This is part one of a two-part series which looks at a couple of studios said to be developing games for Nintendo systems. The self-proclaimed developers are ´Crossbeam Studios´ and ´Nibris´. I have spoken to each respective owner, numerous other sources and conducted extensive research.
I will try and provide you with an in-depth look at those studios: who owns and works for them, how professional are they and just what resources do they have? Ultimately, I want to find out if these studios are likely to ever publish a game on the Wii platform, starting with ´Crossbeam Studios´.
The studio´s website existed as early as April 2003. To most observers, though, ´Crossbeam Studios´ just seemed to appear in early 2006 in the midst of the hype surrounding Nintendo´s new console, alongside ´Nibris´ and ´Lifespark Studios´ (the latter of which I had already exposed as fakers by that time).
Numerous other fakers attempted to ride in the slipstream of what became a full-blown internet phenomenon, further adding to the mystery of Nintendo´s ´Revolution´ and making it increasingly difficult to separate fiction from fact.
While the earliest interview I found was conducted in April 2003 by RPGRadar and popularized by RPG Warehouse (both now defunct), it was Cubed3 who started an avalanche with an article on ´Orb´ in February 2006. In March of that year, Joystiq cited an interview of a small gaming news site with Greg Szemiot, founder and head of ´Crossbeam Studios´ (here is the Wayback Machine´s mirror). The article mentioned that the studio had not just one but three games in development exclusively for the new Nintendo platform: ´Orb´, ´Thorn´, and ´Darkness´.
Since then, everyone simply seemed to assume that the studio was professional and those games would eventually be published. Crossbeam, Nibris and Lifespark became the triumvirate of independent developers, which news sites always listed to prove that Nintendo´s new console was attracting not just the usual suspects, i.e. big business.
It is interesting to note at this point that ´Orb´ was not originally intended to run on Nintendo platforms. In 2004, Szemiot had other plans for the game.
The game (codenamed 'Orb') is currently planned for Windows, MacOSX, and Linux based platforms. Obviously with these platforms in mind, Xbox, Xenon (Xbox2), and Phantom versions are more likely than Gamecube, Revolution, PS2, or PS3 versions. However, console versions aren't possible right now.
By early 2006, Crossbeam had pledged exclusive Nintendo support and that turned them into something of an internet phenomenon themselves. Joystiq continued to take all three self-declared studios at face value. IGN listed Crossbeam as "a professional game development house". Greg Szemiot was even interviewed by Nintendo of Europe, oddly enough (since the studio should be dealing with NOA).
Some members of the team attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at least once (albeit with media badges) and the studio had planned to share a booth at the E for All Expo (although that never happened).
To add even more credence, the studio was registered as a Limited Liability Company (LLC) in August 2006. This proved that the people behind this enterprise took things seriously enough to invest hundreds of dollars of their own money.
Why question this enterprise, then? Well, to be blunt, this is a company consisting entirely of amateurs, with no office, a studio head who lives with his parents, no regular income and consequently no paid employees. They also do not have a single finished product to show for themselves. To make matters worse, the very first interview with Crossbeam was conducted by someone who was a team member himself at the time. An avalanche of mindless media coverage ensued, with a ´full preview´ of ´Orb´ being published by a gaming news site, based on nothing more than concept artwork.
There are talented people behind Crossbeam, as we shall see, but I do not believe that they will ever publish a proper game on any platform. That, of course, is merely my own opinion. I invite you to make up your own mind here.
So who is Greg Szemiot? He has just turned 25 (see his Xanga and Kombo profiles) and lives in Arlington Heights, a village in Cook County, Illinois, near Chicago.
In 2005, he left Harper College with an Associate of Art degree. He is interested in computer graphics and writing (here is a short story written by him). But he has no MobyGames entry. (MobyGames is to computer and videogames what IMDb is to movies. If you have ever worked on a commercial project of note, your name will be added automatically.)
On his Associated Content profile, Greg writes about himself:
I am a Director of Design at two midwest entertainment companies. I am self taught in digital art and media, as well as numerous art and writing styles.
You may remember him from his brief stint in the Nintendo blog community. On the blog written under his nickname Moteh, Greg published nine posts before abandoning the site. The blog´s masthead reads ´I'm not a developer working on Nintendo consoles´ and in a post dated June 2005, he details:
In 1999 I started a small PC dev company called Crossbeam Studios. In late 2000 we started work on our first major project, an adventure game that has been 5 years in design. We have just now started production.
So, providing that said major project is ´Orb´, that game has seen more than seven years in design and it has been in production for almost three years. We shall come back to that later.
Greg Szemiot currently lives with his parents and the studio has no office space. In his only contribution to this article - a brief exchange via messenger dated last autumn - he clarifies this point.
Bringing my living situation into it (...) really should have NO bering on CSE at all) (...) it was either move back in with the parents and wait for another apartment closer to the office space we're trying to get, or not work for CSE... I'd rather keep my cash flow and find a plce closer to the offices our investors are negotiating over.
In the only video interview with Crossbeam, conducted by gaming news site AMN, Szemiot and Greg Nichols are asked where the studio office is based (twelve minutes into the interview) and Nichols seems really uncomfortable with the question.
In April 2007, Greg wrote about a temp job he briefly held, testing products for child console manufacturers V-Tech, who are located in Arlington Heights. Later he notes:
Other than that it's been a lot of CSE stuff, and job hunting. I need a job ASAP.
Greg Szemiot is not alone in his endeavour. Greg Nichols is apparently in charge of ´Darkness´, which is now called ´Midnight´ and "currently suspended". Cole Mussared is lead artist on that title. All three live fairly close and they are the three managers of the company (see the legal section below).
Other staff include Kerriann Hansen, Szemiot´s girlfriend, who is a talented designer (here is a children´s book in flash animation by her). Since individual names have been withdrawn from the team page, it is unclear who else is involved at this time (see staff turnover below)
To add to the confusion, a number of people on the Crossbeam team developed ambitions to start their own companies. Former lead designer James Bond had wanted to start a company called ´Fundemic´ (Wayback Machine from early 2007), which is linked to via the studio´s old affiliates page but now defunct.
Fundemic is currently on hiatus, as James Bond explained in a brief interview with me late last year.
I do have plans for Fundemic, however I don’t think it will be game related. I attended the Microsoft Casual Game seminar back in February in Amsterdam. Having learned the way the industry is going even at low entry points (casual game space) it is my personal belief that the doors are shut for start ups.
Every part of the game industry is over subscribed. There are companies with far larger resources that can always deliver comparative products faster, and do it on a lower budget even with marketing. The days of the rookie developer in my opinion has long past. My withdrawal from the development community is not in lack of faith in CSE, but in the industry as a whole.
Over the last few years, Canadian Garfield Giff has become associated with Crossbeam. Giff is a manga fan and used to have a small Shonen Jump fansite. He spends a lot of time on Gaia Online and is an active member of Crossbeam´s fan community.
He created an Orb fansite (Wayback Machine from May 2006) that is also linked to on the studio´s old affiliates page, alongside the description: ´ A fan site started by Kokoro of the CSE Forums´.
The error message for the defunct URL www.visions-of-d.co.nr (it moved to the Crossbeam server) reads: Firefox can't find the server at gargif.100webspace.net. This would suggest that Kokoro is Garfield Giff. Also, gaming news site MozlaPunk lists Garfield 'Kokoro' Giff as junior editor.
Kokoro himself has posted two sketchy design documents on the internet (´Anobi´ - recently pulled from the net - and ´Detective Club´).
Although he is now listed as Crossbeam staff and seems to be in charge of community aspects, he is in the process of setting up his own studio, ´Phase III Entertainment Limited´, where he has posted some concept images of the latter game mentioned above. Late last year, Giff recruited a PR officer and a graphic designer, both presumably amateurs, i.e. part-time and unpaid. On deviantART, the latter posted the following about his new job, but has not mentioned it since:
My friend Garfield Giff (remember that name) started up a company called Phase 3 Games which, obviously, makes video games. And one day, he came to me and was like "Hey, you want a job?" and I'm like "Hell, yeah!" So I have one now. I'm also working for Phase 3's sister company that's situated in the states. Don't ask me what the company's name is, cause I can't remember.
So Phase 3 Games is going to be at E for All in October showing off the game we are making. I won't be there, but my work will. I am one of the two people that will be making the trailer. So if you attend E for All, be sure to look up Phase 3 Games.
In fact, Phase III and Crossbeam were to share a booth at the ´E for All´ expo last year, which we will come to later. It seems very likely that this is the sister company sometimes mentioned by Szemiot.
The entire studio consists of amateurs. Above, Greg Szemiot talked about the need for a job. On the forums, Szemiot replied to the question "Is it required you have a publisher before you finish the actual game?":
if it was on PC we wouldn't need a publisher to finish. But that's not the case.
This clearly suggests that the entire studio is comprised of people who are amateurs or non-professionals, i.e. working part-time and for free. In fact, looking for staff via GoNintendo, Szemiot wrote that the position would be:
...non pay at the moment, but of course, that will change when the game is done.
I also came across a surprising former member of the team. Paul Tipton, who had conducted and written the RPGRadar interview in 2003 was at the same time a staff member, working on one of their projects, ´X2´. He would not have written a critical article about the studio, I guess. This is clear manipulation or worse and has nothing to do with good journalistic practice - or effective management, for that matter.
And this is no one-off. Glen Bayer who is now content lead on N-Sider used to be listed as a Crossbeam staff beta tester. He wrote at least this one article about the team and quotes Szemiot alongside the head of reputable development studio n-Space in another. The Crossbeam staff page even noted about Bayer:
As one of the first beta testers to sign up, the least we can give him is a plug for his site right?
Was he perhaps returning the favour when he wrote that brief article about the studio website´s redesign? It certainly helped to keep Crossbeam in the limelight.
No professional background
In an interview with 4 color rebellion, Szemiot talked about the professional background of the rest of the staff.
The team has numerous members that have worked, or are working, with other developers. However, past work experience is not something we look for. We look for people with talent and motivation. Many people have made light of the fact our Art Director and Concept Artist on Orb, Darcy Ripley, is still in school. She obviously has no experience in developing games, but in the end it doesn’t matter, as her work speaks for itself.
My research did not find any professional experience of any current staff members, though. A Greg Nichols is listed on MobyGames as having done some quality assurance for Sony Computer Entertainment, but that is all.
However, some people who were involved with Crossbeam in the past have actually entered the industry. Tara Brannigan was briefly listed on the staff page in 2004 and is now a program manager at Microsoft Game Studios.
San Francisco based artist Eric To was associated with Crossbeam for almost a year. Another artist from San Francisco, Jollan Seo, worked for them only for a month. Both have since worked as professionals, it appears. Juan L Sanchez from San Diego county, California, has since done work for Sony Computer Entertainment.
The staff turnover is very high. Tipton disappeared, modeller Jamie Gibson, level designer Kevin Kukuy and programmer Logan Hasson are no longer mentioned. Artist Darcy Ripley is currently not active since she is still finishing school. And according to Szemiot, artist Erin Nagy "is no longer with CSE".
Worst of all, though, one of the core people, Englishman James Bond, has left. When I contacted him in late November, he had this to say about staff turnover:
With any team that is un funded, staff turn over has always been high. Some very talented people have come and gone. (...)
There comes a time in life when you have to move on. I have responsibilities in the way of two young children. I simply don’t have the time to commit to the projects at Crossbeam Studios that I once had.
The name game
To add to the confusion, job titles are anything but consistent. Szemiot called himself president in the RPG Warehouse interview but later changed the title to director of design, lead designer on Orb and studio director or Founder and one of three Lead Designers and Directors at Crossbeam Studios Entertainment.
Other staff members regularly received new job titles, as well. In April 2006, James Bond was listed as the lead designer but back in 2003 had the title game designer. He explains.
As a team that is both un established and non funded, my position within the team has changed on so many occasions I loose count. However I have always had a strong influence in the overall design, and feature set. Usually cutting back on the over ambitious.
´E for All´ presence
Crossbeam was supposed to be present at magazine publisher IDG´s E3 replacement, the ´E for All´, but cancelled their participation at the last minute. The studio is still listed a ´participating company´. Originally, Crossbeam was to share a booth with ´Phase III Entertainment´, but the joint entry on the exhibitor´s list was withdrawn when both studios cancelled.
Here is what the event people at IDG, who run the show, had to say when the studio was still listed.
Crossbeam Studios Entertainment is an affliated share company, and is sharing a booth with Phase III Entertainment at the show. (...)
Exhibitors are required to officially register companies with whom they wish to share exhibit space. An example of the affiliation of a share company may be a contractual business relationship (Developer-Publisher, Publisher-Distributor, government agencies) or a subsidiary relationship to the host company.
A company would register as a share to be acknowledged as an official exhibitor and to receive the corresponding exhibitor benefits which might include Badge Allocation, Event Marketing opportunities, Media Relations activities and a listing in the Show Magazine. The distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated shares is made for exhibit space cost only. They would both be acknowledged with full exhibitor status.
I contacted the same IDG representative again after both studios disappeared from the list, asking what had happened.
As for 2007, in the end they did not participate which is the reason why the companies were not represented on the website. (...)
I am not aware of Crossbeam participating in the show this year. To date they have not signed on as an exhibitor.
Those last remarks were made in mid-April this year. Crossbeam explained the cancellation on their website as a request from investors.
We regret to inform you that CSE will not be attending E for All as planned. It all boils down to product. The people with the money want a quality demo, not a fancy booth. They feel the money we would spend on E for All would be better invested in new equipment and expanding the staff.
It wasn’t an easy decision to pass on E for All because we know we’re letting down the fans that had planned to come and see us. Rest assured, we will have plenty of content coming to keep you up to date on our game development.
´Crossbeam Studios´ uses free software for most tasks. Greg did note in 2004 that 3D Studio Max was "the preffered modelling program for this project." A 14 month student license for said software costs around $200.
Apart from that, the studio uses the open-source software Blender as a modelling tool and the budget Torque engine. Other software includes "GameSpace, QuArK (although this is only a temporary tool until Torque Constructor is released), Visual Studio and MilkShape", according to this interview.
Project management - through the company´s staff web access - is done with dotProject, again open source. In the past, they used Coranto for content management. All these free or budget alternatives should be sufficient even for professional development, at least in theory.
The open-source OGRE engine, for example, is being used on an upcoming PC and Xbox360 project. See the impressive trailer below:
However, while the graphics engine is indeed open source, the studio did customize it greatly by writing their own middleware tools. The efforts may be significantly less than programming your own graphics engine from scratch, but it took years to refine said tools nevertheless. Learn more about free, budget and high profile game engines here. I seriously doubt that amateurs have the time (or, indeed, the programming skills) to customize freely available or budget graphics engines efficiently enough for them to be used in commercial projects.
In fact, James Bond acknowledges that those open-source tools did not always serve them well:
We went from 3d game studio, to the Torque Game Engine, [which] at the time was a reasonable system to develop with. Over the years though it must be said, that at present TGE is over a decade old in some parts. (...)
3d wise all CSE projects have used the open source software Blender 3D and Silo. All software has been licensed by Crossbeam Studios.
Greg also has experience with Gamestudio and even wrote a couple of brief tutorials for it. He has also some experience using Poser and Bryce.
Greg has posted some impressive 3D art on his deviantART gallery. He did not model the characters from scratch, though. Greg used free base models (like this one) and manipulated them.
James Bond has this to say about progress at Crossbeam:
If all the talented people were at CSE at the same time, things MAY have worked out before now. (...)
Orb is a huge project, that is perhaps a little over ambitious with the resources currently at the disposal to CSE. If Orb should ever make the final release, and is only half the game the design team want it to be, it will change that very way that people think about there own life. The actual story line, is one of the best thought out, stories I have ever had the pleasure to see.
With respect to the other titles, I can only comment on Thorn as this is another project that I have seen evolve. Where Orb is over ambitious, Thorn is a lot less complicated, but has a good substance. This is the only project that is in active development at this time.
As we learnt above, the team has been designing ´Orb´ for more than seven years. It has been in production for almost three years. The first mention of the game on the studio website is dated April 12th 2003.
Well, it has been a very busy week here at Crossbeam Studios. Greg Szemiot and myself have been working on a little project together that we are both very exited about, However I don't want to go into to much detail about it at the moment. Work on "Orb" is still going along well.
According to a brief note on 3DGS User´s Voice, ´Orb´ reached a ´major milestone´ in August 2003. This milestone related only to the story, though.
Greg Szemiot and James Bond, the lead designers/writers of Orb, finished the first chapter in the epic series which will span at least 4 games.
In the RPGRadar interview, Szemiot noted:
Some of our games should be done in time for the holiday season in 2004. Since we're independent we don't know where yet, but be sure we'll let you know. However they will be on the PC only as far as I can tell at the moment.
And some months later, in June 2003, Szemiot wrote:
Orb and X2 (...) are now at the 25%-30% development stage, so look out for more info on the soon to be released 'mini sites'!
More than four years later, the team has failed to make anything of substance public (see the media section below). But, to be fair, there could be an internal demo by now, with one or more finished levels. In fact, on his GarageGames blog, Greg spoke in October 2005 about the current status of the game, saying "we have the first model, and almost the first level (1 of 60)... done."
He also mentioned a first milestone coming up in December of that year by which an intenal demo with three playable levels was to be completed. A second milestone, by April 2006, was to see those levels ported from the Torque Game Engine to the Torque Shader Engine. This demo was to be presented at E3 a few weeks later. Surprisingly, Greg mentioned some companies he planned to present it to (Nintendo, Atlus, Ubisoft, and Dreamcatcher). Normally, no details transpire from such pitches. They are strictly confidential.
Szemiot´s statements from late 2005 suggest that one playable level was nearing completion back then. In March 2006, he wrote on his Xanga blog:
Had 8 hours meetings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that had some staff driving for over 4 hours to get here to attend. We went over the entire gameplay systems and stuff... it was insane, and it's going to be happeneing every weekend from now on (unless Kerriann visits).
This all sounds very industrious and organised. However, almost two years later, Szemiot mails the following statement to Gaming Target:
Orb might not make it to store shelves until Wii 2, but we're obviously going to try and avoid that.
At the very earliest, the Wii´s successor might be expected in 2011. That date is still very far away, considering this is a game that by 2011, judging by Greg´s comments above, will have been in design for ten years and in production for almost six.
So ´Orb´ is way off. And Garfield Giff is not very optimistic about the other games being published soon either. Last August he wrote:
Indeed, definitely not seeing Thorn on Wii anytime soon in my opinion.
In April 2006, the then lead designer James Bond wrote in a forum entry:
It is true the CSE is spread very thinly aross our games, this is the main reason why work seeems to be alot slower than other bigger developers. If you care to check out the front page, you will see that this is something that we are very keen to address. However this has proved to be hard going, maybe its the lack of certaintiy that we are a real developer, or the maybe people are waiting untill we have a publisher/deal/revolution SDK. Whatever the porblem seems to be, I am sure this will be resolved within the next few weeks, following E3.
´Orb´, the spin-off
James Bond noted at the beginning of this section that ´Orb´ is not currently in active development. In fact, Greg Szemiot himself admitted recently that "we're not working on the Orb videogame" while being busy with some kind of spin-off project. What it is, we do not know. But it resembles the videogame in being "still far from finished".
For years, the only media for the game consisted of concept artwork and four rather mediocre MIDI tracks. Six apparently in-game screenshots were published by gaming news site AMN in May 2006.
And there is only a little more. In the Orb media thread, a little test animation clip was released.
The video shows a character named Simique walking, running, performing an attack combo and falling over. I showed the models and animations to professionals and they were impressed. If done from scratch, though, the above would take a professional artist only about one or two weeks.
The models and animation sequences were done by Juan L Sanchez who has since left the studio and moved on. In fact, you can see each of eight individual animations of Simique over on his website. There are three additional sequences for another character, Maron.
Apart from ´Orb´, all other projects consist of no more than artwork, as the Thorn media thread shows.
The elusive publisher deal
So there is a little in terms of assets, for ´Orb´ at least. If even a playable level exists, will that guarantee that ´Orb´ will find a publisher?
With regard to the likelihood of successfully pitching a game to a publisher, let me give you some facts about the industry. Canadian studio representation Sherpa Games has the following to say about computer and videogame pitches:
» Nearly 97% of all games that get pitched are rejected
» Publishers receive on average 500 game submissions per year
» The majority of the publishers (93%) will spend less than 60 minutes reviewing your proposal
» Only 12% of the games which are initially presented make it past the first round of evaluation
A Gamespot article reveals how even some of the world´s most famous designers were turned down when pitching new projects.
In October last year, Greg wrote on the forums about publisher interest:
Publisher interest in Thorn is actually just as high as Orb, same goes for darkness.
This is surprising, considering the above statistics. Unless, of course, publisher interest is next to zero. Even if there are substantial game assets already, this seems the most likely scenario. After all, a team of amateurs without studio space is not the most likely candidate for a publisher to inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into.
James Bond is equally realistic on this front:
Honestly speaking with regards to a publisher deal, I doubt this will happen any time soon. Publishing deals are hard to find, for even the most experienced and well financed teams. Having limited resources, lack of office space, and a team with little to no past record, this is being over ambitious in my opinion.
Instead of publishing anything of substance, the studio has had an impressive record of cancelling projects. ´Atlantis´ (aka ´Beyond Reality´), ´Accunia´, ´Antivirus´, ´X2´ and the aptly titled ´Shattered Dreams´ all disappeared from the website.
´Accunia´ was James Bond´s project, ´X2´ was the idea of Paul Tipton. When they left, they took their projects with them. Again James Bond:
The best parts of these projects have been fused into Orb. Accunia
is my pet project, that one day I would like to work on a little more as a
Legal matters and finance
´Crossbeam Studios Entertainment´ is, indeed, a limited company. If you want to get technical, it is a manager-managed, non-series LLC with perpetual duration. You can look this up on the Illinois Secretary of State company register.
That sounds pretty serious and it is, to an extent. In order to file such a company you need to pay $600 and you are obliged to file annual reports.
Each annual report has a $250 filing fee attached. However, no financial information needs to be disclosed in those reports. Also, no minimum founding capital required. Theoretically, such a company need never have any income or expenses. As long as the annual fee is paid on time, anyone can found and run such a company. A company like this does not necessarily mean business.
There is talk of investors, though. In August of 2007, Szemiot wrote:
CSE and its sister company have acquired substantial new financial backing. The bad news is that we regret to inform you that CSE will not be attending E for All as planned. It all boils down to product. The people with the money want a quality demo, not a fancy booth. They feel the money we would spend on E for All would be better invested in new equipment and expanding the staff.
James Bond confirms that there is some money coming in.
Currently there is a little finance coming into the company via free lance work. I am bound by loyalty to the company to not disclose the exact details, however there is a limited budget.
Trademark and copyright issues
There may be significant copyright problems attached to the company name. Most importantly, there is a network security company called Crossbeam Systems. They have trademarked the name according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for "computer hardware in the field of data communications; computer software for the installation, activation and support of other computer applications, and for configuring, monitoring and managing computer hardware and software in the field of data communications".
Could there be a copyright or trademark infringement here? I contacted the company and this is what they had to say about the issue:
It really depends on whether their use of the Crossbeam name is in a field that overlaps with ours. If there is some overlap that could increase the likelihood of confusion in the market as to which Crossbeam is which. If there is NO such overlap or likelihood of confusion, it is okay for the companies to coexist.
However, having said all that – Crossbeam is in no position at this time to tell you whether the overlap exists or if there is an infringement conflict without doing a fair amount of research into this company and consulting on the topic with legal. So, Crossbeam is not prepared to say definitively yes or no, if there is a problem or not.
There is also a small Canadian web agency called Crossbeam Studio. Greg Szemiot, some years ago, considered renaming the company to ´Digital Whisper´. It may be time to consider a new name again.
Before I sum things up, I would like to end this article with a few examples of other studios I came across in my research. Consider Cantano Games, an indie studio co-founded by Juan L Sanchez who used to work for Crossbeam. On their page, they uploaded more than twenty movies for their upcoming title, ´Storm Tanks´, between December 2006 and January 2007. Have a look at their impressive efforts and compare their work to Crossbeam´s.
And here is another example. Prior to being part of Crossbeam, Juan had worked for a studio called Saint Studios.
Its owner, Juan Carlos Santiago now works on an indie project called Village the Game. The Saint Studios team in 2003 and 2004 consisted of almost twenty people and betrayed a tight organisation.
One artist went on to work on high profile games like ´Killzone´ and ´Heavenly Sword´. Another later worked on ´Far Cry´, as well as apparently ´Carmageddon´ and ´Wipeout´.
The studio´s lead programmer even contributed to a book on shader programming.
´Saint Studios´ had two ambitious games in the making. The main focus was on ´Terra Alterna´. You can read a detailed description here. The secondary project was codenamed ´Project MP´. The former, a strategy role-playing game hybrid, had been in development for two years and was finally presented at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2004 by means of a demo. The studio called itself a virtual company, for not having an office, but was an officially registered company nevertheless. Their employees were working for free but hopeful they would soon turn professional.
Apart from working on these games, the studio published tutorials – there are two such PDF documents here and here – to show off their skills.
This sounds not only very impressive, it sounds very familiar. You might be surprised, though, to hear that both projects failed and the team disbanded. A number of the team regrouped to develop an indie massive multiplayer project called ´Infinity: The Quest for Earth´ and lived to tell the tale:
Terra Alterna: the TA project was a fantastic experience in how to *not* run things IMO, and ran between 2002 and 2004. (…) Initially I was only involved as a part-time consultant, to help organize the programming team and tasks. One thing that I wanted to make clear from the beginning is to avoid errors of the past, in other words taking strong decisions and sticking to them. In practise, the opposite happened. Programming leaders came in and out every few months, and each of them had a different vision of which engine to choose and what to do. Decisions were never taken and after a year and a half, not a single line of code that was really useful had been written.
At this point in time, the company was in a critical situation: GDC was coming and we needed a demo to hunt for a publisher. While it was not originally my job when I joined that project, I worked night and day ( well, technically night: I still had a full time job, remember ) to get this demo developed and ready in 1 month. I re-used a lot of code from older projects in a hurry, and we pretty much succeeded to produce a "minimum" demo, but unfortunately we didn't get a publisher deal, and after a few months the situation was so desperate that the company collapsed, before even entering the real production/development phase.
One thing interesting with TA is that we had a full team dedicated to design and gameplay, that were working in the dark ( without those "fundamentals" that I keep talking of ). After two years, they had produced an impressive amount of docs, extremely detailed. So much in fact, that they forgot the big picture, and that the very fundamental topics, such as how the game would be working, was not described.
You're probably familiar with the dual way to approach problems: the top-down approach and the down-top approach. In the top-down approach, you start with very high-level topics, that you refine, and you end with the details. In the down-top approach, you start with the details, and you make your way up to finish with the high-level, hoping that it's coherent. In TA we choose the second approach, and when talking of design, it's a recipe for a disaster.
While defunct since 2004, the company is still listed by Gamasutra. Also, their Cafepress merchandise store lives on.
And, as the former ´Saint Studios´ staff testify, failed indie projects are the norm in this industry.
I’ve been involved in a fantasy MMO ( Archaean ) that encountered severe content problems ( lack of 3D art ), in an antique / historical tactical game ( Terra Alterna ) that encountered severe development problems ( lack of programmers ), in a futuristic racing game ( LightSpeed ) that again failed due to lack of content / artwork, and into the Minas Tirith project, that aimed at recreating the city from Lord of the Rings in a high-polycount and visualize it in real time. This was a moderate success, as the viewer part was completed, but the art team stopped the project before texturing the whole city.
There are success stories, but they are rare. One indie studio that went on to become a success story is Klei Entertainment (´Eets´). But they went a completely different route and appear to talk directly to overambitious studios like Crossbeam with this good advice:
Most independents, us included, started by making the game they wanted to make — economics be damned. (...) Without starting with the constraints, the idea always balloons to include everyone’s favourite features, each one pulling down the chance of the game actually being financially successful, and thus pulling down the chance of a successful pitch. (...)
My decision to create a game now starts with the resources constraints and then expands to how we can make the best possible game out of those constraints.
These examples show that for every indie project that becomes even a moderate success, hundreds of others fail miserably. I refer you back to the statistics about publishing deals above. And why, if a project like ´Terra Alterna´ failed, should ´Orb´ succeed? The description of ´Saint Studios´ above matches ´Crossbeam Studios´ almost exactly.
Of course, dealing with an independent developer with unpaid staff and no office space, we should allow for some leeway here. But my research clearly shows that the coverage Szemiot and his friends have been receiving grossly exaggerates both their current resources for and commitment to game development.
Consider one last piece of evidence which shows how mindless the media hype was. ´Orb´ saw its first and only preview in April 2006. The so-called ´full preview´ - not a first look - came five years before Szemiot himself now expects the game to be published, at the very least. At the time the preview was published – by AMN, who also published the only video interview – it was accompanied by nothing more than concept art.
A full preview based on concept art? Now, even the most trusting person must realise that ´Orb´ and ´Crossbeam Studios´ at large have simply been riding a massive publicity wave and unjustifiedly so. A number of smaller websites were desperate to report about an independent studio developing for Wii - and still are - and Crossbeam were happy to oblige.
They are talented and ambitious. But in my opinion they are a far cry from being a professional development studio. I am absolutely certain that the core team will go on to become industry professionals. But, I believe, Crossbeam Studios will never publish a game.
To express my gratitude to James Bond for his participation in this article, though, I will allow him to have the final word here.
With the right resources Greg and Crossbeam Studios would be a world class development team. He lives and breathes game development, and is totally committed to the games he is working on.
Appendix: Useful tips
Because I do not want to be seen as simply putting Crossbeam down, I would like to give the team some useful tips.
1.) Stop talking consoles
No start-up developer without any professional experience has ever or will ever develop a full-price game for consoles. It is a very hard business to get into. Realise that you will have to start with a PC-only project. Be honest with yourself. You cannot attract publisher interest by overestimating your resources and dedication.
2.) Stop talking AAA
No start-up developer without any professional experience has ever or will ever publish a AAA title as its first game, regardless of the platform. A good friend of mine started his own development studio after he had worked for ´Rare´ for many years, as had most of their team. Their first title, though, was nothing of the magnitude of what Crossbeam is aiming for. They ported the ´MTV music generator´ from one console to another. Nothing a creative mind would get excited about, but it filled their pockets with enough capital to subsequently move on to bigger and better projects.
You might want to do a minigame, something that you can actually get done, but something that shows off your talent. Consider Klei Entertainment who failed to pitch an ambitious console project but succeeded with a free webgame called ´Eets´.
As an alternative to a mini-game, do a mod. Teams like yours may never have pulled off AAA titles, but if you consider the history of the Half-Life mod Gunman Chronicles, the potential benefits of a great mod become clear. Again, be honest and do not overestimate your resources and abilities.
You simply have to admit that you are mindlessly aiming for the sky, thinking about a four-game series. You are not Yu Suzuki. And even he failed.
3. Conduct yourself in public
You need to realise that everything you say in interviews, post on your webpage or in forums and communities will be on public record pretty much forever. Potential investors or publishers may easily check those records, much like I have done for this article. As a result, you need to stop making promises about posting new screenshots or having a new website up if you end up not meeting that deadline. The same goes for promised interviews to the press.
Also, pull the Google Ads banners from your site immediately. This is no way for a studio to present itself.
Lastly, please spellcheck what you post. This may sound condescending, but is a very important detail. Writing that your forums are ´down for maintenence´ is slightly embarrassing. Luckily, you changed that recently. When you are unsure, check with the Encarta dictionary for example. And as far as content is concerned, ´No we're not dead´ was not the best rebuttal of criticism either.
4. Concentrate on what is important
Why do you even have a website? Why do you maintain forums? You obviously spend a large amount of energy on banning forum members. You don´t need a community before you have a product, it should be the other way around. Also, what is the deal with the Cafepress merchandise? That is also just a little early. ´Saint Studios´ made that very mistake.
Greg has a Facebook and MySpace page, alongside all the other community pages mentioned above. He also wrote a number of articles on Associated Content. This all devours time that could be devoted to the studio. If you really want to make this work, you need to forget almost everything else. There are clearly some people in your team who have ambition and plenty of creative energy, but some of them direct it at all sorts of peripheral stuff rather than focusing on what is essential: finishing a game.
5. Scale down, axe individual pet projects
Focus on one project (see 2.) and can all the others for the foreseeable future. I realise why you have this huge portfolio of titles you never developed, but this must stop.
You cannot allow every person you take on board to bring their pet project with them. It will add to your portfolio, prevent you from focusing on the one game you could be developing and they will simply take it with them when they leave, leaving you with another Crossbeam title that simply disappears. This does not make you look very professional. The same goes for staff members who divide their attention between your studio and their own studio they would like to set up.
I realise it is hard to conduct unpaid staff who are far away, but if there is no discipline in your team, you might as well give up right now.
6. Take criticism seriously
I mailed Greg a catalogue of questions so his voice could be heard here and he promised me a number of times that he would send them. I have now waited for well over half a year for a reply from Greg. I am sure he did not want to answer my questions because they were rather critical and he suspected I would not join in the mindless hype Crossbeam has been getting elsewhere on the net. But when you suspect someone will write a critical article about you, you simply cannot afford to turn the other way. Elect a person who will exclusively deal with the press and that person should take the critics very seriously and help them in their research.
Reacting to my older critical comments the way you did here and here is not a very professional way of responding to criticism. Although you may suspect it, this is nothing personal.
7. Good luck
Please do not misunderstand the purpose of this article. In no way do I want to defame or discourage you. I simply had to examine what is written about you with a sober journalistic mind and match that to your actual work. You have been receiving mindlessly positive media coverage that is unjustified by your work, I am afraid to say. And I very much hope that my assessment and especially my advice can help to point you in the right direction. This is a brutal industry and there are thousands of fledgling studios like yours. I wish you good luck. You are going to need it, I am afraid.
This article contains no information that can be considered confidential in any way. All the information made available in this article is either quoted from interviews with the people concerned or is a matter of public record; it is either freely available on the internet or through government offices. All information about specific persons, including private details, was provided by the persons themselves, either published on the internet or relayed to me directly. All images are linked to their original source and due credit is given at all times, to the best of my knowledge.
During the lengthy course of writing this article, the Crossbeam staff started to migrate their forum to another server. The forum cannot currently be reached and I cannot guarantee that the various links to forum posts in this article will work after the migration process is complete.
EDIT Crossbeam has reacted to my article and announced that the studio is dead. The following statement was mailed to GoNintendo.
I will not sugar coat anything. Falafelkid was right in his article. CSE has had many problems throughout the years. We were naive and perhaps arrogant, “riding the wave of publicity,” as he puts it. We take our projects very seriously but we made many mistakes. The biggest mistake was not taking the business side seriously for many years. As CEO, the fault this lies squarely with me. I put the game ideas first and said “I’ll take care of the business stuff later.” We also then announced projects that were just merely ideas or designs at the time. The fact that those haven’t panned out yet makes me begs an apology to both my staff and gamers who believed in us and the projects.
Since 2005 when we first started to toy with the idea of re-designing Orb for the then Revolution, we only had a few levels done in 3d Gamestudio. We planned on eventually moving on to Torque. When we announced the game was in planning for Wii it was our hope and far-fetched dream that it would come to fruition. Obviously that backfired. We made the announcement with little more than a design for the Wii version and gave up completely on developing any other version. I believe it was sheer arrogance, a start up developer with no experience with console development announcing a title for the Wii when it was still in planning. This behavior killed us slowly over time. Not even the biggest companies do that, and it was a difficult lesson to learn.
Since our recent falling out with a potential investor, CSE has died. It may sound strange, but perhaps it is for the better as it put many things into perspective. At the end of his article Falafekid gave a series of Useful Tips. Before he even published this article we had done many of these. We have started on a single PC project. It is a small project, and we’re not even going to officially announce any details until the game is at least 50% done. Our new focus is why we have not updated the website or brought our forums back online. They were proving to be a distraction.
I do very much want to see Orb completed. I have spent nine years on the storyline, working out plot holes, and making the world as detailed as possible. We knew the project was extremely ambitious for a start up company. We just hoped things would have worked out and we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now.
Since the death and slow rebirth of CSE over the first half of this year, we have discussed this new project with some of the ex staff. We have staff coming back to work on the project. Our former lead programmer has returned, James Bond has returned, old concept artists from the pre-Nintendo era have come back, and some others are expressing great interest in working with us. It’s not going to be a ground-breaking title; we can’t do a project of that caliber on our budget. However, the title will be to the best of our abilities. It is a fresh start for us and hopefully will prove to be the correct course of action. I just hope it does work out for us on this project so someday we can deliver on our promises for Orb and Thorn. Currently, we have ideas and storylines for Orb and Thorn, but as James has said, they are good ideas and storylines.
With proper support and some luck, we hope to appear on consoles next generation. For right now, our focus is to get the experience needed and titles under our belt to enable us to push a project as ambitious as Orb and have it succeed.
I applaud Greg Szemiot and his friends for their honesty and wish them well in the future. Their response justifies all the hard work I put in to this article. Without it, we may not have known the real state of affairs within Crossbeam for some time. I understand, though, that failure is the hardest thing to admit to. Good luck to them.