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Stick to your guns, says Avalanche co-founder

Christofer Sundberg eschews trend-chasing, stresses importance of maintaining focus at a studio

Founded in 2003, Avalanche Studios is still a relatively young developer, but it's had a successful dozen years that have enabled it to now look into self publishing its own IP. Sandbox franchise Just Cause has been building momentum for the Swedish company, with Just Cause 2 selling over 6 million units and the recently released Just Cause 3 off to a solid start. Co-founder Christofer Sundberg attributes his studio's growth to a strong focus on what it does best: open world gaming. Sundberg, who led a panel on the topic of flexibility vs focus at DICE 2016, told GamesIndustry.biz that following industry trends is a horrible idea for any developer.

"Something that we talk about a lot in the games industry is how the industry is actually changing but then I started thinking - is the industry really changing or is it that the consumers aren't behaving the same way that they did two or three years ago? When you have a studio focus should that focus change with the industry and how far are you willing to go to change your business and your focus? Sometimes it feels like we need to bend ourselves backwards just to stick to our guns and focus on why you started out in the first place; so that was sort of the foundation of the roundtable," he explained.

One of the biggest trends right now is virtual reality, but to just blindly target VR because so many people are excited about it would be a mistake, Sundberg said.

"It's harder because the budgets are huge and the publishers aren't really prepared to bet on that many titles anymore. So the biggest change is that we see fewer titles and fewer opportunities for us as developers to do AAA games"

"We've been quite careful experimenting with going on sidetracks," he explained, referring to free-to-play efforts like theHunter or mobile titles like Rumble City. "Obviously there are some interesting learnings. We started off as an open world or sandbox studio and we're still there today; that's where we want to be and I think that's where we'll be mostly successful. I had a question from one of the people around the table - he asked, 'If VR turns out to be the biggest thing ever, would we just change into a VR studio?' And I don't think we would do that because the types of games we build don't [lend themselves to VR] - maybe theHunter does, but Just Cause in VR would just be strange. So you can't really just adapt to every little twist and turn this industry is going in, and I think being a more focused studio and focused on what you're really good at is the way forward."

Free-to-play is a perfect example of the switch in focus that Sundberg has seen with other studios. A lot of developers flocked to that business model and to mobile and it hasn't necessarily worked out, so they've been coming back to PC or console. The AAA world that they're coming back to is increasingly difficult to survive in as well though.

"AAA has changed and I think what's been mostly noticeable to us is that it's harder because the budgets are huge and the publishers aren't really prepared to bet on that many titles anymore. So the biggest change is that we see fewer titles and fewer opportunities for us as developers to do AAA games. But what we also see is that there was a time maybe two years ago or so when everybody was going into free-to-play and it turned out to be quite hard to be successful in free-to-play and so they've gone back," Sundberg said.

"But I think the developers and publishers that are successful in the AAA space draw from those experiences of working with different business models - microtransactions, free-to-play, etc. so that the usual box products combine business models that suit the IP that your studio works on. So you shouldn't change the whole studio strategy just because of one game," he continued.

Studios ultimately need to stick to what they're passionate about, he noted. "I think what's really key to be successful now is to just stay on track and be really careful when you see those trends because a week, a month, a year after things will change again. It's also a matter of how you manage your teams. In New York for example, that team is hand picked as a console development team, or AAA team and that's why our team in New York joined the studio, because they want to work on sandbox games, because they want to work on the big AAA titles and it works out really well. If we were to come to them and say 'well, you know what, we're going to split up this big team and do five mobile games instead,' it's just not for them. So it's a matter of how you manage your teams as well and give them games to work on that keeps them inspired and having fun."

"I think it's really important to be respectful to your employees and have them realize that it's not a garage business anymore - a lot of people in our studio have families and kids"

Looking after your teams, ensuring that they're having fun and more importantly that they're not burning out is a key ingredient and one you might expect from a Swedish company. "When we started up our studio in New York, we wanted to bring some of our Swedish ways of approaching work/life balance to the US, so we're offering 5 weeks of vacation and encourage parental leave and so on to the extent we can. I think it's really important to be respectful to your employees and have them realize that it's not a garage business anymore - a lot of people in our studio have families and kids and we want to make sure that they spend as much time as possible with their families and not working all the time," Sundberg said.

So what about the dirty c-word and how that affects quality of life? Crunch is still somewhat unavoidable, Sundberg said, but it's not always terrible in small doses. "Usually it happens during every project that we need to crunch even with the internal self-published projects. A little bit of crunch can be quite healthy actually because it focuses the team to work on the important parts of the game. So I think a little bit of crunch is healthy but not to the extent where you work months in a row. That's counterproductive," he said.

With three Just Cause games, Mad Max and free-to-play title theHunter under its belt, Avalanche has recognized that management has become more and more important. In the middle of last year, the studio appointed its first ever CEO, Pim Holfve, formerly the company's VP of biz dev. Before that, Sundberg and co-founder Linus Blomberg were jointly running the company.

"The studio has grown to such a size and there's so much money flowing through the studio every year that we need to be more organized. We can't be this basement development studio forever," Sundberg acknowledged. "We're one of the biggest independent studios in the world. So having a CEO and a guy with Pim's experience... I think it was a good point for the studio to appoint a CEO and we're really glad that Pim could take on that role because it's not an easy task running a company with the two founders still there; obviously we are more emotionally attached to the studio than most but it's been great so far. He's sitting next to me here so he gives me looks. My performance review is coming up soon!"

"Usually when a publisher wants to change something in a game it's because it's gone off track a little bit so it's usually a very good dialogue"

Under Holfve's leadership, Avalanche managed to grow the audience for theHunter to more than six million players. Now Holfve is eager to expand Avalanche's business with self-published IP. The company isn't giving up on traditional publishing deals in the AAA space, however. "We still want to maintain that part of the business because it is the foundation of the studio. It's just that we want to expand to one or two more self-published titles to spread the risk and also to create our own new IPs," Holfve said.

Sundberg and Holfve are keenly aware of the challenge of launching new IP, especially in AAA. Consequently, the studio's self-published games are likely to be nowhere near the size of a Just Cause game.

"Launching a new IP is absolutely super hard but what we plan to do with our self-published titles is one, build on the success of theHunter and expand and capitalize on that IP and when we create something new when that day comes what we'll do is that we'll draw from everything that we can reuse from the AAA projects as far as technology, the side processes.... We can use all those experiences and technology to create something smaller and a little less bombastic than the AAA titles but still with the same quality," Sundberg explained. Ultimately, as long as their new IP carries the Avalanche "trademark" of "blow shit up and beat up people" then Sundberg and Holfve are optimistic that the games will still resonate with their audience.

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Another benefit of self-publishing, of course, is that no one's able to force any creative changes on the studio. It's not a major problem for Avalanche typically, Sundberg said, but it's certainly popped up from time to time.

"Those things absolutely happen and they've happened to us as well, but on the other hand, usually when a publisher wants to change something in a game it's because it's gone off track a little bit so it's usually a very good dialogue between us and our publishers. Creative control is great, absolutely. And we'll face the same challenges with creative control when we hand it over to our team and make sure that those games being developed internally on our own budget carries that Avalanche trademark and that's my job as the creative head of the studio, to make sure that those games are carrying that trademark," he said.

"With the AAA projects or the publisher-funded projects, we get paid to develop a game at the end of the day and I think there needs to be a dialogue since the publishers come to us because they want a certain type of game out, being sandbox games. And we've been doing this for 13 years and we know more about that genre than most developers and publishers. Usually we have to work with internal presentations and make sure that the vision is the same with the publishers and our team. We usually avoid the more drastic changes that way."

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