Something to GRIN About
Simon Viklund and Per Juhlen on the challenges of working with publishers on multiple high-profile projects
Ahead of this year's Nordic Game conference, taking place in Malmo later this month, GamesIndustry.biz took the chance to catch up with two of the speakers at the event - GRIN creative director Simon Viklund and producer Per Juhlen.
Here they talk about the challenges of working on multiple key titles simultaneously as the company gears up for the release of Bionic Commando and Terminator Salvation.
Q: You're speaking at Nordic Game this year - what made you want to get involved?
Per Juhlen: We'll both be presenting the session, on Bionic Commando: Rearmed. I think it's very important to give people an insight into how we dealt with what's our first ever console game actually - and how to work with Xbox Live and PlayStation Network as distribution media, plus the challenges involved in using them.
Because the common thing when you talk to people is that you're told it's an easy way to distribute games, it doesn't require as much bureaucracy as publishing a title on disc - but actually there are loads of things to keep in mind when you work on downloadable games that are easy to forget.
We want to share our best practices - as well as the mistakes we've made - working on BCR, and hope that other developers don't fall into the same crap we did...
Q: For those that aren't so familiar with GRIN, tell us a bit about the early days.
Simon Viklund: Well, GRIN started as a small company, really just a couple of people who made connections over the internet and tried to make some demos. That was over 10 years ago, back in 1997 I think it was. It was founded by brothers, Bo and Ulf Andersson, and they managed to get some investment money - that's the point at which I joined the company.
Then we grew from about 12 people to about 250 over the past decade. We started out with PC games, and as Per said Rearmed was our first console game. The aim was solely to make high-end graphics, starting out with Ballistics, before we moved on to Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 and 2 for the PC.
But we were looking for new challenges all the time, so we moved from the tactical side of things with GRAW into a more arcade-style approach in Bionic Commando and Rearmed.
Q: Was the deal to make the PC version of GRAW a watershed moment for the company?
Simon Viklund: Yeah absolutely - because we worked with Ubisoft on that game, and Ubisoft is such a well-known publisher, more so than any of the other publishers we'd worked with before. Ghost Recon was also a well-known franchise, and we hadn't made any sequels or anything like that before, so we were working on stuff that people knew about - and suddenly other people in the business discovered us.
That's when we really started growing as a company in terms of numbers.
Q: Back to the present, and now you're working on two titles with big publishers, both due later this month: Bionic Commando and Terminator Salvation. Two very different companies there, in Warner Bros and Capcom?
Per Juhlen: Yes, they're very different - it's interesting to work with both. Capcom is a very traditional yet very innovative company, that's created some really great titles in the past. Everyone was thrilled to be working with them.
And then you have the Halcyon Company that owns the Terminator license, and Warner publishing - it's very different working with them on a title, because you have to be in touch with so many different parties on databases. Things can change, and up until the movie is done pretty much anything can happen. You need to be really flexible when working on a movie license.
We try to be a very flexible organisation, being able to handle working with various publishers. It's crucial - we can't have an inflexible pipeline, we need to be able to adapt to whoever we work with.
Q: Capcom is very clear about certain standards for its games - that they must have "The Capcom Feel" about them - how did that relationship work?
Per Juhlen: We worked closely with Capcom Japan and I was really scared before the project started, because I could see a number of obstacles we'd need to clear before we could work efficiently on the title.
But we had Nakai-san and Eshiro-san working with us on the title as creative advisors representing Capcom Japan. They were in on all correspondence regarding design specification, reviewing builds - so we were very close to Capcom at every stage of the production, which was a must to be able to achieve that Capcom 'feel' - though obviously we'd done our research into previous Capcom games.
Q: Who made the first move - did you approach Capcom with the idea, or was it the other way around?
Simon Viklund: Capcom came to us - they used a production company to find a couple of different developers suitable for the job that had the technical know-how that Capcom themselves understood would be needed in order to create a game such as a current-gen Bionic Commando.
They came up with I don't know how many studios, of which GRIN was one, and then Inafune-san - the head of R&D worldwide - came over to the Stockholm office. He looked at our technology and we had some meetings with him, and he was basically like "It's going to be GRIN or Bionic Commando will not happen!"
He was very pleased with the vision that we had for the game, and the technology we had available to realise that vision.
Q: That must have been very flattering?
Simon Viklund: Oh yes, I couldn't believe it the first time I was told we were even being considered for work with Capcom. Even more so when it turned out that it was Bionic Commando, which was one of my favourite games.
Q: It seems to be a pretty good time for developers in the Nordic region - there are a few companies working on high-profile titles now. Why is that?
Per Juhlen: Yes, it's going well, and has been for a few years. One of the reasons is that it's become easier to find personnel, and there's better education now that's aimed at making games. Art, production, animation and design - that's not a big issue any more.
But I don't know why the Nordic region has been so successful - in fact in general Nordic companies have been successful when you consider that there aren't that many people.
Q: Going back to Bionic Commando, what's the critical reaction been to the game so far, ahead of its release?
Per Juhlen: So far it's gone well. It's a new concept - the design is innovative. It does have some resemblance to SpiderMan, but in my honest opinion it is very different, and the whole swing mechanic is incorporated into the game - it's used for fighting, interacting with the environment... we've really built the game on that mechanic.
If the swing mechanic doesn't appeal to a person that plays the game, that will be negative, of course - but in general the feedback has been very good. Some people like the game, some people don't, as always, but in general there have been a lot of good comments, particularly about the multiplayer elements.
Q: GRIN now has offices in several different countries - what's the ultimate ambition of the company?
Per Juhlen: That's really a question for our CEO, but at the moment our goal is to sort organisation, make everything stable and adapt to the size that we are right now. We don't have any immediate plans to expand right now - it's very easy to be too aggressive and end up with all the problems from growing too fast.
Simon Viklund is creative director and Per Juhlen is producer at GRIN. Interview by Phil Elliott.