It's a cool Chicago night in October of 2009, and Tom Eastman and Eric Huang are getting dinner. They're at a restaurant in the West Loop of Chicago, just left of the Chicago River. The mighty Willis Tower looms in the distance. The smell of Thai food wafts from their plates. They're talking about work, which means they're talking about games.
They talk about their favorites — Eastman's a sucker for fantasy spectacles like Halo and Mass Effect, while Huang's in love with the beauty of Ico and Panzer Dragoon. Then they talk about the games they're building together. They like those, but they both want something more. That's why they're together tonight.
Later, Eastman and Huang will talk about the games they've always wanted to make. They'll share ideas — how to implement a mechanic that works this way, how to create a character that looks that way. They'll agree that they'd never be able to make these ideas a reality at Wideload Games, the Disney-owned games studio where they currently work.
Over the next several months, they'll become close friends. They'll live together. Their feelings toward Wideload will deteriorate, and they'll lose much of the enthusiasm they had when they first starting making games.
Eventually, they'll do something about it. In the process, they'll get to know a fellow co-worker and future friend. His name will be Ben Perez, and he'll also want to take his career in a fresh direction. Together, the three of them will be scared, but they'll quit their better-paying, higher-profile jobs to start their own independent games studio. They'll call it Trinket. And it will give them a chance to rectify the mistakes they saw in their former home.
Eastman, Huang and Perez grew up and got to Wideload in varying ways. Eastman's path is the most prototypical for a game designer. He fell in love with games as a kid; he studied game making in school; and he landed an internship at the Torque Game Engine maker GarageGames as a college sophomore. He enjoyed it, but a year later he noticed an opportunity to intern at a studio named Wideload, which was formed by one of his idols.
That idol was Alex Seropian, otherwise known as the co-creator of Bungie and the former head of the Halo series. He formed Wideload in 2003 with the goal of creating polished, lively and original games without massive budgets. Eastman was a fan of Wideload's first game — the 2005 cult classic Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse — so the opportunity to work in a creative environment, with a studio he liked, for a veteran he respected, seemed almost perfect.
Eastman got the internship, went out to Chicago and worked as part of Wideload's new "Shorts" team, which was focused on making smaller titles for downloadable platforms. (In a typical display of Wideload's wit, the division that made its fuller-sized games was dubbed "Wideload Pants.") He found the experience to be "tremendous," and says the enthusiasm and creativity of the place made it feel like "a funded indie before indie and mobile development took off."
There was a spot at Wideload waiting for Eastman shortly after he graduated, so he quickly got to work as a full-time programmer. His first full project as a staffer was for a party puzzle game with a murder mystery theme called Guilty Party.
In just a few years, he had gone from fooling around with code after school to working alongside some of the brightest minds in the business. He had completed many of his life's goals before the age of 25. But he would complete more just a few years later.
Huang's way to Wideload was different. He's an artist, so as a child he found pleasure in simply watching his older brothers play. He had taken up an interest in drawing around the same time he came to enjoy games, and soon he was daydreaming of how to mix the two. His talents developed enough to earn him a degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York, but from there he moved into the commercial industry rather than into games.
Huang was asked if he wanted to contribute character designs for Guilty Party. He excitedly accepted.
He freelanced storyboards, concept art and illustrations for various films and commercials and got his feet wet in gaming by doing the same for a handful of titles like Dante's Inferno. All the while he kept an art blog filled with concept art for possible projects, and it was that blog that proved to be his golden ticket.
Sometime in 2009, Wideload's art director, Cef Grima, happened to come across Huang's work online. How or why, Huang isn't sure. But shortly afterward, Huang was asked if he wanted to contribute character designs for Guilty Party. He excitedly accepted, worked with Wideload remotely for the next year and took a staff job as a concept artist at the studio's Chicago office after that. The second piece was in place.
Perez' path was even more direct than Eastman's. He grew up playing Super Mario Bros. and the other requisites, and by the age of seven he was fooling around on his own PC. By high school, he was programming, and a self-described lover of the "logistical organization of programs." He was fascinated by computers and coding in general, so when nearby DePaul University launched a game development program right around the time he graduated high school, he decided that coding games would probably be more enjoyable than coding anything else.
Perez applied, got in, and soon became a full-time employee.
Perez put in his work, and during his senior year he took a class taught by Patrick Curry, who just so happened to be the creative director of a nearby games studio called Wideload Games. Curry was looking for interns at the time, so Perez applied, got in, and soon became a full-time employee. He joined the Pants division and got to work on Guilty Party. And the wheels were set in motion.
The guilty party
The trio's time at Wideload started out fine. They had each ascended to an echelon of game making that was largely occupied by wiser and more experienced developers. They were working with a knowledgeable group of veterans and a few other newbies, almost all of whom they came to enjoy and appreciate. They had each gained experience with the studio before coming on full time. Plus, the gig paid pretty well. They were nervous, sure, but they were excited. And things started off great.
But before they could get situated as full-timers, Wideload was sold to Disney Interactive Studios, which had signed on to publish Guilty Party at the time. Disney as a whole was coming off the acquisition of Marvel, and in purchasing Wideload, it bought a company which it publicly deemed one of the "premier small creative game development studios in the world." In a press release announcing the purchase, Disney officially said that Wideload would continue to focus on creating new IP, especially ones that catered to broad audiences. In the process, Seropian left his post to become Disney Interactive's new vice president of creative.
"When I was little, classmates, friends and family would often say, 'you could work at Disney in the future!'"
"To a degree, I don't think it was entirely about Wideload," Eastman says about the acquisition. "Disney Interactive was aware that it was floundering, and it saw Alex Seropian as a man with a plan. Alex had been vocal about the industry's business models, crunch and bad games, which were all things that Disney wanted to address. And Guilty Party was a pretty natural fit for Disney. So it made sense all around, I think."
And even though Wideload would have to report to a new corporate hierarchy all the way across the country, Eastman, Huang, Perez and others still felt a tinge of excitement about working with a brand as vaunted as Disney's. "When I was little, classmates, friends and family would often say, 'you could work at Disney in the future!'" recalls Huang. "It was a really incredible moment to realize who I'd be working for, even if it wasn't the animated film department."
The standard publisher/developer quibbles would occur every now and then, but for a while, Eastman says there was a honeymoon period during which the people of Wideload felt that Disney valued them for their creative pedigree — even if some of their past games only performed modestly. The purchase even hit something of a high note when Guilty Party launched on Wii in the summer of 2010, earning rave reviews in the process. This Disney-owned Wideload wasn't exactly what Eastman, Huang and Perez signed up for, but maybe it could work after all.
At first, Guilty Party's critical success would mask just how deeply Wideload was being affected by Disney's larger-scale issues. Some of Disney's higher-profile games were underperforming at the time, which led to a series of budget cuts and corporate restructuring. One of its biggest issues was that it didn't quite know what to do with Wideload. Wideload would pitch and get started on a number of game ideas, but for several months it'd be subject to multiple project cancellations due to how frequently Disney changed its design and business directions.
The result was a stop-and-go cycle that led Wideload to pour its brains into new games, only to have them abruptly burned from on high. This left the studio in an oddly paralyzed position after Guilty Party shipped, and each passing blow left its staffers — including Eastman, Huang and Perez — in an increasingly demoralized state. In all, Perez estimates that two or three major endeavors were shelved as a result of Disney's corporate turmoil, with four to six "smaller ideas that gained traction in the brainstorming phase" falling by the wayside as well.
"on the day before vacation, I learned that we were going to stop working on this project."
Cancellations are commonplace in game development, but the frequency with which these happened combined with the memories of how open and collaborative Wideload felt before the Disney acquisition were perhaps the biggest motivating factors for Eastman, Perez and Huang to make their big move. As programmers, Eastman and Perez felt the sting of wasted time in particular.
"I think the [cancelled project] I remember most was a title we worked on that was slated to be a new family game with a Disney IP and seemed accomplishable and sort of in line with our strengths at the studio," recalls Perez. "I think on a personal level it was just a little defeating because I remember it coming to a close on the Friday before a December holiday break, and I had just gotten some interesting split-screen stuff working with a colleague.
"And then, with practically no one else in the office on the day before vacation, I learned that we were going to stop working on this project. In some ways I think the lesson was one that I needed to learn, and I wouldn't put anyone else at fault. It was an issue of me becoming too heavily invested in something before it had even left the prototype phase. Even now that's something I try to be wary of even when it's just something Tom, Eric and I are working on. But at the time it felt like I was working really hard for no reason."
Beyond that feeling of being stuck in second gear, Wideload also had to deal with an ever-decreasing sense of control over what Disney would and would not allow it to use in its titles. The studio had catered to Disney's wishes before with Guilty Party — Eastman recalls how it was transformed from a more mature murder mystery game where people got murdered in cold blood to a "Pixar-style family-friendly game where people got 'bonked'" — but once it was acquired, the team didn't have much wiggle room to do anything besides what its new owners wanted.
Again, Disney using Disney characters in its games was expected and understandable, but it was a particularly tough shift for Eastman and company, who were initially excited to be working for a studio with its roots in switching between genres and creating new things. "There was certainly a lot of 'Disneyfication' under certain regimes," Eastman remembers.
"Shortly after being acquired we put together a really fun Kinect prototype. At the greenlight meetings, [the executives] loved it and said we'd 'found the fun' faster than any of their other projects, so of course they wanted to throw out the story and wrapper we had and replace it with Disney properties." That prototype was later shelved after Disney told Wideload it had to crunch and turn the game around in time for Kinect's launch for it to have any chance.
"That removal of creative control was really clear and one of the biggest motivators for us to leave," Eastman continues. "Most games don't become better or more fun because there are Disney bears or princesses in them. For folks at Wideload, after being so dedicated to new IP, it was a real strain.
"Disney has a ton of great IP and I do think they should be using it in games. I'd just rather not be making those games."
And even though Huang thought the opportunity to work with the Disney properties and art style was great, he knew that it wouldn't let him do his most inventive work by default. "I'd frequently look at Disney artwork for inspiration when working on Guilty Party and would have a little ache inside knowing that I wouldn't ever be collaborating with the incredible art team within Disney," he says. "Even when we pulled directly from Disney's IP, it didn't mean I'd be working with other Disney artists, just handling their creations secondhand."
Eventually, Disney would merge Wideload's Shorts and Pants teams back together and settle on a relatively definitive direction for the studio: mobile. The plan was to have Wideload create 'console-quality' productions on smartphones, leveraging Disney's bankable IP while still taking advantage of a mobile pricing structure that benefited from in-app purchases. This led to Wideload finally getting started on a new title: Avengers Initiative, a gesture-based brawler for iOS and Android that featured The Incredible Hulk.
"We're proud of what we achieved with Avengers Initiative, but it's very clearly an Infinity Blade clone."
But the transition brought its share of problems for all parties involved. The morale at Wideload was already on the decline, and moving from a team that built console and PC games to one that built mobile games wasn't something that could be done overnight. Disney was still finding its footing in the mobile space, so it applied a console-style development timeline to Initiative, despite the market's emphasis on agility and frequent game updates.
This led to, in Eastman's eyes, unnecessarily dense oversight from Disney and Marvel, elongated approval cycles for the game's art direction and setup, and a lengthy marketing period that delayed the launch of the game even when it was finished. That last point was especially brutal for morale, according to Eastman, as it caused the game to miss a potentially lucrative tie-in opportunity with "The Avengers" movie, which had launched just months earlier.
Complicating all of that for Eastman, Perez and Huang was Initiative itself, which was dubbed "Infinity Hulk" internally. "We're proud of what we achieved with Avengers Initiative, but it's very clearly an Infinity Blade clone with Marvel characters," Eastman explains. "That was always tough to swallow and not the position we ever wanted to be in."
Despite all that, Eastman, Huang and Perez say they harbor no ill feelings toward Wideload today. They say that they're better game makers with a better understanding of the industry because of their time there. They all profess their love and admiration for their former co-workers, and they all understand that much of what disheartened them arose from factors out of their control. As Eastman puts it, "The corporate turmoil at Disney Interactive caused a lot of waves that a small rowboat of a studio like Wideload needed a lot more time to navigate." Yet the three are still thankful, and they're undoubtedly glad that they did what they did.
But the issues that sprung during Initiative's development confirmed that Wideload was not the place for them anymore. Huang quit when the artists' work on the game was done — on the same day as some other co-workers who would go on to become the Ray's the Dead team, Ragtag Studio and the Organ Trail developer The Men Who Wear Many Hats. Eastman would leave a few weeks later, along with some others, and Perez would follow suit after that.
Wideload still exists under Disney today, but it hasn't launched or announced any new games since Initiative was released. It pushed out a Captain America-themed DLC for that game after all those developers left, but it hasn't launched or announced anything else since. Eastman speculates that the success of Disney Infinity may affect the future direction of studios like Wideload, but for now, things have been quiet.
And in the wake of its exodus came Trinket.
By the time Initiative had wrapped, Eastman and Huang were close friends, roommates and secret development partners who made games together outside of work. They learned more about each other as their collective feelings toward Wideload continued to deteriorate. When they left, they were both convinced they were doing the right thing for themselves, professionally and personally. When they saw the number of people who were leaving right around the same time, their views were validated.
But from the start, Eastman was the primary catalyst for the move. "I went to Wideload with a very clear set of goals," he says. "I'd found a perfect, small, creative studio with multiple teams full of great people. My life goals were nearly complete after college, but the remaining ones were to go to a great small studio, work there for six years, and leave with a few talented people and start a company with our savings.
"I think I really started to think about moving elsewhere sometime during that cycle of endless prototypes."
"That was accelerated drastically by the Disney acquisition's consequences. Up to that point, I had never just thrown away a big chunk of work and time, so when projects started getting cancelled, I was really unhappy. So, meeting an incredibly skilled artist who was my age and happy to spend all his free time making more games just seemed like destiny."
Perez didn't get into this plot until Initiative's development, when he and Eastman were tasked with developing most of that game's core systems. Eastman thought that adding a second programmer to his future studio would make its operations easier, so calling on his most recent partner seemed like a natural fit. Perez took Eastman and Huang up on their offer after feeling like his time at Wideload had grown a little tired.
"I think I really started to think about moving elsewhere sometime during that cycle of endless prototypes, but I don't think I started to think seriously about it until nearly the end of the Avengers iOS title," he recalls, "which, conveniently, is when Tom approached me about his hope to start Trinket. I wasn't really aware of anything up until that point. But prior to that I think my general feeling was that I had sort of been there long enough. I think that's a pretty common feeling among a lot of people, game development or not.
"It wasn't a 'this is intolerable' sort of thing in any way, and I definitely still love all of the people working there. But the problems I took issue with during the development of Avengers and prior to that were enough to make me stop and think, 'OK, I should think seriously about trying something else.'"
Going indie began to make more and more sense for the three of them, and after a brief trial period in which they held their own game jam and confirmed they were right for each other, they left Disney and Wideload behind to officially form Trinket. With plenty of Disney savings left in their bank accounts, Eastman took up the mantle of president, while Huang became the lead artist and Perez assumed a programmer's position. Their new base of operations was Eastman and Huang's apartment. It was the summer of 2012.
It's been a little over a year since Trinket was born, and so far Eastman, Huang and Perez say they've done better than they hoped. They've launched two mobile games of their own thus far: the action-arcade game Color Sheep, and the brain-teasing puzzler Orion's Forge.
In many ways, both titles were made in direct response to the mistakes Wideload and Disney made while transitioning to mobile with Avengers Initiative. Both games were made quickly; both were updated frequently with fixes and new content; both were priced at $1 and did away with any sort of microtransaction system; and both balanced a family-friendly aesthetic with deceptively challenging gameplay. Neither game brought in truckloads of cash, but given that these are the first games Eastman, Huang and Perez have sold on their own, they've surpassed expectations.
Color Sheep in particular demonstrates what Trinket has been able to do now that it's free to do as it pleases. It's a game that looks and sounds like it could be from Disney, but underneath that cloak of cutesiness is a nerve-racking tapper in which a sheep hero electrocutes an endless pack of wolves. It's a game that toys with your senses — its cartoon visuals and classical soundtrack are serene, and its core loop of mixing colors and casting spells is mechanically simple, but the way it picks up the pace and rapidly tests your reflexes makes the whole thing feel like pure chaos.
"I convinced myself that starting Trinket was in some way an alternative to grad school."
It's also a game that works for a wide audience as a result. Like Trinket itself, Color Sheep feels like Disney, only it's a little more out there, a little less calculating, and a little more interesting. It's been featured in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and numerous gaming blogs since it launched this past February, and Eastman says it's still bringing in a few hundred dollars per week.
But Trinket's transition hasn't always been so ideal. The issues just come in a different wrapper now. Trinket's games are original, but they're far from wildly profitable, and the Disney savings are dwindling. The burden of handling finances, marketing, social media and paperwork now falls on their shoulders. And now that they make and design everything for themselves, they have to take responsibility when a game, mechanic or anything else doesn't come out smoothly. They've even had to cancel one prototype a couple of months into its development cycle, similar to how things were in their Wideload days.
In other words, they're confirming the inevitable fact that game development is hard. It's always hard. And it's always going to be hard, whether you're a funded corporate studio or a group of friends coding in your kitchen.
But for now, all of that is OK. Eastman, Huang and Perez are wiser, they're constantly learning more about how to survive in this business, and they're proud of what they've done already. They're taking comfort in the fact that any stress they incur today is entirely their own. They're just enjoying their time making games with friends.
"I convinced myself that starting Trinket was in some way an alternative to grad school, and I think that ended up being true," says Eastman. "I've learned a great deal about so many topics in such a short amount of time. I'm undeniably happier now."
The new game
Eastman and company are hoping that contentment will carry on, but they'll need their next game to be a success for it to happen. To help with that, they're turning to an unusual source of inspiration and a different way of doing business.
Trinket's next game is called Battle Chef Brigade. It's still fairly early in its development cycle, but the team describes its core concept in three words: fantasy Iron Chef — as in the cooking competition show that airs on the Food Network. Yes, for their third act, Trinket is turning to the kitchen. For a group of indies who recently got into cooking in part to save cash, it makes sense.
"mobile is all about free-to-play, and [we] just can't become enthusiastic about changing game design to encourage monetization."
Battle Chef Brigade won't be a cooking sim, or a series of minigames a la Cooking Mama. Instead, Trinket wants to keep the atmosphere light and goofy — as it is in Color Sheep and Orion's Forge — by taking the cooking competition concept and coating it with a fantasy RPG glaze. As it stands now, Battle Chef Brigade is the largest project Trinket has undertaken. There's a reason for that — it's abandoning the mobile market it exclusively targeted with Color Sheep and Orion's Forge, since Eastman believes "mobile is all about free-to-play, and [we] just can't become enthusiastic about changing game design to encourage monetization." The trio is targeting Steam instead, and it's putting its livelihood on the line by going all-in on the new idea.
Eastman says the fantasy cooking game concept arose naturally from one of the brainstorming sessions he, Perez and Huang spent out by Lake Michigan and the parks in downtown Chicago. "We all came back from a morning brainstorm session by the lake, mentally exhausted and ready to eat lunch," he recalls. "And we said, 'Let's just make a cooking game.' Somehow, we all were into it."
Just before they decided on it as a group, Huang says he remembers mulling over the same idea. "I know I had been thinking 'what about a game all about food,' but I hadn't formed any solid concepts yet," he notes. "And totally separately, Tom mentioned 'cooking game.' I got all excited that we were on the same wave length."
It wasn't the first time Huang has felt that creative connection with Eastman, or with Perez, for that matter. And judging by what the three of them have done together thus far, it probably won't be the last.
Images: Trinket Studios
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan