A MASTERMIND OF MODERN GAMING: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER MASSIMINE
A MASTERMIND OF MODERN GAMING: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER MASSIMINE

Christopher Massimine, affectionately dubbed “Mastermind,” is one of the most influential video game developers of the modern age. A visionary behind some of the biggest gaming titles, including the recent incarnations of The Legend of Zelda, Bethesda’s Doom and Wolfenstein series, and the BioShock franchise, Massimine’s most recent work includes Resident Evil Village (he has been a producer on Resident Evil since Resident Evil 5), which as just completed post-production and Gotham Knights, which is wrapping post-production (he’s also been a producer on the Arkham games since Batman: Arkham Asylum).

 

In addition to the world of gaming, Massimine is a new father, venture capital entrepreneur, theater executive (currently managing director of Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company, which is the state theater of Utah), active film producer (including the upcoming star-studded stop-motion feature The Inventor), and recorded music brand consultant. It’s a fair claim to state that Massimine is likely one of the busiest people in Entertainment. Fortunately for us, he was able to hop on a Zoom call for an interview. Here’s the scoop:

Wasim: You’ve worked on some of the most successful video games of the past decade and a half. What’s been your favorite franchise?

Massimine: Oh, that’s such a loaded question. I mean, that can also be incredibly subjective. The truth is it’s far easier for me to tell you which has been my least favorite. Of course, even then, they’ve been Enjoyable.

Wasim: Okay. How about the favorite franchise as far as a team?

Massimine: That’s even harder. I’ll say the folks at 2K Games are great and very collaborative. Warner Bros really, deeply, cares about the Batman games. ZeniMax fosters an incredibly supportive work environment. Capcom’s about great work ethic and the teams pride themselves on it. To be very honest, the big franchises are still around and thriving largely because the teams are great and a lot of effort is put into ensuring people are happy.

Wasim: Have you ever been in a situation where that wasn’t the case?

Massimine: Totally. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the direct fault of those companies. Look, the reality is it’s easier to be benevolent when you’re established, have strong credibility, and are bringing in both operating capital from investors and revenue from titles. Now, some of the big franchises came from humble beginnings, and I’ve been with some of those games since their beginnings.

The thing is with the smaller and frankly, often, newer companies, is because they’re green and scrappy, the challenges become enormous when they’re pitching out of their league instead of actually taking the time to figure out what they’re about.

This becomes that much more obvious when you get the attention of someone like me who will take a seat at the team because I’m genuinely interested in what the game is trying to do, or trying to say, or what service it may be bringing to the world.

When I’m in a meeting at we’re talking cart before the horse, or end result before truly knowing the product, I know I’m in for a ride—especially if I’ve been brought in more for the budget than creative because holding the bottom line is that much tougher when the CEOs, CTOs, and CPOs are 10 steps ahead and haven’t tended to the previous nine. The most seasoned of us understand there’s a constant need to reinforce discipline to what we’re doing.

Otherwise, projects go off the rails. Many of the start-ups don’t have the luxury to have grown within major franchises and then branched off.  When that kind of thing happens in the Industry there’s an enormous noise, and the teams are usually veteran players, and those new companies generally already have major vested capital partners.

I’m talking about the other ones. Let’s call them the Indie Games. Even though today’s independent gaming community is a billion-dollar industry, there are only a select few of those who account for the majority of financial success and market share ownership. The others want to be those merry few.

They’re not yet and by modeling their operating like they are they do themselves a great disservice. I talk a lot about the importance of self-awareness in my work and daily life. I truly think that’s the key to success. When you’re trying to impersonate someone who’s succeeded in a particular way, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

Unless the circumstances are exactly, and I do mean exactly, the same, you’re not going to get very far. You need to know who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, why the product you are creating deserves to be played, and accept growth comes only, and again, I will repeat this because it is imperative to grasp, regardless of who you are or what you do in the life, growth only comes after sustainability, and sustainability only comes with a proof of product, and to get to a proof of product there has to be a lot of A/B testing, and a comprehensive understanding of the product’s true sales potential.

You can’t fake any of that. And you can’t model your approach on someone else’s success. Success is different for everyone. There are variables that are consistent, but the path is always different.

The new guys don’t often understand that. They think it just happens if they can pull up someone else’s playbook. It doesn’t work. I’ve seen it implode. For as many successful titles that I have on my resume, there are almost as many that never made it to market. I will note I was a hired gun on those games.

If I had a principal stake, you better believe I would’ve never let it happen. I’ve seen too much in this Industry not to be able to know how to prevent those train wrecks. But, when you’re job is ultimately to make recommendations to those who make decisions, well, your recommendations aren’t always taken.

Wasim: You’ve started making a name for yourself in the industry as a line producer. I’m assuming that’s the role you’re referring to. What does a line producer do?

Massimine: The 60-second version is a line producer is a general manager. The role oversees the budget, administrative functions, and the staff producers, which are different from the lead producers who are typically titled just “producer,” or “executive producer,” or on a very large project the executive producer is supported by “co-executive producers.”

On the big titles, the line producer is typically reporting directly to the producer, who is the true head of administration as well as the chief of the creative team. You’re also sending reports to the executive producer, who is often the company representative. On the smaller games, you’re typically reporting to the CEO and CPO.

Sometimes the CTO, but they’re usually more on the creative end. Depending on whom you’re working for, the line producer may have a hand with the creative aspects of projects. These days I won’t take on a line producer role unless I do, and it’s kind of a given when I’m approached since I’ve proven that I can effectively do both.

In many cases though, the line producer stays in the lane of administrative. As the line producer, you’re constantly looking at the numbers and making sure they’re reflecting the right economic boat you want to be in.

Then, when you have something to show, and something to say, you make recommendations to the chief or chiefs. They may not like what you have to say, and if they don’t you can stand some ground, or if you’ve bigger fish to fry, you relent. As a line producer, I had a problem with this because it really impacted by job and could often put my work at odds with what I should be doing, opposed to what I was told to do. After enough years and a lot of success in the field, I’ve been able to work in a contractual clause that gives me veto power, with the ultimate arbiter usually being a third-party economics wizard outsourced from a firm to appease investors.

They always agree with me in the end because we speak the same language and I’m very good at doing my homework before reporting on the numbers. Of course, you only really get this type of luxury with the big players.

Wasim: Speaking of big players you’ve worked with a lot of major talent over the years. In your ideal world, is there someone in gaming you could bring onto every project?

Massimine: I’m a big fan of Garry Schyman. Not only is Garry a pleasure to work with, but he’s also such an unbelievably eclectic composer—a brilliant composer, a genius composer, truly at a very competitive level.

And he loves the challenges and opportunities that come with video game scores. I wish he could orchestrate the soundtrack to my life. We’re really fortunate to have his talent on BioShock.

Wasim: BioShock is the game that started this amazing journey for you. What was that experience like?

Massimine: To be fair, BioShock started a lot of careers. The experience was amazing. As I mentioned earlier, 2K Games is very collaborative. It was what the business should be about, many voices coming to the table to make a great product. No stone unturned, no idea bashed.

I was very fortunate. It was my first-time line producing, and in retrospect, probably jaded the concept of line producing for me because I was involved in creative as well as administrative, and when I made recommendations they were taking, and I was empowered to proceed.

Of course, that made it that much more interesting for me, and being really just a kid out of college, it made what was an enormously scary job really quite manageable and beyond that, rewarding.

Wasim: When did you know you wanted to get into gaming?

Massimine: I suppose I kind of always knew, even from my first gaming experience, many of which were with the Sierra Entertainment games of the early 90s. Gaming was an escape for me from being an outsider at school.

When I was young I was picked on a lot. I was bullied. I didn’t have many friends. And because I was a child actor, I wasn’t in school as much, which I was really, really young.

Wasim: What game from your childhood continues to inspire you today?

Massimine: Goldeneye 007. And I know I’m not alone. For me that took what games were at the time, and showed the world what they could be. I think that’s pretty undisputed given the acclaim the game received. Now, I didn’t have really any console growing up.

I got a Playstation when it was already outdated when I was in high school. My best friend growing up, Michael Hancharick, always had the latest gaming machines and was extremely good at Goldeneye, both in-game and multiplayer.

I was not a fan of the N64 controller. For me, it was really hard to use. I dreamed that Nintendo would come up with an alternative controller and maybe just then I would eventually get good enough to maybe beat Mike in at least one round of multiplayer.

Wasim: You were on the producing team of 2010’s Goldeneye 007 Reloaded. With the wide option of systems and controllers did you ever get that rematch?

Massimine: I didn’t. He’d probably still take me. Mike had skills, and probably would be a great game tester. There were times I would have the golden gun or the Moonraker laser and he would’ve taken me down with the melee hand chop.

Wasim: What was the last video game you played from start to finish?

Massimine: In an official capacity, Resident Evil Village. For leisure, The Punisher 1993 arcade game. I have it in my basement and it’s my go-to for unwinding.

Wasim: Speaking of Resident Evil Village, what can fans of the franchise expect?

Massimine: Continuity, and growth. Resident Evil 7 saw a new shift in the game dynamics, not just through first-person being the primary function of movement, but as far as the expectations of the franchise’s gaming world.

What we did in 7 is take a big step away from the fantastic, and over-the-top, and re-rooted in the gritty and disturbing—a gritty and disturbing that was given the explanation and therefore a little more real, and a little more conceivable.

The dramaturgy on the world environments has been the immense and specific focus, as well as some of the practicality components behind the monsters. The village continues to live in the realm of psychological thrillers.

If 7 stripped away the vivid bells and whistles previously on display for the series, Village finishes recoloring the tone in connection to where 7 left off. Village reaffirms for the player that the franchise is definitely now in its Second Act, a very different place than it’s been headed, firmly cemented by the proof of product in the success we saw from 7.

Wasim: Gotham Knights is just about wrapped. Is there anything you can tell us about the project?

Massimine: It’s a bit like Village in that we’re now in the Second Act of that franchise as well. The difference being is the model of the Arkham series kept steady, and when we built new components, they complimented all previous components.

Well, most of them at least. With Resident Evil there was a lot of experimentation as the series went into 5, which I’d thought was a mistake given how well 4 did. By 6, we were throwing darts at the wall.

Arkham had a plan. It was meant to be a trilogy, excepting Origins, which stepped out of the timeline to give some additional context and backstory to the characters and events that would take place starting with Asylum. We knew Batman’s story was done in Knight. But, the thing about Batman is he’s a symbol.

He has protégés. He’s created a legacy. The mantle can be passed and it’s palpable that it was, and those supporting characters have been built up to be the primary defenders of Gotham. It’s a trajectory that makes a lot of sense.

It allows us to expand the Rogues gallery. It allows us to open the door to circumstances and situations that are going to be addressed very differently than they would’ve been by the Caped Crusader. It’s giving the underdogs of the series their moment. And if it goes well, who knows, there may be a larger story to tell.

Wasim: What a cliffhanger! Are there any other games you’re working on?

Massimine: There are always a few that seem to be kicking around, and there are two that are likely very real, but I’m in no position to discuss what they are or the details at this time. I will say though, Wasim, I won’t be a stranger when there’s more to report.

Wasim: Well, we are very grateful for that and just as grateful for you taking the time with us today. Any parting words for any inspiring developers?

Massimine: Do this because you love it. Do it for the child in you that is still alive and curious about the surrounding world. And do it because you can, and know that if you don’t there’s something you could’ve brought into the world that may have made a difference, even if just for a singular enamored kid, who’s desperately struggling to use a clunky controller to beat his best friend in the round of multiplayer.

 

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