The Complete Saga Of How MachineGames Saved Wolfenstein
Note: This feature previously appeared in Game Informer issue #294.
To say MachineGames is doing well would be an understatement. After reviving the classic first-person shooter franchise Wolfenstein to critical and commercial success in 2014, the company developed a standalone expansion that also did well. Now MachineGames is on the verge of releasing a hotly anticipated sequel. The Swedish developer is situated comfortably, but this has not always been the case for its founders.
The story of bringing back Wolfenstein involves a group of people setting out to rebuild their careers from the ground up. It’s a story of broken dreams, chaos, and traveling down hard roads. With Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus just around the corner, we talked with the developer about skating on the fringes of failure for more than a decade, going broke for art, and the trials and tribulations of reviving the world’s original first-person shooter.
A Tale Of Two Companies
To understand MachineGames, it’s necessary to understand Starbreeze Studios. Founded in 1998, Starbreeze is best known for developing The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness. The seven founding members of MachineGames are all Starbreeze alumni, including Jens Matthies, the creative director of The New Order and The New Colossus.
“When we left Starbreeze, we had been there 11 or 12 years,” Matthies says. “We had invested so much in that company, so much of our time – all of our creative energy had been poured into that company for more than a decade so that was a scary thing to do, leaving all that behind.”
These days Starbreeze Studios is a profitable company. This has not always been the case. Personal accounts from Starbreeze’s former employees paint a picture of a studio that spent most of its existence in dramatic freefall. From the very beginning, Starbreeze’s projects suffered cancellations, often due to circumstances beyond its control. The company’s first game, a fantasy first-person action/RPG called Sorcery, previewed well but was canceled when publisher Gremlin Interactive was acquired by Infogrames. Enclave II, the sequel to Starbreeze’s first true release, Enclave, was also canceled, as well as a Bourne Ascendancy tie-in game.
Outside of cancelations, the games that were released were often marred by broken deals with publishers, legal troubles, and chaotic working conditions. In an interview with 1UP, lead designer on Chronicles of Riddick Jens Andersson detailed mass firings at Stabreeze as the remaining team members continued to develop Butcher Bay. Despite the game’s financial and critical success, with Butcher Bay earning accolades from most publications and sites, Starbreeze didn’t receive as much money as it expected from publisher Vivendi.
According to MachineGames executive producer Jerk Gustafsson, the main hardship at Starbreeze “was always the constant financial struggle – the challenges of signing a new project while in full production or in the end phase of production. The solution to that became two parallel teams working on different games toward different publishers. And then you end up in this dangerous loop of ill-defined, bare-minimum deliveries and internal battles over resources where everything is about making sure to deliver milestones to secure payments. All those things that takes focus away from what really matters – making great games.”
The cycle of woe continued with the company picking up an adaptation of the popular comic book The Darkness shortly after Butcher Bay’s release. The acquisition was a promising one, but publisher Majesco Entertainment dropped the game during development due to financial troubles. Luckily, 2K Games came on as a publisher, but insisted that Starbreeze add a multiplayer mode, which is often brought up as the weakest link in an otherwise good game. The game sold well, but the critical reception didn’t come close to the fervor kicked up by Escape From Butcher Bay, disappointing Starbreeze.
After The Darkness shipped, Starbreeze entered yet another period of tumult. “We finished The Darkness and had a couple of projects in parallel development,” Matthies says. “What ended up happening was that the creative process we had got disrupted, due to both internal and external pressures, and we were in a place where we felt like we couldn’t make a game we felt good about. And when you’re making triple-A games, you’re investing a sizeable portion of your life to each game. At that point, we had to decide: Are we in this for a paycheck or are we in this because we want to do something that is meaningful, that we want the game we’re making to be f---ing amazing?”
In 2009, Matthies, and a handful of other developers left the company before development of the EA-published reboot of Syndicate began. The shooter was tepidly received and Starbreeze developed one last game, the critical darling Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, before reinventing itself as a publisher by acquiring Overkill, the developer of Payday. That acquisition led to Starbreeze Studios becoming a profitable company for the first time since its inception.
Meanwhile, Matthies and his fellow alumni were searching for a rebirth of their own.
Going For Broke
The seven members of Starbreeze who broke away to form what would eventually become MachineGames started the process by borrowing money. “We didn’t have any income,” Matthies says. “So I got this loan that I had to survive on, and then we were like, just a handful of people. We weren’t any kind of studio at that point really. Fortunately, we had a lot of relationships in game development, and so we thought that we’ll book a bunch of meetings and pitch a bunch of projects and see if there are any publishers that are willing to take a gamble on us.”
The team spent the greater part of a year figuring out both what kind of game they wanted to make as well as the publisher they’d want to work with. In the end, Bethesda was at the top of the list. “We really respected their approach to game development,” Matthies remembers. “We ended up in the situation with Bethesda where we thought the worst-case scenario would be that we’d be floating for six to nine months and if nothing comes up, we’ll have to find employment elsewhere.”
Things weren’t that simple.
“We ended up waiting like a year and a half before the deal was done with Bethesda,” Matthies says. “It was a very scary time. It was liberating in a way because all we did during that time was make game concepts that we used to pitch. Over this year we had about 10 different games that we spent a lot of time figuring out and were enthusiastic about.”
However, as time dragged on with no final word from Bethesda, money started running out. MachineGames, without any titles to its name, seemed already to be living on borrowed time. Luckily for the team, their publisher of choice came through in the end, and Bethesda officially acquired MachineGames. “When the deal was done with Bethesda, I was like a week away from having to sell my apartment. There were just no avenues left to more loans. We had borrowed from our families. There was nothing left to squeeze out. Eventually it all worked out in some kind of fairytale way,” Matthies says, chuckling.
Making Old New Again
Matthies fell in love with id Software games as a young man, even making mods for Quake. That love was shared among the founding members of MachineGames, so it made sense for the team to pursue an id license after the Bethesda acquisition.
“A lot of that early time with Bethesda is a warm memory,” Matthies says. “We nudged Bethesda and asked, ‘Is anyone working on Wolfenstein?’ They said ‘No, no one is doing that,’ and so we started exploring that option. And to a game nerd…it was just ‘Holy s---!’ It doesn’t get better than that. It’s like if you’re a movie director and at some point in the ’80s you get invited by George Lucas to work on Star Wars. It’s that amazing.” Bethesda eventually offered MachineGames the chance to work on Wolfenstein.
The team set to work, inheriting the license from Raven Software, who made the weakest entry of the series in 2009. Instead of rebooting, MachineGames embraced the chronology of the series, bringing back characters like Caroline Becker and the Kreisau Circle, but situating them in a different, more somber situation while still striving to contain the series’ over-the-top combat and embrace of pulp fiction.
“We basically did the same process we always do,” Matthies says. “We filter out what we think the core ideas are and the ones we want to support and we start building on that. And it was incredibly important that whatever we did had to have the blessing of id. The last thing we wanted to do was make a game that they didn’t feel like was keeping in what Wolfenstein was. We really tried to nail down what Wolfenstein was, and once we felt like we had a grasp of what that was, we focused on combat and that’s what then became The New Order.”
The proof of concept was a gamble. Rather than build a fully featured shooter with a large multi-player component, the studio decided to focus purely on a single-player campaign.
Furious, Unrelenting Resistance
Despite misgivings by both the press and gamers after The New Order’s E3 reveal in 2013, the game became a critical and commercial success thanks to its frenzied combat and surprisingly deep storytelling. The New Order would end up becoming one of the best-selling games of 2014 in Europe, and it garnered accolades from a variety of publications at year’s end.
A little over four years later, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus served as the centerpiece of Bethesda’s 2017 E3 showcase. With the game launching in a few months, the team is neck-deep in development crunch and anxieties are running high. Looking at MachineGames’ ambition, this is understandable. The New Colossus’ scope is much wider than The New Order, following B.J. Blazkowicz and company on a road trip through Nazi-infested America as they try to take the country back.
“Anytime you go big, you run a tremendous risk of over-scoping it,” Matthies says. “And you only have so much time and money to make the game. Early on, you have to try to have good metrics of what you want to do and how to stretch that game to that point and not beyond it, and that’s a real science in and of itself. I think we’re getting better at it over the years, but it’s still incredibly challenging and one of the hardest obstacles when designing a game.”
Moreover, MachineGames has come of age in a strange time. Its sophomore game, which any other year would be pulpy as it could be, hits in a year that has seen a number of rallies and protests across the United States featuring men waving Nazi flags about and espousing white supremacist ideology. The studio suddenly found itself becoming politically relevant as anxieties about the rise of the Reich rears its head in 2017.
With the current political climate, it’s hard not to see parallels and wonder if life may be influencing art here in a substantial way. Matthies pushes back against that notion a bit, saying “I think any story you tell is intrinsically a commentary on life. If you’re dealing with a very distinct political ideology like the Nazis, then obviously there are real-world products of that. So there are similarities. I wouldn’t say we’re really trying [to make a statement], but our philosophy is that we want the game to stand on its own. We want to make something that’s timeless.”
The world will soon find out if The New Colossus, intended to be the second game in a trilogy, can live up to MachineGames’ ambitions. As the interview draws to a close, Matthies ponders whether the prospect of working on Wolfenstein for a decade is as intimidating and emotionally draining as it seems. He laughs.
“I think envisioning it as a trilogy was our way of putting a boundary around it. It’s not infinite, this thing you can’t see the end of it. It’s been helpful to conceptualize it that way, and structure our work and lives around it….”
He pauses for a few seconds. “It helps keep the chaos at bay,” he says, at last.
For more on Wolfenstein, be sure to check out our history of the series here.