It's been 30 years since Amy Hennig's first game, Electrocop, and eight since she said goodbye to her most famous creation, Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. Informed as much by vintage Hollywood adventure films as the likes of Gears of War, Uncharted is the acme of the gun-toting blockbuster with a human face. It's a style of production with which Hennig, a former film student, is indelibly associated, though I'll always reserve my love for her first turn as director, 1999's Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. But as she herself admits, it's a style of game that is becoming untenable, involving vast expense and many years of labour, in an industry that has never been more conscious of the unhealthy workplace practices that prop up some of its most beloved experiences. Hence, perhaps, the untimely demise of her last project, Visceral's Star Wars game "Ragtag", as publisher EA moved its business away from finite narratives and into the murky waters of the game-as-service.
Hennig has spent the year and a half since leaving Visceral resting, catching up with family and meeting with potential partners. She has done some consultancy work at VR company The Void, and directed a volumetric video capture shoot for Intel. But she has also spent her absence from the limelight reflecting on the industry's past and future, trying to make sense of what she calls "a time of massive change". In a keynote discussion at last week's Reboot Develop conference in Dubrovnik, Hennig spoke about looking beyond challenge, mastery and failstates as key criteria for game design. She is particularly enthused by real-time streaming platforms, suggesting that their promise of greater accessibility is an opportunity to fashion new genres for a broader audience. In the wake of her presentation, I sat down with Hennig to discuss all this, her time working on Star Wars, and whether the advent of real-time streaming is also an opportunity to change the way games are made.
I was reading your USGamer interview in February, where you talked about not quite knowing where to aim yourself after leaving Visceral. You're known for these big budget, photoreal narrative action-adventures, and those are hard to create when you're not an EA or Sony. How are things going with that thought process?
Amy Hennig: The reason I got into games in the first place - because I was planning to go into film - was that I stumbled into a job on a game, as a one-shot situation to make some money. But then I realised that there was a frontier there that had yet to be written. And interestingly at the same time in film school I was studying film theory and history, and we had learned a lot about Georges Méliès, the Lumiere brothers, Eisenstein, the people who figured out the language of film. And I loved the idea of joining an industry, a medium where it was still right there on the edge.
Now, especially in the triple-A space, there's a certain quality of turning a big expensive crank, instead of that scrappy, improvisational, ad hoc quality we used to have. A lot of companies still have it, indies still have it, but when you're in the big budget triple-A space, it's like your challenges tend to be more production or organisational or institutional than they are about solving problems on the project. It's not absolute, but it's become more that way, or at least it was for me. And I was really missing that feeling of trying to crack a problem. So taking a step back after EA shuttered the studio allowed me to get into a space where things are undefined.
So I looked into VR for a while, which I still think is fascinating, because it's also an industry, a medium that is in this nascent state where we haven't learned to tell great stories yet, and I'd love to be part of that. I thought for a while, maybe I take my skills in storytelling, character, real-time content creation, and use them to create linear content, just take interactivity out of it. And it just felt like such a shame. I spent 30 years learning to be a game designer, and it felt like discarding a very important part of my experience. Particularly in a time when it seems like interactive entertainment is going to be bigger than it ever has been, and that's where streaming comes in. That emerging over the course of the last year - I hadn't even thought about it, but the advent of 5G, which is going to take a few years, it's going to absolutely transform everything. It's going to transform our media space, so not just games but the entertainment industry in general, and I think there's an opportunity to really broaden the portfolio of games that we make, and it's exciting to be part of that - of how we take what we do and reach a much broader audience.
Speaking of broadening the kinds of games you make, I'm interested to know how much of a departure your Visceral project, Ragtag, was from the games you're celebrated for. Are there any ideas there you'd like to return to?
Amy Hennig: Oh sure! I have certain things that just seem to be my wheelhouse, that I keep going back to for whatever reason. I love the vibe of 1930s films, a lot of it's sort of screwball comedies, adventures, all that stuff. There's just something about that era that appeals to me, and I find myself landing there a lot. I also like scoundrelly characters, I like characters that are looking out for number one but need to rise to a higher purpose, and I keep working through that idea. And there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe it feels a little unoriginal if I keep landing on the same themes, but maybe I'm working something out - who knows.
"I realised that there was a frontier there that had yet to be written"
Obviously I was hired because of my track record, my resumé with Uncharted, to try to do the same thing for Star Wars. Because how do you deconstruct those films and then create an interactive experience that sits alongside all the material being made today? The roadmap originally when I joined, when I was working with Lucasfilm - you saw all of this stuff, and a lot of it back then was top secret, the saga films, the standalone films and where they were going to fall, the animated TV series building towards the live action TV series, and the games. And all of this stuff playing together, interlocking in this new canon. It was very cool to think that this game we were working on was just as relevant as the films, particularly the standalone films because that's the best analogy, that it was being treated just as seriously, and that we were working through the story and all the original material we were creating for that reason.
So I had to take what I'd figured out in terms of deconstructing pulp adventure, and say all right, Star Wars is also in that category, but it has certain things that are distinct, or at least distinct from our core inspiration [on Uncharted] which was of course Indiana Jones. And one of those things, and I've talked about this before, is that you stay with Indiana Jones the whole time, the other characters are side characters - they're companions, they're important to the story, but they're not co-protagonists, it's not really an ensemble in the classic sense. When we think about ensembles, we think about heist films, caper films, Where Eagle's Dare, Dirty Dozen, Von Ryan's Express. All of these films are about this ragtag - hence the codename! - group of individuals who have to come together.
So I realised a couple of things: if we were going to make a Star Wars story, a lot of it would look and feel like Uncharted, because it's in the same genre. But we needed to cut away to the villains, for one thing, which was something I never allowed us to do on Uncharted. If you look at those films, you don't really cut away from what Indy knows. There's a few exceptions but you're more or less with him the whole time. And Star Wars, not only do we cut between villains but we also cut between multiple protagonists. So you still go OK, Luke is the hero of the story, but when you look at Han and Leia they're co-protagonists. And then you look at Rogue One, the animated show Rebels, those are ensemble stories. That's the Star Wars DNA, right?
So I thought OK not only does that mean that we need really compelling AI for these characters, so that you can work like a well-oiled team, particularly if it's a caper crew. But we were going to need playable characters in parallel sequences, because that's how Star Wars works. You only accomplish your goals by working together or working in parallel or both. We would always point to the Death Star escape as the prime example of that. So emulating that, adding that onto the base formula for adventure, which was kind of what Uncharted was, was kind of the high level thinking. And it's been gratifying to see that born out by the new films - that's definitely the DNA of the series. And obviously it's disappointing not to be able to share the game we were developing, because I think it was really cool and pretty compelling.
It must have been especially interesting for you to work on Star Wars after Uncharted because so many of the more recent movies have been about decentralising and deprioritising those male scoundrel archetypes. Oscar Isaacs' character, for instance, gets very firmly put in his place in The Last Jedi. And then you look at the Episode IX trailer, and there's Isaacs dressed like Nathan Drake.
Amy Hennig: Hah, somebody was asking me about that just now, and everybody immediately commented 'oh my god!' And look, I mean, J.J. Abrams is a huge fan of the games. That's no secret, he's not kept that secret, and we're huge fans of his work too - it's very much a mutual admiration society. So it wouldn't surprise me if that was an unintentional or intentional nod [to Uncharted]. But then what you also have to understand is that kind of clothing is a general nod to the character tropes. That's what he's leaning into, but if it lifts from Nate too then that's great!
The inspiration for the opening train sequence in Uncharted 2 was the opening to Mission Impossible 3, and how they started in media res, began with this flash forward and built back up to it. So we've been cribbing [from him] for a long time, and I don't know which Mission Impossible it was, the one with the plane sequence? They openly said that was inspired by Uncharted. So we homage each other in these industries, there's a lot of film people who are game fans, and obviously we're all movie fans.
I'd like to come back to the relationship between the film and video game industries, but before we move away from Ragtag - EA is on the point of unveiling a new Star Wars game, which has been stridently billed as a single player narrative game -
Amy Hennig: Which is interesting.
Yes! How does that make you feel?
Amy Hennig: Odd! I have to be candid with you, and I don't know whether that's - I mean, it's coming from the EA Star Wars Twitter handle, so it's certainly part of the plan, but I don't know whether it's implicitly referencing previous comments they made after our project was killed? There is so much change in this industry all the time. Over the course of the time I was at EA, we were back and forth on what the overall publishing corporation wanted. I think everybody's trying to figure out what the right path is. I also think Respawn's game has the benefit of being largely developed before they were acquired. I think they're a protected entity, and Vince [Zampella] makes very sure - because he's part of the executive team at EA, he can protect the interests of Respawn.
This is all speculation on my part, I don't know why the change of heart happened, because that was very clearly not an acceptable plan when we were working on Ragtag! But you know, things change. I think [the decision to cancel Ragtag] was made in summer 2017. We found out in October 2017. So that's almost two years ago, and a lot has changed in that time, and I think there's been a pretty public and vocal backlash against the idea that gamers don't want single-player finite games without all these extra modes. Of course they do, of course we do. So maybe this is just a demonstration of a change of strategy for EA.
And you've got to understand that there's been huge changes in management there since all of this happened as well. Both Patrick Soderlund and Jade Raymond have left in the meantime, and Laura Miele, who was the franchise general manager for Star Wars when I joined, is now in Patrick's role. So I don't have any insider knowledge, but there's a lot of reasons they could have adopted a new attitude for this. And I'm glad for Respawn's sake, because I'm excited about their game, and I've heard great things about it.
The Titanfall universe has always struck me as very Star Warsy. And as you say, they're a different company with different circumstances. They're not working with Frostbite, for one thing, which seems to make a big difference...
Amy Hennig: Well, there was a company mandate to get onto Frostbite, but because Respawn is sort of - it's sort of like Naughty Dog's relationship to Sony, in a way, which is being a wholly owned subsidiary. I don't know what the right legal term is for Respawn's relationship to EA, but they are their own entity, with the ability to call their own shots, which is a different relationship to Visceral being sort of an embedded studio.
I had some questions about you entering the movie industry, but you've addressed that already. I was going to add that if you did decide to make a movie, it seems you'd have every opportunity.
Amy Hennig: I think if I wanted to pursue that, I could probably do it. But I also think there's some prejudice in quarters of the movie industry and the TV industry, where they love what we do, but if they were going to adapt what we'd made they'd get a "real" writer, a "real" director. We're already doing that job, but I think sometimes we're seen as lesser or second tier. Not by everybody, and certainly not by younger organisations, because these people are gamers, they came up with games. So they see the mediums as being far more complementary. But in established Hollywood, I think there's a prejudice that those of us who write or direct games are on a lower tier.
So I would be fighting that prejudice, I think. And also, I'm spoiled! The fact is, making things the way we make them, in as improvisational and nimble a way as we can, is incredibly rewarding. And I don't think I'd want to take on all the burdens of live action. What I'm excited about, actually, is that game engines like Unreal are now at a point where we can create content that is so high fidelity and of such visual quality that it's just as watchable as live action. And so using what we know to create content for a wider audience, whether it's linear, whether it's interactive, whether it's VR or AR or all of the above, the beauty of the way we work is that we're creating a virtual backlog of characters and costumes and props and sets and environments as we go. Which means we can pivot to any one of those facets of entertainment, because we've already got the assets.
Not true of live action - you can make a great movie, and then you want to make a game of it, well, you're recreating all of that from scratch. So, it's still intriguing to me, but mainly I just feel like, abandoning - if we envision the skillset that those of us who make this kind of game have developed, between story and real-time and interactive, this three-circle Venn diagram, the intersection of those things is a pretty rare set of skills and experiences. In a completely mercenary sense, not exploiting that would be stupid, particularly because the industry is evolving, and traditional linear media and interactive media are blending and blurring, to a point where people with the skills we have are going to be really in demand.
I think we are poised to make really compelling content for streaming platforms, in ways that people who haven't been making interactive content - they have to catch way up. They're great at story, obviously we follow their lead in a lot of ways, but they don't know our world.
So do you have any thoughts about the kinds of experience or artwork that might thrive on streaming platforms? Is length the key thing?
Amy Hennig: I mean obviously this is all subjective. But I have the benefit of having seen the phenomenon we had with Uncharted and games like Uncharted, that are story-based with a certain level of fidelity, and in a genre that already invites a wider audience - that the non-gamers in the family are just as invested in seeing played out, in participating, as the gamer in the family. Most of the time, they don't care what's on the screen, it's just not very watchable for a non-gamer. But with games like Until Dawn and Uncharted there's this phenomenon, and everyone says they experience this, where their significant others, parents, other members of the family would say 'don't play that without me - this is cool, what is this?'
They don't want the controller in their hands because it's an intimidating piece of hardware. But they're interacting just as much as the person playing, because they're saying 'look over there, don't go there, what if we climb there, I think this is going on with the story...' It is a group event, and so that tells me, that gives us insight that these 'non-gamers' are actually engaged with our work. They're attracted to it. We're just not making stuff for them, and we're not even trying to make the games that have this phenomenon, it happens by accident. We don't necessarily design for that. And we certainly aren't saying 'these people are enjoying this, how can we include them?'
[The average game] requires a big expensive box, a 15 button-plus controller that is incredibly intimidating to a non-gamer, it involves content that is intimidating in its own right, all of these hurdles that have kept this audience out. I mean, they're playing games, they're on their smartphones and iPads, they're playing table-top games, but there's been no way for them to easily participate [with our games]. But I think there's an opportunity now - if we think that real-time streaming is a near-term inevitability, that's going to transform our landscape, and if somebody's going to make interactive content for these platforms I would love it to be us.
And rather than just saying we'll port over the games we're already making - well, then we're only pointing it a gamer audience. We're not expanding our audience at all. We should be figuring out, without abandoning the kind of games we make now, how to widen the spectrum. Widen the spectrum so that a lot of the games being made by indie developers that actually would have huge appeal to this audience, but are undiscoverable - they should be moving onto this platform. And then we make content that is designed around - if we call it "interactive entertainment" rather than games, that opens it up. We're not going to change the games we already have, we're just going to open up the portfolio.
Games have traditionally been about beating, conquering, mastery, difficulty, failure. And a lot of our stories play with those themes. There's a big debate right now about Sekiro, and Celeste obviously had a similar thing where it was about the difficulty of climbing that mountain, that is what makes it rewarding. And this accessibility and difficulty debate - I don't believe that creators who are fundamentally engaging with difficulty as a theme should change their game, although we have to be careful what we mean when we talk about difficulty versus accessibility. But I think that we are being too self-limiting in our own medium, to say that we shouldn't rethink some of the terminology around interactivity.
It is perfectly fine to have an experience that is not about a failstate, that's about the journey, not difficulty or mastery, that's about the tactile experience of playing the game through. If you think about the games that have already done this, there are so many! Journey, Edith Finch, I talk about Florence a lot, because it's such a neat little example of this. You're not changing the course of that story, but your tactile experience of playing through Florence is yours alone. Even though, yeah, you're solving the same puzzle, you're moving the same objects, that analog relationship with those mechanics affects you in a way that is personal to you. I think we could be leaning into that a lot more, rather than only defining our medium by difficulty, mastery, achievement, conquering.
Our time is limited, and I think it's OK to design games that are about moving the experience forward and not saying 'you've failed, go back'. I'm so glad that Bandersnatch exists, that Netflix dove headfirst into this and tried to figure it out, because it's such a great example of that sort of frictionless adoption and willingness to try. There's nothing to lose. It's right there, you have a subscription, it just works. What's interesting, though, is that I heard from a lot of people that what they didn't enjoy was feeling like when they did the little Groundhog Day setbacks, which of course were intrinsic to the story, it felt like you'd failed. Like it was a binary choice and I didn't know which one was right, even though there's actually no right answer, and now I'm set back to the beginning - do it again.
That was the theme of the thing, as a Black Mirror episode, but as an experience I found people feeling a little frustrated, and a little uncertain about how much time they were being asked to invest. They didn't know if it was a half-hour, an hour, 90 minutes. And I don't think that's generally what people want now. I think they want to understand what kind of nugget of time they're being asked to spend. And then they may expand and binge the thing, but we're not necessarily giving them content where they know they're jumping into a 10-hour experience, we're giving them a half-hour, an hour at a time.
I think Until Dawn addresses a lot of what you're proposing really well. Partly because all the characters are designed to be equally loathsome on some level, so you're not as bothered about "failing" a chapter and losing one!
Amy Hennig: It totally leans into all the horror tropes, which is why it's so accessible as a shared experience. We watch horror movies together because we like to shout at the screen, groan and shriek together. So it was a natural thing to do, and I think some of that was probably planned. I think they stumbled into it the way we did with Uncharted, which is that its fitness as a shared experience was based on genre familiarity, verbs that lend themselves [to wider appreciation]. All the things that go with horror, like investigation and the suspense of that, the choices you make and oh my god, run run run!
All that stuff plays into Uncharted. The important verbs there for a wider audience were about mystery, unravelling this historical detective fiction, exploration, discovery and problem-solving on an environmental scale as well as puzzles. It was when you got to a 10 minute gunfight that people said, yeah, I'm out. I'll do something else for a while. And it's not because those experiences are wrong in themselves... I think Quantic Dream's doing interesting stuff. I know their games get dismissed at times as, oh, 'the whole thing's just glorified QTEs'. I don't think that's fair, and they've actually experienced the same phenomenon where because it is accessible both in terms of mechanics and story and the aesthetic, that people's families will walk in and want to play it.
So we are tapping into something with some of the games we are making, and I think we could design for it better. Again, what would the point be, if it was all gated behind 'well, you're going to have to have a 400 dollar console, or learn how to use a controller'. Those people aren't going to find that experience, but if it's just coming right through a streaming service they already subscribe to, and it's as easy as Bandersnatch was to engage with, that could be revelatory for entertainment as a whole.
Do traditional consoles still have a role in that future?
Amy Hennig: I don't know, and I don't have an opinion on whether they should or shouldn't. I know there's a lot of concern around streaming that it could introduce some business models that are not good for our industry. I share those concerns. Or that we as gamers pride ourselves on being able to go back to these games, that we own them.
And look, I am such a tactile person myself, I can't tell you how many thousands of books I have in my library, I've only just started using a Kindle because I resist this idea of not having the physical book in my hands. For years I had tonnes of CDs, because I just didn't like the idea of not having a physical copy. So I'm even not that much of a digital evangelist, but I'm looking at the way things went, and I'm unusual in that regard - most people are fine with the idea of not owning a physical copy. We've moved past this idea. And so we're not necessarily selling music players any more, we're not selling hardware for music. We're not selling DVD players anymore or even Blu-ray players that much, because people are getting their content through these streaming services.
Music, film and TV have gone that way and it feels inevitable to me that interactive entertainment will. Whether a console or high-end PC will still deliver an experience that streaming won't be able to for a long time, I think that will define the lifecycle of consoles. A lot of people in the industry believe that the next generation of consoles could be the last, that we'll just be streaming interactive content like everything else.
Is the wholesale design rethink you're proposing also an opportunity to change the more toxic aspects of how games are made, to deal with things like workplace crunch or cycles of mass layoffs?
Amy Hennig: Oh totally. I've been vocal about this stuff, partly because I've been very visibly impacted by some of these changes the industry's going through, but I don't think the way we make games is sustainable. We always have this Sword of Damocles hanging over us, because the games take so long to make, and they require so many people, and the budgets are so huge, that any failure at that level will tank a studio.
So everything has to be a masterpiece, blockbuster success. And that's why you see developers sweating. That's why you see people like Cory Barlog crying when he sees the response to God of War - the tension and the stress that you build up over those years in development is inhumane. Because everything is riding on it, not just your creative expression, wanting to do right by your team, but the institutional pressure that this thing has to succeed. We're taking fewer, bigger bets. We used to take a lot more bets on a lot more projects at different scales.
I was excited about digital distribution because I thought it would finally open up the marketplace, because it wasn't about brick-and-mortar stores, the cost of goods that automatically puts you over the $60 price point. Now that that's not the case, I was hoping we'd see what I've been describing, which is this much wider spectrum of games at all different price points. And we do in the indie space, but the big publishers aren't necessarily the ones creating those things or elevating them to our attention. I would have thought that when we see things like a Hellblade, or an Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, these things being at $20 or $30 price points - that's exciting for me, that we can make shorter games that are more accessible in terms of the time it takes you to complete the game, but don't sell them for as much.
"It is perfectly fine to have an experience that's about the journey, not difficulty or mastery"
Now this is crazy too, because if you look at Uncharted: The Lost Legacy - we say that's the size of Uncharted 1, but actually it's bigger because it has multiplayer, and yet it's $40, not $60. It's weird where we've ended up, where the price point can't and shouldn't change, but we've raised the bar so much in what we invest in these games. There are no games at that level that cost less than a £100 million any more, it's 150, 200, 300. It's crazy! It's as expensive or more expensive than the biggest blockbuster films. And when it hits, you're OK, but if it doesn't, that's a disaster. And if we're making these bigger, fewer bets, that means we're getting less advanced as an industry in terms of advancing our craft. What you'll see is less risky design decisions inside games, because if you're going out on a limb and it doesn't hit the audience, then you've lost a lot of money. It's why you see riskier stuff in the indie space, and often we're inspired by stuff we see in the indie space because they're able to be bolder and try stuff that we can't.
That's why these games get a little samey, because people are trying to do stuff that they know is already tried and true. And all that's fine, there's nothing wrong with these games, the shame of it is just that we're not seeing the wider spectrum, games of different scope and scale. It keeps narrowing down to games-as-service, battle royales. Everybody's trying to figure out what their Fortnite is, and there can only be so many of those. If we're all competing to keep players in our world forever, well, that means they're not playing much of anything else. So what, only two or three games can win? And that's the opposite of what we're seeing on things like Netflix, where there's this incredible cornucopia of fiction and non-fiction, comedies and dramas. We need to do the same thing, we need to make sure we're creating a much wider suite of interactive experiences. So when I look at where we've been going, and I see it narrowing, getting bigger, scarier in scope but also narrower in terms of invention, then I'm excited about what streaming might unlock.
Do you think unionisation could help catalyse some of the structural shifts that need to happen?
Amy Hennig: Yes - and to go back to your previous question, since I went off on a tangent, all this sounds awful because of course these are people with jobs. We've seen this in other industries, as it's gotten more expensive, particularly when you're in one of the more expensive parts of the world - which was one of the problems Visceral had, to be honest, it was the most expensive studios in the EA family because of its location. There's nothing you can do about that, it's the cost of living in the Bay area.
I don't want to see the shame we saw, say, with the visual effects industry, where visual effects houses in California were disappearing and people were having to go to places where there were tax credits, or losing their jobs. But I think it's likely we'll move to something that looks a bit more like a Hollywood model, in the sense that you have smaller core studios, where your key creatives are employees, and then you work very closely with external co-development partners who may be just down the street or across the world. Not treat it like outsourcing, but actual distributed development and co-development. In the same way that people in Hollywood, when they're working on a TV show or film, they're usually not consistently employed by an entity. They are free agents. They may work again and again with some of the same partners - you'll see film directors bring in their director of production and crew over and over again, but that doesn't mean the DP is part of their organisation.
And that absolutely requires that we unionise, because these people then need an organisation that does protect them, that will provide health insurance, pensions and all that kind of stuff, if they aren't full employees of the studio. I think what we'll also see, and are already seeing, is - we had for a long time [a model] where you'd have a studio like a Naughty Dog and then you'd have a bunch of outsourcing partners, maybe in South East Asia or Eastern Europe, to create all the assets. It's not just that the internal team has gotten bigger, but we've had more and more outsourcing partners because there's so much content. What's exciting to me is that people within disciplines can create their own service group for, say, characters or environment art, and that group can then be an entity that provides those protections, they're employees of that group. But because they're not employees of the main studio, and therefore creating that problem where you can't grow and shrink the team as needed, you'll be able to do more like the film industry does, where we can have more pre-production, scale up for production, by taking on development partners when it's appropriate. They may work on multiple games.
I feel like that's the way things are going to go, and I think a lot of people who are starting studios today think the same way I do. They want to keep the fore group small, work meaningfully with partners who are specialists on an on-going basis, but not on an employee basis. And that does mean that we have to change a bunch of stuff around unionisation. It is a trend, and obviously we're not seeing that immediately reflected because there are a lot of established big studios. Companies will keep doing it that way, but it's only going to take one big catastrophic failure, a game that's been in development four or five years and cost $200 million, carrying that overhead - there's going to be a spasm of change, I think, because it's really not sustainable. We have to be OK with smaller games, smaller bets, more frequent bets, and not putting all of our eggs in the triple-A basket. And I think we also need to develop a working style that lets us work with free agents and specialist co-development partners. I believe that we're going to see that happen more and more.