Uber's Hail Mary: The long road of Monday Night Combat

How three men risked their careers (and their bank accounts) to build a game no one else understood.

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Credit cards maxed. Bank accounts emptied. Financially tapped. Near the end of a years-long journey to bring Monday Night Combat to the world, Uber Entertainment was also near the end of its resources. It looked like the company couldn't go on. But it couldn't back down.

Uber's founders, Bob Berry, Jonathan Mavor and John Comes, left the safety net of a large corporation to create their own game studio. Something smaller, more nimble and better suited to make the games they wanted to make. Also something many had tried before them — and failed. For the three who would be Uber, it wasn't about hitting it big. It was about passion.

And it was about to fall apart.

Apartment style

It's March 2008. Bob Berry, Uber's soon-to-be CEO, is working at Dungeon Siege creator Gas Powered Games. The job is relatively stable, something that can't always be assured in the video game industry. To Berry, that isn't what's important. He wants to strike out and make his own games, and he convinces Mavor and Comes to come with him.

Uber is founded in an apartment. It's a two-bedroom place just outside of Kirkland, Wash. It is small, to say the least. The Uber team is basically working from home, but are now their own bosses, charting their own course from behind their folding table desks.

They won't be here for long, but this time will be memorable. This is the beginning and everything seems possible. It is a pivotal time in the creation and success of Uber Entertainment. It is also at this time, and in this place, where they will put ink to paper in a critical agreement that will impact the future of Uber for years.

Future sport

Originally, Uber had planned to use venture capital funds to start the company and create a disc-based console title, doing so with a small enough team that it could be done on a reasonable budget (which, at the time, was around six million dollars). It quickly realized that this was easier said than done.

Uber calculated that by making a $60 game with its means, it would only end up with $15 from each sale, while it would end up with $10 of every sale on a $15 downloadable title. The latter option made more sense for Uber's founders, even though they felt like their game was comparable with $30 or $40 titles.

Funds were running out. The clock was running down for Uber.

At the time, Bob Berry and John Comes had just finished working on the multi-player online battle arena (MOBA) Demigod and wanted to try something different. They asked themselves, "What would happen if we melded a shooter with a MOBA?" A MOBA is an unconventional real time strategy game in which players control only one character and lead an army of computer-controlled units to destroy the other team's main structure; something that isn't normally mixed with a shooter.

Monday Night Combat in early alpha.

Uber spent the next few weeks fleshing out the idea, eventually settling on a future-sport theme. This fictional wrapper differentiated the game from other games in both the MOBA and shooter genres at the time, but the setting made it hard for people to accept — particularly potential investors.

"The whole concept of a 'sport of the future' game gets an immediate negative reaction ... from just about every single publisher that we talked to," Mavor recalls.

"And we knew that was going to be their reaction," says Comes.

When Uber eventually shows its concept to game publishers, like Electronic Arts, publisher of traditional sports games, the sports metaphor isn't on display as much as it could be. There is no crowd and no announcer; just dudes running around with guns in a whitebox space. The core gameplay was there, but, as Mavor says, the visuals were just too difficult to get past. It didn't look like a sport. The publishers passed.

Uber, disappointed but determined, resolved to carry on without a publishing deal. By the end of the summer of 2008, funds were running out. Backed into a corner and with the clock running down they needed to make a deal and secure the financial future of the company. And they needed to move quickly.

Larrabee and the science of ray tracing

"Bob and I were financially fucking tapped," says Mavor. "I had every credit card maxed. My bank account was completely empty and I was not going to be making my next mortgage payment."

Even with a small team, Uber couldn't pay bills because it had money going out the door and none coming back in.

Uber was scrambling to figure out funding. Was it going to go through a venture capitalist or attempt another publisher deal? Each option brought its own set of pros and cons, but in the end, neither ended up being the right choice.

A promotional video of Larrabee-powered Monday Night Combat action being reflected in-game by a convex mirror.

Instead, Intel came to the rescue.

In 2008, Intel was working on a super-secret project titled Larrabee. It was a next-generation graphics chip that allowed for things that just weren't possible on current chips, and aren't even to this day. Mavor was asked his opinion on the chip by some of the development staff at Intel and he eventually ended up consulting with the company on the project. To Mavor, this wasn't just a friendly favor, but an opportunity.

"When you have knowledge of super-secret shit, that's a competitive advantage that you can use," Mavor says. He went to Intel and pitched an idea: Uber would build a version of Monday Night Combat specifically designed to show off the Larrabee technology. Intel would ship its product with a built-in showcase, and Uber would have a major corporate sponsor. It was a dream deal; a last-minute Hail Mary that would solve everyone's problems at once.

The deal hinged on the application of a technique called ray tracing, a relatively simple concept that's incredibly hard to execute. It is used mostly to create accurate reflections for computer graphics. Imagine you are in a video game and you look into a mirror. What you see in that mirror, in every game made without ray tracing, is a fake. The designers program the mirror to show you what they think you will be looking at. The reflective surface of the mirror is just another movie screen. It's a sham. With ray tracing, each pixel sends out "rays" that interact with the surfaces built into the game. If you're in a ray traced game and you look into a mirror, what you see is a more-or-less accurate reflection in real time. The implications for graphical reflections on shiny surfaces of all kinds are fairly immense. The only problem is nobody has ever been able to make ray tracing work.

That's where Intel came in. Larrabee would change the game for graphics, and Monday Night Combat would be the game to promote that game change. In the fall of 2008, Uber signed a deal with Intel to make the ray traced version of Monday Night Combat. The deal gave Uber a significant amount of money that it could then pour back into the game's development, essentially funding the entire game. Problem: solved.

"We were totally fucked and tapped out, [then] we get a check for half a million bucks from Intel, and now we're off to the races again," Mavor says. While he stresses that $500,000 isn't much money in the scheme of things, it allowed them to retain ownership of the company and kept them in control of their destiny.

"If we had actually pulled that off ... we'd be known as a tech company today."

Things were looking up for Uber. After coming to the end, it had scored a major sponsor and a deal that would put the company on the map, building a game showcasing a technology that would influence the way video games were made for decades.

Then Intel punted.

In the end, Intel decided not to release the Larrabee chip and canceled its deal with Uber just as Monday Night Combat was nearing the finish line. Uber had the technology working, but Intel didn't feel that the chip was ready to go to market. Intel cut its losses and Uber was cut loose.

While the deal worked out well for Uber at the time, giving the team a little breathing room and time to continue working on the game, Mavor was disappointed they couldn't be a part of bringing Larrabee to the world.

"If we had actually pulled that off," he says, "and that had gotten released, we'd be known as a tech company today."

Are you ready for some Combat?

With the Intel deal out of the way, Uber returned to work on Monday Night Combat full time. The Intel funds had provided a cushion, but the challenge remained of finding a platform for Monday Night Combat, and, ultimately, a publisher.

Uber set its sights on the Xbox Live Arcade. Games like Castle Crashers and Braid had become big sellers during the first "Summer of Arcade" promotion in 2008, and Uber could see its game fitting in with that crowd. But the main reason they wanted in: "We all had Xboxes, none of us had PS3s," says Chandana "Eka" Ekanayake, art director at Uber Entertainment.

Uber spent the summer of 2009 convincing Microsoft.

"When we first pitched it to them, they didn't quite get it," says Mavor. "We had them in to play the game, but it didn't click."

Just as before, the essence of Monday Night Combat eluded Uber's would-be publishers at Microsoft. Uber realized it'd need a game-breaking play to seal the deal. It spent the next two weeks working on a visualization video, essentially a trailer for what the final game could look like. Members of the studio pitched in to do voiceover, which ended up in the final game. Uber built a new map that took advantage of the future sports feel, filled with stands, fans and big signs everywhere.

Finally, Monday Night Combat looked like a sport. Microsoft got it. Uber signed a publishing deal with Microsoft in late summer 2009 and spent the rest of that year hard at work trying to get content finished — and getting the game to run on an Xbox.

Uber PAX

"There was a line with a half-hour wait, three deep."

2010 rolled around and Uber finally announced Monday Night Combat — and by association, Uber — to the world.

PAX East was the setting. Before the show, Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade came by to see the game. He was so impressed he ended up talking about the game during his keynote address. Uber was flooded. By the time the show had opened, many media outlets had already come calling and the Uber booth was continually packed.

"It was the first time that we put it in front of consumers and realized that people might actually like this. It was very validating feedback to have the booth mobbed with people all day, every day," recalls Mavor. "You couldn't just walk up and play. There was a line with a half-hour wait, three deep."

This was a sign for Uber and Microsoft of just how big Monday Night Combat could be. Unfortunately, Uber still had a lot of game to play. And in the end, it would still be close.

A chilly Summer of Arcade

Summer of Arcade is, undoubtedly, the biggest promotion on Xbox Live Arcade. Because of its prestige, competition for a featured spot in the promotion is intense; most games don't stand a chance. Uber knew that if it was going to release Monday Night Combat in the summer, it was essential that it be included in Summer of Arcade.

Throughout the course of development, Uber had been working with Microsoft under the assumption that the game would be included without question.

"We were kind of oblivious as to how all that worked," says Ekanayake. "We thought working with Microsoft gives you a better chance. The people that decide who goes on the platform, that's the Live platform team, and is way different than Microsoft first-party. Microsoft first-party are basically cheerleaders."

In March of 2010, Microsoft came to Uber saying that the decisions had been made — and that MNC wasn't chosen for Summer of Arcade. It was a disaster for Uber. Looking at the fall crowded with Halo: Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops, it would be impossible for Uber to reach its core audience.

Uber pushed Microsoft for a release date on July 19, before Summer of Arcade started, but Microsoft refused.

Uber started to evaluate other options, and that meant talking to new publishers. Since it was a self-funded venture, Uber had the freedom to pull out of the deal with Microsoft at any time. The question was: Should it?

"We were kind of oblivious ... We thought working with Microsoft gives you a better chance."

Uber called up Warner Bros., Electronic Arts, THQ and a few others, and actually had a few offers on the table. EA was interested in publishing Monday Night Combat and guaranteed that it could release the game on July 19 with full marketing support.

Uber went back to Microsoft and said, "Get us in Summer of Arcade or we're going to go publish with someone else."

A few days later, Microsoft relented. The call came in: "OK, you're in Summer of Arcade."

The exodus from XBLA

While Monday Night Combat did well sales-wise on Xbox Live Arcade, things didn't pan out as Uber had hoped. It had promised DLC and updates to fans, but because of Microsoft's constraints, it wasn't able to stick to those promises.

"If Microsoft hadn't put us in Summer of Arcade," says Mavor, "EA would have been the better option. And I think it probably would have worked out pretty well. It might have, at the end of the day, worked out better."

Super Monday Night Combat.

Uber fixed some bugs and packed up new content to send out to its fans for free, but Microsoft's certification process destroyed the timeliness of the release. "It took 35 days from the time we submitted to the time it showed up on people's Xboxes," says Ekanayake. It wasn't a one-off situation either. Uber worked on another update during this time, which actually made it through the certification process quicker. "It only took 34 days this time."

Monday Night Combat doesn't work if it can't be updated regularly. Because of this, development focus was switched to PC. Monday Night Combat for PC was announced in December and went into beta later that month. This openness of Valve and Steam appealed to Uber's style of development, so when it came time in spring of 2011 to start development of Super Monday Night Combat, Uber didn't hesitate to ditch Microsoft.

"The difficulty was that we just didn't have enough money to make the game that we really wanted to make. We were back in the original position," says Mavor.

Uber spent the next nine months trying to work out a new deal with Microsoft. "We were going to do an expansion pack to MNC, and then while we did that, we'd be developing SMNC concepts," says Mavor. But during this nine-month period, Uber had to fund the game entirely on its own. "[It] started to get to the point that there was financial pressure for us to do something. And the longer that happens, the harder it is to negotiate."

By October, Uber had a deal for SMNC all ready to be signed, but at the last minute, Microsoft added more conditions. Things went south quickly.

"It took 35 days from the time we submitted to the time it showed up on people's Xboxes."

"The contract negotiations dragged on so long that we didn't feel that they were negotiating with us in good faith," Mavor says. "We got a real bad vibe and decided to pull out of the deal and concentrate on [publishing SMNC as] free-to-play on PC."

Worse, so much time and money had been wasted during contract negotiations with Microsoft, Uber no longer had the funds to properly finish development on SMNC.

"We effectively had to ship SMNC before we thought it was ready. At the end of the day, we just didn't have enough capital to do it justice and that's super unfortunate," says Mavor. "We're still trying to figure out what to do with it."

Planetary Annihilation and the Kickstarter

To keep the studio running, to keep cash coming in, work needed to start on another project — and quickly. Having worked on RTS titles, like Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation, prior to starting Uber, it only seemed right that the team return to its roots.

The idea of using Kickstarter to back the project was uncharted territory for the team, but one that had two implications: If the project, titled Planetary Annihilation, was successful they'd have the funding they needed, and a better idea of the size of the market for the game.

"Steve really loves making robots blow up. I didn't realize just how much."

One of the most immediate strengths of the project was the pitch video, one that the studio spent weeks developing under the lead of Steve Thompson. Now the art director on Planetary Annihilation, Thompson had previously worked on Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, as well as Demigod and Monday Night Combat.

"If Steve hadn't been into it, there's just no way that we could have done it," says Mavor. "But Steve really loves making robots blow up. I didn't realize just how much."

Planetary Annihilation's crazy, planet-destroying gameplay requires technology capable of doing it. This is where Uber's talented team of engineers comes into play. Instead of using Unity or Unreal, Uber opted to create its own engine and technology that allows automatically generated planets with extremely destructible environments. Those features wouldn't have been possible with off-the-shelf engines.

They've also created the tools necessary to hand the reins over to their fans to create what the development team doesn't have time for. Mod tools are built right into Planetary Annihilation as first-class citizens. You don't have to install any weird programs on your computer or visit sketchy websites; it's all available within the game.

Fans: the heart of Uber

The Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter was a huge success, raising over $2.2 million on a requested $900 thousand. During the funding period Uber came to realize that fans felt an interest in the game's development; they wanted to be involved. Uber gave everyone who backed the project or pre-ordered the game access to a private section of the forums where they could communicate with the development team during the process.

"Somebody will throw out a topic like 'aircraft' and you'll get pages and pages of detailed analysis from players that have been playing RTS games for a long time and have thought about the ins and outs of it," says Mavor.

Some of the backers want to be involved and some don't. "I'm also cognizant of the fact that the most passionate fans on the forum aren't indicative of the mass market, but I don't really care that much, because I'm not making this game for the mass market," says Mavor.

For him, it's a unique experience to have such an active community this early in development.

"I'm basically catering to what my design sensibility of the game is, modified with a hell of a lot of fan-smartness in there. And I have changed my mind on several occasions."

Uber even does live streams regularly, often announcing an idea or character in the backer forums and discussing it on a live stream a few days later. So far, it seems to be working.

Uber has had a bumpy path, but it sees a bright future. It does things its own way, because it's good for its fans and fun for employees, allowing the team to work how they want. It's what makes Uber special. It doesn't care what other people are doing. It just wants to make good games, no matter what the cost.Babykayak

[Image Credits: Uber Entertainment]