I bring electricity to remote villages in Africa and got Eva Green to narrate my story. Samuel L. Jackson and other huge stars talked about it. AMA!
May 15th 2017 by tristan_ko • 52 Questions • 9952 Points
I have loved games all my life, made board games as a kid, started programming computer games in 1975 in college, then professionally since 1980. I was one of the first 10 employees at Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts, The 3DO Company, and Dreamworks Interactive. More recently I focused on Serious Games in education, health, training, and neuroscience, before becoming Google's Chief Game Designer for 4 years. I quit there last month to get back to my first love: making games people love to play, with cutting edge technology, new creative tech niques, and great collaborators.
Some games I've contributed to include the arcade game Sinistar, LucasArts games like their flight simulator line, as well as Graphic Adventures like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and Fate of Atlantis, The Dig, and the first two Monkey Island Games.
Here's a more complete (but still partial!) list: http://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,1657/
How did you manage to get Eva Green to narrate? Awesome job!
Whoa whoa whoa
YOU made Fate of Atlantis?
I don't have any questions man, I just wanna say that game is so good, it's my childhood, I had a CD for it, I loved it so much
You're awesome, LucasArts games were godlike
It took a lot of persistence, some guts and a little luck! I really wanted to have her narrating. I reached out to several of her agents. Most did not reply, or told me she was not available. At the last minute, one of them replied: she was in! It's really a dream come true. She's very nice for doing this!
Aw, thanks - I co-designed it, there was a big team and Hal Barwood had the most influence on the game, but as it was the most successful adventure game LucasArts ever did (at least before the recent mobile game remakes, don't have figures on that) and did better than either of the other Indiana Jones games we designed without each other, I think it hit a sweet spot of collaboration, where Hal's writing and cinematic experience blended well with my game design skills. And as with so many things, there was a good dollop of luck and timing, but thank you in any case for the kind words. Incidentally, a bit of trivia - for a long time the working title was Indiana Jones and the Key to Atlantis, but we weren't really satisfied, and I think the manager of the division was particularly adamant that we change it. There were dozens of alternatives thrown around, including some I've forgotten except that they were terrible (and had strong supporters nonetheless). But I think "Fate of Atlantis" was perfect, short but provocative, and with a tinge of foreshadowing since Fate often implies a bittersweet ending. Names are one of the hardest things to do - not kidding, anyone who has worked on a game will concur.
To digress - I remember in particular one 3 hour session doing nothing but hashing out the name for "Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe" - that was actually thrown out as sort of a joke, along with "Hitler's Greatest Hits" which I expect would not have been a wise move. For the record, we had a long talk about the ethics of making a game where you could play the German side, but we thought (and I still believe) that in doing a war game, allowing people to play both sides is important to remind you that there were human beings on both sides of any conflict.
Would you be interested to expand to such projects in India?
Mata Hari is one of my favourite 'modern' adventure games, and one of my favourite games that you've worked on. How did it come about and what was it good to work with Hal Barwood again?
Unfortunately, India is a bit far for us (we are in Benin, West Africa). But similar startup exist in India, which is the world's biggest market for electricity access
Glad you liked it! That one came about as a request from the publisher. They approached me, and I thought it was the kind of thing Hal would be interested in. At the time we were living about a 10 minute drive apart, and both available for freelance work. The theme of Mata Hari was actually a bit tough, not what we might have chosen on our own, but the historical references and spy work were close to our Indiana Jones experience, and we had a lot of fun on it. We got several trips to Germany as a result too, to the developer's offices in Hannover mostly, but also to meet the publisher in Hamburg, and to show it off at Gamescomm, the big German games show. German fans are, per capita, the biggest fans of the old LucasArts adventures, so that was a fantastic experience. (To support that claim before anyone protests, we sold 10x copies per capita of Monkey Island 2 in Germany than we did in the US)
Have you ever read "A Good Man in Africa?"
How do you feel about the white savior syndrome aid workers appear to suffer from?
Im saying this from a point of love as I am a disaster aid worker.
What were the challenges of working on a 4th Indiana Jones story when there were already episodes/stories in existence? Was it difficult to come up with something new & fresh while still keeping within the general feel of an Indiana Jones story?
I am aware of that syndrome. It's partly because of this that Power:On is a startup, not an NGO. We are selling electricity services to clients, not beneficiaries. If we don't do a good job, they will simply stop buying it, we'll go bankrupt and somebody else will take our place. I think it's a really good thing: it keeps our interests aligned with our users. Also, Louise, my co-founder, is Beninese, and so is Jean, our amazing employee.
With that said, I really respect aid workers and NGOs in general. Some issues still cannot be addressed by enterprises (education, justice, human rights, famine, natural disasters... and so on).
No, it was a pleasure. We had lots of ideas - had narrowed it down to the one we chose, and one about a quest to find Excalibur, but rejected that one because it wouldn't have easily given Jones a reason to go anywhere but England, while Atlantis gave us a lot more interesting options. Game developers always have many more ideas than time and resources to implement them.
Is this a non-profit or do you plan on making money off this?
was there a particular reason for you not working on Indiana Jones & the Infernal Machine? :)
It's for-profit, however I'm not making money from it yet (not since 5 years). It's basically philanthropy right now.
The reason we are for profit is that I want to we prove that we can bring electricity to the remotest villages on the planet in a sustainable and profitable way. If I succeed, I'm convinced this issue will be solved very quickly. I wrote a post about that: https://medium.com/turnthepoweron/ngos-fail-1fc03aa1f917
I wasn't at LucasArts by then! I was working at The 3DO company on their game console (first one using a CD drive as standard).
How did you start your work ? Did you have a team back then or were you alone ? Did the government take an initiative to help your work ?
I started alone, which I actually really not recommend. But I chose Benin for this project because I already knew the country (I had worked in a NGO there) and most importantly I knew Louise, who became my cofounder (you can see her in the film). We now also work with Jean, our local manager. He is very committed to our mission and we are lucky to have him.
The good thing with this kind of project is also that many people genuinely want to help. Jacques is a friend who knows all about electricity and he played a big part in the beginning of this project!
The government was always curious and let us work, nothing more (yet). This is good enough for me, for now!
Tough call. Ruling out games I worked on myself, I guess the first one that comes to mind is Star Control 2, I loved that game. Very creative, and a great blend of story and gameplay.
What all things you've had to sacrifice to be where you are right now ? What do you actually want from life in general ? What is your philosophy ?
As a pioneer of the Adventure Game format and point and click adventures, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced when creating these amazing worlds? given the technology you guys had. (Monkey Island universe and Fate of Atlantis innovative world)
The most basic thing I had to sacrifice was the last 5 years of my life without a salary. My friends all have jobs but I still live as if I was a student. But this was a conscious choice and I'll do it again. It was no accident I ended up doing this. I really want to work on something that has a meaning. I even wrote a manifesto about it on my medium account (https://medium.com/turnthepoweron/why-i-am-an-entrepreneur-5e3246473ae1)
If I make it, I'll be able to make a living out of this project though. That's the goal
Perhaps the hardest thing was coming up with puzzles and situations that were tough to solve, but fair, and lent themselves to solution with an AHA! moment when you kept thinking about them. As Ron has said, "it's all locks and keys" and the trick is learning dozens of ways to disguise that.
Sustainability also applies to your ability to stick around and be happy... and paid. There are many very wealthy westerners who retired to international development that would be more than willing to show you how to fundraise and make sure you get paid.
what's the strangest unreleased game you've played, developed, or heard about from colleagues?
You are absolutely right. That's the plan indeed, as for any enterprise. I need 10-20 operational grids to get paid a westerner's salary. I had to start small and hope to find partners along the way
That's a hard one. Lots of strange games abandoned partway through over the years - many more than are published. Maybe not strange, but unusual is one that Ron Gilbert proposed that never got made or even started, "I was a Teenage Lobot". You can see the doc here: http://grumpygamer.com/teenage_lobot
What is the Citizen Kane of videogames?
Akon is mostly distributing solar lamps for public lighting and solar kits for domestic use. He is absolutely loved in Africa for this, and it's nice to see someone like him commit to such a great cause. However what Power:On does is building real electrical grids that can address domestic needs, but also trigger economic development. The villagers can use whatever they want, just like people in the city. This is real electricity access
The answer to that is found in the film that is the Tetris of movies.
Great work guys, out of interest what technology partners are you using for metering and telemetry?
Could there ever be a game that is pure character study, without missions or objectives? Like Glengarry Glen Ross: The Game?
We're using smart meters allowing to sell pre-paid contracts. When credits run out, lights go out and you need to recharge. This is key to our success. In the past, many projects failed because people were not able to pay when the electricity bill came at the end of the month. And if there is no money, you can't maintain the system and pay the people in charge of it.
Sure, and I'm positive it's been done with some of the indie art games, I'm not a big player of that style of game but I've seen enough to think it must have been done. "Her Story" on mobile games is kind of that, although arguably so.
Hi Tristan, I love what you're doing. Great project! How do you envision bringing green energy to remote places? Is there also a way to use the strong currents of some rivers to generate more?
What's your favorite meme?
Hydro is the best and cheapest option if you have a river. But you have to have a river! In most cases, you don't. But in Africa, solar energy is also a good option. That's what we are going for!
I'm a fan of Richard Dawkin's original use of the term, I think it's a bit sad it has come to mean what it does and don't really have a favorite. The original concept is so fresh and powerful, it doesn't deserve to be turned into pictures with text!
Since you said this is for-profit, how do you plan on competing with much larger companies in the private sector and those backed by foreign aide/governments?
How do you plan on keeping up with the ever growing demand of electricity?
Walt Disney, or Jim Henson?
That's the same challenge for every startup, in every sector. We'll just focus on making our clients very happy and building our company around that
What's the best and the worst story you know after bringing electricity to these remote villages?
Yes, Minecraft was the gateway, were currently using Unity to participate in online game jams. That's a really good point about playing what's made - I normally advise from a distance, but should be playing too. Thanks!
Worse: nothing related to electricity (we had no accident). But it pains me sometimes to see that life in the village can still be very hard. People get sick and die, even children sometimes. Each time I go back, somebody I knew is gone. That's why I wish we could go faster. Many lives could be saved with modern services (electricity, but also running water, healthcare, etc).
Unity is a great move, sounds like he or she is going fine. Finding other friends who want to share/collaborate also can help encourage young developers.
Africa is a huge continent, where specifically in Africa are you working?
How/where did you develop the awesome Sinistar voice? That thing is impressive, especially considering tech constraints
Right now we're in Benin. We hope to be all over the continent someday
Answered above, it was voiced by this guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Doremus
There is a pretty tiny amount of recorded voice in the game, I think about 20 seconds of unique stuff. There wasn't much to work with.
How much time do you have to invest in the work on a daily ? How do you manage your time ?
Hello, Mr. Falstien! I did an AMA request last week asking for a game designer/writer, so I wanted to ask: what is it like and what is involved to create a character in your game? I've always been intrigued by the minds behind the characters; why they made the character say the things they say and act the way they act.
Thanks for doing this!
I'm on this project full time. Now I work mostly from Paris, looking for funding to keep pushing!
I don't have a specific system for that. When I've done it, I usually start with the game or gameplay and work backward - what kind of character would have the qualities needed for the game? And I use a technique taught by Orson Scott Card, the writer, acknowledging the first few things that come to mind, but push farther into unusual or surprising or quirky alternatives, rejecting the initial cliches. I also like to try to harness my subconscious, think hard about a concept or character, then purposefully distract myself or meditate (or even let myself come to the edge of sleep) and set a reminder (like an alarm) so that I come back to it obliquely.
Hi! I'm very impressed by your career, you designed a lot of very important titles in history (my fav being the two indy games). Could you please tell us a bit about your time at 3do? What was your role here? What games did you design for them?
I was the 9th employee, and for the first 6 months was the entire production department reporting directly to Trip Hawkins. I worked on a bunch of prototypes that were shown at trade shows like CES, and was developing a game about Terraforming called Worldbuilders, Inc. when Trip decided to cut back on internal development. Some of the work I did would now be called evangelism, some of it was helping hire out our internal development group that did games like Twisted. It was interesting trying to figure out how to use a CD-ROM built into a game machine, we debuted a year before the first Playstation and so had to do a lot of groundbreaking work.
Did you ever receive complaints in the mail about Sinistar? I wasn't around in the 80's but that game seems absolutely mentally scarring, and I can't imagine it went through without some sort of controversy, internal or otherwise.
Whoops, tried to reply to this but something went wrong. Anyway, no, there wasn't any controversy - people liked being startled for the most part, a few were resentful but most people thought it was a fun surprise, and got over it quickly. In a crowded, noisy arcade I don't think it was particularly scary.
How much easier did game development went once you started developing for machines with actual operating systems?
When you guys made games back in the old days, a lot of that stuff was done without any kind of middleware or sophisticated tools - literally just commands executed directly on the hardware. Yet those games are still some of the most fun, clever, and memorable games of my lifetime.
It was pretty gradual as OS improved and tools became available. I'm glad you liked the old games, but overall I think the quality of games overall has improved, we just tend to have nostalgia for the ones we saw when we were younger.
Which of your games do you still dust off and play, just to enjoy playing them?
I don't - just never been motivated to go back much. The one I most miss playing (but that I'd rather play a modern version of) was Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. And I wasn't very heavily involved in the development of that, it was very much Larry Holland's work.
What is your opinion on games having loads of DLC and no game? Also Whats your opinion on competitive shooters like CSGO and Overwatch?
Not sure what you're referring to, I guess I'm not playing games of that sort. I've never played CSGO or Overwatch. So many types of games now, and I've spent more time on VR and to some extent mobile games recently.
I'm a 28 yo male that wants to be a video game producer. I'm going back to school in the fall to finish up my degree in computer science with a minor in business. What steps do I need to make so that my dream becomes a reality?
There are entry level producer positions - assistant producer or possibly another unique name. www.gamasutra.com has lots of job listings. If you are a competent coder you may well find it easier to get a job using those skills and work internally in a game company to become a producer.
Hi! Developer here. I want to ask you how marketing was for you. How did you maintain a following? Did you gain subscribers on YouTube or followers for your blog about your game?
I don't think that's relevant for me - I didn't market my own games, I've always worked for companies or clients who either handled that, or in the cases of some games, gave them away for free to the people who needed them.
I'm a computer science major and graduating this year. How do you suggest I get into working for a game company? I've applied to internships with no luck, and I have been making games in my free time already. Here is a link to one I made last semester if curious. https://youtu.be/rKxdbytKNtA
Keep making games, and be persistent. It's a cliche, but that's by far the best way. Persistence is key, keep trying. If you are a programmer I think you'll succeed, don't insist on a job where you get to do the design yourself and you'll get in the door.