TimeGate Studios, the developer at the heart of an internet storm

As its review embargo lifted this week, it became clear that Aliens: Colonial Marines wasn’t the game it once promised to be. Accusations and innuendo followed as critical disappointment turned into greater analysis of the game’s lengthy development process, and which studio worked on what.

Publicly, it is Gearbox’s game, although we know that Demiurge was involved in the project initially before TimeGate Studios worked on the project. A forum post on the studio’s site suggested that around half of the single player campaign is TimeGate’s work, and one Redditor has since made a string of allegations. The only ‘on the record’ comments on the situation can be found in an IGN interview with Randy Pitchford, posted before the review embargo lifted, in which he said that TimeGate worked on the game “about 20 or 25 percent of the total time.”

“If you take preproduction out of it, their effort’s probably equivalent to ours,” he continued. “Now, it’s not fair to take preproduction out of it, but that says a lot about how much horsepower those guys put into it.”

In the postmortems that followed this week’s Aliens reviews, TimeGate has been shoved into the spotlight like never before. We spoke to the developer’s president and CEO Adel Chavelah early last year about his studio and its philosophy, and from that discussion we can build a picture of TimeGate as a quietly ambitious studio with links to the University of Houston.

“I’d say where most studios are born out of a garage, we were born out of corporate America,” Chavelah told us in February last year. “So we came from the other end of the spectrum and have woven in the creative process more and more into how decisions are made versus the garage shop that has to somehow figure out how to hit deadlines and budgets, and manage scope.”

“I guess you would call that a culture piece, but it’s been a big selling point for our studio with all of our partners that even have their own internal studios,” he continued. “When they come and look under the hood of what’s going on here and how we operate and how well-oiled the machine is, it’s a very attractive thing. Since you don’t have to worry about things getting done, now you can focus on the fun stuff – the content.”

TimeGate Studios’ president and CEO Adel Chavelah.

TimeGate’s links with the University of Houston mean that there’s a strong trend at the studio for graduate recruitment. “That’s part of what our strategy is – having people coming out of school not just ready to make games but make a living out of it and go accomplish things,” said Chavelah. “If you’ve been in the industry for a while, you’ve seen plenty of big studios come and go over the years that had hoards of cash to start up but ultimately get nothing done. And in our 13 years we’ve shipped 11 products and we like getting things done, and we like challenging ourselves and tackling that new frontier.”

The hard-working studio takes a pragmatic approach to game development, that much is clear. Chavoleh compared running his studio to playing a realtime strategy game. “You’ve got a set amount of resources, you could certainly turtle up and do what you want to do inside the walls, but eventually the walls come crumbling down, whether it’s your own doing or third party, but our strategy is we’ve got to expand strategically.”

“You can’t just send all your forces out roaming into the wild.
Keep the base stable, steady, growing, know what your bread and butter is. But
in order to find and make sure you’re truly agile as a studio, send that group
of settlers out into the wilderness, armed to take on a few packs of wolves. And
once they get camp set up, you start sending reinforcements until they’ve got a
bustling town.”

TimeGate’s origins are closely tied to that genre, in fact. Brothers Adel and Alan Chavoleh set up the studio in 1998 with the aim of realising their vision for the studio’s first release, Kohan. “We had the Kohan concept before we had the company name,” Cahovleh told us. “We had the money, we had the infrastructure we could leverage from some of my partners other business ventures. So it was treated very legitimately as a business from day one.”

A Kohan expansion pack and sequel followed, as did an RTS version of the board game Axis and Allies. Its move into developing shooters came with the creation and release of project Section 8, released in 2009.

“We’d built and released four RTSs at that point and it was actually during completion of those last couple of RTS games that the concept for Section 8 was born,” said Chavoleh. “At the time, looking at it as a business, we had no FPS experience, we had no FPS tech, we had no FPS talent, and the genre was starting to get pretty damn crowded. So we thought, perfect, that’s exactly what we want, let’s go do it.”

It later developed and self-published the follow-up Section 8: Prejudice – a sign that the studio has tried to remain fairly independent, though it is happy to take on work the F.E.A.R expansion packs and, of course, Aliens: Colonial Marines.

“We’re not one of these guys that are running around beating our chest and touting ourselves as keepers of the indie spirit,” added Chavoleh. “We obviously believe in that and have held ownership of our IPs throughout all these years, but things like the Aliens project that we’re working on is an example where, if a project comes along that is up our alley and we get excited about it, we’re going to put a lot of resources behind that kind of project too.”

“F.E.A.R. was another great example of that. Even though F.E.A.R. and Aliens aren’t our IP, they play to our studio’s strengths, team gets really excited about it, and they’re adding something to the studio in terms of another big feather in the hat.”

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