Iron Lore Interview

By Nick Breckon, Sep 07, 2007 2:02pm PDT Iron Lore has become one of the better stories emerging out of the independent developer pool. Founded in 2000, the studio recently established itself with the action RPG Titan Quest, a fun romp that drew attention from Diablo fans and dungeon-newcomers alike. For its efforts, Iron Lore won the 2007 Game Developers Choice award for best new studio.

Some weeks ago, Iron Lore had a shake-up. Manager Jeff Goodsill was promoted to President, and former EA Mythic senior designer Steve Marvin was hired as the design director. I questioned the two about their pasts and futures, and gained a little insight into the company's direction in the process.

Shack: How did you start out in the industry?

Steve Marvin: With games, I actually started out working as a designer and editor at Iron Crown Enterprises, a paper-and-dice roleplaying game company. Then in the mid-nineties I got a job as a product support rep at Kesmai, one of the first multiplayer game companies, long before MMOs. Back then the communities were much smaller, and the games charged by the hour. Charged a lot. If you were playing on GEnie, for instance, during the day you would pay almost $20 an hour to play. Kesmai at the time didn't have designers per se; the project producers were the designers. So, in order to get to design, I trained to become a producer. That ended up creating an odd pattern in my career where I moved between designer and management roles. Since Kesmai I've worked at Retro Studios--pre-Metroid--Digital Anvil, Redstorm, Lodestone Games--a great little startup that unfortunately lost its funding before it could make good--Blue Ridge Games, and finally Mythic, before arriving finally at Iron Lore.

Shack: How long had you been working at Mythic prior to your exit?

Steve Marvin: Just over three great years. When Lodestone closed its doors, Mark and Rob hired on most of the staff. That was great for Mythic, because that was a fantastically talented bunch of people, but also really great for me, because they are also just great people, and dear friends, and getting to keep working with them was a pure joy.

Shack: Compare the break room at Mythic to the one at Iron Lore. Which is more fun?

Steve Marvin: Actually, I'm going to have to give Iron Lore the win here, but mainly because it still has the advantage of being smaller and cozier as a company. A game library with three nice couches and an array of consoles with TVs, as well as an eight-way dedicated LAN gaming room for Game Nights on Thursday provides a great break room for a company Iron Lore's size. A similar setup scaled to EA Mythic's current size would have to be enormous, and when I left space was at a premium at Mythic with the rapid expansion for WAR. Mark cares a lot about his people, and I have no doubt he could put together a stellar game room once Mythic is able to acquire more space.

Shack: Leaving a game midway through development seems a bit like being traded away to a different sports team in the middle of a season. Is it a difficult situation leaving the Warhammer project before seeing the fruits of your labor come to bear?

Steve Marvin: Very difficult. Perhaps even worse than missing the ship was leaving the friends I have there. Some of them I've known and worked with my entire career. However, the opportunity was just too great. My departure was very amicable, and I can't wait for Warhammer: Age of Reckoning to come out. After all, I have better reason than most to know it's going to rock!

Shack: What is the most valuable lesson you took away from your time at Mythic?

Steve Marvin: Making games is about people. Sounds trite, sure, but it reads a lot better with experience. I can mine a lot of value out of that phrase, from pleasing the customer to helping to run a company.

Shack: How is Massachusetts treating you?

Steve Marvin: Great! I'm outside Boston proper, and I love the area. I've never been much of a big-city boy; I want trees and grass and light traffic. So far, it's a delight. Of course, everyone keeps warning me about my first Boston winter.

Shack: What are you most looking forward to in working at Iron Lore?

Steve Marvin: The entire thing! Actually, though, the best part that lies ahead is getting to know everyone better. I've been amazingly lucky throughout my career in getting to work with outstanding people; I've been even luckier that so many of them have become such great friends. Sometimes when you make new friends it feels instead like you're meeting old friends for the first time. That happened at Mythic, and I knew from the first moments of my time at Iron Lore that I had hit the jackpot again.

Shack: What have you guys been playing lately?

Steve Marvin: I just finished Bioshock. Scattered around my computer and consoles are, let's see. In no particular order: Crackdown, Dead Rising, Gears of War, Titan Quest and the expansion--which I loved before I ever considered coming to Iron Lore, I would note, and still play--Command and Conquer 3, the obligatory World of Warcraft, Psychonauts off of Steam, Half-life 2 and Episode One, the latest expansion for Galactic Civlizations 2, Civilization IV, Supreme Commander, Dawn of War and its expansion packs, Oblivion, Company of Heroes, and some others. Some games I keep coming back to for a long time, some I play and then move on. If I'm feeling particularly grognard-y, I fire up some Hearts of Iron II.

Read on for a wild interview with Iron Lore president Jeff Goodsill.

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Shack: You entered the game industry after working a corporate job. What led you to leave Raytheon to work at Ensemble?

Jeff Goodsill: Tony Goodman, the CEO of Ensemble Studios approached me to join the team. At first I was not interested; I enjoyed a relatively senior corporate position, a "real job" at Raytheon. I was unaware that the industry could offer a serious career opportunity. Back in 1987 the games industry was still in its infancy and in a rapid growth phase. However, over the next several months I continued to consider Tony's persuasive pitch. Ensemble and Age of Empires had yet to see the phenomenal sales that would follow, yet the company sounded fun and the potential to contribute to a small team creating fantastic games was compelling. Meanwhile, the defense industry was in decline and Raytheon continued to downsize and merge with other companies. While my position at Raytheon was secure, the many years of watching my peers and other people I respected be "downsized" helped push me towards such a dramatic change. In 1988 I gave Tony a call and soon thereafter joined Ensemble Studios as their General Manager. Making that call was one of the better decisions of my life.

Shack: Is it more fun to be a gaming executive than a plain, regular executive?

Jeff Goodsill: Having fun with what you do is more about your attitude than what industry you are in. I love the depth and breadth of challenges that must be solved. Working with creative talented people and being able to work on a product from inception to final box product is a blast however it is not all fun. Being a manager / executive is a lot of hard work and you tend to take a lot of criticism for making unpopular decisions, but that is one of the things effective leaders must not be afraid to do. I tend to take the job home with me. I find myself thinking about how to deal with some difficult problems and spending whatever additional spare time I have doing market research. I am fortunate to have a wife that understands that playing games is also part of the job, albeit an enjoyable part.

Shack: Tell me about when you joined Iron Lore in 2003. What were the circumstances surrounding that move? Were you confident in the company's direction at the time?

Jeff Goodsill: I was running Papyrus Racing games for Sierra when I decided to make the move. I actually started working at Iron Lore on a part time basis in July 2002. Iron Lore had only 5 employees but they had a strong vision for an action RPG called Titan Quest, an excellent demo and I trusted the two founders Paul Chieffo and Brian Sullivan, whom I had known since childhood. Their idea was to make an action RPG using proven addictive gameplay, make the game accessible to the broad market, and have AAA execution. At the time, PC Action-RPG franchises restricted their audiences by topic or by difficulty. We believed the casual and mass-market buyers were under-served. Diablo limited its audience with its mature rating and high level of gore. Some parents would not buy a game with a flaming skull on the box cover for their kids. We felt that Dungeon Siege was too complex for most casual gamers because managing a party of 8 characters greatly increased the difficulty for this type of game. With this large hole in the market and a fantastic looking demo I felt confident we would make a go of it if we could go the distance. It would take another 16 months for us to get a signed contract and funds coming in the door. It was a long road for us, but in the end it paid great dividends.

Shack: How large was the company then? Has Iron Lore expanded since, and do you plan to expand further?

Jeff Goodsill: We started Titan Quest with 10 people and ended with 39 full time developers. Our next project will probably take about 45 on-site staff, plus some outsourced out-of-country art and audio resources. I fully expect any original IP multiplatform game that we build will take 2 to 3 years to develop.

Shack: Tell me about some challenges you faced in shipping Titan Quest. How did you overcome them?

Jeff Goodsill: On a high level, be very wary of using Hollywood writers, stay focused on hiring quality people, develop and refine design documents as early as possible, ruthlessly protect your balance and polish phase, and innovate selectively.

Shack: What was the most important decision that was made during the development of Titan Quest?

Jeff Goodsill: That is a hard question to answer. There are thousands of small decisions you make in creating a game and no one really stands out. Managing scope was very important and cut decisions that included player mounts, size and number of levels, some boss AI behaviors, randomized quests, and artifacts were all hard to make but in the end those cuts allowed us to ship a better game, in my opinion.

Shack: How did you feel when Iron Lore won the award for Best New Studio at GDC?

Jeff Goodsill: It was a great honor to accept the award on behalf of the many people that worked so hard to make it possible. Our development team put in a tremendous amount of extra effort and stuck through some very stressful times. Our publisher, THQ, was excellent. Jason Garwood, our project manager, and Michael Fitch, our creative director, and many more at THQ were involved, flexible and consistently added value. I am very proud of what the team was able to accomplish and the award was a little extra icing on the cake.

Shack: What does a president do that a general manager does not? Explain what your shift means for readers who don't understand the specifics.

Jeff Goodsill: I will continue to run the company operationally, but I will have a little more focus in strategic and external matters. I will be working to build and refine our three and five year plan, further our publisher relationships, and build a board of directors and advisors.

Shack: Do you have any plans to continue the Titan Quest franchise?

Jeff Goodsill: No final decisions have been made in regards to Titan Quest franchise. The expansion for Titan Quest called Immortal Throne is doing well and the international market is really behind the project. I have been told that ARPGs are now being measured against Titan Quest in the European market.

Shack: Any broad hints on the company's direction? Will you be sticking to RPGs as your genre of choice?

Jeff Goodsill: We are expanding into the console market and will probably stick with ARPGs and RTS games. We have a lot experience in both genres and believe we are well positioned for dual PC and console titles.

Shack: What have you guys been playing lately?

Jeff Goodsill: I have been playing Bioshock every night for the past week and can't wait for this weekend to finish it. The game looks gorgeous on a large screen HDTV and I am excited to see the ending. Run, little sisters, run!

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