Recently, it was announced that Mike Mumbauer and several other creatives from big studios like Naughty Dog and Infinity Ward had set up That’s No Moon– a new independent studio to develop games. We caught up with Mike Mumbauer, Co-Founder and CEO of That’s No Moon, as well as Harold Kim, Vice President of Business Development at Smilegate, to talk about their bold new venture.
Naturally, considering how recent the announcement of That’s No Moon was, this wasn’t a big announcement of their upcoming game. But from our interview there was one big takeaway: this is a team that loves storytelling, and working with other like-minded people.
Building A Team In A Pandemic
Naturally, the first lead-in was how the studio was doing. Mike painted a picture of a studio still growing, though they’ve already started work on their debut project
“I mean the fact that we’re building a triple-A studio in the middle of a pandemic and work from home, we just crossed 40-something, I think it’s almost 45 people. So we’re well on our way to establishing the foundations of the studio and have hired most of the key positions that would help us build a key framework”, Mike says. “Our biggest challenge now is kind of dealing with the work-from home experience and just getting the technology up and running and getting into prototype and finding out who these characters are that we’re gonna be telling stories about”.
“The character development has been going on for- well the story development’s about 6 months in already so.That’s actually probably the most mature part of Creative, which is great”, he follows up.
Are you a talented artist with a passion for creating beautiful in-game worlds and environmental storytelling? We're looking for a Environment Biome Lead Artist to join our team! Learn more and apply here: https://t.co/H7aXtFRNVW pic.twitter.com/MBAjii6kpc
— That's No Moon (@ThatsNoMoonEnt) August 17, 2021
Mike also mentioned that the studio is very much still hiring, laying down the criteria for working with That’s No Moon:
” Well, the criteria is a desire to work on this genre and to be as passionate as we are about it a storyteller at heart, a love of the craft, and ideally bringing a diverse value and position in the company”, he explains. “Ultimately we want to tell stories that are diverse and they appeal to a global audience. So the criteria is anyone and everyone”.
That being said, Mike chose a weird time to announce a new studio, in the middle of a pandemic. While he says the studio is working remotely right now, they’ve already secured a physical space with all the amenities for a budding game studio, such as a performance capture stage.
“So we’re all remote right now, but we did secure a pretty phenomenal space in Los Angeles, Playa del Rey. It should be able to house up to a hundred and something and it has a performance capture stage, which we’ll be using for virtual capture production, the next generation of that.”, he proudly tells us.
Being Nimble And Taking Care Of Your People
That being said, he also told us that they haven’t decided how the studio will be run post-pandemic, and mentioned they would be looking at their options on remote vs in-person work.
“The hope is to strike the right balance between the post pandemic working relationship- whether it’s a mix model of remote or in the office. We don’t totally have the answer to that now and I’m not sure that anybody does, I mean there are people that are picking lanes and it’s admirable. I think the hardest part is we haven’t shipped an entire game through remote at home from start to completion”, he says.
All systems are (nearly) a go! We've been hard at work and our virtual production stage is coming online. pic.twitter.com/f9ZnEkIqRI
— That's No Moon (@ThatsNoMoonEnt) August 20, 2021
“So we don’t really know what that means yet, so as we discover we have to be nimble. The beauty of us being a small company is we can be nimble, we can face the challenge, and we can be thoughtful about them, what is best for people and the game . But the people first”, he says.
He also gave us a glimpse at the aspirations for the studio:
“I mean anything is possible today. You know, it’s pretty incredible. From a perspective of that too, one of the important hires for a company was Toby Ow who is Vice President of Global Productions. and that’s not by accident because this company from the get go is gonna be a global production, with global production intent. so we’re gonna be making sure that we are leveraging the best partners of the world. and that includes Malaysia for sure”, he says.
Evoking A Moment Of Wonder
Anyone who’s seen Star Wars would recognize the name for That’s No Moon- encapsulating the reveal of the now-iconic Death Star, a moon-sized battlestation with a planet destroying laser.
However, Mike explained to us this wasn’t because the studio was some home for Star Wars fans, but rather something much better- it was a celebration of the level of fantasy from that iconic scene.
“Now ultimately the name was mainly designed out of the desire to be evoking a sense of wonder. It wasn’t particularly tie to the desire to be doing any IP, it’s mainly just designed to be aspirational from idea that we want audiences to be wowed on what we doing, we want them to be surprised and delighted so that is much more of what the name evokes than what you think it evokes”, he explains.
“Ultimately our main focus is the current game that is in front of us and that we have to do an amazing job on that game and that’s really all that we’re thinking about right now”, he follows up, saying that there was currently no interest in working with the Star Wars IP.
A Declining Appetite For The Apocalypse
So naturally, we had to ask Mike about what kind of games he and his team would be working on. Here’s his vision, per his own words:
“I think what you’ve kind of hit on, is that we have a background in advancing art and empathetic characters and high-fidelity graphics. Ultimately we’re gonna continue that trajectory here in building visuals that are compelling and characters that you can draw empathy from and are compelled to hear stories from and yeah, we hope to be able to continue that trajectory and be competitive in this field at this new company in the same genre that we love”, he says, after I’d pointed out the team’s shared experience in the genre.
“This is the next frontier of big challenge, we still believe wholeheartedly in this genre and we have stories we wanna tell, and it felt like a good time for the many connected members of That’s No Moon who came from various companies like Bungie, Infinity Ward, Playstation, all of these places to kind of use our collective experience to create something new and genre-defining”, he adds.
“That’s our goal, its to use our collective experiences that we’ve had over the past decade, decade and a half, and make our mark in the genre. And hope to push it forward in a meaningful way and tell stories that we can be really proud of. On the storytelling peace, one main focus for our company is to tell positive, uplifting stories that tell us something about the world today. We can take our spin on it, but our main focus is to tell uplifting stories”, Mike continues.
We still believe wholeheartedly in this genre, and we have stories we wanna tell
Of course, the mention of uplifting stories specifically was interesting. Considering we’re now living the plot of the post apocalyptic novel boom, Mike had things to say about the need for more positive stories in our lives, too.
If you heard the show Ted Lasso, it’s just got such a positive uplifting feel and the main character is just so kind and you fall in love with this person’s kindness and we are missing that”, he says.
“I’m not saying that people are missing doing it, but i mean there’s not enough of it and the demand is higher than the supply in characters that you can sympathize with and deliver uplifting messages. The stories is those kind of things we wanted to be building characters and telling stories that when we came out from this pandemic, you gonna just feel good, it’ll be the kind of thing we want to see coming out from the dark time like the last few years”, he says.
However, he was quick to clarify this wasn’t some sort of industry insight, but rather a personal one:
“Well my appetite for post-apocalyptic games is plummeting, i don’t know about the world’s. I think anytime we have a major world crisis in any capacity in 60s or 70s in Vietnam, there’s always gonna be stories after those kind of crisis but it also follows up with lots of positivity, because the people that are coming out from that hard time want to have stuff to look forward to”, Mike explains.
“You know coming out from that period we had disco in the 80s, i mean out of these time there’s gonna be a resurgence of the desire for stuff that makes you laugh, makes you smile, makes you think about the world and how we can do better things for the world. I do think we’re gonna crave that”.
Speaking of uplifting TV, we did grill Mike and Harold about what else they’d be watching
“So there is Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, it’s on Apple TV, and it’s like a short show series like the Office. To me it is very, very brilliant, it’s got like the comedy tone and the talks are all about our gaming industry”, he says. “The tones in the show are fantastic, especially the fun piece of game development. In the film, I’ve got Godzilla VS Kong, I already watched it like three times. I don’t know its positive about uplifting but I love it, it brought me back to my childhood, he laughs.
Meanwhile, Harold chimed in with a classic movie, enjoyed with his family:
“Last weekend, I watched E.T with my kids, and those were very positive uplifting stories. I really liked the movie when I was a little kid, so I enjoy the moment watching this movie with kids, which was very special to me”, he says.
Anyways, I want to add on one thing to Malaysia fans. Smilegate has been looking into the Malaysia market very carefully, we value so much talent in various regions. And we want to explore opportunities in Malaysia as well, hopefully when the whole pandemic goes down, I’ll get an opportunity to make a visit to Malaysia and say hello guys in person.
Making The Games You Wanna Make, Not Chasing Trends
While laughed off the idea of a disco video game, he did say that he and the That’s No Moon team had a unified idea that they would be making the game they want, instead of buckling to trends.
“Thats the funny part, we’re at a very interesting time in the world, there are more games in genres of multiplayer, and bigger scale, and there’s a lot of excitement and momentum in those areas. Having said that the major console publishers are experiencing tremendous success in third person narrative genre. Not only is it succeeding, it’s thriving, but it takes quite a large ambitious, competent team to even be able to pull off a task of making one of these products, and there aren’t that many teams in the world that can do it”, he says.
“So it was an exciting opportunity for many of the people who were wanting and craving to tell really deep meaningful stories in this genre (third-person action-adventure) where there are just not that many places making it. The energy was pretty electric- still today, every time I get off the call of a new potential candidate, you can kind of feel the excitement of the genre”, he says.
“Especially our kind of direction for the genre, where we wanna go and also the tone of the game. Doing something at this scale at a positive tone at a time when we think the world needs that is encouraging people”.
Mike also highlighted the pillars at the core of That’s No Moon- namely storytelling and a desire to make a potential Game of the Year contender. He also indirectly alluded to having a healthier work-life balance, wanting it to be another core pillar of That’s No Moon.
We want to respect peoples families as much as we want to respect the idea of making a great game
“Well yeah, making a great game, make a Game of the Year contending game that was a key pillar for what we wanted to do. Another one was build a culture of collaboration and participation and inclusiveness and respect. You know, the challenges that we have is, we want to be doing things in a way that is doing responsible production practices, allowing ourselves to have both life at work and outside of work”, he says.
“We want to respect peoples families as much as we want to respect the idea of making a great game. There are companies that I believe have taken that as a pillar and are succeeding at that as well, and that’s very important to us.”, he says.
He also added another prong to the angle of respecting everyone in the game- that is to say, the writing itself. Aside from accepting anyone as a storyteller, he also described making sure that the actual product respects everyone, as well:
“The pillar of storytelling was a big important piece. We sort of say that everyone in the company is a storyteller, and that’s very true- everyone is invited to be a storyteller and participate in the story and challenge the story and challenge the characters- you know I was just on a call this morning where I was talking about the dialogue- ‘Do the jokes hit? Do they resonate? Are they offensive’ And that’s part of the respect thing- everybody’s welcome to put their input, and to help craft this story.That’s a very important pillar that’s resonating with the team as well. “, he says.
“I think those are our key values. Making a Game of the Year is one that drives us- we are a competitive team and we wanna compete. That’s certainly bringing people here”, he concludes.
Support from Your Team And Loved Ones
Of course, engaging on something like starting a studio is a huge leap of faith. We asked Mike about the kind of support he received when he and his team set out to make That’s No Moon.
“Personally, the support was great actually. I think my family and friends have a lot of trust in me. If you look back at my LinkedIn, you’ll notice I’ve been fairly stable- I don’t make a move every 3 years. I spend quite a long time in these other positions”, he assures us. “So I think that they understood that I felt very confident, that this was the right move,and they felt that, and it was hard not to support because I didn’t have a lack of confidence that this was the logical next step”.
He also mentioned Smilegate, who invested a sizable chunk of money into the startup:
“Frankly, part of that safety was Harold and Smilegate. Once I met them, it was very clear that I had a partner that had the same belief in our vision and goals that we have. With that, you create something that feels very aligned and safe, not that it takes the risk of creating something new away, but it allows you to focus on the important parts of creating something new, which is the aspects that we love so much about team building, innovation and creativity. There’s a lot less fear than there is inspiration, aspiration and hope”
Whether it’s globally or in U.S or Korea, they all enjoy and crave for well made games and also good storytelling
– Harold Kim
Harold also chimed in, with Smilegate’s opinion on the partnership with That’s No Moon, drawing similarities between That’s No Moon and the Lost Ark publisher:
“I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think on our side whether it’s globally or in U.S or Korea, they all enjoy and crave for well made games and also good storytelling, so I don’t think there’s a difference in that regard”, he says. “At Smilegate, we want to become a global video game player company and we want to have more opportunities, constantly look for more opportunities to showcase great games for the global audience and global market. We have accumulated a lot of knowledge from the Asian side and our goal is to make more opportunities to collaborate with the western talents like That’s No Moon”.
“[We’re] Super happy, by the way, that we got an early involvement with That’s No Moon and Mike. Mike and I had a lot of different meetings in both video chats and also many meetings (carefully) in person to discuss about what good team building is: how do we build the right team, the right talents, to come up with a good thought provoking story and narrative. Smilegate plans to focus on developing various interesting stories with great partners from the west, including the U.S”
Harold also stressed that Smilegate would not be interfering in That’s No Moon’s operations, from a creative standpoint. Thanks to the two company’s shared core values, he says they have no interest in getting in Mike and the team’s way.
“All the creative decision making comes from the TNM side. We don’t have any intent of trying to intervene on their creativity”, he says.
That being said, Harold was mum on the explicit details of their partnership with That’s No Moon, with regards to things like publishing deals. Considering we don’t even know what their first game is, it makes sense.
Telling Great Stories
With their star-studded roster and powerful backing, it looks like That’s No Moon has a bright future ahead of them. Considering the critical success of games like Death Stranding and the Last of Us, there’s definitely an appetite for their forte- story driven games.
If nothing else, That’s No Moon’s first impression is that of a studio that really loves their genre. Everything we talked about with Mike shows someone who not only loves making games, but isn’t blinded by it- such as his statements about taking care of the people who make the games as much as the games themselves.
We can only wish Mike and Harold the best with the new studio and business partner, and excitedly wait for what comes next from That’s No Moon.