Ground Branch

Dev Interview - John Sonedecker
Ground Branch

June 2015

John Sonedecker is the Founder and Creative Director of BlackFoot Studios. His 15 year developer career started on the original Rainbow Six, followed by Ghost Recon before leaving Red Storm Entertainment to work with various startups and industry veteran studios.

John has spent time working for the US Special Operations Command at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Ft. Bragg creating cutting edge gaming technology for Special Operations training and mission rehearsal applications.

We've been fortunate enough to interview John 3 times over the years, going way back to 2003, 2005 and 2009.

Now, 6 years further down the line, thanks to Whiteknight, we catch up with the latest developments at Blackfoot Studios culminating in the recent free public release of GroundBranch Technical Preview.

Hello John, how are you doing?

Hey there. Doing great! I’m a little tired from the past couple months getting ready for our Tech Preview release, but feeling great that it’s out there.

Download Ground Branch TechPreview

It has been a month shy of 10 years since I last interviewed you, what has transpired in that time?

Wow that long huh? A lot has transpired really… too much to list here, but the short answer is Ground Branch development started/stopped many times over, I worked for a year and a half at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg (that was fun and interesting), did a lot of contracting work with Tripwire Interactive (great guys!), was alone on Ground Branch development then met up with Kris and everything started clicking with the game again, still do a lot of work with a DoD contractor…. And oh, the free Ground Branch Tech Preview and developer build “buy in” are now available!
Whew…. Guess that wasn’t short. J

So what did you do at Tripwire Interactive and how has that helped with Ground Branch?

I did a lot of object modeling/texturing on Red Orchestra 2 and then was Art Director for Rising Storm. It didn’t really help with Ground Branch directly, but it did provide me with an income when I was contracting full time.  

Red Orchestra 2

What about your work at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, what did you do for them if you can talk about it? Again, how does that play into helping in development for Ground Branch?

I worked in a small tight knit group that focused on high end digital training for USSOCOM and USASOC. We were more or less the gateway for Special Operations digital training and helped shape Command’s initiatives in that area.

Working there was a great opportunity to see things through an unfiltered lens… good and bad. It was interesting to see how the training had evolved and where some wanted it to go. It was an interesting time because there were still a few “chalkboard” guys higher up that didn’t see the value of digital training. Of course, there is no substitution to getting in the mud and shooting real bullets, but sometimes convincing those that mattered that there was lots of value in the digital world was an uphill battle.

I did get some access to see things I otherwise wouldn’t have. We spent some time out at Camp Mackall while they were running a class through the Q-Course and on one occasion got to witness a SPIE training evolution first hand. Being 30 yards from a Blackhawk with 8 guys hooking onto the rope then lifting off was a pretty awesome experience. The Colonel that was hosting us tried to work it so we could do a short hook in and lift off then straight back down, but the pilot wouldn’t sign off on it. Now that would have been something to write about!  

What have been some of the low points in trying to get something to fans?

For me, just not having the resources (time is a resource) to do things in a timely manner and fans/followers understanding what our situation actually is. There are some people out there that still think we are a big company that has worked full time on the game for 8 years. That can’t be further from the truth, but at the end of the day it’s a “what do you do for me” type of business….. It’s entertainment.

It is hard to get that message out there. But the biggest low point has to be the Kickstarter not meeting its goal. We worked very hard to make sure that we showed more than just an idea and some concept art and that the project was clearly explained. We also wanted to make sure we put forth an accurate assessment of the costs involved in doing what we presented, on our own and without further outside funding. We didn’t want to low ball it in the hopes of going over and making enough to get by.

I’ll also be brutally honest and say that I was disappointed in how the old school tactical shooter community didn’t feel the need to support the Kickstarter. It felt like there was a lot of questioning of what wasn’t there instead of embracing what was and what could be. It was almost like people wanted the perfect game for them and wanted to play it now or they weren’t going to support it.  We surely could have communicated some things better, but at the end of the day, I banked on an existing community to step up and lend full support and it did in only a fragmented way.

Now that you have gotten something out to fans, what do you expect?

We have finally reached a point of momentum that we are confident of making a product that we will be proud of. One thing I have always done is make sure that we do not take money for something unless I knew we could reasonably deliver. Where we are now is at a point of doing that.

The Tech Preview has given us valuable feedback and more importantly, validated what we had thought ourselves. The response has been great! We have renewed motivation because we know now that our plan is something people want to follow.

Are you relieved that you finally got something in the hands of fans?

Absolutely! As I said, it validates what we have been doing because the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We can sit here and develop what we think will be good, but until the people that will be playing your game get their hands on it you just never know.

It’s great that people can finally see and enjoy what we have been seeing all along.

What has changed with the direction of Ground Branch?

I’m not sure much has changed, more so than evolved. The biggest thing is we are now using Unreal Engine 4 and it has been an incredibly good move. As far as the game itself, we have been able to refine and fine tune the feature list to make the game a bit more focused and easier for us to manage in the long run.

As far as game design, there is no longer an overarching storyline or campaign. Single Player and Coop will follow a system of smaller “one off” missions based around hotspots and incidents around the world. More like how things happen in real life. This is touched on in the Team Room info bubbles in the Tech Preview.

Ground Branch

Does NORG (Natural Order of Realistic Gameplay) still apply?

It does as a general philosophy, but we are not really pushing it as a term or using it as a word to describe things. Really, it took off more than I thought it would. It is a state of mind during development, not a feature.
So the principals of no artificial balancing, realistic cause and effect and players being responsible for their actions still stand.

Now that you released the free Tech Preview, do you think people have gotten the whole philosophy of NORG?

Yeah, I do. At least the understandings of it, though maybe not realizing they are understand NORG exactly. I think seeing the customization along with movement and shooting has done more than any words ever could. 

How did not getting any funding via Kickstarter affect you and other team members?

I touched on it a bit above, but will expand on the personal side a bit. To be up front about it, it was a kick in nuts! We felt we presented a compelling scenario to get behind. We put a lot of hard work into it and didn’t get anywhere near the goal. Not only did we feel defeated, but we felt alone in our quest. There was a time of depression and lots of self-reflecting. All development stopped for months.

But then after a break, I found myself with a renewed passion and drive to complete Ground Branch no matter what. After the anger, depression and questioning of my own abilities I woke up one day knowing that I couldn’t simply give up. My wife and a lot of the BFS forum regulars were HUGE in getting me through this period and believing in not only the project but in me as a person. I am forever grateful for them.

How did forum regulars get you through this period besides believing in you?

By sticking around the forums and really just being there. Activity definitely slowed down, but it never died out. If the forum dried up and no one cared to visit then I would have certainly just moved on. They also “listened” to me and then Kris talk about things. Sure there were those that questioned us and rightfully so. When we posed questions about maybe doing this or that we generally got constructive criticism back. It helped show that there were still people that cared for the game. 

What did you do differently due to not getting funded via Kickstarter?

Once I finally came around, I knew I had something that could be special and was not going to give up. I also knew then that for people to truly understand what Ground Branch was and why they would want to put money behind it they would need to play it. We have always had issues getting a solid programmer that understood what we were going for and was willing and able to put in the effort necessary. But this is where Kris came in…I can’t remember exactly how we met, but our goals and drive matched perfectly. He and I are perfect development compliments and share in the same vision. Ground Branch is now every bit him as it is me.

So in a very strange way, in the long run, I think not getting the Kickstarter funded will be a blessing in disguise. Ground Branch will be a more solid product that will live on for many years because of it. 

What are your future plans for Ground Branch?

Well short term is to continue developing towards our Early Access on Steam. We have the Operator Edition available for purchase now that gives users immediate access to development builds. We will be updating these bi-weekly and will use the feedback to shape Ground Branch as a whole, but also what the Early Access will include.

While our current crowdfunding campaign is going well, every little bit helps. It will allow us to make the Early Access and Ground Branch all the better! So if people are able, buying a T-Shirt, buying in to the Operator Edition or simply pre-ordering would be really appreciated.

Long term, we hope to keep Ground Branch in development for many years. Our SP/Coop mission system is built for consistent content delivery and we aim to do just that.

You say that you and Kris hope to keep Ground Branch in development for many years. Would you please explain what you mean by that? Will it be finished at some point or will you have episodic type additions that add more content to the game as time goes or what?

Sure. We don’t want to do the typical release, do a year of DLC then move on to version 2.0. We want to build a solid game then continue to iterate on that and add content for years to come. We don’t want to build a game, monetize it for a while then abandon it to do the next one. We think, especially now with UE4, that we can continue to evolve and upgrade the game over the course of many years and still keeps it meaningful. Look at how Tripwire has managed Red Orchestra 2 for many years.

There will be plenty of free content, but we will also look at ways to make money as the game ages as well. Neither of us likes micro transactions or a new DLC every few months, but we do need a way to be able to keep the business going. So we are working on how exactly we will do that, but the basic idea is there will be various “deployments” that you can purchase that will open up new hotspots and missions. It’s almost like old school mission packs in a way, but its delivered over a period of time, and not in one big chunk.

That being said, we are also very aware of how a community can fragment with paid add-ons, but we will be sure to minimize that as much as possible. We are not out to nickel and dime people, but feel that it’s a good way to incentivize us to keep making content as well as a way to let the consumer vote with their wallet and drive the addition of more content.

Thank you for your time John, I hope everything works the way you want.

My pleasure. It’s been a long journey so far, but I feel it’s just beginning!



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