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Games as a Service -- A glimpse into the design and business of Insurgency’s ‘Early Access’

This is the story of New World Interactive and the development of Insurgency, discussing 'Early Access' on Steam and why it is a good option for indie developers.

Origins

For those of us who make games, we know how fortunate we are. It can occasionally be a terrifying process, but there is nothing else we would rather do for a living. Many of us started by tinkering with modifications of our favorite games. The inner workings unveiled themselves; new ideas begin to form. These ideas spread to message boards and IRC chats. A common vision emerges.

In 2004, myself and a few others from the Red Orchestra team were looking to branch into a new project. With the onset of Half-Life 2, there was a newly forming talent pool of level designers and programmers migrating from the Half-Life community to the recently announced Source Engine.

The appeal of Source was its open C++ architecture that provided a much more powerful framework than other modding platforms at the time. Our vision was to create a total conversion that encompassed the realistic infantry combat experience of Red Orchestra, but in a contemporary setting. Another Source project was already established with a similar vision -- a project led by Andrew Spearin called Operation: Counter-Insurgency. Instead of competing, we combined forces and built a great team of volunteer artists, programmers, and level designers that released the Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat mod three years later (2007). 

Immediately following Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat’s release, many of the project’s original core team members moved on. They went to work at Crytek, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Gearbox and Digital Extremes. I went to college to study Computer Science and History, and Andrew went to school to study Photojournalism. The mod continued with a new team, and over the next few years it began to fade away from development updates. 

New World

By 2010, I completed my college degree and the only thing I wanted to do was make games. I founded New World Interactive (NWI) shortly thereafter in New York City where I was living, planning and raising capital. Many of us from the original Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat team had maintained friendship and contact over the years, which made building the NWI team much easier. Not only had we worked with one another in the past, but our collective skill set and experience had grown immensely.

Development started a year later, after the company received investment and established a studio in Colorado. There was a development studio in Denver that helped us get off the ground -- IllFonic (www.illfonic.com). They provided startup studio space for the company, free Internet and most importantly -- guidance; all things the company needed but could not find in New York. Another advantage Denver has over New York is the cheaper cost of living. Until this point we had largely contracted people out, but I found the onsite component essential towards increased innovation and productivity. Once in Denver, we quickly built an on-site team to produce the new Insurgency.

Some of the original NWI guys 

My leadership style as project lead and owner of the company has been very much atypical to what one might expect from this role. I’ve always enjoyed development more than management, and am the first to recognize my own youthful inexperience as a CEO. I wanted to create an enjoyable work environment where each developer feels like they can work on whatever component of the project they are most enthusiastic about, and where each person has a say when it comes to creative direction of the project.

In many ways I discovered that my vision was slightly utopian and unrealistic, building a relatively unstructured system that placed a lot of trust in each developer. We never had very clear measures of accountability or structures for conflict resolution. The reason why I went with this approach had, in large part, to do with the way that I personally like to work.

I had experience working in many different areas of game development up until this point: My role on Red Orchestra as Founder was Project Leader and Art Director. My skills were 3D modeling and creative at the time, creating the original character models and coming up with the original concept and direction of the mod. On the Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat mod in addition to leading the project I ventured into animation and 2D art, creating the character models/animations and all of the HUD art. Following the mod, I got a degree in Computer Science and learned to code, at which point everything came full circle for me.

On the Insurgency project I would later find myself doing technical art, animation, programming, AI, and even some level design, all on top of being responsible for managing the project. The idea was that if we could build a team of developers capable of filling multiple roles, this would be the best way to tackle an ambitious FPS project with a small team and a tight development timeline. This in large part was our “strategy” going into the production of Insurgency and in a lot of ways it was successful in getting us to where we are now in a matter of a year and a half. 


INSURGENCY Reborn

The natural choice for the NWI debut game was to rebuild Insurgency and revive the community that many of us had worked so hard to build from the ground up. We felt this would be a great foundation to experience the growing pains of forming a studio and finish what we started.

Uprising, early prototype concept 

In a genre filled with some of the most popular gaming franchises in history, NWI has taken on the immense challenge of finding a niche that is both distinct and appealing. As gamers, we have been active in the long established subgenre of the first-person-shooter dedicated to tactical and co-operative gaming in ‘realistic’ scenarios. FPS franchises such as Rainbow Six initially appealed to this crowd, but have since evolved to reach mainstream audiences. The Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat mod had mainstream appeal, while being a fresh concept at the time, that maintained a focus on intense ‘realistic’ combat. Fans of the mod would often remark that they are willing to pay for the game in order to support the team’s continued development, which planted the idea in mind.

I brought Andrew Spearin back to the team as our community manager so both co-founders who established the original vision for Insurgency can maintain the spirit of the game. He helps us monitor the community's pulse and ensure that the design and marketing of the game aligns with our audience.

Uprising, map in development

Challenges

Our biggest struggle with the design of Insurgency has been striking the right balance between how we, the original developers, want the game to evolve and what the community from the mod expects it to become. This appears to be a common theme whenever a mod goes commercial -- people want a straight port of the existing game to a new engine, while the developers view it as an opportunity to build off of the mod and create something greatly improved.

Another issue with taking a mod to a commercial release was that people expected us to build off of the mod instead of, in large part, starting over. We started by porting Beta 1 of Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat to the Portal 2 version of Source Engine, and worked from there. We kept certain features, ditched others, and pretty much started over on content (e.g. maps and art). Many people had contributed content to the mod, so it was important we only use what we had to and got the rightful permission from the creator of that work. 

In July of last year, we launched a 60-day Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $180,000 to comfortably sustain development of the game. We ended with 569 backers and total amount pledged for the campaign was $66,582. It felt like a setback, however it did not mean the end of the project. While many Kickstarter campaigns are launched to pitch ideas or early prototypes, we had a working product that was close enough to being playable. We pressed forward.

We secured more investment, which bought us seven more months of development time. We planned a release for March 1, 2013. In the weeks leading up to this release, the pressure was at its highest -- both the workload and financial. After working in a perpetual crunch for a period of three months, we reluctantly had to make tough decisions to reduce our already small team. For a game that is competing to be an alternative for the multi-million dollar AAA franchises, we are almost somewhat of a guerrilla studio -- synonymous with the game we're making.

Siege, insurgents advancing

'Early Access'


A common theme I discovered at the 2013 Independent Games Summit was the concept of knowing when exactly ‘the right time’ to release a game is.

There is always the choice between investing more time into something or declaring it finished. In many cases, independent developers who get to decide their own release date elect to invest more time and/or money to make changes and improvements before its official release that, in hindsight, did not provide the game with added value.

Every developer fears a premature release and bad reviews. When a team works on the same project for an extended period of time, the group can fall into tunnel vision. In our experience, receiving feedback from our most trusted community members and those who never experienced the game before, helped us see things from a fresh perspective and find a new burst of motivation.

After these internal tests started, we began to build a release plan around the concept of ‘Early Access,’ inspired greatly by the efforts of Unknown Worlds’ development of Natural Selection 2. It is similar to the product development strategy of releasing a minimum viable product, written about by Eric Ries in the book The Lean Startup. We did not want to call it Beta because we felt that Beta would imply "feature complete," and we wanted to make it clear that things will still change. 

In March 2013, we started selling ‘Early Access’ keys on our Website via PayPal. Shortly thereafter, Valve formalized the concept by including a special section in the Steam store dedicated to early access games. At the end of April Insurgency was included. 

Insurgency currently available in the 'Early Access' section of Steam

‘Early Access’ has the potential to be a very powerful tool for independent developers. Valve makes it clear in its Early Access FAQ that games in this section are incomplete and the developers are looking primarily for feedback from users, so there is nothing to be misconstrued.

For us, the strategy is intuitive to how we always approached game development: put the game out there, receive feedback, prioritize and iterate -- make the most desired and effective changes. Profit is invested back into the game to strengthen each subsequent release -- from incremental updates in Alpha, through the Beta and Final Release. Most importantly, it allows us to stay true and transparent to our community throughout the whole process.
Dear community, what do you think we should focus on?Surveys are a great opportunity for developers to use community-driven analytics to drive the evolution of a game. The poll above, for example, was highly useful when coming up with our roadmap for the next 6 months.

We're also using these surveys to help us market the game. In a lot of ways we have had a hard time explaining what makes Insurgency such a unique experience. By asking the community to briefly describe in their own words what the experience entails to them, we have been able to discover a lot about our own game.


Survey answers 
For a game that on the surface may resemble others, the intensity of gameplay needs to be experienced. The player interaction while engaged in a firefight is what defines this game -- the core gameplay mechanics, the feel of the weapons, the swift pace of action. The best marketing strategy to carry this message is personal referral from gamer to gamer, which is why our design process is influenced by our fans. 

There are a lot of people out there that are helping us make this a success, and instead of pushing that away we have chosen to embrace it. We have released an SDK with our game already, which has provided us with a great community of modders that are already starting to make custom maps and missions for the game. There are many good looking maps in the works, including re-created maps from the mod. 

Essentially, we are selling the service of creating a game experience that includes its development process as part of that experience. It is too early to say whether our campaign is a success, but we are excited to be out there and competing with other FPS games, slowly forming a niche as we make vast improvements and add new content. 

I believe, and am truly hoping, that the arrival of ‘Early Access’ on Steam is a step in the right direction towards a more open, indie-friendly games industry. It has been a great journey getting here, having dedicated over 6 years of my life to Insurgency. And yet, there is still more to come, and that doesn't bother me a bit.

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