GDC 06: Dissecting a zombie

Wideload founder Alex Seropian tells what worked and what didn't with the new production model he used for Stubbs the Zombie.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--With the 2006 Game Developers Conference winding down Friday afternoon, Wideload Games founder Alex Seropian discussed the creation of Stubbs the Zombie, both what worked and what was an abomination.

This wasn't just any old postmortem, however. For one, Seropian delivered his findings with a style and at times off-kilter humor that should be familiar to those who have played Stubbs. Beyond that, Seropian's presentation was a look back on an experimental method of game development that he conceived upon leaving Bungie (another studio he founded) after the Halo developer was acquired by Microsoft.

"I was trying to think what I wanted to do with my life," Seropian said of how he spent his time after leaving Bungie. "What I wanted to do was make games. I wanted to be independent, I wanted to work on original games, but I was kind of terrified of that prospect after watching how Bungie evolved for about 10 years and watching a lot of indie developers, what they were faced with."

With game development budgets more commonly soaring over the $10 million mark, and team sizes swelling into the hundreds of people, Seropian decided to buck the trend and came up with the Wideload model of game development. He created a core team of developers, a staff of 12 full-timers. That staff would handle all pre- and postproduction work on games. For the trench work in between, they would hire outside contractors.

To guide the choices made in setting up the model, he created the Wideload Commandments.

Thou Shalt Establish Thine Own Creative Direction--"This industry makes more money than the US box office, but we can't be a creative ghetto."

Own Thine Own (Intellectual) Property--"We want to determine whether we're successful or we fail. We don't want to be wholly dependent on somebody else for an IP, or on somebody else to market our games, to fund our games, or to control our brand."

Be No One's Beeotch--"This really speaks to why we're independent," Seropian said, calling Wideload's situation with Stubbs publisher Aspyr Media a "partnership of peers."

Keep Thine Overhead Low--"You have a small team, then you have a low overhead. A low overhead saves you money, obviously. And since Wideload has a small team, Wideload equals money."

With the basics laid down, Seropian delved into what worked and what didn't, starting with an unexpected bonus.

"We didn't really plan this, but probably the coolest thing is that we had a really creative environment," Seropian said, noting that brainstorming was more productive when handled in a small, casual group. "It's kind of free of design politics."

Seropian also said the company's low overhead gave him leverage to walk away from a proposed bad publishing deal and the ability to survive a four-month delay that would have been disastrous if he'd had a larger team to pay.

As for working with contractors, Seropian invoked what he called the "Cold, Mean, Bastard Rule." It's a lot easier to fire a contractor if things aren't working out than it is to toss a full-time employee who was brought after a lengthy search of numerous applicants, and Seropian said that rule came in handy on a couple of occasions during the development of Stubbs.

Using contractors for the production phase also helped the company quickly scale the number of people working on the project to meet needs, Seropian said. And Internet tools like instant messaging and giving contractors remote access to the game's assets library were invaluable in working with people from Austin, Texas, to Bangalore, India.

Then it was time to look at what went wrong. First and foremost, Stubbs was built using the Halo engine that Bungie built from the ground up. This was less than ideal for contractors who hadn't worked with it before, as Bungie had no documentation for the engine, nothing to use to train people how to work with the engine or troubleshoot problems that arose. As a result, Seropian said he spent an inordinate amount of time not just training people how to use the engine, but deciding which contractors needed training, and how much.

Seropian also said he ran into problems by not doing enough due diligence when hiring contractors (hence the need to invoke the "Cold, Mean, Bastard Rule") and that Wideload needed to manage them better.

"Going from 12 people to 60 in a few weeks or a month is a very different experience, and you need to have your s*** together to pull that off," Seropian said. "Some of our s*** was loose."

One problem Seopian said the team ran into is that it didn't have enough producers.

"I'll be honest," Seropian said, "we had no producers on our project. Which is insane if you think about it."

Finally, Seropian's "Crunch Avoidance System" didn't quite work as planned. He had anticipated that the Wideload model would place the brunt of crunch work on the shoulders of contractors while the core team would be spared. It didn't work out quite like that.

"I'll be honest. Our crunch was actually pretty friendly. We had maybe three months of long hours, and I don't know that we worked much in the way of weekends."

All in all, Seropian declared the Stubbs experiment a success.

"It had its problems, but we did ship a game," Seropian said to much applause. "We are still in business and working on a new game, which is pretty cool."

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Discussion

39 comments
Dawnfades
Dawnfades

That was an insightful and interesting article. It was informative to see the creative process and Seriopian's evaluation of said process. However I find it quite interesting that he rails against corporate control and making sure to not be someones "beoytch" while employing subcontractors and outsourced temp employees. That's just the sort of behavior one would expect from a big corporation. Sadly typical behavior of idealists, rail against a certain type of action. However, when you do the same action its ok and not the same thing because you are the one who is doing it this time. I'm interested in seeing the next Wideload game to see if there are any improvements over Stubbs and I;m glad he chose to give that speach.

buildar
buildar

yeah that article was long, but its ineresting to see what a little guy is doing about producing games. Though you can see soem of the bitterness he has towards microsft fro buying Bungie. I agree and disagree with his business model, because i can see the point of having freedom but having workers without security can lead to extra pressures that can bog down producing a polished product.

gatsbythepig
gatsbythepig

he seems like avery intelligent and accomplished man. It is a rare ability to look back and oint out all the things that went right and wrong. I never played stubbs the zombie but I had read the reviews and knew it was based on the HALO engine. Well, it certainly was a long article, that is for sure.WOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO WOOOO HOOOO HOOOOO HOOOOOO WOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO WOOOOOOOOOO

Moojable
Moojable

That's amazing how he (Seropian) was able to pull that off successfully...

skylinedude05
skylinedude05

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Zorak000
Zorak000

keep it up and break the mold!

kaziechameleon
kaziechameleon

awsome great budget production model i wish that bad budget devs would listen to this guy.

Bane122
Bane122

Hey, I want to make a pointless comment too! Idiots. This was a neat article. The way Seropian talks, it seems like he would fit in well with Nintendo right now. Both seem to want to really push the creative aspect of the industry. I hope Wideload has great success, iit would be a good way to show the EA-type companies that people still want creativity and just just sequals and re-hashes.

jaefrmbk2k
jaefrmbk2k

i wish my icon was a furry bunny

MangyForestCat
MangyForestCat

and no they didn't just hire people within the country.... basically Wideload games is to the Video Games industry as GM Ford and Dodge Dell and many many others are to the Car and Computer Tech industry... they are outsourcing... look in the article they eventually had people from Bangalore, India working on their game. So not only is he screwing people from job security and insurance, but he's screwing people from job security and insurance around the world and probably for cheaper pay and terrible crunch hours that's why his crunch was so "light"...what a jackass

Ohidjwae
Ohidjwae

. . . and how can you know if it was stupid and pointless if you didn't READ it!? Interesting busniess model, although it seems very risky. I wonder how much cerative freedom (if any) the contractors had, or if they were just grunt workers. I hope they at least contracted people within the country.

MangyForestCat
MangyForestCat

I know what Alex Seropian is trying to say and all the more power to him that he doesn't like big companies like Microsoft and such, but in reality he's pretty angry Bungie got bought by Microsoft and no one else at Bungie followed him. He's all fine talking about the bad point and negatives that being owned by a big company has like sure you have serious deadlines and probably don't have as much control in your Intellectual Properties as much as you'd like, but isn't he missing the good points? Or are there none? Cause I see a bigger pay check and like Boss said job security and benefits a real nice perk for employees and even the game itself. I'm not saying that the amount of money put into a game equals how good the game turns out to be, but in most cases in this industry it is, and that's a pretty nice perk to working in a big company don't you think? I shudder to think what Halo or GTA or Resident Evil or something would have been like if they had a much smaller budget. In all truth they probably would have turned out like Stubbs the Zombie an ok game but not necessarily great or innovative. All I'm saying is that Alex is just spiteful and has all the right in the world to be if he wants to but he doesn't come out and admit it. You can see it in his comments and speeches and company line about being indie about having control of your own IP about not this and that which I'm pretty sure if you ask most of the rest of Bungie hell just if you visit their site they're all so very glad they got bought by Microsoft which gave them a freedom they didn't have before to which they could apply to their intellectual properties. I'm sure once the Halo story is done Bungie will move on to greater projects but of course they probably are under pressure like no other to finish the Halo franchise first before moving on which Alex might not like but that's the tradeoff for working for a big company you get paid much more but you give up your IP to the company not everything can be win win even his business model isn't win win he's screwing all the contractors and temps out of job security.

Demagorgon
Demagorgon

If it's stupid and pointless, then why waste more time commenting on it?

damned_beast
damned_beast

i didnt read it; it was really stupid and pointless

Cheshie
Cheshie

I don't even know what this game is about but it's a very interesting business model considering that games today commonly cost upwards of ten million dollars and one hundred people to produce, as the article says.

orangebrat
orangebrat

Nice article. @thefjk, insane956dv, IvGot5onit, crazy590: What's the point of your comments?

VFA-102
VFA-102

I thought it was cool look at the developement of game from in independent studio head standpoint.

Hellisunreal
Hellisunreal

Interesting... really shows the problems a developer, especially one wanting to make a new different IP faces.

thefjk
thefjk

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

gaiden1024
gaiden1024

Nice write up , I think I may need to play the game to see what a 'small' studio can do these days. The bit about using the Halo engine was a bit wierd , I think I'd have given the UE3 engine a spin , unless he still owned the IP on the Halo one , which would make it quite a bit cheaper

AA7
AA7

I loved Stubbs, if you have never played it you should definatly check it out.

robinnwa
robinnwa

Not my kind of game at all but you can

XManTMG
XManTMG

Change the setup to whatever, as long as you get what you were aiming for. I like wideload's principles, it encourages original thought. The idea of "big suits" making games for the purpose of profit-only..sucks. Seropian's intention is on creating games for enjoyment, cuz' he enjoys makin' it.

WeeWeeJumbo
WeeWeeJumbo

I agree with BossJimBob completely. The contractor model may feature certain financial advantages, and you don't get emotionally attached or legally bound to temps; but in the real world that exists outside of games, people live on the money that they make from their jobs. Less stability and more uncertainty work constantly against a contractor's mental well-being, it's as simple as that. Must the dollar be all-mighty?

Max_Fischer
Max_Fischer

More power to Wideload and Mr. Alex. HIlarious guy and games, even just read their website...!

IvGot5onit
IvGot5onit

yea not much in this, i dont think but well see

townsenda1
townsenda1

This game was actually pretty good. It was so funny and just fun to play.

spidey008
spidey008

Alex Seropian is really a nice guy. I spoke with him through email recently and he is really down to earth. As for Stubbs the Zombie, I loved this game. It was pure fun with much humor. I actually played it through twice and it was really sweet. I wish Wideload the best and will always try to support them.

jogunther
jogunther

Its really important that independent developers thrive, or we'll loose innovation in our games.

bossjimbob
bossjimbob

Stubbs was decent and I commend Mr. Seropian for trying something new, but in all honesty the contractor model is crap. Nothing sucks the life out of an employee like knowing he doesn't have benefits or job security, no matter how good the pay. The game industry isn't the film industry, and as such it shouldn't be run the same way. So many game companies make the mistake of having a heavy contractor model, and the workers end up suffering.

AlexWills
AlexWills

Wow I wish my icon was Mike Tyson,Sweet!!!

j_e
j_e

cool

Gabino_basic
Gabino_basic

Its an interesting read that allows to see a different working enviroment, and shows that wideload is packed with that independent spirits that is starting to drive the industry forward.

bobsagat247
bobsagat247

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

crazy590
crazy590

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]