Studio 369 formed out of Rune 2 launch disaster
Matt Candler talks about starting a new studio after being left in the lurch by the demise of original developer Human Head
In the wake of the unexpected dissolution of original Rune 2 developer Human Head, publisher Ragnarok Games LLC has created a new studio specifically to take over work on the action RPG.
Rune 2 launched on the Epic Games Store November 12. The next day, much to the surprise of Ragnarok, Human Head announced it would be shutting down, with the staff re-forming as the Bethesda-owned Roundhouse Studios.
That left Ragnarok with a game in need of patching and continued support and two big problems: no studio to work on it, and no source code to work from.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz last week, Ragnarok manager and Rune 2 executive producer Matt Candler says solving one of those problems led naturally to solving the other.
In January, Ragnarok revealed it had received a hard drive with Rune 2 source code and assets on it. But Candler says Ragnarok still didn't have a full version history of the project and "was missing some crucial build configurations that had to be re-engineered."
He enlisted developers he'd had previous experience working with -- including Studio 369 CTO Dan Nikolaides -- to help reconstruct a build they could work off of, and they quickly put together a quality-of-life patch for the game.
"We did so much work in January, February, and March that I said, 'We're kicking ass guys, I think we should just form a company'"
"Then we started digging in and said, 'Well what do we want to fix?' We wanted to fix combat, AI, how enemies spawn, the loot system... We basically wanted to fix all the game systems where we said, 'This is not fun,'" Candler says. "We took out a lot of the survival elements like hunger and freezing that were just annoying."
Before long they had almost a dozen people working on the project.
As Candler explains, "We did so much work in January, February, and March that I said, 'We're kicking ass guys, I think we should just form a company. Let's form a team, take over development, and this team will be the face on the game so the fans and community can understand who's actually doing the work."
The decision was made in early March, and the company officially founded on March 31. They now have 14 people at Studio 369, and plan to double that number by the end of the year. Only one of the developers has previous experience at Human Head.
Candler's list of changes Studio 369 is making to the game brings up the issue of vision. After all, Human Head was the creator of the franchise, and the original developer of Rune 2. And while there are obviously some hard feelings -- not to mention ongoing legal battles -- about the way things have played out, we ask Candler if he feels any obligation to stay faithful to what the original creators had in mind.
"Our obligation is to deliver a fun product for the fans that people enjoy and say they got their money's worth and had fun," he says. "The biggest difference that I have now with my new team versus Human Head is that whenever we come up with an idea or a question the answer is, 'Yes we can do that.'
"Can we add new quests? Yes, we can do that.
"Can we have villagers? Yes, we can do that.
"Can we destroy buildings? Yes, we can do that.
"Can we have a horde mode? Yes we can do that.
"Can we fix the giant's AI and have trees splinter when he runs through the forest? Yes, we can do that.
"It was a just a surreal experience of working with [Human Head] and saying, 'This is your IP. You should do everything you can to make it as great as possible.' And yet every time we asked them to do something to improve the gameplay, the answer was very much a no."
Candler concedes those negative answers were more common toward the end of the project, and that is "kind of normal" as it becomes time to ship a game. However, he said that throughout the development process on Rune 2, "there was always a failure to execute."
"I know there are a lot of shenanigans in the game industry. We've all heard crazy stories. But at a certain point, people need to fulfill their obligations"
The game was effectively dead on arrival at launch, he says, but Ragnarok and Studio 369 have salvaged something from that disaster.
In May, the studio released The Lazarus Update for the game, which overhauled combat and player progression, and added new features like villages to the game's world.
The next big changes on the list are rewriting the game's entire story and re-recording voiceovers, as well as adding a multiplayer mode for up to 30 players.
They're taking on as much feedback from players and streamers as possible, and while some of the requests -- a remake of the original Rune, for which Ragnarok doesn't have the rights -- aren't possible, Candler says the team is exploring others, like mod tools.
While Candler says the situation with Rune 2 has stabilized and the big roadblocks to the game's continued development have been removed, he's far from ready to turn the page on the whole saga with Human Head. Beyond the ongoing litigation, Ragnarok is still technically licensing the IP from Human Head, so the company will need to navigate the messy fallout of this partnership for as long as that deal lasts.
"This type of behavior should not be allowed," Candler says. "I know there are a lot of shenanigans in the game industry. We've all heard crazy stories. But at a certain point, people need to fulfill their obligations."