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 GOOD THING THAT WE CARE AND FEEL THE FEEDBACK. BUT IT CAN, IF I’M HONEST, MAKE DECISION-MAKING HARD”
“OUR GAME’S CONSTRUCTION IS STILL AN EVOLUTION. IT’S STILL CHANGING. THAT’S THE BEAUTY OF OUR PROCESS”
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
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 www.freejamgames.com 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