Housemarque is at a bit of a crossroads. The Finnish developer has spent over a decade focused on hardcore arcade-style shooters like Super Stardust, Resogun, and Nex Machina, but all that came to an end recently when the studio’s CEO Ilari Kuittinen dramatically declared “Arcade is Dead” in a letter to fans. Housemarque is now pursuing new opportunities, including the battle royale game Stormdivers and an unnamed AAA title, but it feels like the company isn’t entirely confident in its new direction. Kuittinen himself has cast some doubt on whether Stormdivers will be successful.
Earlier this month at the Reboot Develop Red conference in Banff, Alberta, Housemarque game director Harry Krueger provided a fascinating yet somewhat bittersweet post-mortem on the creation of Nex Machina. Shortly afterward, I sat down with him talk about the making of that game, what we can expect from Housemarque’s AAA title (which Krueger is directing), whether Arcade truly is dead, and more…
During your talk you discussed Housemarque’s “depth without complexity” design philosophy, which is something I appreciate. A lot of the industry seems to be going in the opposite direction these days. Games like Dark Souls are really difficult to approach, but once you master them, sometimes there’s not as much there as you thought. Why do more devs not follow the Housemarque approach?
Well, I think the Souls games in particular, in many ways they're actually a modern encapsulation of the arcade spirit, because they do have the uncompromising difficulty. That rigidity to the challenge. There's something comforting about having those constraints there. You know every time you overcome a challenge it's a personal achievement. When I first played Demon Souls, for example, it felt almost like a modern reincarnation of something like Ghouls 'n Ghosts.
But they’re not exactly immediately accessible like arcade games.
They aren’t. Going back to your point about simplicity, there is a lot going on there. Different moves, different combos, different items and so on. For the most part, I think players just end up using the same core mechanics over and over. Strike and dodge. Generally I do agree, a lot of games these days, the big AAA games especially, there seems to be almost a competition about which one can the most intricate, the most complicated. A lot of work is going into elaborate UI and menus, and every button serves three different purposes.
Tap the button to do one thing, hold it down to do another…
Yeah, exactly. And in some types of games it does feel warranted and they do manage to carve out a really memorable experience, but for others...I have that thing where I play a game and I reach the end and I realize I had grenades or some helpful move that I never remembered to use. Of course, that might just be my skills as a player, but yeah. I'm a simple guy. I just like things to be simple. I fall into the trap of "paralysis by analysis" where you have so many options, and in the heat of the moment, you just fall back to the basics and hit buttons.
Paralysis by analysis – I’m absolutely in the same boat there. Most of your talk focused on the making of Nex Machina, which you developed with Robotron creator Eugene Jarvis, so what was it like working with him? What kind of veteran tips did he have?
There were a lot of things we covered. It was a really inspiring journey with Eugene. One thing that really hit home hard, was something I mentioned during my talk -- keeping the rough edges. As a creative person, I am a perfectionist. I wish I had control over ever single frame, ever single pixel, but Eugene will tell you, Robotron was a series of happy accidents. It was just a perfect storm that happened to create that perfect experience. That just gave me an entirely new outlook on game design. [When making Robotron] he'd tweak something quickly, and if it worked, he wouldn't touch it anymore. Move on. That was a revelation for me -- the more jazz, freeform approach to creating a game.
So, speaking of Nex Machina, the game got great reviews. Housemarque’s magnum opus in a way. But then the company’s CEO published that infamous “Arcade is Dead” letter and vowed to move on to new things. Had that been building a long time? Or was it maybe a bit kneejerk?
[Laughs] ah, boy. I think it was inevitable. We had noticed this trend that we have a lot of passionate followers and the reviews were great, but overall, the market just doesn't seem to be there for that type of game. At least not a mass market. So, the writing was on the wall in many ways and I think it just hit especially hard when Nex Machina, which was arguably the culmination of all our efforts, praised almost universally, still didn't manage to provide the sales. This type of [arcade] game -- we can't really do it any better than [Nex Machina], so...in many ways it was bittersweet, but at the same time, it feels like we went out with a bang. It feels like it's time. It's time for us to close that chapter and start a new one.
Has there been any consideration that maybe it’s more an issue with presentation, not players not liking arcade action? Something like Cuphead is a really demanding arcade-style game, but it’s done well because it has that great distinctive art style. Could Housemarque go in that direction and do something with a really wild, unique look?
That's not out of the question. I think we try to really push the boundaries and innovate with each game that we make in terms of art direction. But I definitely see where you're coming from in terms of the mass market appeal. Even Nex Machina, it didn't really have such a recognizable protagonist. Somebody players could relate to. So, maybe that's one thing that affected its commercial success. Cuphead is a great example, because it does have that very distinctive art style, and it's a great game as well. When you see a screenshot of it, you can't mistake it for anything else and it has that mass appeal. So, that's something we've been mindful of, and hopefully something we can address in our future endeavors.
Could we see Housemarque collaborating with other studios in the future? There are a lot of devs that could use some help tightening up their action.
Absolutely. As we continue to grow, it becomes inevitable that we will need to collaborate with other studios for different parts of our games. Actually, I can't go into too much detail, but we have grown to the point where we have close to 70 people internally on the new project we're working on, and we're already leaning a bit more on outsourcing and collaborating with other studios. In many ways, we're already on that path. I think it's a common thing for bigger studios to share the workload, not just to maximize bandwidth, but to get a fresh perspective. Some new flavor.
Let’s talk about that new project. You’re moving into the AAA space with this one, but what does that mean exactly? What makes it AAA? The presentation? The size of game? The budget?
That's a good question, and a topic that gets very philosophical quite quickly -- "What is AAA?" We know we're going to be compared to studios that are more than 10-times bigger than us and more established in the space than we are. They have much bigger budgets, much more flexible timelines. For us, if you look at the last 10 years or so with the arcade era of Housemarque games, we've specialized in sort of 2D indie or retro experiences, but with cutting-edge presentation and lots of explosions. Now we're looking to add an extra dimension. An extra layer of ambition.
Just how ambitious are you getting? I assume we’re not talking open world?
Uh, so, we’re trying not to be too adventurous, because this is a brand new thing for us. It's a new type of game, it's a new size of team, and I think we need to be mindful of sticking to our strengths. Sticking to our established brand of explosive action, responsive controls, a core loop that feels just right. Bringing all that into a package that can be somehow competitive in the AAA space. It's quite a big undertaking, it's not without it's challenges, but it's exciting for us. We hope to create something that will redefine how people view Housemarque in the years to come.
Is there anything else you can share about the game?
It’s definitely going to be something new. There are going to be some things that will hopefully surprise our fans positively. But there's definitely going to be the element of familiarity. We're hoping it will feel like a Housemarque game.
You mentioned Housemarque likes to work with cutting edge tech. For instance, Nex Machina had ray tracing before everyone was talking about it. Will that continue with your AAA game? What kind of new tech will we see?
A lot of the expertise that we've accumulated over the last decade from making our own tech will of course transfer to our future games. So, we have a really sophisticated GPU-driven particle system. You're going to see a lot of those features utilized in our future games as well.
Of course, you’ve also switched to using Unreal Engine 4. How has that transition gone?
Yes, we have shifted away from using our internal engine. Starting with Matterfall we shifted to using Unreal, which has been a bit of a departure for us. With our own tech there's that degree of intimacy. You know where the bugs are and how to improve on the tech, but we realized that in order to go big we need to rely on more established tools. We simply don't have the resources to compete with somebody like Epic to make something equivalent in terms of development toolkit. Our designers and artists, I think they’re quite relieved to have tools that are easy to use that allow for fast iteration. For programmers it's maybe been a steeper hill to climb, because you're losing that intimacy and not being able to work with your own codebase can create challenges.
When might we hear more about the AAA game? Or maybe even see it?
As soon as possible. We're working hard on the game as we speak. We are eager to announce something.
Will the game be coming to Stadia or next-gen consoles?
Can't really comment on the platform at this point. A lot of our games tend to start out being fairly platform agnostic, and of course we're building the game on PC.
What about Housemarque’s battle royale game Stormdivers? That one kind of seems to be in limbo.
I'm not that familiar with the day to day development of Stormdivers, but I can see the team working on it has put a lot of love into the game. It plays well, and they're evaluating some options as to where to take that next. Hopefully something to announce on that front fairly soon.
Even though you’re moving on to new things, will your new games carry on the arcade spirit? The “simple yet deep” philosophy?
We're following a fairly similar process to our previous games, we're just expanding our scope. We're doing a lot of fast iteration, and we challenge the design constantly. We do try to squeeze it down to its bare essentials and cut away any unnecessary fat or clutter in the design as we go. So, we're applying the same philosophy we had before with a lot of iteration and inviting people to play the game often as well. Sometimes we have friends and family test sessions where we get a fresh perspective on the game. That helps us catch things that maybe we have overlooked. And of course we now have 70 people, who are a pretty diverse group of players with different sensibilities, different skill levels, and we get them to play the game frequently as well. I think that's helped us catch a lot of things that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks with our hectic schedule.
Despite the “Arcade is Dead” statement, could we perhaps see some remasters of Housemarque classics somewhere down the line?
That's always a possibility moving forward. We have a pretty healthy catalog of games to revisit, but right now we're dedicated to starting this new chapter in our history with a bang.
I’ve really enjoyed Housemarque’s past games, so I hope the bang’s a big one!
We're really curious to see where we land with that and what state Housemarque will be in a few years from now. What this new game will mean for the future of the company and where our focus will be. So, yeah...interesting times.
Thank you for taking the time to chat.
Nex Machina is out now on PC and PS4 (and highly recommended). Stormdivers is expected to arrive in some form in 2020. No release window has been revealed for Housemarque’s AAA game.