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From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Croteam's Damjan Mravunac on the transition from Serious Sam to Talos Principle

I'm pretty confident that nobody at Croatia's Croteam will be offended when I say this, but I also mean it in a very affectionate way: Serious Sam is not a game that asks you to do a lot of thinking. Pretty much an unrelenting horde mode, where you're constantly stampeded by scores of rejected B-movie monsters, it's brash and dumb and often brilliant - a stag weekend at an arms fair sort of a game.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and Serious Sam has sold more than enough copies over the years to prove it, so it came as some surprise when Croteam announced that its next game would be the cerebral, first-person puzzler The Talos Principle. Complex puzzles, deep story progression and lasers replaced cannons, four-armed demon kings and, well, lasers, as the small firm shifted from one end of the of the spectrum to the other. Brave certainly, but potentially dangerous, too. Fortunately, the experiment has been something of a success.

"I don't actually know the sales numbers; they're probably something like 150,000," says Croteam's Damjan Mravunac. "The sales are picking up. This is the game, unlike Serious Sam...Serious Sam, it's a fan game. People are waiting for it, when it comes out people buy it and then the scale goes a little bit down, you know, like a steep hill. With Talos it's always a constant. You know the game is selling very well so we are actually expecting it to do very well in the long run.

Pretty and challenging, Talos also has a surprisingly involving storyline penned by Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes.

"It's a game that you can probably go and play in three or four years and if you haven't played it, it will be good looking, fresh, [and] it will provide you with the same experience so it's a bit different than the Serious Sam game which you need to keep fresh every few years."

Mravunac is technically the team's composer, but, as he tells me later, everyone at Croteam tends to wear a lot of hats. An engagingly friendly and enthusiastic man, he's certainly got a good handle on most of what the team's been doing. He's on home turf here as we chat at Dubrovnik's Reboot Develop - Croteam are undeniably the region's star players: well established and well-liked with a fierce following. I ask him if he's seen much audience crossover from Sam to Talos or if it's a totally new set of fans.

"Talos is completely on the other end of the look at first-person games and Talos is the total opposite of Serious Sam so I don't think the audience is crossing here. There are people who are actually fans of Croteam that will pick up the games we make because they know Croteam. We do not release unpolished, bad games. Peter Molyneux today was saying you need to love your game. And that should be your first criteria because if you don't find your game funny, if you don't love playing your game, how do you expect everyone else to do it?

"That's I think the biggest difference in the audience, the percentage of female players versus men in Talos"

"So the fans of the Croteam, they know that every game we release is a game that we play to death. We love it, we polish it, it's our baby. And they just pick The Talos Principle believing in Croteam. Mostly, all of them said 'guys this is a beautiful game, it's a different genre, but we like it very much'.

"The Talos Principle, you've played it, it's a slow game. It's a relaxed game. So we got a lot of female audience. It's interesting, the girls... we haven't met many girls who love Serious Sam, there were some, but those were mostly guys playing Serious Sam. The Talos Principle, we notice that at shows the girls are sitting down, they were loving it. They were solving puzzles. There's no shooting, no arcade quick reactions, no pressure actually; the puzzles are not time based, so they really loved it. That's I think the biggest difference in the audience, the percentage of female players versus men in Talos.

"The best thing about the game is that it's for all ratings, all ages. Kids can play, there's no violence. Older people can play it because the story is compelling and interesting if you're into books, reading about transhumanism, philosophy. Or if you're not, if you're just into the puzzles, you can play it. So we got a much larger audience pool with The Talos Principle and that's why we expect in the long run it will sell many, many units and many, many people will play it."

Given the level of competition in the shooter arena (although there's nothing quite like Serious Sam), Talos represents another big switch. It's one thing to try and stand out against a thousand other games in your genre, but quite another to try and build hype in a genre which doesn't get much exposure at all. With a few notable exceptions, Talos isn't facing a lot of direct opposition.

Croteam had some fun with players who pirated Talos on PC, fitting them up for a public humiliation.

"People tend to label things, to put them in the boxes," sighs Mravunac. "The genre of puzzlers has been around for a long time. I mean sudoku is a puzzle, Portal is a puzzle game. There were actually a few games that came out like Antichamber, that's a great game, The Witness. We actually saw The Witness after we completed the puzzles for Talos and it's something similar; it's not the same thing but he's actually putting a lot of puzzles on a beautiful island and when you look at it from our perspective we put the puzzles on some islands, so [some] people said 'oh, this is something like Witness'... It's not out so we can't tell.

"Since Talos is out, it's spreading, people are talking about Talos, we are getting emails every day. Sometimes these emails are 'guys thank you, this was a great experience'. So eventually it could happen that when Witness comes out some people say it's like Talos and a lot of people will probably say it's like Portal. [Laughs.] That's what we get."

Shifting the model has given the team new ways to express themselves. Mravunac reiterates that roles in the studios are very fluid already, but Talos really accentuated that: nearly everyone on the team contributed puzzles to the game. There was "no ego" on submissions, he tells me, with suggestions being weighted entirely on merit. That sort of team engagement on a project is absolute gold dust, he says, resulting in a happier more cohesive unit of people with a better appreciation of each other's talents. Not that Croteam had a problem with morale or staff retention.

"I listen to all the speakers here at conferences and they all have vast and varied experience: 'I've been in that team and then I switched to that team and then I went to that team...' With Croteam we say 'we've been with Croteam the whole time because it's working'"

"Let's say the first Croteam game was released in '94. I wasn't with them yet but they started working in '93 so it's been 22 years [that] Croteam [has been around]. What's interesting is the core is still the same. They are still those kids, those friends that started together. I came in '99 so it's been over 15 years I've been with these guys and it's a long time in the games industry. I listen to all the speakers here at conferences and they all have vast and varied experience: 'I've been in that team and then I switched to that team and then I went to that team...' With Croteam we say 'we've been with Croteam the whole time because it's working'. We understand each other; you learn somebody else's personality, you cannot change anyone. We all know you cannot change another person, you can only change yourself. So even though some of us had our...things, we adapt and we are very tolerant of each other. We learned how to work with each other and how to get the best out of each team member, so this is a beautiful thing.

"And it's been a great experience. These past 15 years for me... actually I don't want to go. I've worked on many other games, 40 games, because I compose music and sound effects as well so I had the opportunity to work with some other teams, and I can honestly say working with Croteam is still the best. You just can't beat it."

It's not just the immediate team which he's full of praise for. Croteam has a healthy long-term relationship with Devolver, the art-house punks of indie publishing. For Mravunac, they're as much a part of the team as anyone in the office.

"The main Devolver guys - we've known them for more than 15 years," he tells me warmly. "They'd been in a company called Gathering of Developers that first picked up Serious Sam. That's how we first met and they were great to us then, and in 2009 they offered to put The First Encounter on Steam remastered in an HD version and we said 'yeah, we know you guys, you're good stand up people.' And we never regret it, working with them.

Mravunac at last years E3, where Devolver hired a lot and filled it with Airstream caravans, BBQ and beer.

"It's a very honest relationship. Devolver has a great relationship with developers, everything is out in the open. We don't talk behind each other's backs, we have great understanding and we have become friends over the years. When Harry [Miller] comes to Croatia he is family. We party with him. It's a really great relationship.

"So if you asked me today, if you can pick any publisher in the world I'd pick Devolver again. They are really, really good. They will take care of you. Croteam hasn't exhibited much - actually we met at E3, that was our first exhibition in years, and we needed to showcase the new game. With Serious Sam it's easy; you post something and fans will pick it up, spread it out, but this was a new IP. So we had to go personally and present it. And they organised everything and it was beautiful and we loved it. The experience and the trailer and then the barbecue, the beers, everything down there.

"And then they said 'OK guys, we have more trade shows. PAX is coming, Gamescom in Europe, we want you to come.' And we said yes, of course. They suggested we enroll with the Indie Megabooth and if we get selected they also said it would be another great experience for us. Luckily we were chosen to be one of the Indie Megabooth exhibitors and we were also present at the Devolver stand. They organised all the interviews with marketing and media, and we are very, very satisfied [with] how it all turned out."

So with Talos live and with a very happy audience, the first DLC on the way and the team satisfied with a job well done, has a new course for the studio been set? Are Sam's days numbered?

"So if you asked me today if you can pick any publisher in the world I'd pick Devolver again"

"So we do have some plans..." Mravunac says, stopping himself short then looking up brightly. "Of course I need to make clear that Serious Sam 4 is still coming out and it's going to be great! With The Talos Principle we cleared our minds, did something new and now we go back to Serious Sam 4 with a fresh and open mind. But yeah, there are a lot of ideas flying around the office - we write them down so we don't forget them. It's sort of like internal voting; if somebody after a few days still talks about that idea, if people are still saying that sounded really good, that's something that we'll probably put on our development map sometime in the future.

"I think an experienced team can actually work on games in parallel. For me let's say, I'm a musician, when I finish a soundtrack I'm actually free to work on a parallel game, to the sounds for the second game, because usually my time I need to work on a game is much lower than everybody else's. And there are a few positions in the team that are guys that can actually switch. We designed levels, now we are waiting for the gameplay to be finished, let's go and work on our second parallel IP. Maybe we can shorten the release time with games. It's a hard and demanding task, you're always on top of your game, you're always creatively thinking, but that's actually the only thing that's worth it in this business, being a game developer."

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