Messing with success
Torn Banner developed the multimillion-selling PC hit Chivalry working from around the world, so why did it scrap that in favor of working from an office?
Torn Banner Studios began life as a model of distributed development, a group of Half-Life 2 modders looking to turn their well-received medieval take on first-person combat, Age of Chivalry, into a stand-alone commercial product. Two and a half years later, the team of developers from the US, Australia, Sweden, France, Spain, and Canada shipped Chivalry: Medieval Warfare on the PC. Torn Banner founder and president Steve Piggott originally hoped the game would sell about 100,000 copies; to date it has topped 2 million sold.
So naturally, after having proven that Torn Banner could produce a hit in a competitive space using a cost-effective distributed development model, Piggott decided to scrap that model entirely.
"Chivalry launched October 16, 2012," Piggott said. "By May 13, 2013, we had moved 11 guys into Toronto, into the office. I think there were three or four people who couldn't come, for various reasons. But most of the team was able to be there in under six months."
"Certainly the hardest part of it was getting used to actually dealing with each other. There are a lot of social issues with working in an office that you don't get in a remote situation."
Piggott said there's intrinsic value to having a physical studio where people have face-to-face interactions. It facilitates creative collaborations, makes it easier to troubleshoot problems, and makes it easier to have everyone working on the same schedule. Even as a distributed team, the studio forced everyone to work more or less North American business hours, which Piggott admits was really rough on some of the developers.
As for why he chose Toronto for the studio's base of operations, Piggott mentioned a number of factors. First, he grew up in the area. Second, it gave him access to "ridiculously good" government incentives for developers. Third, it helped him convince the remote team to centralize.
"Everyone kind of universally liked the idea of living in Canada," Piggott said. "It's got a good national reputation, so that really helped. But I guess the weather is the counter argument."
The cold winters aside, Piggott said there were other challenges associated with bringing everyone under one roof.
"Not only had we not worked in an office together, but we had some guys who had not worked in an office ever before," Piggott said. "Certainly the hardest part of it was getting used to actually dealing with each other. There are a lot of social issues with working in an office that you don't get in a remote situation."
One part that Piggott said was particularly challenging for Torn Banner was learning how to give--and take--constructive criticism face-to-face.
"You have to open up your mind to someone else and explain to them how you got where you got. Remotely, we didn't tend to challenge people as much because you didn't feel like you had access to that person in the same way."
"This is something I think all companies struggle with, to some degree," Piggott said. "When you get face-to-face, some people take it personally. You have to be mature enough to be resilient when you get that feedback, but also phrase your feedback in a way that's actually helpful to someone else. That's something that right off the bat, we didn't have down. It took us a while to get there."
When they were working remotely and simply typing out feedback to one another, Piggott said it was easier to dismiss the criticism. But when you're speaking to someone in person, they're generally going to expect you to justify your opinion more, which Piggott said can be as difficult as it is positive.
"It's a challenging thing to do to say why you believe a certain thing should be done and go through your whole logical process," Piggott said. "You have to open up your mind to someone else and explain to them how you got where you got. Remotely, we didn't tend to challenge people as much because you didn't feel like you had access to that person in the same way."
Not everything about the move has presented as hard as you might think. Piggott said he was pleasantly surprised at how professional and productive the team was, right from the start.
"When you put together a group of people who all like each other, you might expect a large, college dorm kind of setup," Piggott said. "But most of the time if you came to our office, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone's got their headphones on and is working really hard; it's actually quite silent in the office."
Despite the transitional pains, Piggott said he's never regretted the decision to centralize the team. Even at its hardest, the challenges have been outweighed by the excitement of what they can accomplish together, he said. It's an excitement reflected on the company's official website, which states, "We want to go places other companies are afraid to go, because we believe great games begin with the passion of a small group of diehard fans." Chivalry's multimillion sales figure aside, Piggott said that goal of targeting niche audiences is a unifying force for the studio.
"We see niches as untapped potential, because obviously some people have realized how exciting and fun these things can be, and we want to come in there and translate that to a wider audience."
"I think everyone in the studio has this dislike for 'the same game with a different name,'" Piggott said. "So we wanted to focus on something that was fundamentally different and fundamentally interesting. If you look at any niche, when you talk to those hardcore people about why they appreciate that thing, they can explain it in a way that would be really interesting to a mainstream audience. It's just usually hidden and hard to understand. The way we look at it is we take a niche, hardcore approach to things in terms of us valuing it, and we try to translate that into something the mainstream could appreciate. We see niches as untapped potential, because obviously some people have realized how exciting and fun these things can be, and we want to come in there and translate that to a wider audience. And I think if you start the other way, you wind up with something a lot more generic."
Going for a niche also has the added benefit of differentiating your product, tying design and marketing together in a way that doesn't undermine either.
"People will pay for a new, compelling experience," Piggott said. "People won't pay for a mainstream-ish idea they've already seen before that doesn't actually add anything new. Niche allows us to actually have uniqueness, and I think that's hugely important. When you see Chivalry, you see something new you haven't seen before, and I think that's why we're successful... It bothers me when people try to make games based off of what else is succeeding. It might sound intuitive to do that, but I think it's actually a fundamental flaw with how most people go out and create games. It sounds safer, but I think it's riskier. It's a lot harder to do something that's already been done and try to make money off that.
"If you believe in your team and yourself creatively, it's the best route to go without a doubt, because otherwise you're just competing on technical competence, which is like competing on price or something like that. If you believe in the creative ability of your team to produce things that are actually compelling and unique, then I think you take it to the rooftops and the alleyways where the larger companies can't actually go. You get to be more flexible and agile; small teams need to use their advantages to be more creative."
Currently, Torn Banner is working on an unannounced game using Unreal Engine 4. Piggott said the studio's interest is in first-person competitive online games, although it isn't limiting itself to working in the Chivalry franchise (or even melee combat) forever.