Behind the scenes at a bold, creatively independent studio, something rather special is coming to life.
The clue as to how The Outsiders complement the games industry around them is there in the name.
This team is doing things from a rather distinct position, with a spirited creative approach inspired in equal parts by cult fantasy fiction and independent record labels. And it’s getting them noticed. After a much anticipation from industry and players alike, the Swedish studio has lifted the lid on Project Wight, which challenges the founding conventions of what defines the RPG genre.
Co-founders David Goldfarb and Ben Cousins have worked with the mainstream, certainly. Goldfarb's credit list includes senior creative roles on Battlefield 3, Mirror's Edge, Killzone 2, Pay Day 2 and many others. And Cousins has held significant positions at the likes of DICE, DeNA and Sony Computer Entertainment, sometimes working alongside his now studio-mate.
But with the foundation of The Outsiders, Goldfarb and Cousins have moved to lead a team shaped around their vision for what a modern game studio can be. That's not to say their work at The Outsiders isn’t thoughtful and finely produced, and between them they have big ambitions for what their first – and possibly only – game can be.
"I don't want to start a project and not know what it is. I don't want us to keep wandering around in the darkness."
AN OPEN BOOK
Project Wight formed in Goldfarb's head long before The Outsiders crystallized as a notion. In his late teens he read a 1971 fantasy novel by John Gardner; the aforementioned tome that inspired both the shape the studio would come to take, and the worldview of its debut game. The book’s name was Grendel, and it told part of the Beowulf story from the perspective of the antagonist. It may have not happened straight away, but soon Goldfarb was fascinated by the idea of a game that looked at the world from the perspective of anyone but the hero – from an outsider.
Years later, having grown overly familiar with the process of working with large teams and vast, complex budgets, Goldfarb felt it was time to realize the vision Grendel had inspired within him all those years ago.
Grendel by John Gardner
"At least with this project, we went into it with the idea fully formed, with the concept being there for us,' Goldfarb confirms. "I don't want to start a project and not know what it is. I don't want us to keep wandering around in the darkness. I think if you're in that state it's a bad place to be. The place of departure, for me anyways, is that I want to be sure I know what the emotional core of this thing I'm making is. I think that informs everything afterwards in terms of design and so on. That [approach] has informed most of the things I've done in life, one way or the other, good or bad."
"This is a studio centered around one creative talent, so a classical, emotionally driven, right-brained creative person," Cousins offers, having asserted that this is about Goldfarb's ideas, and that he is on hand to guide the studio's progress. "Contrast that, maybe, too many games companies today having a very left-brained approach – a very analytical approach – and I think it shows that everything we are building is with an authenticity that comes from what Dave wants to build, and what seems real to him. That emotional centre and creative centre is basically what we're about. Dave is the centre of the company."
But The Outsiders are more than just creatively-minded. After all, there are a bounty of studios with hard-earned a claim to that approach. So what does make the Stockholm outfit so distinct? In part, the answer comes down to Goldfarb’s clarity of vision.
"A lot of developers are motivated by the idea that they want to start their own game studio and do their own thing, without any real sense of what they want to do. Or they take investment for a business idea rather than a creative idea. A studio that is founded on a book, though, is quite uncommon."
The Outsiders, Cousins asserts, isn't like that. He and Goldfarb consider the studio an entertainment company over a game technology studio, they plan to remain as a single-IP outfit much like Mojang, and – proving they are not afraid to fly in the face of popular thought – reject the term 'start-up' as befitting of their small, rising outfit.
"We consider ourselves the antithesis of the start-up culture that has kind of fed into the games industry over the last few years," Cousins confirms. "I think we've got more in common with a record label or a theatre group, in that we're making entertainment for people, rather than being a technology start-up looking to increase resale value and keep investors happy. We think of games as things that entertain us and entertain other people, rather than as just a technological problem or business problem."
Put another way, The Outsiders choose not to define themselves by their business status, but by their creative approach.
"I don't like the idea that being in a start-up has become as cool as being in a band," Cousins adds. "That's not what it's about. I mean, people building small businesses is great. It can change the world and really grow economies. But if it's entertainment that's being created, I prefer a little bit more of a creative approach to things; a little bit more of an authentic approach to things. Do something because it means something to you; not for fashion or business reasons."
That creative method, the pair believe, comes from their natural inclination look to influences from beyond the typical reference frame for making games. Indeed, a trip to their studio reveals a place decorated with art from heavy metal album covers and monster movie covers, and none of the game posters more typical of a contemporary studio.
"I think the thing that's true of both me and Ben is that we tend to consume very widely, in terms of media and other things," Goldfarb muses. "It was one of the reasons we're called The Outsiders. We never fit into a lot of the buckets. There's nothing wrong with people that fit into those buckets when it comes to development, but everybody seems to share the same set of influences when they're game developers. That always made me really uncomfortable. And that sense of discomfort is what's informing a lot of our decisions. It's like it is always good to reach beyond the things people are saying, like 'watch Game of Thrones'."
"We never fit into a lot of the buckets."
"We're just two guys in our forties who are comfortable with who we are," Cousins continues. "We're not going to try and fit into – or, rather, we're not able to fit into – someone else's template for how we should behave."
"A trip to their studio reveals a place decorated with art from heavy metal album covers and monster movie covers"
A UNIFYING FOUNDATION
As well as being particular with their cultural influences, The Outsiders have very carefully considered their technology choices. Project Wight saw its exclusive unveiling at Unite in LA, so it should come as little surprise that the team picked Unity as their engine of choice.
Part of the reason to select Unity came through familiarity. Cousins in particular knows the engine intimately, and between the current team at The Outsiders, there is experience shipping 10 Unity games, including high-profile examples like Angry Birds 2. But making the right engine decision has to be about more than just sticking with what you know, especially if your approach to making games is as distinct as that which Cousins and Goldfarb are embracing. As it happened, however, Unity was perfect for a team going about making games in their own way.
"Unity would let us do what we wanted to do, while letting us fulfill our budgetary goals as well," says Cousins, later adding. "It's actually a popular misconception with Unity that it's only available to do small-scale games or mobile games. It's actually just as good as any other engine at rendering really high-end stuff, and doing 3D and the fancy stuff we see in triple-A games."
What's more, Cousins had noticed that in the studio's Stockholm home, most game engineers insisted on Unity. If The Outsiders were to secure the talent they needed, Unity was a necessity as much as it was a choice.
The creative, sometimes contrary ethos underway at The Outsiders, of course, comes first and foremost from Goldfarb and Cousins' shared vision for their company and game. But their engine choice has provided a robust foundation on which to build a studio that does things differently.
And based on what was revealed of Project Wight at Unite, The Outsiders' effort carving a niche from which to unleash a game with mainstream appeal could be set to be a triumph.
We just each may have to wait a little while longer yet before we get our hands on the ultimate fruit of their labor; a game about outsiders by outsiders.
Visit madewith.unity.com/theoutsiders for the latest information on The Outsiders and Project Wight.