I had a fan connect me with a very interesting person on Twitter the other day, who turned out to be a talented developer who’s worked on major AAA games in the past. You’ve probably heard of if not played a game he’s worked on so, despite our site being all about the “niche games”, the opportunity to speak with someone from the “AAA scene” was exciting.
Thankfully, Christian Allen (pictured above in the black TAKEDOWN shirt with the rest of the devs at Serellan) was very gracious and gave me some time out of his schedule so I could fire some thoughtful questions his way regarding #GamerGate, his experiences in the AAA industry, and the games industry/culture as a whole. I hope you guys enjoy the interview as much as I did!
Niche Gamer: I’d like you to introduce yourself. I understand you’ve primarily worked on AAA games? Could you give us some hints as to what games/companies you’ve worked for?
Christian Allen: I started in games in the late 1990s, modding for the Rainbow Six games. I worked myself up from Assistant Designer on Ghost Recon: Island Thunder to Creative Director on Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, with follow ups like GRAW2, Halo: Reach, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, TAKEDOWN: Red Sabre, and more at Ubisoft, Bungie, Warner Brother Games, and my own studio, Serellan LLC. My background is in the military, serving the USMC/USAFNG/USANG.
NG: So you seem familiar with #GamerGate and all of the current happenings in the movement. What are your thoughts on the entire thing? Are pro-GamerGate folks a bunch of cis/white/misogynists?
Allen: First off, no, #GamerGaters are not all anti-feminist misogynists. Just like all #BundyRanch supporters are not all redneck hicks and #Occupy supporters are not all hipster iPhone reading millennials. Modern social media seems to excel at typecasting and dividing people into groups in order to subjugate actual conversation, I think because it rewards the most vocal and extreme voices in each group. If you can trumpet the cause more, you get rewarded more. If you are moderate and measured, you are ignored.
The #GamerGate situation seems to be a mix to me. I see folks who advocate for fairness in gaming journalism, and then I see giant dicks acting like douchebags against certain folks in the game industry (or people who talk about the games industry). As a game dev, it’s kind of a confusing situation. I think the problem is that every time some douchebag goes off the rail and attacks a feminist or a journalist, it gets more press than any sane discussion about the relationship between game publishers and developers and the press who review them.
I could apply a lot of the same criticism of the games press as I could of the car press or the firearms press, but you don’t see the same level of vitriol and personal attacks in those communities. No one is doxing the designer of the Remington R51 or making fun of the designer of the latest Kia because their dog died. At some point in the games community (on both sides of this debate, as shown by the recent Stardock kerfuffle), things crossed over from institutional to personal. Meanwhile the big publishers, the big media corps, and their PR shills sit back and continue to reap the benefits.
We need to discuss ideas, not attack people.
NG: Do you think a legitimate concern for collusion and breaching of ethics at major gaming publications/developers is warranted?
Allen: Yes. Gaming journalism is fucked up. There are folks in game journalism who really want to make games but don’t have the talent, so they get into “journalism” to create a presence, and once they have enough of a following, publishers hire them to be developers, writers, or community managers. I didn’t come up that way. I came up by making game content. I believe that is how you should do it. That being said, there are real games journalists out there, who are actual journalists … they just tend to be rare.
But today, game “journalists” are the stars, even more than the few handpicked games “rock stars”. Put me in a room with Geoff Keighley, or Steven Totillo, or TotalBiscuit, guess who is recognized. It’s like the opposite of sports where sports stars retire to cover games because they are famous football stars. So journalists really want to be in the industry, so they can’t be real journalists, or else they’ll screw their future. It’s like if the Watergate duo really wanted to work for Richard Nixon in the future. It’s a screwed system.
NG: How do you feel about the “gamers are dead” articles? Is there substance to that argument, or are they purely a bait for pushing an agenda?
Allen: Even with my friends who are gamers who tire of the “gamergate” drama, this whole idea of “gamers are dead” makes us want to puke. Regardless of what you think of the gamer culture, there still will be the pro-gamers playing League of Legends, the cos-players dressing as Resident Evil characters, and the Twitchers streaming Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Has any of this drama reduced this? No. Gaming evolves, like it always had. My wife and daughter spend more time playing Haystack or whatever it’s called every week than I spend playing AAA games. My daughter is more of a gamer than I was at her age. She is playing interactive social games while I was outside playing in the dirt on a mountain in Alaska.
NG: A bit off topic, but do you think people who don’t play video games should be embraced as critics of them? Does their lack of experience invalidate their arguments?
Allen: You have to at least experience games to be qualified to discuss them. I’ve testified in court cases where lawyers try and argue about video games, and it is obvious they have never touched one, and it’s incredibly easy to dismantle their arguments, because they base their arguments on things they’ve read. It’s like trying to argue with Roger Ebert if you had never watched a movie. You see the same stupid shit in the evangelical communities, where people want to ban an Oliver Stone movie without ever seeing it. Or the NRA holding up a copy of Mortal Kombat.
I have a friend who is a child psychologist. She is a great child psychologist. She is an expert in dealing with kids. But she doesn’t know crap about video games, and still clings to the old “Grand Theft Auto is bad” take on video games. She is as qualified to talk about video games as I am to talk about Twilight‘s effect on tweens. And I have no fucking clue on what effect glittery rapey vampires have on teenage women. So yeah, that is stupid.
NG: Do you think the Independent Games Festival and similar award ceremonies are all glorified sales/networking events? Should gamers even pay attention to them anymore?
Allen: Yes, ignore them.
NG: As a AAA developer, have you ever experienced not receiving a bonus due to a game not being scored “appropriately,” or receiving a high enough Metacritic score? What are your thoughts on this?
Allen: I have not personally experienced this, but I have had fellow game devs that experienced this. A friend in the industry had his bonus based on an 80 Metacritic. He got a 79. He got denied his bonus. This is bullshit because Metacritic is not a real system. It’s a bullshit system based on nothing, except what Metacritic wants. Fuck Metacritic.
NG: The recent blacklist that the International Game Developers Association curiously supported got a lot of concern and backlash. How do you feel about their support of it?
Allen: I have to admit I have not been part of the IDGA for the last few years. So I can’t comment, except to say that I think the IGDA has become increasingly irrelevant among game devs. It’s a group for students and academia, in my honest opinion. I don’t really know what they do now.
NG: How often do gaming publications (big and small) collude with developers for review scores, or exclusives? Is this more common than the public could ever foresee?
Allen: I have personally sat in negotiations where a publisher negotiated a higher review score for a game in exchange for an exclusive cover or assets for a separate upcoming game. It is common, especially with previews. This is why you often see glowing previews of bad games, or pre-release reviews that have to be revised post-launch.
NG: Some outspoken people in GamerGate say that women have trouble getting into the games industry. You’ve worked on many games. Do you think that there is a real avoidance of hiring women in the games industry?
Allen: I’ve worked with tons of talented women in the game industry, both those that worked (directly and indirectly) for me and those that I’ve worked for. I don’t personally think that women have a higher bar of entry into the mainstream games industry than me, in fact on most interview loops I’ve been on about women the general attitude is that it’s a plus, because studios are actively trying to increase diversity and broaden appeal, and see the opportunity to hire a qualified woman to the team as a big bonus.
However, that’s not to say that women in the industry don’t face challenges, just like they do in any modern field. I know women who have been sexually harassed at work or at parties, and a lot of young male game developers can be lewd. I’ve had to deal with gamers commenting on the looks of some of my female employees in the past, and that is annoying (no one says I’m hot when I do an interview!).
I think things may be worse in the younger tech startup scene, but in AAA game dev it seems pretty average compared to the rest of America. Now, I might be biased because in most of my gaming career the executives or producers that I’ve worked for have been as often as not women, so in their organizations they won’t put up with that shit.
NG: Is the games industry really as small as many indie developers make it out to be?
Allen: It’s a pretty tight circle. It’s rare to go to an industry event and not talk to someone who doesn’t at least know someone I’ve worked with. But, there are tens of thousands of workers around the world.
NG: Many indie developers in GamerGate say that there’s a clique within the games industry and games media. Is this something you’ve noticed?
Allen: Yes, there are definitely cliques in the industry with certain members. I’ve been in and out, and know folks who have been in and out.
NG: What are your thoughts on the GameJournoPros mailing list/group? Is it at all acceptable that game journalist can collude together like that, i.e. decide to cover a story or not, or what actions should taken with an employee?
Allen: It’s really quite creepy. Any time journalists from any community are getting together and self-censoring, I don’t believe it’s a good thing. Competition in a journalist community should not be about regulating a message, it should who can get the best scoop in what the readership values as news.
NG: How do you feel about youtubers? Are they the new games journalists?
Allen: Well they definitely have become an important part. The trouble is, as with bloggers when they began to replace magazines, there is a danger that they will be absorbed into the games media circles once they reach a certain audience level. Then they will be flying on junkets, going to parties, and having the same motivations to “cut slack” or promote certain products and messages.
NG: Do you think that any game should be censored or banned from being purchased?
Allen: There is only one reason a game should be banned from sale: if it steals copyrighted content. Other than that, no. If you disagree with a game or a developer, don’t buy it. If you don’t like Glenn Beck, don’t buy his books. But you don’t get to tell Glenn Beck that he can’t write books, and he can’t tell me not to publish video games. Well, he can, but I can tell him to sit on it and spin.
NG: Are games themselves sexist by nature? Do games actually cause people to become violent or sexist?
Allen: Of course they aren’t. Are books sexist by nature? But that doesn’t mean that there are not sexist games, nor does it mean games necessarily cater to women in the way that some people would like.
In GRAW, we ended up cutting female characters from MP (we added them back in, in GRAW2). The producers made the call, based on time (money), resources (money), and technical reasons (money), it wasn’t feasible. I wasn’t happy with this (I had previously said publicly that they would be in), but I couldn’t make the call. Production looked at the cost, and looked at the demographic split, and made the call. On Halo Reach, I had to have the exact same discussion.
I wanted a fully playable female character, but there was pushback from a development and resource perspective of whether it was worth it based on the audience. I felt it was. Luckily it stayed in the game, and Noble 6 could be played as yourself, whether you were male or female. But it was still a decision that was made based on positive impact vs technical and resource impact (a lot easier when you have the Halo budget vs the Ghost Recon budget).
As far as games content, it really is subjective. Is God of War sexist? Is the movie Conan sexist? Is GTA ok if I can also beat a male hooker to death after having sex with him to get my money back? Is it sexist if I make a WWI trench warfare game that does not contain female playable characters? You can go on and on. What is sexist is subjective. Should we censor what you believe is sexist? NO. But if there is no market for it, it won’t exist.
NG: Are supporters of Gamergate in danger of getting blacklisted, and or not having a chance in the gaming industry?
Allen: The problem is, that legitimate Gamergate folks interested in quality game journalism are getting lumped in with a bunch of douchebags who are acting like douchebags and pissing everyone off. I think maybe it’s at a point where a new call to action is needed. Stop empowering whiners who get attacked by idiots on the internet, and get rid of the idiots. Create a new movement to empower gamers.
The whole discussion is confused, between game journalism, feminism, liberalism, masculinity, etc. It’s a mess, and to an outsider, it looks like a bunch of people screaming at each other over nothing.
But to your question, no, unless you have personally done or said something wrong, I doubt anyone in the mainstream industry would even know what the hell is going on or notice.
NG: What should GamerGate do as a movement to have a real impact on the games industry? The press?
Allen: Well, I do think it may be time for a rebranding. Most of my game dev friends have tuned out GG because they associate it with internet trolls (and game devs deal with a LOT of trolls over the years doing stupid shit), and if they have, they are just going to ignore them. Also, the semantics kind of suck. A “-gate” normally refers to an event of controversy, not a movement. It’s like saying, are you “pro-Watergate” or “anti-watergate”. It’s just confusing.
NG: What advice do you have for gamers (pro-GamerGate or not) looking for better standards and more enforced ethics?
Allen: Stop going to the standard sites that fill your feed with advertisements. Stop eating the bull. Reach out and look to alternative sites. Form your own opinions. Support devs who support gamers. Don’t join a “side”. Be objective. Don’t be branded.
I’d like to thank Christian for giving me the chance to conduct this interview, I hope it came out as good as we all hoped? I also want to thank one of our fans, Refvgee, for getting me in contact with Christian in the first place. Thanks dude! Hopefully the more interviews we have which give devs a chance to speak openly, without fear of trolls and hate, the more we can as a gaming community tackle these issues, together.