Stu­dio Pro­file

The adapt­able Swedes with Just Cause to cel­e­brate 12 years of sand­box suc­cess

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

We visit Avalanche Stu­dios’ Stockholm HQ to cel­e­brate 12 years of open-world ex­cess

Things can get hairy pretty quickly in Avalanche Stu­dios’ Just Cause games, but the player al­ways has enough tools at their dis­posal to im­pro­vise a so­lu­tion – or, if all else fails, an es­cape route. And the de­vel­oper cer­tainly has plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence when it comes to wing­ing it. When Just Cause – then known as

Terror In The Trop­ics – was con­ceived, the newly formed stu­dio set up a meet­ing with Ei­dos, de­spite hav­ing noth­ing more to show than a short de­sign doc­u­ment. As a mat­ter of fact, it didn’t even have an of­fice. Co-founders

Christofer Sund­berg and Li­nus Blomberg hur­riedly put a plan into ac­tion, call­ing up old col­leagues and tem­po­rar­ily bor­row­ing of­fice space from a friend in a me­dia com­pany. “We ba­si­cally staged an of­fice with com­put­ers that weren’t even plugged into the wall,” Blomberg tells us. “We had our friends sit there and pre­tend [they were] work­ing as we quickly es­corted the Ei­dos del­e­ga­tion into a con­fer­ence room and pre­sented what would be­come Just Cause. It was four pages, on pa­per – not even a Pow­erPoint.”

Hardly ideal cir­cum­stances, then, but the same could be said for Avalanche’s for­ma­tion. Sund­berg and Blomberg had been forced into such des­per­ate mea­sures, hav­ing dis­solved pre­vi­ous ven­ture Rock Solid Stu­dios af­ter a year when the pub­lisher it had been work­ing with went un­der. “We used to say that was the best thing that could have hap­pened to us,” Blomberg re­calls. “It was such a good learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to be forced to put a com­pany out of busi­ness [be­cause] we ended up promis­ing our­selves to never rely on just one client, be­cause you’re so much in the hands of what hap­pens to them.” Be­ing per­son­ally li­able for the taxes, the co-founders were plunged into debt, and the only way out they could see was to start afresh. “Most peo­ple would prob­a­bly say that’s en­tirely crazy based on what had just hap­pened,” Blomberg con­cedes, “but for us the only way out was to get into it again and try one more time.”

The Ei­dos cha­rade was per­sua­sive enough for the pub­lisher to re­quest that the fledg­ling stu­dio as­sem­ble a pro­to­type within six months. Again, it had to adapt us­ing the lim­ited re­sources it had at the time. Avalanche re­tained some old tech demos from Rock Solid’s year in op­er­a­tion, but didn’t have the rights to use them be­cause the com­pany had been liq­ui­dated: it could only show them as a tes­ta­ment to its tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence. “We man­aged to con­vince some for­mer [Rock Solid] employees and friends to work for free more or less dur­ing this pe­riod,” Blomberg tells us. “Six months af­ter­wards we went to Lon­don and pre­sented it to the Ei­dos board. They were pretty much blown away. They said it was the best pro­to­type they’d ever seen.”

The com­pany’s strong tech­ni­cal back­ground un­doubt­edly helped. What Avalanche pre­sented to Ei­dos was a huge open world – which, at 64x64km, was four times the size of the fin­ished game’s is­land of San Esper­ito. “It was pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated to a very large ex­tent,” Blomberg says. “We had a char­ac­ter that could run around, shoot and drive a car, and some ba­sic sand­box rules, and that was pretty much it. But as a tech demo and a prom­ise of some­thing that could be spec­tac­u­lar, it really worked.” Ei­dos de­cided to fund the en­tire pro­duc­tion on the spot, en­abling Avalanche to hire those friends and for­mer col­leagues who had been work­ing on the pro­to­type, and give them a real of­fice and com­put­ers that were ac­tu­ally plugged in. Within the first year, the stu­dio ex­panded from eight to be­tween 16 and 20 employees. In the third and fi­nal year of de­vel­op­ment it scaled up once more, this time to around 40 full-time staff, some set to work on a fol­low-up be­fore the first game had even been re­leased.

If Just Cause was well re­ceived, the com­pany’s at­tempts to spread it­self across mul­ti­ple games didn’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. The global re­ces­sion had just started to bite, and pub­lish­ers were ei­ther scal­ing back or fold­ing en­tirely. THQ’s clo­sure was re­spon­si­ble for one bur­geon­ing project be­ing aban­doned; the other,

AionGuard, made it to the cover of E198 but was can­celled when its pub­lisher looked at its fi­nan­cial pro­jec­tions and struck a red line through it. For­tu­nately for Avalanche, the sit­u­a­tion wasn’t as dire as it may seem: yes, there were lay­offs, but it was paid for its time in both in­stances, and re­ceived ter­mi­na­tion fees that al­lowed it to re-hire as soon as a year af­ter dis­miss­ing staff. “Ac­tu­ally, if you look at our ac­count­ing, that was prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter years dur­ing that pe­riod,” Blomberg tells us with a smile. In­deed, Avalanche was savvy enough to ob­tain the rights to

AionGuard. “Pub­lish­ers weren’t tak­ing any risks and this was a new IP: they only wanted se­quels and safe bets, so we weren’t able to find a new home for it back then. But we still have the old demos, and it’s some­thing we would like to dust off at some point, when the op­por­tu­nity arises.”

One idea that did bear fruit was down­load­able ti­tle Rene­gade Ops, a 2011 part­ner­ship with Sega that be­gan as a joke dur­ing de­vel­op­ment of Just Cause 2. “We’d been work­ing on th­ese long projects with one or two big teams, and [some staff] wanted to work on some­thing smaller,” co-founder Christofer Sund­berg ex­plains. “We couldn’t really fig­ure out what that might be, be­cause it was hard to pitch those kind of games at that time – ev­ery­one wanted th­ese big, epic games. But then one day, one of our de­sign­ers flipped the cam­era in Just

Cause 2 to a top-down view and it ac­tu­ally looked very good. So we cre­ated a pitch and, all of a sud­den, that was Rene­gade Ops.”

Mean­while, the Just Cause 2 en­gine was re­pur­posed for free-to-play FPS The Hunter,

“THE EI­DOS BOARD WERE PRETTY MUCH BLOWN AWAY. THEY SAID IT WAS THE BEST PRO­TO­TYPE THEY’D EVER SEEN”

an idea the stu­dio had been kick­ing around since its for­ma­tion. “The tech­nol­ogy that Li­nus and his [team] had worked on was so amaz­ing, and we had this demo with a Swedish for­est that lent it­self to a hunt­ing game very well,” Sund­berg tells us. “Also,” Blomberg says, “Deer Hunter was at the top of the charts in the US at the time. And it looked like shit, to be hon­est. We were say­ing, if that’s top of the charts and we can do some­thing that looks much, much bet­ter, then maybe we can have a [num­ber one].” Avalanche worked on the game with a fi­nan­cial part­ner un­til the lat­ter ran out of money, but hav­ing se­cured the rights, it con­tin­ued to de­velop the game in­ter­nally. Launched as a closed beta dur­ing 2009, it has since grown into one of the stu­dio’s big­gest suc­cesses. A re­make, The Hunter: Pri­mal, was re­leased on Early Ac­cess last year, and Sund­berg is con­fi­dent about its long-term prospects: “It will definitely grow into a fran­chise, some­thing we can build on for the fu­ture.”

Once Avalanche had put the fin­ish­ing touches to Just Cause 2, it be­gan pitch­ing a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic open-world game to var­i­ous pub­lish­ers, with one in par­tic­u­lar tak­ing a keen in­ter­est. “We started talk­ing to Warner Bros, and our [con­cept] was a really good fit for what it wanted to do with Mad Max,” Sund­berg says. “We jumped at that op­por­tu­nity, and the rest is history.” It was the stu­dio’s first li­censed game, and the de­vel­op­ment process was longer and more com­plex than usual: God Of War II di­rec­tor Cory Bar­log was at­tached for some time but left, even­tu­ally re­join­ing Sony Santa Monica. Sund­berg, how­ever, re­jects the sug­ges­tion that this was any­thing out of the or­di­nary. “When it comes to li­censed games there are al­ways a lot of par­ties in­volved. I mean, I’m sure there are some peo­ple from Lu­cas­film who have things to say about what DICE is do­ing with its li­cence.

Mad Max wasn’t any dif­fer­ent. Cory was in­volved in the project in the very be­gin­ning and then he left. Our projects are gen­er­ally quite long, so a lot of peo­ple go through th­ese doors. So I wouldn’t say it’s un­usual. Though Mad Max for us was un­usual be­cause it was a li­cence, and un­til that point we’d fo­cused on orig­i­nal IP.”

By then, Avalanche had gone transat­lantic. In late 2011, it opened a new stu­dio in New York. “It doesn’t mat­ter how many Minecrafts and

Bat­tle­fields come out of Swe­den, we tend to be for­got­ten as this weird lit­tle coun­try up in the north [of Europe],” Sund­berg says. “For us as an in­de­pen­dent de­vel­oper it was eas­ier to se­cure new busi­ness if we had a pres­ence in the United States.” The idea had been floated for a while, but the need to ex­pand be­came more ur­gent when the stu­dio agreed to make Mad Max and the Stockholm di­vi­sion no longer had the ca­pac­ity to take on Just Cause 3 si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Sim­ple con­ve­nience made New York more ap­peal­ing as a lo­ca­tion than the busier de­vel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ties on the west coast – flights run daily from Stockholm and take just six or seven hours, al­low­ing Sund­berg and Blomberg to reg­u­larly fly over. “Li­nus just came back from a month in New York, and he stayed there for six months about a year ago,” Sund­berg ex­plains. “And I’m there at least a week ev­ery month. From a man­age­ment per­spec­tive, we’re there of­ten, but most im­por­tantly the team are con­nected – the de­sign­ers here are talk­ing to the de­sign­ers over there, and the tech teams are ob­vi­ously work­ing to­gether. It hasn’t been easy to have a re­mote stu­dio, but it’s definitely been a great de­ci­sion.”

Look­ing to the fu­ture, Avalanche’s co-founders be­lieve that hav­ing the op­tion for its teams to work in two dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions gives it a com­pet­i­tive edge. But it isn’t about to aban­don the de­sign ethos that has al­lowed it to thrive since the strug­gles of those first six months. “We don’t want to do ev­ery­thing at once,” Sund­berg in­sists. “That’s the mis­take that many stu­dios and pub­lish­ers make th­ese days – they’re pre­pared to bend them­selves over back­wards just to adapt to an in­dus­try that’s con­stantly chang­ing, and it’s bit­ing them on the ass sooner or later.” Rather than at­tempt­ing to fol­low trends and leave it­self open to fail­ure, Avalanche will con­tinue to fo­cus on ac­tion-packed open-world games that pri­ori­tise player free­dom. It will, Sund­berg says, en­deav­our to ex­plore new ideas, but will be rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive with its ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

There is, of course, noth­ing wrong with play­ing to your strengths. The stu­dio might never make “a ping-pong game or a cor­ri­dor shooter on Mars”, be­cause there are other de­vel­op­ers who can do that sort of thing bet­ter than Avalanche ever could. “We try to fo­cus on be­ing the best within the sand­box [genre] from ev­ery as­pect,“Sund­berg says. “From tech­nol­ogy to game de­sign to how we or­gan­ise our­selves in the stu­dio, ev­ery­thing is fo­cused around that.” He takes a bite from his lunchtime ke­bab and laughs qui­etly. “You don’t do heroin and co­caine at the same time.”

“DEER HUNTER WAS AT THE TOP OF THE CHARTS IN THE US AT THE TIME. AND IT LOOKED LIKE SHIT, TO BE HON­EST”

Avalanche co-founders Christofer Sund­berg (left) and Li­nus Blomberg em­pha­sise that they’re all about player free­dom

Avalanche moved a num­ber of staff from Stockholm in Swe­den to New York when the new stu­dio was set up. To­day, employees reg­u­larly travel be­tween the two of­fices. Staff usu­ally go to New York for short stays, but some have been liv­ing there for over two years

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