In the Southwestern part of Finland, in the city of Turku, we find a team of PC and Mobile developers with ambitions as high as they go. The team consist of 14 people, all working on making their company, Rival Games, the HBO of the games industry. But what exactly does that entail? We had a chat with studio CEO, Jukka Laakso.
But before we get to Laakso’s thoughts on managing a creative games company that puts narrative and storytelling before gameplay, and how that will play a major role in the company’s future as the HBO of games, let’s briefly take a step back and look at who Rival Games actually is.
Rival Games was founded in 2013 by a group of long-time friends, and already by October 2014, the first chapter of the studio’s first game – a modern crime adventure called “The Detail” – was released for PC, Linux, and Mac. An iOS version followed soon after in 2015.
The game, which focuses heavily on a strong narrative and captivating storytelling, sold 100,000 copies so far, Laakso reveals, but also indicates that at $5.99, 100k copies is not enough to fund a 14 people large games studio.
And although all of the sales were driven by a marketing budget of absolutely zero Euros, the young team has had to change its approach to achieve its ambitions of achieving HBO status.
But what do Rival Games actually mean when they say they want to be the HBO of games? As Laakso puts it, HBO is an interesting TV network due to the huge amount of high-quality productions they offer in all sorts of different genres from drama to sports.
But only very few games studios have experimented with genres such as comedy and documentaries, and Laakso believes that this may reflect an unprecedented opportunity in the PC and mobile market.
“There have been some successful takes on creating a documentary gaming experience (like Valiant Hearts for example), but there is still plenty of room to innovate.”, he says.
Apart from tackling some of these non-represented genres of traditional entertainment from a gaming perspective, Laakso adds that to get to the HBO-status, the studio will need to both produce narrative experiences based on their own IPs and partner up with existing franchises:
“Right now, our best bet is partnering up with big names from the comic industry and creating unique narrative experiences from their IPs. This will drive forward the recognition of Rival Games in the eyes of the players, and allow us to continue creating our own IPs as well.”
At Rival Games, everything starts with the narrative, considering what story the studio wants to tell is, how best to tell it, and why it needs to be told in the first place.
Only thereafter does the team start considering gameplay mechanics that can serve the need of the narrative. In many ways, this is not how your typical games studio operates, and Laakso is well aware of that – in fact, he embraces it.
“The team itself has to think narratively from the get-go. In our case, from the 14 team members, four are professional storytellers (writers, movie directors, etc.) and one a veteran audio designer. So instead of focusing on the core gameplay loop etc., we want the team think about the narrative experience from the writing and audiovisual perspective.”
“Some might even say that our studio culture reminds more of a TV production than game development.”, Laakso says.
The future of narrative-driven games is bright, Rival games believes, not the least because most people have yet to even experience and realize the depth of what an interactive narrative has to offer in comparison to traditional entertainment. But once a broader audience have experienced (and fallen in love with) these type of games, Laakso argues, the games industry as a whole will start moving to higher heights than ever before.
“The simple fact that the player becomes an active part of the story instead of a passive viewer is something that will drive the whole gaming industry as the next storytelling medium.”
“Hopefully, the future for Rival Games will offer interesting opportunities to create memorable stories for various different audiences, depending on the genre in question. Being them either our own IPs or already established brands.”, he concludes.