Oskari “Ozz” Häkkinen, the director of franchises at Remedy Entertainment, seemed a little out of place at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle. While everyone else had cute mobile and social games, Häkkinen was walking around with a game called Death Rally. But the game is Remedy’s foot in the door. Death Rally is leading Remedy — the famous maker of hardcore story-based games Max Payne and Alan Wake — into the brave new world of digital games.
Death Rally, a chaotic racing game with weapons and explosions, debuts on the PC today on the Steam digital distribution service. The hit game has had millions of downloads on mobile devices, and it is Remedy’s ticket into exploring the side of games with disruptive features and business models.
Remedy is still at work on its next major story-based game with a huge team, but it also has one dedicated to making digital games as well. Like other companies, Remedy is looking for a way to cross over to new markets where it can innovate and entertain larger audiences than ever. Can a hardcore game development company make it in this new world? We caught up with Häkkinen (pictured above) in Seattle. Here’s a transcript of our interview.
Oskari Häkkinen: We developed it with a team called Mountain Sheep, who did Minigore and some other games, like Bike Baron. We’ve taken the development in-house now, but they did all the heavy lifting for Death Rally. On Death Rally Steam, we again used Mountain Sheep. With Death Rally, we’ve had over 11 million downloads and over 150 million play sessions. From the get-go, it wasn’t designed to have in-app purchases. It was a premium game at $4.99. Then we quickly realized that our price point was perhaps a little bit high, so we dropped it down to $2.99. And then we saw that a lot of games that are competing, especially on the mobile side, are in the 99-cent space, or they’re free to play. We couldn’t possibly go free to play because we didn’t have that built into the game. We didn’t have in-app purchases. We didn’t have a way of monetizing if we were going to give the game away for free. So we went down to 99 cents.
Our philosophy on the mobile side is to keep adding retention — to get people back. We do a constant string of updates. We kept adding more cars, more guns, and more tracks. That seemed to resonate with gamers. They keep coming back, and that’s why we had so many play sessions. Then we added multiplayer.
Because we built the game as a premium game, we hadn’t built it with in-app purchases, so it was quite difficult to add those on afterwards. We did some simple stuff like car packs. Grab a car and a gun and whatnot for 99 cents extra. But that’s not really built into the game. We started thinking, “Well, can we do multiplayer with in-app purchases?” You have this story mode where you earn everything, and you unlock all these bits by grinding it. When you enter the multiplayer, everybody’s on a level playing field. You start off again with a basic Vagabond and the basic gun. You have to purchase to upgrade. When we did that, it kind of worked, but again, it’s a little bit disjointed. At that point, you’ve already played through five or six hours of story mode and earned everything. Now we’re asking you to pay for those things on the multiplayer side.
So it’s not built from the ground up as a free-to-play game. Having said that, we’re going to be doing more Death Rally. With the number there, people are getting interested in seeing some more Death Rally. We’re working on the next iteration of that right now. In addition to that, I think what Remedy really wants to do in the mobile space. Death Rally was one of our first games, back in ’95 or ’96. People don’t identify Remedy with Death Rally. It’s not story-driven. It’s not character-centric. It’s not cinematic. It’s an action game, but that’s probably the only point of comparison. So what we’ll be doing with Death Rally is trying to add more of those elements to make it more Remedy-like — such as more popular culture inspiration. The inspiration for Death Rally was obviously Mad Max, but maybe we can go further in that direction. We can make it more story-driven. We can bring more life to the cars and the drivers. We can make it a hell of a lot more cinematic. And we can certainly make it a damn good action game.
GamesBeat: And here at the conference, you’re learning all this monetization stuff to throw into it?
Häkkinen: Yeah, exactly. For the next one, I think you’ll be able to just endlessly upgrade. There should be no end to it. User-generated content, also, is going to be a very important way for us to extend it. The gamers out there can come up with ideas that we never would have thought of: the craziest cars and the craziest weapons. We want them to be able to do that, so we’re going to build that into the game. Some sort of level editor or some such. What we really want to do in the mobile space, though, is make a real Remedy game –make something that people identify with us, like Max Payne or Alan Wake, where they say, “This feels like the Remedy that I know.”
GamesBeat: Your last game was Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. I compared that design to something like Infinity Blade. There is a repetitive cycle that you go through, covering the same ground. In Infinity Blade, you keep trying to defeat that king. It’s a lot like American Nightmare, where you go through the same ground three times.
Häkkinen: That’s actually a good point. I’d never thought of it that way. I’d played Infinity Blade.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that memory limit they had on Xbox Live. That’s a reason to do an iterative design like that.
Häkkinen: Right, and the same applies to iOS.
GamesBeat: With Infinity Blade II, they didn’t care, but a lot of these developers are all serious about the 50-megabyte over-the-air download limit. If it’s bigger than that you can’t download that over the air.
Häkkinen: Yeah, you have to use the Wi-Fi.
GamesBeat: But Infinity Blade went way over that, and it still sold well. That made me think: There is some truth to the notion that you can design something really cool but also fit it into this format. That’s increasingly popular. A mobile game does not necessarily have an inferior design.
Häkkinen: Yeah. I think for the type of games that we make, you won’t see a real casual game coming from us. And we’re not going to be able to stay within that limit that can be downloaded over the air. That’s just a given for us. It’s going to be a big game. We’re doing a ton of prototyping right now to find out. What are the unique mechanics we can bring, so that people say, ‘This is a Remedy game.” You had bullet time in Max Payne; light and darkness in Alan Wake. What is that mechanic that is completely unique? It’s not where the puck is now; it’s where the puck is going. We want to be there. And, of course, we want to utilize the touch screen in a way that nobody else has.
GamesBeat: That whole question of, “What’s the function of a publisher in the digital space?” It’s interesting here because there are so many middlemen that want to get your attention and take their 30 percent of whatever you’ve got. Even Activision is moving in and partnering with Flurry and Swerve. But what are they bringing to the table?
Häkkinen: I don’t know. Everybody talks about marketing. Everybody talks about the marketing arm of a publisher.
GamesBeat: Well, I got from some of these talks that, yeah, you can go straight to the App Store, and the App Store has some publishing functions that help you self-publish. But they’re all so generic. Game Center may or may not be that helpful. So the DeNA/Ngmoco and GREE guys are stepping in and saying, “Yeah, we can do some publishing functions and be a platform that pays attention to just gamers and games.” They’re not sharing your game with everybody. They’re sharing it with gamers. There’s some value there. And DeNA/Ngmoco is at least pointing to Rage of Bahamut as an example of a big hit game. They’ve got this game that has been grossing in the top 25 for months. They’ve proven that they can push something up there and keep it there for a while — for more than two weeks.
Häkkinen: These guys definitely have something substantial to offer.
Häkkinen: That I don’t know, but I think they do have something substantial there. If they can keep a game on the charts more than two weeks…that’s a very long time. That could be worth 30 percent.
GamesBeat: And then there’s Tapjoy, Chartboost, Flurry, Swerve…all of these guys offering different pieces of it. It all makes you think, “Well, if I’ve got that, then I don’t need the publisher to take care of that piece.” It’s all so confusing. Who’s going to be the best partner here?
Häkkinen: That’s it. There’s always more than one player doing exactly the same thing or something very similar. They’re playing off each other, so one brings a new feature, and the other one brings that feature in, as well. Perhaps the latecomer does it a little bit better. It’s difficult. What’s good about it, though, is they’re making their SDKs super easy to implement. You’re talking a few hours or a day to implement these SDKs, which makes it very easy to flip between them and try different things — seeing what’s working and what’s not working. It’s really hard to get a grasp for it up front as far as what the best thing is. Not to mention, what the best thing is right now might not be the best thing tomorrow. It seems that things are changing so quickly.
GamesBeat: The popularity of the Ouya shows that the console guys are leaving all this stuff on the table right now that people want. Free-to-play, high-end console games; Android on a TV…. Maybe Ouya won’t succeed, but they might force the issue with the bigger console guys. Maybe they’ll wake up Apple and help them get their television on that market.
Häkkinen: Absolutely. Or help Apple toward the next iteration of Apple TV, which is a lot more than what Apple TV is today. There are certainly lots of things left on the table. When are all these apps just going to be on your TV? You’ve got a controller, and…?
GamesBeat: Sony’s purchase of Gaikai…you see the disruption that’s possible there. They’re going to make a PlayStation 4, but now they don’t have to worry so much about backwards compatibility for all those libraries of PS3 games. They don’t have to worry about the hardware becoming obsolete. You could actually make the data center more powerful and then run better games through Gaikai — maybe make that console actually last 10 years for real. And maybe you don’t even worry about selling that many consoles because your games will be part of a PlayStation service that lays across a lot of things. You could play them on anybody’s tablet. So the potential of that, if it pans out, could be a great hybrid.
Häkkinen: Gaikai is super, super interesting to us. I’m intrigued to see whether or not Microsoft will make a move on OnLive or something similar. I think the dream for them, always, is to have a console cycle that runs a lot longer than the few years that they’re squeezing out of them. Alan Wake is on Gaikai, as well.
Häkkinen: Yes. We’re a tech company. With Max Payne, we built the engine and everything from the ground up. We did the same with Alan Wake. We’re a tech company, and we’re a story company — that means being able to combine story and tech from the get-go. The story team talks to the tech team about getting the tools they need to tell a great story, and then those mechanics are built from the ground up to create this story-driven experience, where the technology is actually supporting the story. You saw that in Max and even more so in Wake. This will be our next iteration of storytelling in video games. Working with technology definitely enthuses us. Working with story definitely enthuses us. We just recruited an even bigger writing team. Writing is is super important for a story, and we want to take it to the next level with our next iteration. Hopefully, it’ll be our best to date. I think that’s what drives us — what has us waking up for work every day and getting excited about our projects.
GamesBeat: You still have the developer bandwidth for more of these emerging platforms, then?
Häkkinen: We’ve split into two teams. We’re all under the same banner, of course, but we’re talking about two teams in-house. NBT, Next Big Thing — that’s one team. They’re growing rapidly. You need to throw more men at future generation stuff. When the technology becomes more powerful, it means that you need to do things bigger. It’ll probably be around 100 people by the end of the year. You know Remedy: We’ve always been lean, and we’ve always been small. It’s a major transition for us, to grow so big when we’ve always tried to stay very small and very tight-knit. It’s an exciting time, but I’m sure we’ll have some growing pains, as well.
GamesBeat: I’m sure you’ve seen the Unreal Engine 4 demo. They had a pretty good story to tell there about making artists a lot more productive. I wonder if that’s going to be helpful.
Häkkinen: Well, we’ve always made our artists and level designers productive by putting the tools into the tech. If you look back at Wake, we spent a ton of time creating these biotypes, and the biotypes would mesh together. If you had asphalt and then you had grass, the grass would merge with the asphalt automatically, and you’d have small pieces of grass growing out of the asphalt. It would understand how these two things fit together. It took us time up front to create those, but then when those were created, we were able to create these huge environments extremely quickly. We’ve been doing that a long time. Because we want to stay lean, we spend so much time on the tools up front, and we’re using a lot of the things that we’ve learned and done and invested in from Wake for this next project. Once you’ve done that, it’s so much quicker in the end. But the investment of time at the start is a little bit higher. So the two teams, as I was saying…. NBT is growing, and then we have a digital team. The digital team looks after iOS, Android, and so on. Death Rally’s coming out for Steam on August 3. We don’t ever do anything half-assed, so we’ve completely revamped the game. All the art assets are new. It’s going to be a $9.99 price point, and there’s no in-app purchases or anything. You just get everything at once. I hope people are going to have a blast with it. The UI looks really slick. It’s amazing what the guys have done with it. It supports keyboard and mouse and a controller. So that’s coming out soon. As I said, we’re working with iOS and Android, and of course Steam is really important for us on the digital team. We’re a small team, but we’re growing. We’re getting great game devs in: coders and artists.
Häkkinen: Yeah, absolutely. We’re working with partners, as well. We didn’t develop Death Rally in-house, as I said. For the Alan Wake ports to PC, we wanted to do it right. We had a 25-man team called Nitro to help us with that. Same with Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. Finland’s a really great place to be right now because it feels like the bay area in a way: startup central. A lot of people are falling out of Nokia here, which is a sad story, but at the same time…everything is buzzing. You’ve got these people from Nokia — super-smart people — and they’re saying, “Hey, listen. We’ll put up this company called Jolla that’s going to work with the MeeGo.” I don’t know if you heard about that? They’re a 50-man team, and they’re taking MeeGo, if you remember that. They want to do the Ferrari or the Lamborghini of smartphones. Their philosophy is that Ferrari doesn’t sell more than 100,000 cars a year, but they’re doing really well. Perhaps they can sell only 100,000 phones a year and do really well, if they stay small and lean enough. 100,000 can mean a lot. It doesn’t have to be a 30-million-unit play. I think it’s a Finnish kind of mentality. But as I said, things are falling away from Nokia, and because of that, there’s a lot of great teams to work with.
[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi]