A Conversation with Martin Pichlmair

the lowscore team
in conversation: Martin Pichlmair

The following is an amazing conversation with Martin Pichlmair, who was Program Head of the Games Program at IT University of Copenhagen until last summer, and who very generously agreed to give us an hour of his time to talk about his projects and background, his thoughts about the programme as it is now and what has been achieved during his tenure, and what comes next for him.

Hi Martin! Thank you so much for being here. I wanted to start by asking you about your trajectory and how you went from being where we are to where you are now?

I was never where you are. I studied computer science at a Technical University. In the beginning especially, I studied the very theoretical slash non applied side of computer science. It was called Informatics, which is already a hint. It was more about logic and the inner workings of computers on a theoretical level than about the actual application of that. I remember in the first two, maybe three semesters I wasn’t even sure how this would ever lead to me getting better at computers. We barely touched computers actually. And if we did, then we did stuff that was totally unspectacular from the outside. But it was very good for the brain. It really changed the way I think, especially of very structured stuff. And then later, after first falling in love with the theoretical side, I fell in love with the hardware. But the hardware related things we had were very much in courses and in projects that were industrial, and I didn’t find that interesting, so I instead switched over to HCI, to human computer interaction, and that’s where I did my master thesis, about potential futures of the Internet from a user interface perspective, or from a conceptual slash HCI perspective. And then, I somehow ended up doing a PhD at the same institute, with the same supervisor. I mean, he asked me afterwards, he said that would be something I could enjoy. So I did. And then I started teaching.

I was teaching a course called computers and art, where people made interactive stuff in a very concentrated fashion. I loved it, because it was really fun. During the PhD I also started  making media art pieces and doing a lot of exhibitions and doing a little bit of game related stuff, because I always liked video games as a medium, not only as a consumer, but also as a medium of expression. And The more gamey my stuff was, the better it was suited for exhibitions it turned out, and at some point I decided that this whole art thing is just so limiting in the kind and amount of audience you get. So I thought, why not make a video game? And that was after the PhD. I founded my first video game company together with my colleague Fares Kayali, who is nowadays a university professor. We only lived for a year, but we made three games in that time. And all of them made money! Small money. Very, very small money. But they were all positive. There was an IGF nomination there, so it was cool, but it was extremely unstable and unreliable, so after a year we decided that this was not going to work out. I merged the rest of our company with Broken Rules and was working with Broken Rules for the next eight years (I’m still with Broken Rules in a way) on several releases. Our strategy was more or less being the first to a platform. I counted it once, we made nine launch titles for different new platforms, including the stuff with the studio I did before. I just loved going to a new place where the rules are not written yet. We had the technical ability because we used our own engine, so we could just port it quickly and have a new launch title. Big mistake! Actually, it also paid off. We made a launch title for the iPad before the device was even available, so I saw it running for the first time when I went to GDC in the week that the iPad launched. But of our games, none of them were really failed, but none of them were super interesting either. I mean, they were interesting, but they weren’t really THE thing, and I was pretty burnt out after the last launch, because it was very stressful. So I decided to go for something new and I thought, I have a PhD, and I have publications and I never stopped teaching actually. I was always teaching  while I was working outside of academia, so I figured I still have a chance to make it back. And it worked. I ended up here with ten years of actual real world game development experience, but no game education. And yeah, now I’ve been here for seven years running the program for five and a half or something like that. 

We’ll circle back to that, but a few things that you mentioned I think are very interesting. So first, you talked about receiving this very structural education and I’m just wondering, do you feel like that’s important or fundamental to your games experience? 

I think what we do as a university but never can tell students because it’s too abstract is: we are actually modeling the brain of someone to be ideally a more capable form. We can’t do that for all areas, but we have on one hand the plain outline: these are the courses you’re taking, these are the hard skills you get. And for some reason this is where students sign up with us, but what is much more important we cannot really sell that easily. We’re giving you a place where you can teach yourself social skills by putting you into diverse groups. By having our two tracks in the Games program, where people come from very different backgrounds, we first force you to work together with people that have a different way of thinking. And that gives you the need to learn to work with people that have a fundamentally different culture. That is actually, in my opinion, more important than most of the stuff we’re teaching. At the same time, by having hard classes that require a certain way of structured approach, we also teach you to, or require from you to, put your brain into different modes, so you have to be able to switch from social mode to problem solving mode to coming up with new things mode. And all of these different modes can be trained by trust going through them very often and by being challenged. A lot of teaching is about finding the sweet spot between and creating a challenging situation, but not wasting students out too much because the semester is long. Particularly in my education, we did far less group work than we do here, and the student body was much more homogeneous, so it was a bit easier and not as educational. In that sense. The theoretical classes I took went so deep into theoretical computer science that they really required me to completely switch off parts of my brain that have nothing to do with that and crank up the problem solving, the logical deduction side of things. And that is a very handy thing to have and maybe it led to me enjoying rule based systems as a side effect. 

Another interesting thing is that you mentioned the creative freedom of your media pieces versus having a public to enjoy them. Is there still a tension there? Do you still fall on the side of maybe compromising some creative freedom for the sake of having an audience? 

No, no, I think I’m actually just compromising for the sake of staying on the ethical right side. That is something I actually I’m actively doing and it’s one of the things that gets you into academia instead of, I don’t know, Lockheed Martin. I think I’m not very good at making popular things because I’m too uninterested in pop culture and what is in at the moment. I’m just a little bit eccentric, I guess, and that will always prevent me from being too broad in my appeal, but I don’t have to do anything for that. It’s just how it is. But I think that is also a quality you just have to work with. It’s something that works very well in art where people expect you to be edgy but it translates badly to mass market products. 

Could you tell us a bit about your current project?

The idea is to make an AI driven writing tool that is actually good. There are a lot of language models out there and products that build on those language models, but they are very generic in their approach, and they don’t leverage knowledge about how writing processes actually work sufficiently, in my opinion. It’s fine, they do what they do and some of them are very good at what they’re doing. But we are trying to build an online tool, online because of the processing power involved that you usually don’t have on your computer, that can be used for specific situations that professional writers that have to produce a lot of text face. On one hand, it’s for creative writers that want to get pushed into new directions because they can use it to train a language model on their own way of expressing themselves, so it can actually pick them up where they are and bring them to a new place, because it connects seamlessly to what they already have. So that is one scenario. It’s not so much the blank page, it is more, uh, allowing you to reflect on your own writing in interesting ways and look at what where it could lead. Also, in games writing you have a lot of content that needs to be produced, that gets edited anyway, but that needs to be in a raw form, like, I don’t know, voice parks: you go to a new town, you need 500 lines that people say when you just walk past in the street. It’s a lot of text and of course a good writer can sit down and write them in a raw form. But the process could be much more interesting, efficient, and pleasurable, actually, if you get a 1000 lines of which 300 are okayish, and you just edit them into shape instead of having to come up with 500 on the spot, and it’s still a creative process. It might even not be faster. It might just lead you to not get stuck in some kind of weird little hole. So we are trying to make a product that you can use for these very specific scenarios. And it’s super interesting. We have some of the big name people using it and giving us super good feedback and we see that we are onto something. We see that using machine learning can not only optimize the process, it can also just make a process more interesting. 

You mention this tool as a sort of support for writers rather than replacing them, and I think a lot of people are worried that this kind of software is trying to get rid of writers.

Yeah, yeah. The same people are usually also criticizing the quality of those things. Which is funny, because how can it then replace them? We have a lot of games that use procedural systems to such an extent that you should be afraid that level designers will not be needed anymore. But they are needed. I think in a lot of different areas automation has led to the replacement of the jobs that no one wanted to do anyway so that will definitely also happen as an implication of having more and more AI based tools. But that’s about it. The gap to actually performing on the level of a human is still insanely large. Also, it’s not even what AIs are good at. They’re not very good at replacing the creativity of humans, but they are very good at working together with the human and giving the human a fresh look on something where they had a vague understanding, a concrete manifestation of something vague. That’s what all these text to image tools do. They’re not very good artists, but they allow you to visualize something where you had a vague understanding and that might help you as a stepping stone towards something. 

So after that, do you have anything lined up? 

The idea is to look at more AI based tools, because I always like to make tools. I always did that: the interfaces to our engine and things like that, and many large parts of our engine. Actually, for the first games I wrote the whole engine myself. I just always enjoyed making tools. It’s very pleasurable to make something that people use to make something. It’s a reward in itself. I’ve never done it commercially. It was all in-house projects. But I’ve done it a little bit in open source, and the idea is of course that this is only the first manifestation of a tool that is based on AI that helps creatives achieve a creative task, and you could bring that to other media. Music is completely undeserved at the moment. I think there could be much more interesting stuff that could be done there. Texture image is pretty saturated at the moment, but I’m sure there is also stuff in actual game design, for example, that could be super interesting as an application for creating within AI. So the long term vision is to take that core thinking and apply it to different areas. 

How do you feel the medium in which you made your career was different, or similar, to the medium which we were about to go into? 

The games market used to be much smaller, especially independent games. It was tiny, and we all basically know each other. I came a little bit later, so when I joined indie games we more or less knew each other. But I remember in my first IGF I was just hanging out with people, and then those people went on to make big franchises. Rami was just a person who was hanging around and sometimes you would just hang out in the evening with me and JW. Now they are industry legends. Opposite of my booth there was a booth by the people that later created a product that is now known as Discord. The CEO of Discord, and the founder, is actually someone I talked with for hours every day because we were neighbors at the booth. Super nice guy, Jason Citron, very, very business oriented, but super nice dude. 

So, a lot came from there, and people have professionalized since those early days, and that is something that does not exist anymore because things have grown so large and the people we had access to are just not that easy to get access to anymore. I also think that was the early days of mobile gaming. I made my first iPhone game, which was the only smartphone at that point in 2008 right before Christmas, and the App Store itself, which was the first mobile phone App Store that turned the iPhone into the first smartphone in a way, was opened in spring or early summer of that year. So there was like half a year after this launch to get the game out. What that meant was that of course I had a meeting with, I don’t know, the Zynga CEO, because there were just a few hundred people that were doing stuff in the mobile space at that point at GDC, so it was very easy to just write an email to anyone and get a short chat with people to see where things were headed. And the professionalization has increased incredibly since then. We still had a Steam rep, a person we could write an email to at Valve who was just answering our emails within an hour when we did our first launch titles. Steam Mac OS was one of our launches, Steam Linux also. Day one, baby! Made us like 200 bucks, but helped us get a good relationship with Valve.

So yeah, the world has changed in that it became more professional, which is great, but also more and more predictable. There was no way of getting onto Steam at that point. Or, getting onto Steam was knowing someone who knew someone who got you on Steam, right? There was no official channel, and then they started opening up and becoming a more democratic platform and adding documentation and things. It’s still crap, but it’s there. They still do random changes now and then to some random algorithm that can have huge implications, but the whole process is much more structured. I think if you do what we did then, you could be just as successful now. The same ethos would still work. As I said, what we did was being the first to several markets, and not all of them paid off, but some of them did. If you applied it now, you would spend one month making hyper casual games maybe, and see if something sticks, and go for some kind of open development early on to see if that works for you. There are always new methods of creating that you can employ. Maybe a VR game? Not anymore, but two years ago, yeah. There are always new venues opening up. So I think the principle that we applied would still work nowadays, even though all the parameters have changed. 

There’s been a lot of talk, particularly within our class year (2023), about this perceived tension between academia and practice: are we doing enough projects? Are we not doing enough projects? I think that you straddle this divide a little bit, so I was wondering if you have any thoughts about your experience as both academic and designer, about how these two worlds come together, or what is beneficial about them coming together? 

I was recently thinking about that! So something is supposed to become a commercial project, and in a way what you do when you commercialize something that is a practical project, you have the same tradeoff, just suddenly it’s between business and that creative, technological, practical side. What I only understand now is that this struggle is actually a story that prepares you very well for the world outside. You never have purely practical work, and your practice is always embedded in some kind of business process that has more influence than the academic influence here. Maybe we should have more academic interference, in order to show you how little time you have to do the actual practical stuff, because that is more realistic. It’s not how we designed it, but it actually prepares you very well for later. I think the conflict is actually somewhere else. I’m old, and I started a long time ago, and I know very well what in my studies has helped me and what has not in the long term. What has helped me is very often not the practical stuff. Why? Because now, with Unity, for example, kicking out 10% of their people, it might be that they’re bankrupt in two years. Who knows? I don’t think that’s going to happen, but suddenly people are looking at other engines. If we teach any kind of specific technology, there’s such a big danger that that technology gets completely replaced two years after you’re out, so there is no point in doing that at all. At the same time we know that you also have to get a job somewhere, so we have to give you some starting cash, basically, that can get your foot in the door because it’s not like the games industry out there is ready to accept the fact that they should actually hire with a long term perspective. That being said, what actually prepares you for later life is sometimes what leads to good academic thinking. At the same time, academic thinking as it is is embedded in frameworks that don’t help you at all! You can’t have it all. You gotta live with some things not being conducive to your everyday good mood. The process of finding the balance is actually part of the learning. It’s just something that is good for you, even if it is a struggle.

Do you see your academic work and your professional work as sort of continuation of the same thing, or do you think about them separately? Would you say that you have one job that you do across different places, or that you have several? 

It’s all connected. And I’m a bad academic. I don’t care at all about citations, I don’t care about publications too much. I care about getting the word out, and publications are one way of doing that. And publications are necessary in order to attract funding and so on, so they have a function in the whole motor that is academia. But I don’t personally distinguish between sending a newsletter, doing an interview, and doing academic work too much, because it’s just targeting a different audience in a slightly different way, and my messages are always the same. I have this core of things I’m interested in and I apply that, I write about it, I do experiments around that, and I teach things that have to do with that. All completely connected. 

You’re the outgoing program head, and you’re done this summer, right? 

Since 2 days ago I’m second in command. I got promoted to second in command. But it was my decision. Honestly, I was waiting very, very long for the right person to come along, and we could hire Hanna. Gladly, there is finally someone who also has one foot in the actual applied side of games, she doesn’t have years of game design experience, but she has many, many years of working very closely with industry in projects, running the global game jam and so on, with the feet on the ground and at the same time the head in the clouds, as it’s supposed to be. So I feel extremely excited about that and it’s like, normally you wouldn’t replace a successful CEO, but this is not that kind of position. It’s a position where you can instigate some changes: I did a huge reform of the whole program and then I saw it through until it kind of settled. But now we have to gear up for the next, maybe not reform, but for the next big tuning of the whole thing. And it just makes very little sense that that is done by me. Again, it should be someone else’s vision, and someone else as the inspiration behind that. Because otherwise there’s a danger of stagnation. And while I would have new visions now, I don’t have the capital to go to ITU and say I need this, this and that, whereas Hannah maybe has. So it makes absolute sense, definitely for the good of the program to hand it over. What was the actual question? 

I wanted to ask how this outgoing program head thing works, because students have very little insight into all of the admin stuff that happens behind the curtains, so I think it’s interesting to hear your perspective.

We try to protect you from that as good as we can. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, of course, because there are legal requirements for every university program, so a lot of documentation has to constantly be maintained and created. There’s a yearly cycle of processes that come with specific meetings at specific points, specific decisions, and so on. There’s a whole engine running that the head of program maintains in addition to doing a lot of question answering and being there for students, which is not officially our job, by the way. Officially, we are not responsible for individual students, which is of course a mistake because in a small program like ours, of course we are the natural point of contact. But in any case, we try to protect students from that as much as possible, and I think that makes good sense. 

About your tenure, what do you think are the biggest achievements, or the achievements that you’re the most proud of? 

The biggest achievement is that we’re still around, because they wanted to shut us down and they didn’t. So that is, I think, quite an achievement. We didn’t all have to start teaching in other programs or lose our jobs or something, and students still can get in. The other big achievement is that we have connected so much to the greater Copenhagen local games industry, so it includes Malmo, that we now have a foot in every door and people know very well what we are doing. It was all a communication challenge, that. When I started, the industry wasn’t aware of what exactly ITU was actually teaching. Now, we’re working with Lego, with Massive, with IO, with all the big companies, but also with the small Indies, half of them founded by former ITU students. And we actually have found ways of maintaining that connection in a casual way, by creating an alumni community that is, to a certain degree, active. By having the employers panel with the most important companies in Denmark connected to it we get a constant influx of requests from the industry to stay in touch and connect and do studio tours and so on. There has been a real turn around when it comes to, not so much visibility, but just being a reliable part of the local industry. That is something I’m very happy about, and that I put a lot of energy into. And it’s hopefully starting to pay off, with the industry being very easy to include in the teaching, and with students having a very easy time approaching employers later or founding their own studios. If there are a lot of existing founders out there, you can learn so much more easily what it takes and what you need and where to go for money and so on. So of that I’m very proud. The teaching itself is always this weird middle ground between what people can teach, what people want to teach and what is actually necessary out there, and it is constantly in flux. And I’m happy about that too. We have also made it kind of normal that it’s a bit unpredictable what the games program is teaching. I think that will most likely change a little bit with the new head of program, not because of Hanna-specific things, but just because that is the way I was running things. It’s not the best, but it’s certainly a solution. I do like that we change all the time because the games industry changes so fast we are not educating lawyers where the basics of law were set in Roman times, at least in Austria. That’s how it is. We’re doing video games here and every year there’s a revolution. Or two.

What do you think could be done better in the future? 

Our weakest link at the moment is definitely the tech track. Not because it doesn’t work, what we are teaching. We have some fantastic teachers. For the advanced stuff, and this is something unpopular that I’m going to say, but, to a certain degree, it doesn’t really matter that much what we teach in the tech track: our goal is to make the students good thinkers and good programmers, and they don’t have to be good at game programming for that, because what it takes to make any kind of technical solution is just being a good engineer. So that is why I have no problem with our program maybe not being super directly applicable in the tech track specifically. In any case, we lack someone who would be the glue between applied game programming and advanced software teaching. We’re doing that with external teachers now, and some of them, like Gabriel, are amazing. He was the only one last semester, so I don’t feel bad about singling him out. But we are still very thin on that. So that is something that I see as a problem, that we keep fixing with hiring amazing externals, but there could be more connections between the application and the theoretical side.

Do you have any advice, specifically for the three classes that we have right now that are directly involved with the program: those who just graduated or are graduating, those who are starting their second year, and the incoming students?

So for the people graduating, I think the most important thing is to know that the first job you take is not what defines the rest of your life. It’s not like you should do anything for just the next three years, but, whatever you do, most likely you will do it for two to five years, and not longer. And you can learn so many things during those years. In every position. When you’re young and coming out into the world, it always feels like the decisions are so big. But in fact, they aren’t. Just try something out, try to find the fit for you that fits culturally, and then just do something for a couple of years and then set out to do another thing. Nothing is stopping you. So I think that is something that is really important to know.

For people studying now, I think the most— it’s difficult. I think what works for me always in projects— I’m the kind of person that always becomes the producer in the project. I don’t know exactly why. That’s why I was head of program. I don’t even like the day-to-day work of a producer too much, but people just accept when I say: this is how we do it, then the other person is like, yeah, finally, someone is saying how we do it, great, we’re going to go along with it. And the effect it has is that suddenly everyone has their own responsibility. And it’s very hard to not be very democratic in when you’re working with people. But it’s very important that at some point you get your own sphere of influence and stick to that because it gives you control over your day-to-day life. Otherwise, you’re always swimming in this sea of dependencies on other people, and that is just exhausting. You’re anyway always dependent on what happens in the class, in your group, and so on. Those dependencies don’t go fully away, but by separating your work consciously and relying on other people to do their part, you can at least establish your own control over what you’re doing every day, and that is something that also you need later in life. So it’s actually a very good skill to have. Someone in the team should facilitate that— in my opinion in every team— and then the life of everyone gets much easier and comfortable because it is a lot about having control. I hate it to be dependent on other people, and I’m constantly dependent on other people. You shouldn’t become a dictator, it should work for everyone of course, but the more that is the case (that you have control) the easier real life usually is.

I think the other thing is also letting go. It’s again this thing of thinking that the next thing you do is the thing that defines so much about you. And that this one project you’re going to spend the next four months with is suddenly the pinnacle of your life. And it might even be. But whatever comes next, it’ll be the pinnacle next. And whatever you do next will be just as big, if not bigger. Most likely bigger. Maybe just live with that, and it shouldn’t lead to you not doing a good job. It should maybe ease or lower your adrenaline. Nothing that you created in university is the be all end all. It’s all just a step towards something. Even your master thesis is not the pinnacle of your academic work, it’s just a step towards whatever you do afterwards. And that attitude helps a lot, I think, in putting things in perspective a little bit. Just seeing things as a stepping stone that you want to use as good as possible, but it is not stressing you because it’s so important. It is not.

And, for incoming students, do you have any advice for them?

I think one of the things we are really good at is supporting you in exploring areas that are very hard to explore commercially. So, making things that you could not make outside of the protected sphere of the university, the little ivory tower. There’s a reason it is also a good thing. A lot of people come with this attitude of wanting to make a very gamey game, that has all the bells and whistles of “a real game”. That is something you will anyway do afterwards, and it’s actually quite boring. And it’s hard, but it’s not that hard. What you can do in the university is really go crazy: work with technologies that are not working very well yet. Work with conceptual ideas that are hard to turn into something playful. Create the critical stuff that challenges our conceptions about what is entertaining or what is play. And these are actually the areas where we have fantastic teachers that can help you.The classes are structured around that, like PlayLab and their machine learning stuff. And pushing the envelope is something you can do at this university better than in most places on this planet, because there is hardly any education that is so focused on that on a really high level, that gives you the technical as well as the conceptual tools to really squeeze the truth out of anything, the playful truth out of anything out there. And I would really advise to go for that very, very hard.

To finish, any final thoughts? Anything that you think: “Ok, if they were going to print that one quote”?

I could ramble for another half hour, but I think my final quote is going to be: I was always super critical of games programs. When I applied here, and also when I became, suddenly, the head of a games program. And to this day I’m not 100% sold that it’s a good idea to have games programs because I think all the different skills you need, you can learn equally well somewhere else. And to make a good game, you don’t need games-specific skills. A lot of people that I know that are brilliant game designers, brilliant game programmers have different backgrounds, and that there is something beautiful and games need more outside forces. But for a games program, I’m very happy that we found this weird middle ground that is in a constant state of flux that somehow seems to work for creating a happy and stable teacher body, a happy and stable student body. It keeps giving as a system and that is something I’m very happy with. It is sustainable what we are doing here. And maybe my super critical attitude towards games programs as a whole is partially responsible for that, because it keeps me challenging things.