Hold To Reset
Building a new game, a new studio and a new life from the ground up
Hi there! I’m Alex, and just under seven months ago I quit the best and most successful job I’ve ever had in order to start a company with two friends in a repurposed motion-capture studio with padded black walls and no windows. We spent the next two days building IKEA furniture and discussing how long we had until we ran out of money.
My business partners – Reid Schneider and Yassine Riahi – and I had been talking about it off and on for years, but it never seemed like the right time. Maybe one of us was finishing a game, or we weren’t financially stable enough to do something potentially financially disastrous while still feeding our kids, or the market in general just didn’t seem amenable to the kind of games we wanted to make. It had hit the point that whenever we talked about it, our friends would quietly extricate themselves from the situation and drift away.
Well, we did it. This column will chart a course from deciding to take the plunge and through, if everything goes to plan, to the announcement of our first game.
First, though, a bit about myself. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, far from the development hubs of America, Japan or the UK. One of my earliest jobs in the industry was designing licensed titles for the Game Boy Advance at a studio based in a strip mall an hour’s commute from the city. The phone would ring in August; a publisher would reveal that they had forgotten they were contractually obliged to deliver three Marvel games by Christmas, and faced losing the licence. What could we do in eight weeks?
In the early 2000s I was hired by Maxis to design a Sim City game for consoles. I would finally get my break overseas! The project was cancelled while my plane was in the air. I remember a meeting with my producer on my first day: did I still want to stay? It was a bizarre question considering I had just quit my job and sold all my furniture. Over the following few years I was a designer on a few console Sims titles, and lead designer on Spore. I did a quick stint at EA Montreal directing Army Of Two: 40th
Day, before getting a call from Ubisoft where I directed Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4.
It took me over a decade to go from designing games with virtually zero chance of success to working on some exciting, relevant and important series, but still something wasn’t sitting right with me.
Directing a game for a big company like EA or Ubisoft is, I imagine, a similar feeling to directing a movie in the Marvel universe: you have access to resources, support and power that you otherwise could never dream of. You have the opportunity to find an audience in the tens of millions. ‘Jesus fuck,’ you might rhetorically think to yourself, ‘even if I can only sneak in half the features I would choose to make, that’s amazing.’ On the other hand, you’re choosing to become part of a great machine, and to succeed you must acknowledge the magnitude of the collaboration. You can insert plenty of your own personal ideas, move the tone or change the emphasis, but you need to honour the franchise and universe you’re working within. Otherwise, you’re fired.
And then one day you wake up and think that perhaps the cost of starting out in that strip mall in Australia in the early 2000s was internalising a kind of cultural cringe: the sense that you’d started too far back in the field to get to the front. But then you look around, and see the quality of people you could put together, and the maturity of middleware compared to a decade ago, and the explosion of different delivery platforms that mean you’re no longer beholden to retail and you think, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it. Even if we fail, let’s make it an aggressive, noble failure that makes the attempt worthwhile.’ Nobody wants to end up as the guy at the bar saying I coulda – I shoulda – because that means you didn’t. I joked this morning that the only real failure is a “failure to fail”; so long as we put something out that has the core of our ideas in it, even if it doesn’t find an audience, I’ll consider it a personal success.
So here we are. I won’t lie: the young me is pretty stoked to be writing a column for
Edge. The adult me is a bit busy being mildly terrified of burning his career to the ground. This column will be about whether that happens or not. Thanks for reading. If there’s anything specific you really want to know, send me a tweet: I have a fondness for answering things directly. And if you’ve got any good jokes I can steal, so much the better.
Directing a game for a big company is, I imagine, a similar feeling to directing a movie in the Marvel universe