Co-founder Mikkel Thorsted tells Develop how three students went from forming their own indie outfit to becoming a first-party Microsoft studio
An unlikely development team for a Microsoft Studios acquisition, Press Play started out as a three-man indie outfit off the shores of Copenhagen in Denmark.
The studio was formed by computer science and communication students Ole Teglbjærg, Rune Dittmer and Mikkel Thorsted. Despite only just finishing school, Thorsted says the young developers took a “cocky, fresh-out-of-college approach” to take on the world of internet Flash games and develop better and more interesting titles than those that had already flooded the market.
Its debut game, however, was platformer Max & the Magic Marker for multiple systems such as the PSN, WiiWare, Nintendo DS, iOS and Windows Phone. But, notably, none of these were Xbox.
The game’s innovative object drawing system, which is used to create physical objects in the game, was clearly part of what first attracted Microsoft to the studio. The developer’s subsequent plans for a reimagining of the title and the bubbling pot of creativity fostered by the young team eventually convinced Microsoft to approach and acquire Press Play in 2012.
But despite now rubbing shoulders with famous developers such as Halo developer 343 Industries, Fable studio Lionhead, Forza Motorsport creator Turn 10, Kinect Sports Rivals outfit Rare, and all the expert professionals these famous games studios house, co-founder Mikkel Thorsted says not much has changed at the company.
During its formative years, the studio did a mix of work-for-hire projects and web development services to ensure it brought in money, on top of making its own titles, such as the aforementioned Max & the Magic Marker.
“Most importantly we kept coming up with interesting concepts that we could find funding for,” says Thorsted. “Furthermore, we chose to partner up with a wide array of publishers and bring Max & the Magic Marker to pretty much all platforms.”
Their plan to develop interesting concepts worked, earning the studio positive review scores and, eventually, that acquisition.
But as Thorsted says, the studio still retains the same culture and ambitions it started up with and has not changed after becoming a part of the big corporate machine.
“Microsoft and Press Play agreed on what we call a light touch acquisition, meaning they wanted us to stay Press Play and let us run the studio in the same way as we already had been doing,” he explains. “Basically they wanted us to still feel like an indie studio but without all the headaches of being indie.
“That means we would not have to do work-for-hire, constantly seek funding or pitch publishers. It, of course, also meant an economically stable situation. What we gave away was ownership of our company, and our focus is more on Microsoft platforms now.”
He goes on to say that being a first-party studio has not meant a loss of its treasured indie development culture, on both a professional and social level. He adds the team is still highly ambitious with all of its projects, and that this passion is coupled with a work philosophy that demands the team has fun while it’s at it.
Placing a marker
Its first project, in fact, is for the Xbox One, as well as Xbox 360. Called Max: The Curse of the Brotherhood, the artistically-styled, Unity-developed 2.5D side-scrolling platformer is a reimagining of the original Max.
Being part of Microsoft and not having to worry as much about where its next cheque might come from, Thorsted says Press Play was able to scale up the team to make the jump from 2D to 3D, and were able to slightly change the title’s core drawing mechanic to ensure a tighter gameplay experience.
Rather than offering the complete unbridled freedom of the original magic marker, which was previously a free-drawing mechanism in the first title, the new maker is now limited to dedicated inkwells placed strategically around each level.
“This has ensured that we have been able to create and control the puzzles to a much higher degree,” he says.
“So basically what initially may look like a limitation of the drawing mechanic has actually allowed us to expand the gameplay substantially. All this has meant that our approach to designing the game has been based on our experiences from developing Max & the Magic Marker without being constrained by having to connect the two titles directly.”
Making an Xbox One launch window title hasn’t been completely plain sailing for the studio, admits Thorsted, who recognises that working on in-development hardware likely to change regularly as Microsoft refined parts of the architecture resulted in some turbulence during the game’s development.
But aside from those inevitable challenges, he assures that working on Microsoft’s console has been a good experience. The high specs and PC-like architecture, a decision which has garnered superlatives from developers toward Microsoft and Sony’s PS4 alike, has “minimised a lot of the hassles we normally run into working on consoles”.
But what about Microsoft’s support for small indies in general? And not just the large independent firms or those like Press Play.
The firm has oft been criticised for its treatment of developers on Xbox Live Arcade toward the end of the Xbox 360’s lifespan, despite a bright start for the service. Its recent ID@Xbox program for indies on Xbox One has since been treated with caution and quiet optimism as indies await to see how it will develop, and just how soon those retail console units can be used as a dev kit.
“It is a hard question to answer from our position, but I think Microsoft is doing a lot to support indies, especially with the ID initiative,” he says. “It is my honest impression that Microsoft is doing all it can to create a more open platform while preserving the quality of its services.”
Drawing on experience
Despite being part of the Microsoft monolith, the studio hasn’t yet worked with its partners on any direct game collaboration. Thorsted says, however, that the team has still been able to ask questions of its fellow devs to overcome any hurdles it may face.
Perhaps lending to one of the reasons Microsoft acquired the studio, Thorsted expects the firm’s other first-party studios to come to Press Play for its expertise on Unity.
For its next game, currently being kept under wraps, Press Play is set to take advantage of tech developed at another new Microsoft studio, Lift London. Given all this potential support, he says moving from indie to first-party has been a positive step for the team.
“Having a big family is, as far as I see it, always a good thing,” says Thorsted, who believes being a first-party studio will allow them to achieve all of their ambitions.
“It means we can make the games we love making and it means our focus will always be on making ambitious and unique games. So expect a lot more titles from Press Play in the future. I hope we will keep surprising everyone with what we come up with.”