Australia. Land of kangaroos, dingoes, babies, and… videogames? The country has been garnering an ever-increasing reputation in recent years for its growing videogame development industry. So much so, in fact, that at this year’s PAX Prime event in Seattle, it was announced that a third PAX event shall be installing itself in the land down under. One of the companies sure to benefit from the reduced air miles are Blue Manchu, headed by Jonathan Chey. Jon is likely best known for his work on some of the biggest names in the industry:BioShock, Thief, and the huge cult favorite System Shock. It is safe to say that the man and his team have some serious credentials when it comes to designing game experiences. Their current project is Card Hunter, a boardgame/role-playing hybrid that turned more than a few heads while on display at the Indie Megabooth during PAX Prime.
Introduce yourself, Jon. What’s your role in Blue Manchu?
Hey, I’m Jon Chey and I’m the guy who runs things at Blue Manchu. Actually, that probably makes me sound more important than I am since Blue Manchu is currently me and Ben and a bunch of contractors. Anyway, I do a bunch of design work and programming mostly as well as running our tiny team.
Tell me about your team. There’s a large presence of ex-Irrational staff, right?
Yeah, so like I said, the team isn’t exactly huge. Ben is our art director and he was also art director on our Freedom Force games that we made at Irrational. Farbs is a programmer on the team and he’s also an ex-Irrational person. Dorian Hart, who is working on levels, worked with me at both Looking Glass Studios (in Boston) and at Irrational Games. Tess, our server-side programmer, is the only one of this group who doesn’t have an Irrational connection.
Finally, you’ve probably heard of Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias [the people behind Magic: The Gathering] who are helping out with the project via their Three Donkeys studio.
How did you wind up developing games?
I was a graduate student at Boston University, doing my PhD in Cognitive Science. Basically, I was formulating a neural network model of the human visual system. For some strange reason, that got me a job at Looking Glass Studios when I graduated. LG is defunct now, but you may know them from games like the original System Shock, Thief, Ultima Underworld and other such ground-breaking titles. I’m pretty sure the only reason I got hired, as a fresh-faced graduate student, was because LG was expanding rapidly at the time and we were in the middle of the first internet/dot-com bubble and programmers were very thin on the ground at the time.
Anyway, Looking Glass was an amazing place to work, filled with very bright people and focused on doing really interesting work. It basically set me up for the rest of my career in the games industry.
What’s a typical day in the life of the team, given your diaspora?
We have a studio now in Sydney, so Ben and I get in there at a relatively normal work hour. After a strong coffee from the downstairs coffee shop (there are four on our block, so we are spoiled for choice), we start working away: Ben on art and me on design and/or coding.
Once a week, around 11am we’ll have a programming meeting with me, Farbs (in Canberra) and Tess (in Austin). This was harder when we had Martin working with us in Sweden, but it works out pretty well now as Tess is a bit of a night owl. We keep a Skype chat window open too and there’s often quite a bit of back-and-forth during the day within the programming team.
Later, twice a week, we do a design call on Skype with me, Dorian in Boston and Skaff in Seattle. Dorian works from home and looks after his kids during the day, so we try to schedule this for quite late (11pm or later) in his time zone.
Basically Skype, Dropbox, SVN (a version control system) and Basecamp are the lifelines that hold our team together.
How did your team find each other?
So, the Irrational folks are people who used to work for me and I stayed in touch with after they left for one reason or another. Tess worked on another online tactical game a few years back with Luke Carruthers, an Australian developer, so we hooked up through that connection. I used my games business connections to get an intro to Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias as I knew we’d need some experience on the collectible card game side to add to our regular video game development skills.
We’ve been working with a bunch of other contractors as well, some of whom are people I’ve worked with in the past, like Kemal Amarasingham and his team at dSonic, Jay Kyburz ofNeptune’s Pride fame and some of whom are indie gaming scene guys who Farbs knows, like the incredible Danny Baranowski, Kert Gartner, who did our awesome trailer and Martin, the enigmantic Swedish programmer. We’ve also been getting some fantasy RPG expertise from Kevin Kulp in Boston, who is a long time friend of Dorian’s and player in his now defunct D&D campaign.
It’s fairly strange, and so I’m compelled to ask: How did you come up with the name ‘Blue Manchu’?
Ha! I like names that are sort of meaningless but have either an internal rhyme or alliteration or something that helps them roll of the tongue. Blue Manchu is just sort of a funny name at one level but it also has some personal resonances for me as my dad was actually Manchurian and his family belonged to the blue banner clan. He’s not around anymore so it’s a way of reminding me of him every now and again.
So, how was Blue Manchu’s debut Indie Megabooth experience?
Yeah, the Megabooth was amazing! It was my first PAX and I really loved the show. The booth was an awesome way to get into the show and be there with a bunch of great developers. I’d like to give a special shout out to Kelly Wallick, who did a great job organising the group. I was expecting things to be pretty chaotic but I think the combination of Kelly’s organization and the self-managing nature of the indie devs made things go quite smoothly.
My only regret is that I didn’t get time to walk around the booths, see all the games and meet all the other talented devs there. I was too busy either demoing our game or swigging down coffee to try to keep myself going…
Your current project is Card Hunter, a frankly inspired riff on deck-building games and old-school Dungeons & Dragons. Can you tell us more about it?
So, Card Hunter is, as you say, a spin on traditional deck-building collectible card games where we try to combine that as a basic battle mechanic within a fantasy RPG framework. The intention is that you can play through an extensive single-player campaign to gather items (which give you cards).
It’s currently being developed in Flash as a browser-based game, so you’ll be able to just point your browser at the game and play (for free, with an in-game currency) without having to install anything. It will therefore work on any Flash compatible browser with a mouse.
We keep getting asked about tablet implementations and we really want to do that as well. It should be possible to just create a tablet client (either an app or an HTML 5 web client) that runs off the same server as the existing Flash client.
As for a release date – ‘When it’s ready’. Our next step is Beta and we won’t release until we feel that is ready to transition into a final form.
The game is currently billed as primarily single-player, yet its real-world equivalents are necessarily multiplayer. Can you go into some detail about this aspect?
This is really the foundation of the game. I love card games, miniatures games and board games, but I also really like to be able to play against the computer. While multiplayer is fun it can also be a bit intimidating and hard to get into. Also, sometimes I just feel like zoning out and playing against an AI instead of engaging in a titanic battle with another human.
Combine that with the idea of being able to grind away at a game to win more stuff and you have the genesis of the game.
So, in Card Hunter, the idea is that you play single player to learn the game and gather items. For some players that will be enough. But, for others, that will provide a foundation for entering into competitive multiplayer, which will presumably keep the game fresh and exciting over the longer term.
That’s fascinating, and not something I’d heard about it yet. Speaking of which, you’vesaid elsewhere that you didn’t want to hide the card/boardgame look behind flashy CGI. Why is that? What led to the direction for the art style?
When I think about an art style for a game, my first thought is how to create a look that stands out. Fantasy art is a very difficult area to innovate in. We’ve all seen a million dragons, orcs and elves now and it’s very difficult to create a look that is going to provoke any sort of reaction in the viewer.
When Ben and I were talking about this problem, I gave him a basic lead, which was to use old-school fantasy RPG art as an inspiration. Stuff from the late 70s and early 80s when fantasy role-playing was getting started – stuff that was naïve and pretty badly drawn but had an innocent sort of energy and enthusiasm that might be missing from the highly polished stuff we see today.
He took that idea and came back to me with the idea of incorporating that into a board game look. So, instead of animating the monsters and environment to look like an actual fantasy battle (a wildly improbable idea), we would instead model an actual board game with pieces and cards. His initial pitch was that we use what looked like painted miniatures but we had a great deal of trouble getting them to read properly. When he pitched the cut-out 2D figures, we both immediately jumped on that as it is a clearly distinct look at that is also quite easy to produce.
What is the hardest thing about being an independent team? And what is the most rewarding?
I imagine the hardest thing for most indie devs out there is capital. Luckily, coming out of selling my last business (Irrational), I have some capital in hand to fund things, so that gets easier for me.
After that, the main thing for me is isolation. Now we have this little office in Sydney that Ben and I work in, things are a lot better. But prior to that, I was working from home and, on many days, I wouldn’t leave my house and would only communicate with other people via Skype. Skype is no substitute for some actual face-to-face contact with other human beings.
Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from the dark ages?
I’m going to cheat a little: My most prized ‘gaming’ possession is my first-edition (white box)D&D manuals. These aren’t technically mine, as my brother bought them, but I’ve hung onto them over the years and I think he’s forgotten that they were originally his. They’re not in very good condition – we covered them in plastic to stop the covers falling apart, but they are full of awesome gaming memories.
My first exposure to D&D was photocopying rules that my brother had copied down by hand from someone else’s D&D manual, so when we got our hands on an actual copy of these rules, we went nuts. Looking at them now can still evoke some powerful memories.
For strictly videogame nostalgia, I love all the games I collected while I was working at Looking Glass – Thief and System Shock 2 mainly because I actually worked on them.
It doesn’t get much better than actually working on bona-fide classics, huh? Thanks for your time, Jon!
Yeah, haha. Thank you!
Card Hunter is currently in development with plans for a closed beta program soon. Get more information on the game -and the program- here.