“They call me the creative director, but most of the time I just surf the internet and watch Kevin Butler videos.” Eitan Glinert is a lively character with a quick tongue and a big smile, and the self-proclaimed “Fire Chief” of Cambridge-based developer Fire Hose Games. As we speak, Glinert’s team is days from releasing its first game, the PlayStation Network exclusive building-and-brawling party game Slam Bolt Scrappers, available now on the PlayStation Store as part of the annual Spring Fever celebration. The excitement level is high – three celebratory stuffed pizzas are on the way.
In speaking with Glinert, we quickly learn that Slam Bolt Scrappers’ chaotic building-and-brawling gameplay didn’t develop in a vacuum. And, for that matter, neither did Glinert. He was the first graduate student of MIT’s GAMBIT Game Lab, where he researched video game user interfaces and ways to make games as accessible to as many people as possible. “When I first started, it was kind of ghetto,” he recalls. “We were in the back of this lab called the Education Arcade, we didn’t even have our own space. We occupied this back lab table and we wouldn’t leave! We were working on a game back there, at all hours, but the staff was nice about it. Eventually we got our own lab.”
A lab wasn’t all he got — MIT supported and encouraged Glinert’s passion for game design. “MIT has this awesome attitude where they say, ‘What’s your stupid idea? Let’s help you do that!’” Glinert’s stupid idea, it turned out, wasn’t so stupid after all. “I started talking to MIT about starting a game studio. Instead of laughing me out of the room, they said, ‘okay, let’s see how we can make that happen.’”
Founding Fire Hose Games became a quest that would take Glinert, his dream, and a small but growing team from a cramped HQ festooned with acid-waste-pipes — a room that, in an astonishing coincidence, sheltered the original creators of Ms. Pac Man some 25 years earlier — to a cozy but charming office in downtown Cambridge. By this point, Glinert’s team had begun work on what would eventually become Slam Bolt Scrappers. It was a development cycle that would include a full year of gameplay prototyping and six radically different game prototypes — almost unheard of for a tiny startup game studio with next to no funding.
“Most of our early worries came from the endless prototyping, money issues, and a real concern about ballooning scope,” Glinert remembers. In one early prototype of Slam Bolt Scrappers, the plan was to create a different building mechanic for every single level in the game — a monumental task. “We had a level where you patched up a dam; in another level you built a spiderweb bridge from chains so that this crazy centipede train could cross it.” One level configuration, however, stuck; it proved to be a hit at the office even during off-hours. Fire Hose Games had found their core mechanic, and hastily finished it in the weeks leading up to PAX East 2010, where they revealed it to a crowded video game community. Their persistence had paid off: The press paid attention, with several sites naming Slam Bolt Scrappers as one of the best games of the show.
Meanwhile, Glinert’s MIT graduate research into video game UI design actually proved useful for the rapidly gelling Slam Bolt Scrappers, which Glinert says was designed with accessibility as a core goal. Case in point: the Beverage Mode. “You can play the game with just one hand, and use the other hand for multi-tasking — say, drinking a beverage or eating a sandwich,” Glinert says with a wide grin. “It also lets you dual-wield characters if you’re really hardcore.”
Sid Shuman, PSB: Your first game design experience was with a free educational game called Immune Attack for the Federation of American Scientists. How did you land that job?
Eitan Glinert: At the time, I was in the bio-tech industry but I was looking for a new job. I was contacted for an interview, and I didn’t even know what the interview was for, I was going in blind. In the interview, the interviewer asks me, “listen, do you play any video games?” I think this is a trick question — obviously, she’s trying to figure out if I’m going to waste time on the job. So I say, “No, I hate video games.” Her face goes from a smile to a frown and she says, “oh, because we want somebody who plays video games a lot. You need to know them to make them.”
I could not backpedal fast enough! At the time, I was playing Final Fantasy X again. I ended up getting the job in the end, but probably because I backpedaled like a maniac.
The goal of the game, Immune Attack, was to educate students about the functions of the human immune system. The job was a ton of fun, but what’s really interesting about it is who was on the team. I was working in Washington, D.C. with the Federation of American Scientists, and we were working remotely with the University of Southern California — including a couple of students who were brand new, one of whom was Jenova Chen. He went on to help create flOw and Flower for PSN. And we had Vincent Diamante as our sound guy, and he went on to be the sound guy on Flower! We were all really young and we didn’t know what we were doing, though I bet Jenova and Vincent had a much better idea than I did.
PSB: Hearing you talk about accessibility and user interfaces reminds me a lot of Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany…
E.G.: They go to the extreme, right? They try to make games with only Sixaxis controls and maybe a button. I don’t want to speak for Jenova too much, but I’m fairly certain that his design philosophy is coming more from an experiential standpoint. You know, “how can we make people feel like they are the wind?” For us with Slam Bolt Scrappers it was, “we want to make a party game that includes everyone; how can we make a control scheme that will support that?” Our game was much more mechanics-driven.
PSB: A lot of gamers think they can make games. Do you have any words of wisdom about what it’s like in the real world of game studio startups?
Eitan Glinert: There are so many of them. Prototyping is one of the biggest things. Take the time to make it good — I think the Valve model of “it’ll be done when it’s done” is pretty smart. Rushing a game out that’s half-finished is not a good way to do it.
PSB: What was it liked when you founded Fire Hose Games? Did you live on instant ramen?
E.G.: It was scary. This isn’t even just video games, it’s startups in general. If you do a startup, be prepared to live on nothing. I didn’t get paid forever making this game. There’s no money associated with this — we’re hoping that people who see this will go and buy the game, and then maybe we’ll get some. You’re doing this out of passion, not for money. Anyone who creates this kind of startup does so because they have this creative itch that needs to be scratched. They want to make games that nobody else is willing to make, and that’s why they’re willing to put themselves out on a limb.
PSB: Slam Bolt Scrappers puts a big focus on multiplayer. What are Fire Hose Games’ favorite multiplayer games?
E.G.: Anything four-player with couch play, where you sit around and scream at each other — that’s what we love. One game we’ve been playing a ton is the PSN game TerRover. You have this little tank rover, and it has these ridiculous controls — you can jump in bizarre ways. The most awesome part of TerRover is the four-player race mode because these races are unbelievable silly. If you die, you respawn in funny places. And if you’re really good at the game, which we are, you can fly. LittleBigPlanet 2 (LINK) is also our kind of game, though we’re kind of jerks about it: we grab each other and drag each other around.
PSB: Are you thinking about concepts for what you’d like to do after Slam Bolt Scrappers? Having you considered extending into a different genre?
E.G.: Oh, you’d better believe it. Slam Bolt Scrappers is a weird name, right? We want to explore the Slam Bolt universe and do new things with it. There are a couple of prototypes we’re working on already for new games that could fit into this world. We’re not quite ready to talk about it yet, but you’d better believe we’re working on it and you’d better believe we’re looking at PSN as a home for them.