Interview with Pillar Creator: Michael Hicks

Gamestyle: Hello Michael, thank you for joining us. Can you give us a little bit of history about yourself and how you got into game development?

Michael Hicks: Thanks for having me! I’ve been making games since I was a kid, I grew up with video games so it started off with me trying to mimic games I was playing… in 2007 I made my first full game, a 2D space shooter… and eventually worked my way up to a 3D space shooter in 2011 for Xbox 360. After that I started to look at games more seriously as a career… I made a few other games for Xbox 360 and then have been working on Pillar since August 2012.

So is Pillar somewhat of a dream game for you? Something you had in your mind from an early age? Basically what was the inspiration for Pillar?

Looking back now, I’d say it’s the best thing I’ve done… but it wasn’t my dream game or anything like that. Around 2012 I started to get frustrated at a lot of video games, essentially I feel most video games are about escapism and hiding from reality to some degree, there’s a place for that in the world but I wanted to see more expressive games that tried to give people things they could take back and relate to in real life.

So after making this experimental game called Sententia for Xbox 360, I started subscribing to this idea that video games need to move away from traditional narrative story, and focus on the gameplay mechanics and what they teach/say to the player. I started to believe that you could essentially tell a story through the gameplay mechanics…

So with all that bubbling in my mind, I started thinking about real life relationships I had with people… one in particular was really important to me but I could never describe in words how it felt to be around this person, we had this really weird chemistry… so I started thinking I could express it through the gameplay mechanics, in a sense showing how I saw the world and how she saw the world, and how the characters worked together. Then I saw this movie called Magnolia where it’s made up of a bunch of characters that make up a bigger story… I started combining that idea with the theories from psychology stuff like the Myers-Briggs and slowly the idea came together.

So really, a ton of different things inspired this game… but hopefully that gives you an idea of my head space at the time I started it!

Wow, that has covered a number of questions we had planned…

Magnolia is an excellent film by the way so that really has piqued our interest.

You mention wanting to find another way to tell a story. One thing I like about many Indie titles, is that they can take risks in how they tell a story, do you find you have that freedom, or is there pressure to find a new angle? Especially moving forward.

Yeah Magnolia is one of my favorite films, PTA is my favorite director! Feel free to ask any of those questions if you feel I could go into more depth on a certain area.

I love creative freedom, it’s the main reason I’m indie. I love making things because of the excitement of arriving at ideas you feel no one has thought of before. The excitement of doing something new is what motivates me to make stuff, so I don’t really feel a pressure to find a new angle or anything like that… it’s what drives me at this point really.

Great, so with Magnolia, it is wonderful to hear someone mention it as an influence, because it is a special film. But aside from the way the character’s own experiences all conspire to link to one another, was there any other influence that came from that? Or even from Paul Thomas Anderson’s style?

Yeah I think Paul Thomas Anderson had a huge influence on me creatively, especially with this game. He has a way of writing characters in an honest way that isn’t judgemental, he just presents things and lets you take it in. I feel in some of my earlier games when I would write dialogue, I would try to stress really hard that this person is evil or you know… put my own opinion into the writing. Paul doesn’t really do that in any of his movies, and that’s interesting because so many of his films are essentially character studies about people with realistic flaws.

So like I said, there isn’t any dialogue in Pillar… but I consider this game to be very similar to his movies; in a way Pillar is also a character study about people with realistic flaws… but I don’t feel like I make a judgement call on who is “right” or “wrong”, I just present the ideas and how they relate to the bigger picture I’m trying to convey.

That sounds right up our alley. However, before this turns into a chat purely about Mr Anderson, we’ll move on.

How much do you think the new landscape of gaming has allowed your vision to come together? This surely wasn’t possible just a few short years ago.

I couldn’t be doing this in the 90s… I’m from the middle of nowhere, so the only reason I’m here talking to you now is because of the internet and the rise of tools like XNA. I learned how to program from the XNA Community and various free resources online, and then the rise of digital distribution let these smaller teams take more creative risks. There’s no way a studio would pick up what I’m doing if I pitched it to them… and if they did I feel like they’d screw it up by asking me to make changes to cater to what they think gamers want right now and all of that jazz.

So yeah, I think we’re in a really exciting time for video games!

Which brings me nicely onto my next question and the differences between the big AAA titles and Indie developed games.

Games like Driveclub, Master Chief Collection, Assassin’s Creed, etc have all come out to a bad reception for obvious reasons, do you think that Indie titles are in a way a reminder that bigger isn’t always better? That sometimes it is the smaller innovations that have the biggest impact?

I think the primary difference between AAA and indie is how they prioritise money… and honestly this isn’t a black and white thing, we tend to stereotype this stuff. Somewhere I read an interview with the main director behind Goldeneye 007 and he talked about how they rarely had anyone check in on them or ask to make changes, they had a lot of creative control. There’s also A LOT of indies right now that operate like larger studios… they come in and analyze the market and try to cater to what’s selling right now.

So when I say I’m all about indies and I hate AAA… really what I’m saying is that I don’t like the pure business approach that people have to making things, I’ve never seen it produce anything meaningful… meaningful as in, causing a change in the video game industry or being something that changes people’s lives in someway. What I see with the business approach is that it’s a short term investment, they tend to make a lot of money right now but over the course of time are totally forgotten and replaced.

How many people are going to recommend Morrowind in 20 years? There will just be some new Elder Scrolls with better graphics that we’ll recommend. But how many people will remember Braid? You know what I mean? That’s the difference between the two approaches I think.

Wonderful response, there are some games that will always leave a lasting impression. Before you get to give us a reason as to why Pillar could be that sort of title, we have one more question.

So PS4… Is that it? Or can we expect other platforms at some point? You know you’ll get hounded for a Vita version right?

I’ve already been hounded =-P Seriously, go look at the comments on the blogs I’ve posted ha-ha. The game is going to launch on PS4, Xbox 360 and PC. It will be available on the Humble store for PC, but we’re also on Steam Greenlight right now so we could potentially see it on Steam too.

If the game does ok we’d love to see it on Vita so we’ll see what happens!

Good to know.

Thank you so much for joining us, before we let you leave we want to give you a chance to sell us Pillar! What should our readers expect? Why should they go and buy it?

If you agreed with any of my above answers then there’s a high chance you’ll enjoy Pillar… if you enjoy a good puzzler and experencing games that are attempting to try new things then this game is for you! If you want a game that respects your time and doesn’t give you any filler, then this game is TOTALLY for you. Ha-ha, thanks a lot for having me!

Pillar is released on PS4 on 17th February 2015 in the US and the day after in the EU