Four veterans from BioWare, Cryptic and Volition jump from AAA to indie, each in their own way.
Four veteran game developers sit around their computers. They're hunting each other down over a game of Team Fortress 2 and talking about their childhood dreams and their futures in the industry. It will be the beginning of their journey out of AAA game development.
All four men, employed as developers for near a decade, come from different backgrounds and have ventured down different roads in life. One has a newborn daughter who occupies most of his time, while another questions whether he'll ever want to settle down and focus on anything other than his craft.
For all of their differences, however, all four share one distinct quality. After working for a variety of developers, all four make the ubiquitous decision, apart from one another but finding strength in the common goal, to leave the only part of the industry they have ever known.
All four men decide to venture off into the rapidly growing realm of indie development and not look back.
Rick Burton's early story
Rick Burton knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life making games at the age of eight. At the time, he was playing whatever he could get his hands on, or whatever his parents were willing to pay for, on his Atari 2600.
It wasn't until he started going to college and began to heavily invest his time into PC gaming that his childhood dream seemed like an attainable feat.
"When I was in college, I began modding Neverwinter Nights in order to create a portfolio that could get me picked up by a company."
"I always wanted to make video games, and as a kid I tried to on my Apple II, but I didn't have the programming skills to make it work. I never stopped dreaming of working for a big company though," Burton says.
Big companies like Cryptic Studios and BioWare had an allure. The ability to work on a game and make it his own was what he had always envisioned his future looking like.
"When you're first learning how to program or how to come up with design conceptions, you're basing a lot of your work off of the games you're playing," he says. "Naturally, you want to eventually work on the game you've been playing."
And that's precisely the route he set off on. When not programming or working on his own designs for future games, he began tinkering with a popular MMORPG.
"When I was in college, I began modding Neverwinter Nights in order to create a portfolio that could get me picked up by a company," Burton says.
It worked. A couple of months after starting to mod, Burton got a call from BioWare, asking him if he would like a job as a technical designer.
"At the time I was playing on my Apple II, taking computer science classes, and modding for fun. Getting that call made my childhood dream a reality and I didn't think it could get much better."
At BioWare he'd be a part of the first team to develop the hugely popular RPG Mass Effect, and meet Brian Chung.
Brian Chung's early story
Brian Chung will be the first one to tell you he considers himself a bit of a late bloomer. It wasn't until he graduated high school and was shopping around different career choices that he thought of going into the games industry. A passion for technology and graphic design and a childhood love for games led him to think it could be the perfect industry for him.
"When I graduated from high school, and then eventually college with a background in graphic design, the games industry looked pretty bleak," Chung says. "But anybody who wanted to get into the industry at the time knew you had to work for a AAA company."
"BioWare had noticed my models I had posted and had seen all the help I was giving to people in the forums."
To pass the time, Chung says he worked for a dot-com company in the late '90s, scoping through job postings at major developers, but when nothing came up, he decided to go back to school to further his education in game development.
"One great thing that happened to me while I was at school was that Neverwinter came out," Chung says.
Much like Burton, Chung began to modify different aspects of the game and put them out on the web for people to see and comment on. He also became a well-known name on different Neverwinter forums, lending help to people whenever he got a chance. Also, like Burton, he was sitting at work when he got a call.
"BioWare had noticed my models I had posted and had seen all the help I was giving to people in the forums. They basically said, 'We've got a game we could use you on. Are you interested? That was my big break I had been waiting for," he says.
In October 2005, Chung left Toronto, trekking across to Western Canada to begin work in BioWare Edmonton's studio as a technical artist.
Chung worked on games like Dragon Age and Star Wars: The Old Republic for close to five years before picking up his belongings once more and moving to Champaign, Illinois to begin working for Volition, Inc., the company behind the Saints Row series.
Even after moving south of the border and forming friendships with new colleagues, Chung said he never lost contact with co-workers from BioWare, including Rick Burton. When it came time to pack up his bags and move back home to his family and friends in Toronto in early 2011, ready to embark on the next chapter in his career, he made sure to ring up past colleagues.
Two halves of a brain
Avery Wong and Kelvin Nishikawa joke around that they found the other half of their brain in each other. One, a designer and artist willing to jump into any project and make it as stunning as can be. The other a calculated programmer with a passion for elegant gameplay. The two have said it was a sign they met all those years ago working for Cryptic Games, that they were destined to work with each other.
At the time of our interview, Nishikawa is running late, taking some extra time to put his six month old daughter, Elise, to sleep. His business partner, and longtime friend, Wong begins to talk about the impact games made on his life from a young age.
"I remember back when I was a wee boy, I played Ultima Online. I remember being entranced about how open the game was."
"I remember back when I was a wee boy, I played Ultima Online. I remember being entranced about how open the game was. It was literally a sandbox," Wong says.
Eventually, Nishikawa is able to get his daughter to sleep. He says, as a developer who's able to work from home, he spends a lot of time trying to help his wife take care of their new child. As for his past, he remembers being transfixed with a smaller game his programming mind latched onto immediately.
"I remember throwing bananas at gorillas on my Osborn PC and then stomping goombas on my NES, but I think the first game I played where I realized making games was a thing that I could do was called Shufflepuck Café," Nishikawa says.
He explains that the less popular game had mechanics that he could eventually copy into his own game. For him, it was the moment of clarity that he could build games for the rest of his life.
Both knew they were going to make games as a career; they would just work on different aspects. While Nishikawa went to San Jose State University for a computer science and software engineering degree, Wong headed to the Art Institute of California in Los Angeles to hone his talent.
The two would have no idea who the other was until they started working with Cryptic on the Neverwinter series. They hit it off instantly, bouncing ideas off of one another that could be used in the game.
Nishikawa excuses himself as he needs to tend to his daughter and Wong jokes that Elise takes all of Nishikawa's attention, but adds he's sure she was one of the reasons Nishikawa made the difficult decision to leave Cryptic Studios behind.
Together, the two men founded Critical Bacon Studios. The goal for Nishikawa, says Wong, was to build something he could share with his daughter.
The decision to leave
The four developers made the decision to leave their jobs at different times, but their reasons for leaving are similar. Much like how their love for playing and creating games drew them into the industry, all four said it was the repressing of that creativity that led to their decision to depart.
"It's the stifling," Wong says, of working in AAA development. "Unless you're the one calling the shots, you'll get to work on a small block of a game to make sure someone else's dream becomes a reality. There's only so much you can do to ensure someone else's dream happens before you've had enough and put yourself first."
It's a sentiment echoed by his three friends, who would sometimes discuss their roles at the studios over late night rounds of Team Fortress 2.
"Most game developers breaking into the industry want to make their own game, but in order for your vision to be carried out, you need to be the creative director behind it."
"Most game developers breaking into the industry want to make their own game, but in order for your vision to be carried out, you need to be the creative director behind it, not just an artist or an engineer," Nishikawa says.
Burton brings up an event at BioWare that employees generally refer to as the "march of death." He says it was one of the many reasons he decided to leave and begin his own company, KnightMayor.
"I was around for the infamous 'march of death' at BioWare, when the first Mass Effect came out. We were originally told it would be a two-month job and it turned into a nine-month job. By the end of it, there were so many developer burnouts, that it led to BioWare reviewing their policy to make sure it never happened again. I couldn't risk going through that once more," Burton says.
Each knew they wanted to break off and work on something to call their own, but were worried about the financial backlash. Nishikawa said that while the financial side to an independent development career, or lack thereof, is a constant issue, something happened around 2010 that revolutionized the gaming landscape.
Minecraft sold one million copies. Playdead, the small development studio behind Limbo, made a profit of close to $8 million. Jonathan Blow made enough off his critically acclaimed game Braid to open up his own studio, hire some employees and continue making the games he wanted to make.
Nishikawa says that while critical and financial success seemed to now be a plausible accomplishment where it wasn't before, the chance of financial failure kept him at bay.
"I was married and had a daughter on the way. I had the security of a bi-weekly paycheck, and it took a lot of pulling on Avery's end to get me to leave Cryptic," he says. "The only reason I did is because I believe so much in the game we left to create."
For his friends, it was the lack of a wife and children that made the financial risk, although daunting, seem like a jump they were willing to take.
"Kelvin and I are in different situations. I may not be as financially secure, but I have enough saved away to live well past the release of the game and enough to fund the company. If I had a wife and kids, I couldn't fund the game and I never could have left," Wong says.
It's almost identical to Chung and Burton's situation. Although both say they teetered along the edge of the decision before eventually leaving their safety zones, the fact that they only needed to provide, and worry, about themselves made it much easier.
"If I was in Kelvin's shoes, I'd still be at BioWare," says Burton. "The fact that I know that if I fail, I can go back to a AAA studio and worry just about myself is the only thing that makes this whole process work."
Now and the future
Nishikawa jokes about having to do a lot of business meetings over Skype with Wong, glancing back and forth between the monitor and the infant he's balancing on his knee.
Wong and Nishikawa recently returned from PAX Prime, a massive convention held annually in Seattle, Washington. It was the first time the team brought Jurojin, the mobile game they had been working on, to the public eye. Both said the experience was more than they could have hoped for, adding that seeing people play the game and enjoy it gave them the confidence they needed to succeed.
"I've always wanted to work on a game of my own and really see my ideas impact the game in critical ways. That's always what I've dreamed of doing," Wong said just before the two flew out for the con.
"I know leaving the AAA world was the best decision I ever made."
The duo went into creating a game with the goal of changing the mobile landscape. Part of the problem, Wong says, is the lack of competition mobile games provide for the millions of people who play.
They created Jurojin, a mobile MOBA game much like Dota 2 or League of Legends, that will be released this October. Wong said one of their favorite aspects of the game is that it will never have the virtual D-pad that tends to exist in mobile games.
"I'll consider myself successful if I can be happy and kill the virtual D-pad that every developer uses in mobile games. There needs to be more innovation, and taking what we've learned from our time at Cryptic and mixing that with our own creativity is what in the end helped us morph this game," Wong says.
Nishikawa looks to the future, proud of the game he's created and proud of the studio he hopes he can continue to be a part of and continue creating games for. Games to show his daughter what he can do.
"Throughout middle school and high school I would build simple games that emulated games like ShufflePuck and Pegleg. I thought I would work at Ambrosia Software someday," Nishikawa says. "But now I'm partnered with Avery, releasing our very first game, and I know leaving the AAA world was the best decision I ever made."
For Burton and Chung, whose journeys have just begun, they say they look to their friends' success and happiness, and know they can achieve it too.
Burton has been working for the past couple of months on The Paladin Trilogy, an "action/adventure RPG presented in a new fantasy setting." To Burton, it's the legacy he wants to leave on the gaming world. While he acknowledges he loved working on Mass Effect and Star Wars: The Old Republic, adding he was proud to be a part of the team that crafted those titles, he always wanted to produce a game that had a larger piece of himself in it.
With the launch of KnightMayor Games, the studio Burton has started since leaving BioWare, he's excited to get his game, The Paladin Trilogy, off of the ground and out into the public. He said he hopes the game will eventually find a place in the heart of someone who has played the game, and that it becomes a meaningful experience, much like the one he's currently having in creating it.
Chung's journey starts with working toward his ultimate game, a giant, multiplayer universe for players to jump around, explore, and defile.
"It's a revolution, what's happening right now, and I want to be able to look back in 20 years time and say, 'I came from one world and was part of the generation that started another.'"
"The independent scene is much more experimental and envelope pushing. The AAAs tend to not take any risks with games. I don't understand why it has to be like that and it's a major reason as to why I'm excited to explore this whole new world after being a part of the industry for so long," Chung says.
Chung says it's about the freedom to finally create the game he's always wanted to make, to return to the roots of why he got into the industry to begin with. After spending years working on other games that, he said, never quite felt like they were his own, he's excited to break a sweat and learn about the areas he never experienced at BioWare. The challenge, he insists, is part of the reason he left; to see if he could do everything and anything under the gaming scope.
For Wong, it's the final piece in the puzzle for his gaming career. He smiles over Skype, excited to talk about the game, the company and his friendship with Nishikawa. He said it's more than just making a game; it's the first time he's felt a part of the gaming community, and has felt like a contributor to an industry he's idolized since he was a kid. For him, he says, he's finally appeased the kid who picked up his first video game controller all those years ago.
"It's a revolution, what's happening right now, and I want to be able to look back in 20 years time, still at Critical Bacon, and say, 'I came from one world and was part of the generation that started another.' To me, that's the greatest success."
Images: Rick Burton, Brian Chung, Avery Wong, Kelvin Nishikawa
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan