It takes about eleven seconds from us getting the green light for this proposal until the plotting begins. Is there any way I could get myself into the game? A Jonas Elfving easter egg? A non-playable character? Maybe some voice acting? Maybe I can even get to try my hands at designing a level? Delusions of grandeur aside, this isn't your standard preview assignment: excitement is a natural byproduct.
Fatshark, developers of Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West, Hamilton's Great Adventure and Bionic Commando: Rearmed 2, have granted me unprecedented access to the development of their next game. Current alias: Project Cloudberry. I won't be attending any preview event however. The idea is to participate and observe from a very early stage of development and make frequent visits to gain insights into the creative process. Not at all what games journalists are used to: we usually see only frozen snapshots of titles during development.
MEETING 1: Pre-pre-Alpha
June 20, 09:30am
Fatshark, a wordplay on the Swedish expression "fethaja" (roughly translated: to understand something), are situated in office locales next to the largest spherical building in the world, the Globe Arena in Stockholm. As a developer of downloadable titles and with 36 employees it's not one of Sweden's larger developers. There aren't multiple floors, enormous play rooms and exotic aquariums, things you may find of better known studios such as DICE, Avalanche or Starbreeze. It's easier to get a grasp of the workplace, and it comes across as cosier. Everyone sits just a few yards from the conference and coffee rooms, the latter of which seems to have seen frequent use as I arrive on a hectic Monday morning.
I'm greeted by Martin Wahlund, executive producer on the new title I'm here to see and is currently nameless.
Wahlund, whose resumé includes companies such as Grin, Ace Interactive and Northplay Studios, is the perfect example of your typical producer - stressed out, enthusiastic, and full of passion for the project. He's is clearly at least two cups of coffee ahead of me this morning as we sit down in his office with game designer Victor Magnuson.
"It's going to be a role playing game with strategy and MMO elements. We have taken inspiration from games such as Everquest and X-com," Wahlund reveals. "The idea is to create some kind of 'happy' apocalypse, where the player gets to crawl in dungeons and fight mutants."
He shows some early concept images and explains that the player will put together a squad of adventurers before heading out to hunt monsters. The characters you find and form squads with will belong to different classes - tanks, healers and every other class we associate with role playing games - and they will level up as you gather experience. The difficulty level will be set relatively high, as Fatshark wants the player to feel that this is a dangerous place.
There wasn't much more information coming out of my first visit, and in a way it's a relief not knowing too much. I return to my desk without the standard fact sheet with bullet points, or the ringing echoes of well-rehearsed PR pitches.
MEETING 2 - Creativity
August 10, 11:00am
With vacations out of the way I return to Fatshark at lunch time for a second visit. The rain is pouring down outside. In addition to Project Cloudberry, Fatshark is working on another project due to be announced at Gamescom the following week. It's been three months since I last visited Fatshark and it is apparent that the work pace has increased. I'm sitting in on a meeting with a level designer, a programmer, an art director, a writer and a producer, and the objective is to have something playable by November.
All eyes are pinned to a screen connected with Martin Wahlund's laptop. A Google doc flow chart is on display and the size of the mind map - a flow chart bullet-pointing the game's various ingredients - is enormous, especially when I realise that this is only a zoomed in part of a much larger whole.
Currently the topic that is being discussed is "combat", which divides into "target", "attacking", "damage", "healing", and "crowd control". There are many minute details to discuss, and new topics are regularly added. Should clicking on the right mouse button switch targets or not? A new bubble is created in the mind map.
Everyone seems to be doing something as the discussions rage on -
everything from smart phones to wooden daggers and balls are juggled throughout the meeting. The group's small and issues are quickly taken care of. New subjects arise as quickly as old ones have been put to rest. I get the feeling that this is a bunch of friends sitting around table - in a positive way. Everyone has something to add, and even at the smallest level of detail there is passion behind the arguments.
Attention is turned to another area of the mind map, the one labelled "soldiers", accompanied by other bubbles with "class", "weapons", "attributes", and "abilities". Staying true to the fantasy and RPG traditions, while at the same time offering something fresh and new, is a balance Fatshark constantly seems to be struggling with. There are tons of decisions that need to be made and during a hectic half hour meeting the questions come pouring in. Should a tank be able to heal? Are six abilities enough? Someone says that a long row of buttons at the bottom of the screen may turn some players off, and another person objects that it is an RPG after all.
"This project is getting very complex." Martin Wahlund says as he rubs his eyes.
Project Cloudberry has taken yet another step on its long journey, and the atmosphere relaxes towards the end of the meeting. Ideas take a humorous edge (we think): collect bear teeth to forge the great bear tooth weapon, add the ability to play poker in the game. That quickly spirals into suggestions of villages kitted out with pinball, mini-golf.
"Alright, stay focused," says Wahlund as the meeting comes to an end.
The Google doc is closed. It's going to be opened up, changed and worked on countless times before the project concludes.
MEETING 3 - The Name-Changer
October 6, 4:30pm
It's no secret that it takes time to make games. When you've gotten into the habit of visiting a games studio and seasons pass between visits, the long process is even more apparent. The last time I visited there was no need for a jacket, and now I'm slowly starting to think about Christmas gifts. And apparently Project Cloudberry has been going through some major changes.
"It will be called Krater," Martin Wahlund reveals.
Proposed names crossed off from the Excel spreadsheet then: Threat, Rebirth, Affliction, Clutch, Mutator, Isotope, Lost Age, Entropy, Falloff, Genome Riot, The Lick, Sludge, Gone, Dereliction, Boneland, Lazarus Taxa. Eighteen titles of some two hundred listed when I get to see the sheet myself later.
The love child was christened Krater (Swedish for crater) after what Victor Magnuson describes as a "pretty derailed design meeting". The meeting was focused on what kind of environment the game would take place in, something they had to settle on rather quickly. It was always meant to take place on planet Earth in the future, but where? They were thinking of Europe, and Italy was a frontrunner for a very long time.
"We wanted players to be able to visit a future Colosseum, and classic football stadiums. But it never quite felt right, it was hard to get the size and distances right. 'Oops, now I travelled from Paris to Italy in a few seconds'. Then we started thinking of Scandinavia, but it didn't feel right either..." Martin explains.
Victor picks up the story. "Then we had that rather derailed design meeting, where Martin said 'why don't we just place the whole game in a neverending tunnel?' We took that idea and ran with it, 'let's place the entire game in a gigantic crater', and there we got the name as well. The entire game takes place in a crater that is about as large as Stockholm."
As I listened to Fatshark as they explain their crater concept it appears as both natural and unique. I comment that the concept solves a lot of problems, for instance the need to close off the game world in some way, without resorting to invisible walls or claustrophobic level design. Victor Magnuson agrees:
"That's what we figured as well. It gives us an opportunity to play with how people in the game look on the outside world. There can be rumours of life outside of the crater amongst the inhabitants, and so on."
"We can also fit in forests and different environments depending on how high or low you are in the crater," Martin Wahlund adds. "And we can create giant caves you can reach in the crater. It feels exciting to create a classic 'dungeon crawler', we can see how far people can go."
"Exactly: once you've completed the campaign you can mess around with your team and see how far down you can reach into the crater," Victor concludes.
After this I'm being introduced to the three pillars that Krater rests on. A clear cut presentation reminiscent of the rhetoric that usually dominates preview events and games further along in development. These three pillars are crafting, exploration and hardcore.
Crafting let's us create everything down to the most minute detail, everything from the weapons of our squad members to the potions we drink. Exploration will be reminiscent of the old Fallout games, there will be missions everywhere, and more dangerous area where you may not survive, but with great rewards. This also takes us to the third pillar, hardcore, and this has to do with the ambition to create a game that challenges gamers and that resonates with patient players.
Now the ball is really rolling. By chance I overhear that one of the members of Swedish rock band Bob Hund, Christian Gabel, is writing the music for the game. We can expect something along the lines of the Blade Runner score, apparently.
MEETING 4 - US Roundtrip
October 28, 11:10am
"Let's see... We started out in San Francisco where we met up with IGN, GamePro and... who was it now... Gamespot TV, Joystiq, US PC Gamer, and we were on Destructoid's live show and Gamezone. So it was an intense schedule."
When I find myself back in Martin Wahlund's office he tells me about a recent press trip to the States. It has only been a few weeks since I last pressed the button for the ninth floor and Fatshark, but it's obvious that things are accelerating. Both Krater and War of the Roses have been shown to the Yanks, and with the exception of one NHL game it's been all business on the trip:
"It was bloody good fun in the States, but also very tough," Martin tells me. "You get worn out travelling around that much."
The basic concept, the three pillars and a couple of screenshots have been presented to a selection of the media. Martin explains that it is difficult to not say too much, to tell just the right amount of information, and refrain from revealing secrets. How to explain what it's all about, without giving away specific details.
"We always want to show more, and show off the game. But the idea is to show just enough to explain it. Normally we wouldn't show anything this early, but we want to reach people with it."
The reactions from the American press have been positive. The crafting system was appreciated, and the Scandinavian setting was something that many found interesting. What Fatshark were concerned might be a weakness, relying on Swedish culture, proved to be one of Krater's strong points.
"Several actually said: 'go even harder on the Swedish stuff'. And this is something we've taken to heart, and we have replaced the palm trees with pine," Martin Wahlund explains.
"We used to have a more 'lush' setting initially. I mean: take a look out the window. It's easy to see why one would long for palm trees and parrots, when you're living in this kind of climate," Victor Magnuson adds and points to the dreadful weather outside.
November 3. Krater is officially announced and gaming press all over the world report the news. The press release starts with the following phrase: "We are proud to announce a game that has been on our minds for over 10 years,", many would see it as an empty phrase, but having witnessed parts of the development the statement carries more weight.
They know where they are headed, and how to proceed. There is still a lot of work left, and we will follow the progress with great interest. We've told you all there is to know so far, but there is one last thing. One important detail that may make or break Krater.
Martin smiles when I ask him:
"I'm sure we can add in a NPC called "Elfving" or something..."
Photos: Hanna Robertsdotter-Jansson / Fatshark.