Talking SCUM with Gamepires’ Andrej Levenski – Console Release, Early Access & More
Shortly after a triumphant talk from the Gamepires team at Reboot Develop Blue 2019 in Dubrovnik, Croatia, I managed to sit down with the Technical Director at Gamepires, Andrej Levenski, and he spoke at length about what it's been like dealing with a hugely successful game and then keeping up with that success.
SCUM launched in August 2018 on Steam Early Access and sold like crazy right out of the gate, to the surprise of even the team themselves. Ever since they've been scrambling to keep open world survival action game updated with more content, and liaising with the community to improve the game and make it something they'll return to time and time again, for years to come.
Read our full interview with Andrej Levenski below, and if you're interested in a games industry job, perhaps reach out to Gamepires, they seem keen to hire programmers and make the game as good as it possibly can be. For more on SCUM, Gamepires and everything else you could possibly want to know, keep reading Wccftech.
I'd like to hear a little bit about your experience at Gamepires and SCUM. When SCUM first launched on Steam it was a massive success. How has that experience been for the company?
Andrej Levenski: Yeah, it was fantastic. Because when we started SCUM, it was only six guys, we wanted to make something new. To everybody else, it was a crazy idea that only six people can make some kind of survival game, you need to start with something. And it took us around three years to finish some basic model, a game is ready to be released early access, and we started with six people. In the end, it was 16, this is still a very small number. And they needed to cut corners in every possible way just to get something to start. The original idea was we needed money for development to make the best survival game ever. And we can have lots of great ideas. But this takes lots of people and lots of money to make something happen like that. And because of that, we really like early access. I will explain why; you will see in the industry that every big publisher, big developer, are always going to do something that is working and proven, release Call of Duty 10, 11, 12, just only small changes because they are afraid production is very costly. So if they try to experiment with some ideas, they may fail. And only indies are currently experimenting. And you will see that won't happen with Ark, PUBG, Minecraft. These projects started in garages in some way. And when you don't have anything to lose, then some great ideas happen. And early access is a great tool to achieve that. Because if you present your idea in the proper way, you have the money to complete that project in the end. And after that, you will see how big publishers copy everything. It was great that success happened almost overnight because we have some kind of idea of how many people played the game on the day of the release. It was a million people in the game originally. That's pretty good, when we talk with other developers how many players they get on even bigger titles that you see on top-selling charts, and they didn't get 150,000 or 200,000. So it was really something. But we're preoccupied just trying to make a good game and present it in the best way possible.
So we'd done some predictions for how everything will go at the launch of SCUM. And we had just released, pressed the button, and we danced with champagne, and said, 'if this succeeds, great, if it doesn't succeed, you gave your best, nothing bad can happen in the end.' And after two hours, we just press refresh and it was already 50,000. Every refresh, it was 5000 more, it was insane. At first, you're happy. But then our servers started struggling with all of the players. And by midnight we had insane player traffic, it was more than 70,000 users at the same time connected and playing the game. And our master server was crashing, then we are doing programming and DPM just to handle all the possible traffic. And it was something that lots of people don't experience in their lifetime. And then we finished with the celebrating, it lasted only two hours. And then we needed to patch the game fast just to fix some stuff that people find in a very, very short period of time. And after that, we needed to expand team costs. And this is something that we are doing even today because it's very hard to hire people. Our biggest problem was when you succeed with the project, people are expecting lots of patches. They think you can grow the team overnight, that is not possible. People need to finish their current job, then they will learn about the project, they will probably produce something after four months in the company. But people expect results now, but at the moment when we are still set up in the company just to keep up with a much higher rate of the updates. So I think that's the biggest problem for most of the industry. Everybody starts with large numbers, and drop down. And they cannot keep up because they have money but cannot hire new guys, it's still the same guys working with that project. So I think that's the biggest transformation that's happened. And it's very hard to struggle with that, what's happening after the success.
So what was the experience like launching early access? I know you said that it has been very good for the most part, but do you think that affects how people see SCUM?
AL: Yeah, definitely. Because early access is not anymore like what it was before. At first, it was some kind of experiment with people wanted to try something different in development. Right now people are expecting that the game is finished. And this is really hard. For example, even bigger games, like Far Cry, you will probably play it for 8, 10, or 15 hours. And you are finished with that game. And this is a AAA game with maybe three, four years of development. And with finished content, lots of stuff. And you are done after ten hours. But in early access, people expect they will have even more play hours in the game and it's probably only a quarter of the game that is finished. So it's very hard to convince them how game development is progressing because they don't see what is happening in the background. Everything is the same, how we release the patch, how we're testing everything, how we present stuff. This is something that's happening with the internal testing team, or maybe a closed testing group. But people don't see that. they see the final production. And now everything we do, people say that we are doing it the wrong way. That is the problem. And now developers probably need to be very close to finishing the game or something like that to release in early access.
People will not forget something that happens, for example, The Forest, when you check the first version or the first version of PUBG, this is not working anymore. You will need to work much much more before releasing something public. Because lots of games fail in early access. And now, the climate surrounding early access is very bad for the developer. And it's really a shame because that system is very similar to Kickstarter campaign because you are presenting something, you are searching for the investors as the end user, and trying to achieve something that you will not be able to finish by yourself. Right now, when we achieve some new ideas, we discover that there are lots of bigger publishers that contact us and ask us how we've done it. 'Can you help us, maybe to integrate something similar into our games?' and stuff like that. So they are actually looking and listening, but they're always trying to see if something can speak to the market, and they will try to copy that. And that's why for example, now we have many Battle Royale games, because they see what PUBG did, and H1Z1, etc. Yeah, so indie guys are the guys that are pushing the industry forward. And that's why I think that there is still reason to invest into small indie teams.
When do you think SCUM will come out of early access?
AL: Yeah, our original idea was one year, to a year and a half. But things have changed over the course of development, for example, people constantly asking us to do some stuff that we didn't plan in the original design document. So this can definitely change the course of the game. And right now, there are people that already have thousands of hours logged on the game, and they'll probably not stop playing anytime soon. So we'll probably, at some point, close the game and say this is the closed version of the game 1.0, but we will not stop there with developing SCUM. Because lots of games currently work as some kind of service, when you're constantly updating games, or gaining new users, and returning older players, and some games like World of Tanks are still working after 10 years. So why stop there? You can improve the technology, the gameplay, your stuff, and especially with sandbox games, you can go diving, go hunting, making your garden, it's unlimited. Unlimited ideas can come up with this sandbox game. So if people are asking something of us, we will do it. And that can influence the development of the game.
Do you have any intentions to release SCUM on consoles in the future?
AL: Yeah, definitely, we've already done some experiments on the consoles. And I'll say I'm really surprised all is working nicely. First run on the console, I was afraid that we are pushing Unreal Engine to the limits. And it definitely is. But we had some kind of vision for how SCUM will look and what we would like to simulate in the world. And this definitely had an impact on the PC, and all consoles are pretty old hardware right now. If I compared it to current PCs, it's probably around 10 times slower. So it's very hard to achieve something good. But with Unreal Engine, it wasn't that hard just to just have a base version running. And we have had very good results, I was actually expecting like one or two FPS on consoles, but we already have, like 30 FPS. So I think we can even push that further. From day one the idea was to have the original version at some point, we just needed to expand the team. And it's very hard just to find new programmers. And it's very hard to bring people from other countries to work for you. So that's the biggest struggle, how to optimize work, how to utilize all the people in the team 100%. And this is also one of the struggles, because we have design documents, working from feature to feature, but sometimes some features will need to have an animator, 3D designer, and a programmer. So we need some kind of way to queue the jobs. So we have the best possible utilization of the team. So that's why people will see from time to time, some, perhaps, stupid and funny feature gets in. This is something that is laying on top of everything, and we needed to free up time for that feature. We tell staff, 'can you make something, like some new gestures, while we're waiting for the program to implement something for you?' And she was doing so much additional content, and people say 'why are you doing stupid things?' but you cannot tell the public the complete timeline. Because that's too much information, lots of internal stuff. Nobody is likely to read it and understand what is happening internally.
So for me, the biggest challenge in the industry is the difference between the consumers and the developers, it was like a huge gap that nobody can cross in between. Because when you buy a car, you see 'Oh, this is a one-tonne piece of metal and lots of technology, I will pay you 100 euros for this car. But software is maybe 10 million lines of code, but you don't see what is happening here. What is happening in the office, people see the product, and they will then decide, is this something that I will give $20, $30, $60. Thousands and thousands of hours of development time and people have families and need to survive. And for me, I think that the best thing will happen for the gaming industry if it's more open. Because I think the game industry needs to educate people, what is happening in the industry to get more of an idea of what is happening in the background and how to appreciate that work. Because you'll pay maybe $20 for a pizza, you will eat it, then you're finished, you're done. But for a game, you'll maybe have 1,000 hours of the experiences and enjoyment with your friends, and it's a different category. But still, people don't have that awareness how hard and difficult this is. And I think that's a battle that we'll need to fight in the future because we all have the same problem. People don't have a problem paying a thousand dollars for a GPU, but for the game, it's a problem to give even 20. And I think in the game industry, that's the biggest area where they've failed because we don't explain how stuff is working. This is what we're trying to achieve with a small staff, trying to be open.
Do you think the Unreal Engine has helped the development of SCUM?
AL: Yeah, definitely we'd probably not achieve it without Unreal Engine. We had our technology before, but it was a different survival type of game. We worked with, maybe, five different engines. Long ago I was working on space simulations, to adventure games, lots of different type of games. And it's not a problem for us to make an engine but you need time. And because of that, we chose the Unreal Engine because the C++, low-level access, so even if Epic cannot help us with something, we can change it in the engine. So this is something that you don't see too frequently, that some company is giving you the source code, and that there is a big community that can help you with stuff. But it was much, much harder than we expected. Because when people see some kind of demo on Unreal Engine, they think, 'Oh, it's possible.' No, it's not possible because you need to see the bigger picture. We have lots of small puzzles, and we need to stitch everything together. Some of the features will not work. That's a problem.
And the original design of Unreal Engine was not for massively multiplayer games. And you will see that in Ark, PUBG, everyone struggles with lag, because network code is made for Unreal Tournament games, deathmatch, arenas, no streaming, just single lag alone. We are shooting each other, 60 players, no network traffic, you don't need to make optimizations. And it was just was very hard. Until Epic made Fortnite. Even Paragon was an arena style game. And when they started making a battle royale game, they saw how lots of things were not working, and how much they needed to change the engine to achieve open-world survival games. And even guys that started before us, Ark, PUBG, they probably struggled even more just to start, and they were probably doing some house changes just to achieve some stable framerates and low lag, and so on. And that was the biggest problem with Unreal Engine because lots of things weren't there for open-world survival games. And it can trick you because you say; 'Oh, Ark is doing fine, they have around 40-50 players, and it's working fine' but it was lots of engineering behind that just achieve that. So it's not out of the box.
Is there anything else about SCUM that you'd like people to know?
AL: Yeah, I can say that we are just warming up. So we are currently doubling the team, still searching for the people. There'll be 31 of us very soon. And we are still searching for programmers, expanding the team. And we can finally work as expected. Everything before we were doing on credit. So cutting corners. Right now we need to redesign lots of stuff from the core just to implement some new features that we have planned. But if we didn't code the way we did, the original way, that feature would not be available. So that's why we are still fixing some issues that we've had for a few years, but everything will settle down and we'll continue to work on SCUM. So I think it will be a great year for SCUM and Gamepires.
Great, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.