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Studio Spotlight

Cryptic Studios – The Improbable Journey of Heroes

August 22, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Like most game companies, Cryptic Studios began as an idea. Ever imagined an MMORPG built around a world of superheroes? Rick Dakan imagined just such a thing. He played and admired Everquest, but dreamed of something different, something outside the realm of fantasy. In short, Rick had what might be called a vision. But he didn’t have the means to bring it to life. So he approached Michael Lewis, an old high school buddy, with the idea, and Michael ponied up the initial start-up cash. We call that kind of capital angel-money and like the biblical archangel from the Book of Daniel, Michael delivered. He not only provided the early cash, he recruited Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Cameron Petty, Matt Harvey and Bruce Rogers – three Atari veterans with some serious production chops – to come on board. Boom. Just like that, Cryptic Studios was born.

City of Heroes
Rick Dakan’s inspiration for a super-hero themed MMORPG became City of Heroes.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple or that easy. We all know that the road that begins with “What if?” often ends in “WTF?”. But Rick Dakan’s inspiration for a super-hero themed MMORPG became City of Heroes, a brilliant idea that did lead to a watershed game. However, between his early musings and the final product was a lot of pain, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of hard work. The founders pitched the game everywhere, but it was not an easy sell. Eventually they signed with NCSoft, home of the legendary Garriot brothers, who had the background to help shepherd such an ambitious project through to completion. But even under the care and guidance of NCSoft, the road was still rocky. Several months into development, City of Heroes was entirely scrapped and rewritten from the ground up. Two of the original founders left and things were looking grim.

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Building a great game and keeping a studio going through the hard times is a Herculean effort.

Building a great game and keeping a studio going through the hard times is a Herculean effort beset with pitfalls, nasty surprises and tough choices. But greatness is born of adversity and Cryptic rallied. Michael Lewis, the angel investor who was so instrumental in Cryptic’s formation, stepped in as CEO. The company scaled from a dozen employees to several dozen, and City of Heroes launched to overwhelming critical and financial success. So much so that a year later, they quickly followed it up with City of Villains, a bookend product launched with much fanfare and also to great success. If you think that all would be lollipops and unicorns for Cryptic at this point, then you haven’t  spent much time in the trenches of the game business.

On the heels of the wildly popular superhero-based MMOs, Cryptic partnered with Microsoft to create Marvel Universe Online. This was a dream project for Cryptic. On paper, it was a match made in Heaven, the perfect marriage of a world class IP with a proven technology and production pipeline. But after more than a year working on MUO, Microsoft inexplicably killed the game. Cryptic was emotionally crushed. But like true heroes themselves, they rallied once again. They took Microsoft’s lemons and eventually turned them into a fine sorbet with Champions Online for PC. But hold on, not so fast.

Cryptic needed capital to fund the publishing of Champions and to develop Star Trek Online, a license they acquired from a then ailing Perpetual Entertainment. Next, they hired industry vet John Needham as CEO to help raise funds. But it was hard going. They wound up having to sell City of Heroes back to NCSoft, yet that wasn’t nearly enough to fund both Star Trek and Champions. That’s when the poop really hit the fan. There was that minor inconvenience of the financial meltdown in 2008, when Silicon Valley became Death Valley overnight in terms of investment dollars. There was nothing cryptic about it, Cryptic had to sell their shirts in order to survive.

Star Trek Online
They wound up having to sell City of Heroes back to NCSoft, yet that wasn’t nearly enough to fund both Star Trek and Champions.

After being courted by many potential suitors, Cryptic agreed to be acquired by Atari, who was looking to pivot into an all-digital future. Champions Online launched in October 2009, under this venerable old-school gaming brand. But the game didn’t perform as hoped. At this time, the industry was making a subtle, but steady shift from subscriptions to micro-transactions. The things that worked for City of Heroes and City of Villains simply didn’t work anymore. They launched Star Trek Online six months later and had a great deal more success. Then they flipped the switch and turned Champions into a F2P game. Then they got bought. Again. Perfect World, a publicly traded Chinese publisher of F2P MMORPG’s, acquired Cryptic from Atari in 2011.

Under the guidance of Perfect World, Cryptic turned Star Trek Online into a F2P game and expanded the universe, making it bigger than City of Heroes. Their latest MMORPG, Neverwinter, is a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired universe that just entered open beta. It’s already bigger than all of Cryptic’s previous games combined, and word is it’s their best, most advanced game to date. Cryptic credits Perfect World with giving them the freedom and the guidance to make what they see is their best game ever. In fact, they have been generous in their praise of NCSoft and Atari too, giving each credit for helping Cryptic to grow and evolve during crucial periods of their history.

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Neverwinter is already bigger than all of Cryptic’s previous games combined, and word is it’s their best, most advanced game to date.

Cryptic Studios is a well-seasoned survivor in a landscape dotted with the corpses of many also-rans. Through various phases of their growth, they’ve somehow managed to bend and adjust as market conditions changed, and what’s truly amazing is that they’ve always put out quality product. They are the poster-child for adaptation and resourcefulness, and a true inspiration to anybody who has a wild idea about making a great game. I’ve heard it said that ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. The real value is in a team. It’s the will and know-how to get an idea made that matters most. Nothing cryptic about that. But the rubber does not often meet the road, and many small studios skid off into trees. Not Cryptic. They’re still driving above the speed limit.

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Big Fish’s Sean Clark on Point-and-Click Adventure Games’ Rebirth and Showing Passion for Your Work

May 9, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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Sean Clark has worn many hats during his time in the games industry. From designer to studio director and everything in between, Sean’s passion never seems to run out. He worked at Playdom, Electronic Arts, and LucasArts before settling as Director of Content Production at Big Fish Games. He enjoys everything he does in games, but what is most important to him is the fun of building entertainment experiences. “I get a rush from being a part of something coming together through a creative and collaborative effort, and I still get that rush working on great games at Big Fish,” he says. We were able to catch up with him to discuss his view on creating and producing games.

For the Love of Games

Growing up playing Pong and Atari games on the old family TV, Sean learned to love games early in life. When Atari released a Basic Programming cartridge, he immediately began learning the language and realized that programming consisted of a series of logical instructions. He discovered that building games could be an actual job.

Still, he did not plan for a career in the games industry. He graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Computer Science knowing he liked building things in software, especially games. LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts) happened to be hiring junior level programmers at that time. Up to this point, Sean had only created games as a hobby, but this sounded like the perfect opportunity for him. He was right: it turned out to be a great time to join the company.

Sean Clark at LucasArts
Sean Clark at LucasArts

All of a sudden, he was working with a group of people just as passionate about games as he was; real artists, musicians, programmers– talented professionals who could bring unique creative elements to the product. “It was a blast!” Sean says. “It was also an experience that has helped me through my whole career, right up to today as 3rd-party Director at Big Fish, working to bring fun game content to the company.” In all the roles he’s done, he’s always shown his love of games. He looks for the same passion and excitement for a game from developers, both internally and externally.

Point and Click Adventure Games Anyone?

Having been involved in multiple projects in a variety of roles, Sean has a soft spot for point-and-click adventure games. While at LucasArts, Sean helped develop The Secret of Monkey Island in 1990, a popular point-and-click adventure. It was a great experience, but problems always arise, and the solutions were often unique. Sean learned a lot about problem solving and creatively mitigating issues during this project.

“I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.”

However, point-and click adventure games started to slip into the background. In an interview with adventuregamers.com, Sean stated that the popularity of point-and-click adventure games would return. When we asked why he thought they had fallen to the background in the first place, his answer was emphatic. “I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.” While 3D opened new areas of design, it also started a graphics arms race. Everyone focused on 3D graphics, with a game like The Dig being compared to Dark Force or TIE Fighter. But eventually, people realized that adventure games were a different genre to other games, like first person shooters.

He points out that in 2002, Big Fish took advantage of the 3D distraction and built a successful business recognizing and catering to the adventure gamer audience. Even Escape from Monkey Island still managed to do well in the “Adventure Games are Dead” era. Although there are not many classic 3rd person point-and-click adventure games coming to market, there is the very successful line of Hidden Puzzle Adventure Games that Big Fish is so well known for. These, Sean asserts, are a modern version of adventure game storytelling, similar to those he started his career with.

Another reason adventure games seemed to go dormant was the fact that retail space is both limited and competitive. Because attention was so focused on 3D games, it was challenging to interest retail chain buyers in adventure games. The big factor in changing the situation was the internet. Brick and mortar stores were no longer the only way to purchase games. Sean attributes Big Fish’s success largely to its creation of an online place to find and purchase great casual content, including adventure games.

Adventure Game Evolution

This new cycle of adventure games has evolved, bringing lower-priced games, which are also shorter in length, and tend to tell stories in chapters or episodes. According to Sean, these new games are still high-quality, well-polished games with great artwork, and compelling stories, although the format is different.

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Big Fish created a new format for adventure games, brought them to new audiences, and gave consumers a way to try the game before committing to a purchase.

Sean believes Big Fish has been instrumental in bringing more attention to adventure games in a number of ways. They created a new format for adventure games, brought them to new audiences, and gave consumers a way to try the game before committing to a purchase. They figured out how to make adventure games easier to find and consume, at a time when retailers had all but abandoned support for the genre.

Sean is just as excited about the future as he is about the present. “We expect 2013 to be a year of innovation in game, content, and delivery, with games on almost every device and in nearly all casual genres,” Sean says. “In March alone, Big Fish launched 2 highly acclaimed mobile games: Fetch for the iPad, an adventure about a boy on the search for his dog; and Match Up! By Big Fish, the first iOS game to have real-time, 16-bracketed tournament play. Add to that the world’s largest interactive streaming casual game service and continuing franchises like Mystery Case Files, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times, and you can see how there is something to excite all types of gamers.”

Sean reminds us that Big Fish is an incredibly talented and creative company, with exclusive partnerships with more than 140 developers all over the world. He expects Big Fish to continue bringing fun and innovation to the games industry.

Development

A chat with Krome Studios’ Steve Stamatiadis on pitching comic books, creating Blade Kitten and going downloadable

October 1, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Steve StamatiadisKrome Studios recently celebrated the release of their newest downloadable title Blade Kitten last week. Krome Studios’ Creative Director and creator of Blade Kitten Steve Stamatiadis took some time to talk to us about the challenges his team faced pitching the game to Atari, moving from a comic book concept to an actual game and tackling the competitive market of downloadable games.

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