Posted by John on February 5, 2012

Kicking Tires and Lighting Fires

by Vincent Ingenito

It isn’t every day that one gets to watch a man with a skull painted on his face sit in a plush, leather lounge chair while blowing away competitors with a cyborg clown/ice cream truck hybrid. That’s just a unique brand of crazy that only the video game industry seems capable of mustering and for that reason, I am proud to be a part of it. Few franchises in all of gaming have brought the crazy as consistently as Twisted Metal has and that’s due in no small part to the unhinged mind behind all the madness: David Jaffe of Eat Sleep Play (ESP).

Full disclosure: I spent quite a bit of my time at this event staring vacantly at the huge pictures of Sweet Tooth’s face, which seemed to be absolutely everywhere. I’m not ashamed to admit that I find his grinning visage to be strangely hypnotic in a creepy, Killer Klowns From Outer Space sort of way. Fortunately, I was able to pry myself from his gaze just long enough to have a nice private chat with both Dave and his producer, Drew Bradford.

First I sat with Drew, whom I had never met previously, and I must say, he surprised me. I knew what I was getting into with Jaffe, but I really didn’t know what to expect from Mr. Bradford. He seemed genuinely passionate about his game and his team, which was a pleasure to see coming from a producer of a big AAA, first party title like Twisted Metal. Due to an unfortunate equipment issue, much of my talk with Drew was lost in the ether. Fortunately, not all was lost. I asked him what it was like producing a sequel for a franchise that hasn’t had a major console release in over a decade, and what part of the project he was most proud of. Here’s what he had to say:

“It’s amazing because there are people who weren’t even old enough to buy Twisted Metal 1 who snuck into their older brother’s room to play it. And an M rated game was kind of a big deal back then you know? And it was so dark and twisted and sadistic, but with this edge of black humor. And now, those same guys have a wife and kids and they’re getting that same feeling again. Like they’re getting away with something but this time they’re sneaking into their living room while their wife and kids are sleeping and that’s great. We’re going to give them that feeling all over again.”

“This team is really unbelievable. The way they have worked together, their endurance…it was like running a marathon…no, 2 marathons and they ran both in record time. We were on stage talking about this game at 2 E3’s! So, can I point to one thing and say, that’s ‘the thing’? No. That’s like running a marathon and being asked which mile was the best. I’m just really proud of my whole team.”

Sadly, that was all that could be salvaged from our sit down which is a shame because he really threw some gems at me. Drew, if you’re reading, I owe you an interview on the next title you work on.

No sooner than I had wrapped with Drew, it was time to go one on one with Dave. Mr. Jaffe is well known for his ferocious honesty and no-nonsense industry views and he didn’t disappoint me in either regard. I tried to feed him the questions before we started recording, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. “That wouldn’t be any fun!” he tells me. All I could do was smile and press “record”. This was gonna be good.

We start off discussing the origins of the project. After all, the last time Twisted Metal got the full, ground-up console treatment, the PS2 was still fresh on store shelves. That was over 11 years ago now. Three God of War games have come and gone since then. Curious, I ask him if he can recall the moment when he decided it was time to revive the project that first made him a known quantity in this business. Without even taking a breath he replies, “When we saw the sales figures for Calling All Cars.” He flashes a devil may care smile. I can’t help but start laughing. Maybe it’s the free booze. Maybe it’s because the truth is funny sometimes. Or, maybe it’s because so few people in this business have the balls to say what he had just said. Let’s chalk it up to the combination of the three.

Of course, he didn’t stop there. Money is a great motivator for sure, but this is also an industry of artists and creators - a reality which certainly isn’t lost on him.

“I’ve said in the press that I was kind of ashamed of how it started because it was totally this mercenary…like shit, we want a hit! And you always want to be business right? I don’t want to lose money for people. But at the same time you also want to start things with a mix between ‘it’s good business’ and ‘it’s soulful work’. Within a month we fell in love with the game and we found our vision, we found our voice and once we did, we never wavered.”

Another interesting point he shared is that the project began life as a sort of Twisted Metal-lite for PSN only. After Dave and his partner in crime Scott Campbell (co-director of the game and co-owner of ESP) saw how successful a small scale project like Calling All Cars could be, they figured they could give Twisted Metal the same treatment. Low overhead, digital distribution, a bankable IP – what could go wrong? According to Jaffe, the original plan was just for “a couple of levels and one or two modes.” And if not for the fact that Sony loved what they saw so much, that might have been all we ever got.

“Sony kept saying ‘No, we like what we’re seeing, we like what we’re seeing, more, more, more!’ And it ended up evolving and by the time we really got into it with the first level or so, it was like a high school reunion. It was so cool to go back to this world and these characters.”

As we talked more I began to realize that he had gotten a lot more out of his work on Calling All Cars than just a lesson on the benefits of developing a small, digitally distributed title. This new Twisted Metal offers up a dizzying number of stages, vehicles and weapons while also introducing a bevy of new gameplay mechanics. Far from a simplistic “point and shoot” affair, more than one person attending the event likened it to a “fighting game on wheels”, packed with little techniques and nuances that advanced players will love getting the most out of. According to Jaffe, a lot of that has to do with how he ended up feeling about the combat in Calling All Cars.

“It was a great piece of bubble gum, but it wasn’t really a seven course meal, you know? And I realized that while it’s great to have that bubblegum layer, there needs to be something more tactical…other layers where the best players have a chance to really feel like they’re getting better at the game and seeing results.”

He also pointed out that feedback from both critics and players challenged him to provide more content, which he definitely took to heart.

“We shipped with 4 stages and 3 weapons…I’ll never do that again. That’s why Twisted Metal is shipping with 30 stages over 8 environments, 17 vehicles and a ton of weapons.”

Suddenly, a man walks in carrying a PS3 with that sadistic Sweet Tooth smile emblazoned on it like it was manufactured in Hell, Mordor or some other sufficiently hot place where demonic clowns might choose to hang out. Until this point in the interview, it’s been no one but me and Dave kicked back in a black leather booth in a roped off private area tucked away on the club’s second floor. But Dave’s a wanted man with places to be. He’s asked to sign the special edition system and is reminded that he’s expected on stage in 2 minutes to present it to the winner of the tournament. Sensing my time was limited I decided to light a fuse with two little words:

Online passes.

For those late to the party, a while back Jaffe went on record as saying he didn’t want an online pass for Twisted Metal. At the time, Sony, like other publishers such as EA and Ubisoft, had just begun making the inclusion of online passes a mandate for all their first party titles, forcing consumers who buy used copies of their games to shell out extra dough in order to gain access to the game’s online components. As the cookie crumbled, it was Sony’s call to make and they decided that there wouldn’t be any exceptions to their policy, not even for Jaffe.

The issue is a complex one that anyone following the industry closely for the last year knows well. It’s a debate about consumer rights, the effects of the used game market on developers, the relationship between publishers and retailers, and ultimately, the long term viability of brick and mortar game stores in an ever changing business landscape.

Jaffe’s thoughts on the topic were as complex as the issue itself and he doesn’t feel there is one universal answer because each party’s concerns are valid.

“The challenge is, there’s these different points on a triangle, and everyone is right to some degree. Look, I’ve talked to the Game Stop guys and they’re passionate! Gamers and developers matter to them. But then you’ve got this used car argument.”

The “used car” argument to which he refers is a common objection leveled against the idea of online passes. In simple terms, it boils down to the notion that in the automotive industry, manufacturers don’t expect a cut of the money generated from second-hand sales. This begs the question, “Why would a video game publisher feel entitled to such a cut?”, to which Jaffe answers, “I’ve heard the used car defense and it’s bullshit. It isn’t even worth a middle school debate. When you really follow it through, it just isn’t apples to apples, it doesn’t hold up.”

He went on to discuss the often skewed perception that publishers are all laughing their way to the bank while crying poor. “Do you really think (publishers) are all out there on their yachts like, ‘hahaha, fuck gamers and retailers and let’s just get all the money’? That wouldn’t make any sense. Retail is too important. Do you think a publisher is going to try to cannibalize a party that important to them over nothing? No. The reality is that the publisher is struggling too.”

However, he very wisely understands that in a free market, it’s the consumer who has the power and they mustn’t be ignored.

“What we have to hear, however it gets solved, is that customers are unhappy with the pricing of games and the quality that they’re getting. And what does that mean? What does it say? That, I think, is the most important thing because the customer is always right. The free market should decide. I’m a huge fan of that.”

To sum it up he asserts that “for some games online passes are good, and for some games they’re just terrible” and reminds me that he never wanted any part of them for the new Twisted Metal. Especially given that the franchise has been away for so long he really wanted to remove any possible barrier to entry. “Anybody we can get in the game…I’m ok if we lose some sales in the short term if we build the brand in the long term. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t my choice to make.”

And just like that, my time with David Jaffe had expired. He shook my hand, thanked me for the interview and told me he would be around if I had more questions later. As he walked off, trailed closely by a few embattled looking PR and marketing people, I pondered his comments about the free market, and how gamers perceive prices and the value they receive for their dollars. I would have to flag him down for just one more question, I thought.

I watch as he presents the signed, special edition PS3 to the lucky winner, flanked by a man dressed rather convincingly as Sweet Tooth and a woman somewhat less convincingly dressed as Doll Face. Timidly, the victor asks David if he can have the microphone for a moment. “Sure,” he says, nonchalantly pointing to Sweet Tooth and adding, “but don’t fuck up or this guy will fucking kill you.” Everyone laughs, except the kid. It’s funny because no one knows if he’s serious.

I corral Jaffe in as he steps off stage, knowing that if I let him get back upstairs to the mob of people still waiting on an interview, I may as well call it a night. I ask him if I can get one last question and he obliges. I turn my recorder back on and ask, “Dave, what do you have to say to any would be pirates out there who would steal your work?” To my sheer delight, his answer was as simple as his last answer was complex:

“You’re a common fucking thief and you should have been raised better by your parents. You’re stealing other people’s work and that’s a shame. I feel bad for you, and I wouldn’t want to be you.”

In a day and age where piracy apologia is becoming increasingly trendy to engage in, I find it truly refreshing to see someone with such a high profile simply call a spade a spade. I hereby award my last 10 internets to David Jaffe, without whom I would have a few less good games to play, and a far less interesting industry to report on.

Twisted Metal for the PS3 will be on store shelves on Valentine’s Day, and the demo is currently available for download on the PSN. Check back for our review on the day of release to see what we thought.

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