Why the stu­dio be­hind Dread­nought and Spec Ops: The Line re­fuses to play it safe


Yager De­vel­op­ment has come full cir­cle dur­ing the 17 years it’s ex­isted. Founded by five friends in 1999, the stu­dio slowly grew to around 20 peo­ple by the time it re­leased its first ti­tle, fu­tur­is­tic flight-com­bat game

Yager, in 2003. Ex­cur­sions into anti-war sur­re­al­ism and ill-fated zom­bie apoc­a­lypses fol­lowed – via, re­spec­tively, the crit­i­cally lauded third­per­son shooter Spec Ops: The Line, and a short-lived col­lab­o­ra­tion with Deep Sil­ver on the still yet-to-be-re­leased Dead Is­land se­quel – but the stu­dio has now re­turned to its sci-fi roots with

Dread­nought, an­other fu­tur­is­tic air-com­bat game cen­tred on pi­lot­ing space­ships and air­craft.

This the­matic home­com­ing is aligned with a de­sire to re­turn to the easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion and fast it­er­a­tion of those early years, be­fore the stu­dio’s num­bers swelled to more than 130. Find­ing a way to do that, how­ever, is prov­ing to be some­thing of a stick­ing point. “Ev­ery­thing has changed,” man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Timo Ull­mann tells us. “And we’re prob­a­bly mak­ing ev­ery mis­take that you can make. In the begin­ning we were just five guys, and by the time we’d fin­ished Yager we grew to about 20 peo­ple in house. When you’re 20 peo­ple, you don’t need any struc­ture or a hi­er­ar­chy, and every­body knows what’s go­ing on. You meet in the morn­ing and for lunch, and the level of in­for­ma­tion is con­sis­tent through­out the com­pany.

“When we took on Spec Ops, we grew from 20 to 80 peo­ple. That was a huge step – we sud­denly re­alised that we needed some kind of struc­ture, to in­tro­duce pro­cesses that al­lowed us to get in­for­ma­tion to every­body and make sure dif­fer­ent parts of the com­pany weren’t mov­ing in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. So we fo­cused on pro­duc­ers – not only for each game, but over­see­ing the dif­fer­ent de­part­ments, too.”

In re­sponse to the quickly aris­ing ne­ces­sity to think more care­fully about the way every­body in the stu­dio in­ter­acts with ev­ery­one else, Yager De­vel­op­ment has mu­tated into var­i­ous forms over the years. Dur­ing Spec Ops’ de­vel­op­ment, the stu­dio favoured a more tra­di­tion­ally hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture, which lasted un­til the game shipped, but it quickly be­came ap­par­ent that it wasn’t the right fit (“We thought, ‘OK, what can we do to make sure things don’t be­come too strict or top down?’” Ull­mann re­calls). The next move was to switch to an ag­ile-de­vel­op­ment model in or­der to try to en­sure that ev­ery­one in the com­pany felt re­spon­si­ble for their con­tri­bu­tions. But that hasn’t gone en­tirely smoothly, ei­ther, Ull­man says.

“Some peo­ple, when they see some­thing that’s not work­ing prop­erly, say, ‘OK, I need to do some­thing about that and grab the right peo­ple to make it bet­ter.’ But then there are other peo­ple who are re­ally good at their job, but who feel lost if there’s no over­ar­ch­ing process telling them what to do. It’s a con­stant bat­tle, and I still feel that we haven’t quite ar­rived at the place that we need to be – I do won­der if we’ll ever be at a point where we can say, ‘OK, now ev­ery­thing is work­ing per­fectly.’ But the main mantra here is that we try to look at how we can sup­port peo­ple in feel­ing own­er­ship, and make sure that every­body can con­trib­ute on a more in­di­vid­ual level. So no mi­cro­manag­ing peo­ple, but in­stead try­ing to help them un­leash their cre­ativ­ity and keep their en­thu­si­asm in what they’re do­ing.”

That en­thu­si­asm hasn’t been dif­fi­cult to main­tain, at least. While the stu­dio’s out­put has been in­fre­quent – Dread­nought will be the stu­dio’s third com­pleted game if you dis­count

Aerial Strike, the PC ver­sion of Yager, which added a mul­ti­player com­po­nent to the orig­i­nal – it has been de­fined by a sense of free-spir­ited cre­ativ­ity and a de­ter­mined dis­in­ter­est in do­ing things by the book. Yager’s huge lev­els and pol­ished vi­su­als, for ex­am­ple, while slightly un­der­mined by a de­layed re­lease, set high stan­dards for the genre, and the nim­ble na­ture of the mul­ti­pur­pose Sagittarius ship at its cen­tre in­tro­duced some in­no­va­tive com­bat ideas. Spec

Ops, mean­while, pre­sented it­self as a tra­di­tional third­per­son shooter but then ag­gres­sively sub­verted the form while toy­ing with play­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions. Nei­ther game was hugely suc­cess­ful com­mer­cially but, cru­cially, both were pas­sion projects first, and prod­ucts sec­ond.

“Yager does projects that are quite spe­cial,” says Dread­nought di­rec­tor Peter Holzapfel, who worked on the Cr­y­sis se­ries at Cry­tek be­fore mov­ing to Yager De­vel­op­ment four years ago. “They’re sort of main­stream, but not – it’s one of the things that at­tracted me to Dread­nought.

Spec Ops is sim­i­lar; it’s a con­tem­po­rary mil­i­tary shooter, which is more or less the big­gest thing on the planet right now – or it feels like that, at least – but they did it in a way that it be­came some­thing else.

“When they pitched Dread­nought to me and I started get­ting in­ter­ested in join­ing, that as­pect was what pulled me over here. We have th­ese big space­ships, with all this mas­sive pop-cul­ture pull, but there are no big space­ship games out there that are like Dread­nought. That means there are a lot of cre­ative chal­lenges, and there’s never just a stan­dard for­mula that we can ap­ply.

“And that’s re­flected a lot in the stu­dio cul­ture here. It’s a pretty open stu­dio where there are lots of peo­ple who’ve been around for a long time. And there’s this spirit where you can bring ideas from what­ever cor­ner, and they’re at least lis­tened to – you can’t do ev­ery­thing that peo­ple sug­gest, ob­vi­ously, but it’s an open di­a­logue and that’s some­thing I re­ally en­joy.”

But while Dread­nought is born from the same kind of cre­ative, wish-ful­fill­ing think­ing that un­der­pinned its fore­bears, Yager De­vel­op­ment is hop­ing for fi­nan­cial, not just crit­i­cal, suc­cess this time around. In ad­dress­ing that prob­lem, the stu­dio elected to make the game free to play – a de­ci­sion that caused some fric­tion ini­tially.


“We were con­cerned in the begin­ning,” Ull­mann ad­mits. “And when we fi­nally said, af­ter think­ing about it, ‘OK guys, we’d re­ally like to em­brace free-to-play,’ there were some peo­ple who were still scep­ti­cal about it and thought that we were mov­ing a bit too far away from what we have done be­fore. Some of our de­vel­op­ers were wor­ried that we were go­ing to go to the dark side and try to rip peo­ple off. But I think as we be­gan de­vel­op­ing the game and they saw how we wanted to ap­proach it, a lot of peo­ple were con­vinced that this was still some­thing they could be en­thu­si­as­tic about. We had to ac­tively ad­dress that, and set out how we wanted to go about it – make sure that they knew that there would be no pay to win, and that you can def­i­nitely play it for free, and all that stuff. But go­ing free-to-play is a means for us to open up the game to a much, much big­ger au­di­ence than we could have hoped to find with Spec Ops.”

Switch­ing from what could be broadly de­scribed as a fire-and-for­get model to a ser­vice­based out­look has come with its own chal­lenges, of course. “That’s an as­pect that we re­ally had to learn about the hard way,” Ull­mann says. “The game needs to be out there 24/7, so you can’t say, ‘Ah, I’ll get back to it in a month or so.’ You have to make sure that the ser­vice is al­ways there. That’s some­thing that we re­ally needed to get our heads around as a tra­di­tional re­tail devel­oper – work­ing on some­thing for three or four years and then re­leas­ing it is a to­tally dif­fer­ent beast to this. It’s out there, at that point – you can do patches, but you can’t ac­tively work on it. But the beauty of de­vel­op­ing Dread­nought [as a free-to-play game in closed beta] is that we’ve been able to adapt to where we feel, and where the com­mu­nity feels, the game should be.”

In fact, Yager De­vel­op­ment is so en­am­oured with the model that it’s al­ready con­sid­er­ing how to go about start­ing a sec­ond project along sim­i­lar lines – one that car­ries over the les­sons the stu­dio learned while de­vel­op­ing Yager and Spec

Ops even more ex­ten­sively – and, with any luck, re­de­fine play­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions for free-to-play games. It’s an am­bi­tion we’ve heard plenty of times be­fore from other stu­dios, of course, but given Yager De­vel­op­ment’s track record for sub­vert­ing ex­ist­ing par­a­digms, per­haps this time there’s good rea­son to be less scep­ti­cal.

But the prob­lem with con­stantly shift­ing be­tween styles and, to some ex­tent, busi­ness mod­els is that you risk los­ing mo­men­tum. De­spite the stu­dio’s rather prag­matic moniker, many will only know it as the devel­oper be­hind Spec Ops (or, less pos­i­tively, the one that was in­cor­rectly ru­moured to have gone bank­rupt af­ter break­ing off ties with Deep Sil­ver and prob­lem­atic Dead

Is­land 2 de­vel­op­ment). While it has lots of ex­pe­ri­ence with space­ships, it’s un­likely to carry many Spec Ops fans over to Dread­nought’s pro­foundly dif­fer­ent genre and out­look. Is the stu­dio wor­ried about hav­ing to build an au­di­ence from scratch with each new project? “It’s dif­fi­cult,” Ull­mann muses. “With Spec Ops it was quite dif­fer­ent; the cool thing is back then 2K asked us to do some­thing with that fran­chise and we could ba­si­cally own it. They said, ‘Here’s the fran­chise; do you feel like do­ing some­thing with it?’ And we said, ‘If we have a lot of cre­ative con­trol over what we would like to do, then yes.’ That makes it easy to feel that own­er­ship, and also be able to make cer­tain de­ci­sions on your own.

“With Dread­nought it’s all our own cre­ation. That re­ally helps be­cause peo­ple like Peter and Ma­tias [Wiese, art di­rec­tor] are liv­ing and breath­ing that world of [pop-cul­ture sci-fi] and they can put that into the game. It’s a tremen­dous help when every­body is work­ing on some­thing they love and it’s not just work made for hire.”

Per­haps Yager De­vel­op­ment’s ap­proach is best en­cap­su­lated by its will­ing­ness to try new things, and the team’s ap­par­ently bound­less en­thu­si­asm for leap­ing in at the deep end. It’s a model that, by its na­ture, di­min­ishes the po­ten­tial for con­sis­tency when it comes to mes­sag­ing. Even so, while Spec Ops – de­spite its sub­ver­sive na­ture – ar­guably has more ob­vi­ous main­stream ap­peal and casts a long shadow, Dread­nought shares much of its cre­ative DNA. Holzapfel cer­tainly doesn’t see any dis­ad­van­tages to the stu­dio’s bold de­ci­sion mak­ing. “I know what you mean; some stu­dios are known for a cer­tain type of game, and Yager is very much de­fined by

Spec Ops be­cause so many peo­ple loved it,” he says. “But the thing that I think is a con­stant in ev­ery­thing we do is that noth­ing we make is ever a straight­for­ward thing. It’s al­ways some­thing with main­stream ap­peal, but that no­body has done be­fore. Spec Ops is prob­a­bly the first an­ti­war triple-A ti­tle out there, and Dread­nought is the first big-space­ship game that fo­cuses more on the in­tense ac­tion and pop cul­ture as­pect of it. Find­ing some­thing that has broad ap­peal, but then fig­ur­ing out how to do it in a dif­fer­ent way –

that’s what de­fines Yager for me.”


Co-founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Timo Ull­man (left) and Dread­nought game di­rec­tor Peter Holzapfel

Yager De­vel­op­ment’s spa­cious Ber­lin of­fices are on the sec­ond floor of a build­ing that looks out onto the River Spree. The stu­dio splits its staff into mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary teams of around ten peo­ple, who func­tion mostly au­tonomously and fo­cus on spe­cific parts of the game

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