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An Interview with Ion Storm's Mike Wilson

The lowdown on the "corporate-culture" underlying Ion Storm's mission to bring revolutionary game design to the Quake-addicted masses.

October 31, 1997

12 Min Read

Author: by Barbara Walter

True to its name, ION Storm has managed to create a storm of publicity ranging from the pre-release hype surrounding Daikatana to the official reports concerning Romero and Wilson's departure from id Software.

Gamasutra catches up with Mike Wilson and gets the lowdown on the "corporate-culture" underlying ION Storm's mission to support revolutionary game design.

What led you, John Romero and the others to form ION Storm?

John Romero, Tom Hall and Todd Porter, lead designers, and Jerry O'Flaherty, art director, were working at other companies and were frustrated that for whatever reasons their designs were watered down or held back. They felt they had this game inside them they weren't being allowed to do.

Where did the company name ION Storm come from?

Tom Hall and John Romero were tossing around company name ideas, and what the company was about, and they thought it was about imagination, innovation, inspiration, and all these other things that ended in "ion." So they got Ion from that. They were looking for something more, and they read this quote from one of the game guys at Blizzard that said, something was "coming on like an ion storm." They said, "that's cool," and they looked it up and found an ion storm is the only thing that can escape from a black hole. The definition of ion storm is: "positively charged particles moving at the speed of light, escaping from a black hole."

How many people are on your team?

What time is it? We gotta be up to 85 people. Todd, Tom and John each have a team of 15-17 people on their respective games. We also recently picked up the Dominion game from 7th Level, which Todd and Jerry started developing while they were there. The opportunity came for us to pick it up, finish it and ship it under our label. With that project came some more people. Then we picked up a group in Austin, headed by Warren Spector. Warren had a great reputation and wanted to keep his team together. A couple of our artists who are friends of theirs tipped me off. We called them up, told them what ION Storm is all about, and hired them as employees. They're working on an RPG for us. The working title is Shooter, but it's not one!

Describe the ION Storm corporate culture.

Evolving. In the last six months, it has evolved from six guys having a lot of laughs around the table to 85 people working on five projects. There's a lot going on. A lot of excitement. Everybody here feels like they are starting at the same level. They are competitive, but it is friendly competition, since they're not in the same genre. We've only lost one employee. Everybody here pretty much knows this is one cool place to work and they don't want to blow it.

Your bio on ION Storm's Storm website says: "Mike looks to drive ION Storm to the 'big leagues', re-defining what it means to be a successful developer in the interactive entertainment industry." Describe what you mean by "big leagues" and how you plan to reach them?

We are in the entertainment industry, not just the games industry. No matter what level of success we've reached in the past, we're still not in the mass consciousness. Nine out of ten people haven't heard of DOOM or QUAKE. Our industry is still young but it's coming of age. It shouldn't be all about technology any more. It is attracting more than your techno-geeks, which has been our entire audience in the past. We think it's time to create some content that can attract other people's interest--mass cultural entertainment. We've gotten away with murder as far as content in our games. It's not because of a lack of imagination. It's because the focus has been on technology; making a game on the PC look as good as a game on Nintendo or the arcades. We're pretty much there. It's time to stop focusing on features and focus on creating some interesting content that people care about, not those just used to being our audience. Our lead designers have been creating successful games since the beginning. They can take whatever is the best technology off the shelf or license it and really change things as far as our little niche of the entertainment industry. It's also about not being afraid to grow. I don't mean going for a quick IPO and selling out, but growing when it makes sense. We think we've licked the reason developers have been afraid to grow. They're afraid of being bought out, becoming corporate, having all the creativity and magic going away. With the way we've planned the structure of our company, we basically have four "garage bands" with all the freedom and flexibility of a small shop, but we share non-team equities like biz-guys, admin, webmasters, music studios, etc. We plan to create good enough games using techniques from other entertainment fields--TV, movies--that will compete for someone's attention, so that someday the general public will talk about a game instead of a TV program like Melrose Place.

Recently you were quoted as saying that ION Storm wants to move into mass markets, sports, kids and even girls/women games. You reportedly said, "The goal is to break out of the closet culture that is the hardcore gamer...we don't intend to only sell games to the universe of 500,000 to 1 mill hardcore gamers...it's a tiny part of the mass culture and leaves a lot of opportunity to move into untapped markets." Was that an accurate quote?

It was accurate but without proper context. It looked like we were actually looking to attack the girls market, or edutainment or whatever, that we were just a marketing company looking for untapped niches. That's not the case at all. The only way we would go into girls games or kids games is if the John Romero of girls games or kids games came to us and said, Let me do it. We don't know how to do that shit. We are just looking for something that appeals to more than our techno-savvy, early adopter male. This industry is so young and the leaders are so young, that we absolutely refuse to be pigeon-holed and fall into a cycle. I'll be damned if I want to do the same thing each year of my career. If things don't change, it gets old real fast.

What exactly ARE ION Storm's plans for expanding into untapped markets?

As I said, we will implement the design of a lead designer. The guys we have right now, none of them could make a sports game, or a game just for teenager girls. But what they're creating, especially games like Tom's and Warren's, are worlds that women could enjoy equally with men. We are allowing these guys to create something they want to create and not worrying about whether someone will think that's not hardcore enough..."sissified." They're creating original compelling content that hopefully is appealing to more people.

Have you done market research on the demand for these types of games?

Wilson: No. We don't believe in market research. We believe in making games we want to play. Our designers are creating games each of them have wanted to make for 2-5 years. We regard these guys as independent film makers and trust their vision. They are all gamers. They would rather play games than do anything else.

Will you hire new talent, or partner with them as independents?

Wilson: Whichever makes sense. We're not actively seeking anything, we're merely open to opportunities. If something came along too good to pass up, such as Warren Spector and his team, we react. It made more sense for us to hire them than set up a company or do affiliate stuff. There may well be a company out there that creates this great basketball game that can partner with us and do something as an affiliate label. It is just whatever the best opportunity is. We don't have a formula. We have the business people here to make it happen in a smart way.

Aren't you worried about alienating the hardcore gamers?
I hope we don't. I think our hardcore gamers will see what we're doing and will get into it. I think initially some diehard QUAKERS may wonder if we are really hardcore enough for them, but as soon as they see demos or shareware of our games they will be very quickly won over to what is the best game... we are going so far above and beyond what is currently expected in a game.

Is the acquisition of the Austin group the start of a trend; i.e., will we see ION Storm studios popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, etc.?

It's not a stated goal. It's just that we're set up in a way that allows us to react to opportunities that come up. Our company is founded on the idea of a lead designer, a director, one man with a track record who knows how to make games, who doesn't do exactly what our other guys do. We believe in getting behind that proven designer and implementing what visions they have. Warren is one of those guys. To tell you the truth, there aren't a whole lot of them left, not that many proven lead designers out there.

How do your programmers view your decision to use existing technologies rather than developing from scratch?

It's a programmers dream, because you're taking something that fundamentally works and tweaking it. That's a lot more fun than starting from line one of new code. We don't hire programmers who just want to do their own engines. We may start a technology group that is separately funded that doesn't affect any of our game projects underway. If it is works out and (their technology) is the hottest thing ever created, we'll use it. If it doesn't, it was R&D and we'll use somebody else's engine.

What is your assessment of the current and near term (1-3 years) market for games?

A lot more competition. One of the results of technology leveling out is, it's an even playing field and easier for competition to spring up. The big threat is that it may turn into... well, like music or film (industries) where there's a few giant powerhouses you have to align yourself with or you're nobody. We think there is time in this industry to save ourselves from the mistakes made in other entertainment industries, and that independent developers will be strong. There's definitely a lot of copycat companies out there. But new games come up every year that create their own genre. As long as a brand-new genre is created every year, that's huge. There's always going to be copycats. A lot of people see it as an easy way to make money. They throw one of those "It's like DOOM-but"-s together. And gamers are growing up. We see at these trade shows and conferences that they're much older than people would think. Not a lot of kids can buy a high-end Pentium. It's people with time and money.

You've been in the games industry since the DWANGO days. What have you experienced as the top three pitfalls (gotchas) in this industry?

Anything to do with making money off multiplayer gaming :-). Seriously, it is people getting into this closet culture and forgetting that the rest of the world is not part of it, forgetting that you are ignoring 99% of the population. It is very easy for people who are in this culture not to see outside. Also, developers trying to be their own business representatives. Business people from publishing and distributing companies look at them as lambs to be led to slaughter. Developers need to find someone they can trust who is a competent business person, who has an idea of what a good deal is, or who can do the homework to find out. The reason I'm here is because I see these guys for what they are, and only want to do things in this business that benefit the developers and our side of the industry. Developers shouldn't believe all the happy talk at the start of relationships. It amazes me that some proven developers out there are working for royalty rates that are a fourth of ours. Maybe one day we'll start our own publishing company and do things right, treat developers with respect.

If your best friend came to you and said, "Mike, I want to start my own games development company," what advice would you give him?

If it's somebody who has never done it before, I would tell him to go work for guys that have (developed games) for years. Unless he gets to play with somebody's else's money. If he was funded with somebody else's money, I would tell him to put together a team, and by god, go have fun. The good thing about this industry is that advance royalty payments are generally forgivable. So under that scenario, I would tell him, go for it. I would also tell him, don't believe your programmers when they tell you what they can do. I see a lot of new development groups hang themselves with new technology. There aren't many other... actually, there aren't any other John Carmacks in the world. I would recommend finding an existing technology. Take a lot of the technology guesswork out of it and make something fun.

When she's not interviewing games industry gurus, Barbara Walter recruits fulltime staff members for games companies as owner of San Diego-based search firm, Walter & Company. She can be reached at email ([email protected]) or on the web (http://www.sandiego-online.com/forums/careers/ )

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