Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to name a game studio, and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Ready?
Kojima Productions. BioWare. Grasshopper Manufacture.
If your answers were along the lines of “Metal Gear Solid,” “dialogue-driven role-playing games,” and “messed-up crazy shit,” respectively, you have just encountered a powerful force in all creative endeavors: typecasting.
Doing something well is both good and bad. Gamemakers want to succeed, but they also run the risk of people expecting them to keep doing the same thing. Or, worse still, people might think they can only do the type of game that made them famous, which makes it harder for them to sell something else to a publisher.
I spoke with three developers about these issues and others, and here’s what they had to say.
Orb is an independent developer made up of veterans of the ill-fated TimeGate Studios. That production house shut down in fall of 2013 after the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, a much-maligned title with a complicated — and possibly scandalous — development history.
But before all of that bad business, TimeGate was known for its work on first-person shooters (FPS). It created Section 8 and its sequel, Section 8: Prejudice, as well as two expansions for developer Monolith’s horror-themed F.E.A.R. series.
Orb appeared, and its first project was not a first-person shooter but a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game called Decimal. I spoke to two of the cofounders, Phillip Morales and Enrique Pina, about starting up their new company and breaking into an unfamiliar genre alongside established, mega-popular games like developer Riot Games’ seemingly unstoppable League of Legends.
“We actually did start in real-time strategy,” Morales said. “That’s where we cut our teeth.”
“It’s funny, because even switching to FPS at the beginning was difficult,” Pina added. “All the publishers were like, ‘What do you know?’ You almost have to prove yourself any time you have interest in another genre, it’s like ‘Well, what do you know about that?'”
With Decimal, Orb was returning a bit to where it started; the game is not a real-time strategy title, but it is definitely not the kind of first-person shooter that TimeGate became known for. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off, as the project failed to reach its goal in its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign last September, raising just $29,000 of its $500,000 goal.
“We were like, ‘Man, we’re counting on [MOBA fans] to fund us.'” Morales says. “These are some of the most die-hard players there are. We have to give them something really, really good if we’re going to pry them away from what they’re playing already.
“And we learned a lot from the Kickstarter because we didn’t succeed well enough. Or maybe we didn’t try the right tactics, or whatever. We knew going in that MOBA players are hardcore in a different kind of way. Very protective of MOBAs. [Laughs] Those guys. I hate to say ‘those guys,’ because, you know, I’m one of them, too.”
“What we were hoping was gonna happen,” Pina said, “is that we were trying to offer something different. Not a slight variation of what they were playing or something like that. We were trying to make it so the experience itself was different. And that’s why we specifically chose, even, science fiction. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is something different. Give it a chance; it’s not gonna be like what you’re used to.'”
“And even changing the genre would hopefully allow for that flip of the switch for like, ‘Let me change my mindset. This is gonna not feel like this other game I was playing. This is different.’ Even after the genre, we were constantly thinking of how we were gonna maybe open that door a little bit. Because basically, you are having to steal players over from one area to what we were trying to offer.”
Orb has temporarily shelved Decimal while it works on a few other projects. One is a music-player app called Chipmunk Funk, and the other is a first-person shooter called TraVR that uses the full-body Virtuix Omni virtual-reality “treadmill.” But Morales doesn’t see this as a step back or a return to safety.
“I still wanna keep the door open that if somebody came and said, ‘Hey, I have a great idea for a shooter,’ I would never wanna say ‘Nah, kid, we’re a MOBA house now,'” he says. “What I would like to be known as, is we’re a fuckin’ fun game house. We make good games. That’s how I would like to dictate everything we do in our studio. That no matter what kind of game we make, it’s just fun and creative.”
“It’s really exciting for us, to be able to break out and just try different stuff,” Pina adds. “And the idea that we can’t or we shouldn’t, because we’ve never done something like that, that’s never crossed our minds as to why we shouldn’t.
“You just go figure it out. Somebody else went and figured it out. They’re smart, we’re not dumb. We can go and figure it out, too. We did it for the RTSes, and there was not a single person in that building who had ever made an RTS before we made one. Or a game, for that matter, like literally not a single person there had even made a game. They said we couldn’t do it in FPSes, and we figured it out. And we can figure this out, too.”
If you’ve played pinball on any device capable of running games lately, odds are Zen Studios made it. The developer’s extensive Pinball FX and Zen Pinball platforms boast realistic physics and original tables with licenses including Star Wars and the Marvel comic-book universe.
The studio has made its name and reputation in pinball, and it’s hard to separate the two. And yet it released two games last year that were decidedly un-pinball: the tower-destruction/real-time strategy title CastleStorm, and KickBeat, a rhythm/fighting game for the PlayStation Vita portable system. I talked to Zen’s vice president of publishing, Mel Kirk, about how these projects came about.
“We actually needed to convince ourselves that games like CastleStorm and KickBeat were good ideas,” he said. “When it came down to it, we had to ask ourselves, ‘What do we really want to do with the money we have been so lucky to make from pinball?’ Do we want to take it to the bank, save it for a rainy day and just make more pinball, or do we want to step out into the deep end and work on games that we want to make, no matter what the outcome may be? The answer to those questions was very easy, but also a bit scary.”
Worse things can happen than having people associate your company with awesome pinball games, but I wondered if Zen faced any hurdles in promoting its other projects.
“Tying our new games to ‘from the makers of Pinball FX2’ does not mean much when you are making a game so far departed from that genre,” Kirk said. “CastleStorm and KickBeat are games that do not necessarily fit into a genre category; they are really super-genre mashups. We had to give them their own space and campaign and hopefully their own fan bases.”
Not being able to use the established work for a good marketing hook is certainly risky, but CastleStorm and KickBeat hold their own independently of the flippers and lights. In the end, Kirk explains, they didn’t really have anything to prove.
“The nice thing about being an independent studio is that we have more realistic sales targets. In fact, we’re happy if a project breaks even and we can keep making games we believe in. It is never a case of falling short. It’s more about how high can we go.”
Zen has since returned to its silver-balled mainstay, releasing seven more Star Wars pinball tables and a soccer-themed pack. It has also ported its existing projects to any platforms they might have missed the first time around.
Not that CastleStorm and KickBeat have run their course, however. CastleStorm launched on Nintendo’s Wii U console in December, and a PC port of KickBeat came out earlier this year with a “Special Edition” for current-gen consoles also in the works.
So basically, Zen is fine and will continue to do whatever it feels like, even if it is pinball. Sometimes you just feel like pinball, you know?
Double Fine Productions
This plucky indie studio, which is the reason that most gamers know that Kickstarter exists, has its own novel solution to the typecasting problem: It almost never makes the same kind of game twice.
Here’s a quick list of some of the genres Double Fine has covered since its founding in 2000: platforming, character-action, real-time-strategy, tower-defense, point-and-click adventure, role-playing, puzzle, third-person shooter, motion-controlled family titles, simulation, augmented-reality, and music/rhythm.
I spoke with chief operating officer Justin Bailey and senior publishing manager Greg Rice to see how the hell they keep this up.
“Tim [Schafer, the studio’s founder], if you think of his career, has always been about creative explosion and not being confined to one genre,” Bailey says. “Like in Brütal Legend, there are several games in there. There’s like a driving game, an action game, there’s RTS. There’s all sorts of things, which has really empowered us because they are actually proprietary tech, we have the Brütal Engine, which allows us to make all sorts of games.”
“We had a lot of people asking like, ‘What makes these games Double Fine game?’ or, ‘How do we inject more Double Fine-ness into this game,’ which is always a difficult conversation to have, just because it’s becoming clear that there wasn’t necessarily like one thing that made a game Double Fine Game,” Rice says.
“So I think that, as of this point, something that’s a Double Fine game just means that it’s something happened to come out of this weird, creative factory that Tim has created. And it’s just a game that we happen to think seems cool and is exciting.”
The studio holds regular brainstorming and development sessions called Amnesia Fortnight, where employees pitch and build prototypes of new projects.
“It’s really kind of this creative engine that Tim is creating that’s not supposed to be genre-specific, and it’s not supposed to be business-model-specific,” Bailey says. “It’s not even tied to distribution. It’s really just tied to people coming up with great, innovative new ideas in games that are fun.”