The Showdown Effect is a bombastic game, packed with more eighties action movie clichés and stereotypes than Schwarzenegger’s CV, or that one friend’s DVD collection that you’re fairly sure is entirely an edifice of ironic appreciation. I spoke to Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt at the Paradox Convention and we talked about Warhammer, dice and situational comedy. And, hey, why not the game as well?
When I first see Johan Pilstedt in the flesh he is on a stage putting the ‘Show’ in the Showdown Effect. I’m looking forward to playing the game and do enjoy it, but it’s certainly not the reason I’ve travelled to Iceland. I’m there to speak to serious men about history, strategy and conquering Europe, not to talk to this immaculately (and warmly) dressed hipster about explosions. In contrast, my clothes are maculated and, even though I think Manchester was actually colder a couple of days ago than Reykjavik is today, I seem to have mistakenly packed t-shirts and brittle corduroy trousers.
I should make it clear – Johan slapped the hipster tag on himself. It was during our first conversation, around 3:00 in the afternoon as I was trundling through my final afternoon in the country.
“Do I look like a hipster? My buddy said I looked like a hipster.”
“You should put hipsters in the game. Were there hipsters in the eighties?”
“I mean, there were, but they probably had a different name back then.”
“Too late to call them beatniks, I guess.”
We pause. I think, at this point, he realises that I haven’t prepared many questions.
“So. The Showdown Effect. I hear it’s a game.” Sometimes you just give the conversation a little push and hope it’ll roll.
During our second meeting, my head is packed full of excuses and the only questions I’m asking are to myself and along the lines of ‘why?’, ‘really?’ and 'again?' The coach to the airport leaves at 5.30 in the morning and we’re fast closing in on two. Might as well keep going, see it through, I’ll only end up reading whatever paperback is padding out my suitcase if I go back to the hotel now.
I’ll sleep on the plane. I’ll sleep when I’m back in England. They don’t really do daylight in this part of the world – somebody told me the sun rises around 11 but I’m staring at a computer screen by then, so how would I know? When I do manage to venture outside, the light lacks clarity, like daytime through a greasy window.
When I’m home, I’ll finally go for that eye test.
It’s 2AM and I’m standing outside a nightclub, smoking a cigarette that I’ve unethically bummed from a game developer. I’m ready to leave but a man is talking to me. He imports software and is a man keen on informing everybody that he’s something of a big deal in the importing world. He thinks there’s a bond between us because, for professional reasons, we both know what a computer is. He does call me and the other gaming folk in the vicinity nerds though. Or maybe geeks. He laughs, spills his drink, and then his face threatens violence for a moment. He points out that we are geeks again. It's not so long ago Johan was worrying about being a hipster.
Time to go back inside and say those goodbyes. I reach for a drink that I finished half an hour ago and instead find only a loud and friendly ‘hallo’.
“That was a fun interview earlier.” It’s Johan. He’s referring to the twenty minutes or so we spent discussing The Showdown Effect. “We should talk about boardgames again!” Oh no. Did we actually talk about The Showdown Effect at all? I can’t remember. Oops.
Double-oops, in fact. The angry importer knows I’m a geek-nerd now. Thanks Pilestedt. Or perhaps we’re OK. A quick scan of the area confirms that Scandinavia’s angriest businessman has taken his barely contained fury back inside the club. Breathe. Relax. Back to my business. Back to games.
We share a mutual love for Arkham Horror – “we’re theme people”, I say, feeling comfortable with that assertion – and my gasts are flabbered when I discover that Johan has never played Space Alert. I roll my eyes and actually think I’m a better person than him for a second. A better geek.
“I love Talisman.” He says it to the air. In his mind, he’s rolling around the board right now instead of wondering why I’m still talking, trying to explain how Space Alert works and why.
“It’s a proto-MMO.” I interrupt myself. “That’s the lesson of Talisman.”
We talk some more about the social nature of boardgaming and the tactile importance of a die in the hand or a counter on a table. Somebody standing by my shoulder expresses regret that they don’t know anyone willing to spend an evening on a game of Twilight Imperium.
“If I owned a bar,” I’m saying now, “people would come there to drink good beer and play games together.”
“We should have brought Talisman to the club.”
I don’t think they would have let us. There’s barely room to breathe. I don’t say that though because we’re all standing there, with the music and crowd behind us, imagining character sheets and the rattle of dice.
RPS: So. The Showdown Effect. I hear it’s a game.
Pilestedt: We hope so. It’s a step up from Magicka, isn’t it?
RPS: When it was announced, Dungeonland was revealed at the same time, right? And I thought it was a little disappointing that you’d made something so superficially similar to Magicka. Then realised you hadn’t. You’d made the side-scrolling action movie spoof.
Pilestedt: Yeah, we went with something different.
RPS: But then I played team deathmatch and killed my team mates in the first twenty seconds, so I figure it’s not that much different at all.
Pilestedt: That’s really important. From one standpoint, it’s very different, but from another it’s not at all. It has the same kind of referential humour, the focus is emergent gameplay, the teamkilling aspect. Getting killed is fun. Also, it lacks the co-op component but it has team modes. There are some similarities, plenty of them, but they’re not in the common form of genre or anything like that.
RPS: Have you always loved eighties action movies, or is it just something you realised you could find the humour in? Do you really love those movies, or do you just find them ridiculous?
Pilestedt: It’s the same thing. We’re all huge fans at the company. The mood at the company is so weird. There are so many jokes all the time. We can go a week only doing references to “get to the chopper!” It’s just, “GET TO THE KITCHEN, GET TO THE COMPUTER””
RPS: What did you make of Expendables?
Pilestedt: I think it was good.
RPS: Ugh. Have you seen the second one?
Pilestedt: I think it was better?
RPS: It was sillier. But, back to the game…
Pilestedt: One of our game modes is called The Expendables!
RPS: We only got to see team deathmatch and showdown, right?
Pilestedt: Well, team deathmatch is going to be renamed to Team Elimination. It’s more suitable. The other modes are asymmetrical. In Expendables mode you have the Expendables and the Henchmen. The kicker in that is that the henchmen respawn right away and the only thing they have to do is kill all the expendables, at the same time. So it’s basically team elimination but asymmetrical. One team is respawning all the time and they have to kill the other ones, and then you switch teams. It’s really…weird…a lot of fun.
You usually get these situations where four of the expendables are killing the henchmen completely, and then one henchman gets a rocket and explodes two of them and they have to escape and hide, with the henchmen running after them, guns blazing.
RPS: Even though the levels aren’t huge, there’s a lot of space for chases. A lot of the time, and we were all pretty bad at it because it was our first time, people weren’t just running at each other and shooting. They were diving around, trying to escape, even if they didn’t have to. I was diving through windows all the time. I never hit anyone but I like jumping through windows.
Pilestedt: Not in this version or in the beta, we have an achievement called Dive Hard. It’s when you kill someone by diving onto them and punching them to the ground. The other mode is One Man Army. Everyone is a henchman, except for the one hero, and when a henchman kills the hero he becomes the hero. The hero gets points for killing henchmen, everyone else just tries to kill him.
RPS: But you can always kill everyone else even if there are no points involved?
Pilestedt: You can always do that. We don’t want to take peoples’ fun away.
RPS: How early did the graphical style come in? Was it there from the very beginning? I can see the inspirations, movies and games, but it has a look of its own.
Pilestedt: Team Fortress 2 was always in our minds. Magicka was so inspired by Moonstone and Zelda, and Showdown Effect is very much based on…a bit of Metroid or something? But mostly animes. Ghost in the Shell – not as cartoony as American cartoons, a little more realistic. The weapon effects and explosions are extremely inspired by anime.
The reason we chose the more cartoony, comic bookish style is that we tried to bring together so many characters from so many genres. An adventure character, a psycho schoolgirl character from Battle Royale, or exploitation films, and the guy who is basically Arnold.”
RPS: His bio is brilliant.
Pilestedt: It’s really silly.
RPS: It’s on the right side of silly though. Affectionate but taking the piss. It doesn’t feel dumb though, it’s not doing the Family Guy thing of ‘remember this funny meme – we do!’ There’s a genuine wit there.
Pilestedt: That’s something that we worked really hard on. When I’m writing, I hate blatant puns…well, I love them but…
RPS: I was going to say – do you know which site I write for?
*shuffling of papers*
Pilestedt: (laughs) Ah. You guys are good though.
RPS: This is what I thought.
Pilestedt: It’s just, even though Showdown is in your face, if you repeatedly flash a joke in everybody’s face, it’s not that much fun.
RPS: When you spoof such a ridiculous, over the top genre…
Pilestedt: It’s too easy to go overboard! That’s why the character bios have to be believable in their context. Even though the writing in those movies was preposterous, there was a weirdness to it that you have to capture. For instance, Hailer Skye, we say has a ten-time Nobel prize winning scientist father and she’s on the trail of his secrets. That sounds like an eighties plot, but there’s nothing to it except for his prizes! It’s like Segal in all of his movies – he’s always Ninth Dan of every martial art there is.
RPS: And in real life. It’s not just one genre you are spoofing though. You have the Arnold character. The gentleman adventurer, who I gave bionic legs to immediately.
Pilestedt: He is basically Dantes from Monte Cristo.
RPS: I feel stupid for not realising that.
Pilestedt: This is the thing – sure, he’s not particularly suited to being in an eighties action movie, but he could be. They encompassed so many settings. That’s one of the reasons why we showed the Neo-Tokyo setting and the Medieval one. The Tokyo one is easy to understand but the Medieval one is sort of weird. The kicker with that one is that every time they made a historical movie in the eighties it was so historically inaccurate. So the equipment and details on the map are all slightly off and from different periods. It’s all plain wrong.
RPS: Do the Paradox Dev Studio guys with their grand strategy and their beards hate you for that?
Pilestedt: There’s tension. (laughs) The description for the Katana says that it predates the United States of America. One of the pubs in Upsala is older than America. I love that.
RPS: My College at University was older than America. We had lots of US students so we’d point out that the building they were in predated their Constitution.
Pilestedt: It’s so nice to play with history, to know it but to have fun with inaccuracies. We do want to do more environments. I would have liked to have another one for launch but they are a big time investment. Arrowhead is primed now to do a Miami Vice one, with flamingos, white pants, disco music – cocaine!
Mention of disco music and cocaine turns the conversation in an entirely expected direction that ends in an unusual destination. From cocaine to Warhammer in sixty seconds.
RPS: Have you played Hotline Miami?
Pilestedt: I watched Drive and then I played it.
RPS: I like to think it’s an honest-to-goodness take on Drive. Film-to-game adaptations are so often terrible. Is that why you avoided actual licenses?
Pilestedt: (laughs) Hotline Miami was made with such passion. I find the controls so annoying but, still, I can’t stop playing it!
RPS: It’s such a different view of the eighties to the one you’ve created. I wonder if these influences and these vibes are to do with the age of developers. People who grew up with these influences and in these decades are now the people making games. We’re ready for cycles, like in the music world, where the teenage years of one generation feed into the next generation of teenagers.
Pilestedt: Definitely. I’m an avid Warhammer player and when you look at the development of that franchise, it’s sort of gone in one direction and now that the people who played it when they were young and have now grown up and are able to join the company, it’s able to go back to what it was because they want to relive the glory days.
RPS: That’s interesting across games. It’s not that people who grew up playing SPECIFIC games are now making games, it’s that people who played any games at all are now in the position to respond to their upbringing.
Pilestedt: Yeah, if you look at early games they were responding to something else a lot of the time. There were a lot of games with Dungeons and Dragons in there, or pen and paper and boardgames in general.
RPS: That inter-game reference material can fall flat though. In Duke Nukem Forever the references don’t seem communal – allusion can be like conversation but in DNF it seemed like clinging and swiping. Something broke along the way but then the history of that game is more interesting than the game.
Pilestedt: There needs to be a knowledge and respect in reference. To be creative, you need to have a full awareness of what you are doing. I’ve never described Magicka as a funny game. It has satirical undertones and a lot of references, but it’s not for me to say that it’s funny. That’s an opinion. I can’t tell you that it’s fun. I’m putting my values onto you then. I can tell you its intentions.
The intention of Showdown is to be recognisably referential and the stereotypes are there to be picked up on. People are supposed to find it funny but if they don’t, I don’t care. Well, I say this all the time. A game for everyone is a game for no one. That’s true for everything. If you tried to win everybody, the thing that you make is so bland you please nobody. The only thing we all like is air. And water maybe. (laughs). But some people dislike that!
RPS: Magicka is an actual comedy game. Not because of the writing or the tone but because the actual act of playing is funny. It’s like improvised comedy.
Pilestedt: I’m glad you say that! The term ‘emergent gameplay’ is so misused. It’s used as a marketing thing now, which really annoys me. What I called it before ‘emergent gampelay’ was ‘situational humour’ games. Magicka is one of those, for me. We set up the pieces in such a way that things are bound to end up in unexpected places. A lot of games out there, like physics-driven games, always achieve this by having so many paramaters controlling a complex system that you have no idea what the outcome will be. In more cases than not, it’s going to be unexpected.
That happens a lot in Magicka. I remember charging a really large rock boulder and throwing it at a troll and it flew up in the air – it must have been an early build because it flew TOO far – and it just vanished off screen. And then it came back and hit one of my friends and he was like, ‘WHAT?’. I fired it like five seconds ago.
RPS: It’s good to be surprised. When I play something over and over, I need surprise. Quite often when I talk to people who make games, they are excited by the things that shock them in what they’re creating. It’s a sign of a good process sometimes. Obviously people have different tastes, but personally I find there is a commonality behind the Paradox strategy games and the sense of shock and disbelief that I find in Magicka.
Pilestedt: There is. You can find the surreal and unexpected there too.
RPS: EU IV and Showdown feel like they’re from different universes but there’s a common thread in that idea of surprise.
Pilestedt: This happens all the time in board games as well. Things happen randomly and take you by surprise. You can’t figure out what happened. But when you have a perception of what the outcome should be and that differs from what happens, usually that’s an indication that the game can make me crack up. If I need anything above ‘two’ on a roll of two six-sided dice, for instance, then I’m not going to throw those dice together. I’m going to create apprehension by throwing them separately. If the first roll is a ‘one’ I still have a good chance to save it by rolling a two or more again – if I roll another ‘one’, it’s not the usual outcome and it changes everything.
What happens in a lot of games is that developers try to mimic that feeling but they disregard the anticipation of the actual event. They let it unfold too quickly. With our pacing in the actual telling of the event – the holding of the die, the rolling of the die – we attempt to capture that situational humour.
RPS: Should we go back to Showdown Effect?
Pilestedt: Is that why we’re here? (laughs)
RPS: Of all the people I expected to be talking about dice rolls with at this convention, you were bottom of the list. Showdown is much more skill-based than I expected, or maybe I’m terrible at it, or I’m not supposed to be good at it. I’m not particularly competitive. I’m happy to play and lose as long as I can laugh.
Pilestedt: That’s the same for me.
RPS: The timing is very precise on attacks and blocks. I thought it might be looser.
Pilestedt: That’s one of the main things we aimed at. With Magicka we threw everything in, lots of flavour, lots of effects. We cared little about the quality of everything. What we’ve done with Showdown is to put the quality in the front seat and the rest has taken the back seat.”
RPS: The PR person is singing my song. We’ve overrun. Thanks for your time!
Interviews, tucked away in rooms, booked back to back, can be sterile and laboured. I want to know the thoughts of the people behind the games I play as much as I want to know the specifics of the particular game they're working on right now. I want to learn the things I can't learn just by playing the game. Sometimes, because there are so many connections, those things make sense after playing another game entirely, and sometimes they make a different kind of sense when a man making an ultraviolent cartoon deathmatch spoof stares into the night, thinking about the dice he wished he hadn't left at home.
The Showdown Effect beta is available now to those who pre-order.