Morgan Jaffit: From Freedom Force to Hand of Fate

An interview with a developer who went from Irrational to independent

Imagine this: you’re a young game designer in the early 2000s and your first real job in the industry is at Irrational Games’ new Australian studio, answering to the Americans but given a surprising amount of leeway. You’ve been entrusted with writing their new game’s script, which you email over to the States, directly to studio head Ken Levine – already kind of an intimidating legend for his work on System Shock 2 – then wait an entire week for a reply. When it arrives, it’s four words long and just says, “Formatted wrong. Do again.”

That was Morgan Jaffit’s introduction to working on video games. (He’d previously had jobs including stage magician and “was in Queen Of The Damned as a random half-naked goth in the crowd scenes.”) It may not seem auspicious, but it was the beginning of a career that led him to work on games like Homeworld 2 and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory before co-founding independent studio Defiant Development, who are responsible for Ski Safari, Hand Of Fate, and others.

But the game he started on, the one he was writing for Irrational, was Freedom Force. A superhero RPG that’s since become a cult classic, it’s told in the retro style of the silver age comics of the 1960s. “You’ve gotta keep in mind this was just after the 90s and Vertigo,” Jaffit explains, referencing DC Comics’ line of gothy ‘Mature Readers’ titles like The Sandman. He’s a bit gothy himself, dressed in black despite the Australian summer heat. “Dark Knight blew up at the end of the 80s but in the 90s everyone was following suit,” he continues, “so every comic was dark and gritty and brutal.”

Freedom Force’s tone was counter to that, hopeful and bombastic and silly. Though that tone was set from the start, a lot of other elements grew organically, as part of a freeform design process that took some getting used to. “The first game at Irrational was absolutely terrifying because you’re looking for clear guidance – what’s the outcome, when will we be done, how will we know it’s complete? All of those sorts of things that just don’t apply.” But once he’d realized that was just the way things were, the freedom was liberating.

Plus, Levine had more than four words at a time to say as things got underway. “It was an occasionally terrifying process,” Jaffit says with a laugh, “but the quality of feedback was really good, and Ken was consistently helping to make sure that there was a tone across that game.” The Australian team ended up being responsible for the majority of Freedom Force, with the exception of the characters, who were created by Levine and Rob Waters, and sound, which was handled by Eric Brosius.

Levine’s role was more that of an editor, Jaffit explains. “Being edited by someone who knows what they’re doing is very confrontational particularly early in your career, and particularly given that I’d never been edited by a pro in the past, but it’s still probably the most valuable experience of my career.”

Eventually Jaffit moved on, taking a job at Relic in Vancouver. Irrational’s Australian studio had been based in Canberra, a small and sleepy city Jaffit and his partner had grown bored of. North America seemed more exciting, and Jaffit’s girlfriend – now wife – was offered a position in New Jersey, so they picked up their lives and moved. “The honest truth is I hadn’t looked at a map and I didn’t realize New Jersey and Vancouver are a long fucking way from each other,” says Jaffit with a laugh. “Geography wasn’t my strong suit back in the day.”

At Relic he was a level designer, creating enemies and designing missions for space exodus simulator Homeworld 2. Though it was a positive experience, he jumped ships to Ubisoft in order to work in Montreal, but found the bigger company less enjoyable. Most of his work on modern-military stealth game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory’s PS2 version was scrapped to bring it in line with the Xbox version, leaving his main contribution dialogue for the guards – what he sums up as “thousands of variations on ‘Gosh, I think I heard something!’” Jaffit didn’t last long at Ubisoft. “I started fights and got myself kicked out of there pretty quickly. I’m not really built for a big studio, like mega-studio culture.”

From there he bounced to a licensed game factory called A2M (“don’t google A2M, they’re a French company and they hadn’t worked out it was a euphemism”), and back to Australia where he worked at Pandemic. Though initially the smaller kind of studio he’d developed a preference for, they were acquired by EA as part of a joint deal that also landed them BioWare. Of the two it was BioWare they kept, and Pandemic’s American and Australian arms were both shut down. “We were happy to make a small profitable game, and at Pandemic that would have been fine, but EA really cared about blockbusters. ‘If it’s not gonna be Tiger Woods, why get out of bed in the morning?’ That’s their approach.”

You can understand why Jaffit chose to go indie. It’s not just bad experiences with EA and Ubisoft that pushed him into doing his own thing, but a general feeling that even creative studios like Irrational and Relic lose their way after reaching a certain size. Defiant Development, the studio he co-founded in 2010 with Dan Treble and other ex-employees of Australian studios like Pandemic that were bought and then closed by American publishers, are small and agile.

“We don’t have to make blockbusters,” he says. “We can just make small games that make a profit and because we don’t have to feed the beast like EA does, we don’t have all this overhead, we don’t have a requirement to make a 10 times return on investment or go hang. We’re a much happier company.”

Among Defiant’s early projects was Warco, a first-person shooter that replaced the player’s gun with a camera, putting them in the role of an embedded journalist in a warzone. It was never completed. Publishers wanted it to be another of those potential blockbusters, something that could compete with Call Of Duty financially as well as thematically. “I think by those criteria it’s dead in the water,” Jaffit says, “but we definitely got really positive response from publishers that had a broader remit, even surprisingly Nintendo. People like Konami, Square Enix.”

None of them led to anything further unfortunately, and the game had to be abandoned. Crushingly, a year later Jaffit saw a panel at a games conference where a publisher was asked about the worst idea he’d ever been pitched. “He was like, ‘Let me tell you about this war journalism game! Holy shit, there’s no way that’s ever gonna make money!’”

It was a final hard lesson in the way the industry worked, particularly at the turn of the 2010s. “The trouble is that when we started there was no indie market. It was kind of go big or go home and we were pitching it as a go big game. Which, with an unproven team setup, is hard. These days you’d make it as an indie title, and I think it makes a lot of sense as an indie title, 1.5 to 2 mil budget, and you could do something really substantial. This War Of Mine is a good example.”

Like other Australian indie studios at the time, Defiant had more luck with mobile games. Their app store hit Ski Safari was perfect for its platform, with a simple one-button input to jump and flip as you escape an avalanche. Ski Safari’s early success was critical for Defiant. Since they had no external funding they alternated their own projects with work-for-hire – later licensing Ski Safari to Cartoon Network for an Adventure Time version – which put money in what Jaffit calls “the war chest”. That turned out to be vital when they moved from mobile to PC and console development after their free-to-play action RPG Heroes Call underperformed. “The audience for that kind of core fantasy game that we were making wasn’t really on mobile and free-to-play wasn’t something that we really wanted to do,” he says.

To ensure the audience for their next game really existed they went to crowdfunding. Initially planning to use Kickstarter US – other Australian game developers funded projects there through the loophole of having a single American creator involved – they heard talk of an Australian version of the site in the works. “‘Kickstarter Australia is imminent’ is what the word was going around, and we said ‘Look, it’s gotta be November 12th at the latest, or nothing. We’ll go with the US.’ It ended up being announced to start on November 12th exactly, which was good. They made that concrete about a month before then so there was plenty of time for us to get well poised. We could have learned a bunch if we did it a little later but we opened the floodgates a bit for the Australian indies on Kickstarter, which is good as well.”

In the end they raised $AU54,095 on Kickstarter for Hand Of Fate, “a card game that comes to life”. Not an easy game to pitch, it pits a single player against a dealer who has a deck of cards representing monsters and threats. That deck gets mixed with one the player constructs containing equipment and encounters that balance risk and benefit. A card might represent a river that needs to be crossed or a caravan about to be ambushed by bandits. Do you swim across the river or try to find a way around? Attack the bandits, bargain with them, or run away?

It’s a choose-your-own-adventure, but one that’s randomized. Unlike print gamebooks events happen in a different order every time, and also unlike those books the combat isn’t so boring you cheat and pretend you’ve won every fight. During combat Hand Of Fate transforms into an Arkham-style 3D brawler, all blocks and dodges and counter-attacks. But the meat of the game is hopping from card to card while the dealer stares out of his hood and either praises or chastises you for your decisions.

The story goes that when Ken Levine conceived Bioshock Infinite he stacked a pile of inspirational material on his desk – fairground brochures, books on architecture and American exceptionalism – and Hand Of Fate had a similar origin. “It’s almost exactly that only in this case my childhood is the lump of crap on the desk,” says Jaffit. It began not with a design bible or a high concept, but a combination of his youthful obsessions, like Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, the Ultima games’ fortune teller, Magic: The Gathering, tarot, 70s fantasy novels and 18th century occult texts. “We had a weird library,” he says.

But there was freedom (that word again) for other influences on Hand Of Fate as it developed. The dealer, for instance, is its only voiced character but has huge amounts to say in almost every situation because of Jaffit’s experience at Ubisoft. “What drove the dealer is just my desire – after having written tens of thousands of variations on ‘Look over there!’ for Splinter Cell – to do the reverse.”

Other members of the team, as Jaffit’s quick to point out, had huge amounts of input as well. Senior animator Michael Baxter came up with the idea of having the dealer magically levitate the deck as he shuffled it, sending the cards flipping across the screen with pleasant thwapping sounds (in part because he filmed himself for reference but couldn’t get the riffle-shuffling down).

“We didn’t even know what the game was until it was finished,” he says. “There’s a bunch of things, like we didn’t have tokens in the early game as a concept and they got added.” The tokens are awarded for successfully completing certain encounters and add new cards to your deck. At the end of each run you press a button to split earned tokens down the middle like dry wax seals to reveal your rewards. “We took the demo on the road and I remember Courtney [senior designer Courtney Pasieczny] saying, ‘You know, I thought we were making a game about exploring or deck-building or combat, but we’re just making a token-collecting game aren’t we, in fancy dress?’”

The same organic process that allowed Freedom Force to grow and then be pruned back by the necessarily sharp blades of editing allowed Hand Of Fate to follow the same trajectory. Though in very different genres, both games combine existing elements in unique ways, and in both a passion for the sources that inspired them shines through.

Hand Of Fate’s been successful enough that Defiant are working on a sequel. It’s the first time Jaffit will work on two games in the same series, and after several years of leaping from studio to studio he’s settled into his role as creative director at Defiant. Has he become the guy writing terrifying emails that tell people they’ve done it wrong and need to start over, like Ken Levine was at Irrational? “I hope so,” he replies. “In a lot of ways I hope I’m half as good an editor for content as Ken is. There is no doubt that at times I’m the person saying ‘this doesn’t meet the bar.’ My approach and Ken’s approach are quite different, but I do see that as my job more and more.”

The temptation with sequels is always to go bigger as well as better, but Jaffit is adamant that Defiant remains the same size – about 20 employees – and works on projects at the same scale. Both he and technical director Dan Treble have spent enough time in the industry to figure out what they like in a company and have done their best to recreate one that “feels a lot like Irrational or Relic of 2000 before expansion drove both companies mad,” as Jaffit puts it. “That’s the thing I’m 100% aware of: our processes don’t scale. They didn’t scale for Irrational, they didn’t scale for Relic, they’re not gonna scale for us, so when the temptation comes to make bigger games we either have to change who we are or say no. To date what we’ve done is say no.”