Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jesse Attard: From Bioshock 2 to Immortal Empire

I recently had the opportunity sit down with Jesse Attard, a lead programmer on Bioshock 2. We talked about his new indie studio, developing a browser-based while working simultaneously on Bioshock 2, and how indie development compares to mainstream. Originally published at Hooked Gamers.


You may not recognize Jesse Attard, but you definitely know his work. As a member of Canadian developer Digital Extremes, he was a programmer on both Dark Sector and Bioshock. Most recently, he was the lead programmer on Bioshock 2's multiplayer component.

But during his time at Digital Extremes, Attard has also been moonlighting as an indie developer under the name Tactic Studios. Attard recently released his first game under this banner: Immortal Empire. The game is as far from Bioshock 2 as possible - it's a browser-based strategy RPG, featuring single-player, co-op, and PvP gameplay.

Immortal Empire is certainly an interesting title, and a good deal of fun in my experience. Perhaps more interesting, however, is why the lead programmer of one of 2010's biggest games would want to develop a low-budget browser game. As I discovered when talking with Attard, cell phone games and old-school RPGs are to blame.

Controlling Nostalgia

Prior to joining Digital Extremes, Attard was the assistant studio head for Capcom's North American mobile studio where he developed games like Street Fighter II, Megaman, and Resident Evil for cell phones. The combination of his lead position at Capcom and the small scale of mobile games provided him with a level of creative freedom that he missed when he began working on larger-scale console titles.

"When you're working at a bigger company on a triple-A title, you have influence, but… it's a team environment. You've got to work with a lot of other people, which I love and I love having that experience of communicating with everybody," said Attard.

"With cell phone games… it's a really different experience: being able to come up with some concept and then just program it… Now something you thought of is in this game that people play. That's a pretty cool feeling.

"I really wanted to have something that was my own idea and make it into my own game… So I started making what I felt was the simplest [game] that I could handle while having a fulltime job."

While his experience in mobile gaming motivated him to develop his own property, Attard's experience with mainstream titles as a young gamer really shaped Immortal Empire's design. He explained, "When I dreamed about being a game developer, which I always did from a very young age… I wanted to make X-COM. I wanted to make Baldur's Gate or Diablo or any of these awesome games.

"Now that my career is in videogames and I'm doing that for a living, it's a very different world. Now people are making these massive games, and shooters are everywhere, and everything is in 3D. Which is really cool… but there's some nostalgia aspect in making these older-school style games. Browser-based games are a good avenue for exploring that medium again."

Games at Work, Games at Home

Of course developing an idea into a playable game is never easy and is further complicated when you're already developing another game fulltime. Attard learned this very well when he began working simultaneously at Digital Extremes and on his own game two and a half years ago. "I was literally working every day on [Immortal Empire]. After I came home from work, ate dinner, then I went straight ahead to making this game until I fell asleep. That was my life for a long time: Games at work, come home, more games, and then go to bed," he said.

"There [were] times when you think, 'what am I doing here making this game?' But you just keep plugging away until it's done."

Through the early stages of Immortal Empire's development, Attard worked alone in developing the game's concept, writing code, designing the storyline, creating the graphics, and even voicing the game's characters. As he explains it, "I didn't want to bring too many people on, just because I wasn't sure how far it would go. I didn't want to commit anyone to something that may never materialize."

But as he gained confidence in the game, Attard contracted artists to create graphical and sound assets that he was unable to develop: "I just paid out of my bank accounts and gave them money, and they gave me artwork." From more experienced concept artists and pixel artists, he obtained hand-drawn assets, pixilated characters, spell effects, and environmental tiles.

For Immortal Empire's soundtrack, Attard decided to take a different route. He held a competition "like the Castle Crashers guys did," focused on Renoise, a digital audio workstation, and its community. "There's so many talented people out there… and I got a lot of music, great entries," said Attard.

Listening to Feedback

"It's going good. I'm really happy," said Attard after I asked him if he's happy with how Immortal Empire has been received. He seems content with the number of users and revenue it has generated so far, but Attard is particularly pleased with user feedback, and not just the positive feedback. He stated, "I love getting feedback on the game… and the more of that I get, I think, the better the game will be.

"It's hard [for me] to stand back and look at the game and think, 'this is good or that's bad,' because I'm used to it. I've been looking at it for two and a half years. But the customers - this is their first exposure to it, so they're going to have a lot of different feedback on how the game will feel."

Through user feedback, Attard has fixed small usability issues such as pathfinding algorithms and how users select units, but he's also making large additions to Immortal Empire: "A lot of people emailed me saying this whole 'buy a game, get it' is an archaic model, which is what I grew up with. But a lot of these guys… like this crazy microtransaction system, and a lot of browser-based games do this. So we're adding it in."

Expansions & Sequels

Despite investing a great deal of time and his own money in Immortal Empire, Jesse Attard currently has no intention of leaving Digital Extremes. He stated, "I'll kind of play it as it goes. There isn't any grand plan here. Certainly, for the time being, I need my fulltime job." In fact, he's still working as a lead programmer on an as-of-yet unannounced title at Digital Extremes.

But Attard isn't done with Tactic Studios either. He's developing "a couple expansions for Immortal Empire to really bulk it out into a sixty-hour, seventy-hour - what [he] considers to be a full RPG."

He's also thinking about the distant future. He explained, "You find a lot of studios don't reach a lot of success until they've got multiple games out. That's certainly common and I think it makes sense. You attract a user base and then you can bring them all back to try out your second game, and people who didn't try your first game get to play it."

Mainstream vs. Indie

When I asked Attard if it's common for mainstream developers to envy indie developers and the creative control they possess, he responded, "Absolutely. Almost every person I talk to at work will say something like that at one point or another. I say in a huge way that exists.

"I find a lot of guys leave the triple-A game industry just to start up indie things. In fact, I have a friend who did that very thing: started up his own company. It's pretty common, and I think it's just because it's so different. You're really exercising different parts of your… brain and that's why people love it."

But he was also quick to point out that the opposite is also true: Indie developers may envy the budgets and press that mainstream studios receive. Attard explained, "That's kind of how I felt at Capcom. I knew a lot of people were playing these cell phone games, but they don't exactly get a lot of press. And there's something sexy about press… It is always really rewarding to see a commercial come on of something you've made. It's cool."

As Attard pointed out, the grass is always greener. That's probably why he's attempting to get the best of both the mainstream and indie game development worlds.

You can try Immortal Empire at the Tactic Studios website, and discover what one of the developers of Bioshock 2 does in his spare time.

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