“When you’re a massive brand with a massive budget, people want to work with you for the money,” Robert Bowling said in a recent exclusive interview with GamesBeat. While subtle, it’s a distinct reference to how business works at his previous employer and the world’s largest video game publisher, Activision.
Things are different now, though. Bowling made headlines in March when he abruptly left his position as creative strategist at Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward and, by extension, parent company Activision. Many in the industry thought the obvious destination for Bowling was Respawn Entertainment, the two-year-old independent studio staffed by several Modern Warfare alumni, including previous Infinity Ward heads Vince Zampella and Jason West. However, a month after leaving Activision, Bowling announced his own self-funded studio, Robotoki. It was a bold step, especially in this economic climate, but it was one he felt he had to make.
“[Zampella and the Respawn Entertainment crew] were my role models, friends, and partners for many, many years,” he said. “However, for me, it felt important to strike out and really create something completely different that I felt no one else was doing yet. That takes a lot of risk and a true creative clean slate, which Robotoki has allowed me to accomplish.”
It isn’t unusual to see experienced developers leave the safety of established publishers in pursuit of indie game development. Last year, Ryan Payton left his position as narrative designer at 343 Industries (the studio behind the upcoming Halo 4) to form Camoflaj. And just last month, Steve Gaynor (the Bioshock 2 designer who headed up the critically well-received Minerva’s Den downloadable content) left 2K Games to found The Fullbright Company.
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But Bowling wasn’t an employee at just any video game studio. He was the face of the world’s hottest video game property, Call of Duty, at one of the industry’s largest third-party video game publishers. When new hacks were discovered in Modern Warfare or services weren’t working right, Bowling was the one people directed their vitriol and death threats at. Other times, he was the relay through which fans showed their appreciation for the Call of Duty brand.
But Bowling says the shift from working on a household brand to an unheard of indie hasn’t been as difficult as he thought it would. Despite being such a prominent figure behind the franchise, he has largely been able to put his days as “the Call of Duty guy” behind him and is now working to fully cut ties with the highly popular shooter franchise as he strikes out on his own.
“Luckily, coverage of my resignation from Activision … and subsequently the formation of Robotoki was pretty vast,” he explained. “So I’ve actually been able to make a much cleaner separation from my previous role as the most prominent face of the Call of Duty series than I thought I initially could.”
Not that his reputation hasn’t helped. Bowling has found that prospective partners are more willing to trust him with the daunting task of managing an independent game studio. They know he can handle big projects, regardless of the demands, because of his success in helping to launch the Call of Duty brand into the spotlight.
Bowling also believes his experience managing the community of one of gaming’s most prominent franchises will be a major asset to his new company. Despite the sometimes-vicious nature of the Call of Duty community, he plans to make the consumer the focus at Robotoki, both as a feedback mechanism for development and as a part of the actual game. “My past experience with the 30 million plus players who were involved with my previous projects taught me a lot about the power of a passionate user base and how to funnel that passion (regardless of how its expressed) into constructive and useful development information,” he said.
That isn’t to say launching a new studio has been cakewalk for Bowling. For Activison, dumping hundreds of millions into game development and marketing isn’t out of the question. That’s precisely why many studios opt to partner with major publishers like Activision.
“When you come from a massive brand, with hundreds of millions in budget, you have a department for everything,” Bowling said. “So resources are never an issue. If there’s a problem, there’s probably someone already dedicated to solving it. As an independent, you’re reliant on being nimble and flexible.”
But Bowling knew challenges such as acquiring the necessary resources to fund game development would be a part of his new job description. In many ways, he believes having a single team that addresses the various problems that come up during development is a more effective approach to game design. It enables his studio to make quick decisions and implement changes without having to clear them through multiple departments.
He is also thrilled by the support he has received so far from business partners. Whereas people work with big publishers for the money, those who partner with indies “do so for the their belief and passion for your ideas and philosophy,” he said — a notion that goes hand in hand with Robotoki’s design philosophy of creating universes first, experiences second, and game mechanics last.
Most video games are created the other way round, with the mechanics and technology tackled first and the universe then wrapped around these elements. It isn’t unusual for designers to whip up a series of levels and then ask story writers to think of a narrative and universe that somehow string these various threads together into a cohesive plot. Compared to other story-driven entertainment media, it’s a bit like making three right turns instead of a single left one, but for the most part, video game buyers have been accepting the results of this approach.
This mechanics-first philosophy is perhaps best personified by the first-person shooter genre, which throws players into epic set piece after epic set piece with little regard for how it all ties together. Bowling said this approach works for now and pointed to the success of the Call of Duty brand as evidence of this. But he also said video game development must evolve. “In coming years as player expectations and technology rises, our design scope has to innovate beyond [the first-person shooter genre],” he explained.
“When you set out with the mindset of ‘we’re going to create a stellar FPS,’ you’ve already limited yourself on platform and experience. While the core mechanics of what make ‘shooting’ fun, smooth and fast-paced are key to the experience and should never suffer, that doesn’t mean you should build the entire concept around the ‘shooter,'” he countered.
Robotoki was founded on that very notion, that there is a gap in the market for games that have a strong emphasis on story and universe building. When asked whether he would be making a shooter for his first title, he said he was aiming to make a universe first, and if shooting mechanics make sense in that realm, then they will be featured.
“We’re focused on building a world, and a world is made of up a variety of people, styles, and identities,” he said. “If you want to be that action-focused ‘shooter guy,’ that’s fantastic. However, we believe a world that is made up of a variety of skill sets and styles is far more interesting than a world full of just gun-toting soldiers. [We want to explore that] world of conflicting player types, especially when they all share a common goal.”
Bowling is confident gamers will be genuinely surprised to see how different his new game will be from his past projects and said it will truly show off his studio’s universe-first design philosophy.
So when will we find out what Bowling is working on? He plans to unveil Robotoki’s debut video game next week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.