For 13 years, Michael Mumbauer was the senior director of visual arts for PlayStation. He co-developed key PlayStation intellectual properties such as “The Last of Us,” “Uncharted,” and “God of War.” The Last of Us, now adapted into a live-action HBO series, is currently one of the more successful game to TV adaptations pulling in higher numbers each week.
BGN sat down with the executive, who is now the founder and CEO of Liithos, to talk about the series, its success, and his opinions of how fans will receive Season 2. To offer some context, “The Last of Us 2” (which Mumbauer worked on), was quite divisive among fans and even review bombed. Mumbauer talks about that and more in this brief interview BGN conducted over a Zoom call with his baby daughter sitting in on his lap.
Can you explain what your role was at PlayStation?
In 2007 it was a group that was established for the early PlayStation days. If you played any old games back then, all the cinematics were pre-rendered at the time. I got there in the PS3 era, when rendered cinematics were starting to phase out.
That group was almost about to close because it didn’t really serve where the PlayStation was headed necessarily. I came in and revamped the group with a new vision of doing more code development. I had a vision of the group kind of being like the ILM [Industrial Light and Magic], right? If you know ILM, for Lucasfilm — I had a vision. I had a vision of being a key partner for dev teams.
The first dev team that I really wanted to tackle was Naughty Dog. I started there and started building up an animation team — after “Uncharted” is when I got there. “Uncharted” was a smaller team, and then everything started to expand in terms of resources and all the games started doubling in size at PS3, so I got started building an animation team that mimicked what I learned on the film side.
I kind of brought a film level production process that Naughty Dog really appreciated that we started there. And then I started building performance capture pipelines and promo capture. Which means instead of just capturing bodies, you’re actually developing the space to be more of an acting space. Then I built what ended up being the code of “Last of Us Part I” team.
In a nutshell it was my vision [for my team] to be the ILM of video games and relatively speaking, I think that we achieved it. I think that it’s still pretty effective, in terms of supporting all these triple A-cinematic productions that PlayStation is known for.
You worked on “The Last of Us” video game as well as “Uncharted” — both very popular video games adapted into live action IPs. However, each was received differently critically, and I’m curious to know why you think that was? I know you work on the gaming side, but I just want your opinion on it.
It’s rare to see things like “The Last of Us” get that level of critical achievement both in the game and film side. I think what you see on film in a movie like Uncharted feels more consistent with what you normally see in films. Critics are a little bit harsher. Look at the reviews you get on things like Fast and Furious, they don’t rate high but they’re billions of dollars in success. What do you rate success as? Critical success or financial success?
“Uncharted” [the video game] was an amazing financial success for Sony. So I think it was very successful. In terms of like why The Last of Us [the TV series] [did better], I just think it’s the material. And it’s an HBO drama. When you put a show on HBO, you already know it’s gonna be amazing.
The other thing is people come in with high expectations, but they also know that HBO is likely going to do the material very well. Look at Game of Thrones. I think that it was intelligent for Sony to align with HBO because of that expectation. I’m just giving you a fan opinion basically saying that I think it’s a smart move to make a show on HBO.
HBO announced that there’s going to be a Season 2 of the live action series. The second game came with some very mixed reviews. Do you think that they may do some course-corrections or changes based on gamer feedback?
I mean pure speculation, to be honest, I think that the team had a clear vision for what they wanted to do. I think that because it was hitting some social hot button issues, that it was inevitably going to get some accelerated discussions. And I think it’s a good thing.
From my perspective, I think that the challenge that video games have as an industry is that we’re not comfortable yet. We’re slowly getting more comfortable telling stories with characters that are more diverse, which we shouldn’t be uncomfortable about. I think that the hope is that this [diversity] becomes more normal.
I think representation is a good thing. I think we need more of it. It’s just tough when you’ve got an industry that is traditionally, if I’m being honest, white male protagonist driven. It’s a tough transition. I wish it wasn’t to be honest.
Do I think they will “course-correct”? I don’t think there’s anything to course-correct. I think that “The Last of Us 2” is one of the most awarded games of all time. It’s hard to think about course correcting something that is already a massive success. I don’t think if they were trying to pander to a different base, they would have made that game. I think fortunately for us, they didn’t think that taking a brave step is maturing the industry.
What are you most proud of so far from seeing the success of HBO’s The Last of Us as someone who was involved in the development of this game?
I’m just proud for the teams. I’m proud of my old team at Visual Arts who had a hand in the creation of something that I think will be remembered in pop culture for a very long time, maybe beyond our lifetimes.
Like what The Godfather did in film. I always believed that “The Last of Us” had that impact in games. It became The Godfather of gaming. And I think it’s maturing the industry in a positive way. And I am just so proud of the team that helped to bring that to the world and so thankful they’ve gotten to work with Naughty Dog, who is one of the best game developers on Earth. I’m just so thankful for them that they’re getting this reception. They make incredibly high quality art and people appreciate it and that’s a good thing.
The Last of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.