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Interview: Armature Founders On 'Unsustainable' Biz, Plans

Game development is "becoming costlier and costlier...and unsustainable," say the three ex-Retro developers who announced the EA-backed Armature Studio earlier this week, and Gamasutra spoke to the trio about their swift prototyping, 'core team' business
Game production is "becoming costlier and costlier, and it's becoming unsustainable for current-gen development to continue this way," former Retro Studios (Metroid Prime) principal technology engineer Jack Mathews tells Gamasutra. This is why he and former Retro game director Mark Pacini and art director Todd Keller founded Armature Studio and signed a long-term publishing deal with Electronic Arts. The three developers discussed the move with Gamasutra this week. The new Austin, Texas-based company is in many ways an experiment intended to demonstrate a different type of development: keeping a small in-house staff to conceive ideas and rapidly prototype gameplay concepts and technology, then working with external contractors and outsourcers for full production. The company is currently hiring, but plans to cap out at around eleven employees -- and deliver full-scale, triple-A games with its distributed development model. The Process "We're very hands-on, very involved all the way through the process," says Pacini. "In the beginning, our main focus is creating original ideas and coming up with what the game actually would be. When we get into the production part of it, we'll be working with distributed developers and contractors to execute the game." He stresses that Armature won't simply generate concepts then hand them off to another studio. "We will be very involved in the creation of the game," he says. "Our role may shift a little bit to directing a lot of the content, but we'll still be creating content as well. It's a pitch very reminiscent of that of Wideload -- the Chicago-based developer (Stubbs The Zombie) founded by Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian -- which also operates around the concept of a smaller internal team driving contract-driven production. But Mathews says Armature's close relationship with EA will facilitate bigger games. "A lot of our core development ideals are pretty similar, but hopefully the partnership with EA should allow us to get larger-scale projects under development," he says. "I know a lot of [Wideload's] stuff is somewhat smaller. With EA what we're looking at it is an opportunity to hit this development model out of the park, by being such close development partners with the publisher that we can really just make very fast moves back and forth to make things happen." The Benefit The three principals are looking forward to the kind of development emphasized by the Armature concept: lean, rapid prototype development that doesn't get bogged down in the ways traditional development often does. Mathews explains: "One of our core beliefs is that this will actually allow us to do more quick iteration, quick prototyping. One problem with game development is you end up with tons of 200-page design documents, but nothing actually proving out. Once you actually go into production, you find a lot of things don't work, and vast swathes of your design just go out the window, or you've gone too far and you can't afford to throw those things out the window." He believes the new method will "be able to quickly prove or disprove high concepts and come up with a focused, playable, very good core of the game as quickly as possible, using as few resources as possible," before moving into the full production stage. Plus, years of working at Retro and collaborating with an overseas team gives the developers a sense of perspective as to what's involved with a distributed development effort. "We have extensive experience working with developers in Japan -- that's who we worked with for the past eight years," Pacini points out. "We've had to deal with a thirteen-hour difference for eight years, and we've learned a lot of how to be efficient at that communication. The idea is to create 'virtual studio.'" He adds that EA's considerable outsourcing resources should help the process as well. The Future Pacini worries that the current model of game development is becoming far too unwieldy, and believes that a more distributed, less centralized system -- similar in some ways to that of the film industry -- could become the norm. "The model in which games are made -- with a staff of people upwards of 100 people a lot of the time -- is kind of outdated now," he says. "It costs so much money to maintain that staff. What do you do with that staff when the game is done? You get these mass layoffs. You don't hear that when a movie's over. Everybody who was on the movie is gone -- but there was no mass layoff, it's just that everybody was a contractor just for that project. "I think in the future, a lot of game development will move towards that," Pacini continues. "Contractors now are being used more efficiently than they've ever been on game projects, and it's become a more valid way to staff up your project. Rather than being looked down upon as a company that doesn't want to hire somebody, it's more fiscally responsible of the company to hire contractors, not to staff up and have a mass layoff at the end." The Legacy Why leave Retro after delivering one of the most acclaimed series of the last decade? "Now that the Prime trilogy was up, it felt like a good time to be looking around, and this is an opportunity to branch out more and reach a lot more people with the types of games we like to make," Mathews says. "Plus, the venture is one that really fits with our thinking about how games should move forward." After eight years of GameCube and Wii development, the group is also looking forward to branching out to other platforms. Says Keller, "[Armature] has the opportunity to reach people on other systems. It opens up gameplay to have more powerful systems. I've always liked all the systems, but [Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3] have a little bit more ability for you to expand your game." As far as living in the shadow of Samus, the Armature team isn't too concerned. "Every game we've done, I've been more excited about," says Pacini. "At the end of Prime 3, I said, 'Wow, I think that's the best thing we've ever done.' It was really rewarding at the end of it. The stuff we're working on now, I feel the same way. I'm excited about the new things we're coming up with. "It's been so long since Prime 1 came out. I remember, but at the same time, while it's something I'll always be proud of, and it's something people thought was good, you have to move on from that. As long as you're excited about what you're doing, I think that's what's important."

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