By now I’m sure you’ve all heard the story about how Heatwave Interactive picked up the abandoned game Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising from the now defunct Perpetual Entertainment. So I won’t give you the unnecessary history lesson in that regard. But I was recently invited out to visit their studio and do some interviews and such with various members of the team, so I will fill you in on how all of that went.
You hear a lot of horror stories out of the industry about employees being overworked and abused, especially during crunch time. I’ve been in the industry myself, so I can attest to the truth to those stories in a lot of cases. Once you start getting close to launching a title, the work day keeps getting longer and longer. Days off become practically unheard of. There’s just a ton of stuff that needs to get done and not enough time to do it in. People’s attitudes go downhill quickly. Most studios just aren’t a pleasant place to be in during crunch time. So with Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising launching in less than a month, you’d expect that the Heatwave Interactive studio would be a less than pleasant place to visit, right?
We, you (and I, since I went in with that expectation) couldn’t have been more wrong. I arrived at the office at about eleven AM, and was met outside by the Community Manager Donna Prior. I drove in as I live about four hours outside of Austin, and was running a little late. But I was just in time for the monthly Show & Tell meeting. I wasn’t sure exactly what this entailed, and if it would be followed up by nap time or what, but it sounded interesting, so I tagged along to investigate. What Show & Tell ended up being was a monthly meeting where the entire company comes together so people can show off to the rest of the company what they’ve been working on, stuff they’re proud of having accomplished, major bugs squashed or major ideas and features they’ve managed to get implemented since the last meeting. It was very casual and laidback and fun.
Completely not the type of meeting I expected to see taking place in a company less than a month away from shipping a major MMORPG. There were some technical issues and nobody got all pissy about it or blamed anyone else for screwing up. Everyone laughed and joked and just had a great time. Someone even managed to legitimately fit in a “cool story bro” comment. All of the different teams cycled through showing off new artwork that had been completed, new marketing videos that would soon be released, a new system to play a quick intro video after character creation, a major bug in the estate building system that had been knocked out, etc. I can honestly say it was one of the most fun meetings I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through in the industry. Had I been a part of more meetings like that, I would likely still be a part of the show actually.
After the meeting ended around noon, a bunch of the team got together to go get some lunch so I tagged along. Of course it was partly because they were going to Kerbey Lane Café, which is a huge favorite of mine, but also because it was a chance to get to know several more members of the team. It was a very casual and laid back lunch, no real rush to get back. We chatted a lot about the game and the company itself, where people had worked before Heatwave, etc. After lunch we headed back to the office so I could start my rounds of individual interviews.
Now, for a bit of clarification, there was no real schedule for the interviews. Nothing was set up ahead of time; it was really just a series of catching people in their office who had time to chat with me. I had already fully expected that there wouldn’t be many folks who had time to chat so close to launch, so I had typed up the questions and given them to Donna. I figured I’d end up getting them answered emailed to me after I had left. But nope, everyone was great about making time to see me. In fact, the first person I sat down with was the CEO Anthony Castoro.
After getting over my initial shock that the CEO of a company less than a month from launch was taking the time to speak with me, we had a great meeting. We spent what had to have been around an hour and a half talking. I worked through the questions on my list which he was best fit to answer, and we spent the rest of the time just chatting about the industry in general, the MMORPG genre and all kinds of other things. There are so many unapproachable CEOs in the industry, so many who seem so aloof and outside of everything that’s going on. It was a complete pleasure to sit and chat with one who not only was approachable, friendly and engaging, but also had such a great grasp on the MMO genre and the industry in general. There were no subjects or questions that were off-limits. No “don’t print this” moments or stories. And I left with the sense that he would have sat there chatting with me as long as I wanted him to.
I also met with Tim Schubert, the Lead Designer, and Phil Tittle, the Producer. Both of which were great conversations. Neither had any qualms about taking time out of their hugely busy day to meet with me. Any questions I asked were answered and we spent a good amount of time just chatting about the game and company in general, as well as the industry as a whole. By time I finished up with these two meetings, it was four pm, and therefore time for the office happy hour and a beer tasting.
Yes, you heard that right, happy hour in the office. The Community Manager, Donna Prior, had picked up a wide variety of lesser known Texas beers to introduce to the team. There was also an assortment of cheese and other finger foods to snack on. Every one gathered in the community/break room and sampled the different beers and cheeses, snacked on sandwiches and had a great time. Some played pool. Others just sat around chatting. Someone stuck a movie on the big screen called MegaForce. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend tracking it down. There’s a scene where someone does a barrel-roll on a motorcycle. How can you miss that? Overall it was a very casual and fun environment; everyone seemed laid back and relaxed. After the happy hour started winding down I had my last interview session of the day with the Community Manager Donna Prior and Product manager Shannon Drake. This was a far more casual meeting as I’ve known both of them for years now. We just did it on the couch in the break room while continuing to “sample” the beers left over from happy hour.
With all the horror stories you hear from the industry, it is very refreshing to see a studio that does it so right. As a perfect example, the CEO turned off VPN access and disabled the key-card entry system to the office over the Memorial Day weekend, ensuring no one could work and forcing his employees to enjoy a three day weekend. Heatwave Interactive is definitely a company where the people come first, and by focusing on making a fun game first and foremost, the money aspect of things will take care of itself. Sure they’re busy, at the time of the meeting it was less than a month from the Gods and Heroes launch, but they’re not acting like it’s the end of the world like a lot of studios do.