This is the first entry in a new series we’re calling Performance Reviews, in which we ask professionals how well (or poorly) a new movie or show captures their work.
Rob McElhenney’s continually hilarious sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia may still (!) be on the air, but that hasn’t stopped the multitalented actor, writer, and director from pursuing even more projects. In February 2020, his new show Mythic Quest, which he co-created with Sunny collaborators Charlie Day and Megan Ganz, debuted on Apple TV+. The show follows the workings of a video game studio run by an eccentric creative director named Ian Grimm (McElhenney) and his oddball leadership team, including executive producer David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby, also of Sunny fame), lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), head of monetization Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi), and head writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham). Though the primary focus is on these main characters, the show explores the breadth of important industry figures, including the overlooked and overworked testers and programmers and designers, the chipper office assistants and community liaisons, and the gatekeeping streamers and gaming audiences—all of whom play a part in creating or promoting the studio’s main project, an MMORPG titled Mythic Quest, and its upcoming expansion pack, Raven’s Banquet.
Although Mythic Quest doesn’t have anywhere near the name recognition of Sunny, it has a lot going for it. The show is co-produced with the gaming company Ubisoft, ensuring a level of authenticity, and it features an incredible, diverse cast, with cameos from actors like Aparna Nancherla, Cristin Milioti, and even Anthony Hopkins. Mythic Quest also represents a new direction for McElhenney, forgoing Sunny’s “Seinfeld on crack” vibe for a more plot-driven, satirical workplace-sitcom format. By aping the best qualities of sitcoms like Superstore and Silicon Valley, skewering topical issues without ever feeling heavy-handed, and offering a glimpse into one of the most consequential industries of our time, Mythic Quest’s creators make their new venture a blast for all viewers—even those with little to no knowledge of video games.
With Mythic Quest’s second season premiering Friday, again on Apple TV+, I wanted to get a sense of what actual game workers thought of the show. So I reached out to Leslee Sullivant, a Los Angeles–based design producer at Scopely who’s worked in the industry for more than a decade, writing, producing, and designing for companies like Riot Games and on popular franchises like NBA 2K. Currently, she works on the game Marvel Strike Force and creates TikToks satirizing the industry on the side. She’s also, as it happens, a fan of Mythic Quest. I spoke with Sullivant over the phone about her experiences in gaming, what Mythic Quest gets right and wrong about her field, and how the show succeeds in portraying an industry whose inner workings are often a mystery to normies. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: Mythic Quest hasn’t been an incredibly popular show so far, and I don’t think too many game designers or industry workers have watched it yet. How did you come to start watching it?
Leslee Sullivant: When I first saw a trailer, I was like, “Uh, this looks a little cringe.” I didn’t know if they were going to do it well, because I’m so hesitant to think that kind of show could be pulled off. But then I saw a bunch of my colleagues, Facebook friends, and people I used to work with at game studios who were like, “It’s actually really good, it’s very funny, and you should check it out.”
What made you hesitant?
I was mostly worried about them getting the correct impression of game development, and I didn’t want to experience any sort of secondhand embarrassment. If this is what we get and everybody’s impression of the games industry is going to be riding on this show—that’s what made me mostly hesitant. I feel like we already don’t do a good job explaining how the games industry works to a broad audience to begin with.
Did the workplace dynamics as they’re presented on Mythic Quest—from the leadership structure and creative direction to the designers and coders—strike you as relatively true to what you’ve seen throughout your career?
Yes, but I think the thing I keep in mind is the scale of everything. A game like Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, hundreds of people would be working on it. I get that they have to reduce it down to a few main characters to not spread the cast and keep it pretty concise and focused, but in my experience there’s usually a conglomerate of directors of various disciplines, and they don’t always talk that closely all together.
There are a lot of times where responsibilities get muddled in that show. There was one scene where Brad changes the code so that everything is free. No marketing director would ever get his hands dirty in the game. Not once would they ever touch anything like that, even if they had the capability of doing it, because they don’t know how to program things, necessarily.
I was struck by the C.W. Longbottom character—great name, by the way—an old-school Nebula Award–winning author who’s the in-house storyteller. Are there companies that hire such sci-fi writers or have them consult on certain stories?
In some studios, we have hired a lot of people who work on animation or things like that. For example, League of Legends’ storytelling was limited to in-game stuff, which is small to begin with: a voice-over and a couple of paragraphs of biography for each new character.* But as [Riot] grew and expanded their storytelling efforts, they started looking at what other media can we do. As a result, they ended up hiring a lot of comics writers, former TV writers or people who have worked in TV before, and, as they started doing more creative R&D, prolific movie writers. I don’t know if any of those projects came out, but they were trying to pull from outside talent to get people who were more experienced in those fields to produce shorts, or comics, or whatever it may be. And I would not be surprised to hear other studios who work with a specific IP pull established authors who have written for the IP before.
I know you’ve done a lot of TikToks, videos, and writing about misogyny in the industry. A big part of Mythic Quest is the fact that Poppy is the only woman of color in a higher-up position, and that the industry at large is not very welcoming for women. I wanted to get your thoughts on how the show tackles industry sexism.
Poppy is an interesting caricature because she does have a leadership position and also is susceptible to being toxic, though not as badly as Ian is. It’s an ongoing struggle that a lot of women in leadership in games have to deal with. Depending on where you are and what kind of culture your studio has, sometimes you have to play that part of being in the boys’ club to make it upward, and then you end up exhibiting those same kinds of crazy behaviors. It seems like Poppy struggles with that a bit because she was pushing her own ideas super hard. You see that a lot in stakeholders who basically don’t care about team health, or about what the goals of the game are, or about consulting with other people and being inclusive. So it was interesting to see her also doing that same kind of thing.
The episode where they have the “girls who code” come and tour the studio and they can’t find any women—that one rang true. Not that there are zero women at the places I’ve worked, but there are a handful you get to talk to, depending on the company’s size. I think if you were to go to Riot right now, there are countless women that you could talk to in various roles at various seniority levels. But at a place that has fewer than 60 people, it’s slim pickings. It’s super sad.
Do you think the industry has gotten better in this regard?
I definitely think it’s gotten better, at least at the places I’ve been. I’ve seen demographics change over the past 11 years I’ve been in the industry. The numbers are still not good enough. The average amount of time women spend in the games industry before they bounce is five years. I think a lot of it is burnout and not getting promoted, and they find they can go to another tech job or something equivalent for 40 percent more pay right off the bat, with less work and generally less bullshit going around. They don’t have to deal with the crazy creative directors who decide to change things on the whim.
Just speaking from a woman’s perspective, if you have to start thinking, “Do I want to start a family?” or “Do I have enough time for my family?”—I don’t think the games industry is particularly doing a great job with that kind of balance. And I’ve definitely had that thought: “I don’t know if all this trash that I’ve experienced in my career making games is worth it.” It just seems so silly at a point, but I love games, so I’m here.
Did any of the characters in Mythic Quest remind you of people you’ve worked with?
Well, the creative director definitely reminds me of people—he reminds me of my current creative director in the good ways, where he gets really excited and cares about the game and the people. Ian and my creative director also look like each other a little bit, so when I watched the show I was like, “Wow, they really got that look down.” Or maybe that’s just the creative director look in games.
I feel like Brad is somebody I have worked with before, though I haven’t found that people in marketing are that salty. The quality assurance testers [Imani Hakim and Ashly Burch], I feel like they did a good job with portraying them: They’re passionate about the games industry, they want to work there, and they’re trying really hard to do a great job. They’re also knowledgeable people who are generally overlooked, and sometimes they get this random bullshit thrown at them.
The community manager [Caitlin McGee] was interesting because she felt naïve, but I don’t think that was the case—I think it’s her shield for dealing with gamers, a nice way to protect yourself from all of the toxicity that can come from the player base. In my experience, community managers have to find a way to not succumb to the salt themselves. I wouldn’t say they’re all that chirpy or anything, but they love what they do, and they love interacting with players, even on the shitty days. So you have to have some semblance of positivity.
The gamers’ community detail actually leads into another thing I wanted to ask about. Mythic Quest portrays a young streamer and reviewer named Pootie Shoe [Elisha Henig], who’s supposed to be a direct reference to PewDiePie, right?
Yeah, I’m sure.
I’m wondering if you think the way the show engages with such streamers is accurate or a little exaggerated.
I think it’s pretty accurate. You see YouTube videos all the time of famous content creators or streamers saying, “Why I’m not going to play X, Y and Z anymore.” It’s always either beef with the developer or some huge gameplay changes that the streamers disagreed with. It’s a constant thing, and even within a game studio, I think there’s a lot of stress that happens if a huge content creator or a streamer decides to bounce to another game and leave. Because that streamer goodwill was a big way to engage with community, and now they’re going to influence thousands of other players to do the same thing—to leave your game and go to another. It’s crazy how that can happen. I never imagined that somebody could make a statement like that and influence your player base by significant numbers, but it happens.
At my current studio, we constantly talk to highly engaged alliance leaders to see how they’re feeling about the game, and we have general surveys about our entire player base too. In terms of streamers who really want to engage with us, we try to keep that relationship good and healthy, a two-way street, open communication. I feel like most developers are taking that strategy now. It’s super important to get these people on your side and also get their perspective as a player, what’s working for them, what isn’t, because I think it’s easy for developers to lose sight of how the game experience actually feels for people.
What do you think Mythic Quest gets wrong about the process of creating, selling, and marketing video games?
I’d say, overall, what I think they missed is how many layers of approval that you usually have to go through to get anything done, and the amount of people it takes to create a single thing. Like when Poppy insists on introducing a shovel to the game. It would take probably a team of at least five just to create the asset. The animator has to spend months making sure the animation is good and that every model can use it, and track how does it change per model, and then test the actual system mechanics. Again, it’s a matter of scale. I think you start diluting the point [on the show] if you are casting 20 different people to work on this thing, so I get that. But it simplifies the actual process by a lot. Of course somebody at a high-enough level can say, “I want this thing done,” and it gets done. But again, people are super inefficient. It’s really hard to make a game, especially a game like Mythic Quest where every single thing you touch requires a whole team and months of deliberation.
I also feel like programmers are much more respected than they displayed in the show. Every single engineer I work with kind of calls the shots. If something is not possible, I’ll find out about it from them and I’ll just say, “OK, I guess you’re right, we will adjust to find a different solution.” It doesn’t really matter what seniority they have, it’s more, “You know more than me, you know what’s actually possible.” I have not run into the “code monkey” trope on Mythic Quest, which is good.
The executive producer character is interesting because at one point he was also singlehandedly responsible for trying to resolve a bug. Executive producers would never involve themselves in something like that. They might keep track of the bug, they might assign it out and get updates on it, but in terms of sitting down at a computer and being like, “OK, let’s investigate”—no.
It’s interesting that you touch on the point about how much work it takes, because the show does actually start to address that in the second season, with regard to the art team.
Oh, that’s awesome.
Do you think Mythic Quest brings up things that could stand to be improved about the industry?
The whole overarching thing of Ian being this ego-driven creative director is something that should be observed a little bit more. There are a lot of those personalities in any industry, but in games in particular, it can lead to a super toxic environment. Promoting Poppy to co–creative director at the end of the season, that is nice, but again, she has some of the same problems as him, just not as bad. She’s a great character, so I’m glad they portrayed her in that way, but when she has to contend with Ian and hold her own, it’s a tough position to be in. So I think understanding that those kinds of personalities can really derail development—that’s important to highlight. They’re approaching it in a humorous way, but it’s also ridiculous, and I think that’s obvious.
Correction, May 7, 2021: Due to a transcription error, this piece originally implied that League of Legends limits its storytelling to endgame features instead of in-game features. This piece has also been updated to clarify how Scopely interacts with video game alliance leaders.