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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 Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

Another former Kaos employee says that longtime leadership failed to adapt processes for a larger staff and a higher-end product. The highly-qualified recruits came with high salaries and relocation fees, but management wasn't prepared to make the most of that acquisition expense. "They didn't listen to the very talented team they hired," laments the ex-staffer. "You had this level of leads with tons and tons of experience, and you had the directors with much less."

The result of this misallocation of intellectual resources was that lesser wisdom often thrived. Staffers say that the main development of Homefront was actually finished within one year -- with the first two years of its three-year development virtually wasted on ideas that didn't pan out, including nine months spent on a single-player prototype that got scrapped.

Thanks to some mismanagement and emotional tension among the staff after the release of Frontlines, there was high turnover between projects, with the studio's programming talent being hit especially hard. But the biggest loss, according to nearly all the former Kaos employees to whom we spoke, was that among that wave of between-project departures was co-founder Frank DeLise, who is said to have left for personal reasons.

DeLise is described by his former colleagues as the studio's passionate head and heart, and a resolute problem-solver who built the studio from scratch and liked to get as much as possible done with his own two hands. That made the gap left by his departure all the wider, as many claim there was no plan for anyone to adequately take the reins from him.

From there, morale began to suffer, as management structure felt uncertain and weak amid a revolving door of GMs and similar leadership. Many staffers reported an uncomfortable environment where art and design often felt oppositional and adversarial, thanks to a widely-disliked art director who had to be fired in the middle of Homefront. The first general manager hired to replace DeLise also didn't work out. By 2010, one ex-employee estimates that up until the game's Alpha period, Kaos lost about a person per week for about the first 30 weeks of the year.

The source describes a team picture hung in a concept artist's office that quickly became a sea of crossed-out faces as the artist kept track of who had quit.

Then there were the infamous "Davids" -- David Broadhurst and David Schulman -- brought in to fill some of the leadership role. The pair received universally negative reviews by their once-employees: "Under them, it was a tyrannical dictatorship that no person should ever be subjected to," says one. "[Schulman] walked all over people to get to the top, and it wasn't a shock that the studio revolted against him once he got there."

By the time a third David -- Dave Votypka -- was handed the GM role late in Homefront, it was too late for a turnaround; employees describe him as a nice guy who may have been out of his depth: "He seemed overwhelmed almost from the get-go," we're told. Votypka was reportedly so stressed out that he engaged in arguments about the "selfishness" of those who left a clearly-sinking ship for better offers elsewhere.

Amid these management and cultural challenges, the Kaos team still had an enormous mandate: Make a game that could compete with Call of Duty. One ex-staffer says that at one point in Homefront's development, the team made a decision to duplicate the collapsing-bridge Spec Ops mission from Modern Warfare 2 in its own engine to see how close they could get, and where they could improve.

The project was emblematic of core games EVP Danny Bilson's ambitions, and although he only checked in with the team about once per month according to staffers, he did so with a vengeance, becoming passionately invested in creative decisions. "He got very involved during the middle of our production," a source reports. "This game became the title that would prove THQ was on the rebound in a major way."

Employees mainly liked Bilson personally: "I really can't slam the guy," the source adds. "He gave us a great opportunity and all the resources to accomplish it. We didn't exactly deliver."

And many feel his creative input ultimately made the game better -- with one exception. It was Bilson's idea to make North Korea the occupying force of Homefront, despite how unlikely a significant U.S. invasion by such a small nation would be. Most North Korean confrontations with America have been little more than posturing.

The premise was widely questioned in the press, which caused the team some stress. According to our sources, Kaos had originally envisioned the invaders as Chinese, but THQ feared that such a portrayal would hurt its prospects for business in China, which has in recent years rapidly begun offering more and more opportunities for Western game developers.

Kaos suggested a coalition of Asian nations instead, but Bilson passionately preferred the Korea idea, and so it stood. An ex-staffer describes this as "demoralizing," in that the implausibility of the premise felt "stupid" to the team, and it was also frustrating for employees to see most of the press at that stage questioning the idea rather than looking seriously at the game.


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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 Gamasutras 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 Gamasutras 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 Gamasutras 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 Gamasutras 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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