We often use vague catchall words to describe careers in gaming: developer, designer, producer. But those words don’t tell much of a story. What’s Your Line? is an interview series designed to demystify the people who make their living in games.
It wasn’t so long ago that that the iTunes App Store was a wasteland of cheap knockoffs and virtual fart machines. And while those disposable bits of code are still out there in full force, iPhone gaming has enjoyed a well-deserved rise into respectability. The constraints of a mobile phone’s small screen and simple touch input have led to explosive creativity—and profitability—in the field of small, expressive, addictive games (a phenomenon that The New York Times Magazine recently explored).
That explosion has been fueled mostly by small startups and indie developers, but game creators at larger outfits have also taken notice. Nick Pavis spent more than a decade in the big-budget development shop at LucasArts, ascending through the ranks to become the company’s director of game technology and helping guide the production of blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. But long before his major-studio console-game years, Nick had spent his time tinkering on modest platforms like the Atari 2600. So in 2008, when he founded the mobile-game developer MunkyFun (where he serves as CEO), Pavis was returning to his roots in a way. MunkyFun’s releases for the iOS platform include the puzzle games Shift and Ivory Tiles, the animal-husbandry simulation My Horse, and the shooters Archetype and Bounty Bots. Pavis talked to Gameological about his career change, iOS vs. Android, and the strange twists a new game concept can take.
The Gameological Society: You were working on big-budget console games at LucasArts, and then you left to start a company that makes mobile games. Why make that jump? Did it feel like sort of a step down?
Nick Pavis: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s not—I was at Lucas for 11, nearly 12, years. And I had an absolute blast there. We worked on some major, major titles. But I think one of the things that gets to you eventually, if you’re very passionate about gaming and the games industry, is you have a million ideas that flow your way that you really can’t execute. Because you’re focused on very large console projects that take a long time in development and need a lot of green-lighting processes and tight budgets. And often-times you find the most fun game mechanics and the most appealing entertainment products aren’t always the big project titles. I think there absolutely is room for big-budget titles but there is a lot that can be done a smaller scale that just gets missed. I think there’s almost a feeling of feeling homesick from the old days of gaming.
Gameological: So does it feel like those early days of personal computers—the hobbyist era—to you right now in mobile games?
Genre and genre-forming isn’t a process you want to drive towards.
Pavis: Absolutely. And it’s wonderful working with people who are just joining the industry and understanding what their feeling and passion is, because it helps you to access again the wonder of making fun stuff happen late at night or at any old time during the day—you know, some weird stuff happens and suddenly you got this killer game idea. All of those traits of early development seemed kind of like the Wild West. And I think we’re going through a similar evolution now with the tablets and the mobile devices.
Gameological: MunkyFun released a block-puzzle game, and then a first-person shooter, and then a simulation about taking care of a horse, and then a wild-west shootout game with robot cowboys. So I’m sitting here thinking, “The creative process here is either really cynical or really whimsical.” How do you decide what your next project is going to be?
Pavis: It’s funny. You do Archetype and then you do My Horse, so what’s the logical next thing? I wish that there was a really cool answer I could give you about this magical cupboard that we open up and it gives ideas to us. But it isn’t. You abstract the medium for which you’re entertaining people. And by that I mean, the genre of game is not hugely important. When I first got hooked on games, I was playing Pong. There’s games like Pong that are very, very simple. There’s text adventures. Even pinball machines have a certain value that can’t always be captured by video games. There’s such a variety and diversity in this industry when you look at the history. You’ve got to realize that genre and genre-forming isn’t a process you want to drive towards. It’s just a way of identifying products.
Ultimately what people want to be is entertained. They want to be delighted. They want to see something cool they haven’t seen before. And they want to be entertained in a way that is new and exciting for them. So going from a horse simulation to Wild West robots from a puzzle game is—it amuses us as well. If I can speak to the good side of the company, it’s our ability to create [a software] engine that allows us to make these different games because it’s pretty much the same technology that’s driving horses, driving Bounty Bots.
Gameological: Do you still get your hands dirty programming code, or is it all suit-and-tie CEO stuff for you?
Pavis: I want to say “healthy mix,” if that’s applicable. I was on the executive staff at Lucas when I left, and for the last few years at Lucas I was doing a lot of technology strategy, but also working with all the other heads of the company to really understand where Lucas was going. I was integral with the reboot of 2004 shaping the company as a studio and taking it to where it needed to be with The Force Unleashed. These are skills that I need to bring to bear on a daily basis as far as making sure that the company can run. But I do find myself getting involved [in game design] sometimes, more than you would think.
Gameological: Okay, so give an example of something, say on Bounty Bots, where maybe you saw a problem and you stepped in. What would you see, and what do you change when you get your hands into the code?
Pavis: Games tend to take shape by themselves. It’s kind of like the story of Michelangelo carving the sculpture, and his way of looking at it was that there was an angel inside the rock, and he was just freeing that angel. It was speaking to him. I think that’s also the same with games. You have a basic idea of what you’re trying to do and you put some stuff together.
With Bounty Bots, we had decided that it would be cool to take some weapons that could modify the terrain, so that you could build and destroy the terrain in front of you. We did some demos on that, and everybody got really excited: “This is really freaking awesome. You can build a wall right in front of you, or you could build a hole.” We went down that path for some time, and we came up with the idea of these bots that could create and destroy environments.
Games tend to take shape by themselves.
It ended up not working for the casual player. People could dig a hole too deep and get stuck. People could build these huge structures that would then displace everything that was already there, including other players. And we found that it didn’t really make sense for a lot of people.
So we came back to the table. We liked the idea of robots. Somebody had been bouncing around the idea of a “grabbing the loot and taking it to the bank” type scenario. That morphed into, “Well, what if this is sort of Wild West?” And suddenly it clicked. It was like, “Yeah! That actually makes sense.” We knew the game mechanic was fun. We knew it was fun as heck to run around collecting stuff and then to take it back somewhere.
Gameological: How hard was it to give up on this terraforming idea? Did it take a while to admit, “Okay, this isn’t really working”?
Pavis: I wouldn’t say it was a case of taking time to admit it. You start getting to a point where it’s like, “Yeah, we could spend another three months trying to get this right. But it just doesn’t seem like the thing that people are going to say, ‘This is fun as hell. I’m going to play this every day.’” It was never a case of admitting it. Everything’s a journey and an exploration to get to the end. And that’s a little bit why I told you that the history of Bounty Bots is, you know, there’s not a golden cabinet we open up that tells us we’re doing a Wild West game. It is a process, and it has to be an honest process. We have to play the games and enjoy the games and be honest with ourselves. Is this fun or is this not? And we knew when we got the first playtest of Bounty Bots together, we were having so much fun in the office.
Gameological: That really is the art of it, isn’t it? Getting to that ineffable point where you’re having a hell of a lot of fun with it.
Pavis: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Not only do you have to hone those skills of being honest with yourself and objective about the product that you’re making, the industry is changing in such a way that we are much closer to the consumer, now. We’re distributing stuff directly to the consumer, and we’re able to understand certain behavior from certain actions that they perform in the product. You see what people are doing and where they’re getting hung up or stuck, and what people want more of. You respond to that and that’s like the macro level of what you’re doing when you’re creating the game in the first place. So, the release 1.0 is kind of like, “Hey, we’ve got this great concept, but also we’re interested to see what the players think out there.”
Gameological: We have this feature on the site called Sawbuck Gamer where we review a lot of iPhone games. We often get commenters asking, “Where are the reviews of Android games?” And my response is, “Well, where are the Android games?” Maybe you can answer that. Why isn’t MunkyFun releasing more of its wares on the Android platform? What’s the challenge or the obstacle there?
Everyone was saying, “Android’s coming, Android’s coming. They’re gonna get it right, they’re gonna get it right.” It is, almost.
Pavis: What is the challenge, that’s a good question. We do have a product due for launch [in] early May that is going to support the Android platform. We have actually run most of our games on the Android platform, and we do have running versions of games on the Android platform. A lot of the value that the iOS platform brings is—originally it was more so, but—it brings a reduced device set that you need to be compatible with. It’s actually quite tough on iOS now that when we release a product we’re testing it across many of the iOS devices. That’s multiplied when you’re dealing with the Android devices. There is a certain ease of getting a single, “Okay, this works, and this is ready to go” product on iOS.
The second answer to that is that the iTunes App Store for the longest time, and even currently, is the place to be for getting your product out there. Getting it marketed. It’s the one place to go for iOS products. And I feel that the Android Market has been a little fragmented, though that seems to be converging as well. I think everyone was saying, “Android’s coming, Android’s coming. They’re gonna get it right, they’re gonna get it right.” It is, almost. It is almost here, and I think that you should expect to see some Android products from us in the near future.
Gameological: What sort of research was involved for My Horse? Do you have someone on staff who’s really into horses, or did you guys have to go out to a pasture and learn about taking care of a horse? Because it’s pretty detailed.
Pavis: Yeah, it is. It is. That’s a really good question. When you first start with the idea, it’s a good high-level idea, and you wonder how detailed you have be. At the end of the day, it’s a glorified Tamagotchi, right? We all understand the concept. But the attention to detail on horse ownership and care is important as well. With our partnership with [computer animation company] NaturalMotion, they brought on some expertise in the realm of horse ownership and show jumping. I think, anecdotally, it was one of our key designers on the project. He has a cousin who has a ranch. They invited [the developers] up for the weekend to do reconnaissance. I think the feeding game was borne of, “Oh! When you feed the horse, it depends what mix you put in.” So we created the mini-game around mixing feed and weighing the right amount. A lot of these, you could call them grinds, but they’re kind of fun grinds. It is actually soothing and fun, like, cleaning the horse, as well. It’s a very soothing thing to do.
Gameological: Your PR people sent me a bio that says you once took a 680-megabyte PC game, Indiana Jones And The Infernal Machine, and squeezed it down to one-tenth the size so that you could release it on the Nintendo 64. First of all, I love that you had them put that on your bio. Second of all, is it possible for you to explain to a layperson how the hell you do that?
Pavis: My heritage definitely does stretch a long way back to the days of the home micros [microcomputers]. Back in those days, we were extremely efficient because we had very little memory and very little processing power. So I had some strong experience with making things more efficient and compressing data.
Also, there’s the concept of the smoke and mirrors, the illusion. Ultimately what you’re doing is you’re building an illusion for somebody. We learned this working with ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] at Lucas. We’re “tricking” things and not making them real. It’s always about tricking people into what they think they’re seeing. Making assumptions about what the player’s going to do. They’re not going to go back to that area, so you can flush that out of memory. But if they do, then you can put some kind of ledge in place that makes it harder to them to do so, or takes longer.
With Indiana Jones, a lot of the work was compressing the data. Finding out what data was redundant—and that is the art of compression, is creating redundancy. Either from a data point of view or from a user perspective—meaning that the user cannot tell the difference between A and B, so we don’t need to store situation B if the data required for situation A is less. It always comes back to the user. What is the player experiencing here, and how are they experiencing it? What are the core values to the experience that the player is having right now? Is it the sun shining through in the top right of the screen? If it isn’t, then you shouldn’t put time into doing that.
Gameological: So you have to switch your perspective. You can’t think, like, “These buildings have to be here because this is how the town is supposed to look.” You just have to think about what the overall effect is on the player.
Pavis: Absolutely. You are tailoring the best experience you can for the player. And I think that speaks to how passionate we are about what we’re doing, and how passionate we are about the fans and the feedback we’re getting on our games. We’re very passionate about responding to that and making sure people have a really good time, as efficiently as possible.
Gameological: Your last couple of games have used this so-called “freemium” pay model—play for free, and pay for add-ons. Is that the way to go for you now, or do you decide the payment setup on a game-by-game basis?
Pavis: At the moment, I would say that freemium is the way to go. The way forward is micro-payments where people only pay for what they consume. Freemium is effectively microtransactions. You have this tremendous hurdle for people to overcome if you’ve got a product that’s got a price point. They have to do a lot of research, and wait and see, and think about it, and save up some money before they know if it really is what they want. With freemium, you’re basically saying, “Look, just take it. Play with it. Tell me if you like it.” And I can’t see that going away.
Putting a game out for free that costs so much to make is scary as hell.
It’s the honest way to go. It’s scary as hell, I have to tell you that. Putting a game out for free that costs so much to make is scary as hell. But an interesting thing about this—you see people talk about games in the App Store: “They say they’re free, but they’re not, really.” Or, “They’re trying to trick you!” For me, there’s obviously blatant trickery, but what we strive to do is be true to our word. If someone really is enjoying your game and playing it a lot, and there’s opportunity in there for them to enhance their experience by paying, that makes a lot of sense for both people.
If people are spending money, it’s an expression of their fun. How do you register how much fun someone’s having? Is it their smile? Do you measure the angle of the corner of their mouth? Well, if they’re spending money on your product—for example, with Bounty Bots, we’ve thrown a selection of costumes out there, a selection of hats, a selection of add-ons. And some products just tend to stand out for people. We can analyze that and say, “Yeah, we should do a product line a little more like this.” We’re responding to the enjoyment people are having and providing them more of what they want.
We don’t have any plans for paid products in the near future. But, you know, in the same way the App Store changed the industry, things could turn again. But I would say freemium all the way, and we have no plans to do paid products at this time.