How a stu­dio of FPS fans went back to ba­sics for its big­gest hit to date


Un­usu­ally, it’s quiet in­side Bulk­head In­ter­ac­tive’s spa­cious Derby of­fices. Then again, this might not be the ideal time for a visit. Af­ter two years in de­vel­op­ment, the stu­dio’s third game, multiplayer WWII shooter Bat­tal­ion 1944, has en­dured a rough start, with servers strug­gling to cope with over­whelm­ing launch-day de­mand. Pro­ducer

Joe Bram­mer and his col­leagues spent the sub­se­quent week­end in the of­fice rec­ti­fy­ing the prob­lem, and their ef­forts seem to have paid off. Ev­ery­thing seems to be in work­ing or­der as we watch num­bers up­dat­ing in re­al­time, the morn­ing fig­ures dip­ping af­ter a Sun­day peak show­ing up­wards of 8,000 con­cur­rent play­ers. Per­haps this isn’t such a bad time af­ter all, then. Cer­tainly, Bram­mer seems re­laxed, idly swing­ing a stick grenade – a replica, we’re as­sured – as he re­flects on the launch. But then this young stu­dio lead is al­ready well ac­cus­tomed to stress­ful sit­u­a­tions.

Bulk­head now has 20 staff, and is plan­ning to re­cruit more off the back of Bat­tal­ion’s promis­ing early sales. In the be­gin­ning, Bram­mer says, it was just four peo­ple, build­ing ex­is­ten­tial puzzler Pneuma: Breath Of Life in a tiny of­fice – smaller than his own is now – with a win­dow they couldn’t open more than an inch dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly sticky sum­mer, and al­most no money to sus­tain them. Bram­mer reck­oned they had about eight months to make a game, and af­ter aban­don­ing one un­promis­ing idea within three weeks (“We were ba­si­cally mak­ing Rocket

League,” he laughs) the group set­tled upon some­thing very dif­fer­ent. With no an­i­ma­tors, no char­ac­ter artists – and no money – the stu­dio opted to make a game which didn’t have any char­ac­ters. “We only had en­vi­ron­ment artists and two pro­gram­mers. So we made a first­per­son puzzler with just a nar­ra­tor – a bit Stan­ley

Para­ble meets Por­tal,” Bram­mer says. Ro­bustly con­structed, if a lit­tle slight, Pneuma sold well enough to fund the de­vel­op­ment of a se­cond game with a big­ger team. That fol­low-up was The Tur­ing Test – a sim­i­larly thought­ful, nar­ra­tive-led first­per­son puzzler, more am­bi­tious in scope and scale, con­ceived while Pneuma was still in pro­duc­tion. Dur­ing those late stages of de­vel­op­ment, Bram­mer, then just 22, de­cided to take his pitch to Square Enix Europe. The meet­ing, suf­fice it to say, didn’t go well. “About half­way through I re­alised [the CEO] was bored. And when you don’t make any money and you have to pay £90 to go from Derby to Lon­don on the train, and that’s be­fore you’ve got to go across town…” Bram­mer’s pitch wasn’t turned down on the day, but he knew the game was up when he heard the dreaded words: “We’ll think about it”. He did, how­ever, re­ceive an en­thu­si­as­tic rec­om­men­da­tion for a nearby café that made good ba­con sand­wiches – not quite the deal he was af­ter.

Af­ter a pitch to Mi­crosoft proved equally fruit­less, Bram­mer made a chance ap­proach to a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, ar­rang­ing an in­ter­view on the same day as a meet­ing with Sony, to which he was ac­com­pa­nied by lead pro­gram­mer Kevin Chan­dler and de­signer David Jones. When Chan­dler was forced to an­swer the call of na­ture be­tween meet­ings, he re­turned to find Bram­mer and Jones be­ing grilled by the irate in­vestor. “He was ab­so­lutely fu­ri­ous, yelling at us, ‘Why are you late? Where have you been?’” Bram­mer re­calls. “I said to him, ‘Maybe you should just play the game,’ and he said, ‘I don’t fuck­ing like be­ing told what to do.’” The three walked out, and by the time they sat down with Phil El­liott from Square Enix Col­lec­tive, the pub­lisher’s in­die sup­port arm, Bram­mer was in a foul mood: “I just said, ‘Right, hi, I’m Joe. We’re not do­ing a Kick­starter, so I don’t re­ally see how you can help us.’” The re­sponse from El­liott was equally brusque: “He said, ‘Well, this will be the short­est meet­ing ever, won’t it?’” But some­thing ev­i­dently clicked: the Col­lec­tive of­fered mar­ket­ing sup­port for The Tur­ing Test, clos­ing the cir­cle on three months of pitch­ing, and would team up with Bulk­head again for Bat­tal­ion 1944.

Theirs has clearly been a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship so far; Bram­mer can’t speak highly enough of the Col­lec­tive’s ef­forts, call­ing it “the most un­der­rated in­die pub­lisher out there”. In­deed, it’s El­liott to whom we owe thanks for our host’s bright de­meanour. “I had a mas­sive go at Phil over the week­end,” he be­gins. “It was about 3am and I asked about sales fig­ures.” Tired and anx­ious, he hadn’t quite made his mes­sage plain; El­liott said that he should be fo­cused first and fore­most on fix­ing bugs. Bram­mer erupted. “I said, ‘You should be giv­ing us the num­bers, we want to know where our in­vest­ment’s gone,” he says. El­liott calmly told him to re­lax; he had noth­ing to worry about on that front.

Bram­mer’s con­cern about cold, hard num­bers is un­der­stand­able given that he had ini­tially con­vinced his young friends to work for free; dur­ing the stu­dio’s early days, they sur­vived on a rel­a­tive pit­tance. Though The Tur­ing Test turned a profit, a good por­tion of that money was in­vested in the cre­ation of Bat­tal­ion 1944. And even given his se­nior po­si­tion at Bulk­head, Bram­mer says his monthly wage has “never been more than £856”, the pre­cise fig­ure he quotes as ev­i­dence of a man ac­cus­tomed to work­ing to a strin­gent bud­get.

The shift from

first­per­son puzzler to shooter was partly a prag­matic de­ci­sion, then. But it also aligned with the stu­dio’s sen­si­bil­i­ties. When Bram­mer al­ludes to there be­ing “a gap in the mar­ket” for a multiplayer WWII FPS at the time, he’s not sim­ply talk­ing about the earn­ing po­ten­tial of the idea; rather, this was ex­actly the kind of game for which he’d been look­ing as a fan of the genre. “I‘ve al­ways played FPS games, and there was noth­ing [new] I wanted


to play,” he says. Oth­ers at the stu­dio felt the same; dur­ing lunch breaks and af­ter hours dur­ing

The Tur­ing Test’s de­vel­op­ment, multiplayer ses­sions al­ways de­faulted to the ever­green

Counter-Strike. One day, Bram­mer sug­gested a change to the rota, cor­ralling a group of eight to play four-on-four Cap­ture The Flag on Call Of

Duty 2. This soon be­came the norm, and lunch was reg­u­larly ex­tended. “It got more and more in­tense, and when you’re your own boss you’re like, ‘Oh, go on, five min­utes more’,” he smiles. “Even­tu­ally peo­ple were get­ting so stressed af­ter lunch that they needed time to calm down.”

The seed had been planted, and the di­rec­tors met to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing an old-school WWII shooter, ear­mark­ing £20,000 to build a pro­to­type. “We knew that was what we re­ally wanted to work on. We knew there was noth­ing out there. I knew shooter fans wanted this. So we just thought: ‘Fuck it. We’ll do The Tur­ing Test in the day and we’ll do this in the evening.’ And then we set up a Kick­starter, which we’re pretty good at.” His con­fi­dence was not mis­placed: the cam­paign met its £100,000 goal within three days, ul­ti­mately rais­ing more than three times as much.

There was sur­prise

in some quar­ters that the tar­get had been sur­passed so quickly, but that only re­flected the wider ap­petite for a his­tor­i­cal FPS. While DICE’s new Bat­tle­field was heav­ily ru­moured to be WWI-themed, it hadn’t yet been an­nounced; COD’s an­tic­i­pated re­turn to Al­lies ver­sus Axis was fur­ther still from be­ing con­firmed – though Bram­mer says he was aware of its ex­is­tence be­fore work even started on the Bat­tal­ion pro­to­type. “Oh yeah,” he nods. “We put all the spies out. But ev­ery­one knew they’d do it. And ours wasn’t go­ing to be the same game.” De­spite what Bram­mer mod­estly calls “the clunki­est pro­to­type ever”, Bat­tal­ion was sud­denly big news – though, he says, it could have been even big­ger: “If we’d re­leased the game back then, it would be mas­sive. A WWII shooter when we an­nounced it? I mean, that was when we wanted to re­lease it. But con­sid­er­ing Call Of Duty starts with an ex­ist­ing game, and they get an­other three years on top of that?” He points his thumb to­wards his chest and nods proudly. “Two years from fuck­ing scratch. And we got some bugs on day one? Hal­lelu­jah!”

He’s not brush­ing aside those ini­tial trou­bles, how­ever; in­deed, he was will­ing to ad­dress them di­rectly in a video diary, dur­ing which he ac­cepted full blame. “I doubted us a bit too much, I guess,” he nods. “We could see the game was re­ally pop­u­lar – loads of peo­ple wanted beta keys – but I be­lieved we were in this echo cham­ber of ev­ery­one say­ing we were amaz­ing.” His pre­dic­tion sig­nif­i­cantly low­balled the player count: in the end, the tally was four times higher than his best guess. He may not have been the only one at Bulk­head to do so, “but that was my job, and I let ev­ery­one down: our play­ers, our fans, and my team,” he adds. “I’m 25 and a stu­dio lead. I’m gonna fuck up. But the most im­por­tant thing was that, what­ever bugs we had on day one, we had to fix them as fast as pos­si­ble. We did ex­actly that.”

At once bullish about his team’s FPS ex­per­tise and re­fresh­ingly up­front about mis­takes, Bram­mer is an en­gag­ing in­ter­vie­wee, though such open­ness has led to a few per­sonal at­tacks on­line. Some find him abra­sive, he says – though PR flacks would un­doubt­edly pre­fer ‘pas­sion­ate’. “But it’s real,” he says. “I re­ally do like FPS games, and I re­ally do think some peo­ple are talk­ing ab­so­lute shit about my game. But I just love that there’s a de­bate go­ing on. I want to have some­one say, ‘Oh, I think this weapon’s un­bal­anced,’ and me not hav­ing to say, ‘Thanks, we’ll look into it’, and in­stead say­ing, ‘I to­tally dis­agree with you and think you’re wrong, but I re­spect your opin­ion’. I mean, we’re de­vel­op­ers

and play­ers. 2018 is the year that those bound­aries need to be bro­ken down.”

In the mean­time, Bulk­head In­ter­ac­tive is break­ing bound­aries of its own. Hav­ing promised his team a new pool ta­ble should

Bat­tal­ion 1944 shift 30,000 units on day one, Bram­mer is now work­ing out where in the team’s roomy, open-plan of­fice it should go. Those col­leagues whom he man­aged to con­vince to work for free dur­ing those early days are fi­nally see­ing their ef­forts prop­erly re­warded. And, per­haps most im­por­tantly, this youth­ful de­vel­oper is al­ready open­ing up some of its spare of­fice space for the next gen­er­a­tion, lend­ing the city’s stu­dents a room in which they can make their own in­die game. “If their game suc­ceeds, great – we’ve now got an­other game in Derby that isn’t Yooka-Laylee or Bat­tal­ion,” Bram­mer says. “Ei­ther that, or they’re look­ing for a job and we’re here, and we al­ready have an idea of who’s good and who’s not. So it works for ev­ery­one, re­ally.”


Joe Bram­mer (left) co-founded Deco Dig­i­tal, while David Jones headed up Bevel Studios. The two com­pa­nies worked to­gether on Pneuma:Breath Of Life, be­fore merg­ing in 2015

Bram­mer has taken to stream­ing Bat­tal­ion 1944 af­ter work hours, though he ad­mits he’s been warned about his lan­guage once or twice. Still, such youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance is to be ex­pected – al­most ev­ery­one on the team is in their early to mid-twen­ties

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