Much is made of the opportunities in gaming's newest mobile, social and online frontiers, but we know less about the cultural, technological and philosophical shifts that take place inside modern teams realigning -- or, in some cases, starting all over again -- to work within this climate.
But I got an uncommonly close look inside a studio tackling these changes head on when I was invited to visit Copenhagen-based Reto-Moto, founded in 2008 by veterans of IO Interactive. The project underway at the studio, Heroes and Generals, couldn't be more different from the Hitman heritage (the majority of the about 25-person team is ex-IO).
It's a free-to-play online war title set in the World War II theater, and it's ambitious: Part multiplayer strategy, part first-person action, fully playable in-browser with components of the game accessible on mobile platforms. This means most everything about the development of Heroes & Generals -- especially its live-operations focus -- is all new territory for the team.
The game's currently in private alpha, with testing phases that serve up to 30,000 players. Some of these have become passionate community spokespeople whose feedback Reto-Moto seeks in order to shape the game.
Heroes and Generals is quite early in its development to be live even in such a limited way, but with its status as an independent studio Reto-Moto's gained a unique chance to try something its team members have always hoped for: close involvement with its players to where the community participates in the game's evolution as much as possible.
The studio's desire to try challenging that traditional border between their work and their audience through an open-door policy is also what led to my invitation to visit. I've often thought that the games media is limited by the degree to which our access to the people that make them is so tightly controlled. I've often written about my hope that the industry can come to work with the media to create a constructive and informed relationship with our mutual audience, rather than seeing us as willing recruits into its high-pressure marketing machinery.
An open-door policy
The studio's PR manager, Kenneth Ellegard Andersen, first emailed me because he said Reto-Moto shared that interest, and from there we made plans to have me come to Copenhagen to meet the team and have a look at their game. Community manager and game designer Jesper Donnis picked me up at the airport, pointing out historical sites along the way.
He pointed in the direction of IO, Copenhagen's only traditional AAA studio. Almost every game developer in Copenhagen, has either worked at IO before or wants to, Donnis told me. The studio's shadow looms so large that in Denmark, almost everybody, gamer or not, knows "the bald guy with the red tie."
Yet the city has a culture particular to those that have had few large studios, especially as IO no longer enjoys the same kind of heyday as it may once have. Donnis told me he sees development in Copenhagen as rich with educated developers and strong academic programs for the aspiring, but currently with few job opportunities.
It's the kind of environment that almost forces innovation, whether that means a group of believers in "folk games" like Die Gute Fabrik gain IGF success, or Reto-Moto's group of industry veterans, some with more than 15 years' experience, are equipped to transition into some new fields after careers spent mostly in traditional development.
After nearly five iterations of Hitman, most were ready for new challenges, even as staff reductions at IO helped set the timeline for some. Reto-Moto level designer Peter Fleckenstein, also one of the studio's founding members, was with IO since the first Hitman, and for him it was the allure of finally knowing his players that made him want to try working online.
"We never met our audience before," he tells me when I sit down at the Reto-Moto offices with Fleckenstein (who says it's best just to call him "Fleck") and some of his colleagues. "We saw it in the sales and figures, and that's it. We never met them; we never talked with them."
"Hitman was designed for single-player, where you need to design a story from start to end. Now, the players make the stories, and that's more encouraging," he adds. "I loved IO; it was my second home. But it grew to 250 people, and sometimes in the hallways you didn't recognize people... so the idea was to say, 'okay, we are 10, 12 good friends, we want to start all over again making a studio.' The project wasn't even the most essential part; it was more like having a studio where everyone knew each other."
Another consideration was that the longtime colleagues' lives had changed since they were young enough to have little to lose by spending the often-demanding share of time AAA dev cycles require at the office. With family and kids now to consider, Reto-Moto hoped a smaller studio and a more collaborative approach would help ensure more flexibility and quality of life.
In Fleck's view, IO has a more open culture than one might expect from a AAA studio, and that culture helped inform the structure of Reto-Moto, which is collaborative based on individual specialties and interests and less bound by titles.
Donnis, my unofficial tour guide, acts as both game designer and community manager, although in the model of live operations and design that evolves in tandem with community feedback these roles don't seem too disparate. He is a history buff with a hobby leading the design of live action roleplay games -- experience he says is useful as the Reto-Moto team launches its work in the online space.
"In a single-player game, you have one hero that needs to have a great experience, but in a live game, you have to convince someone to be 'guard number seven' and still make sure they have a great experience," says Donnis. He has a longtime interest in group storytelling, recalling an early fascination with the believability of NPCs, their conversations and behaviors. Once staff reductions hit IO in 2011, Donnis joined his former gang at Reto-Moto the next day, bringing his interest in community experience -- and his passion for WWII history -- along.
The idea of having an online game as a living product, one that would never force its creators to dream about all the things they wished they could have added later, appealed to the team as much as the opportunity to have a relationship with players at last. "Our biggest concern was that we had never done multiplayer games," Fleck notes. "We're still learning."
Design with community
Heroes and Generals lets players pick a side in the war between the Axis and Allied powers of World War II, and mass multi-stage battles in a strategy map that feels simple but deep. Yet in the FPS element, individual flashpoints in the war can suddenly become first-person multiplayer maps where players can take hands-on roles in the war game, leverage resources and rally friends.
Reto-Moto has arrived at best practices for this complex arrangement through trial and error -- and by continual iterative testing with the alpha players, even though the team is well aware that relying too much on hardcore players' feedback or trying to answer all wants can cause as many problems as it solves.
"We're very aware it's not the players designing the game," says Donnis. "We are designing the game, and we're asking the players for feedback... we filter the feedback and we engage with the community, and when people are writing, for instance, that they want something, we will write back and ask why. It's a dialogue that has been very well-received by the community, and they don't just feel like they're throwing ideas into a black hole."
"Of course we have a strong belief in ourselves as well, as designers," adds Fleck. "We had a huge design document, and to be honest as of the beta launch we will have used maybe 20 percent of our ideas. There's so much in the closet hidden! And... that is also a very inspiring thing, knowing we are not done with the game, and we probably never will be done with the game, and we have the possibility of changing anything we want with more time and money."
All of the alpha testers are encouraged to participate in weekly stress tests, where the "stress" is on the game systems for now, not so much the server load. The staff plays together with the testers, encourages them to fill out feedback and bug reports, and get direct information from them on what's beloved and what's not working.
"'Open beta' isn't usually a beta, it's more like a gold release candidate," Donnis points out. "You're not going to change submarines into battleships at that stage, whereas we can still actually do rather major changes to how the game works."
Some gamers understand this strategy, and are capable of understanding systems even if certain elements are visibly unfinished or experimental. Others have a harder time being patient with what they see as broken. Interestingly, it's a culture shift for Reto-Moto's developers too, most of whom come from that polish-and-release type of background. Getting them -- particularly artists -- to be okay with putting unfinished assets in the game, even as placeholders -- sometimes takes convincing.
Heroes and Generals game director Jacob Andersen was one of IO's original founders. "People want to sit with their things, finish them off before they release them to market. It's a big psychological step to show off your half-finished stuff," he says. "Now, especially the guys who have been with us in the community for a long time can definitely see the changes and improvements." Of course, that same degree of detachment doesn't quite apply to the code, which is generally a "working or not" kind of thing.
Small team, resourceful tools
Reto-Moto has had to get creative with its tools, as engine seats or popular middleware licenses were often too costly. Luckily, several engine-happy programmers with a history of developing IO's proprietary tools, like its Glacier engine. "The programmers, they love to do it from scratch," says Fleck, when I come to his desk to look at what Andersen promised me was a particularly inventive level design pipeline.
Although the team had worked with 3DS Max for its assets, and the game's director (also resident script guru) had made graphic design tools, the team found it particularly liked Softimage's XSI toolset, enough to license it. "We're using that as the editor because we're a small team, and instead of having maintenance on many tools, it's easier to let them do it." Reto-Moto also participates in a partner program with Autodesk, which visits the studio to see how it implements applications within its editors.
Most of the level design is done with a node-based system, and landscaping -- from textures to height maps -- comes from a surprising source: World Machine 2, a terrain builder commonly used for architects that, also being node-based, works virtually seamlessly within the level editor, as Fleck demonstrated. Splines can be used for positioning data and can be deformed independently; items like railroad ties or the treads of a tank are made in sections so that they all look dissimilar, and even stones have displacement maps. The tool also includes dynamic lighting and weather effects.
"In a day, I can have a new map up and running. Not a nice one in a day, but it's there. We are very few people, so we need to be able to do things ourselves."
The feedback team
The new guys on the team are Flash programmer Henrik Skov Jakobsen and IT architect Prakash Prasad, neither of which have a specific background in games. They often filter the players' feedback to sort what's usable to discover broken bits and areas that need more polish. It can be overwhelming to manage all of that feedback and prioritize time, so for the pair, having an organized workflow system is crucial.
"It's really difficult right now to take in a lot of our community feedback because of our focus on getting it ready for [the upcoming closed beta]," Jakobsen says. "After that, I think it's going to be a lot more focused... if the entire forum is in flames because of one thing we've done, then we should look into that. Right now, we're storing it up so we get a list of where we want to go, but we have a pretty good vision."
"It's always that conflict between... people have ideas, but if you just do that kind of design it turns into a metrics-driven game rather than designer-driven," agrees Prasad. He says the most common feedback from users often concerns a game's familiarity to something they've seen before, so making it more like what players expect might result in something not particularly original, for example.
"There's a real vision on how we want it to feel," Prasad continues. "If feedback fits in with that or it adds a new perspective, we discuss it and that's where it takes off from."
PR manager Kenneth Ellegard Andersen says most of the team knows well the names of the core players, who in turn know theirs. In fact, some of them have even met the team in person. One passionate player from the area applied to do his high school work placement internship at Reto-Moto, and in his week of work at the studio he revealed his father and brother were also enthusiastic players.
Enthusiastic response from some alpha testers who want to participate in the beta even resulted in a handful of them traveling to the studio to be part of some filmed promotional footage for the game. For this, one Heroes and Generals superfan even traveled from Germany to participate. For a studio used to guessing at its player base from abstract sales figures, "it's been a totally new experience, and very fun," in Andersen's words.
The community keeps a blog where each developer takes a turn to introduce himself and provide updates on his role in the game. "If at all possible, we want to run an open-door studio," says Donnis.
For me, it was interesting to see that a side-effect of the trend favoring games as community-oriented, live products might be less of the high-stakes secrecy that has plagued the traditional commercial cycle. Visiting Reto-Moto brought with it none of the air of precise rehearsal, none of the wariness we in the media can expect when we go on most studio tours. What I saw was a team genuinely excited about a new frontier while being honest about its challenges, while showing off plenty of the wit and charm it takes developers both to be happy at work and successful in their relationships to their community.
Today's developers are clearly eager to try new things, and new possibilities for everything from community relations to development culture seem just as plentiful as new ideas for tech and development.