Big, huge interview: Big Huge Games head Tim Train

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Big, huge interview: Big Huge Games head Tim Train
When 38 Studios isn't busy hiring former Nintendo execs, Curt Schilling's Massachusetts-based MMO developer is buying up close-to-death development studios -- take, for instance, Big Huge Games. Tim Train, the studio's president, illuminated the near-death experience that Big Huge had in a talk at PAX East earlier this year (slides from said speech can be found below).

He explained how, with just a handful of days left and termination letters ready to send out, 38 Studios swept in and saved Big Huge and the vast majority of its staff. We found his story so interesting, we thought we'd follow up with Train and have him explain it once more, as well as speak about other topics. Will Big Huge ever produce another digital board game? Unfortunately, it looks like you could be waiting on that for quite some time. Hit the break for the whole thing.
Joystiq: Before and after signing with THQ, what do you believe internally helped lead to the near-death experience of Big Huge? (Rather than with regards to the problems that THQ was having.)

I'm not sure that there was much that we could have done better internally. We always have prided ourselves on working very tightly with our publisher. And we think it's very important that the publisher be viewed as a partner, so we're always very open-kimono with the publisher. We try to be very easy to work with. There's a lot of developers in the industry that view the publisher as an enemy or somebody who is a necessary evil. And we never viewed our publisher either when we were indie or when we were owned by THQ, as being anything but a value-add to the process. And so we focused a lot on making sure that they always knew what was going on and that they had a lot of input on the product and how things were going. And so, I'm not sure what else we would have done different there.

Could you explain to me a little bit about the corporate situation at THQ and what led to why they would have let you guys go over other studios?

Well, I think there were two things. One of them is that they just ended up in a cash flow crunch, and we are a triple-A studio that has a relatively high burn rate for doing triple-A product. And they found themselves when their stock price hit $2, in a situation where they just couldn't afford to keep us. They had to make some hard choices. They had kind of expanded pretty rapidly when the economy was good, and then when the economy contracted as violently as it did, they had to make some hard choices and we were unfortunately one of the hard choices.

And so along those lines, how do you feel about THQ's new found success in the past year or so with regards to, you know, Red Faction: Guerrilla and Saint's Row 2 and that kind of stuff?

I definitely wish them all the best. I think the world of the guys at Volition. We worked ... we actually did some good cross-studio exchanges with them when we were part of the THQ stable. And I really respect what they've done and what they've built. And, yeah, I think they're really good at what they do. So I think that's great. I think that, they bet very smartly on the UFC license. They kind of got into that before it really exploded and now they're seeing the fruits of that. I think they basically retrenched into a more tightly focused strategy. And that has helped them. And I'm happy for them in that way and particularly happy because I bought their stock when it was 2. So I'm glad to see it. Glad to see it up at 750 or whatever it is today.

As far as the DLC plans for upcoming projects, you guys are working with a gentlemen from Bethesda who had worked on the Elder Scrolls series in the past. And there's kind of been more of a ... how do I put this? There's been a lot more support for large expansions on consoles for RPG's as of late, especially with stuff like Fallout 3. I'm just wondering if you guys plan on pursuing similar goals with your upcoming project and what your deals and plans might be for that.

Our mission is basically to kick ass at whatever it is that we're setting our hand to. We definitely, are cognizant of the ... some of the different ... I guess discussion around DLC. Value for money, the ways that it can extend the life of the product. And our focus from a creative perspective is just to make the very best DLC that we can. We happily have ... I think we're at, like, six or seven key people from the Fallout and Elder Scrolls teams that are working with us now. And so that is an exciting pool of experience to draw from. I certainly think Bethesda's done a great job with their DLC. And I've enjoyed ... you know, particularly the Oblivion and Fallout content. And so you know, that's something that I look to as an example of DLC done really well. And ... but I can't really talk any more specifics about right now, the DLC plan at this time.

"I've enjoyed the Oblivion and Fallout content. And so you know, that's something that I look to as an example of DLC done really well."

Before you guys were purchased by 38 Studios and before what happened with THQ happened, there was talk of Ascendant and something called God: The Game and, I'm just wondering where those stand now officially -- if they are still at any point in production at any sort of level, if they're still owned by you guys, or if THQ has the rights to that?

I sadly can't comment on any of that stuff. The stuff that you saw online speculated that Ascendant was a console role-playing game developed by Ken Rolston, and so to the extent that those rumors were correct, that has pretty much morphed into the Mercury project. God: The Game isn't something that I can comment on either, unfortunately. I wish that I could be more open about it.

Okay, but as far as these properties existing, is that something that you guys still own the rights to? Is that a question that I can ask?

Yeah, we can't really disclose the business terms of the acquisition deal, unfortunately. You could, if you wanted to, submit that question to our CEO. I could ask her if it was okay, but I'm pretty sure she'll give the same answer.

As far as the world of Copernicus goes and the stuff that you were working on before, I'm just wondering how much has changed and how you guys have worked on adapting what you were working on before into the world of Copernicus and how that had worked out?

That's worked out really well. We've been very happy with the team dynamic with 38 Studios. They are built in much the same way that Big Huge was, to really focus on product quality and employee quality as the most important drivers of success, and so that's been a pretty positive collaboration, because we mesh pretty well as a team.

From a technical perspective, we had developed our technology for the roleplaying game that we had been working on with THQ. It was a pretty seamless transition. One of the first things we did when we first started working with 38 was take some of the assets from the world of Copernicus, the MMO, and just put them in the engine. We did that really quickly, and it looked really cool. We were able to fiddle around with lighting and that kind of stuff and make it look awesome for the console space. That was pretty seamless.

One of the most important things was to get our team up to speed on the world that R.A. [Salvatore] and Todd [McFarlane] had created. That was something that took a couple months, with people really immersing themselves in this really rich backstory. And then, I think I mentioned it in the talk, 38 basically said, "Here's our world history timeline. It's this giant timeline, with lots and lots of different eras and epochs and cool tales to tell. What are you guys interested in doing in this world?" So we picked the age that we thought was the coolest for the kind of game that we wanted to do and got to work on it. The whole thing was pretty straightforward, not a lot of hiccups there.

And as far as the code name goes, does Project Mercury have any sort of bearing on what the game is actually about?

It's a code name, so not really. We mostly pick our code names to be around the theme of Copernicus (laughs), so Mercury fits in that.

And how many games are you guys working on? How many projects are you currently working on, in addition to the RPG?

Unfortunately, we can only talk about the one that we've announced. Other projects may or may not be in existence, and we'll be able to talk about them in the appropriate time.

Big Huge has traditionally developed games for the PC. Do you plan on supporting the PC the same way that you have in the past and the financial viability of releasing games on PC (without releasing on a console)?

Historically, we've been a PC shop. Over the timeline that the RPG has been in development have become a lot more savvy about console and we've hired a lot of console expertise. You know, our hearts are still with the PC in a lot of way, we want the PC to succeed as a platform, there are a lot of challenges to that, but we're pretty excited about seeing how it evolves and grows. I'm personally pretty excited at the sort of simpler, smaller games that don't require you to upgrade your PC every nine months to run properly. I think that's pretty cool, but we'll just have to see how the market continues to evolve.

On a completely unrelated note, you folks made Catan for XBLA some time ago.


I'm just wondering if you could tell me how that was received. Was it a success financially speaking, is there really a market for board games on places like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, and do you ever plan on doing something like that again?

To start with the success part, Catan's been pretty successful. We certainly made money on it. And we've been pretty happy with it. I would've liked to put more money into marketing it but when we released it we were still an indie with dwindling cash supplies, and so we just didn't have a lot of money to actually do a lot of marketing on it. It's got a nice long tail -- you know, the brand name and the quality of the product I think mean that when people are scrolling through their brand new Xbox Live list or whatever they go "Ooh, Catan! I like that game! Let me check it out." and then they tell their friends about it and so sales continue to go on pretty strong.

It's really hard to extrapolate whether that means there's a market for board games, because Catan is such a phenomenal game, and it's so well known, and it's also just kinda hitting an inflection point where you know you're getting the articles in Wired and The New York Times about the game as being "the new Monopoly" or whatever. And so I don't know how well that would translate to board games like Dominion or those kinda things ... I really just have no idea. It was, for us, a great bridge product to get us onto the 360 and because we so love Catan and the works of Klaus Teuber, it was more a labor of love for us than it was a "let's see how we can wring every bit of dollar profit out of this" situation.

So yeah, it's not like we ever really considered just becoming a board game developer, or thought that this might be a major arm for the company. We just thought "Oh man, to get to touch the Catan world!" and we had a really strong vision for how like the AI should work and all that, we can't pass this up. Then we made some money on it, and that's great, ... I don't know how that would work for other developers. But we were excited to do the game and excited to see how it has done.

Do you see a future doing more games like that -- doing other board game adaptations for digital distribution?

I don't know. I mean for Big Huge, it's hard to tell at the moment. We are very focused on the world of Copernicus and the story that they are to tell in that world and so, yeah it's difficult to say.

And how has your job personally changed since the acquisition by 38? You talked a lot about the culture at Big Huge, so I'm just wondering if that has changed at all after the purchase.

The culture has remained pretty much the same ... if anything I think that we've grown, in the kind of "iron sharpens iron" way where this two really tight, really good development groups that have a lot of experience between them. You know we've learned a lot of stuff from 38 and I think vice versa. We kind of changed some of our production process, like for example we had kinda tried Scrum. The kind of Scrum methodology of development. We tried Scrum on one of our smaller projects and it hadn't really worked out that well. And so we kinda felt like "Ahh Scrum ... hummana hummana," and working with 38 they kind of convinced us of take a second look at it and really try to implement it in a more rigorous way than what we had. And when we kind of took their advice and really jumped whole heart on the Scrum band wagon, it was a phenomenal add to our production processes. I think that those kinds of cross-studio experiences, there is definitely a lot of economies of scale in that and be able to share those kind of techniques and processes, so they've been pretty smart about the way that they have handled the acquisition. There hasn't been any great "We must change our culture fundamentally" or anything like that and if anything we have learned a lot from them and vice versa.

Alright just to finish up, is there a time frame you could give us for when we'll see something on Project Mercury?

"You expect me to talk? No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" You'd have to be torturing me to get that information.

Might we see something at E3, perhaps?

You might! Who can say? Who can know?

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