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Interview: The Behemoth's John Baez On Hominid, Indie Freedom

In a transcript from a recent Gamasutra podcast, we chat with The Behemoth's John Baez (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers) on the challenges and rewards of building your own indie studio from scratch, and focusing

Simon Carless, Blogger

November 14, 2006

17 Min Read

Gamasutra is now providing transcripts of selected Gamasutra podcasts, this time featuring excerpts from an interview with The Behemoth's John Baez (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers) conducted earlier this year. At the time, we explained the original podcast in the following way: "This week's edition of the Gamasutra Podcast is our interview with John Baez, founding member of The Behemoth and executive producer of Alien Hominid, where he talks about the challenges and rewards of building your own development studio and independent video game franchise - complete with full-sized body suits and action figures!" An edited transcript of the podcast follows: Tom Kim: Today we present a frank and fascinating interview with John Baez, one of the founders of the Behemoth, the indie studio responsible for fan and critical fave Alien Hominid. Like the title character of the game, just be prepared to wear many hats. John talks about the challenges and rewards of building a development company, a web portal, action figures, skateboard decks, t-shirts, buttons, trade show displays, full size body suits - not to mention the game, all from the ground up. Want to know how to shop for publishers for your title? How to officially pitch your niche IP? How to gather a ton of useful consumer feedback without hiring an expensive marketing firm? Then get out a pen and paper and prepare to take notes as the Behemoth's trial and error becomes your valuable experience. First, a little background. John began his career in the video game industry in 1996. In 2003, after years of working in the trenches as a 3D artist, he co-founded maverick console games developer The Behemoth The studio's debut game, Alien Hominid, received many awards and critical acclaim and has proven to be an independent console success story. At the Behemoth, John is in charge of day to day operations and was the producer on Alien Hominid. He is also a licensed architect in California. So let's get into that a little bit, John. Your path to game development was a little bit different than then most people's paths out there. John Baez: It certainly was. I could remember programming games on an Apple IIe in high school back in 1982. I made a couple of games back then but of course it was for class and fun and never did anything with them. Went through college, became an architect, traveled around the world. I was living in Germany, where I was working for an architect doing CAD drawings. In the evenings, after we would work, we would play Doom II on the LAN in the office with four of us, and I was just stunned by the amount of information and architecture that Doom II was able to present compared to the very primitive CAD drawings that I was working with. So I vowed that if I ever moved back to California, I would get a job in the game industry. In 1996, I moved back to San Diego and did just that. I was generally hired because I had an understanding of how things go together. I started working at Blue Sky Studios, and just moved on through a number of studios after that. Eventually, I ended up at Gratuitous Games in 1999 and worked for Activision and Midway and Crystal Dynamics doing a number of ports for either arcade machines or from one console system to another. TK: That's an interesting application of your background. It seems like you had to wear many hats even just getting into game development. In some ways, that might have been good training for starting up The Behemoth. JB: I think for anyone who was in the industry ten years ago, there were no schools. There was no place to learn. It was all hands on. You were enthusiastic about being in the industry and you just did whatever it took to carve your own niche. That has certainly carried over into what we have done with The Behemoth. We had extensive experience in technical development but we didn't have a lot of experience with the actual management or the industry side of getting a game published and so that was a huge learning curve for us. But it was very, very rewarding. I went from being an artist to being a manager and reading contracts and going to meetings all over the world, trying to get our game signed. It has really been a fantastic learning experience. I think one of the hallmarks of The Behemoth is that everybody likes to build stuff whether it is a company from the ground up or figurines or a console video game, or what have you. TK: You come from lots of different disciplines. Your partners Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp also have quite interesting backgrounds as well. JB: It really is a synchronicity of events that brought us together. Dan was working at Presto Studios when Presto closed. Our art director at Gratuitous Games hired Dan and I got to know Dan. I was playing Alien Hominid. He popped his head in the office one day and said, "Yeah I made that game." Dan had worked with Tom for a while doing games for NewGrounds. Tom had built the first Flash Internet portal years ago, and so he had a lot of experience in building up a fan base and understanding current game demographics, and having a really fine touch on game design. TK: You were all working together and Gratuitous decides to shut the doors. Were you thinking before you knew that about perhaps starting up a development company? JB: I always wanted to run my own company. I certainly had no idea of what it took. The last three years have shown me that I was pretty clueless which was probably a good thing. I don't think I would have ever started if I would have known how difficult it would have been. TK: Were you aware going in of what kind of obstacles you were going to face? Because you had the trifecta of risk going there. You were trying to develop a new IP. You were a brand new company and your new product the one you loved and believed in so much, on the face of things - most publishers would look at that and say this doesn't fit anywhere within our product lineup, not to mention the public tastes of currents gamers. JB: In a sense it is really wonderful to be naive. We were told so many times by so many people that the game will never be published. We just didn't know enough to listen to them. It was a really good thing that we didn't listen to them. I just had the sense that Alien Hominid was going to be a great console game and that someone was going to do it, and we had all these opportunities sitting right before us and so it was like well, we should be the ones to do it. Although we had a lot of risk going in, we also had so many things going for us. We had a prototype up on NewGrounds which was getting a ton of traffic, and it really made us believe that even though people really aren't playing 2D side scrollers anymore, there still might be a market for it. We also had just a ton of experience in terms of getting games on consoles and we were going out after multiple platforms, so we didn't have to go to a publisher, and say this is it on Platform X. So each publisher that we talked to had the option of picking it up for different platforms. Thirdly, because I had done many pitches at Gratuitous Games, I knew that no one would fund the game and so we knew that we would have to find the funding ourselves and if we found the funding, we could pitch pretty much finished product. Really, that's what publishers look for. How could they lower their risk? If you come through the door with a game that has a big fan base and is pretty much finished and your team is experienced. They are much more willing to talk to you that way then if you come through the door with a paper document and a bunch of great ideas. In the end, a lot of the publishers that we talked to - they are business people and the best way to make their numbers work is if they have low, low risk. TK: I believe it was Dan Paladin who referred to [in a GameZone interview] Chris Sawyer building Rollercoaster Tycoon in his basement before pitching it to anybody and actually having a fully finished product done before approaching the publisher. Is that a course that you would recommend to other publishers? JB: It's more and more going to be the course that's going to be gone down. Thinking of next generation console is much more difficult, because the budgets are so high. But on the other hand, there's a lot of people in the industry who worked at big developers for years, and are just sick of the big development office environment. So there's such an allure to a small team that functions really well, that I think there's going to be many more small developers like us going out and trying to get their games published. It's going to be tough, but no one is going to get a game signed anymore, just having a design document. You're going to have to show the ubiquitous, vertical slice. Show me why it's fun, because so many games have failed, because they're not fun. They may cost millions of dollars to make and they look beautiful, but if they're not fun, nobody is going to buy them. TK: Some of our luminaries like Warren Spector would say it's a sucker's game being a developer these days. You're always chasing the next deal, and you're not guaranteed to see much benefit from it. So people are exploring the idea of doing their own thing. JB: He's right on. There is absolutely no doubt that the developers at the bottom of the food chain we've heard many, many horror stories about developers not getting paid. Everybody in the industry has. If the money doesn't reach all the way to the bottom of the food chain, tough luck for the developer. The difference, I've found, between a developer and the people on the business side, is that developers just like to build stuff. And usually they'll tend to do it, whether they get paid for it or not. And it's a very dangerous situation if you're doing this professionally and you're trying to make money. That's not the way it should be, but you're going to be building that game in your basement anyway. So you might as well try to get it published. There was a lot of acrimony in some of the game development forums, just because they claimed we weren't an independent game developer. And the problem is that a lot of people who are saying that have second jobs and have health insurance. They didn't quit their jobs to make their game. TK: What's your starting advice to indie developers, then? JB: I think the critical thing, and I speak a little bit more just to the console area because that's where we've concentrated our energies, that if you're really looking for a publisher, you really have to get acquainted with services, like the Game Connection, which is now worldwide. They meet three times a year; once in the United States, once in Japan, once in France for the European areas. And it really cuts down on the amount of money that you need to spend to pitch your game to publishers. When we first started, I was flying all over the United States to meet with publishers. And often, I would be meeting with a gatekeeper, which was fine. We knew our place. Three years ago, I would fly to a publisher, spend an hour with their product development manager who would look over our stuff, and if he liked what he saw, then we would slowly get pushed up the ladder. But attending an event like the Game Connection, you have all of your hardware in one place, and you can get 20 or 30 appointments in two or three days with the people that make decisions. You don't have to go through many gatekeepers, because those people have already looked at your work without you having to visit them before you go to the meetings. So it's just an incredibly efficient way to meet people who make decisions. There's nothing worse than pitching your product to someone at a publisher, who gets so excited about it because they love everything you're doing. And then three or four bosses up the chain, it's like: "Why are we even looking at this game? This isn't the game we do." We had a fabulous meeting with the head of a really big publisher. And he was great because he came in for 15 minutes, and he looked at our stuff, and he says, "This is great stuff, but we can't publish this for you because it's not in our portfolio." Having a straight up answer like that is so much better than just being dragged on and on and on, for weeks and months, and spends thousands of dollars flying all over, just trying to get a "maybe." Coordinated events like that are really important. TK: What advice would you give to people who are thinking of shopping their title around? Because you've been to a lot of these pitches and you've heard that quick feedback so many times, of what people are looking for and what the whole process is. JB: Well, absolutely. The main thing at any of these events, because they cost a lot of money. You have to make sure that what you're presenting is actually something that someone may be interested in. You can't go with a paper document. No one will see you. You have to have a tech demo running. You have to have some type of prototype. You have to show the basic fundamentals of game play, however primitive. It's the face-to-face the really makes these things work. Because basically, you're going in, in a traditional sense, and asking for several million dollars. No one is going to give you that money nowadays without actually showing them something that has some reasonable association with what you're going to eventually be producing. When you go to these meetings, it's important that you have your game running. The advantage to these types of meetings is that you have your own little office. You have a 10 x 10 cube and it's lockable, and you bring all your hardware, and it's up and running. The big disadvantage about cold calling and going to a publisher is that you have to lug all your hardware; it may not work the first time; you only have fifteen minutes with a gatekeeper... these organized events, you have all your stuff up and running for every single publisher that comes by, so you don't have to worry that your game is not going to work. You need to go to the IGDA and go through their white paper list of what to do in a pitch situation, and really look at those documents, because the people on the publishers' side know that the IGDA documents exist. Any developer showing up at their doorstep who doesn't have all those things in the document, it's like, "Well, you guys aren't doing your homework. Why should I even talk to you guys?" Especially if you're coming from the development side, like us, it's very difficult, because you think, "Well, all I need to do is put together a game, and I'm done." And it just doesn't work that way. Maybe one of the big advantages that we had was that, in the architecture field, before you start doing any kind of real drawings to make a building, you have to go through a number of different processes, presenting the proposal to a number of different parties, to get signoff. In that sense, we've always been able to draw on this real-life experience of how it's done in other industries. And I think that was a big advantage for us, because whenever there was never any road signs or milestones or in-depth understanding in the game industry of how to do things, we just looked to other industries. That's why we ended up with toys and figurines and skateboard decks and all that - because no small developer was doing that. There was no articles on how to do it. It was just like, "Okay, we're going to do it. How do we do it? Let's look at these other industries." TK: One thing that The Behemoth is well known for is your connection with your fans. You go out and engage them at Comic-Con, and you've got that automatic impromptu testing with Newgrounds. JB: When we first founded the company in 2003, we had heard about Comic-Con, because, as game developers, we had gone every year and looked at what was happening. It happens here in San Diego, so we were very fortunate that we didn't have to travel anywhere. And as it got bigger and bigger over the years, game companies began to show up, because they had games that were both comics and games - companies like Bandai were the real first to be there. So the first year that we signed up for it, we spent all this money for a little ten-by-ten booth and a card table, and I'm thinking, as it gets closer and closer, that it was the biggest waste of money in the world. Boy, was I wrong! It was one of those things that Dan really wanted to do Comic-Con, and Dan really wanted to do a walk-around suit, a mascot, and we just didn't have any money. And I'm thinking, "Gosh, this is just such a big waste" - until the morning that we went to move into our space. The San Diego Convention Center is about a mile long, and we walked in at the front, and our booth was about three quarters of a mile down. And there was so much energy and so much going on during the setup, you know? You had LucasArts with their super gigantic mega berbooth with the full-size Star Wars X-Wing Fighter and all this stuff. And then we get to our booth, and it's perfect. It's ten by ten; it's got a table, and it's got electricity, and it's right on the main thoroughfare. So we plop down a TV, and we plop down the game, and we run out to Kinko's that night, get a bunch of posters made, hang them up on the walls... had a friend who's a metalworker build a stand, so we could put the TV up on the stand. He did it that night, in his garage. And it was an absolutely amazing experience, because we had people lining up to play our game, and we were able to talk to all of these people about what they liked about the game, what they didn't like; what they like about current 3D games, what they don't like... and it just turned out to be a great thing. It really gives us a springboard to get fan feedback, to sell some of our merchandise, and to really get an understanding of what people are looking for, what they don't like, before we make certain commitments about how things are going to go.

About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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