The furore surrounding the long-awaited release of Too Human hasn't been pretty, but it has given outspoken Silicon Knights chief Denis Dyack a platform on which to ignite debate on subjects he feels have dogged the title throughout its development.
The impact of technology on interpersonal communication and, specifically, opinion forming; the dangers inherent in the industry's traditional model for revealing games; the working practices of professional games reviewers - each has become a burning issue for Dyack as work on the Xbox 360-exclusive action-RPG drew to close.
Some of this, as far as he is concerned, has been out of his control: he squarely blames Epic for making public the two firms' legal dispute over the Unreal engine. Some of this, he has manufactured himself: the studiedly provocative and now infamous forum post in defence of Too Human, for instance, thrust the game back into the spotlight and prompted heated discussion on the nature of forum culture.
Dyack argues that the game's convoluted, protracted development is irrelevant: all that matters is the end product and the consumer experience. To a point he's right, of course, but the process cannot be separated from the product, and the tale of Too Human's development is every bit as dramatic as that of its serpentine cyber-Norse narrative.
Released today in North America, and due on the 29th August over here, the president of the Canadian studio at last gets his wish for gamers to make up their own minds. Eurogamer has delivered its verdict on the game today.
As the game went gold earlier this month, we caught up with a typically forthright Dyack in London to discuss all of these issues in detail, and his excitement at finally getting the game out of the door. You can watch the highlights in the video below, or read on for the full transcript.
Eurogamer: The Too Human demo has been downloaded over 1 million times which, if nothing else, at least shows there is still a huge amount of interest in the title after all this time.
Denis Dyack: Oh, there's a tremendous amount of interest. And the fact that we have over a million downloads in less than a month is fantastic, and the reception from the demo has been really awesome as well. We're really excited; it's been a relief. We're happy.
Eurogamer: What feedback have you had?
Denis Dyack: Too Human is a very innovative game and it's got a lot of different things with it. It's got the camera system that's automated and very different; and then the dual analogue control, which is also very different. So at first, because it's so different, people aren't sure how to adjust it; but once they give it time, the majority of people have really, really loved it.
We've done a lot of focus tests and you see a few people try for a few minutes and put it away saying it's too simplistic. The depth in Too Human is pretty deep - the action components and the RPG components are deeper than most games that I've seen on the consoles and I play a lot of games.
One of the most interesting comments I've seen is, some people are saying their daughters were picking it up, who aren't used to the conventions of controlling the camera with the right stick: they picked it up right away.
When we created the camera system, we were big believers in the added complexity of controlling the camera and doing the gameplay at the same time was something gamers don't really need to do. And so it's all that training we've had in controlling the camera with the right stick. By throwing that away and saying, okay, I understand, I'll let the camera do it's work - it works like a radar - and I'll just concentrate on the gameplay.
Once you do that, it all falls into place. It's almost like taking that one step that games haven't really done before that we think really makes Too Human stand apart, but it also makes it a really unique and interesting game.
Eurogamer: In hindsight, do you have any regrets about taking on the internet?
Denis Dyack: No, I don't. I think Too Human in general is a game that talks about the effects of technology on society, and in general we wanted to make commentary on... People basically misunderstand technology and there's this myth that forums don't matter and they don't affect the press or whatever, and clearly they do affect the press.
And what I wanted to do was just point out that, okay, we need to understand that it does make a difference, and we need to put it in its place. And by and large forums are hyperbole based on almost no fact or information whatsoever. So if people are going to even read those, they have to understand they really aren't that meaningful.
From a perspective of the internet and how it affects society, I think these things need to be talked about - you can't just stick your head in the sand and say 'I'm not going to talk about that', or 'I shouldn't talk about that'. Someone needs to say something, so it's been said. And I hope the point came across and some meaningful information came from it.
Eurogamer: The language you used was pretty provocative - "A lot of trolls crying" - so you must have known the kind of response that would generate?
Denis Dyack: Yeah, I expected it to generate a lot of attention. And quite frankly there's a lot of misinformation out there... Generally, people think technology has improved communication and that's because we can now communicate in ways we never could before. We can send email 24/7, you can post on forums and talk to people in South Africa, in Asia, wherever, video conference, telephones, cell-phones that we can we do now over the past 75 years that we could never do in the whole history of the human race, as far as we know anyway.
2,000 years of civilisation has been based on face-to-face communication until that point, where you have full reciprocity, where you can see facial expressions. And these new forms of communication lose that reciprocity, and generally people become aggravated that they would never say in person, things that are inaccurate and misleading. They hide behind this anonymity and people need to understand that that is not true communication.
It has not improved our communication; technology's changed the way we communicate, and it's changed it in such a way that's not always better. And until we start thinking about those things and start talking about it, I think it's going to do more damage than good. So I brought up some of those points just so people would start thinking about it, and hopefully that came through in a positive way. Time will tell.
Eurogamer: Do you think, then, that the games industry, given the way it works and the tech-savvy nature of its audience, is more vulnerable to this than other creative media?
Denis Dyack: There's no question: I think that was one of the reasons I did what I did. From a standpoint of journalism and publishers and showing games before they're ready, we have all these different side effects where our culture as games industry is desperately trying to keep pace with technology's advance. And because we're so close to it, what I call being on the bleeding edge, society's having a hard time keeping up with technology as it is. Even people who are technologically savvy are not understanding the ramifications of this advance and how it's affecting our industry in both negative and positive ways and I think we need to think about it.
Eurogamer: So it definitely wasn't a publicity stunt?
Denis Dyack: Well, it certainly wasn't a publicity stunt; it was more a comment on technology for sure. It was to try to improve things in a positive way. In some sense it's what Too Human talks about - what we're trying to do as gamers, as game designers, is to create games that have a positive influence on society as best we can.
Eurogamer: Would you like to see more developers following your lead and hitting back against the forumites, as it were?
Denis Dyack: It's not really striking back against the forumites; that's not really what the point was. The point was more trying to get people to understand the forums for what they are, for being inaccurate, hyperbolic and not really based on fact. From a standpoint of, should other developers do it, I think they should do what they feel comfortable with. I certainly had a lot of people say, 'I wouldn't have done what you've done', and to a large extent, commenting on that, it can be really scary and can result in really negative things.
For us, time will tell how it results in the end. In some circumstances, it's brought some attention, and I guess we'll find out in the end whether that's positive or negative. We had the best intentions in mind, is what we're trying to say.
Eurogamer: How does your team feel about it? Did they know you were going to do it?
Denis Dyack: No-one knew I was going to do it, so no.
Eurogamer: How do they feel about it?
Denis Dyack: Fine.
Eurogamer: Peter Molyneux came out and said he felt sorry for you and that people had misunderstood the game and it went back to the E3 showing of Too Human that received a lot of criticism. Where do you believe the criticism originated?
Denis Dyack: Well, certainly a lot of the criticism came from the Unreal Engine failing us at E3 2006, there's no question about that. We've certainly taken action on that. Silicon Knights is a developer that, if the emperor has no clothes, we'll stand up and say that; and we'll take stands and do what's right whether it's popular or not.
In the end, one of the problems with our industry is often we're showing the process rather than the end result. In the movie industry and other industries they don't really do that: you don't get to hear an album before it's finished and you don't often see movies before they're finally cut. And our industry is holding on to old habits that aren't necessarily the best thing.
With Too Human, there was so much noise around the process rather than the end result that we felt we had to come out with this demo, which was really the only chance we had. We've certainly had so many mixed reactions... You look at any previews or reviews and often times, rather than focus on the end result they comment on how long the game's been in development or whatever, which is completely irrelevant.
Really what matters is how good is the game and should people buy it - it doesn't matter if the game was in development for the last 2,000 years. In the end it's: are people going to have fun with this game, and it's all lost in this process - the process is broken in the industry. And it's not just the press, it's the publishers, it's the developers, it's everyone - there's too many games.
When 350 games come out in November, how can somebody in the press review every single one with an in-depth and very devoted way? That's pretty challenging. And I'm not really blaming anyone, or saying it's anyone's particular fault, but what we try to do is say that when we make these comments, there's something broken here and we're going to try and fix it, and here's what we think we need to do and we'll stand up and say it.
Eurogamer: When was the last time you spoke to [Epic boss] Mark Rein?
Denis Dyack: [Long pause] It's been a while.
Eurogamer: Given how the issue has been played out in the press, has it for you become a personal thing?
Denis Dyack: We had no intentions of playing it out in the press, and Epic was the one who brought it to the press. We were quite happy with it not being brought up in the press at all: it's a thing for the courts we think needs to be held separately. It's publicly available and there are documents that you can check out.
Eurogamer: Even though the project's now finished, it must have cast a shadow over it - how difficult is it to put that to the back of your mind and just get on with it?
Denis Dyack: [Pause] Well, I think it certainly was a very difficult hurdle to overcome. Having to rewrite the engine wasn't something we wanted to do, nor something we planned on doing and is something no developer should have to do, so certainly there's a litigation that really speaks out to what we say and how we feel about what happened there.
But it's something that through sheer tenacity and devotion to the project our team overcame. And we feel really good about the end result - we feel the game is excellent, it's one of the best games we've made, and hopefully from that standpoint gamers will enjoy it for what it is.
Eurogamer: Given the game's long development across several platforms, can you give us an insight into how you keep a project going as a coherent creative entity when changing platforms, changing technology?
Denis Dyack: There's a big myth that the game's been in development since we first conceived it in 1993, which isn't true. One of the core concepts that survived was making comment on technology and society, but really we started production when we finished Metal Gear Solid [The Twin Snakes, released on GameCube in 2004], and started collaborating with Microsoft. And Too Human, as you see it today, is really a result of that collaboration and being in full production.
We had some vague ideas of where we wanted to take it, but all cementing of the Norse mythologies, doing a lot of research into development, and taking it to an action hybrid RPG to where it is now, that's all a result of collaborating with Microsoft and the most recent full production we've been in over the past few years. Some of the things we talked about in the early PSone days, most of those are gone now.
Eurogamer: What makes Too Human stand out today; what are its defining features?
Denis Dyack: I think most the action hybrid approach - it's an action game, it's an RPG - we really have struck a unique balance. That combined with the camera system and the control scheme, there's really no other game on any other console that comes close to what Too Human is, and it's so different that some people don't understand it when they first pick it up.
But it's certainly not something you can understand through videos and I think through the demo that once people sit down and play it, they're really going to like it. We've got a lot of people saying they spent more time with the demo than they have with some games, and they can't wait to get their hands on the final one.
Eurogamer: This was an issue expressed by Ubisoft ahead of the release of Assassin's Creed: they were worried that reviewers wouldn't 'get' the game because it was different and because of the way they perceived that games are reviewed. Are you concerned about what the critical reception for Too Human will be?
Denis Dyack: No, not really [laughs]. I'm not worried about the critical reception at all. Do I think people are going to be critical? Well people already have - people were critical about the game before they'd even played it, so I don't think that's necessarily going to change. I think if people see the game for what it is and review the game for what it is, then it'll get a good reception. It's a solid game. We've made a lot of games - we stand behind it and we wouldn't release a game until it's ready, so we feel really good about that.
I think the reception of the demo speaks for itself. Are there people who don't like it? Well no-one likes every game, but in the end if we're going to worry about critical reviews, then we're in the wrong industry. What I, and I think people at Silicon Knights are more concerned with, are when people play the game are they having a fun time and do they feel they're being entertained, and that's all that matters.
Too Human is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 in Europe on 29th August.