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Tour of Chicago Pt. 4: Day 1 Studios

Following the recent announcement of MechAssault developer Day 1's partnership with LucasArts, Gamasutra presents an interview with studio president Denny Thorley about Xbox 360, episodic content, developing for the Wii and more.

Introduction

Just a block off the main street of Chicago’s Greektown is Day 1 Studios, where Gamasutra sat down for an in-depth chat with Denny Thorley, president of the company. Thorley touched on all the hot-button issues, from being an independent developer, working with publishers, the digital distribution experience, why IP isn’t as important as you might think, hopes for new hardware, and an interesting look at co-development.

Thorley has been in the business over twenty years – before that he was in the ski industry. “I’ve never had a job that wasn’t a hobby first," he told us. Though his preferences have always leaned toward the design and production sides of game development, he has also done work in marketing and sales. This well-rounded experience, he said, "allowed us to raise the money for FASA Interactive when we started that,” referring to the studio that would later be purchased by Microsoft.


Denny Thorley, President, Day 1 Studios

“When they took everyone to Redmond,” says Thorley, “[Microsoft] knew I had an idea for a Battletech game. And they were doing the Xbox, which hadn’t been announced at all. They said, ‘Well, if you can put a team together…’ and that became MechAssault. And that studio became Day 1 Studios.”


Intense Development

The studio itself is run on a producer-centric model, which is to say it’s team based, so there’s no matrix in the organization. “There are a few people who work on multiple projects,” Thorley explains, “but for the most part, it’s very team-centric, where the producer has pretty much total control over the team and the direction it goes.”

And it’s a fairly intense environment. “When people come in,” Thorley adds, “We generally say, ‘If you’re looking for a cushy job, this isn’t it. But if you want to do the best work of your life we promise we’ll get it on the biggest stage in the world.’” Prospects are also assured that the project will be properly funded, and properly scheduled: always an issue in our industry.


Day 1 Studios occupies the third floor of this building.

Day 1 has stringent hiring requirements. “I like to make the joke that if I interviewed here, I’m not sure I could get hired,” joked Thorley. The studio shows prospects what they’re working on, “so they know this is different, and unique, and I will get to leave my mark on the gaming world, to a certain degree.”

Still, it’s a lean, tightly run ship. Counting IT, HR, Finances and Sales, “There are probably six people in the organization that don’t directly contribute to product on a day to day basis.” Everything else is going into the product. Or what Thorley calls, “Getting it to the screen.” Over and above the current seventy employees, Day 1 would grow, “if we could find thirty people that were qualified, we’d hire them in a heartbeat.”


Start to Finish

“We take our projects to a concept level,” Thorley says. “And then get funding [from a publisher]. We’re working with two publishers. Vivendi Universal, which we’re doing the F.E.A.R. stuff on the next-gen consoles. And we’re also working with LucasArts.”

Something to note about Day 1 Studios is its two locations, the other office being in Hunt Valley, Maryland. The legacy of that office is that many employees were originally from MicroProse. Day 1 looked a combining the two entities, and found that the cost wasn’t worth it.

“So we kept it separate,” Thorley says, “It’s been working great because actually it’s really helped us now. With as big as these projects are, there’s still a lot of outsourcing that’s going on.” Day 1 is now prepared, because of having a remote location and the communication level required. The video conferencing has been an enormous help. “It’s funny, you start out thinking it’s just going to be used a little bit. And you’d be shocked: it’s used all the time. People get comfortable with it. It’s really a valuable tool.”


A screenshot from F.E.A.R.

Even though there are two locations, they don’t work on separate games. Thorley thinks of it as working on separate floors of the same building. Some disciplines might be tied more to one location. For example, the special effects that are so tied to the technology, mostly happen down in Hunt Valley.

Day 1 had tried to turn two locations into a strength, as far as recruitment efforts. With most positions, if Day 1 is relocating someone, they’ll be given an option. “If you like a more rural area, you’d probably enjoy the Hunt Valley area more. If you like a more urban setting, don’t want to drive and things like that,” Thorley says. “you’d prefer the Chicago location.”


Microsoft, Marketing, and Mechs

“Our strategies are kind of ‘go big or stay home,’” States Thorley. “Everything we’re doing is next generation. We’re certainly not doing downloadable games, or anything small like that.”

The studio is best known for the projects they’ve done for Microsoft, namely the MechAssault series. “We average about a million units per SKU,” Thorley says. This track record allows Day 1 to plan with budgets and development lead times, so they can do “what will hopefully be a AAA product.” Thorley views his company as a premium price shop.


MechAssault 2

“Certainly,” Thorley continues, “Microsoft did a good job marketing MechAssault 1. It helped them launch their Live service.” The timing of the release was solid, much stronger than that of MechAssault 2. “We shipped Mech 2 on December 28th. It was originally scheduled for earlier in the fourth quarter, but there was a little title called Halo 2 that had shipped, and they moved it back.”

“But anytime, in any videogame, it’s a partnership,” Thorley adds. “I think in our development, we’re fifty percent of the equation. And the marketing, PR and advertising is the other fifty percent of the equation."


Platform Assault

Another relationship that Day 1 would consider is with the Wii. “We’ve just signed non-disclosures with Nintendo,” Thorley responds. “We’re going to be looking at their hardware very carefully.” He finds the price point extremely attractive, and expects development costs should be a little less. Though Day 1 doesn’t have direct experience with the Wii, their engineers are evaluating how well their toolset will work in such an environment. “We’re not doing Mech games,” Thorley jokes about the controller, “But there’s lots of opportunity there for creative stuff.”

Development for the PC is also something that one of Day 1 Studios’ publisher is asking the studio to consider. Thorley notes the size of the install base, saying it will likely require more new hardware selling, and requires care in making the decision. Still, Thorley believes the PC will be a viable platform. “Until Vista gets settled down, and we know where that’s going to be, we’re not going to be playing in that arena,” he said.

“Sales indicate that [PC sales are] declining,” Thorley continues. “Shelf space at the retailers indicates it’s declining. Which probably means it isn't the best time.”

Thorley sees the difference between consoles and PCs as a “distance experience thing.” If you’re playing a game that demands you’re two feet from the screen, then the mouse is a better pointing device, and the PC a better game platform.”

With the proliferation of HDTV, Thorley thinks the differences will shrink. With HDTV, “you’re going to be playing your videogames in your den or entertainment room, and other people are watching and enjoying the experience,” Thorley says. “The PC is pretty much you in a room. Perhaps playing multiplayer, but none the less, it’s you looking at a screen.”


MechAssault 2

To Be Continued…

Episodic content is something that Day 1 has experience with, being the first to have downloadable content for Xbox Live and MechAssault. “The downloadable content we did for MechAssault,” Thorley recalls, “a bunch of it we released for free, trying to keep the interest in the game. And that worked very well. That really did extend how long the game was viable in terms of retail sales.”

“The stuff we released for pay,” Thorley continues, “our install base was not large enough so that you could cost justify – from our standpoint. It probably worked fine for Microsoft. But from our standpoint, that took a measurable chunk from a prolific team. So you really look at your opportunity costs. ‘Do I have these guys working on this fairly small project, or do I have them working on the next big release?’"


Going Live and Online

Thorley thinks that online services give the opportunity for developers to talk directly to the customer. He also thinks it will give lots of opportunity for unique gameplay down the road. “I sure wish the pipe got a little fatter,” he says about Xbox Live, “but I think they’ve done a great job. And I think they’ve set themselves up with the word-of-mouth influencers to be perceived as the leading platform, certainly if you’re a multiplayer player.”

"For a long time, [Sony] pretty much ignored that part of the market,” Thorley added, further predicting that Sony's service will be as well-received as Xbox Live, given time. “Obviously Microsoft has a big head start – but what you also have to recognize is they will be able to learn from Microsoft’s challenges as well. They may have an accelerated learning curve, so to speak.”

“And they’ve got studios like ours supporting it, so I think it will be good.” Thorley cites other independent developers who are supporting the PS3 Online. “You look at Insomniac, and the games they’ve announced. They’re going at that big time, so that’s exciting.”

Independent, Intellectual

Many independent developers express despair at their current state. Conversely, Thorley says, “We’ve having a lot of fun. We’re happy with the publishers we chose.” One criteria used by Day 1 was how well a potential publisher would market and launch a game. “That was a critical element in our decision to work with the publishers that we do.”

“If you look at LucasArts’ growth,” Thorley adds, “They’ve got goals of being in the top five. The number of SKUs they released is incredibly small. But the most important thing we looked at: they had the number one [new] intellectual property released with Mercenaries. So that’s key…”

Another criteria Day 1 has when looking for a publishing partner is whether or not it can retain ownership of its intellectual property. “The ownership is really tough,” Thorley admits.

“With the kind of money we want from these publishers, it’s really challenging to go in there and demand [the IP] – unless you’ve got a bunch of your own money invested in it. Even then, they’re reluctant to invest the kind of money it takes to launch a title without some sort of control over it.”

The types of deals that Day 1 structures allows the studio to use the IP if the publisher chooses not to pursue it. “The most important thing,” Thorley says, “Is for us to get to invent cool new stuff to keep the consumer interested and excited about playing games. If we have to give up a little bit on the back the end to get the funding to do interesting stuff, then that’s kind of the price you pay.”

Conclusion

The foundation of Day 1 Studios is how they think about the game -- which is very much an engineer approach. “Our whole goal is that publishers can look at this and understand why they should take the risk with our studio, as opposed to other studios,” Thorley says.

“It’s fun coming to work every day. It’s not without its struggles, but it’s fun,” Thorley concludes. “This day and age, it’s probably more stress than I’d like it to be: because it’s incredibly competitive."

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