The game industry is widely perceived as young. And, in a sense, it is: The “old masters,” developers like Garriott, Meier and Miyamoto, are still in their prime, still young; and the game development studios are chock full of fresh blood itching to make the Next Big Thing.
But the industry’s relative youth is as much a curse as a blessing. While Shigeru Miyamoto is still making games, no rising star can claim to be the new Miyamoto. And no one can claim to be the successor to Sid Meier’s turn-based strategy legacy while Sid Meier is still making really great turn-based strategy games. Compounding the problem is the ever-increasing cost and complexity of game development. Fewer and fewer publishers are willing to risk development capital on green crews and bright ideas, and production values have risen so high that something like Garriott’s Akalabeth seems impossible today. As a result, the vast majority of the industry’s young developers are still working at junior-level positions in their seniors’ studios.
The vast majority – but not all. Like film and television, gaming has its wunderkinds, young stars that shatter expectations of accomplishment. I’ve assembled profiles of three of the best and brightest of these gamemakers, our industry’s future game gods. One is an independent publisher, the second a revolutionary risk-taker, the third a graphical prodigy. Each is under 30 years old. Here, then, are three under-30 next generation gamemakers to watch.
The Independent: Thomas Arundel
Call him “The Last of the Bedroom Programmers” and you get a wry chuckle out of Thomas Arundel, director and co-founder of game development studio Introversion Software. “I’m actually the commercial director. I’m the entrepreneur. I handle all of the business aspects of Introversion,” he explains.
And business has been good under the stewardship of the 27-year-old executive. “When we founded Introversion, we had £1,000 between three of us. A friend of mine [co-founder Chris Delay] had written Uplink in university, and that was our first product. After three months, we’d made £100,000. Our gross margin was 95%. Since then, all of our growth has been organic. We’ve never raised cash, never sold out.”
Riding high on Uplink‘s success, Introversion began work on its second game, Darwinia. “That was supposed to take 18 months, but it took three years.” The delay was nearly disastrous for the team, he notes. “We had to sell everything we owned on eBay and go without salary for 10 months. I moved back in with Mom and Dad. But we made it through.”
The belt-tightening commitment paid off. Darwinia went on to win three Independent Game Festival Awards at San Jose earlier this year and has paved the way for the team’s next projects. “It got us a lot of credibility. It’s given us a comfortable salary for the past 18 months. And it’s made us enough money to get us through to Defcon.”
Defcon, a game of global thermonuclear war due out in September, is Introversion’s next project. “After that’s released, we’re going to split the company into two divisions, a more creative side and an implementation side. Chris [Delay] will come out with the original IP, and Mark Morris and I will get it done. Our plan is to work as producers with third-party developers doing the nitty-gritty.”
It’s perhaps common to think of the small development studio as the recipient of work-for-hire, rather than as an outsourcer, but Arundel sees a different trend emerging. “I think this method we’re adopting of developing unique IP independently and then outsourcing the nitty-gritty work is an emerging trend. People will look back and say that we were the first guys to adopt an independent producer-director-studio model, like in the film business. At E3, people talk a lot about trends in indie development, and they talk about trends in the film business. And this is it.”
Arundel is sanguine about his accomplishments at Introversion. “You don’t need a huge amount of capital to start a game company. You just need a lot of time and a lot of inspiration. But you have to be able to live on the edge. There’s no safe bets.” Except, perhaps, a bet on Arundel.
The Revolutionary: Scott Foe
Ask Scott Foe what his favorite project is, and he’ll tell you “whatever’s next.” Often outrageous, always funny, the 29-year-old producer has made a career of staying on the forefront of industry trends – sometimes too far ahead, but always looking to the future. He got his start at age 21 at Sega, which recruited the Japanese-fluent Foe straight out of Antioch College.
“When I came on to Sega, it was before the launch of the Dreamcast and the plan was to have this big consumer-facing gaming network. The vision was not unlike what Xbox Live eventually became,” Foe explains. “But we were right out there on the precipice, looking forward.”
Foe created the first game that used the Dreamcast Network SDKs, then went on to work as a senior-level production consultant on projects like Phantasy Star Online, Bomberman Online and NFL 2K1. “It was a tremendous amount of responsibility for a 22-year-old,” he adds. When the Dreamcast era ended, he led the team that assembled the various network projects that had been created for the console into the unified Sega Network Application Package (SNAP). When Sega abandoned online, his SNAP technology was sold to Nokia, and Foe followed his creation to make it mobile.
“The idea that you could be walking down the street and whip out your phone and play a game with someone in Thailand – that was the Wild Wild West of the videogaming industry. I got to make that idea reality. I was the product manager on N-Gage Arena, the visionary for that project.”
After laying out the design for N-Gage Arena, Foe had the opportunity to produce Sega’s Pocket Kingdom: Own the World, a massively multiplayer mobile game that won the game of the year for the N-Gage platform and even a nod from notoriously un-N-Gaged Penny Arcade. “Pocket Kingdom was played after launch an average of 7.3 hours per month per user, making it possibly the most popular online mobile game in the world at that time,” says Foe.
At just short of 30, Foe has already been a coder, designer and producer for two mega-brand companies. The polymathic Foe is also well-respected in the marketing community, speaking at conferences worldwide on viral tactics. “Salable product is a producer’s primary responsibility. On-time, under-budget is the fallacy of production. You could go to the bathroom for less time and money than you ever thought possible, but all you’ve made is a piece of shit.”
So, what’s next? “I want to bring things into this world that cut the edge into little pieces that could cut further still. And it’s not graphics. We’ve already reached a point of diminishing returns in graphics horsepower. Fun is no longer proportional to polygons. There was this great leap from 2-D to 3-D. And there was another great leap when we took it online; that was a new dimension. But it’s not any more. Now what I see the next dimension as being is passive entertainment – games that are fun for other people to watch. One future of gaming will be entertainment that can be enjoyed by the non-player, creating as a byproduct of your own entertainment something for the masses to enjoy.” He takes a breath. “That’s how we’ll escape Hollywood’s shadow.”
The Photorealist: Sam McGrath
Twenty-seven-year-old game engine prodigy Sam McGrath is entirely self-taught. “I’ve been programming ever since I can remember, since I was maybe 6 years old. It’s something I’ve always had a passion for. I read a few books here and there, but the rest is trial and error.”
McGrath’s first trial was the creation of Savage, the RTS/FPS hybrid by S2 Games that swept three Independent Game Festival awards in 2004. “I was the lead programmer. I wrote the engine code. But I wasn’t happy about the direction the company was heading, and I didn’t have a lot of control. So, I started Offset.”
Offset Software is now a 19-person team with publisher backing, and their eponymous Project Offset, a first-person shooter in an epic fantasy universe, is generating massive buzz for its gritty Call of Duty-style action and amazing graphics. The engine that powers Offset is all McGrath.
“I locked myself in an apartment for a year, and I worked on engine technology,” Sam McGrath explains. “I had saved up all the money I made working at S2 games and I had the freedom to work on this technology without any income.”
The outcome of McGrath’s isolation has to be seen to be believed. “The Offset Engine brings together next-generation hardware with rendering techniques from film, such as motion blurs, self-shadowing, a full HDR rendering pipeline, all the rendering features that people are used to in movie effects, but which have never been done in real-time before. Effects that used to take an hour to render out a frame, we’re able to achieve 30 times per second.”
McGrath is quick to share credit for Offset with his two lead artists, brothers Trevor and Travis Stringer. All three share a vision of games that push the envelope of what can be done visually. “We want to make games that are incredibly immersive. People always talk about making games that look like movies, but it hasn’t really been achieved yet. I want to be on the forefront of actually achieving that.”
McGrath cites Tim Sweeney, Dave Taylor and John Carmack as major inspirations; indeed, it’s clear that if McGrath has his way, Offset will be the new id Software. Like id, the company is working with a publisher to release its FPS title while retaining all underlying technology rights to its engine and pursuing licensing deals. The ex-Blizzard veterans at Red 5 Studios have already licensed Offset for an upcoming game. “It would be nice to be the next id. It’s something we’re striving for. There are no guarantees in life, but things are looking really good for us.”
The Future of Gaming
The future of gaming doesn’t lie in the Xbox 360, the Wii, Windows Vista or PlayStation 3. It can’t be found in next-generation graphics processors or dual core chips. It’s not in mobile or online. It’s found in the new wave of people – people like McGrath, Foe and Arundel – that have learned from the game gods of the past three decades and are ready to lead gaming forward into its place as the preeminent entertainment medium of the 21st century.
Max Steele is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. When not actively being mysterious, he passes his time manipulating time and space to fit his plans for world domination.