Bob Bates interview 1
Bob Bates interview 1

Bob Bates interview

Ingmar: Please give us an overview of games you worked on as an indie developer/consultant.

Bob: One of the great things about being independent is the wide range of games you get to work on. The projects I worked on during this period couldn’t be any more dissimilar from each other, as you will see!

  • (Untitled) Sexual Harassment Training Course: In the middle years at Legend, I wrote one of the first-ever “serious” games – an Ethics Training game for the United States Department of Justice. I built on that experience to create a game about Sexual Harassment for a company called HCCS. The hardest part about developing that game was to present situations where harassment could be present and identifiable, without the scenarios being offensive themselves. And it probably goes without saying that including humor in a game on this topic is quite difficult!
  • Panzer Elite Action: This was the first of the games I worked on for the great Slovenian developer, Zootfly. I’m still not sure why they brought in an adventure game designer to work on a tank action game! The part I liked the most about that project (other than working with the guys on the team) was creating three tank commanders – German, Russian, and American – who all had different versions of the same first name, and who all had honorable reasons for fighting.
  • Spider-Man 3: This was a bit of a rescue mission. The team at Vicarious Visions, a division of Activision, were working with an unmovable deadline – they had to release the game on the same day as the movie. This was their first console game, and they had created a good engine, but they were behind in mission design. So for four months I commuted to Albany New York, coming home only on weekends, and worked with the level designers, artists, and programmers to get the game out on time. The crunch was worth it, however, as the game went on to become a #1 bestseller, to be dislodged from the top of the charts only by a new Command & Conquer game, which was under the direction of Mike Verdu. Not bad for a couple of old Legend guys!
  • Project Raven: The CIA runs a University that has all kinds of courses to train intelligence officers. One of the classes is to teach Critical Thinking. I designed a game for them that exposed analysts to some of the basic errors that lead to faulty conclusions. Not surprisingly, this was a fascinating project.
  • Sacred 2: Another great team to work with: Ascaron, the creators of the original Sacred. The challenge here was to write a prequel to an enormously popular game, and also to give the player two different paths he could legitimately take. I remember having a hard time writing the “Shadow” path and getting help from Hans-Arno Wegner and Peter Luber, who told me I just wasn’t evil enough!
  • Cursed Mountain: This was probably the strangest of the projects during this period. It was a horror/mountain-climbing game for the Wii, but with motion-detected combat using the Wii remote, and the enemies were spirits from Buddhist mythology!
  • Ride to Hell (unreleased version): Another fun game to work on. This was a motorcycle gang game set in the American West in the 1960s. I had a great time working on the dialog, and I joked with the developers that they only brought me in because I was old enough to remember the slang from the period so they could save money on research! Unfortunately, the game was put into mothballs, and when it re-emerged several years later, none of the work I had done on it survived.

Since I left Zynga there are some new projects in the works, but of course I can’t talk about any of those until they come out.

Ingmar: What it is like to develop serious games for the US government?

Bob: The hardest part of working on any serious game is the design phase, when you need to ask three questions: What does the player need to learn? How will the game know when he has learned it? And who else needs to know that he has learned it?

Most serious games are content to deal with the first two questions, but when your client is the US government, you also must deal with the third. It is not enough for the player to have learned something; the government wants proof that the training has been effective. This problem of proof is called “assessment,” and you have to build into the game a way to demonstrate the player has learned what he needs to.

Apart from that, the other hard part is finding a way to make the game entertaining when the client is notoriously averse to humor. It’s possible, but very hard.

Ingmar: You are a sought-after speaker at industry events, a guest lecturer at universities, former chairman of the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA), and have written highly acclaimed works on game design and the industry. How important is it for you to share your wealth of knowledge and experience, and what is your hope when it comes to the reception of your audience?

Bob: One of the biggest problems that nobody talks about in game development is that the cycles are so long that it’s difficult for any one person to work on enough games to hone their craft. In most other creative fields, people can iterate quickly – in the space of one year an artist can make hundreds of drawings and paintings, an author can create dozens of stories, a composer can create whole albums of songs. But a game designer might work on one game for three or four years, and even then it might not come out!

We are also handicapped by the geographically distributed nature of game development. Many other creative disciplines have thriving communities of artists who live and work near each other. I often think about London in Shakespeare’s day, when a talented group of playwrights knew each other, went to each other’s plays, and helped each other out. A line or a joke or a bit of business that someone suggested in the tavern one night could be performed for an audience the very next day, and then kept or discarded based on how it was received.

By contrast, we game designers are geographically isolated. We have no equivalent of Shakespeare’s London where we can work side by side. Some cities are fortunate enough to have multiple studios, but that is the exception, rather than the rule.

Faced with these difficulties, it is important for us to do everything we can to learn from each other and advance our craft. We can form virtual communities, which are no substitute for the real thing, but which at least let us talk to each other. We can give talks, write books, and go to conferences. It’s hard for one person, sitting in a room, alone, to be great.  Each of us needs all the help we can get!

Ingmar: Thanks a lot for doing this interview, Bob. We appreciate it and wish you all the best for the future. Any last words to the loyal Infocom and Legend fans out there?

Bob: You’re very welcome! I appreciate the opportunity to revisit the early days and to get the names of so many people onto the record.

For the Infocom and Legend fans out there, we can take heart in the recent re-birth of the adventure genre, and I especially look forward to seeing Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park game.

And as for me, the day will definitely come when I return with a new game of my own. The only question is… when?

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Ingmar Böke
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