That’s also why I decided to reach out to Kern for a new interview. Especially since the games industry has changed quite a bit since 2017 as well (and in my opinion, it’s not for the better…).
Well, Kern agreed to do an interview with us. So we ended up talking about everything from Em-8ER, Blizzard memories, gaming, thoughts on censorship and much more.
So with that said, please enjoy our interview with Mark Kern =)
As some of our readers might not be familiar with who you are or your previous and current projects, would you be so kind and give us a brief introduction of yourself? =)
Sure! My name is Mark Kern. I’ve founded and sold game studios, created Firefall, one of the first looter shooters, and worked at Blizzard, Interplay and Naughty Dog since their earlier beginnings.
I’m most known for being the team lead on vanilla World of Warcraft, and my work as Producer on Diablo II and the Starcraft series.
I also run a YouTube channel for the “meta of game making” where I talk about the business and issues of starting and making games and studios using my current new game Em-8ER as an open example: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdW3l3tlPuUed_DmNkJadCw?view_as=subscriber
I’m not quite sure if you still remember it, but back In June of 2017 we talked to you about your and Crixa Labs upcoming massive planetary wargame “Em-8ER”.
Well, how has the development process gone for “Em-8ER” since the last time talked? And what does the game plan look like for this year?
It’s been challenging! Being a small, part-time team back then (and still all part-time except for myself today), we’ve had our ups and downs.
Our original 3D artist left so we had to rearrange some things, and I’ve since taught myself to do 3D modeling and built our main character. I’ve never made a game or studio this way before, trying to do it all by bootstrapping it without any outside investors.
The goal is to do this completely via crowdfunding and our upcoming Kickstarter. But I’m happy to say we finally have all the characters and monsters complete for the demo we’re putting together, and we’ve since added multiplayer.
All our progress and setbacks are posted out in the open on our Youtube channel, so other people can learn how small studios get bootstrapped into existence.
What has the response and feedback been like for “Em-8ER” since you announced the game? And is there anything that you could tell us in terms of a release date and release platforms?
The community and response has been astounding. Everyone has been so supportive and our Discord community is very active. We’ve grown to thousands and thousands of supporters and community members, and it’s really because of our strong community team that we see this happening.
Whenever we have a setback or bad day, we just pop into the channel and talk about things with our community and we get our energy back. Everyone asks when the release date for Em-8ER is, but remember we haven’t even done our Kickstarter yet!
How much money we raise on the KS is going to determine game scope and delivery times, so we’re waiting for that.
How did the partnership with AMD, Razer and Ikinema come to be? And how has the partnership worked so far? And how has the partnership affected the development of “Em-8ER”?
AMD and Razer have always been great supporters of my previous company, so it was natural to have them join us in support for Em-8ER.
AMD and Razer have been fantastic help to us, and so as Epic, who granted us Tier 1 support access because of my previous track record and relationship with them.
Em-8ER is an Unreal Engine based game and we’ve really been enjoying the engine so far. Ikinema is a new partner and they’ve been very, very patient with us as we integrate their great IK technology into our game. They simply a lot of animation tasks that would be difficult to do without their technology.
I just realized that it’s been over three years since we did our interview with you about League for Gamers.
So I’m pretty curious to know how things have gone for your League for Gamers project? Furthermore, how has the response been for LFG?
League For Gamers reached many, many members, and we never asked for funding. But at that point we realized we could not split our attention between too many new efforts like LFG and the game, so we made the hard decision to close LFG.
We did, however, make the code base open source and released it on github. If anyone wants to create a free speech, twitter like platform with group support, the code is there for everyone to use! Who knows, maybe if we find the right role for it in the future, it might be back in another guise.
I’ve often wondered if it could be tailored for tabletop gaming communities since Google+ shut down. Google+ used to be a big hub for tabletop RPG. Maybe somebody will make use of our code for it!
This is a question that I have wanted to ask you for quite some time, because I have been a fan of “Warcraft” since the “Warcraft 1” days. Anyways, my question to you would be the following. What was it like to work on “World of Warcraft”?
Did you ever expect that WOW would become as huge as it did? And what’s your relationship with WOW today? Furthermore, what was your reaction when Blizzard made their WOW classic announcement?
No we had no idea that WoW would be as big as it was. It totally transformed Blizzard in both good and bad ways.
Good because of all the revenue coming into the company, bad because it meant Blizzard had to shift from being a boutique high quality game maker to a mass market game maker and giant corporation, with all the challenges that includes.
Today I don’t know many people left at Blizzard. Mike, the CEO is gone, he was my direct boss there. Metzen, Pardo, and Paul Sams, all close co-workers are all gone, as are the Blizzard North leaders.
Of the new management, I am unfamiliar with everyone except for Ray Gresko.
As for WoW Classic, I am extremely happy to see it come about. As you know, I helped drive the petition to convince Blizzard to do it, and personally delivered the petition to Blizzard and my former boss, the CEO, where we had a long and passionate discussion about why I felt, and the community felt, it needed to be done.
I’m glad I was able to plant the seed that ultimately convinced them to do it!
TGG’s interview with Mark Kern about biased Gaming sites
TGG (“Mark Kern is to take the case with Wow´s legacy servers to Blizzard´s Mike Morhaime”)
WOW via Youtube (“World of Warcraft Classic Announcement”)
Kitguru (“Blizzard is finally releasing a vanilla WoW server with World of Warcraft Classic”)
I don’t know how much you have paid attention to this, but I have noticed that whenever your haters get really angry at you they tend to bring up the downfall of “Firefall”.
Furthermore, they state that the game’s failure was all your fault. So what are your thoughts on that matter? And what’s the actual story and truth behind what went wrong with “Firefall”?
I think history has vindicated me on that. I presided over the most loved and popular version of the game, not it’s downfall.
When the new management and investors took over, they completely changed the design to be more like “WoW with guns” instead of my original vision for the game.
I left at the height of the game’s popularity, and it was painful to see the decline over 2 years and eventual close of the studio.
That creative battle was a bitter one, with many false accusations and ugly political infighting, and, unfortunately, many in management decided to cast the blame soley at my feet.
But history has shown I was right about the correct version of the game, the importance of creating good Youtube support, going in BIG and early on Twitch streaming and support in place of traditional banner ads and “ahem” placed articles and site takovers on gaming websites.
We were also proven right betting on putting our game servers in the cloud on Amazon, something that everyone does now. We were also the first to announce a new game at PAX instead of E3 or Gamescom, and invest in that as our primary game show since it was “direct to gamers.” The list goes on and on.
In hindsight, I’m proud of the ideas I championed there. Some where my own, others were bright ideas from brilliant people who I pushed for. But perhaps we tried to innovate in too many areas at the same time. My new mantra is “focus.”
I actually got a follow-up question on the subject of “Firefall”. You see, a couple of days ago I saw quite a few tweets about “Warframe” and “Firefall”.
Long story short, it’s said that you stated that “Warframe” “borrowed” the “open world looter shooter” theme/genre from “Firefall”. So, is there any truth to that?
Oh that’s incorrect. Warframe didn’t copy us at all. In fact when Warframe came out I was very enthusiastic about it. I tried to show it to the team and told them it would be our greatest competitor, but few others took it seriously.
Good for Warframe, they really hit it out of the park. Their development style is one we seek to emulate for Em8ER. Launch smaller versions and build and build to epic features.
They started with random generated instance crawls and now they have two large open worlds, immesnse guild support and so many other features. We hope to launch our game in a similar, incremental fashion.
The tweets you mentions are about Athem, which I feel is “very inspired” by Firefall. If you read the article on their early vision, they even talk about dynamic world events and gliding as cornerstones of their game, along with powered exo-suits.
These were all core values of Firefall. Even the “electrical storm” they talked about at the Anthem E3 demo is very much like our Melding Tornado dynamic even in Firefall.
I’m sorry to see Anthem not do any of the things they originally set out to do, it would have been successful longer term if they had stuck to the original vision which was much closer to my vision for Firefall.
The game did sell well for them, but player dropoff is a big problem. Em8ER is going to revive those original Firefall concepts and gameplay that were so popular during our beta, and hopefully finally deliver on the promise of a dynamic, open world game with jetpacks, gliding, base-building, terraforming and an endless dynamically driven war against gaint Kaiju.
There has been quite a lot of talk and angry rants about Epic Games Store as of lately. The biggest problem right now though, seems to be the fact that the Epic store has been accused of accessing private Steam user data without permission.
So what’s your take on all of this? And since you’re a game developer, would you be willing to give the Epic games store a try?
Wow, what a can of worms. First off, Epic is doing the right thing strategically. They recognize smaller devs need the lower royalty rate to survive and that Steam is over-charging and stifling innovation by taking too much money from small devs.
This makes making innovative, risky games dangerous to studio survival and contributes to the overall shrinking of the mid-tier game developer, who has traditionally been the leader in innovation. That said, Epic is completely failing on the PR and customer front.
They need to do more and get features in faster than their published roadmap. They need to stop sniping exclusives that were promised to be open and on Steam, because those are now broken promises.
Now, the devs made those promises, not Epic, but it still sucks. I don’t have a problem with limited exclusives that didn’t start out promising they would be on Steam.
As for data collection, Steam collects just as much information. People just don’t care about it when Steam does it. They do care when Epic does it because they worry that data will be sold or shared to Tencent.
Tim Sweeny has vehemently denied this is the case but my stance is that NO store should be collecting that info, to that degree. I’m a privacy advocate, and it’s a shame Epic isn’t just taking a strong stance on data privacy in an age where it is so abused by Facebook and Google.
As for which platform Em8ER will be on, well it all depends. We won’t have to decide for some time and we can sit back and watch the big platforms duke it out and the dust to settle, and for customer to help us decide in the future.
We’ve made no promises except that we are starting on PC and considering all options. But I do want Steam to be a contender: I just don’t want to pay more than double what Epic GoG or Discord is charging for essentially the same services.
So Gabe, lower your rates please! We love Steam as a service for gamers, but as a business model for indie and small devs, it sucks.
And speaking of game stores, what’s your take on the Discord game store so far? And do you think that Discord’s games store will stand a chance against Steam and the Epic Games Store?
The game store business has become one where only billion dollar companies can play. The competition is so intense between Google Stadia, Valve (if they wake up to compete), Epic and more.
All these companies have billions to play with and well over a billion dollars in revenue a year. I don’t think is where Discord should focus. They would have to raise a huge sum of money and I don’t think that’s a good strategy for them.
Their focus should be on community, communication and I’d rather see them try to take on Twitch. That would be the better play for them and more focused on their strengths.
As you most likely already know, Blizzard has had a rather rough time as of lately with layoffs, the announcement of “Diablo Immortal” and much more.
So what do you think Blizzard should do to turn the whole situation around for the better? (I’m asking you this since you once used to work at Blizzard, and at that time, they were at the top of their game)
I’ve helped drive Blizzard at high levels of strategy and tactics for several years alongside other key management there. I know how we did it, how we thought about things, and how we engineered the Blizzard formula for success. But remember, our focus was different back then.
Some would argue Blizzard should return to those roots. This include deep value for the gamer, “don’t be too greedy” and “don’t overautomate the gameplay, “ “do fewer, cooler things,” “focus on fewer games at a time,” “It’s done when It’s done,“ and “cultivate the hardcore with hard gameplay, but keep a healthy portion enjoyable for the masses” and many more mantras that simply seem to have been abandoned or forgotten.
But Blizzard is part of a massive, pubic company now. Shareholders don’t want the boutique size of success and gamer adulation that it once had. They want Blizzard to be a giant mega corp that is as profitable as mobile game companies and pumping out several game products a year, instead of hand crafting one or two at a time.
To do that you have to change the rules of success. Blizzard is being dwarfed by the profits of these mobile, casual game companies and games as service models that nickel and dime. They are trying to adapt but they are losing their genre-leading status.
They used to have the best game in each and every genre. Now they are struggling with Overwatch in terms of how Fornite is where everyone moved, and no longer lead in genres as number 1, or if they do, it’s in shrinking markets like traditional MMOs. Don’t get me wrong, Blizzard is VERY successful, but it’s not like it used to be.
They aren’t making the most money compared to their competitors, and arent’t the clear #1 game choice anymore. This weakens them politically within Activision and you see that in the recent moves and shakeups in the company.
Instead of Activision eating Blizzard, Blizzard (once they decided to merge with Activision) should have taken over and driven the entirety of the business. I think they castle’d up too much, hoping they would still have independence, but that’s fully eroded by now.
The worst part is that Blizzard has lost touch with gamers. You can tell because of all their repeated PR gaffes from “you think you, but you don’t” all the way to “do you not have phones?”
Blizzard used to be lead by gamers, and they still are, but they are so big now that they’ve lost touch with the everyday gamer and are shocked at the backlash, shocked when their pronouncement are derided and poor to respond to it.
If you lose touch with gamers, you really risk losing your edge. I think the rank and file devs get it, but they don’t have as much interaction with top management anymore. Blizzard used to be very flat. Anyone could come into my door, even from junior dev, and chew my head off about this or that decision for the game they though was stupid.
Heck I didn’t even have door most of the time, I made it a point to sit out in the open with the entire dev team. Now you can’t do that. There are literally locked behind keycard doors and entire floors between devs and the leaders of those devs.
How do you turn that around? I think the culture is too far gone, and Activision way too engrained. There’s no turning back to a smaller company culture bent on creating great games while balancing business without “being too greedy”.
They have to deliver as big as the giant companies do, and that means losing the boutique gamer loved brand and becoming…well…the size of Costco for games, or another EA. Those are huge money makers, but you lose your soul in the process.
You trade one audience of gamers, a big one with big pockets, for the smaller group that grew to love you but don’t have the numbers to deliver the dollars the shareholders want as a public games company.
Em8ER and Crixa Labs, my new effort is going back to those roots. We’re not going for the mass market, we’re not raising a ton of money from investors who just want me to make another WoW clone, these were mistakes I made in the past.
I just want us to make good game, with the old Blizzard ways, giving hardcore gamers a good challenge and risk/reward, great lore, a focus on gameplay over graphics (we run on a $250 AMD PC with no graphics card right now), a focus on value to the gamer, PC first and foremost without compromising for console design constraints and UI, a big “no” on chasing mobile games, no predatory gambling lootboxes, and we’re going to be done when it’s ready, not before. Will gamers help us do that without having to go to investors?
We are betting they will. We already offer “Newcomer Packs” which are pre-kickstarter way of backing us early with unique, early-bird rewards on www.em8er.com
We’re also setting up a Patreon like support program this month (on our own em8er.com site, we don’t support Patreon, which we feel is bad to creators) where people can help support this return to Blizzard roots and we’re going to see if that’s enough to get us back to good old, innovating, gamer caring, mid-tier gaming studios.
I’m quite sure that you’re more than aware of the censorship that’s been going on via Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Twitch.
However, as of lately matters have gone from bad to even worse. So I would love to hear your thoughts on that matter? And what do you think we should do to fight censorship and anti-freedom of speech of this kind?
I think we are going through a phase of our society which is very intolerant of free speech. I think of it like Vegas.
Las Vegas used to be the wild west of adult entertainment. But after they made plenty of money doing that, they then decided to make everything family friendly and to, therefore, greatly increase customers and revenue.
That’s great, if you are Vegas, but these companies now control the majority of speech, and especially political speech around the world. That’s a huge responsibility and is rife for abuse.
Who elected them to do this? Are they accountable to the people, or just their shareholders.
Maybe it’s time we consider them all “public squares” which, under US law, means they have to accept political speech from all sides so long as it’s legal speech.
I think this is essential to democracy and most people just don’t understand how much power these companies have to sway elections and shape/control public opinion.
I normally abhor regulation, but I just don’t see another solution. Regulation and breaking up of Facebook and Google into smaller companies. We had to do with phone companies in the past, it has to be done now. It won’t just happen organically on it’s own.
And while on the subject of censorship. I bet that you are more than aware that Valve and Sony is cracking down on games with lewd content?
What’s your thoughts on that? And what do you think game developers and gamers can do in-order to fight the censorship nonsense?
Lewd? What is lewd? It used to be naked bodies and sexual acts. Now we are censoring head pats and hemlines. The whole gaming world has gone crazy and I don’t understand the drive to suppress bare midriffs and to increase hemlines and decrease cleavage.
It’s a juvenile, knee jerk response to our currently, highly charged climate of political correctness. There is plenty of lewd content on Amazon and they seem to comply with laws and do well.
I’m not saying every platform has to allow freedom of expression, but it’s all getting a bit out of hand when they start equality jiggle physics with somehow being equivalent to “violence” against real people’s safety.
Lewdness aside, game should not be censored. We have labels for that to warn comsumers. Don’t like it, don’t buy it. Our own game Em-8ER will sell some skins that might show a bare chested man or a woman with a exposed mid-riff, but we’re going to flag these with a tag so that users can choose to filter what they see.
If people don’t want to be exposed to some navel, they don’t have to be. But let’s put that power into gamers’ hands, instead of dictating how art should be made.
You might not have heard this, but Top Hat Studios launched their very own digital storefront (it’s called “Top Hat Store”) for uncensored games just recently. Well, perhaps that’s one way to get around the censorship problems for some games at least?
Sure, and there are store dedicated to hentai games. That’s fine. Let them do that. For lewd or pornographic games that is probably the best solution.
But what I’m talking about is the fact that mainstream platforms like PS4 are censoring the mildest things now, and that female characters in MK11 must be covered head to toe in clothing while men can round around bare chested and ripped.
Even female WWE and MMA fighters wear less clothing. And what’s wrong with some fantasy to escape our real lives? These fantasies, I believe, are a pressure release valve for society.
We can be whatever we want in a game, and do whatever we like, and it lets us blow off steam and be better people in everyday life. You suppress all that and you actually increase horrible behavior RL. That’s my take on it.
Very shortly after the New Zealand shooting at Christchurch took place video games got nailed to the cross for the event as it’s said that the shooter was a fan of games such as “Fortnite” (Brianna Wu even blamed Gamers for the shooting…).
What’s your thoughts on that? And don’t you think that the “let’s blame everything on video games” card has been played out more than enough already?
Optimus (“News Network Blames Fortnite For New Zealand Tragedy”)
Vox (“The New Zealand shooter’s manifesto shows how white nationalist rhetoric spreads”)
washingtonpost.com (“The Christchurch mosque shooter, steeped in online culture, knew how to make his massacre go viral”)
That was a terrible, terrible tragedy by a person who deserves a special place in hell. This person didn’t just hate people, he openly stated he wanted to provoke conflict in the discussions that would follow.
He laid out a ton of tongue-in-cheek bait that he knew the media would fall for or at least use for clickbait. But it was obvious from the manifesto that the reasons the monstrous piece of garbage did it had nothing to do with video games.
It was a pure out and out troll, and deliberate baiting of the media to invite them to lay blame on ridiculous reasons like videogames and PewDiePie. Unfortunately mainstream journalists don’t ever do research anymore, don’t understand memes or political cuture, and just parrot what they are told to believe.
The killer was well aware of that and used it to play the media. Unfortunately, it worked. It’s also 100% wrong.
Way back in 2016, I wrote an article called “A message to Japanese game developers from a US game developer”, and the idea behind the article was pretty simple.
The game plan was simply to let Japanese game developers know that Japan must have misunderstood the truth about the Gaming culture in the West (due to Western SJW nonsense, PC culture, radical feminism and MSM Gaming journalists who tend to speak for everyone, even though most gamers don’t agree with their views).
Well, it’s now 2019, and in a way, the article feels more relevant now than it did two years ago. So my question to you would be the following. Why do you think Japanese game developers, and publishers bother so much with what SJWs in the West thinks and says?
Because at the end of the day, most of the SJWs don’t even buy their games. So why doesn’t the Japanese simply focus on their fans and consumers instead?
I for one wouldn’t care one bit if the SJWs got offended by the content in my game (s) or not. So in my opinion, we would be much better off without SJWs policing the games industry (and everything else. For that matter), and just let the free market decided what will fail or succeed.
I’ve seen this for a number of years. There are two sources of the failed, mistaken belief of Japanese game developers that they must tone down their games for western markets.
The first is that they read and take western games journalism as truth and reflective of the market. This is false. Mainstream game journalists are the most detached reflection of the gaming industry and it’s wrong to believe them.
They will take a tweet from a 50 follower account and use it to highlight it as “mass outrage against this or that game.” It’s just purely manufactured, but it’s not like Japanese companies are reading gamer tweets directly, they are getting this impression from journalists here, and it’s wrong.
Make Japanese games…the reason Manga took off in the US is not because they changed it to be like Western comics, we consumed it because of its differences!
The second source is that some of the Japanese localization firms here in the US are filled with people with a certain ideological bent and esp views on PC culture.
This is getting passed on directly to Japanese companies who are told that their dialogue and other scenes in the game must be changed to fit the gamer demographic.
So these companies, they hear it from the western gaming press, they hear it from the supposed “specialists” they work with have no other source or reference. What else are they supposed to think?
Finally, Sony themselves are directing this with their business policies. Who knows why? But now the official gatekeeper of if your game gets published on that massive platform is saying “tone it down, we don’t want to see an ankle, let alone a belly button.”
If I were in Japan and we didn’t have a direct connection to gamers here for news, I can see why they are all thinking they have to change to adapt to these faux western stances. It’s not helping their sales, btw.
I do recall that you talked about the problems with callout, PC culture and the SJW madness via Twitter not so long ago. So do you think this matter says anything particular about the outrage culture that’s trying to worm its way into geek culture?
And do you think this situation is going to open eyes on the truth about this problem? Furthermore, did you expect the kind of backlash that you received because you brought up this subject to the surface?
Oh I’ve had plenty of backlash already. In fact I stay away from it, more or less now, on social media. I think games should be a watering hole for all views to be put aside in the pursuit of some fun and entertainment.
On social media we see the fringe amplified and we take it to the “real” view. In fact, most gamers are in the middle and just want to be left along to game in peace. That’s where I want to be now too.
The one thing people CAN do, is to ignore these vocal, radical fringes calling or more censorship, and other ridiculous demands. Most gamers just don’t care, but they also don’t speak up, but they are the ones buying your game.
Which games have you enjoyed the most as of lately? (2018-2019) And are there any games that you’re really looking forward to play?
Sekiro, but it kicks my ass in a way that I haven’t felt since the original DMC 1.
Destiny 2 after the Forsaken update turned out to be good.
The Division 2 is interesting, but I just started.
I loved Raft but want more content. It was fun with the family.
Octopath Traveler on Switch and Monster Hunter on PC are queued up next.
I couldn’t help to notice that it has become something of a trend when it comes to developers in the West to make their female game characters as unattractive and feminine (read ugly) and almost manly looking.
Why do you think that is? And why is it that it’s such a bad thing to create beautiful and attractive female game characters nowadays? (from my point of view it seems like the uglier and less woman-like a female character is, the better)
I think we covered that in our other questions, but …well…I think that’s fine. Let’s have characters of all shapes and sizes.
But let’s also not shame devs (or try to ruin their careers) who choose to feature fit and attractive people to play. I know my wife far prefers a sexy character to play and who are we to tell her no?
Choice and diversity aren’t bad goals at all. Trying to hurt developers because you can’t stand the site of a nice butt in a game is pure, hateful spite and you’re an awful person if you are trying to ruin someone’s life over the art they draw and model in 3D.
What’s your plans, hopes, goals and expectations for the rest of 2019? And is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?
Just sending out the message that we are doing it. We’re going back to the old Blizzard foundations and taking time to build games the way we used to.
We want to do this without investors putting pressure on us to make the next WoW, and we want to experiment with fresh genre takes, a focus on PC gaming, eschewing monetization trends that go too far, and concentrating on gameplay over flash and not graphics that require a RTX mega 10,000 to run effectively.
It’s about the game. And gameplay that focuses again on skill, challenge and reward in ways that make you feel accomplished. We’re not trying to be mega-gaming corp, but we’re also not indie.
We want to go back to the day of great, boutique video games companies where you know you can trust our passion and that we will not do you wrong or ship something until it’s ready. Only you can help us do that. We have no investors.
So visit em8er.com today and back us! Your funds will go directly towards building our playable mockup ( a tiny but very polished vertical slice of gameplay) that will be used to lauch our Kickstarter later this year.
If you are not ready to back us, just sign up to create an Em8ER account. It’s free and let us convince you over time that we’re doing what gamers have been wanting and lacking for awhile.
Robin “V-Act” Ek
Editor in chief
The Gaming Ground
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