Interview with GORE / Future Crew
In the context of our special focus on Scene Professionals, I've conducted a phone interview with Samuli Syvahuoko, also known as GORE of the Future Crew. In his early scene days, Samuli acted as a graphician and organizer of his group, various bustrips and the Assembly party. Now, at the age of 28, he is founder and chairman of Fathammer Ltd. Fathammer is a Finnish 3D mobile game technology company; TIME Magazine has ranked it as one of the 10 most promising European IT start-ups.
GORE started dealing with computers in the late 80s. Before that, he played C64 games, but he does not regard this as serious activity. When his mother bought a PC for work, he started calling BBSes. Soon he found some of the earliest PC demos ever made, which are yet older than Ultraforce's Vectordemo. But what impressed him most was a text-mode intro by Future Crew (FC) called Yo!. His instant reaction was: "No way! This is impossible! This cpu doesn't have this power!"
Back then, the Amiga was still dominating the demoscene. A friend of GORE's who had an Amiga showed him a couple of demos, with the comment: "These are real demos, PC demos suck." However, GORE was determined that in a few years, this would change. And, as you know, it did - the PC took over.
Yet before the release of the demo Unreal, GORE was a Future Crew fan and called their BBS, where he left this message: "I love your little demos. May I become a FC member?" In these early days, the Future Crew consisted only of two people, the coder PSI and the musician Purple Motion. They were desparately looking for a graphician, so GORE decided to take this role. He thinks that he was a good graphician who knew how to handle the technical limitations of these days, but with time he increasingly became an organizer and recruiter: It was him who managed to get Skaven, Trug, Pixel, Wildfire and Marvel into the group.
First contacts with the Game Industry
In 1992, after the release of Unreal, Future Crew made their first contacts with the game industry. A manager of Epic Megagames (nowadays called Epic Games) approached the group and said, "You're talented, you'd be good game developers." However, as many sceners in these days Future Crew had an anti-commercial attitude and rejected the offer to work for money.
Nevertheless they produced some games for fun, among them a pinball game and a side-scrolling shoot'em'up. When the vice president of marketing from Epic visited Finland, he saw the games and was so fascinated that he asked Future Crew to sell him their games. Once again, the sceners were reluctant, but they allowed Epic to use the concept of their pinball game. Thus, Epic Pinball was created. It was pretty much the same as Future Crew's original game, but it had different code. (But then again, the Future Crew pinball game was somewhat based on Pinball Dreams by the Swedish game developer Digital Illusions).
Epic also managed to hire Pixel. Pixel went to the USA, where worked on the graphics for Epic Pinball. The "very nice payment" finally encouraged the remaining FC members to work for money.
Future Crew created three commercial demos. One was made for Creative Labs. It was an advertisement for their 3D mouse. This piece of hardware was a failure, but at least FC earned some bucks for their demo. The other commercial demo were a slideshow for SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.) and one for The Waite Group Press. Later on, this publishing company distributed two books about demos. The first one was called Walk-Throughs and Fly-Bys; it contained reviews of the demos of the year 1993. Its author was Phil Shatz, an American who was following the scene very closely in those days.
From Hobby to Business
In 1992, GORE entered a "basic business school". At the same time he came to the conclusion that he was too slow a gfx-artist and that his strong point was organizing. Thereupon he founded Assembly. From 1992 to 1994, he also organized the bustrips to The Party. He liked these management activities so much that he finally dropped making gfx.
Three years later, he graduated from business school. Now he had to make a decision what to do next. Should he enter university or start working? As he was not too fond of "studying, reading books and all of this", he decided for the latter. It was time to found a company.
This company was to make use of his friends' skills and talents as much as possible. As demo-making was most similar to game development, he decided to enter the game industry. This was the day when Remedy Entertainment was born.
Remedy, the Games Company
The founding members of Remedy were GORE and 4 other guys, which he had carefully selected from a total of 50 candidates. All of them were demosceners.
Their first project was a car-racing game called Death Rally. It proved to be a success, so Remedy continued coding. In total, 120,000 copies were sold. Death Rally was distributed both in retail and as shareware. Not too many people registered the shareware, though. That is one of the reasons why nowadays games are only distributed by retail. (Another is that due to movies and other fancy multimedia, games have become far too big to be distributed as shareware.)
Death Rally had been produced together with Apogee Software. This company is nowadays known as 3D Realms. They are the creators of Duke Nukem 3D, a very successful 3D shooter of which 2 million copies were sold.
Remedy's next project was first called Dark Justice. In 1998, it got its final name: Max Payne. The work on the 3D shooter was started in 1996. It took almost 5 years to finish the game! The reason was that they first had to develop the game engine (called MAX-FX). GORE comments: "You know, demosceners are arrogant people. They want to do everything themselves because they know they can do it. Using someone else's code is like admitting that he's better than you." Since developing a complex game engine that has to be compatible with all PCs is a completely different thing than coding a demo, it took longer than expected.
Remedy continued to co-operate with 3D Realms: The latter company paid them about 3 million US dollars of advances (against future game sales royalties) for the development of Max Payne. This money was used for employee salaries, office rent and other normal company running costs in order to keep the company going. GORE had to re-negotiate the financial agreement with 3D Realms many times, since the original plan had been to release the game in x-mas 1998 (with a significantly lower development budget).
Finally Max Payne was finished in summer 2001 and proved to be a huge success: 700,000 copies of the PC version were sold, which made it the best-selling game in summer. Releases for Playstation 2 and the X-Box are planned, too, "so hopefully some million more copies will be sold", expects GORE. Although it is not official news yet, he has also hinted that a sequel might be released one day.
In 1997, Remedy also got a well-known subsiduary. It was first called Futuremark. Two years later, it was renamed to MadOnion.com. MadOnion are the producers of the benchmark program 3D Mark, which is based on Remedy's MAX-FX game engine.
In the year 1999, Remedy's managing director Samuli Syvahuoko a.k.a. GORE had the impression that the company was running well. He himself just had to look after the connections with 3D Realms, his employees' salaries and did some of the PR, although most of it was taken care of by 3D Realms. Thus his role started becoming "smaller", as he expresses it nowadays. In the early days, in addition to working with Apogee, Remedy had five on-going game projects and was co-operating with game publishers Psygnosis and Virgin Interactive Entertainment. But these projects were sacrificed in order to focus all of the company's strengths and resources to the "one project at once" strategy. "This was a smart move but it also meant that there was no need to do any new business development as there was only one client (3D Realms) and one project (Max Payne). The role of the managing director got much smaller", constated GORE. "All business that had to be done had been done."
GORE was not involved in the actual project. Its management was done by another person. With time, a conflict between GORE and the project leader arose. They had different views of the future of the company and were struggling for the leading role.
After one year of fighting, GORE was drafted to the army. In Finland, the military service is compulsory for all grown-up males. GORE had postponed the service as much as possible, but at the age of 26 he no longer could do so. The only alternative would have been prison.
So in January 2000, the managing director left his company for half a year. Before that, he hired a right-hand man for taking care of the daily tasks so that after his return he would be able to focus on the future of his company and specifically to think how to license their MAX-FX game engine to other game companies.
However, the project leader took advantage of GORE's absence. According to the motto "Either he leaves or I leave", he implored the other share-holders of the company until they joined forces with him. When GORE returned, they asked him to quit.
GORE was shocked. After all, Remedy was his company, and he had chosen 90% of the employees himself. "I was really hurt. It was the biggest shock of my whole life so far", he states nowadays. Nevertheless he still tries to help Remedy due to his large ownership in the company.
"If I have to leave, pay me money to do something else in my life", were GORE's last words before he left from his position as the managing director. Two weeks later, GORE visited Assembly 2000. There he met lots of old friends. He told them his story. They reacted with astonishment and anger: "What the fuck?! You ARE Remedy!"
Finally GORE decided to found a new company, consisting only of demosceners with a lot of experience in their respective areas of work. A lot of people immediately displayed interest to join him.
After some weeks, he finally had the idea for Fathammer, "the current company".
Fathammer: The Idea
"I asked myself: What is the demoscene all about? The answer: It's about blazing fast code, made for devices with a limited amount of processing power and memory", explains GORE. In these days a new generation of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) was announced, which would be far more powerful than previous ones. GORE was sure that they would be a huge success and a platform which the skills of the demo- scene would certainly suit well. It would be like a return to the "golden demoscene days", the years before 1995, when optimizing mattered, as there was no 3D hardware. The objective of Fathammer would be the development of a cross-platform 3D game engine for all sorts of mobile devices, such as PDAs, Game Boy Advance (GBA) and Smartphones. GORE founded the company in October 2000 and found a lot of scene people who were ready to join the company - provided that he would first find funding.
It was clear that the company would not make much money in the short-term future, as mobile devices first had to become established in the market. So he had to find a venture capital investor. GORE visited several Finnish investors, told them about the goals of the company, the people that would be involved and what profit he expected. Their reaction was overwhelming: "Please choose us!" GORE quotes them.
Back then, the .com bubble had just burst. That's why technology investors were looking for new, promising concepts, like Fathammer's. "We were not going to do Internet bullshit", explains GORE. "Our idea was to bring 3D games known from consoles to mobile devices."
Then the largest technology investor in Europe, 3i Group, displayed interest in Fathammer. They immediately offered to invest more than anyone else, exactly 1.5 million US dollars. GORE gladly accepted the offer, and Fathammer started full-blown operations. This was on February 1st 2001.
At first 20 "handpicked" people were hired. "All of them are very talented, and they were easy to find due to my demoscene contacts", says GORE. Among them there are members of the demo groups Aggression (Atari ST), Trauma, Electromotive Force, Fascination and Future Crew, of course.
A third of the current staff doesn't have a scene background. Some of them previously worked at Nokia for many years.
Currently 26 people work for Fathammer. Two of them belong to the US subsidiary. Fathammer's Chief Executive Officer is also American. His name is Brian Bruning. Before he joined Fathammer, he had been with 3dfx for 5 years. There he took care of international developer relations. For example, one of his tasks was to decide who was given prototype hardware. In this way he gained very good contacts to 800 companies in the game industry.
Another very experienced Fathammer employee is RJ Mical. He is one of the 6 engineers who constructed the Amiga. In addition, he co-invented the Atari Lynx and the 3DO game consoles. In short, he is a game industry veteran. His position in Fathammer is the chief architect.
Future Plans for business ...
After one year of Fathammer's existence, GORE draws a positive conclusion. The company is running well, it has been mentioned a lot in the press, TIME Magazine has ranked it as one of the 10 most promising IT start-up companies in Europe, and work is in progress. Fathammer's X-Forge game engine is optimized for all major mobile processor technologies (including Texas Instruments' OMAP and Intel's XScale and StrongARM) and mobile operating systems (including Symbian OS, Pocket PC, mobile Linux and Palm). Essentially, the engine works on PDAs, Smartphones and handheld game consoles (currently only Game Boy Advance).
When I asked GORE what types of Smartphones would be supported, he mentioned the Nokia 7650 as an example. "It is currently the most interesting phone that has been publicly announced. It has a colour screen with a resolution of 176x208 pixels, at least 4 MB RAM, you can download apps and store them, there's a built-in camera, GPRS, a fast CPU, a nice GUI and a 4-way joystick. Although not directly comparable, the 7650 has about the same amount of processing power as a 486 PC."
Spontaneously I suggested porting Second Reality to this phone. GORE told me that there's already a limited version of Second Reality for GBA. He calls it an "internal joke". It is not planned to use it for marketing purposes. "Future Crew is not Fathammer. We will not take advantage of FC. Bitboys (another Finnish game industry related company composed of sceners, among them former Future Crew members) don't use FC stuff either", GORE explains.
GORE does not expect that the Fathammer staff will grow much more this year: "Only after the current financing round is completed will we hire more people", he explains. The plan is that in 2003, there will be enough business revenue to sustain and grow the company.
In fact it seems to be very hard to keep an IT company running only with the revenue it earns. GORE mentions that, for example, MadOnion is generating quite a lot of revenue, but it will still take a little more time until the company is cash-flow positive.
... and the Scene
GORE is still "very interested" in the scene. For example, he organized the game development seminar at Assembly 2001. Four speakers, Tim Sweeney from Epic Games and people from nVidia, Bitboys and Fathammer, talked about the future of mobile gaming and 3D acceleration. The seminar took place in a separate hall at the party. Next year GORE is going to organize such an event again.
His personal life has "changed quite a bit" since GORE became a professional. Back in the days when he was extremely active in the demo scene, he did not know the concept of sleeping. Even when he was already attending business school, he was most interested in the scene. When he was at home, he spent all day and night with his computer. As nobody can survive without sleeping, he would take a pillow to school, go to a toilet and sleep there. Then he would attend classes, and when he would get back home, he would get immersed in the world of the demoscene again.
He did "quite a bit of stuff" in the scene and got to know a lot of people. "My lifestyle back in the early 90s was quite horrible, but at the same time it was smart as I got a lot of contacts with talented guys", GORE says today.
He still regards himself as a workaholic, but nowadays he also spends a few hours per day for non-work-related stuff. "This is more reasonable, otherwise I'd soon be burning the candle from both ends", he comments, laughing.
In his early demoscene days, GORE did not have to care about money, as he was living at his parents' home. When he founded Remedy, one of his dreams was that the company would become a "mega success". But he admits he has not grown too rich yet.
Remedy is self-funded; it is owned by its people. By contrast, Fathammer is a start-up company based on the investors' venture capital. It is just being built up. Nobody knows yet how exactly it will develop. GORE wishes: "Hopefully it will be a success." After all, it's also in the investors' interest, as they need to see an opportunity to sell the company for more money than they invested in it, thus making a decent amount of profit. So far, GORE has earned hardly any money, but he sees a big potential.
I asked GORE how he could afford phoning me from Finland if he lacks money. He answered that the company pays the phone call, as the interview can be regarded as a part of their PR activities. GORE personally values demoscene diskmags. His whole company is scene-based, and he still feels very close to the scene. Before Assembly 2001, he gave his employees many days to work on their scene productions at the company's office.
"My roots are very deep in the demoscene", says GORE. He is also trying to promote the scene at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). At the last GDC he met Vincent Scheib of the Demoscene Outreach Group (DOG). DOG was making a presentation of the demoscene and showed a couple of demos. "I was crying of joy when I saw Second Reality being presented at GDC", GORE confesses. Meanwhile DOG have even promoted the scene at SIGGRAPH, which GORE considers "very nice". He is now co-operating with Vincent Scheib in order to increase the public's awareness of the scene.
Actually demos are more known among game industry professionals than GORE expected. He told me that once at a business meeting he mentioned that he had been involved in the demoscene. Suddenly one of the people from the other company (a VP at Sony) present burst out: "Really? What group?" GORE answered: "Future Crew, but you probably don't know it." The person's reaction was: "Future Crew, oh really? Wow!" Of course he knew it.
GORE plans a bigger presentation of the scene for next year's GDC, provided he will have time. But Fathammer comes first.
He (among many other people) also has had the idea of awarding "Oscars" for the best demos, intros, graphics and music at GDC. There would be very nice prizes and a gala event. 3-4 entries would be nominated per category and the nominees would be flown in from whereever they live. There would be a lot of press, and of course a lot of sponsors would be needed (preferably big ones such as Intel). However, he has come to the conclusion that the GDC would be the wrong place because it takes place in the USA, which is far away from the center of the scene. He prefers that the event should happen in Europe and, if possible, in the context of a demoparty.
GORE thinks that it would be a big hassle to do it, and he currently has no time for it. But he feels that the scene needs such an event to put the best of the whole scene under one roof once a year. All demo parties would have the opportunity to promote the "Demo Scene Oscars" event and to automatically send their winning entries to the jury of the Oscars event.
Apart from the gala, there would be a chill-out area for having fun. The demos would be shown in a big movie theatre, and the whole audience would have the opportunity to vote. It ought to happen "in the demoscene spirit".
This has been his dream for 2 years. In fact he first contemplated doing this instead of Fathammer. He discarded the idea because it would probably not enable him to earn enough money to live. "But you need to have some dreams where it's not about making money", GORE concludes.
When asked for a final statement, GORE replied:
"The demoscene is important!"
(In Finnish: "Skene on tarkea!").
Adok/Hugi - 13 Dec 2001