Fatshark: Third-party game engines can limit innovation

Fatshark: Third-party game engines can limit innovation
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

October 6th 2015 at 3:30PM

CEO Martin Wahlund on building BitSquid, selling it to Autodesk and making the move to self-publishing

Fatshark Games has a long history of working with publishers on the development of games like Escape Dead Island, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, War of the Roses and Cobalt. The studio also had a separate division responsible for the BitSquid game engine.

But last year the tech was bought by Autodesk and turned into Stingray, and well as as shifting away from the tech's development, the company is now getting into self-publishing. It’s a complete transformation for the studio.

Fatshark CEO Martin Wahlund says developing and marketing the BitSquid engine became a daunting task, particularly when competing with the likes of Unity and Epic’s Unreal Engine in the space.

He and other senior staff realised that to compete, it would need to raise a lot of funding to continue development, or find a partner. After an approach by Autodesk, the team felt the right decision for both the company and its tech was to sell it.

“What happened was at some point we realised, when Unity and Unreal started to drop the pricing, we had two options,” he says. “Basically we felt like the engine was so good we needed to market it and bring it out. And we were up against two giants. We felt like either we raised a lot of funds and try to develop it ourselves, or we find a partner.

“Autodesk talked to us quite early about their interest in the engine, so we spoke to them and we decided to sell the company (BitSquid). Which was good because we felt this was a good partner, they had the tools, the customer base and they are good with user interaction stuff. It was a good fit.

“We asked what do they want to do with BitSquid, as we obviously still wanted to continue to use it in our games. They listened very much to that, and are focused on continuing what we started, which is great.”

Its new title, the self-published and Games Workshop licensed Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide, has been built on the Stingray engine. Though its reasons for keeping with what it knows are obvious, Wahlund says that despite this, developers should always consider what tech they’ll use on a case-by-case basis. And a third-party engine isn’t always the ideal choice.

“It’s very much depending on the game,” he states. “If you’re doing a game that you can handle, you should go with an engine. But if you wanted Minecraft, you’d have to go with your own engine, obviously. Because it depends on, if you want to do something truly innovative, in some ways you can be limited by a [third-party] engine.”

He adds: “But be careful. Pick the right engine. Because, people ask, which is the best engine? But I would say there’s a lot of options where Unity is the best engine, where Stingray nowadays is the right engine, and there’s people where Unreal is the best engine. So you need to look at the game and look at which engine is the best fit for your game. I think that’s the key lesson.”

Though the team is well aware of the demands of game development, the move to self-publishing presents a new challenge for the studio. It has been used to working for publishers, which Wahlund says has its pros and cons.

With Vermintide, the studio now has to do everything itself. From setting up its own store page and marketing to being solely accountable for the game’s quality. With a publisher, he says it can be easy for developers to blame a broken game or poor quality on them, but through self-publishing, “there’s nobody to blame but ourselves”.

But what self-publishing does bring is greater control, particularly on release dates. Though developers can disagree with a publisher, they ultimately don’t have the final say, and must act professional in any partnership, despite their beliefs.

“If you’re working with a publisher, many publishers will say we have a slot here, and they release the game no matter what,” he said.

“You can say as a developer it’s not done, it’s not good enough, we can’t release it. But you can’t control the release date as a developer most of the time. So I think that’s something we have learned, that to make a really good game, you need to control the release date. You need to be able to push it one month if it’s not good enough.”

Wahlund doesn't rule out working for publishers on new titles again in future. But for now, the studio is focused on developing its own titles, starting with Vermintide.