Magicka’s Arrowhead Games Studios: Surviving The Indie Stress Together
Founders Johan Pilestedt and Emil Englund discuss turning a small idea into a co-operative business success.
From spreading democracy across the stars with a shotgun in Helldivers, to ‘accidentally’ blasting your friend in the face with a lightning bolt in Magicka, Arrowhead Games Studios has become a household name for co-op experiences. We spoke to founders Emil Englund and Johan Pilestedt about how the studio has evolved, their work in creating co-operative experiences, and keeping the business afloat in the indie game ocean.
How was Arrowhead Games Studio founded? How many people were involved at that stage and what led you two to be part of it?
Johan: The first conception of Arrowhead was at the Swedish Game Awards, a local competition for university students that wanted to get into video game development, which also had a presentation at our university. [Myself] and Emil were sitting next to each other and they were talking about how you can submit your game… and how, in previous years, it had been a really successful competition for aspiring game developers. So, I turned to Emil in the middle of the lecture and said: “We should make a game!”
Emil: And I said: “Yah!”
Johan: The rest was history.
Emil: At that point, I think they warned us that a lot of time [had passed] since the competition had already opened. Less than half, I think. But we figured we’d just give it a shot anyway and just make a game, send it in and do a fun thing at least.
Johan: And that was Magicka, the first version of Magicka – the 2D version of it, anyway. As we went through and developed the game we had some people join and some people dropping out but after the entire ordeal with the Swedish Game Awards was over, basically, me, Emil, Malin Hedström and Anton Stedmark were the core team.
How much did the Magicka launch, and its success, help expand the studio?
Emil: It was kind of different. At this point, we were still students and we got a lot of tips from the jury at the Swedish Game Awards, and other people. They said: “Don’t let this slip through your fingers, you should really make something out of this.” So we had some momentum and we had a lot of confidence so what we did was we spent the following six months –
Johan: – playing Smash Brothers.
Emil: Yah, letting it slip through our fingers. We tried to balance university studies and continue development on the game but it didn’t really work. What we decided, in the end, was that we would just drop out of school.
Johan: Yeah, I still remember that meeting. It was like: “Hey guys, stop everything you’re doing, we really need to drop out of college and just focus on this shit.” And everyone was like: “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Emil: It wasn’t really a hard decision because at that point we had such confidence in what we did and our abilities to create something cool.
Johan: This was early 2009 and the kind of games that were out there, local co-op with top-down action, there weren’t that many of them; there were barely any games on Steam… it felt like an open goal basically as long as we managed to push through the development of the game.
You mentioned that Magicka is co-op and your games heavily focus on that; what was the decision behind making co-operative games?
Johan: I think that’s where Emil and I have the most common ground. We really like playing co-op experiences. It’s nice to be challenged together, in that sense, against the computer. When we’re playing in a co-op situation, it’s us trying to overcome an obstacle [in a way that] is more rewarding than in a multiplayer, PvP scenario.
Emil: That’s a really good point. Player versus player experiences, they always need to be balanced. In co-op you can be the core group, you are the protagonists and you can balance the game as such and you can make the experiences and the moments that follow accordingly.
Where do you start when making a co-operative experience?
Emil: It’s like something that seems very different from designer to designer. A lot of the time when we do things together we almost always start with a moment. It’s sort of a bottom-up approach. Like really, really zoomed in. The moments and the universe are the pillars in what we build and then the gameplay mechanics… sort of come naturally from that.
Johan: Magicka was based on the scene in [The] Lord Of The Rings where they are in Balin’s tomb, when the cave troll comes in through the doors and the party revs-up and Gandalf is ready, but everybody is a wizard and now they’re going to cast a lot of spells.
Emil: The second layer to it is that we always ask the question: “What is it like being this person that you’re supposed to be in this game?” In Magicka, it was really important to us that we were getting closer to how it would actually feel like casting spells in real life. No game so far has ever made me actually feel like I was weaving, like I’m pulling energy from somewhere and combining it into something and shaping it and casting spells. So we wanted to do that – we wanted that to be central to the experience, instead of just selecting an icon from a list.
Having been part of the studio for so long, what things have you learnt or what tips would you give to somebody who is thinking about starting up a studio, or making a game revolving around a local or online co-operative experience?
Emil: I would say as a general rule for co-op games, something that we learned was that when you stop having fun when playtesting, you are in a bad spot. We had months of development during the Magicka days where we just realised after a while that we’re not playing the game anymore. Understanding that and realising it, trying to identify why are we not having fun with the game helped us come back to that and helped us prioritise the tasks that made it fun again.
This year we’ve seen a fair amount of studios close down; how hard is it balancing release schedules with development time frames?
Johan: It is always hard. The good thing about failing at something a lot is that eventually, you get better at it. You know the pains it costs us. Like Magicka, when we did that game, our initial estimate for how long it would take for us to develop that – it was off by 700% in nine months…
Emil: I think one of the major lessons, when it comes specifically to release versus the next thing, is when we started out, we started looking to the next thing after release because we didn’t have time to look during the development days. So that caused some problems for the first few projects.
Johan: Yeah, we’ve been close to bankruptcy three times.
Emil: So it’s become increasingly important for us, especially since we’ve grown, that we start trying to land the next deal way before the first contract is done.
Johan: Which is hard when you’re in a creative business like you’re so focused on what you’re doing right now and at some point you have to take a step back and go, “well, what’s the next thing?’ Until we are actually forced to stop by whoever, either hunger or the government or whatever, we’re going to be making games and we’re going to make sure we can continue doing that.
Emil: I mean we’re in a good place now. It’s just that you’re never that far from the –
Johan: – abyss.
That must be pretty scary. What’s it like having that responsibility? It must be pretty stressful at times.
Johan: It is but you get used to it after a while. It’s mitigated when people come up and tell us it’s an awesome place to work at and they have so much fun. I know that we have the people that work here’s best interests in mind at any point in time and it’s the same when we have ended up in hardship before… we’ve never done any layoffs or anything like that because we want to try to save the studio.
The studio and the studio’s heart is everybody that works here. And so if we started doing layoffs, it’s basically like cutting off limbs and assuming you’ll be fine. I’d rather like to keep my body intact and go down with it. That’s a bad analogy.
Emil: The sentiment at least makes sense.
Johan: Bad analogies are a thing here.
What can you tell me about the project or projects that you’re working on at the moment?
Johan: I can’t talk too much about what the game is but I can talk about where the studio is heading. We’re going to continue working on co-op games for the foreseeable future. We are, on the other hand, moving into a realm where we want to expose more people to our games and the primary way we can do that is to move the game into a different perspective. So we’re actually making a third-person game this time around. But that also means that local co-op is not something that we’re focusing on for this next title and instead we’re going to make it purely online co-op.
But it’s also a natural transition for the studio. We have to go down this route, we have to see how can we expose a lot more players to our bizarre way of making games where we don’t adhere to a lot of the kind of conventions that exist within the gaming industry. We try to play a lot with the emotion of the people playing the game and also how people interact as they’re playing the game. I think at least as much happens between the people playing a game together as [it] does within the game. So we want to really experiment with that.