Timing is everything. David Adams has founded five game development studios--Stone Jackal, Realm Interactive, Vigil Games, Crytek USA, and most recently Gunfire Games--and speaking with GamesIndustry.biz last month, he said the difficulty in launching each was heavily dependent on timing.
When he started with Stone Jackal, the industry was enjoying the shareware boom, allowing small operations to put free demos of their games into inexpensive bundles and run a mail-order business for the full product. Realm Interactive was a little tougher, but the studio's project was online just as MMOs were becoming trendy, leading to an acquisition by NCsoft. He described the timing as "pure kismet," but that good fortune would not hold for his next, and to date most successful, endeavor.
"We had like six guys, so it was almost comical going in to Sony and saying, 'We want to make a AAA console game.'"
"Vigil was probably the hardest," Adams said of launching the Darksiders developer in 2005. "At that time it was pretty much you either got a AAA game or no game. There was nothing in between. And we had like six guys, so it was almost comical going in to Sony and saying, 'We want to make a AAA console game.' And they're like, 'How many guys do you have? Six? Are there like 50 other guys we don't know about somewhere?'"
A bit of luck offset that timing, as Adams said THQ "just totally rolled the dice on us." Vigil went on to make two of the publisher's biggest hits from its later years, Darksiders and Darksiders 2, as well as a Warhammer 40,000 MMO. THQ went under before that last project could be shipped, but not before it left an imprint on Adams' development philosophy.
"Working on an MMO for like seven years will kill you of any desire to be on any project that has a long development cycle," Adams said. "I have how many years of actual, practical time in the game industry? It doesn't divide by seven very many times. You do the math."
Despite that, Adams is trying to be patient with the company's first game.
"Our long-term goal is to self-publish our own games," Adams said. "But we're really pragmatic about it. We've done a lot of work-for-hire, and we're going to continue to do work-for-hire. Our idea is that we can slow-burn our own game in the background. There's no rush. Everyone's getting paid, we're doing cool stuff."
If Gunfire were looking to do a low-budget game, that slow burn might be a lot faster. But Adams said the team is shooting for something that's not quite indie, but not quite AAA, either. The team's background also lends themselves to that. Adams is confident they could handle other styles of game, but given how much of the team was pulled from the larger-scale AAA and near-AAA projects of Vigil and Crytek USA, it wouldn't really be leveraging their skill-set to have them working on a 2D indie title.
"I like a certain type of game. I'm going to make that game and I just got to assume there are enough other people that like that game so it will do well... I can't chase what I don't understand."
It's the middle ground sort of project the industry has largely turned away from in recent years. Adams points to Left 4 Dead and Payday as examples of the sort of projects that inspired him: titles that might be mistaken for AAA but were made by relatively small teams.
"Some people look at the market and try to predict what people want and make that," Adams explained. "There's that mindset, whereas our mindset is 'I like a certain type of game. I'm going to make that game and I just got to assume there are enough other people that like that game so it will do well.' For me personally, there aren't a lot of games on Steam. I play indie games and I play some AAA games, but at the level at which I like to play games, the frequency is a lot lower. Maybe that's because not that many people play them. I don't know, but I have to guess that's maybe not the case, and for every one of me, there are thousands of others like me going, 'I wish there were more games like that.' So that's my philosophy. I can't chase what I don't understand."
In today's industry, designing based around one's own interests instead of market research is almost heretical. Similarly against-the-grain is Adams' plan to build the game first and figure out the monetization later.
"One thing I've never really liked is the idea it's locked into a particular category," Adams said. "A lot of times when you go to make a free-to-play game, you inherit all these preconceived notions, like it's got to be exactly like this because that's what works. And when we were working on the MMO, it was like, well a subscription game has to be exactly like this. And that's some of our motivation for being independent. We just want to build this game, and then we'll figure out what's the best way to charge for that. I don't want it to be like, 'We're making a free-to-play game, so now we've got to have this, that, we've got to change the game design to have a lot of addiction elements so people spend a lot of month.' It's kind of a weird, backwards way to design a game."
"When you're in a big studio and there are hundreds of people, at any given moment there are 50, 60, 100 people that are just there punching the clock."
At a headcount of 22, Gunfire isn't a terribly big studio, and Adams wants to keep it that way.
"I like to know everybody," he said. "There were times at Vigil where there was a row of guys I didn't know... I want to be into an environment where people are into what they're doing. When you're in a big studio and there are hundreds of people, at any given moment there are 50, 60, 100 people that are just there punching the clock. There's just nothing you can do about it on that scale to keep that many people excited and engaged. There's a small core that is, but there are legions of people that aren't. I'd rather work somewhere that 80 or 90 per cent of the people are really excited and engaged in what they're doing. The only way you can do that is with a smaller scale."
Adams said Gunfire plans to self-publish its games because the team wants to bet on themselves for the first time. It's an appropriate choice of words, as they realize there's an element of risk here well beyond their control.
"There's just so many games being made, it's ridiculous," Adams said. "And it just gets worse every day. From our point of view, we make a game and we want to put it on PC. But how on Earth do you a) actually get people to realize your game exists, and b) get a critical mass of people to play your game so you actually make money, when literally, every five seconds a new game gets released. I would hope our advantage is we can make a game of a high enough level of quality that we can rise above the masses of games being released and get noticed. But there are a ton of great games that shoot off the radar and no one even notices. And I think that's the blessing and the curse of the current environment. It's easy to get your game out there, but it's not easy to get people to play your game."