Brendon Chung knows a lot about failure. The Californian game designer of one-man indie studio Blendo Games has whole hard drives full of his screw-ups. “Honestly, I fail like 90 per cent of the time,” he confesses. “My hard drive has all these aborted foetuses of games that are just bad, broken and not even close to looking done. The other ten per cent of the time you hit something that’s pretty ugly and terrible, but you see some potential there and you file it away, hopefully to bring it back and use it in some fashion in a later project. Overall, though, it’s very discouraging.”
You might expect him to sound glum about it, but Chung’s soft West Coast drawl doesn’t betray the slightest hint of disappointment. Quite the opposite – he sounds like a guy who’s living his dream. His space strategy game Flotilla, Blendo’s first paid-for release, emerged from failure to find success. Chung’s learnt, as Samuel Beckett once advised, to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Although it’s a small outing, Flotilla is a majestic 3D space opera full of quirky characters, surreal decision trees and cautious spaceship-tospaceship skirmishes. It was also the game that embodied Chung’s full-circle journey from a teenage modder to a job at a major publisher and back to working solo. And it was all from a prototype he’d almost given up on.
When he was a kid growing up in San Gabriel, Chung loved firstperson shooters. Not just because he enjoyed blasting monsters, aliens and demons – although that was undeniably part of it – but because he could mod them. “During mornings before school I’d make my own little maps for Doom or Quake, then at college I taught myself basic programming.”
Despite his family’s scepticism (“They thought it was just playing with games. It’s hard to understand when all you’re seeing is a guy running around a room shooting monsters with a gun”), he knew he was honing skills that would lead to a career. When he got his first professional job straight out of college as a level designer at Pandemic Studios in 2004, he felt vindicated. Even after he’d ostensibly made it, however, it was hard to stop being a bedroom coder. In his spare time he continued working on freemium games and personal projects. Slowly, the hard drive filled up with more ill-fated foetuses.
Space Piñata, Chung’s 2D prototype, had many similarities to Flotilla. Sadly, its mines didn’t translate into the finished 3D game.
Among them was Space Piñata, a turn-based 2D game featuring battleships fighting each other in space. “It was extremely similar to what Flotilla ended up becoming,” he says of the early prototype. “You ordered where you want these giant battleships to move, you pressed the button and your opponent did the same thing. It was simultaneous turn-based; you saw whose missiles hit who and what ships exploded. It was fun but it was just something I’d done in my spare time after hours working at Pandemic. I didn’t do anything with it because I had a full-time job.”
That all changed in November 2009 when the EA-owned Pandemic closed its doors. Around 200 staff were laid off a week before Thanksgiving, and Chung was among them. While some vented their frustrations by taking baseball bats and crowbars to a company printer (and posting their rage on YouTube), the designer felt no anger, just excitement. “There was adrenaline pumping through my veins,” he says, remembering his final walk across the company car park, carrying his box of possessions. “That afternoon, I started coding Flotilla.”
Four giant battleships dance around each other in the depths of space. They bank, turn and pitch in a languid, carefully choreographed ballet. Missiles streak across the vast emptiness, flaring as they glance off the armoured sides of these lumbering leviathans. It’s a majestic and surprisingly melancholic take on space combat.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Flotilla’s slow-burning battles and Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a shuttle approaches a rotating space station high above the Earth. Kubrick scored it with the shimmering violins and piping French horns of The Blue Danube, and Strauss’s seductive composition became an ironic commentary on the loveless space waltz of these cold machines.
In Flotilla, Chung pulls off a similar synthesis of action and music, the piano melodies of Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude giving the battles an emotional undercurrent. “I wanted Flotilla to be the anti-testosterone-fuelled, action-packed action game. I wanted it to be fairly sombre. You’re travelling by yourself across space, everything’s desolate, and the universe is a pretty hostile place full of pirates and crazy people. The music was supposed to give it a tragic feel.”