Episode 249 — Louis Castle — Amazon Games Studios
Episode 249 — Louis Castle — Amazon Games Studios
Louis Castle Louis Castle is a prolific American video games designer. He is known for co-founding Westwood Studios and for his work on the Command & Conquer real-time strategy series. In 2017, he became the head Amazon Game Studios Seattle.
As the co-founder of Westwood Studios, Louis was instrumental in the launch of the C&C series, one of the leaders in the 1990s RTS boom. He co-founded Westwood Studios in 1985. After its purchase by EA in 1998, he held various senior positions at that company. In 2008, he collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the Boom Blox and Boom Blox Bash Party video games for the Nintendo Wii console, based on Spielberg’s design ideas. Since 2010, Louis held a number of roles, including at GarageGames and Zynga.
Louis Castle is a BAFTA and GDC Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
In this Podcast, Louis talks about founding Westwood Studios, the games he’s created throughout his impressive career, as well about the importance of passion, fearlessness and perseverance in an artist’s career.
[06:07] Louis Castle’s Introduction
[06:14] The Beginning of Louis Castle’s Career
[09:05] Passion Versus Resistance
[19:33] Failure as Part of the Process
[22:02] Louis Talks About His First Projects
[30:59] Allan Louis Talk About First Influences
[40:44] The Story of Westwood Studio’s Acquisition
[49:54] The Fearlessness Behind Creating C&C
[57:53] The Creation of Tibetan Sun
[1:00:58] The Challenges Behind the C&C Art
[1:07:26] Louis Reflects on the History of Westwood Studios
[1:11:02] The History of Bladerunner
[1:22:51] Louis Discusses His Current Position as the Head of Amazon Game Studios
[1:24:46] Louis Gives Advice to Aspiring Artists
EPISODE 249 — LOUIS CASTLE — AMAZON GAMES STUDIOS
Welcome to Episode 249! This is Allan McKay.
I’m sitting down with the Head of Amazon Games Studios Louis Castle and talking about his career: from developing games back in the 80s, including Command & Conquer, Dune, Bladerunner, Tibetan Sun — and to all of his success leading to now. I’ve been really excited to release this Episode.
I was a huge fan of C&C growing up and it inspired me to pursue my career. It had a huge impact on me! The first email I ever sent out was to Westwood Studios’ Tech Support, asking them to get a copy of their 3D model. I get these kinds of emails myself these days. Talking to Louis who founded Westwood Studios, it was amazing to pick the brain of someone that inspired me.
And although the initial goal was to nerd out, I learned about Louis’s past and his journey. We ended up getting into more topics like business: We talked about Richard Branson buying Westwood Studios, Louis’s experiences and thoughts working in video games, as well as his discoveries. There is a lot of nostalgia in this Podcast and I hope you find it as valuable as I did.
Later this week, Command & Conquer Remastered is being released. Louis worked on the original game, but this
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS CASTLE
[06:07] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Louis: Sure! This is Louis Castle. I’m well known as the Founder of Westwood Studios but I’ve done a few other things along the way.
[06:14] Allan: That’s awesome! In terms of your early career, how did you first get involved in video games?
Louis: Video games were a passion as an entertainment vehicle, going to arcades and pinball machines. And Paul Mudra, who later became our Audio Director at Westwood Studios, is now at Insomniac. He is a friend of mine and he had an Apple [Computer]; and that was the first time I had seen video games. The first times I got involved in video games as a career was when guy came into the store where I sold computers. His name was Brett [Sperry] and he said he needed some artwork for some educational games he was doing. I said, “Sure, I’ll do some stuff!” The first games I worked for was as an Animator for Unicorn Software.
[07:17] Allan: What tools were you using back then for all the artwork?
Louis: Back then, it wasn’t common to use programs at all. Animators did all their own stuff. The fact that I was looking at a career in Animation, I was a fan of Disney animation. The way I did it was I drew the frames of the characters — one by one — on graph paper. The I would fill in the graph paper dots; then encode them by hand into hexadecimals and give them to Brett who would put them into the code. Back then, everything was run in assembly language, pixel by pixel.
[08:24] Allan: Out of curiosity, what was your arcade game of choice?
Louis: I got good at Gravitar, Astroids, Space Invaders, Missile Command. There is a few of them! I tended to play them for a bit and walk away; or I would pay them steadily. I used to go to the Dairy Queen across the street from my high school and rack up so many free lives that by the first break, I’d come back and there’d be a few more left.
[09:05] Allan: In terms of deciding to make video games your career, did you get any resistance from your parents or anyone else around?
Louis: Yeah, as far as a career, I didn’t know it would be a career. I just started doing the artwork for some. The reason I was selling computers was because I’ve decided I’d be an architect. So in my last years of high school, I was taking architecture courses at a community college. I also had a job opportunity. But by then, I’d gotten into computers because I thought that architecture would become heavily involved [in them]. I just really loved the digital side of things! I think it was the combination of taking a look at architecture and thinking about how I could make something new in art. You think you’d come up with something new and then find out it’s been done years ago. So I thought being a digital artist would be something new because the tools just didn’t exist yet.
You asked about my parents. It’s my favorite story. We were a comfortably middle class family but the cost for an Ivy League college was outside of our reach. I went to my dad said, “You find the place where you want to go — and I’ll pay for your education. But follow these steps like applying for scholarships.” The scholarship at SU came up and I said I could do that. Or, I would do architecture by day and video games at night. Or, I could go to a local college and chase a degree in computer science. He asked me to tell him if I’d give up video games if I went to Arizona. I told him it was my hobby and I would keep programming. My dad then asked if I stayed in town, would I still study architecture? I said, “Well, probably not that much.” And my dad said, “You know what you want to do and you’re just asking for permission. You should do what you want to do because that will make you happier in life.”
[12:37] Allan: It’s interesting to see people’s paths. Some people do get that support and others get more clarity on what they want. I do find that there is always a story that listeners can relate to. So many artists are told to “get a more stable job”. It’s interesting to see what kind of resistance people go through. Was there much of a resistance with the momentum of your early career?
Louis: Yes, I guess there was. The great thing about being young and excited is that you don’t really know what you aren’t supposed to do. It’s the fearlessness and the ignorance on your part that makes it amazing. So when I started making games in ’85, it was for Impossible Mission. We’d done some games that were pretty difficult to do. The friction that we had inspired us to start Westwood Studios. We were working for people who were older and we couldn’t understand what they were doing. Yet, they were keeping most of our money. With no real thoughtfulness around it, we started our own thing. The friction that we had was that people didn’t take us seriously at 21 years old, starting our company. We got our first check made out to Westwood Associates and we didn’t know what to do with it. How do you cash a check not made out to yourself? There was no internet back then so you had to ask questions. You start digging until you get it set up. That’s the story of my career: of boldly going into areas that I didn’t realize were as big and complicated. That lead me to take on some challenges. Being an artist, for example, why would program? But I found the programing language fascinating.
[16:10] Allan: I love that! Do you think that’s a hidden superpower to be able to start doing things naively? A lot of people just procrastinate and they wait for the perfect moment. Do you think that being fearless and curious has paid off in your career?
Louis: Definitely! I think it’s a combination of things. These days, they would call me ADHD, I’m the poster child for that. It’s a serious thing but when I was a kid, they didn’t have those specification. So it’s about constantly wanting to do more things and not being able to stay focused on one thing for very long; and having the naivete of not knowing how long things are going to take. Usually, by then I would be too deep into the problem and I would press on anyways. It was a combination of fearlessness and relentlessness. You mentioned opportunities. There is the parable about the guy who sticks to his guns and refuses help from multiple people, and he ends up dying. He asks God why He didn’t help him and God says, “What do you mean? I sent all these people to offer you help.” That’s part of it. I was never given any opportunities. I just took them. I took some chances. Getting older and choosing more responsibilities, those are the things that keep you from taking chances. They keep you from failing but also from succeeding wildly.
[19:33] Allan: What are your thoughts on failure? I think a lot of people who have success see failure as data, as part of the process. Just look at Edison with the light bulb.
Louis: I think the Edison story is a great one but people are missing the nuance here. When asked if it was disappointing to try all these things and have them fail, he said, “It didn’t try a bunch of things and they failed. I just found the things that didn’t work.” So it’s a different attitude. [20:30] The thing that people miss is that if you’re learning from failure, you say it’s part of the process. You don’t even think about it that way. You’re so focused on the prize! The nuance is very important. Edison didn’t view it as a failure, he just succeeded slowly. The forks in life, they don’t matter. Don’t spend too much time looking back as “I wish I could’ve.” My father loves the Italian saying, “Always forward!” Make the best decision with the information you have at the time; and as you go forward, somebody may ask why you made those decisions. You made the best decisions you could at that time and some didn’t work out and that’s okay.
[22:02] Allan: When you founded your company, what were some of the initial projects you were taking on? Was there a clear idea of what you wanted to accomplish?
Louis: Up until that point, we had worked together on a couple of games, for some local game companies. We didn’t see any of that hard work they did. All we knew is they’d come to us and ask if we could make something for a certain amount of money. Sometimes, they’d ask us what we’d charge. At some point, some folks came to Brett and said they were doing something at Epyx. It was a trilogy of games and they wanted to move it to a Mac. And I owned a Mac. They asked how much it would cost and I said, “16K” which was ridiculously cheap even by the standards back then. We were living on very little. We left that meeting with a handshake agreement and were high-fiving each other. And Brett turned to me and said, “I didn’t know you know how to program on a MacIntosh” and I didn’t! But how hard can it be! So we took something we had no idea.
We got the contract and made sure we really understood it. Epyx was really accommodating. We got the game done relatively quickly. I had to learn to program. Back in the day, you had to buy the book and quiz yourself. It was pretty challenging. I did the programing and artwork for the game, and Brett did the design. And in 4 months, we made the game realtime and Epyx freaked out. We went back and put in all the stops. That emphasis is the thing that became the monocurve of Westwood for many, many years. And this was in 1985.
[26:30] Allan: That’s amazing! Was it the moment you realized you were onto something?
Louis: Yes, of course! Brett and I loved realtime games and deep strategy games. But the belief at that time was that you couldn’t combine those things. It would take 10 years before Command & Conquer, but there were certainly steps leading to that along the way. The first game that was quasi-realtime was Eye of the Beholder. We had done Restaurant 2. We had 40-50 games, with 9 full-on projects to do at any given time. The platforms were so different, we couldn’t share anything. We couldn’t share the artwork. We wrote a lot of the systems that allowed us to code in one place and use it in two. When we got the Omega, I wrote a minimalist version of the operating system. I wrote our own operation system. Later, I wrote the emulator that emulated the gems instruction sets. There were pretty weird things you had to do back then that would solve problems.
[28:46] Allan: It’s amazing! There isn’t much communication because of the lack of internet and not enough standard sets.
Louis: We were pretty active on bulletin boards. It sounds weird, but you got answers pretty quickly. You’d go and state the problem. I still remember when we were doing proper 3D and we’d have [people tell us about] gimbal locks and recommend some books. There were crazy fun problems and you had to figure out how to do things quickly.
[30:59] Allan: It’s great to do down the memory late. But Dune had a massive impact!
Louis: Yes, let’s skip ahead. There was the Eye of the Beholder. I think that was back in 1989. It was a D&D game. Although you were running through dungeons, we had to write it all and we had to follow D&D rules which were very complicated. We were motivated by realtime. You stepped your way through the map but the game would play on its own even if you stood still. It was a different idea. So the Eye of the Beholder 1 & 2 came out. Brett was a huge fan of the game called Rescue Raiders which was a tower defense game. You chose the sequence of production of units you had. You could use the helicopter. This really inspired our realtime strategy. We had done a bunch of strategy games: The Battle of Shiloh, Gettysburg, all these military games. Dune 2 was about how much of that deep military thinking can we get into a game that also had a realtime component to it? There were other games but they weren’t the ones that became the genre. The minute you played those game, you just knew they were different.
[34:10] Allan: At the time, with building units and structures, as well as control characters, was that a pretty big shift in terms of the industry?
Louis: Absolutely! The shift was the idea that you were building a technical course. You had an economy you had to manage, like a Sin City. It was like Sin City goes to war. You’d be trying to build your resources and use them to defeat somebody else. You were constantly going back and forth, and it involved strategy tactics economics. There was nothing quite like that. It did feel like cognitive overload. Part of the design of that game — the whole idea around the mining of the spice — was of course designed around the fiction of [Frank Herbert’s] books. So when we went to make our next RTS games, knowing that those were successful, there was a fictional reason you had to harvest. What’s funny is that to this day, the idea of harvesting all goes back to a design decision that was meant for the fiction of Dune. And it’s really fascinating that it became a meme. Realistically, it could’ve been a dozen of other things.
[36:26] Allan: That’s so cool! Around Dune, how did come to be, in term of acquiring the licensing and following the themes within the story?
Louis: So Virgin got the license to Dune. It was Brett’s favorite book. They came to us. They’ve been working with us on other things. There was this game being done in Europe but it was canceled; and Virgin wanted to find a place for it. Of course, we wanted to do it! Joe Bostic being such a highly regarded engineer, he said he wanted to do this game. It all bubbled together from it. It wasn’t us who had to get the license, but once Virgin got it, we were in some weird space. We had the license to the movie by Dino De Laurentiis. We did not have the literary license. We couldn’t do anything in the game that wasn’t in the film, but we wanted to make a strategy game about the Dune universe. We had to pick through the screenplay. It was really fun to do that but also really challenging. Ultimately, the game in Europe wasn’t canceled and they made an adventure game.
[38:49] Allan: I was curious if there was Dune 1.
Louis: There was. It was just called Dune. The reason it was called Dune 2 was because the marketing team at Virgin said it was a strategy game. They really didn’t believe in the game. We only sold 60 or 70 thousand copies in total. But we had some really interesting things that happened after that. Millions of people had played the game but they were all pirating it.
[39:31] Allan: I’m sorry to say I was one of them.
Louis: That’s where the industry was. For games like this, it happened a lot.
[39:54] Allan: I remember back in the day you would have magazine ads for games you could buy for $10. There was no awareness around piracy.
Louis: There was no thought you were stealing something. They would never walk into a store and put stuff into their pockets and walk out.
[40:44] Allan: I’m catching up with Jordan Mechner in Paris next month. He was sharing a story that John Carmack gave him $40 for the pirated copy of Prince of Persia and Karateka. Just to talk about the acquisition of Westwood, was there any hesitation about being acquired by Virgin?
Louis: Well, oddly it was a phone call. Martin had arranged for Richard Branson to call us and tell us he was interested in acquiring Westwood in ’92. Dune hasn’t shipped yet, but we were working on this game called The Legend of Kyrandia. It was an innovative take on the industry. We had 29 people at the time, we had an agent. An agent showed us that we could make better profit and get better terms. So we get this call. “Hello, I have Richard Branson on the phone for you.” I had no idea who he was. He goes, “Hello, Louis! I’m Richard and I’d like to buy your company.” And I said, “I didn’t know it was for sale.” He goes, “Well, my boy, in my experience, everything is for sale. Thanks for the time!” He was just telling me how it was going to happen.
I went to talk to Brett and he didn’t know who that was either. And there was no Google. We looked it up and realized this guy was a billionaire. It was really funny! Martin was so proud that he got Richard to call us! Turns out he was right: We did sell the company. But before that, we went to Sierra Online because we weren’t sure we wanted to sell. It was actually they that offered 6 million dollars for the company which would’ve been life changing for both of us. We went back and we were pondering on it. Sierra Online wanted to put a bunch of business people in and keep us as creatives. That would’ve been fine. We were wearing a lot of hats, but we didn’t want anyone shepherding it for us. We built the whole thing on our own. Ultimately, it was the pressure of Sierra Online and a call from Richard. Ultimately, we went with Virgin because they gave us bigger salaries and they left us in complete control. We sold the company for little money. We also got a law suite that was incorrect. So all of the money we made from the company was gone.
[47:37] Allan: Wow! That’s amazing. It’s one of those decisions you’re going to learn from.
Louis: I don’t think we could’ve avoided the problems that we had. We made a conscious decision of taking less money in an earnout. Had we failed to be successful, it would’ve been the most stupid thing we ever did because we would’ve given our company away. If we were successful — which we were — it would’ve been the smartest thing we’ve ever done. We had phantom equity in our division. Right after the acquisition, we released Dune 2 which was successful but not financially. But it put us on the map. The Lands of Lore followed. Then we got a hit after a hit. We did the Lion King which sold 4.7 million copies. We went from struggling to suddenly being very wealthy. By the time EA bought us in ’98, the company sold for 120 million dollars. That was pretty a big ride in 6 years!
[49:31] Allan: That’s definitely a great definition of scale!
Louis: It was really a billion dollar acquisition. The next year after EA bought us, the company was worth a billion dollars of their market cap, measured either by gross revenue or net revenue.
[49:54] Allan: That’s so cool! Just to jump to Command & Conquer, it had a huge impact on me as a 3D artist. In so many ways, you redefined a lot. How did the C&C begin in the first place? It seems like a massive perspective. Did you know how much was involved in different aspects?
Louis: Once again, there is that fearlessness. We liked doing cinematic place in the story. Even though we liked strategy, we liked setting up and letting people know the why. We knew the next game would be a CD-Rom game. We were part of Virgin and they had these video players. I was still regarded as the Chief Technology problem solver. He said, “We need to do a full-screen audio / video.” And I said, “We’re looking at the CD-Roms and you just can’t do it. You can’t encode video on that.” And he said, “You know how to do compression. You just do it.” We researched Bink and all these other programs. I can tell you none of them would work. It was by multiples, it was not close. We hired some folks who had PhD’s from the University of Washington and we started working on some very cutting edge vector quantization. It was being used to augment the mpeg compression format. People were trying to figure out how to get video over the internet. This was before Window ’95 which really set the world on fire when it comes to the internet. You had Web Crawler and Matador, Netscape. You had ways of perusing data files and you had hypertext markup language. Very technical problems! The old compression methodology we used was fast loaders on Commodore 64 and we used to scrunch everything into a 1.2 megabyte floppies. And most of this stuff I had written. We were able to stuff they’d written academically and use the compression stuff; then we turned it loose on the artists and they did the CG stuff using 3D Studio Max.
[54:04] Allan: Yeah, Aaron Powell is buddy of mine. We go way back!
Louis: Yeah, cool! He’s a great guy and he was so involved with that. Eric would take the video of himself in front of a white sheet and put them on an aircraft carrier deck. They started creating these sequences. At least the cinematic part was born. And the last kudos go to Joe Kucan. Brett had known him through a local theatre scene. Joe was doing some production work for us. He had these skills of identifying and directing the talent. A lot of it was Joe’s ability to take the stories and turn them into performances from local talent (with Joe himself playing Kane). It was really interesting story!
[55:50] Allan: What was it like? You go in to make a video game and suddenly you’re making a movie. On top of that, Jurassic Park came out 2 years prior. What you were doing was pretty revolutionary.
Louis: There were other people. Chris Robins was doing stuff at Origin. There were other people doing other video. We just happened to do it at the same time as other folks, so it wasn’t that unusual. But what was different was that Joe had a great idea about what the cinematics were providing for the game. They weren’t actually a movie but more of vignettes. We understood that having an actual cinematic department would be a much bigger problem to solve. We didn’t fancy ourselves as movie makers. [Later on], we would bring people on, world class actors, production teams. Joe did most of the direction. He did it well and he understood the franchise. You could tell when you had a video guy trying to direct actors. You got a real appreciation for how much Joe Kucan brought!
[57:53] Allan: To jump ahead to Tiberian Sun, [you cast] James Earl Jones. Was it intimidating to direct someone like that?
Louis: Joe had a lot of experience, but he was thrilled. We had written for people like Patrick Stewart. We’d worked with a lot of people from AFTRA, and at the end of the day, you have to direct actors. Patrick Stewart did the first recording and it was perfect. We had no direction. It was perfect! This changes the game. When you get people who are so good at their craft, a lot of things fall into place much faster. Ultimately, having Michael Bane and James Earl Jones, they brought so much to the performances which added to a high quality. And we had hired Hollywood writers, but video games were pretty new. For Tiberian Sun, we never tried to make it campy. We did our best to tell an epic story. When we tried to bring people on later on, it’s still hard for people to wrap their heads around video games. We leaned into that with Lands of Lore series. We wanted to make some whacky stuff.
[1:00:58] Allan: With the C&C art, what were some of the biggest challenges?
Louis: There were tons of them but they weren’t my problems. My problems were in video, art direction, production. As the Founder of the company, I felt myself involved in the fine art. For Command & Conquer, my problems related to the technical side. But there were many problems. Pathfinding is a hard problem. It’s not a hard one to solve but it’s difficult to do it quickly and elegantly; and back then, the computers weren’t as strong. You couldn’t do things the way science says to do that. You had to find shortcuts.
One of the things Joe Bostic figured out how to do is the 3-point turn for the vehicles. He ultimately just built a big table that had all the animations in it. There was no way to get the algorithms to do it. It was because from a design point of view, the designers wanted to have a lot of units on the screen. It just felt good. So unlike Blizzard, which had unit caps for lots of reasons, fictionally they didn’t make sense. And from a fun point of view. We wanted to have a rolling thunder, crush the enemy moment. Now you have an unlimited number of units and the map is dynamics. That was one. [And] then just rendering! Rendering the screen was painful back then. There was work done. As we kept ramping up resolutions, we were dealing with things like dirty rectangle buffers, so you could maximize rendering speed. We didn’t have a bunch of stuff for Monopoly, actually. Mike Legg and Mike Wreyford worked with some stuff with Win-G written by Chris Hecker at Microsoft. We were able to use all that stuff for Windows 3.1. Thankfully, the stuff we learned on Monopoly we were able to use on Command & Conquer. Just about everything — is the answer! Input was another one. Just the amount of commands you were trying to push over the bus was really difficult once we went into the multiplayer stuff. How do you synchronize two computers? There was tons of latency. I could go over every one of these things! Audio was digital, we didn’t do MIDI. Command & Conquer was all digital audio.
[1:05:36] Allan: That’s right, the audio too wasn’t CD-Rom music.
Louis: Audio was stored as data files and encrypted as CD-Rom in a stream. The algorithm itself is actually a combination of algorithms. It’s a Kodak that’s designed as a Lempel–Ziv–Welch compression if vector quantization is done off-line in pre-processing pass. It creates a code book which is an LZW. But then we modified the hell out of that because it wasn’t fast enough. We used algorithmic prediction and some RLE on top of that. So there was a bit of magic in that compression.
Going back to the problems: We thought, okay, we have a video of these guys on an aircraft carrier and we got it working. The first thing the director does is a static screen — like, white noise — which is the worst thing to try and compress! And lots of fades! There was a lot of that VOD that was hand coded. Hard to replicate stuff. It still works as a kodec.
[1:07:26] Allan: Looking back at Westwood and C&C now, is there anything you would change if you could go back in time?
Louis: You know, I don’t know. I supposed at what a big piece it was for Westwood, it would’ve been nice to center it just on art direction. I made the best decision at the time. And if I’d done that, we wouldn’t have had the Lion King, Monopoly or Bladerunner. So there are a lot of games that came out of Westwood that wouldn’t have happened if I had also dedicated myself to C&C. So from my personal point of view, I wouldn’t have done much differently, if I could rewind the time. There is a few little things: I wish we would’ve dumped the RSC chat. I actually did know what we were doing when it came to data streams and compressions. We could’ve done some pretty amazing rewind sync. Because we didn’t have great multiplayer technology, we couldn’t do sports level stuff as well as Blizzard did. Renegade was debilitated by the fact that we didn’t have a decent online player. Great game but too easy to hack! Those are the decisions I wish I could back and change.
[1:09:20] Allan: That’s cool! What are you thoughts on all the clones? You’ve inspired the genre.
Louis: It was very flattering. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I’ve never had a problem with clones. It kept escalating the quality for the customer. It was an inspiring thing! Rise of Nations. What does disappoint me is when someone does a fast follow strategy, it’s a little disappointing if they’re just making some minor changes. Bring something original to it! Advance the art! Nobody wants 50 versions of the same game. It might take 5 or 7 different companies to come up with ideas that become the standard for the art. It was great to have copies! It proved to us that we were special because most of them didn’t work and most of them did die. We are pretty good at what we do.
[1:11:02] Allan: Let’s talk about Bladerunner. How did that project come to be?
Louis: Just like Dune was Brett’s favorite book, Bladerunner was my favorite movie. Martin had come to us and said they had an opportunity to pitch for Bladerunner. It’s an old movie. I went and talked to Aaron Powell and we wanted to blow their socks off. And Aaron burned the midnight oil and recreated the opening sequence of the movie. It went all the way to the point where the spinner landed on top of the police station sign and ended with the Boom! And then Frank Klepacki recreated all the audio because the audio from the film couldn’t be used for the game assets. We got a pitch meeting together. I spent the whole time designing the game. It had to be like a real detective story. It had to have the gravitas of human / non-human. You had to be shooting things but you couldn’t be sure if they were real or not. Ultimately, we had to make it look like the film. I wasn’t going to be satisfied with the early examples we did for polygons. The polygonal stuff wasn’t good enough!
So we went into the meeting and I did the pitch: Here is why it’s important! I could see they were glazing over. So we pop in the video tape and they’re watching it and they hear the music. They’re nodding their heads. It’s when the shot goes over the building when they lean forward [and say], “This isn’t the movie!” And I said, “Yeah, I know!” They were watching it and their jaws just went slack. And you see the spinner land and the title. They go, “How did you do that? And what about the audio? And if you’re going to do that, what are you going to take from the film at all?” And I said, “Nothing! We’re going to recreate everything!” We do want to hire the original actors. And they said, “You’re never going to get Harrison Ford.” We walked out there and got back to Vegas and Martin called and said, “You got Bladerunner!” Later one, I found out that they certainly had it. They just didn’t have ink on paper. So we got it in the eleventh hour! We came out of nowhere! We stole it from everyone.
[1:15:41] Allan: I think it’s brilliant. It’s such a unique take on it as well. You managed to come up with an original story and universe and so many choices that people can make. It’s so original! You did this whole other thing.
Louis: And it still holds up today. It’s a great game! And the resource we had back in the day, we couldn’t do half the things we wanted to do. Between the game mechanics and the video. Again, the video was an outcome of us working so hard to get video compression. The voxel system for all the characters: We tried putting sprites on them and they looked terrible. We had so much pressure from the artists. They wanted us to do 3D characters. Every time we tried polygons, they just looked so terrible and our backgrounds were so beautiful! I couldn’t stomach that! That’s why Bill and others came up with the voxel design. And actually voxels were used in Tiberian Sun. Westwood kept reusing our technology across the board.
[1:17:24] Allan: Actually, I was going to ask about that. Voxels definitely looked like something that could compete. It didn’t take off the same way! What are your thoughts on voxels? Is there a chance they might resurface?
Louis: Maybe. I mean, the thing about voxels now is realtime ray tracing. Now when you think of a voxel, it’s just how you’re storing the data. So the game I’m working on right now (I’m the Head of the Studio), there is this talented guy who’s using voxels for global illumination so we can use physics based rendering calculations to illuminate the world. Because of that, the game is just drop dead gorgeous. And it’s a shooter game and it’s not the place you need to have these high end graphics. But I gotta tell you: It makes the game a lot of fun!
[1:18:41] Allan: That’s so cool! For you, segueing to Amazon where you are now…
Louis: I can do that in a sec! So from Westwood, I ultimately became the Head of the Studio. We consolidated in Nevada. I always wanted to do that! It felt like it was best for the studio. We didn’t get the support from local politicians but LA did. So consolidated in Los Angeles and I took on the Chief Creative role there for 3 years. Then I went back to games production as an EP. We designed all four Spielberg Games: the Bloom Box 1 and 2 that shipped and some games that didn’t ship. And from EA went to IC and ran as a CEO of a public subsidiary that did game streaming. I worked with David who was part of the their GarageGames. We did some pretty exciting things. But there were some corporate winds that changed things. I went into the casual games space after that with Zynga, I was the VP. I learned a lot of new things. I’ve been growing my financial abilities. For 2 years I stepped out of the games industry and made casino games. I grew the company to 1.3 billion sales. For 3 years, I worked on mobile games with Kabam, Funny or Die. Was Chairman of Metric Gaming, a realtime betting and wagering. Then ended up shipping Commander at the end of the 3 years, which is a pretty neat game idea. They had this game I heavily influenced. You can feel the C&C flavor. They changed the world map quite a bit. That lead me to Amazon and run their Game Studios up in Seattle. Now, I’m the Head of Studios in Seattle.
[1:22:51] Allan: With your current role, what are your responsibilities?
Louis: I’ve been there for over 3 years and my responsibilities have varied. What I was hired to do was different from what I ended up doing. But it’s so exciting! I’m still involved with our acquisitions. Mostly, it’s wrangling all the bits and trying to build a company that publishes games while we’re building games. We’re close to finishing some games. When we announce them, I can talk about them. I manage managers. I occasionally dive into design or technology issues. The best thing about having a guy like me who’s done the things he’s done: If you have a good idea, I recognize it as a good idea and I support it. That sponsorship leads to resourcing and faith. Many of the technologies in the games would’ve killed in the cradle if I hadn’t been involved.
[1:24:46] Allan: Thank you for sharing! My final question would be: Is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
Louis: Um, it’s tough. If I could do that, that violates the first idea of knowing what you know at the time. If I could give myself information (besides buying Apple, Amazon and Google stock)… As far my career went, we got into quite a bit of real estate development. My only real regret was I was too stubborn on something. Recognize when you have lost something and walk away. I have no regrets. I’ve had a pretty great life and it’s still is. After the first lifetime achievement award, I said, “I’m not going anywhere!” I said the same thing after the second one.
[1:26:30] Allan: Louis, I want to thank you again for your time! You’ve shared so many amazing insights.
Louis: Thanks! [1:26:39] I do want to say one thing to anyone who’s in the industry right now: Don’t give up! Don’t ever stop. If you have a great job, find the time to do two things. What made my life so different, it’s what my friends say to me, “You have 7 jobs”. I think it’s what makes successful people successful. Successful people of all scales have relentlessness. Never stop! Keep pushing! Don’t let anyone tell you not to go forward! Just keep going forward!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode and got a lot from it. I want to thank Louis for taking the time to chat! I’d love to get him back on the Podcast and to talk about business.
Please take a moment to share this Podcast with others.
Next week, I will be talking about how to reach busy people. I think a lot of us lack the empathy to put ourselves in those people’s shoes. You need to learn how to craft an email that gives value to them.
Until next week —
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