Blackpowder Games

Betrayer devs talk self-funding, the limits of Kickstarter, and the importance of punishment

Betrayer devs talk self-funding, the limits of Kickstarter, and the importance of punishment

Craig Hubbard was the lead designer on the original F.E.A.R. as well as No One Live Forever, and he’s now the creative director for Blackpowder Games, the studio that’s making Betrayer, an open world action game that’s banking on its unique setting, the New World in 1604,  and unique aesthetics, as much of the game is simply black and white. This approach seems to be working.

The six-person studio was able to fund the game themselves; Betrayer has been in development for 11 months with no hint of its subject matter, or even existence, in that entire time. Coming up with their own budget allowed the team to do things a little differently than most games, and I spoke with Hubbard to discuss some of the upsides to the approach.

Out of their own pocket

So why did they wait almost a year before discussing the game? The answer is simple: They didn't need to, and they wanted the room to grow and change.

“A lot of studios announce early because they’re looking for funding to get themselves started. Because we weren’t in that situation we decided to wait until we had something to show,” Hubbard explained.

There was also the fact that they knew many things about the game were going to change. Betrayer is a new IP, on technology the team was unfamiliar with, and there are only six core members of the team developing the game.

“If you’re climbing aboard a ship you’ve never captained to head out onto seas you’ve never sailed that teem with perils you’ve never faced, you don’t want to start planning your itinerary in too much detail before you’ve even weighed anchor,” Hubbard explained. “We needed to get an idea of what we could achieve before we got too specific about what the game was going to be. There’s no point talking about a product that’s still in flux.”

This was one of the reasons they rejected the idea of launching a Kickstarter for the game.

“I love Kickstarter and some of the games that have been made possible because of it, but it was a relief not to have to go that route with this project. Partly it’s the time commitment, because I think you really owe it to your backers to keep them informed and involved,” he said.

“The other part of it is what I referred to above about needing the freedom to react to the game you’re actually making and not be tied to the game you thought you’d be making,” Hubbard continued. “It’s not that Kickstarter precludes that kind of approach, but it does mean you’re going to be spending a lot more time explaining your decisions and reversals of decisions instead of just making them and seeing where they lead.”

Crime, but more importantly, punishment

The more they researched the time period, the more the underlying theme was shifted to the ideas of transgression, and the punishments meted out for those transgressions.

“I didn’t have any romantic notions about the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was even uglier than I expected. These days people debate the morality of incarceration and capital punishment. In those days they debated whether to castrate you before or after disemboweling you. All while you’re still conscious, of course,” Hubbard said.

“I could give you a list of topics pretty much guaranteed to make you more appreciative of living in 2013, ranging from the Malleus Maleficarum and its horrific consequences to the practice of cruentation to debtor’s prison to the Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall of Jamestown. And if that doesn’t do it for you, read up on 17th century European medical theory. Yeesh.”

It was an ugly, brutal time to be alive, but that reality makes for a large, mostly unexplored canvas for this sort of game.

Fighting, and the avoidance thereof

The game focuses on exploration, and in fact you can find yourself in combat at any moment. Looking for clues, collecting loot, and earning better weapons will take up much of your time, and you’ll also bump into ghost-like entities that also seem to think you’re a ghost. You can avoid some combat, but then you’ll miss out on the dropped loot. It sounds like the action will be a balancing act between staying alive, and becoming more powerful.

“The weapons were the main reason I was initially drawn to the era. I've always wanted to play something that feels like the action scenes in Last of the Mohicans where you’re facing off against multiple enemies and have to make full use of your arsenal,” Hubbard explained. “You can have three weapons equipped at any time, plus melee and tomahawks, so maybe you want to be able to fire a musket, quickly switch to and fire another, pause to throw an axe, then mop up the stragglers with arrows. Or maybe you prefer stealthier play and go with a short bow for speed, a longbow or crossbow for power, and a pistol as a last resort.”

The first two environments, including a wide-open area that’s fit for exploration, are available now through Steam’s Early Access program, and I was told that the feedback given by players in those two sections will help guide development. It’s an interesting game, and the ability to pay for the project out of their own pockets has given the team a large amount of freedom. This may not be a viable strategy for many people, as most of us aren’t sitting on enough money to fund even a small team for a year without discussing the game, but the results in this case are interesting.

We’ll see if Blackpowder’s personal investment, both in terms of time and money, pay off in the long run. This is the game they wanted to make, and it was made by the team they put together. There’s no one else to blame if things go bad but, then again, no one else to take credit, or a cut of the profits, if everything goes well.