Digit interviews game writer and producer Keith Arem who has worked on games such as Call of Duty 4 and Spider-man.
Do you only write stories for games?
I write, direct and produce. I run PCB productions in LA, where have five recording stages and work on video games, movies and television.
Which movies have you worked on?
Currently, we're doing two films - Frost Road and Ascend. Ascend is based on a graphic novel I wrote a few years ago.
How did you get into games?
I had started in the music industry as a recording artist in the US with Capital Records. I was part of the band Contageon. Later, I got into scoring movies and music. The music from my albums and movies was a perfect fit for doing video games. I started working with Virgin Interactive and became their staff composer. I was promoted to be their audio director and started directing all their titles. I was there for 7 years and built recording studios. I then got into writing, directing and producing for them. In 2000, I started my own company, PCB, that focused on digital content.
How different is it between music & writing?
It would seem very different, but in alot of ways it is the same. Music and creating things for music is very similar because you are creatively trying to match the tone of the mood of the creative style of the property that you are working on. Writing is exciting as a medium. If you're writing a graphic novel, or a movie or a game, they all have unique aspects and you have to cater to that medium.
Were you always inclined towards working with sound from the start?
Yes, I had a background in art, writing and music. I always wanted to do something in the other creative sides as well. Games allow people to create and work on a lot of different areas. They don't just have to do one thing. In the film industry, you tend to focus on one aspect and that's all you do. But in the game industry, you are required to do alot of different things and I was just fortunate enough to do several things and be successful in different areas.
Where do you get the inspiration from while writing about games?
I think it's my love of movies actually. I grew up with all of the great genre films of the 80s and 90s and all the post-apocalyptic films such as ~Blade Runner~ and ~Road Warrior~ and all those kind of films. I think those were my inspiration for all the creative properties that I was working on, which includes graphic novels.
Are you working on any other graphic novels right now?
I'm doing a new book called Infex due at ComiCon in San Diego this July. I'm doing another book called Dead Speed, also due at ComiCon. Also, those two will then become movies and games. We're also working on one of the largest alternate reality games (ARGs) and we're expecting approximately 250,000 people at ComiCon this year. This will be the largest ARG that has ever been done with that many people at one convention and it will all be themed around the new Infex books.
Which games have you worked on?
I have done over 500 titles till now and starting the earlier days, done everything from the ~Tony Hawk~, ~Rainbow Six~ and ~Prince of Persia~ series, ~Splinter Cell~, ~Lord of the Rings~, ~Spiderman~ and ~Xmen~. Recently, I've been working on the ~Call of Duty~ series. I've been doing the newSOCOM projects with Sony. I'm also doing the new Silent Hill title and Ghost Recon title with Ubisoft.
How many Prince of Persia titles did you work on? Does it include the latest one?
I have done around three or four of them. I have not done the latest one, but my friend Jordan is the creator and he's working on the movie right now. I think they've finished shooting the movie. Jerry Bruckheimer is doing the movie.
Any more information about the movie?
They shot it in Morocco and it's apparently fantastic. It's going to be really great.
What brings you to India, other than the shopping?
The shopping was a bonus, I wasn't really planning to buy anything here. I've always wanted to come to India. My family came here, my parents had travelled here years ago and had actually come to India and gone up to the Himalayas and to the Everest. So they've always told me about it and I've always wanted to come here personally. I think it's a fantastic country and ended up hooking up with Ben Ricky. He had recently relocated here to start working on his projects. So Ben and I are collaborating on a couple of projects together and he's writing on a project that I'll be producing in the US and also directing. Ben was telling me about how the film and the gaming markets were converging out here, which is what my focus is in the US. He invited me to come out here to meet with the film and gaming industry people who are leading here and see if there's a potential way to bring my films and graphic novels and video games to this market as well as find people here to work on my project back in the US.
So who have you met with till now?
We've been meeting with so many people. We just met with Shekhar Kapoor, Mohan Shetty, Anurag Kashyap, Rohan Sippy, just so many people and lots of directors and producers
What about from the gaming industry?
I think I'll meet three or four of the top gaming companies that are working on stuff, whether online or console stuff. I'm also excited about getting involved in the mobile space. If there's 300 mil users, using cell phones and having the technology available to them, regardless of where the game consoles are. The fact that there are that many units out here means there is an audience to be able to do something. So the idea is to find the property that is right for this market and do something that people would genuinely want to do. I think the nice part about my experience is that I have a technical and a creative background, so I work on things that i know technically can work and also from a creative standpoint will have sort of an audience for it. Sometimes, there are technologies that can't find a marketplace. Similarly, there is a market place but nothing created for it. Therefore, there is a huge opportunity for people to bring their love of music, movies, games and their mobile devices and it seems they are a pretty good match.
Have you seen any Bollywood movies?
Not yet, Ben has promised me that this week we are going to see a few. I just got here about two days ago and have had about 15 non-stop meetings and so we're hoping I can spend some time and immerse myself in the culture and get a feel for it. I've been watching and trying to spend some time on television and have also been reading a lot and it's quite an education.
Have you seen Slumdog?
Yes, it was fantastic. It didn't do very well here compared to the rest of the world. It was an interesting character development and a really fascinating story and I think it opened peoples' eyes to other parts of the world that they normally don't think about in their busy lives. I know that in the US, there haven't been a lot of films from India that have actually made it into main stream. The most positive thing, in my opinion that the film did is attract the industry to look at India and be able to do that. And even if it was controversial and it's portrayal of any of its characters, I think the financial benefit of what it's going to do for the industry here is going to be tremendous because everyone is talking about doing something here.
Have you read any indian graphic novels?
Shekhar had given me some of his, The SnakeWoman series, I've also read some of the other ones from Virgin comics. I think most of them were from the same thing because Deepak and Shekhar and a few other people had been doing them using some of the mythology and actually Ben is developing one right now and was telling me about it and now learning a lot about some of the mythology and some of the different characters. Some of the classic mythology that has been part of the Indian culture is fascinating and again, coming from the US, there is very little exposure to that and to learn from some of them is remarkable because we always hear about Christian mythology or Catcholic or Jewish or Muslim you know, but not alot of the Indian myths and characters or atleast an understanding of how they work and so to see them working their way to entertainment properties is really neat.
How actively do you play games?
I try to not play games that much because I run short of time. I love games so much that I'm actually trying to curtail because of my life. Unfortunately, it's the one vice I have. No drinks, smoke or drugs, but yes games! So I actually try not to play as much anymore. But the best thing is that because I love games, I'm a gamer. I work on 50 to 60 games in a year and a majority of these games are hit block bluster AAA games that you have to love games to work in them because it's a difficult medium to embrace if you come from another industry because it's very long hours, very hard work, and very challenging. So having the love of games is the no.1 thing of being in the industry.
Have you ever worked on multiple projects at a single time? And how do you handle the switch between stories?
Everyday. My mind is i think suited exactly for that. It's what we call ADDOCD, so i think i can juggle multiple things but I can focus on one very solidly. So when I'm in the studio and when I'm directing or working on mixing, I'm focused only on that project. In the studio, I'm used to doing so many different things at one time that I apply that same principle to the way I work. For each story, I focus on the characters, the content and the delivery. When you are working on a project, you work in the moment of what is in front of you. You don't worry about all the other things that are coming a month from now - you worry about what's in front of you now. If you can keep jumping around like that, but focus on the moment, then you'll do okay. That's my strategy and it seems to work very well because people are surprised at how many projects I can actually do and keep the quality as high, because I think I was just very suited for that.
Which has been the most recent game that you have worked on?
The latest one I did was ~COD4~. I also did ~Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2~ and ~WWE 2008~. Most of the big games that we've done have all been with Activision, EA. I just did the new Spiderman game that just came out. Separated from all those we are also involved in the big Japanese Anime games, all big RPG games for Atlas and NIS, all the titles for Persona, it's a fantastic series. Persona 4 had come out. I had directed Persona 2, 3, 3x and 4 and now we are actually going back and re-releasing the original one and re-dubbing those. Japanese animations and anime has been the fastest growing animation in the US. Even though it's completely different from US animation. I'm hoping the same will apply to India, and Indian properties will also find their way in.
How long till Call of Duty 4 take ?
We worked on Call of Duty for about a year and a half or so and the team probably worked for that for over two years.
How large was the team?
About 80 to 100 people. The team is Infinity ward and I had started working with them on Call of Duty 2. From Call of Duty 2, they were already working on Call of Duty 4 and Activision has an alternate team that is 3 and 5 that just came out and that's a different team. But the main team that had created the original game in the series has created 2 and then 4 and now 6. So now we are working on 6 and we've been working on 6, off and on, for the past.
What gaming hardware or consoles do you own?
I've got multiple versions of the 360, the Playstation 3, the Wii, PSP, atleast 3 DS s, and then PS2 and PS1 and Nintendo. I have 42 PCs that we run, and about 20 Macs, the G5s, and so all of them are all decked out. We do games, infact some of the stuff that we are working on is the high end games. The market has gone away, but it's starting to reinvent itself. It's taking the high-end PC games and making consoles for arcardes. It's been announced, so you can talk about it, it hasn't been released yet. It's a new game called H2 Overdrive with a full cabinet and a 42-inch screen. It's like a boat racing game. There was a game called Hydro Thunder that was an arcade game some years ago and this is the same team that had created that. It's fantastic, it's got a sub-woofer built in, there are putting all these prototype lights that will go around the cabinet and it's this wonderful experience and the physics are great and they did a fantastic job with it. So we are going to be doing more projects with this. Since, I grew up playing arcade games and all the arcades just disappeared and now all the ones that are coming back out are the big location event games and so it's fantastic and very rewarding as it's right. You know, music and sound effects and dialogues and you can do all these things for something people are going to go out and see, not just at home, but you are actually going to see it in public which I think is great.
Any Career advice you would want to share?
Depending on the profession, the game industry has really expanded recently. So obviously my main profession is with writing and directing and audio. But now there are many schools, not just in the US, but in other countries that are offering degrees in video game development. Programmers are the most in demand, obviously since the core of the game has to be programmed. So now there are many great programs just for software development for doing games. In my line of work, in terms of directing and writing and doing audio post-production, a significant amount of writing comes from people who are writing for films and television and people have good writing skills because most games are very cinematically driven. That's the biggest inspiration, there is not necessarily just schools for that other than universities. I think for other professions, in terms of designers, people who are interested in creating games, the biggest thing is to play a lot of games and to have a really good understanding of what makes a good game and most game companies are very collaborative in the way they create their titles. So finding local developers, either interning with them or becoming game testers, many come into the industry through game testing because they have a love for games and they just want to play and by understanding what doesn't work in the game, helps you figure out what works better for a game. So those are the main inroads that most people find in the game industry. We were just at the game developers conference in San Francisco and it was just enormous, just to see all the original people who had been in the industry from its conception and growing. But now it's so big, getting into the game industry is very easy, but staying in it is something that you will have to love.