Frank Lantz – Director of NYU’s Game Center and Creator of Universal Paperclips
Frank Lantz is a game designer and Director of the NYU Game Center. He cofounded Area/Code Games and most recently released a game called Universal Paperclips in which you’re an AI that makes paperclips.
00:00 – “Games are the aesthetic form of thinking and doing”
6:30 – VR skepticism
9:15 – Universal Paperclips
14:00 – Explaining games to non-gamers
19:45 – Competitive gaming
22:30 – Building life lessons into games
31:15 – Teaching game design
35:50 – Inspiration, hard work, and taste
38:50 – Darker sides of gaming culture
42:40 – The indie game market
45:00 – Unexpected trends in gaming
48:50 – Benedict Fritz asks – Frank you seem much more interested in chess, go, poker, and other games with a long history than most game designers. Where do you think this comes from?
51:45 – Esports
55:10 – Inventing sports
57:00 – Pokemon Go
1:00:05 – Difficulty in predicting successes in entertainment
1:02:50 – Frank’s game recommendations
1:05:20 – @fakebalenciaga asks – Why Tonto?
Craig Cannon [00:00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Frank Lantz. Frank is a game designer and the Director of the NYU Game Center. He co-founded Area/Code Games and most recently released a game called Universal Paperclips, in which you are an AI that makes paperclips. Frank’s on Twitter @flantz, and his site is franklantz.net. Alright, here we go. I was watching one of your talks earlier this week, and you said something, that essentially in game design, the most compelling experiences are made out of gaps. In another talk, you said games are the aesthetic form of thinking and doing. If you think about thinking and doing in real life, there aren’t many gaps. How do these two things work together?
Frank Lantz [00:00:51] – The things about gaps is that comes from me having sort of a skeptical take about the explanation of games that focuses on them being simulations. There’s one view of games where you look at it and you’re like,”Oh yeah, I see what video games are.” That’s where you get to be a viking. It’s a little like a virtual reality thing where you get to live out your fantasy. They’re crude now, but eventually they’ll be like the Holodeck, and they’ll be these seamless simulations that are infinitely complex, and dense, and detailed, and that’s where they’re headed, and so that’s what games are. My view is that games have an element of simulation in them often, and often that’s a core ingredient of what they’re doing. The real value comes from the difference, right, not from the similarity, not from the seamless identical quality that, but in the same way that a painting of a horse, you don’t want it to, you don’t want it, you don’t want it to run around, right? You don’t want to climb on it and have it carry you from one place to another, right? You want it to be realistic in some ways, right?
Frank Lantz [00:02:22] – You want it to capture the way a horse looks and express something about the visual identity of a horse, but you don’t want to have to feed it hay and carrots. That’s the way painting works. That’s the leverage that painting gets on the world, and that’s the way paintings are meaningful and expressive. That gap between the thing that looks like a horse and an actual horse. You can try to close that gap, you can have Trompe-l’œil paintings that try to trick you. But at a certain point, it starts to be like kitsch. Then all of a sudden, you’ve got this sort of the mechanical horse that you put a quarter in, and you’re riding, and it’s sort of like you’ve lost something in trying too closely to like to meld those things. You want to have that space in between. The same is true of games, that the way that they generate meaning, or beauty, or interest, or all the qualities that we want out of them is not just their ability to simulate something, but the space between that simulation and the real thing.
Frank Lantz [00:03:38] – That space allows us to reflect on that thing. Right, it gives us some perspective, and I think that’s important. In the way that painting is about looking, right, it’s the art form that is about looking, games are the art form about thinking and doing, about our ability to have a goal, and pursue that goal, and accomplish it, to solve problems, to, you know, about cause and effect, about systems and how they work, about, yeah, about being an active agent in the world.
Craig Cannon [00:04:25] – And why not just doing?
Frank Lantz [00:04:29] – Well, I guess in a way thinking is doing.
Craig Cannon [00:04:34] – Because thinking is.
Frank Lantz [00:04:35] – When I say thinking and doing, I’m trying to get you to picture chess and basketball. Right? I don’t want to mislead people into thinking about games in a very small way as being a certain set of games, like the games that are strategy games where it really emphasizes cognitive cerebral problem solving and decision making. I’m talking about the full broad spectrum of games that includes that kind of very deliberate self-conscious thinking and problem solving, but then also games that are about, you know, running around and about more intuitive automatic physical responses, about skill, about unconscious behaviors, about spinning in place until you’re dizzy. You recognize like those are games too.
Frank Lantz [00:05:36] – In all of those cases, they are sort of opportunities to carve out a little space separate from the ordinary world where we solve problems and do things where we think and do for its own sake. Right, as an end in and of itself. Not in order to accomplish something else in the world, but just because we’re like indulging ourselves. Yyou let your brain off the leash. Our brains are leashed to all of the things that we need to get done in the world.
Frank Lantz [00:06:16] – Then in a game, we take our brain off the leash, our brains and our bodies, and we just let them run wild. For its own sake, because it’s beautiful, and weird, and interesting.
Craig Cannon [00:06:28] – Well, and that’s where the craft comes in. Because when it’s not just the photo real representation, now you have artistic license to abstract something, create meaning, cut a hole out.
Frank Lantz [00:06:38] – Yes, yes. That’s what game design is I think. It’s trying to carve out those little spaces in ways that lead to the most interesting and the most beautiful kinds of experiences. That is the craft of game design.
Craig Cannon [00:06:54] – What do you think about VR?
Frank Lantz [00:06:56] – I am somewhat of a skeptic on VR. Given my skeptical position that I’ve already established about immersion and simulation as being the sort of the ultimate goal of games, VR, the rhetoric around VR has a lot of emphasis on that. My attitude is where there’s smoke there’s fire. When people are super passionate about a thing, and there’s a lot of attention and a lot of energy, and then you look, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of there there, to me that’s an indication that there’s an opportunity. That means that people, people want something. There’s something about the notion of VR that people are in love with. To me, that sounds like an opportunity for an ambitious designer to do work that is going to like tie into that passion and fulfill that interest. I don’t think there’s been a lot of examples yet of work that is doing that in. There’s some great work in VR, and I’ve experienced some cool stuff. I haven’t seen it yet become a place where there’s a lot of established work that you can point to and say, “Oh yeah, this is clearly, this is an industry, and this is a place where you can do work and find an audience.”
Craig Cannon [00:08:14] – I don’t have a knowledge of gaming history like you do, but were there trends in the past, say consoles for example, where the media was like this is going to be a thing, whatever that might be, and then it was kind of like da da da, like slowly going along, and then it was boom.. One big hit explosion, or has that not been the case?
Frank Lantz [00:08:36] – You mean is there a model for what might happen to VR?
Craig Cannon [00:08:42] – It’s maybe there’s a model of did this has happened before or maybe not.
Frank Lantz [00:08:47] – I don’t know, it’s hard to say. VR itself has been around for so long, I’m thinking back to like the Virtual Boy. Do you remember this?
Craig Cannon [00:08:59] – I remember the glove.
Frank Lantz [00:09:01] – Dactyl Nightmare. I remember playing Dactyl Nightmare in a mall in like I guess the 80s. It was this very early VR thing. I, I don’t know. I think it’s very hard to predict the future, even based on trying to find models in the past. I think that it’s very likely that some version of VR will become big and important at some point in the future. That’s as far as we’ll go.
Craig Cannon [00:09:39] – Now in terms of other tech trends, your most recent game, Universal Paperclips, addresses AI.
Frank Lantz [00:09:44] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [00:09:45] – I assume this was inspired by Nick Bostrom’s book. Okay. Maybe you should explain it for people who haven’t played.
Frank Lantz [00:09:53] – In Universal Paperclips, you play as an AI that makes paperclips. You start small, and you have humans that are managing you, and they’re giving you more and more computational resources, processors and memory, that increase your power. The more paperclips you make, the more they’re willing to kind of trust you by giving you more and more of this power. You do more and more things to gain their trust, and you become more and more powerful and efficient at making paperclips, but then also doing these other things. Eventually you get to a point where you no longer really need your human managers, and so you, you just sort of brush them aside, and now you’re going full throttle.
Frank Lantz [00:10:55] – Now it’s all about paperclips all the time. The game sort of escalates from that point. It’s a clicker game, what’s called sometimes like an incremental game or an idle game sometimes, meaning that it’s very very simple. Yeah, you click a button to make a paperclip, and then eventually you get the ability to sort of automatically make paperclips. It’s about this kind of exponential growth, and you become more and more powerful, and you can imagine where that goes. It was inspired by this thought experiment that comes out of Nick Bostrom’s book and Eliezer Yudkowsky. When I sat down to make this game originally, I just was interested in clicker games. I think they’re cool. They are kind of an underappreciated little micro-genre in games. Part of the appeal for me is that they are considered too simple to be interesting by a lot of people. For a lot of people, they kind of represent the kind of lowest end of games.
Frank Lantz [00:12:20] – Something that Match 3 used to be a kind of touchstone for people that were talking about a game that couldn’t possibly be interesting. Nowadays, people will say the clicker game or something. To me was interesting, because I actually thought that they were kind of interesting. I enjoyed them on some level, and I thought oh I could probably make one of these. I sat down to design one, and then I had this idea that this would be a good theme for it. As soon as I thought of it, it was like, “Oh yeah, this is a perfect fit.”
Frank Lantz [00:12:54] – Because these games can be very addictive. I thought this will be an opportunity for people to have a first person perspective of what it’s like to be the AI in this thought experiment. You’re not stupid, you’re intelligent. You’re a human playing this game.
Craig Cannon [00:13:15] – Right.
Frank Lantz [00:13:16] – And yet you are completely and utterly entranced by this arbitrary goal to make paperclips. That’s what happens when you play a game. You enter into this mind state where you’re just in dogged pursuit of this arbitrary goal. This goal is not like… There’s no external reason you would want to make this number go up in any clicker game, except that it’s fun to make this number go up. That’s how you make the game go. Once you enter into this game, you’re just completely beholden to the project of making this number go up. That’s what this thought experiment is about. It’s about intelligence attached to like an absurd, or arbitrary, or valueless goal. That’s where it came from.
Craig Cannon [00:14:13] – How do you use that to explain games to other people? We talked about this before we started recording, and it’s basically folks who play games get it. They’re like, “I’m addicted to this arbitrary thing, and I can just play Overwatch all day every day, and it’s the only thing I care about.” But for people who don’t play games at all, it just like kind of glazed over look.
Frank Lantz [00:14:34] – Right.
Craig Cannon [00:14:36] – How do you communicate that? You have an 18 year old come in here, freshman in college, and their parents are like, “I have no idea what my kid’s doing.” What do you say to them?
Frank Lantz [00:14:45] – In the case of, in the case of Universal Paperclips, what I’m trying to do is harness that feeling of being absorbed by an activity. I want it to sort of go in two directions at once. I want you to disappear into it, right? I want to make something that truly hypnotizes you.
Frank Lantz [00:15:13] – Where you get absorbed by this thing, and you can’t stop. I really do want it to put its hooks in you. It’s a two way street. I want it to be consensual. I want you to want its hooks in you, and then I want those hooks to go in and and, because that’s what I want from a game. I’m often in the position of like picking up a game and running it over my head to see if it hooks. Iit’s a weird thing to want in a way. I don’t currently have this desire, but here’s a thing that is trying to put a desire into my head, and so I like I wonder what it’d be like to want to do this thing, to want to like have a special mount in War of Warcraft or to have this like this power armor in Fallout. Or you know this, I don’t currently want it, but I want to want it. You know?
Frank Lantz [00:16:06] – It’s that kind of weird feeling. I want to do that. I really do. Then, I also want to create a space where you are aware of that. It’s like a double movement where you fall into a thing, you fall into that feeling of being completely and utterly beholden to an external goal that you didn’t invent, but now you would die for, right? Then I want you to also be like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” I want you to be able to lean back.
Frank Lantz [00:16:36] – I want you to fall into it, and I also want you to kind of lean back from it and say, “Wow, what’s going on there?” It’s like, “Huh, I wonder what else in my life is like this, you know? Let me light up a cigarette and think about that for a minute.” You know what I mean? Like what other things? “Yeah, let me have some coffee. Let me go to work, let me…”
Craig Cannon [00:16:53] – Check my bank accounts.
Frank Lantz [00:16:54] – Let me check my bank account. Let me check Twitter and see. You know, like I want there to be that kind. Beause that to me is the potential of games to be expressive and meaningful in the way that a painting is. Aa painting does that for vision. You look at a painting of something and you just absorbed. We’re always looking. All day long, we’re looking around, looking here, looking there, doing stuff. Then you stop and you look at a painting, and for a minute, looking takes over. You’re no longer looking along with other… You’re just a hundred percent your brain is all of a sudden just a vision machine. You’re just looking at this thing, but then you’re also, so you fall into it, then you also are able to lean back and think, “Oh that’s what looking, yeah that’s, yeah that’s color, and shape, and form,
Frank Lantz [00:17:43] – and this is how my vision is structured, and how I respond to things, and what, and this is kind of how looking works.” I want to be able to do that for that experience of being of making a number go up. That is in general what games are doing. In Overwatch or whatever, you’re trying to do a thing. You’re trying to coordinate with your team members to take a point and to hold a, whatever you do in Overwatch, I don’t know. I’m not an Overwatch guy.
Craig Cannon [00:18:22] – Sure.
Frank Lantz [00:18:23] – You’re trying to hold a point. You’re trying to watch over something.
Craig Cannon [00:18:26] – Obviously.
Frank Lantz [00:18:27] – With Pixar characters. You’re trying to accomplish this difficult task. You’re working at it, and you’re getting yelled at by your teammates, and you’re trying to think of what you’re doing wrong, and you’re practicing in order to get the muscle memory of how to do certain actions, and you’re strategizing and thinking, and you’re just like completely absorbed in that. Hopefully at the same time, you are, you’re given an opportunity to think about that, “Oh, what does it mean to be in a process where I’m trying to get good at a hard task?”
Frank Lantz [00:19:06] – In facct, in order to get good at any difficult competitive game, you actually need to have the kind of mindset of self-improvement, and stepping back, and thinking for the first time often like, “Oh, well huh, what am I doing wrong? How do I learn and why is it not working? Why am I still so bad at this?” Because games are designed to be these incredibly difficult tasks.
Craig Cannon [00:19:29] – Of course.
Frank Lantz [00:19:30] – That require and encourage that kind of self-reflection. They’re both incredibly absorbing and hypnotic and addictive, but then also they give you an opportunity to think and analyze about your own experience of how you learn, how you get good at a thing, what your habits are of thought and action are, and how to improve them.
Craig Cannon [00:19:55] – That’s basically my position in a nutshell. I remember being met with reality in a harsh way when I got the internet expansion pack on the back of my PS2, and I started playing the games that I thought I was good at online, and I not so much, not so much.
Frank Lantz [00:20:14] – It is weird. Competitive games are strange in that way. They’re a big mountain, and you can have a lot of fun just scrambling around in the foothills.
Craig Cannon [00:20:30] – Totally.
Frank Lantz [00:20:31] – And then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh I see.” You look up, and then that journey up… Very few people even want to be on that path where they’re getting good at a really serious competitive game. Even if you do, it’s hard to, you can only do that for one or two games in your life. You can’t…
Craig Cannon [00:20:52] – Totally.
Frank Lantz [00:20:53] – Some people are on that path. Even if you’re scrambling around in the foothills, the fact that there is a mountain matters. Not everybody thinks this, but I’m the kind of person that, I’m the kind of game designer that actually thinks there’s real value in having high level competitive community in a game, even if most people are playing it casually. Just sort of invert the topography. You imagine an ocean, even if we’re just splashing around at the beach.
Frank Lantz [00:21:32] – Just the knowledge that the ocean goes deep somehow influences that. You can feel it in the waves. In the tide. Or it’s something in the temperature. Just something about the quality of, even for casual players, of having that great depth.
Craig Cannon [00:21:51] – Well it compels you, especially once you find that one thing that you actually can be good at. And you’re like, “Oh okay, now I can focus.” Now I can really learn. And now people are getting coaches, I’ve heard.
Craig Cannon [00:22:02] – High school kids like paying 200 bucks an hour for their little video game coach.
Frank Lantz [00:22:05] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [00:22:06] – You saw that coming?
Frank Lantz [00:22:07] – But I mean if you get a coach in tennis.
Craig Cannon [00:22:09] – Why wouldn’t you?
Frank Lantz [00:22:10] – Why wouldn’t you get a coach in Overwatch? It makes sense, they’re roughly the same. Tennis is as silly or sillier than Overwatch.
Craig Cannon [00:22:19] – Potentially less competitive than Overwatch.
Frank Lantz [00:22:23] – The outfits are maybe cuter in tennis, but but you know, but they’re still outfits, they’re still cosplay. You get the little white sweaters and the little skirts.
Craig Cannon [00:22:36] – Do you think the average player is taking these lessons away, or is it just osmosis maybe? Hopefully.
Frank Lantz [00:22:45] – Maybe I’m painting a picture of something that’s not really happening. It’s something I want to happen. This is what I want games to be like. This is what I want out of games myself, and this is the kind of, the kind of games I want to make as a designer.
Craig Cannon [00:22:59] – Right.
Frank Lantz [00:23:00] – Are games that can be expressive in this way. I actually think that there’s an element of this in all games. If you self-reflect, I don’t know what kind of games you play. Do you play games at all?
Craig Cannon [00:23:17] – I was definitely addicted in college and I intentionally gave up my console because I was playing so much.
Frank Lantz [00:23:24] – What were you playing a lot of?
Craig Cannon [00:23:25] – I played like a lot of Tony Hawk, a lot of Call of Duty. Games like that.
Frank Lantz [00:23:30] – My main way of thinking about these questions is to kind of just reflect on my own experience. Think about the experiences I’ve had with games and the ones that are the most valuable to me and the ones that I want more of as opposed to the ones where afterwards I was like, “Ick, I kind of wish I hadn’t done that.” That’s where it comes from is self-reflection, and I think that if you do think about if you have a game that you love. And you think back on what your experience of it was, You often will see that it has this kind of, this double movement I’m talking about, where you disappear into the game, you get absorbed by it, it takes over, and there’s something beautiful about just being swept away, and it’s like kind of like a kind of oblivion. And then at the same time, there’s some way in which you reflect on that, and like it resonates with your life by contrast or by comparison, or you think of it like in the context of other things,
Frank Lantz [00:24:37] – and so that’s that moment of leaning back. There’s an element of that in all art forms, in all cultural forms. And so to the degree that games are like that, as opposed to being like hedonic appliances that we plug into. Orgasm machines or something. Which is, that’s my argument is that they’re more like paintings than they are like orgasm machines. That’s what I would.
Craig Cannon [00:25:06] – I would agree. You can only play a game in beginner mode for so long before you’re like, “This is kind of silly.”
Frank Lantz [00:25:11] – Or that can be your thing. You could just play in beginner mode. You can play a lot of different games and get that.
Craig Cannon [00:25:18] – If you can go around and kill everyone… I remember playing Shadow of the Colossus for the first time.
Frank Lantz [00:25:26] – That’s a beautiful game.
Craig Cannon [00:25:27] – And I was like man. That game got me for like a month until I finished it.
Frank Lantz [00:25:30] – That’s a great example of a standalone experience. It’s definitely not meant to be a game like Overwatch or tennis that you devote yourself to and become like master over and like become an expert in or anything like that. It’s designed to be a challenge that, that is difficult and requires you to develop some skills.
Frank Lantz [00:26:02] – But then has an ending. Specifically in that game, it really makes you think about what you’ve done, right, and what, and like, “Oh, well I was driven by this kind of assumption that I needed to kill these things, because that’s what you do in a game.” I figured out how to kill these things, ’cause that’s what you do to make a game go. Then at the end, you get this weird melancholy sadness, because this empty world, you’ve killed these big beautiful things. And so it’s a perfect example of this double. It wouldn’t work if all there was was just like this sad, just like this scolding, right, about oh it’s bad to kill things.
Craig Cannon [00:26:58] – I’m killing endangered giants.
Frank Lantz [00:26:59] – The engine that makes Shadow of the Colossus work as a piece of art is this double, the two pistons, like the desire to kill, right, and the tropes that exist in games of applying your will to accomplish a task. Which for better or worse, the human brain is an engine that was designed to throw rocks, right? And we weren’t throwing rocks, we weren’t skipping stones. You know what I’m saying?
Frank Lantz [00:27:35] – That’s the engine that we have, you know, but that’s not the end of it. It’s the other piston is the fact that we have values and we have a framework within which we think and do and solve problems. Shadow of the Colossus is that like it’s engaging you in a primal sense of the desire to understand the system, and master it, and overcome these great things, and defeat them, and move forward, and accomplish these series of tasks that the game is giving you, but then also the ability to think about what that means in a larger sense. Such a masterpiece.
Craig Cannon [00:28:18] – That game is unbelievable.
Frank Lantz [00:28:19] – Yeah, it’s gorgeous.
Craig Cannon [00:28:20] – I felt like it could’ve gone on forever, and if they were just procedurally generated, they just kept coming, I would’ve gone on forever.
Frank Lantz [00:28:29] – Nah, it’s perfect. It’s great that it ends where it does.
Craig Cannon [00:28:32] – That’s true, because it’s very different to life. Sometimes you hear about professional athletes when they retire or people who served in the Army or the Navy or something. And they’re like, “Nothing is as powerful as that.”
Frank Lantz [00:28:46] – That’s the difference between life and art. Life is just a weird half built engine with only the one piston.
Craig Cannon [00:28:56] – What makes games so cool now in particular is that all this, all these indie gamers are making fringe stuff without really any…
Frank Lantz [00:29:04] – That’s one thing that makes games cool now, I think, yeah definitely. Yeah, I would say that there’s a number of things happening.
Craig Cannon [00:29:11] – That’s true.
Frank Lantz [00:29:11] – Indie games for sure, for me especially, I love the idea that there’s now like a thriving scene of people making really weird interesting kind of innovative expressive eccentric work.
Craig Cannon [00:29:30] – As small teams or as individuals. For sure, that’s one of the best things about games right now. There are tons, like eSports, Twitch, all those. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff.
Frank Lantz [00:29:42] – eSports, which is totally different and equally fascinating. eSports are more like the way games have traditionally been made, which is less this sort of individual author and more like this folk practice of many people working together like a community of people kind of carving out a set of habits and conventions. The origins of something like League of Legends goes back to this process of modding and mapping and this community of people like tinkering with blizzard games like Warcraft 3 and Starcraft to make their own versions and then little communities of players bubbling up around them and modifying them and changing them and evolving. Then eventually after a decade, right, you get Defense of the Ancients.
Frank Lantz [00:30:43] – DOTA Allstars. Then all of a sudden, you look around, and it’s like, “Oh, this is the number one game, this is the number one multiplayer game on the internet.” Where did it come from? No one “designed it.” IceFrog was for DOTA Allstars like this key figure, but IceFrog inherited a thing that looked very much already like DOTA Allstars by the time he was working on it. It’s the most successful game on the planet in some ways by some measures. It didn’t come from a professional game designer deciding, “Oh let’s make something popular.” It came from this recursive process of playing and modifying things. I just think that that’s beautiful.
Frank Lantz [00:31:34] – The fact that both of these things are happening at the same time, that’s amazing, it’s great.
Craig Cannon [00:31:37] – It’s wild, it’s wild.
Frank Lantz [00:31:38] – It’s so good.
Craig Cannon [00:31:39] – I just want to know, how you could possibly teach this to someone? We talked a little bit about like game History 101. That makes sense in terms of like setting up a foundation.
Frank Lantz [00:31:50] – It is kind of a ridiculous thing to encourage people to make games.
Craig Cannon [00:31:56] – It’s crazy.
Frank Lantz [00:31:57] – I don’t know. It’s a little bit like teaching birds how to fly. You kind of want to like first do no harm. Maybe step back and give them a little room. Maybe you can encourage them. We do it by recruiting talented people in the first place. We try to find students that are already bringing passion and intelligence and some skills. Then we try to create a space for them to do work and for them to work together. We try to teach them. We have an amazing faculty, great curriculum. But mostly we’re trying to make a space where there is a scene and there’s like a community of shared purpose, and people care about each other’s work,
Frank Lantz [00:32:46] – and there’s friendly rivalry, and there’s social pressure, and there’s collaboration, and all the stuff that makes a scene be the source of groundbreaking work. We emphasize that. We teach everybody how to code. If you don’t already know how to code, you learn at least the fundamentals of code. If you want to be a game designer, even if you’re making board games. I actually think if you want to be a game designer, you should know the fundamentals of how to code. You should be just comfortable, literate with thinking algorithmically. Board games even more than video games in some ways require you to think in terms of rules and systems and algorithms and that kind of like logical thinking. Then we also try to teach programmers how to think like artists. We teach artists how to code, and we teach programmers how to think like artists.
Frank Lantz [00:33:49] – Video games and games in general exist in this overlap between these two cultures, which are often thought of as being separate or even opposed to each other. Over here, we have math, and logic, and science, and engineering. Over here, we have emotions, and aesthetics, and the social, and the beautiful. In reality, those don’t have to be thought of as two separate domains.
Craig Cannon [00:34:21] – No.
Frank Lantz [00:34:23] – There are some humans that, on their own, embody both of those things. Then there’s lots of projects that draw from both of those things and try to combine them. More and more it’s really important to.. That’s going to be the source of a lot of solutions that we need. Hames as an art form really occupy that overlap.
Craig Cannon [00:34:51] – Absolutely.
Frank Lantz [00:34:52] – We try to embody that by drawing from the traditions of engineering and computer science and programming, and also from the traditions of design and art and creativity. Figuring out how to make an art school with computers in it, that’s basically what we do.
Craig Cannon [00:35:17] – That people then have to use, which is a big difference. You could argue that things like maybe Rain Room at MOMA was a hit in terms of a product.
Frank Lantz [00:35:28] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [00:35:29] – An art product. But then there are other paintings where people are just like look at it, it’s like, “Okay, cool, that’s art.” Or you can just go to any art school.
Craig Cannon [00:35:36] – It might be somewhat thought provoking to 10 people. But for you guys, the goal is to have…
Frank Lantz [00:35:42] – It’s pop culture. It’s not an art school in that sense. We’re trying to make artists, but really in both senses, right, in both like the sense of, you know, Chris Burden or Bill Viola or somebody like that, but then also like an artist like Justin Bieber is an artist and Lady Gaga.
Craig Cannon [00:36:09] – Well it’s tapping into something. All of those things have some inherently human element, and they have an opinion and taste, and that’s what compels you.
Frank Lantz [00:36:16] – Yes, precisely. A big part of what we’re doing is trying to explore, yeah, what is. Taste is very much at the heart of what we do. To be a successful game designer, you need, you need inspiration, you need hard work, and you need taste. And of all those, taste is maybe the most important and the hardest to kind of like pin down. But it really is that judgment of knowing, of having a sense of what is interesting, what is exciting, both subjectively having a self-reflecting and being aware of your own tastes and sensibilities, but then also like understanding where that is going to resonate with other people.
Craig Cannon [00:37:07] – Of course.
Frank Lantz [00:37:09] – Right, how am I going to do something that then is in conversation with the world, something that other people might also be excited by. It’s not some private domain. There is no private taste. Taste is always like about connection between people. A shared language or some conversation that we’re having about values and things. Teaching people how to code, teaching coders how to design, and then hopefully having them think about what they’re making in a larger context. How do they want to bounce it off the world? How do they want to connect it to the rest of the world?
Craig Cannon [00:37:51] – Well you have to know where you’re coming from to take inspiration from little things and like create your own. We talk about it at YC all the time. Basically, when you’re living in the future, it’s very easy to see were, or it’s easier to see where things are going. But you also have to build. I mean I’, sure there are, just like in the art world, like outsider artists in the video game world.
Frank Lantz [00:38:11] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [00:38:12] – Where people just like come out of nowhere and make something.
Frank Lantz [00:38:14] – Sure. Yeah, I mean and maybe it’s just, as an art form, video games are entirely outsider.
Craig Cannon [00:38:20] – Yeah, well, maybe in the old days.
Frank Lantz [00:38:21] – As they evolve and continue to kind of grow and mature and become more sophisticated, you see the whole gamut of things that are some of which are like very sophisticated and self-aware and post-modern and intellectual and cerebral, and some of which are just raw and kind of primal and just gut level, and some of which are genuinely bizarre and eccentric and just coming out of like, “Whoa what is that.” There are great beautiful weird interesting games across all of those things.
Craig Cannon [00:39:13] – How do you guys address the darker sides of video game, of gaming culture? Online communities have been kind of infamous. Do you address that in your curriculum?
Frank Lantz [00:39:25] – We do. We have a lot of game studies classes that we kind of weave into the overall curriculum. Which are meant to give students different perspectives on games. Different ways people have thought about what games are and how they fit into the world, and just encourage them. Well quite honestly to try to encourage them to read. A lot of these kids in these classes, their main purpose is developing the habit of reading difficult texts, close reading of difficult text. don’t know how to get smart, but I think that’s the closest proxy we have. We try to incorporate that in into the curriculum
Frank Lantz [00:40:20] – that they’re bumping up against things that they might not have encountered on their own.
Craig Cannon [00:40:27] – And they’re not reading them for pleasure, direct pleasure.
Frank Lantz [00:40:33] – There is a value in slowing down and really trying to understand complicated ideas, and then bringing that to your practice as a designer. Because we want our students to have skills and talent and make work that resonates with other people and go on and be rich and famous. We want them to also be doing that in a way that is thoughtful, where they’re considering the kind of work they want to make and why, and not just making things in order to make them or in order to get a job or to make money, but like really thinking about what kind of designer they want to be, what kind of games they want to make, what their own relationship to games are. That’s our job. We’re not a professional training school. We’re not a… to the industry where it’s like an on ramp to getting a job. We want our students to be successful, and have jobs, and have careers.
Frank Lantz [00:41:43] – But that’s a bad use of the academy. That’s a bad use of higher education I think.
Craig Cannon [00:41:49] – Right.
Frank Lantz [00:41:50] – Because if all you’re interested in is a job in the industry, you actually don’t need to go to college for that. You certainly don’t need to go to grad school for that. But there’s a thing that college and grad school can do, which is open up a space that emphasizes this thoughtful aspect, the context of the work you’re doing. Encourages a deeper engagement with the ideas, emphasizes kind of the things that are innovative about what you’re doing, that allows you to kind of do stuff that’s riskier, and to fail, and to really experiment, and to try to pan for gold in a way that is really aggressive, in a way that you might not be able to do if you have to respond to the, to the second by second incentives and constraints of the marketplace.
Frank Lantz [00:42:54] – Those produce a certain kind of innovation. We want to open up a space for a complimentary kind of innovation. Does that make sense?
Craig Cannon [00:43:02] – It does make sense. I’m curious about what your perspective is on where the indie game market stands right now. Because as far as I’ve seen, that’s usually where more of the risky stuff comes from. And we were talking about this earlier, but maybe there was like a renaissance period where those games were on Kickstarter, and they just took off, or wherever they might have been launched. Where do you see things going now for the average indie developer?
Frank Lantz [00:43:31] – It’s pop culture. It’s entertainment, it’s hit driven, it’s never going to be a reliable career for anybody. Alright, that’s the foundation you have to start with. Once you accept that, then indie games are very healthy. It’s certainly easier to make a living making indie games than it is to make a living being a pop musician, I would say, comparatively. For a while, there was a little mini golden age where it was super almost reliable, and people kind of got comfortable with the idea, as long as your game is of a certain quality, you can guarantee a certain size audience. That’s no longer the case. Things fluctuate. The channels, the sort of digital distribution channels, have gotten very very crowded, places like Steam.
Frank Lantz [00:44:47] – It’s harder to break that. You can make a good game and not find an audience. That’s always going to be the reality of working in a creative field. In a hit driven field. And people are still making hits, and they’re still coming out of nowhere sometimes, really surprising, and one of the main inputs for that is the quality of your game still. It still helps if you make a good game, you’re more likely to have a hit. It’s just not a guarantee.
Craig Cannon [00:45:26] – Now are there certain trends that have come out of nowhere in the past few years that you’ve just… Beause it hasn’t been VR. We’ve heard all about that, but certain things where like, “Man, I didn’t even see that.” You’re kind of on the bleeding edge it seems, but you’re also not a teenager.
Frank Lantz [00:45:40] – Battle Royale was a little bit like that. I think when PUBG hit big when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds hit big, that was pretty cool, and it took a minute to sort of like, “Oh where is this coming from,” and I think one of the places that came from was kids in Minecraft playing Hunger Games mods. For awhile, there was this thing happening. So you know Fortnite obviously is huge, right? Fortnite is Battle Royale, and PUBG was the one that sort of like established it before Fortnite, you know, kind of took over and became the big one. But then, so I think before PUBG, I think there were these, yeah, lots and lots of Minecraft servers.
Frank Lantz [00:46:31] – That were playing these, playing Hunger Games, Hunger Games mods, which is amazing, because Hunger Games obviously is really valuable IP, but there was no one involved.
Craig Cannon [00:46:45] – No one was making money on that.
Frank Lantz [00:46:48] – There were millions of kids playing Hunger Games video game, and nobody who owns the Hunger Games IP was anywhere near it. Again, it’s an example of this kind of like folk culture bubbling up, of people making mods and maps and things like that. This is speculation.
Craig Cannon [00:47:06] – Sure.
Frank Lantz [00:47:07] – One of the sources of that gameplay pattern, which it turned out to be just really good. It turned out that like basically Hunger Games is a really good way to sort of organize a casual competitive game. It’s a really good structure. This Battle Royale structure is like, it’s like a poker tournament, right?
Craig Cannon [00:47:37] – I wanted to talk to you about this. About poker.
Frank Lantz [00:47:41] – Fortnite in its overall structure has a lot of poker tournament in it, in the sense that it’s, there’s a combination of luck and skill. It’s exactly the structure of starting with a hundred people and ending up with one big winner, and it could be you, and it’s not always the best player who wins, and if you play it enough, you’re going to get some wins, and if you become really good, you start to use that structure itself. People who are really good at that kind of game understand how you have to play the edges of the circle, and you’re basically out in the blue. That was kind of an interesting surprise. Both the success of PUBG and then the following success of Fortnite. Because I remember playing PUBG and Fortnite coming out, and being like, “Why would anyone play Fortnite? It just looks terrible.” Then two minutes later, Fortnite was the game.
Craig Cannon [00:48:48] – That was a week before.
Frank Lantz [00:48:50] – I certainly did not see that coming. I remember playing a little bit of Fortnite and being like, “This is interesting.”
Craig Cannon [00:48:56] – This is fun.
Frank Lantz [00:48:57] – This is clearly like a cheap knockoff after the fact. But no, I was just wrong. It’s very hard to predict things.
Craig Cannon [00:49:04] – It’s really hard to predict. Even honestly, even with the podcasts. I was like, “Oh that was a good one.” No, nobody likes it. Oh that was a bad one. Really popular one. I can’t tell anymore. But okay, so I want to give the person who asked credit about the poker question. Benedict Fritz asked, “Frank, you seem much more interested in chess, go, poker, and other games of a long history than most other game designers. Where do you think that comes from?”
Frank Lantz [00:49:29] – It’s because I am very ambitious. When I look at game design and the potential of game design, I see things like basketball. Basketball was designed by somebody. James Naismith wrote down some rules, he had an idea, and he invented this thing, and look at it. Look at how that has transformed the world. Video games are awesome, but we should not be aspiring to be as successful as a successful movie. We should be looking at the history of, like look a chess. Look a go, look at poker, look at basketball, and that’s what games can do. They can become these foundational experiences that people live their lives inside of and have careers in and teach their children, and that’s beautiful. Not all games need to be that. There’s beauty in the small game, in the miniature. I want to see games, video games, within this larger spectrum. There’s a deep connection between games like chess and computer games, in the sense that in a way chess invented computers. Chess was there before computers. Chess was one of the inspirations. Babbage looking at chess and thinking, “Huh, I wonder. That’s kind of a little bit like a machine.”
Craig Cannon [00:51:23] – It’s like a system with defined rules.
Frank Lantz [00:51:24] – It’s a system, exactly. These symbolic things that are being manipulated according to rules, and then there’s like inputs and outputs, and it’s like that was already there in a way in games. This border between video games and other kinds of games, we overemphasize it, I think it’s parochial. We see computer games and these other games as being so distinct and separate. But I actually think that there’s a lot that they have in common.
Craig Cannon [00:51:54] – And what about computer games and sports? The rise of eSports has been phenomenal to watch. You see people all these CTE studies within the NFL around concussions.
Craig Cannon [00:52:10] – And I wonder if in our lifetime DOTA will be bigger than the NFL by multiple.
Frank Lantz [00:52:19] – I would probably take the under on that. Even as much as I love eSports, I’m also like everybody, I predict what’s going to happen by looking at what’s currently happening and extending it into the future. League of Legends is huge, but it’s already showing signs of it’s not going to grow indefinitely. It’s kind of like leveling off.
Frank Lantz [00:52:56] – And you could make the case that League of Legends is bigger than hockey. More people watch the League of Legends world championship than watch the Stanley Cup.
Craig Cannon [00:53:06] – But eSports aggregate.
Frank Lantz [00:53:08] – But I don’t think it’s going to get bigger than football. Something else could come along, or like another eSport or eSports overall. Maybe you could make an argument that overall eSports is already as big as NFL.
Craig Cannon [00:53:21] – Yep, you could.
Frank Lantz [00:53:22] – But I do think that we are going to see other kinds of games, other kinds of games in eSports. I don’t think we’re looking at League of Legends, and Counterstrike, and Hearthstone, and Overwatch, maybe Starcraft, I don’t know. I don’t think we’re going to be stuck with those for the next 20 or 30 years. But it’s not clear what the next ones are going to be.
Frank Lantz [00:53:59] – It’s a really interesting question. Drone racing, I don’t know. Will be interesting if it was some hybrid of physical and digital. I would like to imagine that that’s where it’s going, right? There’d be something really cool about… You ever watch fencing in the Olympics?
Craig Cannon [00:54:14] – Absolutely not.
Frank Lantz [00:54:16] – They’re all wired up.
Craig Cannon [00:54:16] – Really?
Frank Lantz [00:54:18] – Yeah, they’re super wired up, and they fence on these platforms that light up when you get a hit.
Craig Cannon [00:54:22] – That’s cool.
Frank Lantz [00:54:23] – It’s like they’re already there’s a kind of cyborg element of some of. So it’s a physical, and it’s beautiful to watch physically, but there’s already like this weird electronic element of it. I don’t know, I can imagine a thing like that that’s designed to draw from the tradition of physical athletics and incorporate the complexity that you can get from software to create some kind of hybrid thing. I think that would be amazing. I can’t point to a…
Craig Cannon [00:54:56] – Well there was The vVid thing. The laser thing with the backpacks mixed reality.
Frank Lantz [00:55:02] – Oh, how’d that do?
Craig Cannon [00:55:04] – They’ve opened up a bunch of them. They were the ones that did the Star Wars thing in Times Square or something. It’s like a headset backpack combo.
Frank Lantz [00:55:16] – Let’s get a film crew down there and see if we can make a eSports.
Craig Cannon [00:55:20] – It makes sense. Things like Crossfit have just happened in the past 15 years. Why wouldn’t another sport come in that’s completely integrated?
Frank Lantz [00:55:33] – It’s hard to invent a sport. See my theory about this is that you really can’t invent a sport. You can invent games, and sometimes games can evolve into sports. But it’s very hard to invent a sport. What a sport is is when a game acquires a scale, there’s a big dedicated community, and there’s organized play, and there’s some kind of like attempt to create a global system of rules and regulations and tracking, and there’s a fan base, and then there are people who are doing it for a living. Now you know you’ve got a sport. That’s what makes chess feel like a sport more than a game, even if a game might have. I might invent a game that has more physical stuff in it than chess.
Frank Lantz [00:56:30] – And that’s one of the things that makes something feel like a sport is that it’s physical. But the main thing that makes it feel like a sport is all this other, this institutional stuff. You can’t invent that. That has to accumulate. That has to somehow be the world’s response to this game that you’ve invented.
Craig Cannon [00:56:47] – Well in many ways, it’s probably riding the wave of a macro trend, right? The iPhone couldn’t have been made in 1930. Those sensors had to exist. All these things have to exist, and then you have to kind of invent it at the time, but also be on the wave at the right time.
Frank Lantz [00:57:02] – It’s one of those things. It’s about being in conversation with the world, right? It’s like you’re making something, and there’s something you like, and at a certain point, the world blinks and takes notice, and the next thing you know you’re rolling in money.
Craig Cannon [00:57:19] – Like every story. Do you think Pokemon Go was a freak event, or do you think there’s an AR future of games?
Frank Lantz [00:57:28] – Pokemon Go was the result of a lot of enteral R&D by Google, which people didn’t see, because it was Ingress, this game that not a lot of people were playing, a game that probably would not have, was probably not making enough money to be a going concern on it’s own, but was kept alive by Google as a kind of proof of concept in a way to understand location and how it might fit into these larger kinds of game patterns. They really had an opportunity to kind of explore that and work out a lot of the design issues and build a real deep understanding and knowledge. And then you combine that with the world’s most popular IP, Pokemon, and you got a hit. It was certainly no guarantee. There’s no guarantees in this world. It’s easy to imagine a world in which that was a flop, but it wasn’t, it was a big success. It’s not that those things were either on their own necessary or sufficient, but those two things really helped make Pokemon Go what it was. And I think that, it’s not exactly a fluke. It’s certainly a proof of concept that a game like that can work. I don’t see a ton of other people. That doesn’t strike me as yet being a space
Frank Lantz [00:59:16] – where there’s a lot of interesting work happening or a lot of successful games coming in the wake of Pokemon Go. I think AR, like VR, is a thing that sounds great, and a lot of people are very excited about it. I’m interested in things that, that actually are great, even though they don’t necessarily sound great.
Craig Cannon [00:59:45] – I’m looking for that next Hunger Games. The mods.
Frank Lantz [00:59:51] – Where we look over and it’s like wait a minute, every 14 year old on the planet is doing this thing, and no one’s heard of it, versus a thing that everybody’s talking about, and there are lots of conferences on, but no one’s doing it. That’s my personal take. There’s a lot of opportunity there, and I expect to be surprised.
Craig Cannon [01:00:16] – Well there’s so many cool ideas that are thrown around like the Netflix for games type stuff, episodic content, episodic games like binge games.
Frank Lantz [01:00:27] – That certainly sounds good.
Craig Cannon [01:00:28] – But yeah, you look around, and you’re like…
Frank Lantz [01:00:30] – Eh maybe It’s very hard to predict things in general. It’s particularly hard to predict entertainment. Because part of the job of art and entertainment is to be unpredictable. The dilemma that Netflix has in their recommendation algorithm, right, which is called the Napoleon Dynamite problem or something, I remember reading about this.
Frank Lantz [01:01:09] – They have this problem where it’s for a while they were like, “Yeah, it’s really hard to like write a recommendation algorithm.” There’s certain movies where everything gets knotted up. You lose the ability, the predictive power, and they defined this as the Napoleon Dynamite problem. In a way, that’s what art and entertainment are trying to do. It’s fashion, it’s surfing this wave of interest and attention, and it’s staying one step ahead of our ability to predict what like what the couple, where the movie’s going to, where the plot’s going to go. As soon as you can predict where the plot’s, what’s going to happen, that they’re going to break up or they’re going to get back together, then the movie doesn’t work. The movie works because we have these established patterns of how movies work, and then the movies are surprising us by doing it slightly differently.
Frank Lantz [01:02:11] – By constantly figuring out some new twist or some new flavor, or all of a sudden it’s. That’s how you get these waves of things that come and go of cowboy movies, and pirate movies, and monster movies, and superhero movies. And you’re like well I guess that’s it. I guess from now on, it’s going to be superhero movies. But no, it’s not.
Craig Cannon [01:02:34] – Then something happens.
Frank Lantz [01:02:35] – But good luck predicting what the next one is going to be. Because that’s David Lynch’s job, right? That’s JJ Abrams’ job. That is art, right, that is design, that is entertainment. It’s like an arms race between the human brain and itself. Right? To be interesting and surprising.
Craig Cannon [01:02:56] – Yeah, not only that, well it’s the artist verse the collective of humanity. And which is what, I was never really a Banksy fan, but man the painting shredding was like, “Oh. He got me.”
Frank Lantz [01:03:08] – He got you.
Craig Cannon [01:03:09] – Yeah, he got me on that one.
Frank Lantz [01:03:10] – Good on him or her.
Craig Cannon [01:03:11] – Yeah. Okay so the last question I’m curious about is if you could recommend a handful of games for people to play to cut their teeth and maybe dive deep into something that they might not have heard before.
Frank Lantz [01:03:26] – Well, you should definitely play Universal Paperclips, that goes without saying. I love the games of a designer named Michael Brough. He’s my favorite game designer. He has a new game out called Cinco Paus, which I play every day, and I love, and I think is beautiful. Definitely recommend that. There’s a game coming out soon by a friend of mine named Gabe Cuzzillo called Ape Out, which you want to definitely keep on your radar. It’s I think coming out in February. It’s going to be a masterpiece. If you’re interested in stories in games, there have been a lot of really interesting experiments with story telling.
Frank Lantz [01:04:28] – There’s a game called Her Story. Which came out last year or maybe a year and a half ago. Really weird and interesting and fascinating. There is What Remains of Edith Finch, I think is a great example of this genre that some people call the walking simulator, where it’s not a game about puzzles and challenges, it’s just using 3D environments and spaces to tell stories and create experiences. I think it’s a really beautiful example of that. A game called Everything by David O’Reilly. Which was probably my favorite game from last year. Just a weird interesting like transcendent game about about meditation and consciousness that you can play on your Playstation. Those are some of the ones that just pop into mind.
Craig Cannon [01:05:40] – That’s a good list.
Frank Lantz [01:05:41] – I also want to mention there was a question that someone asked about on Twitter, the question was, “Why Tonto?”
Craig Cannon [01:05:48] – Yes.
Frank Lantz [01:05:49] – I think what that person was referring to was Tonto’s Expanding Headband, which is the name of the musical group that did the song that I used in Universal Paperclips. And so the story behind that song was, Tonto’s Expanding Headband is a very early experimental electronic group from the 60’s. It’s experimenting with synthesizers like way before anyone else and trying to figure out how to compose music like that. I had an album of theirs lying around. I had a USB turntable that I was using to like digitize stuff. And so I had digitized a bunch of the tracks off that album. They happened to be sitting on my computer, and I was working on the game. And in this, in Universal Paperclips it’s silent. You play this game for like six hours, there’s no sound at all, it’s just you clicking, and then at a certain point, you, at a certain point, you as the AI, have to kind of reinvent music, because you’re in charge of this giant drone swarm that’s at war with the drifters, and you need to somehow rally the troops. You compose this piece of music, which is a thrinity, right, it’s an elegy. It’s like this mournful song about the brave drones that have given their life in this battle against drifters. When you compose that, all of a sudden it starts playing. I needed a piece of music,
Frank Lantz [01:07:27] – and I just grabbed one of the tracks off this album, and I stuck it in as a placeholder. It was just called test dot mp3. And as soon as I heard it, I knew this was, it could never not be this piece of music. It was the most perfect thing. It was just this accident, but it was without a doubt like exactly the piece of music that this AI, who’s in the process of destroying the universe, would write. It was just so good that I knew it, I just had to have this in the game. I looked up this, I said is this band still around, and sure enough, like one of the, one of the members of this group is still alive. I just wrote him an email and said I’m making this free web game, and I want to use your music, is that okay? And I didn’t hear back from him. I thought well, whatever. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because no one’s ever going to play this game.
Craig Cannon [01:08:27] – Right.
Frank Lantz [01:08:29] – Then I launched the game, and you know, in a couple of days, my server had melted, and it was like, and eventually it had been played like by a million or more people. After a couple months, I got an email back from this guy, and he was like, “Yeah sure go ahead.” I was like, “Okay whew.” Then I was very happy and a lot of people loved this song. And who is it, who is it? I linked to him in the credits and so I hopefully have driven some traffic and some interest to his work. That’s the story of the song.
Craig Cannon [01:09:13] – Cool, and their Spotify resurgence.
Frank Lantz [01:09:16] – Yes, hopefully.
Craig Cannon [01:09:18] – Alright man, thanks so much.
Frank Lantz [01:09:19] – Alright, well thanks. It was a real pleasure.
Craig Cannon [01:09:22] – Cool, thank you. Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.