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Making The Games He Wants To Make: The Jon Chey Interview
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Making The Games He Wants To Make: The Jon Chey Interview

July 19, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

With a background at Looking Glass Studios and as a co-founder of BioShock developers Irrational Games, Jon Chey could write his own ticket. Having worked on BioShock and System Shock 2, he could likely head up a big-budget console game project for a major publisher.

Instead, he's decided to strike out on his own tohu create "niche" games that he himself wants to make, aiming only to satisfy himself and what he hopes is a dedicated audience that will push his projects to, if not world-beating success, respectable profitability. His company, Blue Manchu games, is entirely self-funded.

"I decided I wanted to come back to Australia, which was always my intention," Chey tells Gamasutra. "Ken [Levine] and I were running [Irrational] together. He was managing the Boston studio and I was managing a studio down here in Canberra." Irrational's Australia branch -- now re-dubbed 2K Marin -- developed Freedom Force under Chey's guidance, before moving on to BioShock and XCOM.

His new company Blue Manchu Games, is currently hard at work on Card Hunter, a Flash-based, microtransaction-powered card/board game hybrid of completely original design.

His collaborators include Captain Forever indie developer (and Irrational alum) Jarrad "Farbs" Woods, former Irrational art director Ben Lee, former Looking Glass designer Dorian Hart, and Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and his business partner Skaff Elias, who are contributing to the game's design, among others, working in what Chey calls "a loose collective," with no central office and no full time employees aside from Chey.

You got "itchy feet", I think is what you said, but you still stuck out for a little while after 2K acquired Irrational?

Jon Chey: Oh yeah, yeah. So, the thing we focused on after the acquisition was BioShock, which was a really positive experience. I mean, obviously, it's turned into a very valuable franchise, and it was, I think, really great. It confirmed to us that selling the business to 2K was actually a good thing to do.

I mean, we didn't have any regrets about it, because we were kind of stuck in a bit of a difficult circle, where we were making games that were well-reviewed and people liked, but we were never able to make a hit. Part of that could just be because we didn't know what we were doing, but I like to think that we just never really had the capital -- the investment. We were getting two million dollar budgets and being asked to make first person shooters that were competitive with Half-Life, or whatever, and it wasn't really possible.

And so when we became part of 2K, they put some real money into BioShock. Both on the development side and on the marketing side. And that was just a huge relief for us, because I think those sort of RPG-shooter hybrids that we were making, that we liked to make and that Looking Glass made -- we really liked that genre, but it was not really proven that it could be a big hit. I mean, I think a lot of publishers regarded it as a pretty niche sort of business.

It seems that a lot of the developers who were making FPSes for PCs in the past really hopped on the console space at the beginning of this generation, particularly with the Xbox 360.

JC: Yeah, I guess I would say that -- but I think it's been really good for the console gaming. Because we were PC developers. Looking Glass are PC developers, and I think we would have liked to have stayed PC developers, but we just got squeezed out.

I think we'd still be squeezed out of that market. The big budget shooter PC market, I doubt it's ever going to come back to life, other than ports from the console side.

So yeah, we were squeezed out of that, and had to go to console, and I think it turned out to be great for us, because hey, we could make a real business out of it, and make games that sold several million copies, which is what we needed to do for the budgets we were investing in them.

I think it was a breath of fresh air for the console landscape, too, so it turned out well, I think. We certainly weren't the only ones. It seems like all of the PC developers pretty much went that path.

Even sometimes when Ken Levine talks about PC gaming, I get kind of a hint of a, "those are the good old days" type of nostalgia. Do you have any of that?

JC: Well, not really, because I actually feel like things have kind of come full circle, and I think a lot of other people do, too. Saying you're a PC developer isn't like an admission of failure anymore. Part of what I'm excited about and trying to do with my new business is get back to PC.

I mean, I'm a PC developer again, although I suppose I don't really look at it in that kind of narrow way. I'm not really interested in making another big budget console title. There are just so many other platforms, and I think, to me -- I don't really care what the technology is I'm using to make my game, or where it's going to be played.

But what's exciting is, I think, that that's opening up opportunities. It's opening up space for genres and niches that might have been moribund. I don't want to go away and make Facebook social games -- not that I have anything against them -- but to me it's not a dollar thing. Like, "Oh, there's this huge untapped growing market there!"

It's more like, "Wow, this gives us the potential to go and make those kind of more genre, nichey games that I really want to make, and I really want to play, and hopefully have a successful business there." Because we can actually reach an audience now and have a sustainable business. I think that's really exciting.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


BobbyK Richardson
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Gotta say, judging from the screenshots I'm eagerly awaiting more on "Card Hunter"



I don't think it really takes a ton of money to make a good niche game. We see great niche games coming out all the time on ultra low budgets, or by one person. I'm playing "Dungeons of Dredmore" right now, and I'd pay happily to get even more skill options so I can continue experimenting with new builds.



I also think freemium is a valid model, if done right. When a game forces you to pay to interact with it - that sucks (no energy? wait an hour... or pay us now!). I think it's crucial that players really, truly, enjoy playing the game without having to pay a dime - and then if they do pay they enjoy it even more.



As time goes there will be more games that offer more fun with better deals without forcing players to wait stupidly or pay $100, developers will start creating more games where people are happy to play for free (and watch ads to supply a developer revenue)



Players are going to have better Freemium games to play and and soul-less games like Farmville will sink like a rock (it's already happening).

Ivan Beram
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"...I actually feel like things have kind of come full circle, and I think a lot of other people do, too. Saying you're a PC developer isn't like an admission of failure anymore. Part of what I'm excited about and trying to do with my new business is get back to PC."



I think that is a good point to make, in that I think that indie game development for PC digital markets is something to really take a good look at rather than trying (at least initially) to enter the saturated mobile-app market.



"...I don't really care what the technology is I'm using to make my game, or where it's going to be played."



Another good point that I am sure that 99% of developers won't appreciate.



"...I don't want to go away and make Facebook social games -- not that I have anything against them -- but to me it's not a dollar thing. Like, 'Oh, there's this huge untapped growing market there!'



...you're a small studio that's starting out, you can get a lot of value out of just creating a game which is perceived well -- both by the industry and by consumers -- even if it doesn't initially sell a lot of copies."



Nice to hear someone say this for a change, especially indies, who seem to be more focused on making a buck or having everything lead to that.



I'm not so sure about the freemium thing, it's not going to work in every case and I think that the more important element is allowing gamers (consumers) to try before they buy. This has been a "staple" if you will ever since shareware days; there is NOTHING radical about that concept.



Nice to learn what the man is up to, however, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Freedom Force far more than Bioshock which I didn't bother to finish. To me it seemed more like people were willing to buy into the hype of the game due to the marketing rather than seeing it for what it was. A competent arcade shooter. It most certainly was no "spiritual successor" to System Shock -- Dead Space is far more so than Bioshock. So it's nice to see him going back to those "roots."



Personally, I am really interested in finding out how the whole distributed studio and collaborative team thing works out as it is a model of development I am in the process of implementing. So, it was nice to read this and find out what Jon Chey is up to ;).

Matthew Mouras
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Good comments. If you haven't progressed to one of a few key points in Bioshock, it may come off as underwhelming after the hype. The gameplay is good, but the story is great. Give it another shot sometime!



Freedom Force was a great ride too :)



I enjoyed my contracted role within a widely distributed team, but I think it takes a strong person to be the center of the circle. Looking forward to see what Jon Chey does with this project.

Brian Canary
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This is the most interesting project being developed in the entire industry right now. I wish I had the financial backing to do this as well.


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