Gaming Masterminds Put Bloody Monsters Into Perspective At Roundtable

Top designers, directors convene over what medium's doing right and wrong.

Sony executives addressed thousands at a massive soundstage in Los Angeles on May 8, unveiling details of the PlayStation 3 and beginning a week of presentations that revolved around what gamers should buy next.

But in Gallery Nineteen Eighty Eight, the scene was a bit different. The gallery is home to I Am 8 Bit, an exhibition of art inspired by retro gaming that includes pieces like the oil-on-canvas “No One Wants to Play Sega With Harrison Ford” and the more pointed “Ms. Blac Man.”

The talk at the gallery wasn’t about hawking games but about playing them and making them, and what changes still need to hit the medium. (To catch the freewheeling session, check out MTV Overdrive.)

Here’s who attended:

Cliff Bleszinski, a.k.a. CliffyB

  • Title: Chief designer, Epic Games
  • Age: 31; 14 years of experience in the gaming industry
  • Early gaming influences: “For me it was ’The Legend of Zelda.’ ’Ultima Underworld’ had far more impact on me than ’Doom.’ I played it before ’Doom.’ Mark [Rein] and Tim [Sweeney], the owners of [Epic Games], were like, ’ “Doom” is incredible.’ And I’m like, ’Dude, there wasn’t that sense of exploration.’ ”
  • Signature games: First-person-shooter standard-bearer “Unreal Tournament”
  • Upcoming games: Xbox 360’s marquee holiday 2006 shooter, “Gears of War”
  • Overheard at the roundtable: “The reason we have blood coming off of the monsters in the game when you shoot them is to give you an indication of success. It’s not because I’m some kind of sociopath that wants to see blood.”

David Jaffe

  • Title: Creative director, Sony Computer Entertainment America
  • Age: 34; 14 years of experience in the gaming industry
  • Early gaming influences: ” ’Adventure’ on the [Atari] 2600 was probably the game that opened my eyes to the idea that I could step into a fantasy and be someone somewhere else. That was probably the most influential to me. And there was an Apple IIe game called ’Mask of the Sun,’ which was an adventure game that made me feel like Indiana Jones. Those two games were the things that made me realize the potential for games to be transportation devices to other worlds and other lives.”
  • Signature games: Car-combat game “Twisted Metal” and Greek-mythology action epic “God of War”
  • Upcoming games: Unnamed politically themed war game for PlayStation Portable
  • Overheard at the roundtable: “It’s dangerous to ignore the reality of the fact that most people don’t play games and all most people see is the surface. The reality is for me to do my job as a good game designer in a very violent and sexual game like ’God of War.’ I have to go in there in every level and every room and think about how I can engage the player’s brain. What can I do that’s not chop-chop-chop, hit-hit-hit? Because that’s going to get boring after about five minutes. What’s the strategy? What are the tactics of the room? Things like that. But anybody who doesn’t play games — who doesn’t think about those things — they’re going to look at ’God of War’ or any violent game and they’re going to see the surface.”

Harvey Smith

  • Title: Creative director, Midway Austin
  • Age: 38; 13 years of experience in the gaming industry
  • Early gaming influences: “Dungeon Master.” “It was the first time that that kind of game had taken this leap where when you killed creatures, [you] could eat their body parts. And you could do things that the game developers didn’t plan, based on some simple rules related to the spells in the world.”
  • Signature games: Online team-based shooter “Fireteam” and the multi-path sci-fi adventure “Deus Ex”
  • Upcoming games: Three unannounced titles for the new Austin studio at Midway Games.
  • Overheard at the roundtable: “The average video game has a thousand deaths in [it] and yet none of them are deep or real or intimate at all. And death has influenced my life a great deal. My mom died when I was 6. My dad killed himself. So I’ve got all this death in my background that I’ve had to overcome. And that, as an artist, is the sort of thing I would like to work on — and no one will pay for it.”

Will Wright

  • Title: Chief game designer, Maxis
  • Age: 46; 22 years of experience in the gaming industry
  • Early gaming influences: “I got the first Apple II to connect to my robots, and I bought the first ’Flight Simulator’ … which is all wireframe graphics, incredibly primitive. But it was a self-contained little world with its own physics, its own rules. And then a few years later [came] a game called ’Pinball Construction Set’ … [that] was the first time I’d seen a game where you could actually build something.”
  • Signature games: The city simulator “Sim City” and the virtual dollhouse “The Sims”
  • Upcoming games: The 2007 single-cell-to-interstellar-civilization simulator “Spore”
  • Overheard at the roundtable: “I think one of the few emotions we can really get at with games that you can’t get with linear media is pride, because the player is responsible for the outcome. I’ve never really felt pride watching a movie before. But I’ve seen the players feel tremendous pride in the things they accomplished or created in games.”