Al Schilling on MacSoft, First to Fight, Game Industry

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- If you play games, chances are you know about MacSoft. The company is one of the few Mac publishers fought its way through the dot-com bust and the other ups and down of the industry. And though the company has passed through the hands of several holding companies, Al Schilling has served as one of the companyis most steadfast and visible figures. We sat down with Mr. Schilling for a conversation about MacSoft, their upcoming title Close Combat: First to Fight, and the nature of the game industry.

Fun with First to Fight

Until recently, MacSoft published games ported from Windows (including, most recently, Railroad Tycoon III and Rise of Nations), but Mr. Schilling was visibly excited about the prospect of publishing First to Fight. "Doing a port is one thing, doing an original game is something else." The game is owned by Destineer Studios, MacsSoftis parent company, but the title will be released simultaneously for Mac, PC, and XBox in March 2005. MacSoft is responsible for developing the Mac version of the game, and has been involved from the ground up.

First to Fight is a tactical first person shooter: think Halo with fewer aliens and more military structure.

Mr. Schilling jumped immediately into a discussion of the development process. "Weive had about 30 marines consult with us," he explained. "Itis very intense. Theyive given us feedback on everything from tactics to ambient sounds," including the timbre of different firearms and the sound of a bullet hitting a wall behind you.

Whatis it like making a game from the ground up, simultaneously for three platforms? "Itis probably a bigger task than we thought it was," Mr. Schilling admitted. Even cross-platform APIs like OpenGL donit make life that much easier: "We still have to support Direct 3D" in Windows.

Still, Mr. Schilling is delighted with the arrangement. In spite of the hard work, "the emotional investment in a game you build from the ground up is stunning. I wish there was a way to convey that to people."

Life at Destineer

So whatis new at MacSoft? For one thing, the company is now owned by Destineer Studios, the firm started by Peter Tamte (who also happens to be the mid-i90s founder of MacSoft). Mr. Schilling expressed pleasure with the arrangement. "There is no red tape" at Destineer, he explains. While he misses some aspects of working for an Infogrames-scope parent ("You have monetary assets, youive got that name, and people listen"), he likes being able to walk down the hall to get an okay on decision-making. "We can act much more dynamically," he says.

Games Go Hollywood

That dynamism must be valuable, because it takes something fierce to stay alive and visible in the current games industry. That industry has evolved very quickly in the past few years, and we took some time to discuss those changes too. "Over the last few years, it [the industry] has changed drastically. There used to be "a lot of dumb money" in low-quality games, but "the dumb money has dried up." The companies that survived, Mr. Schilling argued, had a strong company structure, good businessmen (in addition to good programmers and designers), good marketing, funding, and the sense to look for a return on the investment of game development. As a result, the industry has exploded. "Most people donit know the game industry exceeds Hollywood box office revenues," he says.

The Anatomy of a Good Game

Well, with all these changes to the industry, what makes a great game? The game design rules, Mr. Schilling argued, havenit changed that much. The implementation, however, is another story. "Thereis so much more technology available. The first thing that comes to mind are the improvements in graphics technology," which he chalked up largely to the ongoing, tooth-and-nail competition between NVIDIA and ATI for graphics card market share.

But now that the technology exists, gamers expect developers to use it, making every major new title a fully 3D game. "To enable those beautiful graphics, you need good engine technology," which raises the price of game development. In off-the-cuff estimates, Mr. Schilling guessed that 10 years ago a AAA title would have cost a couple hundred thousand US dollars. Five years ago, US$1-2 million. Today, the bill is US$5-15 million.

Is it a good thing? Yes and no, says Mr. Schilling. Obviously, the games look great. But he pointed out games like Tetris and Pac Man would never get the attention of a big studio today. On the plus side, shareware developers like Brian Greenstone have filled the space. "Look at Freeverse," he says. "They do super stuff!"

Al Schilling will be around the MacSoft booth, and will intermittently present Close Combat: First to Fight at the theater in Appleis booth. Todayis showings are at 12:00 and 3:00PM PST.