Starbreeze Studios' Johan Kristiansson
CEO of the Swedish developer discusses working with EA and the challenges of the independent studio
Although Starbreeze Studios saw modest success with The Outforce, Enclave and Knights of the Temple, it was 2004's Xbox exclusive The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay that put the developer on the global map. Highly-praised for story-telling, inspiring use of a movie license and its technical accomplishments, the game laid foundations for the developer's follow-up, the equally seedy The Darkness.
The Swedish developer is currently working on two titles - Project RedLime, an under-wraps title based on classic IP from publisher Electronic Arts, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, a remake and reimagining of Escape from Butcher Bay, with added content.
In this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, CEO of Starbreeze Johan Kristiansson discusses the forthcoming projects, why the developer is happy to work on other people's IP, the challenges of remaining independent, and working with Electronic Arts.
Q: You're currently working on the remake of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, which will come with additional content to the original Xbox version, is that right?
Johan Kristiansson: Well, it has three parts. It's a remake of the original, there's a new single player campaign - Assault on Dark Athena - and there's also a new multiplayer campaign.
Q: Why not work on a sequel to the game? What was the reasoning behind remaking the original and adding extra content, especially when you have already released a 'director's cut' of the game on PC?
Johan Kristiansson: Well, we're really big fans of the franchise. We had a lot of discussions regarding a sequel right after we made the first game but it never happened and we moved on to work on The Darkness instead. We now got a chance to do that and it's something we really wanted to do, and we also decided to include the original campaign in this as a lot of people never got a chance to play that game. Especially because the PlayStation platform was so dominant at that time and the original Riddick game was only released on Xbox and PC. So now we're giving 360 and PS3 players the chance to play the original campaign again but we've revamped it quite a lot for these new platforms.
Q: Did you make a wrong decision to go with the Xbox with the original title? In hindsight do you wish you'd considered a PlayStation 2 version?
Johan Kristiansson: Well, at the time we really wanted to make a technically advanced game. Riddick was the first game to come out ever to have fully implemented normal mapping, for instance. And that was pretty much only doable on the Xbox at that time. We wanted to work with that [Xbox] platform but unfortunately it didn't turn out to be as big as the PS2 platform.
Q: From Riddick you went to The Darkness on 360 and PS3. What lessons did you take with you, and was it hard shifting over to new console technology?
Johan Kristiansson: There were a lot of challenges with The Darkness production. Starting to work on two new platforms that were not really finalised when we started working on them, for example. I think we were one of the first titles from an independent studio to be released on those new platforms. There was a lot of challenges with the hardware, due to final specifications that weren't ready at that time. Also for us, The Darkness has multiplayer components and that was a new process for us as a studio. But overall we were very happy with the game as it came out. It sold more than one million units and has an average review score of about 82 per cent. It's not as good as Riddick with 91 per cent, but we feel it's a pretty good score.
We're happy with the game even though it caused a lot of technical challenges while we were working on it. Another big challenge was that we had a pretty complex gameplay mechanic, with five different Darkness powers, the Darkling companions et cetera, so there was a lot of complex systems we had to get in place for that game. It was a struggle, but it turned out well in the end.
Q: With good sales, and a technically accomplished game, are you currently working on any sequel to The Darkness?
Johan Kristiansson: No, we're not. We are working on two productions now, one is Riddick and the other is an new project with Electronic Arts.
Q: The Darkness was based on the Top Cow comic book. How did that relationship work with Top Cow - did they understand the videogame business and the development challenges of a videogame?
Johan Kristiansson: Top Cow was an ideal licensing partner for us and they gave us a lot of freedom in reinventing the franchise. They had thought a lot about making changes themselves to the franchise and we got quite a lot of freedom to do our interpretation or twist to it. There are a lot of challenges in going from that comic book medium to videogames. Some things like the Darkness powers, the mechanics of those aren't clearly defined in the comic, but for us that needed to be very clear in the game. There was a lot of working in coming to grips with how that should work.
Q: Both Riddick and The Darkness are based on someone else's intellectual property. Are we likely to see the day when Starbreeze returns to it's own IP at all?
Johan Kristiansson: Before we released Riddick we did three other games before that and they were all developed on our own original IP, with The Outforce, Enclave and Knights of the Temple. It's definitely something we'd be very happy to do again if we find the right opportunity. But we like working with licensed product as well, and it's a matter of finding the right licensed product for us where we can get freedom to add our own interpretation.
Q: You're working with Electronic Arts on a top secret title. How's that coming along?
Johan Kristiansson: It's going very well. We started working with them last autumn and in February we announced we were working together on Project RedLime. It's a classic EA franchise that we're trying to reinvent and it's great working with EA. They're quite a powerful machine that we're able to tap into, it feels really good.
Q: What are you learning from EA, what are you hoping will help the studio grow for the future?
Johan Kristiansson: A lot of it has to do with how we present our concepts about our game to the market. Definitely, on the marketing side we are impressed by how they think and the long-term planning in terms of marketing the game. One of the biggest challenges is getting the sell-in. If we can pull that off then we feel pretty confident that we can also manage to sell to consumers. Also in terms of production, we're working a lot with agile developments, scrum methodologies and such. They're very open to new kinds of production philosophies and that's been a very good step for us to move in that direction.
Q: Do you feel a pressure to satisfy the fans and the legacy of this classic EA franchise?
Johan Kristiansson: Yes, it's always a trade-off when you work on a classic property in how much you should be true to the original and how much you should reinvent or create something new. It's a pretty tough trade-off and something we're discussing here everyday.
Q: When are we going to hear more about this project - when can we expect an official clarification of what the game is, exactly?
Johan Kristiansson: I'm not sure about that. We've not really decided on when to go public with that yet.
Q: There seems to be a lot of confidence from the Nordic region, with local studios such as Grin, Massive and Starbreeze working on high-profile projects. But as an independent studio, what are the big threats or concerns you face as a developer?
Johan Kristiansson: With the projects becoming increasingly bigger, the greenlighting projects with publishers is also becoming increasingly complex. It takes a lot of time for someone to greenlight a really big production. It takes a lot of time in planning and there's always this horror scenario of having a team without any revenue. Sometimes it's a pretty stressful situation where you need to co-ordinate your production schedule and the staff that you have together with the greenlighting process from publishers. Transaction costs of getting these major projects is high, so that can certainly be a challenge.
Q: With that in mind, are you happy just working on two projects at the moment, or would you like to have more titles in production? Would that make the company more secure?
Johan Kristiansson: We're quite happy focusing on two parallel projects at the moment and we try to have them with a staggered timeline so we have at least 12 months lag between the start up and launch of each project. At the moment we're happy with that. We're very keen on maintaining our quality and we don't want to grow too rapidly because it takes a lot of time to integrate new employees and make sure they are a really an organic part of the machine.
Q: Are you interested in smaller developments such as XBLA, PSN, or Flash games?
Johan Kristiansson: We're looking at a lot of smaller projects as well.There's so many people here at Starbreeze that have so many good ideas for smaller games, so we'll evaluate that. If the right opportunity comes along then it's definitely something we'll look at. There's also an issue of focus. We don't want to gamble with the timeline of a USD 20 million project to get a USD 500,000 project going. These blockbuster projects will always be our main focus.
Johan Kristiansson is CEO of Starbreeze Studios. Interview by Matt Martin.