Parallax Software co-founder Mike Kulas stepped away from the games industry in 2011, but he's ready for a comeback. Kulas recently reunited with his co-founder from Parallax, Matt Toschlog, to form Revival Productions and Kickstart Overload, a spiritual successor to their original studio's flagship game, Descent. Though he's only been gone four years, Kulas compared his situation to that of Rip Van Winkle, or a (slightly) more contemporary fish-out-of-water story.
"It was almost like an Austin Powers moment," Kulas told GamesIndustry.biz."I've been out of the industry for four years and I come back and everything has changed."
Whether it was Unity's royalty-based business model or using Slack for group chat, much of the modern development experience was alien to Kulas. He said he even asked his team about how many polygons the enemy robots could have, only for them to laugh because polygons aren't the limiting factor any longer.
"I used to say I was talking to the people who made the games. Towards the end there, I was talking to the people who were talking to the people who made the games."
But if Kulas seemed out of touch with the realities of game development, it was only partly due to his sojourn away from the industry. When he retired, he had been at Volition (the studio he founded after he and Toschlog split from Parallax) for 15 years, and was far removed from the in-the-trenches concerns of game development.
"I certainly wasn't making games," Kulas said. "I used to say I was talking to the people who made the games. Towards the end there, I was talking to the people who were talking to the people who made the games. There was a lot of it that I liked, but I just felt unsatisfied. For at least a year before I left, I thought I would leave when I figure out what I wanted to do."
Eventually, Kulas figured he would have to leave in order to get clarity on what his next move would be. So he left and spent time with his family, expecting to enjoy a summer off, figure out what he wanted to do, and then get back to work.
"To my surprise and somewhat embarrassment, it took me over four years to find out that I wanted to do something," Kulas said.
What he wanted to do, it turns out, was get the band back together. He and Toschlog had actually talked about getting together to create a spiritual successor to Descent as early as 2012, but Kulas got cold feet.
It's something he seems to have a bit of regret about, partly because he knows it's only grown more challenging to raise either visibility or funds through Kickstarter.
"It's funny, in some ways it's more stressful than 20-something years ago when we would push to publishers."
"It took a long time because we had time," Kulas explained. "We didn't have an urgent reason to get this done, we could do it at our own pace. And our own pace turned out to be too slow."
One thing Kulas doesn't regret is getting back to work. He's happier now (and his wife is, too). He's also found out that he can still program. Kulas hasn't shipped a game with his own code in it since 2001's Red Faction, but if all goes according to plan, Overload will break that streak in March of 2017. Of course, now that the game's existence is out there along with a release date, the urgency has stepped up considerably.
"It's good to have a great sense of urgency, actually," Kulas said. "I'm sad to say I need it to keep me moving forward fast... Getting that Kickstarter ready was highly stressful. The campaign is stressful. And then we have to get back to making the game full time. We want to hit our date. We've announced a date of March of 2017, and we don't want to be one of the 9 out of 10 people who come out late. We figure we've done this many times; we should be able to do it."
As of this writing, 1,934 backers have pooled about $105,000 to the project with 17 days remaining in the campaign. The project has a goal of $300,000.
"It's funny, in some ways it's more stressful than 20-something years ago when we would push to publishers. I don't know why; I guess it's just easier to obsess about clicking the refresh button, and you're trying to please thousands of people instead of just two or three like when you're pitching to a publisher."
"One of the things that happened where I was in the industry is you stop thinking about certain things because you know you can't make them."
Kulas said Descent probably cost about $450,000 to develop, so convincing a publisher that it could sell enough to provide a decent return wasn't the toughest task in the world. However, as first-person shooters in the Doom mold began dominating the PC industry and budgets crept up into the millions and tens of millions, something like Descent that was deliberately designed not to feel like the blockbuster du jour became a far tougher idea to sell. Even as Volition established itself as a top tier AAA studio, Kulas said success only afforded him so much freedom.
"One of the things that happened where I was in the industry is you stop thinking about certain things because you know you can't make them," Kulas said. "If you're a sculptor and people lose interest in statues, you stop talking about making statues because you want to make a living. Little games that could be developed relatively quickly but had high production values, or even just not repeating yourself. You have people who invested in you or the publisher who owns you, and it's hard to blame them for saying, 'Our market research says this is the game you should make.' When you've got 200 people on the payroll at the studio, you really, really want that to be successful."
One of the trends that has picked up plenty of traction since Kulas' initial retirement has been free-to-play gaming. But it's also one he's not embracing on his return.
"I didn't like the way the industry was going that way," Kulas said. "Volition was never a part of that. But a lot of the growth and a lot of the investment money, and therefore development--was going to free-to-play. And I just didn't want to be a part of that. They almost seemed like money-extraction machines. I believe heavily in analytics to understand your game, but when it's really geared toward, 'How do we extract money from your player?' I didn't like that. I didn't want to be a part of that. And it's not really a moral thing, that's just not the sort of game I want to make."
"I believe heavily in analytics to understand your game, but when it's really geared toward, 'How do we extract money from your player?' I didn't like that."
Fortunately, the games Kulas does want to develop make more sense today, thanks to lower barriers to entry in development and more options when it comes to funding and selling games. Overload will still end up costing more than Descent (Kulas and Toschlog had put about $200,000 into the project before launching the Kickstarter campaign, and expect to put more into it even it the $300,000 funding goal is met), but with a price expected to be in the $25 to $30 range, it could do very well even selling fewer than 100,000 copies.
And if it does well, you can bet that Revival Productions will have an encore of some sort.
"We want to do well enough that we can do this again. There are other games we've talked broadly about revisiting, and believe it or not, there are original IP we would like to develop."
Even if Overload doesn't do well, or doesn't even hit its Kickstarter goal, Kulas isn't about to return to retirement.
"There's no way we just throw in the towel if the Kickstarter doesn't succeed," Kulas said. "We're going to do something. It just won't be the game we have in our heads that we envision today."