Stop us if you've heard this one before: After working at a major game studio for years, a few developers go indie to make the game they've always wanted to make, and launch a Kickstarter campaign to turn their dreams into reality. It's a bold project — the developers aim to compete with triple-A titles in the genre, and they're full of high hopes and big promises.
As a funding model for indie games, Kickstarter isn't broken, but it has lost a lot of its luster in recent years. The success stories seem fewer and farther between, and the games often suffer delays before they launch. Other projects languish or fall apart due to mismanagement, unforeseen issues or more nefarious circumstances, leaving backers without anything to show for their monetary contributions.
Mat Broome and Kevin McPherson don't have the name recognition of, say, Koji Igarashi, and they're not bringing back an old-school classic. The two longtime Sony Online Entertainment developers, both die-hard fans of shooters, are working on a class-based multiplayer shooter called Kinetik.
Combining the squad-based cooperative military mechanics of games like The Division with the loot economy of Destiny, Hero Machine Studios' Kinetik is the type of project that would sound ambitious even if it came from a company the size of Ubisoft or Activision. Hero Machine consists only of McPherson and Broome at this point, and the duo is asking for $150,000 on Kickstarter to fund the game's development.
It sounds like the two may be biting off more than they can chew. Yet they're convinced they can pull it off, thanks to their decades of combined experience and what they believe to be the most fertile environment for indies in the history of the game industry.
The indie-friendly tech revolution
Kevin McPherson got his start in the game industry at Sony Computer Entertainment America in the mid-1990s, working as a programmer on the PlayStation game Rally Cross. He joined Sony Online Entertainment in March 1997 as a senior programmer, and worked there for nearly 18 years on games like EverQuest, PlanetSide, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and PlanetSide 2.
In a phone interview, Mat Broome characterized himself and McPherson as two of the "principal shippers" at Sony Online Entertainment. Broome came to the studio about four and a half years after McPherson, and served as an art director or character lead on games such as Legends of Norrath, DC Universe Online and H1Z1. In addition to his long career in the game industry, Broome is an accomplished comic book artist, having worked for more than two decades as an illustrator for Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse.
The two of them left Sony Online Entertainment in February 2015, the week after the studio was sold off and rebranded as Daybreak Game Company. But Broome told Polygon that in their final year at Sony, he and McPherson had begun to discuss where the game industry was headed.
Broome's experience on H1Z1 fueled these conversations — a small team made that game, and its audience grew through word of mouth on social media rather than a big marketing budget. And by the time McPherson and Broome departed Sony, companies like Epic Games, Crytek and Unity Technologies were offering their modern game engines to indie developers on the cheap.
Enter Mike Fischer, who spent 2015 working as the head of publishing at Unreal Engine maker Epic Games.
"We're really at the point of a revolution right now," said Mike Fischer, a longtime game industry executive whose experience includes a three-year term as the CEO of Square Enix America. Fischer is a board member at Hero Machine and has provided seed funding to get the team to the Kickstarter stage.
"I'm getting more deeply involved in helping early-stage game devs like [Hero Machine] because I just think the system is broken," said Fischer. The way he sees it, game publishers are increasingly focused on large-scale (and often risk-averse) projects, and game developers in 2016 have the tools and systems they need to succeed without publishers.
On the development side, using the free Unreal Engine 4 allows Hero Machine to focus on the important part: making the game.
"It's like having an entire studio of engineers behind you," said McPherson. "Having Unreal Engine 4's tool set and code base, so that Mat and I can just concentrate on the fun factor and the game systems, is completely necessary for our success."
Steam Early Access gives Hero Machine a way to not only distribute the game to Steam's massive audience, but to get the game into players' hands early and refine it with their help. And of course, if Kinetik can gain some passionate fans, they'll market the game for Hero Machine.
"I think there's a whole generation of innovation that's waiting to be unleashed," said Fischer.
Kinetik, the tactical multiplayer shooter
Broome and McPherson have played thousands of hours of shooters over the years, with favorites ranging from cartoony (Team Fortress 2) to realistic (Battlefield). After the release of PlanetSide 2, the two began talking about where they would go if they made a shooter of their own. They figured the genre was moving in the direction of giving players more control over their character through a progression system with gear, and allowing people to play online in a variety of modes.
Kinetik's aesthetics and combat are defined by the marriage of two styles: military shooters and near-future science fiction. Hero Machine wanted the combat to be grounded in reality, but looking ahead a few decades "gives us the latitude and freedom to do some interesting things with gear that we couldn't necessarily do if we set it in a more modern-day context," said McPherson.
"Both of us are kind of burned out on the forearm grip"
By the time PlanetSide 2 debuted in 2012, it had been five years since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's perk and progression systems revolutionized the multiplayer shooter genre. At this point, Hero Machine is looking to deliver something more meaningful than weapon improvements.
"Both of us are kind of burned out on the forearm grip," said Broome, referring to a gun attachment that's a common upgrade in military shooters.
With Kinetik, Hero Machine is expanding the progression to focus on soldiers' suits, plus a special addition: drones. These AI companions will hew closer to Boston Dynamics robots than Titanfall mechs, considering Kinetik's setting. And Hero Machine is hoping the drones will make the game stand out.
Kinetik's characters are split into three military special operations forces, which are akin to races in a fantasy game: the U.S. Navy SEALs, the British Special Air Service and the Russian Spetsnaz. Each one offers its own play style in the game, based on the strengths of the real-life units. Spetsnaz operators are renowned for their lethal hand-to-hand combat skills, while SAS units are skilled infiltrators, and SEALs can handle both.
Three classes are available within each military group: Assault (offense), Engineer (defense) and Recon (scouting). Every player can bring along a drone buddy, and the drones are tied to your class — the Recon drone's enhanced sensors allow it to gather intel more easily, for example. You'll be able to improve your drone to make up for your class's deficiencies. This will come through researching upgrades, which you'll do for both your drone (say, enhancing its GPS capabilities) and your suit (enhancing armor or cloaking, for instance).
"How you advance your drone based on your career path is really, really important to how you play Kinetik," said Broome.
The classes, military forces and drones will all play important roles in Kinetik's combat. Hero Machine wants to ensure that players have countermeasures for every situation. One person uses their drone to hack a door and lock it; an opponent uses their drone to blow the door open. This applies in firefights, too. While Kinetik won't have destructible environments on the level of, say, a Battlefield game, objects that you might take cover behind won't be impervious to damage — Hero Machine hopes players will learn to make tactical choices like flanking their enemies.
All of this will happen in a multiplayer setting in Kinetik; the game won't have a single-player campaign. Cooperative missions will support four-player squads, and competitive modes will offers squad-on-squad combat for up to 20 people. Players will see gear drops in the world with different levels of rarity for the loot; they'll find crafting recipes for components; and they'll be able to sell weapons to a merchant for in-game currency.
That doesn't mean Kinetik will be filled with microtransactions. Hero Machine has been developing the game in a way that's not conducive to the free-to-play model, which was the basis of many of their games at Sony Online Entertainment. Instead, the studio is planning to charge a certain price and then sell expansions over time, similar to the way Destiny works.
The path to launch
Hero Machine spent the past year or so developing a prototype for Kinetik, and sent us a very early build of a mission to try for ourselves. The prototype was buggy, as you might expect, and we only got to try it solo, not with other people. But the build showed promise as well. Without a lick of story, the design of the character and environment conveyed the setting in a way that made the military base I was exploring feel like a real place.
Hero Machine wants to let plenty of other people play Kinetik before its release. Steam Early Access is a major part of the studio's development plan. It's especially important for the company to get the game into people's hands early because it's a multiplayer title, and because there are so many moving parts.
Bringing in the community lets you "get more of a collection of data on the right directions to go in the game," said Broome. "Doesn't mean you're going to change everything, but you can start making better decisions on real user feedback."
If the Kickstarter campaign succeeds, Hero Machine will be on track to deliver a "vertical slice" of Kinetik by the end of the year. That will include the character creator, plus the ability to form a squad and run competitive and cooperative missions with other players, all at full production quality running at 60 frames per second, according to Hero Machine.
McPherson and Broome didn't sound like naïve, idealistic indies
The studio will then bring the game to Steam Early Access in 2017, and Broome promised that the Early Access version won't be "a broken game that we're trying to get to work." Hero Machine's current target is to launch Kinetik on Windows PC in the fourth quarter of 2017, followed by PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions at some point afterward.
You know what people say about the best-laid plans. But our conversation with Hero Machine was encouraging. Somehow, McPherson and Broome didn't sound like naïve, idealistic indies who were promising more than they could possibly deliver. They spoke repeatedly about how their experience at Sony Online Entertainment gave them the real-world knowledge to understand what it takes to build a game from scratch, to scope it from concept to reality, and to launch it to customers.
"We're bringing that experience to bear: our ability to come up with systems, implement them technically into the game, and then make them look beautiful via Mat's incredible artwork," said McPherson.
"I think, honestly, if you look at the typical project on Kickstarter, it's a quirky, retro 8- or 16-bit platformer," said Fischer. "And what Kinetik is showing is that you can make a triple-A-quality game on an indie-style team size and budget, thanks to the power of the tools that are available today."