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Chicago's Iron Galaxy Studios debuts 1st original game, 'Wreckateer'

Kurt Tillmanns takes two steps backward and throws his hands in the air while his cartoonish onscreen avatar corresponds by shooting a cannonball smack dab into a medieval castle—leaving a pile of rubble where a tower used to be.

"Yes! I think I'm going to get a high score!" Tillmanns says with a triumphant smile as he readies another ball of destruction into his virtual siege weapon.

Work is anything but drudgery these days for Tillmanns and the 30-plus employees of Iron Galaxy Studios in Lincoln Park. Even though they've been working full time on the castle-crashing Xbox 360 Kinect game "Wreckateer" for the past year and a half, they still harbor a sense of wonder and excitement for this pet project, which launched on Microsoft's Xbox Live service July 25.

"Believe it or not, right after we got codes [for the retail version of the game], there were a good eight or nine of us who went home after work and started playing it on our Xboxes there," said senior producer Chelsea Blasko, 34, who lives in Logan Square. "We were just excited to play our own game live at home."

Former Midway technical director Dave Lang originally founded Iron Galaxy Studios in 2008 as a tiny, engineering-heavy outfit with a handful of employees that provided technical elbow grease for other companies' gaming projects. Since then, Iron Galaxy has picked up plenty of contract work but has remained under the radar.

"Before they sent me an email and asked me to come in for an interview, I didn't know who they were," admitted Blasko, who previously worked for local developers EA Chicago and Robomodo. "I had to Google them or I wouldn't have known."

The company's work on a launch title for the Xbox's motion control peripheral Kinect led Microsoft to approach Iron Galaxy with the possibility of pitching an original game—a first for the studio. In January 2011, the studio came up with the basic concept of tossing objects at castles. It was originally supposed to be a quick three- or four-month project, but Microsoft liked the prototype so much that it gave Iron Galaxy the green light to keep adding content.

The result is "Wreckateer," a cross between popular mobile game "Angry Birds" and the "Lord of the Rings" films. Instead of flinging disgruntled fowls with a slingshot, players use simple gestures to send various types of cannonballs into goblin-infested castles to level them and rack up big points.

"The fantasy stuff just tied in best with the idea we have," said Tillmanns, 28, of Ravenswood. "At first we had this idea where it was all sci-fi and you were going through time, but we liked the idea of having this big siege weapon instead. It was the best excuse we could come up with blowing lots of stuff up."

Microsoft is banking heavily on the mass appeal of "Wreckateer." The game made the gaming giant's sizzle reel at this year's E3 conference and is the featured title for Xbox's "Summer of Arcade" promotion.

With that added attention comes higher expectations for Iron Galaxy, general manager Eddie Caparaz said.

"I think there's a lot of pressure on us because it is our first original title. You don't want your first one--your baby--to fall flat," said Caparaz, 42, who lives in the South Loop. "But I think now, looking at the game we've made, I think we were up to the challenge. I can't say how well it's going to sell, but the quality should be there."
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

Xbox 360 Kinect
3 stars out of 4
Keep it simple, stupid. That should be the mantra for companies making games for the Kinect, the wondrous hands-free control device that often fails spectacularly to emulate gamers' complicated gestures. Though its controls aren't perfect, Iron Galaxy Studios' "Wreckateer" wisely asks you to perform only the most basic of motions--a hand wave here or a swipe there--to maneuver several types of specialized cannonballs into one of the game's 60 destructible castles. And like "Angry Birds," the addictive physics-based game of destruction that "Wreckateer" apes, busting up buildings and shooting to the top of leaderboards depends on a satisfying mixture of strategy, skill and luck. R.S.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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