Unity's co-founder has a brand new studio

Nicholas Francis, co-founder of Unity, left the company after a decade to form a studio and create a game he's been dreaming of for years.
After co-founding the company and spending a decade working on the popular game engine, Nicholas Francis left Unity in February to boot up his own game studio. Today, he's revealed to Gamasutra that this Copenhagen-based developer is called Framebunker, and its first game, Static Sky, is a cyberpunk-themed title that "mixes Diablo, X-Com, and Blade Runner," on tablets -- a "cyberpunk real-time third person tactical combat game" according to the company, due to be released in early 2014. Gamasutra spoke to Francis and Framebunker's other co-founder, Charles Hinshaw -- who was formerly Unity's creative director -- about why they left the company, what they hope to achieve, and why they're making the specific game they've settled on.

How did you decide now was the right time to start your new company?

Nicholas Francis: There's no time like the present... Seriously though, for the past year or so I had been feeling a growing restlessness at Unity. I went away for a couple of months in the late autumn trying to nail down what it was. I couldn't -- but towards the end of my sabbatical I sat down and spent some time using Unity. And I was having so much fun. So it took awhile to work up the courage to go "fuck it, let's do it," and then some more time to actually execute.

What attracted you to actually developing games?

NF: Games are a very interesting cross between storytelling and technology. I've always been jumping back and forth between the two -- before Unity I directed short films. To me, games are the medium where the two can meet. Also, games can be super engrossing. I meet old friends and we talk about the games we played together and share that experience again. It's a really powerful thing.
Unity started out as a games company, but then we turned into this middleware powerhouse over the years. So for me, the "let's make games" actually precedes Unity.

Surprisingly, the game seems to be grounded in established themes and influenced by other titles on the market. Or maybe that's not surprising! Tell me about why.

Nicholas: This is a game I've wanted to make since I was a teenager -- actually, a funny anecdote is that when David Helagason (Unity's CEO) and I met in high school it was basically sitting down to make a cyberpunk game that really brought us together. Of course, the idea has changed and matured over the years. To me, there are two ways of looking at this: I can close my eyes and pretty much see the game I want us to make. I talk with Charles about it, and we bounce ideas back and forth and get excited about some tiny detail where we realize, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?" But the next day, we need to speak with publishers and investors, and we have to communicate the rough idea of the game in five seconds flat. That makes you go "well, it's kinda XXX meets YYY with a dose of ZZZ". It doesn't really capture what you're making, but it does get the conversation very focused very quickly.

From the release, incremental refinement of existing styles and mechanics seems to be your goal. Is that a fair statement? Why or why not?

Charles Hinshaw: That is probably fair, at least to a degree. We're being very open about what has inspired us and we aren't setting out to reinvent gaming with our first release. That said, we also aren't setting out to port PC mechanics to tablets or repackage existing games. When looking at games like X-Com or Syndicate Wars, we're asking ourselves what about them stuck with us and shaped us as a gamers -- and what that experience would mean today in a very different context. I guess that Static Sky, as something we're producing, is also a product of the games that shaped us. I don't know if that means it is an incremental refinement of those games, but it is certainly informed by them. NF: Really, there's a lot of the stuff I loved in other games. I adored Syndicate, and there's some of that in it. I spent ages with Laser Squad, and it has elements of that. Like everyone else I know, I lost four months of my life to Diablo, and there are some ideas from that as well. So it does become a kind of a potpourri of various ideas that have been accumulating over the past 15 years. I guess that means that there's a lot of other stuff influencing it -- it's not something that we've designed in an ivory tower.

You talk about the desire to make a game that will be worth replaying in 20 years. What defines that for you?

NF: It is interesting because when we talk about replayability, we're usually talking about a more immediate replayability -- playing again as a different class or choosing different story options. That longer-term more historic notion of replayability is a lot harder to nail down, but if I had to pick any one factor that contributes to it, I guess I would say "focus." By "focus," I mean not trying to make something that will please everybody or being so scared of losing a player along the way that you're afraid to take risks or really make the game hard at points. This sort of thinking almost always results in a virtual Disneyland that's very safe and utterly, utterly dull. Probably more importantly, I mean focusing on the game itself -- maintaining the sense that there's a cohesive design underpinning every aspect of the game. Basically, somebody has to say "this is the game we're making" and then stick to their guns. Of course, the idea has to be good in the first place, but that's another story...

What's been holding back the tablet space from GETTING more games like that?

NF: The first iPad launched 3 years ago, and didn't really have any power worth speaking of, so it's a very new platform. Also, tablets initially suffered for being a kind of an in-between form factor. You can run phone games on them, so it's very tempting to just do a quick and dirty port of a phone game. The screen is kinda like a small laptop, so it's also tempting to do a quick port of an existing PC game. It has taken developers awhile to really understand how to make the most of the device. CH: And it isn't just developers trying to understand a new platform -- I think gamers have also been coming to terms with where tablets fit into their lives. It has taken a while to fully shake off the notion that games on these devices are just throwaway experiences.

Have you decided on the game's business model, and if so, can you explain it and why?

NF: Make Game, Make Money, Rinse & Repeat. CH: It probably is too early to set expectations much beyond that. At Unity, we spent lots of time discussing business models, revenue, etc. So there are a ton of lessons we've learned about that, and we have quite a few ideas. We're interested in eventually settling on something that feels right for the game, but we don't want to get caught up in this trend where a game is simply a means for executing a prescribed business model. So far, we've mainly been focusing on actually making an awesome game.
NF: Also, at the speed the market is changing, we want to keep nimble. Having a (high) fixed price made sense when you had limited shelf space and you had to drive your game into stores in big trucks. These days you have effectively zero-cost distribution and that changes the business models you can do. I think there's tons of room for creativity in this regard as well.

How many people are in your new studio, and will that change?

CH: It's the two of us. We will have to address growth, but it is something that we're approaching very carefully. Hiring is something that we really want to get right since it has such a huge and lasting impact on a company. NF: One of the first decisions that we made was that we weren't going to push towards building a massive studio -- we want to focus on bringing together a small team of super-talented people who can challenge and inspire each other. We're looking for co-conspirators rather than employees.

Why aim at tablets and not other platforms?

Nicholas: I think that for a game to truly be awesome, you need to design it for how people will be playing it. You can make a memorable phone or a memorable console game, but that will probably be quite different from a tablet game. To me, phones have really small screens (but you have them with you all the time). Consoles are a joke -- they kind of require you to have so large production teams that you have to make the gaming equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. And that's not working out that well for those guys. Tablets, on the other hand, are this nice hybrid: You have a decently large screen, and an iPad has about half the GPU power of an Xbox 360 -- which is just completely crazy once you think about it. So you can do high-quality worlds, but there's not this expectation that you're gonna have a 100-person team cranking out content, so that enables you to take more design risks because you don't have to sell 3 million copies just to break even. One thing I like about tablets is that at their size and with touch controls, they almost have a boardgamey feel to them. Since we're designing a team-based tactical shooter, that really, really fits it -- so we're playing around with that and exploring how to make the tablet and game design really work together.

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