From the outside, the games industry can appear mythical. Aspiring designers, artists and programmers look upon those employed by the likes of Blizzard, BioWare and Valve as the lucky ones, the chosen few given a chance to embed themselves in some of the most creative organisations in the world. What, then, compels one of these blessed souls to venture beyond the triple-A names, to let go of a career among the game makers living on the very edge of their art and embark on an indie adventure all their own?
On the brink of releasing his fledging developer's first title, Brainsss for iOS, Rod Green is fortunate enough to have over a decade's worth of industry experience to draw on, built with the help of one of gaming's most respected gaming studios — BioWare.
But Green didn't start his career with this most cherry of gigs. He owes a lot to Melbourne's Tantalus, where he scored his first role as an artist.
Tantalus's Pony Friends proved surprisingly successfully, selling more than 900,000 copies on DS. Image: Tantalus
"My test to get the position involved modelling some trees and a Porsche in as few polygons as I could get away with," says Green. The ability to squeeze as much quality out of nothing was a valuable skill in early handheld development, and arguably still crucial today on any non-PC platform. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Tantalus's bread and butter was titles for Game Boy, the DS and PSP. "[It was] pretty common work in the Australian industry. Not the most fun but gives you the chance to interact and learn from others," says Green.
"From there I did some 2D artwork on South Park Rally and art-directed some horse-riding games. Nothing amazing but great chances to learn technical limitations and hurdles for console development."
After two years learning all he could from Tantalus, Green moved onto Infogrames (later know as Atari Melbourne House and eventually absorbed into the now-defunct Krome), where his early responsibilities focused on handling outsourced art from the Infogrames / Atari mothership. It was here he had his first crack at a game carrying a significant IP — Transformers, where he rigged and animated characters.
But Transformers would signal the start of a shift in Australian games development, the very first, but subtle signs that the work-for-hire model was not sustainable. With no project lined up after Transformers and the closure of Ratbag floating around the local scene, Green decided to take his chances overseas.
In September 2004, Green landed a role at BioWare as a technical artist.
He spent a year there, initially animating cinematics for Jade Empire before being promoted to a technical art director position on Dragon Age: Origins. In October 2005, he received perhaps one of the most tantalising offers a developer could get in the industry at the time — a position at Blizzard working on World of Warcraft.
"However ... Offset was just starting up and I was very interested at trying the indie development thing. Even though Blizzard had offered me a position they weren't sure about the visa situation and if they could actually keep me in the country, so I asked to join the Offset guys and I was thrilled when they accepted."
Shortly thereafter, Green became a legal US resident, putting any future visa concerns to rest — at least for the time being.
Project Offset, The Cancelled, Cutting-Edge Game That Intel Now Uses Solely For Marketing Screenshots
"By the time I joined the guys at Offset they had already released a couple of videos and were starting the publishing rounds," explains Green. Offset Software was about as indie as you could get — besides Green, there were three others that comprised the company: Sam McGrath and brothers Travis and Trevor Stringer. They worked out of an apartment in California, with a few others operating offsite. The studio's one and only game was called Project Offset.
Project Offset was shaping up to be the title that would push 3D graphics into another dimension. A better dimension. Coincidentally, I canvassed the technology in a 2006 article in Atomic, with Green providing a set of custom images to show off exactly what the engine was capable of.
At the time, effects such as motion blur, bloom and sub-surface scattering where only just starting to receive widespread attention and Offset prided itself on getting these effects running in real-time at acceptable frame rates. It wasn't just an engine, though. Offset was using the technology to develop a first-person, team-based multiplayer game within a fantasy setting.
It never saw the light of day.
"There was a lot of time spent shopping the project around to different publishers," recalls Green, "I'm pretty sure if a publisher existed we had done a demo for them. In some extreme cases like EA, Activision, etc we probably did about five or so meetings." The game also garnered some interest from studios keen to license the tech. One of these included Red 5 Studios, whose in-development shooter, Firefall, was once based off of Offset's engine.
Unfortunately, Offset couldn't attract a publisher to the project, Green referring to them as "gun-shy". They did what they could to de-risk the project, but the former director believes the fact it was an original IP based on new tech from an unknown developer rang giant alarm bells.
In-between the disappointments, however, the developer had a few wins.
"After a multitude of meetings and offers to just hire the team and absorb the technology we managed to get funding from a large publisher to complete a playable prototype proof of concept for Xbox and PC," says Green. "We subleased an office and ramped up the studio to about 20-plus people and got to work."
Offset was doing OK, for a time. They hit all three milestones they originally set, which always goes down well with publishers. Unfortunately, the publisher was struggling with its PC development — an issue that Green says was common for the time — and killed those projects, including Project Offset.
Green remembers it being a tense period. "We almost didn't get our last milestone payment (because the publisher stopped responding to us), which would have ended the studio right there." The payment did eventually come through, but being out in the cold once more, Offset had to start the intricate publisher dance again.
Offset didn't find a publisher, but Red 5 was still keen on the technology and was able to support the studio while it continued to fish for capital. As you might expect, Green and Offset were "extremely grateful" for the chance to keep Project Offset alive.
By now, a few years had passed and eventually, Offset realised that the chances of getting the game published were remote. Green says they switched to "sell mode" and it was just a matter of finding anyone to buy the property from them.
That's all for now folks. Tune in next Sunday for part two, where we look at the fate of Project Offset and the surprising retro inspiration behind Lonely Few's upcoming Brainsss.
Top image: Atomic / Intel