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The Armature Interview: The Full Enchilada

The Armature Interview: The Full Enchilada Exclusive

September 22, 2008 | By Chris Remo

September 22, 2008 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

On Friday, Gamasutra ran highlights of an interview with the founders of new EA Blueprint-backed Austin studio Armature, formed by high-profile departees from Metroid Prime creator Retro Studios.

As we explained at the time, the company " in many ways an experiment intended to demonstrate a different type of development: keeping a small in-house staff to conceive ideas and rapidly prototype gameplay concepts and technology, then working with external contractors and outsourcers for full production."

This approach sparked a notable response from Gamasutra readers, so we're now printing the entire, unexpurgated interview with former Retro principal technology engineer Jack Mathews, game director Mark Pacini, and art director Todd Keller (plus Electronic Arts PR representative Tammy Schacter) on the foundation of the studio, their ethos, and their notably different approach.

Why leave Retro and try this kind of fairly unusual idea?

Jack Mathews: Now that the Prime trilogy was up, it felt like a good time to be looking around, and this is an opportunity to branch out more and reach a lot more people with the types of games we like to make. Plus, the venture is one that really fits with our thinking about how games should move forward. It's becoming costlier and costlier, and it's becoming unsustainable for current-gen development to continue this way, moving into the future.

Mark Pacini: Once we started talking to EA, it was a mutual understanding of taking the core idea of distributed development. It was about what we know and how we've done games at Nintendo, and how EA has done games in the past, and trying to find out a really good way to be able to take risks creatively.

The concept was to come up with new ideas, without having to fund a whole team -- eighty people sitting around while ten people are trying to figure out what the game is. That really spurred a lot of discussion between both parties.

The idea is being able to keep a core team whose main responsibility is driving the core direction and vision of the project, while they work together with outside developers. It's not like we're handing off the project to people after we've conceived what the game will be. We'll be working very, very closely with them.

How long did this process take, and how did you get involved with EA?

Mark Pacini: I can't really go into detail about how long the process took, but it was a lot of discussion. As to why EA was chosen, we had mutual friends at EA, and we'd been talking about this kind of idea. It wasn't that either party hunted the other down. We had mutual friends talking about the same ideas for development.

I was under the impression that EA Blueprint [the internal EA division originally founded by Neil Young], was more casually oriented. What exactly is Blueprint, and how does it work with respect to Armature?

Tammy Schacter: It's a studio not defined by location. It's rolling up into the EA Games label. In Blueprint, we have another game, LMNO, which is a game we're making with Steven Spielberg.

And what puts this deal under Blueprint rather than EA Partners?

Tammy Schacter: It's similar. It's rolling up under Lou Castle. It's similar in that it's an external development project, but it's rolling up under a different part of the company.

Jack Mathews: EAP is more for larger, established development studios that are going to work independently of EA, whereas we're working in concert with Blueprint to get everything out the door. There's a lot more involvement with EA proper.

Tammy Schacter: This is an exclusive agreement.

What's the process you guys will follow? Are you going to craft a concept and then deliver it to another studio for production?

Mark Pacini: We're very hands-on, very involved all the way through the process. In the beginning, our main focus is creating original ideas, and coming up with what the game actually would be.

When we get into the production part of it, we'll be working with distributed developers and contractors to execute the game. It's not like we hand it off and move on to something else. We would be very involved in the creation of the game. Our role may shift a little bit to directing a lot of the content, but we'll still be creating content as well.

Do you guys feel you'll be in a better position to make the kinds of games you like, both in terms of platforms and audience?

Todd Keller: For me, it was the opportunity to reach people on other systems. It opens up gameplay to have more powerful systems. It allows you to open up your box a little bit. I've always liked all the systems, but those have a little bit more ability for you to expand your game.

Did working on the Wii [with Retro] give you an appreciation for having constraints, or teach you things about how to do more with less, comparatively speaking?

Todd Keller: From an art standpoint, working on the Wii allows you to really concentrate on the base. You're working from the ground up. The other systems have multiple shaders and different types of rendering going on, but that's added on top of your base. Once you get your base down, you can expand on it.

Jack Mathews: Technically, I think keeping to much smaller constraints and being forced into that for the last few years is probably going to help moving forward, in terms of being a little less sloppy, and a little more refined when it comes to getting features in there.

Todd Keller: Me and Jack, working over the years, have had a pretty technical view of art and engineering, as far as keeping it core and keeping it running well. Everything is utilized. That helps us overall to move forward.

Mark Pacini: Speaking from the design side, it really doesn't matter what console you're on. You design the game for that console. I honestly think a lot of next-generation games don't really run well on these consoles. They're not crafting the game for the console. It's more, 'It's a next-generation game, we'll do all this fancy stuff,' and then their game doesn't run well on a next-generation console. I don't know exactly what console they're trying to make it for.

I think that's why our games [at Retro] have been praised for their technical qualities -- it was really important for our games to run really well on whatever console they're on. That's one of the things we're going to bring with us to work on a new palette of consoles.

I would hope we'd be able to leverage the pluses of the consoles, rather than try to just cram as much eye candy in there as possible and have the performance of the game suffer. I think that's something we always did well, to work within the constraints we had.

Todd Keller: That's a good point, because I know we tried to utilize everything we had to the best of our abilities at all times, as long as it fits the game design and fits the purpose of the game. Whatever you choose -- rendering style, the shaders, how much geometry in your environments -- has to match the game you're making. You just try to utilize everything you can.

Jack Mathews: And still run at a decent framerate. (laughs)

Is it tough having the legacy of the Prime games, which were heavily acclaimed, there in the background?

Jack Mathews: I'm going to cry myself to sleep, Chris. (laughs)

Mark Pacini: From my standpoint, every game we've done, I've been more excited about. When we did Prime 1, trying to look at it objectively, trying to step back from it, I think we did a good job on that. Then you start Prime 2, and you start getting excited about that project, and you remember what you did before, but I think you try not to get hung up on it too much.

Then at the end of Prime 3, I said, 'Wow, I think that's the best thing we've ever done,' from a standpoint of how we executed it and how our process came together. It was really rewarding at the end of it. The stuff we're working on now, I feel the same way. I'm excited about the new things we're coming up with.

It's been so long since Prime 1 came out for me, that it's kind of so far back that I remember, but at the same time, while it's something I'll always be proud of, and it's something people thought was good, you have to move on from that. As long as you're excited about what you're doing, I think that's what's important.

With regard to this new model, some developers seem to think you guys have a great situation in terms of being able to really focus heavily on the higher-concept levels of game development -- is that accurate?

Jack Mathews: One of our core beliefs is that this will actually allow us to do more quick iteration, quick prototyping. One problem with game development is you end up with tons of 200-page design documents, but nothing actually proving out. Once you actually go into production, you find a lot of things don't work, and vast swathes of your design just go out the window, or you've gone too far and you can't afford to throw those things out the window.

One of our core tenets is to be able to quickly prove or disprove high concepts and come up with a focused, playable, very good core of the game as quickly as possible, using as few resources as possible. We want to make sure concepts work, and are fun, and then work with our partners for full production.

Would you say you're taking a similar route to that of [Stubbs The Zombie/Hail To The Chimp developers, also known for their 'core team' philosophy] Wideload?

Jack Mathews: I think a lot of our core development ideals are pretty similar, but hopefully the partnership with EA should allow us to get larger-scale projects under development. I know a lot of their stuff is somewhat smaller.

With EA, what we're looking at it is an opportunity to hit this development model out of the park by being such close development partners with the publisher that we can really just make very fast moves back and forth to make things happen.

Do you think this is similar at all to the Hollywood system?

Mark Pacini: The big difference between the way movies are made and games are made, is that a production staff for a movie is an ensemble cast of experts in their field. Even the guy who holds the boom mic is an expert and has been specializing for a long time. The game industry isn't really like that.

There are concept artists out there, engineers out there who are singular people who only do contract work because they're so good and they're so in demands, but not a lot of people are like that. You aren't going to get a level two artist who just works contract, because there are a lot of people like that out there. The game industry might have to go in that direction.

The model in which games are made -- with a staff of people upwards of 100 people a lot of the time -- is kind of outdated now. It costs so much money to maintain that staff. What do you do with that staff when the game is done? You get these mass layoffs. You don't hear that when a movie's over. Everybody who was on the movie is gone -- but there was no mass layoff, it's just that everybody was a contractor just for that project.

I think in the future, a lot of game development will move towards that. Contractors now are being used more efficiently than they've ever been on game projects, and it's become a more valid way to staff up your project. Rather than being looked down upon as a company that doesn't want to hire somebody, it's more fiscally redponsible of the company to hire contractors, not to staff up and have a mass layoff at the end.

That's been our industry for a decade at least, and I think things are changing. A lot of the reason some people are jumping on the casual bandwagon is that they're cheaper to make. In most cases, they're simpler games that take a smaller staff of people, so inherently they have the potential of being more profitable.

I think what we're trying to do is take a model in that direction, and scale it to larger games, not just casual games. There is a correlation with the movie industry; I don't think it's going to happen overnight in the game industry, but in the next decade you're probably going to see more people willing to live their lives as a contractor rather than a full employee.

How big are you looking to get your core team?

Tammy Schacter: I think they're looking to staff up to about ten.

Jack Mathews: Yeah, to about eleven or so. We want to keep lean.

Tammy Schacter: That's basically the core IP team.

Jack Mathews: We're in hiring mode right now, and we're dealing with company things. We do have some stuff we're working on, but we're not even close to talking about it.

Are you going to trend more towards individual contractors, or outsourcing firms? There are more and more firms cropping up in, say, China.

Todd Keller: I'd say it's a mix. I don't think anything's out of bounds. That's the nice thing about it. Everybody's on our team, but the team can be spread everywhere. It can be single people, or large companies that do outsourcing. We can use a mixture of those in any kind of way to get the project done.

Jack Mathews: For engineering and design, right now there's not much in the way of outsourcing firms internally, so those sorts of resources we'd probably go domestic or Western.

Are you concerned about the challenges of managing a disparate worldwide team?

Mark Pacini: A lot of it boils down to location and time. We have extensive experience working with developers in Japan -- that's who we worked with for the past eight years. We've had to deal with a thirteen-hour difference for eight years, and we've learned a lot of how to be efficient at that communication.

But at the same time, the idea is to create a "virtual studio," where you could have a meeting or a conference call with somebody halfway around the world. It really just comes down to the logistics of when and how often you can meet.

But these are the challenges we're looking forward to coming up with solutions for, and our partners at EA have had a lot of experience doing this as well. I think we'll be able to pool our collected knowledge about this distributed development, and continue to refine how we go about doing it. By no means is it going to be easy, but I'm definitely looking forward to getting into it.

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