How one ex-modder is fighting his way into a market dominated by triple-A
After finding success in the modding space with Unreal Tournament 2003 mod Red Orchestra and Half-Life 2 mod Insurgency, Jeremy Blum has formed his own studio, staffed by 14 other developers, creating a fully-fledged standalone shooter based on the Source Engine.
Last year the studio took to crowdfunding site Kickstarter, asking for $180,000 to help the developer to fund the sequel to Half-Life 2 total conversion mod Insurgency, but fell well short at $66,582 from 569 backers. The project, clearly, was struggling to gain traction in an industry already filled with shooters.
The title is still alive however and recently hit its beta following a successful alpha stage on Steam Early Access, after Blum and his studio managed to attract private investment in the title, and largely keep its independence outside of Kickstarter.
Publishers chasing free-to-play
Blum says the studio wasn't keen on partnering with a publisher, despite talking with a number of companies. He adds though that while ultimately turning down interest from some parties, others had backed away from Insurgency because of an increased focus on the free-to-play sector, rather than the premium market.
“Yes we talked to a few publishers. Some of which were interested in us but we could not really swallow that pill to go with them,” he says.
“And then others that had expressed interest in us sort of backed away. I think some of them because we weren’t interested in doing free-to-play and stuff like that.
“That’s what some publishers are looking for right now, just that. They’ll consider a game that’s not free-to-play if it’s a really great game, but if it doesn’t meet that quality bar, then free-to-play is really only what they’re looking for.”
While he admits some of the negative stereotypes surrounding publishers are perhaps a little unfair, with some adapting to industry trends and lessening their influence on development, Blum says however that for a small developer, the balance between investment and total creative control is a difficult one, and developers must weigh up creating what could be a more polished game with what they stand to lose otherwise.
“Obviously if we got a sizeable investment for the game that means we could get that many more talented more people on board and spend that much more time on it to make it that much higher quality,” he says.
“But then again we’re also losing a lot getting an investment like that. So it’s kind of a tricky balance. It sort of left us in this position as an indie team where we’re still working on our own and now that we’re on Steam, it allows us to have a revenue stream coming in that we didn’t have before. And that’s really nice.
"The fact that we have a community now, people are enjoying the game and buying it on a regular basis, giving us their feedback and hopefully we take that feedback and turn this thing into something that is really killer."
Modding 'in serious decline'
Having a fully staffed studio and private funding is arguably a long way from Blum’s roots, who started out in the modding community some ten years ago with Red Orchestra.
He says developing a total conversion mod is a great way for other aspiring developers to get into the industry, whether that leads to starting out on their own or joining a big studio, as it essentially acts as a full project release on the CV, instead of a qualification.
Blum also cites the examples of Valve hires of the developers behind Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat as reasons why people looking to get into the industry would not go far wrong by getting into the world of game mods.
As well as these past examples, the scene has also seen some huge successes of late. Zombie survival game DayZ rejuvenated sales of three-year old tactical shooter ArmA 2, garnering more than 1.7 million players, while Half-Life mod Natural Selection has also seen a sequel make a full standalone release on Steam.
But Blum warns that the heyday of modding could be over, with less and less games opening up and allowing players and developers to shape new experiences with their development tools, and the sheer scale and complexity of these titles has also raised the barrier significantly.
“I think that back in the day it was a very important movement. There’s this era between 2000 to 2010, I think it might be over now, where mods were just very big things,” he explains.
“I think that now they’re kind of on the decline, and this could partially be due to the fact that a lot of game developers aren’t really selling tools with their games. I’m not really sure what exactly is the cause of this, but I’ve noticed a serious decline in modding lately. So I’m not really sure if it’s something that is extremely viable anymore. But I do know that it was when I was doing it, and hopefully there will continue to be good mods out there.
“I know that a lot of people right now are working on modding our game. Not full total conversion style, but people in our community are very interested in creating custom maps, server mods and stuff like that. I think that that is going to be the more common thing that we’re going to see, people making these smaller mods of games.
“The total conversion mod is very hard to do now because it just requires so much time and energy to get going, and these things take years now. Back ten years ago they took a year, or two years, it didn’t take the three to six years I’d say it takes now. People have such higher expectations.”
Thanks to the extra investment in Insurgency, the title has since made its way to Steam Early Access, a scheme which allows developers to release their games onto Valve’s digital distribution platform during the development phase, rather than on full release.
Blum calls this an “amazing concept”, and one which has helped shape the development of the tactical shooter and bring the small studio closer to its community, with numerous discussions opening up on the forum on what direction the game should take.
“We’re certainly doing our best to take advantage of it," he states.
"One thing we’re doing that is unique is that we’re doing this community driven production approach. We have a loose roadmap of where we want this game to go before full release, but at the same time we’re also taking analytics from people that are playing the game. They have a survey that pops up at the end of playing our Alpha, and in the survey people could vote on many different things and give their input.”
He adds: “Steam makes a huge difference. There’s a lot more visibility. There are a lot more impulse buyers that are going to get your game just because it looks cool. Being on the front page is obviously huge. And it’s pretty much expected that for any game that goes on Steam, once you’re on that front page, you’re going to see a lot of sales, and once you’re off, you’re going to see a drop. And I think that’s kind of normal.”
But even given a helping hand through Steam’s generous support for indies and small development houses, which often spotlights new and old indie titles on the home page through large promotions or special sales, how can an small studio and a small budget compete against the big boys in the FPS arena?
Blum says it has been a challenge, and during its early days Insurgency was met with some negativity, with many visitors to the game who had only watched videos of it branding the title as "just another shooter". Blum counters this assertion however, arguing the developer has created its own niche for a hardcore, tactical FPS experience, without which, he says, the company would have been dead in the water.
“People who play Red Orchestra don’t claim that this is like Call of Duty or Battlefield, it feels very distinct. It’s a niche,” he says.
“And I think that’s what Insurgency is too. Insurgency is within that realistic niche, not so much in the casual category. I think that if we tried to create a game as a casual first person shooter, we’d be dead in the water, because we’d be competing against all these triple-A games that make casual first person shooters.
“The only way we can survive as an independent studio making this kind of game is by making the game stand out and be different. And that’s why we’ve taken a more realistic approach to the game. So you have to make something unique even within a genre.”