Downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina: From the darkened stage, with its lurid brothel set, you can almost smell the sex wafting forth. While couples dance the tango, one woman steps into the spotlight. She sings about romance, the all-consuming kind. It goes from being hot to being sad and back again. The lyrics ring is so true that men in the audience become visibly moved. Andres Chilkowski, Buenos Aires native and CEO of NGD Games, gulps back tears.
“The tango,” he says. “It’s just eight steps. But it’s everything for us in Argentina.”
In fact, there’s a tango of sorts to Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, the game on which Chilkowski and his team have been toiling for the past few years. In this dance, game makers are answering a difficult question: How do you appeal to the core who’ve gone gaga over Master of Orion and its intensely detail-oriented gameplay since it debuted in 1993, and still lure new players who want something quicker, more casual?
I came down here because I had no idea that an Argentine game scene existed at all. “It’s actually really thriving,” says Chilkowski, who’s also the founder of the Argentina Game Developers Association. The scene, which includes 50 active studios and 3,000 employees, first began as labors of love in the 1990s when there was no internet; just pirated disks disseminated at one or two hole-in-the-wall stores. Remembers Chilkowski, “There was this one hacker who used U.S. bulletin boards to download games with a 14.4 modem. Going to a dark storefront was the only way to get games back in the day. This one guy was making tons of money. He was like 19 years old. Eventually, he was arrested for piracy.”
True nerds of the time figured out how to code the same way some people learn how to play guitar—through trial and error. The scene grew bigger when the U.S. farmed out work for titles like EA’s FIFA soccer game to the comparatively low-cost workforce here. But it’s NGD’s Master of Orion, a PC strategy game requiring a fair amount of deep thinking to play, that will likely make Chilkowski and his studio new stars of the worldwide industry—if it takes off.
Flashback to the night before the tango show. “There’s so much riding on this,” admits Chilkowski in a cab speeding from the airport to a thriving area called Palermo Hollywood. Once, it was a run-down part of town but now it’s grown to become the city’s center of all things media. As he talks, Chilkowski is a combination of pride and confidence wrapped up in nerves. He knows he has to please fans. But he also has to please the publisher, Wargaming, and its self-made CEO, Victor Kisyli, who was gobsmacked enough by Master of Orion to say it inspired his uber popular World of Tanks franchise. That one game eventually made Kisyli a rich man. He currently has a net worth of $1 billion.
But if he loved the game so much, why did Kisyli offer the job to NGD? Why didn’t he keep this gem for himself and his team? Explains Kisyli, “Back in 2013, soon after Wargaming purchased the rights to the Master of Orion IP, NGD Studios contacted us. They have a very similar background to Wargaming. They’ve have been in business for 18 years, just like we have. It turned out that the team at NGD was as passionate about the game as we were.”
The press chanted “Let’s Party!” The Offspring rocked through the night. Through all this, Chilkowski drank tons. He was still feeling the effects when he gave his presentation the next day. “I was wasted. Everyone was still wasted. But in addition, I was so nervous, my legs were shaking,” he says. Despite it all, he pitched an idea for an MMO that had taken his team a month to put together.
During the pitch, he told Viktor, “We solve problems with nothing, like McGuyver. We made an MMO with, like, seven people.”
It’s not that Kisyli and the Wargaming honchos present didn’t like the idea.“We’re actually thinking about making a new Master of Orion,” said Kisyli.
“We want to do that!” Chilkowski didn’t feel as nervous now. For NGD, people who grew up playing strategy games, it would be a dream job.
Kisyli mused upon product that was more than a game to him. Master of Orion meant the world. Everything he needed to know to run a corporation like Wargaming was in Master of Orion, he had been known to say.
And Chilkowski thought, “If we screw this up, we’ll be forced to retire from the industry. It’s such a big deal, such a big responsibility.”
After a few more meetings, NGD got to work. Fueled by a Wargaming-supplied budget, they moved from a windowless office in a bad section of town to a window-encircled penthouse loft across the street from one of the Argentina’s biggest TV stations. The team grew to more than 40. The ensuing game feels a lot like Civilization. Especially, the dialogue spewed by various races seems like the prideful peppiness offered by the real-life historical figures in Civilization V. Spot-on voice acting includes Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn and Robert Englund. There’s shipbuilding with a ship blueprint editor and the customizing of races. There’s also a concentration on military conquest over economic savvy and implementing new technologies to work out the complications found in the game’s various galaxies.
There were hiccups along the way. At one point, they made the game faster. But that didn’t work. Like the tango, it had to have the right tempo. At one point, Chilkowski said the right rhythm was like sex and at another like conducting an orchestra. Which was all fine and good. But how did he plan to bring in a wider, more general audience?
“I got goosebumps when Andres [Chilkowski] revealed that we got the contract for Master of Orion,” remembers art director Andrius Anezin. “It’s an honor to have this done here, in Argentina.”
Near the studio’s entrance, Anezin asks animator Laura Lempert to anthropomorphize a character that hasn’t yet been revealed publicly. She sits on an office chair, one leg tucked under her. With one foot on the floor, Lempert pedals toward a camera, trying to give what will be a monstrous alien some wild life through dramatic movement. The alien will go through about 20 versions before it’s done.
Over the course of a few days, the din in the studio often rises to a fever pitch. I’ve never heard it like this at any other studio. Montreal during Watch Dogs? Quiet. Paris for Beyond: Two Souls? Not a word was heard. Amsterdam for Killzone. Fairly silent. But here, they thrive on boisterous exchanges. “It’s the way we are in Argentina. It’s the way we get things done,” says Javier Otegui, the company’s CTO, who’s just had a spirited conversation with Chilkowski about one of the many bugs that appear during the development process.
“This is a Triple A game,” offers Chilkowski, referring perhaps more to the quality of the game than the budget. Triple A often refers to a cost that can rise into the eight figures, sometimes nine. Yes, the Wargaming studio in Russia is helping out with technical aspects like debugging and the user experience. And yes, the U.S. office put together the voice work. Still, Master of Orion can’t be a super high-budgeted game. (As is often the case in the secretive world of games, no one’s saying precisely what the budget is.)
But the spare-no-expense polish seems to be there in the gaming experience, which the developers hope will straddle the line between appealing to diehards and to a new audience of general gamers. That’s one complex and elusive tango indeed. You have to please the base that remembers the original game from the 1990s, and you have to engage the player who likes to try a variety of games but who doesn’t know the ins and outs of any game that well.
Master of Orion fulfills your power fantasy. You are the one that makes things happen. You are God.
Plus, strategy games comprise one of the most difficult genres to reach a crossover audience. Part of that involves the meaning of the word “strategy.” On the surface, you actually could say that all games involve strategy of some sort. You find the right time and place on the body to strike monsters in Dark Souls III. You know exactly when and where to shoot in Call of Duty.
Master of Orion, however, is in the 4X subgenre of strategy games, short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate.” Here, you conquer using communication, savvy, education and, yes, weapons. But the play is more chess-like. Sid Meier’s Civilization sold well in this subgenre of games, and the series still does well over 20 years after its first release. The newer XCOM science fiction series sells, too, but doesn’t cut a wide swath as far as a general audience is concerned.
So how exactly does Chilkowski expect to lure the average player? “Master of Orion fulfills your power fantasy. And designing your spaceships isn’t hard. It feels welcoming. And it has humor. Even trying something like diplomacy with other races is very engaging. You are the one that makes things happen. You are God.”
Around 10 p.m. one night, we are walking along an old canal on what used to be a dockyard. Puerto Madero was a post-industrial no man’s land not long ago, but it’s been refurbished as a waterfront destination and Buenos Aires’ newly wealthy live one on side of it. In a way, it’s a metaphor for the new Master of Orion: Conquer The Stars. Although it’s not the same admirably gritty game of micromanagement it once was, it’s shinier, more alluring.
We stop at the water’s edge for a moment. I ask what kinds of fish exist down there in the murky stillness. “Fish with three eyes,” says Chilkowski, a mad-scientist look on his face. He stands there for second, gazing into the black water. Perhaps he’s thinking a fish with three eyes could be the genesis of some new race in Master of Orion. Or maybe, down in the depths, he sees the monumental task of finishing a game that has so much riding on it.
Harold Goldberg wrote about Sam Houser and Cloud9 for Playboy magazine. He’s written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture (Random House). He’s the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.