Video Games and Theater--Happily Co-Existing: Interview with video game company founder, Matt Udvari

The first time I met the very talented Matt Udvari, he was sitting in my graduate level Playwriting Class at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).  But Matt wasn't a Playwriting student; he was a graduate student in the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at CMU. So what was he doing in this very selective MFA program course (which consisted of a whopping 4 playwrights for my year, and 2 screenwriters)?  Well, he somehow managed to convince our Department Head to let him take this course with us. I'm sure this was not easy, as our professor was not one to make exceptions for anything lightly. But if you ever get the chance to meet Matt, you'll see immediately why he was let into this class.

And yes, that smile plays a part.  Matt is charming. Like, seriously. Charming. He is a positive person filled with positive energy and you get that right away from talking to him. He's upfront, straight-forward, a man of his word and he really does get things done. He's a hard worker, but creative. He listens, takes good feedback, and he's smart. So if he made a compelling case why someone in an entirely different school could benefit from taking a graduate level Playwriting course at one of the most elite theatre schools in the country...well, it would be hard for any reasonable person to say no to Matt.

And the department head did not say no. So Matt was let in, and he did not disappoint us.

Years later, Matt has kept up his passion for theater and writing, but he's deftly combined it with his creativity and technological smarts in the video game world. He's now the Lead Designer, Founder and Creative Director for the company Part Time Evil, LLC. His company develops their own video games, as well as consults for film studios, video game publishers and digital agencies.  I caught up with Matt at a roller skating rink in Austin, where we chatted while dance-skating it up to strobe lights and Madonna. 

Okay, no, I didn't. But I wish I had. (sigh) We stuck to the 21st Century Roller Rink--email. But you can picture us skating while you read the interview.  Matt is so good skating backwards. I wish I could do that...

So Matt, what was your background in theatre that led you to that playwriting class?
I was kind of the "tech guy" in our playwriting class because I was in the ETC, but I actually was more of a theatre person as far as my background. My undergrad at Wake Forest, I had an acting/playwriting major, and a voice/comp sci double minor. Crazy combo. One year, I was at Shakespeare & Company for acting, and they made me write sonnets of my own. It just stuck and I wrote about 30 sonnets out of the blue. Then somehow I never stopped and ended up focusing my major on playwriting. It happened that abruptly.

I came to the ETC because I have this side of me that likes to make inventions. I wanted to go to grad school for playwriting too, but I figured it was impossible to get into both at the right school. So I showed up at Milan's [the Playwriting Department Head] class. And he said "I let one person try this before and they failed. Ok I'll see how it goes, but don't be surprised if you get kicked out." Something like that. I was scared of him. So I just kept coming. And then semester passed and I came to the next class. And he let me keep coming, and let me do staged readings, so I guess I never got kicked out. He was a good guy.

Tell me about the path that led you to become interested in making your own video games.
I originally got hooked on games from the Legend of Zelda, because they were so heavy on setting, mood, story. That was pretty much linked to my playwriting, as far as the creative impulse of it. I spent my childhood making stories with action figures, crayons, etc. Everything I played with became a story of some sort.

How did you start your own video game company?
The game industry is really rough. In the big budget game studios, I never got to make my story-centered game or my funny game, or anything like that. But we made a lot of the normal games with lasers, space marines, and robots. And we always got laid off. So I eventually decided to give it a try. During one of my layoffs, I used my time on unemployment to start writing a video game. I just slowly built it up from there.

What is your creative role at your company?
I design the overall stories and concepts. We're only now starting to approach some of the deeper, artistic content because it's the riskiest, business-wise. So 2016 will be exciting.

How much room for creativity is there in making your own video game? What are some constraints?
You can basically go crazy. The only constraint is the amount of work it will take to make it. If you're self funded like we are, there's a certain time and money limit to make the thing. That's why we made Puzzle Football recently. It's not a story game at all, but it's a crazy invention and a weird combo of types of games that we were excited about. And it was reasonable to make. Well it was supposed to be reasonable, but we got obsessed and it took 2 years. There are two types of creative impulses for me in games. There is the invention/mad scientist type of thing, and then there's the writing/story thing. Puzzle Football is fun as an invention.

What are some challenges you face in writing stories for video games?
Like I said before, you don't have as much control of the linear, written experience. When done right, games give you a setting, circumstances, and mood, and you feel something incredibly moving because of what you are doing, not what you're watching. In some ways this can be more confusing to write. But, those things are also some of my favorite aspects. I think right now I'm only starting to touch the surface of what I've wanted to do for 15 years, story-wise.

Tell me about the collaborative process in creating a video game.
It's similar to a play in that you have the pre-writing, writing, then conceptual phase before anything. The difference is that we have a technical aspect that's wed to creative. It's not like in theatre, when you have the set/lights/sound, and they go hand in hand but sort of parallel with the acting ( you can rehearse most of the play without those technical pieces). In games, the centerpiece IS the technical part as much as it's the story part, and there's very little separation. That's why I try to get better at coding over the years. If you are a creative type who can code, you have more of an ability to realize your vision.

How do you feel your background in playwriting has furthered your career as a video game as the Lead Designer and Creative Director?
It helps me in so many ways, that would be a novel to answer it. The most obvious is probably that knowing mood, subtext, and character bio techniques are all essential. Because in games, IMO the best stories are experienced by the player, and aren't linear. So it's more like writing a world, rather than a script.

In the 21st Century, with so many alternative reality games and a high focus on technology, how do you see the future of theatre fitting in with this medium?
I think theatre stands on its own, but its problems are more related to the marketing and such of theatre, and the question of why it's behind the times in that. I'm not one of those people who thinks theatre should be in VR or anything. But I believe every theatre should have an app that alerts people of upcoming shows, that they should have easy mobile ticketing, and they should have incentives to share (like if you got ticket credits for bringing friends). So I want what's on stage to be theatre as theatre, but it needs a surrounding ecosystem of technology to keep it visible.

So before we have to return our skates here and grab some nachos and kale...tell me...What’s your favorite all-time TV series?
Fraggle Rock: I guess this makes sense with my answers earlier. I just love the world of it, and wanted so bad for it to be a real place when I was a kid.

For more information on Matt's studio, check out Part-Time Evil.