Into the woods

How can drop­ping de­vel­op­ers into the mid­dle of nowhere be good for the game in­dus­try? Stu­gan has the an­swer

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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

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