Develop catches up with the Finnish studio behind Alan Wake
First revealed at E3 in 2005, Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake has enjoyed an infamously long gestation period as its developer has toiled away at realising an ambitious project.
Both studio and game have been closely watched – at least, as closely as something so heavily guarded can be. As a Microsoft-exclusive (the game is being made for both the Xbox 360 and Vista) it has teased fanboys; it’s protracted development time has meanwhile lead those working in the industry to speculate that the game could end up being one of the most expensive developed in Europe given its lengthy production cycle.
But with a spring 2010 release date confirmed at E3 2009, rumours about the game’s immenent abandonment have finally been put to sleep, and a wealth of slick screenshots have been unveiled.
Billed as a story-lead psychological action thriller, Alan Wake boasts some impressive tech, particularly in terms of motion capture. In February Espoo-based Remedy confirmed a partnership with Imagination Studios, formerly known as Northern Light Studios, which is revitalising the project with mo-cap and animation services.
Remedy’s project follows the exploits of a best-selling suspense author suffering from writer’s block, who escapes to a small town only to face the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée.
To find out more about the making of the game, Develop sat down with some of the Remedy team to find out more about a title that is still shrouded in mystery.
That meant speaking to several key figures at the company – namely the game’s lead writer Sam Lake, Remedy development director Markus Mäki, lead technical artist Sami Vanhatalo, and Oskari Häkkinen, who has the rather interesting title of head of franchise development.
How did you conceive the original idea for Alan Wake, and what were its inspirations?
Sam Lake: Right from the start we knew we wanted to have a modern day real world setting, but even with that base, we wanted to have gameplay options that would allow us to break the laws of reality in some way. By making it subjective, something that may or may not be true, as is the case in a psychological thriller, we managed to find a good balance between the two.
We were making an action game, but we didn’t want an action hero as the main character, we wanted a capable everyman, someone flawed, but smart and likeable. We wanted to make a story-driven game, and we knew that we wanted to use narration as a story-telling tool. A writer – a professional storyteller – seemed like a prefect choice.
And finally, we wanted to use an idyllic all-American small town as our setting, something seen over and over again in movies and TV-series, such as Twin Peaks, but not so much in video games.
The role of narration as a story-telling tool comes up time and again with reference to Alan Wake – both in terms of its creation and story itself. Did the focus on narration require a different type of approach to production and design to that typical of an action game?
SL: We started out with the story, and worked our way to the gameplay and game world from there. Naturally the ideas and discoveries we made with the gameplay prototyping, and while building our technology and the game world, meant that the story had to be rewritten many times along the way, but the core concepts of the original story still remain.
How has the use of outsourcing complemented production?
Markus Mäki: Remedy is a reasonably small team, with just over 40 persons. Outsourcing is a key model for complementing the team and giving us more flexibility in pre-production schedules. It also allows us to get more expertise, gather knowledge and work with talented people who know their focus area.
And that’s why you took the outsourcing approach?
MM: Outsourcing some of our production is in our opinion the smart way to go. It has allowed our team to stay focused on the creative and technical aspects of the production process which are probably the most important drivers in making a cool game. We can also keep the work interesting and challenging for our team and concentrate on what we know best.
You have choose to work with new mo-cap techniques with Alan Wake. What exactly was the new mo-cap tech you implemented?
Sami Vanhatalo: We are constantly working to improve our processes, to take our games to the next level and to give the best possible experience to the gamer. Co-operating with Imagination Studios on facial motion capture to bring our characters to life is only the most recent example.
What other new technologies, internal or outsourced, have you used in Alan Wake?
MM: We have a wealth of cool, never seen before technology in our game. The lighting technology is obviously the most visible one, but I’m also proud of our landscape and vegetation. We also have screen-space ambient occlusion; I don’t at least know of any shipped Xbox 360 title that has it. From the outsourced technologies I could mention a recent addition, Umbra Software’s occlusion culling solution that has simplified our tech and has given us a nice performance boost.
Alan Wake has been in gestation for sometime – have you consciously had a longer production cycle?
Oskari Häkkinen: As a company Remedy aims to create intellectual properties that have unique concepts and entertain wide audiences. We feel that the Remedy brand is a seal of quality, and we want our followers to feel this too. We have always been driven by our own quality bar, not by timelines. Whereas this approach often takes on a longer development cycle we believe our concept serves the gamers as well as our company’s internal high expectations.
Do you think that taking so long on creating Alan Wake makes consumers’ expectations higher? Does that put any added pressure on you?
OH: We stepped into this project knowing that it would take a generous investment in time to get it right; creating a new concept that works and taking the time to mould ideas into something tangible always does. We believe that when the player gets their hands on Alan Wake they will see where we have put careful time and thought into every small detail to create that great gaming experience.
Now that you draw to the end of Alan Wake’s creation, is this kind of extended development cycle a model you’d like to continue with in the future?
OH: We believe we have a quality bar to live up to, and we are only as good as our last project. We strive to improve and deliver innovative games with unique features – break barriers so to speak –and this takes time, but our end result should always speak for itself.
What has Microsoft been like to work with as a publisher? Has it been understanding in its support for the longer development time Alan Wake has taken?
OH: Microsoft has been very understanding of the development schedule and the vision for Alan Wake throughout the development. Both Microsoft and Remedy are committed to only the highest quality of games and that is something I hope gamers will notice when they play Alan Wake.
Rockstar Vancouver is now developing the third Max Payne game. How do you feel about an IP so integral to your studio history being developed by another studio? Are you involved at all?
OH: Honoured, in one word. The Max Payne franchise was a fantastic project which brought us a lot of joy and success, so to see it being kept alive is a living commendation of our work and to our achievements in our past projects.
Have you managed to benefit from financial aid from the likes of Tekes and other Finnish funding initiatives that assist game development and R&D in your country?
MM: Tekes has been a tremendous help to reduce the risks in our technology development and company development efforts. Tekes is a valuable support arm and one of the reasons why Finland is a great country for games