Matias Myllyrinne: The Advent Of Alan Wake

The Remedy man on the creative evolution of games, the production process of this long-in-development thriller, and the demands versus the opportunities afforded by the creation of DLC and the extension of the current generation.

The game has been in the works for years now, but very soon, Microsoft and Remedy's Alan Wake will finally be released for the Xbox 360. It comes on the heels of Sony's Heavy Rain -- an extremely different game, to be sure, but the other platform holder's major thriller title of the generation.

Matias Myllyrinne, the managing director of Finland-based studio Remedy, seems excited to finally be able to share the game with the world. In this interview, he discusses the preproduction and production process that birthed the game as well as the creative evolution of the medium that helped birth the title.

I think it's nice that we're getting a little bit more of this psychological, mature stuff coming. In the past, the industry dove into that and then came back out again; this generation got very, very shooter-heavy, and now we're getting back to the psychological maturity.

Matias Myllyrinne: Yeah. Modern Warfare 2, for me, was a game I played in two sittings -- the single-player. I had to cancel my Gold subscription for a month so I wouldn't play the multiplayer, 'cause we needed to ship Wake. (Laughs) Everything I hear about Bad Company 2 makes it a game I want to play. But I'm glad that we're also doing different kinds of games.

Being able to deliver more character depth, for lack of a better word -- they're no longer just cardboard cut-outs; they're actually real in many ways -- is interesting. Being able to push the envelope, even if it's just a few inches forward, but just to be able to push that storytelling envelope further... I think we're going to open up new ground on that end.

And for us, what we spent a lot of time and effort doing is to try to build a new, compelling core mechanic with how you fight with light. So that was something that we're really proud of how it worked out, but it took a lot of time to nail down.

We think we're pretty far into the generation, but a lot of teams are really just getting their first game online at this point.

MM: Yeah. There's a few things here: in one respect, I think we're in a golden age of gaming. If you look at the games that have come out last year...Wow. I mean, there are just so many polished, great games. At least, I can't remember a timeframe when I was so pampered and taken care of as a gamer, so I think in that respect it's a great time.

In terms of a console life-cycle, I think we're just in a very good spot. There are things that we can still do on the consoles that we should be exploring. I'm in no rush to move on to the next generation (laughing), and I think at least most folks I've talked to are very happy staying with this gen and trying to build on it.

There's a lot more consoles out there and a healthy install base, especially now with Sony's Move and Project Natal. I'm hoping that nobody rushes and pulls the trigger too early on the next cycle.

I feel like the only way we'll actually be able to get people to move the craft and the art of gaming forward is if the ground stops moving a little bit.

MM: Yeah. That's true; that's true. And, you know, I'm really surprised at how much -- there's an insane amount of potential what we could still be doing on the 360. It's a good piece of hardware, but, if you think back to the previous gen, like if you look at the PlayStation 2 games, it's like the very first games and then the last ones to come out -- you compare the early games to, like, GTA III -- it's like, wow, this is the same piece of hardware?! Teams just get better and better at pulling power out of those things and realizing their vision.

You guys are just hitting. I would imagine you're not like, "Well, see ya next time!" You're ready to go; you'd like to get back and probably hit the ground running.

MM: Yeah. Once we've wrapped this up, we'll be working on downloadable content. We want to continue the story. Maybe, in my own conceptual mind, it's bridging between season one and what will hopefully be season two -- if the audience wants more. So we'd very much like to continue because we open a lot of doors to the fiction.

Yes, the gamer gets to a satisfactory endpoint, and, yes, there is a conclusion to Alan Wake as a story; but it's season one. It would be cool to do the specials, like Battlestar Galactica, after the season's complete, and to tell people more.

So downloadable content would be cool; I'm really looking forward to doing that. If nothing else, we'll get to do bite-sized projects. For a team that's worked on a very long project, it'll be nice to have something -- "Well, we'll start now and then wrap it up here." It'll be a very different scale, if you will.

I've talked to people who like to use DLC as a place to experiment, either with letting different people take creative direction who didn't have that opportunity on the main project, or also to experiment with ideas that they weren't sure would sustain for a whole game.

MM: Yeah. I think DLC opens up that opportunity. You almost want to do... Okay, Portal's an unfair comparison, but you could do prototypes that aren't necessarily in the core of what the original IP was and maybe even do spin-offs and stuff like that; see what works and take a different tone. I don't know.

I don't think we're going to be that far away from... You get those [episodes like] the musical episode of Buffy. (Laughs) Doing something that's kind of, while within the fiction or within the context, but a but wackier. I think it's a cool avenue, and also, as a gamer, I like the fact that I'm getting offered downloadable content to add to games I like. Some of it is great; some of it's not. But, on the other hand, I think it's cool. Just the very idea: press a button, and you get more.

And I think it's baby steps into a direction where digital distribution goes more and more into the mainstream and gamers and the audience out there learn to buy games directly, which is usually good for developers -- as a rule of thumb anyway.

I also think it's interesting that you've been talking in television metaphors -- and I know you use a television metaphor for the structure of the narrative of the game -- but we're talking about potentially episodic content as well, so it's moving into an almost over-the-air scenario in a way.

MM: Yeah, I think there's loads of interesting things such as episodic [structure] or, as you said, kind of prototyping and trying out new things. Those are definitely interesting things that are happening out there. The production realities for a lot of these things, though, at least I don't see the benefits.

You hear the talk of, "Well, you just create one and a new bite-size," but, really, if you're going to do -- at least for a larger game, like a AAA game like us -- if you're going to be doing motion capture, voice-over acting, face and motion capture, stunts... To do that, you're not gonna do those in bite-sized bits. What you want to do is you want to go in there and shoot for three or four days; you don't want to go in there and shoot for half a day.

For example, some of out facial stuff was done in Phoenix. Some of stunts were done in New York and then Sweden; and voiceover in New York, as well. Those are not things that you want to start and maybe do one day sessions of around the world.

What you want to do is you want to go in there; you want to have the actors trained up. You want everybody to be familiar with the script, and you probably want to bag it in a week as opposed to going back every six weeks or twelve weeks.

Also, the time commitment and the financial commitment makes more sense to do it in batches, to get as much knocked out. Also, actors' schedules. Can you actually do that for one DLC package? It seems like you'd have to plan in advance, actually.

MM: Yeah. I think you'd go in different cycles. Certainly, I've looked at our initial production ideas, and what you do is you calmly do pre-pro on the whole thing first. You might gather all the material you need; for example, you'll do all the stunts, or you'll do all the body mocap in one go, but you don't necessarily go into production on all that raw data yet.

You do the actual production and the post-production for different episodes at different times. That seems to be the logical way of approaching it, but we're not there yet; so we'll see what happens.

It just seems like you'd want to be risk-averse. So, on one hand, to be risk-averse, you try to get more out of what you've got in the sessions; but at the same time, you don't know exactly what your plan is, either. So weighing that must be a complicated situation.

MM: True. Sure. You see it with things like cinematics: until the environments are locked and they're not changing, a lot of that cinematics work needs -- you don't want to waste the effort of, "Oh, my God! I'm sorry; we changed the scene. We moved the cabin forty feet that way, and the trees are actually now over here. The cinematics are going to have to be redone for this environment."

I think you need to be smart about the way you do those things. It's not rocket science; I think it's just being diligent and using common sense.

This is a new IP for you guys; how much pre-production work did you actually put into this way back when, and how did that affect everything?

MM: A lot. A lot. I think one of the good things from this project -- not everything went according to plan -- but one of the good things that we did was, we had a lot of self-discipline to call pre-production what it is. We then go into production. We didn't kid ourselves until we were in production.

I think that that's one of the things at least that, talking with colleagues from different teams and so forth; they nominally come out of pre-production and go into production where, really, until it's final and you're creating final stuff for the game, you're not in production. At least, that's our philosophy on it.

So pre-production went really, really long, but on the other hand the production cycle was very much what we foresaw from the outset. Then, really, since E3 -- since June -- we've had the game playable from start to finish, we we've really been just iterating and polishing. Okay, cinematics have gone and orchestration and stuff like this, but really the game has been there.

It's been cool to have the opportunity to work this way. I think we're blessed; Microsoft's been very patient and a good partner, and, on the other hand, our previous successes helped us to be able to do that. I know everybody doesn't have that opportunity. I wish more folks did; I think they'd be happier, and the gamers would be happier, as well. Sometimes you see something, and you just -- "If they would have had three more months..." You get those flawed masterpieces. They're really, really good, but they just lacked the final polish.

You just want it to be a little bit more than it is, and you know it could have been if they had had time.

MM: The thing that happens is that, especially with smaller listed publishers, they have financial pressures to meet their quarters. It's earnings per share on the short term cutting their long-term success.

If you put out an okay title, it's not gonna make much of a dent in the market. It might help you in that three-month period, but if you put out something great, that might actually have strategic significance for your company.

In that way, I feel that it's a bit short-sighted. I understand why it is the way it is, but that doesn't mean that I like it.

Well, Call of Duty wouldn't be where it's at now if they had just pushed it out the door.

MM: Yeah. That's true. That's true.

But you can't say, again, when the first one came out, they could have predicted that it'd be where it's at now.

MM: That's true, and I have to say that I have a huge amount of respect for the guys at Infinity Ward. They've constantly improved on what they've done. I played the first Modern Warfare; it was kind of an "Okay. This is the end; you've reached the logical progression. We've reached the peak."

Then they come up with Modern Warfare 2, and it's even better! That, for me, was... I'm humbled by stuff like that -- that they're able to do that. Hopefully, Wake, in its own genre, will do a lot for thrillers and kind of be the first psychological action-thriller in games and define that space.

I think it's something that we want. If you look at the other games that are in the thriller-ish genre -- Heavy Rain is completely not an action game, and Silent Hill was psychological, but plodding. I think that we're crying out -- at least, I feel like we're crying out -- for a little bit more of a rounded genre.

MM: Yeah. I hope that we're not that far away from being able to share the whole game with the world. Folks have played, and we've had a really warm reception. It's been nice; comforting, after this long journey. (laughs)

I don't know. The thing is, you need to appeal to both. Games are interactive, right? I mean, it's almost mundane, but what the player does -- how that feels -- at least for me, it's at least as important as what you show them and tell them in terms of the story.

It's an interactive medium! Making that gameplay fun; but on the other hand, it shouldn't take away to actually augment and help the storytelling in a way. You can have both. It's just finding the right pacing and balance that I think is tricky.

How was working with your writer?

MM: I've worked with Sam [Lake]... Well, ever since I was there, so eleven years? He wrote both Max Payne games, and I think he did some minor writing for Death Rally, back in the day. I think, back then, he could only use so many words because they ran out of memory and cut his writing out.

But anyway, Sam's a great guy to work with, and we now also have a second writer who works with him. We've used an external drama consultant always -- well, at least for the last seven or eight years. Microsoft also has an editor who will help. So I think it's very much Sam's story and Sam's vision of what he wants; there's a lot of him. I'm not saying it's autobiographical, but you put a lot of yourself into it as a writer.

Sam's one of those really down-to-earth -- he's a great guy to work with. Always, it's a team effort, but when you have somebody who's accessible and open to other people's ideas and still has his own kind of direction of what he wants to achieve, those are easy people to work with.

We're very much more than colleagues after all these years; it's more like a family and a team working together. We've traveled around the world with them, and we've been through thick and thin. We were there when things weren't as smooth in the beginning, just trying to shoestring it, and then been through some successes together. That builds and kind of binds you together as well.


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