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Lessons from the founders: Rich Vogel and Mark Tucker on building their new NetEase studio

"One thing I learned from being independent is that you really don't want to be chasing the money for your payroll."

Chris Kerr, News Editor

August 31, 2023

7 Min Read
The T-Minus Zero Entertainment logo on a stylised dark orange background

"One thing I learned from being independent is that you really don't want to be chasing the money for your payroll," says Rich Vogel, former Bioware veteran and co-founder and CEO of T-Minus Zero Entertainment, during a recent chat at Gamescom 2023. "Because what that leads to is short-term decision making, and that means you're constantly in demo mode versus actually making a game."

Vogel was elaborating on his decision to partner with NetEase to establish T-Minus, which is the latest studio in the Chinese conglomerate's expanding development arsenal, and suggests it was the company's willingness to commit to the journey rather than focus solely on the endgame that sold him on the link-up.

"We talked to a lot of people and NetEase understood our vision better than anybody else—and we discussed this with some big publishers, all the way to equity financing," he adds. "Everyone we talked with asked us 'why don't you work with an existing IP? Why don't you just be very conservative?' And I think if you're conservative you're not going to break out in today's market. There's just too much going on."

Vogel would know. The veteran designer has spent decades building studios like Sony Online Entertainment Austin, BioWare Austin, and Battlecry Studios to work on high-profile titles like Star Wars Galaxies, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls Online, Fallout 76, and more.

Seemingly reluctant to play with somebody else's toys, Vogel says T-Minus has chosen to build its debut action game around a "globally recognized" property that's now in the public domain. Although he can't discuss specifics just yet, Vogel says the project will cater to the current generation of players, meaning it'll be shunning some of the elements that made his previous titles tick.

"I did MMOs for a while. I've worked on those for a very long time, and they require a lot of time sink and grinding. I don't think that will hold people in today's market. You look at Fortnite and it doesn't have that grind, and people love playing that game over and over and over again," he says.

"That's the type of game we want to do. We want to do games-as-a-service. We want to build a player experience that hasn't been seen before. We want to produce screenshots that make people say 'I gotta go play that.' And we're going to do something very ambitious to make that happen."

You've got to find the "soul" of your game

Given it has the backing of NetEase, you'd be forgiven for thinking that T-Minus will be scaling-up rapidly. Vogel, however, says the aim is to do the exact opposite. Right now, the studio employs 10 people and will likely hover around the 30 mark until the team can find the "soul of the game."

Among that group of early pioneers is T-Minus co-founder and creative director, Mark Tucker, former design director at Bethesda Game Studios and supporting lead designer on Fallout 76. When I ask how T-Minus will know when it's found the soul, Tucker explains you can glean a lot from internal testing and user research feedback, but you also have to know when to follow your instincts.

"I think we have a good sense of what feels fun," says Tucker. "I borrow the Sid Meier definition of fun, which is a 'series of meaningful choices.' I'm always thinking about that when we're analyzing and playing the game. I ask myself whether I'm really getting the feedback from the choices I'm making, and is the game responding to those?"

"We're also going to be the hardest critics of our own game. So we're going to stay small and focus on the game until we feel like, as a team, we're having a ball playing it."

Discussing the decision to lean into the games-as-a-service model, which is known for being somewhat divisive, Vogel indicates the choice was driven by a desire to prioritize community building and longevity. "I like building online games. They have a way of creating lasting friendships. I just think that social interaction is really special, and I want to embrace that and build something that will last for a while," he says.

Tucker adds that developing an online service title will give T-Minus the opportunity to create a new hobby for people, and says it represents a "special" opportunity to embark on a journey with a burgeoning community of players. "We get to keep perfecting it and adding to it, and there's the satisfaction loop of hearing clear feedback from the community and then reacting to it," says Tucker. "You fast-forward two or three years after you went live and you can't even imagine where you'll be. Development becomes a collaborative effort [between the team and the community]."

He points to Destiny as a "great example" of games-as-a-service done right, but also suggests there are lessons to be learned from the likes of Diablo IV and Fortnite, which have really "matured" post-launch. As for how T-Minus will look to set themselves apart, Tucker notes the studio's project will have a "persistence layer" but will also be "session-based," because that lets players get to the fun fast. 

Fostering positivity is about being proactive

When T-Minus broke cover last month, the founding team pledged to nurture a culture that would be "open, friendly, mature, and highly collaborative," while also balancing "quality-of-life with quality-of-work." That's par for the course with most studio announcements in 2023, but what does it actually mean in practice?

"I want to create a very safe and open environment that is built on diversity," says Vogel. "I know a lot of people claim that, but every studio I've built has been very diverse. At the third studio I built, we had a staff pool that was 35 percent women, so I'm a big believer in that. I'm also a believer in hiring people we can trust implicitly [to buy into our values]. It's about being proactive. It's about supporting groups like Women in Games. Going to meet-ups. You have to make an effort to go and recruit, right? But you have to create a safe environment to do that. You can't have a bro culture."

T-Minus will be "remote-first," which according to Vogel will enable it to recruit the "best talent." But it also means the leadership team will need to reconsider how they develop a positive workplace environment in the post-pandemic world, where teammates might be scattered around the globe.

Right now, Vogel is considering implementing a "hub-and-spoke" type system, where he hires and builds communities in certain areas and then gives those staff the option of getting together in a WeWork-style office space. "We could have a hybrid option from that point," he says. "Or we could also have meet-ups every quarter that we rotate around."

For Tucker and Vogel, that hub-and-spoke model should help the studio address the "big challenge" of providing flexibility while allowing junior team members to really engage with senior talent.

"People working side-by-side are going to learn faster, so we're going to have to make sure we're really conscientious about allocating time for our senior leadership team to match-mentor our newer recruits. If we don't, they're not going to grow into the roles we need them to once we launch."

As it stands, T-Minus' only point-of-presence is a small space in Austin with a few workstations. The city has played home to the vast majority of Vogel's previous studios, and so I ask whether the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which has made abortion illegal in multiple U.S. states (including Texas) and impacted access to other reproductive rights, was a factor when deciding whether to go remote-first.

Although Vogel reiterates the decision was primarily about enabling T-Minus to recruit the best people for each job, he says the impact of Roe v. Wade certainly influenced his thinking. "It has definitely affected our ability to attract top talent," he says. "Because why would you go to a restricted area like that? We're definitely looking at areas that are open like Montreal, Vancouver, and Seattle. But again, if the talent is there, we're open to it."

The long-term aim, for Vogel, is to ensure T-Minus remains "tight-knit." He doesn't expect the studio to grow beyond 100 employees, and suggests outsourcing teams and the support of NetEase will enable it to stay lean. "NetEase has great central services across art and design and other disciplines, so we can use that," he continues.

Tucker agrees, and says NetEase will be able to help "clear the path" if the studio hits a roadblock. "That was one of the huge appeals of the partnership. They understand development and want to empower us. They're doing what they can to set us up for success, and as a developer you can't ask for anything more."

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About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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