As a 10-year veteran of the Madden NFL series, Ian Cummings has plenty of experience building video games with bears in them.
It's the raccoons and beavers that are a bit of a departure this time.
"It's awesome to work on a sports game, and it was great to work on Madden, and to meet athletes and celebrities, " says Cummings (pictured above, right), whom hardcore sports gamers recognize as that series' former creative director, leaving that job in April. "But at some point, you realize that you're still working on the same game every year."
Cummings, now the creative director for the Orlando-based games startup Row Sham Bow, certainly isn't doing that this year. At this time in 2010, he was consumed with football telemetry, and engaged in long-running Twitter debates over things like surprise onsides kicks. Today he is overseeing a struggle among cartoon wildlife in Woodland Heroes, a don't-call-it-a-Facebook-game Facebook game that just went into its open beta period.
Cummings isn't the only EA Sports veteran to make the trade. Row Sham Bow was co-founded by Philip Holt (pictured above, left), the former general manager of EA Tiburon, better known as Madden's studio. Located about 30 minutes away from the old joint, Row Sham Bow is stacked with EA Sports veterans; including co-founder and chief technology officer Nick Gonzalez, the software architect behind Tiburon's major online offerings, including its Madden and PGA branded games
Holt, the company's president and CEO, pointedly mentions that he didn't recruit anyone when he left earlier this year. And while all the departures were all said to be on pleasant terms, they did come after an across-the-board reorganization that ousted Holt, by all rights a well-liked boss. EA Sports upended its traditional heirarchy at the end of 2010, following the collapse of NBA Elite 11, though the label said the reorganization was conceived independent of that. The boss of the Canada studio responsible for Elite lost her job. Holt was invited to stay and did, briefly, but ultimately figured this was the time to try something he'd itched to do for a long time: Start his own studio.
In fact, "Row Sham Bow" was a name Holt thought up for such a venture six or seven years ago. Development was a different story then; everything was still locked into a model of designing and delivering disc-based console and PC products for sale at retail, requiring publishing, marketing and retail partners and all the demands that come with them. The channels offered by Facebook and mobile devices today made Holt's independent vision more viable, and with his A-list background in the business he secured funding from one of the Southeast's largest venture capital firms. Row Sham Bow opened in March.
Holt's first hire was the office manager. His next was Cummings. (Further signifying a culture shift, the executive producers for Madden 11 and 12 both left, for Zynga.) Today, Row Sham Bow has a full-time staff of 17; 12 came from Tiburon.
Woodland Heroes is not like anything ever built out of EA Tiburon. That's apparent as soon as you drag out the "Muck Wheel" and blast mud all over the Bear King's entrenchments, in a game that blends turn-based combat strategy with resource management and even elements of Battleship here and there.
It's not based on licensed symbols or sports personalities and it has no legacy of success to justify its emergence in a crowded scene. That's what made building the game as liberating as it was frightening.
"When you're in an environment that's got a legacy product, or revenue demands, and all of these requirements to hit it, it can be difficult to push new ideas," Holt said. "Our business is not dependent on Woodland Heroes being a smash hit. When you ahve the ability to make mistakes, it's freeing."
"It's not like we came into this with a design document," Cummings said, of the piece of paper that ruled his life for solid decade. "We just tried a bunch of random ideas, and this is the one that came out sounding like it would be the most fun."
Woodland Heroes, actually, began as a text-heavy prototype set in space, Cummings said. The creative team realized it could still accomplish the same design goal if it gave the settings and characters a stronger visual appeal. Instead of aliens and humans, now it's a conflict between raccoons and bears.
Holt's biggest hire with no EA Sports experience is Row Sham Bow's art director, Jeremy VanHoozer, who came aboard from Cartoon Network. Indeed, Woodland Heroes is dressed in a design that evokes old animated Disney features, if not the Don Bluth (Dragon's Lair) style, which makes the fact it's all being built by Madden veterans all the more intriguing.
Madden may be a game they want to play. Woodland Heroes, is one they want to make.
"When we started building the game, we didn't talk about the demographic or the target audience; over the course of the design, we talked about what we wanted to play," Cummings said. "We didn't say, 'Hey, this has got to be great for soccer moms, or emo tennage boys.' It was 'How do we make a game that's really fun?'"
'At some point, you realize that you're still working on the same game every year.'
It's not to say that their work Madden was not fun, or the game they made was no fun. But it brings a set of expectations that, after a while, can drive a developer away from actually building a game and into a mode of putting out fires and answering community complaints. They were in a long-term process of refinement, and everyone with a commenting handle or access to a developer's Twitter was shoving in their input. That often means things are brainstormed, or left out of brainstorming because someone can already hear the bitching if they do or don't.
It also cramps your enjoyment of the sport itself. "It's great to take a deep breath and not have to worry about it," Holt said. "The first week of the NFL season, it's just such a great feeling to watch it and not worry about it. I can sit on my couch and not worry, 'Have we captured that celebration?' or 'Why don't we have that play?' We're driving our own passion and identity instead of chasing real life."
If anyone needed to be liberated from this, it was Cummings, a very public face of the Madden development team in his time. I've known Ian for a couple of years and I know, professionally, that he keeps a thick skin while privately, yes, some things burn him up. They'd burn me up. When you close a 10-year career at sports video gaming's glamour franchise, in a departure notable enough to rate a news item, and the first comment is a snide "I didn't know that game had a creative director," it's hard not to want to punch someone's lights out.
"Sports video games have a huge amount of challenge and reward to designing them, but there will still be people on your site, or on any site, who have zero respect for the game, and will call it a roster update," Cummings said. "Getting something out there, doing it without respect, is tough to do."
That's in the past. "I'm still excited for Madden 12; I'm still pumped about the things they're doing, and the stuff that I know they are doing for Madden 13. This is just such a brand new, different environment," Cummings said. "I said 'There's no way I'll forgive myself' if this turned into a cool gig, if they put out a game that was a giant hit, and I said no to it. But the community there (at Madden), I felt had drained me. This opportunity is so much cooler."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.