Game Theory

[In this second part of my autobiographical exploration of how I ended up at Respawn, I want to focus on the influence of games – and video games in particular – on how I came to make something that I’ve always loved to do. Part 1 explored the importance of characters through the lens of books and comic books. And Part 3 will examine the influence of engineering.]

Peeling The Onion. Part 2.

I have a lot of indelible memories of spending time with Simon Whitfield. Epic training sessions where we pushed each other beyond what we thought was possible. We are doing N reps, where N is a number… Crazy adventures that turned agonizing suffering into extraordinary experiences. Let’s ride to the top of Snowbowl in a blizzard… And, of course, seeing him win that silver medal in Beijing. But I also remember playing Rainbow Six: Vegas late – way too late – into the evenings with him on XBox, hunting down yet another terrorist cell. We did a lot of training together. But we also played a lot of games too. In 2006, when I lived in his basement for a big training block over the summer, we played a ton of GoldenEye on N64. I remember playing Settlers of Catan for hours online when we weren’t at training camp together. Simon loves games for some reasons that are quite different than mine. While I primarily love the tactics, I think Simon loves them for the adventure. But we both love them for the competition. And the camaraderie.

One of the enduring lessons Simon taught me was to make work into play. That meant something different to each of us – my sense of play is what drove a lot of my technical approach to the sport. When I think about what makes games so special, and when I think about the truly enormous impact they’ve had in my life, I feel grateful to have first found my way into a role as a professional athlete where I got to play games as work, and now into roles where I get to make them.

Gamification is an unfortunately overused and abused word. It’s come to be a substitute for basically anything that abuses the brain’s dopamine reward system in response to “progress” or “achievement.” (Brief tangent – this is a big reason why the “quantified self” movement is so problematic; sleep tracking, for example, has been shown to decrease sleep quality because of anxiety about what the tracking will reveal.) But that’s not how I think about games. When I think about games, I think specifically about puzzles and problems to be solved within a defined and formal structure. Rules matter. While I realize that solving a puzzle does indeed trigger an internal biochemical reward, I think there’s an important distinction between actual complex and analytical thought and simply pulling a literal or figurative slot machine lever.

Really great games – and I’ve been playing games for most of my life – make you genuinely work for that reward. They make you earn it. Early on, earning it sometimes meant just waiting for the game to boot up. Growing up we had a Commodore 64, and I remember waiting an hour or so to load Centipede off of the tape deck drive. We had an Atari 2600, and I remember playing Space Invaders and Pitfall and so many of the classics. (My sister was an outstanding PacMan player; I was not.) We grew up in Tokyo until I was 9, finally moving back to the USA in 1989. As a gamer, this was awesome. We had the Family Computer (aka FamiCom), complete with Disk System! And 3-D Goggles! The Japanese version was particularly remarkable because the Disk System facilitated the early release of some pretty remarkable and iconic games like Metroid. Video games are – and always have been – on another level in Japan. But my exposure to gaming wasn’t just via video games; we also played a lot of board games.

My family has a cabin on a small lake in upstate New York. And it’s a real cabin. Outdoor plumbing. Outdoor shower. No TV. Lots of books. And lots of board games. Backgammon, Parcheesi, UNO, Pick Up Sticks, Connect Four (my sister was – and is – a shark), Monopoly, Scrabble, and more. Bridge was a regular game among the “adults,” though I remember learning the basics and being competent enough to not embarrass my grandmother. Board games are a common occurrence in my household still. We play many of the same games – UNO is a favorite of my kids – as well as some new ones. There’s something beautiful about “analog” games that I appreciate even more now.

I loved playing games, but I don’t know that I would have described myself as a gamer until I got the first PlayStation. Gaming was entertaining, but it wasn’t immersive. At least not until I got Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider was special for a bunch of reasons. It was incredibly immersive, blending action with puzzle solving. And, most importantly, it centered around a true protagonist. Lara Croft is a character that you care about. When you play Tomb Raider, you are Lara Croft. The other game for PlayStation that I fell in love with was Tekken. Tekken resonated with me in a way that Street Fighter never did. I never thought about why I loved Tekken – and didn’t really like Street Fighter – until I started thinking about Apex. And the importance of characters. Tekken was immersive to me from a storyline perspective in a way that Street Fighter just wasn’t. (I know there are a ton of people who are passionate about the Street Fighter characters, and – along similar lines – the Mortal Kombat characters. Again, my assertion is that even though character doesn’t really have an impact on the gameplay of a fighting game, it matters… a lot.)

PlayStation was really the first time that I experienced losing myself in games. I remember playing the first Resident Evil at night and being legitimately afraid. I’d always played games, but it was PlayStation that turned me into a gamer. I got my PlayStation around the same time that I discovered one of the other most iconic and influential games in my life – Magic: The Gathering. Magic came out when I was in high school, and it was a revelation. The architecting of decks and strategy was something I’d never experienced in any other game. I played a lot of Magic. I still have my mono-red deck (complete with an Unlimited-series Gauntlet of Might). I had an awesome legends deck too, but it got stolen out of my backpack, one of the most traumatizing experiences in my life to that point. Legends had a special something that mono-red just never did. Mono-red was strong, but my legends deck was alive. But then near the end of my sophomore year, I really discovered my love of sport, and gaming went back to being something that I just did to fill the time. It stopped being a part of who I was. At least in any meaningful way.

In college, I discovered Diablo, and it was the thing that kept me sane as I recovered from mono my freshman year. Diablo reminded me of the best parts of Tomb Raider, but with added complexity. But it was really Diablo II, which came out of my junior year, that really brought me back to being a gamer once again. I don’t know how many hours I spent playing D2. Enough that my girlfriend at the time almost broke up with me. And I probably shaved at least a few decimal points off of my GPA. But I was hooked. That was the first game that I would say I truly loved. And once I found that, I never again really let go of gaming as a part of who I was.

The Metroid reboot for the Nintendo GameCube was how I survived my first year out of college, lost in the perhaps inevitable “What now?” that comes after graduation. (That game reminds me a lot of Titanfall 2, which is what really got me excited about working at Respawn.) The concept of “metroidvania” games isn’t something I learned about until recently, but having discovered it as a concept, I understand now what it was that hooked me. When I became a game designer for Zwift, I knew I needed to work to understand it as a discipline and a profession, and that introspection and investigation taught me a lot about why I loved the games I did. And, I hope, a bit about how to create that same engagement and immersion in the games I work on.

The XBox 360 was my first experience with HD gaming. Because I have pretty much always been a Mac user, I never really experienced great graphics until then. I know for PC gamers it might seem odd that a console system was my first exposure to great graphics, but c’est la vie. Gears of War remains an iconic game as worthy of a complete playthrough now as it was then. Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon were my first exposure to tactical gameplay, and that remains a passion of mine. I think that’s the engineer in me. How do I “construct” a solution? That’s what great tactical gameplay is all about. The thing that I love most about Apex Legends is that it is highly tactical. Like any FPS, it rewards reflexes and shooting skill, but it also rewards tactics much more than “twitch” games such as Call of Duty do.

Apex is certainly the most “twitchy” of any game I’ve ever played in depth, but it has enough tactics that I still love it. Certainly when gameplay becomes too twitchy, like when you have a teammate who decides to hot drop you, I dislike it, but the characters are good enough and there is enough emphasis on tactics that I keep coming back for more. I’m also becoming (slowly) a much better FPS player. My first season – Season 5 – in Apex, my KDR (Kill-to-Death-Ratio) was 0.20. It’s hovering around 0.40 in Season 7, and that’s playing mostly in ranked. Before deciding to go into ranked, I was hovering around 0.75. Nothing great, but it’s going in the right direction. One of these seasons, I’ll break 1.0…

Fundamentally, though, I’m an RPG player. The only FPS other than Apex that I’ve loved has been Borderlands. While Borderlands calls itself a looter-shooter – and it is, I love Borderlands for the RPG elements. The skill trees. The character classes. That’s what make the game to me. And I will maintain that no other game matches it for richness of storyline, the character complexity, the gunplay, and the inimitable art style. I have a Hyperion t-shirt that, when someone recognizes it, is a sign of true kinship. If you don’t know what the Hyperion Corporation is – or why their guns are the best – you’re missing out.

The XBox 360 also made me fall back in love with the Diablo franchise. I’ve played well over a thousand hours of Diablo III on XBox 360 and XBox One. Thankfully, I missed out on a lot of the early missteps in the game and only picked it up once the Reaper of Souls expansion was released and fixed almost everything that was bad about the game and turned it into the iconic franchise it has become. D3 is what really turned me into an RPG gamer. And it was D3 that, more than any other game, really made me start thinking about how games work.

One of the best things about becoming a professional Game Designer was that it opened it up the world behind games to me for the first time. I’d always loved games, but I never really thought about how they were built. I very easily could have ended up in gaming much earlier, except that I never considered it as a career. Not long after starting at Zwift, I read Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for Game Design and Chris Crawford’s The Art of Computer Game Design, two seminal works on the subject by two of the most iconic and influential game designers to ever work in the industry; Chris Crawford, in particular, has become a bit of a muse to me. My application for the role at Zwift contained a lot of D3 references. And I continue to believe that Zwift is – fundamentally – an MMORPG that has a lot more in common with games of that genre than it does with racing games like Forza. With that said, it was a great experience to play Forza not just as a gamer, but also as a game designer, and to spend a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of what Forza does well and how they create the experiences they do.

When I started thinking about leaving Zwift, I knew I wanted to stay in games. But as I said in Part 1 of this story, characters and storyline matter a lot to me. While I applied for a few jobs, the two games that really resonated with me the most were Riot’s Legends of Runeterra, which brought me back to my Magic days by incorporating the incredible storylines and rich characters of Riot’s League of Legends universe, and Respawn’s Apex Legends. I didn’t actually realize until now that both games have the word “legends” in the title, but given what I believe about the importance of character, this is not at all surprising. Life can often lead you in the right direction, even if you don’t realize it until you look back.

COVID has presented a great many challenges to society, and none more impactful than the loss of life. But one the other great and enduring challenges is the isolation that is has inflicted on so many. The thing that has kept me connected to so many people over the past six-plus months has been gaming. Gaming has been how I have stayed connected with friends. The power of games as a medium has been one of the enduring lessons of this time. I never really understood the appeal of Twitch until COVID; but now I see the power of that community. While I’m a loner, I am not a hermit. And gaming has kept me becoming so. The most powerful aspect of Zwift is its value as a form of community, not as training tool, something which has become obvious in the months since March. And when I think about starting a new job working entirely remotely, the thing that gives me confidence is that playing the game that we all work on together is a core part of Respawn’s culture. Play tests happen every single day. Some of this is how you find bugs or get a sense for how design tweaks and changes feel. But it’s also how you build – and maintain – culture. And when I think about starting this job from my home office rather than showing up at an office and working side by side, this is what gives me hope that I’ll be able to truly become a part of Respawn and the Apex Legends team. A great deal of work takes place at a computer, sitting (or standing) at a desk. But there’s also a critical part of it that takes place in The Outlands. And I’m looking forward to both.

[In the final part of this three-part mini-autobiography, I’ll talk about engineering and its role in my life as both a discipline and as a way of thinking about the world.]

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