March 2002

A CHAT WITH STEVIE CASE AND JOHN ROMERO

GIGnews recruited Melanie Cambron, known by most in the industry as The Game Recruiting Goddess, to use her skills for the good of gamekind and recruit some of the big names in the industry to give us all valuable insight into what they do and how they do it.

In this interview, Melanie chats up Stevie "Killcreek" Case and John Romero. When swapping stories around the cattle trail campfire, even cowboys have been heard to tell the tale of game industry lore: the day Killcreek defeated Romero in a friendly game of Quake. As one of the few serious female gamers in the industry in 1996, Case's celebrity status in the community was immense and immediate. She signed a contract to endorse and represent joystick manufacturer SpaceTec IMC as a celebrity gamer and was invited to join the Cyberathletic Professional League as the world's first full time professional gamer. Ultimately, she translated her gaming skills to game development, which included a three-year stint at Ion Storm where she found herself once again in the company of John Romero. Case has been featured in countless magazines and newspapers including Rolling Stone and Playboy.

And, as for John Romero, few names in the game industry have more instant recognition. Both praised and maligned, just about everyone in the game industry has a Romero opinion, most of which are posted on hundreds of gaming sites and message boards. Recognized as the genius behind some of the most successful games ever published, Romero, along with other industry legends such as John Carmack and Tom Hall, developed Doom, Doom II, and Quake while at id Software. Romero left id in 1996 to form Ion Storm where his work on Daikatana received more ink and hype from the gaming and non-gaming press than virtually any other game in industry history. Tales of Ion Storm's triumphs and troubles from their penthouse digs in downtown Dallas, were followed with an almost rabid intensity.

In 2001, Romero and Case left Ion Storm to form Monkeystone Games, along with Tom Hall and Brian Moon. Romero is Chief Executive Officer and Lead Programmer, while Case serves as Vice President and Production Coordinator. The company's primary focus today is on games for handheld devices and mobile phone platforms.

MC: So, let me get the "Tiger Beat" questions out of the way first. Clearly, I have not been keeping up with my game industry love-match gossip, because I only just learned you two are dating. When did that happen?

SC: We just had our three year anniversary on January 6th!

JR: We started dating in January 1999, two years after we first met.

MC: And, John, the hair. It's gone! What happened? Very Lenny Kravitz of you. It looks great by the way.

JR: Thanks!  After 11 years and a bunch of big changes, I decided to lose it.  Most of the last year I've been working so much that I had my hair pulled back every single day, so I figured I'd make it easier to deal with. Change is good!

MC: Down to business, tell me more about Monkeystone. You've been up and running for about 8 months now. How are things going? And how did you decide to focus on handheld and wireless games?

SC: Things are going great. One of the most rewarding aspects of focusing on wireless and handhelds is that the games are small and the dev cycles are short. We have already shipped one Pocket PC game and four mobile phone games. In the next month we will complete something in the neighborhood of 3-5 products for systems from the PC to phones. We are also on the Gameboy Advance warpath, which is quite fun. 

JR: While I was still at Ion Storm, near the end of my time there, I started seeing the potential in doing games for wireless devices.  Then, within the next six months, the worldwide wireless "push" was tremendous, so my desire to focus on wireless was well-founded.  In addition to that, the project development times were very short, which was something I wanted after my last three year dev cycle.

MC: So much has been written about wireless games in the past couple of years. In fact, I think GDC is having its first Wireless Game Summit this year. Where do you see this segment of the industry heading?

JR: This segment of the entertainment industry is going to be huge. Just about everyone has a cell phone, as opposed to having a console system.  The market potential is massive, but there are just as many challenges along the way.  It's still very young right now, but as new standards are adopted and technology improves, the games will go from the Atari 2600 stage to the C64 stage.  We're not too far from that right now.

SC: Actually I'll be attending the GDC Wireless Game Summit, which should be exciting. Clearly the segment is growing. There are plenty of technological challenges to deal with at this point, particularly in the U.S. We are excited to be on the cusp of what we see as a major explosion in wireless gaming. We are especially excited about the future of multiplayer gaming on wireless devices.

MC: To say Ion Storm's downtown high-rise Dallas office was legendary, is probably an understatement. Monkeystone, on the other hand, is based outside of Dallas in Quinlan, Texas, which, if I'm not mistaken, probably qualifies as "the country". Describe the working environment and atmosphere at Monkeystone.

SC: We do joke about Monkeystone being the anti-storm! We are most definitely in the country: Quinlan's population is only 1,300. There are some drawbacks to that (limited fast food, bad net connections), but there are plenty of great things about it as well (privacy, ability to work day and night)! Monkeystone is a small group, and even as things progress we want to keep it that way. We really enjoy a more familial, comfortable atmosphere. We believe in this company, and we don't intend to hire folks who don't feel the same passion for it that we do.

JR: It's very laid back and insulated from the rest of the world, so it's easier to concentrate on our work.  It's great having everyone in the same room where we can get things fixed immediately and also just talk in general about anything without disrupting our work flow. Working with a small team again is just great.

MC: John, at the first of this year, Christian Divine wrote an "elegy" for Ion Storm on Salon.com. And, not surprisingly, it generated quite a bit of buzz. On Slashdot, John Carmack posted his views on the article and Ion Storm (at least the comments were attributed to Carmack). He blamed the "failure" of Ion Storm-Dallas on "lack of focus, which came from the top" and "Romero's primary mistake" in believing that "abstract creative design was a primary, or even significant, part of a successful game." He goes on, however, to say that he thinks "Romero has a chance at a comeback with his current foray into handheld games. I don't think he ever lost the enthusiasm for games, but if he can recapture the personal work ethic that he had early on, he can probably do some pretty cool things." A response to the Carmack comment said "it seems a little unfair to have John Carmack reply. Still, I'd love to see Romero's response if he's up to it."

I haven't checked the thread lately, so I don't know if you did respond. Do you have a response you want to share?

JR: I didn't respond on the thread because it's very rare for me to voice my opinions on public forums, especially one like Slashdot.  The fact is, I worked hard at Ion Storm but there were too many factors out of my control to make a success of it and a lot of my early mistakes, though I was trying to do what was best for the company, spelled eventual doom down the road.  But my work ethic and the whole abstract "creativity versus rigid design" methodology had little significance in the downfall of Ion.

MC: Stevie, I've read that you're handling Monkeystone's public relations. You two certainly don't have a problem with getting press, but how do you control it and how do you keep it positive? Many have said there was no way Daikatana could have ever lived up to the publicity hype. What is your promotional strategy for Monkeystone and Monkeystone products?

SC: I agree with that assessment. My strategy for Monkeystone is to keep everything we say positive and only to talk about things we have confidence in. There is a lot of pressure to publicly speculate on things like release dates, other games, and other developers. Though a bit of slip is unavoidable, we try to hold info until a game is almost ready for release. I try to keep everything fairly minimal and realistic. Own up to mistakes but don't dwell on the past, because it can't be changed. I try to avoid anything that will draw from our current focus. Though people want to talk about things that happened over the past few years, we have moved on and are excited about our new projects.

MC: When I interviewed Paul Steed last year, I received some pretty threatening email from people at least purporting to be female gamers. They apparently had a problem with Steed's portrayal of women in his games. Of course, they remained anonymous. What sort of response did you get from the female gaming community following your nude pictorial in Playboy?

SC: The reaction was mixed. Unfortunately I think it is easy to misunderstand where I am coming from. I consider myself a hardcore feminist. I am the hardest of the hardcore! I think as women we ought to be able to do anything we choose, from owning companies to being game designers to being moms or even posing nude. You would be hard pressed to find any woman or man who is more dedicated to their work, to learning, and to this industry than I am. So I suppose that all plays into why I see no great evil in Playboy. It was a fun and educational experience, and I am glad I did it. Like you mentioned, the detractors often remain anonymous, preferring to attack without consequence. I much prefer to take the risk and put myself on the line. I do what I do and then I move on to the next experience.

MC: I've also read where you, Stevie, said you have been "disappointed by the loss of community spirit among gamers and developers." What did you mean by that? How do you both feel about the current state of the gaming community? And, if you think that a certain spirit is missing, how can we go about getting it back?

SC: I don't think we can get it back. Negativity sells. We can sit here all day being us, but the real us wouldn't sell - we are boring! In reality we don't drink or do drugs, we don't really go out. We work almost 24/7. I suppose it's more fun for people to invent fantastic stories to talk about - they want intrigue! Hell, I don't blame them. I like intrigue. The one thing that does bum me out is seeing developers rip on other developers, because we are all big boys and girls and ought to know better. We all know that a lot of what's out there is not true or representative of reality. Either way, the community achieved that critical mass long ago.

JR: Well, nothing remains the same as it was, and the rise and fall of the Quake community spirit was inevitable.  In the past several years, the mass media has put a lot of focus on negativity since people eat it up.  The gaming press took note and changed their editorial policies to reflect what was happening in the mass media to boost sales. There's still a lot of that around today because it still sells.

MC: What advice do you have for someone looking to get into the game industry, or stay in it?

SC: My advice is to be a finisher! There are lots of folks out there who start a project, get bored or frustrated, and they leave or start something new. The hardest part of this job is often staying dedicated at the end and finishing something at a professional level. Be dedicated, play games, and work hard.

JR: Getting into the industry, find something you love and get really great at it in your spare time at home before getting a job.  If you're already in the industry, be efficient and fast with your work and try to innovate if at all possible.  Focus as much as you can on your project and it will turn out great.

MC: I know you two are scheduled to speak at Full Sail's Success Seminar 2002. If you could each narrow your success down to three key elements, what would they be?

SC: Drive, dedication, and desire to learn.

JR: Passion, hard work, and an optimistic outlook.

MC: Finally, at the risk of sounding like Oprah's Dr. Phil, what is the key to being able to work together?

SC: The biggest key really is respect. We work hard to ensure that we are equals on all levels. We respect and take advice from each other well -- usually :). We talk through everything and don't hold back. We are completely honest with each other. We try hard to make everyone feel comfortable around us so they can relate to us as individuals. We make sure to get at least a bit of time just for us to enjoy life together as it's easy to get absorbed by work.

JR: We divide our tasks to suit our strengths and respect the other's opinions and experience.  That way, morale remains high and we don't get each other mad!


BIO

Melanie Cambron is a recruiter for game industry leaders such as EA, Sony, and Infogrames. Featured in Game Design: Secrets of the Sages for her game industry knowledge, she also wrote the foreword to the successful book, Game Programming with Direct X 7.0 and its follow-up. Melanie speaks each semester at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Texas on the game development industry, and is frequently interviewed by major media such as the Dallas Morning News for her industry expertise. She also serves as a consultant to the City of Austin's Interactive Industry Development Committee. Learn more about the "Game Recruiting Goddess" at www.melaniecambron.com or contact her directly at
melanie@melaniecambron.com

Past Interviews:
Interview With Richard Garriott
(February 2002)
Interview With George Sanger
(January 2002)
Interview With Josh Resnick
(December 2001)
Interview With Paul Steed
(November 2001)
Interview With Marc Saltzman
(October 2001)
Interview With Rick Hall, Senior Producer, Ultima Online
(September 2001)

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