NetEase, ex-CoD lead David Vonderhaar launch AAA studio BulletFarm

NetEase Games has partnered with veteran game designer David Vonderhaar to launch BulletFarm, a remote-first triple-A studio. Under Vonderhaar’s leadership, BulletFarm is developing a brand-new game using Unreal Engine 5. This upcoming shooter will emphasize intimate, co-operative gameplay set in an original universe.

Vonderhaar is best known for his work on the Call of Duty franchise. During his nearly two decades at Treyarch, he served as the studio design director for the Black Ops franchise. Chris Cowell, formerly Treyarch’s principal game designer, joins Vonderhaar at BulletFarm as the studio’s creative director.

Going for the moonshot

Despite his experience, Vonderhaar told GamesBeat he didn’t always see himself spinning up his own studio, but he couldn’t pass up this unique opportunity.

Ex-Treyarch developers David Vonderhaar (R) and Chris Cowell (L) lead BulletFarm.

“[Starting a new studio] is the last biggest, greatest challenge a game maker could take on. You could ship 18 years of Call of Duty games and be really successful and happy with that. Or you can have an all-new team, an all-new IP, an all-new engine, you have an all-new everything. And I haven’t felt that kind of energy or enthusiasm for a decade or longer… I would regret not taking the biggest moonshot ever,” said Vonderhaar. 

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Inspired by the challenge, Vonderhaar has forged ahead building a brand-new studio and its culture for the first time in 18 years. Of course, BulletFarm plans to incorporate nearly two decades worth of lessons from working on one of gaming’s biggest franchises. The biggest amongst these is building the right(-sized) environment to drive passion and innovation.

“Even within something as large as a big franchise, there’s this perfect combination of giving people enough room to be creative but establishing enough guardrails so they don’t fall off the cliff. Those are often these smaller team environments,” said Vonderhaar. “Historically, the most innovative, unique and fun experiences didn’t come from the huge machine inside this large empire. It came from a group of passionate individuals on the side pushing the envelope.”

In contrast with BulletFarm’s large-scale roots, its upcoming game will give its much smaller development team the freedom to create with guardrails. Currently, BulletFarm has four full-time employees, but the team plans to scale up to 15 by the end of 2024.

Smaller scale and personal agency

This smaller (initial) team size is a major change of pace for Vonderhaar. Instead of working in a big department within a large empire, BulletFarm plans to keep the team small. Once the team has a prototype and refined its concept, the studio plans to scale to roughly 50 team members for the foreseeable future.

While the BulletFarm’s first game is still early in development, it is taking a deliberately different approach. The game will be a shooter but won’t be a traditional military simulator. And like the studio itself, BulletFarm’s debut will tack towards an intimate scope. The development team aims to bring players together, literally through co-op gameplay and metaphorically with a relatable, zero-to-hero story.

A first look at BulletFarm’s debut.

“[The scale] suits the kind of game that we’re making. Small and intimate studio, small and intimate game, right? Culturally it lines up better when everyone has a big stake in the game and you’re not designer No. 709 who works on tree props,” said Vonderhaar. “I think you’ll get better work out of people when they have a chance to touch more of the game than just their specialized niche thing, where they have to do that same thing 1,000 times. You’ll see a much more diversity and creativity from a game built this way.”

Allowing BulletFarm’s developers to have more of an impact on the final product is part of Vonderhaar’s strategy to break the industry mold. However, it’s not the only way BulletFarm is challenging standard practices.

“Games are being annualized, franchised, sequel-ized, and battle pass-ed to death. In a way, [BulletFarm] is taking an old-school approach.”

Vonderhaar is among a growing number of senior developers leaving top publishers to start their own studios. This trend has hit Activision Blizzard particularly hard with high profile examples from most of the company’s top franchises. Former Hearthstone lead Ben Brode was ahead of the curve. He was ahead of the curve, leaving Blizzard in 2018 to start Second Dinner, which went on to develop Marvel Snap. The company raised $100 million in a Series B round in January 2024 with NetEase as a minority investor.

Vonderhaar isn’t the only example of Call of Duty developers leaving to build new studios. Ex-Infinity Ward developer Robert Bowling and ex-Sledgehammer Games designer and streamer Guy “Dr. Disrespect” Beahm launched Midnight Society. That’s No Moon’s leadership team includes ex-Infinity Ward devs Taylor Kurosaki and Jacob Minkoff. Former Sledgehammer developer Bret Robbins’ Ascendant Studios, which released Immortals of Aveum last year.

After working on the Call of Duty franchise for 18 years, Vonderhaar candidly pushed back against crunch culture too. The franchise’s latest entry, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, was allegedly developed in less than 18 months, half the time of previous entries.

“I have a lot of feelings about this, as you can imagine coming from our history. I don’t think it’s very responsible to do that forever. You see it right now in the state of the games industry and what happens when you grow too quickly and can’t sustain that growth,” said Vonderhaar. “We have a responsibility as leaders in games the help move the industry towards sustainability for both developers and players.”

That being said, BulletFarm does plan to carry forward some of the lessons learned on the front lines at Treyarch. The new studio plans to maintain a decisive and “zero BS environment.”

NetEase as a strategic partner

BulletFarm is carving out its own path to the top of the mountain with NetEase’s support. From the get-go, NetEase has supported Vonderhaar’s ambitions to explore a different direction.

“I was convinced that NetEase would call me because they would want me to make what I’ve made before. They never once asked me to do that,” said Vonderhaar. “[NetEase] finds creative groups of people and they try to set them up for success and provide them with resources to do so.” 

Vonderhaar was convinced that it wasn’t too good to be true after meeting more NetEase employees and its other studio heads. After inking the deal, BulletFarm has operated in stealth mode for the last six months. 

Beginning in 2018 with the Chinese publisher’s $100 million investment in Bungie, BulletFarm is part of a larger push from NetEase to invest in and build Western game studios for western audiences. In 2022, NetEase opened Jackalope Games, its first U.S. studio with former Cryptic CEO Jack Emmert at the helm. Since then, NetEase has invested in or opened over a dozen game studios in North America and Europe. Typically, these investments have senior talent from established studios in leadership roles.

“At NetEase, our foremost focus has consistently been on empowering creative talent and bringing their visions to life. Over time, we’ve developed a unique support framework enabling our creators to unleash their full potential,” said Simon Zhu, president of global investments and partnerships at NetEase Games. “As developers ourselves, we intimately understand the challenges of building exceptional games. Through our support framework, our studios can focus their efforts on creative development, while entrusting partners in the NetEase network to manage larger publishing elements. This ensures our creators can remain fully immersed in their craft.”

While the program is still in its early days, NetEase is supporting these developers with an in-sourcing pipeline. Smaller teams can focus on making games overall, rather than in-game components or assets.

NetEase’s resources will give BulletFarm a head start on development, but fans will have to wait a few years longer for a full release. In the meantime, BulletFarm is hiring now.

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