Alex Seropian's decades-long career in games has seen him on the winning side and the losing side of the business. He founded Bungie Studios in 1991 and co-created the Halo first-person shooter phenomenon. After experimenting with outsourced game development at Wideload Games, he most recently oversaw Disney's games division through a time that saw the closure of Propaganda Games and Black Rock, as well as the cancellation of Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned.
Seropian left Disney earlier this month for Industrial Toys, a new mobile game company where he serves as founder and CEO. The studio's aim is "mobile games for core gamers."
GameSpot caught up with Seropian today and discussed the new studio, its focus on community involvement, the "dream team" he is assembling, and how he is nervous but hopeful for the future of the Halo brand.
In the talk, Seropian also spoke about his experiences at Disney, with specific mention of the "distractions" that come with working for such a large business entity.
GameSpot: We have heard the promise before: "mobile games for core gamers." How are your games going to fulfill that promise in ways others haven't?
Alex Seropian: The things that we're focused on simply fall into three categories: plan, team, and execution. Our plan is really to treat the device like it's its own platform. So many core offerings are brought over to the platform from other places, and the ones that aren't are developed with that mind-set. So one of the things we're working on constantly doing is tearing away those preconceptions of what a core game is and starting over with the ideas that we have on that mobile platform. And it really just boils down to designing for the device.
The second thing is our team. We are going to invest millions in this space. And we are assembling what I think is a dream team to go after core gamers on mobile, and we haven't even announced half the folks that are working on our first project. In the coming months we hope to be able to talk about more of the people who are working on it. And I think that's one of the most fundamental things about it, is the talent.
"We are going to invest millions in this space."
And the third bit, about execution, it really comes down to production value. The teams that are working really well on mobile right now I think bring a lot of production value but don't necessarily bring a lot of scope, which I think makes a lot of sense for the device. Because the play pattern on mobile is so much different from other platforms in terms of how people engage with the game. Some people will sit on a couch for a long time, but often they don't. Often they'll be in and out. And you have to keep that in mind, to design to that play pattern. How you treat scope has a big impact on that. Designing big long levels where you have to engage 30 minutes at a time doesn't work so well. Creating scope for production value is good…everyone loves production value, right? Great story, great visuals--bringing that to the platform could be really cool.
GS: You founded Bungie, one of the biggest, most-respected developers out there, but you left to form Wideload Games. What kinds of things are you doing with this company that you couldn't with Wideload, Bungie, or Disney?
AS: The biggest thing is the scope of the games we can build on this platform. The development timelines are just much shorter. And also the way that the platform works, which is true for most platforms now. Both those things amplify our ability to make the gamer part of the development process. And that's one of the things we fully intend to do. Letting the gamers be the 12th man on the field. Because the iteration cycles are quick, and you can get things out, and it's live, and keep releasing content updates. We can build that--the community--into our games. And that's pretty cool.
GS: Your Facebook page says your games will be a collaboration between game designers and users. What does this mean?
AS: I think one way to look at it is a lot of games right now have communities that surround the game, and it builds an ecosystem. And you could imagine a game where the community doesn't just surround the game, but the community is part of the game; the community is inside the game. I think that's a subtle shift, but it would be very impactful. Making people part of the experience is the approach we're taking.
GS: You say your games are going to "go deep" on story and community. Does this mean you think these areas are lacking?
AS: On mobile, absolutely. Mobile is a young market, and while we've seen a lot of innovation, I think part of the reason we see a lot of innovation is because the platform is so accessible to developers. And you have a lot of people developing for it. And even without that, we've just started to scratch the surface. I don't think we've seen a lot of excellence in craft at all, in all aspects. In some cases there's some very clever design. I think Temple Run is very cleverly designed, but I think there's lots of areas to improve on in mobile.
GS: Is there a specific genre you are targeting for your first game?
AS: We have a couple of ideas that we think are cool [for] the mobile market, and there are some very meaningful genres that really have yet to be properly defined on the platform. So our first title is going to be one that means to invent for the first time a meaningful genre. We're not ready to talk about what the first project is, but we're gonna go after something that I think a lot of gamers will like, in a new fresh way that makes a lot of sense for the place.
GS: What about platforms?
AS: I don't think we're keeping any secrets about the platforms per se. We are users and customers of both iPhone and Android, and those are strictly platforms that we are actively working on right now.
"You could imagine a game where the community doesn't just surround the game, but the community is part of the game; the community is inside the game."
GS: Will Industrial Toys develop multiple titles simultaneously?
AS: We have a lot of ideas, and sometimes it's hard to push ones aside, but we want to be very focused in the beginning to be a top class AAA developer. We want to make the best game ever made (laughs). And to do that you have to focus. So we are going to be laser focused on our first title.
GS: Mobile studios seem to be popping up every week. What's your opinion on the $60 boxed retail game compared to the bite-size mobile experience?
AS: I think there's definitely a market for those big-budget, $60 console titles, but that market has changed a lot. In a lot of ways it just started to mature and narrow. And as far as how the business of that part of the market works: it's challenging. Because in order to make one of those products, you have to be willing to risk $50 million to $100 million. And in that scenario, it's only a handful of companies who can do that on a regular basis. It makes it very difficult to innovate in that space. So I think what you will see, and we're already seeing it, is that the titles that succeed there--and the ones that will be green-lit--are going to be the ones on big established brands and in big genres that are really well known. And you will get super high production value, very refined experiences like Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, and Call of Duty. But you aren't going to see a lot of innovation going on in that space.
Whereas on mobile it's completely the opposite. We're in a very formative stage right now where a lot of attention is on mobile and you'll see a lot of innovation in the form of how UIs work, how controls and certain mechanics work. You'll see all that foundational work happening in the now, where it's already happened on console. You get a little of that stuff in the digital space on console, but not in that $60 boxed space anymore.
GS: You had no desire to get back into console games?
AS: I had no intention to go into making console games again, because from a business perspective, the opportunities on mobile are really really interesting right now. The ability to go and do something meaningful really exists in the mobile space. It's really hard to go into that on console right now.
GS: Is there a target headcount Industrial Toys is hoping to achieve?
AS: We intend to be around 12 folks as quickly as we can, and then we'll go from there. That's our first milestone.
GS: You left Disney earlier this month and landed quickly at Industrial Games, can you walk me through those few weeks? You didn't want to take vacation?
AS: I am just extremely energized about what we're doing, and I am an entrepreneur at heart. And building things is really a great creative experience as well as building a team. The project is the team. And the team builds the game. Putting together the team is a very energizing and exciting thing to do. When I left Disney and got Industrial Toys started, I did not want to take a vacation.
GS: At Disney, you headed up the games division during some pretty tumultuous times, with the closure of Propaganda and Black Rock and the cancellation of Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned. What kinds of lessons have you taken from your experiences at that company?
AS: Really, the simplest and most meaningful lesson from all of that, and it's the same lesson that I've learned early on, is that what really matters is the product. What really matters is making a great product that people want. That's what really matters. At a big public company it's very easy to get distracted by "we need to make our fiscal year-end numbers." People think that's the goal. And in fact, a lot of businesses operate on a spreadsheet that way. "This is our goal, to make this much money. Let's figure out how to do that." And it's very easy to try to shade your way to success by eliminating projects or people to make that bottom line number look the way it needs to look. But really, that doesn't matter to the customer, and that doesn't matter to your long-term success. But what really matters is focusing on the product. At a big company there's challenges to make that happen. At a small company, there are also challenges to make that happen; they're different, but the goal is the same.
"At a big public company it's very easy to get distracted by 'we need to make our fiscal year-end numbers.' People think that's the goal."
GS: Are you considering development for the 3DS or Vita?
AS: Both of those platforms are very interesting, but I think at this time no. We do not intend to develop on those platforms.
GS: Why not?
AS: I would say on the 3DS side, the way distribution works on that platform and the way cost of goods work on that platform just don't make a lot of sense for us and our business model. The target on that platform would be very difficult--nigh impossible--for us to do things like build our communities. And to operate under the business model we intend to operate under.
And with Vita, it's sort of "wait and see." It could be possible to do what we're doing on Vita, if the market shows up. But we would wait to see if the market is going to show up there.
GS: A quick one about Halo and Bungie. You've been away from Bungie and Halo for a while now, but I'd assume the franchise remains close to your heart. How do you feel about the franchise being in the hands of Microsoft and 343 Industries?
AS: It's so crazy in an interesting way. I've been an observer for a while now. So much has gone on with the franchise. I will say the encouraging thing is that I know a lot of the folks at Microsoft working on it, and they are great people. I'm very hopeful that the team there is very fantastic. They are certainly treating it with a lot of care and respect. And applying the resources you'd like to see applied to a franchise like that. I'm hopeful that it will continue to bring the high production value and cool experiences it's known for.
GS: Did you play Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary?
AS: Yeah. It brought back a lot of memories. It was all great.
GS: Is any part of you nervous about Halo 4?
AS: Yeah, a little bit. But I don't think I can be anything other than hopeful that it will be great. We'll see. Halo is one of the crown jewels in the Microsoft gaming IP, if not the crown jewel, so you would expect nothing less than for them to take the time needed and apply the resources needed to make it great. I would be pretty surprised if they whiffed it. Maybe it will bring a fresh perspective, and that's so hard because there's so many fans that are used to a particular thing that bringing something new is often…it's hard to bring something new to a franchise that's so established. I'm looking forward to it.