[In the final pre-E3 interview we're rolling out, Metalocalypse animator turned Seven Haunted Seas developer Titmouse Games talks to Brandon Sheffield about creative-led studios, game biz pay, and making what you want without getting screwed.]

Los Angeles-based animation firm Titmouse, known for animating the Metalocalypse Adult Swim series, and which also did the cutscenes for the Guitar Hero games, has added a game studio, Titmouse Games, as announced back in March.

The company has already released one title so far, the iPhone voodoo doll pestering sim Doctor Zomba. Also announced is Seven Haunted Seas, an action RPG staring a maligned pirate - and Fistful of Blood, based on the Heavy Metal-published graphic novel of the same name.

Recently, we talked with Titmouse Games creative director Aaron Habibipour, previously with Sammy, High Moon, and Neversoft, and Keith Fay, VP of Titmouse Inc. about starting the new company, and how to be a creative-led company without letting your egos ruin your finances.

There's no beating around the bush here - they know what they're good at, and what limitations they will likely run up against. But for now, the studio is very much operating under the Nike policy: "Just do it":

Beginnings

How did this whole venture get started? I heard a little bit about it, but...

Keith Fay: Well, you know, Titmouse has been doing animation for years and years. And we all play games, and we did all the in-game cinematics for all the Guitar Hero games. I was a writer on the original God of War games, so it's sort of always been in our matrix.

And it's one of those things... Chris P., the owner of the studio, and myself have been constantly like, "One of these days, we got to start Titmouse Games." And we were really, really, really ready to commit at the end of the year and found out that Aaron had left Neversoft, and it was just like serendipity. It was like, "Holy shit. Let's get that guy."

And we went from sort of like, "Hey, this is cool. Let's start a game company," to, "No, we are a game company. We're making games right now." So, it was really, really cool. And we've got great momentum, and we're really excited about it.

And how much is your animation stuff going to cross over into game stuff?

KF: I think quite a bit actually, just in terms of using the artists and things like that. I mean Aaron has the entire studio at his disposal. So, for instance, like the Seven Haunted Seas trailer, that's Titmouse's best people, the best and brightest working on that, and we're really passionate about that.

And then again, in terms of our IPs, as we create more shows and get more projects made, video games are just going to be part of that world. It's not just an animated movie or just an animated series, it's a property that spans a bunch of platforms, and games are just a huge part of that now.

Are you going to have to grow as a studio for this?

KF: That's an interesting question. Yeah, we'll have to grow in terms of sort of expanding the game division. And the company itself is growing just kind of constantly. We've sort of been on a steady arc thus far. But not in a way there that I think will hurt our creativity at all. And I think that that's the core.

No matter what we do, it's got to be cool, it's got to be weird, it's got to be dark, it's got to be edgy, it's got to be fun, it's got to be silly, it's got to be strange. And that's not something you can blow up too fast. We can't become McDonald's in a year. We sort of have to be careful about our brand. We're kind of precious about the stuff we do right now.

Aaron Habibipour: One of the best things about going from a larger company to sort of guerilla style game making is just the fact that we're all so hands on and we can realistically talk about things, we can talk to each other. It doesn't become communication that's lost through...

KF: Very DIY. It's like quitting Journey and starting a punk band. You know what I mean, it's like, "I went through this weird corporate thing where nothing I wanted to do could get done. And suddenly like every cool idea I have, I can do."

AH: And that's the greatest thing about it. We can all sit there and work and really sit there and go like, "Hey, this is really fucking cool." It's great to be agile enough to be able to turn on a dime and be able to explore ideas, be able to do things, or be able to bring up things that might be edgy or risky and be able to do it anyway -- regardless, or because of.

That's one of the cool things that we like. That's what I love about these guys, that they’re willing to take risks, big time.

You still have to be financially solvent at the end of the day.

AH: Yes, of course. But I think the thing is that you can concentrate on making good games. That's always up for debate, and that's always like... It's always subjective to the individual, the reviewer, or whatever.

I think the best thing that we can do is take the ideas that we really love and try to make those into really good games, and worry less about statistics and demographics and sponsors and all this other kind of stuff, and concentrate on what we really think is fun.

Because honestly, I think, when you see all the groundbreaking games, and when you see all the things that really set the trends out there in the industry, you're looking at people who had passion products and people who really wanted to do things that they wanted to see done, rather than just build thing from a formula.

There have been a lot of entertainment companies from outside of games come into games, but usually they are either so big that you can't necessarily care about it, or they're not very interesting. Whereas you guys are actually coming from a place of having street cred -- so would you say there are higher expectations from you?.

KF: Absolutely. Right. We're super cognizant of that, and we're really paranoid about that. Everything we put out, like I said, we're super precious about her brand, and we want to make sure, "Does this have the right tones? Does it have the right vibe? Are we sending the right message?" We're our own like toughest critics, really.

But if it gets through us, and we say, "Hey, that sounds cool to us," we just gotta trust the people that believe in our brand and have known our stuff and gravitated towards it, are going to gravitate towards the next thing.

Who's the Boss?

AH: So far, it's been everybody that we've had come into the studio that we wanted to talk to about doing something, whether it's an original idea or whether it's something that we wanted the license -- like let's say the Heavy Metal stuff with Kevin Eastman, the people that we've had come in have all clicked with us, and we clicked with them.

And there has been, like, blinded ideas. We immediately start riffing off each other. And that's always a really good sign of something having a lot of promise, the ability for creators... Honestly, when you're in a big corporate environment, creators don't necessarily get to talk to each other.

It's like, "I licensed it from you, and so I have to go through your manager to sit down... I have to run this through six people. Six people get to change it and do whatever they want to it before it gets to the other guy, and then he's got to approve it to send it back."

And four of those six people don't actually understand what it is.

AH: Exactly.

KF: But they have to add their comments to it regardless.

AH: The coolest thing is that so far, and the best thing that I like about this, is that everyone that we've talked to, we've maintained a direct line of communication with.

We’re actually starting to build a little bit of a circle of creative people that are outside of just games in general as well that are really wanting to work on projects together. You hear about this all the time in the film industry. Judd Apatow (Superbad) works with the same people all the time. Tim Burton works all the same people all the time, and they're all working on creative projects together.

I'm hoping we can do that same thing with games and bridge that gap between games and entertainment in the same way.

KF: There is no line for me. Entertainment, games, cartoons, movies, television -- it's kind of all the same things. Whether or not I'm controlling it and making it run around a field, or whether I'm watching it and laughing about it. It's story. It's characters. It's narrative. That's what we do.

Are you working toward the kind of Hollywood model then in terms of being able to partner with certain people specifically for the right project and then moving on?

AH: Well, yes. For instance, like Kevin has... It wasn't just Fistful of Blood that we talked to Kevin about. We've also talked to Kevin about writing for Seven Haunted Seas, which he's totally interested in. So, we're like, "Kevin, dude. We're going to do Fistful of Blood together. And then Kevin, why don't you come in and write like a cool side-quest storyline for Seven Haunted Seas?"

He was totally up for that and totally down for that. Those are the kinds of relationships that we want to have with the people that we work with. And it's not necessarily about licensing something or working with someone or a specific thing, and then moving on. I hope that we can create a relationship with the people that we work with and do multiple projects.

How many people do you have in the games bit of the studio?

AH: There are about eight people right now that are working in the Titmouse games side, and in the animation side, it's of course about 80 people. It's a fairly large studio.

How large do you think you're going to grow on the pure games side?

AH: That's kind of a tough question to answer because it always depends on the game, right? You know, doing console games, for instance, almost requires a publisher to get done.

And so, if we set up a publisher deal for Seven Haunted Seas, for example, there's an expectancy to get it done in a certain amount of time, and there's also getting it done in a certain amount of time for profitability, and all those sorts of things, and that's going to dictate how many people we hire.

But I ultimately would love to keep it as small as possible, because there's something about growing too big and losing communication with the people you work with and having the entire team lose sight of what the direction and the goal is.

KF: I mean, I hate to turn boutique -- it's such a weird term -- but in essence, that's kind of what it is. We have like a core group of people that are the real creatives. I mean, you staff up for different projects and things, but we like to sort of assemble a creative core that is our ten, twenty people that are the guys, you know what I mean.

It’s like any of the shows we do. Black Panther, we're doing for Marvel right now. It's like we bring in all the great artists that we find for this particular project, but when it really comes down to it, the directors and the writers and things like that are the Titmouse group. We hope to keep that same sort of creative control on the game side as well.

AH: In that sense, it actually is more of a Hollywood model in terms of the studio that you're talking about earlier, where we do keep a core group of people on staff that are sort of like the creative force behind what we're doing, and we staff up sort of as needed for the project.

You're going to staff up or you're going to outsource, do you think?

AH: That's where it depends. I've kind of done both over the last eight or so years, and I sort of... There are two things. One, outsourcing is kind of, "You get what you pay for" sort of deal. Working cheaper doesn't necessarily mean working better.

AH: But then you have to understand that it's not in your best interest financially to hire all these people on team and bring them in. But there are other outsourcing solutions for that sort of thing. I mean, there's definitely, especially these days, I think, a lot of talented people and a lot of talented companies out there here on the stateside that are doing great work.

Like Brain Zoo, for example, who I've worked with several times. Those guys always create super quality work, and they outsource as well, and they're a solution for us as well, too. I just think that you could do that and still come up with really quality work. There are all sorts of communication issues going overseas, there are all sorts of management issues. You can't get feedback in time. One comment turns into three days of work.

Yeah, I didn't mean outsourcing overseas necessarily. There are a lot of outsourcing options here as well, especially with the economy sucking.

AH: Absolutely. Sure. That's totally an option. I think that those things all need to be kept on the table. You find a group of people that you really like to work with, and then you always send work back and forth, and start doing it that way. You can have just as much synergy with a group like that as you can have with having a full-time team in-house.

Creators For the Win

American games have become much more competitive with Japanese games than they've been historically, but one thing I feel they've lacked is a sense of a director, of cohesive vision -- and the result is good experiences that sometimes lack a full, emotional narrative.

AH: I know what you're talking about, and I feel the exact same way as you do. It's something that I've talked about in the past as well, and I think that that absolutely needs to happen with games. It absolutely needs to happen. You need to have a guy who is there to maintain the vision every day and to make sure that he's looking at every aspect of the game as is necessary to really sort of judge whether these things are coming together the way they should or not.

Too many times now, you really don't have people in those positions that understand the process of each department and how they need to work as well as they possibly should. They are either too busy to make good calls, or they just don't know enough to do it.

I think that's where it's lacking, and I think that's where the game industry can take a lot of really good direction from the film industry. I think that we're really going to work on that.

I think one factor the existing pay structure we have within games, wherein a game's director, lead designer or specific creative director has nowhere to go career-wise but executive level, and then they stop actually having direct influence on the game.

AH: The answer that I have for that is that the games industry has sort of taken on this corporate structure that Hollywood doesn't really have when they work on films, right? In the corporate structure, you're moved up, and you're constantly moved up. And the thing that I don't think the corporate structure takes into account is that the best artist doesn't make the best manager.

And so, what ends up happening is that you get a bunch of really good artists. You get a guy who's just a phenomenal artist, and you make him a manager of other artists. Is he really qualified to be a manager of other artists? No, probably not, because he's a really good artist, and artists are artists, right? They're not necessarily managers.

And then he doesn't get to actually do art anymore.

AH: Exactly. And so you lose access.

KF: So, they get frustrated.

AH: It really needs to be the way that you're talking about, right? Where the director is the director, who's the director every time. The producer is the producer, who's the producer all the time. And if he does a good job, you just pay the dude more. That's the way it is. I hope that we sort of structure things the same way.

KF: Look at... Imagine Films is actually an example for that because you've got Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. You've got the great producer, the great director, and that's what they do. They find projects they're passionate about, and then they direct and produce it. They're not, "Now, we're the exec, and we're gonna shuttle this project and hire a director."

It's like, "No, we fucking do these things." And that's the mentality we want to have. We find a great idea, we come up with a great idea or a great IP, I want Aaron fucking making the game. I don't want him sitting there hiring somebody to make the game.

In Hollywood model, like the situation you're talking about with Imagine Films, for the logistics in all that, they hire people below them to deal with it. Whereas in games, you have people above you dictating that. And that’s pretty weird.

KF: Exactly. It's very backward. That's the one weird advantage that Titmouse Games has. We're not used to that model. We're used to that other model where it's creative driven. When a guy like Aaron comes in who's very passionate and very creative, we're not telling him, "No, you can't do that," we're saying, "Of course you can do that. Can you push that further?"

We come from the right side of the brain, not the left side of the brain. We don't understand the limitations just yet. Eventually, I'm sure the business will dictate that. Right now, we're just, "fucking go for it."

AH: When we worked on the Guitar Hero cinematics together, what was really cool about working with these guys is that I would write some of the cinematics, and I would just totally just go from here to here. And we knew there were budget constraints, budget limits, or whatever, but I wrote it out to here, and then we all sort of looked at it and said, "Okay, well then this is what we can do."

There was a lot of good synergy -- I hate using that word -- between us and being able to work creatively together, which I think was awesome about coming together.

KF: Right. Good collaborations. He would form the story beats, and we'd say, "We need to go from here to here to here to here. This is my vision of it." And then we'd get our directors, out storyboard artists, our writers, and we'd go, "Hey, how about this or this, and we can go from here."

And it was very much like, "Yeah, sure, great! That sounds great!" It wasn't like, "No, I wrote it like this. Do it like that." It was a really creative, collaborative kind of thing, and that's what we're doing now.

AH: Part of being creative and part of the whole process is trusting the people that you hire to get the job done. And I think there is a lot of -- and I've seen it sort of in the game industry -- mistrust in that I have these five artists working underneath me, but I kind of feel like I have to be on top of them all the time or they're not going to get it done. And that's just simply not the truth, you hire talented people because you need to trust them in order to get their job done.

Who Hired You Again?

Well, the issue there is -- not to interrupt you, but I did [laughs] -- sometimes, maybe I as a producer or director didn't hire these guys myself.

KF: But I'm in charge of them now. Or if you've got a studio that's making the cutscenes, and, "Okay, I wrote this, but somebody else hired them, so I don't like their ideas. I wanted to work with someone I wanted to work with."

AH: You're right about that. And one of the coolest things about Titmouse is we never have to outsource any of that stuff. We have a full-on animation studio here. We have top-notch graphic designers. We have top-notch concept artists. Like, we can do everything from the game to the commercial to the animated series that's going to go along with it.

KF: Another thing, too, if Aaron's designing the game and I'm writing the cutscenes, he walks around the corner to my office and says, "Dude, that's not right. I don't like that." There's no like email chain back and forth for weeks going, "Can you get his agent on the phone? I need to tell him. I've got notes." It's like, "No no no, tell me dude. You're off message." "Oh, you want it like that? Cool. We can do that."

Having a creative studio -- I think that is kind of a solution to a lot of that stuff, but obviously you need the biz side very much. To make a death clock analogy, you need the dude in the suit who's actually looking out for everyone.

AH: We understand. [laughs]

KF: Yeah. You know, it's funny, we do have the parents at the studio. You're obviously right.

But as long as they know that they aren't necessarily making creative decisions.

KF: That's the thing. And we have twenty people saying that. "I've got an idea!" And "I've got an idea!" As opposed to, "Well, our budget says you can only do this." No, we don't.

AH: There are a lot of practical things about game development that you sort of have to keep in mind in order to ship a game in time, and that is you don't redesign things halfway through, that you stick with your vision and you do focus testing to improve and iterate on the things you've done, right?

KF: You make that work.

AH: Yeah, you make what you have work. You don't scrap things and start them over. Honestly, I've got to say that one of the coolest things is that part of the process is that in your head, you think something is really cool, and you think this is a really good idea.

Well, you prototype it and give yourself a cut-off date. "This is my first playable. At my first playable, if the features work, they're in it. If they don't work and if they're not going to make it, then we cut them and they go away." It's harsh, but that's the way I think it should be done.

To the Quick

But you're mostly saying you should scrap early, right? I don't want to get you on record saying scrapping things is bad because that's how Blizzard has been so successful.

AH: Sure, sure, sure.

Like when StarCraft Ghost doesn't turn out to be what they thought, it's going away.

KF: An analogy might be that it's just like an episode of Metalocalypse. I mean, it's like we animate the show, we have a certain percentage of retakes we can do, and it's like, "Pick your battles dude. You want to fix this scene, this scene, and this scene? Great, we can redo all that shit.

But at the end of the day, our deadline's here, we drop here, we air here. Let's get it done. Let's make it work." And if everybody at the end of the day is willing to go, "Well, if I had a couple more months, I would have done this and that, but you know what? I don't. So, it's all good, and I believe in the show we delivered." And that's the way with the games, too.

AH: I will say that on the feature side, just to clarify the whole scrapping thing, it's like you basically take your framework and you go, "Here are all the features that I want." And then you order them in priority up until a certain day.

Let's call it a first playable, right? You take all those things and your order them, and you try to get them done. And you prioritize them from what's most important to the game to the least important to the game. If you can't make it by this first playable date, then it's a pretty good sign that it probably won't make it in the game, or if it does, it will be half-assed.

So, you get what you can up to the first playable date, and then you do a solid review, and you say, "Hey, is this working or is this not working? Is it fun? Is this not fun?" You bring in a couple people to focus test it. If it's fun, you keep moving with it. If it's not fun, you drop it and you go.

KF: And to keep that Blizzard mentality, if something comes along in the creative process, like, "Hey, wouldn't it be really cool if we did this?" "Well, that's not in the GDD, but it'd be cool. We can roll with that, too." We're very into kind of improvising.

With the analogy again to Deathklok, it's like we go into the booth with the scripts, what comes out at the other end is pretty much 40 percent different from the script. We're all about that, but we're reasonable. We're a small company, we want to be smart, all the money shows up on the screen right now.

There's not a bunch of overhead, there's not a bunch of waste. So, yeah, we have to make creative decisions and kind of stick to them. But they'll shift and stretch and things like that. Like, "Wow, we didn't know we could do this. Let's do it like that!"

We're not the Simpsons. We're Metalocalypse. But that's okay for us, dude. We're fucking happy because we're proud of that shit, and we love it, and it's got its own niche. And that's what we do, and that's our brand. Games, the same way. We might not be Guitar Hero, but the shit we put out, Seven Haunted Seas, is going to be fucking badass. And the people that appreciate badass will love it.

AH: And a Deathklok analogy that I keep bringing up is that either people have no idea what Metalocalypse is or Deathklok, or they do and they love it. It's a really interesting dichotic...

KF: And we're comfortable. Like, if my mom doesn't know the game we put out, I'm okay with that. But if my brother knows it, fucking right on, you know? "Oh, I don't quite get it, but if these Titmouse guys are doing it, I'm sure it's going to be pretty interesting," you know what I mean? It's kind of that thing.

Yeah, well you better do it, or else I'm going to be very disappointed.

KF: We're doing it! [laughs] We're doing it just for you, Brandon.