A few weeks ago, former ArenaNet and then Undead Labs co-founder Jeff Strain and Annie Delisi Strain announced Fang and Claw, a new triple-A addition to Prytana Media‘s portfolio of game development studios.
Fang and Claw is headed by Jeremy Gaffney, an industry veteran who founded Turbine Entertainment (his contributions are in the original Asheron’s Call) and later worked on games like City of Heroes and Wildstar, among others. Gaffney is joined by an experienced group of fellow AAA veterans who are creating a new fantasy combat sports game, having received $3M in seed investment from Transcend Fund.
I recently had the chance to speak with Gaffney on Fang and Claw and a lot of hot game industry topics, including the ethics of using generative AI and how good games can have problems breaking through in certain genres.
Jeff, it’s nice to speak to you again. The last time we met was at a Wildstar pre-release media presentation. What have you been up to since?
I actually did a stretch where I just had a small team of friends and worked on an indie game together, which was a ton of fun. Getting hands-on in games is something that, as you go to bigger teams, you get less and less. But when you’re 400 people, as you get to launch a large-scale AAA game, you’re not coding; you are helping people to help other people to help people who are making the game often. And that can be fulfilling, you need to direct things.
But I feel like my IQ drops by about ten every year I don’t code or do hands-on design. If you go enough years without doing it, eventually, you’re not left with that many job options. You either end up in some sort of executive function or maybe in politics or something. So, I had to start doing that again.
How did you come in contact with Prytana Media?
After I did the indie title, I worked for Blizzard for a stretch on World of Warcraft, and then I started working with Wizards of the Coast. Then Jeff reached out at the beginning of this year. Wizards famously closed a studio right after I joined, which was a bummer, but Jeff gave me a call and the timing worked out great because he had a really interesting game concept for Chris Venturini (former Animation Director at ArenaNet and Gameplay Lead at Undead Labs) and I.
Chris and I had worked together briefly on Gigantic for Motiga, and ours is a good combo of skill sets to start a studio. I have a fair amount of experience in leading studios of various sizes. Like I said, I’ve done programming, I’ve done design.
Chris, on the other hand, is just brilliant on the creative front. He’s deep into what in the games industry is called the three Cs: camera, controls, and character. It’s the feel of what makes a great game, which is very hard to achieve. Since then, we’ve built up the core team around that.
Now, the people mentioned in the release are really skilled. There’s Fleur Marty, former executive producer at Eidos Montréal on games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and then at WB Games Montréal on Gotham Knights; there’s Horia Dociu, who was Studio Art Director at 343 Industries on Halo Infinite and Halo Master Punch Collection and also worked at ArenaNet on Guild Wars 2 and Sucker Punch Productions on inFamous: Second Son and First Light; and there’s Ben Scott, who was Technical Director at Undead Labs on State of Decay 1 and 2.
Yeah, those names are pretty well-known in the AAA segment. That leads me to ask whether you plan to make triple-A games at Fang and Claw, too.
Yeah, our goal is AAA. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of AAA DNA on the team. We all like working at that scale, but I have to say I’ve enjoyed doing three-person indie teams and I’ve enjoyed 400-plus-person giant live service games.
But it’s also important for us to look for the marriage of what you love, like what other genres you get deeply or you feel in your heart or you’ve done a bunch of them, and the intersection of what games can be really successful. Some genres are easier to succeed at than others.
If you dig deep into the data of games and you pull metadata on sales and all that kind of stuff, you find out that there are some areas where good games do really well on average; it’s very rare that a great game fails in those genres and it’s very rare that a bad game succeeds. But oddly, that’s not true everywhere.
There are some areas where your marketing budget is more correlated to how well you succeed than your game quality is. If you’re development-focused, you will really want to be in an area where good games tend to succeed. You seek out those genres and you put your analytical brain behind it to find the intersection of what you love plus where it’s a meritocracy, and you try to avoid the buzzsaw.
There are areas where many games that are maybe 90% on Metacritic or have 90% positive user reviews on Steam don’t do well. You really want to know what those are before you go and invest five years of your career. Everyone only gets to make so many games, and it’s a bit of a bummer to make what you consider a great game and then have it walk into a quicksand pit where it’s just harder. The things you’re good at aren’t necessarily rewarding.
True. That brings me to recent news, with Mimimi studio closing down after making several critically acclaimed games in the real-time tactics genre. Despite that, they couldn’t get a financial breakthrough.
Some areas of the games industry are just really tough and that can be awful if you love a particular kind of game. It’s like with adventure games back in the day where you had great stuff like Monkey Island, but then good games in that genre stopped making money.
Business is often perceived to be kind of evil in part because a lot of gamers’ main experience with business is people figuring out how to wrest more money out of you on a monthly basis or a weekly basis. Like, ‘I want to give you as little as possible and get as much from you as possible’.
Of course, that feels like crap. Better or more ethical I think is when you are analyzing to see where the real opportunities lie, where games are underserved, where people are starving for a great game to appear. I think there’s an art to approaching the business that way, though it can be odds for what you need to do for the next financial quarters.
It’s one of the reasons I really like working with Jeff and Annie: they get games deeply. It’s very nice to have that be an underpinning in every discussion about what you’re doing or what’s important to your development process. It is possible to succeed without being able to work with people who understand games deeply, but it’s a lot more fun with them on board.
According to the press release, Fang and Claw will debut with a fantasy combat sports game, right? That’s the niche you have identified where a great game can be successful.
Yeah, I think that’s the right spot for it. I could give boring underpinnings of running correlations and stuff, but screw that. It’s a genre that I’ve personally enjoyed a lot, I’ve played a large number of games in that genre.
The good games tend to do well there. Of course, the challenges for anyone making games today remain. Can your game become visible? How do you stand out on Steam? It’s among the reasons I would argue to do AAA. If you have a team capable of that and you have the resources for it, AAA games do stand out, but they’re harder and more expensive; it’s not all upsides.
What helps out a lot is if you can look at a screenshot of the game and go ‘Cool, I get it’, where the visuals alone look compelling. And then that first important moment when you enter the game. It must feel good even moving around, you spend 75% of your time in almost every game, regardless of how action-packed it is, walking around, traversing. Is it fun? Is it joyful to move, to jump, to double jump, to fly? Feel matters.
One of the best things about the genre of online games overall is at the end of the day, good games do well and bad games don’t, generally speaking. In the long haul, it’s a genre that rewards you. People don’t come back and play if they’re not having fun. Leaning into that is both healthy for the game, and it’s healthy for your business model.
The three things that we look at nailing are getting the game visible, making it fun from the first moment, and then ensuring there are things to bring you back in, compelling systems to learn and master, and enough content. Those are the points where if you goof one of those up… There’s always an exception, proving the rule, but you need to do those really well.
When you mention fantasy combat sports, are we talking something remotely like Rocket League or would it be completely different? I understand it’s very early days, but just to get an idea of the kind of game you’ve got in mind.
We’re working to claw our own space. Rocket League has been fantastically successful, and we have a ton of respect for Psyonix. There’s also more strategic games like Blood Bowl, which I have a ridiculous amount of hours in, and there’s the high-adrenaline games and others that have more strategic elements or meta-game elements to them.
There’s I think a lot to draw from in that space, so we probably won’t end up looking too much like any of them. None of us are in the mode of like, let’s do what’s happened before, but slightly better.
We like taking an area that’s largely unexplored and then going to find a new area and then just building on that kind of scene where we can rapidly iterate, find fun, and then double down on funding. So I don’t know that it’ll look much like anything by the time we’re at the gate. But we’ll see, maybe it’ll be converging evolution with other elements, but it’s not what we’re anticipating.
Did you pick the engine you’ll use at Fang and Claw?
We’re still doing engine evaluation. I’ve used both engines and enjoy them quite a lot. It’s sort of figuring out what meets our problem space the best and then what is most reasonable. There are business concerns to deal with, but generally, doing what’s good for your game will almost always be the right bet.
In terms of platforms, what are you targeting? Is it PC, consoles, or even mobile? Some games do everything these days with cross-play.
I have to admit I’d like doing everything, but we’re gonna keep it simple to start and really focus on PC and console more than anything else. With the right partner, I like doing crossplay quite a lot. It’s become a bit easier from a broad standpoint where it used to be a ridiculous lift.
Did you already settle on the business model you’ll use for your debut game at Fang and Claw? Is it going to be free to play, buy to play…
We’re down with any kind of rational and ethical business model. We’ll examine that in some depth. If you’re leaning into and you’re really proud of your game as having fun moment-to-moment gameplay with real legs to it, then obviously, you want as many people in the game as you can get.
But we’ll make sure that it doesn’t feel like you’re being punitively monetized every time you stub your toe and it’s like ‘Oh, we can give you a bandaid for five bucks’. It doesn’t feel great.
We have thoughts, but this is one of those things we’re gonna put a lot of effort into sort of nailing that down early and making sure that it feels right in the context of the game. There’s been some strong recent examples of how to do that relatively well and some strong recent examples of how to create giant uproars and alarms in your game. We’ll be learning how the business moves forward in the next couple of years.
Do you have a goal for how many employees you’re targeting to develop the game in the production phase?
We have some rough plans around that, although game development is a flexible art. I’ve executive-produced a ton of titles at this point. I put a lot of emphasis on really strong incubation teams where you can find the fun and pivot relatively easily.
It’s a small number of pretty high-powered folks who are just in there, iterating with each other and finding your art style, finding what’s gonna make your game really unique. That’s a really critical phase because it sets the course for everything that follows.
Then, as you lean into the pre-production, you take that learning and go into full production mode where often now what you’re doing is you’re executing content and making sure you have enough content to get you through launch. The right number of maps and game modes, the right number of if you’re a hero-based game, champions, if you are a quest-based game, quest scenarios and tilesets, and so your final size really is dictated a lot by your content more than anything else.
There’s two other important parts. One is what are you going to launch with? And then what are you doing after you launch? Because of critical importance is doing high-quality stuff while the game is live, but then also how rapidly can you make it high quality? If you can’t do both, players can accept that sometimes, but obviously, everybody likes that being at a reasonable rate.
Is Fang and Claw going to be a fully remote studio, or do you have a headquarters?
Prytana Media is set up to be fully remote overall, which is quite nice and interesting for me. I was recently at Blizzard, which is just going through its sort of return to office. I’ve worked in hybrid mode. I’ve worked in remote mode before. So we are aiming to be fully remote.
A bunch of us in the team happened to be near each other in the Pacific Northwest of the US, but we’re already spreading out to Canada and the Southern US.
Do you have job openings right now?
Yeah. And I’m very proud of our picture of Jeff Strain looking somehow distraught on our team page. That is one of my favorite pictures I’ve seen of Jeff in our history of working together.
I also wanted to ask about the Fang and Claw. Is there a story behind it?
Just a bit tongue-in-cheek, really. We aim for kind of a joyful rowdiness. It is how we all sort of think about games. It’s very important to fight for what we believe in, but it’s also very important not to end up in constant tussles and conflict. The kind of jokey nature of that name leans into both of those things.
Are you planning to get this game into players’ hands very early with the testing and whatnot, or are you anticipating a more regular type of release?
That is a fantastic question. We’re doing play days with our team now and getting early player feedback is super important to us.
We’ll figure out what we want to do in terms of that. I’ve worked on many games with a group of Alpha testers from a very early stage. We’ll talk about that as well. It’s always tricky because you’re trying to balance having something you’re proud of when it first meets the public eye but also getting feedback on a regular basis. Both are important.
My last question is about the rising trend of generative AI in game development. What do you think about it, and do you plan to use it in some way, possibly?
Yeah, we talked about that even as we formed our studio. Our internal commitment is to no unethical use of generative AI. What do I mean by ethical use? This is an interesting topic.
If generative AI could do something that’s never been done before, that’s fascinating. This is not our game’s feature set, but if you wanted to have an AI dungeon master that can describe everything in the game in great detail and keep track of a world state, that’s interesting.
It would be very hard to replicate that in code. That’d be interesting and a cool feature for a certain type of game. I don’t think that’s unethical, rather just a way of doing a thing that hasn’t been done before.
However, using a machine learning model to learn off the Web from a bunch of uncredited artists to save paying my concept artist, that’s BS. I’m not a fan of that model. I don’t know if it’s unethical. We’ll see how that gets litigated. We’ll see the liability issues it creates.
Generative AI is here. It’s going to embed itself in different tools. As a coder, if I’m learning a new thing to do, do I go to Stack Overflow or pull up my old code and look at how to do stuff and largely learn from that? How different is it from an Unreal Engine plug-in that does something similar? I don’t know.
Some areas of genAI leave a bad taste in my mouth. We’ll see if they prove to be positives or negatives overall. There’s some gray areas, and I don’t know how I feel about it yet. In the studio, we’re unsure about it, especially for tool assistance that’s not taking money out of people’s pockets.
And then there’s some areas that are actually interesting where you can do new things and games that haven’t been done. I think there will be a backlash due to the first part of things, which is so clearly borderline, and even doing the latter part, which is about cool new stuff, may get tarnished with that same brush.
I entirely agree. Still, as a gamer, it is hard not to be excited at the possibilities of generative AI in a large-scale RPG, where so many more stories can be created than what’s possible by developers.
Absolutely. I like it as a programmer, and seeing procedural generation get taken further, I find it fascinating as a gamer. Conversely, harvesting 10,000 hours of work people have put in to go do cheap clones… Hemingway is an interesting dude. One of the things he said is what’s right is what feels good afterward. It’s not a bad rough moral code and you listen to what doesn’t feel good afterwards and I’m not sure that will feel good afterwards for everyone who’s doing it. But we’ll see. Maybe I’m just old and crusty.
Thank you for your time.
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