Trent Reznor talks sense

When I was a much younger lad, Nine Inch Nails took up about 2 picoseconds of brain processing time.  Didn’t care much for his band, and the odd time you would hear about NIN or its frontman on the news, Mr. Reznor would usually be spouting something whiny, churlish and asinine.  So it was with some trepidation that I started reading this interview with him on gaming site Joystiq.  I don’t know what they did with the old spoiled brat Trent Reznor, but the new guy playing him on that website is fargin’ brilliant.  It’s almost as if his cerebral cortex has fired up and is now able to provide perspective, context and experience to the part that manages his mouth.

Reznor has some truly outstanding insights into the risk-averse nature of music and game studio management, and how it materially affects the quality of the gaming and music experience we have today.  (I have previously discussed the shortcomings of modern games here.)  It’s no coincidence that all the dreck being churned out by the major labels is highly reminiscent of songs and games we’ve seen before.

You previously mentioned that you came up with a video game idea and pitched it to big publishers. Tell us about that game.

Trent: Rob and I have some things on the side that we’ve been working on and one of the things we’ve been talking about doing is publishing or developing video games. A few years ago we took that idea to a few of the main publishers, Midway, Activision, etc. And as first time people in a pitch meeting, it was kind of depressing. Depressing to see that the people in control of those studios and publishers are much the same as the people sitting at record companies.

In a record company, they aren’t musicians or people who love music, they’re people who want to sell plastic discs. They think they have a formula where if they can eliminate the artist from that equation, even better. You see that in the case of the Pussycat Dolls and some of the other fabricated crap that’s out there. What we tended to notice in the video game meetings was that it didn’t seem that there were gamers there. It’s business guys who want to turn the company into a profit making machine. They look at it in terms of numbers, like a Hollywood studio. If it costs “X” amount to make a game, to compete, then it has to be a proven franchise or it has to be similar enough to something they know is going to sell. They don’t want to take the risk.

Do you see any similarities between the indie video game and indie music industries? If so, what advice could you give to those who want to get noticed in the market?

Trent: …The success of the industry as an art form and a form of entertainment will be if it can rediscover itself and to allow for the redefining of what a video game is. Not necessarily targeting it towards just kids or grandparents or whatever. The goal is always to keep a level of entertainment, excitement and innovation.

Again, it seems like games have gone from the golden age — like Robotron, which was only a few kilobytes — to the era of Wolfenstein and Doom, where a boutique shop of just ten guys could create an in-depth, quality game in six months to a year. Now we’re at an era of needing hundreds of guys and millions of dollars and several years to compete with other A-list titles to attract the big publisher that wasn’t as big of a deal years ago. The publisher equates to the record label and now you have an ecosystem where, if you want to compete with EA or Activision, you have to have a mainstream enough title, which turns into a blockbuster movie scenario.

This, again, is the same thing you see with films where a lot of generic, big films come out of Hollywood. Things like G.I. Joe and Transformers, where you know what you’re getting, they aren’t redefining anything, but they’ll make “X” amount of money, because “X” amount of people — including us — will see it. But every once in a while, something different comes along, like a Quentin Tarantino who’ll blow the doors off things and turns the industry on its head. All because it was exciting, innovative and it came from way over there.

— Burg, Dustin.  “Interview: Trent Reznor.”  Joystiq, 24 September 2009.

This man is a genius.  Trent Reznor should be appointed Gaming Czar, given enough stimulus money to purchase a couple sets of high-quality brass knuckles, and sent off with a directive to start bringing Hopenchange to the studios.

Reznor also has some kind words for Nintendo, who have tended to shy away from incorporating hyper-real 3D graphics into every franchise title, and instead stuck with more stylised 3D graphics rooted in the look and feel of the company’s 2D platform-scroller heritage.  That was a conscious decision on Nintendo’s part, targeting the Wii at a broader spectrum of people who like to have fun but aren’t hardcore FPS gamers.  The other console manufacturers have tended to specialise their platforms for the narrower but more techncially demanding subset of people who want games with x number of frames-per-second at resolution y, with anistrophic filtering, antialiasing and so on.

The whole interview is really quite fascinating, and it is to Mr. Reznor’s credit that he is able to see the fundamental dysfunction at the heart of the music and gaming industries.  Another interesting sidebar is provided by interviewer Burg, who includes some of the excised portions of the interview (where Reznor discusses Twitter, smartphones and application development) on his own blog.  Both pieces are well worth reading.

Category: Games, Web/Tech
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4 Responses
  1. MichaelB says:

    I have been really surprised that the game industry continues to suck. Thinking back to a classic game like Doom, it was not only made by like 10 guys, but it was distributed over the internet. Before, why before the internet was even recognizable to most people. Surely, I have long thought, with our enormously faster connections and all the social networking tools available it should be easier than ever to make a great game and make it big coming from nowhere. Sadly, it hasn’t worked out that way.

    To be fair, there are some really good games that come out from time to time. Although they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, Grand Theft Auto IV and World of Warcraft really are very good. But the industry is nothing like it was 15 years ago, when you could choose from Civilization, or Star Control II, or Dune, or X-com, or RAH-66 Comanche, or Doom, or… quite a few others that were all great games that came out pretty close together. Now I’m surprised if more than 1 good game comes out a year.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    I think it boils down to the culture of the boardroom, as Reznor says.

    Game manufacturers today don’t want to invest a pile of dough in modest hits, they want blockbusters. To get a future blockbuster, they follow the mould of blockbusters past. Which is why the game industry now churns out a limited repertoire of first-person shooters, role playing games, name-franchised major league sports games, Guitar Hero ripoffs, and MMO games hoping to be the next Warcraft.

    I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to the conceptual diversity of gaming’s “Golden Age” where there’s a game concept or format for everyone; we may have to learn to love the myopic, constricted set we’ve got now.

  3. MichaelB says:

    I agree fully on the corporate game makers. But lots of those classic games basically came from nowhere. The proverbial few guys in their spare time who thought it would be cool to make a game. I would have thought that all the advances in technology over the past 20 years would make it easier to do that. Instead it never seems to happen anymore.