On Oct. 24, Donald Mustard, worldwide creative director at “Fortnite” developer Epic Games, sat down on a Zoom call with The Game Awards host Geoff Keighley and hundreds of his closest fans for a relaxed Sunday afternoon conversation.
Answering questions from both Keighley and the fans, Mustard touched on everything from his career path, the future of games and how Epic avoids employee burnout. But, in answering a question from one viewer, he took the opportunity to dip into mentorship, giving his guidance to viewers who live everywhere from India to Italy to Virginia.
“This is my life advice: it’s super easy to start stuff; it’s super hard to finish something,” he said. “Even if you make a really crappy game, you still made a thing. Just start things. Try things out. Finish it… Just start learning how to make games, and you will learn quickly what works, what doesn’t, and that experience that you’ll give yourself is more valuable than anything they can teach you in school.”
That call was only one of a handful that Keighley has been conducting since late September, an avenue to, in part, get feedback from the public for the upcoming Game Awards. But the call that Variety attended covered subjects far beyond the upcoming gaming celebration, serving as something of a chill Sunday hang-out for Keighley, Mustard and the fans.
And that’s kind of the point, Keighley told Variety three weeks ahead of The Game Awards. Keighley recalls that, sometime in late September, he was thinking of how he missed running into fans in-person at pre-COVID-19 conventions like PAX and San Diego Comic-Con, and was inspired by virtual meet-ups that bands like All Time Low had been having. So, he decided to try an “experiment” of his own: He invited his Twitter followers to send an email about what The Game Awards means to them, and he’d invite 100 of them to chat.
I'm going to try an experiment.
Maybe it will be a mess!
Interested? Email a statement on what TGA means to you to firstname.lastname@example.org
— Geoff Keighley (@geoffkeighley) September 19, 2020
Keighley says he got “essays from the around the world” from fans who shared their thoughts on the ceremony, and found a way through Zoom to make the call organized — with participants raising their hands when they had a question, and one person talking at a time.
“It was really thoughtful people that really cared about the show, and it was really inspiring for me and also my team,” he says. “My team sits on those calls in the background, off camera, and listens to what people want. It’s been a really powerful focus test and a feedback session with the community.”
Keighley continued to conduct the calls each Sunday after that, with each one featuring a special guest in the gaming industry, including former Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aime, Microsoft’s Head of Xbox Phil Spencer, Valve President Gabe Newell and “The Last of Us Part II” voice actors Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey.
And for some of the callers, it’s become something of a Sunday ritual. They hail from everywhere from Korea to Morocco to Russia, and Keighley recalls one person who called in from a hospital in Baghdad. It offers access, Keighley notes, to industry insiders for people who may have struggled to make it to a U.S.-based networking event, even before the coronavirus pandemic. But it also offers something to the guests: a chance to connect with fans who they may not have been able to otherwise, ultimately offering career and life advice along the way.
I JUST GOT TO TALK TO REGGIE!!!!!
Got to ask him about accessibility! He would like there to be an industry standard and be a part of something like the ESRB. And whatever Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo pushes accessibility forward should move that standard forward. pic.twitter.com/rFGc0PqYBy
— Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) October 4, 2020
“It’s been meaningful for me, but I also think the guests that come on, they always tell me afterwards that they’re just blown away by the fans and the real connection that we all kind of miss this year, and we’ve been able to recreate that in this Zoom,” he says.
But the conversation, of course, does come back to The Game Awards. Keighley says some of the most common pieces of feedback they’ve received not only revolve around the live music aspect of the show, but their diversity, inclusivity and accessibility efforts.
“I find with the people that go to those calls, they feel sort of like custodians of the awards in a way, in that they’re really passionate about the medium and what it represents,” he says. “They really do care about the way the industry is perceived amongst the mainstream, and The Game Awards is one of the vessels that sort of delivers the industry to the world.”
And as for the show itself, which will stream from Los Angeles, London and Tokyo on Dec. 10 from audience-less, in-studio locations, it’s unsurprisingly been the most difficult ceremony his team has had to produce, Keighley acknowledges. But, he promises, it will still have the elements from the show that are typically there, from live music to big game premieres.
As for the tone of the show, Keighley notes that gaming has provided a way to for people to connect in a year that has made those opportunities increasingly difficult to come by. He wants the show to project “strength and comfort,” and to reflect the sense of community around gaming this year.
But also, Keighley wants to project a theme of unity, even (or maybe, especially) as the new Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 go head-to-head on the market. He points to the 2018 ceremony, which saw Fils-Aime, Spencer and former Sony Worldwide Studios chairman Shawn Layden share the stage, as an example of that mindset.
“I think that’ll be even more of our theme: let’s kind of connect, even if it’s virtually, around this show for a really special evening,” he says.