Weekly Studio: Remedy

The Weekly Studio series visits the workplaces of interesting people. This week it’s time to see the space of  Remedy Entertainment. Crystal Bennes met Tommi Salasti who is the Principal Gameplay Designer and the Lead Designer of Control, Paul Ehreth.

Could you both say a little about your backgrounds and how you came to be involved with gaming?

Tommi: I started working with games in the mid 90s, not through programming, but through modifications. With mods, you can’t touch the game’s code, but you can create additional levels and modify existing content. Later, I learned some programming. But in 2001, a game called Max Payne [Remedy’s first breakout game] came out. I’d been following the game for years and when it finally released, I was mainly interested in the accompanying tools. I finished the game in one day and then opened the tools to figure out how things worked. That’s when my schooling started to go downhill because I spent all of my time working with these tools. I took the self-taught route to game design.

What are modifications?

Tommi: They’re add-ons that modify the existing content of the game. Sometimes companies provide them so you can create whole new levels, things like that, but in other cases, you aren’t provided with any official tools and you find ways to hack the game. In my case, most of the tools were provided. With Max Payne, you were given the full production tools used in creating the actual game. That’s a really good starting point.

Was it a relatively common practice to provide those tools?

Tommi: I think it was more common in the past. Now, most things centre around a couple of engines, like Unreal and Unity, which anyone can download for free. But, back in the day, it wasn’t so common to provide users with custom tools.

How long have you been at Remedy?

Tommi: 12 years in January. This is my first actual job. I dropped out of college when I was 21 and then pursued this career.

And you, Paul?

Paul: It’s funny hearing Tommi’s history as we’re similar in a lot of ways. Except this is the 10th games company that I’ve worked for. I also started out in the modding scene. I was about 16 years old when I played a game called Half Life which came with tools for building levels and replacing assets. You could build your own 3D models and things like that. I started trying to do as much as I could and when I couldn’t figure out how to programme, I found someone online in a forum who could do programming. He and I worked on a mod together and I released it when I was 16 or 17 years old. It was actually quite popular, with something like 80,000 downloads. That’s when I realised I could actually make a game that people wanted to play. It’s more of the grassroots approach to video game development. Instead of going to school and learning about it academically, you start by getting your hands dirty.

Tommi: Back in the day, they didn’t have studies centred around game development. Of course, you could have studied programming, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with game design.

Would you say your colleagues came into games in a similar way or are the backgrounds more varied?

Paul: In my experience, it’s varied. I’ve worked with everyone from people with no college education who got in by building games themselves to people who have a Master’s in biochemistry but who really liked video games and came in that way.

Let’s talk about the culture of Remedy. What’s it like to work there? 

Tommi: Remedy has always felt like a family rather than a corporation. When I started, I was employee number 27 and now we’re at 180. Even though more people have joined and it’s impossible to know everyone personally, the company has held on to its family-like feeling.

Paul: I think that’s true. I’ve worked at studios with 600 people and studios that were start-ups where I was employee number one in a room of three people. Remedy is almost the perfect mix in that you have impact and influence, you feel like you can directly impact details of the project, but you also have the power to build games that feature larger and more detailed moments than you’d be able to achieve at a tiny studio.

If I think about the process of designing a new piece of furniture for a decent-size manufacturer, before the designer starts designing, they have to deal with a brief based on things like target market and commercial imperatives. Is there something similar with game design?

Paul: Like many things, there’s a spectrum. On one side, you have people who come up with a game that they’re passionate about who then build it without thinking about things like target audience. On the other side, you have an ultra-corporate approach where games are designed by focus groups and industry trends. I think it’s healthy to combine the two. Too much artistry and you run the risk of alienating your players. Too much commercialism, you might make a game that’s too boring to interest anyone.

The process of designing a new game starts with a pitch. How much information is contained in a pitch? 

Paul: It really depends. Generally, I take the approach that you want to put in as much information as possible to really blow peoples’ socks off. Although, I tend to struggle with the fact that much of the vision for a game is in my head and it can be difficult to fully communicate that to other people.

Tommi: It’s also important to start building prototypes as soon as possible in order to clearly communicate the vision, especially before you start pouring in more resources. Whenever I hear a new pitch, I get excited and immediately start testing ideas in a prototype environment. The prototyping process is important as it ensures you can really trust that you’re going to be making a fun game. In the early phases, you have to quickly figure out what works and what doesn’t to get to the core of what will make the game great.

Paul: That’s an excellent point. I think Tommi and I see things similarly since we started out in a similar way. You really want to jump straight into the guts of the game and start making something and find the fun. Some projects are sold purely on the vision of the pitch without prototyping. When you make games that way, they don’t always feel good to play.

Let’s talk about Control. It’s set in the Federal Bureau of Control and it’s all about controlling dangerous forces. There’s an obvious connection to be made with American politics. Is the design team drawing or commenting on current affairs?

Paul: Everyone involved in the project is influenced by the world we live in and of course we draw upon these things when we do our work. Sometimes things just line up and this is an example where the mood and the game situation have lined up with some of the things happening in the world. But I wouldn’t say there’s any explicit political intent behind that.

In one of videos on the making of Control, somebody said that the game was ‘less cinematic and more environmental’ – can you expand?

Paul: In games, you have all kinds of styles. Some are narrative-forward, like an interactive novel. Other types give a player more freedom in how they play and are less tied to a storyline. Chess is a good example. Previous Remedy games have been more linear, driven by strong stories and characters. With Control, we wanted to draw on that history but open up to give the player more choice in how they experience the game.

Because this is Finland, when I speak with, for example, product designers, functionality often comes up as a topic of conversation. How, if at all, does a concern for functionality manifest itself in game design?

Paul: Again, there are multiple approaches to building games. Certain designers have a strong vision of an experience they want to create and then they try to find a way to make that functional. They try to find a way to build that experience. Other designers think more functionally, usually through trying to solve a problem. They then try to find a way to make that more aesthetically appealing. It’s always a two-way street with design. One mode brings benefits that the other may not That’s what’s so amazing about design. You have aesthetics on one side of the spectrum and engineering on the other and design is about bringing these two things together in the best possible way.

Are those roles performed by different people? Or are they combined in one function?

Tommi: At the end of the day, Remedy’s culture allows everyone to have a say in both—the functionality and the aesthetic of a project. We all share ideas about how things should work and then we try to make the best possible decision together.

As game designers, to what extent do you pay attention to broader industry trends?

Tommi: Personally, I’m always playing new games because it’s part of my job, but it’s also my passion. It’s only natural that you’re influenced and inspired by other games. Although it affects how I think about my personal projects, I definitely wouldn’t do something just because it’s being done elsewhere.

Paul: I think that trends have a deeper social root. When someone creates something so impactful, other people are inspired to echo it. To me, Remedy has always been a company that didn’t follow trends. In fact, their ideas often set trends and one thing I really like about the company is that we don’t feel so much pressure to follow industry trends. I think there’s a cultural value to follow our own interests and be true to ourselves.

Something that interests me about inspiration and influence is the anxiety in the creative industries around copying and originality. Even though we recognise that imitation is the bedrock of creativity, there’s still a weird angst about it.

Paul: There’s definitely some truth to that. Obviously, you don’t want to play a game and directly lift what someone else has done. But when something works really well, part of the interest is in finding out what it is exactly that makes it work so well and then try to answer that question in a slightly different way.

Tommi: So often I think game design evolves because one game does something really well and then other designers get inspired and push things a bit further. Then, maybe another company jumps in and puts their own spin on it. There’s something very interesting about this constantly evolving shared design language.

Paul: It also forces you to be more creative. For example, there was a system in Control that we realised was very similar to another game’s system. Even though we weren’t aware of it when we designed it, as soon as we realised the similarity, it made us want to push ourselves to something completely different. In the end, I think we came up with a much better solution than we had at the beginning.

And are game designers quite open about sharing processes and techniques?

Tommi: From what I’ve seen in conferences like the Game Developers Conference, it’s a very open community where people share their stories and findings. It feels very open minded. Designers don’t keep things to themselves. There’s a feeling that people want to share and help each other out.

Paul: With things like GDC, it’s interesting how it’s evolved over the years. At the beginning, people guarded their methods like they were trade secrets. But now, it’s opened up more and more, almost to the extent that sharing methods has become a valuable currency.

Any last words?

Tommi: I think what inspired me to make games is the fact that they allow you to do so many things at once. It’s not that you only look or listen or read, but you do all three of those things at the same time, and you also get to interact with everything that’s happening on screen. That quality is the thing that made me want to become part of this industry.

Paul: There are so many different forms of entertainment, books and music and theatre and so on. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too pretentious, but what fascinates me about games is that they combine all of these together into one master entertainment. On top of that, games are interactive. It’s a challenge to bring those together. I’m endlessly fascinated by the process. I get super excited when I see what the audio and music composers are doing, or when I see what the animators and the writers are doing. Game design always feels fresh to me because it’s about bringing many different kinds of entertainment together into one giant experience.