AAA Refugees: The Flame in the Flood and the Rise of the Boston Indies

Games Features Boston
AAA Refugees: The Flame in the Flood and the Rise of the Boston Indies

The New England games community is a unique force. It’s a place that can tout a lot of “used tos.” We used to have Irrational Games, the brains behind the Bioshock franchise, but that shut down in 2014. We used to have 38 Studios, a company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, but that imploded in spectacular and controversial fashion. There’s Harmonix functioning out of Cambridge, Mass., and the MMO-focused Turbine in Needham, but otherwise, there are no flagship studios anchoring work. That’s why, when you look around the Boston scene, you’ll see a lot of small independent developers.

That’s where Molasses Flood comes in. The company behind the recently released The Flame in the Flood is made up of what they call “AAA refugees.” Members of their small team have worked on Rock Band, Destiny and Bioshock (it’s hard to find people in the Boston games industry who didn’t work on a Bioshock). I sat down with Forrest Dowling, the lead level designer at Molasses Flood, and asked him about what it was like after Irrational shut down and how the Boston community has been coping since then.

Paste: First of all, the company is called Molasses Flood. It seems like an obvious reference.

Forrest Dowling: It is if you’re from the area. Although, I think when we started the company and picked the name, people locally when we told them the name said, “haha that’s awesome” and people outside the area said, “that’s a weird name why would you choose that.” We were definitely looking for something that had ties to being local to Boston. One of the things that’s important to us creatively is looking to history, trying to find inspiration from real life because the adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” is definitely true. We figured that Boston has such a rich history that there had to be a lot of weird stories and ideas that we can pick a name from and that’s where we kind of end up on the Molasses Flood thing. Also, when you’re picking a name for a company, there’s the technical restraint of needing to find something that isn’t already a trade mark. And it turns out that not a lot of people name their companies after a large industrial disaster so it was available.

Paste: I know that you guys came from different studios. What was it that caused you guys to come together?

FD: All of us at one point or another worked at Irrational and most of the team had worked on Bioshock Infinite prior to the closing and in different capacities. We really came together after Irrational closed and we found ourselves in this situation where there was a whole lot of talented people out of work in Boston and there wasn’t a lot of work to be had and it seemed like a waste. We had this great working relationship and I really wanted to be able to keep working with the people I had been working with. I guess we sort of saw Irrational’s closing as an opportunity for us to do something cool and at least keep some of the band together even if it’s a really small portion of the large number of people that worked on Infinite.

Paste: Was there any thought into going to work for another studio? Was there something specifically that made you go towards the indie route?

FD: I think it was a combination of those things. The people I’m working with now I absolutely love being with and wanted to keep working with. The other part of it was just the fact that Infinite did so well critically and it did really well commercially. Part of the equation for me was thinking, “is what I’m going to do next going to be as good or better than what I did?” It felt like it’s really hard to top the sort of critical reception that we got. So to me, I could go work on something that at best would be as good, or I can try something really different. The opportunity to try something really different was really appealing just because, just speaking for myself (I think everybody has different reasons for doing this), but I’d been working on first person shooters as a level designer for close to 10 years at the time that Irrational closed and I felt like I understood that pretty well. It seemed like the time to try something I’ve barely understood.

Paste: Outside Irrational, what has the Boston games community been like for you?

FD: I think the community is very interesting. It’s very supportive. I think it’s a very vibrant and warm scene in the area. Every couple of weeks, at the longest interval, I’m doing something or meeting up with other local developers. There’s a lot of great knowledge sharing. There’s a lot of people in a lot of different sort of games and running a lot of smaller companies around that are very helpful. I find it’s a very good community to be a part of and to be active in even if it’s not a city that seems to have much at this point in terms of real flagship developers. So it was really nice when Irrational closed and I started talking to some folks, people who run their own studios, like Ichiro Lam who runs Dejobaan. Everyone was super helpful. I love indie guys.

Paste: I’ve talked to a bunch of people in the area about the games community and everyone has similar opinions. It’s small but it seems very welcoming and supporting. Because there is no flagship studio, there’s this sense that the city is trying to help each other.

FD: For sure. I also think indies in general tend to be more open because we can be. We don’t have trade secrets we need to fiercely protect. We don’t have anybody who is going to be upset…. and rightfully so. There’s a sense of everybody’s in competition with everybody else. But the general attitude amongst indies that I’ve met, and certainly in Boston, the feeling is that we’re not really competing against each other. We’re competing with obscurity more than anything else. They think everyone’s more willing to lend a helping hand and to help one another out.

I also think there’s a real sense amongst indies that everybody’s kind of in the same boat. We’re all trying to make it work and we all want each other to succeed. I think that’s sort of the ideal for all of us. The more games that are being developed in the area, the more creative and the more vibrant the community, the more resources there are, and the more people are drawn to the area to start their own studios. I don’t think there is any indie that wants to see a Boston where they are the only one amongst the ashes of all their rivals.

It’s a cool process to see. When Irrational closed, I think Harmonix had layoffs around then, it felt like the whole area was kind of hurting. I hope we do well and can become a fixture here. It’s a great town and there’s so much talent. There are so many schools that are cranking out kids that are really hungry to learn and that’s one of the components you need for a community to grow. You need all this sort of new blood to come into it. I hope it continues to grow. I hope all my friends are wildly successful.

Carli Velocci is a freelance writer in Boston. Besides working on her webzine Postmortem Mag, her work has been published in Motherboard, the Boston Globe and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.

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