I was anxious to meet Adrian Chmielarz. The Bulletstorm and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter developer has a reputation for controversial and outspoken opinions, but when his profile popped up on Skype, I received not the brusque introduction that I’d been expecting, but a cheery hello, complete with a smiley face emoticon. It’s easy to build up people whose opinions provide you with such food for thought into more than they are. But just as anyone else we feature on OnlySP, Chmielarz is in the industry because he loves games.
“My first commercial game was released in 1993,” he says. “But I started earlier. I knew very quickly that I wanted to make games, when I got my first computer, I only played them for a couple of weeks before I wanted to make my own.
“I made a couple of amateur games for my friends, but then I decided to go commercial. Some highlights were, when I had a company called Metropolis, we made a couple of games that were released worldwide, but I guess the second company’s more important – People Can Fly. I designed and we published Painkiller, Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment. Now, I’m at The Astronauts, with the same founders as People Can Fly, but we’ve gone in a slightly different direction with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.”
That “different direction” might be surprising for some, but really, it’s more in line with Chmielarz’s start in gaming.
“It’s actually odd that we’ve done shooters, because all that I did in my first couple of years creating games was make point-and-click adventures,” he explains. “I was always interested in games that told a story, and games that you could play at your own leisure. Even between Painkiller and Bulletstorm, we tried to make an action-adventure for THQ, but that was cancelled. So it’s not that weird. It’s only strange for people who only know me from Painkiller or Bulletstorm – which is understandably more people than know me from these old, obscure graphic adventures.”
Gaming has grown a lot since Chmielarz made his first game, transitioning through a myriad of formats, platforms and business models. But, for him, what’s had the greatest impact on the industry as a whole in that time hasn’t been the games themselves, but how we get access to them.
“What’s basically changed everything is digital distribution,” Chmielarz says. “It’s just incredible. The first games that I made, I sold them to the entire world, but I was sending people a diskette in an envelope. Even then, to learn about the game, and to know whom to pay for it, they used the internet – so it was like proto-digital distribution. These were crazy times, people were sending me their credit card numbers in an email because they wanted these adventures that I was working on.
“But if you wanted to make it big, if you wanted it to really mean something, you had to find a publisher. You just had to. There was no other way. I think that ID Software distributed their own games, but I’m talking about people like me, especially making games in Poland. And to find a publisher, you had to make a big game. The reason was that shelf space in a game shop was the same for a game that cost $20 as a bigger one costing $60. But they obviously wanted to sell the $60 game. So publishers were looking for games that justified that price, bigger productions.”
I do have a couple of boxed games, but otherwise, I use digital and can’t imagine going back. I think this is happening to a lot of people, that they think they need a box, but one day they’ll realise they don’t.
He continues: “The good thing about this was that they’d often finance you, but the bad thing was that they were forcing you to make this or that kind of game. It’s not just about the size of the game, but also, ‘hey, we gave you the money, so we can demand stuff’. And I totally get it. I really dislike when developers bitch about this, because it’s like, ‘ok, no problem, invest your own money, take out credit, mortgage your house and enjoy that freedom’. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of these people didn’t understand game making. So they had the money, but didn’t understand what it took to make a great game – so there was always friction.
“Then digital distribution came and suddenly you have Steam, where you can make a smaller game and set the price yourself. You can make anything you want, if a game like Hatred can be sold on Steam, then your game can too. So now, that power has been taken away from publishers, and I think that’s extremely beneficial for the industry, because we just have more choice. We still have the blockbusters that cost $200 million to make, but we also have these games that a couple of developers can make in a year, these intimate experiences that can be anything from $5 to $30. Her Story’s a great example. Most of it made by one guy in a year, being sold for $6, and he’s commercially and artistically successful – and so are the gamers, who’ve got something different.”
“Out of all the things I’ve seen,” Chmielarz adds. “Console generations coming and going, PCs disappearing for a moment and then returning in glory. I think digital distribution is the biggest thing.
“I’m deeply convinced that it’s going to be the only way of distributing things. A couple of years ago, I was explaining to my friends how it was never going to happen, because it’s really important that you actually have this object in your house, this box for a video game, because it represents you. It’s memories, and something physical, and I was really convincing. Then, I had a DVD collection of a couple of thousand, and I was very proud of it, but a year later I gave it all away and moved all of the movies to a hard-disk. I do have a couple of boxed games, but otherwise, I use digital and can’t imagine going back. I think this is happening to a lot of people, that they think they need a box, but one day they’ll realise they don’t.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow. The reason is that games are going to be 30, 40, 60 GB and the internet isn’t good enough everywhere around the world. At home, I have a 300MB pipe, but I know that there are cities in Poland where they can’t get 10. There are countries even, I think there are some problems in Canada and Australia with providers limiting downloads per month. One PS4 game and you’re done – not even that.”
In Chmielarz’s view, this is in response to need. Big business needs to be predicable, projections need to be cast, shareholders need to be sated and dividends paid. But consistency doesn’t breed creativity.
“We’re suffering from the same thing as the movie business,” he says. “Publishers have become really adverse to risks. You had it in the film industry in the 70s and 80s, when you had a blockbuster, you could finance some riskier movies with the money that you got. There’re actually an insane amount of really cool classics from the 70s and 80s that never had a sequel. And I can’t quite imagine the same situation right now. I’m sure that Inception’s not going to have one, but most of the movies out right now are treated from the start as the first part of a franchise. Things have become safer. The downside of that is that most AAA games are formulaic and tired.
“But not all, I don’t want to sound like I’m this indie developer lamenting AAA games, because they can still be absolutely fantastic, like The Last of Us or The Witcher 3, so it’s not all bad. But you can tell the time of year because another Call of Duty’s being released or another Assassin’s Creed. I was a fan of Call of Duty for a long time, but I just can’t be anymore. The formula is so tired at this point that I’m tired even before I’ve bought the game. I wish we had more variety and publishers taking more risks; but it’s their money.”
Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight are often said to be hotbeds of creativity, offering a welcome relief from the repetitive AAA scene. However, indie developers can be guilty of following the conventional blueprint as well – and although plenty of great games come out of these spaces – this means that stories of their limitless creative powers can be overstated.
“One the indie side of things, I think it actually mirrors the AAA industry,” Chmielarz says. “Everybody’s thinking like, ‘yeah, the indie guys are creative and they can do whatever they want, so surely there’s great variety there’. But there’s really not. You go to Kickstarter to hear about a new indie game and it’s almost always going to be a twin-stick shooter, some sort of retro tribute, or a rogue-like. There’re not a lot of fresh ideas in the scene. Coming back to Her Story, it’s so loud because it’s just so different.
“We still see a lot of great, unique games produced by indie developers, but I don’t think the number’s as high as people think,” he adds.
And while the games industry isn’t perfect, neither are the people there to critique it. But it might not be fair to judge everything equally. Games journalism is finding its feet and there will always be issues that can be improved upon.
“It’s worth remembering that journalists are different people,” says Chmielarz. “I’m not entirely sure that it’s this unified blob that we can criticise and judge as a whole. But in general, gaming journalism exists, I have no doubt about it.
“A slight problem is that you have people who truly love games and just want to share their passion and extra knowledge that they have with the public, as well as people who’re tired, jaded and worn out, and only still in this industry because, I don’t know, they wouldn’t be able to find a job anywhere else. There’s a really wide spectrum, so it’s very hard to have one opinion on gaming journalism as such.”
‘Proper journalism’ is something that academics and hacks worldwide have been arguing over for years – but one prevailing picture is the idea that a journalist should be tirelessly digging for the truth, producing investigative pieces that shine a light on the world’s wrongs and expose the misdeeds of the powerful.
“I seriously wish we had way, way more of [it] than we have,” Chmielarz says. “When it comes to investigative journalism, you have a lot of that in the mainstream press, and I don’t think we have enough of it in the gaming press. I think that every now-and-then, you read an article about a crazy crunch in this-or-that company, or about some other drama happening at a studio. This is something that I call ‘the human touch’, not just the game, but everything surrounding it. I wish we saw more of these human stories. Investigative journalism doesn’t have to be about finding out if someone fucked up or something bad happened, it can be about very inspiring things as well.
“The weird thing that I’ve noticed in the last year is that when I want to read something really interesting about a video game, or about video game culture, more often than not it’s not going to be published on a gaming website, but by a gaming enthusiast on a blog. Just as an example, there’s this guy that sometimes writes for gaming websites, The Gonzologist, but he writes really interesting stuff that I wish more people saw. It’s not some nerdy, obscure stuff that’s only interesting to a couple of game developers and passionate players. That’s what has surprised me, that when I find something really touching or revealing it’s not from a gaming website.”
“It’s not like it doesn’t happen,” he adds. “Kotaku had a great article about a dark sex side of gaming, and that was an incredible read, but other than that, there’s nothing really interesting there, at least for me.
“I use lists extensively on Twitter, but I just don’t click on gaming news, maybe only once every two or three weeks. Then when I do scroll down, it’s like, ‘I know everything that’s here from Twitter anyway’. If there’s a new trailer for Tomb Raider, I know about it, if Microsoft announce a new console, I know from Twitter. I very rarely find something there that’s not the usual social media noise and is a unique take on something, or an exclusive. That’s my problem. Every now-and-again the mainstream gaming press does something fantastic. It’s just not happening often enough for my personal taste.”
The role of the gaming press is changing in response to new media and the internet, but compounding these issues are difficulties that still surround some of the more outdated practises employed by many outlets.
“The numeric score is just idiotic,” says Chmielarz. “I can maybe be convinced that something like five stars makes sense, but going from 0-100 like Metacritic ultimately does is just simply idiotic and really doesn’t tell you much about the game.
“I can give you my own game as an example. We released on PS4, and initially we had like 10 reviews or something, and most of them were eights, eight and a halves, nines, and generally people were highly recommending the game – that was wonderful. But then one guy gave us 4/10, and that brought the Metacritic score down to 79. So now if you weren’t an advanced user, so to speak, you go to Metacritic, see 79, and you go, ‘ehhh, ok, so nothing special then’, because it’s not immediately clear that it’s not just an average game, but a divisive game. Not even divisive. Just one guy decided to give it a really insanely low score. That’s just misleading. So I prefer what Rotten Tomatoes are doing where they only look if the review is positive or negative.
“When a new game comes out, and I want to learn more about it, I go to Steam reviews, not a professional website. I don’t know exactly why that is, but when I go to a Steam review, I will learn exactly what that game is. It’s not that Steam users focus solely on mechanics, they talk about feelings, the visuals and the story. It’s a condensed version that basically tells me everything I needed to know about the game.
“It’s why we pay 19.99 instead of 20, right? That’s how human psychology works. When you see 79, you got into the 70s zone, so to speak. In my case, there’s no big correlation between the score and people buying the game, so it’s fine. But for bigger studios, that’s actually serious issue. The majority of AAA studios have a clause in their contract that a bonus will only be paid if the score is this or that. Sometimes it’s crazy, like 90 or 95+, but most of the time, it’s 80. There’s the famous story with Obsidian hitting 79 with New Vegas, but trust me, that’s not the only story. It’s absolutely insane, because you can have a game that’s a best seller, and makes a lot of money, but the developers won’t see a bonus, and I’m sorry to say this, because a couple of amateur journalists who didn’t just have a different opinion, but didn’t know what they were talking about, brought the game down.”
“It’s absolute idiocy,” Chmielarz explains. “And I’m not talking about the journalists, but the publishers. They have a studio of 200 professional developers making a game over two years for $50-60 million. And they base bonuses on a couple of glorified bloggers? That’s really bad. I don’t blame the journalists, it’s exclusively the publishers’ fault for using Metacritic like this.”
This touches on one of the more interesting conundrums tangled up in the discourse surrounding games journalism. What is the difference between a journalist and a blogger? And who is qualified to say?
“I expect a certain level of research, ethics, accountability and work to go into an article that is supposedly written by a journalist,” says Chmielarz. “Bloggers can do anything, I can write some amateur bullshit or I can do extensive research and write about something, it’s whatever. When I read a website that’s supposed to be professional, I expect professionalism.
I’d recommend this to everybody – find more unique sources of information and don’t assume that all of the truly interesting content comes only from the biggest websites.
Another issue is that of balance. Some would argue that mainstream gaming sites only tell one side of the story, and leave out everything that doesn’t fit their narrative.
“Games do not exist in a vacuum,” Chmielarz explains. “We’re still trying to find out the effects of gaming on a human being. We can’t say that art has no effect on people because then art would be nothing but a time-killer. How do games affect us? Do they make us murderers? Or do they actually increase the general safety of the world? Which in my opinion seems to be the case. All of that is interesting. I think that the problem some people have is not even the fact that people are talking about this. The biggest problem is that there’s no counterpoint.
“The Witcher 3 is a great example here, because you had progressive websites discussing the issues of race, or of feminism, all of these things that they love to talk about, they talked about. Most of the biggest websites just present one side of the political spectrum. Every counterpoint to that narrative that you’ve heard, came from the blogosphere, from gamers, from developers even. You’d never get a trace of the other side of the argument if you just read all of these bigger websites. That’s the problem we’re having here. And I’m not sure how to solve it, because I’m, what I’d call a soft libertarian, so I believe that if Polygon wants to be Polygon, they can be Polygon. It’s their money, so if they want to be extremely one sided, that’s ok.”
The take-away here is that while problems persist, quality work is there if you’re willing to look for it. Everybody has their own personal biases, including journalists and the gaming media as a whole, and to see past them, readers and viewers need to search out a variety of perspectives.
“Maybe my expectations are too high,” says Chmielarz. “I’d love to read some deeper analysis and deeper articles that require extensive research, but maybe there’s just no market for it.
“I’ve complained about AAA games being mostly crap, but then some being excellent. Then I complained about the indie scene being mostly crap, but then some indies being excellent. Maybe it’s the same with gaming journalism. Maybe most of it is crap, but every now-and-then you have something truly excellent.
“How I try to deal with it is to always have multiple sources of information. I’m not an avid reader of Polygon, to put it gently, when it comes to how they deal with social issues, but some of the other things that they produce are great. I do follow a few journalists or websites that make that type of content on Twitter and I’m interested in their side of the story. I’d recommend this to everybody – find more unique sources of information and don’t assume that all of the truly interesting content comes only from the biggest websites.”