Starbreeze CEO Johan Kristiansson discusses project cancellation and the bright lights of Sweden's games industry
Since its inception in 1998, Sweden-based Starbreeze Studios has worked on a string of licensed IP, the most recent of which were the critically well received, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena and The Darkness.
Until recently the company was working on two EA projects, one confirmed as a game based on Robert Ludlam's Bourne licence, the other known only as RedLime and rumoured to be a new title in the highly regarded Syndicate series. One of those projects was recently cancelled with industry speculation and an announcement by an EA spokesperson pointing to the Bourne game.
Here, company CEO Johan Kristiansson talks about the upside of project cancellation, working on other people's licences and why we're unlikely to see a Starbreeze title on any handheld platform in the foreseeable future.
Q: A press release from Starbreeze recently announced the cancellation of a Starbreeze/EA collaborative project. Since then there has been speculation on whether it's the game based on the Bourne IP or RedLime, rumoured to be a game based on EA's Syndicate IP. What more are you able to tell us about this?
Johan Kristiansson: [laughs] Well, here's an interesting question! I'm not able to elaborate on the press release at this stage, unfortunately. There seems to be a lot of speculation in the media on which of the two projects have been cancelled but I'm not able to comment on that at the moment.
Q: OK, what can you tell us about it?
Johan Kristiansson: I can say that although we've had one project cancelled we're actually in a pretty good position. We've had additional funds allocated to the other project and we have high hopes for that project. Also we've not had to release any staff since almost everyone will be busy with the other project for a while.
Project cancellation can be pretty painful but with the situation we're in right now we're quite happy with how it's turned out. Also, I think that this is the way that the industry as a whole is going now, focusing on fewer projects but with bigger budgets. Sometimes you don't know what that big thing will be from the outset but after a while you can start to see where the money should be allocated.
Q: The last few years have seen Starbreeze work on some licensed IPs: The Darkness, Riddick and the as yet unannounced project in development, which is also believed to be based on an existing licence. Does Starbreeze have any plans to work on its own IP in the future?
Johan Kristiansson: It's always been an option for us to do our own internal IP and we didn't really set out with the strategy to only work on external licences, it's just worked out like that over the last few years. Basically, we've received better offers and bigger budgets for the licensed IP work than we have for the internal IPs that we've pitched. But we still have a lot of ideas for internal IPs and we may well look to do that in the future.
It does seem, however, that as you get later in to a console cycle it becomes increasingly difficult to convince publishers to take the risk on new IPs, especially with the general turmoil that the industry has experienced over the last year or so.
I think also that licensed IPs can prove to be very fertile ground for creative achievements. Something like the Godfather movies, for example, they're based on books and are considered by some to be some of the best movies ever made. Or like the Batman Dark Knight movie and [Rocksteady's] Arkham Asylum game, excellent products based on a well exploited IP. There's certainly scope for talented people to do great work based on existing licences.
It's important to understand that there are always boundaries for creative work whether you're working on your own IP or someone else's. Those boundaries are necessary in order for you to be creative AND productive.
Q: Starbreeze has a proprietary development engine and is well known for the in-house audio work. Would Starbreeze consider licensing these technologies for use by external companies?
Johan Kristiansson: We're investing a lot in the development of our internal engine development right now and we have expanded our engine team to about 15 people. We've established a more aggressive plan for upgrading the engine and so we're making a lot of changes to it. A starting point for this work has been to split up the engine into more discreet modules which allows us to do more ambitious work with each module.
However, I think that if you're looking to have an engine that can be licensed out to third parties it needs to be more general purpose than our current engine and it also needs to be very well documented and user friendly. We're experienced in using our engine and believe that it's very well tailored to the kinds of games that we make. If we were to license it externally it would require a significant investment and it's not something that we're actively working on right now. It is a long term option though, of course, but this far in to the current console cycle it doesn't feel all that attractive an option to be looking to enter the market with a new licensed engine.
Q: Does the same apply to the audio tech that you use in-house?
Johan Kristiansson: We've always been proud of our audio work and feel that it's a real strong point of the company. I think our audio guys do a fantastic job. Our success in that area is probably more due to what a few talented individuals are achieving rather than any particular superior tech.
Q: Are there any plans for work on a mobile gaming platform? Does the iPhone or the recently announced Nintendo 3DS appeal to you, for example?
Johan Kristiansson: Well, we've always worked on PS3, 360 and PC and I think that we'll continue to focus on those platforms in the future. We have stable and proven technology for those three platforms, a good engine and a proven track record on them. We'll certainly stick to those platforms whilst the format landscape looks about the same as it does now.
Handhelds are too far from what we're doing right now. I think that the three platforms that we're working on are all pretty similar in terms of processor power and they share certain synergies. Going in to mobile or DS development would be too much of a stretch with too little connection with what we're doing right now.
Q: How is the Swedish development scene at the moment?
Johan Kristiansson: We have a great atmosphere in the Swedish development community. We've established strong, colloquial relationships with other Swedish developers and we get together to share ideas and knowledge with companies like Avalanche and DICE. It's a big advantage that there's a critical mass of talent and development people in Sweden and, frankly, Starbreeze wouldn't be as strong as it is without this environment.
It also creates a healthy environment for games education and contractors. Hansoft, for example, was started as an internal Starbreeze project back in the day and so we have a very good working relationship with them and now they're one of the most successful tools and support companies out there. The same goes for the motion capture studio Imagination Studios, they also started as an internal Starbreeze group, and I still view them as extended family.
Q: And what sort of reception does Starbreeze receive in the Swedish consumer market?
Johan Kristiansson: We get a great reception from Swedish consumers and there's a certain amount of consumer patriotism for Swedish studios in general. Starbreeze is a well known company in Sweden and a couple of weeks back Starbreeze appeared 15th most attractive IT company to work for, on a list of hundreds of Sweden based IT companies. The likes of Microsoft, Google and Sony Eriksson were at the top and Starbreeze was the only company of its size to chart so highly. We value that very highly and we try to engage with the community by using some local testers and engaging the education community also.
Q: How much value do you feel formal education courses offer to those attempting to establish themselves in the videogames industry?
Johan Kristiansson: We think it's very valuable and we do a lot of work with local educators, we also recruit a lot from them and we've found a lot of talented people that way. Of course, formal education on its own is certainly not enough to become a talented developer, usually people will also have spent a long time on hobby projects and the mod scene whilst growing up. But a formal education does provide a solid year or two of working on a portfolio and a strong portfolio is really the most important thing to have when looking to make a living from working in the games industry.
We try to cooperate with a number of Swedish game educators by giving lectures and we have interns from some education programs. What's very encouraging is that the quality of these institutions in Sweden has really improved in the last few years. But as I said, a formal games education is a great thing but it's not the only thing; working in the games industry is a little like being a professional musician, it is something that you have to work on for a long time before you can make a living from it. It requires a lot of talent and dedication.
Johan Kristiansson is CEO of Starbereeze Studios. Interview by Stace Harman