Into the War Room
It was drizzling outside when I entered the Cambridge complex that houses the office of Fire Hose Games. Inside, the patter of raindrops on the windows was easily audible over the hushed phone conversations and general bustle of indie game magic in the air. In one corner, a mountain of soda can 12-packs stood unyielding against the white wall.
“Let’s head to the War Room,” said Eitan Glinert, the studio’s founder and head. We had some scrapping to do.
The folks at Fire Hose are so busy because they’re hard at work on their debut title, Slam Bolt Scrappers for the PSN. It’s a prodigious mix of fighting game, cartoon graphics and tower defense, and chances are you’ve heard of it if you were paying attention to E3, PAX, or most other conventions this year.
The War Room is where they conduct their “serious business,” according to Glinert, which apparently involves playing tons of video games – they line the shelves, along with almost any system you can name.
As we settled in to play the Alpha build of Scrappers, I couldn’t help but notice that the loading screen said something about hobbits. Glinert assured me it was placeholder, though he couldn’t help but allow his love of the One Ring to color his next joke.
“Do you want me to answer every single question with a reference to hobbits or Isengard?” he asked. “Yeah, as you can see, there’s this ring you need to destroy, by building a tower – which is talking about the Eye of Sauron, really,” adding that he hopes they don’t get sued. He was kidding.
It’s Not Tetris
The most obvious comparison to draw when you first see Scrappers in action is Tetris, but in fact, the games have little in common. Glinert stressed this over and over. “If you think of this game like Tetris, you are going to get destroyed.” Of course, as we settled into our versus match, he destroyed me anyway, but he had an unfair advantage, being its creator and all.
It does take a while to wrap your brain around exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Up to four players control tiny, winged construction men and Vikings, flying around the screen and punching everything in sight to acquire Tetrino-shaped blocks. The blocks are then physically dropped into place with the ultimate goal of crafting towers of squares. The squares, once created, form shields and weapons that attack the other players’ towers (or enemies, in the campaign).
Glinert summed it up nicely: “You’re trying to build blocks (like when you’re little) while kicking over your opponent’s blocks. And your blocks grow weaponry that help you with the kicking,” he said. “We think that most of life’s conflicts are best solved through violent punching.”
Glinert is a recent MIT graduate, making him probably a genius, and while Scrappers is the first effort from Fire Hose, he’s no stranger to game development. Before founding Fire Hose, he created Immune Attack, an educational game for high school students, and AudiOdyssey, a DJ game that uses the Wii Remote and is “totally accessible to the blind,” according to him. In creating those games, he learned that he wouldn’t be happy until he formed his own studio.
“I didn’t want to go back to being told what to do and having someone sitting on top of me that knew less about making games than I did,” he said. “So I figured, what the hell, why not start a startup? I was at MIT, there were smart people around.”
Among the MIT graduates at the studio are development alumni from Harmonix, Bethesda and Irrational, guys who worked on games like Guitar Hero 2, Oblivion and Fallout 3. They’re a diverse and talented group, and they’re happy to be indie developers. So how did they end up under the publishing thumb of Sony Online Entertainment?
“It’s really hard being an indie developer and coming out with a game and not being screwed, to be honest,” Glinert said. “We talked to publishers that were like, ‘Yeah, work with us, and we’ll own you.’ And it was like, fuck no! We’re indies. We want to remain independent.” SOE, he told me, is allowing the studio full creative freedom over Scrappers, and that’s all they really care about.
Scrappers actually started life – over two years ago – as a game about architecture. When Glinert founded the studio, he wanted to make quasi-educational games that would have a “positive impact.” They’ve deviated from that a little, but they’re enamored enough with their current creation to not really mind.
As the game evolved through five different iterations over two years, the architecture principles went out the window in favor of a brawler defense game inspired mainly by Smash Bros., Castle Crashers and World of Goo, according to Glinert.
The team loved building huge structures in the Goo games, but they wanted to create something where players could do more than just build. “It would be cool if you could have a more masculine version where you beat each other up, or something,” they thought. Thus, Scrappers was born.
“We Cannot Afford to Come Out With a Shitty Game”
“I’m actually amazed at how bug-free that session was,” Glinert said, as our cooperatively built tower finished off a giant drill-hurling robot. “That was really encouraging.” The game is hectic, colorful and fun, and the layers of polish they’ll apply between now and its early 2011 release may just bump it up to star status.
“Our rep is everything,” Glinert said. “We cannot afford to come out with a shitty game.”
“I mean, we have a good game, but there are plenty of people who have good games who nobody ever finds out about, right? Look at Minecraft. How long was that out before somebody noticed?”
When I asked him whether they’ll always be an indie studio, he didn’t seem worried about it. “If we weren’t indie, but we could still make the games we wanted to make, I wouldn’t care,” he said. “It’s just a label. As long as I’m doing what I want to do and we’re making the games that we want to make, that’s good enough.”