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Q&A: Zombie Studios' Williamson Talks Game Violence, Psychology, Saw II

Zombie Studios' John Williamson talks video game violence, using psychology in games, and the benefits of a military contracting background in the game industry, as filtered through discussion of the company's upcoming Saw II.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

July 13, 2010

9 Min Read

Saw II: Flesh and Blood is the latest project from Seattle-based Zombie Studios. This is the second in the third person survival horror series, soon launching on PS3 and Xbox 360, to coincide with the theatrical release of Saw VII. The original Saw game received mixed reviews, but did well enough to warrant a sequel, with Konami as the publisher, likely thanks to the horror series' following among genre fans, and despite the extremely violent content in both movies and game. Gamasutra talked to John Williamson, president of Zombie Studios, and producer and designer of the Saw franchise, discussing the application of psychology in games, the benefits of a military contracting background in games, violence in video games, and the ups and downs of the Unreal Engine. Violence Let's discuss Saw. With the backlash against violent video games, can you actually release a game like this in Germany, or Australia for example? John Williamson: Much to my surprise, the original Saw was released in Germany and Australia. When I was told they were going to submit it, I thought, just based on everything I always read online, that it would never get through, but it went through on the first pass. Wow. I know lately they've been pretty draconian about it. Why do you think it got through? JW: I think the rating process is different for every country, and I think they reviewed the game based on everything that was in it, not just on a couple of minutes of it, just like the Saw movies themselves aren't really pure torture porn. If you pay attention, there's actually usually a big twist in them. It's not quite Memento, but it has some more intellectual elements in it that you don't see coming, and that's why the franchise has gone on for so long. If it were just purely torture porn, it would've died after the first one or two installments, but the fact that the universe is so big, the characters are so elaborate, is what keeps it going. We did the same thing in the game. Also, for some reason, the correlation that video games cause violence always only seems to go one way, but yet if you look at all the data, the crime against and from teenage youth has actually gone down every year since the invention of the first-person shooter. So if nothing else, if you're going to follow correlations, you should actually encourage everybody to play first-person shooters. Right, and violent games are banned in countries like Venezuela, where the games are hardly the biggest problem.. JW: Yeah that's the other issue. It’s a cheap thing for politicians to latch on to try to get some votes, because unfortunately gamers traditionally just are too young to vote – rather, they're over 18 but they're still too young, people usually don't vote until they get into their 40s or 50s in large blocks, which is kind of a shame. But it's just like rap music before it. It's another medium that is unfairly grouped into something that's bad. There are far worse problems society must deal with and gaming isn't even in the top 50. Psychological Influences In terms of reference for this, obviously there's the Saw film, but have you also watched other films in the genre, like Baron Blood by Mario Bava and 's 101 Nights of Sodom? JW: Yeah, I've watched a couple of those. We also went back and, for the first game in particular, we watched a lot of the institutional psychiatric care ones, everything from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to-- I'm blanking on the name of it, but the film that was actually banned… It was a documentary that was banned because it supposedly violated the patients' rights, but in reality the reason it was banned was because it showed the horrific treatment that the patients were going under then. My background and all my degrees are in psychology, so I spend a lot of time looking into that and using that to help out with the games. But we also watched, of course, the Hostel series and No Vacancy. Then we played a lot of the games, and having Konami's legacy and their experience helps us in that as well. So it's not just a pure bloody game, there's actually a lot of suspense and a lot of drama, only it's not supernatural in this case, it’s a serial killer. Psychology plays really heavily into game design because you're trying to lead someone toward a conclusion or a solution without telling them overtly. Have you found direct application of that? JW: A lot of my work was on perceptual psychology-- how we perceive the world. In particular, all my research was on the human perception of stereoscopic computer graphics and how we can do that. So the Air Force actually funded most of my graduate work and I found that that has come into play, how you perceive an environment, what draws you to go one way versus another. We try to take advantage of that research that's been done in the past and leverage that into some of the design elements in the game. Were other people from your studio from a similar background? I know that Angel studios in San Diego came from a military contracting background, for instance. JW: Well, we have done a lot of military series games, we've done a lot of work on America's Army, and we've done some other series work for some other military contractors, and the two founders of the company, Mark Long and Joanna Alexander, both come from military research backgrounds, so we did come out that way, and then we branched into virtual reality, and then that instantly led into gaming, and now we're branching out into trans-media with Blacklight productions, which is a trans-media film/graphic-novel/game company. Games And Discipline I've found that companies that have that kind of military contracting background or at least experience have a certain feel to them? I don’t know if it's a precision or something like that, but-- JW: Well I think the thing I'm most proud of in my 15-year game career is the fact that I've never had a game canceled by a publisher. I've had publishers go out of business, but even then with the exception of one [game] I've been able to sell that to somebody else. And so I think part of that comes from that precision, the mix between the art and the science, and the reality that this is a business and you need to make some decisions in order to be able to ship. I mean, one of my favorite quotes in game design is "There are two types of games: There are perfect games, and there are games that ship," and part of the trick to maintaining viability is to be able to ship a game. The other thing that I'm most proud of in my career is that over 60 percent of the games that I've worked on have been successful enough to go on to warrant a sequel or multiple sequels. I feel like Saw was slightly stealth in that regard. It did relatively well but it wasn't like everybody was talking about it. JW: Yeah. It came out, I think a lot of it caught people by surprise because they just weren't expecting it to be as good as it was. They thought it would be a very literal translation of the Saw universe; hit A to cut off your foot. And they were surprised by it. One of my favorite reviews was in The Escapist, and she started out by saying she goes to E3 looking for a game to make fun of, and she thought it was going to be Saw, and instead she wrote a very glowing preview of the game on how different it was from what she expected. Right. I feel like in our industry, if you can show a game-- this goes back to the precision element-- if you can showcase a game that's not broken at E3, where you can't break it, that gets you pretty far along there in terms of getting someone to actually take you seriously. JW: Yeah that is always the problem. I'm really proud of the team, of the fact that we've always been able to have a demo, and that's probably one of the reasons why I like the Unreal Engine is the fact that it lets me demo a prototype of a new game experience within 30-60 days at the most. And that's really powerful because then it's not just me with my sock puppets acting out. Now, if I think a game mechanic is going to work I can give the controller to the publisher and there it is, and we can explain it. And then they can actually play it rather than have me explain it, and it works out really well. I feel like sometimes Unreal is like a double edged sword, because it's great to prototype fast and demonstrate something, but then sometimes you get into this trap of getting into your familiar corridors and stuff and people start to feel like "Oh I think I've seen this before," because there's certain things that it does really well, and it's really easy to fall into that, you know what I mean? JW: Yeah. Well, that's one of the reasons why we wanted to use it for the Saw games; you want to take advantage of its strengths, and one of its strengths are the corridors. I mean, it can be used to do other things, you know the Lucha Libre guys over here are using it for a fighting game, and it can be used for lots of different things, but using its strengths I think is a good thing to do, try to play to it. If I was designing a completely different game, I might've wanted to do a different engine, but it's so flexible that I might not have. For example, I think this is my sixth or seventh Unreal title, and I have used other engines in the past: I've used the Lithtech Engine, I've used Renderware for middleware, I've written my own game engines from scratch, and I'm pretty experienced with all of them. That ability to have a prototype working out of the box quickly makes the publishers very happy and it raises that confidence bar really quickly and it's really a good thing to have.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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