Jon Mavor – Uber Entertainment
In 1997 Cavedog released the wildly original real-time strategy game Total Annihilation. It was a critical and commercial success that defined a new sub-genre of RTS games which operated on a massive scale. Jon Mavor was a programmer on that project, and a relative newcomer to the industry. Since his time on Total Annihilation Mr. Mavor has worked as a gameplay programmer, engine architect, and designer. After amassing more than 15 years of experience in the industry, he co-founded Uber Entertainment, where he now serves as Chief Technical Officer. Uber’s first game, Monday Night Combat, combined third-person action and MOBA mechanics in a play on competitive sports. Their current title, Planetary Annihilation, was funded by a massively successful Kickstarter campaign and is now an early access title on steam. It’s a macro-scale RTS in the vein of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander with a playfield that includes multiple planets and moons. Mr. Mavor was kind enough to answer my questions about his current projects as well as his long career in game development.
When you were forming Uber Entertainment in 2008, what sort of culture did you want the studio to have and what kind of games did you want to produce? Have those things changed in the years since Uber’s founding?
Uber was and is about making games on our own terms. The projects that we create are a direct reflection of the team we have. That isn’t to say that we don’t look at commercial viability, but we do rule out certain types of projects if people here don’t want to work on them. So far all of our game ideas have come from internal sources. So that’s a real driver of our culture. We very regularly get approached to make games for other people using their IP but so far we’ve turned them all down.
We are also a very family-oriented professional company. Some places treat the office like a club house where everyone hangs out together after work playing games. We are much more likely to be found at home with our families after work. We don’t enforce any crunch hours and we are all responsible to one another for being productive. This has been the plan from day one and we haven’t really changed it. Culture can be difficult to scale so we are generally very careful about hiring to try and maintain our culture. This leads us down the path of hiring people who are long term industry veterans who have a lot of perspective because they’ve seen good and bad culture.
How different has it been developing a crowd-funded game versus one funded by a publisher? How has developing Planetary Annihilation changed your perception of the traditional publisher-developer relationship?
I was already very sour on the traditional publisher relationship. The financials just never seemed to work out in favor of the developer unless you had a runaway hit. Taking money from publishers is generally not a good idea. This is a philosophy that we’ve had since the beginning and luckily we’ve been able to figure out different ways to fund our games.
The other big secret is that making games with a publisher involved is simply more expensive. You have to jump through more hoops and dance to their tune. This often adds direct costs. In addition this means sometimes you don’t do things in an optimal order, or are forced to make other bad tradeoffs in terms of production.
Living a lifestyle where you have a milestone every month or two, and everything is driven around that, is actually quite draining for any long period of time. It’s stressful for company owners who get jerked around and have to manage cashflow. It’s stressful for the people working on the game because they end up crunching every milestone arbitrarily. It gives the publisher a tool to push around the developer and demand work for free. Overall it’s simply not a fun way to work or make games. It’s also a difficult cycle to break from unless you have a runaway hit where you get paid royalties, which is actually rare for most developers.
Interestingly enough we did decide to go with a publishing partner for our mobile game Toy Rush. Mobile is a very different market, and there were a lot of reasons for that choice. We’ve been extremely happy with that relationship so far. The publisher is Tilting Point, which is fairly new, but is run by some really smart guys who also realized that the traditional model wasn’t serving anyone well. Actually being a good partner is something I think more publishers are going to figure out because it’s going to produce better games.
Overall I’m more convinced than ever that you want to get your game in front of consumers as early as possible and let them decide if it’s worth playing. Kickstarter is a nice way to begin and Steam early access is an amazing way to continue that funding model through release. The PC ecosystem is a really great place to be making games right now. The barrier to entry is low and Steam is just a tremendous resource for getting your content in front of players.
Describe your experience working on Total Annihilation at Cavedog. What was the company like during that time, and how did you feel about your work on the game?
Man, there is so much to tell. Total Annihilation was pure distilled genius on Chris Taylor’s part. He really had a different take on this type of game and I was sold from the minute he showed me the first demo of what he was trying to do. In fact I was sold so hard on it that I turned down a number of other interesting offers at the time, including a job at Raven.
Really I was brought on to work on the graphics engine side– Make the units render correctly, do effects, etc. Back then those problems were a lot harder and more specific than they are today. For example, when you only have 8-bit color you can’t just shade things and output whatever color you want to. It’s really a bygone era of game development at this point, as even a slow mobile phone destroys the PC’s we had back then. For those interested in details on some of my technical work I made a blog post about some of it.
Overall TA was the one game that I worked on that people still freak out about.
The company itself was very interesting as it was a part of Humongous Entertainment. Cavedog was the “adult gamer” label that the company used for developing more mainstream stuff. This wasn’t even created until we had already been working on TA for a while. It was really interesting to see the projects in the rest of the company and the amazing high-quality kids games they created. At the time I felt like I had arrived and was really part of the larger industry, especially being in the Seattle area.
What have been the largest technical challenges you’ve faced while developing Planetary Annihilation?
We are trying to innovate on multiple levels so there have been quite a few. Probably the biggest thing that’s thrown everyone for a loop is the planet thing. Since up/down isn’t as easily defined you really need to rethink how basic stuff works sometimes. Working on actual round planets also threw a monkey wrench in a number of things that would normally be simple like direct fire weapons that have to be raised up so they don’t hit the ground. Even things like calculating artillery solutions are a lot more complex than in a flat world. It’s definitely more work than I thought it would be going in.
The sheer amount of work that has to go into building something from scratch is a bit scary too. We felt like we needed our own tech to make the game work properly, but it’s just an immense amount of effort, a lot of which doesn’t show up on the screen.
A crowd-funded title requires a lot of direct interaction with the community. What have you learned about engaging with Uber’s supporters since the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter campaign began? What, if anything, would you change about the way Uber has engaged its fans?
Probably the biggest lesson is that you can’t please everyone. If you ask the community for instructions you often get things which are contradictory. It can be a mistake to only listen to the loudest members of the community because they don’t speak for everyone. Ultimately I listen to everyone’s input and then make the call I think is best for my game vision. I’m not sure if there is anything I would change but we continue to evolve our relationship. For example, we now have a group of community vanguards whom I interact more tightly with to try and communicate more complex topics effectively.
Overall I like the fact that we can communicate with the community members in a fairly open way. It actually makes the job more fun in a lot of ways. We also ask team members to participate as well, although not everyone is up for that.
For two years before Cavedog folded in 2000 you were the lead engineer on a game that was never released – a unique story-driven FPS called Amen: The Awakening. What was this game like and how was its development going prior to Cavedog’s financial trouble?
This game was our attempt to create a single player story-driven FPS. We were doing it with original technology and a new team. I felt like we were on a track to create a great game experience and I think a lot of games that followed showed that the game would have been successful. For example, we showed off a really cool subway ride sequence at E3 1999 that was indicative of the in-game experience. If we had the runway I’m convinced we would’ve had a hit on our hands. Interestingly enough the lead designer of Amen (Greg MacMartin) has recently released his game called “Consortium” that has a lot of the things we wanted to do in Amen but in a much smaller game. It’s available on Steam now and is very much worth checking out for its very different take on FPS gameplay.
As for Cavedog’s financial problems, that was really manufactured in my opinion. They basically gave us a lot of rope and then yanked on it before the projects were finished. There were several cancelled games that came out of that process. I don’t see why we had to grow the organization as quickly as we did, but I wasn’t really privy to the high level stuff at that point.
You’ve had a few different roles, but most of your time in games you’ve spent programming. I’d like to know what you think it takes to be an amazing programmer in this industry. If you could go back in time, what programming-related tips would you give to the young Jon Mavor coding Radix: Beyond the Void in 1995?
First off, the advice would vary quite a bit if it was that far back in time. I don’t really have any regrets about that era and I think we were doing the things that were necessary to be successful. Well at least some of them – the rest took a while longer to figure out.
From a programming perspective I think it’s really important to understand the fundamentals of computer science. It’s also very good to have an understanding of how the computer itself works. It’s very easy to take a high level view of the machine and it’s difficult to create good code without understanding what’s going on at the lower layers. Examples in these areas include “Big O” notation and understanding how caches work within the memory subsystem. It really took me being in the industry a while with smart people to understand the importance of this stuff and even longer to learn it. Take your tools and environment seriously. Really dig in and learn how stuff works.
The real advice would not have been about programming. It would have been to follow your dreams because if you are passionate and work hard the rest will take care of itself. If you want to make games there is nothing stopping you – go and make them. This is the simple advice that’s difficult to follow.