Sledgehammer veteran Glen Schofield talks with GameDaily about the challenge of creating a single-player game in the PUBG universe while building up a studio in the middle of a pandemic.
PUBG took the world by storm when it first hit the market in late 2017. The game helped popularize the battle royale genre on a global scale and directly influenced a number of studios to take a hard look at this style of gameplay, most notably a little game called Fortnite. In the years since, we’ve seen Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone and others embrace the genre, and PUBG Corp. has raked in hundreds of millions in profits while successfully bringing the phenomenon to mobile as well. In fact, the mobile version has been a major contributor to Tencent’s bottom line.
Now, similar to League of Legends developer Riot games, which branched out into narrative-based games with Riot Forge, PUBG Corp. is seeking to expand its own horizons with new narrative-driven experiences led by Sledgehammer Games co-founder Glen Schofield. As the head of Striking Distance in San Ramon, CA, Schofield is being entrusted with a project that carries a fair amount of risk, but at the same time, he’s got the full backing of PUBG Corp, while also retaining a sense of autonomy.
The industry has been obsessed with online multiplayer games for years, but single-player can do quite well, as evidenced by God of War, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and others. Moreover, this has been Schofield’s bread-and-butter for much of his career, including Dead Space at EA’s Visceral Games and the Call of Duty titles at Sledgehammer.
“Before founding Striking Distance Studios, we met with a number of potential partners to make sure we got it right. We chose PUBG, which has been fantastic for us, as they gave us narrative freedom to create the game we want to make, from start to finish,” he told GameDaily.
“In terms of approaching this challenge, I met with PUBG before starting on this project and presented them a couple of ideas. Now, it’s all about talking to the teams at PUBG Corp and making sure that the world we’re building fits into theirs, like making sure the lore checks out and the universe framework is maintained. Very foundational stuff. Luckily, we have the privilege of being one of the first to create an original narrative in this universe, so that’s given us a lot more freedom right from the start.”
Schofield insisted that there were no strict guidelines for Striking Distance to adhere to. “They believe in making a great game, like we do, so that’s where we’re coming at this from,” he added.
In part because of his experience, Schofield said he had no trepidation in pursuing a single-player game. The good news is he doesn’t have to convince or pitch to any publishers as PUBG Corp. has already bought into his vision.
“We’re focusing on what best serves our game, so right now the focus is on creating a more traditional single-player experience. I’m in a fortunate position to have PUBG backing me on a project such as this because, as you said, there seems to be some hesitation in creating and investing into these kinds of experiences in the industry. But that’s my background. You look at the Dead Space and Call of Duty stories I’ve created, and you can see that each of those have narrative elements that people came to love and respect. The time and effort that went into creating them is what paid off,” he noted.
“The focus on making quality games, in my experience, allows everything else to fall into place: the fans, the critical praise, the sales, and all of that. So, if you’re making these kinds of games, you have to make sure you’re delivering quality experiences. We’ve seen that with some heavy hitters in the last few years: God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Control, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, etc.”
This might feel old hat to a veteran like Schofield, but he and his growing team are facing a challenge that no one in this industry anticipated: a global pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak has forced the vast majority of game developers to work remotely, which is ironic given that Striking Distance has a brand-new 25,000 square foot facility it cannot use right now. Despite this, Schofield is moving full steam ahead with hiring and getting production in place on the new game.
“We have about 75 people on staff right now, which is great considering we only just started up the studio about six months ago, and we’re actively hiring to eventually grow to over 125,” he said. “I have no interest in slowing down. We want to get people through our doors (metaphorically speaking) and start working on a great project now, especially with the global situation we’re in. Speaking of which, we’re offering work from home for all Striking Distance employees, including new hires. We’re equipping our people with the right tools and equipment to make this happen even remotely.”
Striking Distance’s new building has a full mocap studio, and while the team can’t use it currently, Schofield said that working from home has actually gone far better than expected for the team, even if that’s not been the case for some in the industry.
“These are unprecedented times right now, so safety has been important for us,” he said. “...We did a couple test days before the current situation got worse to iron out any potential issues, and we were able to adapt to it as necessary. Now, we’re hosting daily meetings over Zoom to talk to our employees about work, things that are going well, and things we can improve on. The only effect this has on us isn’t immediate, and that’s more to do with our mocap studio and audio recordings. Luckily, we finished some mocap just before we closed the office that will hold us over for a few months.
“My advice [to other studios] for dealing with this situation is to focus on the essentials, like the health and safety of your staff and their families. Globally, we’re still uncertain how this will affect us in the short and long term. People are anxious and scared. Take that into consideration when you’re working with people and make sure they’re taken care of. That’s better for you, that’s better for them, and that’s better for your projects.”
The welfare of a studio’s employees is paramount, and not only during a pandemic. Developers have been exploited on big AAA projects for far too long, and the spectre of crunch continues to loom over the industry as we’ve seen with Rockstar Games, Naughty Dog, CD Projekt Red, id Software, and others. For Striking Distance, however, Schofield maintains that his team will never be treated like cogs.
“Whether mental or physical, the wellness of our employees always come first. As you mentioned, my background is in AAA development but I’m not the only one with that kind of experience. We have an entire team of industry veterans who’ve seen the highs and lows of these types of massive productions across games and film. That experience is crucial in mapping out our game plan and ensuring people aren’t straining themselves to finish projects. We have a skilled production team that knows what they’re doing and how long certain processes take. We’re leaning into that,” he explained.
“That’s also where PUBG Corp. comes into play. They’ve been a fantastic partner in allowing us to develop this game at our pace. I’m actually surprised by it. We ask if they’d like to see our milestones, and they tell us ‘No, it’s your game.’ They just understand the creative process. I’m interested in quality and they’re interested in quality -- we both know you can’t rush that. We want to provide our employees with a normal work-life balance while they’re at Striking Distance, and we have the right team and the right partners in making sure they have it.”
Looking after the well-being of staff is at the heart of company culture for Striking Distance, and when you’re building up a new studio, it’s the perfect time to ensure you’re setting the right tone for all involved. Much like Schofield’s Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey, the veteran takes diversity and inclusion quite seriously as well. Whether it’s in the workforce or in the content created, representation is key.
“Striking Distance is devoted to diversity and inclusion, whether it's through our hiring process for securing more team members or in the content we are creating. It’s important for everyone to feel represented, where they can see themselves in the workplace and in content they’re creating. We’re bringing in people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences from all walks of life and here in San Ramon, CA. That not only allows us to establish a workplace where diversity and inclusiveness are important, it also provides us the opportunity to create dynamic worlds enriched by each individual’s experiences in and outside of gaming,” Schofield noted.
In describing the culture at Striking Distance, Schofield added that it’s absolutely a people-first atmosphere.
“Ultimately, the main focus for our company is to make sure that our employees are happy and provided for, and that’s where we start building a great atmosphere and positive company culture,” he emphasized. “Everyone is all-in on the game we’re making, and I appreciate everyone’s commitment to it, but great games are made by people who are not only passionate and happy about what they do, but are also taken care of. That’s what matters most to me: our people.”
Respecting people’s work-life balance and championing representation should carry Striking Distance pretty far, but Schofield’s experience in leading studios for more than two decades should enable him to scale up and build a AAA game faster than ever before. The lessons learned from Crystal Dynamics, EA, and Sledgehammer are all being applied to this new endeavor.
“The biggest lessons are around putting the studio together. I needed to get my C-staff first. Getting some experienced devs to help hire the right people, think about the game we’re going to make and setting up the studio correctly,” he said. “Then we went looking for the right location, getting a designer and an architect, buying all the furniture, equipment, etc., it’s a massive job. Other lessons I’ve learned over the years is how to get a game going quickly. Once you have some of the right people in place, we can set up our processes for moving more quickly these days… We were quite efficient this time in setting up the studio and standing up our game development team.”
Striking Distance’s first game is likely a ways off. Schofield isn’t sharing a release timeframe or any specific details on the project yet, but it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing it appear on Xbox Series X and PS5. For a veteran like Schofield, console transitions are always a big opportunity; it’s like the team gets to open a brand-new toy chest. This time around, however, the transition also includes a number of big companies investing heavily in the cloud, and that’s something that could be hugely relevant to both gamers and game development studios.
“I’m always excited about new hardware and having that additional boost in power wherever I can get it. The next generation offers loads of computing power and capabilities that aren’t available now with the current generation, so we’d like to really pump the most out of the new hardware however we can. New rendering techniques and immersive audio capabilities are a couple that come to mind, as well as loading environments far quicker. Every generation finds ways to remove the shackles, and this one is going to remove a lot of them for us,” he remarked.
“As for cloud gaming, we’re certainly paying attention and talking internally about where we’ll land. We’re continually looking into what best serves our game at the end of the day, which also means providing more access to more players, so cloud gaming is another means of achieving that. Cloud-based development is an interesting one, because we have been thrusted into it in a way with the pandemic. Working remotely means really utilizing our online infrastructure to continue development, like sharing assets and builds from one place to another. It’s been great seeing how that has worked well for us.”
With the coronavirus crisis ravaging the global economy and directly leading to a dramatic rise in unemployment filings in America, it’s encouraging to see that some in the games business are able to continue hiring.
“We just hired three new people last week and we’re currently looking into more this week. That’s been pretty great for us,” Schofield noted, adding that the outbreak has been challenging but has also given Striking Distance and other studios a chance to evaluate what works and what doesn’t for remote game development.
“We’ve seen entire events get postponed or canceled outright, there are reports of launched games experiencing shipping issues, and the industry doesn’t really know what to plan for… [But the situation has] allowed us to figure out how we’re communicating internally with teams across departments and finding the most efficient ways to do so. We have Zoom meetings with the entire company at once, and that’s been one of the ways we’re staying on track with things. I think the entire industry is figuring that out as well right now, seeing what works and what doesn’t even remotely. For us, it’s worked out extremely well,” he said.
Game development, like filmmaking, requires people of various disciplines to come together and coalesce around one vision. At the same time, management must ensure that things stay on track and on budget while respecting the well-being of staff. But there can be no doubt, game development is art. It’s a good thing that Schofield is a fine artist in his own right on top of being a leader with a solid track record. Striking Distance is in good hands.
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