There aren't many studios like Remedy, which relishes being a bit weird. How many studios slow jam their history to music? How many creative directors do a mini-striptease on stage and then dress as characters from their games? Remedy, the Finnish developer of Max Payne, Alan Wake and Quantum Break does.
More to the point: how many independent studios who make games of blockbuster scope still exist? You'd be forgiven for thinking Remedy was not independent. For the past decade it has been under Microsoft's wing making exclusive Xbox games. But not any more. Now, Remedy has shrugged off console exclusivity and set about making games for other consoles, including the PlayStation 4. At Polish conference Digital Dragons I sat down with creative director Sam Lake to find out more about this new era for the studio.
Out with the old
Quantum Break was Remedy's latest, an ambitious game that spliced live action TV-style episodes between playable chapters in the game. Now, it's easy to look back and scoff at the studio's multimedia ambition, but back when Microsoft was pitching Xbox One as a TV Room centerpiece it sounded like a great idea.
"In the early concept of Alan Wake 2 that we took to Microsoft ... there was the idea of it being episodic and in between having live action episodes," Sam Lake told me. "That part they loved. They were like, 'This is a keeper but... we are looking for a new IP.' They wanted to own that. Alan Wake is ours so that was off the table, so it needed to be something else.
"If you look at Microsoft at that point," he added, "with them working on Xbox One - and it was still some way off - they strongly saw it as an entertainment device. If you remember how it came out there was a lot of talk about TV and live action."
In the midst of Microsoft's TV enthusiasm, Quantum Break was born. Then Microsoft was forced to change its mind after the TV idea went down like a lead balloon. So Microsoft closed Xbox Entertainment Studios in LA and backed out. But Remedy's course was already set. Fortunately Remedy had been outsourcing its filming elsewhere, so somehow Quantum Break "survived all of those shifts at Microsoft". But the struggle didn't end there.
"Yes it was challenging, it was complicated," said Lake. "Actually it was less ambitious in the beginning. How Microsoft saw it was they were saying, 'Let's do a show that's different characters - a different story happening simultaneously to the game'. And I was saying, all the time through this, 'That's been done! If we want to do something new then we need to bring these things together and have crossovers."
Bit by bit his persistence paid off and the concept transformed. But whereas games may change through development, TV shows with locked production plans may not. "I have never been involved in a TV production, and... a lot of learnings along the way," he said. "Our solution was 'let's postpone to as late as possible so we can get everything set on the game side, and when it's almost too late... now let's go'.
"Even then there were funny things," he added. Remedy would provide some assets obviously not finished, like a placeholder construction lamp in one location. "They actually built that!" he says. "It's actually in the show in a few places!"
He continued: "I'm really proud about what we achieved; I'm really proud about the end result. Would I do it exactly the same way again? No. But a lot of learnings and a lot of ideas about what could be done."
In with the new
Cutting loose from that, from being swept along with a platform holder's current desire, could seem like a positive, freeing thing - not to mention granting the ability to reach a whole PlayStation audience.
"We worked with Microsoft Studios for 10 years, for two big games. It was a logical, good partnership. For them, the platform is the important thing, but we are an indie game maker and at the end of the day, coming out of that, we just want our games to be experienced by as many people as possible," he said, "and going multi-platform is the logical step for us."
It doesn't mean the door is closed on platform exclusives in the future.
"It's not," he said. "It's hard to say absolutes like that. There are so many things that need to click into place when making games - the creative side, the ambition - but it's a business deal as well that needs to make sense. So never say never but right now we wanted to go in another direction."
That direction includes an IPO - floating on the Finnish stock market. It's something independent studios like Starbreeze and CD Projekt have done before - something that can mean money unattached to publishers, and therefore freedom and power when negotiating with them.
"It's starting to happen in the industry," said Lake. "There are these examples like Starbreeze or CD Projekt that have done that step successfully. Thinking about the options and how the indie studios used to be: there are less and less around - you need to find a solution of how to make it happen.
"It also stems from the fact that we want to find ways of funding, partly, our own games, and with that retaining ownership of the brand. That gives you an opportunity to plan ahead long-term, not just the project you are working on - to have more things in the works and more things coming out. It's giving you more flexibility and making sure that when you sit down at the negotiation table, you can bring in, 'We want this... Our plan is this... How do we make this work?'"
Remedy's new games
Remedy is currently 140 people and working on two games: CrossFire 2 and P7. The majority of the studio is working on CrossFire 2, in full production, and P7 is in pre-production.
CrossFire 2 is the sequel to the absolutely enormous free-to-play game CrossFire, made by Korean company SmileGate. Remedy isn't making the whole sequel but rather the story mode - the campaign - for it.
"We are doing our traditional Remedy treatment," said Lake. "They are looking for our storytelling capability, our character-building capability and our world-building capability. [We're] taking their thing and making a story mode, or story campaign, out of that, for their big CrossFire 2."
No dates have been announced nor are they Remedy's to announce.
Project 7 (P7) is Remedy's more traditional Next Big Thing. It has a publisher, 505 Games, and will be a third-person action game with some intriguing-sounding 'long-lasting mechanics'.
"Well we are exploring the idea of: we want to retain the strong storytelling and strong characters and strong world-building that we have done in the past, but also we want to find ways for the players to be able to spend more time with an experience," said Lake - "that it's not just played once through and then you are done in a weekend. Exploring ways to expand that side of the thing without losing what we feel that we do really well."Gaming's greatest healer Mercy me.
As for what P7 will be about? During Lake's Digital Dragons presentation he talked about Remedy having established a reputation for making present day action games - something I asked if the studio would ever deviate from.
"Never say never!" he answered. "Always when we have a new opportunity, a new project, a new idea, we go and challenge ourselves; 'Is this essential? Is there a reason for this that makes this better?' You always need to be tough on your set values and question that. But so far it has made a lot of sense, and so far it feels like it's not a weakness, it's definitely a strength, that this feels like a Remedy thing and there are a lot of people waiting for these kinds of experiences from us."
It'll be interesting to see how Remedy ups the ante in terms of medium-mashing. Max Payne used comic panels to tell a story, Alan Wake was book/novel themed, and Quantum Break of course used live action television-style episodes. What could P7 do?
Regardless, Remedy is cautious saying too much too early. P7 may be "well defined" in some ways but is only in pre-production, and Remedy relishes the freedom to creatively evolve ideas along the way.
"We don't want to talk about it too early because that happened with previous games," said Remedy's communications director Thomas Puha, "that we talked pretty early on and then it's a long wait - and that's not how you do these things any more."
"It's always a journey of discovery as well," added Lake. "We firmly believe it's an iterative process, and if you happen to run into a dead end, or if through the exploration and prototyping something unexpected [happens] - 'this is really cool, we didn't actually plan for this, but this is an opportunity and we need to shift the concept around this' - we feel it's necessary for building a good game to be, at least up to a certain point, flexible with it.
"The problem is, if you go out to early, and you present the concept but then you discover something and then you want to change it, then people will end up being disappointed. It is a way for us to make good games, by being brave enough to change it so it's better."
What about Alan Wake 2?
"P7 is not an Alan Wake 2 - it's worth saying out aloud," said Lake. But that does not mean Alan Wake 2, as an idea, is dead.
"I would love to do that!" said Lake. "We are not making Alan Wake 2 at the moment. We own Alan Wake, I feel there is value in Alan Wake, I would love to do more Alan Wake, but these things, they are more than just creative ideas: there is a business side to it. There are many things that need to click into place to make it possible."
In 2015, Remedy shared a chunk of concept footage of Alan Wake 2 - footage that dated back to 2010. Footage that was safe to show because, Lake said, "already the concept has evolved so far that this is not a spoiler in any way to show this bit".
He added: "Every time we have had [an Alan Wake 2] concept that we have taken to publishers and talked about, it has felt like the time and the place hasn't been there to realise that vision. It has always felt like it would be a compromise for multiple reasons, and then we are not really doing the Alan Wake sequel we want to do.
"So for us Alan Wake is valuable, and if and when we would do it, we want to do it on our terms and make it the right kind of a sequel and not just do something, a compromise. That hasn't happened yet."