From the arcades to the Battlefield: David Goldfarb talks about his life in games

2022-09-04 03:47:08 By : Ms. Longbiao Lin

The director of the Outsiders talks us through his career, from Battlefield Bad Company 2 to Metal: Hellsinger

“I have no heroes in games,” David Goldfarb announces toward the end of our chat about his career. It seems like an odd comment from someone who has spent almost thirty years working on them, from testing games at Acclaim Entertainment – the publisher of titles like the dinosaur-shooter series Turok and Shadow Man, a voodoo-themed action-adventure based on the Valiant Comics series – to leading huge, multimillion dollar projects like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 at DICE, one of the biggest developers of multiplayer FPS games. “I don’t feel like a game developer most of the time, more like a stranger someone let into the building who knows a few things about games,” he elaborates. “And games are made by teams in most cases, so lionizing one person feels kinda weird.”

What he says next, however, is like a ray of light breaking through clouds. “If there’s anyone who I admire and who I love unconditionally, it’s musicians,” he says. “It’s easier for me to admire musicians because they are closer to how I feel as a person than anything else, except I don’t have their ability, just the appreciation.”

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

It’s a statement that could be seen as convenient, considering Goldfarb’s current project is Metal: Hellsinger – a first-person shooter made in Unity, where players blast their way out of hell to the rhythm of a bespoke metal soundtrack performed by some of the genre’s biggest names, from Trivium’s Matt Heafy to System of a Down’s Serj Tankian. Yet there is more to it than that. Goldfarb’s career has been wide-ranging, occasionally confrontational, and highly itinerant, taking him from his home country of the United States, to Italy, the Netherlands and finally to Sweden. Yet the most crucial moments in his life have often revolved around sound.

Growing up on Long Island, Goldfarb was raised by his parents, who were both teachers. “They gave me a lot of rope to do what I wanted when I was younger, ” he says. “My takeaway from their careers was I didn’t have any interest in doing it myself, ” He doesn’t recall many specifics from his childhood, apart from that he “loved to read books and loved baseball and baseball cards.” But he has a strong sense of being independently minded, stating he was “always happy to be alone” and although would enjoy the company of other children, never felt like he needed it.

“I have no heroes in games, if there’s anyone who I admire and who I love unconditionally, it’s musicians.”

“My parents said I would go over [to] my friends’ houses and read their books and never interact with them many times, so I guess that probably says something,” This independent, perhaps headstrong nature has remained part of Goldfarb throughout his life, and he freely admits that it has sometimes gotten him into trouble. “I knew what I didn’t want to do and what I did want to do, and generally, I didn’t do the stuff I didn’t want to do, even when it made people angry.”

Goldfarb first encountered video games during the heyday of arcades, when to play games was to be surrounded by a cacophonous, discordant and endlessly changing soundtrack, from the iconic ‘wakka wakka’ of Pac-Man, to the ominous buzz of Space Invaders. Amid all the games Goldfarb played at that time, one stood out – Atari’s Asteroids. “The vector graphics were different,” he says, citing the game’s clean lines and dazzlingly bright visual display that marked it out from other arcade games. “I hadn’t ever seen anything like that, even though we’d been playing Pong or whatever garbage there was,” he says. ”It’s also very loud, if you remember. It didn’t feel like it had any analogue in my experience.”

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

As video games began to enter the home, Goldfarb’s experiences of them mostly remained outside of it. “I didn’t really have a console,” he says. “I couldn’t afford a PC either, so in both cases I had to go to my friend’s house. Star Raiders I played on the Atari 800. Wing Commander I played on my friend’s Amiga.” But Goldfarb’s fondest memories of games during this period are primarily of RPGs [role-playing video games]. “The biggest formative games were definitely things like Wizardry and the Gold Box SSI Dungeons and Dragons games.”

Goldfarb knew that he liked games, but at that time he never seriously considered game development as a viable career. Not least because, in the early nineties, there was no obvious pathway into the industry. “People would laugh at you if you told them ‘I want to go to school for games’”, he says. “Now, you can get a game degree.”

In the end, it was fluke timing that kickstarted Goldfarb’s games career. “My mother had found an ad in the paper that said ‘game testers wanted’, which happened to be at Acclaim, and she was like ‘You could probably do this’. And I was like ‘I probably could do this’.” But Goldfarb was planning a trip to Mexico with his then-girlfriend. “I said: ‘I’m gonna go to Mexico. And I’ll come back and figure out if this still exists.’ And I came back, and it was still there. So I got the job.”

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

But Goldfarb’s time at Acclaim was something of a false start. Stuck in what he describes as a “dark grotto” of “just about all men”, there was very little relationship between the testers and the development team. “You were super isolated from the game,” he says. “You were there as kind of a clean-up crew looking for problems. And that’s not how quality assurance should work.” After a year in QA, Goldfarb moved into a tech support role that proved to be “so much worse than QA” then left Acclaim six months later to work for an interactive agency in New York.

Goldfarb didn’t return to professional game development for a few years, moving to Milan in 2005 to work for racing game veterans Milestone, as lead designer on Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano. Produced in just four months, Goldfarb says it was a “critical disaster” but was in some ways ahead of its time “It had some RPG stuff and some time-reversal mechanics for if you fucked up.”

“I knew what I didn’t want to do and what I did want to do, and generally, I didn’t do the stuff I didn’t want to do.”

After a couple of years at Milestone, Goldfarb joined Guerrilla Games in the Netherlands, where he worked on his first triple-A title, Killzone 2. “They were such an exceptional group of people,” he says. “I had never been part of a production team that was so aligned around the vision.” Despite this, Goldfarb ended up leaving Guerrilla before Killzone 2 was complete. “My vision for the game wasn’t in line with theirs. I wasn’t happy with that, so I quit,” he says. “They still made a great game, I am happy to have contributed to it, but it isn’t the game I wanted to make.”

Then, in 2008, Goldfarb moved to DICE, where he was assigned to work on Battlefield: Bad Company, the latest entry in the Swedish studio’s series of multiplayer shooters. Although a decent game, Bad Company’s thunder was stolen by the launch of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the previous year. “That made everyone go, like ‘Oh Jesus’,” he says. “When you compare [Bad Company] to Call of Duty 4, there’s an obvious mismatch in terms of visual fidelity and stuff.”

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

After Bad Company, Goldfarb worked briefly on Mirror’s Edge, before being promoted to lead designer on the game that would ultimately put him on the map. For Battlefield: Bad Company’s sequel, he decided he would both oversee the design, and write the script for the single-player campaign, which he wanted to have a tongue-in-cheek, action-movie vibe. “I was writing it to kind of poke fun at Call of Duty:Modern Warfare,” he says. “I love those guys, but someone needs to take the piss out of them.”

Goldfarb’s memories about the development of Bad Company 2 are sketchy, partly because, as he puts it “the whole thing was kind of a blur”. It also seems that, for a long time during Bad Company 2‘s development, the team couldn’t explicitly articulate what made it so uniquely enjoyable. Instead, the game’s development was more intuitive, with DICE experimenting with new technology like destructible buildings and feeling out it worked, like a guitarist playing around with a new riff. “I remember the first time we played with some of the destruction and new stuff. People were losing their minds really early in the development, and you could see it was magic,” he says.

What everyone at DICE knew for certain, however, was that the game sounded incredible. Bad Company 2’s thundering orchestra of war set the standard for audio design in first-person shooter games, and arguably hasn’t been surpassed. Goldfarb lights up when he speaks about it. “The audio was so amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a game sound better than Bad Company 2,” he says. “I still maintain that that was the best DICE ever sounded.”

Bad Company 2 was both a critical and commercial hit for the Swedish game developer, selling twelve million copies within two years of its initial launch. The studio took this success forward into Battlefield 3 – the game that established Battlefield as the main competitor to Modern Warfare for the multiplayer shooter throne. Yet unlike with Bad Company 2, Goldfarb’s heart wasn’t really in the project. “BF3 was less a labour of love for me. It was more of a ‘gotta make this work’,” he says. “A lot of the stuff I think I would have preferred to do, it just wasn’t possible.”

Goldfarb cites the change in tone of BF3 as part of the problem: with the grittier, more serious approach being less to his tastes. Tech was also an issue throughout the project. BF3 looked astonishing, blowing audiences away with its incredible ‘Fault Line’ demo, which still impresses today. But the focus on visual fidelity came at a cost, as the new toolset Battlefield 3 was built on was much harder to work with. “Single player was like bashing your head against the wall, because we switched engines,” Goldfarb says. “We didn’t have a lot of the tech to make the combat really good in single player.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a game sound better than Bad Company 2,” he says. “I still maintain that that was the best DICE ever sounded.”

Goldfarb eventually left DICE in 2012 to join Starbreeze, directing what would become the company’s biggest game, Payday 2. Ironically, he got involved with Payday 2 because he wanted to do “something small.” “I got to do a lot of fun stuff,” he says. “I’d never made a co-op game, and those guys had really good level designers.”

But Goldfarb is clearly conflicted about his time at Starbreeze. “I had a really big problem with Bo [Andersson] who was the CEO of Starbreeze, who was later left in shame,” he says, referring to the scandal that resulted in Andersson’s dismissal and the studio being raided by Swedish authorities on claims of insider trading. Goldfarb doesn’t go into too much detail about their relationship, but it’s clear that he left Starbreeze in a manner that was far from amicable. “After Payday 2, a lot of the conflict and unhappiness became untenable,” he says. “It was funny because the game was enormously successful, but in the way of all things everybody writes the history of why they were successful.”

After leaving Starbreeze, Goldfarb was at a loss. “I left there thinking ‘Oh shit. I dunno what I’m gonna do now, but it won’t be working with humans again.” Then a serendipitous message from Fredrik Wester, the CEO of Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive, gave Goldfarb the idea to establish his own studio. “I found three other people to found this studio, and eventually we signed a deal with Take Two [the publishers of BioShock and Borderlands] for what would become Darkborn.”

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

Darkborn was Goldfarb’s first project that he had complete creative control over. It was an open-world, first-person game in which you play as a wight: a monster who exacts revenge over the Viking warriors that butchered the creature’s family. Starting out the game as an infant, Darkborn would have seen players grow into a terrifying creature that could tear its foes limb-from-limb.

The studio worked on Darkborn for five years, and in 2019 showed off a fifteen-minute gameplay reveal at Barcelona’s D.I.C.E convention (not related to DICE, the developers of Battlefield). But as audiences went wild over their first taste of Darkborn, Goldfarb and his team already knew the game was pretty much doomed. “A lot of people think we made this decision to abandon that project. That’s not true, okay. We really wanted to make that game,” he says. But Darkborn was struck dead after The Outsiders parted ways with publisher Take Two, the manner of the split leaving the developer legally hamstrung when it came to finding another publisher. “We couldn’t get anyone to pay what it would have cost to continue, because of a lot of complicated legality around IP ownership and the publishing rights to the game.”

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

Goldfarb doesn’t specify the reason for that initial split, but he does explain that Darkborn’s development had troubles of its own. For example, the entire structure of the game changed midway through production. “It didn’t start as an open world game,” he says. “It became one, and that’s why we got fucked. If we had done it another way, maybe we would have been okay.” He also points to the combat system as another sticking point. “Doing first-person melee is probably the hardest thing in the industry,” he says. “We never really cracked that.”

The cancellation of Darkborn left The Outsiders in dire straits. “We had probably, I don’t know, a month of money left”. But it wasn’t just players who had been impressed by Darkborn’s demo. One of the people who saw it in action was Rui Casais, the CEO of Funcom. “Rui was like ‘Okay, well if you can’t do this, is there something else you want to make?’

“A lot of people think we made this decision to abandon Darkborn. That’s not true, okay. We really wanted to make that game,”

There was. While Goldfarb had always enjoyed a strong affinity with games, his other lifelong love was music, specifically metal. “I grew up with a lot of what my dad listened to, most of which I didn’t like, but some stuff I did, like Bob Seger and CCR,” he says. “Around 11 or so I heard metal for the first time, and that was a big deal, and then later stuff like new wave and punk came along on MTV, and that began to shape me more, and then I guess I was about 15 when I heard Husker Du for the first time, and that was really the start of everything.”

These two driving forces in Goldfarb’s life had always existed in separate worlds. Until, that is, in 2016, when Goldfarb played id Software’s reboot of DOOM. “I was listening to Meshuggah, and I had such a cool experience killing stuff to the beat.” Goldfarb thought it would be cool to make another shooter that engaged directly with the rhythm of its soundtrack, but forgot about the idea because Darkborn was mid-development. “Then, when Rui had asked me ‘What do you want to do?’ I was like ‘Oh, there’s this crazy [idea] like a metal album cover come to life: only you’re a demon and you’re slaying to the beat.’”

Casais liked the notion, and after making a more official pitch to Funcom in California, Goldfarb was asked to make a proof-of-concept. “We did this prototype, and I think it was six weeks of ‘let’s see if we can make this even remotely fun’,” he says. “It was the best prototype I’ve ever made or seen. I can’t believe how good [it is]. It’s still fun.” Funcom agreed, and Metal: Hellsinger was born.

Fast-forward two years plus, and the game has grown enormously from that initial concept, turning into a remarkable musical collaboration, between The Outsiders, the specialist video-game composers Two Feathers, and a festival’s worth of A-list metal vocalists including Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe, Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, and many more. “To be able to work with these people whose music I adore, and even to write lyrics for them and hear them sing it…I feel so lucky to work with so many great people,” he says.

The results speak, or rather, scream for themselves. This summer, The Outsiders released a demo of Metal: Hellsinger, and its explosive blend of rhythmic violence instantly arrests your attention. As the player character, a demon denominated as ‘The Unknown’, you blast and slice your way through hordes of the devil’s minions as your make your escape from hell. As you fight, shooting enemies on the beat deals greater damage, and also increases your “Fury” score. As this score ratchets up, the soundtrack intensifies, with guitar riffs and vocals dynamically layering in over the basic rhythm. The cascading relationship between the action on-screen and soundtrack is quite literally entracing, with your focus narrowing in on hitting beat after beat, foe after foe, until the chorus bursts into life in an infernal crescendo.

Credit: Dan Kendall for NME

With Hellsinger, Goldfarb appears to have rediscovered that same magic that made Bad Company 2 so special. Only this time, he has a much clearer understanding of what that magic is. Is it a coincidence that his projects seem to spark into life when they have a strong audio component? “I hadn’t thought about that. But I know that it’s always important to me,” he says. “To me musicians and music are the closest to the intensity and rhythm of life, of all the arts I connect with music the most. I feel games are amazing and wonderful but they aren’t immediate in the same way music is. I can listen to 5 seconds of a song and fall in love, games are longer, slower burns for me.”

This, ultimately, helps explain the trajectory of Goldfarb’s career. The road from Acclaim to the Outsiders has itself been a slow burn. Goldfarb’s progression through the ranks of game development has been outwardly steady, but at a personal level, that progress was driven less by a desire to climb the ladder and more by the passion he felt (or didn’t feel) for every game he worked on. His journey across continents through ever larger and more ambitious studios speaks to a desire to find a project he truly resonates with. And in the fire and fury of Metal: Hellsinger, he seems, finally, to have found it.

“When I was younger I had a really hard time sticking to something unless I loved it passionately. That’s still true, but now I have better tools in case I know the growth curve will be very steep and painful,” he says. The growth curve of the Outsiders has undoubtedly been painful, but persisting through those difficult years has spawned the game that is closest to Goldfarb’s heart. “This is my favourite project ever.”

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