Anna Kang began her work in games as a business development director at id Software ten years ago, where she discovered her passion for the industry – and where she met John Carmack, who would become her husband. She founded her own studio, Fountainhead Entertainment, in 2000, which most recently developed mobile games -- Doom RPG and Orcs & Elves.
In November, Electronic Arts will publish a DS version of Orcs & Elves, and Gamasutra talked to Anna about the development of the new franchise inspired by the tabletop RPGs John used to design for her as birthday gifts, the success of Doom RPG, a possible migration onto the console, and about developing games with her husband.
How did you get into mobile gaming?
It’s kind of interesting -- the really funny thing is, a lot of what people think about [my husband John Carmack] is true. He is kind of a hermit, so for a long time he would refuse to carry a cell phone. After we had our child, I was like, ‘you really have to have a cell phone!’
So I got him a cellphone, and John, being John, started fiddling around with it, and checking into the technical specs. Down to the bone, all the way down to his little hair, he’s a true geek, and if he could have, he probably would have taken it apart and reassembled it!
He realized that the hardware on the phone was sophisticated, and then he was really disgusted with the games they had for it. He bought lots of games, and I saw this huge bill and I was like, ‘what is this?!’ And he was just playing around, complaining that there should be no reason why the games suck so bad, because the hardware is so advanced. And we kind of talked about it, and John said, ‘would your company be interested in making some cell phone games?’
It was a good time, so we tossed lots of different ideas together. The Doom movie was coming out and [we thought] a Doom game for the cell would be perfect to help market the movie. It’s a known IP, and people love the Doom universe and it makes sense. So John talked to the other partners at iD, everyone thought it was a good idea, so the first foray into cell phone gaming was DoomRPG.
What was the design process like?
John had this concept to make the game fun. He wanted to make sure that the cell phone user interface complemented the game, rather than trying to force a game that wasn’t made for the cell phone. We were in Hawaii for a vacation -- this is a habit of his, he works well on vacation. The really funny thing is, for our honeymoon we had to ship two computers to the hotel so that he could work! It’s one of the endearing parts about it. He can’t be without his computer, because he just loves to code, so he must code every single day!
We were on vacation in Hawaii, and that’s where he wrote it. I think it was over the weekend, because we usually don’t leave too long. It was like, a four-day extended weekend -- we left Friday and came back on Tuesday, or something, and in that weekend, he had done the engine for Doom RPG. He was like, ‘here’s the engine, go for it!’
So we took what he did, and in about 4 months we put together Doom RPG. We had never worked in the cell phone environment before, so there was a lot of learning. It was always fun working in a Doom universe, and we were really kind of amazed at how many people really liked Doom RPG. Generally, we thought it was a fun little game, and a lot of people really really liked it.
A lot of the people who love Doom were able to see it on the cell phone, and it was fun to see the monsters again. We were able to create a couple new things, and it’s a nice, fun little game, but we never expected to get the attention it did. We were pleasantly surprised. After that, John said, ‘wow, this was a really quick development!’ We were able to quickly turn around an idea in half a year, and he was used to these massive development cycles.
So the idea was, let’s continue doing this, because this is kind of fun! We were able to put together a game so quickly, and it’s I think Doom RPG on the cell phone sold well over a million, maybe two million, so it’s doing amazingly well.
So you decided to do Orcs & Elves?
The idea was, we can’t really do a lot of experimentation on really high-budget PC or console games. There’s only so much innovation we can do until the risk factor is a little bit uncomfortable, but [we could] play around with the cell phone, because the development is quick, the budget is much more tolerable and so the idea came – let’s do a brand new game, let’s see if people will take to something that no one has heard of before.
Orcs & Elves is an entirely new IP – where did the concept come from?
Back in the day, John was a big AD&D player, and quite a well-known DM, and was in a little circle of friends where people would drive from different states to come play, until they got too busy. For my birthdays, or holiday gifts, he would occasionally make me a game. The really fun thing was that for a while -- it was about maybe once a year, or every other year – he’d write me this game, and we’d invite some friends and they’d come over, and we’d have these 16-hour long D&D games.
They were so much fun, and I was still stuck in that, so we were like, ‘we should do a fantasy game with orcs and elves! This could be really fun!’ So that really planted the seeds for Orcs & Elves. Now, with a child, the likelihood of us having those long games is nonexistent. So we are now enjoying, with the Orcs & Elves games, a really lush environment, with so many interesting characters, such a large universe and being able to continually expand it through new games is exciting.
And it’s been successful?
Yeah! And the really fun thing is our 3-year-old is the best beta tester! The bad thing about it is, whenever he crashes the game, we’re like, ‘what did he do? I don’t know!’ But he is able to -- when we think we’ve got everything, he will find a way to crash the game.
So he’s a great little tester, and he loves Orcs and Elves. His favorite monster is the troll. I think it’s because the troll is so big and massive, and for his animation, he raises this hammer, and quivers before he slams it down. I think he just likes the way he looks.
Will you continue the Orcs & Elves franchise, then?
We were amazingly pleased. People loved it, and the critics really loved it, and from there, I think we’ve got a really good formula, so we could potentially have lots of different games. It’s a 6-month development cycle, and if it works, we continue on.
Will you stay with the mobile platform?
We’d like to be able to bring it to the Wii. One of the frustrations that we found in developing Orcs & Elves for DS is that we were really excited to have a bigger platform to work with -- the downside was that there’s so much design, and so much story, that in looking at the DS, we had to cut back! We thought we would be able to bring more new things into the DS version, but there’s just not enough memory or the capability isn’t there.
The Wii version -- we haven’t looked at the hardware specs, but I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t be able to fully flesh out some of the design elements that we hoped to bring to the game. There are a lot of things in the cell phone game we had to cut, it was so small.
The thing is, it’s not the hardware of the phones, it’s the carriers. We have certain limitations that we have to stay under. Those restraints are difficult to work under, and there’s only so much design you can create. So we had to cut out a lot.
On the DS, it’s great, because we could bring a lot of things back – but we weren’t able to bring everything. It was great, because we were able to learn a lot of things, and it was fun developing on the DS. We were really proud of it, and we would love to do this on the Wii too. Test the waters on small platforms, and then grow.
Do you think you guys will bring Doom RPG to the DS?
Well, we’ve been talking about that. We would like to bring it to the DS, but there’s a real significant change that we’d like to make, and the interesting thing is that the DS is a much younger audience gaming platform. And Doom being Doom, we’re not sure whether a mature rated game would do well on the DS. The numbers show a lot of adults own them, but I think the current thing keeping Doom on the DS from happening is the marketing, and whether mature games have been released on the DS, and have they been successful?
How big is Fountainhead?
Pretty small. Including me, we have five. And occasionally, we have some interns, and sometimes contractors.
Can you talk about the machinima work Fountainhead has done?
We did a few machinima that people may have heard of. One we did for MTV, In the Waiting Line, for a band, and then we also did a game tie-in. We did a little bit for a very short-lived cartoon series called Game Over. Those are probably the two most widely received and released works. We just did a little of more independent art-type stuff here and there.
Are you interested in continuing with it?
We would love to. I so love doing it, because I think it’s really fun and it strikes home for me with the storytelling element and game creation. Unfortunately, right now there’s really not a market for it. I saw one with WoW for South Park a little bit ago, and I think there are a little bits here and there, but there’s still not really an industry for it. But when you have to own a business, I have to make sure to go where the money is.
But with the prevalence of avatar-based games and 3D worlds growing all the time, do you think there’s a place for it?
The problem is, I think, there’s no real money in it. There’s a huge audience, but right now we found that we couldn’t make money to support everybody. It’s the type of thing where if you are alone, or maybe you have one additional person, and you are truly, truly independent, no office, salaries and so forth, you might be able to break out. But if you’re already developed as a business, and you have salaries and rent, right now machinima does not pay the bills.
Hopefully in the future, that will turn around… I really love what the guys from the Red vs. Blue team are doing, but for us it just really isn’t fiscally a possibility for us to continue it. I hope to go back to it someday, and I hope to do grander things with it.
To what extent is John involved with things at Fountainhead on a day-to-day basis?
For the most part, he comes up with the ideas, and then we will brainstorm, give it some flesh and once John is satisfied with the direction of it, he will let us go. Usually, what he will do is write the engine, and then we take it from there. I’m actually a pure designer. I don’t think I have the temperament to be a programmer!
One of the things that’s kind of difficult is, sometimes when John and I are talking design, he’ll go totally into the technical -- and what’s really funny is, an hour later we don’t understand what each other was saying! He’s talking code tech, and I’m talking story and character development, and we’ll be like, ‘what’d you say?!’ So sometimes it is a bit more trying, since I don’t have the programming experience.
Oftentimes, the way it works is that he will have to make sure that my programmers relate to me what my abilities are -- for instance, ‘this is the hardware spec, this is what we can and can’t do.’ Now from there, I have a quasi-empty canvas to work with.
It sounds like it was fun for you to add ideas back into the DS version of Orcs & Elves that you couldn’t include in the mobile version.
One of the things we did with the DS that we couldn’t in the cell phone version is the sheep -- if you shoot it, it turns to lamb chops. My original idea was Gaia the dragon as a food source, and if you let the bad guys escape, the sheep will run out.
The sheep don’t want to be eaten -- so a sheep will bite you if you try to eat it, and you will have to hunt the sheep, and then the sheep can go through the portals and you can chase them, and depending on how you approach it... I’m going on and on, and my programmers’ eyes are getting wider and wider and they’re like, “...you can't do that!”
So it becomes, ‘OK, tell me: from all the stuff I told you, what can we do? Because I want the sheep!!’ If we do have Orcs & Elves on the Wii, I want my running sheep that will bite you, and a bunch of these things that didn’t make it into the DS! It’s the kind of design vs. technology thing, where the technology really has to be there, to make sure to let me know what we’re capable of.
It works well in the sense that with John, the vast knowledge that he has, oftentimes tells my programmers, 'this is the direction, this is what we need to do, and if it’s possible then we want to make sure to leave room, but if not, the design has to conform to the tech.'
So what’s next for you guys?
Well, I don’t think I can talk about it yet -- we definitely have another cool game coming up. I hope we are able to do Doom RPG on the DS, and Orcs & Elves on the Wii, and we’re really excited that Orcs & Elves on the DS and Orcs & Elves 2 on the cell phone will [both] be out on the holidays.
There are so many cool things we are able to do that we’re really excited to let people take a look at it, because it is our first foray into the DS. If things work out, we would love to bring Orcs & Elves 2 on the DS, because there were so many awesome things I couldn’t get in the DS version. It would be really fun!