Wolfenstein: Youngblood is considered a “small game” for Machine Games, the Swedish game studio. The big games in the rebooted Wolfenstein series — Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus — take about three years to make.
But with Youngblood (and the previous The Old Blood and the Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot VR game), the development team spent less time, about two years or less. But as we discovered in a panel at Devcom with three of the development leaders, Wolfenstein: Youngblood wasn’t a small task.
The game added co-op play with two human players for the first time, and that changed the way that the team created their designs. I played the game and then interviewed onstage Andreas Öjerfors, Alissa Hägglund, and Aydin Afzoud about the design challenges MachineGames faced when the Wolfenstein franchise took the step from a linear, directed single-player experience, to an open co-op experience.
The team had to change major game mechanics to facilitate a new structure for storytelling, enemies, missions, player progression, and weapons. We talked about the origins of co-op, the new approach to the story with BJ and Anya’s twin daughters, training the engineers, the tricks of seamless drop-in and drop-out co-op, and balancing the levels. They also spoke about the contributions from sister studio Arkane, and how they are still working on improving the game.
Here’s an edited transcript of our panel.
GamesBeat: I’m about 85 percent of the way through Youngblood [note: I have since finished it]. I think I’ll need help through the last part. Would you like to tackle the short history of Machine Games and how it came together?
Andreas Öjerfors: Machine Games is about nine years old. I started to work a bit later than that, on New Order, in preproduction. Machine Games is a studio in Uppsala, north of Stockholm. We started as an exodus from Starbreeze. Some of the directors and creative leaders from Starbreeze, which was in Uppsala at that point — now it’s in Stockholm — left to start something new, try something new.
They struggled for years to try to find someone to cooperate with, basically to find the money to make a game. The reason the studio is around today is because they got together with id Software, and they pitched the idea of a Wolfenstein game where the Nazis had won World War II. You’d jump into the 1960s and get that alternate history going. Bethesda and id loved that idea, and that’s how it started.
GamesBeat: Wolfenstein is your entire history, then?
Öjerfors: Yep, it is.
GamesBeat: What are the origins of the latest game, and deciding to make a co-op game?
Öjerfors: We have a certain process or tempo for making games. We make one big game that takes about three years, and we start from scratch each time. We put a lot of resources into that game. Once that’s out the door, we make these sort of side projects, between projects, that take about a year. We build them on top of the systems we built for the previous big game. Then we start over with another big title, another three years. That’s the way we’ve been going so far.
We started with Wolfenstein: New Order, the big one, and then we did New Colossus, which was the side project. It used a lot of the systems and gameplay of New Order, but it had new actors, new weapons, and new levels. The idea was that next we’d do the same thing as New Colossus. But the idea of co-op and having this more open and unstructured world came into the picture. It became a much bigger project than we’d first thought. It took us a year and a half to build. The only reason we were able to build that big a project in just a year and a half was because of our partnership with Arkane.
Aydin Afzoud: We’d always wanted to explore co-op and make a co-op game. It’s also something that our fans had asked for. They wanted multiplayer, the ability to play with their friends. That’s always been our desire. Like he said, this smaller project, compared to the big game–that made it pretty natural to do the co-op these time.
GamesBeat: On the story side, how did that come along, playing the two daughters? Was that something you were thinking of doing before you chose co-op or after?
Alissa Hägglund: It was a natural fit for a co-op game, but since the beginning, since New Order, we’ve had the story of B.J.’s journey planned out. We knew that he and Anya were going to have kids, and we knew they were going to be twins. When we decided on the co-op game, it was a natural to make it about the twins.
Afzoud: The type of co-op that we made for Youngblood, the type of co-op we wanted to do, is one where the players are–it doesn’t matter which character you play. You’re on equal footing. Twins make that a natural. They’re born at almost the same time. They’re equal in combat proficiency.
Öjerfors: It’s an old-school thing, that two-player co-op. We play around with a lot of old-school concepts at Machine Games. We have the Wolfenstein series as our base, so we try to take some of those older ideas and make them something modern.
GamesBeat: Did you think about split-screen co-op?
Afzoud: We wanted that for Youngblood, yeah, but it’s tricky to do. You have to render the image twice. It’s a very difficult goal when it comes to the fidelity we have in the game, the visuals. It has a lot of implications, to make a split-screen game that runs at 60FPS. But there’s also the question of–people mostly play co-op games remotely now. People play with their friends, but remotely.
Öjerfors: We’d never done a co-op game before, so it was a huge undertaking for us. We kind of had to choose our battles.
GamesBeat: And you couldn’t do Lego Wolfenstein.
Afzoud: [laughs] Well, I don’t think Lego would want to do Wolfenstein.
GamesBeat: How did the co-op decision change how you make Wolfenstein?
Öjerfors: As far as gameplay, the beating heart of Wolfenstein is still there, the alternate history and the intense combat where you gun down Nazis, where you’re almost overwhelmed by them. You’re exploring these pseudo-authentic environments. That’s still Wolfenstein to us, and that’s still there. But changing what we feel is Wolfenstein into co-op was a big difference.
The biggest thing we had to realize is, what’s the core of a co-op game? It’s not just about putting two players into Wolfenstein. It’s about changing the levels and the combat so that there’s something to cooperate around for the two players. Each combat scenario should be something where you don’t just have two players shooting. We had to make sure that they fight together and cooperate over something.
We did that in a number of ways. One way we did it was to select a few key enemy types — the bigger, monstrous enemies — and we made them tougher, so they become these focal points of the combat loop for the two players. It’s a good idea to have two players when you try to take those down, like the super-soldiers. Compared to the Wolfenstein series now, we built tougher enemies. It’s a good idea to have one player draw the super-soldier’s fire while someone else fights him directly.
We tried to create a mix where we still have soldiers that are easy to gun down. You still get that faster pace that you’ve always gotten from Wolfenstein. But we mix that with these tougher enemies.
Hägglund: When it came to level design, it was really good to work with Arkane on this point, because they really know their stuff. In the previous Wolfenstein games, the level designs are more linear, more cramped. Most of those wouldn’t be as interesting in a co-op game. We got a lot of help from Arkane on the level design.
GamesBeat: There are a lot of bigger, open spaces.
Hägglund: Right. Also, not just bigger and more open, but they give players more of a choice in how they move through the levels and take on the enemies.
Afzoud: And multiple enemies approach you in the combat scenarios.
Öjerfors: Something we tried our hand at in Wolfenstein II was to offer a choice between going in guns blazing, the more nostalgic approach, or being more tactical in your approach to a combat encounter. Youngblood does that so much better, because Arkane are monsters at doing that. You’ve seen it in the Dishonored games and Prey. We’ve learned a ton from their approach in how to make levels like that.
GamesBeat: As far as unequal abilities go, in four-player co-op there’s often a pattern where someone plays the sniper and so on. Did you ever think about trying to mix the two characters up in some way, with different abilities?
Hägglund: We wanted it to be a sort of buddy action-adventure thing. When you start the story, they’re pretty same-ish, but then each player can customize their character in the way they want to play. You can support your friend, if you want to do that. If you both want to play the same way, you can do that as well.
Afzoud: That also ties into the whole twin thing. When I play with Alissa, maybe I’ll go for stealth while she becomes the jack of all trades. That’s always possible.
Öjerfors: The drop-in drop-out nature of the co-op plays a role there as well. You’re not necessarily going to play with the same person throughout the entire game. You might play with different people. If we’d based that gameplay around two classes or something, where one sister is one class and the other sister is the other, that might not have worked out so well. If another player comes in running the same class you do, the game might just break down, or at least become less entertaining.
GamesBeat: How did you technically learn how to do co-op?
Öjerfors: That was a huge challenge from a team perspective, because we hadn’t done before. But we’re part of the Bethesdasphere of games. We have access to people who’ve worked on things like Quake Champions. We have access to the people who worked on Elder Scrolls Online. Very early on in the project there was a small tour where a few of us, just me and a number of engineers, we went to Bethesda and Zenimax Online to talk about how they approach the engineering challenge, mostly, of building a game like this.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that it was a smaller project. I assume you don’t want it to be viewed necessarily as a lesser project, though. How do you figure out that this is going to be a smaller game, but it’s going to be as good as any other Wolfenstein games?
Afzoud: When it comes to the smaller projects, that’s mainly smaller in terms of time constraints and resources available. If you compare Youngblood to Wolfenstein II, there’s actually more gameplay time to be had in Youngblood. It’s a longer game. The end product depends on how you look at it. It can be bigger or smaller. There’s multiplayer, an open world. It’s a bigger project, but it was done in a shorter time.
Öjerfors: It’s tricky to talk about the game, because we don’t actually want to give people expectations that are different from what it will be when it’s released. We don’t want to overhype anything. It’s been difficult for us working at Machine Games–this big project, smaller project pacing is something that’s very clear to us, but it’s not as clear to everyone playing the game or all the journalists we talk to. We’ve been trying to talk about this as a side project, but at the same time, compared to our older projects, it’s a much more ambitious game, a much bigger game. It required the collaboration with Arkane to pull it off. So it’s been tricky to control expectations.
GamesBeat: What have you been saying about the number of hours involved? I’ve played about 40 hours to get 85 percent of the way through.
Öjerfors: It very much depends on the player. You can finish it in nine hours if you want to, but there’s much more to discover.
Afzoud: If you just want to blaze through, yeah, about 9-12 hours. It depends on if you do the side quests. There’s definitely a lot to do. I think 40 hours–that’s a lot of hours, but you’re clearly doing some extra quests and exploring everything and picking up everything, which is nice.
GamesBeat: As far as seamlessness goes, it sounds like you wanted to do that, but I assume it’s not easy to make the drop-in drop-out aspect happen.
Afzoud: That’s been a Herculean task by our programmers, to make that happen. When we talk about this project, we say things like “side project,” but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it on the side. This was all hands on deck, the whole studio working on the thing. Two studios, really. The programmers had to implement full seamless multiplayer in the game. That was a big task, and they pulled it off.
Öjerfors: We started working on the project with no server programmers. We had a number of generalist programmers who don’t specialize in any field. They know the entire engine and they can go into any part of it. They gained the knowledge of how to do it. They were working really hard.
GamesBeat: On the cinematics, is there a clear difference in how much of that you wanted to do or were able to do in this game?
Hägglund: That touches on the production time. It takes a lot of time to build cinematics. There was a choice to make this game a little less narrative-heavy because we wanted to focus on the co-op buddy experience. But of course, story is very important to Machine Games. A lot of work was still put into the narrative, to make it work more in the co-op context of Youngblood.
Afzoud: One big change when it comes to cinematics, you can’t really have in-game real-time cinematics if you as the player are wearing, say, the Swedish flag scheme. That was a big change, to have in-game cinematics instead of prerendered.
Öjerfors: It’s also about time. If you throw a lot of people at the problem–doing the kind of storytelling we had in New Colossus for example, it’s going to take a long time no matter how many people you throw at the problem. You have the writing process, the casting process. We shoot those scenes in L.A. and they have to be cleaned. It would take more than the year, year and a half we had on this project to do that.
GamesBeat: You had some nice touches, like the pep talks. They seemed to fit the personality of the characters.
Afzoud: That system actually started out as a tactical hand signal system. But it quickly changed to something that ties into co-op. You can buff your sister, help your sister. That turned out pretty well.
Hägglund: It fits with very well thematically with the tone of the game. It’s a little goofier.
Öjerfors: We were looking for some other way for players to help each other in combat. We had that framework for doing hand signals, as you said. I think that was your idea, to tie those two together.
Afzoud: We actually did try high-fives in the concept stage. Maybe hugs. But that requires both players to be in the same place at the same time, doing the same control input. That’s why we moved on to signals.
GamesBeat: I got a sense that a solo player playing with an AI partner is having a far different experience from two human players. What do you do there? Would the same level, the same boss fight be entirely different? Was that a problem?
Öjerfors: It was an enormous challenge. Again, it’s pretty incredible how many challenges we chose to take on for this project. Just having an AI companion is a huge, huge challenge for any team. If you look at BioShock, for example, they always talk about how difficult that was. And in that game, the companion doesn’t really contribute to combat. She doesn’t fight. Ours do that. It was a huge, huge challenge.
The idea was to try to have a similar experience if you play alone. The AI sister acts pretty human and helps out in combat. There’s a number of design challenges there. The game is balanced for two players. We wanted to have a companion who is competent, who can hold up her part of combat. But we don’t want to have her dominate, because that would feel pretty bad.
Hägglund: Exactly. The balance of–we want her to help, but we don’t want her to steal your kills. If you want to sneak, we want her to hang back. When you’re fighting, you don’t want her hiding behind something. It’s been difficult, but it’s a learning experience.
Afzoud: It also has to do with expectations. As players, we know when we’re playing with an AI, and we expect certain things from an AI. If I play a game with an AI character and that character doesn’t help me when I feel like it could help, I’m going to think, “What’s wrong with this game?” If I’m playing with a human character and they’re not helping me, I just feel like that’s how it is sometimes. It’s a balancing act, plus the expectations people have of both the AI and other players.
GamesBeat: It seems like you have a very different experience if you have two friends playing with microphones, so you can talk to each other. You know what to do — “Come help me open this box,” something like that.
Afzoud: Absolutely. That also has to do with expectations. If you play Rainbow Six: Siege with your friends, you know what to expect with your friends. If one friend messes up completely, that’s out of the ordinary. If you’re playing with randoms and someone messes up, that’s okay. You’re just playing with random people. It happens.
GamesBeat: What do you then want your AI character to do well? What did you try to optimize the AI character to do? I noticed they tend to stick with me more than a human player to do.
Öjerfors: One thing we wanted the AI to do is behave like your sister, to feel fairly human. One way we tried to do that was to have that banter between the sisters going on, for her to act naturally. Another rule we tried to stick to, and I think we did this fairly well, is that the AI companion should never be frustrating. She shouldn’t slow you down or be difficult to deal with in the combat you’re facing.
Some players have said that it’s too easy for the AI players to get downed. If that happens–at least in a lot of cases, that’s going to tend to be your fault, because you’re pushing too hard. The AI companion follows your lead in combat throughout the level. If you push too hard, she’s going to push too hard. If you take a more measured approach it’s going to work out much better.
Question: Is there anything you’d change if you took on this project again? What do you think you’ll be taking with you into another Wolfenstein?
Öjerfors: We had a long period early on in the project because we were doing some very new things for us. We had to experiment a lot and try a bunch of different things, trying to find the fun in co-op combat. That was something that took a much longer time and became a much bigger part of the project than if we were just building another single-player campaign because we already know how to do that. We know how to make good combat scenarios in single-player. That was a long time period.
If we were to do anything differently, I’d probably suggest scaling the drop-in drop-out co-op. We could add scaling to your level, so that you match your friend’s level. But those are things we’re already fixing now.
Afzoud: There are some features we wanted to put in the game, but it’s a very big game, and we only had a year and a half. For example, pause in single-player. That’s something we knew we wanted, and unfortunately, we couldn’t just keep adding to the time schedule. But that’s something we’ll be adding to the game. It’s something people have requested. We’re always evaluating and checking out reactions and seeing how we can update and improve the game.
Öjerfors: Something like the pause function seems like an obvious thing to have. It almost seems silly to leave it out. But the reason we had to leave it out–when we added this multiplayer nature to our existing systems, it proved extremely difficult from a technical perspective. I’m not an engineer, but I understand that in Youngblood, it’s pretty easy to get all the systems to pause, but then to get all the systems back up and running again in multiplayer, to unpause the game, that’s a huge challenge.
It’s obviously something we wanted to have in the game, but it wasn’t possible at launch. We’ve realized, based on our feedback, that this is obviously very important to people. We’re doing that work now.
Question: Do you think you’ll use the design you’ve developed for co-op in future games? Could it just be added to another single-player Wolfenstein?
Öjerfors: Our co-op gameplay in Youngblood requires a lot of different things, from the way the enemies are balanced to the way the weapons are balanced. Our whole approach to level design and gating the player is different. So we couldn’t just take Wolfenstein II and add another player. It would probably break down very quickly from a technical and scripting standpoint. It wouldn’t be any fun. It’d just be frustrating, with one player rushing ahead.
Question: I finished Youngblood, and I had a lot of fun with the AI sister. I did have some problems, though, when I was downed in combat and she didn’t revive me. Is that something you’re trying to work on?
Afzoud: We’re always looking at bugs and feedback, and I’ve also encountered that in the game. When I encounter that, though, what usually happens when I look at the situation is that I’ve got, say, two super-soldats and some elites shooting at me. At least in my cases, maybe I was pushing ahead a little too hard. If there was a human there, she wouldn’t be able to resurrect me, because she’s fighting all these hard enemies. But we know that there are some instances where that happens, and we are looking at it.
Öjerfors: A big part of the process at Machine Games right now, we’re looking at all the feedback we’re getting. Where we think it’s important, we’re trying to fix it, and we’ll be going at it for a while. We’ll be launching another patch soon, and more is coming.
GamesBeat: There’s a design thing there too, right? If you press the button for, “I’m in trouble, come help me,” maybe the sister can communicate back to you, “I’m under attack, I can’t do that now.”
Afzoud: She’s programmed to respond to a combat situation tactically. For example, in my situations where that happens, it would be tactically and strategically detrimental for her to run up and rescue me. She’d absolutely get shot down.
Öjerfors: This isn’t the type of game where we launch it and then we’re on to the next thing, of course. We’re talking about the next thing at Machine Games. There are a lot of people at the office working on new patches for the game, though.
Afzoud: Keep an eye on the Wolfenstein Twitter feed. We’ll be making more announcements.
Question: Previous installments of the game had some really memorable emotional beats in the narrative. Were there times where you felt that having a co-op buddy could undercut that kind of thing? How did you tackle that?
Hägglund: The short answer is yes. [laughs] It’s hard to put together the long one. The thing is, when we started with this narrative, from the get-go–it’s still the same sort of harsh subject matter. It’s about death and fascism. But we knew the tone was going to be a lot lighter.
Some of the influences on the narrative are things like the Goonies, those kinds of adventure films for kids, believe it or not. Or the Famous Five adventures, the English novels. If you look at one of those books and the beats in Youngblood, you could switch them out. Something happens. It’s a mystery. The adults won’t help out because they don’t believe you or they don’t care. You have to fix this shit yourselves. Let’s go on an adventure.
We knew we were going to make it a bit less dark and gritty, and I guess a little less emotional in the process, but it was an active choice.
Öjerfors: These side projects we have are places where we allow ourselves to do things a bit differently. If you look at our previous side project, The Old Blood, you jump back to the 1940s and fight zombies. The tone and the setting are quite different from New Order. It’s a chance for us to experiment and have some fun.
Question: I understand that Wolfenstein is traditionally more of a single-player game, and commercially why you would have wanted to be able to play the game with one person and an AI companion. But did you ever, from a design perspective, consider having the game be co-op only? How would that have changed your approach to the design?
Öjerfors: That’s probably a thought that happened many times when a programmer was trying to solve the whole AI project. But no, we knew we wanted it to be playable if you just wanted to be on your own. We knew that from the start. It was very important to us, actually. If it hadn’t been important we wouldn’t have done it. Getting an AI companion working at all, and then getting to work in a believable fashion, making it add to the gameplay–again, it was a huge challenge, and we spent a lot of time and sweat on it. If it hadn’t been important to us we wouldn’t have done it.
Question: Yesterday we had an interesting discussion on stage talking about violence in games. There was an underlying message that if you’re not careful, whether you want to be or not, you can end up making propaganda for war, sending the message that it’s okay to shoot the bad guy. Wolfenstein is obviously all about shooting Nazis. What do you think about that, and the discussion we had?
Afzoud: I was also at that panel, and it’s a good question. When it comes to games about fighting Nazism, it’s inherently something that’s violent. It’s a struggle of liberation. Europe is being occupied. The world is being occupied. You’re liberating your fellow human beings from a fascist menace.
When it comes to violence in video games, for me it’s not completely black and white. There are situations where violence is acceptable, for example self-defense. That’s what we’re doing in New Order. It’s self-defense against Nazis and Nazism. It starts out with the massacre in the asylum. When you gain control of the player it’s entirely an act of self-defense. There’s no room for debate with a Nazi holding a gun to your head.
GamesBeat: The thing I’d think about too–there’s an easier path sometimes if you have “acceptable” enemies. Nazis are probably the most acceptable enemies there are.
Afzoud: Generally, most people consider them to be a menace. They’ve been defeated before, and that’s what we’re doing in our alternate universe of Wolfenstein.
Question: I think that’s probably also why there were so many World War II games back in the day. Once people got tired of World War II, then we started seeing a lot of zombie games. They’re also easy to shoot.
Question: The last Wolfenstein, the single-player game, it didn’t sell as much as perhaps people expected it would. Did you worry that the departures in this game might alienate players who enjoyed the very first rebooted Wolfenstein?
Öjerfors: When we decided to make a co-op game, when we started working on it, we realized that we would have to break with a number of things that we’ve done in a few years of Wolfenstein games to make that fun. This is a side game, and I hope people really enjoy it, but if not, the other games are still there. I don’t think we’ve ruined anything by trying something new.
Afzoud: Co-op from a Wolfenstein perspective is something we’d always wanted to do, always wanted to try. We haven’t felt pressured or forced in any way toward that. It’s something that comes naturally to Machine Games — to develop the Wolfenstein universe, develop the gameplay of Wolfenstein, and have the player experience the world, the setting, and the combat through the eyes of someone else.
GamesBeat: Did you have any worry that the big project might somehow be delayed because you put more energy into this one?
Öjerfors: When we did Youngblood, we were just focused on Youngblood. Everyone was working on Youngblood. When we did Wolfenstein II, everyone was working on Wolfenstein II.
Hägglund: And we always knew that in this process, we were going to be doing one of these side projects. These projects are where we try new things and experiments.
GamesBeat: Why not just do the big projects? Do you feel like you need a creative break in some ways?
Afzoud: There are multiple reasons we do it this way. The game devs here all know how taxing it can be to do a full big triple-A production. That’s not the only reason, but like you mentioned–not a creative break, maybe, but a different direction.
Hägglund: A palate cleanser.
Afzoud: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. That’s absolutely something that we as developers want and need, and something that our fans and players request as well. If we keep making the same thing over and over again, we don’t give the fans anything new. The fans want more Wolfenstein, but what about a Wolfenstein game where you’re not alone?
Öjerfors: Part of it is that we wanted this game ourselves, too. We want to do things we think are fun. We make Wolfenstein. We pitched Wolfenstein to Bethesda because we love it and we grew up with it. It means a lot to us. That’s why we’re making this. We wanted to make a co-op game, so when we had a chance to do this side game, we tried to do that. We make games we want to play.
Question: Period universe elements, like the arcade in Wolfenstein II, it’s obviously fun for you to put that in. How much of that is part of the flow of the game design? Do you ever think about things that you could eventually put in a ‘90s Wolfenstein?
Öjerfors: It’s a constant mix between story and gameplay. One example would be the wheelchair sequence in the beginning of Wolfenstein II. Our game director had always wanted to try that sort of gameplay and make it work really well. That became part of the story. Why is B.J. in a wheelchair? There’s always a give and take between the gameplay people and the story people.
One thing I can say is that every big project starts with an email we send to everyone: “Where should we go this time? What locations should B.J. go to in this game?” We get a big list of cool locations in the game. We select a number of those. We already have an idea of the story, but we write the story around those locations. There are many different parts of the game that affect each other in that way.
Hägglund: When it comes to the time-jumping in Youngblood, it’s a sort of side effect. We wanted to make a game about the twins, and we knew when the twins were born. They had to grow up a bit for the game to work.
Öjerfors: And we like the ‘80s.
Hägglund: [laughs] Yeah, also we just like the ‘80s.
Disclosure: The organizers of Devcom paid my way to Cologne. Our coverage remains objective.