Wideload Games' Alexander Seropian on Outsourcing for the Living Dead

Gamasutra interviews Wideload Games founder Alex Seropian on life after Bungie, and the pluses and minuses of outsourcing and coordinating work on his new game Stubbs the Zombie.

Alex Seropian, Wideload's Founder.

In 2003, Alexander Seropian founded Wideload Games, Inc.; and he and his initial staff of ten people (most of who, like himself, once worked for Bungie Studios) in Chicago, Illinois went to work on a game built upon the Halo engine. Two years later, their result has little in common with the hard-core science fiction world of Halo; Stubbs the Zombie flaunts a decidedly eccentric premise. It's a third-person, comedy-horror actioner.

The player assumes the role of Edward "Stubbs" Stubblefield, a traveling salesman who was murdered in 1933. Flash forward to the year 1959 -- Stubbs has been resurrected as a zombie. So he goes on a rampage wrecking havoc throughout an anachronistic "City of Tomorrow." He can attack people by lobbing his guts to go off like grenades, spraying them with his flatulence, or -- in an homage to Evil Dead II -- detaching his hand to possess them. Of course, humans can be transformed into the fellow undead when Stubbs attacks them directly. The zombified can then do Stubbs' dirty work of terrorizing the living.

In fact, recruiting others to do the so-called "dirty work" was one of the business goals behind the founding of Wideload. When Seropian, one of the designers of the original Halo, left Bungie (which he co-founded) in 2002 after the release of Halo, his next venture was to go small: He started Wideload as a smaller game studio where most of the development would be accomplished by outsourcing various technical and asset work to others. It was an idea that was rather ahead of its time.

In the midst of crunching time to get Stubbs ready for release by Halloween 2005 (the game is to be simultaneously available for the Xbox, PC and Macintosh), Seropian, Founder and President of Wideload, took a moment to discuss the upgrades that his team implemented into the Halo engine to accommodate for Stubbs, and what it's like coordinating other developers to do your game-dev dirty work.

Gamasutra: What are the notable additions and modifications that Wideload made to the Halo engine for Stubbs the Zombie?

Alexander Seropian: Right off the bat, you'll notice we've added a full-frame filtering effect to make the game feel like a '50s horror flick. We can change and blend these filter effects "on the fly" -- so you'll see some nifty visual transitions using them, too. We've also added a "tandem animation" system that allows us to do the multi-character animations, which are so critical for brain eating. Plus, we now "normal map" everything.

Under the hood, we did a lot of work on the AI to make Stubbs truly be the "King of the Zombies." Our zombies do some really interesting and subtle things, if you pay attention to them. This'll sound funny, but we tried to make our zombie behavior really "deep."

Gamasutra: What have been the most challenging technical issues with regard to the Halo engine during the development of Stubbs?

AS: For us, since we work with many different groups of talent, having a very proprietary pipeline has been a real training and implementation challenge. The Halo engine is extremely powerful and, therefore, complicated. Jamming the thousands and thousands of assets from many different contributors into a cohesive whole has been hard work. But I think we did better than even we expected.

An impromptu zombie dance routine?

Gamasutra: What are the elements of the game that have been outsourced? (Is it just the assets? Has code also been outsourced?) And which companies were hired to take on these tasks?

AS: The largest element of the game that was completed by independent talent were 3D art assets. This included character models, environments, and scenery objects. We also contracted out animations (including mocap), our UI, the code for the shell and all the SFX and music. We handled the game code, level design and writing completely internally.

The two largest contractors we worked with were the Animation Farm in Austin, Texas and Post Effects up here in Chicago, Illinois. We worked with many other companies and quite a few individuals, too. All in all, there were about seventy people contributing assets to the project.

Gamasutra: Has outsourcing greatly helped to speed up the development of Stubbs, making it easier to meet milestones?

AS: Absolutely. We multiplied our output by at least a factor of four. Our internal staff was 11, and we did the game in 17 months.

Gamasutra: Are there plans for multiplayer? If so, will the Halo engine's multiplayer technology need to be expanded, or significantly altered in some way, to accommodate for Stubbs?

AS: We have two-player co-op mode. One player is Stubbs; the other is Grubbs. It's a blast!

Gamasutra: Which platform is the "main" one which has been used to develop Stubbs, and why was this platform selected as the target?

AS: Initial development was done on Xbox for obvious reasons.

Gamasutra: It's atypical for a game to be released for the Mac simultaneously with a PC and, especially, a console version. Was this quite a technical feat to pull off? Does this have anything to do with the fact that the Halo engine evolved over a long period of time across the Mac, PC and Xbox?

AS: Having an engine that has already shipped on all three of those platforms certainly helped, as did having a partner in Aspyr Media, a company that has lots of experience with Mac and PC development. We also spent a lot of time early on getting our codebase operational on all three platforms.

Gamasutra: 3D graphics engines that were originally developed for PC platforms don't seem to make the transition over to the consoles often. Is there a technical reason for this? I see that Stubbs will not be available for the Playstation 2 or GameCube.

AS: I think the bigger hurdle for games to be successful on both PC and console is that the play experience is very different on each. On a PC you sit 10 inches from the screen; on a console, it's 10 feet. On a PC you have a direct pointing device in the form of a mouse and a 124-button controller in the form of a keyboard. On a console you have a gamepad. Those are fundamental interface differences that are hard to invent a common design for.

Gamasutra: What would you say are the Halo engine's strengths over other engines?

AS: The Halo engine is designed to let artists (rather than engineers) implement content, and it's designed to make content iterations really fast. The more [revisions] an artist or designer can do, the better.

The co-op mode features twice the zombie mayhem.

Gamasutra: What about the engine's limitations? Especially the ones Wideload has managed to improve upon for Stubbs ?

AS: Having used the engine and pipeline at Bungie, prior to Stubbs, we really didn't set out to fix any giant limitations. Rather, our goal was to extend what we thought was great and push what we could as far as it would go. Heck, we think the Halo engine is pretty sweet. To that end, we added an animation caching system so that we could have tons and tons of slick mocapped animation for all the characters.

Gamasutra: Was the design of Stubbs shaped by the specific capabilities and limitations of the Halo engine itself? Do you have an example of this to describe? To frame this question in another way, could the same game have been made using another engine?

AS: The Halo AI was a great starting point for us. The way squads are handled allowed us to really make big ideas happen in regards to having a zombie horde, and make the zombies have good, funny and useful behavior. We also took advantage of the way the combat dialog system works. We have over 12,000 lines of dialog in the game. And it's all comedy-gold.

Gamasutra: So what things should the player keep an eye out for in Stubbs the Zombie, which best showcases the modifications Wideload did to the Halo engine?

AS: See if you can discover all of the zombie berserk behaviors.

Gamasutra: What problems, challenges, have you learned that come with outsourcing elements of game development?

AS: We faced a lot of challenges that we expected (sourcing talent, training, managing approvals, and asset traffic), and then a few that we didn't expect -- like really having to help contractors create accurate bids. All in all, we learned quite a bit. Working with independent talent is core to our business.


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