Unraveling Coldwood's change in design philosophy
Martin Sahlin, Creative Director at Coldwood, talks about Unravel's reception and why it's a game he simply needed to make
"Happiness blossoms from small, simple things."
That's a rough translation of the Swedish that's embroidered on a pillow sitting on a chair at the start of Unravel, a game that's both small and simple and features a character, Yarny, made out of nothing more than a spool of yarn. It's arguably a saying that's also a perfect metaphor for developer Coldwood Interactive's transformation as a studio.
While Coldwood creative director Martin Sahlin didn't go so far as to say that his studio's previous work was soul sucking, it's clear that Coldwood's past projects didn't have any great meaning to Sahlin or his team. Essentially, Unravel is the first true passion project for the Swedish developer that had been working on mostly snow sports titles like Skiracing 2006, Ski-Doo Snow X Racing, and Freakout, before moving onto PlayStation Move titles like The Fight Lights Out and Move Fitness.
I ask Sahlin bluntly if his previous projects were more to keep the company afloat. He answers honestly, "That's a totally fair assessment. The way I used to look at it was that making games was a heck of a lot of fun. It's a great thing to do. I was doing that with a group of my very best friends. It is a very special place to work at. We have fun and I think that's been really awesome and amazing. But it's also really hard work, or course. But at the time, up until a few years ago, I was really pragmatic about this thing. I figured, well, this might not be the coolest game ever but I'm doing it with my friends and it's super fun to do so, honestly, I don't really care.
"You should be doing stuff because you're enjoying it and I totally was. But then the turning point came when we did that fighting game with Sony a couple of years ago because even though that was was flawed in so many ways, it was definitely the thing that landed the furthest away from what we set out to make. It just basically turned into a bit of a mongrel development and it was, honestly, very frustrating to work on. Despite all of its flaws...it was quite popular. It reached quite a few people. By successful game standards, 600,000 people isn't a lot, but if you look at any other art form, 600,000 people is huge. So I just realized that I just had an audience of that size and I had their complete attention for hours and hours and I didn't tell them anything. I didn't have anything meaningful or cool or memorable to say. I just gave them an essentially pointless distraction for a couple of hours. That's when I realized that, you know what, it's not enough to go to work and have fun. I want to actually create something that has some kind of a depth and some kind of a meaning to it."
"I just realized that I just had an audience of that size and I had their complete attention for hours and hours and I didn't tell them anything. I didn't have anything meaningful or cool or memorable to say"
And that of course is where Unravel comes in. The yarn comprising protagonist Yarny is meant to represent the bonds between people and the world he inhabits is designed around the northern countryside of Sweden. It's all very personal for Sahlin, and it's clear that if he has his way, his studio will be pursuing many more games with meaning in the future.
"It was a game that I felt like I needed to make. It's something that - I've really drawn a lot from this. It felt like an important thing to do for my personal development. So, honestly, it's like what I've set out to do was just to make something that I felt I needed and then the more I worked on it the more I realized that this was something that could actually have some benefit for other people," he says.
"I know that sounds a bit strange to say but that's actually exactly how it happened. You start from yourself and then you try to include as many people as possible aside from yourself. You want it to be personal to you but then at the end of the day you want it to become personal to everyone else who plays it as well."
Not only is Unravel a breakthrough moment for Coldwood from a purely creative standpoint, but for the first time in the studio's history, the team is actually enjoying the spotlight. From the moment the inescapably cute Yarny was revealed during publisher EA's E3 2015 press conference, the internet lit up with curiosity and praise. Coldwood had a chance to capitalize on some real momentum.
"There's tons more pressure. But also it's good pressure because it means we get more spotlight and more visibility and we can reach more people because of that," Sahlin tells me. "But it was quite strange after E3. They have these people at EA and their job is basically to monitor conversation. They look at what people are saying on the internet and try to turn that into numbers that can be analyzed. They were just running around after the [conference], 'We got 2 percent negative sentiment! That just doesn't happen. This is unreal! What did you do? You turned everyone on the internet nice.' And obviously, it's never going to stay like that because only ideas are perfect."
Indeed, Unravel is far from perfect if you read the reviews, although Coldwood did manage to snag a few perfect scores. The game currently has a metascore of 80, although in some ways Unravel feels polarizing, with some reviewers gushing over the emotional journey it offers without any spoken dialogue and others ripping into the title for its monotonous puzzles and at times clunky platforming.
Sahlin admits that he's "the type of person that mostly just reads the bad stuff" and we should ask him how he feels about the reception in a couple weeks. That said, he's generally happy with how it all turned out.
"Basically if you can't make passion projects from the biggest company out there, when can you make passion projects?"
"A finished thing is always going to have flaws and it's always going to be - I wouldn't go so far as to say the reviews are polarizing," he counters. "I would say that most of them are really into it and some of them see some issues with it and I can agree with a good part of that but for the most part people are really having a good time with it and then we have some contrarian reviews that - it's not like it's 50/50. Still, there's something very different about this thing that only exists in your mind, in your imagination, that's this perfect, beautiful, untouchable thing. So there's always that pressure to live up to that completely unrealistic expectation. But I think we did a pretty decent job of it. I'm pretty proud of what we created."
Sahlin adds that with little in the way of guidance, difficulty could be a factor for some players. "I think some people kind of are a bit surprised by the difficulty level of it but overall I'm pretty pleased because what we set out to do was make a game that would move people, that people would connect with, that they would feel something for, and we definitely accomplished that because a lot of people really are getting something useful and good out of this," he says.
Unravel and Yarny definitely project a certain charm that likely makes the task of marketing that much easier on the publishing side. Interestingly, the game is one that EA was eager to get behind; that's certainly not what you'd expect from a massive AAA publisher, but we've started to see the big companies taking a chance on smaller projects (it's a much smaller risk after all).
But why would EA trust a developer that didn't have any previous breakout hits? As it turns out, Coldwood actually had a prior relationship with the publisher, having worked on the PC port for Bad Company 2. "It didn't come completely out of the blue because we did work with them before... so they basically knew that we could make good games too. But then we had a meeting... it was quite surreal, actually, because it was so unlike anything I thought it would've been like," Sahlin explains.
"We came there expecting to pitch the game and we showed a level and talked a little bit and answered a couple of questions but then [they] took over and just started pitching EA to us instead... basically telling us of the direction that they wanted to go. [EA] was very upfront in telling us that this is not a game that EA needs from a financial perspective because they're doing good already. But it was a game they felt like they needed creatively and personally they felt very strongly about it and felt like this is something that we totally want to get behind. 'We love this story, we love this setting, and we love this character and we just want to make this because we like it.' And basically if you can't make passion projects from the biggest company out there, when can you make passion projects? So it's kind of cool to have that game and to have honest real people behind it. A lot of people have been really, really into this."
While Sahlin understands the indie ethos and Coldwood did consider things like self-publishing and Kickstarter, ultimately getting EA behind the project was a huge win for Unravel.
"There's a whole thing about personal development that I think is very important... I think it would be cool to see people make more games that give something to players"
"We did meet with a lot of publishers and we did consider a lot of options, but we were like this kind of deserves to be at a bigger scope than what we could pull off ourselves," Sahlin says. "We didn't think we could do this justice if we tried to skimp out on funding on Kickstarter or something like that.
"I think also - a lot of people tend to look at publishers like they're a big stack of money and that's all, like they fund development and that's it, but for us it's really been a lot about the infrastructure. They have QA certification and stuff like that locally so that's all figured out. So we don't have to worry - there's already established channels for everything so we can just focus on doing the art side of things and leaving EA to handle all the boring stuff, frankly. To me, it's not about funding. It's about infrastructure and support and we have a better game for it. If we hadn't had all that backing, we'd never have time to pull this off."
It's too early to say how Unravel has fared on the market, and Sahlin isn't discussing any sales projections, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Coldwood revisit Yarny's world. For now, Sahlin just wants to "assess and evaluate and see what went well, what could be better, what was cool, what do we want to do more of, or do we want to do different things?"
One thing's for certain: Coldwood isn't going to make any more games without meaning. "I think that I struggle to see us going back to making that type of game, the games that aren't really about anything," Sahlin remarks.
The move to personal game development is one that's changed Coldwood (and maybe even EA) for the better. "There's a whole thing about personal development that I think is very important... I totally stick by that when I said that I think games can be really powerful things. I wish I was a smarter person maybe to say smarter things but I think games can actually do some real good and I know that for some people our game already has. And I know that that's just like a tiny little drop in the ocean; I think it would be cool to see people make more games that give something to players," he continues.
And if there's no more Unravel in the future? Well, perhaps Coldwood can target a new, senior demographic. Looking back at the saying on that pillow, Sahlin jokes, "It was basically four guys sitting around a computer trying to channel their own inner old lady."
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