When we last spoke to Human Head they were putting the finishing touches to their Viking-flavoured action game Rune. Less than a year later and not only have they released Rune, they have also finished a multiplayer add-on for the game and contributed to the Blair Witch trilogy. We caught up with the Head man himself, biz guy Timothy Gerritsen, to find out more...
Rune was released about six months ago and proved popular with gamers and critics alike, even garnering a respectable 7/10 from our normally tight-fisted reviewers here at EuroGamer. "Rune was our first game, and as a first effort we were quite pleased with what we were able to do", Timothy told us.
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, since it's easy to nitpick over what you could or couldn't have done. If we had to pick something, I would say we wish we could have had more time. We had a firm fixed deadline that we had to meet, so we had to make certain sacrifices to get the game out in time. Had we [been given] the benefit of another month, we could have caught the couple of bugs that got through and we probably would have changed the order of some of the levels to get you into the action sooner."
The looming of a firm deadline was something that also came into play with Human Head's other project last year, the second of the three Blair Witch games released by GOD, which met with rather more mixed reviews. "It was the brainchild of Mike Wilson, and it was a radical concept - three short titles by three different developers. I think the basic concept behind it was fairly sound, but the timing was too short, and only one team had prior experience with the tech."
In fact, the team at Human Head which worked on their Blair Witch title wasn't just new to the technology, it was also new to the company. "That was [developed by] a separate team and it was done concurrently with Rune - Blair Witch 2 went gold five days after Rune did."
"I was working on both games and they were very different in just about every way. The tech was very different from the Unreal engine, and we had a new team working on it who impressed the hell out of me with their ability to create the game from literally nothing in such a short time. It was a great learning experience, though I doubt we'd sign up for a similar type of effort again, at least not one with so short a development cycle. But it gave us a chance to train a new crop of developers who definitely rose to the challenge."
Although some people slated the Blair Witch trilogy and the games certainly tailed off somewhat after the first episode, Timothy is justifiably proud of what Human Head achieved. "Blair was intended from the get go to be a budget title, and since we only had 6 months to craft it, we had to make decisions right from the start. Still, I think all three teams did a great job with it. The press tended to review these as if they were each meant to be a $60 AAA title, but the titles did well enough."
Since the company finished Rune and the Blair Witch game last autumn, Human Head have been hard at work on an add-on pack for Rune. Going by the name of Halls of Valhalla, the expansion was recently released in the USA and will hopefully arrive in Europe in the near future.
Unusually, Human Head have chosen to make Valhalla a multiplayer-only pack, not even including any kind of offline bot support for solo players. What the pack will bring to the party though is more than 30 new multiplayer maps, 16 new player models, a pair of new multiplayer modes, and a new soundtrack. It is also unusual in that (like the retail version of Counter-Strike) the pack can be played by people who don't already own a copy of Rune as well as fans of the original game, all for $20.
"If you've never played Rune but want to try out the multiplayer, for $20 you get all of the multiplayer gaming from the original Rune, plus the Halls Of Valhalla materials", Timothy explained. "If we had just shipped a single player add-on in the traditional style, our potential market would have been pretty small. The potential market for Halls of Valhalla is far bigger, since anyone can buy it. We'll just have to see if that experiment works."
It's a strategy that paid off with Counter-Strike, but other multiplayer add-ons such as Quake 3 : Team Arena have failed miserably. Human Head apparently aren't too worried by this though. "Team Arena was fun, but it had only a few maps, required the original game, and cost $40. Most expansions typically do poorly, very few do well. Halls of Valhalla is both a stand alone game and an expansion, and at $20 is reasonably priced."
How To Get A Head
So what does Halls of Valhalla have to offer for newcomers to the world of Rune? "Addictive melee combat in a multiplayer arena", according to Timothy. "Rune is something new - not the same old blast 'em up you've been playing for years. It is a game focused on a different type of gameplay that offers different challenges and a different way to play."
Amongst these "different ways to play" is a hilarious sounding mode called Headball. "Back when Rune was finishing up, we had talked about other modes we wanted to do", Timothy explained. "We talked about the old Aztec game of Jai Alai where you threw a ball through a hoop (a bit like basketball). In the Aztec society, the team that lost got their heads cut off. We thought, let's cut out the middle man and make a game that allowed you to use limbs and heads as the method of scoring."
Human Head are also aiming to make the game more user-friendly for the mod community with the release of a new set of tools and the latest version of RuneEd, along with the launch of a Rune editing website to help people make the most of them. Human Head "were pleased with the amount of mods and user maps that came out for Rune", and as a thank you they have included several maps made by enthusiastic fans of the game in the add-on pack, winners of an official Rune mapping competition run by the developers. "When we had our contest for Halls of Valhalla there were 70 entries - not bad for a contest that lasted only four weeks. With the new tools provided with Halls of Valhalla we hope to see even more new mods, skins, meshes and maps."
Somebody else getting a thank you in Halls of Valhalla is Tricia "Kazi Wren" Harris, who started out running one of the first Rune fan sites and ended up with a job as Site Director of the official Rune website. Now she is being immortalised in digital form as one of the many new character models in the Halls of Valhalla pack, the Wren Valkyrie. "She's been a great fan over the past year and a wonderful help to us in getting the word out", Timothy told us. "We just wanted to honor her in the game."
"Other characters range from a swashbuckling pirate, a female viking warrior, a traditional valkyrie, a mongol warrior, a syrian warrior, a snake-skinned berserker, a dwarf, and the sark characters from the original Rune game that were originally unplayable in multiplayer", with a grand total of sixteen new character models and skins available. Throw in new improved netcode and some slight tweaks to the way that combat is handled in the game and you have a very respectable add-on.
Like the Blair Witch project though, Halls of Valhalla has been completed on a very tight schedule. Despite the masses of new content being added to the original game, it has been in development for just a few months. So what is their secret? "We had a well honed group who knew what they were doing", was all that Timothy tell us. "These guys are good, and fast."
So what next for the team at Human Head? Well, their first stop is the big E3 trade show in Los Angeles later this month, where they will be showing off their latest project, a PlayStation 2 game which has yet to be officially announced.
"That game will be out in late summer, but we can't talk about it just yet. We're excited about it, and we can't wait to discuss the cool new things in it, but you'll just have to wait. After that we are working on something very cool and special, but it won't be out for quite some time and we don't want to talk about that until we are far along with lots to show. We'd rather show you than tell you about it, so you'll just have to wait until next year to see what it is."
Spoil sports. In the meantime a pen and paper role-playing game based on the world of Rune is about to be released. How did that come about? "I've always been a big fan of pen and paper games, both RPGs and table-top board games", Tim admitted. "I wanted to do this since we first started working on Rune, so I went to GenCon a couple of years back and showed different companies the concept, and the game at that point."
"We had some interesting companies make proposals, but in the end Atlas had the most interesting vision. We were willing to let them take the game in a different direction, and with Robin Laws designing it, it came out to be something truly unique. It's an impressive and radical game, and it should be on shelves in a couple of weeks. Atlas is a great company to work with, and we are very pleased that they did the game."
When we last spoke to Human Head almost a year ago, artist and co-founder Shane Gurno made it clear that a Rune sequel was on the cards, but that at the same time they also had new concepts they were working on. "Rune is our franchise, and we would be foolish to abandon it after building it up, but a sequel really isn't on our radar scope for the time being", Timothy told us.
"When we do a sequel, we want it to be something truly new and unique, and not just more of the same that we push out the door. We formed Human Head to try new things and push new boundaries, and for our next title we want to try something different."
"There will be a Rune sequel, just not for a while."