Interview: Rob Auten - CEO Hexagram

Exploring game narratives, immersive play, toys, video games with Rob Auten, CEO of Hexagram

Interview: Rob Auten - CEO Hexagram

Rob Auten is a video game writer whose writing credits include Gears of War: Judgment (cowritten with Tom Bissell) as well as titles like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. He is also the CEO and co-founder of Hexagram, an immersive “ambient experience” studio focused on immersive game experiences that blend reality and fiction in innovative ways. I caught up with Rob after a trip home to Dubai where he is currently based. We discussed his youth, his interest in narrative, toys, play, video games, VR, managing a studio and narrative.

Podcast Discussion / Full AI Based Transcription Below.

@5 Min - Childhood / College Experiences

@21 Min: Shifting into Hollywood / Music Video Production

@27: Shifting into Video Game Writing / Gears of War

@32: The Writer’s Room Experience

@38: Narrative Structures of Game Design

@44: Narrative Game Rails / Narrative Mechanics

@52: Writing the Kilo Squad: The Survivor's Log

@56: Dubai Mall Gear of War Laser Tag

@58: Why did you start Hexagram?

@59 Cadillac Immersive Installation

@1:02: Role of Ai in Game Development

@1:10: Discussion on VR

@1:17 Dubai / Remote Work

@1:20 Comparative Game Literature

Rob, I really appreciate your time. I know you've been jet setting the world.

Welcome back to Dubai. You survived New York. Welcome back to your home.

Rob Auten:
Yeah, I know. Its nice to be home. Great trip. Got to see Dennis, which was always a treat. And yeah, did a couple other things as we saw some other friends and yeah, it was wonderful. It was wonderful. And I hear you have relocated on a mostly permanent basis to Honolulu.

I have. Yeah. My partner is Polynesian and our child, we just think it's better for her to live here than at least California. We like it more. It's better for kids.

You know, work is better here and there's just more opportunities than she's from French Polynesia

Rob Auten:
That’s wonderful.

It is. It's just very tiny and small. And here we have kind of the benefits of, you know, international world, but still the benefits of Polynesia. So both are good. And you're not too far.

Rob Auten:
Totally. I look at you, the island girl. Well done.

Yeah, I know. She's very beautiful and very lucky. My daughter is she's doing hula and she's like really tapped into the Hawaiian Polynesian lifestyle now. So it's good. She has her Japanese class and, you know, it's just very multicultural here, which we like and safe and kid friendly. But that's amazing.

Rob, why don't we get into the interview? I have so many questions. I read your essay. I started listening to one of your podcasts that you did about 10 years ago on some show called Rocket Jump. Oh, oh yeah.

Rob Auten:
Yes, yes. Yes, Logan's thing. Yeah. Yeah, I know.

I listened to a lot. I checked out your Twitter feed from like 10 years ago and looked at it all. I was looking at Hexagram’s

Rob Auten:
Lots of cobwebs.

No, no, I think the cobwebs are interesting. I wanted the first question I had before you, one of the interviews were asking you about your go-kart horse farm. And I was curious if you could tell us more about that and how, if anything, that's had a effect on your trajectory. Oh, I don't know about that.

Rob Auten:
I mean, but well, so many, many, many years ago, I grew up on a dirt road in a town called Bedminster, New Jersey and in the backyard, which was ample. It was probably had about five or six acres to ourselves. There was an old barn. There was the remnants of a silo. And my father had, who was not using the property as a horse farm, had decided to convert, you know, with the tractor and I don't know, probably some digging had decided to convert sort of what used to be, I think the main sort of paddock area for the horses into a go-kart track. So there was probably, I don't know, four or five go-karts. And so I've learned how to drive relatively young on dirt with go-karts. And so I think there was, I think one of the other kids or one of my parents' friends had like a kid model.

And so when they would come over, they would bring in a little trailer, like the kid model, so that he and I would take turns riding the go-karts. As to what effect it's had on my career, I can't really specify other than I just, we just had a group retreat in upstate New York with the whole, well, not the whole, but with a lot of the hexagram team.

And apparently my driving scares people.

So that was, I did learn that, I guess I'm so accustomed to kind of windy sort of hilly country narrow roads that some of the other members of the team who are from places like the Midwest where there aren't as many twisty mountainy roads were admitted to being a little bit more than a little uncomfortable with my somewhat cavalier attitude towards taking curves at speed. So I don't know. So it's probably, it probably hasn't helped in the, I have to now make sure that I'm a little bit more gentle with my team when behind the wheel.

When you were driving the go-karts, did you and your friends engage in a world building like in imaginative play, or did you just stay in the reality?

Rob Auten:
To be honest, the, yeah, that's very physical reality. But I mean, so around this piece of property was a couple hundred acres of what are now, what is now Donald Trump's golf course and the town of Webster, New Jersey has become somewhat infamous as sort of the, whatever the summer palace for Trump. And so those forests, which originally belonged to John DeLorean, best known for the car, were just kind of the playground.

And there, you know, I think that was what, that was much more of the sort of like, let's go pretend or play whatever in the woods experience than, you know, the go-kart track was like, you want it to be as in the moment as possible.

And then what kind of play did you guys do? I mean, I'm curious, because I think that might have influenced, I'm just curious where that influence and just game design and game writing originally first started. So you think it's in the forest?

Rob Auten:
Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, yeah, you know, friends would come over and we would run around the woods, climb trees. And I do think, you know, we would play, you know, we would pretend that, you know, one of us was a Jedi and one of us was, you know, Darth Vader or that, you know, we were Robinhood, you know, kind of detective stuff was big.

And you know, and that was the stuff that I was sort of reading and writing at the time, not writing in a serious way, but like writing little stories, like, you know, like kids do, was definitely around the kind of like, well, I would say the fantastical, though not necessarily the fantasy genre. Like, I think other than Lord of the Rings, I never had much of a fantasy, quad fantasy inclination, but I, you know, I loved sci fi and I loved mysteries and, and, you know, it's from Sherlock Holmes to Encyclopedia Brown and all that kind of stuff. So I think those were the, those were the fields where we were playing the most fervently.

And then how old are you, Rob? You're like 40 or something.

Rob Auten:
Yeah, 45 now. No, 44.

Great. So you grew up in a pre-internet, you know, real physical world.

Rob Auten:
Yeah, yeah. No, I first used the internet in, I think 1996 at the New York Public Library. Like we had to drive into, and so, you know, it's about a 45 minute drive from where I grew up into the city. And yeah, a friend of mine went, went into, to research books about the United States presidency for a paper that we had to write.

And then before we go maybe into your high school experience, just, did you go to, I think you, on the podcast, you talked about going to Montessori. I'm curious if you did or not. Maybe I misrecorded.

Rob Auten:
No, I think, I think, I think I was kidding. I just went to the regular local public school. It was nothing, nothing philosophical or attitude at all about it.

Okay. Interesting. Because my daughter goes to a Waldorf school and they are very protective of the childhood state.

And one of the things I was very curious about your essay you sent me, which I'll post as well is that you had a lot about character design. And one of the most interesting things about Waldorf is that all the toys don't have faces. In the Waldorf world.

Rob Auten:
I didn't, I didn't know that.

And the reason obviously is that they want to allow for the child to have more imagination over the, to have kind of a limitlessness over what the toy actually is. Because they think that having this hasn't, okay. No, no, I just, I was curious what you think about that in terms of character design.

Rob Auten:
No, I was just curious. I was surprised that this hasn't been employed in some horror movie. I mean, it seems like it's really, really something that as an adult would probably be pretty creepy. Faceless dolls. I don't know.

I mean, you tell me when you see them, do they, do they stir like, do you see an opportunity space or do you see something vaguely unsettling?

I think it depends on the lens you're looking at it. Maybe because you went to a public school and they're more, that's kind of a more institutional experience. I would imagine it more to be a horror, but in the Waldorf world, they're so already kind of in a fantasy cult land already. So I, and then it's interesting because my sister goes to Montessori. She owns a Montessori school. She's a teacher and an administrator and whatnot. And in Montessori, they consider everything called the work.

So I thought it'd be interesting to discuss the, just the different educational model and how they kind of encourage play. And I was curious what you think about just, there's a lot of talk now in terms of play in school and you're like a professional play designer. So I'm curious what you think about play just as a general sense for kids, adults.

Rob Auten:
Yeah. So the thing that I've learned, the thing that I've learned is with kids, I mean, I don't have a kid or any kids. And so what I've learned from watching friends go through that experience is that as designers, it's incredibly difficult to anticipate what's going to pull any particular child. And even things like, even though we play test and even though we test or focus groups or whatever it is, the sort of rubric around, like, by putting kids into that sort of that moment where this, you're in this empty room with a big mirror and we want you to play with this toy, that the way that kids will perform in that kind of environment, they know essentially that they're theater and that they're play acting a scenario for the benefit of the grownups around them. And so I guess, so I don't really, like, you'd have to really talk to an educator, I think.

I think your sister would be a far better person to answer that question than I just because I don't have a lot of experience with the way that particularly young kids truly play other than some memory of having done so myself, which was very much inspired by like a lot of it, I mean, was indoors too.

I mean, a lot of it was being outside and running around and mom would tell us to go run around the house when we were acting up. And that was a sort of play as punishment, I guess. So yeah, unfortunately, it's not really something that I don't, with kids, I don't think I can speak to with any real authority.

In your essay, you had this great line saying that “Wolverine does not attend many tea parties. “ And I think that just says exactly what you were just talking about how kids, you have no idea what they're going to do with the toy, right? So you design this Wolverine character and then suddenly, you know, my daughter will use it in a who knows how. So I think that's an interesting thing.

Rob Auten:
Oh, yeah. I know all the time that's spent into like making the claws extend, you know, having a cool sound come out of it, but none of that will be as important as the fact that Wolverine is filling an empty seat in somebody's hypothetical tea party for sure.

So I think going back to the Waldorf thing, I think they're very interested in keeping kind of established narrative out of the child's mind to allow the child to really have its own fluidity and creative story making and literacy and child play. They think that the narratives outside, you know, in the real world affect and fix the child's creative play. So I'm curious if you think, I'm curious where you think play as an adult. I have a friend who says every year of school, they chip away your personality and kind of form you into a block, right? You start as this beautiful diamond and each year they just layer away your creative abilities.

I'm curious how you think your concept is like

Rob Auten:
Your friend sounds like a frustrated creative person.

I'm curious. How do you maintain your play? I mean, I know you personally, you seem very happy and go lucky.

So I'm just what happens to some people that they lose that ability to play or just enjoy life?

Rob Auten:
I don't. Yeah, I mean, I think I think it's a choice really. I mean, well, I mean, that's not necessarily fair, actually. I mean, there's a lot of reasons why.

First of all, I think that deep down, most people somewhere in them want to have a good time, right? They don't want to sit silently in retrenching past failures. They don't want to just stare at the ceiling and wish for the whole world to go away. I mean, that's not what people want to do. And there's a lot of reasons why a person could end up in a situation where they feel like they have lost the capability to play. And most of those reasons are typically very sad or what from an external perspective we might think of as being like, oh, something happened to this person and they've lost their ability to feel joy or that ability has been dulled. And again, it's all perspective and maybe they're super happy just plotting revenge night after night in their minds.

But for most people, that's not the inclination.

That's not the way that our minds seem to fortunately seem to naturally drift. So I think it's somewhat fair to say that within in sort of like the ur brain, in our lizard brain or whatever it is, we have both the capability and we have the capability for a wide range of emotions. Within them is a sensation that's called fun. And we have associations with that feeling like time compression, as they say, and physical reactions like laughter. And so I think that's all for the most part inherent. And so I don't personally feel that, yeah, that like the sort of another brick in the wall sort of scenario that you were describing from your friend is true because I've never personally felt that way.

I mean, and some of that may be because I was really lucky and I went to a nice little public school with good teachers and great like my friends in my class were funny and smart and wanted to do cool things. And so like I had a fairly fortunate, I think, scenario just that's all just a bunch of invisible die being rolled somewhere. I just got lucky, I think.

And so to me, I never felt like sort of the massive weight of societal oppression on my shoulders telling me that I had to take a middle management job. And I don't know what Lord knows what. So yeah, so I think that for those who have had to make those decisions, even then, I don't think that it dulls the capability for self-expression, for participating in kind of game-like behaviors. I mean, it doesn't mean that you have to play video games per se. It doesn't mean you have to play parcheasy. It just could be singing along at a concert. I mean, or even just doing stuff by yourself. I mean, like driving a little too fast over curvy roads. That was certainly a lot of fun when we were in high school and looking back, it was a terrible idea. But I mean, that was play. And it was sort of testing yourself as opposed to kind of it was anti-social behavior, really. So yeah, I don't know.

I mean, I think that the capability is inherent. I think that it's fortunately there for most people. I think it is as a default, I think we are much better off as a society that our brains are wired to allow us to have fun and allow us to like we get chemical and all kinds of other stimulus from joyful behaviors. And so, you know, I mean, to your friend, I mean, you know, all I can say is, I'm sorry, you feel that way, man. But I bet your friend, especially given I know, you know, like you have a tendency to surround yourself with like this with really ebullient people. So I know that I know you're probably the thief down your friend. It's not as much of a curmudgeon as that one quote may make him sound.

No, I think he's trying to battle all the curmudgeon effects that he had in, you know, school. And then he got kind of goes the opposite route, trying to have all kinds of extreme sports and, you know, going. So he's definitely channeled it just it's just interesting when you have kids to really see how they naturally have this incredible imaginative power. And it seems like kids lose it as they get older. At least the exterior presentation of that.

Rob Auten:
So yeah, well, it may be that we switch from kind of more of a, you know, especially if you're doing some of this sort of more right brain favoring elementary school programs. I mean, it is probably true that that like the, you know, the reading, writing, arithmetic world, there isn't, you know, there isn't a place there traditionally for I mean, there's I guess there's art.

But I mean, even that's so sort of standardized. I mean, that's sort of like, OK, today we're going to do X. It's not I mean, rarely, I think in a sort of a government, you know, related school, is it sort of like, cool, today we're going to do whatever you want. So I mean, it is possible. I mean, it's fair to say, I think.

But I think also, I mean, within each of those disciplines, for those who care to look for it, I think there is space for self-expression.

I mean, certainly, like I played a lot of music, you know, through high school and even into college a bit. That was fun. And, you know, and that set me on a journey of like, you know, opened up my ears, so to speak, to listening to a lot of different kinds of music that, you know, that probably I wouldn't have discovered had I not played music and sort of actually been interested in, you know, the the outer limits of the music that I was playing and for things like jazz and stuff like that.

Rob, where did you go to college? What did you study?

Rob Auten:
I studied I studied English and then I had a minor in neuroscience.

Nice. And how did you channel that into a career in, I guess, game design or game writing and kind of world?

Rob Auten:
Well, that story that story is a little bit more of a series of, you know, fortunate events, I guess you could say before one more call and attention question.

Was it more focused on creative writing or more on literature and analysis?

Rob Auten:
I wrote a I wrote a thesis at the end of it all, I wrote a thesis on that was almost more of a comparative literature thesis, I guess, but it was looking at the the trope of the Tower of Babel and the ways in which it serves as a symbol for this kind of idea of a quest for a perfect language and the notion that there was a perfect language that has been lost and then through the ensuing centuries, there have been many often well-intentioned but occasionally comic attempts to rekindle that that experience of all language being blind or sort of removing that gap between sort of the word and the thing that it represents. And I just thought it was a really fun topic. I mean, and just an interesting kind of lens through which to look through the history of language.

So it ended up I mean, certainly I used literature, the references, you know, and tropes from literature in the thesis, but I also, you know, work in a lot of philosophy and kind of the kind of the complex sort of crowd.

So how did you translate that into then I'm curious how that then jumped into kind of a more creative writing experience?

Rob Auten:
Yeah, I mean, I took a creative writing class, but I also was one of those things that in my own mind, it was like, if I'm just if I want to do that, I'm going to just I mean, I had a wonderful teacher in the creative class, but like, it just didn't seem to me, I didn't see it as an undergraduate. You know, it didn't seem like the place to explore college in general just didn't seem like a place to explore, like sort of like, was I going to write a novel as a as a, you know, 20, 20 year old, probably not. Because it would, you know, doing so would be at the expense of everything else that I was going to do.

And if I had wanted to write a novel or something like that, I probably would, you know, gone for an MFA somewhere. And had that been the sole focus, but I didn't do that. So I wasn't terribly pulled in that direction.

So then how did I'm curious, tell me more about this random journey into, I guess, game design, video games and toys and all that.

Rob Auten:
Yeah, what happened with me. So I ended up getting through a friend in college, sort of a I don't like it. Internship is a strong word.

I mean, I was I was basically assisting this, this guy named Mark Webb, who's the film director in LA who was who had been directing a bit had started as an editor, had been cutting his own stuff and he got so busy and he needed help doing some of the bare bones elements of music video editing, which is things like, you know, just basically watching the four hours of or just sort of, you know, sitting there as the four hours of tape goes into a hard drive that then you can use on this was an avid at the time. So you have the tape to sort of gets played and watching and make sure that process goes OK. Watching the footage to see where there are some cool moments, maybe doing a little bit of highlighting and putting markers down on some of those moments so somebody else would be able to come by and look at them later.

And yeah, and you know, and then sort of like making sure that at the end we got like the, you know, the when you hit play that, you know, there were no missing frames or beeping noises or whatever else. And so so I kind of yes. So I mean, so I was and then eventually I, you know, worked with a bunch of other people just where I kind of learned enough to where I was able to start editing myself and did that for a while. And and that to me, especially at the time, it was sort of the end of the era of like, like when I started working in music videos, the budgets were like a half a million dollars or more for big ones.

By the time I finished working in music videos, the budgets were like fifty thousand dollars or less for most of them. So it was it was interesting to watch sort of the way that the technology like think tools like Final Cut, just the prevalence of DV, the way that all that stuff came together and began this sort of race to the bottom where, you know, you would have a couple of people in a garage for, you know, four weeks churn out a really beautiful animated video that looked like it cost two hundred fifty thousand dollars, but actually cost twenty five thousand dollars. And then, you know, the record companies would come back and be like, cool, can we can what can we get for fifteen? You know, and that was still plenty of money for two people or whatever, more or less.

And so, you know, they would take it because it was all the idea was it was sort of, you know, you got more clout, you got signed by a production company, you got bigger budgets and it just it just didn't really work out that way because, I mean, you know, the tech was making these tools so much more accessible to people, you know, things mean YouTube was still a couple of years out. This is probably around like two thousand three to, you know, six and actually two thousand one to six. Yeah. So, you know, some the tool was becoming easier to create a distributed video on through digital platforms than, you know, there are some of these people made it and either started businesses or became directors and make cool stuff. Mark, for example, made a whole bunch of movies and TV shows and, you know, has done really well. But a lot of the people who were in or around the same stuff that I was doing, you know, still working as designers, still working as you know, still working in this world.

But you didn't not everybody kind of got to be the next, you know, whoever the big director acts the next David Fincher, I guess that would I think that's probably around that time David Fincher directed Madonna videos and then he directed Aliens and seven and was like, bam,, that was I think that was what everybody was like, cool, you know, put your nose to the grindstone long enough that you can be David Fincher. That would definitely be the the ring that everybody was reaching for. And then I got involved just totally randomly through that world through a director that I would have worked with, pulled me to the company Marco Brambilla, pulled me into a meeting with a small French video game company that I had never heard of called Ubisoft. And I hadn't played games for a while.

I played games growing up, but I hadn't played games for a while since, like probably around mid high school, I slowed down on playing games and hadn't really played in college. And so invited me to this meeting and we ended up getting a contract to do cinematics for an upcoming Tom Clancy shooter called Rainbow Six. So that was, you know, and three days later, I was on a plane to New York.

We did all the animation with a company called Psyop, who at the time had just moved into a pretty big office in the Lower East Side. They were doing well.

And so I sort of learned about games by working on the parts of the game that you don't play. And then in the meantime, kind of picking back up, like I bought an Xbox, I bought a PS2, I think at the time. And was just playing everything I can get my hands on, especially some of the kind of weirder stuff. I mean, you know, once you've played one first person shooter, you haven't played them all, but you know, there was a lot of other things that were going on at the time, like games like Rez that just were kind of coming out of nowhere. Seeming like from a, you know, they had no real clear antecedent. Well, sure, there's probably something, but things that just seemed, especially you've been playing games for six or seven years. Some of that stuff was just like, or even rhythm games, you know, like the, there was a bongo game, even Guitar Hero, the first Guitar Hero. I was working at Take Two at the time, and it was a day that came out and somebody had pre-ordered it and it was published by this pretty random, it wasn't even really like a video game publisher.

It was sort of like a mail order service that sort of akin to Netflix or games, I think, if I remember correctly, the published Guitar Hero.

And we were just fascinated by the idea of like using this crazy controller to play a game.

And then suddenly it was a massive hit that nobody expected. I mean, that's why they, you know, maybe to the point where these guys, Harmonix had to publish it with this, you know, non-traditional publishing partner, because everybody said no to them because they never thought it would ever take off. And then boom, there it was.

So that, so I started working on the non-playable parts of the games and then eventually made my way into working on, you know, working with narrative designers and working on the narratives for other games.

And that's when I learned a lot or started, you know, kind of really paying attention to the design documents and how people were structuring things and how people were thinking about things in this kind of AAA, big, you know, $70, $60 game world.

And that's what, is that when you started getting into the Gears of War series or was that earlier than that?

Rob Auten:
I guess that... Well, yeah. So, so basically I, yeah, I had met, I had met a fellow named Tom Bissell at GDC when, you know, I forget, gosh, I don't remember what year it was. And he had just finished or was about to, was finishing a draft of a book called Extra Lives that he wrote about his relationship to games and some, you know, featuring some game creators and a series of essays about, about games. And, you know, at the time I knew a little bit about how games were made. Tom knew probably he would say next to nothing about how games were made, but we both were playing a lot.

And I think in part because, you know, I had, I had, like Tom has a very, like he had a very established literary background. Like he worked at a publisher. He, you know, he wrote, he wrote articles and he did the things that you, that you do to become a writer. And I had done this kind of toffee turvy path of having had all these kinds of, you know, I was a music video editor, but, you know, but we had, we shared a lot of taste and we should, we always shared a lot in games.

We shared a lot in fiction. We shared a lot in journalism. And you know, he'd recommend me great stuff. And I mean, we had, yeah, we became pretty good friends pretty quickly.

And so he had finished this book and he, you know, he had made all these contacts in the industry and the process of writing this book. And we kind of, you know, we made friends and we kind of came up with this sort of hooky idea that we would just use my, you know, credit or two and Tom's, you know, in or, you know, access to some of these people to see if we could maybe get a gig working on a game.

And so Tom had written a pretty lengthy article in the New Yorker about Epic games and had great contacts there.

And so we, we, you know, sent an email over and I think the reply was sort of like, really?

Like, are you kidding?

Like, this is like, this isn't what you do. And I think they thought it was, you know, like the dude who wrote the article for the New Yorker wants to write one of our games.

Like, isn't that beneath them?

And so they said, cool. Okay.

Well, you know, as it happens, we're, we're sending some, we're sending like a brief out to some people to potentially, you know, it's sort of a writing test to sort of work on our next title.

And, you know, so they gave us a little scenario and we sat down, we wrote some scenes and we won the writing test.

And so they said, okay, like, if you're sure you want to do this, you and your buddy, me, can write, you know, what became Gears of War Judgment. Yeah. And so we flew out to Cary and met everybody and basically spent, oh gosh, I don't know, two plus years, give or take, where, you know, we were, at least one of us was there almost always a week a year, a week a month. And yeah, got to know a lot of really great people there and got to kind of see the beginnings of what is now Fortnite. And yeah, it was a really, it was a really interesting time. And, you know, that, that company's obviously had quite, quite a decade. And we were kind of there at the beginning of that.

Rob, as the writers, what was the relationship with the creative directors or the art directors? Was that kind of symbiotic or I'm just curious how that...

Rob Auten:
So we worked with a couple of different creative leads there. I mean, all of them, I think we had pretty much great times working with, great relationships with. And I mean, essentially, the relationship was pretty simple because it would be the, well, we did both gears that I worked on. We pretty much started at the very, we started with nothing. And so we spent a lot of time in room, just in meetings, talking about like what the game could be.

And so there was a version of Judgment that was actually going to be a series of sort of short stories that would be told around a campfire. And it would just sort of be like, you know, four levels or whatever, probably more, but you know, some, whatever.

So it was a number of hours of gameplay, but then it would come back and that sort of that little tale would end and you'd go to the next person and they would say, oh, yeah, you'd think that was crazy. Well, you know, let me tell you what happened to me on, you know, emergency day.

And then boom, you go into that story.

We ended up doing something that was a little bit like that, but not exactly.

I mean, you know, it was through this whole process of kind of talking it out. And, you know, everybody, like with games, there's a couple of different, there's like what I want to play. There's this version in, in, you know, everybody's head of who the audience is. There's like, this is sort of, there's this sort of like, I don't know, there's just this blank slate.

Really? There's this, there's this thing with eyes and eyes and legs that represents the player. There's also sort of things like what's right for the franchise. And there's things like strategically, what makes sense, you know, doing something like,

if we had made judgment, a free to play shooter, that would have been super fashioned forward at the time that we chose to do it. And of course we didn't, but I mean, that, that could have been, you know, that could have been an amazing business, you know, from a business strategy perspective, that could have been an amazing decision, but we'll never know because that's not the way that it went. So there's, yeah, it's, it's, it's really just about like kind of like being in a writer's room.

I mean, when it's good, it's like being in a writer's room when it's bad, somebody hands you like essentially an outline and says, please write compelling heartfelt characters here and, and then, you know, leaves the room and locks the door behind them until you've done your job.

So it's, but the gears experience in particular was really great.

It's interesting because I always think the, the most famous characters I think of a Nintendo or, you know, Metal Gear Solid, they have a very strong kind of director, writer, creative director. So I almost think they're like, yeah, they've become like the, I guess, the dictator of the world.

Rob Auten:
And they, they, I don't know if they have a writer's room. So it's interesting to see how collaborative your process was. So I think, I don't know what it's like to work for either Miyamoto or Kojima, but I suspect, I suspect that Nintendo in particular, I suspect, though I do not know, is a far more collaborative place. I mean, and, you know, Kojima is the only person in pretty much the games industry who gets his name on the box, right? He's really, he's really gotten himself into a pretty impressive position. But most games are by and large, certainly a collaborative medium.

No question about that.

A hundred, like, you know, more so even than like most film sets, because especially, especially when you're doing like shorter stuff, like, like on a commercial or music videos shoot where I have more experience than sort of the marathon of feature filmmaking, the director is the guy or the girl or the person or whoever, you know, the director is the boss because you're only gonna be here for two days and you need to get stuff done fast. And so that person is holding the wheel. That train is going down the track. And so games are, you know, two, three years to more to make a game. Can be a team of, I mean, some stuff we've worked on over 200 people, I think have touched in various capabilities easily. So there's always somebody who's got that job of creative director, but really they're almost more like a basketball coach for a team of people that are all the other disciplines where they're just trying to, you know, get them all to make sure that, you know, that the ball goes in the hoop on the right side of the field. It is a little bit more like that kind of dynamic.

I mean, some people, you know, obviously say, oh, the general, but it's not like, it's not, there's no enemy. I mean, the enemies on we, you know, the enemies to sort of like morale. It's more about kind of, you know, finding ways to let people see bright, shiny objects every couple of weeks.

So they know that they're on the road towards, you know, making something that's hopefully people are going to want to play it, that's going to be received and seen as being worth the time that was put into it. That's the, I think that's the real, you know, the real thing.

I mean, there's a lot more games that just go away in the middle of production than there are films that, you know, halfway through everybody goes like, you know what, maybe this wasn't such a great idea.

Like the games are, you know, a very different medium in that way.

Rob, when you returned back to video games, you know, when you first got the opportunity at, I think it was Take Five, you said, or the rainbow Clancy, Tom Clancy game, what was your feeling? I mean, you were in this literature world that's kind of high art and then you entered the video game, just maybe on a personal level. How did you feel about video games at that time? Were you kind of a-

Rob Auten:
I just saw, so in the, in the time, like in the six years or so that I wasn't playing video games and that's probably, let's say 1994 to 2000 or so. Things like real time physics got much more standardized. Real time lighting became much more, you know, much more possible or, you know, you see it more.

Open world games, like, you know, when I got back to the video games, I'm pretty sure it was right around the time the Grand Theft Auto 3 came out and it was like, whoa, this is, this is different. You know, this is news. So, yeah, so I, you know, I kind of like the grip and winkle. I went to sleep in a world where the most complicated from a 3D perspective thing that I would maybe be playing would be something like a flight simulator and then woke up in the world of GTA and Splinter Cell and, you know, and all of these and Halo, which were just totally night and day compared to what I had imagined a video game was going to be, you know, in the six or seven years prior when I just hadn't stopped playing as much. So I saw massive amounts of potential both through the industry, for the creators. I mean, just, I just, and just as somebody who's interested in, I don't know, toys, I guess, I mean, maybe, maybe that's inherent, but I was like, this is, this really feels like the future. So I was, it was fun because I had kind of like left the music video world working on kind of like the more technical side of it.

Like I was doing a lot of stuff with green screen and animation and early CG or 3D CG and not that early, but relatively early for at least on a, on like a kind of consumer platform, like you could buy a Mac and you can run Maya on it and put some Maya object into a, into a video in After Effects. And suddenly you had like a 3D object and you're talking to your, your star and that was, that when you just do that in your house, that was insane at the time. And so, I mean, so I kind of gravitated towards the more technical side of that world and also to help me distinguish myself from the many, many, many other editors who were out there and entering the industry, you know, with whom I was competing.

And so then, you know, with games, it just sort of seemed like, okay, cool.

Like let's try to learn this language and see what I can do, you know, to find a little, to find a little space. You know, the openness of the video game potential, does that challenge you or free you?

When you were doing the music videos or even traditional kind of movie stuff, it's a very linear narrative. So I'm curious how you compare that to the, just game design seems so much bigger. You have a whole world, you, everything from the, or not. I'm curious what you think the differences are.

Yeah, I mean, so, so most, most, you know, triple A big budget video games, even now are reducible to something that is essentially a very long screenplay. And then as an appendix to that screenplay, there are a series of moderately complicated Excel or spreadsheets and, you know, and, and so, you know, within that sort of screenplay format, sometimes you will find like, like little instructions, like, you know, if this thing happened before, then read line A instead of line B. But even now, you know, I'm playing,

I started playing God of War last couple of days, which just came out and, you know, so far the first couple of hours are awesome. But I mean, there's no, I haven't hit a point, you know, and I'm two and change hours into the game. I know there is a part of the game coming where sort of the, the world will open up and I'll have the ability to choose like, you know, what section I might want to tackle first or at some point, even then, well, it'll probably be a few more hours at least before I hit that point where it's about what I want to do and not what I'm being essentially told to do. Right. So in every point in the game so far, it's, you know, go find your kid, go battle, not to give anything away, Thor, you know, fight the bear, do this, do that.

I mean, there's not really, other than kind of noodling around in the back looking for little hidden pick me up things, there's not really a lot of choice in there. And that's, this is, you know, as big budgeted game as games get on the, you know, on the other side, there is like GTA, but you know, I think, I think in GTA four towards the end, you had to choose essentially if you were going to save like, I would like your girlfriend or your husband or something like that.

But that was the only like explicit choice in the whole game. And that's, but one can argue that GTA at more or less any point in time, assuming you're not on a mission, you can just kind of go noodle around and do whatever it is that you


And so therefore you're, you know, you are, you are kind of participating in a nonlinear experience, but the narrative of the game itself is still linear. Right. Like if you just go into a, you know, go into a bank and start spraying bullets, that doesn't actually change your story.

Your story is pretty much the story is pretty much always going to be the same for everybody.

And so that's, you know, that's still the paradigm. I mean, and there's a lot of reasons for that. Most of which is the easiest one is economic, which is just like to say, why make three versions of something if most of your audience is only going to see one of them.

Right. And then obviously there are some smaller titles that, you know, typically have a cheaper, lesser cost per minute than in terms of like asset quality, animation quality. Like, you know, there's, there's just, it doesn't necessarily cost as much or there just isn't as much of the game, you know, so it isn't the hundred hour experience that some games are, or even the 40 hour experience that some games are. If you're making a shorter game, you know, with relatively high production value, you that's about choice and about narrative, then you are more inclined to do that.

Cause that's the whole point of the game. Right.

But it's largely only, there aren't a lot of situations that I can think of, and I'm

sure someone will prove me wrong where you have like, you know, like what people consider to be like a big video game, like a halo or something where there's a significant amount of like, other than, I guess some role playing games, but there's a significant amount of like actual influence by the player into the narrative of the story. For the most part, the story is the story. And obviously there are exceptions to that role.

In the essay you sent me, you referenced it as the guide rails.

So the player is always on the guide rails.

When you were in the writer's room, is that what you first established? You kind of do the narrative arc and then have the branches that kind of play off that arc, or how do you guys approach it?

Rob Auten:
Yeah, no, no, that's, that's right.

I mean, I think the, you know, with, with Gears, I mean, the, the narrative arc was actually talking about the whole, well, after a certain point, you know, it became a conversation about like, what are the next end number of games going to be? Right? So there was this massive, massive narrative arc. And then it was sort of like, okay, cool.

If this big, big thing that's going to, you know, take nine games or whatever, is the story then, okay, then, then this is act one, this is act two, this is act three of that story and then that means that the story of game number one pretty much has to be X. And obviously those arcs and those wheels within wheels changed over the course of production. And certainly that first story changes that, and, you know, and did change over production. But that's kind of the way that, that they were thinking about it, which I really enjoyed. It was sort of like, okay, let's go super big just so we don't end up in a situation where we're like, okay, why are we like, how do we get it?

How do we get our heroes out of this predicament? So it's like, let's go super, super big.

So we know what the goal is and then zoom in to, you know, medium diopter and figure out the story for the one game and then really get micro on the, you know, the moments and the levels and the individual exchanges within those levels. And again, the output of that is pretty much a screenplay. And then, you know, with the, with the tables in the back for things like all the possible things that a character can say and multiplayer when they pick up a health pack and it's like, yeah, I love it.

Like, you know, then there's like, you know, you have to write like a hundred of those are more per character and there are many dozens of characters and many long nights just sort of rambling away into a spreadsheet about, you know, things that you might say picked up. It's like a family feud.

No, I saw you had that one YouTube lecture, I think in Ukraine, you were at a video game and you were talking about how you tried to create an if else if statement protocol for the players. Yeah. Yeah.

Rob Auten:
That's fun. And the engineers just were like, no. So I thought that was hilarious that the engineering department kind of vetoed your.

Yeah, no, that, that got, that got shut down really quick and sort of amusingly, but it was, yeah, that was, yeah, I would just, just to tell the story exactly. The idea was just if, if I need the health pack a lot, I should say something a little bit more exuberant than if I don't need the health pack so much, you know, so if I'm at like 98% pack health and I pick up the health pack, it should be like, oh, okay, I'll patch that up.

You know, like pretty cavalier about polling. Whereas in a 2% health and I pick up a health pack that brings me, restores me to full strength.

I should be like, you know, just absolutely overjoyed.

I mean, and, and it gives the, my thinking was that it gives the actors a little something to, you know, to do as well because they're there. I mean, voice actors in the games industry are, they're all saints. I mean, they just come into these sessions and spend four hours often just destroying their vocal cords, screaming into the void. Just the most random stuff.

And you know, no context or anything.

Rob Auten:
Well, I mean, you know, you picked up a health pack, 80 lines, like, you know, great.

Nice, nice, nice one. Like, you know, it's just like, and you have to do it loud because you have to, you know, it has to like, and you're in battle and you picked up a health pack, you know. And yeah.

And so anything you can do, I think to just give a little bit more context, I think you're going to get better performers, performances rather for the players. I mean, like, you know, I think the actors will have more to chew on. I think that the, the player, you're not going to advertise that you're doing this, but they will subtly make the connection between like, their character is expressing, you know, a higher level of joy and relief when they were almost dead.

And that's kind of now, now you're sort of as the, you know, as the storyteller, it's like, you know, you're, you're there with the player a little bit more, like you're, you know, you're watching their faces, you tell the story and you're getting little bits of, and it might change, like, you know, you speed things up or slow things down or really hang on a detail, but you can become a better storyteller if you're, you and the player are kind of, you know, holding each other's hand and you're guiding them through this story rather than sort of just barking at that, at them with, you know, in a single cadence, which is, I think starting to happen.

Like, I think we're, you know, I know there, I mean, there are other people who have given talks about sort of adaptability of narrative and, and yeah, I mean, there's, you know, there's some interesting work that's being done. There's a guy, Insomniac, who's spoken about a lot. I mean, so it's, it's not like, it's not like this is a lost cause. It's just, it's also a massive amount of work to be done on a game.

And you know, for the writer to kind of stick his head into the engineering room or, you know, bug the producer and sort of say like, oh, I got this great idea.

I mean, it was, it was fairly naive of me to expect that, oh, perfect.

What we'll do is we'll, we'll stop, you know, working on the, like the, the renderer that allows the game to play at 60 frames a second and, you know, put a guy on your kind of like, it's very, very subtle request. So I'm not too, I'm not too grumpy about that.

Is that why you and Tom wrote the companion book, the Krug companion, I think it's called, was that a business decision or kind of a creative one to allow for people to get deeper into the world? Oh, well, no, actually, no, actually that was, that was, I'll tell you what.

Rob Auten:
I'll tell you about that. So I wrote that book because I was working with Tom on another game in LA and I started now in San Francisco. So I was living in LA and kind of commuting up to San Francisco. And I had a friend who was very kind enough where he was kind enough to lend me his apartment because he wasn't, he was out of town for like pretty much all the time. Actually, I think around this time, I think I actually, I think I stayed with your extra, I was kind of bopping around various places, but I think I was in your place for a week or so at one point too.

And then we saw, I was staying with this friend who lived in the Marina, which meant that I had like an hour plus long bus ride to Silicon Valley where EA is. And I got this email saying like, Hey, would you know, do you guys want to write this book?

And Tom was doing 12 things at once. And I think he wasn't as interested.

And I was like, Oh, this will give me something to do on the bus. So yeah, so I ended up writing the book mostly on the shuttle bus from the Marina to Redwood City over the course of about a month or so. And I had never, I mean, it's not, it's probably 70 pages, you know, double spaced in word or something like that, but I had never actually written a book before. So that was really fun.

And yeah, all the people at the publishing company were great. And, you know, and it was, it's obviously a picture book. So it was a little bit more like the process of writing a comic book. It's just that rather than having panels and word bubbles, there were letters. And so, so in each, in each section, there was, I would kind of describe to the artist, you know, a couple of assets from the world that we wanted to try to like, you know, like a baseball card or featuring Coltrane or whatever.

And, and then there would be a letter from one of the characters to his probably already deceased parents, which is a little bit bittersweet with no one calling there. Yeah. So that was, no, that just kind of came up as it was just somebody said, I guess you people would be the right people to do this.

And I was like, if you'll have me, I'd love to give it a shot.

How did the fans respond to that?

Rob Auten:
Do they, I mean, I don't, I mean, like the, you know, some of the, so, you know, when we were, when we were working in gears, there, there are a lot of fans who have done things like build the Wiki, you know, that kind of holds all the record of all the content and stuff like that. And so, I mean, what we tried to do is actually sneak in some of their names and stuff like that as a little wink, wink to thank them for all the help that they had given, occasionally given us, like, you know, I'd contact people over Twitter and just be like, okay, so what exactly happened with Marcus's father or something? And we'd get into, and so we tried to sneak in.

And so, I mean, I think for those fans, I think they liked the book. And in terms, I have no idea how it, how it sold or anything else.

I, you know, there's probably still copies available on Amazon now, which probably means that, you know, they haven't, it may not have exhausted the initial print run, but yeah, I don't know.

I haven't looked at the, I mean, I'm sure it's, you know, I'm sure the people who would buy a book like this are fans of the series. Hopefully there is enough there that they liked it. So I'm, you know, if, you know,

I'm just surprised they haven't passed you with making an amusement park of Gears of War, laser tag or something like that. Just keep building, you know?

Rob Auten:
Yeah, there, there is actually, there is such a thing. So in the Dubai mall, probably four years ago, I saw and took a picture of and sent to Tom with a big smile, a basically exactly what you said.

It was sort of a Gears of War themes, like battle game, like a, like a feeling you put on, you put on essentially a laser tag vest and you got a gun that looked like the chainsaw gun, if I'm not mistaken from the series, and you would run around and shoot photons at your friends.

And I didn't do it, but it looked great. And I didn't even know that existed. And honestly, I'm probably the last person that they would even imagine would be the right guy to build something like that. In addition to being the actual last person that should be building something like that. That's a, that's a big, a lot of, you know, complicated hardware and stuff that has to work relatively well, I think to be worthy of the Gears of War. But they did just announce, I think a film and a TV series as well. So the IP is, maybe we'll run out of those books.

Maybe we'll sell out of those books yet.

Well, that maybe transitions us perfectly, Rob, to you’re in the Dubai mall looking at kind of an extension someone built of your massive world into a small world. Why did you start Hexagram?

Rob Auten:
And I'm curious what made you leave the AAA kind of studio world to start your own thing. Sure. Well, for a while I was trying to do both at the same time. So really what happened with what became Hexagram is I started working with a friend of mine, Patrick Martisano on a story world that we, that he had been developing with some photographers and artists and designers and a writer for some time. And he kind of sent me, we hadn't met in New York through mutual friend, you know, some number of years prior. And he sent me a presentation of like what he was kind of working on.

I was like this and, you know, he was, I think, kind of thinking that it was going to exist as sort of almost like a digital magazine or, you know, like a website that would, you know, have content that updated over time. And he had built some really, really cool sort of demos of like how these, what like a sort of editorial website felt like. But essentially it was this very in-world artifact from the world of the story. And I was like, this is what you're showing me is an alternate reality game, right?

And I think he knew what they were, but I don't think he was thinking of the project in exactly those terms at the time. And so he and I worked together and along with a ton of other really amazing people and fashioned this experience into something that we released much more in a much more sort of what was at the time, this sort of semi-standard ARG format, which is essentially, you know, it's a series of websites and assets that are dropped into various places. And it sort of presupposes that the world of the story that you're experiencing is real, is based in reality. So that initial sort of foray into that world did really well. We had, you know, a lot of like, the numbers are really strong and we then started the company as a way to kind of parlay that audience into something that could be a monetizable product. That took a long time. Like we had a pretty good vision of what we wanted to do.

It just, it was complicated enough that it took a long time to do. So by the time that game came out, I think a lot of the original audience had like, you know, shifted from my grade school to college. It was around that, I think it was five years between the release of the first chapter of the game and the release of the actual app that we did eventually get out the door. And so, you know, and it did like for, it was an iPad exclusive app. And so, you know, through the metrics of what was normal at the time and the iPad was relatively young-ish, we did fine. You know what I mean?

Like it wasn't, we weren't going to, you know, we weren't buying any islands or anything, but like it was enough to kind of keep the company going. And then from there, we started getting a lot of opportunities just to work with really interesting partners on projects that were, you know, we may not have originated the IP, but we were able to kind of use some of the lessons of kind of creating that original game in various different ways.

So Hexagram did start then as a product, you had a specific product, the ARG game, and then it expanded into the studio model, right? Where you're doing consulting or game design for others.

Rob Auten:
Yep, exactly.

What are some of the best, I know you guys did some of the James Cameron, right? And there's some more music videos. What's your favorite kind of Hexagram experience that you guys have created right now or what you're proud of?

Yeah, I mean, most of the ones we can't really talk about. And that's sort of the nature of the business. Some of the more, so I mean, so for example, actually, we just did, there's something that's live now that was really interesting.

And our contribution was relatively small, but it was really fun. And it was a physical installation at a car launch. And it's actually for the new electric Cadillac. And in the actual space, in the world where we showed this, you know, there was a party to launch the car.

There was a whole show that had been plotted out for him to take this lead. And there was this area where if you walk into this sort of dark room, you would see some particles sort of floating on a big, huge, you know, sort of square screen in front of you.

And as somebody walked in, you know, those particles kind of came to life and you'd hear a voice. And it guided you through the process of asking questions about yourself. And then based upon the answers that you gave, that would influence elements of this kind of car that this artwork, sorry, that you were creating. And so in the end, you were shown both a car that had been customized to the things that you said, but then also this kind of glowy, really cool sort of, you know, internal sort of glowing, I don't know, assemblage that you had shaped by answering these questions. And so what was fun for it for us was like, you know, there was a pretty powerful semantic engine like so the so the, you know, for every question that you were asked, like one of the questions was, I think, you know, please describe your personal style. There are, I don't know, 20 or more different categories of answers that you can give. And then for each of those is probably a couple hundred or 100 depends on the category, 100 or so words that fit into those categories.

And so like, so one of the categories might have been eclectic or, you know, one of the one of the personal styles, it could be like something like a classic or modern or elegant. You know, over the top or whatever. And this would all determine and so it's this pretty dense linguistic system. And then then they asked us if we could translate it into five different languages. And that was a really cool challenge to kind of think through, you know, the myriad different ways that you can actually pull something like this off. And then in the end, we got the the actress who did the voiceover, we were able to work with some some really new tech that's pretty exciting slash scary and use the original actor's voice in to get her to speak all five of these languages. And so we you know, we were able to say you can experience this this this, you know, well, now it's in a website. So you some Chinese and Arabic, French, Spanish, English, the deep fake type voicing tools that are out there. Yeah, yeah. But I mean, but I had never seen it where we actually got some.

I mean, so she speaks, you know, Spanish with what I've been told by native Spanish speakers are is a pretty, pretty solid, like accent and, you know, elocution and everything. And that was just like, wow, OK, this is this is stepping into some really exciting stuff.

So it's you know, it's easy to say, sir, the best project was the last project.

But in this case, it was a kind of confluence of a couple new things that were, you know, they're just on the horizon and a couple of things that we really like to do, which is, you know, working with language and working with building a character and giving people a sense of kind of creation and participation in a process.

But talking to AI, what are your where do you see AI playing into a game or toys or where do you feel that? 'm curious what you see the future of that is.

Rob Auten:
I mean, I think we I think we a little bit have to wait and see.

I mean, this I mean, there's a lot of conversations happening in the larger industry right now. I think most of the focus is on is presently on art. Right. I think people are curious, concerned somewhere between the two when they see an AI generating what essentially could be game quality art assets, both in 2D and so sort of like concept art and then also in 3D. I mean, like there are I just saw somebody posted, I think on Twitter, where there was a whole series of like full 3D models of like a spell book, like a sorcerer's, you know, spell books and the wisdom tome that had been entirely created by AI. And so I've also seen a lot of people doing stuff with animation.

And from a couple of years ago, it was sort of more procedurally driven systems that were sort of using machine learning to do things like have wolves wander around uneven terrain. And now I'm seeing some people doing stuff where it's like text animation, like, you know, a man walks down the street and trips over a rock and then, you know, cook, cook, cook, cook, cook, and then suddenly you see like a stick figure or really, you know, any breakable character walking down the street and then boom, there he trips over the rock. And that's going to change the production process, obviously, massively, right? I mean, it's just going to have a huge impact in the way that really all content gets made. So there's that part of it, where it's just, you know, looking at it from production, as a production efficiency or, you know, or, I mean, there's a couple of different ways to look at it. You can, you know, one artist can say, oh, amazing, I can get 10 times as much work done as I could before.

And then the flip side of that is that one studio owner could say, great, now I need 10 times fewer concept artists. And so that's, you know, figuring all that stuff out is going to be going to be tricky and figuring out, I mean, to the extent that it becomes a marketable skill to, you know, get better at working with AI and, you know, there's a whole conversation around prompt authoring, there's obviously a whole conversation around attribution and, you know, the limit or the amount, you know, from which these artworks are based upon the work of other people, which I think, you know, completely didn't concern. So that's happening on one side. In terms of, you know, the stuff that we're more traditionally interested in, there's a lot of similar conversations happening around the generation.

And so, you know, people are playing with the ability to kind of have a character who some or all of whose script may come from a tool like GPT-3. And again, the ways in which you author the prompts of those characters, the way that, you know, the way that you kind of describe the personality is really important in terms of determining what comes out the other side.

It's also a complete black box, right? So you can give the exact same prompt to the system four times in a row. And if the settings are in such a way that it's, you know, a little bit less determined of what it's going to say, you will get four different outputs and sometimes massively different. I mean, sometimes it really, like, it just grabs, you know, a branch and suddenly the tree snaps and you're just flying through the air with no idea where this conversation came from.

So it can be, you know, it's unpredictable. Certainly it's fun. I mean, talk about toy. It's an amazing toy because you can just sort of really quickly set up these somewhat believable characters.

It helps if they're a little broad, of course, these somewhat believable characters and just let them, I mean, you know, we have them talking to each other and they'll, you know, depending on their personality.

And you can make it as simple like, you know, you can just, all you can just add that, you know, that one of the characters is angry and the other is, you know, giddy or something.

And then you'll get a complete list.

The one word on either side will lead to a completely different outcome than you would have if you just said, you know, a guy walks into a bar, right?

It's like an angry guy walks into a bar.

Watch out.

Do you think the chat engines have right now the uncanny Valley problem?

Rob Auten:
So you just don't feel real enough. You still need to, I mean, so there aren't, so, I mean, there's a couple of different variations on these large language model based systems like DVD three of your, it's arguably the best well known, but the past quote unquote chat bot engines haven't really been driven over much, you know, they're all authored.

It's really what the, what's, what's driving, you know, the existing kind of tech is more about sort of natural language understanding and saying like, okay, I think the human is trying to tell me that they are hungry. Right. And that could, that could be, you know, expressed as like, I need a snack or I'm starving or do you have any food? And all of those. And so kind of finding ways to kind of encode quote unquote, those three, you know, very different utterances into, you know, the humans trying to tell me that it's hungry has been kind of, and then, and then having a set answer typically for the output of that. So it's like, okay, humans telling me that it's hungry. I'm going to say, you know, you should probably take a break and have a snack or something like that.

You know, and that's, that character will, every time that somebody says something in the neighborhood of I'm hungry, it'll have, you know, one and you can write a couple more, but those, those responses are all written. So there hasn't been much, you know, natural language generation going on up until the sort of advent of these, these newer LM based tools. I mean, there have been, you know, in the academic world, but they're not as practical and they're not,

What is LM?

Rob Auten:
Oh, LM is large language model.

Got it. Just to, so people going towards the other end, do you have any interest in, I mean, obviously virtual reality, Metaverse, where do you see that kind of affecting game narrative and I'm just curious.

Rob Auten:
Oh, sure. I mean, I, I love VR.

I mean, I, you know, I have a headset here and probably still clock a decent number of hours on a weekly basis, particularly when there's some news, you know, pretty extended. There's seemingly now there's a, among us just came out with a massively popular mobile and PC title just came out in VR and supposedly it's, it's like the experience of the, you know, the game fully in VR and supposedly just really a lot of fun.

Among us was a, if you've ever played the game, werewolf, it's sort of a social game in which it's basically about lying and accusing each other of one another of being. So somebody, basically there's a, there's a group of people, one of them is werewolf.

Nobody knows who it is. The werewolf signals to a sort of, just sort of like a host who they would want to kill in it and when everybody closes their eyes, the werewolf opens his eyes and says, I want to kill, you know, player number two. Everybody closes, the werewolf closes their eyes. The host says player number two is dead. Then everybody has to argue, okay, who's the werewolf?

Clearly not the dead person. And so among us is sort of a variation on that, except that it puts people in a spaceship where they have to wander around and do little tasks and somebody, one of the players of this, you know, six or eight or so people that are, they're in the spaceship trying to do stuff is actually, you know, an imposter, an alien, whatever it is. And you have to kind of sneak up to the person and you kill them.

And then when somebody finds the body, a meeting is called and everybody argues over text message about who did it.

Now that it's VR, that's all shifting to voice. It's all shifting to, you know, you're, you're walking around the virtual ship. And I think this is some of the most interesting stuff about, I mean, to me, the best VR experiences are the ones that really take advantage as much as possible of the fact that you are actually embodied in the space. And so doing things like moving your body or, you know, having to duck things.

Those are the games that are, you know, the ones that in which people look the silliest while they're playing them are always the best because, you know, it's just, that's the advantage that we have over a console is that you can, you can really be there and like, you're really pulling the levers and, you know, or, or, you know, boxing's a massively popular VR sport because it's, it actually, it's a great, it's even a good workout. So it's, it's really interesting to see how, you know, what's kind of working in that space. And I, I think to me, like doing a port like this, where you're taking a top-down game and bringing it into like a fully kind of immersive environment is, is going to be a great harbinger for, for how we actually think about, you know, what makes a great VR experience. It isn't necessarily the same as, you know, isn't like what's popular on a console, you know, for a flat TV screen, isn't necessarily going to transfer over as easily into VR. And so I think we'll find these new kinds of experiences that, that are based around like that are, that are social, that are embodied, that, you know, that are just the kind of do things well that you couldn't do in conventional games. And maybe someday are, you know, kind of closer to actually finding like, for, you know, for people who don't consider themselves gamers, a lot of these more social experiences don't have the intensity or the ferocity that traditional games do that turn a lot of people off, right? Like a lot of people like they're like video games, it's too much, like it's too much noise, too much information, too many buttons. What we're seeing with VR is actually a much simpler in a way interface paradigm because you don't need to have as many buttons because you're just picking up the stuff with your hands and doing it yourself. You don't need to have like a button for pick up this or, you know, detach that. So I think...

It reminds me of like a Nintendo with the Wii Sports, like the simpler becomes the most popular, right?

Rob Auten:
They just... No, exactly. Yeah. Once, once the costs come down and, you know, once, I mean, the thing is, you know, optically

VR isn't for everybody. But it's same thing with like 3D movies, like there's a good chunk of the population who aren't, you know, who don't react well to seeing things in stereo or, you know, or just simply can't.

So there, you know, again, it won't be for everybody all the time, but I do potentially seeing it be, yeah, more like the Wii where it's like you have families, maybe who are remote from one another coming together to play games in VR and to do things in VR. You do get a real sense of presence out of a person. You can see them move their hands as they talk. And that's that kind of stuff. Something to get better. It's now a function of just like, who does everybody want to hang out with? You know, that's the... It has to become ubiquitous enough where, you know, if I wanted to see a friend, I would, you know, oh, cool, you're in VR. I'll jump in.

We haven't hit that point yet. So now a lot of these spaces, and this, you know, kind of extends to the whole Metaverse thing too, a lot of these spaces are pretty empty. And so having to, you know, let people get this feeling of like being part of a community of, you know, strangers, that's a really difficult thing to do. And certainly, you know, things like Second Life have done it in the past with some success. But yeah, what tends to happen is that those communities become a little bit more niche. And you know, they're really just serving a group of people who like this kind of stuff. And so then the people who like this kind of stuff just sort of make friends in these worlds and hang out in these worlds.

Whereas, you know, the goal is really to have a world where everybody feels comfortable. And that's, I think, you know, I think there's a lot of challenges, some of them technical, some of them social, some of them numbers based, like just in terms of ubiquity that still are out there, meaning to be solved.

Rob, on the other end, I think I saw that you worked on an escape room. That's like the other non virtual reality game narrative, or toy narrative. Did you work on a escape room?

Rob Auten:
I think. Kind of. I worked on actually like an escape room in a box. But it's yeah, so it was more like a toy. So it was like a puzzle. Got it.

Well, because yeah, yeah, it's almost like the haunted house experience where you have those.

I think the escape rooms are interesting. It's just, it's like you said, the social and then it takes you away from the real world into a different kind of. Oh, they're great.

Rob Auten:
No, they're, they're, they are a very specific kind of creation.

And I mean, yeah, as close as I got to it was sort of this was sort of this box sort of situation. But I have some friends who have been pretty successful in that world and who are really incredible designers. And when you go and play these rooms, I mean, just the ability to kind of bring narrative and tone and, you know, and puzzles that are often, you know, whose whiskers have whiskers in terms of puzzles. Like, you know what I mean? It's like, it's not about the, I mean, obviously some people make incredible bubbles that are just completely unique.

But most people are doing is really sequencing puzzles that have been more or less around for, you know, for the chess puzzles or whatever, you know, hard puzzles or whatever it is, jigsaw puzzles. It's, and it's just all about the tone and the transitions and the vibe. And when done right, they're just, they're so much fun.

Rob, as we wind down, I'm curious, what is living in the Middle East like as a Westerner and why you're there and how, if anything, that's affecting Hexagram positive. .

Rob Auten:
So I mean, I moved to the Middle East because I met my wife working on a job here and, and we got married a week before the gates went down at the airport, week before COVID really hit. And so, I mean, not to say that I wouldn't be living here anyway, but I mean, we basically, you know, we got married and then within a week, weren't leaving the house. So it just became like, I hadn't really moved, you know, a lot of possessions over here. And so, but, you know, it became home very quickly. And so it's been great. I mean, which is just, I mean, but to be totally honest, I can't with any real definition say that I really know what living in the Middle East is like, just, you know, other than because most of the time that I've been here, I haven't left the house. My wife's great. So that part, that part's good. And in terms of hexagram, I mean, it just basically means that I tend to stay up fairly late and work with the team, get on calls. But you know, again, most of the time everybody's sort of been in the same boat in terms of, you know, just being a box on a screen anyway.

So it hasn't really like, as long as I'm present, it's not really any different for most of the team. And, you know, in doing so, it's kind of affected our hiring as well. So now we've become a lot more remote. And so I don't think that any of that's going to significantly change anytime soon. I think we'll probably continue to work, you know, predominantly as a remote organization, unless something really massive changes.

And then going back to your college career with kind of comparative literature, do you think there's a comparative game literature?

How do you see, I'm just curious when, you know, Japanese versus Russian versus American, is it all part of a similar global homogeneous culture? Or do you see some random country or culture really deviating and creating something weird or different?

Like, I don't know what, are North Koreans making games? You know, China seems to have banned all video games except very simple ones. They don't, they seem terrified of narrative games.

You know, Nintendo and Japan, it just seems, they always make the weirdest grind type games, you know, so I'm curious what you think. Just what is video game comparative literature?

Rob Auten:
Oh, I mean, I think it's, I think it's sort of like, it's sort of like asking the same question about music, right?

I mean, so there are, there are roots, you know, in any medium that are, I think, sort of inherent to culture, you know, so like, for example, like, you know, like Pachinko in Japan, you know, there are probably ways in which that has been a part of the design of, you know, any one of a number of games made in Japan. But you know, and that's just not something that would have probably ever come from somebody who grew up in, you know, in Milwaukee.

So, but also, we're now so much more aware of each other's cultures that I think, you know, that you're certainly able to be, it's much easier to be knowingly or not inspired by like another kind of cultural tradition. And yeah, I mean, I think, so I think, so I think there's sort of, you know, I think everybody has their roots in whatever their experience has been and whatever they've had access to.

And then from there, you know, there certainly are in the same way there are genres of music, like, you know, like rock versus hip hop, you know, people gravitate towards different styles.

And certainly within each of those styles, there are people who, you know, come to those genres with roots in many different traditions. And so, so yeah, I wouldn't I wouldn't necessarily say that, like, that my assumption is that a, you know, that any just because the game is from Japan versus France versus, you know, Scotland, that it's going to have inherently any kind of set characteristics to it. I would probably say that, like, I will say that, like, you know, when I load up a lot of particularly, like, older games made in Japan, like, you can tell they're a Japanese game just because of the fonts that they even the English fonts that they use. I'm like, oh, I'm like, oh, it's such a Japanese game. Look at these fonts. I don't know why. But Japanese developers tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of family of like serif fonts that that you I mean, like, I'm sure you see them in non Japanese games as well. But like, to me, I'm like, oh, yeah, this feels like this feels like a Japanese game made for the Western market because of these fonts. Looking at you Dark Souls, you know, like, so, so there are there are kind of like, traits.

But again, if I saw that font in the game, I'd probably it if it was a Western game, I'd probably say, oh, this is such a Japanese game and be wrong.

Right. So it's not necessarily it's not necessarily that there aren't any any real tells, I would say that, you know, definitively. I mean, for example, like, you know, there was a game that came out last year, the name of which is escaping me that was made. It takes place in like 16th, 17th century Japan that was made by a team based in Seattle. And the game was a big hit in Japan.

I think it was I think people were surprised how popular it was in Japan, because, you know, that that culture and, you know, sort of sense of authenticity is is it is not an easy thing to just kind of, you know, just to kind of pick up and say, like, cool, I got this, I'm going to just walk this one down.

And you know, let's see what people think.

Like, that's a it's a lot of time and energy and research and, you know, having the right team and to be able to do something like that. So, you know, it's certainly certainly. Yeah, I think I think there's no certainty. I guess is what what I'd say.

Rob, for younger people who are maybe interested in the game world, do you recommend a career in game design or not or yes or how should they?

Rob Auten:
Yeah, I mean, I I think it's, you know, I think it's like if it's something that you want to do, you'll know. It's as simple as that.

You get to you get to a little bit the depending on the kind of stuff you work on, you get a little bit be the master of puppets or the, you know, the destroyer of worlds and scratches a certain kind of itch in somebody's personality. You know, you're also you know, if you're doing things like making puzzles and you're you're trying to you're trying to anticipate and maybe imagine yourself as being a little bit more, you know, you have to go on. You have to be on top of your audience. You have to be careful, you know, how you release information to them and how you're saying this, you know, same as making a film. It's it's at the end of the day, more about producing. I mean, it's more about producing an emotion in in the participant than it is, you know, being smarter than your audience or anything like that. But you are you are engaged in a conversation with with that person. And the tone of that conversation is yours to set. Now how they feel and how you want them to feel, obviously, you can't there's a lot that you can't control. But I do think you have more of a back and forth relationship with, you know, with your audience as a game designer than you do in just about any other medium out there. So if that's if that's of interest and hopefully, you know, this leads to like, you know, increasing empathy becoming a key, a key and sort of the ability to kind of consider a larger group of people and to be more inclusive to more different types of people in your in your experiences.

I mean, ideally, they will see that that continuous sort of a trend, because I think, you know, at the end of the day, the more people who feel like that they're part of something that they care about, I think, you know, so much the better.

And then, Rob, what's next for Hexagram right now?

Rob Auten:
Well, we'll have to wait and see. Ask me again in six months. Probably have a better answer.

Great, Rob, I really don't want to take more of your time. I really appreciate all your answers. It's a huge world. I think the thing I took most away from is that I like how you call them toys instead of, you know, video games or limiting it to that. And it's just narrative objects is a very interesting concept for people to think about in a bigger world, like everything like from the puzzles to the escape rooms to VR to it's just a very large envelope.

So I think that's optimistic and nice. Instead of people who, you know, get narrowed into Gears of war or something like that, you know, it's a very large world.

Rob Auten:
Yeah, everybody can find their own path. It's a big industry and there's a lot of opportunity.

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