Image credit: Starbreeze

The people behind the critically-acclaimed adventure game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and bank-robbing and heist-planning first-person shooter Payday 2 are toying with the idea to expand in Asia.

But let’s step back a bit and talk about the company itself for the context’s sake. Starbreeze Studios got its start in 1998 and is considered one of the oldest European game studios in the region. Apart from the aforementioned games, it mostly dealt with triple-A fares in a sub-contract manner like first-person shooter The Darkness and movie tie-in The Chronicles of Riddick.

After its recent acquisition of a small studio Overkill Software in 2012, that previously held the rights to Payday, the 45-person company decided to go into a new direction. Specifically, to become an independent game publishing and game-making house that does not bow down to other bigger studios. “We’re a big independent company,” said CEO Bo Andersson. “We’ve been public since 2000, but its tradition was to be a work-for-hire studio, making another big publisher’s IP.”

The company saw potential in Overkill Software and its franchise. And it’s not the typical case of a big publisher acquiring a company and trimming down the employee fat; the people previously at Overkill are still working at Starbreeze to this very day, according to Andersson and Community Manager/Investor Relations Almir Listo.

“Back in the day when Trip Hawkin founded EA,” said Listo, “it was all about the developers, not about being a big publisher. Back then, you had to receive/send games physically and see ads showcasing developers and whether computers can make you cry. And that’s exactly what we want to go back to; where the developer was the focus.”We’re trying to be the best at digital marketing, as well as be the best in communicating with customers and gamers, all so that we can go back to the core of what the games industry is about. There comes a point when the community works by itself; there’s so much activity so they just feed off each other.”

Speaking of which, the company’s previous work with EA on the Syndicate IP was another deciding factor in making it go the “developer-focussed” route. For those not in the know, the Syndicate series was a real-time strategy line of games. Starbreeze was given the dubious task of turning it into a first-person shooter. That’s like giving action director Michael Bay a truckful of money to do a subtle art film.

The results were expectedly mixed, leaning towards the negative side and it did not sell well as a result. Between that point and its Overkill buyout, both Listo and Andersson said that the company vowed to break away from the triple-A work-for-hire schtick and start owning its own IPs. “Usually when you’re a work-for-hire like most studios,” Listo explained, “you don’t have much say on the title you work on. You just have to make the best game you possibly can and publishers then tell you what is what.”


Starbreeze’s pictures from this year’s E3 2014, where it promoted its 10-month old superstar Payday 2

Stick em’ up
Its current hit, Payday 2, is priced in a typical retail model, but the company is keeping it alive and kicking. As it’s a game that is better played with friends and online, the company has created 30 updates for the game, with only six of them requiring an additional small sum of money. And it’s not required too: players who don’t pay for the content will still be able to see it and play it in their sessions, only they can’t host it. “I believe this ‘semi free-to-play’ idea works well because it’s a co-operative game,” said Andersson.

“Fans have been comparing (Payday 2) as an MMO,” said Listo. “They do that subconsciously because we’ve been diligent in putting out almost three updates per month. That’s a lot of stuff!” Even at this year’s E3 2014 event, the company is promoting its heist-based shooter more and not even revealing any details on its upcoming role-playing game Storm. With four more heists coming in before the year ends, Payday 2 seems to be the company’s current meal ticket.

And even if it isn’t, Starbreeze still needs to keep it going as it made a deal with European publisher 505 Games last December to continue Payday 2 development for 20 more months. “That’s a long time for an FPS,” said Listo. “Usually for a game of this sort, it goes up online, get a lot of sales, then peaks downward. No customer or dev support in the long run.”


The humble-yet-sorta-big office of Starbreeze

Asian horizons
When it comes to Asia before the historical sidetrack, Andersson said that Starbreeze needs to make an all-new IP for the market that’s built for the free-to-play model and mobile platform before proceeding further. “It’s a cultural thing, it works much better over there in Asia when compared to Western market. Either for a new game or existing brand, we need to consider whether the game is built for the free-to-play model.”

Would Payday 2 be a good starting point? “It might,” said Andersson. “It would be a good experiment for us, and we’re definitely looking into it. There’s a lot of localisation that needs to be done and community services that need to be expanded. What made Payday 2 tick was that we developers are always talking to the fans in North America and Europe; it’s not marketing bulls***. We need to provide the same service in Asia and not too many of us speak Chinese and Korean. I’m aware that people in Asia speak and understand English, but you’re much closer to your community if you speak in an Asian country’s native tongue.”

Andersson said that making mobile games isn’t in the company’s DNA and it’s not pursuing to be one of them. “(That said) we’re definitely looking at doing collaborations with mobile platforms and those kind of developers; setting up collaborations where they understand how to market and develop our brands. Payday has merchandising value and is on both PC and consoles; why can’t there be a companion app for it or a standalone iOS game?”

He added that he would love to see more use of mobile games in PC games. “Having mobile games and Steam games integrated together, sharing the same economy, sharing the same gameplay. Not only be companion apps, but also apps that control the game in a big way. I would like to spend 70 per cent of my time playing my big game on the mobile phone, then do the big quests and events on my main computer.”

The future is looking bright if it continues its independent path, at least Andersson and Listo seem to allude to. “We see games as a service to the fans, rather than a one-off product,” said Andersson. “We’re closer to being Valve than to being EA. Much closer.”