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It isn't often that an individual -- let alone an entire studio -- packs up and moves from a quiet, conservative place like Salt Lake City straight to a liberal out-all-night party town like Austin, but that is exactly what Dylan Jobe and his entire team at LightBox Interactive -- the team behind Sony's just-announced Starhawk -- did. And astonishingly, they managed to pull this off in the middle of delivering milestones, without losing a single employee, and with only 48 hours of network downtime.
"We got really, really lucky," LightBox president and founder Dylan Jobe tells us. He sounds tired -- we're not sure if the media tour to announce the game, which took him from Austin to London, is wearing him down, or if merely recalling the logistics of the move is mentally exhausting him all over again.
"If we were bigger we probably would have lost more people, but we were a very tight group."
LightBox Interactive spawned from the remains of Incognito Entertainment, a company founded by Scott Campbell in 1999 to work on the Twisted Metal series for Sony. Pleased with the studio's output, Sony purchased the studio in 2002, and put it to work on games like War of the Monsters and Downhill Domination.
Incognito's biggest product would be its last -- Warhawk, a third-person, online multiplayer combat sim that incorporated simultaneous on-foot, in-vehicle, and in-the-air combat with up to 32 players online. The game was an early show-off title for Sony's then-new PlayStation 3; specifically, it was chosen to introduce the capabilities of the system's Sixaxis motion-sensing controller. If you happened to catch Sony's press conference at E3 2006, that was Jobe flailing the controller around on stage.
At the conclusion of the project, Campbell left to found Eat, Sleep, Play with longtime contributor David Jaffe to, again, work on the Twisted Metal series. Jobe, who acted as artistic director on Warhawk, was also looking to go independent.
With a team of only 10 people, LightBox was formed, and its first project was close to home: still on good terms with Sony, the studio developed expansion packs for Warhawk, all the while trying to find a new home.
"We knew we wanted to build a good triple-A studio, and we didn't feel like Salt Lake was the right match for us," Jobe recalls. "We very much wanted to be in a city where there was more nightlife, more bars and clubs, and music, and more sports, and all of that stuff."
Austin was on the short list of possibilities: not only for the nightlife, but for its development community.
"There are an enormous number of games studios in Austin, and part of our business plan required us to have very aggressive growth," he says, saying that it was difficult to recruit talent in Salt Lake -- the engineers and artists he tried to recruit "wanted to work in LA or other places, something that might match their lifestyle a little bit more."
If our conversation with LightBox's exciteable lead designer Josh Sutphin is any indication, it didn't take much to convince the team to make the move.
"Ah, it's amazing," Sutphin tells us over beers at Austin's famous Alamo Drafthouse. "I love Austin so much. That was the best decision ever.
"There's a creative vibe here. There's a little game development community and a small creative community in Salt Lake City, but it's totally dwarfed by Austin."
Plus, the bars are better, right?
"Oh my God. Bars at all! Beer with alcohol in it!" He pauses. "I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't denigrate Utah."