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Unfinished Symphony: The Hunt for Red Orchestra

To The Tune of: The City Of Praque Philharmonic Orchestra – The Hunt For Red October

Written for PC Gamer. This is a slightly longer version that I wrote but wasn’t used. Red Orchestra II is Tripwire’s vision of the perfect World War II sim; I explored with them why it’s taken ten years to make.

It’s 1941 and Nazi Germany has just invaded the USSR, its erstwhile ally. SS counter-intelligence soon detects a range of radio signals from communist and socialist sympathisers, embedded at all levels of European society. Since the SS call transmitters ‘piano’ and supervisors ‘conductors’, they name this nascent resistance network the Rote Kapelle – the Red Orchestra. Despite early successes, it’s soon crushed.

Jump-cut to 60 years later. It’s now 2001 and Indie development is dying. The predatory tactics of the big publishers are forcing more and more independent studios to sell up, small developers struggle to get their games to market, and the new chain stores are squeezing PC in favour of the higher-margin console games. The modding community, on the other hand, has reached its high point with Quake and Half-Life, with hundreds of mods released in the late 90s; however even this growth is decelerating, with indie teams finding it difficult to convert online popularity into full time contracts; most successful mod teams split, as the participants go to work for the bigger studios or onto other mods. It’s a bad time for PC gaming all over.

It’s in this harsh environment that Red Orchestra starts.

The original mod.

Getting The Team Together

In 2001, the people who one day would found Tripwire interactive were a just handful of keen modders, scattered around the world; Alan Wilson was in London, Dave Hensley in New York, Ingmar Spit in Holland, the rest mainly in America. Who actually started the mod isn’t clear, as no-one from the mod’s inception in 2001 seems to remember; the oldest team member, William “Bill” T Munk II, who joined in 2002, is as lost as the rest of them. “Oh, it’s prehistory, man.”

Initially, the plan was for the mod to be a stealth game, hence the Red Orchestra title. Mods in these days tended to coalesce on forums, amorphous blueprints barely agreed on before work started, so RO hopped between engines and designs like a gadfly with an itch. Gradually though, after trying the Medal of Honor and Soldier of Fortune II engines, the team settled on Unreal Tournament and a focus on realism. John Gibson, lead programmer, recalls why they made the mod. “No-on was making the game we wanted; We really loved Operation Flashpoint, but it wasn’t actually realistic, just overly difficult for no particular reason. On the other hand, a lot of the “realistic” shooters played like Quake with WWII weapons. We introduced a whole bunch of revolutionary things, that are common now; 3d ironsights, proper ballistics, realistic player movement, player damage… No-one was doing any of these.”

Of course, this choice allowed them to enter the Make Something Unreal competition, with its much-trumpeted $1,000,000 prize, and just happened to change their lives forever.

At the time there were perhaps 60 people working on the project, a huge talent base for a mod. “We had great animators, researchers, programmers, designers… but then every team has guys who only show up in the IRC channel… there were probably 20 full time producers, 20 who would do something cool occasionally, and 10 or 15 who were worthless” says John, “and 1 or 2 who were worse than worthless.” pipes up Alan, the lead historical researcher and now Vice-President at Tripwire.

Unusually, they didn’t get rid of the dross; the mod manager at the time a ridiculously young teen called Jeremy, was a brilliant recruiter; the large team he put together looked impressive, attracted more participants and kept the development going.“He had a rabid enthusiasm and collected heaps of people around him,” Alan recalls “but he bounced from thing to thing, and didn’t want to commit to this as a career.”

This proportion of dross is perfectly normal on a modding team; even the various leads aren’t reliable. John recalls that “Right before the 1.0 version of the mod we had a lead level designer who completely flaked out, left the mod, and took all of his maps with him.” He was replaced with the then 14-year old Adam Hatch, now the lead level designer at Tripwire, who designed the early memorable maps of the mod.

Jeremy wasn’t the only key player to leave. Jay Mackay took over as lead programmer temporarily, when the team was down to just 1 or 2 programmers, the mapper Rich Black went off to work for Goldman Sachs, and as Bill recalls, “as it got more serious it got more pressured, and a lot of guys were doing it as a hobby. A whole bunch of really good guys, including some whose real names we never found out, like Juno and Bittersite went to do something more light-hearted.”

John is less charitable; “There are at least two or three I would physically harm if I saw them; when we started winning, we were winning computers. One unproductive level designer, claimed it was because his computer was slow; so we sent him a precious new computer of course, he then ran off into the sunset with his shiny new PC.” That said, 85% of the core people still work or contract for Tripwire.

The new office.

Stealing The Blueprints
Oddly, the team sat out the first round of Make Something Unreal, because they didn’t feel like their game was good enough yet. However, having seen the competition in the first round, they realised that they were way ahead of it. “The road to modding superstardom is littered with corpses of CounterStrike clones… All the other mods at the time, working on newer engines, were six months behind us… “ says John “our game, graphically, was the Crysis of its day; it really looked brilliant at the time.”

The 1.0 version of the mod was released in 2003-4 and was well received by the community. Meanwhile, they were winning every phase of the Make Something Unreal contest, and the success quickly went to the team’s heads. “We got cocky”, says John “we saw ourselves as the juggernaut that was going to destroy all comers.” As they got complacent, the other mods started to catch up. “There was this moment where I thought we were going to lose; so I got everyone to make a list of the top ten things that another mod will have that causes us to lose. I then took this top ten things of the hundred I got and said ‘We’re going to be this mod; we’re going to make these ten things and put them in our game. And we did.”

To finish these elements, several of the core team quit their jobs, working 16 hour days for the final six months, while family and friends were telling them they were insane. And of course they won. “It was the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket,” says Bill “indescribable exhiliration, vindication.” Alan was equally excited but he “got hate mail after we won the infamous “million dollars”. It turns out the prize wasn’t anything near a million dollars; most of that had been spent on the competition and prizes, or was tied up in the licenses they’d won. So the team founded their new studio, Tripwire, on just $30,000.

The New Cell
They started it in Atlanta, despite none of the team living there. Three of the team moved on site, with others working remotely; still, they expected the money would last for three months, which would be long enough as there would be “Publishers beating down our doors to throw millions of dollars of cash in.” says Alan “We spent the first two weeks playing video games and going “what do we now?” So naïve. Now we know that even a consensual deal might take 3-6 months to get the contracts through.”

Needless to say, the money ran out, and they’d made no deal with any publisher; “they’d offer crap deals, terrible percentages, and remove anything unique whilst taking the IP.” Then they saw Valve’s new Steam platform, where they were selling their own games. John acquired Doug Lombardi’s (Valve’s marketing and PR director) email address and he responded; he knew about Red Orchestra and wanted to talk, giving them a _very_ good deal. That was the turning point.

First, though, they had to finish the game, turning it from a mod into Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45. With a route to the gamer at last, the team scraped together as much money as they could; Alan mortgaged his house, others maxed out credit cards or borrowed money; “We put together a small but terrifying amount of money together” says Alan. It took another 6 months to finish the game, offering the external contractors a deal where they would pay them a 50% bonus if they took the money after the game shipped; another big gamble. Meanwhile, the art team all lived in one apartment, sleeping on mattresses in the living room. “It was a crazy time, huge amount of fun, even if I had to live off my savings.” says artist David Hensley “I’d been working at Gameloft going mad making 200 pixel characters, and this was such a change.”

Red Orchestra 2

Exfiltration; successful.
In March 2006, five years after work on the mod started, Ostfront was finally released, in the shops and as the third game on Steam, selling over 400,000 copies. “We’ll always be Steam fanboys” says John. What really helped the game succeed though, was the amount of free content the team developed, setting up the model that Valve now use for all their games. “We doubled the content after shipping” says David. Alan explains; “A lot of people think of digital distribution like a walmart shelf, but you’ve got the opportunity to keep upgrading things. The repeated sales the updates generated, gave us the cash to keep going.” This also allowed them to start work on Red Orchestra 2.

They also made a decision to support their modding community, as best they could. Firstly, they released two of their community mods through Steam; Darkest Hour and Mare Nostrum. Then in 2008 they helped Alex Quick port his Killing Floor mod to Red Orchestra, with the team taking three months to polish it for release “convincing artists to draw zombies is like convincing charlie sheen to take coke” as John puts it “Nobody knew that zombies was going to be the new WWII. Right place at the right time with the right game. So successful, that we no longer needed to find publishers to fund our games.” They’ve since helped Toltec release The Ball and are planning a relase of Dwarfs in the near future.

The team are proud of their behaviour as publishers, and rightly so; they make fair deals and work hard with their partners to share both their knowledge and skill. “Kotick, etc. are answerable to shareholders.” says Alan “They have to give them short-term returns; if not, they’re out of a job again. It’s gotta work now and now and now for them. Our stuff has to work over a long period of time. “ Alex Quick seemed willing to offer them Killing Floor for free; instead, they gave him a percentage of the profits, so now he can do it full-time. “Our task now we’re a publisher is to convince people we’re not evil; royalty cheques tend to work. A lot of indies are gun-shy, because of the big publishers’ behaviour. We were the same with Valve, I was super-skeptical.” It seems Valve, through good behaviour, have established a virtuous circle; people who’ve benefitted from their largesse become generous themselves.

Finally, Tripwire can do the project they always wanted to; a full, properly-funded version of Red Orchestra. RO 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is going into beta very soon, and Tripwire, always conscious of their community, have already seeded the dev tools with various modding teams, so they have time to generate the high polygon models necessary for modern games. “We’d like to see the first big mods out a few months after the game, not 2 years later.” says Alan. “ At the current rate, we’ll have Rising Storm (Japanese vs Americans in the Pacific), a Vietnam conflict game, plus there are a bunch of others as diverse as World War I and the Warhammer universe.”

It still might not have anything to do with spies, subterfuge or radios, but Tripwire’s Red Orchestra series has been trailer blazers for both modders and the modern indie Steam developers. Along with Valve, they ferretted out the secrets of self-publishing from under the noses of the big publishers and made the world a better place for everyone who loves PC games. Having already shown that quality and enthusiasm count, we’re intrigued to see where they go next.

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