After a tough couple of years that saw Swedish-based Avalanche Studios lose $34 million worth of publishing contracts and lay off dozens of staff, the studio is well on the way to recovery - buoyed by the recent release of Just Cause 2, buying the licence for free-to-download game theHunter and opening a new studio, Expansive Worlds.
In an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Avalanche founder and creative director, Christofer Sundberg, discusses the perils of a split focus, the importance of brand identity and the business of making games.
Q: Avalanche Studios is associated with big open-world games through Just Cause and its recent sequel. Is developing a title in this genre riskier than it is for other genres?
Christofer Sundberg: It’s true that our games have been set in these open worlds but that doesn’t mean that we won’t look to create games in the future that look to guide the player in a particular direction with regard to narrative or game play experience.
At the moment the studio is still feeling a little shaky and we’re recovering from a really rough 2008/9. It was an uphill struggle for us and we’re pleased to have been able to release Just Cause 2 which, as an open world game, was characterised by more risk, time and expense.
Q: What is it about the open-world genre that makes it more risky?
Christofer Sundberg: It’s partly due to the numerous different play styles that we have to put in to the game in addition to sheer number of areas that it is necessary to develop. These are elements that, because of the nature of the game, some players may not see at all and so in this way, could potentially be considered as waste. Of course we’re committed to including all of these elements and so we don’t see them as waste but basically your dedicating time and money and then allowing the player to bypass certain parts if they want to or to miss out on their full potential.
However, we’re now able to capture metrics to track what each player is doing with the game and how much of the island they see, the ground that they cover, number of kills and so on so this can help us in developing future games.
We’ve also been able to use this as an analysis tool. For example, we found that one area, that was a little out of the way and that not a lot of players were going to during testing, had a disproportionately large number of NPC deaths and we were able to pinpoint this to a bug that was basically a misplaced NPC spawn point, the spawn point was off a cliff.
Q: Avalanche recently opened a new studio, Expansive Worlds. What was the thinking behind this, especially in light of the rough patch that the studio is just coming out of?
Christofer Sundberg: Well we worked with a company called Emote on theHunter, which is a free to download hunting simulator. Emote ran in to financial problems and we decided to buy the game back from the administrators at the end of last year. Once we’d obtained the licence we discussed the image of the game and felt that it wasn’t quite right for the Avalanche brand. We decided that Avalanche should be associated more with massive explosions, car chases, action and big game worlds and should focus more on consoles and so we felt that a slow paced hunting game wasn’t really the right fit for that. So we established a new studio to continue development of updates for theHunter. Also we want to explore the concept of distributing games digitally and going direct to the consumer so we felt that those type of plans would be better realised under a new brand.
In addition, theHunter is our first real investment in our own IP and obviously there is a risk associated with that, so from a corporate standpoint it’s frankly better to have that separated from the main Avalanche brand.
Q: What were the inspirations for theHunter? I’ve played through some of it and the attention to detail of its game world reminded me a little of that in GSC’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R
Christofer Sundberg: The key word for theHunter has been realism. The game world that is available at the moment for theHunter is based on an area of Washington state, so we’ve tried to create a replica of that part of the world. There's not been any real inspiration taken from other commercial titles, we developed theHunter for people that want a more serious hunting experience.
Q: And how has the reaction been to that?
Christofer Sundberg: It’s been good, it’s had some great reviews. People have seen a more serious side to a genre that’s previously been viewed as a bit of a clown subject, with some other hunting titles featuring wrestling snakes and so on. Actually when we started developing theHunter we were going for a more fun and games type of experience. For example, we had one idea initially where the players would be dressed up in a clown suit in a world full of bears and the player that could get from start to finish without being killed by a bear would win. We hadn’t implemented that idea at the point that the feedback started coming in for the serious side of the game however and when everyone that played it fed back on how enjoyable the more realistic hunting experience was we knew that we had to keep the clown parts out. We decided to forget about the craziness and make it more of a simulation.
Q: The Expansive Worlds branding doesn’t appear on theHunter though, why is that?
Christofer Sundberg: It’s really a timing thing. We only recently decided to establish the studio and the Expansive Worlds managing director, Stefan Pettersson, joined us at the beginning of May. Prior to that we just had 2 – 3 people working on the game since acquiring the licence at the end of 2009 so they haven’t really come to the point where they are changing the branding from Avalanche to the Expansive World branding. That will happen very soon though. Also, Emote is no longer around and has nothing to do with the game anymore so the Emote name and logo will also be removed. Expansive Worlds will be the developer working on theHunter going forward so it will be branded accordingly.
Q: Are Expansive Worlds folk going to be based at Avalanche HQ in Sweden or elsewhere?
Christofer Sundberg: Yep, they’re here in this building and will remain so. They’re a subsidiary of Avalanche with their own finances and I’m not involved in their daily business just on the board of directors so they exist as a separate studio but they’re not so separate that they require a separate premises.
Q: And what is Expansive Worlds focusing on?
Christofer Sundberg: They’re focussing 100 per cent on theHunter right now, on picking up development on that and updating it. There are certainly plans to expand the company with a focus on more social games and building online communities around those. Right now though, it’s about getting back the confidence from the community for theHunter and to start releasing updates, to get that up and running before we start releasing anything else from that studio.
Q: Will Expansive World’s main focus be PC titles then?
Christofer Sundberg: More online community games, actually, so that could be handheld or console or PC and there could be interactions between those platforms also. We’re looking at 100 per cent download only, we have toyed with doing a retail release of theHunter but we’re not sure about that.
Q: What’s next for Avalanche?
Christofer Sundberg: Well as I mention we just got out of a very tough 2009 and so far this year we’ve started a new project and released Just Cause 2. We always wanted to be a multi-project company and throughout 2007 we grew up to 175 staff and we were working on four simultaneous projects, it was really just too much. It became a focus issue, we had a number of key members of staff who were working on numerous projects and it got to the point that our time was so split between the different projects that the focus was non-existent. Then we ran in to a lot of problems at the end of 2008 and we laid off staff so at that point we had to take a few steps back and look at our business.
We’re here to develop games, that’s what the heart and passion of our company is about, we’re not here to be purely focused on the corporate side. Of course we want to be profitable and make money but that’s not the driving force. So we’ve decided to work on one project at a time until that project gets to a point, maybe a year or two in to development and then see if we can allow some of the more central roles to focus on something else whilst the remaining team members focus continuing development. If we think at that point that we need to keep those people on that project for a while longer then we’ll do that, we’re keen not to overstretch.
So far it’s working really well, there’s now a lot more motivation in the studio and it’s certainly more fun coming to work.
Christofer Sundberg is founder and creative director of Avalanche Studios and a member of the board of directors of Expansive Worlds. Interview by Stace Harman.