Exclusive – The Neverhood’s Mike Dietz ‘The Industry Is Stuck In A Rut’
By now I’ve conducted my fair share of interviews with top industry talent, but Mike Dietz is a thoroughbred in a class of his own. The talented artist has worked in Television (Community), Film (Star Wars: Episode III), and of course Video Games (The Neverhood). Dietz is a wizard with animation in the same light Frank Oz (Yoda) is with puppeteering. His career is the stuff of legend, and it was an enormous pleasure to have a candid chat with him. Dietz, Ed Schofield, and Doug TenNapel have reunited to crowdfund a visionary claymation adventure game called Armikrog, and are well over half way home at the time of this writing. Armikrog is the gaming industry equivalent to the original Star Wars trilogy. The type of talent that goes into hand sculpting, painting, and animating a claymation adventure game is nearly unheard of in today’s gaming industry. Now I’m not necessarily known for asking ‘fluff’ questions, and this interview is more of the same. Our readers want to know more about the inside track of the gaming industry, and that’s what I attempt to deliver. Mike was more than happy to oblige:
At what age were you first drawn to animation? Did you start with sketching, sculpting, or some other form of artistic expression?
I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, and from an early age I was a fan of cartoons and animation, copying the characters I saw on TV.
As far as art is concerned, you’ve studied everything from anatomy and composition to classical animation. How does this catalog of artistic knowledge affect your creative process?
I think to be successful in any artistic endeavor you’re best served if you have a strong foundation in the fundamentals. The best animators I know have all spent considerable time honing their drawing and observational skills in one way or another. Nothing beats life drawing in that respect.
Applying artistic skills to the games industry requires additional education. What software assisted you in translating your artistic visions to games development efficiently?
I tend to think software is irrelevant when it comes to artistic expression so long as you have sufficient grasp of the program. Software is just another tool, like a pencil or a paintbrush.
Your amazing career has spanned various mediums – You’ve split your time between the video game, television, and film industry in the past 20+ years. Based on your extensive experience, what avenue do you find the most rewarding, and why?
That’s a tough one, because different mediums have different things to offer. I definitely feel blessed by the variety of opportunities I’ve had throughout my career. The thing I take away more than anything else would be the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. My favorite projects have always been the ones with the best crews, and when I find good people I try to work with them again and again.
Before your time with Shiny Entertainment and the Earthworm Jim series, you were heading up the animation department at Virgin Interactive Entertainment. Was your time at Virgin the first real experience you had with the gaming industry?
Actually prior to Virgin I did a stint as a freelance artist at Interplay back when they were a tiny little company. Brian Fargo gave me my first big break in the industry. I was a freelance illustrator at the time, but Brian gave me a shot at doing my first computer art.
Your subsequent stay at Shiny Entertainment produced the Earthworm Jim series, a new standard for cel animation in gaming, as well as a new level for the platformer. Were you aware that you’d captured lightning in a bottle while working on the original Earthworm Jim?
Once we released Earthworm Jim we knew we had a hit on our hands, but while we were making it I don’t think we really knew how big it would be. We were trying to establish ourselves as artists and as a company, and we were really passionate about what we were doing. However day to day during production we were just trying to entertain each other, making the game we wanted to play, and I think that comes through in the final product.
The Neverhood is one of the most celebrated Point and Click Adventure games of all time. It released for the PC and later the Playstation 1. The game released to overwhelming critical acclaim and managed to win prestigious awards for animation. However, the game sold less than 50,000 retail copies. What about the mid 90’s brought on the decline of the adventure game?
Actually the game did sell more than 50,000 copies, at least according to the accounting we received from Microsoft and DreamWorks at the time. In addition it also reached a much larger audience than most people realize through OEM sales – it came pre-installed on hundreds of thousands of Gateway computers, which was a popular brand at the time. Those sales never get included in sales figures though.
As far as the demise of the adventure game, the sales figures for adventure games haven’t really dropped much over the years – they just got surpassed by the sales of console games and subsequently casual games. Adventure games have actually held fairly steady over the years.
Over the years you’ve worked with Doug TenNapel and Ed Schofield on some of your most celebrated projects. There’s obviously a huge amount of talent within both of these individuals, and it’s clear the three of you work together extremely well. What about Doug and Ed make collaborating with them so appealing and fun?
Mostly because we’re such good friends. You end up working a lot of hours on these projects, so it helps if you like the people you’re working with. I also respect the heck out of each of them as artists. They lead by example and push me to be a better artist and a better person.
On May 28th Pencil Test Studios (yourself and Ed) launched a Kickstarter in cooperation with Doug for the spiritual successor to The Neverhood – Armikrog. What brought the three of you together to create a new project?
We were tossing around some ideas for a new project for the three of us to work on together, and it occurred to us that with the increased popularity of Kickstarter the time might be right to do another stop motion animated game. To this day The Neverhood still has a very active fan base, and those fans have been asking us for years to do a sequel. Unfortunately we don’t own the rights to the Neverhood and there hasn’t been much interest from EA to do a sequel. However, Kickstarter now allows us to go directly to our fans and ask them if they want another stop motion animated game, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with Armikrog.
The visual similarities between Klaymen and Tommynaught are undeniable, but their journey sounds decidedly different. How did Armikrog’s plot come about?
I called Doug and asked him to come up with a storyline and a set of characters for a new stop motion game. Doug had been kicking around the name Armikrog and bits and pieces of the story for a few years but wasn’t sure exactly where he wanted to go with it. Once we decided to do this as a game it all came together very quickly. There are definitely visual similarities between Klaymen and Tommynaut, which is to be expected as Doug has a very unique and recognizable art style. However as characters, they are quite different – Klaymen plays the innocent, while Tommynaut is a former hero fallen from grace.
From some of Armikrog’s early production photos, it’s apparent that the world in which Tommynaught crash lands is unique, mysterious, and harsh. Where did the inspiration for such a bleak landscape come from?
It needs to feel a bit mysterious and foreign, since the game is all about a journey of discovery. We also want it to look different from the Neverhood, which was a world made entirely of clay, so while there’s still a lot of clay in Armikrog, we’re open to use other materials as well.
The creatures that Tommynaught encounters don’t look to be greeting him with open arms. Has the inhospitable environment created an equally unforgiving population?
Hmmm… I’m not sure I can give too much away here without spoilers…
Armikrog is described as a fortress of sorts, but it’s owner isn’t clearly defined. Who sits atop Armikrog’s clay throne?
Again, I can’t tell you that without spoiling the fun. As I said, it’s a journey of discovery, both internally and externally.
By your own admittance you’re primarily an artist, how has creating a project pitch and promoting it changed your outlook on the games industry?
Not too much, really. We’ve been creating pitches for our projects my whole career, it’s part of the process. The only difference is this time the pitch is for potential Kickstarter backers instead of a publisher. Creating these pitches, at least for me, is a great opportunity to get in there and start to get to know the characters and their world early on. You can design lots of stuff ahead of time, but until you get in there and start doing some production, you don’t really know where it’s going to take you.
You mentioned that the Armikrog crew (Tommynaught included) were trolling this years E3 tradeshow. Did you stop by any booths for hands on time with the next generation of console video games?
I did, but I actually kept finding myself getting drawn back to the video game museum that they had at the show. I collect old consoles and games so I found it really fun over there. They even had an original production log book on display for the old game Tank – it had the original graph paper pencil drawings the developers did to work out the pixel sprites. Cool stuff.
How do you personally feel about the direction the gaming industry is taking (ex. focus on entertainment apps etc)
I’m encouraged by the support of indie games, although I’d like to see more of the small developers succeed with unique game ideas. The industry is stuck in a rut of sequels and lookalike games. I understand why publishers and larger developers don’t want to take risks, but it makes the industry feel really stale. However, people keep buying the sequels, so as long as that continues we’ll likely see more of the same.
Out of the big two hardware presenters at E3 (Sony and Microsoft) who do you think has the more future proof plan for their console?
I don’t think any console is future proof anymore. The consoles used to rule because they were the only real show in town, but now people have many more gaming options. I know I tend to play more games on mobile devices than I used to. I guess it always comes down to the same old story – who has the killer app, the one everyone has to have, the one you’d buy the system in order to play.
From what we’ve heard Sony is taking a real interest in the indie scene. How likely would an Armikrog PS4 port be?
I wouldn’t rule it out if it’s something Sony would want. Once we get the game made we’ll see who takes an interest.
Anything else you want to say to prospective and current backers?
I just want to thank all of our backers for their support. I’m constantly amazed by the level of that support, not only financially, but also how they are working so hard to help spread the word. It’s wonderful to see and extremely humbling – I really want this game to get funded so we can reward the backers with the game they’re hoping for.
There you have it. A talented yet humble veteran of the games industry. You can even check out some production videos on Pencil Test‘s Youtube channel. He and his long time friends/cohorts Ed and Doug need a final push to successfully fund Armikrog, and we’re hoping that our readers will help make this wholly unique game a reality. We’re in the business of promoting crowdfudning projects that deserve your consideration, and Armikrog is the realization of that mission statement. Head over and show the guys at Pencil Test some love on Kickstarter. Don’t forget to check out our weekly Kickstarter Spotlight article that helps shine light on great crowdfunding opportunities. Check us out on Facebook and Twitter for more gaming news, previews, reviews, and Kickstarter related editorials. Thanks for your support!
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