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The Globe and Mail

Family Guy Online game bets free is the key to success

The creators of Family Guy Online are hoping to create an experience where fans can actually interact with the characters from the show.

More than five million people watched the season finale of Family Guy. The television show's Facebook page has nearly 46 million "likes." And it seems that many of those fans want to see for themselves what it's like to walk around Quahog, the fictional town that provides the setting for the series and the game.

Ian Verchere of Vancouver's Roadhouse Interactive has been spending Sunday nights staring at a computer screen, blood pressure rising along with the graphs displaying the traffic at Family Guy Online, a free-to-play game he designed. Since the online experience has been advertised during broadcasts of the television show, the traffic spikes have been sudden, dramatic and potentially disastrous (just witness the response to outages during the first week's release of Diablo III).

"We got hit hard," says Mr. Verchere, who declined to provide specific numbers. But so far the servers have held up.

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Family Guy, created by entertainment whiz Seth MacFarlane, is one of the star properties of 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that gave the animated sitcom its break in 1999. The television show, featuring the Griffin family and their talking dog, just completed a 10th season on the air and has been renewed by Fox Broadcasting for an 11th.

Alex Carter and Andrew Goldberg are supervising producers on the show and have been contributing to Family Guy Online. In a conference call from L.A., Mr. Goldberg said they were hoping to create an experience where fans could actually interact with the characters from the show.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Goldberg, who have worked with game developers before, said that they had more creative input than they've had with other, licensed games, and that collaboration started at the earliest stages of creation. "In this case the game was really developed in tandem with the show," said Mr. Goldberg.

"This feels much less like a piece of merchandise and more like another production alongside the show," he added.

"All the quests reference specific things that have happened throughout the series. It's nice that it allows those jokes to live on, and in some cases expand," said Mr. Carter. For example, in the television episode "The Tan Aquatic with Steve Zissou," Peter confronts a bully who has been terrorizing his son, Chris. One of the first quests in Family Guy Online is to fight that same bully.

"The fact that this is a live game that is available in a browser and is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection," says Mr. Verchere, "means that we can truly offer the game up for free to anyone that wants to come and play."

Sitting at a work table that takes up most of the space in a small loft office in Vancouver's Gastown district, Mr. Verchere sometimes sounds like he's a Family Guy character himself. Beside him is the more urbane Tarrnie Williams.

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In their 20 years developing video games – for the likes of Activision and Electronic Arts – the two men created many rules about how to make good ones. Now they're gleefully breaking them. Along with James Hursthouse they founded Roadhouse, and while they are still developing games, they don't see their outfit as a game developer.

"We're a production company, not a developer," says Mr. Verchere. Game developers typically employee hundreds. In between development cycles, there is a bulk of people that have nothing to do but who need to be paid. Not to mention the overhead costs for the facilities. "Which makes it very difficult," says Mr. Williams, "to run a company."

Mr. Verchere draws a comparison to Hollywood where very little money is spent in the early phases of a project. "When it's time to make the thing, they hose it down with cash," he says.

The core of Roadhouse is only 15 people. Creative directors and producers are joined by financial specialists and technologists with experience in hardware, software and the online arena. Mr. Verchere quips: "That's our kung fu."

When it was time to build Family Guy Online, Roadhouse ramped up production by outsourcing. Programming was done by A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games in Burnaby and the animation was provided by Mindwalk Studios in Beijing. "Our development studio is the world," Mr. Verchere explains.

Roadhouse also eschewed convention by not licensing Family Guy from Fox. "Licensing pulls money out of a deal," says Mr. Williams. If a publisher has $10-million to develop a game, and has to spend $5-million for the license, that leaves only $5-million for the game. "That's why most licensed products aren't very good," he reasons.

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By simply producing Family Guy Online, Roadhouse was able to put all of the money available for development into the game itself. Fox, said Mr. Verchere, is simply "extending one of their beloved franchises into the online space."

And just like with a television show, Family Guy Online could have the plug pulled whenever Fox decides it doesn't want to pay for it any longer. But Mr. Verchere isn't worried right now. "The graphs are pointed in the right direction," he said.

As for Fox? "They're either thrilled or they're very good liars," said Mr. Carter.

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