IO Interactive's Thomas Howalt
The Danish developer discusses the maturing industry, creating new properties and whether critics have any effect on a studio's morale
IO Interactive is best known for the acclaimed and best-selling Hitman series, but last year it also released brand new property Kane & Lynch: Dead Men with publishing partner Eidos. The title received mixed reviews, but was also dragged into controversy following a bad score on US website GameSpot, and the departure shortly after of the game's reviewer. At the recent Nordic Game event in Sweden, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with a relaxed Thomas Howalt, business development director at IO Interactive, to discuss the creation of new IP, the ever maturing industry, and the effect critics have on a game studio.
Q: How's business at IO Interactive?
Thomas Howalt: We're doing well, we're working hard. We're up to about 200 people which is a lot, and we're recruiting. We've just seen some changes in Eidos which we find very exciting, I think everybody at Eidos has approached the changes and are ready to move on. In a lot of ways you'll see some new cool stuff coming up, we have some new things that haven't been announced yet. Things I'm looking forward to playing myself.
Q: IO Interactive's most recent title was Kane & Lynch, which has sold well, but also got caught up in the GameSpot review debacle...
Thomas Howalt: It sold well, we broke even and it's still selling. We had some really harsh reviews and there was all this noise about this thing with GameSpot and it sort of went over my head whatever people were fighting about. The web has it's own voice and it can be very loud.
Q: Do you think the game suffered because of that controversy?
Thomas Howalt: No. You know, what I see today is a lot of people picking it up, playing the free levels we put out. We get a lot of people playing online. You can argue are the graphics good enough, is it up there with the best? But it only takes two weeks and you're no longer the best looking game out. I've been playing games since Pong so I take these things lightly. In the end it's about sales and we have games like Freedom Fighters which is still selling.
Q: You're best known for the Hitman titles which are very much single-player experiences. But, one of the most praised elements of Kane & Lynch was the multiplayer gameplay, which was the studios first attempt at online multiplayer and co-op gaming. Was it reassuring to see that your ideas behind mutiplayer were well accepted, and is this an area the studio is going to focus on in the future?
Thomas Howalt: The most amazing thing about that was the idea came from someone on the team who said that we should do this as a multiplayer aspect. We kept it secret for a while, for one and a half to two years. We learnt so much developing it because it was the first time we did some multiplayer gameplay and we learnt a lot from gathering metrics and information from the player. So there's this accumulation of ideas and statistics that we can put into our next products. I'm not sure about specific plans for the next product but I know the guys from the team are talking about a lot of ideas and they're going to have a hard time cutting it down.
Q: Kane & Lynch is a new property for IO Interactive. Has it worked out to be the right time for the studio to create a new brand to add to Hitman and Freedom Fighters? And was it difficult to establish a new product in the market?
Thomas Howalt: That's an interesting question and I think you could basically see it as an industry thing rather than just what we do. I work a lot with national companies and businesses in Norway and Scandinavia, and I visit a lot of British studios. And I think our chance to stay on the chart is to invent new intellectual property. We have to move upwards on the value chain because we're pushed by 5000 graphic artists every year coming out of Chinese universities, we're pushed by Quebec tax benefits and regulations that make it very cheap to produce games over there. Companies in the European part of the world that find it expensive will have to move themselves and not be content to make the next instalment of a game, we have to create new technologies, we have to create new IPs and business models. That's our chance to remain part of this evolution of the industry.
You could see it with a company like IBM. They created laptops and PCs but at a certain point they said, "you know, our strength is in chip making". So they sold their whole PC business out. When they first did it the reaction was "you did what?" But if you reflect on it, it makes sense.
Q: You mentioned some reviews were harsh on Kane & Lynch. How does that affect the company, the morale of a studio, when you've been working on a project for well over two years?
Thomas Howalt: I come from an artistic background and there's one thing I know when you get feedback like that you don't discuss it. Take it in, write it down, shut up and go home and think about it. You can't do anything about it now. With game development the last six to eight months is one constant feedback process. It's about how much do you go back to trodden ground and still add enough value. The costs get higher and higher and you have to find that balance and say, "this is enough". You will never get a game that is 100 per cent perfect. I've read reviews of GTA IV that say it's perfect, it gets a ten out of ten score, but it still has flaws. I like that game a lot but it's not perfect, so what is perfect?
Q: So a bad review doesn't feel like a kick in the nuts – the team don't go home depressed at the end of the day?
Thomas Howalt: I think the biggest emotional reaction I saw was when we made Hitman: Blood Money and there was a competition in Japan to see how fast a player could finish a level. Someone did it in 24 seconds and the game designer became so angry and said, "he's doing it the wrong way". But he wasn't, he was just playing with the game however he liked. We put the games out, you play them.
Q: Eidos has said that it wants to concentrate on its big brands in the future and obviously the Hitman series is one of those. How has your relationship grown with Eidos over the year's?
Thomas Howalt: There's a tendency to see the publisher and the developer as two separate entities that don't necessarily like each other, or who are fighting each other. That's not true, because we're working on the same game and there's a much greater understanding of each other.
Ten or 15 year's ago when I started in this business the marketing people were called 'the weasels'. But today, there's a deeper understanding that these guys can add things to our games that are so valuable, the sales people who are out there hearing what they are saying at a retail level. It's a maturing business and we should understand that we all need each other. The changes you see in Eidos are the changes you'll see in a lot of companies, and they reflect that things like marketing the game are as important as the technology and the creation of IP. That's what it's about, that's what happens when you become an adult.
Q: You're working with a blockbuster business model - big budgets for games that spend year's in development. Are you interested in any smaller projects or emerging business models that work on a smaller scale?
Thomas Howalt: We'll go where there is a market. Being from a business development background and from visiting other studios as well, I think there is a greater understanding that the traditional retail package is under great pressure. I don't think we'll see a point where online distribution will replace retail. Instead of having one partner to drink with, you'll have several partners with the same water.
Q: So IO Interactive is looking at new ways to create games and new ways to get them to market?
Thomas Howalt: If you see the activities that Eidos has started, even with the earlier management, it reflects that it is constantly monitoring how they can sell games.
Q: Hitman was recently made into a movie – what was it like seeing one of your creations reworked by someone outside of the company, and in a different medium?
Thomas Howalt: I sat with one of the inventors of the character and he sat with his feet up, a big can of Coke by his side, and he sat there laughing and having a great time watching the movie. It was something different for him. It's like when a songwriter hears a song sung by another singer. It's like when you have kids. What's happening now is I have a 15 and a 13 year old and I start to hear things about what they get up to when I 'm not there. I'm thinking, "they can't do that, they did what?" In some ways, it's the same thing. It's nice to see something you've worked on taken by someone else and do something different with it.
Q: A lot of companies sell the rights to their products and they get made into terrible movies, I'm sure that tarnishes the intellectual property they've worked so hard on...
Thomas Howalt: Some of the team didn't think it was like Hitman. But we get blind, we've been working on these games for year's so there's no surprises for us with a character like that. Again, it's feedback. We could be very protective towards our product but I see it as, again, we're becoming adults now, we're not going to get hurt feelings over these little things. I came to IO in 2003 and the next year we had 15 babies born at the company. We're growing up, the company is breeding. All these babies were bald!
Q: Did they have barcode tattoos on the back of their necks?
Thomas Howalt: [laughs] We're maturing, this is a maturing industry at last.
Thomas Howalt is business development director at IO Interactive. Interview by Matt Martin.