Today Midlife Gamer is pleased to bring you part four in our series of interviews with games writers who went on to make games. In case you missed them you can check out part one here, part two here and part three here.
Jeff Green is pretty much a games journalism legend. Writing for CGW(Computer Gaming World), becoming its Editor In Chief, before moving onto Games For Windows: The official magazine, which then became the PC side of 1UP.
He moved to EA in 2008 to work on a game in the popular Sims series before being made Editor In Chief of EA.com.
In 2010 he left EA to join PopCap, where he still still works as Director of Editorial and Social Media. Ironically Popcap was acquired by Green’s former employers in 2011.
Hi Jeff, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. What made you decide you wanted to try your hand at making/writing games?
The need for a job. When I left the videogame press in 2008, the market for games journalism was very dry, with magazines closing up shop and websites already overstaffed. So, I went with where my contacts took me–to the other side of the fence. I honestly never had much desire to switch sides, as I’ve always considered myself (well, until lately) as a “press guy.”
Do you feel that your experience in working in games media has helped you when it came to developing/writing your game(s)?
It definitely helped give me a certain perspective that I can tell some folks in the gaming industry don’t quite always get as easily–like, my ability to stand back from a project and look more “objectively” to see flaws and possible fan annoyances is probably linked to all the years I spent having to write reviews. I often see that people on teams can get so close to a project that they really just can’t see beyond it. There’s a lot of Kool-Aid drinking all the time. I feel my ability to step back a little sometimes makes me able to offer internal critique where others might not find it. Or maybe I’ve just been a judgmental bastard from birth!
Did you approach any contacts in the industry about your game beforehand, or even discuss it with colleagues in the media?
This doesn’t really apply to me I guess. My first couple games were on the Sims team in EA. I was just a cog in the wheel.
What challenges did you face developing your first game?
Just the small challenge of completely changing my career in my late 40s! I had no clue what I was doing. Nor did I really belong there, as anyone unlucky enough to work on one of the teams I was on can tell you. Awkwardly shoehorned into a “producer” role for which I had no experience, I proceeded over the course of two Sims games to basically live the classic nightmare of going to school in your underwear or without having written the term paper that everyone else did. The tools were foreign to me and near impossible to use, but, even if I did know how to use them, the particular tasks I was given were beyond my interest anyway, and I was doing it in a cube a shared with people 20 years younger than me. How I lasted a year as a producer is anyone’s guess. When I finally switched to the social media side of things, something far more akin to my previous career, I suddenly felt slightly less incompetent. It was a huge relief.
How nervous were you about letting your colleagues get hands on with your game?
Because my games were for kids, and not for hardcore gamers, I wasn’t really worried, since I knew they mostly wouldn’t give a shit. When I demoed the game at a couple conventions, some journalists and former colleagues did come by to see it, but only for the spectacle of watching me have to demo, or maybe out of some perfunctory feeling that they somehow “owed” me to check it out (which they didn’t.) But I didn’t have any real emotional attachment to anything I worked on anyway, so even if they came in and said, “Wow, Jeff, that looks like something my cat threw up!” I don’t think I would have lost any sleep.
How strange have you found it having people write reviews/previews about a game that you developed/wrote?
Not strange. I do get amused when I read previews/reviews and I see stuff that I know is just flat-out wrong, or when assumptions are made that are just totally off base. It made me realize how much I must have done that over the course of my own writing career. I mean, there’s no way to know–it’s not their fault. But the process and business of making games, of every single decision that goes into every aspect of a game, is so incredible complex that I don’t think you can every really have an idea until you’re doing it yourself. Doesn’t mean the journalists can’t be good at what they do–but what you see as a lot of ignorance and speculation passed off as fact.
Has your experience developing/writing games had any effect on how you now approach writing about other games? And do you feel there are advantages to trying both sides of the coin?
I don’t write about other games too, too much anymore, but, yes, absolutely my experience has affected my approach. Mostly just because I know more now. I mean, I wouldn’t go any easier on anyone, just because I know how hard the process is. If your game is shit, then it’s shit–and the important part is letting gamers know to stay away. Not to give you a break because you worked hard. However, I would definitely treat the whole thing with more respect now–be less snarky and dismissive in my text. Developers take it personally. They do. As well they should. No one likes to hear any criticism of the work they do. Shit, I’ve seen some game critics themselves unable to take the slightest bit of criticism of their own work. It’s important to remember that there are real people behind all this. It’s possible to call something a piece of shit while still retaining some standard of respect. And, to answer your second question, yes, absolutely there are advantages to trying both sides of the fence. You just learn more. All experience is good experience, and just broadens your perspective. Many of the folks I work with on the industry side don’t have the slightest clue how the press works either, and it often gets frustrating to hear an equal amount of misunderstanding and lack of respect coming from this side as well.
Would you recommend other writers try their hand at developing games?
Ehh, not necessarily. I mean, sure, if that’s your ambition, then by all means do it. What I’d rather see more of is professional writers and editors improving the state of THOSE crafts. There is some good stuff happening out there–more than when I left in 2008–and that’s cool to see. But there’s still a lot of hack work out there. It’s hard to get the best when the pay scale is so ridiculously low. Your only hope is to get young talent who can afford to work cheap, or people who are just awesome at what they do and love it so much that they’re willing to compromise with their lifestyle. Which is much harder to do if you have a family and are the primary breadwinner.
Are there any other games you’d like to work on in the future? – Can you talk about anything?
Not really. I’d love to actually try my hand at writing a game script sometime. There’s some truly great stuff happening out there now. Seems like it could be totally fun.
And finally, tradition here at Midlife Gamer dictates I must ask, what’s your favourite biscuit and beverage? (Jaffa Cakes are not a biscuit!!)
Is “biscuit” like the English version of “cookie”? Or do you mean American biscuits? If you mean the English version, then I have to go with Oreos. It’s the first and original cookie to have a ritual for eating it. (Split in half, eat yummy stuff in middle, then eat each chocolate half.) Favorite beverage is coffee, by a country mile. Black, no cream or sugar.