Has Remedy Entertainment really not shipped a game since October 2003? "Some of your parents may remember our last game, Max Payne 2," joked Matias Myllyrinne, president of the Finnish studio at his DICE Summit session this afternoon. However, with Alan Wake now set for a May 18 release, the designer took the stage to explain why it has taken so long to make the psychological horror game. "We'll discuss the method behind our madness," he declared.
First off, Myllyrinne said Alan Wake's long development cycle would not have been possible without the support of Microsoft. The company's backing is "letting us punch above our own weight," said an effusively thankful Myllyrinne. He did not mention that as part of that support, the PC version of the now Xbox 360-exclusive game was put on indefinite hold last year.
Remedy's principles are at the key of its development, and first among these is the core value of "focus." Myllyrinne said that this results in better games. He declared he'd rather ship a game that sells 4 million units every four years than release a game that sells 1 million units every year.
Another key principle is "people" at Remedy, which uses a smaller team than most AAA developers. They focus on multitalented people from all over the world: One Danish game designer has a background in drama, and a Brazilian level designer has a degree in psychology, which came in handy on Alan Wake.
To get the most out of his smaller staff, Myllyrinne encourages active--sometimes even heated--debate between coworkers because new ideas can arise from conflict. Remedy has also invested heavily in tools and technology, allowing for maximum worker productivity. As a result, Myllyrinne said only "three or four" members of the core Alan Wake team left during the game's development.
Finally, Remedy has a focus on branding and is very involved with the game's marketing. Myllyrinne said he wants every ad to make viewers feel like they're in a thriller.
Wheeling to Alan Wake in particular, Myllyrinne said that they set out to make a scary game and deliberately modeled the town of Bright Falls after TV's fictional hamlet of Twin Peaks. However, the game's three stages of development--preproduction, production, and the extensive postproduction Remedy is known for--ended up taking nearly twice as long as originally planned. Myllyrinne joked this was "taking the long road home."
Luckily, Remedy had enough Max Payne money and Microsoft support to bulk up to cope with the increased demands of current-generation console games. Although still small, the shop has increased payroll by 10-15 percent each year and uses outsourcing and freelancers extensively. As an example, two companies--one in Los Angeles and the other in Germany--are handling the game's sound design.
The character of Alan Wake has evolved as well, going from an outdoorsman of sorts to a tired, more paranoid figure. To make him as realistic as possible--something Myllyrinne feels is key in a thriller--they primarily used many concept photos instead of concept art for his character.
For Alan Wake's enemies, they wanted them to seem "just a bit off." To give the enemies a ghostly edge, they poured water on the concept drawings and let the ink run. This results in the shadowy, blurry figures that can be seen in the game's trailers.
Remedy also decided to reuse some elements from Max Payne 2 for what they call "near-miss moments." When an enemy attacks Alan Wake and nearly hits him, the action slows and then the camera angle changes. A brief demo showed the dramatic effect of these moments, especially when Max Payne pulls a flare out to vanquish a group of enemies in what Myllyrinne called "a Statue of Liberty moment."
All the aforementioned elements were shown together in a demo called the "Harvester of Sorrow," in which Alan Wake is attacked by a possessed grain combine that he must fend off with a flashlight. Once the shadowy driver takes enough damage, the machine disintegrates in a burst of shadow.
Myllyrinne said another big plus on Alan Wake development was the user testing assistance lent by Microsoft. So far, the game's controller scheme has been changed 18 times, and Myllyrinne thinks it will be 20 by the time it ships.
Remedy also gradually phased out the game's heads-up display for greater realism, including dumping a speedometer that appeared during driving sequences. "This isn't Need for Speed, so we didn't really need that."
Alan Wake's world is 10-by-10 kilometers of fully modeled terrain, based on over 60,000 photos taken in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon town of Astoria was a particular inspiration, as was the state's Crater Lake National Park.
Unfortunately, Myllyrinne said the decision to make the game an open-world sandbox was a poor one and had to ultimately be scaled back. The advantage of a more linear story is that it allows for better pacing and emotional resonance. It also prevents jarring incongruity that could arise from random events. "When you have a guy show up to a love scene in a monster truck, you know something is wrong," Myllyrinne joked.
To help keep the game's development on track, Remedy would do intense work for five weeks and then every sixth week celebrate and focus on planning for the next phase. "You have to celebrate the small victories," said Myllyrinne in conclusion. When Alan Wake ships exactly three months from now, Remedy will be celebrating a big one.