Human Head Studios takes us through the aftermath of having the plug pulled on its biggest project
In 2006, Human Head Studios released one of the most ambitious games in its history: the acclaimed sci-fi shooter Prey.
Praised for both its graphics and its gameplay, the title gave players a taste of travelling seamlessly through portals in games long before GLaDOS ever teased us with cake, as well as its impressive gravity-shifting puzzles and combat.
With more than 1m sales racked up worldwide within the first few months, a sequel was inevitable – but has yet to surface.
It’s no secret that Human Head was hard at work on Prey 2. The title was mentioned in rumours and interviews for years, and finally announced by publisher Bethesda in 2011.
Screenshots emerged, demos were shown to the press, but hopes of seeing the game released slowly dwindled as silence fell and updates on Prey 2 became few and far between. Project director Chris Rhinehart tells Develop that development on the game had reached a crucial stage.
“We stopped working on Prey 2 near the end of 2011, and had been working on it for close to two years,” he says. “It was very close to an alpha state, with all major content pieces represented.
“We were at that point in a game where you can step back and see the whole picture and shift from developer to editor and decide which elements to cut and which elements to emphasis and polish."
Prey 2 would have been counted among the best looking games of the previous console generation.
Norm Nazaroff, Human Head
Norm Nazaroff, project lead on Human Head’s latest title Minimum, adds: "We had a great deal of content created, some of which was shown publicly but a lot of which was not.
“Our tech had progressed significantly past the live demo we ran at E3, Gamescom and PAX and was even more impressive. It’s my personal opinion that we would have been counted among the best looking games of the previous console generation.”
But in October last year, Bethesda officially cancelled the game, citing a lack of quality in the build it had seen. For the Madison, Wisconsin-based studio, it was a crushing end to almost two years of long and gruelling work.
Human Head’s business development director Tim Gerritsen says the studio is unable to offer any more detail on the reasons for the cancellation.
“Bethesda stated their reasons when they finally cancelled the game in October 2014, and needless to say we have our own perspective on the matter that differs from the reasons they stated,” he says.
“As we said in response in October, we feel that the quality of the game was well represented by the materials we displayed in numerous public demonstrations on behalf of Bethesda and we are disappointed that fans won’t be able to see our vision come to life. We remain proud of the work that we did."
The cancellation of a project can often be crippling for a development studio, but Human Head was able to source more work and keep its talented team busy.
The firm provided level designers, system designers, programmers, artists and animators to Irrational Games to assist with the seminal BioShock Infinite. A small team within the studio built and released mobile free-to-play title Fort Courage, while others helped with art, level and character design on Trion Worlds’ MMO Defiance.
The studio even created the Wii U port for Warner Bros’ Batman: Arkham Origins as well as the PS3 demo that was sent to various public games shows. After this, the studio began work on two smaller projects: Lost Within and Minimum.
A highly stylised shooter, Minimum was originally developed by the ill-fated Texas studio TimeGate. Introducing MOBA elements in the hopes of capitalising on the popularity of titles such as League of Legends, the game was unlike anything Human Head had worked on.
“Minimum represented a radically different way of working than what we’ve done in the past and pushed us far outside of our normal comfort zone,” Nazaroff says. “We learned a lot working on this title, most especially in the areas of live team development and community interaction.
“We made it our goal to be one of the most player-focused and player-responsive dev teams on Early Access and I think we succeeded. From our weekly Twitch streams to our active discussion with players and fans on our forum we really pushed ourselves to work out in the open and to collaborate with gamers in a more direct way."
We understood the heartbreak of a game we believed not seeing the light of day due to our experience on Prey 2. With Minimum, we felt that we’d be able to help another studio and team finally see their vision come to life.
Tim Gerritsen, Human Head
However, despite the hard work and dedication poured into this project, it has yet to match the success of Human Head’s previous projects – but this has not tainted the studio’s experience with the title.
"To be frank, Minimum hasn’t taken off like we’d hoped it would but we’re still very proud of what we accomplished on that project,” Nazaroff continues. “The tumultuous history of the game – originally created by TimeGate, left for dead after that studio folded, resurrected by Atari and then brought over to Human Head – combined with our short timeline, modest budget and low marketing visibility made for a very difficult road.
“In spite of all that, we took Minimum through the process of bringing in a brand-new backend, significantly updating and improving on the core design and putting our own spin and polish on its distinctive visual style all while keeping our community involved. It was a big experiment for us, especially when it came to Early Access and how available to the community we made our dev team, but I think it worked out well in the end."
Crucially, Minimum holds a special place in the hearts of many Human Head developers. As the team learned more of their predecessor, TimeGate, they recognised the defunct studio’s fate as a familiar story, one reminiscent of their experience with a certain cancelled shooter.
“As a studio, we well understood the heartbreak of making a game we believed in and not being able to have it see the light of day due to our experience on Prey 2,” says Gerritsen. “When we were presented with the opportunity to work on Minimum, we felt that we’d be able to help another studio and team finally see their vision come to life."
“The ultimate business decisions for the game, how it was marketed, pricing and sales were ultimately out of our hands, since that was the role of our publisher, but being able to modify game content and work with the audience directly in taking the game from Early Access to official release and continuing to work with the fans in terms of new content, optimisations and bug fixes post launch was invaluable to us and will be knowledge we bring forward on future titles."
Now the team is focused on Lost Within, a survival horror that represents yet more new territory for the folks at Human Head, both in terms of who they are working with and the platform they are targeting.
“We're developing Lost Within in conjunction with Amazon Game Studios,” explains Rhinehart. “It's both a new and traditional title for us. New, in that it's a big-scale mobile project.
“Human Head has created mobile projects in the past, such as Fort Courage, but Lost Within is a big budget mobile project with emphasis on quality controls for touch interfaces, high graphic fidelity, and a compelling narrative. Even though it's not a console or a PC title, it's very much a Human Head game: dark, scary, and filled with unique gameplay and some exciting narrative moments."
Even though it's not a console or a PC title, Lost Within is very much a Human Head game: dark, scary, and filled with unique gameplay and some exciting narrative moments.
Chris Rhinehart, Human Head
And Nazaroff says that’s not all the team has up its sleeves: "Also very exciting are a series of new IPs we’re currently working on internally. I can’t get into specifics right now but all of these games are pushing boundaries in some way, whether it’s the interface or the game systems or the visual design. We’ll see what happens but I’m hopeful you’ll see more about these games publicly this year."
It can be hard to move on from the cancellation of as large a project as Prey 2 – something few studios survive unscathed. But rather than dwell on the past, on the games that could have been, Human Head is one firmly focused on its future.
Gerritsen concludes: "Human Head Studios has been a survivor over the years, and we’ve had to adapt as the industry changes. Old challenges have faded while new opportunities have arisen, and the ability to meet these new opportunities has been a key part of our longevity.
“While we’re proud of our long and rich history in game development, Human Head Studios is even more excited about our future. We remain an intensely creative studio and seek to bring new visions to life regardless of the new directions the industry trends take us."