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 know…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 “uh…do you play games all day?” Which…I don’t. (laughs)