Stu­dio Pro­file: Free­jam Games

In­side the stu­dio that wraps the fury of ve­hic­u­lar com­bat around a sen­si­tive core


With rare ex­cep­tions, game cre­ators aren’t ex­pected to be emo­tional be­ings. Cer­tainly, few de­vote much time to talk­ing about their feel­ings pub­licly. Robocraft cre­ator Free­jam, how­ever, is quick to ad­mit that it is com­prised of a nat­u­rally soft bunch whose lines of code are easily tan­gled with their heart­strings.

The stu­dio’s five founders – all for­mer staffers at Cli­max Stu­dios – are a jovial, self-deprecating group, but cer­tain themes come up too of­ten to be en­tirely tongue-in-cheek. Build­ing this game has clearly been a none-too-smooth jour­ney, with mo­ments of heartache and tur­moil.

But Free­jam is no niche ro­man­ti­cist; it is con­struct­ing an F2P ac­tion ti­tle, and a suc­cess­ful one. Robocraft is an online PvP ve­hic­u­lar shooter that’s long been in open al­pha, and lets play­ers build their own craft from a stock of parts and ba­sic shapes. It is Free­jam’s first cre­ation, and at the time of writ­ing boasts some 200,000 play­ers re­turn­ing to the game ev­ery day.

Ever since the launch of the stripped-back com­bat demo in April 2013, the com­mu­nity that props up Robocraft’s on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment has been no­tably close to its evo­lu­tion. While the game as it is to­day would not ex­ist with­out those fans, that lack of par­ti­tion be­tween devel­oper and player is also the pri­mary rea­son why the team’s emo­tional vigour is tested so regularly.

“I do find it pretty stress­ful at times,” ad­mits Free­jam game di­rec­tor Mark Sim­mons. “It can make me feel sick when a player is say­ing some­thing in de­vel­op­ment is bad, and we know it’s bad. It can be emo­tional, hon­estly. I think all of us are maybe a bit soft. We re­ally take all the com­mu­nity in­put to heart.”

In a post-Early Ac­cess and post-crowd­fund­ing era, it isn’t un­usual for de­vel­op­ers to be re­liant on com­mu­ni­ties. Yet Free­jam’s pre-launch user­base is es­pe­cially close to the stu­dio it­self; some 10 per cent of the full-time in-house work­force are for­mer play­ers, and there are also Robocraft fo­rum mem­bers that the founders meet for drinks.

The rea­sons for work­ing with the play­ers so di­rectly are man­i­fold. When Robocraft was con­ceived, the found­ing quin­tet knew that mak­ing room for user-gen­er­ated con­tent was a route to pro­duc­ing more game than they could pos­si­bly cre­ate alone. “If the users were con­tribut­ing, we knew we’d have a game that could be much big­ger than us, be­cause we’d see – hope­fully – our users cre­at­ing con­tent, build­ing the game be­yond what we could do,” Sim­mons says.

But as the team broke away from Cli­max – whose stu­dio space over­look­ing the wa­ter­front in Portsmouth it now shares – the founders also de­vel­oped a self-con­fessed ob­ses­sion with the lean startup the­ory, a busi­ness de­vel­op­ment model pro­posed by Sil­i­con Val­ley en­tre­pre­neur Eric Ries in 2011. It pro­motes ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, it­er­a­tion of ideas, and a deep un­der­stand­ing of your early tar­get cus­tomers, and this shaped Free­jam from the day it be­gan.

“We knew we wanted to in­volve the com­mu­nity right from the start,” says se­nior pro­gram­mer Brian O’Con­nor. “And be­cause we started small and lean, we re­ally had very few users when we started. That meant keep­ing an eye on what ev­ery in­di­vid­ual was say­ing, try­ing to get feed­back that way. That es­tab­lished a con­stant close re­la­tion­ship.”

The player num­bers in Robocraft’s early history were at times re­mark­ably low. The team re­calls morn­ings where lit­tle de­vel­op­ment work was done be­cause so few play­ers were online, and the founders them­selves had to join ses­sions to keep up the num­bers. But low player tal­lies at this early stage didn’t worry Free­jam one bit. It had built a demo that was lit­tle more than a hint of what it had planned to come, and it had done so with in­tent. This was only a way to test the con­cept, and to es­tab­lish a base that could sup­port rapid pro­to­typ­ing.

“At that point, [the play­ers] were the sixth mem­ber of our team,” says art di­rec­tor Richard Turner. “We used them as part of the process to build, to gen­er­ate sta­tis­tics and to get feed­back, and Mark built a good line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with those early com­mu­nity mem­bers, email­ing them di­rectly, in­volv­ing them.”

Skip ahead to 2015 and many of those early play­ers re­main im­por­tant to Robocraft. But pleas­ing that au­di­ence – and know­ing when to turn a blind eye to its in­sights – is the fac­tor that prods at the sen­si­tive spots on the team. “I see peo­ple com­plain­ing about this prod­uct that we love, and I feel like I want to be sick,” says CTO

Se­bas­tiano Man­dalà. “For us, it was nat­u­ral to want to please peo­ple. You could call it an in­stinct. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing came from an im­pulse.

“[Our feel­ings] can be a real strength for the stu­dio, be­cause we do re­ally care, and we lis­ten, and that helps the game. So it’s a good thing that we care and feel the feed­back in this emo­tional way. But it can, if I’m hon­est, make de­ci­sion­mak­ing hard some­times, when we feel some­thing we want to change for the greater good, but the com­mu­nity doesn’t see it.”

As such, the team has to be care­ful not to be ruled by its fan base. Some of the hard­est choices Free­jam has made have de­fined the suc­cess of Robocraft, even if it has meant risk­ing the ire, and pos­si­bly dis­so­lu­tion, of its au­di­ence. As spring 2015 drew close, for in­stance, the Robocraft team in­tro­duced respawn­ing to online bat­tles, pre­sent­ing a sig­nif­i­cant shift in game­play dy­nam­ics. Ever aware of their play­ers’ whims, Sim­mons and his col­leagues re­vealed their plans to the com­mu­nity, and many re­acted less than pos­i­tively to the news. “Peo­ple thought we were go­ing to kill Robocraft, so we even kept the old ver­sion in, which we weren’t plan­ning on at all,” Sim­mons says. “That was the in­flu­ence of the com­mu­nity, but now we have five times as many peo­ple play­ing the new mode as the old one.”



It’s a grow­ing com­mu­nity, though, and that means it’s even harder to man­age ex­pec­ta­tions. For a pe­riod, the team had grown fa­mil­iar with see­ing con­cur­rent user num­bers hover at around 100. Then 2,000 were ap­par­ently tack­ling the game si­mul­ta­ne­ously online. Im­me­di­ately, a scram­ble to find the bug re­spon­si­ble for the ano­maly be­gan. De­voted play­ers even started send­ing in re­ports of the code mal­func­tion.

But there was no bug. Rather, a mid-tier Pol­ish YouTube per­son­al­ity with 50,000 fol­low­ers had cov­ered the game, prompt­ing a slew of sign-ups, and the re­al­i­sa­tion for Free­jam that mul­ti­lin­gual sup­port was now a pri­or­ity. It wouldn’t be the last spike. Later came the move to Steam – a de­ci­sion a hand­ful of users again took um­brage with – but now 70 per cent of Robocraft’s au­di­ence play via Valve’s store­front.

The ap­peal isn’t hard to pin down, the game min­ing the same seam of player cre­ativ­ity and sim­ple click-to­gether ma­te­ri­als that pow­ers the all­con­quer­ing Minecraft. While Markus Pers­son’s hand­i­work clearly holds sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence over Free­jam, it’s a deeper con­nec­tion than merely another in­die eye­ing up Mo­jang’s suc­cess. In a pre­vi­ous role, Sim­mons was asked to pre­pare a pitch for tak­ing Notch’s cul­tural phe­nom­e­non to a new plat­form. It came to noth­ing, but all that play­ing for re­search turned into a fix­a­tion. One of the most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for

Robocraft was dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, since any­thing even like a clone would be join­ing a crowded mar­ket. Quickly the team struck on the idea of bal­anc­ing ob­jec­tive-led game­play with ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and com­mit­ted to a free-to-play model.

“Our con­trast to Minecraft is that we flip its open­ness on its head,” Sim­mons ex­plains. “We give our play­ers very clearly de­fined ob­jec­tives. There’s sim­plic­ity for our play­ers in un­der­stand­ing why they are build­ing, and what they’re build­ing for. That’s im­por­tant, and it sep­a­rates us.”

It’s a model that Free­jam is con­vinced is be­hind the praise that has ac­cu­mu­lated in user re­views (though the Steam page has more than its fair share of vo­cal play­ers frus­trated by re­cent changes too). It is also why it feels other craft­ing­fo­cused games can strug­gle to find an au­di­ence.

“I’m not a Minecraft player, re­ally, but when I see the other games of this type – and maybe those that are closer to Robocraft – they are too com­pli­cated,” Man­dalà says. “They try to do too much, when we’ve tried to keep a sim­plic­ity.”

“Many who have em­u­lated Minecraft have fo­cused on sand­box game de­sign, while we’ve not done that,” Sim­mons says. “We’ve made a PvP-based com­bat game.”

‘Made’ is pre­ma­ture, how­ever, since the fact that it con­tin­ues to be in open al­pha could soon be­come Robocraft’s most in­fa­mous facet. But Free­jam’s founders of­fer lit­tle de­fence for the long­form al­pha model.

“Be­ing in open ac­cess for a long time means a lot of tech­ni­cal chal­lenges,” says Man­dalà, who can reel off a list of tech­ni­cal rea­sons why a fi­nal re­lease will help him sleep more peace­fully. “We are far from be­ing per­fect there.”

The team also ad­mits it still isn’t quite sure what the re­lease ver­sion of Robocraft will look like. “There’s a big green but­ton in Steam, and we could click it right now and re­lease, but we don’t know what it re­ally does,” O’Con­nor laughs.

“Does it re­ally mean any­thing?” asks Turner. “Per­haps it just tells ev­ery­one else you’re more pol­ished than you were be­fore you pressed the but­ton. But our game’s con­struc­tion is still an evo­lu­tion. It is still chang­ing. That’s the beauty of our de­vel­op­ment [process].”

“Maybe the but­ton just means peo­ple will ex­pect more and stop de­fend­ing us,” Man­dalà says, to the amuse­ment of his col­leagues.

But the team knows it can’t dodge the is­sue for­ever. “When we’ve got rid of all the bugs and worked out the fea­tures, then we will pol­ish it and re­lease,” Sim­mons ex­plains.

Free­jam in many ways typ­i­fies the mod­ern mid-sized in­die that it has be­come. The open de­vel­op­ment model is in­creas­ingly preva­lent, and the founders make a point of re­peat­ing that they don’t see them­selves as wildly dis­tinct. They just have faith in their take on mak­ing games.

“I hon­estly don’t think we’ve got any se­cret in­gre­di­ent no­body else has,” O’Con­nor says. “But maybe it’s like mak­ing a pizza. The mea­sure and mix of all our in­gre­di­ents makes for a re­ally great pizza. We have a great pack­age here of game, stu­dio and com­mu­nity. We’ve de­voted a lot to our com­mu­nity, and there’s been a vast re­turn in that in­vest­ment.”

The team all nod in agree­ment with the culi­nary anal­ogy, ex­cept for Man­dalà, a Si­cil­ian cur­rently build­ing his own pizza oven at home. But be­fore he can fire off more than a few words of ob­jec­tion, his fel­low founders have un­leashed a volley of laugh­ter. It’s a sound never far from the desks of Free­jam, re­gard­less of the stu­dio’s stern am­bi­tion for Robocraft.


Free­jam’s found­ing quin­tet (from left): Se­bas­tiano Man­dalà, Ed­ward Fowler, Brian O’Con­nor, Richard Turner and Mark Sim­mons

Founded 2013

Em­ploy­ees 30 Key staff Mark Sim­mons (game di­rec­tor and co-founder), Se­bas­tiano Man­dalà (CTO and co-founder), Richard Turner (art di­rec­tor and co-founder), Brian O’Con­nor (pro­gram­mer and co-founder), Ed­ward Fowler (pro­gram­mer and co-founder)

URL­ Cur­rent pro­ject Robocraft

While con­flict forms the core of Robocraft’s game­play, it has also of­ten been a cen­tral theme in the game’s de­vel­op­ment

Around one-tenth of the Robocraft team (left) were re­cruited from the game’s own player com­mu­nity. To­day, they and their col­leagues share of­fice space on Portsmouth’s wa­ter­front with Cli­max Stu­dios, the out­fit at which Free­jam’s team of founders met each other

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