Red Mile Entertainment

Fraud, missed checks, and criminal charges, but a good place to work: the death of Sensory Sweep

Fraud, missed checks, and criminal charges, but a good place to work: the death of Sensory Sweep

David Rushton was head of Sensory Sweep Studios, a game development house responsible for Jackass: The Game on the DS, among other adaptations like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. He was also recently sentenced to jail time for withholding wages from his employees.

It’s a pretty easy picture to paint: a greedy corporate-minded overlord steals from his employees, whose lives, we imagine, could only have been miserable. What a waste, we think, that these poor people must now only look back at their experience with Sensory Sweep as a painful one.

Jon Peterson, a former tester and designer at Sensory Sweep, tells the story differently, while not glossing over what killed the studio. While things were good, Sensory Sweep was a wonderful place to work. 

Graduation day at Sensory Sweep

“As a tester, working for Sensory Sweep was awesome,” Peterson told the Penny Arcade Report. “Our QA manager (the man who originally hired me who had been a manager of mine at Gamestop) could see what everyone was doing at all times, and whether people were playing WoW or actually working. And while QA was not exactly ‘integrated’ into development, there didn’t feel like there was this huge divide between us and them.”

“Sure, we had our rough patches, and some testers really rubbed some developers the wrong way, but it was largely a very harmonious relationship. We could go and talk to the devs and get better insight into why a bug might be occurring that would help us reproduce it more efficiently. Major bugs that were found were applauded, unlike many of the “from the trenches” stories. We were able to give suggestions and talk candidly with the design team to make sure the game was as good as it could be.”

Peterson said his relationship with Sensory Sweep as a QA tester wasn’t defined by performance metrics that treated him as a temporary, faceless tool. Testers were an internal part of the company with what Peterson described as a “staggeringly low” turnover rate, and individuals weren’t limited to specific games. Peterson himself shifted from project to project, graduating from Tester to Lead Tester, then to Designer, then Lead Designer within 2 years.

Shovelware with a purpose

Sensory Sweep’s profits were generated mostly by adapting movies and television to handheld games. Peterson described the process as something akin to a casting call. “As designers we sat in a big conference room and brainstormed ideas and wrote up pitch docs to try and secure those games for the company. We were free to come up with completely off the wall ideas, and there was never any pressure to cram a certain game into a certain genre.”

“In fact, the game I was Lead Designer on started out as a pitch for the MTV show ‘The Hills.’ Yes, the ‘reality’ show about obnoxious Beverly Hill teens trying to make it on their own or whatever,” Peterson said. “We broke up into teams and came up with all sorts of ideas; from a mini game-centered sandbox to an interactive novel with a focus on conversation choices and relationship management. My group’s idea, a board game style game similar to Life: Twist and Turns ended up winning, and we began prototyping.”

MTV would back out of the video game conversion of ‘The Hills,’ but the idea could not be killed. “Sensory Sweep was the sort of place that believed in its employee’s creativity and vision. Probably more than they should have. If it had been up to me alone, I would have killed the crazy, girly board game right there, but they wanted to pursue it as an original IP,” Peterson told the Report. “Building shovelware to put on a shelf next to a DVD release or the next big kid movie was a way to make money, sure, but they always wanted to make their own games.”

Peterson explained that even with a relatively small employee database of approximately 200, Sensory Sweep still dedicated many teams to creating original games. He said that there were no fewer than five original titles in development near the end of 2008, the final year before the studio went defunct. “There was a first person shooter for the DS, a run and gun 3D side-scroller for XBLA, my crazy girl board game, and a brilliant DS puzzler that had you moving eagles through the sky to defeat dragons,” Peterson said. “I still, to this day, have been amazed that the developers working on that game haven’t made an iOS/Android version. It really was fun.”

Originality killed the video game studio

“The original IP development was obviously a huge contributor to Sensory Sweep failing,” Peterson explained. “The company had made the biggest licensed deal yet with Brash Entertainment for a game to go along side the theatrical release of Tales of Despereaux.” Brash Entertainment was a young publisher with only a handful of titles under its belt, including an earlier Sensory Sweep game, Alvin and the Chipmunks. The company started to drown, and it was pulling Sensory Sweep under with it.

“We continued to work on Despereaux because it was the only realistic prospect for money in the near future, and the amount of money the company needed to continue operation.” Peterson explained that Sensory Sweep suffered from poor management that didn’t properly allocate resources. “There were a few layoffs, but probably not nearly the number the company needed to make. Additionally, a lot of the original IPs continued to be developed on despite not having publishers and, in most cases, being utter crap.”

“Finally, Despereaux was completed, and, in what would become the biggest mistake the company ever made, the final build for the Wii and PS2 versions were sent to Brash… before payment had been made,” Peterson said. “Almost immediately afterward, Brash went out of business. In the fire-sale, the completed versions of Despereaux were sold to Atari and Sensory Sweep didn’t see a penny of it. Over a year’s worth of work by the largest team in the company had gone almost completely unpaid.”

Without the sales from Despereaux to make up for development costs and to fund Sensory Sweep’s original Ips, the studio began to suffer almost immediately. Checks were late, and were largely composed of funds misappropriated from employees’ 401k plans. Peterson jumped ship after four or five late checks, and considered himself one of the lucky ones. Some of his friends are owed upward of $15,000, while Peterson is owed only a third of that.

Still, he doesn’t look back on his time with Sensory Sweep with bitterness, and though he doesn’t understand why other developers stayed, he thanks them. Without their efforts, the game he designed that began as an adaptation of ‘The Hills’, now renamed Drama Queens, would never have been finished.

“I guess all I’m saying is everyone is seeing a failing business who took advantage of their employees and took extreme and illegal measures to try and stay afloat, instead of a game company that was actually a joy to work for - up until things weren’t, I guess. It was a place where a GameStop Assistant Manager could become a Lead Designer, despite not having any previous experience, and for that I’ll always have fond memories of Sensory Sweep.”

“When times were good, we often went to movies as teams, had extravagant Christmas parties, and bagels and donuts every Wednesday morning. If you were ever in a tight spot for money, Dave would give you cash out of his own pocket, and never ask for it back. And sure, most of the managers were Dave’s kids or friends of the Rushton family, but it’s not like Sensory Sweep was brimming with experienced developers and designers, either. Most of us were right out of school with no previous industry experience. So it became sort of a blind leading the blind situation. We all just wanted to make games.”