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