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Interview: Armature Founders On 'Unsustainable' Biz, Plans
Interview: Armature Founders On 'Unsustainable' Biz, Plans Exclusive
September 19, 2008 | By Chris Remo

September 19, 2008 | By Chris Remo
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    19 comments
More: Console/PC, Exclusive



Game production is "becoming costlier and costlier, and it's becoming unsustainable for current-gen development to continue this way," former Retro Studios (Metroid Prime) principal technology engineer Jack Mathews tells Gamasutra.

This is why he and former Retro game director Mark Pacini and art director Todd Keller founded Armature Studio and signed a long-term publishing deal with Electronic Arts. The three developers discussed the move with Gamasutra this week.

The new Austin, Texas-based company is in many ways an experiment intended to demonstrate a different type of development: keeping a small in-house staff to conceive ideas and rapidly prototype gameplay concepts and technology, then working with external contractors and outsourcers for full production.

The company is currently hiring, but plans to cap out at around eleven employees -- and deliver full-scale, triple-A games with its distributed development model.

The Process

"We're very hands-on, very involved all the way through the process," says Pacini. "In the beginning, our main focus is creating original ideas and coming up with what the game actually would be. When we get into the production part of it, we'll be working with distributed developers and contractors to execute the game."

He stresses that Armature won't simply generate concepts then hand them off to another studio. "We will be very involved in the creation of the game," he says. "Our role may shift a little bit to directing a lot of the content, but we'll still be creating content as well.

It's a pitch very reminiscent of that of Wideload -- the Chicago-based developer (Stubbs The Zombie) founded by Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian -- which also operates around the concept of a smaller internal team driving contract-driven production. But Mathews says Armature's close relationship with EA will facilitate bigger games.

"A lot of our core development ideals are pretty similar, but hopefully the partnership with EA should allow us to get larger-scale projects under development," he says.

"I know a lot of [Wideload's] stuff is somewhat smaller. With EA what we're looking at it is an opportunity to hit this development model out of the park, by being such close development partners with the publisher that we can really just make very fast moves back and forth to make things happen."

The Benefit

The three principals are looking forward to the kind of development emphasized by the Armature concept: lean, rapid prototype development that doesn't get bogged down in the ways traditional development often does.

Mathews explains: "One of our core beliefs is that this will actually allow us to do more quick iteration, quick prototyping. One problem with game development is you end up with tons of 200-page design documents, but nothing actually proving out. Once you actually go into production, you find a lot of things don't work, and vast swathes of your design just go out the window, or you've gone too far and you can't afford to throw those things out the window."

He believes the new method will "be able to quickly prove or disprove high concepts and come up with a focused, playable, very good core of the game as quickly as possible, using as few resources as possible," before moving into the full production stage.

Plus, years of working at Retro and collaborating with an overseas team gives the developers a sense of perspective as to what's involved with a distributed development effort.

"We have extensive experience working with developers in Japan -- that's who we worked with for the past eight years," Pacini points out. "We've had to deal with a thirteen-hour difference for eight years, and we've learned a lot of how to be efficient at that communication. The idea is to create 'virtual studio.'" He adds that EA's considerable outsourcing resources should help the process as well.

The Future

Pacini worries that the current model of game development is becoming far too unwieldy, and believes that a more distributed, less centralized system -- similar in some ways to that of the film industry -- could become the norm.

"The model in which games are made -- with a staff of people upwards of 100 people a lot of the time -- is kind of outdated now," he says.

"It costs so much money to maintain that staff. What do you do with that staff when the game is done? You get these mass layoffs. You don't hear that when a movie's over. Everybody who was on the movie is gone -- but there was no mass layoff, it's just that everybody was a contractor just for that project.

"I think in the future, a lot of game development will move towards that," Pacini continues. "Contractors now are being used more efficiently than they've ever been on game projects, and it's become a more valid way to staff up your project. Rather than being looked down upon as a company that doesn't want to hire somebody, it's more fiscally responsible of the company to hire contractors, not to staff up and have a mass layoff at the end."

The Legacy

Why leave Retro after delivering one of the most acclaimed series of the last decade? "Now that the Prime trilogy was up, it felt like a good time to be looking around, and this is an opportunity to branch out more and reach a lot more people with the types of games we like to make," Mathews says. "Plus, the venture is one that really fits with our thinking about how games should move forward."

After eight years of GameCube and Wii development, the group is also looking forward to branching out to other platforms.

Says Keller, "[Armature] has the opportunity to reach people on other systems. It opens up gameplay to have more powerful systems. I've always liked all the systems, but [Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3] have a little bit more ability for you to expand your game."

As far as living in the shadow of Samus, the Armature team isn't too concerned. "Every game we've done, I've been more excited about," says Pacini. "At the end of Prime 3, I said, 'Wow, I think that's the best thing we've ever done.' It was really rewarding at the end of it. The stuff we're working on now, I feel the same way. I'm excited about the new things we're coming up with.

"It's been so long since Prime 1 came out. I remember, but at the same time, while it's something I'll always be proud of, and it's something people thought was good, you have to move on from that. As long as you're excited about what you're doing, I think that's what's important."


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Comments


scott march
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All my predictions of a several years ago are coming about. Smart people will figure this out.



There are still a few things missing here--that will throw a wrench in what your saying. But a great Read. EA is starting to be cool again>>whats going on? They are putting out super cool games-and picking up all the great ones "Brutal Legend"-Way to go. Mirrors edge and Skate 2 look amazing.

Fredrik Liliegren
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This is truly game development 2.0. It has its major challanges since not everything can be done remotely. And you will need HUBS of talent to contract in on a need basis, So SF, LA and Austin would be areas where this could work on a grander scale. But this is truly a major shift in how we approach development and has huge management challanges.

sean lindskog
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Good article. I think sticking to a small core and working with contractors makes sense for a lot of companies - those which aren't pumping out a constant stream of game sequels.

Anonymous
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As far as I know, CGI movie studios have a rather monolithic structure, more similar to classic game studios than to regular movies. This suggests there's a limit to how applicable the 'small core, many contractors' model actually is.

Anonymous
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I think contractor based project is very effecient way to afford the human power enough to finish a project but keeping a good number of core people is also important. Especially when the company is developing their own engine or certain code base re-usable for further project, these core people who have been building up the basis become critical to maintain/improve it.

Duong Nguyen
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Outsourcing is already done alot but you'll still need to keep a core team since their expertise isn't really outsourcable. Teams create projects and the best teams are ones which have worked together the longest, that doesn't work if you have constant churn of outsoured people, they never gell and in the long run take longer and more time to produce something.

Anonymous
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So where do 'noobies' fit in to this contractor model? How do you bring in new potential talent (i.e. little experience) and mentor them to make them worth a lot more than you're paying them ;) ? Why would you want to invest in mentoring a contractor if you aren't going to reap the benefits of it? Contractoring / consulting are a great option for veterans, but I don't see it being feasible for new grads...or even potential developers from other software industries... Thoughts?

Ed Gregor
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Where do noobies fit in? Move to India or China so you can be an outsource. This will ultimately drive down the money that artists, animators and engineers will be able to make in the US, since developers can get animation outsourced from asia for as low as $8 an hour. If the future really is a motion picture model, then workers will take the next logical step and unionize in order to protect themselves. On a final note, being that the most democratic thing that has happened to the software business has been the use of agile methodology, this simply cannot work in a mostly outsourced environment, except between managers. The only way I can see this heavy outsourcing to be positive for the industry in the US, is if enough artists, animators and engineers can form outsource companies, be competitive, and still get paid relatively well. The other thing that massive outsourcing does is make sure that the majority of people that are actually creating these games are denied any ownership, royalties or benefits from the companies they are working for. It consolidates any profit to the publisher and developer and leaves the actual workers out in the cold. Outsourcing IS the future of game development, but for the people doing the work, is this a beter future? I guess we'll see. Good luck graduates!

Anonymous
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"I would suggest you see it as self-evident that the CGI studios use the "best" model"



No I just think it's an interesting point to consider.

Ed Gregor
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Grassroots Gamemaster: Small developers are already in competition with cheaper studios overseas, massive outsourcing has the potential to have the same issue with competition overseas. This is a global marketplace where the cost of outsourcing art/animation especially outside of the US is much cheaper. The comment was in response to the noobies question, in which I'm making the point that the shift away from full-fledged studios to mainly outsourced content creation makes those content creators in the US in direct competition globally for the mere fact that they don't work AT the location. If location doesn't matter, the overseas outsource solutions are far cheaper. A plumber does not have international competition.

Justin Keverne
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There's still a wealth of problems in terms of communication and common vocabulary that need to be addressed before such a system will work as effectively as it does in other media. Outsourcing only works if you all share a common terminology and have standardised methods of communication. If you think an "AI path" means one thing and the people you hire think it means something else it's going to be an uphill struggle to get anything done.



At least when a company is a single entity you have a much better means of ensuring everybody shares the same vocabulary.



I find it interesting that the film industry is heralded as the “best” way of working.

Aaron Casillas
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Why is it important to have a fulltime core team? For many reasons, most of them have to due with speed, business, team cohesiveness and vision.



Say for example you decided to have a full contract based team. So you hire a Tech Director, at the end of the project his contract expires. What do you do now? This person knows the engine back and forth, but now as a business man you find yourself in a hole. The Tech Director has you in a bind, he can ask for an exoberant amount of money or just simply bail on you. Now your in trouble!



Same goes for all the core positions. There are other vectors involved besides direct project dev, like learning each other's moves, dev of team culture, ramp up training, quality culture, list goes on and on.



As a core team, you want to be able to bring some stability as well to the new team and hand them the torch. Imagine if your whole team was contract, who is going to teach the "new core team?" The CEO? Frontdesk? Valet?



To add what Justin is talking about, Outsourcing also recquires an incredible amount of logistical support. That means you are going to have to hire an outsourching guru who can manage the output and input. Second you are going to have to spend core team time to review the assets that are coming in, you might have to coordinate strange hours for meetings, besides an ftp site you might need to invest in some type of data management.



A major issue in regards to outsourcing is delivering the vision and style of the game. For example, you can send the outsourcing team a concept drawing and guess what it might come back exactly how you drew it! Why could this be bad, because alot of unscheduled dev time takes place between a director and his team, like in this case dev of the concept drawing language and that takes a lot of day to day team work.



In some cases, if you think about it long enough, it probably would come out cheaper to keep more work here in the U.S.



On the business side, take a core of 5 team members at an average cost of 10,000 a head including overhead, 1 month ramp up time, that's 50,000, take about 3 months to get something going in the engine. 150,000. (If you're starting a company from stratch it will take you more time, so hire a CEO/COO or team manager). To develop a strong vision for the game, probably 1 year with a core team of 5 that's $600,000.



2 years with a core team of 5 that's 1,200,000. (contract might be more money)



So you want to get rid of them and lose 1,200,000 of an investment because they were contractors? I think not. I'd rather keep the core team and keep them creating away.

Anonymous
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"This stuff has been done ALL THE TIME on films. Yet, somehow films manage to get made. Why? "



Most of the crew in a film only participate for a fraction of the total production time.

Danny Matson
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The difference between film and games is vast. Mostly due to games are interactive, and film is not. This requires a meld of art, animation, design, and programming that requires on-site development, due to the necessity of rapid iteration and efficient communication, and a group dynamic that accelerates creativity.

Aaron Casillas
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God help us..."GameMaster" you have no fucking clue what you're talking about, sorry you really need to get a job on a dev team. Really...see art and business dance.



Trying to call me out and say I have no balls, come on that's stupid naive talk bro. You really needed the urge to personally attack me?



For your information I have been apart of a start up, last worked for another as well as many gathering of potential startups. Ideas and creative are not the problem at all, its money. You need machines, software, engine (s) to say the least, unless you propose pirating?



You really have to get a grip on reality here, I mean its all nice that you believe the world is built on fantasies, perhaps its the fault of video games and movies that lead you to believe that they just "magically" appear in the theatre or game stop. I'm really beginning to believe that's the fundamental ingredient to becoming a Heckler.



Alot of blood, sweat, tears, time and MONEY go into any creative venture. If its a painting on canvas, to a garage band, someone had to pay for the raw materials.



Try something new? Gimme a real break here GameMaster, for the last 6 months I have been. If you have a couple of million then we can put a team together. Otherwise if you think creating a game is like sending out a tell in an MMO well its not homey.



OR if you have a couple of guys that want to work for free for a couple of months awesome you go for it!



Films are made very differently. Designing a game is like explaining what a camera, canvas, seats, popcorn do and then your planning on expressing content.



Even Dreamworks, Pixar, Disney etc...have core teams...do you think Spielberg rolls alone? He has a crew, so does every other director.



GM, Your model of getting rid of everyone after a game is akin to having a rock band that splits after 1 great hit. The name of the band stays, but the next group doesn't know how to play the instruments.

Anonymous
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Game Master you are a fool. If everyone in your company is dispensible then whose the company? Just 1 guy holding the checks?



Devs are people who are looking for stability as well. People like you have the fucking mentality that they can be simply thrown away after they are done. Its the shit that fucks the USA up, the disponsible culture.



A great company is like a great pitcher, you need to cultivate to create, don't over work him because he'll throw his arm out.



The movie industry also has Unions and some stability.



How about setting up unions for us "game master" instead of putting us hard working people down?

Anonymous
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Wow, GM, an actor in a movie would be like an npc in a game. completly different mediums.

Anonymous
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INT: INDIA BANGLADESH

A starving contract engineer named BENDER eagirly awaits a call from his next potential employer. Suddenly the phone rings.



BENDER

Hello , Bender speaking



GAME MASTER

HI De HO Bender! This is Grass Roots Game Master, are you Bender the Engineer in India?



BENDER

Yes sir I am and you are?



GAMEMASTER

Gamemaster



BENDER

Oh, um very nice to meet you mr. gayummaster



GAMEMASTER

I have a great game idea, its going to be the next WOW Killer



BENDER

Ok, I can do an MMO, no problem, what software are we using? Do we have any deals with anyone? How about a core team?



GAMEMASTER

Deals no fucking way! MAN! Core team, yeah contract, the tech director is in Canada, the art director is in Brazil, I have one artist in Austrailia and the texture artist is in Colorado, US of A. the vfx artist is in Pakistan, you know boom!



BENDER

Wait what? Those are different time zones, whose coordinating?



Wait mr. gamemaster, no deals, I have to pay my bills, how are you going to pay me sir?



GAMEMASTER

Shit those are details, I'm too fast for that...Pay you? Come on! Its people like you that hold back creativity!



BENDER

Huh?



GAMEMASTER

Think big here baby! We can make the WOW killer! Well do it for free, for the benefit of mankind!



BENDER

Free? Sorry sir I have a family to take care of. I'm just trying to get some clean water today,its been 3 days.



GAMEMASTER

Wait man comeon grow some bull balls, be adventurous...



BENDER

Cows are sacred to us stop it, Come one sir, don't offend me...I'm talking to someone who wants me to be a slave



GAMEMASTER

Look I'll mail you, um a carton of Hummus every two weeks! But you should really do this for free, the Universe does this shit for free, man...



PHONE VOICE O.S.

Hey GAMEMASTER you're letting it Ash man, pass the joint



GAMEMASTER

Habu, I mean Bender one second...(inhale) ok where were we, oh yeah Hummus I can send you rice too...shit your lucky this game god critique is talking to you...



BENDER

Thank you very much sir, but you are on drugs, good bye.



(The phone hangs up)



GAMEMASTER

Buddha fricking Christ man, these people just don't see the big picture here! They have to think meta! Bong! The universe is a free creative force, everyone needs me to guide their way....

craig d. adams
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Brilliant interview with some brilliant people, thanks Chris Remo. Armature and EA now have a golden opportunity to prove Alex Seropian's hypothesis.



When considering Armature's future, I'm reminded of Hideo Kojima's comment where he suggested 'the best thing would be a PS3 with controls like the Wii'.



With what the Armature founders accomplished with the Wii control and game system while at Retro Studios, it's troubling to imagine them returning to the now-antiquated 'dual-analog' control style. That said, if they can tame the additional horsepower of the other two consoles, the results will be truly spectacular.



Additionally, while their decision to target multiple platforms gives them a golden opportunity to demonstrate to a broader audience their incredible command of interactive entertainment, it does have a downside. Going 'multi-platform' - designing for different architectures, different capabilities, different input - will mean less authorial control. For these creators, that is a serious consideration.



To Todd Keller, Andrew Jones and everyone else at Retro Studios & Nintendo: thank you for going the extra distance with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. It's an audio visual masterwork.



To the founders of Armature: kindest wishes for the future.


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