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High Moon Shining: Inside Sierra's San Diego Outpost

Best known for vampire Western Darkwatch, and now working on The Bourne Conspiracy, and with a history that includes Sammy, Sega, independence, and now Sierra ownership, Gamasutra tours San Diego-based High Moon Studios to quiz its execs on its technology use, core philosophy, and future.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

September 21, 2007

42 Min Read

Early last year, Vivendi Universal's burgeoning Vivendi Games division acquired Darkwatch developer High Moon Studios. The developer began its life as the development arm of Japanese pachinko behemoth Sammy before its merger with Sega, transitioned to an independent studio and finally found its home with Vivendi.

Earlier this year, Gamasutra toured the studio, gaining insight into the tools, techniques, strategy and inspirations that fuel the company, as the studio works on titles including The Bourne Conspiracy, due mid-next year.

First, we spoke with Clinton Keith, who currently heads High Moon's technical department, overseeing research and development of next-generation game engines. A seasoned veteran of both the video game and graphics technology industries, Keith's career has taken him from programming avionics for advanced fighter jets to working for such studios as Angel Studios, now renamed Rockstar San Diego, where he worked as both the director of product development and lead programmer.

What third-party tools do you use?

Clinton Keith: We're pretty much an Unreal 3 house, so we use all the tools associated with that: Maya, Max, and a number of plug-ins like Face Effects, AI Implant, SpeedTree, and tons of smaller things like MotionBuilder. We have about a dozen people on what we call a stability and tools team. Their focus is on making the engine, keeping it stable, and building tools on top of Unreal 3 that make the job of the content creators easier.

Did you have a proprietary engine previously?

CK: Yes. It was called Score, which stood for the Sammy Core Engine. Rather than just a complete engine, it was more of a framework with this behavioral layer on top that controlled how objects in the world operated. It was all data driven through tools. You could change the behavior of the game very quickly, much as you can do with Unreal 3. Underneath that, we just bought parts off the shelf.

That's what kind of drew me here -- we kept spending a lot of money on physics engines at Angel Studios [now Rockstar San Diego.] It's kind of hard to break away from that once you spend millions of dollars, but then you look at the cost of something like Havok off the shelf, and it's less than what you spend on one engineer a year, and they've got 35 people working on it. I really wanted to take the company in that direction, but there was a lot of inertia against that. I saw Sammy [Studios, High Moon's previous incarnation] as an opportunity to say, "Let's see if we can give more control to the content creators. Let's take that money [spent] on the programmers doing physics and instead put that into tools."

High Moon's California studio

How important is it to be up on the latest versions of tools?

CK: This is the problem -- one of the things that I like to have for tools is the source code, so that we can modify it for our own particular needs. This is one of the biggest lessons we learned in going to Unreal 3. I like Unreal 3 -- it's gone through a lot of changes, and it's now stabilized -- but any kind of tool or engine that you buy off the shelf has some assumptions built in, in terms of the workflow. Unreal 3's power is in its tools, but those tools are built based on the philosophy of how their level designers and artists build levels. If you go into that with a different approach... you'll have a learning curve to overcome.

Now that we're getting close to the final year of our game, we're not upgrading. The problem with upgrading is that it keeps you back on the vendors' path. For the first year and a half of using Unreal 3, we couldn't deviate, because there were so many changes going on it would be disastrous for us. Now it's all about diverging and doing things that we need, to put icing on the cake.

There's some problems with that. In my last year at Angel Studios, we were working on an entirely data driven approach -- giving content creators entire control over behavior, and making tools to allow that to happen quicker. Two of us came over to Sammy to continue that. The problem is that you can never create a perfect system that can anticipate all contingencies. The path it can take from an obvious piece of data to the game not behaving correctly is really long. When we finished Darkwatch, we had something like 13,000 bugs, most of which were caused by bad data matching, and all the stuff that built up because of this ideal we had of giving total freedom.

Do you wind up having to clean up a lot of code? Giving designers control over that level of specification tends to wind up with a lot of spaghetti.

CK: It's true. Technical designers often haven't learned some of the techniques that programmers have learned in writing self-testing code, and we get bit by doing it in C++. They don't pay as much attention to the underlying performance issues, because you still have to use some of the tools. We try to encourage technical designers to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the programmers, rather than coming to the programmer with a bunch of code that they've written. They'll prototype something out, or invite the programmer over to talk about the problem, and maybe on a day-to-day basis, we get something in the game that works that the programmer can verify.

Do you guys have plans to go multi-SKU at this point, across multiple consoles?

CK: Absolutely.

What do you think of the 360 and PS3 as hardware platforms right now?

CK: We've achieved parity between them, but it's not like you can hit a button and all of a sudden it's working the same. The development environment, in terms of Unreal 3, is fastest on PC. It's easier to get that moved over and debugged on the Xbox 360. And we have to keep an eye on the PS3, because the Xbox 360 does a lot of things that really slow down the PS3. It doesn't mean that you can't do it on the PS3, it just means that you have to do it in a different way.

Can you envision how long it's going to take before you can really get what you want out of the PS3?

CK: We have this "beach head" team -- it's the concept of sending this one group of people first on the beach head and opening the way. They've been working exclusively on the PS3 for almost a year. They're looking at future tech from a generic gameplay point of view, but they're also looking at the PS3. My goal was for them to become experts on the Cell processor.

The secondary goal is to find what kind of games you can build if you have to build an engine from the ground up to take advantage of just [the PS3] and ignore all other platforms. My impression is that there's only so far you can go by taking this general purpose approach on the 360 over to the PS3.

One thing we do with art is that, rather than procedurally generating trees and other stuff in real time, we replace that with low CPU-cost art that's all been calculated ahead of time. With CPU costs going down, though, memory costs go up.

Prowling the corridors in Darkwatch

Do you find that's taking a lot of extra time? Is it ultimately going to be worthwhile?

CK: It ultimately is. I'm not sure if it is on this generation, though. With this beach head team, they keep hitting bottlenecks, and it's getting harder and harder to get past those bottlenecks, much as it was on the PS2. The theoretical [performance] is never going to be met on any platform, but I think in the next generation, they'll hopefully start to address some of these bottlenecks a bit better.

I kind of wonder what the next hardware generation's going to be like. At some point, people are going to stop noticing the difference in bigger, badder graphics.

CK: As developers, we're a little myopic about that, because we could always use more, and we're always pushing the limits. You also have to consider that the number one console is the Wii. Microsoft and Sony have to be looking at that. A year ago, they were probably laughing at the strategy.

Does that ever make you wonder why you're spending all this time on the 360 and PS3, when the Wii is selling like gangbusters?

CK: Yeah. As a platform, it's something we keep looking at and wondering if Unreal 3 is ever going to work on it. It's probably not. We've got some development kits, and I'd love to get another beach head team looking at that and exploring it.

It seems like people are moving away from proprietary tools now, because it's so expensive to have all these people working on them.

CK: It's the same problem I saw in the past, which is if you've invested so much money and have stuff that works right now, why abandon that and start buying it from people who could be acquired by EA? It's a varied cost, and a hard thing to justify. There's so much fear these days. I hear, "We're threatened if we don't own it all," and "We're vulnerable." You could potentially see a backlash against off-the-shelf stuff.

And then there's the other side of it, which is this belief that we can take offshoring to such a full degree that in the future, if you want to make a Grand Theft Auto game, all you need to do is sign the proper contracts and farm it all out overseas. I'm particularly doubtful that this will all fully work, especially on the preproduction and technology sides.

It seems like most companies are one failed game from either dissolution or being purchased. Most companies have to put all of their eggs in one basket just because of their size, and when that basket is filled with 20 million dollars, it tips over. What kind of industry is going to result from that mentality? I don't think it's necessary.

CK: I don't think it is either. I don't think that making minigames and digital content is entirely the answer. It's one avenue, and they'll do more of it. I look toward some of the other industries that have solved this problem. There's car design centers that design cars, and set things up. It's a different skill set, and it's often either a different branch of the company or a different company altogether from the ones that figure out how to reduce costs much as possible to save money on things that they know about -- the repeatable things that don't have to be iterated on.

Our consultant uses the Big Mac example -- a Big Mac tastes exactly the same in Japan as it does in San Diego. The reason for that is that they have a 300-page Big Mac recipe manual. That's how you mass-produce things, by knowing exactly what it is. You can't do that with games. You can't repeat that process unless you know exactly what it is you're producing. That's what I'm saying -- separate the preproduction, know the game first, and only spend the five million dollars discovering that one hour of core that you want to sell. Then go to your 300-page Big Mac recipe and make 40 billion of those, like they do at McDonald's.

The problem is that you've got a developer which has big spreadsheets explaining, "Okay, we have to be in production here. I don't care where the game is. I have to find something for these 50 people who are coming off of another game to go on, on this date." You've got to make payroll, and you've got to get cash flowing in. That's what's forcing us to make all these decisions. The decisions aren't being made about the game. It's because resource flow on huge games is what rules developers right now. These days, you can't survive just having one project with 100 people. You've got to have three to justify your company. You've got to figure out what everybody's doing on a day-to-day basis.


High Moon's next project, The Bourne Conspiracy

There almost needs to be an industry shift, maybe from an external source that says, "Look guys, here's how you can organize yourselves into a better model." That's sort of what tools companies are tending toward. How do you envision that shaking out?

CK: I don't see where it's coming from. There's been some resistance to every change, but really the market is going to drive solutions. I'm personally seeing a lot of enthusiasm for the Agile stuff, and a lot of that is just coming from desperation. It's why we adopted it -- we started a company, we were well-funded, we were creating our own engine, and we were still screwing up. We were buried with problems and a slipping schedule, and not seeing the game. We're seeing that all over the place -- everyone's looking at the bottom line and saying, "It's broken." I think that's going to drive change.

I heard a rumor that you guys were using [agile development method] Scrum less than before.

CK: Nope. I don't want to sell Scrum as a silver bullet -- it's first and foremost about having a great idea and a great team to execute on it. Scrum is about not going down false paths as much and not producing as much waste. If you pick a dozen monkeys and let them develop a game using Scrum, they'll be successful with Scrum, in that they will fail faster. You won't sign up a two year project and then find out two years later that the monkeys have nothing to show for it. Fast failure is a benefit of Scrum, but people keep looking at it like, "Oh, the monkeys failed, so it's probably Scrum's fault."

If you want someone to fail, you want them to fail fast, before they spend a lot of money. That's how Nintendo was. When I was working on the Dream Team [at Angel Studios], they wanted us to do this DNA-based driving game called Buggy Boogie. You had these vehicles that would eat other vehicles and adopt their powers and morph. It was really cool. But they would sign three month contracts, and Miyamoto himself would say that he did not want any documents. He would just say, "Find the fun, and I'll be back in three months to take a look at what you have."

We went through about three iterations of that. We busted our hump trying different things, but at the end of it, he kept coming back and saying that it wasn't there, and it wasn't fun. We were a new company that didn't know how to make games. After about six or nine months, he came back and said, "You guys have really worked hard, and we see the progress, but we're not seeing the product. But another opportunity has come up for a fantasy golf game, so why don't you guys work on that? In three months, we'll be back. Show us a golf game."

So rather than getting pissed off at us and canceling the contract after two years and millions of dollars, they spent just a tiny fraction of that with a small team and said, "Well, it was just a bad idea." It maintained the relationship with them, so we could go off and do something else.

We then turned our attention to High Moon co-founder and chief development officer Chris Ulm and company vice president and design director Paul O'Connor, both of whom are recognized as co-creators of the studio's original property Darkwatch. Ulm is also the co-founder of Malibu Comics Entertainment, where he served as the comic studio's editor-in-chief, while O'Connor has published hundreds of comic strips for Malibu Comics.

Both he and O'Connor also worked closely with Oddworld Inhabitants co-founder Lorne Lanning on the studio's adventure titles Abe's Exoddus and Munch's Oddysee. O'Connor, a 21 year industry veteran, has worked on numerous titles, from the pen and paper RPG Grimtooth's Traps, to games for the Genesis, SNES and 3DO such as Demolition Man, Sylvester & Tweety Cagey Capers and Izzy's Quest For The Olympic Rings.

How long have the both of you been here?

Chris Ulm: I started the company. I was employee number three or something.

Paul O'Connor: I joined in October of 2002.

What happened to the old Sammy projects, like The Shield and stuff?

CU: The way Sammy was organized was that we had internal development and external development, and the external development was a separate division of the company. The guys that worked on Darkwatch were internal, so the internal guys are still here. The external projects went to different publishers.

PO: Sega picked up Iron Phoenix, and The Shield went back to [Point of View].

CU: We never saw those projects. I maybe played The Shield once or twice. They were all externally driven, and we were focusing most of our time and attention on Darkwatch.

The Sammy-published (but not High Moon-developed) action title Iron Phoenix

Where did the High Moon name come from?

CU: We had a survey within the office to come up with the final title for Darkwatch, and the first video for Darkwatch was subtitled High Moon. We had a whole series of suggested names from around the studio, and we ultimately picked High Moon as the name of the studio.

PO: Brian Robertson suggested the name.

What do you consider to be next-gen design?

CU: I think that these machines are affording unparalleled power, and the first instinct is to use it toward more elaborate graphics and animations, and to make everything look more photo-realistic. I think there are more opportunities than that. One of the things we're going for at the studio is cinematic action: being able to bring in more elaborate cameras, and the language that people are bringing to games from film.

We can do that with the level of animation and code support that we can fit into these new boxes. Mostly it's focusing on what the experience of the game is going to be, which is a heightened 3D experience. That doesn't mean you get away from the fundamentals of good level design, challenge, or balance, but it means that the audience is bringing a lot more expectation of what kind of experience they're going to have.

Is the "full 3D experience" more open-world type stuff?

CU: There's room for all different sorts of games. There's open-world games with an epic feel and a palette of things you can do, but there's also more focused games that might have a much richer and deeper experience. No matter how wide or narrow you go, there's room for doing great games.

PO: I can tell you what I think next-gen is turning out to be, and I can tell you what I think it should be. They're not the same thing. I think next-gen -- strictly about game design -- is turning out to be a buzzword [that gets gamers] to pay $60 for something they can get now for $20. I haven't played a game on these new platforms that's truly next-gen. I've played games that look next-gen, but they're all very familiar because I've seen them on previous platforms. The next-gen games right now are being played on a DS, or Guitar Hero on the PS2. Game design hasn't leaped with the technology onto these new platforms.

And what do you think that it should be?

PO: As an industry, we're enjoying the second or third generation of people who grew up playing video games as customers. Those people have expectations and experience about what a video game can be that didn't exist in the consumer body five or eight years ago. We have to find ways to leverage their consistent experience to make games evolve, instead of just circling the drain on the same play patterns over and over again, just looking a little prettier than last time. When film started, they said that a movie shouldn't be longer than 15 minutes.

That's where we are with video games. Over time, the film audience became more sophisticated, and film evolved, because the audience evolved. It was no longer a novelty, and now they understood it and it became a great thing. Video games are no longer a novelty. The audience understands them, and they can become a great thing, but they haven't yet. That's what next-gen design should be.

One thing that sometimes troubles me is that there's a lot of emphasis on what we can learn from film, rather than doing something beyond film. Film is an incredibly limited medium compared to games. If you're playing a set experience, that takes a lot of potential power away from games.

CU: I think you're right. It's like early films -- they took a lot of their emphasis from stage, and then they ended up transcending stage. I think that there's still things to learn from film in terms of how things are shown and achieved. Using the camera as an example, step one would be to use an intelligent camera that's not just fixed in place, but aids the player to feel like he's in a world. One thing we can do in video games and not in movies is to become something different and feel what that feels like. I don't think we've come close to hitting that identification yet, and that's where I'd like to see us go.

I'd like a feeling in a video game to be something that I couldn't feel anywhere else. A next-gen video game would be something you can only feel on the current generation of gaming systems. I'm a huge fan of Guitar Hero, but the Xbox 360 version isn't a very different experience [than on PS2]. It may look a little better, but it's doesn't take it to the next level. Most of the things I've played on next generation platforms still feel like current generation games that have been prettied up.

Do you think that people are ready to take that next step up? They do still seem to be buying the same old stuff over and over again.

PO: There's comfort in the familiar, and there's quality in the current generation games. Gears of War is a terrific game, but you can split hairs over whether it's next-gen or not. It's a great experience, and anyone who plays it is going to be mightily entertained. World of Warcraft is a terrific experience and so is Guitar Hero. It's a golden age. There's never been a wider variety of quality games for people to choose from, and I'd never go and tell a consumer that they shouldn't be happy with what's entertaining. It's not the audience's fault. We need to give them something that's new, but isn't new merely for its own sake. It has to be new and better.


Taking on one of Darkwatch's many nasties

How do you feel about designing for a license, versus original IP?

PO: It's a different box to work inside of. It's a different set of specs. When we built Darkwatch, we established certain parameters. It was going to be this genre on this platform, and it was going to innovate in these areas and do something common in other areas. You have the same blueprint with a license, but the spaces are more clearly mapped out for you.

In Darkwatch, we had to spend more energy to figure out its look and feel and tone. In a licensed property, those things are available for you, but you also have to bring creativity to it in terms of determining what aspects are actionable and what ways you can expand the property. You don't just want to rehash what is familiar to the core fans.

Do you find it easier?

CU: It really depends on your groove. For us, everybody here at internal development was hired for new IP, so we had a natural desire to do that. It really just depends on the people you hire and the people you have on board for a given project.

Does the fact that everyone came on board for original IP create dissent in the ranks when you have to move over to a license?

CU: No, it's not like that at all. The original plan even with Sammy was to move up to doing multiple projects with multiple teams. The idea was to have a healthy mix of original IP and IP that other people created that we reinterpret. Everyone here is a fan of certain things, and we all have [licenses] that we love.

PO: Yeah. There are original visions and there are licensed visions, but the execution is down to the artistry of the creators. Years ago, studios took a big risk on David Lynch with Dune, and he failed spectacularly with a movie that has brilliance in places, but was a colossal failure.

Then you go to another guy who has just as bizarre a background and give him an even more popular property, and it's the most successful film franchise of the last 20 years. That's Spider-Man. Sam Raimi was able to contain it and express it in a way that the audience was willing to accept, instead of taking something that was brilliant and making it crazier and more absurd. As a studio, we're built for doing original properties. We don't have the brilliance of David Lynch or Sam Raimi, but it's the same challenge for us to be handed a licensed property and say, "Now make it great."

Do you see [energy and passion] in licensed games yourselves? I can definitely see the attempt, but I haven't seen a whole lot of that.

PO: The thing you have to understand about licensed games is that for the most part, they're done under the gun with a shifting set of targets and an immovable ship date. I think the Harry Potter games and some of the Lord of the Rings games were strong, and I can pick a couple of Bond games that were OK. But let's not kid ourselves; licensed properties are notorious for having poor quality.

What tools do you guys use here in the design department?

CU: The usual round of tools the designers use are Maya, Studio Max, the Unreal 3 toolset with physics, and custom tools that are part of Unreal. We have the designers broken into two categories: technical designers and game designers.

Are you more about iteration than preproduction?

CU: I hate to categorize a method. I think that there are times in every project's development when you're doing a lot of iteration, and times that you aren't. Every developer probably goes through the same thing -- there's times when they're iterating like crazy, and times where they're locking it down in production.

Iteration is great for testing out ideas, but it's also very time consuming. But maybe you have more money now that you're under Vivendi!

CU: You do it when it's appropriate and in the best interests of the project.

PO: We have more money, but we're no more eager to waste it. Iteration without a goal in mind is running water into the tub with the drain open.

What do you consider recent successes in terms of advancing the medium?

CU: Guitar Hero opened [the rhythm genre] up to a wider audience, and it really captured an experience with the controller, game balance, andthe sound. My hat's off to those guys, because they did what I would love to see in some modern game experiences: it's a great five-minute experience that can be repeated over and over again, but you don't have to spend four hours trying to get acclimated to the game. You can come back to it anytime and have an equally strong experience. I'm looking forward to that experience being taken online.

PO: Guitar Hero along with select titles on the Wii and DS have been the first games in a long time that really were encouraging and grew our market. I'd say Nintendogs really advanced the state of the art, and like Guitar Hero, it's a title that drew upon existing titles in the marketplace. It's nothing new, but the pieces came together in a charming package that was put in the market with confidence that the audience would find it.

CU: One of the most significant games has to be Brain Age. Even Guitar Hero and Nintendogs went to the same core audience, whereas Brain Age appealed to different [ages and demographics] that otherwise wouldn't play games. That kind of creativity and accessibility are really the most significant things that I've seen happening.

High Moon's Chris Ulm recognizes the significance of Brain Age

So you're very interested in the mass media aspect?

PO: Not for its own sake. I'm not interested in broader markets as much as I'm interested in different markets, because there are so many game companies competing for that same 14-24-year-old guy that it's just a madhouse. You spend so much money and time on a game that has six weeks to make it or break it on the shelves, and I'd like to be able to speak to a different audience that is going to be receptive to a product that allows me to grow as a creator and also be receptive to a product that is going to make my publisher interested because there is money to be made there.

If we can get out to a broader market, it's going to be wonderful for everybody. We can sell more games and drop unit cost, and then games become more socially acceptable and they move more firmly into the fabric of our society, and then maybe we will get those next-gen experiences.

CU: It's necessary, because if we don't nurture the business and allow it to have a larger audience, then we'll spend more and more money applying to the same, diminishing group, and eventually, we will bore them. Imagine if all movies were action movies or comedies. People keep going to movies for variety, and we don't have near as much variety in the games industry.

PO: We've seen things fail. Chris and I were in comic books before video games, and comic books did exactly what video games are in danger of doing, which was overspecializing and overdependence upon a single diminishing and increasingly jaded and disinterested consumer base.

CU: Pretty soon, the stores go away, there's not as many outlets for it, and you don't have nearly the vibrancy and variety of projects that are out there.

Finally, we spoke with High Moon's co-founder and chief creative officer Emmanuel Valdez, who has worked in the game industry for more than thirteen years on a number of titles including Midway's Ready 2 Rumble Boxing series, on which he designed characters and gameplay mechanics for the original title and its sequel. Prior to working with Midway, Valdez also worked at Sony Computer Entertainment's 989 Studios, where he worked as senior artist on a number of the company's sports titles, including ESPN Extreme Racing, ESPN Baseball Tonight, and ESPN Hockey Tonight.

I wanted to know a bit about the move away from Sammy. How did that come to pass?

Emmanuel Valdez: It was an interesting time, because we started the company under Sammy Corporation. They dabbled in games in the past, and they had another group called Sammy Entertainment that imported games in Japan, but they weren't really into it. We were the real first effort to get them into the video game industry, by being a startup publisher. They really wanted to grow. We had a nice-sized building and over 200 people, we were developing Darkwatch and another title and funding three or four others, and it just wasn't enough for them. That was over a period of a couple of years.

Then they decided to go big by acquiring Sega. By doing that, they got a brand name that everyone knows, a lot of great properties, and a lot of great development studios. It made great business sense for them to do that, but for us, we just became this redundancy.

Why have two publishing names and two marketing groups? We almost became obsolete at that point, and they didn't really need us other than for the stuff that we were developing internally that they liked. Then John Rowe and the directors all got together and decided that we liked the direction that we were going, so why not acquire the development entity? We retained the internal development group and everyone that supported internal development, and that's how High Moon Studios was formed.

I'm in charge of the art department, the audio department, cinematics, and the mocap studio. We also have a small outsourcing department here, and I oversee that too. From day one, I wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the process of developing and creating art, from previsualization and concept art to developing the best art we can.

The Bourne Conspiracy, currently in development for next-gen consoles

Which tools do you use?

EV: We're pretty much an Autodesk house. We previously were a Maya-only house, but we started bringing in a lot of talented Studio Max artists. We also use Motion Builder, because we have a mocap studio. Maya is primarily used for some modeling, and it's our main tool for animation. We also use just about everything under the sun: Zbrush, ClayTools, and so on.

Over the last few years, we've really wanted quality art first, and efficiency after that. It's like, "Give me good quality art as fast as you can!" There's a number of things we can do to help that, and we use tools for that. If we had a really good artist that was comfortable with using a certain kind of application, our pipeline is accommodating to different toolsets. Though we do have primary tools, we do have people who can use just about anything that they're comfortable with, as long as we get the quality and we get it done fast.

So it doesn't really bother you when people have a different tool skillset?

EV: As long as our pipeline supports it. Fortunately, we're using a lot of middleware applications and we're an Unreal 3 engine house, which is very flexible in regards to file types and file exchanges. We develop our own proprietary tools, and there's stuff off the shelf we can use to transfer data between different applications in different parts of the process. The pipeline isn't perfect yet, but on almost every single level, we're able to at least exchange data between applications.

What do you use for facial capture?

EV: We use our own proprietary tool. It's something we've developed over the last eight months. Facial mocap solving is a bear to work with, and we tried a number of solutions. I think we're able to break through some of the noise and create a simpler system that's more effective [than other methods].

Do you have in-house music composition?

EV: We don't do any music composition here. We outsource all of our music. I made a conscious decision, because every company I've worked for that had in-house music talent always said to do two things: "Make it techno," or "Make it heavy metal." Nothing in between. Either the industry attracts those types of musicians, or people just gravitate toward [those genres].

We have five audio designers, and two dedicated audio programmers. We place a lot of importance in audio in our games.

A lot of our level artists are working in [close proximity.] We do a lot of cross-discipline seating arrangements here, so we have level designers working closely with the level artists. We also have the AI programmers working with the animation staff, and the game designers working with mechanics. I think we've done a great job of mixing it up and not being afraid to do it.

We have some talented people, but they can go off and do their own thing and come back with something totally different that may be wonderful, but it doesn't fit the game. [Working together] is all part of game development.

jericho_front_tif_jpgcopy.jpg We're starting to get a handle on how best to use Unreal 3, and some of the techniques of next-gen art creation. That was an interesting process, moving from PS2 and Xbox to 360 and PS3. There's a lot more available.

We're really excited about the advances in what we can do graphically, from a character development standpoint to advanced lighting and shadows. It's stuff that we always wished we had, and now that it's available to us, it's about how we use it and how we can make better-looking art.

It was a slow transition, but we're at the point now where we're not wrangling with the technical issues and just concentrating on using what we have now and enhancing it.

Are you finding it comparably simple to work on the 360 and PS3 in terms of where you're putting all your art assets? I've heard that some people are having a rough time.

EV: It was rough in the beginning, for the first year. There's so many ways of creating content now with different tools and techniques, and there wasn't one best solution. It really depended on the games, genres, and projects. Sometimes you have stricter budgets and limitations, so comparing MMORPGs to a puzzle game or a fighting game, you can allocate your resources tighter and you don't have as many restrictions. It's about knowing what you're trying to do, and trying to align your goals with the technology.

From our standpoint, it was a huge transition and a huge learning curve that we had to adjust to and get over. But you have to invest time in it and be patient, and make sure your vision stays intact. It helps when you have talented people who want that challenge. That's one thing we learned when game development companies started transitioning over to next-gen -- if you're not willing to overhaul your way of thinking, it's going to make it really hard to move forward.

Finally, we spoke with High Moon president Peter Della Penna, who recently took up the senior role with the studio in March, replacing High Moon's founding president John Rowe, who moved on to an advisory role with the company. Della Penna was previously chief operating officer for Sierra Entertainment's Worldwide Studios, and we talked to him about High Moon's overall strategy.

Why did you wind up coming to High Moon?

Peter Della Penna: I was afforded the opportunity!

How did that translate into the relationship that's happening with Vivendi?

PDP: I was the COO of Worldwide Studios. My background is in finance. I was originally the CFO at Sierra Entertainment in Bellevue. I ran operations down there around five years ago. At the time, we were primarily focused on internal development. It was part of our corporate strategy to grow in this space, so internal development was a key initiative.

In going through that, we did our portfolio analysis, and my job was to make a good match with our franchises, franchises that we would like to develop, and specific studios that would fit with Vivendi. The first acquisition I was involved in was with Radical Entertainment up in Vancouver. Then we had a smaller acquisition about 15 months afterward with Swordfish in Birmingham. Six months after that, there was High Moon. It was filling a strategic desire for internal development, in finding a collection of studios that would complement each other.

Now that it's under the Vivendi umbrella, is there still a desire to put forth the High Moon name?

PDP: Absolutely. Our development studios are all unique in their competencies and cultures, and part of innovation and creativity is driven by teamwork and the culture around that teamwork. We're not at all trying to homogenize our internal studios. I was attracted to High Moon and Swordfish because of their cultures. Yes, High Moon will be at the forefront of its products.


High Moon president Peter Della Penna

What do you think it takes to establish that as a name that people are going to trust and come back to?

PDP: By making great games, simple as that. Consumers aren't very forgiving. It's a tough entertainment business, and games aren't getting less expensive to make. Spending $60 on a next-gen game is tough for the consumer. There are good competitive games, so we need to be there in the forefront of our competitive products.

What does the relationship with Vivendi entail for High Moon in terms of driving their own direction? Is that driven partially by Vivendi, or is it less of a hands-on approach?

PDP: I don't think it's either side of the spectrum. Vivendi understands this business, and understands that it's a difficult business to be in. You look at where your competencies are and where your talent's at.

What talents do [our acquired studios] have, versus what we'd like to achieve from a corporate portfolio, from a Vivendi Games perspective? We like to say that with High Moon, you have [a certain] set of competencies and capabilities and passion, and that fits nicely with where we would like to be in our Vivendi portfolio.

Are you moving the studio toward multiple projects simultaneously? Is that something you want to move towards?

PDP: Absolutely.

Is there a lot of staffing up that has to happen for that, or is it a question of fragmenting departments?

PDP: There is growth. You want to be smart about how you grow. It's key to getting that right chemistry in your game mechanics and vision, and personally I'd like to see us spend a lot more time up front on making something fun and cool from a consumer perspective, and then apply resources to go into full production. Part of the business side of having multiple teams is using your resources as efficiently as possible, since you'll have people move onto a second project as they finish up on another project.

High Moon was identified with original IP earlier on. Is that something that can be carried forward? Is that something that's important to the future of the studio?

PDP: Absolutely. IP creation has more value for Vivendi Games than licensing, but licensing has its place. Having original IP as well as licenses helps round and balance the portfolio risk. Part of the attraction to High Moon by Vivendi in the first place was their ability to create original IP, as with Darkwatch.

High Moon's Wild West-themed supernatural shooter Darkwatch

Where do you see High Moon in the next five years?

PDP: [We'll have] multiple teams, and a balanced portfolio of original IP as well as licensed IP. I see High Moon viewed as a top-tier, premier development studio known for making great games.

Any interest in handhelds at this point?

PDP: There is an interest in handhelds. When we talk about IP, we talk about franchises, and establishing strong franchises means multiple platforms. That doesn't necessarily end with the complexity of the current platforms that are out there.

What plays well on a DS isn't necessarily going to play well on the PS3 or the 360. I think we won't be looking just to port to multiple platforms; we'll be looking to develop IP and create franchises on multiple platforms, which doesn't necessarily mean that we'll do all those platforms under one roof.

Is there any interest in the Wii?

PDP: There's a lot of interest. You have to give credit for Nintendo for having a platform that is innovative, fun, and provides a new avenue of innovation that most people underappreciated until they actually hit the marketplace. We're looking at the Wii and doing stuff for the Wii very closely.

As a relatively young studio, how did you, coming from the Vivendi side, evaluate a company that only had one title to its name at that point?

PDP: Developing games is about the people, the teamwork, the culture and philosophies, and their experience. While we're a relatively new studio, there's a lot of years of broad experience here. I look at us as a new company, but I look at the team collectively as a mature development team.

In terms of the license that is being worked on now, how do you choose what fits with High Moon?

PDP: It goes back to the individuals. You listen to their ideas and how well they can articulate their vision and really bring out what the particular IP is really about. There's a tremendous amount of creativity in this building, and in looking for who would be a good fit, it was evident that these guys have the right mix of experience for the genre that we're working with to bring something special to the table.

What is appealing about San Diego as a development community?

PDP: There are incredibly talented people in the area. A lot of stimulating creativity and innovation is about environment. If you walk around the halls here, you can see that it's a stimulating place. Southern California is a pretty stimulating place, and I'm sure that has something to do with attracting creative and innovative people.


What is the mission for High Moon, going forward?

PDP: For me, it's making incredibly compelling games for consumers that make our company money. We are a business, and we're about value creation, so the equation gets a little more complicated than just making great games. It's about making consumer-compelling games that are done within a budget, and that fits consumer expectations and demand.

Does being under the Vivendi umbrella add a cushion for High Moon? A lot of independent studios often say that they're one game away from closing down, with the budgets that exist.

PDP: There's an element of comfort, knowing that you have a very supportive and interested shareholder. That allows everybody in the organization to really focus on what we're trying to do.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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