We’re thrilled to announce the return of GamesBeat Summit Next, hosted in San Francisco this October, where we will explore the theme of “Playing the Edge.” Apply to speak here and learn more about sponsorship opportunities here.
NetEase Games, a global developer and publisher of video games, has established T-Minus Zero Entertainment, a new game studio in Austin, Texas, headed by game veteran Rich Vogel.
NetEase became one of China’s biggest companies and it has been expanding to the West. In an interview, Vogel said he wanted to make a modern game studio — the fourth one he has created — and he turned to NetEase because he didn’t want to be perpetually raising money.
The new studio will be entirely owned by NetEase, and Vogel aims to make it into a world-class game company. It is working on an ambitious, third-person online multiplayer action game set in a sci-fi universe.
Vogel won the Up-and-Comer Award at our recent Visionary Awards event at the GamesBeat Summit 2023 in May. He is known for his significant contributions to the gaming industry, such as Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Vogel has also launched several successful studios, including Sony Online Entertainment Austin, BioWare Austin, and Bethesda Game Studios Austin. Vogel said he believes that previous studios he built are closing in on $3 billion in total lifetime revenue.
T-Minus Zero Entertainment’s primary focus will be on the development of an original intellectual property. The studio has adopted a remote-first approach, allowing for a flexible working environment. The team are actively seeking talented game developers who are passionate about taking on the challenge of building a new and immersive gaming experience.
“Our studio’s mission is to create epic, immersive worlds where players from around the globe can play together, forming vibrant and passionate communities,” said Vogel, head of the studio. “The team at NetEase Games shares our vision to create memorable and meaningful experiences, and they have made it a priority to provide the support and creative freedom to allow us to make our dream a reality.”
Vogel said the founding team met almost a couple of years ago to start something. Vogel served as a strategic adviser and he had been able to look at other studios who had focused on being first party studios, or those owned by one company and making games just for that company.
“Surviving in today’s world is hard,” Vogel said. “You’re always looking and chasing after that next round of funding versus making a great game. I wanted to focus on making a great game, versus the constant battle to get more funding. That’s why I chose to be a first party. And I had known NetEase for a long time. I liked their philosophy and how they are made up of executives who are real game developers. That’s why I went with them.”
T-Minus Zero Entertainment boasts a team of industry veterans, including game director Mark Tucker, who brings 22 years of design experience on titles such as Fallout 76, Doom, and Crimson Alliance. The art director is Jeff Dobson, with 26 years of experience on Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dragon Age Inquisition, and Mass Effect Andromeda. Additionally, Scott Malone, vice president of operations & production at Anthem, brings ten years of production experience on games such as Fallout 76, Doom, and The Elder Scrolls Online.
Vogel said he wanted to make long-term decisions and focus on making a great player experience. In an interview, Tucker said he had worked with Vogel before and trusted him and thought he was extraordinarily good at creating new studios.
“I looked at Rich as being someone who can help us create the studio and help us ship great games,” he said. “It was kind of a no brainer. This is an opportunity to create a new game, and a new IP, and you don’t get too many opportunities like that.”
NetEase has a diverse portfolio of titles such as Harry Potter: Magic Awakened, Knives Out, and Naraka: Bladepoint. It also collaborates with major entertainment brands such as Warner Bros and Mojang.
“T-Minus Zero Entertainment has been built with an inspiring roster of talented veterans with unparalleled industry knowledge and the passion to create wholly original gaming experiences,” said Simon Zhu, president of global investments and partnerships at NetEase Games, in a statement. “NetEase Games strongly believes in empowering creators with the ability to build games that will inspire players and evolve over time with its community. We can’t wait to share more of what Rich and the team are working on, and we’ll make every effort to help them grow.”
The generative AI opportunity
Vogel foresees a lot of changes in game development in the next three or four years, with generative AI tools driving that. He said he was happy about being able to create games with smaller teams, rather than having huge teams to develop content for games. He thinks better AI in non-player characters is a plus, and that could lead to making AI characters smarter with more emergent behavior.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “This is kind of like, you know, when electricity was invented. At first, not many people had it. But it surely took off when a whole bunch of things happened. The network got built, and suddenly appliances came around and made people’s lives simpler, easier. We can’t live without it now. And so, I really do think that this time we’re starting the studio is going to adapt to the different challenges and things happening in the environment. I’m very excited about this one because it’s something I think will lead to better, more immersive player experiences in the future.”
Tucker also said he was excited about the potential for improvement in the development side of the industry. He is excited about creating a remote team with a reach to global talent all over the world. And he said the support from NetEase will give the company a head start.
In the past, Vogel said he had to create studios where people lived, which mostly meant Austin. That remains a good place to build a company. He also liked hiring people out of school because they could adapt to a new culture. But he noted there are lots of challenges to work through.
I asked if the company was deliberately saying it was not building a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, as Vogel has done a lot of that before. He said they want to build a third-person action game, which will be a game as a service.
“When I think of MMOs, I think of the scale and, wow, I’m not into that realm,” Vogel said. “This is what I think this generation, and the next generation of players, are going to spend their time doing. Consumption is a lot different than when I started out with MMOs.”
Vogel believes we’re heading into tight-knit playing experiences with small groups.
“The particular game we’re building is one we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Vogel said. “It’s a dream opportunity to take something I’ve been chewing on in the back of my head and attempt to make it real. It’s very ambitious, but we have a great group of leaders. This is so ambitious that I would not have wanted to do it without the right team. The stars have aligned.”
The company has 10 people and Vogel hopes to keep it small until they find the “soul of the game.” But it has some key roles to fill.
Will AI replace game developers?
As for the threats posed by AI, Vogel said, “I think that when any new technology comes around, there’s always that instability that occurs. But to me, it requires a stabilizing effort. There will be new requirements around that which people will come around and learn. I don’t think AI will reduce our team size. But I don’t think AI will get anywhere near creating the fun. It’s going to take real people to do that.”
He added, “That’s where the jobs come in. When you talk about menial tasks, which is like level-of-detail and other things you may have to do, you can have AI generate that.”
In the meantime, he thinks students should learn how to use tools to create their own prompts that AI could use to create important things. He said the team used AI to create concepts for the pitch and that was necessary because they didn’t have a big team.
“The people who know how to use these tools are the ones that are going to be hired,” he said.
He said that Generation X has grown up with games like Minecraft and Roblox and Fortnite. Vogel thinks that user-generated content and AI will shorten the gap between triple-A games and double-A games. Tucker believes that innovation and creativity will continue to come from people.
Vogel said diversity would matter as the company recruits more people to the team. While some big companies like Warner Bros. and Take-Two Interactive have said they are building more games based on existing franchises rather than new IP, Vogel said he recognizes that it’s more challenging to build new IP, given the cost of game development. But he said a good idea is worth pursuing and he isn’t sure why this game hasn’t been done before.
“We’re a fully funded studio working on a brand new IP. It’s ambitious but we need great talent to do it,” Vogel said.
Tucker added, “It’s a unique opportunity to build something new and we’re doing it with a company that understands game development and understands what it takes — the trials and tribulations of creating games. We have their full backing.”
GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.