Microsoft's ambitions for your living room TV have been widely maligned, mainly due a perceived landgrab in sports, movie and show programming that's shoved video games to the sidelines. It's a mistake that has seen them torn apart by games fans, and coupled with clumsy PR, has left a number of interesting projects overlooked. Including Quantum Break, the new game from Alan Wake developer Remedy Entertainment.
TV is still at the heart of Quantum Break but it should be a much more appealing prospect to the games community. Quantum Break is a direct play for the HBO and Netflix users, those that devour a Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones boxset in a weekend binge. This is a video game that's developed by a studio with a strong fan following, and it comes with its own TV series - paid for by a generous corporate sponsor in Microsoft.
In this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry International, Matias Myllyrinne, CEO of Remedy, discusses the evolution of storytelling at the studio, the changing consumption habits of TV users and games players, how iOS games are helping to fund the bigger bets, and why it needs to work with Microsoft to realise its ambitions.
Q: So Remedy is making an episodic game and it's being accompanied with a TV show? I can see where that's coming from with your previous work on Alan Wake and the storytelling elements there…
Matias Myllyrinne: Quantum Break for us is very much our next big thing. It builds on two core elements of what makes Remedy what it is. We've taken a lot of the learnings about interactive storytelling from Alan Wake and we hope to raise the bar further. We've taken a lot of the learnings about cinematic combat and shooting mechanics from Max Payne to push those further. We're building on those for what will hopefully be the ultimate Remedy experience.
"Doing things the way you've done them in the past… you'll stagnate and die"
Q: I have to admit I'm a bit sceptical of the TV show idea…
Matias Myllyrinne: In terms of where we've seen a lot raised eyebrows is where the TV elements are tied in. For us, our games are a melting pot of popular culture. Look at Max Payne, it has graphic novels, in Alan Wake we had pages of a novel, we had live TV shows and radio. For us, this is taking it to its logical conclusion. So the game and TV show ship together as one cohesive package. The TV show is episodic. So the episodes of the TV show are interwoven with the episodes of the game. The storylines take place in the same location. Hypothetically you can watch one or play the other but you'll get so much more out of it if you combine them together.
For us it seems like a logical thing to do now. If we fell short of anything on Alan Wake I think it was the facial acting and performance. That's something we really wanted to address. We've spent a lot of time researching methods and we now have visual doubles where all the nuances of the actors are captured. We have our new technology, called North Light, that we built. It's funny because it raises up a new set of issues and challenges.
One of the first things we do is we take the actors to the dentists and take facial moulds. Because it turns out teeth are different and if you place a generic set of teeth into faces that are visually accurate it morphs them into somebody else.
Q: It's that uncanny valley problem…
Matias Myllyrinne: Yep, we've proven that we can do it. Sam Lake [creative director at Remedy] has these crazy ideas and visions and we just go with it. And right now it feels like a perfect storm, with Xbox One being so close to TV and fusing gaming and TV. We went to Microsoft with an idea that this would be not only be a triple-A game but also a TV show and I think we got lucky. Maybe we make our own luck but we've been building up to this for a while.
Q: It's a very ambitious project. You're not only creating a game but you're also partially responsible for a TV production. Isn't that a huge risk to the company - are you betting the business on this?
Matias Myllyrinne: Well, for us, we were very, very fortunate with our iOS stuff with Death Rally. And Alan Wake has done tremendously well and continues to do well. With the Humble Bundle and the Steam promotions, in that space of two or three weeks alone, we had half a million downloads of Alan Wake games. Obviously that's at a very low price point but it's still a significant help to our independence and it gives us more financial stability. But you need to take risks, we need to take risks. Both creatively and to do things differently to what we've done before. Doing things the way you've done them in the past… you'll stagnate and die. If anything that's been a central theme for us for 24-36 months. We've been really focused on learning new things quickly - there's a lot of things we've been doing on iOS that we haven't talked about - so we're learning new things there. And with Quantum Break there's a tonne of new challenges that we're getting our heads around. We're out of pre-production and it feels like we're in a good spot.
"We're getting used to consuming media at our own pace and we have our own natural pauses. TV shows are easy to commit to. We wanted to have similar pacing in the game"
But you're right, the industry is going through tremendous change. The bets are getting bigger and bigger. We need to be responsible about the choices we make. For us, it's better to set out and do something very ambitious and hard rather than not. Life's too short.
Q: You say the game is built in chapters, and the TV show is split like that too. How does that work on a practical level, how do players/viewers get hold of the content and how do they consume it?
Matias Myllyrinne: It'll be one cohesive package. So it'll ship on one disc or as one single download. We're not doing episodic as a business model, it's more for pacing and consumption of the content. There's natural pauses in there, but it's up to the audience as to how they watch it. Obviously there are different ways to distribute it. But the primary function of the TV series is to bring the world of Quantum Break to life and give it more depth. And it also felt like a fun thing to do.
Q: So if the player is regulating their own consumption is there a danger that they will swallow up one or the other and miss context? It must be a story-writing headache.
Matias Myllyrinne: It's the way we like to consumer media. Pretty much after Max Payne 2 we had boxsets and some people would blaze through them in a couple of nights. Others, who have a life and children, need to pace themselves. It's even more like that now with HBO and Netflix. We're all getting used to consuming media at our own pace and we have our own natural pauses. And TV shows are easy to commit to when compared to a movie. For us, we wanted to have similar pacing in the game but it's up to the audience as to how and when they consume it.
Q: How far in production is the TV show?
Matias Myllyrinne: We've shot the pilot and we've tested out various partners. We're working with different people so we know where we're going with it… but I can't get into too many details on the talent behind it. It's something we'll be shooting on the West Coast of L.A.
Q: Is Remedy paying for the production of the TV show as well as the development of the game or is it subsidised by Microsoft?
Matias Myllyrinne: This is clearly a strategic move for them as well as us. This is something - we have crazy ideas - but we need to fall back and let the full force of a company like Microsoft see it through. There's no way on God's green Earth that we would take on a venture like this on our own. We might have the appetite but there's no way we could.
Q: So that's why it's exclusive to one format.
"There's no way on God's green Earth that we would take on a venture like this on our own"
Matias Myllyrinne: For us, our interests are nicely aligned. We serve a strategic purpose for them in delivering unique content for their platform with a unique twist. And for us that allows us follow the creative passion that the team needs to fulfil through a project like this.
Q: The console market has been through a rough couple of years, do you think we're going to see a resurgence of the console business now with two new consoles on the horizon?
Matias Myllyrinne: I think we're going to be see a different type of console business, we're already seeing inclinations of that. We're not going to dial back to 2008, nor should we want to. We're going to see different models, different types of games, different kinds of content. If you look at the experiences you get on XBLA, there will be different sized games. Free-to-play is going to come. I'm a lot more optimistic about things, there seems to be a lot of opportunities. Maybe Remedy is at the right size as a company - I hate to use the word pivot - but we can do that. We have resources to do things but we are small enough to be able to adapt to situations. We've grown, we're just under 100 people today and Alan Wake shipped with 55 people including contractors and freelancers. I've seen a lot of interesting games and I just don't see people not wanting to consume interactive entertainment in all its forms.