Stu­dio Pro­file

We visit The Odd Gen­tle­men, whose co-founders went straight from stu­dents to stu­dio di­rec­tors

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY KEZA MACDON­ALD

Matt Korba and Paul Bellezza were stu­dents at the Univer­sity Of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Los An­ge­les in 2007. Just a year later, they found them­selves run­ning a game stu­dio. Its first game – The Mis­ad­ven­tures Of PB Win­ter­bot­tom, a whim­si­cal and beau­ti­fully drawn puz­zler that en­joyed favourable com­par­i­son to Braid when it was re­leased on Xbox Live Ar­cade in 2010 – was orig­i­nally Korba’s grad­u­ate the­sis. Hav­ing sub­mit­ted it to the IGF and taken it to E3 with IndieCade, the pair ended up sign­ing a pub­lish­ing deal with 2K, and thus The Odd Gen­tle­men came into be­ing. Ap­pro­pri­ately, their very first of­fice was in a Univer­sity Of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia build­ing, right above where they had worked on Win­ter­bot­tom as stu­dents.

Bellezza has since moved on to Riot Games, but Korba re­mains with The Odd Gen­tle­men as pres­i­dent and cre­ative di­rec­tor. He’s a slightly shy, af­fa­ble chap with enor­mous pas­sion for the vis­ual arts, theatre and game de­sign, in­ter­ests that are cheer­fully ev­i­dent in all of The Odd Gen­tle­men’s games. The stu­dio’s lat­est break came in 2013, when it won the pitch to re­vive Sierra’s clas­sic King’s Quest ad­ven­ture se­ries – the first game from which was re­leased in 1984 – with Ac­tivi­sion.

“I’d been meet­ing with Ac­tivi­sion since I was a stu­dent – one of my ad­vis­ers at univer­sity ac­tu­ally works there now,” Korba ex­plains. “I’d pitched them Win­ter­bot­tom and some other stuff over the years and we were al­ways try­ing to come up with a way to work to­gether. I had a meet­ing where I showed them what we were work­ing on and they re­ally liked it, and that’s when they men­tioned that they were go­ing to be re-do­ing King’s Quest. We were re­ally ex­cited to even be able to au­di­tion for that pro­ject, to put to­gether a pitch.”

Serendip­i­tously, the orig­i­nal Sierra-made King’s Quest games were ac­tu­ally child­hood favourites of Korba’s. He grew up play­ing them with his un­cle, and an old King’s Quest hand­book sits in the book­shelf above his desk, with a huge va­ri­ety of other books from the worlds of film, art, de­sign and videogames. King’s Quest also dove­tailed ex­actly with the kind of game that the stu­dio wanted to make: hu­mor­ous, fam­i­ly­ori­ented, fan­tas­ti­cal, charm­ing, in­tel­li­gent.

“What we re­ally wanted to try to do was make a fam­ily game, which not a lot of peo­ple at­tempt,” Korba says. “But the gen­er­a­tion that I’m in, which is the gen­er­a­tion raised on the NES, we’re start­ing to have kids our­selves now, and when I have kids I would like to be able to play games with them as well.” The Odd Gen­tle­men had big plans for King’s

Quest. Rather than pitch­ing a se­quel that picked up where the ear­lier games left off, the stu­dio imag­ined an el­derly King Gra­ham re­count­ing his youth’s ad­ven­tures to his grand­daugh­ter, a fram­ing de­vice that al­lowed for any story they wanted to tell, and left room for nos­tal­gic homage to the Sierra orig­i­nals. “We wanted to make sure it was a game that peo­ple who had never played King’s Quest could get into, but with plenty there for fans, too,” Korba says.

On the strength of that idea, Korba’s fan­dom, and a poster show­cas­ing a hand-crafted, painterly art style, the stu­dio won the pitch. “I have to give Ac­tivi­sion credit be­cause at the time we were a small team, we were maybe eight or nine peo­ple,” Korba says. “We’ve grown since through this pro­ject, but they chose us be­cause of our cre­ative pitch. They could’ve cho­sen a com­pany that had shipped more games, or had a big­ger so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing, but they de­cided to go with us be­cause they re­ally liked our pitch and they re­ally liked our team. That pretty much never hap­pens in the videogame in­dus­try, where cre­ativ­ity rarely wins out.”

At 24 peo­ple, The Odd Gen­tle­men is still quite a small stu­dio, with desks crammed into the cor­ri­dors as well as sev­eral small rooms -– al­though they are plans for them to soon move into larger premises. At the time of our visit, they oc­cu­pied a third-floor of­fice with beau­ti­ful moun­tain views in Pasadena, a rel­a­tively quiet city less than half an hour’s drive away from Los An­ge­les, where you can still get sun­burn in De­cem­ber. The stu­dio made the move from down­town LA partly for con­ve­nience (any­body who has ever been to Los An­ge­les will have suf­fered through its in­fa­mous traf­fic) and partly be­cause the rent was climb­ing in­ex­orably.

“We were get­ting cramped in that stu­dio space and the prices in down­town LA are sky­rock­et­ing,” Korba ex­plains. “We wanted some­thing that was a lit­tle more re­lax­ing, some­where we can breathe a lit­tle eas­ier and walk places. I mean, I guess you can walk ev­ery­where in down­town Los An­ge­les, but we wanted to walk around in cleaner air.”

“Yeah, it’s got kind of an old, small-town feel even though it’s like 20 min­utes out­side of LA,” says Lindsey Ros­tal, the stu­dio pro­ducer. “It’s a very nice lit­tle step away. We can live in the crazy world within our stu­dio, up late into the night, but you still feel peace­ful when you walk out of it. It’s ac­tu­ally a very nice jux­ta­po­si­tion for us, a change of pace.”

There’s a laid-back at­ti­tude to work­ing hours at The Odd Gen­tle­men. At 10am, there aren’t many peo­ple around. By lunchtime, the desks are mostly oc­cu­pied, and it’s not un­usual for staff to be at work un­til 2am. “Some­thing that we try to cul­ti­vate in the of­fice is sort of an im­pro­vi­sa­tional at­ti­tude and cul­ture,” Ros­tal says. “A good idea can come from any­where, so it’s re­ally im­por­tant for us to build a strong, in­stinc­tual foun­da­tion for ev­ery­body there. It ends up be­ing a very jokey and jovial of­fice where peo­ple are con­stantly try­ing to come up with fun sto­ries and gags

“WHAT WE RE­ALLY WANTED TO TRY TO DO WAS MAKE A FAM­ILY GAME, WHICH NOT A LOT OF PEO­PLE AT­TEMPT”

“YOU CAN’T EVER TAKE IT FOR GRANTED, BE­ING ABLE TO COME TO­GETHER AND BE CRE­ATIVE ON A DAILY BA­SIS”

that could po­ten­tially be used in the game. So we play boardgames to­gether, have stu­dio movie nights… We just gen­er­ally en­joy each oth­ers’ com­pany and make a lot of jokes.

“Ul­ti­mately, we have a good time,” Ros­tal says. “We’re try­ing to make a game that’s hu­mor­ous and we think it’s very im­por­tant to also have a hu­mor­ous tone in the of­fice. To be able to pull that off, it’s about get­ting a good group of peo­ple to­gether who want to make some­thing cool and have a great time do­ing it.”

The Odd Gen­tle­men’s em­ploy­ees come from all sorts of dif­fer­ent back­grounds. Korba came straight from his film pro­gramme at USC and Ros­tal had pre­vi­ously worked at a num­ber of LA film stu­dios, but the var­i­ous de­sign­ers, artists and pro­gram­mers that make up the rest of the stu­dio have all sorts of var­ied ex­pe­ri­ence. “I also have a de­gree in bi­ol­ogy and I’m not the only one with a de­gree in bi­ol­ogy in the of­fice, which is pretty en­ter­tain­ing,” Ros­tal laughs. “We’ve got philoso­phers, artists, ev­ery­thing else.

“It comes back to build­ing that foun­da­tion for an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive. We wanted to have peo­ple with dif­fer­ent back­grounds who ap­ply what they know to games, be­com­ing bet­ter game mak­ers. Their ex­pe­ri­ence al­lows them to think about prob­lems dif­fer­ently, so we get dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives for puz­zles, dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives for story, how to ap­proach an­i­ma­tion, how to ac­com­plish what we want. That’s an in­valu­able thing. If you can find a per­son who has a unique thought process about them and is ob­vi­ously tal­ented at what they do, they’re only go­ing to add to the stu­dio.”

The Odd Gen­tle­men cer­tainly has some un­usual cre­ative pro­cesses. They team reg­u­larly uses pen-and-pa­per pro­to­typ­ing to sketch out scenes and puz­zles, but it goes fur­ther than sto­ry­board­ing – as well as stag­ing pa­per-pup­pet shows, Korba has been known to walk around the of­fice in char­ac­ter as one of King’s Quest’s per­son­al­i­ties, act­ing out po­ten­tial di­a­logue and riff­ing with other de­sign­ers (“I was a to­tal drama nerd grow­ing up,” he laughs). A great deal of

King’s Quest’s stage-play feel comes from this phys­i­cal pro­to­typ­ing.

“It’s some­thing that I learnt in [film] school, but es­pe­cially with games that are story-based and puz­zle-based, it makes a lot of sense,” Korba says. “It’s al­most an art in it­self to try to fig­ure out how to pa­per-pro­to­type a game, be­cause it’s not al­ways the same. Some­times it’s like pa­per dolls, some­times we use Lego, some­times it’s more like a boardgame or a D&D cam­paign. We found out that’s a re­ally good way to iron out the story, or the puz­zles. If you have an imag­i­na­tion you can see what the game is go­ing to be like, so we try to spend as much time as we can do­ing it in the phys­i­cal realm first so that we can fig­ure out what’s work­ing be­fore we switch it over to dig­i­tal.”

The new King’s Quest’s an­i­mated-paint­ing art style is one prom­i­nent prod­uct of this mar­riage be­tween phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal pro­cesses. Af­ter spend­ing months try­ing and fail­ing to get the game look­ing right us­ing shaders, The Odd Gen­tle­men de­vel­oped an un­usual tech­nique, print­ing out the 3D meshes and send­ing them to the stu­dio’s art di­rec­tor in France, who would then paint them with ac­tual paint. The fin­ished ar­ti­cles were then scanned, and the data used to tex­ture the in-game mod­els. So King’s Quest looks hand-painted be­cause it is hand-painted. It’s the kind of ap­proach that could only have come from think­ing out­side of the con­fines of tra­di­tional game de­sign.

It seems that Ac­tivi­sion hasn’t hemmed The Odd Gen­tle­men in, ei­ther. The stu­dio is cur­rently two episodes into a five-episode se­ries of new

King’s Quest ad­ven­tures, due to fin­ish in 2016. So far they’ve been well re­ceived, both by fans and their pub­lisher. “We have a lot of free­dom of cre­ativ­ity, which is re­ally cool,” Ros­tal says. “We can’t speak highly enough of work­ing with Ac­tivi­sion. They’ve sort of just let us do our thing. As the per­son who han­dles the busi­ness stuff, I’m here mak­ing sure all th­ese highly cre­ative peo­ple get to do their best work.”

Work­ing on a game se­ries he adored as a child must en­tail sig­nif­i­cant pres­sures as well as de­light for Korba. At the time of our visit, the se­cond episode is just about to be sub­mit­ted for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and ev­ery­one looks ex­hausted. But there is still a lot of jok­ing and en­thu­si­as­tic chat­ter buzzing around as the team set­tles in for a long night. “I feel like half the time I’m just a fan in the of­fice,” Ros­tal says. “I get to wan­der around peo­ple’s com­put­ers and just get ex­cited about what they’re mak­ing. I’ll know I have to head over and check some­thing out when I hear gig­gles erupt­ing from some­where in the build­ing.

“You can’t ever take it for granted, be­ing able to come to­gether and be cre­ative on a daily ba­sis and see things come to life.”

Co-founder Matt Korba, now com­pany pres­i­dent, started The Odd Gentl­men in 2008. Pro­ducer Lindsey Ros­tal joined af­ter work­ing in film pro­duc­tion and the web tech in­dus­try

There is usu­ally laugh­ter com­ing from some cor­ner of The Odd Gen­tle­men’s Pasadena of­fice, even to­wards the end of de­vel­op­ment on King’s Quest:Chap­ter II. The re­laxed at­mos­phere is a prod­uct of the stu­dio’s mis­sion to make ac­ces­si­ble and hu­mor­ous fam­ily-friendly games

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