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Cloquet grads make waves in gaming world

Stormhaven Studios, maker of the "Embers Adrift" online video game, is operated by three members of the Cloquet High School Class of 2005: John Gust, Seth Anderson and Wade Larson.

"North of the Great Chasm, humanity struggles to survive. Venture into the untamed lands, battle ferocious beasts and thwart treacherous schemes that would see your new home burn!"

So reads the summons to videogamers who explore "Embers Adrift," the creation of Cloquet High School graduate John Gust and a few others who saw something in the video gaming industry no one else noticed at the time.

"Some of the older games have characteristics that are a bit more challenging, not as watered down, and a lot of the newer games don't really have that," Gust said.

The group thought if they could create challenges like the older games and add updated graphics and features that are now available, they might have something today's gamers would gravitate toward.

Thus was born "Embers Adrift," which began as a hobby.

"Embers" is a challenge. In the first few minutes my character was bitten by a black bear, then knocked unconscious by a smuggler. It was, of course, my fault with the bear - I thought I could outrun it, and who knew a smuggler was dangerous? I'm not the border patrol, what quarrel could he have with me? Suffice to say, the game has varied problems to solve, and with advanced graphics, holds the player's attention. I was unable to spend enough time to work within a team, which is said to be the most attractive feature.

"Embers Adrift" is known in the business as an MMORPG, or Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.

"It's a whole genre," Gust said. "You could think of "World of Warcraft," "Everquest," "Lord of the Rings Online," or "Elder Scrolls Online;" [there are] lots of different examples."

Because a large number of people play at the same time, great memories and friendships are made, Gust said. Video games like this supply a social context for teens and young adults. Because there is interaction between friends, it can be a place to hang out just like earlier generations got together at the mall and at skating rinks.

Building a team

In 2015, they formed the company and dived into heavy computer coding. "We started raising money in 2018, and that's when the real work started," Gust said. In 2021, testing started, and in 2022, "Embers Adrift" launched. Gust is the president of the new company and executive producer for the game.

Seth Anderson, senior engineer, also of Cloquet's Class of 2005, joined the team just after the company obtained financing. "I'm a software engineer," he said. "I am writing the code that actually makes the game run."

At the time, Seth was considering a career change. "And I was in the process of looking for another job," he recollected. "John called me up and he was like, 'Hey, I hear you're looking for something. How about you come work with us?'" He laughed, "And that's how it happened."

Seth graduated from Brown College in Mendota Heights, where he studied game design, but he had an early interest in computers and programming. Math teachers at Cloquet, particularly Steve Rickstrom, were supportive of him designing programs on a programming calculator.

"And also, one of the teachers allowed me to borrow a C++ textbook since they weren't teaching that anymore," he remembered, referring to the guide for a programming language similar to the one in use at Stormhaven.

Integral to games of this type is the narrative designer, the person who writes the scenarios that make up the adventures the players experience. That is the responsibility of Wade Larson, the other member of Cloquet Class of '05 on the team.

Of course, to work for a video gaming operation, experience in Information Technology (IT) is essential. Larson spent the last eight years or so there, but his background as a writer was more important. After earning a degree in journalism at the University of Nebraska, he spent a few years working for small newspapers.

"It was kind of the teeth of the recession at that time," he recalled. "Journalism was not a hot industry, so I ended up pivoting into IT." When Gust contacted him about signing up with Stormhaven, Larson felt he had landed his dream job. He was going to write, and work on video gaming, what could be better?

Larson knew he wanted to be a writer early on. His story, "A Moment of Silence," won the Public Broadcasting Service essay contest in his senior year of high school at Cloquet and, along with it, a $1000 scholarship.

He was fascinated with narrative. "Stories made sense and resonated and stuck with me," he said. "Being able to act those stories out in theater was another way to experience the power of storytelling. I remember (Dan) Naslund and (Jason) Richardson both really encouraged a love of reading and writing."

Growing up

Stormhaven Studios now employs 10 people on three continents.

John Gust would not discuss revenues or number of customers, but declared that "Embers Adrift" is now being sold in 25 countries. Profitable? Yes. Dividends to investors? Not yet, said Gust. The objective now is steady growth and to avoid the mistakes of other game makers.

"We keep putting in more storylines, more lore, if you will. And we keep expanding the world. More regions are being put in and more playable areas," Gust said.

At the same time, they have to manage "feature creep" and development time.

"The reason people fail is because ... they have too many features and they don't take into account the development time for all those features," Gust explained. Development time is hard to predict, "So a lot of times they make promises they can't keep, and then they don't have the budget to fund those features," he said.

According to Investopedia, a financial media website, the video game industry is huge - bigger than music and the movies put together. Companies think nothing of putting millions into development and some spend hundreds of millions. Two billion or more gamers are on the planet, more than a quarter of the globe's population.

But Stormhaven Studios is a very small part of it. "We're super tiny," Gust said. "As far as game companies go, we're very small, and we've pulled off a miracle. We've been able to succeed where others have failed and with a much smaller budget."

What sort of features would he like to add when conditions permit?

"Fishing would be a goal," he said. Fishing? Is that another industry term? "No," he said, "literally with a line and a pole. A game within a game."

It's often difficult for smaller indie studios to take a large portion of market share because the limited number of employees cannot develop and expand games quickly. Stormhaven's studio is diminutive, but that means their overhead is lower, and that can be an advantage.

In addition, Stormhaven targets a specific niche within the MMO sector. Players have to get together with others to overcome challenges which cannot be accomplished alone - a different style of game.

Players start with creating a character by choosing body type, skin color, and type of armament among other things. Then, they enter "The World" and through experience and teamwork the characters advance through various adventures of steadily increasing difficulty. The game never really ends, and when a player logs off, his character is held in readiness to resume action whenever the player returns.

John Gust credits his father, also named John Gust, with preparing him for this venture.

"My dad was a pretty big influence for me," he said. "Being a businessman, he helped me to realize how much can be done with just hard work, effort and persevering." John Gust Sr. Is the owner of The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy in Cloquet.

The other influence was "growing up in a small town."

"We rely on each other and ... there's more of a work ethic that you develop .... You realize you're only as good as your work," Gust said.

Stormhaven Studios is not a place. Two of the Cloquet graduates live in the Twin Cities suburbs, and one of them lives in southern Minnesota. Seth Anderson was asked how much time it took to commute to work. "Zero minutes," he said. All the work is virtual.

The future for Stormhaven is slow and steady expansion, "I'd like to keep the game running, says John Gust. "My dream is to see it continue for years and years to come, and to see it grow."

Editor's note: The print version of this story was edited for length.

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