[In this candid and thoughtful postmortem, Arrowhead Game Studios CEO Johan Pilestedt describes the haphazard "process" behind the Sweden-based development of the PC game Magicka, showing how lack of experience can lead to pitfalls, even when you have the best advice.]
As I enter the office, I notice the couch in front of the TV is still out of place from the video interviews we did last week. On the wall hangs a spoof Magicka poster, and in a glass display near to the door is our first big award -- the "Swedish Game Awards 2008" trophy, and beside it is Extra Credit's "Most Unbelievable Awesome Fun" award.
Programmer Peter Lindgren and CFO Robin Cederholm are discussing their weekends -- it's Monday at Arrowhead Game Studios and I can't help but think how we got to this point, much like Frodo and Sam must've wondered as they returned to the Shire after their long journey.
After three and a half years, it is difficult to finally be able to look back at what happened during that last year in college without feeling a darkness stirring inside. Behind our first title, Magicka, hides a story of bravery, pain, personal crisis, and most of all, passion.
I will, in the following pages, take you through what we as the developers of this light-hearted game have been through, as well as the rights and wrongs made along the way.
What Went Right
1. A Child of Love
Magicka was first thought of in college, a simple idea full of classical fantasy elements, reminiscent of the games we used to play, like Dragons and Daemons (a classical Swedish take on Dungeons & Dragons). We wanted our game to evoke the grand and cheesy plot lines of childhood adventure games like Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle, with its bizarre and wonderful humor.
We also wanted a dynamic spell casting system -- something that in games should make the player feel as if they were taming the secret arcane energies of the world and not just tapping a button to drain an impersonal mana-bar. This ambition gave rise to the simple idea of having elements that give meaning to each spell, and vary its efficiency.
Essentially, one could say that Magicka is pretty much a love child of pen and paper RPGs and the humor of the LucasArts adventure games.
This mix resulted in the most crucial facet of Magicka's development -- having a concept which all of us, as developers, thoroughly and deeply loved, gave us not a spark of passion, but a flame that burned throughout the entire development process, and more importantly, united everyone's vision in terms of which kind of game we were making.
2. Oblivion is Bliss
As none of us had any real game development experience, every idea got evaluated not on the basis of viability, budget or its possible return value, but from the author of said idea telling the rest of us about the hilarious situations that could arise from the envisioned gameplay mechanics or simply describing a character, his background and his motivation.
I suppose everyone in the games development industry has these weird discussions during breaks about what would've been hilarious -- small ideas that barely get noticed or that one simply dismisses as jokes.
For our team, these ranged from the modest "It'd be great if the Druids had a Monty Python 'Knights who says ni' kind of voice" to the wacky "What if the warlocks had captured the king inside the king's hall and built this really elaborate James Bond-esque drill, powered by a bicycle-riding orc, to kill said king," and the outrageous "Let's just make all animals except the dead moose out of wood — like toys."
For us, these ideas came to fruition and the decisions were made on the basis of what was good for the game, and ideas were never too stupid or silly to implement. If all of us thought it was fun, we reasoned that it probably was.
3. The Sense of Feeling
From the start we had this saying -- "that's too much fun."
I've been asked countless times how we managed to create the humor in Magicka, as humor is supposed to be such a tricky thing to get right. The thing is, almost everyone out there overdoes it. Most ideas are good to start with, but when you complicate things by considering how many people are going to "get it," if they're really going to understand that it's a joke and whether the joke will be accessible to "everyone," you fail to realize that half the joke depends on its subtlety.
The secret recipe that we use at Arrowhead for most of our creative decisions is based on the firm conviction that "something that's made for everyone is made for no one." By doing something that only a small crowd will enjoy, this small crowd will appreciate it even more. And if this small thing doesn't resonate with the rest of the crowd it will be, in a sense, a shared secret between us developers and the gamers.
When deciding which genre of humor we'd have in the game, pop culture references were the ones most widely available to us, as that's pretty much what we joke about in our spare time anyways. If you take Family Guy into account, there sure seems to be a market for that kind of humor.
Monty Python and Terry Pratchet also fit very well into the general absurdity that hits home for us as developers, so some of that went in there as well, giving birth to some of the best moments in the game such as Vlad, as well as the peasants disrespecting wizards who are unable to clarify situations.
So, what's there to learn from all this? I reckon that the more familiar you are with a subject, the easier it is to successfully create humor based around that topic. We constantly joke about these things during lunch breaks, and therefore it comes pretty naturally. When we were coming up with a joke about a specific subject, the person with the best understanding of that topic was put in charge.