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.

Thankfully the work that has been done so far on Dragonpunk is still avail­able on the Steam Workshop, and they have re­leased the code for their Co-Op work for those want­i­ng to push it forward.

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.

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Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a fo­cus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand

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