Exclusive interview: David Jaffe talks the birth of Twisted Metal, the rise of gaming, and the death of the console

For gamers of a certain age, there are a handful of specific titles that will forever have a spot in the nostalgia-padded recesses of our hearts. The same is true for every new generation of gamers, but for a stretch of time in the 90s, a few games were the linchpin that helped transition the industry from the realm of kids to a more mature audience. If the NES and Sega Master System were the Mercury space capsule, and the Super NES/Genesis were Gemini, these games would be the Apollo entries.

Among these classics are games like GoldenEye, Resident Evil, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And then, of course, there was Twisted Metal.

The Twisted Metal series is one that still elicits strong reactions from people. Most people chose a character and stuck with it, then were soon convinced that they were the best person ever to play the game, even when they lost. To truly see the strength of the brand, just look at the interest being generated by the new game in the series coming out this Valentine’s Day, even after several mediocre outings. In fact, while there have been some decent games over the years, none have come close to matching the appeal of the first two that debuted on the PS One back in 1995. And yet the franchise is still among the most well-known, and arguably even beloved properties in gaming.

At the heart of that grudge-match nurturing franchise was the series’ co-creator David Jaffe. Along with the Twisted Metal franchise, Jaffe is also the director of the critically and commercially beloved God of War, and the former Creative Director of Sony Santa Monica, giving him a firm spot in the history of gaming, as he goes full circle and returns to the franchise that helped launch his career.

After 17 years in the industry, beginning with a job as a lowly tester to becoming the head of his own studio, Jaffe has been a witness to the rise of the gaming industry, as well as a vanguard of its growth. And he’s just getting started.

Ready Player One

Jaffee began in the industry during a transition period, as developers attempted to keep up with gamers whose tastes were maturing. And while many of us may still carry fond memories of gaming from that time period, the reality is that it was a different creature than it is today. The industry has grown into a behemoth, with mainstream appeal and billion dollar franchises. People work hard to break into the field, and the competition is fierce and demanding. There are college courses dedicated to training future employees of video game industry, and tech degrees catered to the it. But when Jaffe began, things were a little different.

Although he grew up playing video games, Jaffe’s real goal was to turn his talents toward directing films. To this end he left his home in Alabama to head for California, after being accepted into USC. Perhaps prophetically, his acceptance letter came on the same day that he recorded a personal milestone by beating The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a game that many remember for its sadistic cruelty, and near manic desire to kill you as quickly and often as possible.

After college, Jaffe attempted to make it in Hollywood, but like so many before him he was having trouble finding the homerun pitch that would propel him into success. In order to pay the bills, Jaffe took a job at Sony as a game tester. In the early 90s, the job of a game tester was still very rare and barely even considered entry level. Like so many things in those early days of video game expansionism, the industry was still experimenting to a degree. New jobs were continually being created, simply because no one had thought of them yet, and soon Jaffe found himself getting more and more involved with the gaming world.

At the time the position of designer was still fairly new, as programmers were expected to wear multiple hats. But as the complexity of the games grew, so did the number of people needed to create them. Taking what he had learned from films, in 1994 Jaffe made his gaming debut as a designer on the Traveller’s Tales game, Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse.

Thanks, traffic

Following the success of the Mickey game, Jaffe impressed the higher-ups at Sony enough that they hired him as a lead designer. All he needed was a project to design. That’s when a chance trip to Salt Lake City changed everything.

“Alan Becker, from Sony Santa Monica, and I went out to Utah to meet with Evans & Sutherland, who wanted to make a 3D game,” Jaffe said. “It was a mind-blowing experience to walk around a 3D database.”

Soon after that meeting, the development group known as SingleTrac was created. From 1995 until its closing in 2000, the developer created 10 games, including the franchise-spawning Twisted Metal series, the Jet Moto franchise, and WarHawk. Many of the developers, including Jaffe, would then go on to form Incognito Entertainment, which lasted until 2009 when many of the staff left to form Eat Sleep Play.

But back in 1995, the crew was still working on ideas that they could use to fully implement the 3D technology that Evans & Sutherland had been developing. Then inspiration struck in the form of a traffic jam in LA.

“[Leaving the airport], we were all stuck on the 405,” Jaffe explained. “It was like a chocolate and peanut butter moment–the 3D graphics and being stuck on in traffic–and I was like ‘oh my god I wish I had a missile launcher.’”

From that inspiration would come the first game of one of the PlayStation’s most successful franchises, Twisted Metal.

“We were all going around the room and I said ‘I have a game with cars and guns’ and they were like ‘done,’” Jaffe said of the game’s creation. “The original game cost $850K, which is ridiculously inexpensive, and it made a ton of money.”

The rest would soon be history, and Jaffe, along with Scott Campbell, would be credited as a creator of one of the most successful franchises on the PS One after releasing Twisted Metal on November 5, 1995 (then later on the PC). Despite some critical apathy towards the single-player campaign, the multiplayer more than made up for it and the game became a massive commercial hit, selling over one million copies in North America—at the time an eye-popping figure–and receiving a re-release as part of the “Sony’s Greatest Hits” line in 1997.

But beyond just the sales figures, the game struck a chord with gamers. It was the right game at the right time, and more than a few college grudges were settled by a game of Twisted Metal.

“We were a favorite of college dorm rooms,” Jaffe said. “I hear the college dorm room thing constantly.”

The Twisted Metal franchise has since gone on to release nine games (including one remastered port of a PSP game), and a tenth is scheduled for a February 14 release date. It is the longest-running franchise in Sony’s history behind the Gran Turismo series, and Jaffe has had at least a hand in all but one of the releases.

God of the PS2

Although Jaffe’s career has been forever linked to the Twisted Metal franchise, his greatest success arguably came in 2005 as director of the PlayStation 2 classic, God of War.

The original God of War was an immediate success both commercially and critically, and went on to win numerous Game of the Year awards, spawning a new franchise that is rumored to be hard at work on its sixth game (although Jaffe is not involved).

The thing that stood out about God of War was the cinematic feel of the game. The mechanics were also top notch and are often imitated, but it really was the scope of the game that has given it such a lasting legacy.

“Raiders is my favorite movie of all time, and I wanted to make a game that was like a movie.” Jaffe explained.

But for as much as a game can emulate a movie, there are significant differences in the way the properties are developed. Having a Hollywood background can help, but there needs to be more to create a successful game.

“One of the hardest things about a game is that it isn’t like a movie, you don’t have a screenplay. You are thinking on your toes and designing it as you go,” Jaffe said.

Using his cinematic background, Jaffe directed God of War in a way that was more akin to a film than most games. He credits Hollywood in some form for all of his works—Smokey and the Bandit and Mad Max are both cited as influences for Twisted Metal–but few are as obviously influenced by film as God of War.

God of War II was released in 2007 and received even more praise than its predecessor. Jaffe turned over the reins to director Cory Barlog, and moved up into a more managerial role as the Creative Director for Sony Santa Monica, where his experience would eventually lead to the creation of his own company, Eat Sleep Play.

Full Circle

With several hit titles to his name and his star on the rise, Jaffe decided to take the jump and form his own development company. In 2007, along with Twisted Metal collaborator Scott Campbell and developer Gene Martin, he opened Eat Sleep Play.

“What had happened was, I had been there [Sony Santa Monica] for a while. I reached the peak of that mountain with God of War—not just me, but my team,” Jaffe said, explaining his reason for leaving Sony.

Since he began in the industry, Jaffe has also been closely associated with Sony’s various gaming systems. But despite the change in status from Sony employee to independent developer, that won’t change. “I was making that team a staggering amount of money. Creating is really fucking hard. It is a really, really hard job,” he said. “I can’t go make the shareholders of Sony a ton of money while I can barely afford to pay for my house.”

“Sony was and remains a great company and a loyal company,” Jaffe made clear. “They paid better bonuses than anyone else. I wanted to swing for the fences and reach for the brass rings. I wanted to make the real money if I created a hit game.”

Eat Sleep Play’s first project was a downloadable title available on the PlayStation Network known as Calling All Cars!, which received mixed reviews when it was released in May of 2007. As with the original Twisted Metal, the single player campaign was lambasted, while the multiplayer was mostly praised.

“We were proud of it. It wasn’t a failure, it made its money back, but compared to what we were used to, it didn’t get the reviews they [Sony] were used to, or the sales they were used to,” Jaffe said.

It was around this time that Jaffe, already a vocal figure in the gaming industry, really began to earn a reputation as an outspoken developer. Following a particularly negative review of Calling All Cars!, Jaffe, a long time blogger, made headlines after unleashing a scathing attack on an author who Jaffe felt went too far. It would not be the last time that Jaffe made headlines for his sometimes controversial statements. The flipside of that is that he is also one of the most accessible developers around, and will frequently answer questions to fans via his Twitter feed.

“I’m a real passionate guy, and I apply a great deal of passion to what I do. If you get into the situation with a passionate person and you aren’t on that same level there can be issues,” Jaffe explained, while discussing some of his professional highs and lows.

“The lowest points have to be when I haven’t found the best way to relate with people that may be on a different level.”

The next up for Eat Sleep Play was the February 2008 release of Twisted Metal Head-On: Extra Twisted Edition, a port of the PSP game developed by Incognito Entertainment. The company’s next move was to then create a new Twisted Metal game, but the original plan was to release it as a downloadable PSN title only. But as the development process grew, Sony liked what they saw enough to push for more and more content. It soon became apparent that a PSN title just wouldn’t cut it, and so a new Twisted Metal AAA release was born.

There is a fair amount riding on the new Twisted Metal. The franchise has maintained decent sales numbers over its 16 year run, but it has never been able to fully recapture the relevance that the first few titles had. But things are different now. Jaffe has brought back many of the first game’s developers, now much more experienced, and together they hope to create a new entry in the franchise that will appeal to older fans, and capture a new generation as well.

“I wanted to make the greatest online multiplayer competitive game ever,” Jaffe said. “I want people playing it five years from now.”

“I love that the current business model is in danger.”

The next few weeks will be important ones for Eat Sleep Play. Twisted Metal is due out on Valentine’s Day, and the years of work will then be judged. But as with all developers, once the current game is done there will likely be a bit of post-work–perhaps some DLC in the future–but it will be on to the next game and planning for the future. But more than ever, the industry is in a state of flux.

The last few months showed us that the gaming market is still healthy, as evidenced by the records that were pulverized, as well as the overall positive sales figures leading into the holidays. But it’s also beginning to prepare for the next jump in technology. The Wii U has already been unveiled and most assume that it will be released later this year, while a new Xbox and PlayStation can’t be too far behind.

With the looming transition to the next generation comes the realization that the current trends will only increase, and games will become more difficult and expensive to develop.

“In the original game, Crimson Fury took a day [to design and develop]. In the current game it took five months. In the original Twisted Metal, when you shot a missile it magically appeared from the hood, but now you need to show the animation,” Jaffe said.

“The money is indicative of the resolution and fidelity of the world. You need a lot of people to create the world. You need to manage a lot of people. You have a lot of people that have a lot of degrees. When you throw that many people into the creative pot, it gets hard.”

But while the business model will continue to grow increasingly more complex, and despite reports from earlier in the year that repeatedly painted a gloomy picture for the gaming industry, Jaffe believes that the segment is incredibly healthy. But it may need to change.

“I think the industry is incredibly healthy, those reports don’t take into a lot of the digital stuff,” Jaffe said. “But the way the industry is now is in trouble. I love that the current business model is in danger.”

Jaffe—and many others—believe that the future of the industry resides with digital distribution. Publishers are only now beginning to see the potential of bypassing the traditional retail release, and instead developing games for a new generation of cloud-based consumers. He believes that the days of consoles are numbered, and development companies will need to change to keep up.

“It really is clearly already an archaic system,” he told us. “We will look back and be surprised at the way we play games currently.”

One alternate business plan Jaffe would like to see is a more fluid model that charges based on content, rather than tagging everything at $60 and then being forced to add content to pad the purchase: for example a five hour game would cost less to purchase than a 20 hour game. We are beginning to see it with digital downloads, and PC gamers have seen it for years (Valve’s episodic releases of Half Life 2 are a good example of the model in action), but Jaffe would like to see the industry go even further.

“As the budgets are going up, it is ludicrous that you have to choose what you want to play,” Jaffe said. “Eventually there will be no box, and Sony will be a cable channel like HBO, and Microsoft will be Showtime. As long as you have a TV you can play it.”

We are already beginning to see the first glimmers of that model in devices like OnLive, which offer a flat-subscription rate per month for access to over 150 games. The device debuted in June of 2010, and utilizes a cloud storage service that allows you to connect the device anywhere via an Ethernet connection and play. The hardware is still improving, and the list of titles is still a bit slim, but the potential is undeniable.

Looking forward, not back

From a game tester to the founder of a development group, David Jaffe has seen and done more than most in the industry. For over 17 years, he has been involved with some of the biggest hits in gaming, and on the way has become one of the most well-known and influential people in the industry.

With a new title due out next month and the market slowly starting to brace for yet another jump in technology, Jaffe continues to be at the forefront of gaming. The industry continues to grow and change, and 20 years from now it well may be nearly unrecognizable from how it is today. Maybe then Jaffe can look back and analyze his time molding it. But not yet.

“I don’t think when you are in your career you look at it that way. You are just living the experience,” Jaffe said. “I haven’t done what I want to do yet. I haven’t reached the level to be introspective yet.”

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This article was originally posted on Digital Trends

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