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John Sonedecker Interview
By: Whiteknight
Published : June 14th, 2005
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Interview : John Sonedecker, Game Designer, Blackfoot Studios
Interviewer : Whiteknight, GhostRecon.net

Introduction

John Sonedecker is a name many tactical shooter gamers will have heard of already. Known for his work on the Rainbow Six series of games John has never been far from the tactical shooter scene.

In this interview by Whiteknight John talks candidly about his time with Red Storm, moving onto Battleborne and ultimately starting out on his own with Blackfoot Studios.

blackfoot-studios

 

Hi John, nice to have a chance to interview for GhostRecon.net again. Thanks for your time to answer some questions.  

No problem, it’s always nice to talk with you guys.

A quick basic question, how long have you been involved in the video game industry and what aspect have you worked with personally, designer, modeler, engineer or something else?

Hmmm… almost 10 years.

So you have done all aspects of game development?

Well, I started out doing crappy art for crappy Virtual Reality Location Based Entertainment systems then all kinds of 3d and some 2d art the rest of my career. Along they way I did a lot of team managing as well.

I know you had been with RSE for sometime before leaving, but why did you help start RSE to begin with?

Yeah, I was with them for 5 years and came in as the 21st or 22nd hire... hi Thomas! (inside joke).

I was not a founder of RSE, but was there pretty much from the beginning.

It was my first “real” job. I had done a bit of interning/part time work for a VR company and some architectural stuff before that and I REALLY wanted to work on realistic looking games.

At that time there wasn’t much out there, but I took a risk and went to GDC in 1997 and met up with Steve Reid and loved the prospect of doing a Clancy game.

I have always been a Military follower and have always been fascinated with the more “secret” side of the military, like SEALs, SF, Delta and especially the LRRPs in Vietnam. Since I was from outside of the game industry I had a lot to prove getting Steve to take a chance on me! 

We know that you left RSE for BattleBorne, but why leave a company that you were with for 5 years? I know this has been asked before, but would you go into a bit more detail as long as you do not burn any bridges. 

Hmmmm….. That is a question that could have a few possible answers. For me, the overall feeling was that I love to have a small “high speed low drag” development team. To me, that is the best way to get the best work done in a set amount of time. Both Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear were done this way. Partly out of necessity, but more so out of design I think, and my opinion is that Rogue Spear is the best product that RSE has put out to date. It was certainly the most fun to develop and the best dev experience I have had.

battleborne

With all that being said, the industry has been changing the last few years and focusing on larger teams, more complicated management structures and a more centralized design “team” that works out most of a game before an artist even touches things. Pretty much all the larger developers/publishers are doing it this way and Ubi Soft is no different. It’s a very valid and “proven” way to develop games, but I guess I was still holding on to the “smaller team/ team design” ideal. At the time, BattleBorne offered that small company development environment and other future possibilities that, by chance, never materialized.

What do you think of the RSE franchises becoming "action oriented" when they weren't designed that way to begin with? We know Ghost Recon's goal was to move away from pre-planning like with Rainbow Six, but one still had to think about their actions or else pay the price, yet it worked great and was accepted by fans of RSE along with new fans, why do you think that was?

Tough questions today! ;-)

I have great respect for Ubi Soft and Red Storm’s decisions for their franchises and believe that they are reacting or even taking pro-active steps to meet changes they see in the market place.

Like it or not, consoles are a HUGE part of this industry and they will forever drive initial sales of a mainstream retail product and console gamers are typically action guys not tactical sim guys. That’s just the way it is. Now, that doesn’t mean the PC market is dead… far from it. I just think you will continue to see franchises move more toward the console first and to more “mainstream” design choices. The Tom Clancy franchise of products now have a fan base that stretches over an entire generation of hardware and consumers, it will be very hard to appeal to everyone in that fan base while still attracting new consumers.

P.S. I’m one of the old guard fans, so I don’t want to see the things I love about these games get left behind as the market moves on. Have I turned into Abe Simpson, wondering why Matlock isn’t on anymore…

Take Ghost Recon for example……GR was originally made as a complement to the R6 franchise and to provide a more standard military and outdoor focused product with on the fly planning. It carried over a lot of the cool stuff from R6 but put it in more open and expansive environments with new toys. I think it achieved that goal tremendously. But, I know a lot of people that didn’t use the planning features or only switched teammates when they died. They pretty much started the missions and left the team at the insertion zone and played the missions solo. So those defining features went unused by a decent portion of the players I am guessing.

At the same time, games like Counter-Strike had completely taken over the online world. I think CS is a great game and I am glad it does so well, but personally it’s not for me. Heck, one of the original creators said he used R6 as a template for CS. Also, CS was getting way more people playing it at any given time than all the RSE game put together.

If you put all that together I could see a management and marketing team wanting to make a franchise more “accessible” and more “mainstream”. Is it a right or wrong choice? That’s not my decision. But, if my company had the same dilemma I would have possibly split the franchises into 2 paths….. One for the “die hards” and one for the mainstream. Of course that brings up another issue of money.

I still firmly believe that there is a want and a need for a game like Rainbow Six/ Rogue Spear as well as the original Ghost Recon in the market place. Heck, I would even love to see those games remade and updated with some new content. I do believe, however, that if something like that came along, it would be developed more along the lines of Ubi’s Il-2 series of sims. They might make less money and appeal to less people, but the dev budgets would also be lower to compensate. Not less quality, just less money spent.

Jeez….. that is a whole interview in itself. BTW: If Ubi needs anyone to make that type of game BlackFoot Studios is available.

Why did you leave Battleborne? Were you not happy with the direction the company was going? 

There were a few reasons for me leaving. Our first game Combat Elite had some serious problems with publishers. Each time we got a new publisher they went bankrupt!

Obviously it had nothing to do with the game, but it made things pretty tough at the end of the project. It is hard enough to finish multi platform project on time without constant external business pressure.

As I mentioned earlier, I love the idea of smaller highly skilled teams making games. The danger with that is that each team member is heavily relied upon to take care of a large range of tasks. Because of that, if any one part of that team looses focus or company direction isn’t clear the team and project is going to suffer. If you have a team of 50 and 1 guy “checks out” for a bit you really loose 1/50th of the team, but on a team of 8 that is 1/8th! That is a gross over simplification of course, but you get the idea.

For a small team to work everyone needs to be hard charging and focused all the time. To put it bluntly, any distractions we had, either personal or professional had a major impact on the project and the team. Many events conspired to make these distractions overwhelming to me.

Also, you can never underestimate the need for good relationships with publishers and others in the development community. It is a relatively small community and everyone knows someone that knows someone else. The friction created by the continual ups and downs with publishers was very hard for me personally.

Having said all that, I would like to say that the team I worked with at BattleBorne was an exceptional bunch of people. They were amazingly creative, productive, and innovative. I learned a lot in the time I spent there.

You have a new venture, Blackfoot Studios. Did you have Blackfoot Indians in mind when choosing the name or the band Blackfoot (who was fronted by two Blackfoot Indians) or was it something else a bit more obscure?

I do!

It’s funny. One of the hardest parts of starting BFS was coming up with a name. A partner of mine and I were just throwing out all kinds of things and everyone that we liked turned up taken by some company or another. Then one day I was looking at something on the internet that sparked a memory of my childhood in Indian Guides (Boy Scout type thing) and that I was in the BlackFeet tribe.

So, BlackFoot became the front runner because it sounded good and was easy to say and remember.

We originally used a black foot print in the logo but quickly changed it to something more cool like the boot print.

blackfoot-studios.com/

So, it does have roots in the American Indian culture, but only by name and not any relation.

When did you first open the doors so to speak? 

I left BattleBorne in the middle of November without much thought as to what I was going to do next. So I used up some savings and spent the next 2 weeks trying to figure out if it was the right time to go out on my own. The family and I decided if was so we put our savings into starting the company the first week of December 2004.

Is your wife part of the business? Does she share your passion for design or development?

No. Honestly she doesn't care much about gaming. She loves that I can do something that I love to do and make a pretty good living at it, but has no interest in the industry beyond that. She has been EXTREMELY supportive over the years.

Whose idea was it to start Blackfoot Studios and more importantly, why? 

Mine. I have always wanted to start my own company at some point and things just kind of happened that put me in the situation that made it possible.

What do you really intend to do with Blackfoot Studios? Do you invision your new company starting their own games that return to the genre you originally helped develop? 

Our overall intent is to develop our own IP and games in the recently overlooked Tac-Sim market. Think along the lines of the original Rainbow Six. ;-) Rainbow Six

The biggest stumbling block to any new business, but I suspect more so to the game business is initial capital. Once you start adding employees you really need to take care of their well being by providing stable and relatively secure employment. I do not want to run a company where people are hired and laid off at whim due to poor planning.

So, for now, we are providing art resources to game companies as well as government agencies doing simulation work for training purposes.

Have you a setting in mind once you start your first game or have you already started it?

We have not started anything for our first game other than we know we want it to be a Tactical Sim. Our main focus right now is building the company so it can support the kind of development commitment a full-scale retail product needs. As I mentioned earlier though, we would love to develop a more "sim" based product for Ubi that follows the same ideals as the iL-2 line of games that caters to the detail oriented gamer who wants to invest more time and strategy into their games. The Rainbow and Ghost Recon games have always been awesome and will continue to be, but there is a growing "hole" in that market that needs to be filled again.

Once you are far enough along, will certain people get a chance to get a sneak peak at it?

Hahaha.. of course.

Who are some of your clients right now? What kind of work are you doing for them? Will your fans be able to tell it's your work?

I cannot list the government agencies we have done work with other than The Army. As for games, Red Storm has secured our services for a project or two as well. They pretty much control all related media and PR, so we adhere to their schedules and directions when it comes to products being developed.

Will fans be able to tell my work? Possibly. I definitely have my own style for level design and strangely enough, one day someone that saw some of my work on the project said they knew it was mine without even knowing who did it. So I guess so.

What is the worst part of having a relatively new studio? 

Money! LOL

Seriously, it can not be said enough….. having good working capital is essential in building a successful business. Unless you have a friend or family member with money, getting a good deal on funding is tough. Banks don’t like to fund startups without a TON of collateral and strangely enough, most investors don’t like to invest smaller amounts of money for less return. To get the big money we would need to give up 50 – 75 % of the company to an investor which we do not want to do, so that narrows things down a bit more as well.

Up to this point everything is self-funded by us, so if anyone out there would like to invest in a start up developer with a great track record let me know.

What does the future hold for you and Blackfoot Studios?

Great things I hope. We have started BlackFoot Studios out slowly, partly out of necessity, but also to build a solid foundation for the company so we can be around a while. We love the Tac-Sim games genre and the growing government military sim markets and fully plan to capitalize on our experience and what we perceive to be an opening in the current games market.

When you are ready to hire people, would you be willing to give some of the great modding talent that is available a chance? With the great mission writers, modelers and map makers that are around, I am sure that anyone of them would love the chance to work for and with you. Would that be possible?

We are always willing to hire talented people no matter where they come from. As you know, I have always tried to be as helpful as I could to the mod communities I have been involved with and fully appreciate what they are capable of. As a matter of fact, we are currently using a couple of GR modders to help fulfill some modeling needs for our government contracts.

Rest assured... Once we are in the position to look for talent to hire, you will hear about it first.

Thanks for your time John.

JS: Any time.

Whiteknight


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