After years of developing games for large publishers, artist Dan Borth decided to bite the bullet and step into the riskier but rewarding world of independent developers.
He is founder, CEO, and creative director of Austin-based Red Fly Studio, which is hard at work on its first original game, Mushroom Men.
The GameCock-published title is a third-person action game (on Wii) and side-scrolling action title (on DS) which takes place after a comet irradiates the Earth with green dust, and three-inch high fungi come to life to attack each other.
Borth sat down with Gamasutra to discuss his development past, learning how to be a CEO, and developing for Wii and DS.
Checking out the game it seems it's got a really, really distinctive visual style - what's the aim there, besides just making a cool game? Is there a line to straddle between distinctive so that people get it and too distinctive where people just get freaked out?
Dan Borth: Traditionally I'm an artist, so I'm always going to look for the visual. Mushroom Men's an homage to Abe's Odyssee and the Oddworld games, so that's trying to bring that back.
You've seen the demo of our game; it's a really, really, really rich world all on the Wii, and we just wanted to push the Wii as far as we could visually, you know what I mean? Red Fly was founded by artists, so we're always going to stress art as much as is possible.
Obviously design is important and programming is important, but as an artist, I'm always going to be more inclined to say, visually, we need to go after a game like this, or think about things like this. We didn't really set out to design a weird world, it just sort of happened when you talk about mushrooms that have life and are running around. So the style just evolved, if that makes any sense.
Does the company operate any differently being so artist-driven, compared to other situations, like a programming-driven studio?
DB: I don't know. I can only comment on what I know. There are challenges that artists have with business, programming, design that programmers and designers might not have, or business savvy people might not have.
The founders, Kris [Taylor] and I, who are really strong artists in my opinion, we took a bath on Business 101, and that was difficult. It's sort of hard for artists like us to wrap our heads around certain things, but I think we've done a good job up to a certain point, and we've learned a lot over the last year and a half, and we feel really comfortable with the studio, really comfortable with the games and how we do things.
We do things a little differently. We don't subscribe to that traditional business-driven studio where people like a producer or a QA person can rise to the top and make art calls or programming calls or design calls.
With us it's like every position that we have in the studio has been paid for in blood - these guys have earned it. We started with nothing, really, and we worked contract, and we're just really fortunate that we have like-minded people that pretty much get the risk, get the game, they get what we want to do. If you want to go make $120,000 a year, then go work for Microsoft. This is the good fight, and this is sort of what we're into.
It seems like in an ideal world people should be able to make $120,000 a year doing the good stuff?
DB: Well, in an ideal world, but it's not an ideal world, so you have to sacrifice for your art, and how much are you willing to sacrifice? I used to work at Microsoft. I worked at all major developers: Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, all first-party.
I made a good living. I was miserable, I had no control, it was a huge corporate machine, and we just had to get out and try our own thing and get with a publisher like Gamecock, who basically says, "Okay, go for it. Do it. You've been talking about it - let's see what you've got."
What was the money bath you were talking about before?
DB: Money bath? Business bath? I'm CEO of the company. Like I said, I'm an artist, I was trained as a traditional artist, there are probably things about business that I approach differently from most business-savvy people, so I had to get a real fast education on how to do things properly.
But I also bring a different perspective where I'm not totally business-driven; I'm not going to make a business decision like a CEO of another company who can't see. He can't see, "Oh, this guy's a great artist, it takes time to cultivate this person." Does that make sense? He's just, "Oh, I'll just get rid of him."
So I think I can bring a different perspective, and over the last two years I've sort of become, fortunately and unfortunately, a business-savvy artist, if there is such a thing.
Having CEO duties, are you able to actually get your hands on doing art?
DB: That's my dream. [Laughs.] I really, really, try to do that. That's what makes me happy. Sometimes I just have to shut my door and say, "You know what? Don't bother me."
The good thing about being a CEO is that you can influence how things are done. The really bad part about being a CEO is that you rarely hear about things unless they're bad. Everybody comes to you and says, "Oh this is it, it's messed up." So you have to put out fires everyday.
But I always welcome it, and enjoy it, and want to get back to doing art. I do it as much as possible, but sometimes it's just not possible.
I was going to ask why you decide to go for a new IP, but I think I can pretty much gather that.
DB: We were a start-up, there was no way we could have an established IP. No-one would take a risk on us - except for Gamecock, I mean. They came about when we started before, and it's all a risk.
Every publisher does risk assessment - who's going to give two artists some money to do anything? I wouldn't. I mean, I would now. People can see, oh, these guys are proving themselves now. But in the beginning we were just two guys with dreams and a small office.
We're artists, we're really good at what we do, and we have an idea. We've always been convinced of our idea - it's just convincing others of our idea that's been the issue. But now that's starting to change.
How did you go about maximizing the Wii, graphically?
DB: It's a good question. I think the industry as a whole doesn't consider the Wii a graphically-powerful console, and it isn't. But it's a lot better than a lot of developers... A lot of developers don't give it enough credit because they have this established IP, or they've got a movie tie-in, or it's Balls of Fury or something - some crap - and they don't care. They just want product out on the Wii and they're saturating the market with garbage.
The only good Wii games out there are some very few third-party games and then the first-party stuff, and you've just got this mountain of junk. I don't think people invest enough time and craftsmanship into the game to realise, oh, wow, the Wii has some actual punch. If you use it effectively, you can maximise it.
You've seen our game - our game's beautiful. People think it's a 360 game sometimes. We're using it to the full extent because we are artists and we've invested the time, and we're not going to make garbage. We want everyone to see we want to be the premier third-party Wii developer in the world. The only way to do that is quality - that's it.
Do you think with the large number of shovelware products on Wii and DS - does that make it more difficult or easier for you to sell this game?
DB: I think it's a double-edged sword. We have the ability to stand out from the pack, but then again, you're talking about pure numbers so maybe we get lost in the shuffle or people don't understand our game, so I don't know. That's really up to the consumer.
If you get a Wii and DS consumer that likes first-party games like Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime, and like Mushroom Men and can see, wow, this is a lot different than a lot of the other stuff on this console - that's the audience we're going after. Are we going after the person who picks up - I hate to bag on Balls of Fury, but that's a Wii game - are we going after that person? Absolutely not. That's not our audience.
Our audience are gamers, are people who think that the Wii is a great console, which it is, they're people who love the control system, guys that remember the old days when Abe's Odyssee ruled. That's what we're trying to bring back is some new, fresh, third-party development that nobody's ever seen before. It's hard, but we're trying.
In terms of being very art-driven, it's surprising to choose the Wii.
DB: It was sort of a business decision in that, hey this is the most popular console. The DS is huge, so when you're looking at numbers, you're looking at, what do we have to sell to make our money back. Obviously you want to go for the two top consoles, and other than the PS2 where out there there's 130 million or something like that, the Wii and the DS are the winners.
I always thought that Nintendo had a leg-up on everybody as far as gameplay and games and iconic characters like Mario, it just seemed like we need to do it for that. And also budget comes into play. When you're a new studio and you're asking someone for four million, that's a lot easier sell than asking them for twelve. It just comes down to numbers and risk assessment. So that's the reason we chose that console.
Is that how much the game cost?
DB: I won't tell you the cost of the games, I'm just giving you ballpark numbers. Wii development is easily one fourth, one fifth, even one sixth of some 360, PS3 projects, and those projects are easier to sell to developers, and they're also a shorter timeframe to get the game out. I mean, our development on Mushroom Men is eighteen months.
More on the art-oriented console aspect. DS especially is not strong in that regard, especially in 3D.
DB: No, and we went 3D. Well, we call it two-and-a-half-D, so it's sort of a sidescroller. At the time and now there's been a big push for 3D on the DS. People seem to be into it. So we could have gone entirely sprite-base, entirely 2D, but it just doesn't have the depth and the mood that we wanted. And when you work in 3D on the DS, you have to make sacrifices. It's just not there, hardware-wise.
But as you can see, the game looks really beautiful. DS games sell because of their design, not because of how they look. I think there are probably some examples of actual sprite-based games on the DS that look gorgeous. We strategically chose to do 3D on the DS because people wanted it and we really researched it and decided that this for us is the way to go: make a 3D world on the DS and players will appreciate it.
I noticed that there's a whole lot of customisation for combining weapons and it seems to yield a whole bunch of different weapons, but how do you differentiate that because there's no stats as far as the player's concerned?
DB: Well there isn't now, but that's all planned: what weapons do X amount of damage, what weapons do this. Our scavenging system is massive. I mean, for a Wii game for you to be able to choose between fifty weapons is just unheard of.
It's incomplete, so it's not a role-playing game, so you won't be able to go, oh, this flame-thrower does +10 damage, but what we do is come up with a linear system that gives players, for example: just because you can fashion a melee weapon out of a couple of things you can find, doesn't mean you can melt ice and release another mushroom man.
You have to make that flamethrower. You have to grab the matches, you have to grab the gas. Our weapons are crafted in a totally different way: it's not so much damage, it's gameplay-related. In order to solve this environmental puzzle you need this weapon. In order to kill this boss, it's not about how much damage this does - although we do have weapons like that: bigger, heavier club weapons that deal more damage - it's more like the weapon fits exactly what you need to do to navigate the environment.
They're like gated keys in a way.
DB: That's probably a good way to put it - they're like a key to unlocking either the death of a boss or some sort of navigation or some sort of collection or something like that. That's the way we approach things because obviously we're not making a role-playing game here. It has to be accessible, it has to be fun, it also has to be easy because with the Wii, people want to get in.
You can't have a cumbersome game on the Wii. You can't be overly complex. You have to have simplistic solutions to some problems where, say, a big club - I know the big club's going to do more damage. Do I have to tell you that? I don't think that's really necessary because that just becomes irritating for the player, and it also becomes irritating for us. Because if you don't know that this big weapon does more damage, then maybe you shouldn't be playing our game - does that make sense?
It strikes me that fifty is still a lot.
DB: Well, that's just what we have right now. We'll probably end up cutting those. We don't want to overload players, to have them go, "Oh, my god, how can I do this?" What we have now is we have about fifty combinations. Some of those are copies of others that need to go away. Some of them need to be refined more.
Don't quote me that we're going to ship with fifty weapons, I'm saying that's what we have now, that's what we're looking at whittling down. I think, ultimately, me giving out a number of weapons is just kind of silly, because once we define all our levels and all our characters and all the gameplay, the weapons will just make themselves.
What other games that have come out recently would you say have art directions to be admired?
DB: For me personally? I think the art direction of BioShock obviously is wonderful. Those guys put a lot of craftsmanship into their levels and their work - it's a beautiful game. Obviously Mario Galaxy is pretty much the standard on the Wii, it's just gorgeous.
But then, I'm pretty much an old school guy: Abe's Odyssee, a totally iconic character art-driven, where a game is driven around the art. They didn't make the game and then make Abe. They made Abe, an artist made him, and then it's, wow! We need to make a game for this guy.
So I'd think Bioshock, Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime, Call of Duty 4 is excellent. You never know, but I think those are good examples of guys who have just hit the bar with the art and done a really good job.
That's pretty much it for now unless there's anything else you want to get across.
DB: Not really, we're trying to do it and we'll just see how it goes. It's all a big risk, right?