Interview: Starbreeze Studiosâ?? Johan Kristiansson

As part of Develop’s special series of interviews with some of the world’s largest and most celebrated independent developers, we sit down with Starbreeze Studios CEO Johan Kristiansson following the release of the studio’s most high-profile title to date; The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.

Dark Athena includes a remake of Escape from Butcher Bay, the 2004 Xbox title that transformed the fortunes of Starbreeze. Though the company has gone through a very positive transition over the last few years, Kristiansson explains how some things – such as the impact of big budgets – never change.

Previous entries in our series includes Crytek’s Cevat Yerli, Rebellion’s Kingsley Brothers (pt 2), Grin’s Andersson brothers (pt 2), and High Voltage’s Eric Nofsinger.

Assault on Dark Athena may just be one of the most high profile and important titles Starbreeze has ever made. How much of a conscious decision was it to release the game in a traditionally ‘dry’ month?
The game was pretty much done a few months earlier, but due to the sale of the property from Activision to Atari, the launch was delayed.

Did you plan for the game to be released over Christmas?
It was the plan at one point, but I actually think it was good that the game was released in April. That gave us some additional time to polish the game, which is always appreciated.

It’s a really difficult trade off to make; either release a game when there’s lots of competition but busy shops, or instead releasing it when there’s less competition.

The game debuted at number two in the charts, which must have been good news. Nothing beats Wii Fit anyway.
Maybe we should bring out a Riddick Fitness game. I think Vin Diesel would make a perfect appearance there. [Laughs] Ulak aerobics with goggles!

You previously said that “revenue figures for the books and movies on Jason Bourne show that it is one of the largest properties currently in existence in the entertainment industry”. In light of recent global challenges, how important is it to stick to familiar brands?
It’s increasingly difficult for your game to stand out amongst the pack. I’d say that, with something like Jason Bourne, it’s almost impossible to get the same level of exposure with a new property.

Right now Starbreeze is hard at work on two franchise properties, but we also have some ideas for new original IPs that we are thinking about pursuing for the future.

You say that you’re currently working on two franchise-based titles; what kind of franchise Project RedLime will be?
I can’t really say right now. It’s a classic EA franchise.

Cross-media franchises tend to sell well regardless of their quality. Is there ever a danger that this can demotivate a development team, or make them complacent?
Not at all. We always want to make great games with great review scores. We want to make things that we can be proud of. That’s really what is driving us. Honestly, we panic every day about the quality of the games we work on!

There are no sure-fire hits in this industry; we are very aware of that.

Ian Stevens previously said: “I knew that as soon as [Activision and Vivendi] decided to merge, we were definitely not going to be publishing [Assault on Dark Athena with the publisher]”. Was it really so obvious?

When Activision merged, I think they wanted to focus on IPs that they owned completely. They have a couple of big licenses, but mostly we see that company and think of World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.

So, Riddick, being owned by Universal Studios didn’t seem like it was going to be a long-term proposition for them. That’s my guess at least, but actually I don’t really know why they decided to drop the deal.

Last year you spoke of the green-lighting process for games being a major problem for independent developers, a sentiment which we recently saw in our interview with Rebellion’s Kingsley brothers. For you, how has the situation evolved over the last year?
Games continue to become bigger financial commitments for the publisher. The more expensive the project, the higher up the corporate hierarchy your pitch has to go for it to be greenlit. And the marketing and distribution costs are probably growing even faster than the production costs.

These big numbers means that a lot of very senior people need to agree on everything before a big project is greenlit, and that takes time.

I don’t think this process will change. When budgets are this big, there will always be complex deals to negotiate. Signing a deal where you’re hand over tens of millions of dollars is not ever going to be a straightforward process. Look at Hollywood, those deals are even bigger and they often take years to sign.

Along with this, if you look at failure rates within this industry, it remains pretty high. I remember Forbes writing an article about how only 20 percent of greenlit games actually make it to launch and only 20 percent of the launched games make a profit. That´s pretty scary…

Recently we saw Ubisoft post its quarterly financial results, where we heard CEO Yves Guillemot say that his company was going to focus on internal development, as it was a core strength that could be better controlled. What does wholesale internalised production mean for quality of publisher output?
I personally think it’s more difficult to be creative in a larger corporate environment. Larger companies are – by nature – always slower with making decisions in game production. In an independent studio I think the staff usually has a stronger feeling of ownership-attachment to their properties; and you can develop a more tightly knit team over a long period of time as well.

An independent studio is always going to be more creative, and I think it’s important that publishers let them be independent during production, let them have control of their product. If indies are too close to their publishers, that can also damage the decision making process and the overall game quality.

Finally, something I’ve always wanted to ask; why is Starbreeze always so attracted to the FPS genre?
[Laughs] Well, we think that gives the best kind of immersion. The graphical quality in the first-person perspective is placed under more graphical scrutiny, and that’s where you have the chance to make a game look really good.

It’s good to mix first and third-person perspectives in certain situations. But, when you’re following a character in third person, rather than being inside one, you’re never as close to the action as you’d like to be.

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