Polygon spends two days in Uppsala uncovering the outlandish stories of the Swedish developers behind Wolfenstein: The New Order.
There's a padded mat on the floor. It's as big as a small room itself and almost fills the room it's in, a part of the basement of Machine Games' office in Uppsala, Sweden. At the room's perimeter, off the mat, are workout machines, weights, a pull-up bar — all orderly and well-maintained.
Walking across the mat, in shoes, I leave footprints of dust from the corridor outside. The mat has been wiped down recently, but I can still faintly smell what was on it. It smells like testosterone and aggression. It smells like fighting.
Machine Games Creative Director Jens Matthies smiles as he gestures around the room. This was his idea. This is the Machine Games fight club.
Every once in a while, Matthies and a few other Machine developers visit the basement and, led by their resident martial arts instructor, they square off. And they don't screw around. Matthies himself suffered a fractured eye socket last year, the result of mistiming a defensive move. (The lesson, he says: Don't mistime that move.)
Earlier, before we descend to the building’s depths, we sit in the sun on the roof of the studio he co-founded and built (literally — he designed the layout of the office and the rooftop deck). I ask him if there are any rules when they fight.
Matthies smiles, something I will discover he does a great deal. He looks out over the expanse of Uppsala's medieval cityscape, squinting through the bright Nordic sunlight at the cathedral and the royal castle of Sweden in the distance. These two ancient structures, on adjoining hilltops, square off against one another. Legend has it that the cannons atop the castle pointed in only one direction — toward the cathedral, as a warning.
"Rules?" Matthies says, cocking his head to one side. "There are no rules."
Machine Games has just finished making Wolfenstein: The New Order. Shortly after this story goes live, it will be in stores, or perhaps in your game console. The game was four years in the making, pushed at the last minute into 2014 to accommodate the newly released Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. And also, the team will admit, when pressed, because it just needed more work.
In spite of the fact that it is based off an existing franchise, The New Order represents somewhat of a creative risk for Machine, and for publisher Bethesda Softworks. It’s been designed as a first-person shooter, with a deep (for a FPS) narrative and some decided throwbacks to the mid-'90s style of shooter on which it is based.The many faces of "B.J." Blazkowicz.
The '90s touches are the riskier. Ultimately the players will have to decide if the '90s touches are an appropriate homage, or dated mechanics. The narrative embellishments are a safer bet. Wolfenstein’s developers are mostly former Starbreeze Studios veterans, creators of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness — games that were nothing if not narrative, and praised for being so.
"I don't want to make this sound like PR-speak, but I think the biggest strength this studio has is the history of the directors and the kind of games they've made," says Andreas Öjerfors, senior gameplay designer on Wolfenstein: The New Order. "The focus they have on two things — the narrative-driven experience, and the gunplay. Those are the two strongest things we have going for us. I think we've made a game about those things."
Öjerfors started at Machine in 2011, when the tools to build Wolfenstein were still in development, and Machine was still getting its feet wet with the id Tech 5 engine. He had been at Funcom. He worked on the MMO Age of Conan, among other games, mostly writing narrative quests.
"We have a narrative-driven game," he says. "It's about the setting, the alternate history setting. It's about combat and the physical sensation of being in [protagonist] BJ's shoes and fighting a force of Nazis. Those two things are the strongest parts of our game. I think that's basically because of the history of the directors."
Machine Games is a new game studio, but comprised of industry veterans, like Öjerfors, almost all of whom came over from Starbreeze Studios, and many of whom helped establish that company.
"We were seven guys in the grim, grim north of Sweden," Matthies tells me, of Starbreeze's origins.The "grim, grim north of Sweden."
Although Matthies came on shortly after Starbreeze was founded, he considers what it eventually became as much his accomplishment as anybody's. Over the course of his 11 years there, Starbreeze went from seven developers to 100, becoming a legitimate AAA game studio. Then, in 2009, while making Syndicate, Matthies, Jerk Gustafsson, Fredrik Ljungdahl, Jim Kjellin, Kjell Emanuelsson, Michael Wynne and Starbreeze founder and programming genius Magnus Högdahl left Starbreeze to start Machine. It was an exodus of creative talent that could have felled that studio. Instead, Starbreeze found new direction and has thrived, releasing Payday 2 and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. As for Machine, it was touch-and-go for over a year, and the studio came very close to shutting down.
"The first thing we did was just brainstorm many different game concepts," says Matthies. "And then we went around pitching those to various publishers. That was basically the first year and a half."
Those game pitches were all strikeouts.
The same year, ZeniMax Media announced it had acquired id Software — and all of its IP, including Doom, Quake and, of course, Wolfenstein.
Machine had pitched Bethesda on a game concept, but that game deal never came together. Bethesda suggested instead that maybe instead Machine might want to work on an IP from id's closet.
"'Is anyone working on Wolfenstein?'" Matthies remembers asking. "They said, 'No, nobody's doing that.' We asked politely if we could have it."
Matthies had cut his game-design teeth making Quake mods, as part of the modding group The Cavern. He become something of a name in that community, which, eventually, led him to Starbreeze, his very existence as a game designer having been forged by id. The possibility of working on one of its franchises was a fantasy he never imagined could become a reality.
Meanwhile, Machine had hit its lowest low. Its founders were faced with having to sell their homes to continue, or shuttering the studio entirely. Instead, in July 2010 they received an offer to visit Texas to talk to id about working on Wolfenstein.
Founders were faced with having to sell their homes to continue, or shuttering the studio entirely.
"We rang the doorbell and we got greeted by Tim Willits," Matthies says. "He's just the nicest possible guy in the world."
Matthies talks of his visit to id's former headquarters in Mesquite, Texas (it's since relocated to the nearby Dallas suburb of Richardson) as if it was a life-changing experience. One day, Matthies and his small team are struggling to survive; the next, they're visiting id Software, the creator of the games that led them to become developers in the first place.
"We came into this reception area and they had this wall of all the awards that they'd won over the years. It's just overflowing. They have so many awards they don't fit on the shelves. Maybe now they do because they have bigger shelves, but back then it was crammed full. Behind there was the little room for the copy machine and office supplies. The door was open, so I peered inside, and I saw one of the original sculptures for that spider demon thing in Doom. Which just blew my mind. I knew this from before, that those were sculptures that they made for perspective when they did the sprites. But it was so funny that they had this relic of video game history. If you would put that on eBay, you'd get some pretty nice dollars for that. They just had it crammed into the copier room."
"For me it was such a big thing to go to id," says Machine Games Managing Director Jerk (pronounced "Yurk") Gustafsson. "I remember when we came there, Tim Willits went to get us coffee. That was an extremely big thing for me. He was so extremely nice. Then we got our computers, because we had workstations where we could sit down and work. ... I also got an id Software email address, so I sent a few mails home and asked them to look at the address. They were very impressed, of course."
Matthies and his team believed they were in Mesquite to pitch id on what they'd do with the Wolfenstein IP. As it turned out, id wanted to pitch Machine Games on the id Tech 5 engine. Willits and Co. just assumed the creators of The Darkness and Riddick would do all right by Wolfenstein, and that faith motivated the Machine developers to go home to Uppsala and get it right.
By November 2010, the paperwork was signed. Machine would develop Wolfenstein: The New Order as ZeniMax Media's newest fully owned studio.
"I'm actually the resident hippie here," says Gustaf Grefberg, the senior sound advisor on Wolfenstein, and Machine Games' in-house yoga instructor.
For Wolfenstein: The New Order, he's most proud of the foley work he's performed for the game's sound effects, particularly the gun sounds.
"We got a lot of very bold, strong echoes, especially if you're running through one of the bigger spaces and shooting," he says. "You get a sense of space when you do that. ... The guns are very loud, which means that a big portion of the sound comes from the environment, bouncing the sound back, not just from the explosive sound of the gun itself."
Grefberg was a Starbreeze co-founder. Now he handles Machine's sound effects and some audio design and teaches yoga classes both at the studio and at a shop around the corner from Machine Games. His hair — almost white — flows past his shoulders, brushing the large medallion (the symbol from Neverending Story) hanging across his chest. He looks impossibly tan for a Scandinavian and he is, perhaps, the most radically cool game developer I have ever met.
Asked politely, Grefberg leaps from his chair and performs the "scale" pose (legs crossed, butt off the ground, the entire body supported by the hands and arms).
"It's primarily a method of dealing with stress," he says, fresh from effortlessly performing this strenuous pose, "releasing — first just realizing that you're stressed, because most people don't actually know that they're stressed. Then people realize, oh my God, I need to do something, find a way to just breathe and release some tension. Some simple meditation, clearing your mind. Especially when we do so much creative work, too. If you're so cluttered, it's much harder to get focused on what you need to do."
When Magnus Högdahl, Kjell Emanuelsson, Matthies, Gustafsson and a few others departed Starbreeze to form Machine, Grefberg remained behind to finish Syndicate and, eventually, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. His perspective on the Starbreeze schism which led to the founding of Machine is the most measured of everyone I spoke to at the studio. Perhaps because, as someone who remained behind at Starbreeze, he has insight into both sides of the schism. Or perhaps because he's a yogi and can't help but be serene.
According to Grefberg, Starbreeze's relationship with EA began to sour during the development of Syndicate, which led to many on the team wondering if the price of stability for an independent studio was giving up being independent at all.
Of the experience, he says this:
"Generally, we ended up getting a very unharmonious relationship with our publisher," Grefberg says. "Most of it happened in the beginning, because the ideas that we wanted to do didn't mesh with their ideas. Somehow the ball got dropped. There was never anyone who really truly picked up the spirit of the project again. It ended up going almost on autopilot.
"[Robot voice] 'We pay you to make game.' 'OK, we make game.'
"It ended up being a very reactive process. It lost a lot of that creativity. It became a lot of, 'You need to send us another demo; you need to prove this.' It created a resentment within the company.
"So I wouldn't actually blame either side. I see it as a communication process that broke apart somewhere along the line. Which seems to be a very common trend in the game industry in general. Something's breaking down with the developer and the publisher and a big chunk of the company leaves to start something else, hoping to work things out better."
"Something you learn as an independent [developer] is how stressful it can be with that business model," says Lars Johansson, head of production at Machine Games. Like Grefberg, Johansson remained at Starbreeze after the Machine founders left, helping to finish Syndicate. Eventually, however (lacking, perhaps, the patience of a yogi) he, too departed for Machine.
"You have milestones and you're going to need to get paid, or you're not going to survive," he says, of the independent development business model. "You always have that constant stress. If you're a publicly traded company it's all about expanding and becoming a bigger company, making sure that the stockholders are happy and so on. It becomes a bit of an infected kind of stress, a negative stress around that. You have to focus on that instead of what we're here to do, which is making great games."
"We printed out a schedule and put it on the wall. We were really proud of it. A week later we had to tear it down."
Making the game is what Johansson focuses on to the exclusivity of all else. In fact, he's not even all that concerned with what the game is. He just wants to make sure that it gets made, that it gets made on time and that no one dies in the process.
"What drives me is working with these people and creating, seeing these things that we create," Johansson says. "And in the end we put it in a box and it goes to the store and you can look at it. We did this. Exactly what's in that box is not that important to me."
Johansson was active in Sweden's 1990s demo scene, and eventually co-founded O3 Games with a couple of friends. Their first game: a "space RTS" in the style of Total Annihilation called The Outforce.
"I remember we had a cracked copy of Microsoft Project at the time and it was like, 'yeah, let's make a time plan!' We printed out a schedule and put it on the wall. We were really proud of it. A week later we had to tear it down. [That was] the first time [we realized] that making games is quite difficult."
In spite of the challenges, The Outforce was a success for the small company, but in order to continue to make games it needed to expand. And the easiest way to do that was to merge with a company that already had the talent it needed. As it turned out, Starbreeze was also looking to add talent, and the two companies' needs were aligned.
"They had the ability to make really awesome art and have these crazy ideas ... and Magnus with his technology," says Johansson. "But they didn't have people that could finish."
The two companies conducted a summit, in Uppsala, and eventually merged, forming the core of what would later become Machine.
Rockstar game designer ostentation doesn't come naturally to Jens Matthies. He is, in reality, fairly reserved. He moves softly, shoulders hunched. He smiles and nods, and generally lets the other speak first. Yet underneath his traditional Scandinavian reserve bubbles the insanity of a creative genius.
My first day in Uppsala I hear two conflicting stories, within hours of each other, each representing one of the dual aspects of the Machine Games creative director.
The first story is about a Jet Ski; the second, coins.
First, the Jet Ski story. Matthies lives two blocks from the studio. He chose the building's location, in fact, because it was close to where he lived. He also planned the interior structure himself, laying out the corridors and rooms precisely, to maximize, in his words, the window space and efficiency of the building. And he wanted it to be close to his house because he doesn't own a car.
Which is all part of why, when he decided he wanted a Jet Ski, it got a little intense.
"Just a couple years ago, for the first time, I was on vacation," Matthies says. "They had these Jet Ski rentals. ... ‘I thought, 'I want to try a Jet Ski, let's do that.' So we did it. And we had this amazing experience where we're on this thing and it's accelerating in a way that — I don't have a driver's license, so I don't have any experience driving things. But it just goes so fucking fast. And then this school of dolphins showed up!
"It was just this mind-bogglingly cool experience. I thought, 'Hmm, maybe I should get a Jet Ski?'"
There was only one problem with the Jet Ski scheme: Jet Skis come on trailers, which attach to cars. Matthies didn't own a car. He also doesn't have a garage, so he'd have nowhere to store the car and the trailer if he had them. But then he also would have nowhere to store the Jet Ski.
Matthies did some research. He could take a bus to the Ekoln Gulf, which is a part of Lake Mälaren, which reaches all the way south to Stockholm. From there he could buy a Jet Ski and then ride it home to Uppsala and store it at the local harbor.
"So if I buy a Jet Ski at a store in Stockholm (because they don't have any in Uppsala) that's very close to the water, perhaps I can convince them to put it in the water for me. And then I can ride it on the water up to Uppsala. I can get a spot in the harbor here and I can keep it there in the summer, and when winter comes I ride it back down, they pull it up, and they put it in winter storage. That way I can do it without a car.
"So then I did that. Now that's just been awesome. And then I thought, but it kind of sucks giving people a ride all the time. So maybe I have to get another one. So now I have two."
And that, in a nutshell, is Jens Matthies.
As we speak, the spring sunshine is slowly warming Uppsala. The city’s residents drink it in. They know its only temporary. For them, winter is always coming, eventually. Even in the heady first days of spring, it's still there, literally lurking in the shadow and whispered on the wind.
Machine Games' winter, too, is receding, but you can still spot it in the fragile celebration of its current success. For all of Matthies' Jet Ski and fight club ostentation, he seems to know how incredibly lucky he has been — and how quickly that luck can turn.
And that brings us to the second story about Matthies, which is also a story about Jerk Gustafsson.
Gustafsson is a self-taught level designer. He's also a bricklayer. Actually, he's primarily a bricklayer and the level-design thing just sort of happened.
Gustafsson, unlike practically every other game designer in the world, never owned a computer or a game console as a kid. He played a few games here and there, but was mainly into sports and shooting guns. After the 9th grade, he stopped going to school entirely and struck it modestly rich betting on a local hockey game.
His first idea for the money: buying a parrot.
"I wanted to see if I could get it to talk," Gustafsson says. "If you could teach it something. I'd only seen that on TV."
His friends convinced him to get a computer instead, a 90MHz Pentium-based PC, then helped him turn it on. But he couldn't figure out how to turn it off. He had to ask a neighbor, a bodybuilder, for help.
"I remember this well, because he was covered in oil, in this underwear," Gustafsson says. "He was really big. He had to teach me how to turn off the computer, because I really didn't understand. You had to press on a button that said 'Start' to turn it off? That was very strange to me."
With the workings of the Start button sorted, Gustafsson turned his attention to playing games. He bought Quake, fell in love, then discovered he could make his own levels with an easy-to-find program. Within months Gustafsson was a level designer, the parrot long forgotten.
Like Matthies, Gustafsson has multiple roles at Machine Games. Everyone here does. As managing director, he handles publishing and the running of the studio. He's also executive producer on Wolfenstein, and works on the design of weapons and levels. He got his hands dirty with the making of the game, excited to bring it back to the direction of the early '90s shooters he fell in love with on his Pentium 90.
"Small details like going back to 100 health, 100 armor, things like that," he says. "That pretty much set the direction early when we were going into development. I still think it's very fun to play in that way. ... I think we found a pretty good balance, combining it so you can take different approaches. You can play this classic '90s game, which is one of my favorite play styles. I like that. I like that we've achieved something that is very close to what we played in those days."
If Matthies is the creative heart of Machine Games, then Gustafsson is the head. He provides an anchor for the studio, keeping some of Matthies' crazier ideas from spinning it out of control. Apart from a short period of time during which Matthies worked on Syndicate and Gustafsson worked on the Riddick sequel, Dark Athena, the two men have been a team for most of 15 years. Matthies handles the narrative design, Gustafsson the gameplay.
"We know how to handle arguments," Gustafsson says. "We know how to handle conflict. We know when to leave a discussion and when to continue a discussion. We know each other so well. ... Of course, there's this battle between gameplay and narrative that we're constantly having, but I think we need that battle. We need someone to always fight for gameplay and we need someone to always fight for narrative. If we didn't have that, something would take over."
Gustafsson believes narrative won that battle for The Darkness, to that game's detriment, something Matthies believes as well. For Wolfenstein, both men believe they've finally gotten it right.
Spending time with Matthies and Gustafsson, you can't help but realize these are two men who would do almost anything for one another — including sacrificing creative ambition for the sake of fruitful compromise. Or, in the case of the story about the coins, risking embarrassment and emotional trauma just to help each other out.
Matthies sighs when asked to tell the story. He doesn't like telling it, but he will, if asked. It is the most personally embarrassing story I hear from him in Uppsala, and the only time his voice is so quiet I can barely make it out.
The story begins in the dark time between Machine Games' founding and its acquisition by ZeniMax. And, on hearing it, everything else about this little company and the men who work there makes sense.
Almost a year into its existence, Machine Games was close to falling apart. Money was running out. Gustafsson had moved north, where he owns a house built by his father, because he could no longer afford to live in Uppsala. But he had left behind his collection of coins — pocket change, really — that he habitually deposited into hollow, cardboard tubes used to package Scotch whisky.
By the time Gustafsson moved north, the tubes were full to bursting with coins, but neither he nor Matthies had taken them to the bank to cash them in. That would involve going out among other people, waiting in line at the bank, and redeeming what was then an incredible volume of coins. The thought, for both men, was unbearable. They are both crushingly shy, and the attention it would draw to walk around with that much money gave them chills.
Matthies wanted nothing more than to fade into the cracks between the cobblestones and disappear.
But Gustafsson was desperate, so Matthies decided to help him out. He agreed to take the whisky tubes of coins to the local bank. He packed them in plastic bags for carrying, and set out, but once outside, in the sunshine, among the crowds, Matthies panicked. He felt sure everyone he saw was staring at him, and he began to sweat and worry. He struggled to focus on holding tight to the plastic bags, taking one step after each other, and making it to the bank with his friend's small fortune.
He didn't make it.
At the cafe, years later, Matthies points to the exact spot where he dropped the coins. It's a cobblestone road, deep in the medieval heart of this ancient city, near a bridge where vehicle traffic shares space with pedestrians.
Matthies tripped on a stone, the bags fell to the ground and the tops of the tubes burst open as if shot from a cannon. Coins cascaded across the cobblestones. Now, everyone within earshot was definitely staring at the sweaty man who had dropped the coins, and Matthies wanted nothing more than to fade into the cracks between the cobblestones and disappear.
The coins went everywhere. Cars were driving over them. Matthies scrambled to scoop them up, and a few generous passersby stopped to help. Matthies told them to grab handfuls for themselves by way of thanks and hurried on his way.
After cashing in at the bank, minus the generous tips to his good samaritan saviors, Matthies netted the equivalent of thousands of U.S. dollars — enough to keep Gustafsson going for a few more months.
Luckily that was all they needed. A few months later, ZeniMax called, development on Wolfenstein started and Machine Games was saved.
"I got a text message from Jens saying, 'That's fucking great.'"
That's Tommy Tordsson, narrative designer for Wolfenstein: The New Order. The text message came in April 2012, midway into the game's development.
The text message came after Matthies saw "the train scene," and Tordsson's latest creation: the new villain, Frau Engel.
"I felt that we needed another dimension to what [original Wolfenstein villain] Death's Head brought to the tableau. I guess it just dawned on me there that this was the perfect opportunity to introduce that character in a setting where you're not in combat. You can get intimately familiar with this character. I guess that sort of just inspired me."
In the scene, in which the player controls the character of BJ almost throughout, BJ is attempting to pass as a German on a Nazi train, and is stopped by Frau Engel. She then proceeds to conduct a "test" on BJ, to determine if he has any unpure, non-Aryan blood. It is a perfect distillation of what Machine was going for in melding gameplay with narrative, and it is the scene of which Tordsson is most proud.
"When [the mix between gameplay and narrative] goes wrong is when players feel like they lose agency over the story, sort of," he says. "Or it feels like their motivation isn't in line with what the story is telling them it should be. That's the tricky thing that you have to be really aware of, constantly. Are we aligning the story, the motivation of the player character, with the player? Do they want the same thing?"
The train scene is chillingly low-key. Engel politely lays down card after card, asking BJ, and the player, to point to whichever card best fits what she's asking for. Throughout, there is also a gun on the stable, placed within the player's reach. So for each question, there are three possible options: the first card, the second card or the gun. And Frau Engel, in spite of her actions, is almost welcomingly sweet. Like a grandmother who just happens to be a Nazi Obersturmbannführer.
"We knew that BJ was going to be on a train," Tordsson says. "We knew he was going to have to reach the cabin where [character] Anya and he are staying. There's supposed to be something in the way, something that prevents him from going there. That's basically what we had. Out of that came a really interesting, tense scene. It was tense without the immediate threat of violence."
The subtle threat of violence is what appeals to Matthies. He tells me of when he decided to take up martial arts. It was after watching a television show in Sweden about two men who traveled the world in search of new martial arts techniques.
"I always thought of martial arts as a really, really stupid sport," Matthies says, "And I was so surprised that you had these people that — these guys, they had no ego. They had no machismo. It was very — they would sleep in the same hotel room bed. It was very much a contrast to what I had thought was like the prototypical martial arts — lots of aggression and lots of posing. They were just so very genuine. And so I found myself being really intrigued."
Afterward Matthies spent time learning Brazilian jiujitsu and decided that it was one of the hardest sports in the world. And then he decided to try to master it.
"Everything is at stake," Matthies says. "It's not a team sport. There's nobody else to blame. You walk in there yourself and ... when you fail, you fail spectacularly. You fail in the harshest possible way you can fail. When you succeed it's the opposite. It's the best possible way you can. It's distilling the essence of sport into its purest possible component."
Matthies lights another cigarette.
"It's a mind game above all ... You can win by outsmarting somebody. And I love that about that sport."
Sitting in the sunshine, on a rooftop as tall as almost any in Uppsala, on a deck Matthies designed, atop a building housing a studio he co-founded and a team he inspired to build a game four years in the making, I wonder if that’s what drives Matthies to do all of the various things that he does — the desire to outsmart and master it.
Sitting across from me, basking in the sun, I suspect Matthies is wondering the same thing.Images: Bethesda Softworks/Machine Games, Polygon/Vox Media