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Interview: Crate Entertainment's co-founder talks about Grim Dawn

In 2008, developer Iron Lore closed its doors, despite releasing the acclaimed fantasy action-RPG Titan Quest, its expansion pack Immortal Throne and completing work on the stand alone expansion pack Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War Soulstorm, all for publisher THQ. However members from Iron Lore picked themselved up and reformed as Crate Entertainment. Licensing the rights to Iron Lore's game engine and projects, the developer has been working for some time on its first release, a new action-RPG title called Grim Dawn that will be released via digital download for the PC.

The developer is currently taking pre-orders for Grim Dawn but will it be a game worth your time and money? Big Download got Crate Entertainment's co-founder Arthur Bruno to give us more info about his company and Grim Dawn. He also gives us an inside look at the demise of Iron Lore, reveals the real sales figures for Titan Quest and more.
First can you give us a little history of Crate Entertainment and your relationship with Iron Lore?

Crate was founded in February of 2008 in the wake of Iron Lore's closing by a small, tight-knit group that wanted to try to do something more than drift apart across the country to other jobs at other studios. I had been with Iron Lore almost since its inception in 2001 and most of the other guys were leads or senior people who had been with the company for years. We had no grand plan to begin with but a strong desire to continue working together and to build upon some of the tough lessons we had learned over the years at Iron Lore.

We worked out a deal with the owners of Iron Lore to acquire two of the games that we had been working on and were passionate about. Then we set out to see what sorts of opportunities were available. The vague idea at the time was to find contract work that could sustain us while we pitched these properties to publishers. We were successful at finding contract work and for a while joined forces with another local independent developer Demiurge Studios, who had just finished the PC port of Mass Effect and needed additional design and art leadership for a smaller project. We worked with Demiurge for several months and even went on the road with them to pitch a co-development deal for one of our properties. Unfortunately, at about that time the US and, soon the rest of the world had begun descending into the economic crisis that were are all too familiar with today.

Suffice to say, it was a bad time to pitch and even contract work dried up. We realized that to move forward in that business climate, we needed to start something smaller that wasn't reliant on big funding and which we had the potential to complete ourselves. We abandoned the idea of trying to land a publishing deal and open another mid-sized studio. Instead we went totally garage-indie, although none of us had a garage, so we ended up mostly working remotely out of home offices. In some ways it has been very liberating. With this smaller scope comes the ability to be much more focused on making the game great for our specific target audience instead of having to appeal to the mainstream masses.

Were you surprised that Iron Lore shut down its doors, especially since it was finishing up work on the Dawn of War expansion pack?

No, it was something we all knew was coming. The owners of Iron Lore were very open about the state of the company and like many mid-sized independent developers we were living from contract to contract. We had actually thought the company was going to go under a year earlier when THQ decided they were not interested in a TQ2. ILE burned through a lot of its capital trying to stay afloat during that period. At the last moment, a small group of ILE supporters within THQ put together the Dawn of War: Soulstorm expansion project to keep the company alive.

We had a new lease on life but the clock started ticking down again and this time the company had even less of its own capital to keep it afloat after the project ended. We needed to line up a new project quickly but ILE was a PC developer at a time when publishers were mainly looking to fund console or multi-platform projects. We found ourselves in a situation where we needed to develop pitch materials and a console demo to win a new publishing deal but the team was already stretched pretty far just trying to meet the aggressive development schedule of Soul Storm.
We managed to put together a pretty compelling Xbox360 demo for a multiplatform RPG project called Black Legion. We got a lot of interest from two publishers in particular and it looked like we were mere months from signing a deal. Unfortunately, the Soulstorm project ended and ILE didn't have the reserves to support a 30+ person team through a few months of contract negotiations. The owners made the tough but ethical decision to close down while they could still afford to give the team a good severance package.

How hard was it to establish Crate Entertainment and to get the rights to the Iron Lore graphics engine?

Based on my experience at Iron Lore, I'm not sure most independent developers ever really become "established." I mean, we certainly exist, but are we stable? I'd say we're stable now only because we are so small and our burn-rate is so low. I think our current incarnation is only sustainable so long as we feel like we're moving toward a completed game and some greater future. After the game is released, we'll find out whether it generates enough revenue to make this a truly sustainable business. The recent success of Runic Games with Torchlight makes me think that this model of smaller scope development can work. The incredible dedication of our fans and knowing that we have an audience that believes in us has also been a huge part of what has kept us moving forward. We maintain a good relationship with the owners of Iron Lore, so it wasn't difficult to negotiate a deal for the rights to use the TQ engine. I think they are also excited to see at least some part of their legacy live on through the technology behind Grim Dawn.

How did the idea for Grim Dawn come about and did the idea for the game originate at Iron Lore or at Crate?

Grim Dawn was an idea that developed after Iron Lore and after we had met with defeat while trying to pick up where Iron Lore had left off pitching Black Legion. In retrospect it is such an obvious idea and one we probably should have thought of much earlier but there were reasons that it was not obvious to us at the time. After Titan Quest debuted to poor sales in North America and THQ subsequently declined a TQ2 citing lack of interest in a PC-only ARPG, many of us felt disappointed in what we had invested years of our lives to create and demoralized by the state of the PC-market in general. We questioned ourselves, lacked confidence in our creation and generally just wanted to move on in a different direction.
Then something funny happened. Those low initial sales that were supposed to rapidly drop off to nothing never dropped off. The monthly sales never increased to anything impressive but they just kept going and going, longer than anyone could have imaged. After Iron Lore had shut its doors and Crate was struggling through its first year in existence, sales of Titan Quest just kept rolling.

According to the Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Institute, only 20 percent of games that are released onto store shelves ever become profitable. At the end of 2008 I found out that Titan Quest had managed to claw its way into that 20 percent. The game had not only reached profitability for THQ but it was very close to surpassing a million copies sold. It became obvious that we needed to make another game for this audience. Our good fortunate was that Iron Lore had retained ownership of the engine, tools, and other technology it created while developing Titan Quest. We knew these tools well and frankly, were very excited to get back to doing what we knew how to do.

So we then started generating ideas for and planning the small-scope ARPG that would evolve into Grim Dawn. I'd worked on several different game concepts over the past couple years and so there was a lot of material that I could adapt and borrow from. Grim Dawn is sort of a merging, refinement and evolution of some of those gameplay and story ideas, tempered by the lessons we learned in our years working on Titan Quest and Immortal Throne.


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