No more heroes
Slingshot Cartel is turning its back on music titles – and plans to change how games are made
Why Guitar Hero Live’s creators are turning their backs on music
Freestyle Games is no more. The studio behind DJ Hero and Guitar Hero Live lives on, albeit scaled down, under new ownership and the name of Ubisoft Leamington. That deal only went through in January, by which time it had already been a year since co-founders Jamie Jackson and Dave Osbourn had decided it was time to walk away. Activision, then Freestyle’s owner, put the studio through a restructure, cutting headcount and having those who remained support development of other Activision titles, rather than making their own. Freestyle’s Guitar Hero Live had sold in excess of two million units. It wasn’t enough.
“For me and Dave to stay there didn’t make an awful lot of sense,” Jackson explains. “We were too top-heavy for something that wasn’t making games by itself any more. You don’t need a creative director, you don’t need a design director. It wasn’t sensible for the studio to carry our salaries, I guess.”
So Jackson and Osbourn – along with Freestyle’s art director Gareth Morrison, plus studio manager Jonathan Napier – decided to strike out on their own, starting up new venture Slingshot Cartel, with a mandate to do things differently. But there’s no bitterness at how their Freestyle story came to an end. Instead, it’s the driving force behind how this ambitious new company intends to function.
Guitar Hero Live, like most games, was conceived by a handful of people. By the end, 120 staff were working on it, and there were often hundreds more people involved during filming sessions for the game’s live-action component. Yet while those making the game knew that, sooner or later, a redundancy situation would arrive, the film crews worked without fear. “The movie industry knows,” Jackson says. “It isn’t about redundancy. It’s about people working contract, coming in at the right time, doing a job at the right time, and then moving off.”
Slingshot Cartel is being modelled in that image. The four co-founders, working remotely or in a shared creative space in Freestyle’s home of Leamington Spa, can work on a concept until they’re happy with it. At that point, they bring in the help they need on a contract basis and, as Jackson puts it, “pay them until they get it right”. It’s obviously more cost-effective than keeping 100 staff on the books, but, crucially, it also benefits the game itself, ensuring that the right people only begin work on the game at the right time. “We know that, just because you’ve got an art team, it doesn’t mean they’re concept artists; just because you’ve got a bunch of guys that can make great models, it doesn’t mean they can design a great character,” Jackson says. “When you’re just paying a couple of people to do concepts until they get it right, then you load in a team full of artists… It just makes so much sense.”
It’s early days for Slingshot’s first game, currently codenamed The DRG Initiative, though the progress the group has made is striking enough that Amazon invited Slingshot to show an early prototype on its stand at GDC (Jackson and co are using Amazon’s Lumberyard, a much-improved fork of Crytek’s CryEngine). Already, it’s clear to see the potential in the idea, a multiplayer, thirdperson sci-fi shooter that’s being built from the ground up with an esports audience in mind. Jackson points out that most successful esports have had their tournament and spectator features bolted on after the fact (“We were playing Counter-Strike when we were at Codemasters”); Slingshot, however, is putting the viewer and the caster at the heart of the game’s core design. Set 2,000 years in the future, The DRG Initiative depicts a Running Manstyle TV show whose combatants are followed by drone cameras, which the caster can flick between on the fly, and even take manual control of. There are no respawns, though each player takes two characters into battle, switching between them after death or in safe zones around the map. In shooters such as Rainbow Six: Siege and Counter-Strike, permadeath means a slow, tense pace, but here the caster can nudge the tempo by calling an audience vote – awarding health or ammo packs, for instance, for one team or the other. Another element, which the team isn’t prepared to talk about publicly yet, will see viewers force the pace in far more dramatic ways.
At Freestyle, Jackson and co sought out challenges like this as a matter of course. They worked out how turntablism could be made into a fun game in DJ Hero, then redesigned the guitar controller and became filmmakers as well as game developers for Guitar Hero Live. Here they are working out how a live audience, and the presenter, can be used as design tools in a game, while also rewriting the rulebook on how games should best be made. Business as usual, then – but this time, they’ll answer to no one but themselves.
The DRG Initiative depicts a Running Man-style TV show whose combatants are followed by drone cameras