Although there have been a number of games in the Warhammer universe (such as Dawn of War, Mechanicus, Gladius, Vermintide) there haven’t been that many Warhammer games in the third person shooter genre – apart from the original Space Marine and the more multiplayer-centric Eternal Crusade games. And even though the first Space Marine game came out in 2011, its sequel (Space Marine 2) won’t be coming out until 9 September 2024. With this in mind, it’s understandable that expectations are incredibly high for the Space Marine sequel – especially when taking into account the 13 year wait in-between games.
I spoke to Oliver Hollis-Leick (Creative Director, Saber Interactive) about his upcoming Space Marine 2, and was able to ask him questions on whether the first Space Marine game would be getting a re-release, whether there would be any additional content for Space Marine 2 post-release, and what advice he would give to professionals who are looking to break into the games industry. Enjoy!
What’s your background in game development, and how did you become the Creative Director on Space Marine 2?
It’s a long journey… So I started as an actor in motion capture when I was 18 years old, and I was absolutely crazy about computer games. I’ve been playing them since I was 9 years old on the Atari and the Spectrum, and so, being an actor in games was a real privilege. And I spent many years doing that, and I’ve performed in over 100 different video games, and eventually I started to get more interested in the development side. I did some writing courses and then eventually Saber Interactive, who I’d done motion capture for on Halo and Inversion… I said to them, “look, I’m doing some writing and I’d love to work with you guys”, and they hired me as an assistant to Craig Sherman, their head writer. And then over the next 10 years, I worked on a variety of different games, and advanced higher and higher, until finally here I am as the Creative Director on Space Marine 2.
I briefly played the first Space Marine game many years ago. I don’t mean to say this in a bad way, but I love the fact that it was essentially a Gears Of War reskin in the Warhammer world. We don’t really see a lot of these Gears Of War style games anymore. Instead however, the industry seems to be fixating more towards Dark Souls style games, at least from my perspective. But going back to Space Marine 2, what do you think it is about the Gears Of War formula that made you want to pursue it in the current year?
I think first and foremost, it’s about being a Warhammer fan. If you love the universe, then you want to be able to act out its stories, and the last time we really got to do that was Space Marine 1. Since then there have been a variety of different games, some of them really good, like Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus, but there hasn’t been a game since then where you can play as a giant Space Marine that’s slashing through enemies. And so Space Marine 2 is a power fantasy for Warhammer 40,000 fans. All of our development team are Warhammer fanatics. They read the novels, they play the games, they paint the miniatures. I grew up in Nottingham, and I remember seeing the statue of the Space Marine when I was 14 years old. And so a lot of people, not just us, but fans as well, have wanted that game to get a sequel. And I think that all of the stars just aligned four years ago when we started and that’s why it exists.
Space Marine is a Games Workshop / Warhammer IP, and you’re obviously a very big fan of the IP. Considering that you have an understanding of the IP as a fan, and therefore have your own unique vision as a fan, what sort of difficulties have you had… because as I’ve experienced with my own personal life, where my acute understanding of an IP didn’t necessarily gel with the overall vision of the IP holder… how have you been able to navigate those murky waters where you want to bring to market your own unique vision as a fan, whilst knowing what the IP represents, and whilst also staying true to the game franchise and its legacy, where it is in sync with the IP holder who might not understand as to what’s required to make a game, and whose main knowledge specialty is board games?
So when Games Workshop gave us permission and the privilege to make this game, we, as you said, had to decide as to what we wanted to do with it. So it was clear that we wanted to make a true sequel to the first game, which was great for us, because it gave us a very good blueprint for what we were going to do. So with that in mind, we then had to think about where we wanted to take it. Games have changed in the last 10-12 years, so how can we advance the mechanics of it?
So we started to think as to what the first game really wanted to do, where it wanted to go, but couldn’t quite get there because of limitations… So we improved the combat mechanic. We used our own Swarm Engine technology to be able to increase the number of enemies, to make it feel like a real Warhammer 40,000 game, because in that universe, scale is everything. It’s not small stories. They’re huge wars that might take place in multiple solar systems. So we were able to expand the scope, expand the scale, increase the number of enemies, and increase the power of the Space Marine to match that. So that’s all the things that technology allowed us to do.
When it came to choosing the story we wanted to tell, there was a group of us… The game director, the art director, me… We then had to start looking at the source material and go through as much of it as possible. And I would say, “oh, I really like this aspect. I want to do this with it”, and Games Workshop would say, “well, that’s not really where we’re going with it now. Can you try and…”, and we just sort of worked together until we found our heading. And after that, we just collectively moved towards it, towards that direction. So it was all about collaboration.
I think the first game came out just over a decade ago… The first Red Dead Redemption game was also re-released recently as a remaster. What are the chances of the first Space Marine game getting a similar treatment?
In terms of a remaster? I don’t know about that right now. I mean, I’m not sure. I couldn’t answer it… It’s going to depend on demand and it’s going to depend on a lot of factors, but I don’t know about that right now.
What’s the scope for the game having DLC and extra chapters?
So although we haven’t revealed everything about the base game just yet, what I will say is that Saber Interactive has a policy of supporting games post launch. We did it with World War Z, SnowRunner, Evil Dead… I would say the probability is very good that we’re going to continue to support this game after launch.
How long did Space Marine 2 take to make?
I think we signed the deal about 4 years ago and then we went through pre-production and then…
What was that like? Because if you signed the deal, then that means that you had to go through some sort of a negotiation / bidding phase with the IP holder…
I would call it a “courtship”. Because first of all, this license and the expectations for this game are very, very high. And Games Workshop know that. And they’ve had to talk to developers over the last however many years to find someone that they could trust with one of their biggest franchises, and one of their biggest video game titles.
What sort of pressure did that put on you?
Massive amounts of pressure. I was pitching it myself along with our management. So we went to Games Workshop’s headquarters, we went through the museum, we sort of looked at everything, we talked… Focus, our publisher, was there as well. And we spent a full day getting to know Games Workshop, what they wanted, what they were looking for, what they hadn’t found yet, and why they were still looking. So that was our first part, our phase one. We then brought them to our studio and we showed them World War Z, and we let them play it. We sort of played it with them and we said, “okay, now imagine that instead of zombies, you’ve got tyranids”. And they were like, “okay, that sounds good”. And so from that point on, we started to talk to them, we brought them to meet our team, and they got to see all the Warhammer posters and novels all over our office… Our developers are genuinely fans of that universe, and so we established a sense of trust and we told them that “this is what we want to do with the game”. They liked the idea and so from that point on it was a case of proving ourselves milestone after milestone until they said, “let’s do this”… So it was a lot of pressure, but we were so enthusiastic that it didn’t feel like hard work.
Sometimes you get a game development studios where they release their main title, and then they also release a spin-off title that doesn’t get as much development budget. What are the chances of Space Marine 2 getting a spin-off title that’s set in the same universe?
So I can’t tell you what will be. I don’t know what will be. But what I can tell you is that I want all of the things that we’ve worked really hard to create, the assets, the art, the programming, the characters, the stories… I really want to keep that going. I really want to use what we’ve built to tell other stories. A lot of factors may come into play in the future that will determine as to whether that will happen or not. But me and the other guys on the team definitely want that.
There’s also constraints as well… So you might have had a billion and one ideas, and I appreciate that, because you’re a fan of the IP, as well as the people that you work with. But then you have to consider financial and time constraints… Were there any ideas that you really wanted to incorporate that you just couldn’t because of financial and time constraints? I mean, if there were, could you maybe say some of those for this interview, so that we can kind of know as to what to expect for the third game?
(Laughs) I can’t tell you, because if I did I’d spoil the story. I will say yes of course there were things that I wanted to put in. There’s a lot of things that we would have loved to have put in there. But yes, that is the creative process. That is the chiselling down until you find the ideal form.
For someone like you who started out in the industry as a motion capture actor, but who was then hired by a games studio as a writer, and who then worked their way up the career ladder to become a creative director, what tips would you give people who may or may not start from ground zero, but who want to work within the games industry, and where they get to be part of a company of their choosing, and who want to lead their own projects and also be able to call the shots?
I can only tell you what I did. And I know that some people, you know, who might be 18 years old, who’ll say, “I want to be a creative director one day, or I want to be a game director…” I never did that. I always did what I loved. When I was 13 years old, I was programming in BASIC because I loved it. When I was in my 20s, I got into acting, and I was acting in video games…
How old are you now?
So still quite young…
Yes, hopefully, yeah. If I look after myself (laughs).
Well, Jared Leto is 52 or something…
He’s a marvel of nature, isn’t he?
That’s someone to aspire to. Role model right there (laughs)…
I always did what I loved. I never planned for this. I never imagined that I would become a creative director. I’ve always loved video games, so the passion was there. But even when I was signed up as a writer, I was grateful. And I learned from the guy who was my long-time friend and mentor, Greg Sherman, who’s now the Chief Narrative Officer of the company. He was writing movies before that, and then he got into the game world. And I just listened to everything he had to say about storytelling. And he co-wrote this game with me. He was the co-writer of the story. And so I learned everything from him. And then I started working with these developers… the Game Designers, the Game Director… and I just appreciated the fact that I was around so many exceptional people. And it just so happened that through doing that, through doing what I loved, and learning from the people around me, it just happened. And there’s no real formula for that. I just think you should be passionate. Love what you’re doing now, not what you want to do in 20 years. You won’t get there that way.
Last question, probably… So Space Marine 2 is wrapping up, and you’re committed to post-launch support, but what does the future hold for you as an industry individual and Creative Director?
I don’t know. None of us can know what’s over the horizon. I’ve already been assigned to a new project.
I can’t tell you.
What kind of game is it?
I can’t tell you, but I can tell you that it’s going to be incredible.
Is it for the PlayStation 5 and the XBox Series?
Possibly… I mean, unless they come out with something new in the next few years. But yeah, I can’t tell you what it is yet.
So for those people who are fans of your work, and who want to see you support Space Marine 2 for a long time, this new project, is it not going to interfere with your continuing support for that game?
No… I mean as a Creative Director, you stand from a high vantage point, and you just sort of guide the wisdom and the talent that’s working with you. And you can do that on multiple projects. And even whilst I’ve been working on Space Marine 2, I’ve also been doing that with some of the other games that we’re coming out with at the same time. So I will, if the call comes to create more Space Marine 2 content, I’ll be right there.
Where are you based?
I actually live in Liverpool.
And where’s Saber Interactive?
Saber is an American company but we have quite a fractured studio at the moment because of post-COVID remote work and stuff. So we’ve got a lot of talented people all over the world.
So do you do a lot of the work via Zoom?
Yes, I mean I do a lot of business trips to meet with people and we’ll all get together in one location and stuff. But yeah, a lot of it is Discord and Zoom and remote stuff.
So with indie developers, I can kind of understand, because it’s like you’ve got three people where one person is the programmer and creative visionary, then you’ve got the music person, and then you’ve got the artist… But how does it work for big projects where you’re “working from home” and you essentially have to interact with your teammates via Zoom?
It’s a challenge… It’s a real challenge, but it’s one that you get to grips with. And we’re talking all day long via messaging systems like Slack and stuff like that. We’re exchanging assets. It’s a constant flow of information. So although I may be in a different city or a different country, they may as well be on the floor beneath me. And I can hit a button, call someone, discuss something… “Okay, cool, yeah, right, let’s move on”. And so it’s quite simple.
Okay, any last comments?
It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I really enjoyed the interview.