A Minimal Brand of Madness: Oskar Stålberg and Richard Meredith on the Development of Bad North
In a market full of layered and complex real-time strategy games like Starcraft and Dawn of War, and tiny casual tower-defense titles like Kingdom Rush, Swedish developer Oskar Stålberg is working on something he hopes will bridge the gap between those two markets. Branded as a minimalist Viking RTS game, Stålberg’s recently announced Bad North is the culmination of the combined efforts of Stålberg, fellow programmer Richard Meredith, and Norwegian audio designer Martin Kvale.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Stålberg and Meredith to talk about their road to Bad North. Starting back at square one, they both gave me a little synopsis of their histories in the world of game development.
“I guess I’ve sort of always been in game development,” said Stålberg. “When I was a kid I used to sit around and make small games on my own in Games Factory. I’ve always been quite interested in art and algorithms, and game development is one of the few places where I feel I can join those in a nice way. There aren’t many places where you get to use all those at once.
“Professionally, though, I’ve worked in game development for four years or five years. I started out at Ubisoft/Massive working on The Division, and I did that for three or so years. Just before it shipped, I quit to work for usTwo Games for a year. Then after that I started doing this. Richard has a lot more experience than me, though.”
With a chuckle, Meredith recounted his own developmental history: “I got into making games when I was ten. I learned to program BBC BASIC so that I could start making games, along with some help from my brother’s friends and a big BASIC manual. I sort of drifted away from that side of things, but I still found myself doing things that kind of combined that technical stuff and creative stuff. I ended up in web development for a while. I did a few other things that sort of combined all that. So it was always, same a Oskar said, the combination of the technical and the creative is appealing to me.
“In 2010, I think, after going to university and starting to get real work as a software engineer, I got invited to go to Media Molecule to preview Little Big Planet 2. I had been doing a fair amount of Little Big Planet stuff in my spare time. After that preview I ended up working on Little Big Planet for the PS Vita as well as on Little Big Planet 2 and 3.
“Once the Little Big Planet stuff calmed down, I worked for a bit on Little Nightmares, but once that finished I decided to leave and pursue more independent work, and Oskar happened to be looking for someone to help him out right when I was leaving my job. It kind of worked out perfectly.”
THE JOURNEY NORTH
The groundwork for Bad North can be seen in a number of experimental browser games Stålberg has created over the years. Brick Block, Polygonal Planet Project, and the aptly named Browser Based Island Generator all bear characteristics that were eventually implemented in Bad North.
“I always found myself tinkering with mechanics and making these little demos myself,” said Stålberg, “so I always figured I would be making indie games at some point. About a half a year ago, I started working on a procedural environment generator, and at some point I realized I should try to put a game on top of it, and after a few iterations I had something that was very close to Bad North.”
As the idea of Bad North grew from an experimental environment generator into a real project, Stålberg knew he needed extra hands to help him make Bad North into something tangible.
“I knew that because I was a self taught programmer I would need some help finishing the game,” admitted Stålberg. “I felt like maybe I could finish something on my own, but if I wanted to do it properly and avoid a lot of headaches and amateur pitfalls it would be very good to have another programmer on board, too.
“I met Richard during a series of workshops for people interested in starting indie projects here in southern Sweden. At the time, I didn’t know much about his professional work, but he seemed like a competent person,” Stålberg said, drawing a chuckle from himself and Meredith.
“It turned out that we complemented each other very well. It was kind of a gamble, because we didn’t know each other going into it, but it’s turned out very well.”
Meredith echoed all of Stålberg’s sentiments.
“When we met, a lot of the Oskar’s demos were on his phone,” recalled Meredith. “I immediately saw a lot of interesting things that he was doing, and I thought at some point in the future I would like to work with him, but then it just kind of came up that he needed a programmer. Like Oskar said, we didn’t really know each other, so we had a kind of trial period for two months or so to see how it would work out. I was still doing some contract work then, so we worked together about 50% of the time, but after those two months expired we decided to take those next steps because it was working out really well and felt like a good match.”
As this serendipitous partnership continued, Stålberg’s environment generator began to morph in earnest. But before becoming a title about bloodthirsty Vikings, Bad North was much more innocent.
“The game really became what it is now because of our design constraints,” said Stålberg. “I had come up with a way of generating things that I thought was very fun, but I had a completely different idea for the game to accompany it than what we have now. I had that same algorithm generating nice, colorful looking houses, sort of inspired by the houses around Stockholm—very pastel-colored, turn-of-the-century stuff.
“The original idea was that you would be a cat, jumping around on these houses and finding your way around. But I wasn’t really finding a way to make that fun enough. I got some basic gameplay done but it didn’t feel fun and responsive. But I figured turning to violence is always a good way to make a game fun,” Stålberg laughed. “Obviously there are ways to make really good non-violent gameplay, but it’s really easy to make good violent gameplay because it’s easy to understand. It’s easy to understand that the bad guys aren’t supposed to be hitting and killing the good guys, so let’s try to make them stop.”
Meredith chimed in, “When we added in conflict it created something very obvious to achieve. Once we had that goal, all the other gameplay elements sort of locked into place because we could really use our design language to makes things convenient to the player.”
Stålberg continued, “The game right now looks very similar to some concept art I did about four years ago. I played a game a long time ago called Revenge of the Titans, which is also a minimalist game, though it’s more a tower defense RTS. It looked really cool—it was sci-fi and you were fighting aliens—but it had a really abstracted, cool design to it. But this concept I had featured a lot of medieval armies. It wasn’t very similar in style to Revenge of the Titans but it had a similar abstraction.
“I found myself thinking a lot about that concept as we were working, and seeing how I could work it into our algorithms. I knew I wanted to use those algorithms to do a bunch of little units walking about, fighting each other, reacting to each other, and keeping track of when they should advance or retreat. I wanted to do stuff where the units could determine how much courage they felt at any given moment, or know where their friends were, how many enemies were about and what they were up to. We made a sort of a decentralized node network, so we found that the unit algorithms I was working on were a good, fun fit for these geometrically restricted levels.”
BUILDING BELIEVABLE BEHAVIORS
Bad North seems very cute and simple on its surface, but there’s a lot going on under the hood. Meredith was able to share some programming insight on all the behaviors he and Stålberg built for Bad North‘s cute Nordic armies.
“Each unit is simulated. They’re part of a squad, but they’re making choices as individuals, not as a squad,” said Meredith. “They’re making decisions about when to move and when to swing their sword, then the game will test whether they hit or whether they were blocked. So there’s a lot of simulation going on in the background, but that’s something we don’t present a lot of numbers for. We didn’t want it to be a number crunching game. We wanted it to really be about the feel of the combat, looking around the battlefield and seeing what works and what doesn’t work, and then hopefully understanding why it works or doesn’t work. We wanted to allow the player to have an organic understanding of all the game’s systems instead of having to learn a bunch of facts about it beforehand. That gives us the ability to have some depth but also not put players off by showing them all this detail that they’d have to learn all about. They just see fun little guys fighting each other and they can learn through that.”
Stålberg continued, “In order for that to work the units have to act in ways that seem believable and plausible. That’s our responsibility as the developers. I tried to make the units behave realistically before I even made it possible to order them around. The first implementation of units I had was just one team going against another. You couldn’t order them around—they were just fighting it out on their own.
“But now they’re much more developed. If a soldier maybe can’t manage to get to his position because he’s being blocked by a huge amount of enemies, he has to gather his courage for a second before he tries to charge into them. I think we’ve made that happen in a way where a player watching that can understand why he’s acting that way.
“In other strategy games, say Starcraft or something, when you click around with your cursor, you’ll see your selected units instantly move in the direction you want them to. But it wouldn’t look good all the time in ours. We knew we wanted moments where the units don’t immediately obey you, so we knew as the developers that we’d have to convey to the player what the unit is thinking. That’s a really fun challenge, and I think it’s something we’ve done well on—and definitely something we’ll deliver on.
“Now if there aren’t any threats around or their path isn’t blocked, our units will behave like Starcraft and go immediately where you tell them to go, but when there’s things blocking their path, they’ll do their best to follow your orders, but they may get creative about how they go about it. One unit out of a whole squad might take a slightly longer route because he’s being shot at by an archer or something, so he’ll goes and hack down the archer on the way to his destination.
“It was important to us that we design things where the player could understand them straight away. We didn’t want there to be a need to read anything. The amount of pop up windows and tutorials in the game right now are extremely minimal. The depth comes from looking at the game, seeing what’s happening, getting a feel for the system, and getting a feel for how the units are moving about—things like that.”
A HOME FOR A TINY ARMY
I asked Stålberg and Meredith where they thought Bad North would find a player base, since on the surface it seemed like it was more sophisticated than a mobile RTS or tower-defense game, but maybe not demanding enough for Warcraft or Starcraft aficionados. But as with all the other aspects of Bad North, they had put a lot of thought into this.
“I think it definitely is somewhere in between casual and hardcore,” says Meredith, “because there’s absolutely a pick-up-and-play element to it, and it’s kind of cute and charming so it doesn’t have as much of the hardcore vibe to it. But you still need to plan out your strategies and think about what you’re doing, especially when it comes to the shape of the island and where the paths are—managing that requires thought. But we’ve sort of got something that’s a little bit RTS and a little tower-defense. Even though you’re not building towers and your units are mobile, you’re still defending enemies that are deliberating advancing to specific objectives. And there’s a reactive tactics aspect to that.
Stålberg chimed in, “There aren’t bunch of numbers, stats, or bars you need to monitor and keep track of. The main thing is that you look at the battlefield and read the battlefield and read the shape of the environment to figure all that out. It’s not easy, because it can get messy especially if you missed some back route the enemies could take, and you need to abandon one of your defenses to fight off some enemies that snuck through that back route. It can get quite chaotic, but it should always be easy to understand what’s going and why that happened.
“I think the appeal goes beyond either end of the genre. Like, someone who’s into competitive Starcraft leagues or something might very well enjoy our game, but he won’t enjoy it for the same reasons he likes Starcraft. I also think it’ll appeal to a lot of players who don’t normally play strategy games because it’s really easy to get into. The controls are intuitive and there aren’t any big spreadsheets of damage calculations you have to read through to understand the game.”
This idea of organic tactical understanding was integral to the development of Bad North. I admitted to Stålberg and Meredith that while I myself was a big fan of real-time-strategy, I am terrible at it. I get easily overwhelmed with all the different things I need to keep track of, so it was refreshing to see a team working on something much more pared down. Stålberg noted that with lots of his personal projects he liked the idea of being able to see everything at once. And even with Bad North, you may need to spin the island around from time to time, but you’ll never have to, in Stålberg ‘s words, “send the camera two kilometers away to keep track on something happening on the edge of the map.” But even at that, Meredith says players will be surprised at how easily enemies might sneak into unmonitored areas of the islands.
Meredith also confided that he and I were a very similar type of RTS player, “I have the same problem: strategy games are often way too large scale for me. By the time I notice I made some miscalculation in my strategy it’s often too late to recover, and then you’re just on damage control. I can’t handle that all the time. But on the scale we have, with it being more tactics and creative, it’s possible to get those same moments where your strategy breaks down and you have to really start reacting to stuff, but because you have a limited number of units and a limited number of actions, it’s not so all-consuming. You still get that satisfied feeling when it goes right and you get the same kind of fun-stress when it’s not going right.
“We really want the game to be feel-based rather than systems-based or numbers-based,” says Meredith. “For me, that’s something interesting to dive into. The looks of the game of course is this very soft art style with these cute characters mixed together with this very sort of bloody combat. And I do think we’re doing something a bit different by blending strategy, tactics, and tower defense—and not really chasing any one of them too deeply.
“There’s plenty of tower defense games, plenty of strategy games, and plenty of tactics games. If we were to chase just one of those we’d start to find ourselves in Kingdom Rush territory or Starcraft territory or X-COM territory. I think by blending them together and focusing on the feel rather than just the mechanics, it gives us something that’s unique and stands out and hopefully has its own appeal because it does something a little bit different. What we want is a game that you can pick it up and play, but there’s depth that you’ll discover as you get into it. It’s not going to be a simple game that you can win without really trying.”
Since formally announcing Bad North a handful of weeks ago, Stålberg and Meredith and seen their efforts validated in a wave of positive feedback from the community.
“I’m still pretty excited.” says Meredith. “We put the name out there and it got quite a big response. That’s really exciting. We put a name on the game and put it out there and people responded really strongly to it. It’s clear there are people out there who are excited about this concept and interested in this concept and want to play it. That’s been really nice. It’s nice to be able to do those kind of announcements and those kind of reveals. The only other announcements I’ve been a part of have been with a large team with a huge marketing budget behind it, but this is a lot smaller than that. It’s still really nice for such a small team with nothing backing them up to see how many people are interested.
Stålberg continued, “And it feels much more personal. When I was at Massive and we announced The Division it made a huge splash, but I was just 1/300th of the effort that made that splash. And here it’s way different. It feels much more that when people are praising the game they’re praising our work personally. That’s really nice.”
More of this praise manifested when the team took Bad North to Gamescom 2017, where Bad North found itself on The Guardian’s 11 Best Games at Gamescom along side titles like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Cuphead, and Super Mario Odyssey.
Stålberg and Meredith will be polishing Bad North in the coming months with the hopes of bringing to to PC, consoles, and mobile platforms in 2018. You can follow Stålberg and Meredith on Twitter, and for Bad North exclusive updates visit their website or Twitter page.