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About The Episode
In the recent episode of Player: Engage, hosted by Greg with guest Tim, the conversation centered around two key themes: the role of cross-pollination in driving innovation and the importance of an employee-centric work environment. Tim made a compelling case for borrowing ideas from disparate fields—imagine incorporating principles of rocket science into video game mechanics—to ignite fresh creativity and groundbreaking designs.
The featured company goes beyond the usual perks like foosball tables and snack bars to keep their employees engaged. Instead, they prioritize meaningful work and employee well-being, cultivating a culture where passion for projects reigns supreme.
The episode also delved into the company’s strategic diversification. They’ve expanded their project range to include a variety of genres and intellectual properties, offering their team a diverse and enriching professional experience.
If you’re interested in the intersection of innovation and workplace culture in the gaming industry, this episode of Player: Engage is a must-listen.
Greg Posner: Tim is a visionary leader who had a profound impact on gaming and technology. He’s been in the industry for over 25 years and he has background in creative product development, innovation, team leadership, and more. He’s been in companies such as, and right now, Hothead Games, 8 Studio, Radical Entertainment, Capcom, and more. Many names that you’re very familiar with. So, Tim, I’m excited about our conversation today. You want to do a quick introduction of yourself or Hothead Games?
Tim Bennison: Sure. Glad to be here. Really appreciate that nice introduction. I’m not sure I can live up to it, though. I’m just a regular guy, regular Joe in gaming. Been around for Jeez, 30 years making video games. It’s crazy. 30 years next year, I guess. Yeah, I’m currently CEO of Hothead. The company Hothead has been around for about 16, 17 years, mostly building mobile games, most of that time. I joined about three years ago as COO because my former buddy, Ian Wilkinson, who is the CEO of Hothead Games, I used to work with him for many years back in the day starting in 95 at Radical Entertainment here in Vancouver. So I’ve spent maybe 15 years at that company. And in between Radical and here, I’ve worked at Capcom, as you said, as the head of studio there, Capcom Game Studio Vancouver. And I also helped found a visual effects company called Generate. That’s the eight studios that you’re talking about. We were doing 3D stereoscopic conversion for feature films, like a lot of the Marvel films and Disney films and Fox films and things like that.
Greg Posner: Very cool.
Tim Bennison: Yeah.
Greg Posner: How does that, I mean, this is a high-level question, right? Like, you got your background, I’m guessing, in digital media. Is that where it all started? Like, you kind of learned these VFX and stuff like that and everything came together, right?
Tim Bennison: Yeah, yeah. Like, I mean, probably a computer science background. I got my bachelor’s in 86, believe it or not, in computer science at University of Toronto. But my goal of why I did that is I always wanted to make pictures with computers. When I saw Star Wars Episode 4, which was not called Episode 4 back then in 1977, I saw it like 17 times in the theaters because that’s the only way you could see it back then. I said, I’m going to do this. And I thought I was going to go into motion control and model building and stuff like that, which is how that movie was done. But by the time I got you know, graduated, it was starting to be computers were the way to do it. So, the whole thing, the whole degree, and I did a master’s in computer graphics, was all around how do I get to make pictures with computers. Back then, there was no concept of real-time 3D. I mean, of course, there was Atari and Super Nintendo and stuff, but I wasn’t really interested in, you know, sprites and 2D. But just about the time I hit radical, 95, 94, 95, was when the PSX came out and the Sega Saturn and you could get cards for your PC to do pseudo 3D and Doom was out and Quake came out a bit later, you know. So 3D was the thing, right? And so that became a big a big part of my initial career, like the technical aspects of doing 3D in real time on, you know, consumer devices that you and I could buy for 300 bucks. Right. So that was the, I guess that’s how I got my start. Yeah. All that stuff.
Greg Posner: I remember when I was young, my dad took me to CompUSA for those people that still remember CompUSA and I remember I was playing NHL like 94 on the PC and I saw the Voodoo 3dfx graphics card at the store and I was too young to even know what it was but it talked about great graphics. I was just like, oh man, I gotta get this from my computer and put it in to see what NHL 94, whatever it was at 94. 94 was Sega Genesis but I forgot what year it was and I just remember putting it in and waiting for such a crazy difference and all that was make the game run a little quicker and look a little nicer and like, that was like the beginning of 3D and I just imagined living through those periods, right? And I was part of it but I was younger than if not at the creative stage at that time, just like magical, right? I mean, Star Wars kind of probably opened the eyes for how many people out there and what’s possible and George Lucas did it the old-fashioned way and then all of a sudden, inspired a whole bunch of new people.
Tim Bennison: Yeah, well, I mean, I was even involved earlier in that, like, well, not earlier than Star Wars, but my first foray was a company called Alias Research, which eventually ended up making Maya, which is still the main 3D, you know, animation package that movies and games use. And We were mostly selling software to people like Ford or Honda Motor Company for industrial design. But we had a couple of people working on this animation system. And this guy named James Cameron came in and said, I got this movie about these people underwater called The Abyss. And he needed to do this really weird pseudopod water sequence where this drop of water became animated and took on the faces of the actors. You can’t do that with motion control and models, right? So we took our animation software and morphed it so that he could do that sequence. And then he came back a year later and said, well, now I want to do this liquid metal robot, you know, that’s a sequel to my Terminator movie. So we did a couple of lots, well, several people worked with ILM on that. One of our guys went to ILM actually and ended up working at Hollywood, but we did the liquid metal robot, you know, the T-1000, I guess it was in that. And then the next thing that was done was Jurassic Park, right? With CG dinosaurs. And then we were off to the races and all that was done with alias software that I worked on. So I think Jurassic Park was like 93 or something or 94, but that’s when I came to Vancouver and I got into the video game business. And so it was this confluence of, You know, a few years earlier, we were doing cool stuff in movies, but now it’s possible in real time on consumer devices, a lot rougher looking, obviously, than the movies. But I sort of hit it at the right time. I hit the game industry at the right time.
Greg Posner: Well, was the goal to be in gaming or was it? I mean, I know Radical, according to LinkedIn, right? Radical came before Generate. But was the goal to be in video games or was the game just to be in it? Or was it to be in movies and create special effects there?
Tim Bennison: make pictures with computers. I didn’t care what it was. And you’ll see that theme. I mean, I’ve even been involved in visual industrial data analytics and visualizing data. I find that really fascinating, which is just a bunch of graphs really, you know, ultimately on your computer. But it’s still a picture in my mind. So no, I mean, I think the circumstance was I was in Vancouver in 94, I believe, and I started a PhD at the computer science department at UBC here in computer graphics, but I didn’t last very long. I lasted one term because I’d been out of academia for too long and I just didn’t like the student life. I was too, I liked the cushy life of having a job. So I ended up, I’m in Vancouver and I know 3D graphics, what do I do? And back then there wasn’t this massive visual effects industry yet in Vancouver, digital visual effects, but there were two companies making video games, which were doing 3D. And those were Electronic Arts and Radical Entertainment. Those are the two companies at the time. So I applied to both and EA being the larger company took its time getting back to me. But Radical sent me a fax like an hour after I sent my resume and said, hey, come down for an interview. So I ended up working at Radical for 15 years because of that. So the short answer is no, I didn’t have a plan. You know, video games versus movies. I just wanted to make pictures.
Greg Posner: And here you are today making games and making pictures. And let’s talk a little bit about Hothead because that’s going to be kind of the main topic of our conversation today is Hothead is a self-publishing company, a development studio, right? You’ve made many of your own games and now you’re looking into the idea of co-development and helping others out there that may either just be publishers or need help, right? Maybe you can explain it a little better than I can on what the idea of co-development is.
Tim Bennison: Well, yeah. So start with self-publishing. What that means is for a lot of its history, Hothead has been building our own games with our own IP, our own creations, basically. And so we take on the development costs to do that. And then we also have a marketing department, we take on the marketing costs, which in mobile games, which is most of what we’ve done, is a very large portion, if not more than 50% of the cost of getting a game to, quote, scale is marketing. And it’s a real science and art. And, you know, over time, it’s become riskier and riskier and more and more expensive due to all sorts of factors, which I won’t go into. But we still do that. We still self-publish and self-develop our own games. And we co-publish as well, which is different than co-development. But what we decided about a year ago was to diversify our business model. Not say goodbye to self-publishing, but add something. And that something was, you know, there’s different names for it, work for hire, co-development, basically help other companies build their games. is what work for hire or co-development is. And it ranges from, you know, having one engineer, you know, transplanted into a team to help optimize something on the Android, you know, device, all the way to, you know, if a company just has IP that they’re licensing, intellectual property, they don’t have any developed capacity, we could be building the whole game from start to finish with our entire crew of people, you know, designers, artists, programmers, everybody. And there’s projects in between, too, where we’re taking on a feature set of a larger game, or maybe we’re running the live ops of a game that’s been out there for a couple years, and the company wants to move, or client company wants to move their people to some other project, but they still want the game to run. So there’s all these different ways you can help out with development, like co-development. And we’re doing all of those things. It’s very interesting. a whole range of different kind of projects with different clients, different game genres, different types of intellectual property. It’s mind-expanding actually. One of the side benefits for our employees is now they’re getting to do all these different things whereas before it was like just our own games which is very sort of focused.
Greg Posner: That aspect will make it a tough sell for lack of better words, right? I was listening to the Destructors of Fun podcast you did and you talked about the example I think being sports games and FPSs, right? How it sounded like you’re kind of starting to maybe shy away from that from your own, from maybe the hothead perspective because it’s a saturated market. It’s hard to break into it at this point, right? But when you’re going to these other maybe smaller indie companies, right, that need help with development, right? You may not have all the expertise across the board, or do they pretty much do the expertise scale from genre to genre?
Tim Bennison: I could talk about that for hours. That’s a very open-ended question. Let me think. Some aspects of that are some of our clients are very particular about our track record. So they will only talk to us about shooters. Like they have full confidence that, you know, if they have a shooter they want built, we can do it. Please give us a pitch, you know, please, let’s get going. But if we talk to them about, you know, I don’t know, like a match three game, let’s say. We haven’t released many match three games, and that’s a very competitive, crowded genre on mobile. they won’t talk to us about it, right? They’ll say, no, no, you don’t have any experience successfully launching a Match 3 game, so we don’t want you to build our Match 3 game. So some clients are like that. Other clients are like, oh, you’re a hothead. You’ve been around 16 years. You know mobile. You’ve done a whole bunch of things. We care about that. We care about that variety of experience. And so we don’t mind that you’ve never made a Match 3 game. This is not a real example, by the way. And so please make our Match 3 game based on some famous IP. And they’re fine, right? So that’s one aspect of your question. Another aspect is like, what’s our strategy? What’s our intention and passion? Because no matter what we do, we have to be somewhat passionate about the project. Our culture is very much employee-centric, right? We care about the happiness of our employees, right? And there’s the foosballs and the snack tables and the flex hours and the remote work and all that. And we have all that stuff. But really what people care about is what they’re working on and are they passionate about it? And do they like the people they’re working with and are they learning from the people they’re working with? Even though theoretically I’m the COO, I can’t just tell people you are going to work on you know, this we’re diversifying, we’re going to now be working on spreadsheet applications, no more games. So I want you to work on the spreadsheet application. You know, I’ll just have a revolt on my hands. So we have to be a bit selective. That’s a that’s a dumb example. That’s not a real example. But you know, like if so if someone is really into sports, you know, we still do sports games, and maybe we get approached to other people’s sports games as well. Well, for sure, they’re a great candidate. But if they don’t want to work on a non-sports game, I’m not going to put them on a non-sports game, right? So we have to be a little selective. We don’t just claim we can do every game type under the sun. I mean, the savvy clients also, that’s a red flag if they ask us, so what kinds of games are you good at building? And we say, oh, everything. We can do everything. I mean, yeah, that doesn’t sound very good to some people. So we have to be honest about what we’re good at and what we’re not good at.
Greg Posner: Yeah, I have to imagine as an employee, it’s for the most part fantastic, right? Because like you said, you have baseball games, you have shooter games, right? Maybe like we hear this about FIFA and Madden every year, like oh, it’s the same game released every year and the employee morale is probably not that high because it’s the same game every year. You give the opportunity to give your employees the creative freedom to work, well not freedom, but to work on different types of projects, right? So, maybe they have a third person shooter. Like you said, a match three as well, right? I don’t know, right? So, but like, it’s not the hardest thing in the world to create a match theory game to start building it out and scale it maybe becomes a little more difficult. But if the client trusts you, because of your track record and what you’ve done in the past, right, they might give you the opportunity and trust you with that. So, I feel like as an employee, it probably gives you that more freedom where you can like, alright, I’m gonna work on projects that I love rather than the same IP over and over and over again.
Tim Bennison: Yeah, like we definitely can give that variety to our employees, which is a real plus, I think, for them. But I just want to interject one thing. So let’s not put down people who make match three games. That is a very competitive genre. And although it looks very simple, you know, in terms of building it, it is a very complex endeavor. And there’s a reason why only certain match three games are successful and make the billion dollars and many, many, many fail. It’s much harder than it looks. And that goes for any genre of games pretty well. One thing that’s happened over the last 10 years in mobile free-to-play in particular is, well, any kind of, even console development, is specialization. There’s a lot of barriers to entry to cracking into a genre that you haven’t done before because there’s so much knowledge this kind of top secret that’s not talked about about how you how you scale as you say how you scale one of those games sure you can build something that looks like a match three game no problem but are you going to have it make a billion dollars you know easily no right so
Greg Posner: And yeah, you know, I’ve been actually trying to find a new match theory game. I’ve downloaded about five in the past two weeks because I’m sick of taking my wife’s phone to admit I play Homescapes and it’s just like none of them really feel great. Homescapes is a very polished game, so no disrespect to any match theory game. But I’m curious, you know, with your background, right? Capcom, great company. Radical. On our pre-call, we talked about that you worked on Prototype, which is a game when I was little. I just never had a PlayStation, but I always loved to look at it. And I know the first one was multi-platform. All this experience in different gaming genres, when you start looking at co-development, does it give you an edge? Does it give you an idea? I mean, I feel like that’s a silly question to ask because it just is. But do you think you take all the historical background and it helps you kind of expand for this co-development initiative that you’re starting?
Tim Bennison: Absolutely. We can expand our reach into genres that maybe Hothead hasn’t done as a company yet, but that many of us who are senior in the company have done at previous companies. And we can build a strong case to land a project that maybe of a type of game that you maybe haven’t seen Hothead build. But if you looked at the backgrounds of all the people who work at Hothead, you could say, oh, that makes total sense, right? So, you know, that’s one aspect of having a variety of experience. The other aspect is something I’m really a fan of is cross-pollination. You know, when you talk about innovation, one of the things I’m a student of innovation, like how I love to innovate, and I’ve thought long and hard over my career about, well, what are the what are the precursors or the conditions required for innovation to happen? One of them, I believe, is cross-pollination, which is basically the idea of taking concepts and ideas and learnings from one field and bringing it into a new field. And that can be anything from, you know, bringing knowledge from, you know, rocket science literally into video games. And, you know, somehow that creates an innovative game mechanic. That’s a silly example. Or it could be, you know, bringing a mechanic from, say, an open world game that’s been done on console and bringing it into the mobile space in a way that’s never been done before on a mobile game. That’s a much more realistic example, for example. So if you have a wide experience, as many of us do in games across platforms and histories and generations and companies, it can really add innovation to a project that a client’s considering doing with you. And I think they’re really, at the end of the day, they’re paying you to make fun. And fun often, it comes with new ideas and differentiation over what’s out there. Because people find new stuff fun and delightful and they can’t get that particular itch scratched anywhere else. A game like Among Us comes out and it’s different than anything. Well, I mean, it’s probably inspired by certain things, but it becomes the rage. Well, why? Because you can only get that itch scratched with that game, right? And so Clients and customers, players are looking for that. So where it comes from, in part, it comes from taking ideas from different fields and mixing them together in different ways.
Greg Posner: It’s a fascinating concept because it’s exciting, right? I mean, if you look at games like Fortnite, like you said, Among Us, these were almost, I know Fortnite wasn’t first, but like pillars of a new genre, right? I mean, they took a classic genre and made such a different change to it that it made it up its own and then it has its own imitators. And you sit here thinking like, all right, well, what new thing can I create? I’m not going to create a brand new match three game, right? Because those already exist. I’m not going to create an FPS because those exist. But what can I take from elements from different genres to create something fun for people? And you know, instead of creating clones of games that are out there, like how can you truly innovate and like, that’s how you’re gonna get to be that unicorn, that billion-dollar studios when you create this idea that just people love. Like Among Us is a great example like you mentioned, it’s just it took something that no one’s really done in gaming before and made it popular and it’s just like, I think I love your idea of cross-pollination especially if your clients and your customers trust you, right? Because then you can take this pool of different talent, different resources, different specialties and start whiteboarding or spitballing some ideas out there to see what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.
Tim Bennison: That’s part of our pitch as a Work for Hire developer is we’re students of the game industry, we call ourselves, in terms of game mechanics. We know what’s out there. We’ve done a lot of it ourselves. And then we know how to mix it together in a sort of strange brew of new stuff that might actually be fun for people and different. And then we also know how to test it. We also know how to kill our own darlings, kill our own babies. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve killed in my career. I’ve killed a lot of games that never saw the light of day. Your listeners might be surprised. Nine out of ten, easily, of the projects we’ve started across my career, we’ve killed, and no consumer’s ever seen them. So part of innovation is also trying a lot of stuff and seeing what sticks at the wall and testing it with sample players, because trusting your own instincts is only part of the equation, like testing it with real players is another part of it. So and many ideas that you think are great don’t pass muster with real unbiased players out there. So, yeah, finding innovative game mechanics that are fun is Yeah, it’s not just cross-pollination, it’s also testing and trying lots of ideas.
Greg Posner: So I want to keep on this topic, but this is where I want to kind of take a pause and ask you some speed questions here, just to kind of change the pace up and maybe give us some social media clips here. So just the first thing that comes to mind, you don’t have to put much thought into it. Good to go?
Tim Bennison: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Greg Posner: Last vacation you took.
Tim Bennison: I went to Gibsons which is a little town in the sunshine coast north of Vancouver and stayed on the beach in an Airbnb, just did a lot of watercolor painting which is my hobby.
Greg Posner: Nice. Well, I’m gonna ask you what your last book you read was but maybe if you’re not a reader and your artistic outlet is painting, what was the last thing you either read or painted?
Tim Bennison: The last thing I painted was a picture of somebody’s weird shack. There’s this place called Finn Slough in south of Vancouver right on the Fraser River and it’s a bunch of people who live on these houses on stilts and they’re not really supposed to be there. It’s this little community and you can get like peekaboo views of it from this little road. And I took some photos one day in the summer, and they’re just wild. They look like they belong in the deep south in Louisiana in the bayou or something. And it doesn’t look like Vancouver at all. Anyway, I did a painting in one of these houses. Crazy. This guy had, to give you an example, he had this porch, and the cover for the porch was a boat turned upside down. And then his fence in front of his porch to stop people from falling into the water was a whole bunch of outboard motors, these derelict old outboard motors that he stuck up like the posts of his fence.
Greg Posner: Awesome. Crazy. Very cool. What did you eat for breakfast?
Tim Bennison: I had some berries, coffee, an orange, some almonds.
Greg Posner: I went with my wife to Seattle last summer and we were walking through some park and berries were just growing on the on the side of the park. I’m just like this is amazing place to live. I live on the East Coast. We don’t really get this stuff like now I’m now I have blackberry bushes in my backyard and we’ll see if anything comes from them.
Tim Bennison: They’ll take over your entire house.
Greg Posner: I bought the noninvasive species one. I paid very much close attention to that. Good. What was the last game you played?
Tim Bennison: Who? Genshin Impact. Okay. I’m kind of somewhat addicted to it. Also, this is not really a video game, but I am very addicted to Spelling Bee, which is a New York Times, I subscribe to the New York Times puzzle collection. Every night we play that. And Spelling Bee is, I’m an addict. I’ll do, I’ll, I’ll wake up at three in the morning, like they released them at 12 midnight and I’ll finish it. I’ll get genius and I’ll go back to sleep. I’m that addicted. It’s terrible.
Greg Posner: We play it every night, that and the smaller crossword and this new connections game. I don’t know if you tried the connections one yet.
Tim Bennison: Yeah, yeah, I played all those. They’re not as good. The best one is spelling bee.
Greg Posner: I’ve also emailed the New York Times if you’re listening anyone at the New York Times. The user interface of your app is horrendous. Every time I finish it, I have to press back about 15 times to get back to the home screen and you guys keep ignoring me. Last question.
Tim Bennison: I’m pissed off that they disallow words that are real words. It bothers me. I don’t think you’re writing within the list.
Greg Posner: Anyway, last question. If you’re going to go to the bar, what’s your cocktail you’re going to order?
Tim Bennison: Well, I like craft beer, but that doesn’t count. I usually try to go with local North Shore, that’s North Vancouver, which is where I live, beers. Very, very local, like has to be within like half a K, half a kilometer of where I live. So that’s what I’ll, I’m not really a cocktucker.
Greg Posner: All right. All right. So back to our normal schedule program here. I think a big thing that’s come out recently with some of the, maybe Microsoft leaks, I forgot where they came out, was that cancellation of games and people were appalled that games were canceled. And it was like, oh my God, how can they spend so much money? And here you are. And the other people have said it, that cancellations games is very normal. Like people should not overreact, but, but why is it happening so often? What, I mean, what are the main reasons this happens at late stages of games that might be canceled?
Tim Bennison: Well, yeah, that’s a different question. I was talking about canceling games before they even see the light of day. I think what you’re talking about is games that have been running for a while. There’s a big community base around. No, no, no.
Greg Posner: Sorry. I meant in development games. Oh, in development. Oh, okay.
Tim Bennison: Okay. So why? Well, in free to play, Best practices are that you’re testing, you’re always testing, you’re testing in front of real users as early as possible. And it could be friends and family, it could be the company, you know, it could be Playtest Cloud, which is a service that lets you put games out even pre-beta. and get real players to play them and capture videos and talk about what they’re learning and what they’re what they don’t like you know while they’re playing and then there’s you know closed betas and there’s open betas you can do on the google platform and you can you can even do um you know, like some sample marketing, some user acquisition marketing to get enough numbers playing this beta that that you’re the data you’re gathering is statistically relevant. So you’re looking for retention KPIs, you know, D zero D seven, the usual terms you’ve heard of, and you’re looking for even monetization, you can have a little bit of monetization in in these early games. We call them 0.3s. That’s just a hothead term, as opposed to a 0.1, which is just the core mechanic. A 0.3 has a bit of a metagame. It has a bit of monetization. It has some maybe seven days of gameplay, so we can measure D3 retention and D1 retention. Anyway, why am I rambling? I’m rambling because you put games out at that stage, and they maybe have seen the light of day if people are are smart and are looking. And then the KPIs, the key performance indicators do not measure up. Like you know, you can project that you can’t get, if you don’t get say a D zero of 40%, you can get people coming back the next day at a 40% rate versus someone who cracked it open and tried it. You don’t have a product because engagement declines as this player ages, obviously. And unless you can get, like, say a D30 of, say, 10%, that’s kind of a rule of thumb, let’s say, the game is not a business. It won’t make money. So you can find these stats out pretty early without much, without an extensive amount of development, you know, months as opposed to years. And if you don’t have a good liftoff on those early KPIs, you kill the game because you’re never going to make a good business out of it. No matter how fun you think it is or how much in love the team is with it, you just have to kill the game because it’s just a waste of money to continue developing it. So that’s often the reason.
Greg Posner: Is there… I mean, we’ve seen… How do we put this nicely, right? Some games come out this year that have not been so favorable Is there a point of no return? You know, where where companies are gonna be like, you know what, we just need to release it. It’s just gonna like, cut your losses.
Tim Bennison: Well, are you talking about console games or free to play mobile games?
Greg Posner: I guess. Well, a lot of free to play mobile games come out. It’s hard to hard to say that. Right. But I mean, even some AAA console games. Right. I mean, like.
Tim Bennison: Right. So the console games a different beast. Right. So in that it’s a premium model where you pay your 60 bucks, your 70 bucks. You know, maybe it’s 30 bucks. Maybe it’s discounted, but you’re paying upfront costs. Maybe there’s. DLC, maybe there’s a live operations aspect to it, but mostly you make your money upfront and then you’ve got the player. So there’s still, if you’ve got the sunk cost fallacy, right? Like you’ve spent, I don’t know, $30 million making the game. there’s still the hope that maybe it’ll go out there and just by pulling the wool over people’s eyes, which is really hard to do now with the internet and social media, but the hope is maybe you can get enough people to buy it early on that you’ll make back some of your money, right? It’s a tough proposition though, because you’ve got to market it, which is throwing more good money after bad if the game’s bad. Some people think if they have a license, the license will pull them through even though the game’s bad. That used to be the really prevalent back like 20 years ago. Now consumers have gotten really wise to that, right? To the point where they’ll, oh, it’s got a license. It’s probably terrible right off the bat, even if it’s good, it might be behind the starting line. I don’t know. It’s just hope. I think on the part of the people who’ve invested in the game, that’s why bad games get put out.
Greg Posner: It’s just hope. Bill, going back a tiny bit, you talked about kind of these new innovations. How do you create cross pollination and stuff like that? How do you, Tim, you know, in the world of technology that’s changing very quickly with things even with AI and tools like that, how do you stay up to date on kind of what’s the latest and greatest news out there?
Tim Bennison: I don’t actually try that hard, believe it or not, because I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen the hype cycle, you know, there’s this concept of the hype cycle happens so many times with new technologies, even with AI, I stick to the fundamentals, I guess, right? Like a lot of it’s noise. The fundamentals are human creativity, is going to come from humans. There’s always a new paintbrush being invented, like I’m a painter, right? So I consider AI to be a paintbrush. It’s another tool, just like 3D is a paintbrush, or I don’t know, machine learning is a paintbrush. It’s different, slightly different than generative AI. Or, you know, the concept of, I don’t know, scanning, 3D body scanning or motion capture. These are all you know, tools that were hyped back in the day when they first came in and they were going to be the differentiator of a given product, you know, and, you know, streaming gaming where you’re playing a AAA game on your phone is without a PS6, you know, is the dream, right? There’s a ton of different technologies that have come over the last 30 years in my experience in video games. And they all, some of them stick, some of them don’t. Some of them add to the picture, but the fundamentals still matter. Human creativity, a group of people working together in a harmonious way with obstacles removed from them doing their best work in a multidisciplinary way. These things are the same as they were 30 years ago in terms of contributing to the success of a game. And so the skills around setting up that kind of situation are timeless. They still matter. They’re fundamental. Whether you’re using AI to do something or not is kind of, it’s like a thing that, I mean, AI could accelerate certain phases of development. I mean, it does. And that’s interesting, but it’s just makes the economics of a certain part of your development process different. And you get to spend maybe money that you would have had to spend in that area in some different area and beef that up. That’s the impact AI might have on games as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’m a Luddite, I don’t know.
Greg Posner: Well, it sounds like, I mean, I think you’re not wrong, right? I mean, you’re talking about it all still comes down to the original foundation and principles of what you’re going to do. And it says something about being in the office and being in a room, a conference room together and just spitballing ideas again, right? What are we going to do? How are we going to build it, right? I can’t go to chat GPT and say, what’s going to be the next hot game, right? that doesn’t exist. And yeah, maybe when you have that group of people that come up with this idea, you can start using AI or other new tools that are available to help you kind of generate that stuff. But it’s not going to help you create that foundation that you need that that human element to actually build something that’s fun.
Tim Bennison: Right. I’ll give you another example, the concept of game pillars. When we kick off a project, we are very, very focused on what are the pillars of this experience, which are kind of like, what are the three or four, no more than that, emotional, experience aspects that we expect the player to get from the end product? And how are they different than what they can get out there already in the market? I’ll give you an old example. We did a game called Hulk Ultimate Destruction, you know, way back in 2005. And it was the first game, I think, that really delivered on the feeling of being the Hulk. You know, this is before the Marvel Creative Universe and all that. And our pillars were unstoppable movement. Nothing was going to stop him in an open world setting. He was going to run up any building. He was going to jump over anything. Nothing was going to stop him. He could smash through anything. Smash anything was another one where everything was destructible. Another one was epic boss battles. We were going to have boss battles, but he was going to be fighting 40-foot tall giant robots, not other dudes his size. And we even had weaponize anything, which was the concept of you could pick up a bus and surf on it, flatten it and surf on it. You could pick up a car and rip it in two and make steel boxing gloves. So any object in the world, you could do that. So we had those kinds of principles. Now, we came up with those things month one of an 18-month project, not month 18. And then we built the game around those principles. And then we marketed the game around those principles. And then the reviewers were parroting back what our marketing principles were, which was our pillars. And then the players were talking about this. they were having fun. Now, that recipe for fun that I just mentioned was not by accident. We didn’t just stumble on it. We designed it by thinking about game pillars up front. That’s an example of a fundamental principle in game building that still matters 30 years later, whether you have AI, generative AI involved or not. And if you don’t get those things, right. It doesn’t matter if you have generative AI, you’re still going to make a game that sucks.
Greg Posner: Right. I love that. I think, Hey, do you still do that to this day? Like when you’re, when you’re playing a new game or the pillars defined upfront.
Tim Bennison: Absolutely. And we do it for our clients too. We actually force our clients to think about it. Like we were, we just had a. A client meeting the other day about a game we’re working on, you know, which is early on. And we forced them to think about the pillars and, and, and get them engaged. And they, they debated, they started to debate us, which is healthy and good. And we, we refined the pillars and, and now we’re all, we’re all on the same page. Right. And the other aspect about pillars, I’m, as you can tell, I’m a real fan of them. Is it, is it helps the team and the client be aligned. You’re all rowing in the same direction. So eventually you’re going to get to some destination as opposed to being conflicted across the team and the client about what you’re building all the way through the whole process, you’re going to end up with mush like gray goo.
Greg Posner: If you don’t have these, these guiding light posts, anyway, I feel it’s very similar to core values for a company, except I feel like core values are like, every few years, your company re-evaluates the core values. So, how do you build upon something that’s just thrown out there right now, whereas you’re setting this up right from the front and I think it just helps you build a roadmap of how we do this. And what’s great about the story about the Hulk is like, when the reviewers started talking about that stuff, you’re like, yes, like we nailed it then, right? Like I think back to games when I was younger, I had fun and I think back to like original Red Faction. I don’t know if you’ve played it but like, you’re pretty much able to shoot like a whole hole through the entire earth. Like everything was destructible and it was fun. And like, maybe the game itself, the campaign may have been a mess and the whole thing but like, it was fun. And now you see these games that come out, it just aren’t fun. And like, I think back like, what were they thinking? What were their pillars? And it doesn’t sound like they had a strategy there. Just like, if we build something cool, people will play it.
Tim Bennison: Yeah, in fact, that’s a really good way of thinking. If you’re out there and you’re a game player, you’re a gamer, you think about the games you played that you really like, that you found fun, and the ones that you didn’t like, you thought they were kind of generic or whatever. They may have had high production values, but they weren’t fun. And try to think about what were the pillars for these games. Try to reverse engineer in your head what the designers had as pillars. And you’ll probably find that the ones you really liked that are really fun, that get the highest ratings, You can really clearly come up with what the pillars were, and they’re different than a lot of things that are out there. You’d be surprised. You could probably reverse engineer, and maybe it would make you a more discerning gamer, I don’t know, or a discerning game critic.
Greg Posner: I mean, I feel like it’s no different than a product manager when building out a product, right? We’re coming down with a user story trying to create why are we building this, what’s the purpose of it, how are we doing it, so on. I think this principle transcends just gaming, right? Anytime you’re designing any type of product, you can think about why am I designing this product, who’s the user and so on.
Tim Bennison: It does. It definitely does. But there’s one extra element because gaming is a piece of entertainment. And that is the emotional aspect of these pillars. When we design pillars, we try to think about them not just as a feature, like a USP, unique selling point, which you would for a product. We think about it in terms of what emotion are we trying to elicit from the player? What feeling is this feature supposed to give them? Because that’s what entertainment’s about, whether it’s excitement or tension or humor. I want them to laugh. I want them to just goof around and laugh. Or I want them to be scared out of their minds. Whatever it is, right? Or shocked. We think about it on emotional terms because we are making entertainment at the end of the day. We’re not just making a piece of software.
Greg Posner: I love it. And I’m going to go back and there’s a few games I’m playing right now that I am already kind of confused on what the pillars could be. And I want to try and see if I could reverse engineer that. When we take a look at Hothead over the next 10 years, right? You said the company has been around for over 15 years now. At this point, you have your own IPs, you’re working on co-development. Where do you see the company going from here? If Tim had it his way? Loaded question.
Tim Bennison: Sorry. Loaded question. I mean, our ultimate goal, like there’s this guy, Jim Collins, this business consultant guy, he has this concept of big, hairy, audacious goal, like BHAG. you know, like, what is the goal on the horizon that you might never achieve, you know, 50 years from now, like what this, but just imagine it, because maybe you’ll get 10% of the way there. And that’d be good. I mean, I think it’s to make games that have, like, the cultural impact. They entertain so many people across so many types of people, and they last for so many years that they actually have a footprint on popular culture, and they kind of stand the test of time. Those are the kind of games we want to make. Those are the kind of products we want to make, whether it’s our own or whether it’s for a client that has a major IP. So I would like to look back and say that we’ve done that, right? done it repeatedly, I think is sort of one of our major goals. Is that a decent answer?
Greg Posner: Yeah, no, it’s great. You know, I think I mean, this BHAG almost sounds like pillars again, right? What are these goals? What are these things you want to be able to do? Like, I think it’s a whole fascinating concept that this whole conversation, like, just kind of has me thinking on a different line of things. And I love how you want to expand kind of into co-development. Do you see Hothead, like, having two parts? Or do you see it going by different names at some point if this co-development really starts getting legs of its own?
Tim Bennison: We, we definitely, I’d say it’s too early to say if we’re going to split apart or anything, but we, I mean, cause we see value in, you know, learn, getting learnings from doing work for hire projects and feeding those learnings into our own projects and then vice versa, or having our own projects, which were, you know, marketing as well as, as just developing and feeding that knowledge back for the benefit of our clients into our. into our client projects. I just see expansion. We’re definitely going to be expanding. We have high goals to expand on the work for hire front initially. And then because work for hire can be quite predictable and profitable, we can then reinvest some of that back into our own self-publishing, self-development efforts, and we can expand on that front too. So both business arms will kind of feed each other and kind of a nice way. So I see them being joined together for a long time. But yes, expanding is the plan. Many of us have run quite large companies and quite large efforts and game teams and game productions. And we know we have a lot more capacity than what we’re doing now. So we’re planning to use that capacity.
Greg Posner: Awesome. Great answer. And I have one last question and then I’ll let you off the hot seat here. in your expansive history here in gaming and VFX, is there one moment that stands out as your aha moment or amazing moment that you always go back into your mind saying this was peak?
Tim Bennison: Yeah, one comes to mind. It was at the tail end of my time at Radical. We were owned by Activision at the time. And I’d spent three and a half years of my life working on this game called Prototype. which was an original IP and it went through many twists and turns and corporate adventures while being built. But lo and behold, it actually came out and Activision published it. And I hadn’t had a vacation in like four years. And my family and I, we had gone to, we went to Spain, to Mallorca in this little tiny town, and there was hardly any internet. And the game came out. And I had no idea how it was doing. Like this was before, like, you know, there wasn’t, mobile wasn’t that a thing really. And I had no idea. So I had to go to this German resort, all inclusive resort down the road. And they had a little internet kiosk and you have to put in euros to keep the computer going just to find out how this, how my frigging game was doing. And lo and behold, one of my buddies in the team sent me a screenshot on Metacritic. And it had a 92% average at the time. And then they sent me a screenshot of the game industry data stuff we subscribe to. And it was number one in the world. And it was an original IP. And it had no, really very little marketing. And that was the peak. And I was sitting there in this German resort at midnight. My kids had gone to bed. And I was punching the Euros in, just reading reviews. That was a highlight. I don’t know. Because you spend four years of your life on something like that, and it means a lot to get it out there.
Greg Posner: I mean, I remember when I was younger seeing the prototype. I mean, I didn’t play it, right? But the guy, it looked like he morphed almost like Terminator, right? Like this guy could do. It was just such an awesome looking concept and a cool looking game. And that’s an awesome story, again, for people who weren’t alive before the mobile phone period where you could get news everywhere. Now you had to go find it.
Tim Bennison: Yeah, you have to put in your euros.
Greg Posner: I mean, it’s a good thing you didn’t play it if you’re a little because it was definitely rated M. So I will, you know, with the I just got a new I got the Galaxy Fold phone and I’m trying to download emulators on it. So maybe I could see if I could find a way to whip it back up. There was a few games on the original PlayStation and PS2 I always wanted to play. I was just always. an Xbox or Sega guy at the time.
Tim Bennison: Yeah. Well, I mean, the game industry has to do a lot better at like preserving its history, right? There’s a lot of, there’s a movement about that, right? Like we were terrible at just, you never get to see the stuff that were classics of the time are just unplayable now. And something needs to be done about that.
Greg Posner: Even owning it is going to become tough with everything being digital now, right? And once a service like Game Passive had ever turned something off, you’re SOL.
Tim Bennison: You don’t have a physical good and they decide, no, you don’t get to have it.
Greg Posner: Well, Tim, I really enjoyed our conversation. I think it’s giving me things that I’m going to do in my own life just to kind of start seeing how I can set up my goals and how I can accomplish it. And before you go, is there anything you’d like to share about yourself, about Hothead or the co-development effort?
Tim Bennison: Well, I mean, shameless plug, right? Like we’re definitely open for business, for work, for hire. I think we add a lot of value because of our experience. We eat our own dog food. We’ve, I mean, I like to say we’ve failed more often than most people. So we know how, we know the mistakes not to make. I think that’s the advantage of our experience. We’ve also succeeded a few times, which is good too. So yeah, it’s exciting. It’s exciting for our employees, that’s for sure, which is a very interesting side benefit that I didn’t know would happen in advance with this switch to work for hire. But yeah, it’s been fun and will continue to be fun. I wish I could talk about stuff we’re working on, but I can’t. Not for a little while, but someday we will. That’s for sure.
Greg Posner: Well, we will be on the lookout for it and we will have all of Tim’s information as well as Hothead Games information on our Player Engage website. Tim, I again, really appreciate you coming out today. I hope you have a great rest of your day and thanks again. Well, thank you very much, Greg. It was really fun. Thank you. Hey everybody, thanks for listening to today’s episode and join us next week when we meet Lauren Wade from Calibri Games. Learn about Lauren’s love for language, how she embraces change and career growth. It’s going to be an episode you don’t want to miss. So thanks again and see you again next week.