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James Phinney & Motiga - For the Love of the Game

Interviews By William Murphy on December 20, 2013

MMORPG.com: Motiga was founded in 2010. Can you tell us about the studio’s journey over the last three years?  

James Phinney: Through the first part of 2013, I was wrapping up State of Decay over at Undead Labs, so I’ve been here for only part of the journey. What I can say is that Motiga had already put together the core of a fantastic team.

Building the right culture at a company is incredibly important if you’re thinking about long-term success, and that starts with having the right people. I knew a lot of the crew from past work experiences and a few others socially or by reputation. It was clear right from the beginning that this was not only a very talented bunch, but a great group of people to work with.

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MMORPG.com: Even with the new consoles out there, PC gaming remains extremely strong. Can you talk a little about the game landscape right now?

James Phinney: Simply put, it’s a great time to be a gamer. Whether you’re the type to pick up the latest consoles, to focus on mobile, handheld or casual gaming, a serious PC gamer, or some combination or variation of all of them, there are plenty of reasons to spend your time gaming.

Stepping back, it’s been an interesting decade for the industry. Game development’s always been a bit feast or famine, but with MMOs, casual games, and now more serious free-to-play online games, the mega-hits started to bring in so much money that, frankly, the business side of things often intruded on all aspects of game development. Planning meetings could end up focused more on business model and maximizing profit rather than on making the game fun. At times it was a far cry from the days when a small team would get together and just talk about making something they’d love to play.

Times have changed, and I don’t think naked greed is winning overall. PC gaming is one of the areas where fun is king. A few years ago, I think a lot of publishers were ready to write off the PC as a platform, but I’m very happy to see that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. There’s no other realm where the people actually making the game can have such a direct, ongoing relationship with the people playing the game. And the fewer barriers between us, the more that game development can be what it should be: making something people enjoy playing.

MMORPG.com: Motiga has a very clear philosophy on building games. Can you share with us some of the core elements of how your studio approaches game design?

James Phinney: One thing that I’ve always loved about game development is that you can’t kid yourself. Either people enjoy your game or they don’t. Either they want to play more or they don’t. You can’t tell yourself that you’re the expert, and you know it’s fun. Everyone else gets to make that judgment. Your job is to figure out how to fix the parts that aren’t working (and improve the parts that are).

For Motiga, that means a team-wide emphasis on honesty, openness, and collaboration. Even though those sound like simple, happy, friendly ideas, they can actually be a challenge for the people on any team. It’s hard to put yourself out there creatively when you know others may disagree or may criticize your choices. It’s hard to show a work in progress and listen to feedback instead of waiting until you think it’s perfect.

Creating an environment where people feel comfortable voicing their opinions is a conscious choice that you have to make again and again, every single day.  This is what Motiga is about.

MMORPG.com: You have mentioned the game you are working on, can you give us some insight on the format and style we will be seeing, hopefully in the near future?

James Phinney: Yes! Hopefully in the near future I will be able to do that. (See what I did there?)

MMORPG.com: For people trying to get into the game industry, what is it like to run a studio and manage a large project?

James Phinney: It’s an ever-evolving challenge. One of the dangerous lessons I’ve internalized from a lifetime of gaming is that every problem is solvable, and that the people and tools needed are right here. In reality, that’s not always the case. You have to learn to make tough decisions, whether that’s cutting features, restructuring the team, or firing people. None of those things are fun to do.

The other tough lesson is simply that the management part of the job always takes more time than you’d like. Your team is a diverse group of actual human beings, and sometimes life happens. When you head a team, it’s your job to insulate the team from distractions and nonsense as much as possible, and that takes actual work. The way I see it, the measure of your success as a manager is how much of your team’s time and energy is spent using their talent and expertise. The more you succeed at that, the better they can make the game.

MMORPG.com: You mention a transparent approach in talking to fans. How does that help you with feedback?

James Phinney: Let’s face it: individually, people run the gamut from awesome to a little loony (and beyond). As we all know, if you’ve got thin skin, the Internet can be a difficult place. In the end, though, connecting with players directly is worth it. Whatever their individual quirks, people collectively are extremely insightful.

So there’s a lot of wisdom out there. If you’re not actively planning for how you’re going to take advantage of it, you’re making a mistake.

MMORPG.com: Can you give us some insight into what 2014 will be like for Motiga?

James Phinney: Next year will be pivotal for us. We’re not building a five-year project. You can expect to hear a lot about our project and our plans in 2014.

MMORPG.com: What is something you’d like to say to fans of online gaming?

James Phinney: A friend of mine used to sign all his work emails, “For the love of the game.” It rubbed some co-workers the wrong way, as if it was implying they didn’t care about the game as much as he did. Pretty silly, right?

Well, I’m not going worry about that here. So I can tell you this: everything we’re doing at Motiga is for the love of the game. We’re looking forward to being able to share it with you.

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