Game Design

Developer Scott Foe Talks Contra, Mobile Games and Wanting Four-Player Skyrim

Scott Foe

Scott Foe is the Chief Product Officer at Ignited Artists. He is a veteran game designer who specializes in multiplayer and mobile development, having worked at both Sega Networks and Nokia. He is best known for Reset Generation, which received a perfect 10 rating from Pocket Gamer and was named the Most Innovative Mobile Game of 2008. In 2014, he was named to the Pocket Gamer’s Mobile Gaming Hall of Fame.

The Escapist: It’s always interesting to see the difference that a designer’s first game system had on one’s designs. I’ve noticed that a lot of your games have very colorful and quirky themes. Do you think that growing up playing on the NES may have played a role in that?

Scott Foe: My first game system was actually the Atari, but I was thinking about just this same question a few days ago. I have a sort of dry way about me. Sometimes I read forums posting on articles or interviews that I’ve been mentioned in and I see what people are saying about me, so I was thinking to myself how your designs show what is in your heart. On the inside I’m like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and I think that comes through in my designs. They are always bright, colorful, whimsical, and fun. I don’t think you would ever guess that if you sat down at a table and shared a coffee with me. I don’t think you would see that in a first impression. [This is all said in a completely unemotional, dead-pan voice. – Marcel]

The Escapist: You’ve mentioned that Contra multiplayer was a significant gaming milestone for you. What was it about that multiplayer gameplay that had such an effect on you?

Scott Foe: Up until Contra, it was my friends and I taking turns on the personal computer or taking turns with Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Contra is one of the first times I can remember sitting side-by-side with somebody and playing together. I’m a furious extrovert, I always loved having company, and the ability to actually sit there and partake in the experience with another human being for the first time was definitely something I’ll never forget.

The Escapist: The Contra experience was a cooperative one, not a competitive one. Did that have any long-term ramifications on your design approach?

Scott Foe: I would have to say my very favorite play experiences tend to be modestly multiplayer games. If someone would go and make a four-player Skyrim, I think that would be right up my alley.

Reset Generation cover

The Escapist: Speaking of multiplayer games, your Reset Generation received a perfect 10 from Pocket Gamer. However, in the past you’ve mentioned how it was very challenging to develop the game within Nokia despite the fact that you had support from the highest levels in the corporation. What were some of the problems you had to deal with developing Reset Generation within Nokia?

Scott Foe: I first want to point out that I do not resent Nokia in the least and I had every opportunity there. It’s the sort of experience that most people will not have in their lifetimes. They say it is better to be lucky than good, and I got very lucky at Nokia. With that said, every day somebody was trying to kill my project. A lot of that stemmed from the way in which Nokia’s organizational infrastructure was arranged. There were three game studios: North America, which was in Vancouver, Europe, which was in Helsinki, and then San Francisco, which everyone knows is not actually in North America. Those three game studios were all peers and they were always fighting for resources.

Because I had the Hero products and the mandate to push the platform in every way possible, I always got the biggest projects, and so, what can you say? Envy is ugly and people would gun for me on a daily basis.

The Escapist: So it was more of a bureaucratic challenge rather than the sort of issue you see with the publishers, where they’re trying to get you to simplify the gameplay or push the game towards the currently hot market.

Scott Foe: Nobody every pressured me on design considerations or complexities, ever. The biggest development problem we had was that because Reset Generation was a homage to gaming history, there were many, many, many meetings with the legal team where we had to review what was parodied and what might be considered an intellectual property infringement. To be clear, Nokia’s biggest problem in the gaming space was simply that their organizational culture was a sourcing and logistics culture, their entire organization was geared around buying things as cheap as possible and putting them in as many storefronts as possible. They were not a gaming culture. They were not a user experience culture. If you had to pick just one point of failure, it was that. It was just not a gaming culture, not a game development culture. It was night-and-day different than any other gaming organization I’d ever worked with.

The Escapist: Speaking of working in difficult corporate cultures, it seems your experience of the Sega Dreamcast launch was considerably different than the experience of those who were working at Sega of America at the time.

Scott Foe: Sega Networks reported to Sega of Japan and I think there were many differences between the network side and the Sega of America side. That was during the dotcom heyday, and looking back, culturally we were very much like the different startups you found in SoMar and around at the time.

Scott Foe

The Escapist: We’ve been talking about some of your older games and I know it bothers you that so many of your games can’t be played now. Is this something that is a fundamental downside of multiplayer-centric games? It seems a little strange that it’s easier to play a game from 1982 than a multiplayer game from 2006 where the server has been shut down.

Scott Foe: That is the nature of the beast. There are a few options that you can do to try to keep these games online. Most importantly, allowing the community to reverse engineer the server infrastructure and permit former contributors to support the community in any way they can to keep the game alive. It is sad to see some of these great online games get lost forever.

The Escapist: What would ubiquitous, low-latency, high-bandwidth networking permit you to do in mobile games that you weren’t able to do before?

Scott Foe: The very obvious one would be that you can do first-person shooters from anywhere at any time. You would see a lot more real-time experiences come to mobile. I’ve always been a fan of genre leadership, so I like to do crazy things that have never been done before. That would let me do real-time crazy as opposed to asynchronous crazy, which is really a different kind of crazy.

The Escapist: On the 3D shooter side, multiplayer action hasn’t changed much over the years. As one of the leading gurus of a different form of multiplayer action, do you think there is a limit to what can be done on the multiplayer front due to the players?

Scott Foe: That’s the same thing that the kind of people who didn’t invent Minecraft were thinking. The possibility space is infinite. Right now we’re seeing asymmetric multiplayer in shooters. I’ve always wanted to see experiences where first you have to work as a team, then you have to work individually. Start with capture-the-flag, but then when the flag is taken you all turn on each other. There are infinite possibilities. You know, survival-murder. Each Hunger Games movie makes roughly a billion dollars apiece and yet we don’t have that gaming experience where there is an opportunity cost to lighting a fire to stay warm but giving your position away. Because the aim to be the last person standing, the alliances are much more fluid than when you’re simply all on the same team. There are so many different possibilities out there and we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of them all.

I really am excited about the fact that you see people like Industrial Toys, Hammer and Chisel, Super Evil Megacorp, our own Ignited Artists, people are starting to invest in hardcore gaming for the mobile space because now we’re coming to the point where there is one smartphone for every three people on the planet, one smartphone for every seven people on the planet, where the number of hardcore gamers on them will exceed the number of them on the biggest console in history, the PS/2 with 155 million units sold.

Ignited Artists logo

We’re coming to a point where they’re going to be investing for real in hardcore gaming on the mobile and tablet platforms. It’s funny, every few years you see the story where someone goes from a big game in the console space to mobile or tablet, they’re going to bring the hardcore games there, and then you see the Gamasutra article a few months later where they say, oh, we made all these mistakes because we came from console. It’s funny, because for 10 years, people have been saying that mobile is different than console, but they keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We’ve learned that console games don’t work on mobile, but that doesn’t mean hardcore games don’t work on mobile. I think that with all this investment going into this space, I think we’re going to see really great hardcore experiences in the mobile space coming very soon.

The Escapist: Tell me about the title are you working on now.

Scott Foe: We have not announced our title, but I’ve read your work and obviously you are a very intelligent gamer so I’d be happy to put you on the list for the Beta.

The Escapist: I’ll look forward to it. Can you make any comments about the genre? You’re known to be an innovative designer, so we can safely assume there is going to be an innovation or two. Can you give us a hint of what one of them might be?

Scott Foe: As I was probably too long-winded on the earlier point already, I’ll just say we’re definitely shooting for hardcore gamers and providing deeper, more compelling experiences for the smartphone, for the tablet, in games that you can play on the bus or waiting for the movie to start.

The Escapist: How are you funding it? It’s always educational to learn how experienced designers are funding their development these days.

Scott Foe: My entire career I have been pooh-poohed by some of the great designers in the industry for being too business-focused, too commercial. I think I was always a free-to-play designer, even before free-to-play existed. With my business focus, the first funding that we pursued was venture investment, and we got strategic investment in the form of a significant Series A investment from Sega Networks. Strategic investment makes sense for many reasons; there is a lot of talk about smart money versus dumb money. Taking money from a strategic investor is like taking money from a superpower. It’s a whole different conversation. You get to leverage so much extra support in the form of user acquisition, know how, quality assurance, product management and all of these things that traditional investors just can’t provide. With the rising cost of user acquisition in free-to-play, those superpowers will probably prove invaluable and may even turn out to make or break games in this space.

While I’m very cold, very commercial, when it comes to keeping the lights on in the studio, any good product person knows that the best way to keep the lights on permanently is to deliver a good product that your consumers, your players, totally adore. If you deliver something that your players totally adore, they will definitely reward you for it.

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