In mid-2012, developer Respawn Entertainment gave part of its staff a month off.
Many team members had been involved in highly publicized lawsuits with former employer Activision over executive firings, withheld bonus payments and other issues related to the Call of Duty franchise. And after more than two years of legal distractions for all involved, the cases had settled. And Respawn gave them time to relax, to clear their heads.
For team members Todd Alderman and Frank Gigliotti, the month gave them a chance to re-evaluate their careers. With the lawsuits behind them, they realized their jobs had changed. They were doing the same work they'd been doing for years, but it felt different.
"Half of Respawn was in this lawsuit and the other half of Respawn was not in the lawsuit, and neither side could actually talk to each other about it," says Alderman. "That went on for two years. So there's a lot of strange baggage that comes with that."
When Alderman and Gigliotti returned from their month off, they quit and started their own company. It was the second time the two had left one of the industry's most popular studios — leaving the baggage behind for a chance to focus on something new.
A year and a half into that plan, it hasn't quite gone as expected.
Todd Alderman grew up staring at level maps.
His grandfather liked to play the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D and meticulously drew each room's map on graph paper, noting the location of every secret he could find. That planted a sense of level design in Todd, who found himself hooked on shooters at an early age.
Alderman says he developed a Quake addiction in high school. He skipped chemistry and physics classes to play with his friends, forming clans and making his own maps. He came close to dropping out of school. "My teachers had a talk with my parents, and my dad basically told me, 'You're going to graduate.' [Laughs] I guess it was worth it."
But six months into community college, he'd had enough. Alderman convinced his parents to let him give game design a shot. "They were like, 'You want to do this. You have a year. Get to it,'" he says.
A trip to QuakeCon led to a job with then-Medal of Honor developer 2015. That led to a job with Call of Duty creator Infinity Ward — where he worked as a level designer and then leader of Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 2 multiplayer design team. Alderman kept that job for the next eight years, overseeing the multiplayer gameplay of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2 and then multiplayer shooter Titanfall after he joined Respawn.
Over those eight years, Call of Duty became arguably the game industry's most successful franchise. In 2013, publisher Activision released an infographic bragging that more than 100 million people had played a Call of Duty game — more than the total population of France or Germany. As the multiplayer lead early on, Alderman played a key role in establishing that popularity, and says that the team's focus was on trying to make the game accessible and fixing problems team members had seen in other shooters.
"I think the biggest thing that we did with the Call of Duty multiplayer was we had specific problems we wanted to solve," he says. "Like number one being, [making] the game actually work. At that time, it was really hard to get into a multiplayer game. You had to know what you were doing ...
"That and things like making it easier to actually get kills. We switched up the damage model, so it wasn't like a Halo or Call of Duty 2 where it took 10 bullets to drop a guy, unless you get a lucky headshot. It was pretty vicious, but it helped people that were not the best twitch gamers to be able to participate and get kills and have fun. And it also was good for skilled twitch players that could aim and hit you very fast."
For Titanfall, Alderman continued working on the accessible approach, noting that the team mixed in elements such as double-jumps to play in to the sci-fi theme, and liked to make it hard for players to go back to what they'd played before. "Like if you play a game after Modern Warfare and it doesn't have sprint or bullet penetration, you really notice," he says. "... Those kinds of things are features that we like to get into the game."
While Alderman took on responsibility for much of Call of Duty's multiplayer design, Infinity Ward co-worker Frank Gigliotti led the team responsible for its console controls.
In his younger years, Gigliotti attended game school DigiPen and spent time at studios such as Paradigm, where he met a man named Jason West, who would go on to co-found Infinity Ward. West recruited Gigliotti for Infinity Ward and from there Gigliotti's career has mirrored Alderman's.
"I think I was the first hire that wasn't an original 2015 guy at Infinity Ward," he says.
When Infinity Ward began work on a console version of Call of Duty 2, Gigliotti says, he took a particular interest in making the game feel right on a gamepad — something he felt Halo had come closest to at that point, but that many games had struggled with.
"Everyone [in the office] had their own opinion," says Gigliotti. "It was a very heated debate on how it should feel on a gamepad. A lot of the time was spent on just fine-tuning the acceleration graphs, and how fast your view turns based on how much the stick is deflected versus how sticky targets are when your crosshair's over them."
He says he generally ran into two types of players. Some would gently move the analog sticks, while others would tap them aggressively. "There was tons of debate on it," he says.
While finding the balance that worked for both types was a challenge, he says he thought it found its footing in a strong way on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — his second attempt at getting it right — the basics of which have carried over to every Call of Duty game since.
"I think we made a lot of progress as far as getting first-person shooters to be actually really accessible on gamepads," says Gigliotti. "So it's really cool to be able to see that in other games ... Even all the rest of the Call of Dutys, they haven't changed a thing ever since we left."
"I think we made a lot of progress as far as getting first-person shooters to be actually really accessible on gamepads."
Leaving Infinity Ward
For years, Alderman and Gigliotti did well at Infinity Ward and were happy there. Both men praise their former co-workers and the approach that led to both critically and commercially successful games.
"The team was awesome," says Alderman, referring specifically to those on multiplayer. "There was this great back-and-forth."
Alderman calls out the team's insular nature — saying that while owned by publisher Activision, Infinity Ward felt like its own group, far removed from the rest of the company. "We sort of had complete freedom to do what we wanted and we worked really well together," he says. "... Our bosses shielded us from Activision and any outside influences, so we were focused on making the game and making the game how we wanted to make it. And that's a really nice thing to have. ...
"How things ended was the biggest disappointment, obviously."
On March 1, 2010, Activision fired Infinity Ward heads Vince Zampella and Jason West over claims of a breach of contract. In the wake of that decision, Zampella, West and others launched into a series of lawsuits, and many Infinity Ward staff left to join Zampella and West's new studio Respawn.
"When they fired Vince and Jason, our bosses, it just didn't seem right," says Alderman. "And after that happened, there was about a month of trying to figure out if we're going to stay here and keep doing what we're doing or leave and find something else to do. ... I don't know how much we can talk about, but it wasn't a place I wanted to work at anymore."
While Alderman and Gigliotti dodge specifics, their comments touch upon the team losing its insular nature and no longer being able to operate without outside influences.
"Just the way everything went down with [Activision] firing those two guys and then the things they were trying to change at the studio, it wasn't a place I wanted to be anymore," says Gigliotti.
"It wasn't a place I wanted to work at anymore."
Alderman and Gigliotti joined Respawn in April 2010. They were the first two to leave Infinity Ward of their own choosing after West and Zampella departed. Many others followed and went on to develop the game that would become Titanfall. As a multiplayer-focused shooter, the game played to Alderman and Gigliotti's strengths, though they were distracted at the time by lingering legal issues.
On April 27, Alderman and Gigliotti filed a lawsuit against Activision on behalf of more than 30 people in the "Infinity Ward Employee Group," claiming that Activision withheld bonus payments in an attempt to get them to stay at the company.
Then came Respawn's month off, when Alderman and Gigliotti took time to think about what they wanted to do next.
"During that time, I just had to think of what I want to do, and it was time to contemplate 'Is this what I want to keep doing, or do I want to try something new and different,'" says Alderman. "And that's kind of where my head was. We came back and I was like, 'I don't know that I want to do this anymore.'"
"I just stopped enjoying making games."
"I think the two years of the lawsuit really kind of took a toll on me," says Gigliotti. "Afterwards I kind of questioned — same type of thing — 'Is this really what I want to do?' Along the way, I just stopped enjoying making games. And I kind of wanted to get back to that point of really having the passion for what I do. And I kind of felt like that was the point for me to really kind of break off and do my own thing."
Alderman says it was particularly difficult to leave partway through Titanfall's development. When he departed, the game had been in the works for over two years, and had another year and a half left to go.
"That was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Alderman says.
But the two stuck to their decision — it was time to start an independent team of their own.
Forming Scary Mostro
In August 2012, Alderman and Gigliotti formed Scary Mostro, a two-man studio named after the Italian word for monster — in part because it "sounds sort of like an iOS developer-type name," says Alderman.
As that explanation implies, their initial idea was to develop mobile games. So they started on iOS, prototyping game engines and ideas. It was something they could fund on their own, and something they could manage with their added responsibilities away from the shelter of a team like Infinity Ward or Respawn. That was the plan, anyway.
Alderman says the biggest surprise he's seen since going independent has been the amount of time required to run the business and take on side tasks like temporary animation, artwork and sound, which he and Gigliotti had previously relied on from co-workers.
"When it's just a few of you and you don't have someone dedicated to [buisness], it's pretty overwhelming how much just business-related aspects of having your own company take over," he says. "And you lose days of work doing what sound like normal, ordinary type of things."
One of Scary Mostro's first iOS ideas was, as Alderman and Gigliotti like to say, a mix of the opening cutscene in the NES action game Ninja Gaiden and an episode of the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time called "Super Ultimate High Five." The idea was that two characters would fly at each other from a massive distance in order to try to kill each other. And that led to two game concepts — a "Words With Friends With Ninjas" where players would take turns performing and sending moves via minigames on their phone, and a runner where one player would travel that massive distance and the other would design obstacles to block their progress.
"It's pretty overwhelming how much just business-related aspects of having your own company take over."
To The Death
"At some point we decided ... trying out a gamepad with it," says Gigliotti. "And we had a Mac version running, and Windows. So we hooked up a gamepad and I think right around then we went, 'Oh this is pretty cool.'"
While the original plan was to self-fund the iOS game, a shift to Mac and Windows would up their costs considerably. But Alderman and Gigliotti kept thinking about the idea and determined it was worth a shot. So they put together a prototype of a 2D action game called To the Death, with players flying toward each other and fighting in midair — now with real-time combat, rather than the turn-based mobile approach — and took it with them to E3 2013, pitching it to publishers and showing friends.
"We got interest from some of them, but the one thing we kept getting hung up on was giving up control of the IP, which was something that we just didn't want to do," says Gigliotti. "And I think that's eventually what led us to Kickstarter."
"we hooked up a gamepad and I think right around then we went, 'Oh this is pretty cool.'"
In early 2014, Scary Mostro emerged to reveal a Kickstarter campaign for To the Death as a PC/Mac/Linux 2D action game. It had evolved from the E3 2013 pitch video to focus more on a single-player campaign, with stretch goals to add other platforms and multiplayer features.
Alderman and Gigliotti supported the campaign with numerous updates and two playable demos, work that they estimate ate up about three or four months of their jobs. And they failed to get the traction they needed.
On February 19, the campaign came to a close, reaching just under a tenth of its $400,000 goal, despite adding a downloadable prototype and PlayStation 4/Vita versions to the target.
"Kickstarters are just, they're impossible to predict, I think," says Alderman. "And we might have been better off not showing any gameplay instead of being identified as something that it's not. Having all the consoles in the base price would have been better. It's just sort of a dice roll of what people are gonna think."
Alderman says one of the biggest issues was the game's visuals. While Scary Mostro teamed with established artists at Section Studios, that partnership was only in place for a month or two prior to the campaign going live, and the game didn't yet look like the team wanted it to, a fact that he thinks may have been misleading to potential backers.
"We wanted to show gameplay because any time we ever see Kickstarter videos, I want to see the gameplay," he says. "I don't just want to see the guy talking and telling me it's going to be so awesome. I want to see a little evidence. ... [But] showing the gameplay with these unfinished animations I think sort of turned people off and made them think it's like a Flash game."
All of this was new territory for Alderman and Gigliotti, having spent the previous 10 years working on massively successful games. This was a reality check, in some ways, of the risks that come from leaving an established company.
This was a reality check, in some ways, of the risks that come from leaving an established company.
With the Kickstarter campaign behind them, Alderman and Gigliotti once again have taken a month off — going into "zen mode," as Alderman calls it. Much like their month at Respawn in mid-2012 and their time at Infinity Ward in 2010, they are taking a breather to decide what they want to do next.
They say in some ways they knew what they were getting into when they went independent, and in some ways it's been harder than they expected, leaving one of the industry's most popular studios. They've enjoyed the freedom, and grown tired of some of the business aspects of running their own company. But neither has any regrets over leaving Respawn, even after seeing the positive reactions to Titanfall's launch. They say they've learned a lot in the past year. They just don't know what's next.
"We have several options, and we just have to figure out what's gonna work best," says Alderman. "We don't want the game to go away, because I think it's a really good idea. How we do it and when we do it is just up for what's going to work out. If we find a publisher that's still interested in it, that's a possibility."
They might consider closing Scary Mostro as well, or attempting another game. Alderman and Gigliotti have a handful of mobile prototypes they might return to, a combat prototype for To the Death and a track record that helps open doors.
And now they're back where they've been multiple times before, taking a month off, deciding what they want to do.