In Real Life

The Ski Safari Story: How One Australian Left Rockstar North To Chase His Indie Dreams

It began as a hobby project. It began with Brendan Watts curled up in his bed with a laptop and a handful of silly ideas. But when Brendan’s mobile game was finished and released on the App Store, he was forced to make one of the biggest decisions of his life: continue with his dream job working on Grand Theft Auto V at Rockstar North, or leave it all behind and commit to his Indie dream? This is the Ski Safari story.

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May 2012. Heads peer like meerkats over the parapets of cubicle walls. Brendan Watts can’t be sure, but he thinks he can hear whispers. The looks are incredulous. People are confused and who could blame them? Three weeks ago Brendan Watts was given the offer of a lifetime, the dream job — working at Rockstar North, in Edinburgh. Working on Grand Theft Auto V, the most anticipated game in development. Working with some of the world’s most talented developers at one of the best studios on the planet.

But now, just 21 days later, Brendan Watts is in the process of packing his things into a cardboard box. In the next five minutes he will leave Rockstar North for the very last time.

‘He’s leaving to work on a mobile game?’

His colleagues at Rockstar don’t get it; they don’t understand. But Brendan Watts has always taken pride in his ability to chose the safe option and, if you ask him, this is the safest bet he’s ever taken in his life.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The story of Ski Safari begins with three words. ‘Rock’, ‘paper’ and ‘scissors’.

October 2011. Brendan lies in bed, huddled under a doona, bathed in a pool of artificial light. His girlfriend huffs and puffs, throws a pillow over her head in a vain attempt to get some sleep. It’s 11pm and Brendan is still tooling around, working on prototypes. Blowing off creative steam.

Brendan Watts has had a tumultuous few years.

It started at Pandemic Studios in Brisbane where Brendan, almost immediately after graduation, started work as a Junior, on Destroy All Humans 2. Seven months later he had shipped his very first game. His work was exemplary and, as a result, he was sent over to Pandemic’s US headquarters alongside a team of Aussies to work on Mercenaries 2. Things were going swimmingly.

Then, a series of calamities. Pandemic was hit with redundancies and, eventually, full closure. Things got tricky. As always, Brendan chose the safest option available to him. The safest bet.

“When Pandemic went down there was a lot of unknowns,” says Brendan. “Were there going to be enough companies to soak up all these people? I guess there wasn’t. A lot of people went overseas. But because of my girlfriend and her studies I chose to do the safe thing and stay in Australia with Krome.”

Krome didn’t fare much better, closing down shortly after. This left Brendan with even less options. Eventually he had to take a job outside of gaming, toiling with a programming gig before doing client work with Defiant Development, a start up company made up of ex-colleagues from Krome and Pandemic. Brendan would trundle home tired, but full to the brim with unexpended creative energy.

This is why Brendan spent most of his night huddled under a doona, bathed in artificial light, working on prototypes.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

‘Rock’, ‘paper’, ‘scissors’. Brendan doesn’t know why he chose those three words, but he suspects it was something to do with all those 48 hour Game Jams he’d been attending. Game Jams typically take a single word as a theme, and have all developers attending create a single game using that theme. Brendan wanted to create three. One for each word.

‘Rock’, ‘paper’, ‘scissors’.

This is how Brendan Watts created Ski Safari.

“The Rock? To begin with it was really just a rock falling down a hill.”

Brendan admits he isn’t that great with words. He tends to take things a little too literally.

“I wanted to get that rolling feeling that you get in Tiny Wings,” he explains. “Tiny Wings had the jumps and stuff, that was cool. I was really just testing out physics. It was literally just a circle and some procedurally generated terrain.”

But that didn’t really work. He decided to give the paper idea a try.

“That was a paper aeroplane game,” says Brendan. “Super simple. One tap to go up in the sky. I called it Feather because it had birds. You would collect feathers and eventually transform into a bird.”

Scissors? The scissors game never really existed, not even as a prototype. Brendan mentions conjuring together some rough ideas for an endless runner featuring a small boy carrying a pair of scissors for some reason. But at that point Brendan was too busy thinking about how he could combine the whole ‘rock’ and ‘paper’ thing to create something feasible. He sensed potential.

“The paper prototype had some really basic gliding physics — you move faster, you gain momentum — that kind of stuff. I sort of just chucked those physics onto the rock prototype and made it more about about sliding down a hill. At some point I realised it made sense for this to be a game about skiing.”

This is how Brendan Watts created the skeleton frame that would ultimately become Ski Safari.

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Shawn Eustace buries his head in an iPad. He hasn’t said much for the past 30 minutes, but that’s typical. Eventually he surfaces for air. Despite the fact there are no obstacles and no objectives to speak of, Shawn is completely head over heels in love with Ski Safari.

“He went bonkers for it,” laughs Brendan.

This was despite the fact that, by Brendan’s own admission, the game was as bare bones as it gets. There was no background, no challenges, no real ‘gameplay’ in any sense of the word.

“And it looked terrible.”

The fact that Shawn Eustace, the Art Director at Defiant Development, was completely and utterly obsessed with a game lacking in any kind of cohesive structure was enough to convince Brendan that it might be worthwhile spending a little more time on this little side project of his.

So the decision was made. Brendan would drag Ski Safari from the comfort of his doona into the Defiant Development office, where he and Shawn would dedicate themselves to Ski Safari for a month, filling out the skeleton that was built from a piece of paper and a single rolling rock.Together they would add obstacles, challenges and the much needed backgrounds. They would add penguins, yetis and snow mobiles and create the video game that would change both of their lives forever.

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February 2012. Brendan Watts hands in the completed version of Ski Safari to Defiant. And despite the lack of sleep, despite the fact she spent most of her nights with a pillow stuffed over her head, Brendan’s girlfriend graduates from her gruelling veterinary degree. Both decide they need a good long break.

“That was when my girlfriend and I left to go travelling overseas in the UK,” says Brendan.

The plan was to spend a year in the UK, to use that base to save some money, make some jaunts across to Europe. Brendan remembered that a huge chunk of his colleagues moved overseas after the closure of Pandemic. He decided to give a friend, now working in Edinburgh at Rockstar North, a call.

“I said, ‘hey I’m coming to the UK, do you think there would be anything available?’ He said ‘yeah, sure, come in for an interview.’”

The interview was a mixed bag. Brendan had spent a good chunk of time working on Helicopter AI on Mercenaries 2 at Pandemic. This piqued their interest. But at one point Brendan pulled out his iPad and proudly began demoing his new mobile game, currently in submission at Apple. ‘This is Ski Safari,’ he said. Eyes instantly began to glaze over.

“At Rockstar, and I think this is the same at any big company, mobile games aren’t highly regarded,” says Brendan. “One of the guys had actually seen the game before. He was kinda surprised and thought it was cool, but everyone else didn’t really care.”

With the barest thread of hope in his heart, Brendan left Edinburgh and began travelling with his girlfriend. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever hear from Rockstar again. He went to Switzerland, he tried to relax. He tried to forget about things. Then, when he got back to their home base in the UK he received an email. He had gotten the job. He would be working at Rockstar North, programming helicopter AI for Grand Theft Auto V.

“I was absolutely stoked,” says Brendan. “A job at Rockstar working on GTA V. It was awesome.”

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

April 2012. The offices of Rockstar North. Once again Brendan Watts is bathed in a pale artificial light. His retinas widen. His stomach twists in disbelief. He feels a mild sense of elation and panic. He alt tabs rapidly between the work he should be doing and refreshing the Apple webpage on Chrome. He simply can’t believe his eyes.

After two months in submission, Ski Safari has been released. The numbers are coming in. Brendan is bemused. Hypnotised. The game is selling. In almost incomprehensible numbers.

“It was mindblowing,” says Brendan. “Completely surreal.”

Tens of thousands of downloads per day, shooting up the ranks. Brendan fell into a strange trance. Focusing on helicopter AI on Grand Theft Auto V was next to impossible.

“I was going into my office at Rockstar, trying to concentrate on the work but in the back of the mind, I’m like there are so many people downloading my game right now,” says Brendan.

“It was a major distraction! I’d try and not check the numbers but inevitably, every hour, I’d go back and hit refresh on the rankings. The numbers were just so unbelievable. You can’t affect it, you can’t do anything about it, but you can’t look away.”

Brendan was shell shocked, but in the back of his mind thoughts began to tick like clockwork, pieces began falling into place. ‘What if I took the time to support this game,’ he thought. ‘What if there were updates. What if I could spend all of my time working on Ski Safari?’

What then?

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“I’ve always chosen the safe thing,” says Brendan. “The safe option.”

Brendan Watts hands in his resignation. He quits his dream job at Rockstar North to work on the video game that began life as bare bones prototype about a rock rolling down a hill. His colleagues can’t quite believe it. There are strange looks. It all feels a bit awkward.

“I had to try and explain, but it was almost impossible,” he says. “I just blurted out, ‘my game is doing really well!’

“I think there might have been some talk after I left! What’s this crazy guy doing, he just joined and now he’s gone!”

Brendan admits it wasn’t an easy decision. The people he worked with at Rockstar North were talented. The atmosphere, unlike many of the others studios he’d worked at, was incredible — the end result of good management and smart decision making. Even today, Brendan Watts refers to his work on Helicopter AI on Grand Theft Auto V as his “dream job”.

“I really loved working with the big team on these epic projects,” explains Brendan. “I probably would have been happy working there for years. But I don’t regret making the choice. It was the right choice.

“I was a little bit sad that I got the dream job, but then something even better came along!”

When we last speak to Brendan Watts it’s close to midnight in the rural English region of Hull. It’s cold, dark and possibly miserable but he’s just fired back a large cup of coffee and feels wired. For the past six months he’s been working exclusively on Ski Safari, and he’s just finished a major update. He’s rewarding himself and his long suffering girlfriend with a holiday.

“Believe it or not, we’re actually going skiing.”


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