Life After Zynga: Slade Villena and Vigrior

Vigrior’s tech demo in action.

Kickstarter – the crowd-funding platform that has become a gold rush of funding for indie game development – is ultimately a genteel form of pan-handling. There is a light dusting of servility over every pitch, as developers appeal to the egos of their potential funders. At Kickstarter, even industry stars like Tim Schafer do their share of obsequious thanking and self-effacement. But not everyone subscribes to this philosophy.

“We want to change real-time strategy games with Vigrior.” I am talking to Slade Villena, the engineer behind Kickstarter hopeful Mercenary Games, and he is not prone to understatement. “I think I may have to put a patent on the control interface for this game.”

Villena, a former US Marine-turned-game-developer, is excitedly walking me through the prototype for fleetCOMM: Operation Vigrior, the science-fiction fleet combat sim that Mercenary hopes the Kickstarter community will fund. Their Kickstarter pitch shows off their impressive homegrown technology, whilst taking shots at everyone from Namco Bandai to 6wave LOLapps. Villena has an opinion for every topic.

“Strategy games kinda left players behind on interface design,” Villena says. “Most strategy games operate like a fucking web page, not like a weapons interface.”

Slade Villena during his stint in the Marine Corps.

Slade Villena during his stint in the Marine Corps.

Slade Villena knows a bit about games that operate like web pages. He’s a former engineer for Zynga, the company that is simultaneously the world’s most-hated and most-loved game developer. Zynga floated an IPO in December of last year on the back of its success with social games like the ubiquitous Farmville, the social agrarian sim that put Facebook gaming on the map. Despite its popularity (at its peak, Farmville was played by as many as 32 million people per day) and hiring of respected industry veterans like Alpha Centauri designer Brian Reynolds, Zynga never fit as comfortably into the game development community as well as it might have liked. Stories about Zynga in the tech press have rarely failed to mention rumours of harsh working conditions and grey-hat business operations.

After their mostly successful IPO in December started to shift the Zynga storyline, the company fell right back into a negative PR tailspin when indie developers Nimblebit and Buffalo Studios accused them in late January of making near-exact copies of the tiny studios’ best-selling games. The criticism was so hot that Zynga’s CEO, Mark Pincus, felt obliged to respond personally. That was when Villena decided to turn up the heat on Zynga himself.

A week after Nimblebit’s accusation, Villena posted a thread titled “IAmA Former FullTime Zynga Engineer” to Reddit’s “I Am A.. Ask Me Anything” subreddit. Many hours and dozens of questions & answers later, Villena had painted a thoroughly unflattering picture of a “nasty” and “creepy” organization that made programs calibrated to keep you addicted, instead of games designed to be fun. The controversial thread garnered over 4,000 upvotes from Redditors – and almost as many downvotes. By the end of the day the story was everywhere: Forbes, Silicon Alley Insider, Mashable. The Reddit thread itself quickly devolved into name-calling and posturing – from which Villena is temperamentally unsuited to simply walk away.

Nimblebit’s now-famous broadside at Zynga.

Infamy suits Slade Villena well. When he gets worked up (which is often) the Californian has the brash demeanor of a James Bond villain, taunting the momentarily disabled hero with his master plan for world domination. The timing of his IAmA – at the very height of Zynga’s public shellacking – suggests a flair for self-promotion.

As his greatest inspiration he (perhaps unsurprisingly) cites John Romero, id software’s flamboyant co-founder who famously promised that first-person-shooter Daikatana would “make you his bitch“.

“Romero was amazing,” Villena says. “He built a multi-talented crew and they worked together. Small squad. We’re a pretty rough crew, and I’m no [John] Carmack.  I still have a lot to learn, but we do have some good talent.”

That crew is Mercenary Games, composed of Villena and five friends. Mercenary is Villena’s attempt to get back into the games business on his own terms, and their game, Vigrior, couldn’t be more different from Zynga’s stock-and-trade. The game bears a superficial resemblance to Positech’s Gratuitious Space Battles, but whilst the meat of that game takes place before the fighting starts, Vigrior is about ordering fleet maneuvers to cope with a chaotic and unpredictable battlefield. Villena describes it as a football playbook for maneuver warfare. “Our fleet creation tool lets you plot movements in real time, drill your units, practice. You can design the maneuvers with very precise actions, so when you’re in combat you’ve got a palette of moves to choose from. We want to allow players who aren’t fast clickers to be able to make complex maneuvers.”

One of the models from Vigrior.

It’s too early to tell if Vigrior is as mechanically revolutionary as Villena thinks it will be – the game is still essentially a proof-of-concept – but the game’s Tron-chic aesthetic is undeniably cool. When I tell him that it resembles what I imagined the battle simulator from Ender’s Game to look like, he responds immediately, “I’m a big Ender’s Game fan. I dreamed of making the Battle School fleet games. This is it. Being a military man helped the design and theory, but that’s definitely where the inspiration came from.” Behind the visual static bursts and dubstep bass drops, the trailer posted on Vigrior’s Kickstarter page has definite echoes of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi universe – but it’s hard to tell a lot of a story with a tech demo. “We poured about two weeks of effort into the two-minute trailer,” Villena says. “Kickstarter requires us to do double the effort, not just development but talking to gamers, and proving the game, showing prototypes to people.”

“Kickstarter was not our first choice, or even what we would have wanted, but we had to do it. We wanted to just get this project delivered by August and have a public beta by then. But to do that, we had to face the audience and test the concept now.”

 

After Villena’s IAmA thread started to draw attention from outside the Reddit community, self-appointed internet detectives on Reddit discovered Villena’s real name and LinkedIn profile and posted them in the thread. An anonymous Redditor created a sock puppet account for the sole purpose of bashing Villena in the IAmA thread. “This guy is full of shit,” the post said. “His code was awful, and he was a counterproductive member of the team (and a crude human being to boot). That’s why he was canned, not because of ‘office politics’.”

Villena is almost aggressively unfazed by the characterizations. As a coda to a six-month stint in the games industry, Villena seems comfortable with the fact that his IAmA probably burned many more bridges than it built. “I’m probably the most unemployable programmer in Silicon Valley after that. No lie. I’ll never get hired in another studio.” Villena says the Reddit thread inspired a number of emails telling him that he’d never work in Silicon Valley again.

With 18 days left until its deadline, Mercenary’s Kickstarter is halfway to its target of $12,000. With the money, Mercenary hopes to take its PC proof-of-concept and port it to iPad,  Android tablets, and PlayStation Network. When I ask him what plan B is if Vigrior’s Kickstarter fails, Villena is typically sanguine. “We’ll freeze the project, get day jobs cutting grass. And then most likely, we’ll end up just waiting two years and try again.”

Vigrior’s trailer is after the jump.