“[Iron Danger] is a story of your whole world turning upside down and a big burden put on your shoulders. With big power coming with it, of course.”
With talents from studios such as Remedy, Supercell, and Bugbear, Action Squad is a “story-driven game studio” filled with passion and a desire to bring rich narrative and compelling gameplay to players. The Finnish studio is currently working on Iron Danger, an RPG with one foot in the fantasy genre and the other in technology, drawing on mythology and modern machines alike to craft a unique world and engaging story.
OnlySP recently had the chance to speak with Heikki-Pekka Noronen, the studio’s lead programmer, about Iron Danger’s inception, inspiration, and innovation regarding story, gameplay, and world building.
When asked how Iron Danger came about in the first place, Noronen explains that “the game creation is very much both [an] iterative and incremental thing. It is actually really hard to make [a] fun game without just trying to repeat something that already exists.” Noronen and lead designer Jussi Kemppainen spent the first year or so throwing around and testing ideas centered around the core gameplay of time manipulation, which Noronen endearingly calls “our grand quest of finding the fun.” Even after that process, Noronen says “we have been very much experimental. When noticing something enjoyable in some other games, we have been thinking if something similar would fit into our game or not. Quite often we have also experimented with those ideas quickly to really find out how they would feel in [the] game.” By having such an open and flexible approach to its game making process, Action Squad makes Iron Danger a true team effort.
Noronen describes the team environment as one where “we are discussing together very actively all the time, tossing ideas and concepts. I think that one of our strengths is the small team size and that we have [an] environment where everyone’s ideas are heard.” He also adds that “this is first thing that we do together as a team. Some of us [have] worked together in [the] past while working in different companies, but not in Action Squad Studios as a same team.” For such a cooperative environment to emerge within a team not familiar with working together is a heartening sight, and much passion and experience is brought to the table from years of experience, as Noronen jokingly adds that “Yes, we are all getting old here!” Also of note is the fact “that there are many guys in the team [who] have been working lots on developing mobile games[,] and [the] opportunity to jump into [the] PC and console space is something that most of them really cherish,” showing just how enthusiastic the team is about this new endeavor.
Such an environment inevitably fosters a stronger product, and Noronen, in speaking to his own experience, explains that “first of all, I’m a long time RPGer myself and [having the] possibility to work on developing [a] great RPG is something I’ve been looking forward for a long time. Of course, the fact that we have to keep challenging ourselves all the time with doing something that has not [been] done before is also very rewarding.”
After being inspired by Divinity: Original Sin’s elemental interaction and having the idea to do something similar, Noronen admitted “I was tossing the idea around, but I didn’t really get people excited about it by just talking. So, I decided to implement it during [the] weekend and showed the draft for [the] team on Monday. Now, I think it is […] very much one of the core systems in our tactical combat. There is lots more power to be able to try out something than to just talk about it!” Even with the more limited resources of a small studio over a AAA one, these stories highlight the humanity and passion of the team in a very favorable light.
Noronen describes the team’s current situation by saying “as the game gets closer to release, one needs to put focus on scope and getting the game ready, so things have […] lately changed to [being] less experimental. I think Jussi and me are sort of gatekeepers for what […] gets in nowadays. Jussi from the design perspective and I try to be the guardian[s] of what we really have time to implement on [the] technical level.” To hear how the development of the game has progressed from idea to execution is a fascinating and eye-opening tale, and one that is further enhanced by seeing how the team decided just what kind of game it wanted to make and what genre to go in on.
With the RPG genre being such a big umbrella, Noronen was asked how Iron Danger fits into the genre, specifically the player’s role in shaping the story and world. “The story and character relations building is quite linear and more in line with the way that people have used JRPGs to move forward with story. Therefore, it is much more of playing the story than building it yourself instead of what you expect with more free[-]roaming open-world RPGs.” While this focus means players will not necessarily be making big choices every step of the way, Noronen adds “Our heroes are on [an] epic mission that can set the fate of the world[,] and some of their actions will therefore have wider effects to [the] whole [of] Iron Danger’s world and its history and therefore to [the] whole Iron Danger franchise.”
Finding the balance between ensuring the player feels like their actions have consequences and also telling the story the studio wants told is a challenge for any team, and Action Squad seems to be homing in on the characters over the story to make players feel invested, resulting in the choices they will have to make being even more personal and meaningful.
The second part of OnlySP’s interview with Heikki-Pekka Noronen, delving into the history of the game and surrounding franchise, is available now.