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Filling a Void: Interview with Jay Barnson Founder of Rampant Games © Rampant Games
By: Bryan “Tybalt” Hesters

“Are you feeling alright, Jay?” I asked to an answering voice that sounded almost flu-ridden. “Yea. I actually got a 3-hour nap, even, which about doubles my sleep for the week.” Barnson responded, laughing with a slight rasp lingering in his voice. He has every right to be tired. “Crunch Time” is the last big push to get a game out the door where the entire development team spends entire weeks working at the office, drinking coffee brewed with Pepsi, and eating any cuisine that delivers. The Rampant Games team had just spent the last month crunching on their debut title Void War, and on the eve of their stealth launch, ahead of a full-scale media push, Jay was taking the time to catch me up on the project.

First, let me catch you up on the game. Void War is a multi-player space combat title that combines a fully 3 dimensional dog-fighting experience with a unique space setting, and it cements itself with a simple, fast-paced arcade design that achieves an “easy to pick up, difficult to master” balance. An impressive debut release for Rampant Games, Void War has a lot riding on its shoulders. The game and company showing up on the radar may rouse the attention of publishers and industry reporters, something I’m certain a humble Barnson would like to see, and although it is a long shot, the odds don’t seem to phase him. “It’s the way things ought to be.” Said a confident Barnson, “[having] developers in the driver's seat and publishers talking to them to get rights to publish rather than having executives and marketing departments dictating what you will make and how you'll make it and what licenses you are going to use.”

Jay Barnson is not new to this industry. Earning his stripes at companies like Singletrac and Acclaim, he has garnered a respectable notoriety by influencing the fate of titles like Twisted Metal and Warhawk, but he’s been off the media scopes for quite awhile. “I had a few freaky notions that I might be able to both make more money and work on the games I wanted to make in my spare time... This little idea I had four years ago turned out to be - work TWO full time jobs.” Keeping the tone humorous, he wasn’t joking. Jay explained that the Rampant Games team was a series of what he described “lucky accidents”. “I wish I could claim some sort of mystical ability to find and recruit talent, especially on the shoe-string budget that Rampant Games is running under. A lot of it is one part what you know to two parts who you know.” Although he takes little personal credit, Jay has managed to form a unique company that has experience, enthusiasm, and...family. Several of the developers are actually related, including Jay, who’s Brother Matt has worked beside him in the trenches as they built this company that wanted to keep that smaller, entrepreneurial feel and still bring experience and professionalism to the table. Jay’s brother is also an industry veteran, and they’re hoping they’ll rise to the top of the independent developers by proving blood is thicker than water.

Turning the conversation to the company’s game, I probed Jay about Void War asking if the idea is part of what drove him from the confines of corporate servitude. “Not quite. I had lots of ideas kind of bouncing around. Void War wasn’t really a design at that point, but doing a space combat action game where skill actually mattered was. [Everything that] was out there [at the time] covered for the lack of solid Dog Fighting experience by having really complex missions. [In] Multiplayer, pure dogfight wasn’t much fun.” Jay said that, “The focus was to try and bring an Unreal Tournament type experience to a different area, to a space combat game.”

I jokingly asked Jay if he thought that this was a gaping void in the market right now. Did all the space games suck or just the early ones, and what design is Void War using to make it better? He laughed and said, “As I played some of the later ones, I got kind of excited.” Specifically mentioning the Lucas Arts series of space fighters, an experience many critics will liken Void Wars to, Barnson pointed out, “In the single player games, I’d do really great blowing up tons of the Tie Fighters and Kilrathi ships. I thought, ‘Gee, this would be really great if I could play it against another human and find out who really is the best.’ When they finally came out with some multiplayer, they had an interesting multiplayer aspect with their mission design, but you get into a one on one, or just a non mission based many against many, it was pretty boring. You just sit and shoot, and whoever shoots the most accurately wins.” Jay quickly pointed out that he believed that their downfall, in his opinion was that, “there wasn’t much in the way of cover or tactics you could apply or anything like that. Another issue with some of the more modern space combat games is they got very complex. It got difficult to understand what was going on. You had to master a whole bunch of different key commands and power system configurations and choosing between which missiles you’re going to use. While it was interesting and very fun, I feel it turned newcomers away from the genre.”

“[With Void War,] I wanted to get back to a simpler era when these games first started coming out. Something where instead of focusing on task-overloading the player, focus instead on giving him some real challenges to a few basic skills, which in this case were flying and shooting.” The Rampant Games mission was entirely in the design ideas. “We added space battlefields that were fairly busy. There are places for cover. We added a little hint of Newtonian Physics so that you had to worry a little bit about predicting your motion.” Jay confided in me that this balance came as the result of a bit more trial and error than he anticipated. “The game almost didn’t really get started because when I finally got the core game play going, we didn’t have the elements I talked about like objects in the battlefield to take cover behind. The AI had this clear open field with no cover in which to shoot you. It could pretty much bull’s-eye a fly at a kilometer away. I finally get into the game, and I’m all excited. You know, ‘We’re gonna’ see if this whole thing works!’...the early prototype. And, I went in there and the AI just clobbered me. I couldn’t hit them with a single shot before they’d destroy me. I was pretty annoyed, and at one point I was thinking, ‘Well so much for that idea. This game sucks!’ So, I had to sit and ponder about that for a few weeks.”

The result of the brainstorm was an improved battlefield with a range of cover, unique obstacles, and diversified ship designs found in Void War today, but these additions also required a bit of balance. For example, Jay recounts his play-tester’s feedback on the gravity wells, a stationary obstacle that sucks in any ship unfortunate enough to get within range and drains all its energy. “It used to be instant kill, but after so many people decided that [penalty] was NOT fun, I came to the agreement and we cheesed it.” He also described having to tweak some of the special weapons each ship carries. “We wanted the game to be about marksmanship and not be a total missile-fest. So, with the exception of one of the conventional missile types, all of the missiles, rather than killing your opponent, debilitate them in some way.”

All of the decisions to this point of our conversation seemed like run of the mill balancing issues, but due to the nature of the game, Barnson had one very unique concern. “The one thing that might be controversial to the hardcore space combat purists is that we did add pick-ups. That was actually something I kind of debated, but the thing that differs this from a game like Quake or Unreal Tournament is that because of that little inertia we have in there, grabbing those pick-ups is not something that can happen automatically like it can in other first person shooter games. It’s something you actually have to use a bit of skill to try and acquire.” That skill requirement balanced the use enough to warrant inclusion in the design team’s mind, and based on the responses that Jay described from the already growing player base loved it.

But honestly, why stealth launch from a developer no one has ever heard of? That’s like playing hide and go seek with someone who doesn’t know to look for you. Jay laughed and said, “We're delaying the press release until next week. This is partly because press on the weekends does so poorly, and partly because Joe (Joseph Lieberman, the man hired as Community Relations Manager and, as Jay proclaimed ‘High Marketing Walla-Walla’) is expecting a hurricane tomorrow and may be unable to reply to emails.” To reward the faithful fans already feverishly playing the free demo released a few months ago, Jay is giving a $5 discount off the $25 retail price tag for those purchasing the game this week. It is a heck of a start. The only question left is to see how “Rampant” Jay and his family of friends can make their industry debut.

Bottom line is this isn’t going to be a title gracing the cover of any magazines, but it’s a strong, creative showing by a unique collection of indie developers that will catch some deserved attention. Rampant Games will generate some conversation amongst the creative ranks of the cowboy risk-takers that are using the dangerous market of independent games development to take new risks while the big boys have too much money invested to gamble. That, my gamer friends, is news worthy and worth taking a look at.