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Software developers come in all shapes and sizes, but smallish game developers face an especially uphill struggle. But with a flagship game and optimism about the future, Whirling Chair Games is ready for the climb.

Software developers come in all shapes and sizes, but smallish game developers face an especially uphill struggle. The key for more modest-scaled developers is to have a game they can concentrate on as a flagship product. Almont-based Whirling Chair Games is using that philosophy as a springboard, putting as many resources as possible into its game “Vault Vex” (an intertwined collection of 60 strategic-thinking puzzles) while it slowly moves to bigger things. Whirling Chair president Paul Kerchen talked recently about the challenges and rewards of being a David among the Goliaths of the game world.

Tell us briefly what Whirling Chair does.

Whirling Chair Games develops and sells downloadable computer games that appeal to players who aren’t interested in the traditional computer games. We believe there is a sizable audience of potential game players that isn’t being well served by existing game developers and publishers.

So, in addition to making new, fun games, we spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out what those potential game players want.

How did the company get started?

Before living in Michigan, I lived in California, where I worked as a programmer for Maxis (maker of “SimCity” and “The Sims”) for seven years.

After moving to Michigan in 2001 and finding very few game development companies (and none within commuting distance of my home), I decided to start my own company, along with my brother-in-law and a friend, in the fall of 2002. We set up our offices in the basement of my home and started to work full-time on our first project.

What got you personally interested in doing this work?

Like a lot of game developers, I was introduced to computer games at an early age. By the time I was in my early teens (late 1970s-early 1980s), I was creating my own simple text adventures and other amusements on the computer. I think my interest lies in using the computer to create stories–all of the games I’ve made have some sort of back story, even if the story has little bearing on the gameplay. I probably spend a third of my development time on developing stories that go along with the games I’m working on.

“Vault Vex” seems to be the most prominent game on your Web site. Is that your flagship product?

“Vault Vex” is our only released title to date. We’ve also worked in collaboration with other game developers on some exciting, yet-to-be-released titles, but I can’t say much about those since they haven’t been released yet. As much as we’d like to work exclusively on our own ideas, sometimes we need to bring in some outside income!

What kind of hardware and software do you use in your development work?

We’ve got an assortment of Windows PCs that we use for workstations, servers and test machines. On the low end, we’ve got a PII-350 that’s used for testing compatibility, but it’s getting kind of hard to keep it alive! Eventually we’d like to branch out to other platforms (Macintosh support is top on our list), but that won’t be happening in the near future.

As far as software goes, on a daily basis we use Microsoft Visual Studio, Microsoft Source Safe, 3D Studio Max and Adobe Photoshop; another half-dozen apps see regular use as well. We’ve also got some homebrew apps for doing very specific tasks–level editors, that sort of thing.

As you see it, what are some current and future challenges facing game developers?

Probably the most serious challenge currently facing developers is that the cost of developing AAA titles is now well into the millions of dollars. As a result, independent developers are largely being priced out of the retail market because very few of them have that kind of capital at their disposal.

Furthermore, game publishers are becoming more and more conservative in deciding which titles to fund. This is leading to stagnation in the retail games market. Developers who want to explore new genres or stretch the borders of existing ones are going to have to find new ways of funding their efforts or reducing their development costs.

Once this hurdle has been overcome, game developers are still faced with the problem of market saturation. Even if a developer can afford to develop a game with AAA production values, they are still facing an uphill battle if their game is in one of the saturated market segments (for example, first-person shooters, real-time strategy, puzzles, and so on).

Most developers today are still aiming for one of those markets because they’re the only ones that have been proven, but there’s just not enough to go around.

How many people work for the company?

Whirling Chair Games has two full-time people: I focus primarily on game design and programming and Kurt Hough is the resident artist. In addition, we contract out jobs on an as-needed basis. My two co-founders no longer work for Whirling Chair Games.

What do you have in the works for the future?

“Vault Vex” is our first released game, but it grew out of another game that we’ve been developing since we first opened for business: “Davy Jones’ Local” is a humorous take on pirates of the high seas who have to operate within the confines of the Union of Corsairs and Swashbucklers, whose main aim is to put a kinder, gentler face on piracy. We also have another title in development which we believe has excellent potential, but it’s too soon to say much about that one.

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