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The Trouble with Typecasting: Starbreeze, Syndicate, and the Future

His studio grabbed the industry's attention with The Chronicles of Riddick -- an immersive, atmospheric, and adventures first person game that has become the go-to title for "better than the movie it's based on," and Starbreeze CEO Mikael Nermark discusses if the studio is in danger of being pigeonholed.

Actors can carve out successful careers by being typecast -- whenever there's a stock character to be portrayed, casting directors know where to go. So, too, can studios become go-to houses for particular types of games. Does this bring bigger security, or lead to bigger problems?

Mikael Nermark, CEO of Starbreeze Studios, can't be sure. The developer grabbed the industry's attention with The Chronicles of Riddick -- an immersive, atmospheric, and adventures first person game that has become the go-to title for "better than the movie it's based on."

But with The Darkness and now the upcoming reboot of Syndicate for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, to be published by Electronic Arts, is the studio in danger of being pigeonholed? What if the industry swerves again, and FPSes are less relevant?

In this interview, Nermark discusses this issue -- and what he sees as the studio's future.

How long have you been working on this game?

Mikael Nermark: We've been working about three years.

There's sort of a trend lately of old, classic games coming back and being reenvisioned as an FPS. Do you consider that to be a trend?

MN: Yeah, I think there's a trend to it somewhat. We'd been asked by EA -- they came to us, and this is what we know; this is were our expertise lies. So that's why we made it an FPS.

Yeah, you're sort of specialized as a studio, and focused on FPSes.

MN: Yeah, exactly. The legacy comes from the Riddick games, of course, and The Darkness -- action-adventure games in the first-person genre.

Do you have your own tech, or are you using licensed tech?

MN: No, it's our own tech. It's 14 years old now.

You brought on a writer to work on the scenario in this game?

MN: Yeah.

Who is that?

MN: Richard Morgan. He's a sci-fi writer.

Did he come to the studio, or did he stay wherever he is?

MN: No, no; he didn't work with the studio the whole time, but he came.

Was it more of a pure writing process, or was it more of a process with the team, with the designers?

MN: It was a process with the designers, definitely. I also think, whether it's on this game or other games I've worked on, it's always good to have great new people from other parts of the entertainment industry to be part of what we're doing. Part of what we're doing is an experience that we're doing in the process.

What do you particularly like about bringing people in from outside the game space?

MN: The view they bring in. They bring something new to the table all of the time. Maybe it doesn't always fit into what we do, but it makes us open our eyes and see what else is out there and how other people perceive different things.

The things games are good at are interactive moments, right? Things that other media are good at are other things. Do you ever have to worry about balance?

MN: I trust my designers to make good judgments on that, but I think the broader the view you have, the better. You learn from stuff, and you grow from stuff; you're trying to make the best of everything you can.


Starbreeze Studios' Syndicate

Looking at it, I can't say for sure, but it seems like one of your biggest productions ever.

MN: It is our biggest production ever!

Is that in terms of length? Is that in terms of people working on it? Is that in terms of everything, basically?

MN: In terms of everything.

Did you expand the studio, or did you work with outside contractors?

MN: We used some outside contractors. This is the first time Starbreeze has ever done that. Yeah, we worked with a bigger team than we ever did before.

To compete in the FPS genre is extremely challenging. The expectations that players have for games like this are exceedingly high these days.

MN: Definitely. Look at what's out there. You have to trust your own skills and realize what your strengths are. I think we did that, and I'm extremely proud of the studio and the guys working on the team. But it's definitely a hard genre to be in, no doubt.

When you say your own strengths, what would you consider to be your strengths?

MN: Story-driven games; narrative-view games. What made Riddick and Darkness good: the story-driven, narrative single-player experience. That's our strength.

Do you have designers in the studio who are particularly concerned with narrative?

MN: Definitely, yes. We have different designers for different parts; you know, it's always a group of designers making a game, and we're trying to make everything as good as we can.

How is the design team organized? Does it break down in a certain way? Are there narrative designers like clusters, or does the design team all feed back and forth?

MN: All feed back and forth. When we do productions, we'll have cross-discipline groups.

So are you set up in cabals, or pods?

MN: In pods.

How are they organized? What is each group working on?

MN: It depends on when in production, but when we start up we try to explore the production team and say, "This is the game we're going to make. Set this goal together with whomever you work." Then we split up and build the different parts of the game. We try to do the cross-discipline. You have this little work together... We try to focus; everyone has dependencies on the next guy, all the time, and you try to fit that into a good pipeline and a good process. I think that's why it's important to have cross-discipline groups.


How big is the studio now?

MN: We are 93 people.

And how many projects do you have running at the same time?

MN: Right now, we have two.

Including Syndicate?

MN: Including Syndicate.

I guess your role is managing overall.

MN: Definitely. I'm not involved on the production level. I oversee the production; I get reports, of course, and am in close contact with the game directors and the producers on the projects, but we are also a listed company. So I have to deal with that, as well.

Independent developers have seen a lot of closures, so managing the burn rate on a studio of that size and making sure projects are lined up has got to be one of your biggest challenges.

MN: That is one of my biggest challenges and one of my biggest priorities, yes.

Is it difficult, in this climate, to sign projects for your studio?

MN: It's always difficult. As you know, triple-A projects today are getting bigger and more expensive with more production value into it. Having someone spend that kind of money... It is hard. It is difficult, as you say. That's one of my top priorities: to have the right products lined up for the next project.

There's been a lot of discussion of having teams prototyping so that you can have something to show; how do you manage that process?

MN: (laughs) That's a hard process. What we try to do is that we have one game, and then we can do two projects, staggered, so we have people in between that can work on our new stuff we want to make.

Riddick, Syndicate, and The Darkness, these are IPs that you brought a lot of life to as a studio, but they are not original IP. Is that something you are seeking out?

MN: We want to make our own IP; no doubt. That's something the studio wants to do. Everyone in the studio can ask me what it is; we have probably 93 different views on that. We definitely want to do it.

But it's also about balancing the financials as well. It takes money to build your own IP, but we definitely want to do that; no doubt. We have been fortunate to work with great IPs like Syndicate, The Darkness, and Riddick, and the talented people that worked with those games and made them really good games.

Is the focus of your studio going to continue to be on big triple-A games, or are you going to mix it up?

MN: We're going to mix it up. From several standpoints, I think. We're working on the big triple-A, but we're also looking to do a few smaller things that we can potentially try our own IP on, as well. More games in production at the same time, but smaller. Everything from managing the financial and commercial risks to letting the people at the studio work on their game they want to work on and giving them some creative freedom, if you like.

Do you envision going direct to consumers on download platforms with smaller games? Does that appeal to you as a studio?

MN: It always appeals to you. When I look at any project, I look at it from a commercial standpoint, I look from a creative standpoint, and a production standpoint. So it depends on what kind of game we're doing. We're not doing that right now, but we're actually self-funding one original IP right now. If we're going to take it to market ourself -- I haven't decided yet. It's always about how you maximize what you can do.

How do you make those decisions? Is it based on the opportunities you're being presented with by publishing partners saying, "This is a better idea, right now, for our studio," or is it about just the quality of the IP as it develops?

MN: First we have a long-term business plan foundation; we know what we want to make and where we want to be in three years' time. If we get presented opportunities that fit within that, then we do it; otherwise, we don't.

You have a long business plan, but some of these decisions must come together suddenly.

MN: Oh, yes; that's why I said that the business plan is the foundation, but you also have to look at it opportunistically sometimes as well. You work both ways, in that sense -- if I make any sense! (laughs)

Absolutely, it does. Do you feel a strong desire to remain as an independent studio?

MN: Yes.

Why?

MN: To control your fate, in some ways.

Do you think studios that have not stayed independent have suffered because they can't control their own fate?

MN: No, I don't think so. I think we've been lucky. We're also publicly traded, which makes it a bit more stable. We have our loyal shareholders who help us through the growth of the company. I think you have to be extremely lucky to succeed in any business, and I think we have. I think the big studios that have gone under have been unlucky. It's a hard world out there. I can't speak for them, of course, in any way, but I think it's a lot about opportunity, and being in the right place at the right time.

I'm sure there was a certain point where you get the jobs because of the quality you produce, but you also get the jobs because things came together at EA, which is completely external to anything that you could control.

MN: Yeah. Exactly. Definitely. Since that's a big unknown, trying to create your own IP and work on your own products like we do right now, makes the creative freedom that we can move in that direction as well. We're not going to leave this space! (laughs)


Do you think that there will reach a saturation point for shooters in this generation? Do you think it's going to reach a point where the audience just gets fatigued?

MN: That's a hard question. I think the market's going to grow, or there's going to be room for multiple different kinds of genres -- more than we see today -- and on more different platforms than we see today than we know. I think the sky's the limit.

But does that apply to your company that much in terms of the games you've made so far? A lot of the platforms that are seeing growth aren't really conducive to these kinds of games.

MN: No, it hasn't applied to us because we're working on the big platforms, on the big games. But the industry has shifted in the last two or three years. I think with any company, whatever business you're in, you have to see what's out there and what's happening, and you have to understand that and learn from that, and see where you want to be and what kind of company you want to have.

With so many games in the genre, you have to have a tension between the familiar and the innovative. What's your philosophy as a studio?

MN: I think you have to be true to what you do, and have high integrity, but you also have to be able to listen to what the consumer wants. Maybe it's too broad a way to look at it, but I think you have to be able to say: "This is what I believe in; this is what I want to do; but I also have to be able to understand what the competition's doing and what the consumer wants." From an early stage, we always include consumers, and consumer testing.

When you look at the competition, are you more concerned with what they're doing or with what they're not doing?

MN: Hard question! (laughs) Probably whatever I answer is going to be wrong. There are a lot of great games out there, a lot of good studios out there; in some ways, I think I'm more worried about what they're not doing. I don't know. It's a hard question!

Where exactly are you located -- your studio?

MN: In Uppsala. It's a small city outside Stockholm, in Sweden.

There are a few developers in Sweden. Is there a scene? Do you have relationships?

MN: Oh, yeah; we know everyone. Everyone knows everyone in Sweden. Since it's a such a small country, personnel moves between the different companies. Everyone that runs a company -- we've all worked together before in different constellations. Yeah, it's a small community, and it's a good community. It came from a tech-driven community, but now we're looking more at the fact that tech doesn't make games; people make games. We're looking at building great experiences.

That's a good point. The tech wars are getting intense. Look at Battlefield 3.

MN: Great game. Great engine.

Another great Scandinavian game!

MN: Yep! Good friends of ours. I think hard-working people, talented people -- as I said, look at the companies that come out of Sweden have been tech-based: Ericsson, Scania, etcetera. There's high working morale. We want to make the best game and the best product we ever can. That's everything we're trying to do.

Why do you think Sweden has such a technical focus?

MN: It's always been -- way back, with Ericsson, Volvo, and companies like that. It's been also that they have great schools for engineering, and the community has been supporting them quite a lot. And the government -- not subsidized or anything, but building good schools.

I think also coming out of European countries originally being PC-oriented...

MN: Oh, yeah. We were all PC before. And tech, programming -- you have to be logical, right? Swedes love to be square and logical. (laughs)

And pack things in small, flat boxes. (laughs)

MN: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. They do! And designing and being creative, for all generations of Swedes that I've known, you have to work 8 to 5 and do things that are logical. My dad still thinks I should get a real job because working in games is not a real job. (laughs)

And the budgets; I know you probably don't want to disclose, but they're not trivial.

MN: I will say this: The budgets for the games we make and the budgets for the games other Swedish studios make are way above what any movie the Swedish movie industry is making, or the music industry, or whatever.

Do you think, as a cultural export, games are sort of the forefront? Games and furniture? (laughs)

MN: (laughs) Definitely. Yeah. In music, too, but yeah. And movies now -- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

That put Sweden on the map with movies and books.

MN: Yeah, definitely. I think Swedes are good at that.

That's true; it's sort of the homegrown creative talent that you're seeing in media. Why bring in people from the outside to collaborate?

MN: My view is that I want to bring in people -- and I don't care if they're from Sweden or wherever they are. Again, that's just to see what kind of views they have, because they always bring something new to the table. You don't have to use it, but it makes you lift up your head and sort of see what's out there, and "What can I do?" and "How can I look at it from a different perspective?" I think that's good. Let's try to learn every day, new stuff.

Tech being what it is -- and your background being what it is -- do you look at other spaces than the FPS, or do you think that's what you're going to focus on?

MN: Let me answer like this: when we look at any project, when we look at any games, we don't look at genre. We don't look at it like we're making a game; we're making an experience for the player which is competing with whatever he or she would do -- spend time with loved ones and things like that. So we have to make a great experience so that you think it's worthwhile playing our games.

If we put shooting in our game, it has to be top-notch shooting, and it has to be competing there, and it has to be right for the game. If it's driving, it has to be right for the game. I'm not saying that, if we do a shooting game, we have to go and compete with the Battlefields or Call of Dutys, but we have to have the right kind of shooting for the game we're making. So we don't look at it from a genre perspective anymore; we look at what kind of experience can we do and what kind of game we want to make, and whatever elements in there have to be the best for that game.

Is it more of a concern or more of an advantage for independent studios to have a specialization and to be perceived by the outside world as genere specialists?

MN: I have no idea, to be honest. It's like if you ask an actor, "Is it an advantage to be typecast, or is it an advantage to be broader?" Personally, not speaking for Starbreeze or the industry in any way, I think it's better to be broad in whatever you do. So what I'm trying to say is that I want to be the best in everything. (laughs) But I understand that I can't do that -- probably.

It also depends; I don't know how flexible you are. Is your internal technology being developed in a way that you think is going to make you more flexible?

MN: Yes, I think so, the way we're doing it. Definitely. Again, what we're doing right now is we sit down and look at the game we want to create. For example, for our next game; we looked at it from a "This is what we want to do," and then we went to the engine team and said, "This is what we want to make. Is it possible?" If they say no? "Make it possible."

Is it really that simple?

MN: No. Of course not. It's not that simple. Of course not. Of course not. It's not that simple. But that's at least the way I think we should look at it. No, of course not. They come back and said, "These are the limitations. This is what we know; you can't do this. We probably could do this." Of course; nothing is that simple.

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