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