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Q&A: Demiurge's Reed Talks Wii Thoughts, Thought Controlled Games

Quietly working behind the scenes in co-development and pre-production on games like Brothers in Arms: Double Time, Demiurge co-founder Albert Reed tells Gamasutra about its position in the industry, its love for the Wii, its work on Emotiv's thoug
Cambridge, Massachusetts based Demiurge Studios formed in 2002 as an independently funded company. Since then, the developer has been involved in more than ten titles, working with companies like Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Gearbox Software and THQ on such games as Brothers in Arms: Double Time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Titan Quest. Demiurge focuses its work into five specific areas: full game development, ports, pre-release bug-fixing and “firefighting”, co-development and pre-production prototyping and vertical slice development. Additionally, the company is now pushing its Wii development, commenting on its website that the team “love this platform” and “permanently devote a whiteboard to ‘Wii Thoughts’”. The company is also working with Emotiv Systems on Project Epoc, a “head-mounted controller that uses neural technology to detect changes in player thoughts, feelings and expressions” demonstrated at GDC ’07, for which Demiurge created the game technology. Currently, its work on this project is focused on creating APIs for other developers, though there is the possibility that the Epoc technology will be integrated into Demiurge’s future projects. Recently, Gamasutra spoke with co-founder and Studio Director Albert Reed, and asked about the company’s outsourcing, its position within the industry, and the reason for its passionate response to the Wii. Gamasutra: How was the studio started without outside capital? Albert Reed: A lot of good old fashioned sweat equity. Demiurge was founded by me, Chris Linder and Tom Lin in late 2001. The nice thing about not having investment is that you've got nothing to lose - we took smart risks and worked our asses off. Our first "break" came when Epic brought us in to do licensee support and tools programming for the Unreal Engine. The quality of work we did for Epic got the attention of the various Unreal Engine licensees who began contracting us to help with their titles. What pressure did this put you under for your first few projects? AR: Without any sort of cushion of capital, the margin for error is extremely tight. If we missed a single deliverable, or even got paid a little late we'd have missed a payroll. Thankfully, that never happened but it certainly helped us "focus". There are some values that have stuck with us through that period; we demand well-constructed contracts and are fairly shameless about reminding our clients when a payment is coming up. How did you source projects initially? AR: One of the great things about the games industry is that when you've established a positive name for yourself, people are eager to work with you. Our first few clients were very good about recommending us to their friends. What effect do you think the, company's initial "firefighting" work had in regards to the way that other developers and publishers see the business? AR: The firefighting projects established Demiurge as a company that can solve the hardest of the hard problems in game development. In a business where there's a reasonable chance what you start will never get done, being the folks who have delivered the hard parts does a lot to put our clients' minds at ease. At what point did you begin to feel less pressured in a financial sense? AR: Bootstrap mentality again - once we had cash in the bank to provide a good long runway if things went awry. Was the aim always to diversify the company's services in the way that you have? AR: Our aim was always to make games - having a team with the complete skill-set needed to ship product is a requirement. Aside from that, the mix of people that populate a game studio is probably my favorite part of the job. There are so few endeavors in the world where such a diverse set of skills and personalities come together. That's become a big part of our hiring mentality. For each candidate, we ask ourselves "What does this person do better than anyone else at the studio?" Why are we not seeing more companies taking on the volume of outsourcing work that you do, and do you think this is something the industry will see more of in the future? AR: Outsourcing (on and off shore) has become industry standard practice at this point; the volume is already quite high. Even the largest of publishers can't handle the staffing fluctuations that come with developing a 5+ platform AAA title. The overhead for an employee at an EA or Ubisoft is significantly higher as well. Those two factors mean that bringing in contractors is practically a requirement. Which projects are you most happy with? AR: I tend to suffer from shiny-object-syndrome, so right now I'm pretty high on Brothers in Arms: Double Time. It's the first project that we've done start-to-finish, and I'm really impressed with how gorgeous the game looks on the Wii. We've established some excellent user-testing practices and really refined the controls to something the more casual-leaning Wii crowd will be able to pick up and master but that the WWII shooter fans will be comfortable with. What role does casual game development have in the big picture for you? AR: We'll move into whatever space that lets us make innovative games that tons of people want to play. I'm not really sure what a "casual" game is these days, but we got our start in that space making FlipTrip, Infest and Toy Store Tycoon. Why has the company never fired an employee? AR: Two reasons. First, because we've never hired anyone that didn't kick ass. Second, because of that bootstrap mentality we run a financially conservative business. Even when big projects end, we managed to avoid the layoff fallout that usually follows for so many developers. Why is the company so passionate about Wii development? How important was it for you to become an accredited Wii developer? AR: We strive to imbue our games with two things: innovative gameplay and great style, and the Wii is a perfect place to achieve those goals. The intuitive controller makes the Wii the perfect platform to do something new on the design side. The less powerful graphics hardware means that our art team must create a look that will make the game stand out amongst the plethora of titles trying to look "real". Getting licensed for Wii, 360 and PS3 were all big steps for Demiurge! Could you see the company specializing in Wii development? AR: We've gotten lots of experience on the hardware, but it's not something we're aiming to develop exclusively on in the long-term. We'd prefer to put our titles on whichever platform they're best suited for. We're looking to place a Wii-exclusive title with publishers right now but that decision was made because the game could leverage the controller, didn't require state-of-the-art graphics, and was well aligned with the Wii market. What does your pre-production outsourcing work generally involve, and why is this an important service? AR: For a couple of companies, we've created or helped to create a demo that tests out the core gameplay. As development costs go up, the need to vet ideas early in development has become increasingly important. At the same time, the start of one project frequently coincides with the ship-cycle of a previous one, resulting in a staffing disconnect. For Demiurge, these types of projects are a ton of fun - it's pure game design, frequently with an exciting IP like Chair Entertainment's Empire. How are you able to provide this service in "a few weeks"? AR: After doing gameplay prototyping a few times, a few tricks start to become apparent. Knowing which ideas you can stand up in one day vs. one week, and leveraging engines, tech and tools that are already built makes a huge difference. We've also got some stellar designer-programmers that dramatically shortcut the iteration loop. We're actually doing a project right now where we've made six different games in four weeks using a new kind of game controller. What do you bring to the project when working on a port? What do you feel the most important things to do - and not to do - are? AR: The key to a good port is to not thinking of it as "just a port." We start each porting project by asking ourselves what can we do to take advantage of a platform's strengths, and also what that platform's customers expect. For example, in moving an FPS from console over to PC, we know that sniper rifle weapons and the enemies around them will need to be re-balanced for a mouse/keyboard interface and that the PC crowd demands precision in those weapons. I think it's a shame that so few multiplatform games are leveraging the PS3 Sixaxis. How often are you given opportunities to add extra content? AR: I'd say half the time the client asks for it and the other half of the time we ask to do it. It's a great way to show dedication to a particular platform and if you're working on a product with a rabid fan-base you might even manage to sell multiple copies of the same game! What is Project Epoc, and how did you get involved with Emotiv? AR: It's a peripheral you put on your head that lets you interface with a computer using your mind. When we heard what they were doing, we were intrigued; when we tried it out for ourselves, we were astounded. The ability to affect a game using your mind is an incredibly powerful concept. Where will this effort lead? AR: Chris Linder, one of the founders of Demiurge likes to say "this is the future," and I'm inclined to agree with him. We're already playing games with our bodies, so it seems like a logical extension to begin playing them with our minds. Is the development of original IP a goal for the company? When do you think this will happen? AR: That's been a goal of ours since Demiurge's inception. We shipped an original title, FlipTrip, within a year of starting the studio, then started shopping around an original action-RPG (ironically called Hubris) about a year after that. Later, we developed the Clone Bandits universe and shipped an Unreal mod set there. The walls of the office are covered in concept art and design sketches for original properties. Right now it's a matter of finding the right partner, or partners, to aid in financing those projects! What other plans exists for the future of Demiurge? AR: By far the best part of the journey has been working with the people that make up the team here. We're growing, and I do hope the future includes bringing in more people who want to change the industry. Hopefully what I've said here resonates with some of your readers and they'll be inspired to apply for a position at the studio.

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