Q&A: Wideload founder Alex Seropian

Out of the limelight for more than a year, the founder of Bungie returns to the gaming scene as the king of Wideload Games.

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Alexander Seropian was a University of Chicago student when he founded Bungie Software in 1991. At the time, the studio was a Mac-only design outfit, and for the next eight years, it was successful enough to remain independent.

However, in 2000, Seropian sold the company to Microsoft. There was something about a Bungie-developed property, named Halo, that impressed Mircosoft enough to acquire the entire company and its owned intellectual property (IP). Halo would be all Microsoft's, and it played into the Xbox launch plans to perfection.

Seropian relinquished control of the company in 2002 and immediately went on a short hiatus from the game industry. He reappeared today in the form of studio lead of Wideload Games (for his exact title, see below).

We spoke with Seropian hours after the news of Wideload was broadcast to the industry.

GS: Alex, you once said that selling your own company, Bungie, was a fair trade-off insofar as it meant that the headaches that came from managing infrastructure, funding, and distribution would disappear. What have you figured out about creating an indie studio that will make Wideload any less stressful than Bungie?

AS: This is a very different kind of company than Bungie. We have ambitions to keep our team small. Managing a large staff is difficult, time-consuming, and ultimately very distracting from the creative process of making games. I think we’ll be able to maintain the small team culture here.

GS: ...a culture you say will make "unusual games for unusual people." Is there a market for this kind of game?

AS: I have a history of looking at what everyone else is doing and turning around to do the opposite. Seems to work well for me.

GS: You've also mentioned in the past that the console market takes a huge bankroll to compete in. What platform do you intend to code for? And assuming it is some, if not all, console (as the job listings on Wideload suggest), how do you get around the huge costs? Another way of asking is: How is Wideload funded?

AS: We are independently financed. Our model addresses some of the cost issues, particularly the financial aspects of production risk. You are correct though. Game development isn’t cheap, which is part of the reason for this model. Our contractors are paid for their contribution--rather than time. So, in the unlikely event our project takes longer than we hope, we’re not stuck with a 50-person burn-rate. We’re also able to ramp down very quickly after a project is completed.

GS: Can you name your partners in Wideload? Can you specify when the company was founded?

AS: Our art director, senior engineer, and three designers are all from Bungie. The company was started last year (Valentine’s Day, in fact).

GS: Are staffers carrying titles? What’s yours?

AS: Sure. Mine is the Baron of Denmark!

GS: The Web site mentions five open positions. What will the staffing level be at Wideload?

AS: We currently have six internal people. Right now we are looking to expand to 12 people. We plan to stay small.

GS: A "new kind of production model" sounds great, but how exactly do you find independent talent these days? Yes, in the movie industry, indie talent goes from project to project, but there is no precedent in the game industry. Most often, the top talent is attached to a studio or publisher.

AS: In our experience, we’ve discovered a lot of people interested in working independently. Our model isn’t limited to employing individual contractors either. “Independent talent” extends to production houses and developers too.

GS: What is the different between the Wideload "prototype" and a traditional game demo that is shopped to publishers? These days, creating a playable demo is standard when pitching to the publisher. Again, what's the difference between a "prototype" and a demo?

AS: A demo is a just selling tool and [is] more or less “eye candy.” A prototype is a production tool. The prototype is designed to prove that our goals are attainable (i.e., engine is solid, core gameplay is fun, and the production is realistic).

GS: What games, already in the channel, make the grade in the areas of "creative gameplay" and "oddball humor"?

AS: I think one of the things that anyone hopes for in the creative process is to evoke some kind of emotion from people. Games have long been about hand-eye coordination and reflexes. The first game that really broke that model for me was ICO--not a huge commercial success but a very impressive game. I’d call that art any day. We’re picking a different angle--humor--but the goal’s the same: video games as a contemporary entertainment medium.

GS: You say the upcoming game is to be built on the Halo engine. You and Jason built that engine, right? Do you hold any rights to use it, or must you license the code back from Microsoft?

AS: We have a license from Microsoft.

GS: When do you plan on revealing the publisher of game one?

AS: Later.

GS: What genre will the upcoming game conform to? What genres interest you? Where did the idea of that game come from? Gut or market research?

AS: The project we are working on now is an action game. However, I don’t think I can say it “conforms” to anything. That is the whole point of our team/company--to invent and create new game ideas. One reason why we want to keep the internal staff small is so that we can be more flexible and creative. With a small internal staff, we can build out many designs and see which ones work and which ones don’t. In fact, for this first game, we had two-dozen project ideas in preproduction before we decided on the game we are producing now. We certainly seek out feedback from consumers, but idea generation comes from inside.

GS: What gameplay genres are most appropriate for the modern-day game market?

AS: Two interesting things are happening. One, gamers are getting older, and, two, the game audience is growing and getting more diverse. So, you have these two forces that are pushing games to become more accessible and more sophisticated. It’s a great challenge to rise to, especially with the abilities of the next round of consoles. Games are about to get wicked cool(er).

GS: How long were you based in Redmond after Bungie was bought by Microsoft? Were there high points? Low points?

AS: I was there for two-and-a-half years. Yes, [there were] high points and low points for sure. It was a great experience. The Northwest is an awesome part of the country. Microsoft is a great company, and the people I worked with, especially my Bungie crew, were top notch. Shipping Halo was glorious for everyone involved. We knew we had something great, but all expectations were surpassed. Having Steve Ballmer pull me aside to tell me his wife was mad at him for spending too much time playing Halo was rad!

GS: Any regrets having sold Bungie to Microsoft?

AS: No. That worked out very well.

GS: Up until the Bungie/Take-Two deal, you were a pure indie player. Your comments immediately after that deal addressed the high cost of production and postproduction requirements. Has that reality changed? Wideload is less than a year old, but would you consider offers to sell if they came from the right party?

AS: How much are you offering?

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