Chris Taylor just roared in my face. Neon dance lights are pulsing, loud, bass-heavy music is thumping, and Taylor's sudden vocal-chord-straining shout is reverberating off our empty corner of a DICE after-party.
Intense. That's how I'd describe the scene. It's also how I'd describe Chris Taylor.
“BRING IT ON,” he bellows savagely, veins in his forehead and arms wriggling as though trying to escape. In actuality, he's only acting out how he sometimes feels in his day-to-day life, but he could've fooled me. There's a powerful authenticity to his demonstration – in spite of the fact that he's definitely embellishing it by noting it's how he'd react if 50 ninjas showed up at his front door – and it's tough not to feel a little fight-or-flight-y. But instead of heading for the hills, I whimper out a nervous laugh.
“I'm very emotional,” he explains, collecting himself. “It's kind of missing from the world, I think. We could use a little more of it.”
But honestly, this very second, Taylor has every right to be feeling a little hot under the collar. His company's great white hope, Wildman, is in the absolute deepest of waters. Its Kickstarter's not even halfway to its goal, and its once spacious month-long time limit has withered to a week. And sadly, the stakes haven't changed a bit.
“Oh, I shut the company down,” he fires back, un-hesitant, when I ask him about the worst case scenario. “No question. And I'm emotionally prepared to do that now. It's like unplugging someone who's on life support. You just have to do it. So the company breaks down to an entity, and I focus on something really small and low-cost. We turn the page and do something new.”
He offers up solo work on mad-looking (in a good way) mod toolset Project Mercury as an option, but that's akin to tossing his baby and getting to keep the bathwater. It's small consolation for a company he's prided himself on for more than a decade.
“I've been doing this a long time,” he offers wearily, boisterous presence almost shrinking. “I've been fighting on the field for 15 years as an independent developer. I don't want to sell my soul. I've turned down all these opportunities to do it, and it wasn't exactly to the devil, but it wasn't a golden ticket either. I knew if I sold, I'd probably be shut down in three-to-five years. I didn't want that. I want Gas Powered Games to go on for decades. So I've been fighting and fighting and fighting.”
Very recently, however, he has won a few small victories. Wildman may not be garnering the interest it needs from fans, but the “evolutionary” RTS-RPG's attracted attention from a few friends in high places.
“We've gotten a lot of phone calls from people who are interested in publishing Wildman,” says Taylor. “But they would love to see us raise the money on Kickstarter, and then they'll take us the rest of the way. So we still need to fund it, but it probably means we won't have $1.1 million minus the fees. We'll have $2 or $3 million, at least. So we have an opportunity here to actually make a much bigger and better game if the fans vote yes in the first place.”
But with less than a week to go, that initial hill's looking more and more like Mt Everest every day. He admits that previous Kickstarters have rallied to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in their final hours, but he also has serious doubts about Wildman's ability to manage a repeat performance. In fact, it's why the whole layoff fiasco happened in the first place.
“The numbers were not there,” he insists, eyes shifting downward. “They weren't even close. 75K on the first day. Other comparable Kickstarters have done 300k, 700k. Feargus and Obsidian made their goal in 24 hours. We were off by over an order of magnitude.”
“So a friend with way more experience in this business than me – 30 years – said, 'You've got to shut the Kickstarter down. It's gonna leak that you did the layoffs, and people are gonna wonder why the Kickstarter's still going.' But another friend of mine made a really impassioned point to me. He said, 'You know, the people who backed you are going to be super upset. They're gonna be pissed about this.'"
“I decided to do a video and let them decide. That's where all of this came from. There was no master plan. It was just in the moment. I could never, ever, ever calculate something like this.”
It was, perhaps, a slightly flawed course of action, given that backers had already voted an emphatic “yes” with their wallets. They might have been a teensy bit biased. But Taylor stuck to his word, so here we are. Unfortunately, however, “here” is still quite a way off from where Taylor wants to be.
“I'm mixed,” he says of his feelings when the topic shifts to Wildman's present chances. “I feel like I'm in one of these weird election things where they're still tabulating votes. And it could go our way, but you're looking at the colors of red and blue going up all over the US map, and it looks like there's a whole lot more of one color. We know that some really amazing things could happen. People [at DICE] have come up to me and said, 'I'll put another $8,000 in.' But what do you say to that?”
So honestly, what's left to do? Well, in the past, Taylor let his feelings lead the way. It's not just that he doesn't try to hide his less glamorous moments, either. When his gears stop churning and start spurting molten oil, he revels in it.
“I gave a talk at DICE one year,” he explains, voice quivering slightly. “The last talk I gave, I stood up on stage and said this industry makes me cry. I cried when I couldn't find anyone to fund Kings and Castles. I had times when I was so down that I was just a wreck emotionally, and I gave a talk on it, is what I'm trying to say. I'm not shy. I'm not hiding. I cry at my grandmother when I give her a card. She's gone now, but she'd cry. I'd cry. Every time I look at this picture of my son on my phone and I think about how beautiful he is, I cry. I'm starting to get a little teary right now. This is incredible.”
But those feelings can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes, they produce a strong DICE talk or an on-the-verge-of-tears Kickstarter video that rallies people to action. Other times, well, they erupt into white hot panic, and Kickstarters get declared DOA, people get laid off, and we end up where we are today. Naturally, it's all left Taylor feeling slightly unsure.
“I think I could really turn the heat up to a level of emotional power where I'm out there, and I'm really laying it on the line,” he offers as a potential method of drawing in more Kickstarter backers. “But I don't know if I want to do it. Part of me says, 'Why don't I save it for raising money for cancer research?' I mean, it's a videogame. I get really wrapped up in it, but every once in a while, I have to step back. I'm really into it because it's my career, but it's not everybody else's career. So let it simmer a little bit. Back off a little."
“There's part of me that thinks I get a little too intense. I'm an intense person. There's a real power that goes on. But I'm getting old. I've been doing this a long time.”
Some days, you get the ninjas. Other days, the ninjas get you. But Taylor's not throwing in the towel. Not yet, anyway. He's seeing this one to the end – bitter or not.
“At this point, we're just gonna keep doing the updates and see where it goes. With anything in life, you just have to do the best you can. See what happens.”