The Wind Up and the Pitch

The Wind Up and the Pitch in Game Development

Over the past 30 plus years as a game developer I’ve been to many product pitch sessions to publishers, dealing with early game concepts, full game designs, half-finished games to fully finished products.

During this time I’ve experienced my fair share of do’s and don’ts that I thought I would share.

Doing a product pitch to a game publisher is never easy, for no matter how many times you’ve done it in the past there is always that feeling of anxiety.

This anxiety can lead some to make some really foolish comments during a presentation, or even act out in way that will sabotage their efforts.

In one presentation where I was asked to sit in for a pitch to SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America), the owner of a developer I was working with was asked by a rep at Sony, “How did you come up with the name for your studio?”

A fairly simple question and one often asked by publishers as an opening to get the conversation rolling. But the answer he gave shock me, and it takes a lot to shock me after so many years in the field.

He said, “We were just throwing names around and this one came up. I’ve always hated it, but it stuck!”

I was saying to myself, Wow, Really! That’s your answer!

One of the most important decisions you can ever make in starting a new business, is coming up with the company’s name and what it stands for and what it means to you.

Well, that was just one of a list of forced errors made that day and I wasn’t surprised when Sony didn’t call back.

In another story, I was working for Namco as a product manager and as such was often asked to sit in on meetings to evaluate new products to publish.

In one such meeting we had a group of 3 guys come up from a development studio to pitch their new game product. The only problem was the Producer and Lead Designer couldn’t even agree during the meeting on what the game was about, and they actually started arguing with one another right in front of us.

In another meeting there with a different development team, the guys use of profanity throughout the whole presentation sunk their pitch.

And for my last pitch gone wrong stories, we had to show off a product to a publisher in San Francisco, but the owners of the studio thought it would be a good idea to bring a Play Tester with us to demo the game.

Now normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but unfortunately this particular Play Tester was so excited about showing off all of the ways he could crash the game, during our presentation.

In presenting your studio, products or game concept for review by a publisher or an investor it really comes down to preparation.

Make sure you’re ready to not only sell your product, but your studio and its staff.

Often when I’ve been asked to evaluate a developer for a publisher, I’m asked to evaluate the staff first.

This means digging through the initial sales pitch that developers will come up with, just to sell the publisher on them and get down to the facts.

Always remember these 3-Greats when it comes to game development:

1: Great Talent equals Great Games!

2: Great Games equals Great Studios!

3: Great Studios equals Great Publishers!

 

Any great game publisher will evaluate you and your company in this order, and you really need to approached each new pitch with is in mind.

 

So, here’s the Wind Up…

During the Wind Up phase to your pitch you want to make sure to create the following materials, for most publishers and or venture capital companies will want these.

1: Full bios on your development team and studio management staff.

Providing a full resume to a publisher is not only overkill it can also be unwise, for some publishers can use such information to recruit away your staff at a later date. So just focus on areas of their strengths that support the game development project your pitching.

2: A bio on your studio and or your development group and its past product successes.

While you might think this is a no-brainer to go into any product pitch meeting talking about only the positives aspects of your studio, some developers miss the small details that publishers won’t.

As an example, I was working with a game developer once whose studio portfolio document started off with a picture of the outside of the studio, which is not uncommon, but when it’s taken on a dark and cloudy day with an almost empty parking lot it becomes one.

As the old expression goes, never pass up the opportunity to make a great first impression.  So I don’t know about you, but a depressing picture of a studio with few people at work doesn’t exactly make me excited about working with them.

So always take a look at all of your presentation documents as if you’re on the other side of the table and look for anything that you might see as a red flag, if this developer was coming to you and not the other way around.

3: Draft a financial statement on your studio.

As an example, if you’re an established game developer then most of the times a publisher will want to know how stable financially you are.

Why?

Because historically game publishers who are funding the development of a game can be held hostage by a developer who is not financially stable, when they tell the publisher they can’t pay their staff during production.

This sometimes forces a publisher to infuse a studio with money, beyond their agreement or risk losing the capital investment that currently have in a game projects. So publishers really want to make sure that the studios they are dealing with are not holding lots of unsecured debit.

4: A financial forecast of the P&L (Profit and Loss) for your game.

When a game publisher and or investor finance a game development project they will always want to know when they will be paid back on their initial development cost and profits beyond the recoup.

In the world of game development, the developer doesn’t see a profit from his game until the development cost have been recouped by the publisher or investor, which can take some time, depending on the sales of your product. So, it’s important for you as the game developer to take this into consideration and plan accordingly to have another funded game project kicking off by the time your initial game project wraps up.

Often game developers will go out of business when they haven’t adhered to this overlapping planning process.

Pie in the Sky Phase of Design

Pie in the Sky Phase of Design

Just about every game designer in our industry has their own way of approaching the kick-off of a new game design, so I thought for this article I would take you through mine and explain why I’ve found it so valuable.

When someone comes to me with a new game concept to work on or it’s just one of my own crazy ideas, I like to start off with what I’ve come to call the Pie in the Sky Phase.

It’s a lite design phase in which I do lots of competitive product research across all of the relative platforms and markets, while at the same time I go totally nuts on drafting up as many cool ideas as I can for the product.

During the phase I take my grid paper and document out all of these ideas, in a shorthand form just to get all of the ideas out of my head and down on paper so I can explore the ideas more later.

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Yes, I know there are lots of you out there who will say, why not just write them down in a MS Word document or use Photoshop to make your diagrams.

Well, I have found that when designers turn to the computer during this brainstorming phase, they tend to spend too much time worrying over trivial issues, such as format, grammar or presentation.

None of this really matters during this early design phase.

The goal is to brainstorm up as many cool ideas as you can for your product as quickly as you can, and learn to remove from your mind any thoughts about art or programming issues that might or might not eventually stand in your way.

When the Wright Brothers thought about flying, their first thoughts weren’t on the mechanic difficulties of flight, it was on how exciting flying would be.

This is the mindset you need to have when approaching any new game design project.

Try to focus just on the “Is it Fun Factor!” during the process, for it’s your job to plan the future or road tip if you like and not to worry about the flat tires or fluctuating gas prices that might come along the way.

If you focus on the “What If” too early during your game design process then you’ll be holding back your best ideas and sabotaging your efforts moving forward.

So, in moving forward you will want to set aside some time to devote to this effort, without distractions if you can.

How much time will really depends on each person’s ability to brainstorm out ideas and if you want or need to include others during this process.

From my standpoint, if you’re assigned as the Lead Designer on a project or it’s your own game concept, then you and you alone should at least spearhead this first effort and only include others once you’re happy with the direction the ideas are going for your product.

Involving too many people too soon will only slow down the process, or worse, discourage you when others start picking apart your ideas, before you’ve even had a chance to explain how they fit into the full vision you have for the game.

Many of us whom have been in the industry long enough have heard of the dangers of “Design by Committee”, and it’s something you truly want to avoid.

Now, once you’re done with this phase you should have a bunch of notes that look something like these…

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These are just some of my many notes from the Pie in the Sky phase from Maximo Ghost to Glory by Capcom, and you can see more of them by clicking (Here!)

These notes would go on to make up the starting point for the final game design processes, but first I would have to take each of these ideas through a qualifying process next.

If it helps, think of the process like this diagram…

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You’ve just finish your Pie in the Sky process and have lots of ideas for your game. Some of them may be good, some bad and some totally strange, it really doesn’t matter, yet!

Your next job during the qualifying process is to just take each of these ideas through a qualifying process, just to figure out if you want each going on to the next phase of your design process.

How do you qualify a game design idea to see if it should move forward?

1: Ask yourself first off, how unique is this game play idea?
It’s vitally important to establish a baseline of game play ideas that you feel will set your product apart from the competition.  This is more commonly referred to as the Killer-App’s, and if you haven’t defined any of these during your Pie in the Sky phase then it’s important to return to your brainstorming phase to come up with some.

Every successful game has one of these and the more of them you have the better chance your game has to be totally successful.

2: Is this type of game play mechanic expected in the game genera your work in?
You will find that there is specific game play mechanics that have woven themselves into many different game genera’s that you’ll be designing games for.

Departing from these norms can lead your product off into uncharted territories which can spell disaster for your game, so be careful in trying to recreate the wheel within an a well establish game genera.

3: Does this idea fit the play style you want to establish for this product?
Just because it’s a cool idea, doesn’t mean that it will fit in well with your overall vision for the game.

4: Is this idea providing a good bang for your buck?
You really don’t want to spend a great deal of time developing a game play mechanic that isn’t going to bring a large return to the player in fun.

5: Is this a practical idea?
The one thing that kills game developers and it’s a lesson I learned to hard way when I was developing my own games back in the 1980’s is, designing game play mechanics that are beyond the skill set of your team.

Yes, it may be the best idea in the world, but if your artist can’t create the assets for it and or your programming staff can’t code it, then you’re lost.  You also don’t want to grind your production to a halt because they can’t figure it out.

As an example, when I started the game play design for Abes Oddysee, I knew that the owners of Oddworld Inhabitants really wanted to do an awesome looking 3D game, but with no qualified 3D programmers around and none coming in, I just had to explore other options to pull off the illusion of a 3D game.

When faced with this situation you also only have a limited number of choices, these being to either hire someone qualified, modify the idea to fit the skills of your current staff or drop the idea.

Now these are just 5 of the basic qualifying steps you can use during this phase, and don’t be afraid to add some others that you feel might fit your situation as you move onto the Sort Idea Phase.

This phase is fairly straight forward, for it’s the phase where you will classify each of these different ideas into categories.

You’ll find this phase important to you in two ways, for one it will help you see just how many ideas you’ve defined for each of the different categories of your games and two, it will help you when it comes time to fill in the different areas of your final GDD (Game Design Document).

What are these different categories?

Well, it will vary depending on the type of game product you’re working on, but here are some basic categories just to get you thinking in the right direction.

1: Player Event or Mechanic.
2: NPC Related Event or Mechanic.
3: Autonomous Related Event or Mechanic.
4: Time Related Event or Mechanic.

Once you’re done with this Sort Idea Phase you should now schedule a meetings with your project leads for the final approval on your ideas for the game.

This meeting should initially focus on ideas you’ve established for the Player, for that’s always going to be the focal point of your product design, unless you’re designing a screensaver or puzzle game.

Then move onto to other game play ideas, in order of importance to the game, such as walking them through your Killer-Apps and getting their feedback.

This is vitally important, for if your project leads are not in agreement on what is going to make your game great then you’re in big trouble.

Once all of your Pie in the Sky ideas have been Qualified, Sorted and Approved then you can move them into your final production GDD and flush out each of their designs to their final state, making sure to include your Lead Artist and Lead Programmer along the way. Just to insure you’re not introducing something that is going to cause them grief down the road, or deviate from the ideas you’ve all agreed to during your Approval meetings.

 

Ready at Dawn – Hop, Skip and Jump

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Ready at Dawn – Hop, Skip and Jump

As I was saying at the end of my last article, I had some real concerns about working for Ready at Dawn, one of the first being that they were not willing to relocate me closer to the studio.

Now it’s not uncommon for a game developer that is located in the same state in which you live not to offer help in relocating, but it tends to be a different issue when that studio aggressively recruits you away from another developer, which was the case for Ready at Dawn.

It was also why I took the job, so I could move down closer to my 6 year old son, who was still living with his mom in San Marcos California.

As a temporary patch to the situation they agreed to put me up in a hotel, just around the block from the studio for a few weeks, while they see how I worked out.

It was a bit strange living in a hotel, but it wasn’t the first time, for while Midway was arranging my move down from the bay area they also moved me into a hotel around the block from the studio for a few weeks.

So with this worked out I started to work on the game play designs for Daxter.

Now for those who don’t know, Daxter was to companion character in the successful Jak and Daxter franchise from the game developer Naughty Dog. Daxter for the PSP was to be his big debut as a stand-alone character in his own game.

My job on the project was to come in and define his player character mechanics and to head up level game play designs, seeing my long history in designing platform games and coming off the successes of Maximo Ghost to Glory.

This was going along really well, but there continued to be friction between the President, the VP and myself over the games progress. A concern I didn’t share and neither did most of the people in R&D at the time.

But later I would come to realize that it wasn’t so much a concern over the progress of the game and how many hours a day I was working.

I guess when you go to work for a studio called Ready at Dawn, they really expect you do be there at dawn and don’t leave for home until its midnight, and work weekends. Although, for me this wasn’t practical seeing I was a father and the whole idea of taking the job at Ready at Dawn was to have more time with my son.

So I wasn’t shocked that right after I sent the President an email saying that I would only be able to work 50 hours a week and not the 60+ that seemed to be the norm at the time that I was let go.

My fears of being right back in that big studio mentality came true and I was out of work again.

Although this time, it wasn’t just my wife who had enough of the video game field, I was there myself.

From the early age of 13 I have always been into making games and this wasn’t going to change, but I was going to have to change how I approached it, if I wanted stability for myself and that of my son.

That’s when I decided to return to my home town of Big Bear Lake, California to raise my son.

I would still work on game designs for companies but from now on it would be as a contractor, or until I could find a work situation that was truly stable.

 

Jailed Games – Into Exile

Jailed Games – Into Exile

After leaving Midway Home Entertainment in San Diego I was on a quest to find a small development team to work with again, and I found it at a little known studio at the time called JGI or Jailed Games Inc.

Located in Santa Monica and owned and run by Daryl Pitts and Linus Chen, JGI was working on what I can only describe as one of the most unique game concepts I had seen at the time. It was so unique that I really wanted to work on its game play designs.

But back home things were about to get harder, for my wife at the time had enough of the instability of being married to a game developer. The long hours we often have to work and never knowing if you’re going to be laid off and have to move again was just too much for her.  We had just moved down from the bay area only a few months ago, before Midway hit us with a layoff and this really brought the point home for her.

On top of stress of all of this we were, once again stuck in a lease on a home in San Marcos, California that we couldn’t get out of and it was too far away for me to commute all the way up to Santa Monica during the week. So we agreed to separate and I had to rent a really small bachelor apartment in Santa Monica to start working for JGI.

This was an extremely hard thing to do, seeing we also had a 6 year old son at the time.

But there was no work for me back in the San Diego area and the offer from JGI was a good one, and all other job offers at the time would have only moved me farther away from my son.

So I started work on JGI combat/ strategy games for the Xbox and it was turning out really good, and I was getting more excited about it each day. Although when we took it out on the road to publishers there were less so on the strategy elements of the game.

Most publishers at the time were only looking for mindless combat and the idea of mixing combat with deep storytelling and strategy wasn’t going over well.

But none the less we kept plugging along with the production while searching for a game publisher that saw what we saw in the game, something unique.

Well this went on for around 8 months when I realized that the distance between my son and I was taking too much of an emotional toll on both of us and I had to find a way to move closer to him again.

It was around this time that I was contacted by Ready at Dawn Studios in Irvine California, looking for a game designer to lead Daxter, a game title for the Sony PSP.

Now, while I had some real concerns after my interview with them and it felt like I was returning to a big studio management mentality again, something I told myself I would avoid in an employer, the need to relocate closer to my son again was worth the risk.

Or at least I thought so… Grrrrrr.

Next: Ready at Dawn – Hop, Skip and Jump

Midway – Lost in Space

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Midway – Lost in Space

After we closed the doors at Eagle Claw Studios in San Ramon, California it was time to look for another full-time in-house job, that’s when Midway San Diego popped onto the radar.

Now it wasn’t my first choice, for I had also been contracted by Crystal Dynamics for an interview, a studio in the bay area that I’ve really wanted to work for years now, but I’ve also had the strangest time dealing with them. They would often call me for an interview and then never call back with a date and time. Once I was called over to the studio for an interview on a weekend, only to find the studio closed and them not returning my calls.

Oh well, off the Midway to see what their pitch is 🙂

Arriving at their San Diego office I met with Hugh Falk, the Director and Executive Producer, where he gave me the lowdown on what was in the works at the studio and what my job would be.

I was to be assigned initially to a horrible little game project called Crank the Weasel, a Toon-Town style game that was in so bad off that I was told might be canceled in the next few weeks. So Hugh wanted to know if I would be cool with working on a different game projects, that might not be platform game related. Of course I would be, but I had a big concern with working for Midway myself.

Midway had a long history of doing mass layoffs.  This was a big taboo in my book, for in my experience companies who use this as an ongoing practice either don’t know how to employ good people in the first place or always keep bad managers in place after the layoffs who keep making bad decisions.

Either way it was an issue for me and one I brought up with Hugh during my interview, seeing Midway had just gone through another mass layoff phase.

But Hugh assured me that they were done letting people go and that Midway was in a rebuilding phase, so I accepted the job offer when it came and we moved back down to southern California.

For the first few weeks I was stuck in a bit of a limbo, for there was little to be done to fix Crank the Weasel and reps from Midway Chicago were coming soon. It was expected that Crank the Weasel would get the axe then, so we had to have other game proposals ready for when they arrive.

For a time it looked like I might be assigned to the new Spy Hunter game that was going to star The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, but after Angel Studios was bought out there went Midways access to a killer racing engine. So instead I was moved over to Gauntlet.

This suited me just fine, for it brought me back to my old Dungeons & Dragon days of game design, and I also loved the classic Gauntlet game.

There was only one catch, (wouldn’t you know it!)

It seemed that when Midway closed their bay area location, they promised some of their staff up there that they would be able to relocate to San Diego and would be part of the Gauntlet project.

This didn’t really bother me, for I knew Gauntlet was going to be a really big game and I was fine just being in charge of world and level game play development.

So I was off on a roll building the world structure and coming up with ideas for a random world generator, for I really wanted the game to feel new every time you played it.

But all of the excitement left once the new project lead arrived from the bay area.

A really young man who, from what I understand never worked as a lead game designer before, and the idea of working side-by-side with this veteran just really bugged the crap out of him. To the point where he actually called a directors meeting to tell them, and I kid you not, “I intimidated him!”

I remember Hugh Falk in the meeting just rolling his eyes and telling him to just get over it.

So I went back to working on Gauntlet, while trying to alleviate the fears of our new project lead. That was until the new CEO of Midway showed up and said he was bringing in John Romero to run things.

It was shortly after that meeting when we were called into the lunchroom and told… Guesses what? Yes… anther mass layoff at Midway! Weeeee

After the announcement I caught up with Hugh Falk to ask why I was being let go and he told me it was at the request of John Romero himself, because he felt we would be in an overlap position.

I don’t know how true that was or not, but it didn’t matter at that point. I was feeling burned out working for large and often unstable large game developers and was on the looking out for a small studio to work for again.

Next: Jailed Games – Into Exile

Eagle Claw Studios – Up Up and Away!

Eagle Claw Studios – Up Up and Away!

After leaving Capcom Digital Studios it seemed to be the right time and place to try to build my own game development studios and with the help of an incubator group in San Ramon California I was off and running.

You see the city of San Ramon had invested heavily in the construction of many office buildings in the area, in the anticipation they would be filled with .COM’s during the .COM boom. Well the boom went bust for them and they were left with buildings designed for software companies that weren’t coming.

So when I was introduced to them through my wife, who at the time was running her own .COM, they realized that maybe the .COM buildings should be filled with video game developers instead.

That’s when they approached me with the proposal to bring Eagle Claw Studios to their city, and to help with this effort they would provide free legal services to create the incorporation, a building to operate out of and access to a brain-trust of long time corporate executives to make up my advisory board.

It was a sweet deal by any stroke of the imagination, although there was one matter to still work out, and that was funding the studio.

I knew it was going to take time to bring in some investors, so I needed a source of income until that could be done. So I entered into talks with a few of the game studios in the bay area, just to see if I could do some contract work on a few of their game projects.

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It was around that time that I was contacted by Michael Mendheim, the VP Creative Director for 3DO.

He was looking for level design help on their latest Army Man game (Army Men Sarge’s War), because it was on an extremely tight schedule and needed to get it done quickly. So after the normal back-and-forth contract negotiations I signed a year contract to work on the level designs for the game.

Now with money rolling in again I could really start to work on building Eagle Claw Studios, Inc.

The first order of business was to establish the first game idea and this part was easy, for I had been toying around with a FPS (First-Person-Shooter) game idea for a long time.

Called Clown Combat it was to be an off-the-wall crazy shooter game designed for the PC with a future Xbox platform and while I worked to flush out the concept more and build the full game play designs, the programming team at the studio was hard at work to develop the tools we were going to need for the full production, once of course we had proper funding that is.

This funding need hand me on the phone and out on the road during whatever free time I had at the time to visit venture capital companies willing to back our new studio.

Now, normally when I’m showing off a new concept to publishers or out looking for venture capital for a game I have a wealth of concept art to back up the game proposal, but in this case my concept artist Jason Dube hadn’t started yet.

So I had to fall back on my own sculpting skills to show off what I was thinking, shown here …

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It really paid off, for most venture capital companies don’t normal have someone walk in their office with two box loads of clay characters in hand, and within a few short months we managed to line up a venture capital group out of LA that was willing to put $25 million into the new studio.

Well, that was before the drum beats for war started up in Washington, which really started to freak-out investors in the states.

This eventually caused our funding prospects to dry up, leaving me as the funder of last resort, and reaching the end of my contract with 3DO on the Army Man project, I entered into talks with Michael Mendheim again to help out with his Four Horsemen project, but funding for 3DO dried up as well as 3DO headed for bankruptcy.

Now with funding from me gone and future project funding from investors nowhere on the horizon my wife and I had to make a hard call and close down Eagle Claw Studios.

In business it often comes down to timing and clearly it just wasn’t the right time to start a new studio.

Now it’s off to Midway Home Entertainment in San Diego, but that’s the next tale 🙂

Capcom – Into the Grave Yard

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Capcom – Into the Grave Yard

Once I was out of Namco HomeTek, David Siller the Director of R&D at Capcom Digital Studios, who knew my work well, was on the hunt to bring me over to Capcom for an interview.

I say it was an interview, but it really wasn’t, for David really wanted me to work for him and the only question being for him at that time was, in what capacity?

You see there was an opening for a Producer or Senior Game Designer, and I had qualifications for both, but for me the answer was simple. After the nightmare that was Namco HomeTek I really wanted to distance myself from higher management issues and focus on development, so Senior Game Designer it was!

Now my new job there did get off to a really slow start, mainly because when I was brought in it was to kick off the game development on Maximo Ghost to Glory, a game that really had little more than just its name.  But the studio was only approved for doing one production at a time and a game called Final Fight Revenge was already in the works.  So due to many schedule delays with that project Maximo had to wait for its turn.

This left me with a large window of time to ponder on what Maximo the game would be.

I already had marching orders from David Siller that this was to be a medieval fighting game, and the name of the primary player characters was going to be Maximo of course.

But I really wanted to do an updated version of Capcom’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, having been a longtime fan of the franchise.

While this was met with a lot of resistance from Capcom Japan, I found supporters with the projects producer and the Director of R&D. We just had to navigate around Capcom Japans objections at the same time.

Although we would run into one big hiccup right at the start of development, that was unavoidable with Capcom Japan.

You see, I had originally designed Maximo to be more along the lines of Devil May Cry, something you’ll notice from some of my Maximo Design notes within my site.  But Capcom Japan told us they wanted to keep such more realistic style games out there in Japan, and hence ordered Maximo to be redesigned by me in a more cartoon style.

This wasn’t a big deal for me on the design side of things, but it absolutely devastated our concept artist at the time, who had done some killer work on how Maximo’s game was to look. He eventually left the studio and the concept art was turned over to famous artist in Japan.

The next bump in the road in the production came when we saw a game from Sony called MedEvill, which on the surface could have been called a 3D remake of Ghouls ‘n Ghost.

Not really that big of a deal, for our art style and play mechanics were radically different, but the real bombshell that came when we saw that MediEvil included levels that were almost 100% totally identical to those I had already designed for Maximo, freakishly so. It was suspected that someone at Capcom might have leaked some of our designs, but none the less three full levels of game play designs had to be scrapped and new ones created to replace them.

After we passed the midway point in production it was clear that we were onto something big and that Maximo could turn out to be a big hit.  This is when Capcom Japan went from passive observer to active partner, so much so that they told us that they wanted to game to launch in Japan first.

What’s the old expression, success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan.  That was the case with Maximo as well, as the positive press ramped up so did the number of people coming out of the woodwork attaching their name to the game to take credit. Oh well, it’s not like I haven’t seen that before 🙂

But as Maximo was nearing the finish line I started to ponder my next move.

It was clear to everyone at Capcom USA and within Capcom Digital Studios that Capcom Japan was panning it’s once every 5 year takeover of the company and they had already moved an operative into R&D that was eyeing David Siller’s office, so it was time to move on for me.

At that same time my wife was working with a business incubator group in San Ramon California, who really wanted me to start a new game studio in their city, for they had invested in a lot of buildings for the .com’s that were never going to be filled.

So I quit Capcom, on extremely friendly terms I might add, for I wanted them to be my studios publisher of choice, and Eagle Claw Studio was formed!

Next: Eagle Claw Studios – Up Up and Away!

 

Namco – Sky’s the Limits

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Namco – Sky’s the Limits

In approaching this article I had to weigh the pros and cons of how much to disclose about the nightmare that was Namco HomeTek at that time.  My final decision to be really open about it came down to the hope that these articles will educate people on just how crazy working in the entertainment field can be at time, and video game development is an entertainment field.

Yes, I know there will be those who worked there at the time who might have different point of views, so I’ll just be honest about it from what was my experience and let those with differ with me write their own articles.

To start with, working for Namco HomeTek almost didn’t happen.

I was called in for an interview with the Director of R&D Craig Erickson and met with the really small development team to show off my work, and while I felt the interview went well it was hard to read if I would get the job or not. So, I wasn’t shocked when I hadn’t head back from them in a few weeks.

It was only after I talked with my recruiter friend sometime later that I found out that they hadn’t filled the position yet and was thinking about calling me up for a second interview, at which point I pressed her to try to make happen.

I showed up the second time for a round higher level talks, this time with the President of Namco HomeTek and the studio VP who wasn’t in town the last time.

So after a short talk with Craig Erickson again where I was told that he was thinking of bringing me in as Manager of Design and what projects I might be working on of them, I was shuffled off to the President’s office.

During that meeting I was given the strong impression that all wasn’t harmonious between Craig and the President and VP of the company, to what extent I was unfortunately going to find out.

About a week later I received the job offer from Namco HomeTek and we moved back up to the bay area to start my new job.

The studio at the time was working on a game called Cyber Sled, a port of their arcade game to the PC, but they wanted to start developing Sony Playstation games. So my first assignment was to start to move the studio in that direction by coming up with 6 new original game concepts. Three of them had to be Pac-Man related and three others could be anything else we came up with.

It was at this point that I assembled all of the staff in R&D and sorted out concept teams to come up with all of the different game concepts, and the clock was ticking, for we were given 3 months to come up with all of the different concepts. Just so they were ready to pitch to the directors of Namco HomeTek and reps from Namco Japan when they arrive.

The first concept developed, called Pac-Man Ghost Zone was the game concept I had already started on even before I started work for Namco, which was to be the first 3D Pac-Man game and it turned out the one concept Namco’s directors really wanted to do.

It was an interesting process coming up with all of these new concepts and seeing how all of the staff in R&D worked together, or in some cases didn’t work well together.

I didn’t realize just how dysfunctional Namco HomeTek’s R&D department really was until they all had to work together as a team.  As an example, there were some artist who only saw working there as a bridge to working for a Hollywood CG house someday and didn’t even like video games and one high-strung programmer who thought that stripping remark lines from his code gave him job security.  This really ticked off the other programmers because no one else could understand his code.

This is when I discovered the cultural difference between US managers and some of those out of Japan, when I was told that terminating employees reflects poorly on the manager who employed them in the first place. This basically gave job security to some of the staff that Craig and I thought should have been let go.

This would come to an explosive head, when the before mentioned high-strung programmer walked off the job in a dispute with me, calling me “$%#@!@#!” as he left. Why was he so upset you might ask?  Well, I was told by the President of the company that we had to have a demo game for Pac-Man Ghost Zone ready and out to Namco Japan in two week, no exceptions! So I told this programmer that we had to have it ready by then and he told me it wasn’t going to happen, period! It was his call and no one else’s!

Now, keep in mind that he wasn’t even the lead programmer on the game.

Well, I told him this wasn’t my call. It was just something we had to do. That wasn’t good enough for him and he walked off the job.

At this point Craig and I had enough, for it wasn’t the first time we issues with this programmer and we really didn’t want him back. But enter the old, “We can’t let him go because it will look bad on the person who employed him!” Grrrrrr!!!!

I felt sorry for Craig, for he had to hop on the phone to talking him into coming back.

So at this point we’re stuck with 1/2 an R&D department that is dysfunctional and the other 1/2 ticked off with them, and I still had a large next generation game to finish.

That’s when I went to the President of the company to ask to staff up the studio with high-end game developers, where I was met with No!

Apparently we were staffed to the max that Namco Japan would allow, and we still weren’t allowed to get rid of employees that were not qualified or performing and yet we didn’t have the staff to finish the game on time, but, I could higher contractors. With one catch from management, I couldn’t guarantee them a full-time job once the project was done and as contractors they wouldn’t get company benefits.

Well, this shot down the likelihood of any qualified person wanting to work for Namco HomeTek, and I even had some really great candidates walk right out the door during interviews when I brought that up.

This went on for some time, before we had a studio directors meeting and I told them we just weren’t going to bring in qualified people under these conditions. That’s when they relented and allowed me to start to employ better people. Unfortunately more production time was lost.

It was around this time that we had to get Pac-Man Ghost Zone ready for our trip to Namco Japan, but yet again we were tripped up by decisions totally out of our control and it almost closed the studio.

In doing some research on Namco Japan and how CS R&D and VS R&D over there ready projects for Mr. Nakamura, the owner of Namco, I found out that he really isn’t into games, I know shocking! But what he is into is computer animations and every product pitched at the time focused on a great CG intro, for he wasn’t going to pick up the controller to have a go at it.

So I went to the directors of the studio and told them we need a budget for an awesome CG intro to Pac-Man Ghost Zone before we do our presentation in Japan. Well as you might guess the answer was absolutely no! They just didn’t want to spend money on that until the game was further along.

That was almost the death nail for our project and the studio.

We arrived at Namco CS R&D to show off the game demo to the development staff, which went off great. They loved the concept and could really see where it was going.

Then we were sent over to demo the game to Mr. Nakamura in a meeting area just off from his office.
He sits down in front of the game, arms crossed while we demo the game, with of course no CG intro. While now grimacing he gets up and starts shouting in Japanese as he walks off towards his office, with us asking our translator, “Whats up?”, and him replying… “This is not good! Not Good!!!”

The managers for Namco HomeTek and CS R&D head over to talk with him as our group is escorted out of the building.

We’re told that Mr. Nakamura is really pissed off and wants to not only kill the project but also close the studio.

So while we’re at the hotel waiting for news, the managers for Namco HomeTek and Namco CS R&D are out trying to track down Mr. Nakamura, who is said to be out golfing someplace.

We’re told later that the director of CS R&D had talked to Mr. Nakamura and assured him that Pac-Man Ghost Zone was a great concept and he was confident it would turn out to be a good game. So Mr. Nakamura approved the project to continue, while at the same time slashing our development schedule in half, almost insuring its eventual failure.

Now with that drama behind us, it was time to come home and move into the second one.

As I mentioned before, there was tension between Craig, the Director of R&D and the President and VP of Namco HomeTek. Well it was about to move into extreme high-gear once we got back.

While Craig and I got along just fine, he had a bit of a cowboy personality and would often just say what’s on your mind, that, let’s face it, just rubs the Japanese more reserved personalities the wrong way. And the President really wanted him gone, although gone in such a way to avoid just sacking him. This wasn’t a surprise to Craig in anyway. They weren’t happy with him and he really wasn’t happy at Namco.

But what they pulled with him really upset me to my core.

Inviting Craig and me out to a business lunch they started attacking the poor guy, in public. Up until the point where they looked and him and said, “We should just turn R&D totally over to Bill! What do you think about that?” At this point, before his food even arrived Craig got up and walked all the way back to the studio, and it was at least a mile or two away.

Once Craig left they turned to me and asked, “What about it, are you willing to take over R&D?”

After seeing how Craig was treated I declined, stating that I just wanted to focus on development.

This would turn out to be my mistake, for with Craig still unwilling to give them the satisfaction of quitting, they brought in a producer to overshadow him in R&D, at least until they could get Craig out and promote him the Director position.

It wasn’t long after this new Director came in that I was laid me off, in a move I don’t think was totally legal.

You see, all of us in R&D were called into a meeting and told that Namco HomeTek had a new Director of R&D and that as of today all of our jobs were gone! We were then handed applications for a set of jobs they would rehire for.

Of course I applied for the same job I already had, knowing full well they wouldn’t go for it. I knew this new Director and his shady background at Virgin Games and Sega and he really didn’t want me around.

So, as you might expect I was laid off.

Next: Capcom – Into the Grave Yard

 

Oddworld – Odd Life

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Oddworld – Odd Life

While I had been officially working for Oddworld Inhabitants for some time now, yet unofficially to keep peace in the family between Alexandria, Oddworld and CPTV, my official departure from Alexandria changed that.

I arrived at Oddworld with my new job title, Manager of Interactive Design, but with unchanged responsibility, that to continue my game play design work on Abes Oddysee.

It was really nice to be free of the politics between the two studios and to be able to just focus on my work, and it lead to some really cool innovations.

You see, when Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning first came to me with the story for Abes Oddysee and some really awesome concept art, we had a dilemma. That was that Sherry and Lorne were experts in creating 3D graphics, yet the 3D capabilities of games systems weren’t even close to being able to pull off the look Sherry and Lorne wanted. Also 3D game programming was just really starting off and finding expert 3D programmers was almost imposable.

So I made a proposal that would, in the end, define the game play style for Abes Oddysee.

While working at Virgin Games I was asked by David Bishop to consult on moving a game called Another World to the Sega CD. Which I pointed out at the time might be too short of a game for the Sega CD. So, because the designers of the original game never kept design notes I had to reverse design the game, screen by screen, creating a flowchart of the game that I placed up on my wall in my office.

Once David saw this it was agreed that the game was too short and the two original creators were flown to our studio in the US to meet with David and myself, to show them our concerns. They liked my game flowchart so much they took it back with them, just to see where to expand the game.

During this process I discovered the grid movement layout system they were using for the game and started to research other games like it, so I might use this technique in future games, for I liked its tight level of control over the players movements.

So I reversed designed Black Thorne from Interplay and Flashback from US Gold, to round off my grid based movement research.

It was this style of play that I proposed to Lorne and he accepted for the game, although he still had one more concern, he really wanted you to fell like were playing in a 3D world. So after talking to him about what they could do on their SGI machines, I proposed two more things that would pull off the illusion of playing in a 3D world.

One, we would generate video transition clips at the end of each level section, that would make the play feel like they had moved through a 3D world and I would add a distant background layer of play in some game levels.

This worked out great, although I had one more thing to innovate before Lorne’s artist should make the magic happen.

You see I designed each level for the game out on a grid, but that grid had to go over to the artist SGI computer systems to be overlayed on what was called at the time a 12 Field Guide so they could line up the 3D backgrounds correctly. Once that was done they could render out each scene.

What I came up with was a TV Switch Box located in my office that I could control to send my image over to each of the artist SGI station. Outside of figuring out how to run the cables over the ceiling, it worked perfectly.

Now we were in the running and all I had to do was wrap up the different world designs for the game, although maybe I should have designed a bit slower.

You see, when I was hired by Oddworld I was told at the start that I was there to design the game play and help Oddworld get the design approved by Sony, and they needed an expert game designer on hand for that to happen.

So I wasn’t overly shocked when I got the boot by Lorne after I finished the level designs and Sony’s approval was in hand, and I really didn’t have any bad feelings about it. They were honest in what I was there for and once done we went our different ways.

Although, I was upset when Lorne started telling people I never worked for his company and to this date doesn’t list me on the credits for the game.  Bad Karma!

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Click [HERE] to check out some of the game designs I did for Abes Oddysee.

 

Next: Namco – Sky’s the Limits

Alexandria – The Lighthouse

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Alexandria – The Lighthouse

After the fallout at Spectrum HoloByte I had to find work really quickly, mainly due to them providing zero severance in the layoff, to me at least. So I had scheduled two upcoming interviews, one being with STI (Sega Technical Institute) and a small developer down in central California called Alexandria, Inc.

While the interview with STI went off great and they seemed really eager to work with me, personally I felt the need to find a small team of people to work with again, somewhat like Virgin Games was in the early days.

Sega was this large international company and I was worried that it would just be the same madness that had taken over Virgin Games and was clearly evident at Spectrum HoloByte. So I accepted the offer that came in from Alexandria, a family studio owned by Ken Balthaser.

Alexandria was a small developer, only working on about 3 games at the time and the pay wasn’t great, but the people there were really friendly, eager to work with me and the cost of living in the area wasn’t bad. They also had publishing ties back to Virgin Games, so I’d be working around some of my old producer friends again.

The game I was assigned to was also right up my alley, a platform game based on the 1996 Olympic mascot character called Izzy.

It was a good job up until the industry started to change over to more 3D games, then things started to get rough for the studio.

Eventually the studio was bought out by a company called CPTV, a venture capital company out of New York who was also partnering with Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning, fresh out of Rhythm & Hues Studios, a CG house in LA.

Initially it was the plan to merge Alexandria game design and programming capabilities with the 3D development experience that Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning brought to the table to create a next generation game studio. Well, that was the idea at least!

But from day one that Sherry and Lorne came out to central California it was clear there was going to be a lot of head-butting with the owners of Alexandria.

At this point it was clear to me that Alexandria was heading down hill fast, for they had no new publishers lined up for future games and their relationship with CPTV was heading for the rocks, so it was time to send out my resumes again.

That’s when something totally unexpected happened. While talking to my recruiter friends again, Jill Zinner, she said that Sherry and Lorne were creating a new game studio called Oddworld and why don’t I just move over to that group. I then told her I felt odd talking to them, see both studios were owned by CPTV. That’s when she said, “What if I just tell them you’re planning to leave Alexandria and see what they say?”

It was less than 10 minutes later when Lorne popped into my office and said “Lets talk!”, so I followed him over to their temporary studio location next door to have a chat with Sherry and him about my situation and what I was looking for.

They told me that they really wanted me to design their first game Abes Oddysee and didn’t want to see me leave, so they said they would contact CPTV and try to work something out.

The deal that was struck was that I would stay on working inside Alexandria, while assigned as the lead game designer on Abes Oddysee of course for Oddworld. Mainly because CPTV was worried that if I quit it would start an exodus other employees from Alexandria.

This work arrangement went on for some time, before CPTV decided to move both studios into the heart of San Luis Obispo. That’s when things turned nasty really quickly and I found myself in the middle of the war between Oddworld and Alexandria, and I had to finally cut ties with Alexandria and join Oddworld formally.

It turned out to be just in time, for CPTV had had enough of it themselves and closed Alexandria, posting security guards at the entrance to keep out the studio managers and only letting employees in to collect their personal items.

At this point Oddworld absorbed what employees that it needed from what was left of Alexandria’s staff and that was the official end Alexandria, Inc.

Next: Oddworld’s – Odd Life