Dino Patti cofounded game studio Playdead in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2006. The indie team created an award-winning title, Limbo, in 2010. It won a number of awards, and then Playdead went dark for six years. They launched Inside in June 2016 and won even more acclaim.
Now Patti has left Playdead to start a new studio, Jumpship, in England with animator Chris Olsen. Olsen had been working on an interesting new concept, a sci-fi game called Somerville.
Patti liked the look of it, but he thought Olsen and his idea would get “shredded” as he tried to raise money for the game and create his own studio. So Patti and Olsen formed a studio together in Guildford, England, and they’re in the midst of hiring a team to make the game. Hopefully, it won’t take another six years to find out if this third big game will be a hit.
I spoke with Patti and Olsen at the recent Gamelab event in Barcelona, Spain. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I wanted to hear about your new thing. Can you talk about that?
Chris Olsen: I spent two and a half years, in my spare time, developing projects while working as an animator in the feature film industry. That’s where my base comes from. But I was always doing that indie thing, gathering followers, and eventually he got word of it and said, “What’s going on?” After about six months of talking, we came to the conclusion that it would be in our best interests to start a studio and collaborate. That’s what we’re doing at the moment. We founded the company a while ago, but we just moved into Guildford and announced on Tuesday – mostly to get interest from potential collaborators.
GamesBeat: How many people are onboard right now?
Olsen: It’s just me and Dino full time, with three contractors on preproduction concept art. That’s all there’s been so far.
Dino Patti: A lot of concepts get killed because of money and interest. When I saw this project, I think — if Chris were to go to any ordinary publisher, especially this early, it would have just been shredded. But I thought it needed the proper treatment, a proper period of creativity.
Olsen: It’s almost like I was the newbie in a prison block and I hadn’t found my gang. Publishers had talked to me pre-Dino. I’m learning how to talk to them. I don’t know, truly, about that world. And then Dino came along and said, “Just ask me how it goes.”
GamesBeat: So he has an idea that you want to foster.
Patti: To protect it and challenge it. I think those are two good words. The problem with publishers — I don’t mind publishers, but if you take their money and follow their whims, in the end it’s a group of people who need to decide and agree on the best direction for the game, and they all have aspirations in different directions. They all think they know how the public will react.
In the end, that ruins a lot of games. If you talk to anyone who takes a project to a publisher early, it gets ruined. There’s a board of people, all with their opinions — it’s not really a problem with publishers specifically, but with any group of people. You could take any group here and ask them what we should do with this game, and they’d all suggest different directions. I gave an example in there, where we asked for suggestions about Limbo. One guy suggested it should be in color. One guy suggested networking, doing a multiplayer game. All of them had their own thing. The guy who suggested multiplayer is into multiplayer games. The guy who suggested color, I don’t know why he wanted that. But his reasoning was, “I think the public would like to see this in color.”
Protecting good IP is important. It’s one of the big problems people face when they go out to get money early in a project. If you’re a seasoned developer, maybe, you know this is important, but if you don’t have two or three games under your belt yet you may not know how important it is. You tend to strike a bad deal, because you need money. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and come up with something good, but in many cases it’s hard to protect good IP.
Olsen: It’s also naivete about project planning, not knowing about the industry I was venturing into. Some publishers would have me do a budget. I remember showing Dino one of those budgets at some point, and he was really nice about it, but ultimately he said, “If you want it to be at this level, you’re going to have to look at that again. And again. And again along the way.” It worked well when Dino came in and shed some light on my errors in project management and planning.
Patti: Did you hear the part of the talk about the funnel thing?
GamesBeat: A bit, yeah.
Patti: In reality, when you’re expanding the funnel and prototyping ideas and laying out a project, in all seriousness, you don’t know how long a time it will take, or the budget. You can always expand on a game. You can make it longer and put in more stuff. It’s only when you start saying, “This is enough. This is the whole game. These are the mechanics. Now we start cutting.” That’s when you start to see where you’re going to be finished. It’s always good to do budgets, but it’s also good to revise them, because it will change a lot in the beginning. It’ll just change less and less and less as you go along.
GamesBeat: Does it still make sense to have this small team at the beginning and the large team at the end, to produce all that content?
Olsen: Yeah, to take all the rough edges and sand them down.
Patti: Another fun place to be in is where you have so many prototypes, and a lot of them are good. You start to cut them down. “This one is good, but that one is better.” Finding those core things that work and throwing stuff away — I like throwing stuff away, being forced to throw stuff away. If you keep it all in you’ll have a game that does everything. You want it to be tight.
GamesBeat: This one is called Somerville. Do you see a consistency between this and Limbo and Inside, or is it completely different?
Patti: At Playdead, a lot of the choices we made were compromises between me and Arnt Jensen – Arnt as director and me as executive producer, or whatever I was at that company. This is Chris as director and me on the other side as executive producer. It’s hard to compare, because it’s two different directors with different quirks and positive things about them. For me it’s very hard to see.
GamesBeat: Is there something about the content that made you think it’s your kind of game?
Olsen: We’ve been asked that before. It’s a tough question. I’d say that mechanically, the basics of any platformer — it’s almost like you’re asking — let’s say Dino made Mario and I made Contra, not to say that there’s loads of shooting in my game. Mechanically there is jumping and running left and right. But in terms of the layers on top of that that make it a different thing, those are very different.
I’d say the main similarities exist in the level of polish, visual polish and design polish. And also, in a sense, the accessibility in the game. It’s not straying too far into a hardcore area. I definitely want it to give an experience—to not cut people off mechanically. Inside does that very well. Most people can play Inside and not feel frustrated that they can’t do what they want. But when it comes to the content, themes, art style, it’s very different. The overriding mechanic on top of the basics of a platformer is very different as well.
Patti: A lot of things about this, for me personally, make it more refreshing. On the surface, some would say it looks similar, but for me it’s a completely different experience.
Olsen: It’s not as if — you could plot a path from Limbo to Inside, right? You couldn’t do that with this and that at all. You’d struggle to say, “This is like Inside” at all. It’s quite different. But until you play it —
GamesBeat: How are you forecasting whatever you’re going to do now, as far as hiring a team and the like?
Patti: I just want to build a team around it at the moment. I’d like to have a core team sitting in Guildford. We may experiment with remote development for some of the positions on the team.
Olsen: We’ve talked about a hybrid studio, yeah.
Patti: Especially now, a lot of talent is all over the world. It’s very limiting. It’s hard to move people, because you have to commit and — when you bring people in, there needs to be a fit between them and the company. You work with us, we work with you, and everyone tries to make it work. If it doesn’t work we split up. At Playdead we’d maybe hire 60 people and lay off 30? It’s not that they weren’t talented people. They just didn’t fit the culture. You can’t do that as easily if people are abroad. We only hired locally at Playdead. Almost everyone was local. A few of the freelancers we worked with were abroad. It’s nice to be able to find the best people in the world. But the core team has to be in one place, so there’s a day to day continuity of discussion and planning.
Olsen: The hardest thing is when you’re transitioning from game to game. Studios don’t have breathing space, because they have so many people and so many responsibilities in house. They’re not able to just reduce it down to the core team again and build themselves up. A hybrid studio of contract and full time has the ability to do that, to take that time again to go through the preproduction phase and find something special again.
Patti: We started at two, and then we grew, and at the end we did contract work, so we ended up with 13 or 15 people. Right after Limbo we were actually — with all of the contractors gone we were eight people again. It was so refreshing, at the beginning of the project, to just be a few people again, starting the core of Inside and growing again from there. We’re embracing that a bit more. We’d love to do that.
GamesBeat: So we’ll see you again in six years?
Patti: Hopefully before, but we don’t know.
Olsen: I don’t think it’ll be six years. I’ll have spent two and a half years in a bedroom for nothing.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.