Summary: Co-founder Jason Robar talks about their new game development studio and their plans for the PC and Xbox 360.
New game developers seem to pop up regularly but a recently revealed Seattle-based company called Secret Lair Studios is trying something different by developing games for Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade while also working on their own MMORPG product. FiringSquad got a chance to chat with company co-founder Jason Robar to find out more about their plans for Secret Lair.
Jason Robar: I’ve been lucky enough to have a career in the industry that has taken me from working on DirectX at Microsoft, working in online gaming for the PC and for mobile, working on games for training for DARPA and to working on online gaming in China and Korea for the last few years. That has given me a broad network of friends and associates around the world who work in a variety of roles and companies.
Last year, I began to formulate the strategy and to recruit the team to challenge the standard development model. We wanted to attack the global marketplace for games. It was a natural fit to pull in some of the best talent in both Shanghai and the Seattle area to form a core team to start the process.
I find “formed” to be an interesting word to describe the founding of Secret Lair Studios. To me, the word has a static sense about it. We are in the process of adding talented people that will challenge our current thoughts and ideas and propel us to change and move forward. Even now I look back and am impressed with how we’ve changed and improved our process for making great products. I don’t expect this process of self growth and change to ever stop.
FiringSquad: How did the team decide on a name for the company?
Jason Robar: Naming Secret Lair Studios was quite a test of endurance and patience. It actually took several weeks before we could reach agreement as a team. You’d think it would be straight forward but it’s not. Coming up with a name to represent your studio with such diversity is a fun process but coming to agreement is a challenge. Secret Lair Studios has two development efforts focused on a variety of projects in both the online casual space and the persistent world space. We represent a worldwide perspective in terms of our development resources and the marketplace for our games. When you factor in everyone’s ideas, passions and goals plus the diversity of our products and consumers - and you have to find a name that no one else has taken – agreement is quite an undertaking.
We arrived at Secret Lair Studios because we liked the imagery of a talented group of people hidden away in a secret lair with a mad scientist laboratory - constantly inventing, testing and producing great games. You never know what’s coming next but you expect to be amazed and surprised by something cool.
FiringSquad: How hard has it been to form a new business as well as work on game development?
Jason Robar: When you put a new company together you always overlook the little things that take time and energy and money – like buying enough chairs and having longer extension cords. But I look at my job as making sure the real talent knows what direction we are headed and then making sure I stay out of their way except when they need me to solve a roadblock.
Our entire team averages over 11 years experience in the gaming industry! That means I don’t have to tell them how to get their jobs done – they know what they need to do. They have been key contributor’s to many of the top selling games in a variety of genres - the casual arcade space, online MMORPG’s, and single player PC and console games. If you add up all the years of experience in the games space for our team, you are talking about decades of making great products. The key benefit is that our business partners trust us and we are allowed to focus on creating a great team and crafting a culture that allows them to make the best games possible.
FiringSquad: What gaming platforms will you concentrate your game work for and why?
Jason Robar: Our focus is to create innovative game-play content for the online and global gaming marketplace. Our first games will be for Windows XP/Vista PCs and the Xbox 360 platforms because they are currently the leading platforms in the online space for consumers worldwide. We also like Nintendo’s WiFi approach on the DS and the upcoming Revolution looks quite interesting. As Nintendo’s and Sony’s efforts in the online space become more defined we will evaluate those platforms as well.
FiringSquad: What is Secret Lair's main philosophy in designing game titles?
Jason Robar: Connecting people through games. I don’t know that we have a formal paradigm dictating how we make games. We believe that people play games for a variety of reasons and that their motivations are dynamic each time they sit down to play. How much time you have to play, are your friends online, or even your mood determines how you want to be entertained. Our experience in designing games has shown us that the freedom to pursue a variety of play styles and be rewarded with gameplay depth is a solid foundation to creating a great game.
Our design philosophy at Secret Lair is to create products that are easy to learn but offer a variety of play experiences with depth and the opportunity for growth within the experience. For an arcade game this may mean developing one set of skills when playing alone trying to set a new high score, but also new mechanics when playing with your friends collaboratively, and even a third set of skills when competing head to head versus other players. In an MMO this would mean the freedom to create your own personal experience while playing in a world of thousands. The path could be mainly solo, interacting with the world through your personal adventures or crafting and selling items in the mass marketplace. Or you could pursue membership in a large guild and enjoy large scale raids and collaborative efforts against powerful opponents. Or equally you could pursue both, playing productively solo when your friends aren’t online but joining together as a group when they are. Our philosophy is to create games that offer a spectrum of rewarding experiences and to let the gamer choose their own style of play.
FiringSquad: What can you tell us at this point about the company's first game?
Jason Robar: Our first product will be released on Xbox360 Live Arcade and is one of several in development and already approved by Microsoft. They have been fantastic to work with (hats off to Katie and Ross at XBLA!) and have created a great ecology for independent game developers like Secret Lair Studios.
In the online, persistent world efforts – we are still keeping the details locked up in the Lair. But I will tell you that we are one of the only development teams that I know of that have a Chinese office from day one – and that helps us truly focus on the global marketplace for online gaming. Just “localizing” a product when you’re finished with it doesn’t work. It’s really just one team that works in two locations. We travel back and forth a lot and everyone gets to know each other so its not just strange names on email.
Jason Robar: I think the concept that there is no room for a new great entertainment experience is strange. We are constantly being influenced by new tastes and experiences that redefine and reshape our interests in entertainment. It wasn’t that long ago that “everyone knew” that no one could ever compete with Everquest. There is always another book I want to read, a new movie I am excited to see, and no matter how popular Seinfeld was eventually I wanted to watch something else.
I expect the same dynamic market for games. The challenge is not about market responding to quality, that behavior is certain. The challenge is putting together a talented team and creating the culture that allows that talent to create great games.
Secret Lair consists of successful, very talented game developers that could work anywhere in the industry but chose to work here because of what we have the opportunity to accomplish. I am pretty excited about what we have in the works and I think the gamers will be too.
FiringSquad: Why did you decide to license BigWorld's technology as the basis for the game?
Jason Robar: I believe that you can focus your company on one of three possible businesses: being a distributor/publisher of someone else’s game, sell the middleware/technology needed to make the game, or create a great game. If you’re going to make the games, then every single resource you spend duplicating technology that is already available is a resource that could have gone to make the game better.
I had the chance to talk with BigWorld extensively when they initially partnered with Microsoft on the Xbox. After that, I was again able to work with them while I was working with DARPA for the last few years on games for training and education. Over the last few years the Department of Defense has been looking to leverage the technology available in the game industry to advance the state of the art in simulations. Many training situations need either large scale or persistent world environments. BigWorld was one of the few technologies truly ready to work “out of the box” for what we wanted to do in the military training industry.
So when I put the team together for SLS and wanted to focus on the game rather than the technology – working with BigWorld was the best option available as a complete solution.
FiringSquad: When can we expect your first game to be released?
Jason Robar: Our first products will be from our casual development group for the Xbox 360 Live Arcade. The release window for these products is determined by Microsoft but we are expecting them to be available starting in late summer or early fall this year.
FiringSquad: What is your opinion on the current status of the video and PC game industry?
Jason Robar: I think it’s a very exciting time; almost every platform is being reinvigorated with new hardware and software. In 2005 we had the portable market redefined with the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP. The console world is being shaped by the recent Xbox 360 launch. The Xbox Live Arcade model is an outstanding success. Of course, everyone is also looking forward to the PS3 and the Nintendo Revolution to arrive in the near future as well. Vista is coming for the PC and direct-sale-of-games-to-consumers is becoming more established creating more opportunities for independent developers. Casual gaming numbers continue to increase and WoW keeps breaking records in the online subscription space. Asia is showcasing a diversity of both gaming content and business models that will continue to push the online space forward. I can’t think of a more dynamic time to be apart of this industry or to be a passionate gamer. I think the best games are still ahead of us.
FiringSquad: Are you currently looking for people to hire for the company?
Jason Robar: Absolutely – currently on our website, www.secretlairstudios.com, we have a number of openings for a range of positions including art, programming, and we expect to be adding more shortly. We would love to hear from anyone with the talent and passion to create great games and who might like the opportunity to work in a company dedicated to a global focus for online gaming.
FiringSquad: Finally, is there anything else you wish to say about your plans for Secret Lair Studios?
Jason Robar: In this business, great games come from great people. We have an amazing group of people without the egos that you sometimes have to deal with. You can look for us to continue to grow our “in sourcing” model by opening studios in countries where we want to sell our products. Finally, games should be excuses to be social. So you can look for our games to connect people in new ways all across the world.
We’d like to thank Secret Lair Studos’ Jason Robar for participating in this interview. We look forward to checking out their first Xbox Live Arcade titles later this year.
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