Morning Star: Alex Seropian's crazy plan to change the world of video games, again
We explore how the Halo co-creator plans to reinvent the shooter for tablets.
Two years ago, Alex Seropian was on the top of the world. And he hated it.
As vice president of development at Disney Interactive, Seropian oversaw the venerable entertainment company's entire video game arm. It was the top of the food chain for the man who'd started making video games as a kid, built a company out of nothing, launched Halo, then quit to start it all over again.
Seropian started his first company, Bungie, because his dad told him not to. Then he sold Bungie to Microsoft and started his second company, Wideload, because he wanted to try it again, and he ended up selling again, this time to Disney. Now he's starting his third, Industrial Toys, because working at Disney was too easy.
The marathon runner and habitual entrepreneur wanted to go smaller and riskier. He wanted to worry. He wanted to not sleep.
"I think there is a healthy element of stress," Seropian says. "If you have no stress in your life ... I don't know. I suppose it's nice. But [not] for me."
These days, Seropian is losing a lot of sleep. He founded Industrial Toys with the idea that tablets were the future of video games.
He believes your iPad is the perfect venue for shooters like Halo: the style of game his team perfected on PCs, then rebuilt for consoles. And he's making a game he hopes will prove it.
Touch any pixel
Seropian's first business was selling popsicles. He was 10.
"I'm sure the only reason anybody bought any popsicles from me is because I was 10 and it was for a hospital," he says. "But it was pretty thrilling to have these popsicles and exchange them for money. ... I think that might have been formative for me."
From there, he slowly accrued the experience that would lead him to founding Bungie with his pal Jason Jones, and eventually making the game that would sell millions of Xboxes.
In high school he decided he wanted to be a businessman, although he's not sure if he knew what that meant. In college he started a business selling his chemistry class notes.
"I think it's fair to say that if Halo wasn't part of the Xbox launch, the Xbox would have had a different trajectory."
"It was an 8 a.m. lecture, a 90-minute lecture," he says. "Half the class never showed up. I had a Mac and I knew how to use Quark Xpress. ... I would take notes, or actually my girlfriend would take notes, and then I would type them up, format them and sell them.
"I made these posters that eventually ... the chemistry department tried to shut me down, because my advertisements were unflattering to the professor. [The professor] had a very thick accent. One of my taglines was, 'If you can't understand the accent, just buy my notes.'"
Meanwhile, Seropian studied computers and programming, and at some point decided that making games and selling them would be the next evolution of his popsicle empire. Seropian and Jones borrowed some cash, invested in a cheap disk replicator to run off copies of their game, made the games, sold them, broke even, made more, sold them, broke even and so on ... until eventually Bungie became known as the preeminent developer of video games for the Mac.
Then Seropian and Jones sold it to Microsoft.
"It's easy for one to sort of fantasize about what-ifs," Seropian says of the sale. "But the reality ... is that we were at a point in time ... where Bungie was and where Microsoft was that I don't think either of us could have done what we did without each other.
"I think it's fair to say that if Halo wasn't part of the Xbox launch, the Xbox would have had a different trajectory. Halo certainly wouldn't have been the game it was."
Bungie was already at work on Halo, planned for PCs and Macs, when Seropian met with representatives for Microsoft. Bungie had been quietly fielding acquisition offers for some time, but so far none of the offers had been seriously worth considering. With Microsoft, though, it was different.
"There were companies that basically wanted to pay us with an IOU," Seropian says. "'Hey, we'll buy you guys, and then if the game makes money we'll give you some!' ... there were a lot of people like that."
And then came Microsoft. The software giant was on the road showing off its new idea for a game console, the Xbox. It was, in essence, a miniaturized PC in a black and green box, with a joystick. And the company was desperate for games to sell on it.
"That's the fundamental basis of the input on the iPad, that you can touch any pixel you want."
"We called them up to say, 'Hey, we can probably make Halo for the Xbox. That might be cool. Can we?'" Seropian says. "It was really the only conversation we had with anybody where it was a company that had an idea that was cool. They were looking for somebody to be a part of that big plan. They had the stability and the financial perspective to make it real. ... It was very exciting. It was very validating to have a company like that be so supportive and interested in backing that up."
Designing Halo for Xbox, though, required a complete re-tooling of the way the game played, to be compatible with the console's joystick-based controller. A lot of people said it couldn't be done. A lot of fans said it shouldn't be done. But it was done, by Bungie. And the rest is a long and profitable part of video game history.
Now Seropian believes he can work that magic again, with Morning Star.
"When we went from PC to Xbox on Halo, we had to take a step back. A lot of people, including people on the team, said, 'This is a dumb idea. You can't make a good shooter with a joystick. It just pushes the cursor around. This does not feel good.' We had to say, 'OK, let's try to decode what actually makes shooting fun and visceral and all that.' Control was a huge aspect of it. ... What makes joystick control in a shooter work is all this code that makes it feel like a mouse."
The few projects that have tried replicating shooters on tablets have all tried variations on the same trick: virtual thumbsticks. Basically spots on the tablet screen that will respond more or less the same way as a thumbstick when you touch them. Seropian believes this is backward thinking.
"A mouse is a direct pointer that lets you touch any pixel you want," he says. "Why would you emulate that on a device where you can [already] touch any pixel you want? That's the fundamental basis of the input on the iPad, that you can touch any pixel you want."
Morning Star Alpha is the comic book half of the two-part project. It is being written by novelist John Scalzi and drawn by Marvel Comics artist Mike Choi. Both Scalzi and Choi are working side by side with Seropian to create the universe and the story for the comic, but are also doing double duty on the game.
The two experiences are being developed in tandem, using the same story, the same characters and the same designs. They are, for all intents and purposes, two halves of a whole, but intended to be self-sufficient.
Comic book readers who don't play games will, in theory, get a full experience from Alpha. And gamers who don't read comic books will theoretically enjoy Morning Star. But for people who try both, the joint experience could be something entirely new.
Morning Star Alpha will tell large chunks of the story that occur around the events of Morning Star the game. Alpha will be interactive and it will remember the decisions you make as its story unfolds, and then it will share that information with the game. And vice versa.
If you play Morning Star and read Morning Star Alpha, both halves will talk to each other and adapt their experiences to the choices you've made in each. The idea is that one is the perfect setting for an expanded universe story and deep exploration of the world Industrial Toys has created, while the other is a place to shoot aliens in the face.
"One of the challenges we set out for ourselves was, how do you tell a story in a mobile game where we're trying to build these quick play loops, where people can sit down for a few seconds and still have fun?" says Seropian. "How do you build a deep universe out of that? ... Even though people might only spend 30 seconds on a game, people will spend hours with a book. So bringing our universe, those characters, the art, all that stuff — which is totally not an afterthought; it's a forethought for this whole thing — to a comic, a digital comic that's more than just a comic."
Writer John Scalzi compares the approach to building a Swiss Army knife. "That will do a whole bunch of things, but it won't do them particularly well," Scalzi says. "It'll just be sort of basic. Or you can design a screwdriver and design a knife and have both of those be really excellent."
For the game, Industrial Toys is starting with the Unreal Engine for iOS and level design concepts Bungie fleshed out over more than a decade of making Halo, and trying to make those two basic building blocks work together as a seamless whole. This sounds easier than it actually is.
"We're making a shooter"
"We spent a lot of time dissecting encounters from console and PC shooters," says Lead Game Designer Paul Bertone. "I've spent a lot of my career building [shooters] and watching people playtest them. One of the big things that I've always noticed is that there's a really small percentage of the audience that can do everything a shooter is asking them to do, all at the same time.
"We spent a lot of time dissecting and separating out the different parts of shooting and moving and giving players the option to look around and explore the environment. We built a bunch of prototypes, and ultimately we decided that shooting is the number one thing that this game is about."
This is one of those statements that sounds simple until you dissect it. Of course shooters are about shooting. Except when they're about set pieces, on-rails action, cinematic cutscenes, mini-maps, collecting things and what-have-you. In reality, most modern shooters are about a lot more than shooting, but Industrial Toys believes the core of the experience is what it can reproduce on tablets, with Morning Star.
If there is such a thing as an expert in the design of shooters, then Bertone is that person. An 11-year veteran of Bungie, Bertone worked on practically every iteration of the Halo franchise, then worked for a while on Bungie's next-gen mega-shooter Destiny before deciding to take the leap with Seropian at Industrial Toys.
Bertone says he left Bungie, in part, because he was ready for a change, but also because he's obsessed with touch devices. He was involved with Bungie's pilot program for mobile game publishing, Bungie Aerospace, and helped hone Jordan Weisman's "Crimson Skies steampunk" project, Crimson. But Morning Star will be his first full venture into designing for the mobile space and he's excited for the challenge.
"It's been a lot of work to get to this point, but we always knew that this was the most important part of it: the player's interface with the weapons and the interface with the characters that they're shooting," Bertone says. "We're making a shooter, no bones about it. The weapons have to feel awesome."
Much of Bertone's time addressing that challenge is spent bending the Unreal Engine to his will and building tools that will allow a team of level designers to build their own experiences, but all at the same level of quality and intensity as the rest. Bertone says this is a lesson he learned over many years of working with large teams on Halo: that if left to their own devices, level designers will go in occasionally wildly different directions.
"I built AI for Halo, 2, 3, ODST, and the more level designers we got, the harder it was to maintain that consistent experience, but still give designers the freedom to put their own stamp, their own personality on the encounter," he says. "We had full games with ... half the game having polished encounters and then ... some shit that we threw in there at the end. "I'm designing systems, but I'm not just here geeking out over systems. I have a player experience in my head that we're trying to hit. ... I've had designers work for me before that are like, 'Oh, this system is going to be so great. The system does this. The system does that.'" And then I'm like, 'OK, so what does the player do? How does the player interface with the system?' 'I don't know, but the system's awesome!' If you do that, you end up wasting amazing amounts of time and resources on something that just falls flat from the player's perspective. We're always re-evaluating that."
"It's been a lot of work to get to this point, but we always knew that this was the most important part of it: the player's interface."
Morning Star will feature a variety of weapons and alien types. Shooting will be, as Seropian suggests, as simple as it is on PCs: touching pixels. A variety of gestures (many of which are still under wraps) will combine to allow players to do a lot of the things they may be used to doing in shooters.
"Our game is completely touch-to-shoot," says Bertone. "It's meant to be played with two fingers. Anywhere on the screen I want to shoot, the weapon's going to follow me and that's where I'm going to shoot. I can target. I can do precision damage."
It will, for all intents and purposes, be a hardcore shooter on a tablet. The trade-off, Bertone says, is the game will do much of the moving for you.
"What we've found is, we're basically building it in," he says. "After you kill a couple of guys, we're going to slightly reposition the camera for you, to get you a different perspective on [the] encounter. ... It's been my experience — I've watched thousands of hours of playtests — this is in a way a cop-out, but there are very few people who can move and shoot at the same time when they're playing a console shooter. It's easier on a PC, but in a console shooter, more often than not ... in my opinion this is why Call of Duty was very successful, because they don't actually ever ask you to do that. You move to a position, like you move to a building where you have some windows, and you kind of become this stationary turret. Obviously not in multiplayer, but in the campaign you kind of become this stationary turret. They present you with a bunch of targets. Then you move forward."
Instead of running or hiding behind cover, in Morning Star, you will have a shield power you can use to block incoming bullets.
"It's important that we still have that [defensive ability]. It's not just stand here, let a bunch of guys come out. It's really important that you do feel like a player in this world. That's what our level designers have to do. We didn't have to do it for Halo. Nobody else has to do it. They ... have to think, 'What would a person actually do here?' and then with our camera system they emulate those motions, emulate the jumps, emulate the small shifts. We know that it's not about running and hiding behind cover. That's why we have the shield mechanic, because when your brain says, 'Shit, I want to hide,' that's how you hide in this game."
A look in the mirror
Just because it worked once, this crazy plan to reinvent the shooter genre, doesn't mean it will work again. The fact that people bought Seropian's popsicles because he was a kid doesn't mean people will buy his game because he co-created Halo.
Seropian knows these truths. More than anyone. What do you think is keeping him up at night?
Seropian's first post-Halo effort was a mixed bag. Wideload eventually sold to Disney for enough to put Seropian on the beach sipping piña coladas for the rest of his life, if he were wired that way (he isn't). But it would be somewhat of an exaggeration to say Wideload was a complete success.
Seropian founded the studio in 2003, a few years after selling Bungie to Microsoft. The goal, he said at the time, was to prove that a smaller team could make better games, cheaper, and by all accounts it got off to a great start.
Wideload's first game, Stubbs the Zombie, starred a re-animated former salesman, and its combination of action and dark humor won plenty of critical acclaim and a loving fan base. It even spawned a spiritual successor from some of the former Wideloaders. And then there was another game a few years later that no one remembers. And then some downloadable stuff. And then a paycheck from Disney.
Seropian took the golden elevator to the big office at Disney Interactive, and Wideload, as an independent entity, ceased to be. It now makes mobile games based on Disney licenses.
Seropian knows, on some level, that even though he succeeded in building a company, making games and turning a personal profit, he also failed at what he originally set out to do. That's why, in spite of the big office (or perhaps because of it), he turned his back on the largest entertainment company in the world and struck out again on his own.
"I sat down and looked at myself in the mirror before I left Disney," Seropian says. "There were a lot of things going on there, but ultimately I looked myself in the eye and said, 'OK, what does my career look like in a year?' I could clearly see what it would be, and that terrified me."
Seropian's father was a doctor and his mother, although primarily a housewife, wrote short stories. When he was young, Seropian remembers spending all of his time helping his father, who had no formal carpentry training, renovate an old estate house in Westchester County and watching his mother, in spite of receiving stacks of rejection letters from magazines, self-publish her work.
He credits his parents for inspiring his own sense of "never say die." Their example also instilled in him a deep, abiding fear of failing to live up to that example.
"I suppose a good amount of motivation for me on a personal level is, I have a fear of failure," he says. "I don't want to fail. I do want the glorious outcome. Those motivations never go away for me. ... I don't really need to go and do this again. But I very much want to. It makes me super excited to get out there. Having kids, I want them to have this great example. All that kind of stuff. Those monkey-brain motivations.
"I want to be able to tell my mother about this thing that I did and have her be impressed with me. I don't want to fail at it."
For a greater cause
The biggest obstacle in the way of Seropian's glorious outcome, with Morning Star, is the scope of the project itself. And that, ironically, is what gets Seropian out of bed in the morning.
It's either a vicious cycle or a virtuous circle, depending on how it turns out.
"We have essentially been making a comic, a universe and two new kinds of apps for the last year or so," Seropian says. "And it's a lot of experimentation going on, a lot of invention going on, a lot of turning our back on some of the ways we used to do things. We have to try to come up with new ways to do things — while embracing all the experience we have as well, of course.
"It's daunting, the amount of ambition. If we didn't have the right folks in the right seats, I'd be terrified."
Enter Scalzi and Choi.
For the past year, Scalzi has been hard at work essentially creating a world in which Seropian's Morning Star and Morning Star Alpha are just small parts. If all goes well, Alpha will be followed by a theoretical Beta, and the game will have its own next installments, with each part overlapping the others in a cascading sequence of narratives that each, while standing on its own, references the others.
"You want to be able to make sure that there's enough context to the storytelling world ... so that everybody knows what's going on, while at the same time not having the experience [in] the same sort of way," says Scalzi.
This is something Scalzi has some experience with, from writing his Old Man's War series of novels. The third and fourth books of the series cover approximately the same events at the same time, only told from the points of view of different characters.
"I had to work to make sure that any overlap that I had was justified and was not so egregious that people felt like, 'I spent money on that first book. Why am I reading the same book over?'" he says. "You don't want people to feel ripped off."
"It's daunting, the amount of ambition. If we didn't have the right folks in the right seats, I'd be terrified."
Scalzi carried over his techniques for Morning Star and Alpha, to help make sure that people who experience both apps don't feel like they've wasted their time, rather that they've broadened their experience even if the events are similar.
For Scalzi, even though he's never worked on a video game before, the chance to be a part of something as ambitious and potentially open-ended as Morning Star was impossible to resist.
Choi had the same experience, just from a different perspective.
"There's definitely a great feeling of being able to work on Fantastic Four or Green Lantern or whatever," Choi says (he's worked on Uncanny X-Men and Witchblade, among many other titles). "But in the end, you're not doing any real design work. You might be able to infuse a little bit of your personality into designs that have been around since the '60s, but this right here, where John and I have been able to create a world, a culture, a language ... it's so crazy.
"For two different mediums. It's just an opportunity I couldn't say no to."
Most comic books based on video games are created after the fact, which hems the creators into the story box built for the video game world, even if those rules and situations don't make sense for a book. With Morning Star, Choi and Scalzi have been involved from the earliest stages. They're designing the game as well as the comic. Each part will have the same look and the same nuances. And they're being created simultaneously, feeding on each other in real time.
"Because everything is done at the same time by the same minds, there are no contradictions," Choi says. "Because we know what the story needs to be. We know what the characters should do."
Beyond just the opportunity to create a world alongside a best-selling author, Choi was attracted to the passion of the Industrial Toys team, and its desire to build something it could be proud of.
This, it would seem, is part of Seropian's secret sauce. Born from the days of scamming his girlfriend into attending the 9 a.m. chemistry lecture so he could type up and sell the notes, or getting his school pals to help him copy game disks. In his own words, it's the ability to find "folks that are way more talented than I am and convincing them to join up for a greater cause."
In Choi's words: "It just seemed like all they wanted to do was create a company that they believed in and make an artistic product that they believed in and loved working on. They wanted to be fan[s] of what they created, from the ground up. ... It wasn't necessarily the medium of video games, so much as the opportunity to work on something that guys of their pedigree would let me be a part of; something that everyone believed in and thought would be really cool."
It all begins a century or more in the future. A signal is received from deep in outer space. A secret plan is initiated, the Morning Star Protocol, enlisting the governments of the world to help respond to the possibility of an alien threat. A decision is made. A ship is sent to investigate. Shit blows up.
That's where you come in.
Both game and book revolve around a character named Charlie, a young officer on a ship called the Joplin. The Joplin is a retrofitted mining vessel, called in a time of dire need to be more than what she was designed for. Charlie, similarly, must grow beyond his training when, after a series of unfortunate events and the discovery of an ancient alien menace, the sun explodes, destroying the entire human race, leaving Charlie and a small portion of the crew of the Joplin to stop the alien invasion, seemingly alone.
"This isn't a spoiler at all, but when the game starts, pretty much everybody dies," says Seropian. "Everybody."
This is where Morning Star Alpha begins. Where it ends is where Morning Star picks up. What happens in between is, in part, up to you.
Seropian is almost unnaturally confident about the project. He's concerned the game is taking too long to build, but he believes he has the right people in the right places and that his idea is, above all else, fun.
"I think it's going to be huge," Seropian says. "I really believe that. ... [But] it's going to stress me out getting it done."
And that stress, of course, is exactly what keeps him going.
Images: Industrial Toys
Editing: Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
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