Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment is best known for the highly successful Max Payne games, and for its current project Alan Wake, an Xbox 360 exclusive that has been in development for over six years.
Here, in an exclusive interview conducted at the DICE Summit last week, managing director Matias Myllyrinne discusses the protracted development of Alan Wake and why it's worth getting post-production perfect, how the investment in its own technology will help the company with new projects, and why it's important got games to give something back to popular culture.
Q: Six years is a long time on anybody's books - now you're almost at the point of release, how does the team feel? Is it excitement, sadness, relief?
Matias Myllyrinne: There are a lot of feeling that come with such a project. Excitement is one, and you have those butterflies in your belly, because you're now letting go of something you've built for such a long time, and wanted to create.
Being able to share that with people is an awesome time, but also from a personal perspective, we know it's good - we've had a very warm reception, and people who have played the game have been very kind to us.
So we're thrilled to be able to share it, but from a company responsibility point of view, of course you always have those butterflies.
Q: Alan Wake and Heavy Rain are two games which its hoped can move the immersive, story-driven genre forwards. It's coincidence I guess, but why both of them within a few weeks of each other?
Matias Myllyrinne: Well, I haven't had the opportunity to play Heavy Rain yet - it's on my to-play list along with some other stuff, and I've had to neglect some of my gaming... but there's a tonne of stuff I want to attack, and that's a game I definitely want to play.
I think, conceptually, if you look at Alan Wake as a game - every game is a reflection of the team that created it, right? So it's a psychological action thriller from the guys that made Max Payne, and industry professionals and maybe the hardcore fans will see certain things, certain techniques that we've done before - but applied to a thriller.
So for example, we're using an active cameraman to cover our movement, slowing down time for those near-miss moments, highlighting yourself so if an enemy is sneaking up behind you we go into this classical thriller camera pan - we pull the camera out and you see yourself from the perspective of the predator, and yourself as the victim if you will.
We're doing these little things and gelling them into the gameplay, so the game is driving this kind of stuff - taking what we've done before and applying it to a different genre.
I don't know, I think there are a lot of awesome games. We're in a golden age of game development in a lot of ways - we're blessed with really great, polished stuff. For us we wanted to do something unique, and wanted to push the envelope on a few areas, a few fronts, and focus on those.
So with Max Payne we used time as a gameplay element. With Alan Wake we wanted to use light - both are constants and easy to get into, and maybe better played than explained... but just building something unique and blending that into the fiction takes a lot of time. You're not doing an iteration of what you've done before, or what somebody else has done before.
For example, Max Payne 2 - a sequel that was fairly well reviewed - that was an 18-month development cycle and I think Metacritic put it at about the same as the original, 87 or 88. You can iterate, but if you want to do something more innovative, and do something new, sometimes those prototypes don't always work out the first time around, and you need to go back to the drawing board.
Q: And is that what happened with Alan Wake - you went down several paths and found they weren't really what you were trying to do?
Matias Myllyrinne: I think there are two things. We did make one big mistake, and we came back from that - it was trying to make a sandbox structure to a thriller, and that just really wasn't working. It felt deluded, and the pacing wasn't right - for a thriller the pacing is important, you need a bit of foreshadowing.
We probably threw away six months of work, which doesn't sound that bad, but it's a lot of work with substantial teams... we saw we could deliver an okay game, but it wasn't going to be a heart-pounding ride, it wasn't going to be a thriller in the true sense of the word.
So we went back and redesigned that - although that in itself doesn't explain such a long development cycle, but we also put a huge upfront investment into building the procedural tools. There were certain things that we wanted to achieve, and we built the technology to fulfil the vision - as opposed to seeing what we could do with existing tech.
Clearly that kind of thing takes time as well, but the level of authenticity, having the huge view distances in the Pacific North-West, being able to have that living, breathing world - that vibe - it's not a tube or a cardboard cut-out.... building that took a lot of time.
And also, we're fairly ambitious - and if you're betting the farm you might as well get it right. Part of the thing is that you're only as good as your last game, and fundamentally I think it's better to take that extra time.
We had the whole game fully playable around E3 last year, and we've just been balancing, tuning, polishing and iterating in post-production since. Games are fairly expensive, and if you put down 60 Euros, the Remedy brand has to stand for something - otherwise people aren't going to come back.
Q: That investment in tools - is that something that will stand you in good stead going into the future in terms of future titles?
Matias Myllyrinne: Yes - and that's a key thing. If you've put down a large upfront investment you're going to get downstream return from having that technology base.
That being said, I think we'll always continue to iterate and get more out of the tech - but it's definitely not built for a one-off. That doesn't make sense.
Q: And from that point of view, it's helpful that we're looking at a long console cycle?
Matias Myllyrine: I think all the developers out there - or most of us at least - we're absolutely in no hurry to move onto a new console cycle. There are still things that we can do with the current generation of hardware for the 360 and PS3, and certainly jumping to the next one...
We have a healthy installed base, and gamers have gotten a lot of the services that they wanted from stuff like Live and so forth. I don't think a leap is called for - especially with Natal and the other devices coming out, hopefully that will extend the life cycle.
I'm not in the know, so I can speculate like everybody else.
Q: That certainly mirrors what other developers are saying - and it's also good for the consumer, not to have to spend big money in a recovering climate.
Matias Myllyrine: I think you're right.
Q: So six years without a pay-day - that's a long time to sustain a business. Was that one of the biggest challenges?
Matias Myllyrine: We've been blessed - we did very well on the Max Payne games, and we weren't looking to cash out or just chill... so we were happy to put that money where our mouth is - and if you do that, people will follow, because you're putting yourself on the line.
Of course, the reverse is true as well - if you're not willing to put yourself on the line, then nobody else will back you up either - so that's worked for us.
Plus on the other hand, Microsoft is a very patient company. To be fair, the size of that company, for quarterly results, I don't think we make a big dent in their profit and loss either way... but on the other hand, what they do want is unique new IP on their console that the consumers will enjoy, and to that end I think our interests are aligned. We want to craft the best possible thriller and they want something unique and wonderful.
Q: It's not easy for a lot of developers to take that luxury of time - for example, to be able to spend the better part of nine months polishing a game is envious, but good for the consumer.
Matias Myllyrine: Well, I could get on my post-production soap box... how many games have you played that you see there's the potential of something really wonderful there, but it's not fully envisioned?
Q: And how badly does that hurt the company, the franchise, the brand at the end of the day? As you say, if you're going to bet the farm, you may as well get it right. It's like the Blizzards and Rockstars of this world, who simply won't compromise on quality - and it hasn't really hurt those guys, has it?
Matias Myllyrine: No. Working with Rockstar - those guys are terribly passionate, uncompromising, and there's a huge attention to detail in the things they do. I have a huge amount of respect for Sam Houser and his teams, and that applies to Blizzard as well.
Not to sell us short, but those guys are much larger organisations - we're still a small developer trying to do something unique and focused, and hopefully we're doing one or two things that nobody else is doing, and being positioned differently so we don't go head-to-head.
Q: What's your headcount at the moment?
Matias Myllyrine: I think we're at 50 right now, but we have ten different nationalities - so especially during the Alan Wake development cycle we wanted to establish ourselves as an international player. Of course, we always worked in English, and with a game like this you're relying very much on a strong publisher like Microsoft that has a lot of resources.
And then you're also working with a lot of other companies - I wouldn't call it a film-style production, but you're still getting the focus very much on the core yourself, and then for example props and models will come from somewhere else, facial and motion capture come from Phoenix, stunts from New York, sound design from Los Angeles... there's a lot of external stuff that's happening.
This is where the productions are slightly more flexible, but you're also able to tap into the right talent, and you're not carrying that for such a long development cycle.
Q: Max Payne has great memories for me, because my then-future wife would enjoy watching me play, although she did get really annoyed at me because I finished the game without her (and she still reminds me of that...). She's not really a gamer, but Alan Wake is probably another game that can be a shared experience - so who do you see as your audience for it?
Matias Myllyrine: One, that's a good question, but two, we've had similar experiences. For example, Oz, our head of franchise development, was playing the build and his wife sat there for three hours watching him play, enjoying it. So it's interesting we're getting that - it says something about the story, the mood and the atmosphere which is really good.
For us, fundamentally, I hope we'll appeal to two types of gamers - those who want to get into the thriller and the story, they can go around and explore the world around them, and go in-depth. There's a tonne of explorable content and optional story that you can add to the fiction and find out more.
For example, you can use the TV sets in the world, and this time around we wanted to do something slightly different so there are actually live action actors there, and you'll get more reflections on perhaps happier times in Alan Wake's life when perhaps things weren't so bad... or then, when things turn more nightmarish, glimpses of something - and we're playing with that line of whether the stuff happening on the other side of the screen is true, or...
So there's a tonne of stuff, and manuscript pages to find, radio shows and stuff - those people who really want to play the action will get the skeleton of that, for want of a better description. The story will still make sense, but we're not force-feeding you tonnes of stuff if you prefer to just enjoy the combat and so forth.
So hopefully we'll appeal to both kinds of players - with Max Payne we saw that some actually dug the film noir story, and wanted to enjoy that, while for others it was mostly about the Hong Kong action. I think even this time around we're taking elements from popular culture which are probably familiar to the wider audience, and then bringing them into games and hopefully making something unique and new.
For example, the pacing is very much that of a TV series - that's something that Lost has done very well, pacing a thriller in a TV series. But then the setting, the All-American small town, quirky, with deep, dark secrets underneath - our town of Bright Falls has echoes of Twin Peaks. And having elements like the birds and corn fields, we're tipping our hats to Alfred Hitchcock and masters like that, while Stephen King has written quite a bit about a writer as the main character. Plus of course we needed to have the maze from The Shining...
So we're doing a lot to bring those into games, and from that perspective... it'll be its own story, and stand on its own two feet, but there'll be enough references there for folks who just want to enjoy the narrative and thrill ride of the story - however, in the end, it is an action game from the guys that made Max Payne...
Q: What does it tell you about the potential for games to be an all-conquering entertainment medium that can appeal to all kinds of consumer. Not to say that first-person shooters and the like are doing anything wrong, but is it that the Holy Grail for the business as a whole, and does it hinge on story?
Matias Myllyrine: I think different kinds of games serve a different kind of need - there's a need to compete in something like Modern Warfare 2, while something like the desktop tower defence gets me going in a very different way.
Q: Sure - there are different kinds of films, after all. But there are also those films which are genuinely universal, and maybe something like the Sims franchise is similar... but games like Max Payne and Alan Wake, do they have the potential to do the same?
Matias Myllyrine: I think they have the potential to become much larger that an individual game or series of games - I think if we're successful we'll give back to popular culture where we've gotten inspired from it. And hopefully the biggest compliment for us will be if somebody takes inspiration from our work and takes it on... whether it's games or film, or whatever kind of entertainment.
That would be the most that we can hope for.
Matias Myllyrine is managing director of Remedy Entertainment. Interview by Phil Elliott.