Coldwood Interactive's Martin Sahlin discusses the importance of positivity and his journey with the Unravel franchise.
Unravel Two, the sequel to Coldwood Interactive’s 2016 platformer published under the EA Originals program, was one of the surprise announcements during EA Play 2018. The fact that EA and Coldwood decided to release the game immediately upon announcing instantly resonated with the audience. Brandwatch reported that it was actually Unravel Two’s news that got the most social mentions during the entire EA presentation.
Coldwood’s Creative Director Martin Sahlin told me after the reveal that the instant release strategy is something he’s very happy with.
“It's nice giving people nice surprises,” he said. “It's good that we actually managed to keep it a surprise. It's sort of Christmas morning. Like, here's a little gift for you. Even EA kind of liked that, because it's something they never tried before, so it's actually something that we planned right from the start of the project.”
It’s definitely a way to give your game a marketing boost out of the gate without worrying about the typical one or even two-year hype cycle that most projects must contend with in the games business.
“Either you announce and release super, super early, or you just try to keep it under wraps for as long as you can because that in between is kind of awkward. This is something we noticed with the first game,” Sahlin explained.
“When we put it out there it made a really big splash and then nine months later, it's sort of like people forgot that we were a thing and you have to get the wheels spinning again. So that's why I think, especially for smaller games like ours, you have to make the most of your time in the spotlight because you can't count on billions of marketing dollars. It's more just trying to get the game out there and trying to get people talking about it.”
The downside to an instant release, however, is that a studio does not benefit from a more open development process. Nowadays, many developers share early versions of games and benefit from a feedback loop with the gaming audience to iterate and tweak every aspect until completion. Sahlin said that the feedback from the first Unravel was informative enough to make sure his team evolved the gameplay formula to the audience’s satisfaction.
I feel like you need to feel kind of passionate about what you're making, you need to feel like it's yours so you can't crowdsource all your decisions.
“I think for the most part, most of the decisions that we made for this game were kind of informed by what we saw and what we learned from the first game essentially,” he noted. “We watched hundreds of hours of people playing it and we read all the reviews, so we kind of know [that] we have a very good image of what people felt about the first one and we knew which parts that we felt were important to address.”
Perhaps more to the point for Sahlin is that feedback is only useful to a certain extent. Ultimately, developers are the creatives in this process and they need to be able to stick to their vision without caving in to every piece of feedback they hear.
“I feel like you need to feel kind of passionate about what you're making, you need to feel like it's yours so you can't crowdsource all your decisions,” Sahlin added. “You have to have some kind of creative vision that you stick to. What we kind of did was that we sat down and I wrote a bunch of pillars which I felt like these are, to me, the most important things of what Unravel is. These [were] sort of things that we're never going to compromise with, and then we all as a team sat down and voted on those and agreed on those and then everything around that, like that's open for discussion.”
This process of building upon the first Unravel was one of maturation for Coldwood as a studio, as well. Sahlin commented that in making the second game, Coldwood tried to have a “super flat hierarchy where everybody was allowed to be involved in all kinds of decisions.”
“I think the most fun thing about the success of the first game was essentially that we tore up our entire creative process and said let's do everything differently,” Sahlin said. “I guess [that’s] a strange thing to do after you just created a hit but what we felt was that even though it did well we wanted to do things differently because we wanted to give the team a bigger role. It's hard to say it without sounding like I'm bragging but the first game was very much my thing. It was a very emotional process and it was a very tumultuous process and it was just like, 'This is mine and it has to be mine,' which is not necessarily how I think things should actually work.
“So, what we did was we said, 'We're a team of 17 people and in a team of 17 people, everybody should be able to have an equal stake and an equal say.' So, we had tons of people creating content, for instance. We tried to have almost the whole studio actually building and designing things and then just creating tons of ideas so that we have a lot to choose from when we put the game together. So it meant [we had] breathing room and it meant that we were free to experiment with our creative process. It was a far less smooth journey than I envisioned it would be, but I think it was just something we had to do and we grew as a studio because of it.”
The biggest evolution for Unravel Two is that it’s a co-op game, and even when you’re playing solo you always have the second, blue Yarny character to aid you in puzzle-solving and traversal. On stage at EA Play, Sahlin commented that the game “is inspired by that spirit of optimism and togetherness.” Considering the socio-political climate we now have in the US and across the globe, seeing a game stress togetherness is actually rather encouraging. Sahlin stopped short of telling me that he’s making a political statement, but he fully acknowledged that these thoughts were on his mind as well.
If we just consume dystopian visions then that's going to change the way we think about things. And we know for a fact that games do change how people think about things.
“I don't necessarily like spelling out all the things that are in my head because I think it's important that people are allowed to read things into it,” he said. “But obviously a game about working together, cooperating is a theme that we expand on. Solidarity essentially is what is going to get you through this adventure. I wish that there were more positive games out there. I wish people would make more utopian games rather than dystopian games because I feel that as much as we shape our culture, our culture also shapes us.”
Game creators should be aware that their products can and do have an impact on people in various ways. It’s not that Sahlin is saying developers shouldn’t have the freedom to make violent games, but on a personal level he wants to contribute something positive.
“If we just consume dystopian visions then that's going to change the way we think about things,” he continued. “And we know for a fact that games do change how people think about things. Not necessarily that I think like, 'Oh, violent games are bad. They make people violent.' It's more subtle than that, but I know, for instance, people who play games are much more likely to have lucid dreams. I guess they kind of expect that all problems should have a solution so when they dream, they kind of think that 'I can turn this into whatever because I'm used to having it my way. I'm playing games.'
“If games can do that, they could change other things and how you look at things and how you think about things. It's nice to just try to add a little bit of positivity to the world. Even though it's a tiny little sliver of good that we add to the pile, I would rather add that than to not do it.”
Sahlin does have a point about the dystopian themes that are so common across entertainment today. Whether it’s in games, movies, television, or novels, the post-apocalyptic setting has become entirely pervasive, and perhaps it’s a reflection of how people are feeling about the world in general right now. But all the more reason to fight back with some positivity, Sahlin believes. Moreover, as a father who had kids present with him in the interview/demo room at EA Play, Sahlin also just wanted to create a game that he could share with his own children.
“I wish there were more co-op games, so I might as well make one,” he said. “It's also very much an idea borne out of just watching people play the first game because we noticed that so many people played it together with their children or their partners. Also, they introduce new people to gaming through our game because they felt that our game was sort of safe. It was friendly and gave a positive image of what gaming can be and that's something that we really loved and just wanted to embrace and celebrate. So, that's why it just felt like the completely natural choice that there has to be two characters in this game.”
You can tell from seeing Sahlin on stage or speaking with him in-person that the Unravel franchise -- and Sahlin said he never set out to make a franchise -- means a great deal to him. Whether it was his own reveal or watching fellow EA Original member Connie Geppert talk from the heart about Sea of Solitude, Sahlin feels emboldened by the fact that developers are actually being given the runway now to be... well, human. Game creators are not faceless cogs or automatons programming software. And while we often think of the passionate indie, one look at the visceral reaction of God of War director Cory Barlog to the game’s review scores tells a different story.
“I like that you bring up Cory Barlog because I think that's something that people have a tendency to forget, that all games are made by humans,” Sahlin remarked. “Not just little indie games, but the FIFAs and the Battlefields and those games are also made by super passionate humans who feel very strongly about what they do and who put their hearts and souls into that thing so it's definitely not just an indie thing.”
After we finished chatting, I had a chance to sit down and play co-op with Sahlin. It’s not often that I’m presented with the opportunity to play a game with the person who actually made it. It’s one of several reasons why I love my job and feel so fortunate to cover passionate creatives.
As we sat down together in the spirit of togetherness, Sahlin joked, “People always talk about who wins E3 and who wins all these shows. Whoever offers the most comfortable seating, you're the winner right there. Everybody's waiting in line for hours and hours. Just give them couches, then you've won. You can show them the worst game in the world if you just let them sit down and have a snack.”
Unravel Two is most assuredly not “the worst game in the world.” In fact, it’s rather good and you can download a free trial through July 30. The one thing that would make it better for some players? A Nintendo Switch version.
“I know, I know,” Sahlin lamented. “I would so love to put it on the Switch. The problem is that we're a really small team and we have looked at it and at the time it was just like, we can't do it right now because that would just delay everything by a very significant amount. So, it's something that I would love if we got the chance to come back to and do because I mean, look at [the two Yarnys] they're even the same colors as the controllers!”
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