David Sears is the Design Director for “We Happy Few,” an action-adventure game developed by Compulsion Games and published by Gearbox Publishing, which was recently released for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Windows. Set in an alternative version of World War II in Britain, “We Happy Few” features a group of characters that must escape a dystopian society where historical events are censored and any feelings of unhappiness are deemed illegal. These illegal feelings are masked by a drug known as “Joy,” which alters the mind of the user. The storyline is heavily inspired by books such as “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Brave New World.”
David shares some insights about his career path, his experiences of working on “We Happy Few,” as well as some of his past involvements working in conjunction with the military on titles like “SOCOM: US Navy SEALs” and “Rainbox Six.”
Can you give us a bit of background on where you’re from?
Sure. I grew up in Mississippi in a small town. After university and a stint at COMPUTE magazine, which was based in North Carolina, I moved to Los Angeles to work in games full time and since then have lived all over the US for different game projects. I now reside in Montreal, Quebec.
Have you worked with the military in game development?
As creative director for “SOCOM: US Navy SEALs,” I collaborated with the US Navy and the SEALs to make the games as authentic as possible. Our SEALs contact was extremely helpful and insightful, even though he could not answer every question due to security issues.
This probably is not an affiliation, but prior to the “SOCOM” games I had zero experience with the military in any capacity. A crash course in military history, tactics, and memoirs, but especially working with smart, dedicated people in the armed forces led to a healthy respect for them and what they do for the country.
What has been your career path to your current position?
Making games was my goal as a kid in the 80s. I experienced all the typical discouragement from relatives—all but my mother who bought a Commodore 64 for me. I made my first hobbyist games on that machine and learned to program in assembly, to make pixel art, write music, explored game logic and so on. But when I entered college the computer science curriculum was not oriented towards game development in any way I could see.
I vividly recall a “program this parking garage simulator” in Pascal assignment which was so mind numbing I just couldn’t bring myself to attempt it, so I changed my major to Radio, Television and Film and later added a second major in English Literature, reasoning that I would learn how to craft entertaining “media,” whether it was a moving image, a radio program, or a novel. I still wanted to make games, but it was going to be a couple of years after college before I would get the chance.
In school I would talk about “interactive fiction” and the importance of story in games and I’d get blank stares. No one knew what I was talking about. This is something that would take decades for the games industry to fully get behind, but now that seems to be cost of entry for most games. Anyway, the English degree helped me land a job as an assistant editor at COMPUTE magazine, and based on work I did for them, a game publisher asked me to write a clue book. They liked the clue book enough that they asked me to design a game for them. After that I entered the industry full time as a game designer.
I should point out that years later I realized that parking garage simulator would have actually been a useful experience to have. Live and learn.
Your LinkedIn page mentions your backgrounds in both Literary Theory & Criticism as well as Radio, Television and Film, are still useful to you today. Why do they provide such practical application to game development?
Literary theory and criticism requires you to research widely and deeply. Just making it through the required reading for the classes will expand your mind but also lead you to seek out even more material to prove your theories or assertions about a specific work. Plus, the selection of reading is intense.
Most of us were not required to read a lot of ancient or modern philosophers in grade school or even college. In the program, I was reading them every day and looking for resonances with literature: rules and reasons for making authorial choices that would affect readers/viewers.
Not long ago I taught a class about applying Aristotle’s Poetics—the oldest available theoretical treatise on drama—to game design. I had not read Aristotle for decades, well before jumping in making games full time, and I was surprised that it was not only applicable to game design, but strongly applicable. In fact, I had internalized those ideas and used them for years without crediting Aristotle once (sorry, Aristotle). Of course, Aristotle had not entirely anticipated digital media, but with some minor changes to his priorities, almost every concept was resonant in game design. So, for the research skills, mental discipline, and broad base of knowledge, those literary criticism and theory classes have been a boon to me.
Radio, Television and Film was more practical and production-minded. I learned film and audio editing, lighting, camera operation, and so on. These skills migrated transparently to digital formats as software became available. Concepts that worked for film, television, and radio production in the last century work equally well for the medium of games. Styles and techniques may change, but the fundamentals remain the same.
What is your current position and how do you describe your job to a layman?
I am the studio design director. That means I am responsible for gameplay and unifying that with art and story. For the layman, I would say that, “I try to make sure the player takes actions in the game that are both fun and meaningful.” But really you cannot describe game development easily. It quickly turns into several semesters worth of explanation.
Were you part of “We Happy Few” from the beginning or were you brought on at a later time? If so, how did that situation present itself?
Technically, from the beginning, but not really. The studio founder/creative director stayed with me for a week in North Carolina to work on game concepts and just generally “get out of the office.” I was a sounding board at that time. A couple of years later I joined the team full time in my current role.
I know Design Directors wear many hats. What are some specifics that you worked on in “We Happy Few?”
My first task was creating a game chart that showed the scope of locations, mechanics, resources, and so on. This included work that was already in the game, but also identified and expanded areas that needed more attention. For this project I have outlined and designed many encounters, invented characters, and designed features and mechanics. I also picked up a lot of (very) low level bug fixing in levels and scripts, and placed assets in many levels.
Probably my favorite contributions were the conception of “the butcher” and the “altar of the yam” encounters (developer titles). The first one is notably disturbing and should make players think, while the latter is just so weird I cannot believe we were allowed to build it.
“We Happy Few” has a dystopian society much like those we see in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” & “Brave New World,” coupled with the use of narcotics known as “Joy” to control the populace. Anyone who doesn’t take this “Joy” is known as a “downer.” Is any of this a statement on current culture from the eyes of the developers?
I don’t think so. No one here has ever talked about imbedded messages, just about what our characters would do in this particular dystopia.
From what I have observed that the best media—art, literature, film, games–do not tell people what to think or feel but instead encourages them to ask questions about what they think or feel in relation to the media. So I’d say we are trying to be like the best media and not preach, but instead present scenarios that are primed to invoke introspection without demanding any particular reaction. Or to just be fun. When all else fails, make it fun.
Being the hero in a dystopian struggle almost always means attempting to overthrow or escape that society because that provides a clear path for action. Yet, when you flip the concept on its head and present a utopia, a similar pattern emerges. For example, in Capra’s film “Lost Horizon,” the characters are brought into an actual utopia with only “minor” issues (for that time period) and no malign intent. In fact, they will even live for hundreds of years, free to pursue their interests. Every character reacts differently. Some want to stay, others see only shadowy threats and try to convince others to leave. In fact, everyone is free to leave which only creates more angst. So the characters have similar experiences to those in a dystopian story but the path to action is less clear.
My point is that almost any good work of fiction will find resonance with modern audiences for the same reasons that make it a good work in and of itself. If the work causes you to ask questions about your beliefs or feelings, that is awesome because you are thinking. Your actual beliefs are not the issue, only the fact that you considered them. Of course I do admit to attempting to create games that make you laugh, cry, feel fear, etc. Because that is the job.
It seems, from my perspective, that “We Happy Few” had a meteoric rise in terms of interest from its initial trailers, showing this eerie “happy” place with a dark underbelly brewing underneath the façade. In terms of public interest, I can’t help but draw comparisons to “No Man’s Sky.”
Did you know you were working on something special right away or did it manifest itself later? How do you manage expectations from the gamers? Does it produce more stress or actually increase your ability to perform? What’s that like internally at an indie company?
Actually, I have never felt that I am working on anything special until the public tells me that it is special. Or the reviews are positive. So I almost never know for sure until after the game has shipped. During production, I usually have a feeling like “Oh, the game is good, it does everything we hoped,” but that does not always translate into sales or fans. Having said that, I always felt like “We Happy Few” was very interesting and weird with a lot of wonderful surprises that range from humorous to dark. To me that is pretty special. And based on reactions to the trailers and reveals, I think the world of “We Happy Few” has resonated with a lot of people.
Managing gamer expectations was usually straightforward, at least from my perspective, though our community manager probably has another perspective. The studio published well more than a hundred weekly updates about the project. These avoided giving away details about the story, but offered a window into development across all disciplines. Anyone with an interest in the game just had to look at these to see how it was shaping up. The encouragement from backers and early access players generally increased the studio’s determination to make a great game.
You said in a previous interview that procedurally generated games fight you to the very end, when trying to get them to cooperate. Has there been any changes in the current gamedev technology that’s helped with this problem?
For sure. We added a programmer who specializes in procedural generation which was a tremendous help. Now the game mostly behaves itself though it still likes to surprise us from time to time. The world generation programmer has been isolating and correcting those issues as they present themselves.
It’s somewhat unprecedented to offer specific explanations when a game gets delayed (perhaps because it was a Kickstarter project?), as seen in Compulsion Games’ January 2018 production update video on YouTube. Do you think more developers should practice this transparency or is it more of a double-edged sword that can create “optics” problems?
Personally, I prefer to be honest. In our case we delayed to spend more time making the game the public was telling us they wanted, so I think that’s an easier sell than problems other developers might run into or that we could have run into. I definitely like the honest approach more so than the old school approach that was prevalent in the industry throughout the Nineties and naughts, which was basically to announce the delay and then go radio silent. That led to lots of player frustration and speculation.
I know you worked on “SOCOM” and “Rainbow Six.” What did you do for each of those games? What was that experience like? Any skills that transitioned well to your work on “We Happy Few?”
I was the creative director on both and in the early days of SOCOM also handled game design, mission design, UI design, wrote dialogue, captured and edited marketing videos and a lot more. Every project is an opportunity to hone existing skills, but since every project is different, the application of those skills varies. Plus, the software required evolves or is entirely different. So I’d say that both projects were preparatory for doing all the same things again, only differently.
At E3 2018 Microsoft made the announcement that they acquiring several developers to make more first-party games (much needed, in my view), including Compulsion Games. I realize it’s a relatively new acquisition, but does that quickly change the working culture from within? Do you see yourselves as a “AAA Developer” now?
So far I have observed no changes and we have been focused on shipping our current game. However, Microsoft does not appear to want to impose any internal structural changes. A change I do anticipate is the ability to hire more support staff so that our day to day work has less distractions. When you are independent everyone wears a lot of hats. I think we will be able to wear only a few hats each going forward.
So are we a AAA developer now? That is the expectation. We strived to produce AAA work before the acquisition, and that certainly will not change. Being part of a larger organization and focusing on making games will just make our jobs a bit easier.
When working on “We Happy Few,” what are some “behind the scenes” type-work that your average gamer doesn’t notice, but we should have an appreciation for?
Reading and commenting on design/story documents. Tracking down bugs that should not exist. Waiting on levels to load in the editor. Waiting on the game to build so that you can play test it. Playing the same encounter over and over looking for problems. Playing the game over and over and pausing to write hundreds of comments and file bug reports. Studying spreadsheets to balance game difficulty. A large part of game development is all mental, but the sheer tedium of placing tiny props across hundreds of locations can also be considerable. People usually see the end product, but not the thousands of hours of repetitive tasks that are necessary to make a game.
With the development of “We Happy Few” coming to a close, what are your takeaways from it?
Despite having worked on and shipped a lot of games, each project is different. This game was very different from anything I’ve worked on before. And even difficult projects, at least for me, contribute to keeping me young and evolving. Well, young-ish, anyway.
Any other moments in your career that stand out?
I made an RC Racing game for the N64 in collaboration with Miyamoto. Our E3 meetings were definitely memorable. Meeting and working with Harlan Ellison who treated me not only as a collaborator but as a friend. Working with Clive Barker on an action adventure game so far ahead of its time that it never shipped and who also treated me as a friend and colleague. That’s a lot of name dropping but in a relatively short time, all these creators left a major impression on me and influenced my approach to game design.
We always hear about burnout in the video game industry. Is it plausible to have work/life balance in your field? How do you manage it?
Burnout is not uncommon in the games industry but recently stories about overwork seem to have been trending downward. I think the industry is maturing in that regard. At Compulsion we have all put in overtime but without a lot of bureaucracy to contend with most of our working hours move the game forward. So with a little planning we have been able to avoid egregious OT. Plus we have some comp time and flexible hours, work from home as needed, and so on. I think that what we do with our free time can be more problematic as there is a tendency to just want to play games, watch movies, read, that kind of thing. It’s not particularly social but it is very comfortable.
Any books, podcasts, mentors, et cetera, that helped you along the way and that you would like to recommend?
My favorite book on game design theory is “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses” by Jesse Schell. For visual thinking and telling story through scene composition/framing “Film Directing Shot by Shot, Visualizing from Concept to Screen” by Steven Katz is indispensable.
For the fundamentals of telling a good story and developing character a fantastic place to start is “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. To understand why we are drawn to classic patterns in storytelling and what those patterns are read then reread “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell.
Gamasutra.com is always great for topical articles, post mortems, and virtually every aspect of game development.
Military.com has a lot of active duty and veteran readers that may want to someday work in your field. To get to where you are at today, what do you feel is the optimum path to travel? Any other advice for people just starting out?
If you want to make games, talk to someone in the industry first. They can help you identify the role for which you have the greatest affinity. Or you may know already know what you want to do. In any event, you will need a skill set that you can put to use immediately if hired, so programming, art, writing, level building, animation, modeling, etc. Not only do you have to be proficient in your chosen discipline, but you also need to create a portfolio that showcases your work in the context of games. Fortunately, most game engines and editors are available for free if used for personal projects so you can teach yourself how to work within them. Knowing how to use standard software such as Office and Adobe Suite is also useful.
If you are not trained in any of the more common game developer disciplines, you may need to go back to school for a while to learn those skills. If you do, you will probably notice that most of your peers are younger than you. Do not let this bother you. The industry skews towards youth, but we need more well-rounded people from other spheres, such as the armed forces. Many of your experiences are invaluable and not even possible for kids coming straight out of a game school to have had. And almost everyone that breaks into the industry starts at the bottom. It may take years for you to obtain the position you really want, but you will learn a lot about production on the way to that goal.
What’s next for you?
The rumor is that I will be working on another (unannounced) game here at Compulsion. I also plan to take some time off to visit my mother and to take my dog on a road trip.