Budcat Creations wasn’t just a job. The former Iowa City videogame development studio served as a community where the entire office staff called one another “friend.” It was kind of place where management would hang out with programmers and artists. Instead of golf, the weekend was filled with Halo, pizza and large televisions.
At a Christmas party one year, the studio rented a dining area at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Iowa City and held a poker tournament for all employees. The chips had Budcat’s logo on them—the face of a cat made to look like a red videogame controller. Budcat didn’t stop at just hosting a fun event. It gave Xbox 360 systems as prizes to tournament winners.
In 2009, the studio gave every one of its approximately 70 employees a Nintendo DS handheld system for Christmas. Each of the systems featured the Budcat logo.
“Budcat was the best job ever,” Tom Heinecke, a former 3D artist at Budcat, said.
Heinecke worked on games such as Guitar Hero: Metallica and Band Hero at Budcat. The studio was assigned mostly games in the Guitar Hero franchise after being bought by Activision, a videogame publisher based in Santa Monica, Calif.
Even though Guitar Hero is a household name, Heinecke’s work wasn’t always exciting or glamorous. Often, he was stuck taking in-game Guitar Hero assets developed by Neversoft—another Activision studio responsible for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of the game—and making them compatible with the Nintendo Wii and Playstation 2.
The mundane work of converting one version of a game to another didn’t stop the office from having a lot of fun. Rob Keiser, also a 3D artist, had to regularly defend himself from NERF gun attacks. Various toys, action figures, and art statues littered his and everyone else’s desks. The entire workplace was filled with people who shared the same passion, allowing bonds to form easily among co-workers.
This passion best expressed itself in the behind-the-scenes work at the studio; the stuff that never made it to store shelves.
Budcat constantly developed prototype games that enabled imaginations to run wild. Some of the prototypes had ridiculous premises. One, intended for the Nintendo DS, allowed players to “shoot souls at people.”
Other prototypes were relatively simple. For example, in PixMaze, players navigated short labyrinths in small levels. It was the studio’s first iPhone game developed in 2009. Mobile games were just starting to take off with the first Angry Birds released that same year.
Budcat never had a chance to prove itself in the emerging market.
ABRUPT CHANGE NO ONE SAW COMING
Nov. 16, 2010, seemed like just another Tuesday morning as far as anyone at the studio could tell. Everyone expected another day doing a job of which so many dreamed. The morning’s energy quickly drained when a small Activision human relations team marched into Budcat’s Washington Street office without warning. The team was accompanied by several security guards.
One member of the HR team read a prepared statement informing employees that Budcat was closed. Effective immediately.
Then, employees were instructed to clear their desks one at a time, according to a schedule. There wasn’t a sound in the room, except for the shuffles of papers and the noise of computer equipment being unplugged. No one had time to process what just happened.
Each employee had 30 minutes to grab whatever he or she could as the guards stationed themselves by the exit. If employees forgot something or couldn’t snag everything in time, they were out of luck. Anything left behind was Activision’s property, with no way of getting it back.
At the time of the closure, Budcat had about 70 programmers, artists, producers, developers and other support employees.
Ashley Dyer, a former senior manager of corporate communications for Activision, said Guitar Hero had “run its course” in terms of popularity, prompting the end of Budcat.
Once everyone had collected their things, several employees went to The Mill, a bar just down the street, to collect their thoughts. It was just before noon and the bar was almost empty, giving the group one less thing to worry about.
Before meeting up with the group, Keiser went to his car to call his wife, Megan, and tell her the news. After getting off the phone, Keiser finally had time alone to let it all sink in. He broke down and cried for a few minutes before joining his friends.
The workers masked a feeling of devastation by cracking jokes while they drank. Many made fun of Activision and a few mentioned they’d have more time to play videogames, specifically World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, due out in a few weeks. Even in the face of terrible news, the Budcat team kept a glass-half-full attitude.
“We became sort of like a band of brothers and sisters. All of the internal office conflicts were gone and everyone was on the same level. We all had each other’s backs for that hour or two in the bar before going home to figure out what the hell to do next,” Keiser said.
At the bar, a couple Budcat employees contacted PC Gamer, a magazine devoted to computer games. The employees mentioned the human resources team seemed “too cheerful” when they shut the studio down.
Though they spent less than two hours at the bar, it was enough time to enjoy the comfort of friends. Some of the employees had known each other for more than a decade. Budcat always had been a studio with a positive atmosphere, and even in these circumstances, hardly anyone was cynical.
A few drinks together made going home to deliver the news to families that much easier.
NEED TO MOVE ON
The closure had a positive element. Suddenly, employees no longer were at the behest of a giant publisher and could pursue projects at will.
Jason Andersen, one of Budcat’s co-founders, is working on Lobo Pantalones, a game for OUYA, a soon-to-be-released home console for Android games. Set in the 1714 Caribbean, Lobo Pantolones is a 2D platformer – think Mario – where players control pirates.
Andersen says he had a harsh personal reaction to the closure and is doing his best to move on from it.
The loss of Budcat hurt more than one member of the Andersen family. Jeremy Andersen, Jason’s brother, served as Budcat’s general manager and was there the day the studio shut down.
Jeremy was a Budcat spokesperson. He had talked at the Jacobson Entrepreneurship Academy — a weeklong day camp for prospective young business owners — on July 15, 2009.
The closure hit Tom Heinecke hard, too. He suffered depression for about a month after the end of Budcat. Despite the pain, he would recommend anyone with whom he worked. He remains close friends with the Budcat employees that stayed in Iowa.
Things recently have been looking up for Heinecke. He independently released bit Dungeon, a browser-based action role-playing game, on Sept. 14. He did much of the work alone even though he has little programming experience.
On Dec. 14, he brought bit Dungeon to the iPad. It’s since been updated to work, too, on iPhones and iPods. An Android version was released on March 19. The game has generated enough money for Heinecke that he’s working on a sequel as well as an unannounced project.
The loss of Budcat put Rob Keiser in a tough situation. He became stressed knowing he couldn’t move to find work while his wife, Megan, was in graduate school at the University of Iowa. Realizing that Iowa didn’t have many opportunities in the game industry, he took a job at Verizon Wireless just to get off unemployment. By working together to get through the strenuous time, Keiser and Megan grew closer personally after the closure.
Keiser works now full time at Connect Five, a user experience and design studio in Iowa City. He also does freelance work for two game studios: the North Carolina-based Icarus Studios and the New Jersey-based nFusion Interactive.
But while people like Jason Andersen, Heinecke and Keiser are happy to still work in the game industry, putting the past behind them has been difficult.
Next, on April 4:
The fast-moving electronic gaming industry in 2013
March 14: Gone in a Flash: How the Iowa Company that Made Guitar Hero Crashed so Quickly
March 21: Dream jobs in the video game industry carry no guarantees
About this series
“Gone in a Flash” is a four-part series by IowaWatch staff reporter Benjamin Moore, a 2012 graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication with a keen interest in electronic gaming. His narrative is based on interviews, telephone conversations, emails and research in fall 2012 and winter 2013 with Jason Andersen, Tom Heinecke, Rob Keiser, George C. Ford, Maryanne Lataif, Brian Provinciano, The Des Moines Register, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Iowa City Press-Citizen, Edge, Destructoid, Gamespy Westwood Studios’ profile, Louis Castle interview with Vegas Seven, IGN, GamesRadar, Computer and Video Games, PC Gamer, Microsoft earnings news release, Sony press release and Joystiq.A version of this IowaWatch series was in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.