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Something to Grin about

Ulf Andersson talks about working with movie studios, Capcom's development culture and creating a quality benchmark

Videogame adaptations are much mocked product of the games industry, but they are also one of the most lucrative. Secretive movie producers greedily hogging important assets, and the reluctance of studios to hold the videogame adaptations in the same regard as the film itself has led to a critically panned genre.

However, Grin is looking to make a go at this maligned sector and turn it on its head. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz Ulf Andersson, co-founder of Grin, talks about the changing attitude of movie studios towards games, why the company expanded into Barcelona and why adapting novels is a good idea.

GamesIndustry.biz What's it been like working with movie studios?
Ulf Andersson

It's been great actually. I'm of the opinion that you have to have rules in order to be creative, because if you're not solving a problem, or have some sort of limitation, you don't really need to use your brain. I like limits in that sense.

Movie games are challenging to make because they usually suck and not because the developers are bad, but maintaining that relationship and having different opinions on what's interesting in that media project from a movie standpoint and a game standpoint - that sort of collides all the time. These publishers have picked up on that and started to change how they work. It's been great, it's been very different from previous experiences with licenses.

GamesIndustry.biz Which limitations were you talking about?
Ulf Andersson

It could be anything. A limitation itself could be budget, time or IP, or a customer that wants a certain type of game. In this case it isn't budget or time but maintaining that feeling from the movie and still making a kickass game that you enjoyed playing. Instead of something that might be correct with the movie but a bad game or a really good game that has nothing to do with the movie.

GamesIndustry.biz You say time - how was working within a movie development time frame?
Ulf Andersson

On this project it's been very good. We started out with Terminator fairly early and with Wanted we didn't need to release with either the movie or the DVD and they focused only on making a good game - we had a good amount of time on it.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think that movie studios are realising the value of games as their own separate project?
Ulf Andersson

They've had to change their culture to be able to produce games. Some companies and some divisions of companies are doing that. Movie productions are pretty secretive about their stuff, so depending on how the production looks that can of course impact on development a lot. In general, yes, I think the movie business is taking games more seriously. I know that there are movies planned where the game is planned into it - the audiences are starting to join together. Who is going to see the movie and who is going to buy the game has begun to meld together.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think that more traditional media companies, like Warner Brothers, are planning on entering the game space and is this a good thing generally for games?
Ulf Andersson

That is a tricky question. Of course they're going to move into games because it's a revenue stream and they're the IP holders anyway, so why give away free money if they can do it themselves?

The tricky thing is the downloadable trend that's happening and how that will affect publishers in general, of course that's a different topic. That might affect who is interested and who can step up and compete in this business. If you look at the really, really big publishers they might get in trouble... if everything goes live or downloadable what do you do with all your employees?

Maybe the older companies, the movie companies, can have a good chance in the future because they don't have all that baggage to carry and while moving into the market actually be younger and more experimental in the online division because they don't have an established pipeline already in that area. Or they could just be boring and do the same thing.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think strong established brands, like movies and comic books, are required to justify the cost of development these days?
Ulf Andersson

It's always relevant to have a consumer base already established when you do something that costs a lot of money. On the other hand, movies are made from scratch and become popular, so I think there's room for games too.

Its more like when a rock band makes a track, people know it's going to be of a certain quality and I think publishers need to consider that too, that they have both the developer and themselves as a brand and people dig a certain brand. I'm not saying game developers are rock stars, I know some think they are, but they're really not - yet at least.

We need to value the quality of the product we release, because if you keep releasing good quality product you don't need to keep within the same brand all the time, you can release new stuff that people will accept too - I think Valve is a good example of that. And Blizzard - they've got more money than God.

GamesIndustry.biz And their CEO is in a rock band...
Ulf Andersson

That's true! But I think Valve is a good example because they're not as established as Blizzard but they make you open your eyes when they release a game. That's what the business needs, established quality marks - something you can stamp on the box that goes "This is quality s**t, look no further."

You need that for smaller developers too, because establishing yourself as Valve takes maybe 15 years and smaller developers don't even have that chance anymore. I think establishing some sort of quality mark... I don't know, I'm dreaming here, but it would be so nice to have something like: "Boom! This is good".

GamesIndustry.biz You're working with Halcyon on the Terminator game, that group also bought the rights to adapt the Philip K Dick novels; will you be working on those too?
Ulf Andersson

I really don't have a comment on that - that's all I can say. But I must say that Philip K Dick had done some amazing work in his life.

GamesIndustry.biz Absolutely, but there's a question of whether or not some of his more abstract and surreal themes could be adapted into a videogame.
Ulf Andersson

I'm sure they could. It's been done before, in a sense, with the Bladerunner stuff. I really enjoyed Westwood's game, it's great game. I think definitely it could, but I don't know if they need to be as psychedelic as his stuff. There's really good ideas behind those [novels] and it's been proven with Bladerunner that you can take those ideas further. Doing it is not a guaranteed success because there's so many really, really, incredibly good people behind that [Bladerunner] movie, so you still need the talent but it's a good base to start from.

GamesIndustry.biz Why did you decide to branch out into Barcelona?
Ulf Andersson

Several reasons. Barcelona has a really strong aesthetic culture - well not Barcelona per se, but Spain in general. Also, we felt that forming in a warmer country was good because some people we tried to recruit get tired of the cold Sweden and they want to go to a warmer country. We also had a really strong relationship with Emmanuel Marquez - he's heading up the studio. He's a very, very strong guy, a nice guy to work with.

We don't set out to build studios per se, we find a good culture and some guys to build it around because we know how horribly, horribly hard to it is to build up from scratch and we like to help people and if we can make that under the Grin label we gladly do that. We have some other companies that we are helping but I can't disclose who.

GamesIndustry.biz When is Bionic Commander coming out?
Ulf Andersson

I can't answer that - I promised not to answer that question.

GamesIndustry.biz How many copies of the downloadable one did you sell?
Ulf Andersson

I don't know yet actually. I know we ranked fairly high. We were number one seller for some time, especially on PlayStation 3. We did better than we expected because we went pretty hardcore with that title, we wanted to stay true to the original and in doing that you know that some people might get scared off.

GamesIndustry.biz How was working with Capcom on that?
Ulf Andersson

It was great, it was a different experience. It's a company of a lot of creative minds and a development culture rather than a distribution culture. We managed to evolve a lot during that process and we learned a lot over the years with Ubisoft too - but this time we could focus more on gameplay and aesthetics. It was nice to work together with people that you have a lot of respect for. Also I have to say that I was greatly surprised by the American branch of Capcom, they've gathered a bunch of really great people over there.

GamesIndustry.biz Can you tell me more about the difference between the development and distribution cultures?
Ulf Andersson

If they have a publishing or distribution culture it's all about selling more copies, while a development culture is all about making a good game... in an essence and then it's a mix between that but your roots as a company always show through.

The distribution people always focus on marketing and distribution while the development people, for good or bad, always focus on making something that's new or plays very well. I don't know what's best for the product really, but for my own sake I'm more of a development guy. I want to make something that I'm proud of but at the same time a game is only as good as its sales. It's a tough balance - you have to be artistic and a sales man at the same time.

Ulf Andersson is the co-founder of Grin. Interview by James Lee.

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James Lee