How five friends emerged from the East Berlin demoscene to develop Spec Ops: The Line
For 28 years the Berlin Wall separated the people of Germany’s capital, limiting the socialist East’s access to the media and technologies West Germans took for granted. In East Berlin, up-to-date computer hardware was uncommon, making gaming a hobby for only the most ardent enthusiasts, but software was cracked and traded by pirates. In a sense, Yager was born from East Berlin’s piracy scene, but piracy was a response to scarcity, and it was scarcity that had the most profound effect on Yager’s founders and the city they call home.
“I think that’s why there are so few developers in Berlin today,” says Yager’s managing director, Timo Ullmann. “When Germany was still divided, there was a division in access to technology and Berlin never had a chance to become a hotspot for this kind of entertainment.”
Of Yager’s five founders, only one grew up outside the city and none on the western side of the Wall. IT director Roman Golka, creative director Uwe Beneke, director of development Philipp Schellbach and Ullmann all attended computer clubs in East Germany, where they played pirate copies of the Commodore 64 games that made it across the divide. Later, they learned their programming skills cracking games, as well as on the demo scene under the name Dynamic Technologies, or ‘Dytec’. “You can still see our intro on YouTube, I think,” Schellbach says. “Any pirate fan will know them!”
“It was always cracked games in East Berlin,” says Ullmann. “And so there was a point when we got curious about how we’d crack them ourselves, and then a point when we became curious about how we would make them ourselves. When the Wall fell, we visited the famous Chaos Computer Club, but their agenda was very different to ours – they were about hacking and breaking security, and we were more into the idea of using technology to entertain people with music or games or demos.”
The computer clubs in East Berlin had created a generation of hackers and crackers, with the desire, though not necessarily the tools, they needed for success when the east/west border opened in November 1989. “Philipp and Roman and I had worked on a couple of demos for small C64 games,” says Ullmann. “We had a shoot ’em up, a rip-off of Bomberman and even some self-created hardware so we could play it with four joysticks. We offered the demos to some West German publishers and they were kind enough to write back and say, you know, ‘We like what you did, but we don’t sell C64 any more.’ We should have moved on to Amiga and PC, but C64 was pretty much all we knew in East Berlin. Uwe, our creative director, was an Atari guy… but the rest of us were programming in assembler on C64. I think it taught us a lesson; even back then, we realised how important it was to push as far as you can when you’re working with very limited computing power.”
Spec Ops: The Line.
In the Eastern Bloc, games were a tiny part of a computing industry where utility was valued over entertainment, but the fall of the Wall opened the door for the four friends to study computer sciences at Humboldt University with a mind to making games. All bar Schellbach would drop out to work on shooter Yager in 1998.
“We didn’t think about what we might be doing ten years from now,” says Ullmann. “We saw more future in the game than in the study. We were working on a prototype and meeting once a week at my flat when a friend of mine introduced us to Mathias [Wiese].”
Years spent on the demo scene had given the four an understanding of technology, but the art direction would come from Wiese. The youngest of the five, he’d heard about Yager through friends and arrived with a folder filled with art for a game he had only heard described. “His art was perfect for the game,” says Ullmann, “and together we built a very ‘shiny’ demo that was an impressive display of our engine. Of course, we would have to throw all that away when we got down to the business of actually making the game.
“But first we had to sell it, and we weren’t used to selling ourselves or to elevator pitches, so we had to learn how to pitch the hard way. We didn’t have a name or an office, nobody had heard of us and we were travelling to trade shows with this shiny prototype. We’d take publishers back to Roman’s apartment for meetings, because his was the nicest. Then in 1999, THQ Germany picked up our Yager prototype, I think based on the art and engine more than anything. The first thing we had to do was find an office and, of course, we stayed in Berlin.”
The Yager of today is on its third office, a bright, open loft space on the banks of the river Spree in Berlin-Kreuzberg. It’s short on air conditioning but long on tall windows, which open onto the quiet street and courtyard. Yager’s space has expanded with the studio and its 100-strong team is now spread across two floors of the old building. But it was a team of just six who walked into Yager’s first home in ’99.
“Building up was really slow,” says Ullmann. By the end of the first year, the studio had seven developers, and Yager would ship in 2003 with a team of just 20 and a handful of freelancers. “Back then, hiring was a real problem for us. We were working on the project and all the overheads had to be handled by us between programming work. It wasn’t a very professional setup, but choosing roles was quite a natural process. We had two creative guys, and it was clear one of them was better suited for art and the other for design. Philipp was always the technical one. We were all coding back then, but I was the one who was calling all the publishers, so I kept that role. It was just a natural process.”
THQ’s console focus meant the studio had to learn to grow, and early suggestions of a Dreamcast port for Yager gave way in favour of Microsoft’s then-rumoured Xbox. The specs were a close match for Yager’s PC benchmark, and the studio found itself among Microsoft’s list of developers for 2000’s E3 Xbox showcase.
“We were lucky Yager was successful for us, or else we’d have had to rename the studio,” says Ullmann, only half joking. The team’s first game, a thirdperson airborne shooter similar to Rogue Squadron, received average-to-favourable reviews but its engine demonstrated the studio’s technical expertise. Those foundations laid a decade earlier would form the core of Yager’s processes – an obsession with technology that would later be displayed in Spec Ops: The Line.
Just surviving to make The Line would be a stretch for the studio. “We couldn’t believe it when THQ decided not to publish our game in America,” says Ullmann. “THQ published Yager in Europe, and the German and UK guys were always very supportive of us, but the US guys said ‘It’s not Star Wars, so we’re not going to do it.’ They had paid for the development, but they weren’t going to bring it out! We cut a deal where we could buy back the US rights and share revenue with THQ, and that’s how we ended up published by Kemco and DreamCatcher.”
With a finished game ready to be published, finding interested partners was easy, with explaining why THQ had dropped it being the only sticking point. Yager hit PAL territories in 2003, but wouldn’t reach the US till October 2004, when eyes were turning to the next generation. Still, the injection of dollars was just enough to keep Yager afloat.
“Let’s be honest,” says Ullmann, “Yager was a good start for us, but it wasn’t a huge success financially. Unfortunately, the flight genre became quite a niche over the four years of development. It was just us, Panzer Dragoon and Rogue Squadron when we finally released. In the year between the PAL and American releases, THQ rejected the sequel and we had a hard time finding another project. Kemco and DreamCatcher basically saved us.”
Yager’s US release bought the studio time, but next two years would be challenging as publishers invested in and then canned original prototypes in favour of more bankable existing brands. Of several demos worked up by Yager, Partisans and Eye Of The Storm went furthest into development. The first – a WWII shooter set on an island in the Mediterranean filled with Nazi superweapons players could turn on their creators – was rejected for being unportable to PS2, but received enough investment to keep Yager going for a time.
A physics demo for NovodeX – later integrated into Ageia’s PhysX – kept the studio afloat until Yager’s thirdperson mech-hunting game Eye Of The Storm received funding from a major publisher. But when the publisher backed out in 2005, Yager was again without money. “Things were really tight there,” says Ullmann. “I went to GDC 2005 and I knew if I didn’t come back with a deal then the lights would go out. Atari invested in Eye Of The Storm and saved us, but only for about a month or so. They really couldn’t afford to develop a game of that scale for the next gen at the time, so we had to find another partner.”
As always, Yager had an impressive prototype, this time running on Unreal 3. “A good demo has always been important to us,” Ullmann explains. “There’s only so much you can describe to someone, but if you have a prototype or a video you can really sell the game.” A third publisher temporarily backed Eye Of The Storm on the strength of the prototype before the studio fell in with 2K. The latter explained the difficulty of greenlighting a new IP, but was impressed enough by Yager’s tech to suggest that it pitch for the Spec Ops title the publisher had already greenlit.
“We had a few other prototypes,” Ullmann says. “They liked the cover system from Eye Of The Storm, but they also liked the verticality of a game we were describing as Vertical War, and all that made it into the Spec Ops pitch and final game. Spec Ops was our last chance; if we hadn’t sold 2K on it, we’d have closed in 2006.”
Yager’s team has grown from just five to over a hundred. This photo was taken on the banks of the river Spree just before Spec Ops: The Line shipped in June 2012.
As the project grew, so did the team. “We had to identify what Yager stands for,” says Ullmann. “How do we be professional? How do we hire the right team? I stopped programming, we hired a HR manager, and all of a sudden four of the five of us had moved away from hands-on development to take on roles that are more about management. Only Mathias was still hands-on as the art director. Realising that we needed real management to run a project was a huge revelation to us and we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning.”
2K was supportive during Yager’s learning process, as the newly formed international team set about pushing the limits of Unreal and the game’s narrative. “Pushing the technology is still one of our core principles,” says Ullmann. “It’s in our genes! But even that can get you in trouble – while we were developing Spec Ops, we were checking out new technology and it slowed us down. But really we were trying to grab people’s emotions and that’s something we learned making Spec Ops, too. We rewrote the story so often and every change had dramatic consequences in each level. Whenever we changed the story, the dialogue needed to be changed, and that meant we had to rip open the levels to give the characters enough space to talk.”
With only 12 months until release, Yager dramatically changed the game’s final act. “It’s not the ideal way to make a game,” says Ullmann. “That was the reason Spec Ops took so long.”
Yager’s next project will be made differently, but with the same commitment to technology and narrative. “After five years of working on Spec Ops, maybe it’s time to do something different so you don’t get trapped in that box where we’re just making military shooters,” says Ullmann. “We still have to be commercial – we learned that the hard way – but by being independent we can live creatively and never be labelled or framed as being about a certain thing.
“What’s surprising to me is that even in 2012 games like Dishonored and Dragon’s Dogma proved that people are interested in new ideas. We’ve never had more platforms and more business models, so it’s a good time for new IP. After a seven-year console lifecycle, people are longing for something new – gamers and publishers, actually – and that suits us fine.”