Starbreeze CEO: 'I see myself as a janitor more than anything else'
16th Nov 2011 | 11:26
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?
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.
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?
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.
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...
And do you see more publishers, more developers doing that in the future?
I think more developers will do it in the future but, for us being a AAA studio, we have to understand how to utilise the new medium, so to speak, and understand that we have to build a game for the PSN instead of trying to do a big game. I think that's the hardest part for us - to adjust when we're doing the small stuff. Because as a studio, we think big.
We can't be that big when we're making a PSN game. A big game can be anything between 120 to 200 staff, whereas a small project is one tenth of that, so you have to be able to understand how you handle your resources.
But yeah, I love what Avalanche are doing with [top-down PSN game] Renegade Ops . I think that looks really good. The benefit of a small team, as I found out on Bionic Commando Rearmed, is that everyone has ownership. You can sit all ten people in one room, you don't need a whiteboard, project management tools... you hardly need a producer [laughs]. Okay, you need a producer, but you let the creatives run it and have a producer overseeing, making sure you hit goals. That's all. You don't lose a lot of time to nonsense. I think you understand what I mean... [more laughter].
The biggest team I ever worked with was 167 people. I had to have ten people in the management group, so I had an executive producer, then I had a producer handling the project - but he didn't talk or handle any production questions, so he'd have a little bunch of associate producers who actually handled the teams, and they had a lead... and the lead had 37 people working for him, so he didn't spend any time on the project because he had to manage these people.
But he had to have two seniors... Yeah, you know what I'm getting at. Too much management was necessary, but it's so refreshing to sit in a team where you don't have to have all those different levels. If you work, you see progress and... [pause] I was about to say something secret... [laughs].
Can you be more creative with these smaller passion-projects?
I wouldn't say more creative. Let's say this: if you work for a big studio you do the big games, but you know you're part of a team of 150-200 people. If you work in that company you could end up as the 'eyebrow' guy. Or the 'tree' guy.
And yeah, you work on all these great games, but all you've done is trees, right? In small teams you have to do so much. You're more of an integral part, so I think it brings more fun to it. More fun brings passion, passion brings quality. And quality hopefully brings high scores and good sales. So I think you're more directly involved in what you do.
What happened to the Bourne game?
You have to ask... I can't comment on that.
Was that an EA decision, as opposed to a Starbreeze thing?
I can't even comment on that .
Starbreeze did a great job on The Darkness. How do you feel about the project moving to Digital Extremes?
I think they're doing a fantastic job. I was fortunate to run into the lead designer recently. I'd never met him before. We just walked by their stand at E3 and one of our guys happened to be wearing a Starbreeze shirt and we started talking. They're doing their own thing but I think they're making a great game . What I saw made me happy that they were doing the game. Of course we would have liked to do it but that's just the way the industry is.
What do you have to do to be a successful developer in 2011?
Be open-minded. And have fun. Of course you have to have a plan, but when it comes down to it you have to have fun. The guys hate me when I talk about it all the time, but I think you've got to have fun coming to work. If you don't, you're not going to do a good job.
Fun creates passion; passion creates quality. That's how I see it. I see myself more as a janitor than anything else. I provide an environment where people can actually do what they're supposed to, and don't have to deal with - again - nonsense.
They have to have something to drink. They have to be able to go to the bathroom. They have to have an environment where they feel comfortable, otherwise they have to think about and deal with that. I think that's the most important job I have. So coming back to what you need to be to be successful... you need to be open-minded to see where the market's going.
I think we're at a crossroads. The market's changed in the last six months more than it has ever done, so you have to be open-minded to see what's out there. And you need to work hard, like any other business, I guess.
Games are becoming very expensive to make, and the gap between the hits and the misses is widening. How do you deal with that as a developer?
It is tough. Every time we come back to our business plan we have to see where we want to be. You have to assess what kind of products you can or can't do. What you should and shouldn't do. The gap between the guys who are going to succeed - their development and market spend is going up - and the middle segment is... I wouldn't say disappearing, but I think it's definitely declining.
Where do you see Starbreeze in the future? It's Syndicate in 2012, and then...?
As I say, we have one project, which is self-financed. And right now, since we're working on Syndicate we can't bring anything else, we can't do anything else. We're a small studio - we don't have the manpower - but we're definitely looking at where to place ourselves when we're done with Syndicate. I can't really say too much about that but yeah, I'm certain that we're here for at least 20 more years.