We chat to Ian Phipps, Game Designer, and newest member of the Vector Unit team.
When you talk to Matt, you can almost sense that the Beach Buggy franchise (Beach Buggy Blitz and Beach Buggy Racing) was meant to be. After all, he’s lived his whole life in California, loved beach buggy television shows (like Speed Buggy and Wonderbug) growing up, and had a hobby of building intricate plastic models of classic American muscle cars.
While you may have read Co-Founder Ralf Knoesel’s team profile, it’s interesting to hear another side of the Vector Unit co-founding story. (And because you get different answers when you ask different questions.) While maintaining day jobs (and girlfriends and social lives), Matt and Ralf had been working on a boat combat game in their spare time, but weren’t making much progress. Matt agrees that the Vector Unit timing was right as a “now or never” moment. Both had some money saved up, neither had hardcore financial obligations, and both were optimistic about the risk. After all, they could try out the start-up for 6-12 months, and if things didn’t work out, they could probably go back to regular jobs in the games industry, right?
So Vector Unit came to be on January 29, 2008. Matt and Ralf worked out of Ralf’s house for a while, then found super cheap, super tiny office – room for only two desks and a printer. Code-named “Barracuda” at the time, their boat-racing demo (which later became Hydro Thunder Hurricane) was finished that July. Ralf and Matt started shopping it around to publishers. Several were seriously interested and they were in the midst of negotiating terms.
But then in September 2008, the economy collapsed. Publishers started pulling out of deals altogether. Matt and Ralf were soon down to the last of their savings, and job prospects in the game industry were looking pretty bleak.
In the end, Vector Unit signed a deal with Microsoft for Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and they didn’t starve. But that experience contributes significantly to how the company approaches partnerships today. Matt and Ralf would rather hedge their bets on the uncertainty – and potential reward – of self publishing rather than depend on a publisher for financial viability.
“We learned a core lesson and central truth to negotiating in business,” Matt says. “If you’re negotiating from a place of strength, that’s obviously the best place to negotiate from. You lay out what you want, and if the other party can’t match that, you need to be able to just walk away.”
Matt has no formal business training, and while he originally thought that running the business was going to be a necessary evil in a way, it’s actually been part of the job that he really enjoys. Reading contracts is a bit boring, he admits, but he likes strategically deciding on game platforms, choosing which partners to work with, and getting to do a bit of everything including game development, creative direction, art, voice acting, and sound design. (As co-founders, Matt takes care of legal matters and Ralf takes care of financial matters. They share business operation responsibilities.)
Maybe Matt was meant to be a dabbler. After all, his career path certainly lends itself to being a Jack-of-all-trades. After majoring in English Literature at UC Berkeley, Matt got into desktop publishing, laying out advertisements for local businesses. The job was right next to Berkeley Systems, then popular for making famous screensavers. Armed with his art skills and limited programming knowledge from college classes, Matt “faked his way” in with an animation portfolio and says, “They were nice enough to give me a job.” Learning 2D and 3D animation in his spare time and on the job, this is where he got his original game and management training. In addition to screensavers, Berkeley Systems developed games (including the You Don’t Know Jack! franchise). Matt was responsible for writing proposals for games, negotiating deals for new projects, and through this, eventually worked his way up to creative direction and management.
English degrees can be put to good use, kids: “In game development, there’s actually a lot of creative work that calls for you to express ideas clearly. Being able to write descriptively and use correct grammar and punctuate sentences is always useful,” says Matt. Matt went on to work at Stormfront Studios, then Electronic Arts before going indie with Vector Unit.
In terms of career advice, Matt encourages people to identify what it is that they enjoy and really go after it, taking chances in advocating for themselves. “It sounds obvious, but sometimes people are so grateful to have a job in the games industry, and then get pigeonholed into something they don’t really like.” With Vector Unit being such a small team at the moment, there’s a lot for each person to do, but Matt plans to maintain the mindset he experienced at Stormfront. Managers were encouraging and supportive of motivated employees who wanted to try new roles, and it’s where he was able to go from artist to art lead, a managerial role with a bit of design bent. “Most of the things I’m happy with in my career are the things I got because I reached out beyond the job I was doing, and then proving I could do it. That’s really important for any job you’re in.”
If you want to find out even more about Matt, check out this interview from November 2013 at Teck Comes First or just ask in the comments below (which you can do for any of our team members too!).
Matt at E3 2014