Into the woods
How can dropping developers into the middle of nowhere be good for the game industry? Stugan has the answer
Why do indie developers pine for an isolated cabin in Sweden?
Who in their right mind would spend two months in the Swedish wilderness, with just a bunch of indie game developers for company and epically vast deciduous forests for a backdrop? Lots of people, apparently, if the Swedish nonprofit project Stugan (‘the cabin’) is any indication. But even though many want to sample the delights of the Swedish back country, few are chosen. Those who are get to enjoy local home cooking, falling stars, evening dips in the lake, an awful lot of boardgaming, and, if they’re lucky, the Northern Lights.
The Stugan accommodation is quite large, comprising several buildings, situated at the edge of an abandonedfor-the-summer ski resort. Its isolation, though, is no exaggeration. The radio cuts out as we approach, and it won’t be back again until we leave. Thank goodness for landline broadband. It’s lunchtime when we arrive at the cabin, Bäverhyddans Värdshus (Beaver Lodge Inn), just outside the tiny township of Bjursås. Today’s fare is traditional: homemade meatballs and potatoes. The atmosphere is one of quiet, contented concentration, and the conversations around tables mostly revolve around solving tricky programming issues, or the awesomeness of last night’s falling stars, as viewed from the top of a nearby hill.
Stugan is a game accelerator, a project started by Swedish game industry veterans to help budding developers get started, and in some cases get around to finally finishing their games. The isolation and the company of likeminded people is supposed to encourage them and let them focus on their work, free from the distractions of everyday life. It’s all held together by project manager and sponsor Jana Karlikova, who handles the dayto-day business of keeping people fed and happy during their eight-week stay.
“The idea came from Oskar Burman and Tommy Palm,” Karlikova tells us. “They have both worked in the game industry for many years, and wanted to help new developers get into the business, and to build a network. And since many people in Sweden have a small cottage where they can relax and be inspired by nature, what better way to do it than by placing everyone in a classic red cottage with white corners, out in the middle of nowhere?”
This is the second year Stugan has brought to Sweden indie development teams from all over the world. But as beautiful as the location is, right in the middle of an old copper-mining district, it’s clear that this is no holiday. When we visit, we find developers toiling on puzzle games; a semi-autobiographical title centred on the war in Yugoslavia; and even a game about relationships between tiny cats. There are regular presentations, where teams can help each other with specific issues or simply be inspired by each other’s work, while guests from the wider development community drop in frequently to share their expertise.
In the main building, where everyone meets to eat and work every day, small teams are crammed into every nook and cranny, and what at first seems to be a broom closet turns out to be the working space for two teams who happily show off what they’re working on. Laura Yilmaz and Michael Fallik from Los Angeles turn their screens around to show us scenes from their game Thin Air. The clatter of keyboards here is ever-present, and it’s invigorating to walk through a space where everyone is clearly focused on producing their best work, while also looking somehow relaxed. These developers are happy to be here, but many didn’t make it. How were the lucky few chosen?
“The participants were chosen based on several criteria,” Karlikova explains. “Not least the 90-second presentation video they all sent in with their application. We tried to achieve a good balance between different genres, backgrounds and nationalities – and, of course, between men and women. We have people who have just started developing games, and we have people who have worked on several games already.
“We have 13 teams here this year, 21 people in total, from 14 different countries. We had about twice as many applications this year as we did last time. This was planned as a yearly thing from the beginning, and we’re hoping to do Stugan 2017 as well.”
The project’s rise in popularity since the first iteration a year ago has seen it ramp up all round. Stugan now has a
“We try to achieve a balance between different genres, backgrounds, nationalities, and men and women”
resident reporter, who produces YouTube videos to promote what’s happening here – not that the project seems in need of much promotion throughout the local development scene. Stugan’s list of sponsors and mentors reads like something of a Who’s Who of Swedish gaming luminaries, featuring the likes of Fredrik Wester (Paradox), Karl-Magnus Troedsson (DICE) and Jens Bergensten (Mojang). This is a group of people with intrinsic links to Sweden’s success story, establishing its position as a region that constantly punches above its weight.
“Finding sponsors and mentors has not been a problem,” Karlikova says. “Many people in the industry are happy to help out and, of course, come up here to give talks and help the teams. Most of them actually don’t seem to want to leave after seeing the place and feeling the positive energy!”
On the face of it, Stugan feels a little too idealistic. Where is the catch? What do the founders and the many supporters of Stugan get out of all this? Do they own a piece of the games created here?
“This is a completely philanthropic project, and we want to give something back to the industry,” Karlikova explains. “We believe that we’re helping not just the people who come here, but by extension the entire game industry. All the participants are required to do, once selected, is buy a ticket to Stockholm – we handle everything else. We provide food, room to work and sleep, and, of course, the great, distraction-free location. And the teams naturally retain ownership of their work, which is kind of unique.”
After talking to many of the people who have chosen to spend their summer away from civilisation to work on their dream projects here, we see that Karlikova’s claims stand up. We hear the same things again and again: that coming to Stugan has enabled these developers focus on projects and get help from each other, while at the same time making new and valuable friendships among likeminded people. At the time of our visit, it’s been a little over five weeks since the group arrived, and a tight-knit community has evolved. Several attendees talk about specific instances when they hit a wall and were offered either direct help from one of their fellow Stuganeers (the semiofficial name for the participants) or simply a different perspective that helped them work things out for themselves.
“I mostly work out of my bedroom [at home],” says Tom Francis, who’s here to focus on his new game, Heat Signature. “I get stuck very easily, as I’m not really well suited to programming. I was going a little bit mad on my own, but it’s so much easier to deal with problems when there are other people around. Not only for direct help, but also so that when you think you’re an idiot and will never fix this code, you can see that others have the same problems. Every now and then I have a problem that takes me seven days to fix, but when I mentioned one of those problems at the daily meeting here, I instantly got help fixing it.”
It works, then. That’s the lasting impression of our visit. Stugan gathers ambitious, fresh and hungry indie developers together, away from the world’s many distractions. It allows them to cooperate, critique each others’ work, and get fresh sets of eyes on the inevitable hurdles they encounter. It feels inspirational – a progressive way of making sure that most, if not all, of these games see the light of day, rather than being pushed to one side or forgotten about when the going gets too tough. Last year’s results certainly look promising. From the teams that spent the summer at Stugan 2015, Data Realms’ Planetoid Pioneers is in Steam Early Access, Clint Siu’s hard-to-Google mobile title _PRISM has been released, and the promising 20,000 Leagues Above The Clouds from Swedish studio That Brain is close to completion. By the time you read this, we might already know if this year will be as successful. As we prepare to leave, Stugan 2016 is looking towards its grand finale at the Museum Of Technology in Stockholm on August 27. After that, the organisers plan to maintain Stugan as an annual event, and at its current location. Several other countries have expressed an interest in bringing the concept to their shores, but according to Karlikova, Stugan is destined to stay in the Swedish woods. For now, at least. There really can’t be too many of these little red cabins in the world, after all.
“It’s a completely philanthropic project, and we want to give something back to the industry”
Project manager and sponsor Jana Karlikova
The atmosphere may be informal on the whole, but Stuganeers are encouraged to meet frequently in order to share ideas and collaborate on solving problems