In thousands of theaters across the country, just minutes before a crawl of yellow words heralds the start of the final "Star Wars" movie, a brief commercial has been playing for a video game called "Advent Rising," which was released this week for the Xbox. The game, like the movie it precedes, is a sci-fi epic with a rousing score and a creator looking to produce the definitive space saga of our time.
" 'Advent' is just the first of my plots to unleash upon the world," said the game's lead designer, Donald Mustard. "And it's the least awesome of my stuff."
"Least awesome" is a relative term in the Mustard vocabulary, especially when it refers to the first of a proposed video game trilogy: a tale of aliens' discovery of mythological creatures called humans, the ensuing interstellar upheaval, one man's evolution into a playable superhero — and that's just in the first Xbox installment. It's also an action/shooting game heavy with plot and rife with gun shooting and slow-mo cartwheeling action. What's more, playing it will literally make one lucky gamer a millionaire.
Whether the series manages to take over our collective consciousness or not, it's worth noting that "Advent" has been something of an indie operation, an outsider endeavor like George Lucas' original 1977 Luke vs. Death Star classic, which proved that success can sprout from the grassroots.
"Advent Rising" started rather simply, when the now-28-year-old Mustard was 11 and fond of building Lego spaceships with his younger brother, Geremy. Their dad snapped photos, and some of the boys' early designs made their way into today's "Advent" video game.
The Mustard brothers' original ambition was to turn their sci-fi dreams into a movie. Donald liked storytelling, while Geremy was more technically proficient. They both attended Brigham Young University in Utah with an eye on the school's 3-D-graphics-rendering Silicon Graphics workstations. The plan was for Donald to head to Hollywood after graduating, land a job at Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic or another visual-effects studio, bring his kid brother along and make it big.
But video gaming began to grab the brothers' attention. They had played since they were kids. Donald was a Nintendo guy who preferred "Super Metroid," but in college he let his eye wander and rented a PlayStation to try the ballyhooed "Final Fantasy 7." That game had something special: movie-style cut scenes and an overall epic feel. Donald was hooked. "I was like, wow, this is the beginning of making games into a cinematic experience," he said.
By 2000, Donald had graduated and taken a job at Utah company GlyphX, which specializes in making in-game artwork for other companies' video games. Donald convinced the staff — all two of them — to let him devote some time to a pet sci-fi project he'd been cooking up with his brother. Donald recruited Geremy to GlyphX, and Geremy became the programming whiz behind "Advent Rising."
For their main gig at GlyphX, the brothers helped create in-game movies for titles like "Soldier of Fortune 2" and "Downhill Domination." On the side, "Advent" was taking shape. The Mustards admired the science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card and arranged a meeting with him; the pitch was a success, and Card scripted the game.
Next came the hunt for a publisher. For about a year, everyone said no — the Mustards were unproven. Eventually they managed to link up with Majesco. Development kicked in and lasted 28 months, during most of which the "Advent" team consisted of just 15 people.
Compare that to the 50-plus team who made "Halo" over three years and the nearly 100-plus team who make "Splinter Cell." And their budget, at $4 million, was small by industry standards for top titles. "We just bled through our eyes," Donald said.
The team was stretched to the limit. They introduced a new gameplay technique called "flick-targeting" that they thought could radically change the way shooting games work. Furthermore, years of controller-in-hand "research" had provided them a list of "things we hate most about video games" that they tried to avoid. For example, "Advent" has no load times, and — in a touch sure to be appreciated by gamers who wonder why their significant others always seem to talk to them only during cut scenes, which can't be paused — its cinematic scenes can be paused.
To spike interest, Majesco has arranged an unusual contest that will allow "Advent" players with Xboxes connected to the Internet to go on in-game scavenger hunts — with an ultimate prize of $1 million.
But Donald Mustard hopes the game itself will get players excited. It's already garnered attention from the same people who used to brush him aside. When he was pitching the game, an executive from Activision had turned him down by saying, "I know I'm making the biggest mistake of my career. But I can't because we don't sign with first-time developers." The exec had predicted that just a few years later he'd be asking Donald to make him a game and that Donald would remember the rejection and dramatically raise his price. The prediction came true. Said Donald, "I did that last month."