Among the throng of PAX games blaring for attention in Seattle, was one called Blood of the Werewolf.
It's a retro platfomer, a tribute to the 1980s and early '90s era of exacting sideways scrollers. In a way, Blood of the Werewolf represents gaming today, the post-modern mish-mash of old and new, AAA and indie, serious and flippant.
It also represents its creator Nathaniel 'Than' McClure and his company, Scientifically Proven. He has been on a long journey for the past 12 years, the journey away from corporate life, from demanding publishers, from egregious contracts, towards what he hopes is something like freedom. He believes that, after many wrong turns, Blood of the Werewolf is his destination.
All developer-stories are interesting, but McClure's has a certain American picaresque quality, the well-meaning guy with a big idea who, of course, comes to grief at the hands of bad breaks and bad deals and unscrupulous individuals.
In the last 12 years McClure has been involved in a bunch of games, some of which sold OK, and some of which reviewed pretty well, but none of which really fulfilled his ambition to make the games he wanted to make, to be free of the machine.
McClure's story represents how gaming has changed
A long time ago he held a central position on one of the biggest franchises in gaming, Call of Duty, but he left because he wanted to work for himself, and make things that he wanted to make. It's a universal story that also represents how gaming has changed in the last 12 years, from a near monolith dominated by large employment hubs like Activision, to a shanty-town of developers vying for publisher patronage, to a teeming chaos of indies, making the games they believe the public will want to play, slicing out, as far as possible, the middleman.
McClure is not the sort of indie who can sit down and just plain make a game all on his own. He is not a wizard coder or a dainty-fingered artist. He's someone who has ideas and then pulls together the teams necessary to realize his vision, chips in with creative chores like cinematics or soundtracks, character and level design.
So here's his story.
McClure was knocking around Hollywood at the end of the 1990s, working as an actor. He'd get parts here and there, movies and TV work, nothing too spectacular. "I'm a relatively big guy, so for two and a half years I played bouncers, convicts, rapists, every type of stereotype that a bald guy with a beard can be in Hollywood," he said.
When 9/11 hit, Hollywood stopped hiring for a few months. With work scarce, he started looking elsewhere. "I happened to meet a producer at Activision and asked how I could get into games, because I'd always been a big gamer. The guy suggested I start in QA. So, cool, I did that."
The hours and the pay were brutal. But while most of his co-workers were in QA for the short-haul, McClure wanted to stick around. He was older than most of the other testers and wasn't afraid to work long hours. Slowly, promotions and extra responsibility came. Within a few years he was working production on Call of Duty, before it really became the mega-franchise it is today.
"I took one look at the game and thought, there's something special about this," he said. "I knew that I understood the game, the mechanics, the consumer."
Yeah, we're not going to fund it.
He spent five years growing the franchise, all the way through Call of Duty 3. He barely took a day off work. It became his life. "My son was born at the time, and I didn't get to see him, ever," he said. "But hey, you're work on fuckin' Call of Duty. Show up and get your shit done. And I gladly did so. But at the end it was exhausting and I thought, maybe I can do this on my own." It was time to move on.
The confidence to strike out alone, to seek freedom from corporate overlords and HR departments and company picnics and mission statements, came from one idea. McClure had this notion that you could make a shooting game pretty much like Call of Duty, without any violence.
The game would be about firefighters in a mall, putting out blazes using their hoses, solving puzzles to enter problem zones. Other people said it was a good idea, so he quit his job and took his idea to some publishers.
They loved it too, or so they said.
"I was actually at EA," he said. "We had this little prototype where you put out a fire in this house. One of the execs is like, 'Holy shit. This is one of the first games I've seen that I'm going to have a ton of fun playing with my seven-year-old son.' I'm like, great, they get it, they really get it. But he said, 'Yeah, we're not going to fund it. Good fucking luck.' That type of thing."
The problem was that a track record of success within the confines of a big company is worthless when you're pitching games to middle-ranking execs. They wanted to see a track record, without the comfort of corporate support. So the firefighting game was put on ice, so to speak. This was to be the first in a long line of hard lessons for McClure.
His fledgling company, Epicenter went door-to-door, looking for funding. At least his Call of Duty chops were getting him into the meeting rooms.
"We were talking to Konami about "Firefighter" and they said, 'Look. You're a new team, even though you're made up of vets. We have this WiiWare opportunity. Pitch us some other ideas." We were big Qix fans, that classic puzzle experience, so we came up with this kind of Qix-inspired WiiWare title. They liked it."
Critter Round Up was a well received puzzle-game that, apart from Konami's funding fee, never made Epicenter a dime. It was a job for hire. Konami priced the game at $10, while McClure thought it was worth $5. It received well. It sold pretty well. But first contracts with publishers are a means to an end. It wasn't about making money, it was about making a reputation.
McClure went back to the publishers with a 'how about now?' pitch for "Firefighter." They were interested. Sure, they said. Just sign over the IP to us and we're good to go.
"Why would I do that?" said McClure. "I left Call of Duty to try to do something for myself and my family and my employees. Why am I going to give it all to you? What's the point of that?"
He ended up signing with a smaller publisher, one that was willing to give up IP ownership and creative freedom. The company was — note the past tense — called Conspiracy Entertainment, a specialist in low-budget Wii games, back when those things sold pretty well in convenience stores.
"Real Heroes: Firefighter turned out really well. People loved it," said McClure. "We got nominated for shooter of the year by IGN, which blew my mind. The next closest game, I think, was about $8 million ahead of our budget."
The game sold well. McClure had achieved his ambition of creating a hit. "Records vary, but it sold in the hundreds of thousands of units," he said. "For a game that got not an ounce of marketing or promotion, I consider that very good, to move that many units. Unfortunately, I never saw a check." When it came time to be paid, Conspiracy Entertainment had ceased to be. "I can't get a hold of anyone there. They don't exist anymore. Someone gets a check somewhere, but it's not me."
Before Conspiracy slipped into oblivion, the company hired Epicenter to rush out a zombie / rhythm game called Rock of the Dead for Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It reviewed very badly and it bombed.
"There was a lot of design on the fly, so to speak. 'Now we need to do this. Now we need to do that.' Of course, that's a recipe for disaster. It just wasn't a healthy relationship."
Epicenter had created three games on shoestring budgets and, one way or another, they hadn't seen any royalty checks. There was a lot of debt. McClure knew he had to try something new. He decided to begin again, this time not in California, but in a place not exactly known for its video game development heritage, Michigan.
He financed the move by creating a game based on a license from The Discovery Channel. Man Vs Wild was published by Crave and developed by McClure's new company, Scientifically Proven. It was a budget game that came out in 2011. Crave went bust in 2012. Once again, McClure was in a fix.
But he moved his family to Michigan in order to take advantage of that state's advantages for game developers. The state said it would eat 40 cents of tax on every dollar spent. McClure knew he could create something valuable on those terms.
When he arrived and started hiring people, he applied for the tax relief. Michigan's tax mandarins refused.
"They told me to come here. I moved my family here. I moved four of my best guys here. Then they turned me down," he said.
He spent three years in an expensive, time-consuming legal battle that he eventually won. Along the way, he had to bankroll employee wages and sometimes he had had to let people go. He said he "made a lot of mistakes."
"All the money that we saw, after three years of legal bills, everything was gone. The second we got a check, it was gone," he said, adding that the legal fight has, at least, opened the door to any other developers wishing to move to Detroit.
McClure and his team began working on Blood of the Werewolf. They shopped it around some publishers, but the deals with big companies were onerous, and the small companies, well, after his experiences, he could never quite find a contract that didn't look a lot like the ones that had burned him before.
Now he's working with Majesco's off-shoot Midnight City, which, in the age of indies, puts more power in his hands. The publishing stuff, QA, PR and other housekeeping, is taken care of by Majesco, so he can get on with making the game.
"I have now been an independent longer than I was at corporate," he said. "We've built things out of nothing. Games now exist because of our efforts. All the while we have gotten the shaft on pretty much every single title and still managed to survive and build. We even had to fight a state in court to defend the very law that they used to lure us to our new home.
"This effort has lead us to a point where we now control our titles and opportunities. A lot of blood has been shed. We are now fully approved publishers on the majority of major hardware platforms."
Midnight City said it is offering something new for indies, something that suits the spirit of the times. "We're here to help with everything from first-party relations, QA, promotion and community building and to put a spotlight on the titles," said label co-head Casey Lynch. "Freeing the development teams to focus 100 per cent of their energy on building the best games possible."
McClure said that, during his time working with "vampiric and opportunistic" publishers he has learned how much power digital platforms and new funding sources are giving to indies.
"We have experienced how difficult it is to exceed in this industry and if you think failure isn't always right around the corner you are kidding yourself," he said. "We see studios of all sizes closing for a myriad of reasons all of the time." He said the main problem in the past decade has been publishers failing to stick to contractual terms, or making unrealistic demands on developers.
Now he feels he can spend his time making the games he believes in, without interference. If he gets it wrong, he doesn't have to blame anyone else.
"Blood of the Werewolf is our love-letter to classic platformers," he said. "It's Ghouls ‘n' Ghosts. It's Mega Man. It's an homage. It's our attempt to recreate that two-person couch experience of sitting next to my buddy and watching him hit the spikes or fall off a ladder or get killed by a baddie and me laughing and wanting the controller because I know I can do better, and him doing the same to me.
"It's a combination of those classic movie monsters that we all grew up watching at Saturday matinees and putting them all in this new re-imagined world , Dracula and Hyde and Frankenstein all living together in this universe. There's a piece of me in every title I ever worked on. But this game, I get a huge smile on my face."