That's No Moon, led by Last of Us, God of War devs, sets up shop in the AAA space

Funded by a $100 million investment, the studio is building a narrative-driven single-player game. Founding members talk to GameDaily about their approach to development.

A handful of games industry veterans have announced the opening of That’s No Moon, a new AAA development studio based in Los Angeles. The team is led by Michael Mumbauer, who is the former head of PlayStation’s Visual Arts Group. He’s joined by a host of well-known names; Tina Kowalewski, executive vice president of Giant Squid and former director of product at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio; Nick Kononelos, former senior development director at EA; Barry Genova, former foundation engineering lead at Bungie; and George Allison former head of finance for the Global Services Division at PlayStation, among others.

Assembling the team and enduring a pandemic

According to the announcement, That’s No Moon--which is a Star Wars reference--will focus on crafting “a new generation of narrative-driven, genre-defining experiences that will span both interactive and linear media.” As CEO, it’s Mumbauer’s job to oversee this mission, and he’s confident that he’s assembled the right team.

“One of the things I’m most proud of about That’s No Moon is the incredible collection of Game of the Year Award-winning talent with such deep experience in the single-player narrative action-adventure genre,” Mumbauer told GameDaily. “With veterans of Naughty Dog, PlayStation, Infinity Ward, Bungie and Santa Monica Studio, we are forming an incredible team that have been working together in some form or another for over a decade.” 

Between the lot of them, That’s No Moon is rife with passionate storytellers who have shipped mega hits like God of War, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, The Last of Us, Destiny, and Uncharted, among many others. Given this collective resume, it’s no surprise that Mumbauer and company are taking aim at the single-player action-adventure genre.

There are a number of challenges that come along with forming a AAA studio, and despite the pedigree of talent at That’s No Moon, Mumbauer recognizes that today’s working conditions present a substantial roadblock. Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things harder than normal.

“Many of us have never met in person and we don’t really even know exactly when that will happen,” he explained. “There’s so much uncertainty regarding how we will all work together after the pandemic, but similar to how we helped innovate in the genre, we also believe we can apply those same ideals to how we make games in this new world.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and Mumbauer said that the team is learning a lot about remote communication and video game development. By applying its collective approach to storytelling, That’s No Moon is hopeful that it can be just as productive in a remote-first setting as it could be in person. In many cases, this involves predicting what collaboration might look like in the future.

“We’re discovering and building from the ground up processes that we think will reflect where the world will be in terms of game development and collaboration, not where it was prior to the pandemic,” he said. “In some ways, it’s a fresh start for many of us, and it allows us to rebalance our work/life priorities for the better without sacrificing our goal of making great games.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Taylor Kurosaki, CCO of That’s No Moon, who told GameDaily that the pandemic has afforded an opportunity to address transparency and collaboration with a fresh perspective. 

“Our entire studio--nearly 40 developers, currently--is invited to our daily design and story meetings,” Kurosaki explained. “Whether the topics are game-wide or targeted at a specific moment, we believe that arriving at decisions together, and participating in how we decide them, is crucial to having a cohesive team all working toward the same north star. This is our competitive advantage.”

Before joining the team, Kurosaki was a narrative director at Infinity Ward where he oversaw Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Warzone. He also spent several years at Naughty Dog and served as lead game designer on Crash Bandicoot and narrative design lead for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Beyond the unique constraints of a pandemic-stricken industry, there are several more evergreen challenges associated with opening a AAA studio. The landscape is certainly very competitive, but Mumbauer believes that there’s never been a better time to get the ball rolling on a narrative-driven single-player experience. 

“Competition breeds innovation and we want to be best-in-class. I think the biggest challenge ahead is delivering against our own expectations. While we have won awards at our former studios, we have not lost our competitive spirit that helped us win them in the first place.”

Mumbauer said that the team is its own harshest critic, and the goal is to exceed their own expectations. 

Developing a holistic approach to narrative experiences

Considering the background of That’s No Moon’s founding team, it’s not surprising that the studio is setting its sights on the narrative-driven, single-player space. It is in contrast with some major industry trends, though. For example, it would have been easy to express interest in the free-to-play and live-service sector where titans like Fortnite and FIFA rake in the money.

This isn’t That’s No Moon’s purview, though. After all, it’s a team of passionate storytellers who cut their teeth on single-player, narrative experiences.

“The opportunity to make single-player narrative-driven games at AAA scope and scale is becoming more and more rare,” Jacob Minkoff, chief design officer of That’s No Moon, told GameDaily. “As much as we love live-service games and play them a ton, we know that there are types of experiences that only single-player games can deliver.”

Minkoff brings his own host of experiences to That’s No Moon. Previous, he was lead game designer on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception at Naughty Dog and The Last of Us

Unsurprisingly, Kurosaki also expressed a deep appreciation for single-player experiences: 

“Creating memorable stories and empathetic characters is core to Jacob’s and my experience and interest as developers. We know that the way to innovate and achieve class-leading excellence is to focus 100% on the single-player experience.”

Intrinsic to That’s No Moon’s business philosophy is maintaining a sustainable development schedule. Minkoff explained that, at this point, he and Kurosaki operate as a well-oiled machine, and they want to bring that rapport to the rest of That’s No Moon.

“Over the years, Taylor [Kurosaki] and I have worked with many talented colleagues and developed methodologies for managing schedules, while maintaining the highest level of quality,” Minkoff said. “The first pillar is prioritizing our level and system designs right from the start.”

Taylor Kurosaki (left) and Jacob Minkoff (right), That's No Moon.
Taylor Kurosaki (left) and Jacob Minkoff (right), That's No Moon.

He described a process divided into discrete segments where directors work directly with designers to clearly identify the most important elements of a given level, and then divide the rest of the level into a series of successively lower-priority beats. Ideally, this makes the editing stage easier as editors know what beats are low priority, and therefore have a place to start cutting as the need arises.

“Since we planned for those potential cuts right from the start, the editing process is efficient and there’s no risk of losing important content that is vital to the holistic experience of the game--all of that is in the highest priority beats, and those are guaranteed to get done,” Minkoff explained. “Nothing ever goes quite as you’d expect in game development, so planning our course-corrections right from the start ensures that the most important content makes it into the game and gets the most polish.”

Another major facet of Minkoff’s development process involves early and aggressive Alpha builds. The goal is to make the game look like an E3 demo as early as possible, he said, which requires careful scrutiny along every step of the way.

“By standing up a portion of the game to E3-quality on a regular cadence, we force ourselves to make necessary course-corrections early, avoid repeated re-rolls of level content late in the process, and we energize the team by putting quality on the screen so we all have an exciting target to work towards.”

Building for the future and partnering with Smilegate

Beyond its approach to the development process, That’s No Moon is also focused on creating a welcoming and diverse work environment. Minkoff said that the approach to team building is “quality-first, team-focused,” a philosophy that he hopes is respectful of workers’ time and effort. 

“When it comes to empowering people and building a welcoming studio, Taylor and I believe very strongly in open, transparent communication. The studio is design-led, but what that means to us is that we treat everyone as designers. All team members are welcome to join the design and story meetings. We want everyone to see how the sausage is made and to know that their input is being seriously considered during the process.”

This strategy doesn’t necessarily equate to a design-by-committee approach, though. Rather, the goal is to make everyone across all departments feel involved in the development of the game. By welcoming everybody into design meetings and keeping communication public, Minkoff and Kurosaki hope to make operations as transparent as possible.

In regards to diversity, Minkoff said that he is pleased with the starting team, but acknowledged that there is always room for improvement. There are a number of open positions that That’s No Moon is looking to fill, and Minkoff is hoping to acquire talent straight out of college. As a longtime industry vetereran, he said that he’s noticed an increase in diversity in the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go on that front.

In order to get the ball rolling on development, That’s No Moon has partnered with Smilegate, the Korea-based developer of Crossfire. Smilegate has invested $100 million into That’s No Moon, and will continue to help fund the studio’s vision moving forward.

“Both That’s No Moon and Smilegate believe in the high-level goal of putting out great games,” Harold Kim, VP of business development at Smilegate, told GameDaily. “It is important to note that all creative direction will come from That’s No Moon. Our companies share core values, which we want to reflect in our upcoming project, and are invested in telling stories with a positive, uplifting message, while being thought-provoking.”

Harold Kim, VP of business development, Smilegate

Mumbauer expressed enthusiasm at the partnership, saying that Smilegate presents an attractive collaboration for many reasons. Namely, the two companies share an enthusiasm for narrative experiences that can be enjoyed globally. 

 “Whether you’ve played our game in North America, Asia, or Europe, we want players everywhere to share the same uniquely powerful experience that only narrative-driven entertainment can provide,” Mumbauer said. “The trust that Smilegate has given to That’s No Moon is allowing us to work creativity and we know that something truly special will come through in the final product as a result.”

And in the end that’s what drives That’s No Moon--the desire to tell memorable stories and build empathetic characters. The process of developing such experiences is certainly a daunting undertaking, but it’s hard not to be enthusiastic given the company’s background.

For his part, Minkoff is confident in That’s No Moon’s approach to development. For a veteran such as himself, working on a brand new property is an exciting prospect.

“Personally, the thing that excites me the most about this project is that we, as a studio, are committed to innovation,” he said. “It’s been about 10 years since I’ve worked on a new IP in the third-person action-adventure space and there are new techniques and technologies that I believe have enormous untapped potential.”

Things like photogrammetry, motion matching, machine learning, and neural networking are all relatively new tools, and Minkoff is enthusiastic about getting his hands on them. Getting a project off the ground is always tough, though, and is oftentimes the hardest part of making a video game.

"We’re often asked what comes first during the creative process, design or story? The answer is neither, or both, meaning that they are both inextricable halves to a greater whole. They are developed in tandem,” Kurosaki said. “The design exists to put the player in emotional parity with the character they are playing as.”

In this way, gameplay often reflects the type of character the player controls. For instance, Kurosaki said that if the story is about overcoming a difficult obstacle, then the gameplay should function as that difficult obstacle. Conversely, if the main character has a relationship with a non-player ally, then that ally ought to help the player in tangible, material ways.

“The point is, the story serves the design goals, while the design reinforces the themes of the narrative,” Kurosaki finished. “Our success reflects our commitment to this holistic approach to game making. With That’s No Moon, each and every team member is both a designer and a storyteller, and we all can’t wait for you to experience what we’re cooking up.”

We may have to wait a while to see exactly what it is That’s No Moon is cooking up, but there’s no denying the sheer amount of experience on display at the studio. This alone is reason enough to look forward to whatever it is the team is working on.

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Editor-in-Chief

Sam, the Editor-in-Chief of GameDaily.biz, is a former freelance game reporter. He's been seen at IGN, PCGamesN, PCGamer, Unwinnable, and many more. When not writing about games, he is most likely taking care of his two dogs or pretending to know a lot about artisan coffee. Get in touch with Sam by emailing him at  sdesatoff@rektglobal.com or follow him on Twitter.