Hell Let Loose on the (working from) home front

Having bought the IP in January, Team17 has taken charge of Hell Let Loose and is establishing a new virtual studio to service the game and its long-term expansion. Richie Shoemaker pins down CEO Michael Pattison and his recruitment sergeant-major as they assemble for the next advance.

MCV/DEVELOP does not do game reviews, but if it did, Hell Let Loose would have scored highly. Four out of five Dinseys, at least. It is a very good game. Developed by Australia’s Black Matter studio and raising £180,000 through crowdfunding in 2017, the game was signed to Team17 the following year before being eventually released into early access in 2019. After two years in the hands of early adopters and play testers, the game was fully released to PC a year ago, before finding itself available for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S in October. If it feels like it’s been around a lot longer, that’s probably because you’ve been following it as keenly as this writer has.

The game, rather obviously a WWII-themed multiplayer shooter, manages to distinguish itself from the competition thanks to its large-scale battles, attempted realism, and an unapologetic focus on teamwork. Let it be known that if yours truly had more like-minded friends (and fewer children), he might have played it a lot more than he has.

As accomplished a game as it is, however, Hell Let Loose is not Call of Duty, as evidenced by the fact that – according to Steamcharts, Steamspy et al – it rarely breaks more than 10,000 consecutive PC players. As these words fall across the page, there are currently 6,994 people playing the game on Steam, far less that are enjoying the likes of Valheim (18,007) or the number one game CS:GO (614,407) – although curiously a fair few more than are playing the latest Battlefield (6,776).

SPECIAL FORCES

Hell Let Loose is not a top-tier shooter then, but given that a community of six million surround it and those player numbers aren’t showing any decline, it’s perhaps no surprise that Team17 announced in January that it had decided to purchase the IP for £46 million. However, while the numbers were healthy and stable and the game clearly liked, what sold Team17 on adding Hell Let Loose to it’s IP cabinet (alongside Worms and Golf With Your Friends), was the ambition that Black Matter’s CEO, Max Rea, had maintained for the game, not just during five years of development, but more recently when pondering its long-term future.

“He talked to us about his vision for Hell Let Loose, but also talked very eloquently about what was going on in the FPS genre,” recalls Team17 CEO Michael Pattison about his Black Matter counterpart. “What we really liked was his ambition, and that he saw an opportunity that perhaps some of these other franchises weren’t supporting and a community out there that was
desperate for something just a little bit different. Not just from a World War Two perspective, but in the way that the game requires teamwork and leadership. I’m an old marketeer, so finding a niche amongst the competition is really important. And it felt like he had identified a really good niche that we could go after.”

Pattison, who joined Team17 just as the console editions of Hell Let Loose were being unleashed, was just as impressed by the effort and skill that had gone into the game. “The undertaking was against all odds,” he says. “I know, having worked with Activision and DICE at EA, the size of the teams that they have. This was a relatively small team punching way, way, above their weight and that really excited us.”

THE HOME FRONT

In taking over the long-term development and administration of Hell Let Loose, the size of the team looking after Hell Let Loose is likely to get somewhat bigger, even with Black Matter moving onto other projects. Pattison is hesitant to put a number on how big the new studio might expand to in terms of numbers, but what we do know for sure is that it won’t be taking up much space within Team17’s current offices since it will be entirely virtual. As the industry continues to overcome Covid, faces a persistent skills crisis, rising operating costs and resurgent (and seemingly insurgent) issues around Brexit, it’s probably just as well.

“The key point for us was we didn’t want to be limited by a location” says Pattison, “or limited by any barriers that a location-dependent studio has. We’ve worked with developers, including Black Matter, who work virtually and tap into talent that is available all around the world. And for us, what’s key is passion, capability and talent. More so than are they based in Wakefield or Manchester or Nottingham or wherever they may be.”

For Pattison, the remote-working lessons of lockdown weren’t just about health or work-life balance, they were lessons for the entire infrastructure of business to heed, from collaborative technologies to having a management structure in place that facilitates a productive working-from-home environment. As such, Team17 appears to challenge the widely held assumption that, when it comes to working together, you can’t beat people being face-to-face. “We do understand the importance of collaboration,” says Pattison, “but we believe collaboration is possible virtually.” He adds, “If people want to come together, then we have the offices to be able to do that. But we’re quite happy to take on board talent from all around the world to make the best experience for the Hell Let Loose community.”

WAR MACHINE

While there is no cap right now on how large the new studio could become (or indeed a name for it – although an announcement is due), there is instead a plan to grow the team according to the demands of the community, suggesting a degree of flexibility and agility that isn’t necessarily afforded a team anchored to a physical space.

“We’ll do that in a measured way,” says Pattison. “But I think what’s fundamental to any virtual studio is the culture and building a culture and a sense of team. It’s been demonstrated many times now that that is possible, if you do it in the right way.”

Pattison believes that experience and talent breeds dedication, a shared vision that everyone in the team can get behind. “Inevitably we will bring people together to build bonds, which are sometimes not always possible in the same way virtually. And so we’ll create opportunities for that. But we want to make this as open and as flexible as possible for everyone that’s joining whilst building a sense of team and a positive culture around it.”

HIRE CALIBRE

Much has been written in recent months about the skills shortage in tech and the creative industries that has been building over many years. It’s got to the point that 10 per cent of UK studio vacancies are forever unfulfilled. Is the creation of a virtual studio, which is able to draw from a far wider pool of talent, simply a means to get around the shortfall?

“I think it’s a challenge for everyone at the moment,” admits Simon Halkyard, Team17’s head of talent acquisition. “By democratising location and being able to hire, essentially across Europe, it’s really going to improve our chances to hire better people than if we were just physically located in one area. So yeah, it will make a big difference having a wider community of talent to go after, for sure.”

But, leaving to one side issues around not hiring locally, would it represent an more immediate solution to the skills shortage issue for UK industry to reorganise itself more rigorously around the idea of remote and virtual working?

“You still have to have a compelling proposition,” insists Halkyard. “There’s still lots of people that will democratise location and hire, like we are, internationally. But I think as much as anything, it’s an opportunity to truly improve the diversity of talent within our business.

“You know, we have amazing people working at Team 17. But like most companies, traditionally, the majority of our hiring has been regionalised and linked to physical offices. To move to a scenario where location is not the primary hiring factor really appeals to us. You’ve still got to have the proposition, you’ve still got to have reasons why people want to believe and why people want to join you. But being able to hire internationally is going to be a game changer, I think.”

VIRTUAL SANITY

Team17 isn’t just committed to one form of virtuality with its Hell Let Loose virtual studio, it’s also fully backing virtual reality for the first time, having recently announced the internally developed Killer Frequency for Meta Quest and Steam. Given that VR has been established for six or seven years, why has it taken Team17 so long to embrace the technology?

“I can’t answer the question as to why it’s taking so long because I haven’t been long enough at the company,” says Pattison, who, coming from PlaySation, brings with him a vast amount of experience working with PSVR and knowledge of its successor. “I know there was a lot of excitement, both in PlayStation VR, but also with what was going on with Oculus. And we’ve seen the huge success with Quest and Quest 2. But a lot of it is just about teams being freed up and having spare capacity to do some R&D and some exploration around VR, and it felt like Killer Frequency was an excellent way to explore that. So yeah, apologies if we’re late to the table, but we got there in the end. We’re very excited about what’s to come with VR.”

THE W WORD

By acquiring the Hell Let Loose IP this January, Team17 duplicated similar moves a year previous to buy up Golf With Your Friends, which had been developed by Blacklight Interactive. Together with the success of the homegrown Escapist games, it continues an apparent trend to not just get away from being entirely synonymous with the Worms franchise (which Team17 arguably has been for most of its existence), but to do so by increasing the number and variety of it’s properties it controls, perhaps so that games journalists don’t roll their eyes every time a new Worms game is announced, or Team17 roll theirs when asked why another in the franchise hasn’t been.

“We’re a portfolio company,” says Pattison emphatically. “We want to be able to deliver games – both internally and by supporting indies – to a wide range of different types of audiences across a wide range of platforms. So by acquiring the Hell Let Loose IP and building a virtual studio, it doesn’t change our ambition around a well balanced portfolio, and supporting lots of different audience types coming from our thirds and also internally.

“I mean, we’re working actively on Golf With Friends – internally developed. We’re working actively on things to do with Worms – that’s not going away. We are in plans about what we’ll do with The Escapists in the future, because that’s something that we know is exciting for everyone. And we will seek to add more.

We just announced Killer Frequency, which is a new IP in VR – that’s come from our internal studios. So there’s a balancing act there. We like the fact that we are actively involved as a developer, as well as a publisher, because when we speak to indie developers, we know what they’re going through. We know because we’ve been on that journey. We continue to be on that journey. We can provide them with any amount of extra development support to realise their vision. And when they come to us with their concepts, or vertical slices, or demos, we can identify where we can help, both from a development perspective and also publishing.”

TOKEN EFFORT

Not to keep harping on about Worms, but the last announcement that Team17 made regarding the franchise was “generative art project” Metaworms, the abortive plan to sell procedurally generated Worms related images as NFTs via the blockchain. It backfired rather grimly: Not only were Team17’s development partners not briefed, which resulted in some hostile criticisms from them, staff were plunged into a social media firestorm they were wholly unprepared or motivated to fight.

Despite Worms NFTs lasting less than 24 hours, it was for many within the company the straw that broke the camel’s back, as reports soon circulated about management being out of touch and hostile, and pay and working conditions being poor. Until the recent new game and IP announcements, Team17 had seemed to be keeping a low profile. Six months on, how does Pattison reflect on that period?

“I look back on anything in a constructive way, because it’s all about what you do going forward. I wanted to make sure that we did a thorough investigation at the time; that it was an eyes-wide-open approach, that we didn’t turn the page on it without having done a thorough audit of what was going on. And I wanted to be very clear about what was still existing when I took over, rather than what had happened [in the past], to learn those lessons and move forward.

“We were already doing an employee engagement survey, to try and understand what was going on. We just got the results back and some of it was extremely positive. I’m talking about high percentage ratings of satisfaction, of pride at working for Team17, so some of it was at odds with what I was hearing from some ex-employees. But I didn’t want to push any of that under the carpet and I already had plans about what we wanted to do at Team17 in terms of building a positive culture around D&I, making sure that people were competitively rewarded for being at Team17 – that we’re creating a good environment to work at.”

As well as inviting an independent review into pay and attitudes, Pattison has put in place an education programme to promote healthier working practices and a hotline for those who feel there is still some way for it to go. “We are and will continue forever to work on that because it’s never a done deal. We’ll continue because it’s fine for me to have values, but those need to be shared by everyone in the company. Everyone needs to feel like they can come to work and be happy and productive.”

TURNING THE TIDE

In spite of January 2022 being a milestone month in Team17’s 32-year history for all the wrong reasons, the acquisition of Hell Let Loose could represent as much of a turning point for some of the right ones, helping to transform the image of Team17 as a creator and publisher of bright and breezy entertainment, into one that’s prepared to mix it up with the FPS big boys, or go to places that others might fear to tread, such as with the recently announced Autopsy Simulator. Not that Team17 hasn’t released darker games, but they have been rather outnumbered by the lighter ones.

“We feel like the acquisition of this IP puts a new marker out for Team17 in terms of our ambition,” says Pattison proudly. “It’s fair to say that Worms is and has been the brand of note. I think, when we partnered with Ghost Town games and brought Overcooked, it painted a picture of family co-op and we’ve had many titles in that genre and we’re really proud of that and we will continue to invest and support, not only in Overcooked, but other games similar to that – like Moving Out. But we didn’t want to be pigeonholed, to be the family company or the small indie publishing company.” It’s a note that all CEO’s in game publishing strike, but for Pattison Team17 should be about the quality of the game, not what type of game it happens to be.

“We just look at content,” he says. “I was the same when I was at PlayStation. I looked at content as content. I think we’ll keep people guessing on an ongoing basis about what are the specialisms of Teams17, because there aren’t any, you know, we want to specialise across as many genres and cater to as many different consumer types as we can, because we think that’s the that’s the best approach for us. We want to keep people guessing because we’re very open to just great games. That’s the bottom line really, irrespective who they’re for and what they are.”

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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