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Q&A: Chair Entertainment's Mustard On XBLA, Indies, Empire

Gamasutra sat down with Chair Entertainment co-founder Donald Mustard to discuss his Unreal Engine 3-powered XBLA title Undertow and the company's collaboration with author Orson Scott Card on media property Empire - thus far a best-selling

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

July 19, 2007

18 Min Read

Formed in 2005, the Utah based Chair Entertainment group was founded by brothers Donald and Geremy Mustard, best known for their work as co-creators of the Majesco-published console title Advent Rising. The company emphasizes a commitment to developing and retaining the rights to original gaming IP based on “stories that draw upon universal themes to excite, inspire, and fuel the imaginations of generations to come”, as well as extending that IP into other media: books, movies, comics and merchandising. The first game developed by Chair is Undertow, a self-published 16 player Xbox Live Arcade shooter developed using the Unreal Engine 3, and programmed solely by Geremy Mustard. The title is currently slated for a release later in the third quarter of the year. Tying more into their multimedia plans, however, is Empire, based on a story written in-house and then developed into a novel by Orson Scott Card which was released towards the end of last year. The movie rights for the IP have recently been optioned by Warner Bros., with Die Hard and Matrix producer Joel Silver currently attached to the project. Gamasutra spoke with Donald Mustard recently, and asked about the development of Undertow, making a successful project across multiple creative mediums, and the dangers involved in that. Gamasutra: I just wanted to begin by asking about the process of getting into Xbox Live Arcade development for you. Donald Mustard: We’re big believers in taking an IP ownership/franchise approach to all of our products and we have been and are currently working on our Empire franchise and we found that we have a window in our schedule where we were coordinating some of our other stuff with the franchises and we had a few months and a great team that had nothing to work on. I’d been watching the Arcade space for a while, and I found that I had been playing the Arcade games more constantly. I was probably playing more Arcade games on my 360 than full retail games. In my mind, I’ve had a lot of ideas for games over the years that I’ve never been able to work out how to make into a full $60 title. I thought we had some really cool ideas, but they never fit that space. Then when I saw what Arcade was doing I thought, ‘Wow, this would be so perfect for a whole bunch of ideas that we have’. So, we had some time, and we had some money, and we decided to give it a shot and see what we could come up with. I felt like we had a lot to offer the space, and for me Undertow has become the kind of game that I’m looking for on Arcade. I felt like there was a big hole for that kind of game that I wanted to play. And I saw no one else making it, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to make it’. GS: Did you have any troubles at all with the actual process with Microsoft? DM: No, not at all. Actually, it’s been just awesome working with Microsoft. It’s been amazing, really. We use the Unreal 3 technology exclusively, and we’ve been using that for quite a few years at this point, and when we pitched the idea to Microsoft, they immediately responded to it; they really liked it. They’ve been working with us the whole time. You go through the exact same testing and certification process that you do on a full retail title. I mean, we’re doing 16 player multiplayer, and there’s a whole lot of testing there. Microsoft have been very, very helpful, and just great to work with. GS: Well, there have been a lot of issues in the past with games like Contra having problems with lag, but from what I’ve heard so far, you’re managing to pull it off quite well. Why do you think you’ve been able to, when others have had such trouble? DM: Well, let me put it this way. Firstly, we’re starting with the Unreal 3 code, and Epic have done a great job with of getting network code up to speed for Gears of War and we’ve taken that and we’re hopefully trying to take that to the next level with 16 players. My brother Geremy is the only programmer on this project so he’s been spending a lot of hours just tweaking stuff and really working on stuff. Probably the biggest advantage we have is that we are financing this project. We are the publisher of this game, so we have the means and the time to not ship the game until it’s ready. We don’t have a publisher or some other party saying have to ship the game in a certain quarter or at a certain time. That’s very important to me and to Chair that our products are perfect and are as great as we can make them, and a game that has 16 player multiplayer can’t have a lot of lag and still be awesome, so that’s something we need to spend a lot of time working on. It’s something I was even working on today. There are still a few inherent lag issues, but we’re doing everything on our end we can. I mean, we’ve got it pretty good, but we’re still working on those people with slower connections. If you have a decent connection – it’s no problem. GS: The reaction in general seems to be quite positive so far, really. DM: Yeah, we’re really happy. Everyone that’s played it has loved it. It’s refreshing and awesome to get that kind of response. When you sit gamers down – everyone from hardcore to casual gamers – and they’re enjoying it. It’s awesome from a development standpoint to make a game like this. I mean, we have to make this game 50MB and we wanted to make a game that looked amazing, and really delivered a very fast multiplayer experience, and a cool single player experience as well. We just wanted to cram a whole lot of game into that little bit of memory. Because we had a little bit of memory, and not a lot of time, we really had to distil the game down to its pure essence. There wasn’t ever a lot of time for fat, and because we knew that from the start, we had to go in and design fun. Because of that, it made a really streamlined development process. We made all of our cuts on day one, and the process has been very fast ad streamlined and we were only weeks into production before the game was playable. We actually spent about 90% of the development time tweaking and perfecting the gameplay, as opposed to the situation where you have to wait a year and a half or two years until you can actually play the game. It’s awesome to have had that experience. It still has yet to go out to the public scrutiny, though, so I guess we’ll see. But, we’ve had so much fun making this game. I think from this point forward we’re dedicating some guys to making Arcade titles. We’ve already started production on our next one. It’s awesome – so fun and so quick and you can just have so many great ideas that we think will really deliver to that market and that price point. Taking next gen tech – Unreal 3 and the power of the Xbox 360 – and applying it to these more simple or even more old school game designs. We don’t have a lot of 2Ds or side-scrollers anymore. Right when we got to the epitome of 2D game design, the PlayStation came out. It’s kind of been dead for the last 15 years, and now we can take a lot of those design points that were around at that time and apply really awesome next gen stuff to them and really make some incredible games for $10. It’s going to be awesome. GS: Are you working with the larger 150MB file size limit for the next game? DM: We’re certainly planning on it, yeah. We expect our next game to be over the 50MB size, but I’m very glad that we had to go through the process of making a 50MB game. Because it really forced us to optimize our code and asset pipeline to be a very streamlined process, so now we have written so much compression code to get stuff down that we can really maximize that extra 100MB. In our next game, you will really see that 100MB. You’ll see it in textures, in normal maps; an astronomical increase in detail. Other developers will be coming into it right at 150MB, and won’t have to be as judicious as we had to be, but we’ll be able to really take advantage of it. I’m very excited. GS: Is Undertow intended as a part of a franchise, or are you planning other multimedia components around it? DM: Well, hmm. [Hesitates and laughs] I always want everything to be everything that it is. That’s a really obtuse sentence, but I think that not really every game is worthy of being a huge franchise. However, I think Undertow is one of those things that we really love, and think has a lot of potential. People have already contacted us about expanding the franchise, and we have some experience in that area with some of the other things we’re doing. If Undertow make sense going to other areas, it certainly will. As far as game-space goes, when people play Undertow, they’ll find that all of our games have a strong narrative element to it, and this is just the beginning for what we have planned for these characters and mythology. GS: With the five franchise areas that your site mentions you are working on with the other projects [video games, books, movies, comics and merchandising] why have you picked those? Are they different audiences? DM: I think maybe they are. Moving away from Undertow, one thing that’s really important is I want to feel like some of the stories we want to tell are pretty cool and can be appraised to a wider audience than the core gaming demographic is right now. With Empire, we’re telling a great story that would make a great book, and a great movie, and a great video game. When I went and pitched the idea to [Orson Scott] Card, he loved it, and eight months later we had a New York Times bestseller. GS: It’s kind of unprecedented to go about it in that fashion, isn’t it? To have a developer pitch the idea to an author and go about it in that direction? DM: I think a lot of it was luck. We’d worked with him in the past, and I didn’t really even think that he would think it was really his type of book, but I was just looking for some feedback on our ideas. I just wanted to get his opinion on authors we could approach, but he said ‘Yeah, this is the book I’ve been wanting to write forever’. His publisher just happened to agree: ‘This is the book we’ve been wanting him to write for twenty years’. So we did the first book, and it was a big success, and we’ve just signed the contract with Tor Books for two more sequels. What’s really awesome for me, as a storyteller is that it allows my ideas to get to people that wouldn’t normally have access to them if it were just the game. I might not get my mom to play the game of Empire, but I can definitely get her to read the book. And, I promise you she'll see the movie. We found that with Empire, we hit a much wider demographic with the book. We have 50 to 60 year old women who are reading the book, and we have 15 year old boys that are reading the book. We’ve got the entire spectrum. The same is true of the film, which is moving along as well. When we pitched it to Warner Bros. they caught the vision of it; they loved the idea, and that’s why Joel Silver is signed up. We just got the first draft of the script a few weeks ago. It’s awesome. It really allows us to broadly apply our stories, and tell the best kind of story for that audience. The person who is going to buy a political action thriller novel is different to the person who is going to buy a hardcore shooter. Empire can be a hardcore first person shooter, it’s just different stuff. This just allows us to get our product out to a lot of different people, and lets me do what I’m interested in. I love books, I love movies, I love comics – I love it all. It allows us to express our creative visions across a lot of different genres or mediums. GS: Is there any movement on the comic front yet? DM: I’m looking at Laura [Heeb Mustard, VP of Corporate Communications and Business Development] to see what I’m allowed to say. [Laughs] Laura Heeb Mustard: We’re having some really good conversations with the two top comic book companies. But we have plenty of time – we plan on keeping Empire around for a long time. GS: Is there any worry that the perception of the game is going to be that it’s an adaptation, rather than an original concept from Chair? DM: We actually did that on purpose – it’s not an adaptation, it is an original product. GS: Oh, yeah – I realize. I just mean that I think there’s still a stigma attached to licensed products. DM: Well, if anything we’ve found that we think we can do a good job of informing the core gaming audience that what they’re playing is the game first and designed for the ground up as a very awesome video game. It’s just that we were able to go out and trick the rest of the world into think it wasn’t. We were able to really map out the franchise and make it all add to each other, but the game is where you can tell the story in its most complete form. You know, with a movie you’ve only got two hours, a book is a book, but with a game you can really establish the world and set it up and we can tell it the way we want to. There will be Empire products across all platforms and we have some really cool stuff planned out for that. We just want to avoid some of the perceptions we run into with other things. When we working on Advent Rising we had a lot of interest in doing books and comics and movies. But a lot of them – and I think this is why you haven’t seen a really great video game movie yet – they can’t get past the fact that it is a video game. They just think, ‘Oh this is a video game – let’s just do a video game movie and target it to the video game audience’. Super hero movies went through that ten years ago, until someone was like, ‘Oh, wait. These can be actual movies’. Then there was a massive explosion of that genre, and I think that will happen with video games, it’s just going to take some time and some massaging to realize that games can be much bigger. Right now, they’re just wrapped up in that, but hopefully things like Empire and some other things that are being worked on can change that. GS: What effect can a bad adaptation – whether it be book, movie or comic form – have on your IP? DM: That’s a simple answer. It’s a matter of choosing the right partners. That’s why owning our own IP is so important. It allows us to control the franchise and go out and find the right partners that we can entrust our franchise to. Because you’re right – a bad movie would be disastrous. So, as we’re looking and talking with people, we were mindful that we had to work with the right people. And again, that’s why we’re lucky enough to get an Orson Scott card. We were way lucky enough to get a Joel Silver. These are people with very proven track records and they’ve proven time and time again that they understand the medium that they’re masters at. I think it’s just that simple – you have to find awesome partners, and when you do, and they understand the vision, you can truly collaborate and make something awesome. GS: Do you think there have been successes at that in the past? Adaptations that have boosted the IP? DM: Absolutely - Star Wars. It was huge, and one of the best movies ever. And Star Wars has been able to go on and have some very successful books, and those books aren’t just books based in the core mythology; they’re very liable, even literary novels that come out of that franchise. And games! Look at Knights of the Old Republic - they’ve taken that core mythology and made something really amazing. Star Wars has been able to grow well beyond what that original film delivered. It can be done, but it simply takes – well, Lucas has partnered with great people and there have been great staff. Sometimes they’ve chosen not such great partners, and we’ve seen what can happen with that, but when they do choose great partners, it can be amazing. GS: In terms of IPs that have started as games, have there been successes there? DM: We will see it happen. I think we’ll see Metal Gear have some movement there. Can you think of any? GS: Not off the top of my head. I think of all the movie adaptations especially, most things have harmed the IP in the eyes of the general public. I mean, if you’re looking at something like the Dead or Alive movie, that hasn’t done a lot for the way the general public looks at it. DM: No, I don’t either. I can give you tonnes of examples of ones that have not been good, but I can’t really think of any standout ones. But it will come, and that’s because the perception is that they’re video game movies, and they’re made with video game movie budgets. But it’s all about the story – it’s all about the emotional journey of characters, no matter what kind of film you’re trying to make. When they say, ‘Okay, we’re going to take this popular universe, be it Metal Gear, Halo or Undertow>’ and then they put into that strong characters with a strong story, you’ll get a great film. Each medium has its rules and things that people look for. You have to adapt that for people’s expectations if you want to make something great. GS: Is that how you widen an IP without stretching it too far, then? You make sure that you are delivering an appropriate product each time? DM: Absolutely. But to do that, you have to make sure you understand what will make a good product. It all comes back to having to understand your audience, and you have to partner with people who really understand their audience. And care about it, and get the vision. When you start to see Joel Silver saying, ‘I want to make this into a great film’, and when you start to see Peter Jackson saying, ‘We can do this’, you realize that these are people who get it. They get the story. They get the characters. It’s going to start happening. It took a Bryan Singer to make X-Men; it took a Sam Raimi to make Spider-Man. Before that it was just a mess. It took an Orson Scott Card to come in and really understand his audience and modern novel literature and make a New York Times bestseller out of an idea that is being made into a game. Picking those partners – they have to be awesome, and that’s where we feel we’ve done a good job and we can know that we have made products that will be enjoyable for those audiences. GS: I just wanted to talk briefly about staff – you’ve had a few problems finding programmers lately? Because that’s something I’ve heard from a great deal of companies at the moment: programmers are the in demand staff in the industry at the moment. DM: Yeah, that’s true. We’re in Utah, and the awesome thing about Utah is that we have a strong development community here – there’s several independent studios, and several big studios. We’ve got Sony and Buena Vista and people like that and there’s a lot of growth: they’re hiring, and we’re hiring. We’re all actively looking for programmers. I think it’s a good sign for our industry, right? It means there’s growth and demand for people with experience that can do stuff – especially with Unreal, being so heavily used by people. There are just a whole lot of people using Unreal, and people with that experience are very much in demand. We’re looking, and the thing is, we’re very independently minded. Because we’re smaller, we only tend to hire A-players. We expect you to be able to come in and execute at a very high level. We really only hire people that could be a lead programmer or a lead artist, so when they come in they’re coming in as a superstar amongst other superstars. We want to hire great people, and those people are harder to find. We’ll find them.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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