You’d be hard pressed to speak to anyone as passionate about their game as Maximilian Rea.
Black Matter’s larger-than-life CEO has lived and breathed Hell Let Loose ever since its conception in 2017. Throughout his six-year stint as the head of the company, Rea has seen many things change.
Hell Let Loose launched as a humble Kickstarter project in 2017. But in 2021, things are looking considerably different. After hiring new recruits to work on polishing the game, Hell Let Loose has reached two significant milestones: full release on PC and a console launch. It’s something that seemed like a way-off dream for Rea way back when he first started this journey, but one that’s now been realised. “This year has been crazy,” Rea says after a brief chuckle. “I look back on 2021 and it feels like last year already, it’s been insane.”
And when you consider the journey Rea and his 24-strong team have been on, he’s not wrong. When the global pandemic hit, development teams around the world had to work out how they were going to do their jobs from home. Black Matter, however, already had the edge. The team have always worked remotely and by the time many had got used to this new way of working, Rea and co were hitting their stride professionally.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” he says with confidence. “But it’s been tough personally. COVID might not have affected the studio directly, but there’s a lot of consideration to the noise it adds to people’s lives.”
Rea hails from Australia, but works here in the UK – and the ongoing pandemic means he hasn’t been able to see his family in three-and-a-half years. Some of his staff are in the same boat, and it naturally puts a strain on the development process. But Black Matter is a family at heart – and it’s clear Rea respects and values his staff.
“We’ve flirted with the idea of having physical premises, but on investigation I think that some of the magic about the way the team works is because they don’t have to commute and they don’t feel bound in any way,” he says. “The downside to that is that sometimes they might feel like they can never switch off, so we’re super strict about any messages that get sent after hours and we encourage everyone to turn their notifications off.
“We really encourage a work-life balance because, as we’ve all discovered during the pandemic, the lines can be blurred. We’re also firm on the fact that we don’t crunch. If we ever needed to crunch, we’d see that as a management failing on our side, rather than a necessity. I’d personally be quite embarrassed if we had to crunch because it shows we haven’t resourced it properly or haven’t factored in enough time.”
One of Rea’s traits that becomes blindingly obvious as we talk is his necessity to plan. Whether it’s planning Black Matter’s next step, the next Hell Let Loose update, or the game’s successor – more on that later – Rea likes to have his options open.
Shortly after the turn of the year, Rea had already decided on the company’s goals. First and foremost, he wanted to pull Hell Let Loose out of early access on Steam and release The Lethal Tide – a Soviet-themed expansion with it. Then, to follow, he wanted to test launching the game on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S – something he admits he was relatively untroubled by in spite of sceptics.
“I was quietly confident in Hell Let Loose going to console,” Rea says. “It was one of my original conversations I had with Team 17 a very, very long time ago. I felt confident because I was a console player 15 years ago, but I moved to PC and discovered this type of game there – something that wasn’t available on console. I had a deep suspicion that if tactical shooters were on console, I would have never gone to PC, especially since the barrier of entry is very low technically.
“But regardless of how I felt about it, I knew we needed to prove it. It is, after all, a bit of a chicken and egg situation: has nobody ever taken this to console because it’d fail or does no one play these games because there’s simply none to play?”
Despite feeling self-assured, Rea admits that there were reasons to be nervous. Hell Let Loose was due to release onto console just a couple of weeks ahead of two key console titles: Call of Duty Vanguard and Battlefield 2042. But, with the work of Flix, a company that helped port the game and develop new-gen features like haptic feedback, and timely beta tests, Rea felt more and more confident by the day.
“We knew that not everyone would like Hell Let Loose and we were very comfortable with that,” Rea continues. “We tend to attract slightly older players on PC, and so we figured something similar would happen on console. What we tried to discern from the beta tests was whether players are repelled by the genre and the core concept or with the execution.
“With the beta tests, we found we could breathe a sigh of relief because the individuals giving us feedback were deeply passionate about the game, wanted it to succeed, and had extremely technical feedback for how we could improve it. They weren’t just coming back to us and saying I can’t play this game without hit markers or a kill feed – and that was brilliant to have very early on.”
Although the beta tests were plagued with problems, including lengthy server blackouts, the community stuck by Black Matter – giving rise to one of the most astonishing console announcements this year: Hell Let Loose on PlayStation Plus as November’s headline free game. Rea wanted to prove the doubters wrong and this was the platform he needed to do just that.
Within days, Hell Let Loose was flooded with new players. While the experience was somewhat frustrating for older players – Hell Let Loose is a game built on strategy and communication – this low barrier of entry gave console players a chance to experience something that’s not usually afforded to them: a true tactical first-person shooter. And it’s safe to say the gamble paid off.
“We wanted to cast the biggest net possible with the help of this fantastic arrangement with Sony,” Rea says. “Speaking from experience, free weekends on Steam are a powerful conversion tool – not so much for bringing people to Hell Let Loose, but to this entire genre. And after the PS Plus partnership, we were delighted to see the retention after the month ended.”
On the console numbers specifically, Rea remains coy. He tells me he can’t say much, but the grin that spreads across his face suggests it’s been hugely successful. When pushed, he lets us peek through the curtain ever so slightly. “Our PS Plus month and Xbox launch has been extremely well received – far higher than anything we had predicted,” he teases. “I think it lines up largely with the PC audience too.”
It helps that Hell Let Loose has hit a market at a time in which recent triple-A games haven’t necessarily been received with open arms. Call of Duty Vanguard offers the same experience as its predecessors and Battlefield 2042 launched in a less than ideal state. It also helps that there’s not much in the way of competitors for Hell Let Loose on console.
Still, the launch – even without seeing the cold, hard numbers – appears to be a success for Black Matter and Team 17, and it’s something Rea is incredibly proud of.
“I think we proved some doubters wrong,” he says with a hint of a smile. “I remember seeing some threads that said this game is going to be dead and no one would be into it. We’re delighted that hasn’t proved to be correct.”
During our conversation, Rea consistently references Hell Let Loose’s player base. Since starting work on the game all those years ago, he’s built up quite a rapport with the community, and that much is still true today. While the Sony deal is up there with his proudest moments this year, he regularly mentions personal moments in which he spends time with Hell Let Loose fans. Whether it’s speaking to a group of passionate individuals who have been playing the game since the early days of the Kickstarter campaign, or going to war in a private playtest with others, it’s clear the community is at the heart of his ideas.
He tells me of the time that he pulled parts of the development team into a Discord server just to listen, after new fans of the game took to a virtual stage online to speak to the user experience team at Team 17. “Hearing them discover Hell Let Loose for the first time made me so proud, because when you’re so close to something you never think it’s good enough,” he says. “To hear that excitement and enthusiasm was such a special moment. It just hits you somewhere very different.
“Seeing sales figures and concurrent users is fantastic, but at the end of the day, the personal connection is far more memorable and far more meaningful.”
In 2022, Black Matter is looking to build on those personal connections by giving the players what they want. Work has already started on bringing the PC and console versions of the game in line with one another, as well as new features that’ll improve the user experience for both new and existing players.
In short, Black Matter has learned from its mistakes. “We don’t always get it right,” Rea notes as he talks about the company’s biggest challenge. “Hell Let Loose has been a live service model for two years and that can cause headaches. We’ve gotten much better at planning and knowing how long things need, but the biggest downside to that is that any time there’s an issue in-game, it’s really painful for us.”
One of those pain points, especially for new console players, has been the sharp learning curve to fully understand the bells and whistles of Hell Let Loose. The lack of a tutorial, for example, is one of Black Matter’s weak points – but that’s only because the development team has been working hard behind the scenes to find the game’s key pillars.
“The biggest challenge before was simply not knowing what the game was,” he explains. “We now know the broad strokes of Hell Let Loose – we know that it’s predominantly two game modes in terms of the battles: it’s offensive and it’s warfare.
“We know the responsibility of the roles, and we know the pecking order of the armour, and we didn’t really have that type of knowledge in early access. Only now do we understand that Hell Let Loose – and I don’t want anyone to misinterpret this – almost plays a little bit like a MOBA if you’re an Officer. It’s about channelling traffic towards a certain area, and force multiplying to make sure your guys push through.
“And now we know that, it allows us to tackle these educational tools and make that learning process far easier than it’s ever been before.”
But while Rea is planning to make the onboarding process smoother for all, he’s also got plans to make the game better too. Now that Hell Let Loose has found its audience on both PC and console, Black Matter is focused on giving the game a good old polish, adding meaningful content in the process.
Forming a large portion of that meaningful content is the British expansion, which is expected to arrive at some point next year. Black Matter has made no secret of its wish to add new forces to Hell Let Loose, but as with all of Rea’s plans, this one is certainly ambitious.
That’s because the development team might cast its net a little wider, to cover the Commonwealth more generally.
“We’re excited for it,” Rea says. “We might be looking at it as a Commonwealth expansion because that allows us to be a little bit more flexible, especially with the breadth of battles that we cover. Plus, it might allow us to include the Aussies and the Canadians.”
While Rea remains tight-lipped on what will be included and how far along the team are right now, he mentions that they have their “work cut out” but that the amount of research that they’ve done so far factored into the call to shape this more into a “Commonwealth-style expansion”.
This is, as you can tell, just one of Rea’s many plans of supporting Hell Let Loose through its life cycle. While we know Black Matter plans on releasing several expansion packs next year, it’s almost a guarantee that Rea has a couple of aces up his sleeve. He is a planner, after all – and it’s clear he’d anticipated where this conversation was going.
During our last meeting, the CEO spoke at length about what his team would do by the time Hell Let Loose 2 rolled around. There was even an admission that Black Matter would be interested in exploring its own IP. So, we had to ask: after a hugely successful year, have those plans been put on hold?
“The hanging question for us was whether Hell Let Loose would work on console – and that determined the future,” Rea says. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate that the console port has worked fantastically and everyone is extremely happy. With that in mind, it’d be ridiculous to decide now that we’re working on the second one or something else.
“All focus on Hell Let Loose right now is on expanding and polishing the game to make it as good as it can possibly be. If and when in the future we feel like it might be starting to slow down, we would start work on Hell Let Loose 2. We’ve already got a sketch, and outline, but I can’t say when or where that may be set – but we’ve got some very strong ideas.”
Those are plans for the future, though. Right now, Rea is living in the present and reflecting on what has been an impressive year for the Black Matter team. “It’s an amazing year to look back on,” he says, but for him, out of all the things that have happened this year, the PS Plus deal has proved to be the icing on the cake. “There’s something surreal about having a three-person team on a Kickstarter project four years ago to [being] the PS Plus game of the month – and for it to be the same game is just crazy.”
The CEO says the deal only hit home when he went to a classic British event: a late-summer barbeque. While there, someone asked him what he does for a living. When he mentioned he was working on Hell Let Loose, this stranger revealed they’d recently downloaded it. “It was really surreal for me,” Rea says. “It was probably my proudest moment this year because it showed how far we had come.”
2021 has certainly been one hell of a ride for Black Matter, but with Hell Let Loose’s reach bigger than ever and the ambition of Rea and his team, 2022 promises to be even better.