Made with Unity Panel: Behind the Scenes With Best in Class: Bennie Terry, Executive Producer at Oddworld Inhabitants [2018]

Date: 20/03/2018

Official description: Get a backstage pass to best-in-class games in development. The creators of GTFO, In the Valley of Gods, D.R.O.N.E., and Oddworld: Soulstorm will join the Made with Unity team for a revealing talk about their productions, and how they are overcoming challenges during the process.

Bennie Terry III is Executive Producer/Partner for Oddworld Inhabitants, where he currently is developing Soulstorm. He began his career as a Technical Generalist with an emphasis in pipeline architecture, vfx and rendering. He developed and supervised properties for Rhythm & Hues, Disney, Marvel and many others.


Bennie Terry: My name is Bennie Terry, executive producer at Oddworld and worked on New ‘n’ Tasty, now Soulstorm. I do a little bit of everything, as EP normally I try to stay high-level but yesterday I was in the editing suites, you name it, it’s like from one to the next; technical art, you know, do it all, so.

Bennie Terry: I would say, I really geek out on the technical aspects of pipelines and whatnot as a previous rendering TD, you know those deferred rendering, physically-based materials, all those buzzwords mean a lot to me but in practice I think using Unity and from my team and Lorne Lanning which is our creative director, all of that stuff just disappears with Unity like we’re never really talking tech so much because it falls away under the hood and it’s more of what can you do, and it’s really whatever you want to do. It’s when you put materials on objects and you’ve already set up your scene properly, everything just shows off as it should more like I remember in the past we used to, you know, fake a lot of things and set up a ton of lights and try and really simulate what the real world would look like in our universe; but all of that is gone except for like optimizations. It’s really, you know, a director can sit down and just create his vision and the tool responds like it would if you were building a feature or you were building something that wasn’t even a game but was more of a cinematic quality in nature. When I look at each frame, now that we produce, you know, Lorne’s aesthetic for atmosphere and lighting, it’s very moody and it really pushes kind of I think what most engines could do today, but Unity just seems to handle it in stride. We don’t really have any challenges artistically, we’re always looking at how can we make the frame rate faster.

Bennie Terry: I think we win so far for being the smallest internal team. It’s really just Lorne and I. Lorne on the creative side and then myself, producing and technically just bringing those skills to bear but you know it’s crazy. It’s for TD. When Lorne dreams up ideas, concepts, they’re so vast and they’re so broad, your heart and your soul just leaps out of your body because you go “there’s no way we can do those things” but before it’s just impossible in any console, any platform, it just shouldn’t be possible at all for us to hit those levels of quality to hit his vision the way that he sees it. But fortunately, around the world the industry’s grown and so we have resources from Canada and from the UK and from the US. And we really look at a pool of individuals and we go “who’s the most passionate and talented and really wants to build our characters?”. You know we have a phenomenal engineering team and that never hurts for any engine anywhere to have a world-class engineering team. But we sourced our entire engineering team external as well and our entire art production team is done external. And so internal we’re a very small tight hub, you know where Lorne will just say “I want to do a million things today” and I go “okay, well, you know, we’ll figure it out”. And the team, I’m very proud of everyone but it really starts with Unity because we’re all connected through that one hub and with it we’ve been able to achieve his vision to the point where recently I think it was, for me as a producer, I love hearing these things but Lorne said “I’ve never produced CG to this quality before in my career”. And that dates back to Rhythm & Hues and all the work he’s done and you know for an engine to be capable of those things and for our team to be able to add what we want into it and add our own flavor, and our own special sauce; it’s pretty impressive that we’re able to achieve so much.

Bennie Terry: We always start with “just stay calm, the world’s not going to end today”. Today we just need to gather all the information so on our team we have just an interesting story. We have one technical artist and when we recently started doing some cinematic work, we told him “okay you’re a technical artist that handles a lot of our scripting and other things but I need you to work on cloth, we need cloth visual-effects, fire, smoke, million different things”. And he’s like “well, I haven’t really done cloth before”. I said “that’s fine, you’ll figure it out tomorrow and you’ll be a pro by the next day”. And sure enough in each case, Unity’s been flexible enough for us to be able to do those things so all of our prototyping is very rapid iteration, and that’s I think in order to create a triple-A product best-in-class product; you have to be able to iterate extremely fast. And Unity just has allowed us to do that exceptionally well.

Bennie Terry: I think for New ‘n’ Tasty we went with it because it was a product that allowed us to go wide. We have a lot of legacy IP that we wanted to find a home for and figure out how to easily convert them to as many platforms that we could possibly be on has quickly and as efficiently as possible. And so looking at the landscape at the time it was Unity was kind of new, out of the box for us and it was a good opportunity for us to say “well, we can go to mobile easy, we can go to console easy; and we can take these legacy IPs and remake them economically and be able to distribute that to all the countries around the world and different languages and it was just a very scaleable option”. And then it became “now that we’ve achieved that, how do we go back to our roots of like feature film and up the quality bar to the point where when you’re looking at it, it always looks like you’re looking at a movie?”. And so that was kind of the linear progression for us in the thought process.

Bennie Terry: I’d have to second that, on my team it’s the exact same thing. It’s scriptable render pipeline and maybe a close second would be a GPU based particle instancing would be the two big ones. But you know I hear from my technical art team and my art team all day, every day “when is the scriptable render pipeline coming?because we want to optimize these things and want to do these, we want to hit this frame rate blah blah blah”. And it’s just amazing that they’re always educating me on this stuff, they’re like “this is a new thing called Unity, we want to know when we can get it”. So they’re really excited.

Bennie Terry: I don’t really have to get my hands dirty too much. I can all right stay high-level and make sure everybody else is doing those things but this comes from my Art Director at Fremont. He said “if there’s any way we can speed up the Light Bake Time”, he would be forever grateful.

Bennie Terry: As a general rule, if you have a critical demo that is key to your business, don’t make the build the day before the demo and it’s not fully tested. Because you’ll end up in ER and that’s the producer being responsible for all those things [laughs]. It’s generally complete chaos, even though it may seem controlled it’s all these pieces are always moving and you’re juggling constantly to stay on target on time but then something always happens. You have this built it’s twenty minutes long and you’re playing through and you’re like “this is great” and then as soon as you show the client, the first thing you see is a pink billboard at the very beginning and you’re like “oh”, you know. Those are things easy to recover from but I would say those are just, always test, constantly test, test, test before you show anything.

Bennie Terry: I think it’s an educational arc on your learns and the information you gather, I think it’s good to work in both, starting with you having that big studio experience where you can specialize and really hone your skills and hopefully make most of your mistakes on someone else’s dime [laughs]. Until you come full circle then realize “now I have the skill set, I’ve been there, done that” and so now I feel real comfortable leading a team of X number of people that I’m investing in; because I at least know that my calls won’t ever be a hundred percent right but I’ll be at least in the ballpark of what needs to be done. And that saves a lot of headaches and a lot of empty bank accounts. But I enjoy small development after spending a lot of time in bigger studios because I get to wear almost every hat, like my title is almost irrelevant at the studio. We don’t really talk about my position as an EP, it’s like “well, we need somebody in the editing bay today”; well that’s gonna be me. “We need somebody to look at lighting”, well that may be Lorne or myself. There’s something wrong with rigging and there’s too many joints and we have performance issues, well let me sit down and look at your profile and try and work with you on those things. I enjoy because I was able to go wide in big studios, I enjoy in a small dev environment that I can go deep on each issue. And really kind of internalized and help spread that knowledge to the team.

Bennie Terry: I would assume it’s similar with all of us up here but you have to be cut from a certain type of cloth to want to do this, because it never gets easier, it only gets harder and you have to love that challenge but for us it’s small team development. We bet everything on red and we spend the wheel and hope that when the product gets ou there, that the people love it, that they invest in the brand, that they want to come back as repeat customers. But with a big team you can kind of sit back go “well the product shipped and whatever it does, and it doesn’t really necessarily affect me or even the company to some degree”, but in small development you’re either making a hit or you could be gone tomorrow. So the drive is always like, if it’s a 15 hour workday: it’s a 15 hour workday. It’s whatever it takes to get across the finish line and produce something that, hopefully, when people look at it, guys like us can sit on this panel and say “it looks like best-in-class” because the entire team has given everything to it.

Bennie Terry: I started programming on my Apple IIe and I wanted to make a flight simulator, and there were no graphics it was just text-based like each line “yes, no, yes, no” and that’s really what started me but it was luckily a funny story. My dad and I share the same name, and I was at UCLA at the time and there was a program called 3D Studio and AutoCAD and they had it at an educational discount for $1000 which was massive amounts of money from my dad at the time but luckily we had the same credit card that he gave me for college and so [laughs] what’s the worst that could happen if I just took this card and bought it and I timed it out so I knew that you could return software back then, and I knew that after 30 days he couldn’t return it. So I purchased it exactly at the right time and then locked myelf in a room and just learned every aspect of 3D Studio and DOS that I could until the point where I knew the reckoning was coming; and then it was too late. He said “wait a minute, I spent all this money to send you to UCLA so you could play video games” like that was the last thing on earth my dad ever wanted me to do but he saw that I was passionate about it and while there was nothing at in college at the time that was geared towards what I was interested in, he could see that at least there was something there in me that every night like he would go “you’re still on that computer, you’re just waking up” and I just didn’t sleep. Like I just stayed up through the night and into the next morning because I was so fascinated by all the things I could do and just watch every line render one at a time. I haven’t seen that in a long time with real-time graphics but it was like I would analyze every single line they would come up on my little screen. And that was Nirvana for me and I knew that whether it was games or film and television, I knew I wanted to be in CG. And I wanted to create realistic worlds, and I wanted to program things and that was kind of my origin.

Bennie Terry: Just piggybacking on what they said, everybody’s case is different and no one model works for all of us but for us it’s very much like cutting through the noise. There’s so much noise out there so I look at a product like, ours in particular and I say “what’s special about it?”. Why would would people want to buy this product? Like in a Marketing 101, I just try and list out those points and I go “well, this feature is meaningful, this adds impact” and ultimately we try to make decisions, not just on what we like but what we believe will sell more units. So those are part of the thought process as we go into it. But for, you know, grassroots marketing, a lot of what Oddworld does is, we are non-traditional in a large triple-A studio model where if you have a million dollar budget, you maybe have a comparable marketing budget to push the product out and to get it as widely distributed as possible. We depend on the generosity of others and so we really befriend the communities out there, we do our homework with Twitch streamers and YouTube. And we try to figure out what motivates them to want to promote us because the model of paying for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marketing is just not our model that we exist on. We really spend a lot of time to communicate with those communities. We go out of our way to build tools in the product to make it easier for their users to be able to engage in the product. And that goes a long way. We even try to do some cameos here and there for people that are superfans, hardcore fans of the product; say, you know, “would you like to be part of our product?”. So that are just some ideas.

Bennie Terry: And I would say, define what “success” means to you. If you’re a large triple-A developer, maybe “success” means “10x return on their investment”; but for a small indie, maybe “2x” is massive success for you and so by doing that you can kind of not feel the overwhelming pressure of what success really is to others, but it’s for your business, for your game and your property. What does it mean to be able to make another game? What do you need? And I think for us it’s very much, we look at success realistically and we look at it and we say “well, here’s how much we believe the product should conceivably do”. And then we try to hit those metrics, in a perfect world we try to hit all those metrics.

Bennie Terry: From my perspective there’s no silver bullet, there’s no one solution that says “this will work and it’s gonna be a success”. We try to do and we do often is “fail fast”, right. We just isolate a certain amount of time and resources and we go “we’re gonna try something new and see if it’s sticky, see if it’s something that people gravitate to”. And if they don’t, extremely fast or just cutting it, and ultimately you know our calls will never be a hundred percent unmarked. But what we hope is that, over the course of a production, all of those little decisions add up to something that ultimately is well-received by the public.