Dangerous Golf could very well be the next Rocket League-like indie sensation. The creators at Three Fields Entertainment face its imminent release with a great deal of excitement, being as it’s the small indie studio’s first game.
This one-of-a-kind golf game — imagine if someone handed you a golf club inside Buckingham Palace and told you hit the ball into as many objet d’art and other breakable items in the room, with a ball that can explode — is part of the design team’s blood. It should, seeing that Three Fields is a startup with Alex Ward, a cofounder and the creative director of Criterion Games and one of the creators of Burnout, the racing series that features chaotic car crashes and more destruction that what you find at a demolition derby.
He and lead game designer Chris Roberts, another Burnout vet (the third person on the original’s team), recently visited GamesBeat to show off Dangerous Golf, which they’re targeting for an early June release. After nearly three years of development, these former triple-A (the game industry term for blockbusters) creators revealed a startup story about putting their life savings on the line, reveling in the freedom of indie development, and getting a second chance to create something they believe, and working from a studio where lush fields and the woods, not a concrete jungle, is their daily view.
“We pooled our life savings for Three Fields,” Ward said. “We got Criterion folks and said, ‘Hi, why don’t you quit your job. We’ll pay you 60 percent less and do a game no one has ever done before … with an engine no one has ever used before, and release a game on a console none of us has ever worked on before —
“They were crazy enough to say that sounds like fun and do it.”
One wacky and crazy idea
“The pitch is: Golf is boring. Golfers are boring. Golf games for golfers are even more boring” — this statement from Ward underlies Dangerous Golf’s development. “You only see golf on TV when they play out of a tree or when they knock it out of a lake.” It’s Happy Gilmore, Caddyshack, and Tin Cup (the climax of the film, Ward notes, is Kevin Costner knocking a trick shot off a portable toilet) “blended with the Burnout experience,” Ward said. “It’s in our DNA.”
This is how Three Fields would want to play golf. The premise is simple: Hit a golf ball in a room or area with oodles of breakable stuff, see how many points you can rack up from smashing such an eclectic mix of items such as price antiques, pies, gas tanks. It’s unlike anything on the market, and it’s hilarious to watch someone play — and even more fun to give it a go. This PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC downloadable release should do well with the streaming scene, as players try to outdo each other for the most ridiculousness they can get onscreen (and how many points they can rack up doing so). It has co-op and multiplayer, too, making it a great party game to play on the couch.
Ward and cofounders Fiona Sperry and Paul Ross pooled their life savings, and the families of other team members added some funds. Many indies encounter such risks, but many are also early in their careers. Three Fields’ team includes people with families and mortgages — putting all their money on one game is akin to betting it all on a longshot at the local horse track.
“My last paycheck was in November 2013,” Ward said. “One programmer, Phil Maguire McGuire, gave us a year for free in order so that we can start the company.”
“We believed in ourselves, and we believed in the prospects of the hardware, what we can do. We’re 11 people now. It’s an immense amount of work for 11 people to make a game for three platforms that we’ve never really worked on before.”
The rise of digital distribution and a friendly development environment played a role in the ex-Criterion mates’ decision to go indie. The major platform holders give out free dev kits for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and their online stores (along with Steam and other PC options) make it easier to get your game to an audience — along with skipping the expense of shipping a boxed product. Development tools are inexpensive and free in some cases — for Dangerous Golf, it’s Unreal Engine 4 — which none of them had ever used before.
All of this, Roberts notes, enables longtime devs to prevent getting sucked into the “go after the next game” model of blockbuster development. “Now is the time to branch out, to take risk.”
Ward formed Criterion Games in 2000 with Fiona Sperry — and he and Roberts had been making software together since 1999. When EA acquired the studio in 2004, Ward acknowledged things changed. “At the end of every game, we talked about if this was the time to leave,” he said.
That last game at Criterion would be the Need for Speed: Most Wanted reboot in 2012. “We decided [then] that the time was right to branch out. It’s not for the faint-of hearted, I’ll tell you that,” Ward said.
Ward said the team was used to being “on an island” while working for EA. “News would trickle to us in England,” he said. As an indie studio in the English countryside, even with the Internet, this island could feel even isolated. Three Fields doesn’t have any deals in place for Dangerous Golf (at least at the time of this publication). Sony has promoted a number of indies in the PlayStation Store, including highlighting games in its PlayStation Plus program (this was key to Rocket League’s success in August).
Three Fields has worked with Epic Games, the maker of the Unreal Engine toolkit, and graphics tech powerhouse Nvidia (set up after Ward reached out to former EA CEO John Riccitiello on Facebook, even though they’d only talked together twice in seven years) to help figure out how to best pull off the insane physics and other visual tricks needed for Dangerous Golf.
Three Fields, three values
Roberts and Ward laid out their team’s design philosophy. It’s simple, and it’s one that anyone who makes games would like to see in the people designing their hobby’s products:
- Make great games.
- Have fun making them.
- Do the right thing each and every day. “When you can be part of bigger companies, you have great titles but ultimately don’t have great power.”
Hence, the name Three Fields (easy to see how it could mean three actual fields near their home base in the woods). “We wanted people to be skilled in three fields, which is a line from the script from the film Interstellar. Anne Hathaway says to Matthew McConaughey, ‘Come on our rocket and save the Earth,’ and he says, ‘Why would you take me?’ I’m just a farmer. She says, ‘No, you’re a test pilot and a farmer and a hacker. We look for people skilled in three fields.’
“So, I thought, someone is going to ask me … about the name of our company. I couldn’t think up screwdriver or gearbox or all these other mechanical-sounding game names … and I couldn’t not think of anything that doesn’t rhyme with a swear word as well” Ward said.
And when seeing Interstellar in the theater, Ward said, “And that line wasn’t in the film! So the guys I was working with look at me and said, nice job, good choice.”
Three Fields’ designers are interested in sound and code as well as design. No silos. “We believe the best software is made when everyone is around, looking on the screen and saying, ‘How do we make it better?’ And that can be, ‘Well, your stuff sucks,’ and, ‘Well, no, your stuff sucks,’ and it’s about collaboration and iteration [they’ve made more than 16,000 versions, Ward said] working together. Those things break down the more people you get.”
‘This must succeed’
Three Fields doesn’t have the money to visit the convention circuit. No PAX. No GDC. Not even any game jams. It had enough money to send Ward and Roberts for one trip to the United States to show off the game to the media — though Ward said that part of this light media schedule also comes from his heroes, the Stamper brothers (founders of what became Rare, one of the most important studios in the history of game design), who only gave two interviews their entire careers.
If Dangerous Golf doesn’t sell well upon its early June release (Ward said June 3), the studio doesn’t have a the funding to recover.
“We hope it will be a success. We don’t have any data on how downloadable games do — this seems to be like the nuclear launch codes,” Ward said. “This is my 21st year in the business and my 16th making games, we’ve been pretty successful, been working on PlayStation since the start of the PlayStation 2 in 1999. We’ve made a lot of games on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Xbox. It’s spectacularly hard, as independent developers and ourselves with a proven track record, to get a hold of individuals at [the platform holders].
The lack of indie-market knowledge, the new tech, the small team — it’s all made an exciting, difficult, and frightening journey for Three Fields.
“This has been a very challenging project to make because for an indie company, some of the stuff we’ve been doing is insane. We’ve been pushing physics very hard, more than we think we’ve seen in any other game,” Ward said.
And yes, they are scared — even with decades of blockbuster developments and the legacy of the outstanding Burnout series
“Me? I’m terrified, honestly, yeah,” Ward said.
But they have something else driving them: faith.
“We believe in ourselves,” Ward said.