Interview: Brian Kehrer, Psyop
Hi, Brian. Maybe it’s best if you first introduce yourself to the public.
My name is Brian Kehrer, I’m a game developer and designer. I’m currently working at a company called Psyop, a 3D animation and post production house where I’m creative technologist. I’m working primarily in a game engine called Unity, where we’re developing interactive experiences and games.
Creative technologist, is that what’s written on your card?
Apparently that’s what they call people like me in the advertisement world. I think it makes technology sound a little more approachable. It also emphasizes creativity, in a way that a title like software engineer, or game developer, unfortunately, does not – at least to people not working in these fields.
What exactly is a game engine? And what kind of game engine is Unity?
A game engine is a technical way of saying ‘a collection of pre-existing technologies that are useful for making games’. It’s a very fluid term, and unfortunately means different things to different people at different times. Many game engines are best suited and optimized for a specific type of game, for example Unreal is best suited to making FPS titles. I would describe Unity as a general purpose 3D game engine. It has pre-existing technology for moving objects in 3D space, rendering, physics, animation, sound, and more. Those are all technologies a developer would have to rewrite for almost every game they make.
How did you become a game developer and why did you go in that direction?
My background was in film and television. After I graduated from NYU, I spent a little bit of time doing animation work, post production work and I realized what I really wanted to be doing was interactive work. So I found a small start-up where I could sort of parlay my 3D skills into an ability to grow and learn. That was back in 2005, 2006. We were working on developing 3D virtual worlds in the web browser. So that’s how we actually got involved with Unity as well. That was back in version 1.6. We were pretty early on the Unity bandwagon, and we were building virtual worlds. After that wrapped up, we had a number of people, we had a lot of technology and some interested investors, so I started a game company in downtown Manhattan with a few partners, called Muse Games. We developed a title called Guns of Icarus and most frequently Guns of Icarus Online, available on Steam and that was developed from 2008 until August of last year.
If you had to list three of your favorite computer games and at least two favorite board games, what games would that be?
Favorites are always really hard. I’ll talk about the ones I feel have directly influenced my work. Sim City 2000, is one of the most influential games I ever played.
At first it was just a game, but it also had no explicit goals. It was just a sandbox in which … it was more a reflection of your own personal goals rather than the goals of the system. Furthermore it did present what seemed like a very complicated system and forced you to think about the world in a different way. It gave you a new perspective on life, you know: ordinary life, in addition to video game reality. Most importantly, I don’t know, I spent months and months playing this game, simply to test the system and experiment. It was a wonderful platform for learning. The second one, sort of a radical shift from Sim City, was Deus Ex. It’s a first person shooter. Developed around the year 2000. You’re an augmented human in a post terrorism world. But what was important to me about it was, at first it looks like any traditional first person shooter: You’re presented with a series of challenges, you’re forced out into the world … Except, it’s a very open experience. Everything is interactive. You can move boxes … much more so than other games at the time. And then furthermore, you know, I didn’t really like shooters all that much at the time, my friend insisted I play it, so I played it … I got through the first level, I’d killed, you know, basically everyone in the level … I walk back in the home base or whatever and my brother, my in-game brother, walks up to me and says: “You killed a lot of people tonight, what the hell is wrong with you?” And for a moment, just a moment – I blinked. I said, ‘woah’. And the first thing I did was restart the game and try not to kill anyone. And the response was different. And I felt something – just for a second. You know, it was bad graphics for a first person shooter, but I felt something. I think that was the moment when I said: Wow, you can create meaningful character interaction in game – and I experienced that in a genre I despised for being gratuitously juvenile. After that, sort of along the same line, although I’m jumping a few generations, I’d say the entire Mass Effect trilogy, for very much the same reasons. I think in terms of game play: the games were not particularly interesting. But in terms of a system for building human relationships and interacting with human relationships: Mass Effect is a spectacular example. I only played it very recently, I’d been putting it off and it was – it blew my mind.
Have you been playing Bioshock? Does it bring some new aspects to the table?
I played Bioshock 1 a few years after Deus Ex, because the internet was screaming about ‘story driven gameplay’. Frankly, I was bored. I found it to be a highly linear experience, with some silly audio recordings scattered throughout the level which masqueraded as story. I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but it felt like a console game, where the original Deus Ex felt like a Pc game. Since the first Xbox, I use the term ‘console game’ disparagingly, because I find the mechanics to be uninspired, with an excessive focus on exposition, linear narrative, usability, and shiny graphics. It’s not to say I’m in favor of making things less accessible, but I also think the joy of games is learning about the system. Console games frequently take that away from the player. I don’t understand the player who wants to be told how to play the game: and yet the most expensive, beautiful AAA games seem to be stuck designing for those people, because they are the lowest common denominator. It’s hard to measure the pain you cause your core audience by adding nonsensical tutorials and exposition – which break immersion, whereas it’s easy to measure sales to players who might have skipped the game otherwise – so there is this sample bias based on bad statistics. To conclude this rant, I skipped the latest Bioshock. It looks beautiful.
Ok, what board game would be on your list?
There are two or three that are important, I’ll go quickly. The first one is a game called Pandemic. Pandemic’s important because it’s purely collaborative. It’s you and some friends against the game. It’s an interesting system, where a virus is spreading around the world and you are trying to stop it. I think it creates an interesting social dynamic at the table when you’re playing collaboratively. And there’s an expansion mode where one of the players …
An expansion mode is just additional content, I guess?
Yes, in the case of board games, it’s in the form of cards, pieces, or boards. The best expansions alter the way you think about the game, with relatively minor changes to rules. So there’s that expansion mode where one of the players can optionally be a bioterrorist working against you. Which is interesting. The other board game, and it’s not really a board game, it’s a table top road playing system, is something called The Burning Wheel. At first glance it’s similar to something like Dungeons & Dragons. Except the emphasis in Burning Wheel is on performance of characters. So each player comes up with a character and sets up a series of goals & beliefs.nThey write them down, you know, it’s up to each player to decide what their beliefs are. And then the game master looks at everyone’s beliefs and constructs around their beliefs – and forces … attempts to challenge each one of then, to see if they actually believe their beliefs. The characters are rewarded for taking difficult decisions or putting themselves in character to achieve their beliefs. So you’re actually encouraged to cause difficulty for yourself. It results in very interesting and dynamic experiences, it’s sort of in many ways the ultimate game because you have a human game designer at the table. My friend is very good at it. It really relies on having a great game master, and aspiring actors as players.
Games seem to be one of the best ways to intuitively gain an understanding of what we call ‘system’.
Absolutely. Very few people can look at a series of equations, and grasp the interactions. Given sufficient variables, no one can. But when presented in a visual simulation, well, our brains are well suited to pattern recognition, and we can learn, and experiment. I think because games are uniquely well suited to this, game designers should utilize that in their designs. In some games, players only manipulate the inputs, in others, players become part of the system itself. I think those questions are some of the more exciting questions for a designer to address.
In which way did playing games influence your social behavior?
I think playing them: yes – designing them: more so. Once you start thinking about games from a designer’s point of view, you internalize a lot of the mechanics and everything starts to become a game, a game mechanic. For better or worse. For better, because one might start thinking a little bit more about how we construct our world, our personalities, our beliefs …
You become a constructivist automatically, without being told what it is.
Do you sometimes think of yourself as a complex algorithm?
With self modifying code, and unreliable memory. Truly a terrifying concept, from a software architecture point of view.
What do you think of when you say ‘for worse’?
There is a certain amount of detachment associated with a constructivist point of view. Other people can find it frustrating, particularly if you change your point of view mid argument, or appear more interested in the system than the resolution. I think there is far too much emphasis on decision, or current state, for example politically, where we should be arguing over the nature of the system. It annoys me that there is an argument about climate change. Why are we not arguing about the relative heat trapping ability of C02, and then formulating experiments. It isn’t that hard. Instead, the argument presented involves either ‘belief’ or ‘disbelief’. How stupid. I hope games will foment change in the way we think, from state, and toward process. We need it.
What is the main distinction between computer games and board games?
I have a very personal view of what a computer game should be, so to me a board game is a directly social experience. It’s a group of friends at a table, communicating directly. A computer game is almost always a solitary experience. Even if it it’s multi-player and you have multiple players interacting, you’re rarely in the same space as another human. You’re interacting in a confined method and that interaction becomes part of the game. The designer has control over the way you can interact. Journey for example is multi-player, but you have no means of communication. You can’t even know who the other person is. All you can do is walk around and jump and there’s a button to shout that just goes: Bah! And that’s it, that’s all you can do. What it ends up being is this completely solitary and immersive experience where you’re fully transported into another world.
I sometimes think of the board as a kind of a kind of analogue display …
That too. It’s also typically discrete, which requires a bit more symbolic abstraction. I think designing a great board game is a much harder task, for that reason.
What is your working method?
My preferred method of working is with one other person. Typically someone who is more artistic than I am. I tend to be fairly left brained, analytical, mechanics driven. But working with people who are more right brained, visually driven, and think differently – I think that’s the best method for creating a game. Those two people are essential. I think every once in a while you’ll see one person who can do that by themselves – but typically not.
In which kind of games is your company specialized?
Because of our strengths in animation and character design, I’m really pushing us toward narrative, character driven game play. I think that’s where we can really excel. We have a natural tendency to go that way anyway and I think there’s a big deficit in the industry right now in terms of original characters in original narrative. That said, it’s a very challenging field, because dynamic narrative is very difficult to construct – so it’s going to be new.
What are the questions you ask yourself when you develop a game?
I think the most important question I ask myself is: What does the player do? And that’s really important, because a lot of times we talk about game ideas and we say “Wouldn’t it be cool” and “Here’s this world” and you get wrapped up in high level thinking and you just have to bring yourself back: What is the player actually do? How do they interact with this space? What are the choices they make? That’s how I continually ground myself and mostly just ask myself that over and over and over again, every time we start talking: “Ok, we let it, we let it go, ok, what does the player do, how do I interact with that?” The other question I’d ask is: Who is it for? And I want sort of tie this into your other question. You asked me: Who do I design for? Do I design for myself or others? And I really believe that if you can’t find the fun a game yourself – you can’t make it. So ultimately I am designing for myself all the time, but as an artist you want to broaden your horizons as much as possible. So you end up – and this is again how it sort of influences your life: You try to find the fun in everything. You try to understand how people … I don’t really like Angry Birds, but find the fun in Angry Birds, find the fun in all these other games. And then pretty soon you’re finding fun everywhere. It’s about altering your mind to actually have fun doing something you ordinarily do not enjoy. I could be analytical about it, but I think you often miss the visceral part. I try to ground myself in the action first, the zen part. Have fun doing that, then I move on to the other elements, and try to reflect on what I’m feeling, without interrupting the flow.
Did you find the fun in Angy Birds? Why is it so successful?
What I found compelling about it is mostly the feedback. As to success, well, they made a good game, and were very lucky. Mobile games require both, these days – and given how simple the successful games are, I’d say a lot of luck.
This reminds me of systems theory. It’s not so much about judging: This is good, this is bad, it’s more like: How does it work?
The tricky part is with games, you are frequently asking ‘Why do I feel this way?’ Or ‘How is this system encouraging me to keep playing?’ It is very much like systems theory, but because designers must analyze their own mind in realtime, without breaking immersion, it’s quite a challenge.
A game may have a message that is anti-social or whatever, but it still can be a good game – would you agree?
Yes, certainly. I look at systems abstractly, but I also believe games are art, and should be held to the same standards. There are plenty of morally objectionable propaganda films in lots of cultures, which still have a lot to teach in terms of craft. I think most mainstream games are about as artistic as a Hollywood action film, which is to say, rich in craft, and lousy in about everything else. Indie games are another story.
Why do you think are people fascinated by Mine Craft? What kind of fun is in there?
There are two things. Pc games have changed a lot. Most of the games I’ve cited to you when I was talking about pc games were made ten years ago. Pc games as they used to be were an intensely immersive experience where you fell into a world. They could be complicated, they could be slow, they could be driven at your own pace. Mine Craft I think is a pc game in the tradition of great pc games. A large part of it is, it’s truly an open world game where you can explore practically speaking forever. And it’s always new. You can share that experience with others. Which is amazing. The ability to go on a journey together with another friend and change the world. Additionally, instead of graphics or narrative or any of these other things, Mine Craft focused on the most important thing, of games, which is interactivity. I think that’s what defines what a games is, how interactive is it … They said, we’re going to make the most interactive game we can. And some of the artistic choices were stylistic, but many of them were practical. It was just about pushing interactivity as far as you could go.
Would you agree that it’s not only a game for pc but also is pc – politically correct?
It’s very neutral in my opinion in terms of where it stands. I think it has quite a few weaknesses and one of them is that in terms of a game, there isn’t much there. It doesn’t really offer you much to go on. There’s sort of these abstract concepts that are happening, but mostly what’s fun about Mine Craft are the communal aspects, exploration, building, and construction. The ability to enter a space and modify it and explore it together, that’s something that is very rare.
If you had to name one function of games in society, what would that be? What problem is being solved by games?
This is going to sound maybe ridiculous, but: education. If you’ve looked at other animals … many animals play. And they do so to learn. Another thing I think about when I’m designing, is: What are you learning? And typically … people who are pushing an agenda, you know: We wanna try and teach math in a game. It doesn’t quite work. It’s hard. But if you think about something like Sim City again, you can take very complicated systems, immensely complicated systems, that will take hundreds of algorithms to understand, and still you couldn’t conceptualize – and turns them into this system we can conceptualize. You can’t describe the system correctly, but you can come to understand it and you get a feel for it. So I’d say there’s this kind of intuitive learning that is very unique.
What you learn in World of Warcraft are the soft skills you need for your working place, right?
It’s very true. I played World of Warcraft – that was going to be one of my last games selection – I played World of Warcraft for quite a lot of times. And as a social experiment it was fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. There were people who could construct a group of people and bring them together. There were people who didn’t fit in and could not work with other people. There was a constantly shifting social dynamic … and people would alter their own personality in order to fit into social situations.
But what is GTA teaching you?
Hmm, that eventually even stealing cars and running over pedestrians gets boring. Actually, faster than many activities. To be honest, I found GTA to be a bit boring.
Meaning: Games should be a part of the education system in your opinion?
As I said before, I think there is an overemphasis on result, and insufficient time spent on process. It’s hard to test process. Bad statistics again … In short, I think we need a paradigmatic shift in the way we teach children to think about the world, at least in the US, I wouldn’t be surprised if the German system is less dysfunctional. We don’t live in a simple world anymore. Given that, I think games are a great teaching tool. Unfortunately, our education system here seems to value trivia, and so when people adapt games to satisfy those goals, they are useless and boring. As a designer, I’d like to find lenses I can share with people. It’s not about ‘teaching’ so much as expanding minds. A lofty goal, I know – few designers are lucky to claim such a prize. At school, they teach students, rather than encourage exploration. I think there is rebellion against school because, unless you are either extrinsically motivated, by parents, or simply intellectually competitive, it’s a terrible learning environment for most people.
You said: It’s ridiculous to say games are about education. Why ‘ridiculous’? Because it’s an ideal?
Exactly. It’s mostly because our culture is really stuck on what education should be, especially here. We have a majority of people who want to teach literal facts from a religious book, while banning clothing mandated by a different religious book. They are more interested in who puts what body part where, than in creating a better society.
What would be the opposite of a game? What is precisely: not a game?
A lecture. It’s not interactive … It’s not a perfect example, because as an audience member you still have your imagination, and a good lecture will draw on the imagination of those sitting there. But the interactivity of games is what defines them.
If you had to decide for one main distinction that informs gaming – what would that be? Win/loss? Fun/No fun? What would be the preference value?
I would say it’s choice. The ability to alter the outcome and stay with the world. In a way that’s a lot of different things. That can manifest as power. That can manifest as … I think winning is a subside of that. It’s executing your own vision upon the world. In terms of win/loss, a lot of people do define games that way. I think in the way we discuss games that’s far too narrow. I think actionable choice, meaningful choice, as Sid Mayer would say, is the defining characteristic and the most important thing to a player.
Are there any self-referential games you know?
The best example which theorists would love to go to is a board game called Train. It’s a game that can only be played once. Players are presented with a series of trains and they’re asked to ferry as much cargo as they can to a destination. And there are cards that are … information is revealed as the game is played. And about midway through the game … The players are competing to get as much cargo as they can to this one destination. And halfway through they’re realising they’re transporting people. You’re basically re-enacting the holocaust. It was made by an American, Brenda Romero, as a university project. You’re transporting people to death camps. But your trains haven’t arrived yet. So it’s open to the player: What do you do? Many players react differently to this. Many will try and stop their trains. And now the game systems which previously they were trying to work with are working against them. Some will simply get up and stop playing a way. Which is in many ways a valid choice. I think in terms of meta games, this is one of the strongest examples.
Are there any existing games or games in development that really present an open world? Because so far the open worlds are not open at all, right?
That’s true. We talked about Mine Craft already. Mine Craft is one of the closest. It presents I think basically infinite scale. But it’s very limited in terms of … It has a limited set of actions. Going beyond that I think we’re talking about scale … and you’re … we’re going to get open world games in a few dimensions. For example Eve Online is absolutely enormous in scope and size. And in terms of economics I would describe it as an open world game. Perhaps not in terms of geography. But in terms of an economic simulation, it’s very rich and immersive and the players are given almost absolute control over the system. Beyond that you run into difficulties. At some point … there’s this postmodern concept when the map becomes as large as the area that it maps.
GTA or Red Dead Redemption present very different time concepts. There’s a big difference between driving a car very fast somewhere and riding a horse. In Heavy Rain you can only walk. By these limitations they generate a kind of real time experience. It seems to be a new phenomenon.
There are two other games. Again, World of Warcraft and a game I really love: Fallout. Both of which encourage you to explore a world. Some of the most immersive and meaningful moments in these games come when you’re just traversing spaces. In World of Warcraft there is implicit danger when you’re traveling. And that travel becomes interesting, because it takes time, physical time, you’re traversing a large amount of space … Generally, nothing happens so in terms of building a dramatic arc the periods of travel … offer time for reflection. You can build tension in different ways, and it’s very important to narrative gameplay. That being said, Heavy Rain in particular, a lot of times became frustrating. Because you physically had to perform a lot of these actions that were generally mundane. To me the beauty of a game is the accelerated experience, the accelerated interactivity. If you just recreate real life, why don’t you just go outside. The game world offers the ability to experience life at a hundred times, a thousand times the scale, or 1/1000 the scale. You can watch cities rise and fall in minutes, and that’s impossible in the human time scale. I think that’s one of the most compelling reasons for … Our perception is very good at understanding things within our scale and typically very bad in things that are beyond their scale, both in terms of space and time. It’s hard to understand the idea of planetary bodies, just how far away they are. Or what a million years really look like. But in a game we can bring that into the human scale and actually understand it. Within that, there is room for variants in pace, and I think that’s very important. I think it’s an interesting tool, it’s an exceptional tool. But I think the idea of creating a map of our time scale in a game world is sort of redundant. It’s not the most interesting thing to me.
What do you think of Ingress?
The augmented reality game? That is interesting because it reveals another layer to our own reality. It’s, in fact, just exposing the lens directly to the player. It doesn’t require the internalization that something like Sim City does. It’s a good point – I suppose it isn’t just other scales, it’s also simultaneous states.
I tried to drive in GTA like I drive in the real world, stopped at every red light etc. It’s nearly impossible.
Players try to maximize feedback. That is what is fun – it’s how you learn about the system – by pushing it out of equilibrium, creating entropy. In GTA, you get the most feedback from the system by jacking cars and creating mayhem. That is the way the player is allowed to offer input. Until you do that, the system ignores you, and you learn nothing.
What will the future bring?
I’m very optimistic actually. Especially the current hardware generation for both consoles and PCs. A lot of that has to do with direct X 11.
What is that?
Graphics technology has been getting more and more powerful over the years. As you watched games come out with more and more realistic graphics. And this is largely due to graphics hardware. The most recent generation of graphics hardware allows … well, previously graphics hardware was very, very specialized. Only graphics computations could be performed and drawn to the screen. Now you can perform arbitrary computations on your graphics card. So anything can happen. And our graphics cards – people don’t really have a good sense of this – but are thousands if not tens of thousands more powerful than your CPU. And now this power is available for any computation. So physics, AI, any of these systems can now leverage the full potential of our personal computing power which is three or four orders of magnitude above what it’s been. That’s really exciting. I hope people use it and we don’t simply continue to pursue better and better graphics. I love great looking graphics as much as everyone else, but I think Mine Craft hopefully had shown the world that there’s a hunger for new and interesting interactivity. Ten thousand times more computing power would go a long way.
What do you think of the oculus rift?
I only recently used one, maybe a week ago I had the chance to play with an oculus rift – and I was blown away. It was so immersive … It was disorienting. People were falling, waving their arms around … I’m very optimistic. I think the rift is just the first step. So to answer your question: Yes, it’s going to become very important. Five years ago everyone would’ve said: No way. Not a chance. But having played with the rift, I think It’s going to change the way we think about especially pc gaming.
Interview> Markus Heiudingsfelder
Guns of Icarus Online: http://store.steampowered.com/app/209080/
Guns of Icarus Classic: http://store.steampowered.com/app/49800/