Joystiq interview: Unbolting Game Mechanic Studios

Jason Dobson
J. Dobson|12.31.08

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Joystiq interview: Unbolting Game Mechanic Studios

While most of us were unconscious on Christmas morning, resigned to watch on as sugar plums danced on as only anthropomorphic candy can, newly christened game developer Game Mechanic Studios was busy lifting the curtain on its freshman project, a mysterious shooter codenamed Art of War.

According to the studio, the game will cast players in the role of a "reclusive millionaire" and art lover hilariously named Warren Canvas, as he revisits famous past battlegrounds which have "all been re-imagined in an exciting new way." Little else is known, though the company notes that Mr. Canvas may have his work cut out for him, teasing that "20:1 odds will be a beautiful thing!"

Dazed and confused, we recently stumbled into studio co-founder Jason Alejandre, an industry vet who made his first footprint in the industry developing for the Sega Genesis. We took the opportunity to ask Alejandre more about Game Mechanic Studios and Art of War, as well as how he plans to make his studio thrive in such an uncertain economic climate.
So when exactly did the three of you decide to join forces and create Game Mechanic Studios?

I have actually been working on a business plan for a long time. The stars finally aligned about 6 months ago and that was when we were finally able to pull the trigger. The plan went through lots of iteration until finally I had a plan that I felt extremely confident in. The people, plan, and timing was all right.

Starting a business is very similar to designing games everything has to start from a solid foundation. I set out to build a great game company and that isn't done over night. I went through all my past job experiences and identified the things that went right and also the things that went wrong. This way I could build on the good things and avoid the pitfalls of the past. I also had a really good idea of the company I wanted to build.

We've taken a different approach to development and this was one of the things that really excited the guys. I didn't start this thing to do what everybody else has done -- I wanted to try and evolve the business.

"I really believe that a small team composed of the right people wins out any day against a big team where there is no ownership or accountability."

And what were the force or forces that brought you all together then?

Henry [Ji] and I came together very briefly about seven and half years ago. He left a lasting impression on me. He was the first guy that I had met that was able to match or even possibly exceed the vigorous work ethic that I had. He wouldn't accept anything less than the best. Quality was extremely important to him and he knew that when the credits rolled it had to be something he was proud of.

It doesn't take a few months to make a game -- sometimes it takes years. The time we spend doing these games is very precious and we both wanted to make the most of it by doing the best job we could within the allotted time frame.

Jeff [Hua] was always like the quiet kid sitting in the back of the class. I had seen him around for a long time but was never really introduced. I honestly didn't even know if the guy spoke English. Finally we started working together and both of us started producing some of the best work of our careers....nuff said.

We've seen an alarming number of studios fold in recent months. Was this something that convinced the three of you want to work on something different?

No it wasn't a studio closure. It really just came down to being the right time. There is only so much you can accomplish creatively within the big companies. Teams always change and the people don't get a chance to mesh. It takes chemistry and trust in your teammates to have a shot at building a great game.

Championship teams are usually built over a period of time. Do a couple projects, develop a good relationship with your fellow team members and understand the intricacies, strengths, and weakness of the team. I really believe that a small team composed of the right people wins out any day against a big team where there is no ownership or accountability.

I'm curious why you decided on Christmas Day as the perfect time to open your doors, at least officially.

As a kid I always got so many video games at Christmas time. I am huge game player and I felt like there wasn't a better time to show fellow gamers out there what's next. It's a special sneak peek into Santa's shop for maybe an upcoming Christmas. Santa's got a brand new bag!

You say that you are working on an original IP, but have given few specific details. Are you ready to talk specifics yet?

Our first project is codenamed AoW...Art of War. The blurry image is one of the levels in the game called Obsidian Serpent. The game is different yet the same. When thinking out of the box it is very easy to get caught up in the moment. Then you find yourself somewhere in left field. We plan on straddling the line of familiar yet different.

"I really wish I could say that I was excited to do something on the Wii...I have been very underwhelmed by the games released on the system."

Interesting, if not a bit confusing. Still, given your rather diverse pedigree, with titles ranging from extreme sports in Tony Hawk to realistic first person shooters like those in the Medal of Honor franchise, is it safe to assume that your first project will be sticking to one of these genres with which you have experience?

We make shooters and we are going to start with what we do best which is exactly that. We are going to introduce players to a brand new world. If I had a dollar each time someone said that I would be rich! The world is a quarter authentic and the rest is straight out of my crazy imagination. It's going to be fun!

So it's going to be a shooter. Are there genres you are specifically avoiding or not interested in developing titles in?

There isn't anything we are particularly avoiding or are not interested in developing. Our first priority is to do our due diligence and make sure anything that we decide to work on has the potential to be amazing. I am a fan of all games starting with the likes of Mario, Zelda, Viva Piñata and World of Goo, all the way to games like Dead Rising, COD4, and Bioshock. The studio is very open-minded and if it's something we all get creatively excited about I am sure we would do it.

Along those same lines, what platforms are you most excited to develop for, and are there any that are not on your radar?

I really like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This console war has been really fun to be a part of. The PlayStation hardware is so good. I am waiting to see who will unlock that system's full potential. The Xbox, on the other hand, has done everything right and the online experience is nothing short of amazing.

I really wish I could say that I was excited to do something on the Wii. Everyone who knows me knows that I have always been a Nintendo fan boy. Nintendo has made excellent business decisions, but I have been very underwhelmed by the games released on the system.

What about the digital space? Any interest there?

I am really excited about the digital space and would love to do something for Live or the PlayStation Network! I have a great idea that will most likely be done on an upcoming title or maybe sooner. We'll have to wait and see. Stay tuned!

Finally, titles like those you are used to working on are generally of the high-end, 'AAA' variety, which require not only a significant risk in time but also dollar investment as well to get out the door. With studios seeming to downsize or close left and right in recent months due to our eggshell economy, how is your fledgling studio insulating itself from a similar fate?

This is a great question and brings us full circle. It basically all comes to down to the foundation and the planning. Keep it simple do quality work, be dedicated and passionate about the work, choose the right people, and have a solid plan; these are the keys to success.

Our unique approach to development also helps along with aligning ourselves with the right partners to achieve long term success. In addition to that we have a few tricks up our sleeves. If all that doesn't work then I guess we will work harder than everyone else, hey its Christmas Day isn't it?
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