Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Exclusinterview: Scott Harber! (Again!)

Image from twitter.com
As you may know, I interviewed Scott a while back prior to the release of the first episode of his fast-paced racing game Chaos Ride, which, so far, is the only game we've reviewed to get a 5/5 rating. Now, Scott's back with us, and with the third episode of Chaos Ride in development, we decide to reflect on his 11-year career so far, talking about why Burnout 3 is the best racing game ever and what he would've been were it not for gaming. Probably something else.

Anyways, on with (Hope they're not generic) questions!

Gadgets and Khajiits: You've had a long and illustrious career, developing many Triple A games, while recently giving your career a rebirth and moving to indie developing. Which developing style did you prefer?

Scott Harber: If only it were that simple! As ever, there is no one development technique to rule them all.

Case in point - AAA development is a slow but powerful beast. Prototyping is slow, design change are massively expensive, team sizes can span multiple continents , huge marketing budgets lead to immovable deadlines, and the whole machine is so large that it needs to sell millions just to survive. But at the same time, only a AAA team can deliver on sheer scale and complexity. For example, something like "The Last of Us" could only ever come from a AAA development process.

On the other hand, Indie development is the exact opposite of this. The small team sizes and simpler game styles ensure that getting a game on the screen and making it fun is very easy, but, to be blunt, most indie games are retro platformers for a reason. The diminished scope makes development quick, but it also makes development small and simplistic.

As a purely personal preference, I favour the indie development style over AAA, purely because the actual work is closer to why developers get into games creation in the first place.

GAK: Having developed games for 11 years, it's safe to say that it's your thing. When did you realize that you could have a career as a developer?

SH: Haha, I don't think I've realized that yet!

I was originally trained as a computer graphics artist, who just happened to come into games. Since then, depending on my mood at the time, I would have different opinions on what being a developer meant to me. Sometimes it was just a job, sometimes it felt like an abusive relationship, and sometimes it felt like a genuine privilege. But it wasn't until June 2007 that I took a step back from it all and thought "Yeah, I've got this. This could totally be my thing from now on!". Not that anything particularly noteworthy happened that day, I had just literally noticed how capable I had become, and how content I was in doing the work.

GAK: You've developed a lot of games that are considered some of the greatest, games like Burnout 3: Takedown (The best racing game of all time, in my opinion) and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, but which of the games you worked on was your favorite?

SH: Burnout 3. Easily. (Edit: GET IN!!)

There's just something so pure about that game. The Need for Speeds were always pre-occupied with being stylish. Burnout Paradise went out of its way to be inventive, and Burnout Revenge spent a lot of time trying to look serious, but Burnout 3 was a game with no pretenses and no objective other than being as fun as possible.

The speeds were completely unrealistic, every car handled like a stone on water, the physics made cars crumple like tin foil, the controls were dumbed-down to "hold down the boost button and the track will guide you around the corners" and the crashes commonly had cars flying 50ft into the air. Because of all this (not in spite of it) the game was totally awesome.

The whole thing was built around pure, shameless joy. The art-style was aggressively arcadey in all the right ways. The feeling of dodging a speeding car and taking first place can all happen in less than a second, but always make you feel amazing as you did it. And most of all, it was a game in which it was impossible to lose. The game rewarded you with HUD messages every time you so much as touched the controller. If you crashed your car, you could use the aftertouch to grief the other players as they drove past you. If you failed to win the race, you'd still unlock three cars and a trophy anyway!

It was a game that knew what it was, and went out of its way to be the best possible version of that. I still play it regularly to this day, and it still heavily influences the stuff I make. (Rocket Drop's high-contrast textures and impossibly blue skies are a clear nod to B3's art style, and Chaos Ride's gameplay is basically a love-letter to Burnout's sense of speed)

GAK: Did you have any personal favorite game developers growing up? And has a new favorite emerged? 

SH: I've never had a favorite game developer. I have favorite games, and I have favorite aspects of games that I feel inspired by, but I've never been so specific as to have a favorite developer. It's always been a bit of a pet hate of mine, because outside of hardcore indie development, the success of any one product is never down to one person.

Typically, a great game will release, the audience will invariably attribute the greatness of that game to whoever they see doing the interviews. Not to take away from teh achievements of notable developers, but behind every auteur game designer is an army of extremely talented yet completely anonymous individuals making that person look good.

If every gamer was truly drilled-down into the part of a game they love, and then try to attribute that to the individual who created it, they would likely find that their favorite developer is someone they never heard of.

GAK: If you weren't a game developer, where do you think you would be, what industry would you be in?

SH: I don't know, really! Games was something that I sort of fell into, but now I can't really imagine doing anything else. For me, plan A was always to become an animator (as soon as I found out cartoons weren't real, and that people got paid to draw them all day, I thought I'd found my calling!). But then outsourcing hit the animation industry in a big way during the 90s, to the point where there is no animation industry in the west anymore. So I went into computer graphics instead, with no real preference fro either games or film. The games industry just reached me first!

GAK: Last of all, you're currently working on Oculus Rift support for your lightning-quick racer Chaos Ride, and you've developed a Google Cardboard version of Rocket Drop. Do you think that VR is here to stay, and if so what genre will dominate it?

SH: It could go either way, to be honest. In every console generation, the industry has one big idea that it fixates on. The PS3/X360/Wii era was all about motion controls, and the Xbox/PS2/GameCube era was about online, and prior to that, polygons were the new and cool thing! Sometimes the industry's exciting new obsessions stick around and become commonplace, but sometimes they don't

Personally, I hope VR is here to stay, because it means that we as an industry can finally deliver on the promises that we made back in 1990! Twenty-five years ago, we were promised awesome cyberspace immersion and were given rubbish pixelated triangles with choppy framerates. By contrast, last week I made an immersive virtual reality experience using a telephone and a cardboard box.

In terms of the genres that will be best for it – I don't think those genres have been invented yet. When developers are given new hardware to play with, the first wave of titles are inevitably attempts at porting old ideas to the new technology (for reference, consider the transition to HD, or how the transition from pixels to 3D affected game design on a fundamental level). With VR, that's where we are now. 
Everyone has already figured out that first person games work really well in VR, so we already have a ton of FPS games and survival horror games on the Oculus Rift. But that's really just the tip of the iceberg. Ignoring the immersion for a moment, the technology gives players a 360 degree camera with in-built depth perception, and no one has really made a design around that yet. For instance, imagine a version of Final Fight where you can actually see where on the Z-plane your character is standing, or an RTS where you can genuinely oversee the world while manipulating your characters, or even just a first-person game that just messes with perspective in a jarring way.

There are a lot of new directions to go with this new technology, and I think we'll have a lot more to see.

Scott has a flurry of games that have just been released. Chaos Ride: Episode 2 is now out for Android and iPhone, while Rocket Drop VR is available for Google Cardboard on Android. Last of all, The Ingenious Machine: New and Improved Edition is available on Desura for PC and Mac. Phew!

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