With a background at Looking Glass Studios and as a co-founder of BioShock developers Irrational Games, Jon Chey could write his own ticket. Having worked on BioShock and System Shock 2, he could likely head up a big-budget console game project for a major publisher.
Instead, he's decided to strike out on his own tohu create "niche" games that he himself wants to make, aiming only to satisfy himself and what he hopes is a dedicated audience that will push his projects to, if not world-beating success, respectable profitability. His company, Blue Manchu games, is entirely self-funded.
"I decided I wanted to come back to Australia, which was always my intention," Chey tells Gamasutra. "Ken [Levine] and I were running [Irrational] together. He was managing the Boston studio and I was managing a studio down here in Canberra." Irrational's Australia branch -- now re-dubbed 2K Marin -- developed Freedom Force under Chey's guidance, before moving on to BioShock and XCOM.
His new company Blue Manchu Games, is currently hard at work on Card Hunter, a Flash-based, microtransaction-powered card/board game hybrid of completely original design.
His collaborators include Captain Forever indie developer (and Irrational alum) Jarrad "Farbs" Woods, former Irrational art director Ben Lee, former Looking Glass designer Dorian Hart, and Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and his business partner Skaff Elias, who are contributing to the game's design, among others, working in what Chey calls "a loose collective," with no central office and no full time employees aside from Chey.
You got "itchy feet", I think is what you said, but you still stuck out for a little while after 2K acquired Irrational?
Jon Chey: Oh yeah, yeah. So, the thing we focused on after the acquisition was BioShock, which was a really positive experience. I mean, obviously, it's turned into a very valuable franchise, and it was, I think, really great. It confirmed to us that selling the business to 2K was actually a good thing to do.
I mean, we didn't have any regrets about it, because we were kind of stuck in a bit of a difficult circle, where we were making games that were well-reviewed and people liked, but we were never able to make a hit. Part of that could just be because we didn't know what we were doing, but I like to think that we just never really had the capital -- the investment. We were getting two million dollar budgets and being asked to make first person shooters that were competitive with Half-Life, or whatever, and it wasn't really possible.
And so when we became part of 2K, they put some real money into BioShock. Both on the development side and on the marketing side. And that was just a huge relief for us, because I think those sort of RPG-shooter hybrids that we were making, that we liked to make and that Looking Glass made -- we really liked that genre, but it was not really proven that it could be a big hit. I mean, I think a lot of publishers regarded it as a pretty niche sort of business.
It seems that a lot of the developers who were making FPSes for PCs in the past really hopped on the console space at the beginning of this generation, particularly with the Xbox 360.
JC: Yeah, I guess I would say that -- but I think it's been really good for the console gaming. Because we were PC developers. Looking Glass are PC developers, and I think we would have liked to have stayed PC developers, but we just got squeezed out.
I think we'd still be squeezed out of that market. The big budget shooter PC market, I doubt it's ever going to come back to life, other than ports from the console side.
So yeah, we were squeezed out of that, and had to go to console, and I think it turned out to be great for us, because hey, we could make a real business out of it, and make games that sold several million copies, which is what we needed to do for the budgets we were investing in them.
I think it was a breath of fresh air for the console landscape, too, so it turned out well, I think. We certainly weren't the only ones. It seems like all of the PC developers pretty much went that path.
Even sometimes when Ken Levine talks about PC gaming, I get kind of a hint of a, "those are the good old days" type of nostalgia. Do you have any of that?
JC: Well, not really, because I actually feel like things have kind of come full circle, and I think a lot of other people do, too. Saying you're a PC developer isn't like an admission of failure anymore. Part of what I'm excited about and trying to do with my new business is get back to PC.
I mean, I'm a PC developer again, although I suppose I don't really look at it in that kind of narrow way. I'm not really interested in making another big budget console title. There are just so many other platforms, and I think, to me -- I don't really care what the technology is I'm using to make my game, or where it's going to be played.
But what's exciting is, I think, that that's opening up opportunities. It's opening up space for genres and niches that might have been moribund. I don't want to go away and make Facebook social games -- not that I have anything against them -- but to me it's not a dollar thing. Like, "Oh, there's this huge untapped growing market there!"
It's more like, "Wow, this gives us the potential to go and make those kind of more genre, nichey games that I really want to make, and I really want to play, and hopefully have a successful business there." Because we can actually reach an audience now and have a sustainable business. I think that's really exciting.
So let's talk a little bit about your new business. What's going on, when did it start, and who's part of it?
JC: So we started about a year ago -- not quite a year ago -- in August last year. It's kind of an unusual business. At the moment, we're a totally distributed organization. We don't have an actual physical office. It's kind of, I guess, a loose collective. Nobody's working on it full time except for me, so it's really, I suppose, a real collaborative group little studio, rather than a conventional game development office.
And that may change a little bit in the future, but what's nice about that is that I'm able to bring in people who have exactly the skills I want when I want them -- for any amount of time that they want to contribute, too. Because a lot of them are actually doing other things, have other interests, as well, that they're pursuing.
So some of the people are working almost full time and some of them are working 10 hours a week, and they're all over the world.
There's me, I'm in Canberra. I do actually work with another guy, Farbs. He used to work for us in Canberra at Irrational, and he left a couple of years ago to become an indie developer, and I think made quite a name for himself, and made some really good stuff. And so he's continuing to do his own stuff.
He's got Captain Forever and he's got a new iteration of that, Captain Jameson, he's working on. My secret plan, of course, once we start making some money, is bring him in more full time. But it's a nice arrangement at the moment, because he can pursue his other interests at the same time. And I guess, hopefully, that will always be the case.
Our art director is a guy called Ben Lee, who used to work for us as well, and was the art director on Freedom Force. And he's worked over at Relentless in the UK. And we're working with a designer, Dorian Hart, who used to work for us and also worked at Looking Glass and worked on the Ultima Underworld games and the original System Shock, and so he's got an incredible pedigree.
And then we're also working with Richard Garfield, and his business partner Skaff [Elias], because we're working on a card game/board game so they're bringing some expertise from having actually designed card games and board games before.
So it's sort of like bringing in all these people as needed, and we'll just work through Skype and Dropbox and Basecamp, which is an online project planning thing. It's not revolutionary to be doing that, but I feel like the tools have finally matured enough that that's actually possible to pull that off.
Is that a bit like what you did when you were collaborating with the Irrational team in Boston on BioShock?
JC: Yeah, so we had a lot of experience with that, but it's got a lot easier than it was.
What's made it easier?
JC: I just think that cloud stuff is actually real. Like Dropbox, for example. When we were working between Canberra and Boston we had a dedicated VPN between the two offices, and we'd check stuff into a package called Perforce. It would shrink files back and forth, but it was really expensive and kind of slow. And now you can just get Dropbox for, well, free, to start with. And you just chuck a file into a folder on your PC. Two seconds later Ben in Brighton has it on his PC, and it's just seamless. As I said there's nothing revolutionary there, all those steps got a little bit lower, so it just kind of works now.
And also, I think it's the scale of the project. It's hard to count, exactly, but we're talking less than 10 people. When you're trying to connect two 50-man studios working together, it's a little bit tougher.
So yeah, it's been interesting. It's actually worked very well so far, but it's a little weird because we're all sitting in our houses, or our offices. Farbs is in Canberra as well, but I probably only physically see him once every three or four months. It's kind of sad.
So can we talk a little bit about what you're actually working on at this point?
JC: The broad mandate I had for the studio is make the kind of games that I want to play, which is pretty broad, but I think those sort of fall into two categories. One is, I really like card games and board games. I think that they tend to bring those to computer platforms; there are interesting examples, but there hasn't really been, I think, an ambitious enough mixing of what's good about those kind of physical games with what's good about computer games.
And, of course, computer games have lots of advantages, like secret information, and maintaining collections, and doing all the busy work for you, and all that stuff. But I really like the simplicity and clarity of the rules of card games and board games so that's one area I really wanted to explore.
And seeing what you could get when you mix those two things together and design something that's isn't taking an existing board game and moving it onto a computer, but building something original from the ground up.
The other area I want to come back to in the future is the whole kind of simulation side of things, like the old sort of Looking Glass-style games that are very simulational, and dynamic, and procedural. But that's the future. One thing at a time.
So the first project is this game called Card Hunter, which is a board game/card game hybrid that you play on a computer, mixed with an RPG.
That's a pretty clunky way of describing it, I guess, but it's basically like -- imagine you're playing a board game/card game, only it's largely a single-player experience. The best way to describe it is, imagine I take an MMO, and every time you fight a monster, instead of playing a timer game with with pull downs and buttons that you click, you're playing a turn-based strategy game.
You have little pieces on a board, and you play cards to move those pieces around, and that's the battle you fight. And at the end of the battle you win some treasure, which you then use to trick your characters like you do in an MMO, but those characters are actually pieces in the board game. So that's it in a nutshell.
From a visual thematic point of view, we're guys who played, or thought a lot about playing, D&D back in the '80s, or even earlier, and so we've gone for that style. The whole game is themed around a quite a nostalgic look back to that. It's actually a very hard thing to make any kind of distinct impression with, so we really thought we'll tackle this in a couple of ways.
One of them is we're not going to go for like some sort of super modern engine kind of game, we're going to reach back into the very early days of D&D. And we're also not going to try and hide the fact that this is a board game and a card game, by doing a lot of kind of complicated 3D animation. We present the game as very much like an actual board game, so there's a board with little cardboard pieces and so on. It's pretty different from anything else that's out there, I think.
You can still do interesting visual stuff when showing people a board game, and it's not really common for studios to do that kind of game.
JC: No. Well, because I think there's still a kind of little bit of a ghetto feel to board games. I think that the natural reaction of game developers is like "Well, let's try and hide the fact that it's a board game. Let's make it 3D and animate everything." And the problem with that is that when you're playing a board game, you actually don't want all this stuff around. It's kind of nice the first couple of times you see it, but after that it just gets in the way. Do you play the Advance Wars games?
Oh yeah, a lot.
JC: You know how they have those little combat animations when pieces attack each other? I really like those and I watch them once or twice, and then I turn them off.
Yeah, everybody turns those off. It just slows you down.
JC: Right. I think that, well we'll see, I guess. I mean, I personally think of the sort of board gamey things as, I don't know, to me it's a little bit friendly and kind of welcoming. It's not trying to make out that it's the typical fantasy melodramatic, "you must save the world" and all the evil will destroy everything. It's a game.
You're talking about the warmth that board games have. I think that they just kind of evoke a "everyone gather around the table and do something together" mood.
JC: Right, right. So that's the kind of feel we're going for.
Did you say that you have another project too going on?
JC: No, no, we have a planned project. We're not big enough to run more than one thing at a time. My plan is to get this project up and if -- well even if it's a total failure, we'll probably try a couple of other things. We're so small we'll try to focus on one thing at a time.
I thought it was interesting too when we kind of touched on it a little bit, about critically well-received games that don't really do that well. I just wanted to kind of get your thoughts on that a little bit more. Obviously you make a good game, and it doesn't meant that it's going to be a hit.
JC: Oh absolutely, yeah. That's the story of most of my career, really but BioShock. Our games weren't failures. They generally paid for themselves, and that was about it, until BioShock, which broke that mold. That's definitely not an area I want to be back in.
Well, there's also some value to that, in the sense that, when you're a small studio that's starting out, you can get a lot of value out of just creating a game which is perceived well -- both by the industry and by consumers -- even if it doesn't initially sell a lot of copies.
I think System Shock 2 was a game like that, which has hung around in people's minds. So there's probably a lot of people who have played it now, who never paid for it, and I don't mean that in any kind of a bitter way. I think it's obviously it's much better to have that, than it just sinks without a trace, and nobody ever pirated it.
I don't think it was piracy that sank it or anything; I just think that at the time it wasn't very heavily marketed. We developed on a really low budget. I think we spent about -- I don't actually know what the total budget for the game was -- but I think we spent about $700,000 developing it, which is ridiculous even for the time! Building a fully-featured first person shooter for that amount of money was just crazy.
So we knew when we were setting out to build it -- that was like Half-Life 1-era -- we're not going to be able to out-develop them in terms of features or polish, and we're not going to have the marketing budget, but if we make a really good game at least, we're building the foundations of the future.
And that's not my goal this time around. I mean, like I said before, I think that there are plenty of new business models, and the ability to reach people without going to direct marketing is so much greater now, that I'm hopeful that we can make, perhaps, a game that fits within a niche. We're not going to try and reach everybody who plays FarmVille, or something, but with this kind of game if you can get an audience of a hundred thousand people who are prepared to keep playing it every month for a couple of years or a year or whatever, there's an ability to have a successful business right there.
And I think that's the big difference between now and back when we made System Shock 2. Where it was like, "Well, we've got to really got to sell a million copies of this to say that we were a success." And we don't. That bar is considerably lower now, so it works out.
The developers of Card Hunter.
You had your name attached to a number of great games, but it seems almost like you're saying that BioShock was a success purely because it had more money thrown at it.
JC: But part of that -- what that means for me personally -- is we were able to sell the company to 2K and to take part in the success of BioShock financially. And so that has given me the ability now to fund the speculative -- frankly, very speculative -- game development. I'm entirely funding this venture. There's no publisher investment, there's no publisher, there's no outside investment, so I don't have to convince anybody that this is a good idea other than myself, which is a little frightening, but at the same time I think it's an opportunity to do some games that wouldn't get funded otherwise, frankly.
Okay, you'd probably find some indie guys who'd be prepared to put a year or two of their lives into something like this, but that's one person. And still, I think the level of polish we need, it's very hard to get that just by yourself. And a lot of indie guys are very clever at doing things on the cheap and picking styles for the games that don't require a lot of assets -- like Captain Forever, for example doing vector graphics. That's the smart thing to do.
But then there's a gap there, where it's like, "What if we had five or 10 people who can afford to work for a year or two and try to make a game?" No, it's not going to be Half-Life 3, but it has a level of polish and technology that's going to require some investment to get to. So that's the opportunity. I'm sort of taking advantage here -- instead of taking my money for selling the company and buying a yacht, I'm buying the opportunity to make some games that probably wouldn't get made otherwise.
Yeah, that's great because obviously the funding is probably the hardest part of going into this.
JC: And like I said, well, I'm not a good enough businessman to sell these projects, or any other projects I plan to do, to investors. You'd have to be a pretty big salesman to.
I'm interested in it but I'm not going to lie, it'd be a hard pitch.
JC: No absolutely, yeah. I think investors quite rightly want to see, well, "What else is like this? Where's the evidence that people are going to consume this, and like it, and pay for it?" And that's not always there until -- there's always got to be a first person, right? I mean, I imagine Minecraft would have been impossible to sell to an investor.
Now it'd be pretty easy. Minecraft clones are popping up all over the place.
Your game is free-to-play. Even with free-to-play ascendant, some developers are still reluctant to admit the change is happening.
JC: I think you can do it right or you can do it badly. And it's just another strategy. But I do think what's interesting is seeing it start to move into other genres, and also help more nichey genres find a way to survive. Like one of the games that I've been looking at is World of Tanks.
That's a pretty nichey kind of game. It's a pretty hardcore tank shooter, which probably would have had trouble making a lot of money five years ago, but from what I can see -- and I don't really know the figures -- but from what I can see is they're very successful with it, and they've got a freemium kind of model.