On the final day of the recent Develop conference in Brighton, attendees are exhausted and hungover. Nonetheless, the main room fills up early in anticipation for the keynote being delivered by ex-Valve developer Chet Faliszek. Perhaps aware that his topic, ‘The Future of AI in Games Creation’, might sound a little heavy-going for a morning audience, Faliszek takes a tangential, irreverent approach, occasionally going off-topic, even changing the title of his talk a couple times, as well as throwing in cat pics for good measure.
On the whole, it’s a talk similar to one he gave at this year’s DICE Summit, but Chet has form when it comes to using humour and memes to communicate interesting ideas. After all, before he joined Valve to work on the likes of Half Life 2 and the Portal and Left 4 Dead series, he and partner-in-crime Erik Wolpaw were the twisted minds behind Old Man Murray, a website active from 1997 to 2002 that some would call the Cahiers du Cinema of videogames, or in Gabe Newell’s words, “the Velvet Underground of post-print journalism.”
Today Chet is part of UK developer Bossa Studios, specifically creative director of its new Seattle studio. He’s working on a new game (“they had an idea, I had an idea, and together they became married”) that’s a departure from the wacky physics the studio had previously been known for but also not on the huge scale of the SpatialOS-based Worlds Adrift. The few details are that the game is in the first-person perspective with elements of a co-op tactical shooter (“‘Tactical shooter’ makes it sound way more hardcore than it is”, he clarifies). So instead of fishing for tidbits there, I thought I’d see if he’d be up for a bout of reminiscing.
While also a magazine freelancer in the 90s, he refers to his stint at OMM as something of a “lark”. “Some of what we did was just a reaction to what was there,” Faliszek says. “I thought there were a lot of websites that were very much just beholden to the developers, and were barely writing reviews.”
Although part of the UGO Network, OMM struck out with its own rebellious and satirical tone, kicking against stale gaming conventions as much as America’s mostly clinical approach to games journalism. The ‘News’ section was often reserved for acerbic teardowns of developers like John Romero and American McGee. But under its wilfully ironic guise was also insightful criticism that would be influential to the games industry at large. Most famous of these is the Crate Review System, where they introduced a ‘Start to Crate’ metric to determine the overall quality of a game based on how long it took before the player would encounter a crate or barrel. From Doom to Tomb Raider to Deus Ex, none was spared once under OMM’s crosshairs.
Chet is modest about the reputation OMM built, recalling the site’s early reception with surprise. “Nobody knew, like, is this a thing that lasts for a day? Is this a thing that lasts for a week? I still remember the first time when 50 people hit the site. You’re like ‘Oh my god, 50 people – 50 people! Holy cow!’ We were over the moon. But we had no idea what was going to last.”
In truth, OMM’s history is a relatively short one. Its last update was at the beginning of 2002, although its archives remain intact unlike the contents of most defunct websites that slip into the void (RIP Edge Online). Meanwhile, both Chet and Erik found themselves making the crossover from reporting on and critiquing the industry to actually becoming a part of it.
“The call from Valve came out of the blue, and I was surprised,” says Chet, who didn't consider OMM or his other writings as a stepping stone to game development. Since he and Erik first met, however, they had had plans to make games. One early idea was inspired by the old Atari arcade game Fire Truck, known for its unique co-op mechanic where one player drives in the front while the other steers the tiller in the back.
“Ours was pretty simple: we just wanted a gun in the back that could shoot people,” Faliszek laughs. “Yeah, we like shooting people – what can you say.”
He also credits Doom and Quake for opening up the modding tools for ordinary people to play around with and edit their own levels, which he used to make his own mods. That's his advice for aspiring developers too. “Just make cool stuff. Whatever it is, just make the coolest thing you can, put it out there, and eventually people find you because of that, and they want to work with you. We were just doing our thing, thinking that was the thing we were doing, not to some other end.”
Yet despite the influence and legacy of OMM, dipping back into its archives in today’s context can be a shock to the system. Sure, it was a reaction against the polite status quo, which is how you could view their rants against point-and-click adventure pioneer Roberta Williams, whose comments about the changing demographics in PC gaming could be read as elite snobbery, and easy ammunition. But it’s also difficult to read of her as a “pompous fucking bitch” as ‘ironic misogyny.’ That’s just the tip of an ugly iceberg. While many would say that OMM was satire of the highest order, much of it is also imitated by 4chan trolls and other unsavoury parts of internet and gamer culture.
Neither of mention any group explicitly, though as this interview happened in the week following the sackings at ArenaNet, it’s a topic that seems to haunt the conference generally. But I do ask for Faliszek's perspective on how OMM’s deliberately offensive humour may have contributed to internet culture, and what he thinks now.
“Comedy doesn’t age well,” says Faliszek. “In a way, it should have a time limit to it where you just throw it away and never look at it again.” The week after this interview, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired by Disney over offensive jokes made years ago, while this week The Daily Show host Trevor Noah is in the firing line, and goodness knows who's next.
“We wouldn’t do it today, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t do it then.”
Far from missing OMM, Faliszek says he thinks that “we’re in the golden age of the gaming press. There’s so many outlets I follow that are doing so many more things than just reviews. Because streamers have taken over some of the bulk work of informing the player about the game, journalists can write more about the meta of the game or the politics of the game and what’s going on there. To me, that’s super interesting, and it’s always what we wanted to see.”
That distinction is often missing from articles about OMM: the site was never just about the irreverent style, but the fact this was paired with compelling substance and great points about whatever game was in question. This is the aspect that's missing from the edgelord wannabes that claim it as an inspiration. For those who still hold a candle for OMM, Faliszek is more interested in seeking out today's equivalent, "but different."
“Take Waypoint, they’re totally saying, ‘No, we’re going to have a point of view that’s way different to anybody else out there today. We’re going to wear our politics on our sleeves, be very clear about what we’re about and you can choose to like us or not. But this is who we are.’ While they’re not doing the kind of commentary we may have been doing on the scene, they’re doing commentary on games they think are important and don’t think gets covered enough. To me, that’s super interesting.” He also cites Leigh Alexander’s work at Gamasutra as another example, and it feels like a reference to the 'Gamers are over’ op-ed. “She was being very clear: ‘These are the things that are interesting now, this is the way things are going – let’s be honest, let’s step back.’”
Chet's gracious enough to humour an OMM fan, but is happy to leave the site in its historical niche, and instead look at how games journalism continues to evolve and redefine itself. But he ends with one caveat that, in the context of everything else said, does raise my eyebrows.
“The problem is websites are dead,” Faliszek laments, referencing the perilous nature of freelance work and the budget cuts seen across many media outlets (insert world’s smallest violin GIF here). “There’s probably somebody being really funny and smart on Reddit who just doesn’t get the credit for it, because they don’t have a website, because people don’t go to websites anymore unless they’re linked through social media or on Reddit. I miss when there were all these weird eclectic websites that encapsulated one thing really well.”