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Q&A: John Johnson Talks Smoking Gun

Gamasutra talks with Company of Heroes producer John Johnson about Smoking Gun, the new studio he founded with fellow Relic vets Drew Dunlop and Angie Radwan-Pytlewski, with Johnson sharing his own background, his focus on strategy games, and hints

Jason Dobson, Blogger

September 11, 2007

11 Min Read

Earlier this year, when a mysterious viral marketing campaign eagerly puzzled out by long-time fans suggested that veterans of Relic's Company of Heroes team had left to form their own studio. Shortly thereafter, the truth was confirmed, as it was announced Company of Heroes producer John Johnson had indeed formed his own studio, along with Drew Dunlop and art director Angie Radwan-Pytlewski, also formerly of Relic. Gamasutra spoke with Johnson about what's ahead for the new studio. Before we dig too deeply, can you reflect a bit on how you landed in your current position? Short answer? Passion. Long answer... I guess I landed where I am today because I have always loved creating new experiences, through both games and art. I was very much into creating games and experiences throughout my childhood and would spend hours creating elaborate scenarios for pen and paper games, or create board games that I’d play with friends. My first computer game experience was on a radio shack TRS80 in the early 80’s. It was a dungeon crawl, mostly text -- but with that, I was hooked, and immediately knew that interactive games was where I wanted to be. So I pursued programming for a few years but I found I was much more adept on the creative side of development. I took a few detours pursuing my other passions in film and photography, as well as working for Greenpeace for a few years on some causes I believed in. Once all that was finished, the game industry had completely changed, with teams now working on products. So, I went back to pursuing my original goal with EA for five years, then with Relic for the last seven. I feel privileged to have been able to pursue our vision of Company of Heroes without compromise, and ship an incredible title. With Smoking Gun Interactive, I’m now taking the next step in that dream. How has the growth been, and what’s been your focus since your announcement? Since our announcement, we’ve been working on our prototype and product pitch, which we’re currently reviewing with publishers and the private sector. We finalized our investment strategy proposals and are talking with different parties on investment opportunities. We’re also gearing up to hire a few more of our key staffing positions to round out our team and have some great applicants in the pipe. It’s an exciting time. What do you hope to achieve with Smoking Gun that you felt you couldn't with Relic? Interactive entertainment is changing, and I see a lot of potential out there in creating new and interesting interactive experiences; this is what Smoking Gun is all about. Being completely independent allows you to focus on our vision without compromise. Having a core group of founders that are all focused and passionate about the same vision can yield incredible results. In June, when you first announced the studio, you didn’t make any mention of your first project. Can you shed any light on it yet? Given your pedigree, can we expect an emphasis on strategy games, or have you had your fill? Strategy is definitely one of our strengths, and still is very much something we’re passionate about. We do want to take strategy in some new and innovative directions, which we’re very excited about. I wish we could talk more about this now, but it’s just too early to discuss the details of what we’re working on. What was the thinking behind the Exoriare website? Whose idea was that? And as Exoriare is Latin for “to rise”, is this a clue, albeit an abstract one, hinting at your first project? The original idea came as my narrative designer Duane and I were discussing ways to create an interesting announcement for the studio. We wanted to create something different, something fun, and something that represented our level of passion and dedication that Smoking Gun is putting into everything that we do. When we sat down with the whole team, we decided that it was important to ensure this was a community-driven endeavor, something that would require a community working together to solve. Communities are so important to games, and we feel it’s just one area that can definitely be expanded upon in the future -- how games can interact with communities, not just individuals. It was also important for us to bring outside elements to the campaign, including real-world locations. I remembered the X that I had seen in the desert earlier in the year on a trip down to Vegas, and it fit well with what we wanted to do -- I also had a real curiosity, that I just had to go there and find out what was there. We knew people visiting the site would pretty much be impossible for most as it’s in the middle of the desert. It’s hot, you need a 4-x-4 and lots of water. So shooting the video of the unearthing of the artifact and using Google Maps to link to it was a great way to deliver the final clue. The word 'Exoriare' has a few meanings for us, and yes, it and the campaign may have a few hints at what we might be up to. Is Smoking Gun going to be devoted to developing one game at a time, or do you plan to have multiple projects running in parallel? We have a defined vision, and we plan to stay relatively small and focus on that vision. If moving to multiple teams fits with our vision and makes sense, then we will definitely consider that. How is Smoking Gun organized, and how does its organization differ from your previous experience? We have a lot of combined experience in large and small companies and have seen both sides of how development works -- and doesn’t work -- in these environments. We utilize all that experience on a daily basis, and are using that in building out our team structures for our products. With Company of Heroes, we saw a lot of rapid growth in team size once we hit production, but didn’t see enough growth on the support side to manage teams doubling, or tripling in size. It’s a common occurrence in most industries that see rapid growth in team sizes. For us, it was important with this current project to develop all key director and lead positions accordingly, with the knowledge that we can anticipate the team sizes we’ll grow to. We want to ensure the support structure is in place before that growth happens -- and more importantly, that those key individuals are involved in the growth of those teams and build them around the vision of the product. We have also planned on outsourcing options, as well as key positions that focus on that, so that the team size will remain at a level we feel best suits our development style and culture. Does Smoking Gun practice any specific development philosophies on gameplay mechanics before implementing them, or is the team small and agile enough already without having to implement specific techniques? We follow agile development philosophies, in that we believe that iterative development is the key to success. We regularly refine the game and our goals in order to make the best possible product. This isn’t new for us, and we continue to refine how we do this on every product. We are creating goals that wrap around features, rather than individual tasks, and structure the teams to best suit those goals. Still, I am a firm believer in up-front planning, and that’s essential to understanding what your product's needs and budget are, as well as its risks. I see it being even more important in agile practices. I’ve seen instances where less focus is placed on this when using scrum, [leaving] key decisions that affect the overall product, vision and its goals to developers with little previous product development experience. In my mind, that can lead to disaster -- and, it should be noted, isn’t proper scrum development. It’s important for the leaders of the team to always have a clear picture of the entire project, maintain its vision, and understand what’s being traded for what when any decisions are being made that affect the overall product. Will Smoking Gun focus on any specific platform, say the PC, or are you open to developing for consoles, handhelds, or event for digital distribution channels such as Xbox Live Arcade? We’re focusing on both PC and console platforms. We feel both are going to remain strong in the future. We are definitely looking at digital distribution on both PC and console as viable way to deliver the products, and for additional content ideas. Given your experience, what lessons has your team learned that best positions Smoking Gun to make an impact in the independent market? Everyone learns so much on each product they’ve worked [on], and with the combined experience, it’d be hard to list even a handful of things we’ve learned that have helped us grow. One of our most important goals at the outset was to ensure we had a focused vision for both the business and the product -- and obviously, those need to match. That may sound like a no-brainer, but you can see time and time again where products simply fail or don’t see the light of day because there wasn’t a focused vision for either the products or the business, or ensuring those visions matched. The team needs to believe wholeheartedly in what they are doing, which means they have to believe in what you are doing on all fronts. When they do, that’s when you get that passion and dedication that delivers exceptional products. Are you chiefly looking to establish new IP, or are you looking to court existing brands? Creating new IP is one of our key strengths, and an important company goal. If a current brand fits into what we want to do, and the business side of that matches our company’s goals, we’d definitely entertain that. With E3 now behind us, the new debate seems to be whether or not such a show is relevant in the current market in getting press out about upcoming projects. As a newly formed studio with a project on the horizon, what is your take on this? It’s funny -- this is a question asked [of] a lot of developers -- but I’d like to flip that for your readers, and ask you the same question. Do you -- and, do you feel the media in general -- is getting what it needs out of E3? What have you found are the best avenues for the media to get their stories? Honestly, I think that the E3 of old had spun out of control to a point that something had to be done, so maybe this latest event was just the organizers' desperate attempt to take a stab at change for the sake of change. In retrospect, maybe we're at a point in the industry, with other shows like GDC, that E3 is no longer needed, though I think it will be interesting to see what form the annual show takes next year, if any. I realize these events are important for both press and buyers/retail, but speaking strictly from a developer standpoint, I much prefer having the press, vendors and even buyers come to our offices for product showings. It’s much more casual, and a far more effective way to demo with both parties focused completely on what that meeting is about. For retail and buyers, I think it might be far more effective for publishers to put on their own events that focus directly on the goals of what they want out of that event, and on their product lines with no distractions. If you had to pick one, what would you say was the single most significant challenge in striking out on your own as an independent studio, and how did your studio overcome this hurdle. Or have you yet? I’d say the juggling of getting the corporate side setup while trying to focus on the product's goals has definitely been a challenge. You get down into all the creative stuff of the product, which is great, but then get pulled back out to deal with all the little details involved in setting up a company. But on the flip side, it’s nice to be in charge of all that, as we know that every aspect of the company is moving in a direction we’ve chosen. We’ve been busy with our prototype, and have a product pitch in place that we are now showing, as well as our investment strategies so things are moving along nicely. Finally, assuming you all are gamers yourselves, do you all play games together? What is your current addiction? Yes, we play a lot of games together, we’ve been playing just about anything new coming out lately as reference for what we’re working on as well as getting into a little board game strategy. I don’t have a current addiction, as we’re playing a lot of different titles but I’m looking forward to playing a little Halo 3 soon, and I’m itching to get my hands on Mass Effect from BioWare when it ships.

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