Critical Path shares insight from the industry’s leading minds, tackles “wall of white dudes”
Critical Path is a project collecting interviews with some of the biggest names in gaming, with each clip tackling a specific subject in 30 seconds to a few minutes. Nolan Bushnell describes the purity of 8-bit gaming. Todd Howard talks about character customization. Hideo Kojima discusses the Japanese desire to tailor games to the audience. Each subject sits in front of a black background and speaks directly to the viewer, with minimal editing and no interruption. The videos are an intimate way to learn about video game creation from the people who are working towards mastering the art form. David Grabias is a director with Artifact Studios, the company that put this project together. The Critical Path web page was supposed to gauge the audience for this content, and share content they were collecting for an upcoming full-length documentary. The goal was modest; Grabias said they would have been happy with a few people watching the videos in the first couples of days. Instead, 100,000 people flooded the site in the first day or so. “I knew there was an appetite and an audience for it, but I’ve been impressed with how big the audience is, and how much is happening already,” he said. Oh, and it’s all free.
Speaking to the audience, not at them
The interviews were conducted at the Los Angeles Convention Center during E3. Artifact showed up with a black background, a camera, and a series of questions to ask each participant, and began to collect interviews. The interviews were collected for a number of years, and each conversation lasted between ten minutes to three hours. Artifact then had a team of people go through each interview to find suitable standalone stories where each developer made an interesting point about their games or the industry in general, and those clips were isolated from the larger interviewer and shared on the main page. “We tried not to curate the sound bites based on politics or perspective or opinion or trying not to take sides that way. We just tried to find the most interesting and thought-provoking pieces,” Grabias said. There are no direct plans to monetize the content, although they’re hoping to release a full-length documentary in the future. “Artifact started as an independent documentary production company. So we’re used to working on long-term projects that are not particularly financially rewarding,” Grabias said. “We’re into the project because of what it is and what it means, because our personal and professional curiosities. From that perspective, we don’t approach a project from the monetization angle initially.” The archive will continue to grow as more subjects are interviewed and video released, and the reaction to the content will help the company in creating its documentary and releasing more content as it's collected. It also helps that these videos were inexpensive to put together; Artifact set up a small area in the Los Angeles Convention Center, wrangled the time of their subjects, and filmed the interviews between events at E3. A camera, a backdrop, and someone’s time were all that was needed for each interview. Some interview subjects, especially those working in the games industry in Asia, were out of reach due to the lack of resources to travel to those locations for the interviews. Plans for monetization and expansion are hypothetical. Grabias laughed when I shared my skepticism about all this time and effort going into content that is being given away for free. “In terms of long term goals, there may be ways we end up finding ways to get a little bit of income off the content, but initially it's not about that,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe, but the goal is to make enough money in other areas of our business and to be profitable enough that we can do this sort of thing on the side and not worry about it.”
A wall of white dudes
The one criticism that keeps popping up in reaction to Critical Path is the lack of diversity. One sees many white dudes when looking at the page filled with interview subjects. “It is a whole lot of white dudes. The initial list of interviewees is in no way definitive, to a large degree it’s simply who we were able to access,” Grabias admits. “The high level discussion really, is that the wall is a reflection of the state of the industry in terms of who’s working in positions of power. If you go down the list of creative directors and leads in the industry, especially people who have accomplished a fair amount, a lot of them are white men. I’m not surprised to hear [the criticism], and hopefully that can spin into a larger discussion about diversity within the industry itself and why that doesn’t exist and what that’s about.” He also pointed out that other forms of entertainment struggle with the same issue. “It’s a problem Hollywood struggles with, issues of diversity. Every year you look at the people who win Academy Awards, and it’s a lot of old white guys. Hollywood has struggled with it, other media has struggled with it, and it’s something video games are going to have to struggle with as well.”
Why these videos matter
What’s striking about the videos is that there is no editorial component to the interviews, and minimal editing. The interviews simply feature developers talking directly to the viewer, pointing out interesting things about their job or the video game business in general. The videos are inviting and informative; even those who aren’t interested in games may be interested in the content. “Our larger goal is to get this seen by the greater public, by people who aren’t reading Kotaku or who aren’t reading Penny Arcade. They’re reading Time Magazine and they know about video games and maybe they’ve played a few games, and they see this and it hopefully will change the way they think about games in the sense that understand that you can think about them and talk about them in the same way they do movies, books, and plays,” Grabias said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is establish a vocabulary.” That’s why the focus is on such well-known personalities; these are people who can step outside of the process and give a top-down perspective on how games are made. There is room moving forward to go into the trenches and talk to the people who do things on the day-to-day level in game development, and Grabias hopes to add that sort of content in the future. They’ve already begun to go through the feedback from the project. “From the outset this was conceived of something that would be dynamic, and evolving, and evolve based on the needs and desires of the audience.” So what do people want? They’re worried about the video going behind a pay wall, and they’re both surprised and grateful for the content. People also want to see full interviews, which could be released in the future as they feed content out. “It’s been overwhelmingly positive, there’s nothing super-critical. A couple of people are griping that we didn’t make the site Internet Explorer ready.” Viewers may find it hard to believe Artifact is releasing this content out of the goodness of its collective heart, but Grabias is clearly excited about the project, and points out that many people would pay good money for an hour-long chat with people like Todd Howard; being able to film the content for such a small monetary investment makes them feel like it’s their duty to share it. “For us, as documentary people, it’s just an amazing time to document the industry. It is like being there and being able to talk to some of the forefathers of cinema or other media and get a sense of what they were thinking as things begin to codify and solidify and congeal,” Grabias said. “Having the opportunity to get that material and document those thoughts and opinions and get them in a place where they can serve not only to encourage other dialogue, but also be almost a historical document moving into the future, I think is pretty cool.”