Interview: Remedy's Oskari 'Ozz' Hakkinen on Alan Wake

After five long years of development, Remedy Entertainment is weeks away from delivering on one of the "most anticipated titles of 2010." Alan Wake's long journey comes to an end on May 18 (in North America) and the Finnish developer is in full "promo" mode -- when it isn't partying it up, that is.

During a press stop in Toronto, Joystiq pressed Remedy's head of franchise development Oskari 'Ozz' Häkkinen on the hard-hitting questions: How much like a homeless Vin Diesel does the new Max Payne look, and when can players expect Alan Wake Wars to ship?

We also grabbed a few tidbits about Alan Wake's New York City flashback, dreams of Alan Wake 2 and more on Wake's planned DLC. If that kind of stuff is important to you.
Joystiq: In today's industry it seems that information -- and more specifically, spoilers -- are prone to leaking, ruining games even before they're released. Alan Wake is different in that respect. How, if I could be "punny" for a second, has the team at Remedy Entertainment kept details about Alan Wake in the dark this whole time?

Oskari "Ozz" Hakkinen: We've been really careful to keep the flood of information and the story close to our chests, and we haven't allowed the type of hands-on that would allow the story to leak out yet. But at the end of the day, the media people and press, they know to respect the story and not to put any spoilers out there. So, up until now we've kept it very tight to our chests and Microsoft has been respectful of that as well, with the kind of gameplay testing we've had. They've been very careful to have strong security in place.

What do you think about sites like Joystiq poking fun at Remedy for the fact that Alan Wake has been in development for so long? We're at five years now.

It's okay. I mean you know, yeah you're right. It is a long development process. It has been about five years but what a lot of people don't know is that we are a very small studio, about 45 people and for a team that small to make such a large game it takes time. And you know we are a kind of company that isn't a factory that churns out games every year or every two years. We carefully craft our games and intellectual properties to be what they deserve to be.

"When we announced Alan Wake, we announced it as an open world game, and that was a mistake."

I think people laugh about games in this so-called "development hell," but it takes three or four years to make a game in this generation.

It does. And you know, sure, we didn't anticipate that it would take five years. I think we were thinking more on the lines of three to four, but we could only be as good as our last game, and the Remedy brand needs to be a seal of quality to gamers, and if we make one bad game we'll always be remembered by it.

It'll take us three to four years to then recover that name back. But you know, we build the technology from the ground up. We came up with a concept we thought was super cool; the "light and darkness" mechanic, and the gameplay, as well as to create the story. We were in the fortunate position after the Max Payne games to take our time. When we came up with the concept of Alan Wake, we checked to see if there were any engines out there that could to do the things that we needed him to do and there wasn't anything. So with a team of 45 people, we built the technology from the ground up -- all the tools -- and then started developing. We wanted to get a level of authenticity in Alan Wake before we added the layer of the supernatural. So we spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, drove over 3,000 miles there, took over 60,000 research photos. We even had people camping out in the woods in the Pacific Northwest to record the ambient sounds to get the soundscape right.

Tell me you gave those people some extra vacation time.

(laughs) Well, nobody's had vacation time for a long time. But it's, you know...when you're making a thriller, you need to have your roots grounded in reality. If you look up into the sky in Alan Wake, the constellation of stars in the sky is accurate to the Pacific Northwest. Why? You probably won't even notice it. But you will notice a level of authenticity in everything that you do, and then and only then, when we add the layer of the supernatural, so we can scare the hell out of you.

I've seen Alan Wake in varying stages, in a few different locations throughout the world. At E3 2009 in Los Angeles, in Tokyo during TGS 2009, and you always seem to be showing something different. But I wonder, how different is Alan Wake in 2010, than the original vision proposed five years ago.

The basic vision has stayed the same. When we announced Alan Wake, we announced it as an open world game, and that was a mistake. We're not even shy to say it. Remedy is a humble group of people and we will say it was a mistake. It was a tick-box back then, that was a trend. "Open-world," "free-roaming" and "sandbox" was the way to go. We tried that for about six months, trying to get the pacing right of a thriller in an open world setting. When you have the player turning up to a love scene in a monster truck when they should be showing up in a Cadillac you know something's wrong. You know something is not working.

"When you have the player turning up to a love scene in a monster truck when they should be showing up in a Cadillac you know something's wrong."

We were like, "This isn't working. We need to go more linear, control the pacing, and tap into those emotions to get the player's pulse racing. We needed to be able to control the soundscape, we needed to control the environment, the weather, the music, and stuff like that." The game is built on open world technology and, in hind sight, it has given us a lot of opportunities because at times we make the path very wide and very long for the player. The player can definitely choose how they get from A to B, they can choose to go by foot or go by car. There's a lot of exploration content in there. You can see out into the environment. The visibility, you can see six to eight kilometers during the day time. (Note: That's 4 to 5 miles, America!)

During the night time, maybe one to two kilometers (Note: Around 1 to 1 1/2 miles), depending on if it's misty or cloudy or what the weather is like. Again, we talked about authenticity, and that gives you that feeling of authenticity; that you are in a bigger place. But, the Pacific Northwest, the type of terrain that it is, you've got lots of mountains, you've got lots of cliffs, so we can control the path that the player goes by natural boundaries by putting a cliff or having a mountain to your left. Or, then, if we want a very stealth mode--like we showed at TGS--we put them in a valley.

We've shown off different types of game play on purpose. There are many more things in Wake; there's a lot of environmental puzzles and things like that, that we haven't even showed off yet. We don't want to give away everything. In fact, in all the things that we've shown, we haven't given away any spoilers.

Do you think that linearity lends itself to being a better mechanic for storytelling, as a designer?

I think because we wanted to establish the first real thriller in video games, that for a thriller you do need to be able to control a lot of the pacing. I think that it just felt more right to go more linear. I'm not sure if it's easier or harder but it certainly is more effective. It definitely made sense for Alan Wake. It definitely is a better game because of it.

There's been a lot of discussion coming out of Remedy recently about "episodes" via DLC and the possibility of "Season 2" depending on sales. In an ideal situation what would the whole plan look like? If sales are there, where does the series go?

We've definitely thought of Alan Wake to be bigger than just one game. That goes without saying. You don't develop for five years and then leave it at that, it doesn't make sense. So, from a story perspective, we've definitely mapped out where Alan Wake, the character, will go. We've mapped it out pretty far, as well. Just to give the short or near-future view, "Alan Wake 1" is Season One, if you like, which is a complete story. When the gamers get their hands on it, they shouldn't think that we've left anything out of the game, because we haven't. Actually, we reached "Gold" today.

I saw the trailer and that picture of you guys partying, or what looked to be partying. But I guess you were on a plane when that was happening.

(laughs) I was here [in Toronto]. So, we reached "Gold" today. Right now what's going in the production is the guys are working on the DLC, on the game add-ons. We'll be doing some episodes which will reach between Alan Wake and Alan Wake 2. We've got a good feeling about Alan Wake 1 and we hope that it will be a success. We are believing that it will be a success. We've been on "The Most Anticipated Game of 2010" lists a lot. That doesn't say anything, but we have high hopes. We have our fingers crossed that it'll be a success. We definitely have so much more to give to Alan Wake, and should our audience allow us, we'd definitely would do Alan Wake 2.

Does the sequel hinge strictly on whether or not the game is a commercial success? You mention Alan Wake 2 but that's not necessarily an announcement of a new game, right? That's you saying that if you have the opportunity to make it, that this is something Remedy wants to do.

"We definitely want to make Alan Wake 2. We have the story mapped out. We know where it's taking us."

We definitely want to make Alan Wake 2. We have the story mapped out. We know where it's taking us. As I said, season one will be conclusive but there'll be doors left open for a bigger story and we want to have the opportunity to give the fans the view on what those open doors lead to. It's pretty intriguing. This story -- this first season -- will captivate you, and will have you on your toes. You'll enjoy the suspense and the twists and the cliff-hangers, and the ending will make you feel satisfied and you'll get that, "Phew, I made it" feeling. But at the same time you'll go "but, what happened there?" There'll be room for debate, without giving you a cliff-hanger.

Single-player games like this don't typically lead themselves into replay value. There are items players can collect -- like manuscript pages to flesh out the story -- which could entice some gamers to play through the title again. But in the broader sense, does the replay value become the idea that, "We need to release DLC in order to keep people coming back to Alan Wake, and keep reminding them of this character"?

There is some replayability value there, there's quite a lot of replayability. For lack of a better term, we know that people consume video games in different ways. Some people buy the Remedy game for more of the action, and those people that have come for the action we have put in a dynamic difficulty system in the game, so the better you get, the harder the game gets.

This all happens under the hood so the engine determines it. However well you're playing, it'll keep moving that sweet spot of gaming. On the flip side, if you're not that good of a gamer or if you're more of a recreational gamer, the engine will tone down the difficulty, because it's never fun to die, right? For those people that come for the story, everybody will get the skeleton of the story. Those people who want more story there's a lot of exploration content there, there's a lot of manuscript pages, there's TVs to interact with, there's radios to interact with, there's a jukebox to interact with.

I noticed when I playing the game there are hidden areas you can find by illuminating invisible paint, which then point players to hidden weapon caches.

Yeah, there's a lot of that, and there's a lot of different types of weapons that you can find as well. That's the kind of Easter Egg stuff. So yeah, there's a good re-playability value there. The game add-ons, essentially they'll be stand-alone episodes. They will give you some further fiction to what you've played before, like maybe a different view, but ultimately they will foreshadow Alan Wake 2.

Does that mean players might take control of another character apart from Alan Wake, himself?

"To be frank, after Max Payne, we could have cashed out and everybody would have been very happy. We invested everything back into Alan Wake for the love of making video games."

You know, we make "character-centric" games and, and like in Max Payne, it was all about Max Payne and Max Payne's problem at hand. And, Alan Wake in many respects is the same kind of way, It's about Alan Wake and his trauma.

In the sense that a company like Telltale Games has perfected this model of "episodic," and Valve has tried doing it, is this game a platform for Alan Wake's multiple stories or is the DLC a way of extending the product to a retail season two?

The DLC is not necessarily an extension. As I said, this is season one so it's a complete story. They'll be "stand-alone" stories. It's not a continuation directly from season one.

I think what people get hung up on the word "episode" or "episodic," the last few years have changed the meaning of those words so when they're used people thing it's one concept, but Alan Wake is different.

Right. So, I'm not allowed to talk too much about what the game add-ons, the DLC, will contain. But to tread carefully, I'll say that it will give you an interesting perspective on what you've seen before and it will be very intriguing, and it will open up further doors to the bigger story.

Remedy is known for crafting stories around these singular characters like Max Payne and now Alan Wake, but Alan Wake is a little different because you've spent so much time with this one character, and yet people are only now going to be able to get control of him. I mean you, as a team, have had this "person" pretty much on your staff for so long. How does it feel to finally get this character out into the world for people to actually experience?

Well pretty awesome to be honest. There's so much depth to it, there's so many things I'd love to go in to, but I mean just to give you the kind of, a bit of information. We've got to a level of, you know, giving these characters real history and personalities, that hasn't really been seen in video games before.

We have a flashback scene, for instance, in Wake where you're in this New York apartment when times were a lot better and, and there weren't any problems with his marriage and he was a successful writer of crime novels about a New York detective. And you can go an interact with his TiVO and his TV and when you put that on, you will see yourself -- the live actor, Alan Wake -- on a Jay Leno/Conan O'Brian type show. Now we have a lot of that kind of live action stuff, through TVs where you can interact through the TV.

So, it's not an in-game asset, it's an actual actor?

An actual actor. Now the funny thing about that is that we play with subjects and objects of reality and we want to mess with your mind, with you to doubt which side of the TV screen is real. Is it the one you're on? Or is it the one you're watching? We play with that a lot, and there's a lot of psychological aspects in Alan Wake that starts to unravel as you proceed through the mystery.

As a franchise itself, does Remedy own Alan Wake or is this Microsoft owned? Does Microsoft own this license or does Remedy own this character?

Remedy owns the intellectual property for Alan Wake. We've had a very good relationship with Microsoft, they've been supportive of our long development. I mean, you know, we own the intellectual property of Alan Wake, which is which is unusual in today's kind of development cycles. You know, but they've been supportive of that, and we've been very clear to say that we're not releasing it until it's done. As I said earlier that we didn't anticipate it would take this long, but we can only be as good as that last game and you know, we really want the Remedy brand to be that seal of quality.

For the Max Payne series we were in a fortunate position to take our time and, you know, to be frank, after Max Payne, we could have cashed out and everybody would have been very happy. We invested everything back into Alan Wake for the love of making video games.

Have you seen the screens of Max Payne 3?

I've seen the screenshots. Brazil, different looking.

Max kind of looks like a homeless Vin Diesel.

(laughs) But you know, at the end of the day it's Rockstar making it. I mean, come on, they make awesome games. How many shitty games have you seen from Rockstar? None, really.

What's going on with the PC version? Is that completely dead at this point or is it still possible?

No, we've been fully focused on the Xbox 360 version for some time. We've got nothing further to announce for the PC.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important thing: Alan Wake Wars. You announced it on April 1, a day known for serious news. So, when is it coming out? When can we get our hands on it?

So, it's coming out on April 1st, 2011.

Perfect. I should probably go pre-order that.

(laughs) Yeah, at a store near you.

Was that a shot at Microsoft and Halo Wars? Where did that idea come out of?

You know, at Remedy we have a little bit of a dark tongue-in-cheek kind of humor. We know how to laugh at ourselves and, you know, we don't take ourselves too seriously. We definitely take seriousness in our projects but we can also laugh at ourselves. You know, we do development as well. We know that it has taken a long time but it's been for our love of making a cool game and respecting the gamers our there. But you know, Alan Wake Wars was a crack at ourselves, I think, more than anything else.

The next game that you guys ever work on, is that also going to have a Sam Lake element to it?


Because Sam was the model for Max Payne. His name rhymes with "Alan Wake." How many more ways can Sam Lake put himself in front of everything you guys do? What could possibly be next?

(laughs) Well, I mean, you know, Max Payne and Alan Wake are the "brain-childs" of Sam Lake. The next time you talk to Sam -- and I'll give you a hint, I'm not going to give this away -- but next time you see Sam Lake, say, "You know, Ozz told me there's a lot of your childhood in these stories. Tell me more."

Is that a hint for DLC, are we going to be reliving Sam's Christmas memories?

(laughs) No, but it will tell you something about how good of a writer he is and how he incorporates real-life situations to video games.

Shooting over to my time playing the game. Will there be a way for players to turn off the in-game HUD (heads-up display)?

No. We toyed with a few iterations of the HUD, and to be honest I don't know if what you're seeing here today in this build (Note: The build at this event was from January 2010) is the final HUD. I think it's close to final.

Is there an option to dim the HUD? Because it's quite bright in contrast with the rest of the game.

You know, in hindsight, that may have been a good idea. But again, I don't really remember how final this HUD is.

What about other media? A lot of companies are extending their brands into other mediums, like novels and comics. What are the plans for Alan Wake?

We announced that we are releasing a novel for Alan Wake. It's not written by us or Sam. It's written by a man named Rick Burroughs.

That's a novelization of the game? Not ghost-written as Alan Wake, right?

It's basically an interpretation of the game.

Thanks for your time, Ozz.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.