Jeff Strain, the founder of State of Decay developer Undead Labs who previously worked at ArenaNet and as the original lead programmer on World of Warcraft, has started a new game development studio in New Orleans called Possibility Space. The studio will be a distributed team, meaning employees can work from anywhere. And the team aims to create a AAA game.
“The phrase ‘triple-A’ has a lot of baggage in the development community,” Strain clarified to IGN, “so it’s not a phrase I like to use. It often implies a lack of innovation. Developers are often not viewing [AAA] as a positive. [But] are we going for a small-scale, purely innovation based attempt to capture a niche market, or do we have big ambitious goals and the resources to match those big ambitious goals? I can tell you it’s very much the latter.”
Strain said the move is due in part to a need for “some creative renewal” but primarily motivated by family. “I’ve been getting to a point where my family needed me,” he said. “And my wife’s family needed her too. There were a lot of forces around that drawing us back.” He emphasized, however, that he’s also incredibly proud of the games he and the team built at Undead Labs. “State of Decay is still on its way to achieving its ultimate vision,” he said, referring to the upcoming State of Decay 3, and he has nothing but kind words for Microsoft on his way out of Undead Labs, which Microsoft acquired in 2018.
“If you look at the way they manage and deal with the studios they’ve acquired over the past five years versus 10 years ago or 15 years ago, there’s a profound difference,” Strain said. “They do a good job of acknowledging that diversity of development cultures is a strength and not a weakness, and they support that and encourage that to the greatest degree that they can. They’ve done a good job of protecting the development cultures of all the development studios. And that’s why, by and large, I think people are happy working there.”
Joining Strain at Possibility Space are Jane Ng (Campo Santo, Valve), Austin Walker (Waypoint Media, Friends at the Table podcast), Liz England (Ubisoft, Warner Bros.), Richard Foge (Undead Labs, Probably Monsters), Brandon Dillon (Oculus, Double Fine), Leah Rivera (Undead Labs, ArenaNet), Brian Jennings (NZXR, Magic Leap), Charles Randall (Ubisoft, BioWare), and Erica Tam (Electronic Arts, Oculus). Some will work out of New Orleans, but most will not. “The pandemic accelerated a lot of trends that were already in place,” Strain said. “The fact is that it is completely possible to work wherever you want to work and live wherever you want to live. I do think that most developers like the freedom. Most game studios have shown [during the pandemic] that yes, you can continue to develop great games in a distributed fashion. For me the opportunity here is, ‘Let’s lean into a fully distributed studio.’ It’s about your culture. Let’s embrace it and have access to a global talent pool.”
When IGN asked Strain about what’s happened since he published his open-letter response to the damning accusations surrounding Blizzard, in which he called for and endorsed game-developer unionization, he told us, “My goal in publishing that letter was to start the process of defanging it. Of taking the fear out of it. And to exhort my fellow studio heads and publishing executives to stop fearing it and stop fighting it and instead step back and say, ‘Could we maybe [get] ahead of what a union might reasonably demand for the health and safety of its workers?’
“It’s just not that hard to treat people fairly and equally. I’ve learned that it’s not enough to just have good intentions. It’s not enough to wish for diversity. You have to build structure that you adhere to in order to make it fair. We started [at Possibility Space] by making sure that we cast a very broad net and looked at the widest range of people we could to make sure we were getting fair representation at all levels of the company. And those people have now come on board and are strong counselors and offer strong guidance for how we continue to build the kind of systemic culture we need to build to make sure that as we hire people over the next five, 10 years, that we build a culture that would survive...me. You don’t want that all going away the moment certain key people walk out the door. It’s the most important issue facing our industry right now and it takes systems, not talk. It takes structure, not wishes.”