Develop heads deep into the Swedish woods to find out exactly what is going on

Cabin Fever: Inside the Stugan accelerator nurturing new talent

Turning off the last true road that leads to the cluster of cabins that make up the Stugan site, it’s hard to believe anything like games development is taking place there.

Yet that is exactly what is happening. At the end of a gravel track, amidst a striking landscape shaped by copper mining near Sweden’s industrial town of Falun, a number of rust-red huts are scattered through dense woodland. Encircled by vast, placid lakes, the cabins give their Swedish language name to the Stugan project, and inside their walls, hand-picked developers are working hard on building distinct new games.

At least, most of them are. Others are swimming in the lakes, eating local food on a jetty, or wandering deep in the forest alone. It’s summer in Sweden, when the sun barely sets, and in the eerie evening light it’s an undeniably beautiful spot.

And that’s exactly why a non-profit games accelerator is taking place there. Or rather, it was taking place there. At the time of writing the inaugural Stugan has just concluded, and it is time for the developers to fledge the nest while the organisers look back at the project’s achievements.

Shedding light

The Stugan concept was the brainchild of former King games guru Tommy Palm – famous for his role taking Candy Crush Saga to mobile, and now CEO of his own outfit, Resolution games – and Rovio Stockholm’s general manager Oskar Burman. There’s been ample input and sponsorship from others too, from Avalanche’s founder and CCO Christofer Sundberg to Mojang’s business development specialist Daniel Kaplan. Alexander Ekvall, previously of King, is also a founder, while Jana Karlikova stands as the project’s manager.

And for all involved, the idea of Stugan came from wanting to give back to an industry and creative space in which they’d flourished. For Burman, in particular, though, the idea was a long-held concept, itself born in one of those cabins.

“My first professional game I ever created was indeed partly created in one of those Swedish cottages during the early ‘90s, as me and friends spent weekends and summer breaks creating the Atari ST first-person shooter Substation,” he explains.

“The focus and inspiration we found out there was special, and since then the idea of gathering developers out in the forest has stuck with me.”

However, it wasn’t until the recent indie revolution that Burman finally had his chance to make that idea tangible. And as it happened, Palm had been pondering similar schemes, himself inspired by both contemporary game accelerators and Andy Warhol’s influential collective New York studio space The Factory.

“Really we just kind of merged our ideas, and that’s how it came about,” states Palm.

It was decided to invite 15 teams from all over the world to join the Stugan, which would be defined by a non-profit structure. The teams would bring games in various states to Falun’s countryside, and spend eight weeks in rural isolation working on those games, while digesting the insights of a stream of visiting mentors.

“One thing that makes Stugan different, I think, is that we don’t have any commercial demands on the games that we’re looking for,” Palm muses. “That allows us to be a little bit more open in what games we can have at Stugan. Most accelerators would take apart a game and look for what they thought was commercially viable, whereas at Stugan we don’t need to worry about that, so we can take more risks.”

It’s a model so free from cares about convention it was bound to attract its critics. A few of social media’s less kind observers were quick to paint a picture of Stugan as a place harbouring privileged hipsters sipping craft beers as they strolled through woodland concocting pretentious game concepts. But could that be the case?

Stug life

Visiting Stugan, in fact, reveals a rather different ideal. Certainly as accelerators go, it is distinct, yet not wilfully unusual. The developers involved are a largely youthful bunch, picked for their individual approach to games making, but they are not by default hipster contrarians. Most are building a game that they hope will thrive and dazzle diverse audiences like any successful game, and a number of the titles respect genre conventions conservatively.

But being at Stugan isn’t just a place where the developers toil at desks. And visiting the site also means getting involved. It’s a place about contribution and collaboration, meaning even a passing journalist is also there as a mentor and a speaker, and expected to meet the initiation ritual that is swimming in those lakes.

Back on dry land, its time to enter some of the cabins, and get a sense of what Stugan really is. A handful of rooms house several developers working on different projects in unison. Elsewhere walls are caked with Post-It notes as narratives are thrashed into shape, while beyond a kitchen a multiplayer testing session is underway.

What is immediately apparent is that the developers – who have affectionately branded themselves ‘Stuganeers’ – aren’t sticking to the confines of their own development teams. Stugan has, in its short life engendered a community, and it very much feels like an accelerator where a group of developers are making a group of games as a single act.

“We’re all in the trenches together, struggling and fighting to make our games happen,” offers Clint Siu, who is working on his magnificently pretty puzzler Prism throughout Stugan.

“Besides giving technical help, we give each other moral support, which can be just as important."

“Having people around that can relate to what you’re going through is really comforting and reassuring,” he later adds. “I really, really want everyone’s games to do well and be successful. Even though we only have two months here with each other, these guys are my friends for life now.”

Stugan syndrome

Then he finishes with a flourish that typifies the lively camaraderie emerging at Stugan.

“Stug life for life,” he jokes, making a nod to Tupac Shakur’s music that contrasts playfully with the lush rural surroundings.

And Siu isn’t the only Stuganeer feeling the love of a good community.

“These are my first forays into the indie scene and it can be a little isolating,” offers Simon Ashbery, lead artist and designer on Rosvita, a slick puzzle-platformer by the Rosvita Works team. “I’ve worked in the industry for a few years, but when you are a cog in a larger machine it can be hard to see the wider community. At Stugan I have found that community.”

Made With Monster Love’s Peter Cardwell-Gardner, whose game Cadence mixes rhythm action and puzzle elements to explore basic concepts of electronic music production, adds: “For me it’s not so much that fact these people are game developers, as much as the fact that I’m getting quality time with real friends.

“That’s a facet of modern life – interactions are ever more fleeting, and being a games developer doesn’t help because you’re already keeping a computer company all day. So from that point of view it’s been great to just hang out and laugh at times.”

It’s a similar story for Laura Stokes, who with teammate Izzy Gramp is working on adventure game Intergalactic Space Princess as Geeiz Games; a studio with much to gain from Stugan’s community-centric make-up.

“For some of us we are considered weird back home, and here at Stugan we found fellow weirdos, who are just as passionate,” stokes says. “The community here felt very important to our processes. From sharing ideas [and] opinions, to playtesting and critiquing. Everyone offered a different insight which you just cannot get anywhere – all at once and so many varied opinions.”

And for the organisers, that community – while not a complete surprise – has brought more to the table than they had hoped for.

“The community is like a bonus,” admits project manager Karlikova. “We were hoping for it, and hoped people would collaborate. At the beginning there was a big decision: should we make this a competition or not? In the end we decided not to run Stugan as a competition, and that’s meant people are really very helpful to each other and working together.”

That shared experience, Karlikova says, has become tremendously important to Stugan, and impacted each visiting mentor, from game design veterans to experts in middleware and services.

“I think we’re going to stay friends forever,” she says, demonstrating that even the project’s manager isn’t immune to the community spirit.

Palm, meanwhile, has a rather more tongue-in-cheek theory.

“They’re all just suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome, after being kidnapped up here,” he quips.

Rural development

Yet, for all the talk of community, it’s impossible to ignore how distinct Stugan’s setting is. Those looming evergreen trees and the mirror-flat lakes also have something to add beyond a picturesque backdrop.

“While I can’t say for certain how the Stugan setting has influenced the game, there’s been some thorny design problems that I’ve solved while here, that I suspect I would’ve solved differently were I in my typical work environment,” offers Bryan Gale, a UK indie working on Induction, a puzzler about time travel and paradoxes.

“And given how great this environment is for finding uninterrupted time to just think, I hope the solutions I’ve come up with here are the better ones.”

Amy Dentana, reflecting on the environment that plays backdrop to her creation of Sunshine, a fascinating first-person exploration game that explores issues around privacy and security, adds: “Being surrounded by nature brings in a host of other benefits to the creative type.

“Walks are great when looking for inspiration or when facing a creative or technical problem. Having a lake and a running course at your doorstep makes it really hard to come up with an excuse not to exercise. Finally, during the summer here we only get about three hour’s worth of night time every day – that’s got to be good for working, right?”

Certainly, Dentana and many of the others aren’t afraid of the all-night coding session, and it appears that the near-constant daylight has fostered several development marathons. There’s hard work underway at Stugan, even if it is pock-marked by those midnight strolls and early morning swims.

A successful Stugan?

When it comes down to the all-important question of Stugan inspiring its members, accelerating their games and improving them as developers, it seems the project reached its ambitions. While Palm admits he was nervous with the concept making its debut, it seems the impact on the Stuganeers has been profound.

“[I’ve been impacted] very, very profoundly. I am not exaggerating,” insists Wendelin Reich, whose canine-focused game A Dog’s Heart also presents a bold new AI technology. “My project is very ambitious on the tech side and I have been working on it for more than four years. Stugan has really been the first time that I showed my project to total strangers.”

And, Wendelin asserts, the influence of his fellow developers, as well as of the visiting mentors, has been especially significant.

“That has worked really well for me,” he continues. “I made a platform pivot while I was here and changed and tuned many aspects of my game.”

Now, of course, Stugan is done for the year. The teams are making their ways back out into the world emboldened and empowered, and the mentors are considering what’s next. Everybody agrees Stugan has been a success, certainly. And now there’s an appetite for more.

“All in all, I really hope and believe we can turn this into a annual thing, as we now will have ambassadors going back home, preaching about Stugan,” concludes Burman.

“Before this year, we were just some crazy game execs in Sweden with an unproven idea.”

The last word, however, should go to Mark Backler, a UK-based developer with a wealth of on-staff games development experience behind him who went to Stugan to flesh out his own atypical platformer The Last Word.

“It’s amazing to have such highly successful people like Tommy Palm and Oskar Burman interested in your success just because you sent them a video of a game you’re making that they liked,” muses Backler. “Stugan is a pretty incredible experience and we all feel really lucky to be here.

“Everyone expects you to have to give up your IP or a share in your company but there’s nothing like that,” he later adds.

“So if you’re reading this and are working on your own game, then make sure you apply for Stugan 2016.”

Image credits: Izzy Gramp

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