Matt Chat 271: Susan Manley of Olde Skuul
Susan Manley is the COO and Executive Producer of Olde Skuul, a studio run almost entirely by women. Their products include the new Battle Chess and Jerry Rice and Nitro's Dog Football games. Susan talks here about these projects before getting into her time with Bard's Tale IV (the doomed successor to Becky's epic Bard's Tale III) and much more.
I particularly liked the part about her days running the games store in San Jose. Astrocades and Intellivoice! And do you remember those Atari kiosks? Wow.
Matt: Hi, folks, I’m here with the great Susan Manley, the COO and Executive Producer of Olde Skuul. Formerly, she was the lead artist and project manager of SSI, a company you’re probably familiar with if you watch this show. She was also the first ever project manager for internally developed projects for a little company named Electronic Arts. How are you today, Susan?
Susan: I am good. I think that I was employee 236, so we weren’t too small then.
Matt: Let’s talk about Olde Skuul. You’re the COO, and the CEO is Rebecca Heineman. How did you and Becky meet?
Susan: We met at a party. I had been talking to R.J. Mical for some time through Facebook, but hadn’t met him in person. He invited me to a party, so I grabbed a friend of mine—Maurine Starkey, who I met at SSI many years ago, and went to the party. I wasn’t having a very good time—there weren’t many entrepreneurs there, just a lot of Sony people. I was a little bit bored, and I was teasing R.J.—“Where are all the girls? There’s just a bunch of these game geeks.”
All of the sudden, Rebecca walked in with one of her friends. I greeted her at the front door, and I must have intimidated her, because the first thing she did was show me a picture of her girlfriend.
But we ended up sitting on the couch and talking nonstop for the next three hours. I’d never met her before, and we had a lot in common, which was really funny. I actually worked on Bard’s Tale IV. I was the project manager—the person who brought in Victor Penman, who killed it. That’s a story on its own. Maurice Starkey and Chuck Sommerville were there, and we were all chatting in the circle.
Matt: We’ll have to come back to this Bard’s Tale story. Last time I talked to Becky, she was telling me about the Battle Chess game. Have there been any updates on how it’s doing?
Susan: Battle Chess has been released on early access on Steam. We’re not quite finished with it yet. We intend to come back to it, but I’m not entirely sure when. The only thing that’s not there in its complete form is the tournament system. So you can play Battle Chess, you can keep your scores, but you can’t tournament.
Matt: Did you have anything to do with the animations or artwork?
Susan: No, that was one of the few games I didn’t do artwork for—that was Jennell Jaquays. Instead, I got to do the test matrix for the game. I haven’t done one of those in a long, long time.
Matt: What about Dog Football?
Susan: We just started that project with Judobaby, and we’re enjoying it quite a bit.
Matt: I wasn’t even aware that dog football was a sport until a couple weeks ago.
Susan: I hadn’t heard about it either—actually, I heard about it right after R.J.’s party, where they met as well. I didn’t know the full story of Dog Football either. Apparently, it was designed by someone I worked with at Electronic Arts: Dave Rolston.
Matt: It’s a small world.
Susan: It’s a really small world. Dave was a huge fan of Madden football, and I was talking to my team the other day—my tester, John Turp. And he said, this plays a lot like Madden. Dave used to play that all the time during their breaks.
Matt: I’d rather play the Dog Football than Madden.
Susan: You know what? I would to. Nothing wrong with Madden, but it’s a known quantity. I want to know what all the unknown stuff is in Dog Football.
Matt: I notice you also brought in your first male employee, Trevor Snowden. How long has been onboard?
Susan: We started talking to him back in March of this year. He approached us, and at the time we were doing Battle Chess—we didn’t have anything else to do then. We liked him. So Rebecca and I started talking about the next set of projects we wanted to do, and where Trevor could fit in. So I called him and had a pep talk with him. He got totally excited and said yes, count me in. He’s been actively doing stuff for us since May.
Matt: It must be interesting being the minority—the only male in a game studio. That might be a first in the industry; I don’t know.
Susan: That’s entirely possible. We did a press release for him and said he was the junior child of our group, with only 21 years of experience.
Matt: Only 21 years! Wow.
Susan: Trevor is a blast. He’s really fun.
Matt: Before anyone kills me, we’d better find out about Bard’s Tale IV. So you were part of the development or design team for that project?
Susan: I was the project manager. But with my art background, I could look heavily at what they were doing. With Bard’s Tale IV, they were trying to take three different game engines and meld them together. So you had, basically, a forward dungeon crawl scrolling hallway engine. Then, Chris Erhardt, who was the producer on this project, wanted it to switch into a sideways viewpoint when you went into combat, so you could fire arrows or fight with a sword. That was an entirely different game engine that needed to load, and would need similar looking artwork. Then there was going to be a topdown strategic view of the map where you were adventuring, so you could scroll up and see where you were. Nobody had really done that yet. There had been some minor work like that—such as the little windowed projects we did at SSI, where you scrolled through a hallway, and it’d load up pictures. But no one had done three different applications.
It was pretty intense from a technical point of view, but what they hadn’t realized…They had an assistant producer doing most of the design. Unfortunately, since he’d never done it before, he didn’t realize he needed transition art between the different viewpoints so that the parts melded—so you wouldn’t be in an ivy covered hallway and suddenly in a stone dungeon.
When I pointed this out—when you add the transitional art, the art budget is doubled. That means a lot more time, more overhead, more loading…It was an intense nightmare. They never did quite figure it out.
By the way, that was the first internally developed project from Electronic Arts that hit one million dollars. That was a lot of money back in those days.
About five or so months into it, we had a high level meeting with management, and I said there’s only one person I know who could sit down and logistically figure it out—to get a product out of it. That was Victor Penman, who I worked with SSI. Victor had product and process managed art and design together at SSI. They called him up, and asked him, and he thanks and hates me for that. It was hard. It was one of the highest end products they had then.
Matt: I wonder what happened to those assets.
Susan: I couldn’t tell you. About seven or eight years ago I threw away several boxes of disks.
Matt: Uh oh!
Susan: I know. I did some art for that game. I did an animated horse—
Matt: It had horseback riding?
Susan: Yes. I didn’t like what they had done, so I went in and fixed their horse character.
Matt: Susan, I guess you’ve been involved with computers since your very earliest childhood. You were telling me about how your dad worked at UNIVAC and Burroughs, and did the guidance systems for missiles.
Susan: My father was a rocket scientist, yes.
Matt: That must have been the source of endless jokes.
Susan: Actually, yes. My earliest memories are coloring the printouts that he used to bring home from work. The giant X’s and O’s images. They brought home the punch cards and we filled them out. This was a big thing to do back in the 60s and 70s. We recycled everything. That’s about all I knew about computers at the time, until one time my father us to UNIVAC and we actually got to walk into the computer room. I remember how big the reels were and how cold it was, because they had the air conditioner way up.
Matt: UNIVAC…How big of a computer was that?
Susan: I don’t know. It was spread all around the perimeter of a 30 by 30 room.
Matt: Wow. Now we have more computing power in an iPhone.
Susan: Yes, apparently.
Matt: Your brother was also into computers, right? He took you to San Jose state to play Hunt the Wumpus and Star Trek. You also mentioned a game called Rats. You have to tell me about that!
Susan: Okay. My brother was an engineering major at San Jose state, but he also had some computing classes. When he was doing his labs at night, he’d get lonely, so he asked me to go along with him. What would I do there? He said he’d put me on a computer to play. My only thoughts of a computer at that time were based on the science fiction I had read. I had no clue what I was in for.
These computers had no monitors. If you did something, you had to print it out. I played Star Trek, the game, which was written by college students, apparently. We were printing out the moves, and the starfield was made up of ASCII characters and the stars were asterisks. The ship was a V. It was bizarre. Everything was going on in your head. Eventually, they got monitors, so we could actually see what was going on.
Rats was a game where you had a multi-story building and slow and fast rat poison. You had to place it out in the building and kill all the rats before they repopulated. It was a bizarre lemonade game. You were preserving and using resources to try to maximize the effort.
Matt: Sounds like it’s well overdue for a Kickstarter reboot. Now people talk about frames per second; I guess back then it was lines per minute.
Susan: Right. And how many decision points you’d have, and what kind of decision points you could make. Yes, no, and what else.
Matt: Was this the point where you knew you wanted a career in games?
Susan: Actually, I got into that more when I found out about other people who played other types of games. When I was 19, I got into AD&D, 2nd edition. I was dating the guy who was the dungeon master, and he dragged me to the game. I’d never been to a game like that. They played in a garage.
Since I was the first female to attend their game, they all wore costumes and had dry ice. They made a big impression. I stayed and played for the next year and a half. It was a lot of fun.
Matt: What was your character?
Susan: I had two, just in case one got killed. I had a lawful good dwarven fighter, and a half-elf bard.
Matt: Female characters?
Susan: Yes, both female. The dwarf and I ended up adventuring almost two years. Her named was Berdimere.
Matt: So is this what led you to games for a living?
Susan: No. I wanted to be an artist for LucasFilm. I wanted to do the computer graphics for the movies. That was when Star Wars was really popular, and they were doing the high end stuff.
However, I got sucked into managing a computer games store in San Jose, California. Some friends of mine had bought the Commodore Computer Center directly from Commodore. There was one in San Jose and another in Santa Clara. They wanted to open a store that was purely just games. They invited me to be the manager of it.
I hadn’t used a home computer much. I’d used a computer at a zoo where I worked to do the books, but I’d never used them much. Except for playing Wizard and Princess when I was 19. That’s a Sierra On-Line game.
Matt: The one with all the rocks. And the snake.
Susan: Yeah. I called them “guess the word” games. You were always trying to figure out the operative word that would make it do something. You had to have good spelling.
But the games store is what got me into the games world. I was interacting with all these folks who made games, but also looking very critically at the games to see what was able to be done. We had all the different systems there; we had the ones that could do voice commands—there was the B-51 Bomber Intellivision game. We also supported some less common systems, like the Astrocade and the Odyssey. All of these different machines played completely different styles of product. It was interesting.
We also had the small computers at the time, like the VIC-20, the C64, the Atari 400 and 800, and later the 1200.
Matt: Did you have a favorite?
Susan: I liked the C64, quite a bit. The reason I liked it was it was instant boot up, easy to understand—I could actually program it.
Matt: You probably recognize this? (I show my T-shirt with the C64 loading command on it).
Susan: (Laughs). I used to have my pokes memorized. I would impress the engineers at EA—I’d say, “No, that’s poke blah blah.” They’d go, “Oh, my God!” I should have worn my old T-shirt from GDC that says “Hex and Bugs and Rock’n Roll.”
Matt: The store was named Video Adventure, right?
Susan: Yes. I unfortunately did not name it. I wasn’t there. But we got lots of calls from people looking to rent movies. Video stores back then were really popular.
But we were one of the first computer game stores, and we right there in west San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley.
Matt: I envy you. That must have been incredible. You were at the hub of the C64 phenomenon. What kind of people came into the store? You mentioned some Atari executives had come by?
Susan: One of their vice presidents. I don’t remember his name. But he came in and asked me some questions about what was selling and why. He brought in about 12 engineers one night, and I sat down for about an hour and answered all kinds of questions about what consumers were looking for, what they asked about, how long things stayed popular, what drew people in.
Matt: What’d you tell them?
Susan: The consumers didn’t find out about the product from magazines. It was whatever was on the kiosk at the store. Quite frankly, the things that ended up on the kiosks had really great demonstration modes that drew people in. They had really interesting gameplay video, story video, and back and forth. The demonstration mode was really important—we saw the same thing in the coin-op world. People were more likely to drop their quarters into a game that was self-explanatory. Not everybody read the game mags.
The average guy who wanted to spend a few hundred bucks for a machine for his kids hadn’t read the magazines; he came in and asked us.
I had a bunch of adults who’d come in and buy games, and then hide them from their kids for a few weeks so they could get really good at them and beat them badly.
Matt: I’m sure nobody does that anymore.
Matt: So these Atari machines didn’t have good demos?
Susan: Some of them did. Of course, if it was cartridge-based, you could only have so much of your game space allotted to those things. So they had to write routines that would let the game auto-run as the attractor rather than a separate program. So it was an engineering feet. They did a lot of very interesting things.
Matt: You said you dated Jay Stevens of HES. What’s that?
Susan: Human Engineered Software. They were an early C64 and VIC-20 company. They were started by Jay Balakrishnan. They were around for, gosh, about 8 or 10 years. I forgot who bought them.
Matt: What kind of stuff was it?
Susan: They had a lot of arcade products, some of the early C64 stuff that was on tape.
At the time, Commodore had adopted William Shatner as their spokesperson. HES had Leonard Nimoy. So I got to meet him at CES the next year. One of my friends actually taught him how to use a computer.