As the Double Fine and Minecraft development models trickle into the games industry, more and more veteran developers are striking out on their own, making small budget download games. This seems especially attractive if, like the team at Ensemble Studios, Microsoft shut your company down after ten years of working on Age of Empires and Halo Wars, and gave you a big pay-off. The awesomely-named Dusty Monk is one such developer, scrabbling away at the dusts of Texas, trying to make something rich from that arid soil. His game sounds a bit like Mafia, but set in the distant future; we'll let him explain more while you have a gander at our exclusive screenshots.
PC Gamer: How are you doing?
When Microsoft put the kibitz on Ensemble, things went like this; Robot was formed straight away, from the core guys, and they're doing Age of Empires Online and Orcs Must Die. Bonfire was formed then acquired by Zynga. Paul and David Bettner went off and formed New Toy, and we all know how well they did ( the huge selling iPhone Scrabble game 'Words with Friends' - Ed ), so they've just been acquired by Zynga and it's been renamed Zynga with Friends. And, ha, I'm still working on my first game at Windstorm.
How many people are there at your studio?
I am, right now, a one man garage shop. However, I don't do it all myself. I have a team of artists in St Petersburg, about half a dozen of those guys; they're great to work with, really talented. A music composer and sound effects crew in LA - the composer, she works on Showtime and the crew works in the movie business. I've got the Saxophone player who worked on Up, the horns player who worked on Star Trek... so it's not, by any means, a one man studio, just that I'm the only full time employee and that's only until the game's released and/or we find permanent funding.
Didn't this start as an MMO?
The idea when I formed the company was to make an MMO, and I spent 6 months building a really solid prototype, a proof of concept to take to a bunch of publishers at GDC; Codemasters, Sony Online, THQ... and they all said "we love the prototype, but you're too small for us to put this kind of money in and it's an MMO and right now... are you making any Facebook games?" That was 2009, just coming off the worst recession since forever, so the companies were a little skittish. At that point Windstorm Studios took all the assets and tech, and scaled it down to a single-player game, thinking about Torchlight's model; build a small single-player game, get it out on Steam, and see how it does. Once we get it out there, either publishers will say 'we really like this' or I should have the funds to hire a couple of people and push the project forward a little bit.
How close are you to finishing?
We're very close. March will be two years since I formed the company; I retooled significantly the prototype after the first six months, to make it more for the singleplayer third person action kinda game. It's not going to be a AAA big budget title until I find funding; it should be a very polished title on a par with Magicka or Torchlight. I'm maintaining relations with a couple of Korean publishers (Nexxon and NCSoft) because the Koreans are building these huge stables of free 2 play games; in Germany, Frogster and Bigpoint are doing the same, so there's room there for a small title to get in and establish a distribution channel, and those countries are still more amenable to PC gaming. But, I'm so close now, that I really want to self-publish and get it out there. It's designed to be very episodic, as it is. The first time through should be 8-10 hours of gameplay, with 10 scenarios and 6 different zones...
Is it hard, working on your own?
It's huge amount of work, tremendous; you just don't realise. I don't recommend it. If I could go back and do any one thing again, I'd get a partner or two to come in with me. I'm real reluctant to allow other people to assume my risk for me; to my chagrin, because y'know Bonfire convinced thirty people to come work for them without a paycheck for six months. School of hard knocks, y'know. I'm actually 11 people, but I'm the only employee and publishers just look at that and go pffft... I wouldn't recommend it, especially not if you're trying to build a pseudo-large title. Scheduling can still be hard, even if you're the only person. You can still suck at it really bad. I was talking to my friend Ian, the lead designer at Robot, and I said "I've consistently missed every deadline I've set for myself." The artists are getting the art in on time, I just am not doing a very good job at estimating how hard so many things are. I was working on scenario 2, and a problem cropped up with the combat AI. With a team, you can say "you keep working on the scenario, I'll fix the combat AI". But with one person, it becomes linear, and when it becomes linear everything gets pushed out.
Are you ready to talk about the theme?
If you got to my website, you'll see the theme. It's not just flying cars, it's a retro-futuristic science-fiction theme. There are flying cars, but they look like 1950s chevvies. It's third person action, flying round on vehicles, set in a city. Lots of vertical spaces. I'm a huge MMO afficionado, so I was there with Aion and flying in that was just jumping then coasting; I was a huge City of Heroes fan and everyone loved flying in that. My family; my kids and my wife, who is a complete non-gamer, loved flying and super-jumping in that; it was so satisfying. One of the original thought processes that came out of this was I want to do something contemporary; I want to do something where you're not walking for the first ten levels because, if it's contemporary, I should be getting in a damn car and driving from one bit to another. I want to bring in some of Descent and let people get in vehicles right away. Vehicular-based MMOs don't let you do that typically; Auto-Assault, Tabula Rasa.
The over-riding design theme is that you always see your avatar; you're not a jetship or a car, you're a person. But you're going to be given vehicles from the beginning of the very first scenarios. There is still on-foot combat - get out, go in buildings, blow stuff up, get out, go somewhere else - and fight things on vehicles as well. It's not about giant robots, contrary to the screenshots on my site. I really need to update that.
The setting is fresh, I've been careful working with the artists on that retro-vibe, and the game is for dads and sons. Dads will love the old-style cars and the big band style music. I really believe in the design tenets that Bruce Shelley and Tony Goodman had at Ensemble; the first five minutes should build a world that people want to come see, want to see and stay in. Bright, primary colour palettes; no sepia tones in the whole game. Look at Metro 2033; it was an incredibly-detailed, well-crafted, bump-mapped world... all in the same shade. Not what I wanted it at all. There's even a certain part of me that loves Film Noir and could see a Sin City kind of game, black and white with splashes of colour, like LA Noire, but that's not this game.
How close to release are you?
At the moment, the programming is finished, I've just got to fill out the content, but I won't announce the title until that's done. I want to talk to Steam, I want to announce it with them. When you look at that market it's Steam, with everyone else. They won't allow you to pay for that page front space; it's based on popularity, sales and so on. Look at Magicka, they just made an announcement. I'm going to host all the community stuff on Facebook; Sony did the same thing with DC universe and, while I'm not a fan of giving Facebook all my traffic, you do what the industry is doing.
You wont' talk about the name yet; but what inspired you?
Like the first episode in a series; drawing on that Sam Spade 1950s detective serial, y'know, you're a cop in a corrupt city, not even a cop, because the cops are corrupt too, and crime is rampant; right off the bat you get this case, it seems kind of odd; a lot of cheesy typical stuff, with The Dame and so forth.
Thanks for your time!