Passion, Defeat, and Hope: Christian Allen Discusses The Personal Toll of Developing & Cancelling Epsilon
Christian Allen has been working on games since the late nineties. He started his career by developing mods for the Rainbow Six, which ended up landing him a job at Red Storm Entertainment working on the Ghost Recon franchise. From there, he worked his way all the way up to become Creative Director of the Ghost Recon franchise, starting with Island Thunder and ending his time at Red Storm on Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2.
Following his time at Red Storm, he shifted over to Bungie to become design lead on Halo Reach. His credits also include work on games such as Mad Max and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. In 2012, Allen decided to leave the AAA game development scene and start his own game development studio in Seattle called Serellan LLC. In that same year, Allen and his team would launch a Kickstarter campaign for Takedown: Red Sabre, a game that promised the return of the tactical shooter genre. The campaign was successful, but the game itself is a different story.
Following the release of Takedown, it has been an uphill battle for the Serellan team. The game was met with abysmal reviews from critics upon release, and backers of the project were equally unimpressed by the game. By all accounts, Takedown was a failure for Allen and his team. Based on reading many of the reviews of the game on Steam, it would seem Takedown was essentially a shell of what was promised by the Serellan team.
Allen released a half-an-hour long postmortem video that attempted to explain to backers what went wrong with the project. The video goes pretty in-depth discussing the issues Serellan faced while developing Takedown. If you’d like to hear the raw story on Takedown’s troubled development directly form the source, you can watch it just below.
Serellan continued to work on Takedown for about five months after the game initially launched, releasing patches and free DLC to try and keep the game afloat. Despite their efforts, the damage was done and the game was dead in the water less than a year after release. The final update for the game was released on March 6, 2014.
Despite everything that went wrong with Takedown and the overwhelmingly negative reception of the game, Allen and his team were proud of the work they accomplished. The mere act of releasing, albeit a Kickstarter game, is “nothing to sneeze at,” Allen told me.
It wasn’t long after the release of Takedown that Allen and his team started working on their next project that would eventually become their next work-in-progress tactical shooter.
“After we wrapped Takedown in the spring of ’14, we spent some time working on a prototype for a sci-fi game for a big publisher (Project Pi – there is some gameplay footage on our YouTube channel), that unfortunately fell through,” Allen explained. “After regrouping from that, we spent some time talking about what we wanted to do next, polled the community, and they were still interested in a tactical shooter.
“The feedback that we got from those surveys showed a strong interest in the single player planning element of tactical shooters. Meanwhile, since we had spent a lot of time developing the art style for Project Pi, we decided it would be a good fit for an indie tac shooter, and then Epsilon was conceived.”
On July 23, 2015, Serellan officially announced Epsilon and in a gesture of goodwill towards backers of the ill-fated Takedown, the game was to be provided to them free of charge. A total of 5,423 backers would have received the game for free, assuming they claimed the code provided to them. In addition, Serellan sent out an additional 10,000 units to Operation Supply Drop.
Epsilon officially launched on Steam Early Access on October 1, 2015 and was met with positive reception pretty much right off the bat from Serellan community members.
“The initial reaction from the community was good with a strong response to the art style, especially, as many folks were surprised that a small indie studio was producing a tac shooter with those visuals,” explained Allen. “In fact, some feedback we got from some indie funds was that it was ‘too AAA.'”
The press on the other hand almost completely ignored Epsilon at launch. A quick Google search on Epsilon shows very few results from any of the mainstream press outlets. The lack of press coverage and providing so many game keys for free significantly impacted the development of Epsilon, as Serellan was unable to bring much of any money in from the Early Access launch to continue development of the game.
“The launch went smooth and, in general, the feedback was positive. However, the units just did not move. After we gave away copies to the Takedown Kickstarters, and 10,000 units to Operation Supply Drop, there just was not a flow of sales. We tried to keep up with adding more content, features, and bug fixes, but without any real sales, I really couldn’t justify continuing to spend money on the project. I tried for a few months to find other financing options, but they did not come through for various reasons.”
Game development can be an incredibly taxing job. Most game developers I have talked to always tell me how it’s one of the most stressful, but also rewarding experiences to take part in. For Christian Allen, Epsilon was a second chance to try and bring back the tactical shooter genre he initially promised with Takedown, and at the same time wipe off the smudge that Takedown had left on his studio.
A lack of sales and press coverage caused a lot of stress for Allen, as it would any developer. Allen was eventually hospitalized due to complications with his heart which was linked to the amount of stress he fought with while trying to develop Epsilon.
While developing a game, Allen also had the job of keeping the community updated on a regular basis, trying to reach out to the press and taking care of all the other responsibilities required in running a business. On February 10, 2017, Allen and Serellan officially shelved Epsilon. The cancellation was rather quiet, and I only found it after checking up on the game via Twitter as I had previously covered it on another site.
“I was pulling 80 hour weeks just to keep up, and constant stress is hell on your heart and other systems, especially as I have an ongoing history from military service,” Allen explained to me. “My doctor basically gave me an ultimatum to take a break to recover. With the ongoing financial loss combined with the health stuff and stress on my family, I finally decided it was time to make the call.”
It’s no easy thing to give up on a personal project that you’ve invested time, money and your passion into. For game developers, this could mean shelving years of work and disappointing thousands of fans who were looking forward to playing the final product.
Developers want you to play their game as much as they want to finish it, and throwing in the towel on a project is one of the hardest choices game developers sometimes have to make. For Allen, making the call to cancel Epsilon was especially hard as the game was receiving a much warmer reception than his previous project. Giving up on a chance for redemption only made the cancellation more difficult for Allen.
“It was very difficult, both because I really wanted to complete the game and because I had a lot of content and systems that were in progress that I had to make the call to stop working on,” Allen recalled. “It was really a case of needing to stop hoping that eventually things would pick up. There were some really cool systems that were partly done but just weren’t ready to be released that I had to lock down, which really sucked.
“I think Epsilon could have been a really solid title had we had the resources to continue working on it – the trajectory was going well. It felt like we were hitting the right notes, but people saying nice things doesn’t always translate into sales, and without sales, at some point you have to call it.”
Despite the disappointment of canceling Epsilon, Allen hasn’t left the games industry and is currently doing contract and consulting work, and has several things in the works that he can’t discuss right now. He also released a very small VR title called Hotel Blind in April of last year.
Allen did admit to me that staying out of the public eye for a while has been a nice break and has allowed him to focus on his health and family. But, Allen doesn’t expect to be quiet for much longer as he loves working and being involved in the games industry.
I wish gamers would remember that there are people behind the games they play. – Christian Allen
On a more personal note in this feature, I have to say I admire Allen for sticking with the games industry following the recent string of disappointments and problems he’s faced over the past few years. Despite everything, he seems proud of everything he and his team have accomplished, and it hasn’t curbed his enthusiasm for developing games.
I was curious, then, what Allen would say to developers who are facing or will face some of the same issues that he faced previously in game development.
“I would say build what you are passionate about, but look at ways to test the waters before you dive in and spend a lot of resources on something,” Allen said. “Just because you see some titles taking off, don’t assume that yours will do the same thing. Also, don’t be too far ahead of the curve. Sometimes it makes more sense to wait and see how markets and technology matures before you dive in and try and build it yourself or take big risks – especially if you are taking the risk yourself.
“No one cares that you are doing it or financing it yourself and taking all the heat. They only care about what they play.
“I wish gamers would remember that there are people behind the games they play. I think that seems to get lost a lot, for various reasons. Game developers are gamers, too. We are just as passionate about games as the fans that play them, arguably more-so. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t, but we never stop caring.”
AMENDMENT: Following this story, Christian Allen has recently accepted a new role at Operation Supply Drop as the Program Director of Games to Grunts.
— Christian Allen (@Serellan) June 23, 2017