Robin Block: Diving deep into the golden age of first-person shooter games
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The creators of the documentary FPS: First Person Shooter hit their goal for their Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in a single day. CreatorVC launched the campaign on Thursday, and it has already raised more than $57,000.
I talked to CreatorVC CEO Robin Block about how his team will create the three-hour retrospective documentary capturing the history of landmark first-person shooters such as Doom, Halo, and Duke Nukem.
They’re billing it as the definitive documentary that brings together the legends who created the genre, highlights the legacy of the most popular and significant FPS games from the last 48 years, and gives fans the chance to be involved in this iconic celebration.
The team will start filming soon with more than 35 of the industry’s most influential FPS creators who have agreed to be a part of the documentary, such as Cliff Bleszinski (designer of Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Gears of War); John Romero (cofounder of id Software and Ion Storm); Ed Fries (cofounder of Xbox and former head of Microsoft Game Studios); Jaime Griesemer (co-creator of Halo and Destiny); Robin Walker (co-creator of Team Fortress, Half-Life 2); Dave Oshry (director of Rise of the Triad); Dave Lebling (Maze War); Randy Pitchford (cofounder of Borderlands creator Gearbox Software); and Scott Miller (cofounder of Apogee Software/3D Realms).
Joining these creatives are some of the most well-known players of these games, such as Amy “Valkyrie”/”Athena” Brady (Frag Dolls and PMS Clan cofounder) and Dennis “Thresh” Fong (who many recognize as gaming’s first pro player). I don’t see John Carmack on the list yet, but hopefully he’ll do it.
CreatorVC is an independent producer of community-based entertainment, with a focus on long-form factual content. Block said that the new film will cover a lot of ground very quickly. CreatorVC previously made In Search of Darkness, which delves into horror films and characters from the 1980s. It made a sequel to that, and it recently crowdfunded an ’80s sci-fi documentary In Search of Tomorrow, which raised $1.3 million from nearly 11,000 backers.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Robin Block is CEO of CreatorVC.
GamesBeat: What inspired you to do this? How long have you been working on it?
Robin Block: What inspired me was realizing that the experience of watching a film and the experience of playing a game, immersing yourself in that world, are very similar. I hadn’t seen any documentaries about gaming and genres that illuminated me as much as some of the documentaries that are out there about films. There was an opportunity to follow the success of our previous projects in gaming. We decided last year that we wanted to do this, and we started the project in February.
GamesBeat: How big is your team?
Block: Altogether, there are around 10 of us working on the project. Not everyone working on it is actually named on the page because it would just be a whole bunch of names. But two of my producers are subject matter experts: David L. Craddock, who literally wrote the book on first-person shooters [Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters]; and Richard Moss, a gaming author and journalist who did a phenomenal 8,000-word essay on the visual history of FPS. He’s one of those real superfans.
GamesBeat: And what is CreatorVC?
Block: That’s just the [company’s] name. If I take a step back and look at what we did, a regular production company or studio wouldn’t create what we’re aiming to create. We want to create something for a niche audience. We want to indulge superfans of FPS in something that’s going to be very immersive, very long, that’s going to bring everybody together and take people on a journey through the evolution of the genre. That’s not for everyone. It’s a huge opportunity to create something amazing because if you do that, you can find the people who really care. This isn’t a project for everyone. This is a project for people who really love this genre, who have great memories of it, and want to revisit those memories. There’s a lot of that nostalgia.
The last films we did were called In Search of Darkness, about the horror genre. There are two of them, four and a half hours long altogether, and they’re the best-rated horror documentaries ever made. They’re about ’80s horror movies. If you’re a horror fan, it’s really part of your identity. We had close to 70 contributors. Everyone who was anybody in ’80s horror, from John Carpenter to Robert Englund, all together on the screen for the first time, and it was a huge success. That’s what we’re trying to do with this.
Above: FPS will be more than three hours long.
GamesBeat: You have a science fiction project in the works as well?
Block: The science-fiction documentary is going to be finished in December. The cast for that is amazing. It’s about ’80s sci-fi movies. We have Paul Verhoeven, Peter Weller, a huge cast. We’re very excited about that project. I think it’s going to be a pretty big deal. I never thought it would be bigger than the horror documentaries, but we’re close to 11,000 backers.
GamesBeat: Where did this one wind up today? Did you beat your goal?
Block: We’re over the goal already, and we still have 25 days. We want to bring as many backers together as well. The more results we have, the more we can do. What’s critical is we’ve got support from the creators. Our goal with this project is to bring together this collection of gaming icons, many of them for the first time ever. We want to create something for superfans. If you’re part of this project, if you back this project, you get your name in the credits. It’s something you’ll give your grandchildren. You’ll never get rid of it. It’s a very different dynamic than just buying a DVD off Amazon. This is something you’re part of, a celebration of something that’s part of your identity.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you did a lot of the interviews already.
Block: We’re planning to, yeah, We go into production in late August, and things will really kick off in September. A lot of people have agreed to do interviews already. A lot of people you know, many that we haven’t mentioned yet.
I think for a lot of people, their golden memories, they want to revisit what they felt when they first played these games, the relationships they had with their friends playing these games. I believe that’s what we succeeded at with our previous projects. Even playing our documentaries in the background, almost as a comfort. It makes them feel good. There’s an opportunity in gaming to do something which isn’t — I don’t think of this like a “history of.” I want to go back and speak to the creators, but also get commentary on the games themselves, the best moments, the characters. What was it like? And use the viewer — we want to take you on this journey from the start to where we are in the contemporary gaming landscape.
Above: Doom is 27 years old.
I want this to be a binge-watchable experience. That’s why we deliberately make them super-long documentaries. Just because they’re long, though, the pacing is going to be very fast. It’s an indulgence.
GamesBeat: As far as the running time, do you feel like you’ll have to still pick and choose and cut a lot of things out?
Block: We’re very good at doing this. This isn’t going to be your average documentary. If we look at In Search of Darkness and In Search of Tomorrow, the big horror and sci-fi projects we have, the pacing is very fast. There are so many games to cover. We want to keep it really interesting, really entertaining. We couldn’t fit this into a 90-minute proposition, nor would we want to. By design, we wanted this to take up an entire afternoon. But the way it’s built, it will be broken up into sections so you can stop and start. The pacing will be very tight. We want it to be entertainment. It’s an entertainment product at the end of the day.
I find that with some gaming documentaries — I think there’s a vacuum of the top of the food chain in gaming documentaries, where you want to create something that’s both entertaining and interesting, that doesn’t just feel like a history lesson. That’s what we’re aiming to achieve.
GamesBeat: Most of these people seem like they’re all still around. I don’t believe that there are major figures who’ve passed on so far. It’s a good opportunity to catch all that history before it’s forgotten.
Block: Again, going back to the horror documentary, there were a lot of people involved in these landmark films that are no longer with us. Their last interviews were with our project. There is an archivist element to this, certainly.
GamesBeat: Wouldn’t this still cost you more to make than what you’ve asked for in terms of backing?
Block: The way we do funding — if I look at our last Kickstarter campaign, working in U.K. pounds, our target was 80,000 and we raised 464,000. The target’s much more about sending a signal out that this is a viable proposition. The way the audience, the backers and contributors, have responded to what we’re trying to do is a huge greenlight. Yes, we want to manifest this into existence. We’ll be plugging away every day for the rest of the 25 days to generate as many resources as possible so we can do the best work possible. On our other projects, they’ve done very well. They’re multi-million-dollar franchises.
Above: John Romero is a co-creator of Doom.
GamesBeat: Do you have to raise money elsewhere on top of what you get from Kickstarter?
Block: Not in order to finish the project, but we don’t really look at it like that. We look at it as pre-sales. We don’t say, “OK, we’re only going to sell to this bunch of people and stop.” There’s no limit to what we want to do. People misunderstand crowdfunding. The way I look at it, it’s pre-sales. We have to get it right because if the market, the audience we’re going for, doesn’t dig what we’re going for, we know about that straightaway. But achieving our target on day one is a huge signal that this is viable, this is what people want to see. We want to get it out in front of as many gamers with fond memories of ‘90s FPS and beyond as possible. That’s our mission.
GamesBeat: When you’re doing these interviews, are you just collecting everything? Do you have your own particular narrative or story in mind yet?
Block: We have an internal structure. We know what games we want to cover, although we also want to hear more from our audience. We have a very specific structure and format, going year by year and game by game. Obviously, there are more games made over the last 30 years than we can possibly cover in the project, but we do want to run through as many as possible. We want there to be games that people haven’t played, and after watching this they’ll go and dig them out and start playing them.
One of the big comments we get just from the Kickstarter page is that people watching go straight off and start playing their favorite FPS. It gets them back into that zone. That’s what we want people to do.
GamesBeat: As far as permissions from the game companies, do you get footage that way from them as well?
Block: We don’t do it that way. We don’t need to. Everything we do is insured. We’re not licensing footage. We don’t need to do that.
GamesBeat: There are a lot of different game categories you could have chosen here. What was interesting about the shooter category in particular?
Block: For me, it was the most visceral. If I look at horror and science fiction as genres in film, they’re visceral. There’s a lot of eye candy to show, a lot to see and talk about. I believe that FPS is very similar. Even the early stuff still looks great. Also, I have very strong memories of playing, say, Halo 2 for the first time. That experience blowing my mind, the cinematic experience, and playing online for the first time. I’d play for hours and stop and close my eyes and see the action continuing. That had a very profound effect on me. I wanted to take what we’d achieved and learned in the horror and sci-fi documentaries and apply it to this genre because I think there’s a lot of crossovers.
Above: FPS: First Person Shooter will have more than 35 interviews with FPS pioneers.
GamesBeat: You look a little young for knowing the very beginning of the shooter days, though.
Block: I’m 43, but fortunately we have some great contributors, a great team. David Craddock is actually younger than me. We were all babies when the first stuff was coming out. But we’re featuring the people behind them. I love those early stories, especially around the broadband networks and LAN parties. There’s huge nostalgia there. There’s a purity in the gameplay when you look at what it spawned, a multi-billion-dollar industry. If we do anything, we need to recapture that feeling for our audience. That’s the mission. We’ve done it three times before with our previous documentaries, and the sci-fi one — I’m looking at rough cuts now and loving it. But I feel this is our biggest challenge because I haven’t seen this done the way I want to do it in gaming. Everything I’m learning about the contributors has got my Spidey-Sense tingling.
If I was to sum up what we’re doing, it would be — I have this way of looking at things. There’s curation, working out what titles we’re going to talk about because there are hundreds over this span of time. The second step is commentary. Who do we have talking about these games? Who’s going to make us relive it and give us entertaining insights? That commentary comes from the best contributors, the most relevant, interesting voices in gaming that we could get hold of. Finally, it’s community. Ultimately this is about bringing fans together to celebrate something that’s cool to them. That’s at the heart of what we do. I don’t see this a lot in the film or TV industry. I feel like we’re a direct-to-consumer business. It’s a one-to-one relationship with our backers. That community angle is very important. We can’t function without it.
GamesBeat: There was a good documentary on video game violence by Spencer Halpin called Moral Kombat. It was a very interesting visual style where he shot people on green screens and superimposed video of games running behind them as they were talking about them. The visual style was really cool.
Block: I’ve seen that. It isn’t something I would want to emulate, but I like having diversity in backgrounds. If I look at our sci-fi documentary at the moment, we’re half studio backgrounds and about half in outside setups, because of COVID and making sure of airflow, that kind of thing. If someone’s saying something interesting about something, I want to see what they’re talking about. I don’t care about seeing them. That’s editing, the magic of editing.
But the gaming documentaries I have watched — there’s some good ones out there, but there’s nothing that’s made me really feel what I feel when we start talking about Doom and games like that. That’s what I want to recapture. There’s so much good stuff, so many entertaining and interesting ways of putting out the best moments of these games, remembering the interesting things you thought you knew but you didn’t know. Reminders from experiences you had. There’s tons of that, and I love it. My goal with this project is, if you watch FPS, at the end you’re going to want to dig out your old console and slap in GoldenEye, to actually do it. That’s how I want you to feel.
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