Of the several development outfits to sprout following Microsoft's closure of Ensemble Studios in 2009, Robot Entertainment can perhaps be most closely regarded as its true spiritual successor. With the studio's first project, Age of Empires Online, in its final stages, Robot will be striking out with its first original title, Orcs Must Die, this summer.
Targeted for release through Steam, Xbox Live, and the PlayStation Network, Orcs Must Die is a downloadable effort that sees players defending their castles from a never-ending flood of orcs and other infernal beasts. The high-intensity action title seeks to meld tower defense with third-person action, as players strategically retreat through their keeps while laying and springing traps that range from spiked logs to magical wrecking-ball pendulums.
To find out more about Orcs Must Die, as well as get a sense of Robot's strategy going forward, GameSpot caught up with CEO Patrick Hudson, COO Harter Ryan, and lead producer Chris Rippy.
GameSpot: Orcs Must Die is the first original game from Robot. What's the 30-second elevator pitch for this game?
Harter Ryan: Sure. Orcs Must Die is an innovative game that's set in third-person perspective, and it's a mix between tower-defense and a third-person shooter. Basically you're a war mage who's defending a castle from orcs who want to invade it and go through the hallways and jump into a glowing blue ball called a rift. There's a story around it--it's a single-player game--but essentially you're going to be using a series of traps, spells. and weapons. As the orcs invade in waves, you'll be able to stop them and kill them, hence the title.
GS: Do you have a publisher for this game yet?
Patrick Hudson: We don't have a publisher. It's going to be a downloadable title for Steam, hopefully Steam, PSN, and XBLA, all roughly simultaneously. We're working on having a distribution partner, working through some of that stuff right now. We're self-funding the game, though.
GS: You don't even need to deal with all the publisher stuff then?
PH: Yeah, just the platform stuff. This is a smaller title we were able to peel off--our first 24 months of existence was primarily developing Age of Empires Online--and last summer we were able to free up a handful of guys and they came up with this idea. And we tend to bottom-up ideas here from the teams rather than anybody sitting at the top having a grand unified game they want to go make. So, this idea came up and they started last summer with a small team of five or six people and got us to this point. Once we wrapped up development on Age of Empires Online, we put some more people on it, and we're pushing to get it out this summer.
GS: So, this is obviously a pretty big departure from Age of Empires. What led you to this game after working on that franchise for so long?
PH: We were inside Microsoft for so long--most of the people here came from Ensemble Studios--we've hired some fresh blood since then. And we were always prototyping something different outside of the [real-time strategy] realm and especially outside of Age of Empires and Halo Wars. There's been a lot of pent-up creative energy in this group of folks for a really long time, so getting independent finally allowed us to go and pursue some of these ideas. We've had guys in here that have been making more or less the same franchise for a dozen or 14 years and just [have] a strong desire to do some different things.
GS: What were the influences that went into this game?
Chris Rippy: When we started, we were looking at a bunch of different games, I'd say more genres than anything. We were looking at the Horde mode games--or games that have Horde modes in them, a lot of shooters have that now--and also some tower-defense games. We were wondering what it would be like if we tried to combine those two elements, what we'd get out of it, and that's where we started.
GS: Are you still thinking this hybridization model was a good idea?
CR: Yeah, we think it's a great idea. We did our first prototypes just seeing what it was like to run around in a world where you have kind of an endless stream of enemies coming in the door, and then placing traps and having the defense game field, seeing what that was like. And actually we were pretty thrilled with the results and took it from that prototype more into fleshing out more and more of the gameplay into what it is right now.
GS: Have you found that it's more difficult to make a game that hybridizes genres as opposed to, say, a straight RTS, or is it just different?
CR: The RTSs all have their challenges. We just came [off of] doing Halo Wars two years ago, which was bringing real-time strategy games to the console. It hadn't been tried too much in the past and a lot of companies had not had a lot of success with it before. And we were used to pretty big challenges in that regard and this was a new way of thinking for us, this new game style, so it was just a different set of challenges.
GS: You mentioned that you were working on Age of Empires Online before this, and then Orcs Must Die is a smaller downloadable game. Which route do you think your studio will take in the future?
PH: We'll do a little bit of both. Age of Empires Online was a shorter schedule for us, we worked on that for 24 months and if you look back at some of our previous games, they were as long as 36 months or longer. So, there's certainly a desire internally to work on shorter development cycles. We'd like to be shipping a game at least once a year no matter the platform. We will ship on a variety of platforms. But I think we'll do a little bit of both. It really does depend on kind of where the creative juices are in the company, what people are excited to pursue, and what we think we have the chops internally to pull off, both development-wise and just from a financial risk standpoint.
Right now, Orcs Must Die is the bulk of our effort as we try to make the final push to get this out. But we have two other games in the works also. One is quite small, even much smaller than Orcs Must Die, and one is significantly larger than Orcs Must Die. And then just getting to the point where we can balance those levels of development efforts is what we're working through right now. But, we don't have a single-minded mantra of, "Hey, we're going to go do this type of game at this type of size and distribution point."
GS: Do you see yourselves more creating new IPs, or working with, say, Microsoft's established Halo or Age of Empires franchises in the future?
PH: We'd never say no to working on great intellectual property, but right now we're really excited to be working on new IP, and we'll ride this train for a little while. But all the things that we have working right now are all original and we're not out actively looking for any licensed work.
GS: Two more original games then. Can you tell us anything about those projects? Do they have any bearing on Orcs Must Die?
CR: They're pretty different. We'll learn different things that may help us down the road with Orcs Must Die. But, yeah, they're more team-centric, ideas that come from key people in the studio that can go and make a game based around an idea that the studio is excited about, and if we think there's a chance to be successful we'll go and do it. Certainly we talk about how we augment our IPs down the road. I guess we have to have a first successful IP to think about that a little more strongly. So, if Orcs Must Die comes out and it does well, we certainly want to think about how we can go farther with the IP and do more fun things with it. Right now I think we're still at that earlier stage where we have disparate ideas that we're interested in tackling.
GS: As you mentioned earlier, a lot of you had previously been with Ensemble for some time. How has creating a studio in the late 2000s differed from starting up in the mid-'90s?
PH: That's a good question. I wasn't at Ensemble at the beginning, so I may let Harter give you more flavor. Certainly budgets and stuff are a lot crazier, even a budget like Orcs Must Die is probably higher than the first Age of Empires. So that's certainly changed a lot. The thing that's fun and interesting today as an independent developer is the many different avenues you have to get close to the gamer.
You don't necessarily have to have a publisher and you don't necessarily have to go through retail. You've got very powerful smartphones and the iPad. And digital distribution platforms like Steam, Xbox Live, and the PlayStation Network, where a developer like us can make a game and get it right into the hands of the customer without having multiple layers of middlemen there. So, that's new and different today than you had before. Certainly you had guys putting shareware on discs and putting them into Ziploc bags and mailing them out to customers. But, the immediacy of getting a game in the hands of a player is new and fun and that continues to evolve in interesting ways that create a lot of cool ideas and opportunities for a developer like us.
Harter Ryan: Certainly the hit-driven nature of the business hasn't changed. There's just a lot more stuff to wade through on all the different platforms now. You still see that the talent does rise to the top. We saw that even in the '90s when we were getting that first game out there and getting a sizable community built around it, which is just the basic part of the Internet now. The ability to build a community that's excited about your games, excited about the work you do with them. There are so many good examples now that you can point out that really help guide new developers and haven't been around for a long time. As a company, we're new and we're unknown to customers, so we have to reintroduce ourselves and that's a challenge, but it's a real interesting problem and it's also a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun to go to game shows and be discovered.
GS: Right. I'd imagine it involves a lot of, "Hi, we're Robot Entertainment. You may know us from…"
PH: That's the ice breaker, yeah. Until we get recognized. Slowly we'll start building a name for our new studio around Orcs Must Die and some subsequent titles, but we never want to shy away from our legacy. I mean, we love the franchises and we're quite proud to have worked on them, so it's always a part of our introduction and probably always will be.
GS: How has it been transitioning back to a small-team atmosphere, and do you think you'll keep it that way?
PH: Yeah, it's been great. Ensemble got up to probably 120 people at its peak, and we're just shy of 50 now. And there's certainly some sort of tipping point there--we don't know exactly what the number is--but once you get above 60, 70, 80 people, you stop knowing everybody's name, and that changes the dynamic quite a bit. So, it's been nice to be back in a smaller environment where we've got a really open floor plan, where everybody sees each other every day, and that's been just a really nice feel and a nice change.
GS: What else do you think you'll be doing differently this time around as far as the studio environment goes?
HR: It's more about similarity I would say at this point. There's some things that we wanted to bring with us from Ensemble, the quality of the individuals here. Because we are keeping it a smaller studio, we want to make sure that we have people who can really punch above their weight and do the kinds of things that we need to do. And we continue to look for really top-notch generalists in all of our disciplines and we hire people who can move quickly, different platforms, different genres.
We have people who are a lot more general, they're a lot more disparate. I have a lot of people who play on iPhones, lots of people who play consoles, not afraid to try new stuff, so that's a really useful and invigorating part of the studio because we're not just going to be known for one kind of game and we're not going to be on just one platform. And so we have lots of different ways over time that we expect to be able to tickle the fancy and the intellectual curiosity of the employees here.
PH: I think over time, if you look back at Ensemble, as big as we got, and we had a run of about 15 years or so, any organization that's been around that long and grows, you just pick up bad habits, they kind of creep in. It's hard to go back and name all those now, but certainly when you get out on your own and outside the safety of the umbrella of a big company like Microsoft, there has to be a lot of discipline there to be a lot faster with your decision making. To be able to recognize when you're going down a rabbit hole and pull yourself out of those, as we certainly don't have an unending supply of resources here and we have to be really smart about how we develop games. And that's learning things I think a little bit differently for us, but that's also, I think it's fun and it's also healthy.
GS: You guys are part of the trend of veteran game developers shifting from AAA titles to small-budget, indie efforts. What's going on here?
CR: Right, well you can come up with a really long list of people I think that fit that bill, and yeah I agree with you. Probably a number of different factors. It's obviously very, very challenging and competitive at that end of the market for those big, long-drawn-out AAA titles with huge budgets. There's not that many people willing to fund those, and there's just not a lot going on necessarily in terms of the publishers out there funding that stuff and people with the ability to go and pull it off. The idea of sinking $40 or $50 million dollars from these publishers into launching an original IP, it's just not really there.
Plus, I think developers over time, it's just a real grind to work on those types of games, it's tough to spend 36 or 48 months on the same project and not seeing something ship. It's certainly more rewarding and more enjoyable to get in a cycle where you're seeing the thing you worked on in the hands of players on a more frequent basis. That's just invigorating and gets you ready for the next one. That's what's going on in terms of the platforms and distribution, digital distribution allows for--like I said earlier--a lot more avenues to get to gamers directly rather than packaging something up in a $60 dollar box. That necessitates really quick cycles.
GS: To that interaction between developer and community, there has been a big push toward the social component of games. Orcs Must Die is single-player only, right?
CR: Yeah, we imagine the first version will definitely be a single-player game. If we have the success we hope to have, our plan is to follow it up with a multiplayer version. So again, this might be the type of thing where [if you're] part of a bigger organization and deeper financial resources you might hold the game and work on it for 24 months and make it the full-blown multiplayer version. But we had to make a conscious decision early on, "OK, let's make the absolute best single-player version that we can, get fans to love this franchise, and then we'll see where we can take it from there." So, that's a strategic decision we had to make early on.
GS: Do you feel that a social component is important for games in general?
CR: Yeah, absolutely. And what becomes social gaming today has become so narrowly defined by what a Facebook game is and really, it's just delivered to the community in a lot of different ways and creating ways to engage with your IP. And we have a pretty robust community management department here and Web effort. We think first and foremost about the community and how to get them involved, not only in the game post-ship but even in the game in the development stages. So allowing them ways to connect with one another is certainly a key part of that. I think it's a lot broader than what has become known as social gaming, when we think of socially connecting players.
GS: So what are you seeing as a barometer of success for this game?
CR: That's a good question. You always want to make your money back, especially when you're self-funding. But we want to establish this as a new IP for the studio. We don't think of this as a one-and-done, let's get it out there and then move on to the next thing. We hope Orcs Must Die becomes a franchise for us and that we can grow with our community for a few years to come, at least. So, you have to have a certain level of success and enough interest from the fans to warrant that, but that's our hope.
HR: I think also just setting a benchmark for people's expectations is really important both critically and commercially. This is the level of games that we can expect out of Robot in terms of polish, in terms of fun, and those people feel like they're getting a lot more dollars' worth of fun for their money. That's something I think we had a lot of success with, with the Age games. There were always a bunch of different games in the box. A lot of higher value than just what people might expect the first time they started playing, and that's what we're looking for with Orcs and the other games we're working on.
PH: Yeah, we might put a little more pressure on ourselves internally and I think that's a good thing, just maybe because we perceive the expectations to be higher. OK, these are the Age of Empires and Halo Wars guys, and now they're making a digital distribution game. So, there's a certain level of quality that's expected from us and hopefully we deliver on that but maybe that's all internal I think. But that probably drives us.