When event organizers postponed GDC 2020 in San Francisco from March to (apparently) an August 4-6 makeup event, development teams all over the world suddenly found themselves scrambling to make up for missed professional networking time, lost opportunities with potential players, and in many circumstances, unrecoverable travel investments. As E3 and other events follow suit and business nearly everywhere grinds to a halt, the usual advantages of working in close geographic proximity to traditional industry hotspots have all but vanished. This was the topic of my discussion with Robert Hubert, the Los Angeles-based development director responsible for Brutal Grounds, an upcoming top-down competitive shooter from AGOG Entertainment.
Brutal Grounds (Twitter account here) is an ambitious multiplayer project with eSports aspirations, involving character customization (those characters being marbles), various play modes, and a balance of strategic and mechanical gameplay. A Pre-Alpha gameplay teaser video sent to CodeWritePlay looked like great fun, showing off appealing graphics and a curious amount of blood for combat between marbles. In a world where Rocket League (car soccer for balloon audiences) is not only a blast, but is also a smashing financial success, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think Brutal Grounds could draw in competitive players.
Robert founded AGOG Entertainment with his brother, Peter Hubert, and together they released seven mobile titles before expanding the team last year to tackle Brutal Grounds. The studio is now made up of devs from California and Canada working remotely outside of their day jobs. I reached out to Robert to find out how they’re faring at this point in the pandemic.
I think we’re realizing that, as a society, we’ve been more isolated than we thought, and we don’t have to be.
Even having a presence in Southern California, you lost the opportunity to network at GDC and now E3 has been pulled out from under you as well. How is the quest for publishing and funding contacts going as the pandemic unfolds?
It’s definitely been interesting to say the least! Like many other hopefuls, we were all geared up to head out to GDC with meetings scheduled, parties RSVPd to, and had our list of events and talks to attend–and I think it goes without saying that we were pretty bummed when everything started to fall apart. We were especially looking forward to E3 and the competitive indie event they put on–it would have been great to have been included in that. Spend five minutes on twitter today though and it’s pretty apparent that the entire indie community is feeling it. But, with all that’s going on, I have never seen the indie dev community more alive and banded together. In some ways, there have never been more resources available and more people available and willing to help out than we are seeing right now and it’s a change we’re embracing. It really goes to show just how awesome this community is.
For our team, we are trying to make the best of it and talk to everyone we can online – and to reach out to publishers and reviewers who may now have some free time under the current circumstances. While I’m big on the whole and hands-on experience thing, as a team, we’re trying not to view it as lost opportunities, but rather just different opportunities that we may not have otherwise considered. Our advice to other devs out there finding themselves in the same situation – talk to everyone, ask them who they’re talking to, make your list, and just keep at it!
Your team works remotely outside other jobs. Was that a helpful running start as business has changed around you? What helps your team stay in sync with different schedules and great distances between you?
Most likely, yes. I think all of us having day jobs that are similar (mostly all done on the computer with chat/task managers) really helped. We have developed a pretty good working routine–between discord, our scheduled weekly meetings, weekly builds, and play-test, we are more or less in constant contact. Which for us, works really well because we’re also all really good friends. There was a moment when we started out where things were much more haphazard and our productivity took a hit–we can see teams who are just now being forced to operate remote being faced with a similar period of adjustment. Set your schedule early and stick to it. Not to say we don’t pull the odd late nights to compensate for time zones or to smash annoying bugs, but for the sake of our sanity, we try and keep a routine.
We use Discord, Clickup, GitHub, and Google Drive to keep everything organized. The key is trying to keep things all in one spot. For us that has become Clickup, with everything linking out from there. But we’re also human, so stuff can still get messy and we still have to put in the effort to keep our virtual workspace clean. It is very much like having a second job though–but one that we all love!
You mention several places that Brutal Grounds is being developed with eSports appeal in mind. I’ve been predicting more indie eSports hits for a while. Is the timing right for one? Do you need a lot of support from a publisher relationship to make this happen?
The market for eSport titles is only going to increase, and we like to think Brutal Grounds offers something unique for an optimized spectator experience. We definitely think the gamers are ready for new eSport focused games to join the stage–it’s one of the core drivers behind many of the design decisions we make in Brutal Grounds. One of those decisions was to keep the core mechanics of the game simple and focus more on how players actually engage rather than forcing new players to learn lore and complex meta strategies required in the majority of eSport titles out there, Overwatch and [League of Legends] come to mind. An additional barrier to entry for some of these games is in the act of spectating them, it’s almost impossible to just sit down and watch a match if you’re not already embedded in those communities. We really set out to create something that felt and played like a real sport–and could similarly be watched and enjoyed like one too. The simplicity of Rocket League is a good example of a game that was intentionally developed to play more like an actual sport and likely contributed to its huge success.
It’s been said before but bears repeating–if your mom can understand what’s going on in your game at a high level, it’s a good thing for eSports and it’s a key element that’s missing in most eSports titles right now. We think games like Brutal grounds have the potential to introduce eSports to a much wider audience. You can think of it like hockey, you don’t really need to understand all the rules to follow along and have a good time.
We’d love to see more indie games start to shift focus to eSports, maybe akin to the minor leagues? Either way, the professional eSports field remains fairly exclusive, and even with a stellar game it can be especially difficult for an indie team to break into without making the right connections and laying the groundwork for a way in. This is where a publisher and advocates with experience in the eSports market can be extremely valuable. Not to mention, your game better be durable enough to handle some of the most intense players and perform at 100% during the most strenuous scenarios–and that takes a lot of time and hard work to get right. Funding can help move all of those things along. We are now in the early phases of looking for funding and partnerships.
If industry events continue to get pushed into the future or cancelled completely, how does your strategy change from here? Have you made any networking progress thanks to folks trying to make themselves more available in the wake of these events?
By nature, indie devs have to be scrappy and I think our team is prepared to shift strategies as needed. It does feel like networking is making a big shift towards online–we already got a taste for how quickly that can happen with GDC shifting to virtual, and with the community getting more engaged this way, we may start to see some interesting things come out of it. I think there will always be a place for good old fashioned face to face meetups and hands on exhibits but the days of massive live gaming expos may be over for the time being. But we’re hopeful! We absolutely love getting to watching new players dive into Brutal Grounds at events.
For us, it’s really still about staying focused on keeping our milestones on track so we’re ready for any event if/when they take place.
One thing we are strongly starting to consider is opening up our alpha (request to join here) to more players much earlier than we had initially planned. Typically we would invite new players during events who showed interest in the game, but with everyone stuck at home and events cancelled, it feels like the right time to get more people in, even if the game still needs work, the more people playing early, the better the game will be on launch!
Have you experienced anything particularly positive in the midst of all this? Some nice stories have emerged from the community, what has given you hope lately?
Absolutely! It’s been amazing watching the community come together. We have seen people hosting silent work-from-home group videos to help others feel less isolated. It’s been great to see people opening up and sharing online, checking in on one another, and inviting others to participate in online groups and events. Everyone really seems to be rallying around the common cause of just coming together as people, that we are really all on the same team. The number of developer resources, online courses, and other learning content coming out for free over the past few weeks deserves recognition, and it’s a trend that we hope continues.
It’s interesting how it took a global event forcing people into isolation to get people to really come together in this way. I think we’re realizing that as a society, we’ve been more isolated than we thought and we don’t have to be.
On a personal level I think we’re all dealing with it in our own ways, I have been working from home for a few years and so it’s not much different for me. I do miss my regular trips to the local breweries though!
Programmer Brian Howard: Within my circle, between family, friends, and work, I find people have been really supportive of each other and communicating every day–I think we are witnessing a pretty major cultural change. For me personally, Doom Eternal. Also blasting music really loud. Giving the ol’ headphones bald spot a break.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.