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Whiteout Studios founders on the collapse of GRIN, the state of Sweden and the evolution of gaming

When Swedish studio GRIN collapsed last year, it left a legacy of small independent start-ups in its wake.

One of those start-ups is Whiteout, founded earlier this year by Joel Fagerlund, Simon Rodriguez and Konstantin Schutte. GamesIndustry.biz sat down with them for an in-depth chat about the company's ethos, the state of Sweden's industry, and where they see themselves heading now.

Q:Can you start with a little introduction of who you are, where you've been working previously, and what your roles are at Whiteout.

Joel Fagerlund:Sure. My background is obviously at GRIN, where I was a producer, but I started out in QA at Avalanche before moving to GRIN before they closed down.

Konstantin Schutte:I didn't work at GRIN - I joined these guys from Berlin. I started out working in Berlin - I'm German. Berlin is my hometown, and there I worked at Metaversum for almost two years, where I was lead artist. At the beginning of last year they relocated me to start-up studio offices in Singapore and right afterwards I was relocated to China where I started training artists at an agency there. That was just before I separated from them to found Whiteout.

Simon Rodriguez:I'm technical lead - I worked at GRIN as a programmer from start to finish.

Joel Fagerlund:Not on GRIN's terms though.

Simon Rodriguez:No. [laughs]

Q:We understand that you're working on a project involving CryEngine 3 at the moment, although nothing's really been announced yet - can you tell us anything about it? What platforms it'll be out on, whether it'll be boxed or download, or when we can expect it?

Konstantin Schutte:We can't really say much about it, obviously - but we can say that we're aiming for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360. We can't tell you if it's download or not download.

Simon Rodriguez:We've made a prototype, so what we're looking for now is essentially a partner to publish the game.

Q:What's it been like working with the engine?

Simon Rodriguez:For us, making it work with consoles wasn't something we had to do ourselves, but it worked.

Joel Fagerlund:Obviously, we've developed it on PC though. As a tool it's great as a sandbox editor - it's a very big engine that is capable of doing a lot of stuff, obviously, which we've been experiencing over the last few months.

Q:You're all in a new situation now, coming from bigger companies to work for a new start up. Do you feel that's been an advantageous move, that you're in a better position now than you were?

Joel Fagerlund:From our perspective we feel this is the best point to start up a developer. Starting up now as a small developer we feel is the perfect time.

Q:Would you like to become a triple-A developer, or would you rather retain that small studio flexibility?

Konstantin Schutte:It's a line to me that doesn't really exist. If the game project presents itself as having to be bought on a disc then, that is what we'll make. If it's the right game for a disc then we want to make it for a disc. But if it's this wacky, crazy idea that nobody would back for a disc at retail then it goes to downloadable markets and that's fine. To me it's just more opportunity. It's not either or, it's just what each game's fit for.

I think the market as a whole will learn a lot from downloadable games - these crazy ideas that can only work on a smaller scale - I think they will, at some point, change the retail market.

Q:I don't want to focus too much on GRIN, but previously, a lot of the stuff that happened there was either ports or licensed games - this new found freedom to really let loose on your own IP must be great. Has that changed the way you've worked?

Joel Fagerlund:Well what we did at GRIN was quite different from what we're doing now. At GRIN we were working on Bionic Commando, Terminator Salvation and Wanted. We're a different developer so it's hard to do a comparison. We're a much smaller team now: we work very tightly. We worked tightly at GRIN too, but at GRIN everyone was specialised, so everyone at Whiteout has to pull more weight!

Q:The recent cutbacks and closures that have affected the industry have obviously been sad, but haven't they also given smaller studios like Whiteout something of an opportunity by creating a gap in the market?

Joel Fagerlund:In the long term, it's hard to predict, but it's already interesting to see that when GRIN closed its doors, we came out of it, so on an individual level it's always bad when you lose your job... But for the Swedish community it's created a much more varied market with more developers than in the past. But it is hard to predict, and it's sad when Realtime Worlds has to lay-off people.

Konstantin Schutte:From my perspective, I was never at GRIN, so I'm on the outside looking in, really. What I've perceived from my time in Stockholm is that the Swedish developers, all of these smaller developers which came out of GRIN, are really sticking together, it's amazing to see.

These guys have all worked together for years and now they're doing their own thing, you'd think they'd be in competition - but it's not like that at all. People are warm to each other and help each other where they can. It's really amazing to me looking in to see that.

Q:It sounds like there was quite a tight community - so do you collaborate much with the guys from Outbreak or Might and Delight?

Konstantin Schutte:We run into them. [laughs] I mean, we don't hang out at their offices really, but we met Might and Delight at GamesCom, who we obviously know already. Outbreak are based in Gothenberg, so it's a little more difficult to bump into them, but obviously we're all in contact with them.

Q:Where do you see the Swedish industry going? It's one of the stronger European development communities but it's undergone a lot of changes recently. How healthy do you think it is?

Joel Fagerlund:First and foremost, I think that there's a lot of talent here. I definitely think that Sweden will stay strong. Looking at the games that have been coming out of Sweden recently, it's really cool stuff. Just Cause 2 from Avalanche was great, Bad Company 2 was great too. So I definitely think that it will hang on for a long time.

Q:Much has been made in the UK of the cancelling of plans for tax breaks for our games industry. How important to the success of the Swedish industry do you think the support of the government has been and will be?

Konstantin Schutte:Well, we don't have any tax breaks. We have the Nordic game programme, which is state funded and is a collaboration, I think, between Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, or something - the Nordic area. It helps fund development, which you have apply for. But apart from that we don't have any government support in the way of tax cuts or anything like that. I think, of course, it would be good to have. [laughs]

Simon Rodriguez:We spent some time at the Canadian booth at GamesCom. After three days we were seriously considering relocating. It's insane! Those guys have it really good in Canada.

Konstantin Schutte:I think what's interesting is that we're all doing so well anyway. We have DICE, we have Avalanche - and all the small developers, and they're all doing great. I think that proves the talent here.

Q:Do you think that's down to the education system? Is there just a passion for games in the country?

Joel Fagerlund:I think it's probably a combination of both. We have some really good game schools - I think there's probably five or six, they're really really good, and when game companies recruit they obviously look to the game schools. Plus, they've already been working on projects.

Simon Rodriguez:I think what Joel means is that when you are in university you are attached to a project most of the time when you're there. Working in small teams, seeing projects from start to finish, albeit smaller ones, so when you come out of university, or the game school, you know you have some experience of what it's like to work in a team for a studio. You're not sitting at your desk all day drawing for yourself or programming for yourself, you're working together.

Konstantin Schutte:And most of these schools also have a semester of internship, which is another really easy way to get into the company and for the company to get to know the person.

Q:What about the social gaming market? It's a pretty respectable and very rewarding sector now - is it something you might consider?

Simon Rodriguez:Even though we only announced the company a few months ago, we've actually been around since last year, and we've been messing around with everything. We've worked on contact bases, we've done Flash games. We actually have two small Flash games on Facebook. We don't support them at the moment, they were like a proving ground for us. We wanted to get them out and see what we could do.

They're easy to make, right? They're small and cheap to make and they were a good way of getting our team together - getting experience, finding our groove. So absolutely something that we will look at in the future - I actually think they represent a general shift in the industry. I think the Wii, in a way was the first symptom of a changing environment in games - you don't just have these so called hardcore games anymore.

You have people who play all kinds of games. The whole demographics of games is changing. You're not a gamer anymore, you're just someone who plays games. People play games.

Konstantin Schutte:I think in a recent report they found that 40 per cent of all gamers are now women. That's great to me. It's fantastic to be in that environment. Swimming in that ocean, if you will, where everything is changing. There is a lot of opportunity there now, and I'd love to try it in the future, maybe with all the platforms that there are - go cross-platform.

Q:Do you think that games still need to be aimed at specific audiences?

Konstantin Schutte:It's a tricky question. I think it depends very much on the game. In film for example, you have four patterns. Every studio that approves a film knows about these four patterns: male and female above 25 and below 25 - and the perfect film will appeal to all four.

I think that games are still finding their way around that, right now we only think is these kind of boxes: the social game and the shooter, these kind of things - and I guess with games it's harder to transgress these things, because... games are hard, right? Some people might not feel like playing a shooter because you are the one holding the mouse or the controller, but I think in the future there's a lot of room to break down those barriers.

We've already seen games like Limbo for example - everyone plays that game. Everyone loves that game. I don't think I've talked to anyone, girl or guy, that didn't like that game, and that for me is really a hopeful thing.

Latest comments (2)

Samuli Ulmanen Coordinator, IGDA Finland6 years ago
An interesting interview. Personally, I think the games industry's long-term future will be greatly changed by smaller developers such as Whiteout here. Even though a single small company might not have much say in things, when you put 5 or 10 of these devs together, the power to shape the field becomes evident. That combined with new types of developer-publisher relations (EAP, etc) can lead to something beautiful indeed.
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I love that a smaller tighter developer emerged out of this. Often, this means some creative games that were the product of a hungrier, leaner and streamlined development.
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