Io Style: 'We Just Want To Entertain People'

Nils Jørgensen of Copenhagen, Denmark-based Hitman and Kane and Lynch series creator Io Interactive gives us a peek into the studio's creative processes -- what makes an Io game an Io game?

Denmark's Io Interactive is one of the Eidos studios that came into the Square Enix family last year when that company purchased the flagging UK publisher. Famous for the Hitman and Kane & Lynch series, Io has long stood out for its dry humor and provocative game content.

Here, the studio's general manager, Nils Jørgensen, recently sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the developer's practices. While the Scandinavian countries have small development scenes, each has at least one strong, major studio -- and Io is Denmark's biggest.

With years of development on its engine and multiple successful games behind it, Io has a lot to offer -- and so, in this interview, Gamasutra takes a peek into its creative processes, trying to find out what makes an Io game an Io game.

A lot of studios have had hard times coming to grips with this generation of technology. Do you feel like you've really been able, as the generation progresses, to get where you want to get and hit your target?

Nils Jørgensen: We released Hitman: Blood Money on 360 back in 2006, I think, just a few months after the release; so, in terms of getting the technology on the right level, I think that that hasn't been a problem for us at all.

But I think that it's interesting to see how the lifespan of this cycle seems to be a lot longer that we can actually really, really try to explore how to optimize in different ways, and I don't think that the boundaries of what we can do with this have been met yet. So the tech guys are really working hard on doing this.

Do you have your own internal tech at your studio?

NJ: Yes. We have our own technology department. We've always used our own internal technology, called the Glacier technology, for the projects that we've done internal in studio. So far, it's produced Kane & Lynch; that's our eighth title, so we've come a long way with that technology.

Is that part of the philosophy of relying on internal technology? Do you find that it has benefits?

NJ: I think that technology is interesting for two reasons: either you get a competitive advantage in making custom technology, or you actually have an opportunity to make it cheaper than middleware. But I think so far what we have done with our own technology, we've really managed to make sure that we get a competitive edge where you can customize it to do exactly what your requirements are for the game.

But at the end of the day, technology doesn't sell games; it's all about the content. It's about what experience you can sell to the consumer, and I think that's always been the most important thing for us. But having great technology supporting people getting that experience is really sometimes a very good help.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

From a creative standpoint, do you have writers internally?

NJ: Well, actually, for Io, we've always been quite strong on the creative side. We've created the Hitman franchise; we've created Kane & Lynch; we've created Mini Ninjas; and we've created Freedom Fighters. So there's actually quite a broad variety of games, and they're all very much developed in-house, so it's our own IP.

It is key for us to get the storytelling and the characters right because I think that's for us probably the fantasy. With both Hitman and Kane & Lynch, we've focused very much on antiheroes, and I think that storytelling is an important part of entertainment and computer games that we've specialized in so far.

I think with the Hitman movie and now the Kane & Lynch movie going into production this fall, we're really, really glad that Hollywood is picking that up and they like the characters and stories that we tell, as well.

I'm more familiar with Hitman than I am with Kane & Lynch, I think, as a series, but definitely one thing that I've found is always interesting about Io's games is a very sort of wry, dark sense of humor. It sets it apart a little bit.

NJ: Actually, Hitman is very well-known for its humor, and that's a big part of our world and our daily life. That dark humor is something that actually resonates well with other people. But also, I think getting this Danish dark humor and combining that with sort of a more international environment works well; at Io, I think we have like 30 percent foreigners from more than 20 different countries, and that means that there is a very international environment in the studio.

So even though Denmark only has like five million people -- and we're by far the biggest game studio in Denmark -- it doesn't mean that we are sort of isolated in this very Danish mentality. We have a very international mentality, and we are very much affected from the outside by cultures from the U.S., cultures from the UK and different places in Europe, and really inspired by Asia. It is very much about combining all those things and making something that really entertains a broad demographic across all the different countries.

A lot of film comes out of one source -- Hollywood -- and ends up being international culture, but with games we still have production all over the world. They often apply Hollywood techniques, but use local talent.

NJ: I definitely feel that getting people from all over the world together working on a project -- and, for us, that means they work in Copenhagen -- it really adds a lot of value because people see things differently and have a lot of different flavors depending on what they are and what they're like.

For instance, with the Mini Ninjas franchise, when we did that, some of the developers had a strong, strong crush on Japan, and they really wanted to honor the culture. They did educational tours, and when we did Kane & Lynch 2 they went to Shanghai to really get the vibe and the feeling of the Shanghai environment to try to reflect that world in the game.

Did you guys do any art outsourcing on that project?

NJ: Yes. We have an outsourcing hub in Shanghai, so we worked a lot, especially on the environment, with different companies in China.

Is that your own studio?

NJ: We have a small studio in Shanghai which helps to link with external suppliers, but I think it is about building bridges and about working together and collaborating; so if we send out people there to have a strong relationship with them so they understand.

They need to be a part of the team in order to produce something that's of high quality, so we go out there frerquently. We show them the game, we pitch it to them, and since we're over there excited about it and try to involve them in the development process because, if it's just work for hire, I don't think that you get the feeling and the emotions in the game. That will at the end of the day show in the final product. People need to invest their soul in the game because otherwise they look flat and boring.

That can be a real problem creatively with games; they can be very competently executed, but they're missing a certain spark or personality.

NJ: Yeah. I think that's one of the things that we really try at Io: to make sure that all our parts stand out in the crowd. I think we're the only people producing a pink shooter, so it does stand out. That's very important to us, to make something that differentiates us from the other product out there.

Especially if you're in the shooter market; it's really taken over the core of this generation. It's become the predominant genre for people to play, and it's a very crowded space.

NJ: It is a crowded space, and it's about making sure that you do something that's a different experience. With Kane & Lynch, we focused a lot on the multiplayer part, where we have the fragile alliance, where you can actually betray your friends and allies while you play, and that really gives you a new angle to multiplayer. I think we really tried to find a different angle so we have something unique to offer to the consumer.

With multiplayer, I feel like that's even more competitive, in the sense that certain games really do dominate the Xbox Live charts. Getting people to buy a game is one thing, but there has to be some sort of critical mass there to attract the audience that makes the multiplayer work.

NJ: Yeah, but I think that there are always different trends in the market, and right now there is a strong trend towards multiplayer. I think the important thing is to make something that's not just the multiplayer where it's sort of capture-the-flag or just to tag each other but actually has unique content that has something to say because, otherwise, you'll never stand out. You'll never be really successful with it, I think.

So you need to have a strong idea about why you are doing the multiplayer in order to do good multiplayer, but I think some of the really interesting trends I find is that we see a social side and also user-generated content. I think that's some of the areas which really fascinate me right now. I think that they are areas which I look forward to seeing grow in the coming years.

Have you been able to implement any of the concepts that you're thinking of in there, or is that future for you?

NJ: Well, I can't go into any details about that. What we have done recently is that we've developed our own internal incubation team, which is dedicated to working on all ideas for new games and also for sequels of existing games. We're doing a lot of experimenting with a lot of different things, and they're both new things and existing things in there.

Is that a core team of creatives? Do they stay as that core team, or do they go off, once they center an idea, and form the core of the production team?

NJ: Actually, I think, at the end of the day, a game developer is about a man with a mission; a man that is saying basically, "This is what I want to do."

The vision, for instance, on Kane & Lynch 2 was very, very strong. The game director had a very, very clear vision about YouTube aesthetics, about the visual style, about the grittiness, about the extreme experience; at the end of the day, the final product is what he set out to do.

I think the goal of our incubation department is to make sure that we test different ideas, find the right ideas, and get that one person to leave the incubation team and work on that project to see it to the finish because it's very important to have ownership from start to finish.

There are a lot of different ways of working, and I find that, if you talk to different people, there are different processes at different studios, different approaches.

NJ: I think capturing the core essence of the creativity is always a challenge, and making sure that funnels through everything in the game when it actually goes into full production. And if you don't have very strong marketeers -- people that are pioneers at showing the direction in the game -- it very, very seldom comes out in a good way. So it is about making sure that everybody understands the vision of the game.

How long does someone work developing idea before you launch into production?

NJ: That's very, very different from project to project. With Mini Ninjas, it was one drawing from one guy, and, when I saw that drawing, and people saw it and we talked about it, it was so simple, and just captured the essence of it.

For other projects, you need to iterate on it; it starts in some area and moves more and more into a different area, and then you end up with something that people really, really like. So you can't put a sort of recipe for creativity like that.

Yeah, but a lot of people try, I think.

NJ: (Laughs) Yeah. I don't think it can be done.

Do you do a lot of gameplay prototyping on projects before you enter production? Do you spend a lot of time experimenting?

NJ: Yes. We have different milestones and different gauge processes, and I think it very much depends on what type of project it is. For some projects, it's very important to get the core mechanics right very early; for others, it's getting the visual style right or getting the technology to create the foundation for this right.

It very much depends on the product, but we are seeing a bigger and bigger focus on gameplay in the studio. A lot of prototyping goes into place to make sure the fun factor is actually there before we enter into full production because, once you start full production, you sort of extrapolate on what you have. So getting the foundation right is something that we invest more and more time in.

I think there's a trend towards having the start-up phase to be longer and longer and then having the production sort of bigger, bigger, but shrink down in size; so we actually do a very intense sprint, and that's also where outsourcing really comes into play.

In GDC and such, you definitely hear a lot more discussion about extending pre-production and the benefits it has. I think, personally, just as a gamer, you can perceive when you play a game if they spent time polishing the fundamental core gameplay before they moved to production. You can just feel it.

NJ: Yeah, but it is still where all the ingredients come together in one big stew and you stir the pot -- it is really a challenge to see if everything fits well together. Sometimes it really does, and sometimes you just need to do different tricks on different areas to make sure they blend well together.

Last year, Eidos and Square Enix merged, and it's been a year as a global organization. Has that changed anything about the way things work for you?

NJ: I think we're part of a bigger group now, and we're part of a really strong group that has a lot more presence. We're really proud to be part of that group. It's really understanding the full scope of the world now because, I think, before the merger, we were very focused on Europe and the U.S. only; now we grasp the full world a lot more.

I think the corporation is working really well. We are getting people to understand each other, and they're sharing experiences and exchanging knowhow. I think that the bonds are starting to get really strong, and we're really glad that the Square Enix guys joined when we merged together.

You guys have your own processes, your own tech and everything, so trying to merge with another organization as a studio, just even in another part of Europe, who have their own way of working; that's complicated to an extent, depending upon how much you want to collaborate, but you have languages and geographic boundaries.

NJ: That is always a challenge, but there is a lot of respect everywhere for what all of the individual studios and branches bring to the table. So far, I think we've been sharing some experience about processes, technology, and a lot of different things; for us, it's really exciting to get a different perspective because the gaming experiences are very different from region to region. There's a lot we can learn from each other.

I'm, so far, I think, doing things in a different way, and that's not a problem for us at all. I don't think that there are two studios that do things in the same way anywhere in the world, so doing things differently is part of our business. I don't think that that's a problem at all.

There's a lot of respect for talent within the group, and people are really talented within this group. Especially at Io, we have a lot of respect for the Final Fantasy team and what they have done; it's a big, big franchise, and they are really doing some amazing things with it.

You talked about IP generation being a strength of your studio. Does that come from the creative side, or does that come from a sense that that is beneficial to the business?

NJ: I think it's because we have a very strong creative heritage. We have a lot of people that really feel that they have so many stories to tell. Denmark is probably well-known for Hans Christian Andersen, the writer, and I think that storytelling is just part of Danish culture. We really like to invent characters and tell good stories, and that's one of the things that inspires us the most.

So far, we've been successful with it, and we really appreciate that we can have the opportunity to continue to do that. So exploring new ideas is something that we always like, and we have a lot of people in the studio that constantly come up with new ideas for new projects, so it's great to always have a pool of things to debate.

Is it one of those situations where basically anyone in the studio can sort of pitch, or is it restricted to that core creative team we talked about?

NJ: We always encourage people internally to pitch to the creative director of the studio; so he frequently has meetings with people, and they come up with different ideas. We encourage everybody to come up with ideas -- because who knows? It might be the cleaning lady who has the best idea for the next game. You never know.

That also results in a lot of different ideas. At the end of the day, of course, we need to filter that down; only very, very, very few game ideas will ever be produced. That's how it is. But we really encourage people to be part of that process.

Given how long it can take to produce a game these days, particularly a full-fledged next-generation game like Kane & Lynch, the number of ideas that can actually make it to production is very small.

NJ: It's frighteningly small, right? And that's how it is, but I also feel that, when we have these creative processes and there are a lot of pitches, sometimes one idea will just stand out so strong that you almost immediately know there's something in here that's very unique that you've just got to do.

So far, we've been privileged to have the ability to produce a lot of different IPs; that's been really, really fortunate for us. It also helps us to keep young and keep fresh because, when you get stuck on one thing only, sometimes that gets people a bit tired. Having the luxury of working on different projects is really strong and inspiring. It keeps you on your toes.

Just in the sense of the variety of ideas: do you guys have any digital initiatives as a studio? Is that something that you're looking at?

NJ: Right now, we are only talking about Kane & Lynch 2, so I can't go into specifics; but I think that it is going to be interesting to see how the digital market evolves over the next year. I think that will be very interesting. I also really am fascinated with the whole 3D world, both with the TVs and now also with 3DS.

Which are very different.

NJ: Yeah, very different, but yet I think both are very interesting as well -- some of the things that I found very interesting to see at E3. But I think we are considering all options, and it's also going to be interesting to see with digital distribution how that works.

At the end of the day, we're content providers; we'll be sure to make something that entertains people whether it's on digital or a boxed product or whatever it is. We'll be sure to fit it into whatever medium is the relevant one because we just want to entertain people.

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