their designs are exposed to the rest of the team and that it's on screen, and that people can provide comment and feedback.
And then the last is, we really are trying to develop technology, and process, and structure, that is not just functional but efficient. So in a new studio, all of these are very aspirational goals, and we're hitting different ones to different degrees, but we're very happy with where we're at with most of them. As new people come onboard, again, they bring new ideas and we're able to take advantage of those to continue to evolve.
"I walk the floor and I know everybody by name and by face, which is really important to me. And it's something I want to always be true."
To get a little bit more specific, for people that are interested, we work not unlike a lot of other studios. We work in a pod structure; we try to be very nimble. We try to get a lot of stuff done and stuff on-screen at any given time, but we're small enough to be nimble and we can iterate and change direction if necessary. And I still know every person on the team. I walk the floor and I know everybody by name and by face, which is really important to me. And it's something I want to always be true.
Another team member is Andy Wilson, who came to us from Ubisoft, who is our EP. He's been really instrumental in establishing a lot of the production process and making sure that the designers and artists and engineers, everybody has time to iterate built into the schedule. And we're very cognizant of the iteration time every month. That's been a really big boon for us as well.
You've recruited a lot of triple-A talent, you've said. But with an eye toward wanting to change, also, and push in new directions -- how is that part of the culture? How do you make that the ethos of the studio?
HB: Some of it is pushing people, obviously, to start thinking a little differently. We're trying to do that wherever we can. Some of that is hiring, so hiring people that have tried things. Even on a triple-A title that might have been a little bit, for lack of a better term, subversive, in terms of traditional design.
We're always looking for who, if there's a system that we find particularly interesting, or a feature we find particularly interesting, we try to find out the person who worked on that and get their take and potentially recruit them.
I spent almost a year in mobile free-to-play before coming here, so there's a lot of learnings I have from that. I think there's kind of a problem in the industry right now where we have folks on either side of that divide being very dismissive of the work being done on the other side. There's a lot we can learn from each other, still. And there's a lot of good that's being done.
It's a great time to be a gamer, right? Because there are so many options. There's a lot of good work being done at so-called "traditional" triple-A studios, and a lot of really good work being done at mobile studios and free-to-play studios, and independent studios.
We're not ruling anybody out. We have people on the team that have come from independent studios, that have come from startups, that have come from free-to-play, that have come from mobile, that have come from traditionally PC development and haven't worked on console games, that have come from triple-A console titles.
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