The son of an art teacher, Tyler Fermelis is motivated by a lifelong love for art. His passion for art led him to attend the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. where he received formal training in 3D modeling. While in school, Fermelis did UV setup and modeled, rigged, and textured characters for Phoenix Online Studios. After graduating in 2006, Fermelis became a texture artist and modeler for Giant Killer Robots where he worked on movies like Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four 2. In addition to periodically doing freelance work, Fermelis has been with Gazillion Entertainment since 2007, where he is currently the Lead Character Artist on the MMO/ARPG, Marvel Heroes.
GS: You have been interested in the arts since you were a child. In addition to being the son of an art teacher, what are some of the ways your family encouraged you to develop this interest?
Tyler Fermelis: My family really encouraged me to explore my artistic side. Our house was always full of murals painted on the walls, and I was even allowed to draw anything I wanted on the walls of my own room. Art was just a really integral part of our daily life.
It’s one thing to love art, it’s another thing to want to pursue a career being an artist. Why did you pursue this as a career?
In a way, art as a career was not even a choice for me – it was something that I felt I HAD to go do. After looking at alternatives, I just couldn’t see myself being happy doing anything else. It may be a competitive and difficult career, but I am a firm believer in finding what drives you and chasing it with everything you’ve got.
What are some of the ways the Academy of Art University prepared you for a career in 3D animation? In retrospect, what advice do you have for others thinking about going into this field?
The Academy offered an amazing traditional art background before getting students into the 3D side of things. For me, that was the biggest element that set the school apart from others. For anyone looking to get into 3D character art, I would strongly suggest developing a strong foundation of traditional skills first, such as sculpting and figure drawing, before studying the 3D side.
During and after college you did a lot of freelance work. Given that there are so many digital artists out there, how did you get this work? Also, how do you feel these jobs helped you grow as an artist?
For me, getting freelance work has consistently depended on two things: contacts and online presence. Networking and being able to reach out to contacts at companies often results in follow-up work or recommendations to other companies. LinkedIn is a powerful source for both recruiters and those seeking work, and having a strong website to show off your work is absolutely vital! Freelance work has been extremely important in expanding my skill set because it has exposed me to new types of projects and challenges that I might not have come across in my full-time job.
Each has its merits – freelance work teaches self-sufficiency and working at a large company teaches how to collaborate creatively.
The longest job you have had is with Gazillion Entertainment, which you have been working with since 2007. How has working there compared with your freelance work?
Both opportunities have taught me valuable lessons. In freelance work, you grow because you are oftentimes presented with a challenge that you’ve never dealt with before, so you are forced to learn on your own. At Gazillion, I’ve learned more from being surrounded by other talented artists, where we are able to bounce ideas off of one another and grow as a group. Each has its merits – freelance work teaches self-sufficiency and working at a large company teaches how to collaborate creatively.
After graduating you did some texture work for Spider-Man 3,Happy Feet, and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. What are some of the differences working on a movie as opposed to a game?
Some people may not agree, but I actually found movie work to be a little easier and more forgiving than games work. In films, models are only viewed from the shot angle, so you only need to put detail into what is close to the camera in each specific shot. Some shots do require incredible amounts of detail, but with shots that are not close-ups you can get away with less detail. In games, models are consistently viewed from all angles, so you have to put equal amounts of detail everywhere. Also, after you build something in a film, compositors and lighting artists then work to improve your model, so the end result is a lot more forgiving. In games, what you make is what you get, so you have to put in all the work yourself.
Artists often strive to develop their own unique style. How do you balance your desire to have an original visual style when film and gaming studios require you to work within a standardized vision?
Ideally, I like to look for work that is similar to the style that I am trying to develop. For example, I wanted to create a hand-painted look, so I worked on an MMO that featured all hand-painted textures. Later, I took an interest in anatomy and body shapes, so I worked on the Marvel Heroes project. This allows you to keep interest in your job while also developing what you want to develop on your own. Sometimes, it’s impossible to align your own artistic visions with your company’s, and in that case you need to create models outside of work that bring you closer to your own style.
In regards to Marvel Heroes, the Marvel Universe is filled with characters of widely varying shapes and sizes. What steps were taken to remain true to the uniqueness of each character while still striving to remain efficient and meet your company’s deadline?
Being true to Marvel’s style has been a big part of this project. Our original idea was to use Marvel’s official height values and model each character accordingly. However, Marvel Heroes uses a top-down camera view, from which height variance doesn’t translate very well. We quickly noticed it was hard to tell the difference between characters of different heights, and this led us to create a more uniform and efficient system based on using several basic body size archetypes for all characters.
In addition to building 3D models of Marvel’s characters, you’ve probably learned a lot about the legal issues surrounding licensed characters. How has working on Marvel Heroes expanded your understanding of how videogames are made?
Working on Marvel Heroes has taught me how complex it is to work on a project with a well-known existing intellectual property. The rights to various Marvel characters are owned by different people, and therefore require different means of acquisition. In the character approval process, beyond getting the artistic look approved, there are also various legal requirements for each character involving logos and specific color values, etc. It’s definitely a more complicated and multi-tiered process to approve a licensed character than it is for an original IP character.
Since you first started contributing to videogames, the industry has witnessed a shift from console games to free-to-play games. How do you think this shift has impacted the way you approach game design?
This shift has impacted game design hugely because it has changed the way games monetize. Many projects out there focus solely on making a game ‘addictive’ rather than ‘entertaining’ so that their free-to-play model succeeds, but to me this strategy strays from the original goal of a game as an entertainment medium. I hope there are more people out there who agree with my approach to game design, which is creating something that is, first and foremost, fun and stimulating.
In addition to free-to-play games becoming popular, mobile games are also becoming a larger share of the market. In addition to your thoughts on this, how do you think this trend will influence your work?
We are seeing less jobs for non-mobile game development, and a slew of small mobile games companies springing up. Investors will always follow the product that generates the most money, so they jump on the latest profitable trend and try to mimic it. The truth is that there will always be another gaming theme, such as mobile games, that will transform the industry, and then we’ll see a new theme that investors will be backing. For a truly successful project, the real question is: what is that next big theme in games, and how can you be the first to make it happen? In terms of my work, these trends will influence the types of projects I choose and pursue, and how I develop my style accordingly.
Popular indie or mobile games can be successful and cheap to make, but many of them require a large amount of luck and good timing.
Popular games seem to either be fairly cheap or rather expensive to make. How do you think the divide between production costs will impact game development?
Popular indie or mobile games can be successful and cheap to make, but many of them require a large amount of luck and good timing. Rovio, for example, created hundreds of games before striking gold with Angry Birds. Production costs are a large problem because although consumers’ graphics expectations grow every year, their cost expectations drop, especially with free-to-play games on the rise. This divide has led to many companies shutting down or shrinking.
With the hardware and software for games consistently changing, how do you stay on top of the latest tech?
Keeping up with new hardware and software is a constant learning experience in this field. I commonly read online software tutorials and watch videos that share the latest tips and tricks. I’ve found that it’s best to keep up with evolving software on a regular basis, as the changes made can sometimes dramatically speed up your workflow.
Finally, are there any projects – personal or professional – that you are working on that people can look out for?
Definitely! You can check out my website or follow me on twitter (@BC3D) to learn more. I can’t share any details right now, as my current projects are confidential, but I promise to give updates on all my latest work as soon as I am able to!
Intellectual Properties are no longer being solely developed for one medium. Any time a movie, videogame, or some other form of entertainment gets green-lighted, you can bet there was discussion as to whether that property could also be adapted into another medium so to not only expand the IP’s presence, but to also generate more revenue. However, as consumers have grown to demand more from the entertainment they enjoy and technology is allowing for more interconnected experiences, entertainment properties are now simultaneously developing differing narratives from the same property among multiple mediums. This means that videogames are beginning to be seen as avenues of telling stories that grow in concert with a central narrative that is not tied to any one medium. And few properties are as ambitiously being developed as transmedia entertainment as Defiance.
Videogames are beginning to be seen as avenues of telling stories that grow in concert with a central narrative that is not tied to any one medium.
In 2008 Trion World Network and Syfy (then the Scifi channel) announced that they would co-develop an entertainment franchise that not only existed as a videogame and television show, but that the ongoing stories in the videogame and TV show would influence one another. After years of development, Defiance premiered as a show on April 15, 2013 and was released as a game on April 2, 2013. To better understand this game, its development, and it relationship to the television show, GameSauce was able to talk to Robert Hill – a Senior Producer at Trion World Network – about his background and the Defiance franchise.
Rob Hill and His Approach to Gaming
Since first playing Pong as a child, Robert Hill has been an avid gamer and, in his words, has “played everything from the Atari 2600 to [the] Playstation 3.” When he wasn’t playing games and had free time, Hill would program games on his Atari 800. His passion for gaming lead him to get a job in QA because, as Hill states, “QA was the de facto way of getting into the industry back then if you weren’t a programmer, artist, or designer.” From starting in QA at Sony Computer Entertainment America and Verant, Hill worked his way up to Senior Producer to Sony Online Entertainment before becoming a Senior Producer at Trion World Network in 2007.
In addition to having played videogames throughout his life, Hill has also played a wide variety of “board games and pen and paper role playing games.” For Hill, this experience helped him better understand the rules and mechanics that went into governing a game, stating, “often video games have their rules hidden behind the scene. Pen and paper and board games have all of their rules exposed. You can easily see how all of the mechanics work and how they interact together. I think this was important for me in understanding how good game mechanics function. I apply this to my job every day.”
The idea of creating a television show that has a videogame spin-off is not new; however, Trion’s and Syfy’s Defiance is unlike anything that has come before. One of the main reasons why Defiance is unique is because the narratives of the MMO and the TV show are in sync with each other and will continue to develop in concert with one another. “This is also entirely new from a business perspective,” says Hill. “It’s unusual for a game to be developed from the very beginning with the intention of tying into a television show.” Trion accomplished this goal by working closely with Defiance’s television production crew. According to Hill, this made “sure that nothing was sacrificed on either side in implementation to make a cohesive world.”
Defiance also benefits from the fact that it is completely server based. This not only allows Trion to change content when the need arises, but it allows them to have, in Hill’s words, “the ability to turn on and off content as we wish.” Overall, this allows Defiance as a game to stay in sync with the television show – an accomplishment that could not be easily repeated if the game were only single player or peer-to-peer.
A large part of Defiance’s importance stems from its status as a unique transmedia property. While most videogames that share a name with a TV show or movie are typically licensed tie-ins or spin-offs, Defiance doesn’t fit any of these traditionally definitions. “Defiance is entirely unique from the typical ‘licensed tie-in’ by the fact that we worked with Syfy from day one to make sure the game and show fit together seamlessly,” says Hill. Building on this point, he points out that licensed materials “usually have to sacrifice something to fit the needs of the respective medium.” Those working on Defiance, however, didn’t have to do that because those working on the game and show “understood what we needed to do to fit both sides as we were developing them. These two media do in fact fit within the same universe and it is apparent in everything we do.” In other words, while most licensed tie-ins are typically adaptations of story designed for one medium being shoved into another, the Defiance game and show each tell a compelling story in their own right that still contribute to developing a larger fictional universe.
Bridging the Worlds’ Television and Videogame
To make this joint venture run more effectively, people from Trion visited the writer’s room for the TV show.
A large part of making Defiance work is more than just writers agreeing to work within the same fictional universe, it is about making the development and ongoing expansion of a videogame compatible with the production of a television show. To make this joint venture run more effectively, people from Trion visited the writer’s room for the TV show. Hill and the others from Trion observed that the show’s writers “essentially have a large board that is columned off for each individual character and what they will be doing within each episode.” With a short summary of the episode in hand, the board “allows them to easily see how it all fits together and quickly adjust when things don’t mesh well. We adopted this technique and adjusted our stories quickly into a much more cohesive whole.”
In addition to mirroring the production of Defiance’s narratives, Trion had to keep in mind what special effects TV producers could accomplish on a regular basis. As Hill points out, “One thing we always had to keep in mind while developing the game assets that the television show intended to use was ‘Can they do this effectively on their end?’” An example of this, according to Hill, is that the game developers wanted to create a main character with four arms. This idea had to be changed because a four armed character could not be effectively done on a weekly basis. For Hill, “This meant that we needed to tailor a lot of our main characters to things they could pull off frequently. We worked closely with them to make sure of this fact while still making our world look compelling for a game.”
A benefit of the working relationship between Defiance’s TV show and game is that popular elements from one medium can efficiently transition into the other. Part of this comes from the fact that as a server based game, Trion is able to track data dealing with which aspects of the game’s players invest the most time in. By knowing which aspects of the game resonates most with players, Trion has a better understanding of what developers should be focused on. Just as important, Trion shares this information with Syfy so, according to Hill, “they can also use this information to help direct where the show is headed. If we find an alien species is really popular in the game world, for example, they may focus more on that species in the show.”
Defiance – Standing on its Own as a Game and its Transmedia Future
To date, Syfy only ordered thirteen episodes of Defiance for its first season and has ordered thirteen more episodes that will comprise the second season of the show which will air in 2014. So once the first season has aired, Defiance as a game will be standing on its own until the second season begins. Without being specific, Hill stated that after the first season finale “the universe continues to go on and large events with happen within it. This is something we are working on with Syfy currently so they can develop the second season in lock step with us.”
Even without the show, fans of the game will be able to continue to explore Defiance’s future version of San Francisco. Moreover, as a large scale co-op third person shooter, Hill believes that through Defiance, Trion has “introduce shooter fans to that type of experience since they haven’t had it” – both in regards to narrative and in regards to a game play that can provide a unique experience each time. However, only time will tell if this is enough.
In the long run, however, its success will most likely not be only gauged by just its quality as a game, but also by how it helped build a larger transmedia brand.
Defiance is currently available for Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and it has been released on Steam. It has been critically well received and has been selling well for a new franchise. And with the television show entering hiatus between season one and two, the game has the opportunity to truly stand out as an enjoyable experience on its own. In the long run, however, its success will most likely not be only gauged by just its quality as a game, but also by how it helped build a larger transmedia brand. With ability to play and explore the world of Defiance through the game year round, a measurement of this games success will be it if can keep and increase the number of people interested in this franchise.
Paul Loynd is currently a senior producer at Meteor Entertainment. With years of experience in the gaming industry, Loynd has worked for VMC and Microsoft before moving to Meteor. He is proficient in multiple languages, several testing and development tools, and enjoys riding his motorcycle in his free time.
GS: Your LinkedIn profile has you starting out in the gaming industry as a Senior Tester for VMC in 2006. What were you doing before then?
Paul Loynd: I was actually testing video games before that point as well, but it was on a sort of on-call basis. This was also for VMC, and I did it for about three years on and off, but I don’t include it on my LinkedIn, since it wasn’t what I would consider a full-time job. Before that, I was attending college and doing volunteer work.
I always knew that I wanted to work in the games industry, even though I didn’t realize it right away. After a couple years of attending college, I dropped out to pursue my own path into the games industry. I had quickly realized that the CS degree I was pursuing didn’t guarantee me a job within the industry, and neither did my college have strong ties with any game companies, so placement aid was unlikely.
I always knew that I wanted to work in the games industry, even though I didn’t realize it right away.
Back then, universities didn’t have really clear pathways for getting you into the games industry. Either you were an artist with connections to people already working in the industry, or you were a CS graduate hoping that some game company would take a chance on you fresh out of college. Considering how specialized video game programming is, the chances of that happening were not high. Most reputable companies usually wanted proven experience and shipped titles on your resume before they would take a chance on you. That being the case, the next easiest way to get into the industry was the QA route, which is what I did. I remember working side by side with guys that had their Master’s Degrees in CS making $9/hour because they couldn’t get a job as a developer without game programming experience on their resume. It was crazy. The placement programs that exist today are far more effective at grooming and placing talent within the games industry. Schools like DigiPen and USC are really making huge strides in providing young minds with a clear path into the games industry.
You left Microsoft for Meteor Entertainment in 2012. What was it about working for Meteor that appealed to you? Was it just a job opportunity that came up or was there something about the culture of Meteor that resonated with you?
It was a combination of the opportunity and the culture of Meteor, and really the culture of a start-up that resonated with me. The first time I saw Hawken, I was actually working at Microsoft. I remember thinking to myself “Holy sh*t, I have to work on this game. This is going to be amazing.”
Working at a small company has some obvious benefits. Everything happens very quickly and you get to see your actions make a change on a daily basis. It’s very exciting to see the fruits of your labor so quickly. That’s not always the case at a big company. Everything usually happens at a much slower pace, and big crazy ideas are usually looked over in favor of safer business choices with a clear ROI. These days, if you want to do something amazing, you have to take risks; that is easier to do as a small company.
Hawken has been in development since 2010. What was the initial inspiration for the game?
The initial inspiration comes from Khang Le and his original team that worked on Project Offset for Intel. They were a group of five guys that all loved mech games and sci-fi. After Project Offset was cancelled by Intel, Khang and the other original founders of Adhesive looked around at the current FPS games and decided that a mech based FPS would be a lot of fun to make and play to the strengths of the original team. Also, it would bring a totally new experience to the FPS market that didn’t currently exist. Thus Hawken was born in a small garage in LA County.
On this note, what was it about Hawken that Meteor wanted to publish it? Was it just the high quality of the game, or did its transmedia potential help it stand out?
Khang Le and his team have created an amazing IP with Hawken. It is visually stunning and so different from anything else that is out there right now. Every minute detail of Hawken is carefully crafted to give the player the real experience of being in a mech. Everything about Hawken is just so “big.” From the mechs themselves, to the maps, to the delicate detail that has been put into every texture and every model in the game, Hawken screams production value.
The transmedia aspect of Hawken actually came after we started work on the game. The idea was to create additional content that told the story of Hawken in a way that couldn’t be told in the game, get people interested in the lore and the world of Hawken, and ultimately pull them to the game itself.
As a game centered around mechs, Hawken is part of the mech genre. With so many mech stories out there, how is Hawken going to be different?
Hawken is a totally unique experience from a number of different perspectives.
Hawken is a totally unique experience from a number of different perspectives. First, the art style of Hawken is so different from anything else out there. Our mechs have a crazy unique style that stands apart from both Japanese style mechs, from anime like Macross and Gundam as well as more “western” style mechs like Mech Warrior and Battletech.
Second, Hawken is an FPS in every sense of the title. Most mech games to-date have been 3rd person experiences and usually a much slower pace of game than Hawken. Hawken is fast paced, frenetic, brutal. It feels totally different from all the other mech games out there right now.
A key concern for players in Hawken is that their mech may overheat. What was one of the reasons for this feature? What are some other aspects of Hawken’s game play that you believe will allow the game to stand out?
Heat is a very key element to the game play of Hawken. We designed everything to be very deliberate in Hawken; from the movement to the way the economy of battle flows. We didn’t feel like it made sense for giant combat mechs to be reloading fifty shot clips. These mechs aren’t anthropomorphic robots holding guns; Hawken mechs are combat platforms with integrated weapons. These mechs have huge ammo stores to allow them prolonged combat in the field. Heat performs a number of functions in Hawken. First off, weapon heat forces players to think twice about just holding down the trigger and spraying shots everywhere. The fact that your mech can overheat while you are in battle adds an interesting dynamic that players have to learn to balance through smart weapon usage and heat reducing internals. You are piloting a mech and every part of our design is crafted with the intent of reinforcing that experience for the player.
The other side of heat is that it rewards players for doing well in the game. Consider conventional FPS games that use ammo – once you use up all of your ammo, it typically means you are running around the map with your knife out hoping to scavenge a fallen player’s gun or find a new gun before someone fills you with holes. This usually means that a player is taken out of battle while they go off to find more ammo or a new weapon. In Hawken, this can be detrimental to team play. Every mech counts in a team fight and when you are down one mech, you feel it.
Another aspect of Hawken’s game play that I feel really allows the game to stand out is the movement. Again, just as with weapon heat, the way that mechs move in the game is very deliberate. When your 50-ton war machine starts trundling forward, that requires a significant amount of force, and changing directions requires a large amount of force in the opposite direction. For example, when you strafe left in your mech and then attempt to strafe right, that direct change in movement is a big shift, and you will experience a big slowdown in movement since the 50 tons that was once moving left now has to move right. Physics says that momentum is going to make that work hard for you. Short version: Isaac Newton was a dick. Now the easy way to override the slowdown is by using your mech’s dodge function to get the extra force needed to change direction quickly, but that means you have burned up your dodge for a second or so. That single second could be the difference between a beautifully evaded shot, and a TOW missile ruining your day.
Momentum is very important in Hawken, and understanding how to use it to your advantage is a key element of the game that separates the expert players from the beginners.
Momentum is very important in Hawken, and understanding how to use it to your advantage is a key element of the game that separates the expert players from the beginners. Players need to learn how to use forward momentum as much as possible to supplement their movements instead of fighting against their mech. For instance, when boosting forward, if you want to change directions to get around a left or right corner, you can move your mouse to the left or right to start aiming the mech in the direction you want to go and then come out of your boost with all of your forward momentum in the new right or left direction. You just have to remember that the sharper the direction change, the more demanding it will be on your mech and the higher the likelihood of your mech slowing down and becoming an easy target.
That kind of movement doesn’t really exist in other FPS games. Players can’t just aim at a target and fire, they need to learn to anticipate quick movement in a new direction from an enemy mech and fire where the target is going to be, much like what is required in flight combat games. This really sets us apart from other FPS games out there.
Outside of the game play, how would you summarize the over arching narrative of the Hawken universe?
Hawken takes place on the planet Illal. Illal was once a resource-rich paradise, but with the arrival of several mega-corporations (Crion, Sentium, and Prosk), the planet was slowly over-industrialized to the point of collapse. Where once there were lush forests filled with life, now there are tired, sprawling ghettos and massive industrial complexes bleeding the planet dry of the few resources that are left.
Illal’s fate then takes a turn for the worse when Dr. James Hawken, a scientist in the employ of the Prosk Corporation, creates the Ohmu Nano-Virus. The Nano-Virus is made up of nano-machines that have been reprogrammed to spread and replicate like a virus. The nano-virus consumes all matter in its path, reconfiguring its molecular structure into an all metal material that becomes known as “Giga-Structure.”
Initially, the planet is considered lost after this cataclysmic event, until the corporations figure out that the vermin of the planet have been consuming the converted giga-structure and leaving behind an energy source known as Vitrolium. Vitrolium fertilizes new life on Illal but also serves as an immensely powerful energy source. The corporations decide not to abandon the planet, and instead begin a war of dominance over the new energy source. The battles that take place in game are a representation of the battles that take place between the major corporations.
Hawken is a AAA, free-to-play game. The idea of a free-to-play game also being a AAA title is still a fairly rare idea. What do you think the rise of AAA free-to-play games says about the gaming industry?
We live in an interesting time in the game industry. As more and more games are released and players have easier and easier access to a wider and wider range of content, the audience becomes more sophisticated. As an audience becomes more and more sophisticated, they become harder and harder to please, i.e. the expected quality bar continues to rise, as does the expectation for something new that hasn’t been experienced before.
The movie industry has been suffering from this problem for years. When movies first started to become available to the public, they were low budget, easy to make, and not terribly complicated in terms of writing, or visual effects. The whole idea was so novel that people would line up to watch almost anything. I do say that with a grain of salt, because I am sure there were movies that failed even during the golden age of film, but my point is that the chance of success was much higher because the bar was lower. On top of that, the people who made them were not doing it for the money, at least not initially. It was a passion, and they made great movies because it was what they were driven to do; the money came later.
I would rather spend $200 on a game I love playing that continues to provide entertainment than $60 on a game that left a bad taste in my mouth.
The game industry is experiencing this same shift right now, and I feel that Free-to-Play is at the forefront of that shift. People are tired of throwing down $60 for a game that they have no guarantee will even be worth the $60 they spent. Have you ever dropped $60 on a game, taken it home, and immediately regretted that purchase after playing the game for even just an hour? Compound that with only getting $20 trade-in value for the game you JUST bought? That feeling sucks. I would rather spend $200 on a game I love playing that continues to provide entertainment than $60 on a game that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Free-to-play is taking the whole system of how we purchase and experience game content and turning it on its head. With a free-to-play game, you get to experience the game up front and decide for yourself if it is worth spending money on. If the game is good and it appeals to you, it isn’t a hard decision to spend money on it. If the game is bad or you don’t like the game, you can just leave and find a new game; nothing lost. The really great thing about free-to-play is that they don’t have the typical revenue tail that conventional retail PC and console games do. A free-to-play game is as much a game as it is a service, and the continual revenue generated by the game is used to build new features and content into the game. Instead of a couple pieces of DLC here and there after the game launches, the title benefits from constant updates and improvements which only results in a better game. Retail games just can’t do that.
That doesn’t mean that free-to-play is inherently bad, it just means that some companies choose to use the Force for evil instead of good.
All that being said, do I think free-to-play is the end all be all for games in the future? No. I think there are a number of different business models being employed and tested out in the wild right now, and all of them have benefits and drawbacks. There are a ton of critics that have come out against free-to-play since it has hit the mainstream of gaming, and some of their arguments are valid. That doesn’t mean that free-to-play is inherently bad, it just means that some companies choose to use the Force for evil instead of good. Free-to-play has a dark side, but that is just a product of a company putting business priorities and revenue first, and treating the game and its players as a vehicle for getting revenue. That is nothing specific to the games industry; it happens in almost every industry out there. When free-to-play games are done right and crafting a great game experience is put at the center of priorities, free-to-play can be an amazing thing that promotes intelligent game design and non-predatory monetization practices.
That is our view with Hawken. We want to provide our players with an amazing AAA experience for free and monetize in the places that we feel are fair and make the most sense for the game and the player. We want people to spend money on our game because they love it, not because they feel they have to in order to keep playing.
I had the chance to read the graphic novel based on Hawken. What was the motivation behind creating it? Are there any other similar projects to be created based on Hawken?
Honestly, the motivation was the visual world that Khang Le and crew had created. Just looking at the visuals and concept art for Hawken, it was obvious there was a huge story there to tell. We decided that the graphic novel was the best way to tell it.
Right now, we are focused on the game itself, but there are definitely other ideas floating around about how we can build on the Hawken world.
Players can look forward to all the typical FPS game modes, but we also have plans for new game modes that will be unique to Hawken. We aren’t announcing any new modes officially at this point, but we are definitely excited for what is coming down the pipe.
What are some long term goals Meteor has outside of Hawken?
Just like any publisher, our long term goals are to publish more games and grow as a company, but for right now, our primary focus is Hawken. Hawken is still growing and needs a lot of focus from all of us at Adhesive and Meteor in order to be successful. Once Hawken’s needs are met, I am sure we will start shifting our focus to new ventures.
“I love software and technology because [of] how fast the marketplace is always changing, which means there are always opportunities for entrepreneurs to play a role.”
Few fantasy franchises have generated the passionate fandom, the critical acclaim, and the awards that A Game of Thrones has. Since George R. R. Martin started the A Song of Ice and Fire series in 1996, when A Game of Thrones was first published, it has commanded a loyal fan base that has only increased in size and passion with the premiere of the HBO show in 2011. The popularity of the book series also proved to be so influential that even before the show premiered, a social media game based on the books began production. Released February 2013, Game of Thrones Ascent was developed and published by the studio Disruptor Beam. As a strategy game designed for Facebook, Game of Thrones Ascent allows players to control the head of a minor house in Westeros – a continent that most of A Song of Ice and Fire takes place in – and engage in their own narratives of political intrigue. To learn more about this game, GameSauce was able to talk to Jon Radoff about his career, founding Disruptor Beam, and creating Game of Thrones Ascent.
Radoff’s Background – Before A Game of Thrones
“The fact that I’ve been involved in different aspects of the Internet has helped me see opportunities that others haven’t.”
Jon Radoff was more than just a videogame fan growing up, he was a fan who took the initiative to actually make videogames. During his high school years, for example, he made a bulletin board system strategy game called Space Empire Elite. Radoff’s passion for technology, and him being a Massachusetts native, led to him going to Worcester Polytechnic Institute for college. However, while WPI is a top ranked college that specializes in science and technology, Radoff would leave before graduating. It’s not that Radoff was disappointed with WPI, but, according to him, he left because “I had an idea for a company that I was really excited about, and once I caught that bug, I couldn’t think of anything else.” In addition to wanting to create his own business, Radoff wanted to explore the ever-changing world of the computer industry, stating, “I love software and technology because [of] how fast the marketplace is always changing, which means there are always opportunities for entrepreneurs to play a role.” As such, this combination of his passion for technology and his entrepreneurial spirit would guide Radoff throughout his career.
1991 would see Radoff truly begin his career when he founded his first company, NovaLink Corporation, and created the online text-based game, Legends of Future Past. Though now thought of as an MMORPG, Radoff discussed how the term didn’t exist in the early 90s, saying “we didn’t have the term MMORPG back then. We called it an online interactive fiction game.” Inspired by other interactive fiction games like Zork (1980), Radoff and his colleagues approached these projects “as a form of storytelling through games, and…wanted to bring people together to experience stories together.”
Radoff stayed with NovaLink until 1997, when he left to found Eprise Corporation – a company that dealt with web content management software. He would leave this company in 2001. Years later, in 2006, he would establish gamerDNA, which provides a social media platform for gamers to discover new games. Though the shift from Eprise to gamerDNA seems like a change of focus on Radoff’s part, he does state that “I’m not sure I’ve ever changed focus, because my focus has always been Internet-based companies.” Highlighting his entrepreneurial mindset, Radoff stated that he feels that “at any given time, there have been interesting opportunities in everything from software infrastructure, to ad networks, to games. The fact that I’ve been involved in different aspects of the Internet has helped me see opportunities that others haven’t.” One of these opportunities that Radoff saw and would pursue was social media game development.
Getting into Social Network Gaming – Building Disruptor Beam
“We wanted to make a game that was about story, characters, and interesting strategic decisions—because that’s what Game of Thrones itself is about.”
Though Radoff’s career had centered on Internet-based companies for the majority of his adult life, he has been a gamer since he was a child, and his passion for this medium had never faded. When Radoff, as he says, noticed “a huge hole in the world of social gaming– and thus, a huge opportunity,” he decided to get back to his roots by founding Disruptor Beam.
A key aspect of Disruptor Beam’s approach to game design stems from Radoff’s belief that “all games are social.” As Radoff told GameSauce, “Social media is very powerful, especially when integrated with games, which are at their core social experiences.” Yet, he observed that “the same type of in-depth, story-driven game experiences of console and PC games were missing from the social graph.” For Radoff, this is how Disruptor Beam differs from other companies. He believes Disruptor Beam’s “goal is to disrupt the social game landscape, by providing immersive gameplay based around the worlds that gamers love most.”
Disruptor Beam’s gaming philosophy is best exemplified by the interface for Game of Thrones Ascent. To Radoff, “Most online games are trivial clickfests.” As such, he and his team strived to create a game that had more depth than just repeated clicking, stating “We wanted to make a game that was about story, characters, and interesting strategic decisions—because that’s what Game of Thrones itself is about.”
In addition to its approach to game play, Radoff also felt that locating Disruptor Beam in Boston would allow the studio to better stand out. “In Silicon Valley and video game hubs, like San Francisco and LA, it is more difficult to stand out,” says Radoff. “We felt that we could really shine in Boston.” And as a lifelong resident of the greater Boston area, Radoff feels that it is a great place to live and, more importantly, that it also has a great “game and start-up ecosystem.” Of specific value is that the area is richly populate with people that a gaming studio would need. As Radoff highlights, the Boston area has a “wealth of game development talent with MIT, WPI, Becker and other schools based here – an excellent pool from which we’ve built our team.”
Building Game of Thrones Ascent
“One of the original core design principles for Game of Thrones Ascent was to create a game that actually stood on its own two feet…”
Another unique aspect of Disruptor Beam is that it is populated by fans of George R. R. Martin’s epic series. As such, when Radoff and his staff started thinking of ideas to base a social game on, they quickly began to consider how the world in A Song of Ice and Fire could be adapted into a social media game. Interestingly, Radoff told GameSauce that the “the idea for a social game based around George R.R. Martin’s books was actually one that started long before the HBO series even [premiered].” After developing the preliminary concept for what A Game of Thrones Facebook game could look like, Disruptor Beam reached out to Martin through his agent in 2010. According to Radoff, once Martin heard the pitch for the game, “He loved it!” After getting approval to create the game, now called Game of Thrones Ascent, Disruptor Beam “kicked off a relationship with HBO and…now work in lock-step with them on the development of the game.”
Since Game of Thrones Ascent was originally developed separately from the HBO series, it doesn’t function as a traditional licensed game that is merely an extension of a company’s marketing department. According to Radoff, “One of the original core design principles for Game of Thrones Ascent was to create a game that actually stood on its own two feet.” As such, Disruptor Beam stepped away from the standard licensed-game model. And though there is synergistic relationship between Disruptor Beam and HBO, Game of Thrones Ascent is designed to provide a narrative experience that can be enjoyed without having to have read the books or watched the show.
To create a game that could be enjoyed in isolation from the series’ main story and yet remain an authentic extension of what Martin created, Radoff realized that narrative design would be crucial to the success of Game of Thrones Ascent. As such, the game’s experience is structured around two goals. The first is to create, as Radoff states, “content that mimics the show and books directly” and the second is to produce “original content that allows the storyline to carry beyond the books and show.” Radoff believes that this model has been so well received by players because they “are able to live out the storyline they love from the books and show while also digging even deeper into Westeros with authentic original content.” By creating a game experience centered on the character, the player develops and the results of their strategic decisions, Game of Thrones Ascent is able to replicate the unpredictability that is a pillar of Martin’s epic series.
Disruptor Beam’s Long Term Targets
“Our goal at Disruptor Beam is to transport fans into the world they love through social games…”
With over two decades of experience developing internet content, software, and games, Radoff fully understands the limitations social media platforms present for a gaming experience. As Radoff stated, “We’re still far from having the types of immersive experiences that exist on 3D console games.” However, in Radoff’s eyes, “the technological limitations are actually an advantage for a company like us: rather than spending millions on 3D graphics, we’re spending all our efforts on innovating on new types of gameplay and story.” Additionally, Radoff made it clear that Ascent is not the only game Disruptor Beam will develop. “Our goal at Disruptor Beam is to transport fans into the world they love through social games,” says Radoff, “so Game of Thrones is just the beginning for us! We definitely have plans to expand our model of story-driven social gameplay to other worlds.”
As for Game of Thrones’ fans specifically, with season three of HBO’s Game of Thrones having ended and the sixth novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, with no publication date yet, fans of the franchise should be comforted to know that Disruptor Beam has “new content and features planned for the game that will be rolled out in the coming months, as well as new platforms on which to play the game.” So while A Song of Ice and Fire’s main narrative may be on hiatus, fans can continue to explore the world of Westeros through Game of Thrones Ascent.
“My job is to throw out as many ideas as possible, and see which one sticks or if one will lead to another. If an idea doesn’t work, no problem, just move on and keep on searching.”
While this quote may seem like the philosophy of a business leader driven only by the bottom line, it is one of the many approaches to game design that Glen Schofield has developed as he evolved from being an artist to a co-founder and general manager of Sledgehammer Games. For those unfamiliar with Schofield, he has been in the videogame industry for over twenty years and after starting off as an art student from the Pratt Institute, he went from being an artist on cartoons and games, to a respected business leader in the videogame industry. As such, Schofield’s career provides an insight into how a traditionally trained artist was able to adapt to the creative and business demands of the videogame industry and eventually become a leading figure in it.
Life Before Gaming
[T]he “Pratt Institute was great at reinforcing that the idea was the most important thing. Once you had an idea, then the illustration was easier and usually better. To this day, I use that philosophy in making games”
Schofield always enjoyed art growing up. Remembering that he was drawing at the age four, he benefited from a family that actively supported his passion by taking him to art shows and encouraging him to enter competitions. Schofield was even inspired by some of the popular artists of the 20th century – some of these being Walt Disney, Charles Schulz (creator of Peanuts), Jack Davis (one of the founding cartoonists for Mad Magazine), and Norman Rockwell. As he got older, he became a fan of “Sci-fi artists like Michael Whelan, Ralph McQuarrie, John Berkey and many others,” John Berkey being one of the designers on the original Star Wars trilogy and the original Battlestar Galactica series.
The young artist’s passion for art would continue to grow and motivate him to attend the Pratt Institute for college. As a school committed to providing a traditional Liberal Arts experience, Schofield received an in depth education of art history – including learning about Rembrandt, Picasso, Turner, Caravaggio, da Vinci, and other great artists. During this time, Pratt not only engrained in him a general knowledge of art history, it also instilled in him an intellectual framework for how to develop a concept. As Schofield put it, the “Pratt Institute was great at reinforcing that the idea was the most important thing. Once you had an idea, then the illustration was easier and usually better. To this day, I use that philosophy in making games.”
Schofield also learned more than art theory from Pratt, he learned how to approach art as an industry. This meant not only learning how to accept rejection and build a strong portfolio, but to realistically value a concept. As he states, “since the creative process is full of rejections, I just let it bounce off me.” It is a skill that not only got him through art school, but it would continue to influence how he develops games. “It’s incredibly important in gaming where you come up with hundreds of ideas a week for so many different aspects of the game,” he says. “It’s a good week if five or six of them make it into a game.”
Though this sounds cynical, Schofield makes it clear that his “job is to throw out as many ideas as possible, and see which one sticks or if one will lead to another.” “If an idea doesn’t work, no problem, just move on and keep on searching,” he says. “It’s also incredibly important to be able to accept others ideas and be able to know when somebody has a gem.”
Early Career – Galaxy Rangers and Learning the Industry of Art Production
“I was also surrounded by some of the best artists in NY at the time. It was like a four year education crammed into one year. I was drawing and designing every day. My work improved so much during this project. I became a much better artist and art director.”
After graduating from Pratt with a B.F.A., Schofield was able to get a job working on the short-lived cartoon series, The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. With only one season consisting of sixty-five episodes that aired during 1986, Galaxy Rangers provided him the opportunity to create nearly a hundred characters and storyboard direct twenty-one episodes. With each episode consisting of over four-hundred boards, this experience taught him how to both produce a large quantity of material and keep a standard appearance for each item. As Schofield said when thinking about this time, “each episode has over 400 boards and it’s your job to design each shot then direct about 10 artists to make it look good. The experience taught me how to direct artists, design and innovate with camera angles. I learned to lay out episodes and scenes and make them flow nicely.”
In addition to getting Schofield accustomed to the mass production requirements of working in entertainment, working on Galaxy Rangers still provided him with the opportunity to refine and improve his craft. “I was also surrounded by some of the best artists in NY at the time. It was like a four year education crammed into one year. I was drawing and designing every day. My work improved so much during this project. I became a much better artist and art director.” Overall, while Galaxy Rangers became a short-lived series, the professional experience Schofield gained from it would become foundational to his growth in the videogame industry.
Starting in Videogames – Absolute Entertainment, Licensed Games, and Early Struggles
“[T]here was a huge time investment put into studying the characters and backgrounds of the IP to ensure that I could nail a certain style. The changing of styles for me was quite fun. I looked forward to the challenge, plus it kept each game interesting.”
Starting in the early 1990s, Schofield began working on videogames at the now-closed Absolute Entertainment. Some of his first games were Barbie: Barbie GameGirl, The Simpsons: Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York – all of which were released between 1991 and 1992. (You can find a list of Schofield’s credits here.) While computer hardware and software becoming quickly outdated is now a standard part of the gaming industry, his entrance into game development was at a time when computers still felt new. Looking back on this time, Schofield recalls that “Computers in the early 90’s were limited, but changing so fast you had to relearn everything every six months. I came to understand those limitations and loved the challenge.” One of the early limitations that he dealt with were the color options. “Back then, the software was pretty limited…but I loved it. I could make copies, change colors, [and] experiment,” he says. Though he found these platforms to be lacking at first, the technology eventually began to catch up with his imagination.
Overall, Schofield embraced the transition to digital art. Looking back at this time, Schofield states that “I picked it up pretty quickly and within a year of being hired, I was promoted to Art Director.” Another aspect of his early work was just how many games he produced – stating that in the year he got promoted to Art Director, he had a “hand in creating eleven games: I worked on three Game Boy games on my own, and worked on the animation for another eight games.”
During this time, Schofield also learned how to deal with situations that truly challenged his artistic abilities. As he began working on licensed properties, he found it difficult to animate the Walt Disney character Goofy, stating, “Goofy, definitely, was a huge challenge. Breaking down his animation was so difficult because each frame was so strange-looking on its own.” He handled this problem by hiring Milt Neil, an 80-year-old retired ex-Disney animator – who had previously worked on the films Dumbo, Fantasia, and other Disney classics – to pencil Goofy’s animations. He would then outline and color each of Neil’s drawings. In retrospect, Schofield believes that “this was a first in games,” and it lead him to start hiring dedicated animators for the games he worked on.
Another challenge Schofield encountered early on occurred when he was working Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors (1995) – a videogame featuring the comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller. He was struggling to get the animation for Penn and Teller right. So to get the visuals for the game as realistic as possible, he videotaped the duo against a blue sheet, selected key frames, and redrew over the frames in the program he was using. This proved to not only be an ingenious way of getting a game’s visuals right, but according to Schofield, “I think it’s one of the very first roto-scoped animations in the history of the videogame industry.”
A large portion of the games that Schofield worked on during this period were licensed properties. Though these types of games have a reputation of being rushed into production, they provided him the opportunity to change artistic styles quickly and strengthen his versatility. As such, according to Schofield “there was a huge time investment put into studying the characters and backgrounds of the IP to ensure that I could nail a certain style. The changing of styles for me was quite fun. I looked forward to the challenge, plus it kept each game interesting.” This exposure to different styles and genres taught him how to jump from style to style, and prepared him for myriad types of franchises he would work with and develop for the rest of his career.
Crystal Dynamics, MBA, and Transitioning from Artist to Manager
“I knew that I wanted to continue in development and run large teams, or perhaps a studio, but I needed the formal business training and knowledge.”
In 1996, Schofield joined Crystal Dynamics and became its Vice President. Crystal Dynamics would be purchased by Eidos Interactive in 1998, and he would remain at Crystal Dynamics until 2002. At this studio, he would direct games such as Gex 2, Gex 3, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Disney World Racing, and more. As such, Schofield’s time at Crystal Dynamics was one in which he transitioned from being only in charge of a game’s art to being in charge of a whole project.
Though this could make for a difficult shift, Schofield relished in his new position, stating, “I loved it. The pressure was on but I thrive on it. At the time, I had already focused heavily on designing games because back then designers were starting to come into their own.” Becoming a manager meant that in addition to overseeing a project, Schofield was able to become an active leader by engaging the others who worked with him on a project. As he said about this subject, “I enjoy the process of getting a team of people to rally behind a project, and the satisfaction I get from creating something great with a team is equivalent, or actually, more gratifying than finishing a painting on my own.”
During his time at Crystal Dynamics, Schofield also made an important decision that would further cement his place in the management side of game development – he decided to return to school and earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Golden Gate University. At the time he went back to earn his MBA in 2000, he observed that “the video game industry was growing and becoming a lot more mature.” As a result, Schofield felt that “in the years leading up to getting my MBA from Golden Gate University, I got a sense that I needed to know a lot more about finance, business, accounting, and scheduling. I knew that I wanted to continue in development and run large teams, or perhaps a studio, but I needed the formal business training and knowledge.”
Though the value of an MBA is currently being questioned more and more, for Schofield, getting an MBA proved to be “one of the most important decisions I ever made.” In addition to providing him a formal understanding of management and business, the MBA, according to Schofield “has opened doors, given me the ability to speak at the same level as execs and taught me how to research deeply into a subject.” An outcome of this is that Schofield now believes that “marrying a creative degree with a business degree is perfect for the game industry.” These are not only skills that would guide him through his tenure at Crystal Dynamics and EA, they would also help when he co-founded Sledgehammer Games.
Electronic Arts – The Lord of the Rings and Dead Space
“[H]eadshots were another controversial decision to do away with. I really liked the idea of dismembering your enemy, but there was always the question of whether or not we could train the player that headshots weren’t the answer.”
After earning his MBA in 2002, Schofield left Crystal Dynamics and joined Electronic Arts as a Vice President and General Manager at EA Redwood (Redwood would be renamed Visceral Games in 2009). One of the first games that he would work on at EA would be part of one of the largest entertainment franchises that he would ever work on – The Lord of the Rings. Building off the success of The Two Towers videogame, the game based on The Return of the King was announced April 2003 and was scheduled for release in November 2003 (a month ahead of the movie’s December premier). This project was one of the more challenging projects Schofield had experienced, stating that it “was an extremely hard project working for countless hours….In addition, there was a lot of pressure on us to deliver something great.”
Luckily, Schofield and those at EA Redwood Studios had significant access to the production of The Return of the King. However, despite both the game and aspects of the movie being in production at the time, he remembers that there was a lot he and his team had to develop on their own. “We created as much as we could from their concept art but during the development process a lot of their characters and scenes changed,” he recalls. After completing The Return of the King, Schofield would work on the games From Russia with Love, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, and Whiplash. More importantly, Schofield began working with Michael Condrey and helped developed Dead Space.
First announced in 2007, Dead Space is a third-person shooter that merges spacefaring science-fiction and survival/horror to create a game in which the player (in control of an engineer named Isaac Clarke) battles against reanimated human corpses aboard an interstellar space ship. According to Schofield, EA “set out to make the scariest video game ever.” Though he acknowledges that this could be “consider[ed] a lofty goal,” he does believe that they came close. Falling back on his philosophy that started at Pratt, the team working on Dead Space “tried every type of horror convention while making the game. Some worked, others didn’t.”
One horror convention that was re-imagined for the game was how the player viewed the action. Given that the camera in video games isn’t static like it is in the movies, Schofield mentioned how the EA staff strived to innovate how players visually observed the moments of horror in the game by trying to create a nearly completely immersive experience. “There was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “In the end, I think the atmosphere and pacing were the main reasons why the game was successful in being quite tense.” To add to the immersive quality wanted in Dead Space, the game developers sought to “innovate on the HUD/UI to aid with player immersion – hence the health bar on his back and the ammo counter on the gun,” Shofield says. “I’m also proud of the video logs that you were able to play in your helmet because they added a new layer of objective and story delivery.” Another convention common in horror and third person shooters that Schofield wanted to move away from were headshots in favor of dismembering enemies. As he stated, “headshots were another controversial decision to do away with. I really liked the idea of dismembering your enemy, but there was always the question of whether or not we could train the player that headshots weren’t the answer.”
In addition to these user interface goals Schofield, Condrey, and the other developers had for the game, Dead Space also provided Schofield with the opportunity to work with comic book creators and turn Dead Space into a franchise with licensed properties. The comic book creators he worked with were the critically acclaimed writers Warren Ellis, Rick Remender, and Antony Johnston. Echoing his experience of hiring Milt Neil for his expertise, one reason why these three were hired was for “their Sci-fi knowledge and ideas.” And though Schofield had never published a comic book, he has observed that comic books were closer than other mediums to the narrative structure found in video games. This was a key reason why the studio sought out comic book writers in general, stating, “comic books have a very limited amount of writing; they have to get their ideas and thoughts across very quickly without lots of dialogue. A video game is the same way. It was also another way I thought that Dead Space could differentiate itself from other games.”
The use of comic book writers not only helped Dead Space become a successful game, it also created an opportunity build of the game’s narrative by creating spinoff stories for multiple mediums to expanded on the game’s story. For the Dead Space comic books, EA turned to Antony Johnston to expand on the back story created by Schofield and Bret Robbins – Robbins being the Creative Director for the game. To preserve the franchise’s continuity, all artwork, covers, and stories would be approved by Schofield.
Dead Space was released in October 2008. Its success meant that 2009 would professionally be a great year for those involved in its production. After all, the game was not only a commercial success, it would also be nominated for and won dozens of awards, and Schofield himself was named #58 in Edge’s “The Hot 100 Game Developers of 2009.” This is also the year he decided to leave EA and cofound the studio Sledgehammer Games.
Sledgehammer Games – A Different Type of Studio
“[W]orking in games is a tremendous opportunity and a privilege. If someone isn’t passionate about it, there’s no reason I’d give him or her a job.”
With the MBA providing him formal business credentials, years of experience of in the business, and the desire to strike out on his own, Schofield co-founded Sledgehammer Games with Michael Condrey in 2009. Sledgehammer Games would soon face an uphill battle to complete its first game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Originally, Sledgehammer was going to create a unique third-person shooter. However, a falling-out between Activision, Infinity Ward – the studio that created the Modern Warfare franchise – and the original co-founders of the studio resulted in Activision requesting that Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward develop the Modern Warfare 3 together.
By this point, Sledgehammer had become an independent studio within Activision, but had not produced a single game. At the time, Sledgehammer had spent months working on its own Call of Duty installment, and working with Infinity Ward would mean abandoning their own project and having to work on a shortened timeline. This new direction would luckily payoff as MW3 would have the most successful game launch in history with over 6.5 million copies sold and grossing over $400 million in a twenty-four hour period, and would hold this record until Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Overall, Sledgehammer was founded on the desire that Schofield and Condrey wanted to create games that were innovative and had superior craftsmanship. Though this desire isn’t entirely unique among game studios, they did create a culture at Sledgehammer that would cultivate an enthusiasm in its employees. Specifically, Sledgehammer not only prides itself on transparency, it only accepted the deal to work on Modern Warfare after its team had the chance to vote on accepting the project – making Sledgehammer the type of studio that will only develop a game if the majority of the people working on it are truly interested in the project. Whether this was by design or accident, the decision to form Sledgehammer in this manner creates a passion-driven atmosphere that one would encounter among traditional artists.
The type of studio culture that Sledgehammer has is also rooted in the type of person Schofield wants as an employee. When asked about what he looks for in a candidate, he is clear that beyond specific job skills he is always looking for “passion, first and foremost.” On this topic, he goes on to say that “working in games is a tremendous opportunity and a privilege. If someone isn’t passionate about it, there’s no reason I’d give him or her a job.” He also says that he additionally looks “for intelligence and the ability to work with others” and that “the perfect candidate requires the ability to not only come up with great ideas, but to know when they have a great one. Leave your ego at the door; it’s a team effort. I like people who can throw out lots of ideas and when something is rejected, move on and keep trying.” It’s an approach to hiring that has not only allowed Schofield to build Sledgehammer’s staff, it has also allowed him to hire and groom employees that have gone, in his words, “on to great success, like my friends at Naughty Dog and Toys for Bob.”
The Gaming Industry – Looking Back and Looking Forward
“[T]he social aspect has changed video games from somebody playing alone in their room for hours to playing co-op in the living room or joining huge groups online.”
After being in the gaming industry for over two decades, Schofield has seen videogames go through massive transitions. As he told us about these changes, “I’ve witnessed most of them – from the industry being small to growing to the largest entertainment business, the move from 8-bit to unlimited colors and 2D to 3D, they’ve all been huge transitions.” And when the arcade portion of the videogame industry began to decline in the 90s and caused sense of uncertainty throughout the industry, Schofield was unfazed.
Moreover, not only was he unaffected by the industry’s shift in the early 90s, he’s never believed the reoccurring cries that the death of the videogame industry was nigh – saying, “I never felt that the industry was dying, and still don’t. It changes and your job is to adapt. Every console transition, I hear about the death of the console game. I don’t agree and I am quite positive about the future. There will always be a need for entertainment and it’s my job to adapt and learn the newest medium.”
As for the future of the industry, Schofield believes that “we’ll see more of a convergence towards integrating all the platforms in our games.” For example, with more and more people taking their games with on mobile devices and more children playing games on tablets that engage multiple players across social networks, he believes that “the social aspect has changed video games from somebody playing alone in their room for hours to playing co-op in the living room or joining huge groups online.” Schofield notes that this is not only just a new market transformation that studios will follow; social gaming is allowing developers to “keep in touch with our fans and hearing what they like and what they don’t like” and that “games are better for it.”
In addition to these technological changes, Schofield sees the industry further embracing diversity. Not only does Sledgehammer Games have several lead positions filled by women, Schofield sees more women in the industry overall. When asked about this topic, he says, “I think more and more women are playing games these days, and we see more female candidates. The differing opinions, viewpoints and perspectives only make the games better. Diversity in every form is great for every industry.”
A Manager with the Heart of an Artist
Schofield still enjoys painting and drawing in his free time; stating that his “styles in painting and cartooning are quite different than my video game directions,” but that, as an artist, he likes the difference. “To have all these outlets keeps me sharp,” he says. “I get to hone my skills in so many ways every day.” And just like any professional artist – regardless of the medium – he strives for quality. As a game developer, Schofield feels that for high quality, “the bottom line is either get the right budget for the game you want to make or don’t do it. Quality is everything, and I found it important to find a company like Activision that believes in that philosophy as well. I haven’t had to compromise art for budget on my last few games. Yes, we have tight deadlines, but companies now realize that quality is king.”
Possessing a passion for art at a young age, Schofield was ambitious and fortunate enough to be able to develop his love of art into a career. Transitioning from painting and drawing to digital mediums to now overseeing the complete production of bestselling videogames, Schofield’s career has taken him far from the classes of the Pratt Institute. Yet, his ceaseless appreciation and practice of traditional arts continue to guides his approach to the videogames he develops.
Penka Kouneva was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she began piano lessons at an early age, and wrote music for children’s theater as a teenager. In 1990, she arrived in the US to study composition at Duke University on a graduate fellowship. In 1999, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her career as a composer for film, and eventually expanded into video games. Kouneva has composed on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Gears of War 3 games, and has orchestrated for the Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean films, on Angels and Demons, and most recently, as a Lead orchestrator on Sony’s Elysium. Her game orchestration credits include World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Diablo III. Last year, Penka released an artist album with orchestral music titled A Warrior’s Odyssey available on iTunes and Amazon.com.
Nicholas Yanes: According to IMDB, you started working in the entertainment industry in 1999. What inspired you to want to pursue this career?
Penka Kouneva: I arrived in LA in 1999. I love collaborating with other creative artists, and have loved film since childhood. Scoring for media felt like the most natural vocation for me, since my music is evocative and dramatic. I was very passionate about becoming a film composer. I still am, but my heart these days is in games. I find game scoring to be more energizing and inspiring.
Lots of people want to have careers in entertainment, what do you think you did right to make it in your field? Did formal education help you?
Formal education is essential, in my opinion. I came to LA recommended very highly by my Duke mentors, and my first mentor in LA was the Emmy-winning TV composer Patrick Williams who is also a Duke alum. I connected with busy professionals right away. In 2000, I met my other most significant mentor, Bruce Fowler, Hans Zimmer’s orchestrator. It was not until 2004 that Bruce started giving me jobs. He also introduced me to Steve Jablonsky who later plugged me in on Transformers films and games, Gears of War 2 and 3 and on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, for which I composed 2 hours of game music.
As to what I did right…I have always been extremely passionate, devoted, hard-working and loyal to my clients. The hard work on a great variety of projects allowed me to develop great skills. I am also very proactive, stay in touch with my collaborators, foster new relationships. I am a good collaborator and try to be always positive and constructive, even in the heat of the battle.
To me, it seems that working as a composer on a film means creating an audio environment that adds to the narrative experience. What does being a composer mean to you?
My job is to support the vision of the game makers (or filmmakers) by creating an environment of music and sound to support the characters, emotions, genre and, most importantly, the story. I breathe life into the images and add emotional depth to the story. With my music, I make the audience or the gamers feel deeply, laugh, cry, connect with the film or game and remember viscerally the experience of watching or playing.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered while being a composer for a film? For instance, was there ever a time you felt that the music should be significantly different from what the director wanted?
“To understand the director’s vision and support their vision, it sometimes takes more than one conversation.”
I work hard to understand the director’s vision and support their vision. Sometimes it takes more than one conversation, especially if they are unsure, or willing to explore various ideas. Usually good, open communication solves all problems. Composers learn to ask insightful questions of their collaborators. I ask a lot of questions, take notes and then think about it.
Your LinkedIn profile states you worked on the 2002 videogame, Enter the Matrix. Why did you decide to begin working on videogames?
Actually, I became really passionate about games a bit later, with us getting a PS2, then PS3 and Xbox. The game narratives and visuals were stunning, the stories were engaging and the music was fantastic – inspired, ground-breaking and fun. The turning point for me was the BioShock games, Uncharted 2, and Gears of War 2. I decided to devote my full focus to games. I had never before felt so energized and inspired as I felt by these games. Enter the Matrix was a very complicated job, and my task was to support the composers on it. I didn’t play it until later.
Most people simply watch a movie from start to finish, but with videogames, there is the expectation that players will fail a level at first and have to replay a section of the game multiple times. Does this affect how you approach composing for videogames?
Yes, it very much affects the interactive (dynamic) design of the music. The score has many elements (Drums, low strings, melodies, embellishments) and each layer is combined with various elements on consecutive plays, so that there is some difference and it’s not totally repetitive. I remember once playing Modern Warfare 2 and got stuck on a level for 2 weeks, and the same music kept playing over and over again.
I can’t imagine composing music for a film and not watching the movie. How many times do you play a videogame in order to get sense of how the music should be developed?
Usually I receive concept art, characters, some early prototypes (stick figures and grey blobby 2D figures, with no color, no movement). On GOW3, we did receive animation (for the cinematics) but no one moved their hands or feet, they were just floating. I can imagine quite well how the animation would look in its final rendition. I also love art, architecture and design, so I am very visually oriented composer.
I’ve never felt inhibited by lack of moving picture. Usually the music is implemented before the game is playable, so I get “level walkthroughs” but never play the game myself while composing. My composing process is all based upon a combination of images, prototypes, written briefs about the story, and conversations about concepts, style, tone and ideas with my collaborators.
On this note, what are some differences between composing for videogames and for movies? In your experience, do the industrial differences between games and movies impact your work?
The similarities are being able to write great themes, to support characters and genre, and to create a sonic imprint for the world of the game or film. This is where the similarities end. While in film, all the music is composed to picture, in games, only the cinematics are composed to picture. The rest of the score is based on the concepts and function of the music. The score is delivered with a high degree of technical rigor – in stems, in 2 or 3-minute loops, in stingers, themes, variations. We receive incredibly detailed audio briefs that list 100’s of bits and pieces of music that are needed by the game. Then we have to deliver with utmost technical precision.
While I’m sure you’re proud of all your work, have there been some games that have stood out the most to you?
Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands (PS3, Xbox, PC) was my break-through job and my most cherished experience, because I was able to combine my Bulgarian background and deep knowledge of Eastern music with knowing the epic Hollywood sound. I also loved composing on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a few big battle pieces and right now, I love the iOS games I am scoring (one Medieval and another exploration game).
There have been several debates about if videogames are becoming too cinematic. However, these discussions are usually about a game’s visuals. Why do you think gamers are more willingly to accept movie quality sound effects, but struggle with movie-like scenes?
In my opinion, some games benefit from being more cinematic (most console games like Uncharted, which is a very cinematic game). On another hand, other games have absolutely no need to be cinematic (e.g., platformers, experimental games). Probably gamers want to feel that gameplay is distinctive and different than sitting on your sofa watching a movie. I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.
“I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.”
With more and more games being developed for cell phones and other mobile devices that lack the sound systems found in theaters or houses, how do you think sound develop for games will be affected?
Well, most iOS games have slightly less elaborate and complex scores anyway. I think the quality of earphones is pretty advanced. We are all required to submit stereo mixes for iOS games, not super-complicated stems as for console games which are mixed in “surround sound.”
Penka Kouneva is currently working on two iPhone games – Rollers of the Realm and Black Hole Explorer, via Indie Game Audio based in Toronto (and her collaborative partners) and another which she’ll announce when it’s released.
Jens Andersen is currently the creative director for Sony Online Entertainment’s DC Universe Online and has been in that role since the game’s inception. Andersen has over 14 years of game design experience and prior to working for SOE, he worked at Activision, Z-Axis, and Pandemic Studios. Some of the games he has worked on include Heavy Gear II, X-Men: The Official Game and titles from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, and there is no evidence connecting him to the local superhero, The Austin Avenger.
Gamesauce: You got a B.F.A. in Acting from Ithaca College in 1993, but by 1996, you had started work as a Game Designer for Activision. What inspired you to switch from acting to game design?
Jens Andersen: The fact that I was six-foot-eight, skinny, and unbelievable insecure about myself – oh, and I loved gaming. I should probably put some context to all of that: I went to school for acting because it was something I loved to do with the best of friends I grew up with in Westport. On day one, my professors told us something, “Unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else…you shouldn’t be here.” I didn’t really buy into that back then – I figured I would be the Neo in my little dream of becoming a Hollywood movie star. I wanted to be the lucky guy that brought some fantasy, Sci-Fi, or superhero character to life on the big screen.
But that was not meant to be. I was tall, skinny and utterly awkward when it came to meeting people. The odds were really against me, and faced with a life of waiting tables versus finding something else to pursue (that something that my professors were referring to) I decided to make a change in direction. I decided to pursue my passion for games, and indeed have come to discover what they were really talking about – I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.
What were some of the initial challenges you faced when you transitioned from acting to game development? Are there elements of your academic training that have helped you develop videogame concepts?
In hindsight, I made so many rookie mistakes. But that’s okay—that’s what rookies do, right? Once I found my footing, it was a matter of learning the process of making games. When you’re acting, everything is so transparent from one second to the next, almost everything you do from the moment you start has an audience. You are constantly in a fishbowl while you work. Games were different. I had to learn to be more autonomous about what I was creating, and pick my moments to share my work.
When I first started, I think I was overly dependent on my peers and leads. I had to get out of that really quickly. Once I did, everything I learned through years of live performance was really helpful to me. All of my performance training allowed me to fill some voids on a small team: when it came to story, voice direction, and in-game cinematic work, I stepped in to try and do those jobs. I was pretty green, so I had a lot of learning to do, but I at least understood how to create immersive, entertaining experiences.
One of your earliest jobs was as a Game Designer for Activision where you worked on several PC titles such as Battlezone, Heavy Gear II, and Star Trek: Armada. What were some of the challenges you encountered during this period?
My biggest problem was remembering to walk before I ran.
My biggest problem was remembering to walk before I ran. I was voracious when it came to taking on as much of the vision or direction of the games I worked on. In short, I was sticking my nose into everything, and I would get frustrated if one of my ideas wasn’t implemented. Everything was hyper important to me, no matter how small a detail. If it had to do with the user’s experience or the creative vision, I would pounce on it. Early on, I probably was overzealous, but I was just so passionate about what we were doing and I wanted to do more. I came from a world of auditions and constant critique, so I was very forward with my views about where things were going. It definitely got the attention of my leads – in a good way – but might have ruffled the feathers of some of my peers as I spread my wings in the nest.
Your LinkedIn profile states that you worked on a game called Aliens: Colonial Marines for Check Six Studios, but it was cancelled before release. While I imagine that most of what happened is confidential, could you discuss how this experience shaped your approach to both game development from a creative and business standpoint?
That was one of the games I learned the most on – most of it through mistakes. Once I was able to internalize the whole experience and look back on what I could have done differently to affect a better outcome, I really grew a lot. I was able to apply that knowledge to my next project. I also came to terms with the fact that there was actually nothing I could have done, as an individual, which would have changed that outcome. Even so, that experience was when I first realized that games were fun and entertaining, but it was a serious business with serious consequences.
We were sandwiched between two heavyweights – at least compared to us – and we got chewed up and spit out the other side.
Activision was so huge, it had such strength as an organization, it felt almost impenetrable, and I was insulated in a way. It certainly was a heavyweight when dealing with the business side of things, so I had very few worries in those early days. In contrast, by the end of my time at Check Six, we were working with three major publishers, two of them on Colonial Marines (Fox Interactive and EA Partners). We were sandwiched between two heavyweights – at least compared to us – and we got chewed up and spit out the other side.
An example was that Fox licensed us a mature title, but when EA Partners came on, their people wanted us to make it a teen-rated game. For example, they wanted us to remove Chestbursters from the game. Statements like, “Can’t you just have the victim face the other way, and not show it?” were common during meetings with our new publisher. These kinds of creative differences – how to handle the license – combined with financial leverage, made for a pretty calamitous end to the project. On the one hand, the concept for the game was way ahead of its time; I know it would have been really compelling on that front. On the other hand, I am not sure we had the right cards in our hand to make a truly great shooter. Either way, I’ll never know.
From 2001 to 2004, you worked at Pandemic on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Battlefront. Did you find any significant difference between working on a Star Wars game versus working on a Star Trek game? Did you find one franchise to have more creative freedom?
After A:CM was canceled, I was fortunate to fall in with some other colleagues from my Activision days. They brought me on as a cinematic designer for the Star Wars game they were trying to wrap up. I made over 80 cinematics for that game in just a few short months. I pushed that tool to its limit and really practiced my presentation skills as much as possible. While that was going on, I pitched the concept of Star Wars: Battlefront to my Director – one of my oldest friends in the industry. He and I worked on the concept, made the pitch, and the rest is history. I became the Lead Designer on Star Wars: Battlefront, perhaps one of the best games I’ve made to date next to DCUO. Yet, that did not earn me a de facto Lightsaber – robbery!
The creative freedom with any given license varies a lot between projects, based on the whims and fancies of said producers
As for my experiences with franchises-that-start-with-the-word-star, they were very different. But, before I get into that, I think it is important to note that dealing with big IPs like these really means you are dealing with a lot of individuals that represent the brand. You aren’t very often given direct, unfettered access to the source material itself. The individual producers on the publisher side that are the primary gatekeepers for the brand make a huge difference. So the creative freedom with any given license varies a lot between projects, based on the whims and fancies of said producers. That being said, working with Lucas Arts was more rigorous than working with Paramount. I think this has to do with the nature of each IP itself: Star Trek was created with an episodic format in mind, featuring a wide range of stories hidden away in remote corners of the galaxy, just waiting to be discovered. Star Wars was based on a singular story arc that had reverberations throughout an entire galaxy; it dominates the landscape of that universe. While individual, episodic stories have developed later, its roots are more or less defined by those early films, which were highly focused. In short, Star Trek by nature is more open to harebrained ideas for storytelling. Regardless, I enjoy creating under both circumstances. Limitations present challenges and overcoming them is very satisfying, but sometimes it’s fun to run wild with ideas. It’s good to have a balance over your career.
You were the Creative Director of X-Men: The Official Game, which functioned as a bridge between the movies X2: X-Men United and X-Men Last Stand, and was co-written by Zak Penn and Chris Claremont. What did you learn about game development from this project?
Wow, I have mixed feelings about that one. It was one of those projects that you’re proud of as a developer, because you knew what it took to even get it on the shelf, but from a player facing standpoint, you’re not so proud because it left some things on the table. We certainly did our best given the circumstances.
I would say the thing I took away from that development cycle was a lesson in the power of politics. The X-Men game was a victim of constantly changing goals and politics. Originally, it was going to be based on the comic books. Chris Claremont was hired to write; the team was building versions of the characters and environments based on the comic book portrayals and his story ideas. Then the company decided they wanted to tie it to the movie, so Zack Penn was also brought onboard because he was heading up the movie script – it was thought this would be the best way to try and get synched up with the movie. But this didn’t turn out to be true. The script was constantly changing and they kept it under wraps. I decided we needed to shift the story to be in-between the two films in the timeline, in order to move forward with confidence.
So, we switched boats midstream, but we didn’t alter anything about our schedule – which got even tighter due to the movie’s release date. On top of that, the company wanted to move toward a certain product cycle that maintained a larger number of titles under development. The studio began to expand rapidly. A large portion of developers joined from another prominent studio in the area. There was a huge culture clash as a result. Then there was a major management shift and the company’s strategy shifted again. That, coupled with the challenges I mentioned previously, caused politics to come out of the woodwork. The development of the title became really difficult. I’d like to say I learned how to be more adept at political maneuvering, but really I just learned how much I hate politics in the creative process.
DC Universe Online is your second game based on a comic book universe. In addition to being a comic book fan, what is it about the superhero genre that interests you?
I love how comics re-invent themselves; I love how they are serial in nature. There are so many characters and themes for everyone to relate to and enjoy. I also think it is a place to really push creative boundaries. And the speed at which you can generate the content (story and art) is astounding from a game developer’s standpoint – it’s so fast!
I also just love the art. Comic book artists are amazing. The ones that inspire me have the ability to capture the motion and emotion of a scene in a single frame – it’s a tremendous skill. There is a beautiful simplicity to it. There is a very limited amount of space and they have to accomplish a lot [illustrate the script] in a very limited area [number of pages]. The skill it takes to strip down an image to the most essential elements required to advance the action is something I respect. I try to think about that process when I go about scoping my designs. At a high level, I try to make sure there isn’t a lot of wasted movement or extraneous elements. I want to capture the core of the concept. Then it can be passed to the rest of the team to add in the necessary details to support it. In game development, this is super important because each added element, unlike a comic book panel, can create all kinds of complications in an interactive environment. Messaging and mechanics are critical; we have to take even more care with the details because they have consequences in game.
DC Universe Online features many of DC Comics’ most popular characters. Are there any less known characters that you’d like to introduce into the game?
Oh, heck yes! There are lots of characters I would like to see added to DC Universe Online. There are lots of characters already in the game I would like to see developed even more. We have several ongoing storylines featuring a large cast of characters. We’re going through them as fast as we can, all the while layering in new story hooks as we go, which we will build on later. It’s a weird adaptation of the Levitz Paradigm I suppose. Thankfully, we have years ahead of us to continue to explore the vast roster of characters DC has to offer. Eventually, we’ll be seeing the likes of Darkseid making appearances, I’m sure.
As a creative director, I’m a fairly mainstream guy though, and ultimately I think that’s what most people want in the game. If I were going to pick out some characters that are my top-choices for additions to DC Universe Online they would be Black Manta, Vixen, Plastic Man, and Atom. For me though, this is always less fanboy and more game developer. I can’t help but begin to spin the scenarios of what each character would bring to the game in the short and long term. Each of those characters offers some kind of hook for a new super power, location, or storyline for our players to enjoy. For example, Atom could bring the Palmerverse to the table. We could begin shrinking players down for microscopic adventures! So for me, these lists are always strategic and less personal.
DC Universe Online is driven by its own great story in which players are trained by establish characters to prepare for an invasion by Braniac. Given that DC has fantastic stories – such as Kingdom Come, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Sinestro Corps War, and more – are there any stories that you’d like to turn into a separate video game?
Yes, there are several. We make massively multiplayer games, so from that angle, a few ideas leap to mind: I would do a planned three-part trilogy of games based on the events from the onset of the Sinestro Corp War, through the horrific action of Blackest Night, and into the conclusion of Brightest Day. I think we could do an amazing job of putting players in the roles of Lanterns in one of the expanding corps, fighting alongside the great icons in the key moments of the story. Sure, we could throw in a legends mode like DCUO has, in which players step into the shoes of the main characters…why not? The second one would be based on the 52 mini-series. I think it would be pretty cool to recreate those events and put players on the frontline of some of those epic battles as the main DC characters.
I’ve noticed that you are not only active on Twitter, but you frequently answer questions about DCUO and help players troubleshot any problems they come across. What inspired you to want to actively communicate with and help fans?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Perhaps it was when we were doing fan events and going to cons to share the game with people. We did one right after launch, before we released Fight for the Light, and I still remember it. Interacting with the fans at these events, seeing how passionate they are about the game, their appreciation to be able to spend some face time with the developers, it touches you on a personal level.
The other part of it is being a good representative of the game to the players. This is essential, because it is a live product. It doesn’t release and get replaced by the next thing – it never stops, it’s always expanding. It is important for players in a game like this to know that you are accessible to them, because the decisions you make when adding to or changing aspects of the game affect them.
On the whole, this is a rewarding experience for all parties. But, like everything, it does come with a price. Individuals don’t always like what we do, they never agree entirely with each other either, and they are a few key presses away from letting you know just how they feel about anything and everything. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, even crosses a line, and people lose perspective and it becomes hurtful. But in the end, the benefits it provides the players who do appreciate it, and treat you respectfully, make that sacrifice well worth it.
Though you’ve been in the gaming industry for two decades, do you have any interest in returning to the world of acting? Additionally, given that you are a comic book fan and that you get to work with iconic superheroes, would you ever want to write a comic book?
Wow, now I feel old. I don’t think a return to the acting field is in the cards. I’m still tall, and thanks to that time in game development, I’m no longer skinny. There are people more dedicated to the craft of acting than I am. I have found the perfect outlet for my creative talents in game development, and I look forward to continuing it as long as I can. I have been able to scratch the acting itch a bit over the years though. I have been fortunate enough to voice many characters in the games I have worked on. So I guess that college education paid off after all, Mom!
I would love to write something. I’m very interested in creating new and exciting worlds for people to enjoy no matter what the medium. Game development takes a long time, and the teams have gotten huge. The idea of creating something from start to finish by myself is an exciting challenge. I began dabbling with writing a graphic novel just to give it a try. It’s a very different creative muscle to flex. When they say a picture paints a thousand words, imagine how many a few moments of gameplay could generate. So I’ve been heavily relying on the sights and sounds my medium provides. It’s like starting all over again when you try and make the switch to prose. Things that would come naturally to me with games were taking more effort to get right with my script. I’m trying to understand the construction, how to make people turn the page, when and where to surprise them. I have a love-hate relationship with my effort so far. I keep putting it down and then picking it up when I get to come up for air. Sadly, I am really good at holding my breath.
Looking back at your career in the videogame industry, what things have you learned that you think younger people entering this field should know?
Things have changed a great deal since I got into the industry. I would urge them to take on as much as they can, but to do so humbly. It is important to be ambitious, but it has to be tempered with patience. I would encourage them to understand the process of making games, understand the rules. Then you can learn that every rule has an exception. Based on the goals you and your team have for the product, you’ll be able to understand how to apply those rules and when to break them.
It’s all about what you are trying to accomplish. Never lose sight of what is happening in the other creative mediums either, or the world around you. I call it loading the creative gun. Read, watch, and listen to a lot of different things – don’t just play games. You have to draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of sources and then bring them to your games. Make sure to keep broadening your horizons each and every day.
In a world filled with boring educational games that are only purchased by grandparents, Allisyn Levy is part of a company that is creating games that are not only educational, but are also entertaining. Levy received her Bachelors of Elementary Education, Art, and Art History from Skidmore College, and earned a Masters of Education in School Administration and Technology from Western Washington University. This published scholar has coached a Lego Robotics team, developed documentaries with students, was an elementary educator for 11 years, and has received grants from Donors Choose and Nike. Now as BrainPOP’s Senior Director of Educator Experience, Levy is using her extensive background in education to help teachers better integrate technology into the classroom. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Levy about her thoughts on using video games in education, BrainPOP’s background and goals, and its latest feature, GameUp.
What is BrainPOP?
BrainPOP was founded by Avraham Kadar, M.D. in 1999. As an immunologist and pediatrician, Dr. Kadar struggled to explain difficult medical concepts to his young patients. Dr. Kadar, according to Levy, “found that animation could be helpful in understanding difficult concepts.” It was this realization that inspired Kadar to create BrainPOP. Since its founding, BrainPOP has created animations, games, mobile apps, experiments and several other types of activities designed to assist educators and engage students across multiple subjects.
According to Levy, Dr. Kadar “found that animation could be helpful in understanding difficult concepts.”
Levy notes that, while the company started off as an informal learning resource, through careful research and curriculum development, Kadar and his colleagues ended up ﬁlling an unmet teacher need. BrainPOP now has over 11 million monthly visitors, is used in 20 percent of US schools, and continues to grow rapidly. BrainPOP now has a professional community of over 200,000 members, and its critically lauded apps have been downloaded more than 1.5 million times.
Education <3 Videogames
For BrainPOP (and similar companies), its greatest uphill battle and contribution to the videogame industry and culture is showing that digital games can be educational. Like many educators, Levy has known that traditional games are quite effective for getting children active in their education. Levy herself said, “As a classroom teacher for 11 years, I’ve always integrated games into my classroom. I knew I could count on ‘Heads Up, Seven Up’ to motivate my students to get cleaned up at the end of the day; my weekly Scrabble club pulled students of all abilities together and increased our enjoyment of spelling and language.” Despite skepticism that might exist towards the use of videogames in the classroom, Levy has found that videogames are an invaluable classroom tool. “I had a small arsenal of digital games that increased student engagement,” and according to Levy, videogames “brought even my shyest students out of their shells, and provided opportunities for students to collaborate, problem solve, fail in a safe environment, and succeed.” According to Levy, videogames are excellent educational tools because “good games are memorable, and they’re where kids are spending their time by choice. So if we meet them there, games can provide goals and motivation, encourage participation, strengthen critical and systems thinking, pose adaptive challenges, and spark inquiry. They offer opportunities to employ just-in-time knowledge, where students mustfind information and apply it right then and there in context, instead of learning cold facts that they may or may not need down the line.”
“[Videogames] brought even my shyest students out of their shells, and provided opportunites for students to collaborate, problem solve, fail in a safe environment, and succeed.”
When summarizing her experiences and knowledge of using videogames to educate, it is clear that for Levy, there is no doubt that digital games belong in the classroom, “In short, games fit into the mix of learning environments I tried to create for my students that had the most positive, lasting impact. I saw it worked, and I took advantage.” However, it is important to note that not all games are equally educational. For Levy, educational videogames “should offer multiple opportunities for experimenting with strategies, applying and observing the consequences, and trying again to master a goal in a risk-free environment.”
Based on her years of experience, Levy claims that games that can enhance the educational experience “should provide ongoing feedback, and students should learn through failure, which is often not the case with traditional school experiences where standardized tests are emphasized.” Additionally, “good games should spark students’ interests and encourage collaboration among players. They should allow students to step into someone else’s shoes, make choices playing that role and experience the consequences of those actions.” The final attribute a game should have to truly lend itself well to the learning process in Levy’s eyes is that “good games should be recursive; offering new experiences and learning opportunities the more they’re played.” Overall, videogames lend themselves to learning because they provide an environment filled with instant feedback that allows students to learn from their mistakes; an environment that can also be typically altered to provide varied experiences, allowing students to approach similar problems with dissimilar methods.
BrainPOP’s Future: GameUp
One of the obstacles that educators encounter when attempting to bring technology into the classroom is the cost of these items. Fortunately, as Levy points out, “there are plenty of free, quality games that tie into curriculum and align to academic standards available.” And a new source of free games that is designed to be used in the classroom is BrainPOP’s latest feature, GameUp. GameUp is a collection of online games from leading game creators designed to contribute to the educational experience, and it has become so popular that, according to Levy, the past year saw “over 900,000 hours of game play!” The diversity of games that GameUp provides access to is staggering. If you want a game dealing with the government’s budget, you can access Budget Hero; if you are teaching a unit on body systems, your students can play Guts & Bolts. In other words, if you are teaching it, GameUp most likely has games that touch upon that subject.
BrainPOP has also developed a “mixer tool in beta that allows teachers to create and share their own BrainPOP-style quizzes and design their own custom assessments.” This mixer tool not only allows instructors to share what has or hasn’t worked for them, it allows teachers new to this technology the comfort of knowing that they don’t have to invent an entirely new curriculum, but instead can ease into this type of teaching by building upon the groundwork others have already developed. It’s important to remember that no technology is a magic wand for teaching, because no matter what tools you have at your disposal, as Levy makes clear, “it really comes down to using it in meaningful ways – otherwise, it doesn’t matter what technology you’ve got!” So it’s important to look at BrainPOP’s products and other educational videogames not as replacements for a teacher, but as fantastic tools to help bring education into the 21st century.
Free-to-play (F2P) games are quickly becoming a significant portion of the videogame industry. Though people outside of the gaming industry would be surprised by a business model that gives away products for free, F2Ps have become a fantastic and financially successful way to build a brand, generate advertising revenue, and get people so interested in a virtual world that they pay for digital items to enhance their in-gaming experience. One individual who has a thriving career in the field of F2P is David Edery, Co-Founder and CEO of Spry Fox. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Edery about his background, his love for gaming, what inspired him to help build Spry Fox, and his thoughts on F2P’s future.
Edery received his BA in English and American Literature from Brandeis University in 1999. Like many of us who selected a Humanities major, Edery quickly realized that “an English major isn’t particularly useful during a job search.” Fortunately, Edery taught himself web-based software development. This knowledge allowed him to take advantage of the dotcom bubble and begin building a career for himself. “Fortunately, the dot-com boom turned anyone with half a brain and knowledge of HTML into a viable candidate for an engineering job… myself included.”
In addition to Edery earning an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, he “spent some time working at Microsoft (as portfolio manager of Xbox LIVE Arcade) and some time as a consultant to various game developers before co-founding Spry Fox.” Prior to Spry Fox, he also founded Literal Technology in 2000, a small IT software development firm; started writing Game Tycoon, a blog about the videogame business; and co-authored Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Future of Business. He is also a former board member of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).
Reflecting upon his time prior to Spry Fox’s founding, Edery says, “Those experiences were invaluable because they gave me a safe vantage point from which to observe the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful game developers. And of course, I learned how publishers and platforms tend to think, and how they can make or break a developer under a given set of circumstances. I think it’s fair to say that you’ll never think about game development the same way once you’ve worked for a platform like Xbox LIVE.”
Founding Spry Fox
With years of experience and a desire to approach games in a new manner, Edery and Daniel Cook decided to co-found Spry Fox, the company’s slogan being “making happiness.” As Edery says, “Our desires were simple: we craved independence and the freedom to experiment, and we wanted to create original games that made people happier (and ideally, better off in their lives somehow.)”
“Everything about the company was geared towards enabling us to experiment as much as possible, as cheaply as possible.”
Knowing that a crucial factor to Spry Fox’s success would be its finances, Edery and Cook decided to be as frugal as possible. As Edery states, “We bootstrapped the company because we didn’t want to answer to anyone, including investors. We created joint ventures with other indie developers to keep our staffing and overhead costs low. Everything about the company was geared towards enabling us to experiment as much as possible, as cheaply as possible. We didn’t want to be yet another idealistic indie that invests all its eggs in a single, overly-ambitious game and then fails if anything goes wrong.”
Edery and Cook were clearly right because in a short period of time they produced multi-million player hits like Bunni and <em>Steambirds, and other popular games like Realm of the Mad God and Triple Town. Spry Fox’s success also led it to being the first independent developer to publish for the Amazon’s Kindle platform – the first game being Triple Town, followed by Panda Poet. When asked why F2P games like Spry Fox’s have done well, Edery stated: “There’s been significant cannibalization of time spent playing games on the PC and on consoles, but frankly, none of that matters to me because we’ve always been focused on F2P games on the web and mobile, and you can still reach *massive* audiences on the web. Only now are big game developers starting to figure that out. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in five years from now, Kongregate and Armor Games were considered as important a source of revenue to many developers as Steam or Xbox LIVE.”
Edery’s is mindful that Spry Fox’s success might inspire others to pursue a similar path, and was willing to share some great words of wisdom. For instance, Edery has observed that a common mistake among F2P game developers is “assuming that some other popular F2P game is highly profitable when it may or may not be, and basing their entire commercialization plan on that faulty assumption. Never assume that just because something is popular, it must be making money.”
“Stop treating 90 percent of your users as ‘pirates’ and start treating them as ‘fans and potential references.’”
Edery also made it clear that new developers need to carefully design a monetization model based on what they want to make. “If you’re passionate about single player games and don’t have $1 million or more to invest in development, 99 cent games for mobile might be your best choice. On the other hand, if you’re prepared to make a good multiplayer/social game and to bring it to as many platforms as possible (web, mobile, Steam, etc) I’m very much of the belief that F2P is the way to go. Do it right, and you’ve created something that can sustain you and grow for years to come.” Additionally, Edery believes that new developers have to “stop treating 90 percent of your users as ‘pirates’ and start treating them as ‘fans and potential references.’”
The Future of F2P and Spry Fox
When thinking about the future of F2P gaming, Edery predicts that large companies will continue to put most of their effort into mimicking the most visibly successful F2P games on the market. “Most companies will continue to copy the same few proven designs and business models and compete on polish and marketing dollars,” says Edery. “It will become increasingly difficult and expensive and you’ll see some very high profile flameouts.”
Edery does believe that F2P market will remain the place for original and imaginative approaches to gaming to be developed, “at the same time, original content will finally start to make its mark on the F2P market. More and more indies will get over their aversion to the model and figure out how to make it work for them and for their players. It will be good.”
In regards to Spry Fox’s future, Edery’s plans are simple, “Make more games. 🙂 We should be launching at least three before the end of this year! All multiplayer, all F2P, and all original.” And given Spry Fox’s track record, they’ll most likely all be success stories.
What most Americans know about Russia and Eastern Europe is typically what they see in James Bond and other “cold war” movies. This means that the average American is not only unaware of the area’s rich cultural traditions, but also the rapid rise of social gaming taking place. With a potential user base of hundreds of millions, it is a potential goldmine for anyone who successfully taps into this marketplace. Odnoklassniki, with Edgars Strods at the head of its games department, have made major strides toward becoming the major player in the area’s social gaming marketplace.
To learn more about Strods’ background and work, we recently had the opportunity to talk to him about Odnoklassniki, the continuing development of the social gaming market in Russia and Eastern Europe, and his love for gaming.
Founded in 2006, Odnoklassniki became part of the Mail.ru group in 2008 and has quickly become one of the most significant global players in social networking. This success is made more impressive by the fact that Odnoklassniki have more than 30 million active users every day.
As the company’s Head of Games, Edgars Strods is one of the hardworking team of people helping to keep Odnoklassniki users coming back for more. If you were to ask Strods about gaming, he’d come off as just another diehard fan of the medium. For example, when asked what his favorite game was, he immediately answered with “Final Fantasy 7. One of the greatest games in the history of gaming, with fantastic plot and [the] best RPG I have ever played. And don’t forget about the cool mix of magic, fantasy and some creative robot monsters!” But Strods isn’t just another gamer in love with every social game on Earth—he is one of the many people at Odnoklassniki “trying hard to be the best social network in Eastern Europe and Russia.”
Social Gaming and the Eastern European/Russian Markets
“[As] mobile is still coming to Russia, social game developers have a great opportunity ahead of them for their business.”
For Strods, a key element in Odnoklassniki’s gaming success has been not only understanding the average Eastern European/Russian gamer, but keeping an eye on new and emerging gaming demographics. For instance, he acknowledges that “gamers are playing more hardcore games than farms” and for him, the average hardcore gamer thinks, “Match-3 is too small, give me Match-7!” But Strods is also aware that, as social networking has become bigger, “30-40 [year-old] women have also entered the market, playing farms and virtual city builders.” Because of these two distinct market groups, he sees that the “market is growing” and, since these regions are becoming digitally connected at an increasingly rapid rate, there is significant room for growth over the next 5 – 10 years. As Strods points out, “[As] mobile is still coming to Russia, social game developers have a great opportunity ahead of them for their business.”
On Making a Great Game and the Future of Odnoklassniki
Though the social market in Eastern Europe and Russia is still developing, Strods is laser-focused on making Odnoklassniki the dominant player. One way he plans to do this is to ensure all of his games have these three traits: “quality, retention, and constant updates.” For Strods, any game worth producing must attract and retain players and feature frequent updates to keep players from getting bored. “FarmVille,” he says, “is a great example of how social games can survive, update and change themselves in this extremely dynamic market.”
It is this type of ambition and clarity of focus that has helped Strods to guide Odnoklassniki to become the success that it is. His commitment to standards he sees as key to ensuring a profitable future for Odnoklassniki, “Our strategic goal remains the same – to give people in the region the best possible platform for communication and entertainment. And I am fully confident that we will succeed.” What fills Strods’ words with such certainty is not that he’s a smart businessman, but that he will continue to enjoy gaming just as much as Odnoklassniki’s growing community of users.