Chair Entertainment, a relatively new game developer, is preparing for its first game release on the 360’s Xbox LIVE Arcade. Undertow, an underwater action shooter that supports up to 16 players, will be a great addition to the XBLA lineup. However, this title would not have been possible without the committed dedication that Chair employees possess. We sat down with Donald Mustard, creative director and one of the co-founders, to talk about this upcoming release.
Q: To start, can you give our readers a general overview of Chair Entertainment?
Chair was founded in 2005 by me, my brother Geremy Mustard, our CEO Ryan Holmes, and the core team behind Advent Rising. We consider ourselves more of an independent video game production company because at our core, we’re game developers, but we have a few other entertainment projects that include novels and a film based on another property we own.
Q: Can you talk about your relationship with Microsoft and the Xbox Live Arcade?
Working with Microsoft on Undertow has been awesome. We kind of began the Undertow project not really knowing what we were getting into with Live Arcade and have been very pleased with the process of creating games for the system. Our team had actually been preparing to begin development on another project and knew we had a few months before we’d start that when we became really impressed with what Microsoft was doing on Arcade. We thought our Undertow concept really lent itself well to the platform and would fill a void that currently existed in the Arcade library. More importantly, we’d been playing more and more games on Arcade and thought it represented a game we’d want to play! We pitched the concept to Microsoft and showed them a short prototype of what we had envisioned and they were totally on board.
As an independent studio, XBLA really presents a great opportunity for us to retain more control over our own company’s destiny. It provides an outlet for a lot of creative game ideas that might not work as full console games to exist and thrive. We intend to continue to make games for the system and to have a team specifically dedicated to this.
Q: What gamers may not know is that Chair Entertainment had a hand in releasing the novel Empire by Orson Scott Card. Can you give some background about that project?
Yes. We had this core story idea on which we wanted to create games and we pitched it to Orson Scott Card in hopes of obtaining his feedback. He really connected with the story and suggested he’d like to write a novel that started with that core idea and really expanded it into something larger. He licensed the literary rights from us and launched the first Empire novel as a NY Times Best Seller in Dec. 2006. He has since signed on to create two more novels in the Empire series. The book actually comes out in paperback next month (Dec.)
Q: Has there been any advancement in the Empire film?
In 2006, we also optioned the Empire film rights to Joel Silver/Warner Bros. and the movie is currently in development. We’ve reviewed a few versions of the script and its coming along really well. It has been great to be a part of this process as the movie develops and as the property continues to grow.
Chair has retained all comic and interactive rights to produce future Empire videogames. The core story really provides the opportunity to create a variety of gaming experiences that could all be set in the Empire universe, each having the ability to appeal to different types of gamers. We hope to have more to talk about in the near future.
Q: Chair is based out of Utah. Has this mountainous region affected your team’s game design as all? Does this state generate any inspiration for Chair’s projects?
You know, it actually does. Aside from the fact that there is great talent here in Utah, the geography really allows us to draw inspiration from a multitude of natural resources. From the mountains, to the red rocks in Moab, to the incredible sunsets, the incredible beauty and variety of Utah gives us a huge amount of source material for our textures and environments.
Q: Chair’s next project, Undertow, is scheduled to be released on the Xbox Live Arcade on Nov. 21, 2007. How was it decided to create a game specifically for the XBLA?
Again, we’d been watching what Microsoft was doing with XBLA and were really intrigued by the opportunity it presents for an independent studio like ourselves to produce and finance our own games. Our team conducted an exercise where we came up with 100 ideas for smaller games that would appeal to the XBLA audience. We then narrowed that list down to 10 and out of them, chose to develop Undertow.
We think Undertow is a great game for XBLA because it offers something different than what is currently available on the system and is one of the first games to really marry old school game design with next generation technology and game mechanics.
Q: Undertow is an original IP. How did the idea of an underwater action shooter come to fruition?
Yes, Undertow is an original IP. We always prefer working with our own original properties because it allows us to create the worlds, stories, and characters that define the game.
Designing Undertow to take place completely underwater gave us the artistic flexibility to design really intricate, detailed, and beautiful environments with an expansive atmosphere. We loved the idea taking old water-based mythologies, such as captain Nemo and the lost city of Atlantis, and coming up with new ideas to create a sci-fi, fantasy-esque world with tons of visual effects, lots of bubbles, shafts of light streaming through water, caustic light filtering over rocks and buildings, ambient fish swimming everywhere, etc.
Q: Can you give us a basic summary of what Undertow is all about?
Undertow features a 15 level campaign for single-player or co-op and two robust multiplayer modes for up to 16 players. Players select their race (Iron Marine, Nemoidian, or Atlantian) and unit type and are then launched into battle. Each of the three races features four unique, upgradeable unit types ranging in ability from the fast and agile to the large and powerful. Each unit type has three levels of permanent upgrades. Through conquest-style battles, players obtain points by killing enemies, accomplishing team goals, and taking check points. Points and a variety of power-ups can be used to upgrade unit abilities.
Q: Are their any sort of weapon power ups or item upgrades?
Yes. Each of the three playable races has four unique unit classes that you can play as. Each of the units starts at rank one and can be upgraded during a match as high as rank three. Each rank increases the unit’s weapons, health, speed, etc. There are also different power-ups that can be collected in the maps ranging from shields to double damage.
Q: One of the highlighting features of your game is that it supports up to 16 players simultaneously. Only a few XBLA games support 16 players. Why was this game created with a 16 player as opposed to, let’s say 8 players, and what problems did you face when coding your game to do so?
Early on, we found that Undertow multiplayer was really fun with just a few players, but became something really amazing with 12 to 16 people playing it. Knowing how fun it was, how could we not support 16 players, regardless of how hard it would be to implement it? We worked really hard to get it all in and working awesome and we’re really pleased with how it turned out.
Q: In the trailers of the game that you released, there seemed to be a fair amount of voice acting. Why was the use of voice decided as opposed to on screen text and who are the voice actors in your game?
We feel very strongly about giving the player context for why they are doing certain things in the game, and that context in Undertow comes through its story. We felt that actually hearing the characters voices would go a long way to helping the player identify with the characters and the world as opposed to simply reading dialog. We also have a pretty cool way of compressing audio files, so we knew we could use voice as long as we were careful.
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about the co-op mode of Undertow? Is it the single player game just with two people? Or will playing with a buddy harbor a new story or any other gameplay differences?
You can play through the campaign by yourself or co-op with one other player via split screen or online. Playing co-op will allow you to coordinate attacks and strategies, and is just so much fun to play. The biggest gameplay difference is that you will have someone to help you out, which is extremely useful on the Ultra difficulty setting…
Q: Currently, Undertow is said to have a price point of 800 Microsoft Points ($10). Are their any plans for additional downloadable content and if so, how many MS Pts can upgraders expect to pay?
Undertow is 800 points. We do have plans for some really cool downloadable content. Our goal is always to provide as much game possible to the gamer for a great price.
Q: Surprisingly, Undertow is only about 50mb in file size. It seems like there is going to be a lot of game built in the small package. Was programming and designing this game difficult using the XBLA’s programming language?
There was a ton of work required to force Undertow into its 49 megabytes, but it was well worth it. It required us to boil the game down to its core essence of fun. It left no room for fluff, no room for feature creep, and it forced us to justify the existence of every single asset in the game. This provided an awesome laser focus. That being said, we saw no reason why the small file size and small price of an XBLA game meant that we had to scrimp on features or gameplay, so we just found a way to cram it all in there.
Q: Here at the mygamer office, we like to rip on each other and make fun of bad games to blow off some steam. What do Chair employees do to get rid of stress?
That’s ironic; we also get rid of stress by ripping on the mygamer staff…
Of course I’m kidding. We work pretty hard at trying to create what we think is good entertainment, and sometimes that can be pretty stressful. We have an open layout in our office and are all really great friends at Chair, so we spend a good amount of time just hanging out – talking about our favorite shows and movies, checking out some cool new game (lately that is COD4), or listening to someone’s new favorite CD.
Q: What is next on the radar for Chair Entertainment?
We had way too much fun making Undertow to not make another downloadable game for XBLA. We have already begun developing another title for LIVE arcade, and will release more details in a few months.
Q: Before we close, is there anything you would like to tell our readers about Chair Entertainment? Any of your past or upcoming titles, or just anything in general?
We really hope people enjoy playing Undertow, and we hope lots of you come and play with us online – we can’t wait!
On behalf of mygamer.com, I thank you for your time and wish Chair Entertainment nothing but the best in the future. We look forward to playing Undertow.
Visit http://www.chairentertainment.com to learn more about Chair Entertainment.
Editor in Chief