Former Valve designer, writer dishes on his new “co-op” game studio

SAN FRANCISCO—In 2017, game designer and writer Chet Faliszek left Valve Software. The departure was notable in part because Faliszek was perhaps second only to company co-founder Gabe Newell in terms of publicexposure, but also because Faliszek’s work represented a seemingly long-gone era at the game studio: one of irreverent, story-driven games that emphasized co-op (both games and , among other titles).

Shortly after that departure, Faliszek emerged with news: he would start making games at Bossa Studios, home of goofy titles like  and . It seemed like a good fit. Turns out, it wasn’t.

After roughly a year working together, Faliszek and the Bossa Studios team “reconvened and decided it wasn’t working out,” he told Ars Technica. On one hand, Faliszek described the end of that relationship as “the hardest breakup, because I couldn’t get mad at them.” On the other, when pressed, Faliszek described the game he’d worked on as “a kind of game they’re not known for making, and kind of maybe not suited for making.”

Faliszek didn’t explain that point further to Ars, but his public outreach while working at Bossa revolved around cooperative gameplay that would emphasize different, unusual “verbs” (meaning, players might have other primary actions in gameplay beyond jumping, shooting, and killing). And it seems like he’s not done with that design directive. Its spirit appears to live on in Stray Bombay Company, the new game studio he has co-founded with Dr. Kimberly Voll.

“Good words to steal”

While not necessarily a star in the indie or triple-A gaming spaces, Voll has been involved with both, whether by working on the critically acclaimed physics-puzzle game or on a bewildering “make our player base less toxic” project at Riot Games and .

After leaving Bossa “earlier this year,” Faliszek said, he approached Voll, whom he’d first met in 2012 when Valve began sharing SteamVR prototypes (which led to her team working on as a SteamVR launch title). Back then, Faliszek admits that Valve was a bit clueless about how to describe the best qualities of VR, both for gameplay and development, and appreciated Voll’s scholastic background in that respect. Or, as he put it: “We were stealing other people’s words and phrases [to promote VR]. Kim had a lot of good words and phrases to steal.”

Voll’s work on player behavior and how people interact in online games synced directly with Faliszek’s dreams of designing a new type of co-op video game, the duo says. And Faliszek’s suggestion that they team up clicked perfectly with Voll’s desire to get back into direct game development, as opposed to running a major game-interaction department at Riot.

“A lot of alcohol was involved,” Voll adds about the conversation that cinched the deal.

There’s a single video game concept in mind for the duo at this point, which they’ll only say a few things about: it’ll be wholly cooperative, played in a first-person perspective, and designed primarily around play on computers and consoles. Faliszek makes clear that in a world where and work well on smartphones, the new company’s first game may also land on those.

Our conversation sees the duo mostly dance around anything more specific, but when pressed, Faliszek confirms that there is “a concrete [game idea] to hang a conversation on.” And Voll loves it: “There was a game pitch! I said, yeaaah”—in a childish, over-excited way—”at the first sentence. It all clicked. All of those conversations over all those years, then Chet said this one sentence. I said, ‘oh my god, there it is. That’s the game.'”

From frosting to “a light glaze”

The duo is using this week’s Game Developers Conference to recruit new employees, and as a result they’re also talking at length about the studio culture they want to foster. The short version: Stray Bombay will operate with a mostly flat operating structure, but will not totally lack a management layer. (Faliszek describes managers at other game studios as “frosting” on the cake of a dev team, and he wants to reduce that to “a light glaze.”)

Rather, Faliszek and Voll want to make sure all employees have an equal stake in terms of profit-sharing, including a guarantee that the founders only get their paychecks, royalties, and other development-related payments when the rest of the staff do.

“Everyone shares in the success,” Faliszek says. “If you make a good game, we want everybody to participate in that success. Which means real profit-sharing.”

Much of our conversation revolved around matters of higher-level company organization, as opposed to gameplay mechanics, but Faliszek and Voll say this GDC-timed announcement was intentional: to foster a conversation with possible new employees about common criticisms of everything from work hours to a sense of ownership. Voll even speaks at length about the concept of psychological safety: “We want to build a culture of giving the benefit of the doubt,” she told us. “You respect everyone from the moment you walk in the door. That’s a key ingredient missing a ton not just in our industry but everywhere.”

“If you don’t care, rock on”

The duo doesn’t have a hard timeline for when they want to reveal their first project to the gaming public, other than to make sure the game isn’t “in the dark” for much longer than a year, at which point some form of early testing would open up to players. They have also taken on funding from investors who have suggested a “15-year plan” that may very well involve aligning with subscription or streaming services, depending on how the games market evolves over the next few years.

And while GDC will be a period of outreach, the duo in charge knows that’s only one part of the game-making puzzle.

“We’re looking at how to create really awesome experiences for players that help us address things like reducing disruptive behavior, about making game worlds feel like more diverse places, and helping people play with compatible people,” Voll says. “We have to be co-op as a company to make co-op experiences.”

“It’ll make sense when we start talking about the game: a diverse group making up the game will make the game better, especially the game we’re making,” Faliszek adds. “That adds more depth, more flavor into the game. And yeah, sometimes players bristle. So at the end of the day, all this stuff we say about how the company’s being put together—if you’re a player and you don’t care about that, rock on. You’re right. We have to make a good game, that’s what matters…we have to prove all of these theories out. For us, we truly believe that’s how you make better games.”

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