It was a holiday party, but it hardly felt like a happy occasion for many of the Kaos developers and their partners. Mid-December of 2010 was a fleeting break in the middle of a brutal crunch as the studio tried desperately to finish Homefront, publisher THQ's most ambitious stab at breaking into the alluringly lucrative AAA military shooter market.
The work schedule was so all-consuming that one developer likened it to exile in Siberia, and relationships inside and outside the studio were also fracturing under the pressure. Now, at the holiday party, all those people and all those tensions were gathered under one roof to celebrate the close of a lousy year and prepare for uncertainties of the next.
Tradition dictates that the head of the studio give a speech and a toast at the company holiday party, and creative director / general manager Dave Votypka had his work cut out for him this night. Many of the line developers working at Kaos blamed management for the nightmarish development cycle and whether or not they blamed Votypka personally, he was representing management that night in New York.
Votypka got up to the front of the room and looked over the crowd. Before he was promoted to leadership of the studio, he'd been popular at Kaos. He was a born straight-man, with a deadpan sense of humor and a dry, sardonic wit. He decided to indulge in a little gallows humor.
"You know, if Homefront is a success, maybe we'll get to keep our jobs so we won't have to crunch so hard on the next one!"
The room went dead. One producer remembers, "Now every single significant other is giving him the evil eye, because now they're blaming him directly for completely screwing over the person that they're with. And calling it out."
It was too close to the truth. Votypka and Kaos were working night and day on a franchise that few people in the studio had faith could compete in the marketplace. THQ was looking less and less committed to Kaos as it moved its focus up to development-friendly Montreal. The developers at Kaos were giving Homefront everything they had, and they weren't in a mood to hear jokes about it. They had started to suspect, as tempers frayed and talent trickled out of the studio, that there weren't any better days ahead.
"... it was fine when he was there, because he provided every answer that we needed. But when he left, that culture really started festering."
Kaos was always Frank DeLise's studio, even long after he was gone. DeLise was "a ballbuster, a bulldog. He didn't take shit from anyone," said one former Kaos designer. He had created Kaos' studio culture and given it a name and identity that veterans were, and are, fiercely protective of. Kaos may have been a THQ studio, but it retained many characteristics of the Battlefield mod team it had originally been.
DeLise had wrangled his team of modders at Trauma Studios through development of the Desert Combat mod forBattlefield 1942, a modern warfare conversion that became wildly popular within the Battlefield community.
It attracted attention from EA and DICE. Trauma became an EA shooter studio, working in conjunction with DICE. In 2006, after EA shut down Trauma, the studio effectively re-formed under THQ as Kaos Studios, and got to work making Frontlines: Fuel of War.
Mod teams are notoriously hard to manage. They lack the professionalism and hierarchical structure of a standard development team, no matter how professional-grade the skills of its members. Mod projects might have leaders and a structure, but ultimately nobody has to be there. Mod teams buy into a vision and work hard to realize it for its own sake. They also tend to be "siloed," with each part of the project working independently from the rest. It requires a lot of skill at the top to bring all the disparate pieces together in a good game.
DeLise had that knack. During the development of Frontlines, recalled one designer, Kaos "was an intense pressure cooker. But it was managed by Frank DeLise. Who had the force of will to just keep it all together. When we were launching the game, we were killing ourselves to make it great because we believed in it."
There was a cost to that kind of management and development style, this designer admitted. "It wasn't a very collaborative environment. It kind of mirrored the bulldog, Frank DeLise. And it was fine when he was there, because he provided every answer that we needed. But when he left, that culture really started festering."
DeLise's departure from the studio in 2008 following the release of Frontlines created a succession crisis. One high-level source explained that the biggest problem in choosing a successor to DeLise was finding someone within the company that everyone could accept.
"David [Schulman] hadn't been in the studio quite as long as some of the other directors. But given all the different personalities and backgrounds of everybody that was available within the studio, he was the best candidate for the job," the source said.
Creative leadership would come from new studio creative director, Dave Votypka, formerly design director under DeLise and a longtime Kaos veteran. He was well-liked within the studio, and was regarded as a quiet, talented designer. "He wanted everybody to be happy at the end of the day," says one producer who worked with him.
With 20/20 hindsight, THQ's decision to promote from within may have wasted an opportunity to make some much-needed changes at the studio. Schulman and Votypka were chosen because they could replace DeLise without upsetting Kaos' internal culture, but a project like Homefront was almost guaranteed to change that culture, no matter who was in charge.
One producer remarked, "We were so concerned about keeping our studio culture. For what reason, I have no idea. Even when I was working on Frontlines, there were a lot of problems that came from the studio having a lack of [maturing] from a small mod team to a large AAA studio." Furthermore, Votypka's walk-softly approach to management turned into what was near-universally described as passive-aggression as work on Homefront intensified.
It's possible there is another reason THQ did not lavish too much effort on finding a more experienced leadership team for Kaos: the odds were good that Kaos would be shut down before it ever made another game.
By 2008 and early 2009, there was no more talk of the game industry being recession-proof. Optimism and complacency had given way across the industry to a keen awareness that everyone was vulnerable, and this recession was not going away anytime soon.
THQ was adapting to the new reality by looking for places to cut costs, and everyone at Kaos knew the studio had a huge footprint on THQ’s balance-sheets. It was a major studio with eye-wateringly expensive office space in Manhattan, paying salaries above industry average to compensate for the high cost of living in New York. In short, during a bad recession, Kaos was wearing a target on its back.
"So when they brought [Schulman] in," said one producer, "he was walking into a situation where — kind of like a new president comes in, and no matter what you've said on the campaign trail, you find out once you walk in the door what's really going on," speculates one former producer. "I think he found out at that point that Kaos did not have another title ready to go for THQ. They didn't have a deal ready to go. So they really needed to sell THQ at that moment on what our next project was going to be. We really had to bring out some razzle and dazzle."
Schulman and Votypka’s first order of business, then, was to get something, anything, approved by THQ. At first the easiest and most sensible option seemed to be a sequel to Frontlines. To do that, they’d have to go through THQ’s newly implemented "gated" greenlight process.
"So when they brought [Schulman] in," said one producer, "he was walking into a situation where - kind of like a new president comes in, and no matter what you've said on the campaign trail, you find out once you walk in the door what's really going on"
To understand why Homefront had such a troubled development, it's important to look at how THQ was trying to change the way it greenlit games, and the context in which it did so. Its new procedure, which is fairly common in the game industry, was a multi-stage process designed to keep studios at work on new games without committing THQ to seeing them through to publication. THQ would take pitches from all its studios, give feedback, see prototypes and then authorize continued development. After going through this a few times, THQ would make a final decision about moving forward on full development, or pulling the plug on the project.
What was unusual about THQ's greenlight process is that it occurred at a time when every THQ studio executive knew that closures were imminent. With the stakes so high, THQ's new pitch process turned into a never-ending up-sell.
"We [Kaos] were in jeopardy of dying right after Frontlines, and [Schulman] felt that we really needed to sell to THQ," says one producer. "So we put forth just about every bit of effort we had into creating one hell of a package to sell to THQ. So much so that I believe our package was held as a metric for what other studios should do to sell their packages. And Dave Schulman was a really good salesman at telling THQ what we could deliver, and turning back to us to say, ‘Hey, sky's the limit. Just pack more features in. Make it great. Put as many bullet points as you can on the back of the box.'"
Lost meets Red Dawn
From the start, there was disagreement about what Kaos’ next game should be. A studio specializing in multiplayer shooters, both THQ and many Kaos developers wanted to start working on Frontlines 2. Just because that’s what THQ wanted Kaos to focus on, however, did not necessarily mean the publisher would actually approve Frontlines 2. In fact, given that Frontlines had generated nothing better than decent reviews and sales, there was good reason to suspect that THQ would balk at actually going forward with another multiplayer-focused shooter from Kaos.
Within Kaos, many developers were both pragmatic about what would keep the studio alive, and eager to try their hand at making a cutting-edge shooter. One department head explained, "When you're spending somebody else's money to run a studio in Midtown Manhattan and they throw around the kind of numbers that mean success or failure, it can be very scary, even at the highest levels. To realize that you have to hit these targets, when you don't have a single-player experience. Especially not a Michael Bay cinematic blockbuster experience."
"They loved the in medias res nature of the pilot episode, where nothing is explained and the characters' new circumstances are just a fact they, and we, have to adjust to."
One designer described the day when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hit the office.
"Remember, when you start that game up and you go through that opening sequence in the car? I remember all of us sitting around a TV, and we were amazed! Everybody wanted to do something like that for Homefront."
A former writer said that Lost was another big influence on the studio as it brainstormed for their next game. They loved the in medias res nature of the pilot episode, where nothing is explained and the characters' new circumstances are just a fact they, and we, have to adjust to. They loved the way the show played with its ensemble cast, moving from one character to the next while weaving their stories into a coherent whole. The single-player "faction" within Kaos was inspired and motivated by these ideas, and according to this writer, their earliest ideas for Homefront revolved around a Lost-meets-Red Dawn conceit: we would join several characters in the occupied United States, and different chapters would focus on different people, different sorts of objectives and different tones.
When Kaos turned that into a demo to show THQ, the ideas practically sold themselves. THQ executives loved it, and gave Kaos a green light to complete the game.
"Now beyond that initial preproduction phase," said one producer, "then you actually have to pay your dues. You have to actually make the thing you've been promising. I think that's where Dave Schulman's expertise fell short. He had promised so much that there was absolutely no way we could deliver."
Falling off the map
"How many contractors building a highway will underbid the guy next to him just to get the contract, and then go over by two years and a billion dollars?"
It's easy to see why Schulman had more pressing worries at the time. The consequences of failing to sell to THQ became clear on November 3, 2008, when word hit Kaos that a number of THQ studios had been shut down. The rumor was that it had been a bloodbath, with several THQ studios getting the axe in a single day.
One developer remembers going to check the THQ world map to see if any of it was true. At first, they were all still there, orange pips glowing on a world map.
"I remember hitting refresh and one of the studios disappeared off the map. And we were like, ‘Oh my God,'" he says. "And so for the rest of the day, every thirty seconds, we'd refresh the map. And we'd see another studio fall off. And another. It was terrifying!"
Schulman and the single-player faction may have saved Kaos (many veterans credit him and the demo with closing the deal), but it had come at a huge cost. One executive associated with the product said that THQ was always hinting that the publisher wanted and expected more from Kaos's next project, and the only thing that would mollify the executives were more promises on new features to make it competitive in the shooter marketplace. By the time Homefront got its green light, Kaos had given itself a huge list of obligations.
"That's the nature of business," remarked another department head. "How many contractors building a highway will underbid the guy next to him just to get the contract, and then go over by two years and a billion dollars? Let me bid whatever I have to to get the contract, and then renege on my promise. When it comes down to staying open and keeping a company alive and afloat, you do the best you can."
After THQ greenlit Homefront, recalled another writer , "it was blue-sky times." Kaos was trying out anything and everything: boats, aircraft, even aircraft carriers. They were working on new multiplayer modes and systems, and trying to decide what Homefront would ultimately be. The only trouble was that almost immediately after THQ executives fell in love with the pitch demo, the publisher told Kaos to start working on a bigger, better version for E3 2009.
"It was all throwaway assets, throwaway code, it was all hacked together," he said. "We spent about a total of eight months of our production time making a five minute demo that was … not an actual game. It was a very nice demo. But it was all smoke and mirrors."
The effort lavished on producing a demo and related assets that would ultimately be discarded galled some of the development team, and THQ’s requests for convention demos were a regular feature of Homefront’s development. Every time there was a convention coming up, "it was like: stop the presses! We need to polish up the demo," said one artist.
"There is an expectation," explained one producer, "that if you spend eight months developing a demo for E3 that does really well in the press, then that's eight months well spent. Because you just sold another 500,000 copies of the game. It comes down to this very, very bizarre math. … No other industry would actually let you work like this. ... So a lot of people are abused in the gaming world. Especially for marketing and things like E3. And I think that's a business problem."
By the summer of 2009, producers at Kaos were getting frustrated. In addition to the resource-sapping E3 demo, Homefront was mired in what one source called "endless pre-production." It was supposed to be well underway. During the pitch process and even afterwards, Schulman kept pushing the team to be more ambitious.
"... a lot of people are abused in the gaming world."
"It was all throwaway assets, throwaway code, it was all hacked together."
"We were always erring on the side of quality," one producer said. "That would be the 'go to' phrase for designers. They'd be pitching more and more things and if they were told no, they'd come right back at you with, ‘Well, Schulman is telling us bring more quality. Bring more features.' And you can't fight that."
This was the cost of putting Kaos on the chopping block. Kaos had promised THQ the moon, and more dangerously, Dave Schulman seemed to think he could deliver it. At a time when Kaos should have been paring down its vision, Schulman was encouraging the designers to expand it.
It was also a product of the way THQ framed Homefront from the beginning. THQ wanted a franchise to get a slice of the military shooter market that Call of Duty dominated and that EA's Medal of Honor and Battlefield franchises were also exploiting.
"Our vision statement was to ‘become a leader in multiplayer FPS games,'" recalls the same producer. "Now, in a vision statement, what does that really mean? It doesn't really give you any clear direction as to what kind of game you're going to have, what kind of feeling the player should have. I heard that for Gears of War, their vision statement is, ‘Marcus Fenix is a badass.' And that's a pretty clear vision statement. No matter what you do in the game, you are making the player feel like you are this big tough space marine badass. And everything should lean toward that."
Homefront's open-ended vision statement meant that every single designer brought a hundred different ideas to the table. One artist complained that, throughout development, Kaos "designed by committee," and another agreed that each team just started throwing its own favorite ideas into the mix and then working on its own vision of how a system or game mode should work.
"You weren't building a central core experience," he said. "The weapons were what the weapons guys thought they should be. The vehicles would be what the vehicles guys thought it should be. And it became kind of a Frankenstein-ed game."
That summer, THQ and Kaos undertook an audit of Homefront. They looked at everything in the design document and pitch documents, everything that Kaos had promised since 2008, and then made careful estimates of how long it would take to deliver every feature. That’s when the full extent of the damage became clear.
Kaos could not make the Homefront that existed on paper. A studio twice Kaos’s size, with three times the resources, could not have delivered Homefront on schedule.
Kaos had taken millions of dollars and over a year of development and had precious little to show for it. Ironically, it spelled the beginning of the end for Schulman, the GM who had undertaken the audit in the first place.
According to a number of high-level sources, Schulman and THQ executives began clashing regularly about how he was managing the studio and responding to publisher directives. One former lead said that Schulman had tried to maintain the same relationship with THQ as Kaos had enjoyed under DeLise during Frontlines, a relationship that largely kept corporate influence out of the studio’s decision-making.
But the THQ executives who had left Kaos to its own devices had been eliminated during THQ’s own corporate reshuffling around this period. The new leadership team wanted more direct control over THQ properties (the new greenlight process was a product of this mindset), and Schulman’s attempts to keep them at arm’s length ended up backfiring. According to the same former lead, THQ kept demanding more "transparency" from Schulman. Schulman, according to another executive, was concerned that "transparency" would mean that his teams at Kaos would start receiving publisher interference, and pushed back against these demands.
His departure didn't so much solve the problems with Homefront's development as it created a new succession crisis.
These sources deny Schulman was fired, describing the split as mutual. When it became clear that Schulman and THQ executives could not agree on how to manage Homefront, they agreed to part ways and Schulman soon departed.
Interestingly enough, however, the majority of Kaos sources consulted for this article described Schulman’s departure as a firing. One day, Schulman was simply gone, and an unfamiliar THQ executive was announcing that Schulman and THQ had parted ways. The suddenness of the change, and the heavy corporate stamp it carried, seemed like a clear message about who was in charge and who had made the ultimate decision to let Schulman go.
His departure didn’t so much solve the problems with Homefront’s development as it created a new succession crisis. The task of putting Homefront’s development back on track fell to Dave Votypka, who was also trying to grow into the role of creative director. Now he was creative director and acting general manager, a tremendous amount of responsibility for anyone. He was also dealing with a territorial studio culture and a more assertive publisher. To all of these challenges, Votypka’s personality added more.
"He was a very quiet guy, very subdued, did not like to cause a lot of havoc," recalls one producer who worked closely with him. "He wanted everybody to be happy at the end of the day. And to be honest, that's not something the GM has the ability to do at many studios. He has to make a lot of hard calls, a lot of tough calls, that are going to upset a lot of people. And Dave V avoided making those calls in a lot of passive aggressive ways."
Enter: Danny Bilson
With Homefront mired in pre-production and lacking a viable development plan, and with Dave Votypka struggling to come to grips with two critical new roles, the door was open for THQ to take a more assertive role in shaping Homefront. THQ's recently-appointed VP of core games, Danny Bilson, was eager to step through it. He had a lot of ideas for getting Homefront back on track, and developers at Kaos were going to hear them whether they wanted to or not.
"He was just in everything," one developer said of Danny Bilson's arrival. "The names of the characters. The backstories. The positioning of the camera in parking lots. Literally directing how the voice actors read the AI barks." You could have a voice actor read 15 versions of "reload!" and Bilson would get stuck on the 14th and how it wasn’t "present" enough.
Danny Bilson’s detractors paint him as an arrogant, ignorant meddler who parachuted into Kaos almost at random, overturned whatever the team was working on, then vanished for long periods of time. This view is particularly concentrated among line developers, who are scathing in their criticism.
Kaos’s former leads and directors view him with more ambivalence. One reason line developers blame him for so many of Homefront’s problems, explained one producer, is that "teams were really working in silos. You could be sitting 20 feet away from somebody and have no idea what they were working on. So when things would trickle down from above, you would just associate it with the biggest person in the room. And usually, that was Danny."
It didn't help that Bilson's pedigree, and some of his behavior, made him easy to pigeonhole as a clueless "Hollywood-type" who didn't know much about games. Bilson was a writer/director whose filmography includes a number of awful, so-bad-they're good camp sci-fi films, as well as The Rocketeer. With a background like that, it's no wonder that one widely-circulated anecdote involves his demand that Kaos flip a major level element 90 degrees to "shoot it from another angle." It's supposed to illustrate his utter lack of qualifications to involve himself in development decisions.
The problem with that story (and a lot of the complaints against Bilson), argues one lead — who was at the meeting where Bilson made the request — is that it ignores the fact that Bilson ultimately had a good point. He wanted the level rearranged because the player's POV during a key moment had the exact wrong angle on the action, and it diminished the impact of a major scene. The demand annoyed the modelers and level designers who had to redo most of the level, but the resulting scene looked better.
"Looking back, I think he made a lot of good calls," said one writer. "He was pushing us. His key phrase was, ‘Where's my moment?' And as a result we did get a lot of sort of cool, unique moments that I don't know if we would have had them or not otherwise."
The real problem with Bilson's input was that it was so inconsistent, something both defenders and detractors brought up. However good his instincts, or however poor his understanding of game development, Bilson involved himself in the details of Homefront's production but wasn't in a position to provide day-to-day input. He was heading up an entire division; he couldn't embed himself at Kaos and effectively join the development team. But when he wasn't at the studio, he was effectively unreachable, even when his input was needed. Then, sometime later, he would come back to Kaos for another visit and demand major revisions on work that Kaos completed in his absence.
"Looking back, I think he made a lot of good calls."
"If you're going to have somebody come in and overrule your creative direction and then just [leave], that's kind of a hit-and-run tactic," said the same writer. "I think if Danny wanted to be creative director, he should have just come in and been creative director."
Making matters worse, a lot of Bilson's ideas (and much of the overall vision for Homefront) were about making something that would rival Call of Duty in spectacle and mechanics. It was a simple objective, but impossibly difficult to achieve. THQ and Kaos consistently underestimated the scale of the task they had set for themselves.
"When you're sitting around with your buddies, and you're coming up with ideas for video games, it always sounds amazing," said one former systems designer. "But there's definitely way more to it to come up with a multi-million dollar franchise. There was nobody at Kaos who was gonna be able to do it, or that had done anything like that before."
A clusterf**k of posturing
It might have been too late to truly set Homefront apart from Call of Duty, but that didn’t stop upper management from belatedly trying to match it in terms of spectacle. One director remembers meeting after meeting in 2009 and 2010 where they proposed major changes to parts of Homefront that were already deep into production. Intimidated by Modern Warfare 2, senior managers started going back over Homefront asking, "How exciting is this moment? How can we dial it up to 11?"
"My opinion was, we shouldn't change these things," said one senior member of the studio. "We should let them mature. They are consistent and they will make for a good whole. It may not be that moment of ‘dialed-up to eleven,’ but the whole thing will be a super solid ten. What's the difference between 10 and 11 at the end of the day? If you decide to change 10 to 11, and you miss 11, do you still have 10?"
What frustrated directors and producers about the eleventh hour revisions was that they meant misery for the lower-level developers who would have to implement all these changes. If THQ and Kaos’ senior management were going to throw out two years’ worth of preproduction and development, then a long, brutal crunch was all but inevitable.
By late 2009 and early 2010, Homefront was still in bad shape, thanks to all the earlier second-guessing and leadership turmoil. It was starting to look like Kaos might have trouble shipping the game at all, and so the studio brought on a number of veteran shooter developers to make sure it saw the light of day. An influx of talent from EA, particularly former Medal of Honor developers, arrived at Kaos to see Homefront through crunch.
Kaos veterans we spoke with said the new arrivals from EA tended to be some of the coolest, most impressive people at the studio. They were unfazed by disorganized state of the development.
One of the imports from EA, however, admitted that Kaos was uniquely messy. "Homefront was a clusterfuck of posturing," he said. "The biggest difference between Medal of Honor and Homefront was this: Homefront’s upper management were inexperienced and afraid to show it. MoH was all veterans."
Eventually, a group of leads and producers including Chris Cross, Rex Dickson, Dex Smither and others went into overdrive to start locking features, finishing systems, and building levels. But perhaps the most significant addition to Kaos, and the most controversial character involved in Homefront, was new production lead David Broadhurst.
What frustrated directors and producers about the eleventh hour revisions was that they meant misery for the lower-level developers who would have to implement all these changes.
More than anyone else, Broadhurst is someone Kaos veterans credited with actually making sure that Homefront shipped. He was a ruthless manager who rode every single member of the team as hard as possible through the final months of development, including a seven-month crunch cycle. He took a disorganized and half-completed project that looked like it would never make its ship date, and he turned it around inside of a year.
He is also hated; a "bastard" in the words of one Kaos veteran. Broadhurst’s style was frequently that of a bully. He did not believe in quiet admonishment, nor in explaining why he was rejecting a piece of work. Instead, employees report, Broadhurst would publicly upbraid developers in full view of the rest of studio, at great length and volume.
One producer respects what Broadhurst accomplished, but questions whether it was really necessary to be so brutal.
"During that last year, we brought in a number of very talented and capable leaders. … They all knew that we were in a high pressure situation. They all knew the stakes. And they were very aggressive in getting this game done, and they're all right. But they were also very respectful of the talent that was in the studio, they knew the best ways to get the best work out of people, and very rarely would they try to break someone down emotionally.
"[Broadhurst] played the heavy to a T. Almost every moment he would be the guy that things were not good enough, things were not fast enough, and he would let you know. And he would browbeat you until you just accepted that you'd just have to work for the next 23 hours to get it done and better. Almost every argument that I would see would be public. And I personally don't agree with that. I don't agree with how he handled employees at all. But he is the reason that we got a lot of things out the door, to be honest. He broke a lot of our bad habits."
Between the horrendous crunch and Broadhurst’s pugnacious management, it wasn’t just Kaos’ bad habits that were breaking. Studio morale, already weak, started to shatter.
The Jagged end
The last year of working on Homefront was a scarring, miserable experience for many of the people working on it, and even at the time, many of them felt their labor was being wasted through mismanagement. They were the ones getting chewed out by Danny Bilson, hectored by Dave Votypka and publicly humiliated by David Broadhurst. Then they would swallow their pride and put in another 90 hour week.
"You can't put in all that overtime and not have it wear on you physically and emotionally," explained one lead. "It's a very traumatic experience. And really anybody that has put in a 90-hour work week is familiar with how traumatic an experience that is, and then imagine doing that for a solid year. It wears on your body. Then, on top of that, the guy who's the first man on the shift, the second in command only to the GM, is pretty much a bastard to deal with, then any sense of morale left in the studio of 'hey, we're all in this together, we can get through this' — this is all gone. And now everybody is just in it for themselves; just let me get through this. Let me just get through tomorrow. Let's just get this game out, and then after that I'm not even thinking about it."
Morale was more than just a problem for individuals: it made for a worse game, according to the same source. "To make a good game, you need the people making it to be emotionally invested. We all got into this industry because we're huge fans of games. And we're all familiar with what makes a good game. And it's very difficult for a developer to keep that focus because you've played the same game for three years over and over and over again through every broken and bad iteration. You begin to lose focus of what made this game idea good in the first place. And so you really need to hold onto that." But when morale collapses and everyone is approaching every day like a short-timer in Vietnam, that wider focus is lost. There is no amount of perfectionism or QA that can make up for a team that’s disengaged from the project and is just trying to survive.
"You can't put in all that overtime and not have it wear on you physically and emotionally."
How bad things had gotten became clear at the 2010 Kaos holiday party, when Votypka's speech to the studio got such a frosty response. Danny Bilson also managed to alienate more developers at Kaos three weeks later when he remarked on Twitter, "At Kaos studios in New York sitting with a team that's finaling on 7-day weeks for a couple of months. Talk about that ‘thousand yard stare’."
The comment sparked an immediate reaction from other developers, and at least one of whom spoke to Develop and started airing developers' grievances against THQ and studio management. The tensions at the studio were exploding into public view, and Dave Votypka had to do damage control and defend Kaos against the accusation that it represented the worst of AAA development culture.
There was only so much spinning that Votypka could do, however. One of his producers described this period at Kaos as being one of the lowest points of his career.
"You begin asking yourself questions like, ‘What the hell am I really doing? Why is it that I have spent more time with the people in the cubicle next to me than I have with my own family and friends for a year and counting?’" he said. "Because I might as well have moved out to Siberia for 13 months. Because nobody heard from me. That was true of a lot of people. I'm not sure who lost family, or what long term ramifications it had, but none of it positive. You don't become a stronger friend or a stronger family member from not being present."
The bad press and low morale intensified the talent drain afflicting Kaos: as word of the studio’s grim slog to completion got around the industry, other studios started poaching heavily. Key team members were only too happy to bail on Homefront and its hellish development to go work somewhere else.
There was also growing suspicion that no matter what happened with Homefront, Kaos was finished. The announcement that THQ was opening a major Montreal development studio seemed like a clear indication that Kaos was not part of THQ’s future plans.
Nor did anyone have faith that it still deserved to be. Regardless of how Homefront was coming together, the development had been a mess and the studio’s issues were still not really sorted out. The management team was cobbled together and nothing had really gone according to plan, and a number of Kaos veterans were quietly leaving the studio over the course of crunch. Some speculate it was self-reinforcing: Kaos personnel were losing their optimism about the studio’s future and leaving, and that led THQ to become more and more resigned to the fact that its New York studio was on its last legs.
"You begin asking yourself questions like, ‘What the hell am I really doing? Why is it that I have spent more time with the people in the cubicle next to me than I have with my own family and friends for a year and counting?'"
Running in circles
By the time Homefront launched, after several long months of crunch and grinding attrition, there was precious little optimism left about the product. Many Kaos developers knew they were making an unremarkable shooter, and so there was little surprise as Homefront racked up indifferent, damning-with-faint-praise reviews.
Ironically, for all that members of the development team made fun of the way the marketing exaggerated the very marginal role of John Milius in developing Homefront, it might have benefited for modeling itself after his film Red Dawn more than it did. One writer admits that portraying that North Koreans as "faceless monsters" probably hurt Homefront’s storytelling. While their pure, unadulterated evil made for some effective scenes of mass executions and open mass graves, it also made them two-dimensional villains whose motives were totally uninteresting.
"If you look at Red Dawn," he explains, "there's that Cuban officer who seems like a total asshole throughout the entire movie. You see him shooting civilians on the side of the road, right? Or you see firing squads and he's standing there watching. But by the end, he actually becomes kind of a sympathetic character. He's writing a letter home to his wife and he's saying, ‘This is not what I signed up for. I'm not supposed to be a police officer. I'm not supposed to be an occupying force. I'm a partisan. And somehow we've lost our way.’ So when the two kids are wounded and going by, he lets them go. And we never got the opportunity to humanize the North Koreans, and that sort of killed us in a few places."
"By the time you get to the game itself, it's just this ugly game filled with mean things that happen to people you don't care about," said another writer.
What frustrated many Kaos developers was that a good multiplayer game was getting dragged down and drowned-out by an overhyped, unsuccessful single-player that had already consumed a staggering amount of development resources. Multiplayer had originally been the focus on Homefront, just as it had been the focus of Kaos studios, but now the underwhelming single-player campaign was all anyone could talk about.
One irony of Homefront is that from the start, Kaos and THQ had wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened with Frontlines. This new game was supposed to be bigger and sell much better, and the resources committed to making and marketing the game reflected those expectations. But after three years and tens of millions of dollars, Kaos and THQ had ended up in the exact same place.
From THQ’s perspective, this made Homefront a failure. If they hadn’t expected a Call of Duty-killer, they had at least hoped for a competitor. That disappointment, and the indifference shown by gamers, makes it easy to dismiss Homefront as yet another also-ran in the overcrowded military shooter genre.
That dismissal rankles a lot of former Kaos developers. One director said, "Homefront was tossed-out. It wasn't that bad of a game. It sold two-and-a-half million units, and that's pretty successful, but who speaks about Homefront as a success? Now ... other people are like, ‘Hey, that's one of the few viable FPS IPs out there right now. There are a lot of people who would like to have it, because if they focused on that middle-tier market, you [would] make a lot of money off that IP."
THQ, which declined comment for this article, might agree with that perspective. By contracting Crysis and Far Cry creator CryTek to make the next Homefront, THQ certainly seems to think there’s a market for more. If there is, it might just be because, for all its imperfections, there remains something compelling about Homefront’s world.
Homefront may not have been the brutal insurgency shooter it once promised to be, but Kaos and particularly its art team succeeded in creating a world with potential. Scenes of resistance camps hidden in the ruins of suburbia, where people are using a converted Stairmaster to pump water, and have turned a backyard patio into an enormous greenhouse, evoked the loss of a way of life and the struggle to survive in a new world. The same goes for the reeducation camps, where prisoners eke out a living behind razor wire, underneath the glow of floodlights and searchlamps. Perhaps as a way of compensating for the generic campaign, Kaos’s art team was allowed to go all-out in building a credible atmosphere and garish vistas of despair. They remain proud of their work, and THQ’s decision to bring CryTek in to manage the franchise is seen as vindication for at least parts of their vision.
"People that I talk to now, they say, ‘Why do people even care about Kaos Studio?’" said one artist. "They really should, because it's a great example of making a game at this point in history."
From that experience, a lot of former Kaos developers have concluded that immaturity is the biggest problem in the AAA space and mid-tier shooter space. Not thematic immaturity, but a base-level lack of understanding about how to make successful games with a huge team and millions of dollars.
"How do you get a group of people to collaborate better so that it doesn't have to cost you?" said one former director. "Because I assure you, when you have a title that's upward of 30 million dollars, there's probably a couple of those million that are just re-doing work because the game industry is so immature. You don't have that kind of waste in the film industry. … And the reason for that is there's very little common langauge about how to make a blockbuster video game, and people are re-inventing the wheel at every production cycle."
Which goes a long way to explaining why former Kaos members recall Dave Schulman as being a good producer before being elevated to GM, or Dave Votypka being a good designer before rising to creative director. When Kaos expanded in the wake of DeLise’s departure and increased staff for a AAA production, many of the veteran members of the studio simply moved into management roles, or assumed greater responsibilities. THQ and Kaos treated expansion as a very natural, organic process.
"How do you get a group of people to collaborate better so that it doesn't have to cost you?"
But that’s not how it worked out. Kaos floundered when faced with a larger project, and more resources. Whatever the studio heads’ prior experiences, none of it had prepared them to manage something like Homefront. Instead, it was managers and leads who came from EA’s AAA culture who carried Homefront across the finish-line.
It doesn’t help that a publisher-owned studio can count on very little autonomy, which further complicated the management picture. One Kaos director remarked that the THQ that oversaw Homefront was very different from the one that had initially brought Kaos into the fold. "One of the things that made THQ so successful," he said, "is that THQ started as a group of fairly autonomous studios who could perpetuate their visions, and THQ just played publisher to their visions. That's one of the things that grew THQ to being a company that had a $40 share stock."
But under Bilson and perhaps even before his arrival, THQ was adopting a much more hands-on approach toward its studios. The director saw this as a destabilizing element in the development. "Studio autonomy gives you a lot of really original, creative game-changing ideas and products. When you bring it all in and make it into this big machine, it is much harder to keep that originality, and becomes less consistent. Because there's somebody at a very high level who is sending checks to the studio who can say, ‘Change this,’ at the eleventh hour."
That's how game development is
A number of Homefront developers will still argue that bad management was the root of a troubled development and, ultimately, an unsuccessful game. But there was more to it than that. Homefront is an example of how AAA publishing and production encourage bad judgment and mismanagement. It discourages creative risks, but doesn’t bat an eye at blowing millions of dollars and months of development time on a glorified E3 demo. It places multi-million dollar bets on bland corporate vision statements that project large sales and profits but sheds scant light on how to achieve them. It takes successful, mid-size studios like Kaos and forces them to take on hugely complex, challenging projects like Homefront. Then it lets the Peter Principle run riot as studio managers go from the equivalent of running a platoon to running an entire army. That kind of on-the-job training is expensive, both in terms of money and in workforce well-being.
Not long before he joined the exodus of developers from Kaos, one programmer turned to some of his veteran colleagues, the hired guns brought in from other AAA shooter studios to shepherd Homefront through its final stages. He just started unloading his frustrations at the debacle that surrounded them. He couldn’t believe the incompetence, ignorance and arrogance that was running rampant at Kaos. It was a complete train-wreck to him, and he was disgusted with it all.
The veterans working on Homefront listened to the programmer’s complaints about the million-and-one things that were wrong with Homefront’s development, and all the ways it wasn’t being run as well as some other AAA projects he’d been a part of. They waited until he was done, and then they shrugged it off.
"This is how video game development is."
Art: Steve Kim
Design/Layout: Warren Schultheis
Special thanks to Scott Kellum