Housemarque, the Finnish developer behind Resogun and Dead Nation, hasn't had the best year.
I visited its Helsinki headquarters back in September to see how the studio was following up Resogun, the surprise hit of the PlayStation 4 launch. What I found was a unique company struggling to hold on to the identity it believes in.
Housemarque made its name with Stardust. Originally released for the Amiga in the early '90s, the series rose to prominence with the digital release of Super Stardust HD on the PlayStation 3. The studio has since become a specialist in digital-only games, almost all of which can trace their lineage back to the arcade.
The isometric shooter Dead Nation was the studio's next big hit, going on to become one of the bestselling digital-only titles for PlayStation 3, while the Ikaruga-meets-Metroid platformer Outland was critically acclaimed. But it was during the launch of the PlayStation 4 that Housemarque would make the biggest impact.
Resogun took the basic premise behind the arcade classic Defender and turned it into a modern shooter. With cylindrical stages and a custom voxel-based engine, the game was by far the strongest PlayStation 4 exclusive of its time, and one of scant few highlights of the console's November 2013 launch.
Sony clearly knew as much: It made Resogun free to all members of its PlayStation Plus subscription service, and as a result the game was downloaded by millions of PlayStation 4 owners. It remained the console's highest-rated exclusive until the release of Bloodborne in March 2015. That's 16 months at the top of Metacritic -- impressive for a studio with just a few dozen employees.
"Resogun" was the highest-rated PS4 exclusive for 16 months.
Housemarque has yet to repeat that success. After a PS4 port for Dead Nation and PS3 and Vita versions of Resogun came a new game: Alienation, a kind of spiritual sequel to Dead Nation. Released earlier this year, it garnered positive reviews from press and fans, but few actually bought it. Timing may have had something to do with that: The game was released almost equidistantly between Dark Souls III and Uncharted 4, drowning out any positive press for Housemarque.
The day after I arrived in Helsinki, I sat outside the studio while four employees were let go. That's just a reality of the game industry: When not enough money is coming in, tough decisions have to be made, and Alienation's poor performance had consequences.
The slightly downsized company now officially has two games in development. There's Matterfall, a Sony-produced PS4 exclusive, which is far from ready for release, and not something its spokespeople are allowed to talk about. Then there's the reason for my trip to Helsinki: Nex Machina, the spiritual sequel to Resogun announced as a PS4 exclusive at PlayStation Experience today.
Resogun was an ode to Defender, and Nex Machina is an ode to another classic -- the twin-stick shooter Robotron: 2048. All the core elements of Robotron are here. Played at breakneck pace, Nex Machina tasks you with clearing room after room of enemy hordes, while saving humans along the way.
"We're largely inspired by Robotron," said lead designer Harry Krueger, who previously led programming on Resogun. "[But] we don't want to just copy it -- we want to capture a bit of its magic." While we talked, he showed off an alpha build of the game, deftly navigating a host of enemies, dashing, shooting and activating secrets. This was two months ago, when the game was just stand-in backgrounds and character models, glitchy lighting, placeholder sound effects, frame-rate dips and difficulty spikes. Despite this catalog of errors, the action unfolding was stunning.
Balancing a few simple mechanics is trickier than it looks.
To Krueger and his team, capturing Robotron's magic meant taking the basic formula -- frantic, short levels, filled with challenge -- and building on it. At any given second, you're choosing between rescuing humans, gunning down enemies or making a break for a power-up. With enough skill, you'll learn how to achieve all three, but if you've ever played Robotron or its '90s successor Smash TV, you'll know that balancing a few simple mechanics is trickier than it looks.
After playing through the first world, Krueger handed me the pad. The first thing I noticed was how fast this game is. Enemies are relentless, and Nex Machina throws dozens at you at a time, each with their own attack patterns. At one point during my playthrough, there were probably 80 on-screen, although I was too busy trying not to die to be sure. At the end of each room, there are no "congratulations." You just dive headfirst into the next mob of deadly robots.
Rather than the square, lifeless rooms of Robotron, there are gorgeous, three-dimensional environments for you to journey through, with cinematic swooping transitions. As you move from area to area, a timing-based mini-game rewards you with even flashier transitions. Succeed and you'll get a burst of speed and power to help chase that high score. The journey you make isn't on a two-dimensional plane -- each "world" is in fact a complex polygon, and you'll be making your way across its many faces. Sometimes you'll be fighting on its side and gravity will be, for lack of a better term, wrong. While this doesn't affect you so much, it will make saving humans harder.
"[We] connect them in ways that give the impression of a much larger, interconnected world," Krueger said. "Each room is individually crafted -- it needs to have a beginning, an end and some kind of flow -- but there is some extra consideration there to give the impression that you're on this kind of journey." You might see a secret area during a transition (there are many, many secrets in the game) and realize you've missed it just a second too late.
Throughout my playthrough, I felt like every decision mattered. If I went too long without shooting someone, a rage meter rapidly filled up, highlighting my inadequacies. If it fills up, the enemies will get mad -- they want you to try and kill them. "Time is running out," Krueger said. "You need to do it all fast."
Aside from adapting its gameplay, Nex Machina also riffs on Robotron's dystopia-focused plot. While Robotron was essentially 1984 a century on, Nex Machina is set in a future where humans are enslaved by machines. All humans live alongside a "lifeline" of sorts, a giant cable that snakes the land, providing the bare essentials for life: food, drink and WiFi access.
Essentially zombified by their addiction to technology, the denizens of Nex Machina's myriad landscapes shuffle around focused on their phones and tablets, oblivious to both their plight and the chaos around them. It's a bit on the nose, sure, but it's a fitting throwback to the frantic naïvete of '80s sci-fi.
Despite the issues that came with playing a game in an extreme alpha state, Nex Machina still felt just right. The controls were tight, the level layouts imaginative, and the destruction truly satisfying.
This is faster, meaner and downright prettier than anything Housemarque has made before.
Two months on, and at its PlayStation Experience debut the game is looking drop-dead gorgeous. It's faster, meaner and downright prettier than anything Housemarque has made before. The art style -- a darker take on the cyberpunk climes of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, which the studio is calling "cablepunk" -- has now taken shape, and the in-game world is bustling with life.
Nex Machina uses some of the voxel tech introduced in Resogun, but turned up to eleven, blending polygonal models with voxel meshes, creating an utterly destructible world, with enemies falling to pieces and explosions sending voxelized shockwaves throughout the environments. There's so much going on it's almost impossible to take it all in, but every moment is a thing of beauty.
Two secondsWith lead designer Harry Krueger
"In the upper-right corner, you can see the remnants (blue particles) of a pillar that has just been destroyed.
"Each of these individual volumetric cube particles has its own material, receives its own lighting and casts its own shadow. It also has its own physics and collides accurately with our voxel-based environment."
"When the explosion is triggered, you also notice a 'shockwave' rippling outwards from the center of impact, converting the environment to rounded cubes.
"This shockwave is just one of the many 'morphing' effects you will see in the game: The surface geometry of the blocks is actually modified in real time, and materials, lighting and shadows are updated accordingly.
"Blowing things up is a huge part of the core Nex Machina gameplay, so expect to see lots of these destruction particles (and not only cubes) flying around pretty much constantly."
"In the center is the Beamtron.
"This is one of the first (and easiest) Minibosses the player will encounter.
"It's intended to function as a basic introduction to the beams, beam dodging and bullet-hell gameplay."
"Here you see a circle of enemies spawning around the Beamtron.
"The spawn effect (enemies being 'beamed down') helps communicate that the enemies are arriving.
"The player's attention is a very valuable commodity (and in such a fast-paced game, very limited), so we need to be very careful on how we utilize it.
"Each effect in the game needs to be very carefully crafted to achieve a balance between spectacle and readability."
"This clip is one example of progressive challenge 'layering.'
"First we introduce the gameplay of the rotating beam. Once the player gets comfortable with that, we add an extra challenge on top (in this case the circle of spawning enemies).
"This keeps players on their toes and keeps the intensity up, while also giving the player a clear indication of progress."
So there's a link between Defender, Robotron and Smash TV: game designer Eugene Jarvis. Together with Larry DeMar, Jarvis created Defender for Williams in 1980. It was one of the highest-grossing arcade games of its time. The duo then started their own company, and made Stargate the next year (called Defender 2 for some home releases), following it up with Robotron in '82. Their final game together was Blaster, a trippy first-person take on Robotron released in '83.
Jarvis continued to work on games directly for another decade or so, creating Smash TV and Total Carnage as well as the arcade racer Cruis'n USA. More recently, he's been running Raw Thrills, a company that develops arcade games and cabinets, keeping the dream alive. In early 2014, he was honored at the DICE Awards with an Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Pioneer Award for his contributions to the industry. At the same ceremony, Resogun was up for Best Action Game. It lost to Bioshock: Infinite, but a chance meeting would help bring Nex Machina to life.
"Harri and Ilari [Tikkanen and Kuittinen, co-founders of Housemarque] were drinking, 4 AM at the Hard Rock Cafe lobby," said Mikael Haveri, head of self-publishing at the company. "They were just a couple of Finns being loud, and then they noticed Eugene." Together with a board member, they went to congratulate Jarvis on his award, but as they were approaching him, that somehow morphed into asking if he wanted to collaborate on a project.
"I'm very impressed. Let's fucking do it."
"The conversation was 'Hey, congratulations! We ripped off Defender -- do you want to make a new game with us?'" Haveri said. "They had a good conversation, he went home and bought a PS4 and Resogun and wrote us back saying it was awesome." After some back-and-forth, and an explanation of the core concept of Nex Machina, Housemarque received a simple e-mail from Jarvis: "I'm very impressed. Let's fucking do it."
There's a real reverence for Jarvis' work within Housemarque. While Tikkanen and Kuittinen, both with decades of experience, probably see him more as a peer, there's definitely some idolatry from the fresher faces. "We were instantly pretty hyped," recalled Krueger. "No matter what game we're making, we just keep going back to Robotron, because I think it's the gold standard in terms of pacing in an action game ... Getting to work with this kind of legend in the game industry, when we both have similar design sensibilities, was a dream come true."
Jarvis is a special character, with a lot of opinions and a shedload of insight. His role in the development of Nex Machina is as a creative consultant. He's offered input and guidance along the way, some of it invaluable, but the real reason he's working with Housemarque is larger than the game itself. He's also involved because Housemarque wants to make Nex Machina an arcade game, complete with its own cabinet, built by Raw Thrills.
It almost makes perfect sense: Housemarque, a company that built its reputation on fast-paced action games, will build an arcade cabinet for its new arcade-inspired game. But then you take a step back, remind yourself of the world and realize just how batshit crazy the idea is.
Arcades are, for the most part, dead. The multi-billion-dollar industry of the '80s is long gone, and the Sega-led surge of the '90s, with games like Daytona USA, didn't last. Consoles and PCs got more and more capable, and now, outside of Japan and China, at least, it's tough to find a classic arcade.
You can run a successful arcade if you have alcohol to bring in the real money.
Arcade cabinets are still alluring, though. For those of us old enough to have seen their heyday, that's probably down to nostalgia, but a new generation is being introduced to retro cabinets through venues like Barcade. Turns out that you can run a successful arcade if you have other things -- like alcohol -- that bring in the real money.
Jarvis' Raw Thrills isn't refurbishing the retro cabinets that fill arcade-themed bars, though; it's making fresh, bespoke arcade experiences. Over the past decade, it's released new games like Moto GP, Jurassic Park Arcade, Batman and Snocross. But while beautifully crafted, its roster isn't cutting-edge -- the drawback of a limited budget.
With the Housemarque partnership, Raw Thrills is not only getting a game with a medium-size budget; it's getting a game built from the ground up as an homage to one of the most memorable arcade games of all time. A game that Jarvis created.
The Nex Machina cabinet is not ready, but early concepts look impressive. It'll have a large LCD monitor, twin sticks and some "cablepunk" dressing. The renders are exciting, and the cabinet will no doubt be an inviting proposition in the corner of a bar.
But this isn't Millipede or Asteroids; you need a powerful machine to run Nex Machina. One with a solid graphics card, one that's connected to the internet (for high scores and updates) and one rugged enough to withstand the chaos of an alcohol-fueled arcade. That's going to make this cabinet expensive. Like $7,500 expensive.
The official line is that Housemarque and Raw Thrills are currently "exploring" bringing a cabinet to market. "We don't know if we can make one, but we'd like to start a conversation with the crowds to see if it could become a possibility," Haveri said.
I can see quite a few ways that might happen -- partnering with a chain like Barcade, heading to Kickstarter or just selling direct. "Basically if we know people will buy it, we will make it," Krueger said. If no routes prove viable, Housemarque may end up just building a few as a showcase for the game -- it really loves arcade cabinets.
No matter what route is chosen, it's fair to say that neither company will get rich from these cabinets. Obviously, they're hoping they can make a profit, but they're not expecting to sell tens of thousands of them.
The same can't be said of Nex Machina itself. After the somewhat inexplicable failure of Alienation, Housemarque needs a hit.
Nex Machina is the company's first self-published game. Over the past two decades it's partnered with companies like Take-Two, Activision, Ubisoft and Sony to release its games. The benefits of working with a publisher are pretty simple: developers get money up front to help cover costs, and support for marketing and logistics. In exchange for these perks, however, they need to give up a percentage of the game's revenues.
Of course, no one aside from publishers and developers knows exactly what that cut is -- and it changes from game to game -- but it's obviously not insignificant. Often the initial split is more heavily skewed toward the publisher as it seeks a return on its initial investment. After the publisher recoups the up-front payment, terms can be more favorable for developers. Essentially, working with a publisher is lower-risk, lower-reward.
Housemarque has worked almost exclusively with Sony over the past five years. While no one at the company would speak ill of that partnership -- indeed, it's working with Sony right now on Matterfall -- it hasn't always been smooth. Resogun may be installed on millions of PlayStation 4s, but a majority of those downloads were "free" to gamers as part of PlayStation Plus. Housemarque wouldn't discuss any figures, but from off-the-record talks with other developers, it's likely that revenues per PS Plus download are better counted in cents than dollars.
PS Plus is fantastic for a game's "tail," bringing in additional revenues when sales are drying up, just like Humble Bundle's pay-what-you-want model, Xbox's Games with Gold program or Steam sales. For a game's launch, though, it essentially puts a hard cap on profits: Your game will be successful, but you're unlikely to make millions.
Haveri put it to me that if Resogun hadn't been on PS Plus, I wouldn't have even visited Finland to discuss Nex Machina. "You might have bought it, yeah, but the popularity of Resogun wouldn't be nearly to the level it was. It would've been one of those off-brand, niche games." That's perhaps true, and it's impossible to call Resogun anything but a success. But this partnership with Sony clearly didn't work for Alienation. It was buried between huge AAA games, and, although no one would say as much, that has to have been Sony's decision.
Its core strategy is to make the best game it can.
Self-publishing is, in some ways, liberating. Housemarque has more creative control over the game, when it's released and how it's marketed. But it's also perilous. The company has chosen to focus on technology and gameplay over marketing. Its core strategy is to make the best game it can, and hope that enough press, streamers and fans pick it up and enjoy it to help make it a hit.
Of course, there will be other efforts. It's partnered with a video team to produce a "making of" documentary in the vein of Indie Game: The Movie. It's signed a deal with Sony to make the game a PlayStation 4 exclusive, which assumedly comes with a financial reward, and the chance to showcase the game to a captive audience at PlayStation Experience. Nonetheless, the press team for Nex Machina is essentially a guy with a desk, and its marketing budget is pretty much paying that guy's wage. I've seen how one person can help make a game a success, but I've also seen that same person fail to persuade gamers to care about another.
With Nex Machina, Housemarque is going high-risk, high-reward, and not just by self-publishing. There are a lot of conversations happening at the studio about its future. Usually, when a company asks a question like "What game would you like us to make next?" I take it as insincere flattery: Sega isn't about to make Burning Rangers 2 because I told them to. When Housemarque asked, it felt like a genuine question.
We'd just moved from the confines of the Housemarque office to a nearby bar. It was me, Haveri, Krueger and Tommaso De Benetti, the company's long-serving community manager -- one of the employees made redundant the following day. (De Benetti was already aware of this; the coming announcement was to inform other employees.)
"We're known as the twin-stick-shooter company pretty much," said De Benetti. "We've been discussing if twin-stick is our future or if this is the last twin-stick shooter we're doing. When you look at the market, there aren't many twin-stick shooters that are multi-million-sellers, y'know."
"I'd argue that's true for arcade games in general," Krueger said. "Outside of games like Dark Souls that have that arcade spirit in the AAA space, there's this huge divide now ... medium-to-large-budget games need to have a return on their investment, so they go to safer, cinematic experiences."
"This is the day-to-day that we deal with," Haveri said. "It's not like we can say, 'This is our dream project' and people will understand that and it'll sell well. Reality hits in and it's like, 'Well, fuck, maybe people don't really feel the same way we do [about twin-stick shooters].'"
I've heard similar stories, off the record, from many developers. Making a $1 million game, or even a $10 million game, is very difficult in 2016. Either you throw enough money at a game to almost guarantee a success -- Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Far Cry and so on -- or you make one small enough to mitigate the risks of commercial failure. It's an industry-wide problem, but one that particularly affects a studio the size of Housemarque. It can't afford to make low-budget, low-reward games without making layoffs. It can't afford to make high-budget games, period. The middle ground is where the real problems are, and there's no clear solution in sight.
Chances are, if Resogun scored even five points lower in reviews, it wouldn't have seen half the success. "All three of us are there at the US launch of the PlayStation 4," Haveri said. "We have all these big games around like Killzone and the whole hotel is bought out by Sony. We've got our Resogun T-shirts on and nobody gives a fuck about us."
That only changed, he recalled, when the first reviews started coming in, and it became clear that Resogun was getting far better ratings than Knack and Killzone, the two big exclusive launch games. "I remember the moment we got off the elevator into the lobby, and people saw those same T-shirts with Resogun on. Then it was like, 'Oh, these guys, hey let's check it out.'"
If Nex Machina lives up to its promise, if it's lauded as the best of its kind and it still doesn't sell, what then? "We're sort of trying to understand where can we go, what can we do," De Benetti said. "What could be enough for us to get a budget but still fulfill creatively and gameplay-wise what we want to be and do?"
Haveri pondered whether a Dark Souls–like title might be a good fit -- Krueger loves the games, in particular Demon's Souls. I suggested maybe something closer to Platinum Games' superb Bayonetta series, given its faster pace and hidden complexities. "I like Bayonetta, but those games are not selling very much," De Benetti said. "Sometimes we wonder: Do we keep doing what we're good at, or do we try something new?"
"Dark Souls gave AAA titles their balls back," Krueger said. "It proved you don't have to sacrifice challenge, that it can be a positive and addictive thing for an audience that doesn't even realize that they like it."
The problem with making a game like Dark Souls is it requires a lot of money. "We don't have, business-wise, the opportunity to pursue these things to the ends that we'd love to. There are compromises to be made," Haveri said. "Sadly, it comes at the cost of losing great people and friends. That's the reality of every single gaming business out there. In the end it is a business; it's a tightrope of walking that path to keep it going while still being artistic and following a vision. In the end, it has to be a compromise."
"That's the biggest predicament," he continued. "It's not just 'Can we keep doing what we love to do?' It's 'How many people can we feed while keeping that dream alive?'"