Gary Penn’s description on Wikipedia is “official games legend”. It’s satisfying to see the words sit there next to his name, untouched, unquestioned by the site’s moderators who are more than happy to fight bitter ‘edit wars’ with Scientologists, Star Wars fans and Tories.
Penn is a legend. He’s one of the founding fathers of game journalism (in fact, the very first GMA Legend award winner).
In the nineties he switched seats and began to work as a game designer. His CV lists some of the brightest games of the past two decades, from GTA to Crackdown to the perversely undervalued Body Harvest.
He’s even come up with ten definitive rules of game design with his current colleagues at Denki – giving the studio a clear blueprint for how they can channel their creative energies, and providing an overarching design philosophy known as ‘The Denki difference’.
And today, in a move that manifestly cements his legendary status, he’s been asked to take part in Develop’s FAQ profile.
What are you working on right now, and what stage is the project at?
It’s all, like, Quarrel This and Quarrel That at the moment. The Xbox LIVE Arcade version’s pretty much done – YAY! – and a PC version’s progressing well.
Which aspect of it do you think will impress players the most?
Its itchiness. You play it and end up with an itch that’s so satisfying to scratch. It’s utterly unlike anything else yet it’s accessible to all, which is quite a feat. It’s lively and lovely and loaded with memorable moments to keep you coming back. Who could ask for anything more?
What does your desk/window view look like?
My desk is next to a large sash window with a large Denki logo stuck on it. I’m looking out on everyone else in the high-ceilinged, open-plan space. "Hi." My desk is streamlined. There’s a Dell laptop on a stand next to an Xbox test kit and telly in front of which there are essential Post-It Notes and my stackable erasers (very satisfying to stack to stimulating thinking).
What was your first job in the industry – and what was the first game you worked on?
I was a reviewer for Zzap!64. I can’t remember my first review. I vaguely recall it was something I didn’t enjoy playing or writing about. Before that I was playing a gazillion games and making games and necessary tools as a hobby. I think the first commercial game I worked on was either Ricochet (levels) or Thrust 2 (visuals).
What was the first video game you ever played?
Probably Pong. The annual family holiday used to be a day trip to the coast – to places like Clacton. My old dears would give me a few quid in coins for the day – I’d usually spend them in the arcades. I remember one year there was no such thing as a video game in the arcades and the next… Whoa. Magic. A window into another universe. The first weak signal from virtual space. I blew my wad within minutes the year I found my first video game.
What was the last game you played? Did you enjoy it?
"Amazing Adventures: The Lost Tomb" with my kids. I like the fact that it’s a simple, familiar premise made even more convenient in virtual form. I also like the fact that all around can join in – even my youngest, Dexter, who’s two.
It’s sad to see supposedly hardcore gamers knock so-called "Casual/Social Games." A true hardcore gamer isn’t a bigot. They love all forms – they just discriminate quality within genres 🙂
What’s your favourite game ever, and why?
I’m rubbish at answering this type of question. A single favourite anything is impossible. I’m fickle, too, so there’s no guarantee that old favourites have endured.
I can tell you my most recent favourite game ever: Orbital on iPhone. It’s my new smoking. Trails HD was awesome for a while but then it went shit. New Super Mario Bros Wii was pretty awesome, too. Best ever SMB – especially as I could play it and enjoy it with the kids.
How many hours a week do you get to spend playing games?
That depends on what games I can play with my kids, which is nowhere near as many as I’d like – which should, of course, be an incentive to do something about it and make more games for families 🙂
Convenience is the single biggest factor for me, which is where iPhone wins. There’s fuck-all on it I like playing TBH but there are some gems like Orbital (sigh) and Words With Friends (which is utterly inane in its execution but the turn-based play with dramatic delays between turns is pretty funky – ooh, something like X-COM Email would be awesome on iPhone).
Oh – a number? Erm, probably around 8-12 hours a week altogether.
What area of the industry needs more investment?
I should have a cracking answer to that, I know. I’m sure I do somewhere but I’m drawing a blank right now. I know I don’t like the fact that there’s still such a strong sense of everyone trying to fuck everyone else over – players included 😐
What disappoints you about the industry?
Ach, I don’t know. In many ways it doesn’t feel like it’s changed at all in 25 years. I guess I’m resigned to the fact that it is what it is. I work within, through or around the disappointments 🙂
What do you enjoy most about working in the video game industry?
Being able to work with people to create things is pretty special. But doing that for other people to enjoy… It doesn’t get any better than that.
Of all the games you have been involved with in the past, what has been your favourite, and why?
I have affection for all of them – especially the failures that never saw the light of day and taught me so much. I guess the obvious choice would have to be either GTA or Crackdown.
Being a part of establishing something as potent as GTA in its early crude forms was a special time. But then so was starting to play with the same core concept for Crackdown – even though it could have gone further. There’s still an insane amount of potential for freeform city-based play and games. GTA under no obvious threat, not even slightly. Which isn’t surprising really. That kind of toyset is a bastard to build at all let alone well.
What websites do you visit most regularly?
That varies. I tend to find a site, visit it obsessively for a while and then never again. At the moment Google Chrome says Google is most visited – but then I use Google as a portal to pretty much everything. I see there’s also notcot.org, Amazon, Facebook and Tesco listed. notcot.org’s a mixed bag but I love the convenience of the image buffet.
What do you do in your spare time that isn’t related to video games?
When I’m not being Dad I consume simultaneous multiple media streams because my attention span is shot. As much as I love words I don’t read anywhere near as much as I used to. I just about manage headlines and pictures – and the kids’ books. It’d be easy to blame a life of games and the internet – so I will.
What’s your favourite book, movie or TV show, and album of all time?
That’s so hard to answer. There’s such richness to choose from – so much that resonates whether it’s fully-formed or flawed – and my mood plays a part in that.
I start liking films from the 1930s and ’40s; they feel even more like another universe than many contemporary releases – but that’s not to demean the here and now, which is richer in so many other ways. Old TV doesn’t do it for me so much. Old books are more enduring – and old music more so. But, really, there’s so much good shit out there spanning over a century.
What game would you most like to have worked on?
Certainly not one that was heavily focussed on technology – that’s not my idea of fun. It’s an inconvenient means to an end. I’d’ve loved to’ve created something like fundamental – but not big. Probably something like Snake or Asteroids or Defender or Robotron or Pac-Man or Tetris or Orbital. That or Loco Roco. I don’t enjoy playing it but everything else about it is just so lovely and always makes me smile.
Which other games developer do you most admire?
Oh, the usual, for all the obvious reasons: Nintendo, PopCap, Rockstar North, Valve…
I also have firm respect for the independent scene – especially the
individuals. There’s so much personal, stylised, expressive work out
there at the moment from the likes Cactus and Jonathan Mak.
"Secret (development) lovers, yeah, that’s what we are/
We shouldn’t be together/
But we can’t let go, no, no/
Cause we love each other so/