From Magicka to Helldivers: The sharp pain of crunch

How the development of Magicka tested Arrowhead's camaraderie ... and sanity.

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They were yelling at one another, right there in the office. Fellow teammates cowered behind monitors as the language and the force of the argument intensified.

Two old friends who had once pledged themselves to each other, who had stuck through 20 months developing a game called Magicka, were in the full and hideous majesty of a blowout fight. Oaths and insults were exchanged. They were threatening to mangle all that they had achieved.

The stress and exhaustion of game development, coupled with their own lack of experience, had eroded all their energy and frayed the bonds that had brought them together. They'd had enough.

They were suffering from "crunch," the state of being in which game developers work insane hours, desperately trying to meet a looming deadline. It's a grim way to exist, the frustration of its victims exacerbated by common aggravations such as lack of resources, poor planning and incompetent management.

But Johan Pilestedt and Emil Englund didn't have anyone else to blame. Magicka was entirely their enterprise. It had turned out so wretchedly for them because they just didn't know any better. They, along with three other guys, had formed the company Arrowhead specifically to make Magicka and to break into game development. The group spent two years working 70-hour weeks — an experience that almost broke them, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Pilestedt and Englund were trying to make a top-down action-adventure based partly on myths from their native Sweden and partly from a global motley of pop culture and quirky humor.

What they had on their side was an impressive collection of attributes, including the energy natural to ambitious men in their 20s, public recognition of their abilities bestowed through their victory in a game design contest, and advice from seasoned supporters and mentors in the Swedish game design community. In the course of the game's difficult gestation, they wasted or exhausted each and every one of these, and came uncomfortably close to destroying the most important gift of all, their relationship with one another.

Quitting school

Arrowhead began the Magicka project by ignoring two mantras of success: first, never go into business with friends, and second, stay in school.

Pilestedt and Englund were students at the Luleå University of Technology, in the far north of Sweden on the shores of the Baltic Sea. They were both studying game design. Pilestedt favored the programming and art side of the business, while Englund specialized in animation.

In 2008, they recruited fellow students Anton Stenmark (programming), Malin Hedström (art) and Robin Cederholm (economics and scripting) to work on a part-time project, which they submitted to the Swedish Game Awards. In a country that boasts development teams like DICE, Avalanche, Starbreeze and Frictional Games, it's a prestigious contest for up-and-coming indies.

Their entry was an early version of Magicka. They won Game of the Year.

"The jurors were people from Starbreeze and Avalanche and places like that," says Pilestedt. "They recommended we do something with it, start a company and make it into a full product. We were like, 'Yeah, we should totally do that.'"

"We had all agreed what we wanted to do, but when we went into that office we were nervous."

The five young people agreed that they would set aside their studies and quit their college courses. They would throw their lot in with one another and with Magicka.

Quitting school is always a risky decision, one that is rarely popular among older and wiser heads, most especially those in the educational establishment. Nevertheless, together they filed into the office of the dean of Luleå University of Technology to tell him that, halfway through their courses, they were moving on.

"We thought of him as a conservative person who did everything by the book," says Englund. "We had all agreed what we wanted to do, but when we went into that office we were nervous. I didn't know whether the others would have second thoughts."

He needn't have worried. "The dean said that we should drop out of college," says Pilestedt. "He advised us that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that we should take. So we did." Brimming with confidence, they borrowed what money they could, set up Arrowhead and began writing their game. Freedom and fun were their watchwords.

"We were five people doing something together, something that we really believed in," says Pilestedt. "We had this really good team spirit going. We were excited about developing games. But as time progressed, we learned that it wasn't all a walk in the park."


Years of hardship

Jpeg-3Johan Pilestedt, CEO of Arrowhead

Problems began for Pilestedt almost immediately, when he suggested that the best place to locate the team was in the kitchen of the modest apartment where he lived with his girlfriend. She struggled, as might most people, with a game development team in the midst of her house, noisily working late-night shifts.

"There was a bit of trouble considering that I wasn't living alone at that time," says Pilestedt. "The mood in the apartment was weird. We were sitting in the kitchen with five or six computers set up to develop the game. It resulted in conflict."

"I got the feeling that she didn't really appreciate her kitchen being occupied," remembers Englund. "It did feel strange because [Pilestedt's] partner was there and she wasn't really a part of [the project]."

The team members had made the decision that nothing in their lives would get in the way of making Magicka. "We were all putting the company at the top of our priorities list," says Englund. "It's hard to keep anything else, anything big, going on in your life."

"Weekends weren't sacred at all, we came in at nine to start work and we didn't stop until 11 at least."

Pilestedt's relationship with his girlfriend fell apart. "Sometimes you have to choose which path you're going to take through life," he says. "Games development has always been the primary motivator. Nothing was going to get in the way of that." This was still early in the development schedule. After six months working in that student apartment kitchen they secured a small grant and found a humble office. Their lives were now entirely devoted to game development.

"Every time we went to parties together, we would all stand around, talking about the project," Pilestedt says. "Someone would say, 'Maybe we should go back and work some more.'"

"Weekends weren't sacred at all," says Englund. "We came in at nine to start work and we didn't stop until 11 at least, seven days a week, all the way up to the release."

The two years of Magicka's development brought a crippling amount of work on the team, so much that their seemingly boundless energy was replaced with utter exhaustion. Their confidence vanished, pushed out by self-doubt about their ability to complete the project. Outside of the game, there was precious little freedom or fun in their lives.

"Eventually of course, everyone was devastated with fatigue," says Pilestedt. "We had put ourselves in a situation where we all had to work 12- and 15-hour days, one after the other. We just kept doing that."

Jpeg-4Johan Pilestedt (center) with Emil Englund (to his immediate right) and the Magicka team

Psychological damage

Jpeg-2Johan Pilestedt says shared cultural touchstones kept the team sane.

The project lacked something fundamental from the very beginning: a plan. Barreling forward in the early days, energized by their desire to create a game that would establish the team as a serious force in game development, Arrowhead's members kept adding features, and then sought to perfect those features, even when they weren't central to the experience.

"We overestimated our ability to create such a big product," says Pilestedt. "In the early days we always saw it as a small title. But looking at it now, in retrospect, the game has a ton of features and a ton of maps. There so much in that game. We could easily have removed 50 percent of it and people wouldn't have noticed."

The damage this freewheeling approach dealt to the project wasn't just counted in the man hours that piled up; it was psychological. Without a plan, Arrowhead's team members had no blueprint to which they could compare progress, only the collective memory of their original ideas. As Magicka approached its deadline, the reality was that the game had a plethora of content, none of which was entirely completed.

"Everything was broken, nothing was complete. We needed to fix things in every single feature to make it shippable."

"We poured everything into that project. We lacked discipline," says Englund. "Being noobs, we prioritized getting everything into the game, rather than spending time polishing."

"Everything was broken," says Pilestedt. "Nothing was complete. We needed to fix things in every single feature to make it shippable. We couldn't cut anything, because it wouldn't help. Everything was basically at 80 or 90 percent. We might as well have finished all of it rather than cutting many of the features."

This engendered a certain panic in the team, a sense that perhaps they might not be up to the task of creating a hit game after all. "That really, really hit us hard," he says. "We couldn't see our hands in front of our faces because we were so blinded by the development of the game." The boost the team had received from that award, from the seasoned jurors and from the university dean was a distant memory.

Heated conflict

"Conflicts within the team started to break out," says Pilestedt. "It spilled over from development into the personal space." The bad atmosphere came to a head one Friday night. It focused on an attempt to lead a normal life, outside the demands of Magicka.

"It was seven or eight in the evening," recalls Englund. "My girlfriend came over to the office and I wanted to go out with her. I hadn't mentioned it to anyone. [Pilestedt] started questioning me, and that's how it started."

"He hadn't seen her in ages," says Pilestedt. "Basically, [Englund] was about to leave. But we had so much to do. We had a delivery, like two weeks from that day. We got into this big argument. I said, 'Are you really into this? Is this really what you want to do? You're wasting your time doing this other stuff.'"

"It was one of those monumental arguments when who ask yourself, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'"

They were shouting at each other in front of their teammates. Pilestedt was questioning his friend's commitment to what he calls "the cause." "Looking at it now, that was such an immature way of handling the situation," says Pilestedt. "That kind of thing, doubting the other people on the team, it was a big part of those last months of development. People were worried that they were working harder than everybody else, that they were being held back by the possibility that the other guys weren't working hard enough. That was the perceived view, even though everyone was working as hard as they could."

"It was one of those monumental arguments when who ask yourself, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" says Englund. "We were emotionally and physically exhausted. Everyone was like, 'If you are going to fuck this up then I am going to leave.' It was very tense." They spent a few hours trying to patch up the argument, but the date was ruined. "It wasn't long after that," says Englund, referring to his girlfriend, "that the breakup came."


Like Magicka, Arrowhead's next game Helldivers is designed to be played cooperatively, to give players a chance to enjoy each other. "It's a creation of love to an old-school game type that we haven't seen a lot of lately," says Pilestedt. As discussed in Polygon's Gamescom report on the game, the fun is in failing, and in accidentally fouling up team efforts.

"There have been some twin-stick shooters out there, but they tend to not be as challenging as we prefer our games," Pilestedt says. "One thing that we always use when we discuss game design in-house [is] if a player sees a solution to a problem, that solution has to work. We get frustrated with games where you're like, 'Let's try to go around to do this flanking move,' and then the game puts up some kind of abstract barrier to prevent the player from playing the game in the way they want to."


Onward to Helldivers

When Magicka finally shipped in early 2011, the team gathered to meet and talk for a long time about . From this process, the team members made decisions together — vows, really — to approach their next project with a more structured plan.

The first vow was to ban crunch.

"I once read an article saying that the average career expectancy in the games industry is five years. That doesn't sound healthy," says Pilestedt. "After Magicka, we decided we're not going to force anybody to work overtime ever again.

"Conflict can be some of the most creative things you can have within a team. It brings the team together."

"We want to become a new breed of developers who look at games in a more professional way, a more mature way. We want to change the 'let's crunch till it's done' mentality." The team's next game, Helldivers, progresses according to a plan. Analysis of that plan, changes and additions of any kind, are considered with the utmost care. Pilestedt likens to process to sailing, in which the destination is pre-agreed, but corrections are required along the way.

The arguments continue, but now with strict divisions between life and work. "We like our conflicts now," he says. "Conflict can be some of the most creative things you can have within a team. It brings the team together. You've taken a step further in your relationship with that person. Arguments about the game are good for creating a well-functioning team, a team where everyone trusts every other person on the team."

Looking back at the terrible row on that Friday night, Englund believes it was a difficult but necessary part of the process. "If it hadn't been for that, I don't think we would have made it this far," he says. "That night we made up and parted as friends. We have always had a unified vision of where we want the company to go and we have always stuck together." Babykayak

Images: Arrowhead
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan