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.
“YAGER DOES PROJECTS THAT ARE QUITE SPECIAL. THEY’RE SORT OF MAINSTREAM, BUT NOT MAINSTREAM”
“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.”
“SOME OF OUR DEVELOPERS WERE WORRIED WE WERE GOING TO GO TO THE DARK SIDE AND TRY TO RIP PEOPLE OFF”
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