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Over the last few days, indie developers Royal Rudius Entertainment have received constant waves of harsh criticism following the release of their controversial title, Hunt Down the Freeman (HDTF), a first person shooter that heavily draws inspiration (and apparently a lot else) from Valve’s Half Life Universe. From claims of stolen assets to inexperienced leadership, this has to be one of the most bizarre stories I’ve researched in my career as a video game journalist.
Author note: I’ve tried my best to find the truth within the mess that is known as the internet, but currently it’s still incredibly difficult to separate fact from fiction. If you agree or disagree with anything you read in this article or feel that anything is missing, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments section below!
So what’s the story?
In 2016, a team lead by a man named Berkan Denizyaran aka “Frank” (his western name) had the idea of telling a Half Life story via the perspective of a Marine who sought vengeance against Gordon Freeman, the iconic protagonist and hero of the Half Life series. It was originally planned as a short film, but focus quickly shifted towards the development of, in Berkan’s own words, “an entirely original, standalone story-based FPS game that takes part in the Half-Life Universe”.
While some considered it an exciting prospect (pun not intended), many quickly criticised the use of cutscenes, the blatant presence of copyrighted assets, strange bugs, amateurish voice acting, and inconsistencies in Half Life lore. No one was too fond of the idea of killing their hero Gordon Freeman either. The Indiegogo campaign didn’t fare any better raising a meagre US$12 of its ambitious US$100 000 goal.
Around the same time, as HDTF started garnering more attention, Berkan eventually found himself being interviewed by RunThinkShootLive, a Youtube channel dedicated to reviewing “single player maps and mods for Half Life Games”. Through all my research for this piece, this interview was by far the most enlightening look at the early days of Hunt Down The Freeman and the man known as Berkan.
While Berkan was confident in his interview, albeit a tad incoherent (he isn’t a native English speaker), he didn’t inspire much confidence in the Half Life community. He seemed to show a lack of experience in both game development and general knowledge of said community. After this interview, the only remaining form of redemption this project had left was an upcoming playable demo, which Berkan promised would answer the ocean of questions that was coming his way.
It didn’t. On the contrary, it escalated the negative backlash to a point where the project was abandoned and the development team disbanded. It seemed like the final nail in the coffin for HDTF. Behind the scenes though, Berkan was already assembling a new team and formed Royal Rudius Entertainment, the indie studio behind the currently released Hunt Down The Freeman.
He also managed to secure substantial investments, allegedly including US$50 000 from YouTuber Bolloxed. Somehow, things were starting to look up for HDTF for once. Of all the bad things people say about Berkan, you have to give him one thing; the man is dedicated as fuck.
Here’s where things start to get bizarre
Now with money to back the project, development on a full-fledged Hunt Down The Freeman began. Beyond the core development team (around five people) that worked from a small office in Los Angeles, Royal Rudius ostensibly recruited around 60 independent contractors that came and went over time.
Now while this might not be entirely unusual, the way these contractors were utilised certainly was. Beyond a disorganised and often “dead” Discord group, most of the independent contractors, such as level designers and sound engineers, had almost no contact with each other and were rarely, if ever, provided the opportunity to view each other’s work. There is also regular mention of a lack of proper and professional leadership. As one contractor explained it: “If you forgot what you had to do for the day and Frank [Berkan] wasn’t online, you were fucked”. To further add insult to injury, apparently Frank was barely online and was also the only person that had the authority to approve anyone’s work.
Regardless of the growing fan discontent and development confusion, the game somehow managed to get through Steam Greenlight — a now defunct process that allowed Steam users to vote on indie games they wanted to appear on the marketplace.
Considering the negativity and the brave few who still had hope for HDTF, you might wonder how such an unpopular title made it past the Greenlight barrier. Well, according to some sources, Royal Rudius (or rather Berkan) used a substantial chunk of their investor money to buy Steam bots, essentially fake profiles that posed as humans and helped to vote HDTF through the Steam Greenlight process.
Here’s where we find another bizarre fact. Instead of hiring professionals, like Berkan mentioned in his interview with RunThinkShootLive, a plethora of Youtube personalities were hired to fill roles such as voice actors, and even technical positions like level designers. Some of the names you might recognise are IHateEverything, Pyrocynical, and the infamous KeemStar. My best guess is that he was trying to use their dedicated fan base to sway the impressions of HDTF in his favour. Once again, it didn’t.
Release day and beyond
As if Hunt Down The Freeman didn’t have enough problems, the game ended up being delayed five times before its actual release. While the first few delays were purely due to development limitations and chaotic communications, Telvy — an independent contractor that worked on the HDTF — claimed “Frank delayed the game countless times AS A PUBLICITY STUNT”, apparently inspired by Valve’s tension-building delays on the original Half Life games. While it certainly did lead to publicity, it was anything but positive.
And then came the big day, 24 February. Release day. Oh god. Within hours the gaming community, especially the dedicated Half Life fanbase, were up in arms, brandishing their digital pitchforks for the upcoming witch hunt… and with good reason.
The game released as an utterly broken and unplayable mess. From a plethora of visual aberrations and the blatantly apparent fluctuation of asset quality, to missing or heavily outdated textures (this is barely scratching the surface), Hunt Down The Freeman was nothing like the game-changing “canonical” Half Life title was promised.
To be honest, it was barely a functioning video game as you actually had to make use of Valve’s Source Engine’s developer console commands to progress through the game… and all that for the staggering price of US$24. Just to put that in perspective, that currently makes it the most expensive Half Life-related game on the entire Steam marketplace, even more than the original universally acclaimed Half Life titles it was supposedly based on.
Another major setback was the fact that all cutscenes were missing from the game, one of the main selling points Royal Rudius Entertainment used to promote HDTF. Instead, the gameplay was a series of nonsensical levels without any context to link them. Now I’ve seen all the cutscenes and, cinematically, they’re not half-bad. The voice acting though, in most cases at least, left quite a lot to be desired (which you would expect when you hire YouTubers rather than professional voice actors).
Beyond the glaring technical issues there were also, once again, hundreds of claims rolling in that accused the developers of stolen assets and paid reviews. Admittedly, the subject of copyright when it comes to Valve’s IP is a bit convoluted, which I will briefly explore later in the article. At the time of writing this article, no legal action has been taken against HDTF… that we know of, at least.
It’s probably also important to note that, up until release say, most of the development team haven’t even received any copies of the final version of the game. One of the first looks at the game was a Twitch stream by Valve News Network, a die-hard fan of the Half Life games and a prominent member of the Half Life gaming community.
Needless to say, the development team was horrified. Beyond the fact that most of their hard work didn’t make it into the game and the core Royal Rudius members failed to provide any concrete answers as to why, the extreme negative backlash from the community that they loved was absolutely crushing. According to Telvy “everyone in our General [Discord] voice chat was on borderline suicide watch”.
Although the Royal Rudius team scrambled to get in what fixes they could (such as downloadable cutscenes), the damage was unfortunately already done. No one wanted to hear their explanations or excuses, and the bandwagon of negative hype united the Half Life community under the banner of internet revenge.
Except for fruitless damage control, especially by senior level designer and PR manager Gabe “BLACKM3SA” Sumner, Royal Rudius went silent. The last official statement from Royal Ruduis Entertainment was a Steam update on February 26 titled: “The Past, The Present, and The Future of HDTF”.
In an interview with Kotaku, BLACKM3SA said that it was “the single most humiliating moment of our lives. We were watching one of our partner’s stream (sic) and we knew something was wrong within the first two minutes. We are a small studio based in LA with team members all over the world, we sent the update to one of our programmers to update the Steam version. When the programmer built the Steam version, they didn’t actually update anything, instead moving the cut scenes to another depot, so the game was chopped up”.
According to him, the “real version” of the game will release on 5 March. Whether it will lift Hunt Down The Freeman from the toxic environment it currently finds itself in still remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, Royal Rudius Entertainment has their work cut out for them.
An insider’s perspective
Currently, one of the most revealing exposés on the innerworkings of Royal Rudius Entertainment’s development environment is a Reddit post by the aforementioned independent contractor, Telvy, a grey mapper and dialogue sound engineer on Hunt Down The Freeman. I fortunately had the chance to chat with Tevly for a bit to shed some light on this… situation.
This was the first major game development project Telvy had worked on and, as a life-long Half Life modder and fan, he couldn’t wait to jump at the opportunity to gain experience in the game industry and work on something Half Life related to boot.
According to Telvy, he feels one of the biggest problems in the greater HDTF development team was Berkan’s lack of communication and trust in the team. Apparently, Berkan was very worried about anything getting leaked and therefore kept a tight grasp on any and all sensitive information. That was also probably due to the fact that he didn’t really have air-tight NDAs in place as, according to Telvy, the agreement was nothing more than an “email confirmation” without any signatures involved.
“From what we can interpret, apparently Frank was very serious about not leaking the game, which is shady enough that he didn’t trust his own team on playing [HDTF]. If you ask me, holding builds for the sake of preventing leaks was a bunch of hoopla and there was probably more to it behind the scenes,” says Telvy.
When I questioned him on the actual experience of the team, especially considering the string of Youtube personalities gone game designers, he was adamant that the HDTF development team boasted a “ton of super talented people”, some with “10+ years of experience”. It’s quite sad to think that most of their hard work might have been for nothing.
On stolen assets
Well, to this day, this is still a bit of a grey area. According to Valve’s Steamwork Documentation on distributing Source Engine games, they allow the use of their IP in Source Engine mods if it is clearly stated on the Steam page that the game is not a product of Valve. If you distribute the mod for free, you don’t have to worry about any licensing fees.
However, if you do plan on putting a price on it, then you will have to shelf out a colossal amount of money (upwards of US$50 000) for the various tools used to make the mod, such as the Havok physics engine, which has a licensing fee alone of $25 000 (click the image below to view a higher resolution version).
Most allegations that Royal Rudius faced though, were not that of Valve IP games, but rather original creations from well-known Half Life modders. Now, I’m not an expert on Half Life or the legality of asset use, so I’m not going to comment on any of that. But below you’ll find some pics pertaining to this subject so that you can make up your own mind. I’m sure in the coming months, the truth will become clear.
Hunt Down The Freeman Steam Posts
Hunt Down The Freeman
Hunt Down The Freeman Steam Update
Hunt Down The Freeman Lead
Apparent Stalker Model
Firesource Steam Response
Royal Rudius Response To Assets
Stolen Assets Hdtf Steam Discussions
To grasp the immense negative reaction Hunt Down The Freeman received, you have to understand that Half Life fans are one of the most vocal and defensive gaming communities around. Half Life is considered, and regularly cited, as one of the most influential and important games in history.
This fact, coupled with the almost divine status that fans and the media have built around it, has turned it into sacred ground for a large part of the gaming community. To Half Life fans, the original games are considered doctrine… and to them Hunt Down The Freeman is a blasphemous mark on their beloved franchise.
We have reached out to Royal Rudius Entertainment and Director Berkan Denizyaranfor comments and are waiting on a response. Also, we just want to extend our gratitude to Telvy for taking the time to talk with us.