Oskar Burman is a big cheese at Angry Birds-maker Rovio. But there was a time, back in the mid-'90s, when he was just a kid with an Atari ST and a dream to make video games.
It was summertime and he was in a hurry. Back then, all young men in Sweden were expected to serve time in the military. Before his service began, he wanted to finish his game, a first-person shooter inspired by the likes of Wolfenstein.
He and a handful of development partners traveled to his parents' cabin, nestled in woodland on a coastal island north of Stockholm, so they could work without distraction. They worked all summer long. At night they sat around the campfire and talked about coding. They got the job done.
"We were all extremely dedicated to our programming and art skills," he recalls. "We needed to focus on our work."
The game was called Substation. "Even though we couldn't do textures or anything like that, just Gouraud shaded walls, we managed to squeeze it onto the ST. It wasn't close to the experience of Wolfenstein, but it was still an FPS on the Atari ST which was rare at the time. We were quite proud of what we achieved there."
The game was a minor commercial success. Burman decided he would pursue a career in games, once his military service was done. In the intervening years, he has worked with a lot of people in Sweden's vibrant game development community.
Twenty years on, he is returning to the woods.
He's taking a few dozen game developers with him, to work in peace, to focus their energies. The developers come from all over the world: Australia, Romania, India, Portugal, USA, Slovakia and more.
They are living and working together in cabins. The Swedish word for cabin is "stugan." This is also the name of the project, which is being organized along with other senior Swedish developers, including Tommy Palm, best known for making Candy Crush Saga and Alexander Ekvall from King. Private sponsors are paying for the program, along with an additional grant from the Swedish government.
"As a teenager, I found the focus and peace to finish that game," says Burman. "I didn't need to think about money or bills or food on the table. It was very serene. That's my ideal and mission for Stugan, to get those developers in a cabin and let them focus on their thing for eight weeks in the summer."
Swedish newspapers picked up on the summer camp.
Izzy Gramp and Laura Stokes were childhood friends, growing up in Adelaide, Australia. They went to ballet together. It was clear that neither of them were going to the Bolshoi. They had other interests.
These days, Gramp is based in Melbourne, working solo on a game called Intergalactic Space Princess. She does the coding, but she needed to find some help on the mechanics and writing side. Although Stokes is in the midst of studying for a law degree, she is good with that stuff, and offered to help her old friend.
Gramp also thought she might need some solitude to get the job done. Someone sent her a link to Stugan, when the project was looking for applicants. She was one of hundreds of developers who applied to join Stugan, asking her old friend Stokes to join her.
"We filmed a video that summed up what we are working on," says Gramp. "It wasn't too fancy." They were accepted.
Intergalactic Space Princess
Gramp describes her game as "a hyperactive adventure, but with mini-games instead of puzzles. It's about mistaken identity and a girl that roams all across the universe." She wants to get a slice of the game ready for PAX at the end of August. Stugan will be where the work is finally completed.
Stokes says she's happy that Stugan will bring her and Izzy together for eight weeks, but adds that the main focus is work. "Instead of being far apart, we'll be able to bounce ideas off each other in one spot," she says. "Also, to be with people who are really like-minded is important. It's a bit hard in Adelaide. It's very small. And I do law. Game developers are different kinds of people to those who study law."
Gramp lives in a vibrant city, but she spends a lot of time working alone.
"Isolation is a really big issue that a lot of people who do solo work face," she says. "You work at home. How do you iterate ideas? Stugan is perfect because you're in this environment with all these creative minds. But you're also accountable as well. It's going to be mentally rewarding, a lot more fulfilling than me at home by myself pulling all-nighters, worrying about work."
Last year, Gramp did Train Jam, a game development project that traveled from Chicago to San Francisco. "Every time we passed these little remote cabins in the woods, I would photograph them. People were like, who would want to live there? And I'd say, I would, kind of."Laura Stokes and Izzy Gramp traveled from Australia.
Dan Tabar's Phoenix-based independent studio is called Data Realms, and is best known for its side-scrolling action game Cortex Command. He's working on a new game called Planetoid Pioneers, which he describes as a "Robinson Crusoe story," set in space.
Tabar is taking two colleagues to Stugan, who work around the world. It's a rare opportunity for the to come together in some cases for the first time.
"We've been working on this project for more than five years already, but pretty much none of us have actually met in real life, ever," he says. "It's going to be an opportunity for team members to get together and work in the same spot for the first time."
Planetoid Pioneers is scheduled for an Early Access release in September so this is a "final push," says Tabar.
But among the 23 developers and 15 teams at Stugan, Tabar will be unique. He was born and raised in the area where the cabin is located. Although now in his 30s, he moved to America as a teenager. For him, this is a kind of homecoming.
"It's the town I was born in and grew up in. I lived in the same house there with my folks," he says. "I applied and was accepted. I'm looking forward to seeing my old friends but I don't want goof off."
All applicants are required to pay for and organize their own travel to Stugan, but once there, everything else is taken care of. The developers retain full ownership of their games. Mutual help between teams, sports activities and socializing are encouraged.
"We don't have the distractions of daily life."
"These are peers and similarly-thinking people," says Tabar. "We're all working on our own projects. But we can also cross-pollinate and toss ideas back and forth. We show each other what we're working on and get feedback."
Participants outline their goals for the duration of the stay and are expected to hit their targets.
"We're using this to set a milestone for ourselves, to try to sprint and get there," says Tabar. "Short-term sprints are very useful. That's what I hope Stugan is going to compel us to do. There are no distractions. We'll be in an environment where everything is taken care of: catering, laundry service, things like that. It's a spot where we don't have the distractions of daily life. It's going to be an interesting experiment."A Facebook picture of Stugan's group of developers
Burman says that when Stugan was announced interest from developers was high, with applications coming from more than 35 countries.
"We could have filled the cabin 10 times over," he says. "For the selection, we tried to get a good distribution of where people are from. We wanted to support both high end PCs and smartphone games. We wanted both men and women with different experience backgrounds. And across the different genres: Everything from weird puzzle games to adventures to strange AI simulators. There are a lot of very interesting games that are going to be built in the cabin."
"It's very serene. Developers can focus."
The aim is to get some great games towards a state of completion. "I hope the participants will be inspired by each other. There's a lot of different personalities, ideas and nationalities in that cabin. Also, mother nature is nearby. That's an inspiration. Some of that's going to shine through in the project."
According to Burman, there is something particularly Swedish about this attempt to create an environment of mutual help.
"As a Swede, you get a few things for free that aren't free in other countries, like education. There's quite a large safety net in Swedish society. If you go out and try starting a business and it doesn't work out, you usually don't end up in the gutter."
There's also a sense that this might be good for Sweden's game industry. This is a country that can boast such luminary companies as Mojang, DICE, Avalanche, Frictional, Paradox, Nordic Games, Starbreeze, Machine Games, Simogo and Massive.
"I think I speak for many of the other sponsors when I say that this is their reason for sponsoring. They truly want to help other people get into this. It would be fantastic if some of them stayed in Sweden or moved to Sweden eventually, because this is a great place to build games."