On Modding and The Future: A Team Dragonpunk Interview
Modding has been a staple of PC gaming for decades, and the ever growing technology available to the masses makes it easier than ever to create your own experiences or build off existing properties to create new experiences within existing IPs.
In the past, some of these mods even got the attention of a developer and entirely new games were built from them. Games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2 have these humble origins, as do entire genres of games like MOBAs that have had dominate player bases for years now. Games with avid modder support have been able to increase the longevity of a game’s presence in the market as well, with Neverwinter Nights being a prime example.
So it’s a bit easy to call me a advocate for modding support in games. I’m a fan of properties I interact with being more open in the first place, and passionate modders have allowed me personally to have an extra dimension of fun with certain titles that would have never been possible with the games in a vanilla state.
That’s why projects like Dragonpunk for XCOM 2 had me very excited. This is the dedicated team that started to bring Co-Op to that game, a feature that seemed like it should have been a no brainer to have in the first place. Nothing is as easy as that on paper though, and the Dragonpunk team worked with the passionate fan base for XCOM 2 to help bring this feature to fruition — with just a few caveats and requirements.
It’s also why it was doubly disappointing for me to hear that they would not be able to bring their bigger plans to light due to a cease and desist from Take Two Interactive. One layer of disappointment stemming from the fact Take Two had recently worked with the developers of Long War 2. Much like the Dragonpunk team thought, I had figured that bringing other dedicated mod development teams like them into the fold, so to speak, would be the next logical step.
The way in which Take Two handled the situation adds that extra layer of disappointment. It’s of note that from all indications Firaxis had nothing to do with the timeline of how things went down. As for those details, I will let the Dragonpunk team speak for themselves on that below.
They are currently just changing course to strike out on their own to push their dream forward in a new engine. They have also partnered with Simplay.io, a virtual gaming-rig streaming service, and are working with the Lumberyard game engine, Amazon’s CryEngine fork, and it’s cloud based systems to open games to a wider audience by not relying on as many local hardware resources for a future demo.
We recently got to talk to Daniel Connery from Dragonpunk to get some insight from the team on what it was like working on XCOM 2, and what the future holds as they work towards a new creation in Amazon’s Lumberyard game engine.
I hope you enjoy reading the answers as much as we did!
For folks who may not be in the know, can you tell us a little about Dragonpunk and the team behind it?
Team Dragonpunk is a group of new modders and Games Industry veterans from Sony, Bungie, and Bethesda Softworks. Dragonpunk was born from the frustration of fans not having a AAA Co-Op Shadowrun game. In fact, I’ve been corresponding with Microsoft without success for two years now to get the rights to Shadowrun. This initiative started when my father was fatally shot in Texas in May 2015. We didn’t get along particularly well, but we both shared a love of Shadowrun. Whenever he’d call, he’d start the conversation with, “So… what about that Shadowrun game we’re going to make?” I honestly can’t even remember what I was doing the last time he called me, but I told him I was busy and rather abruptly hung up. A few days later he had been shot, and those were the last words he said to me. After that, I quit my Cloud Consulting job with the Chief Information Officer of the Army in Washington DC, sold everything I had, and started designing the XCOM 2 Shadowrun mods that would become Dragonpunk.
How many people worked on Dragonpunk, and how long have you all been together?
15 total members (volunteers, freelancers, and core team) for over 1.5 years, plus over 8,000 amazing Twitter supporters and 17,000 total players.
What was some of the more difficult aspects of bringing co-op to Xcom 2?
Developing in Unreal 3! Our brilliant Lead Developer, Elad, had the network code finished over 6 months ago. Since then, we’ve been rewriting entire sections of XCOM 2 to be Co-Op friendly. So many little things you wouldn’t even think of, like Hacking, had to be rewritten. Of course, every XCOM 2 set-up is different, so we’ve played over 200 Co-Op games with the community to try and reproduce “edge-cases” that we never experienced in our test environments.
What are some of the accomplishments the team are most proud of?
Of all the great art and innovative code, we’re most proud of the rapport we built with the XCOM 2 player base. We’d continually get thanked for our responsiveness and willingness to play a tutorial round of Co-Op. Considering that most of us are working 2 jobs just to make ends meet, the fact that our commitment to our players rivalled that of a professional AAA launch was incredibly impressive. Many players would ask us their basic XCOM 2 questions, since we were seemingly the only customer support they available.
If you had to describe your team in as few words as possible, what would they be?
Dogged, idealistic, and at the moment, perhaps just a bit war-weary. Elad says that he feels a bit light headed from all the lack of sleep, send coffee!
What had it been like talking with Firaxis and Take-Two regarding Dragonpunk? Any Firaxis devs who are fans?
Unfortunately, we never even got to pitch our idea. The executive leadership from both Firaxis and Take Two were completely unreachable, both through the official 3rd party relations channel and alternative means liked Linkedin.
We had the privilege of working with many of the Firaxis developers, and they were all great. Many had wanted to include Co-Op as a feature in XCOM 2, but unfortunately weren’t able to include Co-Op within the budget.
When you were denied by Take-Two/Firaxis, how did that go down? Did they give any specific reasons?
Here is how our Cease and Desist (C&D) was handled:
A few weeks ago, Team Dragonpunk excitedly opened an email from Take Two, Firaxis’ parent company. The email simply read that Take Two finally wanted to speak with us about our proposed Dragonpunk Kickstarter. With a signed petition of over 1,200 players supporting a Kickstarter for Dragonpunk and the rest of the XCOM 2 mod community, we’d finally been noticed! In the petition and proposed Kickstarter page, we explicitly wrote that all funds would go to Firaxis to further trust in the campaign. We’d continue to be self-financed, but would finally be able to afford the art assets needed to bring our vision to life!
We felt like Charlie finding the Golden Ticket. This was the moment we’d spent a year and a half and over $50,000 for. Design documents, pre-production art, and our acclaimed Co-Op mod all nearing completion, we dared to hope of being “discovered” by a AAA publisher like Take Two. A nagging thought crept forward, “Shouldn’t this email have come from someone in Business Development, not Legal Counsel?” Yet, the email asked for us to choose an available time slot for the following Monday, and sounded extremely positive. I thought, “Surely, if this is a C&D, they would just email it to us, and not make us choose an appointment for our own C&D, right?”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.
We worked through the Super Bowl, and as the weekend closed, I rehearsed my “elevator pitch”; a projected $30 million in additional XCOM 2 sales alone (based on metrics from comparable games and mods), and that’s not even including the sales of Dragonpunk DLC to non backers. On Monday however, we received another email asking to reschedule the appointment on account of the Attorney calling in sick. “Well, we’ve waited this long hadn’t we? What’s one more day?”
Now we had to reschedule our appointment for our own C&D.
As my phone rang the next day, I was confident. “This is it,” I thought, “Take Two and Firaxis waited this long to test our resolve and promote Long War 2, right? That’s smart. Signing Dragonpunk now would bolster the quickly diminishing XCOM 2 player base and mod community until the release of XCOM 3. This has to be it!”
The Attorney got right to the point.
“Firaxis asked us to call you because your Kickstarter campaign is soliciting money from players.”
“Actually, our ‘proposed’ Kickstarter AND petition very clearly state that all funds would go directly to Firaxis”
“Hmm… Well, we just can’t let you profit off our IP!”
“There is no profit involved. We’re just trying to raise enough for art assets. The rest of the XCOM 2 modders request art help as well.”
After going back and forth like this for another few minutes, I realized that they hadn’t even read the proposed Kickstarter and petition. After a year and half of development, they couldn’t be bothered to take 5 minutes to read a proposal that only stood to benefit them.
“Well… We can’t let you keep the Kickstarter up, but we’re still happy to let you mod for free!”
(Paraphrased because I finally burst out laughing)
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let my team continue as free labor for a megacorp worth over a billion dollars if there is no potential for a future. Have a good day.”
The call was exactly 6 minutes, 27 seconds. The call hardly necessitated the entire 30 minute appointment, and could have been easily accomplished on the previous Friday.
Here is how I would have handled it:
While the executive leadership of a game studio certainly can’t meet with every fan with a business proposal, modders covered in PC Gamer, Game Spot, and just about every major gaming publication should have earned a 15 minute Skype call. Even if Take Two had no intention of approving the Kickstarter, it’s professional courtesy. After presenting our pitch, they should have at least said, “While there is certainly a lot of merit to your proposal, we’re unfortunately unable to allocate the resources at this time to accommodate your Kickstarter. We’re incredibly grateful for our modding community, and would be willing to revisit this issue in a year or two if you continue to build a player-base, though we still can’t guarantee anything then.”
That’s all that had to happen. Honestly, for most modders, just a “thank you” on a Skype call is more than enough motivation to continue developing for another 2 years, even if a proposed Kickstarter is declined. I know we certainly would have!
Was this the final straw when it came to deciding to go your own way after all this? Or had there always been a contingency to make your own game if you hit a wall with what could be done with modding?
Business is all about taking a series of calculated risks, and mitigating those risks whenever possible. While the StartUp Acqui-hire business model is used successfully in every other industry, the Games Industry is still relatively new, and hasn’t yet reached that level of maturity. Across the Industry, we’re all trying to figure out a way to empower modders as the middle market with funding to realize their vision. Paid mods for Skyrim didn’t seem to work, so it was worth trying a proposed Kickstarter.
As a way to mitigate the risk of Take Two declining our proposed Kickstarter, we developed all our assets for (re)use in a modern game engine. We’ve also been developing for Amazon Lumberyard since their major 1.7 update, which released about the same time Robert’s Industries announced they would be “moving” Star Citizen to Lumberyard.
Even with all that’s happened, I still think making a full Dragonpunk game as a total conversion at 10% of the cost was worth the risk. We probably would have kept modding for the next couple years, had Take-Two not stopped us. This summer we were set to release a Co-Op version of Long War 2 that would allow 4 players in the same strategy campaign at the same time with the ability to split up the tactical mission amongst the 4 players. With just a few more months needed for development, we’re contemplating finishing it, but we’ve just all been put off by how this whole situation was handled.
Any hard feelings left for Firaxis or Take-Two after all this?
The actual devs at Firaxis were wonderful, and will continue to serve as my inspiration. Imagine working the typical game dev week, 60 – 80 hours, only to volunteer extra hours to help modders. They are as brilliant as they were helpful. As a Software Lead at Lockheed Martin, I’d like to think I’m proficient at coding, yet the developers at Firaxis consistently humbled me with their vast insight into game development.
Take-Two? Well, let’s just say this has made me more appreciative of the professionalism I see at Lockheed Martin on a daily basis. I’m currently coordinating a team of 65 software, network, and system engineers, and we’re growing to over 200 in the next year. I have an “open door” policy, and wouldn’t dream of discouraging a junior engineer that wanted to pitch an idea. Great ideas can come from anywhere!
We see the team has been working with Simplay.io, can you tell us about that partnership?
It’s been great working with simplay, They have been great at communications and we are grateful to have them as partners in this journey towards affordable cloud gaming, their platform keeps getting better everyday and we’ve been providing a lot of feedback in order to help them as much as possible, as far as we see it we are in this ship together so if one succeeds we all do. As far as their beta — we’ve been able to run games at 1080P and at 30 – 60 FPS with minimal overhead via their use of Amazon servers and great client optimization.
Noticing that you are looking to get small business loans and everything to really propel Team Dragonpunk. That has to be pretty scary, but also damn exciting. How are you and the team feeling about striking out on your own?
US Army veterans are eligible for up to $500,000 in small business loans. As a disabled two-war vet, I’ve been working with Wells Fargo and M&T bank to secure that loan. As a business entity, Dragonpunk will turn 2 years old this June. That’s considered the ideal time for lending by small business investors, because the owner has demonstrated their resolve and built brand value.
We couldn’t be happier about striking out on our own. We’re revamping our website and opening a new studio in Boulder, Colorado. Once we’ve secured this loan, we’ll be offering 1 year contracts for multiple positions: Sr Character Artist, Sr Environment Artist, Technical Director, Animator, etc., as well as offering paid internships for CU Boulder students. As part of my commitment to ethics in game development, I refuse to let anyone work for free. Many majors studios have a requirement of 3 years of experience for entry level jobs, and use this to justify years of unpaid internships. We want to show the world that great games can still be made ethically.
How has it been working with Amazon’s Lumberyard? Any particular reasons why you picked it over other engines?
Amazon has been incredibly supportive, and Garnett Lee, Amazon Developer Support, has already been immensely helpful. There was some initial concern in the Game Dev community about Amazon Lumberyard’s longevity, but Amazon has continually proved itself as the next big contender in gaming.
While it’s true that the engine is still at it’s infancy we see great features being added on a regular basis (403 in the latest release alone) and a bright future for the engine. So far Amazon has revitalized several industries, and there is no reason to expect the games industry will be different. Both players and developers alike have been waiting for just such a change!
Did you plan on taking a nice little break before starting on the new project? I know I would!
Absolutely not. Amazon Lumberyard 1.7 came out January 27th, and we’ve been having a great time working through all the new features. We have a lot of work to do in Amazon Lumberyard before we start hiring this summer. While most cloud gaming platforms simply host existing games, we’ve already begun developing Lumberyard components to stream the graphics directly to the player. Essentially, we’re optimizing the engine at it’s very core for cloud gaming to even further reduce bandwidth requirements.
What are the kinds of things you would like to do in a new game now that you on a new engine that you couldn’t when modding an existing game?
“Scope” is where most game devs get in trouble, because we begin to imagine “what could be”, as opposed to “what the funding allows”. Because making an XCOM 2 total conversion would have only cost $1 million, the Dragonpunk mods would have been more feature-rich than our upcoming Dragonpunk demo in Amazon Lumberyard. Next-Gen games easily cost $10-$20 million, so a $500,000 demo is going to have a very narrow scope. Essentially, this Dragonpunk demo will highlight the capability for advanced graphics on Amazon Cloud that are years beyond consoles, leverage the insane amount of computing power on Amazon Cloud (more civilians and a more “alive” world), and begin to communicate the tone and lore of the Dragonpunk Universe. If we are able to find full funding after the completion of the demo, well, the sky’s the limit!
Any parting words for your fans, followers, and any newcomers?
Thank you all your support on Twitter in the past, and for playing our XCOM 2 mods. Thank you for your patience now while we switching game engines! Thank you in advance checking out Dragonpunk on Amazon Cloud in the future!
Last, and arguably most important… who would win? Pirates or Ninjas?
If the Nassau memories from Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag have taught me anything, it’s the pirates can’t be defeated in a straight fight; not by the East India Company and not by Ninjas (though history may disagree). So pirates in a straight fight, and ninjas if they wait long enough for the Pirates to pass out from too much rum.