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.