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Q&A: WhiteMoon Dreams On A New Indie Development Ethos

Veterans of the Medal of Honor and Fallout franchises have created new U.S. developer WhiteMoon Dreams, working with "a major Japanese publisher" on a new title - Gamasutra talks to the firm's principals about the 12-person developer's lean,
WhiteMoon Dreams is a newly-formed Pasadena, CA based Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo Wii studio currently working with a "major Japanese publisher" on an as-yet unannounced title. The company is led by former EA technical art director Jay Kootarappallil - whose former work spans titles including Ratchet & Clank and Medal of Honor. Former Fallout lead concept and game designer Scott Campbell co-founded the company and serves as its creative director. Gamasutra talks to Kootarappallil and Campbell, along with Game Director Kevin Mack and VP of Business Development and Marketing Norvell Thomas about the descision to form the studio and their philosophy of game development. What was the impetus for starting Whitemoon Dreams? Scott Campbell: Much of it came from our own experiences working at other companies, and feeling that we could do things differently. We’ve seen the potential of what could have been greatness -- and the various pitfalls they fell into. We took all the things we learned and decided that we wanted to apply them to our own destinies. There were certain things like the abundance of politics in larger corporations -- specifically with the introduction of whole levels of middle management that basically reported to other middle management. To me, that really heralds the downfall of a company. It sort of leads to the destruction of individuality, the creation of warring factions, and the creation of fiefdoms within the company. People are no longer concerned with the game -- the end goal and quality that they’re trying to achieve -- they’re more concerned with their career and simply going into "Paycheck Collection Mode". Jay Kootarappallil: Wrapping that into a larger concept, when we started this we had a lot of ideas for how things should work. The whole politics thing and all that; that’s one aspect of things that we know don’t necessarily work. The bigger problem is that we don’t have a whole lot of examples of things that do work. We read lots of books and talked with people who ran companies that are successful in and out of the industry. We took our cue from their successes and failures and applied them to the way we wanted to run the company. So yeah, we don’t want to have a bunch of politics and all that, but the truth of the matter is that politics are going to show up at a company at some point. But you know, we can at least create an environment where people don’t celebrate that kind of thing or to use it to move up the ladder. Also, we’ve been at enough studios to know that one of the issues that really slows down the game production process are poor pipelines on the both the tools and the process side. So, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to make that process better. Budgets are another problem. We’re about 12 people internally. To make a big game -- a game that really gets noticed as a retail product takes a team that’s much bigger than what we are. But that’s not going to fly for the current consoles and much less so for the next-gen ones. Games are only going to get more expensive. People who fund these projects are going to stop wanting to fund titles that cost that much more (in the future) which see the same amount of return as they do today. We decided to be proactive about figuring out how this industry can advance without pricing ourselves out of existence. For us, the solution lies in tech, and process, tools development, internal staff and other stuff, along with certain ideals like wanting to maintain an apolitical environment. Lastly, there are so many examples in the tech industry where people share concepts, and I’ve always wondered, as game developers, why do we all work as our own little islands? Where is the cooperation? I don’t think that means we all need to go and drop our tech everywhere, but I think we should be more forthcoming with people who are innovative. You know, help them make their way along, things like that. Sort of forming a real game development community than what the game development community has been. So, all of that was the impetus for starting WhiteMoon Dreams. What would you say is the core philosophy behind Whitemoon Dreams? Norvell Thomas: There are actually four main philosophies, the first one being that we are a business first. I came onto this team with no experience in the games business but a lot in marketing and corporate management for other sectors. These guys wanted to start a company, but they were going about it in the only way they knew how, which was starting with getting the first project sold and then figuring everything else out from there. When we talked about the need for a mission statement, business plan, company philosophies and other foundational concepts, the group really became a much more solid, robust entity. JK: Norvell helped us realize early on that we needed to stop thinking as a garage developer, and start thinking of this as a full-on business. Kevin Mack: I think its also worth pointing out that running a successful business is a responsibility. We have a responsibility to all of these people who trust us enough to come and join us. We have a responsibility to those people to make sure that we’re still going to be in business, providing their livelihoods, five years from now. And we have a responsibility to the publisher. The second one is really our belief in a culture of execution. Since we’re such a tiny group, we expect a lot of responsibility and accountability from each person. Everyone needs to be pretty autonomous; and those two traits are core to executing anything well. It’s also essential to maintain a strong flow of communication through every level of the organization, no matter how flat it is, and to make relevant information readily available. People can’t be responsible for things they don’t know about, and nobody makes good decisions from incomplete information. That goes both ways though. The organization has to allow people to get the information they need, but those people also have to be proactive about recognizing that they need it and getting it. No matter where you are in the organization, you need to talk to the people you’re working with, and know who’s doing what. You need to have a real understanding of the systems and dependencies that make your stuff work, and have a real passion for the ins and outs of your projects. That culture of execution feeds directly into the design culture. SC: Design is king -- that’s our third. You see it in the methodology we use, such as rapid prototyping, where we take game play concepts, distill them down, and try to answer the core questions: What is fun here? What is the tight feedback loop that we want to have the player invest their time in? Then comes all the pretty visuals and sounds, and everything else that make this a modern game gets added on top of the core game mechanics. Kevin, Richard Cowgill and myself, who are very technically minded, run the show. We come up with the designs and understand the concepts of scope -- how to either limit ourselves or push the design to maximum creativity -- and then we use that design bible as the foundation for building the entire project. This enables us to actually schedule our projects without going back, changing the core design and throwing away things we did before due to lack of planning. Putting aside the time to do the design prototype is something that enables the whole team to get behind it, and communally grok that, "oh, this is the game we’re making, and this is fun," Once the team can internalize why it’s fun, they can understand all the key elements that will make it a great experience for the end user. JK: It may sound corny to keep saying this, but the whole "we love everyone" thing is our fourth core philosophy. We really do! I mean we try to find ways to reach out to people and to reach out to other communities. We are not a developer that’s living in a fortress. We are talking to other developers, we’re involved with schools, we throw awesome parties, we know great DJ’s, we are part of the Burning Man family, you know, things like that. That actually is what builds a lot of our studio culture, and we’re always going to have that, for as long as we’re in business. KM: One of the big things we’re trying to do with this company is create a place that’s friendly to artists (of all media - not just artists in the traditional sense) -- a place that’s a creative institution first. At its core, the central thing we’re trying to do is make stuff that we really believe in -- that we really think is good. Approach game development as an art form first, and create an environment in which people are encouraged to take risks. Your formation announcement promised you would "engage the player's mind and hearts rather than just their hands". How? JK: It’s a combination of several things: Solid play, solid control, and the aspect of a rich world with a lot of great backstory, and characters you can believe in. Even if the end user doesn’t know everything that you’ve written about it, that’s okay. Oddworld is actually an excellent example of this. Those people did so much work on that world, that as soon as you walked a little bit through it, you loved it, because you could see that there was a much larger world and so much backstory there that you’d never know anything about, but you’d feel it instantly. KM: Some of the stuff that we do is, when we develop a space, we work out the history of the world and make sure we really know how this place works. We work out biographies for each of the characters, which wind up driving the costuming, driving the writing, driving the casting for the voice actors. It’s these little things that are the hook that lets you into the character’s mind, and turns this person into somebody who feels like a friend of yours. The differences between an acquaintance and a friend are those intimate details you know about your friend. By developing that stuff, you’re figuring out those things: what are the intimate details of these characters? What is the stuff that these characters only tell their friends? -- and then letting the player in on that. That’s what turns this character into somebody who feels human. SC: It’s the same for handling someone else’s IP… KM: Yeah. I mean look at what Ron Moore and David Eick did with Battlestar Galactica. They took an existing IP with a fantastic concept and good execution for its time. They said, "okay let’s go and take what’s essential about it, take what was great about it and make it even greater." And they did that. That’s certainly the philosophy of "love your characters, love the world, love what you’re making" and when you approach somebody’s IP, you have to allow yourself to fall in love with it. You have to find what’s essential about it, what was cool about it when they first created it. Why did the original creators come up with the concept? What did they love about it? Why do the fans love it? Then treat it as your own. JK: People will feel more, because you’ve gone ahead and put that much more effort into the world -- they can be that much more deeply immersed in it. The emotional attachment thing is not something you can directly cause someone to do. It’s a response. So you have to generate enough stuff, you have to create the perfect environment for that response. So, that’s all in the control. That’s the backstory, it’s all about how much love you want to put into your game in order to get that reaction from the end user. SC: It’s about loving the game and the characters in it. Not about taking out Mr. Cookie Cutter and going "yeah we need some filler here". When something is quality, it’s something that you can feel. On top of that, player Interactivity is something that cannot be overused. Movies and novels can also intrigue with amazing stories and visuals – but those are only passive experiences. Games, unique to all other mediums, interact with the user – and that is the key to engaging hearts and minds. How big is the studio now? NT: Right now, we’re fully staffed at 12 internal team members. We also work with external contractors for various components of the game. We are careful to grow our studio in a methodical way. We like the culture that we have built so far, and are mindful that as we grow bigger, we could lose it if we’re not careful. So, we just want to make sure that we grow the right way and for the right reasons. You've announced yourselves to be an "Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo Wii" developer. Are we talking Live Arcade/WiiWare, or retail titles? NT: All of the above. You've also announced a focus on original IP. Can you talk about that a little? JK: We have some brilliant designers. They make some really good stuff. And, it turns out that people who finance games really like the stuff that we come up with. So, why not just keep running with it? It’s as simple as that. We make good concepts. We build good worlds and back-stories for them, and people seem to like that, so we’ll continue with that. SC: Because these are games we have created, we have to love them -- love the characters in them, the worlds, everything else. By being able to let loose and create our own stuff, we can develop original IP’s that have truly living worlds, have incredible stories, and are as close to us as family. However, our philosophy is to treat someone else’s IP with the love and respect it deserves. We love the idea of taking a good license and making more out of it -- building on it so the end result is deeper and even more spectacular than when we got it. That’s not to say we "screw with it so we can call it our own". We’re all about paying homage to the fans of the license; building on their expectations and desires while keeping true to the original vision. How does the moon signify your love for the art of game making? JK: To us, the moon is a symbol of dreams. We tie everything into that. Making games is a dream job, the games themselves are results of our dreams and this whole company thing is like living a dream; it all ties back to the symbolism of the moon as dreams.

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