Finnish games maker Housemarque just can't catch a break.
Last year the company released Nex Machina, a title that felt like the culmination of its entire existence, with the developer enlisting the support of Robotron maker Eugene Jarvis. But the title just didn't sell - “the arcade game to kill all arcade games” looked like it might kill the studio. The firm announced a move away from these kinds of games in November 2017.
Now the company is working on a new project called Stormdivers, a title that started life at the studio back in February 2015. But what seemed like an innovative and niche concept back then has now ballooned to be the biggest and most competitive genre in town - battle royale.
"February 2015 was when we heard the first pitch from our then concept artist," head of self-publishing Mikael Haveri says.
"It was basically 'Smash Bros meets The Hunger Games' - this crazy, hectic event going on and just trying to survive. It had third-person combat as an essential part. Then it first started to be similar to the some of the battle royale games, the early mod scene and games like H1Z1. We thought it was hardcore, taking a permadeath approach. We felt an initial gravitation towards that.
"In spring 2016, we started prototyping it. We've never done a PvP game before, so we were just trying to get that right for the entirerity of the first year. That was 12 months was all about gameplay. We did a small map at first and now we have quite a big map but not as large as some of the others. There's a lot of vertical gameplay, with a sci-fi theme and class-based characters. We're getting a lot of the sci-fi things you can pick up. Lots of flying around with jetpacks and always-on Iron Man-esque boosters. It's a fast and crazy game."
Other titles have tried to get a slice of Playerunknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite's success. Though Hi-Rez's Realm Royale saw early success, the game's playerbase has all but gone. Then there's the small matter of The Culling 2, a title whose launch was so disastrous that developer Xaviant cancelled it after release and went back to work on the original project.
All of which is to say that while PUBG Corp and Epic's battle royale games are duking it out, the surrounding arena is littered with projects that didn't make the cut. So what's Housemarque's USP to convince gamers that Stormdivers is worth their time and money?
"This is the definitely the fastest battle royale out there. It's not Quake Arena speed, yet, but it takes into consideration the genre," Haveri says.
"It's faster than the competition for sure. We're not a simulation, but we're closer to that than Fortnite. It's a bit hardcore, but the genre is meant to be as well. We're trying to cater to a competitive audience. The first few times, you're going to get killed, fast. For us, it was about perfecting that PvP at first, but we see it as a live game where we can start introducing stuff that we are known for. Who wouldn't love to have a boss fight in a game like that? That's that we're open to in the future. Of course, there are only 15 people working on it so hopefully, we'll get more resources as we go on."
As detailed earlier, 2017's Nex Machina was not the smash hit Housemarque - or many members of the media - anticipated it would be. Haveri says the it wants to slowly grow Stormdivers, something that it just was not able to do with Nex Machina.
"What we learnt from Nex Machina was that there's no way you can underestimate the market," he explains.
"You have to really deal with things incrementally. This is the first time where we can approach it in a way where we can admit: 'Yes, not everyone is going to be on board from the beginning' but how can we go in and work it to a direction where it can actually start growing. That's an opportunity that we've never really been able to take further in the past."
He continues: "We see this game developing. The boss fights aren't going to be there day one. We hope to take it there. We want to cater to the audience that wants to stick with us and not monetise them but create in a way that's a sustainable growth. We don't expect to be competing with the big games from Day One, or maybe ever. But hopefully, this is still a genre that attracts enough players that we actually don't have to start shutting down projects. Nex Machina, though it was a critical success, sadly never took off in the way that we could have supported it further. That side of the business is always preparing and hopefully, we'll do better this time."
We're trying to make a dent in an area that's absolutely saturated. Yes, it's insane, it's risky but if people like what we are doing with it, hopefully, there will be an audience.
Where something like Nex Machina looked like a 'sure thing' - if such a concept even exists in games anymore - leveraging Housemarque's knowledge of the arcade genre, Stormdivers looks far riskier. The Helsinki-based studio is entering the most crowded market around with a team of 15 developers and this is the first time it's giving multiplayer a go.
"It's ballsy," Haveri admits.
"We've never had a top-down approach to the games we make. It's always been within a team. They get to choose and decide what they want to work on. We felt it was time for us to take on the multiplayer genre. We added factors to it, and battle royale was the closest, so that's what we're starting with. We have big dreams for it. If people can see this vision and get to try it, I think we'll do alright.
"But yes, instead of being in a niche genre that no-one else is in and not succeeding, but getting something we can be very proud of like Nex Machina, this is the polar opposite in a way. It's trying to make a dent in an area that's absolutely saturated. Yes, it's insane, it's risky but if people like what we are doing with it, hopefully, there will be an audience. We'll see in six months. We getting beta sign-ups. We're looking at incrementally growing the closed betas until this autumn. We'll be showing a lot more about the game, the new events and all the character attributes and in December we'll do an open beta and then January is when we hope to launch."
Housemarque has been on the hunt for a publisher for Stormdivers but to date hasn't had any luck. The Finnish developer is still looking, but right now the plan is to self-publish and perhaps release the project a little earlier than it would like.
"We're running out of funds. If we don't get a partner of some sorts, we might have to launch it earlier," Haveri says.
"Then again, we've been able to reduce our overhead as it's such a small team. We're comfortable that we don't have to put out a product that is too Early Access but it might be a bit more Early Access unless we get some sort of a partner on board."
He continues: "Coming from a premium background, Early Access is a real sliding scale. We're used to making very polished titles and this is the first time where we have to look at it again, figure out what the product is. We're looking at it from that perspective. Self-publishing means it might be a little rough around the edges so getting the communication out there about the current and future potential is even more crucial."