The Age of Independence at Robot Entertainment
Like a lot of industries in the modern age, there isn’t a lot of job security in video games. Far too often we hear about massive layoffs or studio closures after a big title ships, and there’s little developers can do to protect themselves from the unfortunate side effect of building products with a limited lifecycle. The folks at Robot Entertainment are all too familiar with this dark side of the industry, a majority of them being former employees of the Microsoft owned Ensemble Studios that shut down before they even finished making Halo Wars in 2009.
But unlike a lot of folks who’ve suffered from corporate restructuring, the gang at Ensemble found a way to pool their talent together and rise out of despondency to create something new. Today Robot Entertainment stands as one of the brightest up and coming independent developers in the business, with no sign of slowing down. Having shipped Age of Empires: Online, Orcs Must Die!, and Hero Academy, there’s a lot of life left in a team once thought dead.
What’s more, the guys at Robot are happier than ever. The breakaway success they’ve had as an independent has given them more freedom than they ever had as a wholly owned studio. As we gabbed over lunch, talking about design philosophy and eating Thai food, I got the sense that the team felt more liberation than pressure in their newfound position.
Every time I’ve visited a subsidiary studio, most of the conversation has revolved around the work that they’re doing and how well the studio is optimized, but nobody at Robot even wanted to talk about such things. Instead they shared stories of tradeshow debauchery and studio traditions, giving me the impression that they’d finally hit a place where they were comfortable and didn’t need to justify themselves to the world.
It’s an attitude that makes sense when you consider the average age in the office. Made up of industry veterans, Robot is a much older studio than most, and old guys just aren’t into impressing anyone. They’re proud of their work for certain, but nobody was boasting about how many awards Orcs Must Die! won or well Hero Academy monetized. It’s the sort of modesty that comes with age, which has done them few favours in the marketing department, but according to their infamous community manager, Justin Korthof, it’s that maturity that’s key to their success.
With a staff of tenured developers, the studio’s approach to design is incredibly streamlined. Having spent so long balancing systems and mechanics for the Age of Empires series at Ensemble, gameplay design is second nature to them. This means when pitching new game ideas they’re able to get to the root of the fun faster and hone in on that experience before dealing with all the chaff that comes with most modern games.
If you look at their releases, it’s easy to see this method in practice. Orcs Must Die! is a really bare bones gameplay loop with an incredibly well built core. The team decided the fun of the experience was going to be in creating trap combos to maim Orcs and focused on perfecting that rather than taking a narrative approach to the game; something that wasn’t always true about the title.
Long before development had officially started, Orcs Must Die! was called RiftWalkers and featured a far more serious Tolkein-esque aesthetic and storyline that muddied up the design of the game. Realizing that there were a billion other fantasy titles telling nearly the same story, the team decided that – as it always should – gameplay comes first and cut all the extraneous material before working on the soul of the experience. What was left was a very solid gameplay system that they were able to refine and polish without having to worry about all the trappings of a narrative driven game.
It’s hard to say if the game would have done as well with the original design intact, but Korthof commits to the notion that giving the team the time and freedom to work on what they really cared about – the mechanics – was what made Orcs Must Die! the game it is today. Without having so much experience, and knowing to strip the game down to its roots, the game could have easily been another run of the mill fantasy game with an interesting but imperfect gameplay design.
The seniority of the studio’s staff has also helped shape it’s rather unique family-oriented culture. When I stepped into the testing lab to give Orcs Must Die! 2 and the new Steam version of Hero Academy a stab (both are very fun), I was greeted by two of the designers’ children out on summer vacation. While I’m sure getting minors to grind through bug lists is some sort of child abuse, it was as far from a sweatshop scene as possible. The kids were having fun helping their dads, and showed me just how hard the studio tries to make working there convenient for families.
In addition to inviting the junior playtesters, the studio routinely holds family days where children and spouses are invited to eat and party with the team. These events act as a means of making sure the developers are getting enough time to see and enjoy their family life, but also as a way of letting them know that personal life never needs to be sacrificed for a deadline. When Robot crunches, it’s never been longer than a week, and that’s something everyone on the team can be grateful for.
There’s a lot of busy talk about fresh talent, but there’s something to be said for folks who actually know what they’re doing. Robot Entertainment may not be the flashiest studio on the block, but it’s filled with incredibly talented people who after years under the thumb of a big publisher are finally given the creative freedom to cut loose and make the games they’ve always wanted to. That’s the best sort of environment any skilled game maker can hope for, and I think it’s also the secret to their out-of-the-gate success.