Ian Verchere is the co-founder of Roadhouse Interactive, the production company behind Family Guy Online. He’s also a games industry veteran with highly interesting and valuable insight into the past, present, and potential future of video game development. But what led him on the path to game development in the first place? What’s it like developing a browser-based game after years of working on console titles? Mr. Verchere kindly took a few minutes to provide Gamezebo with some thoughts.
Tell us a bit about your history in game development.
I was a professional skier for 15 years. I blew my knee out before the  Winter Olympics in Calgary, and got to watch the ceremonies from a hospital bed. I realized there wasn’t a long-term future in the sport, but then I spent a year recovering in Japan and was really exposed to electronic culture. I’ve been a gamer going way back; I played games all the time on the road. When I came back from Japan, I found a small game company in Vancouver, DSI. I had an art portfolio, so I went in and was hired as an artist.
DSI eventually got bought by Electronic Arts and became EA Canada. Me and three guys left to start Radical Entertainment in Vancouver. Radical had a sports group, and an action group. I was the studio’s creative director, but my heart was more into the Mario and Legend of Zelda experience.
So I met with MTV just as “Frog Baseball” was being shopped around and turned into Beavis and Butthead. Game ideas [for the SNES and Genesis] were being mapped out at the time, including stuff like Beavis and Butthead shooting burritos at each other. I described a more RPG-like idea, where you could go and get tickets for GWAR. MTV said, “Let’s do that.” For me, it was the first success I had communicating a powerful brand across multiple media.
This is something that I’ve never actually told anyone on the record before, but I was the first artist outside of Nintendo who was given permission to animate Mario. This was back around 1991. The Learning Company had acquired the Mario license from Nintendo to make educational products, like Mario is Missing and Mario in Time. So I actually designed a way of mapping two NES sprites over two different color palettes, so we had a 16-bit looking Mario in an 8-bit game.
Somewhere in my archives, I’ve got a fax from Miyamoto. He wrote, “Turtle go in pipe, top come out pipe, otherwise, OK. Thank you!” I’m keeping that one.
I’ve learned lessons about game development every step of the way, and I’ve worked on a couple of games that completely suck—and I have no problem admitting that. I’ve learned more from the games that sucked than I did from the games that succeeded. And I say that in all honesty. I’ve been in the game industry for a long time, but I still wake up every morning and I think it’s the best job in the world.
You mentioned that console development is “getting frustrating,” and that’s why you made the switch to developing social games. You’re not the first veteran developer to say as much. Can you share more insight into your change of heart?
Well, case in point, we created this amazing prototype for a Jackass game using the Havoc engine. You’d rack up combos by doing silly stuff, and we gave the player a mechanism for scoring as many points as possible. It was very much developed like a sandbox title; it could have been the first sandbox game.
Well, there’s a group of people—the product evaluation group—that looks at ideas and concepts, and they have the power to say, “That’s not gonna work on our console.” I said, “It doesn’t really, but if you want, Johnny Knoxville can be a princess, and the player can be the hero. There. Hero rescues the princess. We have a story. It’s a classic.” They said, “No, no.”
It was just one of those frustrating moments. More importantly though, down the road, if you look at the cost of entry and the amount of risk involved in building a console title—holy cow, it’s really expensive. There will always be these big “Superbowl” games, and that’s great—I love them. But for me to want to try stuff, I had to lower the cost of entry. I think that creates a more fertile ground for ideas.
Family Guy Online is totally a case in point. It’s browser-based, it’s free to play. We’re in the right spot at the right time. We wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the stuff that we wanted to do if we were building a million-dollar console game.
With distribution becoming increasingly digital—including the console market—do you think you’ll ever make a return to developing console games?
Oh, never say never. It’s all about the medium being right for the message. If there was an idea or a property or a mechanism that warrants that kind of production, then absolutely. A good game is a good game.
On a more technical side: Family Guy is a pretty huge property. Do you guys have a plan in place to handle the influx of traffic when everybody says, “Oh boy, free Family Guy game” and jumps on?
We are prepared. We’ve got a robust server infrastructure in place. It still doesn’t mean it’s going to be absolutely perfect, so we implemented the “Keys to Quahog.” You sign up, you register, you get your key to the city, and we activate your key as our servers pressurize.
We don’t want to say, “Here we are—oh crap!” as the servers fall apart. People expect stuff to work, and rightly so. People might say, “I wish I could play, I wish I could play” as they wait for their key to be activated, but I think it’s ultimately better than having people say, “I went online to play, and it blew up.” They won’t come back.
We also have a lot of experience with online gaming: we’re not just jumping into the space for the first time. We’ve thought this all through. Family Guy is a revered IP: we could do no less than treat it with the respect it deserves.
You mentioned that you love adventure games. Is that why you decided on a more adventurous setting for Family Guy Online versus, say, a city-building game?
It’s not to say that we’ll never have a major update down the road that will involve UGC, where you can build Quahog’s new subdivision or something. But Family Guy Online is the first “MMLOL,” and I think, in order to deliver major laugh out loud experiences, the action format definitely made the most sense. And it gives us the opportunity to deliver the notion that this is going to be a funny game. You have the characters in the show standing around and telling you to go and do silly stuff.
If you’ve got a game that sends you to get a wolf’s skin that you can trade for a fire rune or whatever, that’s fun. But if you have a game like Family Guy Online that sends you on a quest to find something…naughty so you can do something naughtier with it, that’s kind of fun, too. It helps the game feel like the show.