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PAX 2011: How David Jaffe Lost (And Found) His Creative Voice

PAX 2011: How David Jaffe Lost (And Found) His Creative Voice

August 26, 2011 | By Tom Curtis

August 26, 2011 | By Tom Curtis
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More: Console/PC, Art, Design



At his Gamasutra-attended keynote at PAX Prime on Friday in Seattle, Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe admitted that he lost his creative voice after directing the original God of War, and outlined what it took to reclaim his passion for making games.

Jaffe said as he began his career in game development, that even as a lowly tester, he would find ways to brainstorm ideas and explore creative opportunities in the medium.

Jaffe explained that during his spare time, he and future Warhawk producer Mike Giam would use children's toys as a means of playing with rudimentary 3D game design.

"We'd dump out our bricks and blocks we bought at Toys R Us and we'd create 3D levels on this table we had at Sony," he said. "I didn't give a shit that we were so far from testing, we were going to figure this out -- this was when 90 percent of games were still in 2D."

It was this tenacity, Jaffe said, that led him to his later success with God of War. He noted that even when Sony encouraged him to scale down the game and focus even more on combat, Jaffe stuck to his initial vision.

"I thought, 'I have to do this. Ever since playing games on Atari, I wanted to make a game with talented people that really felt like an adventure, and just focusing on fighting wouldn't have done that,'" he said.

After finishing God of War to great critical, commercial and fan acclaim, Jaffe took a two-and-a-half month vacation, and when he returned, he slowly realized he had lost the creative vision that had pushed him through the project.

Creative Atrophy

"The thing that motivated me, this creative life was kind of gone. It was a gradual realization, but it was gone," he said. "What happened to me? What happened to that power I had?"

Despite acknowledging his creative atrophy, Jaffe explained that he soldiered on, and began working on a new game for Sony, a first-person shooter for PSP called Heartland based on a fictional Chinese-American war that Jaffe hoped would "make you cry."

During development, Sony started to shift members of Jaffe's team over to Warhawk for PlayStation 3, which had by then begun development. Jaffe decided not to fight for his departing team members, and said that he now realizes he was just "going through the motions."

"Before, I would have fought and said, 'No fucking way are you taking team members from this!'" he said, noting that the project just didn't agree with his creative voice. "I got sidetracked. The voice was saying something, but I wasn't hearing what I was saying."

When the project was eventually cancelled, Jaffe moved on to make Calling All Cars for PSN, a game which Jaffe admits didn't fit in with its contemporaries on the downloadable platform.

"I'll admit Calling All Cars has flaws, but at its heart, it was the kind of stuff that we like. We just don't get these kinds of games in the same way as those other games," he said, referring specifically to titles such as fl0w and Super Stardust HD.

Fame And Anger

By this point in his career, Jaffe says he began to become angry, and even scared that he was losing the acclaim his had earned from God of War's success.

"The fame, if you want it call it that, was cool," he said. "When the guy at Taco Bell recognizes you, that's cool, and I didn't want to lose that!"

It was this fear and anger, Jaffe explained, that most significantly hindered his creative voice. "When you're conscious of how angry you are, it really harms your creative cycle," he said.

By this point, Jaffe said he was also particularly, and perhaps irrationally, mad at Sony for the way it handled the Sony Santa Monica studio following his departure.

While Jaffe left the studio of his own volition, he said that he helped lay out the original design and framework of the studio, even down to the building itself, and he felt betrayed when he returned to see his influence over the team had all but vanished.

"I felt like I was no longer welcome, and it was heartbreaking -- even though it was my fault," he said.

Making matters more aggravating, Sony and Jaffe were sued for allegedly using another individual's work as inspiration for God of War. While the case was dismissed and never went to court, Jaffe felt his connection to the case could have left him with a "scarlet letter" he would have to bear in front of his colleagues, and even his children.

"Here is my fear: what if we had lost?" he said. "It would have put in a seed of doubt in my kids that their dad would have been capable of something like that. Thank god we didn't go to trial."

Soon after the dismissal, Jaffe found himself pitching an undisclosed new title to Sony, and while the pitch was well received, he noted Sony wouldn't agree to greenlight the project until he made a few changes to his pitch.

"I didn't get the unequivocal 'yes' that I expected, that I was used to," he said, noting that even his own passion for the project was nowhere near where it had been during God of War's development.

This is when I really think 'Where did that voice go?'" he said.

Reclaiming The Voice; "Mechanics Over Art"

He began to reclaim that voice, he explained, after watching the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, a movie that reminded Jaffe why he loved making entertainment in the first place.

"When I was watching it, I realized that everyone in movie is probably dead, yet the work that they did is speaking to me over this chasm of almost a century," he said. "What are the chances that a game will resonate with me in a month, let alone 100 years?"

He recalled his favorite classic games such as Tetris, Pac-Man, and Joust, and he "came to a realization: great gameplay travels."

He noted that many of today's big-budget titles don't appeal to him, particularly because of their emphasis on storytelling and artistic themes. Jaffe said that he would much rather focus on "mechanics over art."

"For me as a player, [these games] have come at the expense of what I love about games: gameplay."

With his current project, Sony's upcoming Twisted Metal for PS3, Jaffe realized how much a strong team bolstered his creative voice.

He recalled that while working on a trailer for the new game, he and a number of his team members stayed awake until 5AM to film just one scene, and this made him realize just how important having a passionate team was to his own enthusiasm.

Looking back on his previous, troubled projects, he said, "It wasn't that the voice or passion was wrong, I just didn't have my tribe anymore. I have that making Twisted Metal.

He concluded by encouraging PAX attendees to identify their own voice, and find others that share that vision. "People that share that voice will form a chorus for what will come next," he said.


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