When Def Jam Vendetta dropped in 2003, Raphael Saadiq was only kind of joking when he expressed disappointment in not being included in the hip-hop fighting game. He’d landed hits throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s as a third of Tony! Toni! Toné!, produced for a who’s who of R&B, and was just beginning to show the music industry what he could do as a solo artist.
Over the next few years, EA put out a couple more Def Jam titles, and Saadiq decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. In 2007, he and one of his favorite collaborators, fellow Grammy-winning producer Charles “Chuck” Brungardt, launched IllFonic, an independent video game developer with a name inspired by the classic Nas album.
A decade later, the indie team got their first big break with Friday the 13th: The Game, an asymmetrical horror game featuring everyone’s favorite hockey mask-wearing serial killer. A few years after that, they partnered with the giants at Sony Interactive Entertainment to release Predator: Hunting Grounds, another asymmetrical title centered around battles between human soldiers and the famous alien murder machines.
Now, IllFonic have surprise-released Arcadegeddon into early access, where eager gamers can check out the first chunk of the cooperative multiplayer shooter set inside the world of a classic arcade. It’s not only their most ambitious effort in that it’s self-published (meaning they have no one to share any success or failure with), but also in the potential scale and scope of the party-friendly game.
SPIN caught up with Saadiq and Brungardt over Zoom to chat about their transition from music to video games as well as the launch of Arcadegeddon.
SPIN: Coming from the music world — where you both have a ton of experience — how big of a shift was it into making video games?
Charles Brungardt: For me, timing became a big factor when I was getting into music. I was graduating college like, “In the next 5 years, I want to work on an album for a major label. In the next 10, I want to work on an album that goes gold. In the next 15, I want to work on an album that goes platinum.” And then I was working with some people who introduced me to Raphael, and I think all three of those happened within a year, which was a little bit surreal. Raphael was in music for a long time before I really got to be a part of it, but when we walked into games, I think at least I had a little bit of an ego, like “Oh, this’ll be easy. We’ll get a game out in a year or two, it’ll do well, and we’ll be off and running with this company.” We were just wrong about that. It was 10 years until we had our first success with Friday the 13th. It was a lot of uphill battles, hard times, and struggle for the both of us. I would call Raphael, like, “Hey, this is it. The company is going to be done,” and he would try to scrounge together whatever he could to keep the doors open and introduce me to people. I think we went into it thinking it would be easier than it was, and it was a very humbling experience.
Raphael Saadiq: I didn’t really know if we were going to get in and make a difference right away, but I was following Chuck’s lead, and it’s really great for us to be in this position after those 10 or 11 humbling years. He would call me all excited, and then he’d call me back later sounding like a ton of bricks hit him — but we’d always bounce back. The jump into the gaming world gave us more of an input to be more creative, stimulate our minds, and meet different people who we thought were cooler and more honest. The gaming world was more familiar to him than it was to me, so he sort of briefed me on a lot of different things and pulled me into this world like I had to pull him into the music world a lot more on some of the things that I’ve done.
Speaking of Friday the 13th, what was it like working with absolutely massive IPs like that and Predator?
Brungardt: It always kind of gave us a box to play in because both Friday the 13th and Predator were our love letters to those IPs. They’re both IPs that we really cared about and respected. But creatively, there are always boundaries, and there were a lot of boundaries with the music. We had Harry Manfredini — who’s super talented and worked on the Friday the 13th movies — but Raphael and I didn’t get to create the exact music we wanted to because we had to do what we felt was right for that IP. We couldn’t have chosen anyone else who would have been better, but the goal of the company when we started it was to make the music for the game ourselves.
Saadiq: I still work in the music industry a lot — and I try to get Chuck to come back every once in a while because he’s really great at what he does — but starting Illfonic has really created some other ways for us to be stimulated and creative, and it gave us an open door to call different people who don’t usually work on video games. So when Chuck was like, “This is the original guy who worked on [Friday the 13th],” we were able to make that phone call to get the person who was really great for the job. When Chuck and I started working together in music, nobody believed that I could do a record that sounded like Motown in the ‘60s, but Chuck walked in my studio and said, “Hey, I understand where you’re coming from. I know how we can do this.” So when we’re grabbing these big brands like Friday the 13th and Predator, we’re grabbing those things from the past and bringing them into the future like we did on that album.
Brungardt: Working with existing IP is almost like working with samples. We were chasing old sounds and styles from the past, and that’s similar to how we chase ideas of the past and modernize them in a way with those games. It’s like working with a very familiar sample or listening to old records and being inspired by them.
Now that you’ve managed to establish yourselves in two different industries that are notoriously difficult to make a living in, what’s the difference between the business sides of music and gaming?
Saadiq: One of the big differences between the gaming world and music industry is the gaming world has figured out the price point and how to pay the actual creator who makes the game, as well as the publishers. The music industry still hasn’t figured out streaming payouts for the creators who actually create the music, so you’re making .1% of a penny on each stream — but nobody could actually count it, so nobody really understands the payouts. But in the gaming world, people pretty much understand how you make money.
Brungardt: When you look at things like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus, these subscription services are still relatively new to gaming, but I think the industry did a really good job implementing them. People are happy to be in those subscription services, whereas that’s a big part of the downfall of the music industry right now. I think it’s cool that the game industry is looking at it proactively and saying, “This is hard work, so let’s make sure we take care of people that are producing the games that are making our services successful.”
You recently launched Arcadegeddon, which is your own IP, self-published, and seems like the biggest project you’ve ever done. How did it feel announcing that and then immediately releasing it into early access?
Brungardt: It’s stressful, for sure. I get nervous before every launch, but I started calming down the more we launched with larger publishers like PlayStation. We knew that they have a history of doing what they do, and they have a great machine that was behind us. Now, it’s us building the machine from the ground up, and I think we’ve done a really good job with it. But it’s nerve-racking because things could go really well and change the course of our company — because now that we’re taking all the risk, we’ll either have more reward or a bigger failure. This is the first time since Friday the 13th where I feel like there’s essentially no safety net.
So for me, it’s a different scale. It’s challenging and nerve-racking, but it’s also awesome because we got to make the game that we wanted to make. I’m not saying our other partners were stifling us creatively, but when there’s a lot of money on the line with larger companies, people are watching everything and making sure that everything is going the way it should. With this, it’s truly us in the team, so it’s allowed us to create the music we wanted to create — meaning everything’s gone full circle, because this is what we wanted 14 years ago when we started this company. Even though I’m nervous, it’s very uplifting and awesome that we’re in control of our own destiny.