Profiling: Fred St-Amour
A fire rages inside Fred St-Amour’s belly, so bright it reaches his eyes. This flame can heat arguments – as my boss at one point, it ignited a few between us – but the fire is also what makes him special: I have yet to meet a man more dedicated to improving games and pushing beyond fantastic.
But you probably have not heard of this fiery, thirty-something, father of two, alongside the Levines or the Howards, because Fred doesn’t do triple-A console titles – instead he evolves mobile and handheld in his day-to-day. This web series is dedicated to exposing people like Fred, who has yet to see any of the limelight his passion and his work have earned.
Loud, opinionated, funny, and vulgar, Fred’s fast approaching his tenth anniversary designing games – but where did he begin? Let’s start there:
Game Development Club: So you, Monsieur St-Amour, are a Creative director at Behaviour Interactive, but you graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce. What?
Fred St-Amour: Yeah, a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University. I was majoring in Honours Accounting actually but got my sorry non-account-balancing ass kicked out. I went on to major in Management Information Systems (which, back then, meant nothing to me but today I can say was very helpful in games) – too much partying, not enough number crunching. Back then (ahhh!) I loved games but never saw them as a viable career path. Ubisoft was big in Montreal, but government loans were nebulous at best and no major studio had settled in town. Games were mainly developed in Texas, California, France and the UK.
GDC: Haha, UK developed games, you kid.
FSA: Now now, be nice.
GDC: So what changed then? Was the landscape the only thing that needed to happen? Did you jump to games at your first chance?
FSA: Sure, the financials had to make sense – Quebec needed to attract big publishers in order to develop a junior workforce – but that came later in my career. My opportunity came about a bit weirdly: a friend of mine had been doing WAP games – that’s Wireless Application Protocol, I think, done in ColdFusion (awesome) – and got a job as a producer at Gameloft. Long story short, he got me an interview with the (much younger) design manager and I got the job.
I remember doing a test for a design position at Gameloft one weekend, miserably failed to answer the test’s requirement and got the opportunity to rewrite it. Got an interview, bribed the guy and got the job.
GDC: Bribed him with your good looks, I’m sure.
FSA: Haha, yes my exquisite good looks.
No, actually, the “in” I got – the guy I mentioned earlier – was a dude I met by playing online games way back in the Diablo days (that’s Diablo one; I guess you were learning to tie your shoes at the time). So, I got my break through… playing games. It was pretty geeky I guess.
I actually had the opportunity to mess around with .Net in 2001-2002, which was awesome back then, but the dinosaurs I was working with [at the life insurance company] had no idea how it worked. Ten years later, I use C# in Unity and it’s very useful!
I got to say, though, I set out to be a programmer but sucked at it. That didn’t stop me from learning the ropes as a designer – very useful. I also “learned” game art.
Having an unorthodox start, I wonder where Fred’s passion for games is rooted – but as I mention passion, words race out of him. In this next segment, you see his fire.
GDC: You’re one of the most passionate people about games that I’ve met…
FSA: Passion is very important. I could go on for hours on that small point. Passion is why I hated my DBA job.
FSA: Indulge me for a sec:
When you work for somebody who pays you to be creative, you’ve got to dose your passion. It’s not your game, not your money at risk, so you need to listen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about your job. I find it completely ludicrous that there are game developers out there, producers in particular, who do not play games. Would you trust a car mechanic that doesn’t drive? A vegan butcher?
I love user experience and interacting with somebody’s emotions, which is why I think passion is important. We deal in emotions. I’m an emotional guy. I’m loud, I swear, I’m opinionated but I listen and I care.
Everybody’s involved in game making. The game represents the company and the team that worked on it. Passion is key.
There’s not one developer out there who’s made a game that got a Metacritic of 35% and was aiming at that. You’ve got to have passion to continue in games knowing you’re working on a game where the budget is tight and reviews will be low. The public never sees what goes on in developer’s offices, nor how the publisher may have short-changed them, but every game that is made has been touched by some folks with passion. It doesn’t show for multiple reasons, but to create entertainment for a specific crowd you need to put yourself in their shoes and enjoy your work, no matter how shoddy it ends up.
I digressed there – tough to collect my thoughts on something that is hard to grasp and describe. Emotion and business are not good bed buddies. But games are emotion and yet there’s big money in it. And it gets bigger every year.
GDC: You said that “we deal with emotions”. Do you believe that games do that? Can they do that? Some developers, like David Jaffe, would argue that games aren’t about any emotional connection – they’re about challenging the player and engaging them, but emotion comes second. What do you say to that?
Fred: Emotional connection does not equal emotion!
You say challenge. Challenges are derived from difficulty and often lead to either frustration or, on the flip side, nonchalant accomplishment. Those are emotions. I don’t mean emotions at watching that fucking cube get burnt, I mean emotions as in stressing because your Bejeweled Blitz streak has been broken because you couldn’t find a gem, or emotion as in the AI just gave you a nice spanking and you think it cheated (hint: it probably did). Those emotions: the raw stuff that goes on when interacting with anything.
GDC: So you agree with Jaffe then: games cannot nor should they have a deeper emotional connection with gamers?
Fred: I don’t like games that try to direct emotions. Take a 20/20 sappy video about some girl losing her dog to a bunch of bikers – they’ll bring out the violin and soft piano music – screw that! Connection must come from the player and not the developer – at least not directly from the dev.
Multiplayer is getting more and more popular for that very reason I believe. Through cooperation or competition, multiplayer boosts the emotional feedback you get out of games, simply because you’re sharing an experience. Hell even Words With Friends has that – I just love hitting a Triple Word and scoring big.
[Games must] provide the interface for the player to experience emotion that he or she controls.
Case in point: Gears of War 2 – Dom’s wife [Ed note: spoilers ahead, skip this paragraph if you don’t want a part of GoW2 spoiled]. I’m sorry skinny holocaust-like victims but I was laughing my ass off during that scene. It made no sense in that game and yet Epic tried to make you care. Fenix is this hard ass mofo and I’m hitting aliens coming out of the earth – to force some sad cutscene on me was ludicrous.
GDC: I’d argue execution over idea on that one. I’ll counter you with some other games. Let’s see, what can I spoil for our readers? Have you played all of the Half Life 2 episodes?
FSA: Ah no! I’m so ashamed. I got the collector’s edition with the awesome Raising the Bar making-of book, but never finished it.
GDC: Oh yeah, I remember it on your desk – that was a badass book.
FSA: Yeah I still have it at work and use it as reference.
GDC: Alright, let’s go back to Portal then, because you mentioned that. Did you honestly not care about that cube?
FSA: Of course I did – it’s well made, that sequence in particular – but not everybody cared for the cube.
GDC: I didn’t ask everybody. I asked you. If that game made you care about a cube, could games not make you care about something more?
FSA: Portal was very well executed. Two hours long and that game that tells a story like no other. Or rather it doesn’t tell a story, it lets you decide what the story is. A better example of this (or more recent if you will) is Dark Souls. Dark Souls is absolutely awesome at driving emotions, and they are all driven by my actions in the game. The developer put the NPCs in place and designed with a “How bad can we make this for the player?” mindset. Frustration squared when trying to beat a level and accomplishment cubed when beating it.
GDC: You just countered your own argument, didn’t you? You said that games cannot make you feel emotions, but we just pulled out two that did.
FSA: You’re reading too much in my statement (and I tend to ramble). I believe games cannot force an emotion on players, but will induce some emotion. That is what Mr. Jaffe was saying, I believe.
GDC: Is that something you think about when designing games, inducing emotions into players?
FSA: No, never.
GDC: Why not?
FSA: All the academia and thinking behind, these guys are way too smart. There’s an art to game design but at the end of the day, the only question you need to ask yourself is “Is this fun?” and maybe more to the point “Is this fun for the target audience I’m designing for?” It’s easy to lose track of that simple question when working on a game – very easy.
GDC: Are the two (emotion and fun) opposites then? Can the goal of a game designer be to have both?
FSA: I was afraid you’d go in that direction. I can’t define fun. Resident Evil is fun, so is Scrabble. Fun is an emotion no?
GDC: But I’d argue those emotions are on a different level. I get a much different experience from Resident Evil than I do from Scrabble, no?
FSA: Of course you do. The core of both games is different, the expectation on both is different, but the goal of them is the same: to entertain you in one form or another.
Do we not consume entertainment to “feel” something? (I was going to say something witty about porn, but being married with two kids I’m not even sure I spelled that word right)
Fred’s fire burns bright for all games – he even analyses films and books the same way – but his professional expertise is mobile and handheld. With the rapid adoption of smart phones, where does he think mobile is headed?
GDC: You make mobile games. When you’re designing them, do you go more Resident Evil or more Scrabble?
FSA: Hmm I’ve done portable games if you’ll allow me the distinction, but mainly mobile yes. Because of the expected play session time, I’d be crazy to think I can create a survival horror feel to the game. We tend to lean on the casual side of things, but the funny thing about casual players is that they’re some of the most hardcore players I know (just look at Bejeweled players, or Farmville, or Peggle).
When I’m designing a game I make sure the mechanics are fun and provide enough entertainment to put a smile (or frown) on some poor souls’ face.
Speaking of making mobile games, aside from the small team size (awesome), I love seeing folks play the games I’ve worked on while commuting home. I know I just helped some dude waste 5 minutes. I save life with mobile games, no more cigarette smoking! I tend to fabulate at times (that fabulate word sounds fancy to English speakers but it’s really just me spewing French words).
GDC: You always make up English words that you slip into dictionaries before I can call you out on them. But, that’s actually an interesting point: five years ago the mobile market was a fraction of what it’s ballooned into today. Where do you think it goes from here?
FSA: I’m no analyst, but I get a feeling that finally, finally, you’ll be able to play your game wherever you want: cross-media, cross-platform, trans-media whatever you want to call it.
GDC: Is that the type of game you want to play anywhere? You just said you don’t make Resident Evil because some dude plays it for thirty seconds on the bus.
FSA: Let’s take Resident Evil: you’re riding the bus, you read the lore on your phone, or you study your gun loadout, or… Crap RE is a bad example. Okay, car racing: you tweak the hell out of your car doing simulated test runs on your phone. Once you get home, you’re set up and ready to go hit the racetrack with your nicely optimized car. That’s how I see the future – the ubiquity of a game, but a different experience relevant to the platform.
I think the right question would be: are single player games dying?
GDC: Wow, okay, that’s interesting. Single-player dying?
FSA: It’s not dying, but playing a game by yourself is. Case in point: achievements and comparing games. I don’t know about you, but I check achievements when I devote myself to a single-player game. Let’s expand this further: you play Bioshock 7: The Ship’s Sinking, you beat the final boss and a pop-up appears “You’re the third person of your friends to beat this”. It’s becoming all social.
Man my examples suck tonight. Dark Souls is just a better example. Overall, very single-player oriented but the multiplayer aspect just makes the whole experience richer.
So, no, single-player is not dying. I should have said offline is dying.
Fred and I can talk games for hours, but interviews must sadly end. Before I let him go, I’m curious about his views on green designers. Our denouement involves Fred the Creative Director and what he looks for in new hires and interns.
GDC: How much do you design anymore? You’re a “Creative Director”, but that must mean you’re not working on any one particular game. So what do you do all day? Is it just management? None of Fred’s great ideas can make it into games!
FSA: It’s my first time as Creative Director in a company so I don’t have much to refer to but, ah man, you know, I don’t design stuff alone nor do I ever impose. I can’t tell a guy who’s working on a game 100% of his time to change a feature because I’ve been thinking about it in the shower – it doesn’t work.
Making games with other developers is all about argumentation. If I love my argument it’s because I either didn’t believe in the original idea enough or it simply didn’t make any sense.
I’m still involved in production, but not as much as I used to be. A big chunk of my time is spent on the “what’s next” rather than on the “what’s going on now”.
GDC: How close are you to the designers – are you the guy who hires them?
FSA: That is a funny question. I’d say I’m not as close as I used to be in previous positions, mainly because I have very little time. I’m involved in hiring process and mentoring and all that fun stuff, but I don’t manage people, which part of me misses, but a big part of me is glad that I can be crass at work without worrying about politics.
GDC: You? Crass at work? Never!
FSA: I’m worse now.
GDC: What do you look for in terms of game design? You’re a good designer, but came from a strange background, so what’s it take to get through your door?
FSA: Portfolios are key. It’s very hard to tell how good a designer is based on a CV – there are so many factors in game development of a project – that awesome triple-A FPS combat designer maybe sucks at documenting or balancing and had some snotty intern do all the work for him. If you have 100% work done by your sole self, then it tells a hell of a lot more about what you’re capable of as a designer, not to mention it’s so easy today to demonstrate creativity through either prototyping an idea (create a board game if you can’t code!) or writing a short story or drawing some level layout.
Sell yourself through your work and dedication to the craft.
Also, game designers talk to a lot of different disciplines – you’ve got to be extraverted. If you’re not comfortable talking to peeps, you can probably land a gig on some big project, but with current scopes, budgets and deadlines, teams are getting smaller and smaller. Communication is key and if you’re not comfortable talking to peeps then, eesh go to a bar, get trashed and get talking!
GDC: It seems that a designer has to be well integrated into a team. With that in mind, what do you think about design interns? I was an intern under you at EA Mobile; do you even hire design interns at Behaviour, or did I sour your experience too much for that?
FSA: We don’t hire design interns that I know of. You didn’t sour my experience, don’t try to get all sappy and get me to say things that will fit better at an Oprah documentary.
Of course, there are so many advantages to hiring interns – and not just monetary, even though that’s an awesome one. It comes back to passion too: lots of blasé developers out there that got burnt too many times. Interns have passion and they blend a most delicious coffee.
GDC: If you could give one piece of advice to anyone wanting to design games, but who doesn’t know how to get into “the biz”, what would you say?
FSA: Get in the biz? Please describe. Get a job in a company? Launch your own game?
GDC: Do you think there’s a difference?
FSA: Of course
GDC: Would you encourage them to launch their own game, or would it be better to get a job first? How would you go about it?
FSA: There are so many indies that either didn’t try companies or hated their experience there. There’s never a better time to start on your own than when you have no responsibilities – but professional experience is definitely worth a lot. If you can’t land a job in a big company, create a game on your own – there are so many easy ways to make a game these days and learn – long live King Webtatron and his mighty web. Level design using the toolsets available (Skyrim’s toolset for instance), or learn to code or draw – anything that sells your idea.
And try to network, even though I hate myself for saying that (I’m not a big schmoozer).
GDC: I’m imagining you schmooze and I almost threw up.
FSA: Haha, they kept warning us in university not to get drunk at these functions: “don’t be that guy that sits at the bar and talks to no recruiter”. I’m that guy!
FSA: Really it’s all about getting a break. Work well, be smart, and expect perfection from yourself and things will go great. Self-critique is key. Don’t live in a bubble.
GDC: With that I think we’ll end it man. Thanks for doing this interview. It was a fun chat about design, and about Fred.
FSA: Sure thing. I love this industry, love its people and love where it’s headed, even though it scares the bejesus out of me.