AAA should invest in indies - Ori dev

Thomas Mahler talks about his studio's reputation, distributed development, and the project he'd love to sign to a publisher

Moon Studios' Ori and the Blind Forest has drawn plenty of comparisons to Studio Ghibli, with a quality of animation and bitter-sweet story beats reminiscent of the studio behind Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. The comparisons are further cemented by Ori's commercial and critical success, making its money back in its first week on sale and posting an 89 Metacritic average on the way. A reputation as the Studio Ghibli of Games could be in the cards for Moon, but it remains to be seen if the company would actually pursue it.

As the studio weighs its next move, CEO Thomas Mahler spoke with to discuss what brought it to this point and where it goes from here.

"I don't see us just making platformers or [just] making Ori 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6."

"At Moon Studios, we want to be that game company you want to support," Mahler said. "Because really, we're just crazy people that work extremely hard on hopefully the best games we can give people. That's always the strategy. ... We set out to create the best games in the world, because studios with that kind of idea behind them--like Blizzard and Nintendo before them--they always get their trust from people, and I think that's just a winning formula. In some ways, I have to sacrifice a lot to make that work and for Moon Studios to be that kind of studio. I think that's just what we want to do. I don't see us just making platformers or [just] making Ori 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6."

The idea that Moon would have aspirations of variety beyond churning out sequels in a single franchise is not surprising. While Ori is its first released game, Moon did have an earlier project it publicly unveiled called Warsoup. A first-person shooter with the structure of a real-time strategy game, Warsoup was an idea spawned from Mahler's experience at his previous job with the cinematics team at Blizzard. After spending his lunch breaks learning the finer points of Starcraft II from his co-workers, Mahler wanted to adapt some of the same gameplay dynamics to the first-person shooter genre. Instead of casting the player as an all-powerful eye-in-the-sky issuing commands to build refineries, farm minerals, and research weapon upgrades, Warsoup would put players on the ground, making them juggle many of the same tasks while also using their fancy weapons (which must be researched anew each round) against one another. Early clips of the game can still be found on YouTube.


Moon's first project, Warsoup, bears little resemblance to Ori.

Emboldened by the then-recent trend of indie games like Braid and Castle Crashers hitting it big on Xbox Live Arcade, Mahler worked on the prototype for Warsoup in his free time at Blizzard. He'd leave the office at 8 p.m., go home and crank away on Warsoup until 3 a.m. He put together a team of developers that would become Moon and began pitching projects to publishers. Microsoft was one of the companies he pitched, but they weren't so taken with Warsoup. Instead, it was a secondary project that grabbed their interest, a platformer called Sein that would eventually become Ori and the Blind Forest.

"I think the reason Microsoft was more interested in Sein back then was because we were a really small studio and they didn't really think that it made sense for us at that point to try to compete with all the online multiplayer first-person shooters out there," Mahler said. "And I think they were probably smart about that."

It wouldn't take long for evidence of that to start surfacing. Mahler said within a couple weeks of development, the team "already had a prototype up that felt as good or better than Super Meat Boy," adding that Super Meat Boy had been his gold standard of platforming control excellence, nailing the feel of the controls in a way that hadn't been done since Super Mario Bros. 3.

"As a sculptor, the first thing you learn is that you block things out. You start with something in a very rough shape, and only when the rough shape really works do you start adding some details."

The rest of the game would not come together as quickly. Moon Studios spent four years working on Ori, much of it on ideas that didn't actually make it into the final game. For example, the team had prototyped one area that took place within the belly of a whale, with walls that expanded and shrank as the animal inhaled and exhaled. Mahler compared the process to two other pursuits: writing and sculpture. For the former, he pointed out that the author of a 600-page best-seller might have to write 1,000 pages of content before they started to distill it down to the most effective story. For the latter, he reflected on his art school education in traditional sculpture.

"It completely changed my whole way of looking at everything and how I work on things," Mahler said of the art school experience. "As a sculptor, the first thing you learn is that you block things out. You start with something in a very rough shape, and only when the rough shape really works do you start adding some details. And then you look at it again, rough out some other stuff, start adding details here. And more and more, the stone is showing you what it wants to be. With everything else I do--if I write a story, draw something, design a level--I approach it now in the same way and it almost happens subconsciously. You just work that way because it's the most natural way of doing things."

As of yet, the stone that is Moon Studios hasn't quite shown what it wants to be, either. For Ori, Moon had to give up the rights to the intellectual property in order to get the game's development funded. And even though the studio undoubtedly has more leverage at this point to insist on owning the IP of anything it produces, Mahler said that decision depends in large part on the project.

"I have a couple of things right now where my mindset is, 'I do not want to give this to a publisher. I want to run with this myself and self-finance it because I think it makes the most sense for this game because it's a small game,'" Mahler said. "There's another thing that I would love for a publisher to jump on it, but they would never do it because there hasn't been a thing like that yet."

"It's kind of embarrassing if you look at the video games industry and how they've handled World War II as a topic."

That thing is Project Memoir, one of five prototypes currently in the works at Moon, and actually dates back to Mahler's time at Blizzard. Mahler described it as an interactive documentary about Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz in 1944 and informed the world of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. He didn't reveal much about the proposed gameplay behind Project Memoir, but did cite Telltale's The Walking Dead games as giving developers some interesting cues on ways to pull people into a game world.

"Putting people into the roles of another person and having to make decisions that have weight, that's something you can't do in any other medium," Mahler said. "You can't do it with a book. You can't do it in film. You can't really do it with music. You can't do it with anything that isn't interactive. But games are interactive."

"It's kind of embarrassing if you look at the video games industry and how they've handled World War II as a topic," Mahler added. "If you really want to see how far behind games are in terms of storytelling, you just have to look at that. There are so many World War II games coming out, and every single one misses the boat on the really interesting things you can tell here, super-fascinating things in terms of human psychology, the history of mankind, and so on. And every single game was just about, well, shoot some Nazis. It's just stupid."


Ori's story shows Moon's ability to evoke emotion from players.

Mahler wants Project Memoir to be an entertainment product that also serves as a thought-provoking piece of art, but in the industry as it currently stands, there's little room for that.

"I would have a very hard time going to a corporation like Microsoft, Activision or EA and saying, 'Hey do you want to finance my game that is extremely controversial and is a story-based game, an interactive documentary thing that hasn't been done before and there's no way of knowing if this will be successful or not. Do you want to finance it?' That's something I'd like to see. There's no way right now in this industry to make something like a Schindler's List for games.

"It's this risk I'm taking where right now I'm investing quite a lot of money into this and have two developers working on it, but I don't know if it'll ever get to that level of being able to release this and having it be a great thing I want to put my name on," Mahler added. "It's just a very small project, just a prototype right now. But I also already see that if we did this full-time and really put our voice behind this, it could be an incredible thing for the entire industry."

"[T]here are a lot of smart people in this industry and it doesn't make a lot of sense to always risk everything and play this high-chance poker every single time."

Like games, Mahler noted that the movie industry is hit-driven, and often dominated by light entertainment fare, superhero movies or The Fast and the Furious franchise, for example. Unlike most game publishers, however, movie companies also tend to release smaller prestige pictures, films with smaller budgets that seek to do more than keep their audience busy for a couple hours on a Friday night. He would love to see the big publishers of the world cut back on their AAA slates and use that money to finance some smaller, more ambitious bets.

"Maybe one of those games becomes the next Minecraft," Mahler said. "Nobody knows what that is, but there are a lot of smart people in this industry and it doesn't make a lot of sense to always risk everything and play this high-chance poker every single time. It doesn't make business sense to me why you don't take the $50 million or $60 million that one AAA game costs you and distribute that between 10 titles or 20 titles that you could finance that way, and maybe you have one Markus Persson in there who's going to make that next big hit. That's a model I'd like to see. Yes, there are AAA titles, and they're important. They're great, they make a lot of money. But then also you can create these small titles that could make a huge amount of money for you, a huge ROI for you, but at the same time it costs a lot less and you don't take that much risk on them. It just makes more sense to me. I don't understand why Activision isn't doing that, why Electronic Arts isn't doing that, why Nintendo is barely doing that. It just doesn't make sense to me."


Mahler said Ori would have been a lesser game if it were made in a traditional office environment.

That's not the only part of the current status quo Mahler would love to see changed. In fact, Moon Studios was founded on the idea that "the way things are" needed changing.

"I saw how all the studios worked, and there was a lot of good stuff I copied exactly, saying 'Yeah, we should do that at Moon.' But there was also stuff where I was thinking, 'That is inefficient and stupid,'" Mahler said.

Take the traditional developer workplace, for example. Moon was set up from the beginning to be a distributed development house. Mahler is based in Austria, but his team spans the globe. Given how comparatively rare the practice was in 2011, Mahler had expected it to be one of the biggest challenges for the fledgling studio to overcome. But with the help of tools like SVN, Hansoft, and Skype, he said the anticipated difficulties never really materialized.

"I just don't see the value in sitting down together in an office," Mahler said. "What is the one point you can do when you all sit in an office that you can't do with the tools we have, with the pipeline we have right now?"

"I just don't see the value in sitting down together in an office. What is the one point you can do when you all sit in an office that you can't do with the tools we have, with the pipeline we have right now?"

The benefit of distributed development was more compelling to Mahler. Now when he discovers talent that would be a perfect fit for the studio, it doesn't matter where they are, or what obligations might be keeping them from packing up and moving across the world to join a new studio.

"If I would have had to just use talent I could find in Austria, there's no way we could have done Ori," Mahler said. "There's just no way. We would not have found all these people, all that talent just packed together into one location. That's just not possible."

The downside of distributed development means the team doesn't get to share "water cooler moments" the way they might in a traditional office, but Mahler sees it as a more-than-acceptable trade-off. As for substitute team-building tactics, Moon took the development team to Disneyland Paris for a vacation and for many to meet face-to-face for the first time.

Of course, this approach likely wouldn't work as well with a AAA development team, and Mahler is mindful about managing the size of the studio.

"The big fear that every small studio should have is to scale up too quickly and without proper planning," Mahler said. "I always respected the hell out of John Carmack for being very smart. Even when they were very successful at id with Doom and Quake and so on, they kept the studio fairly small. And I think that's a very good thing."

Right now, Moon has a core team of under 10 people. At its peak, it had scaled up to about 20 people with contractors. It's a far cry from Mahler's time on the Blizzard cinematics team.

"You learn this as an artist very quickly that ego is just really shit for you."

"When I was there, there were 150 people just in that department," Mahler said. "At that size, there's no way you know everybody by their names. Even if you're the director of the game and you have a concrete vision in your head, because there are so many people working on the game and contributing to it, there's no way you're going to get exactly that [vision] because there are so many hands in it. At Moon, we wanted to take a completely different approach. We've got to have a way smaller studio. We're going to work in this family atmosphere of 8-9 people, and that's our core team."

When the team is that small, Mahler said it's possible for everybody to have a voice. He wants Moon to be a studio where anybody can suggest ways to improve the game and have their arguments considered, from the designers to the playtesters. Clearly, he's not a fan of the "auteur" model of game development.

"You learn this as an artist very quickly that ego is just really shit for you," Mahler said. "If you put your ego out there and are like, 'No, I'm the CEO of the studio. I always have the best ideas,' that's just fucking bullshit and it ruins a company really, really quickly. Because everyone has to have the feeling of having a lot of responsibility on the team, making big decisions, and being really valuable. If you give people that chance to prove themselves and have something to say, if you let them have that influence, then you get their best work... What actually makes me wonder is how easily great artists and great programmers at all these studios are willing to accept that there's this one person and we all just have to do what he's saying, even though he makes decisions that also affect my livelihood and the product I'm making and the product I'm investing years into."

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Latest comments (10)

Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
every single game was just about, well, shoot some Nazis. It's just stupid.

But it's so FUN! Especially some of the earlier Wolfenstein games.
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Anthony Chan2 years ago
Mahler has his head in the right place and his question of why AAA publishers do devote the AAA money to multiple indie titles is provocative. I honestly think, it is because the gaming industry at the AAA level is about selling a brand not just games. EA, Activision, and their likes, act like movie production companies, with big budgets devoted to blockbusters with a large target audience.

Indie games, like your Indie movies, are risky. They are lower budget, but out of 10, you may find that game that is an absolute beauty of a diamond - or you may not. That kind of risk looks iffy to the average investor or shareholder of companies like Activision. Its like asking an investor, do you want to invest in a Marvel Avengers product (costs more but more guaranteed return) or do you want to invest in a comic concept you have never even heard of. My bet is on the Avengers. Also note, the these companies derive its value from its "portfolio" of brand/ititles and thus the future cash flows from future iterations of brands/titles. These are not start-ups, and they are accountable to their shareholders to ensure the profits have been future-proofed. Heavily investing in indies is like venture capitalist activity. Unfortunately shareholders investing in these blue-chips looking at the financials and profiles of companies like EA, and Activision are looking for something down the middle (consistent growth, innovation without undue risk to revenues).

TL;DR Currently, AAA is not about just making a great game. It is about creating a legacy or a brand as opposed to Indies who are about creating a great game that nobody has heard of. At the end, brands = future revenue (i.e. "milk it for all its worth, not some one hit wonder") and its all about "show me the money".

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 15th April 2015 5:31pm

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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 2 years ago
Well, if they would devote the AAA money to small indies, then they wouldn't be indies anymore........

And sorry to say this, but all AAA have started out as indie, and I'm pretty sure all people working on a AAA game do it because they like it... All I see with indies, just like with AAA, is the same old gameplay with really nothing new.. And the only reason Ori is such a succes, is due to the beautifull graphics (in combination with a decend story and gameplay)..
I haven't seen anything really original coming from AAA or indie for about a decade... Nope, everything is just the same old gameplay with nicer graphics..
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Show all comments (10)
Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop2 years ago
It's about the ROI- if 1 in 10 indies makes double their money but the others lose it, Activision are better funnelling that money in to something that will have better returns. To suggest 1 in 10 is going to be a Minecraft-sized hit is ridiculously unlikely.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
Unlike most game publishers, however, movie companies also tend to release smaller prestige pictures, films with smaller budgets that seek to do more than keep their audience busy for a couple hours on a Friday night.
A lot of this has to do with star-power and awards, at least in the West. Studios tend to fund the more thought-provoking pieces partly as a means to try to secure an Oscar, and partly because a star is pushing for it,. As a lucrative knock-on. both of those things can potentially give a massive return on investment, and burnish reputations all-round. Mahler mentions Schindler's List, and that's a good example. The problem with games is that star power doesn't have the same pull in traditional (non-Kickstarter) development, and that games awards are (I guess?) seen as just promotional fluff rather than anything more serious.

I think what would be helpful for this industry would be AAA becoming less movie-oriented, and more TV-oriented. By that I mean, I agree with Mahler's intent, but think his analogy should be more related to TV series, which have less intrinsic costs (sfx, distribution, marketing, etc) and can use a smaller budget/return on investment-requirement to cater for more diverse genres and demographics. Ballooning budgets means, like Anthony says, that investors will hedge towards known brands and franchises, just like in Big Hollywood. But if budgets could be reined-in, then you could see more creativity and risk, just like in TV. Pushing Daisies or Wonderfalls could never be made as a movie (not even a little indie flick), but as TV series they both lived (although only for a short time).
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
Misplaced sentiment. As a struggling indie myself, finding some money under a rock would be a godsend right now. But dealing with larger studios, publishers and VC generally over the years is why I've chosen to remain a struggling indie. And that's probably true for all struggling indies.
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Robert Kist Technical Art Manager, Virtuos2 years ago
Very interesting interview, and much more level headed response by Mahler than could be seen in some of the Austrian media and forums. I applaud him for championing distributed production, producing a title like Ori. It will be very interesting to see how this approach scales. But putting lots of people in an open office style production factory isn't how creative people should work in the 21st century.

Also, he's spot on with his remarks about the treatment of subjects like WW2. I pretty much feel the same way, and I'm happy that companies like Telltale - and also Ubi's Valiant Hearts - opened the door to make a different approach to the topic possible. This sounds like the game I would want to play and to see make it to the store shelves. Good luck Thomas!
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Christophe Danguien games developer 2 years ago
Medal Of Honor of PS1 was quite good in terms of explaining what was going on during WWII with videos/photos/articles from that I think he's just trying to justify why they would make a game about WWII when it's been done countless times.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
Mmmm... But where it's easy to ask consumers to read or watch the definitive war film/love story/film noir etc. - Schindler's List, for instance, will always be available on every medium - it's harder to do with games. Looking at the Wiki for MoH, it was released on PS1 in 1999, and then re-released on PSN 10 years later. Don't have a PS? Tough luck, you can't play it.

I could make a comment about "nothing new under the sun", or having to constantly re-invent the wheel when it comes to console releases (but not PC :p )... But, ah, it's early and I need tea. :)
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
I think as developers, it has to be fun first. Once it''s fun, "then" add your meaningful message.
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