It isn't every day that one comes across something riveting, compelling, and fresh. While perusing the Internet I was able to do just that. All it took was a single, stylized black and white image of a somewhat dilapidated apartment building with a set of what appear to be uniformed officers advancing up a flight of particularly menacing stairs. It was then I was introduced to The Detail.
I knew I had to speak to the minds behind this. I knew I had to speak to Rival Games.
Fortunately, the Finnish brain trust of Rival Games was quite willing to submit to an Internet sit-down. Like any good detective story, Rival Games CEO Jukka Laakso and The Detail's lead writer Mika JD Sorvari revealed just enough details about The Detail to leave me on the edge of my seat. The more I found out, the more intrigued I became. A gritty, serious detective game with a story that promises not to be predictable and clichéd? Yes, please!
Before we get started, I wanted to give a quick link to The Detail's Steam Greenlight page. With that, here we go!
Discovering the Not-So Mysterious Rival Games:
How did Rival Games get started?
Jukka Laakso: About 24 months ago I just randomly shared an idea among long-time friends about the absence of crime noir in the current game industry. A couple of months later, after some initial garage coding, we actually had the 4 co-founders in place: me as the visionary, a coder, a graphic artist, and a musician. Then we attended a local start-up incubator program, won it, and received a trip to Game Developers Conference 2013 as the prize. During that program, we realized that this idea just might be worth pursuing for the long run.
You've had an incredible journey getting to where you are as a company. Why do you think you have been so successful?
J L: The first reason is the founding team: like I said, we have been friends for a long time, and due to that we have been able to work extremely well towards the shared vision we have for the company. Second is the passion and the willingness to work deep in the trenches, learning and listening to industry veterans and taking part in whatever incubators or conferences could benefit the company. However, we have stayed loyal to the core values of the company from the beginning.
Finally, the biggest factor in the journey so far have been the amazing people and support we have been able to gather around us. They have understood what we want to do and brought much more talent into doing it.
GDC 2013 seems to have been a tremendous experience for Rival Games. What was the biggest take-away from it?
J L: I think it was a big eye-opener for all of us founders. We understood the world-wide magnitude of the game industry and the different aspects within it. The biggest benefit, however, was the IGDA Scholarship I was awarded for the conference. It allowed me to network with people I had only read about, and gave us valuable contacts and advisers we still use today.
Although your inner culture is very productive, a name like Rival Games implies that you set yourself apart from other studios. Is this a fair assessment?
J L: The name Rival Games implies more to the current mobile game industry, where most of the games are just copies of the ones in the top charts. We want to bring something original there for the gamers to experience. So in a sense, we set ourselves apart from a lot of the other studios currently occupying that space.
The Detail's Details
Can you give a brief explanation of The Detail?
Mika JD Sorvari: The Detail is a five episode crime story about a jaded old detective, a criminal gone good, and the impact of organized crime on a city that is having to face it for the first time on this level. It is about crime, justice and corruption, but in the end it is about people.
What informs the The Detail's style?
M S: Graphically we of course have shades of Frank Miller, since he is ‘The Guy’ as far as neo-noir graphic novels are concerned. He is not the only one, but at this point, all of our graphics guys have brought in their own influences, so it is next to impossible to dissect the finished product.
As far as the style of the plot and dialogue go, we have learned from The Wire, Homicide, and other hard-hitting crime shows as well as authors to the tune of Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, etc.
If you can say, what is the scale and scope of the narrative?
M S: I can not say too much at this point, of course, but the narrative does progress from 'simple' street crime to something much deeper and far reaching.
What is your motivation to stay with an episodic release schedule?
M S: The episodic model feels natural, as it is found in television series and comics alike. Episodes or issues, either way it provides a good basis for shorter story arcs that combine into something greater.
Granted it's still in development, do you think The Detail can sustain multiple seasons?
M S: There already exists some preliminary material for the second season so, definitely two at the least. As long as we can keep things fresh, there are no limits.
Have American film and television influenced the plot and characters in The Detail? How much Finnish culture will be present?
M S: Our chosen genre is in itself very American, and we've never hidden the fact that we refer to The Wire as a major influence. There are many others though: Homicide, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Narc, LA Confidential, Departed, Cop Land, the list goes on.
As Europeans though, we march to a slightly different drum, and do not shy away from adding our own sensibilities to the mix. I personally like to inject a Nordic influence into the characters, a certain melancholy if you will, which is not normally present in American protagonists. Also, I look to avoid stereotypes and cliches, instead focusing on real people with real problems, something that resonates with adults. My personal guideline is to be mature instead of edgy, I suppose.
Do you think that video games can be deep and meaningful enough to be considered an artistic medium?
M S: Of course. Games are just another medium for telling stories. Theater originally considered film a bastard child which could never convey the same kind of emotion and impact. Then, film did the same thing to television. Now - with theater having somewhat given up on this whole discussion - film and tv are ganging up on video games with those same old worn out arguments. It is entirely cyclical and predictable.
When I spoke to The Men Who Wear Many Hats, they felt that it was difficult for tone and serious issues to be 1) executed well by developers and 2) find an audience receptive to that kind of content. I would argue that political and philosophical issues such as inequality, sexuality, and existentialism are becoming more mainstream in video games. What are your thoughts?
M S: They are definitely becoming more mainstream. Right now they are for the most part being 'smuggled in, though. Take Spec Ops: The Line for example. It looks like 'just another modern military shooter', but actually subverts all the genre conventions to address the psychological effects of war on an individual, the topic of war crimes, etc.
Of course some games take a more direct approach, and yes, that does marginalize them to an extent, since the mature audience that wants these games does not necessarily trust the developers enough. This is a shame though, since I think developers have the same potential as film makers to address these kinds of issues.
I think it is once again a question of games still being a young art form, and even those who appreciate them find it hard to shake the public consensus that, hey, these are 'just games'. It is something comics and television have had to deal with as well, even though graphic novels like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and TV-shows like The Wire and True Detective have gone a long way in breaking down those misconceptions.
We've spoken a fair bit about the television and literary influences, but what about other video games? Aside from the obvious Telltale Games series, do I detect some L.A. Noire detective mechanics?
M S: L.A. Noire is a fine game in its own right, but for us, I think it can be called a 'thematic influence' at best, as it is very heavy on the mechanics (which are some very advanced mechanics at that). The Detail is more rooted in the old adventure game continuum (LucasArts, Sierra) but with the modern, narrative emphasis that Telltale has been showing with their latest offerings. Pixel hunting and object puzzles just do not seem like a contemporary approach anymore, although they no doubt have their place in other genres which are more centered on them.
One of the greatest difficulties of any entertainment or art form is finding the right audience. What are you doing to reach out to thoughtful and committed players looking for a serious and gritty game?
M S: We are looking into various publishing and marketing options, and while reaching out to our demographic won't be a walk in the park, I have no doubt that word of mouth and exposure in the right corners of the Internet will play a role. We are creating the sort of content that there is already an unsatisfied hunger for out there.
What do you think the difference is between game sequels and multiple seasons? Are these terms becoming interchangeable?
M S: Traditionally, there tends to be a sharper split between sequels than seasons, but perhaps this is becoming simple semantics especially where video games are concerned. Seasons do tend to follow each other a little more closely, but in TV-land, we now have series such as American Horror Story and True Detective which swap pretty much everything but the genre between seasons.
Pick It Up and Play
It's clear that The Detail can be heavily optimized for tablet/mobile. What have been some of your biggest technical hurdles?
Jukka Laakso: I think we had some technical hurdles in the beginning, like getting the pipeline to work in our favor. Once we managed to implement our own tools for reading the output of our main design program, articy:draft, and rendering it in Unity, everything has been more or less smooth along the road. The usual problems with Unity make themselves known from time to time, but I guess those issues are common practice in the industry.
Insofar as substance, what do you think the current state of mobile games is?
J L: As we all know, F2P dominates the scene at the moment. It is however, much like the whole mobile game industry, extremely young. Mobile devices are used more for entertainment today than traditional TVs, but if we look at the current content they are serving (exceptions do exist!), it is like all the TVs would show only cartoons.
Do you think that built-for-mobile games are maturing?
J L: Absolutely. I tend to think the current mobile games as the first era of TV: until TVs learned to output audio, they were a mere silent comedy channels for the masses. But once they learned to ‘speak’, they became the medium of storytelling. I believe mobile is headed towards that turning point due to the massive audience behind it. At some point, these masses will want more meaningful experiences than cartoons. The tipping point for this remains to be seen.
Because almost all mobile games target sporadic play sessions, what do you plan to do to maintain a player's attention in order to provide a meaningful adventure?
J L: People read books and comics as well as watch YouTube and Netflix on their mobile devices. These are not sporadic sessions, because they offer a much deeper experience for the audience. Once we create something similar with mobile games using the strengths of game design and emotional impact, like interactive storytelling, the length of the play sessions will not be the main issue. This of course means that the design will have to allow the player to exit the game whenever they want, just as if they were closing a book and continuing it later on.
Also, I have to point out that there will be a huge amount of core players in the future from the ever-expanding market referred to as the casual gamers of today, who will yearn for a deeper experience from their games.
Core players who grow from casual games – this is a somewhat of a romanticized conceptualization of how you expect casual gamers to evolve. While I think that it absolutely happens, I’m not sure that I believe many/most people will follow that path.
J L: You are absolutely right. Not many people will follow the path of becoming core players on mobile. Yet, even if it is a small percentage, the sheer mass of the current (and constantly growing) audience playing on mobile is so huge that we are talking about tens of millions.
Steam is the dominant sales platform on PC with close to 50 million active users, with just about 8 percent of the currently estimated amount of people playing on mobile, but the growth estimates are -6.4 percent vs. +47.6 percent in mobile’s favor (Compound annual growth rate). You can see why it isn’t just a romanticized conceptualization anymore if we look at the numbers. Even if it is a small percentage, it is still a huge market opportunity.
In my past conversations, it has become apparent that it's hard to be discovered in the mobile space because there is so much, well, trash. Do you think that library curation is a viable solution? How would you address poor quality games littering app stores?
J L: If we look at the more traditional platforms, like Valve’s Steam, library curation can be seen as a good thing. As far as the various apps stores in the mobile space, they don’t have any kind of consistent system in place and they are facing a huge problem currently with “trash” hitting them on all fronts.
So some kind of a system has to be in place, but like you said, the current amount of trash on mobile is overwhelming for the audience. I think we can safely say that the current system does not work, and an alternative solution has to be found before it is too late. What that solution might be, I honestly have no idea. Except the current trend with skyrocketing user acquisition cost is definitely not the optimal solution.
Rival Games CEO Jukka Laakso can be found on Twitter.
You don't have to stop reading. Check out the other Here Are Words interviews.