Jem Alexander speaks to Ovosonico's Massimo Guarini about catering to a larger audience, developing more personal experiences and delivering messages through games
Massimo Guarini is an Italian industry legend. A veteran with almost 20 years of making games under his belt, he founded Ovosonico five years ago in a quest to expand the interactive entertainment audience. He argues that the development community and gamers are stuck in a vicious cycle of creating the same game over and over, simply because they are the only ones proven to have sold in the past.
“I very much felt the pressure in my career from the industry itself to rely on traditions and a very conservative approach to things,” Guarini says. “Things are going to be done this way and you should make an FPS, and that’s it. It’s an FPS, the rules are already there, you just have to be a bit more polished than the other guys. There’s no real desire from the industry as we know it today to challenge these things and open them up.
“There are people in 2017 who say ‘I hate video games’. Which makes no sense at all when you think about it. Can you say that about music? Without sounding stupid? No, you can’t. What the fuck are you saying? You can’t say you hate music! To me that was really striking and this, combined with my personal frustration at that point of my career where, at a certain point I felt inept. I felt like I’m not fit for this. I felt like I was the problem. I felt like I’m not a good game designer any more. I felt like I should change my job and do something else. Without really realising that it was probably the industry, the market was not catering to me anymore. The problem wasn’t me, it was market, it was the industry.”
To me the problem is never what we have, but only what we don't have on the market.
Massimo Guarini, Ovosonico
This pressure to recreate, reiterate and clone the same games over and over pervades the entire industry, even as technology advances over the years.
“I don’t want to feel this pressure where if you make a platformer, either you make something like Mario or you’re shit,” Guarini explains. “I still love Nintendo games, don’t get me wrong. To me the problem is never what we have, but only what we don’t have on the market. I love Mario games, I love Nintendo but I got emotionally detached a little bit from that approach because… I love Zelda, I still play Zelda, but it’s basically been the same game for thirty years. I don’t want to remake Zelda; it already exists.
“I want to try to approach the thing from different perspectives, more personal ones. I shouldn’t be shy anymore and force myself to do things that I don’t feel like are my own or that I don’t feel comfortable with simply because I grew older. My emotional range has changed, I’m not 20 years old anymore so probably my emotional response to things that got me excited at 20 years old is different today.”
THE LONG GAME
Guarini’s mission to diversify the output of the games industry and expand the audience isn’t going to be completed overnight. He knows it will be an uphill battle in the short term, but in the long term he sees it as an inevitability.
“I think we should be more open minded in terms of what we do and for whom,” he says. “But being open minded is not something where you say ‘let’s be open minded!’ and it happens. It’s more about expanding the audience, expanding the market so that the diversity of the audience automatically supports the diversity of the content.”
This can only truly happen when games become completely accessible. Not just in terms of gameplay, but in technology.
“You remember MP3 players before the iPod?,” Guarini asks. “They were cool, they were super rich in terms of features, but you had to be kind of an engineer to work them out. Encoding MP3 back in the day was quite difficult. Then Apple and Steve Jobs came in and made a washing machine. The iPod is a freaking washing machine. One simple button. You didn’t need to know anything about encoding, you just needed to own the iPod and iTunes and that’s it.
“But, technologically speaking, it was probably about three or four years behind. It was nothing special. It was just a nice to have product. Simple enough for people to jump into this technology without knowing what they’re doing. And that’s not still the case with video games. A technology becomes really mainstream whenever people use it without knowing what it is. You don’t need to know how it works, or why it works, you just need to press a button and it works. It just works. And we’re just so far away from that in terms of gaming.
“If I wanted my mother to play my game, oh god, how would I explain to her how to buy a PlayStation 4 – which model, by the way? – that’s true for any console. How to connect it to the TV, how to create your own account, download the update, connect to the store, create another account probably, insert your credit card details, browse an incredibly difficult store and buy a game. Oh, good luck.”
GAMES WITH A MESSAGE
The ultimate goal, through all of this, is to create games that carry a message. Something personal that connects the developer and the player. That’s where Guarini’s interests lie, and that’s demonstrated in Ovosonico’s latest game, Last Day Of June.
“My mother, for example,” says Guarini. “Obviously she’s not going to be thrilled by Destiny or Overwatch or anything like that, but she would probably play Last Day Of June. Even if I wasn’t her child. Because it’s a different type of content. So the day we remove the barriers, we’re automatically expanding the audience and then it’s our responsibility as creators to make sure to cater to that audience. But I think it’s not just myself, there’s thousands of indie developers who already want to do their own stuff and deal with different subjects, so it’s totally natural.
“For me the video game industry as it is today is still a very exclusive private club, which is cool, but it’s also a bad thing in terms of global expansion. And I feel like no-one in 2017 should be able to say ‘I hate video games’ without sounding like an idiot.”
Guarini hopes to have less of a disconnect between gameplay and story, so that playing the game is a form of storytelling in itself.
“I appreciate that a game rule is a game rule and if I jump I need to be jumping the same way all over the game,” he explains. “I know how game design works, and that’s why I want to challenge it. It doesn’t mean that I have to break things, I just need to design things from different perspectives. You need to make sure that the mechanics that you use are consistent with the themes that you want to express. That’s incredibly important and it’s what we tried to do with Last Day Of June. We tried to build game mechanics around the theme, not vice versa.
“I don’t like telling, I like showing. And I like making sure the player’s brain fills the gaps. Because that way you will remember the experience more. So for me it’s like I’ll give you some dots here and there and it’s up to you to connect the dots.
“I want the player to make an effort. Last Day Of June is probablyone of those games that requires your attention. If you don’t, you’ll probably miss parts. You’ll be able to finish the game, of course, but you won’t enjoy it as much as if you put your full attention into it. It’s like watching a movie while reading your freaking phone. Come on.”
Despite the lack of a global audience on the scale that Guarini is hoping for, he was surprised by the reaction to Last Day of June. Even the hardcore Call of Duty and FIFA players seem open to playing something that connects with them on a deeper level than bullets and balls.
“We’re all human beings after all,” Guarini says. ”Sometimes I watch a movie because I want to cry. Or I want to exercise some of my fears. I think it’s the same with video games, it’s just that people aren’t used to it. But we’re the same human beings that watch movies and listen to music. It’s not like gamers are aliens. We’re the same.
“So it was an epiphany, but I was kind of expecting it as well, but probably not to that extent. So when I saw people playing Call of Duty and then playing Last Day Of June and saying ‘dude, you made me cry, you fucking bastard’ on the internet, I was like wow.
“It’s cool because he’s a male teenage gamer and you know how male teenagers are. Arrogant or proud in terms of ‘I’m not crying, I’m a man’ and in fact, for a moment we were on the same level. And that moment is poetic. It’s not me vs the gamer, the emotional game vs the triple-A game. No, it’s just two normal human beings connecting with each other through something that expresses a personal message, and that’s the beauty of it.”