Continuing our discussion with the iconic game designer...
GU: So this self-financed project wouldn't be an Eat Sleep Play title? Would you leave the studio?
David: Well, it really depends... the Eat Sleep Play guys and ladies are super talented and hardworking. I love working with that team. I don't know if it would be me taking some time off, I don't know if [the self-financed project] would be with them. But one of the lessons I learned a long time ago is that you have to design the game with the team you're working with.
For example, we were doing this game called Heartland and it was an attempt at a first-person shooter on the PSP that was set during an American occupation. It was sort of like Homefront, but this would've been back three years ago. I'm a real liberal guy and I didn't like the Bush administration very much and I really wanted to build this allegory through interactivity about how I saw the ultra, neo-conservative, war-hawkian view of always using might... That's what I wanted to make with Heartland.
The team [at Eat Sleep Play] would've been capable a million times over of executing that game, but that's just not who they are as a team anymore than me going to Sony Santa Monica and saying to the God of War team, 'Hey! Let's make Calling All Cars'. They'd say, '... We don't want to make that type of game'. So it's not that Eat Sleep Play couldn't make this indie game that I'm thinking about, it's I don't think it would be a good fit. It might still be an Eat Sleep Play title, it might be me taking six or eight months off, I don't know yet.
GU: You mentioned the lessons you learned after Calling All Cars - getting to a near feature-complete state and then intensely iterating. Does that apply to something like Twisted Metal?
David: Absolutely. Twisted Metal is substantially more of a mechanics-based game than Calling All Cars. The good thing about Twisted Metal is that we've been iterating on it since 1994. We know the core.
Nuke is a new mode in the game and it's probably where most of iterative time has gone. Obviously there's always balancing, new weapons, new level design, tons of all that, but Nuke is probably the newest wrinkle. It's not just capture the flag. If it was we'd have a template to follow and go 'Let's just plug in the template and we're done'.
We also have a last-man-standing mode that's pretty much just last-man-standing. We have a team version which I love because we're using shared lives. That's not super fresh, but a lot of last-man-standing team games don't do that. I love shared lives, because it encourages team play and makes life valuable.
Nuke is the one we've really had to iterate on because it could've been a standalone game ten years ago without anything else. So we've had to do more iteration on [Twisted Metal] and we're still doing it. One of the reasons I haven't been able to walk around the show floor and I'm not doing many interviews is because I'm kind of chained to the booth, and I want to be. I want to watch people play and go, 'Okay, that's not working'. There's so much you can learn from a place like E3 when you watch people play your game.
So yes, I'll be iterating until the day they pull the game out of our hands.
GU: On that note, I'm guessing you've built up a pretty strong relationship with Sony over the years and earned some creative freedoms. So while the Twisted Metal release window has been pinned down, could you get additional time to iterate if you knew the game needed it?
David: I love my relationship with the folks at Sony. They're really close contacts, a lot of them are really good friends, and some of them who I might not call friends are great colleagues of mine. So I have enough of a connection with them that their door is always open to have a serious conversation. At the same time, we're in a multimillion dollar business and there are many parts of this machine - whether you're talking about sales, ads already purchased or media opportunities where if you move the time they go away.
So yes, they would take a conversation like that very seriously, but I don't have or know anyone who has - expect Kaz Hirai or maybe Jack Tretton - the ability to move it without really having to sell their case. Do I think if there was a case to plead that I'd have ample opportunity to do so? Yes. I would be heard and respected, but it would also take into account things outside my own desires, some of which I'm aware of and some I'm not privy to. It's a great relationship, but I can't snap my figures and say, 'It's coming out when it's coming out. Fuck you!'.
GU: Does the creative process become constrained when you're working on a triple-A title and have to deal with all these outside factors? And if so, is that the source of your desire to pursue this indie project?
David: Here's what I'll say... When I started with Sony games were a lot less expensive to make. $850,000 for the first Twisted Metal. When I worked on Mickey Mania I was one of four designers and that was like $350,000. Now games at retail on PlayStation 3, when you throw in marketing and everything else, can range from $15 [million] on the low side to $85 [million] on the high side. Which means, understandably and respectfully so, that you're getting a lot more people that want to be involved in the decision-making process.
As games have gotten more expensive, I won't lie, I have felt... not less free, because I've got a lot of freedom, but I have definitely felt the strain of not having as much freedom as I used to have. It used to be I'd have a boss on PS2, or even Calling All Cars, and I'd say, 'Hey, I want to do this, can we talk about it?' Nine times out of ten they'd say, 'Yeah, useless you're doing something fucking stupid or you're going to break our bank account on this game then do it'. Now there's a lot more oversight and I respect the need for that.
So to answer your question in a long way... Part of that change is what's motivating me to say, 'I'm not a rich guy, but I've made some money over the years and I could do a game with that'. I mean I don't want to be George Lucas with The Phantom Menace. I don't want to surround myself with yes-men. I like being told no, if it's a good no. I respect no, if I know it's coming from a place of strategy, thought and analysis versus just a place of ego. So I like the idea, even if I spend my own money, that [the indie game] is a tiny little motherfucking ship compared to the cruiser that is Eat Sleep Play and the motherfucking titanic Queen Mary that is Sony. I'm a tiny dingy in the ocean, but even so, I can point that motherfucking ship in any direction that I choose. Part of that is what's making me think it's an appealing decision.
But I'm also cognizant of the fact that that can't be the only reason. It has to be a nice fringe benefit, but the main reason has to be that I love the game more than any of the other opportunities. I think if you put any other motivation in front of why you make creative choices, you are not going to win, and you're going to get hurt emotionally and creativity.