Header illustration by Erica Lahaie
From Software—the world-famous studio behind the Souls series—hasn't always been counted as one of the more successful and well-established studios in the Japanese game development scene. Despite garnering a little attention with games like Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven and the Armored Core series, before their breakthrough with Demon's Souls in 2010, the studio struggled to make any kind of verifiable impact on a large scale in the West. Even the direct backing of Sony did little to guide them to the loving audience they enjoy today.
In the early 00's, as the studio's plans for the future were laid out internally, there was one project in particular that would push the boundaries of what their team had done before. To back their ambition, and to take advantage of the company's flagship multiplayer network, it was decided the game would release on Microsoft's new console, the Xbox 360. From also knew that for their ideas to have any chance of working out as they'd hoped, they would needed a global audience. Sega was brought on board to handle the marketing and publishing side, as well as a lot of the technical challenges behind its, at the time, hugely ambitious online mode.
The result of that partnership was Chromehounds, a predominantly online-based console exclusive involving the building and battling of giant, fully customisable mecha known as Hounds. Releasing exclusively for the Xbox 360, it was far from being the mind-blowing, genre-defining beast they needed it to be. In fact, Chromehounds was a commercial failure in every sense.
Despite its problems, though, it fostered a faithful community, overcoming major technical challenges and offering a unique gameplay experience that would resonate strongly with those who enjoyed its unique take on mecha warfare and continuing to do so years after the game was taken offline.
"Out of all the stuff I've worked on it wasn't necessarily one of the biggest things, but it's one that I get pinged about from time after time, randomly here or there, no matter where I'm at," Justin Lambros mentions with a smile.
Currently an executive producer at Telltale Games, Lambros was the producer in charge of Chromehounds during its development, as well as a number of other titles being overseen by Sega of America at the time. I spoke to him about what it was like to work on a game with such a passionate, albeit small community, why he thinks it caught on with players the way it did, as well as the challenges associated with developing such an ambitious title.
"One of the major things that Lambros recalls when thinking about his time working on Chromehounds is, unsurprisingly, the game's online mode. "From a technological perspective, there was a new Xbox platform, I can't remember what it was, but I remember having to work very closely with Xbox to get it to work."
But as Lambros mentioned, the most memorable part of Chromehounds was its persistent online multiplayer mode - known in fiction as The Neroimus Wars. The mode cast clans of players as mercenary squads for hire. Each clan would pledge allegiance to one of the three major powers in the world, waging war on the other factions in a bid to gain territory or defend their ground.
Each match was a skirmish in this larger battle, and each region was worth several points towards victory in the larger conflict. If a territory has all its points taken by an opposing nation, that territory was lost and the enemy moved a step closer to the capital. If a nation's capital fell, that nation was absorbed into the occupying force, effectively doubling the invader's firepower. Members of the defeated nation could also form a resistance and attempt to take back the capital, however it was a rare case that one of these were successful.
The customization of each Hound also turned out to be a huge draw for the players that did connect to the game. Most of the ex- Chromehounds players I spoke with all said the same thing--the time spent building and optimizing their Hound builds was some of the most rewarding. This took a lot of work to get right on the development side, too, offers Lambros. "What a nightmare and treat it was both for players and for QA to try and figure out."
Be it figuring out a better way to shield your cockpit from enemy fire or starting a new type of Hound from scratch, at least half the time people spent in Chromehounds was in the garage, poring over the hundreds of different parts and assorted stat numbers. "It was almost daunting and confusing because there were so many options in it," explains Lambros.
"So you'd think 'I don't really know how to wield this', but then the more time you spend with it there was always more to learn, another role, or another hybrid role to figure out. It was just amazingly deep and I think in some regards we were better off doling it out slower."
That depth is why, late in the production cycle, the team decided to add on a single player mode. " Part of it was just because there was so much to learn and so much to figure out that we needed a way to give people a safe space to start monkeying with these combinations, slowly start seeing pieces and witness the roles, rather than the unfriendly confines of the online mode where you could be letting your teammates down because your Hound sucks and you're blowing up all the time."
Fans I spoke with barely gave it a mention, recalling it only when prompted and remembering it as a way to unlock and test new parts; a glorified tutorial. This underscores a noteworthy point of difference in understanding between the audience and the developer, though to attribute the failure of the campaign to land a bulls eye down to mere differences of opinion would be foolish. Had they given themselves more time, could they have fashioned something more meaningful?
Lambros elaborated on the thinking behind the addition. "Chromehounds is one of the interesting ones where, for the design of the tanks and nations and such, [From Software] was looking very worldwide, very western," Lambros explained. "They wanted to know what they could accomplish with that type of thinking, so being a western game they figured it was 'Story mode.' That's something that gives some people a sense of a world and some immersion, as well as a safe place to play the game."
Lambros poses this initial outreach may have set them towards the kind of thinking that was behind some of their more recently successful titles—the idea being that by reaching out beyond their usual frame of reference, From Software not only gained a greater exposure to the elements of western video games that those audiences attach to, but learned how to adapt these ideas and systems in ways that felt crisp and fresh to players.
Given Lambros' previous experience at LucasArts as a writer, content supervisor, and associate producer across several Star Wars games, I wondered whether he was able to offer anything in terms of knowledge or ideas that helped build the experience in a way that would move Chromehounds away from the anime-like humanoid style of Armored Core; a then PlayStation exclusive.
"The anime stuff made [Armored Core] very niche, so we were trying to figure a way to get it into the wider western market instead of just hitting that niche that a lot of the Sega of Japan developed games would hit; that core Japanese gaming fan instead of trying to figure out something broader."
Lambros sticks by this decision to this day, and believes that this mindset served From Software well in the long run. "[Seeking outside influence] was a really cool idea and one of the things that lead them to get some of the great successes that they've had later. They were willing to experiment and listen and try to find something that crosses over. Demon's Souls is a great example of something that is unique and different, but something that has more worldwide appeal than something like the Armored Core series, for sure."
For a console game to offer an online experience with MMO-like elements such as national elections and clan leaderboards that didn't require a subscription, showed tremendous ambition and a willingness to experiment that undoubtedly gave From Software plenty of valuable experience. However, in mid-2009, given the game's lackluster sales and Sega's receding tide in the industry, it was announced that Chromehounds servers would be going offline permanently in January 2010.
"For any company, it's really just about ROI", says Lambros explaining the factors that go into consideration for taking a game out of service. "How much does it cost to keep going and how many fans are playing this? At the time it would've been small, but also the costs were very small. It was over three years the game was online, right?"
But Lambros also points out that—at least anecdotally—Chromehounds' multiplayer servers were kept alive for a long time, given its small audience. "I think that's one of the cool reasons why people were so interested, they were able to invest in and play those modes for so long."
The closure announcement was a hammer-blow to the community which, by this stage, had thinned down to only a few hundred consistent players worldwide. According to Lambros, Chromehounds roughly sold under half a million copies over its lifetime, meaning its fate was effectively sealed from an early stage. Its shuttering also served as a call-to-arms, with one person in particular going above and beyond to not only continue the games legacy, but improve on it, one piece at a time.
Chad Mauldin is a part of an online group of ex- Chromehounds players dedicated to remembering its stories, in-between occasionally praying to Sega to do something with the Chromehounds IP. Chad also happens to be a full-time game developer—he was a part of the team at Yager, dedicating himself full-time to the ill-fated Dead Island 2 before moving elsewhere, still within AAA-development.
Of greater interest is his work outside normal office hours. Chad runs his own one-person studio: Boomdog Studios. His first game is a PC-based, Chromehounds-inspired, mecha building and battling game named M.A.V., or "Modular Assault Vehicle."
"It's something I love. I mean it's something we all love. The community is incredibly supportive… luckily my family is allowing me to do this."
It's been a lengthy labour of love—five years, to be exact—as of January 2017. What started out as a personal passion project quickly caught the attention of the ex-Chromehounds community, and M.A.V has been steadily growing its own off the back of Chromehounds' legacy ever since.
Above: M.A.V. Beta Release Trailer. Courtesy of Bombdog Studios
After spending a bit of time with M.A.V. myself, it didn't take long to feel like Boomdog has managed to harness much of what made Chromehounds feel so unique, whilst attempting to improve on some of its more glaring frustrations. Classes feel different both in attack and defense, finding yourself stuck out in the open will cause you problems, though you can't use armor or dead parts as a way to shield your cockpit or generator from damage; damaged limbs actually break off instead of acting as a shield of scrap metal hanging off your machine.
It hasn't been all that smooth a ride for Mauldin; M.A.V. and Boomdog have seen their fair share of ups and downs. A successful Kickstarter campaign and some media attention led to over-confidence, culminating in a rushed-out campaign mode that broke the game in spectacular ways. Fans called it 'the Dark Times', with the campaign being subsequently rolled-back and removed from the game. It has yet to return, though I'm told it will, eventually. Mauldin also made the choice of releasing Steam's early access only to remove the game from it again just as promptly, citing the need to build a proper community from real fans who seek the game out, rather than stumble across its Steam store page.
"I've been very careful about trying to foster a community of people who care," he explains. "I mean I know all these people on TeamSpeak. All these guys have been playing for years. That's the community I wanted to foster because that's the community I got from Chromehounds. It was much more about working together."
It's easy to pick up that the genuine passion being expressed from within the M.A.V. community is a motivation for Mauldin. He frequently brings them up, sometimes referencing players by their first name. I get the impression that, without them, M.A.V. probably wouldn't exist at all, let alone in the playable state it's in.
Mauldin recognizes there is plenty of work left to be done, but he seems to be settled in for the long-haul. Given the perpetually iterative state of game development, in the modern era and the ongoing positive response from players, driven in part by his once-a-week State of the Game posts, it's exciting to wonder about what's in M.A.V.'s future.
On that same note, I can't help but imagine what Chromehounds might've been like if it were a modern video game released in 2017, instead of one we're forced to remember from the better part of a decade ago. What lessons could the now well-travelled From Software put towards an imagining of the second Neroimus War? We'll probably never know for sure, but maybe that adds to the almost mythical status that Chromehounds holds, at least within the minds of those who there.