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Last week I joined a group of journalists in the offstage winners’ room for the DICE Awards celebrating the best of video games in 2021 at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. Each group of winners filed through our room and we collectively tossed a bunch of questions at the winners.
Housemarque’s Returnal won for outstanding achievements in original music composition and audio design. We met with Gregory Louden, narrative director for Returnal; Harry Krueger, game director of Returnal; and Ilari Kuittinen, managing director at Housemarque.
I asked one of the questions about difficulty, while other journalists asked the rest. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Question: Congratulations on the win. How does an award differentiate itself when it’s determined by your peers, as opposed to the media or fan voting?
Gregory Louden: It’s huge. I’m sure the team is going to be so proud to win best music and best audio design. It’s triumphant. We’re so proud of Returnal. We wanted to push the boundaries of what you can do with PlayStation 5, with the Dual Sense and with 3D audio. I’m sure our audio team are dancing in London and Helsinki. It’s very exciting.
Question: Housemarque made a big jump in terms of the scale of the games you’re making. At this point, looking back, how do you feel about making that leap from small bullet hell shooters to a roguelike with a plot bullet hell shooter?
Harry Krueger: We have maybe built a name for ourselves over the last 12-13 years for making these arcade-inspired games – Resogun, Nex Machina, Super Stardust HD and so on. Each of those had an incremental step up in terms of refinement and technological progress, but with Returnal, the step was so high it almost felt like a wall we needed to climb over.
It was interesting for us, because when you’re given so many new possibilities, it’s important to remember who you are. It was valuable for us to always remember that we have these timeless gameplay values we’ve explored in our previous games. The unapologetic video game, arcade heritage. The neon flare explosions, lots of particles. It was crucial for us to hold on to that and make sure that it survived and thrived during the transition to a bigger game. We’re incredibly proud of what we accomplished as a team.
Question: Was Returnal always in the back of your mind, in a way, something you were waiting for the technology to catch up to so you could make it? When did it come into play that this was the next step for you?
Ilari Kuittinen: When we were thinking about it–I think it was 2015. We had a first pitch, and then 2015 was the year when we started to build it into something bigger. We had a few different routes that we tried. One of them was trying to pitch a much bigger game than we’d ever done before. That was where it got started. Moving on from there, a couple of years later we had a chance to start actually doing it.
Krueger: We really dared to dream with Returnal. The question was, if we could make any game that we could possibly do, what would it be? We started putting all these ideas together for our ultimate dream project. We were a bit surprised. It almost felt too good to be true when it got greenlit and we were finally able to make it. Sony of course was incredibly pivotal in supporting us across this journey, every step of the way, and championing our vision. We couldn’t have done it without them.
Question: Do you enjoy making difficult games?
Krueger: That’s a good question. How much time do we have? But yeah, I think having–for us it’s never about just making games difficult for the sake of being difficult. It’s about how we can create the most rewarding experience. I think it’s very difficult to have that sense of triumph, that sense of elation, if you’re not pushed to the verge of frustration at times. Having that adversity, that friction with the game, it makes the success feel all the more rewarding when you do achieve that.
With Returnal we felt that with the randomized content, the roguelike elements, the procedurally-generated elements of the game, that acts as a pressure valve in a way. Luck is an element too. Sometimes you get a good run where things align and you get these great results, and other times you might get a bit unlucky and it feels like the game’s working against you. But that’s maybe the beauty of the game, that it creates these memorable player stories.
Question: What’s your opinion on studios unionizing across the industry?
Kuittinen: Well, we’re in Finland, of course, and that’s maybe a different scenario. A relatively high percentage of the Finnish workforce is unionized. It’s a common theme in Finland. When it comes to game development, there’s some going on, and I think that’s a good thing for any industry if they collaborate well with their companies.
Question: Right now we’re seeing something of a sea change in video games and how they’re made. Sony recently bought Bungie. You’re obviously under the Sony umbrella. Earlier you talked about maintaining your identity and who you are as a studio. In a time where Sony especially seems to want more live service games, more things like this, how do you react to that? Are you interested in making live service games? And in a time where games are changing, the people playing them are changing, how do you hold on to that identity?
Kuittinen: Well, the jury is still out there. We’re one of the very last dinosaurs making arcade games. Nex Machina, a few years ago, was very much a shoot-’em-up game in the style of the coin-ops from the ‘80s. That’s sort of a clue. But it’s interesting. We’ve been thinking about that. We had our stint working on multiplayer games, because a few years back it seemed like you needed to have some kind of multiplayer experience. We tried that, and we really didn’t do it as well. But it’s early days with us starting a new game, a new IP, concepting it out. We’ll see what comes with that.
Krueger: We’re really trying to hold on to that identity, as you mentioned. It’s wonderful right now that gaming has grown and evolved so much that there’s so much variety and diversity of game experiences. They can all peacefully coexist. There can be live service games, multiplayer games, games with many different sensibilities. Returnal is just another voice. At this stage we’re quite proud of what we accomplished with Returnal, and we’re quite excited to pursue that same trajectory as a company.