A few days ago, I had the opportunity to do a Q and A interview with the game industry veteran and League for gamers founder Mark Kern (Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft, Firefall). And in the interview (Robin Ek) I asked Kern about everything from censorship in the games industry, League for gamers, the current SJW mentality in the industry, his past to game journalism. And this is what Kern had to say to us.
I have always been somewhat curious to know how you got into Gaming and game development in the first place, perhaps you could enlighten us a bit?
I took the long way around to get into gaming. I’ve been programming and designing games since I was In high school. I programmed my first text adventure game in Basic on an Apple IIe, based off the adventures of Ulysses as an English project. It wasn’t until I went into law school that I started professional game development. While studying for my degree, I did 3D art for Star Reach by Interplay, and 2D sprite work for Way of the Warrior by Naughty Dog. By then, I was hooked. I graduated from law school and started my first gaming company before moving on to Blizzard where I worked on Starcraft, Broodwar, Warcraft Adventures, Starcraft 64, Diablo 2 and World of Warcraft.
I don’t recommend following my path into game development. There are much easier ways today. Part of what I’m doing with League For Gamers is trying to help a new generation of game developers get started. We have the Developer Learning Center, which is an LFG website group and YouTube channel dedicated to training materials and answering questions. The forum is run by developer, Jennifer Dawe, and I’m on there regularly answering questions. Fostering innovation is important for the industry, and the new ideas come from new developers.
What is the purpose of League for Gamers? And what plans do you have for LFG in the future?
Are you upset about Capcom censoring Street Fighter V? Are you annoyed that DOAX 3 isn’t going to ship here in the West? Are you fed up with lawmakers trying to ban games? Do you miss having a place where you had real freedom of speech to talk about games? Do you wish you had the power to change these things? League for Gamers is your vehicle to do that. To use a loose analogy, we’re like the NRA, but for gamers. We’ll go to bat for you, contact press, contact publishers, contact lawmakers, and we represent the gamers’ interests free of any publisher or press influence. All we need is you to sign up for free and be counted, and to participate in our growing community of over 4000 gamers on our freedom of speech social platform at www.leagueforgamers.com
Our website is a social media platform that focuses on gamer’s freedom of speech. It lets you start groups and combine features from both Reddit and Twitter to create a place where you can be free to talk about games without heavy-handed moderation. But of course, the website is just a gathering place. The true purpose of LFG is to advocate for gamers to developers, publishers, press and lawmakers. However, to do that, we need strength in numbers. We need enough members to say, “hey, we’re a significant portion of gaming, and we want to be heard.” So that’s why we are in the middle of a membership drive right now. Membership if free, and gives you access to post on the site, and counts your name as part of our growing roster of gamers that we can take to publishers and lawmakers to make a difference.
We’re only in alpha right now, so some features are missing, and we’re just getting started with our advocacy. The first thing we’ve taken on is reaching out to Japanese press and publishers to let them know we welcome their games in the west, and that we want them as unfiltered as possible. We want to experience games as they do, that this is a competitive advantage for them, to be different from Western games. We’re pitching a story to a major Japanese press site right now, and when the new year starts I’ll be using my contacts with Square-Enix and other publishers to see if we can get them to open a channel with LFG. However, for that to be successful, we need gamers to sign on board and give us the numbers, we need to change things or at least be heard.
In the future, you can expect more expansion of our gamer social media platform, advocacy and starting a volunteer game research group. We’ll be finishing up replies, image posting, and moving on to tools that will let you easily send letters to lawmakers or deliver feedback to publishers. We’re all volunteers, so we do this on our own time, but we’ve been making steady progress all year.
Which of your games are you the most proud of and why?
The original Starcraft is probably my most favorite project. While I loved WoW, there was something magical about helping to make Starcraft. I think it has stood the test of time better than WoW, which has had to change dramatically over the years to the point where I hardly recognize it. However, Starcraft…Starcraft feels like the “chess” of the RTS world in its timelessness. It was also an extremely fun project to work on, despite brutal crunch hours. Even with all the work it was the closest I’ve felt working in a team together.
Whatever happened to your “retro sandbox VR-MMO for Oculus Rift” game? (Voxelnauts). You know, the “Indie studio developing a retro sandbox VR-MMO for Oculus Rift. Taking inspiration from Minecraft,Terraria, Starbound and games from the 80s and 90s.”?
I’m not sure. I was getting busier with League For Gamers and handed off the company to my CTO and investors while I took a break from the gaming. I know they attempted a Kickstarter after that, but I’m not entirely sure what happened since then. I only know that they’ve stopped development. I know the kickstarter was canceled, and that was a major reason why they decided to stop. It’s too bad. I really wanted to see what they would do with a VR MMO with voxels as the basis, but the team is talented and is landing on their feet. That’s the important part.
Did you have a fun time being a producer for Blizzard´s Diablo 2 and StarCraft 64? And if I´m not wrong now, you also worked as a Team Lead for World of Warcraft? What was that like?
I had a lot of fun during my time at Blizzard. Especially when the company was only 150 people, then watching it grow to thousands after we shipped WoW. Being Team Lead on WoW was probably the craziest thing I ever did, and the craziest project we ever attempted at Blizzard. Had we known how difficult, expensive, and stressful it was to make an MMO we may never have done it!
Being a Team Lead for Blizzard’s first MMO was really like being the CEO of a startup. When a company decides to make an MMO, it transforms not just the game development team, but the entire business. You transition from a product based company to a service-based company, which is very different and much larger. I had to lead not only the game development but also help lead on sales, customer support, a whole new GM department, as well as licensing and publishing. It was exhilarating, but honestly too stressful. It wasn’t as fun as say, working on Starcraft.
Blizzard was a pretty magical time for me. We were very close, gaming and creating together. Everybody had an open-door policy, and on WoW. I would regularly have a line out my door of people wanting to discuss the game and its development. Anyone could be heard out, anyone could say this or that sucked without fear of political repercussions. We were only interested in getting the best ideas into the game, and to do that we had to entertain everybody’s feedback to at least hear them out. So yes, a diversity of ideas, and a diversity of cultures.
We worked closely with our Korean office on WoW, visited Korea, learned their gaming habits, talked to developers and gamers out there and trained the team on what we learned. You get real diversity when you get different social and political ideas about games, direct from that culture. I’m leery of hearing about other cultures from people not native to that culture…unless you’ve lived there and grown up in that culture, you’re better off going right to the source. I should know. I grew up overseas in seven or eight different countries and am half Chinese.
Nevertheless, Blizzard was a fantastic environment, given all pros and cons. I hope they’ve retained that open-door, freedom of idea’s environment that made Blizzard games so strong in the past.
What´s your take on the current situation with Team Ninja´s “Dead or Alive Xtreme 3” not coming to the States (nor EU) due to the SJW movement? I would also like to hear what you think about Team Ninja´s comment about the West and today’s Gaming industry?
“We do not bring DOAX3 to the west and won’t have any plan change in the future. Thank you for asking.
Do you know many issues happening in video game industry with regard to how to treat female in video game industry? We do not want to talk those things here. But certainly we have gone through in last year or two to come to our decision. Thank you.” – Team Ninja, via their Facebook page
I’ve read that 60% of the sales of the last DOAX title came from the West. What happened? How could a publisher turn down such an opportunity? As a business, I can only conclude that they felt the backlash would cost them sales. This is not true, not true at all. It is an erroneous assumption, driven by shrill social media pundits that don’t even buy the games they are criticizing and never have.
I think Team Ninja is spot on in one aspect. PC culture and its defenders in mainstream and gaming press are getting games shut down or self-censored, and no serious game artist wants a part of that. What’s tragic is that I see Japanese developers saying these things as if they mean their games won’t sell here in the West. They have and they will. The fact of the matter is that no amount of Internet outrage has ever negatively impacted sales here in the US. GTA is selling great, despite all the efforts to smear it. Stardock’s games are doing well despite a huge (and now proven false) smear campaign against their CEO, Brad Wardell, by Kotaku and others. Even small startup developers, like HuniePot is doing great, even though PC culture tried to shut them down. If anything, the faux outrage has only boosted sales.
Kotaku´s editor Luke Plunkett has been rather aggressive on Twitter as of lately (he trash talked Play-Asia for example), and just recently Luke tweeted out the following about you: “a few people I know and like follow mark “human garbage” kern on twitter, which is a bit sad”. I did ask Plunkett upfront what he meant by that, and what you had done to deserve such a foul comment. However, he never responded back to me. So do you have any idea why Plunkett was pissed-off at you?
I don’t know Luke Plunkett, and as far as I know, we have never met or spoken with each other. I do believe we are politically at different ends of the spectrum. I believe in journalistic responsibility in-game journalism, he does not think it matters in games. I believe in creative freedom for game developers, and Luke wants to see more control over what developers can and can’t publish.
I believe this is the source of his antagonism, which is unfortunate. I didn’t think it was very professional of him, as a game-journalist, to be personally insulting developers like myself over a difference in-game politics. Hostile activist journalists are a huge problem to both gamers and game developers. As It´s having a really negative impact on our industry when the reporting is so skewed. I believe Luke, and reporters like him have set back gaming image by decades, and LFG is trying to rebuild that positivity in the hobby.
Just recently you tweeted out the following message:
“This movement to censor games or exclude them from this country really reminds me of Prohibition, part of the progressive movement in 1920s”
Was that a response to the PC bro and SJW movement and the current state with censorship in the games industry?
Absolutely. We live in a time where we aren’t as free to say things or create things in games as we were even five years ago. To me, that’s regressive and damaging to the creative freedom of developers. Obsidian was forced to remove a joke from their game based on highly tenuous accusation of transphobia. You have Lionhead being forced to take down a tweet about Octoberfest because it displayed a buxom medieval serving wench from their game. And now you have Japanese publishers openly saying that they are not brining games like DOA Xtreme 3 to the United States because of what they see as American puritanical attitudes and adverse reactions to their creations. You have Street Fighter V being forced to remove “anything offensive” and we even have paper and pen RPGs being attacked, like Monte Cooke’s Numenera for being vaguely mysoginistic.
People tend to focus on what is being censored, as if to dismiss the issue because these are “small slights” and corrections. Nevertheless, this is how it starts. It starts with a harmless edit here or there, a joke or a butt-slap. However, it ends up being far worse later. Because if a joke or a butt-slap is a problem, then much more controversial issues, issues worthy of exploring through the medium of games, are going to be censored with the justification of “this was a lot more serious than a joke, and we’ve censored those before.”
Opponents of free expression in games tend to say they are not forcing anything, that these decisions are being undertaken by creators. Yes, they are, but under duress. These are not the unfiltered creative expressions of developers. The version you are seeing is not their creative expression, it is what they were forced to edit or remove for fear of economic damage or reputation damage. When you accidentally show too much cleavage in a game today, these opponents are very quick to drop the misogynist keyword, call your employer, and jump right to accusing you of being some kind of MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) in an effort to get you to change your creation.
There is no balance between perceived slight and response here. If you make a mistake, if you offend the wrong person, no matter if you intended to or not (as these people like to point out that intent doesn’t matter), you will be punished to the maximum that these people are capable of on social media and the activist gaming press. Boobs can cost you your job. How do you think it feels to be a creator in these times? Are you really free to express yourself, or are you watching over your own shoulder, second guessing your decisions all the way, only to trip some invisible line of offense by accident that costs you your job?
League for Gamers is adamantly in favor of a developer’s freedom of expression. Artist should be allowed to create without fear and to take creative risks…to challenge norms and conventional thinking…no matter what their politics. Responses to these acts are valid as free speech, but should be proportional to what is being said. There is no reason to threaten someone with a firing, as in the Lionhead example, because they accidentally showed enough cleavage to offend somebody, somewhere. There is no rule book with skirt hemlines and cleavage indicators to show what’s safe and what’s not, and its ridiculous to even go there.
We haven’t checked hemlines on bathing suits since the 1920’s. And yet, here we are again. This is why I liken it to Prohibition, and also why I think we will ultimately look back at these times and call them what they are: a moral panic.
Which games have you enjoyed the most this year? And which upcoming games are you excited about? And why?
I played a lot of Terraria and Starbound this past year, as well as Cities: Skylines, Destiny, Mad Max, Fallout 4 and Yakuza Zero. I find myself drawn more to open games than railroad action shooters. To be honest, I’ve been taking a break from gaming and focusing on LFG and my new pen and paper startup. It’s been a busy year, but next year I’m looking forward to more quality game time.
Not so long ago we had the chance to interview Ken Levine, and he pointed out that freedom of speech and artistic freedom is just as important in the world of games, as It is in the real world (so did American McGee). That´s why I would like to ask you the following question. What can be done about those (SJWs) who tries to force compromises up on developers? (like in the case with “DOAX3” and “Street Fighter 5” for example). And do you have any advice for new developers who might hold back on their creative freedom, because they’re afraid of backlashes?
My advice differs depending on who I’m addressing and what they do. If you are an individual developer at a game company, I understand you can’t say anything publicly. I understand that the threats of SJWs online are very real and can cost you your job. However, you can still push internally at your company. Make clear that creative vision matters, and that to protect essential elements of the game, it’s necessary to resist even small changes that are demanded by whim, from people who don’t buy your products in the first place.
If you lead a studio, take a page from the Beach Body Ready ad campaign in the UK and say “Sorry, we disagree, and we defend the right of our developers to creative freedom.” It sends a clear message to gamers that you believe in your game, and gamers will respond by believing in you and buying your product. Don’t adopt a strategy of appeasement, because we’ve seen that these critics won’t stop lambasting your brand even if you do (see Blizzard and Overwatch controversies). Not only will your sales be fine, but gamers will love you for it, and developers will love that you have their back.
And finally, sign up for LFG and start a group for your company there. You’ll find some of the most die-hard fans on LFG and it’s a great way to start and open and transparent connection with gamers.
You can reach Mark Kern on @Grummz or @league4gamers on Twitter.
Robin “V-Act” Ek
The Gaming Ground
More by Robin Ek:
Save 3$ with our Play-Asia coupon code "thegg"