Dave Jones is a legend. The Scot co-founded DMA Design (what became Rockstar North), created Lemmings (designed and named in an hour) and the Grand Theft Auto series, founded Realtime Worlds, created Crackdown, and is now getting promising PC online action game APB ready for release early next year. At the recent Develop conference in Brighton, Jones delivered his conference keynote titled Online Functionality for your Next Game? Why not go 100% Online? Afterwards, we sat down with the creative director for an in depth chat on his design philosophies, APB, and what game he’s most proud of (it’s not GTA).
VideoGamer.com: Congratulations on your presentation at Develop 09. I thought it was interesting to see you chart your work up to APB. Do you have a fundamental design philosophy that you've applied to every game you've ever made, or has your design philosophy changed over time?
Dave Jones: Basically I broke it up into two areas. The DMA era, which was experimental with everything, at that point I had none. Apart from the desire to only ever make original games, I never had any interest in movie licenses or that kind of stuff, or working with somebody else's IP or anything like that. It was really just go out there, crazy ideas, trying things out, make games. But eventually you've got to sit back and think, well why did the ones that work work so well and why did the ones that didn't didn’t? I actually took about a year, a year-and-a-half, just went though everything, looked at what my motivations were, why certain things worked and why they didn't.
VideoGamer.com: What year was this?
DJ: This was probably around about 1990, 1991, so after I left DMA effectively, and it became part of Take-Two. It was that – it was like, well, you know, if you're going to start a new company what's it going to be about and what are we going to focus on? That's when I came up with those strong design principles and said these are the things I think I'm good at, these are the things I enjoy and if I'm going to do anything else going forward, I decided, because of the budgets we were in, I was going to stick to those principles.
VideoGamer.com: To be able to say I'm not interested in someone else's IP or licensed titles, I'm just going to make original games, that's quite a privileged position. What was the chief factor in you being able to put yourself in the position of being able to do that?
DJ: Even at the start, although it was original games they were kind of plagiarised. I started off like everybody else. I started off making side-scrolling shoot em ups, so that wasn't exactly innovative. But hell, I always made sure that I had a huge sense of pride in what I was doing, so in terms of attention to detail and polish, I absolutely broke my back to make sure that every part of the game was really well polished and presented. And that's enough. Even if that's your one principle, it's enough. If you achieve that and then you start to say, well I want to do something a bit different, this time I want to try and do something new, and then you build that on top of those principles, you move yourself forward again - what it does is it puts confidence in people who are going to back you. They say, we know his quality is top notch, he's tried a couple of original things, they started to look really well as well, would we back him for something completely new and original? At least then you've got something to base it on. I think it was just through gradually building up – good game, good game, innovative good game, big hit innovative good game – and just keep pushing each time.
VideoGamer.com: Hits help I guess.
DJ: They do help, you know? Everybody wants the “it's out the ball park” one, they really really do. I've been lucky to have a couple of those. But as long as you've got four out of the five fundamentals, getting the last one just makes it a little bit easier. The last one is, it could hit it out of the park. If you've only got two or three of the five things you need, you're never going to do it.
VideoGamer.com: Looking back at your career to date, was there a moment, or was there something specific that happened, that led you to feel that you were going to be able to develop whatever you wanted in this industry and be successful?
DJ: No I don't think so. I think you're only ever as good as your last game to be honest in some respects. That's probably not quite true – it is always hard to keep doing hit after hit after hit. I've got a friend who used to work with me, he runs a company called Denki now, he wrote a good article, he said, in the last 100 years there's only been two creative companies ever who you could really say have been a hits franchise. One of them was Motown Records and one of them was Pixar. They're the only two in the history of anything creative where you could say all they ever do consistently is big hit after big hit after big hit. It's just extremely, extremely difficult to do. So I don't think you ever look back and think well, you know, I could do it now, it's not a problem. I think you'd lull yourself into a false sense of security by doing that. I'm always scared about showing something for the first time. If I ever got to the stage where I was overconfident... I don't ever see myself getting that way. It's still really really scary when you want to show somebody something creative, you're thinking, what are people going to think about this? Are they going to enjoy it?
VideoGamer.com: Given that you've got more than 20 years experience making successful games, can you know fairly early on that what you have is at least good, and you can be confident in it?
DJ: I think from an ideas perspective, yes, but the problem with our industry is technically implementing that is always a challenge. Sometimes I wish it was more like the music industry. When you've got a song you think, ah I know exactly the song I want to make – there's nothing technically going to stop you doing it then. It was all the creative challenge. I can come up with a great, great, great concept and a great set of ideas, but then technically it's still a huge team that has to deliver upon that. That's certainly a challenge.