Yager Development: Back from the dead
The loss of Dead Island 2 was "catastrophic," says MD Timo Ullmann, but the German studio weathered the storm and is now focused on the future
Deep Silver's website offers little more than a vague hint of when Dead Island 2 will finally be released. For fans of the series, an abrupt "2016" is the only indication of when they might finally play a game they have waited for since Techland's Dead Island rose to sleeper success more than four years ago. In January, they were anticipating a launch in the spring. At this point, it's anyone's guess.
And that includes Yager Development, the studio Deep Silver dropped from the project back in July. For those who played the German developer's Spec Ops: The Line in 2012, the combination of talent and subject seemed ripe with potential. Yager's take on the military shooter was subversive, uncompromising and dripping with existential angst. What would it make of the zombie apocalypse, a premise almost as ubiquitous as the one it so capably pulled apart in Spec Ops? We may never know for sure. The Dead Island 2 that is released in 2016 will also be a zombie of sorts; the ideas Yager developed in its three years on the job stitched to whatever Deep Silver believed still had to be done, and the tweaks made by whichever studio ultimately brings it to market.
"Having a project cancelled in such a late state really is the worst possible outcome. Everybody involved loses"
"Having a project cancelled in such a late state is a catastrophic event on so many different levels," says Timo Ullmann, Yager's managing director, when we meet in a hotel on the periphery the Gamescom convention centre. "It really is the worst possible outcome. Everybody involved loses."
Nobody more so than Yager, which was forced to close down Yager Productions - a "single purpose" sub-division established to work on Dead Island 2 - immediately following Deep Silver deciding that the, "respective visions of the project [had fallen] out of alignment." That belief resulted in the loss of almost half the team working on the game, a still undisclosed number of people who laboured for three years and were not allowed to finish the job.
There is a bitter irony to the fact that, at one time, Dead Island 2 will have seemed like a safe option. Spec Ops' is one of those rare games with a reputation that has grown over time. Its most distinctive qualities have been used as a basis for academic study, but they didn't neatly fit into the numerical scoring systems so beloved of the games press, and, ultimately, it failed to find its place in a console market increasingly split between the very big and the very small. Vanquish, Enslaved and a host of other memorable games of that period ended up in the same commercial limbo. Fine company, to say the least.
"There was a lot of insecurity about the market: 'Where is it all going?'" Ullmann remembers. "There was insecurity about what the new cycle of consoles would be, about how many people would go free-to-play, and would that mean the end of storytelling [in games].
"We see ourselves as AAA... We want to come up with good stuff, and we like to put up a lot of production resources. And while we were in the finishing stages of Spec Ops we were also pitching other projects. Especially in that time, we saw that insecurity, and it resulted in a lot of people losing interest in signing up something new for the next generation of consoles. They wanted to see, to test the waters. They didn't know how much effort and budget could be justified."
"We could have kept it under wraps, and hoped that nothing would surface. But that's not how we treat things"
I remember it well, and largely for the wrong reasons. It was a period where scarcely a month passed without a console studio downsizing or closing for good, all to a background drone of speculation about the death of the console, the death of the PC. "Exactly," Ullmann says, with a rueful smile. "Apart from free-to-play and mobile everything was 'dead' for a little while."
In that context, the chance to pitch for Dead Island 2 just as Spec Ops: The Line was launching worldwide couldn't be ignored. It offered reassurance at a time when independent AAA developers were starting to look like an endangered species. If nothing else, the "catastrophic" resolution of Yager's time on Dead Island 2 illustrates the impossibility of certainty when operating at the scale demanded by AAA development. So much money. So many people. The stakes are simply too high.
When the news first broke about Yager Productions' insolvency, both consumers and consumer-facing journalists assumed that meant the company as a whole rather than a single part. Ullmann's regret at the necessary redundancies is sincere - almost uncomfortably so - but he emphasis that Yager Development has endured.
"When you say something people take their own meaning. You can only try," he says. "We had a couple of options, of course. We could have kept it under wraps, and hoped that nothing would surface. But that's not how we treat things, even within the studio. We are always very transparent, and so we broke out the news, to let people know what the consequence of that is.
"Internally, we informed our staff about what was going to happen prior to that, and that's also something that we usually do: clear communication about what's going to happen and why it is happening."
The fact that Yager is a German company softened the blow for those affected by the resulting cuts, with three months of pay guaranteed by the state. However, Ullmann admits that it wasn't possible to assist everyone in finding new employment, and the fallout from that period prompted an undisclosed number of staff to leave the company. With just three shipped games in the 12 years since Yager was founded, Ullmann bears no enmity for anyone who chose to move on.
"I really don't blame them, and we wish them all the best. It's tough, and not being given the chance to finish Dead Island 2, that... that hurts, you know? Right after the announcement a part of the team was a bit shell-shocked, of course, but you have to motivate yourself to keep going. Cancellation of projects, especially if the stakes are so high, is not unheard of. It hurt us, yes, but it happens.
"There's no good answer to what is being persistent and what is being narrow-minded... It's a very fine line"
"The way we operate, we are constantly in touch with a lot of people. As a third party studio, we need to have a very good radar for what the appetite is, and where the market is going. In that sense, we're well prepared."
The focus now is Dreadnought, a space combat simulator for PC that will be published by Grey Box sometime in 2016. In its own way, Dreadnought is also the product of uncertainty. It was conceived as a mobile game, at a time when even learned figures like John Carmack saw the future of that market in terms of processing power. Yager was keen to bring its AAA expertise to the rapidly expanding mobile audience, but its potential investors found the financial commitment difficult to justify. Ultimately, Yager decided to switch platforms to PC, and in doing so it dodged another unforeseeable bullet. Had Dreadnought secured funding as a bleeding-edge mobile title it would have emerged into a very different world than the one many expected back in 2012 - one dominated to an almost suffocating degree by Candy Crush, Clash of Clans and free-to-play.
"With Dreadnought we stuck to our vision for the game," Ullmann says. "People in mobile were cautious, and said we should make it a little different. We said no. In the end, we wouldn't have the game we envisioned. So we went to PC and we kept working. We financed Dreadnought for about a year on our own, and that was hard enough. The risk is so high if you are throwing money into it. Ultimately, if you're not able to finish it then you're done.
"But then we had multiple people interested in the project. We learned from that. It's such a fine balance between persistence and being narrow-minded, and there's no good answer to what is being persistent and what is being narrow-minded. We listen to what people tell us, but we always make the decision based on what will help the game. It's a very fine line.
"What's key is to be able to stick to what you're doing. With Dreadnought, we're totally focusing on the game. That's our expertise, and [Greybox] will focus on the marketing and distribution and everything else. If you're able to do so, to focus... sometimes there is an urge by publishers and people who fund the project, when the stakes are quite high, to involve themselves. That is not always done to the best result."
"With a little more distance between Spec Ops and now, we feel like we could do that again"
And after the tumultuous end to its work on Dead Island 2, what Yager needs right now is the best possible result - another shipped game to add to a catalogue that Ullmann readily admits isn't as fulsome as he believed it would be back in 2003. Thanks to Spec Ops: The Line, however, the company still has a following who will wait eagerly for Dreadnought, and another project about which Ullmann can confirm nothing beyond its very existence.
"We can see our audience expectations," he says. "Even with Dead Island, people would say, 'Okay, but where's the Spec Ops element?' or 'Why is there no Spec Ops 2?' For us, we worked for five years on Spec Ops, and in a way it's a relief to say, 'We did that, it worked okay, but can we please try something else?' We're not a one-trick pony, and it's very difficult in the creative space because you're labelled, right? You're put in a drawer marked 'storytellers.' It's quite important that you don't do the same thing all over again, and Spec Ops really was a five year experience for us."
By the time Dreadnought is released next year, though, another five years will have passed, a small but significant part of which Ullmann would sooner forget. Dreadnought is a very different game to Spec Ops, he says, so fans expecting the same meta-narrative gymnastics would do well to temper their expectations. Beyond that? Ullmann isn't saying, but now that Yager is back from the dead that drawer marked 'storytellers' no longer seems quite so restrictive.
"Right now, we would love to get back to that," he says. "We have a couple of ideas that we're pursuing that would more follow that narrative direction. With a little more distance between Spec Ops and now, we feel like we could do that again."
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