The lights are on
[Note: This article appears in the new issue of Game Informer. Molasses Flood's Kickstarter page is here.]
[Photography: Dan Perez de la Garza, all photos subject to copyright]
In the Boston suburb of Cambridge, six people sit in a cramped room in the basement of a nondescript office building, working on a dream. In many ways, they are no different than hundreds of small indie developers; putting in long hours, pinching pennies, and subsisting on takeout pizza and ramen noodles. Unlike most of those small teams, the Molasses Flood (as they’ve named themselves) is made up of people who have worked on some of the most critically acclaimed games in history, including BioShock, Guitar Hero, Halo 2, and Rock Band.
Frustrated with the constraints of large-scale console development and worried by increasing instability in the industry, the team united around an ethos of creativity, collaboration, and friendship. Instead of pursuing lucrative jobs at major game studios, Molasses Flood – like so many former triple-A developers – is forging its own way with the promise of independence, ownership of its own creations, and the chance to build a company from the ground up. This treacherous path is filled with both possibility and uncertainty. This is their story.
Before The Flood
As modern game development becomes increasingly complex and expensive, the old studio model is beginning to break. By the time a major triple-A game is released, the development team has often swelled to several hundred highly paid professionals. This immense overhead is proving hard to maintain, especially as the studio regroups to another cycle of prototyping and pre-production for a new project, where smaller, more agile groups are needed instead of the massive production staff. The result of this is a new reality in which a job well done is rewarded by a round of layoffs. We’ve seen this story repeated dozens of times in the last few years with studios like Sucker Punch, Sony Santa Monica, and Eidos Montreal. Molasses Flood’s tale begins on February 18, the day when BioShock creator Ken Levine announced he was shuttering Irrational Games. Around the video game industry, this news was met with a mix of shock and disbelief. It seems unthinkable that a studio at the peak of its creative powers would be shut down so quickly. BioShock Infinite had earned rave reviews, a 94 Metacritic rating, and won over 42 game of the year awards. The game debuted at the top of the monthly NPD sales charts, and has gone on to sell over six million copies. If Irrational wasn’t safe from layoffs, what studio was?
Forrest Dowling, who served as lead level designer on BioShock Infinite, recalls feeling unsure about the future in the weeks leading up to the closure. “I knew there had been questions about the viability of the type of projects that Irrational had done up to that point,” Dowling says. “Games are a super tough market, and making a big, expensive single-player narrative game is a difficult and risky proposition. There was a sense that [Irrational] was going to want to try something different. It ended up taking the form of something very small that didn’t need that team size.”
By coincidence, the news came down on a day when Dowling had planned to reconnect with a former colleague, Scott “Sinc” Sinclair, Irrational’s former art director who had left prior to the layoffs. “I wanted to get back to my own art,” Sinclair says. “Before games, I’d been doing art prints and album covers for bands. My hope was that I still had a foot in that door.”
Dowling had contacted Sinclair through his art website, and purchased a couple of prints from his online store. “There was a form where you put in your shipping information. My shipping information was, ‘Let’s get lunch and catch up,’” Dowling recalls.
This casual lunch between old friends became more momentous than either could have anticipated. That morning, Dowling received word there would be an all-company meeting at Irrational. The message was clear: Nearly all of the staff was being let go. “We had the meeting and got our paperwork, and I thought, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have to go back after lunch,’” Dowling says.
Naturally, the conversation over lunch turned to the future, with Dowling and Sinclair talking about the challenges and possibilities of the changing industry. As they both bounced ideas off each other, the pair left the restaurant with vows to keep in touch, but no concrete plans.
Despite the fact that Irrational had held a job fair, with companies like Riot Games and 343 Industries flying representatives down to court the studio’s former talent, the prospect of starting an independent game studio was in the forefront of Dowling’s mind. Soon, he decided. He was going indie and wanted Sinclair, one of the most respected leaders on the BioShock Infinite team, to come with him.
“I thought we could get a team of people willing to take a risk with us,” Dowling says. “All of us that were let go were given a severance, so that would give us some time to help get our feet underneath us. It snowballed from there.”
For his part, Sinclair was eager for a new opportunity in games, and felt Boston was a perfect place to start.
“I wanted to get back to a place where it’s a small team and I actually have to make the art, not just manage the art team,” Sinclair says. “At the time it happened, it wasn’t just Irrational; it was Turbine and Harmonix. I went to a game industry drink night, a layoff drink night, and it was this sea of programmers, artists, and designers – all laid off, all around the same time. You can see, even that night, groups of people splitting off and saying, ‘What if we did something?’”
Dowling and Sinclair began to piece together a team, which grew organically based on the pair’s long list of contacts and former colleagues in the Boston game community. Two members of the team that would become Molasses Flood had worked closely with Dowling and Sinclair on BioShock Infinite, animator Gwen Frey and artist Chad LaClair. Both welcomed the chance to work with their former comrades. Frey had been planning to go independent for years, quietly squirreling away savings. LaClair took a little more convincing, and even interviewed at other more established studios. However, he kept coming back to the idea of working with Dowling and Sinclair again.
“Scott called me up and asked me if I was interested,” LaClair says. “All the other interviews I had were colored by that. I had amazing studios I could have gone to, but I would have been missing out on this opportunity to work with guys that I really respect.”
Dowling rounded out the team by recruiting two expert programmers with decidedly different personalities. Bryn Bennett, who had worked with Sinclair in the early days of Irrational, had spent the last few years working at Harmonix in between tours with his hard rock band Bang Camaro.
Damian Isla, who is more buttoned-down, was one of the chief engineers on Halo 2 and 3, and he also helped Irrational toward the end of BioShock Infinite. Isla had already made the plunge into indie development, forming Moonshot Games in 2009, which had recently released the noir-themed iPad game Third Eye Crime. “The day that I heard Irrational went down, I got on the phone with one of my friends there and said, ‘I know some startups are going to come out of this so let me know,’” Isla says. “A couple days later, Forrest called and said, ‘I heard you are interested.’ I was opportunistic. It was like your crush just broke up with her boyfriend.”
For all involved, this was a rare chance to have the artistic freedom of an indie studio with the experience of a veteran team. More importantly, starting with Dowling and Sinclair, the group had the inherent trust that comes from having been through “crunch time” on major projects together – the camaraderie of the foxhole. Dowling and Sinclair were voted president and creative director by the group, but each member of Molasses Flood is an equal partner. Any future profits will be equally split six ways.
“There’s not many times when you get to jump to a company with all really good people,” Bennett says. “It seemed like an opportunity that I didn’t want to let pass by.
The Molasses Flood is an odd name for a game studio, but the true story behind it is stranger still. The Great Molasses Flood (also known as the Boston Molasses Disaster) occurred in 1919 when a molasses storage tank exploded in the North End neighborhood of Boston.
Molasses flooded the streets at a terrifying rate; reports say the flood advanced at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. Over 21 people were killed and 150 were injured in the accident. Cleanup of the incident took weeks.
“We were looking for something local,” says creative director Scott Sinclair. “We wanted a name that was memorable and wasn’t a tech-company name. We wanted something that spoke to where we’re located in Boston.”
“We want to do something that’s fun and light but also dark,” says Molasses Flood president Forrest Dowling. “The Molasses Flood is very much like that. It’s weird that this molasses covered the northside, it’s weird and funny. But people died and it actually led to a lot of new regulations for industry. That’s the dark side. That speaks to the creative decisions I want to make, that contrast.”