For decades, every game was a unique snowflake. Teams started from scratch every time, reinventing the wheel with every game, as each one required a new engine, new art, new everything, and that all had to happen before the designers got to the part where they made a fun game. Times are changing, though, and the craft has advanced enough that third-party developers can specialize in art, physics or engine design, and enterprising game companies can focus entirely on the hard part: actually making a good game.
While any change in the way an industry works meets some resistance, Finland’s Remedy Entertainment, maker of the Max Payne series and the upcoming Alan Wake, has embraced the new model, and Remedy’s Production Lead, Lasse Seppänen, is one of the people in the thick of these changes. Lasse is well-traveled, counting 10 years in the gaming industry, as everything from a designer to producer, senior producer and head of studio. Remedy hired him two years ago, he said, to provide the team with more structure.
Remedy’s team is unique: It’s smaller than most, with only 32 people on staff, all of whom are senior or highly experienced. According to a presentation at GDC, Remedy focuses on keeping the team small and engaged, which keeps them nimble and able to change direction to whatever makes for the best game. “Every team member is focused on shipping a masterpiece,” reads one bullet point, while another reads, “No politics, no egos, no empire building, no nonsense.”
The building block of this approach, according to Seppänen, is the organization. “You can do a lot of Dilbert stuff in my area,” he says, “unnecessary bureaucracy and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, it’s really all about taking the right people to the positions and letting them run with the ball. I think that’s very, very key to my approach.” Much of this work is tricky, as those coming from hands-on fields like programming or art may not have management experience or training, and they need to be groomed into the role.
What lets them keep their team small and focused is the rise of outsourcing and middleware companies that lets Remedy license, say, an engine or physics package, rather than building a team two or three times larger to cover old ground. Seppänen says outsourcing isn’t just a matter of lowering costs. “We are a very quality-oriented company. We put a lot of work into it before we start the outsourcing round.” He walks me through the process, using car models as an example. “We would first make a car ourselves, and figure out what we want to do, what the limitations of the technology are and how we work with them.” Remedy figures out exactly what it wants and then builds a model as an example, while also providing two documents. The first is a technical document, and the second is a creative briefing with examples of cars the team might use as a basis for the model.
Seppänen says there’s one very important rule he abides by when they start looking at those potential partners. “We only work with outsourcing companies that don’t create their own games,” he says. “There’s a big temptation to have your best people on [your game], and then the juniors on the outsourcing, and that shows in quality.” There’s another benefit, too, in that a company focused on outsourcing is used to working with other people. “Their processes tend to be very good. … They’re used to dealing with external people, and they can push the time it takes for asset [delivery] down. And they may even have libraries of assets, like a lot of cars that they can pull from really fast.”
Once it’s narrowed the field, Remedy sends out the package – the documents and sample model – and waits to see what it gets back. Sure, the team is looking for a good “pilot” car as an example of the company’s work, but Remedy’s also evaluating the company itself, he says. “We look at how they deal with it, what kind of questions they ask. Even though we put a lot of effort into the documents, they’re not perfect. Never. There are always questions. So, if someone’s not asking any questions, that’s a warning sign. [We look at] how they deal with [us], do they keep us informed, do they send us work in progress?” And, naturally, they look at the result, too, how it looks, how it fits in the game, whether it meets the specifications they set out. “And that’s like the holistic package of how we can evaluate which company we want to work with.”
Working with third parties allows Remedy to take a different approach to development. “We tend to work on all fronts simultaneously, and do it all iteratively,” Seppänen says. Rather than waiting to develop the art until they have the game completely defined, they’re able to start work on it right away, “so, our graphics start to look pretty from the start, but there’s not much of it,” because a lot of the game is still undefined. “We try to get to a position where we have something running, and then work from that … because it’s so much easier to reach consensus if we have 30 people, [and they can] sit it on the screen, try it, [and] figure out what needs to be done next. It’s kind of an exploratory process, especially when we’re working on a new IP.”
They take this approach because they want to “create something really, really new, and really push the boundaries on multiple fronts simultaneously.” For Alan Wake, they want to build a beautiful world, but they also want it to be very open and free-roaming, while telling a cinematic story. He describes it as “research and development, in a sense,” which “requires fast moves. Today, we might be going west, but tomorrow, we might be going north.” A larger team can be a hindrance when you’re trying to move quickly, he says. A team of 80 has what he calls “implementing staff, which are 3-D modelers or level designers. … And these people, to be effective, they really need to have something specified. So, you would need a long queue of things for them to do.” When you’re still exploring what you want to do with the game, “you don’t actually know what they’ll be working on next week. You actually waste a lot of money if you try and explore with those kinds of teams,” he says.
The rise of middleware means Remedy can stay small and agile, while making a game that might be better than one they could make in-house. “I think Havok is a perfect example,” he says. “Today, it would be crazy … to write your own physics module.” While it was common several years ago to write your own physics, today it’s unlikely you’ll compete with the top packages, and you’ll have to fund a much larger team to build out your own physics engine. He also called NaturalMotion‘s Euphoria system “very interesting,” adding, “We are not using it at the moment, but that’s something I can clearly see is the way of the future,” partly because it’s a good engine, and partly because something like Euphoria can replace a lot of animators. This seems to be a natural progression for the industry, he says, and while he wasn’t authorized to tell me exactly what middleware Remedy was licensing, he was adept at discussing the various packages and how they fit into their overall development strategy.
The reasons for changing the development model into a more distributed one are numerous. For one, he says, “There are only so many great physics programmers in the world, so if every company tried to hire some of them, you would end up in a situation where you would have a few, but nobody would have a critical mass of, like, physics programmers.” In that case, it makes sense, in an industry-wide sense, to focus all those programmers on making a single great physics platform, rather than half a dozen good ones.
The second factor, he says, is “games are getting so complicated and so demanding that you need specialists for each area.” While 10 years ago, a small team could handle all the physics, animation and programming you’d need to make a game, to compete with the big boys today, you need either a huge in-house staff working on each area, or to license from someone who spends their time doing nothing but physics, animation or programming.
Part of what makes a great game, though, is a unified vision. Play a Blizzard game, and you know it’s a Blizzard game in everything from the story to the visual look of the world to the silly things units say when you torment them too much. I asked him how Remedy keeps its own unique vision, with a game assembled by so many third-party pieces. “I think it’s actually easier when we have the components from the outside,” he said, “because those components are well-known, and we can just analyze them, and we can just lay out what their limitations are.” The real key, he says, is their small team. “We have few enough people to have a conversation and reach consensus.” Keeping a unified vision is possible, he says, when the team is small enough to fit in one room, which is what their small and agile approach is all about.
Shannon Drake rides a polar bear to work.