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Tour of Chicago - Pt. 2: Wideload Games

In our continuing tour of Chicago-area game development studios, we visit Wideload Games (Stubbs the Zombie), talking to former Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian on episodic games, outsourcing, and escaping big-company politics.

June 26, 2006

16 Min Read

Author: by N. Evan Van Zelfden

Chicago-headquartered Wideload Games was founded in 2003 by Alex Seropian, ex-Bungie co-founder and Halo co-creator. Its released title to date has been the distinctly unconventional Xbox title Stubbs The Zombie, notable for its use of outsourcing in its development, and as described in a recent Game Developer magazine postmortem.

But as for the physical location of the company, its studio is a cozy loft, with hardwood floors, open spaces, and bicycles parked inside. Besides the main work area, there’s an executive office (completely empty and unused), a lounge, and a kitchen stocked with Red Bull and Guinness. Gamasutra had a chance to speak to Wideload founder Alex Seropian about a wide load of topics, with a particular emphasis on humor, and the future of games.

So what is Wideload working on next? “Some video games,” Seropian laughs. “Some cool video games.” Further details below, including development time-table, project market, and dark hints at platform.

Speaking Your Food Mind

Alexander Seropian has done plenty of interviews, profiles, and press coverage, he notes: “When somebody comes over and asks me questions, and there’s something I want to say, I just say it. I don’t wait for the question. [laughs] I write my own interview,” he tells us.

We then inquire if Mr. Seropian has any cooking tips, or recipes he wishes to pass on to our readers. “You’re probably just making fun of me for that article that was in Wired.” “I had all these philosophical conversations with that dude,” Seropian explains. “He totally left all that stuff out of the article. I wrote this little paper about how game design and cooking. They’re the same thing. Not the same, but there are so many similarities between the creative process of creating a meal and creating a game…”

“I have this virtuous circle of life activities that I do outside of work,” Seropian comments. “And it all starts with eating. Which is just this really fabulous hobby I have. I just love to eat good food. From that, I got into cooking. If you cook really well, your chances of eating good food go up dramatically.” “And then from that,” he says, “I started running. Because the more calories you burn the more food you can eat. It’s really this virtuous circle I got going. Those are pretty much my hobbies right there. [laughs] I never wished that someone would ask me that question…but now that you have.”

We then ask if Mr. Seropian would do a cooking show on G4, possibly with guests like Keita Takahashi rolling meatballs, or CliffyB microwaving Hot Pockets. “Dude,” Seropian says with deadly seriousness, “I would do that in a second.”



Differentiating Your Product

When he’s not cooking, eating, or running, Seropian runs a game developer that strives to be different. “There’s a couple things we set out from the beginning, when I was writing the business plan,” Seropian says. “I have always had the personal belief that, to be successful, you have to be able to do something really well.”

“If your end product is something that a lot of other people are doing,” he argues, “You’ve got to differentiate yourself somehow. A lot of that comes down to what the actual game is.” “So the only two bits of ‘strategy’ we cared about in our business plan were having some sort of differentiator in our creative direction -- and for us, that’s humor, because we think we’re funny. Which is suicide for a lot of people. But that was what we wanted to do. And part of that is we like stuff that’s funny. We like to try to be funny.”

“If you look at entertainment in general,” Seropian says, “People like to laugh. Humor and comedy is big part of a lot of entertainment. If you look at the top grossing movies of all time, it’s like split between action movies and funny movies.... And no one was making games that were funny. There were some, but nobody really had that as a charter, so we wanted to adopt that as our war cry.”

“And the other thing was,” he adds, “how we were going to go about making games. Really, the whole business plan was written by me questioning whether I wanted to make games anymore. And the reason for that question was my experience at Microsoft. Not that it was a bad experience,” he adds quickly, “I had a great experience at Microsoft. But being on the other side of the fence, there were a lot of developers that were making games for the Xbox for launch time, and a lot of them were struggling for one reason or another.”

“A lot of them were struggling with the transition from one project to another,” Seropian remembers. “With the team size getting bigger... A lot of them were struggling with trying to manage their finances, that cashflow, because they were living under the milestone payment system. And a lot of them were going out of business. And I thought, 'Gee, if I weren’t doing this for a living, I’d think this is totally a loser business to be in.’ Like, why the fuck do I want to do that again? Let’s figure out a way to do it that’s not so painful.”

Seropian isolated the big struggle for developers, including Bungie. “Every time you make a game, it costs more money. And it takes more people. And so you have to figure out how to have more money at the start of every project. And not only that, if you’re doing one project at a time, you’re basically putting all your eggs in one basket, making one big bet, and hoping that it works.”

“What’s the business model for that?” Seropian asks. “It’s like going to the roulette table, time after time after time. And the minimum bet goes up each time.” Seropian wanted to recreate the small feel of the original Bungie, and find a model that would work.



Starting From A Core

Thus, for his new company, Wideload, Seropian chose to use a small core group, one that would be employed the entire time. Once they design a game on paper, they’ll prototype the game, and do pre-production work on it. Then, when they have the funding to put it into production, Wideload will staff up with independent contractors (some work on-site, but most remotely). For the last third of the project, the original core will do all the post-production where they play test and tune the game.

“So that’s how we work,” Seropian says. “We’re a small team. We actually design a lot of games on paper. We have these design parties, pretty much every few months. We’ll get together and pitch them to each other, poke them, riff on them, and all that kind of stuff. Last year we probably designed thirty games that way.”

Seropian thinks it’s healthy for the company to go through that creative process regularly. “And it’s also the pool from which we bring the games that we’re going to work on,” he adds. “We have a project that’s about to go into production that will take fifteen months, maybe a little less. We have a couple of smaller things that we’re working on. And then we have a couple of other games that are in really early pre-production. We’re just drawing pictures and stuff now, but those are probably longer-term projects.”

Their first project, Stubbs, took eighteen months to make, and Wideload learned a lot about what works well, and what doesn’t. One thing that worked well was contractors using the same tools as Wideload. “We set it up so that a contactor can be doing their work in their house, or wherever they were,” Seropian explains. “And when they sent us the e-mail that said, ‘we’re done’ we would just play the game, and it would be in there.”

With this development process, the amount of time between submission and review was zero. “We could look at it right away, and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we need changed.’ Get that feedback to them immediately. You want to get the iteration process as quick as possible,” Seropian states. “And that worked really well for us after we figured out how to make that happen.”


On Stubbs' Life Lessons

Seropian had nothing but kind things to say about Stubbs’ publisher, Aspyr. “I love working with those guys. I really like doing business with people that have the same goals as I do. And by that I mean, Aspyr is a small publisher. Stubbs was a really big project to them. So Stubbs' importance to Aspyr was parallel to Stubbs' importance to us. Which is great.”

“Everyone there cared so much about the game,” he says, “wanted the best for the game, wanted it to do really well. So there really was a common pole in the ground for us to rally around. It wasn’t like being one of fifty titles coming out from some giant publisher who was going to tell us we had to be done by some fiscal quarter... Aspyr has some really good people; fun to work with, honest, and easy to talk to. I could just go on and on. They were a great partner for us.”

Seropian says the biggest contribution that Aspyr made to the game was its soundtrack. “We didn’t have a huge marketing budget, obviously, but they spent a lot of time and a lot of money on putting that soundtrack together. I think that got a lot of press for the game. It was mentioned in pretty much every review, right along all the other aspects of the game, taken really seriously, and I think a lot of people really liked it.”

Seropian also referred to previous publishers. “Gathering [of Developers] is an example of a company that [has] the same kind of goals that we do, and a pretty good match for a company like us, or any independent developer that wants to hold onto their IP. When they started Gathering,” Seropian recalls, “They certainly did a lot of things differently, which is part of what we’re about.”

Seropian thinks it would be great for the industry if another Gathering, if another developer-centric publisher came about. “Because, with all the consolidation in the business, there’s a lot of leverage on the publisher’s side of the table. From one perspective,” he sees, “It’s good because concentrating that power has the ability to make the profile of video gaming bigger. And as I’m sure everyone who has a TV is aware that there’s a lot of things you can put on your TV. Not just videogames. So there is definitely competition for customers and eyeballs.”

“That power can be harnessed for good,” he says, “But mostly it’s harnessed for evil.” Having other options is always a good thing for independent developers, he notes. “I had some good times at Microsoft,” Seropian pauses, reflecting. “We spent a lot of time and energy trying to separate ourselves from the politics of the MGS and Microsoft proper politics.” One of the most difficult times, Seropian recalls, was the E3 after Bungie was acquired. “There was quite a bit of debate over what we should be…they really wanted us to show a lot of stuff and be prominently featured, and we didn’t want to do that. We sort of ended up in the middle, and that was the E3 where Halo got the dig for having a crappy frame rate. People scratching their heads, saying ‘This is supposed to be the big thing?’ Whatever: I guess it all worked out.”

“Here’s something cryptic,” interjects Seropian. “I’ve always been in the business of making games for me.” He proceeds to outline his next title, with impressionistic detail: “I’ve discovered recently that I’ve gotten older. And I’ve got kids at home. And a family. And all the friends I have now are parents of kids my kid’s age.”

“And they don’t play videogames,” he continues to build. “So I discovered there’s a lot of people like me -- who need to have something that doesn’t necessarily have headshots -- but something that’s fun to play socially. So we’re working on something like that.”

Emerging Trends For Games?

When asked more wide-ranging questions on the future of the biz, Seropian focuses in on episodic content. “Probably not for the reasons people have been talking about episodic content for a while,” he says. With television it makes sense, because a pilot will cost one-fifth of a season. “But making one episode of a videogame is going to cost you like seven-eighths. To me, it makes absolutely no sense from a risk reduction perspective.” But from a story-telling perspective… “I watch a lot of TV. I’m not ashamed to admit it. And some of it I find really compelling.” He cites the sense of anticipation, and wanting to see what’s next.

“One of the things that I think is going to be really big in the next couple years is the proliferation of closed networks,” predicts Seropian. “Xbox Live is a closed network. iTunes is a closed network. I think we’re going to get a lot more closed content networks.” Episodic content is a driver for those kinds of networks, he notes, where users keep going back to get content. “The other thing I’ve been convinced of for a while, is that games are too long and that they cost too much. It’s so hard for me to play a twenty hour game, because I’ve got kids. But, kids go to bed, I go downstairs for an hour, I play a game, no sweat.”

“And if that costs $2.99,” he adds, “I’ll totally do that. And if it’s awesome, I’ll do that like every week. All of us have way too many choices where to spend our dollar,” he continues:“The only things that are going to resonate with anybody is providing a better choice for somebody. I don’t think episodic content will replace retail content, or arcade content, but it definitely has a place.”

Seropian further believes in a coming ‘perfect storm’ of features that will attract a whole new wave to console gaming. “Part of it is HD [high-definition], part of it is probably Blu-ray, part of it is episodic content, part of it is arcade content, part of it is you can play your music and pictures on there.” The core gamer will expand a bit, followed by the casual gamer and the mass-market gamer, Seropian predicts, “Especially if the price comes down. Not just the consoles, but the content.”

Seropian thinks that Nintendo is a great company, “with a consistently great line of hardware and software products. Sony and Microsoft are on this high crusade to own my living room, and be the sexy appliance of choice, and do all this big, grandiose, visionary crap. And it seems like Nintendo wants to make games, and make things fun. I think they’ve been consistently getting rewarded for it.” Seropian thinks they will continue to be rewarded.

When asked whether Wideload is doing anything for new consoles, in particular Nintendo's Wii, Seropian is delightfully obtuse: " Uh, I can neither confirm nor deny. But we’re working on…this project is for, uh targeted at, uh – ah, I can’t say anything. [laughs] It’s targeted at a machine you plug into your TV."

If Wideload wants to make things fun, and be rewarded, why aren’t they making an MMO? Seropian quips, “I’ve never been good at following the dollar band-wagon, you know?” So if we can’t expect an MMO, can we expect another Stubbs game? “There will be another Stubbs in the future. Probably not the immediate future,” Seropian adds. “But Stubbs has more stories in him.”


“I’ve been in this business fifteen years,” Seropian concludes by looking to the future. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen more opportunity than right now. There are so many new markets opening up, so many new devices around, so many news ways…” Seropian thinks it is an excellent time to be independent. “If you got onto Gamasutra’s Job Page, there are more people hiring than people applying,” he adds, “There’s more channels of distribution and more devices that need games, then there are games to put on them. It’s a seller’s market, for sure.”

Thus, and concluding in all seriousness, Seropian grins: “Greatest time ever to be in games. Ever.”

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