The Free Lives team live and work in a next level mansion
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon
Living and working from a mansion high up in the Constantia Winelands, the Free Lives team is equal parts Entourage and Big Bang Theory. Along with reams of code, there’s a private chef who cooks up healthy meals for the football-team sized crew – so that they don’t sustain themselves solely on Monster energy drinks, and a girl who organizes house parties – so that there’s regular human interaction and opportunities to let off steam/share the steam room with people they don’t work with.
These notorious house parties (which several of our cooler colleagues recounted the day after their epic night-before) are the reason we even heard of Free Lives and their game Broforce in the first place, which has your favourite childhood heroes blowing shit up Contra style in a side-scrolling run-and-gun platform video game published by Devolver Digital.
Immediately we attempted to get in touch with the rockstar game developers so that we could do a My Den feature, but in the words of Little Richard: “You keep on knocking but you can’t get in.” Thanks to sheer persistence and the aforementioned party-liaison, Rose Kotze, we were introduced to Richard Pieterse, who said, “Yes, sure, I’ll give you the tour, just as soon as I’m back from this Norwegian sex games thing I’m doing…”
Known also as Nekropants (don't ask), Richard is a weird dude – always has been – and it’s great to see someone so comfortable flying his freak flag.
“I tried to fit in, play sport and all that, but it didn’t really work out and in Grade 10 I realised that it’s easier to be different. I was still very shy and worried about what people thought of me, so I constrained my behavior until I started actively pushing against things. That’s why I’ve started dressing like this.”
In case you’re reading the braille version of this story, Richard is wearing a lace vest, choker, plimsoles and skintight jeans – all black everything. He says he feels more comfortable in women’s clothing and never got traditional male looks to work.
“My parents are super easy going about everything and really open-minded, but I think the way I dress has been one of the harder things for them to get used to. They don’t really understand it. Like, they think that I’m transgender or that I want to be a woman, which is not the case. It’s more of a punk thing, and is about wanting to do the opposite of whatever everybody else is doing.”
Same goes for the house Richard’s called home for the last two years – a forward-down-up-B, power-punch in the face of conventional tastes. That’s plenty of mirrors, and steel and wood the colour of Donald Trump’s face. Harking back to the height of 90s chic, Richard says that it's all thanks to convicted German fraudster Jürgen Haaksen.
Auctioneer Rael Levitt of Auction Alliance described the Belair Drive home as an "exceptional designer property" – which is something he would say. Our thoughts: while money can’t buy you class, stolen billions can’t build it either, and in the cold light of day being here is like waking up in a strip club after your money’s run out and the lights have come on.
Surrounded by high walls covered in dense foliage, the house is made up of several circles built into a sloping cliff on different levels. There’s a service entrance, artificial waterfall, mirrors on the ceiling, a circular swimming pool and massive silver fireplaces that look like something you’d find in a Bond villain’s lair. There's also more than one jacuzzi, several in fact, and then some of the wood has been spray painted silver to match the aluminium finish. It’s cold, both aeshtetically and in real life, and the numerous steel doors and disjointed bedrooms have all the flow of a first-person shooter game.
“Yes the flow of the house is weird, but I kind of like it. It’s playful and a fun house to make games in. It kind of catches you off guard.”
Richard leads us through a jacuzzi room, across a pebble walkway and into his bedroom, which has an unmade bed, floordrobe and several sex toys muddled amongst the rest of the mess on his desk. He shows off his nipple clamps and a double-ended Fleshlight-type device as casually as his Adventure Time shot glasses.
When Richard first joined Free Lives he’d only just moved out of his childhood home, and has lived where he works ever since joining the team at their previous Manor House in Kenilworth.
“I was 24 and it just made sense to live where we worked so we could work our weird hours and employ someone to clean up after us and cook us lunch and dinner. I’m actually more mothered here than when I was living with my parents.”
Typically the house only comes alive after the team’s lunchtime meeting, which they start their day with after waking up at around 1pm. From here they’ll work until dinner and usually turn in at dawn.
“It doesn’t feel like I work super hard, but I guess I do... It’s hard to tell because I’m also working on my own projects. I suppose it doesn’t really feel like work because everyone really enjoys what they’re doing.”
Richard compares his side project, Team Lazerbeam, to a punk rock supergroup. Along with Jason Sutherland and Ben Rausch, he has created the game Wrestling With Emotions, in which a wrestler speed dates in order to find love in the ring, as well as games like Wang Commander, Genital Jousting and something that uses dachshunds in ways far too obscene to be mentioned in our family publication.
“I’ve definitely got a fixation. Check this out. I call her Jennifer. Every time I go overseas I buy sex toys that might make a good controller. I want to make games for people who don’t necessarily consider themselves gamers.”
Like Baby Castle’s in NYC and the Wild Rumpus in England, Super Friendship Arcade (founded by Richard and Peter Cardwell-Gardner) is a local gathering of less commercial, more artsy, weird and experimental video games that are shown off in a party setting.
“We find a cool space, get a bunch of projectors and computers and play our strange games. Wang Commander was one of them. A rhythm game played with motion controllers, no graphics, all sound, and where you must try climax together. It’s surprisingly intimate and intense. For Sword Fighting you must strap on Atari joysticks where you need to use your controller’s stick to push the other person’s button.”
There’s been a bit of a weird limbo after Broforce’s success, and while this post-game depression is the type of thing that usually results in studios falling apart after a game is released, the Free Lives team have worked hard to give everyone their space to figure out what they want to do next.
Soon, Richard and the rest of the Free Lives team will move out of their space-aged and highly reflective round house, and into a much more cottagey, former B&B down the road. While waiting for renovations to be completed they’ll spend three months in Mauritius, because they’re rockstars, and gaming is the new punk rock. If you had the opportunity to choose your own adventure, you’d also want to drink out of coconuts.
“We had a launch party here for Broforce when it came out. I think we spent around a hundred and twenty thousand, and there was the metal band that made the soundtrack, Strident, playing live and male strippers dressed up as action heroes handing out shots. It’s a waste not to have parties here. We want to have the type of ridiculous house parties that nobody ever invited us to. There will definitely be a farewell party when we leave. I’ll invite you guys. You should come.”