The Next Quadrillion Dollar Shutdown

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Posted by BlackRedGaming (273 posts) -

Around a month ago I made a blog post called The Next Trillion Dollar IP, in which I criticized Cliff Bleszinski's studio Boss Key production on the creation of their latest game, Radical Heights. The title is a joke that references an interview he was in where he was describing going to various publishers and saying "I want to make another billion dollar IP." That billion dollar IP he was talking about was Lawbreakers, a game that had lower launch numbers than Battleborn. Now, Boss Key Productions is shutting its doors for good, and I am left with the question "how did they last so long?"

Now I don't want this blog to be about me dancing on their grave, because I am a little sad to see them go and I don't have anything against the studio. Instead, I want to tell the tale of Boss Key Production through my eyes and talk about what they did right and what they did wrong. But to get started, let's ask the question for those unaware of the situation, "what is Boss Key Productions?"

The year is 2014. Famous video game designer Cliff Bleszisnski and Dutch programmer Arjan Brussee decide to open up a new video game studio called 'Boss Key Productions.' That's about the last you will hear about Arjan because from this point on, Cliff was the face of that studio and the face of their games. Just like any other studio, Boss Key started to work on a new game, which we will later find out to be Lawbreakers. After some trailers and whatnot, Boss Key took their game to various trade shows and conventions to get the game into the hands of the media and to the public. For those who don't know, Lawbreakers is a fast-paced first-person multiplayer shooter that takes place in the future. The catch? Part of each map has a lack of gravity. This is where the first red flags are raised, as for the big thing to notice about my description of the game is the lack of what type of shooter game it is. You would expect an arena shooter from the guy who is best known for his history of arena shooters, but that isn't what happened. The second red flag to raise is the fact that the multiplayer FPS genre was over saturated at the time (and still is), which means that this game was fighting an uphill battle from the get-go. Despite that, a pure arena shooter could've had the chance to be successful and get CliffyB on the right track. But that isn't what happened. After the media and the public got their hands on the game, many soon realized that this new game isn't an arena shooter; it's actually a hero shooter similar to Overwatch. At this point, the game pretty much lost all hope at succeeding in this competitive FPS market. Despite trying to say that the game isn't like other shooters on the market and trying to veer towards things it does differently like how r-rated it is, the game ultimately couldn't escape from the shadow of Overwatch.

The original Lawbreakers trailer painted a much different picture. If they kept with their original vision, could the game have succeeded?
The original Lawbreakers trailer painted a much different picture. If they kept with their original vision, could the game have succeeded?

Fast forward to July of 2017 and that is where you will find the beginning of my history with the game and with Boss Key as a whole. At this time, Boss Key was running an open beta, and I decided to hop on and see what this game is. On the same day of trying out the game, I whipped up a fast blog titled Quick Impression on Lawbreakers(back when I sucked at writing...wait, I still do). Keep in mind that at the time, I had no real knowledge of the game other than its existence at the time, but even at that time I could see the Overwatch in this game. In my mind, the game was Overwatch but with zero gravity and a faster pace. Looking back on the time I had with the game, I also remember the characters being annoying (which for a hero shooter isn't good) and the modes being very similar to each other. Still, I had an overall good time with the game because its fast pace was fun and its gravity (or lack thereof) was unique. But I wasn't the only one to feel that way.

When the game released in August, it was media with decent reviews. Despite that, the stigma of Overwatch and its failure to really differentiate itself from the competition got sales to be...rather low. Some other issues like a poor console launch and matchmaking issues also plagued the game at launch, but they were minor issues compared to the whole Overwatch thing (did I mention this game is like Overwatch?) The game had a higher player count when it was in beta and had a lower launch player count than Battleborn. Despite supporting the games with updates over the coming months, the player counts dropped to the triple and soon after the double digits. Even though they tried to keep the dream alive, even they had to accept defeat on the game. And that is exactly what happened in Early April, when they announced they will be 'suspending' support for the game. So, what's next for this studio? Well, that was a question they answered pretty fast.

Just about as soon as they stopped support for one game, they announced and released a new game. What is that game you may ask? Why, it's Radical Heights, an 80s theme battle royale with no real twist to the genre. On April 10th, Boss Key released the game into early access (key word early), and despite the jankiness the game was a serviceable free-to-play battle royale game. But where other battle royale games were adding twists to the genre to differentiate itself from the crowd, Radical Heights ultimately did nothing other than the 80s theme, riding bikes, and using cash to buy weapons from vending machines. And despite being free, the game was very similar to Fortnite in its gameplay, which hurts the game because one game has a high enough player count to run a large country and the other is Radical Heights. This is where I cross with Boss Key again in trying out this game on the day it was released. And in the same day, I wrote The Next Trillion Dollar IP (linked above).

At first this game had no female characters. Soon, it won't have anybody.
At first this game had no female characters. Soon, it won't have anybody.

Despite serviceable player counts, the game couldn't sustain the company, and the game has now been shut down (May 14th, 2018). The Radical Heights servers will still be up (but for how long is the question), and Cliff is taking hiatus for a little while. As for the employees, some were said to be picked up by Epic Games a month earlier, but it is unknown about the others. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Arjan left in December of 2017 to work at Epic, and ironically enough he helped make Fortnite mobile version. And that is the brief history of Boss Key Productions, a company that closed less than a year after their first release and was the victim of chasing trends. But not everything Boss Key did was wrong.

Like I said earlier, I didn't want all of the focus on the blog to be on the failures of this company. Even though this blog is about the death of Boss Key, I feel that solely focusing on what it did wrong would make it sound like I am happy to see them go, and I am not. So I wanted to spend some time on the things Boss Key did right before turning my attention onto the wrongdoings of the company that ultimately lead to its demise. I will start with this: I never had a bad time with their games. Lawbreakers was a lot of fun to play; as for the controls were tight, the fast pace was a blast, and the zero gravity infusion into the game held a lot of potential. The characters felt well balanced (at least when I played it), the modes were too similar but still a lot of fun, and the game held an appropriate $30 price tag for the content it was offering. The game never offered harmful microtransactions that would give an unfair advantage (which is sad that I have to say) and despite the poor launch the developers kept updating the game. The game wasn't a bad game. As for Radical Heights, the game was really janky but still had potential. Now looking back at its release, I can see why they would release the game at such an early state as for it is most likely they had to release it to hopefully get some funds to at least stay afloat. It's because of these reasons and more that I am sad to see the company go because I believe that this team was talented and had some great potential to make awesome games.

Despite this talent, Boss Key made some pretty stupid mistakes that ultimately lead to its doom. Not only did they make dumb mistakes the first time around, they went ahead and did the same exact dumb mistakes the second time around, but that time they had no excuses to make those mistakes which made them look even dumber. So, what was dumb about Lawbreakers? For starters, the game was a competitive FPS multiplayer game, which meant the game had a slim chance of success. Heavy hitters like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Rainbow Six: Siege, CSGO, and many many more occupied the scene at around this time, so for a new studio to squeeze their game into that list was a losing battle. But then Overwatch happened. Now an argument can come up saying that since both games were in development at the time, Cliff couldn't have seen the success of Overwatch and escape from its looming shadow, but I disagree. I'm gonna take a guess that he learned about Overwatch at around 2015, which would give him two more years to change around his game just enough to make it a different kind of shooter, which he didn't. So how is he supposed to know Overwatch would be successful and essentially kill its competition? Simple. The answer is in the name 'Blizzard.' If Blizzard is making a new game, you better get out of the way because Blizzard is a well-liked company with a huge fan base. Still, maybe Cliff wanted to compete with Overwatch. Even if that was the case, they were going to lose. Overwatch was already out for a year by this game's release, which means its already established itself as the hero shooter (that or TF2), and its more cheery vibe and cartoonish style made the game more appealing whereas Lawbreakers felt like it catered to more of a niche crowd.

I love the Lawbreakers characters. The guy in the middle is uh....ummmmm.
I love the Lawbreakers characters. The guy in the middle is uh....ummmmm.

Despite these flaws being pretty easily predictable, a case can still be made that since it's their first game, they could learn from their mistakes and make a better second game. Then comes along RadicalHeights, a game that literally falls into the same hole Lawbreakers dug just months before. The game was releasing into an over saturated market, had too many similarities to a big game (this time being Fortnite), and didn't make enough differences to make itself unique. But this time, Boss Key knew about their past mistakes which means this game had no excuses to do the same mistakes. What makes it worse is that at least Lawbreakers was cheaper than Overwatch, where this game was free-to-play, which meant it can't hold a price leverage against a certain other battle royale game. This game's one chance at success was a price leverage, but since Fortnite is free, more developed, and has a population too high to count, Radical Heights is always in a losing battle. Not to mention the game was starting to be made as Fortnite grew immensely in popularity, which means they knew that they had competition much larger than them. The only excuse I see with releasing this game is to keep the company afloat (which I am guessing is the exact reason they released this game), but even then they should've let this wave passed because by the time they got into it the big two games (PUBG and Fortnite) have already been established as the main battle royale games and all other games knew to change up the experience to survive. The game fell into its surrounding and couldn't adapt. A couple of other issues like Cliff's attitude towards the the studio's failures can also be attributed to its downfall, but they aren't nearly as big as their games.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. That is essentially Boss Key Productions. Their first game brought the studio to its knees, and the second game gave the studio its final blow; except the difference here is that the studio saw the final blow coming but took it anyways. Boss Key Productions is a tale that was predictable but still unfortunate. It warns of following trends and not learning from mistakes while showing just how competitive the industry is. That despite a reputable name and solid games, the industry can eat you up and spit you out if you don't play your cards right. Boss Key didn't play their cards right, and now they are paying the price. I hate to see them go because that studio had some great potential, but they can only really blame themselves for their failures. So now we bid farewell to the zero-g arenas of Lawbreakers and the bicycles of Radical Heights. But mostly we bid farewell to Boss Key Productions. Goodbye Boss Key, and may you be a lesson to others on what not to do.

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#1 Edited by ThePanzini (727 posts) -

I don't believe that FPS is a overcrowded market, you could have said the same thing regarding Titanfall and no one saw Fortnight and PUBG exploding, Paladins looks alot more than similar to Overwatch and is doing far more that fine.

I think a better question would be, is their an audience for fast paced MP shooters like Ureal Tournament?

Titanfall, Quake Champions and Lawnbreakers have all so far failed.

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#2 Posted by Ungodly (447 posts) -

There is a whole lot of presumption going on here.

Radical Heights seems like it was a hail marry play to keep the company alive. So I don’t fault them for trying, plus if it would have been a little more polished it might have worked.

Lawbreakers wasn’t really a bad idea either, but the market wasn’t interested. Also I think there is a place for a new Unreal/Quake areana shooter, but no one figured out the right formula.

Video games aren’t a sure thing, and I don’t think Boss Key made obvious mistakes. They just couldn’t find a place in the genres. If anything this is just a reminder that there are no sure things, and just because a guy has a good pedigree, it doesn’t automatically equal success.

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#3 Posted by notnert427 (2207 posts) -

There's an argument that their me-too strategies are somewhat to blame here, but it's worth noting that strategy sure as shit didn't seem to stop Fortnite from becoming an inexplicable phenomenon.

For example, I think Overwatch is a craptastic F2P-type game that they charged full price for, but it was wildly successful (because, uh, Blizzard, I guess?) and people were more than happy to throw money at their fucking loot crates on top of the $60 and defend the act of doing so. I'm not saying Lawbreakers is good (I, like most, haven't played it), but it seems like it basically followed the Fortnite strategy of undercutting an established game in the genre, and it easily could have caught fire just the same as Fortnite did.

Honestly, it doesn't always make that much sense why some games catch on and some don't. I feel like games occasionally enter this weird groupthink thing where they become massive sales hits on "buzz" more than actual quality. People who know nothing about video games are aware of Fortnite because it's that goddamn mainstream now. Conversely, the Titanfall games are arguably the best, most unique shooters in recent memory and no one buys them. (Admittedly, EA screwed up by trying to launch Titanfall 2 when they did, and the anti-Xbox bandwagoning kind of fucked over the first one, but they're great games and no one cares.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that luck often matters quite a bit. Fortnite and Overwatch kinda suck (IMO) and have made a bajillion dollars. Titanfall is fucking rad and like five people play it. As for Cliffy B, his stuff here was at least as "original" as Fortnite and his recent projects have tanked. The entire industry is always going to be chasing the kind of lightning in a bottle that games like Fortnite and Overwatch have captured, and Cliffy B sure isn't going to be the only one to swing and miss. Not defending the guy's failures or the apparently shitty way the company shuttered, but it's worth considering that trying to predict the gaming market seems an increasingly difficult task these days.

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#4 Posted by BlackRedGaming (273 posts) -

@notnert427: I do agree some luck is involved, but I also think Overwatch succeeded because it's a Blizzard game and Fortnite succeeded because it was free, on consoles first, and it offered an entirely different way to play battle royale with building mechanics and simpler controls. I do agree that Titanfall is a much better game, but that failure did come from a small anti-future stigma that CoD made (though that could also be said to be entirely contained into CoD) and it released weeks before BF1.

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#5 Posted by BlackRedGaming (273 posts) -

@thepanzini: Titanfall failed because of a poor launch window, PUBG and Fortnite are third person (or primarily third person in PUBG's case) and were the first two big battle royale games, and Paladins success can be attributed to its free price tag. While I agree that the game may not have succeeded as an arena shooter because of Quake, it certainly had a better chance and could have been the modern arena shooter Quake failed to be. Also idk if Lawnbreakers was a typo or a joke, but I would love to see a lawn-mowing arena shooter.

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#6 Posted by BlackRedGaming (273 posts) -

@ungodly: Looking back, Radical Heights was a hail mary. But the game still going to come out anyways, and when they started development Fortnite was starting to hit huge popularity. In my trillion dolalr IP blog I did say that I could see the move as a way to grab some cash and keep the company afloat, but I also think that polished or not the game wouldn't have succeeded. It's too similar to Fortnite in its gameplay style and free price tag, but the difference between the two is that everybody and their mothers are playing Fortnite. That means that if I had to choose between the two, Fortnite would always be the choice because my friends are most likely playing that game and Fortnite has a forseeable future. As for Lawbreakers, I do believe that it wasn't a bad idea. But I also think it being a pure arena shooter would've had a much better chance at success considering Cliffy is known for arena shooters. Instead, it followed Overwatch without offering anything great (like a free price tag with Paladins).

Ultimately, I see this company trying to be David and trying to take down Goliath (Overwatch in Lawbreaker's case and Fortnite in Radical Height's case). But instead of targeting Goliath's weaknesses, they tried to imitate Goliath. And since Goliath is much bigger than David, Goliath won both times.

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#7 Posted by CJduke (1035 posts) -

The two things that killed Lawbreakers were its attitude and the fact that it wasn't free to play. Overwatch is so successful because it has great characters that people get attached to like a MOBA. They have built lore around these characters that people enjoy (whether or not it's any good is irrelevant) and the roster has a wide range of different personalities and cultures from all over the world. Lawbreakers characters seemed to be trying too hard to be edgy and "mature." None of them stand out or differentiate themselves from any other game. Their voice lines were cheesy and annoying and they all just looked like generic futuristic cyber people. Overwatch has a robot armed cowboy, a space gorilla, a pro gamer in a mech, a cyber ninja, a wasteland mad max duo, a rollerblading DJ...whether or not a person likes these characters it is incredibly easy to see why a lot of people do like them, they are interesting and diverse. Lawbreakers had none of the charm or creativity they needed to get people to like their heroes.

I'm under the opinion Lawbreakers could have turned out fine if it was free to play with a loot box system and holiday events. This would get people to try the game. play it sometimes when taking a break from Overwatch, and get friends to try the game was well. Get a dedicated fan base and people will buy skins/loot boxes or whatever you want to sell. You compare Lawbreakers to Overwatch a lot, but hell, Paladins is even more of an Overwatch clone and that game is successful with a very dedicated player base. Why? Because its free to play. Multiplayer gaming has been trending towards free to play for a long time for good reason. Maybe Boss Key saw the success of Overwatch at $40 and thought they could sell their game for $30 and be fine. I'm not sure why they thought this, since they would have to compete with Overwatch, Paladins, Counter Strike, SIege, Unreal, Quake, CoD, BF... but obviously they thought they had made a good enough game that they would stand out based on tight controls and lack of gravity.

Also not sure why everyone is calling Titanfall 2 a failure...sure it didn't do as great as it should have but that game is amazing and also has a very dedicated player base.

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#8 Posted by BlackRedGaming (273 posts) -

@cjduke: Lawbreaker's personality was something that went against the game, but I don't think it was the main reason for its downfall. Sure, character personality is key for a hero shooter and these characters were garbage, but I would personally consider it a smaller reason for the game's death.

Funnily enough, Lawbreakers was originally going to be free-to-play, but then decided not to. $30 is a fair price, but I agree its one chance against Overwatch was a free price tag. Unfortunately, going free meant it had to go against another game, Paladins. It actually would've been great for it to be free because I think both games would counter-balance each other instead of being competition. You can either choose the (im)mature faster-faced f2p Overwatch or you could choose the basically 1-to-1 f2p Overwatch.

As for the Titanfall 2 thing, I think it is a failure and one of gaming's biggest shames. That game is one of the best multiplayer shooter games I have played in a decade but last time I tried (about a month ago) the player count was in the hundreds and it took around 8 minutes to play in the coop mode. Honestly, I wish Respawn would add in bot pilots to the game.

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#9 Edited by YoThatLimp (2494 posts) -

I'm gonna take a guess that he learned about Overwatch at around 2015, which would give him two more years to change around his game just enough to make it a different kind of shooter, which he didn't

Having only two years to completely change your game doesn't seem like a lot of time.

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#10 Posted by BlackRedGaming (273 posts) -

@yothatlimp: They didn't have to change the whole game though. They could've tweaked around the maps to make it more like an arena shooter without changing major aspects like the zero g stuff and they could've ditched the hero abilities. Changing the whole game in two years is pretty much impossible, but I don't think they needed to change the whole game. They could've simply tweaked a few things hear and there to make it closer to an arena shooter. Hell, the game was halfway to an arena shooter, they just needed to go all the way.

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#11 Posted by dudeglove (13737 posts) -

Pretty good post, duder. What I've gleamed over the past few years in discussions and osmosis and whatever that helps explain Bosskey's.... hmm the right word is not "failure" but I'll get to it, is the following semi-order of events:

- Cliff & co had some sort of argument with Epic's main direction over some sort of tech/shader in the Unreal Engine which basically dictated the "look" of games which Cliff & co disagreed with. Cliff wanted to go one direction (the Lawbreakers aesthetic), Epic wanted to go another (Fortnite).

- Cliff & co made a BUNCH of money investing in Oculus pre the 2014 Facebook 2 billion USD buyout of which Cliff got a cut.

- With more money than sense (a bad combination), Cliff comes out of "retirement" to start BossKey to pursue BlueStreak/Lawbreakers. Epic is still spending forever on Fortnite, which started all the way back in 2011 (when Cliff was still working there - hell he even presented the initial trailer for it). Now I might be misremembering it, but I'm pretty sure I heard Cliff describe BKP as a "punk" studio, which is absolutely laughable for the time. What exactly is punk about an out of retirement millionaire setting up his own studio? But whatever.

- With literally no pressure above or below (as noble as it may seem to do so, very few in America bite the hand that feeds as threats to one's career/livelihood is extremely worrisome if you don't have, say, Facebook oculus buyout money in the bank) Cliff spends the past three-four years developing LB, wherein the team follows Cliff's obtuse notions as to what constitutes the "rule of cool" which appears to be stuck somewhere around WWF attitude era meets Korn meets Tribes/Unreal Tournament with smatterings of Rick & Morty humor (literally) thrown in.

- From about 2015/2016 Cliff cannot stop running his mouth off about both the game and the studio, making all sorts of statements like bizarre comparisons to Dark Souls, complaining about going up against Blizzard after the Overwatch reveal in an embarrassing GDC 2016 talk, and literally never getting off twitter. I use tweetdeck a bunch and I swear to god that he uses twitter more than the current US president because that dude is ALWAYS on, mostly tweeting nothing of interest. Mostly harmless garbage but bad takes regardless. I can't speak for the former BKP employees, but if I saw my boss basically shitposting day in day out, I would probably be pissed.

- Lawbreakers comes out in August 2017 and we mostly know what happens (weak sales, Arjaan leaves for Epic in December, as do others - they're in the same city and state after all), but here's a few interesting things I don't think enough people paid attention to. At the start of April 2018, Nexon (the publisher of Lawbreakers) pulls the plug, and BKP puts out a statement that they will be discontinuing support of the game as LB hadn't made money and Nexon didn't want to throw cash down a pit any more.

- About a week later, this tweet appears (since deleted and I'm blacking out the person's name) in response to Cliff being salty and tweeting at Epic for trying to "poach his staff"

No Caption Provided

Said person is now at Epic, who had left BKP right after LB got released. It's very common for people to see a project through to completion (not doing so means you don't get whatever expected bonus or credit on the game which fucking sucks and it's a practice that needs to stop). It's also fairly common for current or former staff to anonymously talk crap (see also numerous "EA spouse" posts of old which might stop if the previous point was addressed) about current or former jobs. But it's quite another thing for someone to call it out publicly. I can't help but feel that if Cliff is unrelenting in being an ass on Twitter (as of me posting he's still tweeting despite claiming to take time off), it's likely that he's even worse at the office. Who would want to work in that atmosphere? Better yet, who would stick around after a flop? Arjaan and this designer sure as shit didn't.

- Radical Heights comes out in "xtreme early access" and, last I checked steam charts, never goes past its all time peak number of users of 12,314. This number is still higher than what steam charts says for the LB all time peak, which is something like ~7000. Meanwhile Overwatch has since climbed to about 40 million uniques, and god knows how many Fortnite has.

- Radical Heights is where the BKP narrative falls apart for me. When your studio, which was set up as some sort of "punk" response in opposition to Epic/Fortnite, is basically making a clone of a Battle Royale, you are literally no longer "punk". The ideology fucking crumbles and it's the last nail in the coffin (y'know, on top of all the money evaporating).

...and well, the rest you know. The last few things I'll say is that the biggest thing to cripple BKP was three things: too much money, no actual criticism, and no real decent direction. Those three combined are a magic combination to ruin literally any project. Look at what happened to George Lucas, although even if he set fire to his piles of money some would still just get blown onto something and keep him wealthy regardless.

Though I did not play LB, I will also say that I don't think Cliff ever tried to scam anyone, nor did he deliver a product that wasn't fully featured. As such I don't think he'll ever turn into someone like, say, a certain ex-Minecraft developer.

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