Interview with Naughty Dog Co-Founder Jason Rubin

This is a very exciting week for us, because after 35 entries to our Top 50 list, we finally get to write about Rings of Power. It might seem a little unusual for us to get this excited about one of our Top 50 entries, but Rings really made an impression on us and was one of the games we specifically had in mind when we decided to write lengthy features for each game on the list. You could say we’ve been waiting this whole time just to write about Rings of Power, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I think I’ve been waiting to write about Rings since I first played it twenty years ago.

With that in mind, we wanted to do something a little special, so I got in touch with Jason Rubin, one of the two people most responsible for making the game. Jason might not be one of those super-famous game designers, but he and Andy Gavin really ought to be. They co-founded Rings of Power developer Naughty Dog when they were still teenagers, made Rings of Power a few years later, and then went on to make several other really successful games, including Crash Bandicoot, and Jax and Daxter.

To put that into perspective, in the late 80’s, while still in college, Jason and Andy were making Rings of Power for a company they had created themselves. Ten years later, also while in college, I was working a part time job at the mall selling some of the more recent games their company had made.

You know what? I had better get on to the interview before that starts to sink in:

Q: You and Andy Gavin made your first game when you were 15, and Rings of Power was made while both of you were still in college. How did you learn this craft at such a young age?

Jason: When we started making games there were no courses taught, and barely any books to read.  You just sat and hacked.  Andy and I were lucky enough to get computers early and we spent a huge amount of time on them.  Cracking games turned into bad games which became decent games which became good games.  Eventually we got published.  Learning in such a fashion became harder and harder in the 90’s because there wasn’t a good outlet for the games new developers made.  But today, in 2012, it has never been easier to learn to make games and get your titles in front of the audience.  I get a lot of emails asking what to do or what school to enroll in to “get into the business.”  The truth is, if you have a computer and an internet connection you have access to everything you need.  Just do it.

Q: You guys also founded the developer Naughty Dog, which has created a lot of successful games, the most famous of which is probably the Crash Bandicoot series. With so many bigger successes under your belt, does RoP even stand out in your mind at all?

Jason: I have fond memories of Rings of Power.  We spent 3 years on the game, mostly because we were developing the game by modem from two different universities.  It was a huge game, and testing it took forever.  It was also our first console game, and the first game that put us in the mainstream.

Q: Compared to most console RPGs available at the time, Rings of Power is really innovative – the game is much less linear than other RPGs, allowing you to go after the rings in any order you choose, talk to any character about any topic, and you can even fight almost anyone in the game if you choose. Was this a conscious choice to do something really different, a reflection of your PC gaming background, or just the natural result of making the game that you wanted to make?

Jason: Rings was definitely the game we wanted to make.  Back then we took development much more casually than we did later.  We were still making the games we wanted to play rather than the games our audience wanted to play.  As hard core gamers we made Rings detailed, open, and difficult.  Later games were more casually entertaining and easier to love.  That isn’t to suggest that there was anything inferior about Rings, just that it was always going to appeal to a smaller, more dedicated audience.

Q: Was it at all disappointing that not many other console games followed your lead – do you wish Rings of Power had been more influential?

Jason: Rings of Power had a single major challenge: It sold out quickly but was never restocked by EA.  There were multiple reasons for this, from the cost of the cartridge vs. other games (it had more memory and expensive storage), to our royalty (really high), to the internal competition for limited space in the print run (Madden).  Rings became the best selling used game on Genesis very quickly because it simply couldn’t be found new.  So Rings never had a chance to become a major hit.  Frustration with this led Andy and I to leave the game business… briefly.

Q: Were there any major influences for Rings of Power in terms of game design, story or art style?

Jason: Oh sure.  Rings was influenced by dozens of games, books, and other media.  Andy was the leading designer on Rings, a position I would take over there after.  This was a combination of his strong love of RPG’s, and the fact that he was the one who was writing the code and it was impossible for me to have that much influence from 1000 miles away!  It would probably be better to ask him what the specific inspirations were.

Q: During the Sega Genesis era, Electronic Arts seemed like a company that published a lot of really unique games and was willing to take some chances that other publishers might not have. What was it like to work with them back in those days?

Jason: Electronic Arts was named Electronic Artists when it started.  It was completely run by development.  Developers had their pictures on every box.  But larger budgets and teams brought larger risk, and the wild west days of game development led to much more structure.  There was initially no malice in this change, and it happened in every publisher.  I would argue (and have – see my DICE speech) that the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction in the early 2000’s, with publishers believing that games were “packaged good” like cereal or bleach to be differentiated by marketing, but things seem to have worked themselves out in the long run.

(Editor’s note: for those of you who can’t watch the hour long presentation, or perhaps believe that internet video is some kind of evil magic, Gamespy has a pretty decent article on the speech here)

Q: One thing that we really enjoyed about Rings of Power was how funny some parts of it were. Was this something you had intended to do right from the start, or did more and more humorous elements and dialogue work their way in as you went along?

Jason: Andy was responsible for writing all of the dialogue and I think a combination of a twisted sense of humor, and ungodly long hours of writing led to the Rings sensibility.  There were a huge number of lines of dialogue for a game in those days.  I think over time that the humor crept in and then stayed.

Q: Is there anything about the original you would go back and change if you could?

Jason: Rings was abusively long.  While a small percentage of players got benefit of that, I would imagine that most didn’t get close to finishing.  This size led to the expensive memory chips that had to be on the cartridge, and so indirectly led to Rings being a short publishing run.  I would imagine that had Rings been split into two games that EA might have been able to manufacture more of them, and the games would have had a larger impact.  Is there such a thing as too big?  Perhaps there is!

Q: Are you surprised that 20 years later the game still has some fans posting videos, running websites and discussing it on message boards?

Jason: Every creator wishes that his or her creation is appreciated.  So of course we always hoped that this would be the case.  Having said that, there are so many great games out there, not to mention other forms of entertainment, that it is still incredibly gratifying when something I have created strikes a chord with someone. Rings was probably Andy and my last “pure” game.  After Rings, we tried to make the broadest number of people happy, rather than focusing on what we wanted to play ourselves.  So if Rings still has devoted fans, then these are probably gamers who are, or at least were, as close to Andy and my game sensibilities as could be.  Today, with connectivity through the internet it is easy to find someone who shares your tastes.  Hell, these days Zynga changes its games continually based on the audience’s feedback.  When we made Rings, that wasn’t the case.  You just put it out there and hoped that there was someone who appreciated it.  I’m always excited by the fact that we found those souls.

Q: And finally, will there ever be anything Rings of Power related in the future – a re-release for something like PSN of XBLA, or a sequel, or merchandise? I would definitely buy a Rings of Power t-shirt.

Jason: Haha.  You would have to ask Naughty Dog and Sony that question.  Sony owns all of the rights to the games that Andy and I created through their purchase of Naughty Dog.  So neither Andy or I have any say.  It would be cool though!