Wideload Games founder and former Bungie founder/president Alex Seropian created his Chicago-based developer in 2003, firstly working on cult Xbox title Stubbs The Zombie
- of which a Seropian-penned postmortem
can be read on Gamasutra.
More recently, he's been working on unconventional politically-themed Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 party game Hail To The Chimp
for publisher Gamecock, and browser-playable title Cyclomite
for the IAC-backed GarageGames project InstantAction.com, as part of the firm's Wideload Shorts digital download division.
In this wide-ranging chat, Gamasutra sat down with Seropian to talk about the state of the market for indies, as well as the company's current output - ranging from browser games to Unreal Engine 3-backed PS3 titles, somewhat uniquely.
How is Wideload Shorts going?
Alex Seropian: It’s going great. We actually spent the last six months building that team out, so we’ve got five people in that team now, and that’s what we consider to be the full team for the downloadable games. They’ve just put out the first one, Cyclomite
, which is available on InstantAction.com.
Are they working on one project at a time or multiple projects simultaneously?
AS: We actually have a bunch of potential projects that get designed on paper. We have, I think, a pretty cool creative process with the company. It isn’t necessarily aligned along team boundaries. For instance, Cyclomite
was designed by somebody on the console team, and anyone on the Shorts team could contribute ideas to whatever the next console game might be.
We do this creative process as a regular part of our business. We have four games that we want to make on the Shorts side, and we have the capacity to do one at a time right now – but we like that business so much that we’re now building a second team, with Scott Corley. He runs the Shorts side of the business. He had his own company called Red Mercury for a while, doing mobile games.
Did you have to hire more people? Is Wideload a larger company now?
AS: A little bit. We’re twenty-five now. When we shipped Stubbs
we were twelve, so in that time we’ve kind of doubled-up in size. We’re still pretty small, I think, and we still have the same small vibe, you know, the same model. The whole idea is to have this small core team that can leverage outside partners. We’re still doing that.
Is it necessary to do that for the Shorts, or is that all in-house?
AS: The idea is that, on the Shorts side, they work in a very similar way that we do as well. The projects inherently have less content in them. In fact, we consider the really good designs to be ones that can be extended programatically, rather than by piling a whole ton of content on. From that perspective, they inherently do less out-sourcing, but they’re equipped to work the same way that the console team is.
Do you foresee it being a larger part of your business in the future, or is console still going to be as important?
AS: Well, the way I look at it now is that it’s a really nice balance, where we have these longer projects that are bigger in scope, bigger in budgets, and then we have shorter projects at the same time, shorter budgets, shorter scope. We express our creativity more quickly and in a more varied fashion.
I think it’s a nice risk balance. I can only imagine that the downloadable game space is going to continue to grow a lot. I don’t for sure what’s going to happen, but we are really excited about the downloadable game space and that’s why we’re building that second team, so we’ll in a pretty good position to be able to address that market.
You're capitalizing on the future?
AS: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Hey, pretend I said that.
A lot of people have said that they don’t think retail’s going to go away, but it seems that people are just afraid of retail. It seems that’s a big reason why they say it’s not going away, because they don’t want to make them mad. It’s not going to go away any time soon, but it's hard to see why anyone would want to keep it around from the developer side.
AS: Well, I think one thing that’s probably a factor is that for a long time the industry’s operated under a specific pricing and margin model, where it’s actually got even more lucrative with Xbox 360 and PS3 games retailing for sixty bucks or more. There’s just a certain scope to that kind of business that changes when you’re selling games for ten bucks. I think it’s kind of a good thing.
What's good about it?
AS: That there’s a market for games that cost ten dollars. It just wasn’t practical before. With more people playing games, and people who grew up with games are now having kids, they’re playing, their kids are playing, it’s just like -- duh, the market’s going to get bigger. You saw what happened with music – there’s no reason why we can’t be selling games online at equal or greater volumes than we could be selling them at retail.
There’s also no used game market in downloadable, which is helpful to developers actually getting paid.
AS: Right, and if a rental market develops there, there will be a revenue stream, which right now, there isn’t, really.
Hail to the Chimp's graphical style has somewhat significantly, especially in the background, since you last showed it. There’s all this sketching stuff going on in the background. Why were those changes made?
AS: That was a distant evolutionary step on the road to achieving the visual design goal we have for the game. When we started, we licensed the Unreal Engine, looked around and said, “Gee, look at all these people licensing this engine, we want to stand out.” Everyone was doing this hyper-realistic, photo-real stuff, and we wanted to go the opposite direction.
There’s a lot of graphical power there, so we didn’t want to just make a toon-shaded, cel-shaded game. Instead we came up with this idea that’s kind of like paper cut-out stop-motion, but it’s still 3D. We’re projecting our textures onto the models in a way that makes them look flat, because they have outlines around them, and the texture’s not actually wrapped around the model -- it’s projected in a 2D plane, basically.
The shading’s all done as though it was drawn with a pencil in real-time, that’s how the lighting and the shading works. The difference that you see now as opposed to six months ago or nine months ago is a refinement and polishing of that look.
Was Unreal Engine 3 necessary to make this game? Couldn't you have made your own engine for that?
AS: Our licensing an engine is core to our model, just like out-sourcing is, because we don’t want to spend four or five years creating tech. We start with licensing an engine.
The Unreal Engine was a really good idea for us, because not only does it provide horsepower for achieving a unique graphical look, as well as all the physics and real world stuff we’re using in this game, but it also has a really good tool chain and pipeline.
Since we work with so many people outside of our office, it’s really important for us to be able to extend our tool chain so they can act like a team member. Having something that’s really user-friendly and robust on the content side is a big help for us.
It still feels, though, like Hail To The Chimp could be a downloadable game, aside from the fact that it’s got so many extras. Do you think the retail market can support this type of game in the large scale?
AS: Thankfully that answer has already been provided, because we’ve already presold quite a few copies. There’s definitely the interest from retail. It’s priced at $39.99, which puts it in a good place, and this kind of game, the party-style brawler, is kind of absent from the market right now. There isn’t really anything on 360 or PS3 that’s like it.
From that perspective I think there’s a great opportunity for us to sell a lot of copies of the game. The thing that I find interesting about that comment is that, for me personally, and Wideload in general, we’re very interested in making games that revolve around an interesting game mechanic – a simple game mechanic, but an interesting one that can be really polished and have a lot of production value.
We're not necessarily, though, wanting to make an 80 hour linear game with more cut-scenes than game. That’s where, right now, it’s kind of hard to find that spot in the market to support that kind of game.
It seems a lot of people’s impression of Hail to the Chimp
is that “here’s a game that has a lot of production value like a retail game, but has maybe this easy user experience that you associate with a smaller type of game.”
You might think, "oh, I can play this for ten minutes at a time and it doesn’t seem like an 80 hour game" -- although I assure you there’s over 80 hours of fun in there. I see the point, and that’s something I hope is going to change about the downloadable space.
Microsoft has decided and dictated to the industry – so far – here’s what a downloadable game means: it’s five, ten dollars, and it’s this much scope, which means there’s not much a publisher is going to pay a developer to make it, which means there’s not much content to go in there. Starting with parameters like game budget, it has dictated a certain style of gameplay, and there’s no reason that type of gameplay can’t work in a bigger game.
If you look at Portal
, there’s an example of a very cool but simple idea that was done really well, and I think you’d pay nineteen bucks for that, or more. There’s no reason that has to be five dollars or ten dollars – but it has to be, if it’s going to be on Live Arcade because that’s the model that works.
Sony’s trying to do something different, and we’ll see if Microsoft’s going to change. The other parameter they slap on there is volume-size. That’s something that we’ve actually found a little frustrating. There really isn’t a middle space, which I think there’s actually a market for it, that’s kind of under-served.
WiiWare may be a little different.
AS: They have a strict file-size limit too, right?
Definitely. It seems the XBLA market, for example, is becoming very retail-like. A lot more of the games coming out now have to be backed by Capcom or EA in order to get out there quickly. Is that your impression? It seems like it’s very quickly ramped up from being pure indies to being very publisher-dominated.
AS: I don’t think anybody should fool themselves that digital distribution is this holy grail of freaky indie development, because, no matter what, where there’s a lot of money to be made, people are going to be trying to take the money.
That especially includes the distributors like Microsoft, who owns that platform. There’s no reason to believe that they won’t exert their leverage and profit potential the same way that Wal-Mart or GameStop does on the retail side. The only difference is that you’re not shipping physical boxes around, so there’s less inventory risk – which just makes it better for the distributor, right?
One could argue, from that perspective, that digital distribution is worse for the indie developer. So far it’s been a great opportunity to make smaller budget games that supports indie development.
In the long run you could argue that once one of these channels – or maybe all three channels: Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo – if that’s all you have, in a certain sense it becomes less competitive, and worse for the independent developer.
We’ll see. So far it’s been all good times, but if it happens where they’re making more money on the stuff they’re shipping over Live than retail games, then I think you’re going to see the same squeeze happen.
Where do you think is the better space? Do you think PC is the better place for that kind of stuff?
AS: Hard to say. Right now, PC is nice because it’s completely open and completely unregulated. But because of that, you lose the marketing consolidation that you get out of an XBLA.
That’s one thing that we’re really excited about with the [GarageGames-created] Instant Action platform, because it’s trying to bring that kind of focus and experience that you might get on something like Live Arcade to the PC. Something where you can meet up with your friends and they’ve got accounts and you can invite them into games and that kind of stuff. We’ll see if that kind of thing works.
It seems that web portals are the equivalent of consoles on the web in terms of consolidation or marketing and that kind of thing, but it's not clear if they’re as successful.
AS: I don’t think so, because the kind of experience that you get on most of the portals are like Flash game experiences, where there’s a limit to the production value you can get to, and the kind of experience that you can have. Instant Action’s different: those aren’t Flash games and you can get real DirectX code games and have that kind of experience. That will be a good test. If that works and takes off, then I think that could be a really good thing.
Do your downloadable games have a publisher?
AS: We would consider GarageGames to be our distributor, publishing partner, basically.
Do you foresee a situation where the industry doesn't have to work with a publisher?
AS: Yeah, I think it’s definitely possible these days to be making games with money that doesn’t come from a publisher. People are doing it and this industry’s attractive enough to investors – or even having projects that have the scope and budgets that developers may be able to self-fund.
Our model, though is that we want to take the creative risk and work with somebody who can bring value to what we do – get it out there, market it, and even help us refine our game to address what the market wants.
Not just on the money side, though, also the need for a publisher to distribute.
AS: You mean to make the game and put it up on Live Arcade themselves and even get it into a store? I think it’s really difficult for a developer to make boxed product at retail.
That’s what Bungie was doing before we got acquired, and it’s really chewing off three risks at once, because you’re doing the development, which is risky, you’re doing the marketing and publishing, which is risky, and then you’re building inventory, which is not just risky but really expensive.
That seems really hard, but I think it’s certainly possible for developers to become publishers in the sense that they’re getting their stuff out, self-funding it and getting it out on Steam or Live Arcade – or the iPhone right now.