Inside the Games Interviews Denis Dyack
The Game Reviews: We are here with the Founder and President of Silicon Knights, Denis Dyack, who is also the Director of Too Human. Can you tell us a little bit about your lineage?
Denis Dyack: I have three degrees. My first degree is in Physical Education, from University, where I was a Varsity wrestler. Earlier on, I was in to Twae Kwon Do and martial arts. I was the Twae-Kwon-Do champion for a while, so was very much into physical sports. I went to University to wrestle.
I took physical education, so that I could work out and be at school simultaneously. As I was getting close to graduating, I realized that I wanted to make video games. In our area back at that time, probably 1989, the video game industry was very, very small. I think I was on my Atari ST system, playing Ultima III. I really loved it and it inspired me to want to do it. It could have even been earlier.
I figured that if I was going to make video games, I better learn how to make them. So I put myself through computer science. My grades were not that great, with a 76 average when I was studying physical education. But when I took computer science, I was actually high average in the University. That was surprising for me, and I did very, very well in it. Just when I was about to graduate, we started making our first game called Cyber Empires and I decided to go off and get a Master’s in computer science.
Halfway through the Master’s, we finished our first game, and got it published in the U.K. by a group called Millennium, in 1991, before we incorporated. I flew to the west coast and bumped into people at SSI. We got our first publishing deal and I decided to start a company. At that time, we knew nothing. We are 185 now and we have gone on to do Cyber Empires, Fantasy Empires, and Dark Legions. We wanted to get over to the PC market at that point, and did our first Playstation game, Legacy of Kain. Then we went off to do Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid and now Too Human. So that sort of, is the history.
TGR: Okay. As a self starter and entrepreneur, what were some of the trials and tribulations that you went through when you were trying to grow? How did you feel when that first title got published?
DD: It was amazing; there is no feeling like it; I cannot explain it. You get a degree and it is something that it is an achievement that no one can take away. It is something you always feel proud of and I still get a rush when I go into the stores and see the game out there, see people play and saying they enjoy it. It is very different, but I guess the thing that sort of caught me off guard with the industry, is that I had no idea of how things were done. I could not have possibly predicted people were achieving the goals we wanted, or the course to that. It has been so tarried and harried and just insane at times. Maybe someday I will write a book, but it is a very difficult, difficult industry; it is very hard.
TGR: I am sure it was a pretty decent learning curve, too.
DD: Rather than the “leading edge,” I would say the video game industry is on the “bleeding edge.” It is very hard and very competitive, there is no question.
TGR: Did you have start up funding, or did it just kind of all come out of your credit cards and pockets?
DD: That is right, nothing.
TGR: So it was a big risk and obviously it paid off.
DD: I guess it was a big risk. You know, I always say this to people who are thinking about doing it themselves: just never let anyone tell you that you cannot, because you have to do what you want to do. But it is not easy, that is all; it takes a lot of challenge. When you are an entrepreneur or when you have your own company, it is a black hole for time. You need to be able to separate your personal time from business, because business will suck everything out of you. You have to really bounce that. If you are not careful, you will lose your balance and it will affect your business life eventually, and other things fall apart.
TGR: I know exactly what you are talking about that there. It is very easy to get too involved, because it is a passion.
DD: It is, and it will take everything you have.
TGR: It is just like crack.
DD: There is a whole technology now that is changing our lives. This whole idea of people thinking that technology is helping us, that we communicate more, is all not true. It is actually making us work more. The whole myth of a nine to five work week died 50 years ago. So in the knowledge-based economy, everything has changed.
TGR: So for instance, do any of your employees work from home?
DD: No. We do not like that, because of the loss of reciprocity from the face to face interaction. It is just really, really difficult to communicate ideas. We have sort of a whole guild philosophy where you have to work with everything, and it is really important to the quality of games. So we are not big believers in working from home. We do not do contracts, outsource or anything like that, either. So it is a very different environment at Silicon Knights.
TGR: Being that you are the CEO, obviously you wear many hats. At the time, I am sure that has either changed or gotten lighter because you have hired people. But what was the experience like when you first started and what do you do now? What has your life been like?
DD: It is totally different. When I first started, I was a programmer. I guess I was one of the first in the industry who said we needed a Director. I stopped programming and started directing. I was always the President at the same time and now it is getting to the point, as the company grows larger, that I have to start making decisions on which direction to go. But at the end of the day, as the company grows, it is now becoming understanding the process, where innovation comes from and the difference between technology, research and innovation.
Because you can innovate and not necessarily have the best technology. It all comes down to what’s the best for your process. And those are pretty fundamental disconnects that a lot of people do not understand. As the company grows and the culture changes, we change and have to try to keep that culture going. I have to decide what the best thing is for that. Even if I am the right person to have that continue in the future, these are all really tough questions. Anyone who has been in something for a long time and sees it grow, knows it is always an interesting challenge. I have some paths in mind, but I have no answers for what exactly is going to happen.
TGR: A lot of people think that working for a game company means that they are going to be gaming 24/7. What is the atmosphere like at SI, SK?
DD: It is very creative, challenging and hard work – just like at every game company. Video games are a very challenging industry and we work very diligently at keeping it creative, stimulating and making sure people do not over work themselves. Because it can become a place that you do not ever want to leave, and that is not good. We have created something called the Interactive Arts and Sciences at the local University and we have had professors come and lecture at the company for over ten years, in the middle of the day every two or three weeks, just to get people excited and thinking about things.
It cannot just be about money, and about the work all the time. Even though you love the work, and it is creative, you need to have outlets to really stimulate your thinking in as many ways as possible.
TGR: I have heard that you have some pretty strong opinions when it comes to the console and the PC market.
DD: I have just been told that I have pretty strong opinions, period.
TGR: What do you think about the virgins and the whole possibility of the consoles merging? Were you at MI Experiences?
TGR: They were talking about the next ten years, and the possibility that the software and disc will be gone. Also, they surmise that downloadable, on demand games which are more basically PC oriented, are possible. I feel it is more going to be like a piece of hardware that is very integral to your entertainment system, but it is not necessarily an Xbox or a PS3.
DD: My thoughts on one console future is based on economic theory, commoditization, and performance over supply. A lot of people think I am saying this because it is a future that I want. Actually, I am indifferent about it. I think it is inevitable, and only a matter of time. When you consider commoditization with the cell phone, the first cell phones were actually analog and the fact that you could talk to someone wirelessly was fantastic. Now, I can do e-mail, download videos, listen to music and the price of these has dropped radically. It is the number of features that is almost inversely proportional to its value, and that is called commoditization.
The cell phone industry has been hit really hard with commoditization and it really hurts brand names and the like.
What is happening with the consoles, is that they are starting to do so much, the trend leaning toward being commoditized. The fact that they are all proprietary right now, is making it very difficult for everyone to maintain competitiveness. I am just looking at the economics of the industry and wondering how this model will continue. I do not see it. It is kind of like the same thing with E3. People spend a lot of money on the show, and it is not making any sense. I see the same thing happening with the consoles. It is not like I want anyone to win or lose; I am completely neutral on it, but I am just looking at the economics and believing that there is a trend towards commoditization and performance over supply.
How many games come out in November? Was last year over 350? Is it possible for consumers to even digest that number of games? That is what is called “performance over supply,” where the industry is over supplying what the consumer can actually consume. That model cannot continue, in the long term, anyway. That is where I come from on those issues, so I guess maybe I have a strong opinion. I have heard people be cynical on it. I wish people would be more critical and that they could use some micro or macro economics as to why that is not working. I am just looking at general trends and I still have not heard anything that dissuades me from saying that is not going to happen.
TGR: With the scenario that you are painting, as far as why it could get to that point makes sense. We have seen historically, a lot of different types of products. I myself have come from the web hosting industry. My postings started out in the early 1990’s at $30.00 to $40.00 a month. Now it has gone to $95.00 a month, plus you get your business cards, and your lawyer that every single business needs, as a commodity. The entertainment system most definitely becomes a commodity, because it has all of these different things. And then there is Microsoft’s global domination in a sense of the entertainment system, which is actually very good for the consumer I think, but where can you see it?
DD: If you are going to look at commoditization, it means that the value of the hardware actually diminishes. Technology is accelerating in a rhythmic rate, ten times every so often. So just extrapolating to the future, and this is going to sound wild and a little crazy, but I think the hardware is just going to disappear after a while and start moving to cloud models. This is ironic not because Justin is here from Microsoft, but I think Microsoft is probably the most advanced in Live or moving towards the cloud models, where there really is no physical platform. I think that is the future. It is not necessarily multi player games, but if the distribution network becomes all digital, you think about that and it prevents piracy. You do not have to worry about it, because there is nothing to physically copy anymore. So I think that is the ultimate future, where if you have to worry about how much RAM you have and how fast it is, it is just not fast enough yet. It will get there, once we break those barriers. Essentially, the hardware will get so good, it will no longer be around.
TGR: With digital demand, you are going to have to have some piece of hardware of course to interpret the data.
DD: Maybe it is just a controller that you hook up to your monitor. That is my thought into the far future. But you know, predicting the future is like predicting the weather.
TGR: A lot of people are looking to get into the industry. A lot of people do not know how to or they see it and they are just trying in many different ways that are just not working. What would you recommend to the budding young passionate person that either says, “I want to develop video games,” or, “I just want to get into the industry?”
DD: You have to go to school. Certainly, we are creating the Interactive Arts and Science specifically for that and there are really no accredited degrees for game design right now, which is a whole new field that these two can be accredited for. There needs to be some development in that area. But education is your first thing and then apply and do demos and actually just start doing it and get ready to be in the industry. Whether you are in or not and showing that kind of dedication to what you want to do, will get you a job probably.
The industry is very, very selective in some ways; I guess it is hard to crack. From my perspective, you need to understand, that we just did it. I did not apply to another company simply because I wanted to make our own games. But starting your own company these days is a much more different phenomenon than back when I did it with two people and we spent our summer making our first game. Now with games taking hundreds of people, it is just not the same ballgame anymore.
I would recommend definitely going to school and then make some demos and depending on whether you are a programmer, artist, musician; it does not matter. Do whatever you like, but just start working towards and apply at the companies that you think are right for you, because there are very many different companies out there.
TGR: Do you know of any resources off the top of your head where people can get templates of design documents, to find a good place to start?
DD: That does not exist yet.
TGR: Well, I guess we will need to talk about that.
DD: At the Interactive Arts and Sciences, we are starting to create programs to move towards that. We want to get to an accredited degree and hopefully we will get there. We are working actively with Universities and the Governments right now in Ontario, to try and make that happen.
TGR: What would you say is the most memorable event that you have experienced or observed in the industry?
DD: When we were going down to Malibu, we were at a party at a really nice location. I believe the place was in the movie Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang. Nice pool, overlooks PCH, with ocean views. An inebriated guy jumped in the water and was totally soaked. He decided to dry his pants off in the fire pit near the couch. So he takes his pants off, is in underwear, and throws his pants in the fire. Eventually, they burn of course, to his surprise. People were surprised that they burned – which confuses me, because he put his pants in a fire, after all.
Aside from that sort of whimsical story, I think certainly seeing the industry move away from CES get its own E3 and then see E3 kind of shrink to what it is now, and seeing the industry mature, has been one of the most interesting things for me.
TGR: What is your favorite game all time, and it cannot be one that you have ever worked on.
DD: Either Resident Evil 2, or Total Annihilation. I guess Resident Evil is way up there and it is not because of the player, it is actually the story, and the way it is told. I thought it was pretty interesting. I really liked Ultima 3 quite a bit.
TGR: Are you a Zorg fan?
DD: A little bit, but I was not into the text adventures as much as I otherwise would have been. I was more into strategy games at that time and RPG’s. I was playing the Ultima’s rather than the Zorg’s but I did play, and I did like it. But it just was not way out there for me.
TGR: What games are you playing right now?
DD: A lot of Too Human. I have been playing a little bit of Metal Gear Solid which I like a lot, and Solar Empire, which I like a lot. I just look for unique game play and I think it has it. There are a few others, but I have not really been playing that much because of Too Human. Quite frankly, it has been all Too Human mostly.
TGR: Can you tell us something about Too Human that nobody knows about, but probably would care about.
DD: I guess people need to understand the game Too Human a bit more. There is a reason there is not a DPS meter in the game. And when people start asking why and start understanding why that is the case, hopefully it will really show how Too Human is really different.
TGR: Can you tell us if there is a message that you would like to get out to the gamers about Too Human, such as what makes you passionate about the product and the game? What keeps you going every single day on the vision?
DD: We believe video games are the eighth art form. I did a talk recently at MIT where I referred to the fact that film theorists have tagged film as the seventh art. We think game play is the “new blue” that helps converge all these other previous medias together. I am really happy with how we have erased the seams, and put together some very deep game play together with some very deep story telling, audio, art work and technology. The game play really takes a good step towards elevating video games, so that people will accept it as an art form. That is why Too Human is special in our eyes, and why we are really happy with the achievement.
TGR: Do you feel the combat system is quite unique? It definitely does have that DMC4 type feel to it, but do you feel that it is going to be really well received?
DD: I think it has been.
TGR: That it is too easy?
DD: No, actually we have had complaints across the board that it is too hard. The demo has been very well received. We have been looking at the reception; it is way more positive than negative, which is really, really good.
TGR: So it is a lot different than what the press was saying, originally.
DD: Yes, it is. It is significantly more positive in the gamer’s hands, which is good. Some of the press has been extremely positive from the beginning. For some, it is a deep game and it just takes time.
Of course, the press in general, has a really tough go at it. How many games do you have to review and play through to the end? It is insane. It is shows like this that make it even harder, with a couple of hundred games. I think it is really challenging right now for you guys, so I think the fault is in the system, not with the people actually doing the work.
TGR: What are your personal thoughts on the camera?
DD: I really like it; we have a patent pending. I think from the perspective of when we move from 2D games to 3D games, with playing games like Pac-Man and Defender, we never had to worry about the camera. With Mario 64, and Fantastic, we are suddenly controlling the camera at the same time as we are manipulating the character 3D new combat. We added layers of complexity, and I think that actually lost a lot of people for a while.
I think the automated camera is something that is a really good thing for the future. I know there are some people wanting to control it all the time. To me, that is just like when automatic transmissions were introduced into cars. People wanted the power, to be able to feel the gears. With games, they want it exactly tuned to how they play. I get that there are some hard core players, but the average person playing should not have to worry about the camera while they are playing the game. That is the whole goal in Too Human. I think we are very happy with it. We love it.
TGR: Yes, the camera looks beautiful. Like for instance, in moving shots like when the guy walks out on to the bridge and it is going outwards, the camera panning feels like a movie. It has that depth and beauty to it. There are definitely certain times when I think the camera does not need to be there. For example, when you are inside, doing combat, you want to be able to turn and look.
DD: Yes, you want the standard transmission, I get it. When you start to play the game, you start to realize it is like a radar. If there are enemies behind and there is nothing in front, the camera will turn.
TGR: I saw that.
DD: Yes, and once you understand the threat level of the enemies and you play more, you will realize that the camera also works like a threat meter. If there is a missile guy behind you, it will turn and look at the missile guy, even though you are trying to kill the guy, because the missile guy is way more important.
TGR: That is what Justin was saying.
DD: It totally is. It is completely like that and it needs to be like that, because once you become an advanced player and understand how things work, you will like the camera a lot. But when you are first playing and it may seem totally random, it is not. It is just like an automatic transmission; you just have to get used to not doing everything all the time, because it is not in your best interest, until you know.
TGR: So it is all about “try the demo, play the demo, love Too Human.”
DD: That is right, and tell all of your friends to play the demo.
TGR: How has the relationship been with Microsoft?
DD: Good. Always different; every partner is different. Microsoft is very different from Nintendo, but I love the 360; there are a lot of good things going on there.
TGR: Did you ever love the choices in the publishers when you were looking at Too Human?
DD: Yes we did.
TGR: And what would you say the deciding factors were with Microsoft?
DD: They were very enthusiastic about Too Human, and moved very quickly. Ken Law, who used to be at Nintendo, is now at Microsoft. He knew the product, so it was an easy fit and we got along really well. He has been a big champion ever since day one. He is obviously way up in Microsoft now.
TGR: I have heard a lot of great things about him.
DD: Ken is great; he is fantastic.
TGR: We have heard that people who work with Microsoft Game Studios are very open, supportive, and not too restrictive.
DD: No, not [restrictive] at all.
TGR: So that is great. Awesome, thank you for your time.