Ahead of the Game
When it comes to maverick gaming, Tiger Style Studios proves "there's an app for that"
Burlington’s New Moon Café is bustling with college students working on laptops and sipping the day’s special, ginger tea. Among them is Randy Smith, 35, who with his printed hoodie and hip glasses could easily pass for just another kid doing homework. And he sort of is — but his “assignment” is making some serious waves in the gaming world.
Smith is a video-game programmer who less than a year ago launched his own studio, Tiger Style, approaching the venture with a panache he terms “pride combined with terror.” It’s an attitude that has characterized the native Vermonter’s 12-year career designing software, and more recently, his ascent in the gaming world.
This summer Tiger Style released a game for the iPhone, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, to rave reviews and a steady place on the apps charts. He’s seen a $250,000 return on that one game-making investment — so far. It’s allowed him what some might consider the ultimate luxury: the freedom to bring his new-fangled line of work home to a decidedly old-timey farmhouse in Huntington. Vermont, that is.
After graduating with a degree in computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Smith went to work at a Cambridge, Mass.-based company called Looking Glass. He made his name there, crafting the popular Thief series, a “stealth” first-person-perspective video game in which the player must attack in secret. By the time of the third and best-known installment, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Smith had been promoted to project director.
Before returning to Vermont full time in December 2008, Smith worked as creative director and lead designer at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles — a city he describes as “dehumanizing.” Recognized most widely for its sports games, the mega-studio is also known among the cognoscenti for helping get more innovative creations off the ground. Perhaps the best-known product of this nurturing spirit is the Sims line of games, which deal with the long-term simulation of processes ranging from the macro (SimEarth’s evolution of flora and fauna from the primordial) to the micro (training a digital pet).
Smith himself was strongly resolved to create nonviolent games, and while at EA he was “seduced over to a project by Steven Spielberg.” The pioneering filmmaker, says Smith, “understood that games are emerging media — that video games are more than entertainment. They can reach people [in] other ways.”
The onset of the recession last year, however, left EA “financially unbalanced,” and the team headed by Smith had to be downsized. “My bosses were really nice to me,” he says: They gave him the choice of a lesser gig or being let go. Smith chose the latter.
The Spielberg project, code-named “Element O,” continues at EA in development — and in secret — without Smith. The programmer took “a really generous severance,” called a few friends and asked, “Who wants to make an iPhone studio?”
Toward the end of his EA tenure, Smith explains, iPhones were beginning to emerge as a platform for forms of gaming more sophisticated than throwing virtual paper airplanes. In fact, for the forward-thinking designer, the iPhone’s features — the accelerometer, which senses the device’s directional orientation, camera, touch screen and Internet connectivity — offer a treasure trove of ways to entertain players.
Beyond the exciting and sometimes frustrating challenges of programming for the new platform, the iPhone is alluring to game designers for other reasons. Smith cites the appeal of helping develop the app biz as much as following it. He also applauds the money the industry saves by eliminating boxes and “third-party channels” such as Gamestop. But, Smith shares, “the coolest part, from my perspective, is [catering to] people who bought iPhones in comparison to people buying Xbox 360. It fits in with my core of pushing video games to a more open-minded demographic.”
Though the general population has heard plenty about indie music and movies since the early ’90s, the term “indie games” isn’t used outside a relatively small subculture. Smith believes the release of high-quality iPhone games such as Spider will change that. The indie movement grew out of the desire of like-minded designers to create games “beyond just power fantasies — with resonance in real life,” Smith explains.
Working from that paradigm, designers have crafted games that are not just playthings but artworks. Rod Humble, the executive producer of EA’s Sims division, is notable in the “art game” community for his The Marriage, a simple program that requires players to keep a pink square and a blue square united while navigating a variety of obstacles. As Smith puts it, in such endeavors, still in their infancy, “It’s the game mechanics themselves that carry the artistic importance.”
Spider has as much story as strategy. To ensure this, Smith enlisted his girlfriend, writer Julia Tabor, 28, a fellow BFA-St. Albans grad. Together, working through webcam conversations with Smith’s partner, Dave Kalina, in Texas, the couple crafted a story loosely based on modern gothic kids’ novels such as The House With a Clock in Its Walls, written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey. The game’s protagonist is one of Vermont’s numerous jumping spiders, and its journey in search of delicious bugs flows from room to room of a Gilded Age home. Players follow the spider through the vestiges of a broken marriage, from a locket thrown down a well to a pair of train tickets left unused beneath the dinner table. The grand joke? “It’s implicit that you [the spider] don’t care about those trappings of humanity,” says Smith.
The Spider project grew to include 14 contributors, all working remotely. Kalina, also late of EA, is based in Austin, where he is a sometime food writer for alt weekly The Austinist. Other collaborators hail from Austin, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore.
As “ad-hoc art director,” Smith made sure that his home state has a significant presence in the game. He and Tabor took “little field trips,” photographing homes and natural features that corresponded to their vision. “I wanted all these little details that are kind of unique to Vermont,” says Smith, and describes one such journey to snap a cache of filled Mason jars in a stranger’s basement.
Smith painstakingly worked these photographic details into the game’s setting, Bryce Manor. Designers then refined them in Photoshop for a unified look that mimics Smith’s modern-gothic inspirations. Most of the artists involved contributed dozens of hours per week on top of their day jobs, with payment a distant promise.
Though only Smith, Tabor and her brother, Paul Martell, worked on Spider”from Vermont, other Vermonters were involved in the game’s progress. Theron Jacobs, another BFA-St. Albans grad, was part of the art team. Portland, Ore.-based Essex High alum Jef Drawbaugh, better known by his recording moniker Dizzystarhouse, contributed to the game’s soundtrack, which will soon be downloadable on its own. To promote Spider, Rob Koier and David Kaufmann of Rob Koier Film Production shot and edited the game’s trailer.
The game was finished on July 29, but Smith and Kalina expected to wait months before they heard anything from Apple, the iPhone’s creator and owner. They were wrong. Within less than two weeks, Smith received a call from Apple asking if he could have a website for Spider online in an hour. His eyes widening at the recollection, Smith remembers thinking, Are you fucking shitting me? “They’re like God; they give you blessings, but you can’t talk to them,” he says of Apple Computer Inc.
The day Smith meets Seven Days at New Moon Café, he’s just been testing a version of Spider that soon will be available for sampling at Apple stores all over the world. He did the work, he says, while sitting beside a pond on his property, watching a gaggle of Canada geese.
Tiger Style recently received its first paycheck from Apple. The $2.99 sticker price may be low compared with that of a console game, but after just weeks on the charts, Spider has sold more than 120,000 copies, spawned an active Facebook community and earned Tiger Style $250,000. Smith distributed the royalties among his staff. Like other Vermont companies known for progressive policies, Tiger Style has a cooperative structure. For example, designers who worked just three weeks on “Spider” are making thousands of dollars for their brief labors. As Smith explains, “Everyone at Tiger Style gets compensated by the same metric, regardless of experience or seniority, including myself.”
That’s not the only Vermont value Smith embraces. He also wants to export a bit of the state’s aesthetic to the rest of the world. “It’s cool that people out there playing Spider are getting a tiny slice of Vermont culture, even if they don’t realize it,” he says. Acting on his belief that games are an artistic medium in their own right, Smith is in talks with Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery to plan an exhibit about gaming.
For Tiger Style’s next project — which Smith won’t divulge, owing to the “clonerific” nature of the app store — he plans on enlisting interns from Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center. Smith is pinning his hopes on these students. “We are creating a culture of gaming,” he says. “Some of them are going to band together and make studios.”
This is all part of the master plan of a native son who hopes that, one game at a time, he can contribute to Vermont’s high-tech industry — “to continue,” he says, “our sustainability as an independent, free-thinking state.”