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Starbreeze CEO: 'I see myself as a janitor more than anything else'

Studio head on Syndicate, Darkness 2 and its unannounced PSN game

Starbreeze is responsible for FPS classics Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness, and is now heading up a 2012 reboot of Syndicate with EA.

But did you know it's also secretly working on a digital game for PSN? Our colleagues at PSM3 recently tracked down studio head Mikael Nermark to talk Syndicate, future plans and what on Earth happened to that Bourne game...

So it must be great to finally talk about Syndicate. You've been working on it for what... three, four years?

Zoom

Yeah this is the fourth year and yes, the whole studio - including myself - is going, 'Finally!' Finally we're actually doing this and there's actually a firm date that this is going to happen and seeing you guys this morning, I saw the people - the staff - go, 'Phew, it's actually going to happen this time!' I mean, we've been working on it for so long and people want to be able to talk about it.

It's a push for the whole studio. People are like, 'Let's make this happen, let's make it shine and let's make it great.' When you can see the light at the end of the tunnel you go, 'Yeah, hell yeah'.

With today's games press it's difficult to keep any secrets - and there's been talk of Syndicate since 2008. Do you think it's possible to keep anything truly secret nowadays?

I think it's impossible to keep stuff under wraps. I don't think people want to do it out of trying to mess with the studio, but people move around, you accidentally say something and yeah, I think it's impossible to keep stuff under wraps. I know exactly what all the studios in Europe are doing right now - that's the way it is.

And I think it's the same for them. Personally I think we're too careful. But the relationship we have with EA, that's their call when we're supposed to say something and that's what we stick to. I think we should disclose things a lot earlier than we do.

You're now working on Syndicate. In Stockholm, DICE is doing Battlefield 3 and Avalanche is expanding as well. Do you think this is a golden age for Swedish game devs?

Golden age? I don't know if I'd go that far, but there's a lot of talented people from a technical standpoint. Even before videogames, Sweden was really heavily invested in technology - look at Ericsson and companies like that. We have a long tradition of engineering. And when videogames started coming about, people started moving into that. I think a lot of talent and a good working environment makes it possible for people to grow.

And I think definitely looking at DICE - the best studio in Sweden today - I mean look at what they've done, what they've sold, the products they do. They were really early out and they were successful early, which put them on the map. Starbreeze has been around for 12 years, so we've done a few games, which
is really good - and I think you can build from that.

Zoom

And you have Ubisoft Massive in Malmö . As a country we have a lot of different schools supporting us, which brings in new talent. So we basically have everything except the government support and money [laughs].
Unlike Canada, any studio in the Nordic region is about 25-30% more expensive, because we don't have that level of support.

So how different is the Starbreeze of today to the one that began 12 years ago?

I think it's a different company, but even when Starbreeze set out we decided we were only going to do AAA projects - story-driven, singleplayer experiences. Starbreeze today, we don't talk about 'this is the genre' or 'this is the kind of game we want to make' - we don't think of games in that sense.

We think, 'What kind of experience can we give the player?' If you're going to play for eight-20 hours inside a game we made, it has to be an awesome experience, because we take you away from your kids and your loved ones, right? So we have to build a quality experience for the player, so they leave the room saying, 'This was money well spent, time well spent'.

I think that's a different outlook on how you make games. I think many studios assume tech makes games, but that's not how we see it. We think people make games. I think that's a big, big difference in how you approach stuff.

So the ethic of Starbreeze is very much a team effort, as opposed to one person with a vision filtering it down?

Zoom

Yes. It's very much a team effort. We don't have an executive team that does everything, sitting above people who only do what they tell them to. We try to give ownership to everyone in the team and that's why we, depending on where we are in the project of course, build cross-disciplinary paths.

So, say you have a set of guys who are responsible for a specific part of the game: they have to buy into that. And if they do, they have to make it to a certain quality bar that we set. We do have an executive board that looks at everything before it's sent off to EA - it's myself, a couple of senior producers and senior creatives. But we want everyone to be part of the creation. Our creatives run things, not the production guys.

Going back to some of your other projects, which was the best game you've worked on, aside perhaps from Syndicate?

I haven't been at Starbreeze more than 18 months, so I didn't work here during The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness, but what I've been told is that Riddick was the success story. They made a really good game and it's something that brings out the essence of what Starbreeze used to be. And that essence was something we kept and built the modern Starbreeze from.

If you asked people who worked at Starbreeze at that time, they would tell you Starbreeze was about to go under, and people who were laid off worked - crunched - even though they knew they didn't have a pay cheque to look forward to. So they brought about a sort of team spirit, which we kept to bring us to where we are now.

If you look back at The Darkness... this was a launch title on PS3 and I think - because of that spirit - we wanted to do too much with it. We have five Darkness powers. One you only use once, right? We really wanted to go big and really make an impact, and I think we did in some ways - a small studio doing a launch title on PlayStation 3.

Unfortunately they [2K Games] printed too few copies, so after two weeks you couldn't get the game. You couldn't buy the game. So working with guys like EA, they wouldn't make that mistake, but other publishers can.

Zoom

Personally, I made a game called Bionic Commando Rearmed. That was the funniest part of making games in my career, because it meant going back to a small team. Compared to 100 people working on a big game, this was 12 people doing a small game. It's so much fun because everyone can be part of it.

Avalanche is making Renegade Ops with a splinter team while the rest work on something else... Would you consider creating a PSN project?

We are actually doing it. Right now. That's why I couldn't walk you round floor six [laughs]. We have a self-financed thing going on up there...

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