E3 Interview: Denis Dyack

Denis Dyack is the Founder and President of video game developer Silicon Knights, which began a year after publishing Cyber Empires (also known as Steel Empire) in 1991. Silicon Knights has since moved from PC games to developing console titles, such as Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain for the original Playstation. Silicon Knights also created, as a second party with Nintendo, Eternal Darkness, in addition to working with Konami America to create Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes. Currently, Mr. Dyack is developing a new game for Sega of America and about to release Too Human on the Xbox 360.

TGR recently spoke with Mr. Dyack in connection with his work on the Too Human trilogy for the Xbox360.

THE GAME REVIEWS: I just played the Too Human demo. What are your thoughts on what people have said about it so far?

DENIS: We just released the Too Human demo on Monday, which has been downloaded a lot. The impressions so far have been extremely positive, and we are really happy with that. I think we have a new website up, with all kinds of things in Live too. From that perspective, we are happy.

TGR: Can you comment on what the press has been saying about it?

DENIS: There has been a wide variety of opinions, simply because the game is so different. When you are first looking at the game’s videos, it appears to be an action game. So for a while, it got compared to games like Gears of War and Devil May Cry, which I do not think helped us at all. Once people played it, they realized it is an RPG. From that point, it started leaning more towards games like Diablo.

The unique thing about Too Human is that it is such a fusion of action and RPG. Once players start learning that you have to juggle to get your combo meter up, and economy with combo points, then they really enjoy it a lot.

All of the previews that I saw where people realized that really loved the game. I think others were a little too hasty to judge, because the game is so deep. But I think all of that is going to come around. In the end, it is in the hands of the gamers now, so I think the best press of all is word of mouth.

TGR: Right. How many downloads so far?

DENIS: I cannot say, but it has been in the hundreds of thousands.

TGR: The game has been in development for a really long time. How has it changed over the years?

DENIS: Essentially, we did some early work on the PS1, but when we became a second party to Nintendo, we stopped working on it completely. We started working on Eternal Darkness and finally came back around to working on the 360 recently, after we broke away from Nintendo. That has been the development cycle on it. We had to rewrite the engine and there have been issues there. Those are all public, but essentially, it has not been this crazy long super development cycle that people tend to claim in the industry. Instead it has been closer to a typical game development cycle – four years or so.

TGR: Instead you moved away from it to work on another game. Did you ever worry that you would never find the time to get back to it?

DENIS: No, we actually planned on bringing it to the GameCube. After we finished Eternal Darkness, which was originally planned for the N64, then we moved it to the GameCube, and everyone thought that would be a better decision. We finished Eternal Darkness and were getting ready to start on Too Human. Then we started working on Metal Gear, which caught us quite by surprise. After Metal Gear was completed, our intention was to work on Too Human, and we moved to the 360.

TGR: What has it been like with the 360 experience so far?

DENIS: I really like the 360; I think it is a great console. It is really well balanced, very straightforward, and very powerful. The video card and the hardware itself are great. I think the online capabilities of Live are fantastic. So I like it a lot.

TGR: At one point, four player co-op was being contemplated. Is there any chance we could see more expanded co-op in the future for Too Human?

DENIS: Sure, I think the technology definitely supports it. Once the complexity of the game is understood, it is obvious that balancing everything is really important. Since we do not want people running in and destroying the economy, we made the choice of quality over quantity. When it came to balancing it out and making it just right, two players was the right decision for where we are headed. It can also be enhanced in the future, for more players.

TGR: As far as the sequel is concerned, and bringing the game to new places, there is probably a long list of things you want to do.

DENIS: There are all kinds of possibilities for sequels, with new areas and classes. There are tons of possibilities.

TGR: Is there anything you can say right now about downloadable content?

DENIS: We really like downloadable content. We think Too Human is the perfect game for it, but we have no announcements yet. And we know that you like it.

TGR: With the whole new look of the Xbox 360, is there anything special you are thinking about doing in Too Human?

DENIS: In the future, downloadable drops are probable – and likely to happen, in the second and third games.

TGR: You mentioned Diablo. Too Human is kind of a similar vein to that. People like to make that connection.

DENIS: As to substance, yes for sure, it has some similarities. The only concern I have with the perception is that people need to understand that the game play in Too Human is fundamentally different. With Diablo, you will go after a mob and just wear it down. If you get the best loot, you should win. In Too Human, that is not the case. You need to know how to take out the shields – if you should take the missile guy first, the troll, or the leader. If you do not do that, you are going to die an awful lot. And that is the fundamental difference. That is the only concern that I have. I think Diablo is great.

TGR: What have you thought of Diablo 3 so far?

DENIS: It looks interesting, but too early to tell. You cannot judge games by video, as an interactive medium. You cannot really judge a game by a non-interactive video or whatever it is going to be. I will look forward to it when it comes out, whenever that is.

TGR: What have you thought of this year’s E3?

DENIS: I think this year’s E3 is becoming more like Hollywood, insofar as it is a state of mind, rather than a real place. People come to Los Angeles expecting to see Hollywood and realize that it does not really exist; that it is just all in advertising, promotion, and press. I do not see that as a bad thing necessarily; I just think it has changed fundamentally from what it used to be in 2006 and the earlier years. There used to be an insane amount of games everywhere.

TGR: Would you rather have 2006 E3 or 2008 E3? What do feel is best for the industry

DENIS: I think this has definitely been better for the industry, simply because the amount of cost that were sunk into 2006 was not supportable. It could not have continued much longer. It was funny, because I remember 2005 and 2006. I used to wonder why we were doing it. Delaying games for two quarters, to do the demos in order to get best in the show for E3, did not really mean that much. Then suddenly, it crashed, like the Berlin Wall falling in 2006.

I do not really understand at some level why all of the games need to be shown at once. I would rather see it more like press junkets when stuff comes out and you have a rotation, with the same for press coverage, in a really thorough and critical way. I think this is better, because it is smaller.

TGR: What is it like having a studio in St. Catharine’s in Niagara?

DENIS: I am a big believer in Niagara, period. It is not necessarily Niagara Falls, but we say “Niagara, Home of Silicon Knights,” referring to the whole Niagara region. The fact that we are within an hour of 13 universities (Canada’s best natural resource), gives us a lot of very smart, academically-inclined people. The university, school, and medical system are all awesome. I think it is the best place to be. It has some of the best talent in the world; I could not imagine being anywhere else.

I know there is a perception of being on the West Coast, and I understand it is beautiful – it is really nice; we went to a party on Pacific Coast Highway just a while ago. But when it comes down to working and making video games, you can pretty much do it anywhere you want. It is not all about being in a nice location. St. Catharine’s is beautiful and fantastic, but we are in a spot because it is where we want to be. We have been incorporated since 1992, so we have been around for a while. I just cannot think of a better place to be.

TGR: How about St. Thomas in the Caribbean?

DENIS: It would be nice to visit for a vacation, but I do not think any work would get done there (due to the weather). Niagara is a great place. All of the universities and colleges are just awesome.

TGR: There is a lot of talent there.

DENIS: Tons of talent.

TGR: Is that where most of the staff has come from; locally, around Ontario?

DENIS: Yes, around 95%.

TGR: Interesting.

DENIS: We have a very different philosophy; we generally do not recruit within the video game industry at all actually. We just look for talented people.

TGR: That is kind of like BioWare.

DENIS: Yes, that is what it is all about; it is all about people. I am a big believer in Peter Drucker and knowledge-based companies – that people are everything. It is all about ideas and creating intellectual property. That is what it is going to be in the foreseeable future.

TGR: What is the interaction like with the city, the management of St. Catharine’s, the mayor, and the city in general? Have they been supportive of you?

DENIS: Very supportive. I think the Ontario Government has been very supportive as well. Now we just have to get the Federal Government on board. But in general, it has been fantastic; everyone has been very supportive.

TGR: That is great. So what are the plans for the future, as a development studio?

DENIS: There will be plans; however, exactly when, remains to be seen.

TGR: Okay. Thanks very much for your time.

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