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Entrepreneur Profile: Bob Berry, CEO - Uber Entertainment

A few weeks ago, the HitPoints blog conversed with Bob Berry, CEO of Uber Entertainment, the makers of Monday Night Combat. We talked to him about his creative influences and business experiences. Below is an excerpt of Part 1 of the interview.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit and chat with Bob Berry, CEO of Uber Entertainment, the makers of Monday Night Combat. Below is the first part of a two-part interview with Bob. In today’s blog post, we chat about Bob’s career backgound, his early gaming habits, the entrepreneurial process behind the creation of Monday Night Combat, creative influences, and the culture of Uber Entertainment.

The full text of Part 1 of this interview can be found at the HitPoints blog. Part 2 of the interview will be posted this Thursday.

Background

Mark Tanjutco:  Bob, thanks for joining us on the HitPoints blog! One thing I’ll ask first: for people who are unfamiliar with your career maybe you could spend a few minutes explaining how you broke into the video game industry, where you’ve been, and what projects you’ve worked on.

Bob Berry:  Sure. I’ve been involved in games most of my life, playing them anyways. The Pong machine, basically. I was a high school dropout like you hear a lot. I went to work for an edutainment company making educational video games. I did that for a number of years. I went through a little bit of a dotcom startup; a couple companies there. Started a game development studio in Florida (and that’s where I’m from), called Digitalo, with a couple business partners. Somehow or another, I found my way to Japan. I was writing academic papers with a friend of mine and got invited to Japan to do a PhD, which was kind of strange because I didn’t have any undergrad, I was a high school dropout and everything.

I said, “Hey this is a cool opportunity.” The games business was still in its infancy and everything. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll move to Japan.” I lived there for three years working on a PhD then suddenly the game was signed and it’s like, “We’ve got to finish this thing.” I had to choose what we were going to do.

 

Mark:  So you were still doing the stuff with Digitalo (while in Japan working on the PhD)?

Bob:  While I was in Japan, yes. I ended up moving back with my wife, who is Japanese. We moved back to Florida, shipped the game, tried to get a couple of other projects off the ground, but neither of us wanted to stay in Florida. I never thought I’d move back there, honestly. I felt like I’d finally “escaped.” My wife just could not stand it there, and I didn’t want to stay there. So we said, “Let’s go somewhere where there’s a Japanese community and I can make video games.” It was San Francisco or Seattle, really. We looked at both and chose Seattle. Seattle brought me here. To kind of get to know the area I joined up with Gas Powered Games and worked there for a few years. I wrote a large portion of the engine for Supreme Commander. Then I was the producer/lead programmer on Demigod for a time.

After a certain period of time on Demigod, I knew I was going to eventually start up another company. It was just a matter of time. I wanted to get to know the area, get to know the people, and form some bonds with people like Gas Powered and some other studios. We started up Uber and away we go.

Mark:  And Uber was started in 2008?

Bob:  2008, in the same month my daughter was born.

Mark:  Wow. A lot was going on at that time for you.

Bob:  Indeed. (Laughs)

Early Gaming

Mark:  You’ve definitely had some success with Monday Night Combat. Going back to your background a little bit, what was it that spurred your interest in deciding to make games, even going back to Digitalo and before that?

Bob:  Honestly, playing them. I think, from the first time I picked up a controller I was so curious about, “How is this working? How is it that the input is producing this output on the screen and can we change that, can we make it do different things?” I was just fascinated. I was a very young kid, fascinated by it.

Mark:  What were the games you were playing that brought that out?

Bob:  Pong was the first one. Games on the Commodore 64, Impossible Mission, things like that. We had, I remember, Jump Man. We had an IBM PC junior or something withCommodore 64. We had a Vic 20. We had a bunch of different things. I played everything I could get my hands on. I was just completely absorbed by it. The 2600, I would spend hours playing Asteroids because I could just flip it over and over again. My parents would just be like, “There’s no end to this game, turn it off,” but I just wanted to keep going. Honestly, I can’t exactly tell you where it started. When I was I think eight or nine I started to get into programming a little bit. My older brother was learning Basic and was trying to make a little game in Basic.

Over one summer, I remember I started to get into it with him and I started doing more work than he was doing and he eventually said, “This is boring, I’m going to do something else.” I spent the whole summer programming in Basic. I don’t remember exactly what age I was, but I was pretty young. I couldn’t do anything particularly meaningful, but just the fact that I could make changes in this text file and have it produce something different on the output. I was fascinated.

I just wanted to continue iterating and see if I could do different things. The next phase would be when I got a little bit older and I started to understand a little bit more about how computers work. I started writing little hacks and cheats and stuff for the games that I was playing because I wanted to make my characters more powerful.

I’d dig into some of the Gold Box games like Pool of Radiance, Secret of the Silver Blades, Curse of the Azure Bonds and I’d make little trainers to boost my stats and do something in the game that maybe I wasn’t meant to do by the designers. I was just hooked. I was fascinated by game development at that point.

Entrepreneurism and the Development of Monday Night Combat

Mark:  So that got you onto the path of being a developer. I guess my background just finishing the MBA program, I’m also curious about the entrepreneurial side of your background. In your mindset, what’s the appeal of running and owning your own studio versus working for a larger company?

Bob:  Well, one of the big differences is the way we make games here. We have a different philosophy for the production process than a lot of the other big studios have. Because we were self‑funded, we had some freedom to do these more experimental processes. We’re very big on what we call “white boxing” where we’re going to make the entire game from beginning to end with no real art. No artists are allowed to work on it, basically. They can help us create white boxes and stuff, but we don’t want anything that even resembles shipping quality art. For the first six to nine months of Monday Night Combat, you wouldn’t have even known what the art style was going to be.

There was no art style other than crappy programmer art. We just iterate on the game. It’s so cheap to try new things when what you’re throwing away didn’t cost you anything to make. Maybe it was a couple hours of programmer time and he went into 3D Studio max and he made a cylinder with a little stick on top of it and that represents a turret.

In Monday Night Combat, I made one of those, and it was awful looking. But it didn’t matter, because functionally it did the same thing it was going to do in the final game.

So when we decide, “Let’s throw that away and do something different,” it’s like, “OK, no big deal.” I’m not invested in it. So, it’s just a heavy, heavy iteration. That’s not something that’s easy to do when you are working with a big publisher. They want to see “pretty” right out of the gate. And pretty is expensive. Part of (our attitude is), we know we can do pretty. We’ve got fantastic artists. How can you not have confidence in their ability to create something pretty when they’ve done it for 15 years? That’s all they’ve been doing.

Finding the fun in a game: that’s the real challenge. The right kind of hooks, the pacing, and the balance, and the timing. So our motto is, just find the fun first. And that’s what we’re all about.

Mark:  So it took you 6‑8 months of doing this white boxing process: what were some of the moments where you realized you had something fun going on with the game?

Bob:  I would say we had something fun going within the first couple of weeks. Now granted, we’re using Unreal Engine, which some of us had already had experience with in the past. It was very fast to get something up on the screen with people running around with guns and some notion of skills, and things like that. It was a few weeks before we could actually say, “Ok, Here’s a map, we’ve got people running around with a gun.” We were trying to get some of the fundamentals nailed down like, “Are we going to do third person or first person?” That was a debate at first. We decided to do third-person, as we think it’s more accessible. People are going to appreciate that perspective on a console, especially when you have all these cool skills, you want to see your character doing them. So, that’s something we nailed early.

The next question was, “How does it feel to fire our weapon? Let’s start with an assault rifle, that’s kind of your bread and butter.” So, we started with that. Yeah and, quite quickly, we had something where, it wasn’t a great game, but people could run around with smiles on their faces, and say “Oh, I got you there,” or “I got you there,” and you could feel some of those dynamics beginning to emerge and develop. And then it (became a process) of continuing to iterate, and put more fun in the game.

The full text of Part 1 of this interview can be found at the HitPoints blog. Part 2 of the interview will be posted this Thursday.

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