In December of 2018, Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu learned of Marvel’s plans to make a live-action Shang-Chi film, based on a superhero born in China. So Liu took a chance on Twitter: “OK, Marvel, are we gonna talk or what?” Almost a year later, he’d been cast in the role of his dreams. “Thanks for getting back to me,” he said in a follow-up tweet.
Social media can be a headache, a disaster, or an invaluable tool. But, culturally, it’s also a place where creative types and oddballs can give voice to their ambitions and shoot their shot. People can be heard.
For Chris Wright, a seasoned testing manager and former software engineer at Bungie, Liu’s story struck a chord. Wright had begun his career at places like Microsoft, Twilio, Tableau, and Blizzard, mostly doing work in quality assurance and leading QA teams.
“But my passion had always been games,” he tells me. “And it still is.” He has fond memories of coding his own simple programs on a Commodore 64 computer as a child.
In 2019, as Destiny 2 entered its third year — and roughly three years into his time at Bungie — Wright took a vacation to clear his head. “And did a lot of soul-searching,” he says. Feeling the “creative itch” start to come on in a way, he saw Simu Liu’s tweet, and thought maybe it was time to chase a dream of his own: an RPG with a diverse cast, made by a diverse studio. “I realized that if I didn’t try, I’d regret it in the future,” Wright says. “So I left Bungie in September 2019 and spent several months thinking about what to do.”
In October, he and Iron Man VR writer James “Jay” Howell founded Poorly Timed Games, and quietly went to work on a passion project suited to both their interests.
By April 2020, the coronavirus outbreak had struck, and a freelance reporter from PC Gamer spoke to them about the harsh realities of running an indie video-game studio remotely during a pandemic.
“Suddenly, we had publishers and other talented people reaching out to us,” Wright says. “They wanted to know what we were doing, if we needed their help, if we wanted to partner with them. Despite the studio’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek name, our timing had actually been pretty fortuitous. Seven months later, our studio is over twenty people large.”
So what are they making?
“One thing I really miss from the old-school RPGs is the turn-based combat system. It felt like a bit of strategy, to figure out how I wanted this to play out,” Wright recalls. “Most modern RPGs go the full action route. I know people enjoy that, but to me it feels like getting Tekken or King of Fighters mixed up with an RPG.” To that end, Wright says, they went with a hex-based “SRPG,” or tactical RPG, design. The project is built in full 3D with an isometric camera, like Baldur’s Gate or Diablo.
“We have a system of elements that can interact with both units and the environment. So you may do a ton of damage by sending a fireball towards that enemy, but they’re standing in a wooded forest, along with the rest of your team. Maybe there’ll be some repercussions to that action you should think about first.”
“I sank the most time into 32-bit and 128-bit console RPGs,” says Howell, the studio’s lead writer. “Vagrant Story remains a personal hallmark for its English localization and compelling, weird storytelling. It’s probably little surprise that Final Fantasy 12 was a hit with me, as well.”
“I was a huge fan of the storytelling in the WarCraft series,” Wright says. “Specifically, the Culling of Stratholme in WarCraft 3. It was shocking to me that something so dark could be in a game — that it wasn’t simply black and white. I love those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moments.”
“I love imaginative worlds that are big enough for many, many stories and perspectives, so I have a lot of affection for [Final Fantasy Tactics],” Howell says. “Beyond that, the later Persona games balance non-dungeon ‘overworlds’ with the usual SMT dungeon-crawl gameplay. The day-to-day overworld settings are tonally very different from the dungeons, and the way the Persona games reconcile the two is very intriguing from a storytelling perspective.”
While they’re holding back on announcing a title for now, Poorly Timed Games’ first project is set in outer space, and Wright says he aims to seek out a publisher early next year.
“Space gives you a little more room to play around. I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I was a kid, and even then it was fascinating to me how they could tackle serious, current topics,” he says. “We are being direct with our messaging, but we’re still building a rich, exciting universe for players to explore.”