Game Theory: A Q&A with Matt Toschlog

Matt Toschlog is a bit of an auteur in the computer gaming industry. He's the guy who helped create the wildly successful '90s video game Descent. An early first-person shooter, its graphics and 3D game play were widely praised as revolutionary, inspiring two sequels, a Best Game Of The Year Award, several expansion packs, a trio of novels and even, at one point, plans to develop a television series.

In some ways Toschlog was a poster child for the self-educated computer game whiz who made good. "I started programming computers in high school and ended up doing that more than high school and pretty much flunked out," says the Ann Arborite. "Luckily, I got a job doing flight simulation video games in Champaign-Urbana when I was 19."

A native of Delaware, he learned about the job via the Plato Network System. "It was the Internet before the Internet," he explains.

For a couple of years Toschlog worked on various game projects before he got an idea for his own game. Unable to convince his colleagues to back it, he decided to split off and form Parallax Software in 1995 with partner Mike Kulas. Good move for him, missed opportunity for Looking Glass Technologies. The game sold like gangbusters and cemented Toschlog's place in the computer game history books.

Eventually, he followed his wife to Ann Arbor (she was attending grad school), where he went on to found Outrage Entertainment. The company, which was located in downtown Ann Arbor, was acquired by THQ in 2002, worked on games like Alter Echo and Red Faction, then shut down in 2003.

Toschlog spent a few years with his family, then little-by-little started working with Quantum Signal, a company founded by Mitch Rohde, who was interested in bringing game technology to the biometric and simulation work he was doing for the defense industry.

"In the past this [simulation] was very math-based and scientific and tended to look like crap," Toschlog explains. "The upper management in many companies didn't like the idea of funding "games" and would often pull the plug on simulation programs."

With the successes and advances in game technology, however, this attitude eventually changed. "Now people really get it. Back when things were more primitive it wasn't as obvious. You see something on the Xbox and say, 'wow that really looks good.' And you look at what the sim guys are doing and it looks really clunky."

Quantum Signal, which recently bought Saline's Union School for its headquarters, created the Reactor Zero division, which Toschlog heads. With a focus on game and simulation technology, his department currently employs 17 people and is trying to find the right balance between defense industry simulation work and game contracts.

Matt sat down with Jeff Meyers to talk about the state of the computer game industry in Michigan, choosing Ann Arbor as a home, the state's film incentive, and the impact of having dreadlocks. The interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Reactor Zero is relatively small for a computer gaming company. Is there room for boutique companies to survive in an industry that's dominated by giant players like Valve and UbiSoft?

That's changed since I started in the industry. Twenty years ago there were a lot of small companies doing cool stuff. Now, the games have gotten bigger and publishers are not so likely to risk $20 million or $50 million on an external developer, so a lot of stuff has been brought in-house.

One of the challenges we're having now is finding just the right niche. There are smaller game developers on Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network with downloadable titles. Those are games that can be done for $1 million with 10 people in a year, which is fun. It's definitely more fun than the three-year slog with 150 people and $100 million budget. So, we're looking at what's the right scope of games for us.

Have you considered jumping on the app bandwagon?

It's too saturated and, honestly, it's not easy to make money in that market. You can get lucky. If you can create Angry Birds, then you're very happy. But it's a real crap shoot. There's a lot of games out there that sell at 99 cents and they're not making any money.

There are only a handful of local game companies - Stardock, Image Space, Scientifically Proven. It seems like it'd be tough to attract young game talent given Michigan's small footprint in the industry.

It is. On the other hand it means there's not a lot of people jumping around. If you're in Seattle or San Francisco people are always jumping from one company to another. We have more stability. People here tend to be from Michigan, they have family connections. I like that. It's good for our long term stability and it's a healthy way of life.

You've said you're pretty picky when it comes to hiring. How do you get the talent you need?

For experienced people it's very hard to get people to come to Michigan. But take the guy who was doing simulation in the other room. He came here from EA (Electronic Arts) in Florida. The typical scenario of hiring someone like him is that they're from Michigan and have a family here and want to come back, buy a house, and settle in.

When we were doing Descent 3, it was a big enough profile of a project that we could hire people based on that. Our military projects don't have the high-profile draw but technically it's pretty cutting edge stuff and I think it's satisfying to work on. You just don't get the box in the store that you can show your friends. So, yeah, moving back to Michigan and affordability are part of our hiring strategy.

Are there things Ann Arbor could be doing to attract more of the talent your industry needs?

I think Ann Arbor, in terms of culture, is a pretty good place already. It's not San Francisco or Austin but for Michigan it's certainly the place to be. We get a decent number of people out of U-M and maybe even more out of Michigan State ...and some good artists from CCS in Detroit. I think more game companies would certainly help, just to get us on the map. That's why I'm happy to see Scientifically Proven and Pixofactor starting up, because it starts to create a culture.

For younger people I think Ypsi's probably the more hip place to be with regard to nightlife and arts culture.

You could probably find more opportunities for your ideas on either coast, or in a major gaming city like Austin. Why stay in Ann Arbor? What makes this the perfect place for you?

I think there's probably some advantage to being on the coasts, but what makes Ann Arbor work for me is that it's a good place to live and good place to raise my kids. It's big enough to be interesting but not so big.

With Michigan's mantra about plugging into the new economy, the state hasn't really attracted very many game companies. It's a $9 billion-a-year industry. What could we be doing to get a better foothold?

There are tax incentives. Canada's especially good at this and they've built up quite the industry in Montreal. It's a direct credit on salaries. I think the province of Quebec pays like 30% of salaries in the gaming industry and it's really grown things there. UbiSoft is there. THQ is building a studio there. EA's got a studio there. So, there are things like that that help.

Of course, Montreal's a cool city. It'd be harder to drag those same people to Detroit. Even with the cheap housing. ...Actually, if I didn't have kids I'd probably move to Detroit. It'd be pretty exciting, right? I mean, you'd be on the ground floor.

Do Michigan's universities get the economic and cultural importance of the video game industry?

They're doing okay. Michigan State has a game program and they sponsor a conference called Meaningful Play, which is focused on the serious side of games. U-M teaches a game development class, which is something. It'd probably help to have more. I think MSU tends to bring out more people.

It seems to me like the universities are a bit slow to adapt here. The film industry is comparable in size and U-M has an entire department dedicated to its study and practice.

And gaming is getting there. The film industry has been around for 100 years and games for only 30 or 40. But we're seeing a lot more game development programs coming out. There are actually a few specific trade schools for game development.

In Michigan?

No, not in Michigan. But CCS has many game classes. And the people who come out of there are pretty thoroughly prepared to work in the game industry. We don't really have anything like that in game programming, however.

Game design is such a new field that no one's quite sure how to actually teach it. The programs for that are still being figured out. It'll be a few years.

Your company applied for a tax credit with the Michigan Film Incentive program, which was supposed to also include video game companies. You were turned down. What happened?

When you have Drew Barrymore hanging around in town that's just a lot more glamorous than anything we do. But a big part of it was that the people who run the Film Office understand film, not gaming. If you look at the application it's all about using film technology and film structure. The typical structure is that someone who wants to make a film creates a production company that's just producing that film and then they get funding. That's the model the film office understands.

That's not our model. We're here for the long term. So, when we applied for the film incentive they turned us down because they said it shouldn't have been us applying, it should have been the company who hired us since they're the funders and own the IP (intellectual property). And even though that's not in the actual law it's the typical film model.

Did they understand their own incentive? It seems like they set it up to incentivize two industries but only knew how to accommodate--

--One. Yeah. And part of the problem is that there's a Film Office that you apply to but the deal you strike is with the [Michigan Dept. of] Treasury. So even though we had film incentive guys that were very supportive of what we were doing they had to take it to Treasury. And they understand even less than the film office guys.

So, do you think the incentives are a good idea?

I think so. It hasn't been that successful for us and even with the people we've pitched to we've found that it hasn't been the sole deciding factor. We did get contacted this year by Electronic Arts when they were looking for someone to do a project here because of the incentive. Unfortunately, it was right when Governor Snyder started talking about cutting the incentive so that didn't go anywhere when it might have otherwise.

It looked to me like there was a lot of indirect economic benefit but if you looked at it as direct tax dollars back to the state it wasn't a win. But I think there's a lot of ancillary stuff that might have come from it.

What was the last great game you played?

Left 4 Dead maybe? I don't get to play as much as I'd like. I always feel like I should be playing more. There probably aren't a lot of people who feel that for their job they should be playing more video games but that's how I always feel.

Does your success with Descent define your place in the industry?

Yeah, pretty much. People still define me as the Descent guy. Between Descent and the hair, people know me.

So, let's talk about your hair. What's an advantage to having dreadlocks that most people don't realize?

If I go into a place and then return several months later people remember me. It makes things easier that way. In the game industry, when I'm at game conferences, people know me. And even just around town. My wife once introduced me to someone who later told her, "I didn't know you were married to dreadlock man."

I started the dreads in 1990. There was pressure from mom to get it cut but eventually she got used to it. I keep trying to talk my kids into dreadlocks but they refuse. ...When the 20-year mark rolled around last fall I thought it would be a good time. But I don't know. It was a really big investment.

How do your military clients view your dreadlocks?

They don't seem to care. I think part of it is, "Oh, he's the gaming guy." So I guess I fit the part. I always tell people I don't have a personality, I just have the hair.

Jeff Meyers is the managing editor for Concentrate and Metromode. He is also an award-winning film critic for Detroit's Metro Times.

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All photos by Doug Coombe


Matt Toschlog at the Reactor Zero/Quantum Signal headquarters in the former Saline Union School.