Former ‘Call of Duty’ Producer Thinks All Games Aren’t Created Equal – Developer Pop Quiz #12

Developer Pop Quiz is a weekly interview series in which we ask developers from around the industry the same 10 questions and post their responses.

Epicenter Studios and Scientifically Proven Entertainment’s CEO, Nathaniel “Than” McClure, has worked on some of the biggest games in video game history, namely “Star Wars: Jedi Knight 2″ and the “Call of Duty” franchise before he branched out and started his own company. Since then he has been trying to look “for new nontraditional ways to engage the gamer and non gamers” through games like “Rock of the Dead” and the upcoming “Man vs. Wild” game, based on the Discovery Channel show of the same name. This week, he is the center of our Developer Pop Quiz feature where he gives us some insight into his thoughts on the industry, who he is as a gamer, and why chopping people’s heads off is a bad idea.

Name: Nathaniel “Than” McClure
Title: CEO
Company: Epicenter Studios and Scientifically Proven Entertainment
Job Description: Project finding, culture building, operations, strategizing, cheerleading, soda getting, back patting, occasional scripting, all in the attempts to get whatever is needed done done.
First title worked on: “Star Wars: Jedi Knight 2 – Jedi Outcast”
Most recent title worked on: “Man vs. Wild” and “Rock of the Dead”

What game has most influenced you, and why?

From a professional standpoint it has to be “Call of Duty.” I was lucky enough to be pretty good at shooters, and at Activision there was no shortage of them (“Jedi,” “Wolfenstein,” “Elite Force,” “COD,” etc.). I started testing “COD” and was blown away with the total package of gameplay and experience. “COD” was one of the first titles for me that as a player I could just sit (or cower) in a level (Pegasus Bridge) and be totally absorbed. My heart would be pounding as gun fire whizzed by, explosions went off all around, and soldiers yelled at me. That was it for me; I was sold and knew I wanted to work on “COD.” “COD” provided me the drive to move my way up the ladder at Activision from QA to Production where I got to work on “COD 1,” “COD: UO,” “COD 2″ (360/PS3 Launch), “COD 3,” and “COD 4.”

Here’s an old melee highlight video I made years ago, back when I thought Google Video would win over YouTube.

What are you playing right now?

“You’re in the Movies” with my family, “Red Dead,” “Angry Birds,” “Spider-Man Friend or Foe” with my son. I still play “Counter Strike: Source” on occasion. I’m patiently waiting to play “StarCraft 2″ after we ship “Rock of the Dead” and “Man vs Wild.”

What was your first break in the games industry?

I started as a Tester at Activision. I was the sprinter on “Star Wars: Jedi Knight 2 – Jedi Outcast” (still the best “SW” game out there). Every day I had to play through the entire game as fast as I could to test that it could be played start to finish without progression breaks.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

“Do what you love.” I am not sure that anyone has ever said it to me directly because it is such a common and cliché thing, but I feel that it is very sound advice (unless you love chopping people’s heads off, then I would say the best advice for you is seek help).

Where do you look for inspiration?
Friends, colleagues, my children, and my environment. Anything engaging and interactive especially in new marketing and sales trends in larger industries. Fully fledged Game Design I leave to more qualified people like my partners and employees. I try to find inspiration for new nontraditional ways to engage the gamer and non gamers. Initially it has been nontraditional concepts like “Real Heroes: Firefighter” (my partner, Bryan Jury’s, concept); a non violent shooter made for the whole family. Or an interactive take on a TV show like we are doing with “Man vs. Wild.” Or taking an existing install base of peripherals (plastic guitars and drums) and giving gamers a new reason to play with them like “Rock of the Dead.” Down the road I see entertaining interactive engagement much more prominent in our daily lives especially in education and job training.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about game development?
Whatever time frame you feel is necessary to complete a task, double it. You will not use that doubled time for every task but when you do you will be very happy you had it.

Who do you think will come out on top this console generation?
The gamer. The console manufacturers are doing a brilliant job of innovating and evolving the home gaming experience. In addition to the awesome selection of games on all consoles the Wii gave us intuitive motion controls, PS3 gave us large storage and Blu Ray, and 360 gave us LIVE. Personally I am a huge 360 fan. LIVE and the entire media delivery system that Microsoft has refined is incredible. I think that was arguably the biggest advancement for this generation of consoles. A single platform entertainment system that delivers all types of content that blends with social interaction.

What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?
Consumer evaluation combined with risk adverse publishing. People usually don’t compare “Avatar” (the movie) to a smaller Reese Witherspoon date movie even though they will sit on the same DVD shelf because the consumer is more aware of production budgets, values, and target markets when it comes to film. In games (outside of the small percentage of hardcore players) that is usually not the case. You are on the same shelf as “GTA,” “COD,” “HALO” and all the rest of the “bigs” so even though your budget was 1/20th of them, it doesn’t matter, you will be compared to them. My current favorite example is from a recent pre-alpha preview we did, it received this as the first comment;
“… You can do the same stuff in “Red Dead Redemption.” And “RDR” is better.”

Don’t get me wrong I love that my 1/20th of the budget title in its pre-alpha state is thought about in the same realm as such a great game but not really a proper comparable. So take that consumer sentiment and compound it with extremely risk adverse publishing partners and you create a very difficult to navigate creative space. The publishing mantra is we need bigger numbers for lesser budgets or you don’t get the contract. So the majority of us have to take the smaller budgets or we are out of a job. I cannot think of a single developer that wants to make a game that the player won’t enjoy. I’ll stop whining now.

What is the most important thing that has happened to gaming in the last 10 years?
Competition and revenue. The current gen of consoles being different enough to generate flame wars about user loyalty is great. That tells me that the space is fiercely competitive and will continue to drive innovation. Game revenue has risen so dramatically in the last decade that is has caused an entire cultural shift from fringe entertainment to mainstream commodity.

Where do you see gaming in 5 years?
Gaming continues to expand outside of the traditional space. You game at home, on your way to work via phone, and at work via Facebook. I think the next interactive experiences you will encounter are in places like your car were the better you drive (fuel efficiency) the higher your score is, children learning through interactive worlds and experiences versus lectures, and more elaborate “life score” games like 4Square. In terms of the console space I think we will continue to see the blending of the lines between cinematic experience and interactive. We are in a gaming renaissance where (I think) for the first time in history mass access to technology is combined with creative input and entrepreneurial spirit in an entertainment driven medium. The result should be a lot of games for a lot of different audiences. Someone’s favorite game ever is still yet to be made.