Last year's Unravel was a breakthrough title for Coldwood Interactive. After more than a dozen years as a work-for-hire outfit turning out little-remembered winter sports games and PlayStation Move titles, the Swedish studio struck a deal with Electronic Arts that would see the giant publish the heartfelt platformer while allowing the developers to retain creative control of the project.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference last month, Coldwood creative director Martin Sahlin and technical director Jakob Marklund had nothing but good things to say about EA, but there seemed to be one thing they would have changed about its distribution.
"I would want to see Unravel on a disc, on a shelf, in a store," Sahlin said. "The concept of Unravel had a really wide appeal. A lot of different people who weren't at all into games, or were actively disinterested in them, said it looked like something they would want to try. But all the means of actually getting the game are quite niche. You have to be in these obscure online stores, and the people who are not involved in games don't care about those. But if you could get it in the supermarket, that would be a different thing. I would rather do that."
"It's good to include more people, and it's good to have the input of more people. So it would be nice if we tried to reach everyone instead of just trying to reach the niche."
He added, "It's not necessarily, 'Oh, it's an untapped market.' That's not really how I look at it. It's more that it's good to make gaming more diverse. It's good to include more people, and it's good to have the input of more people. So it would be nice if we tried to reach everyone instead of just trying to reach the niche."
Marklund echoed the desire for a physical copy of the game, though his reasons were a little different.
"Not all of us, but quite a few of us are failed musicians at Coldwood, so we'd really like having [a physical edition]," Marklund said. "It's nice to have a box. This is my game. I bought it and care about it."
The discussion came up as a tangent to a line of questioning about the games-as-a-service model and how it's quickly becoming the norm, even in the packaged AAA industry. Sahlin wasn't especially thrilled with the trend, which Coldwood actually has a little experience with. Prior to Unravel, the company also worked on a free-to-play project called OnGolf. When asked about it, Marklund simply said it was a fun project, to which Sahlin laughed and responded, "It was super fun for me because I wasn't involved in it. I was standing on the side looking at it, going, 'Oh this is a train wreck.'"
Marklund offered a more diplomatic assessment, explaining, "That was a VC-capital-financed project that had very ambitious ideas that weren't that realistic, to be honest."
The motion capture studio Coldwood tapped for that project still uses it as a cautionary tale to developers and an example of how not to do mo-cap work, Sahlin said.
"They still shudder when they talk about it," he said. "It had to have this perfect finger alignment and club placement... I don't know. They were like, 'People are not going to learn golf from this; don't worry about it.'"
Asked what Coldwood learned about free-to-play from the project, Sahlin replied, "We learned you can dig a really big hole and just pour money into it and it never stops."
"And never do it again," Marklund added.
"Unravel was, in many ways, a game borne out of frustration: frustration with how we'd been doing things in the past and how previous projects had worked."
As for what they would do again, Coldwood's next game is another Unravel title. And while a sequel sounds more like the pragmatic sort of business decision the work-for-hire Coldwood of old would make, Sahlin sees it as an opportunity to revisit the world through a different lens.
"We definitely want to say new, different things with it and try different things," he said. "Unravel was, in many ways, a game borne out of frustration: frustration with how we'd been doing things in the past and how previous projects had worked. Unravel was basically, 'Screw all of that, we're going to do things differently.' But now we have a completely different position, which means we can build the game based more or less on happiness, I suppose. So it's going to be quite different in tone."
The way Coldwood works internally has also changed. Marklund said the studio has always welcomed people working beyond their core discipline (accepting creative input from programmers, for example), but added that the process is more formalized now. The studio's still small (about 17 people), but they're working harder at involving everyone and taking a consensus approach to development.
"Unravel started out as something that was extremely personal to me, and then everybody added their own heart into it," Sahlin said. "It portrays the studio's ambition to really get it right. I think you can feel that in every single asset and feature, that somebody was really passionate about this and wanted it to come out great. And in our previous pragmatic games, you didn't see that because the goal was to get it done and keep the lights on."
Marklund added, "We're in another position now, where we don't need to be so pragmatic. Before we had to do something to make a living. Now we can choose the projects we want to do, and people may trust us again because we've done something good, at least."