Interview with Jerry O'Flaherty and Todd Porter
It might seem odd for a gaming site to spotlight a new ad spot targeted at the world of enterprise video distribution, no matter how attractive that ad may be. All that changes however when the spot in question was created by the team of Jerry O' Flaherty and Todd Porter, known to many as two of the founding members of Ion Storm, the short-lived studio which delivered such PC hits as Deus Ex, as well as renowned flops like John Romero's Daikatana. Much has already been said of Ion Storm's spectacular downfall, but of more interest to myself was how well these two men have fared since the collapse, unwilling to let the little matter of a single failed company stand between them and their continued successes. I recently got the chance to talk with them about their experiences with the game industry, their current advertising work for Qumu, as well as their obvious Hollywood aspirations. (And yes, I ask Jerry about the Thundercats movie.)
Jerry O’Flaherty, Director of “SysAdmin Hero saves 'The Enterprise'” | Todd Porter, VP of Product Innovation and Marketing for Qumu
Vito: Very quickly, if you could give some history of how you got started in the game industry.
Jerry: I kind of grew up in the game industry. My parents bought a TI-99/4A back in the day and I learned how to program and do pixel art on that, making games. The Amiga came along and that's when I actually started doing games that were on the store shelves. The Amiga moved into the PC and 2D pixel art pushed into 3D, and that's actually where Todd and I met. I'd never done 3D before, (we) met at a small company in Texas and he handed me 3D Studio... it wasn't even called Max at the time, it was just 3D Studio version 1. So we started working together, and that's progressed. First it was just he and I working in an office together, next step up was running a company of 20-30 guys, and the next step up was Ion Storm which was 100 guys. Basically, I've grown with the industry. It kind of went from, I did it because I loved doing it, and basically people would pay me with an upgrade on the equipment I was working on. You were promised royalties, but in the end "Hey! Here's a new 9600 baud modem so you can upload your shit to us faster" and stuff like that.
Vito: Building up your gear--
Jerry: Exactly. I've ridden the kind of, the leading edge of games ever since the infancy beyond the arcade experience, once it was actually more a real consumer level product. That's where I was, sitting on the front edge of that. I went to film school and art school when video games weren't paying me any money, and then that was around the time I met Todd, and then I started getting real money, real paychecks. Then we started a company and I got really real paychecks. Then we sold the company and I thought "holy shit, there's real money in this!"
Vito: So basically you had a passion for it, but didn't think it'd become a real industry. And then obviously it did. Jerry: Exactly. The beautiful thing about it is that it was a combination of all of my interests. It was animation, filmmaking, art, and obviously there's a mechanical underneath games, kind of the math puzzle-solving side of things that I've always been fascinated with as well. So it just feeds all of the things I really love to do. And in the end, if you can get paid to do what you love, that's the trick. Expanding beyond that to commercials and film... every day I wake up and I love what I'm doing.
Todd: Jerry, weren't you art director on Unreal?
Jerry: Yeah, Gears of War and created the Unreal Engine 3... I was at Westwood, I worked on three projects out at Westwood before they closed down... I've moved around a bit.
Vito: Definitely Gears of War was something I wanted to touch on, as its perhaps one of the best known games of the decade and being the art director on that must be something you're proud of?
Jerry: Hell yeah! Oh, it was beautiful.
Vito: It was beautiful! I think the graphics and the whole art direction is something that people very much appreciate. What were your duties as the art director on Gears of War?
Jerry: Running all things visual. I actually started.... Epic actually hired myself and a couple other guys to start a small spinoff studio to make Unreal Championship 2. Epic didn't do console games, so they hired us to do this little spinoff for the Xbox. The guys at Epic were spending a little bit on Gears at the time, but it was in that period of time that they were moving on to Unreal Engine 3. So they had quit working on Gears, which at the time was a Battlefield-style game. When Unreal Engine 3 was in its infancy they wanted to do a reset of Gears, so they folded this small company into Epic proper, and grew from... I think they were 15 guys at the time, which grew to 25 guys, which was a massive growth for them. From there I became the studio art director at Epic, kind of doing the reset on the game. There were some assets that the guys had already created, kind of the foundation of it? The Geiss character, the bad guy, one of the modelers there had hand sculpted him in 3D Max. He had become kind of our "the good guys have to be at least as cool as the bad guys" you know? They had had an art director, but not really the structure. The guy they had, he does amazing visual stuff, but in terms of running a crew, I don't think they had anyone there who had run huge crews before. That's where I came in and really took the little bit of art already created, threw out a shit-ton which made a lot of people really mad.... but it needed it, you need a cohesive direction. But basically taking it and whipping it into shape, running the crew all the way to the end. The nice part about my experience at Westwood and on Unreal Championship 2 was I was really integrated into the marketing side of things, and I realized the art side of things, the presentation internally and externally, is such a huge part of the process. And so selling internally to Microsoft early on became a big part of what we did. We knew we were making cool shit, but we had to show it to the publisher and get them excited. And they started to get really excited, since it made their product, the Xbox 360 look really fucking cool.
Vito: So would you say you had to take a look at what Microsoft's vision was for their console, this kind of mature vision, and make sure you were in line with that?
Jerry: The thing is, I want to say it's a rarity in the industry, they didn't ever really have much of an opinion on what we were doing. What the engine was doing... the visuals were so beyond what everyone else was doing. Microsoft got behind it to sell their own products, and with that level of support everyone's excited, and we really have reign to just do really cool shit. There was this sense of this being a rare opportunity where we're getting to make this awesome game we all got into the industry to do-- which is a wicked game, with cool characters, great bad guys; and monsters; and blood; and chainsaws; and I mean - holy shit! The whole way through, You almost wanted to pinch yourself, like "are we really getting to do this? Is this really happening?" It was an experience from to bottom. Everything seemed to fall into place on that project. But you know, In its infancy it was a little tough, throwing out half of what the artists had created, redesigning what had been this Battlefield-style vehicle-driven game. Throwing all that out, the growing pains that come from a reset like that, was tough, but everybody got behind it. I mean, we were creating Gears as the engine was being created, they rewrote the renderer in the middle of us making Gears! Those things you deal with... I think I forget a lot of that pain because it all turned out so great.
Vito: In hindsight you kind of forget all the frustrations...
Jerry: Exactly. I think we've all had those moments where the universe seems to fall into place and Gears was like that.
Vito: Where there any regrets, anything you wanted to put in you couldn't accomplish?
Jerry: I mean, holy shit, of course. There was a lot we wanted to do, but we were also aware of what we were capable of as a team. We were a very small guerilla team compared to others in the industry now. We were just very specific. We knew "we can create this number of characters, this number of creatures, this number of environments" so we dug in and decided we were going to take these goals and really knock it out of the park. We decided we're not going to try and do too much.
Vito: That's a question I had. Where is the line between the art direction of a game and the functionality? At what point do you sacrifice artistic ascetic just to get the game out?
Jerry: You are constantly compromising, constantly negotiating with the other directors. I've done this long enough to know it doesn't matter what the game looks like. If it's not fun, it doesn't matter. I'd much rather have millions of sales than 100,000 people who think it's the most beautiful game they ever played, but it wasn't any fun. In the end, I want people to play it, love it, and fall in love with the visuals as well. A specific example, I always wanted the characters to look smart. I didn't want like in other games, where the characters keep doing the run-cycle even after hitting a wall. Like c'mon, we know they're hitting a wall, just stop the run animation! And we had it to the point where if you nudged the controller, Marcus would take a half step, a quarter step, whatever. We had it to the point to no matter what Marcus did he always looked good. The problem was with the actual gameplay, trying to nudge the controller to the point where you could look out a window or fire around a barrier. It actually hurt gameplay. Guys couldn't find that magic spot they wanted since the nudge was taking them in specific increments. so we threw that out, went back to more gameplay specific movement. We got to put some of that detail back in towards the end, but you have to often have to make a visual concession for the game.
Vito: I want to step back, since you were both founding members of Ion Storm, which is a very interesting story. Obviously many in the industry have covered this story, but I was wondering if you could comment on what Ion Storm set out to do? Whether you think it was a good idea or really a warning sign for other developer-driven enterprises? Todd: From my perspective, me and Jerry learned a lot of what not to do from Ion Storm. Overall it was a heady experience, but I don't look back on that with the belief... I mean like a lot of things in this industry you look back and think, well "I'd totally do it different now." Jerry is that the takeaway for you?
Jerry: Yeah. Luckily it's been long enough the painfulness of that is gone. I moved onto Westwood after that, then to Epic, and every one of those experiences including Ion Storm, gives me perspective on running a game studio. Just the hiring practices... I mean we had to staff up so fast at Ion Storm that though we got a lot of great guys, we certainly had people that weren't a great fit. Compare that to Epic. It took forever to hire any one person because our hiring practices were so stringent. I think Ion Storm taught me to be more critical, more careful. Everything about Ion Storm has been talked about, and it's all perspective. All the owners, everybody involved, has their own perspective. But that whole experience is all lessons learned. That was the middle of the dot-com boom which was crazy money and people willing to spend big. I still, to this day, think about that build-out we did on the top of that building. It scares me when I go to any company that does that kind of build-out. I think "Holy shit! The money's just not there!" As nice as those offices were, It would've been nice to do that after we were successful. But I mean, that's all image and image is super important. John Romero was the face and the face of a game is so important. Gamers want to have somebody to be the spokesman, to be that creative guy behind the game that has the sound-bites, that has the look. Somebody who in a weird way they can befriend as part of their experience with the game. Cliff Blezinski does that for Gears. You need that, and everybody behind the scenes knows that it was part of the Ion Storm experience. That was what was so interesting, to see the PR side of things and how it makes such a big difference to the game. That's the first time I'd seen that. That was a huge plus. A lot of minuses, sure, but so many pluses as well. Lots of learning.
Vito: Well I think a lot of people learned a lot of things from the whole Ion Storm... debacle... Not that I want to use that word.
Todd: I think, from my perspective, the one thing that was kind of shocking was how much misinformation there was, it was kind of rampant. Though it was a fiasco there was a lot of good as well. A lot of camaraderie and hard work and teams working long hours. Nobody went into this thing trying to make it a debacle. Jerry and I went into it as we came out, best friends, and when we left the company we were well aware of what the issues were.
Vito: Now following Ion Storm you both stayed in contact.
Jerry: I mean, we've been friends of course. We went different ways but we've always stayed in touch.
Vito: And now this Qumu spot has kind of brought you both back together?
Todd: Yeah, it's very interesting. I joined Qumu about eighteen months ago, I had some patents that were useful in the governmental space they were working in. So when I came on as marketing director full time, one of the first jobs I had was figuring out how to make Qumu a bigger name. I started thinking about what I could do that would really shake things up. I mean, enterprise video isn't the most exciting space. It's very well used, but it's not as sexy as other things you could do. So I thought, why not try to spice it up? I thought I want to do a video, kind of a departure. I mean what we really do at our core we make the IT guy a hero, so I thought we could build a whole campaign around this guy in his IT room, give him the persona of Hollywood movies, and really make him a hero. I immediately called Jerry, told him my idea and talked about getting him up here and directing the spot.
Vito: Definitely looks like you guys knocked it out of the part. Very hilarious, but also kind of intrigues you as to what this IT guy is doing for the company. This is for Jerry, as a director now, doing more film type projects, how would you say the game space influences these works?
Jerry: I mean it all kinds of blends together. I use the same tools, the same energy. Games have a very definite kinetic energy and you see a lot of that in the spot. On a less philosophical level I actually use the Unreal engine for the visual effects in that piece. I mean, we wanted to do this spot but we couldn't do it for a crazy budget. And my experience helped that, finding ways to use technology to get the visuals across, but economically. Games have to spread their budget across so many factors you can't blow it all on visuals, not every cinematic can be done by Blur. You have to use your space effectively. We went into this shoot thinking we'd do the spaceship scene using the Unreal engine to do all the backgrounds, but the producer found this cool location down the street from LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), and it was like "Holy shit! That looks like what I would do if I were to build this environment out in CG. Let's just shoot that." The funny part of that is the server room-- we couldn't find a set for it that was interesting visually, so we actually did all of that composited. So the fantasy world was shot real, and the reality is all composited.
Todd: One thing to point out, is our initial budget was 25K, and we didn't stray far from that budget.
Jerry: Yeah in terms of commercial land, that's like... we're talking mind-bogglingly low.
Vito: Now this is obviously a familiar question, but what would you say to somebody who's a creative type, interested in getting into the game industry and maybe having the success you've had?
Jerry: Time machine? No, honestly I have a nephew who actually phoned me up with the same question, and I told him the best thing you can do, honestly, is download the Unreal UDK. And I don't make any money from Epic, I love all those guys, but I make nothing by saying this. Strictly, it is a way for anybody to get involved in the game business, on your desktop, at home, for free. You get to go in and you can just do the art side, change the art inside the engine. Or if you like scripting, or you like coding, it's all in there. You can build very simplistic games all by yourself, and find what you like to do. And then beyond that, excel. If you show that you have the ability, and the love and the passion, and you've taken the steps to go that far, it's an easy thing for people to want to hire you. And success, beyond that, it's drive, it's spending the hours. I'm at home still using the engine in my spare time. The engine still feeds me, the Unreal Engine still helps get me to where I need to get to. I mean the key to success is really work your ass off, in every avenue, find something you love and just keep plugging away at it.
Vito: You really have to be a self-starter, and have the drive to teach yourself it seems?
Jerry: You really have to push yourself. No one's going to hand you an opportunity.
Todd: For me, I say it's a combination of talent; being able to understand 3d; and stick-to-it-tiveness. I look at my eight year old son, whose the official level builder for the house on the Xbox 360. It's unbelievable to watch him build these levels, he spends more time building these levels than playing games from my standpoint, and most importantly he really understands 3D, which I think is huge for today's game builders. If I was going to tell someone how to really get into the game industry, well... there's a lot of angles to get in. I did a paper for SMU (Southern Methodist University) on this, about the new digital distribution, and how you have to think about designing games and thinking about it from a different perspective. It's one thing to say "I'm going to be an artist in this business." It's another to say "I don't know what I am, but god! I'm creative, I've got talent!" Being able to understand the new paradigm of design in the digital distribution age is going to be a huge separating feature. If I was going to give anybody any hints on how to go I'd say, it's not anymore if you have a good idea. There's more factors to it than that. You really have to think it through. You hear all the anecdotes about people trying to put a game out for iPhone, or one of the portable game machines, PSP, DS. They come up with numbers to justify it and it's like "well yeah, if you sold 600,000 units!" But my lord, nobody sells that many units, not realistically. You can make anything be a value proposition but make it a realistic one. Jerry looks at it more from the artistic aspect, I look at it more from the business side. I'm not saying I'm not creative but I'm too much of a realist now to say you can just stumble into this industry.
Vito: Well I know there's a burgeoning indie movement now, a lot of independent developers moving into that space. And you're saying you really need to work to make sure your product is feasible as something that could actually sell to a consumer?
Todd: Yeah you know, even when we did this video for my company. It didn't matter what budgets I could have, it mattered what budget I should have. Because at a certain point it's diminishing returns. This video that we did, it's phenomenal. The quality of just the video, and how we shot it and what we shot it on, I mean the camera we shot it on was 4000x3000 resolution. But even so, as the executive producer on it, I had to go to the set and make sure we weren't wasting any money, because we don't have an endless budget, and it wouldn't make sense to make a video like this for our space if it was too expensive. The real lesson, if you learn anything from what me and Jerry have created here; more Jerry than me; is that it doesn't matter what you can spend, you can get great quality-- and this is what will shake up Hollywood too-- that quality doesn't have to come at this incredibly expensive price, you don't even need a bank of special effects guys. It's being creative, and getting it out there. Robert Rodriguez is a friend, and some of the techniques he used for El Mariachi early on, I mean, it was a $7,000 movie right? Incredibly inexpensive for a movie that sold millions and launcher his career. I think we're on the verge here of doing this sort of thing, something compelling, tells a good story, but doesn't cost a fortune. In today's world, with the economy the way it is, that should resonate with everybody.
Vito: Yeah, and you see a lot of this. You see a lot of fans who are putting together productions rivaling the quality of Hollywood, doing them on shoestring budgets. Are you saying this is the direction film and entertainment is moving in?
Todd: I absolutely think so. When I look at Jerry, I see the new paradigm in Hollywood. You've got a guy with a thick gaming resume, that takes his talent to Hollywood, and that's gotta be scary. Because if you look at his portfolio, you'll see amazing things shot in his garage. The fact is there's no more limitations on quality. Like I said, our budget wasn't much, and we're planning many more of these Sys-Admin Hero scripts. We're planning one now that's like a Lord of the Rings fantasy sort of thing. We're proving what you can do on that kind of budget, and I think this is the new paradigm, this will shake up a lot of people.
Vito: Now Jerry, you obviously have not just Hollywood aspirations. You were actually touched to direct the Thundercats movie, which I have to ask you about or the internet will yell at me.
Vito: Every Google search for your name seems to come up with Thundercats. Is that project abandoned at this point? Anything you can say on that?
Jerry: I wouldn't say abandoned, nobody in Hollywood ever abandons anything. They just sit on it, shelf it, not sure the right term. But there's nothing happening with it. It actually got shelved right in the middle of the big financial collapse, we went into our green-light meeting as that was going on, and it just didn't make sense for the studio at the time. They kind of want to do the new TV show, and see the response to that, before they get back into it.
Vito: So there is a chance that it could come back around?
Jerry: Oh, they will absolutely make a Thundercats movie. The number of fans, I mean, just from your Google search you've seen already. It's amazing the number of people out there who would love to go see this. I would love to be a part of it, but the creative group that was put together for that feature, have all moved on. All doing different projects now. If I got asked to come back I'd love to get back in the mix with that, but there's nothing currently active as far as I know of.
Vito: Alright well I think we covered a good amount of topics, and I definitely thank you so much for talking to me both of you!
Todd: Thank you!