The adaptable Swedes with Just Cause to celebrate 12 years of sandbox success
Things can get hairy pretty quickly in Avalanche Studios’ Just Cause games, but the player always has enough tools at their disposal to improvise a solution – or, if all else fails, an escape route. And the developer certainly has plenty of experience when it comes to winging it. When Just Cause – then known as Terror In The Tropics – was conceived, the newly formed studio set up a meeting with Eidos, despite having nothing more to show than a short design document. As a matter of fact, it didn’t even have an office. Co-founders Christofer Sundberg and Linus Blomberg hurriedly put a plan into action, calling up old colleagues and temporarily borrowing office space from a friend in a media company. “We basically staged an office with computers that weren’t even plugged into the wall,” Blomberg tells us. “We had our friends sit there and pretend [they were] working as we quickly escorted the Eidos delegation into a conference room and presented what would become Just Cause. It was four pages, on paper – not even a PowerPoint.”
Hardly ideal circumstances, then, but the same could be said for Avalanche’s formation. Sundberg and Blomberg had been forced into such desperate measures, having dissolved previous venture Rock Solid Studios after a year when the publisher it had been working with went under. “We used to say that was the best thing that could have happened to us,” Blomberg recalls. “It was such a good learning experience to be forced to put a company out of business [because] we ended up promising ourselves to never rely on just one client, because you’re so much in the hands of what happens to them.” Being personally liable for the taxes, the co-founders were plunged into debt, and the only way out they could see was to start afresh. “Most people would probably say that’s entirely crazy based on what had just happened,” Blomberg concedes, “but for us the only way out was to get into it again and try one more time.”
The Eidos charade was persuasive enough for the publisher to request that the fledgling studio assemble a prototype within six months. Again, it had to adapt using the limited resources it had at the time. Avalanche retained some old tech demos from Rock Solid’s year in operation, but didn’t have the rights to use them because the company had been liquidated: it could only show them as a testament to its technical competence. “We managed to convince some former [Rock Solid] employees and friends to work for free more or less during this period,” Blomberg tells us. “Six months afterwards we went to London and presented it to the Eidos board. They were pretty much blown away. They said it was the best prototype they’d ever seen.”
The company’s strong technical background undoubtedly helped. What Avalanche presented to Eidos was a huge open world – which, at 64x64km, was four times the size of the finished game’s island of San Esperito. “It was procedurally generated to a very large extent,” Blomberg says. “We had a character that could run around, shoot and drive a car, and some basic sandbox rules, and that was pretty much it. But as a tech demo and a promise of something that could be spectacular, it really worked.” Eidos decided to fund the entire production on the spot, enabling Avalanche to hire those friends and former colleagues who had been working on the prototype, and give them a real office and computers that were actually plugged in. Within the first year, the studio expanded from eight to between 16 and 20 employees. In the third and final year of development it scaled up once more, this time to around 40 full-time staff, some set to work on a follow-up before the first game had even been released.
If Just Cause was well received, the company’s attempts to spread itself across multiple games didn’t go according to plan. The global recession had just started to bite, and publishers were either scaling back or folding entirely. THQ’s closure was responsible for one burgeoning project being abandoned; the other, AionGuard, made it to the cover of E198 but was cancelled when its publisher looked at its financial projections and struck a red line through it. Fortunately for Avalanche, the situation wasn’t as dire as it may seem: yes, there were layoffs, but it was paid for its time in both instances, and received termination fees that allowed it to re-hire as soon as a year after dismissing staff. “Actually, if you look at our accounting, that was probably one of the better years during that period,” Blomberg tells us with a smile. Indeed, Avalanche was savvy enough to obtain the rights to AionGuard. “Publishers weren’t taking any risks and this was a new IP: they only wanted sequels and safe bets, so we weren’t able to find a new home for it back then. But we still have the old demos, and it’s something we would like to dust off at some point, when the opportunity arises.”
One idea that did bear fruit was downloadable title Renegade Ops, a 2011 partnership with Sega that began as a joke during development of Just Cause 2. “We’d been working on these long projects with one or two big teams, and [some staff] wanted to work on something smaller,” co-founder Christofer Sundberg explains. “We couldn’t really figure out what that might be, because it was hard to pitch those kind of games at that time – everyone wanted these big, epic games. But then one day, one of our designers flipped the camera in Just Cause 2 to a top-down view and it actually looked very good. So we created a pitch and, all of a sudden, that was Renegade Ops.”
Meanwhile, the Just Cause 2 engine was repurposed for free-to-play FPS The Hunter, an idea the studio had been kicking around since its formation. “The technology that Linus and his [team] had worked on was so amazing, and we had this demo with a Swedish forest that lent itself to a hunting game very well,” Sundberg tells us. “Also,” Blomberg says, “Deer Hunter was at the top of the charts in the US at the time. And it looked like shit, to be honest. We were saying, if that’s top of the charts and we can do something that looks much, much better, then maybe we can have a [number one].” Avalanche worked on the game with a financial partner until the latter ran out of money, but having secured the rights, it continued to develop the game internally. Launched as a closed beta during 2009, it has since grown into one of the studio’s biggest successes. A remake, The Hunter: Primal, was released on Early Access last year, and Sundberg is confident about its long-term prospects: “It will definitely grow into a franchise, something we can build on for the future.”
Once Avalanche had put the finishing touches to Just Cause 2, it began pitching a post-apocalyptic open-world game to various publishers, with one in particular taking a keen interest. “We started talking to Warner Bros, and our [concept] was a really good fit for what it wanted to do with Mad Max,” Sundberg says. “We jumped at that opportunity, and the rest is history.” It was the studio’s first licensed game, and the development process was longer and more complex than usual: God Of War II director Cory Barlog was attached for some time but left, eventually rejoining Sony Santa Monica. Sundberg, however, rejects the suggestion that this was anything out of the ordinary. “When it comes to licensed games there are always a lot of parties involved. I mean, I’m sure there are some people from Lucasfilm who have things to say about what DICE is doing with its licence. Mad Max wasn’t any different. Cory was involved in the project in the very beginning and then he left. Our projects are generally quite long, so a lot of people go through these doors. So I wouldn’t say it’s unusual. Though Mad Max for us was unusual because it was a licence, and until that point we’d focused on original IP.”
By then, Avalanche had gone transatlantic. In late 2011, it opened a new studio in New York. “It doesn’t matter how many Minecrafts and Battlefields come out of Sweden, we tend to be forgotten as this weird little country up in the north [of Europe],” Sundberg says. “For us as an independent developer it was easier to secure new business if we had a presence in the United States.” The idea had been floated for a while, but the need to expand became more urgent when the studio agreed to make Mad Max and the Stockholm division no longer had the capacity to take on Just Cause 3 simultaneously. Simple convenience made New York more appealing as a location than the busier development communities on the west coast – flights run daily from Stockholm and take just six or seven hours, allowing Sundberg and Blomberg to regularly fly over. “Linus just came back from a month in New York, and he stayed there for six months about a year ago,” Sundberg explains. “And I’m there at least a week every month. From a management perspective, we’re there often, but most importantly the team are connected – the designers here are talking to the designers over there, and the tech teams are obviously working together. It hasn’t been easy to have a remote studio, but it’s definitely been a great decision.”
Looking to the future, Avalanche’s co-founders believe that having the option for its teams to work in two different locations gives it a competitive edge. But it isn’t about to abandon the design ethos that has allowed it to thrive since the struggles of those first six months. “We don’t want to do everything at once,” Sundberg insists. “That’s the mistake that many studios and publishers make these days – they’re prepared to bend themselves over backwards just to adapt to an industry that’s constantly changing, and it’s biting them on the ass sooner or later.” Rather than attempting to follow trends and leave itself open to failure, Avalanche will continue to focus on action-packed open-world games that prioritise player freedom. It will, Sundberg says, endeavour to explore new ideas, but will be relatively conservative with its experimentation.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with playing to your strengths. The studio might never make “a ping-pong game or a corridor shooter on Mars”, because there are other developers who can do that sort of thing better than Avalanche ever could. “We try to focus on being the best within the sandbox [genre] from every aspect,“ Sundberg says. “From technology to game design to how we organise ourselves in the studio, everything is focused around that.” He takes a bite from his lunchtime kebab and laughs quietly. “You don’t do heroin and cocaine at the same time.”