Starbreeze’s CEO discusses the rebirth of the studio

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Starbreeze is not the company it used to be, literally and figuratively. The studio gained notoriety ten years ago after finishing the critically acclaimed The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, and went on to make a series of imperfect but memorable action games in its wake, including The Darkness and Butcher Bay follow up The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. In 2009, however, the core team behind those games left to found the ZeniMax-owned studio Machine Games. After finishing Syndicate, even the company’s old CEO John Kristiansson left the company. 

Mikael Nermark_Photo
Mikael Nemark

Current CEO Mikael Nemark isn’t interested in the past, though. He set out to rebuild the studio in 2012, and its first game under his leadership, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, is a clear statement about its future: Starbreeze makes original games. Digital Trends recently spoke with Nemark about Brothers, Starbreeze, his ill-fated studio GRIN (maker of Bionic Commando), and the Swedish game development community. 

Your predecessor Johan Kristiansson described Starbreeze’s arc over the past fifteen years as a series of changing focuses: The focus of Riddick was on making high end technology, the focus of The Darkness was on storytelling, and the focus of Syndicate was on a single, strong core mechanic. What would you say is the focus of Brothers?

Brothers is about the experience, it is a personal game that evokes emotion and encourages curiosity and adventure.

Describe for me your transition to Starbreeze in 2011. How has the studio changed since finishing and shipping Syndicate, to today?

The studio now has a smaller core team who works closely with one another instead of dealing with middle management. This way, the team has gone back to basics, creating in an open, garage-type environment. We want them to have fun making games being supported by the company but without feeling confined by company structure.

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When you took over as CEO of Starbreeze, you noted that that the studio had to accommodate the shift in the game industry towards digital distribution. Brothers is Starbreeze’s first downloadable title. It’s also an original IP, which is a risky proposition, especially for a studio whose background is in licenses and older, established IP like Syndicate. Why make an original game now?

We decided to move away from “work for hire” so Starbreeze could focus on developing their own IPs. I have always believed that it’s an important element needed to create a great experience, it comes from passion and love for what you do. As fun as it can be working on someone else’s IP, it doesn’t let you really explore and tell your story because you are not in full control. I think that Brothers, even though it is a genre we have never explored before, has the same Starbreeze DNA as all of our games – storytelling, high-fidelity graphics and strong core mechanics.

What changed in Starbreeze’s creative process in switching to an original title?

I would say it is more a change of mindset and how we look at games. We don’t talk about games as just games, we talk about building an experience. We understand that gamers, like everybody else, have limited time to spend on gaming and we want our experience/game to be time well spent.

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How has your management of Starbreeze differed from your time at GRIN? Why did GRIN collapse?

I wouldn’t say my management style has changed drastically, rather the situation is very different especially in regard to timing and luck.

How has Sweden’s development community changed in the past five years? In 2008, Sweden was booming in the retail console game business, but since it has splintered into many smaller studios working on digital-only projects. What is the future of the Swedish development community?

Sweden is a very innovative and high-tech country so it is only natural that the development studios are adapting to an age of digital downloads. I have no doubt that Swedish developers will continue to adapt to what is happening around us.

Why do you think large publishers are so resistant to single-player, story-based games when the evidence suggests they can be hugely successful? How difficult has it been for you to convince others that Starbreeze’s focus on original, artful IP is a path to success?

I cannot answer that question because, obviously, I think differently. To me, we have already achieved success with Brothers, it is our first IP, we have created something different and we took a chance.

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Now that Brothers is months away from release, are you ready to discuss the release timing for “Cold Mercury?” I know that “Cold Mercury” is built around the freemium pay model.

I am not able to comment on this.

Brothers is releasing at a delicate time, right as the console transition is beginning, and at a time when Microsoft and Sony are purportedly backing away from backwards compatibility. How will Starbreeze prepare Brothers for the PS4/Next Xbox landscape?

We are solely focused on Brothers for current-gen platforms.

Why did you get into the video game industry? What is the dream game that you want to see your company make?

In all honesty I never thought I would work in this industry, I just fell into it when a friend recommended me for a job. I was offered the job during the first interview and I accepted because I saw it as a great challenge. I had no previous experience in the industry other than playing games. My dream game; I need to give that some thought.

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