Christian Allen Interview

Christian Allen Interview

March 3rd 2012

Hi Christian, thanks for taking time to talk to about your exciting new tactical shooter.

Before we concentrate on your new company and new game, for the benefit of anyone who is not so familiar with your work to date, can you give us a quick summary of your career so far?

Before games, my background was in the military.  I served four years as an Active Duty MP in the US Marines, and then another 5 ½ in the Air and Army National Guard.

I started my games career modding Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear in ‘99, and after a few years joined Red Storm Entertainment.  I worked my way up to Lead Designer and then Creative Director, working on all of the Xbox Ghost Recon titles from Island Thunder through GRAW2.  I also served as Design Lead on Halo: Reach at Bungie.  After spending the last few years at WB Games working on a big AAA IP, I decided to start my own company late last year and formed Serellan LLC

I also do consulting for game companies and Hollywood on games and firearms.

What can you remember about working on Ghost Recon, the team, the game and the BAFTA awards?

I originally joined RSE thinking I would be a scripter on a Rainbow Six title, and while I did contribute to Rainbow Six: Athena Sword, I was quickly put onto the Ghost Recon series.  It was a time of transition, as the studio moved from PC to Console development, and while Tom Clancy games really got huge and went mainstream.  It was challenging at times, especially as I had never been a console gamer, but as a designer it was exciting, especially when the 360 came around and we were building for a completely new system.  There were lots of bumps in the road, but in the end the quality people dedicated to their work put out great titles.

Accepting the BAFTA for GRAW on the 360 was a great honor.  You have to remember as we were developing this game alongside many other Ubisoft studios, we had no idea if the 360 was going to be a hit.  There were lots of new challenges, a new controller, a new Xbox Live, always changing through development.  I give so much credit to the teams at RSE, Tiwak, Ubi Paris, and others who put the game together. 

When I was sitting in London as they called out best game (we had already accepted Technical Achievement, which Olivier Dauba had gone up on stage for), I didn’t think we had a chance, especially after D&D Online took Best Multiplayer.  Luckily they cut it out of the telecast, but I was actually taking a big drink of wine when they cut to me as the winner was announced, and I spit it all out over the table!

Early in December last year we broke the news of Serellan LLC, but secrecy meant that nobody really knew what was behind your latest venture. Can you tell us what Serellan LLC is?

Serellan LLC is the company I founded to start game independent game development, as well as consulting to game companies and Hollywood. I have worked for several big developers and when I was looking around thinking about what to do next, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than start my own studio.

Serellan LLC

How about the name?  Where does it come from?  And how do you pronounce it?

Well, Serellan has been my handle online for years, I use it for everything, because (except for some weird Star Trek fanfic), it’s totally unique; it was a character in my pen-and-paper RPG days. 

When I started the company and was doing the LLC paperwork, I was brainstorming names.  It’s REALLY hard to find a name that’s not somehow taken or trademarked by someone (that’s why consulting companies charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to do this work).  After going through something like 20 names on a whiteboard and having to cross them all off the list, my wife walked into the room and asked what I was doing.  I told her, and she said, “You already have a unique name and domain, why are you wasting your time trying to come up with something else?”  And we all know who is always right.

Oh, and it’s “Seh-ree-lan” :)  And yes, I know it’s not spelled like that. 

Can you tell us who else is on board with Serellan LLC, who makes up the team?

At this time I can’t announce my partners but as contracts get ironed out in the next few months, I will be announcing the team.  I’ve had a lot of interest in the company, and I think you may see some familiar names.

What game or games are your developing, and on which platforms?

We will be focusing our initial development on a hardcore CQB tactical shooter on the PC.  I’ve been working on AAA console games for over a decade now, but I started out as a PC modder, and I really feel the need to get back to my roots.

Once PC is complete, we may look to porting to consoles, but this will be first and foremost a hardcore PC game.

I’ve really taken inspiration from the Torchlight team.  They created a top-notch hardcore game built around their community, and it was a great success.  They were the ones that really showed me that this could be possible.

What aspects of today's gaming industry do you think need addressed, or what do you think will be Serellan LLC's main unique selling point?

Unfortunately, the big publishers really aren’t interested in hardcore PC gamers.  As we’ve seen, PC is considered either dead or an afterthought, with late, rushed ports, harsh DRM, or dropping of features from PC SKU’s.  I totally understand their perspective, because PC is fraught with risk.  Piracy is a real issue (although digital distribution is starting to help), and sales numbers have traditionally reinforced their views in the past few years. 

Big budget games have to sell millions of units to be successful, and the way the market is trending, there isn’t a lot of room left for publishers to take risks.  That’s why you see so many sequels, “me-too’s”, and a focus on casual development.

Also, hardcore tactical shooter fans are often compared to hardcore flight sim fans.  They are seen as a vocal, hard to please audience with not a lot of upside.  Again, I understand this, because I have been interacting with these fans since I was one of them, as a modder in the late 90’s.

How about funding?  Are you publisher funded, or through VC investment?

Currently we are self-funded, and I have had interest from investors.  Double Fine’s success in raising money for an old-school PC adventure game is really inspiring, we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign.  I know I’m no Tim Schafer, but at least it will give us a realistic window into the type of interest this type of game has to the gaming community at large.  So hopefully, if you are reading this interview, you are an investor or soon to become one.

Don’t you think that people will call you a copycat, chasing Double Fine’s successes?

LOL.  I’m sure people will say that, and that is fine.  In actuality I have been working on this since November.    In fact, the day before DF launched their Kickstarter, I was on the site making this giant spreadsheet of successful game projects, trying to figure out the perfect rewards levels and funding asks.

But yes, of course Double Fine’s success has motivated me.  It shows that a motivated fanbase can get something done, something that publishers are too scared to do.  It’s fucking awesome, and if wanting to be a part of this sea change in game development is seen as copycatting, I’m fine with that.  I’ve been called worse things in my life.


What was your primary motivation to strike out on your own and develop a tactical shooter?

I really wanted to get back to the core of what I loved about the tac-shooter, the fans.  People so passionate about a game that they will argue about the blast radius of a flashbang, or the fire selector switch on an MP5A4.

One of the things that is tough on a big-budget AAA title is that because there is so much investment, PR and Marketing need to have carefully orchestrated rollout plans for everything.  Then there are the license holders, the first party platform owners, and lots and lots of lawyers.  You can’t just go out to the community and say “tell me what guns you want in the game and I will put them in,” because often times there are other factors dictating those decisions.  What gun manufactures are sponsoring your game with promotional material?  What gun does a competing game have on their cover?  Etc., etc. 

Often times you are not making decisions based purely on what’s best for the game, but what is best for the marketplace.

And again, I understand this, and I’m not saying I just want to go out and make some niche project that only five people like that is a huge money loss, but I think that a small, nimble, independent development team can be more responsive to the fans and to the game than the huge big budget teams that currently compromise AAA publisher-owned game development.

I also believe that as an industry, we are experiencing a shift.  More and more of the developers I know want to or are going indie.  Games like Minecraft, Angry Birds, Torchlight, and Project Zomboid have inspired me and shown that there is a new way.  That small teams focused on their fans can be both creatively and commercially successful.

As vocal as tac shooter fans have been in the past of their desires, I hope to challenge them to step up and show the industry that this genre is not dead.  It’s really up to them.

Do you think that a tactical gaming void has developed over the last few years?

Definitely.  Obviously games like Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six have focused on a new audience since their inception.  While I am extremely proud of the work that I and the teammates I worked with did on those games, they have strayed from their original direction.  And that is fine.  The new direction of R6: Patriots looks very cool, looking to replicate that “24” experience, which is exciting, but doesn’t look to satisfy my itch for an open-ended, objective oriented, tense, challenging experience.  That doesn’t mean that it will be a bad game, just a different game.  Uncharted is a great game, but obviously fills a different role.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the big, open, war simulators with huge environments and vehicles, etc.  And those are cool too, especially as the technology is often used to build simulators for the military to help train our troops in a safe way.  But I miss the days of Rogue Spear and SWAT 4, silently creeping down the hallway, knowing that if I don’t slice the pie correctly on this doorway, I might catch a bullet in the head.  Hell, even if I do everything right, I still might take a bullet in the head. 

I miss the days of being the last guy on my team, knowing that three others are out there, hunting my ass, waiting to drop me as soon as I screw up.  It was awesome.

What are the primary features of the game, what type of gameplay are you aiming for and why will it appeal to tactical gamers.

We are looking at classic CQB combat, with a range of weapons and equipment that any modern SWAT, HRT, or PMC team is going to have.

Obviously we are talking about realistic weapons and damage modeling, permadeaths, objective-based “non-scripted” missions, non-linear environments built based on actual locales and building layouts, multiple game modes, squad AI and controls, etc.

Because of the way missions are developed to support this kind of gameplay, the systems built to create them must also naturally support things like random mission generators that greatly extend gameplay out of what you can get from a six-hour linear cinematic experience, and a much better return on game development resources.

There are also a few surprises that I am keeping under wraps for now.  I have to have SOMETHING to generate some press in the future.

Which gametypes are you planning, is co-op a big part of your plans or is team v team the main focus?

I’ve never worked on a game that DIDN’T have co-op, and I don’t think I ever will.  Co-op is the great equalizer, and allows people to bring their friends into the experience in a positive manner. 

One of the great things I learned working on games with a co-op focus, is that if you build a compelling co-op experience, the rest follows.  Setting up the systems for co-op naturally builds your infrastructure for adversarial and single player.

As far as specific modes of play, we’ll see what the community wants.  One thing I learned from Ghost Recon (and Halo for that matter) is that people want control over the types of modes that they get, so it’s a great return on your investment as a developer to give them that opportunity.

Plus I don’t really want a repeat of all the flak I got over changes to Siege in Ghost Recon.

More than perhaps anyone else, you understand how difficult it is to please the tactical shooter gaming community, what do you have planned to keep these guys excited?

It really is about rapid communication and weeding out what people say they want and what they actually want.  Obviously we welcome anyone’s participation, but we are taking it a step further.

We’ve created a set of tiered community levels for involvement – Silver, Gold, and Platinum – based on your level of support.  At the silver level, people will be able to join and have more influence on the game, such as voting for certain weapons, features, equipment, etc.  That’s not to say that this is going to be a big democracy, we’ll still have the final say, but we are going to actively solicit the communities feedback, as well as give those Gold Members a window into how development works, with videos, Q&A’s, etc. 

Part of my job as Creative Director will be interacting directly with the community on a daily basis.

Being independent and not worrying about driving a platform feature such as Kinect or Move allows us to focus on the game and the fans, and less on outside factors that sometimes drive features.  I can also be more frank and open on what features will work and why.  I can simply say, “no, we won’t be doing that,” instead of having to keep things vague just in case publishing knows something I don’t.

But even more than involvement, I want to provide budding game developers a chance to create content for this game and thus we’ve created the gold community level.

Project Zomboid has done a great job with this, the game is still in Alpha and there are already all sorts of mods for it, greatly expanding the amount of content you can enjoy for a low entrance cost.  I got my career in games because of modding, and I really hope to provide that opportunity to other people who want to try their hand in it.  There will be standards, and of course legal stuff to work out, but my ultimate desire is to allow you to create content, whether it be weapons, level, missions, etc, and have them ship with the main game or be available as official downloadable content. 

I plan to create a “creators club”, along the lines of XNA, so that like-minded people can teach each other and generate this content for their fellow fans to enjoy.  This idea is a main driver behind the engine we choose, as it must support this kind of activity.

Finally at the platinum level, you get to be an integrated part of the team, participating in creative meetings via skype or in person if you so wish.

Speaking of engines, have you decided on an engine, and if so, which one?

There are several options we are considering, including Unity and Crytek as well as a few others.  Cost structuring is of course an issue, which makes Unity appealing (and a lot of my indie buddies are really liking Unity), and of course something like Crytek or Unreal has the horsepower, but I don’t necessarily believe that tac shooters are about insane poly counts and deferred rendering engines, they are about gameplay first and foremost, so flexibility is really the key.  We will be making a final decision soon.

Anyone who knows Christian Allen knows you like your guns, and you strive for realism and authenticity when depicting them in games. Will this be a priority in your new game?

Of course.  My background with firearms is intertwined with my background with games.  While I have been around firearms my whole life, as a hunter and competitive shooter in my youth, my time in the military, etc., I really became a serious collector after doing so much research about firearms while working first on R6 modding, and then later on Ghost Recon.

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I am constantly ranting about how Hollywood, especially the Zombie genre, gets things wrong, and it drives me nuts.  As a developer it does matter if you understand the difference between a 115g FMJ and a 124g JHP.  It matters that you understand that it affects not just bullet velocities and imparted energy on target, but the amount and type of felt recoil.  Hell, the difference between PMC 115g 9mm and American Eagle 115g are noticeable out of my 92FS, because of differing powder charges. 

You are not going to find these things out by googling.  You need hands-on to understand it.  I shoot hundreds of rounds a week, through lots of different firearms, from .22 LR’s, 9mm’s, 12g’s, 30-06’s, even obscure guns like the M49/56 in 7.5 French.  I’ve fired everything from a .17 HMR on up to a 40mm HEDP.

Being tactical isn’t as simple as “one shot one kill.”  Sometimes it means breaking expectations (no, your suppressed .45 JHP isn’t going to penetrate that Level III body armor, no matter how cool it looks), but starting from real-world experience is absolutely essential, in my opinion.

Of course that’s not to say I know everything, so we will be reaching out to experts in the different fields to provide input as well.

What are you most excited about with this new project?

Well, hopefully I’ll be able to start writing off ammo as a work-related expense on my taxes.

Seriously though, I’m excited to see if the community is going to prove my expectations correct.  If they step up and contribute their time, their resources, and their energy, than this will be a success.  If not, then I can always go back to AAA game development.  It’s an exciting time to be a game developer, and I’m really hoping we are seeing a dawning of a new era.

What can people do if they want to get involved?

First off, visit the Kickstarter page, then tweet @Serellan #tacticalshooter to tell me if you want to see this game made! Also share the news via your own twitter, facebook, Linked in, or forums. Finally, keep an eye on the website, we’ll be updating with information on the Kickstarter campaign and forums, etc.

It is really up to the fans.  If they want this, it will get made.  If not, well, at least we will have a fun ride!


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