Achievement Hunter: The making of a YouTube legend

How the Red vs Blue creators unlocked YouTube celebrity status with their high–octane videos.
Achievement Hunter: The making of a YouTube legend
Achievement Hunter: The making of a YouTube legend © Rooster Teeth/Microsoft/YouTube
By Jon Partridge

Way back in April 2003 Rooster Teeth Productions debuted the Halo machinima series, Red vs Blue. The comedy antics of two rival Spartan teams were as close to a viral gaming sensation as there was two whole years before the birth of YouTube and eight before the creation of Twitch.

Jump forward a decade and Michael “Burnie” Burns, Matt Hullum, Gus Sorola, Joel Heyman and Geoff Ramsey, founders of the production company, are still working on the award-winning series today, but it’s Ramsey’s little-project-that-could that’s making your lunch hour infinitely more enjoyable. Let’s face it, if you’re interested in video games and YouTube, you’ve likely come across one of Achievement Hunter’s crass, ridiculous videos – this is the story of how it all started.

© Rockstar Games

What began as a simple side-project website for logging achievements and helping you get them in your favorite games on your Xbox 360, Achievement Hunter has now evolved into a vast media empire that spans the wide Rooster Teeth production catalogue, dominates YouTube with billions of hits on hilarious videos on its LetsPlay and RoosterTeeth accounts but relies on a small team of just 12 full-time employees. Red Bull spoke exclusively to founder Geoff Ramsey and co-creator Jack Pattillo on how they managed to raise the site to what it is today, what makes up a “regular day in the office” and where their zany ideas come from.

Nine years ago, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was first on shop shelves, kickstarting the seventh generation of video game consoles and ushering in the addictive unlockable known as an ‘achievement’. Ramsey says that “when the Xbox 360 first came out, Burnie and I would have these achievement races all the time, as we were obsessed with collecting – I don’t know what it was, but we were having these races, trying to outdo each other all the time, and help on the internet just sucked. You were lucky if you managed to find a text guide on GameFAQs, so as we were doing it, we started to film us getting achievements to show each other, as we already had all the equipment together from Red vs Blue.”

While Red vs Blue and various other Rooster Teeth productions came first for Ramsey, he had an inkling that Achievement Hunter could be so much more – even though it began as a spare-time side-project – and it was a simple Dead Rising video that gave Ramsey the confidence that it could become more than a side project.

Geoff Ramsey of Achievement Hunter
Geoff Ramsey of Achievement Hunter © Brian Huynh

Ramsey tell us, “One day, I put up one of the videos, and it didn’t have any dialogue or anything – it’s just me getting an achievement in Dead Rising – and it just, well, kind of blew up. It blew up in the sense that people just really responded to it, they really liked it.”

The site launched in 2008, along with Rooster Teeth’s YouTube channel, and while at the time you could simply look up achievements on the Xbox website, it wouldn’t tell you how to actually get them – that became the main quest for the Achievement Hunter team, and the community continues to track and log each and every achievement for every conceivable game, and not just on Xbox.

The entire Rooster Teeth team
The entire Rooster Teeth team © Brian Huynh

It hasn’t been an overnight success though – anything but. Alongside long hours with regular daily work for Rooster Teeth’s main productions, Ramsey worked with Jack Pattillo, who would become the first full-time Achievement Hunter employee, to make two or three videos a week, and this would continue for a year and half until Ramsey wanted to make it his full-time priority: “After about 18 months, I went to Burnie and Matt [Hullum] and said ‘I think this is doing well enough, and I think it’s got enough legs to stand on its own, and I’d like to focus my full attention on it’ and I did – now we have 12 employees.”

Pattillo, also well known among Rooster Teeth fans for his beard, originally started off at the company doing contract work for commercials, and he eventually transitioned to become Achievement Hunter employee number one. Pattillo tells us, “I was Rooster Teeth employee number nine – and now we have 12 with just AH – which is pretty crazy for me. Geoff has been around since the beginning, and then I came in, and now we’ve grown our little section of the company to what it was when it started, so it’s pretty surreal.”

The success on YouTube isn’t just down to making weird and wacky videos and throwing them out to see how they do – that does happen on occasion though – but it’s also down to knowing exactly what the audience wants. Ramsey tells us, “the AH videos have done really well, especially in the last year or so, when we started making Let’s Play videos – that’s really taken over what we do, as they’re more accessible. Let’s say you’re playing Call of Duty, and there’s a hard achievement you want to get, so you make the achievement video, put it out on the internet, try to be funny or whatever, but you’re making content that’s only going to appeal to a niche – only COD players are going to watch it primarily, and then, COD players who need help getting that achievement. We’ve tried to expand AH into much broader entertainment that would appeal to larger audiences, which is why we do Fails of The Weak and Let’s Plays and Things To Do In...”

The Things To Do In segment, typically a clip showing weird, wacky, or downright hilarious things to do in a specific game isn’t just down to coming up with a single idea and running with it – usually, it’s the sum of a larger project, and for the AH crew Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V is the gift that just keep on giving. Ramsey tells us “Things To Do In, was primarily Minecraft before GTA came out, and then it’s really, like, I don’t know – we do a Let’s Play each week, and a lot of times we’re just playing, screwing around, waiting for it to start, and something happens that seems like a fun idea.”

“We just did one the other day – Mike [Michael Jones] and I were screwing around, and found out you can get motorcycles on the rollercoaster, so we did a race – and it really comes just from playing the game, and loving the game – it’s the same as with RvB, you know. It takes the mindset of picking up the controller and the game telling you to move forward, so the first thing you think of is, ‘Oh cool, I’m going to go backwards’, just to see what’s behind me or to do the exact thing I’m not supposed to do. Luckily, a game like GTA is so large, it’s a sandbox game, and when they make it, they really encourage you to explore and screw around in the game, coming up with as many wacky ideas as you can, so really the game does all the work.”

“It’s kind of funny now,” Pattillo grins, “We’ve slowly become more and more friends with a lot of these people who actually make the games – so we have friends at Rockstar, and they’ll email me, saying ‘How did you you figure that out – how did you land a Titan on the side of a mountain, you’re not supposed to do that!” – so we’re playing in the sandbox they’re making, and they respect that – that’s cool.”

With an open world like Grand Theft Auto V having almost unlimited possibilities, how do you even begin to experiment with such a huge game? Ramsey tells us that Rockstar’s Creator Tool helps a lot, “I spend a lot of time in that – I try to block out, like, a day or just two hours a week for me to sit and screw around, and that’s where we come up with a lot of dumb races.” Sometimes ideas will even come to Ramsey in his dreams. “A lot of the time I’ll have an idea in the shower, or I’ll have a dream – I actually wake up a lot at 4am in the morning, and go ‘oh, we need to do this, but with a tank’.”

“Achievement Knievel was one of those 4am dreams in GTA that did really well – I suck at sleeping,” Ramsey explains, ”so I really do wake up between 4:00 and 5:30 every day and I just can’t sleep past that, so that was one where I just woke up and typed the idea into my phone and tried to get back to bed.”

© Rockstar Games

The result, and really if you’ve not seen it you need to hit play in the video above right now, sees the Achievement Hunter team sending various vehicles sailing over buses in the style of Evel Knievel, and has racked up a staggering five million views. Of course, you make your own luck, and Ramsey’s flashes of genius are down to lots of hard work too.

“The majority of it really is just sitting down and focusing on coming up with an idea for six people to do today, and putting it on the internet. It really helps to have a special game like Minecraft or GTA which allows you so much creativity. A lot of the best stuff just comes from when we’re all based in the office and talking – and just someone will have a nugget, we’ll jump into a game, and an hour later, we’ll have something awesome that’s totally different to the initial idea anyway.”

Having an open-world game doesn’t make for instant viral video success though – not all sandboxes are made equal, nor are all game genres. Ramsey explains, “I beat Watch Dogs, and I’m going through it again, collecting all the achievements, but it’s like the same thing as GTA – there’s some stuff in there, and we filmed quite a bit, but it doesn’t have the same freedom that GTA does, you can’t do as much stuff in the game as you can with GTA, which kind of limits it.”

© Ubisoft

Not all sprawling open world RPG titles are comedy gold mines either, despite the viral hilarity of Skyrim’s Arrow to the Knee. “RPGs don’t really lend themselves well to the Let’s Play style we have,” Pattillo explains, “I equate our Let’s Plays to being like sitting on the couch with your buddies playing a video game, that’s what we are – so you’ll see more sports-type games, open-world games. RPG games, stuff that takes a bit of time to get into, or if someone says that you can’t really get into a game until you’re like, 50 hours in, that just doesn’t work.”

Sometimes, the team will stumble on a gem though: Bossa Studio’s rock-hard Surgeon Simulator 2013 is known across the internet for its frustrating and punishing gameplay, but that all made for one of the team’s most viewed Let’s Play Rage Quit videos of all time. “We saw a trailer for the game, and we were like, Michael this would be perfect for you, and he was like, ‘Gavin [Free], come in here and work this with me’,” says Pattillo. “And so the two of them worked on it together, and it was... well, we all stopped what we were doing and watched those guys film it, as it was so goddamn funny – it was one of the things where we like, yeah, this is something special. And they made three videos of it, and each time, it was pretty much like 'okay, let’s watch this happen in front of us.’”

© Bossa Studios

“I think the latest one is the current number one most viewed video on our Let’s Play channel. And the guys who made it,” says Ramsey, “They actually named the alien character, Gworb, after something Michael said.” There’s even an achievement in the game named after one of the videos, and even a surgery for Gworb, called The Gavichal, named after Gavin.

When it comes to making videos that rely on games and puerile humour from the whole team, you can bet that there’s no such thing as an average day in the office. For Geoff, it’s become what he likes to call a “a scheduling nightmare”, all thanks to the sheer amount of content the team puts out. “We’ll do like 40–50 videos a week, and some of them are easy, like I’ll sit down and we’ll film Trials Files in like 15 minutes, but a Let’s Play requires six or seven people’s attention for two hours – and because of conventions, events and all other productions, it’s really rare that the core six of us are in an office together, so when we are, we film constantly. Yesterday, for instance, we filmed nine videos. Somedays it’s non-stop, other days you’re just trying to catch up, edit and do admin stuff.”

Of course, filming 40-50 videos each week means there’s plenty of footage left over that didn’t make the cut, but there’s plans in motion for unused tidbits to resurface. Eventually. “Let’s say your average Minecraft video is two hours to film, we’d cut that down to 45 minutes. And thats the same for almost everything. We actually have a show that we’re going to launch at some point, when we have the manpower and time to do it,” Geoff tells us.

“Say there’s a GTA video for instance, there might be a 15 minute segment that we have to cut out, but there’s three minutes in there that are really funny but we don’t have anywhere to fit it in – so we’ve been pulling all those clips from the past two years and setting them aside, and we’re going to start sandwiching those clips together into a show called GrabBag and releasing those. It’ll get some good content out of the extra funny stuff that has never seen the light of day. And then sometimes, we’ll do a Lets Play of a game like Magic: The Gathering that’s so terrible, we refuse to release it. There’s a few of those.”

“The audience and the fans, they beg and beg for that kind of stuff,” Jack tell us, “but seriously, you don’t want to see it – it’s not good.”

The future of gaming looks bright, especially with the likes of VR from the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, which sounds perfect for the Achievement Hunter team to document on video, but it looks like the team’s going to be plenty busy with just good ol’ fashioned gaming – they just somehow managed to miss it. “Apparently, we had an Oculus in the office, but we never got our hands on it.” Pattillo tells us, “We absolutely want to check it out – it seems like something that’s screaming for Michael and Gavin to get their hands on – well, heads on. But there are plenty of games we’re looking forward to.”

© Mojang

Evolve, GTA:V for next-gen is gonna be pretty cool, we’re going to try playing Destiny later, Assassins Creed Unity,” continues Pattillo, “The big thing about E3 this year is that it seems there’s a lot of co-op games, four on one games, like the new Fable where it’s three heroes and one villain, and it’s the same with Evolve. That sort of stuff lends itself perfectly to what we do, so we've got a big fall ahead of us.”

“It’s like every single video game coming out has like, some kind of four player co-op coming out,” says Ramsey. “Which is perfect for us.” And us viewers too.

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