Dave Pottinger (BonusXP/Ensemble)

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Adrian managed to track down Age of Empires and Halo Wars ace programmer Dave Pottinger to answer lots of our questions. Being the legend he is, he duly responded. He now leads the excellent BonusXP, the company responsible for the excellent Stranger Things game based on the Netflix series.

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you ever worked on?

I was interning at IBM during college. My officemate (another intern) and I spent most of our days talking about making a game. We had no idea what we were doing, but we decided to start a company to make a game. For OS/2 of all things. Not the best idea. We financed it on my credit cards, which was another “not good” idea. We ended up parting ways before the game was done, but what we finished turned into a great demo during my job search. I ended up finishing the game at night during my first few months at Ensemble Studios. It was not a good game, but it did get finished.

 

Age of Empires is rightly regarded as one of the most important strategy games ever made. How did you get the opportunity to work on this iconic title and what was your exact role on this project?

Dumb luck, mostly. As my game company was imploding, my soon-to-be-wife and I were getting ready to graduate from college. I told her I could make games anywhere. We decided to move where she found a job. She got one in Dallas, so I looked on Usenet (yes, it was a long time ago) for game company jobs in Dallas. I interviewed for two and was fortunate enough to be offered both.

I ended up picking Ensemble Studios because it was bigger and seemed a little more stable. I liked the idea of working on a strategy game just fine, but I was really just happy to be in the game industry. I started as a general programmer. After a few months, I took over as the lead engine programmer and began to run the programmer hiring process.

After the original Age of Empires launched, I took a larger Technical Director role and was responsible for our overall technical decisions and new tech development. I was also the lead programmer on Age of Empires 3, though admittedly that was because no one else really wanted to do it.

 

 

The game was a huge success and clearly stood out from the crowd. Why do you personally think this game struck such a strong chord with the gaming public and how do you reflect back on the first game in this series?

I think it resonated because it was both intensely relatable and very different than the other strategy offerings. At the time, science fiction was primarily more of a niche market. Age had buildings, units, and settings that needed no explanation. Everyone knows a horse is faster than a footman. Age was easier for people to get into than other games.

I think the tone and style were also key. Bruce Shelley has one of the best quotes about Age… “The sun always shines in Age of Empires”. Yeah, the whole game ended up in some ahistorical genocide, but it was a happy slaughter. Villagers carried these ridiculous Flintstone-sized chunks of meat. Lions got hungry and chased down gazelles. The water was this intense blue that just jumped off of the magazine covers.

I would love to say we had some grand plan where we smarty-pants’d our way to all those decisions, but we didn’t. We sat around, thought up stuff that made us happy, and put it in the game.

 

You have worked on many of Age of Empires game and expansion packs. Which is your personal favourite game in the series and can you explain why?

Most folks will say Age of Empires 2, but for me, it’s Age of Mythology hands-down. Three reasons…

I personally found the topic more interesting. Monsters are fun. There was NOTHING BETTER than the wonderment on someone’s face the first time they saw a Cyclops pick someone up and throw them across the map.

I think it was our best design. I love dynamic situations and being able to out-think people on the fly. The Minor God system in AOM was perfect for that.

Lastly, the engine for AOM was something near and dear to my heart. I and two other programmers (one of whom, John Evanson, is another Bonus founder) worked on that engine while the rest of the studio worked on the first year of Age2. We were on the cutting edge of tech at the time; it was a blast. The engine development did get tabled during the second (unplanned) year of Age2. The game was behind and needed more people. John and I came back to Age2 to take over the AI andย  pathing/movement. It wasn’t all bad, though, Age2 got formations out of that work!

 

Do you have a personal favourite army in the Age of Empires series and are these the most powerful within the game?

I loved the Goth rush in Age2. I was constantly sneaking villagers behind enemy bases to build a Goth Barracks to pump out infantry.

 

Each game in the Age of Empires series expanded with new features and ideas, whilst keeping all the ingredients fans have come to love. Did you feel a lot of pressure whilst starting a new title or expansion pack and do you reflect on your time working on such an iconic series of games?

The pressure didn’t really begin until Age of Mythology.

Age1 was a crazy stupid rush of “What the hell have we gotten ourselves into? We have no idea how to make all this work!” We bit off way more than we could chew and paid dearly for it. The last 11 months of that project were 100+ hours per week. You couldn’t do that now, and we definitely should NOT have done it then. Inexcusable.

Age2, while being a year over budget (which would became an ironic theme), was actually the easiest of them all, IMO. The topic was a slam dunk. Everyone loves Knights and Castles! Plus, coming off of the somewhat surprising success of Age1, we had all these options and they were all good. We bungled the first year of execution, which was bad, but there was really never a doubt that Age2 was going to be anything but a beast.

Age of Mythology was harder. We’d committed to going to 3D, but had to defend that decision on a regular basis internally and with Microsoft. We were also starting to feel the beginnings of burnout. We’d made two classic strategy games before we really even knew what we were doing. Faced with a 3rd one, we wanted to do something different. AOM turned out to be TOO different for fans and did not perform to expectations. To be fair, NOTHING was going to do as well as Age2, so AOM was set for disappointment in hindsight. But, we were not prepared for that at the time. We took a major morale hit after AOM.

Which made it even harder to do Age3… We had to “make a come back” and had the worst time period to do it in. I know some people love the colonial/revolutionary times, but it’s a pretty niche period in history. We struggled against that the entire project. Oh, and we over-complicated the design in attempts to fix all the perceived issues with AOM. That didn’t work. On the plus side, we did make some rockin’ calls with Age3 and graphics. It was a beautiful game when it released.

And, plus plus, I think history has been kinder to AOM. Absent some of the “WTF??? This isn’t the Age game I expected!!!” reaction, I think AOM gets looked at in a much more favorable light nowadays.

I love my time working on Age. I’m intensely proud of what we made together even though I’m not always proud of how we made it. I usually grade on intent, though. We set out to build a strong team culture at Ensemble and involve people in the decisions and directions of the games we made. We didn’t do that perfectly, but I think we did a good job. And, we made a pretty damn good suite of games, to boot.

 

Was there ever any random armies, expansion packs or quite crazy ideas which were mooted for Age of Empires, but never made it to the final version of the game?

Of course. We had whole years of content that were erased with vision resets. If it was ever part of human history or mythological lore, I’m sure we considered it for Age.

I also have the unfortunate distinction of being responsible for one of our most public resets… We had always planned for Age3 to have grand, period-appropriate formations. As I had the most experience with that feature (having built them for Age2 and AOM and working in/around the pathing and movement code for all our titles), it made some sense for me to work on that feature. Unfortunately, I was also the lead programmer with many other responsibilities. I was too pigheaded to give that task to someone else, so it languished.

We barely scraped the formations feature together for E3 that year, but we made it. We demo’d the hell out of it there, too. Then, we got back and decided it was “not fun enough” and cut it. If the feature had been done sooner, we’d have avoided that mess. It was a hard lesson learned on my part.

 

Age of Empires IV has finally been announced! How excited are you for this game, and which features would you like to see in this long awaited sequel?

I’m excited and skeptical at the same time. I love Age. Always will. But, having grown up living and breathing that franchise, I know I have ridiculously specific and unreasonable expectations about “What Age Is”. I can’t and don’t expect another studio to deliver the Age I would make. So, I think I will probably be a little disappointed here and there. But, at the same time, I’m a gamer and a designer. I know I don’t have “all the ideas”, so I’m excited to see what someone else can do with Age. It’ll be bittersweet overall, I expect.

 

 

Halo Wars was a great RTS game exclusive to the Xbox 360. How did you get the opportunity to work on this ground-breaking title and what were your initial feelings working within the Halo universe?

I was never supposed to work on Halo Wars ๐Ÿ™‚ After Age3, I was beyond torched on RTS games. Didn’t want to work on another one at all. In fact, I spent my month off after Age3 went gold (while Age3 was getting manufactured, because games still came in boxes back then) converting Age3 into a Diablo game.

When we came back, that turned into a real prototype team. And, because we loved sci-fi, we made it a sci-fi game. As did two OTHER prototype teams. Somehow we thought it would be fine for Ensemble to go from developing historical RTS games to developing THREE different, original sci-fi games. One was an RTS, but it was this crazy (at the time) console idea. After a while, my sci-fi Diablo game got canceled. Some of the team went to the other sci-fi RPG, the rest of us stayed behind to work on a Spy Zelda prototype. I still have some concept art for that game on my wall. It was the most pure four months of creativity I’ve ever had the pleasure to be part of. Several of those team members are at Bonus, in fact.

Anyhow, we were partially killed due to headcount. MS wouldn’t let us hire anyone else and the other games were farther along. Our artists went to the RPG, everyone else went to Halo Wars. Halo Wars was our next big RTS, but was staffed with a lot of folks who’d never made an RTS before (all those folks were burned out, remember). The simulation side of the Halo Wars engine (an eventual full rewrite of the Age3 engine) was in trouble. I came over to fix that.

The project was already several years in and the light was not appearing at the end of the tunnel. We’d had a great E3 showing on a smoke and mirror demo. Reconciling that demo to a playable, fun RTS game proved very difficult. After a while, we juggled some roles and I took over as lead designer on Halo Wars. When MS announced that we were closing after Halo Wars, we rolled EVERYONE in the studio onto the project. It was like 110 people or something. It was huge.

I didn’t want to work on Halo. I’ve spent my life loving sci-fi. I wanted my first sci-fi game to be something I helped create at a fundamental, world-defining level. It was intensely disappointing to realize my first shipped sci-fi game would be in someone else’s universe. I give a lot of credit to Graeme Devine for showing all of us that we needed to embrace the world and figure out how to love it. I wasn’t going to do a bad job, so I joined in with everyone and that’s what we did.

Cue the hah-hah twist… Eventually I realized that it didn’t matter if I made the intellectual property (IP) up or not. It just matters that you can find a way to love it and feel responsible for it. I don’t know when the switch flipped for me and I became a Halo fan, but it was sometime during Halo Wars. I don’t think you should work on someone else’s IP if you don’t love it.

 

RTS games are much more popular and prominent on PC’s compared to consoles. Was the fact that Halo Wars was a console only game a challenge when looking to develop this title?

Yup. It hadn’t been done well at that point. And, there really aren’t that many that have tried to do it since then, either.

The biggest struggle we had was a completely internal problem, though. We had half the studio that wanted to make “Age for the Consoles”. The head of MS games at the time said “This is Halo or it doesn’t exist”, so we made it Halo. But, that part of the studio still wanted Age gameplay. That unresolved issue really ate away at the soul of the game. Fun console game features were “not like Age” and great traditional Age gameplay was “not a good fit for a console game”.

We should have nipped that problem in the bud, but we (mgmt) decided to let it sort itself out. It never did. In hindsight, I don’t think it ever could have. The idea of Age-style gameplay in Halo console RTS was one miracle too many. When I moved into the lead designer role for Halo Wars, the first thing we did was resolve that. Halo Wars became a console RTS and we ditched the Age gameplay.

 

Changing genre’s within a games franchise is quite a big risk, but Halo Wars succeeded where other titles have failed. How proud are you of Halo Wars and what are your views on last years sequel?

I am extremely, extremely proud of what the team accomplished.

A good bit of that is the fact that we shipped a cohesive Halo game in the midst of adversity. The project was like 3.75 years in when I took over as designer. It was already massively over time and budget. Not too long after that, we found out Ensemble was closing. I think the team pulled off a mini-miracle getting that game done at all. To have it be as good as it turned out was not something we could have guaranteed.

That said, Halo Wars needed another six months in the oven. Once we stripped out the extra bits and got the UI settled, we were out of time. The game is missing a layer of depth that it sorely needed. Another six months would have let us find that. I thought the sequel was better than the original in several ways. I think it misunderstood some of the Halo style; the “paint” didn’t quite fit all the time.

 

You are now the director of the hugely successful BonusXP. What was your inspiration in starting your own business and was this always an strong ambition of yours?

Success is relative and fleeting. I can tell you it never feels “hugely successful” ๐Ÿ˜‰

Bonus is really the first real game company I’ve help found. The first thing in college really doesn’t count. Well, it counts, but it’s a night and day thing. Once you’re in an industry for 25 years, you can’t rewind back to being naive. In many ways, that experience is crucial. But, at the same time, there are advantages to having a blank canvas and rushing in purely on passion. The longer Bonus has gone on, the more we’ve tried to steer back to pure passion. We over-managed the decisions early on in Bonus because we thought we knew better ๐Ÿ˜‰

My partners and I never had a burning desire to run a studio. I really don’t much dig running the studio. I want to make games. Running the studio is a means to that end, so we do it. My best days are when I can do some programming, talk about cool features with people in the studio, and play something someone else in the studio has made.

We started Bonus for two reasons… We wanted to make the games we wanted to make and we wanted to work in a studio that was run a particular way. Hmm, sounds like I’m contradicting myself there… I don’t mean to. The literal running of the studio (paying bills, negotiating deals, etc.) holds very little interest for me personally. But, I am intensely passionate about our culture and our team. We have a flat, incredibly inclusive organization. Apart from salary and contract numbers, we talk about EVERYTHING. We don’t put things up for votes, but we do promise that we’ll listen to what everyone thinks.

Now, dredging up that “grade on intent” comment from earlier, I can also promise you that I/we make mistakes every single day running the studio. Our heart is in the right place, though. We try to do things consistently and with a well-explained purpose. Sometimes, it works out fantastic and we get a hit like Stranger Things. Other times, not so much ๐Ÿ™‚ I am differently proud of each of our games even if I can look back and see a litany of embarrassing mistakes.

I’m gonna die making games. If I can do it with an inspiring team that humbles my abilities every day, all the better. That’s why Bonus exists.

 

 

You mentioned it there, Stranger Things: The Game is excellent! I really love the retro/SNES look and feel of the game. Are you a personal fan of Stranger Things and what was it like working on this hugely successful title?

Absolutely I’m a fan. I’m not the only one, though. When the show came out, it immediately took over our office. We had to separate lunch groups into folks who’d finished it and folks who hadn’t. Our art director, Jason Sallenbach, claims to have binged the entire first season without getting up from his couch.

As luck would have it, we had a connection at Netflix. Once I saw how much people in the studio loved the franchise, I inquired about making a game. It took several repeated attempts and perhaps some groveling, but we eventually figured out how to make the deal work.

I wish I could bottle up the clarity that we had for the game idea for Stranger Things. It’s cliche to say that “the pitch wrote itself”, but that’s what it felt like. Everything fell into place and just fit together so perfectly. To be fair, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to make a Zelda-style game; even got to prototype one at Ensemble for a while. I think was a lot of pent-up passion there. Letting it out was glorious.

 

How much freedom were you given on Stranger Things and before settling on the retro-style top down game, were there ever any other game ideas and styles considered?

Netflix and the Duffer Brothers were fantastic. They allowed us full access into their world and really turned us loose. I think they get ultimate credit for that faith. We get a good bit of credit for not ****ing it up!

The game was always going to be retro. That authenticity is a core precept of the show; the game needed to build on that and transport you back to that time period. Though, yes, we did experiment with a lot of different art styles and treatments. We’ve developed a pretty strong process at Bonus for doing two different prototypes on a new title: a gameplay prototype and a visual prototype. We find that splitting them lets both masters get served. I think it was the third month of the project that we unified the two prototypes and showed the result to Netflix. Reaction was good ๐Ÿ˜‰

 

Are there any plans for a new Stranger Things game to fit in with the upcoming series 3?

Yes, we are doing the official game for Season 3. Here’s a link to the trailer from the Game Awards announcement.

 

Out all of the games you have created or worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

That’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. Impossible. I love something about each one. How about an unordered top 3? (ok! – Ed)

Stranger Things: The Game.

This was a short 9 month development but packed with so much excitement and dripped with passion. Everything was top secret. We didn’t even give our localization partner a build. I think that sense of being 100% different than our other projects also helped push us farther on the design. We took a lot of risks because we didn’t know any better. We did get lucky in some spots, but decades of pent-up-excitement for Zelda did serve us well, too. The marriage between the show and the gameplay looked good on paper and ended up playing out even better. I do think we also did a particularly good job bringing a Zelda-style game to mobile devices. We got permission to take the game to another local game company to do some NDA-required demos. We just needed a sanity check since a typical soft-launch or public test was definitely out. I remember describing the game as I handed out the iPads. The reactionary shock of “Holy ****, you’re making a Stranger Things Game!” was quickly followed by “Wait, a Zelda game is gonna suck on mobile”. Folks didn’t think we’d make it work, but after playing for a just a few minutes, they realized that we had figured out a few things and the game did work remarkably well. This game could have easily been a mail-it-in-crappy-TV-show game. I’m so proud of what the team put together to do the exact opposite. It’s a legitimately great game.

Age of Mythology.

I think this was a terrific game that showcased Ensemble’s brand of RTS very, very well. There was a “lot in the box” (another Bruce Shelley-ism). An epic campaign, deep multiplayer, random maps, and a cutting-edge 3D engine for the time. I think we really did a great job with the overall faction design and combat mechanics. It was our third time out and we had the advantage of a new engine that allowed (forced?) us to go fix some of the legacy issues that had crept into the original Age1/Age2 codebase. I also loved working with that team. So, so, so much talent there, in every department.

Halo Wars.

In some ways, I think my strongest individual contribution is on Stranger Things. But, in terms of the number of team members and the difficulty in finally coming together, I look back at Halo Wars and am very proud of my role in helping manage that team and get the game launched. Nothing is as perfect as memory says it is, but we held 110+ people together for almost 5 months to ship that game when they knew they were going to lose their jobs as soon as it was done. That was certainly not a one-person effort, but I’m proud of my contribution there. I think the game was pretty good, too, all things considered.

 

 

Are there any games you started work on but were never released, and if so, which unreleased game do you think would have been the most successful?

There are two: Nova and Agent (codenames).

Nova was the sci-fi Diablo game that we prototyped after Age3 was released. Maybe 10 people on that team? Man, that team was stacked. More so, it was a team that worked great TOGETHER. We all had a ton of pent-up, shared passion for making a Diablo game. We’ve come out of team meetings more excited than when we went in (which is unusual). I think we built a 3+ hour demo in like 3 months. The art was all very stand-in (but consistent). We’d started on the real next-gen console art when the game was shuttered due to lack of headcount, ostensibly in favor of Too Human. Every now and then we get re-excited about a Sci-Fi Diablo game… Many publishers still tell us that “Sci-fi Diablo will never work”. I refuse to believe that.

Agent was the spy-themed Zelda/Metroidvania game that we worked on after Nova. Also killed due to headcount. That game didn’t get as far as Nova, but had a lot of the same passion and excitement from a unified team. I think we have 3 or 4 of the folks from that project at Bonus today. Agent still gets brought up by those folks as “the game that we should have finished”. I don’t know how it would do today; the market for that kind of game seems smaller today. Well, maybe different. The new Zelda is much less Zelda than it used to be ๐Ÿ™‚

 

If you could be transported into any one of your video games, and live there for day, which game would you choose ad why?

Hmm, I can’t think of too many of the games I’d want to live in… Certainly Age1 or Age2 if I had to pick. After all, the sun always shines in Age of Empires!

 

You have obviously had a lot of roles within the games industry, stretching from programming, management leading up to becoming the director of BonusXP. How do you reflect back on your journey within the industry and was a point in your career you are most proud of?

I do a lot of career day talks at local schools, so this type of question comes up a lot.

I look back on what I’ve done and feel fortunate to have had all the opportunities early on. Later on, that’s morphed into feeling humbled by enough success from those early years to be able to found and run an independent, self-funded studio. I’m thankful that I have reasonably broad interests that allowed me to be genuinely invested in different roles. Luckily, I’ve always been at least “okay” in a lot of those roles. I’m a good Swiss Army Knife developer; never the best, but always serviceable. I think it’s so very hard to be creative if you’re not comfortable enough to fail.

I’ve had a great run and continue to love the game industry. I dig getting up late every morning and knowing I’ll be surprised by how awesome something turned out. I love that I’m still working with many of the same people I started working with 20+ years ago.

I would say that I’m most proud of my longevity in the industry and the fact that I can look back at the catalog of games I’ve been involved with and see several stand-out, best-in-class titles.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?

Maybe Ezio from Assassin’s Creed? Entirely awesome, but with a style and overall sense of character that action games rarely achieve. Plus, I loved the early games in that series.

 

Adrian

 

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