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Housemarque goes battle royale: "We've had pushback, and we're expecting more"

Mikael Haveri and Henri Markus on the fan reaction to the studio's long anticipated new direction, and how Stormdivers will grow beyond battle royale

Any business driven by hits will be reluctant to discuss the bets that don't work out, the market shifts that leave otherwise talented companies behind. That tendency was certainly present in the sudden collapse of Telltale Games, as it doggedly pursued a niche product category that the market had stopped responding to in sufficient numbers.

The calamity of that situation is underlined by current direction of Housemarque, the arcade specialist that faced a similar point of existential crisis at the start of 2017. Rather than mask the issue to its own staff and the world at large, the Finnish studio spoke loudly and clearly about its problems, and made a public commitment to charting new territory before it allowed the company to decline.

At that time, Housemarque could only hint at the other ideas it was developing, but at Gamescom 2018 it finally showed its hand. The next game from this venerable studio would be Stormdivers, the trailer for which depicted a chaotic multiplayer shooter with Unreal-powered 3D graphics. It appeared to be a huge step away from the likes of Resogun, representing a decent handful of important firsts for a studio that has already existed for more than 20 years.

"We know that it's an uphill battle, especially with our core audience"

"Adrenaline would be the first thing," says Mikael Haveri, Housemarque's director of self-publishing, when I ask him what the studio wanted to communicate with arguably the most significant product reveal in its history. "It's over-the-top, it's action-packed, it's a throwback to classic movies."

It is also - lest we forget - a battle royale shooter, one of a great many scheduled for release over the next year. According to Haveri, however, Housemarque was actually further ahead of the curve than it may seem; the first pitch for Stormdivers came from an internal meeting in February 2015, and the studio started prototyping in the spring of 2016. "At that point we were thinking of it as Smash Bros. meets Hunger Games," he says. "And a lot of that still lives on."

Housemarque didn't want to leave arcade shoot 'em ups behind; it was compelled to, based on convincing evidence that the audience for that kind of game executed to that high a standard was fast disappearing. Nevertheless, Nex Machina delighted the fans that remained, and a significant number of those were dismayed to see the studio move into a sub-genre defined by the industry's two biggest recent commercial success stories: PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite.

Mikael Haveri

"We've had pushback," Haveri says, "and we're expecting more."

Henri Markus, a game designer, goes further: "Basically, 'Fuck you, you ruined our childhoods'... Some of the feedback has been super rough."

Markus describes the response of one player whose feedback had been so useful on the PS4 title Alienation that he was named and thanked in the credits. "But when he heard what we were making he was absolutely devastated," Markus recalls. "He couldn't give less of a shit about battle royale."

The same may be true of many of Housemarque's loyal fans, and no studio can afford to sacrifice the goodwill built up over years of hard work and quality products. Markus managed to get that player involved in Stormdivers' playtests, and initially he stood by the same harsh judgment: "Housemarque is dead to me, and you can all go and get bent."

"But a couple of weeks later the same guy is on the [Discord] channel saying, 'Oh okay, okay. The game is still shit, but if you keep on going it might be something good,'" Markus says. "And now, last month when we had a test, he was right there with the most enthusiastic people, giving us feedback - actionable things that we hadn't noticed.

"We know that it's an uphill battle, especially with our core audience, but we're hoping that once they get past the 'just another battle royale' read, they'll be able to tell the forest from the trees."

"We wouldn't be too put off if we happened to have boss-fights, or more team-oriented missions eventually"

Housemarque is banking on the same process happening for others in its long-standing community. Battle royale, Haveri says, "is the mode that we're starting off with," not least because it represents genuinely new ground for the studio, and will take hard work and experimentation to get right.

"We're starting with the pure PvP part of it, and we can bring on the Housemarque expertise [in PvE] later on," he says. "We wouldn't be too put off if we happened to have boss-fights, or more team-oriented missions eventually, but we're going to focus on having a good PvP experience first."

Haveri and Markus discuss a number of features that will help to differentiate Stormdivers from other battle royale games, while also bringing it more into line with Housemarque's historical areas of strength. Fast, responsive movement will be a crucial aspect of the game, for example, particularly vertical movement. The comparisons to Smash Bros. will be justified by an experience in which stealth is far less important to success than in other examples of the form, and where players are encouraged to engage with each other to turn the tables. It has even toyed with introducing bullet-hell combat at some point in the game's future - and if that doesn't get the Housemarque faithful excited, then one suspects that nothing will.

Of course, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that Stormdivers is different to Housemarque's previous work, and those differences exist to appeal to a new and hopefully much larger group of people. With that in mind, the immensely popular battle royale sub-genre is far from a bad place to start.

"It is," Haveri says, "but it's also where you get the most shit thrown on you, because there's a lot of expectations... You should see our YouTube comments. We have to take it with a pinch of salt, and now we're hoping we can win some of them over. We know that not everyone is going to be interested, but when they get their hands on Stormdivers I hope they can be straightforward and tell us if there is something here.

"We're very aware of the fact that we're limited in terms of development scope. We're not able to put 100 people on this"

"It's still a small, small team: 16 people, compared to a lot of these giants. I don't think PUBG even started with a team that small... That's why we're saying, 'This is what's going to be first.'

"If everything goes well, and we get a player base that likes it, and we're able to grow it - because we're very aware of the fact that we're limited in terms of development scope. We're not able to put 100 people on this. Not even 21 people."

And the number of 'giant' battle royale games is only likely to increase in the time Housemarque has set aside to evolve Stormdivers in tandem with a community - first through closed and open betas, then very likely on an open development platform like Steam Early Access. Both Fortnite and PUBG continue to dominate, while huge franchises like Call of Duty are leading the next wave of games to make use of the format. At this stage, Housemarque's message is that it can and will differentiate Stormdivers, so that it isn't 'just another battle royale.' Given how competitive the market will become over the next year, it can't afford to do anything less.

"It's still early for this type of game," Haveri says. "We have our future vision for Stormdivers, and I'm sure a lot of other games have their own future visions.

"Right now we're in uncharted waters for Housemarque, which is the PvP multiplayer. But then we can bring stuff from our comfort zone, which is great enemy design and so on... The beginning will be very experimental, and if you're in for the ride we'll give you those things; you'll get the first chance to see the boss-fight."

"Survivor wins, and the area gets smaller," Markus adds, outlining the only essential aspects of battle royale. "Everything outside of that is up for grabs, and that's what we'll prove with Stormdivers."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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