F.E.A.R vets boot up new team, Blackpowder Games

Gamasutra speaks to creative director Craig Hubbard and executive producer Larry Paolicelli about why now is the time to break from Monolith and go indie.
Many studio developers have made the leap into the indie scene -- but it's rare to see a group of senior staff take off together and form a new studio. Blackpowder Games is the brainchild of six Monolith Productions veterans, including creative director Craig Hubbard and executive producer Larry Paolicelli. The team is currently working on its first game, Betrayer, an Unreal Engine 3 FPS set in an abandoned American colony in 1604 -- set to be released on PC, iOS, and Android. Gamasutra speaks to Hubbard and Paolicelli about why they decided now is the time to break away from a big publisher-backed studio and strike out on their own.

Why splash out with a new small studio now? What made you think now is the time?

Craig Hubbard: This answer is going to be obnoxiously vague, but it really just came down to an opportunity presenting itself. We had often discussed the idea of creating a new studio, especially over the last few years, but it was always a bit of a daydream. Then, one day, circumstances changed and it suddenly made perfect sense. We all agreed we'd rather regret trying and failing than not trying, so we went for it. Larry Paolicelli: You'd think the simple answer would be the growing indie scene but that aspect is really just the icing on the cake.
Craig Hubbard and Larry Paolicelli.
There are a few reasons why now is the time for us. Certainly it has been something we all talked about at various times over the past years, even to the point of having secret pet names for whatever the endeavor could be. But probably the biggest reason is to keep momentum and to always be making a game. At multi-team studios under a publisher, getting traction can be difficult which can be caused by some simple problems, like just getting an audience with busy senior management or bigger issues where another project in the studio is having problems and needs your resources or publisher interest being aimed at their big IP. If it happens enough, you start to worry that you aren't producing enough for your career and get anxious to make something memorable. So we thought why not try it on our own and see what we can do. This way, we have only ourselves to blame. At first we immediately looked around at the current landscape which included joining a smaller publisher, or finding VC, but none of those choices resonated more than "what can we do with what we have in front of us, right here, right now." We committed to that notion to the point that normal startup efforts like Kickstarter, getting a publisher, or even announcing ourselves went by the wayside. We became completely product-focused. Meanwhile, news of the indie scene picked up momentum which reinforced our decision and here we are, announcing ourselves along with our game's imminent release on Steam's Early Access. Further growth for our studio and our title will come from alpha funding, which seems perfect for our independent goals and timely for the state of the industry.

How can you make a game with great production values and engaging play like you're used to -- yet still sell it for a small budget?

CH: Well, very little about this situation is anything at all like what we're used to. There are only six of us, where we're used to much larger teams. Several of us are filling roles that are either mostly new or completely new. We're also working with Unreal for the first time after years and years on Monolith's proprietary tech. And our timeline is about half that of any project most of us have ever worked on. So there's a lot of learning and improvising. The bottom line is that we've had to be very strategic. A good way to fail is to dream up some grand design and then set sail on the winds of optimism. That doesn't work very well even when resources aren't an issue, let alone when you're in our situation. So we started by taking stock of what we thought we could deliver at a reasonable quality level within our constraints. And we constantly reevaluate our progress and make adjustments as needed. It's definitely tough, but the creative freedom and lack of politics more than compensate for the hardships. betrayer 1.jpgLP: It comes down to the experience you have tied to the choices you make. Since we are a very small but very senior team of leads, you can almost say we've seen it all and tend to not fall into the same traps twice. Okay, sometimes twice happens, but dammit not three times! Traps like trying to reinvent the wheel when you already have one, going out too far on a limb for one sketchy feature, or just trying to do too much with too little. Instead, effort goes into the gameplay choices that are the most engaging.

What kind of team size are you aiming for and why?

LP: For us, working with really talented, like-minded people is always the best, easiest and most creatively engaging. It also makes for better games. When team sizes get big it becomes a problem of having to create layers of management to support even the most basic communication and tasking, let alone keeping everyone focused on what is most important about the product. Then there's the budget. It then becomes an increasingly difficult proposition to make that money back and create a sustainable team that you carry from project to the next, along with the learning that comes from that shared experience. So we turned it on its head and we are currently six people with some part-time help and a contractor friend that built weapons for us. We are spread way too thin, but that's the way we wanted to start, hungry and eager to rely on each other, which is more of a garage band style of creating something that you can do yourself with just a few resources. We'll want to carry the smaller-is-better theme as we grow, albeit slowly and carefully. While someday we may want to do something bigger, for right now it is about building off of our simple foundation and adding a few resources where needed, strategically but also culturally. We don't want to fall into the trap of suddenly finding lots of money and growing too big too fast and lose what makes this special. While we have bigger aspirations, we don't want to be Big, so we would like to grow to no more than a 20 to 30-person range and keep a healthy, focused and incredibly talented studio.

We've seen some success for indies with FPS and puzzle/FPS on Steam/PC but no real experienced triple-A devs making a more left-of-center and smaller but polished FPS game. I get the sense that this is what you are going for. Can you talk about what your goals are here, and why?

CH: It's probably self-evident that we're hoping to put out a game that does well enough to let us make the next one and hopefully grow a bit so that we can achieve more with a little less stress. So we set out to try to craft something distinctive enough to stand out in a crowd but not so out there that nobody wants to dance with it, so to speak. It's really a question of balancing fresh and familiar, with the basic requirement that the execution has to be solid. One of the biggest challenges on this project is that the only constraints were time and manpower. We could literally pick whatever subject matter we wanted without having to go through focus tests and conjoint analysis or cater to the whims of meddlers and hit-chasers. It was a unique and kind of terrifying proposition for us because there aren't any excuses to hide behind. We picked a concept we thought was cool and could be interesting to enough people for us to be able to stay in business. Realistically, there are no guarantees no matter how much testing you do or data you amass, but this is really just an old fashioned gamble on our collective instincts. The game is also part of a longer-term strategy we've been discussing since we shipped FEAR back in 2005. The idea is to iterate on and refine the core elements over multiple projects so that we have a foundation that lets us become more ambitious with each new game and branch out in interesting new directions.

Do you think the industry is fundamentally shifting to make medium-sized games viable again? Over the course of this generation they seemed to fade away.

CH: Digital distribution has created opportunities that never really existed before. Partly it's that there's finally room for products of different sizes at lower price points, which had never really been an option. But I think the bigger impact is just that it's easier than ever for people to make games. There's a lot more fearlessness and willingness to break from convention because indies haven't had it grilled into them what they can't do and shouldn't try. It leads to some failed experiments, of course, but also some staggering successes that could never have come from a stereotypical publisher. As an example, there was no way side-scrollers not starring a Nintendo icon were ever going to make a comeback with the old business model, simply because no publisher would take the risk on an assumedly dead genre and most indies couldn't get enough shelf space to stand a chance. Even if you miraculously got something greenlit, consumers would probably choke on the standard retail price point and you'd end up with a case study in confirmation bias. Digital publishing opened the door for Terraria, Gunpoint, Rogue Legacy, and a dozen other amazing titles that couldn't have found an audience 10 years ago. It's incredible. It's also daunting, of course, because there's so much competition and the quality just keeps improving. As I mentioned, the trick is doing something that will get you noticed in a head-nodding or chin-rubbing way and not a finger-pointing or eye-rolling way. betrayer 2.jpgLP: Parts of the industry have already shifted out of the big budget three-to-five-year gamble. It is just too unsustainable to place that many big-dollar bets. It was almost a requirement that you needed the infrastructure and budget of a large publisher to compete on the dominating consoles. On the other side, where smaller mobile and tablet games are being pumped out by one person or small group teams, it also seems to be troublesome in that your game and the risk you're taking could get lost with all of the others that have flooded the market. The pendulum swings from one side to the other but the best place seems to be, at least for the way we want to work, is more medium sized and we have to give thanks to platforms that are more open, like Steam for example, that provide that diversity of scale. It gives both the developer and consumer an opportunity to meet each other in the middle. Certainly there is the effort by the more heavily funded to create a game that sits on both sides of the spectrum -- we've all heard it: at home at night play the big console version while during your lunch hour play the light mobile version of the same game to keep the player locked in to your IP. Some consumers will love it but some will look for something that will change it up a bit, like a medium sized player experience that doesn't suck your life away (or your wallet) that you can find creatively engaging and unique. The commitment is lighter but it doesn't have to be a shallow experience. Blackpowder is made up of guys that have been in the industry for 15 to 20 years and when we all started, the budgets and sizes of the games were more like today's medium games. For us, it's refreshing and almost a homecoming to be able to make and play games like that again.

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