Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series that focuses on Austin’s video game industry: the history, the creators, the fans and the culture that surrounds it.
Collected within the UT video game archive and housed in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History are numerous internal design documents and concept artworks for many of the greatest games that were and some that would never be. Like so much about the history of video games, from Japan to Austin, the development processes and conditions under which video games are conceived remain shrouded in mystery.
Austin’s game industry dates back to the early ‘80s, when game designer Richard Garriott was shipping disks in Ziploc bags from his bedroom and game producer Warren Spector was studying film at UT. These two men would go on to build Origin Systems, Austin’s first game studio, but they can hardly take credit for where the industry has gone since those days.
“One of the reasons that Warren Spector was passionate about creating the archive is that when he was a graduate film student [at UT] in the early 1980s — at the same time that he worked at Steve Jackson Games — he was confronted with the extreme lack of documentation regarding early film history, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen to the game industry,” said Zach Vowell, an archivist for the collection.
Design documents serve to conveniently plan and dictate how the production process should work but don’t necessarily reveal how things end up happening. From the chaos of a game’s final weeks of development (they call it “crunch time”) to inside jokes among staff, it’s difficult to learn about the studio culture that these creative works are born in without being a part of it.
Perhaps, then, we should start by talking to the current leaders of Austin’s game industry to gain insight into the creative process and what drives developers to Austin.
Raphael Colantonio is the CEO and studio director of Arkane Studios, a developer based in Lyon, France, that opened an Austin branch in 2007. They have worked on PC and console games that draw heavily on the roleplaying aspects Spector once explored. The studio’s first release in 2002, “Arx Fatalis,” was a brilliant homage to Spector’s first major project at Origin in 1992, “Ultima Underworld.” Along with developing its own games, the studio outsources its talent to other developers to complete work such as designing levels for Treyarch’s “Call of Duty: World at War” and 2K Games’ recently released “Bioshock 2.”
Arkane’s games can best be described as being designed for Spector fans by Spector fans, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Colantonio chose to move to the city that was the birthplace of many of Spector’s titles. Colantonio views the community aspect among developers as a contributing factor in choosing to move to Austin.
“We can talk to most [other developers] — we see each other often in bars. It’s not like some cities where people are very protective about what they do,” Colantonio said. “We share more; it’s often that we use other people from other companies to playtest our own games.”
Whereas Colantonio expanded his company from Lyon to Austin, Kain Shin, who worked under Colantonio at Arkane’s Austin studio, took a different route.
“I quit my last job so that I could move to France,” Shin said. “I realized that I missed speaking English and I missed Austin, so I came back. It took me leaving it to realize that.”
While Austin game industry veterans continue to build their legacy, there is a new generation of Austin game designers gaining momentum.
“Richard Garriott and Warren Spector are luminaries but they are not necessarily known to the new generation, this being the generation that graduated after 2005,” Shin said.
One of the leading faces of this generation is Michael Wilford, CEO of Twisted Pixel Games, an Austin-based studio that has worked on a series of exuberant, colorful games for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service: “The Maw” (2008), “‘Splosion’ Man” (2009) and the upcoming “Comic Jumper.” These games are a throwback to the days of zany mascots and simple, refined game design.
“We all have a similar sense of humor,” Wilford said, describing the nature of the studio and the origin of “Splosion’ Man.” “We were all sitting around, talking about what kind of game we wanted to make, and we loved the idea of seeing big panes of glass shattering in games and big, huge explosions. We were like, ‘What if we made a whole game just based around shattering glass and explosions?’ We just kept piling on to this crazy idea.”
After Wilford left his job in Chicago, he moved to Indiana along with company co-founders Josh Bear and Frank Wilson to form a game company out of Bear’s mother’s house.
After completion of “The Maw,” they decided to move out of Bear’s mother’s place and start somewhere new.
“We were having problems finding experienced game-development talent in the Midwest, so we started looking around. We considered Seattle, Raleigh and a whole bunch of other places, but Austin just blew them all away. Low cost of living, low cost of business, the weather, the quality of life — just everything we need is here,” Wilford said. “We’ve been here for a year and a quarter, and none of us are planning on ever leaving.”
Austin studios continue to form and expand, thanks to the support of local government, a talent pool and a rich history. The result: Austin developed games such as “Darksiders” (Vigil Studios), “Metroid Prime Trilogy” (Retro Studios) and “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (Bioware Austin) that have been receiving acclaim and hype in 2010 — making everyone else wonder what’s so special about this city.