Rampancy Interviews Wideload's Matt Soell

Longtime Bungie fans will recognize the name Matt Soell. For many years Soell was the public face of Bungie, the guy who read (and posted) on the message boards, who wrote the original weekly updates, who gave cryptic hints about wall-hugging hippos in Halo, and whom many strongly suspect was the wit behind the Letters to the Webmaster feature.

Now, Soell is the writer responsible for fleshing out the story of Stubbs the Zombie, the new Xbox title by independent developer Wideload Games in Chicago, founded in Bungie Software's old stomping grounds by none other than Alexander "The Man" Seropian, Bungie co-founder, and including the magic number-- you guessed it, seven-- ex-Bungie employees.

Even while Wideload put the finishing touches on Stubbs for release this week, Soell took time out to answer a few questions for Rampancy.net.

Narcogen: When the founding of Wideload Games was first announced, the focus was placed as much on Wideload's business model, combining a small staff with independent contractors, as on the company's Bungie heritage and new intellectual property (Stubbs the Zombie). With that game nearing completion, how has Wideload's new business model worked for the company? What advantages does it have compared to the previous two situations, and what disadvantages?

Matt Soell: I think it's worked out pretty well. We're still around, we're actually shipping a game, we haven't had to sell our souls to anybody, we've got the same core staff of eleven people we started with, we all still like each other and so on. So yeah - you CAN make a game this way and have fun doing it.

Advantages and disadvantages are pretty much what we expected. You can get a lot done with a small creative team and a lot of contractors - and it's less expensive for sure. The disadvantages are that such an arrangement forces you to have your shit together early in the process and communicate really well with all your contractors. Sometimes that's tough. I'm not just talking about the logistics of synchronizing our Chicago schedule with an art house in Ireland or what have you, although that's part of it. When everyone's in the same room, or at least the same building, it's a lot easier to make sure everyone has the same basic understanding of what we're trying to achieve. It's not an insurmountable problem by any means, but it reared its head more than once during the development of Stubbs.

Narcogen: From your own perspective, you've worked at a more-or-less "traditional" startup company (Bungie Software) and also in a former startup now part of a large corporation (Bungie Studios). How would you compare the experience of working at Wideload to the two previous situations?

Matt Soell: Some of the people have been the same at all three, and I suppose the general overarching philosophy (for lack of a better word) that guides our day-to-day actions has been pretty consistent too. Bungie was a developer AND publisher, which meant we did everything ourselves. Apart from the whole "assume all the risk, collect all the rewards" thing, this allowed us to streamline the process somewhat. Development, marketing, support, sales, packaging design, the whole deal - everything except manufacturing and distribution was under one roof. The post-buyout Bungie had a giant support mechanism around it, which was nice in some ways but did introduce some bureaucratic slowdown into the process. Suddenly someone else was in charge of the packaging and the manual and buying ads and all that, and if you were very hands-on and particular about how things should be done (as Bungie was/is) you would need to spend time explaining what you wanted to people who didn't necessarily understand what you wanted or why you wanted it. Wideload is more like the former than the latter; we still have an external publisher (and they're in a different state, so a face-to-face meeting means someone has to get on a plane) but we retain control over what we do and how we do it.

Narcogen: From what has already been revealed of the plotline of 'Stubbs the Zombie' it would seem that revenge is his primary motivation. How much will be enough for him-- will he stop at Punchbowl?

Matt Soell: Punchbowl is an obvious and convenient target, but certainly not the only place Stubbs has unfinished business. He was a traveling salesman - he got around. On the other hand, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; likewise, sometimes Stubbs feeds on human flesh because he's a hungry zombie. You can't overanalyze that sort of thing.

Narcogen: It seems clear enough that, despite being an undead zombie, Stubbs is the game's protagonist. Other than the hapless inhabitants of Punchbowl, who are probably unaware their city of the future was constructed on Stubbs' grave, does Stubbs' desire for revenge have an object? Will the game have a single, identifiable antagonist? Or is it Stubbs against the entire game world?

Matt Soell: It's a generalized hostility toward the human world that denied him love, success and happiness while he was alive...but he does end up focusing on Andrew Monday for a few different reasons. He's an obvious target: the smiling face of Punchbowl. Stubbs wants to put a couple gaps in that smile.

Narcogen: A love interest was also hinted at earlier. Is that element still in the game?

Matt Soell: Absolutely.

Narcogen: Have you noticed that one of the most popular custom gametypes of Halo 2 on XBL is 'Zombies'? Ever played it? If so, what did you think?

Matt Soell: I have heard about it - it was quite the rage for a while there - but I've never played it myself. I honestly didn't have time to play many games during Stubbs' development. I may give it a go now that I have a slight break between projects.

Narcogen: Why the Xbox and not the Xbox 360? For that matter, why the Halo engine and not the Halo 2 engine? Was there not enough lead time to work on those engines/platforms instead? Or was licensing an issue?

Matt Soell: It wasn't a question of lead times or licensing; it was pure pragmatism. When we started working on Stubbs in early 2003, serious development for the next-gen consoles wasn't really happening yet. We opted to get busy doing real work for an existing console rather than sit around waiting around for devkits. As for the engine, Halo 2's engine was still in active development at the time; the Halo engine had the advantage of being done, and we were already familiar with it.

Narcogen: TTWO supposedly received Halo engine licenses as part of Microsoft's buyout of Bungie Software. So it might have been natural to assume that TTWO, at some point, might have been looking for a group of third party developers with Halo engine experience (and possibly even a game idea) for them to publish. Was Stubbs ever discussed with them?

Matt Soell: It was. Some of us knew those guys from back in the Bungie days, and they had those Halo engine licenses, so it would have been a surprise if the subject never came up. :-) Several publishers expressed an interest in working with us, but ultimately it made the most sense for us to do Stubbs with Aspyr.

Narcogen: Has any work or testing been done to determine whether Stubbs will be one of the "top games" that will also run on the Xbox 360? Does Stubbs use the hard drive in the same manner that the Halo engine did-- for caching maps and saving checkpoints?

Matt Soell: If any Xbox 360 testing has been done with Stubbs, no one's told us. I gather Halo works on the 360, so that's a good sign - but I can't promise anything yet. And yes, Stubbs uses the hard drive in the same way Halo does.

Narcogen: Are the PC and Mac ports of Stubbs being done in-house by Wideload, or by porting houses? Are the ports based on the codebases of the PC and Mac ports done by Gearbox and Westlake, respectively, or were they done from scratch? What, if anything, has been done to address the relatively lackluster performance and steep system requirements of the Halo engine in its PC and Macintosh incarnations?

Matt Soell: Aspyr's doing the PC/Mac versions. I know they had access to the Gearbox and Westlake code, but I also know they've done a substantial amount of work themselves. Being the writer, I tend to be insulated from most of the technical stuff - so unfortunately this is one of those questions better suited to Aspyr than myself.

Narcogen: Will Stubbs' cooperative play mode work as Halo's did? Are any alterations made to the story to accommodate two players, where none was made in Halo?

Matt Soell: Yes, co-op in Stubbs works pretty much like co-op in Halo did - so if you liked that, you may very well enjoy playing Stubbs with a friend. It certainly helps on the higher difficulty settings. We didn't get a chance to do any story stuff that is specific to the Stubbs-and-Grubbs duo. Alas.

Narcogen: If we assume that Stubbs has the same checkpoint-saving system that Halo did, how will cooperative mode work when one player is killed; as in Halo 1, where that player simply respawns and play continues, and the last checkpoint is only reloaded when both players die?

Matt Soell: Right - the dead player respawns as long as the other player is alive and not currently embroiled in combat.

Narcogen: How many levels of difficulty does the game have-- and do they affect the way cooperative play works, as happens in Halo 2, where on the highest difficulty level, the last checkpoint is triggered when either player dies?

Matt Soell: There are four difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Tough and Insane. As you might imagine, they correspond pretty closely with Easy, Normal, Heroic and Legendary.

(NOTE: Matt further clarified that Stubbs doesn't try and rescue players from impossible checkpoints the way Halo 2 does--Ed.)

Narcogen: If Stubbs uses a level-of-difficulty system similar to Halo's, does it use the same UI to track 'badges'-- to record the highest level of difficulty at which a given player profile has completed a particular level? Many players missed this feature, removed from the Halo 2 UI.

Matt Soell: We didn't do badges for Stubbs. More due to lack of time than anything else.

Narcogen: How many levels/maps will Stubbs have at launch?

Matt Soell: There are twelve separate chapters.

Narcogen: Are there any Hippos in Stubbs? If so, how can we find them? (NOTE: This question was asked before the subsequent revelation that Stubbs has in-game hippos that reveal developer comments--Ed.)

Matt Soell: Well, the secret's out at this point...but yes, there are hippos in Stubbs, and you can find them once you've played through the game.

Rampancy.net would like to thank Matt for his time and candor in this interview.