Interview With Relic’s Tarrnie Williams — Part 1

13 Jun

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Relic’s General Manager, Tarrnie Williams, shortly after the VIGS. I took the opportunity to get his opinion on quality of life issues in the videogame industry, pertinent design questions, issues facing the PC platform, and of course how Relic operates as a studio. The interview is too large to post on one page, so keep an eye out for part 2 of the interview soon.

VGD: Recently I read an article on Gamasutra referencing an old paper that the IGDA published in 2004 about quality of life issues, and I know personally from VFS that you’re still worth more if you’re there five, six, seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. The paper really stressed that a forty hour work week, five days a week, was actually more efficient. Can you talk about how Relic operates and if you think the rest of the industry has caught up?

TW: We very much operate that way. We try really, really hard to have work life balance. So much so that we learned a new word last night — damnit, I keep forgetting what it is – but they put life first.

Anyways, we’re very much on board with that. I mean, I worked at EA for twelve and a half years and a lot of that was through some of the darker times. I worked through very, very long and strenuous overtime periods and I’ve compared that with how we generally run things here. I really don’t think you go faster from my experience.

Working all those hours you get tired, you get grumpy, you make way more mistakes, you get stupider – you just are not able to think as fast. So, in an industry like ours where the pace of change is really high, and there are a lot of unknowns that you’re encountering all the time, in every aspect of the work; and with the number of interdependencies, it really demands everyone be quick, be on the ball and be thinking.

When you start working those hours, that stops happening, and you tend to really slow down the production. So when you walk around our offices – generally at seven o’clock at night there’s nobody here, Saturday there’s nobody here.

We use Scrum, that’s the way we manage our projects and we really like it, we’re big fans. We’ve done our last three productions with it. Company of Heroes was done with it (we transitioned midway through). Dark Crusade, Soulstorm (although it was an external project) certainly our end was done that way, and Opposing Fronts. Dawn of War II’s being done on that too.

Most of those projects have been finished on time, on budget with little or no overtime. We’re shipping out, in most cases, high eighties rated products and I haven’t heard of a lot of places doing that. I attribute that to a) Scrum works, b) we have a very talented staff.

We truly believe that working a good solid, regular day is the best way to work. I mean, you will find we do have foosball and pool tables and things like that, and people take brief breaks, but if you walk around the floor; almost all day people are working.


VGD: So it gives them a solid time to do their work.

TW: Absolutely, they’re focused; we give out free headphones to anyone who wants them so they can do that, but at the same time we have tons of meeting rooms because with Scrum you’re always having impromptu meetings. We don’t have high-walled cubes, everything’s very open. Everyone’s sitting with the people they work with. So I’m a big believer.


VGD: Do you think it’s the fact that game development is kind of a burgeoning industry that people have begun to think this way [overtime = better] or that it’s an information industry? Because it’s always been like that in other industries, since Ford: I’m going to pay you for a six day work week but you’re going to work five because you’ll do more work then. But people understood that, because you mess up on an assembly line and you’ve lost an arm. But people have the general conception that if you’re just sitting there at a computer screen you’re not losing anything when you’re just working all day and all night.

TW: Yeah, I think some of it is that it’s an industry borne out of passion as well. I’m not saying that we don’t work any overtime, we do, we put it in. What we try and do is make it so that we can’t tell people to work overtime, some people just do.

We run things goal based, and sometimes you know – you’ve done it I’m sure, I do it – from time to time you’re like ‘This isn’t quite as good as I want, I’m gonna push through this and get it done.’ But you do that for a day or two, fine. You can totally do that. But you try and do that a couple days in a row…productivity nose-dives and crashes. So for a passion-based industry it’s been borne out of people working out of their garages and then getting into the industry and starting these things.

I gave a talk last night at a PWC event and a lot of it was on technology direction and the premise of what I was talking about was that the most important thing about technology direction is ‘How do you react to the pace of change?’ How do you react to the fact that things change so fast? That not only is the technology important, but what’s more important is the technology of learning; the way you approach something, the way you look at things, the way you are able to continually learn, to continually challenge yourself, to continually take on new things. And I think as the industry’s been evolving so quickly over the last thirty years, or since it began, we’re slowly evolving more and more systems for how to properly work within that industry.


VGD: More of our own systems.

TW: Exactly, more of our own. Because we borrowed them from lots of other industries, but this industry’s quite different. Games are very different than linear media, and they’re different from pure information; it’s very real time. The player is playing and they’re always moving, you go online and it increases the complexity again. So, the number of interdisciplinary groups that work together, and the constant change, and the fact that you can design something on paper and then try it…and it’s just not very much fun. And if it’s not fun… well it’s a game, and games are meant to be fun. And so… well you’ve got to work with that. ‘We gotta make it more fun guys!’ There’s so much of that that you don’t really – well you can plan for it, if you’re really good at it and you’ve been doing it for years, sometimes you’re like ‘ooh, thought that would be fun’ but it’s not. Again that’s why I like Scrum: the process assumes that’s going to happen, so it’s built to be able to take advantage of getting things up and running fast and early, and then trying them and seeing if they’re fun. If they are, great, if they’re not, well let’s do some more work to make them more fun.


VGD: I’m gonna jump over to CoH: Online. I read an interview recently with Tim Holman and he made a good point about how he felt that there’s a big difference between localization and culturalization – what are the big differences in China and how have you been planning to prevent, for instance, piracy; how do you think it’s going to survive over there?

TW: Well the game we’re doing in partnership with Shanda is free.

VGD: But you have to pay to download certain things, right?

TW: Well it’s sort of a micro-transactional item based sales model, but because you’re connected online you can’t sort of pirate things in the same way.

VGD: Is it a client as well? You’re not taking a copy from brick and mortar?

TW: It’s digital download, it’s free. You get the game, you play the game; you can play the entire game for free. You don’t have to buy anything. If you want to though, you can buy things like hero units – you find them in-game too. This is a model that North America’s really not that familiar with. The key is this model that’s really swept the whole Asian market in China, Korea, etc. Korea’s probably the leader in coming up with this – with Kart Rider, Maple Story, a lot of these free to play games, they’ve set a new model for it. It’s a fascinating model really and in fact it evolved out of piracy, because there was so much piracy of regular boxed products that they needed to change the paradigm.

VGD: So they could make money.

TW: And by having things that are free…yeah, pirate it, go ahead. Please, give it to your friends! But then having the secure online connection allows you to make sure that in fact you are monitoring. And so when you’re running these things you have an anti-fraud team and a security team and all those sort of things, so you’re actually monitoring the way that people interact and making sure they’re not spoofing it.

VGD: So it becomes less about actual piracy and more about just sort of gorking the system.

TW: Right, and those are the things that you look for, because in the game essentially what paying lets you do is it kind of lets you do things a little faster. Maybe you could buy something that lets you earn experience at twice the rate for a day for twenty-five cents. So it’s not really hurting the other people. If you wanna go faster, ok. You’re not just buying levels either. So there’s a lot of things in that way, you know vanity items are a part of it but there are also a lot of other ways we can monetize that and we’ll probably talk more about that as we get closer to launch. It’s a very different psychology, so that’s the place where you really need to make those changes to ensure that, talking about culturalization, is that the product and what you’re selling is hitting the right psychological target for what the audience needs.

VGD: That said, how do you feel about how some other companies like Valve and Stardock have been handling it, where if the box copy is pirated they’ve been trying to counteract that by requiring authentication for updates. So Valve has been pushing that even more; you can go ahead and pirate TF2 but you’re not going to get all of the updates, so you’re pirating an outdated game. What do you think about that?

TW: It’s great. I loathe piracy. It’s a big challenge for our industry, although it’s an even bigger challenge for the music industry and the movie industry because, really, their content is eminently pirateable. It’s a linear piece of content. Traditional boxed product, brick and mortar, is quite pirateable because they’re a contained product. Online allows you to change that paradigm. Alex Garden from Nexon has been talking about how they’re calling Kart Rider – what is the right term for it – I guess they’ve decided they want to call them ‘On-Live’. You are playing online, and you’re connected. They announced last night that that’s what they’re going to call it, but who knows, we’ll see if that sticks. Because they’re really not Massively Multiplayer games, they’re sort of like small group multiplayer games that are connected. We’ve needed a new term to describe what these kinds of products are. They’ve swept the Asian market and I personally think we’re going to see an increase in the amount of them.


VGD: Ok, so I remember back at the VIGS that Marianne Krawczyk, the God of War writer, was talking about how where she had worked at Sony Santa Monica they had a very top-down design process when they were approaching titles to produce. So they would come up with a concept and then would develop mechanics and systems that fit in the context of that idea. So you want to make God of War, what would you do in God of War. How does Relic approach that, do you guys start with a cool mechanic? Because I’ve seen in the first Dawn of War there’s that same strategic point capture that you saw later in Company of Heroes, so do you guys start out with that kind of idea?

TW: I wouldn’t say that we necessarily start with any particular approach at the expense of others, or that we mandate an approach. I think that mechanics can be the nugget that drives something that you can hang other pieces on. An I.P. can be the nugget that drives things that you hang mechanics on. I mean, I think there’s a lot of ways that we do that.

And certainly we don’t do anything, well very little, top-down. Much more of it tends to be bottom-up. The context, it comes from the top-down. Sure, I mean if we’re doing more Company of Heroes we’re like ‘OK more Company of Heroes’. For Opposing Fronts that was kind of like ‘Well we had success with Dark Crusade, it was a stand-alone expansion.’ and we’re like ‘OK, let’s do another stand-alone expansion’. And that was kind of the context that came from the top-down. Beyond that the team got to do whatever they wanted really. ‘Alright what armies do we want to do? How do we want to do it, what do we want to change?’ That isn’t top-down, it’s bottom-up.

With Scrum, you can get lots of different areas, and every area is able to innovate, and every area is able to do their own design processes. Josh Mosqueira is our design director, so he’s able to interact with all the different groups. And I interact with groups. And John Dowdeswell, our executive producer, interacts with all the groups, and the lead designer on the project will interact. But what we do… is we just try and sit down with people and bring our insight and our experience to bear.

I started as a designer in the industry a long time ago, and worked as a producer for years at EA. You know EA typically doesn’t have designers, so I’ve done a lot of design work. Again since we don’t have a top-down culture, people sort of ask for team management to come and ‘Hey, come give us your insight.’ because we very much don’t tell people what they need to do. We’re like ‘Hey, these are the thoughts I have about what you’re doing.’ or ‘You can do it this way.’, or ‘Try this.’

We try very hard not to tell people what to do. Because you know what – I don’t know the context around all of the things that they’re doing as well as they do, because that’s what they’re doing every day. So you know, I can tell them how I feel about it, but I don’t think it’s wise for me to try to tell them what to do. So that’s the way we approach most things.

I think that Scrum is based on a philosophy of trust. And the philosophy of trust is based upon the fact that well the people who are closest to the work are likely to actually have the best ability to kind of know most things about it. Now they’re not necessarily going to have other insights that are further afield than what they’re looking at, because that’s the area where, you know, people who are in different positions can bring some insight because, you know, ‘Hey, I happen to know this other thing that you don’t know because you’re focused on that. Well, I can then give you that insight and maybe you can figure out how to make that work with your stuff.’

[Part 2 can now be found here]


3 Responses to “Interview With Relic’s Tarrnie Williams — Part 1”

  1. Fadi August 13, 2008 at 1:14 pm #

    In a related news:
    Game Power 7 announced from Dubai UAE, its establishment as the first online game publisher in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) for the game localization and culturalization in Arabic and Farsi languages.

    Online games developers around the world will finally have a partner in the MENA region to help them publish their games in Arabic and Farsi languages.

    The region has a large potential for online and MMO games, with no localized games yet, and Game Power 7 is actively pursuing other MMO games to be localized for this market.

    For more information

  2. Keith January 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Some good posts on this blog and a load of good info. If you happen to have time, visit mine and come and take a look at my posts and give me a comment at Go Kart DIY.


  1. Game developers embrace Scrum | Lead, Follow, or Get Fired!™ - June 14, 2008

    […] an interview this week, Relic General Manager Tarrnie Williams tells Will Wright that Scrum is the most widely used manageme…. “We use […]

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