Independent Vancouver developer Whitebox Interactive was founded in 2014 for the express purpose of making Warhammer 40,000: Dark Nexus Arena, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) set in the expansive universe of Warhammer 40K. The game is currently in closed alpha and is slated for release at the end of 2015.
So how did a brand new indie studio snag one of the most recognizable licenses in gaming for its first official outing? Simple.
“We asked,” said Brant Stutheit, one of the Game Designers at Whitebox. The story actually begins in September of 2013, when eventual Whitebox CEO Jonathan Falkowski pitched the idea for a Warhammer MOBA to his coworkers while they were teaching at the Vancouver Film School. It seemed like an idea with promise, so they made a prototype and pitched it to the Games Workshop to show the Warhammer publishers what they could do.
“They were in Seattle at the time so we all piled up into a car and drove down and showed it off. They thought it was great and they gave us their blessing to continue. We hammered out the contract from there,” said Stutheit.
It’s easy to see why Games Workshop was impressed. While Dark Nexus Arena has the trappings of the MOBA genre, the game utilizes WASD movement and plays like a twin stick shooter. It also shakes up the traditional method of keeping score. The winning team is the first to 100 points, making it more akin to a death match than a game of King of the Hill. It’s still a MOBA. Players purchase upgrades and abilities as the game progresses and team balance is essential. But it does have a slightly heavier action bent than the typical arena.
The quality and innovation speaks to the strength of the burgeoning independent gaming scene in Vancouver. After a string of shutdowns and layoffs hit larger studios in the area, many developers formed smaller teams and kept on making games.
Whitebox is a part of that movement. The core team has plenty of professional experience, while their ties to academia allowed them to poach some of the best students to join them after graduation. Whitebox benefits from a blend of veteran leadership and young talent, as well as a true upstart mentality.
“We rented a small office space that was probably six feet wide, four feet long, and there would be six to eight of us stuck in this little room that smelled awful. The team formed around that,” said Stutheit.
So far, the team’s enthusiasm has been reflected in the product. According to Stutheit, Dark Nexus Arena has received overwhelmingly positive feedback at events like PAX East and Gottacon, where people walking past do a double take and then get excited once they realize what the game is.
Those face-to-face interactions are a crucial part of the team’s strategy. Despite the famous brand name, Whitebox Interactive remains an independent studio. It has to do all of its own marketing without the backing of a publisher and often without any semblance a budget.
“It’s something you always have to be concerned about as a game dev. How do we make sure the word gets out there,” asked Stutheit. For his part, he believes the answer is participation. “We have to make sure that we get people to play the game. If it’s good, they’re going to spread the word for us.”
To that end, the studio is hosting early access weekends and weekly Twitch Streams to get the game in front of potential fans while not on the convention circuit.
“We can’t get TV ads and banner spaces. It’s not feasible for us to compete on that level,” said Stutheit. “We’re smaller, so we can interact with fans on a more personal level. We can stream the game and talk to them. We can get them playing it right now, because we’re a new company so we need to prove ourselves.”
Of course, that approach can lead to an entirely different set of problems. Like most MOBAs Dark Nexus Arena is designed to attract a large player base, and managing a massive community can be difficult for a small team. Will it be possible to take that hands-on approach once the game officially goes live?
“I would love to handle that problem when it comes up,” said Stutheit. “I would love, love to have that kind of problem.”
In the meantime, there are benefits to working with an established franchise like Warhammer 40K. It helps generate attention – Stutheit estimates that half of their fans are existing fans of Warhammer, while the other half are MOBA fans curious about the new mechanics they’re introducing to the genre – and it also provides a handy resource during development. Whenever they need to create a new character, they can just check the lore for inspiration.
The bigger challenge is finding a way to adapt a turn-based tabletop game to the fast-paced MOBA format. The key, according to Stutheit, is to figure out what each rule is supposed to signify in Warhammer 40K and then to translate the flavor into a digital environment.
“When you’re rolling dice, the guy’s shooting his gun and it’s going to be hard to aim, so some of them aren’t going to hit. For us, you can actually aim the gun and shoot it, so we can modernize those rule sets.”
And while they can’t let players paint metal miniatures, they can find other ways to encourage creativity and customization.
“We want to honor that, for sure,” said Stutheit of one of the hobby’s more celebrated quirks. “Right now we’re working on the base of a game and making sure that works really well, and then we’d love to expand into customization. Painting a model and choosing what weapon you go into battle with is huge.”
Dark Nexus Arena still has a ways to go before launch, but it plays well and is shaping up to be a fun game that delivers on the Warhammer legacy while also standing at the forefront of the MOBA genre. It’s another example of the ability and drive of independent developers and indicates that great video games will continue to be made in Canada.