Interview / Antti Summala, Futuremark Lead Designer

With their first game, Shattered Horizon, wrapped up and out the door, we chatted with Futuremark about their plans going forward as well as their experiences as a first time game developer. We had the pleasure of getting our questions answered by Antti Summala, the lead designer on Shattered Horizon, as he expressed his opinions on the PC platform, Steam and what it was like making the transition from making benchmarking software to making videogames.

That VideoGame Blog (TVGB): How did you arrive at the concept of a zero-gravity FPS?

Antti Summala: Shattered Horizon is our studio’s first game and wanted to set a high standard for ourselves: to create something original and exciting that would give gamers an experience they couldn’t find in other games. Of the game ideas we had, a zero gravity FPS stood out as something ambitious that very few developers had attempted. We weren’t going to invent a new genre, rather we’d give a different spin to the first-person shooter.

Zero gravity combat was the key idea from very early on. Using that idea in a skill-based multiplayer FPS was a different approach for the shooter genre. With this, we had a strong foundation for a game concept.

We knew Shattered Horizon would be competing with many other sci-fi games so we decided to do something different and set the game close to home and in the near future. We were inspired by sci-fi books and movies, but real life sources were just as important: authentic space imagery, documentary material on space programs and personal accounts from astronauts as well as soldiers in 20th and 21st century conflicts.

TVGB: Are there any specific games that influenced the development, any studios you guys look to for inspiration?

Antti Summala: We play a lot of games in the studio and we analyze them intensively to figure out why some things feel like they work and some don’t. When you are making a game there are elements that you have to get right, standards for how gamers expect things to work. As a developer you have to understand those conventions.

On the other hand, if you just copy what other games do then you’ll end up with a game that is little more than an imitation of something else. When designing Shattered Horizon we played a lot of FPS games looking for things we could do differently that would give players a new experience in a familiar genre.

TVGB: There’s enormous potential for atmosphere in Shattered Horizon. How do you compare that potential to the likes of say, BioShock, or Dead Space, despite being multiplayer?

Antti Summala: The game world and setting of Shattered Horizon are very different from the two games you mentioned. BioShock’s is a grotesque world of a utopia gone wrong and you can instantly recognize it from that unique Art Deco visual style. Dead Space is a more typical example of survival horror in a science fiction setting, very well polished and clearly taking influence from the best of its genre.

With Shattered Horizon we went for something different, a believable vision of near future set somewhere relatively close to home. The game’s atmosphere draws heavily on how we know space: an incredible vastness compared to the human observer. We wanted to let the player experience being in a zero gravity environment and how that completely changes fundamental concepts of perception – like “up” and “down”, for example.

The backstory elements like a huge disaster caused by human folly or two factions marooned in space by the Kessler Syndrome are there to create tension and justify the player being and fighting in near-Earth space. We made the story open-ended both to let the player’s imagination run with it, and to make it possible to continue the story in a sequel.

TVGB: Is there interest in creating a full single-player narrative using the Shattered Horizon IP?

Antti Summala: We’re very interested in using the Shattered Horizon IP in future titles. We spent more time and effort creating the setting and backstory than many multiplayer only games normally do, and the reception from players and press alike has been very positive. Many players tell us they would love to explore the game world in a single player campaign.

TVGB: Now that your first game’s out, are you considering expanding the IP or move on to something else entirely? A different genre even perhaps?

Antti Summala: That’s a very interesting question. Established franchises have had a lot of difficulty branching out into different genres, and there’s probably a good reason for that. Gameplay is a very important part of a game’s identity. After people know your game as “that colorful futuristic shooter with the guy in a helmet”, or “the point and click soldier game with cool helicopters and cutscenes”, it’s hard to change from FPS to RTS or vice versa. Complete freedom of movement in an FPS game is something PC gamers will identify with Shattered Horizon. It’s important for us to keep that in mind as we think about developing the IP.

TVGB: What do you think is the single most important aspect of a successful videogame?

Antti Summala: Fun, without a doubt. You can’t rely on great technical prowess or beautiful graphics to make a good game. Instead, you have to understand what makes your favorite games fun, and then try to apply that knowledge to making a different kind of game. Fun can come in many forms, in Shattered Horizon it comes from learning to thrive in a new kind of competitive environment.

TVGB: There are a lot of game companies whose roots are in PC gaming but have since shifted to more console-oriented development. Are there plans in your future to expand and include the home consoles?

Antti Summala: Our roots are in PC technology, so developing for the PC platform was an obvious choice for our first game. The platform has a lot of strengths right now: huge install base for casual games, and technical superiority compared to this generation’s consoles for hardcore games. We’re not ruling out making future projects for consoles, but PC gaming is where we are the strongest.

TVGB: How different is developing with benchmarking versus developing with players and gameplay in mind?

Antti Summala: Making a game is very different from making benchmarking software. With benchmarks, you’re estimating what future games and applications are going to demand from PCs and then making software to create that load. In the case of 3DMark, you also craft great looking 3D scenes that give an impression of what future games may look like, but really you have free artistic direction.

When making games, the goal is something much more ephemeral: fun. This can mean a lot of design, test and redesign iterations. You’re also going to fight for attention in a very competitive market, which means certain design restrictions: to be successful, your game has to stand out from the crowd.

TVGB: Was it a difficult shift into being a game developer rather than making real-time scripted game events for benchmarking purposes?

Antti Summala: Game development is something you have to learn by doing. Our experience in real-time 3D graphics and game-style art design helped a lot of course but game design was a big challenges for our first project, especially since we chose to make something different from other first-person shooters.

One of the best decisions we made was to run a “proper” closed beta to test for bugs and refine the gameplay. We ended up running the beta right up until launch. From our point of view we owe a huge debt of thanks to all the people who posted bug reports, feedback and suggestions. And especially to those who stuck with us when the game still had lots of bugs and glitches.

TVGB: Futuremark has been a household name for most PC enthusiasts for many years now. How has Shattered Horizon been accepted within that community?

Antti Summala: Many in that community have been waiting for a game from Futuremark for years, so you can imagine that the expectations were very high. The feedback from players has been very positive. We also gave people who have bought our benchmarks in the past a 25 percent pre-order discount as a way of saying thank you for supporting us over the years.

TVGB: Right now Shattered Horizon is available on Steam. Were there any plans to make the game available in other digital distribution channels like Impulse or Direct2Drive?

Antti Summala: We use Steamworks for some of the back-end features of the game. In many cases, this rules out distributing Shattered Horizon through other services unfortunately.

TVGB: Speaking of digital distribution, how have outlets like Steam affected your ability to be able to make the transition from a benchmarking software development company to being a game development studio?

Antti Summala: Steam definitely made it easier for us to self-publish Shattered Horizon. We chose Steam as we felt it offered the best options and audience for our game and we have been very happy. Steam enables us to respond quickly with updates and content which is very important for a multiplayer game. They have been very supportive with tools, support and marketing which has been a great help.

TVGB: Finally — your favorite moon movie?

Antti Summala: You know, the only real “Moon movie” that comes to mind is the recent Moon by Duncan Jones. There really aren’t that many well known movies set on the Moon. As a sci-fi setting the Moon has a lot of untapped potential, and that’s one of the reasons it’s featured so prominently in Shattered Horizon. Coming back to your question, “Moon” is my favorite Moon movie. I enjoyed its good writing and outlandish atmosphere quite a lot.