From time to time, I’ll make a stunt out of my interviews with video game professionals. I’ll do this when they’re bunched together for a weeklong event like Game Developers Conference or the huge E3 show in Los Angeles. I’ll convince every executive and game designer I speak to at one of these things to ask a question for the next person I’m talking to. Or I’ll cajole a parade of all-star game creators to play Tic-Tac-Toe. In June, I asked a who’s who of developers, some of them rivals, to help draw one sketch.
I started this one with a flash of inspiration that came as I reached the second day of my interviews at the 2017 edition of E3. On the evening of June 12, as the game developer Michel Ancel outlined Beyond Good & Evil 2 for me in a room filled with concept art for the dream project, I thought of my reporter’s notebook and the remaining blank pages inside it. I waited for Ancel to finish his presentation and respond to a few of my questions. Then, as a fresh batch of reporters began entering the room, I asked him if he’d be willing to do something unusual and start a drawing that would connect all the game developers I’d meet that week.
As I flipped to a blank page, he said yes. I handed him my notebook. He sat, hunched over, and spent a minute drawing a moon.
Images in this story present the sketch in full on the left and a detail of what each game creator added on the right. For the first sketch, Michel Ancel’s moon is one and the same.
Ancel works for the multi-national gaming company Ubisoft, which was showcasing its big E3 games that night of the 12th. After I met with him, I was slated to chat with Ashraf Ismail, who is leading development on the next big Assassin’s Creed game in a studio in Montreal. Ismail and I chatted about Assassin’s Creed Origins for a bit. Then I handed him my notebook.
He added an astronaut to Ancel’s moon.
That was it for Monday. I had actually started my E3 interviews on Sunday, and had I thought of the idea then, I would have had sketch contributions from people who worked on Gears of War, Minecraft and Forza, and maybe from some of the other game creators I bumped into at an Xbox showcase. Alas, I didn’t think of this idea in time for them.
On Tuesday, I took my notebook to the E3 convention and my meeting with Jakub Stokalski, a developer at the Polish studio 11 Bit who is leading the creation of a game called Frostpunk. The game is a neat simulation of an industrialised society trying to survive during an ice age. The central visual motif in Frostpunk is a tower around which the frost-ringed society builds a radial city.
Fittingly, Stokalski, constructed a tower on Ancel’s moon.
After Frostpunk, I had an appointment with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, the American publisher that was at E3 to show off Lego games and the new Lord of the Rings adventure Shadow of War. The publisher’s booth was full of public relations people and folks employed by WBIE to show their games, but few of these people were sketch-ready. A PR person told me that they might be able to grab Bob Roberts, lead designer of Shadow of War, but he was busy taping an interview. I went off to at least play his game and was soon told that Roberts was nervous about my request. Drawing wasn’t his thing. I took a few minutes to play a Lego game and inquired if he’d decided to do it. Yes, okay.
Roberts drew me an Orc head.
To document the evolution of the sketch, I took a photo after each addition. Or at least that was the plan. I forgot to do it after Roberts drew his orc head, so this photo was taken after the next contributor, my hand covering up the next person’s addition.
I spent most of my Tuesday at E3 playing games but not chatting with developers. I knew I’d see more game creators in the evening at a mixer hosted by games industry financial analyst Michael Pachter. The party was in an office tower in downtown L.A., and in the lobby alone I secured three more additions to the sketch.
First, Cliff Bleszinski, he of Unreal Tournament, Gears of War and now Lawbreakers, went wild, adding a second tower to Ancel’s moon plus some eyes along with a second smaller moon.
Next, John Pelling, a developer at 2K, added a space cat with a space mouse in a pouch.
Pelling had been introduced to me by Corey May, a writer I’d met when he was scripting Assassin’s Creed games before leaving Ubisoft and joining 2K. May, like Roberts before him, was unsure of his drawing ability. With some pressure, May made a contribution that justified his reticence.
After an elevator ride up to the mixer, I ran into Dan Tabar, an indie developer who toiled on a game called Cortex Command for 11 years years and is now developing a game called Planetoid Pioneers. If you’re making a game about people exploring circular worlds, then the sketch I was carrying around is your kind of collaborative drawing.
Tabar added a little pioneer and a creature to Ancel’s moon.
Nearby, I found Sam Kennedy, a former editor at various gaming publications and websites who is now making virtual reality games at an outfit called Tigertron.
Sam and I chatted as he added a figure who looked surprised, confused and excited all at once.
Near the end of my swing through the party I ran into John Vignocchi, the lead creative inspiration behind the beloved but discontinued Disney Infinity toy-game mash-up. I showed him my notebook. He took it and walked away to work on his contribution.
Vignocchi was gone for a few minutes. He returned with my notebook and an anecdote. He’d drawn me a Super Mario head, but not just any Super Mario head. He explained that, when he was a kid, he read an article in Electronic Gaming Monthly about Super Mario World. The article included a Mario sketch by the character’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, that a young Vignocchi copied. He was inspired by Miyamoto and in his youth re-sketched that Mario head repeatedly. He still remembered how to do it for me.
Mario head flipped for clarity. Photo was taken in a very dark party!
I started my meetings on Wednesday with a demonstration of the zombie game State of Decay II. A couple of developers at the outfit behind the game, Undead Labs, debated who would add to the sketch.
Studio founder Jeff Strain decided to do the work. He added flies to Roberts’ Orc now-zombified head. This was the kind of unintended collaboration I’d sought.
State of Decay II is an Xbox exclusive, so I enjoyed next tapping someone who is making a PlayStation-only game: Naughty Dog’s Shaun Escayg, the creative director on the upcoming Uncharted: Lost Legacy.
Escayg was very nervous about adding to the drawing, but managed to add Lost Legacy protagonists Nadine and Chloe in stylish silhouette.
We had an Xbox addition, a PlayStation addition… what next?
My day wound down in the Nintendo booth, where my colleague Heather Alexandra and I met with developers working on the upcoming Switch and 3DS game Fire Emblem Warriors. After grilling them with important questions, I asked them if they’d add to the sketch. They did.
First, Masahiro Higuchi of Kyoto-based Intelligent Systems took out his cellphone, did an image search for Marth and then added the iconic Fire Emblem character to the sketch:
Next, Yosuke Hayashi, of Tokyo-based Tecmo and Team Ninja, brought things back to Ancel’s moon, where he added Mount Fuji.
There could have been one more addition. After I interviewed Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime I invited him to contribute. Not technically a developer of games, he still might’ve fit the bill here. He’d been in my stunt chain interview back in 2009. He declined, citing poor drawing ability.
That was it. Fourteen developers contributed. The geographic mix was good. I had contributions from developers from Europe, North America and Japan. Contributions were biased toward big studios, as is the nature of E3. That corporate game development tilt might also explain the abundance of men and the absence of women, who I’ve found are seldom in senior enough positions at E3-scale studios to be the ones presenting games at the show and therefore acceding to collaborative sketch requests. Maybe it’s also a revealing self-own about who I know or spotted at and around the event. I’d likely get a better mix at a PAX or other indie-friendly show.
I do want to thank everyone who contributed to the sketch. I was shocked that, of the 15 people I asked, 14 were up for this. And every one of them drew better than I could have. Even Corey May. Thank you, game developers!
Here, in one image, is my E3 2017: