Stu­dio Pro­file

How the mak­ers of Max & The Magic Marker built them­selves a new stu­dio

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ALEX WILT­SHIRE

How Flash­bulb Games, the maker of Max & The Magic

Marker, built it­self a new stu­dio

The founders of Press Play needed just a month to open a new stu­dio af­ter Microsoft closed the doors on their first. They had to move fast. If they wanted to keep old col­leagues to­gether, they needed to grab them be­fore they dis­persed into new jobs else­where. But they al­ready had the fur­ni­ture from Press Play’s old of­fice – and all its IP, too.

Copen­hagen-based Press Play was the maker of a se­ries of su­perbly pol­ished and colour­ful games that em­braced physics and player cre­ativ­ity, start­ing with Max & The Magic

Marker, which launched on Nin­tendo’s Wi­iWare store in 2010. This plat­former asked play­ers to draw ob­jects into the game world with the Wii Re­mote and it went on to be re­leased on iOS, PlayS­ta­tion 3, PC and Nin­tendo DS. It was enough to at­tract the at­ten­tion of Microsoft, which bought the then 20-strong stu­dio in 2012.

“In a weird and non-indie way, we be­lieve that we will have more cre­ative free­dom with Microsoft Stu­dios than we have ever had be­fore,” the stu­dio said in its an­nounce­ment of the deal. While Press Play stayed small, reach­ing only 35 staff, it stretched to de­velop orig­i­nal games for Win­dows Phone and a se­quel to its de­but re­lease, Max: The Curse Of Broth­er­hood. It also at­tempted to em­brace the new wave of open de­vel­op­ment in 2015 when it placed de­vel­op­ment de­ci­sions in the hands of the pub­lic, putting three game con­cepts to an open vote.

Press Play never

com­pleted the win­ner, Project Knoxville. In March 2016, with just four days’ no­tice, Microsoft closed the stu­dio. Com­ing at the same time as Microsoft’s shut­ter­ing of Lion­head, Press Play was a vic­tim of ma­jor changes Microsoft was mak­ing to its gam­ing di­vi­sion, ex­plained in a way rather damn­ing to those on the re­ceiv­ing end of it. A state­ment read: “Th­ese changes are tak­ing ef­fect as Microsoft Stu­dios con­tin­ues to fo­cus its in­vest­ment and de­vel­op­ment on the games and fran­chises that fans find most ex­cit­ing and want to play.” Ouch.

“We al­ways knew an or­gan­i­sa­tion like this could make changes,” cre­ative di­rec­tor Mikkel

Thorsted tells us. “We knew it could hap­pen.” “I don’t think you can ask stu­dio man­age­ment to con­sider it for a month af­ter the de­ci­sion is made,” says man­ag­ing part­ner Rune Dittmer. “I don’t think there’s any­thing that should have been done dif­fer­ently.” And Flash­bulb’s founders say Microsoft made the clo­sure as pain­less as pos­si­ble, let­ting them re­tain the stu­dio’s IP, al­low­ing them to re­lease their Win­dows Phone games on An­droid and iOS, and okay­ing the forth­com­ing PS4 re­lease of Max: The Curse Of Broth­er­hood. They could also have con­tin­ued mak­ing

Project Knoxville. But at their new stu­dio, Flash­bulb Games, the three founders – Dittmer, Thorsted and head of pro­duc­tion Ole Teglb­jærg – wanted to make some­thing else. Trail­mak­ers is a physics­based build­ing game in which play­ers con­struct ve­hi­cles to ex­plore a large world, find­ing new parts and de­sign­ing them into new cars, planes and boats. They saw in the con­cept a game that fully em­braced open-stu­dio game de­vel­op­ment, re­leas­ing early, invit­ing feed­back; a sand­box game that wasn’t shack­led to a story, fea­tur­ing mul­ti­player and the emer­gent play that comes from let­ting play­ers ex­plore com­plex sys­tems.

“It was im­por­tant for us to do it ‘the mod­ern way’,” Thorsted says, “get­ting feed­back su­per early, get­ting out there with some real au­di­ences and try­ing to in­volve them, and also to val­i­date it. We had just come out of mak­ing [Xbox One puz­zle-plat­former] Kal­imba, which was a great game that re­viewed very well, but no­body seemed to care about it. Hav­ing done that, it was im­por­tant that we could val­i­date up front that we were work­ing on some­thing that would res­onate with an au­di­ence.”

Thorsted, Dittmer and Teglb­jærg have fol­lowed the in­dus­try’s many twists and turns. They founded Press Play back in 2006, hav­ing just grad­u­ated from univer­sity, in or­der to make Flash games. Flash was the indie scene back then, and the ease of pro­to­typ­ing suited the group’s in­ter­est in ex­plor­ing new me­chan­ics and de­vel­op­ing at a fast pace. They also learned how to work with clients. “To de­velop your craft you have to con­vince some­body that it’s a good idea and that they should pay you for it,” Thorsted says. “It helped us when we started at Microsoft; we were used to not hav­ing the fi­nal say. We al­ways knew how to work with peo­ple around us in or­der to make the games.” Press Play’s real strength lay in its abil­ity to mix prag­ma­tism with cre­ativ­ity. Dittmer says that one of the most valu­able lessons they learned as Flash de­vel­op­ers was how to fin­ish games and de­liver them. “Of course, qual­ity is im­por­tant, but we need to be able to fin­ish off what we do, and we’ve al­ways been good at that.”

They also had a tal­ent for tak­ing newly pop­u­lar con­cepts and us­ing them to make some­thing more ap­proach­able and game-like, as op­posed to toy-like. Max & The Magic Marker was in­spired by Line Rider and Crayon Physics – pop­u­lar 2D games that took play­ers’ scrib­blings and made them part of the game’s world. In sand­ing down the rough edges of the pre­cur­sors and ty­ing them to a beau­ti­fully pre­sented plat­former, they made some­thing new; some­thing that stood out on Wi­iWare, and still did by the time its se­quel came to Xbox One, where Max’s fam­ily-friendly ap­proach was boosted by first­party pro­duc­tion val­ues.

In many senses, Press Play is try­ing to do the same thing now with Trail­mak­ers. “With Max

& The Magic Marker, we de­vel­oped the draw­ing me­chanic and we’d sit around hav­ing fun mak­ing stacks of boxes and things, but that game be­came magic the day we put in the plat­form char­ac­ter, a guy you can be,” says Thorsted. “That’s the point it be­came a game and not just a sand­box, and it’s the same thing we want to

“QUAL­ITY IS IM­POR­TANT, BUT WE NEED TO BE ABLE TO FIN­ISH OFF WHAT WE DO, AND WE’VE AL­WAYS BEEN GOOD AT THAT”

do with Trail­mak­ers, mak­ing sure the sand­box is su­per fun and a place where peo­ple will spend a ton of time mak­ing weird things and ex­plod­ing them. For us it’s im­por­tant there’s char­ac­ter to the world, a theme and more classic game­play.”

“There’s a pur­pose and an ob­jec­tive to what you do,” con­tin­ues Dittmer. The games that

Trail­mak­ers is look­ing to­wards are PC sand­box construction games such as Ter­rat­ech, Scrap

Me­chanic and Be­siege. “We don’t nec­es­sar­ily add some­thing par­tic­u­larly new to that mix,” ad­mits Thorsted. In­stead, Flash­bulb’s aim is to ap­ply all the team has learned about broad ac­ces­si­bil­ity and world-build­ing. The game, which at the time of writ­ing is in closed al­pha, fea­tures Trail­mak­ers’ core mode, Ex­pe­di­tion, which gen­tly leads play­ers through the world by plac­ing new com­po­nents in such lo­ca­tions as the top of steep-sided hills, invit­ing them to in­vent a ve­hi­cle able to reach them. The new com­po­nent is of­ten then the key to get­ting to the next one, per­haps on a steeper hill.

But Flash­bulb has

most re­cently been work­ing on its mul­ti­player, which aims to blend the free­wheel­ing sand­box with di­rected ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Though play­ers will also be able to ex­plore to­gether, Flash­bulb’s fo­cus is on de­sign­ing dis­creet modes, in­clud­ing a king of the hill game in which play­ers de­sign ve­hi­cles to take the hill and hold it. But while their op­po­nents can re­design their ve­hi­cles to bet­ter op­pose it, the cur­rent king can­not, in­tro­duc­ing a push-pull com­pet­i­tive­ness built on player in­ge­nu­ity.

“We re­ally love the genre, but nor­mally the games in it are quite com­plex and you can get over­whelmed with pos­si­bil­i­ties,” says Thorsted. “All of a sud­den you feel you have noth­ing to do be­cause there’s ev­ery­thing! In­stead, we want a build­ing sys­tem that’s as sim­ple as build­ing with Lego and a world that clearly de­scribes for the player what they should do and what ob­sta­cles there are. We would like a game that has all the things we love from th­ese com­plex construction games, but we also want to bring it out to an au­di­ence that’s big­ger than the nor­mal construction-game au­di­ence.”

Flash­bulb is cur­rently look­ing to Steam for that au­di­ence, at least to start with, where Trail­mak­ers will re­lease in Early Ac­cess later this year. One of the group’s frus­tra­tions as a first­party Microsoft stu­dio was that they had no fully fea­si­ble plat­form for the games they wanted to make. “One of the great things about be­ing free to choose the plat­form is that we can just go where the au­di­ence for this kind of game is,” Dittmer says.

Project Knoxville was where they be­gan to feel the strain between their am­bi­tions and their bound au­di­ence, de­spite it hav­ing orig­i­nated in an at­tempt to bring Xbox play­ers into the de­vel­op­ment process. Knoxville was a third­per­son mul­ti­player sur­vival game with so­cial el­e­ments. Its arena-style 15-minute matches would see eight play­ers at­tempt­ing to es­cape an arena filled with dan­ger­ous en­e­mies. The hook, though, was that they could try to team up or com­pete with each other to win the match, bring­ing the com­plex would-they-wouldn’t-they ques­tions of game the­ory into dy­namic on­line play. Knoxville was just com­ing out of a dif­fi­cult pe­riod in its de­vel­op­ment when Press Play closed. The team had ported it from Unity, which it had used since the orig­i­nal Max & The Magic Marker, to Un­real, and they’d es­tab­lished a solid path for its fu­ture. But they were con­tent to leave it be­hind. In many ways, Trail­mak­ers – which was in fact one of the crowd-re­jected con­cepts – is closer to the team’s es­tab­lished style: less dog-eat-dog, more cre­ative.

But free­dom from Microsoft also means not be­ing able to take ad­van­tage of the first­party spot­light Press Play en­joyed at E3 and across Xbox’s mar­ket­ing. Hav­ing lived through the golden age of Flash, the rise of the indie scene and growth of dig­i­tal con­sole store­fronts, as a fully in­de­pen­dent stu­dio al­most en­tirely fi­nanced by Thorsted, Dittmer and Teglb­jærg them­selves, now they’re fac­ing the chal­lenge of be­ing yet an­other game among a pro­jected 5,000 that will re­lease on Steam this year.

How does a small stu­dio to­day with big am­bi­tions cre­ate the pub­lic aware­ness it needs? For Flash­bulb, it’s about start­ing small and grow­ing Trail­mak­ers steadily among hardcore play­ers, and then build­ing out, us­ing what the team has learned in the 11 years they’ve been mak­ing games, fo­cus­ing on qual­ity and then re­leas­ing it ev­ery­where, from con­soles to mo­bile. The road ahead is un­cer­tain, but then again, for this team, it al­ways has been. As such, Flash­bulb is the same stu­dio that Press Play al­ways was, with one key dis­tinc­tion. “It’s more ma­ture. Ten years more pro­fes­sional,” says Thorsted. “We say a lot about work-life bal­ance, and that’s ac­tu­ally not bull­shit at all. It’s su­per im­por­tant to us to have a place where peo­ple are happy and like each other and work great to­gether. The best prod­uct comes out of happy de­vel­op­ers.”

“WE SAY A LOT ABOUT WORK-LIFE BAL­ANCE, AND THAT’S AC­TU­ALLY NOT BULL­SHIT AT ALL. IT’S SU­PER IM­POR­TANT”

Flash­bulb Games’ found­ing group: (from left) Ole Teglb­jærg, Mikkel Thorsted, and Rune Dittmer

Flash­bulb’s stu­dio stretches the thin length of the fourth floor of an old build­ing in the cen­tre of Copen­hagen, a stone’s throw from Press Play’s for­mer head­quar­ters

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