Behind the scenes at Typhoon Studios: an exclusive visit to Montreal’s super-indie

Behind the scenes at Typhoon Studios: an exclusive visit to Montreal’s super-indie

Marketing a game in the current market is a sizeable challenge for any developer or publisher, but definitely more so for smaller, indie teams. But debuting at The Game Awards is a pretty decent way to start life, which is just what happened with the debut from Montreal-baed Typhoon Studios, Journey To The Savage Planet last week.

Teased during The Game Awards on Friday, December 6th, the team’s debut project is described as an “upbeat” first-person sci-fi adventure - to be published by 505 Games - where you explore an alien world as an employee of Kindred Aerospace.

Typhoon Studios is an indie with an enviable heritage. Founders Alex Hutchinson, Reid Schneider and Yassine Riahi have experience at Ubisoft, Warner Bros, EA and more, and the 25-strong team have similar pedigrees. They founded the company in 2017 and in 2018 signed “a long-term partnership” with 505 Games.

During a visit to Quebec for the MIGS conference, was able to take a sneak peek inside the new Typhoon Studio offices. At the time of our visit, the first game project was a closely guarded secret, but co-founder Reid Schneider (pictured) gave us a personal tour and a generous amount of his time talking about the team’s ambition, values and culture.

It’s a huge interview so - lucky for you - we’ve split it into bite-sized chunks...

Click here to view the list »
  • 1 Founding the company

    Founding the company logo

    You have an amazing pedigree between you all. You’ve worked on so many things. Talk us through how you came together.
    There's a notion of the "lone founder" who does everything. But it’s kind of a myth. Everything's really about teams. We felt if we could put together a founding team that had a creative director, a production person, and a technical director, then it makes sense to start a company.

    We wondered if we could take triple-A and really make much more of a focused experience. Now, because of digital distribution, there are some really interesting independent games developing. There's a marketplace forming. Once, a whole middle market got wiped out. Over the years it's come to be either Super Meat Boy at one end or a huge triple-A game at the other. There's not been a middle ground. But we see there’s a market that’s forming.

    We felt that we could distil the parts of triple-A that we think are interesting, where it’s empowering the player, and interesting player stories are being generated from what he does or she does. We always really wanted to jettison - or not focus on - stuff like overly intrusive narrative, like lots of cut scenes and cinematics. Our thesis we’re building at Typhoon is: what if we focused on something that gives the player tools and puts them in a world where they're empowered, and let interesting player stories come out of that. So we focus on design systems and programming systems. Let’s make something where the player is really in control and has the opportunity to make interesting choices.

    When you get to triple-A, right now we're seeing that the opportunity to take creative risks gets minimised. Everything has to be safe. But because we’re playing with smaller sums of money, we felt like there's more opportunity. And again, Hellblade is a great example of that. A chance to make interesting creative choices that you wouldn’t do if you were spending $60 or $80 or $100 million. Because it’s just way too risky.

    So despite your pedigree in some of the biggest franchises in gaming, do you think of yourself very much as indie developers?
    Yeah. I think we see ourselves as independent developers. We see ourselves as a group who are trying to take the parts of triple-A we thought are interesting.

    You know, triple-A is fun to play. When you have a budget of that much money, it’s cool. But it also means that you have a lot less control because, generally, you’re working on other people’s franchises or licenses.

    The interesting thing with our game – and our partnership with 505 – is that we still own the IP. We went out to GDC this year. We had this prototype that we showed to all these different companies, from the biggest ones to the smallest ones, and everything in the middle. And 505 really liked what we had to say.
    They liked the gameplay. They thought it was really cool. And so we ended up signing a deal with them.

    With the background you all had, three founders with your incredible pedigree, were the doors immediately open at GDC? Or did you have to prove your vision all over again?
    The interesting thing is that the pedigree gets you the meeting, but they still have to believe what you’re doing is cool and interesting. So I think that our backgrounds got us meetings, but then the software had to prove it – it’s all about the game, then.

    I should probably mention as well that early on we chose to partner with a VC that just came out of China called Makers Fund. And they’re really cool. They’re really a gaming-focused VC, which means that they really understand the business. Because we were able to secure some funding early on, that’s how we were able to make a demo, and get all the stuff in order, so it wasn’t just like a PowerPoint and a dream!

    Does the Chinese VC imply an ambition to see your game in Asia as well?
    No, although we’d love to bring it to China. The interesting thing with China right now is that for the longest time it was just free to play. And now we’re starting to see some games going over there which are premium.

    We definitely have an ambition to get our game into Asia. How that looks like – it’s hard to say. We always joked that we have a very unique business model... we want to make something of quality and charge for it! Our hope is that people like the content and they think it’s cool and interesting, and that it has strong flavours, that it’s going to feel different from everything else in the market.

  • 2 Company culture

    Company culture logo

    You’re based here in Montreal, and it seems to me there’s a lot of games talent in this part of the world. And a lot of it is PC, rather than mobile. Why do you think that might be?
    One of the main reasons the industry is so strong here is that there’s a lot of financial support – maybe you’re familiar with the tax credit programme? They’ve made it favourable for companies to operate here. Alliance Numerique commissioned a study which figured out for every dollar that the Quebec government is paying out in subsidies to developers, how much they’re getting back in tax revenue! They realised that actually, because we brought so many companies to the province, the government’s actually making money out of this deal. Which is great.

    So the government created a technical and a games business here, and it’s become one of the hubs of the world in terms of how many game developers are actively working here. That’s why there’s such a concentration here. The federal government also does a decent job with the research and R&D credits. What they call the multimedia tax credit, is the major reason that EA came over here, and Eidos opened up shop here. Ubi’s always been here. Ubi was one of the first ones. Warner Bros came here. So all these companies kind of came for that reason. And then they stayed, obviously, because there’s a great talent pool, and talent brings other talent.

    And the second part of your question – why PC? PCs always been a natural development platform. So now consoles are becoming more friendly to indies, which is great, but if you think 15 years ago that wasn’t the case, in terms of getting an independent game on a platform. That was hard, if not impossible. So I think a lot of us grew up developing on PC and bringing it to consoles. That’s probably one of the reasons why there’s a native PC following here. People are just familiar with it.

    Who was your first employee – the first person to join you founders?
    Our head of art. We had worked together at Warner Bros.

    After I had quit, I didn’t approach anyone. But he basically had known Alex and me, and he approached us. “I want to get out of the big studio system. I want to have a bigger impact.” And we were like, “That’s great.” His name is Erick Bilodeau, and he’s a monster-type artist. He’s fantastic. So he wanted to work with a small group but have a bigger impact. He was the first one. It was good because I have zero artistic talent [laughs]. So it worked out well.

    When we started, we weren’t in this office. We didn’t want to pay rent, because we had no money. So we were working in a [motion capture] studio. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a MoCap studio?

    This room was all black, with backlit walls. Day one, we went to Ikea and we bought some desks. And then we found a guy on Craigslist who sold used office furniture. So the three of us were sitting in a MoCap room. No windows, all black, padded walls. We had no idea what time it was. It could have been nuclear winter outside. We had no idea what was going on.

    But the cool thing was, we didn’t have to pay rent, and that was kind of how we worked for a while. We still have one of the whiteboards that we bought. We still use it to this day, because it’s a really gentle reminder.

    It was not awesome. When we finally moved out of there, we had a temporary office, and it was literally in a basement, and there was no air conditioning. We were sweating all the time. It was gross. Because it’s in a basement, there was a window kind of up high, and literally, you would sit down and you would see people smoking or vaping, and you were getting all this second-hand smoke again.

    So finally, we got this space!

    Once we lined up some funding. We knew that you can’t keep people working in a gross place. Between all the computers and the people, it was hot, and there was no air circulation.

    At the moment, a hot topic in games development is about toxic working practices and crunch deadlines. You guys seem really chilled, with a dog walking around. Perhaps hard deadlines are inevitable for everybody in the end, but what’s your take on the industry at the moment? Is game development a hard place to work? What’s Typhoon going to do about it?
    It is definitely challenging. Generally, teams are really passionate about what they’re doing, and they always want to make something better. There comes a certain point in time when you have to ship it, or the publisher sends it, or you run out of funding, or any of these number of permutations.

    It’s a great question, because as games get bigger and bigger and bigger, it becomes like anything else: people become so hyper-specialised, and they’re doing this one little thing, and it’s really hard to see the forest for the trees.

    When we were setting up the company in terms of values and culture – what we wanted to create was a place where people can come and do their best work. What we found, which was really interesting, was that we had a lot of senior-level people who really wanted to go back to the craft of just working with a small team. Like when we started out back in the 90s when teams were 20, 30, 40, 50 people max. So a lot of people wanted to come back to that. We had a lot of interest, more than we thought, from these senior level people who were just like, “You know what? I’m kind of done with that huge studio environment.”

    If you imagine that you’ve got a team of 20 people or 25 people, that means every person is four to five per cent of the workforce. Everyone’s got to be pretty kick-ass, and everyone’s got to be able to depend on everybody else. We wanted [Typhoon] to be a place where people can do their best work, and it’s friendly and upbeat, and it’s a place where people wouldn’t be afraid to go out on a limb and take risks and to try things that are cool and different. Again, if you’re dealing with $100 million, that’s a hard thing to do, because it can go sideways quickly.

    We really over-indexed on hiring people who are not just great at their job, but positive, focused people! Because it’s really, really easy when you’re in the thick of it for people to get negative. We’ve really focused our effort on: how do we find people who are very positive. People who are their own biggest critics in terms of how they can make the work great, but also people who are going to be a really positive cultural fit.

    We have made mistakes since we’ve started, and there are people who are no longer here, who just didn’t fit that culture we’re trying to build. But as of November 2018, we’re pretty excited about the vibe and type of studio. Culture is one of those things that takes months or years to build.

    We are obviously a start-up, but we’ve still really made an effort that people, when they’re coming here for eight hours a day, focus. Make something awesome. Really, really put your heart and soul in it. People have kids and they have lives, they’re all ageing up, so we also want people to still have their lives out of work. 100-hour weeks are not a norm here in any way. Even though it’s a start-up! But what we do expect is that when you are here during the day, put everything on it, and really make it count. But then go home and be with your kids or your boyfriends, girlfriends, dogs. But when you’re here, put everything into it.

    You guys have a background in the games industry, and you’ve got a start-up now. Do you have advice for people who want to do the same? Developers around the world, sitting in a big studio, who have got some ideas – what would you tell them?
    I think probably one of the things they’ll be learning early on is that starting a studio is an all-encompassing endeavour. It’s not like getting another job. Once you commit, you really have to commit.

    In the beginning, we bootstrapped the company, where we had our own money, and we all put some cash in. And we weren’t taking any salary, but we were paying a few people working. We were paying them, and we weren’t paid. It’s kind of a unique environment. You have to be ready to take the lifestyle you’re used to and throw it on its head. It’s not for everyone.

    But we’d always wanted to do it. We’d always talked about it. We joked as well: “Either we’re going to do it, or we’re going to stop talking about it because otherwise, we’re just bullshitting ourselves.”

    Step one is to really, really understand what you want to build.

    And in terms of starting up a company and all that stuff: don’t underestimate how much time is spent doing things like legal and financial paperwork. Things take a long time. Sometimes, start-ups are employing full-time admin or help. It’s not for us. We put everything in the game, and we operate quite lean in that regard. And we’re also very transparent with people.

    When we were deciding on which publisher we were going to sign with, we were open with the people who worked here with: “These are the options on the table. This is what we’re thinking. What do you guys think?” People aren’t stupid. And I think people have a really good bullshit-detector. So it’s being upfront and saying, “This is what we’re thinking. This is why we’re doing it.” That doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree, but I think it’s really important that people understand why we’re doing something, and why we’re making a decision.

  • 3 The first game

    The first game logo

    What can you tell us about it? [Journey To The Savage Planet was unannounced at the time of meeting]
    We can’t say too much but I can tell you a little bit. We’re really interested in notions of collaborative play. We’re interested in action-adventure.

    It would be weird if we said, “OK, yeah, we’ve had a lot of experience in making these action-adventure games. Let’s make a dance game! Let’s go do sports!” So we want to stick to what we know how to do. And we're adding a whole new layer on top of it, and a whole new feeling on top of it.

    What we can say is, if you look at some of the games we’ve done in the past, there’ll be similar feelings to that. But taking it in an all-new direction. What is the spin that we could put on top of it that’s going to feel unique and fresh? If you think about how Ninja Theory put this spin on the Hellblade game mechanics which was really, really cool and unique. We’re not doing a game about mental health! But what we want to do is leverage the stuff we know how to do in terms of the types of games that we know how to build, but then put a spin on it, which we hope will really break through the noise.

    It will feel like the team really put all their love and care in it. The cool thing is, because it’s a new IP, we’ve had a lot of people who have been able to shape it in their own direction. Alex, our creative director: the thing he always talks about is “charm”. He’s a big believer of putting those little bits around the edges that make people smile, that make people laugh, that are humorous and optimistic. It’s really hard to make it believable, and we don’t have the budget of Call of Duty. So how do we make the player feel special and important, and add charm, and give the players that type of experience?

    You’re all focused on making this game. But do you have plans for the future? Is there a binder where you put ideas for the next game
    Oh, of course. Games are kind of the inverse of movies. Movies tend to get worse with sequels, but games tend to get better over time, if you think about it. And I think one of the reasons is, on the first one, you’re just trying to get everything in order. And then there are all these ideas you have where you’re like, “Oh, that would be great, but we have all this other shit to do, just to get the first one done.”

    So I think you have a running list, and things that you’d love to do going forward. For us, it’s really important to crawl before you walk. We want to make this first game that comes out really cool and meaningful, and then continue to build on it, and add to it, and grow it over time, and then do more of it.

    But it’s also important to us to get a game out there. Sometimes you hear about these companies that start up and they’re like, “Our grand aspirations… We’re changing the world.” And nothing comes out!

    Alex jokes a lot about it. He’s like, “That’s failing to fail. You didn’t even fail. You didn’t even get anything out in the world.” So it’s important for us to get software and to get a really great game into the market. And hopefully, people like it.

    Will it be a game that continues to grow after release, require live ops for instance?
    Games as a service is a popular buzzword right now. We want to build a community around it. We also want it to live, and we want it to continue, and to add on content, see what expansions it’ll involve. But step one is making something that people care about, and that people like. And so if we can make something that people like – then, from the base, we can continue to build on it. We have every intention of adding to the game. We definitely don’t want to do ship it and go start a sequel like that or whatever it is. We want it to live on, but we also are aware of the size of the team.

    We want to be careful what we promise. Are we promising a game like a service model? No. Again, crawl before you walk. Build something people like, hopefully, and then continue to add onto it, and build a community around it, and continue to make it bigger and better, and ideally keep people interested.

    And in the world we live in today, people have so many choices. In a way, we’re competing for time. It’s not just games. It’s like, how do you pull someone away from Netflix or from whatever they’re streaming or doing? And that’s hard. But I think the way to do that is you have to make something that matters, that people care about, that people can feel is interesting and personal for them.

    When you say, “We’re making it for everyone...” well, that’s bullshit. If you end up saying “it’s for everyone”, it feels, at least from our perspective, like it’s really watered down. Alex uses this term a lot for us – “strong flavours”. And intrinsic of that, it means some people are going to love it, and it’s not going to be for other people. That’s a good thing. We would rather delight and really entertain a really focused core and have something that they really care about, than trying to go for something super-wide.

    I think the other thing that’s really, really hard to know is, with this new, emerging market, that sort of middle ground that you see – in North America, $69 or $79 is premium. Versus, like, your really indie stuff, which might be like $4.99 or whatever. But that sort of middle range, that middle price point, or that in between price point – we’re all still continuing to figure that out. But that’s something that’s exciting, too, and that also offers a lot of opportunity for making interesting choices that are going to delight a focused core.

    With the heritage of the games that you’ve worked on, your own expectations for yourself must be pretty high!
    I think so. All of these guys come in every day, and they’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to be able to do this. But fuck yeah, it’s like no one wants something that’s not awesome.

    Journey To The Savage Planet is expected in 2019 on PC and console. 

    For more insight into PC games development and culture, come to PC Connects in London in January, a unique b2b conference featuring talks, panels and endless networking.

COO, Steel Media Ltd

Dave is a writer, editor and manager. As our COO, he gets involved in all areas of the business, from front-page editorial to behind-the-scenes event strategy. He began his career in games and entertainment journalism in 1997 and has since worked in multiple roles in the media. You can contact him with any general queries about Pocket Gamer, PC Games Insider or Steel Media's other websites, conferences and initiatives.