Sponsored By

What it means to direct a game that was someone else's creative vision

The art of the compromise: hold your nose and close your eyes.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

May 16, 2024

10 Min Read
The logo for Ironwood Studios.
Via Ironwood Studios

At a Glance

  • In video games, the title of "game director" does not always mean one has full creative power over a game in development.
  • Pacific Drive game director Seth Rosen was tasked with leading development on a game envisioned by founder Alexander Dracott.
  • The pair split leadership duties and grappled with creative differences to make one of the most unique games of 2024.

Pacific Drive was a very personal project for Ironwood Studios founder Alexander Dracott. He conceived the game based on his own experience driving around the ominous back roads of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. He daydreamed about what such a drive might look like with spooky mysterious beings floating about in the woods, and when the time came to start his own studio, he jumped on the chance to bring his dream to life.

The game is an impressive creative and technical feat. It's a driving game that makes driving approachable for players who'd shy away from the Gran Turismo or Forza franchises. It uses procedural generation to create randomized terrain on a small budget. And thanks to hard work from the talented development team, learning about both the creepy game world and the ins and outs of maintaining your beat-up station wagon feel equally delightful.

To pull off those intricate design challenges, Ironwood turned to game designer Seth Rosen. Rosen cut his teeth on games like Hangar 13's Mafia III and Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve Together. He'd drifted out of day-to-day game development in favor of consulting and lecturing at NYU, but jumped onto the Pacific Drive team after a productive session where he explained how Ironwood could improve the gameplay of maintaining and upgrading the player's car.

Related:What the game industry must do to prevent occupational burnout

In time, Rosen took on the role of game director, while Dracott became creative director. His job title made for a fascinating question: what does it mean to be "game director" on a project that's someone's personal vision?

In a conversation hosted by Boston GameDev in April (led by the author of this piece), Rosen offered a transparent answer to that question: "it was a challenge for a long time," he said. His transparency on the topic shed light on what can be a difficult topic in game development: how to navigate disagreements while treating each other with respect in the workplace.

Sharing leadership duties was a "challenge" for Rosen and Dracott

"There were moments on the project where there wasn't...not necessarily a power struggle, but just uncertainty for the team about who to listen to," Rosen recalled. He admitted the dynamic sometimes made other team members "uncomfortable," as they'd sometimes be looking back and forth between the two men as they looked for direction on how to do their work.

It wasn't until spring of 2023 that he and Dracott formally split directing roles. Making that split solved a number of leadership and scope-driven challenges. With a team of only about 18 employees (and varying numbers of contractors), it was becoming hard for every developer at Ironwood Studios to be involved with every part of the game.

In an email exchange, Dracott affirmed the need to split the roles, saying the game needed "both high level birds eye view of the project and a detailed perspective."

As creative director, Dracott would supervise all decisions with regard to the game world, the atmosphere, the narrative, and the overall "vibe." Rosen would get into the nitty gritty of gameplay, but all of his decisions would be done in service of the creative pillars Dracott had set down.

It took a number of "honest and raw, but ultimately respectful" conversations to get to that point. One early divide between the two leads had to do with the length and the slope of the car's hood. "Early on, the viewpoint of the car was even higher up and [the player] had less view of the world," he said. That was because the car was designed to recreate Dracott's beloved station wagon that inspired the game in the first place.

"It was really important to [Dracott] that we really hit the vibe of that car and match it as much as we legally could."

The only problem: the shape of the car didn't feel great for the player and reduced visibility. Rosen wanted players to have a sufficiently long enough view of the road ahead.

The pair argued about this for "hours and hours" without coming to a firm decision. To bridge the gap, the team at Ironwood had to nudge the camera around the car's interior and tweak the physical length of the hood to preserve the needs of both leads. Both of them had to reckon with the fact that there wasn't a perfect solution—just one that made the game better.

A player looks out the front window of their car in Pacific Drive.

Solving such problems was only possible because the pair maintained "respect" for each other (even when "tempers flared"). Dracott echoed a similar sentiment in our follow-up exchange. "With two folks in such pivotal roles and their own skillsets, it does mean that sometimes we did have differing opinions," he wrote in reflection. "But with the aligned goal of what is best for the game, and the creative pillars we had set out to be in place for the project as a guiding star, it meant that ultimately in the big picture we were always aligned."

Rosen also said both of them worked hard to keep arguments impersonal. "Our frustrations may build, but ultimately we're not passing judgment on the other, we're just trying to advocate for the best thing for the game," he said.

That seems like an obvious fact, but making arguments impersonal isn't a guarantee in game development. This creative industry often prioritizes brutally honest feedback, framed around the idea that developers need to know everything wrong with their work in order to fix it.

Helping employees at Pacific Drive share effective feedback was important to maintaining that mutual respect. Rosen described "mentoring" members of the team, saying the biggest goal for him was to try and always "place the feedback on [himself.]"
"You try to say 'this is the experience that I had, how it made me feel, and the these are the things that didn't click for me," he said.

Such descriptions can cushion the blow softer than directly criticizing what's onscreen—it depersonalizes the feedback and allows developers to look at their work and assess what can be done to solve legitimate problems. "You're not passing judgment on the [feature], you're talking about the results it's creating."

Surprise, you're the lead producer now too

Glance at Pacific Drive's credits and you'll see another role Rosen took on: that of "interim producer." As development progressed, Ironwood Studios was preparing itself to adapt for the brief absence of the team's only producer Alyssa Askew, who had scheduled time off for maternity leave around the estimated end of her pregnancy.

Then the baby came three months early. (Don't worry, Rosen reported that the baby is healthy.)

The team had been preparing to shift Askew's responsibilities elsewhere in the project, but that shift now had to happen three months early, with seven deliverables owed to publisher Kepler Interactive over the course of the next month (the team had been preparing to ship in November 2023, and this surprise role swap took place in July).

"It was getting pretty spicy pretty fast," Rosen said. "I was doing everything I could to keep folks moving in a productive direction."

The result was a sprint-based production process that worked—but didn't work perfectly. The two weeks check-ins were loosely aligned with the target milestones, but estimating the amount of time it would take to complete a needed feature was difficult.

Additionally, Rosen and the engineering team had to scramble to make sure all the tools were in place so other developers could keep working. "My priority was to make sure people have enough work to stay busy until I could figure out what their actual work was," he said. If any kind of logjam surfaced in the production pipeline, it would have left some Ironwood employees spinning their wheels as their deadlines inched closer.

Fortunately a delay to March 2024 gave Ironwood Studios some much-needed breathing room. But earning that extra time came with a price—sprinting to the November deadline left some team members burned out with only enough energy to work through the backlog of tasks and bugs.

To get to the finish line, Rosen needed to "right-size" the amount of work that needed to be done, constantly reprioritizing what was in the backlog so that the most high-value parts of the game were being worked on at all times. "No game is ever done, it just gets released," he quipped.

Killing some people's fun in game development

With Rosen leading the design of Pacific Drive, and Dracott leading the creative vision, who was in charge of the technical and engineering elements of the game? Pacific Drive doesn't list any lead engineers in the credits.

Leading the game's programmers became something of an adhoc process. Rosen was a former computer science student and came with experience partnering with triple-A developers at Hangar 13 on the heavily systems-driven elements of Mafia III and the "immersive sim" elements of BioShock Infinite.

That meant he had a lot of expertise in what tools designers would need for Pacific Drive, and could focus on planning and sequencing engineering features so the team could focus on implementing them. Seems simple enough, right?

A car approaches an ominous large pipe in Pacific Drive.

Wrong. (Nothing in game development is simple. Our readers know this.) The challenge that Rosen dealt with wasn't necessarily technical in nature. He described there being "tension" derived from jumping right from prototyping into full production--something the smaller team had to do to produce such a large game. Rosen admitted his process here denied the team time to "explore" in a rewarding way.

His requests weren't necessarily handed down from on high—he described regularly adjusting his requests based on feedback from the folks doing the programming. But managing the engineering team with this method eliminated what he called "the fun part of game development" for his peers. There wasn't any time to experiment or play around with unique technical solutions.

It meant that team had less opportunity to "feel excited" about their work because Rosen was cutting out the joy of seeking solutions. In a way, he had to act against the design of the very game he was directing. He wanted players to explore the limits of the game world—but needed to dictate answers to the programming team.

"Going forward, it's something that I definitely want to adjust," he said.

Leadership is a heavy burden to bear

It's fair to say that Rosen didn't get everything right as a game director. But he, Dracott, and their colleagues, did make a fantastic game unlike anything we at Game Developer have ever seen.

If you have a narrow vision of leadership then you might say the ends justified the means. But if you're a leader who wants to improve—as Rosen seemed to be—you're willing to look at your past decisions with a critical eye and assess what worked and what didn't.

Rosen and other industry leaders must make such assessments knowing their decisions don't just impact the game, but the people making it. It's their decisions that can lead to burnout or drive people away from the studio. And it's not just about preventing crunch—it's about ensuring healthy work environments and keeping people inspired and motivated to give their best in the workplace.

Dracott praised Rosen for taking on such challenges, saying that the two men's development styles were "complementary," and made Pacific Drive "the game it is today."

"I'm forever appreciative of the collaboration I had with Seth over the course of development, and he's helped me grow during my time running Ironwood," he wrote. "The game would not be the same without him."

Thanks to Rosen's candor, other aspiring directors can study what improvements they can make as they step into leadership roles.

Update 5/17: This story has been updated with additional clarification on Pacific Drive's production extension, and other adjusted wording for accuracy.

Update 5/16: This story has been updated with light clarification from Rosen about anecdotes he shared in the Q&A.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like