Jerk Gustafsson and the machinery that goes into creating Wolfenstein and Indiana Jones
We celebrate the 13 years of the Swedish studio MachineGames and the 8 years of the new Wolfenstein.
The video interview below with MachineGames' Jerk Gustafsson was filmed on the eve of Wolfenstein: The New Order's 8th Anniversary and with the studio turning 13 years old. Therefore, we took the chance to both learn more about the company's history and its renewed working policies, and about the way they create games, which might be a good hint at how Indiana Jones and other future projects will take shape. Here's its transcription in full.
★ Gamereactor: How do you feel looking back at that project that obviously turned into a massive hit and it was your first project as a label, as a new studio? And what can you tell us about how that project came to be?
Jerk Gustafsson: Yeah, this was a pretty long time ago now, we started MachineGames in 2009, actually. When we started we were thinking, what are we going to do? What do we want to do? So, the first year basically we created a lot of game concepts and we tried to find publishers that wanted to work with us. So, I think it took about a year until we got deeper into the talks with Bethesda. We knew the guys from Bethesda since the Starbreeze days actually because we were talking to them at that time as well about doing a project. Obviously they were one of the publishers we really wanted to work with.
Then, I think this was early summer in 2010, they asked us: do you wanna come over and visit id Software and look at the new tech and see if you would be interested to work with id Software's tech in the future? So we went over to Texas and stayed there for a few weeks. We looked into the editor and the tools, etc. It was pretty good for us because we were so close to... Since a lot of us came from the Quake background we knew a lot about the tech, we knew a lot about how the editor works and how the id Engine worked in general, so we got up to speed very quickly, which was great.
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And then at that time also they asked us: do you guys want to do a Wolfenstein game? And obviously that was something that we were happy to do! (Laughs) It's a very classic IP and basically the father of FPS and we have always been a very strong first-person studio and have done this type of games. We felt it was a perfect fit for us. And obviously we were honoured as well to be able to do something with that classic IP. So, we basically adapted the foundation for the entire game during those weeks at id Software. We had a whiteboard in one of the conference rooms there, I actually have an image of that whiteboard still. Because we basically had the beginning of New Order up until the end, all the big beats, all the story beats were there. We developed that during those three weeks and that was also the game we shipped eventually, which is pretty cool.
[The picture of the white board is shown at the 3:20 time mark in the video] But, we came a long way, and of course it was very nice to meet all of our heroes from the Quake days as well, with Tim Willits and Kevin Cloud, etc. All of that was very exciting for us.
"We have done actually quite a lot to just make sure that we can create a healthy and a happy environment"
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★ We can talk about genres and how you guys whiteboard projects a bit later. But from that moment on you released four, five games. How can you be that prolific in less than 10 years without resorting to overtime?
(Laughs) I think the industry has grown up a little bit. Obviously 20 years ago, or even 10-15 years ago it was a lot more of these crunches and overtimes, but I think we have grown up and I think not only MachineGames, but the industry as a whole has grown up a little bit. We are also a bit older now (Laughs). People have families and we need to separate work from life outside of work as well. So, we have done actually quite a lot of work here at MachineGames to just make sure that we can create a healthy and a happy environment for the team, and it will always be an ongoing process. But we have made really good progress developing policies within the studio to help our staff to avoid these long hours and these extensive overtime periods.
As an example, we have limited office hours nowadays to make sure that people actually leave on time. There is also that people are passionate about the work they do, and we also want to maintain that passion, but I think we can be efficient and we can have that period that is so important when you try to finalise something where everybody works together as a team trying to work towards the same goal and you get that boost even without adding extra hours. You still get that boosting efficiency while maintaining regular office hours.
★ Would you say that the key to that healthy environment is nailing that balance between the passion from your employees and perhaps pushing them out of the office when the work is done?
Yes, to some extent. It's one thing when you are in the middle of production, where you might not see the progress that you want to see, things go a bit slow, all of these things. But when you see things coming together, when you see that the puzzle pieces are getting together you get that extra boost regardless, the efficiency will increase and you will be rewarded from the success of the work that you have been doing. Like I said, you can maintain that within the eight-hour work days and we are rather generous also when it comes to flexibility. We would probably not push people out of the office (laughs), but we are really careful nowadays to make sure that people don't work too much and that they stay within the hours of the office.
★ You've mentioned that MachineGames has grown in the past few years. How are you structured right now? How do you handle teams? I don't know if there are a few teams that can fuse to work together or they can split? How would you say that structure has evolved for the past eight years?
That can be difficult to answer. The environment we operate in is very dynamic and we also need to be able to adapt based on the phases in production. It looks rather different from pre production compared to when you are towards the end of a project. But in general we are organised in both cross-department and also single-department teams. A cross-department team, as an example, can be a group of people responsible for a section of the game. For a chunk of an environment, for example. This will then include level designers, environment artists, prop artists, etc. And then we also have some departments that work more as a single unit in supporting other teams, like the concept art department or the audio department.
So, it's a little bit different based on what type of department it is and what phase we currently are in development. But obviously we always learn, and we operate a bit differently now than we did 10 years ago, and even if you look 20 years back it's quite different, you will always continue to make mistakes and there will always be things to improve when it comes to how we operate the studio. Especially as we grow, new people come in... All of these things as well. There's a lot of work that needs to go into that to make sure that everybody understands the culture at the studio, everybody understands how we operate... It's an ongoing process basically.
★ All right, let's talk a bit about the games themselves. I know it's too early to talk about Indiana Jones, but [Todd] Howard himself confirmed that he is working on the story, etc. So, what do you say about the movies? What would you say is your favourite? What would you say is the essence of Indiana Jones?
For me that would be Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course. This is where the main characters are established, and then they created the pillars that the rest of the movies basically stand on. I also think it is the best movie, it's a classic adventure movie. We are looking quite a lot at Raiders of the Lost Ark when we develop the game.
★ We've said we've grown older and those movies are pretty old. There was a more recent movie and there's going to be a newer movie which is around the corner. How do you think that time that has passed and the new movie that's coming out could change the perception in pop culture about Indiana Jones today?
God, that's a difficult question. I'm sure it will to some extent, and I'm sure [Kingdom of the] Crystal Skull did it as well to some extent, but I don't really think so much about that myself. Obviously we look at all the things, we look at the movies, but not only the movies, we look quite a lot at the old games, the comic books.... We just need to make sure that, whatever we do, it fits with the lore and we tell a story that works with the lore and that's not in any way in contradiction with the lore. But, when it comes to my personal favourite, yeah it's Raiders [of the Lost Ark]. I also really love The Last Crusade, I think it's so nice with Sean Connery in that movie. But there's a lot of good stuff in pretty much all of the movies, you just have to find the bits and pieces that you want to use.
"Youngblood's co-op and RPG elements have been very good learnings for us (...) and we're now equipped as a studio"
★ I'm dying to learn more but that will be in the near future, I hope. You've mentioned that you are good with FPS and we can attest to that, but how would you say MachineGames is in terms of flexibility with genres that you can work with?
Hmmm... We did experiment quite a lot with Youngblood. We still see that it's between our bigger titles. It's still a smaller game, so we took ourselves the liberty to experiment a little bit more and try out things like co-op, etc, and added some RPG elements. Those have been very good learnings for us, and I think by doing that game and by developing that game, also working together with Arkane Studios on that game we learned quite a lot. I think we might not experiment so much in the future as we did specifically with that game, but we do know now that we are equipped as a studio to make things and do things and create things that are a little bit outside of our comfort zone, which I think it's great. We have a lot of good opportunities in the future to do things that are a little bit different from what we've done before while still maintaining the core of what MachineGames is and what our games are.
★ Speaking about the things that might be slightly different to what you did before, for example, we've been talking about Wolfenstein. Going back to those games, is there anything that you would love to go back and tweak now given the additional knowledge, insight and knowhow and the ways you work now?
Oh yeah, there are a lot of things! (Laughs). I think Youngblood is a good example. There are a lot of things that I really love that we did, because it's also good, you need to allow yourself to take risks, you need to allow yourself to try new things, and I think that's great. Same thing with the VR game we were involved with as well, Cyberpilot is an example, that's also a big deviation from what we normally do.
So, there are a lot of things that you would like to do differently when you look back. That goes for all the games you do and all the games we have done, ever since back with the Starbreeze Studios days with Riddick and Darkness. But there are also so many things that you are proud of and that you think you have done well and you want to continue to put some focus on that as well.
So, I think looking back the things that you regret or that you wish you would have done better, you try to learn from, and the things that you feel that you have done well, this is successful, we should continue to do this, then you try to continue to do that, but try to improve it instead. So, whatever it is, even if it is a big mistake that you have made, we still draw learnings from it. Those mistakes are actually what makes us a better studio over time. I don't really regret anything, even though there are specific things that I wish we would have done differently, and that happens quite often.
★ So, Wolfenstein, Indiana Jones, Quake, those are massive franchises no matter how you look at them, and we've talked about the whiteboard. How do you guys approach these properties with so many staples, so many perceptions as we've discussed with both Wolfenstein and Indiana Jones? How do you guys start those first three weeks that you mentioned in terms of conceptualising, perhaps deconstructing what the actual essence of those properties is and trying to put the game concepts in place? How do you approach that process with such big properties?
(Laughs) I think looking back at New Order, we usually start with the story, with what we want to achieve with the story, but when it comes to Wolfenstein we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can make this character. Basically aid this classic action hero, B.J., almost a Schwarzenegger type from the earlier games, and how can we make this character a bit deeper, understand him a bit more, how can we evolve his storyline moving forward. There's a lot of work going into that. Also, of course a lot of research, a lot of time spent into looking at the older games and all of these things.
But in general it is mostly about setting everything up that we need for the project, figure out the key moments of the narrative, what is the main goal of the story, identify these big story beats, all the important gameplay elements, and also the visual identity of the game.
It's a lot of things of course at the same time (laughs), but we usually start with that whiteboard and we say: we want to start here, then we want to go here, and we have this big event here, and then we have that storyline and that's the foundation of the game. We are usually very good at sticking to what we set out to do, so when you will see this picture later you will see that this is the New Order game from start to finish. Obviously things change during development, sometimes you need to cut stuff because you don't have time, sometimes you want to add stuff because you find out: "Oh, this works in a good way, we should use it more", all these things. But, when it comes to the big story beats we are pretty consistent.
"For an open world game we would most likely go into seeing how we can branch the story in a good way"
★ Perhaps applying that philosophy to FPS is the way that you really added to the genre and redefined the genre in the past 10 years, and more before with a different name. The same philosophy that you just described and the same way of working with the game, would you apply that "first, what we want to tell, and then the important gameplay beats that you just defined" to, say, an open world game, a multiplayer game, because you first and foremost are a narrative studio, or would that take a completely different approach?
In some way a different approach, yes. We did experiment with that a little bit in Youngblood and we will continue to look at some of these updates in the future as well, even though I think that for the games that we are working on now we are trying to stick to what we know that we are good at. But there's always room for exploration, and if it would be a multiplayer game then of course the focus would be most likely on the shooting aspect of it and making sure that we can focus on that core gameplay loop, and make sure that we refine and set that before we do anything else.
If it would be an open world game we would most likely go into seeing how we can branch the story in a good way, because even if you have a point A to point B story in an open world game, you still want to make sure that everything you do outside of that main storyline benefits the story and contributes to do overall the story of the game, right? So, I think you would still need to stick to that foundation regardless of it being a multiplayer game, open world game, or just a classic story-driven single player point A to point B game.
★ Of course. What can I say? Thank you so much for your time, Jerk. This has been a lovely conversation and we are really looking forward to learning more about your next projects. And happy New Order 8th anniversary.
Thank you, I didn't even know that! (Laughs). But now when you say it, yes! 8 years ago, time really flies.