Meet the Studio: Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency

The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency is a boutique game development company and paranormal activity investigation firm based in San Diego, California. The young company is currently hard at work developing upcoming free-to-play multiplayer game Drawn to Death for the PS4. Co-owner Nick Kononelos shares how ShotGrid helps the Bartlet Jones team track more and more assets as the game takes shape.


Tell us about your company and the type of projects you work on.
Bartlet Jones is a pretty new company; we launched about a year and a half ago and are working on this new game Drawn to Death. The game takes place in the notebook of a highly imaginative high school student – essentially anything he draws comes to life and is usable in the game, from characters to weapons and other assets. It’s a competitive multiplayer game so players are controlling these unique characters and fighting each other.

Where is the company based? How many people are using ShotGrid?
We are based in downtown San Diego with 20 people in-house and a few regulars offsite. We also work with some outsourced teams around the world. Our ShotGrid use varies but about half of all employees use ShotGrid, mainly the artists but a mix of other production roles too. The heaviest use is tracking versions and schedule dates on tasks – artists and the outsourced teams post new versions and upcoming target dates, and I use that info for overall production management. I’m also using ShotGrid to track the inventory for the game – the different weapons and characters and levels and props, and details like what character has what gameplay attributes.


How did you first hear about ShotGrid?
I first received the demo for ShotGrid when I was at Technicolor but officially started using it at Sony San Diego (SCEA). There it was mostly used for cinematic game development which is closer to a traditional VFX pipeline. The studio also has motion capture stages and it was used to track that data as well as art production.

What content creation tools do you use in-house?
We use Unity game engine and our main applications are Visual Studio, Maya and Photoshop.


Right now it’s paying dividends for keeping track of the inventory of everything that’s in the game – there are hundreds of assets and content pieces so ShotGrid is really valuable for that.


How is ShotGrid essential for your current project, Drawn to Death?
Right now it’s paying dividends for keeping track of the inventory of everything that’s in the game – there are hundreds of assets and content pieces so ShotGrid is really valuable for that. As far as the artist versions, it’s indispensible there too – there are always meetings where we ask where a certain version was a year ago or something like that and we can pull it up quickly. The team still very much likes to analog see the final versions of say concepts on a board, but the history of all the versions it took to get there has been super helpful in ShotGrid.


What are your favorite features of ShotGrid and how do you primarily use them?
Being able to customize it and create new linking relationships and add new columns is great. For all the various use cases we have across the external and internal teams, being able to customize their view has been really helpful since everyone has totally different needs.So the flexibility there has been really great, that’s a really positive feature.


Do you develop any proprietary tools?
Just now are we starting to consider tools as we move into planning for our release. Up until then there was a lot of interaction and necessary fundamental changes. Right now we leverage off the shelf tools as much as we can.


I look at my job like curling – the team is the puck and I’m just trying to keep brushing so that puck hits the target.


What’s a typical day like for you?
We do a daily meeting to check in and get everyone on the same page progress-wise. For me the beginning of day is dedicated to keeping everyone rolling on the most valuable items. At the end of the day I make sure everything is updated, take stock of how the day went, and prep for the next day. At a weekly interval we layout what the next week’s goals are and also do a monthly horizon view plan update. I look at my job like curling – the team is the puck and I’m just trying to keep brushing so that puck hits the target. Also, trying to keep the team out of any trouble of any kind… and that’s full-time work!


Why has your company been successful?
Well, we haven’t released a product yet but I’ll count us staying in business for two years a current success! It’s due to our great team – the team adapts and self-corrects very well, and we have a lot of our department, knowledge and experience bases covered especially for a start-up company. The patience from the team is also quite legendary as we navigated a very exploratory and long prototyping phase. That phase is still ongoing even as we moved into full production.

How much effort do you focus on building out your pipeline?
Out of the 22 people in-house I am the only person admin-ing ShotGrid – it’s mostly a self-imposed resource constraint on our side. So I do try to stay engaged with ShotGrid as much as I can. The challenge is that we’re working on a new IP so it doesn’t know what it wants to be as you’re going along and then a month later you think “oh that’s what we should have been doing.” So hindsight is everything. It’s hard to build a pipeline when it’s like a Ouija board that hasn’t given us the full message yet. We do what we can and are starting to make pipeline and optimization a primary focus as the game needs steady and high quality content to sustain the audience.


How do you do to stay connected to the larger community of artists and game developers?
Most of the team is always studying what’s out there on the Internet through streams, videos, blogs and message boards. San Diego is a small town so it’s probably about 1.5 degrees of separation from any developer or artist.

What is your favorite thing about working in San Diego?
The weather! And San Diego in general just feels like a cool place. I was in L.A. for nine years before and am originally from Chicago. A friend that’s in town that has lived in various countries said to me, “San Diego just feels like home”. I agree with that. It’s a smallish city with pockets of concentrated neighborhoods, and I like that there’s a lot of diversity in those different pockets.


When you aren’t working, what’s the ideal way to spend your day?
I have two-year-old twin daughters so they take up all my free time! Balboa Park is a fantastic place with lots to explore so I’m usually there a high percentage of the time.


What led you into this field?
I saw Akira as a kid and I saw Siskel and Ebert cover it at the end of their TV show review and they were talking about it seriously and not just as a cartoon – that was the first time I thought about doing anything entertainment based as a career. So that’s what set me down this path and as I kept going I found that I really love making interactive content – it combines a lot of disciplines. Games are basically the epitome of that to me and they are only getting more diverse.


What do you think is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
Keeping everything balanced and determining what to invest your time in. We’re a small team and our budget is moderate (or small when you compare it to many other published games) – when it comes to investing in quality, tools, new content or a focus test, where do you decide to invest your time and money when it’s limited and you’re trying to meet your release date? Trying to make the most of the entire day – that’s one reason why we outsource, so that there’s someone working on the game at all times over the 24-hour day. Also, our game is free-to-play and the bar for that is so gray – do you invest more time in the characters and make many of them and put all the effort into the gameplay and/or visual effects, or invest more time in the community management? It’s not clear what will be the most fun for players till they actually get to play a releasable version.


What inspires you?
Really anything that comes out inspires me because I know how difficult it is just to get something released. It’s a fight to release anything good, as these things just don’t want to come out. Seeing friends and colleagues achieve success and live their dreams has been very inspiring and motivating as well.