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It’s been eight months since Microsoft shipped Quantum Break on the Xbox One and PC, and more than five years since Remedy Entertainment started working on the ambitious time travel game.
Quantum Break was a groundbreaking title that combined an interactive game with a live-action film. The game was about the hero’s journey, and the live-action film captured the villain’s point of view. It was an ambitious effort that took four years of full-scale production. During that time, Remedy grew from 55 people to 130, with another 50 outside developers contributing to the project.
We gave Quantum Break a score of 90 out of 100. But many other critics didn’t like it, and the average score was 77 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic. Thomas Puha of Remedy gave a post-mortem on the title at the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS 2016) this week, and I caught up with him for an interview afterward. He wasn’t doing a victory dance, but he said there were valuable lessons.
Puha doesn’t run the show at Remedy. But as communications director, he did a lot of speaking about the game. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You guys have had a lot of time to do post-mortems and think about everything. What might be a summary of how the project turned out?
Thomas Puha: There’s no easy answer. One thing, for the last couple of years, that Remedy’s wanted to do is have two teams. We have a lot of reasons for that, a lot of ideas for doing game. In the case of Alan Wake and Quantum Break, they were both very long projects. They turned out fine in the end, but we spent such a long time on them. People burn out. It’s just better to give our developers more opportunities, have a couple of different things in the works.
Everybody at the company wants to ship faster. It’s not like we set out every time to spend five years on a game. We’d like to get our products out there. Quantum Break—in the end, the way we look at it, we were able to pull it off. Microsoft gave us the opportunity to work with the live action. There are lots of positives there, especially with the opportunity to build our technology base and learn a lot. But having worked on two games that took such a long time–Quantum Break was on a massive scale. Dialing back sounds bad, but we want to make something in a bit of a shorter time. Have the same kind of production values, but not spend four or five years on a single thing.
GamesBeat: CrossFire 2 seems to fit that. It’s somebody else’s intellectual property.
Puha: That helps a lot, when you have a universe and the rules set up. That said, we have a lot of freedom there. That’s one of the things that excited our creative team. But still, we know it’s going to be a first-person shooter with a certain theme. That helps quite a lot, not having to figure out those basics. It’s the first FPS we’re making, though, so there are challenges.
GamesBeat: You have an unannounced title. How do you feel about original IP versus working with brands or things like CrossFire?
Puha: It comes down to the opportunity. Nothing against sequels. We would have loved to do more Alan Wake. In the case of CrossFire 2, a lot of things aligned. But the hope is that it’s our own IP next, something original. It’s very much built on what Remedy is good at, cinematic action, but taking into account how people play games these days, what kind of games are popular.
That’s another thing about spending four or five years on a game. When you get started, the market is very different to what it’ll be like when you ship. If you a ship a bit faster, you’ll hopefully be more current.
GamesBeat: Quantum Break was criticized a lot for not being what it was originally billed as. Do you think that hurt you in the end?
Puha: Everyone makes up their own mind when you announce something. When you talk about your game the first couple of times on that high level, because you can’t reveal the details, people build something in their mind—but that happens with lots of games. People imagine that it’s going to be one thing, and it probably won’t be.
In the case of Quantum Break, people didn’t know what to expect. We thought we were pretty clear that it was going to be a story-driven action game. That’s what Remedy does. But the live action was definitely confusing. I don’t think everybody got the fact that you get to influence the story. Yes, the ending is always the same, but the way you get there is relatively different. I don’t think everyone understood that.
GamesBeat: How did you guys decide on the live-action? Was it obvious that that would be better or easier than just doing the cinematics yourself?
Puha: That’s one thing I read when the game came out. “Why didn’t they just make the usual cutscenes?” First of all, if we made a 20-minute cutscene, I think people wouldn’t be as interested in watching that. The other thing, making a 20-minute animated cutscene is very difficult.
We shipped the game with very few animators. It’s difficult to find animators in Finland. If you’re in California, you have that history going back to Disney. You have all these schools teaching animation. We don’t have the same kind of access. Lots of things come into play. People might think making cutscenes is easy, and it’s not. If we were to make the same amount of cutscenes, a little over two hours, we would have had to have resources we didn’t have. In some ways live action can be simpler.
Beyond the issues with production, the reality was that as the game focuses on the heroes, when you look at it from the other side, the game can also be presented in another medium. It was something new. Some people liked it. Some people didn’t.
We got to work with an awesome cast. We chose them because they’re great actors, first and foremost, and we can bring their performances alive in the game as well. But of course there’s the benefit that they’re known. They bring believability and hopefully help with marketing as well.
GamesBeat: Why were there so many Alan Wake references if you’re not doing another Alan Wake game?
Puha: [Laughs] Only Sam Lake knows. To me, in the first act, when you’re at Riverport University and there’s that live-action trailer, that’s the main Alan Wake reference. As the game came out, I think we were pretty straightforward about not taking that as a promise of things to come. It’s there as a fan-service kind of thing, a knowing wink. But I do get that it might have seemed a bit misleading.
GamesBeat: There was the chalkboard, the Twilight Zone TV thing … .
Puha: Like I said, it was more a fan-service thing. We knew we wouldn’t get to do another Alan Wake, so we wanted to at least put something in Quantum Break that fans of that game could have some fun with.
GamesBeat: Where did all those theories of time come from?
Puha: Sam Lake and the writing team—originally there was this quantum plotline in Alan Wake that got cut out pretty early on. Then Sam thought about that for a long time and decided that would make for a good game. Hence Quantum Break. Time travel was something that intrigued him and the rest of the writing team. Mikael Kasurinen did a lot of heavy lifting on the story, as well as in Alan Wake. It was just something that interested a lot of our people. Greg Louden, the narrative designer, he was also really into time travel movies and so on.
Early on, the discussion was around how deep we should go. We consulted a physicist in Finland very early on in the project. If there would be time travel, theoretically, what would that require? How would it work? There’s some science behind the way it works in Quantum Break. But really it’s just the imagination of the writers. You start out distilling the core and essence of the story.
GamesBeat: Did everyone find the final boss to be pretty difficult?
Puha: Yes! [Laughs] I played the game on hard before it shipped and spent more than two hours on the last boss. I was emailing the lead designer. “This is way too difficult.” He said, “Well, try to play it this way.” That helped a little bit. But yeah, it’s too tough.
It came together at a very late stage. There was a lot of back and forth. Do we really want to do a boss fight? Is that a gaming cliché that we want to avoid? But it somehow stayed there. Our mechanics were pretty limited, what we could do engine-wise and resource-wise. They did the best they could do. But yeah, I agree that the difficulty ramps up really badly in that boss fight. It’s kind of unforgivable. The difficulty curve is very good until you get to that point, and then it just hits you. We put out an extensive guide and tried to give people tips on how to play it, but we could have done better.
GamesBeat: As far as working with Microsoft, it sounded like there’s some change that happened on their side, as well as whatever happened on your side, that made it more difficult.
Puha: That’s always going to happen when you work with a publisher. Strategies might change. Early on, when the Xbox One was announced and Don Mattrick was in charge, the vision was quite different from what we ended up with a year or two after launch. People you work with on the production side change. New people come in with new ideas. There’s always a bit of refocusing of the project. That always happens. It’s unavoidable, although sometimes it can definitely hamper the production.
GamesBeat: As far as rebooting goes, getting through prototypes and the like, how long did it wind up taking to make the final game?
Puha: It’s difficult to say, because there were things made in the prototyping phase, the first year of production, that ended up in the game. But the way video games are made, they really do take shape at the very end of the project. It’s kind of crazy when you look at it from the outside. Half a year before you ship, tech suddenly starts working. Everything comes together. “Thank God, this stuff works like we hoped.” And if it doesn’t you try to fix it.
The reality, though—when you look at it from the outside, you think, “They spent four years on this, how come the game isn’t longer?” But it’s not like the day you announce is when you start building and building in this linear way. You’re still in the concepting phase. You’re still coming up with ideas, trying to find out exactly what the gameplay is.
Your best ideas don’t always come up in the concept or prototype phase. You might come up with something toward the end of the project, and then the question is, do we try that opportunity? Does it break the rest of the game? Do we have the resources? Games can have a long development process, but a lot of that can be just building tools, building things that might not work, and then toward the end you find the focus of what the game really is.
GamesBeat: The last line of the game didn’t seem to make sense to me. I wonder if any other people had the same reaction. “I’ll be back for you,” in the part he didn’t tell to the interrogators.
Puha: Yeah, when Jack is there at the end. Like we discussed, when we made Max Payne, basically everyone in the game died. Then you go to make a sequel and you think, “Uh, okay, where do we start now?”
In the case of Quantum Break, just as in Alan Wake, you want to tell a good campaign story. You don’t want to short-change players. I hate that myself, when you play through a game and the ending is just, “Now wait for the sequel!” But at the same time, you want to leave certain storylines open. If you get to make the sequel or expand the universe in some way, you can still build on things.
It’s a big discussion at Remedy. Some people love the ending. Some people did disagree. As gamers, everybody has their own opinion of it. But it was definitely important to have story strands there that could be picked up if we ever get to make a sequel or something along those lines. It’s fun to give players something to discuss or theorize about. What did that actually mean?
GamesBeat: Are there things you think you’ll leave behind for a while, having gone through this experience? It sounds like live-action isn’t going to be in the immediate future for you guys.
Puha: Not to the extent as in Quantum Break. Live-action will be some part of Remedy games in the future because it’s always been there, but not to the same degree. With Quantum Break we were aiming for a larger market. The mechanics were a bit more casual, I’d say. We’re thinking that we need to be building games where the core gaming audience has the depth of mechanics that they want. That’s very important to us. We had that in Max Payne. It was easy to get into but hard to master. That’s a hard balance to hit, but we’re discussing that.
We make games, first and foremost, and if the mechanics aren’t interesting enough—in Quantum Break I think they were, but we can definitely take that a lot further. That’s something we’re looking into now.
GamesBeat: Have you had much change since Matias (Myllyrinne, former CEO of Remedy) left?
Puha: I know him well, but I wasn’t here when he was here. Our new CEO came in during the summer and he obviously wants to change things. Change is always good. We’re making multiple projects, so we need to change how we manage our technology and all these things. How can we make things faster and take into account what players like to play? All these things necessitate change. That’s the one constant in the games business.
GamesBeat: Will you probably stay the same size you are now?
Puha: Probably going to get a little bit bigger. We’re around 135 now, so there are about a dozen open positions. But we don’t want to be, say, a 200-person team. There’s a lot of risks when you get that big. We want to make sure everybody can have an influence on our projects. We do a lot of outsourcing, obviously, as well.
GamesBeat: How did you read the critical reaction to the game, with the 77 Metacritic score?
Puha: There’s a couple of things there. When I was part of the press, to me the best developers were the ones who could take criticism and were realistic about what they’d done. Now, the difficult thing there is, if you say that you accept the 77, does that mean you accept that didn’t make a brilliant game? Of course not. We wanted a better-reviewed game, but we’re also realistic about some of the shortcomings and issues the game had. In the end we’re happy that we were able to do it. You always want to aim better.
Some of the criticism, if it’s well-written, okay. I don’t like the score, but if it’s explained well I can agree with that. When the score is low and the review doesn’t really reflect that, that’s harder to take. But good criticism is something you always want to take on board. We want to make sure that—Metacritic is not the end of everything.
Remedy’s games have always been polarizing. Some people really like Quantum, really like Alan Wake, and then there are people who just don’t like them at all. We don’t have a lot of middle ground. In the end, we’re happy that people feel something and are passionate about our games. Even if you don’t like it, if you gave it a chance, that’s cool. I hope you got something out of it.
GamesBeat: I remember replaying the game and expecting more variation in the ending. I think I had to play it a third time to get to a very different track.
Puha: Well, the final ending is always the same. But what happens a bit before it, that can be quite different. Again, in a perfect world, there would have been even more differences, but we were pretty happy with what we were able to do in the end. There are just so many logistics there to figure out, making sure the story works with all the decisions you make.
GamesBeat: Or that the decisions wind up being significant enough that you see the difference.
Puha: Right. It was important for us that people would replay it. I’m happy to hear that you did and got something different out of it. There’s a lot of nuance there. A lot of the changes are quite subtle. Maybe we could have been a bit more blunt with what happens, making the changes more significant, but we liked that it’s not so obvious.
GamesBeat: Anything else you’d like to talk about today?
Puha: It’s an exciting time for Remedy. We’re working on two different games and, knock on wood, it’s going well so far. It’s a challenge to do two things when we’re so used to working on a single project, but we’re making good progress. It’s good to see the excitement at the studio.
We’re always going to make heavily story-driven games. We’re looking at the games we play now, though, the games we like, the games the audience likes, how the market has changed. You have to take that into account.
At Nordic Game I asked Hideo Kojima if there’s a future for linear, story-driven games, single-player games. He said, “No.” That makes you think. Moving forward, characters and story are important for us. They always will be. But we’re definitely on the gameplay side when it comes to how we tell a story.
GamesBeat: Call of Duty went more open-world this last time, but they also hired storytellers from Naughty Dog.
Puha: I thought Infinite Warfare’s campaign was great. I’m a big Call of Duty campaign fan and I thought they—I can understand that that space turns people off, but personally I liked the Galactica vibe. I thought they did a great job. The ability to make something like Infinite Warfare is just staggering. As a developer you look at it and—hats off that they’re able to pull off something so complex.
And then you realize, making a $60 game, that’s what you have to match. Skyrim and Call of Duty, hundreds of hours of gameplay, how do you offer something like that to gamers? “Hey, I paid the same price for Skyrim as I did for this, I got 300 hours out of the one and 12 hours out of the other.” For a lot of people the time justifies the purchase, but for me it’s the quality in the end. A movie’s not brilliant because it’s five hours long, right? But triple-A is a tough space to be in.
Disclosure: The organizers of MIGS 2016 paid my way to Montreal. Our coverage remains objective.
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