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Ex-XCOM creative director founds life sim maker Midsummer

Jake Solomon and a team of mostly Firaxis vets find funding to explore modern life sim genre

After Jake Solomon left Firaxis Studios last year, the former creative director on the XCOM series could probably have found any number of publishers or venture capitalists to back a new turn-based strategy studio. It would have a sure thing, a lay-up, like a point blank shot with a 98% to-hit rate.

Which, as any XCOM players who missed one too many of those shots will know, might help explain why he didn't do that.

Instead, Solomon turned up the fundraising difficulty, passing the hat as the industry began a post-pandemic bubble slump that continues to this day, and doing it to fund a project in a genre he had never worked: the modern life sim.

"We were lucky though," Solomon tells in a chat at this year's Game Developers Conference. "We did raise a seed round and Transcend was the lead investor. So we raised a $6 million round, and we used that to open a new studio in Hunt Valley, where I've worked my entire career."

The new start-up, Midsummer Studios, was co-founded last September with ex-Firaxis lead designer Will Miller and financial and operations management veteran Nelsie Birch, and officially announced today. And while Solomon concedes the life sim genre doesn't sound very much in-line with his past work, he believes there's more overlap than people might expect with his previous games, in particular the combat in XCOM.

"If this is modern life and it's non-violent, can we still use those tools? And now that we've gotten into it, yes you can"

"The combination of custom or generated characters that the player creates and then a playspace where the player's choices feel meaningful and you can be rewarded or have consequences as a result… The way to make that work, where the player feels like they're riding a story that's authentic and uniquely theirs is you have to have a fair number of systems driving both reward for the player, giving them objectives and things to do, but at the same time having consequence," Solomon says.

"So the setting changes, and you say, 'Okay, that's fine. If this is modern life and it's non-violent, can we still use those tools?' And now that we've gotten into it, yes you can. You can find ways to use the drama of modern life and the conflict of modern life and reframe that with systems that still reward the player for choices they make."

Solomon says one of his favorite things as both a designer and a player is emergent storytelling.

"So [give] players a lot of choice, but the choice is meaningful because you juxtapose meaningful reward versus meaningful consequence," Solomon says. "And if you do that, then no matter the setting, the player ends up riding a dramatic story that at least has meaning to themselves."

He adds, "As a team, we're doing a lot of the things a systems-driven game [does] – complex systems the player can surprise themselves with, reward structures to where you can get really addicted and engaged in the gameplay – but what we're really focusing on is the story aspect, trying to really drive every time you play, you're part of an interesting story."

Like Solomon, the bulk of the Midsummer team will be new to the life sim genre. The team isn't completely devoid of experience in the segment; executive producer Grant Rodiek was at Maxis on The Sims for 18 years. But when we speak, Solomon says there are only about ten developers on staff, and most of them are Firaxis veterans from XCOM and Midnight Suns.

As for what it's like when almost the entire team is new to the genre of the game they're working on, Solomon says there are pluses as well as minuses.

"The pluses being that sometimes there's a strength to being able to look at something with fresh eyes and [a different] set of tools," he says. "I think what my team is good at is making emergent storytelling. And they're good at making addictive games that are really quality games. Now we're just turning our focus to, 'What if we weren't doing battlefields?'

"I don't want to discount the power of our naivete"

"I don't want to discount the power of our naivete. I think being a new company, you get an opportunity to say, 'We aren't The Sims. We aren't like any other life sim. We're actually trying to present life in a gamified way, but in the way that we do things.' I think the danger would be if I was competing with The Sims feature-for-feature. I think that's a much bigger risk. They do what they do really well. I think we have to do what we do really well; we just have to do it in a new space."

Midsummer eventually raised $6 million between lead investor Transcend with additional backing from Tirta Ventures, Betaworks Ventures, 1Up Ventures, F4 Fund, Krafton, and Day Zero Productions, but Solomon admits the VCs who accepted meetings with the former creative director of XCOM weren't always anticipating a pitch for a modern life sim studio.

"Some people blink and say, 'I thought this conversation was going to go differently,'" Solomon says. "A lot of times when you talk to investors and VC especially, what will keep them interested is talking about the size of the market. It's an audience that's super-underserved.

"Frankly, when you think about the modern life setting, it's odd how under-represented it is in games. It's the most common setting for other storytelling mediums – shows and movies and books – but it's really, really uncommon in games. But it has the most relatable choice and consequence of relationships, health and sickness, life and death and family… There are a lot of things there that players can bring their own intuitive understanding of, and you can design systems around that to make a really engaging game and offer the player ways to make choices that are meaningful."

Even with his history and the enticing underserved market argument, Solomon had braced himself for a difficult fundraising environment.

"Every time I design a game, I'll be halfway through and thinking, 'Well, this is the last one. I really f***ed this one up.'"

"I'm blessed to know how not great I am at things, so I never go into a situation thinking, 'This will be a piece of cake,'" he says. "It's never felt like that. Every time I design a game, I'll be halfway through and thinking, 'Well, this is the last one. I really f***ed this one up.' So I went in thinking it would be difficult. I was surprised at how the market was really tough."

The key was to "find the right people," Solomon says. He figures he could have found funding easier if he was telling people he wanted to make a free-to-play mobile MMO, but since he was pitching a company making a mid-premium PC game launching in Early Access first, he needed to find the right investor attuned to that goal. Fortunately, he did that.

He says, "What helped me was when I talked to Transcend, [founding partner] Shanti [Bergel] was a producer on The Sims and said yes, I've been waiting for somebody to walk in and say, 'What about this?'"

The first bit of funding for Midsummer is secured and gives the studio some runway, but Solomon knows the hard part isn't done yet, and it involves a lot more than making a game in a genre that's new to so much of the team.

"Maybe this is an old man talking, but it used to be if you make a great game, that's the most important part of success," Solomon says. "And maybe it still is, but now there's a lot more to it. You can't just make a great game and be successful. You really have to be smart about it if you want to protect your team. Who's the audience and how big is your team? What is your cost for the project and is there the audience to address that?

"It's a real difficult challenge both for big teams and for small. I prefer to remain smaller because that's a more known problem to solve. If your team is smaller and your project costs are smaller, then you're still in a space where if you can find your audience and we make a great game, it's safer.

"And obviously, we want to find a huge audience, if my investors are reading this. We're going to find the largest audience in the world! However, success can look like a lot of different things. But to me, the most important success is protecting my team, so I think part of that is having a reasonable team size."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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