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Interview with Top Secret Project's Dave Perry

By Michelle Montierth, 05/02/07 12:01AM

The Vault Network had an opportunity to chat with Dave Perry about the Top Secret Project.

For those not familiar with the Project, can you explain a little about what Top Secret is and how you came up with the idea?

As you may know, I’ve been running dperry, my own personal community website, for several years. During those years, I’ve met many amazing, talented and motivated individuals, and it has always been my policy to do what I can to help them, just as they’ve often helped me. I’ve undertaken several ventures designed to give back to the game community, such as a book/wiki project (dpfiles/dpfileswiki) I have been working on for several years – a free game designer’s reference book – and then the game industry map.

The Top Secret Project was something that the head of Acclaim and I were discussing as a way to stop talking about ‘community’ and really embrace them. So we decided to really try to shake things up. The idea? How about making a massive team of people (allow up to 100,000) and then from this group find the individual that stands out the most and give them their own game to direct. How fun! It’s like American Idol meets The Apprentice. The people that don’t win still get experience making their own professional game.

Does this have the backing of any major publisher?

Yes, the game is being published by Acclaim Games. The CEO is Howard Marks, who used to be the Chairman of Activision’s studios. We had chosen a developer we wanted to use in China, but currently are re-thinking that strategy as the game is going to be surprisingly different from anything they’ve done before, so we might need to find a very open-ended new game engine.

How does the process work?

Well, there has to be some structure to any game design/development project, and a team of thousands of non-professional designers is a lot different from the normal game studio. So we have divided the process into major milestone sections. Within each milestone are several forums that focus on various aspects of the design. For instance, in Milestone One, we first looked at the kind of world style and game hooks we wanted to see. We got a TON of great ideas from those tasks. Currently we are working together to design the vehicles and the tracks.

So what do the team members in the project actually do?

Within each of the forums, such as Vehicle Design, we put in Tasks. Tasks are the actual building blocks of the design, and how the people in Top Secret actually create the content. They can discuss their ideas, collaborate, and even form internal teams. Eventually, after they have worked on the elements of the task, they post their “entries” to a special sub-forum where everyone can view them. Finally, when the deadline for the Task has passed, we review the entries and have nominations or votes to determine the most popular entries. In most cases, these are the entries that will be incorporated into the design.

You said “in most cases.”

Yes. I am still the Director of the project, and so, if there is a case where the community chooses something that won’t work technically, or that my team and I don’t think will meet our target audience goals, then I will step in and make some suggestions. On the other hand, I may also get so inspired by some of the entries, which has just happened from our “Design a Hook” task, that I will offer the community an alternative view that uses (and credits) the entries of several users. At the end of the day, there are two main goals: A great (original) game and a great community.

How many people have signed up so far?

At last count, we had more than 28,000 sign-ups. I think we are close to 30,000 now.

Recently the community cast their first vote, and chose Anime as the visual style for the game. What were your thoughts on that choice?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t my personal first choice, but one of the ways this project is so wonderful is how the community can give voice to their vision, and I expect, all along the way, that they will surprise me again and again. And I think we can use the anime style to make a really awesome game with fresh and unique features and looks. So, I’m completely pleased with their choice, and it stops me just running on auto-pilot.

How closely are you, and the developers behind this, working with the community?

For the moment, I am working closely with the community through my internal team – primarily David DeWald, Jill Sullivan and Rusel DeMaria – and a fantastic and growing group of volunteer moderators, led by a team member called ‘Palleon’. They keep me well informed on what’s going on, and I am directly involved with every task. Of course, I wish I were able to hang out more and chat in dpchat, but my problem is I keep agreeing to take on more projects. I really need to learn to say no.

It’s been just under a month so far since the launch. How do you feel it’s going so far? Are you planning any changes?

We have been learning a lot about the process as we go. We’ve had a few false starts, and our community has let us know when they happen. And I have to say, our community has also been amazing about supporting us through the learning process and going with us every step of the way. Not quietly or without criticism (laughing), but with great cooperative spirit. Every morning my phone rings and something new has popped up, sometimes good, sometimes requiring emergency action. Examples? Our wiki got hacked, but thanks to the power of the wiki, you can turn back time. Sometimes we post things, but if you re-read it, it maybe has two meanings… Suddenly there’s hundreds of posts, more every minute heading off in the wrong direction, so we need to act super fast, or confusion sets in. I guess, each time, each day, we learn how to do things better.

Do you see this process as a new style of online reality show, or more of a way of tapping into the creativity of the players, who may not have had a chance to really express themselves before?

The latter. This is not a spectacle, but really a way to prove what I’ve always thought – that there is literally TONS of untapped talent and intelligence out there and, if given a chance, it can infuse a new spirit into the game industry. I really hope we can make this work, as it could change a lot of opinions about our gamers.

You personally hired someone from the community in the first week. Is this something you intend to repeat, and do you see this partly as a way of finding new talent?

I am always looking for people with talent, drive, reliability, creativity and compatibility with my team. I hired Michael Liebwein because I issued a challenge and he came through with flying colors. I had no idea who he/she would be. He turned out to be living in Germany. Now he works for me. Before that, I had already hired Jill Sullivan, a moderator on the 2Moons forums, because of her talent and dedication. She also won a community video competition and I needed video editing skills in my team as well. It’s really about who shows up, and it’s working better than my old system of only hiring people that would move to our office location. I have a virtual company and everyone on my team is hired because they are the best we can find in the world.

You offered a prize of becoming a Director of an MMO at the end of this to one lucky person. Do you feel, looking back, that this offer has helped spur people on, or has somewhat clouded the goal of making a good game?

I think the prize I’m offering has inspired people, for sure. It’s the biggest prize in gaming history, so that’s kinda neat. Can we be in the Guinness Book of Records please? However, people who think that everything in this project is competitive are missing the point. The winner of the directorship at the end is going to be someone with very special qualities, not necessarily the person who has the most ideas in the final design. I’ve described those qualities in various places, but, if you think about it, the director of an MMO needs to be someone with creative talent as well as leadership qualities. Someone who can communicate with others and at the same time work tirelessly toward a specific goal. We already see people within the forums who are showing those qualities.

On the forums you have mentioned that you expect the gaming industry to be keeping an interested eye on this project, and possibly the people who are taking part. Has anyone from the industry mentioned anything to you about it yet? What's the feeling "out there"?

There are a lot of people in the industry who would like to see this fail. Perhaps they feel threatened? They shouldn’t be, as we are just preparing talent that they can hire someday in the future. If anything they should help nurture the talent, no headhunter needed. If you want to know what bugs me is the veterans that turn a blind eye to this kind of project. When asked to come and encourage the developers, yesterday I got the response, “It’s a conflict of interest”. Can you believe that! The professional developers that forget they had to start once and that they would have given a kidney to be given some professional advice or feedback from their heroes, that turn around and say “It’s a conflict of interest”, makes me just shake my head.

How do you feel about the huge increase of gaming over the last few years, and especially the rise of massive online games? Is this something you expected, and do you see this project as a way of improving the games of the future?

I worked in single player games for a long, long time. Multiplayer became more and more important, and we only dabbled in it with our Sacrifice game. Each time, we stated we would make multiplayer the focus of our next design. There’s two kinds of MMO, the ones where you filter large amounts of players into small groups to play together and the others where you filter large amounts of players into large groups to play together. I’m working on both styles and I think they both have their own merits. What I do find however is that I think the “big” game is going to be an MMO. I’m not talking about World of Warcraft big. I’m talking 5 times World of Warcraft. I really don’t think that game will be a single player game. I just hope someone makes it before I’m too old and grey to enjoy it!

Are you working on any other projects at the moment? And can you see those being improved by this process of 'open user development'?

Yes. I’m directing six MMO projects right now. Only three have been announced (2Moons, the violent MMORP – Dance, the Music game based on a special deal with Warner Music – Top Secret, the Community created game.) Each game is very different, and if you remember the old Shiny days, that’s what I liked best, when you couldn’t tell what the heck we would make next! On top of this I’m also running GameConsultants.com, about to launch GameInvestors.com, and recently launched GameIndustryMap.com (a community map to help people find developers and publishers).

If this project and the game it creates are successful, is this something you would like to see repeated in the future?

Absolutely, if we can make this work, we would probably think about doing something REALLY big with 500,000 team members.

If this project does not work as intended, I presume you will still have to provide a game at the end of it. Have you got any back up plans to cover this?

Gulp.

Finally, is the project still open for people to join, and if so, what kind of person would you hope would sign up?

Yes. We will cap the project at 100,000 participants, so there’s still plenty of room to join in. (The sooner the better so you can start earning reputation points.)

See you there!

http://www.videogameteam.com--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Interview by Michelle Montierth


Comments

Boy did this interview spark some heated topics, either way i think it was done in the right way. Hindsight is always 20/20 great job DP.

Posted by: taalon927 at May 7, 2007 10:50 PM

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