New targets for Smoking Gun
John Johnson on taking his studio from AAA to mobile, via Kinect
Smoking Gun Interactive was founded in 2007 with a plan to make AAA games based on the company's own intellectual property. Co-founded by three of Relic Entertainment developers behind the Company of Heroes series, Smoking Gun was going to bring its strategy game acumen to consoles, because, as CEO and creative director John Johnson told GamesIndustry.biz, "at that time, that was what was big, what was the key thing making money."
That was true at the time, but it wouldn't be for much longer. Between the global recession, the deflating rhythm game bubble, skyrocketing budgets, and a maturing hardware generation, the console AAA space lost much of its vibrancy relatively soon after Smoking Gun's formation. It wasn't exactly expected, but Johnson was somewhat prepared for the eventuality regardless.
"It was really tough to switch. I won't paint any glossy pictures there. The industry was really not in a good place at that time."
"Interestingly enough, when we got our investors involved we had to talk to them about our worst-case scenario," Johnson said. "I told them, well, worst-case scenario is that nobody wants to make AAA games anymore or people aren't interested in new IP or nobody likes the product we're doing."
At least two key parts of that worst-case scenario basically came to pass, so the project Smoking Gun originally planned to create, a squad-based shooter with strategic metagame elements called X, was backburnered. It was clear they needed to rethink their plan.
"It was really tough to switch. I won't paint any glossy pictures there. The industry was really not in a good place at that time," Johnson said.
Eventually, Smoking Gun hooked up with Microsoft. The Windows giant had published Relic's 2002 real-time strategy game Impossible Creatures, so there was some history. But what Microsoft needed them for wasn't AAA strategy. The company was experimenting with new motion-control technology and it needed games that showcased the possibilities for gaming.
Smoking Gun co-developed the 2010 Kinect launch title Kinect Adventures, and followed that up with 10 more Kinect titles over the next three years, including Battle Stuff (which created voxel-based fighters of everyday objects players held up to the camera), the SmartGlass-enabled Home Run Stars, and a port of mobile hit Doodle Jump created with Lima Sky. Clearly, Smoking Gun Interactive is as experienced a studio of Kinect developers as one is likely to find. Unfortunately, the technology they specialized in for years has fallen out of favor.
"I think there's a bit of skepticism right now with motion control so it might take a while to come back."
"I think there's a bit of skepticism right now with motion control so it might take a while to come back," Johnson acknowledged, but suggested that virtual reality and augmented reality could bring the technology back to the forefront in a hurry.
Even so, the downturn in interest for the peripheral meant Smoking Gun had to shift gears again, but at least it was to more familiar territory. The studio again found a partner in Microsoft, this time to make a new Age of Empires game in the strategy genre the studio has always intended to work with. Johnson said coming back to strategy after so long was "a little like riding a bike," but the project, Age of Empires: Castle Siege, would still require plenty of adaptation. In addition to being a Windows PC title, it also needed to be designed for mobile, with ports on Windows Phones and iOS.
While Smoking Gun usually splits its staff of no more than 45 people up between a handful of projects, Johnson said it was all hands on deck for a year to get Castle Siege out the door.
Despite the studio's multiple significant change in course, Johnson said turnover hasn't been a big problem. He insisted the co-founders built a core of "really quality, high-end staff" from Relic, a group of developers who were focused on the best possible execution of whatever task was put in front of them, and who happened to be for the most part both willing and able to adapt to the studio's changes in direction.
"The appetite for anything between the couple million-dollar budget and the hundred-million dollar budget is so small right now."
As a reward for their steadfast dedication, they might even get to pursue something more in line with the studio's original goal. With Castle Siege completed (Smoking Gun launched the Windows 10 version just last month), the studio is focusing on a new strategy game based on its own IP, with an official announcement pencilled in for this fall. It might not qualify as AAA, but you can't have everything.
"The goal of doing AAA IP doesn't seem feasible because it seems like it's the $100 million budget or it's nothing," Johnson said, adding, "The appetite for anything between the couple million-dollar budget and the hundred-million dollar budget is so small right now. We're still following that idea of doing new IP and games we want to make, but at that smaller scale, and not to try to get funding for a $100 million game. Not that we'd say no if it was the right game, but I really wish there was more of that in-between.
"Any company that wants to succeed in the marketplace inside or outside of game tech has to be adaptable because things are changing so fast. I don't know if I could predict where things are going to be in five years. I think mobile and pick-up-and-play style games are here forever. Those types of games are going to be here forever. Hardcore games and expensive console games, I would like to think are going to be here forever. Those are things I grew up with, those are things I enjoy. It's like low-budget movies and blockbuster movies; those are both here to stay."
And if for whatever reason they aren't, there's a good chance Smoking Gun could adapt.