Raphael Colantonio is one of the pioneers of the video game industry, he founded Arkane Studios back in 1999 and designed amazing games like Dishonored, Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and many other great games. In our new conversation, we decided to speak with him about his career, life outside video game industry and leading a huge company.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you very much, Raphael, this is great speaking to you. This is my first podcast after a while. I was talking to Ken Levine about bringing back the podcast and I asked him who should I speak to and he mentioned you and now I get it why did it because we are very much alike we’re both game designers and composers (a very rare combination) and I seriously dig every game you guys make at Arkane, so thank you for this opportunity.
Raphael Colantonio: Thank you, thank you.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Let’s talk about young Raphael who was inspired to make video games. Talk about your background, tell me how you started Arkane.
Raphael Colantonio: So, first of all, you said you’re a game designer and I didn’t have a chance to check what work you’ve done, is there anything lately you’ve been working on?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah I mostly work on video games in Iran. So they were released locally, so you might never even heard of it, but now we’re working on video games to be released outside internationally in about two years we’re gonna have something. So we just started, it’s a very fresh industry in Iran and we had some games here but I think now we are ready to make it bigger, you know working on bigger games for bigger markets. So yeah we’re working on them.
Raphael Colantonio: Cool! Yeah, so you asked about the young me, and how I started the game etc. So I’m from the 80s, I was born in 71, so when I was 8-10 it was very rare to have computers and video games, it was just a very beginning. I was very shy, introverted kid. A friend of mine had a rich family and he had an Apple IIe and his brother played games and one of the games he was Ultima … Ultima 1. So, you know, during the weekend when his brother would be away, we’d go sneak in his bedroom and play Ultima, and it was in English and I did not speak English at all, and you know, we were playing with a vocabulary next to us, trying to understand what was game about, and it was so amazing. I think that’s where I started to be extremely attracted to games. You know, an introverted guy into Dungeon Dragons and all these things, it was just great for me. And a little later after that unfortunately I lost my mother, I was 13, which you know, she was sick all my childhood and I think it participated for me to be this introverted, dark kid who was in his little world and so for me video games and writing stories, drawing comic books or later doing music was a way for me to kind of escape a little bit from being in my hole or my things etc.
So there was only me, I was at the end of my childhood. I kept on playing Ultima with computers and stuff, and then eventually this game that took to different level for me was The Ultima Underworld, funny it’s not the same franchise because it was published as well by origin but it was from another company, it was Looking Glass, instead of a top-down RPG, it was a first person, very physical, you could grab objects and throw it around and there was a notion of simulation. Those guys, Looking Glass eventually they did Thief, System Shock all those games. I believe I was 16 when I played Ultima Underworld for the first time, and at this point I knew I want to make video games. I wanted to either play music or make video games. I could not do anything regularly, I didn’t want to work something that wasn’t fun for me.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: So did you have to choose between being a musician or composer or a game developer?
Raphael Colantonio: Did I have to choose?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah at one point like OK! Oh, I’m gonna be a composer or I’m gonna be a game developer. Because it was a really huge decision for me and I couldn’t decide and I did them both.
Raphael Colantonio: Well I guess it depends on what we mean by choosing… I guess we’re all driven by doing something that is gonna generate money and I think it’s what that makes it legit. As far as making a difference between a hobby and a job, making money with music seemed very hard unlikely back then and it’s still hard, and to be fair making video games was even harder because there was no school and I had no idea how to start, back in 92 when I was so fascinated by those games there was not even internet.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: So how did you learn to make video games?
I was not good enough at anything, there was not such a thing that I knew existed to be a game designer, game director or producer, but I could draw to some degree and I played with some, not Photoshop but some older tools that could do some stuff. So myself and a friend, we did this demo of a game while I was also doing the game design even though there was no term for it I did know that it existed, I thought programmers where the artists, and as an artist I was not that good, but I was good enough that you could understand what was on the screen and I was communicating what I wanted from this game through those, you know, animations which I did etc. And that’s pretty much how I started to only thing that, this is what I wanted to do but then again there was no path, there was no school and there was nothing so I had no idea how to get there. And then I got lucky because around age 21-22 I was pretty much done with my school. I was doing the military service which was mandatory back then in France, as you know, at last by my accent that I’m French, and so I had no idea how I was gonna be either a musician or a game designer at this stage, because my school was not for that and I got very, very lucky, extremely lucky. I filed … there was a magazine to win a trip to Texas to playtest the new Ultima game which was my all time favorite series and I could file this competition, it was a magazine, it was called Joystick Magazine, a French magazine. So I answered all the questions related to Ultima, it was like super nerdy and then I got contacted by EA, and they revealed that they were not actually offering trip to Texas to test Ultima, but instead these guys wanted to hire someone in France for their new office that they were creating, and they were looking for a gamer to start the QA, customer support, localization you know translation, testing etc. Basically, they were looking for a gamer, the first gamer they got in France. So I was super lucky, so I interviewed, they really liked me and I was in heaven. They hired me, they got me out of military service army. They filed the paperwork for that etc. Because between all the people they interviewed they really liked me the best, so they took me on board and at first I started as a tester, IT and anything related to tech support and I wasn’t a designer. However now that I had a foot in the door, I knew that I would eventually, probably manage to get up the ranks. So that’s how I got transported to England because there was not a development in France. So I got transported to the UK office, people were nice enough after I insisted very heavily that I want to learn development and I wanted to be a producer and all these things. They transported me to England and I started to work on games there. It was disappointing, because I thought making games would be amazing and I was gonna be with all these rockstars and doing some awesome stuff and instead it was a lot of people that did not have that passion anyway so it was not the case, some of them were, you know people were in business really and so I was still learning and that’s how I got started a little by little game design etc.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah! great, you already mentioned the reason why you left the game industry, but I wanna know what you think right now, I mean, how did it help and do you suggested to other people to take some people to take some time off?
Raphael Colantonio: Yeah, I mean that is very new for me because I think I’ve always been driven to create something, to make something happen, to push pieces. You know, I’m a builder of some sort, and Arkane had this since 99, so basically it’s been 18 years, and I know I’ve been quoted many times that oh he needed a vacation, poor guy, now people started to laugh a little bit about that, it’s not that I never had a vacation. It’s that hanging on for 18 years to something. At the company we had more than 200 people, started with 4 and ended up with 200, means that I had 18 years of very intense adventures, including good, bad and sad, complex and stressful, like oh my god we’re gonna die, you know all of these, and even though you’re on vacation, even if you managed to take 2 weeks in a row to go somewhere, you still check your email all the times. The pressure of owning and driving something big like that, when it keeps on getting bigger, there’s no real escape, it’s actually really stressful, and as much as I enjoyed the ride in the full arch of it. I did start a company in France and then America and then moved myself over there. Then eventually sold…, you know we worked with some fantastic programs like Valve, so others I can think of… even EA and they were sold to Bethesda, it was another take of a full company. All of that was great, however, you find yourself 18 years later. You know, like hey! I was 21 when I started this thing. And now 47, and I was thinking so what is next? you know I might be defined by Arkane, or is Arkane defining me? So it was almost like an identity crisis where I wanted to see who am I without it, and without having to worry about tomorrow, what game I’m gonna make? I’ve been making the same game over and over, you know, since 99. Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah, Dishonored, Prey. All those games are very similar. I’m very grateful. To Bethesda for betting on us, you know take us from games that were not polished enough to Dishonored and that was our real breakthrough so I did it, I did what I wanted and I’m grateful to everyone and I hope they’re grateful as well; because I regenerated a lot of money for them. But then three games later and like OK what can I do now? And never one of those again. I can only fail at some point. Is it what I really want to do? So I needed that time to think and see exactly why am I doing this, instead of autopilot I want thing to be intentional and when you’re attracted to an organization that belongs to another big organization, then you’re in autopilot and you’re doing things not because you want to do them but because you have to do them, and that goes out of a little bit of creativity and also you know finally after 7 years as much as I loved everybody at ZeniMax and Bethesda, for 7 years suddenly I don’t drive my boat etc. I mean I was driving my boat, like my teams but it was not entirely in control of my best at this point, it just doesn’t just feel like my nature. And that’s why I had to try and it sounds crazy and suicidal. Because, you know, people were like “dude! you are working with this awesome company and you can keep on making those games forever making a great salary, so why would you do that?” Why would I do that is because I want to experience it, I want to define myself and I want to see who I am without that, and it feels amazing.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Wow!
Raphael Colantonio: I absolutely recommend it, because all those fears I had they all got disappeared because I’m still Raf and people still know me for what I’ve done. I can now leave every day by desire as I opposed to by obligation, so I got my family, I got my son and my friends. I have my music, my passion, and by the way, I’m doing music and I’m getting paid for some of the music I do which is awesome, I consult for whoever I want or whoever wants me, that is very fun too. It’s just right now, and I don’t know for how long I’d just stay in that groove. And at some point, I might want to join a company again or whatever, also make another big game or something… probably not big, I don’t wanna make a big game because that’s another topic. But I want to do something again. But right now it’s extremely enjoyable. You know, you wake up every day you just take a day that you wanna take, I’m not doing things that I don’t want to do. We are trained, brainwashed into being part of a system where everybody grinds so they can pay for their rents. I don’t think that’s natural. I don’t think that’s what we should do. That’s not I wish for humanity the next 200 years. I hope we solve that.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah. That’s really inspiring. I’m happy that you’re enjoying this but I’m also sad that we don’t have you making amazing games but I wish you the best. So, you love music and you make music now that you have more time you do more jams. So, tell me about the music side of Raf. How is it?
Raphael Colantonio: You know I’ve always been into music. I used to be, so If you simplify this, there are three components to music, composing the part, where you come up with something, and there’s performance of it and there’s producing of it. Where you find the right arrangements, you find the effects, you make it sound big. I’ve always been more into the composing part. Performance, I can’t, I’m not that great you know, I make mistakes, I panic if I go on stage. My time would be off or whatever. But I can play. And “producing” I was really bad. I was like not interested. I didn’t even understand things like the compressor. So I took that time, that off time that I had to actually bite the bullet and learn with Logic Pro. So I’ve spent mounts now learning Logic Pro, and it’s kind of new world for me which is amazing, the same like you. I heard your song today and it’s a lot of really cool sounds there, so all those were really obscure to me first when I was listening to this, how people do this? I’m doing this because I’m more like a traditional, bass and guitar kind of guy. So I really dive into that, some of it. Thanks to my friend and audio producer Matt who was also producing my music for Prey and Dishonored. There were few of my songs in Prey and Dishonored and what happened back then I’d give him my stems and the files that I recorded and then he would use my performance and modify it and add some effects, add of some of his own electronics, add beat and put some breaks and turning something really sounds big. And so I loved that collaboration that he and I had and thanks to him I also learned more and more. So now I’m very much in that phase and, you know, I can’t say anything, but the next song that is gonna be published to the video game, that’s actually a pretty cool start.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah, I checked your SoundCloud, it’s amazing man, awesome! So, Raf, you ran Arkane for 18 years. For the people who just are starting their company, especially indie people. What do you suggest? I know that people might get disappointed and give up on their first failure. But you kinda had the same situation, you had problems, but dealt with them so what do you suggest to them? For the newcomers?
Raphael Colantonio: Yeah! You know, contexts are never the same. I can suggest some of the things that can be applied whatever the context is. So, it’s important to notice that context is not the same. In 99, there was not such a thing as Steam or online distribution for example which really, really has changed the game; for the good and the bad by the way. Back then things were really different. There were not so many formats as well. Now you have …, you can make the game with not much if you do an iPhone game. I just played Into the Breach, this is fantastic. I think we could’ve made this game in 1995, there was all the technology for it, and, you know, we did not. And so the game is still modern in its own mechanics and approach and the game loop, all the kind of rogue-like and kind of approach. It’s a fantastic game, I’m playing it every day and at the same time, I’m thinking, Jesus I hope I had made this game. But anyway my point is the advice I would give to anyone, first of all, is only do it if you have something to say and to do. You know, it’s important; it’s making a game so it’s an expression of art. I regret sometimes that I see people just wanna make games to make money, so they gonna take some sort of success that someone else did and they began to cross it and spin on it. If they do that with passion that’s all fine. You do that because the thing to be made it’s just wasting business and making a lot of noise, and adding noise to a very noisy land already. So that is sad to me. What I want or suggest to people is make something that you’re really passionate about, not compromise about it, do not try to say “Oh! What is the market want” just do it with the most passion, and don’t give up and make it the most important thing in your life. That is the other thing, is that all people want to make businesses, is they have this idea oh! You know, be cool if it’s this or that, and then they aren’t really into it or they hope that well maybe there’s a way I can do it on top of my normal job. To me, it’s like when you describe you wanna do this and you have so much passion for that and it’s the most important thing in your life. Then you have to give it all, and …do everything you can to make it happen, and yes it might not work, I mean you never know the of the movie while you’re watching it, by the way, it’s not even a movie because when you watch a movie, you know usually there’s a happy ending. In real life, you’re caught in the middle of events sometimes it is very very lonely, and it’s very depressing. You think it’s not gonna work and nobody understands you. That’s true, you have to go through that, and if you fail, sometimes it’s actually a step towards another step which eventually will lead to success. All those fails are kind of partial successes, and I can refer to a lot of those in the history of Arkane. Of course, when you look at the end of it, I mean 18 years later when I left or whatever, we were in a great shape, and you can say wow Arkane knew what they were doing, but we did not. We went to so many nightmares, many hard times that at the time we had no idea, you know, 10 years later or 18 years later we’d actually be where we were. So every near success is mattered, every failure is mattered, that’s the funny part about it, like in a movie, you look at the result, you know, us being signed by Bethesda for the game of the general that we liked, and you look at the very beginning of Arkane and there’s a link, and the link is that the guy required us was actually a big fan of Arx Fatalis even though the game was broken and even not sell anything and were marked by Publishers after that and did not want to work with us etc. These guys remembered and it took him 15 years to sign with us but he did and that’s the beauty of the story in general of the world that things that happened to them the timelines and how they intersect. So that really crazy that’s what I advise people and the reason why it did happen was because we were uncompromised. Arkane could have gone out of business many times and instead of me signing deal that I would not want to sign for making games that I didn’t want to do or contracting, doing tough stuff for other people that I didn’t wanna do that was not going to serve our agenda and we didn’t do it. So we stayed focused on the message we had and the message was we are into first person games with the high level of simulation, interesting world and the space of possibilities for players that’s all we wanted to do and that’s the only thing that we do. And that send a message to… at first a few thousands fans of Arx Fatalis who loved the game so much and they would kill to get a sequel and also some of them were important people in the industry in fact, even though we didn’t know that and it was not the reason why we were doing it so anyway that’s my advice.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I’m you sure that you have pitched a lot of games to many people for publishing and for founding. What do you suggest to people who want to pitch their idea of their dream project to someone?
Raphael Colantonio: it has to be special for sure for sure if this is your first game, there are things which you don’t have. you don’t have the business part, you cannot say hey I was the guy behind Warcraft or whatever you can’t do that. But that’s fine, but at the very minimum what you can have is your passion. hopefully a demo or if not a demo or at least maybe an animatic or cinematic or anything and by cinematic I don’t mean a story cinematic but more something to show how is the gameplay but I would say the power of fantasy is very important. what is the theme of your game, what is your hero doing, what is interesting about being that guy? So in Dishonored, it was about, being a supernatural assassin if you can say that when you think something people might or might not like being a Supernatural assassin and it’s very communicative if you can having something unique in the game design and in the mechanics. It’s funny but with the chairman of ZeniMax Robert Altman, every time we had a pitch in-house to give him he always asked “what is the special about this game?” and he would insist on that and it’s a good lesson I think what is special in this game is actually a very important thing.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah and what was your unique selling point of Dishonored?
Raphael Colantonio: You know it’s very hard because I would say what the special first of all the setting was special. we had steampunk supernatural assassin so that is something and we had an art style that came with it and that was special because it was very stylized, so it was that it was the world etc. But the gameplay itself, it was hard to explain, it is kind of a first-person shooter it is kind of RPG but not quiet. and you have choices but you don’t really because it’s like a mission after mission so it’s kind of sandbox but not as free as Skyrim, but way more than Doom. It was something in between which was hard place to describe what is the special of your game. So I think you know in this case. we talked a lot of about layering all those mechanics and relying on the simulation so that player could play in their own way so that was a little tagline, play your game say in a steampunk city with a supernatural assassin. And then we would give examples why play your way is interesting as opposed to you know follow the line or something, in our case. So I think That was a special thing about this game.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: In Dishonored you have so many super powers. how do you balance these powers, that’s really hard to not make the player overpowered or something. that’s really amazing in Dishonored.
Raphael Colantonio: Sometimes it was overpowered we usually try not worry too much about making the player overpowered, because I think our approach is trying to come up with something that feels powerful and fun and then, later on, there are two approaches you nerve it, you make it like less powerful or you up the challenge and I think the challenge is more interesting than nothing, to me that’s a rule of thumb unless your power is ridiculously powerful, but it’s like in combat, you have one NPC and our very first iteration of combat was hard against one NPC, it was like chopping wood. it was like you die quickly you had to avoid every hits, and it was not very fun honestly you know it was kind of hard and the tension was high but it was not very fun and when they were two NPCs You do more than that. So when we modified some other takes at some point we come up with a system that if you parry the guy at the right time then you could kill him in one attack. And that felt like pretty badass. it feels like watching a 300 movie or something, and you’re just like chopping guys and being this powerful assassin. But then quickly people say oh now it’s too easy, it’s way too easy and so then you can come back and all the right let’s make it harder and there was not fun anymore, then we said, we should keep it fun and easy as we make it but then add some units send more units to the players, so that the challenge is more about wow now you have three dudes to kill, so yeah. they’re kinda individuals, but when we are together it’s harder and by the way there is one in the background and one is in the back sending rocks at you, and now it starts to be harder, so it’s all about the set-up, it’s not always remembering the systems and gameplay the get also changed and multiply, made easier or harder by the set-up so it suddenly the map has tons of opening, that there is no world or there are places you can fall from or there are cannons shooting at you or whatever and then suddenly the challenge is different and actually something that is easy in an isolated situation can be hard in the context of the set-up.
So that’s kind of our approach and this is the same for the powers to answer your question. When we designed the powers we like them to be not just another weapon, but instead a game modifier, a context modifier, a rule modifier. Something that I cast that power it’s not just that you do damage and you might but most of the time it’s that now the time is slow down or you know you can invent anything. So every object that can be lifted or whatever you want, and so it suddenly changes the rule of the simulation and it creates new opportunities and strategies for the players and even better even those can be combinable or if you can cast one power that has its effects and then cast another one that cast another effect and both affects our kind of like take the game somewhere else again. This is where players love it you know the ones that give this kind of game usually loves that kind of approach.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: So I know you’re a gamer what games are you playing right now?
Raphael Colantonio: Yeah as I said, right now I’ve been spending a lot of time in Into the Breach. I love so many qualities about that game. but let me see other than that I played indie games actually, I think it’s for another conversation, but I found that there are more innovation and interesting things these days in indie games than they are in AAA market. Which is also one of the reasons why I want to get away from AAA markets with Arkane. But I actually do play AAA games like Shadow of War.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Oh! How is it?
Raphael Colantonio: I love it for its nemesis system. it’s a little more of same, I loved the first one and I think the nemesis system and overall the feeling of the game is so great that it keeps me interested but there are moments that it feels a little bit like a grind, I wish there were more than the nemesis system, I think they showed that playing a story is actually a little more interesting than writing a story. I wish all games go to this playing story. by the way that’s why a lot of indie games go there because I think it’s cheaper and also more powerful for the players which pretty much offer story like a movie … and there’s nothing wrong with that but, games have this thing that is called interactivity activity that allows us to take games somewhere else than trying to mimic movies. So that’s why I really appreciate play story games.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: So you mostly play on PC right?
Raphael Colantonio: Yeah both actually … you know, I played Crawl, Hammerwatch, Dark Wood, and Subnautica. Yeah, I spent some time on Subnautica that was pretty fun.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I recently play A Way Out, and it was such an amazing game. Try it out. It’s an amazing game and also inspired by this conversation I started to play Dishonored 2. again here all the way from Austin to Iran. (Showing the box of the game)
Raphael Colantonio: Awesome. Dishonored 2 was made in France actually. to give credits to the right guys. yeah, that was made entirely in France. Back then Harvey actually lived in France for the direction of this project.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah. So, last question is a little bit strange, but what are your views on the current situation of the world? I mean obviously it’s a very dark era but how do you see it? Do you see a light at the end? what is your vision?
Raphael Colantonio: You know, I think that there’s always bad and good and in that, I might be wrong about that, but that feels to me like over the centuries, no matter how hard we have it, it’s still a better life now than we had 200 years ago. people were suffering in the ways that are just not comparable to today’s mostly as if you take the majority of the people. and of course, there are still people that are suffering right now in an unfair situation. there are things that worry me, the effect of social media on people. I think we tend to constantly compare ourselves to the fake lives of others, which is terrible that makes everybody unhappy because I pretend that I’m amazing and you too pretending that you are amazing, and I look at you and I say “Oh my god this guy is amazing” and I’m not and you think the same. So all of us pretending we’re amazing and thinking we’re not so there is this really weird thing about social media and I think it’s dangerous, specifically for the new generations, specifically for our younger generations like my kid etc. People put so much value on how many likes they have etc. this is something that I don’t like. this might be shocking, but I’m actually excited about AI and robotization of things, and I know a lot of people are worried about future with that thinking you know, so this thing might gonna steal my job. like I’m an Uber driver and suddenly I’m not gonna be that anymore. again I would ask the question what is it that you truly want in life? Is it that you want to drive? or you want to do that because the thing that you can do that allows you to pay your rent. so again as I said I wish in 200 years people going to solve the problem of what they want to do in life as opposed to what they have to do in life. In a weird way, I do think AI and machines are going to help us get there even if on the way there would be some difficult stuff that happened. Yes, of course, some people will be losing their job. I wish there was a universal income and that would be part of the solution. Some countries apply universal income and I think that is a lovely idea, where you always have a minimum so that even if what you want to do not work … yeah, you’re not in the best house, but you can live. I think that’s great by the way to encourage people to take risks. and make new game or new company whatever if they have this minimum that they can count on, like parents that pay them but in this case it’s a government, and they can actually take a year and live in a very minimum standards so that they can make this thing that they have in mind, that is their passion. Anyway as far as the world goes, of course, I’m not happy with Trump. It’s probably the weirdest thing that happened to America or the world lately, but I’m pretty optimistic and I think they are some interesting things especially about technology. I’m actually very proud of technology and I’m not afraid of it. so many people are afraid of how it may change us but I think we’re gonna solve some very complex program in the next few years and I’m actually extremely excited about the future. If you look at the world and the way it’s changed in the past 20 years imagine if you were going to Keep that the same curves of changes in 20 years and imagine if we’re going to keep that same course of changes in 20 years, again there would be some drawbacks like the effect of social media and weirdness of online dating, etc. But it comes with a lot of amazing things. Music … talking about music (point to the MIDI controller behind him)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Exactly, I was thinking about the same thing.
Raphael Colantonio: Right? this is why I like the future. and I think they are more possibilities for people, of course, we’re more lost, we’re more confused about our true purpose and happiness, It’s a little harder to achieve, but I think we’re getting close something.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Great! So thank you very much Raf, for having this conversation with me and thank you for all the amazing games you gave us. I remember playing Arx Fatalis as a child and I bought it just because of the box art, It had such a badass box art, You know someone standing behind the light in front of darkness, saying… it’s a fucking dungeon crawler, I’m going to buy this and I enjoyed it game although I was a little bit afraid of it.
Thank you so much and I hope to see you back to the video games again give us awesome experiences. you’re a genius sir, thank you so much.
Raphael Colantonio: Thank you for inviting and I wish you the best, and let me know when your game comes out if you have any demo I would be happy to have a look at them and keep doing cool music and I enjoyed your song you sent me.