We've always been partial to climbing aboard giant mechs and blasting other robotic warriors with lasers and missiles. Whether it was the classic Mechwarrior games of yesteryear, or even more recent attempts to rejuvenate the genre such as Hawken and even Titanfall, there's a lot to like about mech shooters and the change of pace they bring to the shooter space. Which brings us to Heavy Gear Assault, a new contender in this very competitive and slightly niche sub-genre, that launched recently on Steam Early Access.
Following the game's launch we sent over a few questions to Stompy Bot CEO Vince McMullin, who had a lot to tell us about the development of their game, as well as his thoughts on what went wrong for Respawn with Titanfall 2 and the development hiccups affecting the work on fellow crowdfunded indie sci-fi title Star Citizen. It's a long but interesting read, so grab a cup of something warm and get comfortable.
GR: Give us the elevator pitch for Heavy Gear Assault.
Heavy Gear Assault is part of a lineage of mech simulators in the same vein as Mechwarrior, Star Siege and the original Heavy Gear games by Activision. With the rich lore of the long running Heavy Gear RPG, players will experience all the visceral mech combat and detailed customization that the setting has to offer in a spectator gladiatorial sport. It's Forza Motorsports meets giant robots.
GR: What is it about mechs that appeals to you as a studio, and why do you think they're so enduring?
Mech games require skill in both the customization and piloting aspect in order to be successful. Good mech games offer the perfect balance of action and simulation - more complexity than your standard FPS but focused on the action to keep the player engaged. The genre also offers an immersive experience in piloting giant war machines that no other game genre can come close to. Arguably, the genre launched the PC gaming market in the 90s and the technological leap (3D graphics cards, memory etc) needed to support it. Today, mech games continue to push these boundaries. Besides, who doesn't like blowing up their opponents in a fully decked out and customized robotic war machine?
GR: Tell us about the journey to this latest launch into Early Access, because we understand that it hasn't always been easy for you as a studio.
It has been a long road for us as an indie developer/publisher. Over the past few years we've been compared to games with very big AAA budgets such as Respawn's Titanfall 2 which has been a humbling comparison as an indie developer. When you find yourself being compared to something you're not - the reality starts to settle in that your product and your team is an underdog with massive potential. Dripping with potential as one recent commentator made about us on Steam. Now that the hype train is over and the reality that Titanfall 2 never made it to every top 10 chart for reasons we can all attribute to bone head decisions by EA Executives. Seriously, the reality should start to settle in for the Titanfall 2 community as well, that their support will start to wane over the next year as revenue drops off. Titanfall 2's budget was apparently 4 times as high as Titanfall 1 according to Cliffy B. But is Titanfall 2 slumping because it was pitted against Call of Duty and its own publisher's Battlefield1, or because Respawn missed the mark with the mech community?
I beg the question whether the sales slumped because of COD or whether it was the decision by Respawn to remove features that defined the success of their first title as pointed out by Forbes. The decision to screw around with the most successful game type Attrition in the game couldn't have went worse during the Xbox One preview. I know. I was there. The decision to build a single player campaign and ignore the explosive esports community was a futile mistake. The decisions to promote the game as a mech-shooter while also stating in the same breath that players don't need customization of their Titans left me speechless as well and Reddit agreed.
HGA is focused on multiplayer and esports. We realize this is the future of PC gaming. How did Respawn fuck this up so badly? It seems everyone over there lost sight of who their customer was. Marketing 101 - know your consumer. Mech gamers want simulation. Customization is one of the defining features of a mech game. This has been the way since 90s. When mech games were amazing and not massive cash grabs. Customization is one of the defining features of our mech game.
In Heavy Gear Assault the player has access to a set of core Gears based around different fighting styles and platforms including: sniper, recon, brawler, and electronics. We also have an in-game market that is built with the intentions to bring as much lore from Heavy Gear to life. Titanfall doesn't hold a candle to the amount of lore Heavy Gear has to work from.
While the comparisons with a $100M project like Titanfall is somewhat laudable the worst comparisons in my opinion have been with mega crowdfunded projects such as Star Citizen. Even with all his funding Chris Roberts still has major production problems that smaller indie titles with much smaller budgets have - including us. Yet the press has continued to give those 800 lb gorillas in the indie crowdfunding scene a soapbox to climb up on like King Kong to tell their story. Why? As a personal backer of Star Citizen and huge space jock - I am shocked by the lack of progress and odd decisions being made by their dev team. It's like a bad Family Guy episode. You know it's not funny anymore but you laugh anyways because it's all you can do at this point. So much wasted funding on side projects like Squadron 42 and what was that about real Hollywood actors? Come on guys. Where is the bug free Dog Fighting game that I was sold so many years ago? And now a new game engine? Seems like a potential exit strategy to me. Hello Amazon.
When HGA hit Kickstarter in 2013 we promised a basic working battle module with a selection of modernized Heavy Gears. We promised all the core features that defines a classic mech game as our first release. The promise to meet that goal required approximately $800K. If you are doing some math here that's $33K/year for each of 24 developers on our dev team. Star Citizen asked for a lot more, a hell of a lot more, and arguably delivered a basic dog fighting module within the same time frame. SC has more content than Heavy Gear but their development misses the mark constantly. While we never got the cash from Kickstarter we hoped for - we were able to pull off what we promised our fans. I have to ask what are these big budget indie games like Robert's doing with their funding? Where is the accountability? Where are the financial audits? Where is it? Stompy Bot Productions is a fully compliant public company. Our books are public. They aren't perfect but they are a hell a lot better than anything these crowd funding monsters have disclosed to people. While Derek Smart may come across as an asshole. He is 100% right about CIG's lack of accountability and disclosure regarding their use of crowdfunding.
No doubt. Kickstarter was bad timing on our part. We launched our Kickstarter just weeks ahead of E3. Almost immediately the press started posting news of Microsoft's Xbox One announcements. I knew the campaign was doomed almost as soon as the Kickstarter hit. We were not getting the media coverage we were promised. Despite having a great development team with some senior developers with serious industry experience including the former Creative Director from Activision's Heavy Gear 2 and Crytek's Crysis. The experience and passion was drowned out by other big players in the room. The most passionate mech gamers that did back us told us privately via a discrete survey that they were starting to feel burned out on games like MechWarrior Online with their cash grab models. We were coming off a successful GDC presentation and there was a lot of energy in the room for our next press push. We thought it was an opportune time to launch our Kickstarter. Surprise, surprise. It was not and so the decision was made to shut it down.
While our Kickstarter campaign wasn't successful. We were successfully raising crowd funding via our website and we raised enough to keep our development going from a core group of supporters that loved the idea of a new UE4 powered mech game coming to the PC. We continued to keep that community updated and we worked feverishly for the next year. Many of our team took equity for their services as we ran low on cash many times. Our core management team worked contracts across the gaming landscape. We worked for publishers in Japan, multiplayer technologists in Sweden, we started to develop a reputation as having an in-house expertise in the Unreal Engine technology stack that other bigger players in the industry could count on. Sadly many of those projects are locked up under NDAs and we can't take credit for the work we did directly. And yes some of them never paid their bills. Let's not leave that little piece out.
Our management team had some success in securing funding from angel investors as well. We were able to secure funding from our first angel in San Diego. She was a great supporter and provided us with the necessary capital to survive every single time we needed it. I continued to watch the air waves regarding crowd funding and I noticed a change happening with indie game fans. Polygon did an excellent article outlining how this was actually killing small indie developers. At its core indie fans began to resent some of the projects they supported. Massive promises failed. Our own community felt burned by MechWarrior Online's mega promises of Community Warfare and a failed Founders program. Their favorite fan made projects now Cease and Desisted and the only other option being $500 golden mechs? We were battling against the odds meanwhile those 800 lb gorillas continued to forget who their consumers were and failed them over and over. How many more times will indie fans be taken advantage over before accountability is demanded? I think the end is near for those companies. How many more Mega Mans, sorry Mighty No. 9s, will it take before crowdfunding has an equity model? I even think the press is beginning to feel pressure to report accordingly on these massively crowdfunded monsters. At least No Man's Sky wasn't crowdfunded. Sean just flat out lied to people.
In June 2014 we released our first build of HGA to our community. Our development team watched as players started downloading the game and playing on our servers. The development team cheered. Now we have a playable. We spent the next year working on the game and improving features. Over the course of the next year things became rather rocky and we unfortunately lost a few of our developers to better positions elsewhere in the industry. As some key people left we were also scrambling to secure more funding to continue developing HGA.
Oddly it was a conversation I had on the Star Citizen forums with a gentlemen from the capital markets community in Toronto that led us to where we are currently with our company. He claimed to have connections and contacts around the investment community that would be very excited to get behind us as a company. It turns out he also won an award with his fan made MechWarrior website from me years and years before. After a series of meetings both virtually and in-person we crafted a plan to raise financing for Stompy Bot beyond crowdfunding and angel investments.
In 2014-2015 we raised enough capital via equity investments to grow our development team to a 24 man (and woman) team working full time on HGA. Our studio was as active as it ever had been. The community was getting very excited by the bi-weekly patches and constant onslaught of content. During this time we also realized that we had to start growing our portfolio and business effort was put into securing further intellectual properties and funding to support those projects. Things were moving along well and were on target to release on Steam as an Early Access release by Q1 2016. Our company successfully completed an RTO on a public company in British Columbia. We were now in possession of a public shell and looking at taking Stompy Bot public on the Canadian stock market. In Canada the public company landscape is a bit different than America. Canadian junior companies go public much faster thanks to the junior resource space. Canadian investors look for companies in the junior space. We gave junior capital market investors the ability to help us raise financing and if they wanted to sell out later they could. Which many did but some stayed and some are devoted and dedicated to see us grow as a company.
Things couldn't have looked brighter until they didn't. In August of 2015 - just a month before we went public on the Canadian Stock Exchange the junior resource space in Canada was hit with shockwave. A ripple effect. From a falling economy in China. The ripple effect created a perfect storm for us. Here we were with an RTO. Unable to raise traditional financing that private companies lean on. Unable to secure funding from our investors who were watching their portfolios be decimated in the open market. We were in-bed with junior based resource stock investors and no one expected resource stocks such as mining and oil to fall to record lows almost instantly but they did. Thanks to newly elected Trump we now know that the big North American agenda is to bring oil back to its glory. That pushing auto sales domestically is all an attempt to raise the value of those resources that fell hard a few years ago. Honestly, I am surprised that we survived this. We went public on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CSE: BOT) without the $4 million we were suppose to have received in equity financing to go public in the first place.
As a result we made some tough decisions. We hurt some relationships. We had to stop production on HGA. We had to stop everything. Our core team had equity in this. They had invested a huge amount of time into developing HGA. Our management team felt like they had let everyone down. That capital markets expert from the Star Citizen community abandoned ship immediately. Most of those resource based stock investors quickly followed. A few real supporters stayed with us and through thick and thin we survived because of dedicated supporters both internally and externally. And of course because of persistence.
NVIDIA awarded with a contract with build our UE4 build on the Shield Tegra platform. We received support from Epic Games. In December of 2015 we successfully raised some financing. Enough to pay our bills and our contractors that were waiting to be paid. We were able to pay some critical bills with that financing. Through constant pitching, meeting, and discussing our business plans in various cities around North America we began to attract a different kind of interest.
During this time our core development team decided that our code base needed some serious regression work. Work that was done in August was rolled back. Our UI solution was proving to be a bad choice. UE4 is an incredible engine but its UI solution was non-existent when we began developing with the engine when it was just a voxel based engine. We used a third party solution known as Coherent UI. Our developers actually wrote the first version of a plugin to make UE4 work with Coherent UI and we provided the code to them as a base to start from. After a handshake at GDC we agreed that we could use the software with HGA for free. Fast forward a few years later and were sent a $20K invoice during our worst time financially and told we had to pay it or they were pulling the plug. We walked away from that relationship and migrated to UE4's UMG solution for UI. It was a great move because now we have native UI support and it works well on all platforms. Though it still has a ways to go as a UI solution for designers - which is why our UI looks dated. It works. Which is more than I can say for the alternative UI solutions.
As the producer on HGA I was pretty envious to see the series of articles from Kotaku looking into the investigation of Star Citizen entitled "Inside the Troubled Development of Star Citizen". As an avid space game jockey and personal backer of Star Citizen I always knew this game was having the same issues as everyone else in the indie scene only on a more epic scale.
Like Star Citizen our game has been developed via the "virtual platform". I remember wandering around GDC 2013 telling other developers about my concept of working in the cloud. After successfully managing a mod team for years working on the MechWarrior series I knew very well that the virtual platform concept would work in a real production environment. However, as bleeding edge as the concept may seem - hey who doesn't want to work from home in their underwear? It's not without its issues. And like Chris Roberts found out. Working via a virtual platform with a few centralized developers is hard to manage - as indicated by Kotaku's investigation. CIG made it clear in recent articles that the cloud based virtual platform has challenges when trying to manage many remote teams. In my opinion we are just a smaller version of CIG and we've worked out how to solve issues CIG still seems to be struggling with. I tried to secure a platform talk at GDC to discuss working in a cloud based environment to offer my experience and guidance as a Producer but unfortunately GDC never had space in their agenda for such a talk. I think the indie developers both big and small could benefit from our knowledge working as a cloud based developer.
Working as a cloud based developer does not mean we are completely decentralized and working from home on random things in silos. In fact almost entirely the opposite. Aside from the opportunity to work from home in your underwear the requirements and organization arguably needs to be stronger. Teams working remotely need strong communication. Strong knowledge of remote tools such as Google Docs, Skype, and source code repositories such as Perforce. Our team has all that and much more. Company wide we support the use of the virtual platform as much as possible. I will argue the platform isn't for everyone though. Especially those that need a lot of hand holding or may be a bit novice around the concept of working remotely. We've had our share of issues with mental illness, psychological, and physiological strain on our development team which comes with the territory working in the games industry anyway but some symptoms to seem to be amplified by the cloud.
Many have wondered how we ended up as an exclusive indie UE4 developer - one of the first teams to gain access to UE4 long before it was released publicly. The choice of game engines is critical to any production. As we've learned through articles on Star Citizen their production has been challenged by their use of CryEngine many times. CryEngine is arguably a more rigid technology to work with and it isn't bleeding edge anymore and lacks support for modern devices and tools. CryEngine would have been a nail in our coffin. When we decided to use Unreal Engine we were using the Unreal Development Kit better known as the UDK. We had expertise with the Unreal Engine stack already developing internally when Epic approached us with the potential switch from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal Engine 4 in exchange they would provided answer hub services and access to their engineering team when necessary. UE4 was a voxel engine at this point and we were hesitant at first. Looking at all of the issues that Star Citizen has with CE3. I can not understand why they never moved to UE4. We've been able to compete with features in HGA that are on the same level of quality as those seen in those crowdfunded monsters and I am epically proud of our development team. And everyone recognizes we would not have had the success we've had to date without the power of UE4.
But UE4 was not without its challenges. We chased UE4 updates a lot. Arguably 35% of our development time has been spent upgrading to newer versions of the engine. I've pondered whether the mature UE3 would have meant HGA releasing sooner but as a very different product than it is today. The choice to use UE4 has allowed us to demo our talents and show what is is possible with UE4 but we know we've not delivered on the features we wanted to yet. However, selling a bleeding edge game with less features on a bleeding edge game engine seems more glorious to me as it demonstrates our abilities technically as a company which is arguably as important as anything else in the games industry. We are now armed with enough knowledge to take the industry by storm.
We understand what it takes to build a community. We are persistent and now we are on Steam. We have great plans in 2017 to continue to grow our community through several announcements this year we believe will energize the mech community like never before. We are working on competitive aspects of Heavy Gear, user generated content, creating a growing virtual economy, VR, and lots, lots more. We're making mech games great again. Wait, did I just say that?...