EMIL KRAFTLING is the Principal Game Designer at Avalanche Studios, famous for the Just Cause series and Mad Max amongst other things.
What were your early influences?
I started playing computer games when my brothers and I got a Commodore 64 from our grandfather as children. Bubble Bobble and Giana Sisters were my first taste of the industry, but the Amiga 500 is really where things got going. I’ve always been more of a PC gamer than a console gamer actually. I’ve had a strong influence from board games as well, and I remember many hours lost with Hero Quest, that was very inspirational to me not only as a gamer, but as a creator.
What made you want to become a game designer?
It’s peculiar really. I think I’ve always wanted to be a game designer in some sense, but it took me a long while to realize that it was actually something you could “be”, in real life. Even playing computer games and board games it didn’t really occur to me that someone had created them for a living. Even as we started making our own board games at home in my early teens, it was mostly for fun and when I set out to choose my career path, writing was my option. As it turned out, that writing led me to write about games, which led me to realize that you could create games and that I wasn’t actually as far away from becoming just that as I had thought. When I noticed my game reviews for PC Gamer magazine more and more started to include lines like “if I had made this game, I would have…” it was time to jump the fence and see if the grass was greener on the other side. It was a difficult decision, because the grass is pretty freakin’ green on the side of being a games writer – but I have not regretted my decision for one second.
Who are your heroes in the games industry?
As an Editor of PC Gamer magazine, I travelled the world and met a lot of interesting people, from Peter Molyneux to my boss-to-be Christofer Sundberg. The only person I’ve ever asked for an autograph was Brian Reynolds. It’s not that he is the best designer or the most impressive name, but what he did with Alpha Centauri had a bigger impact on me as a designer than most other game designs. How do you make a complex turn-based strategy game play and feel like a science fiction epic novel? I still find it mesmerizing.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in games design?
Create! Hone your creativity by creating and crafting anything in any way. And start small. Make board games of your ideas to try them out and force yourself to take ideas and concepts and grind them into systems and rules.
Where do you see things going and what do you think your part is in that?
As I mentioned in my Animex talk, I think we are still fairly early in our industry. Corresponding to around where cinema introduced sound and dialogue. That means we have so much to look forward to in terms of exploring the potentials of our own medium. I aim and hope to be a part of pushing open world narratives and games as a storytelling canvas. I often get the question of how we can recreate complex interpersonal relationships if we don’t have linear narratives and we just have to take it step by step. Break down everything to a value or a rule, and then rebuild the systems from the ground up, just like we do with everything else in virtual worlds.
What do you think the advantages are of an open world narrative when compared with a linear story?
The main advantage is that it is a structure that is inherently better suited to the interactivity of the medium. Linear stories have an author’s intent which can make them very strong and very convincing, but when they play out in a form where you as a player have more or less control over the advancement of the story, you risk running into situations where you as a player want to perform actions that work against the intended story. In order to preserve the linear narrative, the game must then come in and smack you on the hands, telling you that you are “not playing the way we intended”. And that is a very dangerous notion for an interactive medium. If I have to play it a certain way, why am I not just watching a movie?
By contrast, open world narratives provide more of a set of circumstances, people and places, and your interactive freedom turns your actions into the narrative. This makes it much harder for open world narratives to be very deeply detailed or complex, but in return you will provide a sense of uniqueness to the events that unfold that give players stronger agency and a feeling of creative autonomy.
Do you feel open world narratives restrict some of the more creative writing staff who may have a more direct vision of the story?
Yes and no. They certainly restrict any writer used to classic scriptwriting and schooled for literacy or cinema in that you don’t have full control of the narrative. It requires game writers to actually step out of the box and write for games, as opposed to simply slapping movie scripts onto games. But just like cinema scriptwriters learned that a single shot framed in the perfect way could tell the audience more than a whole page worth of text, game writers have learnt and will continue to learn how to get most out of games.
Open world narratives are more about world building than linear ones. Create a strong world, with strong lore and strong characters, and then stories will be born from the players’ actions. But there’s often more labor involved I suppose. You can’t just pick and choose a linear story from the world you’ve created and spell it out in full, but you have to provide the raw material of as many stories as possible and then let the player pick the one they want. So much of your created material will never be seen, but for myself and writers with the similar mindset I think it can be quite an exciting and appealing endeavor, crafting these worlds and not knowing what people will discover about them and what stories will unfold.
Are there instances where giving the players too much freedom may lead to them doing things that may reflect badly on the game itself?
You should always assume that players will take that freedom and run with it. Actually, players will run regardless, so at least by giving them freedom you will not be caught up with putting up stop signs on a running track. Still, freedom is a very costly thing and you will always have to limit yourself, and that limit is about finding a sensible range of freedom in the context of the game and your world. If the freedom is in tune with the world of your game, then what the player does will still mostly reflect on the context of your game.
With a game tied to a film franchise like Mad Max, is there pressure from publishers to conform to a more linear format?
Not necessarily. In the case of Avalanche Studios, we are known for and have the tech and skills to create open world games. Whenever a publisher works with us, it is because they want to make the best possible games of the kin we are known for making. Anything else would be very bad business-wise. Like buying an apple tree and hoping it will grow bananas.
Do you think open world games are going through a sort of renaissance at the moment? With engines, consoles and PCs becoming more and more powerful does that mean open world games are better than they have ever been?
I’m not sure I’d call it a renaissance, because I’m not sure there was ever a classical antiquity of open world games that could be reborn. I guess it is similar to the renaissance in that it is the new world and everyone is racing to plunder it of its riches. I think open worlds have always been desirable. I can certainly relate to that desire as a player. When Duke Nukem 3D arrived 20 years ago, it caught my attention because the levels were so open and real world-like compared to Doom, and then later that year I started playing Daggerfall which just completely blew me away. In many ways linear levels have been a necessity born out of technical limitations and with every leap in technology it becomes easier and easier for “anyone” to do open worlds.
Now, the wise one realizes that limitations are not always bad. Limitations can and will force you to excel with what you’ve got and requires of you to push the boundaries. And in the other direction, too much freedom can be daunting. And open worlds alone will not automatically make any game great. For every successful open world game that comes out, several unsuccessful will see the light of day. At Avalanche Studios, we have 13 years of experience creating open world games – more than most – and we are still learning new lessons with every shipped product. But that time has allowed us to build up a technical foundation and engine that lets us do some of the biggest worlds out there using techniques that no one else is capable of. It has also fostered a design mindset and experience that lets us avoid a lot of issues and pitfalls that many newcomers to open world would face and fall into.
Do you feel bigger games with large budgets can lose something by trying to appeal to too many people? Is there a danger of them becoming too bland?
I don’t know if bigger budget games can really lose something per se, but I do believe that smaller budget games can definitely gain something from finding a clear niche and owning it fully. Just look at our own hunting game theHunter. A fairly detailed and hardcore game for a specific target audience that has been a tremendous success for us. It may not be strictly AAA in terms of its budget, but when it comes to the hunting experience, it does such a great job at providing that experience that it certainly feels AAA for the target audience.
When it comes to appealing to too many people, that does not necessarily go hand in hand with big budgets. Trying to cover too many bases can become a problem regardless of budget, because it can detract from the focus of your game.
How are the settings for games chosen? What made Just Cause go from The Caribbean to South East Asia to The Mediterranean for example?
There are probably slightly different answers for each game, but I’d say it is a combination of what fits the game mechanics, what allows our engine to shine the most and then personal inspiration from the creative team. And when it comes to the Just Cause series we want to try and bring something new each time. Partly for the players benefit and partly for our own, pushing us to cross new boundaries.
Are your games made with a specific demographic in mind or do you just create the sort of thing you would like to play and see what happens?
I think we always make games that we want to play ourselves. That said, we’re certainly conscious of demographics in some regard, because that awareness can help create better games. We often work with user personas, fictional examples of the kind of people that would buy and play our games. It really helps you to weigh gameplay features when you think about how they would be approached by the real people of the world who will actually play your game. Sometimes it can be very sobering to step out of your game development bubble and look at your game from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived and breathed it for a year.
How important is fan feedback and reviews? How much of the criticism do you take on board and use to influence future games and how much of the praise sets your company’s future direction?
Feedback is extremely important. You just have to make sure to react to the right feedback. Most people have opinions and very often those opinions will be conflicting, so it would be impossible to react to everything. You have to isolate the most important feedback by evaluating the context of the feedback, the context of the feedbacker and the consistency of both.