Asher Einhorn, a freelancer and senior designer for Studio Gobo – a design outlet who worked on games like the Formula One series and the Disney Infinity franchise – has come forward to talk about some of the important issues happening within the AAA design space, the indie space and the gaming industry at large.
Asher Einhorn has worked in the video game industry for more than a decade, putting in time as an engineer, AI scripter and game designer at Studio Gobo. The company has handled contract work for various interactive entertainment projects, including the various add-ons and iterations of Disney Infinity. I was afforded the opportunity to ask Einhorn some questions about his work in the gaming industry, his time working on AAA projects, the stigmas surrounding content creation that has a lot of developers on edge, and what he thinks about the current climate that has the gaming industry enveloped in a lot of controversy at the moment. You can check out the full interview below.
One Angry Gamer: How did you get involved in game design and what made you want to start?
Asher: I think I’ve always been slightly dissatisfied with what’s out there, even as a kid. I always loved games but I wanted to make my own, so I obsessed over their design from a very young age. I think when I was younger I never seriously considered it as a career possibility though.
Later I went to film school, and my books were filled with game design ideas instead of stories for films like they were supposed to be. One day I was playing Portal in my room – I’d played games before that were well made, but this was an experience that was nothing like a film or a book. It was a pure game, and it was clever and funny. it played with your expectations and surprised you in ways you didn’t expect. The next day I quit film school and enrolled on a course teaching game programming.
OAG: You’ve worked on the Disney Infinity franchise but was this something you really wanted to do or was it more of an opportunity to be a part of an AAA project?
Asher: Well I was already at the studio as a programmer when we got the Disney contract. Before that we were doing F1 – I’ve always hated simulation games so I was happy to move on to something else, especially a 3rd person game which is my favorite format.
The project itself was a really interesting one for me. For one thing I made the transition from programmer to mission scripter and eventually designer. The other thing that made it interesting was more subtle and was all about learning how to design for someone other than yourself.
I think as someone who has loved games for a long time, my ideas always revolved around what I would personally like to see in a game. When you’re working on a kids game, you don’t have this luxury. You have to do a lot of research and playtesting to see how kids think differently. Eventually you really learn to see through their eyes, and it becomes an extremely satisfying process to be able to develop something that an entirely different group of people will love. Especially kids, who have such brilliant an extreme reactions to things.
OAG: You’ve worked with character animation, AI and general game design, is there a particular field that you enjoy most when working on a game?
Asher: I have a real love for AI and character design, being able to create these things that have a life of their own is incredibly satisfying. Not only that but you get to work with concept art, 3D and animation very closely. Personally I always like being able to work with the more artistic disciplines in a studio – it’s something I love but really can’t do myself. The best feeling is when you see your designs come to life in a way you couldn’t imagine because everyone around you is so talented.
There are so many other aspects of design I could talk about, and that’s really what’s great about being a designer – your work touches every part of development. Everything’s linked. The core mechanics of a game affects the level design, which in turn affects enemy design and so on. I do think though it’s the core of a game – the combat systems, the enemies, the real low-level DNA that appeals to me the most. Something about solving these fundamental design problems is what I end up obsessing over.
In many ways I think it’s harder to be someone like a level designer – they have to take this DNA and think of ways to vary it – create a rising, falling narrative out of the systems you design to keep the player interested. I think that’s a real art.
OAG: Switching gears a bit… working in the AAA space a lot of it seems to be centering around contract work, especially for artists and those with specialty design skills. Do you find it difficult to navigate the employment field within the gaming industry given that contract work could be short or long, or do you enjoy being able to move to different projects and get a taste of something new every so often?
Asher: Full-time employees often find themselves with not much to do one month, and then completely slammed the next. This is probably a production issue but it’s also down to how things have to sync up. modelers can’t create characters until they’re concepted, animators can’t animate until the characters are rigged. We’re constantly trying to find ways to run all these tasks in parallel, but the truth is it’s just not always possible.
As a designer, and formally a programmer, I’ve been lucky to work in disciplines that often offer full-time work. It’s usually art that exists on a contract basis. I think as tools get better this will lessen – art right now represents the greatest amount of work in a production by far. You often have to drastically expand the art team to finish a project and then the project ends and so do those contracts. If you look at something like No Man’s Sky, you can begin to see where this might go. They have far less artists on their team because their technical artists are so good. Their tools can turn one artist into a hundred. Then an artist becomes more like the artistic director of a small portion of the game.
OAG: I know this subject is somewhat fragile territory in the gaming industry… but the games media really went on a rip against gamers during the later half of 2014. How did your peers in the studio, where you worked, react to the way games media attacked their own audience? Or did they react at all?
Asher: The truth is that these teams don’t exist in a bubble. As gamers we’ve all played games and been baffled as to why a certain design decision has been made. When you start working in these companies you realize that pretty much everyone agrees, but their hands are tied often by time constraints or by restrictive licensing with the IP owners.
The real truth is that it’s still painful to read a negative review, even if you do agree with everything it says. You put your name on something and when it does things you don’t agree with, and then those things get called out, it feels pretty frustrating. Just like any kind of bad news, I think there’s simply a group effort to suck it up and move on.
We also ran postmortems to pick apart what we felt went wrong, and those are always a thousand times more harsh and cutthroat than any review. When you work on something you can only ever see the flaws. It takes a year or two for you to regain the clarity to really see your work with fresh eyes, and appreciate it like a consumer would.
I also think that even developers want critics to stay unbiased. It’s common industry knowledge that there are a few big games companies that blackmail critics into giving them good scores, telling them that if they rate anything below a certain score they will never again receive advanced review copies. It’s frustrating to know this when you work for a company that operates honestly.
OAG: The past year, for gamers, it seems like they’ve had to deal a lot with their own media outlets turning every subject into a political debate, creating an atmosphere where everyone has to walk on eggshells in comment sections and discussion threads. Has anything changed, from what you know, with how studios are approaching the process of creating story content or designing characters to avoid getting caught in the political crosshairs of a media brigade looking to cash in on outrage culture?
Asher: Internally it’s actually all been entirely positive. People who just didn’t think about issues of gender for example are starting to try and design in a way that feels equal to everyone.
I think the thing about these issues is that they are actually quite complicated to understand when it comes down to it, because things like misogyny are so engrained in our society in so many subtle ways. The fact that all of this is now a talking point is only a good thing. I do think sometimes it does swing the other way though – people start accusing everything of being sexist when in fact many things aren’t, but that’s to be expected. At the moment as an industry we’re children trying to understand a concept – when we first get it we take it too far.
It’s also about context. In the wake of an event, you have to be more sensitive. Eventually this calms down and you can begin to explore darker themes – people start to realize that the characters you write don’t necessarily echo your own feelings. As far as the media cashing in on all this, well yeah – personally I try and practice the art of trying to block out most of the internet as a matter of course. There’s a lot of noise out there.
OAG: From some of the developers I’ve been talking with over the past couple of months, some don’t worry about the content creation process and they plan on doing things the way they’ve always done things. Others seem to be fearful about how they approach game design because they fear that they could end being smeared by some of the bigger sites with an agenda to push. From where you stand in the industry, do you ever look at potential projects you could work on and worry about attaching your name to something that might draw the wrong kind of attention or are you up for anything that fits your interest, regardless of the content?
Asher: Actually that issue is at the forefront of more developers minds than you might realise. There is a stigma attached to things like social, free-to-play and mobile games. There’s a saying in the industry – once you go mobile there’s no coming back, referring to how it’s very difficult to transtion from mobile back to console development. At the same time there are countless design jobs posted only for people with free-to-play experience for example. It does seem like the industry is split into sectors that are very hard to move between. I’ve certainly turned down many mobile contracts because I know it won’t help me move my career towards where I want to be.
As far as content creation goes – I think there is still a place for traditional game models. At least I hope there is! I do think AAA needs to change though, and it is. If you look at a game like Adrift, that looks fantastic and it’s made by four or five people who don’t even live in the same city. New tools like UE4 make it possible for small teams to make great looking stuff. It’s a double edged sword in some ways though. On the plus we may see an end to unwieldy teams of literally thousands, but on the downside this means less jobs – although if that then means more small studios making more interesting games, that’s a great thing.
I think we’re seeing the end of our equivalent of the Hollywood studio system where huge teams make big games and aren’t willing to take risks with the story or design for fear of alienating their audience. People are getting bored of these kinds of games.
OAG: For future projects, are you allowed to say anything about what you’re working on next or is that top secret stuff?
Asher: Some of it’s secret, some not so much. One thing we’re exploring at the moment is a way to start a studio without getting tied up with publishers. Often a studio will begin by doing contract work, but what usually happens is that your company becomes so reliant on that money that they can’t then make the break to make their own game. At the moment we’re seeing if we can build parts of our game and release them separately as building blocks for other devs, and use that money to jump start us into indie life. Until then it’s the usual two jobs at the same time, fueled by coffee and a never-dying geeky passion for computer games!
The only thing I will say is that we really believe games in the future will revolve around meaningful interactions with the AI – characters that interact in far more interesting ways that simply shooting at you. We think we’ve got somewhere pretty interesting with this. Think Journey but AI controlled rather than multiplayer.
OAG: For the people out there looking to break into the industry or the indie devs looking to take their skills to the next level, do you have any advice for them and what steps they can take to further their career in the gaming industry?
Asher: One thing that’s really important as a AAA dev, is to make something really standard. As a young designer I would have rejected this advice, but the sooner you can get on board with it the better. The reason being is that you need to show the big studios you can make what they want, but there is a more important reason.
By emulating what’s been around for such a long time you learn an incredible amount – about level design, mission design, encounter flow and so on. You have to learn the rules before you can break them.
As an indie I have some more advice people may not like – In order to be successful your game has to be on trend, original, and a little bit mainstream. The fact is that everything that’s successful follows this pattern. It’s really a balancing act. If something is completely off the wall you run the risk of alienating your audience, if it’s like everything else it will bore people.
And of course – make sure you’re development budget matches who you target at. Cartoony games are great, but they will have a smaller audience so don’t make a cell-shaded MMO (Rest in peace, Wildstar).
(Huge thanks to Asher Einhorn for answering the questions. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about those top secret projects when the time is right. )
(Main image courtesy of Studio Gobo)