Interview: A professional video game and movie writer stops by Tomorrow DailyTJ Fixman's credits include the upcoming "Popeye" movie, comic books and various "Ratchet & Clank" games. We ask him how many lines he's written for Mr. Zurkon, because we're the best.
[MUSIC] Welcome back to the show. Our guest to day is a real life paid Hollywood writer, not just some Rando in a coffee shop working on his Magnum Open. You might know him from such games as Ratchet & Clank. And he's also a creative consultant for Hasbro, we are excited to welcome TJ Fixman. Thanks for being here. Thanks for having me. So good. A lot of people out there, first of all, love video games. Many, many people love video games. Love Ratchet and Clank, and you've written Ratchet and Clank games. How many of them? God, I'd have to go to IMDB to be sure but I think it's either seven or nine. It's up there. It's up there. How great is it that Ratchet and Clank is back at the top of the charts again? With an amazing installment. I mean I think people that are playing this game weren't even alive when the first one came out. I think the first one came out in 2002 so yeah. And this one is a sort or re-imagining of that first game so it's very It looks phenomenal. I mean, I am loving it. I just got my jetpack. Nice. [INAUDIBLE] And there's a film. That's right. Ratchet and Clank are big and back and ready to rock. This weekend the movie Comes out. But I want to. A lot of people really wonder what it takes to be a video game writer. Because I think that's sort of job that has a lot of mystery surrounding it. In early days of gaming there was just sort of like Well, let's just have our producers kind of come up with something. We'll have our programmers come up with something. We'll sort of just come up with something and then you ended up with the end of Ghosts and Goblins where it's just- [LAUGH] You don't get to the end of Ghosts and Goblins. [LAUGH] That's true. Nobody ever did that. But now we are seeing very much so in the last 10 or 15 years of video games, we've seen screenwriters, people who are actually invested in story structure Formatting, things like that coming into gaming. You got into video game writing in a really weird way. And it's one of my favorite stories of starting in that industry. And can you tell our viewers? Cuz I think they'll enjoy it as much as I did? Yeah, sure, I came out to Los Angeles with a degree in computer animation and hopes of writing. And the degree in computer animation was very much my safety fallback because I knew The odds of becoming [INAUDIBLE] Plan B. They're astronomical. So, I ended up here simultaneously writing and trying to develop a 3D animated show by myself, one person. Which is. Wow. We took. Well, I say that because it's impossible. It's a lot of work, yeah. I'm not saying, well look at me, I'm saying it's impossible to do After two years, I'd gotten nothing done. And I was working at Insomnia Games as a Keyway tester. And this was on back in the Resistance: Fall of Man days, back when the PS3 had just come out. And my contract was wrapping up. I had sort of finished the game. And I was ready to leave and I didn't have any job lined up afterwards. I had an agent, I've been taking meetings, I've been trying to get my scripts up but nothing was hitting. I was looking at my bank account and I had $250 left in my bank account. I had no back up plan. I think a lot of people don't realize as a QA Tester that in gaming you don't stay at the company usually when you're done testing that particular game. You're on a contract and when that game is done being tested, you are also done. Yeah. It's a contract job and you know that going in, and so. So I finished the game and it was very much time to say, okay, so long and thanks for all the fish. Sure. And I'm out, and I was packing up my desk. I was unaware at the time, but the writer that was on Ratchet & Clank, Tools of Destruction at the time. For whatever reason it wasn't working out between him and Insomniac, so they were gonna part ways. But he had somehow. Read some of my scripts, and we'd talked in the halls before, but I didn't show him anything, just the scripts sort of get around in this town. And he's like, I'm sorry that I didn't work out, but actually, I read that guy's stuff and it's really good. These are film spec scripts that you'd written. Yeah, these are spec scripts that I'd written and apparently he'd read some of them and he recommended me So as I'm packing up my stuff the HR director came out to me and asked if I would come back on Monday and interview for the job as a writer. So I spent that entire weekend unemployed, [UNKNOWN] dollars in my bank account, talking to my parents about how I'm going to be able to a Have to move home and figure out my next move, back to New Jersey. I couldn't even afford the move, so I wasn't even sure how I was going to do it. How to get back? Yeah. And Monday, I came and interviewed for it. And they gave me the job. And I think I started on Wednesday, so that was- That's incredible. And you've been a working writer ever since? Yes, ever since. I'm knocking on wood [SOUND], but yes, ever since. I stayed on Sunday for a good long time. I think it was seven or eight years. And then I moved on in 2013. And now I've been contract mostly doing feature work, but doing of course the Hasbro stuff as well. So what is the difference between writing for interactive entertainment as opposed to writing for films and TV? It's a totally different ball of wax. And it's super interesting. I always tell writers who are coming in if you ever want to Sort of see what you're made of. Like boot camp is, like video game writing is boot camp essentially. Wow. Because imagine hiring everybody at once. The director, the actors, the production team, without a script ready. Just saying everybody go. [LAUGH] Right. [CROSSTALK] Ready, set, go. [INAUDIBLE] catch up. Exactly. Yeah, yeah. [INAUDIBLE] down the tracks basically, the train is coming through cuz. Wow. So, it teaches you to be agile, it teaches you not to be too precious which is a big, it's tough for a lot of writers to get used to the idea that. You don't just submit a script and it's just made. You know? Scripts are never finished. But I think it's more so in video games where nothing like, you can write the perfect third act twist and this is the example I was using, you can write the perfect third act twist and then the designer can come up to you and be like But I'm so sorry, we just cut that level. Yeah. Can you just make it work? Yeah, sure I'll just write another scene. No, no, we don't have anymore time for scenes. Just make it work. Just find some way of just sort of tying it together. Now, my question to you about that, because, as a player, you feel that. Right? And I wonder if you feel like games need to get to a place where That is more valued. The narrative experience is more valued and there's a shifting of priorities as far as how video games are made. Right, to say that this is a great script, let's make it into a game. This is a great game script or synopsis or log line for a game, let's make that. I think there are, I think nowadays there are studios that are getting more and more story conscious, like if you look at a rational like [INAUDIBLE] or whatever [INAUDIBLE] There are more and more studios who are adopting that philosophy. Yeah. But production is always against us. There is always gonna be something. And this happens in the [INAUDIBLE] to a smaller degree, except it starts with. This is the story that we want to tell. Starts with the script, yeah. But with video games, it's always gonna start with the tech. So if a video game studio finds that they can do zero g really well, well guess what kind of game you're writing. You're writing a space game. It doesn't matter if you have a great zombie game Sort of locked and loaded. Right. That's so interesting to me about the spike, well we have this really great, we developed this really great technology. Yeah. Let's craft a game around it and it's like you said. More mechanic. A mechanic, something that we developed and it's like man we have to use this in a game. Like make that work, it's so interesting. Look at Portal, Portal is the best example of that. Portal had one mechanic, which is- and it is an amazing mechanic, but it built this amazing story around it, where it's all set in one location with one antagonist in the game, and it was amazing. I feel. So it sounds, when you lay it out, it doesn't sound like the ideal way to work, but it's very much the way that the entire industry operates, and to a smaller degree, features. And you just learn to deal with it. And that's what you need to learn as a writer, regardless of whether or not you go into video games. Whatever it is, you have to learn not to be pressured. Right. Well, it seems like your work with Hasbro is Probably from the same vein cuz you start with an IP right you start with a concept and you have to build a world around that. Exactly and that's the thing that I love doing the most. When people ask me if I'm a writer I always sort of say yes I'm a writer but I'm also a world builder because there's something fun about not just building on like a three act story but saying here's how the world works. Here's how the characters interact with each other. That's really really fun, so to get to go into Hasbro, who has all these amazing IP like Transformers and GI Joe and Micronauts and I get to sort of play around and figure out how they all connect, that's really cool. I feel kind of like Tom Hanks in Big when Wednesday's toys, then it's games. Yeah. It's like tieing them all together. Yeah. It's cool and they give me lots of toys which is always a plus. Now you, Mr. Zircon is, I think, one of my favorites. Evil robots? [LAUGH] I have many favorites. You have a lot, exactly. Gladys. I like Gladys. You've got a theme, I get it. I have I really do, I love evil robots. [LAUGH] HK47, I mean I just really love them and gaming and so Mr. Zircon also a favorite. But it can be really difficult, I can remember talking about this the other day and it's really difficult to continue to come up with these like one liners because he has to constantly have these quips in the game as you summon him and it's like they can't be too repetitive. Yeah.>>So over the course of however many seven to nine Ratchet And Clank games, how many lines of Mr. Zirkon would you say you've written? Easily 500, easily. But I'm probably closer to 1,000. I'm just trying to think of what made it into the game. And the funny thing with Mr. Zircon was that when we first started him he was just like a little bot that would fly around you. And he didn't look like he did now. He looked like what we call a consumer bot, just one of the bots that fly around the levels and get smacked with your wrench. And I have to give credit to Brian Allgeier for this. Cuz Brian Allgeier, my creative director, was like, you know something? We can give Personality to this thing. So let's give it a name. Let's call it Mr. Zircon. We're overhaul its looks and he's like what would you do with it? What if he just thought everything was stupid. What [LAUGH] What if he talked in third person and he trash talked but it was just in the most obvious sort of Chuck Norris style. Yeah, yeah. Or Mr. T or like you Mr. Zircon is bored. Exactly. Or like Mr. Zircon doesn't need nanotech to survive. [LAUGH] I He lives on the fear of others or something like that. Yeah, Mr. Zurkon will punch you in the face with bullets. There's some real zingers in there. He will give you a concerto of suffering, that way, you write it, it looks dumb, and then you record it, that sounds dumb, but somehow when you get on the game, you're like, that's actually. Just works. It just works. It's fun. And it became this fan favorite ever since, so I'm I take it as a source of great pride that it's become this great weapon in the game. I don't think they'd do a Ratchet and Clank game without it, it's kind of like the Groovotron. People just expect it. They associate it with the characters, yeah. Yeah, because it adds personality. You came into the industry in such a roundabout way. What would you say is your advice to people who want to get in? Start in Q&A and then just hang around. [LAUGH] Right. Secretly drop scripts next to the writers' cars, just in hopes that they pick them up. Yeah, exactly. Empty your bank account. Well, certainly people Do incorrectly, is they go to school for it, and get a degree in game writing, and they apply for, and they look for game writing jobs. Game writing jobs, really, aren't advertised online. Right. Maybe, that will change, and I've seen a couple pop up here, and there But really that like games because they hire from within or they'll reach out to people who have representation of an agent or have lot of samples but either way the trick is to have a lot of samples to get a degree or some sort of experience inside of gaming studio or a computer animation let's say or the design degree because you know I think one of the reasons why Or game studios lean in towards producers or people who have game experience or animation experience, it's cuz they understand what the other departments are up to. But when they Right they understand that process. Yeah and it's a very complicated process. Yeah. With tons of different departments all working you know. 60, 70 hour weeks to get this game so I think when people just sort of get a degree in writing and expect to in there and pitch a game idea, well that doesn't do anything for a game studio because game studios are not in want, like, they've got plenty of their ideas and they can find people who can write stuff but what they need is somebody who understands the different Department. Right. So if you've got a design degree, if you have even an art degree or an animation degree, you're gonna be ahead of where just somebody with a writing background is. If I was, had just been a writer and didn't have the background in computer animation, I don't think I would have gotten the job. Because while I was doing Resistance: Fall of Man They needed somebody from QA who could handle collision or could handle what they call NAV mission which is sort of mapping out where enemies could walk. And now they've got programs that can do this automatically now, but back in the day you had to have somebody sit in an office until like 4 in the morning and actually. Make it work, yeah. So I think while I was doing that I was sorta proving to the people who I worked with, okay He's not just a writer, but he also understands, sort of... He gets it. Yeah, he understands what the other departments are up against, so you're not just sort of coming down from your ivory tower saying, here is my script. Yeah, yeah. Make it so! Well, and also, there's an understanding of like, when, as you're writing you can think of, you can keep. other departments in consideration Yeah Where you say if I'm writing something how are they ever going to program this Yeah This is not realistic. You can actually edit that down in a way that a writer not experienced in the games industry would not be able to do. Absolutely. [UNKNOWN] animation as well because there's things that I'm dealing with I'm Popeye now cause I'm running Popeye for Sony Animation where If you know what's an intensive animation scene and what's not, the production team will love you for it. Like, I know that I can't write all crowd scenes because crowd scenes create effects. That's really tough. It's tough, it's expensive, it's time intensive, and it pisses animators off and they come for you with the torches. Lots of one on ones in Pot Pie. Exactly, you could write just a reaction shot while something happens off camera, it's like People will see like okay, you understand that it can't just flow from your head. It's being considerate, you're being considerate of the people you work with in a narrative way, which I think a lot of people don't grab on to that as much as I think Think they like you see things where people go well why didn't they just write a scene like this like you know you see all these armchair [CROSSTALK] It's like you know they see armchair quarterbacks online. Well they should have written this scene. And you have to consider all of the different departments that would have had to have contributed to that scene and how expensive it would have been and how is that part of the budget and is it this. There's usually a good reason for why something didn't make it. Yeah. We live with these games for you know Anywheres between one year and three years. So we've had many, many meetings about every single possible interaction of a scene it can possibly be. But I remember seeing one comment where someone's like why aren't [UNKNOWN] sequences more like Final Fantasy? I'm like Final Fantasy will have a 500 person person team. [LAUGH] Yeah right. Well everything done at Insomniac was done in house Right which is very rare Yeah You know. Yes there are certain things that we want to do but it's always about picking your battles and saying okay what is this story really about? is there is something that we're putting in just for the sake of flash or is there something that we think we're saying. Really matters, yeah yeah. Exactly. Awesome man. I'm excited for a Popeye movie, I'll tell you that. I am too. Popeye is great. I mean I haven't seen ever since the Robin Williams one I've been like when am I gonna get an animated Popeye? This one is fun. I'm excited about that. Well, we'll warp things up, we'll let you go. You are a very busy man. Very busy, yeah. I've been trying to get you on this show for like two months. And you're like, I have so many meetings. I'm sorry, I'm so busy, I can't. But we're really excited. You can check out Ratchet and Clank the movie. It drops in theaters this weekend, which is cool. You wrote the first draft for that. And then also you can, of course, check out Ratchet and Clank: The Game, which Jeff and I have been greatly enjoying and it was really really fun. Fantastic. And if you've never met Mr. Zurkon, well, just let me tell you. You're in for a treat. And then you can follow TJ On Twitter, right? Just @tjfixman. @tjfixman and thank you so much for coming on the show. Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it. We'll be right back with an amazing package about drone racing that producer Logan put together, so stick around. It's Tomorrow Daily.