In August 2008, Jens Andersson could have gone almost anywhere in AAA development. Instead, he elected to move in the opposite direction.
As one of the founding members of Starbreeze, Andersson had been a pivotal figure in the creation of two of the standout first-person games of the era: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness, both admired as much for their style and storytelling as the impressive technology at their foundation. However, after ten years at the company, it was time for something new.
"When we were finishing up The Darkness, I felt that I was kind of done with AAA - for a bit at least," he recalls. "I went on a little sabbatical after Starbreeze, and I started looking at alternative platforms. I did a lot of homebrew. 'Indie' didn't really exist as a term at that point, but that was pretty much what I was doing."
The key project that came out of that period was Colors, a digital painting application for the Nintendo DS. It was late in 2008, and the iOS App Store had only launched a few months earlier, but Andersson was experimenting with a path that would soon become a common choice for AAA developers in search of a different way or working. He had created something entirely on his own, it had become an underground hit, and he had "a blast" doing it.
"When we were finishing up The Darkness, I felt that I was kind of done with AAA"
"I suddenly had friends at every game development studio in the world," he says. "They all had a concept artist, and now they all wanted a handheld device that they could sketch on."
Andersson is entirely correct that the concept of 'indie' had not yet taken root at that time. His experience with Colors had been completely positive, but with no certainty around what the indie market would ultimately prove to be, the door was open for the right opportunity to tempt him back into AAA. That opportunity arrived with a phone call from LucasArts, and an offer to be lead designer on a promising new game based on the Indiana Jones IP. Seeing the potential for "an adventure", Andersson agreed.
Two weeks after the contract was signed he received another call. The Indiana Jones game had been cancelled. He had yet to even board the plane to San Francisco.
"That's when I joined their new IP team, Lucas Labs," he recalls, having elected to give LucasArts a try despite the cancellation. "They wanted a way to test new IP, because that was something that was a little bit difficult at LucasArts, and very expensive for them. Committing to new IP was hard in that company culture, so they wanted to try the approach of doing a game cheaply and releasing it in the new digital marketplaces."
LucasArts was not the first big media company to lack certainty in its strategy around games, and it won't be the last. Andersson lists many benefits of working there, abut he concedes that, at that point in time, it wasn't "a good place if you wanted to make games." Andersson left Starbreeze with doubts about whether he was satisfied with AAA development, and for all of its qualities, LucasArts did nothing to alleviate them.
"It was a fantastic place to work - being close to ILM [Industrial Light & Magic], and some of the most talented people I've ever worked with I met there - but the strategy for the company changed too quickly and there just wasn't enough time to build a solid foundation, a solid team, a solid game. When I left, it was because I didn't feel fixing that problem was on the horizon... You could sit there and try to enjoy it, but I wanted to build stuff.
"How well you do your job in AAA doesn't really matter. You can't control the outcome. It's so much about the circumstances"
"That was one of my main arguments when I left Starbreeze as well: it takes too long to make a game, and even when you're in the top leadership there are too many variables that you can't control. At least from my perspective, how well you do your job doesn't really matter. You can't control the outcome. It's so much about the circumstances around you.
"That realisation, along with it taking two, three, four years to make a game - do you want to invest that much time into something you can't control?"
Andersson left LucasArts in the middle of 2010, and immediately returned to a market in which the term 'indie' was both firmly established and increasingly desirable. Under the name Collecting Smiles, he turned the homebrew version of Colors into a product fit for sale, and launched it on the 3DS eshop. If LucasArts had intensified his concerns around AAA, then releasing Colors had the same effect on his hopes for independence.
"That was an exciting experience," he says. "Doing everything on your own: all the development, all the publishing, all the PR. Going through that whole cycle on a project was really exciting, and I learned more about what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do.
"After Collecting Smiles [started], I refined my goals a little bit, realising that the building part is what I'm good at and what I want to spend most of my time on. But I also realised that it's fun to work with other people, and that was the transition into Villa Gorilla."
Indeed, Villa Gorilla is the reason that Andersson and I are talking. The studio was founded in 2013, as a way for Andersson to work with his co-founder, Mattias Snygg - another Starbreeze veteran whose talent as an artist had added so much to its games. In that larger structure, Andersson's duties as a technical designer meant he never worked directly with Snygg. Now, as an indie team, they could make equal and complementary contributions to shaping an idea.
"We kicked off saying we would do something that would take maybe a year," Andersson recalls. "So what can we do in a year? We didn't really have an animator on the team, so what can we do? Make a game about a ball. That seemed like a reasonable approach."
"Any game you build in Unreal, you're going to do some stuff because it's easy to do in Unreal. If you have your own engine you have to make very different choices"
As Andersson and Snygg worked on the concept, that "game about a ball" became a "pinball adventure", and as the scale of their idea grew they started describing it to friends as an "open-world pinball game." That was mostly as a joke, Andersson tells me, but the interest that description provoked told them it was a direction worth taking seriously.
"It was just such a fun reaction," he says. "We fell in love with that phrase ourselves and thought, well, we need to make it into open-world pinball game."
At the end of that path was Yoku's Island Express, which will be published by Team17 at the end of the month. But Villa Gorilla found their way to its conclusion by doing something that very few indie studios would even consider in the era of Unity and Unreal: they created their own engine, building on the technology underpinning Colors to suit the precise needs of what they wanted to create.
"It's an awful idea," Andersson says with a chuckle. "The only explanation is that I love that stuff. Obviously, anyone should use a third-party engine to start a new game. It would be stupid not to. That being said, there are some tremendous values to building your own stuff as well.
"Your game is influenced by what engine you're using. Any game you build in Unreal, you're going to do some stuff because it's easy to do in Unreal. There are things that stand out, and are too convenient not to use. If you have your own engine you have to make very different choices. Every feature you put in is time consuming, and you need to pick what really matters for your game.
"This is not advocating using your own engine, but your game does become different because you're using your own engine. There's some stuff [in Yoku's] that we couldn't have done in Unity and Unreal. The iteration process is enormously streamlined, allowing us to do rapid changes to the world, and fine-tune super-efficiently and quickly."
Andersson will explore this subject - specifically, "how to use tools to drive design" - in a talk at the Nordic Game Conference later this month, barely a week before Yoku's Island Express is finally released. Certainly, a preview from our sister site Eurogamer indicates that Villa Gorilla's approach - combining proprietary technology with its small team's skill in design and art - has indeed produced a game that is just as Andersson describes: "Something different, but still very approachable."
"It's consistently charming and often wonderfully surprising," Eurogamer's Tom Phillips wrote. "I can't really think of a lot else like it."
"The trend for indie developers, for good or bad, is that you need a publisher to get the word out there. And we have a good one"
In 2018, with crowded marketplaces the biggest concern for pretty much every indie, making a game that truly stands out is as much as a developer can do to create the conditions for success. Beyond that, it is a matter of finding the right publisher, which Andersson was all to happy to do after handling the launch of Colors on his own.
"[Yoku's] was fully self-funded right up until the point we signed with Team17, which was pretty much exactly a year ago," he says, describing Yoku's multi-platform launch as one of Team17's key contributions. "Part of why indie is better than AAA for me is that you retain maximum control, and you spend all of your time working on the game rather than talking about working on the game. What I learned from Colors is that the final part, with the PR and with the marketing, is very difficult.
"I really didn't mind having someone help out with that, in the end, as long as we felt we made the game we wanted to make. And we had made all the big decisions. All the big pieces were in place.
"The trend for indie developers, for good or bad, is that you need a publisher to get the word out there. And we have a good one. Hopefully they can help us reach through the noise."
The launch of Yoku's Island Express on May 29 will be the culmination of almost five years, from the foundation of Villa Gorilla to the launch of its debut project. In considering that passage of time, it's impossible to ignore the contradiction of Andersson having left AAA in part due to the time required to finish a single project, and having spent more on Yoku's Island Express than virtually any other game in his career. He laughs knowingly at the idea, and admits that he now sees the matter differently.
"One of the reasons I left Starbreeze was because it shouldn't take three years to make a game. I wanted to make more games, and because of that I wanted to make smaller games," he says. "That was my thinking then. Today, my thinking is that you can't make a smaller game in a shorter amount of time. You can make a smaller game with fewer people. But if you want to make something really good, it's going to take the same amount of time.
"If you want to make a product that can compete in this marketplace, it takes time."
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of the Nordic Game Conference. We will attend the show with assistance from the organiser.