Interview: Alex Seropian, Founder, Wideload Games
By Rachelle Bowden in Miscellaneous on Jun 20, 2005 3:47PM
Outside the gaming enthusiast community, the name Wideload Games probably inspires visions of counting license plates with a bored four year-old while driving your mobile home down the interstate. Within the gaming community, Wideload Games and its founder Alex Seropian are spoken of in hushed tones. And with good reason.
In 1991, Seropian founded a local company to publish a Macintosh game he wrote about the Gulf War. His friend Jason Jones joined him, and the duo continued to publish a variety of Mac games throughout the decade. In 1999, they demoed one game that caught the attention of one of the world's most influential companies, and the rest was history.
Seropian's company was Bungie Studios, and Microsoft purchased the company in 2000 in order to produce a key launch title for the Xbox - a game called "Halo". After the Microsoft acquisition, Seropian and the rest of the Bungie crew relocated to Seattle, creating one of the bestselling game franchises in recent history.
After successfully launching Halo on the Xbox, Seropian left Bungie and returned to Chicago to start a new game company called Wideload Games. Chicagoist sat down with Alex Seropian at the Wideload headquarters west of the Loop, during a break in the process of putting together Wideload's current project "Stubbs the Zombie". Stubbs is a game where the player takes on the role of a zombie wreaking havoc in a 1950's "city of the future".
Chicagoist: What brought you back to Chicago?
Seropian: Bungie started off in Chicago, 'cause that's where we were. I went to the University of Chicago. My senior year, I started Bungie and that worked out pretty well. We all went out to Seattle when we got acquired by Microsoft and a few years after that, and after finishing Halo, I decided I wanted to come back to Chicago because my wife's family is here - my family is in New York - and we were ready to start a family and wanted to be around family and Chicago is home for us. Chicago is home and I wanted to get back into the business of game development.
Chicagoist: How many from Bungie came with you?
Seropian: There were six of us. Actually, five of us came back to Chicago from Seattle and one of the guys was already back here. The shop is pretty small. We're eleven guys and we have a unique development model in games where the core team comes up with the idea and designs and manages the project. We bring in a lot of contracted talent.
Chicagoist: When you bring in contractors, do you use local talent or do you look wider?
Seropian: We do a lot of wide-area development. We work with guys in California, guys in Texas, guys in India - all over the place. It doesn't matter so much. We bring in guys from Chicago as well. We use some local guys. We have a big contractor - Post Effects - that does all our audio and post-production stuff. They're like six blocks up the road. And we do our mo-cap [motion capture -ed.] in Hoffman Estates - there's a mo-cap studio out there. But part of our infrastructure is having tools where we can do development, no matter where.
Chicagoist: How many game companies are there doing development out here in Chicago? People don't really think about Chicago when they think about video games.
Seropian: There are a few. Midway Games is out here. They might be the biggest, and they're publicly traded. They did all those classic games.
Chicagoist: Like the pinball games and Pac Man?
Seropian: Yup. They're still kicking. And let's see. High Voltage is a decent-sized developer at Hoffman Estates. Day 1 Studios is actually downtown here. They did some games for the Xbox. So there's a handful. We're not the interactive entertainment hub of the world, but there's a little amount of community. There's a Chicago chapter of the IGDA - the International Game Developers Association.Chicagoist: Has not being in an interactive entertainment hub helped or hurt your development?
Seropian: It's a little of each. It's sometimes difficult because attracting talent here to Chicago is harder because they're not here to begin with and have to relocate. It's a challenge. Our model works well with that because we don't have to relocate people. And it's nice because the community is not the incestuous free-flowing human resource nightmare like the Bay Area where people go from company to company all the time and it's easy to lose people because of the demand. That's my businessman hat talking.
Chicagoist: What inspired your current project "Stubbs the Zombie"?
Seropian: We have a couple of missions here. We have a creative direction and try to do stuff with humor, so for us that means doing the unexpected. Turning things around, you know. Also, we want to be different. We want people to look at a game that we do and a. think it's different and b. recognize that it's something that came from us. Strategically, we're trying to create a brand around Wideload that informs the project decisions we make.
Chicagoist: This is your first game as Wideload, right?
Seropian: Yeah. There's so many games out that in order to get attention, you need to do something different. That being said, "Stubbs the Zombie" came out of that ethos. It started with a really simple premise - what if you played the zombie? There's a ton of zombie games out there and they have their own little section they reside in and it's something that immediately rooted in the familiar - we all know what a zombie is, right? But to be a zombie is completely different, yet it's all based on rules that are familiar to everyone. That was the genesis of the idea - what if you played the zombie?
Chicagoist: Is there a chance we'll see some hometown locations? Like Stubbs going after tourists in Millennium Park or drunken Cubs fans in Wrigleyville?
Seropian: (Laughs) Well, it takes place in the 1950's, set in a fictional town in Punchbowl, Pennsylvania. The premise is that you were a traveling salesman in the 1930's and you were not a very good salesman who manages to get himself killed. Fast-forward to the 1950's where this billionaire industrialist guy decides to build the city of the future - from 2000 - but it's 1959 with robots and flying cars and monorails and stuff like that. So that's Punchbowl, and he builds it right on Stubbs' grave, which turns him into a zombie. So you won't see any Chicago in it. But that said, there are actually some characters in the game that were inspired by the folks that we run into in Chicago. The first threat to you in the game is the police, but I don't want to get into trouble so I'll leave it there. (Laughs)
Chicagoist: When you guys are in crunch mode, where you unwind after-hours?
Seropian: We've been going over to Starfish is pretty cool. There're a lot of cool restaurants on Randolph. There's N9ne, an awesome steak place and Blackbird, which is a great restaurant on the corner. If you're looking for a recommendation - like after we would do a full day of motion capture, we'd go to N9ne afterwards.
Chicagoist: Last question - Cubs or Sox?
Seropian: Cubs. Though my wife is a Sox fan.
Seropian: Go Mets!
"Stubbs the Zombie" will be hitting store shelves later this fall for the Xbox and PC platforms. Keep an eye out for this title and other home-grown games coming from Wideload Games.