Christian Allen is the creative director of Serellan LLC, and has previously worked on the Ghost Recon series. The company recently had a successful kickstarter campaign for a new tactical shooter game by the name of Takedown. I contacted him to ask a few questions.
Amer: What prompted you to start a Kickstarter campaign?
Christian: I set up the company in late last year, originally planning to do consulting for movies and games. I started to get a lot of enquiries from the hardcore tactical shooter community interested in whether I’d be working on a tactical shooter. Around that time Kickstarter was starting to take off and we decided to do a kickstarter campaign to see if there actually was a market and enough people to make this kind of game a reality.
Amer: What are you hoping to achieve with Takedown, both in terms of the game itself and possible industry wide effects? Do you believe that big developers and publishers will attempt to make Takedown clones, or do you expect it to be a smaller success?
Christian: As far as what we’re hoping to achieve for Takedown, I mean the main thing is a game focused on core gameplay. That’s one of the benefits that we have on being small and independent and people knowing what kind of game they want ahead of time. It makes decisions on what features to include actually quite easy, especially because we can poll the community and see what kind of things they want. So, you know what we’re hoping to achieve is basically a game that’s true to its roots, true to the roots of the original tactical shooters, and satisfies that niche in the shooter lineup that hasn’t existed in a few years. As far as impact on the industry, personally while I’m excited to be part of kickstarter I don’t see what we’re doing completely revolutionary, aside from possibly our community involvement and the way that we are open and honest and transparent with our community and our fans about what we’re doing as a company and game developers. And as far as whether big developers will attempt to clone Takedown, I don’t expect it to be that way. If they wanted to build a game like Takedown they could have done it easily themselves. The audience that we are focusing on are the hardcore gamers so I do expect it to be a smaller game than those big shooters, and we’re budgeting according to that. By focusing on gameplay, we’re focusing less on flashy graphics and big marketing campaigns and things like that.
Amer: You have received a lot of flak from people because of your mention of private investors. Many feel that working with big investors will severely limit a developer’s creativity, and there is a lot of evidence to show that. What do you look for in an investor, and how are they different from publishers? If possible, could you mention any that you are working with?
Christian: The partners we’re looking to work with are all very cognisant of what we want to do. One of the benefits that we have is that we’re very much out there in terms of what the game is and what the community wants, so it would actually be stupid of an investor to come in and invest in us, while wanting us to do something other than what we already announced. The PR backlash alone would be disastrous for the project. The people that contacted us because they heard about us through kickstarter and through the publicity that we got are interested in the project and the game that we want to make, so that puts us in a good position creatively to work with these people. The people that aren’t interested in this game simply aren’t talking to us. We’re not going in with big flashy pitches and fake demo videos to try to convince these investors of what the game is going to be, because they already know what the game is going to be or they wouldn’t even be talking to us.
Amer: You have a history of good games, but some of your recent ones haven’t been received very well. Even you have shown disdain for some of them, including Rainbow Six: Lockdown. Could you elaborate on how some of these games came to be? Was it executive meddling, bad design choices, or both? And, how will you avoid the same mistakes when making Takedown?
Christian: I think you’re mistaken on your information; I didn’t work on Rainbow Six: Lockdown. I was at Red Storm at the time, but I was focusing on Ghost Recon. The only Rainbow Six title that I worked on, and only a little bit, was Rainbow Six: Athena Sword, which was one of the last expansion packs for Raven Shield. I did weapons design on that.
As far as elaborating on Rainbow Six: Lockdown, I can comment as I was exposed to the decisions made, and there were a few reasons it ended up the way that it did. One was the decision to have PS2 as the lead platform. The studio never worked on it as a lead platform before, so there were a lot of technical issues. The biggest thing was the desire from the publisher to drive Rainbow Six to a broader audience. It was felt that Rainbow Six was viewed as too difficult of a title, too challenging, especially on consoles. That was the thought process that went into it. Making it more linear and “action-packed” was thought to appeal to a broader audience. So, it had technical issues and game direction issues. I know a lot of guys that worked on that title, and they did the best that they could, but they were between a rock and a hard place. We got the same kind of pressure on Ghost Recon, and obviously some people embraced that. We spent a lot of time on Ghost, even with the pressure to make the audience broader, but we still tried to maintain that hardcore flavour and I think that if you look at some of the server options that we spent a lot of time trying to put into GRAW, we tried to support that. But it’s very challenging when you’re working with a publisher that, from their business perspective, they want to expand the audience and get as many sales as they can and are looking at games like Halo and Call of Duty and want to emulate those, so it can be very difficult.
I wouldn’t agree that any of my recent games haven’t been received well; I didn’t have a single game that received under an 80. But, we’ll see how the future goes. (laughs)
Amer: In a previous statement, you stated that every publisher you went to saw console gamers as “stupid” and that a tactical game wouldn’t work on consoles. In another GYP interview (found here), Chris Avellone (co-owner of Obsidian) mentioned how freeing it was to not have to worry about making Wasteland 2 work on consoles. How do you feel about the differences between the PC and console community, and how will you account for that during development?
Christian: Just to clarify, I never said that every publisher said that console gamers were stupid. That quote was actually from one publisher that I met with, but most publishers didn’t feel that a more hardcore game would appeal to a console audience.
I actually agree with Avellone; it would be a bit of a challenge to work on a top-down isometric RPG with menu systems and all that for consoles. That’s what I see as a key difference. I don’t see a key difference in gameplay in terms of what the console and pc communities want. The key difference to me there is interface and UI design. When you’re playing a console game, you’re sitting in front of a tv, farther away, generally in front of your living room and as gamers get older, the demographic that we’re looking at is the older and mature player, a lot of them have kids and stuff like that so they tend to play shorter bursts on a console. Meanwhile, pc gamers will go into their office, and they’re sitting down for a longer play session, so the console gamers need to be able to get into the gameplay much faster, while the pc gamer likes to have more customization and it’s a slower process. Well, not necessarily slower but broader way of getting into the game. That’s what I see is the core difference.
Amer: Many developers and publishers, some that don’t even make FPS games, have been quoted as saying “We want the Call of Duty Audience.” What is your opinion on this way of thinking, and will you be doing something similar?
Christian: No, I think we’re doing quite the opposite, but I have heard that a lot. And before Call of Duty it was the Halo audience and before that I’m sure it was the Doom audience. It’s natural for business people to do that; you’ll see that in any industry. Look at Microsoft and their foray into tablets. They’re an industry leader, and they’re doing something that obviously has a successful formula from a financial standpoint and so their competitors want to catch up with them on that. As a game developer, I believe that’s not a good approach. I think it leads to stifling innovation, and not letting your creators to reach out. I also think it’s bad for the intellectual property; trying to change an IP into something that it isn’t is wrong. An example I can think of is Syndicate; it probably would have gotten better reviews and higher sales if it went under a new title instead of Syndicate since a lot of old fans didn’t like the approach it took. From a business perspective, going to a publisher and saying “We’re totally going to nail Call of Duty! We’re totally going to nail Assassin’s Creed! We’re totally going to nail Grand Theft Auto!” works. Executives are really excited about that. They start seeing big dollar signs. But, that’s not the approach that we are taking and we would get slaughtered. Six thousand people donated to this game and I think about two thousand of them would appear at my house with pitchforks and try to burn my house down if we went that route.
Amer: It’s clear that you certainly listen to your community; you have a regular Q&A session with your audience, and you’re quite active on the forums. But, how much control do they really have on development?
Christian: Let me be clear: we have complete control over development when you’re talking about technical control. We reach out to our fans for their opinions and thoughts. We use their opinions so long as it doesn’t mean sacrificing the core tenets of the game. For example, which country should be represented in the game? Which races? What we aren’t going to do is publish specific weapon values and let people vote on it, like the rate of fire of an MP5 (that’s set at 800 rounds per minute, by the way). But even on the higher level features we want to get people’s opinions, such as specializations for characters, or even recently talking about how we were going to handle weapon pickups, and how long it would take to strip ammo off of dead enemies (if it’s even possible to do so). There are several ways we can handle this, even though that the game is meant to be a realistic shooter. No multiplayer game has a completely honest depiction of searching a dead body as it would take a long time, and no one would really strip a body in the middle of combat. So, we have a bit of leeway in terms of how we want to depict it in the game, if at all.
Amer: What games would you say most heavily inspired takedown, or what takedown will become?
Christian: The two biggest influences are the Swat series, specifically Swat 3, and the Rainbow Six series, specifically Rogue Spear, Covert Ops and Raven Shield. In addition to those, we looked at games like Project Reality and Socom and other games like that. Swat and Rainbow Six had more of a CQB focus, and that focus on CQB is what will differentiate us from the tactical shooters that have a larger scope, such as ARMA.
Amer: This is the first game you’ve made independently; unless I am mistaken every other game was under a publisher of some sort. What are you going to do differently in regards to development, budgeting and marketing?
Christian: This is the first professional game I made, I was a modder (for the original Rainbow Six) before I became a full-time game designer. As far as what we’ll do differently, development-wise we’re working on a gameplay prototype. We don’t need to sell this to anybody. So, we’re working on the gameplay first. Traditionally, even if the game was a sequel, you’d start with a pitch consisting of powerpoint, some videos and cool concept art. Then you go through layers and layers of reviews and kick-off meetings and you spend months and months and months getting everything approved and get the budget signed off and all of that. We don’t have to do any of that, we’re just going straight into development. We’ve already defined what the game is; kickstarter was our pitch and it was successful. As far as budgeting and marketing, this is a smaller game so we’ll budget it accordingly. Marketing is something we may look to do down the road, but mainly we’re going to rely on word of mouth about the core gameplay and the community to rally people around the game. We are talking to groups like MLG to put in features that support the competitive gaming community, and of course that’s a form of marketing right there. MLG has millions of viewers, and being able to reach out to those people is very valuable to us.
Amer: What would you say is your favorite game, the one that affected how you think about gaming the most?
Christian: I’m actually going to mention three games, as they all really affected how I think as a game developer. If you’re familiar with the games, you’ll easily see a common thread between them. The first is Starflight, which is an EA game. It’s a space exploration game, and it was one of those games that first opened up the possibilities of space in videogames. It was non-linear, you could go anywhere in the universe and do whatever you wanted (within the scope of the game), and it was just a massive game. It was brilliant, had non-linear storytelling and was brutally difficult. I played it as a young teenager. Next would be Wasteland, which had similar features: non-linear, lots of exploration, non-linear storytelling, and a big focus on gameplay. The third game would be the original Rainbow Six. Whenever I mention that I need to remind people that I didn’t actually work on it; I’m not trying to toot my own horn here. Rainbow Six gave you objectives, but it was non-linear as you needed to make your own choices. The common thread between the games, non-linearity, is really what inspires me as a game designer.
Christian: I’ll take these in order.
Piracy: I hate pirates. Screw you guys. I don’t care what excuses you use to steal other people’s stuff. It sucks, and you are negatively affecting the game industry.
DRM: IT SUCKS! I don’t care why you want stringent DRM, you are hurting the games industry. Stop it!
DLC: DLC is an interesting topic. A lot of people get grumpy about DLC. I actually have no problem with DLC, so long as it is down in a fair and transparent manner. Once the core game is in content lockdown, which is a phase in development, then you can start development on the DLC. Sometimes there is a lag time between content lockdown, certification and shipping (although this is more for the console side of things) and so there is often a good window to make that content and get it out relatively quickly. I’ve seen developers explain this a million times, but some publishers and developers have done things that have come across as money grabs. Things like on-disc DLC, which I don’t agree with and I refuse to buy, and things like that.
The gaming industry: In general? I think the industry is strong, I think we’re moving forward. Right now we’re in a bit of stagnation, especially if you look at the response to E3 this year. I think it’s in this stagnation because of open ended questions; executives don’t like to make big commitments when they don’t know the future, and neither do the shareholders. There are lots of questions like “What are the next gen consoles going to be?”, “What’s happening with casual gaming?”, “What’s happening with handheld and mobile gaming”?, “What are the new markets?”, “Is the economy going to continue flounder?”, “What’s going to happen with used game sales?”, etc. All those things make people scared, and scared people don’t want to take risks. When you don’t take risks, you don’t move forward. In the industry I saw this over and over again, and it really frustrated me. It would have been much easier for me as a father with a family to just go and work in a nice cushy game developer job with a big company, raking in checks for rehashing the same old ideas. That’s something I can say for all the people working with me; they’re taking a risk just being on the team when they can easily all get jobs in a big studio anywhere else. We’re trying to do something different, and I think kickstarter in general is going to be doing that more and more as hopefully we move beyond just kickstarting famous developers or older IPs.
Gaming journalism: Gaming journalism has a long way to go. I know a lot of game journalists, I’ve regularly met with the press, and I really like some of those guys. I think it’s going forward, especially with the rise of Kotaku and things like that, where you’re seeing a lot more ethical journalism than you saw in the past. I’ve seen some pretty unethical things during my time with the publishers that went on with journalists. I respect the journalists that turned down big junkets or at least acknowledged that they existed. I hope we’ll see more of that objectivity.
Amer: Finally, do you have any closing statement?
Christian: It’s in our company values and I recommend anyone that reads this to come to our website and read our company values. We published them publicly, and I think that says a lot about us. Gameplay and community are really the core lifeblood of the company. Obviously the developers and employees make up the bones of the studio. We wouldn’t be where we are without them. This game and this genre wouldn’t be where they are without them. We want to continually interact with the community. Sometimes they’ll disagree with us, people disagree with me on plenty of things, and that’s fine. Just know that the decisions that I make are to improve the game. We thank our fans for all their support, and hopefully they’ll follow us on twitter and on Serellan and come to the website at Serellan.com and check us out on facebook at Serellan.
Thank you very much, and have a good day!