Beyond the Core Gamer: An Interview with Wideload Games' Alex Seropian

Alex Seropian circa 2005. Image courtesy of Gamasutra.

"There's huge potential for the market to grow, and the only way we're going to get there is if there are games available that address an audience beyond the core gamer."

Publisher: Gamecock
Genres: Compilation
Price: $39.99
Multimedia: Hail to the Chimp
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Wideload
US release date: 2008-06-24
Developer website

In a gaming industry increasingly dominated by a handful of sprawling media giants, Alex Seropian is a bit of an iconoclast. Bungie, the development company he co-founded in college, became extremely successful after Microsoft acquired them and the rights to the studio's Halo game in 2000. But instead of sticking around to reap the benefits of the "Halo" cash cow, Seropian left Bungie in 2003 while the sequel was still in development to move back to Chicago with his family.

He and several of his associates soon started a new independent game development company in the Windy City called Wideload with the intention to do things differently than Bungie and most of the industry by hiring a small staff that outsources much of its work to other companies around the world.

And,of course, there are the games themselves. Wideload's first major release was the underrated Stubbs the Zombie for the Xbox, a black-humored game in which the title character attacks enemies by farting and spends a level urinating in a major water source in a 1950s-era suburban utopia.

This month, Wideload released "Hail to the Chimp," a slightly subversive, family-friendly party game. On the surface, the game resembles some of the cute, colorful fare aimed at kids for the Nintendo Wii but "Chimp" features a lot of sly parodies of politics, news media and pop culture.

In a recent interview, Seropian talked about his company, the challenge of making a game, and releasing a presidential election parody game in the midst of the country's fascination with real-life presidential politics.

PopMatters: How is the way Wideload makes games much different from Bungie?

Alex Seropian: We grew up Bungie to be a typical game developer where we ended up with about a hundred people working on a game over three years, and that's a fairly common model. But when we started this studio, we didn't want to do that, because in that model you fail. It's expensive and there's lots of other factors. So we took a page out of the filmmaking model and we decided, OK, we'll start our team with this small core group of people and we'll just keep the team this way and we'll run the production of the game and we'll staff up with contractors and external developers and people we know in the industry for production, and when we're done with production we're still that small team. Also, everybody here contributes to the creative process on a regular basis. Over the last five years, we've actually come up with a couple hundred game ideas that we've developed in one way or another. It's not like there's just one guy inventing everything. It's a very collaborative environment that way.

In this creative process, do you have specific meetings?

Bungie's Halo series remains Seropian's most recognizable franchise

Oh yeah, regularly. Probably six times a year. The simplest thing we do is..we say, "OK, we're having a game day, so bring your ideas." And we bounce ideas back and forth. Sometimes we'll take an idea that somebody had and rework it and bring it up again and sometimes and we'll take some of the ideas and say "lets take three of these, and take a day trying to exploring those."

Where did the idea for Hail to the Chimp come from?

This game, like other ideas, started out as a one-page idea and it was actually really simple: We wanted a multiplayer social game where you have four people on one couch playing. The only really specific thing we had in that one page was this idea of teaming up. We also decided we wanted all the characters to be animals because back in that one pager we decided that your mom has to like it, so, you hand your controller to your mom and she plays and she's not offended.

Sounds like a far cry from Halo.

A still from Stubbs the Zombie

Look, the game industry says, "Yeah, we've surpassed the box office, we're bigger than Hollywood," but honestly it's a load of shit because games cost 60 bucks -- that's 10 times the amount of a movie ticket. There's huge potential for the market to grow, and the only way we're going to get there is if there are games available that address an audience beyond the core gamer. So we said "OK, we can take everything we've learned making games and we can apply it and have high production values and make a game that's family friendly, but something that core gamers will also like because we're core gamers ourselves."

Was this game inspired at all by the current presidential election?

No, [lead writer] Matt Soell actually came up with the idea a couple years ago. He said, "Hey, maybe they're having an election and it can be covered by this 24 hour cable news network," and we started looking at it like that. Think CNN, and then we started seeing all the things we could do. If you go on YouTube and type in political attack ad, you get all these hits and you watch this stuff...if you see them on TV, they're not supposed to make you laugh, but...

Did you do that type of research then?

Oh yeah. I'd go down to my basement, get on my Stairmaster, and I'd go watch CNN, just to see the language, the visual language they use and how the anchors talk to each other, and the kind of commercials they have. I took all the fake ads and I put them in QuickTime and gave them to my kids to watch, and you'd think kids wouldn't like it, but they were, like, rolling on the floor.

Were there lots of challenges you faced when making this game?

Somehow, Ptolemy is a great name for a hippo.

Every time you make a game, you're using new technology. Imagine you're a director of movies and every time you go to make a new movie, you have to use a new movie camera and your cinematographer doesn't know how to use this thing. That's what we're faced with. We got triple-whammied: We're using a new piece of software and using the Xbox 360 which is a new piece of hardware and the PS3, which is a completely different piece of hardware. A lot of things we're figuring out...this technology, we're doing things with [the Unreal Engine] that no one, including Epic, has done with it before and so we've found some problems, so we've had to work with Epic to try and solve some of those problems. Some are easy to solve, some completely impossible.

How do you feel about the end result of the game?

This project has been really gratifying to work on because the gameplay is way different from Halo and Stubbs, because you know, they are linear games, and you visit each place once. Each level is one path. In this game, it's like all of these concentric circles...We put a lot of money on the screen, put a lot into the characters, the environments, all this stuff, there's just a huge amount of production value in the game. I have to think it's the most in any party game ever and it's very gratifiying to, you know, raise the bar for a game like this.

Are there certain perceptions people have about working for a video game company?

Yeah, I get asked " you play games all day?" Which...I don't. (laughs)

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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