Interview: Talking Games, Industry And More With Chris Massimine
Chris has had a hand in creating blockbuster hits such as Bioshock, Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the modern Doom series, the Arkham trilogy and this doesn’t even scratch the surface.
We all know what a pain it is to write out a CV. You have to tell everyone how great you are, list your achievements, sound personable and approachable and display all the skills and traits that an employer wants. Well, in the case of Chris Massimine, this isn’t much of a concern because this highly regarded producer has a resume that speaks for itself. Chris has had a hand in creating blockbuster hits such as Bioshock, Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the modern Doom series, the Arkham trilogy and this doesn’t even scratch the surface.
We were lucky enough to steal an hour of Chris’ time to talk about all things gaming as well as his other pursuits. We discussed his upcoming projects Gotham Knights and Resident Evil: Village. We talked about what it means to be a video game producer. We discussed his new company Imagine Tomorrow LLC. Plus, we found out what games make Chris tick. So join us for our interview with Chris Massimine.
Chris Massimine Interview: The Man Behind The Curtain
Cal: Hi there Chris, well, first of all, thank you for joining us for this interview. It’s an honor to have someone with your level of experience in the gaming industry join us for a chat. I know you are a busy guy so we will jump right into things. So firstly, do you want to inform our readers who you are, share some of your experience within the medium of gaming, outline what your role usually is on these projects, and maybe tell us how you got into the profession in the first place.
Chris: Sure thing, so my career in gaming started accidentally in a way. I was always interested in games and grew up with games. I was the straight-A kid and I was a musical theatre kid which meant I was bullied and I was a bit of an outsider. So when other kids socialised after school I would be at home playing video games. They were a form of escape so when I was studying at NYU I got an opportunity to take on an internship at Bethesda at a time when they were developing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and thanks to how much I immersed myself into this world and this project, I was quickly promoted to assistant producer.
Now, an assistant producer isn’t really being a producer. It’s a role that allows you to shadow the executive producer and learn the trade. I loved this experience and thanks to that involvement and making my name known, I was recommended for a role within 2K games a year later for a role regarding an undersea Noire title that we now know as Bioshock. This was again, as an assistant producer but the team took a real liking to me. In fact, I can pin it back to one moment in particular.
We were at the table trying to establish the musical theme for this game and we were discussing what musical piece the player will hear first within the game. Then being the plucky guy that I am, I shout ‘it’s obviously La Mer’ and this was met with unanimous approval. I think they were surprised to see an assistant producer weigh in on the creative process but as we now know, that’s been the theme ever since.
A few weeks after, the line producer moved to a different project and I was asked if I wanted the role and I thought ‘that’s both exciting and terrifying, so let’s do it.’ I think this attitude was thanks to my mentor Hal Prince who said that if an opportunity comes to present itself and you can make it happen, take it. Then from there I learned how to pull team’s together, learned the roles of a line producer and a fully-fledged producer and that’s what has led me to the career I have today.
Cal:Fantastic, and what a game to begin your career with. A game that is certainly in the conversation for the best game of all time. The ability to get in on the ground floor of such as brilliant project will have been invaluable. So just to pivot slightly, the role of a producer is perhaps a little less clear than say a creative director or a dev lead or a technical artist. From the outside looking in, it seems like you are the one holding things together, bring talent together and making sure everything stays on budget but obviously, you know more than myself, so tell the readers what it means to be a video game producer.
Chris: Yeah, I think you have a point. A producer is kind of this nebulous term where people aren’t quite sure what the role entails. I think it changes from project to project. In general, it’s like the role of the team captain. Within the role you will typically be in charge of assembling the team, designing the path for fundraising, hire the line producer that will help you execute your plan, it’s basically the catch-all, create all role.
It’s a strange position where if it all falls apart, you are the first guy to blame but if you are a good producer, when the product goes off without a hitch, often no one knows you were there. It’s hard to give an all-encompassing umbrella description for a producer but to give it a shot, a producers job is to do and give others the ability to create. A mediator, a coach and someone that says yes as much as they possibly can, opposed to shutting down possibilities in saying no.
Cal: Then to elaborate on that thought, how often would a developer be involved in the creative process? It is strictly an admin role or do you have a hand in making these games what they are?
Chris: Again, it really depends on the project. Take Bioshock for example. That was a very collaborative project where everyone had a voice. My role within the Arkham series has also been very creatively focused and while I love the numbers and the admin side of the role, it’s nice to see your ideas and suggestions brought to life in the game. Then, in contrast, the Resident Evil series was a role where you were given your tasks, you occupied your own space and things were done a certain way.
I think the best way forward is to work in an environment where those in opposing roles look to you for your opinion. For example, in my day job at Pioneer Theatre Company, my artistic director will look to me creatively and I will look to her from an administrative standpoint. It leads to a more rich collaborative process and a more successful project. Those are the kind of relationships I like to nurture.
Plus, this is a fun thing. Speaking of relationships, Pioneer Theatre Company is overseeing the world premiere of a stage show called ASS, which looks at family dynamics in the witty and eccentric way that only Neil Simon could’ve, so fortunately, it’s penned by his daughter Ellen Simon, whose apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And who does it star? T Ryder Smith who was, of course, Sander Cohen. So that perhaps shows the strength of the relationships you can form in these roles in a full circle kind of way. But yeah, I think the Resident Evil series was the biggest struggle to find a way to contribute creatively, at least initially.
Cal: Sure, I can imagine that with such a huge series it can be difficult to jump in and immediately stamp your authority on the project. Just while we are on the subject of Resident Evil, let’s dive into the franchise a little. So you started working on this series from Resident Evil 5 onwards. Now, obviously, this game and Resident Evil 6 had their critics and the content moved from survival horror to an almost action RPG sort of title. However, now with Resident Evil 7 and indeed Resident Evil: Village, the game has moved back to its horror roots and away from the zany and wacky sci-fi content for the most part. So my question is, how much of a hand have you had in this transition?
Chris: I think when I arrived on Resident Evil 5 the team were trying to work out the way forward and then by the time six rolled around, it became apparent that the series had perhaps lost its way. I think this was most apparent with things like the Chris and Pierre campaign where it was almost like a Medal of Honor style action sequence and a complete departure from horror. Sadly I was weighed down by the nuts and bolts of the operation at the time but I was still a person at the table.
I was really excited to be able to work on the series because I grew up with this game. I loved it despite the first games cheesiness like the ‘Jill sandwich line but Resident Evil 2 was the game that made me stop and realise that this game had legs and could tell a compelling story. So I was a little disappointed by the way that five turned out. I will say that initially, we all thought the game was moving forward in a good direction, but as is often the case, it changed. When we got to the land of extraordinary, everything got tainted with this over-epic tone.
That being said, I still appreciate what we did. I appreciate that the game dealt with the origin of the T-Virus but I think too many ideas were left at the table. Then when Resident Evil 6 was in development, I remember being at the table and telling people that the series wasn’t stale. Resident Evil 4 was a huge success and the reason why was because the grittier, more suspenseful horror gameplay worked. Sadly though, the game was split into three campaign and one was horror, another was action and another was sci-fi and simply put, it wasn’t cohesive.
So with Resident Evil 7, I mentioned that if this is going to work, we almost need to scrap everything and the path we are on now and try a soft reboot. We wanted to go back to horror and offer a much more real and suspenseful experience because it’s scarier when it’s real. However, we also wanted to take a step back and see how we could link the story to the world of the supernatural while still providing context and answers. I think we succeeded in that game.
The one thing that I think working on that series taught me is that in the process of creating a game, people are very hung up on logistics. A lot of people are asking how and very few are asking why. So I was always the guy that was asking what the game was, why are we doing this and repeatedly asking why until the answer was distilled down to its purest form and we knew our way forward. I attribute a lot of that game’s success to that change in mindset.
Cal: That’s a great method and I’m glad that the team were able to help the series return to form. Now I know you can’t give too much away but what are the general feelings in the camp regarding Resident Evil: Village? Is everyone confident ahead of release?
Chris: I think what we are doing is the right way forward for the series. It picks up right where we left off and the story expands further into the supernatural than the previous title but like before, the game is still grounded in reality. We have really done our homework on the character backgrounds, how they would speak, what region these individuals are from and a variety of smaller details that add to the overall experience. I’m really excited to see what people think of the game and I hope folks like it because I see this as the beginning of what is chapter two in the legacy of Resident Evil.
Revelations was our way of tying up a lot of loose ends and answering some lingering questions. Though, it was also a means of asking some more questions and setting us on the path to what we are doing now. Characters will be returning and perhaps they will play more pivotal roles than they did before but overall, we see this as the new generation.
Cal: Brilliant, I’m glad to hear that the camp is happy and the franchise has a clear path that it wants to follow. So just to touch on games like Resident Evil 5 & 6. Are there any games in particular that you worked on and in hindsight, wish things would have gone differently?
Chris: It’s a hard question because I think that way with just about anything. It’s one of the great annoyances of working alongside me. I always think we could have done more. However, if I was to pick one project I would maybe say Duke Nukem: Forever was a tough one. I was involved in the story creation for that one and we knew going in that, one, Duke Nukem is an iconic franchise and we needed to do it justice. Then two, the story was crazy and perhaps some aspects wouldn’t fly with the audiences of the time. I think what we made didn’t hold up to the legacy of the Duke Nukem franchise. Some bosses were much stronger than others, the enemies didn’t require a lot of tactical know-how to beat, the pacing was wrong. Overall, I think the excitement and the pressure of bringing this series back was a little too much and I think it blinded us from the path we should have taken.
Cal: Sure, yeah that would have been an uphill battle to bring Duke Nukem into this progressive world we live in today. Well, to offer the complete contrast to that. What game have you worked on that you would consider your magnum opus that you are most proud to showcase on your resume?
Chris: Now that’s a tough question because there have been so many great games I’ve worked on. I guess the obvious choice is Bioshock but I’m not sure if that is the one. This may be ridiculous but I think it’s a much smaller game that I am most proud of, a game called Hades. That was an incredibly well-received game. When we sat down, the question was how do we create an old school, Castlevania style game in the modern gaming landscape. The answer was through an extremely collaborative team of talented individuals and a great concept. It may be silly to overlook my other work but I’m going to own it and say that Hades is the game I am most proud of, so far.
Cal: I don’t think that’s silly at all, it’s an incredible game and it made me actually enjoy a roguelike game, which I didn’t think would be possible for myself. Do you think there will ever be a sequel to Hades?
Chris: No, I don’t think so. The game is a standalone title and because the game is built to be quite retro in nature, it proves that it can stand the test of time because it’s already behind technology in a way. So no, I don’t think we would ever need to re-visit that franchise.
Cal: Yeah, I think that is a fair point and with other games Supermassive have created such as Bastion or Pyre, I think you would say the same thing. So I want to detach from the world of gaming for a moment and talk about your company Imagine Tomorrow LLC. I could try to sound business savvy and give a description of what your company does but why not let you do that? So what is Imagine Tomorrow LLC and what are your plans for this company?
Chris: Absolutely, so I have always felt that I am at my best when I not only when I have the mission in which to succeed but also the ability to enact the mission in a certain way so that it achieves its true potential. It’s hard to do when you are put into pre-existing constructs as often, these constructs can hinder success. So Imagine Tomorrow was founded so that we could have a company that can provide space and resources for creative developments within areas such as entertainment, film, gaming, lifestyle technology and more.
Our overarching goal is to pick and choose these products based on certain criteria, that mainly being, does this project benefit humanity as a whole and not have negative ripple effects. So at our core, we are a venture capitalist firm but I see us more like a socialist venture capitalist firm. We stay with our projects from start to end and if there is a breakdown in a collaborative dynamic, we get out. It’s either done as a cohesive unit, or not at all.
We are currently in Delaware, California, New York and one in the UK in London and we all work equitably. Everyone has a voice, we have a tight-knit team of around 12 people and at the moment, we don’t have plans to grow but more to sustain. The mission is to create a better tomorrow through the projects we take on and at the moment it’s going really well.
Cal: Fantastic, that sounds like a great plan and I love the criteria by which you choose your projects. Are there any projects that you are involved in at the moment that you would like the share or one you are very excited about?
Chris: Well, one that I am very happy to be involved in is the upcoming stop motion Leonardo Da Vinci feature, The Inventor. It has an incredible cast with people like Marion Cotillard, Daisy Ripley and Stephen Fry to name a few. I thought to myself when I was informed of its existence, I have to be a part of this. It’s a great story to tell and it has a great impact on tomorrow and that’s what we are all about.
Cal: Absolutely, and with a better tomorrow in mind, I know you are involved in a number of philanthropic pursuits. So do you want to tell us about some of those so we can do our part and give them another platform from which to be heard?
Chris: Yes, so there is something that I am currently working on. So in the last year, the blinders have been taken off in regards to the social injustices that are going on, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. So I’ve begun working on a social justice bi-weekly column on News Break, a leader in local news. ‘Arts Reach,’ the aforementioned column, aims to give those individuals in these local areas a voice. Those that are working in organisations and institutions that are trying to break through the barrier of diversity and inclusion.
Although, we also look at less touched upon topics like human capital. There is a general feeling that people may have about working say eighty hours a week but in reality, they are being exploited. Perhaps this isn’t something philanthropic but I believe that it does a lot of social good and I’m really proud of that.
Cal: No, I definitely think that it’s a Philanthropic thing you are doing and it’s important to give those in those positions a voice. Now, I just want to close things off by bringing everything back to gaming and these are going to be more quick-fire questions. So first off, what was the game that as a child hooked you and got you interested in the world of gaming?
Chris: The first-ever game that I would have ever played was the original Prince of Persia. It was a game that I really enjoyed at first and then grew to loathe due to how challenging I found it as a kid. Though, it was so rewarding and that was how my interesting in gaming started but the game that really got me hooked was Monkey Island. It was maybe the earliest example of an RPG. As a kid, I got most of the witty humour, I loved that there were so many things to do and interact with and I would get lost in that game for hours. It provided more choice than Prince of Persia could offer at the time and this ability to choose my adventure is something that I’ve been really drawn to in games ever since.
Cal: That’s one that I hear often as a game that opened people up the possibilities of the medium, a wonderful game. Then moving on to those you have worked with throughout your career. Out of everyone within gaming, who has been the most talented or most fun person to work with?
Chris: Well, I’ve been blessed to work with some truly amazing people in my time. It’s hard to choose because they aren’t only talented, they all have such a range of different skills. However, that being said, there is one person I loved working with and I would love to work with again and that is Mark Hamill. His Joker is truly iconic, he’s Luke Skywalker, he’s a wonderful human being and he has a brilliant work ethic. Plus, he asks questions which is so important when trying to nail a role. He cares.
He will stop in the middle of proceedings and will say ‘I don’t think the Joker would say that’ and a lot of the time, he’s right. He’s a big part of what made the Arkham games a success and, of course, we believe that Gotham Knights is going to be a success too. It’s a good way to continue things and move the story to the next generation. Bruce’s story is done and Batman’s story is done but people wanted more. Now, I can’t say whether Mark will be involved in the new project but I will say that he has been a pleasure to work with every time and he lights up the room.
Cal: In an era where it has almost become a celebrity fad to appear in video games, that dedication to a project is great to hear. Now let’s turn our attention to publishers and developers. What studio or game would you absolutely love to work with or on in the future?
Chris: That one’s easy, Rockstar. I love the vast open worlds that they produce and my skill set is being able to pull together and manage team’s that make these types of worlds. I wholeheartedly believe that I am the guy that can help produce the next GTA game. I’ve seen how that world works, I’m very close to a lot of people who have worked on the franchise before and I admire that after all these years, GTAV remains a fixture of popular gaming culture today. They’ve created an alternate reality where people can live another life and that is truly amazing and I want to be a part of that.
Cal: A solid choice, I don’t think there is anyone in the industry who would turn down an opportunity to work with those guys. Then moving to present day, if you find a moment to sit down and play a game, what one are you playing?
Chris: Honestly, it’s Skyrim. There are so many aspects of that game that I had a hand in or gave the green light for, yet I still haven’t explored them. In that game I get to relive that great creative experience, I get to celebrate the success of my colleagues and best of all, I get to uncover things that I didn’t get to see through to the end. I might have been told of a new feature and made room for it in the budget and never got to find out if it made it into the final game. Then through playing it back, I get to explore and find these things. Going through that game is like a living museum for me and I’m really enjoying my slow and steady progression through that seemingly endless world.
Cal: I’ll agree, there are few games that can offer hundreds of hours of content and still have more new things to offer the player. Skyrim is one of those games for sure. Then last question I have for the Chris is, what is your all time favourite video game?
Chris: Well, this one might be surprising because it’s a much less storied game than most but it’s one that I really enjoyed. It’s the original Shinobi game. I really love the mechanics of that title, I enjoyed the music, I enjoyed everything. Sure, the game didn’t have much of a story apart from a little twist at the end where the final boss was your mentor all along but it was challenging, it was fast-paced and I always believed there could have been a story to it.
So I might come across a little nerdy here but I have trouble shutting off, even when lost in gaming and I’m always brainstorming. This works well when I’m playing a game series I’m working on and can present an idea the next day. However, with Shinobi it’s a much more personal thing and over the years, I’ve basically conceived a story for this game that makes sense.
I loved it that much and I loved it because it was so tough too. I actually found Contra much easier than this game and people found that odd but it’s the truth. The game taught me mental toughness and with the lesson that will practice, you can do anything. It’s something that I’ve taken into my career as well and it’s something that has helped me strive for greatness in all I do. So yeah, Shinobi.
A great choice and a great way to close out this interview. Listen, Chris, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. We at Veryali wish you luck with Resident Evil: Village, Gotham Knights, Imagine Tomorrow and all the other amazing projects you involve yourself in.
So that’s our interview with the wonderful Chris Massimine. What did you make of the interview? Were you as blown away with how busy this guy has been too? Do you think that the Resident Evil series is stronger than ever? Let us know in the comments section below. Plus, if you liked this interview, then why not check out our other recent interviews with Sean McCafferty of Hipixel Studios. Or alternatively, check out our interview with the development team behind Before Your Eyes.
Disclaimer & Update: We don’t guarantee these answers provided by Chris Massimine were accurate, given, he was caught in a fake endorsement scandal, citing Mental Illness.