We recently had the pleasure of meeting with Michael Rud Jakobsen, CEO and Creative Director of Playwood Project. Founded in 2014, this fledgling Denmark studio is on its way to publishing its first title: Wartile, a real-time virtual miniatures game set within the brutal age of the Vikings.”Setting the Board”
Michael got a taste for independent game design early in his career, working for a small studio called Zeitguyz. “I was much more ambitious, having just come out of design school,” He recalls, “There I worked as an environment artist, and a lead artist… I came in pretty early, and there were four or five guys at the moment — the two founders and a few artists. I came in as an environment artist, and I had just come in directly from school, and I had no real experience in the industry. So it was learning by doing, since there is such a huge difference between what you learn in school and what you do in the industry.”
Like many budding game designers, Michael admits that the early days of his career were spent on a very tight rope. “I didn’t get any salary for more than one year,” he says, “I mean, coming straight from school, that was possible because I was used to eating spaghetti I guess or something like that. I didn’t have a huge budget, no family and such.”
Not only was this doable at the time, but it allowed him a level of singular commitment to his projects that he enjoyed. “You really embed yourself in the project,” he explains, “It becomes part of yourself. And the indie companies depend a lot on the individual artists to provide good content and to come up with a lot of ideas, and because they are so small, they give a lot of ownership out to the individual developers. Ownership, and the feeling of doing something in a team, building up and sharing the good moments — everything is so close to you. When you show off the game, you are normally at the exhibitions yourself, so you really get close to the things you are doing and the people who would enjoy the product. So it was very much about self-driven motivation — the project moves by the energy you put in yourself.”
Like any independent studio, Zeitguys faced an upward battle — one that it eventually lost. There, Michael learned a great deal about what kind of struggles he might face one day with his own company. “Sometimes the structure is not in place,” he explains, “There’s no department for human resources. The budget is tight, so if you have a big family to support, it can be tough. You work a lot of hours I think — you also do that at established companies, but I don’t know, sometimes it feels like when you are in an indie company it’s also your responsibility. Even if you’re just an artist, you kind of share the responsibility to deliver on the different milestones, so it’s also very tough I think. And then it’s unknown, so you don’t know if you’ll get any backing or any investors and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of uncertainty about the next day, or the next week, or the next month.”
After Zeitguyz lost funding and shut down, Michael moved on to IO Interactive, a major Danish developer owned by Square Enix. “I was hired at IO as an environment artist on Kane & Lynch 2. I worked there, I think it was one and a half years on Kane & Lynch 2, and then after that was released, they started to gather a small team to work on the new Hitman title coming up, the one after Absolution.”
This was a major opportunity for Michael, as it allowed him to formally venture outside of the graphic design field and into the broader field of game development. “That was really interesting for me to be part of that team, mostly because I was working as an environment artist for Kane & Lynch 2, but actually what I wanted to do was game design. I also started a lot of game design in school, and I did a lot of game design at my former job at Zeitguyz, so being an environment artist was just a pathway, an entry into the industry. Even at that time, they didn’t really hire game designers — that was still pretty new. They would have level designers and sometimes even artists doing it.”
“When I started it was about 200 plus employees I think,” Michael recalls, “A lot of people working on a single project, like maybe 50 to 100. You have a lot of security, and a lot of experience in the company and in the people. Everybody doing what they’re doing are really experienced, really skilled, and that’s something you can really learn from, I mean you move fast when you get in there. You evolve really fast because you learn from the best. At the indie studio you have to learn by your own mistakes, but it’s a different type of learning I think.”
“And then there’s the security, and so with each project, you get your salary on time, and it has a good human resource plan. So there’s a lot of good benefits for an employee to be in a company like that, and also talent development.”
Michael goes on to explain that the work environment on creative opportunities at IO varied from project to project, largely depending on how the managers and producers chose to handle them. “I had been at IO for almost seven years, and I would almost say that I’ve seen it all. I’ve been the artist getting a task and understanding and saying ‘Ok, we need this and this and this by this time,’ and then we also tried to be constructive and change how we work, and tried to add in extra layers of creativity, but there were a lot of time schedules and stuff like that to maintain. And then I moved from there to become a lead game designer for, I think it was a team of five game designers sitting in different departments with different responsibilities, where you deal out the different responsibilities to the individual artists or designers at the studio. In the big companies I think it comes in so many variations of whether they succeed in motivating the artist or the designer, and making them embed in the work they do, and giving them enough freedom and ownership to grow and really contribute, or if it’s just like ‘Do this, this, and this’.”
“At some point,” he says, “After being on the [Hitman] project after so many years, and still seeing that it needed one or two more years, and feeling that I had kind of stopped developing myself — I mean IO went through a lot of internal changes in structure. I saw a lot of the people I really thought were skilled, and talented, and I could learn a lot from, they were disappearing from the company. I thought that it was actually about time for me to move on, and try something new. ‘Jump out of the nest,’ so to speak.”
“It had always been my ambition to start something myself — even back in school that was a dream. But I thought when I would do that, I would have been working at one of the leading companies in the gaming industry for several years to get a strong experience and track record. I thought that was what I could do at that time.”
Michael ultimately decided that trying to father his own project within a larger company would be too constricting — if it would even be possible, that is. “In indie companies you have a lot of responsibility, a lot of room for yourself, and in the big companies it’s much more tight. You always try, but not everyone sees you when you’re waving your arms and having great ideas, and often it just disappears. Over the years, if you are really motivated and have a strong drive, and the company cannot absorb it, you just grow tired and want to try something new.”
That’s exactly what he did.
PLAYWOOD PROJECT TAKES THE FIELD
“In the beginning I had an idea of the concept,” Michael tells us, “and the general experience of the game. I was figuring out first of all what engine it should be in, and how complex the game should be.”
Michael had to tread carefully at first. He needed to make sure that Wartile was simple enough that he could make progress on his own, since he didn’t have a team yet. “I actually imagined that it would be a two-man project, so not very big,” he explains, “But then suddenly I got a notification that one of my ex-colleagues from IO Interactive had just quit his job, so he just had a few months to fill in, and I pitched my project and he thought it sounded really interesting and possible to do. He was a programmer, and I was an artist and game designer, so I really needed someone to code the back end of the game.”
“That was a coincidence,” he continues, “And you will probably hear me come back to this word ‘coincidence,’ and it was probably not just a coincidence and I guess it comes out to a lot of factors or decisions you have made early in life that brings you to this situation and you can take advantage of it. I think that’s something in the industry that I’ve experienced and that I see a lot, that things happen and because of the current situation you are in, you are able to grab it — like this one, I knew the guy, he had been working a bit with me, he had a good experience working with me, so he thought I was persuasive and could trust me. So I got actually a really talented programmer to fill a seat in doing a prototype of the game. So he was exactly what I was looking for — someone dedicated with a lot of experience, because on such a small team, to try to do something… I mean it was not a simple game, it was not really complex, but it still required some experience to do.
“It’s hard, when I look back — and I think it’s always like that — it’s a ride that goes a bit up and down. I don’t remember any periods where it went straight up [laughs], and I think that more just me as a person, I may be too optimistic sometimes. When things looked tough, I often was able to look at the bright side, and feel in my stomach if this is something we can overcome, and if it’s something we can overcome then it’s just upwards. There hasn’t been anything as I said that was about to stop the project, but that’s also because the project is kind of flexible.”
Playwood Project’s first big challenge came when Wartile started to evolve beyond what two people with no income could manage. “Things started to grow, and that’s often a mistake that you make,” he says, “As I see it, it started to grow to its potential, which it still has really good potential. But doing that without any financing… We didn’t have any budget, and I had some savings that I spent on living, but we didn’t have any salary, and that also became a problem of course for our programmer at that time. So after six months, I think, with no salaries, he had gotten some freelance work. I think the first big challenge came when he had to work freelance on the side to earn a living and that slowed down the production of the game a great deal.”
“I also spent a lot of time doing pitches for investors and stuff like that,” he recounts, “And that was also hard because it takes a lot of work away from the project. And at that time — I think it was about Christmas 2014, it must have been — things were going a bit slow. There were two different paths we could go: one was to focus on the product, which I mean has all the value, or focus on pitching the product, which is a real unknown because you never know if someone will take it or not. And the better product you have, the better chance you have to find investors. So that I think was one of the big hurdles we had — getting investors, I mean getting bread on the table, or trying to do without and make a solid product.”
And soon, the inevitable happened.
“And then our programmer, he had to leave the project totally to get a full-time job elsewhere. Also I think it was harder for him after a few months to work two days on Wartile and three days on something else. So I remember when I got in the mail that he would stop, because I mean that was a big impact on the project, to lose him. But I knew it was coming, and it was still something we could solve.”
“The way we did the project, Wartile, is in Unreal 4, so it has something called visual programming or visual scripting,” he explains, “That is actually a way of making code without writing code, so it’s like a blackboard where you draw lines between stuff and make a program. I can do that to a certain extent, so I was able to work on the project for a few months, and then focus on art and sound and stuff like that. So for a period I was actually alone sitting on the project, but I had a lot of really skilled and talented freelancers around me, some full time and some part time. So we had a guy making a lot of really good concept art, and that moved the art side a lot. We didn’t get much programming done, but we had a lot of art coming out, and that was really good. But it was tough — that was a tough time, I remember.”
At that point, the lack of funding weighed heavily on Wartile’s progress. Michael considered re-prioritizing to address this. “That was actually also the moment that I was called to a meeting — in Denmark we have an organization that kind of helps small studios or entrepreneurs figure out how they should focus their development and the things they do. This is for digital. I went to a pitch training, or pitch class, with a lot of experts in investment and lawyers and branding and so on. And the investors said, when they saw my pitch, that I really needed to tell people that we could earn a lot of money doing this game.”
None of this felt quite right to Michael. “The game is really not about money for me,” he says, “It’s not about money — I definitely would like to support my family, since I have three kids, and a wife, and a house and stuff like that — but it’s not really about earning a lot of money. It’s about creating a good product that will survive people’s memory and time with all this beautiful work, I mean dreams are about that.”
“I realized that pitching for investors could be really necessary for the survival of the company and the game,” he continues, “But the goal was to try not to depend to much on the money, and work with the goodwill of people and the goodwill of the family, and see how far that could take us. Because, at some point, if we did that long enough, we would have a product that people would enjoy playing, and maybe also would be willing to pay for. If we reached that state, we would be so much stronger than if we had done, say, ten failed pitches to investors and wasting all the time doing that. So I actually decided, in the early 2015, that I would do all product development only — no pitching. So that was a really hard time, but it was a very healthy decision, because it put me 100% on what I wanted to do: making game design.”
Then, a potential lifeline resurfaced for Michael. “There was an application for something called the Games Scheme in Denmark,” he explains, “Which is supported by the Danish Film Institute. It is a subsidy from the government for digital games coming up. And actually we already had applied for that the year before, and it had taken a lot of time out of the project to do the application, making sure everything was right. So I was actually in doubt, at that time, if I should take a week or two out of the production because I could do a lot of work in that amount of time. To apply again, I had to update it to the current state of the game, and adjust the changes in the game design. So we applied and then, very lucky for us, we were accepted. So we got the ‘grant’ as you call it from the Games Scheme, and the Danish Film Institute. And today I must admit I am really happy we did that, because that changes everything. It means getting a budget to pay salary for some core members of the team. That was really good. So I think that actually set off Wartile as a project and the studio at rocket speed toward the heavens.”
With the funding resolved, everything else seemed to fall into place. “Almost at the same time, another application came in my mailbox, from a programmer just finished with school and looking for an internship for eight weeks,” he says, “We made an interview, and he was a really good match. So he did not have all the experience, you know, the company and game development experience, that are former programmer had. But he had the other thing that we value so much, and that’s the energy and the commitment, and he was really lively to be with. So he came into the project, and that also changed things, because he had a high degree in programming and was really good. But you learn a lot, being committed. So he is now also part of the core team.”
“I think since having the support of the DFI, it has been quite a ride, and it has been really really good. We have a budget to hire concept artists for 2D art, and we are able to have sound designers and 3D artists… It makes everything much easier.”
Playwood project has really taken shape and realized its potential since then. “What I look for now is people who can really work, who are really willing to take ownership, to make things their own. I mean as soon as people who work on Wartile look and say ‘Ah, this is part of me, I did this,’ or ‘we did this,’ then we are in a really good place. Because if anyone at Playwood Project thinks they do it for me, or for the salary, or for anything else but their own desire to express themselves in the things they do, then I think that’s a problem, both for the project and maybe also — especially also — for themselves. In this business it’s creativity and your creative spark that should drive you.
Wartile is a virtual board game. Every match is played on a 3-dimensional hexagonal grid, which is then stunningly dressed up as a beautiful and animate environment. The player controls a team of characters represented by tabletop miniatures, which are strategically dragged across the board amid a real-time battle. This means that the characters do not move from space to space on their own, but the moment they come into contact with an enemy, they become animate and begin to fight.
“I know when I got the idea, it was just in the beginning,” Michael explains, “I had just stopped working at IO, and I was trying to pitch a lot of different ideas for myself. Then I was sitting and just remembering that, when I was a kid, I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. I had a lot of these small figures, and I played with miniature soldiers made of plastic in the garden, doing landscapes and everything. And as you sit there, it’s just like playing with dolls, where you create this universe in your mind with these guys, standing all stiff but in your mind they are moving and talking. And you build it up with your hands, either on the kitchen table or in the garden or on the floor. So, I wanted to grab that. I wanted to take this experience that you see in a lot of board games, these small environments. But the production value had to be really good. I wanted to have the notion that someone physically built this, from real materials, even though it is a digital game and not a board game.”
“When it comes to the pieces, they also needed to be like figurines,” he continues, “I think that’s still something that we struggle on today, as we try to nail how we see and experience them, because in digital games they move. So they look like small figures, rather than portraits of real people, but the way they move makes them almost more part of a cartoon than a classical figurine. We wanted to make it feel like our fantasy makes them move a bit. When they fight, just come alive — they move a bit, but not too much — and then they go back into a pose when you move them around. We want them to be at least a little bit alive, because when you play with these figurines, as a kid (or even later on maybe), you give them character. We still want them to have that character, and not seem too stiff and plastic. So it’s trying to reach out to the childhood memories of playing board games and Dungeons and Dragons, and creating stuff yourself.”
Michael tells us that it is fairly common for Danish companies to choose a Viking theme when making games, given their cultural heritage. Being a history and mythology enthusiast, however, he had much to consider when determining what the setting of Wartile should be. “We could do a Viking theme, there was English knights, Spartan or Persian warriors… There were a lot of different cultural settings that we could choose. Being Danish, and thinking that Vikings would be a good place to start and move on from there, made it very relevant to us — we know the culture, we know a lot of the mythology, we think we know how they looked and how they acted. So research on that comes very easily.”
It turns out that the Vikings serve as a fantastic vehicle by which to access any number of other cultures as well. “The plan was actually to try to string the different campaigns together,” he says, “So the Vikings, they go to England but they also go to Europe and even to the Middle East. So by having the Vikings, we can start tapping into all of the cultures that we want to touch. For example, one of the Vikings will have been a bodyguard in Constantinople back in the day. So we can start making some links and making missions that branch from there.”
“The plan is that when we launch a campaign, it will of course have a story string, but it will have many branches that will be unlocked kind of independently. So you can easily imagine that one of these Vikings, maybe the Spearman, will have a mission where you will unlock something that will be part of his personal experience. The Vikings have been almost everywhere, so that’s why we chose them.”
With Wartile, Michael has crafted a style of gameplay that breeds turn-based and real-time strategy, creating an accessible blend of the two. “I have played a lot of real time strategy games that are really fast-paced, and some turn-based games that are really slow,” he explains, “What I wanted was something in between — kind of like a turn-based game, but where you don’t have to wait for the other side to move — and something that gives you more time for tactical considerations than a reaction-based game. I don’t know if that’s because I’m just getting a bit older, and would like things to move bit slower [laughs] than a lot of other games. I want to try to enjoy the moment a bit more.”
“We introduced this Cooldown feature on the units,” he continues, “As well as limiting the number of units you can manage, so that it would not get to hectic. From that, we have a very different pace in the game, especially when you try the multiplayer because you kind of commit every time you move a piece. You can’t just run around people while they’re maybe not looking, and it gives them some time to respond. It quickly becomes a game about precision — yourself against the enemy, where you might try to flank him or put your strong character against his weak character or try to avoid him.”
To preserve the feeling and aesthetic of a physical tabletop game, Wartile’s interface uses “cards” to present the player with most of the written information that they have access to.
“Then the next layer we added in was the Ability Cards, the individual abilities that tell you what the characters are good at,” he explains. “Right now we have something called a Warrior, so he will always have a single weapon and shield, so he is good at doing stuff with his shield right now. He can hide behind his shield, which is called Shield Wall, and that makes him almost unbeatable. So this is good to use in certain locations if there are many enemies around you. And we will add new abilities to this character.”
“Then there is the Brute, who is a really big Viking who can really hit hard. There’s an Archer, with a precision shot and stuff like that. Spearmen can through spears and attack two tiles ahead. So we started applying the abilities as another layer of strategical consideration that you have to make during the game.”
“What we are really paying attention to is the level of complexity,” he emphasizes, “Because Wartile was never meant to be really complex to learn. We want something that is accessible, but still has very deep possibilities, you know, kind of like chess. So the rules you can learn fairly easily, but the type of game you can experience from that can be really deep. You can do so many things with the tools you have. We wanted to try to get to that place where it is very easy to learn, but has a lot of depth in how you play it.”
“It was really working at that point, but we still needed something more for tactical and strategical opportunities in the game,” he adds, “Here we come to what we call Game Cards, which have two types: godly powers, that often are a divine boon called by the player, and we also have tactical powers, that are like traps or road blocks… Maybe you have a war horn, or something like that. You can summon a bear. And these cards make up kind of a deck that you put together yourself, and then they are drawn randomly every time you use one, so you never know what you will get.”
“That’s a really good thing, because they kind of define your approach to the game. So if you play single player or multiplayer, you have a certain style. The Game Cards that are available to you can force you to try something new or take a different approach. If you don’t have any traps, for example, you might say, “Oh, I have to do something different, or use my units in a different way.” But I think we are at a balance where, after a few plays, you have a really good understanding of how the game works. Now we can decide different level patterns and different types of levels, and different challenges, which get depth into the game without making it really complex.
Wartile has come a long way in the year and a half since its inception. Still, there’s more work to be done. Playwood Project is planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign shortly to expand Wartile further.
“Right now the budget is still an issue,” Michael says, “Because we are still an independent studio, so it’s self-financed at the moment. One of the goals is definitely financial stability so that we can make the whole product.”
“It’s also very much about creating a strong foundation, and finding what we would call “ambassadors” — people who want to be involved in the game early on, and help us put things together, help us verify the quality and give us a lot of feedback on what they like about the game and what they don’t like so much. Their feedback will be very beneficial for Wartile. Right now we test things on friends, or when we go to a convention, we watch people play the game and they give us a lot of feedback about how they experience the game. I see it as a very strong way of getting in touch with people who would choose to be involved with the project. I think now it’s also time to reach out to a lot of people, and of course try to brand ourselves. We will need a lot of people who enjoy the game in order to continue realizing it.”
In addition to refining the existing game, Michael has plans to add a fair amount of features and content. “What we do have in the production plan is the possibility to kind of change up your maps to a certain degree. So you can imagine, for example, the coastline level that we’ve had some screenshots of. It has a small viking ship, a tower, a church, and some relics here and about. The thing that we plan to do is have some unique spots or spots of relevance on the map, and then when you have completed the map, each map is being considered to have two or three versions experienced by different characters. So the first time you will experience the coastline,it will maybe be told by the Viking Brute’s perspective, and he will tell you about how they came to the island and why hey are there. And then later you’ll unlock the Archer maybe, on another mission. And then you will be able to replay this coastline level, and this time maybe it is set by night, and you have a different set up of units. Maybe you can use a torchlight to get an advantage. You kind of replay the same level, but in a different setting that is maybe more fitting of the Archer. And these levels may increase in difficulty. So we try to reuse the map to a certain degree, while trying to deliver a very different experience.”
“But we also plan on having a system where, after you’ve completed the map, you can randomize it,” he continues, “So maybe there’s a tower, there’s also a small enemy camp, and… A princess. Well, that’s just an example. And it gives you some Objective Cards, so you have to cross the tower, you have to slaughter the enemy camp and kidnap the princess. So it randomly places these objectives on the map, and the different encounters on the map, so you will be able to play a lot of different versions of it. So if you’re just like ‘I’ve completed the game,’ or, ‘I don’t have much time and I don’t want to go into the campaign,’ you can just do a random set of this map, because you like it, and it will change a little bit of its general structure. So this is all in the production plan, but it’s set a bit later when we have everything in order.”
“We aim at creating a really interesting and thrilling campaign to involve the player and introduce all the different figurines we have in the game. This is where you will unlock your figurines, you have to go through the campaign and unlock them to use them in the multiplayer. And the campaigns will of course be introduced with different cultures. For the single player, if you’re really good, it might take you fifteen minutes for one battle map, and that in our book is really short because we can easily give you much more experience on these maps. We want to make sure that people, when they have completed the game and the story mode, they still have a lot of good single player experiences to get out of the game. So the replayability is very high on our ambition for the game.”
“We would also like to move toward the mythology a little more,” he says, “So in Norse mythology, you have giants, big Wargs, and stuff like that. So tapping in to that and being able to realize specific mechanics around these. The idea is that for all the God Cards we have in the game, creating a challenge that will give you a unique gameplay experience. So also with the backing, it is possible to move more toward that mythology direction, where we have creatures or beasts from the tales. When we started, the game was very historical, but we were also inspired by the mythology and legends. I think there’s no doubt when reading up on the Norse Mythology that a lot of the Vikings actually believed that these things were real, so we would like to make them a bit real.”
Playwood Project describes Wartile as intended for gamers who “don’t have the time and energy to commit to a full AAA game, but still want the high-end experience.” Michael is confident that as the gaming market evolves, Wartile will adapt well within it.
“I think going forward, a few AAA games have a chance at succeeding, and those that succeed give us the full package,” he explains, “Look at games like, for example The Witcher or Fallout. They have everything and they are made with a really really high production value. It can be a really good game, and it can look really good. But I think indie games get a lot of attention, and I think people have figured out that they can get a really strong experience from a game made with even a few pixels, one that really moves them. It feels like it was much more worth the money they paid than what you would pay for a really big game. So I think there is a scale. I think the really high production games, they will still be there, but I think a lot of those just below them will have a really hard time, because the audience moves between the high production and indie games.”
“But also what we are talking about is the commitment to a big game, and if you look at the statistics, a lot of these big games, you never get to complete them. When people have played one or two hours of a game, and then they go away on vacation, they get back and say “Oh man, how did I do the controls for this?” So there skills have decreased and they don’t remember, so they have a hard time getting back into that game. So of course we want to appeal to everyone, and I think that’s why the indie market has grown so much — they are making games, and we are making games, that are easy to tap into, even after being away for some time. And a lot of those games can deliver equally complicated stories and experiences. I don’t necessarily think the audience will shift down to mobile games, but I think the audience will grow, because there are many more options to choose from.”
Be sure to check out the Wartile Blog to keep up with its progress, and take a look at the early alpha footage below.
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