The Interview: Steve Gray

Steve Gray
Steve Gray

Steve Gray

When you have a gaming resume with names like Electronic Arts, Squaresoft and THQ there is little doubt that you know gaming. Obsolete Gamer was given the opportunity to talk with Steve Gray about his gaming career that started with EA Canada his time at Squaresoft and his work on Parasite eve. From there he created his own studio (Heavy Iron) which he sold to THQ in 1999. From there he returned to EA where he worked on many games including The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Third Age and Tactics. Currently Steve Gray is the executive in charge of production at Tencent who is China’s largest developer and publisher and operator of online games.

We wanted to get a behind the scenes look at his time in the gaming industry and his many accomplishments from his work in Video FX to building the first Motion Capture Lab at EA Canada.

EA Canada logo
EA Canada logo

Obsolete Gamer: When did you know you would want to work in the video game industry?

Steve Gray: I originally wanted to be a Rock Star (just like Tremmel) and I played the clubs a lot in LA and up and down the California coast.  At that time I also worked in the feature film special effects business.  Which I continued to do until the early 90’s when I was VP Technology at Digital Domain (that’s when we made True Lies, Interview with the Vampire, Apollo 13, …).  When the PS1 came out I decided I really wanted to get into video games instead.

Obsolete Gamer: What was your first exposure to games?

Steve Gray: Asteroids in the arcades.

Obsolete Gamer: What was the first video game that hooked you?

Steve Gray: Asteroids in the arcades!!

Obsolete Gamer: Now before beginning work in the gaming industry you had quite the career in Visual Effects and working in television and movies can you tell us about that time?

Steve Gray: I worked at Robert Abel & Associates when I first moved to LA (to be a Rock Star).  Entry Level Rock Star doesn’t pay very well, actually… not at all.  RA&A worked on Tron, Star Trek 1, and a ton of really cool CG TV commercials.  Also with Omnibus and Digital Pictures we were really the first big CG effects house.  It was a great place to work, everyone was really young and crazy… we worked super hard, partied super hard.  It was a good time… late 80’s in LA was a fun time and place.  Guns and Roses was playing the clubs, the Sunset Strip was rockin’.  Then I went on to work at Rhythm & Hues as head of the Software department.  We wrote all our own CG tools then, because there really weren’t any commercially available packages yet.  I mostly wrote partical systems and rendering code, along with managing the team.  After R&H I moved over to Digital Domain, which was a lot of crazy house.  But we worked on really great movies… and working with Stan Winston and Jim Cameron was pretty amazing.

Obsolete Gamer: So you began the video game part of your career at Electronic Arts Canada, how did that job come to be?

Steve Gray: Digital Domain wanted to get into the video games business… so me and Chris McKibbin (then CFO of DD – different Chris than Chris Tremmel) went around to all the big game companies in the US and Japan trying to get someone to do a project with us… no one really wanted to do that because they (rightly) said we had no idea what we were doing.  Don Mattrick offered me and McKibbin both jobs at EAC.  So we thought about that and both took his offer.

Obsolete Gamer: What was it like working at EA Canada?

Steve Gray: It was really interesting. I learned a lot there.  A lot of really talented guys.  But unfortunately I discovered that making sports games wasn’t really my thing.

Obsolete Gamer: What did you think of the changing in video game technology at the time with the PlayStation One and the use of full motion video in games?

Steve Gray: We all though FMVs in games were super cool.  And actually I eventually built a game at my own company Heavy Iron that used FMV backgrounds in a “Resident Evil” type of game… except our backgrounds were pre-rendered videos instead of pre-rendered stills.  But that was on PS2.  It was the first Evil Dead game that THQ released.  But fundamentally I now think that FMVs kind of suck.  Or at least over use of FMVs kind of suck.  I like what we did in “Lord of the Rings The Third Age” with the transitions from FMV to In-Game Cinematic to Game Play.  And I’m definitely more of a fan of in-game cinematics now, especially if the player can customize his or her avatar, and that customized avatar shows up in the In-Game Cinematic.  But in general, I’m not a huge fan of linear content in games anymore.  Of course, working at Square we made tons of FMVs… but Square’s console RPGs are almost more of a big movie with some game play bits squeezed in there.   Which I still like.

Obsolete Gamer: What were the day to day activities of running the software tools group at EA Canada?

Steve Gray: Not really that interesting.  Just managed the tools group, tried to make sure that we really built things that were useful for the projects right now… no “ivory tower research” allowed.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about building the first Motion Capture Lab at EAC?

Steve Gray: In the beginning the EAC guys didn’t believe in it so we had basically no budget and had to rent out the auto-repair stall to use as our capture studio.  The guys in the auto repair shops around us all through we must be shooting porno movies because we brought in all this high-end camera gear… they kept wanting to know when the girls were going to be there.  Unfortunately it was just a bunch of geeky game developers.  Later we got a bigger a much nicer warehouse to work in…

Squaresoft logo
Squaresoft logo

Obsolete Gamer: How did the transition from EAC to Squaresoft take place?

Steve Gray: I knew some Square guys from various places in the past, plus I’ve always been a fan of their games.  When Sakaguchi-san asked me to join the company I couldn’t say yes fast enough.   Some of the other guys at Square invited me to Tokyo to meet Sakaguchi and we were in a private booth overlooking the massive dance club called “Welfare”, he asked me to join square and put out his hand… I shook it and the other Japanese guys asked me “do you know you just signed the deal”, to which I answered “yes”!!

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time at EAC?

Steve Gray: I think the day we installed the flying-faders audio mixing board in the sound lab was the best day.  Back then those things were super crazy expensive, and as a musician I’d always wanted to have one to play with.

Obsolete Gamer: What was it like working at Squaresoft?

Steve Gray: Working at Square was the best of times and in some ways the worst of times.  Working with Sakaguchi-san was extremely challenging because his standards are insanely high.  Which is a good thing, but it can be tough.  Also the cultural and language differences between the Japanese and Western teams we not really understood or managed very well.  I’m sure we were one of the first projects to be developed by a “mixed” team.  Of course now this is happening more and more, and people have gotten much better at managing those situations, but we were really on the bleeding edge, so to speak.

Obsolete Gamer: What were some of the challenges in directing Parasite Eve?

Steve Gray: The biggest issues were really finding consensus and understanding between the Japanese crew, many of whom had been at Square for many years and were used to their style of working… which was actually very “agile” though they didn’t call it that.  The Western team was much more into what’s now referred to as Waterfall project management… which we didn’t call it that either.  We didn’t really think about this sort of thing, and didn’t understand the differences, and basically made a big mess.  But the game did quite well when it came out, so that’s great!

Obsolete Gamer: Now the game was a sequel to the book correct?

Steve Gray: The game wasn’t a sequel really, it was based on a Japanese novel.  There is also a Japanese movie based on the same book… with some cool VFX from Toyo Links (Japanese VFX company).

Obsolete Gamer: There are many fans who loved that game, but some felt it did not get the attention it deserved, do you feel that way as well?

Steve Gray: It sold over 2.5 million units world wide I think, and sold something like 1.6 million units in like a week in Japan or something crazy like that.  Not quite Final Fantasy numbers, but pretty good.  I’m happy with it.

Obsolete Gamer: What did you think of Parasite Eve 2?

Steve Gray: I think the graphics and FMVs are probably better… I haven’t really played it all the way through, so I don’t have a lot to say about the game.  I was a little bitter with the way things ended up at Square, so I cop’ed an attitude and only played it a bit.

Obsolete Gamer: There were rumors of making a Parasite Eve 3 but it did not happen would you want to see a part 3 made?

Steve Gray: Only if I make it!!!  I don’t know.  Don’t really care.  I don’t think the franchise really took off enough to warrent a whole long series of games.

Parasite Eve box
Parasite Eve box

Obsolete Gamer: You also contributed to Final Fantasy 7 while at Square, can you tell us about that?

Steve Gray: Mostly I just helped another team at Square LA work on some maps.   Square LA did a bunch of maps for FF VII.  I don’t remember how many or what percentage of the total maps were done there.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time at Square?

Steve Gray: Ha.  The stories I have to share involve other Square employees, cute Japanese girls at various locations in Tokyo at night.  They are not fit for public consumption… so I’ll let you guys imagine some of the trouble we got into.

Obsolete Gamer: What made you want to open your own game development company?

Steve Gray: After we finished PE1 at Square, a core group of us thought we were super badass game developers and that publishing companies would fall over themselves to give us projects and money.  That was not entirely true.  We worked on a bunch of games that never saw the light of day, and then finally landed the gig with THQ building Evil Dead 1.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about Heavy Iron Studios?

Steve Gray: It was originally called Chemistry Entertainment.  For a while we partnered with the Canadian VFX Company called Rainmaker.  Heavy Iron didn’t really 100% work out as we hoped.  But a bunch of really great people worked there, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in the game industry… for example my partner Marcel Samek went on to be CTO at EALA for many years.  Shiraz Akmal ran the central outsourcing group at THQ… Matt Coohill continued to work at Heavy Iron for a long time, and is now up in Seattle at Microsoft working cool stuff there.  And many others…

Obsolete Gamer: How did it differ from running your own company than working at EAC and SS?

Steve Gray: We had no money.  I didn’t really like running my own company that much… I thought it would give me the freedom to work on the kinds of projects I really like.  But instead I got to be an administrator and was always managing cash flow and trying to make payroll.  Not cool.

Obsolete Gamer: When did you make the decision to sell to THQ?

Steve Gray: When we were starting on Evil Dead 1, it was going to be one of the biggest projects THQ had ever done… and they really wanted to have us be part of THQ so that they would be building equity in the team.  And honestly, Marcel and I were a bit tired of managing the company instead of making games, so we decided to join THQ.  Of course, we also got paid some money (stock).  When I left THQ, their stock was at an all-time high… this was a good thing.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time with Heavy Iron Studios?

Steve Gray: When we were finalizing Evil Dead, I was basically living at the office.  We had a group of THQ QA guys in the first floor, and they would find bugs, we’d fix them… I’d burn new test disks… they bang away at them.  It was a crazy project.  But then many things I’ve worked on have been crazy and hard… but that’s what makes it fun.

Obsolete Gamer: Then it was a return to EA what was that like?

Steve Gray: I came back to EA to join my original Digital Domain friend, Chris McKibbin, to help run what was called the “Worlds Channel” in EA.com.  We were all the entertainment products, meaning all the MMOs.  I guess younger readers may not know about EA.com – EA.com was EA’s first big jump into online games, and think we were a bit ahead of the times… EA.com didn’t work out, and got closed down, and many of the people merged back into the other EA Studios.  That was pretty rough because many people were also laid off, and as one of the senior guys there it fell to me to do a lot of layoffs.  But it’s lame to feel bad for yourself in that situation because it’s 100x worse for the people getting laid off.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about the development process with creating the Lord of the Rings games?

Steve Gray: We kicked some serious ass on Lord of the Rings.  First out at Stormfront, then internally at EA Redwood Shores.  Those were great games, beautiful games, built on very tight schedules under difficult circumstances and they were really good.  I credit my time and Square and my experiences working with Sakaguchi for my ability to really focus on quality… and of course, Neil Young was a great EP on the first two, I learned a lot working with him as well.  I have very happy memories of that time… though I did get diss’ed pretty hard in the infamous “EA Wife” blog.  I think our FMV->game play transition stuff which I mentioned earlier was a first for the industry, and we really set the standard for quality in movie games… a standard that has rarely been met since, in my opinion.

Heavy Iron logo
Heavy Iron logo

Obsolete Gamer: How did your experience with EAC, Square and owning Heavy Iron Studios factor into your return to EA and working on those games?

Steve Gray: I really credit Sakaguchi-san for helping me understand how to build great games.  I have to say that at the time, when I was at Square, I didn’t really agree 100% with how he wanted to do things… but in the following years I came to really appreciate how his approach to game development is able to consistently create such high quality product.  Now I’ve rarely (never) had the freedom he has as a developer, but his ideas fit into development even if you have to pay more attention to the schedule.  Heavy Iron gave me a lot of respect for how hard it is to run a business… and at EA I learned a lot about why publishers work the way they do, and why publishers make what seem to the developers like evil and unwarranted decisions.  That changed my understanding of the game business a lot.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about your work on Neverwinter Nights 2?

Steve Gray: This is a mistake in some profiles on me… I never worked on Neverwinter Nights 2.

Obsolete Gamer: With all your time in the gaming industry which prior of your career did you enjoy the most?

Steve Gray: I really really enjoyed working on the Lord of the Rings games.  The team was so fantastic.  Everyone was great to work with and super talented.  We may have had our struggles and moments of anger with each other, but I wouldn’t trade that time with those people for anything.  I am also really enjoying working at Tencent…

Tencent logo
Tencent logo

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about what you are working on currently?

Steve Gray: I am currently Executive in Charge of Prodution at Tencent in China.  Tencent is China’s largest developer, publisher and operator of on-line games, we have a huge IM client (over 1 billion accounts), we run China’s largest portals, etc…  I work with all of our Studios, of which we have 9… with about 3500 employees across all of them.  But there are some projects I’m particularly focused on.

Unfortunately I can’t really tell you about them, because most are unannounced.  However one I can mention is NBA 2K Online, which is a co-development project with 2K Sports in the US.  It’s a bit weird because I didn’t really like working on Sports games at EAC… but this is really more of a Sports RPG or something like that.  It’s really cool… it’s going to be a monster hit here in China.  Working with Visual Concepts (the 2K Games Studio that builds NBA2K) is really great, working with 2K China is great… our team in Shanghai is great.

It’s really fun.  It’s amazing how Tencent builds online games and how big we are (we have 4 games that have more than 1 million people playing simultaneously every day).  We get to work so closely with our customers… in a way you can never do on a console game.  Also the scale we operate at is just stunning… QQ IM (our IM client) routinely has over 100,000,000 people logged into it every day.  Yes – that’s the right number of zeros… 100,000,000.

Obsolete Gamer: With all that you do you must have little free time, but when you do if you play any games what are they?

Steve Gray: I rarely play any games other than the games I’m working on, or directly competing product… which I can’t say what they are, because that would be a dead giveaway of what we’re building.  I don’t really play games for “fun” in my free time… well, what free time, for one thing.  But I have a lot of fun playing the games I’m building or those few other games I play to understand what the competition is up to.

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J.A. Laraque

J.A. Laraque is a freelance writer and novelist. His passion for writing mixed with a comedic style and intelligent commentary has brought him success in his various endeavors. Whatever the subject, J.A. has an opinion on it and will present it in writing with an insight and flair that is both refreshing and informative.