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Strange New Things and the quest for 'meaningful gaming'

Ageing, politics and a maturing medium mean the ex-Techland CCO's new outfit is making anything but another Dead Island

The recent output of Polish AAA studio Techland has been many things: violent, sensational, sometimes controversial. But rarely would the likes of Dead Island and Dying Light be branded as 'thoughtful' or 'delicate'.

And as it happened, the 300-headcount team's taste for excess and spectacle eventually grew rather too familiar for a small band of its staff, who in the summer of last year committed to going it alone and setting up a new outfit that would make significantly different games. That team now goes under the name Strange New Things, a Wroclaw-based studio headed up by ex-Techland COO Pawel Zawodny, who is joined by former colleagues, as well as staff from IO Interactive and The Witcher studio CD Projekt Red.

"I had been at Techland for 19 years, having joined the company when there were six staff," says Zawodny, describing a time when Techland had yet to move to making games. "Very soon I became something like head of production, so I was developing and managing the studio while creating games. For seven years I was on the board, and also chief operating officer for a while. I had many different and strange titles at Techland over the years, and over time maybe I just grew a little tired of making huge those AAA games.

"It was great for Techland's games to sell so many, but after all that time I started to long for games with more meaning to them"

"It was great to have the games sell so many, and make us lots of money, but after all that time I started to long for games with more meaning to them. I also wanted more meaning in my work, and in game development in general."

And so it is that Strange New Things has set out with a self-assigned challenge: to make what they see as 'meaningful games'. Planting a flag in crafting games with positive intent is, of course, nothing new. For years teams like the UK's Preloaded have thrived making credible games with various degrees of educational value, guided by the mantra 'games with purpose'. More cynically, marketers have used the term several times over the decades in an attempt to rid games of many negative connotations - a tactic of which the Strange New Things team is well aware.

"When we got together and started talking about games that would be 'meaningful', we knew that's probably the most general, non-descript statement a developer can make," admits Michal Napora, a former Techland marketing, press and social media staffer who now serves the Strange New Things team as an independent. "It might be something people have heard said before, but we'd started noticing a more general shift across the games industry. There's been a new question across the industry that has got people thinking. What is entertainment in games?"

Much about Strange New Things remains mysterious, including its team and the specifics about its intriguing first project

That collective line of enquiry, says Napora, has been inspired by a shift in the roles games play in peoples' lives, perhaps as the medium and its audience broaden, or maybe as games as a medium increases in age. The idea of games as pacifier, destination for escapism and tool for catharsis is eroding, Napora suggests, and new ways of understanding the roles games can serve are emerging.

"Getting away from reality after a tough day of work - maybe by shooting some game characters in the head - has its place," he offers. "But over the last couple of years we've seen a new understanding of escapism. Maybe it's about being made to think about being made to switch off. It's really exciting to see all these developers today questioning peoples' ideas and values. More complex themes are being explored, and those can stay with a player for longer than that traditional gaming escapism.

"The perfect example is That Dragon, Cancer, which blew our minds. I'll be honest; the controls weren't that great, and the visuals weren't, to me, spectacular. It was pretty short too. But once I'd played it, none of those things mattered, because it was about having an experience that goes beyond graphics and gameplay and all those things we have become used to seeing games judged by."

"Most of us are married, and some of us have kids. At that time in life you start to think 'what am I doing this for?' and 'what sort of legacy am I going to leave?'"

"Having polish and high-production values is still important to meaningful games, and I hope we can bring some of that," Zawodny interjects. "There's not many of these meaningful games that have the level of polish seen in AAA, but those type of games can do very well."

The Strange New Things team agree Life is Strange presents a perfect example of the level of polish and thoughtfulness they would like to couple through their work. The success of Dontnod's game is an example, they say, of the maturing of the video game form to the point where its audience expect to take more away than quick thrills alone.

"Even Persona 5, which I've been playing a lot, is an example of how this kind of experience is entering the AAA space," Napora says. "It's very polished, and very big, but it talks about themes that I've never even seen games before. That is encouraging to me."

"We think we know how to make games that are easy to control, fluid and polished," Zawodny adds. "But now we want to fill those types of games with themes that are more interesting, deeper, and hopefully have more meaning."

For Zawodny, that thirst within the team is born from something unavoidable: we all age with each day that passes, and with age, he believes, comes a change in what is important to us in our work, and with regard to our impact on the world.

"We are a little older now," Napora agrees. "When we started in games we were all in our 20s. Now we're a bit further into our 30s, most of us are married, and some of us have kids. At that time in your life you can start to think 'what am I doing this for?' and 'what sort of legacy am I going to leave?'. Maybe it's a reflection of a social conscience we're all developing together. Developers and gamers are growing up together, and maybe as some get older they're longing to play more meaningful games."

Strange New Things' founders see the success of games like Dontnod's Life is Strange as indicative of the commercial potential of highly polished 'meaningful' games

But having a social conscience today - whatever you political leanings - can prove a thankless effort. In the polarised political landscape across the world, one can find reasons to hope and to concern in equal measure. Yet that too is part of the reason Strange New Things is keen to develop games that do more than deliver the spectacle of a typical AAA action-adventure blockbuster.

"The way the world is going, perhaps games have to take more responsibility," muses Zawodny. "Meaningful games are more important today, and when we compare games of perhaps 10 years ago to other art forms like books or movies, we see that people do not just want pure fun. Films and books that leave you with something to think about when you have finished are very popular, but not many people associate games with those qualities. Games for so long have mainly been about fun and having a laugh. I do believe now it is high time we changed that.

"Politics are difficult today, but games can provide a way to help people explore important issues and things that matter"

"And, yes, the world today can feel tricky. Politics are difficult today, but games can provide a way to help people explore important issues and things that matter. Though I don't want to go into too much detail here, as we still don't want to give away any secrets about our first game."

That first mysterious game, along with several prototypes, remains a closely guarded secret, and the Strange New Things team aren't willing to even hint at what it is. That's in part because the outfit's focus for now is on refining its structure, from its management approach to its pipelines.

"Right now the model of our studio is changing and evolving," confirms Zawodny. "We're still open to finding the optimum set-up for what we want to do, as we have around 15 people and the structure is very flat, without any predefined roles in place yet. So we have quite a Teal-style management.

"That doesn't mean we don't have a structure. We do. We know the importance of processes, and well-defined pipelines, because we've been working in that way for a very long time. All that we've done at Techland and the other studios our staff come from is very important to us."

There is, as such, no single auteur guiding Strange New Things' debut game, or the prototypes that exist in parallel. "We do see the value of a both creative freedom, and having a guiding visionary for each project," Zawodny continues. "And it is important to have somebody who knows what needs to be achieved; that's something learned at Technland. That visionary must be flexible, and adapt to the right suggestions from the team. When you have a complete creative democracy with no structure at all, it tends not to work so well. Somebody needs to hold the vision; somebody who can answer questions and doubts, rather than somebody to tell people what to do."

For now, Strange New Things is in no rush. It may grow to become huge, or it might remain small. Currently it is choosing not to hire anyone new, but the team is ambitious about the future. And they know that, when the time comes, their home in Poland will bring them plenty of the talent they need. After all, Techland has been furnishing the country with experienced developers for some 26 years, and it is that heritage that puts the wind of confidence in Strange New Things' sails.

And confident they are, for not only do they feel they have what it takes to succeed; they've equally set out to make a difference to the world.

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