June 30, 2009 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[Another illuminating interview from Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield's recent trip to Finland, he talks to veteran studio Housemarque about the challenges -- and rewards -- of surviving as an indie in today's game market.]
Housemarque is the most venerable of Finnish game developers, having been around in some form or another since the 80s, and the era of the Commodore 64. The company was formed by a meeting of two Finnish developers, Bloodhouse, known for the Amiga shooting game Stardust, and Terramarque, which made a fighting game called Elf Mania among other titles.
The two merged to form Housemarque, which has gone on to do a wide range of work, from mobile games on the N-Gage and Gizmondo, to Xbox snowboarding games, to a downloadable golf title, and even a casual online world. Housemarque faltered for a few years.
It tried to establish itself as a PS2 developer, but created a demo that was too large to pitch in 2003, and indeed, worked with the Gizmondo and N-Gage platforms, which clearly never took off. Then, perhaps most famously, the company created Super Stardust HD on the PlayStation Network, and found itself back in the positive popular view.
As a company, Housemarque is currently working on two orginal IPs with publishers, and a third game to be self-published, called Rope, which Gamasutra covered in an earlier story.
In this interview, we talked to CEO Ilari Kuittinen about the company's Maya-based pipeline, in which they use the art suite as a game editor, as well as Housemarque's lack of producers, and the new push toward self-publishing.
Can you explain a little bit about your origins even before coming into games? It seems like a lot of people came from kind of demo scene areas.
Ilari Kuittinen: Yeah. My guess is I'm a bit different in a sense that I've always been on the business side of things. I had a friend, one of two friends, one of two guys who used to be doing Commodore 64 games in Finland. Back in the 80s, I happened to be a friend with this guy. So, there were two guys in Finland who got internationally published Commodore 64 games.
And then fast forward some six, seven, eight years, to the early 90s, he asked me to help him found a company which was called Terramarque, to help him out and do managing stuff and things like that. So at the time, I was a student of general history at the University of Tampere.
So, we had that thing going for a couple years, and then we found that, you know, we should combine some forces with a fellow Finnish company. It was called Bloodhouse and we found it 14 years ago. We combined, and come to this company now, which is known as Housemarque.
So, I'm here basically because I just happened to know somebody when I was a kid, and I ended up helping him, and I ended up being in this business, and in the process dropped out of university. But I haven't regretted it. I've had a ball, some interesting times with this job.
It seems like Housemarque has really tried to almost every game tackle a new genre.
IK: No, not really. [laughs] There are too many genres. But yeah, we've been doing quite a lot of different things. Our first game was a traditional shoot'em up game, Super Stardust on PC. But we at that point were doing point and click adventure as, well.
So, we did that inspired by... There were huge LucasArts fans inside the company, so they wanted to do that, and we did that. Then we got into doing another shoot'em up game, and then we went into extreme sports. We've had a lot of different ideas, but I think the most common nominator for all these games are that they are more action-oriented than strategy or RPG or things like that.
We haven't actually touched any strategy games or RPG games. We're mostly concentrating on the action side of things, although now we are doing a 2D physics puzzler so to speak, so I guess we're breaking our rules.
Going from snowboarding to golf to shooting to puzzle is kind of unusual for such a small company. And the casual social environment that you created.
IK: Yeah, I guess, you know, I wanted to do different things. And I guess it's all about opportunities as well as what you can do and what you're allowed to do.
You know, I presented to you our PlayStation 2 stuff that was never published. We never got the deal. That was action, a third-person action adventure game. So, I'm hoping to do something like that at least in the future, but let's see whether we get a chance to do that.
Were publishers usually commissioning a certain thing for you, or when you were doing these different kind of genres, were you pitching? The golf game with Activision, for instance
IK: We just pitched that to them. We had a green light, and we had a demo. There were two alternatives -- try to find some funding to do it on our own or have a publisher, and this ended up being a publisher-funded game.
I find it interesting because in companies that are not that big, usually they wind up trying to establish themselves in a single genre, but you guys have seemed like, "Well, what should we do this time?".
IK: Well, you know, that's not entirely true in a sense, but I guess it's about opportunities. What happened with us seven years ago is we were doing an Xbox snowboarding title. That was our second snowboarding that we had had done. We had done a PC snowboarding title three years earlier.
When we were pitching new ideas that were not actually sports or anything, people still viewed us as an extreme sports developer, even though we had a rich history of doing all kinds of stuff.
I guess because of that, we have had so many different things now since then that we tried to make happen. And now we are in a lucky position in a sense that we have sold two new original ideas to publishers. They are action-oriented games, but they are not particularly... They may involve some shooting elements or things like that, but the subject mater and the thematics are quite a lot different than what we've done in the past.
I think that what is common with those is that it should be quite tightly controllable action games. One of the expertises that I feel we have is to find out some sort of time, cadence, or timbre for the game that will get you into the flow of the game. So, that applies with snowboarding, how to design those things, or shoot'em up, or you know, some of the stuff we're doing right now.
What did you learn from that unreleased Trader demo for PS2? It seemed almost too complex for publishers to understand that it was just a concept. Was it a little misleading?
IK: I agree that we made it too long a demo. That we kind of learned, that we were trying to make a, you know, almost 10 minute long demo to go through. I guess part of the reason for doing that was that we were also back in the times of 2003 and 2004 doing that, we were viewed as capable of doing Xbox titles only.
So, we felt like we needed to prove that we could do the best possible PlayStation 2 technology as well, so that took a lot of time. I guess that was also sort of a mistake that we invested so much time in doing that. On the other hand, I don't know whether we would be here if we wouldn't have done some investments in technology back then, some of which we are still using anyway.
The direction we took with our production pipeline and switching from our own editor and using 3ds Max to using Maya and putting all the stuff on top of the Maya. In fact, Maya is our game editor right now.
The Maya Pipeline
Yeah, you mentioned that. It seems like... Certain studios have actually done that, but obviously it's not the most robust kind of editor. It can't really be used as a proper... You know, it's not an engine.
IK: It is not an engine, but the thing is that you can program it to do your own plug-ins, so different games from our golf game to Super Stardust are made with that. And two other games are going to be made with that. Rope uses some old editor stuff as well, but I think still we have proven ourselves.
We have done several other kinds of projects with the same approach, so it proves to us at least, that you can very impressive stuff with that, and it's really flexible. And if you miss something, you can add some more flags for instance, or these things that you can manipulate that environment. You can get a lot of data out, and you can use that in a game.
What other kind of benefits do you see for using Maya versus like creating your own full editor or using an off the shelf engine or something like that.
IK: I guess the main reason why we switched over to this Maya-based production line is that it felt like updating the editor was that big a task to do. We're not a big team, you know, 20 people strong here. On the other hand, Maya seems to be the kind of editor that is developing all the time. They have, I don't know, how many dozens or hundreds of developers updating that.
And also, to side-track myself for a moment, it's been used by the movie industry as well. At the time when we made the switch five years ago, it seemed that way, that you needed to have some sort of movie license attached with your project in order to make it happen.
So, we did our share of calling Hollywood studios and IP owners of some of the coolest movies we know that might do well. I think that was one part of it. Still, if you use an off the shelf engine, you will do quite a lot of work as well to adapt that to your system. We had a long history of doing sort of libraries, technologies, and engines, so it was felt that this was the best way to do it.
I assume there's also a cost issue because Maya is only a few thousand dollars versus an engine, which is several hundred thousand or so.
Ilari Kuittinen: Yeah, that's true. Of course, we have guys working on new technologies and tools and upgrading what we've got, so it's certainly a decision to the four guys all the time who update our tools.
As a studio that's 20 something people, how is it that you are making three games simultaneously?
IK: Well, the third one is quite a small one.
Rope, you mean?
IK: Yeah. It only takes one to three guys at any time to move forward. So, it's kind of a project that is going more slowly than the publisher products. So, then we have six to eight people per project, plus we are using some outsourcing to help us do the content. So, I guess that's how we can do it.
Even with that, two projects with 20 people is quite a lot.
IK: It is quite a lot, but I guess it is manageable because we do have years and years of accumulated technology and tools. On those, we have spent I don't know how many hours, and we have proven that they are working, and they are working very well. We can do state of the art stuff there.
So, I guess that's the main reason we don't have to concentrate on technology that much. Of course, we improve it. We might have some specific needs. What we view as the R&D track of development is always a bit separated... It of course benefits all the projects that are happening, and we are prioritizing our task based on the acute needs we have. But somehow, it seems to be working.
Working in Finland
And in the case of R&D, are you able to get funding help from (Finnish government organization) TEKES?
IK: Yeah, yeah. This is basically the, I don't know, not really the only, but one of the very few places you can have funding for a game development company like us. So, we have this national technological agency. It has been operating for 20, 25 years. I think they have been really helpful when it comes to the games industry.
It also helps of course to have subsidies to make something happen. You can plan those things on a much larger scale. Like we have been able to do much larger scare technology, at some point even overkill technology to take into account some of our future needs. Otherwise, without that funding, we wouldn't have been able to do that.
More generally, what do you see as kind of the strengths of game development in Finland and also like the weaknesses of it?
IK: I think we have very different kind of businesses here in Finland. I guess that's a bit of a strength here. We have console game companies, we have people concentrating on the digital side of it like us. But we (in Finland) also have online things going on. Some of them have already made some big success, some are up and coming. Then we have the mobile sector. So, there are many different things we do here. I think the general...
For some reason, I don't know what it is, Finns are pretty good at -- or you would say excellent -- with technology for some reason. I think we were one of the first to adapt and to use telephones for instance, like 19th century here in Helsinki. Somehow people started to have telephones for instance, or to use electricity in the city areas of Finland.
I think it might have something to do with our environment, that we need to have tools in order to survive our diverse environment or conditions, from spring to summer to autumn to winter. We need to have different kinds of tools in order to make our living and lives a bit better. That might be something to do with it.
There are some overall structural things. We are a quite well developed country. We have a good educational system in general, even though the gaming side isn't catered to yet. But there's an understanding that education is important, and that's why I guess we have this sector.
Our parents used to buy us computers because they knew that this should be the future, and that's how we got that generation of people who got into demoscene, play with the computers, and use all the dark nights of wintertime to do that. It wasn't warm outside so that you could go surfing or snowboarding. It was snowy and dark, and you wouldn't really want to go out at the time. You'd be eaten by the wolves. [laughs]
It's funny, it kind of creates a nation of indoor kids.
Ilari Kuittinen: Yeah, that's true. On the other hand, at one point, I don't know how it is at the moment... There was, I don't know, out of the top 100 snowboarders in the world, I think 30, 40 were out of Finland. And that's really funny that a really huge portion of that was training on a very small hill. It has been documented.
There's a really small, small hill there, and there was a group gathering... It's a bit the same with demo groups. You have a group of people and they gather some expertise and it spreads around. It started to be a sort of culture that you want to get into. You see all the guys doing these wonderful tricks, and you as a kid try to do that afterwards. I think it's the same thing with every expertise-based subculture. It's like I saw the documentary of how skateboarding was done.
What would you say are the difficult points of development in Finland.
IK: I think the main difficulty has been finding venture funding for our games. I think it has been better for these newer opportunities like mobile gaming companies or online gaming companies. But for more traditional companies, it has been a bit hard. The culture of investing in new companies is really new. It hasn't been around here for more than 15 years.
There hasn't been that many, you know, software entrepreneurs, for instance, who would be investing in second round, you know, second generation or third generation companies. All these entrepreneur things here in Finland related to software or related to knowledge space are pretty young. It's a new thing. So, I guess that's why it hasn't grown... You know, the game industry hasn't grown as fast as it might have grown, but it has grown considerably since 15 years.
I think one of the other challenges is to find good people. And I mentioned that there's not that much education support specifically tailored for games or game development. I think that's our biggest challenge, being a factor that has slowed our growth as an industry here already a few years, these past few years. So, that's now the challenge.
I've noticed some companies like Recoil hire people from outside Finland sometimes. If they need to, you know, expand in a certain area, they may have to look outside of the borders.
IK: Yeah. We hired our first foreigner here earlier this year, so it's slowly happening with us as well. [laughs]
Becoming a Boutique Publisher
In terms of moving into trying to become a boutique publisher, does that add any management overhead? Does it change the way that you have to do anything? Or has the way that the game industry has changed, has that meant that you don't actually need to change because if you can distribute it yourself, there's maybe not that much that you have to alter?
IK: I'm sure there's going to be changes for sure for us as well. We need to take care of the marketing and PR and meet journalists more, which we don't do because typically we've worked on publisher-funded and externally-promoted projects.
Actually, we haven't been able to do any PR because there's always this marketing department, and you need to go through them, and all our contracts are forbidding us from being directly in contact with journalists. So, that's definitely going to change. Of course, that's quite a lot of work for management.
I think that there should be in the future more people taking care of these publishing aspects of things, that's for sure. But on the other hand, you know, it's all about how many channels you really want to cover. The more you want to cover, the more you might need to have things like producers here, which is a title that we don't really use at the moment here.
There is no producer guy in that sense at Housemarque at the moment. Because we are smaller, people are using quite a few different hats. So a game designer might be helping with business development and the business meetings, for instance.
IK: So, it gives us a... I think it has depth. Me telling all the details of game design of a certain game, I wouldn't be able to do that probably. So, it's helpful to have a game designer that pitches the product, for instance.
Do you see the future of your company being split between self-publishing and developing sort of for other publishers? Or do you hope to go entirely to self-publishing?
As far as short-term or mid-term, I think we would continue doing both. So, doing some titles for publishers, and on the other hand trying to get our own games out there and hopefully grow a bit more so we can do those ideas we have been taking years and years, and find out the new ones. I guess it's both ways right now, it feels like that.
Of course, it might be in the future restricted into doing only first-party or things like that, but what we have been pretty much doing is to do only games that are based on our own ideas, so we haven't had been doing that much contract work or doing like renewing some old IP into a new game. We haven't been doing that, and we haven't been pitching toward that area that much.
Are you planning to do any kind of larger scale stuff as well?
IK: Yeah, well I think we're going to see that these games are getting bigger and bigger all the time, so I think we hope to grow with that process. For instance, budgets for our current games are twice as much as they were for the first batch of games we did for publishers. So, there's some growing there in that those games are getting publishers.
I think that in that sense, we are going to be doing some bigger games that are taking a bit longer in time or taking a bit more resources. We haven't really decided whether we'll go back to pitch retail games or $10 million plus products yet. I think it's a different kind of ball game that we kind of had a hard time doing at one point.
And it takes quite a lot of effort to even do the pitch document. With that money, we might even be able to get some games out of the door of our own, instead of just investing in pitch materials.
Do you think that it's even important to make those kind of triple AAA games because it seems like the market for those... The risk is much higher anyway.
IK: Yeah, I think the risk and reward ratio is totally different with these games. I would say that... Let's say Sony says, "Hey, here's a lot of money, and we would like you to do this and that, and you had that whole idea, whatever, Trader. Let's do that." I don't think we could say no. But we've been enjoying doing these smaller scale games anyway.
So, it might be that we end up being in this space as one of the leading publishers [laughs], boutique publishers at least, doing these things, and trying new things when we have the freedom to that. It might be that we don’t feel the pressure at all to make any sort of bigger multimillion, ten million budget plus games.
It's been an interesting ride so far. I just see that there's a... We are at the right spot at the right time now. Previously, we started some of the initiatives a bit early. We started our internet game back in 95, late 95, early 96. So, I would say 8, 10 years too early. We spun off a mobile gaming company late 99.
So, again, I feel that now, ten years later, it would be time to get into that. Like, iPhone is the first viable platform really. So, I think this downloadable thing, I think we're quite early on.
Yeah, but not too early this time.
Ilari Kuittinen: Not too early. Not too early. Not five years or ten years too early. It seems to be there's business already available, and the business model is pretty understandable.
As people get used to it, I think it will get better and bigger. It seems like all the people are not used to buying games like that yet, but I'm sure that it's going to be the majority of gamers who are going to get some of their games at least through that.
But I think that having Stardust HD out so early was probably really helpful.
IK: Yes, certainly.
And, you know, people are still buying it to some degree. A lot of games that came out that had the dual thumbstick control right after Geometry Wars, everybody wanted to do it. But yours is a little different but also based on an IP that existed already.
Ilari Kuittinen: Yeah, in a sense, it was funny. We actually didn't even think that it would be called Super Stardust.
IK: No, it was pitched as such, but, you know... Somehow, Sony wanted to have that. We were like, "Okay, we don't mind." It was interesting. Actually, when we looked back, we were a bit lucky as well. Well, you create some of your own luck, I suppose. You create some of the opportunities.
But afterwards, when we found out how many dual stick games were coming into the market, we were a bit confused later on that, how on earth they decided to get another dual stick shooter. But I guess they haven't regretted that at all.