In late January, an exciting and unlikely project showed up on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter: a request for $900,000 to make a video game adaptation of Apocalypse Now, officially blessed by the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola. The page described the game as a survival-horror adventure with a sophisticated branching narrative, allowing players to create their own storyline for protagonist Benjamin Willard — whether that meant single-mindedly pursuing the rogue special forces agent Colonel Kurtz or sitting on a boat dropping acid. “I’ve been watching video games grow into a meaningful way to tell stories,” said Coppola in a statement, “and I’m excited to explore the possibilities for Apocalypse Now for a new platform and a new generation.”
Today, three weeks after launch, Apocalypse Now studio Erebus LLC effectively ended the underperforming Kickstarter campaign. While the campaign may officially stay open, Erebus is moving fundraising efforts to its website, seeking $5 million. The hope, according to the site, is to give Erebus complete independence from traditional video game publishers. The team leads think this will avoid problems that helped doom the project a decade ago, at a small and short-lived studio called Killspace. But former Killspace employees contend that the problems ran deeper than Apocalypse Now’s developers admit.
Killspace was launched in 2009 by two Erebus co-founders, Montgomery Markland and Larry Liberty. The roughly 40-person Los Angeles studio kept a low profile, and it completed only one game over its three-year lifespan: Yar’s Revenge, a little-known Atari remake that was released in 2011. As Markland describes it, Killspace was a casualty of the Great Recession, a small company damned by its reliance on foundering giants like Atari, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
To former employees, though, the picture is more complicated. After the Kickstarter launch of Apocalypse Now in January, The Verge talked to half a dozen former Killspace developers, two of whom say they were directly involved with the original Apocalypse Now project. Employees — who spoke on condition of anonymity due to nondisclosure agreements — complained of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, erratic and out-of-touch management, and financial decisions that made an already bad situation worse. One person called Killspace “the worst-run company you could possibly imagine.” Another simply referred to their time there as a “nightmare.” And all of them expressed serious misgivings about the crowdfunded Apocalypse Now.
From the beginning, Killspace was an ambitious studio, aiming to build transmedia franchises spanning games, movies, and comics. Markland and Liberty had come directly from Obsidian Entertainment: the former had worked on a canceled Aliens role-playing game there, while the latter was still acting as senior producer on Fallout: New Vegas. Markland was installed as Killswitch’s first CEO, and the two hired a mix of industry newcomers and veterans — primarily from Obsidian and the then-recently closed Pandemic Studios, developer of military action games Mercenaries and Full Spectrum Warrior. Killspace soon secured a deal with Atari for Yar’s Revenge, and with Ubisoft for the rhythm game Rocksmith. It shared an office with Emergent Game Technologies, in exchange for porting Emergent’s Gamebryo engine to consoles.
By 2010, employees say that the payments from Ubisoft and Atari were enough to cover small, dedicated groups, but Markland also wanted to grow the studio quickly by pitching as many games as possible to new publishers — which required larger, fluid teams. Four employees claimed that to do this, Killspace shuffled a substantial amount of resources from contracts to unrelated prototypes, and moved developers around on short notice to the point of leaving the main teams shorthanded. Killspace’s projects included a horror title called Sleep, a cartoonish brawler named MARM (for “Mutant, Alien, Robot, Monkey”), and a sci-fi Western called Out Here the Good Girls Die.
“There was a lot of experimentation, a lot of just flat-out creativity, just all kinds of ideas being thrown out,” says one former employee, praising the studio’s willingness to consider game proposals from rank-and-file employees. “It was a real breath of fresh air, after working in AAA game development.” The crown jewel of the projects was Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s son Roman and writer Rob Auten connected Killspace to Coppola’s studio American Zoetrope, and Killspace assigned a small team to it, putting a prototype in the works.
None of these prototypes ultimately secured publishers, though — including Apocalypse Now, which fizzled after the creation of a non-playable demo. The transmedia efforts also seemingly didn’t amount to much, beyond inflating the studio’s numbers with people who weren’t directly working on games. “It was much too big for what it should have been,” one employee tells us. “I think we had something like five or six writers.”
Markland denies that any funds from one contract were moved around to buoy another project. “We kept things very compartmentalized in terms of money,” he tells The Verge. Far from a too-large team working on blue-sky projects, he describes Killspace as a studio on the verge of signing several contracts, only to see them snuffed out as publisher after publisher went bankrupt. THQ, one of the companies Markland mentions working with, filed for Chapter 11 protection in late 2012. Emergent sold off its assets at the end of 2010, ending one of Killspace’s major revenue sources. Atari officially went under in January of 2013. “We managed a game studio during the worst economic time since the Great Depression, and our game studio never went bankrupt,” he says. “We landed the airplane softly.”
Whatever the cause, funds were spread thin, especially after Ubisoft took Rocksmith production in-house. Former employees say they were going months without pay: one person says the company ended up owing them $3,000 in wages, and another puts the number at upwards of $9,000. “There were some people who were crashing on couches forever because they didn’t have any money,” this employee says. A third person described developers being given company equipment in lieu of money.
Markland doesn’t deny the general financial problems, but he says that Killspace management did all they could to fix them. “Atari started being late on their payments almost immediately,” he says, and the industry’s larger financial woes cut off new sources of funding. “I bet if we went back and looked we could find ten thousand, twenty thousand game developers [who] were laid off with two weeks, four weeks, six weeks notice — sometimes no notice.” He says that he and Liberty personally put a total of $200,000 toward paying employees, with Liberty mortgaging his house to do so.
Funding problems, including missed paychecks, are sadly common in the games industry. But Killspace’s management and its employees give markedly different explanations for them. Three team members, for example, say the studio’s relationship with publishers was damaged after employees leaked details about their working conditions. One employee believes a near-final deal with 505 Games had evaporated almost overnight when the publisher found Killspace wasn’t paying employees, as well as because of what he describes as “erratic” behavior by Markland. Markland says it fell through because Killspace’s key point of contact at the publisher departed. (505 Games’ parent company Digital Bros did not respond to a request for details about the deal.)
Even against the backdrop of the Great Recession, every former employee I spoke to blames Killspace’s management for the bulk of its problems, and five specifically complain about Markland’s leadership, characterizing him as abrasive, unpredictable, and unresponsive to their complaints. “We would have these big meetings, the centerpiece of which was Monty giving this big speech to everybody. And the developers around [him] were like, we can’t make games like this. We can’t just start making a game with no money. We don’t have a license, we don’t have any of this stuff,” one developer recalls. “He told us that our concerns were absurd — that this was the way to secure more money, and that we would continue forward and that the money would come. People started looking for new jobs almost immediately after that.”
This contrasts starkly with Markland’s own account of his care for employees. “Me and Larry put in our own money. Larry mortgaged his house just to help our employees. We didn’t do it because we thought the company was going to survive. We did it because it was the right thing,” he says. And as for tensions at the studio? “I would guess that the companies that went bankrupt without notice were much more unpleasant places to work than our company.”
There are also two different accounts of a major leadership change in the fall of 2010, when Markland stepped down as CEO and Liberty took over Killspace. “The plan was always for [Liberty] to come be the CEO of the company at the conclusion of Fallout: New Vegas’ development, and I would be the president and CCO,” says Markland. “And that is essentially what occurred.” But there are signs that the transition wasn’t smooth. Four sources describe Markland being effectively forced out because of problems at Killspace, and two tell The Verge that security literally barred him from the premises at one point. Markland confirms this report, but says it was the work of “one individual at the company who took some steps that were ill-advised,” and “was terminated for cause shortly thereafter.” (An interview with the full Erebus team, which includes Liberty, was scheduled and canceled twice, and questions sent to them were not returned.)
Former employees speak positively of Liberty, but they say the studio was beyond saving. “We had already lost the contract for Rocksmith. We weren’t doing any pitches for Apocalypse Now any more, or any of the other games,” says one developer. “It was pretty much, everyone that had experience making games was working on Yar’s Revenge, and anyone that didn’t have experience was gone.” After the game shipped in early 2011, Killspace’s work was effectively over. Markland says the studio didn’t formally close, but it was no longer a “going concern” by the start of 2012.
In some ways, the Apocalypse Now crowdfunding campaign seems like an overt attempt to avoid the problems of Killspace — or at least to learn from them. Erebus is described as a single-project studio, not a wide-ranging one; in fact, its name is specifically a reference to the boat in Coppola’s original film. The studio is also not supposed to be reliant on outside relationships, beyond the deal with American Zoetrope. “I think the most important lesson for any game industry creative … is if you do not control top-line revenue, you are an employee,” says Markland. “I’d rather the people be the boss than the establishment be the boss.” And he points out that the Great Recession was a singular period for all kinds of industries, including gaming. “It was an unprecedented series of events,” he says. “I’m not sure we could have done much different.”
Markland and Liberty have both worked on successful, well-received games since Killspace’s closure: Liberty was an executive producer on DC Universe Online, and Markland has worked as a producer on Wasteland 2 and the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera, two highly funded and successful Kickstarter projects. But neither has been in charge of an independent studio since Killspace, a fact that has their former employees worried. “People are plunking down money to see something, and to play something, about a property that they like,” says one person. “But I think that they’re just probably about to be set up for some disappointment.”
And while it’s not beholden to publishers, Apocalypse Now is still reliant on funding sources that don’t seem ironclad. “I’m very confident that we will reach that number and more before the game is launched. I have zero doubts about that,” says Markland, when I ask about the $5 million budget. But before its closure, the game’s Kickstarter campaign had raised under $200,000 of its $900,000 goal, with only 10 days left. According to Kickstarter’s records, only five gaming projects have ever broken $5 million, including the party game Exploding Kittens and the Ouya microconsole. That’s not a direct point of comparison, because Erebus is looking to collect the total funding over a long period of time, not a month-long campaign. But it’s still difficult to know how much people will ultimately pay for Apocalypse Now, or where the money might come from if the public doesn’t contribute enough.
Whatever happens, Markland says he’s committed to getting Apocalypse Now out the door in its best possible form, regardless of funding. By way of inspiration, he calls back to the movie’s own famously troubled history, which included drug problems, grave robbing, millions of dollars in unexpected costs, and a typhoon. “The one thing I do know,” he says, “is that Francis Ford Coppola went into the jungle planning to shoot for 14 weeks — but didn’t come out of the jungle until 500 days later.”