Permanent Entrepreneurs

One of the (many) problems with being a creative person is that you’re often forced to work on material that others want to consume, but which may not be the type of work on which you thrive. The Russian composer Tchaikovsky hated the frivolous nature of his Nutcracker Suite, but audiences ate it up. Francis Ford Coppola had no desire to make any sequels to The Godfather, but was compelled to do so by the studio (he really should have stopped after Part II). Collaborative artists in the cinema and theater, especially when starting out, are even more susceptible to this effect because they often don’t have a choice in what pieces they appear; the producer makes that call. Even famous actors lend their talents to commercials or kid’s films because the ballooned salary gives them room to take only the SAG minimum on an indie film they believe in or to take time to appear in an Off Broadway play. Look at Harvey Keitel: Sure, he was in great movies like Reservoir Dogs and Smoke in the 90s, but he had to be appear in relatively safe bets like Monkey Trouble and Sister Act to pay for it.

“There are a lot of people out there working in the industry dissatisfied with the games they’re making. They have big ideas but little control.”

Sadly, the videogame industry is no different. Most people designing games – or creating art or programming for that matter – are so excited to be working in the industry that they might start out not caring whether the actual product they are working on is any good. The studio head or, even worse, the publishing executive, dictates what game the company works on next, which leaves every videogame developer powerless in choosing what game they want to make.

Perhaps that’s why if you travel to GDC, or any other place where game developers congregate, the most enthusiasm for fresh ideas comes from relatively new areas like social and mobile games. Unless you land a job with a company that mirrors your aesthetic perfectly, the only way to make the game you want is to ditch the big name publishers and strike out on your own with an independent company.

“If you look at the manifesto of almost any start-up mobile company these days, you’ll read something along the lines of, ‘Our mission is to make the games we like playing.’ You see that everywhere,” said Mark Jessup from TinkerHouse Games. “And it makes you realize, wow, there are a lot of people out there working in the industry dissatisfied with the games they’re making. They have big ideas but little control.”

Even then, sacrifices must be made for the sake of making money, much like a successful actor. “This whole adventure we’ve started with TinkerHouse Games is to produce successful broader-appeal games so that we have the leisure to produce the smaller, more esoteric games, like a goofy co-op sandbox RPG, for example,” said Jessup’s business partner and TinkerHouse’s chief tinkerer, Lane Daughtry. “We’re calling it the Harvey Keitel model.”

Jessup and Daughtry were living examples of creative people without the power to make the games of their dreams. Jessup was the marketing manager of Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic cards and Dungeons & Dragons, but he still felt unable to effect major change with a large bureaucracy behind him. Daughtry was toiling away at Airtight Games, the team who made Dark Void, with 15 years of videogame experience under his belt working for The Man. Both of them decided to start anew not necessarily because they needed to get out, but the opportunity to work on something great was too just too damn tempting.

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“For me, the move wasn’t so much leaving something as going to something,” Jessup said. “When you work for a big game company, you have the advantage of stature and volume. You can commit a lot of resources to your goals. But individually, you don’t have a lot of control over the end result. You have a very specific area of responsibility and outside of it, the decisions just aren’t yours to make. But when you head out on your own, all of the decisions are yours. For good or for ill.”

“80 people and $20,000,000 is a recipe for failure these days…”

For Daughtry, the sheer scale of the boxed game business is what crushed his soul. “Six years ago you could try to kick out a AAA game with 80 people and $20,000,000,” he said. “That team would work their asses off but if they were smart, lucky and had someone maintaining a vision at the helm, they could possibly succeed. 80 people and $20,000,000 is a recipe for failure these days though.

“The valley between the moderately successful $2 – $5,000,000 XBLA and PSN games and the $80,000,000 a pop successful AAA franchises is littered with the dead and dying of those trying to do so,” he continued. That’s why so many developers are moving to other platforms, because the risk of making game on such a big scale is too great. A new console cycle might bring equilibrium, but, until then, there will continue to be publishers that will spend and spend, hoping for the big pay day.

“And that valley will continue to pile up with the corpses of dreamers,” Daughtry said.

Jessup and Daughtry did the unthinkable: They both quit their well-paying jobs in coveted positions at prominent game companies. Together, they decided to risk it all in order to build a company called TinkerHouse Games, where they were the ones dictating their future. Their first title is Current, a hex-matching retro-style game released this May on the iOS platform. The level of polish and presentation of Current is impressive, especially once you learn that Daughtry pumped it out by himself in under five months.

“I’m a fan of clean design and that was definitely a touchstone for me as I was making the artwork for the game,” Daughtry said. “My schedule had gameplay revision built in every step of the way, because I think great games constantly grow throughout development. I can tell you for a fact that the game we had at the beginning of April isn’t the game we shipped in the middle of May.”

That kind of flexibility and ambitious design schedule would have been impossible in a much bigger company. The entrepreneurial spirit that once drove the early game-makers to code in garages on their Tandys in the 1980s has been reborn in startups like TinkerHouse.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is what keeps the games industry alive. Without it, you have people wearing grooves into their controllers, keyboards and touch screens. You have the same four boxed games moldering in your closet,” Jessup said. “Large game companies are filled with employees who want to innovate, but unfortunately … [t]hey can’t react to the moment’s opportunity. Their lengthy planning cycles simply don’t allow for it.” The sheer volume of the industry has sapped its agility, like celebrated boxer past his prime.

“Which is ironic, because most big companies were small companies at some point, right?” Jessup asked, and he’s got a point. EA was once Electronic Arts, the company that asked if computers could make you cry. Activision formed in 1979 as the first third party game publisher with a handful of guys who worked at Atari. “They came directly from the entrepreneurial urge to ride the lightning into a new day. But at some point, the quest for novelty and innovation was replaced by the need for structure and consistency. It became franchise management. At that stage, you don’t reinvent the wheel. You maintain and leverage.”

“As soon as you become a cog in the machine, you lose your connection to what you’re creating and some of the passion along with it.”

If all companies came from humble beginnings and eventually transformed into slow-moving behemoths, how will Jessup and Daughtry prevent that from happening to TinkerHouse Games? “It can be a trap if you lose track of what you set out to do,” Daughtry said. “We’re very mindful of getting starry-eyed at opportunities that would require our company to grow past that. We’ve watched it happen over and over again with other studios and don’t want to end up there.”

For now, Current is an excellent example of bringing a AAA aesthetic to a mobile platform. The gameplay is clean and addictive, the music selection keeps you engaged, and there’s even a semblance of story. You are still playing a glorified match-3 game, but Current provides a reason for the proliferating “Hexogs” and the player’s role in containing their virulence as you progress through the levels. That story was really important, especially for Jessup, who comes from a tabletop roleplaying background.

“When Lane and I were finishing up Current, there was no question there would be a story of some kind tying it together,” Jessup said. “Sure, it’s a small, spare story. But it’s there! I like knowing why. I like having a reason to pay attention to the details surrounding the action.”

If nothing else, the experience making Current has proven to the pair that quitting their cushy jobs to form TinkerHouse Games is a much more fulfilling way for them to create the type of games that they want to play. “The only way you can truly make what you want is to have a small team in total control of the creative process,” Jessup said. “As soon as you become a cog in the machine, you lose your connection to what you’re creating and some of the passion along with it.”

The lesson they’ve learned is one that the whole gaming industry could use. “I’m sure there are many people making big games out there and loving it,” said Jessup. “But I also believe a lot of the videogames industry has spiraled out of control and is paying for that in terms of profitability and staff attrition.”

Making simple yet well-made arcade games is far from Jessup and Daughtry’s endgame. They hope that Current sells enough 99 cent copies to pay off all their startup fees and begin work on a new project, perhaps with a little more meat to it. That goofy co-op sandbox RPG Daughtry was talking about sounds pretty damn fun, doesn’t it?

Greg Tito would like you to know that no Hexogs were harmed while writing this article.

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