Interview: David Jaffe Discusses Twisted Metal, Calling All Cars, Game Journalism and Next Gen

This week I had the privilege of interviewing one of the most passionate  and outspoken game creators in the industry, David Jaffe. With his company’s upcoming PlayStation 3 exclusive Twisted Metal getting ready to invade stores on Valentines Day, I thought it would be a perfect time to chat about the title, as well as some of his past work. If you’re familiar with Jaffe you already know he’s as real as it gets in this industry, and this interview is no different. Make sure to check out the full conversation below.

DS: After telling everyone that you weren’t working on a Twisted Metal game for so long, how good did it feel to drive Sweet Tooth’s truck on stage at E3 2010?

DJ: It felt really great to reveal this thing that we had been working on for so long, that we were [and remain] so proud of. It was really cool to finally let people know what we were working on, but what felt better was seeing and hearing the really positive response and kind of welcoming back of the franchise  since it had been so long since we had a major Twisted Metal out there.

To get that response was really exciting and really validating. It felt so great because we kept this secret, and we were working in this bubble, this vacuum, and you don’t know if there’s still a fan base out there. And from the day we drove on stage until tonight and we’re launching in a couple of weeks, it’s been a non-stop of welcoming back with open arms.

It’s hard to say how much success the title will find with the changing landscape of games in 2012, but from the standpoint of the fan-base, new and old, it was great. It was a great feeling then and it hasn’t really gone away, just knowing that there’s still interest.

DS: What was the hardest part about making a next-gen Twisted Metal game? Besides the obvious (visuals and physics) what things were you able to bring to the PS3 that just wasn’t possible on the PS2?

DJ: I think the things that come to mind — not so much better visuals — but in terms to better realize the fantasy of vehicle combat that we had in our heads when we were just paper designing the first game in the early 90s. There’s always stuff, even with this game, that you imagine you want in there, and then just time and technology says “well you can have 20%, you can have 40%, you can’t have the whole vision.” And so to be able to have the technology, whether you’re talking about having online out of the box, or you’re talking about just bigger levels, or flying vehicles… having the physics to be able to do semi-trailer trucks or even motorcycles that feel more like motorcycles. If you played the motorcycle in Twisted Metal [1], it pretty much was a car. It just looked like a motorcycle.

The thing is bringing the fantasy to people and to ourselves, to get a little bit closer and closer. You never actually get there, which is part of the fun. Who knows? If we make another one down the road on new hardware, it’ll be fun to get a little closer to that idea we had in our brain.

The other part of it is that we’ve become, I think, just better game designers, and bigger students of game design and gameplay. We were able to bring a shallow end of the swimming pool into the mix, which is great — but then to have the knowledge, experience, and a team that was able to build a deeper end of the pool so that the players who hopefully really like the game can play this like a fighting game that they love or a shooter game that they love. So that months or even years down the line players can say, “Wow, that multiplayer is still very deep and tactical,” after you get past the fantasy part of it.

Those are the two biggest things that we were able to do on the PlayStation 3. Have the time, the experience, and the technology to really flesh out the deep end and the shallow end of the pool. And just getting closer to the fantasy.

DS: Which of the playable characters in Twisted Metal do you identify most with?

DJ: I was the sole writer on this one, so in a lot of ways I think because of that I identify with all of them. There was a conscience choice both with myself when I was writing them and when I was working with the actors and director on the live action movies to really give a more human element to each of the characters. They’re just so over the top, so insane, and crazy. They felt better, they felt richer, they were more interesting characters the minute we implied at least a single human flaw in them.

I think I relate to Sweet Tooth’s tenacity, even though in the game he directs it in a really horrific way. I think I relate to Grimm’s inability to sometimes let go of the past and cling on to the way things used to be. I think Dollface’s unchecked ambition is something I can relate to. The Preacher because I grew up in the South… Well, I can’t relate to him too much but he’s very much like characters that I encountered as a kid, not all Preachers by any means — but he’s one of those over the top, fire-and-brimstone types that were just really intolerant, which I don’t actually relate to but I remember very well. And then there’s Calypso, who just doesn’t give a shit and is okay if the whole world just goes to hell. In fact he probably sometimes prefers it.  I don’t know if we all can relate to that, but I certainly can. I think I’m in all of them.

DS: If you won the Twisted Metal tournament, what would be your one wish?

DJ: Oh my gosh. It’s tricky because if I was a normal contestant and I’d ask for what I really wanted I would basically say, “Okay, I want health and happiness for my friends and family.” But you always got to be careful when you ask for shit in Twisted Metal because you get exactly what you ask for.

I would ask that all the trucks bringing other games to the stores the day Twisted Metal hits somehow miraculously all break down and the only game that you can buy on Valentine’s Day is Twisted Metal.

DS: Military shooters with their “twitchy” and “quick-fix” nature have changed the landscape of online multiplayer games, especially on consoles. There’s a lot of new gamers out there that never enjoyed a multiplayer vehicular combat game before. What would you say to the player who’s hesitant about jumping into something without “duty” or “field” in the title?

What I would probably say is that we have a demo coming out. I’m always a big fan of trying before you buy. I would say those are great games. We love Call of Duty at EatSleepPlay, and — I imagine Sony would agree — we love Battlefield 3.

What’s really important to know is that you can judge for yourself, and those are games that really excel and are groundbreaking primarily because of the brilliant execution, but also in the meta game. The unlocks, perks, and ranking up, the moment-to-moment shooting gameplay is really polished, refined, and good, but it’s not what you get in Twisted Metal.

Twisted Metal is really more designed around evolving the moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s designed to be more tactical and strategic. Lots of ambushes, set-ups, and pay offs. We try to reward players very much like a fighting game, where the mastery of a vehicle, which is like your character, is what helps you win. When you play Twisted, you’ll find it very different from those games because it really is like a high-speed chess match in a lot of ways. It really is designed to be a fighter and a shooter.

So to those people that may say “oh that doesn’t sound like something I’d be interested in” hopefully they’ll try the demo and give us a shot — they might be surprised. But for people like me, who hear that, hopefully they’ll feel what we felt when we had the opportunity from Sony to make this game. There’s really nothing like Twisted Metal in the shooter/action market, and we get excited when it’s describe that way, because that’s the kind of shooter that we want to play.

Hopefully the newer generation of shooter fans will hear my description in this interview and say,  “Oh that does sound pretty freaking cool.”

DS: Your gaming resume is pretty diverse, which was your absolute favorite to create? Just like a parent you’re supposed to love your children equally, but we know everyone picks a favorite — so which one’s yours?

DJ: I actually don’t. I have kids and I don’t pick favorites. If we were to include the new Twisted Metal, then I’d have to go with that one. It really is my favorite game I’ve ever worked on. I really think it’s just the best work we’ve ever done.

If you don’t include that one I don’t know, because they are like your kids and it’s very hard to judge. Twisted Metal is very much a mechanics-based game, so I can go back and play Twisted Metal 2, and although it’s antiquated I can still get a nostalgic and basic gameplay thrill out of it.

I couldn’t go back and play God of War or God of War II a month after they shipped because it was a story based game. After you’ve designed it in your head or designed it with your team — let alone going through with executing it over one, two, even three years — and because it’s more about a linear narrative and less about utilizing gameplay, once you already know the path of the rollercoaster it’s really not that much fun to ride after you’ve built it.

I can appreciate the God of War games I worked on, and I know if I hadn’t been intimately involved in them I probably could say that a God of War game would be up there. But because I know the game so well, I’ve really never been able to enjoy them after we finished them.

DS: Will we EVER see more of Calling All Cars?

DJ: Sure, when they wheel me out for either an award or my funeral, and they’ll say, “Here’s some shit he worked on.” Not that it was shitty — you’ll see elements of Calling All Cars in “Nuke Mode” in Twisted MetalCalling All Cars was a great learning experience and a great opportunity for us, a really good stepping stone.

There were mistakes that I’ve publicly admitted, I take the full blame. If I were aware that those were mistakes I would have never made them. These were basic things we shouldn’t have done that pushed the title away from a more substantial and significant success than it had.

DS: Speaking of Calling All Cars, it was certainly outside the norm for fans of your work that came before it, something unexpected from the folks that brought iconic characters like Kratos and Sweet Tooth to life.

DJ: It wasn’t supposed to be and that was one of the fundamental mistakes. It was really kind of new at the time,  even though we hadn’t quite yet started the company. I knew that these were the people that I’d be starting it with. You can look at a game as a stand alone product, there’s all kind of human and personal issues behind every single game failure.

And for me, I had to make sure that the team was happy and they feel listened to. I went a little overboard with that. Actually, Calling All Cars was supposed to be an X-rated cartoon. It was supposed to be Art Crumb-inspired with lots of blood, sex, and violence. I was dealing with really talented people on the team, and as talented as a few of them were, there were people who were  just real conservative — not in a negative way — and that didn’t sit well with them.

Instead we should have pushed back and said, “Look, we’re selling this game to a person who just bought a $600 system. They’re not looking for Nintendo/Disney fantasy, they’re looking for something that speaks to the 15 – 35 year old male mindset.” I either should have done that or said, “Let’s drop the whole cartoon thing and  find another theme or candy wrapper to wrap this mechanic in.” Because the mechanic will work — but it’s not going to work with this cutesy cartoon presentation.

There’s like five major barriers that were my fault, and that’s certainly one of them. I should have redesigned the wrapper or I should have pushed back and said, “I appreciate that you have an issue with this, but this is good for the game, and we’re going to go ahead and do it.”

DS: How hard is it letting go of what you know or stepping out of your own comfort zone to create something completely different and unexpected?

DJ: Every creation, everything you do is new and unexpected. This Twisted Metal hasn’t been easy because we’ve never had 16 players online. I’ve never made a straight-up online shooter, brand new modes… so it’s all hard. But that’s what makes it challenging and satisfying when you figure it out. I think that to keep doing the same thing over and over, it’s kind of it’s own little version of hell.

DS: Between creating something totally new and fresh (Calling All Cars) or pleasing the nostalgic gamer crowd and living up to their expectations (Twisted Metal for PS3), what do you think provides for the bigger challenge and why?

DJ: I don’t consider myself a short-order cook game designer. So while I think it’s very important to listen to fans, and we certainly have reached out to the Twisted Metal community, we were still having conversations today asking about how they dodged missiles so we can make adjustments for when the game comes out.

You want to involve fans, whether it’s in focus testing or if you’re talking to fans of an established franchise, but at the end of the day my job is not to sit with a pad of paper and say, “Tell me what you want, I’ll go tell the team and make it.” That’s taking dictation. For me, it’s finding something that I love, that the team can get behind — that they can contribute to, improve and add their own voice and vision to it.  You also have to keep a responsible eye on the market and budget, to make sure you can please the people who’ve put up the money and have faith in you, and make their money back for them. Hopefully there’s profit for them to enjoy.

They’re all hard. Even writing an article is hard — pulling something out of thin air is hard. It’s easier to stay in bed when you have the option. It’s really fucking hard. And then you throw the human story on top of it; you throw in, “This guys getting a divorce,” or, “This girl is pissed off at this person.”

All that human stuff that gets thrown on top of just trying to make a great game, and then the technology on top of that… It’s an incredibly difficult process to make a game, and so they’re all hard. Then they’re all satisfied when they work. When you’re in a playtest or online, and then you see everyone is smiling at the playtest or your hear people online saying, “I had such a great time,” or,“You guys really entertained us,” that absolutely makes it worth it.

DS: Do you like the current state of game journalism? How much of it do you actually read?

DJ: I read it all. I am equally a fan as I am someone who works in the industry, as someone who creates games; so I read a lot of it. I find two things — I find it going in opposite directions. The magazines that have hung in there have gotten better. And you have tons of sites that have absolutely gotten better.

I was stunned that Joystiq emailed me a year ago and before they published something that said, “Hey, we just wanted to check this with you and make sure this was accurate.”  And it wasn’t like, “Hey is it okay if we say this because we’re slaves to your PR department.” They were contacting me to say, “Hey, we’re going to report this but we want to make sure it’s right.” They were fact checking like a good reporter does. And I was like, “Wow, that’s impressive.” And it’s pathetic to find that fact checking is refreshing.

We’re getting better essays, better critiques. I was just on the Weekend Confirmed podcast, and we were talking mechanics. Those guys do a great job. Eurogamer never gives us good reviews… I can’t imagine making a game Eurogamer is going to love, but I think their reviews are great and really smart critiques. So you definitley have sites, I can’t name them all, but there’s definitely an evolutionary improvement in games journalism.

Then you have the tabloidy/blogger stuff which can be also great but more often then not, it’s, well, you know. I did an interview last week with this site, and I went to the site before the interview and a guy who wrote for it had totally taken this thing I said out of context  intentionally and made it a headline. He wasn’t the guy I was doing the interview with but I called the guy out on it over twitter like, “What the ****, I’m about to do something for your site, and well, what are you doing?” He admits to me publicly, “Well I write for a tabloid, what do you want me to do?” I’m thinking, how about some professionalism?

The point is, here is this guy who’s admitting to being on a tabloid and as of yesterday he calls me a sellout. Posts my picture saying “David Jaffe is a sellout”, all because Twisted Metal is shipping with the online pass. I’m thinking, “You haven’t called me to have a conversation, you haven’t watched any of the stuff I’ve done.” I’ve always said that I’m not anti-online pass — I don’t want an online pass for this game, but I’ve always said that if we were to make a sequel, I’d love to have an online pass for it. I don’t want to have an online pass for the first one because the main goal should be to launch a healthy franchise and do whatever we can do to build an audience, even if we’re not making any money off some of those people. The next time around we’ll get it in there if we make a sequel.

This guy didn’t bother to read or pay attention. All he did was write “Twisted shipping with an online pass, Jaffe must have rolled over to Sony.” Sony’s a great company, they don’t need for us to say, “Okay, you can ship with a pass.” It’s their ****ing game, they paid for it. I don’t own Twisted Metal. So the point is, this guy writes this thing, and I’m just like, “Are you out of your f****ing mind?”

I love going to N4G, but the aggregate sites that go there — they don’t discriminate, they’ll put anything there. And because of that they’ll have just as many eyeballs as a great story on Kotaku or DualShockers or whatever. So it goes both ways. It’s getting better but in a lot of ways it’s getting worse.

DS: I would never ask a “did you max out the PS3?” question, because well… those questions are stupid. But everyone’s favorite buzz words “next gen”  are already being thrown around. As a developer, do you think the leap would be significant enough to merit a push to new machines? Presentation in games is at an all time high, in your own opinion, what would “next gen” even bring that we don’t have now?

DJ: I think I have a different view where games and consoles are going. I’m not really interested in, “Look a new God of War… but it looks so much better.” Maybe it’s because, like you said, I’m old and I’ve done this enough, and have been around the block enough to have gone from 16bit to PS One to PS2 to PS3. I’ve had the thrill of going, “Oh my god it looks like real life,” and then two months, three months, a year later — and it’s just the order of the day.

You have to do it though, you have to make progress. We’re a visual species, we like pretty things and cool graphics and I think those things are important to a lot of games. But I really don’t care — I think it’s more about lowering the barrier of entry for gamers whether that’s price, whether that’s always-on gameplay. I think it’s about lowering the actual price of games.

If you take a look at what’s happening with the iPad and iPhone or even the browser based stuff. Gamers have proven that they’ll go — I mean look at Minecraft, it’s not the prettiest and it’s not meant to be — gamers have shown that they’ll go where the compelling content is. And I think the industry has gotten into this cycle where it’s just “bigger, better, louder, more,” and it’s forced a lot of people in console gaming development to neglect the essence of what makes great games and interactive entertainment… which is interactivity.

And so for me, like I said, I worry about things like lowering the barrier of entry, having more choice when it comes to price points and budgets, having always-on gameplay, having free-to-play, and having the big giant console mega titles from the publishers — two or three from each of them every year. I think fragmentation is what excites me right now. I have very little interest when someone says, “Can’t you wait to work on PS4 or Xbox 720?” And if all it was offering was the same games but just 25% better graphics — I’m like, ehh, who cares?

I’m not saying it’s not impressive. I’m not saying it’s not important. I’m saying for me personally I’ve been there, done that. If PS4 or Xbox 720 launched tomorrow, in a year and a half the bloom is off the rose, and it’s really just about the games.

DS: Well Dave, thanks again for your time tonight. I’ve got everything I need here. And don’t worry, I won’t misquote you!

Dj: Please don’t! Thanks guys, I’ll talk to you soon.

Joel Taveras

Joel Taveras is one of the founding members of DualShockers. He hails from New York City where he lives with his wife and two sons. During his tenure with the site, he's held every position from news writer to community manager to editor in chief. Currently he manages the behind the scenes and day-to-day operations at the publication.

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