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alex seropian

 

Founder and former-CEO of Bungie, Alex Seropian stunned many in the games industry when he moved on from Bungie after overseeing the purchase of the company by Microsoft and the best-selling Halo to found Wideload Games.  Earlier this week, Omni had a chance to speak with Alex in the lead up to the Vancouver Game Summit.  Alex kicks off the interview with the first question but then Omni gets to ask about the relationship with Gamecock Media, Wideload's development culture, online functionality, E3, and the possible connection between Halo and Marathon.

 

Thanks for your time, Alex!

 

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Alex Seropian (Wideload Games) Interview Conducted by Omni

 

Alex Seropian: Is this a good time to call?

 

Omni: Oh yeah, I was waiting for the call.  Youíll be in Vancouver for the Vancouver Games Summit.  What topics will you be covering in your keynote?

I plan to discuss the current state of the video game business as it relates to independent developers, doing original games and being creative, and how we here at Wideload and how other people might be able to change that context to create original games.

 

How long do you think your keynote will be?

An hour.

 

So youíll be covering pretty much everything then.

Yep?

 

I was thinking about what E3 meant to smaller developers.  It was about this time last year that we were getting ready to go down to L.A.    What does it mean to not have E3 Ė at least in its previous form?  To not have that, is it a big difference?

Iíve got to say, itís a huge relief. [Laughs] As a developer, E3 brought its share of excitement.  Thereís a lot of attention put on the industry and if youíve got something thatís debuting or being shown, itís very exciting.  But more often than not, it ends up being a huge drain on resources to focus and to prepare for an event that really, from a developerís perspective, did not seem to serve any

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purpose whatsoever.  It was really a big strokefest for the publishers to see who could make the most noise.  It generated a lot of buzz in the industry but as far as translating into how good a game is, it seemed to have zero effect Ė if anything a negative effect.  And in terms of translating into sales, I donít how you could possibly justify the expense.  I think thatís why itís gone away.

 

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Speaking about strokefest, I know you guys are aligned with Gamecock for your nextó

[Laughs] Nice segue!

 

Your next game ďHail to the Chimp.Ē  It was sometime last week that Gamecock announced an event of their own at E3 this year.  Are you planning to attend that?

I saw that same news piece and that was the first Iíd heard of it.  [But] if theyíre doing something, weíll be there.  Though honestly I probably know less than you do [about the event].

For a smaller developer, what does it mean to retain the rights to an original IP?

Thatís a really good topic.  It means a lot.  There are a lot of issues that that ownership of IP translates into.  Some of them are control.  You know, you create something and then somebodyís going to control what happens to it; then some of itís being able to participate in something that you give birth to and it can grow and have a life of its own and get bigger Ė and that can be very beneficial to everyone involved, especially if you own the IP.

 

The IP is really the thing of value that exists.  Itís intellectual property but its property, so you make something .  So if youíre going to sell a million units Ė make a one million of these boxes and sell them to individual people but the thing thatís leftover is the IP.  Whomever owns that is the one who retains the equity of the idea.  From my perspective itís extremely important from a creative perspective of having the incentive to invest your life and your energy into an idea.  From a business perspective, [itís] ultimately the most important thing in the world because itís the one tangible thing of value.

 

If you ask me how important I it is, thatís how important I think it is.  That said, itís not easy to retain the ownership of IP especially if youíre doing business in our industry where youíre going to take a huge amount of money from a publisher whoís going to invest their own time and effort and dollars to bring it to market, theyíre going to want to own the IP too.

 

Itís something that weíve been lucky, in every project weíve done we own our own IP.  Itís a core value of our company to do that, so we make a lot of decisions based on that core value.

 

halo          stubbs the zombie review

Halo (left); Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse (PC)

 

Speaking of original IPÖ Stubbs the Zombie.  Were you and the company happy with the way Stubbs the Zombie turned out, how it was received, and how it sold?

Uh, yes and no.  Yes, we were very happy with the way the game turned out.  A lot of people liked the game, we love the character Ė we hope to do more with him Ė but I think maybe it was unfortunate that we shipped the month after retailers stopped selling Xbox.  That had a big impact on our sales.  And we were with a really small publisher and the only way to overcome that [situation at retail] is by spending a lot of money and that wasnít really in the cards for the release.  So you could say there was definitely some disappointment that is how everything ended up with the number of units that were sold but in hindsight we learned a lot from the project.  It wasnít just about selling units for us; it was about something  we were proud of.  At the same time we were shipping our first game and trying to pioneer a new development model, which was a tremendous success for us.  In hindsight, a total positive experience.  I wish we could have sold more units, absolutely.

 

Actually I wanted to get into that model of development.  You have 17 people on permanent staff and the rest are contracted out.  How efficient is that?

When itís done right Ė and we donít always do it right Ė itís very efficient.  And by ďrightĒ, itís not just about hiring people that have talent; thatís a big factor but itís also about the infrastructure that we have in place here, the process that we have in place here and itís a culture.  Our culture here is very in attuned to working with outside partners.  A lot of developersÖ if you look at my old company, Bungie, itís a very ďdo it yourselfĒ organization Ė not by design at all, just culturally speaking, it was probably a side effect of the fact that everybody that worked there had an enormous amount of talent.  It was very difficult to work with people on the outside because we were never very successful at finding people that had the same amount of interest in our project and talent to make everyone at Bungie happy.  Whereas at Wideload, weíre completely the opposite Ė weíre consummate delegators.  Weíre always looking for people that are better at something than we are.  Over the years weíve met some really talented people that are very well managed and work well with us, personality wise, as well as process wise and talent wise.  Itís become very efficient for us to work with our external partners.

 

Are you using local people or are you looking overseas or even across the border into Canada and Mexico?

Weíre ďlocation agnostic.Ē  Weíll work with people anywhere.  We have some people here in Chicago that we work with, people up in Canada that we work with, our character modelers are in South Korea .

 

Itís been quite a few years since you left Bungie.  Do you have any regrets about leaving?  Or do you not look back and just proceed with your life?

[Laughs]  The only regret I have is that a lot of my friends are still out in Seattle and I miss them a lot.  But Iím very focused on the future and what weíre doing here.  Iím really lucky that I have such talented people here in Chicago working with me.  And I can have a life at home, which is a first for me and Iím enjoying a lot.  I think everyone involved in Halo, on the Bungie side and Microsoft side and customer sideÖ I think everybody ended up pretty happy, which is pretty rare.

 

Yeah, that doesnít happy very often.  Usually thereís some acrimony for sure.

The fact that everybody ended up happy and all still pretty close Ė we talk to each other all the time.  They let us use the Halo engine on Stubbs, which was really nice.

 

You going to be playing Halo 3 when it comes out?

Oh absolutely.

 

What level of importance should developers be putting on online functionality?

Thatís a good question.  I donít know if thereís an easy answer to that one.  My design perspective is to always try and be original with something Ė whether youíre going to take something you like as a starting point or not, at least try to go to ď11.Ē  But when itís some kind of new direction and sometimes thatís something thatís cool about a feature thatís online and sometimes it isnít.

 

Thereís a huge future in off-line games.  I donít think thatís going away.  I think thereís a huge potential in online games Ė I donít think weíve gone anywhere near close to exploiting all the possibilities, gameplay wise.  I have one thing that I think that is not such a good idea: jumping on the MMO bandwagon just because that wagon is covered in cash.

 

I find it very interesting that thereís this huge disparity in the MMO market, where youíve got some games that are at the top, that are these huge cash cows, and then youíve got, like, nothing.

 

Yeah, thereís only one or two that dominate and everything else is scrabbling along.

It seems that maybe the market for that kind of game isnít really as big as some people in our industry think it is.

 

How fair do you think game reviewers are?

By definition theyíre 100% fair because a game review is a subjective evaluation of what somebody thinks of a game.  I donít see how you can unfair Ė all that you can hope to be is consistent.

 

What about people that preview games?  Glowing grades to games that arenít finished Ė and I donít want you to get all ďDenis DyackĒ on me here.

[Laughs]  I think if youíre going to preview a game you canít really say anything negative about it because you donít have a finished piece of work to review.  That said, thereís gotta be a lot of pressure on the editorial people to break a story or to get something about a hot game out sooner than everybody else.  And in order to do that sometimes you gotta be really favorable to the product, which is, maybe, disingenuous.  Iíve never thought about it too much [further than] thatís just the reality of our business.

 

Speaking of previews, I tried to find some information about your latest game, Hail to the Chimp, scheduled to come out next year, but not a lot is available.  What can you tell me now that Iíve got you on the phone?

We havenít released a lot of information on the game yet and we hope to soon.  We donít have too much to say about it beyond whatís already been said.

 

It is a party-style game, itís definitely multiplayer, online, um, and itís got some pretty unique stuff in it.  Itís going to be fun.

 

Just a couple more questions.  At what point do you realize a good idea turned out to be a bad idea?  Do you catch it early on or is the game 90% finished and then you think, ďWait a minuteĒ?

I look at the world in a fairly binary way, so at the very beginning of a project, if youíre talking about a game ideaÖ Iíve pretty much categorized things into good ideas and bad ideas.

 

The good ideas are the ones that have some discernable hook to them Ė something new and different that you can exploit and really make cool, if you do it right.  Those ideas are empirically good Ė if you can [write] the game idea to two sentences that you can tell me about in 30 seconds I can tell you if itís good or bad.  I think Iíll be right but the implementation is like 90% of it.  So you can totally kill a good idea by focusing on the wrong thing Ė not getting your ďhookĒ correct.  And that is a little harder to figure out when youíre going wrong.  My approach is to do that part first Ė and youíll know when itís right.  Itís harder to know when itís wrong.  You can say itís not right yet, but if you keep working on it and itís still not right then itís probably time to look at something else.

 

Thatís really hard for a developer to do because you spend a lot of time working on it.  Thatís a big part of what Iím going to talk about on Thursday [May 3, 2007].  I find it very interesting Ė every developer that I know, including Bungie, operates on a very close ratio of designs to games shipped.  At Bungie it was pretty much 1:1 maybe 2:1, definitely not more than 2:1 games designed to games shipped.  Weíre trying to do something a little differently here.  A lot of people think that ideas are cheap and they are.  You can sit around all day and think up ideas but in the commercial world people donít really do that, but our culture here is totally like that.  Our design to ship ratio is about 50:1.

 

To wrap it up, Iíd be remiss in not asking this question just because you were in on the ground floor at Bungie.  In a recent podcast Ė either Retronauts or GFW Radio Ė they discussed the possible connections between Halo and Marathon .  Is there any connection besides some terminology?

Uh. [Silence] Maybe.

 

I think that if there are answers to be revealed, theyíll be revealed this year.

 

Vague and ambiguous, I like that.

 

Many thanks to Alex Seropian for his time!

 

(May 2, 2007)

 

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