Monkeying around with Monkeystone Games

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The secret is out. Pocket PC is a legitimate game platform.

In the last 18 months, versions of many of the popular desktop titles, including SimCity, Rayman, Ultima Underworld and Sonic the Hedgehog, have found their way into the Pocket PC world. And while it’s still three to four years behind the 3-D capabilities of current PC-based gaming platforms, the Pocket PC’s potential for wireless multiplayer gaming is mind-boggling.

But some say that the definitive endorsement came last month when high-profile game developers John Romero and Tom Hall joined forces to create Monkeystone Games, with its goal being to develop exciting new games for the Pocket PC.

Romero, Monkeystone’s CEO and lead programmer, is a legend in the PC gaming industry. While at id Software in the early-1990’s, he was the creative force behind the wildly successful games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, which revolutionized the industry by allowing players to see the shoot-em-up action around them as if looking through their own eyes, something called "first-person shooter."

Romero eventually left id over creative differences and co-founded ION Storm in 1996 along with Monkeystone’s president and lead designer Tom Hall and three others. ION Storm, backed by $13 million in investment capital, recruited many of the top game developers under the mantra "design is law." Unfortunately Romero and Hall’s good intentions were frought with business miscalculations and ineptitude. It took more than four years for ION Storm to release Daikatana, which was panned by both enthusiasts and the gaming media. By then Eidos Interactive had stepped in and poured nearly $30 million into ION Storm.

Earlier this summer Romero left ION, while Hall hung around just long enough to get its latest role-playing game, Anachronox, out the door. ION Storm closed it doors soon thereafter.

Now Romero and Hall, along with Brian Moon and Stevie "KillCreek" Case, have teamed up and set their sights on the nascent handheld gaming market, including Pocket PCs, which Romero says are "…an excellent alternative to the Game Boy Advance." Whether this "downsizing" of sorts will enable them to recapture the glory of Doom-days past only time will tell.

   

According to Romero, "We’re getting back to our roots: small fun games on a stable platform that can be developed within months. Everyone is multi-talented and because of that, we can stay small — which is how we like it here at Monkeystone. It’s great being able to get things done instantaneously because everyone is right here working together."

Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of posing questions to Monkeystone co-founders John Romero and Tom Hall, and its vice president and production coordinator Stevie Case.

I hope you enjoy our exchange.

– Steve Bush, Editor



Brighthand: You’ve recently hooked up to create Monkeystone Games, and you also announced at the Pocket PC Summit that you’re partnering with ZIOSoft. Why the move to handhelds and what’s the advantage of partnering with ZIOSoft?

Stevie Case:  We’re extremely excited about the future of handheld gaming in its varied forms. We love working on big PC titles, but those games take years to complete. As big games get more complex, more and more time is being spent on the miniscule graphic details. Though we love games that look good, making games for handhelds allows us to focus on gameplay. That is to say that most of our time goes into making sure the games are fun! Also, it’s much more enjoyable for our team to work on something small that we can ship quickly.

Plus, we’re just excited about the future for handhelds. Our games for mobile phones will truly hit the mass market, and that’s exciting. However, we’re big fans of the Pocket PC, and we really hope that market takes off like it should. The PPC hardware is great for gaming, and it’s only getting better.

As for partnering with ZioSoft, we’re excited to have announced that we’ll be working with them on a future title. They’ve been around in this industry for some time now, and they really know their stuff. Besides, they’re extremely cool guys. We’re very excited about the partnership, and hopefully we’ll be able to release some more details on that front soon.



Brighthand: What’s the origin of the name Monkeystone? Is there meaning behind it or did you simply do the rock group thing and pick two random names out of a dictionary, sort of like Led Zepplin?

Stevie Case:  Well, we like monkeys. That’s where it all started! Some of us … *cough* Tom *cough* … are quite obsessed with monkeys. So Tom sat down at his machine on register.com and started trying various words combined with “Monkey.” Monkeystone.com wasn’t taken and we liked it because it sounded fun and mysterious! Closer to a dictionary.com pick, I suppose. 🙂

[Editor’s Note: Coincidentally, former ION Storm CEO Mike Wilson used the phrase "the monkey has landed" when he inspired a mass-exodus of several of the original Daikatana developers, dubbed the "ION Eight." Seems everyone loved monkeys there! ;)]



Brighthand: It’s been said that Nintendo views games as toys, Sony views games as entertainment, and Microsoft views games as art. As a game developer, do you think electronic games can truly be called art, or are they simply for entertainment?

Tom Hall:  Right now, they’re still pretty much craft, but you can see flashes of art. Art does two things, in my opinion. One, art communicates. Games do this all the time; they communicate metaphors, ways to do things, and so on.

Two, art moves you. It causes emotion. Very few games do this. We had a few moments in Anachronox that were truly emotional (very proud of those!), and the Final Fantasy series has had a couple. But once games move you emotionally as their substance, their raison d’être…THEN games will be art.



Brighthand: Some recent estimates from Informa Media Group show that the electronic-gaming industry will grow from $50 billion to $86 billion within five years. However, most of that growth will be in the areas of consoles, wireless games, interactive TV and online games, with handheld games lagging behind. What’s your take on that and how does it play into Monkeystone’s business strategy?

Stevie Case:  Our primary focus at Monkeystone is on mobile gaming. In the short term, our focus is on the Pocket PC, Qualcomm’s BREW platform for mobile phones, and the Game Boy Advance. One big advantage we have is that we’re a small, tightly focused team with more than 50 years of experience. Our guys have been making games for a long time, and they’re used to changing with the times. We’ll create our first wave of titles on the platforms we believe in, assess how things turn out, and move forward from there.

I will say, though, that we believe strongly in the viability of the Pocket PC gaming market, and we plan on sticking with it. We look forward to taking advantage of technologies like Bluetooth. There are other platforms on the horizon that we plan to explore, such as Microsoft’s Stinger. Bottom line, one of our biggest strengths is the ability to evolve alongside the hardware.



Brighthand: You’ve experienced both public successes with Doom and Quake as well as public failures with the product delays at ION Storm. What did you come away with, both positive and negative, from both of those experiences?

John Romero:  I’d have to say that I’ve learned it’s very important to do what you do best. I’m definitely better suited to small companies and tight teams rather than large companies with large teams. I’m happiest and most effective when I’m doing what I love best — working on the game.



Brighthand: What’s in the works at Monkeystone? Can you give a preview of any upcoming games?

Stevie Case:  There are several things in the works at the moment. Unfortunately, I can only fill you in on one of them right now. We’ll have a couple of major announcements about upcoming projects over the next few weeks.

Our first title, developed in-house for Pocket PC by Tom and John, will be Hyperspace Delivery Boy! HDB is a unique action-puzzle game in which you play as our hero Guy Carrington on a mission to attain the rank of Hyperspace Delivery Boy 1st Class! Guy works for the Hyperspace Delivery Service and serves aboard the HDS Colby Jack. Guy encounters all sorts of obstacles, beasts, and robot foes through 30 levels of package-delivering madness. HDB offers tons of unique environments, hilarious dialog, engaging puzzles, and space-trotting adventure.

   

Stevie Case:  If you have played any of Tom and John’s earlier games, you will quickly recognize the sense of humor and strong focus on gameplay. We will release HDB later this month on our website and through other major online retailers. And yes, there will be a downloadable demo for everyone to try! By early next year you will be able to buy a boxed copy of HDB at local retail stores including Staples, CompUSA, Best Buy, and more.

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