Arthur Inasi has spent the last 15 years at Harmonix, developer of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band rhythm games, working as a sound designer, level designer, voice actor, mocap actor, and more. As creative lead of Dance Central VR, he oversaw the series’ reboot for Oculus virtual reality headsets. His side hustles include producing music under the name M-Cue and hosting the podcast Greasy Says, where he offers unfiltered truths from his career as a brown game developer.
In this podcast, I ask Arthur about his experience collaborating with renowned musicians such as Usher; the educational aspects of Harmonix’s games; the potential in Harmonix’s recent acquisition by Epic Games; the need to mask oneself and be a “chameleon” to fit into the games industry; balancing being assertive and being collaborative; the hobbies that keep him going, and what we can expect from the second season of Greasy Says.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 121, for Wednesday, January 12th, 2022. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. Once upon a time, I worked at MIT — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My walk to work took me through Central Square in Cambridge, and every day I’d pass by the offices of Harmonix, the creators of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. It was so amazing to know such a renowned developer was right in my backyard. As you can imagine, for a company with a reputation for rhythm games, it’s critical to have the best minds in the gaming industry. Focusing on music and sound. Joining me today is one of those audio geniuses, Arthur Inasi, creative lead at Harmonix. Welcome Arthur.
Arthur Inasi: Hey Ken! What an intro! As usual, crushing it. Loving it.
Ken: It’s so good to be chatting with you. I feel like we’ve been and running in circles for years without knowing it. I’ve had other guests from Harmonix on this show, like Alicia Caillier, and I’ve known people like Christine Kayser and Allison Holt, who have worked at Harmonix. Finally, I get the man himself!
Arthur: Yeah, I’m elusive like that! I tend to stay behind the scenes, but I remember listening to that interview with Alicia and that was really great because we worked on Dance Central together. Yeah, and I was telling you before we started, I love the way you set up your show. And it just seems like a really great way to interview people in the gaming industry. So thank you. Thank you from Greasy Says to Polygamer. Thank you.
Ken: And Greasy Says, of course that’s your podcast that you just launched recently. We’ll be talking more about that on this podcast. But tell me a little bit first about Harmonix. You are the creative lead. You’ve had many roles at Harmonix throughout the 14 years you’ve been there. What does a typical day look like for you at Harmonix?
Arthur: I prefer to call myself first off a creative at Harmonix. That’s my most recent release, which was Dance Central for Oculus. I was creative lead on that game, but I’ve done a bunch of things. So I’ve been a composer for many years, sound designer for many years, voice actor, mocap actor. But right now, as we’ll talk about coming up, is a very interesting time for Harmonix. So my role is kind of in a flux kind of state right now. So yeah, but at Harmonix I’ve done so many roles. I started in QA. What up QA? My peoples. Love QA.
Arthur: Yeah, and worked by way up to creative lead over the years and had a lot of cool opportunities while working there, and learned a lot about the industry, and the ins and outs from a very detailed point of view, like the inner workings of a game itself, to the broader picture of how all these companies work together, and how deals are made. And I’ve experienced a lot of different aspects of the industry over the years. I’ve been doing it for I think 15 years this year. So occasionally I have to look at myself and be like, damn son, you’re old. You’ve been just doing this for a long time, but it’s been a blast.
Ken: Harmonix your first professional experience in the gaming industry?
Arthur: It was.
Arthur: I was working in studios, like music studios, production studios before hustling. And one day I just decided to walk in to Harmonix, like wanting to get a job so badly in games. There was no other opportunity. I didn’t want to move to the west coast where everybody else was moving. I like living in Massachusets. Like I like the vibe out here. So Harmonix was just a perfect fit of, okay, I studied music for so long. I love games. I went in there, I got an interview, and I played Guitar Hero for the first time ever, in the interview, first time ever. And I was like so good at it naturally because I play guitar. And like I remember saying to the people this is going to be gigantic. You don’t even understand. I don’t want to shout out the people who I was interviewing with just to blow them up or anything. But I remember telling them like, this is ridiculous. This is going to change the world. You know what I’m saying? So yeah, that’s how I started. Wait, what was the question?
Ken: Well, it’s just been an amazing career that you’ve had. As you said, you’ve done so many things. Mocap, actor, voice actor, level designer, sound designer. What are some of the contributions that people might recognize your work from? Where can they say that’s Arthur’s stamp. He did that.
Arthur: Oh man. Well, I would have to shout out Dance Central, which is like a reboot. So it’s actually called Dance Central, but it’s really Dance Central VR if you ask me. So it’s the VR version of Dance Central. I was a creative lead on that project. And the backstory to Dance Central is an interesting one, because I started working on Dance Central as the voice of the boombox in Dance Central. So the boom box that tells you, you’re doing great, or keep it up, or whatever. You know what I mean? Or it instructs you in how the game works and walks you through certain dance routines. That was my voice way back when I was still like a quote unquote, lowly sound designer coming up in the industry. And then I get to eventually lead the entire project and bring it to a platform that it’s never been on before.
Dance Central was traditionally a connect game. It was a camera looking at you and picking up your motions and making sure that those matched up with the motions of the skeleton of the character in the game. But for VR, it’s a completely different experience. There is no camera, except for the controllers. There is no camera except for the headset. So we had to kind of recreate what it meant to dance well in VR. So it was this great culmination of all of these paths that I had taken through games leading to this point of like, oh, I get to release the game that kind of started me on my path in the first place. I get to release the newest version of it, the freshest version of it. So I want people to remember me for that because I think that’s a great sort of story to have. I was almost like a success story in games, like you start as a sound designer on a game. And then the next thing you know, a few years later, you’re the creative lead on it. Dreams can come true, people.
Ken: That’s amazing. And you’ve contributed so much to the games that Harmonix has created. For example, you’ve supplied music for some of the tracks. You actually got to work with Usher as well on one of your other projects. Is that right?
Arthur: That’s right, yeah. I had to teach Usher how to talk like me.
Ken: Wait — Usher was pretending to be you?
Arthur: Basically, yeah. In Dance Central 3, we replaced the voice of not the boombox, but the tutorial with Usher because it was like a sweet marking move. Usher’s voice is in the game. So I had to go to Atlanta and basically sit in a studio at Usher and be like, nah, I say it more like this, dude. You know what I mean? Which was a hilarious experience, but he’s super dope to work with.
Ken: Wow. That is surreal. And are there other celebrities, other musicians, that Harmonix has given you the opportunity to collaborate with directly?
Arthur: Oh yeah. A while back, I got to go to Abbey Road to work on the famous Beatles Rock Band. I got to work with Giles Martin in the studio recreating these stems and all the crazy security that went around that. So that was a really incredible opportunity that loads of people dream about that was, I admit, a little bit wasted on me because I wasn’t like a lifelong Beatles fan like a lot of people are. So I got to go there and I’m sitting in Abbey Road, which is something somebody somewhere dreams about their whole life. And I’m sitting there with Giles Martin and Giles Martin gets a call on the phone and he’s like, oh, I got to just step out of the studio real quick because Paco Peña is here. I don’t know if you know who Paco Peña is. Do you know who that is?
Ken: I’m sorry, I don’t.
Arthur: Paco Peña is a legendary flamenco guitarist. I grew up in Trinidad. Spanish music is a big thing. Caribbean music is a big thing. I grew up playing Paco Peña’s music. So to me, meeting Paco Peña at Abbey Road was almost more exciting than working on this classic Beatles music. It was so ironic. It was ridiculous. But I got to meet Paco Peña. And I was awestruck in a way that I wasn’t when I would listen to like the original masters of John Lennon saying some like hilarious joke. Such a weird experience but that was a great opportunity that, working at Harmonix, I got to do.
Ken: Yeah, that is just amazing. All the synergy and all the opportunities that you’ve had because you walked in and asked for a job 15 years ago. That is amazing.
Arthur: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Ken: One of the things I love about the games Harmonix makes is that they’re wildly popular, they’re extremely fun, they’re great party games, but they’re also in a way educational. People learn stuff about music, they learn, maybe not necessarily how to play an actual guitar, but it inspires them to pursue that and to learn more about it. How much of that educational or motivational aspect is intentionally going into the games? Are you thinking about that when you’re making it, or is it sort of incidental?
Arthur: Yeah. You said the right word, motivation. So sort of the creative prompt that the heads of the studio might put down for something like a Guitar Hero or Rock Band, Fuser, that kind of thing, is the motivation of playing music. What do you want the player to feel? We always try to make the player feel the feeling you can’t put into words when you step on stage and do a good show, or the feeling you can’t put into words when you finally play the drum lick to like Good Times, Bad Times by led Zeppelin. That feeling is something you can’t really explain. It’s not something that you can put into words or describe to people and have them feel the same way. So that is the motivation, I think behind a lot of Harmonix’s music games in particular, because music games mean a lot of different things now. But that’s usually the motivation.
And because of that motivation from the higher ups and from the creative prompt of the whole studio, as sound designers, as audio designers, as designers, we take that prompt and we say, okay, so that means we have to simplify what it means to make music and simplify it down to a feeling. Not an easy task. Takes a very long time. You have to make the player feel like they are good at playing this plastic instrument or whatever, or playing their controller. And you have to bring that joy of accomplishment. So it’s a delicate balance of all right, you’re educating them with what is a quarter note? What is an eighth note rhythm? What is this sort of rhythmic pattern that we want to build for you to play over this lick in this Rage Against the Machine song or whatever?
But at the same time, we don’t want to recreate it so perfectly that it’s almost impossible to play because no one can play like the guy from Rage Against the Machine, he’s completely unique. So we want to simplify it so that you get the feeling that you are that guy, but without the technical ability to be that guy. So it’s kind of both. It’s intentional and incidental, I think.
Ken: And do you see stories of people going on and picking up the actual guitar because they started Guitar Hero or drums, for example?
Arthur: Honestly, I’ve seen more comments that say, why don’t you just get a guitar and learn to play real guitar? I’ve seen more of those comments over the years. But yeah, we’ve gotten letters of people who start up a band or are inspired to do music because they play these games. Same thing with dance too. Shout out to Dance Central. Harmonix kind of gets a lot of its rep from Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and rock music in general. But Dance Central has done a lot to promote dance and to make people feel comfortable with moving their bodies to music in a way large audience, like Latin America and places you wouldn’t necessarily think. You think of Rock Band and you kind of think maybe it is an international game, but it’s also mainly North American focused soundtrack, because rock music. But Dance Central has the ability to reach so many more people and teach them about dance. And I feel like dance is almost a more vulnerable art form to do in your living room. You know what I mean?
Ken: I totally get that. I am a big fan of Contra dancing, which is not the kind of dance you’re going to find in Dance Central. But nonetheless, I recently asked a friend, have you ever gone Contra dancing? And she just flatly said I don’t dance. And that wasn’t a religious objection, it was that there is a lot of vulnerability with dancing. And people don’t like to put themselves out there. And so if you give them a safe space and an encouraging virtual trainer, then that opens up possibilities for them to explore and to enjoy something that society might otherwise cut them off from.
Arthur: You’re so right. And that was a beautiful thing about working on DCVR, which is Dance Central VR, is when you put the headset on and you are completely room moved from the real world, people completely let go. I have like dozens, if not like tens. Wait dozens, if not tens? I have dozens of videos that I took of people trying it and play testing it and completely losing all their inhibitions, like transforming when they put the head set on because they’re not afraid. And that’s an insane thing. It’s a very powerful thing about VR in general.
Ken: Yeah. A lot of these games that Harmonix is known for, they’re party games that bring people together. And VR is sometimes seen as isolating because you’re in this virtual world by yourself. But that can also be very liberating as well because you don’t have to worry about what other people are thinking.
Ken: That’s awesome. So Harmonix has created all these games and you’ve worked with a lot of different companies to do it. Guitar Hero, the original was published by RedOctane, which was then acquired by Activision. Harmonix was then later acquired by MTV Networks. NCSOFT published Fuser. And just two months ago, Harmonix was most recently acquired by Epic Games, creator of Fortnite. So this is an exciting new world of potential collaboration for you and your teams at Harmonix. What is it about working with Epic that most excites you?
Arthur: This is very fresh. So I’m still getting the lay of the land because these acquisitions usually take a lot of time, in case people don’t know. But I am so excited to work with like these new minds, these new creative minds, who have been sort of breaking down boundaries for a long time and making legendary games for a long time. I bought an Xbox because of Gears of War. That game was a landmark title for me. So to be able to work with the same people I made Robo Recall, people who made Fortnite, that’s a crazy opportunity to me. And it kind of broadens my world view so to speak, my gamer view. So I’m very excited to work with all these new people.
But also very exciting about working with Epic is being so close to Unreal Engine development. So as this engine evolves potentially, we may have access to pre-release stuff and maybe be able to shape the way this engine changes over the years. So that to me is incredible because I personally think that that is probably the most, if not the second most used engine in game development. Unity is close up there depending on your budget or whatever, but that’s a very exciting thing to be working at that level.
Ken: Yeah. And the Unreal Engine is so versatile. It can be used for so many different kinds of games. It’s not just a template that you put one kind of game in. So there’s the potential for us to see future Harmonix game using Unreal. There’s the potential for, I don’t know, everything else is in Fortnite, why not Harmonix? So who knows what kind of crossovers we might see.
Arthur: That’s right. And the other thing I like is hopefully, based on the stuff I’ve seen Tim Sweeney say, is I’ll never have to make a game with loot boxes in it. That’s pretty great.
Ken: Yeah. A lot of people know Epic from Fortnite and from the Epic game store, but they go back 30 years. I remember growing up playing Jazz Jackrabbit back in the early nineties. Tim Sweeney’s been at the helm since the beginning. He is not a Johnny come lately to gaming. He knows his stuff
Arthur: He really does. And recently, since the acquisition, some buddies of mine have sent me old interviews and I’ve just been learning more about this guy. And he’s almost like a rare stone in this industry. It’s weird. If you ever get a chance to dig more into him, your listeners get a chance to dig into this guy more, he’s he’s an interesting cat.
Ken: Yeah. It seems like most people who survive this long in this industry, they have something going on that keeps them in the game.
Arthur: That’s true.
Ken: So we could talk for ages about Epic and about Harmonix, and certainly aspects of that will be throughout this conversation. But there’s so much more to you, Arthur, than what you do just at your day job. You also, outside of Harmonix, you are a producer and an MC. So it seems like music is what you live and breathe. You go to your day job at Harmonix, you’re doing music. And then you leave your day job, and you’re still doing music. So how do those two play off each other? What do you get from one that you don’t get from the other?
Arthur: Yeah, I was thinking about this. So music has always been a release for me. It’s a way for me to be completely uninhibited, which is rare nowadays. You don’t get a lot of chances to do that with social media and cameras on you all the time. So music is a way for me to completely release and completely be in my little like rabbit hole creating like anything I want. But games have always been a mental and technical challenge that I need and that I chase. I like to be challenged mentally. And games tend to do that because you’re always solving problems, you’re always collaborating with other people in a different way as collaborating on music. One flows, the other is built, if you know what I mean. So when the stress of making game gets too high, I turn to music which balances me out. So it’s great because the same muscles I’m using to create music as a producer, and as an MC, are not the same muscles that I use when I work on games. So it’s a great sort of a equilibrium.
Ken: Was music also what you were doing for a living before Harmonix?
Arthur: Yeah. I went to school for music. I’ve been making like tracks since I was like seven years old. It’s always been a part of my life.
Ken: That’s awesome.
Arthur: So even if I didn’t get into games, if I was an accountant, I’d probably still be making beats and rapping and stuff. You know what I mean?
Ken: I love it. Yeah, I totally get you. We all need something that jazzes us and gets us up and out of bed in the morning. And the fact that you’ve managed to make an aspect of that, as you said, it’s more created than flow, but still within the music realm. The fact that you get to do that by day and by night is a rare opportunity. And kudos to you for making that work.
Arthur: Thanks. I think I got lucky. But it’s incredible. It makes waking up and going to work very easy, I’ll tell you that.
Ken: And I’m sure for any individual, their success story has an element of luck, but let’s not overlook the amount of persistence and creativity and ambition and talent that also goes into each individual success story. And I think after 15 years at Harmonix, that’s a long time in the game industry. And the game industry tends to have a pretty high burnout rate. So what is it that keeps you in the game?
Arthur: Oh, well that was very sweet. I appreciate that. That was very nice to boost my ego like that. Wait, what did you ask me?
Ken: You’re too busy focusing on the compliment. Huh?
Arthur: It was so nice. It’s very nice.
Ken: Well, even if you have talent, ambition, persistent, et cetera, the games industry, I know people who they go into it because it’s their dream and they make some games and they are grateful for the experience. But the end of the day, they’re like, you know what? I’m tired of working 80 hour weeks. I’m tired of not getting paid enough. I’m tired of all the egos in the game industry. Something just makes them decide, you know what? I’ve done my time.I want to pursue something more stable, less turbulent, et cetera. And then there’s Arthur, who’s been at Harmonix for 15 years. So how have you navigated the challenges of the game industry?
Arthur: Okay, yeah. I talk about this a lot on Greasy Says. That’s one of the reasons I do Greasy Says is to try and help out younger, or even like experienced older devs, just people who are in the game industry who are always at risk of burnout. Burnout is very real. So I’d say side hustles is a big thing for me. Having things outside of work, outside of making games that fill me up. I have to be more than my career. That could mean a lot of things. That could be gardening. It could be martial arts. It could be just living a balanced life, taking the time out of your day to rebalance and refocus your energy. Because when we make games, we tend to focus in, we get lost in the ones and zeros. We get totally consumed by the project. We sleep badly, we eat badly. We don’t practice self care in the same way. And now we’re seeing sort of the result of that. Even in like eSports, we’re seeing the result of that. You had a doctor on in one of your recent episodes about self care for eSports players, right?
Ken: Yeah. Dr. Lindsay Migliore spoke all about that, GamerDoc.
Arthur: Yeah. That’s a big part of what keeps me kind of free of burnout, is always making sure I go back to, what am I doing outside? What other interests do I have? How much worth am I putting on my own time? Because we start making games, especially if we’re working on like smaller games where you might be the coder, the artist, the sound guy, everything. Just making sure that you find time for that balance and managing your time. That’s one thing that a lot of gamers, not gamers, but game devs, have seen, flounder at, is they don’t manage their time. They don’t take their time and they don’t prioritize mental health, especially when dealing with all of the challenges of making a game. We need to take a lot more time for mental health.
And you’re starting to see companies take that into account and start giving more days off and start giving mental health days that aren’t marked against your vacation or your PTO or whatever. Unlimited PTO, that sort of thing. Because people are starting to learn that there’s a lot of churn and burn in the gaming industry. People can’t last working 60 hours a week for three years trying to wrap up Cyber Punk or whatever. You know what I mean? It’s just not sustainable. So I think more and more devs now will start doing these things because more and more people are talking about it. And that’s what I aim to do is just talk about it more on Greasy Says. Give the them the tools, help people find the tools to help them keep that balance so they don’t burn out, so that they can enjoy making games for a long, long time.
Ken: As you said, a lot of that has to come from top down, from the corporate level. And more companies are becoming aware of that. Would you say that your 15 years at Harmonix have been partly made possible because they’re company that understands that balance, that need for physical and mental health?
Arthur: Oh yeah. No, they support mental health. They’ve always been like that. They’ve always been flexible with hours, which I think all game studios just have to be, especially now. Yeah, they’ve always been flexible. And it’s harder, I understand for bigger companies to be flexible, but I don’t think it’s impossible. But it’s tempting to say it’s all on the corporation basically, or on the company, or on the studio. But it’s also on an individual thing. If we’re all trying to out hustle each other, and we’re not paying any attention to our own mental health and physical health, and we’re not promoting that among the dev community, then we’re kind of to blame as well. You know what I mean?
Ken: Yeah. And when you were talking about side hustles, do you specifically use that phrase instead of the word hobby for a reason? Do you distinguish between those two?
Arthur: Oh, I guess you could call it a hobby, yeah. I just call it a side hustle, something that is … Sometimes a hobby doesn’t necessarily have an end goal. You just do it for the enjoyment. But a hustle might be a project that you want to actually finish.
Ken: Yeah. I’ve often thought of hustles as both project based as you just described it, and also those which might pay a little bit of money. So for example, I have, or had, a YouTube channel. I would get a monthly paycheck from Google, and it was never enough to live off. It wasn’t going to stop my day job. But it taught me skills about video editing that I brought into my day job, and which made me more marketable. I would say that my night job was teaching at Emerson College in Boston. And that is how I got my current job now, because one of the guest speakers I recruited for my class worked at a company that was hiring, and I applied, and here I am now. So for me it was again, not about the financial growth.
As you can imagine, teaching doesn’t pay a lot of money. But it was about personal enjoyment and developing skills that were important to me, which I didn’t necessarily find in my day job. So that is what I would call a side hustle. Maybe it’s related to a hobby as well. A hobby for me is playing video games.
Arthur: That’s true. No, that’s a really great point. You put it well. That just reminds me like releasing music is now like a side hustle to my day job. But I was doing that for a long time. But it taught me so many the skills of how to publish a game and how to like promote a game and how to produce like a schedule for a project. So like you’re saying, you can learn so much from your side hustle, even if you’re not making a lot of money off of it.
Ken: What about going the other direction? Has Harmonix made you a better musician?
Arthur: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. There’s a high level of talent that passes through Harmonix, especially as an audio person. So I’ve learned a lot from people that have passed through. Different genres of music that I never dabbled in, like I learned a lot about rock music working at Harmonix. I grew up traditionally listening to hiphop, dancehall, electronic music. I listened to quite a bit of rock music, but I wasn’t steeped in rock music and the culture. So I learned a lot about just the greats, all the greats in rock music and stuff like that. And also teaching people about the greats in hiphop music, and dancehall music, and Caribbean music, and stuff like that. So it’s been a great sort of transfer of knowledge between all the people at the studio. I’ve had great collaborations there, incredible opportunities to work with ridiculous talent. And it’s made me a better listener and producer too, because of the feedback loops that we tend to employ and how we work together as musicians and game designers. It makes me a better listener. And half of being a musician is being a good listener.
Ken: Are you talking about listening to music or listening to your teammates and band mates?
Arthur: What do you think?
Ken: Maybe a little bit of everything.
Arthur: There you go. That’s right. It’s all connected.
Ken: And when you do listen to music, how do you listen to it? Are you a vinyl guy?
Arthur: Vinyl? Oh man. I’m not that serious. No, I go easy. I go the easy route. I like to listen to it like everyone else listens to it. You know what I mean? Like they have a lot of people who listen on vinyl, but the majority of people are listening through earbuds on their phones. I like to listen to music in all ways. I listen to them on my studio speakers for sure if it’s a particularly great album, but a lot of my consumption is through headphones, like Bose headphones or something. I just got a pair of Sports Buds, or Bose quiet whisper buds, whatever they’re called, and they’re great.
But I always like to listen to it on different types of headphones because when you’re making music, or you’re making games, or you’re making any medium, you have to consider like even the lowest version of the listening quality bar. You know what I mean? So I like to listen to all over the spectrum. That’s something I learned working in studios and stuff. Listen to your stuff on the $5,000 speakers and listen to your stuff on the crappy car speakers in your Camry. You know what I mean?
Ken: That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought of that. I would expect an audiophile to be someone who prefers some really high fidelity audio. But on the other hand, when you’re shipping an Xbox games, those Xbox games aren’t shipping on vinyl.
Arthur: For sure. Yeah. And they’re not being listened through like Whalebone speakers, you know what I mean?
Ken: Right. Yeah, you got to know your audience and experience it the same way they do. Otherwise, you’re pitching to the wrong audience. We talked about your side hustles, and one of them that you just started last year was your own podcast, Greasy Says. First, remind us where we can hear Greasy Says. And second, what prompted you to launch this podcast?
Arthur: Oh yeah. So Greasy Says is out on all podcast networks like Google Podcast, Apple Podcast, Spotify, pretty much anywhere you can find Polygamer, you’re going to find Greasy Says. And you can also find it on my website, which is M-Cue music, M C U E M U S I C.com. Yeah, so check it out. Season one just wrapped up recently and the response has been great. I’m just having so much fun doing it. I started it sort of as a side hustle, sort of a way to not get bored because I had been working on this game, the last game I was working on, for quite a while. And I just needed something else. A lot of game devs, and I’ve listened to like a couple of people on your show say that they have this need to just keep doing stuff. They don’t know how to stop and they don’t know how to slow down.
So like my call to the challenge, which I like doing was calling me again. I wanted to get back out there and create something that wasn’t just the game I was working on. But I had also been thinking about, because of the last couple years in the industry and stuff that has been happening in the industry, about sort of the experience of black and brown game developers. And the more I thought about it, it’s so different from like my white counterparts. And there wasn’t anything really out there that I could latch onto as a listener, as a person who’s taken in this content. Not saying there’s not, there’s a lot of like black and brown game YouTubers and streamers and stuff like that. But when talking about game development, I really wasn’t finding a lot of it. So that kind of pushed me forward. I wanted to talk about my experience because I felt like it would’ve been great if I could have heard some of the stuff I’m seeing when I was coming up.
Ken: Yeah, I teach a class about podcasting and I always start by showing them the statistic about who it is that podcasts. And it’s predominantly white voices that are being heard, which is really not representative of the talent that’s out there. We need more diversity, not only in gaming, but in podcasting and in gaming podcasting.
Arthur: Indeed. So yeah, I saw this hole sitting there. And I had this idea, I’ve done a previous podcast called This is Good For Me. And it’s on SoundCloud if anybody wants to check it out. Go check out M-Cue on SoundCloud. It’s basically the first iteration of what Greasy Says became. It was like the trial run. I wanted to make a podcast that was more like a show. Not like a talky podcast, but like a short show, like a concert, but with elements of a podcast in it. So it was an idea that was floating around in my head and iterated on, and it just wouldn’t go away.
So I thought, all right, so there’s a way for me to combine my love of the gaming industry and how much I love games and the games I’m playing, but also what it means to make games. And on top of that, what it means to make games and experience games as a brown game developer. So it just seemed like a perfect fit. And now I get to add musical elements and sound design and all the aspects that I love about creating media into this one package.
Ken: Yeah, I would say the production of Greasy Says is definitely representative of your talent and background because it’s not just you reading out a monologue and then shipping it. You go back and you add these layers to it that you don’t often get to enjoy on other podcasts.
Arthur: That’s true. I appreciate that you noticed that. And another thing about Greasy Says that’s sort of a selfish goal for me, is I get to dabble in what I consider one of the purest art forms around besides music, and that’s comedy. So if I can make someone laugh listening to Greasy Says, I have done my job. I’m happy. That is a big part of it for me is just to try making people laugh. I’m a huge fan of comedy. I sometimes think I’m funny. I just love trying this new avenue of entertainment.
Ken: Well, I used to podcast with somebody who left the podcasting world because he wanted to try his hand at standup comedy. Maybe you’ll follow suit.
Arthur: Oh my. Who are we talking about?
Ken: Nobody you’ve heard of, not in the gaming industry.
Arthur: Okay. Well, good luck to them because I’m still scared. I’m still scared to go out there.
Ken: Well, just like Dance Central VR, you are just one person in front of a microphone and you get to unleash yourself and enjoy being who you are.
Arthur: It’s true. It’s true. It’s a great way to do that.
Ken: So who would you say, is your target audience for Greasy Says? Is it people who have traditionally not seen or heard themselves represented in podcasting? Or is it for people like me who need to expand their horizons?
Arthur: Well, when I was first making it, I wanted my audience to be other game devs, and younger game devs that are in school that are looking for work or about to look for work. Younger brown and black devs who might be struggling in the gaming industry, trying to find their voice, trying to find their comfort zone. As well as, and a lot of listeners have been white folks who know something is up and who are interested to learn and want to hear these sort of voices and these perspectives, they’re included as well, because that’s how this change happens. The gaming industry is predominantly white.
If I can reach a lot of other white game devs and other white game executives and show them what their counterparts might be going through, that’s good for the gaming industry. So just getting more voices out there and letting these people out there know, other game devs know that they’re not alone, and that there are other people thinking these thought. And the response that I’ve been getting proves that yeah, this is real. There are, are voices out there similar to Greasy’s voice. And people want to, and need to hear this kind of stuff.
Ken: Speaking of Greasy’s voice, what distinguishes Greasy from M-Cue?
Arthur: Yeah. I’m still trying to figure that out, actually. I find defining myself as hilarious. Trying to define myself is impossible. But I wrote this out. I think M-Cue is a lake and Greasy is the ocean. One is serene while the other one loves the chop. So M-Cue is like a haiku, and Greasy is like the samurai dual, because I’ve been playing a lot of Ghost of Tsushima, so that’s been on my brain.
Ken: Is this podcast the first time you’ve used that identity?
Arthur: Yeah. Yep.
Ken: So there are now three of you out there? Up until last year, there were two. But now we got Arthur, Greasy, and M-Cue.
Arthur: Yeah. There should be a van coming to pick me up pretty soon, guys. I don’t know how many more personalities I need before they come and get me.
Ken: Well, let me ask you how two of those are able to coexist. By your day job at Harmonix, you’re Arthur, on your podcast, you’re greasy. You’re not making any secret about the fact that these are the same person. Do you need to self censor the topics or opinions on your podcast because Harmonix might be listening, or is this one of those opinions are my own kind of things?
Arthur: Yeah. Opinions are my own, definitely. The topics I choose, I’ll stay away from anything that’s sort of dangerous to talk about, like deals or legal stuff or like names. I don’t really drop a lot of names of where I work or things that I’m doing. It’s mostly opinions about how the gaming industry is run and how it’s being shaped on a grander scale. Are there times when the stuff I talk about might line up with experiences I’ve had at Harmonix? Absolutely, because I’ve been working there for so long. Of course. That’s part of my experience. But because of the studio they are, I don’t think they would ever try to censor me because I’m not crossing a certain line. I’m just talking about the challenges that I’ve faced and my perspective. I’m not out there trying to hurt people or bring down companies or anything like that. You know what I mean?
Ken: Of course.
Arthur: So people at Harmonix have listened to Greasy Says and love it and support me. So yeah, I don’t think it’s like a huge deal. Hopefully I don’t end up talking about something super sensitive and I get in trouble. We’ll find out.
Ken: Well, I would never ask you to reveal secrets or especially to name names, but I was curious about a comment in one of your recent episodes where you talked about how the video gaming industry can have some pretty large egos in it. And that’s certainly not unique to the gaming, but I was wondering, is there something about the gaming industry or gaming that attracts or brings out egos?
Arthur: This is just my perspective, but I feel like there is a very strong feeling of ownership, particularly with engineering and design, because they build the bones, the building blocks of the whole thing. And that can tend to bring out egos when you feel like you own something that is being crafted over two, three years, however long the project is. So I think there is some ego that comes in there. And then on the other side is what you brought up earlier, is there is a high burnout rate in games. So the people who stick around are the crustiest of crabs. They have endured like many releases, many cycles, so they’ve sort of earned the right to, to have a bit of an ego because they’ve stuck around for so long. So I think that also sort of inflates egos.
And this might change for person to person, but usually when you have discussions or debates about features or plans for the game, a lot of the time in my experience, the most technical sort of explanation wins. So sometimes there’s a lack of thinking about what the player might want or the player’s desires might be, or what the player’s going to experience, and more of like the technical restraints or shortcomings of an idea, or drilling down on the shortcomings of a small aspect of that idea and not really looking at the broader picture. And that can sort of devolve into a technical debate where whoever has the most technical jargon and could spit the best technical raps are going to win and are going to affect the creation of that feature. So all those things together, I think kind of can lead to big egos in a room, especially the longer you’ve been around.
Ken: Well, when you say that the people who stick around are the crustiest of crabs, you’re describing yourself there..
Arthur: I am. I know I’m a crusty crab. I get it.
Ken: Oh, okay.
Arthur: I work constantly at trying to check my own ego. And learning from younger developments helps me do that. And practicing humility often helps me do that because I don’t want to be one of those people who, I’ve been in this industry 15 years, just do what I say. I don’t want to be that guy.
Ken: Yep. And speaking of humility, another remark you made on a recent podcast, you talked about how somebody gave you some advice you hated, but you tried it and it worked, which was to start your sentences with, I think. As opposed to just saying, we need to do this, you say, I think we need to do this because then you come across as less assertive and more collaborative. Now, conversely, I’ve also heard women in the workforce be told not to say I think because they need to be more assertive. And so how do you balance being confident and being assertive with being collaborative?
Arthur: It’s a tough-
Ken: Or at least coming across those ways.
Arthur: This is a tough one. And I don’t think there’s like a universal answer, because like you’re saying, for women, the rules are completely different. It doesn’t make any sense. All of a sudden you can’t be assertive. You can’t be confidence because now you have an attitude or you’re tough to work with. It’s a delicate, delicate balance. Even the balance of humility versus confidence and assertiveness, it’s a really thin line that you have to walk. And personally, being confident and assertive means a different thing for me than it does for like my white counterparts. Just like you say, is it’s different for women versus men. So in my experience, being assertive can be misidentified as abrasive or cocky or having an attitude. And that’s a line that people like me have to walk where your confidence has to be tempered so that people hear your words with their ears and not their eyes.
I want people to hear my words and not pay attention to my skin. So that’s a delicate balance of am I being assertive or am I being abrasive? Am I confident, or am I cocky? How am I being perceived here? And yes, being brown in games has messed with my confidence at times. It’s made me question my abilities, made me question designs that I’ve had, particularly when you’re facing things like microaggressions in the workplace, which is something that people deal with constantly day in and day out. So all of these things can affect your confidence. And it’s me working very hard, as I’m sure a lot of other developers do, of constantly reminding myself and writing it down on actual paper, that I deserve to be here. And I am a skilled developer. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t skilled. This question is tough for me because it’s something that’s constantly evolving for me.
Ken: When you talk about writing down the assertion that you are good enough to be in this industry and that you do belong here and that you are talented, are we talking about imposter syndrome?
Arthur: Yeah. A lot of people have been bringing up that phrase to me recently, impostor syndrome. I guess, you know what I mean? I don’t know. I don’t know. It seems like a recent label to me. It seems like it popped out of nowhere recently. And I understand what it means. I just don’t know if I categorize what I’m going through as that.
Ken: Yeah, where I’ve seen imposter syndrome is when you are surrounded by extremely talented individuals and perhaps for the first time in your life. I’ll give you an example. I used to teach at a high school that was selective admission. You had to apply to get transferred in from a different school. And 100% of our students used to be in the top 10% of their class. And so they were accustomed to being the cream of the crop. And all of a sudden, they’re now just one of a hundred that are just like them. And suddenly they realized, oh, I’m not as smart as I thought. Maybe I don’t belong here. And that’s what I would describe as imposter syndrome. That doesn’t take into account any of the sort of biases or microaggressions that you were talking about, which may be something else entirely.
Arthur: Yeah, that’s where it gets a little bit muddy for me. That is a true phenomenon. Yeah, you get into games, you’re finally among your peers of all these talented people you want to be around. And you feel the pressure there, but you slap race on top of that and it changes dramatically. It changes from imposter syndrome in the way you described, I think.
Ken: No, I would agree with that. You talked on Greasy Says about how it can be necessary to be a chameleon to assimilate into these environments. Is there ever a time when you only have to do that to get your foot in the door, and once you’re there, they accept you and you can drop the facade and be yourself? Or are you just committing to a career as a chameleon?
Arthur: Well, in games you’re constantly meeting new people. Anytime you sign a new game, you’re going to meet new people. So the mask goes back on and you play the game. That goes for everybody, I think. But I’m thinking about what you mentioned, the chameleon thing. And then I mentioned that I had to be a chameleon for a long time. It’s true. That is part of what shaped me as a developer was being a chameleon. Just because of the time I came up, circumstances that came up. So that’s kind of part of my shell, if you will. But I think younger devs are not going to have to deal with that as often as I did. With every generation it gets better, so I think the younger generation is the key.
The younger generation of devs, they hide less, quote unquote hide less. They don’t have to mask up. They call out injustice more, they’re more outspoken, they’re less afraid and more confident. I think they will pave the way for this chameleon tactic to not even be necessary. But even as long as I’ve been doing this, there are still times when I have to check myself and be like, do I need to blend in here? Or can I be myself? It still happens.
Ken: Well,, I’m encouraged by your words about the younger generation. And I’ve definitely seen that at the indie level where there’s just such a diversity of storytellers and developers out there now. What we need to do is see those same kinds of changes and the same kinds of representation in the AAA publishers. And when you see all the lawsuits around companies like Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, it feels like we still have a long way to go.
Arthur: Yeah. But there was a long time ago where I had always had these feelings about there’s something right about some of these AAA developers. The culture is all wrong. And no one said a word, and it went completely under the radar for many years. So it’s coming out. So this shows me that change can happen and is happening. And the more devs that we see with these new perspectives and the willingness to call out these things in AAA that are wrong, the more things will change for the better, I think
Ken: That’s true. The lawsuit isn’t evidence that the problem exists. The lawsuit is evidence that the problem is being called out.
Ken: That’s an important distinction. So you started Greasy Says partly to cover lot of these topics that you and I have been talking about. And you just mentioned a few minutes ago that you finished the first season of Greasy Says. Not all podcasts follow a season format. So how do you describe the first season of Greasy Says? What was your goal for that, and what can we look forward to in the second season?
Arthur: Yeah, the first season, I was really trying to just establish a tone. I was just trying to establish all of my segments. I was trying to get loose, trying to engage with listeners, and testing out how that sort of pipeline feels. How does it go from social media into the podcast? Can I support voice clips, all these things. So it was a big sort of learning experience. But the production and the core idea hasn’t changed from the beginning. So I think that’s strong. So I’m looking forward to season two, because now I can sort of start adding more segments, branching out on the topics that I talk about, start a stockpile of segment ideas and things I want to talk about. And more engagement with the community, because as I’ve been going through, people are listening, responding to episodes, starting conversations, making sort of inside jokes, so I’m loving all of that.
So it’s really just been a discovery for season one. And season two I think is just make room for more discovery, but keep the production value high, keep the jokes coming, keep it fresh, keep it interesting to listen to. And don’t bloat the project. I don’t want to make this thing two hours long. Keep it nice and, and neat and clean. And season two comes, out just a heads up to everybody, on February 2nd, 2022. So look out for the first episode of season two Greasy Says.
Ken: Awesome, just a few weeks away. And I love what you said about the first season. It kind of reminds me of TV shows where the cast and crew are still getting to know each other. They’re still building that synergy. And even with a podcast where it’s only yourself, you’re still trying to figure out who am I when I’m in front of a microphone? And now that you’ve figured that out, you can just settle into that role for the second season and really be comfortable in it.
Arthur: Yeah, that’s right. And I’ve heard from some people that they’re interested in what would it be like if I did live video for it, but we’ll see what happens.
Ken: Yeah. Like you said, you don’t want to bloat this thing.
Ken: Because that’s the quickest way for you to not enjoy it anymore.
Arthur: You got that right.
Ken: Yeah. Now, before I ask you one more time to remind our listeners where they can find your podcast, there’s one other thing I want to it online, which I was not able to, because it seems link rot on the internet, things go up and then they go down. Where can I download the Harmonix album, Oxytocin?
Arthur: Yeah, actually it’s not available online anymore.
Arthur: Yeah, it’s only for the people who downloaded that album when it was there, and now it’s gone forever.
Ken: Okay. I even tried the internet archives Way Back Machine and they didn’t have a copy of it.
Arthur: Oh, sweet. Well, that’s good. That means it’s rare now.
Ken: Dang. I missed my chance. Well, not everything is for everybody. I know a guy who actually, he puts up new episodes on his podcast, and then he deletes them four hours later.
Ken: And so if you don’t get the episode when it airs, you don’t get to hear it at all.
Arthur: I kind of like that.
Ken: I hate it, because I never get to hear them.
Arthur: You really have to be on the pulse to catch that podcast.
Ken: Yeah. You got to be updating your feed, like hourly and just hope that he pushed something live.
Arthur: I like this.
Ken: Well, you can like it, just don’t do it. All right, so one more time. Where can listeners find both your podcasts and yourself on the socials?
Arthur: Yeah, Greasy Says on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and on all the podcast networks. M underscore C U E, that’s M-Cue, and that’s me on Twitter, Band Camp, Spotify. You can find my music on there. And yeah, hit me up on any of the socials. Check out the podcasts on Mcuemusic.com. And yeah, see you all in the Greasysphere.
Ken: Awesome. There will be links to all of those in the show notes at polygamer.net. Arthur, Harmonix creative and host of Greasy Says, thank you so much for your time.
Arthur: Ken, it has been a blast! I appreciate you. Thank you.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.