Interview with Ilari Kuittinen and Mikael Haveri from Housemarque on Epic Games Store, Stadia and more
This year has been a rollercoaster already. Before E3 even began, we had controversy surrounding the Epic Games Store, Google stepping into the gaming space with Stadia, Sony pulling out of E3, both major console manufacturers gearing up for a brand new generation, and much more. It's understandable that we let a few things slip through the net, like this interview with Housemarque CEO Ilari Kuittinen and Head of Self-Publishing Mikael Haveri from Reboot Develop Blue 2019.
Sitting in the beautiful lobby area of the Sheraton Dubrovnik Hotel, the venue for Reboot Develop Blue, I spoke with both Ilari and Mikael about the future of Housemarque and the state of the games industry at large. Housemarque has been creating games since the early 90s and have had great successes with titles such as Resogun, but now they're stepping away from these smaller experiences and moving towards larger, big-budget AAA releases, and they shared some fascinating information on how that transition has been progressing.
Both Ilari and Mikael were incredibly welcoming, and their passion for their studio, staff, games, and future is contagious, as I'm sure you'll see from the interview below. After talking with them, it seems that Housemarque has a bright future ahead, and we can't wait to see what's next.
What is it been like for the company moving on from smaller scale games to this much larger project?
Ilari Kuittinen: As we have so many people coming in I think that's been a challenge every month. For instance, this month we've got seven people coming to join us. I think that's a record.
Mikael Haveri: For international people, you need to think about housing and what they need outside of the office.
IK: A lot of staffing things we need to think about, that we didn't need to take care of earlier. So I think the crucial part is how we find the best way to work together. Our creative director has been trying to communicate the vision to everybody, and I think he's doing a great job with that. But then how to make these decisions, how this decision making is divided throughout the team. I think that's kind of a big learning curve. It has started to be so big and complicated, and we are adding new capabilities as well. For instance, we flew in a writer from New Zealand to Helsinki. And it was a bit of a culture shock for him. But eventually, he kind of got over that.
MH: And in the end, it's also how do we continue to pass on the culture of Housemarque to everybody? I think everybody has a notion of that. But you really have to show through example, when you do high-quality stuff, when you show progress, like, this is where we were, this is where we're going, you have to get everybody on board. And you know, it's a long process.
IK: Yeah, like, we have a narrative designer, we have a writer, something that we didn't have before. So we need to try to find out how to tie these things together with the game, which is something that we haven't done that much before. The story has always been told with the environments, and things like that, there haven't been many story heavy elements, and no comic books or books made out of the game, so anything like that. So that's a new thing for us.
MH: And obviously, it's a bit of a new genre we are exploring at the moment, a mixture of things that gets us excited, but of course, we don't forget our roots. So, action-packed gameplay is a thing we are going for and of course, explosions.
Of course. So how big is the team now?
IK: So in total, we are almost 80. And you know, our AAA project is almost 60 people. Stormdivers is much smaller. And then we have managerial staff. A captain needs a crew, and we hired 30 people last year. And now, by the end of this month, I think we have nine new people coming, so 40 people in like 15 months. So that's quite a lot.
That's some pretty rapid expansion.
IK: Yeah, that's why we need to have these people that take care of the onboarding. Like now, I actually signed one lease today when I woke up so that one guy will get his own apartment now. And it's not limited to that. We need to have the support people to take care of things and take care of people. So that's also a new thing for us. And we always try to do better when it comes to onboarding.
MH: We want the very best. So we're willing to work a little extra to make sure that they feel comfortable and stay.
IK: Yeah, usually onboarding is like; 'here's a computer. Good luck.' So kind of like, pushing people into the deep end of the pool and asking; 'Can you swim?'
Some of it is new for us.
IK: Yeah, there are always things like diversity, open spaces, a safe workplace. The purpose of the company, of course, is to make great games and create experiences for our fans. But we have other evolutionary goals, like creating a great workplace in which you can thrive as a professional, but hopefully, develop yourself as a person as well. So these are kind of lofty goals. And I'm not sure how we accomplish those. But we have some ideas. We can open communication, try to encourage people to bring their whole personality to work, and things like that. So they are safe and comfortable.
MH: We want to foster innovation, creativity, and really try to empower people through their individual names. It's something that we've been doing under the covers, but now we're trying to bring it up more consciously.
IK: I wouldn't say that we have had a closed environment to work in, but we're more aware of these things.
MH: And especially now that we're expanding, it's becoming more and more relevant.
IK: Our staff has become more diverse, and that has brought its own challenges. But we believe that that's going to be good for us over the long run.
So, your big new project. Would you say this is a dream project for Housemarque?
IK: I would say, yeah.
MH: Not only for a lot of individuals, for Housemarque generally. I kind of spoke about it this year. We've had these eras of games. And we would say that the last era was from Super Stardust HD, all the way to Matterfall and Nex Machina. And that was what I like to call the New Golden Era of Arcade. But for Housemarque, that's where we've got to really redefine ourselves as the gameplay-centric designers of that second to second gameplay experience, with a lot of wonderful titles with diverse gameplay mechanics, but still featuring a few genres. Now we're looking for a new era, where we elevate those core concepts, and also take ourselves to new heights as a company. So you'll see it in our products, you'll definitely see the uptick. But hopefully, the heart and soul of Housemarque is very much intact.
When it comes to being a gameplay focused company, is that what you start off with first at Housemarque, coming up with a gameplay concept to design around?
IK: I think it depends. Some games have been a gameplay mechanic first, but sometimes there's some world idea, and how these things work. And I think it's a combination of both. We could do something in a certain genre, but make it disarming or in a way which hasn't been done before, I think that's typically one of the starting points. But it's up to the individuals basically. So for instance, a couple of weeks back, we have the first pitch day for this year. So, it's a day or afternoon where people can present their own ideas, and then they will call colleagues to help them to flesh out these concepts, and pitch them at a later date. So eventually, one of those pitches is going to be one of those ideas that we are going to present to our potential partners, hopefully, next year, and convince them to give us a lot of money to be able to fulfill our vision.
MH: Yeah, and this is how our projects currently work, from internal pitches that then bring together more of the people in the company. And we start seeing the gravitation towards these ideas. And then a lot of the gameplay and nuances and things get hashed out. So there might be an idea of a world or one core mechanic, but then those pieces start falling together a little bit more. There's a lot of individual pitches, we don't give staff limitations, but we see how people react to it.
IK: Well, now we have a set of guidelines because we need to think big. So it can't be a small shooter but a game that will have a team of 50, 60, 70, 80 people in order to fulfill the full vision. So it's quite different from what we've done before.
Has the transition been difficult at all from these smaller scale games?
IK: Well, we have got new people coming in every month, so we're changing the chemistry of the team all the time. So it has taken quite a long time to figure out how to organize this. So there were growing pains, like how to organize things, and how to make decisions, and there have been frustrations once in a while. As it is a new way of doing stuff, there's always resistance from certain people and how to find a balance. So sure, it's not just a walk in the park, it gets tough.
MH: And from the technology side, we had quite a good transition from our own engine base into Unreal Engine, because Nex Machina was our last game on our own in-house engine and Matterfall was our first Unreal Engine game. What happened was that we had half the company transitioning into Unreal during that stage. And now that we're fully transitioned into Unreal, we can overcome some of those growing pains, because there's always somebody who's more aware of the engine. On top of that, we're pushing the boundaries with visual effects. We still have our own internal tech team, adding really cool visual effects and things into the Unreal pipeline, so we're kind of enjoying the best of both worlds. There wasn't a big brick wall that everybody hit at once. We've been reading about some other companies where, you know, this has been a problem. So clearly, we've been able to... I wouldn't say it's easy, but we've been able to overcome that.
IK: I think the key part was that we made a decision quite a long time ago that we need to move forward, like 2013, we made a decision that we need to learn more about Unreal Engine, and that's why we did Matterfall on Unreal. We need it in order for us to be able to do bigger games, we don't have the resources to build the engine like Epic can. So that was a conscious decision, when it comes to tech development, to find how we can improve and how we can do layers over the top of Unreal, and we have our own VFX engine. And some people like that, some people say 'I want to go and do engines' and they go somewhere to do that. So, it's understandable. These turning points are like that, some people don't like it and decide either to adapt or do something else.
Now that you're using the Unreal Engine at Housemarque, what do you think of like the Epic Game Store? From a business standpoint, do you think it incentivizes you to release games through that platform?
IK: Of course, it's a good thing to have competition, I think Steam has had a sort of monopoly. We certainly see that the PC market is dominated by the Steam store. It's also possible that they do lots of interesting things, like this influencer program. That's awesome that you can have this direct connection with these influencers, it is more transparent. So they stay kind of a pure influencer, and we can say, 'hey 15% of the income is coming to you if you recommend and it turns into a sale.' So it's a transparent way of doing it, instead of paying players to play a certain Battle Royale game for a month. You know, some guy might have gotten $1 million to do it. So it's much more transparent. And you can get five bucks if you recommend this and stream this and you are sort of doing it because of that, but also that you love the game. Not just that I gave you a million dollars to feature our game.
MH: It's bringing a whole new generation, in a way, through Fortnite into PC games. Expanding our audience. Having a pretty good revenue share I think is also an incentive for developers. But in the end, it's just that you can have options. They announced Epic MegaGrants. So that's a big thing. You know, Stadia is a really weird and wonderful thing. I think everybody's asking 'What's the business model? What's going on?' But you know, from a developer's perspective, this is a really good time. Because not only are there more partners, and platforms, and people to talk to, but they really want to support your vision. So you know, financially, make sure that everybody wins. But also, you can have slightly more creative freedom, as well, because they want to push the diversity in terms of content.
So it sounds like you want to put games on as many platforms as possible...
MH: In general, I think it's a good time for developers. And that's something that we're definitely looking into, but...
IK: Sometimes you need exclusive deals because money doesn't grow on trees. We have been receiving assistance in order to be able to understand more about how service games are working, or how multiplayer is working. So even though it's a huge risk, we believe that we need to have a better understanding of how to do these things.
Are consoles in Housemarque's plans for the future?
MH: I think we're open for everything.
IK: But of course, we have a console history, so...
MH: It's one of those things, like is Stadia a console, for example? Isn't Microsoft doing a lot of PC and console hybridization? Can we even talk about consoles and PC as separate entities?
IK: I think there's going to be the next generation.
MH: It's more about your input preferences. Once you choose mouse and keyboard or controller, what are the differences?
IK: It really depends on the game, too.
MH: I guess I always, always said that a big, big part is that you are sure that everybody has the control.
IK: Yeah, also depending on the game, for sure. That's the big challenge of Stadia, you still need to sell the controller to the consumer in order for you to be sure that everybody's playing with the controller. Like having a touch-based input lends itself to totally different kind of gameplay. It's very hard to make a game that's good for all user interfaces.
MH: You start thinking about everything from that perspective. 'Can we put this on mobile?' And the instant reaction was 'No, you don't have those controls. So you can't do that nuanced gameplay.' But now, I'm not saying that Fortnite, for example, is doing it perfectly, but they're reaching a wide audience, and clearly, they're doing something that we thought wasn't really possible. So we're kind of opening our minds.
Absolutely. Is there anything else I should know about Housemarque and the future?
MH: There's cool stuff coming out. It'll be a bit of a wait.
IK: Yeah, maybe a year from now, we will be able to talk about what we have been working on at Housemarque. A couple of years. Depends.
MH: Yeah, we're just making sure that we don't shoot too early with our bigger stuff. We're doing a lot of open beta stuff. So that's an invitation to come in and see what kind of stuff we're working on. So we're kind of half open and half closed still, for reasons.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time you gave me today.