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Q&A with Seismic Games President John Linden

john-lindenThis month, ESA asked Seismic Games President John Linden about his experiences in the video game industry and the studio’s role in furthering virtual reality (VR) and mobile video game technology. Read the Q&A to learn more about Seismic Games and how it is creating the games of the future.

Responses have been edited for brevity but not content.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you build a career in the video game industry?

A: I’m new to the video game industry compared to a lot of people I work with here who have been in the industry for twenty something years. My first job [in the industry] was at Activision. For the longest time I was doing internet startup companies, the first I started back in 1997 and we were more focused on social networking, which I guess were called online communities then. I was in that space for a while and then I had startups in the advertising technology space. Our focus was on building very large scalable systems and then I felt I had to take a break from that industry and I got a call from Activision. They were looking for someone without necessarily a background in games that had that scalability experience and mobile experience to bring Call of Duty into the mobile world. I’ve been a long-time video game player and jumped at the opportunity. I was at Activision for about four years and mostly worked on Call of Duty, but also on a game called Skylanders Battlecast, which is a mobile augmented reality game with physical playing cards. So I guess you could say I got my quick MBA in video game experience with Activision before I left last June when we started a new game company called Grue Games, which ended up merging with Seismic Games in November. A lot of us had known each other for a long time which is how we got to Seismic Games. It’s been a very fun five years for sure!

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of Seismic Games? What type of games and technologies does the studio focus on?

A: Seismic Games was founded in 2011 around social games, Facebook and all that, and they were working on projects with us at Activision. In my roles at Activision and Grue Games, I had worked with Greg and the team across the years. When Seismic expressed interest in teaming up with Grue, we were excited for the opportunity and kind of put our two studios together to create what’s now the newest formation of Seismic Games. Together, we focus primarily on three verticals: mobile, which is our first and primary vertical; VR and Augmented Reality (AR); and we have an unannounced location-based entertainment property company we’re working with to create a video game ride at a theme park and will come out in 2019. All of our unannounced projects are based on major intellectual property (IP) franchises.

Q: We know you have a lot of experience with mobile games. In fact, you were responsible for expanding the Call of Duty franchise into mobile. How do you think the mobile game industry has changed over the years? And how are mobile games impacting the video game market today?

A: Mobile games are a giant piece of the video game industry and it has been a welcome addition to the industry. I think it has changed a lot actually. In the early days, it was a wild west scenario with the goal of just getting fun games out there which fed into what consumers were looking for but now it has become its own ecosystem. The biggest thing that has changed is really the holistic plan you have to look at. When we go to plan out new games, it’s not just gameplay anymore. You have to have a great story and great graphics, which is kind of assumed now. It’s also about what’s the strategy about esports? What’s the strategy about getting viewership on YouTube and Twitch? It seems these factors have become almost as important as the game itself. How are you going to acquire new users? How are you going to get your game known out there? Obviously that’s the big piece and things we look around for are the big IPs, which has been our specialty to get noticed and have consumers recognize our game worlds instantly. We look to build out a very fun and unique experience for them. It has definitely changed a lot and has been exciting to watch this whole ecosystem develop.

Q: What is the future of mobile games? Do you see major developers shifting away from traditional personal computer (PC) and console projects to create more mobile content?

A: What’s so exciting about where the industry is going and with mobile, which has been proven, there’s different gameplay that makes sense on mobile, that makes sense on PC and console, and there has been some great crossover. There have been some great games you can play on mobile that transfer well over to PC, but what I love about it is there’s a type of game that works beautifully on each type of platform and even in VR and AR. I don’t necessarily see developers moving away, I don’t think those markets are leaving anytime soon but I think what we’re seeing now is how do we take these beautiful IPs on PC and console and how do we reinvent them for the mobile world? I think it’ll be the same way with VR and AR as well so it’s not necessarily just the concept of we were doing PC and console, and now are going into mobile. It’ll be more like how do we take these brands and worlds we’re creating and create the right experience in mobile vs. the right experience in PC and console.

Q: As you mentioned, AR and VR are also a big focus for you. How is VR/AR technology changing the video game landscape?

A: The short answer is they’re not affecting the video game landscape in a major way currently. I think what’s happening in VR and AR is there’s a lot of learning and I think there’s a lot of adventurous early people who understand where it could go, so there’s a lot of effort in learning how to build games in this space, which is great. Unfortunately, the consumer market hasn’t gotten there yet and I think it’s still a couple years off honestly, but some of the new technologies that are being announced will shorten the amount of time it takes to get that market share. I think it’ll change it in a pretty big way but it’s similar to what mobile was to PC and console, VR and AR to the industry is the same as well. It’s a new way to consume this content and is a different experience.

My favorite thing about VR is that it draws an emotion, it is so immersive and I’ve seen a few people that create blooper-like moments when they come out of it. I’ve seen some people try to place their controllers and headset down on a table when they’re done with what they see in their VR environment, but they’re not there in real life and they come crashing down because the experience was so immersive! I think what you’ll see is developers take advantage of that over time and will build these beautiful experiences as the consumer market evolves a little bit more.

Q: How do you think haptic technology will fit into the future of video games? Do you see it playing a big role?

A: Haptic is interesting. It can just bring that immersion to another level. We just did a project with another company that is about to be released in IMAX theaters that took the experience we created and added haptic technology to it and so it was kind of like an accessory. It’s kind of nice to have it and it’s a fun piece to have but it’s not necessary to the gameplay yet, but it really does take that immersion even further. We’ll see more of it, but I don’t think haptic will be in the consumers’ hand right away. It will be similar to VR in that I think you’ll see the rise in this arcade kind of mentality again. It’ll be like the ’80s again in the same way arcade technology took off and it wasn’t playable at home, so people would congregate around these arcades. I think this is where haptic plays in: we’ll see the rise of the arcade again. VR is difficult and hard to set up sometimes to get the really immersive experiences, but people can go to the arcade again like IMAX VR to be able to see these things. Those are the experiences haptic is really going to advance because it’s hard to get people fully into VR and with haptic too. Giving people the opportunity to fully experience both of those things through these location-based experiences will hasten the process of putting this technology into consumer hands, but it’s still a ways off.

Q: Are there industries that are using or could benefit from AR/VR other than the video game industry?

A: Without question! I think that the video game industry could be one of the smaller users of VR technology. The one that comes to mind right away is education. I’ve seen some amazing demos and we’ve been part of some pitches that were looking to add a VR experience to educational environments and I think that’s such an amazing opportunity. It transports you to another world and it’s such an amazing way to learn. We saw another demo a long time ago with this hybrid AR/VR experience where you opened this book and Mt. Everest popped out of the book and you could walk around the pages and see every aspect of it. You could also flip a switch between AR and VR and suddenly you’re standing on the mountain in VR. I think things like that will be mind-blowing for the future of education and being able to take all these concepts we learned in school and to be able to take them and poke and prod them, I think, will be a tremendous opportunity. You’re starting to hear of industrial and agricultural uses of VR, and especially AR, but I think the education aspect could be a driver for innovation moving forward because of its ability to shift how people learn.

Q: Where do you see the video game industry in the next ten years? What are the biggest trends you are seeing?

A: A couple things, first I think the arcades are going to be a huge part maybe in the short term, like the next five years and people will be able to experience this. Like any other piece of technology, the more you experience it, the more you’ll want to have it in your home and in your daily lives, which will drive a lot of that growth. Some other trends we’re seeing like the types of experiences users are able to have on lower-powered devices is phenomenal. Being able to bring PC and console quality experiences on a mobile phone in VR is great. These changes take time and are hard to implement, but it’s part of what I love about the video game industry, creating these new shifts that have a huge impact.

Game developers are great at finding ways to make their products more efficient and I think we’ve seen that over the years with early consoles, they lasted ten years! The games just kept getting better and better, but the hardware stayed the same. We’re already starting to see this new hardware and it’ll be so exciting to see developers optimize it and keep creating better content. The other thing I think is really amazing, but haven’t heard too much about it yet, is around machine learning and deep learning. I was just at Google I/O last week and there was so much talk about using machine learning and neural nets for vision, to be able to recognize objects, to be able to do natural language processing, to be able to do accurate language translation in real-time. What I think can happen with that is games will get a little less fixed and a little more procedurally generated. I think there will be this great collision soon between what’s happening in machine learning and applying that to video game mechanics, which gets very interesting. The game might end a different way you thought it would at the start because of how it’s optimizing based on your decisions and the community’s decisions over time. I think those two industries will collide in a big way over the next few years, which will change what will happen in video games.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring video game developers? Which skills should they invest in today to break into the video game industry and become successful?

A: I’ve gotten this question a few times from people trying to break into the industry and my answer is always make sure you understand the base mechanics behind it – math, science, art – which requires having a strong education. What I love about the video game industry vs. even the tech or internet industry is that it pulls so many amazing resources into one project. You have all this beautiful art and not only just art, but illustration, 3-D modeling, you have animation, you have visual affects. On the programming side you have gameplay, networking, social. You have all these different pieces come together to build these beautiful worlds and what I think is the most important thing, which is something we look for, is someone who knows the math and science behind it. I don’t want to sound too teacher-like, but having a strong educational background in math and science and even the arts will make you a great developer. Having the appreciation to understand how these artists are pulling in their work and the math behind the 3-D art is really important. What is causing my game to not feel the way I want it? Being able to pick apart the mechanics and get back to the original point of the guts behind the tools. I always tell kids especially, make sure you’re learning your math and science because they are all super important to being in the game industry.

Q: At the beginning of our interview, you mentioned being a long-time gamer. What’s your favorite video game of all time?

A: That’s a tough one! I guess my favorite game and most influential game are a little different, I’ll tell you both. I think my favorite game, which will sound a little boring, is Legend of Zelda. That game was just magical to me! It created such an amazing world and had really cool gameplay. I remember coming home from school every day and jumping on that game until I beat it. That was probably my all-time favorite but my most influential game was a little bit different. That one is called Shadow of the Beast, a game by a company called Psygnosis and it was amazing! It was one of the first games to have multiple layered parallax backgrounds that really made it immersive even in the side-scroller type of world. Those are probably two of my favorites.

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