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Q&A with Justin Corcoran, CEO of Phosphor Studios

justin-phESA is excited to announce the Heartland Series. Showcasing the geographic diversity of the video game industry, the series will feature interviews with video game publishers, developers, and innovators from across America, highlighting the groundbreaking work and innovation they bring to every corner of the nation. To start the series, ESA spoke with Justin Corcoran, CEO of Chicago-based Phosphor Studios. Read the Q&A to learn more about Phosphor’s story and how it is making an impact on its local community.

Responses edited for brevity not content.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the video game industry?

A: I started off as a molecular biology major specializing in genetic engineering in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. From there, I went into pharmaceutical industry consulting, which quickly brought me into doing software implementations for enterprise software as a product manager, which ended up being very similar to a world-wide computer game launch. I had the opportunity to move into the video game industry about 12 years ago. I was a project manager for a while and moved to Chicago to pursue an opportunity with the storied Midway Games until the studio went bankrupt as part of the 2008 financial crash. As a result, my fellow team leads and I decided to start Phosphor Games in 2009 because we thought we had a really great team, good chemistry, and ideas to start a studio. So we started our studio in the worst economic crisis in 70 years and somehow managed to survive, and it’s been eight and a half years since!

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of Phosphor Studios? What type of games and technologies does the studio focus on?

A: Phosphor started in 2009 and our first project has been our longest ongoing project. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Epic Games to develop the Unreal Engine itself. Midway Games was the first studio to have a studio-wide license with Unreal Engine 3 (UE3), and because we had so many Unreal developers hit the streets when Midway went under, we told Epic “Hey, if you have some work, we’d love to get some people working again,” and they said they did. We started helping them with really simple editor updates their developers simply didn’t have time to do because they were working on more important stuff, and from there, we got deeper in the engine and it’s been eight years now that we’ve been helping Epic develop Unreal, first with UE3 and now Unreal Engine 4 (UE4).

Our first full, real game project was part of the pack-in for Microsoft’s Kinect. Microsoft announced that they were looking for developers for Kinect, and we were an unknown studio but found connections within Microsoft and sent them a three-page sheet of different Kinect ideas. They were impressed with our creativity and tenacity in connecting with them. We were one of a dozen studios they contracted to start working on their pack-in and we were one of only two outside studios that made it to the finish line and actually had our game as part of that pack-in collection of games.

From there, over the past eight years, we’ve done almost everything a studio can do in this industry. In 2011, after we saw how well Epic did when they put Unreal on mobile platforms and launched Infinity Blade, we made The Dark Meadow in three months and launched that year as well. It became a D.I.C.E Game of the Year nominee, of which we’re very proud. A year later we launched Horn, the first console-sized game onto mobile, which was also nominated for D.I.C.E’s Game of the Year award, our second year in a row. In 2013, we created an online survival PC game called Nether. It was not our IP, but we were tasked to work on it and it did very well, over 700,000 units on PC. It was one of the first games in the survival genre which has exploded over the past few years with games like Seven Days to Die and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, but Nether was one of the first. We’ve done a whole bunch of titles on mobile, on PC, and console, we’ve worked on seven or eight major Hollywood IP’s, Man of Steel, World War Z, and most recently Jurassic World and Batman, with others in development.

The next major historical note in Phosphor’s timeline is our work in virtual reality (VR). In late 2015 we started taking VR very seriously as the technology got stronger, we evolved a number of prototypes and decided to move forward with one that eventually became The Brookhaven Experiment which was a viral hit as a prototype in March 2016. All the major YouTubers played it, it probably had thousands of videos and over 56 million views at the very beginning of VR. It’s done roughly 100,000 units for us in VR so it’s going strong, which is a lot of sales in a nascent and fairly small market. Since then we’ve grown a lot in VR. We’re doing a lot of online multiplayer titles, a lot of VR titles, and are expanding very quickly as a studio.

Q: How many people do you work with at Phosphor? What is it that distinguishes you from other studios?

A: We currently have a team of 40 and are actively recruiting in all areas. We want our games and experiences to be innovative. We always try to find something innovative, which is why we got into VR early, why we got into mobile games early and pushed that platform. We were part of the beginning of Kinect because we wanted to see where motion gaming went as a technology. We love to innovate technologically, which is exciting for programmers and designers and we love to do things beautifully, which is great for artists. We have a fairly open organization where the executives know we don’t know everything there is to know about making games. Rather, we know how to run studios, so a lot of the creative control is in the hands of the developers and the team, and is done very communally at the studio. It’s a fairly loose culture but that creates a lot of great ideas. The Brookhaven Experiment as a prototype came out when someone took an HTC VIVE kit home for the weekend, messed around with some assets, and came back with a great idea, so we’re always open to those types of opportunities and like to empower our staff to get creative within the constraints of a project to find interesting ways to do things.

Q: Why did you choose Chicago for your headquarters? Are there specific advantages this area provides to video game companies?

A: Chicagoland is a fantastic area for games! We started here because that’s where we all were when Midway went under, but we have consciously chosen to stay. It’s not a typically known fact but Chicago is vying with Boston for the fifth largest community of professional developers in the country. There’s Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, and then typically Chicago or Boston. There’s a long, storied history of games here. There was Electronic Arts (EA) Chicago, Midway was there for a long time, there’s Williams, there are groups like High Voltage that have been here for 21 years as a game developer, and great newer indies like Young Horses, William Chyr Studio, and Men Who Wear Many Hats.

Chicago has always been somewhat more quiet than San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin, but it has always been a huge center of video game innovation. It’s also an unusual culture in that many Chicagoites and Midwesterners want to stick around with their roots, so there’s a lot of experienced talent that will try to find things to do in the Chicago area instead of city-hopping on the West Coast which has been a bit more commonplace over there.

Q: Usually the tech industry is associated with Silicon Valley or the West coast. Do you observe more game studios popping up in different parts of the country now? If so, why do you think that is? 

A: Yes, I think it’s been happening. Silicon Valley has certainly been the focal point for technology, but if you look at the statistics in the venture market, there’s a lot of VC exits in these niche markets and you can sometimes have stronger ROIs. A recent PitchBook analysis found that Chicago companies offer the highest returns for a VC of any US city. Speaking on a national and global scale – why studios pop up everywhere – I think with the democratization of technology coupled with groups like Epic giving developers the Unreal Engine Developer Kit, groups like Unity, the first party groups like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo making dev kits more cost effective to purchase, Steam for PC as well, all this creates this grassroots movement for devs, creating opportunities for groups like Young Horses in Chicago. They were a DePaul [University] group that had a graduate project that everyone loved, and they started their own studio out of one of the founders’ apartments, put out Octodad and Sony helped them move it over to the PS4 and really helped them promote the title. All of that would have been almost impossible a decade or two ago, to have that level of success come out of a young group that wasn’t connected to a large studio. I think there are so many factors that have made it easy for studios to pop-up and be successful, and that can happen with a handful of people anywhere.

Q: Do you usually hire from local universities or are your employees from around the country? Are there specific areas of study you usually target when hiring new employees?

A: We cast a wide net. We hire locally and are always surprised at the number of industry veterans tucked away in Chicago that we haven’t met who pop up on the radar. We also hire out of local universities. DePaul university, Art Institute of Chicago, these institutions among others have growing video game development programs, and we’ve gotten some of our strongest employees out of them in the history of the studio, especially out of DePaul. So we’re always happy to go to the capstone projects and demo days at these schools.

We also have people from around the country and around the world come to Phosphor. We look for people who have really cut their teeth on a true video game development cycle when we’re hiring. That doesn’t necessarily have to be with a studio, it could be a part of a school project, it could be a group of people who are working as part of a hobby for free. We also want them to have some familiarity with some of the best practices and tools so they know how to use a bug tracker, have some knowledge of a code repository like Perforce or GitHub to track your changes, and familiarity with standard engine technologies. We like people to come up to us knowing how to use Unity and UE4 so they know what it’s like to work in a modern studio.

Q: Are there any community engagement projects that the company takes part in, such as partnerships with local schools? Or are you planning any in the future?  

A: We’d love to get more involved in the future. We were around 75 employees a while back, then contracted down to 15, and now we’re in a rapid growth phase again, trying to hire in every department at the studio. We have been close to the schools in the past and we’re looking to be close again. We like having school groups, we like going to visit their presentations, and we enjoy having those relationships and plan to grow them.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: I am constantly amazed by the creative skills of the people I am lucky enough to be surrounded with. I run a studio, but what that comes down to is a glorified project manager, not to say project managers are to be scoffed at, but being an executive means making sure everyone else can do their job without having other stuff get in the way. It means having payroll on time, making sure the right equipment is there, that we have the right partners and we have the right first-party relationships. All those things facilitate the creative people’s ability to do their best. There have been plenty of tough times – projects can go wrong or get cancelled, the market can take a hard turn, work can dry up. You start to wonder why you’re still doing it and then you see someone create something that blows your mind again and that’s always the part I love most. I spend my days in the spreadsheets and the phone calls and then I’ll take a look at the project that’s been in progress for the last month that I haven’t looked at closely in a while, and I’m just amazed at what they’re doing. It’s like “Oh yeah, this is why I do this. This is the creative product people can put together when working with each other.” So that’s the most exciting part for sure.

Q: What is the coolest project you have worked on in the last year?

A: Within the past year The Brookhaven Experiment has not only been a rebirth for our studio, it’s really opened our eyes to the possibilities of VR and some of the other technologies that are emerging. VR, Augmented Reality, the sense of immersion and connectedness you can have with an expertly crafted world with these technologies is really like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.

Not only are we working in the game space within VR, but we have a new enterprise work division as well, where we’re building new relationships with groups looking to create, in a way, video game-like experiences, but they’re targeted towards training and simulation. The skills we as developers have been honing for decades around creating an immersive world, a sense of progression, environment, tension – all that translates well to creating a simulation experience for people who want to train firefighters and first responders. Right now, we’re working with a firefighting VR experience with a company that’s pioneering technology for first responders, which is more immersive than watching a video or reading a book about how to be a better firefighter. We’re building different scenarios that the firefighter can experience – a chemical fire in a kitchen in a 1950s style brownstone apartment building, an active shooter situation in a mall – those things can be simulated in a very real way in VR and all those skills as a developer are perfectly applicable. I love the idea of a future where all those critical operators that make all our lives safer are themselves better trained and safer because of the training sims we can create.

Q: What is your favorite video game of all time?

A: That’s so hard! I love all of our games like they’re my baby. In terms of Phosphor Games products, I still love playing The Dark Meadow, Horn, Corpse of Discovery, and Brookhaven. Beyond that, thinking about childhood – there was the original Metroid. I spent a lot of time playing Centipede on an arcade cabinet I could barely reach, Gumshoe was a fantastic game, I spent a lot of time with Ultima and Zelda on the original Nintendo, I spent way too many hours in Diablo when I should have been studying for classes in college. Tie Fighter was another one, Baldur’s Gate was another one – there were so many great games, it’s like trying to name your favorite band or song, right?

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring video game developers? Which skills should they invest in today to break into the video game industry and become successful?

A: When you say developers, I think of two things: I think of developers as individuals and I think of developers as organizations. In terms of individuals, what I said we look for is pretty universal. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re making, make sure you’re using pro-grade technology, which means don’t use some random obscure engine. Unity is free. Unreal is free. There are great instructions that come with these tools, and if that doesn’t work for you, go on YouTube where there are plenty of people happy to walk you through whatever you want to do, so learn to use the tools pros use.

Then if you can’t do it through a school project, or can’t afford to do it yourself or you’re too young, not in college, etc., find a group of people who want to be amateur enthusiasts and want to make a game. Take on real roles like a real team – assign the producer, artists, designers, programmers, have some friends test it, use some free technology to track your bugs, track your code, learn what a real dev cycle looks like. It’s a rare skill set to be able to do all that yourself? You have to do it as part of a team if you want it as a real career, so do it as part of a team now. So, that’s what I would say for individuals.

As for studios, our biggest advantage has been diversifying. It is such a fast-moving industry, there’s so much going on, and it’s not easy to survive. I think the old-school mindset of “we’re just a racing studio” or “we are just a fighting studio” or “we only do RTS games on PC” is unsustainable. There are some studios that survive that way but most do not. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. We’ve touched a lot of platforms in a lot of ways and lots of types of games, from online games to single-player games, to action games, to fighting games. Your creative thread as a studio needs to be the way you execute not necessarily the specific type of game. That’s just my opinion, but we would not be here if we didn’t always have multiple things going on. We wouldn’t have survived eight and a half years. That’s the practical advice. The not-so-exciting CEO practical advice of “be passionate, but be smart, and keep a variety of options open for yourself.”

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