The name of the fictional game development company in 3 out of 10 is Shovelworks Studios, and really, that should tell you everything. Shovelworks is an exaggerated parody of a shallow, corporate game studio, complete with a boss focused on the bottom line, a crew of developers trying to do their best work, and a desk covered in blood from that time the animator spontaneously combusted. There’s also a tentacle monster in the refrigerator.
3 out of 10 is the new project from MOTHERGUNSHIP co-creator Terrible Posture, and it’s a serialized comedy show and mini-game extravaganza in one completely free package. The first episode launches today on the Epic Games Store, with new installments dropping every Thursday through September 3rd. That will mark the end of season one, but Terrible Posture founder Joe Mirabello and technical director Chris Zukowski said there’s more to come.
“It's an experiment not just in what a game can be, but also how games are digested and how players could approach a story,” Mirabello said.
The game features fully voice-acted narrative scenes interspersed with exploration opportunities and discrete moments of gameplay, though never in the same style. Narrative bits are mainly animated in 2D, but the interactive portions come in a range of visual forms and genres, including pixelated adventures, 3D driving experiences, sliding-tile puzzles, stacking games, horror scenes, first-person shooters, copycat challenges and pinball. Cut scenes and gameplay moments flow into each other seamlessly.
To build 3 out of 10, Terrible Posture implemented a handful of clever workarounds in Unreal, Epic’s in-house game engine. Developers are able to animate and edit within the engine itself, rather than switching to third-party software like Maya, as is typical. Their proprietary automation pipeline allows them to essentially plan an episode in a Google Doc, hit a button, and generate the skeleton of an entire episode. Everything that happens in 3 out of 10 is in real-time, with no pre-recorded videos in the code.
Terrible Posture is able to make the entire first season of 3 out of 10 available for free because of support from Epic -- and in return, Epic scores another exclusive and outsources some Unreal experiments.
“Given the fact that this is a show basically made from start to finish in Unreal, you can see why Epic perked their ears up,” Mirabello said. “They were pretty intrigued, also because there's no video content. You know that 90-second trailer that you saw? This entire episode is actually a smaller download footprint than a 4K version of the trailer we played.”
Mirabello didn’t divulge details about the deal between Epic and Terrible Posture, but said it was a new way of handling indie publishing.
“The way that this is being delivered is definitely a different approach to how games are built, how they're funded and what their goals are,” he said. “With that said, the mission statement of this game isn't necessarily to make money. It would be lovely and we have the soundtrack up there if people want to buy the soundtrack and support us more, that's fantastic, but we want to make sure that as many people can play this as possible.”
In episode one of 3 out of 10, “Welcome to Shovelworks,” it’s Midge Potter’s first day on the job. In fact, she thinks she’s at Shovelworks for an interview, but she’s funneled directly into the exploded animator’s vacated role. At the office, Midge meets Pylon (a logical but happy-go-lucky programmer), Ben (who would just like to do his work, please), Francine (the ambivalent assistant with blue hair), Viper (the macho dude with an artist’s heart), Joan (the mom of the group) and Kevin (who thinks it’s a “twist” to build an endless runner... with an end). This is the main ensemble cast, and players will take control of different characters with each episode.
Their new project is Surfing with Sharks, and the internet is in an uproar because the virtual shark is a Great White, but Shovelworks insists on calling it a Tiger Shark. Well, at least Kevin does. On top of handling public perception and building a functional game in a rigid system, Midge is dealing with a mysterious handler who insists that Shovelworks can’t be allowed to build a good game. In the ensuing episodes, a larger narrative arc unfurls around the studio.
“I've got stories,” Mirabello said. “There's no end of inspiration that we can think of to spoof and mock. This thing could go a long time. There is a progressing meta story, and so eventually that will go somewhere.”
Mirabello and Zukowski definitely have stories to spare. They worked together at 38 Studios between 2011 and 2012, building an ambitious MMO codenamed Project Copernicus -- before the company publicly crumbled, taking the state of Rhode Island with it. 38 Studios, founded by former baseball pro Curt Schilling, obtained a $75 million loan from the state of Rhode Island to fund the development of Project Copernicus and another huge game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, meaning taxpayers would be on the hook if either of these titles failed. It was a gamble for the state, and it didn’t pay off. Three months after Kingdoms of Amalur came out, 38 Studios couldn’t make payroll. The company folded and Rhode Island citizens are still dealing with the fallout.
With 38 Studios in the rearview mirror, Mirabello went indie and developed Tower of Guns, which landed him his first solo hit in 2014. He followed it with MOTHERGUNSHIP, and now he’s back with Zukowski and building 3 out of 10.
“The whole thing is actually a love letter to the game industry,” Mirabello said. “We put a lot of in-jokes about other games. We have a shared culture now that's built up over decades, and we like to add little nods to it.”
3 out of 10 is soaked in satire, with exaggerated characters and absurdist scenes that riff on video game players, developers and investors. It sounds like a potentially cringey combination, but 3 out of 10 is often laugh-out-loud funny. It feels authentic.
“[Game development] is this industry that people aspire to want to be part of, which is cool,” Mirabello said. “But then, there are no real representations of it. If there are, they've been really, really obtuse and strange. Things like Grandma's Boy.”
Zukowski added, “Strange, but also uninformed.”
“Uninformed,” Mirabello agreed. “It's like Hollywood talking about the game industry -- no. The game industry should be talking about the game industry.”
There have been recent attempts to address this lack of gaming-owned stories in popular culture, most recently in the form of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet. It’s an Apple TV+ comedy about a game development studio, backed by Ubisoft, and it’s been well-received by video game fans and outsiders alike.
Mirabello hasn’t watched Mythic Quest yet. The show came out well after Terrible Posture began building 3 out of 10, and he decided to hold off on watching it so he didn’t subconsciously steal any of its jokes or themes. That’s probably overly cautious; there’s plenty of comedic material to go around in the world of game development, after all.
Besides, 3 out of 10 isn’t just about video games. Like any good sitcom, its main concern is the relationships between the characters on-screen. Only, this show has mini games in between the drama and witty one-liners.
“We do have a lot of inside jokes in here, but we try and make sure that they're off on the peripheral,” Mirabello said. “People who are more inside the loop, they'll laugh at it and they'll be like, ‘Oh, that's pretty funny.’ We'll get better at this, but hopefully the core material is universal enough to be approachable by everybody.”