Press Replay: Rune Dittmer of Flashbulb Games
Rebooting a Danish indie development darling from scratch
The closure of Lionhead Studios in March 2016 was one of the biggest stories to hit the British games industry in recent years. Microsoft's decision to shutter the studio responsible for the Fable series shocked the industry, prompting outpourings of affection, deliciously detailed behind the scenes stories and much reflection.
However, Lionhead was not the only victim of Microsoft's internal reorganisation. Press Play, the Copenhagen based studio responsible for Max: The Curse of the Brotherhood and Kalimba, was also closed down in its tenth year of operation - affecting over 30 employees.
Since then, Press Play's founder Rune Dittmer has been busy. Despite being forced to close a company he had built from the ground up, he dusted himself off quickly to become a co-founder of Flashbulb Games in April 2016.
Nearly a year on from then, Flashbulb Games is inching closer to the launch of the company's first PC game Trailmakers. But how has Dittmer recovered so quickly from the disappointment of the past year? And what is Flashbulb Games aiming to do differently to avoid the unhappy fate of Press Play games?
We caught up with Dittmer via Skype ahead of the Nordic Game conference, where he is speaking, to find out more.
On the trail
Trailmakers is a new game from a new studio, but it also is clearly descended from the work Dittmer and his team did at Press Play.
According to Dittmer, Trailmakers is in the "creative construction genre". Players get the chance to build vehicles from crafting materials they can gather in the world around them. They then get the chance to pilot or drive their vehicles through an in game world, exploring at leisure or crashing at will as the mood suits them.
However, while the concept might seem relatively new, Dittmer explained to me that wasn't the case. Instead, he told me that he had actually made a game similar to their new release over a decade ago when Press Play was just starting out
"We did a game called Nerd, and it was one of the first games we did at the old studio Press Play," he said. "It was essentially Trailmakers, but only with ten different things you could do with it and in 2D."
The key difference between Nerd and Trailmakers isn't in the core concept, but in how developments in the industry over the past decade have helped Flashbulb to create a fuller experience for players.
Obviously, the biggest shift between the two had been the move away from Nerd's 2D flash roots to Trailmakers's 3D open world sandbox. While both games supported the idea of playful experimentation, Dittmer believes that the new title is more like "putting a kid in a dumpster and putting jet engines on it" in comparison to Nerd's understandably limited experience.
"Dittmer believes that the new title is more like 'putting a kid in a dumpster and putting jet engines on it'"
However, Trailmakers has also been made viable by a couple of other shifts across the sector. The first of those was the meaningful emergence of creative construction games like Minecraft and Besiege that demonstrated to the team that the idea for a game like Trailmakers was possible.
"We saw a video of Besiege three-and-a-half years ago and it was like, 'Oh, that's exactly what we did ten years ago, but wow, it looks so great and it seems so fun," said Dittmer. "Then we reailsed, 'Well, this is actually something we should revisit and explore further, because it feels very much like stuff we've always been working on."
Meanwhile, the growth of YouTube and Twitch as platforms for video game content also helped tip the scales in the favour of a project like this. Dittmer told me that this wasn't something the team had necessarily planned for, but that it fitted well with the game design philosophy of the team.
"I think it [planning for Youtube and Twitch content] didn't really matter to us in terms of why we wanted to make this game, but as soon as we got started with it and we saw these other titles exploring the same things - like Kerbal Space Program, which is completely different but in many ways shares some of the core values - we realised it [the genre] lends itself super well to YouTubers," he outlined.
"For us it's all about emergent gameplay, it's all about emergent stories, so whatever you do you are the first person in the universe to do it in that exact way. You have this elaborate kind of world and engine and the physics that plays into it, then it's really great for doing something nobody else has done before, and it's really good for challenging yourself, and it's good for interaction.
So if you are streaming, if your audience says, 'Hey, why don't you try and do that without wheels?' or, 'Can you do something that can climb a wall? There's all these kind of ideas and stories that kind of makes it a super great fit. It's very important for how we see this being viable now".
While Dittmer was talking, I did what no person in his or her right mind should do and attempted a bit of rudimentary maths.
According to his version of events, the first time that the idea for an updated version of Nerd was first booted around was when he saw a gameplay video for Besiege over three years ago. This means that the first time the idea came back to the table was in 2014, when Press Play was a functioning studio working for Microsoft.
This led to an obvious question: did the team pitch the idea to Microsoft? Dittmer said yes, they did. Even more interestingly, the studio actually pitched the concept of the game to its fan base via an audience vote in 2015. And although it lost out in that vote - finishing second to a survival game - Dittmer said it had vociferous support amongst the Press Play aficionados.
"It was the second of three games, but it was the game that had by far the loudest base. People were rooting for this to win the vote and grabbing everybody else to kind of go for it, which told us that so maybe this genre isn't necessarily as popular as survival games, but the people who do like them, really like them."
"For us it's all about emergent gameplay, it's all about emergent stories, so whatever you do you are the first person in the universe to do it in that exact way"
However, neither the Trailmakers forerunner or the concept for a survival game made it to market. Before Press Play could bring another game idea to fruition, Microsoft pulled the plug on the company in early 2016 and took 35 employees with it. Dittmer could find few words to describe how difficult a moment that was.
"It felt horrible, he stated sadly. "There's just no other way to put it. To have to announce to 35 people that this is the end of it....that was terrible, of course. And I think of all the games, and the stuff that we had done and that felt pretty horrible."
It is to Microsoft's credit though that they did their best to help the studio's employees get back on their feet quickly. As well as offering support re-homing staff in the company's overall business, Microsoft also had "pretty decent negotiations" with Dittmer that allowed them to take ideas generated at Press Play elsewhere.
This gave Dittmer and co-founders of Press Play, Ole Teglbjærg and Mikkel Thorsted, the chance to start from scratch. This led to the foundation of Flashbulb Games in May 2016, the commencement of Trailmakers's development and a flurry of activity to fund and staff the studio.
Partly, this was to cushion the blow of a decade old studio abruptly coming to an end. There was, however, a practical element to it. As Press Play went down, the friendly sharks in the Danish game development scene started to circle. This meant the team had to move quickly to retain as many of the Press Play team as they could.
"Obviously we founded a new studio, but it [hiring] had to be really fast because everybody was trying to take all the talent that became available all of a sudden in Copenhagen. We knew we had to move pretty fast if we wanted to, kind of, keep working with some of the same folks we'd been working with for years."
This meant a mad dash to get funding for Trailmakers to help support the burgeoning team, which the team did manage to receive after some frantic pitching.
"We also knew right from the get-go that we were going to do Trailmakers. So it was just about going out there and showing that game to everybody; show the ideas, the concepts, and when we had something playable, to show that. I think it's a kind of game that lends itself very well for streaming. So there's some stuff in there that just triggers some of the right buttons when you're looking for funding."
Nevertheless, despite the hectic turnaround, Dittmer appears to be enjoying the newly found independence at Flashbulb Games. While some might look at the difficulties of independence, Dittmer was keen to point out how much freer Flashbulb is away from Microsoft.
"I think for us there's another read on [whether going independent is hard or nor] this. No platform tie-ins, no obligations to make sure this is a good fit for an Xbox audience. It could be that this is maybe much more a European-oriented title, or this is stuff that could go maybe PC first. So some of these things are just so different that we can go where the folks are."
There is also seemingly little intention for Flashbulb to give up its independence. Even if Trailmakers was to prove a success when it launches in late 2017 on Steam via Early Access, Dittmer seems content behind the wheel of a small independent outfit again.
"Hopefully we aren't gonna grow a tremendous amount. I think we're gonna be the people we need to be to make Trailmakers, but it's hopefully one of those games that can reach millions of players without us needing to be several hundred in the office every day. We're 17 at the moment and that's a pretty good size. And if we can make a good fortune on the way, who wouldn't do that?"