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Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Jon Chey is humble about his capabilities and achievements to the point of self-effacement.

Yet with a history behind the helm of legendary studios Irrational Games and 2K Australia, and a gaming resume replete with iconic, ground-breaking titles as System Shock 2 and BioShock, Chey’s body of work does all the talking for him.

“Jon is a very clever [game] designer … he’s very efficient in a way that I’ll never be,” says Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games and the creative director behind BioShock and BioShock: Infinite.

Ben Lee, art director at Blue Manchu, describes him as a “sensible” developer. “That doesn’t mean boring, that just means he knows what he’s doing. He may make incorrect decisions from time to time, like we all do, but he doesn’t make irrational or stupid decisions ever —everything Jon does is very considered.”

Despite glowing praise from venerated gaming professionals, Chey would rather describe himself as a “generalist” and a “a jack of all trades”.

“I’m quite a mediocre programmer; I’m a mediocre game designer; I’m a mediocre business manager; I’m a mediocre this-and-that. I’m not a specialist or expert at anything. I just do a lot of different things.”

Born in Sydney in August 1966, Chey spent part of his young life living in China “at the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution” in the early 1970s with his parents and older brother Stephen, as a result of his mother’s position in Australian trade and foreign affairs.

With a Chinese father and English-descended mother, Chey describes this upbringing as an odd experience.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Discovering Pong began a lifelong passion in video games for Chey. Image: Wikipedia.

“As a foreigner you became … like a combination between a minor celebrity and a criminal. People were both fascinated by you and suspicious of you. The anonymity of being in a crowd goes away,” he says.

Chey remembers being “instantly enraptured” by a Pong machine while in Hong Kong, which sparked a lifelong infatuation with video games. As a teenager Chey bought his first computer, a RadioShack TRS-80 Model One from which he “typed in” his own games with the aid of magazine printouts before losing track of the hobby in favour of other areas.

I never really thought that I could have a career making games. That seemed like a kind of a crazy fantasy.

After moving back to Australia to live with his grandparents, Chey accepted a scholarship at Boston University where he completed a PhD in Cognitive Science before looking for work via a recruitment agency. This led to a job opportunity, through “complete, random chance”, at Looking Glass Studios, the studio then known for venerated PC gaming titles Ultima Underworld and System Shock.

“I guess they were desperate enough [for a programmer that] they contacted a recruitment agent … and somebody kind of had my resume on the desk and went, ‘Cognitive science, artificial intelligence, that’s close enough’.”

Chey refers to Looking Glass as the “prog rock” of game studios, a confluence of “very technically proficient” developers with a foundation of MIT alumni.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Jon Chey, all smiles at Blue Manchu. Image: Jon Chey.

Looking Glass is often seen as the pioneer of the “immersive sim”. It’s a “particular kind of game which has become very popular” in the modern gaming landscape, which favours flexible tools and systems encouraging player ingenuity and creativity. The immersive sim invites players to make use of or even manipulate the mechanics at their disposal to overcome obstacles in ways that even the developers couldn’t anticipate.

Looking Glass also propelled video game narrative forward with an attentiveness towards environmental storytelling, expert sound design and a keen sense of atmosphere.

Hired as a programmer, Chey was a fan of their games, and recalls being “absolutely floored” by the level of commitment to the craft and the enjoyment on display by the team. He considers his time at Looking Glass to have been “more like a lifestyle than a job” with a level of dedication often consisting of long working hours, now controversially referred to industry-wide as crunch.

“If I’d had to do it for 20 years it might have been a bit much, but I really enjoyed the kind of the complete immersion in the lifestyle of being a game developer. People stayed there very late and worked on weekends and I did the same because I didn’t have anything more interesting to do when I went home.”

With no experience in professional game development, Chey was “thrown onto” the final stages of the 1996 tactical mech shooter Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri to fix a single bug before joining the development of Thief: The Dark Project, Looking Glass’s seminal first-person stealth title.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Chey at his computer in the days of Irrational Games Australia. Image: Jon Chey.

There he “worked a bit” on that game’s Dark Engine, an engine that would later be reutilised for System Shock 2 in 1999.

While at Looking Glass, Chey met Ken Levine, a former screenwriter tasked with outlining Thief’s initial story concept.

“Jon definitely struck me right away as, you know, there’s this feeling you get when you meet somebody who’s smarter than you and you’re like ‘Oh, this guy’s a lot smarter than me!'” Levine says.

The two were paired together with programmer Rob “Xemu” Fermier among many others to develop a licensed Star Trek title, Star Trek: Voyager, which was later cancelled. Although a studio of “stellar talent and [an] incredible culture”, Levine says Looking Glass were “always on the edge financially of getting shut down”, which brought the trio no sense of ease.

With what Levine calls “a naivety that we could do it better”, the trio struck out on their own and formed Irrational Games in 1997, a company that would aim to “keep the cultural aspects of Looking Glass and having the games but try to do better on the business front”.

With no prior business experience and Chey and Levine having “never shipped a game” to completion, the team worked out of single-bedroom apartments with no office, projects, or funding.

“The idea of an indie game development studio didn’t even exist [at that time]…” says Chey. “If I knew what I know now I definitely would not have made that leap.”

We did succeed but it was wildly improbable, and we were very, very lucky.

The early months of Irrational were racked with uncertainty. Despite boundless creativity and a feverish work ethic, the studio had nothing but failed pitches, a cancelled single-player component for 1998’s FireTeam (the day before payment was due) and haemorrhaging capital to show for it.

Levine says that despite his own concerns, Chey was “cool as a cucumber” during this turbulent period.

“Jon doesn’t get upset. He’s like, ‘whatever happens happens’.”

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Irrational Games making System Shock 2. Front: Steve Kimura, Jon Chey, Justin Waks, Mauricio Tejerina, Rob “Xemu” Fermier, Dorian Hart, Lulu LaMer. Middle: Ian Vogel, Scott Blinn, Michael Swiderek, Rob Caminos, Nate Wells. Back: Mike Ryan, Ken Levine, Mathias Boynton. Image: Jon Chey.

The nascent developer eventually received a call from Looking Glass co-founder, Paul Neurath, who was seeking an external team to make a game using their in-house Dark Engine, which was not yet fully developed.

Their status as former employees and “a cheap resource” with an intimate familiarity with the engine would have made them prime candidates, and Irrational was subcontracted to lead development on a title in partnership with Looking Glass, a providential act that Chey says “saved [our] bacon”.

“In retrospect it was kind of a weird thing for [them] to do,” says Chey. “I guess they were pretty desperate to find people.”

Given a familiar engine to work with and the freedom to make whatever game they wanted to, Irrational Games decided to make a sequel to Looking Glass’s 1994 sci-fi cult classic System Shock. With an overall cost of $1.7 million, a development period of 18 months, and resources, staff and office space shared between the two studios, Chey says System Shock 2 was an “incredible experience” but “a brutally hard project” to see to completion.

With Irrational’s founders hiring all personnel themselves and pulling double or even triple duties throughout development, Chey “had three jobs” on System Shock 2: performing the roles of project manager; handling Irrational’s administration; and programming the game’s AI during development.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

System Shock 2 blended sci-fi, horror, and RPG mechanics to create a foreboding atmosphere with the menacing and spine-chilling AI, SHODAN, at the forefront. Image: Moby Games.

“Jon is at his terminal all day with his spreadsheets and his programs,” says Levine. “He’s programming, he’s managing things, and we had terrible tools for management, [we had] Microsoft products [that] barely worked … and Jon has managed all this. He dealt with an engine that wasn’t really done yet so … stuff was constantly broken [or] we would break stuff, and he just kept it [all] together.”

Dorian Hart, author and former Looking Glass developer, describes Chey as the “clear-eyed realist” and a “counterbalance” who tempered Levine’s creative ambitions. Chey was “the brake and Ken [Levine] was the gas” of the Irrational dynamic, he says.

Levine says Chey kept things together. “I’d come [into the office] in the morning and … I’d have like my donut shoved in my mouth and Jon would have a glass of herbal tea and he’s just sitting at his desk, never needed any prompting,” he says.

“I’m like ADHD. To get me to sit down and write something, it would be a force of will.

“Jon was the guy who led the project, who did probably the hardest job … [which] was to … manage my creative ambition with a workable schedule that we could get this game done.

“We didn’t have any room for screw up,” Levine says.

[Chey] really is the one who was the even keel – without him I don’t see how it got done.

System Shock 2 was released on August 11, 1999 to critical praise but middling sales, yet Irrational’s ability to produce a game to release solidified their place as a company and, Chey says, “established their name” as a developer moving forward. The game is now seen as a landmark title in the first-person genre, winning multiple awards and frequently cited as among the best of 1990s PC gaming.

The longevity that System Shock 2 afforded Irrational did not extend to Looking Glass – they closed their doors in 2000 after 10 years of financial instability.

Fermier left Irrational soon after System Shock 2’s release while Chey, “burnt out” and tired of “living in a shitty apartment in Boston and working [his] ass off”, returned to Australia after having spent almost a decade living in America. The notion of unwinding and getting some sun was appealing.

Chey didn’t expect to continue working at Irrational, but a few months after returning he and Levine discussed the idea of forming an Australian branch in Canberra with Chey at the helm of both the studio and their debut title as part of an obligation to publisher Crave Entertainment.

The pair tossed around the concept of a real-time tactical superhero game, which became 2002’s Freedom Force. For this title, which Levine says was “the first IP we built from scratch”, Chey was given the reins. Tasked with organising a studio in the same fashion, he did so with the aid of initial lead programmer Carl Sandland.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Freedom Force allows you to play as a plethora of Jack Kirby-esque heroes from a colourful roster as you defeat supervillains and save the world in a homage to classic American superhero comics. Image: Steam.

“It started with me in my car driving from Sydney to Canberra with a couple of suitcases and no team and no office,” Chey says. “And then, 18 months later, we had our office, a team and a game. I’m quite proud of [Freedom Force].”

Credited as lead designer on Freedom Force, Chey calls the role a “bizarre” transition that gave him an added layer of appreciation for Levine’s work.

“I guess I’ve learned how hard Ken’s job was. Not that I ever really doubted it, but I got a first-hand experience of it,” Chey says.

With Chey’s studio possessing a more technically capable cohort and Levine’s team being more creatively inclined, the Irrational branches formed an important “synergy” between their “cultural differences” that allowed both divisions to work well off each other. Irrational carried on making games such as Tribes: Vengeance and SWAT 4 through the 2000s but Levine says the studio was “always on the verge of running out of money”.

Eventually, larger fish came calling to buy the studio, and a bidding war ensued between publishers Midway and Take-Two Interactive, who held right of first refusal. After no small amount of back-and-forth, Irrational Games was bought by the latter and both studios, rebranded as 2K Boston and 2K Australia, were converted under the wing of 2K Games.

This transition enabled them to make their next title, 2007’s BioShock, a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, with all of the resources, backing and promotion of a parent publisher. While initially developed solely by the Boston branch, it was soon clear that Irrational was “going to need all hands on deck” as the project expanded to a scope they were previously unfamiliar with.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

BioShock’s intense gameplay and riveting story birthed the analytical term “ludonarrative dissonance” and pushed forward the conversation of games as art. Image: 2K Games.

BioShock became a team effort under the watchful eye of 2K, with Chey heading the project as director of product development, a title that Chey says, while arbitrary, allowed him to “poke my nose in everything that was going on in the project”.

BioShock’s development was spread remotely across the various teams in Australia and the US, but as the game neared completion, Chey and co flew to Boston to assist in what Levine says was “last key period” of development. “It was like back in the System Shock days [where] we’re sitting in the office trying to figure out how to make this thing good, and it wasn’t very good until fairly late in the day,” he says.

With greater funds and resources came a greater demand in expectations. With a “much higher-level role than what [he’d] been used to in the past”, Chey felt the pressures of working on a project of BioShock’s magnitude. He recalls a near-disastrous press event in New York where he and the team scrambled to fix a crash bug in their demo presentation, coordinating with a tech team in Australia and “desperately trying to reproduce and fix this bug at the last minute”.

BioShock stirs mixed memories for Chey, who’s certain it “will always be one of my favourite game development experiences”, but the pressure involved in making a game of that scale is something he wouldn’t want to revisit.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Chey’s first game with Blue Manchu, Card Hunter delivers an online card collecting experience filtered through a table-top board game format. Image: PC Gamer.

Despite a bloated development cycle, design controversies in the media, and near-cancellation, BioShock was released to acclaim and proved an immense success both critically and commercially, winning multiple game of the year awards and reportedly selling 1.5 million copies in its first month.

What Levine labels as a more “experiential” hybrid between a shooter and role-playing immersive sim, BioShock opened the floodgates of artistic games discourse, ushering in a new era of respectability for the medium’s narrative and artistic relevance.

While Chey says that 2K funded BioShock properly and deserved a lot of credit for the game’s success, its release gave rise to “the [usual] problems of integrating one business into another”.

Discussions were entered with the publisher about what to do next, and with those discussions turning into “disputes” and both branches splintered off onto other projects, the dynamics of working under a large corporation became “unsatisfying enough” for Chey to decide to leave 2K in 2009.

Levine says it was demanding. “Running a huge AAA game project is complicated, there’s so many moving parts … [and] each [game] takes a little chunk out of you,” he says. “Jon … I think each game took a bigger chunk out of him than it did at me at first so I think he was pretty eaten up by the time we got to the end of BioShock.”

Chey entered into a three-year non-compete period, which he describes as a “waste of time” during which he did nothing “of any consequence or real value”. He travelled across America; rode his bike; “got so bored” that he did some undergraduate chemistry; and applied for med school but was rejected.

He tended to his garden “a lot”. “I guess that’s why they call it gardening leave.”

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Jon Chey and Blue Manchu showcasing Card Hunter at PAX. Image: Polygon

Once the non-compete lifted, Chey set about assembling a team to help realise his vision for a “pretty good idea … [for] an online CCG [collectible card game]”, getting in contact with old Irrational/2K colleagues Ben Lee and Jarrad “Farbs” Woods.

Lee says it was a coincidence. “He weirdly contacted me the week after I’d quit my job [asking] was I interested in doing an indie project with him,” he says. “Even back then, having not spoken for a few years, [that] didn’t really matter. I’ve got tremendous respect for Jon.”

The “indie project” became 2014’s Card Hunter, the remote development of which led to the formation of Chey’s studio Blue Manchu in 2011. Having worked exclusively on mid-budget to large-scope AAA titles, Chey found the shift from larger studios to the indie scene to be a “fairly big transition”.

“I had no idea whether I could go off and make smaller games on my own,” Chey says. “Just because you can make games with a bunch of other talented people in a big group is not an indication that you’ll be able to do anything like that on your own or with a small group of people, especially when you spend your time managing people and doing kind of high-level project work.

There’s lots of things that I do now that I hadn’t done until I started being an indie developer.

Chey says he prefers the greater creative freedom that indie development allows. The ability to adapt and “pivot” the direction of a project is “very hard when you have a budget and a timeline” at the level of AAA expectations. “It’s not something that I think I have the stomach for,” he says.

Woods says he thinks Chey was “frustrated” with working in a large studio and the bureaucracy of having to navigate multiple layers of management to enact meaningful change in a project’s design. “It’s not how he wants to make games … [and now] he can be as hands-on as he [wants] to be.”

While not an overwhelming success and, as Chey puts it, since “put in the shade” by other CCGs, Card Hunter established Blue Manchu and allowed the studio to continue doing “more interesting things”.

Ready to return to first-person shooters, and having always found the linear framework of many classic immersive sims to be a “strange” marriage, Chey proposed a game that fused the game style with the tractability of a rogue-like structure, leading to the release of Blue Manchu’s second and most recent game, Void Bastards, in 2019, which Woods says was a response to what Chey had done in System Shock 2.

With the tone of Void Bastards entrenched in what Chey calls the “nightmare bureaucracy” of British sci-fi, Hart says the game, alongside Card Hunter, evokes Chey’s “very dry, understated” sense of humour. “I think the more he had to do with it, which I guess is not surprising, the more his personality would come out in the game …[Void Bastards] felt like a Jon Chey game.”

Chey has a similar view. “It’s much more my game than System Shock 2 and BioShock were,” he says.

Chey says he approaches indie development “in a very lazy and self-indulgent way”, with Blue Manchu given a “very long runway” without the pressures of “a publisher breathing down our necks” and the creative restrictions of time constraints and deadlines.

“We can kind of just keep going until we think we’ve hit a sweet spot, like, ‘this game is good now’.”

Blue Manchu currently stands small with a team of about seven people, and despite many offers from publishers and the “temptation” to expand, Chey says it would be a big mistake to deviate from the current model, as it works for them.

Woods says Chey seems happier and more relaxed. “He’s well-established now, and isn’t dancing to anyone else’s tune and that’s got to be a good feeling,” says Woods.

In the decades since Looking Glass’s closure, the immersive sim has since grown in popularity and influence, with its ethos indelibly rooted within devoted acolytes like Arkane Studios.

Its proclivity for player freedom can be seen in many games today, even in the most recent ­Legend of Zelda entry, Breath of the Wild, a personal favourite of Chey’s and an immensely successful release.

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Breath of the Wild, one of Chey’s favourite games. Image: Nintendo

“I think when Nintendo are doing it, you know it’s mainstream.”

Chey plans to continue in the tradition of the immersive sim alongside the hybrid experimentation established with Blue Manchu, hinting that while their current game started life “elaborating on some of the things that were in Void Bastards“, it has since pivoted and will hopefully “have something different to say about rogue-like first person shooters”.

Chey spends his time, like many people currently, working remotely. He lives in Canberra with his partner Joanna, with plans to relocate to Sydney being halted by the COVID pandemic. Until the move, Chey says the isolation of lockdown, as well as the “good amount of space … [and the] natural environment” that Canberra provides, facilitates his “anti-social” sensibilities.

Hart says Chey “was not a social butterfly” while at Looking Glass. Chey agrees: “I’m not much of a people person.”

Jon Chey: ‘A rock in the ocean’ of Australian games development

Arkane Studio’s latest game Deathloop, like Void Bastards before it, injects rogue-like elements into the immersive sim format. Image: Bethesda Softworks.

Levine recalls a business trip with Chey in the early days of Irrational as the studio was trying to pitch to potential publishers. The pair travelled from Boston to Baltimore, a roughly 12-hour drive, with Chey spending “hours in the car without saying a word” which drove Levine “nuts”.

“He was … very comfortable with silence, and I wanted to get him talking because he’s a very interesting guy once you get him talking. He’s quite funny, which you wouldn’t think right from the start … and very well read, and generally a smart, smart guy,” Levine says.

Hart says Chey is “one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. And that’s saying a lot because I worked with rooms full of geniuses pretty much everywhere I was in the game industry.”

Chey measures his words with equal amounts of self-deprecation and humility. His expression changes rarely, and his voice raises little as he embodies Hart’s assessment of “a rock in the ocean” with a “solemnity” to his actions. Searching for the perfect way to convey his ideas, Chey more often than not expresses them both with the “quiet competence” Hart attests to, and a stolid passion that is no less palpable.

On the future of Blue Manchu, Chey says the studio will continue to push in directions outside the mainstream and, in spite of Deathloop’s success mining the rogue-like immersive sim, will strive to try new ideas with each outing.

“I always like to not be directly competing with what lots of other people, particularly AAA games, are doing … I think it’s obviously really setting yourself a hard task when you do that.”

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