Christofer Sundberg is an outspoken man. As the founder and creative director of Just Cause creator Avalanche Studios in Sweden, he hasn't been one to shy away from sharing his sometimes controversial opinions on the video game industry.
You probably remember some of the headlines his comments inspired. He's said previously that a lack of focus and decisiveness is "eating the industry alive"; contended that Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 represent the "end of an era" for FPS games; and maintained that "without passion, you will fail."
We had a chance to catch up with Sundberg recently to go into greater depth on these topics and many more, and like you'd imagine, Sundberg didn't hold back when discussing the business of making games. Check out our conversation below, edited for fluency and length.
GS: You've been very outspoken about microtransactions, free-to-play, and subscription models; saying that these efforts will define the next-generation of games. Why do you think this is the future we're headed for?
CS: People tried making careers from being outspoken last year but when push came to shove, nobody really knew the direction of anything. I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers. In this case, you're probably referring to something I tweeted, but that was not to say I love microtransactions and want to squeeze them into every game we make. While I think there’s a huge potential to become profitable with the help of microtransactions, I would never want to release a broken game, expecting the player to pay $60 for it and then another 15 x $0.99 to fix it. That is the ugly side of microtransactions. The opposite of that is lowering the price point of high-quality games and working with the community to shape the content, but that is not something most developers can afford to do for free. Using microtransactions is a way of funding it.
Free-to-play is another interesting topic. I really don’t like the way the industry needs to slap genre labels on every game under the sun. Sure, some of them are obvious and logical. A ping-pong game is a ping-pong game, but why even speak of F2P as a genre? It’s a business model. I would love to see a future where we actually pick and alter business models based on what makes sense for the IP in question, rather than shoehorning any game into that model and calling it a F2P game.
GS: Fair or not, the term "free-to-play" has a low-quality attachment to it. What would you suggest these games be called instead?
CS: How about calling them open-world games, soccer games, fantasy games, or whatever they really are? F2P is just a distribution/business model and that’s really secondary to most people. They are interested in great games. As long as they don’t feel like the developer is trying to steal their money, I don’t believe they want to think too much about business models, how they work, or what they are called.
"In a F2P model, we shouldn't exploit every opportunity to squeeze money out of the player."
GS: How well do you think the platform holders are prepared for this future?
CS: A few months have passed since the PS4 and Xbox One was released and based on what I've played on the platforms so far, I think there’s still some learning to do, some adaption to new conditions. I don’t think it’s as easy as some publishers have made it out to be. You can’t simply flip a switch and turn a traditional AAA game into a F2P console game.
Granted, there are a bunch of IPs that could work or do work well within a F2P-like model--and many that don’t. Similarly, in a F2P model, we shouldn't exploit every opportunity to squeeze money out of the player. Because while some opportunities are completely valid, others will backfire massively--and they should. Tread carefully and don’t be greedy, would be my advice.
GS: How do you think the console gaming landscape will change or evolve as a result?
CS: We have been planning our future around the notion that our games are becoming services to a larger extent than ever. I read before Christmas that DICE are thinking the same way around Battlefield. That’s one way it’s changing.
GS: Microtransactions are in many games today, including blockbusters like GTA V and Forza 5. Much noise is made online in forums, but that doesn't seem to stop the games from performing well. Are Internet commenters just the vocal minority?
CS: Big franchises do well, regardless of the criticism. They will squeeze money out of the most vocal consumer, regardless. But the industry must get better at communicating changes that can be sensitive to certain franchises and manage expectations better.
GS: Why do you think the traditional $60, pay-once disc-based model has deteriorated of late?
CS: Very few traditional $60 games make any money, and what used to make sense doesn't any more. Publishers and developers very rarely see a return of investment from a 5-8 hour long game. The industry is also very hit-driven, which kills innovation. We see very few bigger new IP’s. In this climate, I’m really excited to see the rise of Titanfall and Destiny from two well established super-developers.
GS: EA CEO Andrew Wilson said during an investor presentation that in the future, three models will dominate: premium, free to play, and subscription. He seems to suggest that the rise of one model does not necessarily signal the end of another. Is this something you agree with? And if so, why?
CS: I think the combination of them is what will define success. When you buy a magazine these days you get some (hopefully) awesome content in it, but then you also get the free supplement, a perfume sample and a ”secret” password to a website that makes you feel special from buying that magazine and gets you access to likeminded people on their forum. Obviously, the publishing industry has had to adapt to survive, and I think that there are lessons to be learned for games, even though it’s a much more successful business at this point. I think we’ll see a lot of mix and match business models; pay for premium content, get free bonus content, gain access to a subscription service. I think a single game could easily encompass all three, and we’ll see more of that in the future. So yes, I agree with Andrew Wilson.
GS: Xbox executive Phil Spencer came out and said recently that Microsoft still has a lot to learn about the implementation of microtransactions and new business models in its games. Are you encouraged by such a major company coming out to admit this?
CS: Absolutely, it makes everyone’s lives easier and in the long run it will keep developers working on console games.
GS: Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick said something recently I thought was interesting. He said too many companies are guilty of putting business ambitions ahead of the desire to create compelling content. You've said before that "greed never works" in the context of microtransactions. What do you think is the result of greed in the context of games?
CS: That is very sad and unfortunately very true--it comes out of desperation to survive in a tough industry. Players can smell greed from a mile away. Greed in the context of games is when you take your fans for granted and ask them to pay to fix something that they expected to be 100 percent complete from the beginning.
GS: You've said before that without passion, you will fail. You're working on multiple AAA titles right now across two continents. How are you able to stay passionate as your employee headcount rises and the scope of your games expands?
CS: Passion may be a cliché word, but it really is at the core of Avalanche Studios. When [Linus Blomberg] and I started the company, it was based purely on the passion for developing games. Today, we have a 200+ strong team pouring their hearts and souls into the games we are working on. I think it’s a matter of remembering why you started making games in the first place, while also embracing the constant changes that are an inherent part of the industry.
GS: People obviously work in the games industry, like all other businesses, to make money and support their families. How do you, as a studio leader, keep your employees in touch with why they joined the industry in the first place?
CS: We keep things simple and focus on having fun. We are constantly pushing ourselves to keep our integrity and to innovate. Our reputation of being a fearless studio that goes into territories where most developers don’t want to go (like developing one of biggest sandbox worlds ever as our first game) has really helped our team to stay passionate and excel in their work.
"Games have evolved, technology has evolved but as businesses we’re still stuck where we were 15 years ago. As budgets grow, risks increase."
GS: Avalanche games are typically large-scale, big-budget projects. But I imagine the bigger you get, the harder you could fall. How do you envision the state of AAA game development? Is it healthy?
CS: It’s really not healthy at the moment. Games have evolved, technology has evolved but as businesses we’re still stuck where we were 15 years ago. As budgets grow, risks increase. The publishers are nervous because they have to project a game being a massive hit three years into the future and the developers are frustrated because they need to be flexible to every move the publishers make. It’s impossible to make everyone happy in the current equation, but I do think that there is a way out. Through innovation and closer collaboration, I hope and think we will see improvements over time.
GS: A colleague of mine once wrote an opinion piece asking "Why would anyone want to be a AAA game developer?" Hours are long, work/life balance is often skewed toward work, there are no major unions, and pay is average from an entertainment industry standard. Why are you still making games?
CS: You need to be part of a different breed to be a game developer. It’s a business that has matured but will probably never mature to the point where it makes sense to an outside observer. That said, the hours we put in as over-time at Avalanche Studios are far less than the hours you have to put in at an investment bank or in the advertising world. Personally, I've worked with games for over 20 years and I still love my job for the most part. Of course, cooking, training, spending time with my four kids, and playing games helps me keep my mind off work and focus on something else when I’m not working.
GS: What are the biggest issues holding the industry back today?
CS: We all need to start innovating again. Everyone wants innovation but it won’t come without a price, which is increased risk.
GS: On the other side of the coin, what are the biggest areas of opportunity?
CS: New platforms, new business models, new distribution channels… It’s all there! It’s just a matter of taking that step out of your comfort zone.
GS: You've said before that indecisiveness is eating the industry alive. Can you explain more about what you mean?
CS: It goes back to what I've said earlier about innovation and being willing to take risks. Everyone is just waiting for someone else to prove that something new works. Then everyone jumps on that opportunity. The industry is forever evolving, so simply make up your mind and go with it. Hire the right people to carry out your vision. Don’t try to be flexible to every whim of the industry because you’ll be dead as disco in the blink of an eye.
GS: You're shipping a new game, Mad Max, for Xbox One and PS4. They're both off to a hot start, selling millions of systems each. Is that some weight off your shoulders, seeing fans respond like that? Or is it too early to say?
CS: Those are fantastic numbers. I also find it very encouraging to see how much the installed base will have grown just a year from now. It’s a bit early for me to feel comfortable though. The investments in a AAA game these days are huge and even if everyone of those two million people bought a copy each, most big games would not break even if they were next-gen exclusives.
GS: From Minecraft to Call of Duty, we've seen that there is no clearly defined path or formula to follow to find success. What's your approach?
CS: You must do what is right for your game and your studio, not what works for anyone else. Every company is different and if you try to replicate someone else's success, especially Minecraft’s, you’re dead. For Avalanche Studios right now, I think we’re in a good place. If you look at the big games announced at last year’s E3, most of them were open-world in some shape or form. I see us as exceptionally fortunate to have over ten years of experience and head-start in this genre.
GS: You tweet a lot of images of food. I love food as well. I'm sure through your worldwide travels you've tasted a lot. If Avalanche Studios is a food, what food is it and why?
CS: Yes, I do fill the Internet with pictures of my food. I love cooking and I’m finally getting good at it! Avalanche Studios is like a bowl of chili. The iron cast cooking pot that we’re making the Avalanchili in is our integrity. It provides flavor to the content while being strong against outside interference. The broad scope of rich heat that you get from different peppers represents all the different skills we have in the studio. That is different from the insufferable sharp heat that you get from just using one kind of chili. We should not forget about the beef chuck to make the chili. It’s the toughest of meats and needs to simmer and boil over a long period of time, but it’s got the right amount of fat and texture to hold up. The chuck is clearly our awesome development team. Serve the Avalanchili in a bowl with some nice guacamole, nacho chips, and maybe some sour cream on the side if you can’t stand our heat. There you have it!
Avalanche is currently working on Mad Max for release this year on consoles and PC. The company, which has offices in Stockholm and New York City, is also creating a AAA game for Square Enix, believed to be Just Cause 3.