Edge of War game by Action Squad Studio Interview

How Edge of War Survived the Collapse of Its Developer

On August 23, 2023, a small development team named Action Squad Studios released its second game, Edge of War. This launch was unlike almost any other, however, because Edge of War shadow-dropped into Steam Early Access alongside news that the studio would close at the end of the month following the loss of its publisher. 

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It wasn’t the way the team wanted to release the game, but their hands were forced by the reality of their situation. But even then, there was hope. Game director and lead programmer Heikki-Pekka Noronen “kept dreaming to the very end that a miracle would happen and everyone would be writing [about] and streaming the game when it comes out and we could instantly get enough sales to keep on going for a couple more months with a core team.”

“A dream for sure,” he lamented, “but not something I really expected to happen.”

I spoke to Noronen in the wake of Edge of War’s release to learn more about the game, the situation that Action Squad Studios found itself in, and what ultimately led to this unique turn of events.

You might not have heard of the studio, but it’s been around for seven years. Its first game was Iron Danger, a tactical adventure game with the headline feature of being able to rewind time in real time. Inspired by Finnish folklore and infused with steampunk aesthetics, Iron Danger launched in early 2020 to a generally positive reception. However, the game flew under the radar for many.

Noronen admitted that “Iron Danger had awful sales and we were really low on cash,” which caused difficulties in switching over to a new project. “To survive, we had to outsource some of our team to work on other companies,” he explained. Nevertheless, the team knew quite early what it wanted to work on next. The dream project was “massive,” and they decided to work towards it through “something that would be doable by us already.” That idea would give birth to Edge of War, a “simpler and smaller” project that, after discussion between Noronen and Iron Danger’s lead designer Jussi-Petteri Kemppainen “started to grow to become something much bigger.”

Laying The Foundations of Edge of War

It seems almost as if Edge of War launched at the best and worst possible time. It’s a classically styled CRPG, arriving in Early Access under the looming shadow of Baldur’s Gate 3. Larian Studios’ latest has undoubtedly provided a massive jolt to the popularity of the genre, but whether those players can be convinced to turn their attentions to another Early Access game that isn’t backed by the marketing power of Dungeons & Dragons (or, indeed, even a publisher) is a whole other question.

But, the pieces are certainly there. “It is built on the idea of a full-blooded CRPG that is able to provide emergent storytelling and high replayability,” explained Noronen. The current version has most of the systems in place, including exploration, encounters, and some quests. Ensuring that all felt familiar to genre fans was a starting point for the team, but it was coupled with two more unique features: emergent storytelling and extremely interactive environments.

“ For example,” said Noronen, “we have physics-based dynamic objects, like ruins you can fall on top of your enemies. That is something you really don’t see in CRPGs with turn-based combat, which usually provide such things more through pre-defined destruction patterns and so on. In a way, we want to provide players with some limits that guide the story and help players to steer their decisions, but still give lots of freedom to do things and see the world respond.”

“The game is designed in a way that the stories, environment, and other factions in the game will have meaningful differences between different playthroughs.”

However, the narrative isn’t yet present. You’ll play as a scouting party from the “north-most guardpost of Kalevala, Fort Turso,” with most of the game taking place in the Northlands. And if those names sound familiar, it’s because Edge of War shares the Finnish fantasy universe of Iron Danger, just in a different region and earlier in the timeline. Eventually, it is planned to span an entire in-game year, beginning with the spring season that is currently playable and marching through to the “darkest days of midwinter.” 

According to the original development plan, all of that would have been present from day one, when the game would have launched in 2024. In the face of extraordinary situations, however, plans change.

Moving With The Winds of Change

The underperformance of Iron Danger put Action Squad Studios in a tight spot. With the various team members outsourced to keep the studio afloat, only Noronen and senior programmer Lauri Härsilä remained on in-house projects. While Noronen toiled away on the concepts and foundations of Edge of War, Härsilä provided support for Iron Danger for six months before switching over. 

During this period, the team toyed with the idea of an Early Access launch, “multiple times!” They even pitched it to publishers as an option. And Noronen still believes that Edge of War “is the kind of game that could have been doing really well when planned to be Early Access first.” However, their precarious financial situation put hard limits on what they would have been able to achieve: “Games like this are a bit harder for Early Access in the sense that you really have to have lots of systems and content in place for pieces to fall together in a way that is a fun experience.”

That would have required a lot of time, especially with the need to continue outsourcing, so it simply wasn’t a viable option. Still, they were able to bring more people on to the project in part-time and, later, full-time roles. Between that, the proven ability to deliver a project thanks to Iron Danger, and “the core game [being] much more in line with some other successful games, it was easier to get people to understand what the game was about and how it could succeed,” which led to Action Squad Studios signing a publishing deal in early 2022. That’s when things started to pick up speed. 

For a year, development progressed smoothly. The project was hitting its milestones, and plans were afoot for a big reveal. Unbeknownst to the team, the publisher was having issues of its own. 

One day, the developers and publishers were discussing the announcement campaign together. The very next day, the contract was terminated. “It actually was a total surprise for the people working with us daily on the publisher side as well. We were just asked to join in a call one morning with one person we had never met before and were told that such a decision was made last night. We did not even have a hunch that it could happen before.”

Noronen and CEO Sami Timonen were in that call, and their initial response was shock. With only about four months worth of cash on hand, they had to move quickly to explore their options. That same afternoon, they broke the news to the team. “I think it was received with mixed feelings,” said Noronen. “Those team members that had gone through those hard patches with us earlier were taking it quite calm as just another swamp to cross together. Some of the members who had only joined lately were a bit more nervous about the situation.”

The very next day, Timonen headed to GDC, beginning the process of meeting with publishers and trying to sell the project all over again. Four months, though, isn’t a great deal of time to handle negotiations on the scale required, Noronen explained: “We had to prepare lots of extra material for renewed plans and it usually needs to go through quite a lot of passes and approvals in publishing organizations, often also having requests to provide something additional.”

They considered buying some additional time by laying off some staff, but with negotiations seeming positive, they decided against that course of action. However, things didn’t go to plan. 

While the creative team of one of their prospective publishers championed Edge of War, the marketing team didn’t see things the same way. They requested “some major changes,” which the developers weren’t keen on and didn’t have time for, which brought an end to the negotiations.

Dealing With The Writing On The Wall

That could have been the end of the journey. Action Squad Studios could simply have shut up shop, its staff dispersing to other studios and other jobs. But after years of effort, they weren’t ready to simply let Edge of War die. In fact, they started planning contingencies when the contract was terminated, with the builds created to show publishers also intended to provide a path to an early access release if everything else fell through.

The final decision to make that the goal was made “just before the summer,” and the last two months was all about getting the game into a fully playable state. At the same time, management was updating the staff about their situation every week, ensuring that everyone was informed. 

Finally, launch day came and went. Landing during Gamescom and right between Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield with no prior marketing means that the game has struggled to find an audience. However, the reception has been generally positive, and Noronen says the support from players and fellow developers alike has been “heart-warming.” “I’m very touched and grateful for all that support,” he added.

For all that, it wasn’t enough to save Action Squad Studios. Formally, the studio is no longer operational. Informally, a group of five team members have pledged to continue working on the game in whatever spare time they can manage between their other jobs and obligations, with others considering coming back when they’re able.

That lack of certainty has massive implications for the future of Edge of War. Already, the expectation for a final release has been pushed from 2024 to 2025. There are also plans to engage deeply with the community to help determine what shape the game takes from here. “Currently we have not planned any major scope cutting,” said Noronen, “but are more in thought that we would rather keep on developing until it is done. I think that is also the only way for us to do it right now to ensure each of us developers can work at the pace that they find suitable, without having to sacrifice the rest of our life to work on this during [our] free time.”

Still, for this small, passionate team to bring Edge of War to Early Access simply because they believed in the project is a laudable achievement. It’s a unique game, with the Finnish folklore setting offering some novel twists on what’s possible with magic systems.

And beyond that, it sounds almost as if the game itself unintentionally reflects Action Squad Studios’ development journey. It starts off with the joy of exploration, “but later on gaining darker hues and having to make hard decisions and see things turn more grim.” More than that, though, Edge of War is intended to be another game like Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield and Crusader Kings, where the player’s journey is made up of stories we find and retell for ourselves. You can create those stories and support the continuing development by checking the game out on Steam.

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Image of Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn
Editor and Contributor of The Escapist: Damien Lawardorn has been writing about video games since 2010, including a 1.5 year period as Editor-in-Chief of Only Single Player. He’s also an emerging fiction writer, with a Bachelor of Arts with Media & Writing and English majors. His coverage ranges from news to feature interviews to analysis of video games, literature, and sometimes wider industry trends and other media. His particular interest lies in narrative, so it should come as little surprise that his favorite genres include adventures and RPGs, though he’ll readily dabble in anything that sounds interesting.