Dan Sochan is one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve met in the industry. His constantly positive personality is a refreshing change of pace from the sometimes cynical outlooks of developers who’ve been around the business for a while. It was a sorry sight then to see him limping around the Vancouver office of United Front Games as he gave me a tour of the studio celebrating the successful release of Sleeping Dogs.
Like a lot of producers who spend too much time at work, Dan likes to use what little downtime he has to experience new things and challenge himself with activities that have nothing to do with video games. Being a wannabe skateboarder in his younger days, Sochan spent a recent weekend trying to best a personal friend’s challenge; drop into a custom-built half-pipe and make it to the other side without bailing.
Clad in enough protective gear to defend a pro football player, Dan attacked “The Gentleman’s Halfpipe” with tenacity, dropping in and wiping out over and over again. Dan’s not a skateboarder, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Despite all his tenacity, Sochan eventually hurt his ankle and suffered for his efforts, but when I asked him about it, he said it was totally worth it. In the wake of his failure, he managed to earned himself a record for most drop-in attempts (See video). He may have had no idea what he was doing, but he made something of the experience anyway.
That’s the kind of guy Dan is anyway. Despite not coming from a programming/game design background, he found himself in the industry during the early days when things were played more fast and loose. A contact of his pulled him into the business with a nominal position, which he managed to leverage into some serious experience before becoming a producer at United Front Games.
It’s always interested me to find out how people get into the industry and what they wind up doing once they get there. For the past few years, Sochan has acted as the face of the company – our first meeting was during a press event at a go-kart track for Mod Nation Racers - and it’s evolved into a love of video game marketing, which is an unusual passion for someone who’s been able to work at the level he has. While I may not completely understand his affinity for promotion and sales, it’s his excitement that I can respect; in the post-release days of Sleeping Dogs when I visited he was in good spirits with the rest of the studio and ready to celebrate.
Actually, the studio’s pretty much always ready to celebrate. Friday’s are particularly festive in the studio with a majority of staff congregating in the lower floor of the office for libations as they cheers occasions, milestones, or just each other’s company. I arrived on a particularly special day, a mix of their monthly birthday celebration and their bourbon & whisky connoisseur club. Pretty much the whole studio was milling about, toasting the release of their game and just being generally happy. It’s hard not to enjoy an environment like that.
It’s nice to see a studio take the time to recognize their accomplishments, especially when they’ve had such tremendous success without going through all the usual trials most new studios have to. United Front Games managed to sink a pile of AAA projects with big publishers and platforms without needing to work tedious contracts beforehand, something Dan attributes to the excellent connections their senior staff had developed before starting the studio. Working with Sony, Activision, Square Enix, or any other major publisher is not something that’s usually possible for a start-up.
Sochan and his team are folks that understand how to celebrate success, but know not to take anything for granted. The shakedown in the wake of True Crime’s transition into Sleeping Dogs has left them all very aware just how turbulent the games industry can be. It’s easy to see in Sochan’s attitude that – though they had strong faith in what they’d made and knew things would probably turn out alright in some way – there were a few days that were a little shakier.
Maybe that’s a good thing though, the need to balance self-promotion with self-doubt is a necessity to creating great things. United Front Games is a studio that recognizes that they’ve got what it takes to get it done and because of that won’t give up on an idea even if it’s perilous, much like Dan wouldn’t give up on that half-pipe.
Kid wakes up, floor’s hard but the streets would have been harder. Getting by on the kindness of strangers ain’t a habit you want to develop, but sometimes it’s all you can do. He takes a groggy step into the mess hall and sees people getting ready for the day. Even meager breakfasts fill bellies.
The Kid hits the sidewalk and the cool sea air hits him. Sun won’t let him freeze though, it knows he’s got a mission. Today The Kid meets The Maker and there’s a whole lotta ground between ‘em. Step by step, block by block, he makes his way past the lost and forgotten to The Maker’s workshop. If there’s a lesson in this place, Kid’s gonna find it.
Maker’s a bit nervous at first, stumbling over his words but wears a welcoming smile all the while. He’s got a secret for sure, curtains pulled over his scribblings on the wall. Kid ain’t interested in secrets though, he’s got plenty of his own. There’s a bowl of noodles between them, warms their souls and the conversation. Doesn’t take long before The Maker’s opening up. Nothing breeds trust like a nice, warm meal.
The Maker was a lot like The Kid once, young and idealistic. It was The Company that stomped it out of him. He had some good times for sure, but a horse can only ride so far without getting a carrot before it just gives up. Luckily The Maker had friends, talented friends that saw a way to do what they loved without The Company.
Problem was that The Company had all the tools, even the best can’t build something from nothing. Didn’t stop The Maker from trying though. He toiled in that workshop for years, at times it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. Spirit’s a funny thing, dreamin’ big can be all you need when it’s all you’ve got.
That dream turned into something magical. The Maker and his friends set an idea out in the world, and the world loved them for it. A lot of folks looked to The Maker for answers after that, everyone wants the secret to success from someone who’s hit the gold. Thing is, The Maker ain’t even sure if he’s able to do it again.
Kid’s got faith though, he wouldn’t be there unless he did. He can taste honesty in The Maker’s efforts, and it’s a sweet flavor that stays on the tongue. Taste like that don’t just go away, it lingers in the back of your mouth long after the last bite. All The Maker’s got to do is remember the recipe.
The Maker’s got his tools now and The Company’s heel’s stepped off his dreams. It’s still a delicate walk, but now he’s got the means to get back on the path if he falls off once. Even if he takes the wrong road he’s got the time to correct himself ’cause he knows how to do it with nothin’ at all.
Walkin’ away from the workshop, Kid’s got a new outlook on tenacity. It ain’t about stickin’ to it when things get tough, it’s about being willing to dive in when you’re certain things will. The Maker’s got that dogged attitude in spades and he’ll always be able to follow his bliss with it. Kid likes that, he likes it a lot.
There’s a good reason why most indie developers pick a platform and stick to it, at least until launch. Building a multi-platform title from scratch by yourself is literally one of the most daunting tasks imaginable, even more so if it’s your first independently produced title. The toll it took on Brian Provinciano was literally visible when I visited him at his office in Vancouver, fighting sickness brought on by fatigue and stress he was broken physically but beaming with pride.
Retro City Rampage may not look like an incredibly complicated game at first, its NES-grade graphics lend to assumptions of simplicity. I generally dislike indie apologists who make the fact a game was made by a solo artist the defining feature of the discussion, but what Brian’s done with the Rampage deserves some special recognition. Launching simultaneously on 5 platforms, including the PlayStation Vita which has only been around a few months is a noteworthy feat. Even large AAA studios need to outsource their porting because it can be such a time consuming task, but Provinciano did it all himself.
Of course, this wasn’t an overnight phenomena, the game has been in development for nearly five years since Brian decided to leave a position at a prominent Vancouver game studio. It’s been a trial of stress and strain building his project, but at the end of it all, he seems satisfied above all things; building a game has been his sole focus since 13.
“It was the summer when I was 13. That was the summer I started two things, working out and programming. Before that I dabbled with computers and would occasionally do mock-up levels for games in MS Paint or something, but that summer was a sort of coming of age where I just went to the library and picked up a book on C++ and decided to start working out. Those are the two things that have defined my life ever since. I still find it very interesting that it was that summer where I decided to start programming and start working out and I’ve kept with them ever since.”
The desire to make games is very easy to understand, but its relationship with Brian’s programming life didn’t seem as apparent as it should have. Over the months travelling, I’ve learned that developers very frequently enjoy a hobby that has them get physical in some way, or challenge their brain in ways they don’t normally do at work. For Brian, his efforts at the gym were both responsible for and the product of his desk-chained life.
“At the time it was about wanting to be buff, look good, and appeal to girls. I think that’s pretty much what everyone gets into it for initially, but over time it evolved into enjoying being healthy. Of course with the long hours and the stress of work now, it’s gone from where I’d work out 7 days a week to missing a day or two whenever, but I always have the intention of returning to that routine when things slow down. It’s all about just being healthy, but it’s critical now because of all the computer work and some injuries I’ve had where if I don’t work out my back and neck every couple of days, it becomes debilitating to the point where I can’t work on the computer. It’s a necessity when you’re working 12-14 straight on a computer. I guess that shows my personality of extremes, being at the computer for an extreme period of time and then working out more than the average person. In a perfect world, I’d be dabbling on the computer and getting some exercise throughout the day and living the way we should, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Retro City Rampage looks to be one of the few PlayStation Vita games I really enjoy. A few have tickled my fancy before, but I haven’t played one that’s really drawn me in (save for the possibility of Sound Shapes) like Rampage did. That reason being Provinciano’s almost calculating social presence provides him with a great insight into the kind of comedy that bubbles its way out whenever he writes.
“I’m not a stand-up comedian type for the group, there are friends I have like that who are always cracking jokes and trying to make people laugh. I do like to crack jokes though, but I’m generally into humour and puns. Like, I watch The Colbert Report regularly even though I’m Canadian for the puns and the wit.”
“I wanted to be a stand-up comedian when I was a kid, but I also wanted to be all sorts of things. I wanted to be a comic book artist, I wanted to be a chef at one point, but comedy is just something that I like. I have my moments when I’m serious, but overall I’m kind of a goofy guy who doesn’t like to take things seriously all the time. For me to write serious dialog, it would turn into a parody whether I wanted it to or not.”
With the game nearly public, it’s obvious that Brian’s a little on edge. Every developer has fears before they launch and like any other project, Retro City Rampage could tank. Thankfully though, Brian keeps grounded by reminding himself how much he believes in the project and letting that count for something.