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Focus On: Wideload Games' Alex Seropian

Creating a game which practically single-handedly sells a new console into millions of homes is quite an achievement for any developer. In fact, for many it would probably be considered to be the ultimate fulfilment of the game creator's dream; building a title so universally acclaimed that millions are prepared to buy an entirely new platform just to play it. It's probably a feeling which leaves you on a high for months, but there's always going to be one niggling question in the back of your mind - how on earth are you going to top that?

For Alex Seropian, the answer was a somewhat unusual one. While most of his cohorts followed the obvious path of putting their heads down and making the sequel to their award-winning, record-breaking game even better than its predecessor, Seropian packed up his desk and left the warm embrace of the studio he had founded many years previously to work on games for the Apple Macintosh in order to go out and start afresh with a new independent studio.

The game, of course, was Halo - a title credited with achieving the mammoth task of selling the Xbox to a sceptical gaming public and establishing Microsoft Game Studios as a real player in the console publishing market - and the studio was Bungie, previously best known for the groundbreaking (but sadly little-played due to their target platform) Marathon titles.

Bungie Jumping

"The decision to leave Bungie was very difficult," admits Seropian. "Bungie is a group of fantastic people. However, I wanted to get back home to Chicago with my family, and with Bungie set up so nicely at MS and with the success of Halo under our belt it was a good time to head out."

Heading out took the form of founding Wideload Games, a new studio based in Chicago which is working on a PC and Xbox title based on the Halo engine, and due for release in 2005. A number of other ex-Bungie staff moved to Wideload with Seropian - but the new studio is certainly not "Bungie Junior," and one of the most interesting aspects of it is the radically different approach which it is taking to game development. Wideload employs only ten core staff, who focus on prototyping new ideas, and then after this stage, development work is farmed out to independent contractors rather than to a large internal team.

It's a model which several senior voices in the games industry have been promoting for years, but which very few studios have had any success in implementing - not least because the established studios already have a large number of staff in place, so there's a degree of industrial inertia at play in the decision to stick with the old ways. But that has to change, Seropian believes.

"The model by which we're still making games was invented by fifteen year olds in their basement twenty years ago," he says. "Trust me, I was there! However, developing a game today is costly, man-power intensive, and very complicated. It is time to consider evolving the way we do it, which is why I started Wideload."

Contract Killing

"I took a step back and realised that I didn't want to hire and maintain a rigidly fixed staff of a hundred people. I wanted a small creative team internally and a large production squad to be independent from Wideload (i.e. not on payroll). I didn't want to worry about the staffing cycles associated with finishing a project. I wanted to be able to pick the best team to suit the project I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to create a company whose core focus was the creative process," he concludes.

The business model used by Wideload is also designed with the future in mind. Many developers are already deeply concerned by the implications of next generation hardware for the development process - with nightmare visions of spiralling costs and team sizes undoubtedly causing sleepless nights even for big in-house development bosses, never mind smaller independent operations. The contract model employed by Wideload, however, should scale to fit the needs of next generation game creation - without the company itself having to scale up vastly.

Seropian is also quick to dispel one of the more persistent misconceptions about the outsourcing model - namely that it is more expensive than keeping staff in-house, because contract rates are higher than salaries, while in-house staff are more likely to work extra hours for no additional pay in the crunch time at the end of the project. "That's just not true," Seropian says, "Not by a long shot." He believes that the increased efficiency of the outsourced model more than compensates for higher contract rates.

"Realise that headcount cost is about 60 per cent salary and 40 per cent overhead. Add into that the inefficiency of a large staff. If a modeller is waiting for a piece of concept art to be completed - he's still getting paid - a contractor wouldn't be. Also add in that you'll have all fifty-plus people on the payroll after the game ships with the old model. In the new - my - model, you don't. Additionally, what happens if you need an extra month of playtesting? You're still carrying a fifty-man burn rate. I'm not."

Small World

The outsourcing model may well be the innovation which allows Wideload to prosper as an independent developer, but it's not the only reason for Seropian's decision to leave Bungie - and perhaps more relevantly, parent company Microsoft Game Studios. As ever, the question of creative freedom at a small developer as opposed to a major publishing studio raises its head.

"The culture and size of Wideload will allow us to do things that can't be done at a large company," Seropian agrees. "A key aspect of Wideload is to keep it small and flexible. A great thing about having a small team is that we can focus on the creative process and avoid the distractions of a large organisation. If someone comes up with an idea we discuss it right then and there without politics or hierarchy to get in the way."

The personal desire to move back to Chicago with his family also played a role in his decision, of course - even though the Windy City isn't exactly noted as being much of a centre for game development. "What!?" he jokes when we mention this. "I was told Chicago is the hub of the interactive entertainment business!" However, there are significant benefits to locating there, he says. "The somewhat insular community fosters a lot more loyalty among staff, and it's really convenient to get around to the industry's hotspots - like LA, Seattle, Texas and even NY."

Master Chief

After so many years at the company, Seropian obviously isn't joking when he says that leaving Bungie was a difficult decision - and he certainly has some fond memories of the now world-famous studio. "One of the funniest things we did," he reminisces, "was after Marathon came out on the Macintosh. You see, Marathon had civilians in the game - we called them "Bob". The Bobs could get killed by friendly fire (and enemy fire!) and added a whole new dimension to the experience. I think we were the first shooter to add something like that."

"Anyhow - the cool thing - was after about a year from it's release (ya know after it had gotten pretty popular) we went through our registered database and found we had about 500 guys that bought the game who's name was "Bob". So we made these T-shirts with our Bobs beating the crap out of Microsoft Bob (remember that great piece of software?) and sent them out to all our customers named Bob. Wow - they got a real kick out of that."

Despite his obvious love for games and for the industry, though, it's hard to believe that there wasn't a temptation to leave entirely after the Microsoft buy-out of Bungie and the phenomenal success of Halo - two events which can't have done his bank balance any harm, either. "I'm an entrepreneur at heart," he explains. "I'm very happy to have the chance to start a new company in this crazy industry."

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.