Ready at Dawn creative director and co-founder Ru Weerasuriya, right, and Andrea Pessino, CTO and co-founder, left, in their offices in Irvine. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)Link
Kratos, the main character in the video game, "God of War," towers in the lobby area of Sony Santa Monica. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)Link
There is no hiding from the flat-screen TVs in the Irvine offices of video game studio Ready at Dawn. With the workplace blinds shuttered, even a sunny morning finds employees’ faces lit by little more than a digital glow.
These dozen-plus TVs were essentially high-definition clocks, each of them counting down a series of deadlines leading to this week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in downtown Los Angeles.
At E3, Ready at Dawn’s Dickensian-looking fantasy game “The Order: 1886″ will stand before an estimated 45,000 industry luminaries, journalists and retailers, and its demos and trailers will be poked, prodded and analyzed. E3 may present a make-or-break moment for the small Orange County studio of 130 employees and its still-in-development game. The conference will set the tone, one of either anticipation or indifference, for the months between now and the game’s Feb. 20, 2015, release date on Sony’s PlayStation 4.
But unlike Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Activision and the other players that will grab most of the E3 headlines, Ready at Dawn’s fortunes are riding on one game and one game only. With the entry point for a blockbuster video game nestled around $100 million, any misstep is a large one.
“Being an independent studio in this industry with one project — and everything relying on that one project — to the outside, to most people, in fact, this would seem foolish,” says Ru Weerasuriya, the company’s CEO and the game’s creative director.
As one of the first titles announced for the PlayStation 4, “The Order: 1886″ has the added pressure of being an expected showcase for what next-generation hardware can accomplish.
The demands were evident during a tour of the company’s offices in the days prior to E3. The minimalist and modern space was outfitted with such stress reducers as a ping-pong table, beer taps and a wine cooler.
When Weerasuriya stops at the desk of concept artist Toby Kwan, whose digital pen was furiously adding detail to the game’s mustached male hero, there was little interest in small talk.
As Weerasuriya called attention to the intricacies in the designs of steampunk-inspired weaponry in the game, Kwan darts a worried look at his boss, never lifting his pen from the screen. Kwan’s deadline? “Soon,” he says. How soon, he’s asked. “Thirty minutes!” Kwan shoots back, his voice rising. Weerasuriya cheerily suggests we move on.
The 39-year-old Weerasuriya began crafting ideas for what would ultimately become “The Order: 1886″ around 2004 or 2005, shortly after leaving “World of Warcraft” developer Blizzard Entertainment to co-found Ready at Dawn. While the company has had numerous successes in its decade of existence, “The Order: 1886″ is its first major close-up.
It’s also a rarity — an original idea in an industry reliant on name brands and sequels, and the creation of an independent studio that intends to focus on one high-concept, story-driven title at a time.
At various times over the last three decades, the game industry has vacillated between high-tech wizardry and narrative-focused experiences. While Weerasuriya describes Ready at Dawn as “storytellers,” “The Order: 1886″ will be analyzed first and foremost this week for its mechanical abilities.
To date, Ready at Dawn has enjoyed a close working relationship with Sony’s Santa Monica Studio and is known best for its entries in the former’s popular “God of War” series, an action-adventure franchise loosely based on Greek mythology. Sony’s Santa Monica outfit is also the division of the company that has a reputation for investing in more avant-garde titles, works such as thatgamecompany’s conflict-free explorative title “Journey” or Giant Sparrow’s twist on a children’s folktale in “The Unfinished Swan.”
While Weerasuriya acknowledges that it’s Sony’s “big checkbook” that’s allowing “The Order: 1886″ to happen, he speaks fondly of such smaller, more idiosyncratic independent games, believing that as the latter find success on platforms from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, it will allow for more experimentation on the mainstream level.
“We can get more depth out of characters, and we can get more depth out of what we want to say,” Weerasuriya says of the game industry at large, adding that he wants “The Order: 1886″ to be viewed as “a mirror image of our society.”
“If you approach it that way there’s more depth to the characters,” Weerasuriya says. “You want the characters to be like you. We have depth. We’ve lived long enough to know our lives have different paths. That’s what you want out of characters.”
That’s no simple undertaking, especially when players are asked to inhabit the role of someone who can cause a bounty of death and destruction on the game’s cobblestone streets with the simple push of a button. At its core, “The Order: 1886″ will still be a third-person action game, one that presents an alternate history of London in which the Knights of the Round Table still act as protectors.
But Weerasuriya talks of the game as something of an allegory. There are projectile weapons that cause large explosions and monster-like creatures, but there are also class issues on display throughout “The Order: 1886.” In the poverty-stricken Whitechapel, the game’s populace views the heroes with skepticism, as defenders of the rich.
Weerasuriya knows that’s a big topic to tackle but envisions a time when action and big ideas are relatively commonplace in the game business, where creators are championed over brands.
“We don’t celebrate our own people the way other industries do. You don’t have the same connection with the talent behind the games the way you do in other art forms, whether it’s authors, filmmakers or musicians,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re seeking it, but the benefit of getting that is freedom. If you have recognition, you have more leeway.”
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