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Interview: The Upside Of Downsized And Desperate

Interview: The Upside Of Downsized And Desperate Exclusive

April 2, 2010 | By Kris Graft

April 2, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Corporate statements often categorize layoffs as "business as usual" or just the "nature of the business." But that rationale doesn't really lessen the blow when you're blindsided with a pink slip.

Take, for example, Downsized Games, which appeared on the radar last week. Formed by four recently-laid off workers from Electronic Arts' now-defunct subsidiary Pandemic Studios, the new studio took its collective frustration (and newly-found free time) and dumped it into a creative work with a humorous premise.

The studio's first title, BulleTrain is a satirical iPhone game that pokes fun at EA and the dreaded corporate machine. It's set in 2124, when "bullet trains" are used to deliver goods from point to point. Your small shipping company on planet Glendon-19 was acquired by "Elaborate Acquisitions," which is in cahoots with powerful railroad barons led by "the dastardly JR."

The analogy is clear to anyone who follows the games industry: Electronic Arts, under CEO John Riccitiello, acquired Pandemic (headquartered on Glendon Ave. in L.A.) in 2007, along with BioWare. Late last year, EA closed down Pandemic, and the four-person Downsized crew, along with about 200 other workers, were laid off.

With a humorous backdrop that poked fun at megapublisher EA, Downsized was able to cut through the noise created by 25,000 other App Store games. Some might call it a cheap way to get press, but what it amounts to is savvy marketing, even if it's "marketing" in the loosest sense.

"As far as the backstory is concerned, like all video games it was just an afterthought," said Downsized artist Manny Vega. He formed the studio with fellow ex-Pandemic employees Andrew Mournian, Zach Haefner and Ariel Tal.

"One day Ariel was asking me if we were going to have a main villain and a backstory for the hero, so I said, 'why not,'" Vega said. "That was the extent of our evil plan. We tossed a few ideas back and forth and were laughing our asses off, so we went with it."

The internet caught wind of Downsized's website, where Vega and his cohorts listed a few details about the game, which the studio had yet to formally announce. Even without an official announcement, the premise alone was enough to stir up interest.

"We certainly were not prepared for this to go viral yet, but I can't say that it hasn't been awesome," said Vega. "Hell, at this point I think we're getting more press than The Saboteur got" -- a reference to Pandemic's final game.

BulleTrain, inspired by an episode of FireFly called "Train Job," is currently in its alpha stage, with most of the gameplay and code in place, Vega said. After some additional polish, he hopes to release the game onto the App Store in May this year. "We knew we hit the mark when we tweaked our demo for [Game Developers Conference] and everyone who tried it died the first time, but insisted that they needed to try again to do better," he added.

Vega said EA held a post-Pandemic closure job fair that would place some of the former employees at other EA studios. But programmer Tal told Vega about how he got a Unity engine-based game up and running in just two days. That's when they assembled a crew and started brainstorming ideas, and BulleTrain was born.

"Honestly we just figured it would be fun to make something of our own, and that we could show it off as we continued the job hunt. At this point, we're all excited about it and we're hoping Downsized can be much more," Vega said. "As far as I am concerned, this is the place to be in the industry... unemployed and desperate."

The studio has "so many other ideas in the pipeline," he said. As Unity is multiplatform, "You'll see an Android BulleTrain and more games for Xbox Live Arcade, Wii and anything else they open the engine to," according to Vega.

While he admitted that EA's closure of Pandemic stung, he's optimistic about the future of Downsized, even as the studio has yet to prove itself with a proper product launch. In the end, he thinks that maybe getting canned was just what he needed.

"You can see when developers are just making games for the paycheck, and no matter how skilled they are the game lacks that 'sparkle.'," he says. "If we ever get to that point, I hope EA buys us for a ton of money and then shuts us down. It's a hell of a wake-up call."

And if he ever ran into EA's Riccitiello, he's confident the exec would find the BulleTrain spoof humorous. "I'm fairly certain that should I ever get the chance to talk to Riccitiello face to face, he would laugh at the image of 'JR,' who resembles the old pervert from Family Guy and nothing like Riccitello himself, who is a handsome man and very, very benevolent."

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