GIA Interviews Steve Gray, Part Two

Continued from Part One

AndrewV: Alright, Steve, let's change the subject -- AK and I have a very important, serious question for you.

Steve: Okay, fire away.

AndrewV: Do you subscribe to Playboy? This is to settle a bet.

Steve: No. Playboy is weak.

Brian: (cackles in victory)

AndrewV: (punches Glick)

AndrewK: Dammit! We lose, Vestal.

Steve: Though I could go for some more pics of Pamela Anderson...

Brian: Thanks, Steve. You just won me 10 bucks.

Steve: Can you say, "kick back"?

(Brian and Tamzen leave to research some breaking news stories)

AndrewV: Steve, after your work with Digital Domain, did you head to Electronic Arts?

Steve: Yes, EA Canada. The home of many fine sports games. Too bad I HATE SPORTS GAMES!

Brian: Not only did Steve work for a Canadian company, but he hates sports games. I love this man!

AndrewV: What fine sports games did you work on?

Steve: Titles such as the 96 and 97 versions of NHL, FIFA, and J-League Baseball, among others.

AndrewV: What was your position on those games?

Steve: Well, what I went to EA to do was basically set up their 3D production pipeline and run the audio and video post group, such as intro and payoff cinematics. I also did all of the motion capture. So I built EA Canada up from about ten SGIs to about sixty and built a motion capture studio. We did a shitload of motion capture while I was there ... thousands of moves.

AndrewK: Was your face included in secret code-entry-only teams?

Steve: My face should be on one of the "no name" players in NHL-96, but I've never actually seen it.

AndrewV: Did you work on Madden 97, the unshipped wonder?

Steve: I didn't work on Madden 97. That was done out of San Mateo, not Vancouver.

AndrewV: What systems were these games released for?

Steve: We shipped for everything. PC, Sega Genesis & Saturn, Sony Playstation, SNES and Nintendo 64. I think FIFA 96 was released in 7 languages simultaneously on 5 or 6 platforms.

AndrewV: Did you have trouble moving from the hi-res, near-unlimited processing world of Digital Domain to the small, dinky 16-bit cartridge world of EA Sports?

Steve: Not really. I'd been trying to get Digital Domain set up for doing games for about 6 months before I gave up and moved up to Vancouver to work for EA. So I knew pretty much what I was getting into.

AndrewK: Is porting games for the European versions of the systems a time consuming task? We often have readers overseas wondering why their release dates are so much later than Japanese and American dates in some cases.

Steve: A lot of the reasons games are released at different dates in different markets is "marketting reasons." Regardless, the translation work is non-trivial, given the territories and publishing schedule.

    Especially considering the problems that come out of the fact that the same sentence in two different languages may take a considerably different ammount of walk clock time. On the other hand, Parasite Eve was developed simultaneously in both languages ... it could have been release simultanesouly but wasn't.

AndrewV: Were you much of a gamer before you went to EA? You mentioned that you tried to set something up at Digital Domain.

Steve: I've always been a gamer, although I play a lot more arcade games than console games. One of the main reasons I went to work at DD was to set up the interactive division.

AndrewV: Let's move on from EA ... was Square next?

Steve: After about one year in Vancouver making sports games for EA I really couldn't take it anymore. EA Canada is a FUCKING AWESOME COMPANY to work for, though, so nothing against them, but I don't like sports games. Square approached me and asked if I would go back to LA to run their LA game production studio. I said yes.

    So, much flying to and from Tokyo occured. Partying on the order of which legends are made occured.

AndrewV: With Square employees?

Steve: Much, much partying with Sakaguchi. I like Sakaguchi, he is a cool dude, but I didn't get along as well with some of the other folks.

AndrewV: Had you made it clear you were looking to leave EA, or did Square approach you out of the blue?

Steve: Actually, I had no real plans to leave EA. I just wasn't happy. I was trying to make it work there, and get them more into other types of titles ... then Square came along out of the blue and convinced me to quit and come back to LA to work for them.

AndrewV: Did you get along better at Square, then?

Steve: Well ... no. I think that if some issues with management hadn't existed, Parasite Eve would be a way better title, and I would probably still be working at Square.

    But they did, that's all there is to it. And their RPG turned out pretty lame, in my opinion. The battle tower is cool, though.

Brian: (laughs) I think I'm practically the only person out there that thought Parasite Eve was a good game.

Steve: The battle tower is cool.

Brian: (scratches his head) I didn't like the EX Tower. Man, I'm odd.

AndrewK: I hear people liked the mutant rats.

Steve: Yeah, we designed the rats.

AndrewV: (whacks AndrewK) No more about rats, Kaufmann! Regarding Sakaguchi; you say he's cool, and ostensibly he was "president" of Square USA, but I got the impression he was working lots at the Japanese studios on titles like Final Fantasy. How much did he work with you at Square USA, and how much were you free-flying?

Steve: That's right. Sakaguchi was always much too busy to be bothered with the Los Angeles thing, but despite repeated requests, he wasn't willing to change some of the staff originally assigned to the project. Very sad. We still managed to slide a few cool things into the title.

Steve: There were originally supposed to be a couple of maps in the sewer in which you had to find a lead pipe and baseball bat the rats around. That would have been cool.

AndrewK: That's the kind of thing that would appeal to a lot of audiences. "It's an RPG!" "I hate RPGs." "You can beat up mutant rats with baseball bats though!" "Cool! Sign me up!"

Andrea: Just imagine Beavis and Butthead playing "rat baseball."

Steve: Beating up rats with baseball bats seemed like a nice combo between twitch gaming and RPG-ing.

AndrewV: How much say did you have in the design process and art direction for the title?

Steve: I had a lot to say about the art direction, very little to say about the game design.

AndrewV: Did you do any on-location scouting in New York? PE's veracity to the real thing is renowned.

Steve: We bought many books and several team members had lived in Manhattan for many years. We realized that one person had gone to Manhattan over the Christmas holidays and did a big photo tour. There were supposed to be a couple of maps set in Manhattan's infamous "Hellfire" S&M club, but they got cut. It is very sad. S&M babes everywhere.

AndrewV: All the good stuff got cut!

Steve: That is the problem with Playboy... hardly any S&M babes!

AndrewK: I think that comment should win us back the $10.

CharlesV: (laughs)

Steve: The main thing cut was the 24-bit FMV engine we developed. It could play back 24-bit full screen video clips with real-time rendered characters on top of them; actually, not just on top of them, but Z-buffer composited into the video clips. It could play them backwards too.

   We've since re-built that technology at Rainmaker and will be release at least one PSX title based on that technology in the next year or so.

AndrewK: Why in the world didn't it make it?

Steve: It didn't scroll, I didn't realize that "all games must scroll." That is one area in which Sakaguchi and I disagree.

AndrewK: Did Sakaguchi have any reason for the scrolling steadfastness?

Steve: No ... "ALL GAMES MUST SCROLL." (repeat this as if reciting a religious mantra.) Actually, he did have a reason: 200 million dollars worth of FF sales. Scrolling (in Square terms) means a screen which is slightly bigger than the display region (say 512x512) of which a given portion is visible at any one time.

    I thought that "scrolling" through a 3D envrionment would count; apparently not. One of the other things we heard was that Japanese won't buy games that don't have Anime characters in them (of course, Resident Evil -- Biohazard) did quite well.

AndrewV: Back to the CG ... how difficult was it to render total CG characters? Effects work in movies is usually live actors with effects, PE was total CG. What part of the human body was the most difficult to model convincingly?

Steve: Faces. Faces are hard. Especially low-res, polygonal faces.

AndrewV: Is it easier to model ugly mutant faces or pretty Aya faces?

Steve: Ugly is easier; less preconcieved notions.

CharlesV: AV, you can be a videogame character!

AndrewV: (whaps brother)

AndrewV: Did you model Aya, Eve, or any other characters after anyone you knew?

Steve: Aya and Eve were loosely modeled after two very very pretty Japanese girls who worked at Square.

AndrewV: Did you ever play the final PE? Some reviewers criticised it as beautiful but short. The great amount of CG movies (in this first-ever "cinematic RPG") was often cited as a possibly limiting factor for the gameplay.

Steve: Actually... the amount of cinematics did not impact our ability to create gameplay at all; the ability to create (good) gameplay was limited by other "factors."

AndrewV: Most RPG fans seem to think that any horsepower spent on FMV takes away from the gameplay ... it's some mythical equation.

Steve: What I would have changed, would have been to, first, fire two guys after about the first three months ... build a much better and coherent story... come up with more interesting characters. I think the battles are actually pretty decent, but the exploration mode is BORING BORING BORING.

AndrewK: Was time also a factor?

Steve: So much time was wasted up front that the game maps had to be built and programmed so fast that, in the end, not enough thought went into them. Time was a factor, but there was also potentially a lot of re-use of art assets between FMVs and game maps.

   I would have put a lot more work into the story and exploration mode. The delays in the first year of the project made it impossible to spend enough time making a decent exploration mode. Also, the premise and characters were so weak that making a good game would have been a neat trick to begin with. The other thing I think is flawed is that they didn't want to make an "evolving world." That is, one that remembers what you have done and has characters change their behaviour based on that.

AndrewK: Just differences in philosophy.

Steve: Yes, but I think that FF VII, for example, is a good example of a Square style RPG. PE is not. So we didn't even, in my opinion, make a very good Square title.

AndrewV: Did you work on Chocobo de Battle or any other projects at Square LA?

Steve: NO!! I did not have anything to do with that thing! WORSE WORSE WORSE than PE!

AndrewV: ... it looked pretty ...

Steve: It did not! Bad animation! Yuck!

Brian: It seemed more like a novelty than an actual game.

Steve: Exactly. Though Square is releasing a Chocobo racing game, supposedly.

AndrewV: About the time you left, I believe a lot of Square USA's folks moved on to Square Honolulu.

Steve: Actually, very few people moved from the Square LA facility to the Square USA Honolulu facility. The US people in HI are mostly fresh blood.

   I left because it was at the end of the project. I laid down my set of requirements for a next project to be managed, they were not accepted, so I bailed. I doubt Sakaguchi even knows what happened ... some day I'll write him a letter and have it translated into Japanese and send it.

Steve: So after I and a number of other of the senior crew at Square LA left, we started our own company called Chemistry Entertainment. Chemistry did a big design project for Electronic Arts to create a Godzilla game. Unfortunately, Bing Gordon [EA's head honcho] went to see the Godzilla movie. Legend has it he killed the project immediately thereafter.

   --not that I blame him. However, I think there have been a lot of bad Godzilla movies in the past,and anyway our game had nothing to do with the STUPID new Godzilla movie.

AndrewV: Would the game have been as cool as Godzilla Generations? (laughs)

Steve: Godzilla SNES dude, rock 'n' roll! It was a cool game, in which you play as Godzilla and fight your way through a city encountering other monsters and fighting the army along the way, all real-time 3D. A fighting engine but with heavy emphasis on using the environment: buildings, lamp posts, etc.

AndrewV: So what did work out?

Steve: What we are doing now is two things. We are doing a high-end arcade title, based on probably 600MHz Intel Katmai processors and TBD high-end graphics card. This title is a rail-shooter ala Time Crises or House of the Dead or Lost World. It will be in the arcades summer of 2000.

CharlesV: Wow, that thing sounds dialed!

AndrewK: I love arcade games where you drive cars.

AndrewV: My brother is a slave to his 3D accelerators.

Steve: However, it will be quit a bit more "interactive" than the existing rail-shooters -- more choices, less rail -- and will also have more replay value in that it won't play the same everytime you play a level.

   That game will then release on home PC for fall of 2000, and then there will be another version of the arcade title out towards the end of the year. The graphics are fucking awesome ... there is also a female "companion" character that leads you through the game.

AndrewV: Is she attractive? Or will Chemistry Entertainment pioneer the first ever "ugly female sidekick" in a videogame?

Steve: She is HOT HOT HOT. She is modeled roughtly after the Witchblade comic book characters. Super leggy, super huge tits.

CharlesV: Is she hot as in "Lara Croft" -- two giant breasts and a head -- or hot as in "genuinely attractive?"

Steve: No, she is genuinely attractive; plus she has about an order of magnitude more polys!

CharlesV: Heh. Lara's'd poke your eye out.

Steve: Then we are currently talking with Oddworld and GT Interactive about possibly creating another game in the Oddworld series of games. This would be a 24-bit FMV PSX title. We are also talking to a couple of other publishers about 24-bit PSX games.

AndrewK: ALL GAMES MUST SCROLL! ... sorry. The mantra is in my head.

   Jake Kauth, former Square USA employee, server-guru for The UnOfficial Squaresoft Home Page and Square Net, and all around cool guy, makes a surprise cameo appearance.

AndrewV: Hey, Jake!

CharlesV: Hey, Jake.

AndrewK: Was Jake in your heavy metal band?

Steve: No, he was not.

   Having not seen each other in almost six months, Jake and AndrewV catch up on old times.

Steve: Well, gotta run.

AndrewK: (simultaneously with Brian) "And then Jake came in, and there were parties to attend to."

Brian: (simultaneously with AndrewK) "Jake came in, and the partying began."

   Unsurprisingly, Jake's reputation precedes him. Even though Jake and he have plans elsewhere, Steve graciously agrees to answer a few more questions to tie up the interview.

AndrewV: So ... tell us everything and anything about Rainmaker DVD and Interactive that we should know. (grins)

Steve: Rainmaker Entertainment Group is a publically traded Canadian company on the Montreal and Toronto exchange. Rainmaker Entertainment Group has several different divisions: Pacific Motion Pictures is a live-action production company doing mostly TV series work; they have offices in both LA and Vancouver. Rainmaker Digital Pictures does special effects for TV and film; we do a lot of stuff for things like StarGate SG-1 Poltergiest, etc. Cable movie station stuff. We also do quite a bit of TV commercials for the Asian market: Japan, Taiwan, etc.

AndrewV: What about DVDs?

Steve: In LA there is also Rainmaker DVD which does DVD compression and authoring. We have done probably 150 or more titles last year. Expect more from Rainmaker Digital in the future in terms of DVD-Enhanced. I work with the DVD guys to put more and more interactive content (HTML, Java stuff) on their DVDs. Ultimately, as game platforms move to DVD, I suspect their experience with DVD will help us in the interactive division.

AndrewV: Can you give us an example of some cool interactive feature you have bouncing around in your head right now?

Steve: Well, mostly I'd like to make it easier to get in-depth info on the making of, interviews, etc., but what the studios really want is "one click" shopping built into the DVDs. "Buy these clothes that look just like the ones the characters are wearing!"

AndrewK: Damn! I'd love to buy a Batman suit. I wish I were rich.

Steve: Not that interesting, really, but that's very much what the enhanced TV people are all about. I like to think of DVD as a "sneaker net" version of broadband cable.

AndrewV: What are some of your favorite movies on DVD right now? Ones you feel really push the edge of what the technology can do?

Steve: I don't think any of them do; I suppose the best is "Lost in Space," but it sucks.

AndrewK: I hear DVDs are the place to be for pornos.

AndrewV: (hits Kaufmann)

AndrewK: Just had to toss that in, sorry.

AndrewV: AK is all about the "multiple angle" feature.

Steve: Aha! DVD pornos are really the best use of the technology by far! Yes, yes, multiple angles! Fiefen schwantz!

Brian: We were going to buy a leash to try and keep him under control, but he took it in the entirely wrong context.

AndrewK: I need a DVD player for sure!

AndrewV: What sort of music and games do you like to listen to and play -- that is, when you're not authoring 'em?

AndrewK: I bet he loves REM.

Steve: I'm into heavier techno stuff... like RAMMSTEIN! I hate REM, sorry.

AndrewK: Doh! I can't believe it. (sobs) Jilted.

AndrewV: AK is the world's biggest REM fan.

AndrewK: I take people not liking REM personally. It's a very sad sight.

Brian: Steve, do you like electronica?

Steve: Hmmm. .. I can listen to it.

AndrewV: Electronica schmelectronica. Electronica is glorified SNES music.

Steve: Yes, it is!

AndrewV: What sort of games do you like to play?

Steve: I like Time Crisis, I like House of the Dead II, I like Tekken II -- and III ... hmm ... I think Gran Turismo rocks. I'm not really that into RPGs generally, though I really like Secret of Mana. Unreal is cool, although I specifically do not like Doom or any spin-offs thereof. Road Rash.

AndrewV: Road Rash! So that's where the inspiration for hitting things with lead pipes came from ...

AndrewK: That and being in a heavy metal band.

Steve: Slapping little Wabbites upside the head -- heavy metal rocks. That's why I like RAMMSTEIN: electronica combined with speed metal.

AndrewV: Any career advice for people who might want to work in the industry one day? Classes to take, projects to experiment with, etc.?

Steve: Programming ... learn to program fast! "Program fast" meaning "many lines of code per minute." Don't listen to your TA's -- they suck.

AndrewV: Where do you see the industry in 5 years?

Steve: I am hoping to start to see HDTV really in use. The convergence of PCs and consoles coming close, but not finalized. Broadband cable coming along and being integrated with PCs and partially integrated with consoles -- maybe completely.

AndrewV: Looks like we've all gotta run ... thanks tons for stopping by, Steve, and for this amazing interview.

AndrewK: Thanks a million again!

Brian: See you, Steve, it was great to meet you.

Steve: Thanks ... talk to you all later. Bye!

   And like that, he was gone.

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