NEW YORK — If at first you don't make it big with an idea you had when you were 11, then how about trying something you dreamed up at age 10?
Game designer Donald Mustard is 30 now. That's young to be running one's own game-design company. Along with his younger brother, Geremy, he's made one video game. He's almost still a rookie. He still wheels his own suitcase and, a little over a week ago, delayed a return flight back home to Salt Lake City after seeing his in-laws in New York just to show the brothers' second game to GameFile. The first was called "Advent Rising" and was supposed to be the start of their very own "Star Wars" saga. It was for Xbox. This one's called "Undertow." It's for Xbox Live Arcade. It's no epic. It's a shoot-'em-up beneath the waves.
"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he said, sitting in a small conference room in MTV's Times Square offices. "I was 10 and I was drawing all these underwater dudes fighting each other." Mustard's wife was also in the room. She mentioned she had the drawings. She got them from his mom. "That's the problem with marrying your publicist," he said. "She has access to things that she shouldn't have."
Given the whirlwind Donald Mustard has been in for two years, however, dealing with whatever mom held onto is the last thing he should be self-conscious about.
Consider the dizzying response to that first game. "Advent Rising" got a 4.5 out of 5 from GamePro and a 5.6 out of 10 from GameSpot. Life might be about losing some and winning some, but at the same time? "This is like your baby," Mustard recalled of his first game. "The first couple of reviews, they were hard." In the midst of getting praised and slammed at the same time, he got a call from someone at Sony. David Jaffe, lead creator of "God of War," wanted to talk to him. Jaffe was coming to Salt Lake City and wanted to meet up. Jaffe recalls it fondly: "It was a great dinner and a blast to chat with someone who shared the same vision as [I] did about where games — especially cinematic, story-based games — could go," he told GameFile. "As for 'Advent Rising,' me and ['God of War II' director] Cory Barlog loved aspects of it very much. It's a real shame that the game was ignored by so many because the execution was, in places, not so great. It's worth playing if you love games because there are some cool ideas there."
"Some cool ideas," indeed. Mustard now wonders if he deployed too many too soon. "With 'Advent' I took all of my ideas of what would make a video game awesome [and said,] 'We're going to stick every single one into the game.' " He and his brother invented a new control scheme called "flick targeting" that re-rewrote the controls for combat in a 3-D game first established by Nintendo's top designers in the seminal "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time." The Mustard brothers made a game heavy on gun gameplay in the first half that turned into a game of physics-based superpowers in the second. They made their noninteractive cut-scenes pause-able and made many scenes that other developers might have made noninteractive playable. They mapped a branching story across the game, letting players make at least one major decision early on — whether to save the hero's brother or girlfriend from death — that paid off at the game's climax. Choices made in the first game were even supposed to affect events in a sequel. It still all reads so well on paper. It didn't play as well on silicon.
The Mustard brothers moved on. In late spring 2005 they cleared the walls of Geremy's condo and covered them with storyboards and concept drawings for the rest of the "Advent" trilogy. Then Majesco called and let Donald know that the series was on hold at the publisher and that, no, the Mustards could not have it as their own. "It was so frustrating to not be able to do what I wanted to do," he said. "Sure they own the name 'Advent.' But they don't know it." He said he's been close a couple of times to getting the series back.
Summer 2005 was spent pitching a movie based on the first game to Hollywood. That didn't go so well with the studio people he met. He presented a big-budget dream with big actors. "They're like, 'Oh no, we get it. It will be a good "video game movie." We'll get one of our "video game movie" directors to make this cool "video game movie" with those actors that are in "video game movies." ' I'm like, 'No, no, no, no, no.' And it became very apparent to me why no one has ever made a good movie based on a video game."
Ready to rebound, Mustard called in a friend, sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, who had helped with the script for the "Advent Rising" game. Mustard pitched a concept called "Empire" about a new American Civil War. A battle between the left and the right would be triggered by an attack on Washington, D.C., and the rise to power of a radical left-wing group. It became a New York Times best-seller. Warner Bros. and producer Joel Silver optioned the movie. A game is in the early stages of development.
That was the start of a better turn. In October of last year, Donald, Geremy and about eight other members of the Mustards' new company, Chair Entertainment, made another one. They started a second game, the undersea Xbox Live Arcade 2-D shooter "Undertow." They had packed too much into "Advent," but for Live Arcade they had to confine their ideas into a required 50 megabytes. "It's so fun to be forced to boil a game to its core element," Mustard said. "You don't have space to bloat features." Deep-sea divers and subs battle for control of underwater bases. Multiplayer for 16 games is supported. The game even has a story line. Not surprisingly, it's touted to have more packed in than the average Live Arcade game.
Still, "Undertow" is a simpler idea among Mustard's lofty ambitions. He's trying to keep it simple, to tone things down. The giant stuff can wait. Even his idea for a game inspired by "Pride and Prejudice" will hold for now. Allow him to flood the world for Arcade first. Let him restart small. "Undertow" is expected to be available this summer.
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