Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Episode 4: Nate Gross

Welcome back again to Super Awesome Artist Show! I hope the past three episodes satisfied your hunger and quenched your thirst for creative inspirations.
I’m very excited to have another talented guest. Geez, will I ever run out of awesome people to talk about? Heck NO! Please give a toasty welcome to the CEO of Outcast Games and the creator of Pit of War, a MMORPG, Mr. Nate Gross!

Thank you, Nate, for joining us. Let’s talk about Pit of War. Will you tell us about the game?

Pit of War is a game about gladiatorial combat, is played in your browser and requires no download.  The backdrop is a brutal land known as the Great Realm where might makes right and martial prowess is revered above all.  I think the strap lines for the game pretty much sums it up:

Forge Slaves Into Gladiators.
Gladiators Into Gods.
Gods Who Call You Master!

It is kind of like Spartacus and Conan smashed into one other.  The premise of the game is you are the Master of your own school of gladiators like Proximo in the movie Gladiator, or more recently the lanista Lentulus Batiatus played by John Hannah in the Starz TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of The Arena.

When you first join the game, you are brought to the slave market where you look over potential gladiators and upon reaching a decision you purchase your first slave, give him a name and then choose a specialty for him to study.  In ancient Rome all gladiators had a specialty like the famous Net and Trident gladiator known as a "Retiarii" that many of us now associate with gladiators or the "Myrmillonis" who carried a gladius and shield.  In Pit of War, our goal was to capture the spirit of Ancient Rome but then transplant it into a dark and brutal fantasy world.  One of the ways we did this was by keeping the concept of gladiators having a specialty, however the specialties we came up with were more suited for the Great Realm.  So, now that you've got yourself your first gladiator you are then introduced to your school and taught how you can equip your gladiator with armour and weapons, choose skills for him to learn and then head into the arena to do battle against other players from around the world!
How did you come to creating the game? Was it an idea you’d always had or something that came to you one day?

Pit of War has actually been in my mind for a very, very long time.  When I was growing up I was introduced to some arena style games that were played via snail mail around age 13.  In those days we called them PBM (Play-By-Mail) and you would basically send instructions to the moderator of the game and then wait two weeks to get the results, haha!  Hard to think that was even a viable business these days, but back then Al Gore hadn't invented the Internets yet. ;)

Once the Internet did become available I began writing a game called Pathocrom that was similar to PBM games I played in the past and released it sometime in the early to mid 1990s and used it to help pay for my college tuition.  At this point it was the birth of what was known as a PBEM (Play-By-Email) game and I believe Pathocrom was one of the first in this genre.

After I graduated from college I entered the professional workforce and began making games for a living at various companies and Pathocrom slowly died and began to collect dust until one day many many years later I decided to take it off the shelf as it were and bring it back to life.  After working on it nights and weekends I finally had something that I felt would capture the spirit of the new generation of gamers yet still had a lot of the old school mechanics that captured so many gamers in the past.  What was missing of course was some very cool art to go along with it.

I understand you have a super talented team of artists from various countries, and they provided the art for the game. How was art-directing and managing such an international production?

Yes, I have an amazing team of artists who all worked very hard to create the look and feel of Pit of War.  When I was in need of art I went to the website and just started looking at hundreds and hundreds of artists portfolios to find the artists who I felt had the chops to work on Pit of War.  The first artist I found was Alex Boca from Romania (  When I first approached Alex, he was very excited at the opportunity to work on PoW and right from the start helped create the look and feel for the game.  Alex became our main concept artist and created everything from the gladiators to the weapons and armour.  Without Alex's insane imagination PoW would look very very different and wouldn't be nearly as awesome as it is today.

I was then fortunate enough to stumble across one of the most amazing galleries I had yet seen and the creative genius behind it was Russian artist Viktor Titov (  Viktor is an absolute master of lighting and upon seeing Alex's concepts he immediately went to work painting over some of Alex's work and then creating his own.  There are so many words I could use to describe Viktor's work and at the risk of getting an R rating for this interview the best phrase to describe his talent would be "Fucking Amazing!"  Viktor really helped bring to life many aspects of the game and the general consensus anytime someone sees the game is "Wow!  Who did your art?"

I then tapped the talent of a Polish artist Grzegorz Krysinski (Gregor) (  Gregor is an amazing painter and without his awesome touch key aspects of the game such as the weapons and armour wouldn't have the polish and "wow" factor that they do.  Gregor took Alex's concepts and then really brought them to life in a way few others could have.  Gregor was also responsible for a lot of behind the scenes artwork that isn't shown in the game but was crucial for helping us find the look and feel of the game. Where Alex was doing tons of B&W sketches, Gregor was doing a lot of full color artwork to help guide and create the final product.

I was very happy to be working with Eastern European and Russian artists because to be honest their styles are very different then what we see a lot of today from Western European and American artists (and very different than Asian artists).  Not to say the latter aren't good, simply the team we put together had a different style and were able to create a unique look that still felt somewhat familiar but was actually quite different than what we normally get.  For example, Alex is a huge Warhammer fan and you can see some of that come through in his art, but in directing him I encouraged him to really go beyond that and find his own way and by the end he really had.  We've all seen big monsters with skulls on them and what not but when Alex does it is another story, it's hard to describe with words but when you see one of his pieces you can see it immediately.  I still remember the first time I saw the concept for the main page of the website where the two gladiators are facing off and the one on the right has the severed torso of a past victim tied to his shield!  I was speechless, the raw awesomeness and brutality of that one piece summed up the entire game, it was truly the cliche of a picture is worth a 1000 words.

One difficulty in managing and directing an international team like this was obviously language and time zone differences but also everyone had different holidays based on the country they lived in and finally there are always cultural differences that spring up from time to time that you have to take a step back and think through and recognize that everyone is different and it's ok.  Ultimately though it was a huge success and I wouldn't change anything, all our artists kicked major ass.  We had our problems as all studios do but in the end it all came together through a lot of hard work and dedication and my hat goes off to them.

Have you always played a lot of games? My favorite games growing up were Golden Axe and Virtua Fighter. What were yours?

Oh, yeah, I started playing games when I was about 5 or 6 and starting programming them when I was 10.  My favorite game huh?  That is always a tough question.  I'd have to say some of my favorite games are: Astrosmash, The Zork series, Dragon's Lair, The Bard Tale, Might & Magic, Balder's Gate, King's Quest, Full Throttle, The Ultima series, Diablo, Doom II, Half-Life series, Mortal Kombat, Starcraft, King's you can see it's a tough call to name just one.  I tend to like adventure games, strategy games and fast action games.  Where possible I prefer to have a deep engaging story line something the industry has embraced for many genres now.  Even some FPS games have a great story line now and that has come a long way from the days of just running around killing Nazis, but then again there is something to be said for a game you can just jump into have a great 5 or 10 minutes of playtime and be done.

How did you get started in the game industry?

Like many my age I started playing games around 5 or 6 on the ColecoVision, Atari and Intellivision and then got an Apple IIe around age 10 and started programming on it in BASIC.  I'm mostly self taught and then in college after much soul searching I went into Computer Science.  I hesitated because I struggled in Math and was worried it would be too hard because of all the Math that was required.  I worked my ass off and with the help of one of my girlfriend's in college who was a math wiz and one of my math professors I managed to actually pull off a 3.5 GPA in math! haha! :)

When it was time to submit my resume I compiled a list of over 100 game companies in Excel and sorted the list by distance from my house (yeah, I can be pretty strange at times) and then I started firing them off starting with the closest.  This was during a time when pretty much every game company had a requirement that in order to get a job with them, you had to have already shipped a, it was a catch 22, how do you ship a title if no one will hire you if you haven't already shipped a game?  That isn't really the case nowadays but it was truly a pain in the ass when I was pounding the pavement.  After some time I got four interviews and was soon to be introduced to the hell known as a game programmer interview.  All my college buddies who went off to Aerospace or the Financial world had a fairly easy time relative to what I went through.  Most game companies I interviewed at gave me at least a four to five hour interview that required me to stand in front of a bunch of senior guys and write out answers to questions on a white board and go in a room and code solutions to problems they gave me.  They didn't care about my grades or my degree or who what school I went to, all they cared about was could I answer their questions.  The fact I made my own game and ran my own company in college got me the interview but now I needed to prove myself to them.  My longest interview was a few years later that spanned three days and totaled 14 hours!  Anyhow, I bombed the first interview and felt so embarrassed and crushed I think I cried the whole way driving home for fear I had chosen a career path maybe I shouldn't have. But a few days later I had another interview and then another and by week's end, I had three offers on the table.  The ironic thing is without the first experience where my spirit was crushed, I don't think I would have done as well in the next few interviews.  They were just as grueling but I now knew what to expect and found out some areas I was lacking in and brushed up on them.

What are your principles in creating good games with replay value?

One of my main goals in making a game is making it in such a way that after I've been working on it for a year or two, I still want to play it. Many people in the industry are so tired of looking at the game they worked on that they don't want to play it anymore, so I try and make sure that it has all the things it needs so I'm still interested in it later.  I worked for Blizzard for a few years and they've always been and still are one of my favorite game companies and the Blizzard motto on game design is: "Easy to play, hard to master."  I think that little phrase sums it all up.  If many of your design decisions are made with that in mind, you are on the right path.  Another Blizzard philosophy is "It's ready when it's ready".  This talks about not rushing a game out the door to make some holiday or financial quarter so the share holders will be happy which we see a lot of since bean counters are running so many game companies now instead of gamers. 

I read an article about making smaller games like browser games and what not and the author was essentially telling everyone to rush things out as quick as possible and dump shit into the players laps and iterate on it as quickly as possible so you can know if it is something the pubic will want.  While I understand what he is trying to say and achieve, I'm just not a fan of dumping shit into a potential customer's lap.  It is too easy to get play testers to figure out a lot of the issues and then by the time it gets to the players it is a fun game or figure out it isn't a fun game and cancel it.  Of course iterating even once it is out is fine, but I find it disrespectful and insulting to think you should pawn crap onto the masses and expect them to stick around.

Many people are developing games for apps, XBLA and other online communities nowadays. What do you think of this phenomenon?

I think it is great!  The Indie developer has a good chance to make a living now.  It is of course going the way it usually does because now big companies with lots of money are entering this space as well, so the bar for these kinds of platforms gets higher and higher and eventually the small guys will get pushed out again, but that is just how the world works, survival of the fittest.  There will always be room in niches and ultimately the consumer wins by having lots of options to choose from.  The other problem with things like the Apple's app store or any solution where they have a top X list is if you aren't in the top X your profits really reflect it, and in order to get in the top, you need to spend a lot of money on advertising or truly have an epic game that spreads via word of mouth.  If you are ever selling multiple widgets and want to unload more of one than another, just tell everyone it is ranked #1 and watch it fly off the shelves!  We Humans love to be sheep!

I’m sure Pit of War keeps you pretty busy every day, but any new ideas or future plans for the project? Personally, I’d be interested in seeing an art book of Pit of War or maybe a comic book.

Oh yeah, we have lots of plans from epic adventures in the form of conquests to underground unsanctioned pit fights in the black market and numerous new specialties for gladiators to choose.  There has been talk of a comic and I'd like to actually include the player's gladiators in it so it would be a sort of living comic and actually be tied into the game.

Great! So awesome to talk to you! It’s been so very inspirational and educational. Thank you for such an honest and insightful interview, Nate. I'm looking forward to talking with you more when your future plans and projects are active. Hope more people join Pit of War so my savage gladiator (actually, I own two dudes now but one dies all the time, tears) can beat them up.  : ) Just jokin'!

And, thank you, super awesome viewers, for joining me on this episode of S-aas! Hope you come back for more awesomeness soon!

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