It was once difficult to think of Respawn without recalling the drastic and desperate circumstances that led to the studio's formation. After all they are, somewhat perversely, the reasons why it exists.
The "insubordination", the dismissals, the lawsuit, the other lawsuit, the mass exodus, the EA and Activision thing, and of course the excruciatingly protracted legal process which aimed to straighten these matters out.
But then Titanfall landed, exclusively for Microsoft, and stands today as perhaps the best triple-A game of the new console generation so far. Certainly it's the game Microsoft is relying on to sell its Xbox One, and the one Sony doesn't have an answer to yet.
It's a remarkable feat to build a game of such significance, and borderline absurd for a studio to create it under those tumultuous conditions.
Now, having cultivated a blockbuster IP (which, crucially, it owns), Respawn no longer has time to dwell on the past. Its future seems far more interesting anyway. The next steps the company takes will be crucial.
To get a better sense of how that will play out, CVG spoke to co-founder Vince Zampella and Titanfall director Steve Fukuda at E3, and later the studio's new(ish) COO, Dusty Welch.
Interview: Vince Zampella and Steve Fukuda
Words: Andy Robinson
What can you tell us about you post-release plans for Titanfall?
Zampella: We have three DLC packs coming, one of which has been released already. The next one should come in three months, and then the last one three months after that, approximately. We have free updates that we're doing also, like the next one which adds two new game modes, voice packs and Titan emblems.
Have you left any room in your plans to react to the community and what they're asking for?
Fukuda: Absolutely. A big part of it is... we want to make the game that we want to play. Everyone at the company plays the game, so it's not like, 'oh, we're making a game for somebody else'. So in a sense it's driven a little bit by that, as well as feedback from fans.
Zampella: Some of it is the reality of what effort is required to create certain content, whether it's fun or not etc. There were a lot of things we tried that sounded great, but in practice didn't come together properly.
Fukuda: We're a small team, so we're always balancing how much manpower we have with the intensity of development. A lot of us come from a single-player background, so there was a lot of learning involved in adapting to the whole 'live-ops' arena - we are developing as we go.
Zampella: Normally you ship a game and go on vacation, but we've just shipped a game and now we're still working on it, updating it and adding new maps.
Having read Geoff Keighley's Final Hours feature and how many challenges you had to overcome during development, it must be extra satisfying to have finally released and currently have the best selling game on Xbox One?
Fukuda: Yeah. In some ways it's even hard to remember that. Even reading through it, some members of the team were getting emotional, because it feels like we're in such a good place now that it's weird to look back and remember that we were once in a really dark place where we didn't know where things were going. It feels like a different lifetime, I guess.
Zampella: We made a lot of choices during development that were very rapid and very under fire. It's like coming back after the war and looking at the decision you made to call in an airstrike - the operation gets second guessed after the fact because you can now look back with hindsight. You have to reconcile some of those decisions before you can see the consequences of the present, in terms of development, technology and that kind of thing.
"Doing straight up single-player feels a bit to me like going back to what you know"
EA seems to have been very supportive during the whole process?
Zampella: Yeah. We've had some bumps along the way, obviously, but I think we've arrived at a good place now.
Fukuda: They've really trusted us. I never felt that they were imposing themselves at all - we just had total creative freedom to do whatever we wanted.
And in the recent financial call EA announced that you will be working with them on future projects. What can you tell us about that?
Zampella: Nothing. We're not ready to announce anything. Honestly, we don't even know. We've been so buried in fixing and supporting Titanfall that we haven't even moved on to, 'what will our next game be?'
So the whole studio is still working on Titanfall?
Fukuda: That'll be next week. Once we get this whole E3 thing out of the way, then we'll get our asses in gear!
Do you have any plans to expand the lore of the franchise? You've obviously taken the time and effort to build this brand new IP. Do you have any plans to flesh that out?
Zampella: Yes. But where that shows its head, I don't think we're ready to talk about yet. But yeah, definitely. We have the active piece and now we'd like to have more on the stories and characters.
Fukuda: A big part of that is the way that it serves the development team. This is a new IP and so everything about it is constantly new - we're literally on the frontier of the game, on the edge surrounded by this fog (laughs). In a way, to keep the artists and animators motivated, and to understand where things are going and have everybody on the same path, that lore becomes extra valuable in that regard, instead of just making something for the sake of it.
How do you reflect on the choices you made on how to incorporate story and characters into online matches?
Zampella: I really think it worked well. I think the only criticism that I've heard is that sometimes people are so in to the game - because it's competitive multiplayer -that they get the blinders on and block it out a little bit. As you're playing there are these story moments happening around you and some people take it in, but others miss it because they're focussed on the fight.
Fukuda: The density of action is really key. This game has a ridiculous amount of action going on and that action is painted in a very cinematic sort of way, where you have people riding on Titans and falling from all different directions... it feels very much like a single-player game in terms of those elements. Like Vince was saying, we ran in to issues with people taking in the story while being overwhelmed by all this cinematic action, with these intros and ships flying in... intelligent building was the issue.
Zampella: That's true. Sometimes it's a problem for single-player games too, but in those you can put up a wall, block the action and then force people to pay attention to the story. In a multiplayer game you don't want to block things off.
Respawn clearly has a lot of key staff who are talented at making single-player content. Is a solo campaign in your future?
Zampella: A single-player campaign? I don't know. I think we want to hit whatever part of the brain it is that triggers that feeling of a single-player campaign.
Fukuda: To me it would almost be a step backwards. Doing straight up single-player just feels a little bit to me like going back to what you know, going back...
Zampella: There's nothing wrong with a single-player experience. They should exist and they do exist and I would work on one. But doing one with this feels almost like taking a step backwards.
"We've been so buried in Titanfall that we haven't even moved on to, 'what will our next game be?'"
At one point you did experiment with creating a campaign for Titanfall though. Did the process of development change your philosophy?
Fukuda: Oh yeah. I think there was a big brain shift amongst the team. At first there was a lot of resistance to going multiplayer only, but once they saw the game they were like, 'wow'.
Respawn used the familiar but dated Source engine for Titanfall. Do you intend to invest in technology for the future?
Zampella: We have to make technology that supports the games we want to make, if that makes sense. It's not just, 'let's make technology because we want to be an engine company'. We're going to invest in technology to support the vision for whatever game we do next. But we haven't announced anything!
Source seemed to be something that was considered for convenience, where as for the next game you might have a bit more time to consider your options...
Zampella: Possibly, but I don't think we have anything set in stone right now.
It's becoming increasingly rare for independent studios to work on big, triple-A titles like Titanfall. Would you be open to fostering smaller games as well? Is that necessary to avoid the burnout associated with blockbuster games?
Fukuda: Internally there are a lot of creative people and yes, those sort of thoughts do get expressed: 'I want to try something smaller' or have a way of expressing themselves. Sometimes we can tie that back in to the main project - put them in charge of making a new mode or functionality. People are getting older as well, so you do want to avoid burnout and not just pile people through work. We have a very experienced team, which is rare.
Zampella: It would be nice to reach the point where we can have someone work on an idea they have. Not necessarily something smaller, but something that they love.
What does the Respawn team look like now that you've shipped Titanfall? Are you looking to grow?
Zampella: I would say it's too early to answer until we figure out what the next game is. It's hard to say. I don't know if the idea is massive and we'll need to grow, or if it's smaller and we can stay the same.
Fukuda: I would definitely say that fast growth isn't a good plan. Hiring people very carefully is a core value and we'll always try and hire the best possible people for each position.
Zampella: That said, if we get good people knocking at the door...
Interview: COO, Dusty Welch
Interview: Rob Crossley
You have joined Respawn at a very interesting time for the company. It's a young studio that managed to build a very popular debut title. One of the main questions you must be constantly asking yourself is how big should the company be now you have a bit more security.
Yeah you're right, though we don't start with a fixed number of how many people we want.
We look at what our objectives are first, and where the growth in the industry is coming from. We look at what we want to make and what we're good at making. When you combine all those factors together, you have a strategic 5- to 10-year plan.
But being successful as a start-up company probably introduces its own challenges and questions, right? You've built a successful new IP; should you build something new again or support what you've already created? Do you have the manpower to do both?
Well you're the first person who has said it in a while. We are a start-up company, no bones about it. Respawn started in a warehouse with note pads and in the past four years has gone onto continue the team's unparalleled trend of creating hit IPs. That's Medal of Honor, then Call of Duty, then Titanfall. To have done the third under the conditions it was in is an extraordinary feat.
The success for Titanfall really has given us a platform to stand on, and gave people assurances that we've still got the goods, that we're still a major developer. That gives us more of an open field about where to progress.
"The success for Titanfall really has given us a platform to stand on... it gives us more of an open field about where to progress"
Some would say it's a small miracle that Respawn created a new IP, that happened to be triple-A, that turned out to be a success. Is this an exception to the rule, or a sign that the triple-A space is perhaps more fertile than some fear?
To be honest, I think it's really hard out there. I spent thirteen years at Activision in various publishing roles, and for every Call of Duty there are four or five other franchises that end up being cancelled.
So I think it's incredibly difficult to not only establish a successful new IP, but also to repeat that success. I think it very often comes down to the strength of the team, and the executive team's ability to guide the studio through troubled waters and make it through the other side. Also, a studio's relationship with its publisher is absolutely critical.
If you have all those things, then you have a pretty good opportunity for success, but it's never guaranteed.
It's also worth noting that the events which led to the creation of Respawn was, in part, led by the ex-Infinity Ward team's desire to create new IP that it had control over. The interesting thing is, now that Titanfall is a success, you probably need to stick with it and not go out and create something new.
Well, if you build a successful franchise, it's important to work on your craft and expand that franchise out. Our primary goal at Respawn is to delight the consumer, and the quality of our work is most important.
So if you create a franchise like Titanfall, it's important to expand in that universe. That being said, I think it's always important to have your eye on the market and know what you long-term vision is, and see if you're able to test the waters in other ways like with mobile or free-to-play.
Look at what model Pixar has adopted. They try new IP over a two-to-three year period, while at the same time supporting their key franchises. Their major successes allow them to take the risk with other projects.
"Look at what model Pixar has adopted. They try new IP while supporting their key franchises. Their successes allow them to take the risk with other projects."
That makes perfect sense to me, and if I was a betting man, I would guess Respawn has a team supporting Titanfall, has another team working on the sequel, and a third team trying out something new.
Well it's an interesting concept that you propose and, yeah, very interesting.
Is there a desire to diversify in this way?
Our focus right now is Titanfall 1, and there's so much more that we want to add to this game. It's the games-as-a-service model that we're currently working under, where we continue to support these games with frequent updates.
We're releasing a whole new free update that has a new game mode, new content, new features, and we're persistently dropping new content. I think that's rewarding for the customer, but also rewarding for us because it gives us a chance to try more things.
So that's our focus right now, though of course we've just hired Stig [Asmussen, God of War creative director] and I love the passion he is bringing to the company right now. Of course, he has more of an action-adventure background, and I can tell you that part of his role here is thinking about how the studio can expand and where the growth sectors are in free-to-play and mobile. Looking at those possibilities is part of what we do, but right now, we're focused on Titanfall.
There was a little speculation when Respawn hired more than half a dozen God of War developers, along with Asmussen, and it would be good to know why you have.
I can say we weren't just thinking "let's hire that team", we hire individuals based on their talents and strengths. It just so happens that a lot of them came from the same location.
How long do you intend to support Titanfall for?
At some point of course we have to turn towards the future, but I don't know when that will be. Of course, we have more DLC map packs to provide, and the strategy is to continue to support Titanfall throughout the year.
To what extent does PlayStation 4 factor into your future plans?
Well, we love the platform and we love playing on it. As we go forward, we will of course consider all of the platforms that make sense for our games. So there's nothing in the short term, but certainly PS4 is something we're looking at in the future.
As an aside, isn't it just fantastic that the core consoles are selling so well? It must be an assurance to studios like Respawn to know there is still such a healthy demand for console games.
Oh absolutely. If you go through enough console cycles, you'll see new technologies and concepts that add a level of uncertainty about the viability of consoles. But look at what's happened - there is an unprecedented install rate for next-generation consoles. That's extraordinary.
I love that Microsoft has adjusted its price value mix for the Xbox One, I think it will really help the system grow. Sony is off to an amazing start too with the PS4, and part of the reason is that the system has become so developer friendly when compared to the last generation.
So overall I love what's happening, and it will continue to encourage us to make major triple-A titles because we know the audience is there.
"I love that Microsoft has adjusted its price value mix for the Xbox One"
Finally, does Respawn still have a desire to remain independent, or are you keeping open-minded about this?
Well, I think you have to always keep an open mind. Never say never. But if you think about the history of Respawn, it's about a long-fought battle to have control over the IP.
We're fortunate that we have an amazing partnership with EA, and I hope it's a long-term partnership. Everything they have brought, from the know-how to the resources, has been instrumental in ensuring Titanfall has been a success.
I find it really encouraging that EA, under its new chief executive Andrew Wilson, is talking about putting the player first. It's great to talk about it, but we're seeing that at EA now.
I remember when Activision did the same thing years back, and how that consumer-first approach transformed that business, and it's almost eerie because I swear I'm seeing the exact same thing today at EA.