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Kaos Descends: How Homefront's Developer Met its End
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Kaos Descends: How Homefront's Developer Met its End

July 6, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

One of the biggest legacies this console generation will leave has been the business shift for core games on retail shelves. Over the past several years, triple-A has become a space where only the absolute top-tier titles sell, especially in the first-person shooter genre. Even decent sales and decent quality aren't enough, and with today's budgets, "close, but no cigar" can even be lethal to a studio.

THQ's Homefront sold a million copies in its first week and scored a 70 on Metacritic, neither an excellent nor devastating score. Given the genre's popularity, though, Homefront could have been the start of great things for the development team, Kaos Studios. Audiences seemed to find the game's premise, which casts players as resistance members in an imagined future a North Korean invasion of America, refreshing, and reviewers consistently appreciated its team-based multiplayer in particular.

The ability to innovate and create online modes that felt fresh should have spelled the potential for Kaos to be an asset to THQ, which was at the time aiming to go head-to-head with the likes of EA and Activision in the popular genre. But instead, the publisher closed the studio just over a year ago, shunting the development of Homefront 2 to Crytek.

THQ's investors were impatient, and the publisher was already ankle-deep in the strategy and finance problems that have continued to dog it since Homefront's 2011 launch, and it simply could no longer afford anything less than spectacular rescue. It could no longer afford Kaos.

Danny Bilson, the EVP of core games who was Homefront's most visible executive advocate, ultimately stepped down this past May, with Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin swooping in to try and sort things out for the studios, in the role of president. The publisher has significant challenges ahead.

But Kaos was much more than an expensive failure. The real reason Kaos Studios failed wasn't just-average performance for Homefront, nor was it the high cost of business in New York City. Gamasutra talked to scores of former employees about the death of their studio -- assembling what's ultimately a fascinating cautionary tale about how lethal mismanagement and culture problems can be.

Inside the Kaos collapse is a story of a studio that ramped up too quickly under too much pressure, strove beyond its means, and struggled with uncertainty about its future, as well as creative and interpersonal conflicts.

And although speculation in the press and implications from THQ itself suggested that the high cost of business in New York City played a major role in the closure, employees say the studio was no more expensive than comparable ones in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Some former Kaos staffers tell us they knew the studio wouldn't survive even before Homefront shipped.

Kaos Studios began when four friends -- Frank Delise, Brian Holinka, Stephen Wells, and Tim Brophy -- developed an incredibly successful and acclaimed Battlefield 1942 mod called Desert Combat. The mod's success led to the team forming Trauma Studios, which Digital Illusions CE quickly bought up in 2004 to help develop Battlefield 2.

The relationship with DICE was short-lived, as Trauma got shut down less than a year later in 2005. But THQ, believing it needed a presence among military shooter games to keep its top-tier publisher status, recruited the core Trauma team in 2006 to found Kaos Studios in New York City. Kaos got to work immediately on Frontlines: Fuel of War, which shipped on Xbox 360 and PC in 2008 to squarely average reception.

By 2008, the first-person shooter genre was quickly heating up, getting more competitive and more expensive. Yet as Call of Duty games reliably reached unprecedented sales successes, most publishers saw competing in the genre as increasingly risky.

THQ had just established its "pillar" strategy, under which an entire arm of the company would be devoted to core games, and leadership of that branch was given to Danny Bilson, a writer and director with Hollywood roots who became core games' EVP.

Homefront was to be the crown jewel in THQ's core ambitions, and former Kaos employees say it became Bilson's "pet project", and that despite professing a hands-off creative philosophy in the press he was in fact heavily invested in the game's creative decisions -- sometimes, according to some, to its detriment.

Kaos' studio culture "was the direct result of a group that had made a labor-of-love mod in their spare time [being] handed keys to a studio and... financed to make a game," one former staffer tells us. "Mistakes were made and processes weren't clear, but there was an air that we were all in this because we loved it. As we switched over to developing Homefront, we started to attract more seasoned veterans."

A particularly assertive and savvy recruiter was able to populate the Homefront team with very experienced developers -- in most cases, the new hires had more qualifications than those senior to them. "One of the guys we interviewed had a more impressive resume than my own, but we felt he didn't meet our requirements," says the former staffer. "That told me that if I had the same resume [as when] I applied to Kaos a few years before and came to work for Homefront, I couldn't get my own job.


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Comments


Andrew Grapsas
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:) I miss all of my brothers and sisters in arms from my Kaos days. I really do. So many amazingly talented people. Don't miss working there, though.

Irania Colon
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I agree, I miss the people not the job :)

Allen Brooks
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If this is what happens when you give your team names like Trauma and Kaos, then I'm calling my game company Everything's Fine Studios.

Xavier Sythe
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Doublefine?

Aaron Karp
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It's disappointing to read this. Homefront had great potential, and it sounds like the team's heart was in the right place, but everything else was an absolute mess. The game has flashes of excellence that hint at what could have been in a perfect world. I hope those involved find happier climates as they move forward with their careers.

Stephanie Vivian
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I love Homefront, I still play it, almost daily for lunch breaks or with team mates, I have built a core group of people around it via social feeds, this game was sadly such an oversight in the industry, I also feel it was released at a very bad time, as well I dont feel they marketed it that well.
If anyone wants to play, Im on! and still hold hopes for Homefront 2, will it be as good as Homefront, one can only hope. cheers to Kaos

Vincent Hyne
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I'm reading this, all that effort and talent, for what?

A first person shooter with a Red Dawn concept.

Wow.

Even if everything had gone according to plan, I'm not all that certain that the game would warrant success in the first place.

I'll save my tears for projects like Trico and teams like Team ICO.

When those concepts and technological achievements get bogged down (precedent set by ICO and SotC), that's a damn, DAMN shame.

That a Hollywood wannabe blockbuster that attempted to copy another more popular game hasn't panned out, be still my heart, I can't say I give much of a damn.

When the entire team learned that what they were doing was working on a Red Dawn FPS, they should've all quit the company and applied for jobs somewhere else.

Keith Burgun
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Yeah, this mostly echoes my feelings about the studio. Like, for the costs of keeping KAOS running for one month making their generic FPS, you could fully fund 3 or 4 really innovative and interesting indie games.

Another example of too many resources being in the hands of people without ideas.

Brandon Sheffield
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you say that like it's so easy to just quit your job and get another one! especially after you've already invested time and effort!

Jorge Hernandez
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Or more realistically... they will try to act like professionals and do their best on what they are being paid to work on.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Adam Moore
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I only work on things I want to work on, and I am proud of the work I do. I don't work on projects that I feel like are a waste of my time or skills. Life is too short to work on projects you aren't proud to be a part of.

Allen Brooks
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@Adam

"I only work on things I *am fortunate enough to be employed to work on,* and I am proud of the work I do. I don't work on projects that I feel like are a waste of my time or skills *because my unique combination of skills and luck have afforded me this luxury*. Life is too short to work on projects you aren't proud to be a part of *as long as life events don't occur that force you to work on projects that you don't like in order to survive or provide for your family.*

Fixed that for you <3

Adam Moore
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@Allen Touche.

Vincent Hyne
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The last sentence of my post was hyperbole, meant to emphasize the fact that there are no tears to be had in spilling milk over a project with an abysmal goal set from the start.

Everyone who worked on that project thankfully got paid, and it's good that they were paid because there sure as hell isn't any other redeeming quality about working on a project that's sole goal are sales pursuits manifested by poorly copying what the industry competition is doing.

Whether or not people should or can hold down jobs was never a point of debate.

The quality and merits of the work done by the people who made Homefront are.

David Serrano
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"I'm reading this, all that effort and talent, for what? A first person shooter with a Red Dawn concept."

I agree on this point. It was a textbook example of throwing good money and talent at bad, ill-advised or outdated ideas.

Christopher Scott
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What exactly is the general managers role that made them so accountable to the disaster?

What happened to the producers?

What lessons should people running their own studio take from kaos mistakes?

Brandon Sheffield
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the bit about the north korean push is very interesting to me, because when I visited the THQ headquarters in montreal, they had flown out a bunch of Homefront folks. I had a long argument with one of the game's directors about how implausible it was, which I never wound up publishing, because ultimately it just looked like me attacking the game's premise (which I was, I suppose) without much good pushback.

I now realize he wasn't upset with my dissent - he was most likely upset because he agreed with me and couldn't say so.

Damir Slogar
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How implausible comparing to what? Surviving multiple bullet wounds? Or maybe being able to continue the game after you die? It's a game. Not everything has to make sense. Just like in the real life.

Brandon Sheffield
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Damir, if you don't buy into the premise of what you're making, it is a significant problem. I don't think that's difficult to see. there are implausible motivations and then there are implausible actions that support gameplay constructs. north korea had nothing to do with serving the gameplay.

Duong Nguyen
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Homefront actually missed an opportunity. There is no question that there is an underlying fear in America about China rise, warranted or not it's there in the American subconsciousness. Games like movies which find their moment at the right time and place can create cultural monuments to give voice those subconscious thoughts. That's what Red Dawn did, right during the height of the Cold War. Homefront could have done the same but for some reason maybe fear of controversy or greed for a few extra Chinese dollars? They switched out the antagonist and now it will be forgotten no much longer, I guess it can atleast be a lesson to all about creative compromises.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Epona Schweer
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From the conversations I had with folks working production and design on Homefront at the time I reckon that's a highly plausible reason for being upset.

I read a lot of emails at the time along the lines of "Damnit...this is hurting the game and we can't say anything!".

It's unbelievably frustrating to care so much about the concept, watch upper management tear it to bits in response to fleeting market trends and know that if you say anything you might lose your job for it.

Colin Schmied
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Yeah the decision to use North Korea was just terrible. I imagine for some it completely knocked out any legs the game may have had. When I heard about it I immediately dismissed the game outright as I figured anyone who would come up with a concept so silly (that wasn't played for laughs) wasn't going to make very good decisions regarding anything else.

I was actually surprised to read a number of positive things about the game when it came out. I had assumed it would be garbage. It sounds like they had talent, the studio just did not have much leadership and vision.

Dominik Dalek
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I think that the real problem with Homefront's premise was that Americans have difficulty accepting that anything could happen on their homeland. Zbig Brzezinski once said something along the lines of "Americans fight wars abroad, we're not accustomed to having enemies on our land". That's pretty much spot on and I'm not surprised people didn't buy it. But it's no less probable than what Modern Warfare sells. It's all a matter of setting, not premise.

Colin Schmied
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@ Dominik. I think you may be over-thinking it a bit. Just looking at the various movies, TVs, and games out there Americans have no issues with being invaded in fiction. Invasion allows people to engage in justified violence (they were attacked) and revel in the underdog role (which makes victory all the more satisfying). America has the largest and most advanced military on Earth and most of it's people are well aware of that. So plausibly the only military that can threaten them is a like force on Earth or somebody from another world. It's one of the reasons alien invasions (the outer space type) are so prevalent as a theme in american media.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union there aren't many potentially threatening earth based antagonists that can fill that role easily. You have to do some narrative gymnastics to create a plausible scenario that, while maybe not very likely, does enough to suspend people's disbelief while playing the game. North Korea as the invader is just too far outside of reality to be taken seriously in a game that is trying to be a gritty down to earth take on an occupied US. Anyone just looking at map and seeing the size of North Korea and the US would find the concept preposterous. Honestly I would buy Canada taking over the US before I would North Korea.

Abraham Tatester
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For what it's worth, the DPRK has one of the largest standing armies on the planet. How well-fed are well-equipped they are (and how the heck they would get over here) is another matter entirely!

Edit: Had to confirm, and yes, the size of their army is only behind China, India, and the U.S. It's even slightly bigger than Russia's.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kevin Reilly
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@ Brandon - Suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far, right?

@ Dominik - ever hear of Pearl Harbor? Red Dawn had a plausible world set in Cold War 80s because Russia at that time had capacity to launch nuclear strikes and invasions (along with their Cuban allies, ha!). The DPRK can't even manage to fire off an ICBM, so the probability of them conquering America with current capacity is extremely low. China is a more realistic threat in terms of sheer numbers, air power and deep water naval capacity to pull off the logistics.

Chris Jurney
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Printing anonymous slags from employees against specific individuals by name is a pretty trashy move, Gamasutra.

John McMahon
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Yeah, cause those people don't need to be afraid their current employers will fire them or treat them as not trustworthy.

Chris Jurney
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Maybe they deserve that and maybe they don't. You can't know based on anonymous trash talk. Printing those comments puts Gamasutra in the same wheelhouse as TMZ.

James Margaris
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Hard to believe a studio where the employees all gleefully trash each other would fail!

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"Inside the Kaos collapse is a story of a studio that ramped up too quickly under too much pressure, strove beyond its means, and struggled with uncertainty about its future, as well as creative and interpersonal conflicts."

So, like most studios in the industry. Got it.

John Bacon
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The North Korean concept wasn't any more ridiculous than any other game concept. If anything, I can't believe the allegations that the team failed because they weren't making another game about Russia or China invading.

Ian Fisch
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I think we've all worked for studios like this.

2.5 million sales seems like a lot for such an average game. I wonder what sales number could have actually saved the studio.

mark cocjin
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Making games to compete against other companies and making games to make great games produce different results.

Salesmen and Marketers should never be given any control over the design and development of games. Ever.

James Anderson
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Its the same in other industries as well, such as putting a great salesman in charge of other sales people based strictly on their ability to sell a product. Too often I've seen a failing manager turn tyrannical because they lack the people skills and leadership skills to maintain morale and motivate their people. Just like Jafar said, "You know the golden rule, 'whoever has the gold, makes the rules.'"

I've only worked for small indie studios so far and only recently got a taste (by short-term contract) of where the big money lies for what I do. *hint: it isn't in the video game industry, sadly. I WANT to make games, but the big ones that can afford to pay me enough to pay off my massive student loan debt appear to me to be places I absolutely do not want to work under any circumstances. Micromanaging, while appearing productive, takes its toll in morale, and morale greatly affects creativity. This is all from my experience and opinion, so take it with a grain of salt.

I hope better things for all of the people that were part of this sad situation.


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