2 Dawn studio head, Ustaev at his workstation at home.

By Max NEOPIKHANOV

The video game industry made more than $70 billion in 2011, according to industry pundits.  But in the past few years, and  with an ever increasing attention to big budget spectacle and mainstream proliferation, the industry has become a tough nut to crack for those not financed by the 500 pound gorillas in the industry – Electronic Arts, Activision, and the New York Based Rockstar Games to name a few.

In his 2011 book on the history of video games, All Your Base are Belong to Us, industry veteran Harold Goldberg said that video game sales in the United States have become “bigger than movie theaters, DVD  sales, and music Combined.”

Some have shifted away from big budget, hyper realistic games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. There are many small development teams who have given up directly competing with big budget titles and instead make small games for the smart phone and PC market.

Some games like the ever-so-popular Angry Birds or the Facebook farming simulation Farmville have gained unimaginable popularity within the mainstream.

2Dawn studios, an independent video game studio founded in New York City, is trying something different with their upcoming post-apocalyptic, multi-player shoot ‘em up Ravaged: They want to capture the big spectacle and first-rate technology found in AAA big budget titles, but at a fraction of the cost, and with complete creative control.

“The project got off the ground because me and a couple of friends got together and talked about what we could do besides our day to day jobs,” explained studio founder and head, Boris Ustaev. “We came up with a few ideas and said ‘why don’t we make a video game’?”

Unlike most other studios, 2 Dawn is a work-from-home virtual studio where each member contributes to the game during their free time, without the ever-watchful gaze of a major publisher.

The team of about four core members and just over half a dozen freelancers has been working for 30+ hours each week for the past three years in addition to their normal jobs – hard work that they feel should pay off when the game is finally launched this summer on Steam, the popular digital video game distribution service.

“We don’t have a venture capitalist behind us.  We don’t have a publisher, it’s just us,” said Ustaev. “We want to see if we could do it on our own.”

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As a veteran of the visual effects industry with nearly 20 years of experience, 38-year-old Ustaev had done special effects in commercials for big names such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Ford, and Nickelodeon before getting into video games.

During the day he works at a visual effects company called the Mill, working in tandem with directors in coordinating film shots for special effects.

He ventured into the field by doing animation work for the now defunct New York City based Kaos studios.

“I had a friend of mine who wrote video games.  He had a start up and hired me to dome some stuff.  I then had a great idea that I wanted to make this video game that was post apocalyptic.”

After his work with Kaos studios, Ustaev began to think of possibly creating his own game.

“I loved video games a kid.  We had a commodore 64 and I grow up playing that and then the Atari and the Nintendo; they were a huge influence on my life growing up.”

Ravaged was conceived in early 2009 by Ustaev and a friend from Long Island who has contributed both financially and creatively to the project but wants to stay anonymous.

Though really wanting to make a video game similar to the Mad Max films, Ustaev wasn’t sure of the exact genre 2Dawn would be working in.  Early ideas of a medieval game with lots of sword combat and horseback riding ended up being scrapped because the team felt the animation would be difficult to pull off and the target audience would be smaller.

The team decided to go with the Mad Max inspired futuristic wasteland theme.

“Growing up I used to watch Mad Max with my father.  That genre stuck to in my head,” explained Ustaev. “My vision is: ‘how chaotic and crazy this world would be if it would fall apart?’”

According to Ustaev, most other games and films portray a science fiction take on the end of the world – he cited films the Terminator and Book of Eli as examples – but himself feels that “it’s more about the earth itself, about global warming – the world is changing.  It’s more about what happens to this planet as it gets older and older.”

After they picked the genre, the team next needed to figure out how to efficiently create the code that would serve as the basis for the game.  Instead of doing everything from scratch, 2 Dawn chose the popular Unreal Engine, made by Epic Games, which would serve as the backbone of the project.

To program a game engine, the core frame work of any video game, takes a large amount of resources and man power; so many developers and publishers lease an engine from companies like Epic Games, who in addition to making money from their own games, make money through giving their tools to other game developers.

Ustaev and his business partner looked for others who would be interested in the project and found several through online forums and message boards.

“The hardest part is to find people interested in doing it, and doing it on the side, since most people have regular day jobs,” said Ustaev.

“A lot of people would commit and say ‘Yes, I want to do it, it sounds fun.’ They would be enthusiastic for a week and then you’d never hear from them again.”

Jon Lorber, 41 and from Long Island, and Kenneth Payne, 42 and from El Paso, Texas, were two who joined the studio from the beginning and are vested partners with the company.

Lorber is one of the team’s programmers and has worked on different aspects of the game, and who, like the other team members, works on the game during his free time.

During the day he is a production manager who designs software at a PrecisionSigns.com, a sign shop in Amityville New York.

“I’m coming home from one job to work on another – this really is a second job,” he said.

Lorber attended Farmingdale University to become an aircraft mechanic but landed a job at the sign company shortly after college.  He did well in the company and stayed there for nearly 17 years.

“It’s something I probably should never had gotten into in the beginning, but since my work ethic was so strong, it took me from the ground floor up to production manager,”  Lorber said.

“My true dream has always been to work in games and games design and I’ve been programming since I was 12.”

He started programming on the Mattel Aquarius computer in the 1980s.  “It didn’t have any media to save files so I used to program games from Compute magazine, but I couldn’t save them so I would type them in, run them and then I’d lose them,” explained Lorber.

Twenty nine years later, Lorber is working long hours on a project he’s really passionate about.

“Right now I’m focusing on the user interface design and implementation.  I’m creating the main menus and option screens and the heads up the display,” he said.

He still can’t believe that the studio has come so far in the three years they’ve been working.

“In the beginning I didn’t know that this was going to be such a big project. I just knew that I wanted to work on a game and I wanted to work really hard,” he said.  “That’s what I typically do during the day at my job.”

Payne is the only vested partner not in New York and he’s never met any of the people that he’s worked with over the past few years.

To make ends meet, Payne runs an online business making midi switches for guitar amplifiers that he sells though his website and through eBay and works entirely from home.

“I work on [the game] during the day when I can and then the wife and kids get home.”

His wife Tiffany is also programmer but works on business applications.   “Every once in a while he shows me what he’s working on and it’s really cool.”

She added that “he does a lot of work during the day but there are so many nights when he comes to bed at three or four in the morning.”

Their six year old son adores video games and is fascinated with his father always playing games. “He’s always bugging me to play them but I tell him ‘No it’s my work computer; go play with the iPad,” said Payne, chuckling.

The work environment at 2Dawn is very different from the normal, centralized one at most regular development studios.  Teamspeak, a chatroom-like voice over internet protocol program is used extensively by all the studio members to communicate with each other.

“It’s almost like being at an office, but never ever seeing the person,” explained Ustaev.

Usaev said that every member of the studio can work on the files remotely without being together in a physical space and without overwriting each other’s work or causing confusion.

Payne thinks that the system generally works: “It’s nice because you have a lot of freedom but sometimes you’re not told what to do so you might go ahead and assume something and the other guys may not like it. Usually we’re on the same lines.”

Recently, the team started a fund-raising effort for the game on KickStarter.com – a website designed to help start up companies raise capital for their projects.

The website pairs entrepreneurs with donors who want to help get a project off the ground.  Unlike normal investments, you may not necessarily receive anything tangible for donating money.

2 Dawn isn’t just asking for free donations: $25 dollars will get you a full digital copy of the game when it released, while those donating a staggering $10,000 will let you go on a “dune buggy adventure” with Ustaev and the rest of the team.

According to Ustaev, unlike many other projects that get off the ground on the popular crowdfunding website, Ravaged was in its last leg of development when the team started the funding.

“Kickstarter is probably the most awesome invention ever,” said Ustaev. “It shows you if there is an interest for your game and if there is a community willing to back your game.”

The other team members agree.  They said that the site can be a great launching pad for many businesses to work independently without having to rely on major outside investment.

“I don’t think I’d want to be part of a big studio because you’re making their game for them for an average salary.  I can do something here in El Paso for the same amount of money and half the stress.”

Lorber echoed that sentiment: “The kind of energy I’m putting into somebody else business is something I should put into my own.”

There is a price for independence.  According to Ustaev, the project has cost nearly $80,000 over the past few years –much of that went to paying freelancers for their work on the game.  All of it coming from his personal finances and the pocket of the studio’s anonymous partner.

Epic Games and Valve Software, the Engine developer and the owner of the online distribution program Steam, respectively, will take a combined cut of about half the profits, according to Ustaev.

Having worked in the film industry, Ustaev feels that it is still much cheaper than if he were to turn his post apocalyptic vision into a film.

“[The game] is much easier to do on my own, or get a few people involved, versus trying to do a real movie,” said Ustaev.

“Having the Eifel tower, for example, snowed in over 100 feet is something that’s not likely to happen but it’s really not that complicated to do in the 3D video game world.”

Special effects in movies can cost millions of dollars to produce.

Brick and mortar studios have historically not been very successful in New York, despite the large amount of money and talent flowing through the city.  Ustaev said that is why he’s trying something different.

“Good programmers in New York aren’t cheap,” he said. “The cost of living is just too high.  The amount of people needed to develop a game is a lot.”

2 Dawn is an attempt at a different business model, said Ustaev.

“I don’t want to get an office space, I want to do virtual everything.  This is kind of an experiment for us as well.”

It is an experiment that the studio members think is working well so far. And with the game nearly complete, they are excited to look towards the future as the hope that game will be a success. “It happened to be that I met the right people and I pushed forward with the right amount of energy,” said Lorber.

There are many jobs in the video game entertainment industry outside of the city but Ustaev doesn’t want to leave.

“I love New York, I’m used to the high paced life that New York gives you.   Every place is nice to visit but home is home and there’s nothing like New York for me.”

“My ultimate goal is to have a virtual studio full time,” said Ustaev.  “This way I can focus on one career.”

The team still has work ahead of them before the game is launched this summer but each member looks forward to reap the rewards of their hours of hard work.

When asked why the studio is called 2 Dawn, Lorber chuckled and replied:

“That’s easy; it’s a play on words.  Many nights I’ve worked till four or five in the morning, caught a few hours of sleep and then went to work. Basically, we were working till dawn.”

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