We talk to the Executive Producer and CEO of a content company about his work and the industry
Today we have a unique interview with James Moffet, the CEO and Executive Producer of Colossal Studios. Colossal produces content, including 3D, for many sources, but primarily - to date - MMORPGs. The company is made up largely of former employees of Mutable Realms, which developed the cancelled MMORPG Wish.
Let us begin with an introduction to who you are, your company and what you do.
To the gaming world, I was the producer of the “Wish” MMORPG; one of many highly publicized, yet now defunct MMORPG efforts that have risen and summarily died over the last several years.
Colossal Studios is a company that I formed out of the ashes of “Wish” to provide Over-the-Top 3D content, guidance to other MMO developers based on our experience, a vehicle for selling the “Wish” assets, and to develop game related software.
The team is primarily comprised of former members from the “Wish” production staff with exceptional talents for developing bizarre concepts, concept art, composition, and 3D modeling. Collectively, we’ve been building high quality 3D related content for many years.
From concept to reality by Colossal Studios, courtesy of Duck's Den Productions
Unlike most people we talk to you, you run a studio without a game. How does this change things from past studios you’ve been in where there was one central project?
For one, it’s a hell of a lot easier *grins*. MMOs are hard and expensive to build. Nonetheless, we are doing the same type of work that we were doing prior to Colossal Studios with the exception that the work is much more diverse since it spans across multiple projects.
While we don’t have a game ourselves, we are working on some rather innovative games for other studios. You can’t see this work due to Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) (he downside to being outsourced labor).
Things are not much different really.
You are by definition, as you mention, outsourced labor. This has been a hot issue both within the game industry and the States as a whole. Can you tell us a bit about your views on outsourcing of labor as it affects video games?
As you are probably aware, the gaming industry is an extremely competitive business and most of the U.S. studios are located in some of the highest cost of living areas. That means that you have to pay your employees more so they can live in these high cost areas, and that your overhead costs are extremely high.
My view is that if you are not outsourcing your production to lower cost studios, then you are burning your money unnecessarily. We came to this conclusion during the development of “Wish” and we spent a lot of time finding and training external studios to develop assets to our standards. We have managed to keep that network in place.
Still, there are those who insist that all production has to be done in-house. You will probably see those companies change the way they operate or go the way of the dinosaurs. Many producers are afraid that they will be unable to get AAA quality by outsourcing because of communication issues. Others are afraid that their artwork will get freely distributed on the Internet or marketed without their consent. These issues, while real, are usually a result of poor choices in contractors, bad planning, weak management, or poor requirement definitions.
The other great benefit of outsourcing is that you do not have to staff up only to eventually lay people off when the work is completed.
An original model by Colossal Studios
Your staff seems spread all-over, with you in Florida and most in Canada. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?
The advantages are multi-fold:
Having a distributed company allows you to get excellent talent no matter where they are located and it also eliminates relocation costs.
Countries like Canada, India, China, Russia, Brazil, and others are rich with extremely educated, extremely talented, hardworking artist and software developers that cost a fraction of domestic talent.
Overhead costs are virtually eliminated in that we don’t have pay for an office, phones, desks, cleaning services, benefits, etc.
Distributing the work globally allows work to be done 24 hours a day due to time zone differences.
The disadvantages are (if you can call these disadvantages):
One must place a much greater emphasis on quality assurance.
Requirements have to be defined in painstaking detail (something you should do anyway IMHO).
Can you tell us a bit about how you communicate as a distributed company?
Communication occurs in several forms. At the heart of communication is a Wiki (a centralized editable web-site). The Wiki allows each developer to post their progress and design work in the form of written text, screen shots, scanned drawings, documents, and animation clips. It also allows producers and customers to view the status and progress of all work at any time from any location. For collaborative work, we typically use instant messengers and white boards and when that does not suffice we use VOIP (Skype) to ensure that there are no miscommunications.
'Wish' courtesy of Mutable Realms Inc.
Art seems to be the main function of your studio. Can you give our readers a behind the scenes look at what goes into creating an asset for an MMORPG?
Actually, that is a misnomer as art only represents about 50% of our efforts. We also develop software. However, art and creativity is certainly where our hearts lie.
To create art assets we have a well defined “Hollywood” style production pipeline and set of processes that are followed religiously. For example, to create a creature, the pipeline is as follows:
Requirements - i.e. actions, demeanor, size, population, # of animations, etc.
Concept art – drawings – usually has a front, side, and perspective drawing.
Mesh development – the shape of the creature – geometry only
UV mapping – how textures are mapped to the geometry mathematically
Texturing – the external appearance of the creature
Level of Details (LOD) – lower fidelity versions of the mesh based on viewing distance
Rigging – developing a skeleton with an appropriate amount of bones and binding the mesh to it.
Animation – the movements of a creature.
Keynote – points in an animation where sounds are played and special effects begin and end (e.g. weapon trails).
Export – creating the final data format for the game
Foley – creation of the sounds that a creature makes per animation
Integration – put the creature in the game and configure associated data files
Testing – evaluate the appearance, motion, performance, sound, etc.
* Note: each of the aforementioned steps is reviewed prior to proceeding to the next step.
We have similar pipelines and procedures for developing structures, developing worlds, and developing audio.
As someone working in the MMO-genre, but without a project, you can offer us a unique perspective. What do you think about the current crop of MMORPGs and those coming down the pipe? What is good? What is bad? What is missing?
What is good? Graphics. Graphics just keep getting better (at least for some).
What is bad: Instanced game play (personal preference).
What is missing? Innovation!
I see a lot of games in development but with very little innovation (there are some, but they are few and far between). The art changes, the story changes (or does it?), however the game mechanics and features change only slightly. For those people who have been playing MMOs since the Ultima days, most of these new titles are going to be extremely boring.
Since MMOs are expensive to build and extremely high risk in terms of gaining market share, we are seeing a plethora of low risk, high profile licenses that provide the same basic MMO features as all the others, but with slight differences to combat, questing, etc. These are games designed to make a whole bunch of money in the first six months based on the hype provided by the license.
Luckily, the number of people who play MMOs is constantly expanding with new kids coming of age, college kids graduating and now having disposable income, broadband becoming more available, etc.; such that these new games will appear exciting and new to people who have never played MMOs before.
Another trend I see is the consolidation of the industry by the console manufacturers. Right now MMOs are hosted primarily on personal computers. However, I think that you will see MMOs moving away from the PC and migrating to the next generation consoles (for grins, go to your local EB and see how many PC games are available). This may have the side effect of virtually eliminating MMO development by independent studios which historically provide innovation.
But all is not lost. My crystal ball suggests that innovation will continue to surface out of the independent developers for PC. Know however, that once the “next big thing” is developed, it will be copied by the giants, over-hyped, and replicated ad nauseam until the cycle repeats again and again. It’s the pioneer you find dead by the side of the trail with arrows in their back.
An original model by Colossal Studios
Do you ever see your studio moving beyond creating assets for others and trying your own project or are you happy where you are?
Someday we will most likely develop a project for ourselves; however I don’t know if it will be an MMO per se, or even a game. The real draw is creativity, excellence, and high fantasy. We love monsters. We love bizarre worlds. And we can do that type of work for other types of games…, or movies … or even print. Gaming has been a means to and end, and it lends itself well to developing these items. MMOs in particular are attractive because they lend themselves to making A LOT of these items for years on end.
To date we have developed sci-fi arcade games, online sports games, and a medieval fantasy MMORPG. We prefer the fantasy and sci-fi genre because of the freedom to create without bounds. I could go the rest of my life without making another sports game and be perfectly happy. In fact, I’d rather put hot needles in my eyes than build another sports title (*thought this article needed some drama*).
Until we finalize a concept for a ground breaking project, we will continue to do what we like to do best – create outlandish concepts for others and build them in 3D.
Editor's Note:Both myself (Dana Massey, Editor) and Jon Wood (News Manager) previously worked for Mutable Realms with James Moffet. Although this in no way influenced the article, the relationship should should be noted.