One of the most awkward introductions I’ve ever had to a game developer was with Dino Patti, a founder of a game studio called Playdead, back in 2011. He and his cofounders were walking on the red carpet at a big game event, and he was ushered over to me. We had no idea who the other was. I asked him to tell me about his game, Limbo, which was nominated for an indie award. He had no idea what to say, and I didn’t know what to ask. Our conversation was very short.
It was only later that I realized that Limbo was one of the most acclaimed indie titles in years. We both remembered our initial meeting when I saw him again yesterday at the Gamelab event in Barcelona, Spain, where he talked about Inside, his former company’s latest hit. That side-scrolling thriller took him six years to make, and it once again won many industry awards. In an interview, I asked him what took Playdead so long to make.
He said that the team focused on quality and took its time with prototyping. He thought of the process as two funnels. In the first part, the team starts with an idea and starts producing a lot more ideas, content, and gameplay mechanics. Then, once they had the basics down, the reverse funnel occurred, where they cut out more and more of the early work.
“You don’t know how long that process is going to take,” Patti said.
I had the same conversation a couple of times at Gamelab, where some of the best game developers in the world spoke about their work. They talked about taking risks and focusing on quality, but they never mentioned rushing their games out as a good thing.
At the event, I interviewed Mikko Kodisoja, cofounder of Supercell, maker of games such as Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. He talked about investing in game companies outside of Supercell, so that the Helsinki company itself can take its time making its own games and remain small.
“We have to trust the team when we do that kind of thing. One of the key points is we want to give full autonomy to the team to operate by themselves,” he said. “This can work as long as nobody has to micromanage everything. That’s how Supercell works now. Teams are responsible for doing their own job. We don’t need extra processes to work around them. The same applies to the partners that we’re working with.”
Richard Garriott, whose career of making games has spanned almost 40 years, also said in an onstage interview with me at Gamelab that making a great game takes time.
The only game that he delivered on time in his career was Ultima 5, when he was working at Origin (later sold to Electronic Arts) with his brother Robert. They delivered that game on time because they were under the most pressure. Garriott had made a big bet on Apple’s hardware just when the IBM PC and its clones started to win market share. The team had to reset its focus on the PC, and the Garriotts had to take out big personal loans just to stretch their money out to finish the game. They had to finish it on time, or they were going to go out of business. And they made their deadlines.
“Very important lessons come out of the lows,” Garriott said.
But Garriott said that it takes constant prototyping and iteration to figure out a game design. It takes extreme dedication to building a living world. Like his original muse J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Garriott goes to the trouble of creating a new language for his games. And much of the story flows from those languages, he said. Such languages are great for immersion, but they’re not necessarily going to help you ship a game on time.
“It’s inevitable that you have the artistic desire to create great art that is unhampered by time, money, and the need to return value,” Garriott said. “But of course, if you are running a business, you have to be able to plan for it, afford to create it, and complete it before running out of money. That’s one of the great challenges of any creative art to layer those two things together.”
He said that two of his best games, Ultima IV and Ultima VII, were those that took a lot of time. They were also games where he defied advice from others and feedback from fans. Rather, he focused on a particular vision and stuck to it. Garriott, now at Portalarium, is working on another game, Shroud of the Avatar, and it is taking a while to finish again.
Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney said that game creators often don’t know how to talk to boards of directors, where business executives rule and game creators often get shouted out of a room. They don’t know how to communicate about schedules, resources, and unexpected delays.
I also met with Fumito Ueda, who is best known as the director and lead designer of Ico (2001), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), and The Last Guardian (2016). That latter game took his team at GenDesign more than 10 years to make, and it debuted last fall.
Speaking through a translator, Ueda said, “It took a very long time to finish the last game, but it was the result of many problems. I would like to finish games as soon as possible. I always like to finish sooner. Maybe there are some things to be changed. In The Last Guardian, there were elements we couldn’t manage. There are new tools to help with the process. Perhaps we have to change the method.”
The challenge of taking too long to make a game is that the platform and the underlying technology keeps changing. The Last Guardian shifted from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4, and that required a major overhaul.
Patti left Playdead, the company he cofounded in 2006, after Inside shipped last year. He recently announced he was creating a new company, Jumpship, with animator Chris Olsen, who had an interesting new concept. They’re calling their new sci-fi game Somerville, and they’re setting up a new studio in Guildford, England. Olsen worked on it for a while on his own, before he met Patti. And Olsen had begun pitching it to publishers.
“I thought if Chris were to go through any traditional publisher, this project would be shredded apart,” Patti said.
“It was as if I were a newbie in a prison block and I didn’t have my gang, and prisoners were coming up to me and poking me,” Olsen said.
Patti said he wanted to protect and challenge Olson’s idea. I said I looked forward to seeing Patti six years from now with a new game. Patti said he didn’t think the new game would take that long, but he made no promises.
“Hopefully we’ll see you before that,” Patti said. “But you never know.”
Olsen added, “I hope so too. I didn’t work for two-and-a-half years in a bedroom for nothing. I don’t want this to take eight-and-a-half years.”
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.