After launching the great kid-friendly title Critter Round–Up on Nintendo's WiiWare service, Bryan Jury, cofounder of Epicenter Studios was gracious enough to speak with me about the studio, where it's been and where it's going.
Thanks for speaking with me, Bryan. What can you tell us about yourselves? Backgrounds, personal/professional?
Like most others in the industry, neither myself nor my partner Nathaniel McClure originally planned on making a career out of our passion for video games. I have a structural engineering degree and worked in that field for a few years before throwing away a respected, and nicely paid, career to be a QA tester at Activision. That was a rough financial transition, but there isn't a day that goes by when I regret anything about it. Nathaniel has an economics degree that he decided not to use in order to get involved in producing, writing and acting in films. We met in the Activision QA basement in 2002 and quickly worked our way up the ladder. Within 18 months or so, we were both integral parts of the production teams responsible for some of the biggest titles there. Between the two of us, we've worked on every single Call of Duty title as well as several licenses such as Spider-Man, Shrek and Star Trek.
How did Epicenter Studios come to be? What's your mission as a studio?
One of the great perks of working at a huge publisher like Activision is that you really get to see every part of the development process, stuff most people in the industry probably never get to see. Working alongside developers big and small, independent and internal, marketing, PR, licensors, legal, finance…you really get a great education of how this stuff works. But there's a certain point you reach where you want to do more, learn more, create more.
I ended up getting an opportunity to help start up a small development studio back in 2006. While things didn't really turn out all that great for many, many reasons, I have always felt you learn more from what went wrong rather than what went right. About the same time as we shipped our first game, Nathaniel, who was still at Activision, called me up. He was done with working 80+ hour weeks, busting his ass for someone else and wanted to know if I was interested in starting up our own studio. Of course I was interested, and when I mentioned the Wii firefighting idea I had been kicking around, we found a direction we knew would be successful. We formulated our business plan, called in a few favors that we built up over the years, and with a core team of 3 guys, created a playable 5-minute demo. We shopped it around and ended up getting a good amount of publisher interest.
In the meantime, the opportunity to do a WiiWare launch title with Konami appeared. Knowing we'd have a published game on the market in a matter of months, we started work on Critter Round-Up in November 2007 and wrapped it up three months later. In the meantime, we got a fantastic publishing deal for Real Heroes: Firefighter, which we are working on right now.
Our overall mission for Epicenter has been really simple. We want to make great games. We feel that in order to do this, we need to create a healthy, nurturing environment where the artists, designers and programmers all feel comfortable and valuable. It sounds cliché, but we really are creating a family here. There's no ego allowed, and even the most junior people know they are personally responsible for their tasks and can have input in just about any area. Everybody's voice is heard, and everyone has a financial stake in all our games. We have a lot of very, very talented people who could make a lot more money elsewhere, but they believe in what we're doing, and it's really been a fantastic first year for us.
The game (pictured above) is perfect for kids and has a definite arcade-throwback sort of feel to it. What's the story behind the making of Critter Round-Up, and how did you hook up with Konami?
Once we finished our Firefighter demo and were actively shopping it around, our agent asked us if we were interested in pitching some original ideas to Konami which, of course, we were! We put together a handful of ideas, picked the top 4 or 5 and sat down with some Konami producers. In the end, they really liked the idea for Critter Round-Up. The only catch was that they wanted a launch title for WiiWare, and back in November of 2007, we really didn't know when that was. We made the educated guess that WiiWare would launch in March, which gave us basically 3 months to get the game from concept to completion.
In order to do this, we ended up licensing our technology. We used the Vicious Engine since we had a good deal of experience with it on previous projects, and it enabled us to be up and running from the very first day. It also allowed us to ship a game with only part-time support from one programmer, which is something I never want to have to do again! Along with the schedule, the actual size of the game needed to be heavily managed due to the inherent storage space limitations of the Wii.
In the end, we were the only Western-developed launch title when WiiWare went live in Japan, and launched just a week after WiiWare came to America. Konami was a great partner to work with, and they really let us make the game we wanted to make.
Since Critter Round-Up was your first game as a studio, what was the process like both before and after the game became available? What has the feedback been like, what have you learned, and what (if anything) would you do differently?
That's a really good question. Due to our small size, we are able to have a very organic approach to our processes. It's something we've called Guerilla Development. Yeah, that's just a way of saying that we made up a lot of stuff as we go along. But really we made sure that everyone's voice was heard at all times.
One of the great things about using tech like Vicious is that it allows us to put together an element and test it out very quickly. So if our fresh-out-of-school animator had a cool idea, we'd be able to prototype it out pretty painlessly. To me, it's just all about finding the fun. Chase it around, hunt it down if you need to, but finding the fun should always be the main focus. Because of that, we often don't work from very specific design docs. We create the basic gameplay systems and the "big beats" that are key to the experience, but we fill in the blanks during development. With a small enough team size, this kind of flexibility is something we're taking full advantage of.
Critical feedback is often a bit frustrating. It's quite easy to be cynical when looking at a new game, especially if it isn't necessarily something you'd normally play. But overall we've been satisfied with most of the feedback we've gotten. We've received quite a few emails from people who really enjoyed the game with their families, and that means a lot to us to hear that kind of thing.
One thing I wish we had focused on more was the single player experience. Critter Round-Up is just more fun playing with other people, and I wish we had more time to push the single player stuff a bit. We also had a great multiplayer mode that didn't make it in due to time constraints. If only we had thought of it sooner… There were also a few factors that were completely out of our hands, such as pricing and market awareness, both of which we'd love to have changed. But in the end, considering the timeframe and budget we had to work with, I'm very proud with what we put out there.
Do you plan on staying with the download format for the time being, or do you have plans to go standard retail? What are you working on now, and what can you tell us about it?
We never set out to only do downloadable games; it was a great opportunity that presented itself at the right time. We do love the idea of these smaller games though…to be able to create a game on a small budget and timeframe and bring it to a worldwide console market is something that was impossible just a few years ago. It's a great option to have available, for sure.
The first-ever released image of Real Heroes: Firefighter, and you saw it here first.
Right now we've got most of the team working on our first retail game, which is our studio-owned IP, Real Heroes: Firefighter for the Wii. It's a first-person action game where we put the player into the boots of a rookie firefighter, fresh out of the academy.
After shooting Nazis for the thousandth time in Call of Duty, I find it very refreshing to take what we've learned from that series and create something where the player doesn't use violence to overcome their obstacles, while still retaining the high-action gameplay of the first person genre.
One of my biggest gripes about the Wii in general (we'll save the other dozen for another day) is games that abuse the Wii Remote's motion controls. Just because you can waggle doesn't mean you should. We're making sure that we use this functionality is ways that make sense. It's much more fulfilling and visceral to hack down a door with your axe by using the actual motion or adjust the hose nozzle spray by rotating the Wiimote left and right. And the stuff we're doing with our thinking fire system hasn't been done before. It understands where it is in the environment, and it's already a very cunning enemy. I know Alone in the Dark's fire is getting a lot of attention, and we're well on our way to surpassing it.
We're about a month away from our Alpha milestone, and I'm very happy with how development is coming along. We didn't set out to make a great Wii game. We're making a great game that happens to be on the Wii.
Yars' Revenge – Atari 2600
Not that it's necessarily related to anything in particular, but what are some of your favorite games and/or game creators? Any influences or inspirations?
This is such a loaded question to ask a guy who collects vintage game systems. Going back quite a ways, Yars' Revenge was probably the first game that really grabbed me as a kid, along with Adventure. I was the perfect age to graduate to the NES when it came out, and I would have to say Super Mario Bros. 3 was my favorite game for a long time. Then came a bit of a down time for me with games. I loved my Genesis, but going to college helped me find my next true love, which was Doom. I can't begin to count the number of hours I spent playing that game. Some friends and I used to take over a computer lab late at night and play multiplayer for hours. That game changed everything for me, and I don't think I'd be working in the industry if it weren't for Doom.
Ken Levine's System Shock 2 and Warren Spector's Deus Ex absolutely blew me away. They really pushed what you could do in the first person genre with regards to story and customizing your personal play experience. But to me, one of the greatest games of all time is Half-Life 2. As great as the original game was, and how influential it still is, Half-Life 2 took every one of those elements and mastered them. There are so many perfect pieces working together to create this amazing experience that it's often hard to notice that these systems are actually in place. I actually forced a couple of my programmers to go back and replay it before we started work on Firefighter. It also made me realize how much of a physics whore I was, which will be on display in Firefighter.
Zelda: Ocarina of Time proved to me that you could create a fully believable world in 3D and allow the player to do some extremely complex things. Silent Hill 2 had one of the most emotionally powerful stories I had ever experienced in a game, and I was surprised by how much the ending affected me. BioShock is a modern masterpiece. Sure it had some problems, but it was an absolutely fulfilling experience adventuring in Rapture. It's also impossible to ignore how brilliant Portal was.
Funny though, for the longest time I was mostly a PC gamer but now I find myself playing on consoles almost all the time. I'm sure I'm missing quite a few heavily influential titles as well, but I have a feeling I could go on forever here…
Games as art? Are they now? Will they ever be?
This has to be one of the greatest debatable questions in our industry, and I also think it's an absolutely important one. My short answer is no, with few exceptions, I do not believe gaming could be considered art at this time.
For me, art is something that brings forward emotions from within yourself. A Sigur Ros song does this. An Aronofsky film does this. A Whedon musical does this. Gears of War? Not so much.
Now, obviously this is completely subjective and everyone is affected by different things in different ways. And I'm not talking about that rush of adrenalin you feel as you capture the flag at the last second, or even the tinge of sadness you feel when a main character is killed off. I'm talking about the kinds of things that make you feel and think things, sometimes surprising things, while you're experiencing it. Thoughts that ring around in your head long after you've walked away.
With few exceptions, I just haven't experienced this with games. The ending to Silent Hill 2, your relationship with Alex in Half-Life 2 and its episodes, certain revelations in BioShock did this for me. But overall, it's a very short list.
I'd like to think that gaming is still in its infancy stage and will have a chance to grow. I just think there are a lot of factors against that happening. As an interactive medium, there's really nothing else that's comparable. Sports perhaps, and I think there's an argument to be made that some sports or sporting events can be considered art, but again, I'd like to think that gaming is deeper than just competition.
I do think the day will come where games as a medium can be considered art, but we're going to have to solve some pretty big issues before that happens. We need to find ways of financing games other than through the traditional publisher/developer relationship. He who controls the money controls the power, and all too often that power is tied up into market research whitewashing innovation or making copy-cat titles that chase the latest hot trend and not with the creators trying to put their ideas on the screen.
There is also a need for technology solutions that are affordable and scalable. There was this great sci-fi morality indie film out a few years ago called Primer that was created by a couple of amateurs for less than $10,000, and it's really fantastic. There's no legitimate comparables in the gaming market right now. Not only did they not have to reinvent the wheel, as camera equipment is fairly standardized, but it was self financed as well. Braid is probably the closest we've got right now, which is great, and I really hope it helps push a trend of personal projects getting created.I do believe we'll get there though. I think we have to.
Infinite thanks to Bryan Jury and all of Epicenter Studios for taking the time to talk with me, and all readers in the market for a kid-friendly WiiWare title should know that Critter Round-Up is kid-tested and parent approved.
Also, be on the lookout for Real Heroes: Firefighter coming to the Wii.
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