“If you develop a game, it is not fun to play it. The exception was Heroes III,” interview with David Mullich

David Mullich is a worldwide known game developer and producer. He worked on the super bestseller Heroes of Might and Magic III and other games from the series, I Have no Mouth, and I Must Scream, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and many other game projects. There is even a hero in Heroes III named after him.

In November 2021, he came to Ukraine to participate in the Games Gathering conference, where he got acquainted with Ukrainian game dev studios and developers. iLogos asked David to give an interview to AIN.UA about the game dev, his experience with famous games, and the future of the game industry.

All photos in the interview by Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

You have over 40 years of experience in game development. How has the industry been changing during this period?

For the last 40 years, games have evolved in many different ways. When I started, the most basic thing was that it was one person — me, myself, and I — I did the design, programming, artwork, and audio for it, all by myself. And then, during the years, things become larger and larger and larger. The last big team I managed had about 50 people. And now there are teams with hundreds and even thousands of people.

Another thing is that AAA project budgets also become larger. The publishers are less risky now because budgets are so big, and games are so expensive to make. Nowadays, continuing a franchise is a very popular way: a publisher and a developer find a successful game, make a sequel for it, then another sequel, etc. (like in movies).

Although just like in movies, there are a lot of innovations from indie studios, the game dev faces the indie game development. And it is much like it was when I started: one person or a small group of people can easily make a game.

And there are a lot of tools available to develop those games. Moreover, an indie developer does not always need a big publisher to release a game because Steam and other platforms exist. But it also is a problem for them. Because it is so much easier to make a game, many people are doing this — a lot of competition. Nowadays, it is much harder to make games known.

One more thing is that now the games have a brighter audience. As I started, it was a hobby of the narrow group — computer nerds. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the number of people over 50 who play games is almost the same as that of gamers under 19. It’s a very bright audience, so the game developers need to work harder to find the audience, including social media. Any developer has to spend at least 25% of the time on marketing.

You speak about game dev as a business. Looking at games as a type of art — how have they changed?

Now you can see how new technologies influence game design. I think the greatest of them are VR and AR. The problem you have with VR is that when you are wearing a headset, you can’t see the environment. That is why I think AR has more potential. However, this technology is not so immersive.

Gamers sometimes claim that games are not hardcore anymore and have become too casual, and it is because of mobile gaming. What do you think about that?

I remember very well when I attended the first game conference in the USA called The Computer Games Developers Conference; its moderators discussed if they should let developers of console games because they are supposed to be “not true” 🙂 Such a discussion has continued for over 30 years, and I don’t understand it.

Games are games. It doesn’t matter whether they are hardcore or casual or something else. If at least one person is having fun by playing it, it is already a real game.

Speaking of VR gaming, do the metaverses, like one from Ready Player One and those Zuckerberg recently explained so much, have perspective?

You don’t really need the VR headsets to build a metaverse and interact with it. You can still add aspects of the multiverse to any platform: PC, console, smartphones, etc. And it happens so. The idea of a multiverse is to be able to see the word, create content, transfer it, and interact with the world and other players. But this is also possible on different platforms and with various technologies.

Let’s dream a bit and imagine how gaming and gamers will look like in 20, maybe 50 years?

If we dream about it, there will be a moment when technologies become invisible to users. You won’t have to worry about having a controller in your hand or a visor in your face. Technologies won’t be a physical limitation to you. Sure, these technologies are in a pretty early stage now. But as we know, technology grows by leaps and bounds. Now we have 3D displays, cloud computing, smartphones, HD graphics, and you never guess that. Who knows what we will have in half of a century?

So forecasting is always a bad thing because you will highly likely be wrong. But I think the game dev technologies will evolve to unbound us from the physical limitations of gadgets we use now for gaming.

What does it feel like to be the author of one of the most popular games in the world? People lose jobs because of your game. So it’s a huge impact. Also, looking back, how do you think the series has evolved with time?

It’s funny. It originally started with Jon Van Caneghem [Editor’s note: author of Might and Magic series]. He was a nerd playing Dungeons & Dragons and brought his love for that game into computers. So, the original version of Heroes appealed to that very small nerd audience. And it appeared today that people from all over had played this game developed from a project for a small group of nerds and geeks to such a broad audience. Even today, an Uber driver told me how he played Heroes. And one of our fans in Belarus showed a picture of his pilot friend who plays Heroes just in his cabin. In particular, here in Eastern Europe, it seems that everyone played this game. It is surprising and makes me happy. It made all the hard work we put into it worth it.

All these questions from fans worldwide show us how much we all need escapism. There are so many difficulties in the world, and it is nice that you can play a game and feel an escape from the problems, although you still have problems to solve in the game world, develop the skill of problem-solving and get a reward for that. It is great games can give this experience, but it is sad the real world doesn’t provide such an experience.

I think a lot of activities in the real world should be gamified. In terms of that, we all get what we need: achievement, recognition, and creativity.

You mentioned many times that you are more popular in this part of the world than in the US. Did you ever consider moving?

I had a wonderful time during all my visits. Actually, it would be fun to go around. My wife plans to retire from her job, stop teaching, so who knows? Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll move.

Speaking of game development, what is the hardest thing about making a game, the Heroes series in particular?

Developing Heroes IV had a lot of difficulties because the team members couldn’t work well with each other. There was not an agreement on the vision of the game. We had problems with development, and I think it impacted the game. Usually, at least what I can remember, when we had issues with games, it was not technical problems. It is always a people problem. Sometimes creative people are difficult to cooperate with, and the trick is to get creative people to collaborate. The first I always remember from the game development process is the people I worked with. It can also be a sort of excuse, “Hey, I am a professional, and I don’t need the soft skills.”

Another moment is that, unfortunately, if you work on a game, it is not fun to play it 90% of the time. You spend a lot of time and effort making the game fun. There were games in my life I didn’t want to start after their release. But the exception was Heroes. It is probably the only game I worked on and played many times after its release. Do you know what? This trip and all the conversations with fans made me remember that I didn’t start it for a while. Maybe it’s time to return to it. To those times when games were fun.

And what games do you like? Do you have time for gaming?

I love puzzles, strategies, and games that require problem-solving. But now, it is hard for me to find time for a hobby. I am always busy either doing work or trying to find work. I feel a bit guilty because making games has taken so much time in my life. Whatever time is left I prefer to spend with my family and maintain some work/life balance.  But if I have time to play, I mostly play casual games, for example, smartphone games like Words with Friends, Jetpack Joyride, Monument Valley. I also love to play board games with my family.

Because of the lack of time, I can’t play big games. However, most of them have a core game loop: you must do the same things repeatedly, and once you learn the mechanics, you don’t need to play any more of it. OMG, it’s been a long time since I could afford to play a game for many hours. The last one I’ve got super addicted to was Candy Crush because my wife was playing it and asked me for help. I miss this hobby, the games.

What is required to become a game developer and create a great game?

First of all, excellent Internet research skills. You can find everything on the Internet — from the info that your audience needs to marketing and publishing. All the helpful knowledge for game development and expertise are available there! Finally, there are forums for game developers to ask questions and be involved in the process.

How can you know would be a game successful or not? Of course, you cannot forecast it, but it’s essential to be passionate about the project. If you don’t, it won’t happen despite all your effort. If you do, you can check if your game can inspire others. But the most important is the realization of the project. You can have a brilliant idea. But if you realize it terribly, it is the end.

Based on the game idea only, it is hard to forecast whether it will be successful or not. Everything depends on its implementation. You can get a sense of it when you involve testers. Even if you get results “it’s boring,” “I don’t understand how to play,” “it’s too hard,” get this feedback and re-iterate it.

But there is no secret recipe for a successful game?

Of course, no, if so, everyone would have successful projects. It’s like a scriptwriter William Goldman said once about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Nobody knows exactly what is gonna be successful. Even the authors of bestseller games don’t know it. You can reverse-engineer your success to learn the reasons. But you won’t necessarily apply it for your next game. The environment is not the same, it has already passed. You must try something new and see if you can discover this secret recipe on your own and remain flexible.

Is it good momentum now to participate in the game dev market?

It is a big industry, and it continues to grow. The more people want to get there, the higher competition. It is a case of if you really want to develop games.

Now you are visiting Ukraine; there are a lot of famous studios and projects here; maybe you plan to collaborate with some of them or perhaps lecture in a Ukrainian university?

I came to visit Games Gathering. I must admit Kyiv is a beautiful city. Your food is simply great. Even for such a short period, I met some game developers and spoke with them. Sure, I am open now, and I will be happy to come here more and cooperate.