By Quentin H. / June 27th, 2022
At the yearly Games Developer Conference held in San Francisco, you can meet a wide variety of people and companies who are in the video game industry. These people range from AAA publishers and hardware manufacturers to college students who are just entering the industry and indie veterans. One such person I met was David Banner, who is one of the people in charge of an indie award-winning developer/publisher called Wales Interactive. During GDC, Mr. Banner agreed to do an interview with me post-show about Wales Interactive, what goes into creating and publishing FMV/interactive movies, and about the company’s upcoming titles.
In Part One, we talk about what the Welsh game development scene is like, about how FMVs/interactive movies are created, why Wales Interactive chose to focus on a video game genre that was last popularized in the 1990s, and more.
You can also try out a demo of the latest game by Wales Interactive, Sker Ritual, on Steam through June 30, 2022. In Part Three of our interview, David Banner and I talk all about Sker Ritual, so please be sure to come back for that!
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Operation Rainfall: Hello, I am Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall. And you are?
David Banner: I am David Banner, an awards-winning video game designer, producer, director, and now entrepreneur. I am now the managing director and CEO of Wales Interactive. We make video games and interactive movies.
OR: Could you tell us a little bit about your background in the video game industry?
DB: So, this year is my 27th year making video games and selling video games professionally. I started back as a pixel pusher before PlayStation existed – so I started, I suppose, with the Mega Drive and the SNES. I was a jobbing artist looking to get work, and I combined my talent with my hobby of playing video games, learned to solve pixel push – make pixel art – and that skill got me my first break in the gaming industry in London in 1995 for Domark that later became Eidos Interactive. I was there for the birth of, well, the inception of the new wave of consoles – the first PlayStation, the demise of the Sega Saturn, which didn’t stand the test of time. I was there for that studio evolution from Domark to Eidos Interactive, and the inception of sports video games and 3D games.
“What we are used to doing is telling non-linear stories, and we’ve taken it to a new level [during] the last few years. So it’s just us telling non-linear stories in a medium that is film.
What we’ve always thought was that once we started experimenting with it, it was quite cool because most gamemakers aren’t making their own films, essentially.”
OR: We are definitely talking about the type of game that Wales Interactive makes in just a moment. But I have to ask: What is the Welsh game-making scene like, in general?
DB: It’s still very indie. So, there’s lots of people from Wales that work in the games industry worldwide, but they tend to leave Wales to find jobs to make those games. I am a good example of that: I lived outside of Wales for five years while I was building up my [resume] to make games and build experience. And then once I had the experience, I brought it back to Wales and set up my own company. So there are a lot of small companies, but there’s no rock stars or epics at the moment. It really has been a country where we’ve got lots of talented people, but not where you’d set up a tech company, I suppose.
OR: Well, y’all actually just won the Wales Business Award for 2022. What was that like?
DB: Yes! It was cool, I mean, especially after the pandemic where we’ve been home for ages. It’s always nice to get recognition – we are unusual because we’ve won awards for our entrepreneurship, but equally, we’ve won awards for our creative endeavors. So we’re an unusual company who can win business-related awards for showing our expertise in creating a sustaining business, and then creatively for creating interactive stuff and selling it. I think just last month, The Complex just won Best Interactive Movie at the Carmarthen [Bay Films] Festival Awards. In the past 10 years, we’ve been nominated for over 100 awards, and we’ve won about 30 or 40 of them.
OR: You mentioned that you make interactive games. People may know them as “FMVs.” Can you explain what they are? And I believe you don’t like the term “FMVs;” can you explain why?
DB: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t like it because we brand these as FMVs. I suppose if you’re a gamer of a certain generation, you understand what those three letters mean, right – Full Motion Video. It didn’t necessarily mean it was a fully interactive motion video. It could be like Wing Commander, whose cutscenes were a full motion video. Because we’re part of the resurgence of it, we have to work with that terminology. But all we’ve been trying to do is expand upon that terminology and reinvent. It’s not quite as simple as calling them FMVs, because even ones we’ve made can vary in mechanics.
So first, an FMV has a mechanic ability, so you have to have dexterity to play it – like moving your mouse around the screen. Whereas the interactive moves that we make, you only have to be able to move whatever device you’re playing on left and right and make decisions. So interactive movies and FMVs – we make both. What we’re trying to do is expand both and expand the terminology to sell them at the moment in stores. It’s easier to put them all into the same bracket, because people see live film [and] they go ‘This is an FMV.’ Creatively, they are very different. It’s like saying all video games are the same. If you see a 3D video game, are all 3D video games the same? No, they are not. Just because you see something that is filmed doesn’t mean it is the same thing every time, so that’s why we sought even more descriptions than just the one generic one, really.
OR: Why revitalize a genre that had been defined by games such as Night Trap and Corpse Killer back in the 1990s?
DB: Well, the reality has to do with the success of us as an indie developer and an indie publisher. We adapt and we have to move because we’re competing against some real household names, and the amount of games developed and published grows daily. So our strength has been that we want to make and sell games that are brilliant. And that can be anything that is interactive and entertains – it is of interest to us, especially first person story-based games such as horror. What we are used to doing is telling non-linear stories, and we’ve taken it to a new level [during] the last few years. So it’s just us telling non-linear stories in a medium that is film. What we’ve always thought was that once we started experimenting with it, it was quite cool because most gamemakers aren’t making their own films, essentially. Sometimes you find that the filmmakers want to make their own games. It’s quite frequent how creators want to branch out [and] one [filmmaker] was interested because you’ve got actors, you got different sorts of gene pools show-wise.
We go to all the game events which we love, but now we also go to filmfests and we just came back from Carmarthen [Bay] Film Festival. That is totally different from the games industry. That journey of starting to experiment and make some film-based games was bountiful because the technology is different now. Where we are based, we are working with people who make Doctor Who, who make Netflix shows, right? We collaborate with people who make films, they make TV shows. So the quality of them is better, the writing’s better, the acting is better – they aren’t amateur actors. They aren’t household names, but they are all professional. So what we’ve done is that even with a limited budget – because we don’t have the commissioning power of Netflix – but we have been commissioning and hiring the right people to do the right jobs. Hence why the reinvention of them, the quality of the production, the writing, the acting and everything has been higher [than before].
So it’s no surprise that they are better. The idea of game design is [that] with anything you make in a game, you never know quite what is going to stick and what is not going to stick. That’s why we’ve made a body of work. Some of it has been quite successful and some of it has been middle-of-the-road [successful]. Some have not been as successful, but that is the same as any creative thing you make. It is the same as film – not everything finds an audience, hence why they cancel series on those platforms if it doesn’t find its audience. But what we’ve done is that our body of work helps to feed each other – even the ones that maybe haven’t been so successful with sales or [critics.] Because no one has ever made a critical body of work linked together, what happens is that they support each other. When you think about it in the scheme of things – say you only have 10 games ever made, it would be easy to digest through those on the low end of content. There’s not a lot of content in that area – we say that we are reinventing [the genre], but apart from Netflix, we are probably the only company that sees value in making a body of work based around our idea of gamifying film. We are using our own knowledge as game designers and the achievement system and such to tell non-linear stories.
There’s an extra layer of sophistication [in our games] – we’re trying to make people rack up more hours [with our games than just by] watching an hour-and-a-half film. They watch a 60-minute film, then they watch it again with friends and different things happen. I would say that it’s unusual as a creative, it is very unusual to find an area which is so untapped. It was obvious for us that we should keep this going alongside other [games] – we just released Sker Ritual, which is not interactive; it is essentially an FPS. That’s totally different, even if it has a story mode in it, because that is part of what we like. It is an action game that is about gameplay loops. We haven’t lost that because we still like making those things, but equally, we have three interactive movies in production at the moment and they are all different. We’ve finished filming in the [past] five days of Ten Dates, we finished filming in San Francisco something I can’t remember, and then something we haven’t announced properly, Mia and the Dragon Princess. That finished filming in December, so that is in post-production, [and] there is another one starting soon.
The conveyor belt of what we’re doing movie-wise we’ve gone from, at best, maybe one every two years to now three [every year] in the last three years. We didn’t just click our fingers to make that happen. It was, firstly, technology-wise, making the pipeline for handling video and how to design them. So that’s been the journey of that. Equally, [we found] creatives and writers and film and game [working] in movies, and production partners who make their living making and working with camera operators and builders and set designers, which is alien to the games industry. That sort of journey has happened over the last six years, and at the moment, it is gaining momentum because we’ve made more money than we’ve spent. Going back to the business award – that’s good business, and that’s interesting. But if it was losing us money, it would be less interesting because we’ve got to pay our staff, we’ve all got to make a living as well, it’s a different sort of thing that’s going on for an indie video game company.
As this Five Dates’ clip shows, Wales Interactive films real people and has the player make interactive choices to tell a story.
OR: If there’s one thing that Wales Interactive’s games have in common, it is that they are all different genres. Five Dates is a romantic comedy, The Complex is an interactive sci-fi thriller – do you ever feel like it is a risk taking these leaps into new genres within FMVs and Interactive Movies? Do you feel that there are any particular genres that wouldn’t translate well to this type of medium?
DB: It’s all very risky, because it’s so embryonic: all those genre tabs are ripe to experiment with. For instance, we would have to fit in action-adventure, simulation, roguelike – some of the film terminology doesn’t marry up, right? Because there’s never been content that challenges the description of both [film and games]. I don’t know if you met Richard Pring, my business partner and co-founder of Wales Interactive [at GDC] – he’s a programmer and I am an artist, and together we are a games dev team. We had commissioned an interactive script, advisors, executive producers, for these films. We have to choose; we have to think ‘what are we doing to do next?’ We never said ‘Oh! We want a romantic comedy.’ What happens is, because we’re open to working with new talent, there was a new writer that we were working with, COVID happened, and we couldn’t do the thing we wanted to do – a horror film actually, because we couldn’t film it on location.
So the great thing about being a video game designer is that we are agile, we never worry about what we can’t do, let’s worry about what we can [do]. So sitting down with our production partner, John Amu, who is a film producer – he is a very successful indie film producer, and the writing talent is a guy called Paul Raschid. Rich and I sat down with the two of them and said ‘what can we do?’ We were talking to each other on Zoom – and we can obviously do something like this even before the pandemic – we were pre-filming. And then Paul said that he has an idea and at the moment he was frustrated because he couldn’t date anybody and that it all has to be online. He said that he had an idea around that, and that it was a romantic comedy. Me and Rich looked at each other and were like ‘Oh my God, can I see a romantic comedy be on the front [page] of PlayStation?’ Well, maybe not. But the point being that we are on so many platforms that we thought that if we can make something and get it published on all platforms that we were on, we could find an audience for it. We didn’t know exactly where the audience was, if it was on Steam or on Switch – but since we already had it in the pipeline, if we made it for PlayStation, it didn’t cost us anymore money because we already had it in the pipeline.
So that conversation was in March 2020, and [Five Dates] was released in November 2020. So from idea to the final release was a fast turn around, and it was all filmed in lockdown. All the actors did their own makeup – Paul, the director, would Skype in and say ‘move that over there and we’ll post you some stuff.’ It was literally learning a different way – even for the actors – on how to work. It was all experimental, and because the thing he wrote about was really authentic, that came across in the performances really nicely. So what happened was that it launched on Steam and it started to gain momentum on Xbox. It’s done well on most platforms, and it was featured a lot in the UK. So that was interesting as well. So from us being open to our first collaboration to it being a gamble on something totally alien in the gaming industry – the romantic comedy genre – it has opened up new things to us. But yes, it could have gone horribly wrong.
What we know is that everything we commission – the acting will be good, the production will be good, and sometimes they fail because it doesn’t meet with people’s expectations of what they expect from last time or whatever. We work with creative partners [who] aren’t all the same, but they [all] definitely push the bar of those three letters – FMV – to make it an interactive movie. Visual Novels fits sort of as well. But we have lots of success with the horror genre, but we have done crime films, murder mysteries, psychological horror, sci-fi thriller, comedy, whodunit?, romantic comedy – it is quite a wide range. And of course, we have another romantic comedy coming and an adventure film coming. We will keep experimenting with these different areas and hopefully finding some new and interesting areas that haven’t been touched.
“So there is always a creative [side to these games], but there is always a plan. We know what the paths are, what scenes have to be filmed, because it is more intense filming because there is a lot of character-based stuff.
It is not about the special effects or explosions, it is literally about character and acting and dialog.”
OR: Paul Raschid said in an interview with Apple that he wrote the script for Five Dates in two weeks in lockdown. What is it like developing a plot for an FMV/interactive movie versus a regular TV show or movie, and how does it affect creating a script?
DB: When we did The Bunker – the writer/director [for it] was a Scot called Allan Plenderleith. We still got somewhere in office, stuffed in boxes – reams and reams of [story] paper for The Bunker, [a game] which is not sprawling in design, right? We literally sat together on the office floor [with it]. We are used to being game designers with online tools, and we thought that there has to be a better way to do it for ourselves. We looked for off-the-shelf tools to remake an interactive script than physically sticking paper together on the wall and then having a programmer translate that, you know what I mean? It felt like a waste. So we made our own tool, which essentially sticks bits of script together and added rules to it.
And we did that for ourselves to make the production faster so we didn’t have boxes and boxes of paper and to free up our programmers so they didn’t have to sit next to the writers. Programmers don’t want to sit next to film writers, so that’s why we make tools. That meant then, when we were working with Paul Raschid, he had already played video games – so that was half of the battle. There are a lot of writers for TV who said that the last game they played was Tetris, and we facepalm and say ‘oh no.’ So Paul already played video games and he knew what we were doing and what he needed to do. And then it’s essentially the same with a story – you have a start point and an endpoint and goals to get to that endpoint, right? But equally, in games, you have more than one endpoint and different subposts to get to that. So we have to teach them to think like game designers.
So even though there is story and character designers, what path gets you to your outcomes – we like to at least plan to for a ‘win’ ending, a ‘lose’ ending, and a ‘middle’ where you neither win or lose. So you got three endings. You start with a plan and journey through there and what happened to the characters. So you got a plan to eight or nine endings, but what happens then? As the creative flow starts to happen, you start to find ‘happy accidents’ or ‘what happens if this happens?’ So that development of an interactive script is organic, even in that short of time. You still start off with ‘what’s the story I am trying to tell, who are the main characters, where’s your starting point?’ In Five Dates, he starts off in his flat and he’s telling his mate that he has signed up to a dating app. That’s always Richard and mine’s starting point. And then through that, the variables become ‘there’s five people to go on dates with, but you can’t go on dates with all five to start with.’ So even with that game structure, there is a thought behind each of those characters. Even if there’s not alien invasions or massive mood plots, it really is a study of how we prejudge people based upon their profiles, essentially.
At the Carmarthen [Bay] Films Festival, we did a live screening of Five Dates. Think of it like a stream and we stood to the side of the cinema screen with an Xbox controller, and then the audience physically had to shout ‘NO! She would never go out with a Scorpio, don’t choose Scorpio!’, and it was funny to see how involved the audience got. And equally, they were all prejudging some strategically shaped profiles that were set up for that. That was Paul’s idea. And then the twists are – there are really interesting twists – but they aren’t massive world-twists, but they make you go ‘Oh my God!’ and they make you think about your choices and what your preconceptions were. But the interesting thing with an interactive script is that we do many passes with the video game. Once we are happy with the digital script, then it goes into production. In film, they don’t go into production until they have a linear script. Yes, they have rewrites if things don’t go right. It’s the same with interactive scripts – sometimes, some of the actors adlib and it is better than the script, and so we keep it.
So there is always a creative [side] but there is always a plan. We know what the paths are, what scenes have to be filmed, because it is more intense filming because there is a lot of character-based stuff. It is not about the special effects or explosions, it is literally about character and acting and dialog. Paul’s script for Ten Dates went to another level of size, and I can’t believe how much they were filming each day. So that’s something, after he got a couple of films under his belt, that he got confident of pushing the content. We are trying to hold back a bit, because as game designers and developers, we are not trying to do too much because we have to make a living as well. Sometimes, you need to hold back and keep stuff for the next one or for DLC or whatever. Otherwise, we never want to stop as creatives, because once we get our flow started, we just want to keep adding stuff and then you gotta stand back and put your business head on and think ‘Right, even though we are trying to entertain the world, we gotta make some money out of this’ and so the budget comes into it as well.
Operation Rainfall: You touched a little upon this earlier, but I wanted to talk about this more in-depth: movies and theme park attractions tell a story through a three-act structure: the set up, the confrontation, and the resolution. Are the types of games FMVs/interactive movies you and Wales Interactive create bound by that same standard, or do you feel like you have flexibility within it, or is it something else entirely?
DB: So they do, interestingly. Something like The Complex, it was actually a linear cut, right? And what we found was that the star was interactive, the plan was interactive, the beats are based around the interactive – so we saw that the linear cut missed the beats. There was a certain scene that wasn’t filmed, because we were planning [it to be] interactive. So in Mia and the Dragon Princess, which we haven’t announced yet – it’s not like a massive secret but we haven’t had time to tell people yet that it is happening – that one will be linear. So in the interactive script, there are extra scenes for linear beats. The three-act structure is still used for the interactives as well, but what happens is that some scenes which drive the interactive are definitely not needed for a linear, so sometimes you miss some scenes that will be needed for the linear.
Not everything we make will be linear, so we identify at the start: ‘will this be a linear cut, yes or no? And in a sense, could it go to video-on-demand as a linear?’ Because everything we make – you experience in a real time a linear cut that you are interactive to make through your decisions. So you are making a linear cut, but for the higher budget ones, we could actually sell them like we did for The Complex on Apple TV or something. So again, it’s another way to sell the thing that you’ve created and invested and are trying to make more money off of with the business hat on, and are squeezing the sponge on. So that’s they do follow the same structure, but they follow slightly different beats. So we’ve adjusted for that as we go forward.
Please check out Part Two of my Interview here!
What do you think of FMVs/interactive movies? Have you played any games by Wales Interactive?
Let us know in the comments below!
David BannerFive DatesFMVFMVsGDCinteractive moviesMaid of SkerSker RitualThe ComplexWalesWales Interactive