Since releasing Just Cause in 2006, and seeing the game establish itself as a steady seller and fan favourite, developer Avalanche Studios has kept its head down working on a number of projects. Using Just Cause as a calling card, it's managed to expand its business to secure work with other publishers and a sponsored project for the local government amongst other things, whilst continuing to develop it's own in-house technology.
At the recent Nordic Game event on Malmo, Sweden, GamesIndustry.biz managed to catch up with studio development director Oskar Burman to discuss these projects, its relationship with troubled publisher Eidos, and why it's never been a better time to be an independent developer.
Q: How was Nordic Games for you?
Oskar Burman: We're been there for three or four years now and i think it's constantly improving. Our session went very well. It's really good to have something like this in Scandinavia, it's local and shows the world what we can do.
Q: What was your objective at Nordic Game?
Oskar Burman: We're not out selling so much right now, it was more about meetings and maintaining relationships. We met with a lot of middleware companies to see where they are with their technology.
Q: How are things at Avalanche – you're working on the sequel to Just Cause, how's the development of that project going?
Oskar Burman: Yes, absolutely, it's full speed ahead on Just Cause 2. It's going to be the next game that we're releasing and it's one-and-a-half year's since we released the first game. After we released it we looked at the game from so many angles. We looked at reviews to see what they liked, we talked to consumers to listen for what they wanted from the game, what they enjoyed about the game, and we talked a lot internally about what we liked, what we wanted to expand on and what did we feel we could have done better. We really went back to the roots of Just Cause and I think the sequel is turning out really well because of that.
Q: Just Cause was your first title as a development studio, so what were the biggest lessons you learnt from developing the game?
Oskar Burman: The company was started in 2003 and we built the company and the technology from the ground up. And we built the game for one platform so we had our hands full. There was a lot of learning for us. One the key things we wanted to do once the game was out was to continue to expand on our technology and also work with several publishers at once. It's tricky as an independent developer to only have one customer, you can be in a tricky situation even if you're dealing with someone as big as Electronic Arts, for example. So it's been a goal to do work with several different publishers.
Q: You're currently working with other publishers aside from Eidos right now?
Oskar Burman: Yes we are. That was one of my main goals as the development director, to secure more contracts so we're not just working on Just Cause 2, we're working on multiple projects.
Q: So Just Cause acted as your calling card in many respects, in showing other developers and publishers what the studio was capable of.
Oskar Burman: Exactly. And since we've built this engine in-house that's something we continue to build our games on. The games we do are based on large scale worlds, and that's something we're going to continue to pursue. It wouldn't make sense for us to make handheld titles of strategy RTS games. We're going to continue with our core values. We'll continue to explore this type of world simulation as the Just Cause engine makes a lot of use of procedural generation of content. So that has been used in a government-funded research project that we've worked on all through 2007 that has helped us expand to also include cities in the technology. So we've been expanding on that with how to procedurally generate cities, how do cities grow, how European cities have special structures, how they have more narrow roads compared to American cities, different types of suburban areas, that sort of thing. So we've worked to see how cities form and grow, how houses are built, the different residential areas of a city. It's been really interesting and we'll see a lot of that research go in to our future games.
Obviously it depends on the game but it's something that all of our games will benefit from in some way or another, even if it's not a city-based game.
Q: You not only built the technology from scratch, but Just Cause was also new IP. Did you find it difficult establishing a new brand in the market?
Oskar Burman: It is difficult. It's tricky to reach an audience and break through the media noise. And it's also tricky internally to define what the game is, what should it look like, how should it play? With Just Cause it was always a struggle working in-house on how the hero should look. And also working with the publisher on that, because marketing and PR come in and a lot of people want their ideas included and it's tricky to find that perfect balance. It's a big risk when you're working on a new project like that.
Q: But the rewards are bigger, right?
Oskar Burman: Absolutely. The rewards are great and I'm really proud that we managed to get successful, original IP out there. It's a tough job and a tough crowd.
Q: Sales were good to, so Eidos must have been pleased with your work on it.
Oskar Burman: We were very happy with the sales. I'll be frank and say were worried when it was released because there was a lot of games coming out at the same time – Saint's Row came out a few week's before and some other games came out right after. It's always tricky because we're always competing with other titles. We had very good sales on the Xbox 360 and it was pretty early in the cycle for that console. We found that people wanted to test their new console with a game that looked and felt new. It was really a port from the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox versions, we ported it pretty quickly and just polished up the graphics.
Q: You're working with Eidos again for the sequel. Are you concerned that the problems the publisher and its parent company SCi is having will filter down to effect your studio and the game itself?
Oskar Burman: Eidos has gone through transitions for as long as we've known it, but we've always had a great relationship with them. From the start it saw the potential of Just Cause and it's been one of its main games of recent times and even now when the company said it wanted to work on fewer, more high-profile titles, Just Cause is up there. I'm very proud that the game is considered key to the company.
Q: You build your own technology and use your own Avalanche engine – would you consider licensing it out or selling it to other developers if they came knocking?
Oskar Burman: We have discussed the possibility but we've always turned it down just because of all the support and sales functions you need. We wouldn't close the door for any future possibilities, but we'll see how our current games go. It's something that could be interesting but first and foremost we are a games developer not a middleware company.
Q: Can you shed any light on the other projects you're working on? You've said you're working with other publishers, are you looking at alternative business models too?
Oskar Burman: We try to look at it all. Obviously we have the big blockbuster games, the big console titles, but we are also right now exploring a very different game with Emote, a British company, doing a hunting game for PC, which is a social networking title played partly in the browser and partly in our engine. It's a very interesting concept. It took me a while to get a grasp of it when we first discussed it with Emote. It's a pretty small project but it's very interesting because you can get much closer to the end consumer which is something I find is missing sometimes on the bigger titles – you're delivering a build to the publisher but it's tricky to get through to the end consumer and see what he thinks of the game. With this project we're going to be much closer to the user and well be able to release new updates.
Q: As well as being closer to the consumer, what else attracted you to that different way of working?
Oskar Burman: It was partly to try something different. It's interesting to see what's happening with online communities and also there seems to be a much bigger market for casual games in the PC space in the future. Flash-based games are becoming much stronger now, and I can see smaller games benefiting from a renaissance. It's a common saying that it's impossible to start up a new games studio but I actually think there's never been a better time than now to be starting a games studio. There are so many different ways now into the business. Our Emote project is small, there are less than ten guys working on it because we have the technology base already so it will be interesting to see how the project turns out.
Q: And you also benefit from a shorter turnaround period too? You can see it and assess it a lot quicker than you're bigger projects.
Oskar Burman: Absolutely. And it's more of a co-op venture with Emote. It's not really the traditional developer/publisher model. We're doing this together and we're excited to see what comes out of it.
Q: What have been the hardest challenges you've faced as an independent studio since start-up in 2003?
Oskar Burman: Well, you have to release good games [laughs]. Right now, it's a good time to be independent. A lot of good studios have been bought up by publishers, but when we're out meeting publishers they actually really want to work with independent studios on new games. Publishers are really trying to find developers who can handle a big new project and that seems quite tricky for them. But as an independent there's always more risks, there are greater rewards and you're in control of your own destiny.
We also seen lately that new IP can sell really good. Just Cause is one example and there are probably better examples where developers have created new IP and seen a really good success with that. And publishers can see that they can renew their output with new IP. So we're focusing a lot on new IP.
Oskar Burman is development director of Avalanche Studios. Interview by Matt Martin.