Kenn Hoekstra on Raven Software, leaving the three year death march and setting up Category 6

Kenn Hoekstra during his previous job at Pi Studios

Kenn Hoekstra, formerly an executive producer at Pi Studios and now president of Category 6 studios, jumped into the game industry after attaining a Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in History, after which he moved on to become a restaurant manager. Hoekstra shares his stories about how he found his way into the industry, working at Raven Software, getting out of his comfort zone, leaving behind the three year death march of AAA development,  his views on the future of casual games and talks a bit about the newly established Category 6 Studios.

Starting out

The Raven design team from back in 1998

Hoekstra ended up in the game industry by taking a leap of faith, and trade in his management position in a restaurant for a junior position in design. “When I was managing that restaurant I had a graduate student working for me. His name was Jeff and he and I got along pretty well. He was older than most of my other employees so we had more in common. The more we talked the more he said, ‘You know, you should really meet my brother. I think you and he would get along really well.’ He introduced me to his brother who was a lead designer at Raven and we started playing [games like] DeadLands and Dungeon & Dragons on the weekends. We really did hit it off.”

This friendship soon inspired Hoekstra to get involved professionally with games. “There was a design position open at Raven and it was a very junior position,” he recalls. “They didn’t have a lot of money. This was before the Activision buyout. So I actually took a pay cut from my restaurant management position of a couple thousand dollars to go take basically a glorified internship at Raven. So they basically said here is a chair, here is your computer, here is your design lead, start learning. It just kind of went from there. That was back in the days before there were a lot of game schools and there really wasn’t a clearly defined path to getting into the industry. So in my case it really was being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. It is kind of strange when I think back how very lucky I was to break in that way because I don’t think there [are a lot of] people who can do it that way nowadays.”

Moving up and moving on

The Soldier of Fortune team at the Raven headquarters in 2000

Although he gave up a managerial position to become a designer, the management spirit in Kenn Hoekstra hadn’t left him. “As a designer I was pretty good at being a builder,” he explains. “I loved the level geometry construction and layout and that sort of thing. But when we got into Soldier of Fortune, the lead programmer had written a scripting language to script the game with and, I don’t know, mentally I could just not Grokk it at all. I was very frustrated with it and I just wasn’t very good at it. Unfortunately at the same time my father passed away and I missed a bunch of work while everyone else was training, so I fell behind.”

“I was working with a little bit of everything which was appealing because no two days were ever alike.“
Hoekstra was happy to later see the position of project administrator become available. “I wasn’t really enjoying design at that point because I just wasn’t feeling like I was pulling my weight,” he admits. “So I got the position and it just sort of took off from there. The position appealed to me because it had a little more freedom to decide what things needed to be done. It allowed me to interact with the public more, marketing, support, and things like that and I actually trained to be IT and technical support.”

Taking on a job with a broader range of responsibilities, Hoekstra learned more and more. “It became a pretty broad scoped job. I was working with a little bit of everything which was appealing because no two days were ever alike. [At some point] I just really had to move on. I was there a really good seven years. Basically, I got to a point in my position where I had done all that I could do. I was looking for a promotion or another internal move. And I kinda got the ‘you’re really valuable in your position’ and ‘we need you to just stay where you are’ and I had just reached the point where it felt like I had to leave to try something new ‘cause I had pretty much done all I could do.”

Yet again, Hoekstra decided to take a leap and make a change. Although it might sound as though this is something that came easy for him, it never really was. “In the case of Raven specifically it was very difficult for me to leave because from a geographical standpoint Raven was pretty much the only game in town. So it wasn’t like it was in Dallas or Austin or Los Angeles where I could just leave and find another job. It really did take a lot for me to leave. But, in the end, it felt like, you know, I didn’t want my health to suffer, [and] I didn’t feel like I had learned everything I needed to know by the age of 30. And I think that, you know, people get comfortable. They get complacent with where they are and I’m sure they [have a lot of] pressures. I was married at one point during that ten years and I understand that you have friends and people [who] naturally fear change, but there comes a point where you really have to say, ‘you know my health and my well-being and my mental [state] needs to be challenged and I need to be in a position where I can be comfortable’. At some point you have to just move on.”

Being an executive producer at Pi Studios

Hoekstra at one of the Pi Studios parties

Hoekstra’s journey eventually took him to Pi Studios. There he was an executive producer, where he dealt mostly with contract work. The advantage of this kind of work was something he thoroughly enjoyed; every day seemed like a different day. “Nobody likes being stuck on a project for like 2, 3, 4 years at a time. It’s draining. I think [Pi Studios’s] philosophy for a company is such that you’re constantly growing and trying new things. People want to change up the game once in a while.”

“As a Producer I enjoy working on a variety of things myself. I’m fortunate to be able to work on more than one project at once. The aspect of my job I value most is that everyday it’s something different. I’m not stuck in a rinse-repeat position. Every day, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Well, I have some idea what’s going to happen. (laughter) There’s a new challenge everyday and it’s still a strain. That’s one of the most amazing things about this industry. Every single day there’s some new technology or some new technique to learn and it’s a challenge to stay on top of all that.”

No more three year death march

Hoekstra and Bruce Campbell fighting over the Necronomicon

Hoekstra worked on quite a few AAA titles, including Mercenaries, Call of Duty 3 and Call of Duty: World at War. Working on these kinds of titles always brings about problems during the production process. When describing the production process of games in general, Hoekstra mentions that “as much as the industry has grown and changed and as much as technology has improved, crunch is still a reality on most games and at most companies. There are always missteps in scheduling and management of products. There’s always going to be pressure, there’s always going to be long hours and weekends and things like that and I think that that’s one of the reasons that Facebook games and mobile games and flash games and other small scope projects are becoming more popular and generating more revenue. Because as discussed earlier, no one wants to be on a three year death march on a product, where there’s no end in sight. When making a little iPhone app or Android app or putting together a Facebook game, you’re constantly turning out products. You’re always doing something new. To be honest I haven’t worked on enough mobile and Facebook games to know firsthand, but I would imagine even they have some kind of crunch. But I would imagine that it’s not anywhere near [the crunch of] a 60 dollar box retail game.”

This shift of interest from big AAA productions to smaller projects can be seen, according to Hoekstra, by looking at the budgets games used to have. “Industry-wide there’s been a kind of a bursting of the bubble in the sense that -the other day I was doing some research and I read that Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 was a 200 million dollar project. And there just aren’t that many publishers left that can invest that kind of money and that kind of time into making a product like that. I think in a way the industry reached a peak wherein a bunch of people realized that we can’t keep spending money at this rate, because the risk is too great if we – much like Hollywood – put all our money into a product and it doesn’t sell. Then we’ve just bankrupted the company.”

Casual is here to stay

Back in 2002 Hoekstra and a couple of his colleagues inside Raven even had a band that would play at the studio's social events

When it comes to personal taste, Hoekstra enjoys the smaller projects as well. “I enjoy my work at Pi and I’ll work on whatever they want me to work on next, but personally I find the Iphone, Android and the Facebook games fascinating. I would like to work on them at some point because they’re interesting to me as a gamer. I play Facebook games, I play games on my phone, and I like the “pick up whenever” games that you can put down. I’m at the point where I’m not going to stay up 36 hours to try and finish a game. I’m evolving myself as a person who’s getting older and has more plans in his life. I want to be able to game here and there for 15 minutes. Being a Producer I would love to try making some of the smaller stuff too.”

Hoekstra doesn’t see casual games going away any time soon. “Casual games are here to stay,” he says. “It’s partly because of their increasing popularity and partly because the industry is changing. The days of the 200 million dollar projects are winding down and the casual market doesn’t quite have the umph to pick up all of that demand. There has to be some kind of middle ground there, something on the horizon that hasn’t quite happened yet.”

BLACKOUT

Hoekstra and some other Pi studios members recently left to start their own company called Category 6 studios and are already working on their first game, an original title called BLACKOUT.  “I’m afraid I can’t really talk much about BLACKOUT yet as it is still in the very early stages of development,” he says. “The announcement was a bit premature. My departure from Pi Studios and the formation of Category 6 Studios all happened so quickly that letting the cat out of the bag was kind of an accident. I can say that we’re prototyping the game internally and shopping it around to publishers while we do some mobile development and look for other work for the studio. I’m excited about the concept and I’m excited about the team. It’s been a heck of a ride so far.”

BLACKOUT  is being developed as a survival horror themed first person shooter for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 using the Unreal engine.

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Written by Vlad M.

Vlad wears many hats, but he's mostly known for his work as a freelance game journalist, researcher and consultant. He's always looking for the next game related project to sink his teeth in. You can find his adventures over on www.VGVisionary.com

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