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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Fair
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Inside the minds of Human Head Studios
The Madison-based game developer uses maximum ingenuity to create the new Minimum
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Any seasoned gamer who's dodged missiles and firestorms in a multiplayer deathmatch knows there's a time when it's best to crouch behind cover for a few seconds, honing a careful strategy rather than charging in with CRB Vector-submachine guns blazing. It's often the difference between surviving and ending up a corpse in another player's killing spree.

Quiet, careful contemplation is also a strategy at Human Head Studios, one of Madison's two major game-development studios. The company has spent the last 17 years developing first- and third-person shooter games for PCs and consoles. Formed in 1997 when a group of developers broke off from Raven Software to start their own company, it has survived challenges and misfortunes that would have sunk almost any other developer, including industry changes, a devastating office fire and the messy demise of a triple-A development project.

Despite it all, Human Head has persevered. In late May, the company released its first major original project since Prey, a first-person shooter released in 2006. A downloadable PC game called Minimum, the new release is a third-person, team-based multiplayer shooter garnished with clever elements of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) gaming. The company released it with a healthy splash of crowdsourcing. Minimum is part of Steam's cutting-edge early-access program, which gives subscribers a taste of games before they're released.

"Human Head has always been a low-key company," says Tim Gerritsen, co-owner, director of business development and de facto spokesman. "We prefer to work on the project and let the project do the speaking. A lot of studios, you've got guys [who] see making a game-development company as 'I'm going to get rich making games.' Here it's always been about the craft and the art of making games."

Triumph and tragedy

Human Head's first game, a Norse-themed PC title called Rune, hit stores way back in 2000, but it wasn't until 2006 that the studio made mainstream gamers sit up and take notice. That year saw the debut of the company's first Xbox 360 title, Prey, whose release party packed the Orpheum in downtown Madison. At that point, the sky was the limit.

Less than a year later, a major fire ravaged the front section of Human Head's new east-side offices. No one died, and there was no major loss of data, but the fire sidelined the company's entire operation for two months.

It also did something else.

"In a way, it was a bonding experience for us," says Chris Rhinehart, one of the company's founders. "Years later I would joke, 'Want to find a way to solidify your team? Have a fire.' But seriously, I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone."

Ditto for what happened next, with the rollout of Prey's sequel. Hopes were high in the wake of an impressive demo of Prey 2 at the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo. But the following year, the project struggled and finally collapsed under rumors of a widening rift between Human Head and Prey 2's publisher, Bethesda Software. Neither party will comment directly on the now-resolved situation, but a 2012 ign.com story speculated that the disagreement involved a rebuffed Bethesda bid to purchase Human Head and a subsequent attempt to obtain the rights to Prey 2.

Wasting several years of hard work, at a time when the gaming industry was freaking out about a transition to the next generation of consoles, should have spelled bankruptcy and closure. But that fate didn't come to pass. Gerritsen credits a long track record of solid work and a careful approach to signing contracts. He says Human Head was positioned to land on its feet from the very beginning.

"It's always been a very small studio, so it's very flexible," he says, noting that Human Head has never had more than 40 to 50 employees and that many of them, including most of the founders, have been there since day one. "Because of our industry contacts, we've always had the ability to pick up new work. We have an expertise that's somewhat rare. There's not a lot of indies left that are old school and have the experience."

Gerritsen knows what he's talking about. He left Human Head for five years, beginning in 2007, to help Boston-based Irrational Games craft a glittering city in the sky for the triple-A title Bioshock Infinite. Despite creating one of 2013's most critically acclaimed console titles, Irrational folded last year.

Moving forward with Minimum

Human Head's recent past backs up Gerritsen's assertion about seasoned indie game developers. In the last few years alone, the company has provided key services like level design, programming, development and art support to big-time games like Brink, Defiance and Bioshock Infinite. Perhaps most notably, Human Head is fully responsible for the Wii U version of Batman: Arkham Origins, one of the few early Wii U titles to garner strong reviews.

"We don't dwell on the past or negativity," Rhinehart says. "Everyone is going to experience some type of failure. That's just a fact in business and in life. The key is learning from that failure and moving forward."

That forward motion led to Minimum, a game that wasn't originally a Human Head project; it was conceived as a free-to-play title by Houston-based game studio TimeGate. When TimeGate went bankrupt last year, the game's publisher, the venerable Atari, approached Gerritsen and company for advice on its newly acquired intellectual property.

"They needed somebody to look at the code and see how stable it was, how solid it was, and what could be done with it," Gerritsen says. "They said, 'You guys are the experts on this. We would love for you to bring it to fruition.'"

Minimum's biggest weapon may be its position at the intersection of several popular games and genres. At its core, it's a MOBA like the insanely popular Defense of the Ancients, whose recent national tournament was just broadcast on ESPN2. Playing it involves collecting materials and crafting things like armor and weapons, which also figure prominently in Minecraft, an insanely popular game that shares Minimum's 8-bit graphical vibe. And one of Minimum's main game modes offers opportunities to build, protect and battle skyscraper-size robot titans like those in the insanely popular Titanfall.

Norm Nazaroff, leader of the Minimum project, sees the game as a strategic marriage between two of his favorite things -- modern MOBA madness and the arcade-y, old-school shooters of the 1990s, games like Unreal Tournament and Quake 3.

"Shooters are a tough market," Nazaroff says. "You really have to do something to make yourself stand out."

In Minimum's case, that something is the ability to create customized three-piece armor sets that amp up the player's abilities or counteract opponents' abilities (or both). For instance, there are armors that allow players to fly, amplify damage and speed healing of teammates. Best of all, they can be swapped and re-swapped as each match progresses.

"The idea is that it gives you a strategic decision to make over the whole length of the match. I'm looking at what my opponents are doing, and I'm either trying to build armor that reacts to their strategy or emphasizes mine," Nazaroff says.

Steam power

Minimum's method of release also sets it apart from the rank and file: It's currently only available through Steam's early-access program, which Nazaroff likes to call "a better Kickstarter."

"Instead of putting your money in and maybe getting a game 12 to 18 months down the road, or maybe never, early access gives you a game that's already [developed] to a pretty far state," Nazaroff says. "We're saying, 'If you give us money, you can start playing this tomorrow. We don't have everything in it that we're going to have by the time we're done, but we're going to use that money [for] the finishing of the parts.'"

In May, Minimum debuted on Steam Early Access for $20, which gave buyers access to the game's Titan mode. In June, the studio added a Team Deathmatch mode, plus new maps and a host of new armors and weapons to unlock. Co-op play and voice chat are on tap for August.

Steam also gave players something that could be considered even more valuable: the opportunity to interact directly with Human Head's development team and influence the content and direction of the game.

Minimum is currently ranked among the top 100 titles on Steam's early-access list. Gerritsen and Nazaroff hope to pull the game from early access by September and market it as a standard release on Steam.

In a way, Minimum has been a redemptive experience for Nazaroff.

"We've had the experience of not being able to bring something that you're excited about to your fans, so I can imagine what that must have felt like for a lot of the people at TimeGate," he says. "We had a chance to protect a similar property from suffering a [similar] fate."

Human Head's future looks brighter than the colors of the armor in Minimum. The company's already working on another undisclosed original project, and Gerritsen spent the last Game Developers Conference in San Francisco alerting contacts to new projects the company is working on.

"One of the compliments I get from publishers is that when they talk to studios that have been around for a while, they see this creative downtrend where at first the studio is hungry and they have all these ideas. Then, over time, the industry beats them down, and they're not as creative," Gerritsen says.

He insists that Human Head is different.

"We're always looking. We're not chasing the trends. We're trying to do what excites us. The secret of Human Head over all these years is that we do it our way."

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