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The Death Of  Zoo Tycoon  Dev Blue Fang

The Death Of Zoo Tycoon Dev Blue Fang Exclusive

November 3, 2011 | By Kris Graft

"Do you get kind of a sense that developers are kind of moving away from consoles and into the other, more short-form kinds of game development?"

That's the question Hank Howie, former CEO of Zoo Tycoon developer Blue Fang Games, posed to me near the close of a recent interview about his new studio.

The question may have come up because he really didn't notice the dozens of small studios that have sprung up in the wake of major studio closings. More likely, after 11 years as head of a mid-size studio, he just needed affirmation from someone outside of the games industry that he was not alone in trying to navigate uncharted waters.

Of course, the answer to Howie's question was "absolutely" -- he's not alone. When a studio collapses, as Waltham, MA-based Blue Fang did in September, the seeds of talent that were assimilated by the corporate structure break loose, and are ejected into the atmosphere, scattered by the winds, some taking root to perhaps become something better.

Luckily for displaced game developers, they have more options today, with the rise of online platforms. When social network and mobile games began exploding in popularity, perhaps the writing was already on the wall for Blue Fang. With 75 employees at its peak in 2009, the mid-sized studio, familiar with making packaged games, was too large for the oncoming online transition.

Asked what led to the demise of Blue Fang, from his perspective, Howie first stressed that the studio had a long life of 13 years. Then he gave thought as to what actually led to Blue Fang's downfall.

"There's just a certain level of overhead required to run a business [that relies on mobile and social]," said Howie. "In the new environment, the social and mobile space, we're talking about development efforts that run in terms of months, not years. It's challenging to support that kind of development effort purely on the backs of social and mobile games."

Instead of configuring for the digital business, Blue Fang looked to the massive installed bases of Nintendo platforms. At the studio's peak headcount in 2009, it was working on World of Zoo for publisher THQ, a game that would appear on PC, Wii and DS.

But it was a misguided effort. "The collapse of the Wii market really hurt," said Howie, "as it did many developers and publishers alike."

Blue Fang did try its hand at the social and mobile market, but it was too little, too late. The studio collaborated with The Learning Company to bring the classic edutainment brands Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and The Oregon Trail to Facebook. But those games never gained the traction they needed to stay viable as businesses.

Howie said one of the biggest problems with working on Blue Fang's Facebook games was the time frame in which they had to develop those titles. "We made those games, The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, in a relatively short timeframe of three months," he said.

The relationship with The Learning Company also didn't go as smoothly as Howie had hoped. "[The Learning Company] really didn't have the inclination, commitment and wherewithal to spend the time and money to react to customer behavior and get those games where they needed to be in terms of retention."

So it came to pass that, in July, an anonymous source claiming to be a former Blue Fang employee contacted me, claiming the studio had laid off its development staff. At the time, Howie claimed that the studio did still have some capacity to work on games. But either way, the final result was the September shuttering of the company.

Howie revealed he has started a new studio, Beach Cooler Games, with former Blue Fang art director and lead designer Lou Catanzaro both acting as principals of the spinoff. The two are working with a number of contractors, including former Blue Fang contractors and employees, both inside and outside of the Boston area, and already have projects underway.

In regards to keeping a lean, agile structure, Howie has learned his lesson. "I think being a developer in the new social space, there is something to be said for low overhead. ... People do what they have to do. In our case, we were in business for a long time. [Catanzaro and I] were looking at where we were, and what we were going to do going forward. It seems like there's a lot of opportunity."

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