Building a games studio on the shoulders of giants

Six months ago, with the help of many people, I started a new video game development studio called Mountains. We are now a team of four, with an office space in The Arcade and an exciting prototype (that isn’t quite ready to show yet).

Kamina, on the second day in the Mountains office! I still use the same cardboard box to raise my monitor.

Tomorrow is the start of Game Connect Asia Pacific, and the conference’s theme – ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – brings me back to my time working at Spicy Horse. The Shanghai based studio was founded by Adam Lang and my friend and mentor American McGee. I was the first employee.

The Spicy Horse logo

Apart from his work at Spicy Horse, American is renowned as the designer of American McGee’s Alice and for his work on the Doom and Quake series at id Software. If you’ve met him, you know about his can-do attitude, his savvy for bringing together people, his ability to improvise, and his sense of adventure (which is very hard to keep up with). But many people don’t know American is a generous, funny, empathetic person to work for and with.

Being employed at Spicy Horse meant getting the afternoon off when the sky was blue (an event to be savoured, in Shanghai!). It meant free English lessons for Chinese team members, and Chinese lessons for expats. It meant hiring people for their potential, not just their accomplishments. I remember American always being patient and willing to move mountains in order to keep the team motivated and appreciated.

Spicy Horse, around 2007.

Years later, I found myself working at a very different studio, digital design agency ustwo, based in London. The studio’s small games team had just seen massive success with Monument Valley, and it made sense for this team to be spun out into its own company. This involved a year of conversations and research into how a company defines itself, from its values to its work practices. As someone who prefers to focus entirely on project work, I made sure everybody knew how frustrating and distracting I found this whole process. However, when the time came for me to start my own company, I suddenly appreciated the value in defining an identity and a philosophy for a creative studio.

ustwo games, early 2016

These experiences, in addition to the advice and support of other studios and community members in the Australian game development scene, greatly inform how I try to run Mountains. We do our best to hire people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. We have an employee handbook, which states that people come first, and are our greatest resource. We have weekly meetings to check in on everyone’s thoughts and well-being. We get our taxes in on time. We lean on others for support, and we try to support others through feedback, signal boosting, and community work.

As we face all the challenges that come with starting a new team — whether it’s completing milestones, managing a budget or resolving creative differences — I’m reminded of all the amazing people over the years who put up with my crap, were patient with me, educated me, put their faith in me. Thank you, you made this venture possible.

Thank you most of all to Kamina, Sam and Tony, for taking this leap with me. I couldn’t have asked for a better team with which to embark on this latest adventure in game development.

Mountains, October 2016
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