BULKHEAD I NTER ACTIVE
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
“I SAID TO HIM, ‘MAYBE YOU SHOULD JUST PLAY THE GAME,’ AND HE SAID, ‘I DON’T LIKE BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO’”
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.”
“I REALLY DO LIKE FPS GAMES, AND I DO THINK SOME PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABSOLUTE SHIT ABOUT MY GAME”
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