Tour of Chicago - Pt. 1: High Voltage Software
June 16, 2006
Driving west from Chicago, along the Northwest Tollway, on the frontage road, one might spot a group of low-slung office buildings. The one at the end, on the right, is independent game developer High Voltage Software.
High Voltage has been around for thirteen years. The developer employs one hundred sixty employees, has shipped over fifty games, and only had one layoff in its history, of around 35 people in January 2006 following a project cancellation. As you step through the vestibule, there’s a soup-of-the-day style sign on the wall. Only here it says: Developers: Xbox, Playstation2, Gamecube, PSP, Playstation3, 360, Wii.
Eric Nofsinger is the company’s Chief Creative Officer, and heads up all departments, and all projects. He’s been around since the start, gives a thorough tour, and can answer an endless stream of questions. “We are currently Wii developers, and we currently are developing a Wii title.” He’d tell us more, later.
|A storm of creativity brews of High Voltage Software|
High Voltage is currently working on 50 Cent: Bulletproof - G-Unit Edition, Family Guy, and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, along with other unannounced titles including new IP, and games for next-gen consoles.
The company has a very laid-back, employee-centric culture. “It’s not corporatized, it’s not a lot of stuffed shirts,” explains Nofsigner. They want to provide a great environment for people to work in, to enjoy what they do, and “for people to feel like they have a home here.”
“People know when they’re working here, they have a gig,” Nofsinger says.
|Staples of Chicago include hot dogs and thick jackets|
High Voltage is a family friendly place. To wit, “we have parties, we give awards, we do fun things together like movies,” Nofisnger says. “We work very hard, here, all of us. From the top down.” When you start, you’re given a jacket, a badge for your discipline, and a patch for each title you ship.
When a project is finished, the whole studio throws a party. The team gets to vote on a band to bring in and perform. From time to time there are little keggers. “If you want to be in any industry for the long haul,” Nofsinger says, “Just loving what you do isn’t enough. You also have to provide a good work environment.”
“It’s inevitable in a creative industry,” Nofsinger continues, “One where you’re not making widgets, there is going to be a degree of crunch. It’s just going to happen.”
“I’ve never asked anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do. I’ve worked a lot of the jobs here at High Voltage. I rarely work less than a twelve hour day. I don’t ask that of our people, but I do know that at times people do work really hard.”
Nofsinger wants to be able to acknowledge, and reward that extra effort. “It’s a give and take. People working hard because they love what they do, and because they’re really excited about the projects they’re on.”
At the end of projects, High Voltage has sabbaticals. They also have flex time, a set four hours a day people required to be in the office. Explains Nofisnger, “That’s just a period of time for meetings and scheduling, where we know everyone’s going to be here.”
But outside of that, it’s up to each individual to schedule their own time and work the way that’s best for them. Some people come in later in the day and stay late. Some people come in earlier and leave earlier. And it works out well to be flexible like that. “People work very hard,” Nofsinger acknowledges. “As part of that, we need to be very flexible with people, so that they can take care of what they need to, and be happy, and give it their all.”
|Eric Nofsinger, moments before a cartoon alien keelhaul|
“I’m not a fan of wholesale outsourcing, personally, for our studio,” Nofsinger says. “That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just not right for us.” High Voltage has even outsourced some incidental characters to make worlds larger. Haunted Mansion, for example, was a game where High Voltage didn’t have the budget or time to have a lot of ghosts.
“Well, to me,” Nofsinger says, “Haunted Mansion is all about the 999 ghosts. There’s tons and tons of ghosts everywhere. I think it would have been a real let-down to the players, even if you don’t interact with them, not to have tons of ghosts.”
The solution was to outsource the ghosts that players wouldn’t interact with. The secondary ones that weren’t critical to gameplay. “Internally,” Nofsinger says, “I’m totally cool with outsourcing content that isn’t critical to gameplay, that’s just gravy to the player, the experience…that makes the world seem bigger.”
“I guess you could say we’re bit of control freaks,” he admits. “We want to have our hands on that stuff, to know that it’s good quality. And that we don’t want to ever have something that’s critical to gameplay to be in the hands of somebody else.”
“Within each discipline,” Nofsinger segues, “There’s a unique set of challenges. Programming is a creative pursuit as well as a technical pursuit. Art, design, audio…each of these disciplines, they all hold components of the creative and the technical.”
Besides the usual departments for art, design, and programming, High Voltage also has a dedicated audio department. “We look at audio as a critical component to games. And having those guys directly interact with the team gets you better quality results.” By having audio as part of the team, and working on that throughout, Nofsinger believes you get superior quality results.
Another asset is the motion capture studio next door; Red Eye Studio, a sister studio to High Voltage. Most mocap is set up for film, or commercials. Red Eye, however, specializes in game ready motions.
|Red Eye Studios, High Voltage's sister MoCap studio|
Most of High Voltage’s projects are licensed, bringing a different challenge to development. Sometimes a client will approach the studio with little more than a idea to make a game based on their cartoon, leaving the developers the task of deciding what the best game for that setting of the cartoon would be. The creative challenge? “Be true to the license, but still satisfy gamers. And satisfy us. We want to make a game we can be proud of.”
An opposite example comes from Hunter: The Reckoning. The game was a White Wolf license, based on a pen-and-paper role-playing-game. There aren’t really characters or settings: there’s a game mechanic. “The characters, the setting, the look of the world: we had to come up with,” Nofsinger says.”
Or a publisher might have a very specific idea of the kind of game they want. They might say, “We want a Billy and Mandy game, and we want it to be a Power Stone style game. That’s what we like.”
Now it’s High Voltage’s job to not only nail what made Power Stone great, and nail what makes the brand right, but also come up with some new hooks and compelling differences so that old-school players will feel that this is something else, instead of a me-too copy, or a re-skin.
So are licensed games as creative as new intellectual property? “I would say it’s a different kind of creative," said Nofsinger. "Internally, we’ve started working on more original IP. That’s exciting for us. It presents a different set of challenges.”
like working with the right partner,” Nofsinger says. “We believe that
licensed games have gotten a negative stigma. It’s not always that
licensed properties are inherently bad, it’s what people do with them.”
In the time-frames and budgets of most licensed titles, you cannot make a great title unless you’re focused. “If you’re focused,” Nofsigner implores, “And all about simple, good gameplay – and gameplay first – you can make something great."
“If you pull too many disparate things together, you’re going to come up with a frickin’ platypus. You’re going to have this bizarre design that doesn’t make anyone happy. The consumer isn’t going to be happy, the licensor isn’t going to be happy, the publisher isn’t going to be happy,” he adds, “And the developer’s not going to be happy.”
“It’s easy to get in a mind-set of me, me, me,” warns Nofsinger. “As a game developer, you have to know who you are making that game for. Are you making that game for yourself? Are you making that game for your client? Are you making it for the person that’s buying the game? Are you making it for the licensor? Are you making it for the hardcore? Are you making it for the casual? Are you making it for the die-hard fans of that license? I mean, who are you making that game for? And I think you have to answer that correctly, and not just go ‘we’re making it for everyone.’ And I think the absolute wrong answer is ‘I’m making it only for me.’ Because you’re going to make a great game – only for you.”
Nofsinger further marvels at the amount of back and forth with the ESRB, and the retailers like Wal-Mart over the amount of sexual content that went into Leisure Suit Larry: Magna cum Laude. It was very challenging to stay true to the license while staying relevant to today. “What was shocking when Larry came out then, versus what pushes the envelope today, were two very different things.”
“I’m actually surprised,” says Nofsinger, “at how far we were able to push the envelope on some things. All this stuff I never thought we could have got in. And other things were really bizarre sets of criteria. It was kind of because we were in uncharted waters.”
“There’s a pretty clear standard,” Nofsinger says, “On how many bodies you can shove in a woodchipper before you get an M rating. But there’s not too many games about sex. We were a comedy first, but a sex-based comedy.”
“And that was hard for a lot of people to get their arms around, because there hadn’t been anything made like that for a long time.” And there won’t be another game like it for a long time. Though the game sold well, High Voltage isn’t doing a sequel. “I think there is a market for comedy games,” Nofsinger concludes.
Which brings us to the topic of Nintendo. “The Wii controller is so cool,” Nofsinger responds animatedly. “I love this thing.”
“It’s been an incredible design challenge,” he confides, “Some of the unannounced stuff we’ve been working on for Wii…it’s been very challenging. You know, ‘How do you do a fighter on this, how do you do a platformer on this?’”
“It makes sense for a flight-sim,” Nofsinger continues, “Or anything where you’re pointing and shooting, or even some of the games they were demoing at E3, where you’ve got baseball, and golf, and more of the Wario Ware-type games.”
“You can do interesting stuff. But some of the actual base, traditional games are incredibly challenging. I think as far as a next-gen system, of any of the ones we’re working on, this is the one my money’s on. I hope it comes out on top, I really do.”
Nofsinger believes that Nintendo knows what it’s doing with the sleek, iPod like feel of the controller. “It was interesting to me,” Nofsinger relates, “I had this sitting out on my table. And our receptionist came in, and she was dropping off my mail, and just immediately ran right over to it, and was ‘what’s this?’ and picked it up and ‘oh, this is neat!’”
notes that he’s had every imaginable controller in the world sitting on
his desk. “Never has she just run over and picked it up and gone, ‘hey
what is this thing, it’s really neat.’ So there’s something to that.”
When observing the developer-scape, Nofsigner says, “We’re one of the largest independent developers,” adding, “and there’s not too many of us left that aren’t acquired.” He finds the notion of independent development going away to be unrealistic. “As long as there’s two guys with a dream somewhere, there’s going to be little games.”
“As long as there’s good systems like the Nintendo Wii, and as long as there’s 100 Million plus PS2’s out there, I don’t think independent development is going anywhere.” He adds, “We’re certainly not giving up.”
And the game development community in Chicago has been around “since the days of the 2600,” Nofsinger recalls. “I believe Atari even had offices in Chicago. And Midway’s been here forever. Chicago is kind of the sleeper that no one knows about in the industry.”
“We’ve got some great companies in the area. Some stable companies. And that hard-working, mid-west ethic,” which Nofsinger compares to the job-hopping culture you find on the west coast. Here, you join a company, and continue there. “I think it’s healthy. It’s a little bit different.”
Eric Nofsinger concluded by talking about the future of games, and of High Voltage Software. “It’s an exciting time to be in games right now, with the console transition. No one really knows what’s going to happen, everyone’s hedging their bets.”
“It’s exciting to be part of a company as we make this transition into the next round,” he said. “Our big mantra right now is quality. Quality, quality, quality. We’ve done some games that were good. We’ve done some games that weren’t so good.
“We want to be known as the company that is reliable and hits its time-frames, hits its budgets, and makes high-quality products. Good products for the people who are going to buy them.”